Tag Archive for Biology

Sultan to Lead $2M Evolutionary-Developmental Biology Project

Sonia Sultan

In the Wesleyan Research Greenhouse, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan studies how Polygonum plants develop and function differently in response to contrasting environmental conditions. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

With support from a $2 million John Templeton Foundation National Sciences grant, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan will spearhead a multi-institution evolutionary biology research project over the next three years.

The project, titled “Agency in Living Systems: How Organisms Actively Generate Adaptation, Resilience and Innovation at Multiple Levels of Organization,” developed from Sultan’s research on how individual organisms respond to their environments. Sultan and her Wesleyan research group study this question through experiments with the common plant Polygonum.

Sultan's data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s previous findings have shown that genetically identical Polygonum plants can develop very differently depending on their growth conditions, allowing adaptive adjustments by individual plants without any genetic change. Because these adjustments are made actively by plants, rather than pre-scripted by their DNA sequence, this insight poses challenges to prevailing conceptual models for development and evolutionary adaptation.

“Scientists are particularly keen to understand these types of induced changes because they may help populations to very rapidly adapt to novel environmental stresses caused by human activities,” Sultan said.

The Templeton Foundation grant supports a consortium to investigate more broadly this property of biological agency—the ways in which active, real-time responses by living organisms influence the organisms’ own features. Sultan and her international team of co-investigators will focus on the active response mechanisms produced by evolution that grant organisms a degree of agency in shaping their own development, behavior, and subsequent evolution.

“New findings over the past decade about gene expression, development, the nature of inheritance, and the basis of adaptation, have led developmental and evolutionary biologists to re-examine some fundamental and long-standing ideas,” Sultan said. “The concept of agency may provide a unifying framework at a time when many scientists are seeking to update and expand those ideas. This project gives us the opportunity to help move the field forward and hopefully contribute to a more nuanced understanding of organisms.”

Wesleyan’s Girls in Science Summer Camp Gets Young Scientists Excited about STEM 

GIS

Marty Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, leads an experiment about meteors during the Girls in Science Summer Camp Aug. 8. (Photo by Kerisha Harris)

(Story by Kerisha Harris)

For the sixth year in a row, the weeklong Wesleyan Girls in Science Summer Camp welcomed dozens of middle school-aged girls for a week of learning, exploration, and STEM-centered fun.

From Aug. 5-9 inside Exley Science Center, the 32 campers in grades 4-6 spent the week learning about everything from how to extract DNA from a strawberry, to the parts of the brain, and even how to make (but don’t touch) an ice-cold comet. By Friday, the young scientists were excited to share all they had learned with their friends and families, and did so through a poster presentation and art display.

Girls in Science participants observe a "comet" they created during the camp.

Girls in Science participants observe a “comet” they created during the camp.

This partnership between Wesleyan and Middletown Public Schools gives girls the chance to explore and cultivate their interest in science by conducting fun experiments in real-life labs, discovering scientific concepts, vocabulary and equipment, and learning from female Wesleyan professors and students in the sciences.

This year marked the first time in the program’s history that the camp took place fully under the umbrella of the Jewett Center for Community Partnerships.  Additionally, the Jewett Center partnered with In-Reach, a program coordinated by Melisa Olgun ’20, to bring local high school girls in as program assistants. These young scientists-in-training provided guidance and support for the campers, while also getting to spend time in research labs at Wesleyan.

Biology’s Lynch Remembered for Mentoring Women in the Sciences

Carol Lynch

Carol Lynch, former professor of biology, passed away last week at the age of 76.

Lynch joined the Wesleyan faculty in 1973 and served as dean of the natural sciences and mathematics in the late 1980s and early 1990s. During her time here, Lynch established a model system for studying the evolution of complex traits using house mice and played a pioneering role in supporting and mentoring women in the sciences.

She left Wesleyan in 1992 to join the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she served as dean of the graduate school and vice chancellor for research from 1992 to 2004, and was a professor of ecological and evolutionary biology and a fellow of the Institute for Behavioral Genetics.

