Climate change and its impacts on the biosphere have been components of Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga’s teaching and research programs since she joined UMass Lowell in 1998.  However, during the last few years, Rooney-Varga’s perspective has changed, as the vast majority of scientific evidence points to an Earth system that is changing more rapidly than previously thought.  It is now clear that we are already feeling the impacts of a changing climate and that those changes are likely to intensify unless society chooses a different path. 

Many of us are loathe to learn more about climate change because of “doom-and-gloom fatigue”  - how much can one worry about a problem that is as vast and seemingly unstoppable as climate change?  Rooney-Varga sees it differently.  Climate change is a complex problem with many inter-related causes.  There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution, but rather many solutions that are also, frequently, inter-related.  Examples include technologies such as solar and wind energy, algal biodiesel, locally grown food, and getting exercise while commuting (burn calories, not carbon!).  Solutions even include harvesting electricity from naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria in soils using ‘microbial fuel cells’ (MFCs), in which bacteria transfer electrons to an anode in an electrical circuit, much the same way that we transfer electrons to oxygen during respiration.  In fact, recent UML grad, Sara Dunaj, used molecular biology approaches to better understand the microbial communities in MFCs in Rooney-Varga’s lab, in collaboration with Biology Chair, Dr. Mark Hines and Dr. Joe Vallino (Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole MA).

With the help of a $615K grant from NASA’s Global Climate Change Education program, a team lead by Rooney-Varga and including UMass Lowell faculty Craig Slatin, Robert Gamache, Mathew Barlow, and Mitchell Shuldman are bringing climate change science and solutions to UMass Lowell students, high school students, our broader community, and an international online audience.  The project “Climate Change Education:  Science, Solutions, and Education in an Age of Media” is integrating climate change science with video production by students to create a unique and stimulating approach to global climate change education.  Rooney-Varga is also the Director of UML’s Climate Change Initiative, which reaches across the campus and is already changing our local and worldview.

Rooney.jpgAssociate Professor Juliette Rooney-Varga (4th from right), grad student Sara Dunaj (2nd from right) and UML colleagues.

“Principles of Biology,” our Freshman major’s course, is evolving, but it has nothing to do with survival of the fittest!  At the helm is Naomi Wernick, one of our newest faculty, who’s goal doesn’t stop with to leaving no student behind, but rather to “intelligently design” the course to maximize learning for all students. 

Naomi was an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Bentley University for 4 years before coming to UMass. Unlike most of us who live in (at least) two worlds – teaching and research, which compete for our attention, her teaching methods and goals are actually the heart of her research!  She has conducted research concerning the positioning of genomics in biology education, and is a founding member of the KBM Journal of Science Education.

Naomi has incorporated active learning tools in the course.  Interactive “Clicker” questions are a regular event during class, and she uses online tutorials, videos and interactive exercises for pre-class, extra credit work.  Experimental Biology (the lab component) is also under major reconstruction. Last year, her students transformed a gene coding for GFP into bacteria and watched the protein glow under UV when gene expression was activated.  They later purified the protein using chromatography... that’s more than many of us could have managed in our senior year Biochemistry lab!   The curriculum is being modified to focus on recurrent themes in biology and the labs will be revamped further to incorporate more hands-on multi-day experiments.  


Naomi small.jpgDr. Naomi Wernick 

Prof. Tom Shea's team was awarded a $760,000 grant from the Army Research Labs to teach his mouse brain cultures to operate robots in Holly Yanco’s Robotics Lab in UML’s Computer Science Department.

For several years, the Army has funded Shea and his group to culture embryonic neurons in petri dishes containing “Multi-electrode arrays” in which 64 electrodes embedded in the base interface with MatLab software. Over time, these neurons form synapses and their signals can be recorded.  Even better, they can be stimulated via the computer and can learn in much the same manner that they learn in the developing brain.   Alternate training with inhibitory and excitatory signals teaches them when to send out their own signals or when to “stand down.”  Shea and his colleagues are developing several applications for these neurons and their recorded signal patterns including spinal injury and motor neuron degeneration.

In this new award from the Army, Shea will put his science-fiction brains to work: Holly Yanco’s amazing robots will be set to operate in one of several modes depending upon the signals transmitted by Shea?s brain cultures.  Applications will include sending a triggering response to the cultures when an unknown object is detected by a surveillance camera, causing the culture to generate one set of signals, versus sending an inhibitory signal when a known object is detected, causing the culture to cease sending specific signals or to send an alternate signal stream.  Should “background” signals cease (e.g., if the neurons die or connection is broken), a warning signal is transmitted.   The Army is particularly interested in how Shea’s “real” neuronal networks perform in comparison with the performance of computer-generated artificial neural networks.

Shea Neural Net.jpg

Dear Friends of Biology at UMass Lowell,

Thanks for checking out our web site and our new Biology blog.  We just created this blog so we could keep you informed of all the happenings in the Department.  We plan to post reports of student events and activities, new faculty/student projects, and anything else that might interest all of you, our alumni, students, faculty and staff members, and all our biology buddies.

Don’t hesitate to send comments and suggestions, and even blog ideas.  We would love to hear from you.

Looking forward to happy blogging,

Mark Hines,
Department Chair

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