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Lab member presents at undergraduate research symposium

Zach Haley, a junior biology major working in my lab on the regulation of alpha crystallin expression, gave his first research poster presentation on Tuesday at Ashland University’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium.  This event gives students from all disciplines in the College of Arts and Sciences the opportunity to present their independent work in oral and poster sessions.

Zach is developing methods for using the zebrafish as a model to analyze the function of mammalian alpha crystallin promoters, the regions of the gene that determines when and where its protein is produced.  Understanding promoter function can provide clues to how alpha crystallins are used in healthy cells, and why their levels are often increased or reduced during disease.

Why test mammalian genes in a zebrafish?  The ability to produce large numbers of transparent zebrafish embryos in a relatively small facility makes this model species less expensive and faster to use than mice.  Zach’s work will help to determine whether this approach is feasible.

Zach Haley presents his work on alpha crystallin gene regulation

Meet the new lab

I thought it would be appropriate to break my long hiatus from this blog with an introduction of our latest lab members.  Last time I posted we were seeing off three lab alumni to a job, graduate and professional schools.  But the lab is full again.

From left to right in the photo (with a short description of their current projects) are Mary Brown (roles of alpha crystallins in the zebrafish lens), Lynette Vana (pesticide toxicity), Josh Allman (cloning of zebrafish genes involved in neural development) and Zach Haley (regulation of alpha crystallin expression).  That is me in the back.  The photo is taken in the scenic Rybolt greenhouse at Ashland University.

Check back for some exciting lab news later this week and future updates on our latest research.

Lab graduates move on

Former lab members Jackie Skiba, Phillip Wages and Amy Drossman at a 2009 vision conference in Columbus, Ohio

Three students that made significant contributions to the lab have graduated in the past two years and are starting exciting careers.  Jackie Skiba graduated from Ashland University in 201o not certain on what direction she wanted to take, but recently landed a great job as a quality control technician in the coffee division of Smuckers where she will be able to combine her love of coffee and science.  Besides tasting lots of coffee, she will be using analytical chemistry to quantify the quality of different brews.

Amy Drossman has moved to Chicago to start the Doctor of Optometry program at the Illinois College of Optometry.  After three years of working with larval zebrafish eyes she will need to adjust to a different scale.

And Phillip Wages will be starting his PhD studies this week in the Biomedical and Biological Sciences Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he also took part in a summer research internship in 2009.

All three of these students contributed to projects that will likely be published in the next year or so.  Check back for updates, and for introduction of new lab members.

Lab member wins national Pfizer travel award

Phillip Wages, an undergraduate research student in my lab, was recently awarded one of only five national awards from Pfizer to present his research at this year’s annual Society of Toxicology meeting in Washington D.C..  Phillip went to the SOT meeting last year as part of a competitive undergraduate program, but this year Pfizer will be covering his travel and registration costs to present a poster on his honors thesis research.

Phillip has been using zebrafish to study the toxicity of two common pesticides, permethrin and atrozine.  These chemicals commonly wash off of agricultural crops into neighboring aquatic habitats.  His is the first study to examine the mixture toxicity of these two chemicals – the way they interact with each other to produce toxic effects that are not merely the addition of each chemicals individual toxicity.  And it is the first study to examine their toxicity using zebrafish embryos as a relatively new model for aquatic toxicity testing.

In addition to his honors thesis toxicology research, Phillip took part in a summer research internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and last summer began a project in my lab to characterize developmental changes in zebrafish lens protein expression.  He is currently applying to graduate programs.

More experiments in course blogging

You would think that no new posts in four months would mean that blogging was far from my mind.  But oh how wrong you would be.  I have written before about the blogs I started for my marine bio course and senior capstone course on science communication.  The marine blog in particular was primarily student generated, and last spring I played around with guidelines that would encourage students to find interesting additional content that was relevant to the course.  I was impressed with my students’ contributions, and really enjoyed some final posts about our field trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  But almost all of the posts about recent marine bio research came from stories on the Science Daily website.  They were interesting, but I was hoping that students would draw from more diverse sources and some primary literature.

