Basketball, bacteria and baby toads: more summer research at Centre

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Biology, Chemistry, News, Research 25 Jul 2013

Basketball, bacteria and baby toads may sound like a strange combination, but at Centre they are all in a day’s work for the many student-faculty collaborative research teams whose projects are now in full swing.

copeheath1Assistant Professor of Mathematics Jeff Heath is studying a subject near and dear to the hearts of Kentuckians: basketball.

“We are conducting a statistical analysis of NBA [National Basketball Association] data in an effort to develop a statistical model that will extract the true individual defensive efficiency of NBA players,” Heath explains.

For him, this research fills a much-needed gap in sports analysis.

“Despite the recent surge of statistical analysis in sports, there is not a trusted metric in the basketball analytics community that accurately describes the individual defensive effect of a player,” he says. “The defensive metrics that are most often used are heavily influenced by the teammates of a player. We are trying, with some success I think, to develop a metric that gives a more accurate picture of a player’s individual defensive efficiency.”

Heath’s research assistant is Alex Cope ’15, who has helped write the statistical analysis programs used in this research.

“A large part of my job is to write computer programs that will convert the huge amount of data we have into files that can be read by another program called STATA,” Cope explains. “We were both happy with the results we got from our initial model, so we’ve spent a good portion of the summer trying to improve the model.”

For Cope, research at Centre is a valuable opportunity to demonstrate initiative and network with professors.

“My advice to any student looking for a summer research position with Centre professors is simply to take the time to go to their office and ask them,” he explains. “Even if they don’t plan on doing research, they can always refer you to someone who is planning a summer project.”

The challenges and rewards of summer research have been the highlight of Cope’s experience.

“My favorite part of the research so far has been figuring out how to get all of the computer programs I wrote to work properly,” he says. “It was a challenge, but when the programs actually gave the right output, I felt pretty accomplished.”

Aside from giving Cope the opportunity to work closely with a Centre professor, this research is particularly useful in a real-world context.

Statistics have changed the way teams operate as well as the way we think about sports,” says Heath. “It’s fun to be a part of that.”

Another research project with exciting real-world applications is the collaboration between chemistry, biology and biochemistry-molecular biology (BMB) in the search for new antibiotic drugs. Faculty researchers include Assistant Professor of Chemistry and BMB January Haile, Professor of Biology and BMB Peggy Richey and Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Muzyka.
Students working on the project include Nicki Frost ’15, Michael Orr ’14, Emily Dennis ’15, Josh Winner ’14, Leila Samhat ’16 and Ashley Christian ’14.

Essentially, the research is geared toward discovering new antibiotic drugs. The team does this by testing putative inhibitors of the bacterial enzyme MurA. If they can find new inhibitors that effectively inhibit bacterial growth and MurA activity, these inhibitors may be used as antibiotics to treat various bacterial infections.

Frost explains, “In recent years, antibiotic resistance has become a major issue, and the continuous development of novel inhibitors has become more and more important.”

Frost’s work involves in vitro testing of potential MurA inhibitors. She tests whether various compounds lower the activity of MurA, determining the concentration of inhibitor required to decrease the enzyme’s activity by 50 percent.

“I work with the chemistry department by testing compounds they have synthesized and compounds that show promise in their computer simulations,” Frost explains. “All three departments work together by communicating their results to one another. The groups try to test the same inhibitors, particularly if they show promise in multiple types of tests.”

Frost has benefitted from the opportunity to work within a large team of researchers.
“I really enjoy working with other departments,” she says. “It’s interesting to learn about the work that other students are doing as part of the same project. It keeps the project moving forward and allows the entire team to look at our goals from a new perspective.”

Above all, this research has given Frost invaluable laboratory and working experience that she will carry with her after Centre.

“My experience has helped me learn how to work as part of a team and to collaborate with people in other fields. This skill will be invaluable for me as I continue to work toward my goal of becoming a physician,” she says.

storz_freytag2In another campus laboratory, Assistant Professor of Biology Brian Storz is working with Sara Beth Freytag ’14 on a continuing project studying cannibalistic tadpoles, a topic he has been exploring for over a decade.

Storz’s research involves studying spadefoot toad tadpoles to understand how they develop bigger, stronger muscles than other tadpoles that hatch with them. Each population of spadefoot tadpoles has a similar genotype (genetic makeup) but different phenotype (physical appearance caused by interactions with its environment).

Storz is interested in how and why certain tadpoles develop the cannibalistic phenotype (shorter intestinal tracts and massively enlarged jaw muscles) while others in the same population do not. His research focuses on how these tadpoles activate cell growth by studying the total number and rate of addition of new cell nuclei.

“If we can understand how muscle growth is turned on, this information may one day be useful to humans with muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy or cardiomyopathy,” Storz says.

Freytag dissects the jaw muscles of young tadpoles, separating individual myofibers from each muscle. Each myofiber is a single cell that she marks with a fluorescent dye that is absorbed by the nuclei in the cells. Freytag will view each cell under a fluorescent microscope to determine how many nuclei are in each cell and whether the nuclei were recently formed.

The number of nuclei will indicate how much muscle growth has occurred in each tadpole.

“I will be comparing nuclei number and formation in omnivorous and carnivorous tadpoles to test the hypothesis that there are more newly-developed nuclei per cell in developing carnivore tadpoles,” she explains.

Freytag has been working with Dr. Storz on this project since her sophomore year; she helped him finish a project this past spring and is working on a manuscript for publication in addition to this summer’s research.

“My favorite part of the research has been seeing the fluorescent microscopy images,” she says. “I’m excited to see the final product of my own images by the end of the summer.”

Dr. Storz recognizes the importance of this student-faculty research experience as a gateway to future opportunities.

“My favorite part of this project is working with bright, hard-working students like Sara Beth,” Storz says. “I hope this research experience—developing new research skills and a future peer-reviewed manuscript—will help Sara Beth get into the graduate school of her choice.”

Freytag also sees this research as a vital link to her future career plans.

“I plan to get a Masters and Ph.D. in biology,” she says. “Research is a crucial part of my graduate school resume.”

By Mariel Smith