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CELS News Site: Fall, 2005
Dr. Bethany Jenkins


CELS Welcomes Dr. Bethany D. Jenkins, ADVANCE Assistant Professor to the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology

For Dr. Bethany Jenkins, it’s the tiny things that are occupying her research time but it was the big things that drew her from the West Coast to a faculty position at URI.

(story starts below photo at left)

In the wild, diatoms producing domoic acid can have dire health and economic effects. First discovered in 1991 on the West Coast, the new toxin has been responsible for some deaths and illness. Both shellfish and fin fish can accumulate this toxin without ill effects, however in humans, the toxin crosses into the brain and interferes with nerve signal transmission. In high doses, the toxin is fatal and lower doses can cause short-term memory loss. In some areas on the West Coast both recreational and commercial fisheries are have been closed briefly due to the presence of these diatoms.

The toxin has affected some wildlife, says Jenkins. For example sea lions which have ingested the toxic have become disfigured and foam at the mouth.

Back on the East Coast, Wells in Maine is exploring the domoic acid-producing diatoms and the relationship with concentrations of iron and copper. Maine has had some problems with toxin-producing diatoms.

In Rhode Island, Jenkins is interested in exploring the mystery by targeting genes and proteins. She wants to look inside cells to see what the reaction is to copper and iron. One of the goals is to look at different biological pathways that may allow researchers to predict when diatoms produce the toxin.

She notes that unlike Maine, the Gulf Coast and the West Coast, Rhode Island has been spared the domoic acid problem so far (although last summer red tide blooms came as far south as Massachusetts and Pseudo-nitzschia is a red tide species ).

“I’m really excited about this project,” she says, adding she is looking forward to doing some field work in Narragansett Bay.

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CELS News Editor & Reporter

For Dr. Bethany Jenkins, it’s the tiny things that are occupying her research time but it was the big things that drew her from the West Coast to a faculty position at URI.

One of the newest members of the CELS staff, Jenkins is a researcher interested in microbes in the marine environment.

She was awarded her PhD from the University of Oregon in 2000 and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Those are two notable venues in the academic world but it was a combination of features she saw at URI that convinced her to come east to continue her research.

“I liked the combination of (research) possibilities on the main campus—the genome sequencing center, for example,--and the GSO (Graduate School of Oceanography). There is a campus-wide interest among people in exploring marine biology. I just felt it was a good place to be,” she said.

And there was another factor as well. Jenkins is one of several women researchers who came about URI through the ADVANCE Faculty Fellows program.

This program, funded by the National Science Foundation, is designed to attract more women scientists to the nation’s campuses.

The program is set up so that women who come aboard under the ADVANCE grant do not have to take on a teaching load during the first three years so they have ample time to pursue their research. After the fellowship and the normal faculty review process, the women researchers will transition into tenure-track faculty positions that will be opening in their

respective departments.

Jenkins, whose office is in the Morrill Science Building, has two laboratory spaces that will become more functional as equipment and materials are delivered. Her office has a pile of recently opened boxes and she admits setting up a project on her own is quite a different experience from her last stop where she was a post doc researcher under another faulty member.

But being on her own is an exciting experience, she says, adding the process would be much more trying if she had a teaching load right now.

She is currently lining up undergrads to help her project and she is hopeful to recruit interested grad students as well.

Another hope, she says, is that EPSCOR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) funding will come through to help form more linkages among researchers on campus and those on other campuses.

Jenkins is already collaborating with another researcher, Mark Wells, a marine chemist at the University of Maine.

Together they are exploring diatoms that under certain circumstances produce a toxin, domoic acid that can have lethal effects in certain concentrations. No one knows yet how or why the toxin is produced.

Jenkins brings with her a $287,927 NSF grant to study the situation.

The diatoms involved in the study are members of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia. In the lab, these diatoms can be stressed by depriving them of certain nutrients with the result that domoic acid is produced, said Jenkins.

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