Scientific Research Advances at Sage

Students Saba Abuzaid, left, and Debbie Yang, right

Students Saba Abuzaid, left, and Debbie Yang, right

Thanks to a Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program grant from the New York State Department of Education, Sage will receive $2 million over five years to support underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students who are pursuing STEM majors or licensed professions. The grant was announced in June 2015 and by the end of 2016, more than 200 students have benefited. Among the academic enrichment and professional preparation that CSTEP offers is the opportunity to participate in summer research with a professor.  

Zebrafish Research Yields Clues to Human Facial Development 

When Assistant Biology Professor Kristi LaMonica, Ph.D., arrived at Russell Sage College from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in 2014, her cargo included several hundred zebrafish. Zebrafish – with a genetic makeup remarkably similar to that of humans – are the backbone (or more accurately in this case, the jawbone) – of LaMonica’s research into genes that influence face development. Now established at Russell Sage College, her fish lab in Mueller Science Hall also provides resume-building opportunities for students to gain sophisticated research skills and contribute to scientific publications.

LaMonica and her students are looking for fish that have a facial deformity, then attempting to identify the genes that caused the deformity. It is not hypothesis-driven science-as-usual, LaMonica explained. “We don’t know what we’ll find when we work backward from observing a mutation to discovering what genes are expressed and how they’ve been altered.” Identifying the genes that affect facial development in fish will lead to a better understanding of facial development and conditions like cleft palate in humans, she said. The research involves aspects of molecular biology, genetics and developmental biology. A CSTEP grant provided stipends to Saba Abuzaid RSC ’19 and Debbie Yang RSC ’17 for their research assistance in summer 2016. They spent eight weeks carrying out specialized techniques, from dissecting half-millimeter zebrafish embryos under a microscope, to performing mRNA in situ hybridizations, which help locate areas of gene expression in the fish.

Student Saba Abuzaid

Student Saba Abuzaid

Abuzaid is a Biology major who plans to attend medical school. When she talks about identifying her first mutation with assistance from LaMonica, and then finding the next one on her own, her excitement is infectious. She’s now a teaching assistant for LaMonica’s General Biology lab, which keeps her connected to the research. “I joke with Professor LaMonica that I have priority for future research roles with the fish,” she said.

Mary Witkowski RSC ’17, who is pursuing an accelerated Biology bachelor’s degree/Physical Therapy doctorate at Sage, and who worked with a team of students and LaMonica as part of an independent study, said the experience increased her understanding of how genetics affect bones, muscles and body systems. In 2016, Witkowski presented their research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, and the TriBeta (National Biology Honor Society) conference at Eastern Connecticut State University. She hopes to contribute to a publication when their research is further along.

Fish labs are not necessarily a standard offering in college-level science programs said LaMonica. Of 24 colleges in New York’s Capital Region-Adirondack area, only two others have fish labs and to LaMonica’s knowledge, Sage’s is the only one working with novel mutations. “For a small school, we can conduct amazing research and offer students amazing opportunities,” she said.

Studying Environment’s Effect on Ant  Colonies to Understand Insects’ Larger Impact 

“Ants are ubiquitous,” said Sage College of Albany Assistant Professor and Evolutionary Biologist Ken Howard, Ph.D. “You could argue that they have had a bigger influence on the environment than any vertebrate after humans. We are trying to better understand how their social structures affect their impact on everything from individual households to big agriculture.” 

Student Fei Chen and Assistant Professor Ken Howard

Student Fei Chen and Assistant Professor Ken Howard

To this end, Howard is collaborating with a  scientist at the University of Pennsylvania to study how a bacteria called Wolbachia influences the proportion of queens and workers and females to males – as well as the size of males – in acorn ant colonies (Acorn ants get their name from the empty husks in which they make their home.) The research is providing opportunities for students like Fei Chen RSC ’18 to design experiments, organize and analyze data, and conduct statistical analyses on findings.  

A CSTEP grant provided a stipend to Chen for research assistance in summer 2016. She and Howard collected 230 “nest units” – each containing 20 to 200 individual ants – from four sites in upstate New York. Chen next isolated queens, workers and males, measuring and photographing the males under a microscope. Their partner at Penn is investigating whether Wolbachia DNA is present in each nest unit; the team will later correlate the data to see if there is a connection between the presence of Wolbachia and the makeup of the colonies.  

“After verifying whether or not Wolbachia is influencing the presence and size of males, we’ll see if it is affecting social behavior in other ways, maybe shifting the development of female larvae from worker ants, which don’t reproduce, to queens, that do reproduce,” said Howard. “Wolbachia gets into all types of insects and does strange things to favor its spread.”  

He is excited to include students in his investigations. “I became interested in social insects as a student at Davidson College in North Carolina, after reading The Naturalist, by E.O. Wilson, about his work with ants, and then participating in summer research with a professor,” said Howard. “When I mentor students I try to give as full an experience as I can, from discussing the literature through data collection. They produce a stronger product. They learn what is necessary, but also what is possible.”

The following faculty members, mentors and students also collaborated on CSTEP-supported summer research in 2016:   

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dawit Demissie, Ph.D., Evans Frimpong SCA ’19, Derlis Zayas SCA ’18 and Markenzi Sainvilus SCA ’19: Research on mobile banking in developing nations, including   a quantitative study with Dutch Bangla Bank in Bangladesh. 

Administrative Law Judge Teneka Frost-Amusa, J.D., and Candace Rose RSC ’17: Research on trauma and undocumented manicurists in New York salons. 

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tom Gray, Ph.D., and Sharmise Pratt RSC ’17: Research on derivation and detection of PFOA. 

Associate Professor of Psychology and Biology Sue Jenks, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Biology Kristi LaMonica, Ph.D., and Rosemary Matala SCA ’17: Research on dopamine receptor D4 gene variation and risk-taking behavior in spotted hyenas.  

Assistant Professor of Public Health Dayna Maniccia, DrPH, and Johanna Muller RSC ’17: Research on how physical activity affects domestic violence survivors; Maniccia and Amena-Devine Ruffin RSC ’19: Research on how transphobic attitudes affect health outcomes within the transgender community of color. 

Associate Professor of Nutrition Ryan Mitchell, Ph.D., and Rachelle Valenzuela RSC ’17: Research on the effect of caffeine combined with carbohydrates on the time trial performance of recreational cyclists. 

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Emilly Obuya, Ph.D., and Sarina Schwing: Research on the synthesis and characterization of titanium dioxide; Obuya and Sharda Persaud RSC ’19: Research on photodegradation of contaminants in water.