Samford University

Faculty Mentors

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Deborah Burks, Ph.D.

Environmental estrogens in Oak Mountain State Park.

Oak Mountain State Park is a suburban, mixed use preserve with its own water treatment facility.  The treated effluent from the facility flows into a swimming and recreational lake and on into the Cahaba River, which is an area of intense conservation concern because it is home to a variety of endemic and endangered species.  A number of communities also draw their wastewater from downstream areas of the Cahaba River.  Estrogens, whether natural or synthetic, are generally not filtered out of wastewater during treatment.  Oak Mountain lakes and the Cahaba River also may have other sources of estrogenic contaminants from recreational activities and surrounding residential communities. For example, Bisphenol A (BPA) is currently used as the base compound in the manufacture of polycarbonate plastic and the resin lining of food and beverage cans and drinking water bottles. BPA leaches from polycarbonate containers and can contaminate waterways. Environmental estrogens such as BPA and synthetic estrogens in wastewater are taken up by living organisms and sequestered in fats and can affect reproductive function in wildlife (e.g., feminization in male fish). These compounds also have deleterious effects on energy balance and glucose homeostasis in animal models. In humans, BPA levels are associated with type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Although there is strong evidence of these organismal scale effects, little is known about the effects of environmental estrogens at the population, community, or ecosystem scale. Potential student research projects include water sampling of wastewater treatment effluent, recreational lakes, and downstream streams and the Cahaba River to identify and quantify environmental estrogens and screening using tissue culture to predict impacts of environmental estrogens on fish, amphibians and macroinvertebrates.

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Larry Davenport, Ph.D.
Plant Taxonomy, Botany, Plant Ecology

I’m a plant taxonomist, focusing on aquatic plants (duckweeds, the Cahaba Lily) and, most recently, glade ecosystems.  I’m particularly interested in the various (and varying) adaptations of plants to sandstone, limestone, dolomite, and granite substrates.  Why are some species missing from a few glades while present in all others?  What soil chemicals are the main determiners of species richness (and paucity)?  Those are the main questions that I’m currently asking.  The answers lie, I hope, in a combination of laboratory and field work.


Dr. Davenport's Bio
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Betsy Dobbins, Ph.D.
Environmental Science, Aquatic insects, Cell culture
Human are imbedded in the environments that surround us. My research focuses on two aspects of these entwined relationships: 1) using small bottom-dwelling macroinvertebrates as bioindicators of the health of creeks and rivers and 2) evaluating native plants for bioactive terpenoids that reduce cancer cell growth in culture.

Oak Mountain State Park provides an exciting laboratory for students. Students who would like getting wet and learning the joys of insect identification would happily characterize the biodiversity of creeks in the upland, lowland, and golf course areas of the Park. Students working with medicinal plants indigenous to Oak Mountain would initially collect and identify plants, but most of the work would be in the laboratory performing solid phase extraction, maintaining a line of cancer cells in culture, and exploring the effects of the bioactive extracts on apoptosis in the cancer cells.

Dr. Dobbins' Bio
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Scot Duncan, Ph.D.

*Note: Dr. Duncan is not going to be participating as a mentor in the 2015 program.  Please check back soon for a new mentor description.

 Longleaf pine forests occur on the ridges and foothills within Oak Mountain State Park. These forests are remnants of a formerly vast expanse of longleaf pine forest that stretched across the southeastern United States. Once covering 60-90 million acres in the south (by comparison, Alabama is 33.5 million acres), longleaf forests are now reduced to roughly 3 million acres. The southeastern longleaf pine forests are the most species diverse forests in North America, harboring scores of plant and animal species not found elsewhere. Longleaf pine forests need periodic low-intensity fires to survive. The plants and animals that live in these forests have adaptations to survive these fires. Without fire, longleaf pine forests are supplanted by different forest types, and the flora and fauna associated with longleaf community cannot survive. Oak Mountain State Park harbors hundreds of acres of mountain longleaf pine forest. Most stands of longleaf in the park have not had a fire in 30+ years. Fortunately, Alabama State Parks is committed to using prescribed fire to manage these forests in order to maintain and restore the longleaf communities in the park.

I have several research projects to aid longleaf pine forest conservation in the park. We monitoring how the longleaf community is responding to various fire treatments (e.g., prescribed fires, wildfires, fire suppression). We are also assessing the status of the bird community typically associated with longleaf pine forests, including the endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis).

