Why snails aren’t depressed, and a glimpse into the adventures of Dr. Fong’s lab.

Why snails aren’t depressed, and a glimpse into the adventures of Dr. Fong’s lab.

When people first hear about our research project, we, Lizzie Donovan and Taylor Bury, have noticed that there’s a pretty common course of conversation.


Lizzie and Taylor say hello from Lewes, DE!

Them: So what kind of research are you doing?

Us: We’ve been dosing snails in antidepressants to see effects on their behavior.

Them: Huh…but wait. Are snails depressed? I guess they do move a little slow.

Us: (laughing at the bad joke) It’s a bit more complicated, but no. Snails aren’t depressed.


Some of our labeled mud snails getting ready to be dosed.

At least as far as we know. In our waterways, there are things called Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API’s for short). These are chemicals or drugs that come from humans when we use the shower or flush the toilet, and end up going through directly into creeks, streams, rivers, and oceans.

Places like Marsh Creek are a good example.

Places like Marsh Creek are a good example.

They’re probably not a good thing for the creatures that live there.

Some of the most common API’s are antidepressants, so that seemed like a reasonable place to start as far as testing drugs and the different concentrations that go through these areas. Meanwhile, the snails we’re using (both marine and freshwater), take up the drugs directly through their skin, and have a couple behaviors to study. Dr. Fong has published a few studies in this area, which you can find here, here, and here. In particular we’ve been looking at righting behavior- basically flipping a snail over and seeing how long it takes to put itself right side-up again.

Which, as you can imagine, has brought us to a bunch of different places:

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Like our indoor lab, for example.

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But we can bring a little bit of lab outdoors as well.

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In a bigger context these API’s could also be affecting snail predators and prey, as well as other organisms living in these areas. Snails may seem tiny, but their impact on an ecosystem is surprisingly huge. Without their presence, many of the places would drastically change.

The Team

Taylor Bury: Taylor has never met a donut that she didn’t like. When not in lab, the rising senior Biology major and Chemistry minor can often be found roaming the battlefields of Gettysburg, playing guitar, or feeding her coffee addiction at The Ragged Edge. Currently she’s also applying to dental schools, because four years of undergrad wasn’t enough.

Lizzie Donovan: Did not want to write this section but couldn’t leave it blank. In addition to binge-watching Netflix and drinking copious amounts of tea, this avid petter of dogs and wildlife enthusiast loves being outdoors and doing fieldwork, hence her major in Environmental Studies and minor in Biology. Despite slothful indulgences and a tendency to make her lab partner late to work, after college and a couple of years abroad, she plans on getting a higher degree in an ecology-related field.

Dr. Peter Fong: Dr. Fong is boss man. When he’s not taking his dog Messi for a walk, you can find him fishing, collecting snails in one of the many creeks surrounding the Gettysburg area, and talking to ghost hunters by the Covered Bridge.


Rats, Drugs, and a whole lot of PB

Hello I am Josh Rubinstein and I am working in Dr. Siviy’s lab this summer! His research focuses on play behavior in rats and more specifically why a specific strain of rats (F344 better known as Fisher rats) play less than other strains of rats.










So far we’ve done quite a lot and still have a lot more planned. The first experiment we did was to use different concentrations of a drug that inhibits the alpha-2 norepinephrine receptors in neurons in order to create a dose response curve and to observe the effect of different doses on the play behavior of the F344 rats. With the dose response curve we will chose a concentration to use in conjunction with amphetamine in an upcoming experiment. Amphetamine releases both dopamine and norepinephrine so with a norepinephrine receptor inhibitor we can examine the effects of released dopamine on play behavior.

In addition to this we also got in pregnant mother rats that gave birth just a couple weeks ago.

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For about 10 days Rose, Mary, and I all observed the mothers with their young by recording the kinds of nursing they were doing as well as if they were licking and grooming them and every morning we handled the rats which means that we took the pups out of some of the cages away from their mothers for about 15 minutes. This is to encourage the mothers to lick and groom them more. The more a pup gets licked and groom by their mother the less anxious they will be later in life. We also examined strain differences because we have F344, Sprague Dawley, and Lewis rats. Both the F344 and the Lewis rats are inbred strains from the Sprague Dawley strain.

Throughout the summer we have all been performing immunohistochemistry on the brain slices that we have. This involves a number of steps including subjecting the slices to phosphate buffer (PB) washes and attaching antibodies to a specific compound that we are looking for. This allows us to label specific neurons (oxytocin neurons in the hypothalamus for example). The picture below is actually a slice of the hippocampus!