Lynch and her husband, Bob, generously established the Carol and Robert Lynch Student Research Fund at Wesleyan, which continues to support the research of undergraduate biology students.

A memorial service will be scheduled later this summer in Boulder.

Members of the Class of 2019 Inducted into Phi Beta Kappa

PBK

On May 25, members of the Class of 2019 were inducted into Wesleyan’s Gamma Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa Society, the oldest national scholastic honor society. The Wesleyan Gamma Chapter was organized in 1845 and is the ninth-oldest chapter in the country.

To be elected, a student must first have been nominated by the department of his or her major. The student also must have demonstrated curricular breadth by having met the General Education Expectations and must have achieved a GPA of 93 and above.

Phi Beta Kappa is the oldest surviving Greek letter society in America, founded in December 1776 by five students who attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. The emblem contains the three Greek letters “Phi-Beta-Kappa,” which are the initials of the Greek motto, Philosophia Biou Kybernetes. This essentially means “the love of wisdom is the guide of life.”

The spring 2019 inductees are:

Caroline Adams
Yulia Alexandr
Erin Angell
William Bellamy
Cara Bendich
Zachary Bennett
Chiara Bercu
Sophie Brett-Chin
Nicholas Byers
David Cabanero
Talia Cohen
John Cote 

Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division Hosts Celebration of Science Theses

On April 26, honors and graduate students in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division presented posters at the Celebration of Science Theses.

On April 26, honors and graduate students in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division presented posters at the Celebration of Science Theses.

Han Yang Tay presented a poster titled "Rich Club and Diverse Club in Structural and Functional Neuroimaging Data." His advisor is Psyche Loui

Han Yang Tay ’19 speaks to Barbara Juhasz, associate professor of psychology, about his study titled “Rich Club and Diverse Club in Structural and Functional Neuroimaging Data.” His advisor is Psyche Loui, assistant professor of psychology.

Fish Species Named After Professor Barry Chernoff

Bryconops chernoffi

Bryconops chernoffi

A new species of fish discovered in Brazil was recently named in honor of Wesleyan Professor Barry Chernoff.

Barry Chernoff

Scientists encountered the Bryconops chernoffi in Rio Ipixuna—a small tributary of the Rio Maicuru, which feeds into the lower Amazon River in Pará, Brazil. Samples of the fish were collected by researchers on four trips in 2014–15, and in March 2019, Zootaxa released an article describing the new species.

Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, focuses his research on freshwater fishes in North America and the Neotropical region, primarily those in South America in the Amazon.

He’s also professor of earth and environmental sciences; professor of biology; chair, Environmental Studies Program; and director of the College of the Environment.

The Zootaxa announcement explains that Bryconops chernoffi’s specific epithet honors “Barry Chernoff, and is in recognition for his contributions to the taxonomy of Bryconops, as well as for ichthyology as a whole.”

Chernoff has published 89 peer-reviewed scientific works, including six books and edited volumes. He has led international teams on expeditions designed to conserve large watersheds of the world, having made more than 34 expeditions in 13 countries.

The Zootaxa abstract describes Bryconops chernoffi as differing from all its congeners “by the presence of an elongated dark patch of pigmentation immediately after the posterodorsal margin of the opercle, running vertically from the supracleithrum to the distal margin of the cleithrum (vs. absence of a similar blotch), and by a dark dorsal fin with a narrow hyaline band at middle portion of dorsal-fin rays (vs. dorsal fin hyaline or with few scattered chromatophores). It differs further from all its congeners, except B. colanegra, by the presence of a blurred black stripe at the anal fin.”

“It doesn’t really resemble my friend Barry, who in addition to being a fish scientist and environmentalist is also a guitar player and songwriter,” wrote Wesleyan President Michael Roth in a recent blog post. “And now he has fish named in his honor. A true species of Wesleyan.”

Chernoff is the third Wesleyan faculty, in recent years, to have a species named in his or her honor.

