INSPIRE: Trinity STEM Scholars’ Research

INSPIRE: Trinity STEM Scholars’ Research

The INSPIRE Journal published the research of four Trinity Washington University STEM Scholars who earned top honors at the 2021 NASA D.C. Space Grant Consortium Student Research Competition, which was held in March 2021. The Spring 2021 issue of the INSPIRE Journal also featured reflections on the research experience of the Trinity students and recent graduates.

Barachel Butler ’21 was awarded first place for her research, “Annotation and Homology Modeling of the Multidrug Transport Protein P-glycoprotein (ABCB1) of Equus caballus.”

Three Trinity students and recent graduates earned honorable mention for their research:

  • Jaylan Pratt ’20, forensic science major: “Effect of Formaldehyde Based Embalming Fluids on the Chemical Composition of Drugs.”
  • Yasmin Marcia ’22: “Wild Chimpanzees Correlations in Dominance Rank, Infanticide Risk, and Maternal Social Strategies.”
  • Corryn Hicks ’21: “CURE Plan – Study of Endocrine Disrupting and Asthma-Associated Chemicals Found in Natural Hair Care Products.”

The competition was sponsored by the NASA District of Columbia Space Grant Consortium (DCSGC), one of 52 members of a national network known as “Space Grant,” which encompasses more than 1,200 universities and organizations in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The Space Grant Program is administered by NASA. The DCSGC offers D.C. university students opportunities for internships, fellowships and scholarships, as well as research opportunities – part of NASA’s overarching mission to increase public knowledge, support educators, and attract and retain students to pursue STEM advanced degrees and careers. This year, students presented their research posters remotely by making videos and posting them on YouTube. “We are very proud and highly impressed at both the caliber and depth of research our Space Grant-supported students are conducting,” says Eric Day, Program Manager of the DCSGC.

The INSPIRE Project is an affiliate member of the D.C. Space Grant Consortium which helps to fund many of INSPIRE’s educational STEM programs. Program Manager Eva Kloostra served as a judge for the competition and was so impressed that INSPIRE invited students who competed to submit their research for publication in The INSPIRE Journal.

View selected pages of The INSPIRE Journal featuring all of the D.C. honorees, including their poster presentations.

View the complete journal here.

Below are the outstanding research projects and reflections by Trinity students and recent graduates featured in The INSPIRE Journal.

FIRST PLACE: Annotation and Homology Modeling of the Multidrug Transport Protein P-glycoprotein (ABCB1) of Equus caballus. Barachel Butler, Trinity Washington University (Junior)

As a forensic science student, it was indeed serendipitous to embark on a project that was slightly outside of my prior experience and interest. With COVID-19, the ability to complete the NASA Grant internship was in question, but thanks to the creativity and resourcefulness of my mentor, Dr. Karobi Moitra, and that of the other professors and advisors involved, I and my fellow interns were able to do our own research completely virtually. So when my project turned out to be about proteomics and bioinformatics rather than forensic DNA analysis, I had to learn and adapt quickly. That was in the summer of 2020, almost one year ago. This year, I am able to enjoy the success of my research, which was to build a novel model of horse P-glycoprotein using homology modeling through SWISS Model software. The model was based on the BLAST template 6c0v.1.A., a human P-glycoprotein that was similar enough in structure to base a model of the horse P-glycoprotein on. This template had the highest QMEAN score of -2.54 and other favorable factors. The quality evaluations showed that the model selected was accurate for horse P-glycoprotein, but there were some unresolved factors due to 91.23% of sequence alignment with the template and a sequence similarity of 58%. There existed a disorganized loop of discrepancies in the sequence (Q625-V691) in the initial template-derived model.

The energy minimization, which uses the online program Chiron to produce a more stable model, resolved some of the distortion of the model. Misalignment of the amino acid sequence will cause disorganized loops in the model, such as the loop in the original model (Q625-V691), however, since this structure was also unresolved in the CryoEM template, it was hypothesized that this loop could be a highly flexible region. The clash ratio of 0.0087654 indicated that there are few clashes (discrepancies) between the structure of the model and the actual protein sequence of P-glycoprotein. The data supports the final structure of the model as being the most accurate. In the future, I hope for the expansion of this research to include the expression of the protein through CryoEM to validate its modeled structure and to explore inhibitory strategies for equine P-glycoprotein such that veterinary pharmaceuticals could effectively be administered to horses. Increasing the understanding of the function of P-glycoprotein in more species by homology modeling and CryoEM is another important endeavor that can further contribute to proteomic literature.

I was so thankful for the opportunities to present my research in both the ABRCMS Virtual Research Fair, as well as in the NASA Space Grant Consortium presentation contest, in which I won first place. I am currently working on an article that I hope to publish in an undergraduate research journal, and I look forward to continuing my education after graduating from Trinity Washington University. Thank you INSPIRE for allowing me to share my experience! View Barachel Butler’s  presentation.


Effect of Formaldehyde Based Embalming Fluids on the Chemical Composition of Drugs
Jaylan Pratt, Trinity Washington University (Graduate)

Jaylan Pratt

I am a proud graduate of Trinity Washington University. I graduated with a degree in Forensic Science with a minor in Forensic Psychology in 2020. I had the privilege of conducting research through the National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA) DC Space Grant Internship program from summer 2020 to spring 2021.

