Faculty and Student Research

At EMU we believe that participation in original research projects is an important means of teaching scientific process and critical thinking skills.

Biology majors participate in faculty-led research projects as a means of learning by doing. Often students choose a specific project that falls within a larger, ongoing, research project in the laboratory of a faculty member. Students meet on a regular basis with faculty to discuss progress, and sometimes get together with other research groups to exchange ideas. In some cases, research results lead to presentations at national scientific meetings or publications in scientific journals.

Biology faculty also work closely with research projects in chemistry.

Stephen Cessna

Plant Stress Physiology and Cellular Biochemistry

Plants in nature are continuously subject to several environmental insults, including drought, heat, cold, toxic pollution, disease, and insects. While some plants have evolved the ability to specifically combat one or more of these stresses (as cacti have special abilities to withstand drought), all plants have adaptive ability to tolerate most stresses to varying degrees.

My research focuses on the roles of metal ions, strong oxidants, and antioxidants in plant stress responses. Students working on this project may have the opportunity to learn several different laboratory techniques including: greenhouse maintenance of unique plants, fieldwork, measurements of photosynthesis and transpiration, and chemical spectroscopy.

STEM Education Research

Students learn a lot by doing research projects, and we expect a lot from them. However, what students gain from those experiences in a class is less clear. Together with colleagues in EMU and JMU, I am studying how well students accept and internalize learning in course-based research experiences, and what they feel they gain from such experiences.

Jeff Copeland

Molecular Biology of Aging

Jeffrey Copeland research diagramMuch of the aging process and many neurological diseases result from accumulated cell death and the accompanying loss of tissue function, but precious little is known about the genes that determine cellular aging. I am interested in using the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model to understand the aging process and the genes responsible for it.

Similar to humans, fruit flies show many hallmarks of aging: reduced mobility, forgetfulness, disrupted sleep patterns, decreased reproduction, and the loss of brain cells. Mitochondria are dynamic bacteria-like inhabitants found in nearly all non-bacterial organisms and produce virtually all of the energy needed by the cell. Previous work of mine has shown that a partial decrease in the energy-producing capabilities of mitochondria can extend fly lifespan up to 50%. Interestingly these mutant flies show little cost to longevity – they reproduce, fly, climb like normal flies.

Jeffrey Copeland researchI am interested in further exploring the global role of the mitochondria in aging by manipulating mitochondrial function in specific cell types and by altering other essential mitochondrial functions.

In addition to producing energy for the cell, mitochondria do a number of other important and interesting things. They sometime fuse or split apart, they produce heat, they store calcium, and they help to regulate cell death. By manipulating the genes involved in these other mitochondrial functions, I can discover whether any of these individual processes play a role in cellular aging.

Julia Halterman

How Diet Affects Gene Expression in Hypertension

Currently in the United States, 1 out of 3 adults suffer from hypertension (chronic high blood pressure). It is well understood that eating a diet high in salt can increase the risk and prevalence of hypertension, but it still remains unclear as to how dietary salt affects organ function at the molecular level.

My previous research, along with the research of others, has shown that when salt is applied to cells in a dish, a protein called nuclear factor of activated T-cells 5 (NFAT5) is activated to turn on genes that protect cells from damage. However, this protein is also known to turn on genes involved in disease. Research in my lab therefore seeks to answer the following question: Does eating a diet high in salt increase NFAT5 levels in the body, therefore leading NFAT5 to turn on genes involved in hypertension?

By putting rats on an intermediate-salt or high-salt diet for 8 weeks, we can determine how tissues respond by measuring changes in NFAT5 levels. Blood pressure will be monitored to record diet-induced changes in cardiovascular function. Computational data analysis will allow us to discover new genes turned on by NFAT5 in hypertension, thereby providing insight for future drug development and treatment of the disease.

Undergraduate Biology majors (Rachel King ’15, Jason Spicher ’15, Kaylee Ferguson ’17, Braden Herman ’17) and MA in Biomedicine graduate students (Jared Fernandez ’16) assisting with this research will have the opportunity to learn how to carry out animal studies, collect blood pressure measurements, dissect tissues and organs, purify RNA from tissue samples, create cDNA, and run quantitative RT-PCR experiments. All of these skills will sharpen the ability to think like a biologist and will better prepare those pursuing a career in medicine or research science.

Roman Miller

Research on Fetal Alcohol Disorders (2015-2016)

This year my active research continues a project initiated a year ago which investigates the potential role of anthocyanins (blueberry extract) in mitigating the teratogenic effects of alcohol in developing embryos and fetuses. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) is a major disruptive influence in humans causing abnormal development in utero with consequences that remain for life.

We use a mouse model to investigate some of these alcohol effects, by giving binge alcohol doses to female mouse mothers, early in their pregnancy. Subsequently we assess the teratogenic effects in fetuses by histological examination as well as functional assays of selected organs and organ systems. More interesting is the potential benefits we have found, based on gross fetal anatomy, from pre-exposing embryos to anthocyanins. Zach Gish (Biology, 2015) led part of this project in 2014-15 (along with two Biomedicine graduate students) and published a portion of the results; another paper is in preparation for publication this year. The following photos illustrate the teratogenic influence of alcohol on fetal development, both in emergence of abnormal features and the severe reduction in size and weight.

This year, two additional undergraduate students will continue work on this project by mainly focusing on the developing fetal liver. Justin Paul (Biology, 2016) will focus on various liver biochemical function tests in affected fetuses, while Chris Miller (Biology, 2017) will demonstrate how various gene products are affected by alcohol and anthocyanins.

Learn more…

Doug Graber Neufeld

Environmental Toxicology and Biomonitoring; Water Quality and Pesticide Residue Analysis

My research projects focus on pollutants in the environment. These projects fall within my broader interests of environmental physiology-the study of how animals survive in their diverse environments, how that physiology is altered by environmental contaminants, and how this information can be utilized for monitoring of environmental impacts.

