Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute fuels the fires of rising stars

The 2013 Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute Medical Research Scholars (from left): Jason Zhang, Lara Moody, Katie Degan, and Aboozar Monavarfes. (Not pictured: Michael Entz)

The Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute has announced the second class of recipients of its Medical Research Scholars fellowship program.

“The final decisions were difficult to make, as we received many more applications than our resources could support, and all from excellent students in outstanding laboratories,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. “The selection committee evaluated each applicant carefully using such criteria as academic records, research productivity, promise for successful completion of projects, and mentor support. We’re lucky to have these outstanding young researchers under our roof, and I look forward to seeing what they can achieve in the coming year.”

The five recipients will focus on a range of biomedical research issues, from scar formation to addiction disorders to heart conduction problems.

Among the five recipients is Katherine Degen, who earned her bachelor’s in biomedical engineering at the University of Virginia. Under the mentorship of Robert Gourdie, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Degen is also working with plastic surgeons at Carilion Clinic to focus on scar capsule formation in an attempt to prevent excessive scarring around implants, find a way to test for potential scarring prior to surgery, and alter a patient’s collagen response using peptides to mitigate scarring.

Michael Entz, whose bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering is from the University of Utah, is seeking to understand how changes in the compartmentalization of fluid in heart tissue can affect cell membrane pores that flux potassium ions that are located adjacent to the molecular bridges that electrically couple heart muscle cells and, in turn, the risk of sudden cardiac death. Entz is working with Steven Poelzing, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

Lara Moody is working with Warren Bickel, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and director of the institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center, to investigate how clustered psychological symptoms such as anxiety or depression affect higher order functions in the brain when coupled with substance abuse. Moody earned her bachelor’s in psychology at Davidson College.

In the laboratory of Michael Fox, an associate professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Aboozar Monavarfeshani will compare the expression of genes in two small areas of the brain to identify genes that might be involved in the small yet important differences between the neurons of each region. Monavarfeshani graduated from the University of Tehran with a master’s degree in cellular and molecular biology.

Finally, Jason Zhang has joined the laboratory of Harry Dorn, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, after earning his bachelor’s in chemistry from Beijing Normal University. Zhang will try to target specific tissues and regions of the body with metallofullerenes, which are soccer-ball-shaped, carbon, molecular cages that can trap a few atoms of metals within, resulting in low toxicity levels when used for medicinal purposes.

Aside from great expectations and $35,000 to support their research, the fellowship awards also come with a few additional responsibilities. Students attend all events in the Research Institute Seminar Series. In addition, the five convene in a regular journal club to discuss journal articles from various fields, giving each a chance to present their own research and raise awareness of different fields and developments.

“Attending the lectures of experts in fields that aren’t your own is a great opportunity to broaden your interests and learn something that you might not have considered before,” said Moody, the only recipient to earn the fellowship for the second year in a row. “The grant also will help me spend most of my time in the laboratory conducting research, which is, after all, the reason I’m here.”

Written by Ken Kingery