Science & Technology
by Frederic Wills '19 •
Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, is a co-author of a paper titled, “Methyl transfer by substrate signaling from a knotted protein fold,” published in the August 2016 issue of the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology newsletter.
The paper describes the protein TrmD, an enzyme that catalyzes tRNA modification, but unlike most proteins, TrmD has an “interesting knotted configuration, which is not common,” Taylor said.
The paper demonstrates that even in proteins with knotted configurations, the internal protein movements and dynamics are important for binding, signaling and catalysis.
“This is exciting because one might expect knotted proteins to be more static in their structure due to the knot, where the amino acids wrap in on themselves, but the evidence suggests that protein dynamics are just as important in these types (knotted configurations) of proteins,” she said.
by Olivia Drake •
Mike Singer, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation this month to support a study on habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when contiguous habitats become separated into smaller, isolated areas often caused by human activities (new roads, housing developments) or natural processes (flooding, drought).
Singer and his colleagues will study the effect of anthropogenic forest fragmentation on the food web of plants, herbivores, and carnivores (tri-trophic interactions) in Connecticut. The project will focus on relationships among deer, trees, caterpillars, and songbirds.
The grant, which will be awarded over three years, is shared with Robert Bagchi, David Wagner, and Christopher Elphick in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Wesleyan’s part of the award totals $258,933 and UConn’s part totals approximately $573,000.
As part of the grant, Singer will recruit a new PhD student to work on the study.
The research team will test several possible reasons for the loss of caterpillars, which are important food for songbirds, in highly fragmented forests. For example, some of their preliminary evidence suggests that forest fragmentation creates better habitat for deer, which browse out some of the best food plant species for caterpillars.
The PhD student will be tasked with testing the hypothesis that caterpillars grow more poorly on the plants in highly fragmented versus large forest tracts.
At Wesleyan, Singer teaches courses on conservation biology, ecology, plant-animal interactions and evolutionary biology.
by Randi Plake •
Chris Weaver MALS ’75, CAS ’76, visiting professor in the College of Integrative Sciences at Wesleyan, was appointed co-director of the Video Game Pioneers Archive at the Smithsonian Institute’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This one-of-a-kind initiative will record oral-history interviews with first-generation inventors of the video game industry, creating a multimedia archive that will preserve the evolution of the industry in the words of its founders. The archive will offer scholars and the public the opportunity to better understand the personalities, technologies, and social forces that have driven interactive media to become one of the largest entertainment businesses of all time.
The Lemelson Center became interested in the video game industry while working to acquire the basement laboratory of the late Ralph Baer, considered the father of the video game industry. The Baer family and the Smithsonian wanted to expand on the importance of video games in today’s society so they tapped Weaver, someone with his own remarkable career in the industry and a close friend of Baer, to take the helm as external director, working side-by-side with Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center. This partnership has resulted in the creation of the Video Game Pioneers Archive, a long-term, massive undertaking—and a first for the Smithsonian—made even more unique by the fact that, according to Weaver, “no other industry in the history of technology has ever created anything like this. This archive will be a comprehensive recording of the creation of an industry as told by its founders.”
by Lauren Rubenstein •
This month, the Green Street Teaching and Learning Center is once again hosting its K-8 Math Institute for 29 school teachers from Vernon and Hamden, Conn. The 80-hour program aims to increase teachers’ mastery of math concepts as well as their confidence with math.
Wesleyan Associate Professor of Mathematics Christopher Rasmussen is teaching the institute along with Sharon Heyman, a mathematics education specialist from the University of Connecticut. This is the fifth time the pair has taught the course together. The institute includes the content-intensive, 80-hour Intel Math course over the summer as a foundation for teachers, several follow-up workshops during the school year for advancing teaching practices and arts integration strategies, and two professional learning community sessions a year in the form of Math Potlucks.
Green Street Director Sara MacSorley said this year’s course is going very well.
