A skeptic might say that community college students and medical research do not belong in the same sentence, but at State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota, students are not only participating in that research, they are getting experience that leads them into careers in science.

Through a course called Tiny Earth, SCF students are taking part in a global movement to "studentsource" the solution to antibiotic resistance, which annually sickens millions and results in billions in health care costs. If you have seen headlines about superbugs, they are most likely referring to antibiotic resistance.

Bacteria become resistant to the antibiotics used to treat the infections they cause. Its rise can be attributed to several things, including the overprescribing of antibiotics, patient misuse of prescriptions and antibiotic overuse in feeding livestock. Two million Americans become ill because of antibiotic resistance each year, resulting in more than $30 billion in annual treatment costs. Because of the lack of profits and high development costs, pharmaceutical companies are no longer developing new antibiotics. Educators and students are filling the gap to discover the next generation of antibiotics and address this crisis.

Tiny Earth is a microbiology laboratory course designed to inspire students to pursue careers in science and address the diminishing supply of effective antibiotics. Thanks to the efforts of Eric Warrick, associate professor in SCF’s Department of Natural Sciences, SCF was among the first 24 partners in Tiny Earth and one of the first four community colleges to take part in this global network of instructors and students focused on studentsourcing antibiotic discovery from soil.

The Tiny Earth course replaces the traditional microbiology lab class by engaging students in the antibiotic resistance research project, taking part in a real-world project producing results unique to their efforts. At SCF, the course is normally taught to biotechnology and nursing majors, along with other health science-focused students.

Warrick and his colleagues have found that students who engage in research early in their college careers are more likely to pursue a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, earn better grades and complete their degrees more quickly. Student surveys indicate that those who take the course feel more ownership over their education and have greater pride in their accomplishments.

The name Tiny Earth reflects the program’s global reach and microscopic subjects. Today, there are about 10,000 students enrolled in the course each year in 45 states and 15 nations. The curriculum is the same at each member school, meaning students at SCF are successfully completing the same coursework as those at Yale and other major research universities.

Students collect soil from the local environment to find bacteria that produce antibiotics. Students in SCF’s program focus on the local marine environment. After students conduct tests to see if they can find antibiotic activity in their samples, SCF partners with labs at Florida Southern College and Florida State University to further investigate the samples.

SCF students have published their findings in international microbiology journals, presented their research at regional and national conferences, and received numerous awards and recognitions, proving you can do great scientific research at a community college.

Tiny Earth is an excellent example of SCF’s "you can get anywhere from here" credo. Our students are gaining the experience and confidence to be successful anywhere they choose to go while they combine a community college education with critical medical research … despite what a skeptic might think.

Carol F. Probstfeld is president of State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota.