CSUPERB is pleased to publish its Academic Year 2016-2017 Annual Report (linked here).  Beyond facts, figures and budget numbers, the report includes profiles of researchers, students, and alumni who make up the CSU's biotechnology community of interest, learning and practice.

Each year CSUPERB-supported researchers submit reports to the program office. The reports encapsulate the wide-range of biotech research carried out across the system and bring to life the transformative experiences offered in laboratories, field stations, and classrooms across the CSU. The stories showcase the collaborations, partnerships, and teams that advance discoveries, redesign courses, develop new methods, and investigate fundamental biological processes.

We can only fit a small number of lab profiles in the annual report, compared to the number of research groups we support each year (see the CSUPERB grants database for a listing). So we also share news and celebrate advances from faculty-led projects throughout the year at the CSUPERB website and at our Facebook page

To kick-off the 2017-2018 academic year, we feature here a September 2017 (lightly-edited) interview with Dr. Miri VanHoven. Dr. VanHoven is a biological sciences faculty member at San Jose State University (SJSU), who used two CSUPERB Research Development grants to seed her research program, educational practice, and external collaborations.  Her lab studies the development of the nervous system using the genetic model organism C. elegans, a free-living roundworm, or nematode, that has a very simple nervous system.

Q: You credit your CSUPERB Research Development grant (RD; 2011/12) with establishing, building, and firming up a collaboration with Dr. Noelle L'Etoile's laboratory at University of California San Francisco (UCSF). This collaboration resulted recently in a joint R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Can you tell us more about the collaboration?

A: "I met Noelle when she was a postdoc and I was a graduate student in Dr. Cori Bargmann's lab, while she was at UCSF.  The research projects in Cori's lab were very diverse; Noelle studied behavior and learning, while I studied development.  So while we got along well, we didn't collaborate until this project came along.  Noelle's lab brings expertise in behavioral assays that assess learning, while our lab brings expertise in imaging synapses.  Noelle and I talk frequently and my students and I have gone to UCSF many times for joint group meetings, to learn new techniques, and to help teach them techniques we have developed."

Q: Your RD grant (2012/13) led to NSF follow-on funding, but also you used the CSUPERB-supported data collected to augment inquiry-based learning in your Neurogenetics course, involving ~20 students each year.  Tell us more.

A: "Although Biol 119 does not have a laboratory component...students analyze datasets of micrographs of different synaptic partner recognition mutants from my laboratory. During this activity, many of these students get their first opportunity to analyze real raw images using NIH ImageJ, the most pervasively used image analysis software in our field.  They are able to make predictions about the function of each gene based on previous literature, then test their hypotheses, and present their findings to the class. The students in the course are mostly undergrads, but we usually have a couple masters students as well. The undergrads are usually juniors and seniors, since General Genetics is a prerequisite for the course."

Q: You just published a paper in eLife that represents the work of a multi-disciplinary, multi-campus collaboration. Your SJSU colleagues, Dr. Laura Miller Conrad, Dr. Daryl Eggers, and Dr. Sami Khuri, were involved. Can you tell us more about the research collaboration?

A: "The project that CSUPERB funded was to understand how activity through the C. elegans neural circuit we study affects synapses, and we have elucidated a surprising and interesting pathway that mediates this.  But one of the questions that became central was: what level of circuit activity in nature would worms experience?  It was one that we couldn't answer because we didn't know what the ecologically relevant stimulus was for the circuit. 

This took us down a long pathway, but with the help of my amazing colleagues in Chemistry, Laura and Daryl, we discovered that C. elegans sense toxin-producing Streptomyces bacteria via the circuit we study, and a similar reflex-like circuit in the head.  We found that the worms use a specific G-Protein-Coupled Receptor called SRB-6 to sense bacterial toxins. 

To understand more about the evolution of this receptor, my wonderful colleague in Computer Science, Sami, constructed a tree showing that the gene is nematode-specific, and conserved in other nematodes with soil-dwelling life stages.  Colleen O'Loughlin, a postdoc at UCSF, worked with Laura on Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectroscopy experiments to identify Streptomyces secretion products.  Noelle L'Etoile at UCSF is also a collaborator on this project.  Her lab trained us in live single-cell calcium imaging experiments that we used to show that the SRB-6 receptor was required to sense Streptomyces and its secretion products.  Martina Bremmer, a professor in Mathematics and Statistics at SJSU, also collaborated with us.  She designed the statistical analysis we used to assess differences in behavioral responses and calcium imaging.  It was an amazing collaboration and I hope I get the chance to work with everyone again!"

Q: You've trained an admirable number of very successful SJSU graduates. How many SJSU students are working in your lab?  How did the new NIH and NSF grants affect the size or operations of your lab?

A: "This fall I'm working with four undergraduates, three MS students, and one full-time research associate, who completed her MS in my lab. Two undergraduates who recently graduated are still working in my lab while they decide their next step. Over the summer I had two additional undergraduates, one additional MS student, and a local high school teacher in my lab.  One of those undergrads left to go to UCSF for pharmacy school, and one went back to his home campus in Alabama. The MS student just started her PhD at UCSF and, of course, the high school teacher is back teaching high school.  My research supplies are very expensive, so the two NIH grants and the NSF grant had a huge impact on how many student research projects I could afford.  Also, the grants support my amazing research associate, Aruna Varshney, who helps me train all the students and keep the lab running smoothly."

Q: You took a job at a large, regional comprehensive university, SJSU, after training at R1 universities. What makes you happy/satisfied that you made that decision?

A: "I believe education is the key to equality.  The students in my lab are amazing, intelligent, focused researchers with an excitement that keeps everything new for me.  In addition to that, many of my students are from underrepresented minorities, are first-generation college students, and/or are from low socioeconomic backgrounds.  I've had students from all of these groups go on to PhD programs, medical and pharmacy schools at top universities.  Every year when I teach General Genetics I reach over 100 students.  When I ask how many of them are first-generation college students, I see so many hands go up!  In my office I have a big cork-board full of cards from students saying thank you.  All of those students and their successes make me happy and satisfied that I made this decision."