Solving 21st Century Challenges
Research is the foundation of education. It fuels curiosity, pushes the boundaries of human knowledge and leads to new discoveries. Engaged in cutting-edge original research, students at CSUSM are helping to solve the critical issues of today and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.
“Research spurs innovation and across all disciplines our students are making new discoveries that offer viable solutions to solve society’s most pressing issues,” said Gerardo González, dean of Graduate Studies and associate vice president for Research.
Black Bear Conservation
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has classified six of the world’s eight species of bears as vulnerable or threatened with extinction. Biological sciences students Brittany Baca, Jenna Moore and Brendan Himelright are conducting groundbreaking research in bear reproductive physiology, which will have a profound impact on bear conservation efforts.
Their study examines how American black bears are biologically capable of producing litters of mixed paternity. For example a litter of three cubs could potentially have three different fathers. Mixed paternity could be a result of delayed implantation which may occur three to five months after conception, according to CSUSM researchers. Understanding the physiologic mechanisms that enable mixed paternity could significantly improve conservation efforts for bears and other endangered species by maximizing the genetic diversity of each litter.
“I’m a big proponent of conservation and I know our work will have practical applications for biologists and conservationists working with both wild bears and those in captivity,” said graduate student Brendan Himelright.
A Parasite May Hold the Answer
One in 12 people in the world suffer from an autoimmune disease, in which the immune system overreacts and attacks substances and tissues normally present in the body. One important step in treating autoimmunity could lie within the research being conducted by biological sciences senior Gabriel Padilla.
Studying the interactions between a parasite and its host’s immune system, Padilla examines the secretions that intestinal parasitic worms produce to manipulate and suppress the host’s T-cell response.
“It’s fascinating to look at a parasite and, by harnessing its interaction with the host, explore the possibility of creating a new medication that mimics that interaction to treat autoimmune diseases,” he said. “It’s exciting to know that the research that I am participating in is actually adding to the foundation of knowledge in the scientific community.”
Perceptions of Bullying
Over the last decade adolescent bullying has more than tripled. Often peaking between sixth grade and eighth grade, 32 percent of teens say that they’ve been victimized by a bully at school. Research has shown that victims of bullying are more likely to be distracted from learning, get poorer grades and are more susceptible to becoming victims of violent crime. However, very little research incorporates students’ voices on the perceptions of classroom bullying, an approach that doctoral candidate Gary DeBora explores in his latest study.
His research analyzes the differences in students’ perceptions of bullying compared to teachers’ perceptions. By measuring the gap, he is able to identify practical strategies that teachers can use to recognize and appropriately intervene when bullying happens in classrooms.
“In early adolescence, social and emotional development is as important as academics, and feeling safe in the classroom is vital for learning and educational achievement,” he said.
New Approach to Detecting Depression
Major depression affects nearly 15 million adults each year in the United States, but less than 30 percent of cases are detected by primary care physicians. Improving screening techniques for early detection is essential as depression can lead to substance abuse, addiction and suicide. Working with a high-risk rural population, psychology graduate student Juan Antonio Luna is exploring a cutting-edge approach to detecting depression symptoms.
Using a voice-interactive computerized survey, Luna is able to assess the depressive mood or symptoms a patient may be experiencing. The screening tool, called the Voice-Interactive Depression Assessment System, was developed by CSUSM professorDr. Gerardo González. This innovative approach overcomes limitations of the conventional paper-and-pencil questionnaire which does not account for illiteracy or cultural-sensitivity and requires health care practitioners to manually assess all responses.
“The work I’m doing is rewarding and personally meaningful to me, as it has been my dream to work with at-risk communities to help close the health disparity gap,” he said.
Using Nature to Combat Tuberculosis
Affecting one third of the population, tuberculosis is one of the world’s deadliest diseases, second only to HIV/AIDS, and attributed to 1.4 million deaths each year. Some strains of tuberculosis have become drug resistant to the two primary antibiotics drugs, isoniazid or rifampin. According to estimates by the World Health Organization, over 310,000 people, most of which live in developing countries, are infected by the a drug-resistant strain.
