Vermont Genetic Network Engages Young Scientists Statewide
Part 1 of 3
by Tatiana Schreiber

This article is Part One of a three-part series on the Vermont Genetics Network.

Read Part Two from the June/July/August publication of Vermont Woman.

Watch for Part Three in an upcoming issue of Vermont Woman.

Spreading money and expertise around the state, UVM's VGN is supporting research, with science equipment and more diverse researchers, dedicated to all aspects of human health. (left) Lab assistant Erika Englisn, working in the Microbiology Lab at Johnson State College under the tutelage of Biology Department Chair, Liz Dolci. Dr. Janet Murray, (right) VGN's Outreach Director. photos (left) Don Landwehrle' (right) Lindsay Reymondjack Photography.

Did you know Vermont women scientists are studying when babies develop a sense of humor? Others are interested in how potassium ion channels are regulated in the hypothalamus. Uniting these diverse, talented, and enthusiastic young scientists is support from the Vermont Genetics Network (VGN). VGN’s mission is to spread a “culture of research” across the state of Vermont. They make accessible and affordable the buildings and science equipment needed to carry out that research.

Directed by Dr. Judith Van Houten, the George H. Perkins Professor of Biology at the University of Vermont, the VGN is funded by a five-year $16.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. That’s the largest single investigator grant ever received by UVM.

And although the grant was awarded to Van Houten as principle investigator, she has spread the money and expertise around the state to a remarkable degree. The project develops research facilities and supports graduate research assistants at UVM, but also collaborates with seven Baccalaureate Partner Institutions (BPIs): Castleton State College, Green Mountain College, Johnson State College, Lyndon State College, Middlebury College, Norwich University and Saint Michael's College.

VGN links them to resources at UVM, and provides grants to scientists at these institutions. Often these young scientists are just launching their scientific careers. VGN’s support helps them to build the experience and reputation needed to compete for national funding. Significantly, over the past ten years, the VGN has supported 27 women faculty members at the BPIs, or 51 percent of the projects funded, and 39 women undergraduate researchers, 53 percent of those students funded.

What For?

VGN’s support provides release time from teaching responsibilities, so that faculty can focus on their research. It also funds student research assistants and needed resources. Both strategies help faculty to bring research into the classroom, engaging undergraduates and inspiring their interest in going on to scientific careers of their own.

The focus of the VGN is biomedical research, which, according to Outreach Director Dr. Janet Murray, includes all aspects of human health—from the psychological, to the physiological, to the level of genetic mechanisms that affect disease processes.
She cites, for example, a project that looks at the breakdown products of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, which may affect both aquatic species and human health. “As long as you can see a connection [to human health] down the road, a project can be funded,” Murray says.

Gina Mireault: “It just launched everything!”

One of VGN’s aims is to increase the diversity of biomedical scientists. A quick glance at the list of VGN personnel and funded projects shows Vermont women scientists and female students taking full advantage of VGN network opportunities.

Dr. Gina Mireault, a professor of psychology at Johnson State College, received pilot grants from VGN in 2008 and 2009; then larger project grants for three years; and now is funded independently, a successful “graduate” of the VGN. Her VGN grants have funded ten undergraduate student researchers. And her current-year NIH grant has supported three undergraduates to date, with several more to come. Of that first grant, she says, “It just launched everything; it launched this project which has now taken on a life of its own.”

Mireault’s enthusiasm for inquiry is contagious as she explains an aspect of her research. It involves the concept of “social referencing” in infants. “Children try to walk; they fall, they look at Mom or Dad, as if to ask ‘Am I hurt?’ The parents’ affect becomes contagious to the baby,” she explains.

The parent is interpreting the world for the baby and becomes an emotional reference guide. [Studies have shown that] this happens at eight months. Infants will change their behavior depending on their parents’ expression.”

But those studies had relied on infants who were mobile and could be tested based on their movements. “So we’ve always thought babies don’t do that until eight months of age,” Mireault says, until “it dawned on us we could look at non-mobile infants, based on a humor paradigm: will infants find events funny, if parents don’t indicate that they’re funny?”

Mireault and her students are still working on that question. But their research suggested something else. “That’s the nature of science. You start down one avenue, and then you notice something off to the side that you weren’t expecting, and it redirects you,”she muses.

