Dominican Celebrates Science Center Opening

On October 11, Dominican celebrated a milestone – the opening of our new 35,000 square foot Science Center.


Focused on the theme Inspiring Passion to Sustain our Environment, the celebration began with welcomes by John F. Allen, chair of the Board of Trustees, and Joseph R. Fink, president of Dominican University of California. Huey D. Johnson, founder and president of the Resource Renewal Institute and founder and former president of The Trust for Public Land, delivered the keynote address.

The labs were open to the public, and  Dominican’s faculty were on hand to discuss their work.

Visitors also viewed an exhibition of art by James Fowler, Nancy Legge, Susan Searway, and Phyllis Thelen. The exhibition, titled Affinity: Art and Science, will be on display in the Science Center from October 11 through December 15, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Below is summary of science research at Dominican:

Breast Cancer

With support from the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Maggie Louie is examining the role heavy metals play in the development of breast cancer.  Dr. Louie’s research is focused on how cadmium, a toxic metal found in contaminated food and water and cigarette smoke contributes to the development and progression of breast cancer.

Dr. Louie is working to create a molecular ‘map’ to show how cadmium may activate signaling pathways to promote the growth of breast cancer cells.  Her results could have significant clinical implications, including screening for heavy metal toxicities and designing more effective treatments for breast cancer.  Her findings could also help shed light on why breast cancer is so prevalent in Marin County.

Coral Reef Ecology

Coral reefs are among the most threatened ecosystems in the world. Without increased conservation and restoration, these ecosystems may collapse in the next few decades. In her marine biology lab at Dominican, Dr. Vania Coelho is studying innovative techniques to slow down the decline of these incredibly diverse ecosystems.

Her fieldwork is conducted during the summer in the Caribbean, while aquaria experiments and sample processing are carried out throughout the year by students at Dominican. This research has received funding from the Central Caribbean Marine Institute, Cayman Airways, and PADI Aware Foundation. Dr. Coelho’s research focuses on coral reef long-term dynamics, coral disease management, coral bleaching prevention, and the study of sensitive invertebrate species that could be used as environmental indicators to determine the role of protected coral reef reserves.

Stem Cell Biology

Dr. Mohammed El Majdoubi is training his undergraduate students to culture, maintain, and manipulate mouse embryonic stem cells in order to examine the embryonic development of neuroendocrine cells. These hormone-secreting cells control most of our vital functions including growth, reproduction, and stress responses. By the time they reach their senior year, the students will have learned how to induce cells to form various cell lineages such as neurons and, eventually, beating heart cells. Dominican students will be well prepared to work in laboratories of both academia and biotechnology immediately upon graduation.

As co-principal investigator on a $4 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Dr. El Majdoubi also will collaborate with scientists from throughout California on cutting-edge research into neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Sudden Oak Death

Dominican’s Dr. Sibdas Ghosh,  along with scientists from the University of San Diego, the Canadian Forest Service, and Dr. Mietek Kolipinski from the National Park Service, have found a potential weapon in the battle against Sudden Oak Death. The researchers are applying the fungus Chondrostereum purpureum – an active ingredient in a common biological herbicide – to the stumps of trees known to harbor Phytophthora ramorum, the organism that causes Sudden Oak Death.

Preliminary studies indicate that the C. purpureum treatment has reduced the harmful level of P. ramorum. If proven effective, this biological treatment will be suitable for areas where herbicides and burning are not permitted, for example, in sensitive areas within National Parks or other public land.

Alcohol Addiction

Modern medicine has been able to treat a number of complex illnesses by gaining an understanding of a specific sequence of chemical events that take place within the brain, and then pharmaceutically modifying or disrupting this sequence.  Unlike many other drugs of abuse, alcohol does not have a single known receptor in the brain to isolate and treat with targeted drugs.  Because of this, finding a cure for alcohol addiction has been a challenge.

Dr. Asma Asyyed’s research has led her to focus upon the interaction between two receptors in the brain and the role of this interaction in alcoholism. Understanding this interaction, at both the cellular and biochemical levels, could help scientists develop sound, lasting pharmaceutical treatments to combat alcohol addiction.

Natural Products as a Treatment for Alzheimer’s

Plants are the oldest and perhaps still the most widely-used source of medicine.  Every culture in the world has a record of commonly used medicinal plants, the study of which is a discipline called ethnopharmacology.  Based on the knowledge of medicinal plants traditionally used by native Californians, Dr. Graciela Miranda is investigating the chemical composition and biological activity of several native California plant species.  Specifically, she will evaluate their interaction with the central nervous system and determine their potential in the treatment of disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Dominican undergraduates have a primary role in this project, as they are involved in every stage of the research.  Students will discover and value the connection between the sciences while they learn and apply different biological, chemical and biochemical techniques necessary to carry out the research. At the end of the project, students will draw scientific conclusions from their work and communicate their findings by writing an undergraduate thesis. At the same time, this project contributes to the scientific understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and aims to explore alternative sources for its treatment.


Using a combination of hands-on chemical assessment of the efficiency of various alternative fuels and a grounding in the theoretical research into fuel technology, particularly as it relates to biotechnology, Dr. Kenneth Frost seeks to involve his students in what will be, inevitably, their future.  The hard numbers derived from an understanding of these energy calculations reveal the magnitude of the challenge our future generations will face.

Classwork begins in the lab, creating ethanol from sugars and biodiesel from animal and vegetable fats, and learning to calculate energy value for these alternatives.  Reality calculations, which try to capture the big-picture cost of our future energy choices (‘How much would it cost to convert 10% of all US gas stations to ethanol-capable?’  ‘What agriculture biomass could yield 100% of current energy production?’), are a key part of the curriculum.

To stimulate discussion, Dr. Frost introduces his students to prominent fossil fuel proponents and biofuel researchers, to the Chevron engine lab, and to local visionaries in the biodiesel industry.

COX-2 Inhibition

Developing effective drug therapies - restoring healthy function with a minimum of side effects - involves a lot of detective work.  Dr. Mary Sevigny and her undergraduate researchers have been tracking the important role played by the enzyme cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) in healthy human function.  COX-2 facilitates a variety of physiological processes, including nervous system response (neurotransmission and synaptic activity), maintaining normal renal functions, regulating cerebral blood flow in newborns, facilitating pregnancy, ulcer healing, and immune response (T-cell development).

But an overabundance of COX-2 in the body can contribute to serious illness.  It may accelerate the development of rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and cancers of the colon, breast, and prostate.  Dr. Sevigny and her team are analyzing the molecular mechanism of this key enzyme.   The crucial challenge raised by Dr. Sevigny’s research:  Is there a way to control COX-2 activity, while maintaining it at levels that ensure healthy function?

Health and Recreation

We all recognize that our National Parks are a shared treasure.  However, do many people actually use the Parks as a health-enhancing resource?  It turns out that, to date, no rigorous scientific study has ever been undertaken that validates and quantifies the value of our National Parks in promoting active lifestyles for Americans.

Dr. Diara Spain is working with the National Park Service on a nationwide project designed to encourage the public to use parklands for physical activity. Dr. Spain’s study will bring together academicians and practitioners from the fields of public health, leisure science, psychology, biology, and statistics to evaluate the health benefits associated with National Parks. The results will be used by the NPS to implement the ‘HealthierUS’ initiative within the National Park system.

Posted October 17, 2007