Salty and Fatty
Physics and chemistry students work across disciplines to explore independent research questions
How do the fields of physics and chemistry combine to answer questions about DNA and cell membranes? Easily, according to Chemistry Prof. Shelli Frey and Physics Prof. Kurt Andresen, who worked together this past spring to teach a lab course focused on biophysics and biochemistry called “Chem/Phy 358: X-Lab: Salty and Fatty.”
The course is part of the Cross-Disciplinary Science Institute at Gettysburg College (X-SIG), which is funded in part by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Frey and Andresen planned the course as part of the initial grant application, combining their research interests and disciplines to create an interdisciplinary laboratory course addressing cutting-edge topics.
Andresen’s research makes up the “Salty” portion of the course - his background focuses on how DNA packs into our cells, which has implications for how genes can be turned on and off to prevent inherited diseases. For example, if someone discovers they carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, it is indicative that they have a higher risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer in their lifetime. Turning the gene off could potentially lower their risk of getting breast or ovarian cancer. Andresen’s research investigates the physical forces that contribute to the packing (or turning off) of these genes.
Frey’s research makes up the “Fatty” portion of the course – which addresses how macromolecules, essentially biologically relevant large molecules, interact with cell membranes. Her research has implications for anything the cell comes in contact with ranging from nanoparticles found in sunscreen to proteins that contribute to neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington’s.
Consisting of twelve students majoring in physics, biochemistry & molecular biology (BMB), or chemistry, the course focuses on gaining hands-on experience by replicating research to learn advanced laboratory skills, exploring techniques outside of their own discipline, and ultimately designing a new biophysical research project with a goal of obtaining data suitable for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
“You won’t typically find an upper level science course that encompasses such a diversity of disciplines, especially in the laboratory,” stated Frey. Traditionally, undergraduates wouldn’t have this exposure to a problem-based approach across scientific fields until graduate school or later. Frey and Andresen modeled the course after what students experience during the first six months of graduate school.
“I saw the class as an opportunity to explore an area of physics (biophysics) that was not taught in the traditional curriculum,” said physics major Sarah Hansen ’17. “In all of the sciences, it is almost impossible to do any research without connecting it to other sciences. In this class, we were able to connect physics, biology, and chemistry to look at different problems and systems from differing vantage points.”
Initially students were responsible for teaching mini lessons on all the major topics and techniques that were studied throughout the semester. After that, six weeks of the course were conducted as a “Biophysics Bootcamp.” This was an opportunity for students to learn how to read scientific papers, use biophysics techniques and design protocols, perform data analysis, and gain the tools necessary to work independently in the lab. Working in pairs from different disciplines, the students recreated three experiments to refine their skills.
“We want students to learn how to interact as a working scientist too,” said Andresen. “It’s one thing to excel at presenting a PowerPoint, it’s another to be able to have an intelligent informal discussion amongst your peers. Your scientific reputation is based on being able to talk about your research in this way.”
David Van Doren ’16, a BMB major, was excited about the independent research opportunity that encompassed the second half of the course, “We were able to research a biophysics related topic and design a set of experiments that have not been performed before.” Each experiment went through a peer-review process in the class where students had to explain and defend their proposal.
Van Doren worked with Hansen to investigate the properties of pH-sensitive liposomes, which could potentially function as a drug-delivery system. “Liposomes can release their internal contents when they are exposed to an acidic environment,” said Van Doren. “They show promise in the field of drug- delivery, as they can be constructed to release their drug contents at very specific locations of the body as long as they are more acidic than the surrounding environment.” Their research has the potential to work as a cancer treatment by eradicating cancer cells, as tumor regions are often more acidic than the rest of the body.
“Working across disciplines and making these connections changes the types of research questions you can answer,” stated Andresen. “We wanted the students to have the opportunity to research a new question, something that has never been explored before, that they could potentially submit for publication.”
Van Doren agrees, “Many professional labs are moving towards interdisciplinary collaboration to begin solving problems that have not been solved using single-disciplinary approaches.”
This is the first science course in a series that utilizes multiple disciplines in a laboratory setting. The next course, “X:Lab: Drugs and Cells,” will focus on the intersection of biology and chemistry, taught by health sciences Prof. Josef Brandauer and chemistry Prof. Tim Funk.
Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.
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Posted: Tue, 23 Jun 2015
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