Fresh Faculty of the Week
Issue   |   Wed, 11/30/2011 - 02:20
Amherst College
Josef Trapani, Assistant Professor of Biology

Josef Trapani grew up in Connecticut. He went to the Univ. of Connecticut for his undergraduate degree, his master’s degree and his Ph.D., completing his postdoctoral research in Portland, Ore. He has published in The Journal of Neuroscience, Methods in Cell Biology, PLoS Genetics and Development. He is currently studying sensory neurobiology and zebrafish physiology.

How did you begin studying biology, and what made you decide to pursue it?
Starting at the Univ. of Connecticut, I knew I wanted to major in biology, but I didn’t have any real predilection towards any one particular major. I found when I got there that [the major] was already on the form that you get as an incoming freshman, and it said molecular and cellular biology. So, I stayed with that all the way to my senior year at UConn, where I needed to do thesis research. I wasn’t keen on doing research because I wanted to just write a thesis, but it turned out that to graduate with honors you had to actually perform research. I went into the lab in the physiology and neurobiology department in order to do that. So, that turned me onto science really quickly. My advisor is a great guy, and he encouraged me to start my own research project and to apply for a grant for summer funding. That led into starting grad school in his lab in the physiology and neurobiology department at UConn. So, I went right from undergrad into grad school staying at the same place. That was going to be just a masters, but it turned into doing a Ph.D. because I was enjoying it.

Why did you decide to teach at Amherst?
Well, I went from the Univ. of Connecticut out to Portland, Ore. where I did postdoctoral research and started working on zebra fish. Around the same time I started making these changes from my grad school research into what I currently do research on. I also started to transition more into wanting to have more of a mentorship role along with the research that I do. I started to become convinced that I wanted to be at a place like Amherst — a small, undergrad-only institution, where I would have more time with undergrads and have a larger role mentoring them and shaping them as future scientists, but also as students and as people. So, when it came time to look for a job, I really focused on smaller schools and in particular Amherst, which was my number one choice because of the quality of the students and of the faculty and of the College as a whole. Everything about it appealed to me, the diversity of all the students and New England. I grew up in New England, and the prospect of going back was appealing.

What is you research on?
My research is generally on the process of what would be considered sensory transduction, so how external stimuli in the environment are encoded into neuronal information that goes to your brain. So, I use zebra fish to do that.

Why zebra fish?
For a number of reasons! They are small and translucent and work really well under a microscope. They can also be kept in great numbers in small spaces. They reproduce quickly, and you can get larva to study, which is the stage that I work on. They have a sensory system called the lateral line, which has sensory receptors on the exterior of the body that I can do experiments on. So, they are really accessible.

Are you currently publishing anything? Have you published anything before?
Well, in science that’s the name of the game. I have a few publications that I am the first author of and then a few where I am buried somewhere in the middle. I hope to have more in the future, but right now I am not working on any.

How did you become involved in your research?
After graduate school, I was working on a really microscopic topic ... ion channels, [and] I wanted to move to a much larger topic. Also, I wanted to learn a model system. So, the zebra fish is a popular model system along with fruit flies and mice and all these things. There was this great lab in Portland, Ore. that was working on zebra fish and studying hearing. They were studying hearing using the sensory receptors on the lateral line, which are the same receptors that are found in our ears for hearing and balance. So, I could broaden my system and also learn about zebra fish, and that was really attractive to me. I also knew that zebra fish would be a good model to assess the brain that could work in a small college.

What classes are you teaching this semester? What classes are you teaching next semester?
This semester I am teaching one course called Animal Physiology. It’s not a lab course, just a regular lecture course with about 35 kids in it. It’s about how animal processes work and how animals function in their environment. It steps through basic biological functions in animals: respiration, excretion, digestion, etc. It’s been really fun.
Next semester I am co-teaching Introduction to Neuroscience with Professor Sarah Turgeon in the psychology department. That is a laboratory course, and we’ll share responsibilities in the laboratory, as well as the lecture sections.

What aspects of Amherst do you like so far?
Oh, all of them! I am really having a good time. I like the students. I like how motivated they are and how excited they are about learning in the sciences and in all of the majors. Academically, as a whole, I really like how close they are and that there is a lot of support for the faculty which is really nice.

What do you hope to contribute to Amherst during your time here?
I guess my number one goal would be to contribute to students becoming great in their future, whether it be in sciences or whatever they go on to.

What do you like to do in your spare time?
Definitely play in the outdoors. I like to mountain bike, run, rock climb [and] ski when there is snow.