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University of Puerto Rico students who came to UK for the summerIgniting Youthful Curiosity
University of Puerto Rico Summer Research Experience

by Jeff Worley

Del Collins, vice chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies at the Chandler Medical Center, has been involved in some monkey business for a long time, and he's the first to admit it.

"Primate reproduction has been one of my research interests for years now," says Collins, who came to UK in 1991. "In the '80s, when I was at Emory University, I spent a fair amount of time at the University of Puerto Rico, where they have a small island populated only by rhesus monkeys. I did a lot of field work there." Collins explains that the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) maintains a database on these monkeys, including maternal lineage, genetic, social and behavioral information. "My main interest was on reproduction and the effect of hormones on behavior, particularly reproductive behavior, which we studied extensively."

After coming to UK, Collins kept in touch with several of the researchers and administrators at the University of Puerto Rico, including Norman Maldronado, who became president of UPR in 1993. UK began a research and education collaboration with the university the following year. "The result is, we now have a number of collaborations with UPR in place for research and graduate education," Collins says.

In the summer of 1998, eight undergraduates from UPR who were interested in potential careers in biomedical and biological research came to UK. In this eight-week summer program, the students were mentored by UK faculty. This past summer the program was expanded to 12 students, including students in chemical engineering and computer science.

"Though there are active research programs at UPR, they are primarily a teaching institution. The students' exposure to working laboratories is limited, so they can come here and spend eight weeks in a research lab working with a mentor," Collins explains.

Photo of Xabier Arzuaga and Del CollinsXabier Arzuaga with Del Collins, medical center vice chancellor. Arzuaga came to UK in 1988 as part of the summer research experience program and returned as a UK graduate student to continue his research.

In the summer of '98, Xabier Arzuaga was one of the UPR students who came to UK. His research involved the study of two proteins—metallothionein and FZnBP—that bind to zinc and other heavy metals in the body. "These proteins limit bioreactivity of, for example, zinc," Arzuaga says. "They work to handcuff these metals when they reach dangerous levels." He worked that summer with Christer Hogstrand, an associate professor of biology. Arzuaga enjoyed the experience so much that after his return to Puerto Rico he applied to graduate school at UK. As a graduate student here, he initially continued his research in a basement lab in the Morgan Biological Sciences Building, isolating FZnBP from samples.

The samples, in this case, come from the squirrelfish, a noctural, beet-colored tropical fish common in Puerto Rico that reaches a size of about eight inches. Because this fish produces copious amounts of metallothionein, it is an excellent animal model to use in this work.

A basic understanding of how certain proteins interact with heavy metals may have important environmental implications, according to Mary Vore, director of the Graduate Program in Toxicology at UK. "We have heavy metal pollution in Kentucky, and Xabier's work and the work of others in this line of research may lead to a better understanding of how to detect toxic heavy metals in water," she says. "If you find a high level of metallothionein expression in a fish, then you know there are heavy metals in the water, metals that may be toxic to humans."

Vore and Arzuaga agree that this work may also play a significant role in helping to clean up some of the Puerto Rican waterways. "When I went to Puerto Rico and visited the campuses with Dr. Collins and the rest of the UK delegation, one of the things we talked about is the contamination of many of their lagoons with heavy metals and organic pollutants," Vore says.

Collins hopes that by next summer a few UK students will be participating in research and education experiences at UPR. "We're working now to set in place a second program, which will involve a true exchange of students between the two universities," he says. The University of Puerto Rico has several special characteristics which would make it attractive for a number of UK students, Collins explains, including not only the primate facility, but also a marine biology institute and the only tropical rain forest in North America.

"There are a lot of unique features from the standpoint of research, too, because of the Spanish population, their strength in the Spanish language, of course, and also in music and art."

Collins has already talked with several biology professors and students at UK who are interested in the possibility of doing collaborative research with faculty and students at UPR. "We could set up research and education experiences for UK students which would be based on UPR's unique strengths," says Collins, who points out the special ecological challenges of a population of 3.5 million people living on an island 50 miles wide.

And Collins looks forward to visiting Cayo Santiago again, the island primate colony of free-ranging rhesus monkeys. "Yes, I can picture myself on the boat that takes researchers from the mainland out to the primate colony." When asked if there wasn't some danger in walking out among hundreds of rhesus monkeys in the wild, Collins pauses slightly before responding.

"Well, these monkeys don't usually go after humans, but you need to know, too, which ones not to challenge. You don't look an alpha male straight in the eye. If you do, you're asking for trouble."