Every spring DISCOVER: Marquette University Research and Scholarship showcases some of the most interesting research happening on Marquette's campus. Learn more through the links below.
AWAKE FOR GENES Your body is a clock. It knows inherently when to wake and when to rest independent of zeitgebers, the scientific term for external cues (sunrise, sunset, your 6 a.m. wakeup call). It has its own cycle. It’s called circadian rhythm. “The circadian system actually starts deep inside your brain,” says Dr. Stephen Munroe, a professor of biological sciences whose current research plays in the circadian arena. “There’s a particular visual pathway that conducts light to a small region near the hypothalamus. Here rests something that seems to be a master clock. This master clock triggers the hypothalamus, which in turn signals the pituitary gland to help coordinate all the clocks in your body.” But Munroe isn’t so much interested in circadian rhythm, per se, as he is interested in a very specific gene that affects circadian rhythms: Rev-erbα, a regulatory receptor protein that shows dramatic daily variations in the liver of many mammals. Hence his rather unusual research subjects: the cells of a small opossum, a rat kangaroo and the platypus, a unique egg-laying mammal found only in Australia. “We were stunned to discover,” says Munroe, “that in our hands we can see what is approximately a 250-fold difference between Rev-erbα at its peak time and at its lowest.” In other words, it varies widely, ranging from less than 1 percent to 100 percent at its maximum — every day. Such range is thought to exist in humans as well, though we typically function during the day, while opossums and rats are nocturnal. When Rev-erbα gene was first discovered, it was found to overlap the gene for a variant form of the receptor protein that binds thyroid hormone. And it was the idea of the overlap between two genes encoded on different strands of DNA that originally inspired Munroe and guided his early research using antisense RNA to probe requirements for mRNA splicing. In fact, it’s what guides his research today. “There are important questions here,” Munroe says. “We don’t really understand how splicing is regulated. And now we know the vast majority of genes in complex organisms (i.e., humans) undergo splicing. We also now know both strands of DNA are often copied into RNA, but only one strand codes for a given protein. How this affects gene activity and the expression of proteins is another important question.” Though it won’t explain what makes one either a morning person or a night owl, Munroe’s research involving the sequence elements within the thyroid hormone gene that controls splicing will help us understand alternative splicing and how gene regulation is controlled in a broad sense. It’s research that occasionally disrupts Munroe’s own circadian rhythm (he has been known to return to his lab while the rest of the Marquette campus sleeps — at 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. — to conduct a circadian collection on rats with a couple of eager students). Because for Munroe, it’s research important enough to lose sleep over. — CN A NEW LOOK FOR SCHOOL COUNSELING Debates about educational achievement gaps often focus on the roles of teachers, administrators and even politicians. What can get overlooked is the importance of a comprehensive school counseling program, according to Dr. Alan Burkard, chair of Marquette’s Department of Counselor Education and Counseling Psychology. Burkard also serves as president of the American School Counselors Association. “School counseling has changed,” Burkard says. “Today’s counselors are taking a close look at the data of what schools need and creating programs with accountability to promote student achievement.” Burkard says this new model of school counseling is a departure from what many associate from experience, which is often a primary focus on the mental health of students. “In the past, school counselors focused on topic areas that they enjoyed,” Burkard says. “The problem was they didn’t have data to prove that this is what schools always needed.” Current programs first require an investigation of a particular school’s challenges, then work to narrow achievement gaps from a multitude of angles. Some areas that call for attention include preventing bullying and violence, providing expertise for career and post-secondary questions, building relationships with families, and reinforcing positive behaviors to increase attendance. Results of research from Burkard and others indicate that fully implemented comprehensive school counseling programs reduce truancy and suspensions, increase graduation rates, and boost performance rates on state math and reading exams compared with high schools without similar services. “You have to show that you’re having an impact because of your program,” Burkard says. “That’s how we know school counseling is important to attain academic and personal success for all students.” — TC Marquette University 19