Funded Pilot Projects- Round 1


Award Recipients- Round 1

photo of Daniel BAllhorn

Daniel Ballhorn

Project title: Endophytic fungi in root nodules of red alder as a novel source of bioactive compounds

Endophytic fungi are a hyperdiverse group of microbes that live in plant tissues and that produce a broad range of natural compounds. The aim of Dr. Ballhorn’s pilot project was to screen fungal endophytes that reside on the root nodule of red adler, to see which endophyte cultures are bioactive against bacteria, fungi, and human cell lines. The goal of the project was to gain insight into whether the strains have the potential to be used in breast and prostate cancer treatments. During the pilot project, Dr. Ballhorn’s lab collected over one hundred distinct endophyte strains and found that a large portion exhibited bioactivity against more than one test organism without demonstrating general toxicity, a finding that makes the potential for use of these compounds in cancer treatment more likely. A goal of future research is the development of culture conditions that will better maintain the rate of production of fungal compounds observed in fresh cultures. Dr. Ballhorn provided mentorship to several undergraduates in his lab, who were involved with the extraction and maintenance of fungal isolates and the extraction of DNA for molecular fingerprinting. Mentees also supported the development of manuscripts that were submitted for publication. Pilot project data was used in a funded application to NSF.

Jennifer Blakeslee

Jennifer Blakeslee

Project title: Support Network Assessment and Intervention Development to Promote Functioning of Transition-Age Foster Youth

Dr. Blakeslee’s goal is to develop a theory-based program model that will be used in child welfare practice to assess and address deficits in youth support network functionality. The aims of the pilot project were to identify assessable and intervenable characteristics of youth networks and to understand how these characteristics can be linked to service strategies that youth find engaging and supportive and that are feasible for providers to deliver. BUILD EXITO Scholar Grace Tumwebaze was involved in the development of the qualitative codebook in preparation for analysis of youth support networks, and participated in the subsequent quantitative coding of the qualitative data. Grace used this data in her presentation at the Scholar Symposium in summer 2017. Additionally, Grace was included as a coauthor on a conference abstract reporting findings from this project submitted to the 2018 Society for Social Work Research Conference. Dr. Blakeslee then submitted an R21 application using the pilot project data to NIMH in 2018, and is awaiting a funding decision.   

photo of Mitch Cruzan

Mitch Cruzan

Project title: Clonal Evolution - a Plant Model for Investigations into Somatic Mutation Accumulation

Clonal evolution results as mutations in genetic information are passed vertically from one generation of cells to the next. A potential end product of clonal evolution is cancer. While researchers have developed a better understanding of which mutations lead to cancer, less is understood about the evolutionary process that ensues as mutations accumulate. Dr. Cruzan’s pilot project aimed to develop a plant model to explore clonal evolution, which could provide further insight into the development of cancer and its treatment. Another aim of Dr. Cruzan’s project was to develop analytical methods to understand which somatic mutations are most likely to accumulate and result in phenotypic effects, and how these processes vary under different environmental conditions like those presented by cancer drug treatment. BUILD EXITO Scholar Elizabeth Perez worked closely with Dr. Cruzan, gaining background knowledge about clonal evolution and gaining valuable research experience in bioinformatics methods and data analyses. With Dr. Cruzan’s mentorship, Elizabeth also worked on an independent project exploring post-mating selection. Elizabeth was the lead author on a paper presented with Dr. Cruzan at the Evolution 2017 conference held in Portland, OR.  Results from the pilot project supported an application to NIH in February 2017. Results from the pilot project were also used in the development of a manuscript, currently under review.

Alice Graham, PhD

Alice Graham

Project title:  Advances in neuroimaging methods to examine early neurobiological predictors of executive functioning

Executive functioning is the capacity to engage in purposeful, goal-directed behaviors. Executive functioning provides a foundation for mental health as well as academic and social functioning and is a target for early intervention services aimed at reducing risk for psychopathology and school difficulties. Currently, targeted intervention efforts are limited by the difficulty of assessing executive functioning and related brain systems prior to age two. Dr. Graham’s project sought to employ advanced computational methods to characterize brain networks involved in executive functioning beginning in the neonatal period. This work involved collecting resting state functional connectivity MRI data in neonates and adapting tools for optimal processing and analyses to be well suited for this age group. Through better characterizing the status of the brain at birth, Dr. Graham aims to advance understandings of the early neural foundations of executive functioning. Findings from Dr. Graham’s pilot project will be used to support the identification of early neurobiological risk factors and markers for poor executive functioning, and offer opportunity for further research into potential early interventions. Undergraduate mentees in Dr. Graham’s lab were involved in conducting MRI scans with newborns, collected saliva and hair samples, processed MRI and fMRI data, conducted hypothesis testing, and conducted analyses using computational methods. The undergraduate mentees in Dr. Graham’s lab also were involved in manuscript preparation. The results of Dr. Graham’s project were used to prepare a successful application for a K-award to NIMH.

