News - Students' Discovery Draws Interest From International Scientific Community

Students' Discovery Draws Interest From International Scientific Community

By Carla Morris

The biology lab tucked away in Snyder Hall of Science on the Greenville College campus may look unremarkable, but looks can be deceiving. There, students have discovered a potential key to relief for sufferers of neurological disorders. Their work has drawn international attention.

Juliana Phillips ’17, Kellie Steele ’18 and Michael Shawn Mengarelli ’15 recount their recent discovery in The Journal of Experimental Neuroscience, a peer reviewed international journal. Assistant Professor of Biology Bwarenaba Kautu supervised their work with help from Eric Nord, also assistant professor of biology.

Five international experts in the field of neuroscience reviewed the team's submission before the paper was accepted for publication late in March.

What's in This Drink?

The students’ exploration centers on “kava,” a sedative beverage derived from a plantKava Root root common in the South Pacific Islands. For centuries, Pacific Islanders have used the drink for ceremonial and medicinal purposes.

“What underlies its sedative, calming and therapeutic effects is not fully understood,” explains Kautu, a native of the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Thanks to the student researchers, however, we know more about it now.

The trio discovered that chemicals in kava seem to affect the transmission of acetylcholine, an important neurotransmitter that is critical to vital functions like cognition, learning and memory, movement, muscle contractions and heartbeat.

“Many psychiatric and neurological disorders have been linked to problems with the transmission of acetylcholine,” Kautu explains. “To the best of my knowledge, our research team is most likely the first in the world to show the link between kava metabolism and acetylcholine transmission in an intact living eukaryotic nervous system (neuromuscular junction). These students are instrumental in this discovery.”

Significant Discovery, Proud Mentor

Kautu (pictured at right) introduced the project several years ago. Mengarelli, now studying at KirksvilleBwarenaba-Lab College of Osteopathic Medicine, started working on it as a junior; Steele and Phillips initially engaged in the research as freshmen.  

“They chose to join this research because they wanted to be a part of something special,” recalls Kautu. “They spent nights and weekends conducting experiments in the laboratory.”

The students didn’t know then just how special their work would become. Kautu frames its importance this way: “Science is about discovery. These students are the first in the world to make this discovery.”

He adds that he thanks God for the dedicated student researchers. “I am very proud of what they have accomplished so far in their lives.”

Experiences That Contribute to Impressive Student Resumes

As underclassmen, Steele and Phillips presented their research at an international conference of the prestigious American Society for Cell Biology in San Diego, CA.

student researchers Steele-PhillipsLast year, the pair (pictured at left) became the first students in the history of GC’s biology department to win recognition from the Illinois State Academy of Science for outstanding oral and poster research presentations.

Phillips drew recognition from the Academy again this year. Upon invitation, she also presented the team’s research at the Academy’s annual conference April 1. This summer, she will begin a PhD program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine-Anschutz under a fellowship that includes a full tuition waiver, full health insurance coverage and an annual stipend of more than $30,000.

“Juliana’s research publication played a big role in getting this fellowship,” says Kautu.

Kautu will visit the United Kingdom this summer and work with scientists at the University of Cambridge to advance the research initiated at GC. The two-month venture funded by the University of Cambridge Corpus Christi College Visiting Fellowship may pave the way for ongoing research collaboration between Kautu’s team at GC and Cambridge scientists.

Embracing the Joy of Meaningful Discovery

Delivering powerful learning experiences to undergraduates is part of Greenville College’s strategic plan.

“We want current and future students of Greenville College to be excited about the process of scientific discovery,” says Kautu. “This is one way we can change the world for the better.”

Kautu and his team thank the Department of Biology and Science Division for supporting their research. In particular they thank Chair of the Biology Department Daryl Cox, Director of STEM Programs Darrell Iler and donors who support student research through the Catalyst Fund.

Learn More About Student Research at GC

Quantum Leap
Record Number of Students in Summer Science Research
Extending Our Heritage of Scientific Exploration and Innovation
GC Student and Faculty Research Published in The Journal of Chemical Education
Kirk Pearce Awarded President’s Citation
Elle Shaw Claims Top Honors at Commencement

Greenville College believes that God created each student to uniquely shape the world. Support student research today by clicking here to give.

Together Inspired-sm

This story was published on April 13, 2017

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