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Volume 41. No. 2.
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Research:
Neuroscience / Karl Johnson

Building Synapses

Karl Johnson’s interest in the human central nervous system began when he was an undergraduate studying how a mottled, eight-inch sea slug was able to regenerate severed connections in its central nervous system. “Organisms like frogs, fish and salamanders regenerate parts of their nervous system but if humans damage any part of the central nervous system, we don’t,” notes Johnson, the Sarah Rempel and Herbert S. Rempel Professor of Neuroscience and an assistant professor of biology. “It planted a seed. How could we share evolutionary ancestors but not be able to regenerate our central nervous system?”

Today, Johnson is examining the simpler nervous system of the fly, which uses the same genes found in humans. Specifically, he is looking at how neurons send axons to their appropriate targets, and how—once that occurs—they are able to build an active synapse. Both steps are essential for the development and regeneration of a functional nervous system.

In a Feb. 16 article in Neuron, Johnson’s research team announced the discovery of a novel molecular mechanism that controls synapse strength, which may be a key regulator of learning and memory. They found that the Drosophila herapan sulfate proteoglycans (HSPGs) Syndecan (Sdc) and Dallylike (Dip) control distinct aspects of synaptic biology. “Combined with our discovery that these HSPGs are essential for building a normal synapse in embryos, it makes Sdc and LAR great candidates for regulating learning and memory in adults,” explains Johnson.

Sociology / Gilda Ochoa
Teachers’ Stories

This spring, Gilda Ochoa, associate professor of sociology and Chicana/o studies, found herself surrounded by first-graders. “The students came in after their first day, hugging me, all waving their homework and full of enthusiasm after working on their science lesson.”
Her visit to the largely Latino class was part of her long-term research on how schools are failing Latino students and what might be holding those students back. “Forty-percent of Latino students,” she notes, “are pushed out of high schools before graduation.”

Ochoa’s project, which will culminate in a book, focuses on the success stories of Latinos who not only make it through high school but also earn bachelor’s degrees to become teachers. Among her findings is that most of the teachers had been placed in honors or AP courses, though maybe not initially. “Once they were placed in those tracks, the world opened up,” Ochoa explains. “They also had very strong support networks … or sought them out. Some were involved in MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan) in high school, which gave them leadership skills and context for their own lives. … One thing that can’t be missed is the number who say, ‘I had my papers.’”

One teacher told of leaving her family to get a degree in another state, being the first in her family of 400 to get a degree and not being able to go back when her grandmother was dying because of timing for her credential test.

Japanese / Lynn Miyake
Remaking Genji

Lynn Miyake, professor of Japanese, is a specialist of 11th century Japanese literature with a focus on diaries and prose and a special interest in the beloved classic The Tale of Genji. By Murasaki Shikibu, the original work is 1,000 pages and is sometimes called the world’s first novel. In the original, he is a handsome man and a good statesman, who had diplomacy skills, was very literate in the arts and was able to attract and manage powerful women. “What’s particularly interesting about the novel’s history,” says Miyake, “is that every generation it seems had to write its own version in the media of the day. … The most similar treatment of Western literature is the work of Shakespeare.”

Always looking for new tools to teach Japanese language and literature, Miyake began studying manga (Japanese comic) versions of The Tale of Genji. “What’s so fascinating about manga versions is their subtly different takes on Genji, the man and the novel. It depends on the gender of the artist, the manga genre, the time the author can devote and publisher concerns.”

Manga is a late-comer but there are 23 versions of Genji—at her last count. Some are educational, meant to teach children about the classic story and time period. Shojo focuses on the female characters, themes of personal growth and are love-centered. One of Miyake’s favorites is gyagu or gag manga. “These demote the handsome main character into an ugly bucktooth guy … and the writer is more interested in a good laugh than a good story. But still the hope is that if you enjoy the manga, you might read the original.”

After using manga in her course, Japanese Women Writers, Miyake is teaching a new course this semester called Graphically Speaking: Japanese Manga and Its Buds. She is working on an article analyzing seven versions of Genji, including one in which Genji is drawn as a chestnut.
—Cynthia Peters
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