Science & Technology

Speakers, Poster Sessions at Annual Molecular Biophysics Program Retreat

Wesleyan’s Molecular Biophysics Program hosted its 18th annual retreat Sept. 28 at Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown. Wesleyan affiliated speakers included:

Professor Francis Starr, spoke about DNA junction dynamics and thermodynamics during the 18th annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat.

Professor Francis Starr spoke about DNA junction dynamics and thermodynamics during the 18th annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat.

  • Colin Smith, assistant professor of chemistry, on “An Atomistic View of Protein Dynamics and Allostery;”
  • Meng-Ju Renee Sher, assistant professor of physics, on “Tracking Electron Motions Using Terahertz Spectroscopy;”
  • Kelly Knee, PhD ’07, principle scientist for Pfizer’s Rare Disease Research Unit, on “Protein Folding Chaperones: Molecular Machines for Tricky Problems;”
  • and Francis Starr, professor of physics, director of the College of Integrative Sciences, on “DNA Four-Way Junction Dynamics and Thermodynamics: Lessons from Combining Simulations and Experiments.”

Arthur Palmer, the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, delivered the keynote address on “Conformational dynamics in molecular recognition and catalysis: Lessons from ribonuclease H, AlkB, and GCN4.”

The day-long retreat also included two poster sessions, where undergraduates, graduate students and faculty shared their research with their peers and colleagues. The event concluded with a reception.

The Molecular Biophysics Training Program, Chemistry Department, and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department sponsored the event.

Photos of the retreat are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Robinson Writes About the Real Reason Some People Become Addicted to Drugs

Mike Robinson

Mike Robinson

Writing in The ConversationAssistant Professor of Psychology Mike Robinson looks to the brain to explain the real reason that some people become addicted to drugs.

Robinson, who also is assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, assistant professor of integrative sciences, begins by debunking two popular explanations for drug addiction: that compulsive drug use is simply a “bad habit,” and that overcoming the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms is too hard for some addicts.

While pleasure, habits and withdrawal can play a role in drug use, Robinson says, the true reason for addiction can be explained by the psychological differences between “wanting” and “liking.”

Volcanoes Caused Ecological Disruption Says Thomas in Nature Article

Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas, University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and research professor of earth and environmental sciences, is a co-author of a paper titled “Very Large Release of Mostly Volcanic Carbon During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” published in the weekly science journal Nature on Aug. 31.

The study focused on Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a surface warming event associated with ecological disruption that occurred about 56 million years ago, releasing a large amount of carbon. The researchers combined boron and carbon isotope data in an Earth system model and found that the source of carbon was much larger than previously thought.

Most of the carbon, Thomas and her colleagues discovered, was probably released by volcanism during the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean when Greenland separated from Europe.

The paper also was cited in another Nature article, on PhysOrg and on Science Daily.

Makri Awarded Graduate Scholarship from Greek America Foundation

PhD candidate Eleana Makri and Professor Tsampikos Kottos work on reflective optical limiter research at Wesleyan. On Sept. 25, Makri received a $5,000 scholarship from the Greek America Foundation to support her research for the 2017-18 academic year.

For her ongoing research in developing electromagnetic filters that block high power radiation, physics PhD candidate Eleana Makri recently received a Constantine and Patricia Mavroyannis scholarship from the Greek America Foundation. The $5,000 award will support her doctoral research during the 2017-18 academic year.

At Wesleyan, Makri works with Professor Tsampikos Kottos in the development of the reflective limiter concepts that block high power radiation from damaging sensitive sensors, like the eye, while they allow low power radiation to reach the sensor for further processing. Kottos is professor of physics, professor of mathematics and professor of integrative sciences.

The Mavroyannis scholarship is awarded to Greek and Greek-American graduate students studying in U.S. and Canadian institutions and universities. After completing the scholarship, Makri will submit a brief progress report to the Greek America Foundation highlighting her research efforts.

“[Eleana] has distinguished [her]self as not just one of the strongest applicants, but also as someone whose scientific career we look forward to following,” said Jennifer Kellogg, executive director of the Greek America Foundation.

Loui Co-Authors Article on Lack of Pleasure from Music

Psyche Loui

Psyche Loui

Psyche Loui, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, assistant professor of integrative sciences, is the author of a new publication on musical anhedonia—the lack of pleasure from music. Together with others in her lab, Loui studied an individual with musical anhedonia and compared his brain against a group of controls. They found that his auditory cortex was differently connected to his reward system, a finding which gives further support for the role of brain connectivity in the musical experience.

The article, titled, “White Matter Correlates of Musical Anhedonia: Implications for Evolution of Music,” was published Sept. 25 in Frontiers in Psychology.  It was coauthored by Sean Patterson, BA ’17, MA ’18; Tima Zeng ’17; and Emily Przysinka, former lab manager in Loui’s lab.

Knee Co-Authors Article on Hydrogen-Bonding Interactions

Joseph Knee, the Beach Professor of Chemistry and Dean of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division, is the author of a new article published in the journal Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics (PCCP). This “Perspectives” article, which was commissioned by the PCCP editorial board and editorial office, is a high-profile look at work by Knee and his collaborators that has been going on for nearly a decade. Perspectives articles are intended to present an authoritative state-of-the-art account of a particular research field.

The research by Knee and his collaborators, which is ongoing, uses experimental and computational methods to explore hydrogen bonding interactions, which are extremely important in the structure of water, various solutions, and in many key biochemical structures and processes.

Knee explains, “The most important aspect of our methodology is making careful experimental measurements of two single molecules forming hydrogen bonds and then modeling these bonds with modern quantum chemical calculations. The calculations allow us to decompose the various forces which contribute to the bond strength and structure. The larger goal is to generalizing this insight to more complex hydrogen bonded systems, particularly hydrogen bonding networks which exist in liquids and biological systems.”

