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With Nerve and Muscle photo

Beneath the clear, turquoise waters off the coast of Puerto Rico lurks a hidden danger: tiny, single-celled organisms that harbor a deadly toxin. Biologist Gladys Escalona de Motta wants to unmask the secrets of the toxin's destructive ways and keep people free from its harm.

A Latina, de Motta is one of a growing number of scientists who are making important contributions in biology, a field where discoveries about the fundamentals of how cells work often open the door to new advances in health and medicine. The contributions of three such scientists, including de Motta, are highlighted in With Nerve and Muscle.

De Motta studies ciguatera, a toxin found in some tropical fish. If unwitting diners consume the contaminated fish, they may experience severe gastrointestinal and neurological problems. By searching through the case histories of people who visited emergency rooms with symptoms of ciguatera poisoning, de Motta realized that larger, older fish, especially barracudas and silk snappers, were mostly to blame.

With help from snorkelers who gather samples of algae thought to harbor the toxin, she works to isolate the compound, hoping to discover how it affects the human nervous system. But an unexpected offer - a chance to become dean of Natural Sciences at the University of Puerto Rico - may alter her plans.

photo The hidden secrets of the nervous system also fascinate George Langford, a professor of biology at Dartmouth College, who studies nerve cells in squid. Peering through a microscope late one night, he discovered a previously unknown system of movement within the cells. "I could see bundles of proteins moving along like trucks on invisible highways," says Langford, who describes his feeling at that moment as one of jubilation.

As the E.E. Just Professor and advisor to African-American and Afro-Carribean science students at Dartmouth, Langford upholds the memory of Earnest E. Just, a Dartmouth graduate (1907) who went on to become the first African-American biologist to earn a Ph.D. in the United States. Just's pioneering work in biology was largely unrecognized by the scientific community, and he struggled to receive funding for his work.

Today, minority scientists continue to face some of the same challenges, says Langford. The peer review system, by which scientists in similar fields decide which papers will be published and which proposals will be funded, isn't really "peer" review for minorities, since there are still too few minorities in science.

Like blacks, Native Americans are also underrepresented in scientific fields. Navajo Wilfred Denetclaw, Jr. is one of very few American Indians doing biological research in the United States. He credits "Johnny Quest" - a cartoon series that featured scienced-minded boys - and the chemistry set his parents gave him for sparking his early interest in science.

Growing up in a family of livestock ranchers, working with animals came naturally to Denetclaw. But dissecting animals - a task faced by every aspiring biologist - was another story. Because touching dead animals conflicted with sacred principles of his cultural beliefs, Denetclaw had to wrestle with his conflicting commitments to both tradition and science.

While working on his doctoral degree at the University of California at Berkeley, Denetclaw was part of a nationally-acclaimed team of scientists who discovered that leaky calcium channels within muscle cells were to blame for the muscle degeneration that characterizes muscular dystrophy, a fatal disease.

photo Today, at the University of California at San Francisco, one of the country's top institutes for genetic research, Denetclaw is investigating the process by which muscles form, starting back at the very beginning of life. Like Langford and de Motta, he also makes time to encourage other minority students. As he tells a group of Navajo science students back home in Shiprock, New Mexico, "You're all capable of doing it, because I'm capable of doing it."

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