So this Fall semester I developed some new guidelines for students to use when writing for our latest course blog, Ashland Vertebrate Biology.  Those guidelines were posted as a Google Doc if you would like to check them out (look for a future post about the many ways to use Google Docs in a class).  They seemed to do the trick, encouraging students to draw from more diverse sources and even stimulated a good level of discussion in the comment threads.  I have not yet seen my course evaluations for the semester to learn what students thought of the blogging, but will comment on them here soon.

Like any new teaching technology I have found that my approach to using blogs in my classes needs fine-tuning.  But so far it has been an excellent way for students to bring their own content to the course and drive discussion.

Hacking my A&P course for Fall

I have become an avid reader of the ProfHacker blog on the Chronicle website and recently came across some compendium posts loaded with advice for teachers dusting off those syllabi and planning for the start of the Fall semester.  Actually, if you read ProfHacker regularly you would know that the best time to revise your syllabus and course materials is right after the semester ends when all is fresh in your head.  Oh well, it’s three months too late for that.  But it’s never too late to add some new ideas to those syllabi and your classes.

Not being entirely prepared for a complete syllabus redo, I opted for some measured changes.  Here are the highlights:

No more static office hours.  Students don’t drop by and many have classes at my scheduled times, so I wind up heading to my lab or go out for coffee.  So this semester I will be doing office hours two different ways.  First, students can make an appointment at a time that works best for them.  OK, this is how I already meet with students.  But the twist this year is that I now have a Tungle.me page, a website that knows when I am free and acts as the middleperson to set meeting times for me and my students.  My Tungle.me page is linked to my Google calendar so that students can see times when I am free (but not the appointments that I have – those stay private), select times when they would like to meet with me, and when I accept, those appointments are entered automatically into my Google calendar.  Pretty cool.  We’ll see if students go for it, and if I can get faculty and administrators to use it to set meeting times with me.  I have been using another free service called ScheduleOnce to set our department meeting times, but I plan to use Tungle.me this semester.  The second option for students wanting to meet with me will be through Google Talk.  I’ve tried IMing as a way to chat with students, and was never very happy with it.  Very few students contacted me, so I dropped it.  But this semester I plan to add a Google Talk widget to my course webpage, figuring that students may be on the course page anyway, and if they see a green available chat light they might be more likely to try it.
Some targeted use of our University Angel course management system. I have used Angel lightly, but much prefer posting materials on my own personal course webpages.  But this semester I will be using our Angel site for paper submissions so that I can do all my grading electronically and not have to carry around stacks of assignments.  I plan to require students to submit the day before class to avoid last minute, late night writing, and possibly return comments to them prior to class and our discussions.  I am considering setting up my writing assignments, in which students read primary literature and review articles, like a quiz in Angel so that they can cut and paste each of their responses into a specific question field, allowing me to type comments and have them automatically post to each student’s Angel page.  I also plan to run my quizzes the same way this semester, having the students take them online prior to class and then grading them through Angel.
A syllabus section summarizing class resources.  In addition to Angel my course will be using a separate course webpage, a podcast, blog, textbook, and virtual cadaver CD.  Will students know where to go to do what?  This section of the syllabus tries to lay out what exactly these different resources are for, and where they can be found.
A new technology policy.  Inspired by another ProfHacker post, this syllabus paragraph explains why having your e-dog eat your paper is not an excuse for late assignments.  And it adds a plug for the amazing (and free) data backup site Dropbox (full disclosure – using this link to get a Dropbox account will add more memory to my account).
A lightening of my no-texting policy.  Now that I often find myself tweeting from conference sessions I have become more immune to others on their phones during class.  But I added a statement to my syllabus about not being rude with technology.
Too much at once?  I don’t know.  But you can see the final product – my latest Anatomy and Physiology syllabus – here.

A new cryostat added to the lab

Over the last three years my lab has been using the zebrafish as a model for studying the effects of a diverse group of lens proteins called crystallins on lens development.  You can read more about the evolution of these lens proteins in a previous post.  We just added a new tool to the lab for these studies – a Leica CM1850 Cryostat.  This machine allows us to take thin sections through zebrafish larvae to identify any abnormal eye and lens development.

