One of the qualities that makes January Short Term at Hollins so special is the opportunity for undergraduates to engage in a travel/study program. Professor of Classical Studies Tina Salowey and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter are leading a group of 20 students as they spend three weeks this month immersing themselves in the history and culture of Greece.
“Tourists tend to think of Greece as a destination, but for this J-Term abroad course, we will study it as a crossroads, where people of different backgrounds have traveled from ancient times to the present,” Salowey explains.
The topics the group may experience onsite include Greek myths that involve travel quests, ancient pilgrims who traversed Greece to attend Panhellenic festivals, early modern perceptions of the territory as a crossroad of East and West, and the related ways that Greece historically has been a site for invasion, occupation, and empire, as well as a point of transit for refugees. Geographically, the Hollins student travel group will emphasize Athens/Attica, the Peloponnesus, and parts of central Greece.
Last summer, biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a research team in the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of only 1,300 students chosen to work in the program from over 10,000 national and international applicants, Greene spent 12 weeks investigating a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are only 300 cases known worldwide.
The NIH experience offered Greene valuable credentials and crucial preparation for achieving her goal of gaining acceptance to one of the nation’s highly selective M.D./Ph.D. programs, so she was delighted when the UDP invited her back this summer to continue her research into CHD.
“I was back in the same lab working with the same people, but this summer’s research focused on a different facet of the disease,” she explains. “Last year, I primarily conducted tissue culture experiments on fibroblast skin cells, but this year I was studying CHD’s neuropathology.”
While the classic CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, and immunodeficiency, adult sufferers of CHD are prone to experiencing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s: balance issues, motor skill loss, and/or some developmental delay. “We have no idea what causes these neurological symptoms, so I did a lot of experiments on the neuropathology of the mouse models of CHD.”
Greene zeroed in two factors that cause Parkinson’s, the first being Purkinje cell loss in the cerebellum. “This part of the brain is located at the base of the skull and Purkinje cells are responsible for the cerebellum’s role in managing motor function. One theory is that Purkinje cell loss or death might cause Parkinson’s, because if you lose them, they never grow back, and you’re going to lose motor function over time.”
She also explored a particular pathway in the brain that, if not functioning correctly, could create symptoms of Parkinson’s. “An enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, or TH for short, is part of this pathway and it converts the amino acid L-DOPA into dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps in part to regulate movement. If TH isn’t functioning properly, you’re stuck with just L-DOPA and you’re not going to have enough dopamine.”
While this research shows promise, Greene says much of her work proved frustrating. But, she found that her experience with failure as a researcher last summer with NIH was invaluable in building her persistence and resilience.
“What I learned from my epigenetic reading is that the essence of research is that you’re not trying to prove anything, you’re trying to disprove something. In order to be successful, you have to fail. Goodness knows, I failed so many times this summer, but I was more prepared for it having gone through it the previous summer.”
Greene was also ready to handle lab politics for the first time. “The research world can be dog-eat-dog and very competitive. Sometimes egos get into the way of each other. But I drew upon my experience from the Batten Leadership Institute (BLI) at Hollins to deal with that, and as a result I feel that someday I can be a successful leader in the lab.”
Greene says she is tentatively planning to work at NIH again next summer as a springboard to gaining one to two more years of solid research experience, a prerequisite for many M.D./Ph.D. programs. In the meantime, she’s enjoying her senior year experience at Hollins. “It’s a time to reflect and enjoy where you are and who you are, and so honestly my goal this year is to have fun with that. I’m taking Latin 101 and learning about Roman culture, and I’m also taking a theatre appreciation class because I’ve always loved theatre, and I’m mentoring students through BLI.
“I want to do things to make myself a well-rounded person. M.D./Ph.D. programs want to see that. Of course, they want to know that you are dedicated to your science, but they also want to know what you’re doing outside of that to enrich your research.”
In the fight to stop the spread of Lyme disease in the United States, one crucial question has baffled scientists: Why is the disease so prevalent in the northeastern U.S., but in the southeast, relatively few cases have been reported? The trend persists even though the blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks) that transmit Lyme through their bites can be found throughout the eastern part of the country.
Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies/Environmental Science Liz Gleim, who is also a tick biologist, says one hypothesis has recently gained traction: the possibility that “the northern and southern populations of the blacklegged tick are genetically distinct, and that difference manifests itself in terms of how ticks quest for a host. A questing tick is one that’s crawling up on the tips of vegetation and hoping a human or animal host is going to brush up against them and they can hop a ride.”
Northern ticks have been found to be far more aggressive when questing and thus more likely to get on people than southern ticks, who tend to live in leaf litter where humans are less prone to come in contact with them.
