FALL 2001 VOLUME
6, NUMBER 2
Why Settle for Lazy, Hazy and Crazy?
Rachootin, professor of biological sciences, helped Kelly
Huggins '04 and Sarah Nystrom '02 with their summer research
on freshwater molluscs in campus waters.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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)
Friend from Foe:
Rats and the Major Histocompatibility Complex
Bacon '87, Clare Boothe Luce Assistant Prrofessor of Biological
Sciences (top); Abigail Klein '04 (middle); and Kathryn Parker
'02 in the lab.
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.
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.
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
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,”
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).
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.
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
With Molluscs and Flexing New Mussels
Nystrom '02 and Kelly Huggins '04 hanging out on Lower
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.
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.”