The Colgate Scene
March 2002

No day at the beach
Summer fellowships give students a window into the world of research

Lesley Powell '02, Campbell Stewart '01, Tara Cooke'01, Sara Szczepanski '01

Colgate has long been recognized as a national leader in undergraduate research. Unlike at many large universities, where faculty members typically work more closely with graduate students, Colgate undergraduates have the opportunity to do significant research alongside their teachers -- sometimes beginning in the sophomore year. Students who go on to graduate and professional schools routinely report feeling better prepared academically than their peers, with a stockpile of hands-on experience in productive laboratories or in conducting professional-level research in libraries.

For some, the chance to pursue research projects goes beyond traditional academic-year courses. Each summer, approximately 100 students receive research assistantships funded by Colgate, by corporate and foundation grants, by faculty grants and by private donors such as Colgate alumni Michael Wolk '60 (president of the Michael Wolk Heart Foundation), Jayne and Justus Schlichting '43, Bill Knowles '57, Curt Taylor '54 and Jim Manzi '73. The assistantships come with a weekly stipend and with subsidized, on-campus housing, so a student needn't trade summer earnings for experience as a researcher. Students work full time, for eight to 10 weeks, in collaboration with one or more faculty members. Their work often leads to co-authorship of articles in professional journals or to presentations at national and regional professional meetings.

Past summer projects have included "Contemporary Latino Art in New York City," "Poetry, Politics and Atrocity" and "The Destabilizing Force of Sexual Violence in War." Six students, under the direction of Professor Robert Turner (economics), created and conducted two surveys about National Park policies, collecting public opinion in Maine about Acadia National Park and a proposed park in the state's north woods region. Two students studying aspects of chemical dependency under the auspices of the Office of the Dean of the College were sponsored by Colgate's Science and Math Initiative, a program for students of color made possible by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Professors Jun Yoshino (psychology) and Gerry Gogel (chemistry) presided over one project that not only had a gratifying payoff (a trip to a conference in Argentina) but also exposed students to the realities of scientific experimentation: it is collaborative -- and it can progress as collaborators come and go over several years.

The research involved the effects of the antidepressant desipramine on the release of nitric oxide, which is associated with the progression of certain neurological diseases. But it didn't start out that way. In the summer of 1998, Melissa Russo '99 was studying desipramine not for its antidepressant qualities but for other effects it has on cellular metabolism.

"I remember Melissa telling me that she had some good news and bad news about her first study with the drug," Yoshino said. "The bad news was that what we had predicted did not occur. The good news was that the drug stimulated a phenomenal amount of nitric oxide to be released. So by chance, this drug came to our attention and a new line of research projects emerged. Research is a lot of work, serendipity and luck."

In 1999 Campbell Stewart '01 and Macall Coombs '00 picked up the ball. They began studying the animal model of multiple sclerosis, experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE), as their senior thesis project. Their purpose was to investigate what effect desipramine would have on the clinical course of EAE. If nitric oxide was important in producing the symptoms of the disease, then administering desipramine might exacerbate the condition.


Water testing at the Bewkes Center's Seymour Pond
The project continued during the summer when Garland Seto '03 joined the laboratory as part of the Science and Math Initiative. His work demonstrated that desipramine did indeed increase the severity of the symptoms of EAE.

Sara Szczepanski '01, Tara Cooke '01 and Lesley Powell '02 were awarded fellowships from the natural sciences division to conduct research in the Yoshino and Gogel laboratories during the summer of 2000. They studied the effects of antidepressants in general on the release of nitric oxide from preparations of cultured brain cells.

"They experimented with lipopolysaccharide, a drug used to stimulate release of nitric oxide from brain cells," Yoshino said. "The antidepressants, when added to the cultures alone, did not result in the release of nitric oxide. However, in combination with lipopolysaccharide, they promoted a one hundred percent to three hundred percent increase in nitric oxide. The enhanced release of nitric oxide was interesting to us, because a number of neurological diseases may result from the overproduction of nitric oxide."

Last August -- more than three years after Russo's initial experiments with desipramine -- Stewart, Szczepanski, Cooke, Powell and Seto traveled to Buenos Aires to present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society for Neurochemistry. They were accompanied by Gogel and Yoshino. In another example of serendipity, the meeting took place in Argentina because it was held jointly with that of the International Society for Neurochemistry. The students were able to meet and hear presentations by scientists from around the world.

"Participating in an international conference enabled me to experience science outside of Colgate," Cooke said. "The conference allowed us to interact with scientists from all over the world who are interested in their fields of study and love what they do. It opened my eyes to the reality of science, showing me how exciting science is and all the different opportunities it encompasses." Cooke is currently working in the biochemistry department at Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City.

"Doing research at Colgate was one of the best choices I made," Stewart, now a research assistant at the University of California at San Francisco, said. "When I was beginning my thesis, I began to appreciate how all of the science classes I had taken were important in designing and implementing the project. Additionally, the science classes I took while conducting research were more interesting as I compared the work of others to my own and gained a greater understanding of what is needed to design an experiment to test an idea."

Szczepanski is a research assistant at Johns Hopkins University and plans to attend graduate school to study cognitive neuroscience. "After leaving Colgate and comparing my opportunities with others I have met, I realize now that my research experience at Colgate was quite special," she said. "The hands-on approach to research is unique. The research projects fostered relationships with professors that were more than student-teacher, like a friend and colleague. The experience has also provided me with confidence to tackle an experimental problem and with perseverance, both of which are important to a successful career in science."

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