Northwestern’s professors teach students every day in the classroom, but that doesn’t mean they’re done learning themselves. Several professors are currently involved in various types of research both on and off campus. Biology professor Dr. Sara Sybesma Tolsma is one of them.
Tolsma has two active research projects right now. The first project which is looking for ways to slow tumor growth, started last spring with her cell biology class.
“We worked on it through the whole semester,” Tolsma said. “I had students go and find plants that other people reported had the potential to slow tumor growth. Then we came back together in a class and designed an experiment.”
Originally, the class’s experiment was designed with three different cell lines that were each treated with different plant extracts at various concentrations. The class researched the active chemicals in those plant extracts, then ordered and applied some of the chemicals directly. Out of the different cell lines, two were human cells and 1 was a mouse cell. A fourth cell line, human breast cancer, was added over the summer.
“My dissertation work was on tumor cell biology and tumor cell genetics,” Tolsma said. “So it’s been something I’ve worked on and off on for the last thirty years. If we can understand what makes a tumor cell different from a normal cell, maybe we can stop it and stop all the nasty things it does.”
Tolsma’s second active project is in collaboration with biology professor Dr. Laura Furlong. Together they are studying differences in the behavior and DNA of two groups of mayflies. The first group lives on the mainland of the California coast, and the second group is found 20 miles away on Santa Cruz Island.
A few years ago, Tolsma took a trip to California, collected mayflies from all the areas the research covers, and put them in the freezer. Since then, Tolsma and Furlong have been isolating and studying DNA.
“I think one of the benefits of working at a small institution is that…at a big university we’d probably be in separate buildings,” Tolsma said. “But we’re at NW right next to each other, and we came up with this way to collaborate, which is really cool.”
Alison Schutt is Tolsma’s research assistant. She has been helping with both projects since early last summer.
“A lot of my part has been with the insect (project),” Schutt said. “It’s more like collecting all the insects and putting them in various types of storage materials and then processing them and getting the DNA out of them.”
Various types of storage materials are necessary, because with the mayfly research project comes a new question to research: what is the best way to preserve insects while waiting to isolate their DNA? Ethanol is the most typically used solution, but one research paper Tolsma read suggested a different, possibly more effective, chemical solution.
“Alison did a really controlled experiment using ethanol and some of the solution the paper suggested,” Tolsma said. “She used lab fruit flies because they were all identical, all females, with no variability from insect to insect. We had six different solutions, three different times, three different temperatures, then isolated the DNA.”
The researchers then tested the effectiveness of the storage solution based on the quality of isolated DNA.
A small group of students, along with Tolsma, Furlong and Schutt, will have the opportunity to share some of their findings at the Ecological Genomics Conference at Kansas State Nov. 6-8.