The new question—“and this was mind-blowing to me,” says Mireault—had to do with when in their development infants find something funny.

Mireault’s “lab,” her office, sports clown noses and red plastic cups which serve as the basis for the humorous events shown to babies. She said that if you show five-month old babies a potentially amusing or absurd scenario, even if the parents stoically keep their expression neutral, the babies “still laughed like crazy! This was so startling to us. They are only five months old, with such little experience with ordinary behavior—and yet they know what’s silly.”

The larger questions are not silly, however. They have to do with fundamental knowledge about human development. Mireault and her students are seeing evidence that children reach classic developmental milestones much earlier than previously thought. Now, they want to learn more about what infants know of their social world, and when. Her team has just had a theoretical paper accepted at a large professional conference.

“Without funds from VGN, I never would have been able to do this work,” says Mireault. “My students would never have had access to these kinds of opportunities, to be able to make these contributions to the field. That’s the whole point…it’s why you go into science.” Mireault’s students receive joint authorship on any paper she publishes and, she notes, “They make great theoretical contributions. They are in the trenches, collecting the data, so we often tweak the methods based on their experiences in the field.”

Mireault credits UVM Professor Emerita Dr. Susan Crockenberg as a key influence when she was in graduate school. “She is a dynamic woman and world-renowned scholar, and I have been so fortunate to have her as a role model. She has in many ways been like a mother to me, taking an interest in both my professional and personal growth,” says Mireault. Dr. Crockenberg is currently a major collaborator on the infant humor project.

Now Mireault tries to mentor her own students who may decide to pursue a career in research. “I have seen students who start out wanting to go into counseling,” she says. “They know they will like the baby part, the laughing part, but [through engaging in applied research as undergraduates] they find out they like thinking. Science is a thinker’s paradise.”

Megan Doczi: “I fell in love with the mechanisms”

Another thinker who has received support from the VGN is Megan Doczi, an Assistant Professor of Biology and Education at Norwich University. Doczi teaches Anatomy and Physiology and Introductory Neuroscience. Her VGN-supported research focuses on how potassium ion channels are regulated in the neurons of the hypothalamus.

Like Mireault, Doczi’s interest in pursuing research was sparked as an undergraduate. She had planned to become a medical doctor, but she started working in a lab at UVM, and…. “Once I had that intense exposure to basic science on a daily basis, and realized its possibilities, I applied to graduate school instead of medical school,” she says. “It was the best decision I ever made.”

At the UVM lab, she was exposed to these “ion channel proteins,” which are protein pores inside of cell membranes. The pores’ diameters can get larger or smaller to let certain ions, such as sodium, potassium, or calcium, pass through.

“I fell in love with the mechanisms behind these proteins and how they operated. I was working on effects of leptin, a hormone, on the hypothalamus. But in the back of my mind I had this interest in the ion channels. NowI study the potassium ion channels, which mediate the electrical activity of the neurons. Without them you cannot have communication [between the neurons] at all.”

It turned out the specific potassium ion channel she was studying is sensitive to insulin, another protein hormone, a peptide. Her current work focuses on how exposure to insulin (and other metabolic signals, such as glucose) may regulate the activity of these channels, and at what developmental stage of an organism.

This is basic research, designed to generate fundamental knowledge, not necessarily to have immediate applications. But in time Doczi’s work may have implications for diabetes and obesity treatment.Using chicken embryos as a model, Doczi and her students are trying to determine if there are signals in the developing hypothalamus that contribute to the way neurons communicate, which can affect behavior.

There are significant similarities between how the ion channels function in chickens and in humans. Using chicken eggs, Doczi and her team are able to treat the egg with certain agents, seal the egg back up and have it continue to develop. Using a technique called “windowing” they create a small hole in the eggshell, treat the embryo, slip a glass cover on the opening, seal it with a little grease, and “literally have a window into the egg,” as it continues to grow.

“Depending on fetal exposure to these circulating agents,” Doczi explains, “it could predispose certain individuals to having certain types of drives to eating or not eating… so their food intake and energy expenditure might change.”

If potassium channels are blocked, Doczi says, certain groups of neurons in the hypothalamus may start firing continuously, “which could signal an organism to, let’s say, seek food, or eat food. Or it could suppress those behaviors, and communicate feelings of satiation. If you seek a lot of food, you should also be expending a lot of energy. If you don’t, that’s when you get weight gain. So if you shut certain neurons off, or increase firing, you might be able to affect either the eating behavior, or the energy expenditure. The easiest way to do that would be to affect those ion channels.”

