Traffic Safety Researcher Porter Gets Grant for Seat-Belt Study

Seat belt use is believed to lag behind the average in rural areas of Virginia, and Old Dominion University researcher Bryan Porter has been commissioned to study the problem (Quest, Vol. 4, Issue 2).

Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine announced in late summer 2009 the distribution of $17 million in ­federal funds to promote traffic safety, and Porter leads an ODU research team that will get nearly $200,000. Recipients include most of the state’s localities, state agencies, nonprofit groups and educational institutions.

Porter, associate professor of psychology, is known internationally for his research into the psychological underpinnings of dangerous driving habits. His work has assessed automatic
photo-enforcement to reduce red-light running, and he also has been commissioned by the state to help ­bolster the “Click It or Ticket” program to encourage seat belt use, as well as anti-drunk driving initiatives.

The ODU professor is regularly featured as a source for traffic-safety media reports. The Washington Post quoted him in its story of Sept. 10 about the governor’s latest distribution of funds for programs aimed at encouraging safe driving.

Porter told the Post that these programs, such as “Click It or Ticket,” help explain why the state’s roads are getting safer.

“It’s a combination of higher seat-belt use, better technology in the cars, probably better roads and possibly people slowing down to conserve gas,” he told the Post. “Wearing a safety belt is the easiest thing a passenger or driver can do to increase their odds of surviving a crash.”
Nevertheless, he said, national and state statistics show that 15 to 20 percent of drivers do not buckle up.

The latest grant will support efforts of Porter’s research group to identify portions of the state, typically rural areas, where drivers are less likely to use seat belts. The team will continue work already under way to develop awareness campaigns and enforcement strategies to promote safe driving.

Health Sciences’ Anna Jeng Takes on Environmental Project in Taiwan

Steelworkers on the other side of the world will serve as subjects of a new research ­project led by Anna Jeng, Old Dominion University assistant professor of community and environmental health in the College of Health Sciences (Quest, Vol. 10, Issue 2).

With a $150,000 grant from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the ODU researcher will assess the effect of inhaled polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on male reproductive health. Steelworkers around coke ovens in the largest steel plant in southern Taiwan are routinely exposed to PAH emissions and will be the study’s subjects.

PAHs are a group of chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, garbage or other organic substances. There are more than 100 different PAHs and they generally occur as complex mixtures, not as single compounds.

Jeng collaborates in the research with Dr. Ming-Tsang Wu, professor of the Graduate Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health at Kaohsiung Medical University in Taiwan. The project’s consultant is Dr. Radim Sram, head of the Department of Genetic Ecotoxicology at the Institute of Experimental Medicine in the Czech Republic.

The ODU researcher said PAH mixtures are widely distributed in the environment, and humans normally come in contact with them on a daily basis from industrial and vehicular emissions, cigarette smoke and grilled foods. Due to the carcinogenic properties of the mixtures, most studies to date have been conducted to assess the relevance of PAHs in the development of cancers.

The new project, investigating the potential relationship between PAH exposure and male reproductive health, is in what Jeng called “a relatively unstudied area” with important health
implications far beyond the studied workplace.

“I’m excited about working with my international collaborators who bring the needed
complementary expertise to the table,” Jeng added. “I heartily appreciate their enthusiasm
and generosity that will surely contribute to the project’s success.”

Though still classified as a junior investigator, Jeng has developed a reputation since coming to ODU in 2004 as a dedicated researcher and advocate on issues related to human health. She was appointed last summer by Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine to a four-year term on the State Board of Health. She is the first board member to be chosen specifically for environmental health expertise.

“We have hit the ground running on initiating phase one of this project and already look ahead to making a future grant application,” Jeng said. “In getting to this point, I want to express appreciation for the early and continuing support of Mohammad Karim, vice president of the Office of Research, and Andrew Balas, dean of the College of Health Sciences at ODU.” The funded project will run through August 2011.

Michele Darby Wins Fulbright Term in Jordan

Michele Darby, an eminent scholar and the author of two leading dental hygiene textbooks, won a Fulbright scholarship in Jordan at least partly because her students can’t seem to get enough of her teaching.

