Things, however, in Randolph-Macon College’s Copley Science Center may not always be as they seem.
“These 3-D fluorescent images actually allow us to see different proteins found in developing fruit fly embryos,” said Traci Stevens, a biology professor at R-MC and one of the principal faculty members behind Randolph-Macon’s efforts to acquire the instrument that produced the images – a laser confocal scanning microscope.
While most science students will learn to use the microscope this fall, two R-MC seniors – Kaitlyn Vernier and Nick Artabazon – were scoping things out early this past summer as part of the college’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. Both Vernier and Artabazon were working under Stevens’ guidance to study how a mutant protein, Bcr-Abl, leads to the development of chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML) in humans. To gain a better understanding of the effect of this mutant protein on cells in a live organism, Vernier and Artabazon used fruit flies as a model system. Specifically, through genetic techniques, they examined how Bcr-Abl affects the proteins normally found in cells by way of fruit fly embryos. The visualization of these individual proteins, however, is only possible with the confocal microscope, which makes this resource invaluable to R-MC, Stevens said. This ground-breaking research project is a continuation of a study done by Stevens during her post-doctorate studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. For the past few summers, students have been working alongside Stevens hoping to discover new data on how Bcr-Abl leads to the development of leukemia, which could in turn help scientists develop a drug treatment. During the summer, though, the college’s new confocal microscope took this project to the next level. Previously, students had to use the University of Richmond’s microscope, which also meant they lost valuable lab time at R-MC. Trips back and forth to Richmond, however, are a thing of the past. “Before we got the new microscope,” Vernier said, “I was planning to drive all the way to the University of Richmond, which would lead to more work because I would have had to pre-prepare all of my slides and if I accidentally forgot something, I’d be even more behind because I’d have to make another trip into Richmond. Having this equipment here at R-MC, though, is opening new doors for me. I’m not only making new discoveries within this fascinating research project, I’m also getting a leg up on research I’ll be doing in graduate school.” Artabazon echoed Vernier’s sentiments: “I eventually want to get my Ph.D. in cell biology and genetics, and the opportunities I’ve had at R-MC are placing me on the right track to achieve that goal,” he said. “The chance to do research at this level, combined with the chance to use the new microscope, will put me steps ahead when I enter graduate school.”
Located on the first floor of Copley, the microscope sits in the corner of a small, dark room. Stevens slips a slide onto the scope’s stage, and slowly brings into focus a bright green and red, oblong image on two nearby computer screens. The bright green spots show where the mutant protein Bcr-Abl is present, while the red outlines the individual cells, she said. If this cell belonged to a human, he or she would have leukemia. While that much is known, however, what remains a mystery is how the protein alters the cell to then cause the disease, she added. With Stevens and her team of student researchers behind the microscope, though, perhaps an answer lies on the horizon. Or perhaps Jim Foster, also an R-MC biology professor, and his students will discover novel sperm proteins involved in egg binding during fertilization. Ultimately, this information could lead to important developments in contraceptives. For Kelly Lambert, this new tool will allow her and her students to gather visual data about how brain cells change in response to certain situations, such as being a parent or being chronically stressed. “In education, the days of ‘tell em and test em’ are over,” Coppola said. “Studies of how people learn have clearly shown us that students learn best when actively involved in problem solving. In the sciences, that takes research, not just hearing about it. Modern scientific research equipment, however, is incredibly expensive. Grants like the one from NSF that allowed us to purchase the confocal microscope, though increasingly difficult to obtain, provide some of the instrumentation we need to continue to offer top-notch science education at Randolph-Macon.”