Lab Report – Nine Norwich Labs and the People Behind Them

From genetic engineering to digital forensics to the plays of Harold Pinter, campus labs across the sciences, professional disciplines, and humanities showcase the talent, curiosity, and impact of Norwich faculty and students. Portraits of nine diverse researchers and the labs they work in.

Story and Photography by Sean Markey

1. The Internet of Things Lab
Associate Professor Huw Reed, director of the Norwich University Center for Advanced Computing and Digital Forensics, is about to show off his year-old Internet of Things Lab in Dewey Hall. Bot armies of Wi-Fi-connected appliances and garage-door openers have been wreaking havoc across the internet of late, while smart devices are now supplying evidence in murder trials. Ready or not, the Internet of Things era is upon us. The Welshman punches the door key code (Look out Q!), steps in, and the place looks like…the bedroom of your best friend from middle school, minus the bunkbed. Granted there are tech anachronisms galore crammed into the roughly eight-foot by eight-foot space: laptops and flat-screen monitors, a smart-home hub, old iPhone 3s and 4s, Philips LED smart bulbs, a motion sensor, Wi-Fi-chipped power strips, a docked and obviously on strike iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner. But the wainscoting blending into square acoustic tiles, murky carpeting, and trio of yard-tall, circa 1987 brass lamps are spot on. Is it a lab, you wonder, or a fort? But then again, that’s kind of the point. Like Virginia Woolf’s room of one’s own, Reed says a lab is “a place tucked away from the rest of the world.” It’s not a hideout, but a place to work that’s free of distraction and full of the right tools. “The process of research is not one that you can do five minutes here, ten minutes there—squeezing between a meeting,” Reed says. “To make new discoveries, to think outside the box, you need time to work and the proper tools to do it.” Seconds after we enter, Reed’s smartphone chirps. A text message tells him someone is in the lab. Clearly the place isn’t so retro, after all.

Tracey Poirier ’96 (center), Norwich’s first Rhodes Scholar, appears with two students she mentors: Norwich Cadet and Army ROTC scholarship recipient Charles Grunert (left), a sophomore computer science and information assurance major from Chicago, Ill.; and Alex Swofford, from Marcola, Ore., a sophomore neuroscience major and art minor who met Poirier through the Norwich GUIDE mentorship program.

2. The Leadership Lab
Rook. Norwich alum. Rhodes Scholar. Marine officer. U.S. Army War College graduate. Current lieutenant colonel in the Vermont National Guard. If anyone epitomizes the leadership lab that is Norwich, it’s Tracey Poirier ’96. This past December, the mother of four deployed to support Special Forces operations in Afghanistan. When not on active duty, Poirier serves as assistant vice president for leadership and student experience at Norwich, teaching leadership skills in the four-year Leadership Development Program she created for both Corps and civilian students.

However, Poirier is the first to admit that she’s no Patton. “I’ve got this giant smile, and I laugh all the time.” And that’s okay with her. Such insights are the kind she invites her leadership students to make. “We focus a lot on knowing yourself, understanding what makes you tick.” That includes knowing what brings out your best and your worst and how you communicate and work in a group. Poirier says the program is not about teaching leadership, per se. Rather, “it’s about teaching components so that students can find their own leadership.” By knowing more about themselves, students can begin to understand the people around them, learn how to put together the best team, and bring out their best.

Poirier says she was often told as a young officer to be a good leader. But rarely did the conversation move beyond that. “In my early career, not a lot of people sat me down and said, Let’s work on little bits. Let’s just focus on this one piece—like how do you communicate? How do you best motivate others?” At Norwich, Poirier is changing that.

Biochemistry Professor Ethan Guth.

3. Genetic Engineering: The CRISPR Lab
Just four years old, the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR is already one of the most groundbreaking, if not powerful tools in modern science. Working like a pair of bargain-priced, $70 molecular scissors, the DNA enzyme carries machinery and instructions to snip strands of DNA with exacting precision. Researchers can now target specific genes and swap in new genetic material nearly at will. Whether CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) opens a golden age or a Pandora’s Box of genetic tinkering remains to be seen.

But for Norwich biochemistry professor Ethan Guth, CRISPR is in the end “just another tool.” More exciting are the research questions he can now explore in a lab outfitted with little more than an ice bucket and a few hot plates. With a grant from the Vermont Genetics Network, Guth has worked over the past year to jump-start CRISPR research at Norwich. He aims to grow yeast spliced with Godzilla-like genes from Deinococcus radiodurans, an unusual strain of bacteria highly resistant to oxidative damage and radiation.

The associate professor of chemistry says he hopes to understand how those genes function to give an organism the ability to resist the corrosive forces of oxidation (think rust at the cellular and molecular level). While his research is basic science, he says it could theoretically open intriguing future applications, given the role that oxidation plays in the etiology of cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and many other human diseases. “He’s a pioneer,” says Karen Hinkle, a researcher, biology professor, and NU Office of Academic Research associate vice president. Norwich now has a CRISPR expert, one who has already involved students in cutting-edge work and will be a go-to resource for other faculty researchers, she says. “I think it’s the fundamental dream of a lot of young nerdy science boys,” Guth says. “To be able to build something new.”