Jackie Skiba, an undergraduate research student in our lab, has been taking the new cryostat out for its shakedown run this summer:

Jackie Skiba preparing thin sections of zebrafish larvae

Stained section through a 3-day old zebrafish eye

Using a blog and wiki in my Marine Biology course

Over the past couple of years I have played around with using blogs and wiki pages in my courses.  This past semester I incorporated both into my Marine Biology course and feel good about the results.  My reasons for using each type of web technology differed, so I will hit them separately:

The course blog

I have been assigning readings from science blogs over the past few years to reinforce material covered in class and engage students with outside, related content.  This past semester I used a blog in my Anatomy and Physiology course to answer student questions that stumped me in class, or that I needed to research more fully.  After class I would post an answer to the course blog with links to additional reading.  But in my Marine Biology course almost all of the content was student generated.  After adding a few of my own posts as examples, I told my students to add a post of their own once every other week.  With ten students in the course this meant almost a post each day (although they often came in droves).  The only guideline I gave them was that the information had to have some connection to marine science.  You can read the results yourself, but I was impressed with the range of information that students added, and happy to see students commenting on each other’s posts.  A Zoomerang survey given at the end of the semester showed that 8 of 10 students agreed or strongly agreed that the blog was a helpful part of the course (the other 2 were neutral).  The one thing I would change next time is to urge students to use more diverse sources for their posts.  Almost every post was a summary of a news story from Science Daily.

The course wiki

A few years back our University started running MediaWiki software on our internal servers so that we could host our own wiki pages.  When I taught Marine Biology two years ago I had my students write information guides for species they saw during our end-of-semester field trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  I then used this content to write wiki pages on each species.  This year I assigned each of my ten students to write guides for two species each, and to add these to the wiki themselves.  Their entries needed to include some personal comment about their interaction with the species.  After some editing for style and format we now have the start of an online guide to Outer Banks coastal species that I plan to add to each year I teach the course.  And many of the students used their own pictures of the species they encountered, adding some new online content for others to use.

Both the blog and wiki seemed to engage students in material beyond the official meeting times of the class.  Students accepted both techniques quickly, and 80% found the blog valuable.  I will be curious to see how these tools work in two years when I teach the course again, as students will be building on an already rich set of content.

Mole crab molts litter the beaches

What a difference a month makes.  Back in April I brought my marine biology class to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for our end of semester field trip.  We saw lots of surf clam shells on the beach then, and some arks, but not a lot of other diversity in shells.  And the month before on a spring break trip the beaches were covered in purse crabs.  But this week it’s clear that mole crabs are in season, as the beach is littered in little Emerita molts.

Mole crab molts on the beach in Southern Shores, North Carolina

Adult mole crabs start mating in early spring and go through to fall.  Like other arthropods, males copulate with females and fertilize eggs internally.  The females then hold the developing embryos under their abdomens for 2-3 weeks (see image below), after which the larvae leave the females and live on their own in near shore areas.  The larvae then leave the water column to settle back into the surf zone in June/July and September/October, where the juveniles and adults feed on small plankton and detritus in the swash zone of the beach.  The molts I have been finding on the beach this week are all about 2 cm in length, and may be from actively mating crabs.  We did find some crabs in the swash zone back in April, but not this large number of molts.  Are the females molting prior to mating, like in blue crabs?

Female mole crab with egg mass

A very interesting study examined whether female mole crabs time the release of their larvae.  They found that the larvae do in fact leave the females in quick 5-15 minute bursts just after it becomes dark.  What is really interesting is that the larvae themselves control this timing, as the rhythmicity is also seen in egg masses that have been removed from the females.  And this rhythm continues in constant darkness, showing that it is due to some internal clock in the embryos, not simply a response to darkness.

These little ubiquitous beach crabs can pull off some impressive tricks.

The lab heads to ARVO 2010

My lab topped off a great academic year with a trip to Fort Lauderdale, Florida for the ARVO vision research meeting.  This was actually my first time bringing undergraduate students to this meeting.  Jackie Skiba and Amy Drossman did a fantastic job presenting their research on thermal adaptation in fish lens alpha crystallins.  I heard several people comment that they were impressed at the level of research being done by undergraduates at our University.  Jackie and Amy really helped promote the value of undergrad research at a meeting that puts its focus on PI’s, postdocs and grad students.

This was also the second year of ARVO’s meeting blog, and my second year of contributing.  This turned out to be a good way to share information from meeting veterans, and learn some new faces and names.