Category Archives: Research

Invasive species exhibit opens at N.C. Estuarium

East Carolina University biologist April Blakeslee and students in her lab have created a new exhibit on invasive species at the North Carolina Estuarium in Washington. The exhibit will be unveiled Thursday, Oct. 26 at 4:30 p.m.

ECU biologist April Blakeslee and art and design student Kayla Clark have created a display about invasive species at the N.C. Estuarium in Washington. The exhibit opens Thursday, Oct. 26. (contributed photos)

ECU biologist April Blakeslee and art and design student Kayla Clark have created a display about invasive species at the N.C. Estuarium in Washington. The exhibit opens Thursday, Oct. 26. (contributed photos)

Funded by N.C. Sea Grant with additional contributions from the N.C. Estuarium and ECU’s Department of Biology, Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, and Division of Research, Economic Development and Engagement, the exhibit highlights Blakeslee’s research on zombie crabs — mud crabs infected with a parasite that takes over their reproductive systems — as well as notable invaders such as lionfish and hydrilla.

“We hope that visitors will come away with a better understanding about invasive species and will be fascinated by this host-parasite system and also the important role that parasites can have in ecosystems” said Blakeslee. “They will also learn more about how each person can make a difference in preventing the spread of invaders by not releasing unwanted pets; cleaning boats of attached algae, plants and animals; cleaning boots — essentially, the message that every person can make a difference in conservation-related efforts.”

ECU art and design graduate student Kayla Clark was instrumental in the design of the exhibit, Blakeslee said. “The exhibit is truly interdisciplinary, bringing art and science together for educating about an important conservation issue.”

The zombie crab parasite is a kind of barnacle, called Loxothylacus panopaei or Loxo for short, that is native to the Gulf of Mexico but is now being found along the east coast as far north as Long Island Sound. Blakeslee and her students dubbed the infected crabs zombie crabs because they continue living but are reproductively dead. The parasite also affects the crab’s behavior, causing it to protect the egg sac as if it were the crab’s own young. The protective behavior is found not only in female crabs, but also in males, which would not normally exhibit such tendencies.

By hijacking the mud crabs’ reproductive system, Blakeslee said the parasite could have a dramatic impact on the population. She and a team of researchers are monitoring mud crab populations in eastern North Carolina to assess and track the spread of the parasite.

The N.C. Estuarium is located at 223 E. Water St. in Washington. For more information visit www.partnershipforthesounds.net/nc-estuarium.

 

-by Jules Norwood, ECU News Services

Project researches community resilience

Jasmine Hayes, a master’s student in East Carolina University’s Department of Public Health, has been awarded funding to study resilience in rural communities following natural disasters.

The $10,000 grant from N.C. Sea Grant and the N.C. Water Resources Research Institute will be used to conduct focus groups and ultimately improve the understanding of how individuals and communities respond after major storms, flooding and other disasters. The Disaster Resilience Program will be conducted in Pitt and Robeson counties.

Jasmine Hayes has received funding to study community resilience. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Jasmine Hayes has received funding to study community resilience. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

“We chose Pitt County because it was affected in 1999 by Hurricane Floyd, and those same communities were affected again in 2016 by Hurricane Matthew,” Hayes said. “We chose Robeson County because it’s the third-highest poverty stricken county in N.C., and also it had the highest flooding among 50 counties that were affected by Hurricane Matthew.”

Hayes is seeking members of the community to share their experiences.

“From those focus groups we want to allow people a voice that they may not have had to speak and tell their story, so that we can better assess community leaders and those programs that provide assistance and help to people who have been affected by hurricanes and disasters,” she said. “We wanted to get the perspective of community members that have been affected, to get a better understanding of what they’ve gone through, the struggles, how they feel like things could be improved for future disasters in our community.”

Suzanne Lea, associate professor in the Department of Public Health, said the study will help to articulate the perceptions and behaviors that influence how people adapt after a flooding event.

“Collectively, we aim to understand how individual resilience contributes to community resilience,” she said. “At the conclusion of this project, residents of eastern North Carolina will have helped identify strategies that enhance recovery from flooding events.”

The project’s findings will be shared with local governments and aid agencies to help in shaping response efforts for future flooding events.

For more information or to participate in the focus groups, contact Hayes at 252.744.2629.