Assistant Professor of Theater Jeff Casey (second from right) stands on the site of the $24 million Mack Hall construction project, which will include a new campus auditorium and the future home of Pegasus Players theater productions. Joining Casey are student actors (l-r) Nathan Ures ’21, Sachi de La Cruz ’21, and Nick Veldey ’21.

4. The De Facto Lab
A place for focused effort, experimentation, exploration, and discovery. If anything in the Humanities fits the definition of a lab, it’s theater. “It’s a laboratory art,” says Assistant Professor of Theater Jeffry Casey. “You can take risks and try new things.” In November, Casey directed actors in the Norwich student theater troupe the Pegasus Players in a production of two short Harold Pinter plays, Party Time and New World Order. The works explore authoritarianism and torture while grappling with the theme of power. Casey, who joined the Norwich faculty in July, says producing theater at a university like Norwich is an opportunity to expose future military and civilian leaders to ideas through art. “Nothing is more important than [how] they think about power and what it means [to] have power and what it means to be complicit in injustice or justice.”

Casey, who also teaches classes on public speaking, writing, and literature, says he wants to push theater at Norwich into other arenas. He has already visited ESL classes and says theater students could support other campus programs in countless ways. “We live in a world of non-scarcity in some ways with so many products, particularly culture,” he says. “But theater is a scarce resource, and that makes it more valuable.”

Expert on:
1. The perceptual theory of 18th-century Scottish
philosopher Adam Smith.
2. Molyneux’s Question: Could a blind person who knows a cube and sphere by touch identify them by sight if it were restored?
3. Socrates’ hobbies if alive today: “I think he would skate and do graffiti.” *
* OK, make that an educated guess.

5. The Future Lab
Brian Glenney is your typical skate-boarding, graffiti-spraying, private military college assistant professor of philosophy with a rock star resume and the punk playlist to match it. A graduate of St. Andrews and USC, Glenney specializes in social and sensory perception, exploring philosophical theories about what it is to see, hear, and touch in the world around us. He has spoken about his work at Harvard, Princeton, Oxford, and the University of Tokyo. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has also come calling, showcasing his collaborative street art/icon design reimaging of the wheelchair access symbol.

Glenney’s wide-ranging research often relates to perception and labels of disability vs. diversity, and more recently subversion in sport—the notion that genius rule-benders, if not breakers, drive innovation. To wit, Socrates, Charles Dickens, and the guy who invented the cross-over dribble. So what does that have to do with labs? Well, more than you might think. Glenney recently collaborated with colleagues at UVM to survey local skateboarders on their attitudes and behaviors around helmet use. The National Institutes of Health, which funded the research via a Vermont Genetics Network grant, is keen to understand the behaviors and risks of extreme sports.

Glenney sees the project as a potential first step for a larger, lab-based study. At a prior post, Glenney founded a philosophy and psychology lab, where students helped create the Kromophone, prototype goggles and now an app that turns colors into sounds, upending how we experience the world. Such undergraduate projects demonstrate “that philosophy is reliably practical,” Glenney says. “If anything is awesome about Norwich, it’s that the students demand some kind of practical upshot to what they’re learning.” A lab is “a perfect place to show philosophy actually engages the world that you touch and see. It’s not just theoretical.”

6. The Lifesaving Lab
Environmental chemist Seth Frisbie is a world expert on detecting toxic metals in drinking water and the math behind their associated health risk. If the World Health Organization makes a rounding error, he catches it. Such tiny details matter. A mere 10 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water, the current U.S. standard for example, leads to one extra cancer death out of 400 people. “Arsenic is so toxic, so carcinogenic that it cannot be measured to safe levels” in routine testing laboratories, Frisbie says. Arsenic isn’t our only worry. Trace amounts of far too many other toxic metals also act as powerful carcinogens or neurotoxins. Most of our drinking water today comes from the ground and therein lies the problem. “Most elements of the periodic table are in the Earth’s crust” and thus our water, he says. “We’re drinking filtered mud.”

A globe-trotting tour of four current projects:

On independent study leave this year, Frisbie and his wife and research partner, Erika Mitchell, are working with Richard Ortega at the Nuclear Research Center at the University of Bordeaux. Using PIXE, a state-of-the art particle accelerator, they are investigating how manganese might affect the neurology of infants, children, and the elderly, and possible links to Parkinson’s Disease and some learning disabilities.

A collaboration with MIT engineer Susan Murcott to develop an inexpensive, handheld LED spectrophotometer to test drinking water for toxic metals in Nepal and other developing countries. Students in Norwich Professor Mike Prairie’s electrical engineering design lab have helped advance the prototype.

