Biology & Chemistry Research
Prepare for Your Career in Biology or Chemistry Through Hands-On Research
Learn to succeed in your field of study by conducting research with hands-on experiments in nearly every science class you take. In Liberty University’s Department of Biology & Chemistry, you will participate in labs taught by credentialed and experienced faculty.
Also, in our 400-level courses, you will have the opportunity to conduct your own research projects or do research simulations. Additionally, you could participate with faculty on their ongoing research projects.
Experience like this has given students the opportunity to present their research results at both regional and national scientific meetings, including the Virginia Academy of Science. Research experience can also help you gain internship opportunities, attend graduate school, and find successful employment.
Biology and Chemistry Faculty Research Opportunities Include:
Dr. Todd Allen
Algae can be grown to have a high protein and/or lipid content, which can be used for animal feed, biofuel, or both. Dr. Allen’s group uses GC/MS/FID (Gas Chromatography coupled with Mass Spectrometric Detection and Flame Ionization Detection) for quantifying the total lipid content in samples obtained from algae biofuels companies. Several companies are researching cost-effective ways to optimize growth and harvesting techniques in an effort to convert the lipid fraction of the algae biomass into various types of company, can be used for improving the production and harvesting techniques.
This work provides students with hands-on, real-world, interdisciplinary training in both chemistry and biology. It will provide them with valuable, transferable skills and knowledge, and prepare them for employment, graduate research, or medical school.
- Students will apply fundamental principles of nutrient limitation, stoichiometry, kinetics, and equilibrium learned in their chemistry and biology courses to the preparation and analysis of samples.
- Students will acquire valuable chemistry and biology research experience through literature searches, in sample/standard preparation techniques, in the use of state-of-the-art instrumentation, as well as in data analysis, interpretation, and reporting.
- Students will learn how to effectively summarize and communicate scientific information.
Amphibians & Their Microbial Symbionts
Dr. Matthew Becker
The Becker lab is currently conducting two studies to understand the role of symbiotic microbes in the health and conservation of local amphibian species.
The impact of emerging infectious diseases on Virginia salamander populations.
In recent decades, amphibians have experienced unprecedented population declines, leading to many species extinctions worldwide. A large number of these declines and extinctions are occurring in protected areas, such as national parks, and are due to two amphibian diseases: chytridiomycosis and ranaviral disease. The impact of these two diseases in the southeastern United States is unknown and is hard to measure without long-term studies of infected populations.
Therefore, a main goal of the Becker lab is to set up long-term monitoring sites of local salamander populations and measure the impact of disease on population dynamics over time. Study species for this project include the eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) and the Peaks of Otter salamander (Plethodon hubrichti), an endemic species with a very limited distribution along the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The microbiome of the Peaks of Otter Salamander
Animals are host to a diverse community of symbiotic microorganisms. We are currently discovering the significance of microbes to the health and normal function of the hosts they inhabit. In particular, some amphibian species host a wide array of bacteria on their skin that secrete compounds to prevent colonization of infectious pathogens such as the fungus Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which is responsible for the disease chytridiomycosis.
Recent studies have shown that some of these beneficial bacteria can be used as probiotics to prevent chytridiomycosis in highly susceptible amphibian species. In an effort to understand the ecology of amphibian cutaneous microbial communities and further conservation strategies with the use of probiotics, the Becker lab uses microbiological and molecular techniques to investigate how these microbes interact with each other, their host, and B. dendrobatidis. Study species for this project will include several local salamander species, including the Peaks of Otter salamander (Plethodon hubrichti).
Dr. Kyle Harris
Dr. Harris conducts research in the area of aquatic ecology. Current undergraduate projects focus on crayfish ecology in relation to ectosymbionts, ecotoxicology, and predator/prey dynamics. These projects are a collaborative effort with faculty in the areas of analytic chemistry, histology, ecology, and microbiology. Students present their findings annually at the Virginia Academy of Science and have opportunities to present at other regional and national research meetings (e.g. Association of Southeastern Biologists and Ecological Society of America).
Lab and field-based projects on crayfish ecology include:
- The microbial assembly on crayfish along stream continuums in relation to crayfish ectosymbionts. This project utilizes molecular research (DNA extractions, PCR, QIIME2 sequencing analysis) to further unravel the role of obligate crayfish ectosymbionts (Branchiobdellidans) on community assembly. Students apply techniques learned in microbiology, genetics, and environmental biology.
