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NAU Undergraduate Research Tackling Critical Issues

Northern Arizona University undergraduate Chris Keefe combines his passion for biology and computer science to tackle the sixth leading cause of death in the United States – Alzheimer’s disease.

He uses microbiome bioinformatics and develops computer software to investigate connections between disease symptoms and bacteria that live in mice intestines.

Chris is one of thousands of undergraduate students at NAU working with faculty on a wide range of research projects in all disciplines. Hundreds of them are focused on preventing, treating and curing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, opioid addiction, cancer, diabetes and mosquito-borne illnesses.

I am inspired daily as I learn about students who are living out their passions, using their skills and intellect and collaborating with faculty to advance research in areas that make a difference.

Just this year, NAU reached $58 million in research expenditures. As our research dollars grow, so do opportunities for undergraduates to participate in faculty-mentored research in areas that interest them.

Undergraduate research has become an important part of our culture. Every spring, NAU hosts an undergraduate research symposium featuring a wide range of subjects – from designing tiny affordable homes to treating veterans with PTSD to identifying the role of culture and identity in treating patients in Northern Arizona health care facilities. The symposium is in its 12th year. Last year, it featured 240 presentations, 500 posters and 3,500 attendees. The number of students presenting at the symposium has grown from 1,110 in 2013 to 1,554 in 2019.

Research is critical to advancing knowledge and innovation. It has also earned NAU students national recognition. Last spring, Chris was one of three Goldwater Scholars at NAU. The recognition is the most prestigious award for undergraduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States.

There are other exciting examples of research, including:

Chemistry student Noelle Waltenburg’s research aims to develop an opioid vaccine that could be administered in rehabilitation facilities. Her research builds on studies showing that vaccines may be able to blunt the effects of drugs by triggering a patient’s immune system to generate antibodies to attack opioids. When a patient ingests an opioid, these antibodies would prevent drug molecules from crossing the blood-brain barrier in the central nervous system, preventing the patient from feeling the opioid’s effects.

Microbiology and chemistry senior Daryn Erickson’s research tests mosquitoes for the viruses that cause West Nile, Zika and dengue fever. Daryn’s work focuses on preventing those viruses from infecting a specific mosquito that does not carry these viruses. The mosquitos Daryn studies are collected in Maricopa County and shipped to NAU for further study.

Kyle Ghaby, who was also named a national Goldwater Scholar, uses a supercomputer named “Monsoon” to test possibilities that could benefit millions of diabetics and prediabetics. Kyle, a chemistry and biomedical sciences double major, works in applied physics and materials science assistant professor Gerrick Lindberg’s computational chemistry lab on a project investigating new ways to make insulin temperature-resistant. Insulin is a hormone used to treat diabetes.

Jordan Ojeda, a senior last year, worked on research seeking to increase the rates at which Hopi men are screened for colorectal cancer. While Hopi men have some of the highest rates of colorectal cancer in the country, they also have some of the lowest screening rates. And, like most cancers, early detection saves lives.

Taylor Lambrigger, who graduated last May with anthropology and biology majors, worked in NAU’s stable isotope lab, testing unidentified human remains in collaboration with the Coconino County Medical Examiner’s office. Once the samples were processed, Taylor identified the amounts of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, strontium and lead, extrapolating where a person was from.

As the president of NAU, I’m in awe of the work our undergraduates conduct with faculty mentors. I can’t wait to see what this year brings as our students and faculty continue to discover, innovate and solve some of life’s most pressing issues. FBN

By Rita Hartung Cheng

Rita Hartung Cheng is the president of Northern Arizona University.

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