 

-by Jules Norwood

ECU researchers studying Cadmium disruption of Calcium binding proteins

Researchers at East Carolina University are continuing to study a known toxin and its interaction with Human Cardiac Troponin C (HcTnC), whose normal binding structure with Calcium helps regulate the contraction and relaxation of the heart muscle. Any disruption of this binding may lead to a buildup of Calcium and numerous health issues, including blocked arteries, irregular heart rhythms and even death.

Pictured left to right: Caitlin Palmer, Dr. Anne Spuches, Katie Vang, Eshita Karnik. (Photos and images provided by Anne Spuches)

Pictured left to right: Caitlin Palmer, Dr. Anne Spuches, Katie Vang, Eshita Karnik. (Photos and images provided by Anne Spuches)

Dr. Anne Spuches, associate professor of chemistry, recently was awarded a three-year, $252,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to support her work on the project.

Along with fellow colleagues and undergraduate and graduate students in her lab, Spuches is researching calcium and cadmium interactions with EF-hand proteins. Specifically, they are examining how Cd(II) binds with HcTnC, preventing the crucial binding of Ca(II).

Spuches’ team consists of Drs. Toby Allen and Anthony Kennedy from the Department of Chemistry; Drs. Joseph Chalovich and Bill Angus (ret.), from the Brody School of Medicine Department of Biochemistry; Dr. Barbara Lyons, from New Mexico State University; former ECU graduate students Lindsay Fulcher and Rachel Johnson; doctoral student Katherine Buddo; and graduate students Eshita Karnick and Katie Vang.

In the lab, from left to right: Caitlin Palmer, Jacob Montgomery, Dr. Anne Spuches.

In the lab, from left to right: Caitlin Palmer, Jacob Montgomery, Dr. Anne Spuches.

Fulcher was the first student to work with Spuches on cadmium research and performed intense ITC studies to determine the binding constant of metal to protein. She was able to learn how tightly cadmium was binding in comparison to calcium.

She said Spuches gave her the freedom to be creative, which allowed her to build a story that started from the molecular level and has the potential to develop into something that could help people.

“Working in Dr. Spuches lab taught me to always push to learn more and find a way to connect small pieces to a bigger picture,” said Fulcher. “That is where you find meaning and thus the motivation to help change the world through science and research.”

She referred to her experience as something she can use no matter where she goes and no matter what she is doing, saying it was a “soul-searching project.”

The research being performed by Spuches’ team will have multiple benefits, including filling a gap in the current literature regarding the binding of cadmium to other proteins that natively bind calcium.

“It is known that Cd(II) can disrupt Ca(II) signaling pathways but little else is known about the mechanisms of such interactions,” said Spuches.

Structure of cardiac muscle troponin C. (Figure on right generated by Katherine Buddo)

Structure of cardiac muscle troponin C. (Figure on right generated by Katherine Buddo)

Another benefit of the research is that it continues to enable students to conduct independent research in the field of bioinorganic chemistry, learning a multitude of techniques that will prepare them for careers in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries and making them competitive for PhD programs.

“I have really enjoyed working with Dr. Spuches,” said graduate student researcher Katie Vang. “What I enjoy most is seeing the experiments come to life in her lab. She has been working on this project for a long time and to actually be in the lab and see the raw experiments/data is quite rewarding.”

“Her passion has given me insight on the importance for research and what it can contribute to the world,” said Vang.

Ultimately, Spuches’ project may have important implications for how scientists view cadmium toxicity.

“Cadmium exposure and toxicity remain important environmental concerns in the U.S. and in North Carolina,” said Spuches. “Chronic Cd(II) exposure can result in numerous health problems, including cognitive impairment in children, low birth weights and preeclampsia in pregnant women, and cardiovascular disease in adults.”

The structure of cardiac troponin C regulatory domain with bound Cd(II) reveals a closed conformation and unique ion coordination. (Figures generated by Katherine Buddo and Lindsay Fulcher)

The structure of cardiac troponin C regulatory domain with bound Cd(II) reveals a closed conformation and unique ion coordination. (Figures generated by Katherine Buddo and Lindsay Fulcher)

Currently, cadmium is found in cigarette smoke, paint and pesticides, which trickle down into drinking water and are often found in the food supply.

According to Spuches, there is some indication that cadmium also may increase the risks for diabetes and obesity.

This is the topic of a future study Spuches will conduct with Honors College undergraduate students Caitlin Palmer and Jacob Montgomery, and Drs. Lisa Domico and Walter Pories at the ECU Brody School of Medicine, who will examine pesticides and metals found in patients from eastern North Carolina, and their correlation with diabetes and obesity.

