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Vol 57 No. 1 | Jan. 2005
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NSF Grant for Advanced Microscope to Benefit Faculty, Student Projects

Dessie Underwood, an assistant professor of biological sciences at CSULB, is studying chromosomal abnormalities in butterfly sperm that could lead to a greater understanding of chromosome-based health disorders in humans, such as Down Syndrome.

In the CSULB Physics and Astronomy Department, Professor Chuhee Kwon is working with superconducting thin films that have potential applications in a variety of electronics and technology areas.

Their research, as well as studies by other CSULB faculty and students, will advance even further with a new state-of-the-art microscope with laser attachments that can capture or cut out structures within individual tissues and cells or tiny segments only a few molecules wide of other materials. Underwood and Kwon recently received a $205,587 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to purchase a Cell Robotics laser microscopy workstation fitted with what the company calls "LaserScissors." The device is one of the few of its type at a Southern California university.

Underwood will use the new microscope to study Eucheira socialis, or the madrone butterfly, which exhibits chronic abnormalities in its sperm, leading to what are called "segregation distortion disorders." Underwood said she will "be able to remove individual chromosomes that are in cells that are dividing. Each chromosome can be amplified and labeled fluorescently to make a tag, then used to hybridize onto other cells that are in meiosis and to see where that type of chromosome lies." She is collaborating with Dr. Niels Tommerup, a medical geneticist at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who is studying segregation distortion diseases in humans.

For example, Down Syndrome results when an embryo receives three, rather than two copies of chromosome 21. "Why those chromosomes fail to segregate in humans is not known," Underwood said. "If we can understand why chromosomes in butterflies misbehave, we might be able to apply it to misbehaving human chromosomes."

Kwon plans to use the microscope's laser cutting capabilities to further her research into developing high-temperature superconducting wire. The computer-controlled laser is so precise that it can cut just a submicron-thick metallic film on a substrate without breaking the substrate.

"We can cut it out, and the inside material and the outside are electrically isolated, which means I can make any pattern in the thin film and then study how the electric current is flowing," she explained. She and her research team have developed a technique to identify defects in the film.

"With this tool, we can investigate where the good and bad areas are and then we may be able to cut out the area which is bad or which is good and isolate that area to study. We can create a maze pattern at the microscopic level," said Kwon, one of several faculty members researching nanotechnology applications.

One of Underwood's biology colleagues, assistant professor Kelly Young, specializes in reproductive biology, particularly how the environment affects reproductive physiology.

She will use the microscope to study Siberian hamsters, some of which "are exposed to longer days, which would simulate summer, and some are exposed to shorter days. The lights are turned on and off at different times, and what we see is a huge change in their gonadal function. The change is quite dramatic. It takes place over about 12 weeks," she said.

"What we're really interested in is how this ovary is going from a completely functional state to shutting down completely. More importantly, the following spring, what would happen in the wild is that the ovary returns to a larger, fully functioning state. We are able to simulate that in the laboratory and that's the exciting part because then we can look at how to take an adult ovary that's shut down for whatever reason and get it back to a functional state," Young continued.

"What we are planning to do with the microscope is to dissect out and analyze pockets of hypertrophied steroidogenic cells that appear in the ovary only when it begins to shut down. We don't know what the function of these structures is, and they have been reported by just one other group. The structures may serve a protective function for the follicles, or they may just be the by-product of a rapid regression of ovarian structure and function." By analyzing the hamsters' ovarian tissue, she hopes to gain further insights that could benefit women.

"There is something called 'clinically early menopause' where women's ovaries can become inert despite the fact that they still have [egg-containing] follicles," Young explained. Additionally, "women who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation therapy are usually advised that the ovaries need to come out or [physicians] can try to shut down the ovaries." Ovarian function may or may not return after treatment, so "what we want to find out is, can we see what genes are taking this ovary from completely non-functional back to a functional state? If we understand and know that, maybe it can help those women who have undergone those treatments."

These professors' research teams include both undergraduate and graduate students. Providing early exposure to research has made Cal State Long Beach one of the top master's level universities whose students go on to earn doctorates in science and engineering, according to NSF.
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