Univ of Arkansas Honors College: Mentoring Leads to Publication

Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Kendall Curlee, Director of Communications for the University of Arkansas Honors College, for assistance with this post.

One of the major strengths of honors colleges and programs is that they make undergraduate research opportunities a priority. Increasingly, early contact with distinguished professors is yielding not only better chances for entry to graduate and professional schools but also success with publication in prestigious academic journals.

At the University of Arkansas Honors College, Dr. Roger E. Koeppe II, a distinguished professor of chemistry, has now collaborated with several present and former honors college students on research projects that have led to publication.

His mentoring has been so successful that some of the students have themselves collaborated on more than one published paper.

Research That Could Lead Help the Fight with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Disease

“A University of Arkansas research team shed new light on the molecular properties that drive the nervous system. Their work was recently published in Biochemistry, one of the top journals in the field. Kelsey Sparks, an alumna of the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences and the Honors College, who is currently pursuing a medical degree at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, led the research effort as an undergraduate, working for three years on what became her capstone honors thesis.

“Sparks is the first author on the article, giving her primary credit for the discoveries. Other undergraduate coauthors were Fulbright and Honors College alumna and Sturgis Fellow Rebekah Langston, who currently holds a research position at the National Institutes of Health, and Renatra Gist, an alumna of Tennessee State University who completed a summer National Science Foundation-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates at the U of A.

“Several of their findings were surprising: for example, some of the amino acids that could form hydrogen bonds with membrane lipids caused their host helices to move faster than their non-hydrogen bonding counterparts.

“You would think that hydrogen bonds would slow things down, since water is slower than gas,” Koeppe said. The team also discovered that peptide rotations are sensitive to changes in the thickness of membranes. The paper contributes to knowledge of the molecular properties that allow the nervous system to work, and ultimately could contribute to the understanding and treatment of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

“We’re working at the first level – the physics of it,” Koeppe cautioned. “We’re not developing medical products, but we’re trying to improve the basic understanding. The remarkable thing is that these undergraduate students were making discoveries in such a complex area. They’re at the forefront in this field.”

And More Work in a Related Area…

“A University of Arkansas research team has published a paper in ChemBioChem, a top European journal of chemical biology, based on groundbreaking experiments led by undergraduate honors student Armin Mortazavi. The paper contributes to the understanding of the molecular properties of membrane proteins, which play critical roles in cell signaling, both for diseased states and basic biological functions.

“It could be useful in understanding how proteins aggregate, which is characteristic of some neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s – but that’s long down the line at this point,” Mortazavi said. “Our main purpose is to understand how they interact in the body.”

“Mortazavi, from Hot Springs, is an honors chemistry and physics double major, a Bodenhamer Fellow, and the recipient of the Goldwater Scholarship. He is listed as first author on the article, giving him primary credit for performing the experiments that led to the discoveries.

“Mortazavi’s research builds on earlier work by honors student Kelsey Sparks, who studied the role aromatic rings play in the movement of the same family of peptides. Sparks was the first author on a paper published in 2014 in Biochemistry and is a coauthor on this paper.”

The Work to Understand Neurodegenerative Diseases Continues….

Jordana Thibado‘s honors research in Roger Koeppe’s lab began in her freshman year, and has paid off with her publication as first author in Biochemistry, one of the leading journals in its field.

Thibado’s paper, “Influence of High pH and Cholesterol on Single Arginine-Containing Transmembrane Peptide Helices,” shares two findings that contribute to the understanding of cell membrane properties, and in the long term, could inform treatment of neurodegenerative diseases.

Thibado is now pursuing a doctoral degree in physiology, biophysics and systems biology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University’s medical campus in New York City. In addition to Koeppe, a Distinguished Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, coauthors include U of A doctoral student Ashley Martfeld and research associate professor Denise Greathouse.

“Upon completion of her doctorate, Thibado hopes to find a faculty position in biophysics or biochemistry and launch her own lab. Publishing research in Biochemistry will help her advance that goal: “It definitely felt great, especially after putting in four years of work, to see the research culminate in publication,” she said.