Science & Research

West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission




NSF Highlight: Sensing Environmental Danger with DNA

Discoveries, News about science and research

img_23934_sensing environmental danger--rgov-800widthNSF Award: Bionanotechnology for Public Security and Environmental Safety  has been published on NSF’s SEE innovation website. The research, funded by NSF’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, uses aptamers (DNA-carrying molecules) to capture and detect molecules relevant to environmental health. The process can identify multiple toxins in a single test.

This research is part of a larger effort to establish a nationally recognized Center for Bionano-technology at West Virginia University.




Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Charlie Chen

Discoveries, featured, Scientist Spotlight

chen-and-studentsDr. Yi Charlie Chen considers himself a fortunate man.

And why wouldn’t he? The professor of biology and prolific researcher at Alderson-Broaddus College in Philippi is living his dream. As a teacher, researcher, husband and father, he has accomplished every goal in life he has set so far. 

His next goal: sustaining the level of research he’s helped create at the 800-student private college in the north-central West Virginia.

Read more about Dr. Chen’s accomplishments and research in the Spring 2013 edition of the Neuron.

To read about other West Virginia researchers featured in the Neuron, visit the Neuron page of the Library.

Photo by John Sibold.



Scientist spotlight: Dr. Jeremy Dawson

Discoveries, featured

Dr. Jeremy Dawson is research assistant professor in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at West Virginia University and principal investigator for CITeR, the Center for Identification Research.

He is among a team of researchers probing deeply into the study of biometrics, the science of establishing human identity based on traits such as fingerprints, facial structure, iris, and voice. Beyond those conventional biometrics, Dr. Dawson is also beginning to study the emerging field of molecular biometrics, which holds the potential of identifying individuals based on the unique colonies of bacteria they host. Read more about Dr. Dawson and the CITeR studies at West Virginia University in the Fall 2012 edition of the Neuron (pdf).

Photo by John Sibold

To read about other West Virginia researchers featured in the Neuron, visit the Neuron page of the Library .



SPION-Aptamers As The Working Element To Sense Environmental Contaminants


We all care for the environment and watch it closely because the quality of our lives is linked to environmental health. 

Chemicals released at low levels can accumulate, degrade or interact with other chemicals and adversely affect human health.  Endocrine disrupting chemicals, which mimic steroidal hormones, can adversely affect the health of humans and animals.  Natural water systems, our source for drinking water, are especially important to monitor for endocrine disrupting chemicals.

When faced with an environmental spill where toxins have entered a water source, researchers may be hampered because they may have to guess what contaminants have entered the water and determine which locations are important to monitor. The amount of time and effort to collect data increases as the number of samples collected and the chemicals test for is increased. It would be more efficient to have a single test that could test for a variety of contaminants.

The goal of the seed project is to provide new tools for scientists to study and monitor the environment using label-free environmental sensing of toxic small molecule contaminants.  The researchers use molecular recognition elements made of DNA, called aptamers, for this purpose. 

 Aptamers are excellent sensing elements because they are stable and undergo thermally dependant reversible binding.  The aptamer sensing is combined with a separation-based assay that simultaneously detects multiple analytes in a single run.  In this approach, the aptamers capture molecules that are relevant to monitoring environmental health, the captured molecules are released and then rapidly separated and detected in a capillary.




Molecular recognition elements made of DNA called aptamers are selected from a large library of different DNA sequences (panel A).  Aptamers are generated with selectivity for different chemicals relevant to the environment and then used to bind to the chemical targets (panel B).  Chemicals captured by aptamers are measured using a separation-based assay to simultaneously determine multiple analyte in a single assay (panel C).

Lisa Holland1 and Letha Sooter2
2C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6045
2Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, School of Pharmacy, Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, Morgantown, WV 26506-9530





Aptamers for Detecting Harmful Substances


Identification of aptamers, a class of biomolecule-based complexing agents, is a major research challenge.

Aptamers have a broad range of potential applications as probes in electrochemical sensors for the detection of small molecule toxins, explosives, and bio-toxins. The bottle neck is the identification of a specific aptamer against a desired target. This is a time consuming and costly process  In addition, aptamers may require some elaboration for use in devices, potentially rending them unsuitable for molecular binding.

