“If you get hooked young, it’s really hard. We’ve arrested people [in Keene] who became heroin addicts at 13. [When you’re] a teen, you’re not fully capable of making rational decisions and [drug use] becomes your culture.”
— Testimony from a detective assigned to the NH Attorney General’s Drug Task force for the Western Region, which includes Cheshire County.
A 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) survey reported that substance abuse by Keene High School students exceeds the state average in many categories, including use of cocaine at least once in a student’s life, the taking of over-the-counter drugs to get high, taking a prescription drug illegally one or more times, using marijuana one more more times during the past 30 days, binge drinking, having at least one drink of alcohol on one or more of the past 30 days, and using chewing tobacco. The survey shows that heroin use among juniors and seniors at KHS is twice the state average.
To understand why substance abuse is so prevalent at the high school, students in Health Science Assistant Professor Marjorie Droppa’s senior capstone course spent the semester conducting research interviews and focus groups with KHS students, parents, and staff, and inmates at the Cheshire County Department of Corrections who attended high school in the Monadnock Region and have a history of substance abuse. The researchers also looked at the high school’s Substance Abuse Policy, which hadn’t been updated since 1993. They then made recommendations for more effective education to prevent substance abuse and for changes in the school’s policy. The Health Science students presented their findings to the Keene Board of Education on December 10.
Their research report offered two strategies to support KHS in decreasing substance abuse among its students. The first recommends deeper collaborative partnerships with substance abuse organizations in the Monadnock Region to help provide additional education, support, and resources for both school administrators and families struggling with substance abuse issues at home. The second advocates for a collaborative educational conference at KSC to help bring the community together to solve the problem of teen substance abuse.
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Denise Burchsted may be new on campus, but she’s already got her students involved in a research project that will provide important information to the City of Keene. Not long ago, the NH Department of Environmental Services inspected the Faulkner and Colony Dam on the Ashuelot River near West St. and determined that the city must either repair the dam or take it out. Either choice will cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many environmentalists want the dam removed, to return the river to what they consider its natural, free-flowing state. Many local historic preservationists want the dam restored as an important part of our cultural heritage. Obviously, the city has a difficult and expensive decision to make; one that it cannot ignore. Doing nothing is not an option.
But, there’s hope! The city could hardly have found a professional with more expertise and experience than Dr. Burchsted to look at the dam and offer advice on the decision Keene has to make. She is a licensed professional engineer specializing in water resources, she’s the New Hampshire director for the New England Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, and her research of rivers is funded by agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As an engineer and aquatic scientist, she’s conducted several dam-removal and other river-restoration projects.
“There is a movement nationally and internationally to remove these old dams that no longer serve an economic purpose,” Dr. Burchsted explained. “They prevent fish from swimming up and down the river. They break the life cycle of anadromous fish—fish from the ocean that swim upriver to spawn—which kills them completely. Historically, that would include salmon, shad, eel (which travel from freshwater to salt to spawn), but also freshwater fish that travel as part of their life cycle. So a free-flowing river is critical to the health of the fish.” According to the NH Department of Environmental Services, the Ashuelot is currently included in the Connecticut River Anadromous Fish Restoration Program for smelt rearing. “A lot of dams that aren’t serving a function are being taken down to help create this important connection between upstream and downstream,” Dr. Burchsted said. “The Homestead Woolen Mills Dam downstream in W. Swanzey was removed in 2010. There are hydropower dams at the mouth of the Ashuelot, but those will have fish passages on them.”
However, Dr. Burchsted is not so ready to say that it’s a good idea to remove the dam. “‘Good’ is relative. I always tell my students that there’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ The answer is ‘It depends.’ It always depends on your perspective, and this is the crux of what we’re studying. There are some people who would indeed say removing the dam is a good thing. If you’re a fish, it’s probably a good thing, but, again, that depends. If you’re someone who cares about preserving historical landmarks, it’s a really bad thing. This story is playing out all over the country and in other parts of the world.” Built sometime around 1777 to power nearby mills, the Faulkner and Colony Dam is part of our cultural heritage, and destroying it upsets people who value this heritage. And now that the dam has been here for so many years, it’s created its own ecosystem. The dam supports a lot of upstream wetlands, and those would be disturbed if the dam were removed.
“One of the things I’m pushing my class to think about—and this is a very difficult concept for people to grasp—is that prior to the dam being constructed, it’s highly probable that the river was full of natural dams, such as beaver dams and log jams,” Dr. Burchsted said. “Historically, the river probably was not free flowing. Before people constructed the dams, other things would have dammed the river, either things that fell in on their own, during spring floods for example, or that beaver placed there. And the fish evolved in this type of ecosystem. Those are the conditions that they expect. The fish require still water as well as fast water. They need the flowing water to reproduce, but their young also need a safe place to grow and they all need places to hide during floods when the river is too fast and dangerous. Ecologically speaking, the dam is a complete barrier and is problematic. Ecologically speaking, it ‘should’ be modified. But how that can best be done in order to protect some of these other habitats that are also important is a big question, and that’s what I’m pushing my students to think about. It’s a complex ecosystem that requires complex considerations.”
