Montana State University
Glendive student finds purpose in research lab

By her own admission, Alison Ziegler, 20, wouldn't mind skipping a college class or two.  If she did, though, it wouldn't be for the usual collegiate reasons, such as oversleeping, taking a long weekend trip to Denver or simply not being in the mood for school that day.

No, if Ziegler ever cut a class (her instructors know she doesn't) it would be so she could go to her job in a research laboratory at Montana State University in Bozeman.

"I really enjoy it," Ziegler, a Glendive native, said of her work at MSU-Bozeman's Center for Biofilm Engineering.

"You couldn't work with better people," she said of the research facility that employs about 100 people. "Sometimes I wish I could skip classes to go to work."

Her work is with biofilms--colonies of bacteria covered in a slimy coating. Biofilms in humans can cause illnesses ranging from the relatively minor--such as ear infections and sinusitis--to the chronic, such as those associated with artificial implants, including heart valves.  Biofilms can also grow in a variety of industrial setting such as public water systems, oil pipelines, and even swimming pools and hot tubs.

Ziegler's job relates to evaluating the effects of antibiotics on biofilm formation. Antibiotics are not always effective treatments for biofilms, and some of the research at the MSU center is aimed at finding out why.

"Alison's work has shown that although antibiotics may not be able to completely prevent biofilm infections, they can, under the right circumstances, retard and inhibit biofilm," said Mark Pasmore, medical projects manager at the biofilm center.

"The work," Pasmore continued, "suggests that antibiotics may be used to prevent biofilm infections following surgery, thereby reducing a patient's risk of chronic infections."

Ziegler, a sophomore majoring in biomedical sciences, said she read about Pasmore's research in the MSU student newspaper. Knowing she'd need some research experience to apply for medical school, Ziegler decided to try for a job in Pasmore's lab.

She works between 10 and 15 hours a week, earning almost enough for her rent. She covers the rest of her college costs with a scholarship and student loans.

Initially her career goal was dermatology, but now she's leaning toward becoming a physician's assistant.  Already she's had a chance to talk publicly about her work. In February, she was one of four students from the biofilm center to attend a legislative open house in Helena. Rep. Ralph Lenhart (D-Glendive) was among the legislators who talked with her about her project.

When not at class or in the lab, Ziegler plays intramural basketball and softball.

Her advice for high school students?

"College is a great opportunity if you can take it," Ziegler said. "You should take chances in college, because it's no big deal if you fail. You just try again."

Ziegler's parents are Gwen and Larry Ziegler of Glendive. Her brothers Mike and Tom also live and work in the Glendive area.

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by Annette Trinity-Stevens
MSU research editor
March 31, 2003