Penn State Brandywine is a small commuter campus in suburban Philadelphia, but when it comes to chemistry and biology, professors and students on campus are thinking big. That's why the campus continues to send students to University of Paris, as part of a National Science Foundation grant to do high-level research in one of the cultural centers of the world, among noteworthy scientific endeavors.
The campus, through the efforts of Elizabeth Dudkin, associate professor of biology, and Robert Black, professor emeritus of biology, has sent more than 15 students to Paris during the past five years to work and study with Margaret Ahmad, visiting assistant professor of biology at Penn State Brandywine. Ahmad teaches occasional courses at Penn State Brandywine and also works with students at her laboratory at the University of Paris, where she does groundbreaking research on blue-light receptors in plants.
Thanks to Ahmad's research, which has been aided by Penn State Brandywine students, the scientific community is aware that many aspects involving the growth of plants, including when they germinate and when they flower, is controlled by the amount of blue light to which they are exposed. Plants see blue light using special visual pigments, and if these are mutated, then the plants may exhibit different growth patterns. By cloning blue-light-sensing genes and making changes in them that improve how they work, gardeners can use this technology to grow the perfect lawn or garden for example, she said.
In addition to studying how blue-light receptors affect plants, Ahmad said the research is slowly moving into the study of animals. For example, she recently authored a paper examining the impact blue-light receptors may have on the migration of birds. In humans, Ahmad said we have an internal clock that tells us when it's time to go to sleep and time to wake up, and that blue-light receptors may be essential to this process. She plans to study this relationship more closely in the future.
When students from Penn State Brandywine go to Paris to participate in this research, their education goes well beyond the walls of the research lab. These students typically live in the center of one of the world's great cultural destinations for one month to several months. Students who do really well in the research environment often return later for longer periods. Some find their way into research facilities at Oxford, and other famous European colleges and universities.
Sarah Burney, a former Penn State Brandywine student who graduated from the University in 2005 with a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, spent a month doing scientific research as part of this program in 2002, and returned this past summer. Burney, who currently works in Ahmad's lab as a grad student at the University of Paris, said the experience opened up many career opportunities for her.
"Since I had not only (research) experience but international experience, it was very easy for me to get whatever science job I wanted while in college. The choice to do the program has greatly impacted my career, since I decided to stay and carry on in a Ph.D program here," said Burney, who hails from West Chester. "It was fascinating to explore another culture, and of course, Paris is an extremely lively and gorgeous city. You learn much more than science when you are living abroad. I can see Notre Dame from my apartment window."
How many commuter campuses anywhere provide such opportunities?
"If a student comes to Paris and exhibits the ability and passion for the research, then there's good reason to believe that they will be researchers for life," said Ahmad, who will be crossing the ocean to teach at Penn State Brandywine later this month. "These students are engaged in high-level, important research, and for the most part, they do a fantastic job."
Ahmad isn't the only one at Penn State Brandywine doing interesting, potentially groundbreaking research. Dudkin and John Tierney, associate professor of chemistry, have been working with students for years creating novel compounds and checking their activity when interacting with bacteria. Recently, they found something that really got their attention.
"Recently we tested one of a series of compounds with a subtle structural variation, which didn't interact with bacteria at all," said Tierney, who noted that this particular compound was made about five years ago. The research, in general, began many years before that with the aid of the late campus biology professor Jane Cooper. "Elizabeth (Dudkin) thought that was very unusual; that if it didn't react with bacteria, it would probably affect mammalian cells in some way."
The Penn State Brandywine contingent shipped the compounds to Robert Farrell, assistant professor of biology at the Penn State York campus, and while doing the testing, he made an amazing discovery: One particular class of compounds shut down mammalian tumor cells almost immediately.
"I had wanted to test these compounds for years, but I had no idea that any would do this," said Tierney, who recently earned the 2006 Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching in Chemical Science, sponsored by the Philadelphia Section of the American Chemical Society and Merck & Co. "It's too early to say, but if more testing proves the viability of this compound, the University could choose to patent it."
While the news was good, Tierney warned that it's much too early to make any significant claims, especially since the compounds haven't been tested yet to ensure they won't harm good cells in the body.
Like Ahmad, Tierney and Dudkin have involved many of their students in this potentially important research, publishing several articles co-written with them during the past few years. They plan to publish the results of testing this current batch of compounds in the near future.
"One of the most satisfying things about doing this research has been getting our students involved. Having it done with undergraduate student input is very important to me," said Tierney. "The students spend hours and hours prepping the lab and learning about the physical methods of doing research, so they really get excited when they are on the ground floor of a discovery."
Doug Sheridan, formerly of West Chester and a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, said of participating in this research as a Penn State Brandywine student back in 1997 and 1998: "It not only gave me my first research opportunity, but John mentored me both in and out of the classroom, and encouraged me to present my research results. It laid the foundation for my entire career."