St. Olaf College | News

Mindlin Foundation grant supports two student-faculty research projects

Funding from the Mindlin Foundation is supporting the research that St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology and Chemistry Laura Listenberger, Assistant Professor of Biology and Physics Jay Demas, Stuart Behling ’16, and Elizabeth Townsend ’15 are conducting this summer.

Two St. Olaf College student-faculty research projects have received funding from the Mindlin Foundation.

Assistant Professor of Biology and Chemistry Laura Listenberger and Elizabeth Townsend ‘15 will use their grant to further their research on how cells store excess fat within the body, while Assistant Professor of Biology and Physics Jay Demas and Stuart Behling ‘16 are studying retinal sensitivity to light in hatchling freshwater turtles.

The Mindlin Foundation supports excellence in education, engineering, and the sciences by providing students and educators with the funding necessary to pursue research beyond the classroom.

Both projects not only carry on each faculty member’s research interests, but gives their students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience.

Understanding obesity one cell at a time
Listenberger and Townsend’s work revolves around lipid droplets, a compartment within cells designed to store excess fat in the body. This research builds off Listenberger’s past collaborations with students. Currently, they are exploring the surface structure of lipid droplets to better understand the harms of exceeding their storage capacity — an element crucial for understanding the alarming nationwide rise in obesity.

Townsend, a biology and music major, became interested in the project after taking Listenberger’s Intermediate Genetics class. “This experience will give me the opportunity to critically analyze, learn, and practice the scientific process in a way that isn’t just memorizing for a test,” she says.

Shedding light on turtle hatchlings
While Demas and Behling’s research, too, focuses on cellular biology, their area of focus centers on turtle hatchlings and how cells in their brain respond to light.

Like their larger, sea-dwelling cousins, freshwater turtles face a treacherous solo navigation the moment they hatch, from a sandy nest to the wetlands in which these animals thrive.

“In extreme cases,” Demas explains, “this journey can stretch more than half a kilometer — an impressive feat for a hatchling roughly the size of the quarter.”

Previous work has shown these hatchlings’ ability to survive the journey is due to their ability to find water by responding to light cues. Behling and Demas’s research strives to pinpoint the precise area within a turtle’s brain responsible for this miraculous adaptation by focusing on particular cells within the retina uniquely sensitive to light.

Behling and Demas hope their findings will guide further development of conservation strategies for threatened freshwater turtle species throughout the state.