July 28, 2009
MMC Professors and Students Collaborate for
Summer Scientific Research
Ann Aguanno, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, (212) 774-4838 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Judith Hanks, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology, (212) 517-0667 / email@example.com
Alessandra Leri, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Science, (212) 517-0661 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Benedetta Sampoli Benitez, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Chemistry,
(212) 517-0653 / email@example.com
(New York, NY) Marymount Manhattan science professors and their students are spending this summer conducting focused research, learning about different elements and discovering how their work can be applied to help others live better lives. Students participating in summer science research at MMC are able to contextualize their coursework with hands-on experience while making fundamental discoveries about the natural world.
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Alessandra Leri, Ph.D., (left) recently visited the Brendan Byrne State Forest in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey along with her research student, Laura Herren ’11, (right) to collect soil and mulch samples for biochemical analysis.
MMC Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alessandra Leri, Ph.D., recently visited the Brendan Byrne State Forest in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey along with her research student, Laura Herren ’11, to collect soil and mulch samples for biochemical analysis. Herren and Leri are measuring the activity of the enzyme chloroperoxidase in forest ecosystems. Under certain conditions, this enzyme is capable of chlorinating organic material and thus may be implicated in the natural formation of organochlorine molecules in plant litter decaying on the forest floor.
“Organochlorine molecules have a bad reputation as toxic, manmade pollutants, but they are also produced naturally in the environment,” Leri said. “We know that these Pine Barrens soils have high concentrations of natural organochlorine, but we don’t fully understand how it is produced. .Laura is developing a method to assay chloroperoxidase activity in these soils to identify a biochemical pathway of natural chlorination.”
This summer Associate Professor of Biology Ann Aguanno, Ph.D., is conducting research with biology majors Ray Romano ’11 and Olympia Gaglioti ’12. They are examining the role of the protein, cyclin dependent kinase 5 (CDK5) and how it affects the development of tissue systems in mammals.
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Ann Aguanno, Ph.D., (center) conducts research with biology majors Ray Romano ’11 (left) and Olympia Gaglioti ’12 (right), examining the role of the protein, cyclin dependent kinase 5 (CDK5).
“Specifically we investigate the function of CDK5 in the establishment of the nervous system,” Aguanno said. “We have shown that CDK5 plays a role in the shape and therefore the function of neurons. We have further shown that disruption of CDK5's activity resulted in abnormal neuron structure and ultimately may lead to abnormal functioning of the nervous system. This has implications in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.”
Aguanno’s team is also examining the role CDK5 plays in the developing pancreas, specifically in the ability for the pancreas to make and secrete insulin.
“Preliminary results show that CDK5 is important in the regulation of insulin production and availability in the developing and mature pancreas,” Aguanno said. “This of course bears great implications for diseases associated with insulin dysregulation, such as diabetes.”
As the research progresses, Aguanno’s students will participate in presentations at three conferences each year.
“We will also try to publish any results in the appropriate journal,” she said. “We have been conducting this investigation in my lab for more than 10 years, even before I came to MMC. All of the results contribute to the ongoing research project.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry Benedetta Sampoli Benitez, Ph.D., is working with Jasmina Bogdanovic ’11, a biology major, conducting research using computational methods to examine the the DNA/protein interactions of DNA polymerase X, which is a protein that repairs damaged DNA to preserve genomic integrity.
“In particular, we are trying to understand how this protein can discriminate the correct base pair versus a wrong one during DNA repair,” Sampoli said. “In order to do that, we use molecular models and molecular dynamics simulations and compare our results with available experimental kinetics data.”
Sampoli and Bogdanovic will continue doing research during the next academic year and will present their results at an international conference next April in California, in addition to a local undergraduate research conference in Baltimore in October. The team also hopes to have their results published in a peer-reviewed journal sometime next year.
