Faculty Research

Therapeutic Treatments Against the Numerous Diseases that Disrupt Brain Function

The 100,000 Gbyte hard-drive we call our brain is a challenge to study, also making it a challenge to find therapeutic treatments against the numerous diseases that disrupt brain function. In my lab, slices of brain tissue are kept alive to examine neuronal connections responsible for both memory encoding and cellular maintenance pathways, and to study their vulnerability to pathogenesis. While the brain’s incredible density of synaptic connections allows for extraordinary memory capacity, the abundant synapses are also vulnerable to pathogenic over-activation. Such excitotoxic brain damage can occur in many disease states including stroke, traumatic injury, and seizure events. We are studying the pharmacological enhancement of endogenous pathways, and we found that positive modulation of internal repair mechanisms protects against the damaging effects of seizures and stroke-type excitotoxic insults. Other efforts are to study age-related neurodegenerative disorders. Every 72 seconds someone in the U.S. develops Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Reducing Alzheimer-type protein accumulation is essential for slowing the progression of the disease. Lysosomes and their degradative enzymes (e.g. cathepsins) are known to respond to AD, perhaps in an attempt to offset the abnormal protein accumulations that cause a distinct pathogenic cascade. Recently, we discovered a new class of drugs that act as positive modulators of the lysosomal response, resulting in the up-regulation of cathepsins as well as neuroprotection in cultured brain slices and in mouse models of AD.

Alzheimer's Disease Research Lab

Entomology and Restoration Ecology

My primary research interests include biodiversity, entomology, community ecology, restoration ecology, agroecology, and community engagement. My current research examines the role of ants as indicators of restoration success and regulators of biodiversity in above and belowground systems. I am currently studying mites that use ants for dispersal because it allows me to ask questions spanning multiple hierarchical levels including: host, colony, colony neighborhood, patch, and landscape levels. I am involved in several ongoing, collaborative projects including: 1) effects of an invasive shrub (Amur honeysuckle) and deer on ant biodiversity, 2) ant diversity and function in crop fields and temperate tree canopies, 3) historical and future shifts in lady beetle communities due to climate change, 4) elevation gradients and ant diversity in Costa Rica, 5) mite communities associated with an invasive ant and termites in North Carolina and Japan, and 6) a citizen science biodiversity and invasive species monitoring project in Daniel Boone National Forest (KY, TN). Originally from Ohio, I am excited to join the faculty at UNCP and look forward to working with a whole new diversity of insects and ecosystems in North Carolina. I welcome undergraduates into my lab who are also interested in the ecology of “the little things that run the world.”

Education and use of the Outdoor Classroom and Socioscientific Methods

In the 21st Century, teachers will need to prepare students who have a well –developed knowledge of science, technology tools, and can collaborate and think to solve problems. Knowledge building classrooms that are student centered and allow students to engage in meaningful science will be critical. Students will argue and discuss information, develop theories, and communicate their understandings to a wider audience regularly. Teachers will need to teach students to think in scientifically responsible ways and to understand science from a local as well as a global perspective. Their society will be pluralistic and multifaceted. One technology tool used commonly by the science community holds promise for teachers and students to engage in this type of teaching and learning. The research report Learning to Think Spatially(National Research Council, 2006) states that geospatial technologies (GT) has the potential to facilitate learning across a range of subjects, supporting interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary learning in schools. Using GT tools, teachers and students can become involved in what scientists and other STEM professionals do every day. I have been using, Google Earth, ArcGIS Online, Ipads, and Apps along with augmented reality to study how through participation and social construction of knowledge and an understanding of context and culture, teachers and students learn about STEM and develop identities to support the likelihood of them entering STEM careers. Through a shared and situated learning experience, discourse, and reflection, we can communicate our understandings with others using technologies such as storymaps and map journals. Generally, my research is on using the out-of-doors along with new technologies to encourage the learning of science through a socioscientific argumentation approach. My methodology is mixed methods and overall my research focuses on sustainability and creating sustainable communities for all.

In order for teachers to learn how to best teach students in the 21st Century, they will need to teach differently. Teachers create meaning of their practices through reflection of which action research is one means (Capobianco, Lincoln, Canuel-Browne, & Trimarchi, 2006). Other means of teacher reflection on practice includes reading fiction and non-fiction (Tama & Peterson, 1991), through writing tasks such as keeping journals (Sparks-Langer, Mohlman, & Colton, 1991), through case studies (Merseth, 1996), and through microteaching and practicum experiences (Zeichner, 1986). each of these, the teacher engages in reflection in order to understand the meaning of teaching, their beliefs about processes or practices, or possibly their personal values (Lee, 2005). Teachers are encouraged to critically review their knowledge and beliefs that underlies their actions. I am interested in studying the use of action research to deepen reflection about science teaching with preservice and inservice science teachers.

