Rising Researcher: SaiLavanyaa Sundar

Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a heart disease in which the wall of the left ventricle becomes much thinner than that of a normal heart, decreases the blood that is pumped from the heart to other organs and eventually leads to heart failure. DCM affects one in 250 individuals and is known to be the number one cause for heart transplantation in the United States.

“I was interested in conducting research in this area because DCM affects so many people, and the disease often goes unnoticed,” says SaiLavanyaa Sundar, doctoral student in Biomedical Engineering and Biotechnology.

Sundar is currently studying protein interactions at the molecular level in order to help understand the molecular mechanisms that may lead to DCM. Cardiac muscles consist of several proteins that interact in a systematic manner to result in contractions that pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. Previous research has shown that mutations in the proteins, tropomyosin and troponin, lead to alterations in muscle contractility which leads to DCM or other types of cardiomyophathies.

Looking specifically at tropomyosin and troponin, Sundar identified a hydrophobic pocket, a binding site, where specific compounds could be added to counteract the mutations that cause DCM, whereby restoring normal heart function. Working with partners at Boston University, Sundar uses molecular dynamic simulations to screen different naturally identified compounds, such as those derived from plants, to find those that not only have a strong binding affinity to the pocket, but also the ability to affect muscle contractility. So far, a compound commonly found in mulberry trees shows promise.

Sundar continues to screen compounds and to test them in vitro, meaning her project is still very much in its beginning mechanistic stages. Having been recently awarded an American Heart Association Predoctoral Fellowship worth more than $62,000 over two years, Sundar is grateful to continue her research. With her findings, Sundar hopes to eventually work with partners at Yale University to test the promising compounds in real cells in engineered heart tissue.

Ultimately, by focusing on the molecular scale for diseases such as DCM, Sundar hopes for a future culture shift towards disease prevention rather than treatment. “Right now, most medicine is targeting the symptoms rather than the cause of the disease. What we are trying to do is dial into the molecular level and alter those interactions before the disease progresses. If we can identify the mutations at early stages, then potential drugs could be used as molecular interventions to stop the disease in the first place,” says Sundar.

And though these are lofty goals, Sundar has already shown great success and promise toward contributing to the cause. At such an early stage in her education and career, Sundar has gained invaluable experience working with Prof. Jeffrey Moore in the Department of Biological Science on his project studying hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, has published five papers (two of which she was the first author), and has won multiple UMass Lowell awards including the Graduate Winner in the 2021 Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium, 2020 Outstanding Graduate Student Award in the Department of Biological Sciences, and the 2019 Stephen R. Williams Award for Excellence in Graduate Research.

“The awards and recognition that I have earned at the university level and even at the national level have been a huge boost and validation of my research. Also, as an international student, the support I have received from the members of the Moore Lab and the UMass Lowell community has helped me survive halfway across the globe away from my family,” says Sundar.

Rising Researcher: Ericka Boudreau

As an undergraduate student, Ericka Boudreau found herself in southwestern Oregon collecting samples of sandstone. Boudreau traveled with Asst. Prof. Richard Gaschnig in the Department of Environmental, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences to conduct research on the origins and potential movement of rocks along the west coast in North America.

Currently, there is a controversial theory that these rocks were naturally transported thousands of kilometers from south to north between 100 and 50 million years ago in the Mesozoic era. The research team is looking for evidence of this movement (from southern California to southwestern Oregon) through geochemistry, analyzing key element ratios and isotopes in order to find a match in geochemical data to that of other terrains.

In doing so, the team’s study may shed light on what Earth may have looked like millions of years ago. Stemming from evidence of the existence of the supercontinent Pangea, geologists are still piecing together how the supercontinent fragmented into the current continental landmasses. “Our work is based on being able to reconstruct the past, examine what the Earth looks like in the present, and perhaps predict what it may look like in the future,” says Boudreau.

During the three-day hike, the team collected 31 samples of rocks including sandstone, conglomerate and shale, which were eventually shipped back to UMass Lowell for study. In the lab, Boudreau helped prepare the samples for analysis by washing and pulverizing the rocks to look like fine-grain sand. Then, they ran them through a water table to remove clay-sized particles and also through a chemical called iodomethane to concentrate the heavy minerals that contained the information they were looking for. Eventually, a small fraction of the minerals were observed under a microscope and processed through specialized instruments for a set of data including ages and trace elements.

Boudreau, who received her Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science at UMass Lowell, is currently completing her master’s in Environmental Studies with an Environmental Geoscience concentration and analyzing all the data for her thesis. Much of the work involves reading the findings from previous research to make connections to her own collected samples. Boudreau is specifically looking at five minerals (zircon, monazite, titanite, garnet and rutile) and comparing her data with that of others to support a place of origin. For example, rutile is a mineral that records thermal events and metamorphism, so when analyzing her own dataset, she can research metamorphic events that happened during the age bracket of the rocks she collected in order to match a location.

