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Mansfield professors involved in cutting edge research

MANSFIELD — With an enrollment of 1,792 for Fall 2020, Mansfield is one of the smaller schools in the state system of higher education and yet three professors at the school are engaged in cutting edge research, some in collaboration with elite universities in the country.

Dr. Maegen Borzok: Cardiovascular Diseases

For Dr. Maegen Borzok, coming to the small Tioga County town was actually a family decision.

“Family is the number one priority to me. My husband, my son and I just decided that it was time for us to focus a little bit more on what was close to us,” she said.

“It was important for us being out in the country, being rural, being able to be involved in the lives that we’re interacting with,” she added.

Her husband, who teaches physics at a local high school, was originally from the area, so that was another motivation for moving to Mansfield.

“I look at it as Mansfield’s path and my path crossed and we were both in the right place at the right time,” Borzok said.

“And it worked out really, really well because I get to do exactly what I’ve been wanting to do, which is be a lot more involved in student lives and the lives I’m interacting with on a daily basis,” she shared.

Having gone to college at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County, her educational journey then took her to the University of Maryland School of Medicine where she earned her doctorate in biochemistry, which she said was mixed with physiology. That led to an interest in muscle biochemistry and muscle physiology.

She also taught at the university for awhile before going to Ohio State Wexner Medical Center where she maintained a nationally funded research lab and taught physiology.

Then she arrived at Mansfield University, where she is starting her second year.

Her background in biochemistry led to her interest in protein biochemistry, which she said involves “really understanding what’s happening with the molecules that perform the functions at a cellular level and those are our proteins.”

“So, my research is really centered on those proteins and how they allow the heart to beat synchronously throughout the course of a lifetime. And then, how things can go wrong at the protein level, which can translate to major defects in function of that heart pumping,” she explained.

Borzok and her team of students are looking at specific proteins and how changes in those proteins, all the way at the genetic level can translate to major defects for individuals.

Specifically they are working with a genetically-transmitted disease called arrhythmogenic cardiomyopathy, which is associated with sudden cardiac disease. About one in 5,000 people in this country have been identified as having the disease, however, Borzok noted that many more people die from sudden cardiac death every year and the cause goes undetermined..

“An individual who dies of sudden cardiac death, although they may not have been diagnosed with arrythromogenic cardiomyopathy may have it, they just haven’t gone further to investigate that,” she said.

The disease is passed from generation to generation based on genetics. There is no cure, and it is often diagnosed in an autopsy room, she said. The family then can be genetically screened after the loss of a family member.

“Where we are in research, there is no cure for the disease. There are ways to treat the disease. There are ways to treat the symptoms of the disease, but there are no fixes for the disease,” she said.

Basically, as Borzok detailed it, her team is studying what happens on a molecular level with the protein, desmoplakin, which is found at the edges of cells and interacts with a complex of proteins to act as a kind of glue to hold cells together. These proteins along with desmoplakin allow for constant contact between the cells, which causes the heart to beat synchronously.

“When desmoplakin is genetically affected and altered through this disease, it makes the protein more susceptible to break down,” Borzok said, adding that in turn allows for its loss of functionality and the cells within the heart become less glued together.

“That will lead to infiltration of things that shouldn’t be there, like fibrotic tissue and fat cells and that will lead to a breakdown in the communication of the heart which can then ultimately lead to sudden cardiac death,” she explained.

“That’s one of the big things our research team is looking at. How do we go about fixing it. What we’re doing is to look for molecular bandaids that can stop the breakdown of desmoplakin so even in the presence of genetic change, we can use the band-aid to prevent the we stop the breakdown of the protein,” she added.

“Through this project our students are exposed to high-level research at a small rural university. They are able to see the impact of their work. And I am able to be a part of their training as they continue on their own paths,” Borzok concluded.

Dr. Elaine Farkas: Microplastics in Mice

Dr. Elaine Farkas’ journey to Mansfield took a slightly longer route than the other researchers interviewed.

Originally from Florida, where she did her undergraduate studies, Farkas did her graduate work just across the New York border at Cornell University, where she used non-linear optical techniques to study lipod bilayer models of cell membranes. There she expanded her expertise in the applications of physics to include optics as it applies to gaining information about biological systems.

“That again involves a lot of both physics and chemistry as well as some biology I picked up along the way. I collaborated with various different types of people when I was at Cornell in terms of their disciplines. Engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and the like. It was very interesting,” she said.

“I’ve always brought with me from that experience this desire to have interdisciplinary research. Applying physics techniques to other fields to investigate things that I might not be an expert in,” she shared.

“I love drawing in other people, seeing what sorts of problems they might have, what sorts of questions might they ask and how can we use physics and the particular toolset I know and work well with to answer those questions,” she added.

While she was at Cornell, Farkas did post doctoral research on multiphoton microscopy to histologically evaluate mouse livers.

Her husband is a native Tioga Countian who graduated from Mansfield University, as did his mom. His grandfather was actually employed in the physical plant at the university, so there was a connection with the school and the area.

“He had very fond memories of it and was still in the area,” she said. “He said, why don’t you apply there, it seems like a good fit.”

So, Farkas did and she got the job. Now, she does research on what happens to mammals when they are exposed to microplastics.

When she was at Cornell she had done some research on diet-induced non-alcoholic fatty liver disease using a mouse model, but did not investigate microplastic consumption.

In the last ten years, according to Farkas, there’s been an explosion in metabolic diseases including non-alcoholic liver disease.

While looking for smaller projects that she could use to engage her undergraduate students at Mansfield, she starting thinking that maybe microplastics were contributing to the increase in these diseases.

