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Center supports faculty research with grants

CURCA grants 2016 excavation
Student Briana Bagnasco shows a bolt from the Yahoola High Trestle found during one of the class's digs.

Undergraduates at the University of North Georgia (UNG) are helping faculty conduct original research projects that are being aided by mini-grants from the university's Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA).

"The exchange that happens in collaborative faculty-student programs like this cultivates dynamic research agendas and ideas," said Dr. Anastasia Lin, assistant dean of student research and scholarship. "CURCA mini-grants allow professors to jump start new research projects and approaches, while giving students the opportunity to engage in hands-on research. Our hope is that the mini-grants contribute to ongoing research projects across the university."

This year's grants are funding six projects from biology, psychological science and history/anthropology. One of those projects is a local effort under the guidance of Dr. William Balco, assistant professor of anthropology.

"We are exploring the archaeological remains of the Yahoola High Trestle, an important but little known feature of Dahlonega's gold rush," Balco said. "The Trestle, constructed in 1859, transported water to the hydraulic mining operation in Dahlonega. This past fall, 22 undergraduates began surveying and excavating the trestle site to explore how it was constructed. They excavated and sifted soil in two test units at the site, recovering evidence such as square nails and a large bolt, integral components of the structure. They are gaining hands-on archaeological field experience while positively contributing to Dahlonega's rich archaeological and historical background."

Balco said the project was made possible through collaboration between UNG, the City of Dahlonega, Lumpkin County, and the Blue Ridge Archaeology Guild, and that excavations will continue this spring semester.

Dr. Jessica Gomolak, assistant professor of biology, is researching the possibility of using zinc levels as a predictor of neurodegeneration.

"Zinc is essential for all living organisms to maintain a healthy quality of life," Gomolak said. "Conversely, excessive buildup of zinc in the brain has been implicated in many incurable diseases (i.e. Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease). Similar to the damage that occurs following methamphetamine exposure, neurons are the primary cells that are affected in these terminal illnesses. These findings offer the possibility that accumulation of zinc in the brain could be resulting in neuron death following methamphetamine intoxication."

Student Alyssa Thompson gathered data and observed that, following methamphetamine exposure, levels of the heavy metal zinc were increased in specific regions of the brain in mice.

"Incidentally, neuron death is also associated in these same areas following methamphetamine treatment. We are hoping to be able to use zinc as a potential biomarker for neurodegeneration, regardless of the initial stimulus."

Gomolak added that the use of methamphetamine has been a rising concern in the United States since the turn of the century. She said there is a well-established association between methamphetamine intoxication and cell death within the brain, and that many studies have suggested that the death of neurons is partially caused by an overzealous response of the immune system following methamphetamine exposure.

If zinc proves to be a mediator of the immune system, affecting neuron integrity, it could also be a potential biomarker for terminal illnesses that target the brain."

Other projects being supported by CURCA mini-grants this year are:

  • Drs. Frank Corotto, Mark Davis and Ashlee McCaskill: Feeding preference of Tetrahymena pyriformis
  • Drs. Steven Lloyd and Ryan Shanks: Mechanisms of increased sex-dependent susceptibility to addiction comparing early and late adolescent exposure to ADHD drugs
  • Drs. Swapna Bhat and Jeanelle Morgan, Margi Flood: Identification and isolation of Extended Spectrum β -Lactamase producing Enterobacteriace in waste water treatment plants
  • Drs. Margaret Smith and Erin Barding: Genes expressed in germ line stem cells of the wasp Copidosoma floridanum

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