Researchers at West Virginia University (Peter M. Gannett, James P. Lewis, and Timothy Menzies) are using computational methods to reduce synthesis time by pruning candidate compounds prior to synthesis.  Their goal is to develop advanced computational approaches that identify aptamers for specific molecular targets to accelerate the process of aptamer discovery and facilitate aptamer modification for practical applications.

Their approach combines knowledge of the two-dimensional structure and thermodynamic stability based on RNA sequence, calculation of the corresponding three-dimensional structures to prepare a library of RNAs, and docking of the library of RNAs with the desired small molecule.  To reduce search time, they are developing a workbench of tools which include data mining tools as well as active learning tools to monitor the data mining to infer which compounds should be synthesized and characterized and which compounds to avoid, thus reducing the exploration time required to explore new aptamer candidates. 

James P. Lewis1, Peter M. Gannett2, and Timothy Menzies3
1Department of Physics, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6315
2Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center, School of Pharmacy, Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-9530
3Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV 26506-6070

Dr. Lewis‘ research group uses computational materials science methodologies they developed to understand and develop nanomaterials. 



WVNano Initiative at West Virginia University partners with local museum for informal nanoscience education

Discoveries, Nanotechnology

The Children’s Discovery Museum of West Virginia is a non-profit organization that provides a space for exceptional learning experiences and interactive play.  

The WVNano Initiative partnered with the museum to organize NanoDays 2012, an event that took place on March 17.

West Virginia University students, faculty and staff volunteers led activities for the first official NanoDays event ever held in West Virginia. The event attracted about 80 visitors, mostly children with their Moms and Dads in tow.

The three-hour event included six tables worth of NanoDays kits provided by the NISE Network, a special reading of Alice in Nanoland, an exhibit of images art from scanning electron and atomic force microscopy. The visitors learned about concepts such as thin films, hydrophic coatings, graphene and nanostructures.  

As a result of this successful partnership, the museum has been awarded a Nano mini-exhibition from the NISE Network; Nano is an interactive exhibition that engages guests in nanoscale science, engineering and technology.  The exhibit will be constructed in 2014 and will be available to the museum in 2015.

The program was funded by National Science Foundation grants (NSF ESI-0532536 and 0940143).

Aniketa A. Shinde
WVNano Initiative, West Virginia University, 886 Chestnut Ridge Rd., Morgantown, WV 26506-6223

Aniketa A. Shinde WVNano coordinater,of the educational and outreach programs. She also works collaboratively with WV EPSCoR to implement and evaluate educational and outreach activities under the 2010-2015 NSF Research Infrastructure Improvement cooperative agreement.



A survey of cellular fate upon carbon nanotube exposure



Carbon nanotubes are allotropes of carbon wrapped up in cylindrical empty tubes 10-9 m (one billionth of a meter) in diameter and lengths of 10-6 m.  Carbon nanotubes have unique physical and chemical properties that make them potential candidates for biomedical applications.  

With current efforts aimed at translating carbon nanotubes into therapeutic approaches, there is a critical need to develop a fundamental understanding of any toxicity that might be resulting from their interaction with biological systems.  

Researchers at West Virginia University are unraveling the multiscale biological material (protein)-nanomaterial (carbon nanotube)-cell interactions (Figure A); specifically, Dr. Dinu and Dr. Rojanasakul’s labs are incubating carbon nanotubes with human bronchial epithelial cells and analyze cell behavior using an electronic platform to detect nanotube-induced toxicity in real time.  

Optical examination of cells incubated with nanotube reveals topographical modifications upon nanotube cellular uptake as well as perturbed cell-cell interactions.  In particular, Figure B shows human bronchial epithelial cells with blue stained nuclei and green stained zona occludence protein 1 (ZO-1), a protein responsible for tight junction formation and cell-cell interactions, while Figure C shows how ZO-1 distribution is perturbed after cellular exposure to carbon nanotubes.  

This research is potentially transformative because it uses a non-invasive approach to test toxicity in real time and also offers a platform for quantitative measurement of a library of samples to be correlated with user-defined diagnostics or testing methods, all in a high-throughput manner.

