BES Faculty-Student Research

Please read through the descriptions of research projects below.

If you are interested in conducting research with a faculty member, follow this link to complete a short survey indicating your interest:

https://forms.gle/rTdUkaKD8wpy2KuR8

The deadline for completing the survey is October 25.

Denis Trubitsyn, Ph.D.

Magnetic bacteria

My lab studies a unique group of bacteria known as magnetotactic. These organisms synthesize their own magnets (see attached image) and use them similarly to a compass needle in navigation. In addition to learning molecular mechanisms involved in the process of making magnets, our research focusses on application of bacterial nanoparticles in medicine. Specifically, we aim to add proteins to magnetic crystals that will make them bind to human cancer cells. Such modified magnets can then be used to aid in tumor localization with MRI. 

While the projects outlined above may require several years of lab work to complete, students in my lab help to accomplish individual phases of this research. They gain skills such as preparation of culture media, growth and harvesting of various bacteria, PCR, cloning, DNA and protein gel electrophoresis, isolation of bacterial magnetic particles, detection of functional proteins with various molecular biology techniques. Students also get to present their work at state and national conferences. There are no formal prerequisites to join my lab; however, I look for someone who is enthusiastic and curious. It may be possible to develop additional research projects based on your personal interest in microbiology.

Ken Fortino, Ph.D.

Data are the foundation of science. Advances in sensor technology now allow researchers to collect enormous data sets on the natural world that have been coined “Big Data”. Big Data have created unprecedented opportunities to understand environmental function and have become integral to investigating human impacts on nature. However, working with Big Data also poses interesting challenges for data processing and analysis that require unique skills and tools.

The Fortino Lab is recruiting Student Scientists to work with the Longwood Environmental Observatory (LEO) and use Big Data to understand how environmental systems work and are changing due to human activities. LEO is a network of environmental sensors that continually collect environmental data from the atmosphere, lakes and streams, and wetlands. As a Student Scientist with LEO you will learn the tools and techniques to operate the sensor hardware, and the coding and data management skills needed to process and analyze the Big Data produced by the sensor network. Additionally, you will collaborate with the rest of the LEO team to develop an independent research project that incorporates LEO data to address an environmental question.

Being a LEO Student Scientist will build your experience in traditional research methods through the design and execution of your research project, field technical skills through working on the sensor network, and in the tools of Big Data and collaborative science (e.g., R, HTML, git, and GitLab).

Kathy Gee, Ph.D.

Water Quality Monitoring at Lancer Park Environmental Education Center

The overall goal of this project is to determine the impact of various pre-filtration devices on the water quality within a rain barrel (a storage container that stores rainwater from a rooftop to be used later). The project will consist of the installation of 6 pre-filtration devices – one for each rain barrel – at the Lancer Park Environmental Education Center and post-treatment water quality sampling, with samples collected from each of the 7 rain barrels and analyzed for bacteria, nutrients, and sediment. The student will be responsible for collecting water samples from each rain barrel immediately following a rain event, transporting the samples to the research lab, and analyzing the samples for various pollutants. Additionally, the student will perform data analyses under the guidance of Dr. Gee to determine how the pre-filtration devices impact water quality within the rain barrel. This will be accomplished by comparing the water quality results from this study to the results obtained prior to the pre-filtration devices being installed. The student researcher will gain valuable experience in conducting a field experiment, collecting water quality samples, performing laboratory procedures for analyzing samples, and applying data analyses techniques. The student may have the opportunity to travel and present their findings at a national conference as well as serve as a co-author on a publication. Previous experience is not required – the student will be taught all necessary information and procedures during the course of the project. Ideal candidates will be reliable, organized, detail-oriented, and strong communicators.

Dale Beach, Ph.D.

Betting on Biotechnology to Build Better Brewers

The common yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, is frequently associated with baking and beer brewing where the yeast consumes sugars to produce carbon dioxide gas – important as a rising agent in bread dough – and ethanol – the inebriating factor in beer, wine, and distilled spirits.  On an industrial scale, baking and alcohol production (for human consumption and for commercial uses), represents billions of dollars annually. As you might guess, the commercial importance of yeast-based fermentation has given rise to a vast catalog of different yeast varieties that a fermenter, baker, or brewer can use to optimize their product quality, increase productivity, and lower costs. Surprisingly, the genetics of this industrially important organism is poorly understood from an industrial point of view. In the Beach lab we are working to understand the genetic roots of some very complicated yeast traits so that we can rapidly develop new strains for the craft brewing industry. By identifying potential target genes in the yeast genome, we are using DNA sequence analysis to characterize variations in gene sequences to better correlate genes with ideal traits, and the use that knowledge to generate novel yeast strains for the fermentation industry. We are currently investigating genes in the Flocculation pathway, an important process to collect and remove yeast cells from the fermentation reaction without costly filtration equipment.  Working on this project will help you develop DNA manipulation and molecular biology skills as well as computational analysis of genomic DNA sequences. Email for more information: beachdl@longwood.edu.​

