For the university's 175th birthday, I worked with our governor to declare February 1, 2017, as "Willamette Day" in Oregon.
Physicist David Altman is moved by myosin. We all are.
Myosin is a motor protein. Responsible for every conscious and unconscious flex of our muscles, it beats our hearts.
Altman wants to understand how the molecular motor works — how the roiling action inside of a cell affects myosin's function. In 2012, Altman spent his junior sabbatical at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, performing an experiment that tested competing theories about muscle fibers’ unusual mechanical properties. The results of his experiment were published April 16 in PLoS ONE.
Muscles and Motors
Muscles have an odd and poorly understand behavior. Normally, an active muscle is stiff, because its proteins interact and form connections. But when an active muscle is used in a cyclic fashion — think of your heart beating or leg muscles when you’re running — the muscle temporarily becomes softer. When the cyclic motion stops, the muscle stiffens again.
This temporary softening, called thixotropy, may be connected to our posture. Stiff muscles provide support when you sit in class, but become less stiff and more limber when you run. The mechanism of thixotropy in muscles is not well understood, though Altman suspected that myosin was the key.
At the heart of muscle fibers are two types of interlocking filaments: myosin filaments — which contain hundreds of myosin motors that tie themselves together — and actin filaments. In active muscle, myosins bind to actin. Myosins make muscles contract by pulling themselves, stroke by stroke, along the actin filament.
Altman wanted to test whether the interaction between actin and myosin was responsible for muscle’s thixotropy. According to this model, muscles’ cyclic motion breaks the actin-myosin attachments and makes the muscle fiber softer. Once motion stops, it takes a little while for myosin to re-bind to actin and make the fiber stiff again.
Altman’s experiment involved disrupting actin-myosin interactions and vibrating the muscle fiber at different frequencies to measure its stiffness. Using two chemicals that prevent myosin binding to actin, Altman then tested the muscle. The loosening effect vanished.
“To people who study muscle, it was a debate as to what was responsible for thixotropy,” says Altman. ”The experiment indicates that muscles’ stiffness depends on myosin’s grip.”
The experiment revealed another, unknown process at work. When the cyclic motion was slow enough, Altman was surprised to find that the muscle fiber no longer softened; it became stiffer, or rheopectic. Altman suspects thixotropy depends on forces from molecules jostling within the crowded cellular environment, but no one knows how or why muscles would stiffen when subjected to low frequency vibration.
Through Willamette’s Senior Research Seminar course and through the Science Collaborative Research Program, students work with Altman to learn more about myosins’ cellular function. “In my lab, we study myosins inside cells as opposed to just purified myosins, because we want to understand physiologically relevant conditions and how they affect the motor,” says Altman.
Over the summer, he’ll move his myosin-trapping laser lab to the basement of Collins Science Center. In the fall, Altman will continue working with physics majors on their theses, while looking for more collaborative research opportunities to explore the enigmatic muscular motor protein.
Used for a Halloween Facebook post, this image picked up hundreds of likes and dozens of shares. I took it using my iPhone during a morning walk to my office.
I took this unstaged photograph during a day of service at the university's research forest. The image is prominently featured online and in print publications.
Kaeli Swift ’09 wears a mask as she uncovers the corpse. She knows she’s being watched.
Eerie and emotionless, the mask does its job. Swift’s hazel eyes meet obsidian stares, and her experiment begins.
Swift studies crow funerals, raucous avian flash mobs that form when a dead crow is spotted.
Crows are smart. They remember faces of threatening people and warn others to be on the lookout. To avoid being recognized and affecting the birds’ behavior, Swift and her colleagues wear masks when unwrapping the stuffed crow used in their research.
While staying undetected by the birds, Swift’s work is earning visibility of a different sort. She was recently featured on the PBS program “IN Close.”
Swift netted her mentors at Willamette before earning a National Science Foundation fellowship to pursue crow research at the University of Washington.
When she landed as a freshman, Swift knew she wanted to study birds. It didn’t take long to track down her undergraduate advisor, Dave Craig.
“One thing I knew that I was especially good at—for all of the other things that I felt doubt about—was networking,” Swift says. “I like birds,” she told Craig. ”I’ve been told you like birds. I want you to be my advisor.”
