Grant advances technology

Rebecca Dunphy, Staff writer

Beginning in spring 2019, Hurst will be home to some of the finest and most advanced neurological technology in the region.

Thanks to the Lake Erie Research Institute (LERIE) and the Hirtzel Foundation, Mercyhurst will be the host of the Microbrightfield Bioscience Neurolucida and StereoInvestigator systems, two pieces of technology that will be utilized by not only on-campus professors and students, but also the larger scientific community.

The process of acquiring this new equipment began in January when laboratory director and biology department research associate Darlene Melchitzky proposed the idea at LERIE’s annual meeting of university representatives.

“Every year, LERIE has a meeting where all the area institutions come and submit proposals for new technology with the recommendation from other faculty members about what equipment is needed,” Biology department chair Michael Elnitsky, Ph.D., said. “Darlene’s proposal was the one selected and then Phyllis Coon, the president of LERIE, helped her to write up the grant.”

The grant, for $411,432, was funded by the Hirtzel foundation.

Although the equipment is not yet on campus, the order was recently put in and soon it will be built, tested, disassembled and then set back up in the biology department in the spring.

“The instrumentation that will be acquired is essentially a very sophisticated microscope-computer system that allows imaging of neurons,” Melchitzky said. “Two software packages, Neurolucida and StereoInvestigator, are the main components, along with a high-level research microscope equipped with cameras and light sources.”

The measurements that will be made with this equipment would not otherwise be possible, therefore creating very promising research opportunities.

“Initially, I will work with some of my research students to expand upon our current research examining the nonprefrontal cortical projections to the mediodorsal thalamus,” Melchitzky said.

“Specifically, we will be able to measure the axonal density of these projections, something we cannot do with our existing technology. In the future, I plan to collaborate with Dr. Lewis on research that compares the total dendritic spine density across different populations of pyramidal neurons in the prefrontal cortex at various age points.”

These research opportunities will be available to Melchitzky’s research students, specifically those in the neuroscience concentration.

“This will be especially beneficial for any student in a biology or psychology major that’s interested in neuroscience,” Elnitsky said. “If they’re interested in going to graduate school, they’ll have these experiences that usually are only found at larger universities.”

However, it is not just Mercyhurst that will reap the benefits of this new equipment. Students and professionals from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Penn State Behrend and Allegheny College, among others, will also have access to the equipment. This will certainly be an asset to the larger scientific community as technology of this caliber is not found within a two-hour radius.

“The Erie region has much to benefit from the acquisition of this system,” Melchitzky said. “Researchers from several universities contributed studies they could perform if the region had this technology and it is expected that once more researchers know that they have access to this equipment, the demand for its use will grow.”