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Mills joins UC Davis

The biology department recently partnered with UC Davis’s Center for Biophotonics, Science and Technology to explore a new area of technology and educate young women who are under-represented in the sciences.

Biology professor Susan Spiller said the biophotonics partnership with UC Davis is not a major and that no money is coming to Mills. However, it is an opportunity for Mills students to study an emerging field of science, which uses light to understand the inner workings of cells, tissues and living organisms.

“It is research that is funded and supported by the center [at UC Davis],” said Spiller.

The Center for Biophotonics, which opened last October, brings scientists, industry educators and the community together to research applications for biophotonics. Such applications include using light to selectively treat tumors.

“The collaborators can call each other, get help and share resources,” said Spiller.

The center is funded with $52 million over the next ten years, including a $40 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Mills is one of the many colleges and universities collaborating with UC Davis, the lead campus, according to the UC Davis web site.

“The center wanted Mills to be a part of the collaboration because we are educating young women who are under-represented in biology and engineering of systems that use light to explore and treat biological systems,” said Spiller. “The National Science Foundation mandated that the center bring under-represented groups into this field of science.”

Former Mills faculty member, Dr. Richard Ponzio, associate director of education and outreach for the Center for Biophotonics, said that the collaboration between Davis and Mills is a “match made in heaven.”

“Susan [Spiller] is so wonderfully bright and able to see the possibilities,” said Ponzio. “She is really focused on her students having the best education possible.”

Spiller said she hopes the collaboration will bring more science and engineering students to Mills, since it would provide them with opportunities for internships and fellowships.

Leah Dunn, a recent Mills graduate was hired by the Center for Biophotonics and is working on a research project, conducted by Spiller, at the Mills biology lab. The project involves the purification of a protein that plants use to respond to their environment. The collaboration with the Center for Biophotonics would then be used to help to determine the shape of the protein, Spiller said.

“When the shape of the protein is known, one knows a lot about how it acts,” said Spiller. “Proteins do their work in living systems according to their shape.”

Spiller said that the biology department is also requesting a mini grant so that one or two undergraduates can work on her project.

In addition to working with the biology department, the Center for Biophotonics might collaborate with the education department, since another one of the center’s goals is to educate children and the public.

“The biophotonics program will probably work with our elementary school and preschool teachers and student teachers, and may work with our credential program as well,” said education professor Linda Kroll in an e-mail to The Weekly. “We’re just at the beginning of this discussion, but we’re very excited about it.”