I have had an amazing time so far and am excited to do even more this summer!

If You Think Bullets are Fast, Check Out Our Magnesium 32!

20150621_132500A particle accelerator is a term that gets thrown around a fair amount in physics; many of you have probably heard of such a thing but what do we physicists do with them? What is their purpose? Well, Maria Mazza and I (Sam Wilensky) are working with Dr. Stephenson. The three of us are working on experiments at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) up in Michigan State University (Go Spartans!) and we are learning about just how we can manage to get these particles to relativistic speeds (pictured above) and the data we can obtain from doing these types of experiments.

MSU Sign at the Bogue Street Entrance on a August Summer dayp1009511261-3

The physicists at the NSCL are looking at the structure of the nucleus in order to gain a better understanding of the nuclear force. But how do we do that? Well, we take Magnesium 32 nuclei and smash them into a Beryllium 9 target. But it isn’t quite that simple. First we need to make sure that we have a beam of Magnesium 32 nuclei and only Magnesium 32 nuclei and this is done through several magnets, which manage to separate the contaminants of the beam. Once the beam has been cleared of contaminants we send it to the Beryllium target. If only it were that simple for us to observe! Unfortunately, the amount of time it takes for the Magnesium nuclei to pass through the target is on the order of 10-11 seconds, which even our best detectors could not quite measure. So what we do is we look at the fragments that come out of the target-beam collisions. Through a series of detectors we are able to obtain data, which can give us the momentum and energy of the fragments. This data can tell us what kind of fragments we have. The end goal of obtaining this information is backtracking the path of these fragments to the Beryllium target and seeing how the Magnesium nuclei broke apart after colliding with the Beryllium target.


Maria and I are working on applying corrections to the data and calibrating the data in such a way that we are able to discern the momentum and energy. This will allow us to identify the particles we have hitting the detectors after the collision. Maria and I spend the majority of our time in the student lounge of Masters Hall in front of computers, working on macros (computer codes) and applying them to the data. This week, however, we found ourselves away from Masters Hall up in the home of the Spartans (MSU), at the NSCL. Being on site gives us a better picture of what it takes to obtain this kind of data and run these types of experiments. This week we are working hands on with the neutron detectors and arranging them for the next experiment the NSCL collaboration to run this fall.


Wingardium Lipidosum

Wingardium Lipidosum

Meet the Crew

Mike “Couniham” Counihan and the Skin Project

The stratum corneum (SC) is the outermost layer of the epidermis, the outer part of the skin in mammals. The SC consists of corneocytes (dead cells) suspended in an extracellular lipid matrix. This lipid matrix is composed of ceramides (Cers), cholesterol (Chol), and free fatty acids (FFAs). The vast majority of the hydrocarbon chains in the Cers and FFAs are fully saturated (no double bonds). Together with their relatively small headgroups, the lipids pack together more closely than a typical cell membrane (which is made up of phospholipids with a mix of saturated and unsaturated tails). Most commonly, the matrix is made up of three bilayers in between each corneocyte, giving it both lateral (horizontal, within a layer) and lamellar (vertical, between layers) organization.

Organization of the human stratum corneum (figure from van Smeden et al., 2013)

Organization of the human stratum corneum (van Smeden et al., 2013)

The Skin Project looks at the lateral phase behavior of the lipid matrix and specifically how each individual component (Cers, Chol, and FFAs) affects the fluidity of the lipid layer. An example, topical medications need to penetrate the SC to reach living cells in deeper layers of the skin, so knowing what makes the SC lipid matrix more fluid, and thus more permeable to these types of medicines, will aid in the development of more efficient drugs.

SC matrix lipids: ceramide (top), cholesterol (middle), and free fatty acid (bottom)

To investigate lateral lipid organization, we create lipid monolayers on a water surface using a Langmuir trough. The lipids’ polar headgroups lie on the air-water interface, and the nonpolar hydrocarbon tails point in the air, which represents one layer in the SC lipid matrix. We then compress the lipids using barriers on the water surface and measure the change in surface tension at the interface as the lipids get closer and interact with one another. This gives us information about the fluidity of the lipid monolayer. By varying the lipid mixture composition (e.g., more Chol, less FFA), we can tease out which lipid produces greater lateral fluidity in the lipid matrix. Additionally, we can use fluorescence microscopy to visualize the monolayer and image the fluid region.