The results of Spuches’ research may allow people to make more informed decisions in the future about how to avoid or limit their exposure to toxic metals in the environment, decreasing their potential health risks.

 

-by Lacey L. Gray, University Communications 

Grant funds energy needs, education at community center

Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala (top left) and students at the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center test solar panels and a portable power station. (Photos by Erik Panarusky)

Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala (top left) and students at the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center test solar panels and a portable power station. (Photos by Erik Panarusky)

The Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Community Center will soon have some help with its electrical needs thanks to the sun, students and faculty in the East Carolina University College of Engineering and Technology, and a Constellation E2 Energy to Educate grant.

CET students partnered with the center to study its needs, equipment, appliances and layout, then conducted an energy audit to calculate the total energy consumption and the rate of energy consumption on a daily and monthly basis, said Dr. Ranjeet Agarwala, assistant professor in the Department of Technology Systems.

“We had originally talked about putting solar panels on the roof,” Agarwala said, but based on the center’s needs, a more portable and adaptable system was chosen.

The $37,500 grant funded the purchase of 18 100-watt solar panels and nine portable power stations. Each power station can be charged from the solar panels and can provide power for anything from charging a cell phone to running a refrigerator.

Deborah Moody, director of LGCC, said the center’s campus includes six buildings, so the flexibility of the portable systems made perfect sense.

“We wanted it to be simple and never have an excuse not to use it,” she said.

The panels and power packs can be used during outdoor events, instead of running extension cords everywhere. They will also allow the center to function during power outages.

“Last year when we had the hurricane, we still had to come in because the community still has needs,” Moody said. “But we didn’t have any power in the building. So this would allow us to charge our laptops and go to work like we usually do.”

Agarwala shows students at the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center how the unit can power a computer.

Agarwala shows students at the Lucille Gorham Intergenerational Center how the unit can power a computer.

 

In addition to offsetting daily energy consumption needs, powering events and emergency use, there’s an educational component. The center has STEM-based after-school and summer programs, and the students will be able to learn about topics ranging from energy conservation to converting units of power.

Each power station has multiple AC and DC outlets, as well as a digital display showing energy input and usage. The panels and the power stations can be connected in different combinations depending on specific energy needs.

During a demonstration of the equipment, the students were able to see how much energy was being generated by the solar panels and the impact of shadows, as well as the amount of energy drawn by a charging cell phone.

“It’s exciting to watch the kids light up,” Moody said. “We want to get them excited and interested in these fields to prime them and train them, and then have them grow up and contribute to the community.

“We also want the youth to help us think of other ways to use these to help save energy. And then they’ll become advocates at home with their parents, and tell them, ‘These are things we can do to save energy in the house.’”

The LGCC opened in 2007 and is operated through a partnership between ECU, the City of Greenville and Pitt Community College. Constellation’s E2 Energy to Educate grants fund student projects focusing on energy science, technology and education.

The solar panels and power stations, funded by an E2 Energy to Educate grant from Constellation, will be used for events, emergency power and daily energy needs at the center.

The solar panels and power stations, funded by an E2 Energy to Educate grant from Constellation, will be used for events, emergency power and daily energy needs at the center.

 

By Jules Norwood

Geyer recognized by Society for the Study of Reproduction

Dr. Christopher Geyer received this year’s New Investigator Award at the 50th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

Dr. Christopher Geyer received this year’s New Investigator Award at the 50th annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Reproduction. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

East Carolina University’s Dr. Christopher Geyer was named the recipient of the 2017 New Investigator Award by the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR) for his contributions to the field of reproductive sciences.

The award recognizes outstanding research contributions by an SSR member within 12 years of the completion of their Ph.D.

Geyer, an associate professor in the Brody School of Medicine Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, is working to explain the earliest stages of reproduction by investigating the mechanisms through which spermatogenic stem cells become differentiated and begin the process of becoming sperm cells.

His lab was recently awarded a five-year, $1.45 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the response of stem cells to retinoic acid.

“This is a highly competitive award, and the list of past winners is virtually a who’s who of top scientists in the field,” said Dr. Rebecca Krisher, chair of the SSR Awards Committee. “Dr. Geyer was chosen for this honor based upon the originality of his research, his scientific productivity and the significance of his contributions to the field of spermatogonial and testicular biology.”

