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Great minds, new discoveries

by Barb Boose One Comment

DMU is working strategically to guide and grow its research enterprise – an ongoing effort much like research itself. “If we at DMU bring our best thinkers together on an issue, innovative ideas and projects will emerge,” says Jeffrey Gray, Ph.D., vice president for research.

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Mark VerMeer, a research assistant in Kim Tran’s lab, prepares for simultaneous purification of multiple proteins.

Cardiovascular scientist Kim Tran is investigating ways to target estrogen receptor subtypes to prevent and treat heart disease. Podiatric physician Mindi Feilmeier is collecting evidence to evaluate and improve bunion surgery. Social psychologist Rachel Reimer is studying why white and Hispanic family members either do or don’t get the HPV vaccine, information that could eventually lead to interventions that reduce HPV-associated cancer.

These inquiries have different goals and occur in different settings, from the lab to the clinic to the community. All are examples, however, of DMU’s increasingly dynamic research enterprise.

“DMU has always had individuals doing high-quality research and having a good impact. That’s the foundation of what a university research program is,” says Jeffrey Gray, Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology who was named vice president for research in October 2011. “Now we’re exploring how we can bring those individuals together, both internally and externally, to have an even greater impact.”

Two years ago, the University began to review and restructure its research program. Four areas of emphasis – cardiovascular sciences, movement science, public health and pedagogy in the health sciences – were chosen based upon DMU’s current research strengths, successes, needs and faculty interests.

In movement science, for example, recent successes include a variety of research projects by R. Tim Yoho, D.P.M., FACFAS, dean of the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery (CPMS), and Vassilios Vardaxis, Ph.D., physical therapy professor and CPMS research director, with several CPMS graduates, students and staff. Last year, they had several articles published in professional journals, including the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery; as of March 1 this year, three more papers authored by DMU researchers had been accepted for publication.

Additional goals for research at DMU are to expand current collaborations with external partners, such as central Iowa medical centers, and to attract research dollars.

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Mindi Feilmeier, D.P.M.’05, FACFAS, discusses with a third-year podiatric student
the selected procedure for a foot deformity.

“DMU has a strong internal funding mechanism in which we give grants to faculty who complete a stringent review process,” Gray says. “My goal and our goal as a University are to increase the number of external solicitations we have.”

Toward that end, research staff are assisting faculty in writing grant proposals and managing funded projects. “The funding environment for all types of research is really challenging nationwide,” he notes. “My philosophy is that a good scientist with good ideas and projects will eventually get funding. Our goal is to create an environment to encourage and support faculty so they don’t give up.”

Another major goal is expanding DMU’s longtime practice of engaging students in research. Since 2002, graduate and undergraduate students from across the country have come to the labs of Ryan Hall for the University’s annual summer research program, which now offers ongoing, year-round mentored research opportunities. DMU launched an annual research symposium in 2004 that is attracting an increasing number of students, faculty and external presenters. In 2007, the University created a master’s degree in biomedical sciences, designed to equip students for careers in medical and scientific research and academic medicine.

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Lara Terry, an undergraduate at Drake University, learns intracellular imaging techniques with Tran. She recently won first prize in the undergraduate poster competition of the 17th annual meeting of the Iowa Physiological Society.

“We also encourage students in their clinical years to become involved in research projects both within and outside of DMU,” Gray says. “We seek to expand those experiences while ensuring students know and comply with appropriate research protocols.”

Despite their different research topics, faculty like Tran, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology, and Feilmeier, D.P.M.’05, FACFAS, assistant professor in CPMS, share an enthusiasm for engaging students in their investigations. Tran’s research activities involve a significant number of undergraduate, graduate and medical students. Feilmeier strives to have CPMS students participate in every aspect of her research, from applying for grants and project approval by DMU’s institutional review board to reviewing the literature, collecting data and writing about the project and its results.

“I feel like I am learning a lot from students because they question everything and can make me look at things from a new or different perspective,” she says.

Under the microscope: Research Spotlights

KIM TRAN, M.D., Ph.D.: cardiovascular sciences

Kim-Tran“I have a strong interest in cardiovascular diseases, particularly vascular disorders associated with menopause, diabetes and hypertension. One current focus area is the regulation of the novel G Protein-coupled Estrogen Receptor 1 (GPER) in the vasculature. GPER has been implicated in a vast array of cardiovascular functions. Our goal is seeking to provide timely information that helps form the basis for targeting estrogen receptor subtypes for the prevention and treatment of associated cardiovascular conditions. We have made significant progress in identifying novel regulatory inputs and properties of this receptor and are preparing to publish our first set of findings.

“We also are investigating mechanisms through which endothelial and smooth muscle functions are coordinated in vasculature regulation independently of known endothelium-derived factors. Our goal is to find novel mechanisms governing intercellular interactions in physiological processes, such as angiogenesis and vasculogenesis, and in disease states associated with endothelial regeneration after vascular injury. We have developed novel models for intercellular studies and have identified a number of genes involved in these interactions.”

Kim Tran is an assistant professor of physiology and pharmacology. The first project he describes above is funded by the National Institutes of Health; the second, by the Iowa Osteopathic Education and Research Fund.

MINDI FEILMEIER, D.P.M.’05, FACFAS: movement science

Mindi-Feilmeier“My research involves all aspects of foot and ankle clinical practice and surgical procedures. My current focus is on the outcome of commonly performed treatments of foot and ankle ailments, both conservative and surgical. I enjoy systematically reviewing current treatments to make sure that we are using the most up-to-date, biomechanically sound and evidence-based options available in the care of our patients. My collaborators and I are also working to increase the body of outcomes-based literature for the treatment of common foot pathologies.

“We reviewed 26 cases of bunion deformity correction, looking at pre- and post-operative position to assess the outcomes for a specific procedure. We have also been working with cadaveric specimens to better define what may cause a bunion deformity or to at least understand what truly happens to the joints when a bunion occurs. This has led to even more questions, which we will continue to try to answer through both cadaveric specimens and human subjects.

“In another project, we systematically reviewed the literature on whether getting sutures and surgical incisions wet in the immediate post-operative period increased the incidence of infection. The literature on this for the foot and ankle is minimal, so we have designed a prospective study on that specific area.”

Mindi Feilmeier is an assistant professor in the College of Podiatric Medicine and Surgery and a podiatric physician in DMU’s Foot and Ankle clinic. She and her co-researchers recently had two papers on the investigations she describes above accepted for publication in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Surgery.

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