“As a group, the participating teachers are strong in math and really engaged in the material,” she said. On this particular day, a Friday afternoon with temperatures soaring into the 90s, “there are lively discussions about fractions at each table.”
by Lauren Rubenstein •
This summer, Stephen Devoto, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior, launched the inaugural Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest. The contest, which recognizes student-submitted images from experiments or simulations done with a Wesleyan faculty member that are scientifically intriguing as well as aesthetically pleasing, drew 35 submissions from the fields of physics, biology, molecular biology and biochemistry, psychology, earth and environmental science, chemistry and astronomy.
Participants submitted an image along with a brief description written for a broad, scientifically literate audience. The entries were judged based on the quality of the image and the explanation of the underlying science. The first-place prize went to Eliza Carter ’18 from the Earth and Environmental Science Department. Aidan Stone ’17 and Jeremy Auerbach ’17 tied for second places, while Riordan Abrams ’17 won third place. The images were judged by a panel of four faculty members: Devoto; Ruth Johnson, assistant professor of biology, assistant professor of integrative sciences; Brian Northrop, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of integrative sciences; and Candice Etson, assistant professor of physics.
The first-place winner receives a $200 prize; the second-place winner receives $100; and the third-place winner receives $50. Prizes were funded by the Office of Academic Affairs.
Devoto was inspired by a similar contest that his daughter won at Haverford College.
“Students at Wesleyan produce extraordinary scientific images, ranging from graphs and computer simulations to microscope and telescope images,” he said. “I wanted students to have fun, to think of their scientific images in an artistic sense. And I thought that the artistic presentations of student scientific images would be a striking testament to the quality and fun of student research here. I hope these will be displayed on campus to highlight the science and the creativity, which thrive at Wesleyan.”
The four winning images are shown below, along with scientific descriptions:
by Olivia Drake •
Wesleyan’s Green Street Teaching and Learning Center hosted the 2016 Girls in Science Summer Camp for 4th, 5th, and 6th grade girls Aug. 1-5. Campers were exposed to a variety of careers in science and learned how to use scientific tools like lab notebooks, pipets, and microscopes.
Four female Wesleyan faculty—Ishita Mukerji, the Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Candice Etson, assistant professor of physics; Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, associate professor of environmental studies; and Michelle Personick, assistant professor of chemistry—led a series of hands-on experiments with the campers. Sara MacSorley, director of the GSTLC, coordinated the activities.
Mukerji taught the campers about DNA by extracting DNA from strawberries. Students also built a large DNA model and created a secret message using DNA code.
Etson taught the campers about light, color, energy, light refraction, lenses and prisms, and electronics. The girls built their own electric motors, studied solar power, and learned the difference between incandescent and LED light bulbs.
Taylor and graduate student Mackenzie Schlosser taught the campers about parts of a cell, germs, and good and bad bacteria, and had campers test various areas of the Green Street Teaching & Learning Center for bacteria.
Personick taught viscosity by racing different fluids, such as chocolate sauce, corn oil, ketchup, soap, and glue, to see which flows best. The campers also learned about the different phases of matter.
“The girls were very surprised to see that ketchup flows slower than glue, and we talked about non-Newtonian fluids to explain that observation,” Personick said.
Personick also had the campers make bouncy balls by cross-linking a polymer (glue) with Borax; tested the properties (magnetism, conductivity, density, flexibility) of different metals to learn about what properties metals have in common and which properties depend on the shape/size of the piece of metal; and created silver nanoparticles in a rainbow of colors and then used silver and gold nanoparticles to make stained glass. On Aug. 5, the campers used what they learned about viscosity to make bubbles.
Students also made and ate liquid nitrogen ice cream to study phase changes in cooking, and talked about how cooking is science in the kitchen.
The Girls in Science Camp is supported by the Petit Family Foundation.
Photos of the Girls in Science Camp are below:
by Olivia Drake •
by Olivia Drake •
Michelle Personick, assistant professor of chemistry, received the Victor K. LaMer Award from the American Chemical Society Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry. The honor, which comes with a $3,000 monetary award, was presented at the ACS Colloid and Surface Science Symposium June 5-8 at Harvard University, where she presented a plenary talk.
