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June 27, 2013

Awards highlight CSU’s commitment to diverse fields of research

By Patrick Elder

 

The research awards, presented annually by Cleveland State, encapsulate the university’s ever-increasing dedication to a wide breadth of research topics. Nearly $290,000 was awarded this year through the three distinct awards: the Dissertation Research Award, Faculty Scholarship Initiative Award and the Faculty Research and Development Award.

Dr. Anton Komar of the department of biology, geology and environmental science and the Center for Gene Regulation in Health and Disease was a recipient of the last of these three research awards. He was awarded the maximum $25,000 possible through the Faculty Research and Development Award for his research on “a mouse model to study alternative initiation pathways.”

“There are a number of stress-responsive genes in cells that utilize an alternative pathway to initiate translation of their messenger RNAs (mRNAs),” Komar said. “This is because under many stress conditions the conventional scanning pathway is blocked, so you need a mechanism to overcome this and restore normal cell function. In this case the cell relies on this alternative initiation pathway.”

There are different initiation factors that help the ribosome engage on mRNA, one of which is known as eukaryotic initiation factor 2A, or “eIF2A.” eIF2A functions in alternative initiation pathway. Under normal circumstances this gene is non-essential, thus allowing it to be disrupted with no obvious repercussions on a cellular level.

“However, it has been suggested that this pathway may be important for the development and other mechanisms, such as stress response, on an organismal level,” Komar said. “So what we’re going to do is create a mouse model while we knock out this gene, eIF2A, and see what happens to the mouse.”

One of Komar’s doctoral advisees, Sujata Jha, is well aware of the benefits that additional funding like the research awards provide, considering the nature of experimentation in fields such as molecular biology.

“All the experiments, especially in our field, can get expensive,” Jha said. “Every lab is burdened financially, so this amount can give you an extra experiment that you might have wanted to do. In some cases those experiments can get expensive and you choose not to do it because you know it’s a kind of unconventional experiment that might not give you a result for publication. If you get the financial support then it gives you freedom in terms of doing something special.”

Jha also received a research award in the form of the Dissertation Research Award.
Though this award only provided her with $5,000, the money will be put to good use. It will help fund an experiment that will attempt to discover just what is happening when protein folding goes wrong, thus causing changes in the cell.

“The important part is that many of these conformational changes are involved in diseases,” Jha said. “Some of the extreme, in-the-news diseases like Parkinson’s and Huntington’s, what’s happening there is that a protein is misfolding. It’s a very prevalent kind of disease, but still nothing is really known except that it is misfolding.

“Our aim is to figure out what exactly is going right before you can point out what’s going wrong.”

Dr. Wendy Kellogg, a professor of urban planning and environmental studies, is employing much the same methodology (as any good scientist does) to her own research. Kellogg – who is also associate dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs – was awarded $4,635 through the Faculty Scholarship Initiative Award for her research, titled “Transforming Sustainability: Social Ecology of a Blue-Collar City and Its Region.”

“I’m the associate dean and I’ve been chair of the department for five years, so I wasn’t doing a lot of research,” Kellogg said. “So this is my jumping back in, and it’s why it’s great that I could get this money. It got me the two students that can help me all summer to push these projects forward.”

These projects are intended to help fill the pages of her upcoming book, which provided the title for her research award submission. Kellogg’s book will contain a number of case studies on the relationship between sustainability and governance, one of which will look at this relationship in the Chagrin River Valley.

“People and the way they organize institutions shapes the natural world,” Kellogg said. “But we also need to appreciate that the natural world, in terms of resources and the ambient quality of it, affects us as well, in our health and the kind of culture we have. So we’re trying to understand how people shape the environment and how it shapes them in a variety of settings and scales.

“Particularly in a region like Greater Cleveland that has a legacy of industrial manufacturing, where there’s poverty in the core and sprawl out into the countryside that’s threatened ecosystem resources. There are some real challenges. So what can we learn about why people are moving to a sustainability framework, how they’re organizing to do that, what institutions are emerging and what shifts in patterns of leadership are emerging that could possibly move the region to a more sustainable future?”

Robert Laverne, a doctoral advisee of Kellogg’s, is using his $5,000 – provided through the Dissertation Research Award – to conduct research from much the opposite direction of Kellogg. His research involves looking at how nature and human interference in it disrupts our cognitive functions.

“The environment that surrounds us plays a role in our ability to pay attention to what we’re doing,” Laverne said. “Your mind needs time off to be replenished. It turns out, through a number of very interesting research projects that have preceded mine, that access to nature is a very good tool for replenishing directed attention.”

A threat to Cleveland and other Midwest cities has emerged that may be a detriment to our ability to pay attention. The Emerald Ash Borer, a species of beetle introduced from Asia, is slowly making its way from Detroit, through Chicago and into Cleveland. Its voracious appetite for ash trees is demolishing much of the urban forest in metropolitan Chicago.

“Within the next year to two years many of the ash trees that are alive and relatively healthy right now will be dead and removed,” Laverne said. “My plan is to go into these neighborhoods and take a series of sound recordings before and after the trees are removed.

“If you happen to live in one of those neighbourhoods, the changes will be noticeable. The quality of sound will change. The more irritating noises that come from human machinery will increase, and the soothing sounds that come from nature will diminish. I suspect that this will come to affect our cognitive abilities.”