Hamline News

Biochemistry Summer Research Notes: Caleb Rosenthal and Professor Betsy Martinez-Vaz


Caleb Rosenthal had a busy few months. The senior continued an infection prevention internship and added a Biochemistry research project that went beyond test tubes and microscopes to building a database that will help future investigators in their work.

What is the title of your project?
Development of the Organonitrogen Degradation Database

How would you explain your project to someone who knows little about it?
Our project involved researching, and cataloging, information on organic nitrogen-rich compounds for the creation of a database. Organonitrogen compounds are very relevant to agriculture given their widespread use as fertilizers and pesticides. Excessive input of these compounds in soils is associated with nitrogen leaching and eutrophication that causes major problems such as the Gulf of Mexico “dead-zone.” Microbial degradation can help mitigate against environmental damage. The Organonitrogen Degradation Database, contains important information about the cost, chemical properties, and microbial degradation potential of commonly used organonitrogen compounds. This database should be of interest to anyone with either a passion for keeping our environment clean or understanding the science behind how organonitrogen compounds used as fertilizers or pesticides affect our communities. The database can be found by following this link: z.umn.edu/ondb

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research methods?
Originally, our plan was to investigate how microbes breakdown organonitrogen compounds in the lab. While COVID-19 has forced us to move to work remotely, my colleagues and I have persevered through it and learned from it. We have taken advantage of this opportunity to work remotely and ran with it by investigating other areas of research like bioinformatics and database development work.

What has been the biggest challenge of your project?

The biggest challenge for myself personally has been to switch from knowing very little about bioinformatics and being uncomfortable with computers to being literate about how to convert files, work on designing a database and overall increasing my confidence when it comes to solving problems at hand. I was able to adapt and learned personal lessons and developed skills. The results are that information on these both helpful and harmful compounds is now accessible to the general public.

What has surprised you about the project?

I am thoroughly surprised at how much fertilizers and pesticides affect our communities and how little we invest in understanding them. After spending this summer working on the Organonitrogen Degradation Database, I have found that it is crucial that we understand the effects of nitrogen-rich compounds on our environment.

How does the project fit with your academic or career goals?
I would like to attend graduate school in the future. The skills, lessons, and passions I have gained this summer will tailor my search for graduate school and will continue to impact both my educational and personal mindsets when it comes to learning and caring for our earth.

Written by Martinez-Vaz and Rosenthal. Lightly edited by staff.