Frisbie is nearing completion on a groundbreaking device to detect arsenic in drinking water, one that is a thousand times more sensitive than is currently possible in routine testing laboratories. Senior biochemistry major Greg Wilkins has worked to calibrate the instrument.

Frisbie is helping colleagues at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, NU Chemistry chair Richard Milius, and chemistry major Joe Minicucci, build a chemical reagent that colorizes uranium in drinking water, to enable inexpensive field testing with LED spectrophotometers. (See MIT/NEPAL)

Chemistry Professor Tom Shell.

7. The Molecular Lab
Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tom Shell is a chemical biologist who builds molecules crucial to research into targeted drug-delivery systems known as photo-pharmaceuticals. Working in his lab, Shell synthesizes molecules similar to vitamin B12 called alkylcobalamins that bind to nearly any cancer drug and put its cell-killing powers on hold. Before that happens, however, Shell attaches a light-sensitive trigger to the alkylcobalamin. Hit with the right wavelength of light, the molecule jettisons its cancer drug, sending it on its tumor-destroying way.

Other researchers have explored triggers sensitive to UV light, despite its major drawback—our skin is very good at absorbing it. Shell was the first to build triggers sensitive to near-infrared light, which passes deep into human tissue. The scientist says his research could one day help doctors treat patients with head and neck cancers where surgeries would be unsightly, if not difficult, while minimizing damage to healthy tissue elsewhere in the body.

Shell collaborates with Brian Pogue, a physics and surgery professor at Dartmouth College’s Thayer School of Engineering and Geisel School of Medicine who co-directs the college’s Optics in Medicine Lab. “We have the light-delivery tools and the background in mouse models of cancers and human treatments, which can help. But what we lack is expertise in chemistry and synthesis and development of molecules,” Pogue says. “Tom brings the exact expertise that we need.”

Field Hazards:
1. Sunstroke.
2. Rattlesnakes.
3. Barbed goat grass seeds.
(Ice picks in plant form.)
4. Wily lizards.
Field Gear:
1. Sunscreen.
2. Snake gators. (Josh)
3. Heavy boots and pants.
4. Fishing poles rigged with small nylon nooses, pillowcases to collect
captive lizards, Norwich T-shirt, I Will Try attitude.

8. The Field Lab
Assistant Professor of Biology Allison Neal (above, left), and biology major Joshua Sassi ’18 have spent two weeks each of the past two summers stalking the oaks and grasslands of the 5,300-acre UC Hopland Research and Extension Center in Northern California. Their quest: capture Western fence lizards by the hundreds to collect field data on a malaria parasite endemic in the reptiles. “It’s one of the best-studied natural systems that hasn’t been affected by human interventions, like antimalarial drugs,” Neal says. In all, the pair bagged close to a thousand lizards—measuring, numbering, and drawing blood samples at a field lab before releasing the reptiles into the wild. At Norwich, the researchers used microscopy to survey blood samples for Plasmodium mexicanum malaria infections and other parasites and prepared samples for DNA analysis. Neal’s research continues a long-term study of the lizard population and its parasitic interloper now entering its 41st year. The project’s data points of basic science provide valuable research that can inform future studies of disease dynamics and climate change.

Sassi focused his second season in the field and lab on an under-graduate summer research fellowship to investigate and develop a co-infection prediction model in Western fence lizards between malaria and an intestinal parasitic infection known as Schellackia. An abstract of his work earned him the university’s College of Science and Mathematics Board of Fellows Prize for research. Neal, meanwhile, recently received a $25,000 Vermont Genetics Network grant to study a parasite much closer to home—schistosomes, microscopic worms found locally in certain water-loving birds, mammals, and snails that causes “swimmer’s itch” in humans.

Dana Professor of Biology Karen Hinkle, who also serves as the associate vice president for NU’s Office of Academic Research

9. The Classroom as Lab
To appreciate the transformative effect that a lab can have on a campus, consider this: Ten years ago, a storage room on the second floor of the Tompkins science building was converted into a dedicated biology lab with a $200,000 grant from the Vermont Genetics Network, a funding arm of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health.

Since then, Dana Professor of Biology Karen Hinkle, who also serves as the associate vice president for NU’s Office of Academic Research, has been one of many faculty researchers to use the facility to advance her research. Hinkle specifically investigates the signaling pathways of Fyn, a protein known to be involved in cancer, collaborating with Bryan Ballif at the University of Vermont as a sub-grantee of his NSF-funded lab. “It’s really basic science,” Hinkle says, referring to her quest to understand fundamental aspects of those interactions.

Numerous students have been involved in Hinkle’s work over the years as research assistants or summer research fellows and now countless more will be involved, too. For the second year in a row, students in Hinkle’s spring cell biology class will spend the entire course investigating a new protein that may interact with Fyn. Hinkle says thanks to a three-year NSF sub-award from Ballif’s parent grant, she is finally walking the walk of using novel classroom inquiry to teach and engage the next generation of scientists. “It’s exciting to tell [my students], and I think they get it, that this is new. No one on the planet has ever understood these relationships before.”

Comments are closed.