Department of Biology

Department of Biology

Faculty Research

Peter Avis, PhD: Plant-Fungi Interactions, the Impacts of Air Pollution and DNA Technology

The interactions between plants and microbes like mycorrhizal fungi serve essential roles in the productivity and nutrient cycling of terrestrial ecosystems. Dr. Avis’ research is focused on testing hypotheses about these interactions, specifically mycorrhizal symbioses, at multiple levels of biology by using the methods of molecular ecology, plant biology, and mycology. Much of his research has addressed how these symbioses are impacted by global change events such as nitrogen pollution, and this has led to questions about what allows certain fungi to dominate mycorrhizal communities and how their evolutionary history relates to current ecological function. Dr. Avis also conducts research on how mycorrhizas can be used to supplement and enhance efforts to re-vegetate landscapes and how to advance molecular tools used to study fungal communities. He is also a research associate at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Carol Castaneda, PhD: Multiple Sclerosis, Autoimmune Responses, and Infection

When working properly, our immune system protects us from infectious disease caused by bacteria and viruses. When our immune system loses control and attacks our own tissue, autoimmune disease can result, often with devastating consequences. Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system strips the myelin insulation from nerves, weakening impulses from the nervous system to target cells. Using multiple sclerosis as an model system, Dr. Carol Castaneda studies what goes wrong when the immune system attacks our own tissues and how to stop this response without sup­pressing the essential functions of the immune system that are critical to our ability to fight infectious disease and cancer.

Spencer Cortwright, PhD: Restoration of Wetlands and Prairie Along the Little Calumet River

Just one century ago, northwest Indiana was one of the most ecologically dynamic and diverse areas in North America. Various geographical, climatological, and historical factors merged here to create an ecological tapestry rarely encountered on our continent. However, just one century of urbanization and suburban sprawl have nearly obliterated this remarkable natural heritage.  Fortunately, pieces of this treasure have been preserved; these preserves are usually small, isolated, and have suffered abuses. Dr. Spencer Cortwright’s research is restoring prairie and wetlands along the Little Calumet River in Gary. At present about 100 acres are either actively being restored or in preparation. By restoring these habitats, we enhance the ecological value of natural areas by reducing distances between preserves and even connecting some of them. Plant and animal life should be enhanced and the ability of the watershed to cleanse itself of contamination improved.

Michael LaPointe, PhD: Hypertension and Links to Kidney Disease and Diabetes

Hypertension is closely linked to both kidney disease and diabetes, either as a precursor or as an outcome. The severity of hypertension is determined by a complex interplay between sodium levels and acid/base balances within your body. Dr. Michael LaPointe’s research explores the association between kidney function, salt retention, and increased blood pressure. Specific cellular mechanisms within the body are responsible for thickening of artery walls in hypertensive subjects – a fundamental defect that causes increased cell growth of the artery walls which then leads to arterial thickening, contributing to hypertension. Kidney disease can cause or exacerbate the resulting high blood pressure in people at risk for hypertensive disease and diabetes, resulting in chronic health problems.

Harold Olivey, PhD: Transcriptional Regulation of Heart and Blood Vessel Development

Heart defects are the most common category of birth defect seen in humans, occurring in approximately 5 out of every 1,000 live births. Formation of an intact, functional heart depends on the tightly regulated expression of thousands of genes during embryonic life. Dr. Olivey’s research focuses on the role of one transcriptional regulator, a gene called FOG-2, which is indispensible for the proper formation of both the heart and the coronary vessels that deliver blood to the heart muscle. To investigate the genes that are regulated by FOG-2, Dr. Olivey employs techniques such as real-time (quantitative) PCR and microarray (Gene Chip) analysis, both in his laboratory at IU Northwest and through collaboration with investigators at the University of Chicago.

Richard Sheffer, PhD: Cytogenetics of Anthurium

Much of what genetics is today was determined by cytogenetic investigations of chromosomes. Today, while molecular technology complements this past research and pushes genetics into understanding the links between genes and chromosomes, classical cytogenetics and a chromosomal understanding of inheritance has gained great relevance. Dr. Sheffer has studied the cytogenetics of Anthurium, a very large and important genus of tropical plants sometimes known as the flamingo flower. His studies and the collections he has established over 20 years in the IU Northwest greenhouse provide a unique opportunity to understand the processes of inheritance in general as well as the phylogenetic relationships of these plants. He is also a research associate at the Missouri Botanical Garden.