A Christian College of the Liberal Arts & Sciences

2010 Research

Chemically-mediated Predator-prey Interactions in Larval Black Flies

Aaron Sullivan, Associate Professor of Biology, and two students, Amanda Hiers and Stewart LaPan will investigate chemically-mediated predator-prey interactions in larval black flies. Our recent field studies show that individual larvae from two populations in Allegany County, NY are more likely to engage in defensive postures when they are exposed to chemical cues from wounded conspecifics versus a control stimulus (water). Furthermore, there are no differences, in terms of the type or duration of the response between these populations. Our approach to the research to be done during the Summer Research Institute of 2010 is to determine if the responses by larval black flies to cues from injured conspecifics as well as predators are performed in a threat-sensitive manner. The threat-sensitivity hypothesis essentially states that prey species will respond to a stimulus in proportion to the level of threat perceived as a result of that stimulus. The ability of invertebrates to fine-tune their defensive responses to environmental stimuli has only recently been under investigation and offers an excellent opportunity to combine field and laboratory techniques to solve biological problems. Our research will utilize field techniques to evaluate prey responses to a variety of chemical cues related to predation at different field sites and will examine diel effects on behavior.

Developing an Interferometer for Measuring Stresses in Thin Films

Brandon Hoffman, Assistant Professor of Physics, and two students, Joshua Mertzlufft and Tyler Reynolds, will design and construct a laser interferometer for measuring stresses in thin metal films. Nanofabricated devices have become extremely important in our ever shrinking world of technology. However, scientists have not yet developed a working model that can explain the properties of the thin films that make up such devices. For instance, thin films can support much higher stresses than their bulk counterparts. These stresses determine the microstructures which, in turn, determine the film’s properties. Most techniques used to resolve stresses in films measure the curvature of a substrate along only one or two axes and calculate the stress from the curvature. Our research group will develop an interferometer that illuminates an entire four inch substrate. Computer software will control the position of the reference mirror and generate a topographical image of the substrate. In this way, stresses can be calculated along any axis in the plane of the substrate.

Microbial Populations Colonizing the Feeding Apparatus of the Larval Stage of the Black fly

Jamie Potter, Assistant Professor of Biology, and students Johanna Hummelman and Hannah Gardner will investigate the microbial populations colonizing the feeding apparatus of the larval stage of the Simulium vittatum black fly. It is known that Similium sp. is a common vector of several diseases known to infect humans, birds and livestock, such as River Blindness and Pinta. However, these diseases are not found in North America despite similar habitat and vector found in endemic regions. Competition for food and habitat by other microbes in the water ecosystem and within the blackfly itself may explain the absence of the pathogenic species. To this hypothesis, we will identify and quantify common microbes found to be colonizing the feeding apparatus of the Similium organism. This information will aid researchers in understanding the microbial populations colonizing the blackfly larvae in North America, specifically in Western New York, and gain information on the potential for the migration and colonization of medically important pathogens into the local population. The research will combine field studies and basic microbiology laboratory techniques, offering a unique opportunity to study two diverse yet interconnected biological systems and fields.

Synthesizing biodegradable plastic from renewable resources

Assistant Professor of Chemistry, John Rowley, and student, Alan Stier will explore how to synthesize new types of biodegradable plastic from renewable resources. Most plastics (polymers) are synthesized from petroleum, a resource that is rapidly being consumed. One aspect of this research is to develop methods for the synthesis of polymers from alternative renewable resources, such as carbohydrates, triglycerides, and CO2. Another is to synthesize polymers that are biodegradable. Due to their low cost, polymers are used extensively in disposable products; however, as a result of their chemical structure, these materials decompose very slowly in the environment. Modifications to the chemical structure of polymers enables one to change their mechanical and material properties, including strength, toughness, flexibility, and degradability. Employing recently discovered catalyst technology, we will be designing and synthesizing new polymers that combine useful mechanical properties with the ability to degrade under the desired conditions.

This research may be extended to the field of glycopolymers - polymers that contain sugar moieties as pendant groups. Because these sugar groups engage in highly specific interactions with proteins that bind carbohydrates on the surface of cells, these glycopolymers can function as cell surface mimics, promoting cell-polymer adhesion, and may be very useful in implantable medical devices. Thus, our research will explore the possibility of extending our synthetic methods to create a new class of biodegradable glycopolymers with applications in biomedical research.

Development of Green Oxidation Catalysts

Associate Professor of Chemistry, Karen Torraca, will work with two students this summer toward the development of a “green” synthetic method for the conversion of alcohols to ketones or aldehydes. The current standard synthetic process requires large amounts of heavy metals and generates a lot of hazardous environmental waste. Although there is a strong research emphasis across academia to develop better oxidation processes, very few new processes have actually been implemented in large-scale manufacturing due to the lack of robustness. Our ultimate goal will be to develop not only a “green” process, but also one that is amenable to large-scale use where it will have the greatest environmental impact. Our research will focus on the use of palladium catalysts to complete the oxidation of various alcohols to ketones or aldehydes under mild conditions.

Nuclear Physics Experiments

Mark Yulyprofessor of physics, and three students, Katrina KoehlerAdam Silvernail and Nick Fuller, will be collaborating with researchers from Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the University of Kentucky on two nuclear physics experiments at the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center (LANSCE). The first experiment is an active target measurement of n+p → d+γ neutron capture cross sections at low energies, which are important for Big Bang nucleosynthesis models. For the second experiment, a Time Projection Chamber is being constructed that will allow measurement of high precision fission cross sections needed for advanced nuclear reactor design codes.

Investigation of correlation of host-shift markers in Influenza viruses

The pandemic (H1N1) 2009 was a clear reminder that influenza A viruses remain a global health threat. The genes of the novel 2009 H1N1 flu virus consist of those from avian, human, and swine viruses. In particular, the two surface glycoproteins, haemagglutinin and neuraminidase, of the 2009 H1N1 virus are of classical swine and Eurasian swine origins, respectively. When avian or swine influenza viruses cross host species barriers to infect humans, it can lead to pandemics. Therefore, identifying the genetic modifications that would lead to a host switch is of fundamental importance. Research to date has uncovered several key molecular differences between bird/swine flu and human flu, which could be used as markers to monitor changes in bird/swine flu that could threaten humans. Wei Hu, Professor of Math and Computer Science, and two computer science students, Keli Fancher and Zachary Miller, will investigate the correlation of the host-shift markers, because these individual markers tend to function in concert for their biological purposes.