NU Commencement | The Graduates: Olivia DeSpirito ’16

Photo: Norwich 2016 graduate Olivia Despirito by lake in Macedonia

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Olivia DeSpirito ’16

Hometown: East Greenwich, R.I.
Major: Biology
Minor: Chemistry
Student Path: Corps of Cadets
Activities:

  • Norwich University Honor Committee
  • Men’s Ice Hockey team manager
  • NATO-sponsored Southeastern Europe Counterterrorism Training Course, Macedonia.

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What Norwich Taught Me

“What I really learned about myself here at Norwich is that you have in yourself the power to do great things, provided you don’t give into pressure around you. I chose as my senior quote ‘persistence overcomes resistance,’ and I really believe that was my mantra for all four years here. I’ve had a lot of rough patches throughout my college career, but I didn’t give up. Norwich has taught me all about self-motivation, and really pushing through the tough times. Because you know there is something good on the other side.”[/content_band]

Olivia DeSpirito arrived on the Norwich campus four years ago with a passion for forensic science. “I saw my first CSI: Las Vegas show when I was six, and I was hooked from that point on.”

At Norwich, DeSpirito joined the Corps of Cadets, majored in biology, and minored in chemistry. In her spare time, she read up on the early history of forensic science and the chemistry used in the first crime labs. “My parents have actually told me I’m a bit ‘different’ for being so passionate about your body after you die,” she says. “But that’s alright. It’s too interesting for me to stop now.”

This fall, DeSpirito starts a two-year master’s program in forensic science at the University of New Haven in Conn. She credits chemistry professor Seth Frisbie, chemistry department chair Natalia Blank, and her academic advisor, biology professor Scott Page for their impact on her Norwich academic career. Her chemistry professors made a minor possible and all wrote multiple letters of recommendation for graduate school. “[They] have really supported me in all of my courses and throughout my time here.”

May 16, 2016

Office Tour: Neuroscientist and Biology Professor Megan Doczi, PhD

Prof Megan Doczi smiles as she displays famous scientist finger puppets to the camera
Norwich University Office of Communications

October 14, 2015

Norwich University Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi can recall the exact moment she fell in love with neuroscience. It happened during high school, when a psychology class she took as an elective reached the second chapter of the course textbook, which covered the neuron. In the lab, Doczi studies ion channels in avian hypothalamus neurons and the pathways that regulate feeding behavior and appetite. In the classroom, she teaches both anatomy and physiology and neuroscience courses and directs the university’s neuroscience minor and concentration programs. Below, a tour of her office in nine objects.

tough_mudder_skull1. Human Skull
Gift from Lauryn DePaul, a student in the first anatomy and physiology class Doczi taught when she arrived in 2011. “Someone in her family had acquired this. I think they were a dentist.” Doczi repaired the broken skull with superglue. She added the Tough Mudder 2014 headband after completing the 10-mile obstacle course with friends last year. “It’s definitely a fusion between the outdoor enthusiast in me and the anatomist and neuroscientist in me.”

2. Fluffy Brain Toy
“It’s a stuffed brain. I also have a stuffed heart and a neuron.” They belong to her collection of gifts and “nerdy stuff” people have given Doczi over the years.

3. UVM Doctorate
“That was six years of really hard work and a beautiful institution. I value that quite a bit.” Doczi says the frame cost several hundred dollars and was probably her most expensive purchase as a graduate student.

doczi_einstein4. Famous Scientist Finger Puppets
Albert Einstein, Madame Currie, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Magnets are on the back. “They were gifts from one of my family members back in graduate school.”

5. Child’s Drawing
A gift from the daughter of Biology department colleague Karen Hinkle. Last year, Doczi won the Peggy R. Williams Emerging Professional Award from Vermont Women in Higher Education. “Willoughby drew me a picture and said congratulations on winning your award. It was the cutest thing. I think that speaks to the collegiality we have in the department and the university as a whole.”

DNA art6. DNA Art
A PhD graduation gift from friends. “They bought me this DNA artwork package. That’s my DNA from a cheek swab that was sent to a company. They ran a fragmentation and a gel electrophoresis on my own DNA, and I got to choose the color. It just looks cool. It’s really sciencey, and it’s from two really good friends of mine.”

7. Eppendorf Pippettes
Carousel of pipettes in 2.5 through 1,000 microliter sizes for dispensing precise volumes of liquid during lab work. Bought with leftover funds so that more students could work in the lab simultaneously.

neuro_bliss8. Neuro Bliss Energy Drink
Label on can claims contents help reduce stress, enhance memory and support a positive outlook. “The irony is that no drink is going to do that. But it’s cool, because it says ‘Neuro Bliss’ on it.”

9. CDs and Playlist
Depeche Mode, mix CDs from friends, Pandora, Spotify, independent radio stations. Guilty pleasure: Lady Gaga, including “Born This Way” and concerts in Montreal and Madison Square Garden. Last album purchased: “I haven’t downloaded anything in a long time. This is so embarrassing. This is where it stalls.”

Photographs by Mark Collier, Norwich University Office of Communications

Undergraduate Research: A Summer-Long Immersion in Molecular Biology

Senior biology major Maciel Porto was one of 28 Norwich University undergraduates awarded Summer Research Fellowships to explore diverse topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Developed by the university’s Office of Academic Research, the competitive, six- and ten-week fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

September 17, 2015

This summer, rising senior Maciel Porto spent 10 weeks in the lab investigating leptin receptors in the avian hypothalamus and their potential role in regulating appetite.

The hypothalamus is a small area of the brain that plays a big role regulating energy balance, body temperature, satiety, heart rhythm, sleep patterns and other essential body functions.

