Tiny Earth comes to Titletown: the 2023 Winter Symposium

Maritza Lopez, current UW-Green Bay student. Sue Pischke, University Photographer

Story by Syd Morgan, UW-Green Bay editorial intern

Students fearlessly work to solve the antibiotic resistance crisis

Antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the infections they cause, are a burgeoning public health crisis. This is a problem occurring worldwide, and now, after decades of effective antibiotic treatment, bacterial infections have become a threat once more. There are multiple reasons for the reduction in the efficacy of antibiotics and the reemerging threat of bacterial infections; there is a general overuse of antibiotics, inappropriate prescribing, and extensive agricultural use. These factors cause repeat exposures to the human immune system which lead to bacteria evolving and becoming resistant to our current regimens of antibiotics, rendering them an ineffective treatment. 

Enter Tiny Earth. Tiny Earth is a curriculum that seeks to aid in the research and creation of new antibiotics developed from bacteria in soil sample research. With more than 700 instructors that span 30 countries, 47 U.S States, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C, Tiny Earth inspires students to engage in scientific research while addressing the antibiotic resistance problem. It is a curriculum that immerses students in research and gives them hands-on lab and research experience while also bringing attention to the issue. 

The Tiny Earth curriculum thrives at UW-Green Bay through the work of Professor Brian Merkel and the partnership between UW-Green Bay and Green Bay West High School’s Serious About Stem program (SAS). Prof. Merkel, chair of the Human Biology department and certified Tiny Earth instructor and committee member, has led the charge in encouraging antibiotic research among his college students and the high schoolers of Green Bay West along with instructors Lisa Merkel and Bonnie Gonzales.  

“It starts with a soil sample they collect and it’s their project. It’s ownership, and what’s amazing about this experience and the research that they’re doing, this authentic science, it’s not just on any project—it’s a world crisis,” says Prof. Merkel. 

The Tiny Earth Symposium is an opportunity for students and instructors in the scientific community to connect. “It brings people together in research, excitement, and in interest. We live in such a divided time, but we can all support the students, and everyone is interested in seeing them succeed. It’s a remedy to a lot of the things that plague us currently.” 

One student, Maritza Lopez, has followed this important, collaborative work from high school and into college. Her journey to Tiny Earth began when she joined the SAS club in eighth grade after seeing guest speakers come speak to the club, and thinking it was cool. Once in high school, she started with Tiny Earth as a junior, and just entered college as a freshman at UW-Green Bay in the fall of 2023.  

Lopez’s introduction to Tiny Earth was a startling one. “The first thing Dr. Merkel did was quiz the Tiny Earth girls.” She was initially taken aback by this, but then when Dr. Merkel quizzed them at the end of their Tiny Earth semester, she was able to answer every question. 

“It was really fun in the lab, we were given the liberty to experiment—the laboratory was our play area,” Lopez describes.

Even with all the perks and freedoms, Tiny Earth was a large commitment that could be grueling at times and showed true dedication to the work. The first cohort of Tiny Earth students started with eight that signed up, but only six showed up on the first day. Then, only three officially finished the whole project. “It was going to school from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then taking a bus to UWGB and working in the lab at night, but I didn’t view Tiny Earth as an assignment or a class, I viewed it as another opportunity to get into the lab.” 

It was an opportunity that paved the way for more, as Lopez was able to get into St. Norbert College’s Summer Academy of Medicine. From this experience, once she receives her Human Biology degree from UW-Green Bay, she knows that she wants to continue her education at St. Norbert College, where she will work to become a pediatrician. 

For now, Lopez is a TA with the Tiny Earth program at Green Bay West High School and helps the cohort of students completing projects. “I view myself as a leader and a caregiver. I just want to help people and be there for them. When I learn something and I’m able to teach it to other people, I think that’s really cool.” 

As a leader in Tiny Earth, Lopez encourages students in their academic pursuits, and speaks to the supportive and collaborative nature of Tiny Earth. “Be a risk taker and be your own advocate. You don’t have to do stuff alone. You can experiment alone, but that doesn’t mean that you have to get to the end result by yourself. You can also rely on those you care about or those who care about you.” 

For all those considering becoming part of the Tiny Earth community, Lopez says, “Do it, do it, do it. Don’t wait, just do it.”

Tiny Earth Symposium 2023

This year, the culmination of Tiny Earth research happening in Wisconsin came to Titletown for the 2023 Winter Tiny Earth Symposium. The Symposium took place on Monday, Dec 11 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at Lambeau Field. It was the perfect opportunity for students to showcase the important work they have completed with Tiny Earth in a poster session. The Symposium connected students, parents, faculty, and community members from the region to showcase the Tiny Earth students’ research and raise awareness about the antibiotic resistance issue. It was hosted by Tiny Earth instructors from UW-Green Bay, NWTC, College of Menominee Nation, and St. Norbert College.

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