Dr. Burchsted studied naturally occurring dams as she worked towards her PhD, and she believes that the Ashuelot likely had plenty of natural obstructions before the first human settlers showed up. “We talk so much about what’s ‘natural,'” she noted. “The river is ‘naturally free flowing,’ and the dam is ‘not natural,’ as though humans aren’t part of nature, but if you want to set up this dualism where humans are unnatural and places without humans are natural, and you go away from where the people are, the rivers are clogged with dams—far more than we have in the cities. There are many more dams on those sections of river that are not controlled by people. Where you find the beaver dams, especially in New England and here in New Hampshire were the systems are acidic and somewhat poor, is where you find the fish. That’s where they eat, and that’s where they find shelter during floods, and that’s where the young grow and hide from predators. Natural dams are essential for thriving fisheries.
“I would bet that, before settlement, Keene was an area of open riparian forest with lots of marshes all across what is now the city, and the rivers would move a lot from year to year as beaver dams and other natural impoundments changed the course of the water flow. Then a big flood would come through and blow some of the obstructions out. That kind of environment is extremely fertile, which would attract settlers. It’s perfect for growing crops and pasturing cattle. But you can’t maintain a permanent homestead if the river keeps moving around on you, so you start controlling the river. They would fill in the marsh and control the channel, dropping the river level to drain more land. So removing the Faulkner and Colony Dam will in no way return the river to a pristine, natural state. If anything, it is continuing this progression of dropping the water table, which is unnatural.”
Dr Burchsted’s point is that the problem is complex, and both the environmentalists and the historic preservationists have valid arguments that need to be considered. By having her students delve into the issues and offer research data on which to base a decision, they can provide critical information to the City of Keene so that it can pursue the best course regarding the dam. “I’m hoping that we can clarify the issues that the city needs to think about if they pursue dam removal, so they’ll be clearer about what impact it will have on the wetlands, for example,” Dr. Burchsted explained. “Ultimately, it’s a social decision, and we want to provide a list of the concerns. My ideal is to suggest one or two alternatives, a little more of a middle-road option that might be more ‘natural,’ so it doesn’t have to be a ‘yes-dam/no-dam’ choice between two opposites. There are things you can do to a dam besides just take the whole thing out. I’m hoping that, as a class, we can come up with other possibilities.” And something that, hopefully, will have most people in Keene feeling like they made the right choice.
Since the days of the proverbial story of Issac Newton “discovering” gravity when a falling apple hit him on the head, it’s long been known that important scientific discoveries often happen quite unexpectedly. A finding in Assistant Professor Jason Pellettieri’sStem Cells and Regeneration course may well be one such event. The course explores basic scientific concepts and ethical issues in the fields of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, so Dr. Pellettieri has the students investigate the effects of environmental variables on regeneration in planarians (Schmidtea mediterranea), aquatic flatworms with a remarkable ability to regrow lost body parts.
“You can chop an adult planarian into hundreds of pieces and almost every piece will regenerate a complete new individual in just over a week, so these animals make ideal experimental subjects for non-science majors,” Dr. Pellettieri explained. “A few years ago, one group of students in the course found that prolonged sunlight exposure led to complete depigmentation of regenerating animals. Planarians are normally dark brown in color, but the sunlight-exposed animals turned completely white. Brad Stubenhaus, a student researcher in my lab, conducted a series of follow-up experiments that showed depigmentation can be triggered by intense visible light.” Therefore, Dr. Pellettieri applied for, and received, a $64,456 NH-INBRE grant to continue this important research.
A normal number of pigment cells is critical for human health. Skin melanocytes, for example, normally provide protection from the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, but stimulate the growth of too many melanocytes, and you’re a candidate for melanoma. You also need the right amount of retinal pigment epithelium cells to have normal eyesight. Losing these cells causes age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness. These conditions are increasing and effective treatments remain limited, so research that adds to the scientific knowledge of factors impacting pigment cell survival is vital.
Dr. Pellettieri and his students have succeeded in reproducing the depigmentation phenomenon under controlled conditions in the lab, and he will use the INBRE grant to determine how visible light exposure causes depigmentation at a cellular and molecular level. “Our preliminary data suggest that planarian pigment cells die when exposed to bright visible light for extended periods of time,” he said. “We think this is due to the generation of harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species (ROS) that can damage many different parts of the cell, including DNA.”
Other researchers have demonstrated that melanin, the pigment in human skin, generates ROS when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and this effect has been linked to melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. “That very important work adds to a large body of literature documenting the adverse effects of UV exposure, but we know relatively little about the effects of intense visible light on pigment cells,” Dr. Pellettieri said. “Our INBRE-funded research is addressing that gap in our knowledge. It’s always important to be cautious when trying to establish possible connections between research in lab animals and human biology, but if our results indicate that visible light can cause damage to pigment cells through the generation of ROS, this might raise some interesting questions about possible harmful effects of prolonged exposure to bright visible light (of course that wouldn’t be a problem for all of us living in New Hampshire most of the time!).”
