Adventures beyond the lab

Taking Hazel Barton’s microbiology lab could be the quencher for a student looking for thrill, fun and adventure.
She recently had her lab listed as one of the top 30 “awesome college labs” in the U.S., according to

Barton is a professor of integrative science at Northern Kentucky University with microbiology being her main area of teaching. Junior biology major Katarina Schneider appreciates how Barton interacts with her students.

“She’s different from other professors because she understands students and actually does care about us doing well in school,” Schneider said.
What makes Barton’s lab unique and, well, awesome?

“We study microorganisms that live in caves and use the same living techniques as microorganisms that live on Mars,” Barton said.

Students are always invited along for the experience any time Barton gets to explore caves for extremophile microbes (organisms that live in extreme conditions).

“It would be so much fun. I’ve never been to Venezuela and I’d like to see the different culture,” said senior biology major Andrea Price.
“The trips are fun, but at the same time we have a lot of work to do,” Barton said.

Students who would like to participate in these expeditions need to be a microbiology research student, in Barton’s lab, adventurous, and take the business end of the journey seriously.

“I’ve had students in the past that were like, ‘yeah I want to do that, that sounds fun,’ and we have this great, fabulous trip then we get back and have all this work we need to process and they’re gone,” Barton said.

If a student is great at research and loves the lab aspect but isn’t adventurous and the idea of repelling down a cliff induces vomit, there is still room for them on the trip.

“I got people who just want to do the research and nothing else,” Barton said. “I’m completely happy with that.”

Two years ago, Barton took two students with her to explore the Roraima plateau in Venezuela. They studied the longest quartzite cave on Earth, a 10-mile-long maze of knowledge and intrigue that could help NASA identify what kind of life lives on Mars. She planned on a return trip to the Roraima plateau this fall, but couldn’t get permits finalized. Assistant professor of biological sciences Chris Curran hopes the permits pass sooner rather than later.

“This trip has a lot of opportunities for students to get incredible experience,” Curran said. “The science of it is really top notch.”

Barton has been trying to go back to Venezuela for the last year-and-a-half, but it’s been hard to get the research permits to return because of political reasons. Venezuela is a developing country controlled by a dictatorship and that makes it difficult to return. It took Barton two years to get a research permit for the first trip to Venezuela and it’s now been three years and counting for her second attempt.

She was supposed to go in January 2009. The helicopter was paid for, all the expenses were paid and two days before the trip the higher ups of Venezuela declined the research permits.

“It’s basically, can we find someone more powerful than the other people so we can get our permits,” Barton said.
She can’t go down and collect information without a permit because it is illegal. Even though there are people collecting data without permits, she refuses to be unethical.

“Some people take bribes in order to return, but I don’t want to partake in that kind of behavior,” Barton said.

Although the permits are on standby, there is always a chance they could be passed any day. If that were to happen, Barton estimates that she could be ready and packed to go in a matter of weeks.

One student who would love a trip back to Venezuela is Juan Giarrizzo who has a doctorate in cellular biology. He is from Venezuela and first met Barton two years ago on her first trip to Venezuela. She was the reason he chose to study at NKU.

“I would love to go back because it’s where I’m from,” Giarrizzo said.“I would be able to make things easier because I know more of what people can or cannot do over there.”

Among the Venezuela trip, Barton has also been working with China and Europe to study microbiology. No matter where she goes or what she studies Barton has a ball doing it.

“I do it because it’s really fun to do,” Barton said. “If it’s cool to you, then you love what you do.”

Story by Derick Bischoff