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Posts Tagged ‘biology’

Light, Computers, Science!

Talk to Dr. Tom Carroll for just a few minutes about the new high-tech instruments in the third-floor analysis lab in Jephson Science Center and you get the sense the 30-year professor of chemistry at Keuka College is more excited than a kid on Christmas morning.

To the untrained eye, the four new Perkin-Elmer laboratory machines resemble something akin to desktop printer-copiers. But the machines are capable of the kind of data analysis a researcher can use when an unknown substance is handed over with the instructions “find out what this is and report back to me.” With one test on any of these machines, a student researcher could identify in minutes what used to take hours on paper. Carroll is thrilled students – and faculty – can now make regular use of the new equipment.

To biology major Rebecca Evanicki ’14, the new machines enable students to analyze unknown compounds in such a way that it’s like “solving a mystery,” she said.

The HPLC may look like a stack of drawers on a desktop printer, but it can analyze liquids in multiple ways.

Indeed, Associate Professor of Chemistry Andrew Robak is already planning to stage a fake crime scene in the organic chemistry lab next door later this spring. He’ll give the students in his organic chemistry class one day to collect evidence and they’ll spend the last few weeks of the semester in the analysis lab using the new machines to identify every substance, “like a CSI practice version,” he said, referring to the popular TV crime show.

It’s the kind of innovation that brings the student research at Jephson Science Center into a new era of digital learning, which is part of the College’s Long-Range Strategic Plan. Thanks to a $137,000 grant from Jephson Educational Trusts, the new machines were purchased and installed between semesters. They represent significant technology improvements that will enhance science coursework and research for students and faculty.

To formally recognize the new lab capabilities, the College will host its first-ever Innovation Celebration, set for 2-4 p.m., Friday, March 14, which is National Pi Day. In mathematics, Pi (represented by the Greek letter π) begins with the numbers 3.14159 and represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Pi is infinite and has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point; contests to recite a portion of those digits are often part of the worldwide celebration. Keuka College will host its own Pi recitation contest, and guests can also take part in an unveiling ceremony, enjoy science-themed refreshments, and browse student work on display. Guided tours through the instrument lab will also be offered, and President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera will give a videotaped message of congratulations.

Check out a unique digital timeline of stories and photos, marking moments of achievement in the College’s science history since the former Millspaugh Science Center was renamed the Jephson Science Center.

The HP-LC with its bottles and tubes.

One machine, the High-Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC), carries liquids from glass bottles through thin plastic tubes, passing through several compartments for analysis. According to Robak, different compartments contain an oven, vacuum pump, solution tray, and detectors, respectively.

On the tabletop directly across from it sits another machine, the Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS or “GC – Mass Spec”). To put it simply, the GC separates mixtures into individual components, while the “mass spec” identifies separate fragments, so the scientist can determine what the molecules are, Carroll said. In scientific terms, this process is known as ionizing. The GC/MS features a rotating unit that can extract samples from a tray of up to 108 small vials at one time, conducting analysis as programmed by a small touch screen at the side.

A computer connected to the GC/MS, running high-performance software, analyzes in minutes what used to take hours.

Connected to the CG/MS is a new computer running high-performance software that converts the data readings of molecular ions into a bevy of colorful charts and graphs. Based on the peaks and plunges of a fragment’s chart, the computer searches a large digital library to find the closest match – all in a matter of seconds, Evanicki said. Without it, a student would have to calculate results by hand to narrow down what fragments might be present and then cross-check his or her shortlist of possibilities against a book to determine the answer, she said.

On another table against the wall, a smaller machine, the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), contains an oval plate with a small diamond reflective element through which infrared light can pass. Connected to another computer running high-speed software, the FTIR is able to provide information about the identity of liquid or solid compounds, Carroll said.

The fourth machine, a Lambda-35, is a newer model of a UV spectrometer already in the lab. It uses visible and ultraviolet light to determine the absorption spectrum of a solution, which will show how much light it absorbs across a range of wavelengths, from visible to UV rays.