Dr. Kathy Gee & Dr. Dale Beach

Evaluation of Human Health Risks Associated with Rainwater Harvesting Systems

Rainwater harvesting is the practice of collecting rainwater from a roof and storing it for later use. As climate change increasingly threatens traditional sources of potable water (groundwater and reservoirs), it is essential to utilize methods of conserving water, such as rainwater harvesting systems, to reduce the burden on these resources.  Because a roof surface collects leaves, pollen, and organic debris and is often frequented by critters such as squirrels and birds, the rainwater washing into the collection tank includes biomass and microorganisms, including known pathogens. The first goal of this project is describing the characteristics of the harvesting system, such as proximity to overhanging trees, ease of access for critters, or how often the system is maintained and relating them to pathogen concentrations.  By understanding how these factors influence pathogen concentrations, system owners can make adjustments to reduce the likelihood of pathogens in the harvested water. Second, we seek to improve pathogen quantification in systems by using novel molecular methods to directly measure infectious levels of Legionella, the cause of Legionnaires Disease (a pneumonia-like infection that can be fatal). The results of this project will allow a better and more accurate measure of the risks involved in using rainwater harvesting systems, and increase user safety and confidence is keeping these conservation systems. Ideal students for this project will have an interest in how interdisciplinary biological concepts and techniques can be applied to real-world situations to better understand them, make them safer to use, and broadly promote conservation efforts. 

Brandon Jackson, Ph.D.

How do animals move? When different animals have differently shaped legs, wings, or bodies, does that affect how well they move? My lab studies the evolution of anatomy and physiology related to animal locomotion, both in the lab and in the field.  We ask questions related to neuroscience, animal behavior, developmental biology, ecology, biomechanics, physiology, and evolution, but students do not need a background in any of the above to start in the lab.

Research students are encouraged to develop their own projects based on their interests but can also work on existing projects. We study nearly any type of animal. I currently have active projects studying the following: how losing a leg affects walking in stinkbugs; unique properties of ladybug walking and takeoff; the role of bird tails in slow-speed flight; the role of wing flexibility in cicada flight; crawfish fighting mechanics; and startled zebrafish swimming.  

Have you ever seen how reflective markers on an athlete or actor get converted into the three-dimensional motion in a movie or video game? To measure specific details of animal movement we use similar motion-capture techniques on the animals, just without the markers and using computer learning. The picture shows one frame from two cameras and the 3D reconstruction from tracking a stinkbug.

Example videos can be found at my lab page: https://blogs.longwood.edu/jacksonlab/

Wade Znosko, Ph.D.

Using a long-term study of water quality monitoring of the Appomattox River Watershed of central Virginia, it is possible to test the effects contaminants in local waterways on the development of aquatic vertebrates. By measuring the presence of fecal indicator bacteria, the relative number of pollutants can be assayed. These measurements typically are used to protect humans from potential exposure to toxins. However, little has been researched about the effect of the presence of FIB on organisms that live in these waters. It has been established that within aquatic vertebrates, the Wnt developmental pathway, important for brain and heart development, is significantly down-regulated when raising zebrafish embryos in local polluted waters. Currently, there is not much known about muscle development within these embryos. Using embryos raised in water from the Appomattox River (considered ‘clean’; <238 E. Coli/100mL) and Gross Creek (considered ‘impaired’; >238 E. Coli/100mL), the effect on muscle development and physiology will be examined. qRT-PCR analysis and in situ hybridizations will be performed to identify genes and expression levels that are critical for proper muscle development. Additionally, it is unknown how misformed muscles early in development effects muscle physiology in the adult fish. One key muscle behavior in fish, a startle response, will be examined, that includes the fish making a C-shaped bend in order to swim away fast from predators. Finally, this study will also examine the effects of ‘impaired’ water on C-starts by using high-speed tracking cameras.

Dina Leech, Ph.D.