Langmuir Trough with Fluorescence Microscope

Our Langmuir trough with fluorescence microscope setup

Cartoon depiction of a lipid monolayer on a Langmuir trough

Cartoon depiction of a lipid monolayer on a Langmuir trough

David “Comic Sans” Van Doren and the Nanoparticle Project

Nanoparticles have a large, and growing, array of applications in industrial and medical settings. Their increasing use and vast potential make the characterization of nanoparticle interactions an important task for not only developing technologies, but also for understanding their potential toxicity to biological systems. Nanoparticles can interact with cells by adhering or inserting into the lipid bilayer of the plasma membrane. This interaction can have various disruptive effects, such as changing the fluidity of the membrane, affecting one or more phases of the lipid domain system, or even creating pores in the membrane. This project aims to examine nanoparticle-lipid relationships by measuring various nanoparticle interactions on model membrane systems such as lipid monolayers or giant unilamellar vesicles (GUVs), with the intent of relating these simplistic, representative systems to cells that would be affected by similar encounters with nanoparticles.

Giant unilamellar vesicle of DPPC/DOPC/cholesterol.

Giant unilamellar vesicle made of DPPC/DOPC/cholesterol

GUVs, vesicles made up of a single bilayer of lipids, were prepared using DPPC, DOPC, and cholesterol to model the cell membrane. Polystyrene nanoparticles, functionalized with either amine or carboxyl groups, were applied to populations of GUVs to characterize the effects of positively and negatively charged nanoparticles on the membrane. Morphological changes in the membrane were monitored by fluorescence microscopy. By understanding basic factors that influence the nanoparticle-lipid interaction, such as charge and size of nanoparticles, researchers can begin to predict and anticipate adverse health impacts of similar nanoparticles used in products and treatments.

David in the microscope room.

David in the microscope room.

The Mom-brane Lady

Dr. Shelli Frey, known as Dr. Almighty Supreme Pastry Chef Frey in this corner of the science center, puts up with a great deal to ensure that we have an enjoyable and meaningful research experience (including being referred to by ridiculous, but fitting, titles). She fields all of the struggles, complaints, and headaches that we bring to her and sends us on our way with plans of attack for fixing what ever trouble we’ve gotten ourselves into. Currently, Dr. Frey has a lovely toddler named Ellie and a second daughter on the way (yay!). Both of her children have made considerable contributions to lab work this summer. Ellie helped describe lipid domains with a fantastic drawing, while Dr. Frey and her child-on-the-way have been tag-teaming lab work together. One might argue that Dr. Frey is even more efficient in lab in her current state of pregnancy, as her baby bump acts as a convenient and portable lab bench. Dr. Frey has asked us to clarify that she should not be confused with the psychic medium Shelly Frey, who visited our area recently. While Dr. Frey is all knowing and all seeing, she thankfully does not charge $250 for advice.

Ellie's depiction of lipid domains

Ellie’s depiction of lipid domains

Extreme Makeover: Lipid Lab Edition

Summer research this year kicked off just as any other summer must: with cleaning up the messes that we let accumulate over the two semesters of research during the school year. Cleaning vials in the Lipid Lab is a big deal. It is a process that requires patience, determination, and a heck of a lot of concentrated sulfuric acid. While the Lipid Lab crew knew that they would need to deal with the endless whine of the sonicator and the burning from the lactic acid built up after hours of manually jostling vials, they persevered through their first few days knowing that cleaning vials was a small price to pay for the countless hours of uninterrupted research they would enjoy further down the road.


Water usually isn’t hard to come by in the Lipid Lab; we get a few gallons cascading through the laboratory’s wall and ceiling every few rainstorms. However, cleaning out the tubing of the water heater requires ceiling particulate-free water. The lack of a sink in the trough room required the famous engineering prowess of the Lipid Lab’s senior chemistry research assistants to provide flowing water to the otherwise arid space.

Aquaduct construction in the P-Chem lab

Aquaduct construction in the P-Chem lab

New Toys and Gadgets

Look how cute this guy is! Last summer, the Lipid Lab purchased a small trough from KSV NIMA that was used for experiments in the interdisciplinary Chem 358 course titled Salty and Fatty. He is used for creating lipid monolayers and obtaining data about the material properties of cell membranes. He holds an adorable 180 mL. Compared to Papa Trough situated in the trough room, he is a tad smaller, but comes with updated software and a sleek control box that makes him pretty fantastic to run experiments on.

Trough Jr.

Trough Jr.

