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Biology major receives funding for research on diseases in freshwater fish with Laurie F. Caslake, associate professor biology

Nate Parker ’08 (Milford, N.H.) recently won a prestigious Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). The fellowships are presented to 30 students nationwide and are based on the student’s achievements, future goals, and the mentoring and research facilities available at the student’s institution.

The fellowship provides Parker with a stipend for 10 weeks of summer research on columnaris disease in freshwater fish with Laurie F. Caslake, associate professor of biology, and a two-year membership in the ASM.

In addition, the fellowship covers the costs of travel and lodging for Parker and Caslake to attend the 2009 ASM general meeting in Boston, Mass., where they will present the results of their research.

According to Caslake and Parker, there are two distinct forms of columnaris disease, a deadly disease caused by the bacteria Flavobacterium columnare that produces lesions on fish flesh. They are investigating a function of quorum sensing as the possible cause of why the bacteria respond in two different ways, creating the two forms of the disease.

Quorum sensing is “a system whereby organisms sense how many [other organisms] are in a given space by secreting a compound and measuring how much of the compound is in the area,” Caslake explains. “If there are only a few organisms, diffusion carries the compound away and they measure only a small amount; however, when lots of organisms are around secreting the compound, then the concentration is much higher, causing the organisms to respond to the higher levels of the compound.

“So, hypothetically speaking,” she continues, “in this case, the high virulent form of the disease may use quorum sensing – large quantities of [the bacterium] produce lots of signaling compound and respond rapidly. Whereas, the low virulent form of the disease may have a different signal, or do not respond as rapidly to the signaling compound.”

“Such a system would allow a larger, growing colony of bacteria attacking a fish’s immune system to preserve energy by waiting until the concentration of bacteria in the colony is high enough to become virulent,” Parker says. “A small colony, unable to overcome the fish’s immune system, would not waste energy by trying.”

According to Parker, research on quorum sensing is important because it can bring about alternate possibilities for combating bacterial infection. Because some bacterial-caused diseases have grown resistant to antibiotics, understanding quorum sensing might help create new drugs that slow or halt bacterial infections.

Parker and Caslake are testing this possibility in their research.

“We are using bacteria, which we’re calling reporter strains, that are known to respond to certain types of signaling molecules,” Parker explains. “We grow cultures of the various F. columnare strains, which we isolated from infected fish, and then test them against these known reporter strains to see if the F. columnare are producing any signaling molecules to which the reporter strains respond. If we find signaling molecules, we plan to isolate and analyze them in collaboration with the chemistry department. Later, we also hope to determine whether differences in virulence among our different F. columnare strains are related to the types or quantities of signaling molecules produced.”

Parker believes a main reason why he received the ASM fellowship is the numerous research opportunities available at Lafayette.

“The cross-department focus on undergraduate research here at Lafayette has been especially helpful,” Parker says. “Having research experience was an important part of the application process, and thanks to the EXCEL program, the Nalven Summer Biology Research Fund (through which I worked last summer), and professors like Dr. Caslake, who are willing to involve students in their research projects, I have been able to acquire the experience I needed to receive this fellowship. I walk down the halls of the biology department every day and I see a student working in almost every professor’s lab. At Lafayette, it’s easy to extend your education far beyond the classroom.”

He received recommendations for the fellowship from Bonnie Winfield, director of the Landis Community Outreach Center, and Nancy Waters, associate professor of biology, as well as Caslake.

“Dr. Caslake has been an excellent mentor to me in the lab since she took me onto her quorum sensing project last summer,” says Parker. “Her expertise in the lab and her passion for the project have inspired me to work hard and instilled in me a similar excitement about the research.”

Caslake is equally impressed with Parker’s capabilities.

“Nate is a great person to work with,” says Caslake. “He is very reliable, but more importantly, he understands the goal and is capable of managing his time and balancing his activities to continue moving towards our goal. I am pleased that Nate earned one of these fellowships.”

After graduating from Lafayette, Parker plans to spend a few years abroad with the Peace Corps or a health-related NGO. He eventually wants to pursue a dual M.D./master’s of public health degree and work on pediatric medicine and public health. He spent the spring semester studying malaria prevention in Kenya.

“Eventually, I would like to practice pediatric medicine both here in the states and abroad in developing countries, more specifically Sub-Saharan Africa, and to work for an international health organization in pediatric public health. There is of course a great need for research involving the infectious diseases plaguing children in this region, and I would like to be involved someday. My research here at Lafayette is providing me with a great opportunity to learn and develop research techniques that I will surely be able to utilize professionally.”

Parker was selected as a finalist in the 2007 Harry S. Truman Scholarship competition. He was one of 200 finalists representing 129 U.S. colleges and universities. He is program director of the Best Buddies program through the Landis Community Outreach Center. Last year, he was named Outstanding College Buddy Director of the Year in the Philadelphia region. He was program director of Habitat for Humanity and Hunger and Homelessness Week last fall and co-director of Lafapalooza, a one-day service event, last spring. He also volunteers at the Spring Garden Childcare Center in Easton.

Selected from among Lafayette’s top applicants, Trustee Scholars like Parker have distinguished themselves through exceptional academic achievement in high school. Lafayette provides them with an annual minimum scholarship of $7,500 ($8,000 effective with the Class of 2009) or a grant in the full amount of their demonstrated need if the need is more than $7,500.

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