Evanicki '14 examines the tray of the GC/MS, which can hold up to 108 vials of solution or compound for analysis.

The GC/MS is Evanicki’s favorite because various tests on multiple samples can be run in one sitting without switching vials in the tray, she said. In addition, a student can run a series of different tests on just one sample.

“There are just so many different things you can do with it,” Evanicki said.

She should know. Evanicki spent the bulk of January alongside biochemistry major Brian DelPino ’14, setting up the new machines, conducting test runs and writing equipment usage manuals, all as part of their senior Field Periods™. Carroll defers to the duo with pride, dubbing their user guides “equipment manuals for dummies.”

“Step One: Turn the machine on,” he read aloud from a sheaf of typewritten instructions, before continuing tongue-in-cheek. “Step Two: If you have any questions or problems, contact Rebecca or Brian.”

On Wednesday, sophomores in Robak’s organic chemistry class took a sneak peek at the new equipment they were due to try out in their Thursday lab. About a dozen other students in Carroll’s Analytical Chemistry course will also run utilize the instrument lab this spring. Enthusiasm is running high, not just for the chance to use the machines this semester, but for the rest of their undergraduate studies.

“We’re all very excited about the new equipment and excited to learn how to use it – science is fun!” said biology major Heidi VanBuskirk ’16.

For more information on the Innovation Celebration, please contact spevents@keuka.edu or call (315) 279-5238.

Josh Makin’s Field Period™ Confirms Career Goals

Sophomore Josh Makin (Lethbridge, Alberta/Catholic Central) has been instrumental in the successes of the Keuka College men’s volleyball team.

In 2013, Keuka’s first year with a team, Makin, an outside hitter, earned second-team All-North Eastern Athletic Conference (NEAC) honors as the Storm captured the NEAC postseason championship.

As a talented student-athlete, Makin relies on athletic trainer Jeff Bray and assistant athletic trainer Gabrielle Lorusso to keep him healthy and on the court, despite the assorted nicks and bruises that occur during the volleyball season.

During the January Field Period™, Makin landed a joint Field Period™ with Rebound Health Center in Lethbridge, Alberta and Ocean Physical Therapy in San Clemente, Calif.

His appreciation for physical therapy started before Makin arrived on campus. When he was 17, Makin tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and had reconstructive surgery before enduring a grueling, six-month rehabilitation.

Recognizing the important role physical therapists play in not only athletics, but in day-to-day life, Makin, a biology major, decided he wanted to become a physical therapist once he graduates from Keuka.

His latest Field Period™ only reaffirmed his passion for physical therapy. (more…)

A Tale of Two Juniors

It’s a cold day in Buffalo, typical for this industrial city, which is dusted with a fine coat of snow. Traversing the numerous buildings and animal habitats at the Buffalo Zoo, but sporting warm and cheerful smiles, are Ashley Hager and Megan Hilsdorf, junior biochemistry majors at Keuka College.

Both put in 8-hour-a-day, 6-day work weeks for three weeks in January to conduct 140-hour, Field Period internships at the zoo. While Hager spent most of her time in the Reptile House, working in the Hellbendar (salamander) acquatics lab, Hilsdorf worked with primates, birds and other animals in the M&T Rainforest Falls exhibit. Both were exposed to sections of the zoo the public never sees,  such as where specialized meals are prepared for each exhibit, animals receive any needed veterinary care, and babies are are kept until they are old enough to venture out into the display habitats.

Thanks to a relative of Hilsdorf’s who offered use of his Buffalo apartment for three weeks when he wasn’t going to be there, both girls were able to stay in the city and commute to the zoo each day for the internship, which is an annual part of every Keuka student’s graduation requirements.

“They’re so short-staffed, and they told us we’ve been a big help,” said Hager.

White-faced Saki monkeys at Buffalo Zoo's rainforest exhibit

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Lights, Camera – Science!

