Faculty Faces - Dr. Jenn Dearolf

Jenn DearholfDr. Jenn Dearolf When Dr. Jenn Dearolf speaks of “the Frankenstein lab,” she doesn’t mean a literature course on the 19th century Mary Shelley novel.

Dearolf and Hendrix student researchers are studying the effects of prenatal steroids on breathing muscle development by stimulating pieces of living muscle to measure the force and speed of the muscle’s contraction.

“You just stimulate it with an electrical current and see it contract … so we call it Dr. Frankenstein in the lab,” she said.

The research equipment is courtesy of a five-year $641,840 grant Dearolf received from the National Institutes of Health’s Idea Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) program, which encourages scientific research in under-funded areas of the country.

“I would not be able to involve as many students without the support of the INBRE grant,” Dearolf said. “This award gives me the opportunity to hire students to work in my lab during the summer and provides money for supplies.”

The grant also allowed her to hire a lab tech and add physiological testing equipment to the lab, she said.

“It’s exciting because this equipment will let us determine the functional effects of steroid exposure.”

Because the lungs are the last organs to develop, steroids are often used in babies who are born premature to accelerate lung development

“What I’m interested in is the development of the breathing muscles and characterizing the effects of prenatal steroids on these muscles,” Dearolf said. “And nobody’s really done that.”

Her mentor for the grant and research is Dr. Steve Post of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who offers genuine support, not simply oversight, Dearolf said.

Hendrix received a total of $1 million in INBRE grant support, with the balance to support the work of Dr. Andres Caro, Assistant Professor of Chemistry.

The project’s origins began in 2005, when Dearolf mentored Robert Alexander, a 2006 Hendrix graduate. Alexander received his master’s degree in 2008 from King’s College in London and is currently at the University of College London working as a research assistant and on a Ph.D. Alexander’s research at Hendrix was a study of the effects of prenatal steroids on the diaphragm and the changes caused by steroid treatment.

In her research, Dearolf and her students use guinea pigs, which are maintained in the Donald W. Reynolds Center for Life Sciences. The faculty-student team looks at different characteristics involved in muscle fatigue and studies changes in oxidative enzymes in muscles caused by prenatal corticosteroids, which have an anti-inflammatory effect in adults.

Dearolf mentors about an average of 10 students each year doing prenatal steroid research projects, as well as two students a year in marine biology research. All students are biology or biochemistry/molecular biology (BCMB) majors. A summer or academic year of research is a requirement for BCMB majors.

Students receive engaged learning credit through Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning in the undergraduate research category or independent study course credit.

Not all of Dearolf’s research with students takes place on campus. During spring break, she took nine students to Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss., where the students participated in marine biology laboratories and activities.

The participating students included:

  • Lexy Byrne, a senior from University City, Mo.
  • Nick Jones, a senior from Little Rock, Ark.
  • Jordan Jehlen, sophomore from Guy, Ark.
  • Karrah Kehus, a junior from Carbondale, Ill.
  • Lauren Klaskala, a senior from Starkville, Miss.
  • Adrienne Norrell, a senior from Conway, Ark.
  • Sarah Prince, a junior from Little Rock, Ark.
  • Melanie Roach, a sophomore from Russellville, Ark.
  • Serena Wolfe, a senior from Madison, Wis.

As the group rode by boat to Horn Island, one of the barrier islands off the coast of Mississippi, a group of bottlenose dolphins decided to join them, jumping out of the water and riding the wake. En route to the island, the boat trawled. Gulf Coast Research Lab faculty helped the Hendrix students identify the fish and invertebrate species that were caught.

“I had my students studying invertebrate and fish specimens in the lab at Hendrix that I had borrowed from GCRL,” she said. “So it was exciting for the students to see the animals that they had studied in the lab actually alive when we brought up the trawls. And, it was fun for them to quiz each other about the identity of the animals.”

On Horn Island, students collected a large number of ghost shrimp and other organisms that live in the sand, again seeing organisms that they studied in the lab.

Students also learned about cetacean biology; compared natural to artificial reefs; dissected fish and measured their digestive systems; cleaned algae out of tanks that contained submerged aquatic vegetation; planted Spartina (cord grass) to use in marsh remediation projects in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas; visited the aquaculture facility at Cedar Point; collected samples from the splash and sub tidal zones to compare the benthic communities in those areas; dissected fish to look for parasites; and learned how to process benthic box core samples collected on Horn Island, which they brought back to Hendrix.

Dearolf is no stranger to marine biology.

A native of Royersford, Penn., a small town northwest of Philadelphia near Valley Forge, she went to St. Mary's College of Maryland in St. Mary's City, Md, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biology. She earned a master's degree in marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she studied the development of a locomotor muscle in bottlenose dolphins, and a doctorate in zoology at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where she focused on the anatomy, development, and function of the diaphragm in bottlenose dolphins.

When she was completing her Ph.D. at Cornell and applying for post-doctoral fellowships, her advisor suggested she also apply for academic jobs "for practice." She saw an advertisement for a faculty position at Hendrix for someone who could teach comparative vertebrate anatomy and possibly developmental biology.

“I was interviewed on the phone while I was at the Marine Mammal Pathobiology Laboratory in St. Petersburg, Fla., working on manatee diaphragms,” she said. “They invited me for an on campus interview, during which I gave a teaching lecture. A few days after I returned to Cornell, the search committee asked me to come back to Hendrix, so that I could give a research talk. Finally, they offered me the job, and I accepted.

Dearolf, who joined the faculty in 2002, is an associate professor of biology, and teaches zoology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, and marine biology.

“I love the ability to work so closely with students, both in the classroom and in the lab,” she said.

“As I made my way from undergrad to my master’s degree and then to my Ph.D., I went to progressively larger institutions. As I did, I realized that my experience at St. Mary's, another small liberal arts college, had been unique and central to my career path,” she said. “After seeing a class of 800 freshmen biology students at Cornell, I decided that I wanted to teach at a small liberal arts college. I did not want to be at the front of a large lecture hall. I wanted to get to know students.”

“At Hendrix, I get to know my students by name,” she continued. “And in my upper-level classes and my research lab, I have the opportunity to know them and know their goals. I really enjoy getting to know them as people. And, it gives me the opportunity to see them really get something.”

“I think what I call the ‘light bulb’ experience is really what makes me excited about teaching and researching at Hendrix,” she said. “It is so awesome to watch a student struggle through something and then see the understanding dawn on their face - the light bulb goes off!”

“I wouldn’t get to see those light bulbs go off at a large institution. There are too many students. The culture is just not the same, and students and professors just don't interact in the way that they do at Hendrix and other liberal arts colleges,” she said. “The community of a liberal arts college allows for these light bulb moments. Students are not afraid to work out ideas with their professors, and professors have the time to spend with students so that the light bulb moments happen.”