Seven graduate students have been awarded 2019 Beckman Institute Graduate Fellowships. The program offers University of Illinois graduate students at the M.A., M.S., or Ph.D. level the opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary research at the institute. The 2019 honorees: Lucas Akin, chemistry; Emily Cunningham, psychology; Jennie Gardner, psychology; Mickeal Key, neuroscience; Evan Lloyd, chemical and biomolecular engineering; Denise Medina Almora, bioengineering; and Shashank Pant, biophysics and quantitative biology.
The 2019 Beckman Institute Graduate Fellows:
Lucas Akin is a Ph.D. student in chemistry, who works in the lab of Jefferson Chan. During his fellowship, Akin will continue his research on the development of a nanoscale contrast platform through his project titled “An Ultrasound Contrast Agent Platform for Disease-responsive Image Enhancement.” The new platform offers numerous improvements to current systems — navigation and localization beyond the primary circulation, disease-specific signal enhancement, and drug delivery — all through small molecule or enzymatic stimulation. Goals of the research include demonstrating in vivo efficacy of the nanoparticles to provide selective contrast in the presence of cancerous tumors along with demonstrating their ability to simultaneously deliver drug cargo and visualize tissue response in vivo. Akin plans to continue his collaboration with Michael Oelze, electrical and computer engineering, in addition to evaluating his contrast agents in vivo with the support of Wawrzyniec Dobrucki, bioengineering.
Emily Cunningham is working toward her Ph.D. in psychology, with a concentration in attention and perception. Her research proposal, “Alertness Before Selection: Probing the Brain’s Ability to Prepare for Unpredictable Input,” will investigate how the brain coordinates the interplay between processes related selective attention (the need to select information that is relevant to current goals) and those related to vigilance (the need to prepare for information that is unexpected and unpredictable) through examination of the dynamics of ongoing neural oscillatory activity. Her project takes advantage of regularities in the behavior of 8-13 Hz oscillatory activity together with a multimodal task design to separate these processes and examine their interaction. Cunningham will work with Diane Beck, Ranxiao Frances Wang, and Sepideh Sadaghiani, all members of the psychology department.
Jennie Gardner is pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, with a focus on cognitive neuroscience. The goal of her proposed research is to determine whether the signals resulting from exercise originate in the muscles or in the brain. Determining this will allow for further exploration of the exact mechanisms by which the muscles and brain communicate during exercise. The study will involve exosome extraction, isolation, and injection into an in vivo mouse model of aging. The exosomes will be extracted from either sedentary or exercised mice and will be injected into sedentary aged mice to determine their effects on neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus. Overall, this research will have important implications for the mechanisms of exercise and the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. She will work with Marni Boppart, kinesiology and community health, and Justin Rhodes, psychology.
Mickeal Key is a Ph.D. student in neuroscience. Her research goal is to understand how lifestyle factors such as diet influence the structure and functional connectivity of the aging brain in ways that support the preservation of cognitive functions such as memory and general cognitive ability. Her proposed study, “Longitudinal Assessment of Dietary Influence on the Structure and Function of the Aging Brain,” will build on previous research. The study will assess the predictive value of the amino acid, vitamin, and mineral nutrient component scores on measures of brain health over time; assess the influence inflammation may have on the relationship between diet and measures of brain health over time; and assess the influence of the APOE e4 genotype may have on the relationship between diet and measures of brain health over time. Key will work with Aron Barbey, psychology, and Liz Stine-Morrow, educational psychology.
Evan Lloyd is a Ph.D. candidate in chemical and biomolecular engineering. His proposed research, “Morphogenic Manufacturing of Engineering Materials,” seeks to develop a synthetic mimic to biological morphogenesis to generate complex patterns, forms, and functions autonomously in engineering materials. The study will employ a coupled reaction and thermal diffusion system to support feasible manufacturing times (< 1 day) with synthetic morphogenesis. More specifically, he will use frontal ring-opening metathesis polymerization of dicyclopentadiene as the foundation. He will work with Philippe Geubelle, aerospace engineering; Jeff Moore, chemistry; and Nancy Sottos, materials science and engineering.
Denise Medina Almora is pursuing a Ph.D. in bioengineering. Her proposed research, “Assessing the Role of MSCs-derived Exosomes for Cardiac Muscle Regeneration Therapies Using Molecular Imaging Approaches,” will delve into the search for finding alternative therapeutic approaches to cardiovascular diseases. This work will focus on developing a noninvasive imaging strategy to assess angiogenesis and tissue remodeling, evaluating a treatment protocol to repair and reverse the tissue destruction caused by the lack of oxygen due to heart attack using mesenchymal stem cell (MSC)-derived exosomes. Two groups will be used in this study. One will be injected with exosomes after ligation surgery; the other ones will be injected every week intravenously. Medina Almora will continue her work with Wawrzyniec Dobrucki, bioengineering.
Shashank Pant is a Ph.D. student in biophysics and quantitative biology. His research project is “Anionic Lipids Modulate Structure and Function of Epilepsy-causing Voltage-gated Potassium Channels.” In this study, he will combine the low-resolution, in vivo technique of electrophysiology with atomic-resolution computational techniques to study the role of specific lipid-protein interactions in modulating the structure and function of ion channels. This study will shed light on how lipid-protein interactions can affect neuronal excitability, serving as a pathogenic mechanism underlying epileptic encephalopathy. It is envisioned that this study will provide a spatial and dynamically high-resolution description of the role of lipids in modulating structure and function of ion channels and its implication on epilepsy. He will work with Hee Jung Chung, molecular and integrative physiology; and Emad Tajkhorshid, biochemistry.