Merck Grant Expands Collaborative Faculty-Student Science Research

Story posted February 17, 2005

Bowdoin College has been awarded a $60,000 grant from the Merck/AAAS Undergraduate Science Research Program in support of interdisciplinary research in biochemistry, neuroscience, and environmental science. The highly competitive grant will be used to fund two collaborative faculty research projects, as well as student research and special programming.

These projects will build on research programs already in place at Bowdoin within each department and will allow faculty to develop new models of cross-disciplinary research involving student-faculty research teams. The teams will address questions that can only be answered by using a combination of scientific methods and will meet as a group to share ongoing research and laboratory experiences.

These projects ... will allow faculty to develop new models of cross-disciplinary research involving student-faculty research teams.

One project -- co-directed by Professor Patsy Dickinson, Director of Bowdoin's Neuroscience Program, and Elizabeth Stemmler, Associate Professor of Chemistry - continues their work on lobster neuropeptides, small transmitter molecules that play an important role in virtually all biological nervous systems. Their research on peptides has centered on the lobster, because its nervous system is relatively simple. In humans, peptides are thought to be important in control of the entire digestive system, motor patterns such as respiration, and in modifying behavior and mood.

"They're incredibly common, as it turns out, yet not always well understood," noted Dickinson. "If we can understand the basic methods by which they function in one species, it can help us understand how they may influence neurological activity across species."

The other research project is a highly interdisciplinary examination of microbes in soils and sediments found in Merrymeeting Bay, which is spearheaded by John Lichter, Assistant Professor of Biology/Environmental Studies; Biology/Biochemistry Professor Bruce Kohorn; and Associate Professor of Chemistry/Environmental Studies Dharni Vasudevan.

The project broadens Lichter's ongoing environmental study of Merrymeeting Bay, by studying the response of microbes to human-generated nutrients - such as nitrogen and phosphorus emanating from agricultural, municipal, and industrial sources. High levels of nutrients can damage the ecological balance by promoting uncontrolled algal growth, including the harmful algal blooms that periodically disrupt the shellfish industry. Microbes play an important role in breaking down nutrients, and other chemicals, and may provide researchers with a litmus test for measuring the health of the estuarine system.

"There hasn't been a lot of work on freshwater tidal systems, such as Merrymeeting Bay, so this research will provide important environmental information," said Lichter. "The Merck grant will allow groups of student researchers to conduct field studies during the summer to explore microbial diversity and function and extract DNA samples from soils.

The last time Bowdoin was awarded a Merck/AAAS award for undergraduate science education was in 1987. That grant was pivotal in helping the College develop its student summer research program, which last summer included roughly 100 students in faculty-mentored research projects, a majority of them in the sciences.

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