A team of researchers from three colleges at Virginia Tech has received a five-year, $3.2 million National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) award for the Macromolecular Interfaces with Life Sciences (MILES) program. MILES uses free radical and oxidation processes as the thematic basis for research and education at the chemistry-biology interface. The interdisciplinary Ph.D. program will begin this fall.

Principal investigators are Susan Duncan, associate professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Tim Long, professor of chemistry in the College of Science, and Craig Thatcher, large animal clinical sciences professor and department head in the Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

"The scientific scope is broad, crossing traditional boundaries of science from the understanding of disease mechanisms to the oxidation of fats," Long said.

According to the project summary, "Oxygen-centered radicals are intermediates in key chemical and biological processes, such as lipid oxidation, aging, and product deterioration…. Oxidative stress is implicated in many chronic diseases, including cancer, diabetes, obesity, and the compromise of immune function." The defense is antioxidants, molecules that scavenge the free radicals, which is the reason millions of people take vitamin E, a known antioxidant.

The NSF IGERT program supports interdisciplinary training of Ph.D. scientists and engineers. The MILES IGERT involves 15 core faculty members in four of Virginia Tech's colleges -- Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Science, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine -- to provide cooperative research, interdisciplinary education, and outreach experiences to 36 students. Other departments, institutes, universities, and national laboratories are affiliated with the program as research collaborators and to provide internships, for instance. Researchers affiliated with the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine will provide a bridge to human health.

Duncan, Long, and Thatcher and their students have actually been collaborating for several years to determine the biochemical pathways of the oxidation process and how they can be used to protect food and health and create new technologies. The awarding of the prestigious IGERT grant by NSF -- Virginia Tech's third since 2000 -- recognizes the collaboration that has resulted in a research track record and expertise in an area that combines disciplines.

"We are interested in the oxidation of triglycerides, such as soybean oil, and evaluating the potential of the products of that oxidation for high performance polymers (plastics)," Long said. "This really gives us an opportunity to develop technologies that are not petroleum based."

Food science graduate student Heather Woodson is determining which light waves cause oxidation in such packaged foods as milk, and student Janet Webster is evaluating polymer systems that will block those light waves. Duncan and the students have been visiting with a Virginia polymers company about that research.

Thatcher and his colleagues in veterinary medicine are also interested in nutrition and in the roles of free radicals in disease, and will help the MILES researchers understand the biomedical implications and evaluate the success of their discoveries with animal models. Janet Rankin and Mike Houston, professors of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and Korinn Saker, assistant professor of large animal clinical sciences, are interested in how oxidative stress is related to obesity and Type II diabetes in animals and humans. Nutritional strategies will be developed to modify oxidative stress.

The MILES researchers will also collaborate with the Science Museum of Western Virginia to develop educational modules for K-12 students and contribute to the success of the museum.

The MILES IGERT is the third IGERT award at Virginia Tech since 2000, when an IGERT in Advanced Networking (www.irean.vt.edu/home.html) was awarded, which allows students from computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, industrial and systems engineering, and business to work with technology developers and advanced users from industry and government on multidisciplinary research. The program integrates research on broadband wireless access, mobile access to Internet resources and applications, Internet appliances, quality of service, heterogeneous network security, and management of large-scale networks. In 2001, an IGERT in Macromolecular Science and Infrastructure Engineering (www.macro.vt.edu) was awarded that emphasizes fundamental and emerging technology in macromolecular science and engineering and is the basis for master of science and Ph.D. degrees.

"Interdisciplinary graduate programs are key to educating the scientists and scholars and professors for the 21st century. I'm pleased that the NSF has recognized the outstanding graduate education programs at Virginia Tech," says Karen P. DePauw, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School.


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