Three Bowdoin seniors, Kacey Berry, Jacob Blum and Emma Cutler, have received Fulbright grants to do research next year in foreign countries. The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is designed to increase mutual understanding between Americans and people of other countries, and grantees are selected not only for their strong academic background but also for their ability to bridge cultures. This year, five other Bowdoin seniors also received Fulbright English Teaching Assistantships and one received a language study grant.
Emma Cutler, a math and environmental studies major, will be returning to Sri Lanka, where she studied abroad in 2011, to continue research she started then that looked into the environmental impact of farming. During her previous stay, she found that farmers were needlessly using agrochemicals when they could be relying on “forest home gardens,” a sustainable, traditional form of cultivation that mimics natural ecosystems.
When Cutler returns to Sri Lanka next fall, she plans to collect data on farming practices, water pollution and land geography. She will use this information to build a mathematical model to determine the optimal way — both in terms of food production and environmental sustainability — to use the land. Her research will be based in an upcountry zone in Sri Lanka, near the town of Nuwara Eliya, where agricultural pollutants drain into downstream water sources.
“As the population of Sri Lanka grow, it is critical that land use be well planned to protect fresh water resources,” Cutler wrote in her Fulbright application. To better communicate with local farmers, Cutler will take a one-month intensive Sinhala class (which she already speaks a bit) and also try to pick up Tamil.
For the last two years, Cutler has been working with Mary Lou Zeeman, Bowdoin’s R. Wells Johnson Professor of Mathematics, to build mathematical models that address climate change questions. “I want to use math to help answer questions about environmental sustainability and inform decisions that will directly affect people’s lives,” Cutler said.
Jacob Blum is heading off to Rome, Italy to work with the insect that is so useful for scientists, the fruit fly Drosophila. He will be joining the lab of Maurizio Gatti, a specialist who works on the genetics of cell division and chromosome stability, and how these processes underlie the aging process.
“The mechanism of aging and why aging happens is something that really interests me,” Blum, a biochemistry major, said.
At Gatti’s lab, Blum will work with telomeres — the tips of chromosomes that shorten over time as cells reproduce. Over time, when telomeres are eliminated, cellular DNA is no longer protected and the cell dies, pushing along the body’s aging process.
Cancer cells, however, do not suffer the same fate: their telomeres don’t degrade, allowing cancers to grow uncontrollably in the body. “Cancer cells have to develop strategies to ensure the ends of their chromosomes are very well protected,” Blum said. “Gaining an understanding of basic telomere biology sits at the crossroads of two important health care concerns — aging and cancer.”
Excitingly, Gatti’s lab has discovered a protein in Drosophila called Pendolino that appears to play a vital role in telomere protection and is also structurally and functionally similar to a human protein, according to Blum.
Besides the science he’ll be doing in Rome, Blum said he’s excited to live in Italy, which he feels is part of his cultural heritage. Because his mother’s family emigrated from Italy several generations ago, Blum is eligible for Italian citizenship. As an Italian minor at Bowdoin, Blum has studied Italian language, politics, literature, history and even classical Italian guitar styles. “The opportunity to live in Italy and become immersed in the culture through the lens of scientific research combines two of my greatest passions,” he said.
Ketura (Kacey) Berry, a neuroscience major and history minor, will work in the lab of Ilona Grunwald-Kadow, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in a suburb of Munich, Germany.
Kadow’s research looks into the neural circuitry of Drosophila fruit flies to better understand how Drosophila responds to the odor of CO2, a gas that helps insects identify food sources, find mates or locate sources of danger. Kadow writes on her webpage that she hopes her research will ultimately “contribute to the understanding of how hunger, stress or fear are integrated into decision-making processes in the human brain.”
Berry said Kadow’s research reflects her own desire to figure out why we behave in the way we do in response to environmental stimuli such as smells, sounds and tastes. “The brain is so complicated, but I think it’s interesting to start answering these questions in a simple model, using molecular biology as a base,” she said.
Our understanding of the neural networks that underlie olfactory behavioral responses in animals is particularly sparse, Berry said. She will use her nine months at Kadow’s lab to address this knowledge gap.
At Bowdoin, Berry has worked with Associate Professor of Biology and Neuroscience Hadley Horch, who is also her honors project advisor. Horch studies the injury response of crickets, whose auditory neurons regrow after damage. And Horch is interested in the implications this may have for patients with spinal cord injuries.
One of the reasons Berry said she chose to work in Kadow’s lab was to gain more experience with Drosophila now that she’s well practiced with crickets. She added that she’s also drawn to the art, music and language of Germany. Berry has studied German for two semesters and admires many German playwrights, including Bertolt Brecht and Heiner Müller, as well as the dancer Pina Bausch. “I’m attracted to this culture,” Berry said, adding in her Fulbright application that she is curious about a country “that produces artists that make art that resonates with me so strongly.”