Even within Virginia, Gleim notes that ticks from the coastal, central, and southwestern parts of the state exhibit different questing behaviors from one another. This phenomenon is the basis for a project this summer in which Gleim is collaborating with scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Richmond to discover what makes ticks tick.
“Ticks along the coast are generally not as aggressive as those here in the Roanoke area. So what we’re doing is collecting ticks locally, around Richmond, and along the Virginia seaboard, sort of an east-west gradient, in the hope that we get populations that may be showing different questing behaviors,” Gleim explains. “Is their behavior actually controlled by genes, or it prompted by three distinctive climates? The hope is that we’ll be able to find out.”
Gleim and her fellow researchers are taking the ticks they gather between Roanoke, Richmond, and the coast, and placing them in what she describes as “tick arenas,” containers that are located in mature hardwood forest areas, the preferred habitat of blacklegged ticks. At Hollins, the tick arenas have been situated in the woods adjacent to the northeastern part of campus.
“It’s a very cool way in which we can take advantage of our beautiful natural forests that are convenient to campus,” Gleim states. “We’re really lucky because the folks who are conducting research in Richmond and on the coast are having to use public lands, so they have to go through the process of working with state and public officials and securing permission.”
Students from Hollins and the University of Richmond will be working with Gleim on the project at the Hollins site. “They’ll be coming out multiple times a week to make observations on the ticks to see what sorts of questing behaviors they are exhibiting.”
Faculty members from the biology and environmental studies/environmental science programs at Hollins assisted Gleim in constructing the tick arenas and addressing a key concern: how to ensure the ticks they’re studying stay in place while keeping out the ticks that already live in the surrounding forest. “We’re putting sterilized leaf litter into the containers so that we’re certain we’re not inadvertently picking up ticks that aren’t part of our research,” Gleim says. “Installing metal flashing and chicken wire will not only help us keep ticks out but also prevent small mammals or wildlife from entering the arenas. The last zone of defense is this sticky material that’s almost like a paste that we use to coat the inside of each area. So, any ticks that try to leave or enter the arenas will get stuck.”
Gleim and her fellow researchers will be placing ticks in the arenas during the last couple of weeks in May. The study will continue through early and mid-July to coincide with when the blacklegged tick is naturally active.
Conducting tick research at Hollins is fitting. As Gleim notes, “Roanoke itself is a major focal point for Lyme disease. If you look at a map of Lyme cases in the U.S., there’s literally this bright red spot on Roanoke. Areas north of here have a seen a lot of it, too, but southward, there isn’t much. One theory is that northern ticks are making their way down through the mountains to the southern region.”
Featured photo: Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson (left) and Professor of Biology Renee Godard work on several of the tick arenas that will facilitate this summer’s study of blacklegged tick behavior and the impact of genetics versus the environment.
Katlin Gott ’18 came to Hollins four years ago with a goal of becoming a veterinarian, and now the biology major and chemistry minor has earned the opportunity to take the next major step in making her dream a reality.
The senior from Fairfax, Virginia, has been accepted at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, a leading biomedical teaching and research center. The college admits just 50 Virginia residents to its Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) program each year.
Gott complemented her classroom and lab work at Hollins by working as a veterinary assistant and completing internships in Roanoke and elsewhere, including a Signature internship in West Virginia with veterinary physician and Hollins alumna Jacqueline Chevalier ’01.
Another highlight of Gott’s academic career was spending Spring Term of her junior year in the rainforests of Peru with the School for Field Studies Center for Amazon Studies. While there, she was able to combine her interests in ecology and animal disease by studying gut parasite loads in primates. Her research project, “The Effect of Environmental Factors on Endoparasite Load and Diversity in Black-Capped Night Monkeys (Aotus Nigriceps),” was featured at Hollins’ 61st Annual Science Seminar last month.
“Our results suggest that human disturbance significantly increases parasite species diversity based on the changes in forest density,” Gott reports. “Future research will focus on determining if the degree of forest disturbance plays a role in these relationships, and if zoonotic transmission of parasites between humans and the black-capped night monkeys is occurring.”
Along with her academic work, Gott has been actively involved in a range of campus activities. Along with serving as vice president of the Pre-Med Club, she has represented the group Voices for Unity in the SGA Senate, and, she adds, “I also play guitar, and I’ve been a part of ensembles and played as an accompanying guitarist for a few choral events.”
Gott will begin pursuit of her D.V.M. degree this fall.
From the Dana Science Building and the surrounding community to the Chesapeake Bay, Caribbean Sea, South America, and Southeast Asia, Hollins students worked closely with science and mathematics faculty throughout this academic year to perform considerable hands-on research in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, mathematics, physics, and psychology.
