From red cell development to cultural preservation, VCU’s Baldacci researchers continue to pursue their studies – VCU News


Biology majors Sivam Bhatt and Anubhav Thapaliya have deepened their knowledge of zebrafish since working in the laboratory of Erich Damm, Ph.D.

Their research into the role that specific genes play in zebrafish development and blood stem cell generation would not have been possible without grants from the Baldacci Student Experiential Learning Endowment Fund to further their education.

The fund was established from a donation to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2017 by best-selling author and VCU graduate David Baldacci and his wife, Michelle. Grants of up to $ 5,000 are awarded to academically promising juniors and seniors from various fields of study and backgrounds.

While in the lab, Bhatt curated a list of hundreds of genes to determine what each does and where it is in zebrafish, as well as diseases associated with defects in the gene.

Zebrafish are often used in this type of research because they are vertebrates, so the research results have direct relevance to humans.

“When you’re looking at the development of red blood cells, zebrafish can model red blood cells in humans,” said Bhatt, junior. “We’re trying to figure out how to recognize a specific protein and how it correlates with the development of red blood cells. ”

Biology student Sivam Bhatt is conducting research alongside Thapaliya in the laboratory of biology professor Erich Damm. (Kevin Morley, University Marketing)

He worked with zebrafish embryos that have different genetic mutations.

“The genes are turned on at different times,” he said. “Some development of red blood cells occurs at different stages of the embryo. “

Zebrafish lay their eggs in water and the embryos develop very quickly.

“You can collect thousands of embryos,” said Damm, an assistant professor in the biology department at VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

Research is important for the medical field

Thapaliya, a junior, studied the role of two different genes – nrf2a and Dera – in the development of red blood cells and zebrafish. The use of zebrafish in studying red blood stem cell development may lead to other research models, he said.

“If you look at the bigger picture, it will help stem cell development,” he said. “It is an integral part of biomedical research. We can understand how we can advance the bone marrow transplant. It is important to understand the genes and the factors that come into play.

The Baldacci Fellowship allowed her to apply biology in the classroom in a lab. “In fact, I had to do technical procedures like… cloning and in situ hybridization – techniques that I had only heard of before,” he said.

Thapaliya wants to go into medicine, especially orthopedic surgery, after graduation.

“As a physician, it is important to understand the basic research that takes place, especially in the wet lab. Evidence-based medicine is fueled by science at its heart, ”he said. “I have a greater appreciation for all research done for the purpose of patient care. “

Anubhav Thapalya.
Anubhav Thapalya. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

The process of troubleshooting, as he does in his research, is essential in the medical field, he said.

“In medicine, someone comes in with symptoms and you’re supposed to make a diagnosis. It’s all about troubleshooting and progress. The lab parallels the resilience skills lab, ”he said.

Both Bhatt and Thapaliya have a keen interest in studying issues related to medicine, Damm said.

“Both are very motivated,” Damm said. “I show them how to do something once and they can do it themselves. “

Raising awareness of a culture thanks to 3D scans

Amelia Sunnen, a senior VCU and Baldacci grant recipient, works in Virtual curation Laboratory of Bernard K. Means.

A self-sufficient, non-traditional student, Sunnen – majoring in anthropology with minors in biology, French and Spanish – works with 3D scans of artifacts important to the cultural heritage of Uttarakhand, an Indian state.

“These are replicas of objects that can be thousands of years old,” she says. “In addition to protecting the artifacts from damage, another advantage of using only 3D printed replicas of the Uttarakhand artifacts is that the original artifacts remain in what we call the ‘source community’, the community to which belongs the cultural heritage. I am really proud to be part of an ethical archeology project like this.

Aftershocks analyzes were done in partnership with Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University on five research visits by means.

“The goal of our partnership is to bring the heritage of Uttarakhand to the global level,” said Means, Ph.D., assistant professor of anthropology in the School of World Studies at the College of Humanities and Sciences.

Uttarakhand’s heritage is threatened due to unrestrained development and climate change exacerbated by human actions, Means said.

“By raising awareness of this heritage and the threats to this heritage, HNB Garhwal University wants to show that the cultural heritage of northern India deserves to be saved,” he said. “The current pandemic has shown why virtual techniques – such as 3D scanning and 3D printing – are important to share this heritage which is important locally in northern India but also globally. ”

This summer, Sunnen used the artifacts to create educational materials that would meet the requirements of the Virginia Standards of Learning.

“If all goes well, the materials will be used in schools in the fall of 2022,” she said.

Anthropology major Amelia Sunnen holds some of the 3D replicas of artifacts from Uttarakhand, a remote transhimalayan region in northern India.
Anthropology major Amelia Sunnen holds some of the 3D replicas of artifacts from Uttarakhand, a remote transhimalayan region in northern India. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Sunnen will have the opportunity towards the end of this semester to try out the educational lessons and hands-on activities with a small group of home-schooled students.

“I’m a kindergarten to grade 12 homeschooled student,” she says. “I sympathize with people outside of the mainstream. I am interested in serving this population.

Sunnen made a 3D printed artifact mold for the students so that they could have an interactive touch experience. She also hopes to incorporate more about the culture and daily life of the people of Uttarakhand into the lesson plans.

“I want to diversify the information for the students,” she said.

Experiential learning opportunities like these are a key part of the Baldacci Grants program, said Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., dean of the College of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

“VCU students often forgo impactful but unpaid learning opportunities in favor of paid work. Scholarships that support experiential learning, like the Baldacci Student Experiential Learning Fund and others like this. These in college, are essential for students who seek opportunities to broaden their learning outside the walls of the classroom, ”said Malat. “For the thousands of college students participating in these hands-on experiences, the opportunity can be truly transformational.”

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