Perspectives Online

A Dancer's Enthusiasm
The Scholar Entrepeneur
Year of the Snake
Sweet and Healthy
Ducking Avian Flu

At the May 13 N.C. State University commencement exercises, 3,881 degrees were conferred on 3,611 graduating students. This year, as every year, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences contributed its share of outstanding students to the senior class. In the weeks before exams and commencement, Perspectives caught up with a few exceptional seniors.

These students are biological sciences major, Mathews Medal winner and Park Scholar Brice Nielsen; National Institutes of Health Undergraduate Scholar, triple degree candidate and business owner Louisha Barnette; and senior Undergraduate Research Symposium participants Kevin Messenger, Davon Townsend and Joseph Mazzawi.

A Dancer's Enthusiasm

By Terri Leith

Brice Nielsen, who plans to attend medical school, chaired the 2006 N.C. State dance marathon that raised funds in support of the North Carolina Children's Hospital.
Photo by Daniel Kim
An annual dance marathon. Shag dance night. Golf tournaments. The Krispy Kreme challenge.

A look at some of the highlights of Brice Nielsen's undergraduate career could lead one to surmise, "This girl had a great time!"

Indeed she did, but those particular events were among the many fund-raising activities of the Park Scholar and Caldwell Fellow who graduated in May with a 4.0 GPA in biological sciences from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

In fact, her many service endeavors earned her an inaugural Mathews Medal, a newly established annual award presented by the N.C. State University Alumni Association Student Ambassadors. Nielsen was one of four graduating seniors who received the award on Founders Day in recognition of outstanding service and leadership to promote and benefit the university.

"It's really special. It's nice to be recognized for something you'd do naturally - doing things for your school," says Nielsen of the Mathews Medal. "I just wish there were more of these awards - so many people do great things."

Nielsen herself has done quite a lot.

She has served as a teaching assistant in genetics for Dr. Wendell McKenzie, as director of implementation in NCSU student government and as vice president of Phi Kappa Phi. She spent a month of the summer after her freshman year in England in the Oxford University program. After her sophomore year, she held a summer internship with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Her junior year, there were six months of study abroad in Ecuador. During spring break 2006, she traveled to Belize and worked in a howler monkey sanctuary.

And in August she'll begin a 10-month volunteer stint with AmeriCorps - in Washington, D.C., in the City Year program, assisting with youth and issues specific to that city. Nielsen anticipates that she'll be teaching AIDS and HIV prevention in inner city schools.

However, what is perhaps most remarkable about Nielsen is her enthusiasm. "I love N.C. State. I love most everything I do," she says.

Noting her favorite N.C. State things, Nielsen begins with, "I've loved participating in Caldwell-sponsored activities, including sea kayaking off the coast of Maine, mountain climbing in Colorado and touring the Galapagos Islands."

She's equally enthusiastic about her class work, citing Genetics 411, principles of genetics, with Dr. Ted Emigh, as her all-time favorite course. "It was the most well-organized course I've ever taken. The graduate students were well-prepared, and I learned more about genetics than ever before," says Nielsen, who aspires eventually to attend medical school and become a cardiologist or another specialist and go into public health work.

Nielsen is from Jacksonville, so it's no surprise that this eastern North Carolina girl enjoys the beach dance that's the specialty of folks from down east: "I like to travel," Nielsen says, "but I love to shag dance."

Another favorite N.C. State course was her social dance P.E. class with coach Gary Wall. "We learned five different dances - waltz, mambo, cha-cha, fox trot and shag. Shag was the last and my favorite," she says. "Now I feel true to my roots."

Whether it was being true to her roots or her altruistic instincts, it was certainly fitting that Nielsen was the 2006 overall chairman of N.C. State's annual dance-marathon fund raiser. "Dance marathon has been a big part of my four years here," says Nielsen. "The first marathon was when I was a freshman, and I got involved right from the start and stuck with it. Over the four years I've been here we've raised over $40,000 for the North Carolina Children's Hospital, so it's been really great."

The marathon, a 24-hour annual charity event established by the Park Scholars, invites participation by students and faculty. Leading up to that event, Nielsen and her marathon committee also stage smaller fund raisers during the fall, with all monies added to those raised in the culminating February marathon.

Among these fund raisers are shag dance nights and poker tournaments. "I did a golf tournament in my hometown this year," Nielsen says. "And our biggest new thing is the Krispy Kreme challenge - a benefit run, where runners meet at the Bell Tower, run two miles to the Krispy Kreme, eat a dozen donuts and run two miles back. This raised $1,000, but it will be a lot bigger next year."

