Researching probiotics claims

Junior health science major Alexandra Warden-Michl poses with Bradley President Joanne Glasser. Not pictured is Warden-Michl's research partner and fellow junior Mary Kikilas.

May 1, 2013

By Karen Crowley Metzinger, MA ’97

When juniors Mary Kikilas and Alexandra Warden-Michl decided to research bacteria isolated from probiotic products, they chose in vitro (test tube) methods rather than animal studies for two reasons: test tube experiments limit both experimental variables and the time required for the study.

However, faculty mentor Ted Fleming, a lecturer in the biology department, added a third reason for the choice of in vitro research: “Alex hates rats.”

As health science majors, Kikilas and Warden-Michl sought to incorporate a health topic while relating the research to microbiology, Fleming’s specialty. They decided to explore a popular topic in the health field: the claim that probiotics contain live microorganisms that are beneficial to digestion. Since the federal Food and Drug Administration has not approved this claim and little scientific data on the effectiveness of probiotics exists, their experiment set out to test the effectiveness of a probiotic product with regard to its breakdown of a carbohydrate and a protein in a test tube.

“Our experimental design had not been previously conducted,” Warden-Michl noted. “Our hypothesis was that the probiotic bacteria would not significantly break down the carbohydrate (lactose) or protein (tryptone).”

Although their interdisciplinary research resulted in an experimental “failure,” their presentation skills showed the judges at Bradley’s 21st annual Scholarship Expo that they were knowledgeable and passionate about the topic. They incorporated general terminology while still using biological terms to explain the experimental design shortcomings they experienced and to account for their interpretation of the data.

“Due to modifications made to the experimental design, we ended up measuring net synthesis instead of hydrolysis,” Kikilas said. “We were unable to support our hypothesis because we were unable to measure what we initially intended, but through our research, we successfully embraced unknown possibilities in the scientific realm.”

Fleming explained, “As it turned out, very few bacteria were cultured from the probiotic product. This result was unexpected and limited the experimentation to one culturable organism. Mary and Alex selected a novel topic that they found interesting and worked out the problems of acquiring useful data before they finally ran out of time. In the end, they did not provide data sufficient to support the hypothesis. Nevertheless, they were an enthusiastic, wonderful team and great to mentor.”

As a result of their research and thorough presentation, Kikilas and Warden-Michl earned the Dean’s Award in the College of Education and Health Sciences.

“The Scholarship Expo provided us the opportunity to research a topic that would expand our scientific knowledge and enhance our overall experience as health science majors at Bradley,” Warden-Michl said. “We truly developed as innovative leaders.”