Students receive grants from NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium

Students Darby McCloud, Michael Smith, Brendin Flinn and Ashley Dague from Marshall University’s College of Science have received $5,000 research grants from the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and will be working alongside Marshall faculty as part of Marshall University’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program.

McCloud is conducting research on "Mechanisms Underlying Environmental Factors that Accelerate Linear Growth in Mice." She is working with Dr. Maria Serrat, an associate professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

This is McCloud’s second NASA Undergraduate Research Fellowship. She was first awarded a West Virginia Space Grant Consortium Undergraduate Research Grant for the 2019-2020 year when the lab was beginning a project that examined the impact of childhood obesity on the growing skeleton, Serrat said. The research looks into the effects of childhood obesity on the skeleton. Researchers used mice to model the development of childhood obesity during a sensitive growth period spanning the human equivalent of toddler to middle-school age.

"With Darby’s help, we were able to show that mice fed a high-fat diet during this time period had accelerated bone growth before they even became obese. The bones were not permanently longer — they just reached adult height sooner and we are starting to find that bone quality is compromised very early in the growth period," Serrat said. "We are now trying to confirm that the growth effects are due to the high-fat diet and not necessarily the excess weight, so Darby independently designed a novel experiment to compare weight-bearing (knee) with non-weight bearing (tail) bones of young mice on high-fat and normal diets."

This year’s funding will help her analyze bone growth and structure in weight-bearing and non-weight bearing bones. Results could demonstrate that a high-fat diet systemically impacts all bones of the growing skeleton and will help identify the importance of maintaining a healthy diet in children from a very young age, Serrat said. Her findings will also be relevant to understanding the importance of diet composition on maintaining a healthy bone structure during space flight.

Smith’s research focuses on "The role of DUF1471-containing proteins in adaptation of Salmonella enterica serotype Typhimurium to adverse environment." He is working with Dr. Lydia Bogomolnaya, an assistant professor in the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine who works in the field of microbiology.

Smith is a biological sciences major from Huntington who plans to graduate in December of this year, with hopes to go on to medical school and continue doing research. He started his research in Bogomolnaya’s lab in January. The goal of his project is to identify proteins important to survival of Salmonella during acid and oxidative stress, conditions bacteria commonly encounter during infection. This research will help researchers better understand mechanisms of bacterial adaptation and will lay a foundation for the development of new strategies to interfere with Salmonella infection.

"We were already doing research with Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium whenever I submitted the proposal to the NASA WVSGC. I was excited when I was notified of the project approval," Smith said. "I’ve enjoyed my time in the research lab and I can’t wait to get started on this project. This fellowship is a wonderful opportunity because it will allow me to contribute more time to research."

"Microbiology is my favorite discipline, which led me to begin working in Dr. Bogomolnaya’s lab. Ultimately, I am doing this project because I want to be able to contribute to medical research," Smith said. "The goal of this project is to better understand the role of the DUF1471-containing proteins in allowing S. Typhimurium to adapt to extreme environments and cause infection, which is important when developing new methods of treatment."

Flinn’s research focuses on "Human-Stem-Cell-Derived Cardiomyocytes as a model of Cardiac Function." He has been working with Dr. Nalini Santanam, a professor in the medical school’s Department of Biomedical Sciences.

The goal of Flinn’s project is "to learn how to convert human pluripotent stem cells to beating heart cells (cardiomyocytes), so we can use this as a model to test novel drugs for cardiometabolic diseases," Santanam said.

Flinn is a biological sciences major with emphasis on pre-med who is from Parkersburg, West Virginia and expects to graduate in 2022.

"The most significant aspect of the research in terms of my education is that it is allowing me to gain a deeper understanding of content relevant to my career field while also making active contributions to that field," Flinn said.

Dague received research funding for her project, "Evaluation of Antimicrobial Properties of Extracts from the Model Moss Ceratodon purpureus," which she is conducting with Dr. Eugene Shakirov, an assistant professor of biology in the College of Science.

Dague, a biological sciences major with an emphasis on pre-med, from Triadelphia, West Virginia, will test extracts of Ceratodon purpureus moss for the presence of biologically active natural metabolites and perform initial characterization of their antimicrobial properties. The results of these experiments will increase scientists’ ability to fight microbial pathogens and to protect humans exposed to potentially more harmful bacterial infections in space flights.

"I am so grateful to the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium for this amazing opportunity they have allowed me to partake in," said Dague, who also has minors in Spanish and chemical sciences and plans to graduate in the spring of 2021. "In the future, I plan on being an oncologist and so researching natural medicines is something that is very important to me since people who are immunocompromised due to cancer cannot always take traditional medicines."