Water Quality and Ecosystem Restoration

Land use and land cover are closely linked to coastal water quality. Runoff of nutrients and organic matter from agricultural fields often leads to algal blooms and the formation of ‘dead zones’, or regions of low dissolved oxygen, that negatively affect aquatic life. At Longwood’s Baliles Center for Environmental Education at Hull Springs, within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, agricultural fields have recently been restored to forest and wetland.  The Leech Lab is monitoring changes in local water quality on and near the property in consort with these restoration efforts to assess their effectiveness.

Students get hands-on experience collecting water samples in the field and then processing them in the lab to measure the amount of bacteria, algae, nutrients, and organic matter. We also maintain a water quality sonde for the Longwood Environmental Observatory (LEO) that collects data every 15 minutes on several water quality parameters, including water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and salinity. These important monitoring data are shared publicly to better inform management strategies within the Bay’s watershed. They also complement experimental work conducted by the lab to better understand mechanisms of ‘dead zone’ formation.

The Leech Lab is accepting 2 – 3 students to help with our monitoring and experimental work in Fall 2022. Previous experience is not required. However, students should be comfortable around water, and preferably, on boats. Trips to the Baliles Center are generally over a weekend, every 1-2 months. Ideal candidates will be reliable, organized, detail-oriented, and strong communicators.

Katie Pennington, Ph.D.

Cells must respond to changing environments by modulating signaling and gene expression patterns to maintain homeostasis, health, and viability. Inappropriate responses lead to disease processes, such as cancer. In the Pennington Lab, we are working to understand the development of cancer through studying the regulation and function of oncoproteins- proteins which drive the growth and progression of cancer cells. For this project, we are focusing on the oncoprotein PTOV1, which regulates target gene expression to promote cellular growth and survival. We recently described a mechanism for the regulation of PTOV1 localization and stability in human prostate tumor cells (1). However, this analysis is limited by the inability to knockout PTOV1 in these cells, likely because PTOV1 is essential for their growth and survival. Therefore, we seek to establish an alternative model system for studying PTOV1 function in which the endogenous PTOV1 can be replaced with mutant versions. RNAi knockdown is particularly effective in Drosophila melanogaster S2 cells. Therefore, students will use RNAi knockdown coupled with expression of mutant PTOV1 in S2 cells to determine the effects on PTOV1 gene expression functions. This novel study will provide insight into the mechanisms of PTOV1 in promoting carcinogenic phenotypes. Working on this project will provide students with experience performing molecular biology techniques, including cell culture, RNAi, transfection, cloning, and gene expression assays. Additionally, students will have opportunities to improve experimental design, analysis, and communication skills.

1. Pennington KL, McEwan CM, Woods J, Muir CM, Pramoda Sahankumari AG, Eastmond R, Balasooriya ER, Egbert CM, Kaur S, Heaton T, McCormack KK, Piccolo SR, Kurokawa M, Andersen JL. SGK2, 14-3-3, and HUWE1 Cooperate to Control the Localization, Stability, and Function of the Oncoprotein PTOV1. Mol Cancer Res. 2022 Feb;20(2):231-243. doi: 10.1158/1541-7786.MCR-20-1076. Epub 2021 Oct 15. PMID: 34654719; PMCID: PMC8816884.

Mark Fink, Ph.D.

Longwood Campus Breeding Bird Atlas Project

The overall goal of this project is to initiate a long-term monitoring plan for avian populations on Longwood campuses (Main campus, Lancer Park, and Baliles Center at Hull Springs).  This project will launch in spring 2023 (mid-January through mid-June) with breeding bird surveys of main campus and Lancer Park.  Student researchers will spend the early part of the semester researching avian census methods and developing protocols for our breeding bird atlas project.  Researchers will then implement these protocols by collecting field data of breeding birds on main campus and Lancer Park from March through mid-June.  Compilation and analysis of data will occur concurrently with data collection.  Opportunities for continuing research in subsequent semesters are possible.  Students must be available through mid-June and are responsible for their own housing.  Previous experience is not required though ability to identify common birds by sight and sound is preferred.  Email for more information:  finkml@longwood.edu.

Björn Ludwar, Ph.D.

*** Dr. Ludwar will not be a accepting any research students during the 2022/2023 academic year ***

I am looking for self-motivated, curious students, interested in working in relative independence on one of the following projects:

BL01.) Diabetes, Symmetry, & Fingerprints: In collaboration with Ohio University and Touro University, CA, we are collecting fingerprints and medical histories with the goal of correlating fingerprint symmetry with a diabetes diagnosis. Our role in the project is to analyze the data for symmetry. Student participation includes the handling and organization of ‘big data’. Excellent Excel, and ideally programming skills (Python), are a must. Our next goal for the project is to use machine-learning algorithms (via TensorFlow) to score print defects and analyze their effect on predictiveness.

