Two West Virginia University undergraduate students will spend the next year conducting funded research to better understand neurodegenerative diseases and inflammatory responses in respiratory diseases as part of the Beckman Scholars Program.
Biochemistry majors Zachary Ellis, a native of Renick, and Bryan Ho, originally from Martinsburg, were named to WVU’s third and final cohort for this award, which was initially awarded to the University in 2020. Both are members of the WVU Honors College.
WVU is among 12 top research universities across the United States selected for the competitive program. Awarded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation, the 15-month mentored research experience is for exceptional undergraduate students in chemistry, biological sciences or interdisciplinary combinations of the two.
Ellis and Ho will receive an $18,200 stipend for their research work and $2,800 for supplies or travel to present at conferences. Their faculty mentors will receive $5,000 stipends.
“Zachary and Bryan are extremely talented student researchers who recognized the importance of the scientific process early in their academic careers,” Amy Hessl, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said. “Taking part in the Beckman Scholars Program will allow them to advance their knowledge and skills as well as prepare for rewarding careers in science.”
As a freshman at WVU, Ellis wasn’t sure where he wanted to be in four years – or even beyond that – but knew he liked science and wanted to explore undergraduate research opportunities.
Participating in the Research Apprenticeship Program during his first year on campus put Ellis on a path of self-discovery. It also gave him the skills he needed to become a Beckman Scholar.
While exploring mentor and laboratory options, Ellis found Justin Legleiter, professor of chemistry in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, and his biophysical chemistry research lab.
“That means biology, physics and chemistry,” Ellis said. “I liked all three, so I figured maybe this was a good place to be. I was able to apply my interest in science in a way I had never really considered, which allowed me to discover my passion for research.”
His initial research project focused on developing techniques and protocols to measure mechanical changes in biological samples and allowed him to easily transition into this new endeavor.
As a Beckman Scholar, Ellis hopes to better understand Huntington’s disease by studying changes exhibited in Caenorhabditis elegans, microscopic roundworms often used in aging studies because they exhibit specific mechanical changes as they age.
Huntington’s disease is a rare, inherited disease that causes progressive breakdown of nerve cells in the brain. Ellis will compare changes in C. elegans with pathogenic and non-pathogenic Huntington’s protein fragments.
According to Legleiter, there are several advantages to using the tiny, see-through worms including shorter lifespans, ease of maintenance and the ability to use fluorescent microscopy.
“The other really cool thing is the model of C. elegans that we use expresses the huntingtin proteins in peripheral tissues as opposed to just the nervous systems,” he said. “A lot of model species for Huntington’s only exhibit it in neurons, but we’re able to see how mutant huntingtin peripheral tissues, which is not really studied nearly as much. It provides more of a sense of novelty to the research. It could also expand our knowledge on the impact of huntingtin aggregation on peripheral systems.”
Ultimately, Ellis hopes his research can be a building block for identifying more treatment options.
“Right now, there’s no cure for Huntington’s disease. There are treatment options, but they’re incredibly limited,” he said. “If the work that we do can contribute to the overarching issue there, that’s really what we’re trying to achieve.”
As a life philosophy, Ho believes everything he wants is “on the other side of fear” and it takes a number of “uncomfortable yeses” to reach his goals.
He recalls an advanced chemistry lab during freshman year where he accidentally broke an unusually high number of beakers and had difficulty following all the protocols.
“I was interested in research and I didn’t want to do something in a traditional lab. I thought I’d just break everything again,” he said. “I had no experience when I first started. It was the biggest learning curve.”
Now, as a senior with more confidence and research experience, Ho said “yes” to a program that will fund a computational research project that could lead to the discovery of new and affordable drugs to reduce inflammatory responses in people with respiratory diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Alongside Blake Mertz, associate professor of chemistry, he is working to characterize the structure-function relationship of the platelet-activating factor receptor, a protein that is responsible for the primary inflammatory response in many respiratory diseases.
Working with a library of 50,000 ligands – small molecules that irreversibly bind to the target protein – the researchers will utilize molecular docking and molecular dynamics simulations to observe how the platelet-activating factor receptor responds to each molecule.
The computational approach will help researchers map out the structure-function relationship as well as identify candidates for drug development.
“To experimentally screen a ligand database this large would take an enormous amount of time and effort,” Mertz said. “By tackling the problem with computational approaches, we can reduce the time to identify viable ligands to around a year. That makes this not only a great research project, but one that dovetails well with the timescale of the Beckman Scholars Program.”