New Ideas

Programs sustaining Smoky Mountain science:

Research and Career Paths Blossom in the Great Smokies

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to lush forests, diverse wildlife, stunning waterfalls, and the Appalachian trail. Visiting the park, you could be taken aback by the grandness of your surroundings.

But for Western Carolina University Professor Sean O'Connell, it's the smallest features of the Great Smokies that present the greatest intrigue and promise.

Collaboration Sprouts Ideas

The national park is home to unique microorganisms that might one day lead to pharmaceutical or industrial uses, like life-saving drugs. Each semester, O'Connell leads his students in compiling an inventory of the park's bacteria, discovering new species and expanding the world's understanding of biodiversity.

In 2006, O'Connell and Paul Bartels, a biology professor at Warren Wilson College, connected at a regional collaboration event hosted by the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. The two researchers hatched the idea for a faculty-led, student-fuelled program that would tap the biological wealth of the Great Smokies.

One successful education grant later, O'Connell secured $62,010 for lab equipment to support his Great Smokies bacteria project.

A New Generation Grabs the Research Torch

O'Connell's passion for biology is contagious. He encouraged one of his students, Benjamin Jeuck, to apply for an Undergraduate Research Fellowship to enhance the research experience and potentially pave the way to a career in biotechnology right in his home state.

Jeuck was awarded the fellowship and is now working alongside his mentor in the discovery of antibacterial agents in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.