Musselman lecture series sees breakthroughs in breathing
Aphra Murray, Contributing Writer
In the spring of 1980, Clark. E. Bricker ‘39 became the first visiting scientist as part of Gettysburg College’s Musselman lecture series. Thirty-seven years later, in 2016, the annual lecture series still continues; this year the invited scientist was Dr. Ka Yee C. Lee. Once a PhD advisor to our very own chemistry professor Dr. Shelly Fry, Dr. Lee is an interdisciplinary scientist, who studies the interactions between biophysical science and physics. While the title of her presentation, The Physics of Breathing: Wrinkling to Fold Transitions in Lung Surfactant and Other Thin Elastic Sheets, is at first somewhat intimidating, it simply involves the understanding of the structure and function of lungs and the subsequent deeper study and research into Neonatal Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS).
The Musselman Foundation was founded by C.H Musselman and eventually continued by John A. Hauser, whose donation funds the visiting scientist program. Due to Hauser’s friendship with the then chair of the Gettysburg College Chemistry Department, Dr. John B. Zinn, the college was gifted with $25,000 in 1977 and 1978. This money was to be used by the college to support visits by well-known chemists to lecture about a topic of current interest or their research. The faculty and students of the chemistry department are invited to attend these lecture series, typically three or four in a year. The goal is to increase general awareness regarding modern and industrial research and to engage the student population.
Dr. Lee’s research into Neonatal RDS, encompassing the different fields of physics and biochemistry, focuses on developing some form of a cure to this relatively under-researched syndrome. The function of the lungs, as an organ, is to facilitate the process of breathing, allow the exit of water and toxins, and act as one of the first areas of host defense. While this comes naturally to most people, in cases of RDS, these processes become very difficult.
Normally, the process of breathing is aided by a “surfactant,” which reduces the surface tension in the lungs and eases the work associated with breathing. In patients suffering from RDS, this surfactant is either entirely devoid or compromised. Currently, the treatments include forcing air into neonatal lungs, which unfortunately runs the risk of tearing delicate tissue, as well as the introduction of blood. Furthermore, the current cost for this treatment is roughly $800 per session. Dr. Lee and her team are therefore investing their research into the development of a more cost effective synthetic replacement surfactant.
While this process will take more than a few years, it is inspiring to engage first hand with the minds that are able to design methods of furthering research in their field. It is my personal hope that all Gettysburgians glean all that they can from the motivated scientists brought to this campus as part of the Musselman lecture series and their, dare I say, Gettysburg Great work.