Student Research a Rewarding Experience

Biology graduate student studies sea cucumbers

By: Becky St. Clair

Patten measures a sea cucumber as part of his research on the eye-less creature's ability to detect light.

Steve Patten graduated from Walla Walla University in 2007 with a double major in biology and history and a minor in chemistry.  Since then, he has been working on his master’s degree in biology from WWU.  His research focuses on sea cucumbers and their ability to detect light.

“Sea cucumbers can detect light, but they don’t have eyes,” says Patten. “No one knows the molecule they use to do that, so I’m trying to find out what it is.”

His hypothesis is that the cucumbers use a protein called rhodopsin, similar to the protein humans use for light detection.  This is how humans are able to see.

“People learn best by doing, and biologists learn about the natural world by doing research,” says Jim Nestler, professor of biology at WWU.  “In the Department of Biology at WWU we encourage our students to become professional biologists early in their academic experience by being involved in research.”

Patten has been researching echinoderms for nearly four years.  This group includes sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and others.  For the past year and a half, his focus has been on light detection. 

Though most of his research has been done at the university’s Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory, Patten also had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines in the spring of 2007.  There he and Nestler together conducted additional research.  A lot of the lab and molecular oriented work was done on the College Place campus.

“Scientific research is a collaborative effort,” says Nestler.  “The faculty in the Department of Biology at WWU value the ability to work alongside students as we combine our efforts and skills to learn more about the natural world around us.”

His extensive research gave Patten the opportunity to present in Boston at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Conference in February.  The title of his presentation was “Detection and Localization of a Possible Photoreceptive Pigment in Temperate Echinoderms.”  Close to 2000 people were in attendance at the event.

Patten’s goal is to teach biology at the high school level.  He has a passion for showing others the beauty in nature, and how interesting it can be to study the sciences.  If he doesn’t teach, Patten would like to work for a company developing ways to improve human interaction with nature, either in habitat restoration or sustainable living.

“I love doing this research,” says Patten.  “I’ve learned that I’m not often right, but failures are good excuses for thought exercises, so I learn more from my failures than from my successes.”

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