Past Wharton Student Research Projects

Program Overview

The Wharton Summer Student Research Program is a paid, 10-week opportunity for rising junior and senior undergraduate students in nutrition to participate in research projects under the direction of faculty members in the Department of Nutrition and other nutrition researchers in the greater Cleveland area.  Projects will be announced and applications will open toward the end of the fall semester.

Summer 2022 Projects

Integrated Analysis of Human Microbiome and Mycobiome

Student: Caitlyn Hsu

Faculty Mentor: Gurkan Bebek, PhD

The human microbiome encompasses trillions of microbes such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses living within the body’s ecological niches. Microbial dysbiosis (imbalance) results from a number of causative factors including diet. The average American diet—rich in saturated fat, sodium, added sugars, and meat based proteins— has been associated with a number of diseases including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer whose etiologies are thought to be related to disruptions of the microbiome (1). Using data from the The Human Microbiome Project (HMP)—the largest publicly available database containing nearly 81-99% of the microbes inhabiting the healthy Western human body—researchers have defined a standard, “healthy” microbial gut profile (2). Phase two of the HMP further investigated host-microbiome interactions and revealed that microbiome dysbiosis is also related to Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD), Preterm birth and Type 2 Diabetes (3). Recently, mycobiome dysbiosis has also been observed in patients with various diseases including IBD, HIV and cystic fibrosis (4). Therefore, fungi appear to play an integral role in disease pathogenesis and state of health as well. Based on the healthy gut profile defined by the HMP, we hypothesized that the average American gut displays a unique microbial profile indicative of an unhealthy state. Using data collected from approximately 3300 participants, we examined the effect of diet on microbial order and their potential relationship to health using the statistical T test. We show that specific dietary patterns and lifestyle factors (such as sleep, stress, level of physical activity) are associated with unique microbial profiles. This data suggests that nutritionally based therapies such as dietary intervention and probiotic/prebiotic supplementation are promising therapeutic alternatives to classical pharmaceuticals which often result in adverse health effects. Therefore, by targeting specific pathogenic microbes via dietary alterations, we can re-establish gut homeostasis and improve the overall health of individuals.

Effects of Gamification on Student Performance and Satisfaction in an Introductory Nutrition Course

Student: Elizabeth Ochoa

Faculty Mentor: David Cavallo, PhD, MPH, RDN

Gamification is commonly defined as the use of game-like mechanics in non-game activities, which has been shown to produce motivational and cognitive benefits in educational settings. The purpose of this study was to develop a research protocol for testing the effect of gamification elements (e.g., points, leader boards, teams) on student performance, engagement, and satisfaction in a college-level introductory nutrition course. A literature review of gamification in nutrition education was conducted, which identified 97 research articles, 23 of which were included in the review based on a priori criteria. Results from the literature review were used to develop a conceptual model of the effects of gamification based on Self Determination Theory (SDT) and an intervention mapping approach was employed to create course elements that would operationalize key constructs in the conceptual model. These course elements will be tested in a two-group posttest-only randomized controlled trial (RCT) developed as part of the current study. The primary hypotheses are that students with access to gamification features will evaluate the course more positively, have higher levels of motivation and engagement, and earn higher scores when compared to students without access to gamification elements. In addition, theoretical mediators of SDT, including identified and integrated motivation, will be examined to test the theoretical assumptions that form the basis of the conceptual model.

Development and Biophysical Testing of Real-Time Metabolic Biosensors

Student: Cecelia Zielke

Faculty Mentor: David Lodowski, PhD

Abstract: When faced with threatful stimuli, cortisol grants humans an increased ability to escape threat. However, when elevated for prolonged periods of time, cortisol acts as a muscular and neurological inflammatant, inhibiting competent "fight or flight". In military populations and collegiate athletes subjected to prolonged physical and mental stress, monitoring cortisol levels will inform the maintenance of a maximal long-term physical response. In the long-term, we aim to develop a biosensor to monitor serum cortisol levels in realtime by measuring the binding efficiency of cortisol nanobodies to serum cortisol. To do so, the precise molecular mechanism for cortisol binding to a VHH cortisol nanobody (CorNB) must be determined, the steps for which I describe in my poster. Employing transformation of e. coli and purification of CorNB via gel filtration chromatography, we successfully expressed and isolated CorNB. We Conducted several rounds of crystal growth screening, and refined the solvent, buffer, and precipitant conditions, eventually arriving at conditions that grow large and well-defined three-dimensional crystals of CorNB. In continuation of the project, we harvested and froze CorNB crystals and will collect X-Ray diffraction data to determine the precise molecular recognition 127 mechanism for CorNB binding to cortisol for use in the real-time biosensor. Both are confidential, and the PI/Student will not see and vice versa.