Junior Kat Andonucci and Dr. Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry (Photo by Erik Holmes '13)

Start with a science lab. Add one chemistry professor with self-described “wacky interests.” Introduce a visual and verbal art major once obsessed with rocks, especially the minerals that glow under ultraviolet light. Mix up a variety of chemistry experiments under special lights and have the student capture them on camera. What do you get?

Droplets of mercury (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

The Art of Chemistry, a year-long discovery in pictures of the beauty and form caused –and  sometimes concocted – with a variety of chemical compounds. The art exhibit runs through Sept. 28 in Lightner Gallery inside Lightner Library at Keuka College, where an artist reception will be held from 4:30 – 6 p.m. Thursday, September 20. The gallery is open daily; hours can be found on the main page at: http://lightner.keuka.edu

Robak's hand pours a luminol solution into a narrow glass tube over a 15-second exposure (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

Student photographer Kat Andonucci, a junior from Chestertown, near the Lake George region, did a year-long independent study under the guidance of Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry. With Robak casting the vision and directing her in each experiment, Andonucci crafted the composition, often using a tripod, a remote shutter and a long exposure to create the images. For example, one image of Robak pouring a luminol solution into a narrow-mouth beaker required the shutter remain open for 15 seconds or more to showcase the intense blues and greens of the liquid.

“Everything we did had to be something visually appealing,” explained Andonucci, describing how the independent study served as her chemistry class for the year.

“I’ve owned my camera since ninth grade, and as a side hobby, I did landscapes and outdoor pictures,” Andonucci said, explaining how she entered college as a biology major, thinking she would pursue a career in forensic pathology. But a film photography course in her first semester got her thinking her high school hobby might turn out to be more than just something to do on the side. So she switched her major to visual and verbal art.

Enter Robak, who contacted Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art, last year in search of a student who could help illustrate experiments that would show “the fun side of chemistry.”

Glycerol makes glass objects dipped into it appear to disappear. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry as art or science as art. You can see from the pictures that a lot of stuff I work with is really cool,” said Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He rattled off a variety of compounds, from mercury, with its shiny metallic texture that is “really fun to play with,” to flourescein, which turns neon-green when in contact with water, to glycerol, which refracts light in a way that seems to make objects submersed in it disappear. Images of each of those chemicals appear in the exhibit.

“We wanted to treat as a course, the chemistry of things that are neat to look at, to have a clue what they were,” Robak said, pointing out how many science textbooks use photography to illustrate experiments. The two received a $500 grant from Keuka’s Division of Academic Affairs to help cover costs of printing and framing the images.

For her part, Andonucci said she was “excited and nervous” because shooting under such unusual conditions was outside of her comfort zone with natural, outdoor lighting. Indeed, lighting was the biggest challenge as she would sometimes use a window, a lamp, black lights, or would incorporate the light generated from a chemical itself in different images.

Holmes' hand with burning methane gas, a quick-second experiment (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

A secondary challenge was the blink-and-miss-it nature of some of the experiments, such as a shot of flames from methane gas bubbles leaping upward from the hand of Erik Holmes, a senior visual and verbal art major.

Andonucci had to be sure to take several shots of each experiment, capturing several on camera by conducting experiments several times in a row. For another image, Robak directed her to bring glycerol, a liquid, into contact with purple potassium permanganate, a solid, which bursts into purple flames and smoke without any introduction of heat, he said.

“Kat worked on that one for a long time. She tried about 20 times and probably took 150 photographs of the same thing in order to get it right,” Robak said. It’s a good thing she shot in digital, because she kept filling up the camera’s memory card every time, he added.

“More than anything, I think she had a really good eye for these sorts of things. She takes a great picture, but out of many, many pictures that she got, she was great at picking out the right ones,” Robak said.

After a year of translating her chemistry class into images, Andonucci said she would be willing to work with Robak again on similar projects. She is considering posting her images online to see if she could market them to companies for commercial use.

Lead, held in Holmes' palm. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

“There’s so much you can do with forensic photography,” she said, adding that she’s “pretty open to anything [with photography], as long as it’s not taking pictures of people.”

