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Principle investigators Student-faculty research: hydro, bio, neuro, Euro
Sporting chance Why Skidmore is raising the bar in athletics and wellness
Master planners envision campus expansion How Skidmore may look in 2050

 

 

Principle investigators

Student-faculty research is part of Skidmore’s summer signature. With their expenses covered by college funds, gifts, or grants, selected students and faculty spend June and July working intensively in pairs and trios, each team focused on one burning question. This summer, about forty students and twenty-five professors buckled down to it; here are a few of the teams.

Photos by Mark McCarty

Close observation by humans doesn’t much bother young rats in love. Watching for signs of a female rat’s interest in mating became second nature for neuroscientist Hassan Lopez (center), Sean Nash ’08, and Sarah Webb ’08.
Their research (conducted in the gloom of a red safelight, in consideration of the rats’ nocturnal habits) tested the role of cannabinoids—brain chemicals similar to the THC in marijuana—in female sexual motivation. The trio dosed ovariectomized female rats with estrus-inducing hormones and/or a drug that acts as a cannabinoid antagonist. First they let a rat see an eligible bachelor rat in a Plexiglas “goal box” and then placed her in a connected chute; motion sensors measured her speed toward the male and the time she spent checking him out through the clear, perforated divider inside the box. Placing her together with a male allowed them to chart her back-arching, ear-wiggling, and other signals of her actual interest in mating.

Hormonally ready, the rats spent about 55 percent of their time in the goal box (compared to 40 percent for those not given hormones). But when dosed with the cannabinoid antagonist, they didn’t lose interest as expected; in fact, they spent more time, 70 percent, in male company. The drug at all doses piqued sexual motivation; high doses also revved up male-enticing behaviors, while lower doses reduced those behaviors. Lopez says, “We got very clear and fascinating results,” which the students will present at a national conference this fall.


Mystery, horror, romance, and redemption are strong motifs in The Phantom of the Opera, originally a 1910 novel by Gaston Leroux. The story features plenty of other Gothic themes, too. But gender-bending?
That’s what “began to emerge insistently,” says French professor John Anzalone, who analyzed the Leroux novel with Emily Maskin ’07. At first they focused on the image of the diva in French literature and its reshaping by Leroux. But as they delved into how the diva Christine falls under the sway of the Svengali-like Phantom, they saw his desire to teach her, and even to sing for her, reach further: he wants to be her. Reviled and reclusive because of his disfigured face, the Phantom yearns to be a diva—that is, to be publicly adored for genius, talent, and beauty. As Maskin wrote in the article they aim to publish in a journal of literary criticism, the Phantom tries “to make Christine into the beautiful, passive wife he wants to have and the successful opera singer he wants to be.”

Like the outcast Phantom, most nineteenth-century women had no real voice in society, but a famous diva could transcend that subjugated status. Yet by his manipulations, including disabling the voice of the opera’s other diva, the Phantom essentially reiterates male society’s domination over women, thus invalidating Christine’s (and therefore his own) transcendence.

Laundry soap really can get your clothes “sparkling clean,” thanks to fluorescent dyes known as optical brighteners. In wastewater, laundry soap can also leach into groundwater, streams, and lakes. Since fluorescence is easy to detect, could optical brighteners serve as a marker for tracking down leaky sewers and septic tanks?

Scribner-Mellon Scholar Luki Anka-Lufford ’10 (at left) and chemist Judy Halstead (right) wanted to find out. Halstead and geoscientist Kim Marsella also guided a Water Resources Initiative project in which Alicea Cock-Esteb ’09 (center) and Ali Furman ’09 (not pictured) measured salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH, and other water-quality factors in Saratoga’s Lake Lonely and nine area streams. Anka-Lufford worked with the WRI team and also focused on the feasibility of detecting trace amounts of optical brighteners. Her spectrofluorimeter picked up fluorescence, all right—not just in her lab-prepped water-and-detergent sample and in a local creek, but also in a pristine Adirondack pond and even
a little bit in plain tap water. Wondering if tannins from decaying plant matter contribute some fluorescence in natural waters, Anka-Lufford brewed a cup of tea: Its fluorescence indeed matched a sample from a nearby brook.

