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Research Awards: Science and Technology

The Student Faculty Research Awards are used to advance the scholarship of graduate students and faculty working in partnership. Grants up to $5,000 are awarded to the selected student/faculty pairs and are intended to help support student research/scholarship/creative activity; give students experience writing grants; and foster the mentoring relationship between faculty and graduate students. This spring, 22 student/faculty pairs were selected to receive the awards. Read some of the winning proposal summaries below that include topics such as microbiology, biochemistry, comparative and experimental medicine, geology, and mechanical engineering.

Regional Differences in Microglial Responses to Brain Excitotoxicity

Debalina Acharyya—PhD student, biochemistry and cellular & molecular biology
Rebecca Prosser—professor, Department of Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology

Excitatory signaling in the brain, mainly due to the neurotransmitter glutamate, is crucial for normal functioning. However, glutamate signaling in the brain follows the “Goldilocks Principle,” where maintaining “just right” levels is important. Under certain conditions, such as during stroke or neurodegenerative diseases, the brain experiences excessive glutamate signaling, resulting in cell death and debilitating brain impairments. This phenomenon is called excitotoxicity. Debalina Acharyya, a PhD student in biochemistry and cellular & molecular biology, and Rebecca Prosser, professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Cellular & Molecular Biology, have proposed to investigate the contribution of microglia, or specialized immune cells in the brain, in resisting excitotoxicity in certain areas of the brain. This study could translate into research developing successful therapies to treat excitotoxicity.

Battle for the Histones: A Bacterial Sirtuin Modulates Campylobacter Jejuni Induced Neutrophil Extracellular Traps

Sean Callahan—PhD student, microbiology
Jeremiah Johnson—assistant professor, Department of Microbiology

The bacterium Campylobacter jejuni is the leading cause of bacterial-derived gastroenteritis worldwide. The infection of this bacterium can result in potent inflammation and possibly several post-infectious disorders that have an autoimmune component, in which a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues. Sean Callahan, a PhD student in microbiology, and Jeremiah Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology, propose to make use of the tremendous advances in technology for studying proteins to investigate the infection of C. jejuni. By understanding the interactions between this bacterium and host proteins, therapeutics can be developed to reduce inflammation and tissue disease during infection.

Characterization of a Novel Polylactic Acid Degrading Enzyme

Jordan Cannon—PhD student, microbiology
Todd Reynolds—associate professor, Department of Microbiology

Fossil fuel-based plastics have become an international crisis with hundreds of millions of metric tons of plastic produced annually, only a small percentage of which are recycled. The plastic that remains unrecycled comprises a significant portion of the solid waste in landfills and will persist indefinitely, because of its non-biodegradability. Although a number of biodegradable alternatives, such as polylactic acid (PLA), have been produced, Jordan Cannon, a PhD student in microbiology, and Todd Reynolds, Associate Professor in the Department of Microbiology, see the importance in ensuring that these alternatives do not become just alternative plastic waste products. By continuing their research on soil bacteria such as Bacilius pumilus, they will investigate the degradation of PLA by the identified enzyme AprBp to understand how these molecular mechanisms can contribute to biotechnological applications in PLA remediation and recycling.

Integration of Molecular Biology, Electrochemistry, and Electrical Engineering for the Development of a Rapid On-Site Detection Platform for Zoonotic RNA Viruses

Haley Dylewski—PhD student, microbiology
Shigetoshi Eda—professor, Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries

RNA viruses are estimated to be responsible for nearly half of emerging infectious diseases affecting the health of both humans and animals. The ongoing situation with SARS-CoV-2 has demonstrated that rapid on-site virus detection is key to effectively controlling viral diseases such as COVID-19. One of the most reliable methods of virus detection is polymerase chain reaction, or PCR. However, PCR has limitations, due to the need for specialized costly equipment and skilled labor, as well as a high cost per sample. Haley Dylewski, a PhD candidate in microbiology, and Shigetoshi Eda, professor in the Department of Forestry, Wildlife, and Fisheries, propose to test a method that aims to overcome these limitations. This method would integrate molecular biology, electrochemistry and electrical engineering into a single detection platform. This platform could provide the type of on-site virus detection that is urgently needed for surveillance, source tracking, and determination of infections in wild animal species, domestic animals at importation, and people living in medical resource-limited settings.

Effect of Short-Range Order on the Thermoelectric Properties of AlxCoCrFeNi High-Entropy Alloys

MD Abdullah Al Hasan—PhD student, mechanical engineering
Seungha Shin—associate professor, Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering

An increasing demand for electricity in a time of unprecedented climate change has made providing a sustainable supply of energy to the world’s population a major challenge. Since over half of the energy produced in the US is wasted in the form of heat, thermoelectric power generation has been suggested as a promising way to improve energy efficiency, since it works by harvesting wasted heat energy. High-entropy alloys (HEAs) are a novel class of materials that have promising features for use in thermoelectric applications, but achieving high thermoelectric efficiency remains a challenge due to the complexity of these materials. MD Abdullah Al Hasan, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, and Seungha Shin, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Biomedical Engineering, propose to study a particular HEA (AlxCoCrFeNi) to investigate how the structural configuration of this material impacts its thermoelectric properties. The expected outcome is an optimized HEA design that has desired properties for high-performance thermoelectric applications by controlling the structural configuration of the material.

Expanding Our Understanding of the Late Paleozoic Record of Fossil Brittle Stars Using Novel Techniques

Nicholas Smith—PhD student, geology
Colin Sumrall—associate professor, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

Patterns in the number of species through time are an important part of most large-scale paleontological studies and determining these patterns relies on accurate estimation of the number of species both globally and locally with respect to time. Brittle stars, which belong to a group of marine animals called echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, and crinoids), are an important group to study, but because they break apart upon death into thousands of small elements, few fossils have been found and they are greatly underreported in Paleozoic ecosystems. Nicholas Smith, a PhD student in geology, and Colin Sumrall, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, propose to use new methodologies developed for studying younger brittle star fossils to perform a study of late Paleozoic brittle stars. The expected outcome of this project will be a more complete understanding of brittle star biodiversity during the late Paleozoic, a pivotal time in Earth history.

Neural Tissue Engineering: Preliminary Advances Towards Transforming Nerve Repair in Human and Veterinary Medicine

Meaghan Harley-Troxell—PhD student, comparative and experimental medicine
Madhu Dhar—associate professor, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences

Conditions such as peripheral nerve injury, spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, and neurodegenerative diseases can be distressing and debilitating because nerve tissue has a low potential to regenerate. Current treatments and therapies typically result in unfavorable outcomes. Tissue engineering and regenerative medicine have led to new strategies but complex cell structures and the anatomy of the nervous system present unique challenges to this research. Meaghan Harley-Troxell, a PhD student in comparative and experimental medicine, and Madhu Dhar, associate professor in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, propose to investigate a process for combining various cell types in a 3D culture and evaluating its implantation in a nerve defect in an animal model. The goal of this research is to identify a suitable neural organoid and scaffold for imitating the effect of nerve stimulation to promote nerve repair and treat a number of neural injuries.