Robak managed to convince Holmes to paint a graffiti mural on a concrete wall last year.  The mural illustrated the chemical structure of concrete itself, and Robak said he has ideas for other special projects involving science and other types of art, whether sculpture, painting or more.

Calcium Carbonate under black light. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '14)

“I’ve got too many ideas and not enough artists,” Robak said. “I’m totally looking for more people to rope into these kinds of things.”

Summing up her year-long experiment and the exhibit, Andonucci said “it’s awesome, it’s pretty and it’s cool. I had fun and learned a ton.”

Snapshot of a Graduate: Ean Titus

Where can a Keuka degree take you? This is the ninth in a series of snapshot profiles on members of Keuka’s Class of 2012.

Ean Titus of Geneva just completed his master’s degree in literacy (grades 5-12) at Keuka, after graduating in 2011 with a degree in adolescent education with concentrations in biology and special education.

A Field Period internship in the Geneva City School District, with a former teacher, led to landing a job teaching special education and algebra to 9th graders in the newly formed freshman academy in that district. Titus’s former teacher is now a co-worker and Titus is about to start his second year on the job.

“My freshman-year Field Period I was in a biology classroom teaching lessons and labs … seeing if teaching was a career that I wanted to pursue. After that experience, I knew it was the right path for me,” Titus said. “Completing my Field Periods gave me a lot of real-world experience that I plan to continue implementing for the rest of my career.”

Titus plans to begin work on a school administration degree this fall through Niagara University, and said his ultimate goal would be to become a principal or superintendent of schools.

To explore what might be in your future with a Keuka degree, request more information.

Snapshot of a Graduate: Janelle Davidson

Where can a Keuka degree take you? This is the first in a series of snapshot profiles on members of Keuka’s Class of 2012.

Janelle Davidson of Cortland, N.Y.

Janelle Davidson ’12 graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biology and has been accepted to Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., where she will study veterinary medicine this fall. Davidson just received word that a research paper she contributed to with Dr. Bill Brown,  assistant professor of biology and environmental science, was accepted for publication in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. Their study analyzed data from two “no-kill” animal shelters, in New York’s Tompkins and Yates counties, as to whether age, sex, size, breed and coat color of a dog influenced how long it stays at the shelter before adoption.

In her senior year, Davidson won a Judith Oliver Brown scholarship for a Field Period internship in Australia, where she explored exotic wildlife at Tarongo Zoo and visited the University of Melbourne’s veterinary school. She also vaulted over her Keuka classmates in field ornithology, winning top prize – a Swiss Army knife – for correctly identifying the highest number (121) of bird species by sight and song during weekly field labs.

According to Davidson, Keuka’s proximity to her hometown of Cortland, N.Y. and the small size of the campus were very appealing, and she was able to take leadership roles in some campus clubs. However, she said that “the personal attention and encouragement is what I value most about my Keuka education. I was able to benefit from professors actually knowing who I was and what my goals were. When I spoke with professors, they always encouraged me to do my best and pointed out opportunities that would help me along the way.”

To explore what might be in your future with a Keuka degree, request more information.

A Bird in the Hand …

Newborn nestlings (All Photos by Hung Do Le '12)

Like most expectant parents or relatives, the wait for “D-day,” the day of delivery, is a torturous enterprise. But once the little one is safely arrived and nestled down for naps and feedings, the crowing begins.

So it is for the students in Keuka’s ornithology class and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Bill Brown, who have been keeping close watch on several nestboxes Brown placed along the outer perimeter of the campus, near the treeline beyond Davis Hall and the Red Barn Theatre. The nestboxes, which look like simple birdhouses to the untrained eye, are large enough for birds that prefer to live in cavities such as tree trunks to build a nest inside.

The nestbox of the Black-capped chickadees.

It has been a long wait, marred when eight of nine “active” nests of Eastern bluebirds and Black-capped chickadees were destroyed by house wrens and house sparrows, whose habit is to kick out any eggs already laid in a nest in order to take it over and lay eggs of their own. But one chickadee nest escaped the ravages of the migratory menaces, and that nestbox is the ultimate destination for Brown’s class on this, the final day of the outdoor lab for ENV/BIO 331.

