ResearchBriefs

Anthropology

Dr. Julie Hoggarth is studying the impact of climate on the collapse and regeneration of societies through her work as an archaeologist in Belize. Hoggarth develops radiocarbon chronologies and studies artifacts left by ancient Maya between approximately AD 750 to 1000, and is expanding her work to other civilizations as well. She also integrates historic records of drought and famine to look at changes in population, political upheaval and the abandonment of cities to determine what impact climate-related events have on the societies that experienced them.

"My work is centered on understanding human adaptations and responses," Hoggarth said. "Essentially, I focus on how people responded in the past and try to figure out if these strategies were successful or not. That information can be used as analogues to see how we might respond to climate change in the future."

Chemistry and Biochemistry

Dr. Daniel Romo and Dr. Michael Trakselis are two of the many Baylor professors who help others fight cancer through their research. Through two distinct research tracks, they seek to hinder cancer cells from replicating and spreading.

Romo received a grant from the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to fund research on a compound called pateamine A, isolated from a marine sponge, that could fight the spread of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) and other leukemias.

"We initially discovered, with our collaborators at Johns Hopkins, that this molecule inhibits protein synthesis. Now in collaboration with scientists at MD Anderson, novel derivatives that we synthesized in the lab are showing selectivity toward CLL cells taken from patients," Romo said. "CLL and other leukemias have developed the ability to overexpress so called 'pro-survival' proteins that enable cancer cells to elude normal mechanisms for errant cells to die. In this case, by inhibiting protein synthesis, less of the 'pro-survival' proteins would be synthesized in CLL cells and would lead to cell death, which in this case would of course be a healthy thing."

By improving the properties of the synthetic compounds based on pateamine A including solubility, stability, and potency, Romo's research hopes to apply that information to identify drug leads that could eventually be used to treat leukemia patients.

Trakselis received a grant from the American Cancer Society to fund his research on DNA replication and repair. Using archaea, a unique class of organisms that mirror what takes place in the human body, he hopes to develop a better understanding of how cancer develops when cells don't repair or replicate as they should.

The DNA repair process is continuous and responds to damage that occurs through both natural and environmental factors. Cells with severe DNA damage or that can no longer repair DNA can either go dormant, die or divide uncontrollably, often leading to cancerous tumors. The ability to repair DNA is vital to ensuring organisms survive and function as they should.

"We have as many as a million DNA damage events per cell per day in our bodies," Trakselis said. "My goal is to understand the mechanism of how we replicate past DNA damage events. A second aspect would be to develop inhibitors that block that progression. If you block the ability to bypass the damage, the cell will die because it can't replicate. That could be better sometimes than making a cancerous mutation. The goal is to stop the replication process of damaged cells."

Psychology and Neuroscience

The Baylor Sleep Neuroscience & Cognition Laboratory opened this fall, and the first phase of study recently concluded. Dr. Michael Scullin, assistant professor and director of the sleep lab, said more than 40 Baylor students participated in the study, which examined the impact of sleep habits on memory.

"There's an idea among students sometimes that you have to sacrifice sleep to be successful," Scullin said. "But our preliminary data suggest that students who maintain healthy sleep habits do best."

The students spent three nights in the lab, and their sleep was monitored by attached electrodes and fitbands. The students were given memory tasks before and after sleep and their responses were analyzed along with the type of sleep they received. Scullin is also analyzing data on students who participated in sleep studies during Finals. The sleep lab plans to open its research opportunities to subjects of all ages in the future.

Geosciences

The Brazos River Alluvium Aquifer Initiative is a cooperative partnership between Baylor and the Waco-based Southern Trinity Groundwater Conservation District to gather data on Brazos River Alluvium Aquifer resources in Central Texas and gain insight into how better to manage those water resources. Dr. Joe Yelderman, professor of geology, and research staff member Wayne Hamilton are the lead investigators of the Initiative. They partner with Scooter Radcliffe, general manager of the Southern Trinity Groundwater Conservation District and work with local landowners and communities to gather, for the first time, hard scientific data on the local portion of the aquifer.

"There's a real demand for water in Texas because of population growth," Yelderman said, explaining that other local water sources, like the deep Trinity Aquifer, are being taxed and experiencing significant declines in the water level. The Brazos River Alluvium Aquifer could provide an alternative source of water to relieve pressure on other water resources.

"One of the things that makes this Initiative unique is working with local landowners," Hamilton said. "We gain access to landowner wells to have a window to see and understand the groundwater. So we obtain groundwater data without having to drill new wells. Then we monitor how the water fluctuates during different times of the year, during low and high rainfall periods."

Yelderman and his team are hopeful that the information they glean from the research could help defray the burden on the Trinity Aquifer.

"If we can help preserve the Trinity Aquifer for many years by using the Alluvium, it would be a win-win for everyone," Yelderman said. "Baylor's contribution is providing information to help understand the complex geology of the Alluvium Aquifer, and that information can be used by the conservation district to make management decisions."