Understanding when we can dig deeper to discover more information on archaeological bones

When archeologists discover bones lying deep underground, within ruins, or hidden inside a dark cave, these scientists can use methods like radiocarbon dating to age the bones, or methods like stable isotope analysis to discover the diet of the organism to whom the bones belong. In order to use these methods, the scientists extracts collagen from the bone, and it is with that collagen that the scientist can run the aforementioned tests.  Unfortunately, there are many cases when scientists go to extract collagen from a bone and it is not there – over the many years the bones laid dormant within the earth, the collagen escaped the confines of the bone (i.e., decayed).  When scientists do find collagen, the extraction process causes damage to the bone and negates the preservation of the artifact.

Recent work by Dr. Maria Squire and colleagues identifies non-destructive methods that can be used by scientists to first determine if collagen is present within a bone before any destructive techniques come into play.  Dr. Squire used microCT scanning to take high resolution images of the minuscule structures of bone (see Fig. 1 below).  She found that bones with high corticol porosity, that is a large number of holes within the bone, are unlikely to contain enough collagen for analyses like radiocarbon dating and stable isotope analysis (see ET50 in Fig. 1). However, she also found a large amount of variation with the microCT results.  So, Dr. Squire and colleagues used additional tests – one being mercury porosimetry – to further test the porosity of the bones.  These other techniques can detect pores so small, that they do not show up on microCT images.  For example, specimen ET60 (see Fig. 1) appears to lack many pores according to the microCT image, and thus one would expect to find a suitable amount of collagen within the bone for additional analyses; however, this bone does actually contain pores, but these pores are extraordinary small!  These minuscule pores were detected by mercury porosimetry, and thus, this bone would be deemed unacceptable for further analyses as there is a good chance it does not contain collagen.  In fact, ET60 contained no collagen and if someone tried to extract collagen from it, then they would be destroying the artifact for nothing.

Figure 1. Two microCT scans of bones examined the Tripp et al. paper. Specimen ET50 exhibits a much greater amount of porosity compared to specimen ET60; however, additional analyses revealed small pores throughout ET60 as well.

The destruction of this bone can aid in our on-going quest for knowledge about that organism, but this comes at the cost of the damage done to the bone.  The fantastic research by Dr. Squire and her colleagues, however, should limit this destruction as scientists can now use these less invasive techniques to identify suitable bone candidates.

To read more about Dr. Squire’s research, please keep on the lookout for the release of this article “Use of micro-computed tomography imaging and porosity measurements as indicators of collagen preservation in archaeological bone” in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

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Biology Seminar Series

The monthly departmental seminar series is up and running again, with a new speaker coming at the end of each month. Everyone is welcome – including faculty and students from every part of the University. We’re halfway through the speakers for the fall, with two more coming.

Wednesday, October 24th, alumna Maria Gubbioti (currently a PhD candidate doing research at Jefferson Medical College, Jefferson University) will talk about her work from 3:15-4:15 in LSC 233.

Dr. James Sobel (an evolutionary ecologist studying speciation and local adaptation in monkeyflowers at Binghamton University) will give the last seminar of the semester, on Thursday, November 29th, 11:30am-12:30pm. Location TBA; watch for flyers around the LSC in the days before each seminar.

We have an exciting line-up for the spring, with names, dates and titles set for release in early January. Bring a friend!

 

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Alumni spotlight: Jonathan Nicklas ’18

Recent  grad Jonathan Nicklas (Biology and Philosophy, 2018) is now a Fellow at the National Institute of Health (NIH) National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Highlights from his responses to our questions are below.

What do you miss about Scranton and/or the U?

J.N. – Although I only graduated a couple months ago, I am certain that I will miss the Special Jesuit Liberal Arts Honors Program. Aside from my science courses, I greatly appreciated the collection of thinkers and their ideas we discussed in the philosophy courses throughout my four years. I also am grateful for the teachers who made this unique program possible.

If you could give one piece of advice to current students, what would it be?

J.N. – I would suggest that she or he relinquish the concept that college, or life for that matter, has a set formula with rules that must be followed. There is no rule that states which major a student must graduate with… There is no rule that you, as a student, must do what all your peers are doing… choose a major that they are passionate about, explore what they can do in that field, speak with and get in contact with as many people as they can, and most importantly strive to do their best in whatever they choose. There are many avenues to succeed so long as a student has the drive to take them.

What [Biology] class was most helpful to your current path, and how?

J.N. – Microbiology Lab was the most helpful class for my current path for three reasons. First, this class introduced me to the microscopic world of bacteria. Second, this class helped me realize that I enjoyed regularly working in a lab setting. Finally, this lab taught me fundamental lab skills that I still use frequently in my current position.

