Previous Research Projects

If you eat broccoli, can you reduce inflammation caused by cigarette smoke?

VIDEO: COPD and Sulforaphane Research

The inflammation research project is a collaboration between Dr. Veronica Evans, associate professor of biology at SJC, and Dr. David Blake, assistant professor of biology at Fort Lewis College. Research students Leslie Elkins, Shiloh Dee and Martha Roberts helped during the six-week project.

“If you’re exposed to cigarette smoke, the smoke causes cells in the lungs to release Interleukin-8 (IL-8),” Evans explained. “That causes inflammation and leads to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).” Several dark green leafy vegetables produce a compound called sulfora-phane, which reduces inflammation when it enters cells and stops them from making so much IL-8. Among them are broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, collards, kohlrabi, mustard, turnips, radishes, arugula and watercress.

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During the study, Blake extracted DNA from human cells at Fort Lewis College. He gave the DNA to Evans, who worked with it in the San Juan College lab. Evans and the research students amplified the IL-8 parts in those DNA samples by putting them through a special process that allowed enzymes to copy the DNA. “We were trying to get a whole lot more IL-8 to see how it changes expres-sion with inflammation,” Evans said. Once enough of the IL-8 gene’s DNA was amplified, students took it to Fort Lewis College, where portions of that DNA were placed into cells.

There wasn’t enough time this summer for students to test how those cells would react to the anti-inflammatory compound produced by vegetables. What there was time to accomplish taught the students a lot. “They gained some understanding of the different parts of the cell and how they interact,” Blake said. The project also provided other important knowledge. “It was a very educational, hands-on experience,” said Elkins. “The biggest learning experience was trial and error. Not every experiment will turn out with the correct answers. I learned that research requires multiple experiments and patience.”

Elkins plans to attend Montana State University this fall and to eventually become an orthodontist. Roberts’ goal is to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience. She loved the project. “It’s on my career path,” said Roberts. “This is what I’m going to school for, to be a scientist. I hope to apply for the research project next summer.” Dee enjoyed being part of the study and working with fellow students. “The frustrating part,” she said, “was trying to be successful at replicating the DNA.” Even though time kept students from accomplishing more, the research will continue. “If we find something interesting, we’ll publish the results, and some other groups could carry on,” Evans said. “We’ll keep working on the project. It could eventually lead to us develop the clinical applications.”

- Reported by Margaret Cheasebro

The Benefits of Berries

VIDEO: Goji Berry/Wolfberry Research

Students at San Juan College had a unique opportunity to participate in two summer research projects that involved learning more about the health benefits of goji berries, a species of plant in the genus Lycium. One project searched for an enzyme that makes flavonoids in the plants. Flavonoids are antioxidants that have health benefits for humans. That project is funded through New Mexico State University, which administers a National Institutes of Health Bridges to Baccalaureate grant. Its purpose is to encourage minority students to get their baccalaureate degree in science, particularly chemistry, biology and plant sciences. This year, San Juan College’s portion of that grant was $15,860.

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The second project determined how much rutin, a kind of flavonoid, is found in species of the goji berry. Though some species grow in Asia, three are native to New Mexico. One grows on the San Juan College campus. The rutin project is funded with part of a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The $445,000 that goes to San Juan College’s School of Math, Science and Engineering was shared by a research project studying how vegetables reduce inflammation caused by cigarette smoke. Known as the Four Corners Stem Success (FOCUSS) Program, the grant encourages more students to transfer to four-year colleges and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math.

Research student Patricia Charley helped with the enzyme project. “I was looking for a certain enzyme in the Lycium that makes the flavonoid,” Charley explained. “I was extracting DNA to isolate the gene(s) that produces the enzyme flavonol synthase. My goal was to figure out which genes are responsible for this enzyme, and determine which plant had the most medicinal value.” She compared Asian varieties of the Lycium to the native New Mexico species.

Overseeing that project were Dr. Don Hyder and Dr. Veronica Evans, both associate professors of biology at SJC, and Dr. Kevin Lombard, assistant professor of horticulture at SJC. Lombard also is a researcher and assistant professor of horticulture at the New Mexico State University Agriculture Science Center, which is located south of Farmington.

The results show that native New Mexico species could provide an important medicinal and food source. In the rutin study, research students Tonia Becenti and Kalyn Boyer collected cuttings from native New Mexico goji berry species. The project was headed by Hyder and Lombard. “We clipped little pieces of fruit, flowers, bark or leaves,” said Becenti. “We brought them back, dried them, weighed them and did an extraction protocol, which we had learned from similar documented research projects.” Results of the protocol showed that rutin in one native species was higher than in Asian species. It could become a valuable food and medicinal source. Boyer noted, “The project showed me that I like research, and could potentially see myself working in a lab.”

- Reported by Margaret Cheasebro

Why is the Four Corners Region a "Hot Spot" for Human Infection with Hantavirus

VIDEO: Hantavirus Research in the Four Corners

Despite a number of studies documenting the exceptionally high incidence of human SNV infection in the Four Corners region, the underlying cause for this skewed geographic distribution remains unclear.

In a general sense, the incidence of HPS in humans is correlated with high densities of deer mice both locally (adjacent to human residences) and regionally (in a particular geographic area; Childs et al. 1997; Yates et al. 2002). Likewise, a growing body of research suggests that SNV prevalence in deer mice is affected by temperature, precipitation and vegetation structure (Calisher et al. 2002; Lehmer et al. 2008; Dearing et al. 2009). However, the nature and extent to which these factors influence SNV prevalence in the Four Corners region has not been well studied. Therefore, the objective of the proposed research is to examine regional patterns of SNV infection in both human and deer mouse populations to more clearly identify factors that contribute to the high incidence of HPS in the Four Corners.

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As part of this research, students will use public health databases to first identify locations of 6 HPS cases that have been reported since 2005 that have occurred within a 100 mile radius of Farmington, NM or Durango, CO. These cases will include only those for which the site of exposure to SNV is known (i.e. cases where individuals were not sure where they became infected will be excluded). Likewise, cases that occurred in locations with limited or restricted access (e.g. tribal land) will be eliminated. Once 6 cases meeting these criteria have been identified, their locations will be marked as "HPS hotspots" and the habitat type (e.g. mountain shrub, sagebrush steppe, etc.) of each site will be characterized. Each of the 6 "HPS hotspots" will be matched with 6 randomly identified "non-hotspot" sites with similar vegetation structure that occur within a 10-mile radius of the "hotspot" site. On each of the 12 study sites, students will conduct a vegetation inventory and then will establish 1-hectare small mammal trapping grids, where deer mice will be live-trapped over a 2-night period.

After capture, deer mice will be processed, which will include ear tagging and collection of blood samples and demographic data (sex, mass, reproductive status), and then released. Deer mouse blood samples will be screened for antibodies to SNV using a protein assay, known as an ELISA. Because deer mice are chronically infected with SNV, they continuously produce antibodies to the virus; thus, the presence of SNV antibodies in blood is a reliable indicator of infection. Using results of the ELISAs, SNV prevalence (number of deer mice infected / total number of deer mice captured) for each of the 12 "hotspot" and "non-hotspot" sites will be estimated. Students will then examine patterns in the data including differences in SNV prevalence between "hotspot" and "non-hotspot" sites, and the extent to which factors including habitat, deer mouse population structure (i.e. density) and demography (i.e. number of males vs. females) influence these patterns.

For more information, please call Dr. Callie Vanderbilt at 505-566-3080. Or send us an email at