Vials weren’t the only components that needed attention. After finding homes for the piles of articles and clutter that had built up in the prep lab (courtesy of Warren Alexander “Your Data Disturbs Me” Campbell IV), we next turned to the trough room. If you are avid Lipid Lab blog readers or have mistakenly found your way into the trough room this summer, you may notice that the Papa Trough is no longer connected to the fluorescence microscope that is usually on the lab’s vibration-canceling table. The motorized microscope stage required maintenance to deal with a bit of corrosion, so Mike decided to take on the rust himself. Armed with chemistry know-how and razor-sharp reflexes, he managed to dismantle a good portion of the platform. However, a wrench was thrown in his plans when he did not have the proper tools to completely take it apart (#badpun). The Lipid Lab crew wrapped up the stage in a hand-crafted cocoon of plush foam and sent it to the only person guaranteed to be able to satiate our eternal need for lateral motion: Ernie (the instrument tech at Siskiyou).

Mike tinkering with the microscope stage.

Mike tirelessly tinkering with the microscope stage.

Mike contemplating screwdrivers.

Mike contemplating screwdrivers.

Lipid Lab Strives to be X-SIG-tastic

Working in the far corner of the chemistry department all day can get lonely. One of the goals of the X-SIG summer experience is to have undergraduate research students  engage with students and concepts outside of their immediate field of interest. Aching for more human interaction and cross-disciplinary hangouts, the Lipid Lab hosted an event for chemistry, biology, and physics students to connect over a movie, Exploring the Living Cell, which deals with the basics of cellular life in the hopes that all students, especially those outside of biology, could further their understanding of the life sciences. Those that attended know that the Lipid Lab now endorses plankton for therapeutic purposes.

Exploring the Living Cell. Kleiner, V; Sardet, C. 2006. CNRS. Film.

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This work is made possible by the efforts of the Gettysburg Chemistry Department, HHMI, Avanti Polar Lipids, and viewers like you. Thank you.

#purelipids #ilovelipids #iamavanti #avantilipids #avantilipidomics #discoverthedifference #avantirulesothersdrool #thephospholipidpeople


Cirques or a circus? (notes from the Quaternary Research Lab, summer 2015)

Despite the Environmental Studies Department’s reputation for going on many field trips, you might be surprised to know that working with Dr. Principato this summer has so far consisted primarily of computer work; that said, we’re having a great time conducting research right here in Science Center 161!

Fig. 1. Rachael Grube hard at work in Dr. Principato's lab, our home away from home.

Fig. 1. Rachael Grube hard at work in Dr. Principato’s lab, our home away from home.

Rachael Grube (my colleague/partner in crime; Fig.1) and I arrive in the science center by 8am each morning, Monday through Friday. The two of us are studying bowl-shaped glacial landforms called cirques on Iceland.

Dr. Principato published a paper with former student Jess Lee in 2014, in which they examined cirques on northwest Iceland. Our goal this summer is to complete analyses similar to those that Lee and Principato published, but in different regions of Iceland that have similar bedrock composition and ages to the northwest (Fig. 2). My study area is in the Eastern Fjords region of Iceland, and Rachael is studying northern Iceland.

Fig. 2. As you can see, the bedrock in north, west, northwest, and eastern Iceland is similar in composition (source: www.summitpost.org)

Fig. 2. As shown on this map, the bedrock in north, west, northwest, and eastern Iceland is similar in composition (source: http://www.summitpost.org)

So why are we studying these cool looking bowl-shaped geological features (Fig. 3)? It’s because “cirques” sounds like a circus, and who doesn’t love a circus, right!? Just kidding.

Fig. 3. A beautiful example of a cirque found on Iceland (source: www.whitman.edu)

Fig. 3. A beautiful example of a cirque found on Iceland. We aspired to take such lovely pictures when we go to Iceland (source: http://www.whitman.edu).

Fig. 4. A diagram explaining the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which Rachael and I are studying (source: www.cssforum.com.pk)

Fig. 4. A diagram explaining the equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which Rachael and I are studying (source: http://www.cssforum.com.pk)

As much as we love the name, that isn’t why cirques are important to study. Cirques periodically contain small climate-sensitive glaciers. The presence or absence of ice (i.e. glaciers) in cirques can tell us a lot about the climatic conditions in a given region. In our current research, we are specifically measuring what is called an equilibrium line altitude (ELA), which is where a glacier’s annual accumulation of mass equals its annual ablation (loss) of mass (Fig. 4). Reconstructing paleo-ELAs is useful because, as previously mentioned, it gives us an indication of factors that influence the climate in a given area. For example, a low paleo-ELA signifies climatic cooling and/or more precipitation in a given area, while a high ELA suggests the opposite. Rachael and I want to find out if ELAs are lower closer to the coast on east and north Iceland, as well as if latitude has an effect on ELA elevation.