My research mentor Dr. Anette Casiano-Negroni and I began researching the effects of formaldehyde based embalming fluids on the chemical composition of drugs. Formaldehyde is the primary preservative used in modern day embalming fluids. Formaldehyde-based embalming fluids can affect different drugs and cause chemical reactions. Our research aims to develop a method to characterize the chemical composition and concentration of the parent drug and its metabolites in the presence of formaldehyde. We conducted a literature data analysis of 122 drugs and other substances ranging from opioids, illicit drugs, antidepressants, pesticides, among others that have been shown to be involve in foul play. Our study revealed that 51 of these 122 substances have been studied in formaldehyde solutions at different pH and temperature conditions using High Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) or Gas Chromatography-Mass Spectrometry (GCMS). Of these 51 drugs, 78% lost stability and the drugs within the same category had similar decomposition rates. Our preliminary results underscore that formaldehyde-embalming fluids affects the stability and chemical compositions of different drugs, making post-embalming identification difficult. We are currently moving towards finishing our experimental methodology to characterize the drugs and any metabolites resulting from the decomposition reactions.

Today, I am a thriving researcher in part due to my experience with this internship. I have gained a new appreciation for chemistry, along with an in-depth understanding of postmortem forensic toxicology. My sincere gratitude to the NASA DC Space Grant Consortium for the financial support and thanks to Trinity Washington University and my mentors Dr. Anette Casiano-Negroni, Dr. Shizuka Hsieh, and Dr. Patrice Moss for your guidance and leadership. Thank you, INSPIRE! View Jaylan Pratt’s presentation.

Wild Chimpanzees Correlations in Dominance Rank, Infanticide Risk, and Maternal Social Strategies
Yasmin Marcia, Trinity Washington University (Sophomore)

Yasmin del Carmen Garcia

I am a sophomore at Trinity Washington University. For the summer of 2020, I had the amazing opportunity to do a 6-week paid internship funded by the NASA D.C. Space Grant. Working alongside my mentor Dr. Wellens and my partner Xena Portillo was such a great experience. We collaborated with researchers at The George Washington University to examine the female social relationships in wild chimpanzees. The data we worked with was collected from 25 years at Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Working with this data was especially enjoyable because Jane Goodall, a famous female STEM researcher, started and worked in-person at this same site. We even got to look at data from the same chimpanzees she knew and followed! Through this experience, I was able to get hands on practice working through the entire scientific process — we came up with a question, formed hypotheses and predictions, and used data analytic techniques to answer our questions. In the 6-weeks of trying to complete our research poster, I felt that I was improving my leadership and communication skills making my experience unforgettable. I got to share my ideas with other scientists and just being able to talk about our research gave me more insight into science research and also gave me new confidence. I always knew internship opportunities were a great opportunity to explore and discover new research and I am thankful I got to share it for the first time with the NASA DC Space Grant. Thank you INSPIRE, for sharing my 6-week internship journey which was incredible. View Yasmin Marcia’s presentation. 

CURE Plan – Study of Endocrine Disrupting and Asthma-Associated Chemicals Found in Natural Hair Care Products
Corryn Hicks, Trinity Washington University

Corryn Hicks

I am majoring in biology as well as minoring in chemistry. I am currently finishing up my senior year at Trinity Washington University. My research focused on endocrine disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals, often found in natural hair care products. My project was to begin designing a CURE (courseembedded undergraduate research experience) plan for organic chemistry, in which students will test hair care products specifically marketed towards women of color, in order to determine whether they contain endocrine disrupting chemicals and other harmful chemicals not listed on the ingredients list. I started my research by reviewing the literature and creating an annotated bibliography of previous studies that have detected chemicals in hair care products that are either endocrine-disrupting or associated with asthma. The CURE will enable undergraduate women to contribute additional knowledge about the chemical content of hair-care products, with a focus on those used specifically by Black and Latino women. We developed a CURE outline that incorporates activities to learn about the potential hazards in hair products and to practice experimental techniques traditionally taught in the first semester of organic chemistry, including spectroscopy and chemical separation methods. We decided to focus initially on one type of hair product, hair lotion, in which we selected four different brands. To prepare for initial experiments, I generated a list of chemicals that we would expect to find in the selected hair lotions. The plan also includes a student survey, before and after conducting the CURE in order to get a better understanding as to how they feel about Organic Chemistry and also in hopes to get them excited about this CURE. I would also like to shine light on the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS), which I had the pleasure in attending and presenting my research, I was awarded a Presentation Award in the Chemistry category.

This was a very meaningful experience within my six weeks of undergraduate research supported by the DC Space Grant Consortium. This experience has helped me to gain a better perspective about research. I am so thankful to be able to experience this amazing opportunity, in which has brought tremendous value to my life as a student in the STEM field. I also want to thank my mentors at Trinity for making this a great experience as well. Without their kindness, knowledge, and devotion this research would not had been as impactful as it is to me now. In the near future, I hope to conduct further research on natural hair care products. View Corryn Hicks’ presentation.

Media Contact: Ann Pauley, 

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