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Benedetta Sampoli, Ph.D., (right) works with Jasmina Bogdanovic ’11, a biology major, conducting research using computational methods to examine the DNA/protein interactions of DNA polymerase X.
The research project is done in collaboration with Dr. Tamar Schlick, professor of chemistry and mathematics at New York University who has the computational power to carry on such intensive molecular dynamics simulations. Dr. Karunesh Arora, a Research Fellow with the Michigan State University, is also collaborating on this project by providing his expertise on DNA polymerases.
Zachary Barbati ’10, a biology major, is working with Associate Professor of Biology Judith Hanks, Ph.D. to study the chemical makeup of plants for potential antibacterial phytochemicals. Hanks said the ever-increasing resistance of human pathogens to current antimicrobial agents is a serious medical problem.
“Since plants have been the historical source of medicines there has been and continues to be interest in studies aimed at finding novel plant compounds for treatment of disease,” Hanks said, “and testing those that have been purported to have medicinal properties.”
During this research project, Barbati has been learning the techniques that are utilized in these types of studies - extracting plant chemicals, culturing microorganisms, preparing appropriate media, testing the extracts for antimicrobial properties, and, beginning the identification of compounds present in the prepared extracts that exhibit potential.
Hanks and Barbati are working through a three-step process to collect their results in this study. “The first will take the form of a “mini” Botany course to provide the information necessary for the next step, which will be a literature review to broaden our overall understanding of the field of Medicinal Botany while focusing on a particular plant species,” Hanks said. “The third step will involve the actual experimentation process which includes assessing the experimental protocols, performing the experiments and evaluating the data based on the information learned in the literature reviews.”
The team is collaborating with MMC Alumna Dr. Sarah Crawford ’76, who is a molecular biologist at University of Southern Connecticut in New Haven. Crawford is working with a plant extract from the fern, Thelypteris palustris (marsh fern), which has shown to be effective against both breast carcinoma cells and glioblastoma cells.
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(Right) Zachary Barbati ’10, a biology major, works with Associate Professor of Biology Judith Hanks, Ph.D. (left) to study the chemical makeup of plants for potential antibacterial phytochemicals.
“Zach and I visited Dr. Crawford’s lab to observe the cell studies and we will prepare some of our own extract from plant material collected in New Haven (and also some extract given to us by Dr. Crawford) against various opportunistic and pathogenic bacterial species,” Hanks said. “Zach will also begin preliminary chemical characterization of the extract. Dr. Crawford and her graduate student will present her results thus far in London in August and in Paris in October. We will be contributing to this study with information on the botanical, chemical, and antimicrobial properties of the extract.”
All of the science faculty research projects are supported through either MMC Science Awards or funding through the Badgley Foundation.
MMC’s science professors agree that conducting scientific research during the summer months has many advantages for students and faculty members. Sampoli said science students gain the experience and knowledge they will need to continue their coursework in the field of science, if they chose to pursue it.
“Students can sometimes get paid for their work through a grant and the experience that they gain is valuable for their future if they are planning to apply to any postgraduate program and it also enhances their curriculum,” Sampoli said. “It’s a big advantage to them (students) to work on their research during the summer months.”
Aguanno agrees and said the summer months are the best time to work on scientific research projects because faculty members are free from their daily coursework and service commitments so they can focus full time on their research.
“I can train my students one-on-one and spend valuable time with them to advance their skills an ultimately advance my research project,” Aguanno said. “It helps prepare the student to continue their work during the school year in a more independent manner as time is tight in the academic year for both faculty and student.”
“To those of us in science at MMC, the summer provides an uninterrupted opportunity to conduct our research, to pursue our specific areas of interest, to engage in learning that benefits us, our students, and the scientific community,” Hanks said. “Research is a full-time job that does not produce results on a semester year time frame.”
Marymount Manhattan College is an urban, independent, liberal arts college. The mission of the College is to educate a socially and economically diverse population by fostering intellectual achievement and personal growth and by providing opportunities for career development.