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Pharmacy/Biology Building to foster research collaboration

by Cindy Weiss - October 24, 2005

The new Pharmacy/Biology building brings all three biology departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences back into proximity on campus for the first time in more than a decade. The new location is expected to encourage research collaborations among the departments and with pharmaceutical scientists.

Cathy Proenza, assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology, at work in her lab in the new Pharmacy/Biology Building.
Cathy Proenza, assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology, at work in her lab in the new Pharmacy/Biology Building.
Photo by Melissa Arbo

That is the assessment of the two biology department heads whose faculty are housed in the new facility.

“It brings the three biologies back together,” says Kent Holsinger, professor and interim head of ecology and evolutionary biology. The department has 15 offices and laboratories in the new building, or space for about half of its faculty. The other half will remain in the Torrey Life Sciences Building, which connects to Pharmacy/Biology.

“Faculty will be closer to undergrads,” says Angel de Blas, professor and head of physiology and neurobiology. Twelve of the department’s 14 faculty have been housed in a building annex on Horsebarn Hill since 1994.

The third biology department, molecular and cell biology, houses 19 of its faculty in the new Biology/Physics Building, which also connects to Torrey. Seven MCB faculty are located in Beach Hall, and the other five are in three other buildings, including Torrey.

“It’s good to be close to the other departments,” says Catherine Proenza, an assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology who came to UConn this fall from a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School. She has attended seminars in molecular and cell biology, something she says she would be less likely to do if she were located on Horsebarn Hill.

Proenza studies at the molecular level the ion channel proteins that initiate heartbeat. She’s interested in how these proteins are regulated and what happens when, for instance, the heart rate increases with adrenalin.

“There are surprising gaps in our knowledge of the basic science about the initiation of the heartbeat,” she says.

William Chapple, professor of physiology and neurobiology, was originally housed at Torrey when he came to UConn in 1966. He moved to Horsebarn Hill with others in his department in 1994, and now is back, unpacking the boxes of his new lab in Pharmacy/Biology.

His research involves how sensory information modifies movement and posture.

“We don’t understand a lot of the basic mechanisms of movement,” he says. Chapple uses hermit crabs as a model organism because of their simple nervous system.

Ultimately, his research could have applications for any movement disorder caused by stroke, tumors, or lesions in the central nervous system.

Chapple says he will enjoy going to School of Pharmacy seminars and being in closer contact with molecular and cell and ecology and evolutionary biologists.

“We’ve been sort of isolated from the rest of biology,” he says.

Among the ecology and evolutionary biology researchers in the new building are Chris Elphick, an assistant professor, whose work in conservation biology on seaside sparrows this year won him a prestigious award from a consortium of conservation organizations; and Professor John Silander Jr., who is working on a $1 million National Science Foundation-funded project to understand the distribution of proteas in South Africa. Silander also is a manager of the Invasive Plants of New England project.

Louise Lewis, an associate professor, and Chris Simon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, also have moved into Pharmacy/Biology. Each has recently received an NSF Partnerships for Enhancing Expertise in Taxonomy grant. Lewis collaborates with investigators in Japan and Germany on her $750,000 grant to study desert algae; Simon is using her PEET grant to study New Zealand cicadas. She has also studied North American cicadas.

Four of the physiology and neurobiology faculty now have offices in the Pharmacy wing of the new Pharmacy/Biology Building, but   eight of the department’s faculty will have labs in the new building and offices in Torrey. Office renovations in Torrey will not be completed until the Christmas break, says Paul Betts, assistant dean of liberal arts and sciences.

Professor Larry Renfro, a professor of physiology and neurobiology, has a $600,000 NSF grant to study membrane transport in marine vertebrates. He is considered one of the best comparative physiologists in the country, says De Blas, and has recently been invited to deliver several prestigious lectures, including the 14th Thomas A. Maven Memorial Lecture at the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine.

The physiology and neurobiology faculty have large research programs and grant awards totaling about $12 million from NIH, NSF, and private foundations.

Akiko Nishiyama, an associate professor of physiology and neurobiology, has already moved into a new sixth-floor laboratory in Pharmacy/Biology. She has about $2.5 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Multiple Sclerosis Society. She studies mammal brain and spinal cord cells, called NG2 glial cells, that have “rather peculiar characteristics,” she says. They can generate myelin-forming cells – myelin is the protective, fatty sheath that coats and insulates nerve fibers – and they have a role in regenerating myelin sheaths in diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

“We are studying how these cells can be coaxed to regenerate myelin when it is needed,” she says. Her research group, which includes three undergraduates as well as Ph.D. and postdoctoral researchers, also is investigating whether NG2 glial cells can serve as “multipotent stem cells in the central nervous system,” developing into different types of cells.

James Ackman, a fifth-year Ph.D. student of physiology and neurobiology professor Joseph Lo Turco, says the new labs in Pharmacy/Biology will introduce students in his department to lab techniques that ecology and evolutionary biology scientists use but to which physiology and neurobiology students are not usually exposed.

Ackman, who bikes from Horsebarn Hill to get to classes in the other biology buildings, is looking forward to the closer proximity.

The move from the wide open spaces of the physiology and neurobiology annex has one disadvantage, however:

Says physiology and neurobiology professor William Chapple, “It’s not going to be as convenient to park.”

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