Chris Krasniak ’16 was at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory working to identify the role of a protein in the kidney’s filtration system. In a nearby lab, an incoming Colby first-year student was slipping tubes into centrifuges and readying animal samples to be identified genetically and added to a species database. “Yesterday we extracted DNA,” explained Caitlin Farrington ’18. “It’s a long process.”
Through ongoing and growing relationships with premier research facilities including MDI Biological Laboratory, the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, and Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, Colby students are working closely with accomplished professors and researchers on groundbreaking biomedical projects that will prepare them for science at Colby and far beyond.
Down the road at the Jackson Laboratory, a sprawling genetics research facility, research assistant Dan Sunderland ’14 was explaining his work on the possible genetic causes of glaucoma.
“I feel like I was very well prepared [at Colby],” he said. “Between the class work and the lab experiences that I was able to have, it’s put me in a really great place to go straight into a position like this.”
That path is expected to widen as Colby reaps the success of grants and donor funding and strengthens and builds its connections to three of Maine’s world-class research facilities.
—Paul Greenwood, professor of biology and associate vice president for academic affairs and associate dean of faculty
In June MDI Biological Laboratory was awarded an $18-million grant to fund its work with Colby and a dozen other Maine universities, colleges, and research facilities. That grant was the latest installment of an estimated $5-6 million to come to Colby from the National Institutes of Health over the past 15 years, according to J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Tilden, whose relationship as a research scientist at MDI Biological Laboratories goes back decades. Since 2010 $1.1 million of that funding has been awarded to support ongoing research by two Colby faculty scientists—Associate Professor of Psychology Melissa Glenn and Assistant Professor of Biology Tariq Ahmad.
The connections to MDI Biological Laboratory and the Jackson Laboratory exist alongside Colby’s partnership with the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, a formal relationship that offers a semester-in-residence program for Colby students.
In addition to doing her own research, Tilden has taught a Jan Plan at MDI Biological Laboratory for several years. Plans to bolster science research opportunities for Colby students at the Jackson Laboratory in coming years are underway. That advantage is coupled with dramatic advances in science technology that are helping biomedical study emerge at Colby the way environmental studies have over the past several years, Tilden said.
Opportunities like an upcoming Jackson Laboratory Jan Plan will allow for more faculty collaboration with colleagues at the research institutions, said Paul Greenwood, professor of biology and associate vice president for academic affairs and associate dean of faculty. “There’s a richness for our students and a richness for our faculty that a lot of small schools don’t have.” Greenwood said. “We’re not in a big urban area, but we have these great biomedical institutions nearby. For a rural place, it’s an unusual number of really good world-class institutions.”
Could Childhood Nutrition Set Stage for Brain Health Late in Life?
Associate Professor of Psychology Melissa Glenn awarded continued funding for study of a nutrient that may protect us from depression, schizophrenia
Associate Professor of Psychology Melissa Glenn is interested in how our brains change as we grow old and how we can prepare them for the future when we’re young.
“We want to understand the impact of those early life experiences by investigating what neurological and behavioral functioning looks like in adulthood,” Glenn said. “In particular, I’m interested in how the levels of certain nutrients in early life can set you on a protected trajectory.”
Glenn and her students supplement the diet of pregnant rats with choline, a protein found in foods like broccoli and eggs. The focus of the research is ways in which prenatal choline organizes brain development and could reduce the likelihood of depression, schizophrenia, and other disorders later in life.
—Associate Professor of Psychology Melissa Glenn
With a $476,444 INBRE grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2010, Glenn has expanded understanding of the effects of nutrients on the brain. Her seminar and collaborative research course, Neural Plasticity and Behavior, and independent studies, have produced two published papers with student coauthors.
Glenn’s project began with an award in 2008 from Support of Mentors and their Students in Neuroscience. She used that funding to hire a student researcher and collect data that was later used to secure the INBRE award. Last year she applied for and received a $120,000 one-year extension of INBRE funding.
Unlocking the Secrets of Neurodegenerative Diseases
Assistant Professor of Biology Tariq Ahmad wins $500,000 grant for continued study of genetic triggers
Assistant Professor of Biology Tariq Ahmad is in the hunt for the genetic causes of some of the most devastating neurodegenerative diseases: frontotemporal dementia (FTD), amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and Parkinson’s. Ahmad, a neurobiologist, recently received $500,000 in funding from the National Institutes of Health for his research, with Colby undergraduate researchers often serving as research assistants and coauthors of published papers.
“The projects in my lab have flourished because of undergraduate research,” Ahmad wrote in his proposal to the NIH. “Recent publications from my lab and work with collaborators have prominently featured undergraduate students (mostly as first authors).”
One undergraduate researcher, Jie Liu ’14, generated and analyzed the preliminary data for the project, Ahmad noted in the application.