Microplastics are small pieces of plastic which are found everywhere in the environment.

“It’s probably obvious that we’re consuming them in some way or other,” she said.

She started asking, “What are those microplastics doing? Could they be contributing in some way to this metabolic disease? Could some of these things be explained by not just pesticides and other forms of pollution or stress, but could microplastics be playing a role and if so what is that role?”

The next step was to develop, in collaboration with fellow professor and researcher, Dr. Kristen Long, a mouse model research which involves many different undergraduates in various areas of study.

Farkas is quick to discount that she is against petroleum products such as plastics.

“Plastics have enabled a lot of technological and biomedical advances that we would not be able to have with conventional products like metal and glass,” she said.

But, she explained, because of its durability, plastic gets into the environment as a pollution because it never changes its chemical form.

“Plastics don’t typically biodegrade because they are so chemically resilient that they just get broken down into smaller and smaller pieces,” she said.

Farkas used the example of a plastic milk jug that gets thrown into the ocean. The mechanical action of the water and the ultraviolet action from the sun break it down into smaller and smaller bits of plastic, but it never goes away.

“That’s where the microplastic pollution becomes an issue, if we keep adding plastic to the environment and it keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller bits, the smaller and smaller bits can then work their way back up the food chain,” she said.

Her research is focused on observing if there are any health effects, in a mammalian, invertebrate and plant systems when plastics are added.

Invertebrate and plant models have been used by other researchers, but Farkas noted the better model is the mouse model because it is a mammal, more similar to humans. The research involves feeding a controlled dose of plastic over a certain amount of time to determine if there are any effects at the gross, serological and histological levels and what the dose- and size-dependence of those effects are. It also seeks to determine if there is a threshold above which the effects appear.

“It’s been a very interesting experimental design process, especially getting all the undergrads involved in all the different parts,” she said.

Tissue samples from the mice are then examined to see if the plastics ended up in the main metabolic organs.

“We’re trying to see where these plastics end up and whether those organs show markers of damage compared to controlled organs in mice that were not fed plastics,” Farkas explained.

Dr. Kristen Long: Cancer Research

When she was an undergraduate at Millersville University, one of the PASSHE schools, Dr. Kristen Long attended a championship track meet at Mansfield University with her team, so it’s not that she was unfamiliar with the school when she came to work there.

Along her journey to becoming a professor at Mansfield, Long had gained a doctorate in microbiology and immunology from Drexel University College of Medicine at Philadelphia. From Drexel, Med, she transitioned to a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania, also at Philadelphia. While there she worked on research in pancreatic cancer, while also gaining some teaching experience. Then, she decided to make the move to a full-time teaching position.

“I knew that I wanted to work at a primarily undergraduate institution,” she said. “I liked the idea of working with students that were very new in their career. I wanted to be able to be that person to really show them the different types of opportunities that are out there, for a career in science, whether it be medical school or graduate school or going right into industry.”

She added that she wanted to “help them (students) really ignite their passion for science.”

After a job opening at Mansfield came out, the appeal of a smaller school drew Long, who had attended a large high school when she was younger and had sometimes felt like a number and not an individual.

The differences between the students at Mansfield and those at the larger, more exclusive schools she had attended was also appealing to Long.

“Tioga County is very different than Philadelphia County. It’s a major lifestyle change, but I really like the type of students that were at Mansfield,” she said.

She noted that coming from Penn and Drexel, the student population is very different.

“I like the student population at Mansfield. I like that a lot of our students were first generation students, and a lot of our students are on Pell grants. It’s a different type of student, where you can often be more influential in their career from that aspect,” she said.

“They really don’t have that family pedigree of going to college and knowing what’s out there and knowing the channels that you need to go through,” she added.

Another plus that is specific to Mansfield, according to Long, is that students in the biology program are required to be to do an independent research project as part of their senior experience.

“By requiring those research courses I knew that I would have students coming through my lab and I knew that I would have students wanting to jump into research, so that was really exciting,” she said. “My research students have been extremely successful and it’s amazing to see them blossom into solid scientists during their time at Mansfield.”

Long also liked Mansfield’s smaller size because she said, “you can really build that unique relationship that otherwise is more challenging to build at one of those bigger schools.”

At Mansfield, Long teaches courses in the disciplines related to biomedical science, such as cell biology and immunology, which she shared, is her personal favorite.

“Immunology is all about the immune system and how it works and then what happened when it goes wrong,” she said.

The research that she is doing with a mouse model of pancreatic cancer follows on her research that she did at Penn. While there she had worked in a translational research lab which meant that whenever the researchers found something that worked on the pre-clinical side could then be taken to the clinic and used on patients in clinical trials.

“I took a piece of that world with me to Mansfield. We can grow mouse pancreatic tumor cells in-vitro in petri dishes and we can test novel therapies to see if they have the ability to kill tumor cells compared to healthy cells,” she explained.

“We also are able to create an animal model in which we implant those tumor cells into mice with the same genetic background. These tumor cells grown into solid tumors that we can then use to test additional therapies in vivo,” she added.

The advantage of using the mouse model is that their system is more similar to humans.

She also noted that her lab has several project testing novel therapies using these model systems. Her undergraduate research students are the driving force pushing these projects forward. So how unusual is it for a university the size of Mansfield to be involved in this type of research? According to Long, very unusual.

“I don’t know many other schools in the PASSHE system that are doing cancer research, especially in vivo, using the mouse model. I think that it’s a little bit unique to the PASSHE system schools and especially to a school of this size. It’s really hard to support this type of research. We do so because we have some really great collaborators and so whatever we can’t do, we usually have a collaborator who is willing to help us,” she said.

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