As a biologist who studies bird behavior, Craig says he couldn’t pass up a student named “Swift,” a nimble species of bird that targets insects mid-flight.
Swift first became a masked crow menace through collaborative work with Craig. They investigated crows’ ability to recognize individual human faces. She found another mentor in Emma Coddington, a neuroethologist who studies the effects of stress on behavior and the brain.
“She was like a laser beam,” says Coddington, smiling as she remembered meeting Swift before the start of a tough physiology class. “She stood out because she was genuinely curious and kept asking questions that indicated she was constantly integrating, thinking about how this fits in her life.”
A key part of Swift’s undergraduate life was her work with Saturday Explorations and Willamette Academy. She describes teaching through the university’s youth programs as among her most meaningful personal and most valuable professional experiences. “It’s important that students see there are all kinds of people that do science,” she says.
Graduation came and went. Though an important chapter in her story, it’s hard to picture Swift as a recent graduate unsure if she was cut out for academia.
As someone who also struggled to imagine herself as a scientist and professor, Coddington understood such self-doubt but had no question about Swift’s ability. Coddington hired her to help set up a new physiology lab in Olin Science Center, and Swift’s mentors encouraged her to apply for an NSF fellowship. Grad school was a way to explore how her passions for teaching, fieldwork and research could fit together in her life.
Swift credits Craig and Coddington for giving her the space and the encouragement she needed, when she needed it.
“They were there to support me when I said, ‘I don’t know if I’m the kind of person who could do this,’” Swift says. They told her, “You are. Do this.”
Her experience with animal behavior and physiology proved invaluable to her research into crow funerals. But Swift took off for graduate school with something more: She earned the respect and admiration of her professors, especially her mentors.
“Their role as advisors wasn’t this discrete four-year period when I was an undergrad,” she says. “They’re still the people I call when I’m most ‘done’ and when I have awesome triumphs. Having the support of people who understand what it’s like to be in this profession—and what it’s like to be in this profession as woman—is really important.
“I knew that I picked Willamette because I could get more one-on-one attention, but I never expected to have faculty that I would invite to my wedding—and who would show up! But they did.”
Swift’s relationship with her mentors is evolving. She’s more colleague than advisee now, visiting campus in December to teach Craig’s "Behavioral Ecology" class and again in January for a biology colloquium.
As her career takes flight, crows and the NSF won’t be the only ones watching Swift. Like the birds she studies, her friends and colleagues at Willamette will be on the lookout.
“She’s amazing, and it’s been a privilege to watch her,” says Coddington. “I’m excited to see who she continues to grow into.”
I've shot a lot recently via my iPhone. It's a fantastic little camera, and I particularly like the way it handles direct sun.
Today, this happened!
This guide led directly to enrollment gains for my employer, and I was responsible for all aspects of the media relations effort.
If you are looking for good advice about colleges, this book is one of the best.
I work at a beautiful place, and this scene greeted me as I walked to my office.
The Oregon Capitol from Waller Hall
A quick iPhone snap of my wife and best friend at lunch. Not a technically perfect picture, but that's not the point of this shot.
I think I used Camera+ for this one. I like that app for its ability to split focus point and exposure metering. The downside is that you've got to manually export to your photo folder. That's nice in a way, because I tend to sort photos when choosing which to edit. I have less repetition in my folder and can quickly select a photo I'm looking for later.
To support enrollment efforts, I worked with the Office of the Governor to secure a personalized welcome for admitted students.
In particular, students from smaller cities and towns indicated that this was an impactful communication that reinforced the university's distinctive location across the street from the Oregon State Capitol.
When a fraternity's private Facebook posts were published anonymously, members of the campus community expressed serious concerns about messages' misogynistic content.
After the local paper published a story—including photos of students' signs—journalists flocked to campus. The Portland NBC affiliate was one of many outlets that covered the issue:
The incident sparked discussions about sexual assault, campus climate and Title IX.
In addition to developing a robust understanding of these issues through associated research and discourse, I was moved by stories from people involved and wanted to help address the need for men to become more engaged. I sought out formal training from the Association of Title IX Administrators, and I serve as an investigator and hearing panel member for related conduct cases.
In partnership with Oregon's science museum staff, we launched Science Pub and earned prominent coverage in USA Today. Plus, fun!