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Research Highlights

Dear Friends, I hope you enjoy this look back over the past year’s highlights from Marshall University’s research enterprise and sense the intensity and purpose they represent. It has been an exceptional year, from the announcement of our Clinical and Translational Science Award partnership with the University of Kentucky to the establishment of the West Virginia EDA University Center, to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s selection of the Rahall Transportation Institute to lead a multi-state research and infrastructure consortium. The exciting research projects featured in this publication are being done at Marshall by our outstanding, dedicated faculty and students. They are engaged every day in finding solutions to today’s most pressing issues— from cancer prevention and treatment to mine safety, digital forensics, renewable energy, nanotechnology, space exploration and more, and working on discoveries that will be the basis of future advances and innovations. We are striving to establish an active, growing and successful research enterprise that will help address today’s challenges, improve the quality of life in the community and provide an engine for economic development. I think you’ll agree we are achieving that goal, and we look forward to providing you with future updates on the daily drumbeat of innovation and scientific advances emerging from Marshall’s halls. Thank you for your ongoing support as we continue to work to advance research and research collaborations, win grant funding and enhance students’ classroom experiences. We are… Marshall! Sincerely,

John M. Maher, Ph.D. Vice President for Research


aleontologist Dr. F. Robin O’Keefe and a colleague have determined that a unique specimen displayed in a Los Angeles museum is the fossil of an embryonic marine reptile contained within the fossil of its mother.

Dr. F. Robin O’Keefe

The 78-million-year-old, 15.4-foot-long adult specimen is a Polycotylus latippinus, one of the giant reptiles known as plesiosaurs that lived during the Mesozoic Era. The embryonic skeleton contained within shows much of the developing body, including ribs, 20 vertebrae, shoulders, hips and paddle bones. The research by O’Keefe and Dr. Luis Chiappe, director of the Natural History Museum Dinosaur Institute in Los Angeles, establishes that these dual fossils are the first evidence that plesiosaurs gave birth to live young, rather than hatching their offspring from eggs on land. “Scientists have long known that the bodies of plesiosaurs were not well suited to climbing onto land and laying eggs in a nest,” said O’Keefe, who is an associate professor of biology at Marshall. “So the lack of evidence of live birth in plesiosaurs has been puzzling. This fossil documents live birth in plesiosaurs for the first time, and so finally resolves this mystery.” O’Keefe’s and Chiappe’s findings were published in August 2011 in the prestigious journal Science.

ma king scien tific history with 78- m i l l i o n - ye a r - o l d ‘p r e g n a n t p l e s i o s au r’

Dr. Pier Paolo Claudio


of Health, the CTSA program is aimed at speeding the time for laboratory discoveries to benefit patients. Xie and Claudio each received $25,000 to advance their research, encourage collaborations and spur innovative approaches to healthcare. A senior scientist at the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research, Xie will use his award to develop a method that may improve surgical repair of rotator cuff injuries. He will be working with Dr. Franklin D. Shuler, associate professor in the Department of Orthopaedics at the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. Dr. Jingwei Xie


arshall scientists Dr. Jingwei Xie and Dr. Pier Paolo Claudio have received the first grants awarded through the Joint Pilot Research Program set up by Marshall and the University of Kentucky (UK) as part of their Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) partnership. Funded by the National Institutes

Claudio, who is an associate professor in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program and the Departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Surgery at the medical school, will use his funds to help develop an assay that will potentially allow the development of personalized treatment for lung cancer. He will collaborate with Dr. Rolf J. Craven of UK’s Department of Molecular and Biomedical Pharmacology on the project. Xie and Claudio both intend to use their findings from these awards as springboards to apply for larger federal grants for related research.


hanks to the work of a Marshall biology professor, the nation’s largest museum collection of mammals, amphibians and reptiles from West Virginia will be preserved for future generations. Dr. Suzanne G. Strait has been awarded a $373,256 grant from the National Science Foundation to recurate and modernize the unique West Virginia Biological Survey Museum, which is housed in the university’s College of Science. Her colleague Dr. Thomas K. Pauley, also a professor of biology, is coinvestigator on the grant. The museum comprises more than 21,000 specimens amassed over 70 years. Nearly every species described in West Virginia is part of the collection, including many of those listed as federally endangered or at risk.

