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Research Highlights

Dear Friends, I am pleased to present this latest compilation of highlights from our university’s research enterprise. We have had an extraordinary year. As you will see, our exceptional faculty and students are working each day to find solutions to complex problems— from studying the effects of climate change to ensuring clean drinking water to speeding new treatments to patients with cancer, diabetes and hypertension. And they are making progress. Our vision for a diverse, growing and successful research enterprise that will enrich the educational experience of our students, enable the scholarly mission of our faculty and provide an engine for economic development is more important today than ever. Even as we reflect on this year’s success, we look forward to yet another resource for innovation on our campus. When the Arthur Weisberg Family Engineering Complex opens in early 2015, not only will the engineering program have a state-of-the-art space in which to grow and thrive, research overall at Marshall also will be immensely enhanced by the proximity of high-tech facilities and faculty along the Third Avenue corridor. Researchers in engineering will be closer to colleagues in medicine, pharmacy, chemistry, biology and physics, and the offices of the research corporation will be more convenient to the campus community. Marshall’s already considerable strengths in collaborative, multidisciplinary research will be taken to new levels by this forward-looking investment. Thank you for your continued support! Sincerely,

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

Developing sensors to detect threats


hemical sensors to help detect health and security threats at the molecular level sound like the stuff of science fiction, but research in the lab of Dr. Michael Norton is closing in on just that. Working at the nanoscale—the size of individual atoms and molecules—Norton and his team are developing single-molecule sensors that could one day revolutionize health care and national security. According to Norton, the challenge with current disease detection methods is that you have to get a single molecule into position with your detector or it will not be identified. On the other hand, he says, “It appears that if you have enough of these single-molecule detectors, you can go orders of magnitude below the most sensitive techniques used in medicine at this time. One potential application is in detecting cancer early. New detection methods should

“New detection methods should enable us to create systems that will detect cancer years before it would be detected by any of the techniques in use today.” enable us to create systems that will detect cancer years before it would be detected by any of the techniques in use today.” He says another application for the technology may be in national security because the U.S. military is interested in being able to identify threat agents at much lower levels than current methods allow.

Using 3-D printing to study human evolution


biological anthropologist, Dr. Paul Constantino studies human evolution, including how the skull and teeth have developed. The shelves of his office are lined with life-size skull models illustrating the range of human evolution and his lab is filled with experiments designed to measure things like the force required to crack nuts and the jaw motions of giant pandas as they chew bamboo. Ironically, perhaps, for someone studying and teaching about humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago, Constantino is using one of today’s hottest technologies in his lab and classroom. He is using a state-of-the-art 3-D printer to give students in his human anatomy courses hands-on access to replicas of specimens they are studying.

“We purchased the printer so we could make reproductions of specimens at the size we need to inspect them,” he says. “For example, some of the teeth we are examining are tiny, almost microscopic, so they are very difficult to see. Now we can print a model of that tooth that’s large enough to handle and shows all the detail, right down to the ridges and grooves on the surface of the actual specimen.”

“Now we can print a model of that tooth that’s large enough to handle and shows all the detail, right down to the ridges and grooves on the surface of the actual specimen.”

Tracking the eastern diamondback rattlesnake


r. Jayme Waldron often can be found crawling through dense brush in search of the largest venomous snake in North America—the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. The biology professor has spent much of her career tracking the snakes to learn more about how and where they live, and how far they roam. Due to declining numbers and widespread loss of habitat, the species is currently under review for possible protection under the Endangered Species Act. Waldron’s newest research project is taking her to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island in Beaufort County, S.C., where she is leading a study to examine the effects of common military land use practices on the snakes. The research is funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of the Army. For the study, she and her team are conducting mark-recapture surveys and using radio telemetry to monitor free-ranging diamondbacks. Waldron said that ultimately the military’s goal is to make sure their habitat management practices both ensure the success of their training operations and address the conservation of at-risk species.

Probing the link between climate change & evolution


oncerns about climate change and its impact on the world around us are growing daily. New scientific studies by Marshall paleontologist Dr. F. Robin O’Keefe and his colleagues are probing the link between climate warming and the evolution of Ice Age predators, attempting to predict how animals will respond to climate change today.

