Josef Trapani, assistant professor of biology, has been awarded a $10,000 grant to further his studies of the nervous system using zebrafish.

The grant, awarded by the North Carolina-based program Support of Mentors and their Students in the Neurosciences (SOMAS), will allow Trapani to conduct research this summer with Razina Aziz-Bose ’14. The program’s mandate is to help junior faculty launch research programs while collaborating with students interested in neuroscience research. Trapani, who started teaching at Amherst last year, is one of five academic researchers to receive the award this year.

Josef Trapani and Razina Aziz-Bose

Josef Trapani, asst. professor of biology, and Razina Aziz-Bose ’14

Trapani’s research is focused on learning how sensory information is detected and transmitted via the nervous system. This past year in Trapani’s lab, biology majors Grace Li ’12 and Fabiana Kreines ’12 studied the function of hair cells in the zebrafish. Hair cells are also found in mammals and are the sensory receptors that turn sound waves into auditory neuronal information.

Scientists have embraced the use of the zebrafish for this kind of research because of certain similarities between the functions of the zebrafish and human nervous systems and because fish breed frequently, develop rapidly and are robust enough to study through many stages of their life cycle.

Aziz-Bose, who has gained laboratory research experience at Massachusetts General Hospital, is excited by the prospect of performing her own research project and presenting her findings at national meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans this fall. She first inquired about working in Trapani’s lab a year ago, before he had even set up shop. When Trapani wrote his application to SOMAS, he identified her as a likely candidate even before she took his spring course, “Introduction to Neuroscience.”

“As a new principal investigator, I am acutely aware of the critical role mentors played in my development as a scientist,” Trapani wrote. “Now it is my turn to share my experiences and knowledge.”

Aziz-Bose started in the Trapani lab this June and is currently reading up on hair cell structure and function as well as zebrafish. With the guidance of Prof. Trapani, she is feeding and monitoring the zebrafish system and learning the delicate task of positioning a zebrafish larva in a chamber mounted to a microscope and recording the fish’s neural activity. Trapani is also teaching Razina to use specialized computer programs and amplifiers to stimulate the hair cells and study their responses over time. Razina will conclude the summer assembling the data into a poster for presentation and possibly a manuscript for publication.

SOMAS is directed by Dr. Julio J. Ramirez of Davidson College and receives funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute; the National Science Foundation; and the White House’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Program. SOMAS gives preference to minority faculty and institutions serving women and minority groups, or to faculty who have identified women or minority students as research collaborators.