UW News

April 24, 2008

Construction workers take science breaks

“I’ll be in rooms H-204 and H-210,” said Assistant Professor Jane Sullivan with a smile, “so those are really important rooms to work on.”

She was addressing a gathering of about 25 construction workers in a makeshift presentation space — a room with holes in the walls and open ceilings. Two pieces of wallboard had been nailed up to supports to provide a projection screen. A folding table at the side was set up with cookies and coffee.

In this unusual setting, Sullivan, a faculty member in physiology and biophysics, was there to explain some of the work she has been doing to learn how brain signals are disrupted in Alzheimer’s disease.

Her presentation was part of a series called “Science Thursdays,” which brings scientists who usually work in the G and H wings of the Health Sciences Building together with the workers, from pipefitters to electricians, who are doing the full-scale renovation of the building. That renovation, which is part of the UW’s “Restore the Core” program, began last year and should be complete in early October.

“Several of the workers had expressed an interest in what the laboratories would be working on,” said Sandy McCrae, the project manager with the UW Capitol Projects Office. In part, that grew out of other projects the contractor, Skanska, had worked on that involved laboratories or medical settings. Some of the crew are specialists in such construction, McCrae said.

The first presentation was by David Raible, professor of biological structure, who maintains a zebrafish lab that has been carrying on its work in the midst of construction, because there was simply no way to find alternate space for it. Understandably, questions about what zebrafish are doing in biomedical research labs began coming up. They are a common research model, in part because they are translucent and make it easy to study development.

Another presenter was Dr. Stan Froehner, chair of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, the other large department in the renovation area, who talked about his work on molecular signaling related to diseases such as muscular dystrophy. Froehner also gave the construction workers some background on his department, known informally as P-Bio.

“I think it’s just a terrific idea,” Froehner said. “I was impressed by the interest they had in what we’re doing. Several people came up to me afterwards with questions.

“The whole renovation project has just gone extremely well,” he added, “and we’re happy to be able to acknowledge the importance of their hard work.”

Chip Asbury, assistant professor of physiology and biophysics, was also a Science Thursday presenter, talking about work on molecular motors. His laboratory is also carrying on its work in the midst of construction, and he explained some of the experiments and how they can be affected by suden unexpected vibrations, among other things.

Workers are not required to attend the science sessions, which are held roughly every month. McCrae said that many of the same people show up every time, though. Others may come to a session because the topic relates to a medical condition in their families. When arrangements are made, the contractor’s superintendent makes an announcement a few days ahead of time at the 6 a.m. gathering of everybody on the worksite.

The sessions have been so successful that the UW Capital Projects Office is thinking about doing something similar for all their projects in the health sciences area, said Don Main, construction project manager.

Meanwhile, back at the podium or in this case, at the folding table up front, Sullivan was flipping through PowerPoint slides and explaining how her lab has approached trying to understand the physiology of how signals get scrambled or lost in the synapses of the brain when people develop Alzheimer’s disease.

The short, simplified version is that using mouse nerve cells in a special “island” tissue culture, they have been able to measure and actually “see”, with green fluorescent protein used as a tag, the effects of applying amyloid precursor protein (APP) to synapses. APP is always found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, and is believed to lead to development of the plaques that are characteristic of the disease.

But Sullivan’s work indicates that APP in itself may be disrupting brain signaling, and that it probably does so on the receptor side of the synapse, rather than on the side where the signal is sent.

The long-term hope, she said, is that work like this will finally enable scientists to crack the puzzle of Alzheimer’s at a molecular and cellular level: to understand exactly what is going on, what causes it and how to fix it.

“She didn’t pull any punches for these guys,” McCrae said after the presentation. Several people thanked her, and then it was back to working on the walls, wiring and new plumbing.