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A Summer Science Program: Why Settle for Lazy, Hazy and Crazy?
--Mentoring with Molluscs and Flexing New Mussels

Narrowing the Engineering Gender Gap
--Andrea Bill '01: Trailblazer

Orientation Program Helps New Students Make Friends and Influence People

Thinking Outside the Box: MHC's Decision to Downplay the SAT

Why Are All the Jews and Muslims Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?


Mount Holyoke College News and Events College Street Journal Vista


Why Settle for Lazy, Hazy and Crazy?


  Stan Rachootin, professor of biological sciences, helped Kelly Huggins '04 and Sarah Nystrom '02 with their summer research on freshwater molluscs in campus waters.

For twelve Mount Holyoke students, there was some time for soda and pretzels (and beer, if they were of age) last summer--but not much. They had chosen a summer diet of mollusc-collecting and DNA fingerprinting, among other scientific pursuits, as part of the College’s new Cascade Mentoring Summer Research Program. Cascade refers to a mentoring/educating trickle-down effect. Topping the flow were five faculty members in the sciences; each began working with one or more juniors on a research project last spring. Paired with one student who had just completed her first year, each junior continued her research over the summer, collaborating with her adviser and the younger student. The older students got a jump on senior honors work and developed teaching and leadership skills. The younger ones gained insight into the nuts and bolts of research and cemented bonds with a professor and a peer role model. And they all wished that summer could always be here.

Numerous studies, including Elaine Seymour and Nancy Hewitt’s Talking about Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview Press, 1997), have demonstrated the importance of mentoring in the retention of women in the sciences. “The evidence in our text data underscores the value of initiatives which increase the availability of mentors and role models for S.M.E. [science, math, and engineering] women,” Seymour and Hewitt write. While there are extensive opportunities for mentoring during the academic year at Mount Holyoke, summer has proven to be a prime time for science students and faculty to focus on research together without distractions. Eighty percent of the College’s science faculty have worked with summer research students in the past five years, and last summer more than seventy students participated in College summer research programs.

Mount Holyoke offers a number of such programs, made possible through funding from private foundations and corporations and the federal government. Most summer research students are “rising seniors” (students who have completed their junior year) who are preparing for honors work; however, a highly successful Howard Hughes Medical Institute-funded program has served “rising sophomores” (students who have completed their first year) since 1996. In the past four years, 75 percent of these students have chosen to major in science, and many have participated in the College’s honors program as seniors. With the advent of the Cascade program, which is being supported by a $174,000 grant from a national foundation that has requested anonymity, rising sophomores are enjoying new opportunities for learning during summer.

Turning Over a New Leaf: DNA Fingerprinting
Most people tend to focus on the warm and fuzzy, if not the scaly or slimy, when the subject of threatened or endangered wildlife comes up--most people, but not assistant professor of biological sciences Amy Frary ’90, Frances Perkins Scholar Kerry Kelley ’02, and Janelle Jung ’04.

(L to R) Kerry Kelley '02; Amy Frary '90, assistant profesor of biological sciences; and Janelle Jung '04 immersed themselves in Hydrastis canadensis, a plant with many intriguing properties.  

Their imperiled-species lexicon is filled with names like cattail sedge and New England boneset. Although we hear more about endangered mammals, reptiles, and birds, hundreds of plants also face extinction. Frary, Kelley, and Jung spent last summer researching Hydrastis canadensis (goldenseal), which has been harvested to near extinction. Goldenseal has antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and immune-stimulating properties and was introduced to early American settlers by Native Americans. The College researchers hoped that exploring the level of genetic variation within and between cultivated and wild populations of goldenseal would shed new light on this extraordinary plant.

The chemical structure of the DNA of people, animals, and plants is identical. The only difference between one individual and the next is the order of pairs of nucleotides, known as base pairs, on complementary strands of DNA. There are millions of base pairs in an individual’s DNA, and each organism has a different sequence. Individuals could be identified solely by the sequence of their base pairs, but this would be a time-consuming process. The College scientists used a shorter method called DNA fingerprinting, specifically a technique called Random Amplified Polymorphic DNA analysis, to explore goldenseal’s DNA.

This painstaking laboratory process involves replicating a variety of DNA segments from a genome. These fragments produce a pattern, or fingerprint, that can then be compared among samples. Frary, Kelley, and Jung generated DNA fingerprints for plants obtained from the College’s garden and commercial growers. The results of their ongoing analysis will yield information that may prove helpful for maintaining diversity within plant populations and supporting conservation and reintroduction efforts.

More was gleaned from the summer’s work than can be put in a lab report. Kelley acknowledged that knowing she would need to explain techniques or concepts to Jung helped her “get my routines down and focus in order to teach.” Jung found it “really great to have both a mentor and a professor to guide me.” Frary enjoyed working with “two highly motivated students.” The researchers hope that their work may lead to further studies that could clarify the taxonomic relationship of Hydrastis within the Ranunculaceae (buttercup) family.

Distinguishing Friend from Foe:
Rats and the Major Histocompatibility Complex

  Sarah Bacon '87, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Prrofessor of Biological Sciences (top); Abigail Klein '04 (middle); and Kathryn Parker '02 in the lab.

