Probing the Frontiers of Scientific Research
By Carolyn Quinn
California Lutheran University alumni are making an impact in the world of scientific and medical research.
There is Robert Gappinger ’95, who designs telescopes that may one day find new planets and teach us more about our own. Kim Sparks ’90 works with DNA to find more efficient ways to diagnose disease. And Chris Elkins ’70 hopes his research will lead to a vaccine that can help slow the spread of HIV in the developing world.
Looking for another planet like ours
Robert Gappinger’s telescopes may someday spot a faraway planet similar to our own.
The 35-year-old CLU alumnus, an optical engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, designs and builds optical systems for telescopes. He and his colleagues are developing technology that could be used to find small, rocky planets like Earth. That, he says, could help scientists understand our own planet better.
“It’s hard to find out how something works if you only have one example of it,” Gappinger says. “There’s been, I don’t know, 200 planets discovered by different methods, but they’re all the size of Jupiter.”
The telescopes Gappinger works on are huge. They employ mirrors six meters across. Hubble, by comparison, has a one-meter-wide mirror.
“The capacity to build and launch something like that [telescope] doesn’t currently exist,” Gappinger continues.
Such large telescopes could allow scientists to see much smaller, dimmer and more distant objects than current technology allows. One of the challenges in searching for Earthlike planets is that the stars they orbit tend to wash them out.
“You have to have a way to block the star without blocking the light of the planet right next to it,” Gappinger explains.
He estimates that scientists are still 10 years away from launching a major planet-finding mission, but he says the smaller missions leading up to it – such as the work he is doing – gradually build up scientists’ capacity to do those more ambitious projects.
Gappinger was the only physics major in his class year at CLU. That was far from a disadvantage, he says, as he got a lot of attention from faculty. He made up half the students in one of his classes, and a professor once pulled an all-nighter with him to work on a project. “We went to Denny’s together at two in the morning,” he recalls.
The scientist first learned about optics when, as an undergraduate, he got a job at Rockwell Science Center in Thousand Oaks. He was part of a group that did laser testing.
“Even though [CLU] is a liberal arts college and there aren’t very many science majors … there are some really good opportunities to work, do internships,” he maintains.
Gappinger, who is still involved with the CLU community as a convocator, got his Ph.D. in optical engineering from the University of Arizona in 2002, then started working at JPL.
“JPL does stuff that is really hard, and no one else in the world is doing it – at least, not at the level JPL is doing it,” he says.
Using DNA to diagnose
When Kim Sparks was a biology major at CLU, she thought she wanted to go to medical school. Even as she worked toward her Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Arizona, she thought she would eventually become a doctor. After graduating from Arizona in 1997, she began post-doctoral training at Tufts University’s medical school.
Then, one summer, she went to work in a laboratory.
“Through the whole summer, I thought, ‘This is a lot of fun,’ but I still thought I wanted to go to medical school,” Sparks, 40, remembers. So, she applied and went to medical school interviews.
“By the third one, I thought, if I go to medical school, I’ll never get to work in the lab again. It was so much fun that summer. It’s still a lot of fun.”
Now, Sparks is a senior development scientist for medical diagnostics company Beckman Coulter in Beverly, Mass. She’s working on a method of diagnosing some sexually transmitted and hospital-acquired diseases using DNA. Such a method would allow healthcare workers to make diagnoses more quickly than they can now using cultures, which can take up to a week, Sparks explains.
“The method we’re working on, we’d be able to find out in about an hour,” she says. “I hope it will get [patients] treatment faster than they would have if they were waiting on cultures…The sooner you can start the treatment, the more likely it is that the treatment will be successful.”
Sparks looks for ways to identify a specific pathogen by amplifying its DNA sequence.
“Most of the day I’m in the lab doing experiments,” she notes. “I want to know what’s going to happen if I try this, or do something different. Until you experiment, you don’t know what will happen.”
Reflecting on her years at CLU, she says the University’s liberal arts focus was beneficial for her as a science student.
“I think it gave me a more well-rounded education,” she concludes.
Combating disease through vaccine research
Chris Elkins has spent the last dozen years working on a vaccine that might help reduce the spread of HIV. As a microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s medical school, he has been trying to find a way to prevent chancroid, a sexually transmitted disease that makes HIV transmission more likely.
“Perhaps millions of new cases could be avoided,” the 60-year-old Elkins asserts. Chancroid is rare in the United States, but not in parts of the Third World, where sex workers play a major role in spreading it. Chancroid causes genital ulcers.
“When you get a genital ulcer…it makes you much more susceptible to getting HIV or transmitting HIV,” Elkins explains. “That’s why we’re working on a vaccine for it.”
Elkins and his colleagues have developed a promising vaccine candidate that has worked in trials on pigs, which have skin similar to that of humans. The vaccine appears to produce antibodies that prevent hemoglobin from binding with receptors in the bacteria.
“We didn’t believe it. Nobody believed it. We did it again, and it worked,” Elkins says. “We think the bugs just starve to death.”
If a vaccine is developed, Elkins points out, sex workers could be targeted for vaccination. He believes that strategy would greatly reduce the number of chancroid cases across a community.
“The reservoir of the bug is commercial sex workers,” he states. “In many parts of the world, seeing a sex worker is not taboo like it is in the United States.”
The research could also contribute to other vaccines, as other bacteria have similar processes for acquiring hemoglobin. As bacteria become more resistant to treatment, vaccines could provide a different strategy for combating them.
“We’re running out of antibiotics for a lot of diseases,” Elkins says. “If a vaccine might work for a lot of diseases, it might be the way to go.”
When Elkins came to CLU more than 40 years ago, he had no idea he’d end up in microbiology. He declared a physical education major and was most interested in playing football and basketball. Then, he took an anatomy and physiology class.
“I changed my major after that course,” he recalls.
Elkins went on to get his master’s in medical technology from the University of Vermont in 1978 and his Ph.D. in microbiology from Hahnemann University Hospital in 1988. He has worked at UNC for 20 years, where he is an associate professor in the medical school.
“It’s such interesting work,” Elkins asserts. “I remember when I came here as a post-doc, I was telling the guy, ‘You wouldn’t have to pay me, the work is so interesting.’ It can be rewarding.
Carolyn Quinn is a Ventura-based journalist who has written for the Ventura County Star and the Charlotte Sun newspaper in Charlotte County, Fla.