News From Our Life Sciences Departments
By Sidney Springer
There really is an app for everything. Microbiology and molecular biology student Curtis Hoffmann (‘23) discovered a viral infection outbreak simulator called Operation Outbreak and introduced it to BYU and other Utah County schools. The purpose of the simulation is to increase trust in the public health system and educate users on the power of viruses.
The simulator uses a phone’s Bluetooth to anonymously track when a participant interacts with others and potentially exposes themself to a “virus,” especially relevant in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The simulation also assesses how vaccinations and herd immunity affects transmission rates.
Hoffman and the app’s founders conducted an experiment in February 2021 with 420 students and faculty. The results showed approximately 16 percent of users would have been infected with the hypothetical virus, with five percent never recovering. Due to the high accuracies of the simulation, Hoffmann hopes K-12 schools will use the tool with experiential learning.
NEW DIRECTOR OF NEUROSCIENCE CENTER
By Allie Richael
Cell biology and physiology professor Jeff Edwards is appointed the new director of the Neuroscience Center beginning July 1, 2021. Edwards has held the position of associate director of the Neuroscience Center for six years under the current director Ramona Hopkins.
“Dr. Edwards is well-prepared for this new assignment,” Dean Porter says. “I am confident that he will help the Neuroscience Center and its undergraduate and graduate programs to thrive.”
Edwards received his bachelor’s degree in zoology at BYU and his PhD in physiology at the University of Utah. He then conducted postdoctoral research on synaptic plasticity at Brown University. Edwards returned to BYU as a professor in 2007 and currently runs the Edwards Lab, mentoring students as they research memory and learning. Edwards says he loves neuroscience because there is still so much left to learn in the field.
NEEDLING OUT THE PAIN
By Sydney Springer
About 80 percent of Americans report back pain at least once in their lives, a nuisance that is currently temporarily resolved by visiting a chiropractor or stretching. Professor Ulrike Mitchell hopes to introduce a new method of relief through dry needling, a process somewhat similar to acupuncture.
Mitchell is conducting a study to determine the effectiveness of dry needling, examining everything from pain levels to mechanism and functionality. Half of the participants receive the dry needling treatment, and the other half have placebo needles designed by Mitchell specifically for the control group.
Dry needling and acupuncture differ in their methods and origins. Acupuncture is a Chinese medicine that alters the flow of “chi,” or energy, in the body, while dry needling targets trigger points within the muscle. Very thin stainless steel needles are used to inactivate the pain point. While most of the science and reasoning behind this technique is not understood, Mitchell hopes to uncover the mystery with her study.
FAMILY RELATIONSHIPS & MENTAL HEALTH
By Emma Freestone
While healthy relationships may not prevent depression, a recent study shows they can decrease depressive symptoms. Using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a framework, public health professor Ali Crandall determined whether the fulfillment or lack of certain needs in adolescents’ family life were predictive of depressive symptoms. Crandall used data from the Flourishing Families Project, collected by the BYU Department of Family Life. She evaluated family stressors, neighborhood safety, parent-child connectedness, and economic stress by analyzing the results of yearly questionnaires administered to the adolescents and their parents.
Healthy family relationships, or the lack of them, was the only factor that affected depressive symptoms. “If the children felt a strong connection with their parents, the children were less likely to develop depression,” Crandall explains. “The family environment is still the most salient, most important thing to adolescents. It sets them up for life."
A GROGGY CLIMATE GIANT
By Sara Sayedi, doctoral student, Plant & Wildlife Sciences
A new study led by BYU PhD candidate Sara Sayedi (‘22) and senior researcher Dr. Ben Abbott generates the first estimates of circumarctic carbon stocks, greenhouse gas release, and possible future response of the subsea permafrost zone. Using a methodology called expert assessment, 25 researchers estimated that the subsea permafrost region currently traps both 60 billion tons of methane and 560 billion tons of organic carbon in sediment and soil. Researchers estimate that the amount of future greenhouse gas release from subsea permafrost depends directly on future human emissions. “These results are important because they indicate a substantial but slow climate feedback,” Sayedi explains. “Some coverage of this region has suggested that human emissions could trigger the catastrophic release of methane hydrates, but our study suggests a gradual increase over many decades."
TREE NUTS AND FERTILITY
By Grace McGregor
Cell biology and physiology professor Tim Jenkins worked with a multi-institutional team researching tree nuts’ effects on sperm epigenetic patterns. The study observed 72 males to determine the impact of adding tree nuts into a traditional western diet. Results showed no change in global sperm DNA methylation, but 36 genomic regions displayed altered DNA methylation, and 97.2 percent of the regions showed signs of hypermethylation. The data established that the sperm epigenome is sensitive to even subtle diet changes. The data presented in the study is part of a growing body of evidence suggesting that a man’s lifestyle decisions can potentially impact his fertility as well as his offspring’s health.
A LANGUAGE IN COMMON
By Taylor Nelson
Family relationships are the fabric of the Polynesian culture. Grandparents help take care of the young, and in turn, children and grandchildren take care of the elderly. Having grown up in Samoa and Hawaii, graduate biology student Justina Tavana (‘23) understands the value of looking out for aging community members, even as the ravaging effects of dementia steal away their close connections and identity. Currently, there are no dementia screening tools available to Pacific Islander populations in their own languages, making the diagnosis process very difficult. Tavana and her team are working to change this. Part of Tavana’s research involves translating dementia screening tools into Samoan and Tongan. When complete, her tools will be the first optimized for Pacific Islanders.
AN OUTSTANDING DIETITIAN
By Taylor Nelson
Dr. Sarah Bellini, associate professor in the Department of Nutrition, Dietetics & Food Science, was given the 2021 Award of Merit by the Utah Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She was named 2021’s “Outstanding Dietician of the Year” for her leadership and contributions to the field of dietetics. Bellini will be recognized in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Bellini’s research focuses on pediatric malnutrition. Lack of nutrition in children is estimated to cause nearly half of the world’s juvenile mortalities. She participates in both the Pediatric Nutrition Practice Group Malnutrition Committee and the Utah Malnutrition Taskforce. Recently, Bellini published manuscripts on the use of handgrip strength in identifying malnutrition in youth. Presently, she is working with students and healthcare experts to develop and validate nutrition risk screening tools for young children.