Dr. Duncan's Website
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Malia Fincher, Ph.D.
Plant-Insect Interactions, Chemical Ecology, Physiological Ecology
My research is focused on the ecology of the mixed hardwood forest at Oak Mountain State Park. I am interested in the effects of plant chemistry, plant physiology, insect seed predators, deer browsing, drought, and fire suppression on oak dynamics. Student projects may involve field or laboratory research, and could address deer browsing, plant community ecology, plant physiology, or chemical ecology. All of these potential projects would contribute to the ongoing forest management efforts in the park and may result in policy modifications. Students will gain experience in designing experiments, field experimental techniques, gathering and analyzing data, navigating the literature, and presenting and defending the results of their research.
Dr. Fincher's website
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Grant Gentry, Ph.D.
Ecology, Environmental Science
My research is informed by basic life history, behavioral information, and characterizations of species interactions. I use this data to determine how the morphological, physiological, and behavioral characters of organisms within a multitrophic system affect their ecology, and evolution. This life history based approach, augmented by experiments or correlational analyses, allows me to search for patterns of interactions in communities and use them to increase understanding of larger ecological and evolutionary concepts.
Currently, using Oak Mountain as a rural sampling area, I am taking inventories of lepidopteran faunas along an urban-rural gradient to determine how increasing urbanization affects the diversity of Lepidoptera. I also seek to determine how the size of a natural area such as an urban park, or characteristics of the surrounding matrix of commercial or residential development can offset effects of urbanization on Lepidopteran diversity.
Dr. Gentry's bio
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Brian Gregory, Ph.D.

 Analytical Chemistry, Surface Chemistry

 My research has focused in two primary areas recently.  The first involves developing a mass spectral-based analytical method for quantifying the constituents within complex organic films that simulate biological surfaces and interfaces, such as those that would be present at the surfaces of cells.  Mass spectrometry has been the method of choice since it allows one to identify each constituent within the film as well as to quantify its relative amount.  The second involves using mass spectrometry to identify and quantify the products of enzyme-catalyzed oxidation of estrogen (17-a-ethinyl estradiol, EE2) by the class of enzymes known as laccases.  Laccases are potentially useful for waste water remediation of hormonally active compounds, such as estrogen.  Preliminary work with Dr. Corey Johnson’s lab on this project has shown that laccase-catalyzed oxidation of the substrate generates what appears to be various polymeric products of EE2, which precipitate from solution.  Our goal is to specifically determine the structures and relative quantities of these products, which may provide some information on the catalytic mechanism.


Dr. Hataway's bio
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Drew Hataway, Ph.D.
Population Genetics, Ecology
The current genetic variation and levels of migration or a wolf spider in a human shaped habitat
Fire suppression and anthropogenic development shape the current composition and structure of our temperate pine – deciduous hardwood forests across the southeastern United States. As succession of the forest is altered so is the habitat of endemics. The wolf spider Rabidosa rabida requires open grasslands near forests that are created and lost through succession. The halted succession within OMSP, as well as the maintained grass corridors along roadways, has potentially restructured R. rabida.
Students may design research projects in which they will collect individuals from across the entirety of the park for genotyping. Working in my lab students would extract, quantify, and amplify DNA from each of the individuals for subsequent analysis and inquiry into the effects of current management policy. Long-term experimental plots would be created monitored for founding events in what is expected to be open habitat for exploitation in the meta-population.
Dr. Hataway's bio
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Corey M. Johnson, Ph.D.
Enzymology, Chemical Biology
Dr. Johnson is a protein biochemist with a focus in enzymology. Enzymes are fascinating biological catalysts and often the target of designed therapeutics. Research projects in the Johnson lab are directed toward the functional characterization of enzymes through kinetic and mechanistic studies. Another area of interest in the Johnson lab is developing new chemical biology tools for functionally characterizing enzymes inside cells and tissues. Oak Mountain is a rich source of fungal material. Dr. Johnson’s potential project will be characterizing enzymes necessary for Lysine biosynthesis in Oak Mountain fungi. Seven enzymes participate in the alpha-aminoadipate pathway, which is unique to fungi. This research will provide mechanistic descriptions of this distinct metabolic pathway. The research projects will allow students to experience a broad spectrum of essential laboratory techniques, including recombinant DNA and molecular biology techniques, protein expression and purification techniques and enzyme assays.
Dr. Johnson's bio
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David Johnson, Ph.D.
Genetics, Molecular Biology
Using DNA to Investigate Ciliates found at Oak Mountain State Park
Here's your chance to gain a variety of hands-on experience in modern biological analysis--everything from the field collection of single-celled organisms to isolation of their DNA to amplification a specific segment to cloning of the segment into bacteria to sequencing it to analysis the sequence. In this project, you will choose a freshwater site at Oak Mountain State Park and use molecular biological methodology to identify the ciliates present in those waters. This will involve two protocols: direct isolation of DNA from environmental water samples and culturing live ciliates. In addition to this project, you will be involved in the search for new endosymbiotic bacteria in these local ciliates. Ciliates are known to harbor such bacteria that have taken up residence in the ciliate in a commensalistic or mutualistic symbiotic relationship. An understanding of endosymbiosis like this is key to understanding the early evolutionary history of eukaryotes, since organelles like mitochondria and chloroplasts are believed to have originated by endosymbiosis.
Dr. Johnson's website
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Kevin Morse, Ph.D.

