Research Project Wins Hope Social Sciences Young Investigators Award

A collaborative faculty-student research project studying an essential part of body chemistry that has also been connected to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia has won Hope College’s annual “Social Sciences Young Investigators Award.”

The team, led by faculty member Dr. Gerald Griffin, received the recognition for investigating the normal functioning of the peptide amyloid beta, which has been found in elevated levels as a plaque in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

“The work is based on the theory that microbial infections may be one source of neural degeneration,” said Griffin, who holds appointments in two academic departments as an assistant professor of biology and psychology and is wrapping up his first year at Hope.  “This particular peptide that we have studied has been associated with multiple forms of dementia, but the function of the peptide is highly debated.”

The Hope team’s research project considered whether or not amyloid beta helps reduce microbes that can invade the central nervous system. They tested its effect on Salmonella enterica, finding that the 1-42 isoform of amyloid beta did combat the growth of the bacterium.  At the same time, Griffin emphasizes that it’s premature to draw a direct line from the study’s results to the development of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.

“Our results support other results out there that show that this peptide has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties,” he said.  “We want to be careful about generalizing or the conclusions that we draw.  All we can state right now is that the peptide kills salmonella in our conditions.”

The college’s “Social Sciences Young Investigators Award” recognizes a junior member of the faculty who has mentored students in research.  The students participating in the project, titled “The 1-42 Isoform of Amyloid Beta Reduces Cell Viability of Salmonella Enterica,” were junior biology majors Brandon Ellsworth of Webberville and Aaron O’Meara of Wyandotte.  They will continue to work with Griffin on the project this summer, pursuing new questions to further clarify what amyloid beta does.

Prior to coming to Hope, Griffin was an assistant professor in the Department of Biology at Tuskegee University for four years, previously serving as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Pennsylvania for two years.  He completed his doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and undergraduate degree in biology at Cornell University in 2003.  He has written several articles published in referred scientific journals.

The “Social Sciences Young Investigators Award” is designed to recognize and encourage junior faculty to partner with students in research collaborations that further the scholarship goals of the faculty member while developing the skills of critical inquiry and analysis in his or her students.  It includes funding for the faculty and student team to present the work at a professional conference.

The competition is open to junior social science faculty who worked with students on a significant research project, with at least one of the students returning for the next academic year.  The selection is made from among the eligible social science projects highlighted during the college’s annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Performance, which was held on Friday, April 15, this year.