Biology of Vampires: Lecture and Costume Contest

By Julia Taylor

Michael Harris, UAF associate professor, poses as a vampire for part of his lecture and costume contest on the biology of vampires. – Scott Taylor / Sun Star

Sun Star Reporter
Three UAF scientists bring their expertise and insights from cutting edge research, to examine the pop culture portrayals of vampires. Wednesday’s URSA Research Showcase lecture conveniently starts two minutes before sunset, and lasts for an hour.

“I think it is going to be a whole lot of fun,” said Michael Harris UAF associate professor of biology and neuroscience. Harris is joined by two other professors and researchers, who are also mentors for Undergraduate Research & Scholarly Activity (URSA) program students.

Student are challenged to dress up in a way that combines the dual themes of the night: science and vampires. At the end of the lecture, everyone in costume will get the chance to participate in the contest, Barbara Taylor, Harris’ wife said. The student whose costume does the best job of combining the themes, science and vampires, gets more than just bragging rights. The winner will get their picture taken with the  presenters and $25 in munch money.

“I think it is going to be a whole lot of fun,” said

UAF associate professor of biology and neuroscience. Harris is joined by two other professors and researchers, who are also mentors for Undergraduate Research & Scholarly Activity (URSA) program students. “Everyone can always use another set of hands,” Harris said. He emphasized that undergraduates often come with a fresh perspective, keeping researchers looking for innovative ways to approach roadblocks.

Andrej Podlutsky, a UAF molecular biologist who specializes in cancer research in Alaska Native populations, co-presented with Harris in the 2013 URSA Halloween lecture, “Zombies, Cancer & DNA: Genes of the living dead.” That was the second year that the URSA Halloween lecture discussed the science of zombies.

At the end of the lecture, Harris and Podlutsky decided to switch it up this year, moving from zombies, and on to the science of vampires. They were excited to tackle a different Halloween myth, and knew they would need help explaining all of the issues related to immunology and blood. That is why they chose UAF assistant professor of biology, Andreas Ferrante to join the team.

Ferrante, like Podlutsky is fairly new to UAF, and always excited to have undergraduate and graduate research assistants, according to Harris. He is a medical doctor, who both teaches and conducts research that studies how blood works. He is researching why different blood disorders impact some people in different ways when they have the same disease. Harris says that Ferrante’s research related directly to how blood borne diseases would work for vampires.

While Harris is not aware of any research being done on zombies or vampires by professors at UAF, the topic is popular. Harris was invited to give the Keynote Address at the Undergraduate Research and Discovery Symposium, part of the UAA Honors College. His speech, titled “Zombies: Physiology of the Undead,” was well received by UAA students.
While the study of zombies or vampires may not really be happening, Harris said, it seems that giving students a context to use the scientific method, as a way to bridge the divide between academics and pop culture, seems to be useful to many people. “Besides, it’s just fun to think about,” Harris said.

The lecture is at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 30 in Schaible Auditorium.

None of the rules for the costume contest says it’s for “humans only,” but with the lecture’s start time, and the close of registration for the contest, so close to sunset, non-human entrants are unlikely this year. The rules are pretty simply; be on time, write your name in the list before the lecture starts, and be ready to strut across the front of the auditorium.

Contestants are encouraged to come early. Your name must be on the Costume Contest Sheet, which will be available prior to the start of the lecture.

URSA will provide hot water for tea or cider, and a minimal amount of Halloween candy, in place of usual cookies.

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