- The natural history of crayfish ectosymbionts (Branchiobdellidans) in Central Virginia. This project is cataloging Branchiobdellidans and other crayfish epifauna in Central Virginia streams from associated project field sampling. Students apply skills with taxonomic keys introduced in organismal courses.
- The effects of pollutants on crayfish and crayfish ectosymbionts. Freshwater ecosystems are impacted by a wide variety of pollutants. This project investigates how sub-lethal levels of pollutants (e.g. herbicides) affect non-target organisms in streams. Students apply techniques learned in analytic chemistry, histology, and environmental science.
- The impact of microplastics on rural and urban streams. This project investigates the presence and abundance of microplastics in stream environments with special attention given to crayfish and associated biota (e.g. fish and queen snakes). Students apply techniques learned in ecology, environmental biology, and analytic chemistry.
- The effects of crayfish (predators) on the development of amphibians (prey).Interactions between predators and prey can result in morphological and behavioral plasticity of prey. This project investigates how the presence of crayfish influences the development of amphibians.
Biochemical Studies of Natural Products
Dr. Gregory Raner
The first involves the evaluation of a variety of natural products (herbal medicines, essential oils, etc.) for potential health-promoting activities, or possible adverse effects when consumed with pharmaceutical drugs. Specifically, students learn how to culture human liver cells in the lab and evaluate specific biochemical markers associated with positive health effects, such as anti-oxidant action or chemo-preventive properties. High throughput enzymatic assays using High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) or 96-well formatted fluorescence or luminescence kinetic assays are the primary tools associated with the project.
A second broad area of research is aimed at examining detailed chemical processes that are at the heart of enzymatic oxidation reactions involving heme-containing enzymes. For example, cytochrome P450s are a very large class of enzymes found in the human liver and are responsible for oxidative degradation of hundreds of thousands of different chemicals to which humans may be exposed, including pharmaceuticals. The work in this lab is primarily concerned with compounds containing fluorine, as the inclusion of fluorine in new pharmaceuticals appears to be a developing trend. The goal is to understand chemical mechanisms associated with fluorine removal from these drugs during human metabolism, with possible drug safety implications.
Chemical Modifications to DNA in Alzheimer’s Disease
Dr. Gary Isaacs
Although several mutations have been associated with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), several lines of evidence suggest that AD development might be caused by chemical modifications which alter the DNA sequence. Dr. Isaacs’ hypothesis is that AD results from these chemical modifications because they influence the activity of nearby genes (which produce the working enzyme in every cell).
Dr. Isaacs’ overall research plan is three-fold:
- Identify regions of the genome that become chemically altered as the brain progresses toward an AD-like state
- Correlate the location and magnitude of these chemical changes with the activity of the nearby genes
- Determine the activity of genes in brain and blood tissue allowing a convenient and non-invasive screening method for physicians as they diagnose their patients.
Conservation Research on Amphibians & Reptiles
Dr. Norm Reichenbach
Dr. Reichenbach is directing four long-term field projects:
- The stability of an urban population of Eastern Box turtles (Terrapene carolina) where forest fragmentation and urbanization may be impacting the turtles. This is a mark/recapture and telemetry study conducted by students from ecology (Biology 310).
- The population size and survival rates of Eastern newts (Notophthalamus viridescens) which addresses concerns about declines in amphibian populations worldwide. This is a mark/recapture study that uses the Visible Implant Elastomer tags (a harmless yet permanent marking technique) to mark the newts. Students from ecology (Biology 310) conduct this study.
- The gestation site use by timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus). Passive Integrated transponder tags are injected into snakes to assess the frequency with which they return to the gestation sites.
- The restoration and recovery of the Plains garter snake (Thamnophis radix), a State of Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Conservation Research on Peaks of Otter Salamander
Dr. Norm Reichenbach & Dr. Timothy Brophy
Dr. Reichenbach is also conducting ecological research on the Peaks of Otter Salamander (Plethodon hubrichti) with Dr. Tim Brophy and teams of biology students. They are currently researching why this species has a very restricted geographical distribution.
Environmental Impact of Manmade Chemicals
Dr. Michael Bender
Manmade chemicals benefit our global society yet may pose, in some instances, a significant risk to our global environment. Inappropriate chemical usage and insufficient recovery post-use of these chemicals can foster an attitude of sinful disrespect toward the world God has created and His image bearers who live in that world.
Our team of zoologists, biologists and chemists are probing the environmental impact of microplastics pollution on the freshwater sources local to our university. Initial work is ongoing to identify and quantify any microplastics found in local crayfish. In the planning stage, we also are considering a campaign for skimming of local freshwater sources as a means for assessing the extent of buoyant microplastic contamination near our university.
