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Faculty-student biology research garners first place at conference

Aaron Putzke works with a student on a laptop and other machine.Associate Professor of Biology Aaron Putzke and his students are researching important implications of cell development for diseases like cancer. By studying zebrafish and a species of roundworm, Putzke and his students are discovering how cells communicate with each other during embryogenesis to determine cellular identity, the timing of cell divisions, and spatial relationships that form different tissues and organs.

"Many cellular pathways that lead to tumor formation when they go wrong are the same pathways used during normal development," Putzke says. "We can learn a lot about human diseases, such as cancer, from studying development in animals."

The group's research is being aided through the recent acquisition of a qPCR instrument, purchased with Whitworth endowment funds. The qPCR is currently being used in two faculty-student research projects led by Putzke and by Professor of Biology Frank Caccavo. Six to eight undergraduate students will work on the two projects annually over the next four to five years, and the instrument will also be incorporated into at least three biology courses.

Putzke, who joined the Whitworth faculty in 2014, says his students have played an important role in conducting laboratory research, and he enjoys working alongside them.

"I have been blessed to have a highly motivated group of research students in my laboratory," Putzke says. "They are committed to meeting challenges and are making progress on their own projects while honing important problem-solving skills."

In November 2015 biology major Alex Hoffmann, '16, won first prize at the Murdock College Science Research Conference for his presentation, "The Roles of Fer Kinase in the Vascular Development of Zebrafish." His winning presentation was based on collaborative research he conducted with Putzke.

Putzke also points to the greater Whitworth community as being instrumental to the biology department's research.

"The Whitworth community is so supportive of undergraduate research and continues to show a great desire in growing programs that enrich the excellent learning environment on campus," he says. "Our board of trustees and donors provide critical resources for what we do in the laboratory. Without their support, we would not have sufficient equipment, space, or stipends for students to work full time during the summer."

Prior to joining Whitworth, Putzke was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle. He holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a master's degree in biochemistry from DePaul University, and a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Pepperdine University.