2021 – 2022 T32 Fellows

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Ann Abraham Daniel

Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics

Genetics

Mentors: Dr. Robert Barber, Ph.D. & Dr. Nicole Phillips, Ph.D.

Research interest:

  • Epigenetics
  • DNA methylation
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Diabetes
  • Epigenome-wide association studies

Research focus:

The risk for age-associated phenotypes such as Alzheimer’s disease and type 2 diabetes are multifactorial and involves epigenetic gene regulation. My research focuses on identifying an epigenetic link between cognitive decline and type 2 diabetes through investigating the role of DNA methylation in risk for age-associated phenotypes such as Alzheimer’s disease, mild cognitive impairment and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, variation in differential methylation associated with these phenotypes between Mexican Americans and non-Hispanic whites will also be analyzed. It will thereby provide insight into whether there are ethnicity specific differences in methylated regions of the epigenome in association with these age-associated phenotypes. This could help develop epigenetic risk scores or biomarkers related to cognitive decline and type 2 diabetes that are ethnicity specific in the future.

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Calvin Brooks

Physiology and Anatomy

Mentor: Keisa Mathis

Research interest:

  • Blood pressure regulation
  • Cardiovascular physiology
  • Inflammation
  • Congenital Heart Disease

Research focus:

Our lab uses a mouse model of the autoimmune disease, systemic lupus erythematosus, to understand how inflammation, especially kidney inflammation, can cause chronic increases in blood pressure.  My work thus far has been focused on the cholinergic anti-inflammatory pathway, our lab has found that modulating this pathway at the level of the vagus nerve effectively reduces chronic inflammation in these mice, and my work is targeting the pathway at the level of the alpha-7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor on splenic immune cells at different points in the life of these mice.

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Jamie Choe

Microbiology, Immunology, and Genetics

Cell Biology, Immunology, and Microbiology

Mentor: Harlan P. Jones, Ph.D.

LinkedIn: Jamie Choe

Research interests:

  • Psychoneuroimmunology
  • Early Life Stress
  • Immunological Tolerance
  • Autoimmunity

My research is focused on investigating the nexus between neurobiology and immunology from the perspective of crosstalk between the central nervous system and immune system during a critical perinatal window of development. Specifically, I am interested in understanding how environmental insults, such as “toxic” psychosocial stress, during the neonatal/perinatal period can impact the ontogeny of adaptive immunity and self-tolerance. Although the deleterious effects of early life stress (ELS) on human health have been demonstrated in primary literature based on ELS exposures increasing the risk for adult-onset cardiovascular, metabolic, and psychiatric disorders, the effects of ELS have only recently begun to be studied in the context of immune system development and dysregulation. Furthermore, there is a scarcity of published research investigating relationships between ELS and autoimmune disorders. The direction of my research aims to address these fundamental questions linking ELS and self-tolerance based on the potential for early life events to act as a primer for autoimmune disease susceptibility later in life through persistent effects on adaptive immunity. The findings of this research will have the potential to support the implementation of evidence-based strategies to address autoimmune disease in humans from a preventive medicine perspective.

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Delaney Davis

Department of Pharmacology and Neuroscience

Biomedical Sciences – Neuroscience

Mentor: Nathalie Sumien, Ph.D.

Twitter: @PhDelaney6

LinkedIn: Delaney Davis

Research interests:

  • Models of Aging
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Antioxidants
  • Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Physiological Resilience

The focus of my research is on the effects of different interventions on the motor and cognitive function across the murine lifespan. My aims are: (1) To discover the role of glutathione, an important antioxidant, and indicator of redox status, in aging and resiliency. This project may provide a new understanding to the updated redox stress theory of aging and to the potential, beneficial role of alternative pathways in glutathione production that could incur resiliency. (2) To evaluate if early, chronic methamphetamine exposure leads to long-term neurobehavioral consequences. This project will also examine the role of oxidative stress on long-term effects in a preclinical model of psychostimulant-imposed biological risk.

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Graci Finco

Physiology and Anatomy

Structural Anatomy and Rehabilitation Science

Mentors: Rita Patterson, Ph.D. and Rachel Menegaz, Ph.D.

