Dr. Ransom Poythress, assistant professor of biology at Houghton College, masterfully illustrates scientific concepts with simple, everyday objects - such as a rubber band. He holds one up and stretches it, likening it to the elasticity of smooth muscle that increases resistance as it is pulled.
Poythress – along with recent graduate Jung-Hyun Ahn of the Republic of Korea and junior Samuel Pyo of Dix Hills, NY – is investigating the effects of electrical stimulation on smooth muscle as part of Houghton’s innovative Summer Research Institute (SRI). They and eight other major research teams combine faculty expertise with hands-on experiential learning, taking students’ knowledge beyond the classroom.
The type of muscle that Poythress’s team is testing isn’t that associated with the gym; instead, the team focuses on the type of muscles over which we have involuntary control, such as the esophagus, stomach, intestines, or blood vessels. Electrical stimulation (e-stim) is a common therapeutic tool used for skeletal muscle recovery (such as biceps, quadriceps, etc.), yet very little is known about its effects on smooth muscle. Poythress, Ahn, and Pyo are seeking to shed light on this unexplored area in the hopes that their research will be beneficial to future medical treatment practice.
They’ll achieve this via two methods. In the first, they use a line of preserved rat aorta cells grown in a petri dish. The cells are first mechanically damaged, treated with e-stim, and then recovery is monitored and comparisons made between various testing conditions. The second method is a more physiologically realistic application, where they take smooth muscle from amphibians – stomach and esophagus – and put the tissue in an oxygenated solution ‘bath’ that mimics body conditions. From there, they measure the resistance as it is stretched while undergoing e-stim, additionally damaging the tissue to see its effects. The team will then further process the tissue to explore the molecular mechanisms underlying recovery in this organ system.
Should they find that e-stim is good for smooth muscle recovery, the long-term medical implications for this relatively inexpensive therapeutic tool are significant. From improving vascular return for post-surgery heart patients, to finding non-medicinal ways of addressing digestive or blood vessel issues, their findings just may open up entirely new realms of biomedical research.
“SRI has been a great hands-on learning experience in the field of muscle biology,” remarks Pyo. “We have developed a variety of new skills and fine-tuned others that were familiar to us.”
The Summer Research Institute has offered unique research opportunities for more than 100 students since its 2007 inception. In 2016 SRI was named one of the Top 50 Best College Summer Programs in the Country by Best College Reviews, joining Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Yale.