How do bones change in space? This Chemistry Major Is Researching For The Knowing – VCU News
In Lovell Abraham’s first biomedical engineering course at the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering, Professor Henry Donahue, Ph.D., encouraged students to get involved in research.
Abraham, who is now a junior, didn’t hesitate. Two years later, working in Donahue’s lab, the College of Humanities chemistry major was recognized for her contributions to a project examining the effect of microgravity on bone fracture healing and won awards for her work.
“When I found Dr. Donahue’s lab and learned how he was studying how bones are affected in space, it was a new challenge for me,” said Abraham, who has seen connections to his own efforts in athletics, also learning to get faster. as building muscle and musculoskeletal health studies. “It was really intimidating and interesting. It’s what brought me to the lab and kept me there.
Donahue, Alice T. and William H. Goodwin Jr. Professor and chairman emeritus of the Department of Biomedical Engineering and co-director of the VCU Institute for Engineering and Medicine, said his research, funded by NASA, concerns astronauts who experience microgravity in space, but also people who are bedridden for long periods.
“We want to know why they are losing bone. The bone loss that occurs during space travel is similar to age-related bone loss, which millions of people suffer from,” Donahue said. “The things we find, such as bone loss related to disuse, may lead to new therapies for age-related bone loss.”
Abraham studies a particular cellular mechanism called junctional communication, where cells talk to each other. He asks if inhibiting these gap junctions on disuse-induced bone loss actually protects the bones. Postdoctoral researcher Evan Buettmann, Ph.D., is leading Abraham in a project investigating how bone fractures heal after the bone has been exposed to disuse.
“We’re also interested in how re-ambulation after disuse and fracture helps recover or accelerate fracture healing,” Donahue said.
With med school aspirations in surgery, Abraham is also a member of the Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Team in Henrico County, giving him a different kind of hands-on medical-focused experience.
“I was able to apply the things I learned from the research in my personal life. At the Tuckahoe Volunteer Rescue Squad, where I call 911, I’m often faced with a situation where I don’t know the answer, and there’s no one higher up to tell me what to do. This is where you take past protocols and experiences, just like you do in research, and adapt them to new situations,” Abraham said. “We are doing new research that no one has done before. No one is there to tell you what to do. So you follow the old patterns to suit your situation. This is by far the most valuable thing I have learned from research.
Using mice as a model, Abraham focused on Connexin-43, a gap junction protein that facilitates cell-to-cell communication in bone.
“We think that when bone experiences gravity, the gap junction protein Connexin-43 tells other cells, ‘Hey, there’s gravity going on right now.’ So when the body is in space, the gap junction protein Connexin-43 doesn’t send that signal and what we’ve seen is that it causes those cells to shrink.
Abraham’s hard work paid off. After a year in the lab, he earned a fellowship from VCU’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program while continuing to move forward on his own project. He was also able to present his work at the VCU Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Department of Engineering as part of the Dean’s Undergraduate Research Initiative and UROP Fellowships in the fall, winning the award for Best biomedical engineering poster. And he’s presenting his research at the Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creative Inquiry this spring as well.
The lessons Abraham learned in the lab go beyond the bench. As a mentor, Buettmann’s calm, level-headed approach is an attitude Abraham said he wants to emulate in the future as a mentor himself.
“I would say that my opportunity to do research as an undergraduate has made me a more curious person when it comes to approaching my undergraduate studies,” Abraham said. “In many of my classes, especially the lab classes, I’m much more interested in learning the details of how something works rather than just the product or the answer.
“In research, we often need to focus on the nuances of an experimental procedure to optimize the most consistent yield based on our own understanding of biochemical pathways. This has benefited me by teaching me to appreciate the fine details of the material that I learn in class and it facilitates success in academia.”
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