Science Faculty Profiles

Splice of Life
Hilleren When the Human Genome Project announced its findings, the surprise was how few genes humans have to control the production of bodily proteins, accomplished by chemically cutting and pasting portions of genetic code to create new permutations. This area is the specialty of Pat Hilleren, Skidmore's Lubin Family Professor for Women in Science. As a researcher in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute at the University of Arizona, she co-authored an article in Nature, and now she's several years into a five-year, $720,000 NIH grant to delve deeper. As Hilleren explains it, protein-making instructions are encoded in the genes—bits of code, called exons, separated by linkages, called introns. Introns are chemically spliced out to create new code sequences, but flawed introns can shut down gene expression and the cells can die. By varying the introduced introns or other factors, and comparing results over many tests and controls, Hilleren and her Skidmore student researchers aim to pinpoint these flaws. Says Hilleren, "The research is very analytical and long-term, but it's incredibly satisfying."

Invasive Species
Supported by Skidmore's Water Resources Initiative and a New York State Biodiversity Research Institute grant, Assistant Professor of Biology Josh Ness and student collaborators began mapping invasions of Japanese knotweed and the European fire ant along the banks of local streams. The prolific knotweed crowds out native plants, alters stream flow and banks, and decreases wildlife habitat. Ness theorizes that these non-native ants and plants engage in a mutually beneficial relationship—the plant's nectar nourishing the ants and the ants fending off native insects, creating a "biological dead zone." In a bit of a surprise, the research team found patches of knotweed under attack by Japanese beetles. Says Ness, "This is the first time I've seen the Japanese beetle do something useful." It is possible, he added, that the beetle could help keep the knotweed in check. Stay tuned.

Better living (and learning) through chemistry
Frey Much of chemistry professor Steven Frey's research involves the creative use of inorganic elements to construct useful materials and devices. One project focuses on tethering a zinc-containing enzyme to clay and exploiting the properties of this biocomposite material as a tool for biochemical research or an agent to detect insecticides or nerve gases in the environment. In a separate project, Frey has collaborated with Evan Shalen '08 to harness the photosynthetic machinery of spinach leaves in order to construct a photovoltaic cell to capture the sun's energy. Their aim is to create new solar devices that are more efficient than current photovoltaic cells and utilize cheap, nontoxic, renewable resources from green plants.

He Got Game
Computer science professor Tom O'Connell was an IBM programmer until he "got tired of fixing the same problems in the same ways" and entered grad school. He's intrigued by artificial intelligence: computer programs that can learn from experience and even use "neural networks" to figure out complicated tasks such as the U.S. Postal Service's work on computer recognition of handwritten ZIP codes.

Happily, O'Connell is able to disentangle his brain from such abstruse mathematics and relate to undergrads like Dave Cadwallader who researched a dots-and-boxes game pitting a reinforcement-learning player against a standard fixed strategy. Cadwallader, now working in the software industry, credits O'Connell with "helping me focus my interests to design a project that's practical." Relatively practical. The program ran for a week, playing 20,000 games or more, to compile enough statistics to know how to enhance performance.

Go ahead and try it
Dean Draw five dots, and add lines linking each to every other without any lines crossing. Easy? Turns out it's impossible. Go ahead, try it—and come back when you give up. Skidmore mathematician Alice Dean will wait for you. She'll even help you through every doomed detour. And then she'll explain the arcane wisdoms (she allows, "Sometimes it makes your brain hurt a little") and common joys of her research. "I love solving puzzles," she says, "especially those that no one else has figured out." She's solved her share of those, and published more than twenty papers in professional journals, since joining the Skidmore faculty in 1986.

Her specialty is graph theory, a study of networks with complexes of nodes and connecting lines used in designing microchip layouts and in sorting and searching programs used by search engines such as Google. The key is to devise algorithms. Dean's research often involves layouts, like the five-dot graph, that can't be cleanly interlinked on one plane, so they need either "thickness"— layers linked by one or more pins—or a 3D shape with "bridges" or "tubes."

Priming the confidence pump
Skidmore Professor of Psychology Holley Hodgins recently received a major grant from the National Science Foundation to examine how individual autonomy affects a person's willingness to embrace or to participate in ongoing events. Based on 'Self-Determination Theory,' Hodgins believes that people who are motivated autonomously—or with a sense of endorsing their own behavior—are nondefensive and able to experience ongoing events as they are, with little distortion or avoidance. In contrast, those who are 'control motivated' or behave out of a sense of coercion and pressure, are more likely to be defensive. In one test of her hypothesis, Hodgins' experimenters interviewed undergraduate participants and asked stress-producing questions (e.g., Tell me about a time when you broke your own moral code). Prior to the interview, participants received word cues (or 'primes') to make them feel either autonomy or control-motivation. Participants also were monitored for physiological responses. What they found supported their hypothesis: Those primed with autonomy were less defensive on verbal, nonverbal, and physiological indices. One of the nonverbal defense measures, especially among those primed with control motivation: the tendency to use fake smiles. Not surprisingly, autonomy-primed participants gave persuasive speeches of much higher quality. Says Hodgins, "The implications of this for teachers, coaches, parents, and employers are tremendous because they suggest that environments that support autonomy make people less defensive and help them perform better."

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