Oberlin Named Green Power Partner by the EPA
by Sue Angell ’99

Oberlin has earned a spot on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of top 10 colleges and universities that purchase green power.

Dubbed by the EPA as a “Green Power Partner,” Oberlin is the only private liberal arts college on the list, making it the largest purchaser of green power among its peer schools. Others on the list include the University of Pennsylvania, Duke, Harvard, and Syracuse.

Approximately 60 percent of the College’s electricity comes from environmentally preferable resources, specifically biogass from a local landfill and low-impact hydro-electric power produced on the Ohio River, says John Petersen, associate professor of environmental studies and biology. This renewable power—nearly 13,000 megawatt-hours per year—is purchased from the Oberlin Municipal Light and Power Sys-tem, a community-owned, non-profit utility created decades ago by local residents.

The contract negotiated by the College with the local power company is what sets Oberlin apart from other green-power colleges, says Petersen. The agreement stipulates that the premium paid by the College for green electricity be set aside in a “sustainable energy reserve fund.” So far Oberlin City Council has used the fund to study the feasibility of commercial-scale wind power in Oberlin and is considering using the fund to promote biodiesel use within the city.

“This has been a great way for the College and town to work together to simultaneously reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and promote environmental initiatives within in the city,” he says. “By committing to this green energy purchase—through money saved by conserving energy on campus—the College is reducing its local environmental footprint and helping to expand the market for renewable energy. Everybody wins.” Oberlin’s decision to purchase green energy is the result of an environmental stewardship plan initiated by President Nancy S. Dye in 2002. The plan was developed by the College’s Environmental Policy Advisory Committee and approved by the Board of Trustees in 2004. ATS

One-Billionth of a Meter
by Margaret Putney ’06

Photo by Brian Thomas

Jason Belitsky and Chris Boyd ’07 stare silently into a small tray filled with tiny black particles. Belitsky, an assistant professor new to Oberlin’s chemistry and biochemistry department this year, is investigating the structure of melanin, a pigment found in the skin that plays a role in skin cancer.

Many people are familiar with the word, if only because of a passing lesson on the epidermis in high school biology. Truth is, scientists know very little about this important component.

“Melanin is not very well understood structurally,” says Belitsky. “We know it works both to hurt us and to protect us from the sun. It will be much easier to understand those properties once we understand its structure.”

Melanin, he explains, works by absorbing many types of energy, like sunlight, and dissipating them in the form of heat. If the energy input is too great, however, the output can result in cell death, mutations, and cancer. At the moment, scientists do not clearly understand where one function ends and the other begins.

The most interesting aspects of the melanin structure are observed at a very small size range. At the “nanoscale” size—or one-billionth of a meter—materials have properties not detectable at larger scales, says Belitsky. Several fields of science, from engineering to biology, are converging on studies at the nanometer scale. At Oberlin, physics professors Yumi Ijiri, Stephen FitzGerald, and John Scofield work with molecules and crystal structures on the nanometer scale; new assistant professor Katherine Oertel ’99 does similar work with a chemistry perspective.

Unlike proteins and DNA, which have long polymeric chains, melanin appears to be composed of oligomers, or shorter compounds, that self-assemble into nanoparticles that can been studied with instruments such as a scanning electron microscope. These nanoparticles then assemble into larger units visible by the eye.

Biochemistry major Mae Gackstetter ’06 is aiming to construct synthetic oligomers that will mimic the melanin structure, ultimately to study their self-assembly and resulting properties. It’s a trial-by-error process, one that requires each synthetic structure to be tested against actual melanin in hair to see how well the characteristics match. The research, says Belitsky, could allow other scientists to find ways of increasing the protective property of melanin, or else remove the destructive one. And although Gackstetter’s project is just beginning, Belitsky adds, already she has made a major contribution to the field by developing the basic chemistry needed to produce the model structures. Her results will allow future students to produce synthetic oligomers that are increasingly similar to the natural building blocks of melanin.

The implications of knowing more about melanin don’t stop at skin cancer research. Boyd is studying the use of synthetic melanin as an environmental remediation agent. Among its unusual properties, melanin likes to attach itself to certain heavy metals, a property that could be harnessed to help clean the environment. He has worked toward isolating melanin from human hair and developing synthetic melanin filters for binding lead.

No matter where the work ends up, Belitsky says the greatest benefit for students is the vast experience they get working in the lab, which he hopes will ultimately allow for the merging of organic and biochemistry techniques with a focus on the nanoscale. ATS

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