In 2010, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period (about 110 million years ago) was named Brontomerus mcintoshi for John S. “Jack” McIntosh, Foss Professor of Physics, Emeritus. The fossil, discovered in Utah, is marked by its large, powerful thighs, which may have been used to kick predators and travel over rough terrain. The American-British team of scientists who discovered the remains named the dinosaur for McIntosh, “a lifelong avocational paleontologist.”

Two species of benthic foraminifera are named after Ellen Thomas, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, research professor, earth and environmental sciences; the Smith Curator of Paleontology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History.

Globocassidulina thomasae, discovered in the northeastern Indian Ocean, was named in 1999, and Ossaggittia thomasae, discovered in the eastern Indian Ocean, was named in 2012. They were named in honor of Ellen Thomas, “a well-known specialist on deep-sea benthic foraminifera, who was one of the first micropaleontologists to document the disappearance of Stilostomellidae and Pleurostomellidae in the Pleistocene of the North Atlantic Ocean.”

Naegele Lab Releases New Study on Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Jyoti Gupta, who earned her PhD in biology in 2018, is pictured presenting her dissertation defense at Wesleyan. Gupta is the lead author on a recently published study that investigates abnormal neuron growth in mice that have temporal lobe epilepsy.

Adult neurogenesis, a process whereby new neurons are added to the brain, is thought to be confined in mammals to just a few regions, including the hippocampus, a structure important for learning. Whether this process occurs in the adult human brain is controversial, but in most other mammals that have been studied, adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus appears to be essential for forming memories.

Producing new neurons in the adult hippocampus is regulated by the environment, mood, exercise, diet, and disease. In some forms of epilepsy, the production of new cells in the hippocampus, called granule cells, becomes highly abnormal and the altered neurogenesis is thought to increase over-excitation and exacerbate seizures.

Grabel Wins Women of Innovation® Award

Laura Grabel, pictured at far right, is one of 11 women in the state of Connecticut to receive a Women of Innovation® Award.

Laura Grabel, the retired Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, received an award at the 15th Annual Connecticut Technology Council Women of Innovation® Awards presentation on March 27.

The Women of Innovation® program recognizes women innovators, role models, and leaders in science and technology professions, as well as outstanding young women at the high school and collegiate level pursuing technology studies. Of 50 finalists, 11 were recognized as winners in their respective categories; Grabel took the top spot in the Academic Innovation & Leadership (Postsecondary) category.

Grabel, who also is a retired professor of biology, is an accomplished scientist engaged in understanding how the fertilized egg can become a complex organism. This spring, she is teaching Reproduction in the 21st Century.

Grabel Named a Connecticut Women of Innovation Finalist

Laura Grabel

For her efforts creating and fostering STEM initiatives that support women in science, Laura Grabel, the retired Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, was selected as a Women of Innovation finalist by the Connecticut Technology Council in March. She is one of 50 finalists in the state.

Grabel, who also is a retired professor of biology, is an accomplished scientist engaged in understanding how the fertilized egg can become a complex organism. This spring, she is teaching Reproduction in the 21st Century.

In addition to publishing dozens of academic articles and a book on ethical stem cell research, Grabel fosters STEM initiatives that focus on supporting women in science, such as teaching a course on the biology of women at York Correctional Institution, and collaborating with professional choreographers to convey complex scientific concepts through movement and dance in and outside of the classroom.

The Connecticut Technology Council is a statewide trade association focused on technology and technology-oriented companies and institutions, providing leadership, guidance, and support in areas of policy advocacy, community-building, and assistance for growing companies.

The Women of Innovation program seeks to celebrate and create a growing network of women working in STEM areas. Finalists are scientists, researchers, academics, manufacturers, student leaders, entrepreneurs, and technicians.

The finalists will be recognized at the 15th annual Women of Innovation awards gala on March 27.

Read more in this Middletown Press article.

Wesleyan in the News

In this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Recent Wesleyan News

1. Los Angeles Times“As the World Warms, Deadly and Disfiguring Tropical Diseases Are Inching Their Way Toward the U.S.”

In this op-ed, Professor of Biology Frederick Cohan and Isaac Klimasmith ’20, both in the College of the Environment, write that infectious disease is a growing threat, resulting from climate change, that humans may find hard to ignore. Cohan is also professor, environmental studies and professor, integrative sciences.