BL02.) Developmental Rate & Symmetry: Using the model system Drosophila melanogaster, we are studying a potential correlation of developmental rate and bilateral symmetry. The project has used various morphological markers in the past: microscopic images of wings, the immunofluorescence stained nervous system of the animal, and lately structures visualized via electron microscopy. Student participation includes maintaining the genetically diverse fly stock, performing independent experiments, analysis and presentation of resulting data. The next big project goal is to link previous findings to diabetic Drosophila mutants, as well as metabolic stress.

BL03.) BYOI (Bring Your Own Idea): I am always open to new project ideas within the realm of animal physiology. If it involves measuring something complicated and/or uses computing power to analyze it, I am generally interested. My lab is set-up to do most electrophysiological experiments. Examples of projects I am curious about include the use of FreeMoCap (freemocaop.org) as a classroom-grade 3D tracking solution, photogrammetric triangulation using Agisoft’s Metashape and photography or electron microscopy, developing automated behavioral assays for drosophila (google “ethoscope”). If electronics, robotics, optics, 3D printers, and programming do not scare you, you will feel right at home in my lab.

BL04.) SEM imaging: I welcome independent student scanning electron microscopy projects. Students select an object of study, learn how to prepare the sample for imaging (fixation, dehydration, contrast enhancement, etc.), learn how to use an SEM, image the sample, and prepare the resulting images for presentation. This could be in conjunction with another research project (in a different lab), or as stand-alone project using specimen I am somewhat knowledgeable about.

More info at www.ludwar.net.

Amorette Barber, Ph.D.

Tumor Immunology Research Lab

*** Dr. Barber will not be a accepting any research students during the 2022/2023 academic year ***

My research lab focuses on enhancing immune responses to cancer.  Current cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation result in adverse side effects. Therefore, the development of novel therapies that specifically target tumor cells and minimize damage to healthy cells is desirable. One option is to use cells of the immune system, specifically T cells, which kill cells that appear dangerous or foreign. To maximize tumor targeting by T cells, genetic engineering is used to express receptors that enhance tumor cell recognition. These receptors, named chimeric antigen receptors (CARs), endow the T cell with a way to recognize the tumor cells and activate many cellular functions to eradicate the tumor. Encouragingly, CAR-expressing T cells have recently received FDA-approval for cancer therapy and the chimeric antigen receptor that I developed at Longwood will be starting Phase I clinical trials for cancer therapy soon. My current research at Longwood University focuses on studying how to enhance T cell immunotherapy for many different types of cancer through 1) creation and testing of novel CARs, 2) investigation of immune cell function, and 3) study of how various compounds (including natural products and parabens) alter immune cell function. In addition to the applications to human health, my research also has implications in enhancing our understanding of general immunology and cancer therapies.

Adam Franssen, Ph.D.

Behavioral Neuroscience in Rats

*** Dr. Franssen will not be a accepting any research students during the 2022/2023 academic year ***


In broad terms, the Franssen lab is investigating how the developmental environment affects gene expression, brain chemistry, animal behavior, and ultimately reproductive success in animals. Specifically, students currently working with rats in our state-of-the-art Neuroscience Facility in Allen Hall are investigating how two factors – maternal behavior and environmental enrichment – affect the cognitive abilities of offspring. Students working in the lab will learn the knowledge and skill needed to conduct behavioral neuroscience research. Skills may include animal husbandry, behavioral testing, analysis of behavior, cryosectioning of neural tissue, immunohistochemistry, neuroquantification, written and oral communication. Once those skills are mastered, each undergraduate research collaborator is encouraged to develop their own project to work on. For example, one recent student-motivated research program has investigated the epigenetically heritable consequences have having a “Good” or “Bad” mother. Another research projects seeks to determine whether environmental enrichment or loss during early development can alter behavioral responses to new stimuli.

Students wishing to join the lab should be highly motivated, be able to work independently after training, and be excited to collaborate with others from different backgrounds. Students from all majors/minors are welcome; successful members of the Franssen Lab have come from Biology, Chemistry, Kinesiology, Psychology, and Neuroscience Studies programs. Varied career goals are welcome, too. In addition to multiple Neuroscience PhDs, Franssen Lab Alumni have become Anesthesiologists, Dietitians, Genetic Counselors, Lawyers, Physical Therapists, and Teachers.