Vitamin E as a Modulator of Gene Expression

Students: Anirudh Muralidharan and Daryna Yakovleva

Faculty Mentor: Danny Manor, PhD

Abstract: Vitamin E is a lipid-soluble antioxidant known to mitigate the harmful effects of oxidative stress by inhibiting the propagation of reactive oxygen species (ROS) reactions in biological lipids and membranes. However, the potential antioxidant-independent functions of vitamin E’s biologically active constituent, α-tocopherol, are poorly understood. Previous RNA-seq experimentation comparing α-tocopherol and an antioxidant-inert analog of vitamin E (6-hydroxymethyl α-tocopherol; 6-HMTC), indicated that vitamin E may possess antioxidant-independent biological activities that underlie its health-promoting benefits. Here we aimed to verify the impact of α-tocopherol on the expression of a select subset of genes, namely ENHO, GSTT2, INE4, and TTPα using real-time RT-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR). Further results and conclusions are pending.

Benchmarking of Obesity Training for Registered Dietitians

Student: Varsha Krishnan

Faculty Mentor: Rosanna Watowicz, PhD, RDN, LD

Abstract: Registered Dietitians are one of the many healthcare professionals that advise and guide patients with obesity. Education on weight stigma and many other factors related to obesity care and maintenance is important for healthcare professionals to properly assist and guide patients. This research assessed the level of obesity education and awareness in Dietetic supervised practice programs.

This study was a cross-sectional survey sent to 319 program directors of supervised practice programs across the country. The competencies published in the interprofessional 2017 Provider Competencies on the Prevention and Management of Obesity served as the foundation of the survey. The survey was created using Qualtrics, and then Questions in the survey asked the program directors about their personal perceived importance of various competencies as well as the level of incorporation of each competency in their program using a 4-point likert scale for each category.

At the time of our interim data analysis, one week after survey distribution,, there were 34 responses, about 10% of the total program directors. The mean years as a program director between all the respondents was around 19 years. 32% (n=11) of the respondents felt that their students were “very prepared” to provide nutrition care for patients with obesity, while 64% (n= 21) of respondents included the prevention and treatment of obesity as an intentional objective in their programs. The largest barriers to integrating obesity education among the respondents were lack of room in the curriculum (38%, n= 13), and a lack of obesity related rotation sites (29% n= 10). One of the competencies that was integrated into most programs to a “great extent” was evaluating BMI and other anthropometric measurements routinely (82% n= 28). One of the competencies that were integrated into most programs to a “very little extent” was identifying access-to care barriers for patients with obesity and solutions to mitigate those barriers (35% n=12).

We believe that this is the first study to look at the incorporation of obesity competencies in dietetic supervised practice programs. Educators can use these results to adapt programs to prepare dietitians effectively for treating patients with obesity.

Summer 2021 Projects

In summer 2021, 6 students were selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants to participate in variety research projects.  Students presented their work at Support of Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors' (SOURCE) Virtual Intersections: Symposium on August 6, 2021.  Videos of their presentations are available below.

Assessment of Metabolic Integrity of the Perfused Pig Limb before Implantation, using the Mass Isotopomer Distribution of Citric Acid Cycle Intermediates (CAC) labeled from [13C6]glucose

Student: Peter Chmiel

Faculty Mentor: Henri Brunengraber, PhD

Targeting the TIAM1 oncogene product with small molecule inhibitors

Student: Carlos Garcia Colon

Faculty Mentor: Danny Manor, PhD

Using a Single Cell Transcriptomic Approach to Identify Potential Neutrophil-Mediated Mechanisms in Psoriatic Arthritis

Student: Rebecca Martin

Faculty Mentor: Cheryl Cameron, PhD

Patient Recall of Cancer Screening and Diagnosis

Student: Karthikeyan Murari

Faculty Mentor: Cheryl Thompson, PhD

Spectrum of Culinary Education in Collegiate and Dietetic Preparatory Curricula

Student: Sarvani Nori

Faculty Mentor: Hope Barkoukis, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND

Comparing research involvement and evidence-based practice confidence of clinical dietitians and dietitians of other practice areas

Student: Catherine Phillips

Faculty Mentors: Rosa K. Hand, PhD, RDN, LD, FAND and Rosanna Watowicz, PhD, RDN, LD