Next year, of course, will find Nielsen in Washington, D.C., doing her AmeriCorps volunteer work, which starts August 28. Well ahead of that, on the morning after May commencement, she flew to Colorado with the Caldwell Fellows on a wilderness trip.

The summer between Colorado and D.C. will be an unusual one for her: She'll not be doing an internship, not be studying and not volunteering abroad - "my first summer home!" she says. But Nielsen, of course, has a plan: "I'll get a job - hopefully at a doctor's office."

With maybe a little dancing on weekends.

The Scholar Entrepeneur

By Natalie Hampton

At the end of her senior year, triple-degree winner Louisha Barnette opened a business devoted to environmentally friendly residential and commercial cleaning.
Photo by Becky Kirkland
Louisha Barnette of Durham graduated in May from N.C. State University with three bachelor's degrees, experience working in three foreign countries (Honduras, Ghana, Tanzania) and a job in hand with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. She says her undergraduate experience shows the many opportunities available to N.C. State students if a student is willing to take them.

Barnette earned bachelor's degrees in biochemistry, microbiology and interdisciplinary studies, with a concentration in African-American History and Community. She was a member of Phi Kappa Phi honor society and graduated with a 3.73 grade point average.

During her sophomore year, she worked in Honduras with Habitat for Humanity as part of N.C. State's "Alternative Spring Break" program. Instead of spending their March break week lying on a beach, the group of N.C. State students worked 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. building a house.

"It's a way to help another family in need," she said. "It's a wonderful program."

The spring break experience taught her to appreciate many of the things Americans take for granted, like hot water, indoor plumbing and a bathroom.

During her junior year, Barnette participated in a study abroad program in the West African country of Ghana. She visited five cities, where she studied their history and culture. She also visited some of Ghana's elementary schools.

"I fell in love with the country and the people," Barnette said. "It's a beautiful country."

The following summer, she returned to Africa, this time to the East Coast nation of Tanzania. She spent seven weeks in an interdisciplinary studies program in the city of Arusha, teaching West African dance at a community center and volunteering at a prenatal health clinic.

West African dance was a skill she learned while a student at Durham's Hillside High School. As a Hillside student, she also learned a love of travel, visiting Peru and Brazil with the school's drama club.

All the travel opportunities she participated in at N.C. State were funded through scholarships. "N.C. State has so many opportunities," she said, adding that students should "take advantage of all N.C. State has to offer to become the best [they] can be."

Her experience at the community center has helped shape her future plans. She is interested in understanding how African-Americans' history shapes their identity. She wants to create a community center program where youth can gain confidence and ambition by using their history to better understand themselves.

From her 10th grade year at Hillside High through her sophomore year at N.C. State, Barnette did research with several different National Institutes of Health programs, both in the Research Triangle Park and in Bethesda, Md. The experience led to her job with NIEHS after graduation.

At N.C. State, she also participated in the Scholars Program, the Caldwell Scholars and was a residence adviser in Wood Residence Hall. Being a busy college student taught her to manage her time well, she said.

At the end of her senior year, Barnette opened a business - All Natural Cleaning - devoted to environmentally friendly residential and commercial cleaning. The business experience is challenging and exciting, she said. Her Web site is

"I know it's helpful," she said, "and it will make a difference in people's health."

Year of the Snake

By Terri Leith

Kevin Messenger, at the April research symposium.
Photo by Daniel Kim
No sooner had Kevin R. Messenger's bachelor's degree in zoology been awarded in May than he took off for China. There in the Hubei Province, about halfway between Beijing and Hong Kong, he's spending four months doing a survey of the snakes in the region. "They want to know what lives there," Messenger says. "I'm just the second westerner allowed there, chosen out of a nationwide application process." How did a fresh-out-of-N.C. State kid qualify to be so chosen?

This young zoologist has more than seven years' research experience in finding and analyzing snake activity.

A senior essay project begun when Messenger was a student at Charlotte's Butler High School led to his association with Dr. Harold Heatwole, professor of zoology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and to his enrollment in the College. By Messenger's N.C. State senior year, his research had culminated in his project entry in the 2006 Undergraduate Research Symposium: "The Biodiversity and Movement of Snakes in the Carolina Sandhills National Refuge."

