College-funded grants ‘seed’ big-picture, interdisciplinary research

WSU biologist Joanna Kelley takes water samples from a stream
WSU biologist Joanna Kelley takes water samples from a stream for her research investigating how how concentrations of hydrogen sulfide affect human and animal health.

How does having a pot shop in your neighborhood affect local crime rates? At what point does hydrogen sulfide inside your body go from potentially helpful to potentially lethal—and how could energy drinks shift the balance?

These are just a few of the big-picture questions at the heart of five interdisciplinary research projects recently funded by the Washington State University College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) with three partner colleges, the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine, the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS), and the College of Nursing.

With support from Interdisciplinary Research and Innovation Seed (IRIS) grants, CAS faculty and graduate students in diverse areas are combining forces with colleagues across the university to tackle critical questions by integrating knowledge in a wide array of fields—criminology, biology, English, medicine, archaeology, nursing and more.

“The College of Arts and Sciences started the IRIS grant program in 2019 to support our faculty’s efforts to build collaborative relationships and advance their interdisciplinary creative activities, scholarship and research,” said Courtney Meehan, CAS associate dean for research and graduate studies. “This second round of funding, as with the first, supports foundational work to answer important questions in many arenas.”

CAS seed grants help fund project launch and development with the intent to garner additional financial support from sources outside the university. Each of the 2020 IRIS research teams will seek extramural funding to expand the reach and impact of their work.

Hydrogen sulfide: remedy or poison?

In the broader quest to understand how concentrations of hydrogen sulfide affect human and animal health, Joanna Kelley and Omar Cornejo, associate professors in the School of Biological Sciences (SBS), are working with Franck Carbonero, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, College of Medicine, in a two-pronged study that utilizes fish from another of Kelley’s projects and human volunteers.

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is both a toxic substance and a potential therapeutic agent. It occurs naturally in people and animals, but little is known about its impact on the microbiome and how certain ingredients, particularly some found in popular energy drinks, affect H2S production.

Kelley, Cornejo and Carbonero plan to use the data obtained from their study to seek further project funding from external sources, such as the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Understanding human–ecological dynamics

Classic Mayan polychrome vessel depicting a deer hunt.
Classic Mayan polychrome vessel depicting a deer hunt (Photo by Justin Kerr, K808).

A more holistic understanding of the relationship between humans and ecosystems is the end-goal of an interdisciplinary research project by faculty in the Department of Anthropology and the School of the Environment. “Modeling the Impacts and Sustainability of Ancient Maya Hunting” combines information about archaeological settlement with ecological modeling of prey depletion to investigate the potential extent of hunting impacts around ancient Maya communities.

Co-investigators Erin Thornton, associate professor of archaeology, and Daniel Thornton, assistant professor in wildlife ecology, are focusing their study on potential wildlife prey depletion because of the animals’ important role in natural systems as providers of ecological services—such as seed dispersal—and in social systems as food, tribute items, religious symbols, and sources of raw material for clothing and crafting.

Can a liberal arts education lead to better patient outcomes?

Leeann Hunter, associate professor of English, is collaborating with Tullamora Diede and Tamara Odom-Maryon in the College of Nursing to assess the impact of liberal arts education on nursing students’ professional identity following other research that suggests a correlation between nurses’ undergraduate preparation and patient outcomes.

Their sequential mixed-methods study aims in part “to describe the phenomenon of how students experience the interaction between liberal education and nursing education and how liberal education impacts their sense of professional identity.” The results of their study will be the foundation for a curricular intervention seeking to increase professional identity among nursing students.

A new model for studying behavioral epigenetics

“Despite rapidly advancing technologies in the field of genomics, relatively little is known about the role that molecular networks play in generating the complex behaviors of animals,” research partners Heather Watts and Michael Phelps said in their IRIS project proposal.

Watts, associate professor in SBS, and Phelps, assistant professor of animal sciences in CAHNRS, are developing an innovative model to gain insight to the epigenetic mechanisms in the brain that underlie social behaviors.

Their project aims to provide the foundation for future large-scale studies into how environmentally induced epigenetic changes influence behavior—a major unanswered question in the field of biology.

Cannabis and crime in the neighborhood

A heat map concept showing hypothetical cannabis outlets with hypothetical crime rates indicated by color intensity.
A heat map concept showing hypothetical cannabis outlets with hypothetical crime rates indicated by color intensity.

Building on existing cross-college partnerships in criminal justice and criminology and public health, CAS and College of Medicine researchers are investigating new questions about the effects of legalized marijuana sales on crime rates and the influence of places on crime within neighborhoods.

Assistant professors Dale Willits and Shannon Linning and doctoral student Mikala Meize in CAS are working with assistant professor Ofer Amram and postdoctoral research associate Solmaz Amiri in the College of Medicine to examine crime and arrest data provided by the Seattle Police Department. They are also analyzing the spatial distribution of cannabis retail stores in relation to area-level deprivation in Washington.

The project results will inform future NIH grant applications in the area of “Public Health Research on Cannabis” and will expand Meize’s dissertation research and extramural fellowship opportunities.

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