Another area of study moving toward a start in our team is the effect of MRI contrast agents and known/suspected nephrotoxic agents on the development of zebrafish. This new area of study for our team is arising from our students and their personal missions’ experiences in Central America. In Central America, our students observed a highly localized epidemic of kidney disease of unknown etiology (CDKu) and one of these students is now doing the deep literature reviews necessary to plan work and obtain funding for experiments in this area.
Gene Regulation in Fungi
Dr. Michael Price
Dr. Price and his students are interested in understanding how fungi regulate genes important for human, animal, and plant disease.
Currently, they are interested in two main research questions:
- How does carbon metabolism in the human pathogenic fungus Cryptococcus neoformans contribute to pathogenicity and survival in its host?
- How does the plant pathogenic fungus Aspergillus flavus regulate the production of fungal toxins in response to its environment? They enjoy current collaborations with colleagues at the University of Michigan, Duke University, and North Carolina State University to answer these questions.
Dr. Price’s students have presented their research at the Virginia Academy of Science and the Big South Undergraduate Research Symposium, and have won numerous awards and grants for their work. Additionally, Dr. Price’s students have won the Provost Award for Research Excellence grants and their research is supported by Provost Research Initiative grants from Liberty University.
Dr. Paul Sattler
Dr. Sattler is involved with both lab and field studies with amphibians and reptiles. He has been an active member of the Virginia Herpetological Society since 1987 and has held every elected office at one time or another. He currently serves as the co-editor of their journal, Catesbeiana. He participates in the VHS surveys and supervises the Field Notes section of the journal, updating and determining the distribution of amphibians and reptiles in Virginia.
Dr. Sattler is also using molecular genetic techniques, protein electrophoresis and DNA sequencing, to examine the extent of genetic differentiation in isolated populations of amphibians, particularly salamanders in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. The technique has been useful in uncovering cryptic species, those that cannot be determined using traditional morphological characters. Molecular techniques can uncover new species, and once the molecular markers are available, to determine the extent of that species’ range. Thus, field and lab studies are integrated to answer basic questions on the distribution of animals in Virginia. Students are involved with research projects to isolate DNA from tissues, usually tail clips, and then PCR used to amplify specific gene fragments to either differentiate or identify species.
Identifying Therapeutic Vulnerabilities in Non-Small Cell Lung Cancer
Dr. Abigail Solitro
Dr. Solitro’s doctoral research investigated the role of autophagy in cancer. Autophagy is a homeostatic recycling mechanism utilized by all cells to turn damaged organelles and protein aggregates into metabolic fuel. In non-transformed contexts, autophagy is activated by various stress signals including nutrient starvation. In cancer contexts, tumor cells maintain heightened levels of autophagy, even in the absence of stimuli. Heightened autophagy can be used by tumor cells as a survival mechanism, especially in response to treatment with chemotherapy and radiation. Research conducted thus far suggests that tumors harboring oncogenic mutations in KRAS and BRAF, especially in the context of non-small cell lung cancer, operate at heightened levels of autophagy and may be preferentially sensitive to autophagy inhibition. Dr. Solitro is investigating the hypotheses that oncogenic mutations hyperactivate autophagy in lung cancer cells and induce a state of dependence upon autophagy that can be therapeutically exploited.
Dr. Solitro is seeking to establish a student-driven research team with an interest in translational research in the area of cancer. Her general research aim is to investigate relationships between cancer-causing genetic mutations and dependence upon cell signaling pathways and processes, in order to identify optimal therapeutic targets for cancer patients.
Metabolic Enzymes & Fibrosis
Dr. Pei Zhang
Currently, there are two research projects being carried out in Dr. Zhang’s lab:
- Dr. Zhang’s students have mutated key residues in succinate dehydrogenase, a TCA cycle enzyme, to exam differences in enzymatic kinetics. This collaborative project with Yale University may have significance in Diabetes. Dr. Zhang’s students have won first place at the Big South Undergraduate Research Symposium.
- Excessive deposition of extracellular matrix can lead to fibrosis, which can have an enormous impact on human health. Dr. Zhang and her students are aiming to establish molecular cellular models in which they can study the etiology of fibrosis with the goal of potential therapeutic interventions. This work is supported by Provost Research Initiative grants from Liberty University.