Before paying a visit to the home of the new nestlings, the scientific term for baby birds recently hatched, the class stops at one additional box, where a house wren has begun to lay new eggs – three so far – after returning to the area in the last week or so.

Carefully unscrewing one side of the box, Brown reveals the wren’s nest, made primarily of twigs, with soft grasses, bluejay feathers and hair lining the inside. Fishing around with his hand, he pulls out three tiny pink-toned eggs.

Nest and eggs of a tree swallow.

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Eyes (and Ears) Wide Open

Senior Jason Troutman references a list of bird species in Keuka's ornithology field lab, taught by Dr. Bill Brown, at right. (All photos by Brett Williams).

Bundled warm in hoodies against the morning chill at Keuka Lake State Park, the students are standing still, listening intently. From the branches of trees nearby come chirps, calls and sing-song melodies, rising over the sound of the waves lapping the shore.

“What do you hear?” asks Bill Brown, assistant professor of biology and environmental science, who holds a Ph.D. and specializes in ornithology, the study of birds. Binoculars hang suspended from the students’ necks, but Brown wants them to listen first.

Seniors Steve Stout and Justin Henry record bird species they've identified during an outdoor field lab.

Pencils poised over palm-size waterproof notepads, the handful of students lower their heads and jot down four-letter codes for different species as they respond with the names: Mourning dove. American robin. Cardinal. Canada goose. Carolina wren. Downy woodpecker. [Eastern] Pheobe. House finch.

This is ENV/BIO 331, Keuka’s ornithology class, where one of Brown’s primary objectives is teaching students to master identification of some 104 different species of birds by sight. Thirty-nine of those species must also be identified by sound. And those are just the birds found here in New York state.

According to Brown, almost 90 percent of “birding” is done by ear; the rest comes from knowing what to expect in a given setting, whether that may be a small cluster of trees near a building, along a road, or deep in a forest fragment. (more…)

What’s New: Traditional Faculty

An interest in teaching smaller classes in order to foster greater student interaction is part of what brought Ithaca resident Laurel Hester to a new post at Keuka College this fall.

The small-college feel got in the assistant professor of biology’s veins during her own undergraduate studies at Swarthmore College, where she double-majored in biology and history. As a graduate student, Hester discovered she had a love of teaching, especially teaching biology, and as she worked toward her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, she began putting that passion into play. She went on to teach at the University of South Carolina, and later Cornell, where she taught as many as 400 students at a time in large lecture halls.

“The chance to teach smaller classes where I can really get to know the students and teach a wider variety of classes in a more interactive way is really what drew me here,” Hester said.
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Meet New Faculty: Dr. Bill Brown

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of profiles on new, full-time faculty members.

Bill Brown and the bird display at Jephson Science Center.

Bill Brown is eager for spring semester and the opportunity to get his biology and ecology students outdoors, to look for salamanders under rocks, go bird-watching, and collect scores of data on “critters” in the wild.

“We’ll get outside every day possible,” said Brown, who specializes in ornithology (birds), but also has training in entomology (insects), general ecology (the environment), bio-statistics and applied statistics. A visiting professor last year, the Penn Yan resident joined the Keuka faculty full-time this year, taking over several environmental courses formerly taught by Tim Sellers, who became an associate vice-president for academic programs last year.

As an undergraduate at Cornell University, Brown worked at the Finger Lakes National Forest identifying birds. Later, he worked as a field tech studying birds literally across the country, before completing master’s and doctoral work on the wood thrush, a migratory forest songbird, at the University of Delaware.

“We put bands on them, tracked who they mated with, what tree species they nested in, how high, etc. It piqued my interest in statistics,” he said.

As such, Brown is eager to offer an ornithology course, which he will teach this coming spring. While students are snowbound indoors, he’ll get them up to speed on taxonomy, the relationships of bird groups, their biology and ecology, and by the time the snow melts, students can get outside to put that knowledge to work.

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