“This natural history collection from West Virginia is larger than that of any other museum in the country, and it is truly a unique resource to be developed for training the next generation of biologists who will study Appalachia’s animals,” said Strait. “It is in urgent need of new equipment and curation to ensure its survival, so we were quite pleased to get this award.”

natural history collection from West “This Virginia is larger than that of any other

museum in the country, and it is truly a unique resource to be developed for training the next generation of biologists who will study Appalachia’s animals. ~ Strait


Dr. Suzanne Strait

Rahall Transportation Institute



ecognized as one of the top university transportation centers in the country, Marshall’s Rahall Transportation Institute has been selected to lead a multi-state consortium focused on research, training and jobs development. Funded through a $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Multimodal Transportation and Infrastructure Consortium (MTIC) also includes the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville and Hampton University. At the heart of the consortium is the training of a transportation workforce and the education of transportation professionals. The MTIC partners will conduct collaborative studies and analyses, and will provide a range of workforce and training opportunities, especially through partnership with Hampton University—a historically black college. Members of the consortium will play a leading role in developing the next generation of highly trained transportation professionals.

RTI Director and CEO Robert H. Plymale said, “MTIC is the only one out of only a handful of transportation research centers in the nation that will be focusing on intermodal and multimodal transportation as it relates to economic development. We are bringing together invaluable expertise and practical experience from these four universities to help our region and our nation determine what transportation can do to promote commerce.”

are bringing together invaluable “ We expertise and practical experience from these four universities to help our region and our nation determine what transportation can do to promote commerce. ~ Plymale


Marshall expert in condensed-matter and laser physics is conducting research that may help make testing and design of spacecraft thrusters less costly. According to Dr. Thomas Wilson, professor of physics, an ion thruster is a form of electric propulsion used for spacecrafts that creates thrust by accelerating ions. These thrusters, although providing much less thrust than chemical rockets, are able to operate at higher efficiency and for much longer periods of time than conventional chemical rocket engines; however, the wall structures of the ion thrusters tend to erode over time.

Wilson has been awarded $478,709 from NASA EPSCoR and $200,000 from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research for his work to better understand the erosion process and potentially improve the future design of these propulsion systems. Wilson’s lab at Marshall will be collaborating on the project with scientific personnel at NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; Edwards Air Force Base in California; the universities of Michigan, Rice and Stuttgart; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.


Dr. Thomas Wilson

Dr. Radim Hédl


hen given the option of choosing where to study as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar for the spring semester, forest ecology expert Dr. Radim Hédl of the Czech Republic selected Marshall University and the lab of biology professor Dr. Frank S. Gilliam.


understory diversity. Their research focused on smallscale variation in soil resources, which is important for the composition of herb communities in hardwood forests, common both in West Virginia and the Czech Republic.

Hédl’s research, which has taken him to a number of countries including Chile, Malaysia and Brunei, focuses on the diversity and dynamics of forest vegetation, the historical human impact on ecosystems and the conservation of forest ecosystems.

Hédl expected to learn more about the role of nitrogen in temperate hardwood ecosystems, using two sites in West Virginia where long-term research has been conducted. He is one of approximately 800 outstanding foreign faculty and professionals teaching or conducting research in the United States this year through the Visiting Scholar Program.

At Marshall, Hédl worked with Gilliam to study environmental factors responsible for maintaining forest


arshall’s internationally recognized Forensic Science Center has completed a DNA analysis project that eliminated the New Orleans Police Department’s backlog of 800 untested sexual assault kits. The results from these DNA tests already have begun to help law enforcement solve violent sex crimes in their efforts to secure justice for the victims and their families. Based on the results from Marshall’s labs, two convictions already have been obtained and more are expected. In total, the project yielded 78 hits in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). A CODIS hit links either a DNA profile from a forensic case to another case or to an offender profile. These hits provide investigative leads for law enforcement officers to follow.

The backlog was created when, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded the New Orleans Police Department’s Crime Laboratory, destroying its DNA laboratory, equipment and significant amounts of documentation of criminal cases. The National Institute of Justice organized the collaborative effort among Marshall, the Louisiana State Police Crime Laboratory and the New Orleans Police Department. Due to the success of the New Orleans initiative, the Forensic Science Center is starting a similar project with the Detroit Police Department.


Forensic Science Center

Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing



arshall has teamed up with Concord University and the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing (RCBI) to help entrepreneurs, small businesses and manufacturers in southern West Virginia develop and commercialize new products. The goal of the partnership’s new West Virginia EDA University Center is to help increase business productivity, spur innovation and entrepreneurship, and improve long-term regional competitiveness and economic diversification of industries across the state.

