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Faculty Research Interests

Dr. Ben Bahr: "Synaptopathogenesis and Repair Mechanisms in the Brain"

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.

Dr . William Brandon: “Experimental Physics – (a) Magneto-optics and (b) Laser spark”


 A) Magneto-Optics: The ongoing evolution and increasing sensitivity of magneto-optical polarimetric measurement techniques continue to attract attention.  Applications include optical modulators, isolators, and circulators, along with field sensors, spectroscopy, and astrophysical probes.  In exploring various high precision measurement schemes to measure Faraday rotation in air, we developed a balanced dual laser beam phase sensitive photodetection apparatus to measure laser modulation induced by an alternating current magnetic field.  With its very small Verdet constant, air simply serves as a convenient test case.  The ultimate goal is to measure vacuum birefringence (i.e. Voigt Effect in vacuum), an area of interest in the realm of quantum electrodynamics.  A similar, although significantly more sophisticated technique might qualify as a probe for one of the proposed candidate particles of dark matter - the axion.

B) Laser Spark: Some undergraduate student research topics are provided by the humble “laser spark”.  Laser sparking can be achieved by simply focusing a high-powered laser pulse in air.  The spark (plasma) ensues due to the fact that many photons can act together in small regions of space and therefore create an electric field whose energy exceeds the binding energy of the atmospheric molecular constituents.  However, a rigorous solution of the laser spark characterization, and some particular aspects involving plasma evolution, remain elusive.  Some of the difficulties can be traced to the lack of precise knowledge concerning the threshold parameters concerning the onset of plasma ignition due to the probabilistic nature of this process.  Direct applications include laser-induced ignition to improve the efficiency for combustion engines, aerodynamic drag reduction via the mitigation of sharp boundary layer transitions for aircraft at supersonic speeds, and plasma stealth - a proposed process exploiting ionized gas to reduce radar cross sections.

Dr. Jose D’Arruda:
My research is in several areas:

• Quantum Statistical Mechanic-Solving Schrödinger Equation with various potential energy terms and applying the results to calculating correcting to the Ideal Gas law for high temperatures gases. These corrections lead to terms in the Virial Equation which gives us clues to the forces which exists between atoms and molecules in gases. Applications can be used to understand how stars evolve.

• Computational Physics-Using computer modeling to demonstrate to students and help them understand physical principles. Developing and deploying interactive models, simulations, and educational tools which improve math and science education through the effective use of modeling and simulation technologies.

• Robotics-Offering workshops using Lego NXT robotic kits to help teacher excite their students into learning science, math and engineering. Students compete in Robotic Games in the spring on our campus.

• Astronomy/Astrophysics- As director of the UNCP Space Grant I mentor several students each semester in various undergraduate research project in astronomy. Presently we are using our 16” GPS Meade telescope to measure the light intensity period of several Cepheid Variable stars as a way of determining their distance from the earth and performing spectroscopic measurement of several binary stars.

• Physics Education-Obtaining grants to offer workshops for teachers which will help them become better teachers of physics, physical science and astronomy.

• Science Fair- Having created the UNCP Regional Science fair 29 years ago I remain Co-Director with Drs Ritter and Postek.

Dr. Tom Dooling:
“Physics, biotechnology”

I am currently involved in conducting student research as part of a NSF-REU grant in the Department of Chemistry and Physics. The focus of the Biotechnology project is to develop novel designs for radiological sensors. The goal of the project is to develop a software model for different sensor designs and compare that model with sensors designed and built in the laboratory which is inexpensive and efficient that would be used in the field to detect radiological sources that might be used for so called “dirty bombs;” devices that spread radioactive waste products in areas inhabited by people. My students also have the opportunity to attend conferences. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (1) Summer (1)

Dr. Paul Flowers:
"Analytical Chemistry"

Spectroelectrochemistry (SEC) involves the simultaneous application of spectroscopic and electrochemical techniques to investigate chemical reactions involving or related to electrolysis. Despite being extensively used for fundamental studies, SEC methods have been much less frequently used for purely analytical purposes (that is, to measure the concentration of some substance in a sample).