Environmental Biology

Research area involves coastal marshes and freshwater wetlands. Topics of interest are hydrologic alterations, success of restoration/ mitigation projects, and environmental monitoring. Much of the expertise obtained by involved students would be in the area of applied ecology. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (1) Summer (1)

Conservation Biology and Invasive Species

I’m a field ecologist who uses molecular approaches to address questions about the population and trophic ecology of the invasive fire ant Solenopsis invicta.  This species is an aggressive and generalist consumer that  can outnumber and outcompete native species of ants and, consequently, it may monopolize food resources.  

My students and I have documented fire ants in every natural wetland we have examined, more than a dozen wetlands (e.g., longleaf pine savannas) in southeastern North Carolina.  We have observed both monogyne (single queen) and polygyne (multiple queen) colonies, and colony densities in a few of these wetlands are comparable to densities in altered areas lacking native fauna and flora. This is not good news. Wetlands are important biodiversity hotspots and refugia for rare species. 

During a brief research sabbatical in the Corbin Jones Lab (UNC Chapel Hill), I began exploring trophic effects and prey choice by way of next-generation sequencing, a powerful genomics technology that can detect DNA in partially digested prey. Trophic effects are likely to be complex; fire ants may function simultaneously as predators, herbivores, and scavengers, and both consume and compete with species across multiple trophic levels. Using field and laboratory approaches, collaborators and I plan to test hypotheses that fire ants are drivers of ecosystem change, given their effects on belowground and aboveground processes. 

I have mentored several undergraduate researchers, and I encourage highly motivated students to join me in asking really cool questions about fire ants.  I have opportunities for students to do floristic research and to undertake phylogenetic studies.  

Amphibians as Indicators of Environmental Changes

My research interests are to continue the salamander research I was working on in southwest Virginia before coming to UNCP. This research focuses on global warming and it's impacts on salamander species in SW Virginia. Amphibians are excellent indicators of environmental changes, such as climate, and are susceptible to UV radiation and chitrid fungus, which can quickly eliminate a small population. The goal of this research is to gain data on the temperature changes occurring at different elevations along White Top Mountain, on the impacts and/or migrations of salamander species in response to temperature changes, and to look for decreases in the numbers of endangered and rare species, such as the Weller Salamander (Plethodon welleri), that live only in that one area of the world. This research is conducted each spring and is planned to be a 10-year study and has been ongoing for the past four years. It would be great to extend the research into North Carolina in the future.

Molecular Genetics, Biotechnology

I have had three different projects in which students participated. The first dealt with biofuels and the production of biodiesel. This project was performed in collaboration with Drs. Siva Mandjiny and Tom Dooling. UNCP owns a reactor in which kitchen oil can be converted into biodiesel. We have been looking at ways to use enzymes instead of the standard chemicals to make the reaction more efficient. One of the by-products of the reaction is glycerin. We need to find a use for the glycerin. Students have had the opportunity to use their creative thinking, which is usually called "novel" research. The second project involved the growth and expression of eukaryotic cells and was done in collaboration with Dr. Jeremy Sellers. Human pancreatic cells (cancerous and control) were evaluated and maintained alive in a CO2 incubator. We explored different cell lines and looked for the mutations present. Techniques used included PCR, DNA sequencer, bioinformatics and cloning. The third project involved bacterial mutants. I have created E. coli mutants that are ampicillin resistant (no pAMP present). We evaluated these mutants and compared and contrasted them for their physiological and biological characteristics. We searched for the mutation present in each one by using a DNA sequencer, and we compared this mutation against all other known mutants by using bioinformatics. Student opportunities: None currently

Cellular Neurobiology, Mechanisms of Neurotransmitter Release, Neuromuscular Physiology

In animal species, neurons control movements, sensations, and decisions. Neuronal communication is dependent upon ion channels, especially voltage-activated calcium channels. I am interested in synaptic plasticity, in regional specializations of neuronal membranes, and in how different cellular compartments are made capable of extremely rapid, chemical and electrical communication. One way to study this is with electrophysiological recording techniques that can record and manipulate the electrical state of a neuron or neurons. A new project uses realistic computational models to emulate biophysical activity that underlies neurotransmitter release from channels image motor neurons onto skeletal muscle. Each model includes a 3-D framework of cellular membranes, organelles, and interior spaces that are created and ‘brought to life’ with Monte Carlo simulation using MCell® software. These techniques can help us better understand the mechanisms of neuronal calcium entry and how this entry controls neurotransmitter release in both healthy and diseased neurons. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (1) Summer (2)

Wildlife Ecology

Research in my lab focuses on wildlife behavior, population biology, and ecology. Students that work with me will log many hours in the field using technologies to monitor populations and examine behavioral responses to environmental challenges such as climate change, habitat modification, roads, and pollution. Technologies that students will have the opportunity to use include radio-telemetry, global positioning systems, environmental data loggers, geographic information systems, automated recording devices, and others. I am particularly interested in reptiles and amphibians in the Lumber River and associated wetlands, the sandhills, and the unique depression wetlands known as Carolina bays. I conduct basic descriptive research, but I also think it is important to apply research findings to addressing specific wildlife conservation and management issues.

