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Three King University students spent their summer with Associate Professor of Biology
Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis in the Neurotoxicology Lab researching the possible effects
of pesticides on mitochondria. The student research is part of a larger grant-funded
project through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).
Participating research interns included Shelbie Burchfield, junior Molecular and Cell
Biology major minoring in Chemistry and Mathematics; Sarah Orfield, senior majoring
in Neuroscience; and Royce Nichols, senior Neuroscience major minoring in Chemistry
and Security Intelligence Studies.
“All three students did an exceptional job in the lab this past summer,” said Dr.
Fitsanakis. “Because of that, I suggested they continue their research as a senior
thesis project. Royce and Sarah will defend their projects in April. As a junior,
Shelby has the option of defending her project in April, or may choose to continue
the research next summer. The goal for all three students is to publish a collective
article on their research in a scientific journal, an opportunity that very few undergraduates
Orfield’s summer research included the treatment of worms with Manzate, a broad-spectrum
fungicide for many fruits and vegetables, to determine if the worms’ mitochondrial
function was damaged. The mitochondria are important for the survival of cells because
they provide the energy required to keep the cells alive. “My hypothesis was that
chronic, or long-term, treatment with Manzate would cause a direct decrease in ATP
production by the mitochondria, without causing whole-cell death. The Manzate, with
which I treated the worms, has an ingredient called manganese. Manganism or manganese
poisoning is a toxic condition resulting from chronic exposure to manganese and is
similar to Parkinson’s disease. My research seeks to find those similar conditions
that may imitate Parkinson’s. Hopefully, understanding the similarities will give
us a better view of how both diseases work.”
“I really enjoyed the lab work. It was great,” said Orfield. “I felt well-prepared
for the research. However, I think there is a kinetic aspect to [research] that you
do not ever get or can be prepared for except through practice.” After graduation,
Orfield plans to go into research. “I am thinking about neuro-behaviorism and neuro-endocrinology.”
The research Burchfield and Nichols conducted was similar in nature. While both were
examining ATP levels of mitochondria and cellular membrane integrity, Nichols focused
on chronic treatment, while Burchfield focused on acute, or short-term, treatment.
Nichols commented, “In Parkinson’s disease, the mitochondria are very inhibited.
Depending on the percentage of pesticide we were using to treat the worms, our research
suggests there is a mitochondrial inhibition. We can theorize that this could contribute
to Parkinson’s disease.”
Burchfield added, “We are all doing different things to discover what causes mitochondrial
inhibition, which part of the mitochondria is being affected.”
Dr. Fitsanakis plans to take all three undergraduate researchers to the Society of
Toxicology meeting, the largest meeting of toxicologists in the world, which will
take place in Phoenix, Ariz., in March 2014. “The students are hoping to generate
enough data from their research this past summer, and through further studies this
fall, to tell a succinct story about their research on the posters they are developing.
They will then submit abstracts to the conference this month. The conference offers
scholarships for undergraduate research. Each student will submit an application
to that program. If awarded the scholarship, it would pay for airfare to the March
“Time spent conducting research this summer has definitely changed my career path,”
said Burchfield. “My dream job would be a doctor or surgeon, but I also have really
enjoyed working in a lab. I love the analytical aspect of research. I plan to apply
for another research internship next summer.”
Nichols commented, “My interests lie with neurotoxicology. When I found out about
Dr. Fitsanakis’ lab, I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore my interests.
I absolutely loved the research this summer. I can’t adequately describe in words
how helpful this experience has been. Upon graduation, I plan to pursue a master’s
and Ph.D. in Biodefense.”
When asked if they would recommend other students pursue lab research opportunities,
Orfield, Burchfield, and Nichols all gave a resounding, “Yes!”
The $300,000 NIEHS grant, which is distributed over the course of three years, was
secured through a rigorous national competitive process with a funding success rate
of just 8.5%. It is one of the largest grants in the University’s history, and represents
a major milestone in scientific research at King.
The NIEHS funding enables undergraduate students, predominantly those in Biology or
Neuroscience, to engage in hands-on original research, an opportunity usually only
available to students of large research-intensive universities. It also permits Dr.
Fitsanakis’ student research team to participate in a host of national and international
conferences. The grant, an Academic Research Enhancement Award (AREA), is for institutions
that do not receive a large amount of federal funding; it also requires the involvement
of undergraduates in the research process.
The grant, entitled “Role of Oxidative Stress and Protein Transporters in Glyphosate
and Mancozeb Neurotoxicity,” focuses on the potential ability for widely-used pesticides
to cause oxidative stress, which can damage proteins, cell membranes, and even DNA.
For information on research opportunities in King’s neurotoxicology lab, contact Dr.
Vanessa Fitsanakis at 423.652.6322 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
King University is a Presbyterian, master's-level comprehensive university. Founded in 1867 as King
College, the University offers more than 90 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees
and concentrations in fields such as business, nursing, law, medical and health sciences,
pharmacy, education, and humanities. Graduate programs are offered in business administration,
education, and nursing. A number of research, off-campus learning opportunities,
and travel destinations are also available. King University is a NCAA Division II
and a Conference Carolinas member with 25 varsity athletic teams. For more information
about King University, visit www.king.edu. King University does not discriminate against academically qualified students of
any race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age, or disability. King University
is certified by SCHEV to operate locations in Virginia. For more information, contact
the King University office at Southwest Virginia Community College, 309 College Road,
Richlands, VA 24641.