Bettering Our World With Research

Mount News: alumni magazine

By: Kara Gebhart Uhl

Andrew Rasmussen, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biology, often can be found studying stem cells in fruit flies which, at the DNA and tissue levels, are surprisingly similar to humans. Travis Pollard ’11 sometimes spends upwards of 100 hours a week at the Ohio Supercomputer Center modeling the electrons of atoms and molecules. Susan Dawes ’88 might spend an afternoon making seven-ton batches of toothpaste at a manufacturing plant. Jill Russell, Ph.D., ’96, assistant professor of biology, is slated to place cameras insideand outside boreal owl nests in Alaska later this year. These are just a few examples of the award-winning research being conducted by Mount faculty and alumni. The subject matter—as well as how the research is conducted—is broad. But at its heart is a thirst for knowledge and a desire to better our world.

Creating Cleaner Water and Better Toothpaste

Susan Dawes ’88 received a biology degree from the Mount  that led her to the University of Cincinnati where she earned a master’s degree in biological sciences concentrating in animal reproductive biology. From there she worked as a research assistant at the Cincinnati’s Shriners Hospital for Children–Burn Care and then at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2000, she accepted a position in the personal health care division of Procter & Gamble (P&G). The first product she helped launch, PUR Purifier of Water, has since provided (with the help of the Children’s Safe Drinking Water Foundation) more than 5 billion liters of clean drinking water around the world. 

“This small sachet of powder was developed to purify 10 liters of water from any source … for approximately the cost of one egg,” Dawes says. “I found great joy in working on this project and knowing that I was helping prevent illness and death due to disease in people around the globe.”

In 2007 Dawes moved to P&G’s oral care division, where she currently works. “I work in product development as a process technologist, meaning I am interested in how we make the products, not so much what’s in them,” she says. “Think of it as how to bake a cake: what utensils and equipment will we use? How long and how fast will we mix them together? What kind of bowl to mix it in?” She adds, “A lot of my time is spent in a lab doing experimental work, as well as traveling to our various manufacturing sites to do large-scale experimental process trials.”

It was at the Mount where Dawes discovered a joy in learning about all kinds of biological systems—human and otherwise. “I also have a passion for investigating the unknown or undiscovered truths and troubleshooting issues. My work at P&G fulfills many of these,” she says.

A Computational Chemist Star

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Eric Johnson, Ph.D., considers recent Mount graduate Travis Pollard ‘11 a very promising computational chemist. “Rather than putting on a lab coat and going into a lab to mix chemicals, Pollard sits down at a computer,” Johnson says. “He uses computers, very powerful computers, to study the structure of molecules. He builds three-dimensional models of very small things on a computer. These models are useful because they provide us with a picture or image to guide future investigations.”

“Though it was often difficult, I wouldn’t trade the research experience I got at the Mount for anything. Chemistry labs are nothing like being given a problem and tasked with searching relevant literature to develop a strategy and method to solve it,” Pollard says. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry degree, he appreciated the Mount’s research requirement. “One of the things I found surprising as I entered the University of Cincinnati (UC) as a graduate student,is that undergraduate students at UC have an option to perform or not perform research.”

In addition to the Mount’s competitive curriculum, Pollard also credits his success to finalizing a poster, paper and presentation of his research. “We had hands-on experience with virtually every researchgrade instrument available at the Mount,” Pollard says. “Not a lot of schools give you that kind of access.”

The Mount Advantage

All Mount chemistry and biology majors must complete a research project prior to graduation. “Senior research projects help students to appreciate all of the many things that are unknown,” Johnson says. “It helps them to move beyond the relatively predictable confines of the classroom and to think of ways that they might contribute new knowledge. Senior research projects also provide future employers with a better understanding of a student’s interests and skill set. It helps to differentiate the student from other chemistry students.”

Johnson, in addition to teaching, spends much of his timestudying proteins. In fact, he recently published a paper in the journal “Proteins: Structure, Function, and Bioinformatics.” Johnson says that chemistry majors at the Mount receive an enormous amount of one-on-one training with their research advisors. “It’s almost like an apprenticeship,” he says.

This tradition extends to the biology department as well. “Like many things at the Mount, I think we inspire research because it is such an intimate setting,” says Andrew Rasmussen, Ph.D., who, in addition to teaching, studies the interaction between the germs that cause disease and humans, their hosts, via stem cells in fruit flies. “As professors, we are not expected to lock ourselves away in our offices and write grant after grant; we are expected to teach. We are expected to be hands-on. We are expected to inspire. Biology students at the Mount have the chance to learn from some very well-known, and well-respected professors in their fields who could be at much larger institutions, but have chosen to stay at the Mount and focus on educating young people.”

Jeanne Buccigross, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of the department of chemistry. Her C.V. lists many presentations and published papers in research journals—many of which have former students listed as co-authors.

Far-reaching Research

Other faculty members, such as Jill Russell, Ph.D., ’96, go as far as traveling to Alaska with a student for seven weeks to study boreal owls. “Every other day Mount student Jen Taylor weighed and measured the chicks, took DNA samples so she could determine the sex once she got back to the biology department lab, and then banded each bird with a U.S. Geological Survey Federal Bird Band,” Russell says.

Russell was recently the co-recipient of a $500,000, threeyear grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which will further enable undergraduate students to participate in a significant research experience. Along with colleagues from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and the City of Hope National Medical Center in California, she plans to use the grant to study bird metabolism changes during migration. “I am thrilled that a small private school like the Mount has been recognized by such a prestigious institution such as the National Science Foundation for having excellent research opportunities for students,” Russell says.

Russell considers research opportunities vital to students’ education. “Students learn better when they are actively discovering new and novel information,” she says. “So I believe that involving students in my research in Alaska gives them a well-rounded research experience that takes them to an exotic, wild habitat where they can experience the dynamics of nature firsthand. This field experience is then tied into bench lab work back at the Mount providing the student with the tools needed to be successful in the 21st century.”

Research is far-reaching. Years of toiling away in a lab can eventually lead to an answer which can lead to a better product, a better solution, a better life. Yet for many researchers, the process is just as rewarding as the end result. “I absolutely love to see people become empowered with new knowledge,”Russell says. “The more you know, the better decisions you can make about your life and the lives of others. I teach students to wonder, to question, to criticize, and that if they have knowledge, they will develop a passion that will drive their sense of wonder for the rest of their lives.”

Paving the Way for Pharmaceutical Research

Laura L. Craft, Ph.D., ’80, graduated with a degree in nursing. After working in nursing for five years she attended the United States Sports Academy and earned a master’s degree in sports science and fitness management. After working as a fitness consultant, she earned her Ph.D. in clinical exercise physiology at Virginia Tech. She then secured a job in heart failure research at the University of Cincinnati. In 2000 she joined Medpace, a Contract Research Organization (CRO).

Craft now serves as director of clinical operations, working with pharmaceutical companies to manage investigational drug trials. “Clinical trials involve identifying physicians who are interested in clinical drug trials and have the patient population for the drugs under investigation,” Craft says. “The physician (investigator) must have support staff to assist with conducting the trial. They must file appropriate paperwork, demonstrating their qualifications and get approval from an independent review board to conduct the study.”

So while Craft isn’t conducting the research herself, she’s paving the way for new research to be done. “Pharmaceutical research develops new medicines to treat diseases and illnesses,” she says. “The clinical trials help to identify new drugs that are promising but also drugs that will not work in the early stages.”

Her work, which has allowed her to travel to Europe and Asia, is interesting and demanding. “I learn something new every day,” she says. She credits the Mount with helping her to develop confidence, think independently and make decisions.