Undergraduate takes home international honors for DNA research

PLATTSBURGH - The State University of New York at Plattsburgh was well represented at this year's international undergraduate Sigma Xi conference in Washington, D.C., this November. Ten of the 300 students in attendance were from the college.

SUNY Plattsburgh students have been gathering major honors at such events over the past several years. They've won top honors at regional, national and international conferences, and this one was no exception

This time, Nishank Bhalla, a junior biochemistry major, won the highest award for his research sequencing DNA collected from skeletons of the ancient Maya. This is the second time that Bhalla won this award for his efforts to determine whether or not the Maya had the disorder Beta-Thalassemia, previously thought to have been brought to the Americas from the Old World.

Bhalla's most recent award comes on the heels of yet another award, won by Elizabeth Lavoie last month. Lavoie was given top honors at this year's National Association of Biology Teacher's conference.

These students and others are doing DNA research under the direction of associate professor Nancy Elwess and adjunct lecturer Sandra Latourelle. Some, like Lavoie and Bhalla, are analyzing the DNA of the ancient Maya, unlocking the doors to mysteries of the past. Others are studying a newly found hemoglobin gene in planaria (flat worms). And still others are working on a joint project involving Elwess and Latourelle with SUNY distinguished professor Jeanne Ryan and professor William Tooke in the college's psychology department.

Members of the two departments are looking at why some genes may express themselves behaviorally and others may not. In particular, they are studying the genes for risk-taking/thrill-seeking behaviors, as well as those for aggressive behaviors. As part of this research, they are studying the genes of athletes from the college's award-winning hockey team, a group that displays such aggressive behaviors in a positive way.

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