2017 Success Stories: Passion for biology fuels graduate’s career path

BGSU Firelands student seeks counter to superbugs

By Dean Schnurr

Like many incoming college freshmen, William Sberna was not completely decided on his career path when he started classes. As a high school student he did his research and was entering Bowling Green State University Firelands College enrolled in the radiologic technology program, but like so many other students, there were lingering doubts.   

What was unique for Sberna, however, was how rapidly he made a decision. It was during his first hour in a college classroom that he knew his career path.

“Ironically, I thought I was in the wrong classroom,” said Sberna, who will earn his bachelor’s degree this semester. “The professor’s name did not match my class schedule, but I was a freshman in my first class so I was a little leery about getting up and walking out. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t."

Sberna’s first class as a college student was biology and the professor was Ram Veerapaneni. Sberna found that Dr. Veerapaneni was an outstanding teacher and the content of the biology class was intriguing. He had found his calling.

“Ram was teaching biology on a cellular level and it was fascinating to me to learn how cells worked. They are very mechanical in nature, but they are a living thing,” said Sberna, a Bellevue, Ohio, resident. He added that his high school experience with biology only involved the study of plants and animals.

Although Sberna knew his passion was for biology, he opted to complete an associate degree in radiologic technology and currently works at a local hospital as a radiologic technologist while earning his bachelor's degree in applied health science.

“Will’s love for biology is obvious and infectious. He embodies all the qualities one would want in a perfect student,” said Veerapaneni, a BGSU Firelands assistant professor of biology.  

Sberna and Veerapaneni developed a strong relationship throughout four years at BGSU Firelands. In addition to several classes together, Sberna was a member of the Chess Club and the Science Club, both of which Veerapaneni advised.

“Whether it’s biology or chess, he makes learning fun and interesting. It’s clear that he enjoys what he does,” Sberna said of his teacher.  

It was also Veerapaneni who encouraged Sberna to further his study of biology through independent research.

“He encouraged me to take a job in the labs and also supported my research activities,” said Sberna.

Sberna’s interest in cell activity and interaction fueled his research.  He was particularly interested in learning more about bacteria and how, at a cellular level, antibiotics were inadvertently creating superbugs.

It’s critical that we can identify naturally occurring substances which can counter these superbugs,”

“Natural selection is creating antibiotic resistant microbes which poses a significant threat to the population. It’s critical that we can identify naturally occurring substances which can counter these superbugs,” said Sberna.

Using catechins, a green tea extract, and curcumins, an extract from turmeric (a spice commonly used in Indian foods), Sberna has been experimenting on six different bacterial species to measure effect.

Aided by a grant from the BGSU Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, Sberna is optimistic about the preliminary results of his research. “We are definitely seeing positive results at various concentration levels,” he said.   

Sberna presented his findings to the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarships earlier this year where he competed against more than 100 students in a research poster competition. He followed that with a similar competition at the 23rd Annual Association for University Regional Campuses Conference in April where he was awarded first place for his research.

“I would love to continue my research into antibiotic resistant microbes and finding ways to fight these bacteria,” said Sberna, who is quick to point out that much work is left to be done.

Sberna plans on continuing his research next year at the Bowling Green campus while working toward a master’s degree in biological science. He also hopes to earn a doctoral degree in the future.

Veerapaneni said Sberna will be missed by many around campus, but was certain he would excel with his future endeavors.   

“He is a brilliant student who is exceptionally motivated and has the necessary academic training and background to be successful in his career and life,” said Veerapaneni.