As the COVID-19 pandemic continued through 2020, shutdowns and safety measures disrupted academic research across the 23 California State University campuses. While some research projects at the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics were hindered by the necessity to close the campus, we were still committed to continuing our work. We developed a phased approach to restore research, scholarship, and creative activities as a part of Cal State Fullerton’s campus re-entry plan. Here are a few examples of those research projects that persevered and flourished despite COVID-19 shutdowns.
Gastropods Losing Their Grip
Along the California coast, gastropods (a class of mollusk that includes snails and slugs) play a vital role in controlling algae. Without them, algae can bloom unchecked, lower oxygen levels in water, and make oceans inhospitable to fish, marine mammals, birds, and even humans.
Jennifer L. Burnaford, associate professor of biology, and her colleagues studied how rising temperatures affect how owl limpets, a conical shell-shaped gastropod, keep a grip on the rocky shore. Losing their grip makes them more vulnerable to oystercatchers, native birds that eat gastropods.
To test this, the team built a custom force meter and enlisted the help of Squeakers, a captive oystercatcher living at a nearby wildlife refuge.
Armed with the knowledge of how much force Squeakers employs to detach an owl limpet, the researchers tested the gastropod’s muscle strength under heat stress, repeating the experiment at steadily increasing temperatures. The researchers found the oystercatcher could dislodge the gastropod six times faster in warmer conditions than in cooler ones.
While this may be good news for Squeakers, having fewer gastropods on the shore could adversely affect the delicate ecology of the coastline, and California might see more algae – and get greener in all the wrong ways.
Untangling a Web of Mystery
Was a construction worker’s death in 1900 caused by a black widow spider’s bite or a mistake by his physician? Merri Lynn Casem, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Science, and her students are investigating the historical case of the man’s death at the turn of the last century from a modern-day perspective.
The death was one of the first medically documented cases in the nation of a fatal bite from a black widow spider. Casem’s research is focused on understanding how the physiological effects of black widow spider venom and the various drugs used to treat the patient may have combined. The research team’s investigation is using the historical record to determine whether the spider’s bite, the patient’s consumption of several glasses of whiskey, or the medically approved and doctor-administered combination of drugs like strychnine, cocaine, and morphine was the actual cause of death.
Modern treatment for a black widow spider bite often includes the use of opioids. The research will add to the knowledge about the physiological effects of black widow spider toxin on the human body, as well as treatment protocols for spider bites.
The Michaelangelo of Microbiomes
The human gut harbors a complex community of trillions of microbial cells that influence human physiology, metabolism, nutrition, and immune function. Understanding the relationship between human health and gut microbes has the potential to help treat chronic gastrointestinal disease.
Michaelangelo Marcellana is a CSUPERB Presidents’ Commission Scholar working in the laboratory of Parvin Shahrestani, assistant professor of biological science. To advance understanding of the relationship between microbes and humans, Marcellana is studying the impact of gut microbes on host evolution and the impact of host evolution on gut microbes.
Fighting Alzheimer’s with Green Chemistry
Data indicates that the human enzyme acetylcholinesterase (AChE) is responsible for the destruction of an essential neurotransmitter in the brain that may cause Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Makar Makarian, a senior majoring in chemistry, is researching how an oral medication inhibits AChE and if innovative drug synthesis methods could improve results and reduce waste in the manufacturing process.
Makarian is experimenting with Donepezil and Donepezil-based analogs. His approach uses environmentally friendly synthetic routes, also known as “green” chemistry, which use less energy to synthesize new chemical compounds, often with less waste product.
Determining Ages Through Ash
Priscilla Martinez capped off her undergraduate education with a remote field research project in July 2020. She collected digital data and interpreted geologic events that created the Modelo Formation in Ventura County, a landform between 24 million and 5 million years old. The geology major was mentored by Jeffrey Knott, emeritus professor of geological sciences, in tephrochronology, a novel method for linking and dating volcanic-event stratigraphy.
Martinez’s research in dating and measuring the magnitude of past volcanic eruptions is helping to reconstruct the history of the formation.
Recognizing Achievement and Diversity in STEM
Three Cal State Fullerton students were recognized with Presentation Awards by the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). The awards recognize the next generation of scientists and STEM leaders from historically excluded populations. The winning students were:
- Adrian Escobar, biological science major, received the Life Sciences-Cell and Molecular Biology Presentation Award for his research into proteins that transport zinc through the body.
- Alisa Hernandez, biological science major, received the Life Sciences-Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Presentation Award for her work studying the marine heatwave known as the “Blob.”
- Angelina Zuelow, biology graduate student and vice president of CSUF’s SACNAS student chapter, received the Life Sciences-Marine Sciences Graduate Oral Presentation Award for her examination of feather boa kelp and its effect on the ecosystem of the Pacific coastline.