The La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles are famous for the amazing array of Ice Age fossils found there. But the climate during the end of the Ice Age (50,000-11,000 years ago) was unstable, with rapid warming and cooling. The new

research has documented the impact of this climate change on La Brea predators for the first time. The studies demonstrate significant change over time in the skulls of both dire wolves and saber-toothed cats. “Different tar pits at La Brea accumulated at different times,” said O’Keefe. “When we compare fossils deposited at different times, we see big changes. We can actually watch evolution happening. “We can see animals adapting to a warming climate at La Brea. Then humans show up and all the big ones disappear. We haven’t been able to establish causality there yet. But we are working on it.” His research is funded through grants from the National Science Foundation/West Virginia Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and NASA.

Exploring the metabolic theory of ecology


onors College student Tuesday Moats is getting national attention for her research and academic achievements. For the past year, the Sugar Grove native has been studying freshwater mussels in the lab of Dr. Jeffrey Kovatch, an assistant professor of biological sciences, and recently was accepted into a prestigious National Science Foundation summer program at Oregon State University, where she will be working on a project to explore the diversity of deep sea vents. Moats also received an honorable mention in the 2014 Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship competition—the nation’s premier undergraduate award designed to encourage outstanding students to pursue careers in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering.

A junior double-majoring in microbiology and in ecology, evolution and behavioral biology, Moats also is pursuing a minor in mathematics. She plans to get a doctorate in microbiology or ecology, with the goal of conducting research and teaching at the university level. “It is very encouraging for me to receive national recognition and it affirms that I have chosen the right field,” she said. “I have been able to find the right career choice through my experiences at Marshall and in the Honors College. I am very excited for the opportunity I’ve been given this summer at Oregon State, and I hope to bring some of my experiences back with me to Marshall.”

Studying the effects of dehydration


ne Marshall graduate student is using ROTC military cadets to study the physiological effects of dehydration. David Cottrill is a second-year exercise science graduate student. A nine-year U.S. Army veteran, he said the focus of his research was influenced by his own experiences. “The conditions our military face in desert environments like Afghanistan are hard to train or prepare for, as these conditions are very specific to that environment,” Cottrill said. “The purpose of my research was to accurately replicate these conditions and test the level of performance in regard to dehydration.” For the study, nine members of the Marshall ROTC were asked to dress in full military Army Combat Uniform and carry a heavy rucksack in an 85-degree room for one hour.

“I want my research to help soldiers perform to the best of their abilities.” Currently, it is estimated members of the military can lose up to seven pounds in one hour due to dehydration. For three weeks, Cottrill studied the physiological effects of dehydration in cadets who drink pure water and cadets who drink an electrolyte solution, such as Gatorade. “There’s very little information available which tells us the best recommendation when determining training protocol,” said Cottrill. “I want my research to help soldiers perform to the best of their abilities.” Research like Cottrill’s allows for a practical application of a real-life scenario, which could result in major changes for all branches of the military.

Investigating treatments for cancer, heart AND kidney disease


r. Zijian Xie, whose laboratory is internationally recognized for its groundbreaking work to understand the behavior of cellular pathways and their relationship to cancer, renal disease and cardiac failure, is the new director of the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research. Xie has focused his research for nearly 30 years on an enzyme commonly referred to as the “sodium-potassium pump” because it controls the levels of potassium and sodium entering and exiting cells. This pumping process is vital to transporting essential nutrients like glucose and amino acids into cells and maintaining the electrical charge within cells, which is particularly important in controlling normal functions in nerves and muscles, as well as in the kidney and heart. Xie’s research shows that in addition to its critical pumping function, the enzyme plays a second, distinct role by directing a variety of cellular processes. Through their studies to learn more about how this cellular signaling occurs, Xie and his colleagues are working to develop new treatments for cancer, heart and kidney disease. “I was attracted to Marshall by MIIR’s business orientation,” said Xie. “By all working together, I think we can build this institute and integrate research programs at Marshall into a much larger enterprise that will help improve human health, promote international exchange and stimulate economic development in the region.” Research in his laboratory is supported through funding from the National Institutes of Health and Youbo Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd.

Exploring effects of humans on region’s waterways


he January 2014 water crisis in Kanawha and surrounding counties put a spotlight on the quality of West Virginia’s rivers and streams.