In terms of potential drug development, “the idea would be to develop a drug that is so selective that it would only affect certain systems [of the body] and not others. [Our work] is just one small piece of a very large puzzle.”

Like Mireault, Doczi has been able to pay students to assist with her research, taking on two students each semester, and two each summer. “Without this funding, I wouldn’t have such a successful program and be able to offer this to students,” she says. “That’s probably my favorite part about the VGN, to be able to work with the undergraduates.”

Although the VGN doesn’t specifically aim to bring in women students, Doczi tries to reach out to women in her classes when she has a sense of their interests and thought processes. She tries to make them aware of research opportunities.

Recalling one such student, she says: “I did take her on in my lab. She ended up doing a project in the summer, and submitted a paper to a national conference. We hadn’t planned that, but it was fostered throughout the research experience. I could really see her interest grow throughout that summer experience.”

Infrastructure and Relationships

In addition to providing grants to researchers for their projects, the VGN has four services that are shared among all the funded projects, and with other scientists throughout the state. These services are called the Bioinformatics Core, the Proteomics Facility, the Microarray Facility and Outreach.

The Bioinformatics Core provides analysis and storage of biological data at the genome level; the Proteomics Facility analyses the structure and function of proteins; the Microarray Facility allows researchers to look at many genes at once and hone in on specific areas of interest; and Outreach provides a team of faculty and staff (and the necessary equipment) to visit colleges to share microarray experiments in the classroom.

Natalie Coe, a biochemist and BPI Coordinator for the VGN at Green Mountain College, says access to these services has been instrumental in helping faculty and students at GMC advance their work. “People are surprised that a small liberal arts college would be able to offer this,” she says. “The breadth, depth and quality of the courses that we can offer, that were developed with help of VGN, it’s wonderful.”

Through the Outreach Core, the VGN provided faculty to GMC to teach methods of doing microarray analysis, for example. After several years, faculty at GMC could take over and teach these subjects independently.

In addition, Coe points out, she and other researchers can send samples they are working with to the UVM facility and get DNA and RNA sequencing analysis back within 24 hours “for a very reasonable cost.”

This makes high quality analysis accessible. “We’re treated just as if I were down the hall bringing the sample to them. They’re very willing to help us—they’ve gone above and beyond to help us with trouble-shooting,” she adds.

Coe’s own research concerns genetic factors that may confer resistance to disease in beech trees. Because it is not directly linked to human health, it cannot be funded by the VGN, but Coe has found that the network nonetheless facilitates her work in myriad ways.

“It’s great to have a team I can tap into that really understands the project at a deep level, at a molecular level. They are easy to brainstorm with,” she says. While colleagues at GMC support each other, with the VGN there are more colleagues around the state with whom she can confer over specific problems and ideas.

Upping the Ante

Coe also points out that through the network some of her students have been able to have outside faculty serve on their thesis committees. “It ups the ante [for an undergraduate student],” she says. “It makes it feel like you are going to have to present in a way that adds a layer of scrutiny and attention to a thesis defense. That’s part of ‘building a culture of research’” which is one of the key goals of the Vermont Genetics Network.

The VGN money, by supporting this culture of research at the undergraduate level, Coe says, “in particular with underrepresented minorities, greatly increases their chances of succeeding, graduating, and going on to graduate school or other meaningful careers in the sciences.”

As Janet Murray, Director of the Outreach service, points out, the initial relationship between UVM and the BPI partner institutions required some nurturing. “We had to show that it wasn’t just our mission,” she notes, “but that we wanted to support their vision.”

It’s clear that the vision of researchers Mireault, Doczi and Coe has taken flight. The Summer issue of Vermont Woman will include a profile of VGN’s director, Dr. Judith Van Houten, and highlight several additional projects—including the work of some of the young undergraduate students whose interest in science has been sparked through their involvement in the Vermont Genetics Network.

Tatiana Schreiber is a freelance journalist with a focus on science, environmental and agricultural issues. She holds a doctorate in Environmental Studies from Antioch New England Graduate School and currently teaches at Keene State College in New Hampshire and Hampshire College in Massachusetts.