Student researchers led by LiLian Yuan, Ph.D., professor of physiology and pharmacology at DMU, are experiencing the win-win of making discoveries while gaining valuable investigative skills amid the challenges presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Their diverse findings may benefit other researchers, uncover clues on managing and treating depression, and reveal ways to motivate people to exercise.
“It’s a great achievement accomplished during the COVID pandemic when these students were taking online lectures, doing clinical rotations and dealing with all other challenges brought by the pandemic,” Dr. Yuan says.
For a paper published in Current Protocols in Bioinformatics titled “Automation of QIIME2 Metagenomic Analysis Platform,” Dr. Yuan and students in DMU’s osteopathic medicine (D.O.) program, Calvin Fung, Mathew Rusling (now a DMU graduate in residency at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), Charles Love, Anisha Karim and Christian Bongiorno, developed a chain of automation scripts to make QIIME, a widely used open-source bioinformatics pipeline for performing microbiome analysis, more user-friendly. The latest version of the tool, QIIME2, has a steep learning curve for new and experienced users, thereby increasing the risk of user error and inefficient result reproducibility. The researchers’ chain of automation scripts reduces the risk of error, number of keystrokes and time spent on metagenomic analysis while increasing accessibility for novice users, fostering their integration into the field of metagenomics and enhancing collaboration.
One of the authors, second-year D.O. student Charles Love, has worked for more than a year with Dr. Yuan on several projects, ranging from THC-induced weight loss to traumatic brain injuries. As an undergraduate, he was responsible for the day-to-day operations of several clinical research projects on neuromuscular conditions; he found Dr. Yuan’s focus on the role of gut microbiota in neurological conditions to be a “perfect fit” for his longtime interests in applied medical research.
“When I reached out to her a few weeks after classes started, Dr. Yuan was very welcoming. Soon, I was a member of a great collaborative research team,” he says. “Doing research here at DMU has been a wonderful experience which has taught me a lot about how to manage complex projects and produce publications which can help expand the knowledge of the broader scientific community. This certainly wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Yuan. I am very grateful to her and to the other members of my lab who helped me get started.”
Another recent paper from Dr. Yuan’s lab by DMU students and researchers published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, “Determination of Diffusion Kinetics of Ketamine in Brain Tissue: Implications for in vitro Mechanistic Studies of Drug Actions,” explored how ketamine, long used as a general anesthetic, works as an antidepressant when administered at sub-anesthetic doses. The paper reflects Dr. Yuan’s research interests in therapies used to treat depression, a chronic and debilitating psychiatric illness affecting roughly 16 percent of the nation’s population.
“We’ve been studying antidepressants that inevitably have side effects,” she says. “As a core value of osteopathic medicine, our bodies should be able to heal themselves, including with lifestyle changes in diet, physical activity or both.”
That relates to research Dr. Yuan and DMU students presented at the American Physiological Society’s New Trends in Sex and Gender Medicine Conference on the mechanisms that promote exercise. In collaboration with Sarah Clayton, Ph.D., associate professor of physiology and pharmacology, the group studied rats that were given continuous access to a running wheel. They found that female rats showed “significantly higher levels” of daily running activity compared to male rats, and that female rats presented a “peak-valley pattern” of activity that followed the fluctuations of their estrous cycle.
“We didn’t initially connect peak running activity with the estrous cycle, but we realized there’s a link between estrogen and running. Can we take advantage of that?” Dr. Yuan says. “In future studies, we’ll test our understanding of the mechanisms involved. Our goals are not only to promote exercise and make people stick with it, but also to learn whether we can offer exercise benefits to people who physically can’t exercise.”
Victoria Mathis, a student in DMU’s master of science in biomedical sciences (M.S.B.S.) program who is co-mentored by Drs. Yuan and Clayton, participated in the exercise research. Students in the M.S.B.S. program rotate through faculty researchers’ labs to select a topic for their theses.
“Dr. Yuan is a supportive thesis advisor. She is always willing to help when I need her, but she also gives me space to come up with ideas and shape the project to be my own,” Victoria says. “My experience in Dr. Yuan’s lab so far has been very beneficial in helping me prepare for Ph.D. programs and learn the skills and techniques needed to excel in future endeavors. I’m constantly learning.”
In addition to offering students hands-on experiences and collaborations with DMU faculty, Dr. Yuan says research opportunities at DMU allow students to build their portfolios.
“More students are coming to us and doing so earlier, looking for research projects,” she says. “Research is one of the distinguishing factors in applying for residency, so it helps students become more competitive after they graduate.”