K-State professor combines love of teaching, research to examine eye development

July 23, 2004

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- Gary Conrad never knows when or where an idea for a research project might strike him -- in the middle of the night, in the kitchen, in the shower, while driving, while hiking.

To ensure that he is never without pen and paper whenever an idea comes to him, Conrad, a university distinguished professor of biology at Kansas State University, always keeps paper and writing utensils all around his house, office, car, etc. These ideas have proven to be quite beneficial to eye research, as Conrad has obtained seven, five-year research grants over a 33-year period.

Conrad enjoys doing both research and teaching. To him, the two activities complement one another.

"I don't think you can effectively teach without doing research," Conrad said. "Undergraduate students often ask questions which may initially sound simple, but often go to the core of a challenging research problem and generate new ideas for us to test at the bench. Conversely, research provides us ample opportunities to demonstrate in our teaching that the body of knowledge in a specific field is constantly changing. The most effective ways to present it also change, as do the students and their degrees of preparation and interest.

"Teaching is like being in a great rock band always on the road -- you have to be ready to put out good, new stuff every night before constantly-changing crowds. It is always stimulating."

In April, a 31-year continuing research project of Conrad's was renewed for another five-year period for $1.825 million. The research is funded by the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health -- "Fibroblast Differentiation During Eye Development."

Conrad serves as principal investigator, assisted by a group of senior scientists, including Drs. Abigail Conrad, research associate professor, Division of Biology; Elena Tasheva, research assistant professor; and Ke An, Lolita Corpuz and Yuntao Zhang, postdoctoral research associates, Division of Biology. The Conrads, Tasheva, An, Corpuz and Zhang all have doctoral degrees; Tasheva also has a medical degree.

A number of undergraduates also participate in the research: Amy Misak, senior in microbiology, Hutchinson; Rogers Kipchumba, sophomore in microbiology, Manhattan; Maria Wittman, sophomore in biology, Rose Hill; Lisa Olberding, senior in biology, Topeka; Maya Pettit-Scott, freshman in pre-health professions, Palatine, Ill., and Jessica Strafuss, sophomore in biology, Collierville, Tenn.

A recently-graduated doctoral student, Peter Lwigale, is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California-Berkeley.

Conrad's latest research will focus on elucidating the molecular steps by which very early migratory cells in the eyes of embryonic animals decide whether to develop into corneal nerve cells, or cells that insulate those nerves, or fibroblastic cells that build the connective tissue of the transparent cornea, or cells that line its inner surface, or cells that populate the outer surface of the iris. Evidence is increasing that these decisions are influenced by the types of sugars near the cells.

Conrad said detailed analyses of the polysaccharides of these tissues will be performed by a technique known as mass spectrometry, using an instrument recently purchased for general use with funds from the National Eye Institute, in a collaboration between Gary Conrad and other K-State eye researchers: Larry Takemoto, university distinguished professor, Division of Biology, Dolores Takemoto and John Tomich, profesors, department of biochemistry.

"The instrument is so sensitive that types and structures of sugars present in a small portion of a single histological section from a single chicken, Japanese quail, or mouse embryo eye can be determined with precision," Conrad said. "The research therefore will use a blend of techniques from embryology, organic chemistry and physics.

Conrad said the cornea is the "most highly innervated tissue on the surface of the human body," making it very sensitive to touch and very painful if scratched.

"Corneas also are the most frequently transplanted tissue in the U.S., generally providing a clear, transparent graft for the patient and restoring eye function," Conrad said. "However, re-innervation of the graft is very slow and often incomplete, depriving patients of corneal touch sensitivity and blink reflex."

Research to be done by the Conrad group to elucidate the normal mechanisms by which embryonic animal corneas become innervated may reveal clues by which transplanted adult human corneas can be coaxed to become innervated again.

Kansas State University

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