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Faculty Focus: “Disappearing Boundaries” Bridges the Gap Between Chemistry and Biology
05.31.13 |
In recent years, a team of faculty and student researchers has been exploring several questions linking the fields of chemistry and biology. The right combination of ideas, people, and funding, all at the right time, has helped establish productive partnerships within the Neidig-Garber Science Center. The key element in this formula was a three-year grant from a foundation created by Merck and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Merck-AAAS) to support undergraduate research that bridges the traditional disciplines of chemistry and biology.

“We tried to be innovative in making connections where chemists would be working closely on questions with biologists, rather than in two parallel camps that might be related,” said Dr. Walter Patton, associate professor of chemistry, director biochemistry and molecular biology, and author of the Merck-AAAS proposal. “I knew that we had people in chemistry who were working with nanoparticles and people in biology who could look for their effects on cells. Bringing together their expertise just made sense.”

Initially, the work involved the research groups of Dr. Anderson Marsh, associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Courtney Lappas, assistant professor of biology. Dr. Rebecca Urban, assistant professor of biology, later joined the project to look at the effect of nanoparticles on aquatic plants. Patton also joined the efforts, looking at how protein-capping agents may influence nanoparticle effects on cells. “It has really been a fruitful collaboration, Patton noted, adding that the Marsh, Lappas, and Patton groups recently published a joint paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.

“Such cross-disciplinary research is good for science, but it’s also good for the students doing the work, Marsh explained. “They get to see multiple approaches to a project. It allows them to take a step back and look at their own approach and see how they can improve, so they get a new perspective on how a problem can be addressed.”

“The collaborative nature of the research is important because, especially in the sciences, there really is no discipline that functions in isolation anymore,” Lappas added. “There is an incredible amount of overlap between the biological sciences and the biomedical sciences. A lot of our students are interested in graduate or professional programs, especially in biomedical sciences, and that means they need to think in terms broader than just straight biology or straight chemistry. Being able to see more aspects of what goes into a given project can’t help but be advantageous.”

Work on the nanoparticle project continues, and Patton is pleased to see students learning about each other’s fields. “It’s good for the biology students to understand how the nanoparticles are made and how to work with them, and it’s good for the chemistry students to ask themselves what some of the requirements will be when we introduce these particles into cells. This project has opened the students’ eyes to facets of the other disciplines that they really had no idea about,” he noted.

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