This award provides partial support for the acquisition of a laser scanning confocal microscope for the college's new Science Center. This will allow faculty and students in the departments of Biology and Engineering to advance the goals of at least six different research projects. Neurobiologists will map the brain circuits responsible for learning and memory in fruit flies in order to improve understanding of how small neural networks can generate complex behaviors. Other research teams will address fundamental questions in developmental biology by visualizing molecules that determine how different cells in a young plant embryo produce different structures, or by asking how cells in a young turtle embryo make the turtle's shell. Cell biologists will attempt to understand how cells divide during the final phase of mitosis by watching the interactions among specific proteins in yeast mutants that divide abnormally. Microbiologists will grow bacterial biofilms and examine them in the confocal microscope in order to understand their formation, structure and sensitivity to ultrasound. In addition, researchers in the Engineering department will use this instrument to probe microscale fluid mechanics, with potential applications to microcoolant systems and other devices.
Because student research is an essential component of the educational mission at this college, these research projects will be conducted with undergraduate students working in close collaboration with their faculty mentors. A comprehensive training program will allow the student researchers to take full advantage of this new instrument. In addition, laboratory exercises involving confocal microscopy will be integrated into intermediate and advanced courses in both the Biology and Engineering departments. As a result of direct experience with the powerful three-dimensional imaging capabilities of this microscope, it is expected that students will more readily grasp the organization of biological structures, and will gain a more tangible understanding of cellular processes in living cells.
This coeducational liberal arts college has an outstanding record of graduates who pursue careers in the sciences. Direct experience with the confocal microscope will contribute to training these young scientists, and will allow them to perform world-class research as undergraduates. Their research projects will advance understanding of fundamental questions in biology such as how cells divide, how cells and molecules in an embryo interact to produce an adult organism, how simple neural networks generate complex behaviors, or how bacteria form potentially hazardous biofilms. A significant impact of this confocal microscope will be to enhance training for the next generation of biologists, teaching them to think integratively about molecular, cellular, and organismal-level processes, and providing them with experience in analytical methods which will be essential tools in their future scientific careers.