Research interest:

  • Biomechanics
  • Anatomical techniques
  • Musculoskeletal and gait symmetry
  • Prosthetic and orthotic care
  • Wearable sensors in rehabilitation

My research in the Menegaz Lab and Human Performance Lab is focused on investigating interlimb symmetry in individuals with unilateral lower limb amputation, and how symmetry is affected by aging. We are using anatomical techniques such as imaging, muscle staining, and dissection to assess musculoskeletal symmetry, and biomechanical data from motion capture and wearable sensors to assess gait symmetry. An asymmetrical gait has been associated with a variety of negative secondary health effects such as increased fall risk, increased risk of developing of overuse injuries, and decreased quality of life in individuals with unilateral lower limb amputation. Improving gait symmetry and functional mobility are goals of rehabilitation in clinical practice. However, in my experience as a clinical prosthetist, achieving these goals is based on observation and can be limited by time, skill, and experience of the prosthetist. Determining normative symmetry values and providing a way to quantitatively measure gait symmetry in clinical practice could improve the standard of care for individuals receiving prostheses by 1) reducing negative secondary health effects, 2) assessing neural acceptance of the prosthesis, 3) further understanding the neurobiology of accommodating for the loss of a limb.

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Courtney Hall

Microbiology, Immunology and Genetics

Genetics

Mentor: Nicole R. Phillips, PhD

Research interest:

  • cognitive impairment
  • chronic metabolic inflammation
  • neuronal-enriched exosomes
  • mitochondrial dysfunction
  • microRNA

Research focus:

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) disproportionately affects Mexican Americans (MAs) due to a combination of population-specific environmental exposures and genetic risk factors. MAs also have a higher prevalence of metabolic comorbidities such as type 2 diabetes (T2D) that, like AD, are characterized by mitochondrial dysfunction and systemic inflammation. Although T2D-induced neuronal stress may be a central component of the AD health disparity, mitochondrial-sourced risk for cognitive impairment has not been extensively studied in MAs. Our research aims to elucidate alterations in intercellular communication that are indicative of mitochondrial dysfunction and epigenetic dysregulation in neurons. We will tap into this complex system by assessing the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and microRNA (miRNA) contained within the extracellular vesicles that neurons to communicate with cells in the periphery, known as neuronal-enriched exosomes (NEEs). As the first effort to simultaneously profile NEE mtDNA and miRNA in longitudinal plasma samples, this work will provide novel insight into the molecular mechanisms by which T2D confers risk for AD across diverse populations over time.

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Gretchen Johnson 

Pharmacology and Neuroscience

Visual Sciences

Mentor: Dorota Stankowska

LinkedIn: Gretchen A. Johnson

Research Interest:

  • Neuroprotection
  • Mitochondrial Bioenergetics
  • Neurodegeneration and Aging
  • Genomics and Transcriptomics
  • Glaucoma

In aging and age-related diseases (such as glaucoma) there is often a gradual impairment of eyesight from the irreversible degeneration of neurons in the retina. Our lab has been investigating a small peptide derived from the heat shock protein alpha B crystallin, called P1-CPP, and its’ signaling effects in retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). RGCs are the most at-risk cells of the retina and make up the optic nerve – the connection between our eyes and brain. Utilizing transcriptomics to identify what genes are being “turned on” following treatment will provide valuable insight into cytoprotective mechanisms. Another interest of mine is on the function and health of mitochondria in these cells because of the many regulatory roles it plays in maintaining cell health.

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Steve Mabry

Pharmacology and Neuroscience

Mentor: Rebecca Cunningham, Ph.D.

Research interest:

  • Oxidative Stress
  • Sex Differences
  • Neurodegenerative Disease
  • Steroid Hormones
  • Antioxidants

Research focus:

My research is focused primarily on oxidative stress in neurodegenerative disease. We are investigating the roles which chronic intermittent hypoxia, which induces global oxidative stress, affects the brain in rodent models. In addition to oxidative stress, we explore the roles which sex and gonadal hormones play in these disease pathologies. These sex and hormonal differences are integral to our understanding of how the brain deteriorates throughout disease progression. As part of our research, we are investigating how targeting the prodromal state of neurodegenerative disease may impact the efficacy of therapeutic interventions targeting oxidative stress. We hypothesize that the prodromal state of neurodegenerative disease acts as a ‘golden window of opportunity’ where treatments may be able to successfully rescue or prevent neurodegeneration associated with oxidative stress.