The Sandefur Lab -- Exploring how small changes can make a big difference

Current projects in the Sandefur Lab fall into two main categories: systems biology and integrative course design.  Systems biology projects are directed at investigating diseases that impact rural communities, with a particular focus on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes. There is increasing evidence of a connection between COPD and diabetes, where having one disease exacerbates problems generally associated with the other. In The Sandefur Lab, we employ a systems biology approach combining computer models and ‘big data’ sets to investigate molecular-level (1) signal disruptions within and (2) crosstalk between COPD and diabetes. The long term goal is to develop and use predictive computational models of COPD and diabetes to generate new therapeutic avenues.  Integrative course design projects are aimed at developing a methodology to identify intersections between traditional indigenous knowledge (TIK) and current STEM (science, technology and mathematics) curriculum. The long term goal is to develop a tool for instructors interested in incorporating TIK into their curriculum.  No specific biological, computational or mathematical skills are required. We learn as we go!

Visit the Sandefur Lab

Yeast Molecular Genetics, Epigenetic Regulation of Eukaryotic Gene Expression

In the eukaryotic cell nucleus, DNA is packaged with histones into nucleosomes, the repeating subunits of chromatin. The precise organization of DNA in chromatin has important functional consequences. DNA-template processes such as transcription, replication and chromosome segregation are dependent on the remarkable packaging of the DNA in chromatin. The long-range objective of my research is to understand the molecular mechanisms of chromatin-regulated gene activation. My research has primarily focused on the role of a histone H2A variant, the H2A.Z/F. In the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, this variant histone protein is encoded by the HTZ1 gene. We have discovered that Htz1 functions to enable transcription by RNA polII. Specifically, our data indicate that Htz1 possibly plays a role in elongation. I would continue exploring this hypothesis using techniques of molecular genetics that will involve mutational analysis, genetic screens, chromatin immunoprecipitation, microarray analysis, Real-time PCR, etc. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (2)

Microbiology, Public Health and Microbial Genetics

My research interest is focused on using the techniques of microbial and molecular genetics to explore fundamental processes in microbial cells, such as morphogenesis, pathogenesis, thermotolerance, metabolite production, and antibiotic resistance; biotechnology activities including development of strains for bioprospecting using molecular tools and public health related activities along the line of antimicrobial testing and establishing incidence of common pathogens in food, water, industrial products and relevant public places. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (2) 

Plant Physiology and Environmental Biology

I am a plant physiological ecologist and environmental biologist, with research interests that include studying the plant-water relations of riparian tree species in the southeastern US.  My current research focus is understanding the water source use patterns of riparian trees in the southeastern US and how changes in environmental variables impact source utilization.  Recent research projects have included attempts to determine the water sources of trees growing along characteristic streams of the Southeast, trees growing along differing types of water bodies, and those of trees planted in a restored wetland.  I have conducted research projects from Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina's tallest mountain, to Topsail Beach on the Atlantic coast. 

Molecular Biology

As a biochemist, my research interest includes a variety of topics: protein/protein interactions, enzymology, protein signaling, health issues of Native Americans, and science education among K-12. Currently at UNCP, our laboratory has begun a pilot study of isozymes found in a local evergreen shrub called Chrysoma pauciflosculosa. Undergraduate students are developing protocols to examine several isozymes of these populations for comparison between sites and within each population. Methods involved include electrophoresis using native acrylamide gels (native PAGE) and starch gel electrophoresis and molecular biology techniques. A second project involves the use of herbal extracts for antimicrobial therapy. Thus far, combinatorial and selected temperature and pH effects have been addressed with a student now attempting to determine effects on the bacterial morphology. It remains to be elucidated the thermostability of the extracts. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (2)

Aquatic Invertebrate Biology

My research interests vary from dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) in rivers, lakes, ponds, and bogs, to oyster reef habitats, to meiofauna.  Odonates are fascinating organisms exhibiting territoriality and complex mating patterns.  I am currently collaborating with Western Carolina University to revisit previously sampled habitats for a rare dragonfly, Ladona julia.  This species was first collected by me in graduate school and has since become a new state record.  I would love the opportunity to find other larvae and adults. 

I have also completed research on meiofauna on oyster shells.  Meiofauna are very small organisms that live in between sand grains.  Special sieves and techniques must be used to separate them from their surroundings.  Oysters release pseudofeces that may support meiofaunal communities, but meiofauna can be found everywhere, including the sandy beach along our coast!