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Creel to use research to blend dentistry, microbiology

Junior Kelli Creel’s passionate interests in microbiology and dentistry have led her from the classrooms and labs of Lamar University in Beaumont to boats on the Sabine Lake, dentists’ offices in the area, expeditions in Belize, and now, the United Kingdom.

Kelli CreelThe pre-dental biology major from Nederland will embark upon her biggest challenge yet this summer; as a finalist for the prestigious Beck Fellowship, Creel has received up to $10,000 on top of her Mirabeau Scholarship to conduct research with two world-class scholars on the microbial communities entrapped in dental tartar obtained from ancient Roman skeletons. This research will take her to the University of York in Heslington, England for the summer to work with ancient genetics expert Camilla Speller and proteins specialist Matthew Collins. She will also shadow English dentists to observe differences in practice between England and the United States.

“I was already interested in microbiomes and the roles they play in different environments,” Creel said, “There are vast amounts of research going on which focus on the body's second most diverse microbiome: the mouth, but ultimately, Camilla Speller's research was the one that most stood out to me. Hers was the only project I found which dealt with ancient entombed oral microbes, and it is also quite a large, multinational project.”

Creel’s interest in microbiology research took off when she participated in the 2015 Tropical Biology Program, which took students to Belize for two weeks in the summer to conduct research under the guidance of biology professors Matt Hoch and Ana Christensen.

“After traveling to Belize and participating in research with Drs. Hoch and Christensen, I became very interested in undergraduate research,” she said. “Dr. Hoch encouraged the entire class to stay involved with research once we returned to Texas. His research is what opened the door for this amazing opportunity and I am incredibly grateful. This, coupled with an intense desire to study abroad again, led me to apply for the David J. Beck Fellowship.”

Hoch, Creel’s Beck mentor, is a microbial ecologist and Tropical Biology program director. He realized Kelli’s many strengths and offered her a position as a researcher in his lab following the students’ return from Belize. His research explores microbial community dynamics between the benthos and plankton in Sabine Lake Estuary with the hopes of drawing conclusions representative of shallow estuaries worldwide.

“Kelli started talking about applying for the Beck Fellowship in the summer of 2015 while beginning field work training on Sabine Lake,” Hoch said. “She wanted to figure out how she could do research in dental microbiology given her current career goal to become a dentist. After some introduction to modern molecular techniques on studying microbiomes and advice on identifying researchers; she was off and running on her own.”

Creel will hold the title of Visiting Researcher in the Department of Archeology at the University of York, specifically working within the BioArCh group, which brings together faculty and researchers from the fields of biology, archeology, and chemistry and has a unique concentration of expertise in environmental archeology. BioArCh is internationally recognized for its strengths in ancient DNA, proteins, lipids, and stable isotopes.

“Researchers in BioArCh (along with an international team of collaborators from the USA, Switzerland, and Denmark) have recently discovered that dental tartar provides unprecedented insight into ancient health and disease,” Creel said. “As dental plaque mineralizes to form tartar, it entombs and preserves a lifetime record of oral and systemic disease-causing bacteria (pathogens) as well as human immune system proteins.”

Creel says that she is excited to take what she has learned in her research at Lamar and use it to go a step further and research with professionals who are conducting dental health related research. She believes that along with the ability to study the evolution of the microbial environment of the mouth, the research she will be conducting will make clearer how variables such as diet, hygiene, and other factors contribute to the oral health of individuals.

“Dr. Hoch will be helping me to prepare for my work by showing me important techniques involving microbe gene sequencing and analysis in his lab,” she said. “At BioArCh, I will be trained to extract and sequence DNA from ancient dental plaque, and analyze changes that have occurred in oral bacteria over a 2000-year period.”

Outside of labs, Creel can usually be found with a racquet in hand in one of several Tennis clubs and associations she partakes in. She and Hoch joke that she might have the chance to catch a Wimbledon match or two while in the U.K.

“Most of my free time is consumed by tennis, which I love. I am involved both on campus and off in tennis organizations. I am part of the Southeast Tennis Association, which is part of the larger, national United States Tennis Association. I really love traveling and being outdoors as well,” she said.

Creel is a 2013 Mirabeau Scholar, Reaud Honors College member, secretary of the USTA Tennis on Campus club, SGA Representative, Vice President of the Campus Cleanup Crew and a member of the American Student Dental Association.

“Being involved on campus and in research at Lamar has contributed significantly to my enjoyment of attending college,” Creel said. “It’s led to a multitude of great opportunities and has helped me establish life-long friends.”

As Creel pursues new adventures in academia and beyond, she reflects upon all that Lamar has offered her so far.

“At Lamar, I feel as if I am valued and am able to participate in a variety of experiences that I don't think I would have had access to at other schools, such as my continuing research,” she said. “The staff and faculty at Lamar are always eager to help students by making themselves available and forming meaningful relationships with them. I feel as if Lamar is more than just a place to earn a degree from; it's a home for four years.”