A Whitman College professor and student will begin research soon on a region of the brain that is about the size of a pea but could provide significant information about Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.


Cells in the Locus Coeruleus communicate with virtually the entire central nervous system, and it is well-documented that these cells are significantly damaged in patients with neurodegenerative disorders, says Leena S. Knight, assistant professor of biology. But little is known what role that may play in these disorders and whether the cell loss might be an early event leading to development of the disease state.

She and student researcher Stephanie Foster ’11, a biology major from Evergreen, Colo., will be able to search for answers because they, along with five other professor-student research teams, are recent recipients of an Abshire Award as well as funding from the Whitman Parents Fund research initiative.

The Abshire Awards, given each semester, were established in 1981 by alumnus Alfred D. Abshire ’45 in memory of his wife, Sally Ann. The awards provide Whitman students opportunities to conduct and present research in collaboration with professors. Student Abshire scholars assist their professors for up to eight hours per week and may earn up to $800 for the semester.

“The Abshire Awards provide wonderful opportunities to incorporate students into the ongoing research projects of Whitman's faculty members. Through their participation, students experience first-hand the intellectual challenges that accompany scholarship at its best,” said Tim Kaufman-Osborn, Whitman’s provost and dean of the faculty.

This fall, while Knight and Foster focus on the brain, other professor-student teams will focus on subjects ranging from “food politics” to snakes in West and Central Africa.

The other Abshire teams:

Aaron Bobrow-Strain, associate professor of politics, and Robin Lewis ’11: “How White Bread Became White Trash: Race, Class and the Rise of Neoliberal Eating.” This team’s research will be foundational material for a book, the premise of which is how America’s relationship with white bread opens a window into the cultural politics of the country’s relationship with food and dietary advice.

Kate Jackson, assistant professor of biology, and Donald Clarke ’11: “Snakes of West and Central Africa: Completion of a long-term book project.” The book, a massive project covering 26 countries and almost 300 species of snakes, is to be a comprehensive guide to the reptiles of West Africa and those of Central Africa, which have been neglected by science and currently are “the most poorly studied in the world,” Jackson said.

Christopher Leise, assistant professor of English, and Eleanor Gold ’11: They will co-author a publishable journal article on Suzan-Lori Park’s “Getting Mother’s Body,” the only novel written by the Pulitzer Prize and MacArthur “genius grant” award-winning playwright.

Matthew W. Prull, associate professor of psychology, and Natalie Tamburello ’12 and Noah Henry-Darwish ’12: “Memory for Real-World Events in Young and Older Adults.” The focus of the proposed research is to test a hypothesis about how to reduce false memory susceptibility in old age.

Patrick Spencer, professor of geology, with Karen Gastineau ’11: “Sedimentological analysis and age constraints of an unusual outcrop in the Palouse Hills, Southeastern Washington.” Recent road construction near Walla Walla has revealed some surprises for the team to analyze: a beautiful exposure of sediments of diverse character including at least three volcanic ash beds; quartz sand of a purity unknown of on the Columbia Plateau; and vertebrate fossils including a large carnivore.

— Virginia Grantier