The full article can be read here by those with subscriptions or institutional subscriptions, including those on Wesleyan’s campus.

Niraula MA ’18, Redfield Lead Team in Discovery of 3 Super-Earths

A team of scientists from Wesleyan, led by Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and graduate student Prajwal Niraula MA’18, discovered three super-Earths transiting around a nearby star, just 98 light-years from Earth. This NASA-generated image was created to depict 55 Cancri e, a super-Earth 40 light-years away from Earth.

A team of scientists from Wesleyan discovered three super-Earths transiting around a nearby star, 98 light-years away. The NASA-generated image above depicts a different super-Earth: 55 Cancri e, discovered in 2004.

A team of scientists from Wesleyan, led by Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and graduate student Prajwal Niraula MA ’18, has co-authored a paper on the discovery of three planets, or super-Earths, transiting around a nearby star, just 98 light-years away.

“Super-Earths are slightly larger than Earth, and the three of them straddle the divide between the rocky planets like Earth and ice giants like Neptune,” explains Redfield.

These planets were found using the Kepler Space Telescope. “Kepler has found thousands of exoplanets these last eight years, but this is the closest planetary system that Kepler has ever found, although closer planetary systems have been found using different telescopes,” says Redfield.

BA/MA Student Antonellis ’17 Awarded Scholarship for Energy Technology Research

BA/MA student Nicholas Antonellis ’17

Nicholas “Nicky” Antonellis ’17, a BA/MA student in physics, is one of 14 students in the U.S. selected to receive a $10,000 scholarship from the Directed Energy Professional Society (DEPS).

Candidates for the award must be full-time graduate students who are interested in pursuing or are currently studying the directed energy technology areas of high-energy lasers or high-power microwaves.

Antonellis is interested in using his knowledge in photonic device design and computational simulations in order to eventually improve upon medical technologies.

Yohe Writes about Trump, Climate Change

Gary Yohe

In the near future, the Trump Administration must decide whether to approve or reject a new scientific report on climate change. Writing in The Conversation, Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, asserts, “If the Trump administration chooses to reject the pending national Climate Science Special Report, it would be more damaging than pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Full stop.”

Yohe backs up this bold claim by explaining why this report is so important and describing a crucial difference between the report and the Paris Climate Agreement. Namely, “the Paris accord focuses on reducing emissions, while the Climate Science Special Report is designed to help the U.S. better adapt to the effects of climate change even as it underscores the importance of cutting emissions.”

You’re Invited! View the Solar Eclipse at the Van Vleck Observatory, Aug. 21

Watch a partial eclipse of the Sun at Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory on Aug. 21.

The campus and local community is invited to witness the partial eclipse of the Sun at Wesleyan’s Van Vleck Observatory on Aug. 21. While Middletown isn’t in the narrow path of totality, viewers should still be able to see about 65 percent of the Sun disappear. Telescopes for the family-friendly event will be set up at 1 p.m., and the eclipse will begin at approximately 1:20 p.m., with mid-eclipse falling at approximately 2:40 p.m. The event is hosted by Wesleyan’s Astronomy Department and is free of charge.

Plasma Bubble, Stem Cell Images Win Scientific Imaging Contest

This summer, Wesleyan hosted the second annual Wesleyan Scientific Imaging 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. This year, 33 images were submitted from six departments.

The entries were judged based on the quality of the image and the explanation of the underlying science.  The images were judged by a panel of four faculty members: Steven Devoto, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior; 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 received a $200 prize; the second-place winner received $100; and the third-place winner received $50. Prizes were funded by the Office of Academic Affairs.

The three winning images are shown below, along with scientific descriptions, written by the students.

Yonathan Gomez '18 won first place with his image, "Jumping" Drop. The drop is an expanding partially-ionized plasma created underwater by a pulsed Nd:YAG laser, which pushes upwards on the surface of the water. As the plasma bubble expands, it disrupts the surface from below, which launches a water drop upward. The water drop shown has a diameter of approximately 2mm. The image was taken at 1/2,000 frames per second.

Yonathan Gomez ’18 won first place with his image, “Jumping” Drop. The drop is an expanding partially-ionized plasma created underwater by a pulsed Nd:YAG laser, which pushes upwards on the surface of the water. As the plasma bubble expands, it disrupts the surface from below, which launches a water drop upward. The water drop shown has a diameter of approximately 2mm. The image was taken at 1/2,000 of a second.

Mukerji, Oliver Co-Author Study in PNAS on Basic Cell Function

In this illustration, SecA is shown in light gray and the SecYEG complex is in dark gray. The rainbow colored portion of SecA is the two helix finger. n cyan is a model of the hairpin.

In this illustration, the hairpin is highlighted in cyan. The hairpin is formed by the initiator part of a protein.

All cells — bacterial or human — secrete up to 10 or 20 percent of the proteins that they make. Human secreted proteins, for example, include components of serum, hormones, growth factors that promote cell development during embryogenesis and tissue remodeling, and proteins that provide the basis for immune cell signaling during infection or when fighting cancer.

The secretion process, however, isn’t an easy feat for cells, as they need to move the proteins across a membrane through a channel. Transport requires the formation of a hairpin, formed by an initiator protein.

In a recent study, Don Oliver, the Daniel Ayres Professor of Biology, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, and Ishita Mukerji, the Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, explain the importance of where and why hairpins form and how they help proteins move across the cell.

The study, titled “Alignment of the protein substrate hairpin along the SecA two-helix finger primes protein transport in Escherichia coli,” brings together key areas of membrane biochemistry, structural biology and molecular biophysics, and has innovative applications of molecular genetics and fluorescence spectroscopy. It was published in the Aug. 7 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).