Can optical brighteners ever be distinguished in natural waters? Stay tuned.


What happens when fruit flies
—hardly mental giants to begin with—come down with Alzheimer’s disease? Biological-clock scholar Bernie Possidente and Tiffanie Benway ’08 wondered if the flies’ sleep cycles would be impaired, as they are in human Alzheimer’s patients who experience “sundowning” and nighttime wandering.

Collaborating with a Cambridge University geneticist who created a strain of flies containing a mutant human gene involved in Alzheimer’s, Possidente imported some vials of the Frankenflies into his lab. Similarly transgenic mice, also quite new, were very expensive, he says, adding that fruit flies need little upkeep (the odd dollop of fortified, instant mashed potato), reproduce every couple of weeks, and have easy-to-see anatomy and behavior.

Housing the flies with controlled periods of darkness and light, the researchers then moved individual flies into glass tubes—“a delicate task in which we anesthetized them with Fly Nap,” says Benway. Each tube had food at one end and a sensor in the middle that recorded each time the fly traveled back and forth. While normal flies were active in clear and steady patterns relating to their day lengths, those with the Alzheimer’s gene showed longer and more fragmented sleep/wake cycles, as if they had trouble regulating their internal clocks. The study helps confirm that sleep/wake cycles may be useful monitors of neural degeneration.

 

Spinach contaminated with E. coli bacteria made headlines last year. But biochemists use certain strains of E. coli as handy and harmless models for studying cellular functions. A crucial cell function in many bacteria is the uptake and offloading of metal ions, like iron or zinc. Their appetite for metals makes some bacteria expert pollution abaters; for others, metals help them bind to their victims’ cells.

Chorom Pak ’08 and biologist Sylvia Franke studied a zinc-transporter protein, ZupT, and its location in the cell membrane of E. coli. Starting from a computer prediction of which amino acids in a ZupT strand might snake through the membrane and which protrude inside or out, the researchers snipped some amino acids and fused them with two proteins that served as ID tags. One, PhoA, is known to be active only outside the cell membrane; the other, LacZ, only inside. Through enzyme assays, they could determine the dwelling place of the ZupT segments: when the assay revealed active PhoA, the ZupT particle fused to it must be external to the membrane; detecting LacZ indicated a ZupT constituent located inside the cell.

The pair succeeded in mapping parts of the ZupT strand. Once scientists know its full topology they can begin learning how it moves zinc into and out of bacterial cells.



Obesity—of mice or men
—is strongly linked to type-2 diabetes, in which cells become resistant to insulin. Cell-culture research has suggested that a protein called mTOR may play a role in developing insulin resistance. Exercise scientist T. H. Reynolds and Zack Berk ’08 (with Charlie Phelps ’08, not pictured) looked at mTOR in lab mice that were genetically engineered to be obese and also in normal mice that were fed either a high-fat chow (dyed lurid pink) or a normal chow (equally lurid blue). Both the high-fat eaters and the genetically obese mice showed insulin resistance in glucose-tolerance tests. Normal mice fed a normal diet passed their glucose-tolerance tests with flying colors.

Next the researchers took tissue samples from skeletal muscle—where insulin disposes of glucose—and processed them (into “a muscle soup,” says Berk) for electrophoresis, a procedure that separates individual proteins for identification. The team found high levels of the mTOR protein in the genetically obese mice, but no big difference between the high-fat-fed and the healthy mice. That suggests that mTOR doesn’t cause, but may instead result from, insulin resistance. The three plan to publish a journal article, to alert other researchers and stimulate retrials of the cultured-cell or live-mouse experiments.