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Senior Bilyana Petkova stands with Professor of Biology Frank Steiner after presenting her research at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids Nov. 5.  Bilyana Petkova | Courtesy
Senior Bilyana Petkova stands with Pro­fessor of Biology Frank Steiner after pre­senting her research at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids Nov. 5. Bilyana Petkova | Courtesy

An aspiring dental school student, senior biology major Bilyana Petkova spent a majority of this past spring and summer researching the for­mation of dental plaque at a micro­scopic level for her honors thesis.

Her success in research led her to par­tic­ipate in the West Michigan Regional Under­graduate Science Research Con­ference held Nov. 5 at the Van Andel Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Petkova is the first Hillsdale College student to present research done through through the college at the con­ference.

“I want to be a dentist, so I wanted to select a project that would be rel­evant to den­tistry,” Petkova said. “As a biology major who focuses more on micro­bi­ology and mol­e­cular biology, this project com­bined my interest in both micro­bi­ology and in den­tistry.”

Through her research, Petkova said she hopes to prevent or reduce the amount of dental plaque for­mation. Her under­standing of how plaque forms could poten­tially lead to the dis­covery of how to prevent its for­mation, or a new additive to tooth­paste that could fight against the for­mation of plaque.

Petkova began research during the spring 2016, using funding she’d received as a recipient of the LAUREATES schol­arship. She fin­ished her exper­i­mental research on June 3 and then con­tinued the ana­lyzation of the data she col­lected.

In col­lab­o­ration with the Uni­versity at Buffalo School of Dental Med­icine, the lab of Frank Scan­na­pieco, pro­fessor of oral biology, pro­vided Petkova with purified AbpA protein, a protein pro­duced by Strep­to­coccus gor­donii, for her research.

This saved Petkova about three weeks of time. In the end, the data revealed how the bac­teria Strep­to­coccus gor­donii col­o­nizes in tooth enamel and ini­tiates the for­mation of plaque, Frank Steiner, pro­fessor of biology, said.

Steiner was on sab­batical last spring, but still taught Petkova phage display, an advanced exper­i­mental tech­nique, allowing her to produce more accurate results in a faster amount of time, Petkova said.

“She probably did as much work in six weeks as probably two stu­dents could have done,” Steiner said. “She just really took off with the tech­nique and I couldn’t have been more pleased with her work effort and results.”

Petkova said the oppor­tunity to present her research helped her prepare for Hillsdale’s poster pre­sen­tation this spring.

“I got really good com­ments and ques­tions on my poster, as well as very con­structive input,” Petkova said. “I was able to learn how to improve my future research and how to better prepare for ques­tions in regards to my research. Overall, it was a very good expe­rience to have a practice run and go outside Hillsdale to present, in prepa­ration for the spring Hillsdale College poster fair.”

Petkova’s research and col­lab­o­ration with the Uni­versity at Buffalo started with Jordan Rucinski ’15, now a second-year dental student at the Uni­versity of Louisville, who estab­lished the rela­tionship between Uni­versity and Buffalo and Hillsdale College. Rucinski ini­tially sought out Scannapieco’s guidance on her own senior honors research thesis after reading some of his pub­lished work on similar oral research.

“Research regarding oral bac­teria is very sig­nif­icant in den­tistry, as the bac­teria that inhabit the oral cavity are the eti­ology of many oral dis­eases, and oral health has direct influ­ences upon sys­temic health,” Rucinski said in an email. “With its potential to con­tribute to advance­ments in the field of dental research, I hope stu­dents con­tinue to develop this par­ticular project in years to come.”