A wide variety of research at Marshall is focused on many of the issues raised by the crisis, including how to detect contaminants in the region’s water supply, predict how dangerous those toxins may be and find the best ways to remove them from the environment. Dr. Mindy Armstead, an associate professor of integrated science and technology, is heading up some of that water research. She leads a group of Marshall students who call themselves the “Creek Geeks” and work both in the lab and in the field to study stream ecology and the effects humans have on those ecosystems. Although their name is funny, the group is doing vital research. “Our name truly describes how we blend technology with old-fashioned field biology to address some of the most pressing environmental issues in West Virginia and the Appalachian region,” says Armstead. The group’s current research projects include studying the effects of selenium on fish communities and evaluating the effects of total dissolved solids on the small organisms—like mayflies, dragonflies and crayfish—that live among the stones and sediment in streams, rivers and lakes. She adds that biological communities are used to evaluate the quality of freshwater systems and can indicate the presence of chemical contaminants. Another topic of interest to the “Creek Geeks” is the invasive species Prymnesium parvum. Often referred to as the “golden algae,” the organism produces toxins that, while not believed to be dangerous to humans, cause extensive fish kills worldwide. Armstead and her students are evaluating new methods of controlling the algae and studying how environmental conditions affect production of the toxins. Their research is funded through the Appalachian Research Initiative for Environmental Science and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement through a sub-contract with West Virginia University. In February, Marshall officials announced the university will be partnering with the Charleston Area Alliance and others to create a center of innovation for water cleanliness and sustainability at the West Virginia Regional Technology Park in South Charleston. The mission of the new West Virginia Water Sustainability Institute will be to develop and commercialize innovative technologies to maintain, improve and protect water supplies throughout the state.

“Our name truly describes how we blend technology with old-fashioned field biology to address some of the most pressing environmental issues in West Virginia and the Appalachian region.�

Overcoming communications barriers


omputer science/information technology student Dylan Watson was selected as one of the first 8,000 Google Glass Explorers after entering (and winning) a contest about what he’d do if he had Glass. He got the idea for his entry after a real-life stumbling block. While working on a research project about autonomous vehicles at the University of Arizona, Watson was collaborating with a partner who is a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican native. While his partner knew a little bit of English, the two often were forced to communicate by drawing pictures. Watson said, “I thought to myself: There has to be a better way of doing this.” This barrier motivated Watson to create a Google Glass application (app) called, “Wearable Integrated Translator to Break Down Communication Barriers”—or WIT. Using the WIT app, users create a “chat room” that other Glass users can join. A user can instruct the device to start listening for translation using the phrase “Ok Glass, start translating.” Glass immediately sends the words that the user is saying to Watson’s application server, where it identifies the message and the languages spoken by other members of the chat room. Then, the user’s original message is sent to the other chat room members’ devices, where the message is displayed on their screen or played in their native language using the Glass ear piece. Fundamentally, if someone uses Watson’s Glass app, creates a chat room with international colleagues and says “hello,” some people may hear “hola” while others hear “bonjour.”

Excerpted from an article in the spring 2014 issue of The Neuron, a publication of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. Used with permission.

Examining temperature-based bone growth therapies


nthropologist Dr. Maria Serrat understands the secrets bones hold. She is determined to discover relevant therapeutic properties from established environmental effects on bone growth—a largely unexplored research area. Applying her graduate-level experience in biological anthropology, Serrat is answering questions today that may change the way growth-related disorders are treated tomorrow. Her current work investigates environmental inputs on bone elongation, specifically roles of temperature and physical activity on limb lengthening. “Whether from disease or injury, short stature or limb length discrepancy can be problematic in growing children. Even a few centimeters’ difference in legs, for instance, can cause a lifetime of chronic back problems,” says Serrat, in anticipation of what her findings about

heat’s effects on encouraging bone growth might mean to medicine. Current options for treating delayed growth include medications and invasive surgery. “We developed a model to study how the application of heat on the body’s surface can stimulate bone elongation,” Serrat said. “By validating this model, we are looking at future possible clinical treatments to lengthen bones in children with growth issues or orthopedic trauma using non-invasive methods.” Research in her lab is funded by the American Society for Bone and Mineral Research. She also has a pilot grant through Marshall’s Clinical and Translational Science Award partnership with the University of Kentucky.

Excerpted in part from “Bones Heat Up Research Study: Dr. Maria Serrat examines temperature-based bone growth therapies” by Lisa Shrewsberry; “We Are...Bridging Medicine and Science,” a publication of the Marshall University Biomedical Sciences and Graduate Program, Volume 1, Issue 3, Fall 2013. Used with permission.

Speeding new treatments to patients


s a physician, Dr. Uma Sundaram specializes in caring for patients with inflammatory bowel disease and other diseases related to the digestive system.