Why does a woman’s immune system fight off the flu and other “invaders” and accept a fetus, which is composed of tissue that is partly paternal? This is one of the questions that intrigues Sarah Bacon ’87, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences, who is looking for answers by conducting research on the reproductive physiology of rats. Last summer, Kathryn Parker ’02 and Abigail Klein ’04 worked with Bacon to develop a DNA-based method of identifying the base-pair patterns of a rat’s major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a tightly linked cluster of genes present in all vertebrates that plays an important role in immune defense.

ýhether two individuals of a species have matching or mismatching MHCs can have serious implications. According to Bacon, the MHC could play a role in human, as well as rat, miscarriages, which may sometimes be the result of a match between maternal/fetal MHC. “In pregnancy, an MHC match between mother and fetus is trouble. When the MHCs match, the mother’s immune system has some trouble recognizing that the baby is present, so it may not respond to the fetus appropriately,” Bacon says. “A perfect match camouflages the baby too effectively.” When it comes to organ transplants, however, an MHC match between donor and recipient is essential for preventing the rejection of the new organ by the recipient’s immune system. Developing a quick and relatively simple method of identifying the pattern of alleles (different versions of genes) that make up a rat’s MHC will make it possible to select potential mates who have compatible or incompatible MHC patterns and to study resulting pregnancies.

The Mount Holyoke researchers used the Polymerase Chain Reaction, a DNA fingerprinting technique much like the one used by Frary and her students, to amplify the number of copies of an individual rat’s DNA within the MHC. They then compared the patterns among rats. Scientists already “type” the MHC of humans and mice using DNA-based methods, but these methods have not been extended to rats because detailed information about the rat genome is not yet known. Bacon believes that exploring the genetic basis of rats’ immunology will yield results that could benefit human pregnancies one day.

Bacon’s students, both of whom are planning careers in medicine, applaud the energy and passion that she brings to the research. “It’s hard not to get excited about results when professor Bacon is jumping up and down,” says Klein. The students had high praise for each other, as well. “Kathryn is a wonderful teacher, so knowledgeable, so inspiring, and so patient,” Klein reports. Parker was equally impressed with her student, noting, “Getting to know Abby was the best part for me. She picked up on things so quickly.” For her part, Bacon sees no limits when it comes to her students’ futures. “They can both go as far as they want to in science,” she said.

What’s a Cascade without Lots of Water?
The two other research projects in the Cascade program revolved around bodies of water. Juliette Hancock ’02 and Bethany Dennison ’03 (a rising junior who served as a mentor) spent July examining lake basins around Anchorage, Alaska, with Alan Werner, associate professor of geology. When the threesome returned to campus in August, they were joined in the lab by rising sophomores Paula Carpentier and Jennifer Loomer and began splitting the cores and examining the sediment record of environmental change and volcanic ashfall. They described and photographed the core stratigraphy, measured the magnetic properties of the sediment, and sampled the cores for organic matter content, bulk density, and sediment size. Ultimately the group will examine the cores for organic matter that can be radiocarbon age-dated. The purpose is to test the hypothesis that reconstructed ashfall records from multiple lake basins around Anchorage can be used to reconstruct the timing and magnitude of volcanic eruptions that took place during the Holocene period (the geologic epoch of the last 10,000 years).

Closer to campus, Elizabeth Burrows ’02 and Maria Hunter ’04, under the guidance of Jill Bubier, assistant professor of environmental studies, compared different methods for measuring carbon dioxide exchange between a wetland ecosystem in New Hampshire and the atmosphere. Their research will contribute to a long-term study of environmental controls on greenhouse gas emissions from wetlands.

The Best Way to Learn Is to Teach
By all accounts, the first summer of the Cascade program earned high marks. Says Craig Woodard, associate professor of biological sciences and the program’s director, “The rising sophomores became involved in cutting-edge research very early in their careers; the rising seniors got the opportunity to teach, which is the best way to learn; and faculty members were able to work closely with teams of students. It all went better than any of us could have imagined.”

Mentoring With Molluscs and Flexing New Mussels

  Sarah Nystrom '02 and Kelly Huggins '04 hanging out on Lower Lake.

They grew up oceans apart, but Sarah Nystrom ’02 (left) of Massachusetts and Kelly Huggins ’04 of Trinidad and Tobago became friends and research partners while measuring mussels, collecting clams, and sorting snails as part of the Cascade program. Brought together by a shared enthusiasm for scientific research, the two learned about bonding on many levels while studying freshwater molluscs living on Mount Holyoke’s campus with the help of Stan Rachootin, professor of biological sciences.

Nystrom, who plans to become a wildlife biologist, honed her research skills assisting with studies on tadpole thyroids and marine sponge larvae. She developed the idea of surveying the species diversity of freshwater molluscs in the campus’s Stony Brook and Upper and Lower Lakes as a Cascade project. Interested in the effects of dams--such as sediment buildup and changes in water flow--on mollusc habitats, she set out to compare mollusc populations in sites above and below campus dams and in the brook, and to create a complete species list.

In the process, Nystrom helped Huggins overcome her initial squeamishness about handling specimens, learn to tell the difference between an Elliptio complanata and a Pyganodon cataracta (types of mussels), and go out in a canoe for the first time for a collection trip.

When they weren’t in the water or the lab, Nystrom and Huggins often watched “silly movies” or went grocery shopping together. “It was so easy to ask Sarah questions; I didn’t feel any pressure,” says Huggins. “Not only is Sarah a great person to learn from, she’s a great person to hang around with. I learned so much from her.”


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Copyright © 2001 Mount Holyoke College. This page created by Don St. John and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on December 11, 2001.

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