Goal assist: Hockey players study
timely chemical issue in biology lab © Jan. 22, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications
Chad Anderson has wildly divergent interests.
Through much of the fall and winter, he spends his time on the ice of Norwich University’s Kreitzberg Arena hockey rink, where he’s one of the Cadets’ top scorers. The sport has a long season, however. With games, travel and practice on top of classes, it’s tough for the third-year student to find time for another passion; isolating strands of RNA from yeast cultures.
“The weeks you’re not busy, you try to get into the lab,” said the biology major from Nova Scotia.
Athletes interested in scholarship are nothing new, but Anderson is part of a project that seems to hold particular attraction for hockey players. He and fellow standout athletes Kelsey Cone and Blake Forkey are trying to figure out how lampricide—a chemical used to kill the larvae of lamprey eels in freshwater rivers and lakes—affect the makeup of cells. They use baker’s yeast to create cell cultures because it’s a well-studied organism, easy to produce and matches much of the genetic behavior of multi-celled creatures.
“It seems kind of elementary to use yeast,” said Cone, a junior from Manchester, Vt. “It’s actually perfect.”
No one seems to care what they’re putting into the headwaters of a major body of water.
~ Kelsey Cone
The state of Vermont has used lampricide to control lamprey populations in Lake Champlain, which is an hour away from Norwich’s Northfield campus. This action, intended to protect fish, has drawn criticism as the chemical has proven harmful to amphibians such as mudpuppies and tadpoles. The ongoing controversy, Anderson said, keeps the drawn-out and occasionally tedious data collection process interesting and relevant.
“This being a really local problem with articles in the newspaper and such ... I’m always reminded of why we do this,” he said.
Cone said research on the pesticide’s effects is surprisingly scarce.
“No one seems to care what they’re putting into the headwaters of a major body of water,” she said. “Who’s to say it’s not going to affect us?”
Cone studies the bigger picture of the experiment, collecting data on how different concentrations of TFM, a form of lampricide, impacts growth of yeast colonies. Anderson approaches the problem at the molecular level, gathering data on how TFM affects DNA triggers in the yeast. Cone said they work together frequently, and first became involved with the research as friends early in their sophomore year.
Anderson also noticed that Forkey, a freshman on the hockey team, had a real interest in biology and invited him to the lab.
On a January 2010 afternoon, Anderson spoke about the process while Forkey, of Boca Raton, Fla., took his first steps toward learning how to process and “clean” samples of RNA extracted from yeast that hadn’t reached the desired purity level. Under the eye of biology Prof. Karen Hinkle, Forkey carefully moved samples in small, plastic vials from a centrifuge to a rack, using a pipette to introduce a precise measure of water.
“It’s pretty important to get that water right over the column,” said Hinkle, watching over his shoulder.
“I remember when I did my first RNA isolation,” Anderson added. “It can be pretty overwhelming.”
Hinkle has been overseeing lampricide research for several years, and expects to have six students involved in the coming semester. Some work in the lab for work-study money, while others participate for class credit. Anderson and Cone obtained grants to spend summers working on the project, and also spent spare time in the lab during hockey pre-season. Hinkle said she finds grants to pay them. The Molecular and Integrative Biology Laboratory where they work was largely financed by the Vermont Genetics Network, which promotes faculty and student research.
Anderson, who plans to attend medical school, believes research opportunities are critical to students with graduate-school ambition.
“You’ll be a step above all other students, in all other colleges,” he said, adding that Norwich offers an amazing array of research opportunities. “I don’t think a major is enough anymore. They want experience.”
Hinkle said students who do research become excited about science and really develop a sense of ownership for their projects.
“They become more sophisticated at scientific communication,” she said. “They’re learning things at a higher level than they can in class.”
Hinkle believes the lampricide research has reached the point where she will soon submit a manuscript on their findings, based on data collected by students, to scientific journals. This is different from her experience at college, when “real” research was done by graduate students.
“When I was an undergrad, the students washed dishes and made solutions,” she said.
Forkey said he’s learning his share about washing dishes, but also gets the chance to participate and earn a practical knowledge of concepts that won’t be covered in class until sophomore year.
“I’ve never done anything in a lab like this,” he said.
With dental school planned after graduation, Cone said research participation is useful beyond even a graduate school application. It enhances what she learns in the classroom.
“I feel like I have more questions,” she said. “I’m asking why, instead of just absorbing.”