Aiming to discover a new drug treatment for tuberculosis, biochemistry student Jamie Do conducts original research in the Marine Natural Products lab at CSUSM, isolating compounds found naturally in the environment and testing their potential effectiveness as an antibiotic. Her research builds upon discoveries made over the last decade by American scientists using natural marine compounds to develop new drugs and vaccines.
Overcoming the Pain to Quit Smoking
Tobacco is the single most preventable reason for death in America. And while 26 million people attempt to quit smoking every year, less than eight percent succeed. Attempts to quit can be thwarted by a variety of factors, including an individual’s pain tolerance according to research conducted by Dr. Kim Pulvers.
In a recent clinical study, Pulvers tested pain tolerance among smokers and nonsmokers using a cold pressor task. The task calls for participants to submerge their non-dominant hand in 0 degree Celcius water and report when pain is first felt and when it becomes intolerable. She found that smokers have a greatly lower pain tolerance than nonsmokers, and that female smokers struggle the most with physical distress.
Being able to tolerate distress greatly improves the outcome of smoking cessation attempts. Because pain is a trigger for smoking, a low pain tolerance could make quitting more difficult for some smokers since many rely on nicotine as a coping mechanism to soothe feelings of distress. Her findings and ongoing research is helping to inform new tailored interventions for smokers that improve cessation outcomes and help users successfully quit smoking.
Optimization Algorithm Improves Brain Radiosurgery
Each year nearly 200,000 people are diagnosed with a brain tumor in the U.S. While treatment options vary, more than 70,000 patients annually undergo a non-invasive surgical procedure that uses a sophisticated medical device known as Gamma Knife Perfexion™. The Swedish-designed device administers stereotactic radiosurgery, which directs a high dose of gamma rays at the brain tumor using a series of eight narrow beams.
Working with a team of international researchers, Dr. Mohammad Oskoorouchi has developed algorithms to improve the quality of Gamma Knife Perfexion™ treatments. One of his algorithms refines the device’s precision in targeting malformed cells while minimizing the damage to surrounding healthy tissues. This algorithm has been implemented in a software package and tested on real patient data provided by The Princess Margaret Cancer Center (Toronto, Canada).
New technologies permit standardization or robotic-control of elements that were previously manual, such as the delivery points and dosage of radiation. After first modeling the dosage radiation procedure into mathematics and then creating the algorithms, Oskoorouchi is currently working to combine the two procedures into one algorithm that will improve treatment accuracy and time.
Research in Exercise Physiology
The benefits of regular exercise for all individuals are universally acknowledged, but information on the impact of maternal exercise during pregnancy on the offspring is limited. “There is data that suggests that maternal nutrition does impact a fetus’ health well into adulthood,” said Dr. Sean Newcomer. “We’ve seen how, during famines for example, unborn babies exposed to low calories in utero have a higher risk for cardiovascular disease as adults. Similarly over-nutrition, the exposure of too many calories, during pregnancy also causes a greater risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes in offspring later in life.”
Dr. Newcomer, who currently has a four-year, $300,000 grant from the American Heart Association, is exploring if the current recommendations for exercise during pregnancy can positively impact the cardiovascular health of offspring across the lifespan. Given that cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, the results of his work have the potential to be truly transformational for not only expecting mothers but to the health care community at large.
Helping the Body Heal
According to the American Diabetes Association, nearly 25 million U.S. children and adults suffer from type 2 diabetes. Leading experts estimate that as many as 1 in 3 adults could have diabetes by 2050 if current trends continue. Because type 2 diabetes suppresses the body’s immune response and impedes wound healing, patients are susceptible to infection and other devastating complications, such as limb amputation.
To understand how the immune system becomes compromised, Dr. Julie Jameson and her research team are analyzing the genes and proteins that are expressed in different stages of the disease. Her research has led to the identification of a family of genes that facilitates tissue repair. Working with physicians at Scripps Clinic, she is developing a translational study that could significantly improve treatment options for diabetics by restoring normal immune function.
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