Twenty-three students discussed their research with the campus community during the 61st Annual Science Seminar, held April 26 in Moody Student Center’s Ballator Gallery.
This year’s poster session featured abstracts for 18 research projects. The initiatives included endeavors that focused on the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on fish biodiversity and abundance in the U.S. Virgin Islands; the effect of environmental and social factors on black-capped night monkeys in Peru; and the abundance and richness of fish in the wetlands of Cambodia. Closer to home, student researchers studied glioblastoma, the most lethal and most common form of brain cancer, at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and explored the economic and ecological benefits of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. At Hollins, they examined the impact of the emerald ash borer on the campus tree population; the functionality of prosthetic limbs for upper extremity amputees; and new, promising treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.
Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and first-year students were all among the researchers featured at this year’s Science Seminar. Some of the goals members of the class of 2018 who participated in the event plan to pursue after graduating from Hollins include:
Attending Eastern Virginia Medical School to complete an M.D. degree.
Pursuing a career as a physician assistant.
Beginning a Ph.D. program in ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society at Dartmouth College.
Attending the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to complete a D.V.M. degree.
Studying sustainability science and policy through a graduate program in The Netherlands.
Megan David ’18 and Emili McPhail ’18 have earned an unprecedented achievement for Hollins.
The communication studies majors won first and second place, respectively, at the 16th annual Student Undergraduate Research Forum (SURF), held at Lynchburg College on March 17.
The Lynchburg College website says SURF “brings together undergraduate students from colleges in the region to present original undergraduate research. The students’ original research and oral presentations are evaluated by a panel of judges and awards are given. The students gain valuable experience in doing research and get insight into the possibility of pursuing their research interests in graduate school.”
In addition to Hollins and Lynchburg, participating institutions include Liberty University, Longwood University, Radford University, Randolph College, and Sweet Briar College.
David captured the top prize with her paper presentation, “Oh the Places We Have Gone: The Interplay between Study Abroad and Social Media.” McPhail’s second-place paper, “Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities: Finding Meaning with the Famous,” also focused on social media. Both papers were based on the students’ individual senior theses, which were completed under the guidance of Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter.
Sponsored by Associate Professor of Communication Studies Lori Joseph, Hollins communication studies students have participated in SURF since 2013 and have consistently earned honors.
One of the ways in which the liberal arts demonstrates its power is when faculty from one academic major actively support and encourage a student from a completely different major, even when those programs seemingly have nothing in common.
Chemistry major Veronica Able-Thomas ’19 learned first-hand last winter the strong connection across disciplines found at liberal arts schools such as Hollins.
“Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved chemistry, but at Hollins I also took French classes throughout my first year and during the first semester of my sophomore year. I actually got to spend the January 2017 Short Term in France,” Able-Thomas recalls. “While I was there [Professor of French] Annette Sampon-Nicolas contacted me about a summer research opportunity that would complement my pre-med track and biochemistry concentration at Hollins.”
Sampon-Nicolas urged Able-Thomas to pursue a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) in Roanoke, where undergraduate students spend ten weeks in a rigorous experiential learning program.
“We’re bringing students from Virginia Tech and several other universities into an environment of trans-disciplinary collaboration and working relationships,” VTCRI Associate Professor Michael Fox said in a recent Virginia Tech news article. “We’re providing the students with hands-on, independent research at VTCRI in the laboratory as well as special seminars that highlight cutting-edge neuroscience research at Virginia Tech.”
Able-Thomas was one of only 20 students accepted out of more than 80 applicants into the SURF program. She spent the summer working with Assistant Professor James Smyth and Research Assistant Professor Samy Lamouille in the Molecular Visualization SURF program investigating brain cancer.
“I focused on glioblastoma, an extremely lethal brain tumor that accounts for the highest number of all malignant tumors,” she explains. “Glioblastoma encompasses a group of cells known as glioma stem cells, which have shown to be resistant to temozolomide, a drug taken during chemotherapy.
“Previous research identified a new molecule that can prevent migration of glioma stem cells. My project was to analyze its effect on microtubule dynamics in these cancer stem cells. This involved the use of various laboratory techniques, imaging technologies, and computing software to visualize and analyze cells.”
Able-Thomas describes the lab atmosphere at VTCRI as “very collaborative, any time I had questions I could always ask,” and credits her academic experience at Hollins for successfully preparing her to thrive in such an intensive program. “The classroom is very open at Hollins, everyone has their own voice and everyone can speak out. Discussions are always happening. I wasn’t intimidated at all when I went to VTCRI.”