Kevin Messsenger surveying snakes in China before returning to start graduate school.
Photo Courtesy Kevin Messenger
The purpose of the study was to examine the factors that influence snake behavior and movement. His goal was to be able to predict snake movement based on factors such as moon phase, time of year and temperature and to help make scientists' herpetological surveys more efficient. Additionally the study of snake population dynamics and movement patterns could give land managers guidance for forest management.

In the process, Messenger found that temperature is the most important factor in determining snake activity, but the phase and position of the moon rank next in significance.

The position of the moon is particularly important, he says. "When there's a small or no moon, snakes have no pressure to move, because they have the entire night to do whatever they want. But with larger moons, they actually have to plan their activity around the moon."

Pictured on his poster presentation is an old friend - a cottonmouth he's caught 26 times. "I call her 'No. 43,'" he says. "I've been catching her since 2003, when she was 16 inches long."

The fact that he keeps finding her tells him that her species "has a small home range and high site fidelity, as long as food is there," he says.

That's among the information derived between March 2002 and November 2005, when he observed nearly 2,000 snakes and permanently marked more than 700. It's an ongoing study, but already Messenger understands what elements need to be present for movements to occur, and he can predict the activity of specific species of snakes based on time of year, temperatures and moon phase.

He certainly knows how to get up close to his slithering subjects. There have been two main portions of his study - snakes found on the road and along a stream. One August night in 2004, he sighted 21 snakes on an eight-mile stretch of road and was continually catching snakes from 7:50 p.m. till 4:20 a.m. These included pygmy rattlesnakes (in South Carolina; they're endangered in North Carolina), banded water snakes, corn snakes, cottonmouths, scarlet snakes, scarlet king snakes and garter snakes.

Now in 2006, officially the Chinese year of the dog, it's still the year of the snake for Messenger. He reported in June from the Hubei Province that he is "still healthy, though with lots of new cuts, bruises, bites and sore muscles. But it just makes it that much more fun!"

The China leg of the project will be part of his upcoming master's degree pursuit, and that will be combined with his moon-phase research as he ultimately works toward his Ph.D. "I've compiled a lot of data," he says. "If someone wants to know the best time to find a species, I'm hoping to provide guidelines."

Sweet and Healthy

By Terri Leith

Biochemistry major Davon Townsend worked with food scientist Dr. Leon Boyd in studying the antioxidants in blueberry cultivars.
Photo by Daniel Kim
The power of connotation rings peculiarly with each of us. Take the blueberry, for instance. For some it may conjure up thoughts of muffins or pancake syrup.

But when Davon Townsend looks at the fruit she sees "the implications for human health and the biochemical aspects of it."

That's because for Townsend, a May 2006 CALS graduate in biochemistry from Fairmont, the blueberry is the subject of her Undergraduate Research Symposium project. Working with her mentor, Dr. Leon Boyd of the Department of Food Science, Townsend studied the Effects of Processing on the Sensory and Antioxidant Properties of Blueberries from Selected North Carolina Cultivars.

Her project - a study of the effect of heat processing on the flavor and antioxidants in juice from blueberry cultivars - won the award of Honorable Mention in Applied Sciences (Crop, Poultry, Animal and Horticultural Sciences) at the symposium.

"Fruits and vegetables are natural sources of antioxidants," Townsend said in her project abstract. "And blueberries contain one of the highest antioxidant activities of any berry or domesticated fruit. There is an intensifying interest in the possible health benefits of blueberries and blueberry products because of their high antioxidant capacity, which is strongly related to their anthocyanin and phenolic content."

Anthocyanins and phenols are among the antioxidants believed to protect the body against destructive free radicals. They act as scavengers of the free radicals, thereby preventing cellular and tissue damage that could lead to disease.

These healthful characteristics of the blueberry, Townsend said, "make it essential to develop strategies to optimize conditions to maintain high levels of antioxidants in these berries and design new technologies to preserve their natural values."

Using a single processing technique, the overall goal of her study was to compare antioxidant and sensory properties of five North Carolina-grown blueberry cultivars obtained from the 2004 harvest.

Pectin enzyme was added to the macerated blueberries to increase the juice yield; then the juices were pasteurized: "Our process was heating at 73 degrees C," said Townsend, "followed by rapid cooling, packaging and freezing."

Then followed a group of tests, including the total phenols test, the oxygen radical absorbance capacity tests and the total anthocyanins test on each juice to determine capacity to scavenge free radicals.

"I learned," Townsend said, "that heating shows an increase in overall antioxidants."

The phenols tests revealed that the pasteurization increased the phenolic activity in all but one of the cultivars, with the largest increase in the Powder Blue Cultivar. The anthocyanins test revealed an increase in the anthocyanin value for all five cultivars, with Powder Blue having the largest.