The use of SEC techniques for such analytical purposes is an attractive idea because it offers possible advantages in analysis time, cost, and selectivity. Presently, I am pursuing the development of new SEC devices and methods suitable for the analysis of microscale samples of biomedical relevance.  Students engaged in this research will develop their skills in basic lab techniques, literature research, and oral and written communication, in addition to gaining hands-on experience with various modern instruments, including visible and infrared microspectrometers and electrochemical analyzers.  I typically work with 1-4 students during the fall and spring semesters, with summer appointments contingent on the availability of funding support. 

Dr. Len Holmes:
“Chemistry, biotechnology”

Much of my work at the university is related to regional economic development. Having created the UNCP Biotechnology Business and Training Center ( ), I am very interested in developing innovative ways to catalyze the development of biotechnology and other knowledge industries into rural Southeastern North Carolina. Working with biotech and other companies, universities and community colleges, I am focused on building the infrastructure for creating technology transfer through technology workshops and partnerships. This project is broad, and would be of great benefit to undergraduates giving them perspective on how the economy is tied to science/technology. Lastly, the biotechnology project collaborations with Dr. Mandjiny would be extremely benefited by the inclusion 1 full-time BS-level (perhaps Masters) laboratory technician. A second biotechnology project - Optimization of small-scale batch culture of marine actinomycetes:. The first order of business will be to learn about optimizing the growth conditions of the marine organism, Actinomycetes. The overall goal of the microbial fermentation component of the research will be to produce Actinomycetes expressing the desired product. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (1)

Dr. Siva Mandjiny:
“Affinity Separation Methods ”

Affinity separation has become the preferred method for purifying proteins and other macromolecules from complex biological fluids. It is a well established technique that continues to find new applications in pharmaceutical industries. Many types of molecules can serve as ligands including antibodies, antigens, enzyme inhibitors, receptors etc. Students will be engaged in research on affinity separation of proteins. This research will focus specifically on solid matrices such as membranes and gel beads. Membranes will include nylon and PVA etc., and gel beads will include Sepharose and silica. Membranes will be tested in filtration mode for the binding capacity of the protein and the gel beads will be tested in a chromatographic column for the binding capacity. The results obtained from this study will explain the comparative analysis of the membranes with the gel beads in terms of affinity constant and the adsorption capacity. The data will be useful in the downstream processing especially in the pharmaceutical industries. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (1)

Dr. Mark McClure:
“NMR Spectroscopy of Cobalt Complexes ”

My research interests focus on the application of NMR spectroscopy to the study cobalt(III) coordination compounds containing multidentate ligands. These types of systems represent an interesting challenge from an NMR standpoint. For ligands that contain carbon atoms, C-13 NMR can sometimes be used to determine the overall geometry of the complex ion. However, the H-1 NMR of these systems is often complex. This complexity arises from the fact that coordination restricts rotation about the carbon-carbon bonds of the ligand and therefore introduces nonequivalence in hydrogen atoms attached to the same carbon. As a result, even a simple ethylene linkage joining two donor atoms can contain up to four nonequivalent protons. This often results in very complex splitting patterns, and the interpretation of such spectra requires two-dimensional NMR techniques such as COSY and NOESY. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) Summer (2)

Dr. Rachel Smith:
“Organic Synthesis and Biodiesel Productions”

I am currently working with the UNCP BioFuels team to optimize conditions for production of biodiesel from virgin oil using a heterogeneous catalyst. This process will then be used in a reactor prototype in order to demonstrate that farmers could grow oil seeds and produce their own fuels for farm equipment from the oil they grow. My additional research interests are in developing new reactions of organic (carbon-based) molecules with the eventual aim of applying these new synthetic methods to the preparation of drugs.

• One important challenge in the chemical synthesis of drugs is stereocontrol. Just as our two hands are non-superimposable mirror images of each other, each chemical compound used as a drug also has a mirror image. Our bodies interact with these two mirror images in different ways. One way of controlling which hand of a product is formed is to use a chiral auxiliary, a temporary group added to a molecule which has it’s own handedness. Part of my research involves using chiral auxiliaries in reactions to control the stereochemistry (handedness) of the reaction.

