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New Biology Grant Provides for More Faculty-Student Research

December 17, 2018

Dawn Mist Movich-Fields BA ’20

Assistant Professor of Biology Norma Velazquez-Ulloa in her lab.Assistant Professor of Biology Norma Velazquez-Ulloa in her lab.Assistant Professor of Biology Norma Velazquez-Ulloa has been awarded a New Investigator grant from the Medical Research Foundation, in connection with OHSU, to continue her research on identifying genes that mediate the effects of developmental nicotine exposure. This $40,000 competitive award will help support Velazquez-Ulloa and her team of two undergraduate researchers as they expand their current research into how nicotine affects the nervous system during development. This grant follows a three-year M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust Natural Sciences research grant and two-year Partners in Science award.

Velazquez-Ulloa’s research uses the common fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) as a model organism to measure nicotine exposure during development and how it can negatively affect offspring. She hopes to add to her research how nicotine exposure can interfere with the normal development of the organism, including changes to the nervous system that may have consequences on behavior later in life.

“One of the main reasons I came to Lewis & Clark College is to have the opportunity to mentor students in research. I love the type of close interactions and the workshop-style training that happens in a laboratory setting,” said Velazquez-Ulloa, who joined L&C’s faculty in 2013. “In some ways it is like teaching someone to play an instrument and become a musician. There are technical aspects to working in a lab, but also learning the context of the experiments, the rationale for them, the main questions the research is trying to solve, and all the aspects of biological research. It is extremely rewarding to see students learn and become progressively more sophisticated in how they approach asking questions, analyzing data, and presenting their research findings.”

In her time on Palatine Hill, Velazquez-Ulloa has mentored undergraduate students, high school students, and even a high school teacher.

“The research students in my lab and I are carrying out is a way to think outside the box,” said Velazquez-Ulloa. “We are using a genetic approach that allows us to find novel proteins that have not been previously thought to be involved in how nicotine acts. The information to make proteins is encoded in the genome. Specific genes encode specific proteins. By identifying genes that mediate effects of developmental nicotine exposure, we are also identifying the proteins that carry out the function and would be potential targets for developing new therapies,” she said.

Ariel Shaw BA ’19, a biochemistry/molecular biology major and Portland native, has worked with Velazquez-Ulloa since high school, and has found her time in the lab invaluable.

It has been a really enriching experience. This last summer of research was my fifth year as an intern in the Velazquez-Ulloa lab. She is a great professor that encourages growth and ownership. I am able to apply the skills and mindset encouraged in the lab to excel in my courses,” she said.

Between now and when the project begins next summer, Velazquez-Ulloa will put out a description of her research, and students will apply to work in her lab. Those that are selected will be part of the 2019 Rogers Summer Research Program. The program prepares students for a career in science by supporting collaborative efforts between students and faculty. The students are not only trained as scientists, but scientists with the goal of communicating their work to the general public.

“My experience in the lab has been priceless. It has given me the confidence to ask the questions nobody has thought to ask, and the skills to answer these questions,” continued Shaw. “My lab experience has benefited me in all subjects, not just the sciences. I am able to problem solve, work in a team, and organize multiple projects at a time. By working in a lab you are also able to form a bond with a professor that is invaluable as you navigate the college experience and beyond.”

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