Science Speaker Informs, Excites Students
by Elana Golub on Wednesday, February 27th, 2013Dr. Ralph Dileone, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Neurobiology at Yale University, spoke in King Theatre on Wednesday, February 13 as this year’s Science Assembly speaker. Milton biology and chemistry teacher Dr. Sarah Richards, who worked with Dr. Dileone while at Yale University, invited him to Milton Academy to discuss his work in optogenetics.
Dr. Dileone presented basic information about neurobiology, as well as some new techniques recently developed by researchers. He shared that Dr. Karl Deisseroth, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, discovered that lasers could be used to open and close ion-gated channels while he was experimenting with pond scum.
A blue light opens the channel, and a yellow light closes the channel. Ions serve many purposes in cells, and they are vital to the function of neurons. By transferring the DNA from pond scum into a virus, researchers can “infect” human or animal cells with a type of ion channel that is reactive to light, and then control the cell.
Dr. Dileone showed a video in which the lasers directed a mouse to eat. During the test, the mouse continued to eat, consuming a day’s worth of food in about 20 minutes. Dr. Richards and Dr. Dileone both predicted that this research would most likely win a Nobel Prize in the near future.
In his lab, Dr. Dileone applies this new research to the study of rewarding behaviors, such as the choice to eat, or not to eat, and substance abuse. The lab compares motivation and drive with restraint and control, as demonstrated in the “Stanford marshmallow test” given to young children.
Dr. Dileone studies eating behaviors and uses the information in the context of obesity. Obesity rates have recently soared in the United States, and studies show that a genetic mutation may be responsible. He explained that behavior begins with genes and molecules, followed by neurons, and circuits. Finally, the behavior is executed.
If a genetic mutation exists, then the body may lack certain proteins, which, consequently, can lead to the misguided behavior. Studies have shown that a lack of leptin, a protein that triggers the feeling of “fullness,” may lead to obesity. Researchers are hoping to use new findings in the field of neurobiology to not only combat obesity, but also substance abuse, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurological disorders.
Dr. Dileone emphasized at the end of his talk that he believes basic scientific research is incredibly important, especially since most funding for research goes toward studies directly related to curing specific diseases. Nevertheless, some of the techniques recently discovered were found through basic research.
He encouraged students to study all areas of science—physics, chemistry, and biology, as well as psychology and engineering, as many scientific discoveries encompass multiple areas of study.
Neurobiology, in particular, is a developing field that will most likely become increasingly important over the next thirty years. Science teacher, Ms. Seplaki, appreciated Dr. Dileone’s presentation because it had applications across all areas. While chemistry students may not have understood the biological aspects of the presentation, they could understand certain parts.
The talk was generally well received among students. Lindsay Jay (II) said, “I learned about it in psychology (or at least the basics of it) last year, so it was just an interesting continuation. He was sort of funny in some parts, which helped keep the audience interested.”
Ali Edwards (I) said, “I thought it was very interesting. He was talking about pretty complicated stuff but I thought he did a good job breaking it down into terms and concepts that would make sense to high school science students so we could actually appreciate his talk.”
Corey Schwaitzberg (II) agreed, stating, “He really took what could have been a boring lecture otherwise presented and made it entertaining and engaging for everyone.”
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