Students Jeff Trethewey '11 (foreground) and Jarett Miller working in the biology lab with visiting microbiologist Sinéad Ní Chadain and KSC biology professor Loren Launen.
Keene State biology professors Loren Launen and Susan Whittemore can sling scientific lingo at you faster than you can catch it, but they also know how to get down to basics. When someone observed that the three main subjects of biology might be 1. life, 2. death, and 3. what happens in between, they nodded.
"'Stuff that rots' is my main interest," said Launen.
"I love bringing things to life," responded Whittemore.
Their scientific and professional interests overlap in several ways. As biologists, both are interested in the effects of chemicals in cells, especially toxicology. As teachers, both are committed to providing research opportunities for their students – real experiences, not pre-choreographed lab exercises. The two professors collaborated in writing the Keene State portion of a statewide $15.4-million award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for biomedical research in New Hampshire.
The 2010 award established the New Hampshire IDeA Network of Biological Research Excellence (NH-INBRE). Dartmouth Medical School (DMS) and UNH, the lead institutions, oversee the grant, which offers funding for faculty and students at partner institutions. In addition to KSC, partner schools include Plymouth State University, Colby-Sawyer College, St. Anselm College, Franklin Pierce University, New England College, River Valley Community College, and Great Bay Community College.
"Before INBRE," said Whittemore, "we were doing science in isolation. Now we have the funding to collaborate. The grant supports something we are deeply committed to – doing scholarship with students. Integrating teaching and research is an effective way to teach science."
The INBRE program also helps faculty gain new skills that they can apply to their research and classes. Experts in quantitative gene expression methodology from Dartmouth College offered a two-day workshop at KSC in June. The workshop was developed in response to Whittemore's desire to learn more about this powerful research tool, one that wasn't available when she was a post-doctoral fellow 18 years ago.
Likewise, Launen's project brings visiting scholar Dr. Sinéad Ní Chadhain, a molecular microbiologist from the University of South Alabama, to KSC to enhance the research and education base in molecular environmental microbiology.
Launen adds, "Before INBRE, we already had our state-of-the-art David F. Putnam Science Center, but now we can bring in equipment and resources that benefit all biology students. The partnerships between schools help us get respect and put us on the map. Our students who go on to graduate work have a competitive edge – Dartmouth and UNH are surprised and impressed by the quality of our students."
The students who do best at lab work are not necessarily the shining stars from high school. "Only a small percentage of students have the work ethic for science," Whittemore says. "The good ones have a willingness to do repetitive procedures, and do them precisely and consistently – it's really challenging." She and Launen both teach freshmen as well as advanced students, and they are always looking for students with the focus, intuition, and attention to detail that is required.
In Whittemore's lab in the Science Center, she and her students raise African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis) under carefully controlled conditions. The aquatic frogs – Whittemore calls them "the lab rat of the amphibian world" – are the gold standard for assessing toxicity, because their sensitivity to certain environmental toxins parallels that of humans. The frogs require daily care and observation (weekends and holidays included!), with strict protocols set by the Institutional Animal Care Use Committee (IACUC), a federal governing body that does regular inspections.
Biology students Jade Halsey '11 and Liz Richardson visit one of Professor Whittemore's African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis), which are used to study the effects of environmental toxins.
Whittemore and Launen are both involved in INBRE-funded pilot projects that involve their top students. Whittemore is leading a study of the effects of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on early development, using African clawed frogs as a model organism. PAHs are deposited in soil, water, and air as a result of incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Her student researchers, all biology or chemistry majors, haunt the lab, learning the hands-on techniques and painstaking lab skills that will serve them well in graduate school or professional life. The research they are doing will be applied directly to human health issues.
Launen is leading a study of petroleum hydrocarbon degradation in Great Bay Estuary (N.H.) salt marshes, highly sensitive ecosystems in which pollutants are removed mostly through indigenous microbial action (i.e., rotting). Her study, aided by collaboration with Dr. Ní Chadhain, focuses on characterizing the degradation genes in the microbes. In addition to providing basic information on the microbiology of contaminated sites, the project will help illuminate the factors that limit or enhance the remediation of contaminated salt marshes. She is working closely with the UNH environmental studies department and Jackson Estuarine Lab, particularly INBRE mentor Dr. Steven Jones.
Through INBRE, the two KSC professors gained new professional mentors and rewarding connections. Some of their students gained the opportunity of an undergraduate lifetime. KSC junior Deena Snoke (Waterford, Conn.), one of Whittemore's students, was awarded a prestigious Dartmouth College summer undergraduate research fellowship for a 10-week research experience in the neuroscience lab of Dr. Leslie Henderson at Dartmouth Medical School. Dr. Henderson is also Whittemore's mentor for the INBRE project.
At KSC this summer, Whittemore also ran a research program with two students, Krist Hausken and Elizabeth Richardson. Both are senior Biology majors. (Krist is also getting a BS in Chemistry, while Liz will get her teaching certification in Biology). INBRE funded the summer research experiences as well as those during the academic year.
Jeff Trethewey '11, who received an INBRE grant as a senior to work on Dr. Launen's research, was admitted to graduate school in microbiology at the University of Tennessee with a sizable tuition award and a stipend. Dean Gordon Leversee credited Launen's mentoring and the extra support of the INBRE grant for Trethewey's success. (A complete list of current NH-INBRE-funded projects is online at keene.edu/grants.)
Other Keene State faculty in biology, chemistry, and environmental studies have also received much-needed research funding through INBRE, and, perhaps more importantly, made critical connections with researchers and peers at other institutions. Students present at conferences, publish scholarly papers, and build relationships that lead to professional success. The partnerships forged here uplift the next generation of scientists in a world that needs their expertise and their service.
Who Does Science?
Launen: "I grew up in northern Ontario, and I can remember the moment in the library in Beaver Lake when I was about eight years old, looking at a book about how things break down in the forest. The illustration showed the nutrient cycle, and I was fascinated. I came back to this subject in grad school and became an environmental microbiologist."
Biology professors Whittemore and Launen brought INBRE resources to KSC.
Whittemore: "I loved National Geographic shows on animals while I was growing up in Lancaster, N.H., and Speculator, N.Y. (population 365) in the Adirondacks. I was young and naïve, but people encouraged me. Studying animal reproduction and development got me into physiology, my area of expertise."
To identify students like themselves, Launen and Whittemore scan their classes from freshman year on, looking for students with that special spark. "My current INBRE student Jarett Miller wrote to me even before he started at KSC," Launen said. "He began his project in the first semester of his freshman year and turned out to excel in microbiology."
"We bring promising students into the lab and see how it goes," Whittemore says. She added that good students often recruit others in class. "They have a certain swagger – they own their own nerdiness." To assess the toxicity of PAHs during development, her students learn to inject frogs with gonadotropin, breed them, isolate the viable embryos, and study them at regular intervals as they progress through development.
Jade Halsey '11, one of Whittemore's long-term research students, came to KSC as a first-generation student and graduated with a BS in Biology and minor in Chemistry this spring. Halsey said, "My first year in college was challenging, and I often wanted to quit. Getting involved in research taught me to think. Learning science hands-on in the lab has allowed me to truly grasp the concepts presented in class and apply them to the real world." Jade is currently employed at New England Peptide in Groton, Mass.