As just one example of a type of analysis among many, Boudreau is grateful to be working with Gaschnig who has access to a large amount of data including multiple types of analyses for each mineral. Boudreau was also able to fund additional data after being awarded the Stephen G. Pollock Student Research Grant by the Northeast Section of the Geological Society of America.

Boudreau enjoys playing this detective work in the lab, but also finds joy in being in the environment. When Boudreau signed up to support Gaschnig in his study, she never thought she would have the opportunity to travel for such hands-on experience.

“Being out in the field, it was exciting to see macroscopic events in person. At one of the sites, you could see these different sedimentary layers that were all folded into a big arc so you could tell a big piece of land crashed into that area at one time and folded these rocks. It was cool to see these ancient processes in real life,” says Boudreau.

As Boudreau lives out her passions, she is grateful for her family, friends and community for supporting her journey. Being a mother of two, Boudreau credits her network for helping her balance her schoolwork, research and personal life. And with no plans to stop, sights set on gaining experience in industry and enrolling in a Ph.D program in the future, Boudreau is also looking forward to sharing her love of geology with her kids by taking them to Iceland to see the volcanoes someday.

Students Make Big Moves for UMOVE

There’s no sophomore slump for the annual UMOVE Student Research Symposium. The UMass Movement Research Center (UMOVE) recently held its 2nd annual symposium and welcomed more than double the number of participants that attended the inaugural event. Students, faculty, staff and experts from the university and in the region gathered to share and discuss innovations in biological movement, and more importantly, to learn about the research conducted by students.

Julia Schneider, a graduate student pursing a master’s degree in Biotechnology, was the graduate poster winner of the day. She presented her project studying a protein which is involved in heart muscle contraction. Alterations in this protein are responsible for heart diseases such as dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM) which is the leading cause of heart transplants in the United States. “With increased knowledge and understanding of heart function and alterations, it is my hope that new therapies can be developed for people suffering from heart diseases such as DCM,” says Schneider.

Other students are also focusing on understanding proteins and their role in human health and performance. Colleen Kelly, a PhD student in Chemistry at UMass Lowell and winner of the symposium’s student talk competition, is conducting research on immunoglobulin domains in the muscle protein, titin, and the correlation between its mechanical and chemical unfolding. Proteins must take shape in order to function properly, and if they do not fold correctly, medical complications may develop. Kelly uses magnetic tweezers to study the mechanical folding of domains in muscle protein which helps determine the parallels between mechanical behaviors and chemical manipulations derived from previous studies.

In addition to presentations, students were also tasked with planning and managing the entire symposium. From coordinating the keynote speaker, Michael Previs, assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics from the University of Vermont, to managing sponsors such as the Biophysical Society, a team of students made the event a true success. Matthew Gage, associate professor of chemistry and director of UMOVE, intentionally relies on student leaders of the center, offering a unique professional development opportunity in addition to the students’ technical science-based learning.

Keynote Speaker: Michael Previs, assistant professor of molecular physiology and biophysics, University of Vermont

Gage looks forward to continuing the UMOVE Student Research Symposium: “I believe it is important to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to present their work and to get feedback on what they are doing, especially from their peers. We are starting to see students have a broader perspective in their understanding of how their research impacts more than their specific field, and we anticipate that will grow in the future.”

As evidenced by the symposium, UMOVE is not only living up to its promise to engage, train and support the next generation of scientists, but the center is poised to expand in its other values. UMOVE was recently designated as an official UMass Lowell research seed center with its strong potential for increased research funding, synergistic activities and interdisciplinary work.

Gage hopes to build upon and increase collaborations among faculty across the university in the future. By applying a strong interdisciplinary approach combining comparative biology, nutrition and public health, UMOVE already transcends the capabilities and offerings of traditional biomechanical centers. With an array of expertise and perspectives from UMOVE members, the Center is making strides in its goal of understanding the principles of movement and ultimately translating basic discovery into clinical applications that address movement related issues in health, injury rehabilitation and injury prevention. It’s safe to say UMOVE is moving in the right direction.

Welcome to the UMass Lowell Research Blog

UMass Lowell researchers in a laboratory in 1894 vs. 2019

UMass Lowell is a nationally ranked public research university at the forefront of cutting-edge, applied research. With a multidisciplinary, visionary approach, our faculty and students translate discoveries into practical solutions that solve the world’s greatest challenges.

Join us as we share an insider look at the groundbreaking research conducted at the university. As we ring in the new year with a new blog, we wanted to take a moment to celebrate the highlights from 2019, a year that marked the 125th anniversary of our storied history.

Looking back at a full year of accomplishments, we are energized and eager for a bright 2020.

Review the research highlights from 2019