WV is the latest new program in “ INNOVATE our state that is providing support and direct assistance to help spur new ideas, generate added business activity, grow a broader jobs base and strengthen the economy, particularly in the southern region. ~ Weber

Marshall’s Center for Business and Economic Research will collect and analyze data about talent pools, workforce readiness and entrepreneurial pathways to help identify regional talent pools, industrial clusters and areas of economic opportunity. RCBI will help provide customized visualization, prototyping and advanced machining training and services for small businesses. Through the first phase of the initiative, called Innovate WV, five small manufacturers were selected to receive assistance ranging from the production of detailed engineering drawings to 3-D modeling of prototypes and fabrication services. Charlotte Weber, RCBI director and CEO, said, “INNOVATE WV is the latest new program in our state that is providing support and direct assistance to help spur new ideas, generate added business activity, grow a broader jobs base and strengthen the economy, particularly in the southern region.” The center’s activities are funded in part through a five-year, $500,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Dr. Philippe Georgel

Dr. Elaine Hardman



wo Marshall scientists are looking at whether a maternal diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids found in some plants and fatty fish can reduce the incidence of breast cancer and limit growth of malignant mammary tumors in female offspring.

there are any specific gene expression changes induced by omega-3 consumption in the offspring by feeding pregnant mice a diet containing canola oil (a source of omega-3) or a diet containing corn oil (not an omega-3 source).

The research by Dr. Elaine Hardman, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, and Dr. Philippe Georgel, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, may lead to a very practical way, a simple dietary change, to prevent breast cancer.

Studies in Hardman’s lab have also found the risk of breast cancer dropped significantly in mice when their regular diet included a modest amount of walnut.

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense, Hardman and Georgel are working to determine if

“Food is important medicine in our diet,” Hardman said. “What we put into our bodies makes a big difference—it determines how the body functions, our reaction to illness and health. The simple stuff really works: eat right, get off the couch and turn off the TV.”



r. Gary O. Rankin and Dr. Monica A. Valentovic, professors in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Toxicology at the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, have found that resveratrol—a natural component of red wine, grapes, blueberries and peanuts—can reduce toxicity to the kidney caused by the common anti-cancer drug cisplatin. “Dr. Valentovic and I are using a human kidney cell line to look into the protective effects of resveratrol,” said Rankin. “We have found that the compound’s powerful antioxidant properties may be important in helping to protect the kidney from cisplatin’s harmful effects.” The work is funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.



arshall University’s Center for Environmental, Geotechnical and Applied Sciences and the West Virginia Brownfields Assistance Center at Marshall have partnered with the West Virginia Division of Energy Office of Coalfield Community Development to install solar panel systems at two high schools.


aking on some of mankind’s greatest challenges and advancing cutting-edge science, research and learning all require enormous computing power. Now, researchers, faculty and students at Marshall University have access to a new high-performance computing cluster that will enable them to make significant advancements in fields as diverse as bioinformatics, climate research, physics, computational chemistry and engineering. Nicknamed “BigGreen,” the new cluster makes possible scholarly innovation and discoveries that were, until recently, possible only at the most prestigious research institutions. It is powerful enough to allow simulations of black holes and gravitational waves. It can provide data support for sequencing of DNA at unprecedented speeds, and it can make possible the design of complex underground mine ventilation systems. The network of computer systems can also accommodate molecular modeling, disaster simulations and gait analysis in the university’s Visualization Lab. BigGreen was made possible in part by the National Science Foundation.


The partners have been working over the last year on the project to demonstrate renewable energy applications on former surface-mined properties. Panels have been installed at Mount View High School in Welch and University High School in Morgantown. Both schools are located on reclaimed surface mine sites with extensive “skyview” well situated for a solar panel array system. Researchers say the panels will provide both renewable solar energy to the schools and an educational component for students. The systems will include real-time monitors to evaluate system performance, and the results will be incorporated into science-based classroom projects. Funding for the project is being provided by the Appalachian Regional Commission, the county boards of education and the West Virginia Division of Energy.

