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The Heart of the Matter

Collaboration with industry partners and students is at the center of the chemistry department’s real-world research.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

March 01, 2019 | 11 a.m.

Chemistry research team

Brett Norling ’19 collaborated on research with chemistry faculty members Angela Stoeckman ’97 and Ken Rohly.

In 2015, surgeons in Paris published a paper about a bacterial infection that can occur in up to 10% of heart valve replacement surgeries. Across the ocean, a major biomedical engineering company learned that competitors were using the paper’s results to question the heart valve the company supplies for these surgeries. But what was the truth? 

Enter Bethel’s chemistry department.

The department’s commitment to industry research—including direct research with students—goes back to 1987, when Ken Rohly arrived at Bethel to teach chemistry after stints at Twin Cities-based corporate giants 3M and Medtronic. “Bethel allowed me to both teach and research in industry,” Rohly explains. His connections served as the bridge for Medtronic—a global biomedical engineering company committed to education—to partner with Bethel on more than 100 different products and at least that many research projects over the years. 

So when Medtronic’s heart valve was called into question, the company’s marketing team approached Rohly for help. He designed a study with Bethel faculty and students, in collaboration with Medtronic scientists and funded by Medtronic, that would test the bovine jugular vein pulmonary heart valves the company supplies to medical partners. The significance of the study was difficult to overstate. At the very heart of the matter, so to speak, was the question of truth itself. Both Bethel and Medtronic were committed to a study that objectively addressed this, whatever the results. 

Enter senior biochemistry majors Brett Norling and Kendra McKenzie.

Bethel chemistry students have long benefited from the department’s industry partnerships. Over the past 30 years, more than 100 students have been involved in Medtronic research, and due in part to this collaboration, the company has become the single largest employer of Bethel chemistry majors who do not enter a clinical field after graduation. In addition, chemistry students benefit from the department’s strong commitment to undergraduate research opportunities. “Research with undergraduates is how we practice our craft,” says Rohly. “We treat our undergraduate students like graduate students. They’re valued contributors and partners.”

So in March 2018, Norling and McKenzie, in collaboration with Associate Professor of Chemistry Angela Stoeckman ’97—who as a Bethel student worked with Rohly in a Medtronic internship more than 20 years ago—began the arduous study process with a stated goal to “examine bacterial adhesion to porcine and bovine pericardial tissue and heart valves as a predictor of infective endocarditis.” During heart valve replacement, infection is a fairly common occurrence, and the Bethel study expanded on the original 2015 study to determine whether three different bacterial strains adhere more to damaged vs. undamaged tissue.

According to Norling, “it took a long time to think through the problem, create a protocol, and collaborate with people.” The team spent most of summer 2018 honing their exacting procedures to the point where the results could be replicated and trusted. “A lot of work goes into doing good science,” Stoeckman confirms.

Norling explains that his specific task involved first growing bacteria. Next he took a tissue sample, rinsed it, and exposed it to the bacteria for one hour. Then he used enzymes to remove the bacteria, followed by mechanically scraping the sample—a 2.5-hour process each time. Finally, he plated the residue and placed it in a protected sterile environment.

"Scientifically, this is some of the best preparation you can get."

— Brett Norling '19

The project, Norling says, “has put me in a unique position as far as experience and background.” With plans to attend medical school after graduation, he was looking for research opportunities that would set him apart, and his course work at Bethel offered him research exposure not often available to undergraduates. “Scientifically, this is some of the best preparation you can get,” he says.

Enter the results.

In December 2018, Bethel University and Medtronic Coronary and Structural Heart Division jointly completed a manuscript for a paper authored by Rohly and Stoeckman along with three students, including Norling and McKenzie. The paper clearly specifies the study’s goals: to replicate the original procedure reported by the Paris surgeons and evaluate the validity of this bacterial adhesion method. It reports the care with which the study was conducted, including establishing “robust protocols for the growth curves of each strain of bacteria and for the handling of tissue samples.”

Even with their careful protocol, the chemists observed “significant variability among data sets,” states the report. What does this mean? “Briefly,” says Rohly, “our results show that measuring bacterial adhesion to damaged and undamaged tissue is not a valid method to predict infective endocarditis, effectively disproving the claims of the paper that was published with controversial results.” 

A research question that could literally be life and death for some patients. A global biomedical engineering company deeply invested in the outcome. And a chemistry department passionately committed to the truth. It’s the kind of research that changes the world, and it’s anchored in the collaboration that has characterized Bethel’s chemistry department for 30 years. 

In the end, says Stoeckman, this collaboration is what she loves most about her work at Bethel. She finds great meaning in partnering with exceptional, caring colleagues and mentoring gifted, motivated students—who then go on to become world-changers in their own right. “I’m not doing this because I want to save the world one heart valve at a time,” she says, “but because I get to impact students who then impact others.” 

Study chemistry at Bethel.

The Department of Chemistry prepares graduates who think creatively and critically to find new answers to important questions. You’ll be challenged to investigate the complementary relationship between science and faith in Christ as you work to reach your goals.

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