And the sensory results? Tastes were not only undiminished but quite competitively good, Townsend reports.

Townsend is pleased that results show her processing method can increase the healthful properties of a juice while maintaining its flavor. But the true significance, she says, is that her findings "may lead to advances for the food industry."

However, since her May graduation, it's another industry that's been on Townsend's mind. She hopes to pursue her doctorate in pharmacy and is in the process of applying to pharmacy school. Meanwhile she's working as a pharmacy technician for CVS Pharmacy.

"My ultimate career goal is to continue in the pharmaceutical industry and own an establishment that provides a link between drug research and patients," she said. "I want to keep people informed about the things that can ultimately change and perhaps save their lives."

Ducking Avian Flu

By Terri Leith

Joseph Mazzawi's research has continued beyond his symposium project into full-time summer lab work. He hopes to attend graduate school after a year of service with a campus ministry.
Photo by Daniel Kim
Joseph Mazzawi, Class of 2006 biological sciences major from Jacksonville, assesses disease resistance in ducks by use of genetic tools. What he learns could well add to the scientific arsenal that will be used in fighting the spread of avian flu.

Working with faculty mentors from the CALS Department of Poultry Science, Mazzawi outlined his procedure with his 2006 Undergraduate Research Symposium entry: "Development of Genetic Markers for the Duck, Using Existing Resources and the Isolation of Novel Duck Microsatellites."

The "existing resources" are the genome draft sequence and other recently developed genetic resources for the chicken, which, Mazzawi said, have provided the groundwork for studies of other avian species to build upon. "Since the completion of the chicken genome draft sequence in 2004, many groups have used information contained within the sequence to advance genome studies in related species," he said.

The "related species" Mazzawi studies is the duck, because "the specific interactions of humans and domestic fowl in Asia, particularly water fowl, provide a unique situation for zoonoses," he said. "The duck has previously been shown to be a route of transfer of influenza to humans."

Essentially, the purpose of his project was to develop, isolate and characterize repeats in the duck genome. These repeats, or microsatellites, will be used for comparative studies between the duck and chicken genome as well as association studies in the duck for important traits such as disease resistance.

Microsatellite is a term for a specific sequence of DNA base pairs, or nucleotides, located throughout the genome. Also called simple sequence repeats (SSR) or short tandem repeats (STR), they are inherited traits and have proven useful in forensic identification, population studies and diagnosis of human disease, particularly as markers for early cancer detection.

Or, as Mazzawi explained it, "Microsatellites are like genetic fingerprints that tell us which birds are resistant to certain diseases.

"Short sequence repeats can be used to genotype individual animals and form genetic linkage maps to identify associations between genetic and phenotypic characteristics," he said. "Using genetic markers, specific associations with traits of interest may allow the commercial duck industry to select for traits that are difficult to select using traditional methods - traits such as disease resistance and carcass traits."

The chicken genome sequence provided a foundation in evaluating the duck, for which genomic resources were limited. Mazzawi used 100 microsatellite markers developed for the chicken in evaluating commercial ducks (ducks processed for food).

Then, to aid in the creation of a genetic linkage map for the duck and for comparative studies with the chicken genome, Mazzawi said, "Additional microsatellites were developed specifically for the duck."

Using a procedure to specifically enrich and amplify short tandem repeats from duck DNA, he isolated and cloned a large number of potential microsatellites. After isolating microsatellites, the next step was to see if they were valid to use to determine disease resistance.

"With the recent outbreak of avian influenza and its transfer to humans, public concern is warranted. The potential is that we can use these microsatellites to help us identify which birds have specific disease traits. We test a bird that's resistant and one that isn't to determine if there is a genetic basis for resistance, so we can help identify lines of birds that are resistant to avian flu," he said.

The research continued even after Mazzawi's May graduation, as he spent most of the early summer weeks in the lab working on the project full time.

However, mid-summer would find him in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans doing volunteer clean-up work with a group from his church. Then the second half of his summer, he would work with high school students in N.C. State's Summer Camp in Biotechnology and Life Sciences (SCIBLS).

"For next year I am spending a year of service with the campus Catholic ministry and working as a peer ministry coordinator," Mazzawi said. Beyond that, the plan is probably to pursue a master's or a doctorate in genetics.

"Ultimately I hope to be working in a position where I can work directly with people to help motivate and encourage them," he said. "Whether that will be as a college science teacher or some other job - I guess only the future will tell."