His grant ($100,000 per year for five years through the IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, or INBRE, program) ensures that he and Colby student scientists will do work aimed at unlocking the genetic secrets behind neurodegenerative diseases for years to come. “My lab is thrilled and excited,” he said.
The research stems from work Ahmad began in his doctoral program at Notre Dame and continued at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease at the University of California-San Francisco. At Colby his research takes place in his lab on the third floor of the Olin Science Center, where he uses the fruit fly (Drosophila) as a genomic stand-in for humans. (“It’s a pesky little insect for everyone else, but for biologists it’s one of the most amazing things that has happened to scientific research,” Ahmad said.)
One of the challenges of studying neurodegenerative diseases like FTD is that after symptoms become pronounced, the person doesn’t live long enough to give adequate time for study, and that time is more likely spent managing the disease than searching for clues to its origins. In the past the disease and others like it have been dismissed as byproducts of aging, but scientists have found that the conditions are tied to genetic defect, not longevity. “It’s an active defect,” Ahmad said. “An active disorder.” If the mutation is strong, the result is an early onset of the degeneration, he said.
That’s where the flies come in, ensconced in plastic tubes in Ahmad’s lab. The flies are altered with human mutant protein linked to frontotemporal dementia. The disease’s symptoms include memory loss and changes in behavior and personality. But according to Ahmad, another symptom of FTD and other neurodegenerative disorders has gotten less scrutiny—disruption of sleep patterns, also known as the body’s circadian rhythm.
If the genetic mutation affects the body’s sleep patterns, while affecting memory and personality and movement, how are these related? What neural pathways are disrupted? Ahmad’s project will examine how the rhythm breaks down and identify which genetic enablers and resisters play a role. “If you find an enabler [of a disorder], you can clamp them down so the disease can be prevented,” he said. “If you find a resister, you can ramp them up so they’ll have much better chance of fighting it off.”
The mechanics of the science involve computer monitoring of the flies’ circadian function as it is affected by the genetic manipulation.
Ahmad noted that he is just one of several highly accomplished investigators at the College using genetics tools to ask interesting questions across diverse fields of biological research. “This,” he said in an e-mail, “is an exciting time for genetics research at Colby.”
Hitting the Lab Running
For Dan Sunderland ’14 move from Colby biology to the Jackson Laboratory was a natural progression
When Dan Sunderland ’14 led a tour of the lab where he works at the Jackson Laboratory, the group of Colby first-year science students watched and listened closely. He’d only graduated six weeks earlier, after all, and with any luck, Colby would prepare them equally well for a career in the sciences.
“Coming in here I found that it was weird how quickly it became normal,” Sunderland said later, “how quickly I was able to start picking up the skills and how relatable some of the skills were that I learned at Colby.”
Sunderland is working in the lab of Simon John, a professor at the Jackson Laboratory. John is also an investigator affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a research assistant professor in ophthalmology at Tufts University School of Medicine. “We research glaucoma,” Sunderland said, “with a variety of different methods, but they all relate to the genetic mechanisms behind the disease.”
The work, which uses mice as comparative models, is centered on studying the development of the eye and figuring out where, in the case of glaucoma, things go wrong and future treatment might be targeted. “It’s a large [genetic] profile of disease with not just one component that affects development,” Sunderland said. “By figuring out the genetic basis behind its complexity, it’s possible to tailor treatments in the future. It’s part of this larger boom of personalized medicine research going on in the scientific community now.”
He came to Colby intending to major in science and to take full advantage of the opportunity to work closely with his professors. “Actually working with those professors, either on your own projects or on their research—that was a major draw for me.”
Sunderland did just that, working for a year and a half in the lab of Andrea Tilden, the J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology. He spent a summer at Colby working with Tilden and continued that research as an independent study. Deciding to branch out, he did a Jan Plan independent study with Professor Frank Fekete, a microbiologist, researching viral pathogen treatment. Sunderland presented at both the Colby Liberal Arts Symposium and at the Colby Undergraduate Summer Research Retreat.
Last spring Sunderland was one of about 80 applicants for what would be three research assistant positions in the John lab. His initial interview was by phone, followed by hour-long separate interviews with two postdoctoral fellows, a human resources representative, the laboratory manager, and two research scientists. He presented research he’d done at Colby on environmental microbes in an hour-long seminar and then had a two-hour interview with the lab’s principal investigator.
“I feel like I was very well prepared,” Sunderland said, “between the class work and especially the lab experiences.”
That experience, he said, was essential as he entered the research job market. “Your grades can be great, but if you don’t know how to work in a lab, it’s an issue,” he said. “My suggestion is to try and build relationships with the faculty early and often, because that’s one of the things that really sets Colby apart.”
An emergency medical technician at Colby, Sunderland said the ultimate reward for his hard work is the opportunity to contribute to the greater good. “The fact that this work is going to lead to radical differences in people’s lives in the future is very dear to me,” he said.