Two other students, Emily Neverett and Jeanne LaFortune, are now working on this project with Stubenhaus. “They’ve already generated some very interesting data and, although we have a ways to go with this research, we think we’re on the right track in terms of our hypotheses about how depigmentation occurs,” said Dr. Pellettieri. “Brad and Emily both received funding from INBRE to support their research on this project over the summer, along with J.P. Dustin, who is doing research on a new project in my lab. INBRE has been tremendously helpful in allowing me to set up an undergraduate research program here at Keene State. Mentoring research students is an extremely rewarding part of my job and it’s really gratifying to receive support for that work.”
“The NMR instrument helps a chemist verify or determine molecular structures,” explained Paul Baures, professor of chemistry. “This is a consequence of particular atoms in compounds being influenced in a defined way by the magnetic field. Since we can’t see molecules, such information is the way a chemist will validate what they think is the makeup of a compound. NMR is a real workhorse for scientists who make molecules, and it is a requirement for publishing research that the data from this type of instrument be used to support the conclusions of the paper.” Continue reading KSC Receives Grant for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer→
Biology Professor (and 2012’s Distinguished Teacher) Susan Whittemore has received a $69,169 NH-INBRE grant from Dartmouth College (with federal funding from the National Institutes of Health) for her project, Identification of Signaling Pathways Affected by Early Exposure to Prevalent PAHs. The study will allow Dr. Whittemore and her student researchers to continue their investigation into phenanthrene (PHE) and pyrene (PYR), two polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that are known pollutants present in human milk and cord blood. Despite the fact that these pollutants are an environmental and human health concern, little study has been conducted on the developmental effects of these compounds, a gap that Dr. Whittemore’s study should help fill. Continue reading Dr. Whittemore Receives NH-INBRE Grant→
On August 27, Health Science Professor Marj Droppa and her students held a panel discussion on campus to launch a semester-long study they’ll be conducting as part of their senior capstone course. The class will conduct research through interviews with Keene High School students and parents to better understand and help reduce the problem of substance abuse among area high school students. The study is intended to gather information that will then influence changes in the school district’s policy on substance abuse.
Keene Board of Education Chairman Chris Coates was on the panel, and he agreed that although there was a “real need for overall drug policy,” the Board did not yet have a formal set of guidelines because it had been focused on the business of education. That means that Dr. Droppa’s study will provide important and needed information to the community. Stay tuned. …
Chemistry Professor and David F. Putnam Chair Paul Baures has been awarded a $65,000 grant from the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Petroleum Research Fund (PRF) to conduct research on a significant problem that plagues the production of natural gas and oil.
Gas hydrates are flammable solids that contain naturally occurring gases inside an ice shell. They form wherever water and gas are present together in cold temperatures and high pressures, such as at the bottom of the ocean or in the arctic permafrost. They also form readily in oil pipelines during the production or transport of petroleum, where they greatly increase the danger to the oil workers and stymie production efforts. Continue reading Prof. Baures Receives Grant to Make Oil Pipelines Safer→
Health Science Professor Marj Droppa and her students will be helping the Keene School District conduct a study to better understand the issues behind teenage drug and alcohol abuse. Statistics show that substance abuse in the Keene area is higher than the state average, and Dr. Droppa feels that, in order to curb this risky behavior, educators need to know why students find it so attractive. So she and her Health Science students will be interviewing public school students and parents, and inmates at the Cheshire County House of Corrections who abused substances in their teens, to gather important insights into the path to drug abuse. Continue reading Health Science to Conduct Drug Abuse Study→
During the 2012–2013 academic year, Assistant Professor of Music Sandra Howard and Hannah Hall, a junior studying music education, conducted a quantitative experimental research study entitled “The Effect of Memorized Versus Non-memorized on Choral Performance Evaluation.” The project investigated the way judges rated the quality of choral performances with different combinations of nonmusical factors (i.e., memorized music versus nonmemorized and eye contact versus no eye contact with the choral director). Continue reading Memorizing Choral Music Isn’t Always the Best Approach, Say KSC Researchers→
One of the downsides of the digital age is that we spend a lot more time staring at the screen on one electronic device or another. In many cases, too much time. Some of us remember life before the LCD screen, but our children don’t. It’s the only world they’ve ever known. What effects might that be having on them?
In order to find out, a team of students in Assistant Professor of Health Science Marj Droppa’s Behavior Change class conducted a study involving second graders at Keene’s Wheelock Elementary School. Their goal was not only to discover what effects screen time over exposure was having on the elementary students, but also to devise a program that would help the kids reduce their screen time. Screen-time activities included television, computers, video games, and any other electronic device with a video screen.
As part of the project, the Health Science students conducted a research-based focus group with the elementary students to determine the issues around screen time. The student’s research found that over exposure to screen time resulted in the second graders exhibiting shorter attention spans in the classroom, a decrease in family time, and nightmares. “Our focus group revealed that the second graders had short attention spans due to screen time over exposure,” explained Mia Hulslander, one of the student researchers. “We realized this through the students’ complaints of boredom when they were watching TV and playing video games. They reported never being satisfied with the screen time they were currently watching.” Continue reading Too Much Screen Time = Shorter Attention Span→