WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- Assistant professor of biology Ginger Withers is a new generation of biology professor. As an undergraduate she studied cells the traditional way—looking at textbook “cartoon” figures of a circle with a nucleus. As a post-doc researcher and now at Whitman, she interacts with and makes movies of real cells—growing neurons, swimming paramecia and other microscopic living matter—to bring to her students “the majesty of the living cell.”
Withers has been awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award of $550,000 to be used over a five-year period. The grant, given to faculty members early in their careers, is meant to encourage professors to develop new teaching approaches in the classroom while maintaining an active and state-of-the-art research experience, said Withers, who argued in her application that although she would be working with a smaller number of students at Whitman the award would have a higher impact here because of the caliber of Whitman students.
Withers, whose cutting-edge research on dendrite growth in brain cells could help advance our understanding of neurological disorders such as mental retardation, Parkinson’s disease and learning disabilities, plans to use the grant to “introduce Whitman students to the living cell.” Now that researchers can sequence entire genomes, says Withers, it is vital to train new scientists to place this genetic data in the context of the living system. “From the time I started working with live neurons (as a post-doc at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Gary Banker’s lab) I’ve been blown away by the majesty of the cell. I don’t think you can truly appreciate the cell until you have the opportunity to encounter its living machinery and see beyond the cartoon view you get in a textbook.”
This static textbook view of the cell will soon be a thing of the past in Whitman biology classes. Withers plans to use funds from the CAREER grant (and some from a recent Keck grant to Whitman) to build student imaging work stations to complement her state-of-the-art work station. By combining resources from Whitman and funds from her grant, she was able to purchase a $100,000 microscope with live cell imaging facility that allows her to do cutting edge-research of the same quality she did at OHSU. With Keck monies she will be able to put together four student stations that will include adaptors so cameras can attach to the microscope, digital cameras (some capable of video streams) and accompanying computers. Withers said she hopes to have some of the stations put together in time for use this semester.
Withers, who is in her second year at Whitman, shares a teaching position with her husband, Chris Wallace. Last year, before funding of CAREER or Keck grants, the two biology professors teamed up in Wallace’s developmental biology class to create a time-lapse movie of a living cell. Without the proper equipment, it was tricky, but Withers and Wallace thought the experience was important, and they persevered. They not only brought a television, VCR and video camera into class, but they hooked up a hair dryer to keep the cell warm—and alive—and managed to film the cell growing. “It was great—but really hard to do. It’s so much easier in the lab when you have the right equipment.”
Wallace and Withers’ teamwork includes an ongoing research project at OHSU, for which Wallace is the principal investigator. The focus of this project is to develop methods that can detect effects of low level exposure to neurotoxins in the developing central nervous system. With that project and the one NSF is funding at Whitman, “I don’t really have time to do any additional research.” That is why, she added, she and Wallace enjoy the shared teaching position—it gives them half of their time to do research and half to teach. “Of course, we’re not here half time; we’re here all the time, so it works out well for the students, too.”
As her research, funded by the CAREER grant, goes forward it creates more opportunities for students to work in her lab and gives her the flexibility to bring more of her research into the classroom, said Withers. Eventually she sees the opportunity for students to have hands-on experience manipulating living cells in all of her courses. The life sciences and the work she and Wallace do are changing rapidly and “We need to train our students to work across the border of traditional scientific disciplines. Integrative, interdisciplinary thinking is what will be required to solve the next generation of scientific problems.”
Whitman students, she said, are up to the challenge. “They are fantastic, positive and insightful. Every student in my neurobiology class somewhere along the line has asked a question that I thought was profound or insightful –they dove to the crux of the issue. It’s exciting to work with students who really get it and are going to do something with it. I’m very glad to be here.”