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King University News :: Two King Science Students Receive Grant for Summer Neurotoxicology Research

King Seniors Kenneth McVey and Isaac Snapp were awarded grant funding for scientific research in the field of neurotoxicology this spring through the Colonel Lee B. Ledford Student Research Endowment.  McVey, a resident of Richlands, Va., is a Neuroscience major with a Chemistry minor, while Snapp, from Bluff City, Tenn., is working towards a double major in Biology and Mathematics and minoring in Chemistry.

The Ledford Awards supports summer research experiences for students enrolled at Appalachian College Association (ACA) member institutions.  Funding opportunities include support for many forms of research such as laboratory and field work, interviews, analyzing special collections, participant observation, and more. 

McVey and Snapp are conducting their research under the guidance of Dr. Vanessa Fitsanakis, chair of the biology department at King College, and Rekek Negga, lab manager and 2009 alumna of King. 

“Both students applied for the Ledford grant under their own name, which allows them to include on their CV’s (curriculum vitae) or resumes that they have applied for and received grant funding for research,” said Dr. Fitsanakis.  “Not many undergraduates have that kind of opportunity.”

The research McVey and Snapp are conducting is part of a grant awarded to Dr. Fitsanakis.  Dr. Fitsanakis was recently awarded a $300,000 grant renewal from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  The grant, which will be 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 College’s history, and represents a major milestone in scientific research at King.

The NIEHS funding enables undergraduate students in the health sciences, predominantly biology and neuroscience, to engage in hands-on original research that is usually only available to students of large metropolitan universities.  It will also permit Dr. Fitsanakis’ student research team to participate in a host of national and international conferences in places like San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Barcelona, Spain, and Milan, Italy.

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.

“Last summer, Isaac and I participated in research with Dr. Fitsanakis,” said McVey.  “During the spring 2012 semester, after both of us expressed interest in continuing with the research project, Dr. Fitsanakis told us of a possible grant through the ACA.  Once a research proposal has been accepted by the ACA, the subsequent grant funding provides the recipient with a stipend to conduct research along with travel funds to present the research findings at an upcoming meeting.  Both Isaac and myself were privileged enough to receive ACA grants.”

McVey’s research proposal states that pesticide exposure might lead to damage of neurons (brain cells) in the offspring of someone who was exposed to these pesticides while pregnant.  His research focuses mainly on the mechanisms and causes of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, while Snapp’s focuses mainly on autism as a result of pesticide exposure to the mother.  Snapp’s research proposal states that pesticide exposure in someone who is pregnant may lead to neurodegeneration in their offspring. 

“An example would be a farmer spraying pesticides and his daughter is in close enough proximity that she is then exposed to the pesticides,” said Snapp.  “I am looking at the effects the exposure may one day have on that girl’s future children.” 

McVey and Snapp both theorize that exposure to pesticides could have long lasting effects that may in result in a person’s offspring being born with a greater chance of developing a neurodegenerative disorder such as Parkinson’s disease or autism. 

“Rekek and I try to provide a framework in which Kenneth and Isaac should work,” said Dr. Fitsanakis.  “We allow the students to sort of stumble through the issues, and sometimes we stumble right along with them.  By Rekek and I not hovering, it allows the students to learn the critical thinking they need, particularly in their cases with both of them planning to enter the medical field.” 

“As a student, the opportunity to initially be in the lab and conduct experiments under Dr. Fitsanakis’ leadership was both exciting and a great opportunity to use what I have learned in the class setting in situations where I had to predict things, and analyze and discuss results,” said Negga.  “The academic portion and the ability to interpret data meshed well together.  As a lab manager, now I get to help students not only with maintenance but also to better understand research methods.  It is very gratifying.  I get to both lead and be led.” 

For Snapp, last summer’s research experience was the first time he had experience in the lab.  “I found I really enjoyed it.  I went to Dr. Fitsanakis to see if there was a possibility of doing research again this summer.  That is when the Ledford grant opportunity presented itself.  With the grant, I am not only able to continue my studies by conducting research but I’m also getting paid to do so.  It is definitely a win-win situation.

I’ve known since high school that I wanted to do something in the healthcare field; I just wasn’t sure exactly sure what,” continued Snapp.  “I explored a number of different paths before determining I wanted to be a physician’s assistant.  Since I have always known I’d go into the health field, I started out majoring in Chemistry and then switched to Biology.  Math is my true love, so I added it as a double major.  I’ve had the opportunity to shadow P.A.s and am currently working at Wellmont Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, Tenn.  Healthcare is definitely the career for me.” 

McVey’s future goal is to become a physician.  “I really like helping people and I am fascinated by the human body and science.  I’d like to be able to give back to my community and help people.  Conducting research has heightened my respect for the sciences. 

“I have really enjoyed doing research, because it has given me the opportunity to apply the knowledge I have learned in the classroom to real life situations,” said McVey.  “It makes you want to know more.  Doing research helps you think a different way allowing for the development of critical thinking skills which I will need as a physician.”

“When conducting research, many times students will get very frustrated,” said Dr. Fitsanakis.  “In every other lab in school they have known exactly what is supposed to happen.  For students to have a good experience in their classes, then to want to come back for more and do additional research, it lets me know that they enjoy working through the problems and enjoy the critical thinking aspect.  That is something a professor always wants to see in their students.  For students to come back and say they’d really like to learn more, it is very gratifying for a professor. 

“This opportunity that science students have here at King, because of the NIEHS funding, is fairly unparalleled for an institution this size,” continued Dr. Fitsanakis.  “As a result, students that come through the lab and do research with me not only have the benefit of coming to a small liberal arts college, but also have a chance to work in a high-level research environment that is normally found at much larger schools, if not tier-one research institutes.  The other thing this allows students to do is to go to international conferences.  Furthermore, students who do research in the lab often have the opportunity to be on scientific papers published in scientific journals that are beyond the undergraduate level.”

Both McVey and Snapp agree they have benefited greatly from this experience.  Upon graduation from King, the additional research experience they have had through the Neuroscience and Biology programs will allow them to transition easily to graduate school and medical school. 

The Ledford grant is for a 10 week period and once that is complete, they will continue their research on their own through the summer, then into the fall and spring semesters as their Senior Thesis Research Projects. The latter will allow them to graduate with Honors in Independent Study. McVey and Snapp will also have the opportunity to present their research findings at a Summit held by the Appalachian College Association in mid-October.