Several of Darby’s former students who are now faculty members themselves at the Jordan University of Science and Technology (JUST) started the wheels in motion that resulted in their mentor winning a Fulbright appointment to their country. Darby is the graduate program director for the Gene W. Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene in the College of Health Sciences.

In 2006, Darby was invited by three of her former students to JUST in Irbid, Jordan, where she conducted seminars and did outreach work. Since that short visit she has wanted to return to Jordan for the sort of extended professional interaction that the Fulbright Scholars Program makes possible. Her term at JUST will be from Jan. 1 to May 15, 2010.

The goals Darby has set for the Fulbright term include 1) raising standards of dental hygiene education and practice, such as by addressing the shortage of qualified dental hygiene practitioners and educators; 2) helping JUST graduate dental hygienists who provide care equal to that provided by graduates of programs accredited by the American Dental Association Commission on Dental Accreditation; and 3) forming a sustainable partnership between JUST and Old Dominion.

Jeffrey Jones on New York Times Panel Examining Humor in Difficult Times

Jeffrey Jones, Old Dominion University associate professor of communication (Quest, Vol. 10, Issue 2), participated in a New York Times “Room for Debate” commentary Sept. 19 about humor in today’s economically depressed times.

Five writers and academics who study humor were asked by the Times how comedy changes when economic or global negativity dominates the headlines.

Along with Jones, panelists included Richard Zoglin, a writer and editor at Time Magazine; Bambi Haggins, director of film and media studies at Arizona State University; Paul Lewis, professor of English at Boston College; and John Rash, director of media analysis for Campbell Mithun, a national advertising agency based in Minneapolis. The five experts gave written commentaries, answering whether humor changes depending on the politics of the time and unemployment.

Jones, the author of “Entertaining Politics: Satiric Television and Political Engagement,” wrote in The Times: “What seems pronounced about comedy in hard times… is not the continued comedic banality of Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien or even their brand of facile humor as salve for the economically hurting and displaced. Rather, it is other comedic voices that simultaneously appear - ones with an edge and bite that can prove quite appealing, yet ones that may offer little in the way of direct ha-ha humor.”

In short, he argued, humor in hard times may not be very humorous, but the public does look to comedians and satirists for perspective that seems noticeably absent from the serious ­discourse of politicians or the formulaic comedy of mainstream talk show hosts.
Jones is also co-editor of another book, released in April 2009, “Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era.” Through its collection of essays, the book considers the symbiotic relationship between politics and comedy in the contemporary genre of satire television. Programs discussed include “The Daily Show,” “South Park” and “The Colbert Report,” among others.

NSF Invests $1.4 Million in Spiny Lobster Research of Mark Butler

Old Dominion University marine biologist Mark Butler leads a research team that has won $1.4 million in support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to explore new evidence they have developed to explain the spread of a deadly viral disease among spiny lobsters in the Caribbean and waters off Florida (Quest, Vol. 11, Issue 1).

Don Behringer, a researcher at the University of Florida who was a Ph.D. student of Butler’s at ODU, is a co-principal investigator together with Jeff Shields of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and Claire Paris and Robert Cowen of the University of Miami.

The three-year grant, “Connectivity of Disease in Marine Ecosystems: Multi-scale Dynamics of a Viral Disease Infecting Caribbean Spiny Lobster,” builds upon two previous NSF-funded projects in which the investigators have studied the dynamics and ecological consequences of the lobster virus known as PaV1 (Panulirus argus virus 1). Altogether, the NSF has invested nearly $2.5 million in their work on this problem.

Spiny lobsters support the most valuable fishery in the Caribbean, and the threat to them from PaV1 has hastened the need for scientific research to better explain how the virus is spread among distant populations, Butler said.

Recent research by the ODU scientist and his collaborators has found that many lobster postlarvae settling into coastal nurseries in Florida are already infected with PaV1. “This latest grant from the NSF will allow us to examine this stunning new evidence that long-distance pathogen dispersal in the sea via infected larvae is possible,” Butler said.

Scientists have long understood that pathogens spread much differently in marine systems than they do in terrestrial systems. In water they have no barriers to dispersal. “Yet the movement of pathogens in the sea and its importance to disease dynamics in marine metapopulations is virtually unstudied,” according to Butler.

