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Chemistry Major Schwantes Shines at International Conference

By Allison Gould ('10), JMU Public Affairs

Christian Schwantes in the lab

Christian Schwantes works in the lab where he hopes to find a cure for a deadly amphibian fungus.

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Christian Schwantes was not expecting to receive an award at the International Society for Chemical Ecology Conference in Neuchatel, Switzerland this summer. He also was not expecting to be one of the only undergraduates to a give an oral presentation in front of an international panel of chemistry and ecological experts.

However, that's exactly what Schwantes, a chemistry and math major, experienced.

"Since I have been working on the research for three years I knew the material so it was not too difficult to present. . . . It was cool to know that I can present stuff with anyone else. I am at the same level."

For the past three years, Schwantes, a senior, has been researching the chemical properties of a bacterium that could save several amphibian species from extinction. Schwantes was introduced to the research by Kevin Minbiole, associate professor of chemistry, his freshman academic advisor. Minbiole was looking for students to help him find a cure for an amphibian fungal disease with Reid Harris, professor of biology. Swchantes said, "When we had the meet and greet with the faculty, Dr. Minbiole mentioned his research and I thought it sounded kind of interesting so I went and talked to him about it. So it just kind of worked out."

Research on the anti-fungal bacterium started over two decades ago when a fungus called Chytridiomycocis started attacking certain amphibian species. The fungal virus infects the skin on amphibians and hinders their respiratory process.

Most of the research with this bacterium is done in the labs.

"Some of the research is done in the field. We go out into the arboretum and collect salamanders if we want to use them, but most of it's done in the lab," Schwantes.

Schwantes' part in the research, which is continuing, involved analyzing beneficial bacteria found on certain amphibian species that gave them immunity against the fungal disease. His goal is to find anti-fungal chemical properties that could be extracted from the bacterium and re-introduced into other species.

Schwantes was one of 23 students selected to present at the conference. He gave a 15-minute presentation on the history of Chytridiomycocis fungus and his research analyzing the chemical properties of the bacterium used to fight the fungus. The International Society for Chemical Ecology had published the research by Harris and Minbiole in its journal, the Journal of Chemical Ecology.

Schwantes, one of the only undergraduates to give an oral presentation at the conference, received second place overall in the student oral presentation.  His second place award came with a prize of 730 Swiss Francs ($705.65).

"Being the only undergrad, it was really cool to be awarded."

Schwantes is also using his bacterium research in his honors thesis, which he will present this spring. 

Schwantes will continue researching with Dr. Minboile this year and is hopeful that his work will provide a cure for amphibians against the fungal disease.

"It is just exciting for anyone that does not know anything about amphibian decline or wants to help out with different population decline."

Published September 2009