Diversity of Projects Highlights Breadth, Depth of College Research

September 29, 2014
Empty test tubes in rainbow hues

This year, seven Wellesley professors were awarded research grants from the National Science Foundation. James Battat, Bevil Conway, David Ellerby, Rosanna Hertz, Kaye Peterman, Yui Suzuki, and Orit Shaer each received grants, several of which involve partnerships with other institutions. Ranging in subject from genetic factors in new family formation to the role of proteins in insect metamorphosis, these projects demonstrate the breadth and depth of Wellesley research. 

The National Science Foundation (NSF) fuels the mandate to maintain vibrant research in a variety of science and interdisciplinary fields for the ultimate aim of advancing national health and prosperity. It funds graduate student and faculty research endeavors at the frontiers of many fields. Recipients are selected for the promise of their research and the capacity of each project to expand horizons of contemporary knowledge.

Learn more about each project below.

Gravitational Physics via Lunar Laser Ranging: Optimizing Data Quality

James Battat, Assistant Professor of Physics

Gravitythe most evident force of natureis in fact the weakest of the fundamental forces, and consequently the most poorly tested. Einstein’s general relativity, which is currently our best description of gravity, is fundamentally incompatible with quantum mechanics and is likely to be replaced by a more complete theory in the future. A modified theory would predict small deviations in the solar system that could have profound consequences for our understanding of the Universe as a whole. Lunar laser ranging (LLR), in which short laser pulses launched from a telescope are bounced off of reflectors placed on the moon by U.S. astronauts and Soviet landers, has for decades produced various leading tests of gravity by mapping the shape of the lunar orbit to high precision. These include tests of the strong equivalence principle, the time-rate-of-change of Newton’s gravitational constant, gravitomagnetism, the inverse-square law, and many others.  With millimeter-precision measurements of the Earth-Moon distance, the Apache Point Observatory Lunar Laser-ranging Operation (APOLLO) has enabled improved tests of gravitational physics.  In this work, we will continue leading-edge observations with APOLLO, and we will build an absolute calibration device to enable independent verification of the accuracy of the APOLLO system. Co-investigators: Tom Murphy, Christopher Stubbs, Eric Adelberger, David Crossley.

Color Processing in Inferior Temporal Cortex of Macaque Monkey

Bevil Conway, Associate Professor of Neuroscience

How does the brain process sensory signals to generate perception and knowledge? This project advances color as a premier system with which to tackle this fundamental question. Contrary to popular opinion, the experience of color is not directly predicted by physical properties of stimuli, exposing the important role that the nervous system plays in transforming information received by the eye into behavior. It is thought that color, like other aspects of vision, is computed by a series of brain structures. But the location of these structures and the computations they perform to bring about color are not known. The proposed work exploits advances in functional brain imaging to identify regions involved in the highest levels of color processing, and will determine how these regions are connected to each other and the rest of the visual pathway.

Evaluating Form-Function-Fitness Relationships in Polyphenic Bluegill

David Ellerby, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences

Work in the lab is mainly focused on the physiology and mechanics of animal locomotion. For most animals, movement is essential for survival. It determines the effectiveness with which they obtain food, avoid predators, find mates, or undertake migrations. Consequently, many aspects of performance during locomotion are shaped by natural selection. This makes locomotion an ideal test bed for addressing broad questions concerning organismal adaptation, and the links between form and function.

The NSF has funded a four-year project to work with the bluegill sunfish population in Lake Waban. Bluegill are an interesting model for examining functional adaptation as they show clear variations in their form, physiology, and behavior with respect to habitat type. We will be combining a number of techniques in both the field and the lab to understand how variation in behavior links to underlying differences in morphology and physiology, how trade-offs in performance can arise if specialization for one behavior impairs function in another, and how this links back to behavior and habitat use in the field. The field work is particularly important as data obtained in the lab are often assumed to be relevant to behavior in the field, but this is rarely confirmed. Overall the project should not only provide new information about the ecology and physiology of sunfish, but also allow us to learn broader lessons regarding the interplay between form, function and adaptation within populations. Co-investigators: Lloyd Trueblood, Shannon Gerry.