Geyer said he has been a member of SSR since joining as a new graduate student in 2002. “Receiving the award was overwhelming,” he said. “I’ve never had to get up and speak in front of so many people.”

Geyer’s lab is working to pinpoint the mechanisms that control the earliest stages of reproduction.

Geyer’s lab is working to pinpoint the mechanisms that control the earliest stages of reproduction.

The award was presented during the opening ceremony of SSR’s 50th anniversary meeting in Washington, D.C. As the New Investigator Award recipient, Geyer gave a 30-minute presentation before more than 900 attendees of the conference.

“This was one of the goals I set for myself when I first started here in 2010, because I have several friends who’ve won this award and I’ve always admired their work and wanted to follow in their footsteps, so to speak,” Geyer said. “I have tried to emulate what they’ve done in their careers, but I never actually expected it to happen.”

Nick Serra and Ellen Velte, doctoral students in Geyer’s lab, also attended the conference and presented their work in poster format.

Geyer was nominated by his mentors, Dr. John McCarrey and Dr. Mitch Eddy, and more than a dozen professors from the United States and abroad wrote letters of support. He has been invited to speak at the annual meetings of SSR’s sister societies — the Society for Reproduction and Fertility, which will meet in Liverpool, United Kingdom in January; and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which will meet in San Antonio, Texas in November.

 

-by Jules Norwood

Brody School of Medicine names associate dean for research and graduate studies

The Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University has named one of its first PhD graduates as its new associate dean for research and graduate studies at the Brody School of Medicine.

The appointment of Dr. Russ Price was made following a rigorous national search. Price, who also will serve as professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology, will begin his role on Aug. 16.

Dr. Russ Price. (contributed photo)

Dr. Russ Price. (contributed photo)

As associate dean for research and graduate studies, Price will provide leadership for Brody’s extensive research enterprise. He joins ECU at a time when the university is looking to strengthen its research efforts. Chancellor Cecil Staton has stated that increasing extramural research funding is one of his priority goals for the institution.

Since 2012 Price has served as associate vice chair for research in the department of medicine at the Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. He has been professor of medicine and physiology at Emory since 1991.

“I am really delighted to welcome Russ Price back to the Brody community,” said Dr. Nicholas Benson, the school of medicine’s interim dean. “He has had a very successful career as a scientist with continuing extramural funding and as an administrator for research programs at Emory University. He will bring a new level of expertise in bench research to us that will greatly enrich the science our faculty do here at Brody and across ECU.”

Price said that he is thrilled to be selected for the position, which represents a homecoming for him.

“During the interview process, I was drawn back to ECU by the palpable renewed commitment to research and the desire of the faculty and leadership to build on the current strong foundation at BSOM,” he said. “I am excited about the partnership between BSOM and Vidant Health and the combined efforts to provide communities throughout eastern North Carolina with access to the most up-to-date clinical trials and health care.”

Having authored more than 100 publications and book chapters, Price is a recognized leader in his field. His research is directed towards explaining the mechanisms that cause muscle atrophy in chronic conditions such as end-stage kidney disease and diabetes. He serves on editorial boards for the Journal of Biological Chemistry and American Journal of Physiology – Renal Physiology. He has previously served on the editorial boards of Kidney International and the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. In addition, Price is on the Executive Council for the International Society of Renal Nutrition and Metabolism.

Price will lead Brody School of Medicine's extensive research enterprise. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Price will lead Brody School of Medicine’s extensive research enterprise. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Before earning his PhD in biochemistry at ECU, Price completed a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship in the Laboratory of Cellular Metabolism at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

Benson thanked Dr. Jeff Smith for his service as interim associate dean for research and graduate studies since March 2016. Smith is professor emeritus of microbiology and immunology at Brody.

Price’s appointment follows Tuesday’s announcement that the Brody School of Medicine has named Dr. Mark Stacy as its new dean. Stacy begins his role on Sept. 1.

 

 

-by Angela Todd, University Communication

 

 

 

ECU professor to chair national NIH study section

Dr. Joseph Houmard, the LeRoy T. Walker Distinguished Professor in kinesiology at East Carolina University, will serve as chairperson of the Clinical and Integrative Diabetes and Obesity study section for the Center for Scientific Review.

The Center for Scientific Review is the central point for all research and training grant applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s medical research agency. The center helps to ensure that NIH grant applications receive fair, independent, expert and timely reviews that are free from inappropriate influences to provide funding for the most promising research, according to the website.