• Another research interest is focused on tandem cyclizations between unsaturated aldehydes and Meldrum’s acid. Tandem means two processes happening in a row and in this reaction, there are actually two different reactions taking place consecutively.

Dr. Meredith Storms:
“Analytical Method Development for Pharmaceuticals”

High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) is often utilized to assay drugs in a variety of dosage forms and biological matrices, which is applicable to toxicology and the pharmaceutical sciences. Research in this area has included developing HPLC methods for selected compounds in several over-the-counter dosage forms such as common cough-cold preparations as well as intravenous admixtures and various biological matrices. In addition to HPLC and other analytical methodologies, the nature of this research often necessitates the need for an extraction procedure, thus, liquid-liquid (LLE) or solid-phase extraction (SPE) methods are typically employed for analysis. Through this research, students will be involved in the use of HPLC and SPE to determine the presence and concentration of pharmaceuticals in both dosage form and biological matrices while further strengthening their laboratory skills in a research environment.

Dr. Roland Stout:
\"Physical chemistry; environmental chemistry\"

I am interested in three different areas of research, Environmental Chemistry, Chemical Kinetics and Quantum Mechanical Calculations. Over the past few years my most active area has been Environmental Chemistry, specifically the chemistry of natural water systems. I am in the process of collecting data to set baseline levels for a number of properties of the Lumber River. In the future we can compare current values with base line measurements to see how this system is changing and, hopefully, identify the environmental stresses on this river. A related area is the study of mercury levels in the river system seeking to identify how mercury is transported through the system. These projects involve making measurements on the river both from the banks and from canoes, and for acquiring water and sediment samples to bring back to our laborites for measurement. A planned extension of these projects it to sample plants and other organisms growing in the flood plain of the Lumber River. This project t is open to students at all levels of chemistry. I am also interested in the kinetics of complex reaction systems including oscillating reactions. Most recently I have been studying the electrical potential in density driven, physically oscillating systems and have shown that they are examples of a bistable, physical oscillator and are NOT consistent with the more complex chemically oscillating systems. I am also interested in quantum mechanically modeling reaction systems. This involves mostly computer work, doing quantum calculations. The last system I have worked on is N5+ looking at its molecular geometry energetic. We have also begun but not finished mapping the potential energy surface to eventually determine its decomposition pathway. Both the kinetics and quantum mechanical projects need the background provided by at least one semester of physical chemistry and enrollment in the second semester.

Dr. Cornelia Tirla:
“Organic Chemistry”

Biodiesel Production from Fatty Acids using Solid Acid Catalyst: Currently biodiesel is produced through the transesterification of waste vegetable oil using methanol and potassium hydroxide. Potassium hydroxide, once used in the reaction, is eliminated with the waste products. This can prove to be an expensive method of producing biodiesel as potassium hydroxide is not recovered from the wastes and a new batch must be added for subsequent reactions. This also sparks the debate as to whether or not biodiesel is a cost-effective and efficient fuel source when compared to fossil fuels. Solid acid catalysts are a possible solution to this problem. Removal of a solid acid catalyst is easier and the starting material is fatty acids instead of oil. This research will focus on the synthesis of biodiesel from fatty acids in the presence of solid acid catalyst. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2) ; Summer (2)

Production of Ethanol from Sweet Potato Remnants: Ethanol can be produced from large variety of biomass materials. The purpose of this project is to develop a protocol for the production of ethanol from sweet potato waste. As a starting point, the starch was hydrolyzed in acidic conditions and a glucose solution was obtained. The raw material is also a rich source of beta-carotene, a food supplement used in the cellular biosynthesis of the vitamin A. As part of this project, protocols will be developed to extract value added beta-carotene. In conclusion, this research addresses the increasing demand for alternative sources of energy and demonstrates complementary uses of agricultural waste biomass. Student opportunities: Fall/Spring (2); Summer (2)