Quick Takes

Nullifying Noroviruses

Remember that last case of food poisoning? Odds are it was caused by a nasty pathogen called a norovirus. But if food scientist Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus has her way, noroviruses won't be on the menu much longer. Jaykus is leading a team of researchers, backed by a $25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, studying what makes noroviruses tick and how to control them. The grant is USDA’s largest ever for food safety.

Human noroviruses are the most common cause of food–borne disease, responsible for more than five million cases in the United States each year. Noroviruses spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, and by touching contaminated surfaces. Molluscan shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels; fresh produce; and foods that are extensively handled just prior to consumption are at greatest risk for contamination.

The viruses are difficult to study because they cannot be cultivated outside of the human body, few commercial diagnostic tests are available in the United States and only a few scientists are trained specifically in food virology, Jaykus said.

“We anticipate this project will result in enhanced understanding, surveillance and control of food-borne human noroviruses, with the ultimate goal of reducing the burden of food-borne disease,” she says.

Her group, the USDA–National Institute of Food and Agriculture Food Virology Collaborative, consists of a team of more than 30 collaborators from academia, industry and government.

NC State researchers involved in the project include Drs. Trevor Phister and David Green (food, bioprocessing and nutrition sciences), Orlin Velev (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Ben Chapman (4H and youth development), Otto Simmons (biological and agricultural engineering), and Chris Gunter (horticultural science).

Nature Research Center
Opens in April

Expect a collective gasp of “Wow” come April as the new Nature Research Center opens at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences.

The centerpiece of the 80,000–squarefoot center is the SECU Daily Planet, an immersive, three–story, high–definition, multimedia space. Scientists will use a 40–foot screen to discuss the research behind science news and related societal impacts. Presentations will be broadcast, streamed live and/or archived online for use in schools across the state and beyond.

Dr. Meg Lowman, recognized for her pioneering research in forest canopy ecology, holds a joint appointment as the center’s director and as a research professor in the NC State College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences. Her dual role reflects the center’s goals: to bring researchers and their work into the public eye and to help demystify the research process.

Lowman, aka “Canopy Meg,” writes a regular column for the Science & Technology section of The News & Observer in Raleigh and The Charlotte Observer. Learn more about the center at www.naturalsciences.org.

Reaching Across N.C.

A new online resource helps government officials looking for topic experts, entrepreneurs looking for solutions, and researchers looking for multidisciplinary collaborators.

REACH NC — officially the Research, Engagement and Capabilities Hub of North Carolina — is a new statewide, comprehensive portal. It analyzes existing academic databases to characterize expertise and reveal connections of co–authors and co–investigators. Using that information, individuals and groups can easily form teams to solve problems and compete for research funding.

The program began in 2009 as a collaboration of the University of North Carolina General Administration, NC State University, UNC–Chapel Hill, and the Renaissance Computing Institute. Duke University joined in 2010.

“Profiles are based on publications and grants, but they reveal networks of existing research collaborations and relationships between concepts,” notes Dr. Liana Fryer, NC State's lead in the project. “This is invaluable because society's most challenging issues can only be addressed by integrating the expertise and perspectives of varied disciplines. REACH NC bridges previous boundaries.”

The REACH NC team anticipates adding experts across the UNC system. For more information, visit www.reachnc.org

Gene Breakpoints
Linked to Cancer

NC State researchers have uncovered evidence that evolutionary “breakpoints” on canine chromosomes are also associated with canine cancer. Mapping these fragile regions in dogs may also have implications for the discovery and treatment of human cancers. The researchers' findings appeared in Chromosome Research.

When new species evolve, they leave genetic evidence behind in the form of “breakpoint regions,” sites where chromosomes broke during speciation (when new species of dogs developed). Dr. Matthew Breen, professor of genomics, and graduate student Shannon Becker looked at the breakpoint regions that occurred when the canid species differentiated during evolution, comparing the genomes of several wild canine species with those of the domestic dog. By overlaying the genomes, they found shared breakpoints among 11 different canid species.

“The interesting thing about the breakpoint areas in the canid chromosome is that they are the same regions that we have shown to be associated with chromosome breaks in spontaneously occurring cancers,” Breen says. “It is possible that the rearrangement of chromosomes that occurred when these species diverged from one another created unstable regions on the chromosome, and that is why these regions are associated with cancer.”

Breen says the ongoing research could lead to new tools for cancer detection and treatment.

Hovering Parents Hamper Kids

Parental safety concerns may prevent children from getting good exercise, according to a new study that examined how families use neighborhood parks. Results suggest that children who were monitored too closely by hovering “helicopter” parents were less likely to engage in higher levels of physical activity.

“It's a Catch-22 for today’s parents, unfortunately. Many parents are worried about the safety of their children, so they tend to hover,” says Dr. Jason Bocarro, associate professor of parks, recreation and tourism management at NC State. “The worry is — especially as we are seeing childhood obesity become an epidemic in this country — hovering is keeping kids from running around and playing with their friends and neighbors, and instead maybe sitting in front of the computer or television.”

Based on these findings, researchers including Robin Moore, professor of landscape architecture and director of the Natural Learning Initiative at NC State, hope to provide guidance to park designers and recreation officials developing and updating sites.

ATOMS of Education

Increasing the excitement of inquiry in elementary classrooms may hold a key to increasing nation's number of new scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

NC State is gauging whether its elementary teacher preparation model — which provides more rigorous undergraduate coursework in science and math disciplines than other elementary teacher preparation programs — can be combined with more careful tracking of first– and second–year teachers to positively impact student achievement.

Project ATOMS, short for Accomplished Elementary Teachers of Mathematics and Science, is fueled by $3.1 million from the National Science Foundation. The goal is to improve teachers’ ability to provide high-quality science and mathematics education for all students.

Dr. Ellen McIntyre, head of the elementary education department at NC State and the primary investigator for the grant, says the study shines a spotlight on teacher–education programs.

“Elementary school teachers need to have stronger knowledge of science and math subjects and need to be better able to successfully teach this content to young children and get them excited about science and math,” she notes.

Fostering Success

Children in foster care often face disruptions that hurt their educational performance. NC State researchers are using a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Children's Bureau to launch a project to improve educational stability for foster children nationally and boost their overall chances of success.

The project, Fostering Youth Educational Stability, or FosteringYES , will work with groups in Cumberland County, N.C., including social service agencies, public schools, the court system, mental health services and community nonprofit organizations. FosteringYES is a joint endeavor of NC State's Center for Family and Community Engagement and Department of Social Work.

“Currently, in Cumberland County as in most communities, there can be administrative delays in admitting a child to a new school when that child enters foster care. We're hoping to devise ways of overcoming these administrative hurdles,” says Dr. Joan Pennell, a professor of social work.

The project could help focus development of new policies and procedures. ”We're hoping to create a blueprint that can be used throughout North Carolina and nationally,“ Pennell says.

 

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Dr. Lee-Ann Jaykus is leading a broad research effort to increase food safety.

The Nature Research Center at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences will include exhibits such as this whale skeleton, along with laboratories and The Daily Planet multimedia center.