Engaging Students with Research to Combat Drug-resistant ‘Superbugs’

TCC Professor Neil Enis stands arms folding in front the pond at TCC Southeast Campus.

Associate Professor of Biology involves students in international Tiny Earth research experience.

Growing up in southeast Oklahoma, Neil Enis, Tulsa Community College Associate Professor of Biology, wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school. He tried college for a year but still was unsure about a major. So, he joined the Navy and served as an electrician’s mate - nuclear for several years where he was responsible for the operation of a ship's electrical power generation and distribution systems. 

“After the Navy, I realized I had an interest in science and decided to pursue a path related to the molecular side of plant biology,” says Enis. “My dad operated a ranch and was heavily involved with crop production. I had never really thought about pursuing a career related to molecular biology but decided to give it a go.”  

Enis received his bachelor’s and master's degrees in Plant & Soil Sciences from Oklahoma State University. After three years of teaching at Eastern Oklahoma State College, he joined the Life Sciences department at TCC in 2009 teaching Microbiology.  

In 2013 he had an opportunity to participate as a Pilot Partner with Yale University in developing Small World Initiative, now known as Tiny Earth and based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The network currently involves hundreds of instructors and thousands of students from more than 30 nations and has the goal of inspiring students to learn science by engaging in research, specifically by discovering new antibiotics from soil bacteria.  

“As part of my TCC Honors Microbiology class, TCC students can perform authentic scientific research searching for new antibiotics to combat today’s drug-resistant ‘superbugs,’” explains Enis who is still involved with the initiative. “The experience gives students the opportunity to help find solutions to a significant global health crisis while gaining valuable experience with modern biology techniques.” 

Enis adds, “Many times students don’t think of themselves as scientists, but this opportunity brings that to life. They gain skills in critical thinking and troubleshooting and can apply those skills while doing their research.”  

Although many of his students are committed to pre-Nursing, pre-Med, pre-Dentistry, pre-Pharmacy, and other pre-professional health degrees, Enis has had a few students who have realized their potential in bioscience research and have swapped career paths after taking his class. 

One such student was Sara Alexander. She spoke to his Honors Microbiology students last spring about how her undergrad research experience in his Microbiology class involving Tiny Earth altered her trajectory, leading to research at the National Institutes of Health and graduate school. In an email to Enis she wrote, “You and your Microbiology course changed the entire course of my life. I am now pursuing a PhD in microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania… I just wanted to email you to once again thank you, so much, for teaching me about microbiology, bacteria, antibiotic resistance, all of the things I care about now. Every time someone asks how I got into this field, I tell them it was because of your class...” 

“I love working with students and being in the lab,” says Enis. “TCC is a forward-thinking institution that encourages high-impact instructional practices. Course-based undergraduate research opportunities, like Tiny Earth, provide students with enhanced educational benefits without imposing an additional financial burden.”  

When he’s not teaching, Enis’ all-consuming personal activities are rock climbing and alpine mountaineering. He has reached the summit of 39 of Colorado’s “14er”s (mountains over 14,000 feet) and the Grand Teton in Wyoming. He is currently training for upcoming attempts at climbing Pico de Orizaba in Mexico and Mount Rainier in Washington.  

He also plays the cello. “My twin daughters play violin, and my wife plays viola, so we have our very own string quartet as a fun, family activity.”