Dr. Eric R. Blough



s worldwide interest in nanotechnology grows, scientists at Marshall’s Center for Diagnostic Nanosystems are investigating the effects of nanomaterials on the environment and human health. A recent study by center director Dr. Eric R. Blough and his colleagues demonstrated that nanoparticles of cerium oxide—a common diesel fuel additive—can travel from the lungs to the liver and that the process is associated with liver damage. Other studies have found that these cerium oxide nanoparticles, which are only about 1/40,000 times as large as the width of a human hair, may also be capable of acting as antioxidants, leading some researchers to suggest these particles may also be useful for the treatment of cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease and radiation-induced tissue damage.

the ever-increasing use of “ Given nanomaterials in industry and in the

products we buy, it is becoming increasingly important to understand if these substances may be harmful. ~ Blough

“Given the ever-increasing use of nanomaterials in industry and in the products we buy, it is becoming increasingly important to understand if these substances may be harmful,” Blough said. The researchers say their next step is to determine the mechanism of the toxicity. The study was supported with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy.


iology faculty member Dr. Brian L. Antonson is fascinated with how an animal’s experience changes its nervous system and subsequent behavior.

Dr. Travis Salisbury

A neuroscientist and a group leader in the state’s Research Infrastructure Improvement award from the National Science Foundation, he is particularly interested in discovering how social experiences cause long-lasting changes in the properties of circuits in the brain, resulting in the formation of the behaviors typical of socially dominant or subordinate animals. According to Antonsen, it is well established that dominant animals tend to be bolder while subordinates are more reclusive and maintain a lower posture, but there is not yet a comprehensive understanding of how these behavior changes are produced at the cellular level. “One major study under way in our lab is exploring how the neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine— both of which are intimately involved in producing socially relevant behaviors—act to change the properties of single neurons,” he said. DISCOVERING HOW E X PERIENCES CHANGE THE B RAIN



tudies have shown that obesity increases human risk for several types of cancer but scientists are not really sure why. Dr. Travis Salisbury, an assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Toxicology at the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, is exploring one possibility. “Our data shows that adipocytes, or fat cells, secrete factors that stimulate human breast cancer cells to grow rapidly,” he said. “We have discovered that blocking the activity of a specific receptor—the aryl hydrocarbon receptor or AHR—in the cancer cells reduces their capacity for growth in an adipocyte-rich environment.” A $60,000 grant from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America Foundation will fund Salisbury’s research on this link between adipocytesupported cancer growth and the AHR.

Dr. Brian L. Antonson

“AHR has been studied for its roles in toxicology; however, our recent work suggests that this receptor could be a new therapeutic target for treating cancer in the context of obesity,” he added. “It is quite exciting to think that our findings will provide not only a better understanding of the relationship between obesity and increased cancer risk, but may also suggest future treatments for cancer.”

Undergraduate Research



arshall is committed to creating meaningful research opportunities for undergraduate students. This year, the university offered five intensive undergraduate summer research programs. The nineand 10-week programs allowed undergraduate students to gain valuable, hands-on experience doing graduatelevel research in the labs of some of Marshall’s top scientists, mathematicians and engineers. While at Marshall, the students worked on research projects related to a variety of topics, including biomedicine (cancer, cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, toxicology and environmental health, and infectious diseases), mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.

Dr. Elsa Mangiarua, who directs the West Virginia INBRE Summer Research Program, said, “We are providing in-depth, mentored research opportunities for very talented undergraduates. The programs also promote awareness of graduate degree programs and careers in biomedical research.” Support for the summer programs came from the West Virginia Research Challenge Fund, the National Science Foundation, West Virginia INBRE/National Institutes of Health, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology/ Minority Access to Research Careers program, and the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.


arshall civil engineering students grabbed the attention of other schools during this year’s American Society of Civil Engineers Virginias Conference held at Virginia Tech. The team from Marshall designed and constructed a vessel made of concrete and took home several honors as they competed with 14 other engineering schools in a series of 11 challenges. They won first place in the concrete canoe final product and oral presentation categories, and their canoe placed second overall. The team earned another first place for aesthetics in steel bridge construction, and was awarded first place for fashioning a bowling ball out of discarded cigarette filters and left-over concrete from the canoe. Marshall placed third in the T-shirt competition with a design by student Rachel Hager.

