Research with a Side of Hot Sauce, Please

by Maureen Zegel
Gabe Colbeck, PhD, associate professor of biology, is a champion of student-led research as well as student-faculty research collaborations

 

Gabe Colbeck, PhD, associate professor of biology, keeps a small bottle of habanero hot sauce on his desk. The self-confessed “pepper connoisseur” not only uses it to spice up his lunch, but hot peppers play an important part of his students’ research. Over the past year, Colbeck helped to expand student participation in research.

“This year we renamed the student research symposium Student Research and Scholarship Day to better reflect the changes we made in showcasing our research efforts,” says Colbeck. “We opened it up to undergraduate, graduate and online students and tried to get participation all disciplines.”

Gabe Colbeck, PhD, associate professor of biology, is a champion of student-led research as well as student-faculty research collaborations

The list of academic disciplines represented in the research showcase continues to expand. The 2018 spring event involved student researchers from design and visual arts, psychology, English, history, biochemistry, nursing and speech-language pathology, just to name a few.

“And we were delighted that online students were able to present their research,” Colbeck says. “This year, we had several presenters who have never been to campus, including one student from Washington and another from Arkansas.”

Since he arrived at Maryville in 2011, Colbeck has been a driving force for research at both the faculty and student levels. For students, the opportunity to do hands-on research with a faculty member opens up numerous possibilities for graduate study and career success. As a result of his relentless promotion, the number of participants in the annual student research and scholarship program continues to increase.

Colbeck’s students are involved in a variety of projects, including one that focuses on capsaicin, the burning irritant found in hot peppers.

“Initially, we wanted to find a natural way to keep squirrels away from wild bird nests,” he says. “We know that capsaicin, when eaten, affects mammals, including humans, but it has little effect on birds. Bird eggs are an important source of protein for squirrels, and they will eat them every chance they get.”

Students created 20 fake nests treated with capsaicin and another 20 nests that were not treated.

“At first the squirrels ate only the untreated eggs,” says Colbeck. “But once the untreated eggs were gone, the squirrels came back and eventually ate the spicy eggs too.”

Another valuable research lesson learned.

“We learned that squirrels will tolerate a little pain if it means they get a meal,” says Colbeck. “The results weren’t exactly what we were hoping for, but that’s the nature of research.”