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January 10, 2002 Science College student Nicholas Dobbek is well on his way



Nicholas Dobbek

Nicholas Dobbek

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

by Anna Bratulic

Undergraduate studies do not usually include the luxury of world travel, but Science College member Nicholas Dobbek managed to squeeze in two academic trips abroad last year.

As part of the Science College curriculum, students must complete three research projects and are encouraged to do at least one outside their concentration in the hope of expanding their scientific outlook.

With the help of some personal contacts and departmental approval, Dobbek, a psychology student specializing in neuroscience, completed his second research project in geology in Nancy, France, last July.

Apart from admiring the beautiful French countryside, he assisted a PhD student at the Centre de Recherches Pétrographiques et Géochimiques, one of the leading geology labs of its type in the world, in the study of iron isotopes in ocean crust rock found 500 to 1,000 metres below the sea floor.

Using a mass spectrometer, Dobbek helped prepare the lab samples to be analyzed by isolating the iron elements from raw specimens of ocean-floor rock obtained during deep-sea drilling expeditions. They were looking for “biosignatures” — basically, signs of bacterial life — based on how the iron isotopes were patterned on the rock.

“The lab facilities over there are really top of the line,” Dobbek said. Learning to use this state-of-the-art equipment made him appreciate that attention to detail is of the utmost importance. “It’s not just about precision, but about taking care of what you’re doing.”

In November, Psychology Professor Jim Pfaus invited Dobbek to attend a conference in San Diego given by the Society for Neuroscience. It is an annual gathering of some 25,000 brain scientists and physicians from around the world who cover all facets of neuroscience, from the biochemical to the behavioural.

Dobbek presented a poster outlining his first Science College project, the role of the ventromedial hypothalamus in estrus termination, or, more simply, the role that a specific brain area (ventromedial hypothalamus) might play in the dampening of sexual receptivity (estrus termination) in rats.

Many people presented posters of their work in a science-fair-like atmosphere where people were free to walk around, peruse the different projects and ask questions about things that interested them.

Even though many of the poster presenters were young and would not be subject to the scrutiny that a professional neuroscientist might be, it was a good lesson in gaining scientific confidence to take a research project from the warm and fuzzy environment of the classroom and into the prickly, more critical environment of the public domain, he said.

Dobbek admits it was a tad unnerving to field questions from people who have been in the field for many years. One consoling fact was that his research was highly specific.

“Because research is so specific, you become the expert in your particular area. If you know your theory well enough, you should be able to defend your results. People aren’t out to defeat you, but to make you think things out and to, hopefully, make the experiment better.”

Dobbek plans to research memory for his third and final Science College project.