“In order to provide this type of care, clinical and translational research focused on the health needs of our citizens in the Tri-State area is critical.”

As vice dean for clinical/translational research at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, he is also a leading investigator with decades of experience in translational medicine— working to quickly turn research findings into treatments for patients right here in this region. His research on intestinal absorption of nutrients in inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer is funded with grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health. “Our citizens suffer from innumerable health care disparities, many of which place us in the unenviable forefront position in this country,” said Sundaram. “In order to provide this type of care, clinical and translational research focused on the health needs of our citizens in the Tri-State area is critical. My goal is to promote these types of collaborative research efforts across Marshall University and affiliated health delivery facilities in the region.”


idely known for his research in the field of obesity and vascular disease, Dr. Nader Abraham is the inaugural vice dean for research at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

“I very much enjoy working with outstanding clinicians with little basic science experience and seeing them evolve into translational researchers. Truly, Marshall offers a unique opportunity to achieve these goals.”

Focusing his research on vascular disease, which is a prelude to cardiovascular and metabolic diseases like hypertension, stroke, diabetes and obesity, Abraham and his team of researchers specifically study heme oxygenase, the most potent antioxidant gene in the human body. His team’s work also includes ways to speed up the implementation of laboratory discoveries into treatments for patients, often called “translational medicine.” He said, “I very much enjoy working with outstanding clinicians with little basic science experience and seeing them evolve into translational researchers. Truly, Marshall offers a unique opportunity to achieve these goals.” Research in his lab is funded through the National Institutes of Health.

Transforming traditional industries


t first glance, linking local food and farm businesses with the advanced technology at the Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing might seem like an odd fit.

“The ultimate goal will be to design new technologies for farm-to-market users that will transition to marketable products, useful innovations and, in the final analysis, new jobs and model programs to be shared with the nation.”

Innovation in West Virginia’s traditional industries is one of the keys to job and business growth, however, so a new initiative funded by the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation is leveraging RCBI’s high-tech capabilities and workforce development programs to help increase the productivity of the local food supply chain. RCBI will be working to strengthen a food supply consortium, design a food supply website and mobile application, help introduce technology-driven products and services to the industry, and deliver training on quality control processes. Charlotte Weber, RCBI’s director, said, “The ultimate goal will be to design new technologies for farm-to-market users that will transition to marketable products, useful innovations and, in the final analysis, new jobs and model programs to be shared with the nation.”

Improving highway safety


nsuring that drivers of tractor trailers and buses are qualified to operate their vehicles on the state’s highways is an important key to helping prevent traffic deaths and accidents. By creating an efficient, accurate and technology-based system to administer Commercial Driver’s License testing, the Rahall Transportation Institute has helped the West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles convert a traditional paper-based testing procedure into a fully automated system, all while complying with federally mandated testing standards. The technology developed at RTI is called e-CDL (electronic Commercial Drivers’ License) and features software with GPS capabilities to record and document skills tests. Tests are administered using Toughbook laptops with GPS for the road test portion of the exam. The eCDL system also records GPS data during the vehicle inspection and basic skills portions to ensure the test is completed in the proper location.

Undergraduate Research

“The roads are also safer because the accuracy of testing scores is 100 percent compared to manual calculations.” According to RTI’s Chandra Ingles-Smith, the new system has saved the state significant time and money because supervisors are able to review examiners through the technology rather than making frequent and costly field checks. eCDL also has increased the accuracy of test scores and eliminated testing fraud. “The state of West Virginia has saved time and money by reduction of physical materials like paper and vehicles,” she added. “The roads are also safer because the accuracy of testing scores is 100 percent compared to manual calculations.”

Key Research Contacts 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

Acknowledgements: Marshall University Biomedical Sciences and Graduate Program; College of Health Professions; Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine; Office of University Relations; Rahall Transportation Institute; Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing; West Virginia Department of Commerce; West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, Division of Science and Research Photo Credits: Cabell Huntington Hospital (Dr. Uma Sundaram); Creek Geeks (Dr. Mindy Armstead); Rick Haye/Marshall University; The Herald-Dispatch (Dr. Zijian Xie); Rick Lee (Dr. Maria Serrat); Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits (Dr. F. Robin O’Keefe); John Sibold/Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia (Dylan Watson); Dr. Jayme Waldron; Liu Yang/Marshall University (David Cottrill)

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 2013-14  
Research Highlights 2013-14  

Highlights from Marshall University's research enterprise