Activated by the hormone leptin, leptin receptors are gene-encoded proteins connected to fat metabolism.

Did decreasing food supplies influence the genetic expression of leptin receptors over time in chicken embryos? That was a question the biology major from San Antonio, Tex., wanted to explore.

Porto focused his summer research project on measuring leptin and leptin receptors in the hypothalamuses of embryonic chickens between 8 and 14 days old.

“In avian models leptin and its receptor, theoretically, have the same functions as those within mammals,” Porto notes. “The mystery to the receptors presence within the chicken genome presents many questions.”

Porto worked in the lab of his faculty advisor, Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Doczi, a neuroscientist who also studies avian hypothalamus tissue to investigate the developmental regulation of potassium ion channels in neurons.

Porto’s own research employed state-of-the-art procedures used in molecular biology labs around the world.

Starting with micro-dissection of embryonic chicken brains to extract the hypothalamus, Porto isolated RNA from the tissue samples. He then synthesized what’s known as copy, or C-DNA, to determine if genes for leptin receptors were expressed.

Porto then tested c-DNA primers, the “short segments of base pairs of nucleotides that kind of align with a specific section of a gene,” Porto says.

Using a procedure called agarose gel electrophoresis, Porto then separated the genetic material by molecular size.

Adding ethidium bromide enabled Porto to tag DNA fragments and fluoresce them under UV light, creating a visual bar code for the genes expressed in the sample cell tissue.

While Porto initially identified a difference in the abundance of leptin receptors in chicken embryos that were 8 and 14 days old, he found no statistically significant change in gene expression between younger and old embryos overall.

“This proposes a more in depth study of relative change of LEPR gene expression, which would include more samples for each time period,” Porto concluded in a final research paper on his study.

Porto says his summer research fellow experience taught him the value of even the smallest data discovery and the volume of contributions required to solve big research questions.

“I also realized that although my findings were astronomical in my eyes, this was only a ten-week timeline, in which is a fraction compared to other researchers,” he says.

“It put things into perspective on how much work and dedication it really takes to provide a contribution within the research profession.”

Porto says he plans to enter a research or graduate program to study immunology when he graduates from Norwich this spring.

Related Articles on Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows:

Undergraduate Summer Research: Museums, Brains, Proteins and Murder

Norwich University undergraduates are hard at work this summer investigating diverse research topics across the arts, sciences and professional fields. Their competitive, six- and ten-week paid summer research fellowships are funded by university endowments dedicated to supporting student academic investigation.
By David Westerman, PhD
Norwich University Office of Academic Research

 
June 30, 2015

Editor’s note: Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology and Associate Vice President for Research David Westerman is blogging about Norwich undergraduate student research projects underway this summer in field sites, labs and libraries on campus and around the globe.

This week’s lunchtime research presentations on campus featured Undergraduate Research Fellows and faculty from multiple disciplines, inviting lively discussion on museum design, chicken brains, pilot response times, proteins, and serial murder.

Fellow Sarah Bedard ‘17 (Architecture) kicked off Tuesday’s discussion, explaining the code of ethics for adding architectural additions onto an existing art museum. This summer, she will evaluate two museums in Toronto and one in Massachusetts built by well-known architects. She plans to assess the circulation paths, overlapping spaces, and private vs. public usages. She will present her work as a series of case studies and a final poster.

Stacia Melick (Biology) described her work on voltage-gated potassium ion channel expression in the embryonic chicken hypothalamus. She is testing the hypothesis that the specific Kv1.3 gene is expressed in a similar fashion as the Insulin Receptor gene, due to a known interaction of these proteins elsewhere in the nervous system. The interaction of the Kv1.3 and Insulin Receptor proteins has been known to alter neuronal excitability in the olfactory bulb, and she is testing the hypothesis that this interaction may also play a role in the hypothalamic regulation of food intake and energy homeostasis.

Next up was Tim Smeddal (Mechanical Engineering), who is investigating how pilots are able to perceive and interact with aircraft instruments. For this project, Tim will survey approximately 100 aircraft pilots to determine which gauge is more accurate for certain altitudes by testing them on fixed points as well as trends in altitude. He is currently working out of Burlington International Airport, but also hopes to incorporate military pilots into his survey.

Thursday’s Brown Bag discussion featured Fellow Devon Lindner (Molecular Biology) and faculty member Assistant Professor Elizabeth Gurian (Criminal Justice). Devon is investigating a novel protein binding relationship between Fyn, a Src family kinase, and MCM6, a protein involved in cell division. To test the hypothesis that there is a relationship between Fyn and MCM6, Devon is conducting literature reviews and running laboratory experiments under the mentorship of Associate Professor Karen Hinkle (Biology) to understand their interactions. Devon hopes that her findings can eventually lead to contributions in cancer research.

Finally, Prof. Elizabeth Gurian provided a glimpse into her ongoing work on serial murder. She explained how the lack of scientific papers on female perpetrated homicide and serial murder is attributable, in part, to the rarity of these incidents, which does not permit ordinary research methods to be easily employed. The examination of these offenses is further limited due to definitional issues, complex rationales for committing criminal homicide, and gendered perceptions of homicide and serial murder, or inclusion under generalized findings on male homicide offenders. Prof. Gurian talked about her methods and approach to her project and explained that by dispelling stereotypes and gendered perceptions we may achieve a better understanding of female homicide offending.

About the Author: David S. Westerman, PhD, is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Geology at Norwich University and the Associate Vice President for Research in the university’s Office of Academic Research.

Photograph by Keith Stipe