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By: Hailey Meyer
“Life takes unexpected turns. You have to go with the flow and take opportunities when you get them. Things don’t always follow a standard trajectory, but that makes life more interesting,” said Sian Ritchie.
Sian Ritchie, a Washington State University Clinical Assistant Professor, grew up in the U.K. wanting to teach elementary students.
“It was never my plan, and I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to be a professor,” Ritchie explained.
She received both her Bachelor’s Degree and PH.D. at the University of Reading in the U.K. She also obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Biochemistry, and a Master’s Degree in Teaching at Washington State University.
“After my Ph.D. I did research and I really enjoyed that. I also did more here at WSU as well,” Ritchie said.
She worked as a substitute teacher and also at the local science museum. Ritchie was later offered a part-time job teaching labs at WSU. She eventually turned into a full-time professor.
Ritchie now advises students who are pursuing Biology, Zoology, and General Studies-Basic Medical Sciences degrees. She is also fascinated with using technology to improve and help undergraduate students.
Ritchie also runs the exit-surveys for graduate students in her departments and wants to emphasize for incoming students to reach out and talk to professors and other students.
“It’s kind of intimidating to a lot of students but it’s so important to get out there and get involved, students can learn a lot,” Ritchie said.
Congratulations to the following SBS graduate students for being awarded endowment scholarships based on research, teaching, service, notable achievement, or strategic support for Spring 2019:
In addition, Johnna Eilers and Adam Becker were awarded grants from the Smoot Hill Graduate Research Fund in support of research projects at the Hudson Biological Reserve at Smoot Hill.
Katelyn Sedig, mentor Dr. Stephanie Porter, on “Diversity in Microbial Mutualists Benefit Plant Growth”
Elise Bugge, mentor Dr. R. Dave Evans, on “Decreasing N2 Fixation in Lobaria oregano is Likely Caused by Anthropogenic Emissions”
Paige Gear, mentor Dr. Kathy Beerman, on “Tamarind – A Regional Food Source in Rural Guatemala Facilitates Iron Fortification of Food Prepared With Lucky Iron Fish”
Megan Brauner, mentor Dr. Tanya Cheeke, on “Development of a New Method to Quantify Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi from Environmental Samples”
Ashley Kophs, mentors Dr. Asaph Cousins and Dr. Robert DiMario, on “Understanding the Kinetic Properties of Phosphoenolpyruvate Carboxylase: A Key Enzyme of C4 Photosynthesis”
Madison Armstrong, mentor Dr. Mark Dybdahl, on “The Evolution of Plastic Expression as an Explanation of Invasion Success”
Brooklin Devine, mentor Dr. Kathy Beerman, on “Prevalence of Iron Deficiency Anemia in Rural, Underserved Communities in Guatemala”
By: Hailey Meyer
David Evans grew up locally in Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington and Oregon. He completed his undergrad and master’s degree in biology at Western Washington University, and also received his Ph.D. in Botany at Washington State University.
Evans is a professor and the Associate Director for undergraduate studies here at WSU. Evans also directs the Stable Isotope Core Laboratory, and has been working at WSU for 16 years now. Before teaching at WSU, Evans was a professor at the University of Arkansas for 9 years.
He knew that he wanted to be a professor while he was completing his Ph.D., “I really enjoyed the research, I had a great professor that really got me into plants,” Evans said.
Evans research is mainly focused on carbon, nitrogen and water dynamics in terrestrial ecosystems. He has done an abundance of work as a desert ecologist, with global change at the center of his attention. His two main projects currently concentrate on atmospheric deposition in the environment.
“We’ve done this all across the Western U.S., and right now I have a graduate student working in the North Cascades,” he explained, “and the other student is working in agricultural systems on more efficient use of nitrogen, and we’re doing that locally.”
Evans couldn’t express enough for undergraduate students to reach out to their professors, and graduate students as well.
“There are so many opportunities here to take advantage of, just get involved as much as you can,” Evans said, “I wouldn’t trade my undergrad for anything, half the fun is finding things out.”
Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center acquires new microscope
Washington State University’s Franceschi Microscopy and Imaging Center has acquired a microscope so powerful and versatile that Michael Knoblauch, the center director, compares it to a pig capable of making wool, milk and eggs. Or, to quote his native German, an eierlegende Wollmilchsau.
Technically, it’s an Apreo VolumeScope, and it brings a suite of imaging techniques, including the piecing together of detailed three‑dimensional images with a resolution of 10 nanometers, or about 1/10,000th of the width of a human hair.
The device also uses other techniques that can help analyze the composition of materials and map crystal structures. The combination of cutting‑edge features is unique in the Inland Northwest and fitting for a facility serving scientists from fields as diverse as microbiology, human biology and zoology, plant biology, physics, geology, material and food sciences, chemistry and others, said Knoblauch.
The $888,000 machine, funded in part by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, arrived on campus in early November. It will be ready for users on March 1, with a couple months of instrument time already lined up. It will supplement the center’s FEI Quanta‑200 scanning electron microscope, a center workhorse that over the last three years was used by nearly 100 research groups for almost 9,000 hours, or 57 hours a week.
The VolumeScope’s 3D reconstruction feature “allows identification of subcellular structures at unprecedented detail for life scientists,” according to the center’s grant application. A scanning electron microscope captures two‑dimensional images of a specimen, and a superfine knife, or ultramicrotome, shaves off ultrathin sections between images. The images are then stitched together for viewing in three dimensions.
Energy dispersive spectroscopy, or EDS, measures the x‑ray spectra‑light wavelengths unique to different elements—to identify and map the chemical composition of samples.