Following its completion, Able-Thomas presented her research project at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposia. She says her work as a SURF student has convinced her to consider specializing in oncology, and during the January 2018 Short Term she plans to complete an internship shadowing physicians in Gambia, where she grew up. Next summer, she hopes to return again to VTCRI.
“It was so wonderful the way a professor who isn’t even in the sciences at Hollins reached out to me with this opportunity,” she says. “It’s a great example of how professors interact here. I’m extremely grateful.”
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“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon’s 1986 song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” proclaims, and more than 30 years later, those words continue to resonate. Constant breakthroughs in medical research and treatment, for example, offer many the confidence that healthcare professionals can recognize and effectively address the vast majority of maladies and disorders.
Yet, despite the rapid pace of medical progress, there remain a remarkable number of people who suffer from illnesses that cannot be identified or remedied. As a result, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, created the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) in 2008. Today, the UDP welcomes more than 100 new pediatric and adult patients each year from across the nation and around the world whose afflictions are a mystery to the medical community.
“Ultimately, the UDP offers patients the hope of a diagnosis and the possibility of therapeutic strategies,” the program’s website states. “In return, patients provide UDP researchers the opportunity to gain new insights about genetic and biochemical mechanisms of disease and insights into normal cell biology, biochemistry and physiology.”
This summer, Hollins biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a UDP research team. She competed with over 10,000 national and international applicants to earn one of only 1,300 12-week student positions within the NIH Intramural Research Program, the world’s largest biomedical research institution.
“I worked on a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are roughly only 300 cases known worldwide,” Greene explains. “The classical CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, and prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, which can be dangerous. Children with CHD also have immune deficiencies that make them prone to recurrent infections, and while a bone marrow transplant can help boost the immune system, the procedure is effective only temporarily. The disease can accelerate and be fatal.
“The atypical CHD case occurs in early adulthood. Adults with CHD don’t face the rate of infection that children do, but they are more likely to experience neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. We don’t know why that is.”
To learn more, the scientists with whom Greene studied CHD are focusing on the LYST gene. “We don’t know what this gene does, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, but we know when this gene mutates it causes CHD. To truly solve this disease and do more than treat its symptoms, you have to understand the pathogenesis of the disease, and to that end we’re comparing the mutations of the LYST gene for classical and atypical patients.”
Greene calls the UDP lab atmosphere “open, welcoming, and wonderful. You have a supervisor and of course they are going to tell you what to do, but communication is a two-way street. You’re encouraged to brainstorm and collaborate and help one another. It’s an incredible community for learning.”
Because of her time at NIH, Greene says she is convinced she can pursue both her passions in the medical field. “I enjoy the clinical side and I love the research side and I kind of want to marry the two together,” she explains. “Both are important to me because I want to see who I’m helping.”
After graduating from Hollins, Greene is looking at enrolling in a combined M.D./Ph.D. program where she is able to work on her doctorate while attending medical school. Such programs are very selective – Greene cites one in particular that admits just 13 students from over 800 applicants – but she says NIH has given her valuable credentials and crucial preparation.
“What M.D./Ph.D. programs look for is research experience and how you handle the failure that comes with that experience. I’ve never been at a place like NIH that is so successful and yet talks so much about failure, the certainty of it as a researcher, and how you react to it. Are you going to get frustrated and throw in the towel, or are you going to be resilient, persistent, and keep going? The schools I’m considering all want to see how you fail because that is guaranteed, and NIH sees failure as a launching pad to success.”
Greene plans to take two years after she graduates to conduct research “and have this opportunity to fail and succeed.” In the meantime, she plans to build upon the foundation of research she’s established as a Hollins undergraduate. “The biology department faculty is amazing and they have been so supportive of me in growing my curiosity, not just in the biomedical field but also in ecology, zoology, and marine biology. For example, I have gone with [Professors Renee Godard and Morgan Wilson] to St. John in the Virgin Islands during J-term to research marine biodiversity. I’ve definitely become invested in it.”
Greene will spend Spring Term 2018 studying abroad in Ireland at the University of Limerick.
“The Dana Science Building, and all of Hollins, is its own community that is supportive and provides a framework for the future.”
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“Tree of heaven” conjures images of a magnificent plant species reaching toward the sky as the centerpiece of a thriving, bucolic landscape. But, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is one of the most deceptive names in all of nature. In reality, the tree is an invasive ecological nuisance, displacing a wide range of other trees and plants and wreaking havoc among both agricultural and natural environments across the United States.
One of the researchers who studied the tree of heaven in recent months is Elaine Metz ’19, who was among the first Hollins University students to take advantage of a new partnership between Hollins and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The affiliation offers undergraduate students at Hollins summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs and field study locations. As Vice President for Academic Affairs Trish Hammer notes, “Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields.”