Dr. Tony Szwilski

Work on the concrete canoe began in fall 2011 with concrete mix designs and testing through the winter. A total of 12 mix designs were tested before the final mix used in the canoe was obtained. Students also had to design and build a mold for casting the canoe along with a curing chamber which enclosed the canoe for 19 days before it was stained. COMPETING SUCCESSFULLY WITH THE BEST



ork is under way at Marshall’s Center for Geotechnical and Applied Sciences to develop a virtual mine safety training academy that will lead to advances in emergency response training. According to center director Dr. Tony Szwilski, the Web-based environment will include an underground room-and-pillar coal mine. The platform will use a UNITY game-engine to create a unique site providing valuable emergency response exercises such as communications and decision-making in dangerous and stressful environments. The project is funded through a $117,000 award from the Brookwood-Sago federal grant program.


enior biology student Clay M. Crabtree has received a prestigious Grants-In-Aid of Research award from the national science society Sigma Xi to conduct research to test potential treatments for diabetic retinopathy. This common eye disease, during which excessive growth of blood vessels causes damage to the retina, is the leading cause of blindness among working-age Americans. According to Crabtree, cigarette smoking is a risk factor for diabetic retinopathy because nicotine promotes the growth of blood vessels.



our Marshall undergraduates are among 90 students nationwide selected to participate in a national supercomputing program. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR initiative, the year-long Cyberinfrastructure Student Engagement Program provides students opportunities to learn more about cyberinfrastructure—a term commonly used to refer to computational systems, data and information management, visualization environments and people, all linked together by collaborative software and advanced networks. The goal is to help them understand the potential of technology and supercomputing to enhance learning and research, and to train them to serve as cyberinfrastructure ambassadors on their own campuses. The Marshall students selected to participate include Alex King, a senior from Fairmont; Mitchell Browning, a senior from Poca; Finley Hammond, a senior from Huntington; and Brandon Posey, a sophomore from Scott Depot. All four are computer science majors.

“Agents that can block the actions of nicotine should be useful for the treatment of diabetic retinopathy,” he continued. “My research involves testing three of these compounds for their ability to block the growth of new vessels in the retina.” Crabtree is working in the lab of Dr. Piyali Dasgupta of Marshall’s Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Toxicology. TESTING TREATMENTS FOR DIA BETIC RETINOPATHY


arshall graduate student M. Allison Wolf is investigating the anticancer effects of isothiocyanates—a natural compound extracted from cruciferous vegetables—on head and neck cancer. Her work shows the compound both inhibits head and neck metastasis and greatly increases sensitivity to chemotherapy in therapy-resistant head and neck cancers. Wolf recently received first place in her group in a research poster competition held as part of the Diet and Cancer mini-symposium held in conjunction with the international Experimental Biology conference in San Diego. The mini-symposium was funded by the American Society of Nutrition. STUDYING INSECT FLIGHT; MENTORING YOUNG SCIENTISTS


wo high school students working in the lab of Dr. Simon Collier at Marshall are receiving national recognition for their research on insect flight. The students, Nathan N. Wang and Jared M. Galloway, are seniors at Fairland High School in Proctorville, Ohio. They have been working in Collier’s lab since summer 2010 with Marshall graduate student David Neff on a project to explore the function of a rubber– like protein, resilin, in insect flight. Wang and Galloway were nationally recognized for their research when they were named semifinalists in the 2011 Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology. The highest science honor awarded to American high school students, the award is sponsored by the Siemens Foundation. Their project was one of only three from Ohio to reach the national semifinals. According to Neff, their work has increased the understanding of insect flight, and also has potential implications for the design of biotechnological devices and possibly tissue implants. The research was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium.

A biomedical sciences doctoral candidate from Parkersburg, Wolf works in the lab of Dr. Pier Paolo Claudio, an associate professor in the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program and the departments of Biochemistry and Microbiology and Surgery at the university’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. INVESTIGATING ANTICANCER EFFECTS OF V EGETAB LE COMPOUND


John M. Maher, PhD Vice President for Research, Marshall University Executive Director, Marshall University Research Corporation 304.696.4748 Joe Ciccarello Director, Grants and Contracts/Associate Executive Director 304.696.4837 Karla Murphy, CPA, MBA Chief Financial Officer 304.696.7118 Bruce Day, CIP Director, Office of Research Integrity 304.696.4303 Amy Melton Assistant Director, Technology Transfer Office 304.696.4365 Ginny Painter, MBA Communications Director 304.746.1964

Photos courtesy of: Rick Haye, Marshall University Communications; Diana Maue, Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program; Forensic Science Center; College of Information Technology and Engineering; Center for Geotechnical and Applied Sciences; Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing; Science; and Steve Shaluta, West Virginia Department of Commerce.

To find out more about these research projects and others, please visit our website.

Marshall University Research Corporation 401 11th Street, Suite 1400 Huntington, West Virginia 25701 304.696.6598

Research Highlights 2011-12  
Research Highlights 2011-12  

A look at the past year’s highlights from Marshall University’s research enterprise