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campus scene

Malamud meets Kesey…and Guggenheim Professor Steve Stern a born storyteller
Twining upward
Skidmore is a new ivy
Creature research
Studying microbes, ants, rats
Science appreciation Teenagers go from mud to microscopes
Lean, mean research machine Student wins federal grant for diabetes research
Hearts of fire Determined donors fund firefighter-safety research
Trailblazers North Woods stewards serve as guardians
Commonalities Finishing touch on Northwoods Village
Books Faculty and alumni authors
Professoriat What the faculty are up to
Sportswrap Summer sports highlights

Creature research

A glowing bacterium, seed-hauling ants, and sixty-three horny female rats were among the stars of this summer’s collaborative-research program, which annually sends student-faculty teams off into full-tilt academic exploration across an array of disciplines. Even among the creature-based projects of 2006, the species, settings, and techniques ranged widely, from fluorescence spectroscopy in the biochem lab to field observation in the sun-dappled North Woods.

Chemist Michelle Frey, along with Andrew Lynch ’07 and Katherine Fegan ’07, studied Vibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria that takes up residence in a special organ of a small Hawaiian squid. (Their symbiotic relationship provides a light source for the nocturnal squid and a safe haven for the bacteria.) A mucous barrier protects the squid’s light organ from other bacteria, so how do the V. fischeri get in? Frey surmises that an enzyme called PepN on V. fischeri’s surface functions like “molecular scissors” to cut through the barrier. The research is complex, but this summer Frey’s team confirmed the presence of PepN on the bacterium’s surface and successfully cloned the gene encoding PepN, enabling them to prepare large quantities of it for further research.

In the North Woods—a remnant of the nineteenth-century Woodlawn estate—biologist Joshua Ness and partner Douglas Morin ’07 traced the long-term effects of human land use on spring-blooming woodland plants and the ants that disperse their seeds. Dividing the woods into grids, Ness and Morin charted particular plants like trillium and bloodroot and found local ant species by luring them with pinches of canned tuna (which shares certain compounds with the seeds and dead insects that the ants also eat). Then they switched to plant-seed baits and observed which ants were the best seed-carriers. By summer’s end, it was clear that both ants and plants are still thicker today in areas of long-standing forest and thinner in the areas that once were lawns.

And the rats? Bright-eyed and eager, their heat cycles spiked by hormone injections, they spent the summer scampering through a five-foot Plexiglas runway designed by psychologist Hassan López, Gabriel Wurzel ’07, and Ben Ragen ’08, in a project to test the effects of the antidepressant bupropion (marketed to humans as Wellbutrin) on the female libido. The female rats’ progress toward goals, such as male rats at the other end of the runway, was measured by motion detectors linked to recording equipment—the idea being to use visible behavior, such as alacrity in approaching a potential mate, to gauge underlying emotions. As it happened, the bupropion was not effective at the doses tested, but the runway proved itself a reliable tool for future rat-model evaluations of drug therapies for human sexual-desire disorders.

Thirteen other research teams tackled a wide variety of projects including capital punishment,
the Saratoga watershed, student-athlete attitudes, the economics of pollution abatement, insulin resistance, and the fate of small dairy cooperatives in a global world. —BAM