You might be wondering, How in the world can you do all that by sitting in front of the computer? Well, we in the ES department are fortunate enough to have a magical computer program called ArcGIS. This is essentially a mapping tool that allows you to take layers of spatial data and complete many different statistical and spatial analyses on a data set. We have mapped out locations of cirques on Iceland, transferred them to ArcGIS, and are now completing analyses on characteristics of each cirque such as length, width, area, aspect, and of course, ELA height (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. A screenshot of a few cirques on eastern Iceland atop a slope raster file in ArcGIS.

Fig. 5. A screenshot of a few cirques on eastern Iceland atop a slope raster file in ArcGIS.

These analyses can become tedious at times, because the program likes to freeze, and it has many tools to choose from, but the information we have obtained will be very valuable for future research on global climate change. Did I mention that the two areas of Iceland we are studying have never been studied before? That’s right– we are very excited to be completing the first quantitative analyses of cirques on North and East Iceland, even if it can be a test of patience at times!


Fig. 6. Me and Rachael sporting our stylish sleep masks. We will be needing them in Iceland– there is 24-hour daylight there during the summer!

The good news is, on June 28th, The Quaternary Research Lab is heading to Iceland! We have been preparing for this trip for the past week or so by looking at maps, making shopping lists and travel plans, studying campsite locations, ordering gear, and pitching tents (Figs. 6-8).


Fig. 7. A tentative outline of our trip to Iceland. Dr. Principato says these plans will most likely change once we get there, but it’s nice to go in with some idea of what we’ll be doing.


Fig. 8. We have been studying many maps this week to prepare for our travels around Iceland.

We will be leaving early Sunday morning and returning on the next Sunday, July 5th. Unfortunately, we won’t have much time to do many tourist-y things, because we essentially have to drive around the entire perimeter of Iceland in a week. We will hopefully be doing some pretty intense hiking as well; but we’ll do our best to take some nice pictures to share with you all. We will be conducting ground-truth analyses to see how well our conclusions from our mapping in ArcGIS match what actually exists in Iceland. We will also visit a few places in which Dr. Principato would like to take samples for other cutting-edge projects to come (no spoilers!). Rachael has discovered a very special detail as well: one of the caves we are stopping by was in that extremely popular show Game of Thrones (Fig. 9)!

Fig. 8. The cave made famous by Game of Thrones, named Grjotagia, which is located in northeast Iceland (source: www.dreamlike.info).

Fig. 9. The cave made famous by Game of Thrones, named Grjotagia, which is located in northeast Iceland (source: http://www.dreamlike.info).

This detail is of course all the more reason to be looking forward to an amazing trip to Iceland. We will let you know how it goes (in picture form most likely) when we return. Kveðja!

Worms, Pathogens, and Extremophiles… Oh My!


IMET Center in Baltimore, MD

Despite traffic’s best efforts, Joe Robinson, Dr. Powell, and I (Jenny Giannini) arrived at the Institute of Marine and Environmental Technology (IMET) Center to attend a seminar given by Dr. Powell’s post-doctoral adviser, Dr. Fred Ausubel.  Dr. Ausubel’s seminar was entitled “Using Caenorhabditis elegans to Elucidate Immune Response Pathways and to Identify Novel Anti-Infective and Immuno-Stimulatory Compounds”. This seminar discussed many years of research in Dr. Ausubel’s lab which is focused on C. elegans and Arabidopsis thaliana innate immunity. He discussed methods for screening the effects of different compounds on the immune response and the longevity of worms infected with a pathogen. He also talked about C. elegans’ different immune response pathways, one of which was discovered by Dr. Powell during her time in his lab as a post-doc, as well as different theories for how the worm detects pathogenic bacteria.

imet seminar

Flyer for Dr. Ausubel’s seminar with pictures from the seminar (If you look closely, you can see the back of my head in the audience!)

After the seminar, Dr. Powell got to eat lunch with the big wigs while Joe and I ate lunch at Panera with members of the DasSarma lab, including Priya DasSarma, the lab supervisor, Wolf Pecher, the lab tech, and two of their students. The DasSarma lab studies haloarchea and other extremophiles. While Joe and I don’t know terribly large amounts about extremophiles, it was fun to learn about their research as well as talk about our own.


Overall, this seminar was extremely relevant to the research we do in Dr.Powell’s lab, and it was great to meet Dr. Ausubel as well as the DasSarma lab.