By Jack Hunt
Elm Staff Writer
The John S. Toll Math and Science Fellows are sponsoring a series of presentations by professors of science and mathematics. Each week, at 3:30 on Friday, three professors present different facets of their research to students and faculty. Nov. 21 is the last day for the research lectures, which have been running since Oct. 31.
Dr. Tia Murphy, assistant professor of psychology said, “The purpose of the talks is to tell the students about some of the important and interesting work faculty are doing right here at Washington College and to also get students interested in conducting research.”
On Friday, Nov. 14, Dr. Martin Connaughton, associate professor of biology, Dr. James Lipchock, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. Robin Van Meter, assistant professor of biology and environmental science and studies, presented their research to a group composed mostly of students majoring in the sciences.
Dr. Connaughton’s research is focused in a field called ecotoxicology, which has to do with the effects manufactured chemicals have on the environment. Specifically, he studies the effects of the antidepressant Fluoxetine, also known as Prozac, using tiny zebra fish as test subjects. “I started out in bioacoustics, but after 10 long years of working with big, stinky fish, I decided that was enough,” said Connaughton.
He is concerned with the level of Fluoxetine that is entering waterways from sewage systems. After the body releases the chemicals contained in the drug there is no means of extracting it from the water that is used to flush it into the sewage pipes so it becomes part of the waterways it enters. Dr. Connaughton compared it to a more familiar substance. “You guys have heard of mercury, right? It’s like ugly luggage; you can’t seem to get rid of it.”
Dr. Lipchock spoke about his research in an interdisciplinary field called biophysical chemistry. His work focuses on a process called phosphorylation, which in a broader context has to do with the ability of the body to intake sugar. Applied to medicine, his findings could help with the treatment of diabetes, but his attention is focused on the chemicals involved in the process and not the functions of the body. Dr. Lipchock said that one reason it fascinates him is because “you can have a protein, which is hundreds of thousands of amino acids, and add four more and dramatically change it.”
This past summer he took two WC students, senior Kelly Bird and junior Sean Haynie to Yale University to conduct research in the Lorie laboratory. “Kelly was trying to understand how a small molecule inhibits the function of PTP1B, the enzyme that stops sugar from entering a cell, using a technique called NMR spectroscopy,” said Dr. Lipchock. He did not have time to discuss the work done by Sean Haynie, but he said that they “hope to be able to publish this research after some follow-up experiments this summer.”
Dr. Van Meter’s work is related to amphibians and agrochemicals, or the effect of pesticides on amphibians. The animals she studies are “non-target organisms” that suffer the effects of pesticides even though they are not considered pests. “A pest, generally speaking, is an organism that is causing unwanted damage to [property],” said Van Meter.
Her research includes the study of consumer substances like the herbicide Roundup, which contains a compound called glyphosphate that causes deformities in tadpoles. On a small scale the substance would not do much harm to a population of frogs, but farmers use the herbicide in such high quantities that it affects frogs that cross through crop fields as they travel to new bodies of water.
While the lectures are geared toward students of science and mathematics, they are open to the rest of the student body as well.