What is known is that pathogens free-living in the water are subject to rapid dilution and have no means of targeting distant hosts.

An “underappreciated mechanism for dispersal,” as Butler calls it, involves infected larvae. Most marine animals produce larvae that float as plankton in the sea and can potentially be carried for great distances. If they are infected by a virus “these larval vectors would provide an efficient mechanism for distributing pathogens at high concentrations directly into habitats where hosts dwell,” he said.

Butler and research collaborators described the PaV1 virus in 1999 and since then have studied its pathology, epidemiology, transmission and effects on juvenile lobster populations in the Florida Keys. “Our focus has been on local pathogen-host dynamics, but PaV1 infections in lobsters are now confirmed in distant areas of the Caribbean such as Belize, Mexico and St. Croix,” Butler said. “These regions are demographically linked only by dispersing larvae that spend more than six months in the open ocean.”

The researchers believe that their findings will have an impact beyond spiny lobster-PaV1 associations, providing a better understanding of how dispersal of infectious agents affects the spread and maintenance of disease in marine populations in general.

Chris Platsoucas, dean of the ODU College of Sciences, noted that Butler has the distinction of having two decades of continuous research support from NSF. “This is a remarkable accomplishment,” the dean said. “The competition for these awards is stiff, and for Professor Butler to have been an NSF investigator for 20 straight years is a tribute to the quality of his research.”

Nanoparticle Research Supported by new NIH Grant to Nancy Xu

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded Old Dominion University nanobiotechnology researcher X. Nancy Xu nearly $500,000 of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds to advance her studies using nanoparticle probes of cells to reveal clues about multidrug resistance (Quest, Vol. 10, Issue 1).

Xu, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is currently working under a $1.3 million NIH grant that she received in 2006 and has supported her groundbreaking research into the creation and utilization of nanoparticles for biological applications. These nanoparticles can enter living cells and embryos in order to accomplish specific missions.

One goal of the work has been to learn more about the mechanism by which cells expel foreign objects. This process can frustrate nanoparticle probes of cellular functions or deliveries of medicine into cells.

The new grant will make it possible for Xu and her research team to use advanced cryo- electron microscopes and other instrumentation at the National Center for Macromolecular Imaging (NCMI) at Baylor University’s College of Medicine in Houston. The title of the grant, which comes via the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, is “Nanoassay for Realtime Molecular Probing ABC Transporter.” The project period is Sept. 30, 2009, through April 2011.

“This support gives us access to state-of-the-art instrumentation at NCMI and enables us to study the structure, at atomic resolution, of the membrane transporter that leads to multi-drug resistance,” Xu said. “The study of the structure of membrane transporters at atomic spatial resolution will be used to compare with our real-time dynamics study of individual membrane transporter using single nanoparticles at millisecond temporal resolution, aiming to illustrate the comprehensive functions of membrane transporters that are responsible for multidrug resistance.”

She said the outcomes of this study will aid the design of more effective therapies to treat a wide variety of diseases, such as cancer.

ABC (ATP-binding cassette) transporters are membrane proteins that serve, in layman’s terms, as gatekeepers and bouncers for cells. Of particular importance to medical science is the transport mechanism by which intruding specks—such as nanoparticle probes or antibiotics and cancer-fighting medicine—are recognized and expelled from cells. Although the transport mechanism is a natural protective measure, it works against physicians trying to eliminate sick cells. It “bounces” probes or medicines that are sent into cells to arrest an infection or malignant growth of tumors.

With more study, the day may come when chemotherapies could have stealth qualities. Molecules of medicine would be able to enter cells and avoid the ABC transporters long enough to perform their mission. This would allow precise targeting of cancer cells and avoid the current massive doses of medicines needed to outgun the transporters.

Xu’s work, which also received $1.2 ­million in funding in 2005 from the National Science Foundation, explores fundamental questions posed by nanobiotechnology.

In research reported over the past two years, the Xu research group at ODU has been able to create smaller and smaller silver and gold nanoparticles that can be used as biosensors to study molecular-level functions, such as of molecular machinery of individual key proteins of live cells.

Quest Winter 2010 • Volume 12 Issue 2