Cerasela Zoica Dinu1,2, Reem Eldawud1, Chenbo Dong1, Yon Rojanasakul2
1Department of Chemical Engineering, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV
2Department of Basic Pharmaceutical Sciences, West Virginia University, Morgantown, WV

Cerasela-Zoica Dinu, Ph.D. Assistant Professor, Chemical Engineering | faculty/dinu.html

The successful completion of Dr. Dinu’s work will lead to novel tools that integrate nanotechnology with biology, advanced technology and electrochemistry in applications for homeland security, medical diagnostics and environmental protection.




Discoveries & Highlights

Discoveries, EPSCoR, News about science and research

West Virginia’s higher education institutions employ many talented faculty who, with their students, are conducting world-class research to create life-enhancing discoveries, economic growth and a highly skilled and educated workforce. Read the Scientist Spotlights to learn about some of West Virginia’s best researchers.

Much of the research underway in West Virginia is part of a five-year, $20 million Research Infrastructure Improvement Grant (NSF-1003907) to establish a nationally recognized and sustainable Center in Bionanotechnology.  This “RII” promises to advance technology important to national security and provide research and education experiences for students, postdoctoral fellows, high school teachers and institutions across the state. 

The goal is to provide necessary infrastructure focused on bionanotechnology for enhanced public security and environmental safety. Led by faculty at Marshall, West Virginia and West Virginia State universities, researchers are bringing together bionanotechnology and molecular sciences to create hand-held devices — essentially laboratories on a chip — that can be deployed in the field to identify potential environmental threats, pollutants and even diseases.

These innovations have the potential to create new marketable technologies and devices — and the jobs to manufacture them. The state’s predominantly undergraduate institutions and community and technical colleges also are engaged in research and workforce development activities for this program.

Read on to learn about some of the specific projects under this Research Infrastructure Improvement grant.

WVNano Initiative at West Virginia University partners with local museum for informal nanoscience education
Aniketa A. Shinde

WVNano Graduate Fellow speaks at Science on Tap
Lisa Holland and Aniketa A. Shinde

SPION-Aptamers As The Working Element To Sense Environmental Contaminants
Lisa Holland and Letha Sooter

Aptamers for Detecting Harmful Substances
James P. Lewis, Peter M. Gannett, and Timothy Menzies

A survey of cellular fate upon carbon nanotube exposure
Cerasela Zoica Dinu, Reem Eldawud, Chenbo Dong, Yon Rojanasakul



Scientist Spotlight – Dr. Michael Norton

Discoveries, featured, Research Infrastructure Improvement, Scientist Spotlight, The Neuron – West Virginia Journal of Science and Research

For Dr. Michael Norton, the path is important.  Knowing from an early age that he would be a chemist, Dr. Norton thrived on the personal attention he received during his schooling. That’s a path the professor of Chemistry at Marshall University and co-director of the Molecular and Biological Imaging Center continues with his students. 

“There is hardly anything better than teaching undergraduates,” he says.

Read more about Dr. Mike Norton and his teaching and research in the Spring 2012 edition of the Neuron.



Scientist Spotlight: Dr. Cerasela Zoica Dinu

Discoveries, featured, Nanotechnology, NSF Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) 2010-2015, Scientist Spotlight, The Neuron – West Virginia Journal of Science and Research

Dr. Cerasela Zoica Dinu is making a difference in education and research in West Virginia.

 She is assistant professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering and Mineral Resources at West Virginia University. 

 As a teacher, Dr. Dinu was named innovative engineering educator in 2011 by the National Academy of Engineering. As a researcher, she was honored by her College as Researcher of the Year.

 Among her research topics, Dr. Dinu is leading a study to develop an environmentally friendly coating that could prevent the growth of germs on common surfaces like countertops and walls. If successful, such a coating imbedded in paint could ultimately prevent infections, diseases and death and save society countless dollars on medical care.

 Joining WVU in 2009, the Romanian native enjoys the people of West Virginia. “People are different; the same for students. I find them open, I find them actively engaged. They want to do research with me from their freshman year.”

 Read more about Dr. Dinu and her research in the Fall/Winter 2011 issue of the Neuron.