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Biology Students Lead NSF Workshop, Teach New Technique to Professors

February 26, 2013

Contact: Lars Tomanek

Three students in a lab.

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Cal Poly biology students are among the few experts in the country on a new method of protein analysis. Last December they shared their expertise by teaching the process to professors and doctoral students from other universities. The students planned and led a National Science Foundation- (NSF) funded workshop in environmental proteomics, a method of analyzing how organisms respond to different environmental stresses.

"My group just took over," said Lars Tomanek, professor of biological sciences. "I gave an introduction and a talk at the end, and in between I helped order pizza."

The biologists are studying how environmental conditions affect an organism's production of proteins. Protein production predicts an organism's reaction to climate change. "We can tell by looking at these proteins who will be the winners and who will be the losers," Tomanek said.

The method's first step, called two-dimensional gel electrophoresis, measures how much of a protein is being made and is notoriously difficult. Following the students' instruction, nine out of 12 workshop attendees got good results, an impressive success rate.

"Not only was it apparent that the students were skilled in the techniques, but they were also patient and supportive teachers," said Andreas Madlung, a biology professor at University of Puget Sound. "The workshop was well-organized in every respect — scientifically and administratively — as well as fun, instructive and inspiring."

"As a student, it was a rewarding feeling to be regarded as an expert by people who are experienced and accomplished in their field," said Michael Garland, a graduate student in biological sciences. "I think all of us presenting in the workshop realized that the work we do at Cal Poly is truly on the cutting edge."

Because so few labs use this technique, the hands-on experience gives Cal Poly students exceptional career opportunities. "Our master's students are getting jobs usually reserved for Ph.D.s," Tomanek said.

The second step in the analysis, which identifies the protein, requires costly equipment that workshop participants may not have on their home campuses. Cal Poly's Environmental Proteomics Lab will run the second step for the workshop attendees in the future, a collaborative model that is becoming more common in the scientific community.

"One of NSF's grand challenges is how to share and spread technology," Tomanek said. "The NSF program director pointed to Cal Poly's proteomics lab as the only example he's seen of how to address this challenge."


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