Migration Dynamics of Northern Saw-Whet Owls
Dr. Gene Sattler
Northern Saw-whet Owls are a rare breeder at high elevations in Virginia and a secretive migrant throughout its range. Prior to initiating a project banding them during migration, only two historical records existed for the Lynchburg area. However, with the help of biology students, we have banded nearly 400 saw-whets at our banding station since 2002.
The project is focused on exploring the migration dynamics of this species as we answer questions about the timing of the migration in this region, differences in the magnitude of flights among years, and differences in the timing and magnitude of movement among age and sex classes. A banding station here also adds insights into the geographic distribution of Northern Saw-whet Owls during migration; we are one of the more southern banding stations for the species in eastern North America, and our location in the inner Piedmont of Virginia complements saw-whet banding stations in Virginia in the Ridge and Valley province to the northwest and in the Coastal Plain province to the east. The project also provides students with valuable field experience in mist netting, handling, and banding birds.
A second project has been studying the fall hawk migration from Liberty Mountain since 1997. Over a dozen species of hawks and other diurnally migrating raptors such as eagles and osprey migrate through Virginia each year. The study of their migration dynamics in Virginia has always been done predominantly along mountain ridges of the western mountain and valley region and along the coast of the eastern coastal plain. We are documenting this migration in the inner Piedmont region in order to fill in gaps in our understanding of Virginia’s hawk migration.
Modulation of Cannabinoid Receptors
Dr. Alan Fulp
Dr. Fulp’s formal academic training was in organic chemistry, but he has spent most of his career as a medicinal chemist. Currently, Dr. Fulp’s major research efforts are focused on organic synthetic methodology and more specifically tandem reactions. Tandem reaction allows for the rapid assembling of complex molecules in an efficient manner. Another area of interest is in medicinal chemistry. Currently, Dr. Fulp is evaluating modulation of the endocannabinoid system for the treatment of glaucoma.
Nutrient Sensing & Metabolic Signaling
Dr. Jeong-Ho Kim
Dr. Kim’s research interests are largely directed toward understanding how environmental cues interact with genetic components to regulate cell growth and development. He is particularly interested in learning how nutrients and metabolites transduce information to cellular effector functions and how dysregulation of this process leads to metabolic diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. His research has been supported by NIH.
Dr. Michael Korn
Dr. Korn’s research interests are at the interphase between organic chemistry, materials science, and biology.
Currently, the following research areas are being pursued:
- Chemistry of the origin of life
- Development of new organic laboratory experiments
- Organic semiconductors
- Electrically conducting ink (in collaboration with the department of electrical engineering)
Pathophysiology of Alcoholic Liver Disease
Dr. Ben Kalu
According to the Center for Disease Control, chronic liver diseases and Alcoholic Liver Disease are the 12th leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for about 34,000 deaths in 2011. Also, liver cancers are the 8th leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. with about 16,000 deaths per year. A common factor associated with these liver diseases is chronic alcohol consumption. Therefore, our group is interested in elucidating the molecular mechanisms and pathophysiology of alcoholic liver disease and its course/progression to liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma.
We use in-vivo models of chronic alcohol consumption as well as alcohol-treated cell culture models to examine:
- Genes whose expression levels are altered and the physiological impacts of such alterations
- Subcellular localization, integrity and functions of organelles with particular emphasis on the mitochondria (oxidative stress) and lysosomes (autophagy)
- Possible molecules, drugs or nutritional supplements that may reverse, retard or halt the development of progression of these disease conditions (drug discovery)
Our group is very hands-on and student-oriented, affording the students flexibility to work at their individual paces while giving them exposure to laboratory skills and analytical competencies that will help define their career paths and make them competitive in the science community.
Population Studies of MRSA Carriers
Dr. Alan Gillen
Dr. Gillen’s major research interests are detecting water parasites and pathogens in Lynchburg, VA Area Waters, describing the genesis of Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and coliform growth in local waters. Dr. Gillen and his research students are interested in tracking the incidence of coliforms, water parasites, and pathogens. His interest is determining the factors that influence the growth and abundance of Giardia, Cryptosporidium, and coliforms (E. coli – like bacteria) in local waters. Students demonstrate competence in collecting water samples, communicating and documenting laboratory data and field data. Samples are taken from local ponds, lakes, and the James River.
