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PhD Doctor of Philosophy candidate

Genetics, Epigenetics, Molecular Biology
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Project ideas

I Think, Therefore I am

African American health disparities is a notable issue in the United States. African Americans are two times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to die from the number one killer in the US, heart disease. This ethnic group is also 50% more likely to experience high blood pressure than their white counterparts. Chronic stress is known to be associated with the two aforementioned conditions. What is less known are some of the molecular underpinnings by how stress may influence heart disease and high blood pressure. It has been illustrated in animal models that exposing them to chronic stress conditions can change the epigenetic landscape in neurons and other cells. These changes have been associated with behavioral, biochemical, and physiological alterations. It has also been shown in a limited number of studies that these epigenetic alterations have the potential to be passed down to the next generation. Could it be that years of racial discrimination against African Americans have played a role in altering the epigenetic landscape of neurons and that this alteration is associated with increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure? The purpose of this project is to: 1) Explore the existing literature regarding the proposed connection between African American racial discrimination, stress, health disparities, and epigenetic alterations. 2) Building off of the existing literature, propose a project aimed at investigating if there is causality with the aforementioned factors. To put it another way, you are proposing a project based off of the following hypothesis, "Chronic Stress induced by African American discrimination has caused epigenetic alterations in neurons that induces biochemical and physiological changes that lead to increased risk of heart disease and high blood pressure."

It must be Something in the Water

More than 90% of the US population has detectable levels of pesticides and their associated metabolites in blood or urine samples (1). Women living in or near agricultural areas have shown increased risk of infertility and adverse pregnancy outcomes(1). Males are not immune to this phenomenon. A meta-analysis showed consistent associations between pesticide exposure and sperm concentration(2). Atrazine, the most widely used herbicide in the US, has shown varying degrees of association with infertility. These inconsistent results have been interpreted by some that Atrazine is not connected to infertility but rather that other contaminants in the drinking water are the culprit. Perhaps, there is another answer. What if Atrazine is connected to infertility but the intensity of that association depends on your genetic predisposition? Certain metabolizing enzymes in the liver breakdown pesticides. There is a possibility that certain polymorphisms in an array of enzymes that break down atrazine could: 1) increase the activity of these enzymes and increase the concentration of metabolites that may be associated with decreased fertility. 2) decrease the activity of these enzymes and increase the concentration of atrazine (pre-breakdown) which may be associated with decreased fertility. Your objective is to: 1) Explore the existing literature on the association between atrazine, infertility, and genetic polymorphisms 2) Building off of the existing literature, propose a project that determines if there are key genetic polymorphisms that are associated with atrazine exposure and infertility. References: (1) Chiu Y, Williams PL, Gillman MW, et al. (2018) Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake From Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assisted Reproductive Technology. JAMA Intern Med, 178(1), 17–26. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2017.5038 (2) Martenies, S. E., & Perry, M. J. (2013). Environmental and occupational pesticide exposure and human sperm parameters: a systematic review. Toxicology, 307, 66–73.

Vitamin D and COVID-19

COVID-19 has gained global notoriety with a current global death toll of close to half a million. The U.S. claims a little over a quarter of those deaths but only holds 4.25% of the world's population with little hope of a vaccine in the near future. Health experts predict in the upcoming fall of 2020 that the COVID cases and mortalities could flare back up with a greater intensity when combined with the flu season. Clearly, effective short-term solutions are needed to mitigate the damage of this novel virus. Vitamin D has recently surfaced in the news as a potential strategy for fighting the virus. This nutrient has a proposed mechanism of action with respiratory infections and has shown some effectiveness with previous strains of coronaviruses. While a limited number of recent studies have bore mixed results on an association between COVID-19 INFECTION and vitamin D levels, there is a particular study that investigated the relationship between COVID-19 SEVERITY and vitamin D levels utilizing patient data from ten different countries. The researchers found a significant negative correlation between Vit D and COVID-19 severity (as Vitamin D levels dropped, COVID-19 severity went up). There is a proposition that Vitamin D helps to abate a "cytokine storm" that is stirred up by a hyperactive immune system's overreaction to COVID-19. Children are believed to be protected due to an underdeveloped immune system that does not overreact to illicit the cytokine storm. Your objectives is to: 1) Learn about how COVID-19 (a) gains entry to the lungs and (b) its method of entry into cells. 2) Learn how the immune system detects COVID-19 3) Learn about the mechanistic action of Vitamin D on previous coronaviruses. 4) Explore the literature on the proposed hypothesis behind why children are largely immune to COVID-19. 5) Explore the literature on the connection between COVID-19 severity and Vitamin D status. 6) Propose a project that aims to determine if low vitamin D levels are a cause of increased COVID-19 severity.

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