The Victor K. LaMer Award is presented to the author of an outstanding PhD thesis in colloid or surface chemistry. LaMer was the editor of the Journal of Colloid Science (now the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science) from its founding in 1946 to 1965. In addition to his seminal work on colloids, LaMer’s fundamental contributions to physical chemistry have found their way into every textbook and university course on that subject.
Personick received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Middlebury College in 2009 and a PhD in chemistry from Northwestern University in 2013. Her doctoral thesis was titled “Controlling the Shape and Crystallinity of Gold and Silver Nanoparticles.”
A key advance of her dissertation work was the development of a comprehensive set of design guidelines for controlling the shape of gold nanoparticles via reaction kinetics and surface passivation effects. Her graduate research contributed to 15 articles published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Nano Letters, Science and others.
From 2013 to 2015, Personick was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard. As a member of the Integrated Mesoscale Architectures for Sustainable Catalysis (IMASC) Energy Frontier Research Center, she studied selective oxidative transformations of alcohols on nanoporous gold alloy catalysts. In July 2015, she joined the faculty at Wesleyan where her research focuses on the synthesis of noble metal alloy nanoparticles with well-defined shapes and catalytically active high-energy surfaces.
The Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry is one of the most active Divisions in the ACS with approximately 2,500 members throughout the world.
by Lauren Rubenstein •
Janice Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and development, is the co-author of a new paper titled, “Convulsive seizures from experimental focal cortical dysplasia occur independently of cell misplacement.” It was published in Nature Communications on June 1.
Brain malformations called focal cortical dysplasia are typically formed during human embryonic cortical development and are a common cause of drug-resistant epilepsy and cognitive impairments. One of the causes of cortical dysplasia is improper migration of developing cortical neurons. Failure to reach their correct destinations in the cerebral cortex and dysregulated growth leads to the formation of growths or tubers in regions of cerebral cortex. These abnormal growths don’t wire up properly with other cortical neurons and exhibit seizure activity. In this multi-lab collaborative study, the researchers show in mice with experimentally-generated cortical malformations that there is an increase in growth-associated signaling molecules in experimentally-generated cortical tubers associated with seizures. Blocking this signaling cascade with the molecule rapacycin from early stages can prevent the neuronal misplacement, tuber-like growths, and seizures, but once rapamycin is discontinued, the seizures return. Despite the adverse side-effects of taking rapamycin, these findings suggest that life-long treatment with rapamycin may be required in individuals with focal cortical dysplasia, in order to prevent the re-occurrence of seizures and tubers.
The paper is co-authored with Felicia Harrsch, Naegele’s former lab manager, and researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine.
by Lauren Rubenstein •
Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, made his off-Broadway debut in the TED-talk segment of “Rap Guide to Climate Change,” written and performed by Baba Brinkman and directed by Darren Lee Cole, at the SoHo Playhouse in New York City on May 29. In this one-man show, running from February through July, Brinkman breaks down the politics, economics, and science of global warming, following its surprising twists from the carbon cycle to the global energy economy.
Yohe was invited to be the climate expert for the TED-talk segment in the middle of the show. He spent 25 minutes on stage with Brinkman taking questions from the audience, which provided material for the closing raps.
by Lauren Rubenstein •
Martha Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor and chair of earth and environmental sciences, joined legendary astronaut and engineer Buzz Aldrin and Hoppy Price of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a discussion on WNPR about the past, present and future of space exploration. The three were guests on The Colin McEnroe Show on May 25.
Aldrin, who was one of the first two humans to walk on the moon, is the author of a new book, No Dream is Too High: Life Lessons From a Man Who Walked on the Moon.
McEnroe asked Gilmore about our current level of understanding about Mars.
“Our knowledge of Mars has really increased over the last two decades, and that’s because of a sustained series of missions, a flotilla of spacecraft in orbit, roving and on the surface of Mars that have been able to learn upon each other’s discoveries and leverage each other’s assets. We understand now not only that it was habitable on Mars at the same time that life evolved on Earth, but also where it’s habitable. And so the last rover we landed on the surface of the planet has landed in a place where there was mud and there were rivers and there was sustained water over long periods of time. So we understand now a lot about the history of Mars and the history of water on Mars and the environments that exited on Mars at the same time life was evolving on Earth.”