Focus on Science

Confocal microscopeWhitman students, Viral Oza ’11 (center) and Jeff Sterritt ’11 (right) observe a demonstration of a confocal microscope in the newly renovated Live Cell Imaging and Microscopy Center in the Hall of Science.

Zoom in, for a moment, on the Hall of Science. What you’ll see is a flurry of activity and excitement among faculty and students whose opportunities for collaboration in the laboratory and the field have grown exponentially in recent months.

In September alone, Whitman faculty and student scientists hosted a regional physics conference and learned that the National Science Foundation (NSF) had awarded Whitman more than a half-million dollars to purchase a sophisticated laser scanning confocal microscope. In August, word came that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had awarded more than $200,000 for a professor’s ongoing research on ways to improve the X-ray diffraction method of determining the shapes of biological molecules. In spring 2010, the college announced that some of its farmland will yield faculty-student research on native and invasive plant life.

A close-up, by the numbers:

$549,447

The amount of the National Science Foundation grant that will bring a sophisticated laser scanning confocal microscope to the Hall of Science.

Used for state-of-the-art, high-resolution fluorescence imaging of biological specimens, the microscope will provide new research possibilities and additional opportunities to integrate research into Whitman courses.

"We’ve assembled a very impressive set of research tools that are getting great use from faculty and students," said Ginger Withers, Dr. Robert F. Welty associate professor of biology and principal investigator for the grant.

Withers said the new microscope, when it’s installed in early 2011, will allow students and faculty to conduct important research with the same instruments used in high-tech labs around the world.

"The new confocal microscope will add to the quality of lab work and research that can be conducted at Whitman and will definitely allow for a more integrative analysis of the work I am doing," said Viral Oza ’11, a biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology (BBMB) major who is working with Withers to engineer the way neurons grow on different surfaces. "I hope to go to a biomedical graduate program next year and the opportunity to learn how to use the confocal is both beneficial and very exciting," Oza said.

$202,400

The amount of the National Institutes of Health grant awarded to Doug Juers, associate professor of physics. Announced in August 2010, the grant supports Juers’ student-faculty X-ray diffraction molecular research. Detailed knowledge of macromolecular structures, such as proteins and nucleic acids, is important for understanding the molecular basis of biological function and aids in developing effective treatments for disease.

"One part of macromolecular X-ray structure determination involves cryogenic sample cooling. Right now this process is sort of an art form, and is often a limiting factor," Juers said. "We have an idea for a more predictable cooling method, which the grant will allow us to test."

Juers said the NIH grant would not have been possible without preliminary data generated by Whitman students. He also credits the 2007 acquisition of X-ray diffraction instrumentation, purchased with the $465,934 grant from the NSF written by Juers and several colleagues, for the award consideration.

186

The number of physicists and physics students who participated in the annual meeting of the Northwest Section of the American Physical Society on campus, Sept. 30–Oct. 2.

"The conference gave the college a platform to show itself off to a large number of faculty and students from the region," said Mark Beck, professor of physics and chair of the organizing committee. "It also gave Whitman students the chance to present their research and to see presentations on research being conducted throughout the Northwest."

Posters Nathan Abrams ’13 describes his research to Mark Beck, professor of physics, during the poster session of the annual meeting of the Northwest Section of the American Physical Society held at Whitman this fall.

Haley Marshall, who will graduate in December 2010, and Murugu Venkat ’12 presented a poster at the conference on their research on the potential of a particular osmolyte to be used as a chemical agent for crystallizing proteins.

"I was imagining all of these situations where Ph.D.s and other presenters would come up to my poster and ask me complex questions that I wouldn’t be able to answer," said Marshall. "After Murugu and I had successfully explained our research to the first few visitors to our poster, I realized that, in this situation, he and I were the experts. It was thrilling talking to people who were genuinely interested in what I had to say and really wanted to understand our project."

1,500

The number of acres in the Wallula Gap Biological Station at Whitman’s Braden Farm.

Located about 30 miles from campus, it is the only academically affiliated research station located in a desert region of the Pacific Northwest.

"Wallula Gap is an outstanding natural laboratory for students to study the causes and consequences of ecosystem transformation from native to non-native species," said Tim Parker, assistant professor of biology, who took the lead role in developing the field research station. "Ecologists are really interested in these questions but so are land managers, ranchers and conservationists."

Flower Photo courtesy of Tim Parker

Parker is a strong advocate of field-oriented education. Biological processes are "hierarchical," and students can’t fully grasp biology by understanding only one or two levels of the hierarchy, he said. "You can understand how genes work, how molecules work, but that’s not going to tell you how organisms interact … or how nutrients move through a system or how populations grow. …They need to get good experience looking at interactions of organisms in natural settings."

Biology major Samuel Hennessey ’11 helped install soil temperature and moisture monitors and investigate soil organic carbon with an ecology class at the field station. "It is a great opportunity to get firsthand experience doing field work. It’s nice to get involved with this kind of project as an undergrad, because it exposes you to what kind of work is actually necessary to make these kinds of projects possible."

The field station "is a great example of how teaching of biology is being transformed by melting the distinction between academic exercises and engagement in real science," said Christopher Wallace, Dr. Robert F. Welty associate professor of biology.

Editor’s note: The NSF and NIH grant proposals and the planning and logistics of the physics conference were the products of collaborative efforts by many members of the science faculty, as well as staff.