What research experience was most helpful to your current path, and how?  [Jonathan worked in Dr. Smith’s lab.]

J.N. –  I learned that failing makes you a better researcher. For example, I am certain I incorrectly calibrated the instrument I was using to do readings for my project. Therefore, about one month’s worth of data I collected was erroneous and I had to redo it. Instead of quitting, I spoke with Dr. Smith and became more cognizant of the calibration protocol. I then collected adequate data I could use. This experience taught me that failing is a part of working in a lab. However, this lesson also taught me that being a truly great researcher means coping with your mistakes and transforming them into successes.

What do you want to do in the future?

J.N. – In the future, I hope to have a career in medicine.  I am specifically interested in working with clinical trials someday as it will allow me to have an open dialogue with patients and fellow physicians in the clinic along with researchers in the lab.

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Inaugural Meeting of the Pre-PA Club – Tues, Sept. 25

Next Tuesday, September 25th, the Pre-Physician’s Assistant Club will have their first meeting.
The meeting will be at 7:30pm in LSC 126.
This is a club for anyone who is thinking about going to PA school or anyone who is interested in learning more about PAs in general. Throughout the year, the club plans on informing members on what a PA does, how to apply and get into PA school. It also will hold volunteer and service opportunities, and have guest speakers come in to talk to members of the club.
This is a great opportunity for anyone who is interested in learning more about Physicians Assistants and PA school so feel free to come and bring a friend!
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Faculty Spotlight – Dr. Janice Voltzow

Our first Faculty Spotlight shines bright on Dr. Janice Voltzow.  The first woman to be appointed as a full professor within the Biology Department at the University of Scranton and the first woman to be appointed as Chair of the Department, Dr. Voltzow has been breaking down barriers as she mentors young biologists, enriches the minds of students in the classroom, and continues to conduct research on exciting evolutionary-based concepts.

Dr. Voltzow’s research is focused on understanding the relationship between structure and function in organisms and how that understanding can shed light on the evolution of these various organisms.  This knowledge can then be used to understand how organisms may be affected by current and future changes to the environment.  Currently, Dr. Voltzow’s research focuses on marine invertebrates and how these invertebrates will be affected by changes in temperature and water pH – changes brought on by climate change.  Dr. Voltzow’s research has brought her to various corners of the earth – studying trees in tropical rain forests, tussocks in the Alaskan tundra, and sea urchins in Australia.  One of Dr. Voltzow’s favorite moments during her research career occurred when she was able to explore the internal cavities of abalone with an endoscopic camera, all while working on the floor of the exhibit area within the California Academy of Sciences!  As visitors to the California Academy of Sciences walked throughout the exhibit, they could observe Dr. Voltzow performing her research and they could ask her questions.  This moment in Dr. Voltzow’s career combined aspects of research with teaching.

Dr. Voltzow carefully explores the internal cavities of an abalone with a fragile endoscopic camera.

Here at the University, one of Dr. Voltzow’s favorite classes to teach is Invertebrate Biology.  This is not only because she gets to teach students about the invertebrates which she loves so dearly, but also because they get the opportunity to work with and learn from live animals which are shipped in weekly from Florida (which also happens to be Dr. Voltzow’s home state).  Students taking Dr. Voltzow’s Invertebrate Biology get hands-on experience with these animals – what better way to learn about an organism!

When Dr. Voltzow is not teaching or conducting research, she enjoys exploring the local parks and forests within the Scranton area.  You may find her kayaking within Lackawanna State Park in the summer, or cross-country skiing through the woods in the cold winter.  Along Dr. Voltzow’s travels throughout the world, she’s even gone for a swim in the Arctic Ocean, introduced the amazing sensation of disco dancing to Jamaica, and honeymooned in Nepal.

While conducting research on abalone, Dr. Voltzow became part of the exhibit! Visitors could watch and ask questions at any time.

Keep a lookout for Dr. Voltzow’s lab in the future.  Currently, she and Laura Romanovich are working to extend Laura’s research which she conducted as an honors thesis last spring.  Dr. Voltzow and Laura will be investigating the effects of bleaching in sea anemones to understand the complexities within this system and further our knowledge on the effects of climate change.  With the assistance of several other interested students, they may make even faster progress in the search for answers.  If these topics interest you, or if you are looking to brush up on your disco moves, make sure to pay Dr. Voltzow a visit.

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Teaching fellowship for Masters starting 2019

Are you interested in becoming a high school teacher in science, math, and/or technology? The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship can help! This program gives substantial financial, mentoring, and peer support through the process of getting a degree, followed by a three-year commitment to teach in a high-need urban or rural school.

Check out the link above; application deadlines are in October, November, and January.

