Oxidation processes basis of interdisciplinary research, graduate training


(Blacksburg, Va.) – Virginia Tech chemists are using the oxidation process to create polymers from fats. Virginia Tech food scientists try to block or slow oxidation to prevent foods from spoiling. Researchers in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and veterinary medicine are interested in how oxidative stress is related to obesity and Type II diabetes in animals and humans. These scientists are not working independently. They have been collaborating for four years in a program they call Macromolecular Interfaces with Life Sciences (MILES).

"The scientific scope is broad, crossing traditional boundaries of science from the oxidation of fats to understanding disease mechanisms," says chemistry professor Tim Long. "We focus a wide range of expertise on the study of free radical and oxidative processes."

Susan Duncan, associate professor of food science and technology, Long, and Craig Thatcher, large animal clinical sciences professor and department head in the Virginia–Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, and their students have been collaborating in order to determine the biochemical pathways of the oxidation process and how the process can be used to protect food and health and create new technologies. The chemistry-biology collaboration offers the potential for the development of antioxidant delivery systems, including antioxidant-enriched foods, novel biocompatible synthetic polymer delivery systems, and new natural and synthetic macromolecular antioxidants.

"We are interested in the oxidation of triglycerides, such as soybean oil, and evaluating the potential of the products of that oxidation for high performance polymers," says Long. "This really gives us an opportunity to develop technologies that are not petroleum based."

Food science graduate student Heather Woodson is determining which light waves cause oxidation in such packaged foods as milk, and student Janet Webster is evaluating polymer systems that will block those light waves. Duncan and the students have been visiting with a Virginia polymers company about that research.

Duncan and Long are exploring controlled release of antioxidants by polymeric films.

Thatcher and his colleagues in veterinary medicine are also interested in nutrition and in the roles of free radicals in disease, and will help the MILES researchers understand the biomedical implications and evaluate the success of their discoveries with animal models.

Janet Rankin and Mike Houston, professors of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and Korinn Saker, assistant professor of large animal clinical sciences, are interested in how oxidative stress is related to obesity and Type II diabetes in animals and humans. Nutritional strategies will be developed to modify oxidative stress.

"We are looking at interactive systems," says Duncan. For example, Ed Smith, associate professor of animal and poultry sciences, is studying the genetics of a bird that has a long life. "He's looking at oxidative stresses to see what is different from short-lived birds. He will provide genetic information."

Now, oxidation is the basis of an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech. Duncan, Long, and Thatcher have received a five-year, $3.2 million National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) award for the MILES program.

The NSF IGERT program supports interdisciplinary training of PhD scientists and engineers. The MILES IGERT involves 15 core faculty members in four of Virginia Tech's colleges – Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Science, and Veterinary Medicine – to provide cooperative research, interdisciplinary education, and outreach experiences to 36 students. Other departments, institutes, universities, and national laboratories are affiliated with the program as research collaborators and to provide internships, for instance. Researchers affiliated with the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine will provide a bridge to human health.

"The program bridges the gap between traditional macromolecular science and biological disciplines," says Long. "It changes the way we do education." Although the first class of Ph.D. students for the MILES training and certification program will not start until Fall 2004, students are already crossing disciplines. "I have a human, nutrition, foods and exercise major in my chemistry group," says Long. "That's the future of education."

The MILES IGERT is the third IGERT award at Virginia Tech since 2000, when an IGERT in Advanced Networking (www.irean.vt.edu/home.html) was awarded, which allows students from computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, industrial and systems engineering, and business to work with technology developers and advanced users from industry and government. In 2001, an IGERT in Macromolecular Science and Infrastructure Engineering (www.macro.vt.edu) was awarded that emphasizes fundamental and emerging technological in macromolecular science and engineering.

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