|Davidson Research Labs Garner Two Publications in One Week
August 23, 2011
by Cathryn Westra
The week of July 17 was big for Davidson undergraduates working in the field of synthetic biology with Professor of Biology Malcolm Campbell and Associate Professor of Mathematics Laurie Heyer. Discoveries from two separate projects that were written up as research papers by Bri Pearson '11 were accepted for publication in professional journals.
In the field of social science, a paper titled "Word Selection Affects Perceptions of Synthetic Biology" was published in the Journal of Biological Engineering. It concerned research by psychology major Sam Snell' 10 and sociology major Kyri Bye-Nagel' 10 into word choice and the public's perception of synthetic biology.
The two young scientists presented subjects with explanations of synthetic biology that differed by only a few words. Their findings revealed that subjects were more offended by synthetic biology when it claimed to "create" something rather than when it claimed to "construct" something. Their findings come at a timely moment, considering the public controversy over geneticist Craig Venter's claim to have "created life" by making synthetic cells.
Interdisciplinary Bio Central published the second article, based on research by undergraduates from Davidson and Missouri Western State University and one local high school student from Woodlawn School. Results from this experiment were especially remarkable because the young researchers found a new function for a DNA fragment that professional scientists had been using for years.
Like most "eureka" moments, the discovery came unexpectedly. In 2008 students had tried to design DNA that could perform a particular function, but their DNA manipulation didn't work as hoped.
Instead of getting discouraged, Kin Lau '10 decided to investigate where their experiments went wrong. He found that a certain part of their DNA copying mechanism (the LuxR promoter) was reading DNA in an unexpectedly different direction. In fact, in the team's experiments, LuxR was reading DNA differently than recorded in all other scientific literature. Lau had found that LuxR reads DNA both forwards and backwards! "At first I was skeptical that my hypothesis was correct," said Lau, who is now pursuing a Ph.D. studying plant genetics at Purdue University. "Many people had worked with the promoter previously without discovering this function. It was exciting to find our hypothesis was correct."
In the past five years the undergraduate lab administered by Campbell and Heyer has published 12 papers, many of which resulted from research conducted in collaboration with Professors Todd Eckdahl and Jeffery Poet from Missouri Western State University.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,900 students located 20 minutes north of Charlotte in Davidson, N.C. Since its establishment in 1837 by Presbyterians, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the country. Through The Davidson Trust, the college became the first liberal arts institution in the nation to replace loans with grants in all financial aid packages, giving all students the opportunity to graduate debt-free. Davidson competes in NCAA athletics at the Division I level, and a longstanding Honor Code is central to student life at the college.