2. Hartford Courant: “Trump’s Immoral Response to Climate Report”

Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, writes in this op-ed that it is “irresponsible” and “immoral” to ignore the findings of a major new report on climate change. Delaying action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will be increasingly damaging and expensive, he writes. Yohe is also professor of economics and professor, environmental studies, and was a reviewer on the new National Climate Assessment. He also recently co-authored an op-ed in HuffPost titled “People Are Already Dying by the Thousands Because We Ignored Earlier Climate Change Warnings.” 

3. National Geographic: “Both of NASA’s Voyager Spacecraft Are Now Interstellar. Where to Next?”

With both of NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft now having crossed the threshold into interstellar space, Seth Redfield, associate professor and chair of astronomy, comments on what the spacecraft are likely to encounter on their journey. Redfield is also associate professor, integrative sciences, and co-coordinator of Planetary Science.

4. Inside Higher Ed: “Ordinary Education in Extraordinary Times”

President Michael Roth writes in this op-ed that in uncommon times, “traditional educational practices of valuing learning from people different from ourselves have never been more important.”

Recent Alumni News

  1. The Takeaway; WNYC Studios: “Politics with Amy Walter: Pentagon’s First-Ever Audit Exposes Massive Accounting Fraud”

David Lindorff ’71, the investigative journalist who wrote an exclusive on the topic for The Nation, joins Walter’s guests—including Staff Sergeant Patricia King, Ambassador Eric Edelman, and Dr. Isaiah Wilson III, a retired Army colonel and senior lecturer with Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs—to discuss military spending and its alignment with the military’s strategic goals.

Chernoff Honored at “Sound of Science” Musical Premiere

Chernoff, second from right, at the concert November 10. He is pictured on stage with, from left, composer Felipe Perez Santiago, composer Graham Reynolds, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler.

Barry Chernoff, second from right, is pictured on stage with, from left, composer Felipe Perez Santiago, composer Graham Reynolds, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler.

Barry Chernoff, director of the College of the Environment, was one of eight scientists recently honored with a new musical composition based upon his research—part of a concert and album titled “The Sound of Science, performed in New York City on Nov. 10.

The project aims to build “bridges between the musical and scientific worlds, celebrating their shared culture of inquiry,” according to the website. The pieces were written by seven celebrated composers for amplified cello and electronics, and were all recorded and performed by world-renowned cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, longtime member of Kronos Quartet and several other groups. The Grammy Award–winning quartet has performed at Wesleyan’s Center for the Arts, most recently in April 2018.

Each composer was paired with a scientist of his or her choosing and tasked with creating music inspired by and reflective of the scientist’s life and practice.

Chernoff’s piece, titled, “Pastaza,” was composed by Graham Reynolds, an Austin-based composer-bandleader-improviser who creates, performs, and records music for film, theater, dance, rock clubs, and concert halls. “Pastaza” and the other works can be played online here.

According to the website: “Graham was drawn to Chernoff’s work for its influence and importance on this grand scale…. When it comes to considering what future we are creating, there is nothing more crucial than the planet, its limited resources, and how it will fare for generations to come.”

The piece aims to honor Chernoff’s “abundant curiosity for the world” around him, and to examine the ways in which his work influences our understanding of “what came before and what’s ahead.”

“I am incredibly honored to have a piece of music inspired by my research and conservation efforts in the Amazon and in South America—and I am in awe of Graham Reynolds’s ability to have imagined the music without having traveled by dugout in the Amazon basin himself!” said Chernoff. “His composition, ‘Pastaza’ is so beautiful, if not breathtaking. Hearing the music performed live by Jeffrey Zeigler with Graham’s electronic backing with my photos being displayed on the wall was an experience I will never forget.”

Chernoff is also the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, professor of biology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, and professor and chair of environmental studies.