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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

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.