I take two general approaches to studying environmental contaminants. First, I’m interested in the physiological mechanisms of animal exposure to toxic compounds in their environments, with a focus on invertebrates (insects and clams). In particular, my lab uses physiological and biochemical responses of animals as biomonitors to indicate the degree of contamination that is present in the environment. In the past, we used such a biomonitoring approach with Asiatic clams to measure the effects of mercury contamination on local watersheds.

My second area of interest is in direct monitoring of chemical and biological contamination in aquatic ecosystems, sewage treatment systems and drinking water. This work has taken place both on the regional level, and in Southeast Asia. Locally, Dr. Tara Kishbaugh and I are working with students to gather baseline water quality information in an area of northwest Rockingham County. There is the possibility that this region of the county would become the first area in Virginia in which hydrofracking occurs. Should hydrofracking occur, our watershed and drinking water data will give a baseline from which to compare post-hydrofracking samples, in order to assess the extent of any contaminant releases. Our work in Cambodia and Thailand has focused on several issues. We collaborated with IDE Cambodia to measure arsenic content in clay samples that are used to make local drinking water filters. Also, we have collaborated with the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and RDI Cambodia to measure pesticide levels in market vegetables. My recent work on pesticides has focused on the development of a simpler method to both extract and detect pesticides.

More information on projects is at Graber Neufeld Lab webpages.

Jim Yoder

The Spread of Invasive Exotic Plant Species and Their Impact on Rare Plant Populations in Shenandoah National Park

In the spring of 2006 I began a 3-year collaborative study working with Shenandoah National Park research botanist, Wendy Cass. The project includes both intense on-site field surveying and mapping and analysis of exotic plant spread and impact using a Geographic Information System (GIS) by myself and undergraduate research students.

The project addresses two specific research questions that focus on the exotic plants invading the Shenandoah National Park: 1) What is the rate of spread of the three most threatening exotic species beginning to invade the Big Meadows Swamp Natural Heritage area and 2) What is the impact of these exotics on the continued viability of the eight rare plant species located within the area?

Both of the questions are of intense interest to park biologists and land managers as well as contribute to the broader ecological study of exotic plant invasions of native ecosystems.

Data collected will be used for detailed analysis of rare plant populations as well as development of spatial population and threat models using GIS. These models may be useful to predict future spread of exotics and subsequent impacts on ecologically sensitive areas within the park and throughout the region.

Matthew Siderhurst

Development of Improved Attractants for Invasive and Agriculturally Important Insect Pests

Chemical signals are among the most used information transfer sources in ecology and they can include pheromones (conspecific signaling), plant-herbivore interactions, and predator-prey interactions. While many of these chemical signals are of basic scientific interest, they are also increasingly important to developing ecologically rational pest control strategies, both as replacements for pesticides against established pests and to help mitigate the increasing threat of invasive species. Currently I am involved in several collaborative projects to develop lures for pest insects including projects on tephritid fruit flies (in collaboration with researchers at Macquarie University and DAF in Australia and the USDA in Hawaii), the little fire ant (USDA/Hawaii), and several beetle (UOG/Guam and USDA/Hawaii) and moth species (USDA/APHIS/Hawaii).

Synthesis of Small Organic Molecules Related to Insect Chemical Ecology

Many semiochemicals that mediate ecological interactions (e.g., pheromones and secondary plant compounds) are not commercially available. Often insect semiochemicals are compounds with low molecular weights and few stereocenters, making them attractive and reasonable targets for undergraduate research. Relatively short syntheses of this type can provide students with experience in synthetic design and exposure to a wider range of organic reactions while also making compounds available for further research. A recent example of this kind of research is the synthesis of volatile esters found in the noni fruit. This project involved eleven second-semester organic students and laid the foundation for an ongoing project aimed at identifying how noni volatiles change with ripening.

Ecology of Invasive Species Studied Through Radio Tracking or Trapping

Tracking and monitoring pest insects in the environment is important both for understanding the ecology of these insects and for controlling them. One insect I am currently working on is the coconut rhinoceros beetle (CRB), which is a pest throughout parts of both the Pacific and Asia. Along with two students, Diego Barahona (environmental science, 2017) and Katherine Lehman (biology, 2018), and with collaborators from the University of Guam, I recently conducted a pilot project to evaluate the concept of using radio tagged CRB to detect cryptic breeding sites, a technique we hope will eventually be useful in eradication efforts. During this study we were able to follow 19 beetles at two locations in Guam.

Investigating the Odor Profiles of Tropical Agricultural Products

Odors are important components of the way we taste and experience our food. In order to better understand the role volatiles play in food quality, I am involved in two projects aimed at identifying and quantifying odors in tropical crops in collaboration with USDA researchers in Hawaii. The first project involves the noni fruit, Morinda citrifolia. Sam Miller (biology, 2017) and I are looking at how noni volatiles change with ripening. A second ongoing project involves the identification of odors produced by damage to coffee.

Research in the Teaching of Chemistry and Biology

Chemistry faculty Steve Cessna, Tara Kishbaugh, and Matt Siderhurst, along with Biology faculty Doug Graber Neufeld, JMU Psychology faculty Jeanne Horst, and Education faculty Lori Leaman were funded by a major NSF CCLI grant to promote the enhanced learning through authentic, relevant research experiences across the biology and chemistry curriculum. Through this project, the chemistry, biology, psychology, and education departments completed a unique interdisciplinary project that seeks to promote deeper, more practical learning of higher order cognitive skills (HOCs), the nature of science (NOS), and oral and written scientific communication skills. A description of the rubric developed to measure these skills