Deanna Worrall, left, senior in nutritional science, and Caitlyn Coonts, senior in dietetics, will spend this semester analyzing the results of a study they conducted involving a diet substitution for the B vitamin, folate. The research was made possible by funds received by Kevin Schalinske, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, after he was named the 2017 Rossmann Manatt Faculty Development Award winner. Photo by Whitney Sager.

Rossmann Manatt awardee strives to provide research experiences to students

They say it’s never too early to begin gaining research experience, and that is just what Kevin Schalinske provides in his lab for not only graduate students, but undergraduates, as well.

Schalinske, professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, was selected as the 2017 Rossmann Manatt Faculty Development Award winner, representing the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.The award serves to recognize a tenured faculty member who has demonstrated exceptional level of creativity and productivity in scholarship, teaching and service and who shows great promise to continue such achievement. The award is made possible by an endowed gift from Jack and Marilyn Rossmann and Charles and Kathleen Manatt.

Schalinske has been employed at Iowa State University since 1999. Over the course of his career, he has taught a number of classes and conducted a variety of research related to nutritional sciences. He also is known for his mentorship of both undergraduate and graduate students, including being the national recipient of the Board on Human Sciences Undergraduate Research Mentor Award in 2012.

In a letter written in support of Schalinske’s nomination for the award, Erin Bergquist, senior clinician for the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, wrote, “He has incorporated creative mentorship to the graduate students, undergraduates, and other colleagues that interface with his professional responsibilities. For example, he often incorporates his research and knowledge gained from professional service into the curriculum of his classes, as well as entertaining undergraduates from those classes that seek research experience by working with Dr. Schalinske in his laboratory.”

“These experiences have been truly life-changing – students exposed to research in many cases decided to pursue graduate school both in Dr. Schalinske’s laboratory, other laboratories at ISU, and at other universities,” Bergquist went on to write.

As part of the Rossmann Manatt award, Schalinske was granted funds to use for research. He chose to have two undergraduate students continue the research some of his previous students conducted regarding the impact dietary changes have on preventing adverse effects owing to folate deficiency.

“It was a chance to resurrect a project and build off that data,” Schalinske said.

Caitlyn Coonts, senior in dietetics, and Deanna Worrall, senior in nutritional science, planned the entire study, from start to finish. The eight-week study began at the start of the fall 2017 semester and involved feeding rats a special diet to see how they would react to it. While some of the rats were given a diet that included folate (a B vitamin), others were fed a diet free from any folate. To serve as a replacement for the folate, the rats were given a whole egg-based diet, which contains choline, a partial substitute for folate. Samantha Jones, a senior graduate student in Schalinske’s laboratory, served as an undergraduate research mentor in the execution of the project.

The goal was to see how a diet containing choline related to a person’s likelihood to either develop or ward off hyperhomocysteinemia, a condition caused by an elevated level of the amino acid metabolite, homocysteine, in the blood due to folate deficiency.

“We knew from previous research that eggs can reduce hyperhomocysteinemia that results from folate deficiency, and hyperhomocysteinemia is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” Schalinske said.

The rats on the choline diet were first given a folate-deficient diet to cause them to have hyperhomocysteinemia. The students monitored the rats to see if consuming whole eggs would have an impact on reducing elevations in homocysteine and to understand the biochemical mechanism by which this was achieved.

Coonts said she has been learning about metabolic pathways in her classes, so being able to see those in action through the study was exciting for her.

“We’re actually working with those metabolic pathways,” Coonts said. “I’m excited to see the results as well as to see what happened.”

This semester, the students will analyze the results of the study. They’ll be able to use the data collected from the previous research and combine it with the data they collected from their own research.

“It really gives undergraduate students a graduate student experience without being in graduate school,” Schalinske said of the research project. “It helps them determine if they want to go to graduate school.”

With little research lab experience between the two students, both Coonts and Worrall are thankful for the experience this research study has provided them so far.

“Being able to be involved in this has helped me gain confidence that I can do higher level research,” Coonts said.

“I didn’t realize how much I loved research, but I get to apply the skills I’ve trained for in school,” Worrall added.

Schalinske said the hope is Coonts and Worrall will get a paper published about the research they conducted once everything is finished.