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Fall 2002

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Dance of biology, biology of dance

Each summer Skidmore’s collaborative-research program extends the joys and rigors of team research from the sciences to the farthest reaches of the curriculum. This summer’s eight student-faculty pairs hailed from fields so diverse—psychology, dance, government, education, mathematics, music, biology—you’d wonder how they could possibly understand each other’s reports at the program’s three group meetings. But at all three gatherings, crossover interest ran high and themes of interaction abounded. A few examples:
Choai Wong ’04 and Pat Fidopiastis are studyig how luminous bacteria survive, and even thrive, inside the small nocturnal squids that host them.
     Catherine Anderson-Hanley (psychology) and Jesse Bank ’03 teamed with Mike, a Labrador retriever with guide-dog training, to study the effects of companion-animal visits on the physiological and psychological well-being of institutionalized persons. Before and after a summer’s worth of twice-weekly visits to residents at a nearby assisted-living center, the team collected data on heart rates, blood pressure, and mood—statistics that might someday help resource-challenged institutions zero in on those most likely to benefit from petting a pup. Anderson-Hanley reported that their findings suggest “a key factor might be people’s desire for attachment.”
     Pantelis Fidopiastis (biology) and Choai Wong ’04 pursued a different attachment—the symbiosis between a nocturnal squid and a luminous form of bacteria. “You hear a lot about deadly, disease-causing bacteria,” said Fidopiastis, “but little is known about benign bacteria that promote health and development in host animals.” To learn how that works, the team tested a mutant strain of a squid-loving bacterium—Fidopiastis developed it to be lacking the gene thought to produce a sugary slime layer that protects it from the squid’s immune system. The researchers exposed the mutant bug to immune-system macrophages that had been extracted from the walnut-sized squid. Losing the protective gene should deprive the microorganism of its cozy symbiotic nook; but, happily for the bacterium, the mutant continued to fool the squid immune system. The research continues.
Debra Fernandez (left) and Nina Saraceno ’03 (second from right) work with other dancers to develop their “biomorphic” performance piece.
     In a figurative symbiosis of dance and visual art, Debra Fernandez (dance) and Nina Saraceno ’03 created original choreography to perform in the Tang Museum during an upcoming exhibition of paintings by Paul Henry Ramirez. The painter’s biomorphic images inspired first-time choreographer Saraceno to think of cell biology—DNA ladders and mitosis. “Some pro-cesses in the cell are similar to emotional processes in human beings,” Saraceno explained, “such as when a cell takes a particle into itself”—a similarity she demonstrated with a rhythmic gesture of reaching out and folding in.
      A different kind of rhythm—circadian—interested Bernard Possidente (biology) and Bond Caldaro ’04, who tested the effects of various colors of LED light fixtures on the circadian rhythms of lab mice. Given a particular pulse of blue light for one hour during their daily twelve-hour dark cycle, the mice woke up and hit their exercise wheels a full hour earlier the next morning. The findings might one day help Alzheimer’s patients and jet-lag sufferers rejigger their off-kilter biological clocks. As if in a nod to the dancers present, Possidente added, “Everything in the body system is rhythmic.” —BAM


© 2002 Skidmore College