Environmental Science, Stream Ecology, Biological Assessment

 Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act requires that states evaluate water resource systems (such as, streams, rivers, lakes, reservoirs, and wetlands) for overall ecological condition and, if assessed as degraded, improved to meet their designated use(s).   

The biological assessment branches of states are charged with evaluating the water quality of streams and rivers using biological communities. These biological communities can reflect both long and short term environmental conditions given the variety of life cycles these organisms exhibit (from less than one to several years in duration).

Biocriteria have been developed using the diversity, abundance, and pollution sensitivity of the organisms that inhabit lotic (flowing) waterbodies. One of five bioclassifications is typically assigned to each water body sampled: Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor, and Very Poor. These bioclassifications are used to assess the various impacts of both point source discharges and nonpoint source runoff. The resulting information is used to document both spatial and temporal changes in water quality, and to complement water chemistry analyses, ambient toxicity data, and habitat evaluations. In addition to assessing the effects of water pollution, biological information is also used to define High Quality or Outstanding Resource Waters, support enforcement of stream standards, and measure improvements associated with management actions. Benthic macroinvertebrates are one of the primary assessment tools, along with fish, and are composed of aquatic insects but also include: crustaceans such as crayfish; molluscs like mussels, clams and snails; and aquatic worms. Many of the aquatic insects collected in freshwater habitats reside for long periods (from several months to years) in their larval stage before emerging as an adult for a relatively short aerial or terrestrial existence. Waters with Excellent or Good water quality will contain diverse, stable and pollution-sensitive communities of aquatic macroinvertebrates.

My research focuses on using benthic macroinvertebrate and fish communities to determine the health of lakes and streams and the Birmingham Metro Area streams demonstrate the entire range from the low quality, highly polluted urban creeks to the high quality, pristine streams of Oak Mountain State Park.

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Mary Anne Sahawneh, Ph.D.

I am interested in investigating the potential effects of plant extracts on cells in culture.  This project will include the collection of plants indigenous to Oak Mountain, the extraction of bioactive compounds from those plants and subsequent treatment of cell lines in culture with the extracted compound. Following the treatment with the extracted compound, you will run experiments in the laboratory to determine the protective or toxic effect of the compound in question using a wide variety of laboratory techniques.  These techniques will help us to determine the trophic effects of the compound as well as which cell pathways are activated following treatment. This project will be ideal for someone who is interested in working in the laboratory learning cell culture techniques for growing, harvesting and processing cells for use in Western blot, PCR, immunocytochemistry, ELISA assays, etc.
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Pete Van Zandt, Ph.D.

I am a community ecologist, with interest in insect herbivores and their interactions with plants, as well as the effects of urbanization on Lepidopteran insects. The Lepidoptera (which are overwhelmingly made up of moths) are incredibly common and diverse. They play crucial roles in ecosystems as herbivores, prey, pollinators, and detritivores. They are also strongly influenced by several environmental variables, such as habitat quality and size, the nature of the surrounding habitat, and temperature. I have been working with several collaborators to better understand the ways that habitat and other environmental factors affect diverse communities of moths. The questions we’ve been working on include: How do communities of moths change as the landscape becomes more urbanized? Do moths in urban woodlots emerge earlier because cities are warmer than rural areas? 

Dr. Van Zandt's Website
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Paul Wiget, Ph.D.

The Wiget lab will provide students with an interdisciplinary project rooted in organic synthesis. Ethynylestradiol (EE2), a synthetic derivative of the hormone estrogen, is a persistent contaminant in many wastewater effluents, and its presence is suspected in the waters of Oak Mountain State Park near Birmingham, AL. Many of the fungi indigenous to Oak Mountain are capable of metabolizing this substance, and their biochemical remediation processes are currently under investigation at Samford University. The metabolites of the active enzymes have been evaluated via mass spectrometry, however aggregates or oligomers of the hormone appear in greater quantities than the hormone itself. Literature reports suggest plausible dimerization and trimerization pathways that would lead to the observed mass spectrometry signals, but those hypotheses have yet to receive the attention necessary to determine the actual structure of the oligomers. This project will use on synthetic organic chemistry to generate the proposed dimers and trimers from commercially available estrone. Using methods presented in sophomore organic chemistry, and the instrumentation available here at Samford, students will derivatize estrogen, perform the cross-coupling reactions, and characterize the resulting dimeric compounds proposed in the literature. These compounds will then be evaluated using the same criteria as the naturally occurring metabolites. Thus, the synthetically constructed derivatives will serve as controls for the mass spectrometry methods and providing students with the experience of rigorous organic synthesis.
Dr. Wiget's website