Six biology students receive honors; five finalize research theses for biology departmental honors

Honors awards went to six biology students shown below.

Serena Kankash
College Honors,
Biology Departmental
Honors, W. Christina
Carlson Award in Biology,
Eleanor M. McMahon Award

Kiely Shultz
College Honors and
Biology Departmental Honors

Amanda Albanese
Biology Departmental Honors, Theodore Lemshka Award
in Biology

Tyler Zalobowski
Biology Departmental Honors

Nicole Gadbois
Biology Departmental

Megan Tkach
General Education Honors

Five of these students, who finished their biology honors research theses, received biology departmental honors.

“Along with several other students working with professors, these students gained hands-on research experiences in the laboratory, but brought their work to the next level,” said Rebeka Merson, assistant professor of biology.

A member of the Biology Department Honors Committee said the quality of the students’ written work was “clear and lucid. In addition to the substantial amount of time spent working in lab, it was clear that the students had also spent time familiarizing themselves with the literature and project background. I believe that the quality of the projects was similar to those submitted as master’s degrees at many schools.”

Honors research theses:

Kiely Shultz - “Species vs. Height as Predictors of Increased Growth Rate in New England Canopy Trees”
This study is part of a larger study on the effect of an experimentally created gap on adult canopy trees. Shultz’s question was to determine if the significantly larger radial growth response of Acer saccharum (sugar maple), and the relatively smaller response of Quercus rubra (red oak), to the creation of an experimental gap in 2000, was due to a species effect and not to the confounding effect of tree height, sugar maple being shorter, on average, than red oaks.

Using a combination of one-way and two-way ANOVAs, Shultz was able to exclude height as a potential confounder, and to verify that the differential growth response between sugar maple and red oak was indeed due to a difference in species.

– Roland deGouvenain, assistant professor of biology

Serena Kankash - “Localization of Ufd2a transcripts in adult and fry zebrafish”
Nicole Gadbois - “Expression of three novel alternative splice forms of Ufd2a during zebrafish development”

Assistant professor Sarah Spinette (second from right) is joined by students
Nicole Gadbois, Kiely Shultz and Serena Kankash.
Ubiquitination factor 2a (Ufd2a) is an enzyme involved in the degradation of specific proteins in cells. Genetically engineered mouse embryos which do not express Ufd2a, die in utero (prior to birth) due to massive cardiomyocyte cell death.

Recently, Sarah Spinette discovered skeletal and cardiac muscle cells produce novel variants of Ufd2a. There are many advantages to studying the role of such essential proteins in zebrafish embryos. For example, they are able to obtain oxygen through diffusion even in the absence of a functioning heart; they have a highly efficient and prolific reproductive system; and embryos are transparent.

Over two years ago Gadbois and Kankash joined the Spinette lab to investigate whether or not Ufd2a and its splice variants were also found in zebrafish. Gadbois examined whether or not these three variants were present during the various stages of embryonic development. She collected embryos, halted their development at different time points, and then used a technique called in situ hybridization to determine where mRNA (an indicator of expression) of each Ufd2a variant was expressed in time and space.

Kankash set out to determine whether or not the variants were localized only to the skeletal and cardiac muscle tissue as reported in mammals. In order to address this question, she had to first develop a protocol for raising zebrafish fry and assay their reproductive success (an indicator of genetic and physical health). Since protocols for performing the necessary experiments were not available for use on adult fish, Kankash developed an approach for sectioning the fish onto glass slides to conduct in situ hybridization.

Together, these students’ research results show that zebrafish do express Ufd2a and its variants. Despite the fact that some of the data remains inconclusive, both students were able to successfully develop protocols and raise healthy zebrafish fry.

– Sarah Spinette, assistant professor of biology

Amanda Albanese - “Induction of cytochrome P4501A (CYP1A) in little skate”
Tyler Zalobowski - “Mechanism of transcript diversity of shark aryl hydrocarbon receptor 2”
Many toxic chemicals are widespread in the environment and are known to cause disease in wildlife and humans. By studying how chlorinated dibenzodioxins (dioxin) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) activate certain fish and shark proteins, known as aryl hydrocarbon receptors (AHR), Rebeka Merson’s lab seeks to uncover mechanisms underlying gene dysregulation and cell disruption.

Results will help resolve long-standing questions about environmental disease, reveal the susceptibility of fishes and sharks to these chemicals, and provide insight to the physiological roles of AHR proteins in mammals, including humans.

Biology honors students and their professors include (standing, from left)
Rebeka Merson, Amanda Albanese, Sarah Spinette and Kiely Shultz;
(kneeling, from left) Serena Kankash, Nicole Gadbois and Roland deGouvenain.
Albanese’s project was to determine whether marine skates living in polluted areas exhibit evidence of chemical exposure. Teamed up with biologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, she analyzed samples and performed molecular biology experiments with samples from skates captured during 1989, 1991 and 2005 in Boston harbor.

Her findings were consistent among all years: Skates captured in the polluted site exhibit increased expression of CYP1A (a biomarker) mRNA, increased protein levels and enzyme activity. This information provides valuable insight on the biochemical pathways involved in responses to toxicants and paves the way for use of the little skate as a bioindicator species.

Zalobowski’s project involved genetics and genomics studies of the AHR2, a protein that regulates genes involved in the toxic response pathway (such as CYP1A mentioned above). He studied the source of large diversity in AHR2 transcripts isolated from spiny dogfish sharks and found that they express at least 9 isoforms that differ only in one domain of the protein.

His results provide evidence that sharks have multiple AHR2 genes, which may be arranged tandemly in the shark genome. To date, this represents the greatest diversity of AHR genes in any group of organisms.

– Rebeka Merson, assistant professor of biology