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William Mayhew

Pharmacology and Neuroscience
Visual Sciences

Mentor: Dr. Gulab Zode PhD.

Link to professional social media accounts:

Twitter: @MayhewWilliam

LinkedIn: William Mayhew

Research interest:

  • Glaucoma
  • Endoplasmic Reticulum stress
  • Aging
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Retina

Research focus:

My research involves studying the effects of chronic ER stress in the neurodegeneration of retinal ganglion cells in primary open-angle glaucoma. After completion of my degree, I plan to continue research in biomedical science by pursuing a post-doctoral training position to prepare me to be an independent investigator.

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Paapa Mensah-Kane

Pharmacology and Neuroscience

Biomedical Science-Neuroscience

Mentor: Nathalie Sumien, Ph.D.

Linkedin: Paapa Mensah-Kane

Twitter: @Paps_Mens

Research interest:

  • Neurodegenerative diseases
  • Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biology of Aging
  • Drug Optimization and Delivery
  • Cancer Pharmacology

Research focus:

My research is centered on the effect of Hyperbaric Oxygen Treatment (HBOT) on a murine model (5xFAD) of Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). HBOT has been used for the past 50 years for disease conditions such as thermal burns, wound healing, decompression sickness among others. Some clinical successes have been seen with use of HBOT in Alzheimer’s disease patients. This coupled with promising preclinical effect in some other neurological conditions makes it a potential therapeutic intervention for AD. I seek to evaluate the cognitive enhancing capacity of HBOT and the possible mechanisms by which these effects are evident. Knowledge of the mechanisms could lead to development and optimization of drug targets.

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Isabel Soto

Pharmacology and Neuroscience
Ph.D.

Mentor: Drs. Vicki Nejtek and Michael Salvatore

Research interest:

  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Cognition
  • Aerobic Exercise
  • Biomarkers

Research focus:

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disease characterized by a progressive loss of motor functioning. Yet, a subtle decline in cognitive functioning is a prodromal feature of PD that often precedes the onset of motor decline up to 10-years. While cognitive problems may be detectable in prodromal PD, the potential of using biomarkers in combination with cognitive testing for earlier disease detection is not currently practiced. However, doing so may allow for earlier implementation of non-pharmacological treatments to help slow disease progression. One such promising option is the use of aerobic exercise. While exercise has shown positive clinical outcomes, the efficacy of aerobic exercise and its impact on neural mechanisms is not well understood. Therefore, my research is focused on identifying how aerobic exercise affects motor functioning, cognition, biomarkers, and neural mechanisms in prodromal and early-stage PD. I am doing so through a cross-species translational study between early-stage PD subjects and a PD animal model, the Pink1 knock-out (PKO) rat. These experiments will determine if similar patterns of biomarkers and cognitive functions between human PD and a PD rat model exist. Moreover, we expect exercise will have similar impact on these indices between human PD and the PKO rat.

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Yuanhong Sun

Pharmacology and Neuroscience

Biomedical Sciences

Mentor: Shaohua Yang

Research interest:

  • Astrocytes
  • Metabolism
  • Heterogeneity
  • Mitochondrial respiration
  • Glycolysis

Research focus:

My lab focuses on understanding brain metabolism changes under different brain insults and uses cell culture and animal models of ischemic stroke and neurodegenerative diseases to address these studies. The brain primarily utilizes glucose for energy production through mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation. Nevertheless, glucose metabolism is heterogenous in the whole brain. Functional brain imaging results suggest that a much higher proportion of glucose consumption through aerobic glycolysis exists in the cortex than cerebellum. Recently, our lab demonstrated that heterogeneous glucose metabolism existed in the cerebral cortex, basal ganglia, cerebellum, and hippocampus. Compared with neurons, which highly depend on oxidative phosphorylation, astrocytes are mainly relying on aerobic glycolysis rather than mitochondrial respiration. However, due to the complex cell components, the role of astrocytes in the brain region-specific metabolic phenotype remains unclear. My dissertation project focuses on investigating regional astrocyte metabolism and further studying the role of astrocytes in brain insults.