By Wendy Sarubbi | May 18, 2015 1:25 pm

Ph.D. student Swaran Nandini sees scientific research as her way “to give back to my community,” just as her parents give back as M.D.s. That spirit, and her work in identifying the tiny molecular changes that can cause patients as young as 2 to lose control of their lower limbs earned her recent honors at UCF’s Graduate Research Forum. Nandini was one of four graduate students from the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences who swept awards in the Health and Life Sciences categories.

The forum is part of UCF’s Research Week and highlights graduate student research in diverse colleges and disciplines – from engineering to humanities. The winning research from Burnett’s graduate students included scientific investigations into the causes and treatments of heart disease, tuberculosis and two neurodegenerative diseases — Neurofibromatosis Type 2, which causes tumors to grow on the nervous systems of its victims, and Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), one of the most common neurological disorders, affecting about 1 in 2,500 Americans.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our students’ achievements. It shows the depth of the research these young scientists are doing at the Burnett School and the excitement that comes from that research,” said Dr. Griffith Parks, director of the Burnett School.

The Research Forum is an opportunity for students to present their research publicly and receive valuable feedback from faculty judges. Burnett School faculty say the ability of a researcher to explain science in a way that is interesting and compelling to an audience is necessary in securing competitive grant dollars.

Nandini’s 2015 award is her second in two years. She says she grew up in a family that valued science. While her parents chose patient care as a career path to contributing to health, their daughter says biomedical research is her contribution. She has been inspired by patients suffering from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), which affects motor and sensory nerves and is named after the three physicians who first identified it in 1886. Patients are typically diagnosed as adolescents, but can have symptoms as young as 2. Sufferers have severe skeletal deformities and weakness in their lower legs and feet, which causes an unsure gait and frequent falls. Many cannot walk without assistance or must use wheelchairs, leg braces or in some cases surgery. Nandini says she has been pained and inspired by struggles that CMT patients have with the simple walking movement most of us take for granted That, she says, “makes me want to end their suffering through our research.”

Scientists now know that one single genetic mutation in a motor protein called dynein causes the CMT type 2O disease. Burnett School associate professor Dr. Stephen King, Nandini’s mentor, has developed a mouse model with an exact CMT2O-linked dynein mutation, a first in this area of study. Nandini and her labmates are working with this mouse model to identify what happens in the body when the dynein gene mutates. In other words, how does the genetic mutation in dynein actually cause lower limb problems and other motor-sensory problems that are seen in CMT? If she and other scientists can understand how the mutation actually causes damage to the body, they hope their findings will lead to the creation of treatments or preventative measures for patients.

Biotechnology Masters student Taylor Johnson, from Professor Dr. Dinender Singla’s lab, won first place in the Health Sciences research category and said his scientific passion comes from his love of sports.

He is evaluating the anticancer drug Doxorubicin, which causes structural changes and hinders function of the heart over time. Johnson is exploring treatments that will limit or prevent these changes from occurring. As an undergraduate student at Southeastern University, Johnson ran cross country, which he says was his segue into heart disease research. “Part of me is caught up in the adrenaline of sports and the other part wants to know the science behind it; how the body works and responds to different physical and mental stimuli,” he said. “The heart in my opinion is one of the keys to having a healthy and enjoyable life.”

Johnson says he is also inspired by the fact that while people are making lifestyle changes to improve their heart health, heart disease is “still staggering,” the No. 1 cause of death for both men and women in America. “The research we are currently doing provides a better understanding of these conditions and may contribute to designing more effective, long-term treatments,” the young discoverer said.

College of Medicine winners at the Graduate Research Forum are:


First Place

Taylor Johnson
Biotechnology M.S.
PTEN Inhibitor Reduces Cardiac Remodeling in Doxorubicin-Induced Cardiomyopathy
Mentor: Dinender Singla, Ph.D.

Second Place

Swaran Nandini
Biomedical Sciences Ph.D.
Development and Characterization of a Cytoplasmic Dynein Mutant Mouse Carrying a Human Charcot Marie Tooth Mutation
Mentor: Stephen King, Ph.D.
Co-Authors: Thywill Sabblah; Aaron Ledray; Rachal Love; Julio Pasos; Nikhil Patwardhan; Vanessa Nascimento: Linda King; Stephen King, Ph.D.


First Place

Carolina Rodrigues Felix
Biomedical Sciences Ph.D.
The Search for New TB Drugs Goes Underwater
Mentor: Kyle Rohde, Ph.D.
Co-Authors: Amy Wright, Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute; Rashmi Gupta; Sandra Geden

Second Place

Marisa Fuse
Biomedical Sciences Ph.D.
Inhibition of Src Kinase for Treatment of Schwannomas Associated with Neurofibromatosis Type 2
Mentor: Cristina Fernandez-Valle, Ph.D.
Co-Authors: Stephani Klingeman-Plati; Nicklaus Sparrow; Marga Bott

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