In our own research, the efficacy of using indicators such as total coliforms and single enteric bacteria species to predict the presence of protozoan parasites such as Giardia and Cryptosporidium have been examined in the surface waters of a small lake. Parasite and bacterial presence were measured over a 9-month period in two designated zones. Enteric bacteria including Escherichia coli, Citrobacter freundii, Citrobacter amalonaticus, and Klebsiella oxytoca were detected in the sampled water. Along with bacterial indicators, weather, biofilm, turbidity, and wildlife prevalence played a significant role in predicting the protozoan parasite concentrations. The presence of Giardia was indicated by Klebsiella oxytoca, Enterobacter cloacae, and Citrobacter amalonaticus, all of which are duck coliforms. A trend was observed indicating as total coliform levels and turbidity increased, so did the levels of Cryptosporidium. None of the data collected indicated that a sole indicator organism was an adept predictor of Cryptosporidium presence. Thus, the presence of multiple indicator organisms (C. freundii, total coliforms, biofilm) is a more suitable predictor for Cryptosporidium. The exact source of the Cryptosporidium remains unknown. For the benefit of public health, the observation of the total collection of indicators should be implemented during water quality testing. More study is needed to both identify the parasite source and to further illuminate the specific microbial indicators of surface waters at Candler Mountain and its associated lake, Lake Hydaway as well as the nearby James River.
Dr. Gillen and his students have published 3 articles. They have also presented their results during Research Week and won first place. The results of this research could benefit the entire student body by helping educate students regarding good public health and the importance of clean drinking water locally and globally.
Synthetic Organic Chemistry
Dr. Stephen Hobson
Dr. Hobson’s research group is focused on the application of the tools and techniques of organic synthesis to a myriad of areas such as polymer/materials chemistry, medicinal chemistry, and toxicology. The group currently focuses on the following: synthesis, characterization, and optimization of non-estrogenic Bisphenol A mimics; design and production of graphene-based chemical sensors; and discovery of novel molecules to ameliorate the effects of nitrates in the gut.
His broader research interests include synthesis of stimuli-responsive polymers; preparation of self-healing polymers and materials; catalyst development; discovery and development of new medical countermeasures for highly toxic industrial chemicals and chemical warfare agents; and development of new chemical sensors.
Tick Disease Surveillance on Candler’s Mountain
Dr. David McGuirt
Dr. McGuirt runs a tick disease surveillance research project for Lyme Disease, Ehrlichia, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever on Candler’s Mountain, Lynchburg, VA involving pre-veterinary research students and genetics research students (from Dr. Isaacs). The project consists of regular collections of ticks from 3 sites from March through October. Ticks are counted, sexed, and sorted into species. The tick DNA is extracted, amplified through PCR, and read for unique antigenic sections of DNA for the 3 diseases mentioned. It is a qualitative study to determine if any of the 3 disease-causing agents are in ticks locally collected. As funding allows, the number of sites (and geographic coverage) may increase. Related studies on wild white-footed mice are also planned for the same sites.
Understanding Schedules of Reinforcement Utilizing Operant Conditioning Chambers
Dr. Matthew Lazenka
Operant conditioning is a method of understanding behavior based on consequences. For instance, a positive reinforcer is one that will increase the probability of a behavior occurring. If a student studies for a test and does well on the test, that student is more likely to study in the same manner for the next test. That study behavior may have followed a schedule of reinforcement of studying for three hours per day. The goal of the project is to train male and female rats utilizing different schedules of reinforcement. Students will have hands-on experience in collecting data and compare that to results learned in their classes. The data generated from these experiments will serve to provide future students with interactive modules that will ask them to predict the behavior of an animal based on the schedule of reinforcement.
Using DNA Analysis as an Investigative Tool
Dr. J. Thomas McClintock
Evidentiary samples that are subjected to DNA analysis are often consistent with mixtures (i.e., more than one contributor), may contain low levels of DNA, and can show varying levels of degradation. One research aspect is to focus on increasing the levels of sensitivity and specificity of DNA analyses from mixed and/or degraded samples, as well as samples containing minute quantities or trace DNA that has been transferred. In addition, DNA testing of evidentiary samples derived from “Innocent Projects” could provide relief to those wrongly incarcerated while testing samples of historical significance, using short tandem repeat (STR) analysis and mitochondrial DNA sequencing, could provide important information about our past. Another research focus is the use of forensically-important insects and microbial succession to enhance the ability to determine postmortem intervals (PMI) during decomposition in Southwestern Virginia.
Vertebrate Ecology & Systematics
Dr. Timothy Brophy
Dr. Brophy has broad interests in vertebrate ecology and systematics. He is currently working on several research projects including an ecological study of the Peaks of Otter Salamander and baraminological (i.e. creation taxonomy) studies of landfowl, mole salamanders, and cucurbits (cucumber/melon family).