Oswego student to present research at prestigious biology conference

Spencer Saraf, a SUNY Oswego senior majoring in chemistry who graduates this month, has received a travel award from the National Science Foundation to present the surprising results of her summer research on eyesight to an international audience of scientists.

Spencer Saraf working in a labShe will make her presentation at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in January in Austin, Texas.

During an 11-week research training program in the biological sciences last summer at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine, Saraf applied state-of-the-art molecular biological and imaging techniques to study the light-sensing proteins expressed in photoreceptors, the cells in the eyes that detect light.

Investigating the photoreceptors of the American horseshoe crab, she discovered that, unlike most photoreceptors in mammals, which express only one type of light-sensing protein, most photoreceptors of the horseshoe crab express more than one of these proteins. This surprising finding provides insight into the evolution of vision and raises the question of how the expression of multiple types of light-sensing proteins in a single photoreceptor impacts vision.

Undergraduate research

Whitney Lab’s faculty selected Saraf to be one of eight participants in its Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. The Whitney Lab’s program aims to provide science students with a realistic experience conducting original scientific research. The program was developed to address a critical national need to increase the number of students pursuing careers in the sciences.

Saraf’s goal following graduation is to pursue graduate training next fall in biochemistry with a focus on marine animals and aiming for a career in biochemical research. “I am planning to work in a lab for the spring, with a possible internship at another institution, and then go to graduate school in the fall,” she said. “I have been working on my applications this semester.”

She used her time at Whitney to explore what it is like to conduct graduate-level research at a research-intensive university and to help focus her research interests. She trained in the laboratory of Barbara Battelle, professor of neuroscience at the University of Florida.

“This project was an ongoing project at the lab, but it was an original project I helped formulate with my research adviser there,” Saraf said. “It went along with the goals of the project and also allowed me to work independently on my own project.”

In addition to conducting original research at the Whitney Lab, Saraf participated in career development workshops focusing on scientific ethics and communication, and she visited with graduate departments on the Gainesville campus of the University of Florida to gain insights about how to apply for graduate school.

She also participated in field trips to Florida’s diverse aquatic ecosystems, including local beaches and salt marshes, inland freshwater springs, and the Gulf coast at Cedar Key. The culminating event of her summer experience was an undergraduate research symposium during which she and her fellow students described the results of their summer research in oral and poster presentations.

At SUNY Oswego, the Lockport resident has received an Empire State Diversity Honors Scholarship, a Summer Scholars grant to work with Dr. Kestas Bendinskas of the chemistry faculty, the chemistry department’s PolyEd Award and awards for academic achievement as a student-athlete when she was on the swim team.

PHOTO CAPTION: Studying sight—Spencer Saraf, a SUNY Oswego chemistry student who was an undergraduate research trainee at the University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience, prepares samples that enabled her to visualize with confocal microscopy where different photosensitive proteins are expressed in the visual system.

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(Posted: Dec 04, 2013)

Tags: whitney laboratory for marine bioscience, vision, university of florida, undergraduate research, suny oswego, spencer saraf, society of integrative and comparative biology, science, research experience for undergraduates, photoreceptor