The Clinical and Integrative Diabetes and Obesity study section primarily reviews clinical or patient-oriented research applications related to the prevention, development and treatment of diabetes and/or obesity. Interventions could include diet, exercise, lifestyle, surgery or medications.

Dr. Joseph Houmard. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Dr. Joseph Houmard. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)

Houmard’s two-year term begins July 1 and will end on June 30, 2019.

Members are selected based on demonstrated competence and achievement in their scientific discipline including research accomplishments, publications in scientific journals and other activities and honors. Service requires the ability to work effectively in a group as well as mature judgment and objectivity, according to the center.

Houmard is the director of the ECU Human Performance Lab in the College of Health and Human Performance and his areas of expertise include exercise and obesity. He is helping lead a groundbreaking national, six-year study to better understand the body’s response to exercise in conjunction with scientists at Duke University and Wake Forest University.

 

 

-by Crystal Baity

ECU physician appointed to state environmental commission

An East Carolina University physician was recently appointed to the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission.

Gov. Roy Cooper named Dr. Suzanne Lazorick, associate professor of pediatrics and public health at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine, to the only seat designated for a licensed medical doctor on the 15-member commission.

The commission is responsible for overseeing and adopting rules for the protection, preservation and enhancement of the state’s air and water resources. The group’s regulations are administered by several divisions within the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) that are aimed at protecting environmental quality and public health. The DEQ also offers technical assistance to businesses, farmers, local governments and the public and encourages responsible behavior with respect to the environment through education programs.

Dr. Suzanne Lazorick, associate professor of pediatrics and public health at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine. (Contributed photo)

Dr. Suzanne Lazorick, associate professor of pediatrics and public health at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine. (Contributed photo)

“My goal in serving in this role is to help assure that health needs and public health priorities are considered and prioritized as the commission addresses issues in our state,” Lazorick said. “My experience at ECU will be very important regarding applying principles of community engagement and also incorporating the needs of the rural areas of the state. Since most of North Carolina is rural, it is critical that the EMC recognizes the needs of the many communities that are in rural areas.”

Lazorick’s clinical work takes place at the ECU Pediatric Healthy Weight Research and Treatment Center, a tertiary care clinic for obese children. She works with several statewide efforts for obesity prevention and has served on multiple committees for the N.C. Division of Public Health.

She has partnered with a former teacher from rural eastern North Carolina to study a middle school-based obesity intervention and since 2008 has been funded by several foundations and the N.C. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) to study the effectiveness of the intervention, which will be implemented in 51 schools in the fall of 2017.

After earning an undergraduate degree from Duke University, Lazorick completed her medical degree and a master’s in public health at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she remained for residency training in internal medicine and pediatrics. She practiced primary care for several years at a rural health center before returning to UNC for fellowship training in primary care research and preventive medicine.

Lazorick will serve a four-year term on the commission.

 

 

-by Amy Ellis, University Communication 

 

 

O’Halloran presents results for Washington Boutique Hotel study

The Hotel Louise in downtown Washington, North Carolina. (Contributed photos)

The Hotel Louise in downtown Washington, North Carolina. (Contributed photos)

Dr. Bob O’Halloran, chair of the College of Business’ School of Hospitality Leadership, presented composite results of a preliminary feasibility study, which included a summary of possible concepts that could bring the Hotel Louise back to life in downtown Washington, North Carolina. The presentation was made during a recent public event held at the Arts of the Pamlico’s (AOP) historic Turnage Theatre.

As part of course requirements, School students created concepts that would turn the historic building into a 60-room, boutique hotel. According to an article in the Washington Daily News, O’Halloran said that a hotel of this nature would generate revenue and growth for the downtown area and would give customers the opportunity to both visit Washington and stay in the heart of the city.

Aided by the AOP, 64 students and 11 community groups worked on the project, which culminated with the students, as part of a final exam, making a presentation to members of the Washington (North Carolina) Chamber of Commerce, the Washington Tourism Development Authority, and Beaufort County Economic Development.

“This type of engaged learning shows our students are playing an integral part in the sustainability of Eastern North Carolina,” said O’Halloran. “I’m excited for the potential, positive impact these recommendations could have in downtown Washington.”

Dr. Bob O’Halloran presents feasibility study findings on Hotel Louise in Washington, North Carolina.

Dr. Bob O’Halloran presents feasibility study findings on Hotel Louise in Washington, North Carolina.

 

-by Michael Rudd, University Communication

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