A biology major from Staunton, Virginia, Metz spent ten weeks working in Virginia Tech’s forest entomology lab investigating an organic way to combat the tree of heaven. “A naturally occurring fungus here in Virginia appears to offer an effective way to attack the tree,” she explains. One of the benefits of such a fungus is “it’s not like a pesticide. You can insert it into the ecosystem and let it go wild.”
Metz studied the fungus in six different plots. Three are located in Virginia’s Piedmont region and three are in the more mountainous region of the state.
“It’s definitely a long-term project, but hopefully by the end we may be able to use that fungus as a control throughout the entire continental United States.”
Metz worked closely on the project with Virginia Tech graduate student Rachel Brooks, “who taught me a ton about graduate school and how I need to prepare. I liked having a single project that I could focus on and to which I could really devote myself. I think that bodes well for graduate school for me because I’m thinking that’s what it’s going to be like, focusing on a single thing for a couple of years, fleshing it out, and working with it in-depth.”
Metz believes this kind of experience balances “the broader education that you receive as an undergraduate.”
In addition to her work with the tree of heaven, Metz took part in a variety of professional development activities at Virginia Tech, including writing personal statements, presenting research, and touring other labs and research facilities.
“This has helped me think of my career in a more tangible way. It has always been in my mind that I wanted to do scientific research, and this made me realize this is something I could do as a job and enjoy it.” Metz says one the most important lessons she learned was that she could avail herself of several different options to achieve her goals. For example, “if I don’t want to go straight from Hollins into graduate school, I could potentially go out for six months to a year and study with different professors. I’d get to travel, too – a lot of lab work spaces are in interesting places in the biological sciences. I could understand more about what I might want to do with my career before I go to grad school, which is really a great opportunity for me. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, but because of this experience I know where I might be able to go. I have more of an idea and a purpose than I would have had if I had not participated in this program.”
Her ten weeks at Virginia Tech complement what Metz has gained from her first two years at Hollins. “Because of its liberal arts environment, Hollins allows me to explore in a lot of different ways, and that exploration doesn’t hinder my ability to get a degree. I’m a biology major, but I’m taking Roman history and Spanish translation – not at all in my field, but I’m taking those courses because I can. Having a diversity of opportunity at Hollins has really made it special for me, so it’s a really good thing to get that aspect here and at Tech get specificity and the ability to go in deep.”
This academic year, Metz’s educational journeys will take her beyond the Hollins campus, Virginia Tech’s labs and field plots, and even Virginia itself: Through the School for Field Studies, she will be spending Spring Term 2018 in Peru. “I’ll be spending a lot of time in the jungle and cloud forests and experiencing a lot of different and unique ecosystems.”
Photo Credit: Cassandra Hockman, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech
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Hollins University and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech have signed a memorandum of understanding to offer undergraduate students at Hollins summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs.
Hollins students will participate in a research project as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s ten-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program. Qualified students receive housing and a stipend from Hollins, and Virginia Tech is providing research resources and infrastructure, including lab space, equipment, and supplies.
“Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields,” said Trish Hammer, vice president for academic affairs at Hollins
William Hopkins, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment and director of the Global Change Center, stressed the uniqueness of the partnership. “It has the dual goals of providing undergraduate research opportunities while simultaneously recruiting these same undergraduates to Virginia Tech for graduate school. One of the most important factors leading to a student’s success in graduate school is an effective mentor-mentee relationship. This partnership allows both the mentee and mentor to assess whether they are a good match before fully committing to a longer-term professional endeavor.”
Among the key components of the partnership, Hollins and Virginia Tech are:
Collaborating on recognizing possible pairings between Virginia Tech mentors and Hollins undergraduates according to the students’ research interests.
Overseeing these associations and research initiatives.
Offering graduate school recruitment support as promising relationships are identified.
“We expect the partnership will grow in the coming years and certainly strengthen both the undergraduate programs at Hollins and the graduate programs at Virginia Tech,” said Hammer.
Shannen Kelly ’19, who is a double major in environmental science and Spanish, and biology major Elaine Metz ’19 are the first two Hollins students taking part in the program this summer. Read about their research experiences here.
Photo:From left – Keri Swaby, coordinator, Virginia Tech Office of Undergraduate Research; Janet Webster, associate director, Fralin Life Science Institute; Nancy Gray, recently retired president, Hollins University; William Hopkins, professor and director, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech; Trish Hammer, vice president for academic affairs, Hollins University; and John McDowell, professor and associate scientific director, Fralin Life Science Institute.