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Autumn 2003 | Volume 26, Number 4 | Faculty
Snails and Neurobiology: Ridgway Helps Students Connect the Microscopic Dots

contains 100 billion nerve cells, trying to isolate and study just one of those cells under a microscope can be difficult — even for Rick Ridgway, a seasoned research scientist whose specialization is neurobiology.

That is why Ridgway, who chairs the Biology Department at Seattle Pacific Univer-sity, has been introducing undergraduate students to the simpler nervous system — with only 20,000 nerve cells — of a common European pond snail, Lymnaea stagnalis. The snails serve as model systems for research by neurobiologists throughout the world because of their elegant simplicity. “They are also environmental markers,” says Ridgway. “They can tell us when a pond is being polluted, because they’re sensitive to toxic chemicals and metal ions in the water.”

On the second floor of the new Science Building, a lab playfully labeled “Ridgway Undergraduate Research Group” contains hundreds of the freshwater snails in various aquariums. Bright color photographs of nerve cells and immune cells, looking like galaxies, are spread out on lab tables, and student research projects on the snails are kept in files. This dedicated research lab for Ridgway and his students is a far cry from the cramped one they had to share with two other professors and their students in the Miller Science Learning Center, now undergoing a $5.4-million renovation. “In the old building,” says Ridgway, “when trucks rumbled by, they shook the microscopes so we couldn’t count on taking clear photographs. In this new building, we can zoom in 100 times more and still get sharp images.”

Like babies, healthy nerve cells in all animals are protected and nourished by their “mothering” support cells called glia. When the two kinds of cells do not communicate well with one another, there’s a problem. “We study interactions between nerve cells and glial cells when the snail is stressed by environmental change or nervous system injury,” explains Ridgway. When a problem occurs in one area of the snail’s nervous system, students can monitor the way nerve pathways are redrawn in the live snail. Ridgway and his students apply their research to human neural trauma such as spinal cord injuries, strokes and diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

With the reinvigoration of the sciences at Seattle Pacific, says Ridgway, biology graduates will be more equipped than ever to enter fast-advancing fields such as biomedicine and biotechnology. Graduates are even adapting skills learned in their snail research to applications in a variety of career fields, from environmentalism to mission medicine.

For Ridgway, who supports his students’ advances “more than anything,” this makes the years of snail study worthwhile.

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From the President
“What is a college education really worth?” asks President Philip Eaton. With universities under scrutiny today, SPU must reflect about its influence and impact.

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In the final year of The Campaign for SPU, the University has strong momentum heading into the stretch. [Campaign]

A Record-Setting Autumn
SPU welcomed its largest and most academically prepared freshman class in Autumn Quarter 2003. [Campus]

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My Response
“Dear Time Capsule Openers,” wrote Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Congdon to SPU students, faculty and alumni in 2053. His letter is now in a time capsule in SPU's new Science Building.