Research Abounds at GW

December 07, 2011

Faculty members receive grants to conduct diverse research projects.

From fighting the stigma of mental illness to developing a new material to make car engines more efficient to investigating the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to childhood obesity, GW faculty members are conducting an extensive variety of cutting-edge research.

“These are examples of some of the fabulous research projects recently undertaken by our faculty,” said Leo Chalupa, GW vice president for research. “Most important, these research projects were funded from a number of different sources, not just the federal government. Diversifying our source of research funding is tremendously important to expanding our research profile in the long term.”

GW researchers’ funding comes from government entities, such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, public and private universities, private companies, and nonprofit organizations, including many different associations and foundations.

Michael Compton, a GW professor and director of research initiatives in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is one recent grant awardee. His research project, titled “Preparing for Large-Scale Mental Illness Stigma Research through a Community-Engaged Pilot Project,” will engage a small community advisory board in the Ward 7 and 8 region of Southeast D.C. to learn more about perceptions of stigma toward people with serious mental illnesses, including schizophrenia.

Dr. Compton and his co-principal investigator, Beth Broussard, a staff researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, will work with the community board and a graphic designer to create “anti-stigma” messages—things like “People with schizophrenia are not dangerous,” and “Recovery from schizophrenia is possible.” Then they’ll test these messages for effectiveness with a sample of community members.

“We hope to uncover one or more anti-stigma messages that are effective at reducing stigma, in preparation for a larger-scale, community-based study,” Dr. Compton said. The project was funded by the Clinical and Translational Science Institute at Children’s National Medical Center.

Jean Johnson, dean of GW’s School of Nursing, is working on a project nicknamed “T3”—Teaching and Transforming through Technology. The project will design, develop and deliver electronic learning modules about teaching and learning using technology for nursing students. The T3 project will help move GW’s Bachelor of Nursing program into a blended-learning model—one that uses a combination of traditional and new media methods. Blended learning will provide students with more flexibility and easier access to course materials, Dr. Johnson said.

“We believe that using blended learning will be more effective and will enable students to spend less time on campus—participating in learning experiences that really need to take place face to face,” she said. The project was funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the grant proposal was written by Dr. Johnson’s colleagues, Professors Laurie Posey and Kim Acquaviva.

Alan Greenberg, a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in GW’s School of Public Health and Health Services, and several of his colleagues are working on an HIV/AIDS surveillance project through a partnership with the D.C. Department of Health. This project, which was recently refunded after an initial five-year period, is called the Public Health-Academic Partnership for HIV/AIDS. The partnership consists of two primary activities: on-site technical assistance in epidemiology, surveillance and biostatistics at the D.C. Department of Heath by GW faculty, research staff and graduate students, and community-based surveys conducted as part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded National HIV Behavioral Surveillance system in populations at high risk for HIV infection.

With this new funding, the partnership will continue and expand upon its work, Dr. Greenberg said.

“The partnership has helped to collect, analyze and interpret high-quality HIV epidemiologic data to guide HIV prevention activities in Washington, D.C., and provided excellent training opportunities for numerous GW graduate students in public health,” he said. “It also generated important research findings that are relevant to the local HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Anthony-Samuel LaMantia, a professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Physiology and director of the GW Institute for Neuroscience in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences,  has been awarded a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to identify molecular mechanisms that define embryonic olfactory epithelium (OE) stem cells. These stem cells, once established in the developing nose, regulate lifelong genesis of olfactory receptor neurons—the cells that mediate the sense of smell—and are likely pathogenic targets for neurological and psychiatric diseases, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases and schizophrenia.

“Olfactory epithelial stem cells are the only neural stem cells in humans that constantly make new neurons that make new connections over a lifetime. If we can understand how the nervous system establishes stem cells that can provide for ongoing replacement and repair, we will be able to create an outline of how one might harness the same mechanisms to repair parts of the brain that do not normally regenerate or recover after damage,” Dr. LaMantia said.

Stephen Hsu, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in GW’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, recently received funding from a major engine manufacturer and the Department of Energy (DOE) to investigate new materials that could potentially make vehicle engines significantly more fuel efficient.

“Fuel economy of cars and trucks are of great national importance, since we import about 10 million barrels of oil every day,” Dr. Hsu explained. “Part of the energy consumed in the engine is due to frictional losses.”

Working with the engine manufacturer, the DOE and national laboratories, Dr. Hsu and his team will investigate how new surface technologies for engine parts—including novel discrete surface textures, ultra-thin hard films and bonded chemical coatings applied to the engine parts—could protect the engine while reducing the frictional losses significantly.

“This technology has the potential of improving fuel economy of cars and trucks by as much as 3 to 5 percent, depending on engine designs and duty cycles,” Dr. Hsu said. A provisional patent for the technology was recently filed.

GW Associate Professor of Clinical and Developmental Psychology Jody Ganiban will investigate the ways that children’s genetic makeup, prenatal history and home environment collectively contribute to obesity. A grant from the National Institutes of Health—totaling nearly $3 million—will allow Dr. Ganiban and her team to track the growth of a nationwide cohort of 561 adopted children from birth through ages seven to nine, and will assess both the children’s birth and adoptive parents.

“The long-term goal of this project is to understand how the home environment can mitigate or boost the impact of a child’s genetic and prenatal risk for obesity,” Dr. Ganiban said. “By studying adopted children, we can tease apart genetic and prenatal influences on child weight from their current home environments.”

Dr. Ganiban’s team will collaborate with researchers from the Oregon Social Learning Center and the Pennsylvania State University. Researchers will interview adoptive parents about children’s growth, diet, activities, sleeping patterns, family-wide activities and habits that are related to maintaining a healthy weight. Researchers will also speak to birth parents about their weight history, activity levels and obesity-related health problems. The study will run from 2012 through 2016.

Carson Murray, an assistant professor of anthropology, will also investigate the relationship between parents and their offspring. But she’ll be studying chimpanzees. Dr. Murray’s NIH-funded project will examine how the stress levels of mother chimpanzees living in the wild affect their offspring’s growth and development.

The research is important, Dr. Murray explained, because while much research has investigated mother-child chimpanzee relationships in captivity, strong studies conducted with wild populations are much rarer.

Dr. Murray and her team will use both existing chimpanzee data, gathered over more than 40 years, coupled with new data they’ll collect by observing chimpanzee families in Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

“The results of this study will yield a functional understanding of the complex mother-infant relationship and how it works across generations,” Dr. Murray said. “It will parse out which parts of the family system are important in the short term from those that have long-term consequences for reproductive success.”

And the data the study yields will have applicability far beyond Gombe National Park. “Understanding [this relationship] in chimpanzees will have direct application to the same topic in humans,” Dr. Murray said.