In its so‑called “high‑vacuum mode,” the VolumeScope’s resolution is as low as .8 nanometers, less than a billionth of a meter and an improvement over the previous resolution of 1.2 nanometers. That’s approaching the size of just a few atoms.
A third technology, electron backscatter diffraction, or EBSD, can map the crystal state of a material. This is important for determining the quality of materials like alloys, Knoblauch said.
“This instrument will allow us to perform cutting‑edge research,” Knoblauch wrote in the center’s grant application, “and will significantly increase our capabilities and competitiveness.”
By: Hailey Meyer
“I wish I knew earlier on that one’s life can really take any shape, and that this is up to each and every person to figure out,” says Dr. Jeremiah Busch.
Dr. Jeremiah Busch is an associate professor for the Washington State University School of Biological Sciences, who’s main focus is on plant evolutionary genetics.
Busch is particularly interested in traits that have an outsized impact on evolution, and has a long-standing interest in the degree to which evolution closes doors for future evolutionary responses. A lot of his work is based on the evolution of genes that cause self-fertilization, and is currently working on the evolution of polypoids.
Busch’s interest in plant genetics started when he really got involved with his undergraduate research at Indiana University. He had two mentors that stuck out to him, Dr. Ellen Simms and Dr. Joy Bergelson.
“They were really patient with me and helped me make small progress on small questions,” Busch says, “I think the social fabric of the laboratory environment, where everyone is on the same team asking questions, really struck me as a wonderful way to experience the world.”
Busch also mentioned that he was blown away by the fact that people were so curious about the world and that they spent their lives trying to understand it. He was fascinated the most with statistic classes because that is where he was most out of his element.
“I have always been intrigued by biological diversity, and being introduced to statistical methods seemed to unlock a few doors for me,” said Busch, “I’m not saying it was easy, though!”
Busch was born in Alaska, but has lived in Montana, Oregon, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arkansas. He completed his undergrad at the University of Chicago, and received his Ph. D. in 2005 at Indiana University.
Currently being at WSU, Busch would recommend to all students to figure out what they are interested in, and to get involved in that.
“Enmesh yourself in a healthy social fabric too – this helps to strike a proper balance between the rigors of the classroom and the rest of your life, which should be equally rewarding,” Busch mentioned.
Genetic mutation drives tumor regression in Tasmanian devils
Genes and other genetic variations that appear to be involved in cancerous tumors shrinking in Tasmanian devils have been discovered by Washington State University scientists.
The research is an important first step toward understanding what is causing devil facial tumor disease — a nearly 100 percent fatal and contagious form of cancer — to go away in a small percentage of Tasmanian devils. Indirectly, it could have implications for treating cancer in humans and other mammals as well.
“Some of the genes we think have a role in tumor regression in Tasmanian devils are also shared by humans,” said Mark Margres, a former WSU postdoctoral researcher now at Clemson University. “While still in a very early stage, this research could eventually help in the development of drugs that elicit the tumor regression response in devils, humans and other mammals that don’t have this necessary genetic variation.”
Tasmanian devils have been pushed to the brink of extinction by the rapid spread of devil facial tumor disease, one of only four known forms of transmissible cancer and by far the deadliest. Since it was first documented in 1996, the disease has wiped out an estimated 80 percent of devils in Tasmania, the only place in the world where the animals live.
Margres is part of an international team of researchers studying devil facial tumor disease that is led by Andrew Storfer, an evolutionary geneticist and WSU professor of biology.
For the last decade, Storfer’s team has been investigating how some Tasmanian devil populations are evolving genetic resistance to devil facial tumor disease that could help the species avoid extinction.
A year ago, Storfer’s Australian collaborators, Manuel Ruiz, Rodrigo Hamede and Menna Jones noticed something very unusual while trapping and tagging devils in an isolated region of Tasmania. A very small number of devils that developed facial tumors did not die. Rather, over a period of several months, the tumors went away on their own.
“This was very unusual and we wanted to test for evidence of genomic variation that was causing these devils to spontaneously get better” Storfer said.
The researchers sequenced the genomes of seven of the Tasmanian devils that underwent tumor regression and three that did not.
They found the devils that lost their tumors had three highly differentiated genomic regions containing multiple genes that are known to be related to immune response and cancer risk in humans and other mammals.
“We identified some candidate genes that we think may be important in the tumor regression response and now we can begin to functionally test these genes to see if it is possible to elicit the same tumor regression response,” Margres said. “While it is hard to say anything definite with such a small sample size, I think this research is sort of the first step towards characterizing the genetic basis of the tumor regression trait.”
The results of Margres and Storfer’s work were published last month in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution. The researchers said the next step in the research is to analyze the tumor genome to see if there are specific mechanisms or mutations there that lead to tumor shrinkage.
Uncovering mechanisms of tumor regression
Tumor regression is not a phenomenon exclusive to Tasmanian devils. While extremely rare, it has been documented in human cancers.
One such cancer is Merkel Cell Carcinoma, a rare type of skin cancer that often appears on the face, head or neck.
Doctors observed spontaneous tumor regression in a Merkel Cell Carcinoma patient for the first time in 1986 and it has occurred at least 22 times since. However, researchers remain unsure of what causes the tumors to go away on their own.
Storfer and Margres hope is that developing a better understanding of the genetic basis of tumor regression in Tasmanian devils may eventually enable the identification of general mechanisms underlying tumor regression in Merkel Cell Carcinoma and other human cancers.
This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (R01‑GM126563), the National Science Foundation (DEB 1316549), and the Australian Research Council (FT100100250).
Top photo: Tasmanian devils are the largest carnivorous marsupials in the world.
By Will Ferguson for WSU Insider