CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology

Innovative Learning Spaces Open Opportunities for Student Scientists

Undergraduate Research


Dr. George Vourlitis’ research group measures the effects of human activities—including land use and land cover change, atmospheric pollution and climate change—on our terrestrial ecosystems. These issues “are interesting and complicated, and as a result, generate a lifetime of interesting research questions [related to] water quantity and quality, biodiversity, carbon storage and erosion control just to name a few,” he said. Dr. Vourlitis received a 2017 Research Development grant to learn new DNA-based, metabolomic research tools and demonstrate their application to his research program. Because the environmental monitoring field is increasingly adopting DNA-based methods, CSUPERB has seen a large increase in grant applications from ecology and environmental sciences faculty and students.

The CSUPERB grant allowed the Vourlitis group to measure how long-term nitrogen addition affected the soil microbial community of local chaparral and coastal sage scrub shrublands. The grant “funded the master’s thesis of my graduate student, Tim Grant, and because I am an ecologist with little direct experience in soil metagenomics, I partnered with Dr. [Arun] Sethuraman to help,” Vourlitis said. Sethuraman, an assistant professor in biological sciences at CSU San Marcos, runs a population genetics research program and brought next-generation DNA sequencing expertise when he joined the faculty in 2016. Based on their joint project and preliminary data collected by Grant, Vourlitis and Sethuraman wrote a proposal to the United States Department of Agriculture to fund course-based undergraduate research (CURE) in a molecular ecology class.

The new Molecular Ecology CURE is a combination of lecture, field work and lab. Vourlitis and ​Sethuraman team-teach the class, offered every spring at CSU San Marcos. “Data collected as part of this class were stellar, and Dr. Sethuraman and I feel that there are two to three possible publications,” Vourlitis said. CSU San Marcos faculty always have had a tradition of opening their labs to undergraduate students interested in doing independent research, but, he explained, “because we have grown so much over the last decade (we have fewer than 1,000 students and 16 [tenure-track] faculty), there is not enough time or people-power to serve all of the students interested in doing research. So, our idea was to bring the research to them, in the form of an open-ended lab experience where lab/field tools and techniques could be taught in context to an authentic research project. This was not the first biology lab to run a CURE, but the first time that the class was funded by an external source.” Their story is a good example of CSUPERB’s strategy to seed projects that lead to external support as departments work to pilot and incorporate experiential learning into the curriculum and increase the number of research experiences they can offer CSU students.