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Research Roundup

Chemistry Student Presents Research to Congress

Rachel McNeel, a chemistry major and Honors College student, recently identified early metabolic changes caused by Alzheimer’s disease in the eyes and brain which is an important step toward early detection.  

To do this, McNeel and her mentor Jianhai Du, assistant professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and Department of Biochemistry, modeled early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in mice that carry mutations for three key genes in human patients. 

Using mass spectrometry, the team identified key changes in the biochemical processes within the eyes and brains of Alzheimer’s disease model mice. 

McNeel presented her findings virtually to members of Congress during Posters on the Hill April 26-27, 2022. Sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research, the event features the most talented researchers from colleges and universities around the country and provides them with the opportunity to demonstrate the value of undergraduate research. 

“Research for Alzheimer's disease is important for so many reasons,” she said. “Not only is the disease devastating for the millions of people who are diagnosed, but also the millions of families and friends who have to caretake and love them.”

Sea Scorpion Named After Eberly Researcher

“I’ve always been interested in extinct animals,” says Associate Professor of Geology James Lamsdell. “When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by them, and I’ve always wanted to feel that I’d made a difference in the field of paleontology.” James Lamsdell

Now, Lamsdell has fulfilled that dream: in February of 2022, he learned that a newly-discovered species of sea scorpion has been named Hibbertopterus lamsdelli in his honor.

“It’s kind of indescribable,” says Lamsdell. “I never expected it to happen — I never thought I’d have something named after me. Realizing that your name is a part of this history is quite humbling.”

In 2021, a Hibbertopterus lamsdelli fossil was found in the Manzano Mountains near Albuquerque, New Mexico, which are 305-million years old. While this is not the first discovery of a sea scorpion fossil in the United States, it’s the first discovery of a hibbertopterid — a type of sea scorpion occurring late in its evolution. After a citizen notified the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science about the fossil, which mostly consisted of a tail spike, a multinational team of paleontologists found that it was an entirely new kind of hibbertopterid.

Illustration of sea scorpion

Credit: Ceri Thomas, Nix Illustration

Sea scorpions went extinct at the end of the Permian period roughly 252 million years ago. Members of the Hibbertopterus genus could grow up to six feet long and fed by sweeping soft-bodied prey from the floors of lakes and rivers with their legs. A tail spike like the one found in the Manzano Mountains would have been used to leverage its heavy, hard-shelled body, allowing for locomotion. Sea scorpion descendants may include various spiders and scorpions found throughout the world today.

Lamsdell is a known expert in sea scorpions. In 2020, using computed tomography (CT) imaging, he created a 3D model of a 340 million-year-old fossil and discovered that sea scorpions had a unique gill structure present in modern arachnids. This suggests that they were amphibious and could breathe air, likely so they could move between pools of water and lay eggs in sheltered environments.

The Hibbertopterus lamsdelli fossil is now on display at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

Chemistry Professor Receives Grant from National Science Foundaton

Photo of Peng Li

Dr. Peng Li, assistant professor of chemistry in the Eberly College, received $500,000 in continuing grant funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for his research project, Compact Digital Biosensing System Enabled by Localized Acoustic Streaming

Li’s project is being funded as part of the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, a highly competitive opportunity which supports some of the best and brightest faculty in the physical sciences. It will create devices that can detect certain biomarkers in patients without needing other dedicated equipment or laboratory space. The major motivation of this project is to improve the quality and accessibility of medical diagnostic testing by developing compact and low-cost methods that still produce a high level of performance. 

The project will create learning opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students. Graduate students will conduct many of the project’s experiments under Li’s supervision, and undergraduate students will have plenty of chances to watch and learn from these experiments before they begin conducting research themselves.  

“Under my guidance, graduate students will design new devices, optimize experimental procedures and work to detect protein and nucleic acid biomarkers,” said Li. “This project also creates unique training opportunities for undergraduate students who are interested in working on research as they move forward in their academics.” 

The project brings an opportunity for Li to work with undergraduate students to help solve research problems while pulling knowledge from different disciplines, as it combines physics principles, engineering development and chemical and biological analysis. 

“This NSF CAREER award is well-deserved,” said Gregory Dudley, Eberly Family Distinguished Professor and chair of the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry. “It will support an ambitious expansion of Dr. Li’s program, which is already nationally and internationally recognized. We are excited to see his vision for low-cost, portable diagnostic devices unfold in the coming years.” 

Li’s research focuses on developing new tools based on acoustic waves and microfluidic devices that will conduct chemical and biological analyses. One of his top accomplishments at WVU has been his research to simplify experiments in mass spectrometry, a method commonly used by chemists, biologists, physicists and forensic scientists for analyzing molecular materials.  

Li was named a recipient of the 2021 Young Investigator Award from Eli Lilly, which recognizes him as a top contributor internationally among his peers.