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

Hillsdale College seniors Sheldon Sac­coman and Bilyana Petkova will present the results of their research projects Sat­urday at the Beta Beta Beta NE‑4 Dis­trict Con­vention in Alliance, Ohio.

Petkova is pre­senting her research on an oral bac­teria that could prevent tooth decay, and Sac­coman will present his research on a poten­tially dan­gerous ingre­dient in weed killer. They will compete against other stu­dents in the dis­trict.

The reward for first place at the con­vention in the under­graduate scientist’s given cat­egory — either mol­e­cular and cell or organ­ismal science — is auto­matic accep­tance to be pub­lished in BIOS, the honorary’s scholarly journal. First place recip­ients also are entitled to attend the national con­vention, which gathers every other year.

“It’s unusual to reward awards for aca­demic pre­sen­ta­tions, but there is a bit of a com­pe­tition aspect, although that is not the main purpose,” said biology department chairman Frank Steiner, who was a mentor for Petkova and Sac­coman. “The goal of the society is the dis­sem­i­nation of sci­en­tific knowledge.”

In his research, Sac­coman examined the capacity to induce muta­tions of the active ingre­dient glyphosate in the weed-killer Roundup. He said he examined the comet assay, which works by using cells exposed to the com­pound and elec­trophoresis to pull out double stranded DNA breaks from the nucleus of a cell. If a structure shaped like a comet forms by the com­pound, it would be con­sidered a car­cinogen.

“My research showed glyphosate is similar to etoposide, a known car­cinogen, at the 100 micro­molar con­cen­tration,” Sac­coman said. “It implies that Roundup may not be as safe to use as we think.”

Sac­coman said people use 300 million pounds of glyphosate every year. The Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency was assessing glyphosate with the comet assay during the same time as Sac­coman.

“Had I known this was occurring, I would have informed them of my findings,” Sac­coman said.

Steiner said the idea sparking the project came from a senior seminar talk more than a year ago. A student men­tioned glyphosate and that there may be some evi­dence indi­cating pos­sible muta­genic effects.

“Sheldon has worked for me for three years,” Steiner said. “He has been my lab-tech and my go-to man, since his sophomore year. Sheldon and Bilyana are two super stu­dents, and I am very proud of them both.”

Petkova began con­ducting research on an oral bac­teria, during the spring semester of her junior year, and con­tinued the research for three weeks in summer. She studied the bac­teria Strep­to­coccus gor­donii and looked closely at its binding abil­ities in her project.

“If a com­pet­itive inhibitor of amylase is found to bind my protein of interest, AbpA, it could be used as an additive to tooth­paste to prevent the process of plaque for­mation and reduce dental caries,” Petkova said. “Results can show how bac­terial biofilms form on teeth and poten­tially how this process can be pre­vented to reduce dental plaque.”

In addition to pre­senting her research before faculty, Petkova has spoken about her findings at the Western Michigan Regional Under­graduate Science Research Con­ference at the Van Andel Institute in the fall.

“I’ve only had two or three stu­dents that have pro­duced as much data as she has, and we had such a minimal amount of time,” Steiner said.

After grad­u­ation, Petkova will attend Herman Ostrow School of Den­tistry at the Uni­versity of Southern Cal­i­fornia in Los Angeles. Sac­coman has accepted a job as a micro­bi­ol­ogist lab tech­nician at Covance, a food-testing facility in Battle Creek, Michigan.

“It’s a great oppor­tunity, and I’m excited to see where it takes me,” Sac­coman said.