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Student researches molecular defects that can cause Alzheimer’s disease

August 21, 2013

  • Professor of Physics Bethe Scalettar

During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Ben Robinson ’15 is working alongside Professor of Physics Bethe Scalettar to study the ways in which high-resolution microscopes can help us understand memory formation. Their cutting-edge research contributes to a field currently studying the causes of diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. In the following Q&A, Robinson reflects on his experience:

What are you researching? What question or problem are you trying to answer/solve with your research?

I am working on a project in a field that is fascinating, rapidly advancing, and interdisciplinary. Specifically, I am using super-resolution fluorescence microscopy to study aspects of the molecular basis of learning and memory formation. Super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, sometimes called nanoscopy, is a cutting-edge technique that allows microscopists to obtain images with markedly enhanced resolution and quality, making it possible to study previously inaccessible aspects of normal and aberrant cell function with a microscope. For example, I am using super-resolution microscopy to analyze the dynamics and organization of tiny transport packets, called dense-core granules, which carry proteins implicated in learning and memory formation throughout nerve cells.

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

The results that we obtain from our studies will provide insight into how transport and delivery of key proteins lead to improved communication between nerve cells and thus to learning and memory formation. Our results also will provide insight into how defects in transport and localization of these proteins can cause disease. Explaining the molecular basis of learning and memory formation is a subject of intense current interest and value to the medical community because molecular defects are implicated in causing diseases like Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s. Thus, by demonstrating the molecular attributes of normal and abnormal learning and memory formation, it may be possible to develop treatments or cures for devastating diseases of the brain.

Is any of your research taking place off campus? If so, what’s that experience like?

The super-resolution microscope that I am using is at Oregon Health & Science University. It’s been great to be involved in research that takes place in two diverse settings—a relatively small liberal arts college and a very large institution that doubles as a medical school.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

Working closely with faculty has been a great experience. The advice, help, and knowledge that our Lewis & Clark faculty has to offer is vast. It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to be taught so much.

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

I know that all opportunities to further my education will give me insight that will serve me well in both life and my career.

About the program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to participate in graduate-level research with an emphasis on strengthening their communication skills by requiring them to present their findings. This summer, 40 students are pursuing topics that range from artificial intelligence and motivating behavior to holographic tweezers and zebra fish. Working closely with peers and faculty members, students undertake research questions and present their work in two public venues.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentation at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 18, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Department of Physics Rogers Summer Research Projects 

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.






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