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Publish date: Jan 4, 2013

Linebacker turns foes into jelly

By Gary Brown

There are more than 450,000 NCAA student-athletes, and almost all of them will go pro in something other than sports.

But probably only one of them will go pro in Ctenophores.

That one student-athlete is Josh Swore of Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn. On the football field Swore sacks solidly built quarterbacks for losses. Off it he studies jellyfish-like animals for gains.

“My goal was to clone and discover expression patterns of glutamate receptors in the various tissues of the animal. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter, which allows it to perform all of its physiological functions. It’s also the most common neurotransmitter in humans, which is why we focused on it in Ctenophores.”

That’s Swore talking about an extended internship he’s done over the last two years. Assuming very little of that explanation made much sense, let’s probe further.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior from Grand Rapids, Mich., has been terrorizing tailbacks ever since he was a pup in the youth leagues. He followed in his father’s footsteps to the Division III school in Minnesota and has led the team in sacks and tackles for loss the last two seasons. He went 14 straight games with at least a half tackle for a loss, and at one point between the last two seasons he went seven straight games with at least half a sack.

But there’s another side of Swore that was cultivated in a college-sponsored symposium at which students shared their scientific research. Swore had been mildly interested in biology before then, but this research stuff inspired him.

“High school biology classes consist of lab work and experiments here and there that are supposed to work but never really do,” Swore chuckled. “But being able to perform cutting-edge research is completely different.”

So he began doing his own research with one of his advisors and that led to the internship opportunity at the University of Florida, which is where the jellyfish come in.

Swore is particularly interested in neuroscience.

“It is an area of biology that hasn’t moved as far along as others,” he said. “We understand that neurons are what allow us to think and have motion and do all sorts of physiological functions, but we don’t exactly know how they do that. If can understand that, then we can understand how to combat neuromuscular diseases like Alzheimer’s. We can see that these diseases are caused by something going wrong with the neurons. If we can figure out how, we can come up with a cure.”

Swore was working on Ctenophores (pronounced “TEEN-a-fors”) because their transparency makes them so convenient to study. Part of Swore’s task was tracing the evolutionary development of various genes that make up the synapses formed between the Ctenophore’s neurons.

Swore said the 10-week internship was like working a full-time job and overtime, and even that wasn’t enough time to complete the project. But Swore made such an impression on the faculty there that one of them asked him to attend a special apprenticeship in Friday Harbor, Washington last April to complete the project. With permission from Northwestern, Swore did so while finishing up Organic Chemistry and Physics II via distance education.

Then he presented his research at a conference in San Francisco in January through the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology. That led to part-authorship of a genome paper to be published in Nature, the top scientific journal in the world.

Not bad for a guy who didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up. Now he’s applying to graduate schools across the country, including Harvard and Stanford. He wants to pursue a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology or neuroscience, focusing on how neurons develop and regenerate in various organisms. Ultimately he wants to discover why neurons in humans have such a difficult time regenerating and pursue techniques that would allow them to gain the ability to regenerate.

“I’m definitely not going to become a professional football player,” Swore said, noting the NCAA tagline. “But I may become a professional scientist.”

To be sure, there are a ton of smart football players out there, but Swore is the only research biologist – at least at Northwestern. Is there any relationship between how he has to think in his scientific work and how he processes stuff on the football field?

“It’s pretty different going from these big words and deep thoughts to ‘OK, now I have to plug this gap and line up in this spot,’ ” Swore said.

He’s managed to do both pretty well.

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