EMU Professor Jeffrey Copeland and science student Charise Garber
EMU Professor Jeffrey Copeland and science student Charise Garber

EMU Student-Faculty Research Probes Aging Question

Why and how do we get old?

This is one of the most basic and unknown questions of biology, says Jeffrey M. Copeland, PhD., assistant professor of biology at EMU.

Joining him to study the topic is junior biology/music double major, Charise Garber of Lancaster, Pa.

“We’re using fruit flies,” explained Garber, “because their genes are easy to manipulate. Fruit flies live relatively short lives and are metabolically similar.”

Original research stems from post-doctoral work

The fruit fly research builds on Copeland’s post-doctoral work at The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and his doctorate work at the California Institute of Technology.

Continuing the project at EMU has allowed Copeland to engage with a student in significant ways.

Students and professors work alongside each other

This kind of study – undergraduates paired with full-PhD level professors doing original research – is typical at EMU and key to the success many graduates report enjoying in graduate and medical school study.

Hearing about this kind of faculty-student interaction from EMU alumni in the Lancaster area, as well as a campus visit, influenced Garber’s decision to come to EMU.

“When I came, I visited professors from many different departments,” Garber said. “They not only took the time to answer my questions, but helped guide me in the directions that were best suited to my gifts.

Interdisciplinary focus allows students to cross disciplines

The interdisciplinary emphasis of EMU is a real strength of the university, Garber noted.

“It’s something I’ve really grown to appreciate now that I’m here,” she reflects, noting the music department‘s new interdisciplinary studies concentration as a good example.

With her double major in music and biology, Garber intends to do research next year on connections between the two fields.

Impressive alumni were key factor in professor’s decision

Copeland considered other options before coming to EMU in fall 2010. Even while still in Los Angeles, Copeland said, he met many alumni who impressed him with their unique perspective and knowledge.

“Most professors have the option of picking a larger or a smaller school to teach,” Copeland noted.

“Part of the thrill of teaching at EMU is being able to have those one-on-one mentoring opportunities that strengthen the educational experience for both teacher and student.”

About the research on aging

Of the current theories of aging, Copeland notes that scientists currently have only a naive idea, and “we don’t have a good understanding of the genes controlling the aging process.”

He wants to understand which genes are important and how they relate to the numerous age-related diseases, like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

“One method to understanding the life of fruit flies is to slightly lower their metabolism, and it is important to determine if lowered metabolism can affect disease models in flies,” Copeland explained.

Lowered metabolism may hold key

Garber and Copeland know that lowered metabolism specifically in the brains of flies can extend the lifespan, something Copeland determined in his earlier research at UCLA.

Now the two hope to discover what regions of the brain are affected and in what way. Answering these questions could give scientists everywhere never before seen insights into many illnesses currently plaguing humanity.

Tim Hartman, Elida, Ohio, a senior liberal arts major with a peacebuilding emphasis, contributed to this article.