Social and Biogenetic Factors of New Forms of Families

Rosanna Hertz, Class of 1919 – 50th Reunion Professor of Sociology and Women's and Gender Studies

The range of treatments for infertility has expanded at the same time that changes in the Internet and social media have made it easier for people to find one another. These two advances have made new kinship arrangements possible that complicate everyday understandings of who is a member of one’s family. The new infertility technologies make it possible for previously infertile people to have children with "donor" eggs or sperm. Until recently, donors were anonymous, which made it impossible for people who purchased, or were conceived with, sperm or eggs from the same donor to know each other. This has changed as the Internet and various forms of social media have expanded. Now, through Internet registries, people with the same genetic “parent” can find each other and meet online or in person. These new relationships among donor-conceived children and their parents enable people who are otherwise strangers to join together. The members of these new groups often adopt the same language that families do and initially their bonds rest entirely on a genetic link. This research explores what has happened as a result of these social and technological developments. Co-investigator: Margaret K. Nelson.

The Role of Patellin 1/2 in Arabidopsis Vascular Development

T. Kaye Peterman, Susan M. Hallowell and Ruby Frances Howe Farwell Professor of Biological Sciences

The plant vascular system is of critical importance for normal plant function, yet the mechanisms that govern development of the diverse and intricate vascular patterns we observe in nature are largely unknown. Kaye Peterman’s research focuses on the molecular events that underlie development of venation patterns in the flowering plant model organism, Arabidopsis thaliana. Vascular development begins when narrow files of cells are recruited from a uniform field of cells in a pattern that predicts the final vein pattern. These cells subsequently develop into the procambium, a stem cell population that will ultimately produce the veins. The plant hormone auxin plays a pivotal role in this process. Directional paths of auxin flow known as auxin canals determine the path of recruitment of cells into the procambium that in turn produces the vein pattern. Polar localization of PIN auxin transport proteins in the developing procambium, gives rise to these auxin canals. The specific focus of this project is on the role of PATELLIN-1 and -2 (PATL1/2), proteins discovered in the Peterman lab, in the formation of a continuous vascular pattern. Molecular genetic and imaging approaches are being used to test the hypothesis that PATL1/2 act in a signaling pathway that regulates PIN auxin transport protein localization in the developing vascular system. Completion of the project will provide insight into the complex process of vascular pattern formation while providing postbac and summer research opportunities for Wellesley students. 

Human-Computer Interaction for Personal Genomics: Understanding, Informing, and Empowering Users

Orit Shaer, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Computer Science

This project will explore the roles human-computer interaction can play in helping non-experts understand and engage with their personal genomic information. Recent years have seen a dramatic growth in the scale and scope of personal genomic information that is available to non-experts, often online and in interactive forms. As a result, individuals are confronted with unprecedented amounts of sensitive and often complex information about themselves, which influences their decisions, emotional states, and well-being. Consequently, questions about how people make sense of and engage with their personal genomic information, and how comfortable they feel about sharing it in order to advance scientific and biomedical research, are not only of paramount importance for life sciences researchers and policy makers, but also a pressing issue for human-computer interaction researchers.

Because the technology that enables lay people to interact with such information is new, there is little research on it. This work has the potential to make an impact on human-computer interaction theory and practice by investigating fundamental issues concerning non-expert interaction with complex scientific information and the impact of user interface design interventions on learning from, and sharing of, personal genomic information. Co-investigator: Oded Nov.

Role of POU Factors in the Regulation of the Timing of Metamorphosis

Yui Suzuki, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences

We all experience puberty when we reach the age of around 10 to 12. How do humans know when to initiate puberty? Many organisms undergo some type of physiological change during their development that leads to the onset of adult development. Insects also undergo such changes during metamorphosis, which is often accompanied by dramatic changes in morphology. How insects know when to initiate metamorphosis is currently unknown. We have discovered that the removal of a protein called Ventral veins lacking (Vvl) causes larvae to undergo precocious metamorphosis. A major goal of the project is to examine how Vvl interacts with the known regulators of metamorphosis to determine when to initiate metamorphosis. Proteins similar to Vvl are also found in humans and other animal species, so we think that this study has broader implications for understanding the regulation of developmental timing in a wide range of species, including humans.