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Biology Faculty BLITZ Lackawanna State Park

Pictured L to R: Drs Marc Seid, Anne Royer, Chris Howey, and Vince Marshall

Six members of the Biology Department took part in a BioBlitz (an event celebrating biodiversity by identifying as many living things as possible in a delimited space and time) at Lackawanna State Park on August 23-24. Professional and amature naturalists united in teams specializing in different groups of organisms, with members of the public invited to come along and learn.

Dr. Howey with his favorite find, an Eastern Milk Snake.

The U was represented by professors Rob Smith (birds), Chris Howey and Vince Marshall (reptiles and amphibians), Marc Seid (insects), Gary Kwiecinski (bats), and Anne Royer (plants).

Check out media coverage of the event here, view photos of many of the species observed here, and see more photos of the BioBlitz (including our Dr. Smith interacting with visitors) at Lackawanna State Park’s page here.

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Introducing the Royal Scholars program

Last spring, a group headed by Biology faculty member Dr. Janice Voltzow was awarded a $645,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s program for Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) to provide support to local students with demonstrated financial need and academic promise to succeed in STEM disciplines at The University of Scranton. The project will fund 25 scholarships over 5 years for students who are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in the STEM disciplines of biology, chemistry, computing science, mathematics, and physics/electrical engineering. Students will share array of experiences together: seminar courses for Royal Scholars to help them develop an identity as a member of the STEM community, outreach activities with local schools, and independent research experiences supervised by faculty trained in mentoring. The structure of support and sense of belonging within a cohort of STEM scholars should enhance students’ potential to graduate and continue on to a STEM career or graduate studies.

The project represents a team effort that includes Dr. Janice Voltzow, Professor of Biology and Principle Investigator (PI); and co-PIs Dr. Brian Conniff (Dean of CAS), Dr. Christie Karpiak (Psychology), Dr. Stacey Muir (Mathematics), and Dr. Declan Mulhall (Physics/Electrical Engineering), as well as staff from admissions, financial aid, and the CAS Advising Center. Please contact Dr. Voltzow (janice.voltzow@scranton.edu) for more information about the program.

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Characterizing Cilia Development

Cilia are microscopic tube-like structures that protrude from cell walls.  These finger like projections can assist in the movement of cells throughout their environment, and in some instances assist with the movement of fluids around the cells themselves (this is how mucus moves up and out of your trachea).  Insights into cilium development can assist in treating various human disorders, but little is known about this process.  Fortunately, a recent graduate of the University of Scranton, Matthew Reynolds, was interested in characterizing just this!

Figure from Reynolds et al. (2018) showing the development of motile cilia. Images were taken using scanning electron microscopy.

Matt worked in the Gomez lab at the University of Scranton ever since his Freshman year in 2015. During Matt’s summers, he worked with the Wadsworth Center at the NY State Department of Health.  Together with Dr. Gomez and his colleagues at the Wadsworth Center, Matt began to investigate the development of motile cilia in the summer following his Sophomore year (2016).  Over the next couple years, Matt and his colleagues conducted an extensive examination of the motile cilia formation using electron microscopy and complex image analyses.  Matt’s research supports previous findings on cilia development, but expands upon our knowledge of maturation times for developing cilia.  Whereas it was previously thought that cilia structures matured once the cilia reached their full length, it is now known that structures continue to change and mature well after the cilium itself has reached its full length.  For more information on this study you can read the entire article which was published May 2018 in Scientific Reports – Matt was first author of this article!

Matt presenting some of his earlier research that was conducted in the Gomez Lab.

This past spring, Matt graduated from the University of Scranton. While attending the University, Matt received the Barry M. Goldwater scholarship in 2017 and the Hyland Award for outstanding graduate in the Biology Department.  Matt is know continuing his adventures in academia as a PhD student at Rockefeller University

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Summer Research in the Biology Department

In June, the rhythms of daily life at the Loyola Science Center shift. The building gets quieter, fewer classes are taught… but there is still a lot happening here. Much of the action moves into the labs, where faculty and students are busy carrying out cutting-edge research.

2018 summer research students lunching in the Forum

Every Tuesday, the students and faculty doing active research in the natural sciences on campus gather for lunch and discussion. It’s an opportunity to network, learn what other labs are doing, and practice communicating about science. (And it’s excellent free food!)

These students are investigating a wide range of questions, with research experiences ranging from a few hours a week to full time. Some are volunteers, but many are fully funded positions. Faculty can fund students using internal or external grants, including money from the National Science Foundation and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. (Stay tuned for a future post on Dr. Marc Seid’s current NSF-funded project). The Biology Department also has an excellent record of obtaining University of Scranton Presidential Fellowships, with several students currently supported by this prestigious internal grant.

Want to get involved? Check out posts under “Research Opportunities,” or approach a faculty member to ask about projects in their lab.

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