Jun Jiao, PhD

Jun Jiao

Project title:  Development of a vertically aligned alumina nanowire array (VAANA) as a high throughput biomolecule delivery platform for cancer therapeutics

Dendritic cells are specialized cells in the body that help the body to recognize cancerous cells and to trigger an effective T cell immune response. A promising area of current cancer research is an immunotherapeutic approach utilizing personalized dendritic cell vaccines. Dr. Jiao’s project sought to develop a mechanism by which these developing vaccines can be introduced to the body. Prior to the pilot project Dr. Jiao developed a vertically aligned alumina nanowire array (VAANA) as a delivery platform, and preliminary results with the VAANA demonstrated its potential as a mechanism to deliver a dendritic cell-based vaccine. Dr. Jiao’s pilot project was a collaboration with Dr. Evan Lind at OHSU. Their collaborative effort is to optimize the functionality of the VANNA to induce the dendritic cell maturation and T cell response. In order to achieve this, Dr. Jiao and Dr. Lind’s labs used the VAANA to deliver the Ovalbumin (OVA) antigen and mir-155 to induce a T cell response. Graduate students and undergraduate students participated this pilot project.  In addition, Dr. Jiao provided mentorship to EXITO RLC scholar Candice Stauffer, who has actively participated in funded research in Dr. Jiao's group for the last two years. This research experience has helped Candice to win a full scholarship to pursue a PhD in Astrophysics at Northwestern University beginning Fall 2018.

Sonnet Jonker, PhD

Sonnet Jonker

Project title: Developmental stress shapes cardiovascular growth and function 

Humans are born with a set number of cardiomyocytes, the specialized cells that make up the heart muscle. The quantity of these cardiomyocytes is an important factor in the heart’s health and its capacity meet cardiovascular demand. Cardiomyocytes die due to aging, hypertension, and ischemic heart disease, and this reduction in cardiomyocytes can weaken the heart and lead to heart failure. Meanwhile, in the healthy immature heart there occurs a similar episode of cardiomyocyte loss that is regarded as a normal developmental process. However, for babies at a higher risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life, like those born preterm, preservation of these lost perinatal cardiomyocytes may offer cardiovascular protection in adulthood.  Dr. Jonker sought to develop strategies to preserve cardiomyocytes in at-risk infants through gaining an understanding of the connections between fetal cardiomyocyte metabolism, metabolic stress, and cell death. This was achieved through the use of cytometry, enzyme assays, western blots, and metabolic measurements of fetal sheep cardiomyocytes. Preliminary data from this study were used for an R01 grant to NIH. EXITO Scholar Hanna Osman presented data from the project at the EXITO Summer Immersion Symposium Presentation. Additionally, a proposal to the American Heart Association using pilot project data is being considered for submission in winter 2018.  

Ericka Kimball, PhD, M.P.H., MSN

Ericka Kimball

Project title: Exploring the Transition to Fatherhood: Men Exposed to Domestic Violence in Childhood

Dr. Kimball’s project aimed to develop a better understanding of the way exposure to domestic violence in childhood influences parenting among first-time fathers and sought to identify the unique parenting needs of these men. Prior research has shown that men who were exposed to domestic violence as children are at an increased risk of perpetrating violence to their partners and children, although only a small percentage of these men actually go on to do so (Roberts, Gilman, Fitzmaurice, Decker, & Koenen, 2010). Utilizing a guided theory approach, Dr. Kimball conducted interviews with a stratified sample of men involved with the child welfare system and those involved with community-based organizations, with special attention to household income, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, and education. Data from these interviews were assessed for themes and patterns to elucidate how exposure to domestic violence in childhood influences parenting amongst first-time fathers. The results of the study will be used to inform the development of intervention and prevention programs to meet the parenting needs of this unique population.

EXITO Scholars Chelsea Carter and Logan Schwartz worked with Dr. Kimball on this project. The Scholars were engaged in all data collection and data analysis and worked on manuscript development and submission through the next academic year. Chelsea and Logan both presented on posters at the American Men’s Studies Association 25th Annual Interdisciplinary Conference in Ann Arbor, MI, and at Life Path’s ReslinenceCon 3rd Annual Conference located in Nashville, TN.

Marilyn Mackiewicz, PhD

Marilyn Mackiewicz

Project title: Surface Modification of Gold Nanorods as Enhanced Contrast Agents for in vivo Optical Coherence

Age-related Macular Degeneration leads to visual impairment or blindness and affects approximately 10 million patients in the US. While there is currently no cure for Age-related Macular Degeneration, cell transplantation has shown potential in primates and non-humans. However, a barrier to introducing this technology to humans is the absence of a method for evaluating cell-based therapies longitudinally in vivo. The creation of a technology that would allow researchers to visually track transplanted cells’ survival and migration in vivo would allow researchers to gain a better understanding of the consequences of transplanting cells in host retinal tissue and would inform therapeutic strategies. Dr. Mackiewicz’s project aimed to address this need through seeking to develop a technology to image transplanted cells though use of high-resolution optical coherence tomography and gold nanorods as contrast and cell-labeling agents. This approach was supported by preliminary results prior to the start of the pilot project. In order to increase this technology’s efficacy, Dr. Mackiewicz aimed to optimize the optical and electronic properties of gold nanorods to provide for greater contrast, and to elucidate the optimal conditions for the use of this technology. The development of this technology will allow researchers to visualize whether transplanted cells are moving to their target locations, and will support efforts to develop a cure for Age-related Macular Degeneration. Results from the pilot project were used to support an application for funding to NSF. EXITO scholar Eleanor Adams supported other ongoing research projects in the Mackiewicz lab. 

Roberto Orellana, PhD, M.P.H., MSN

Roberto Orellana

Project title: Engaging High Risk Migratory Homeless Youth in HIV and Drug Prevention Services


Youth experiencing homelessness are a diverse population of adolescents and young adults at risk of experiencing negative health outcomes, including drug dependence, drug overdose, infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis, and victimization. Migratory homeless youth, also known as "travelers," may be at especially high risk for these negative health outcomes. Travelers are more likely than non-traveling homeless youth to engage in higher-risk sexual and substance abuse behaviors that result in negative health outcomes. However, the traumatic life experiences faced by this population makes them less likely to engage in conventional health and social service programming. Dr. Orellana’s study sought to investigate the specific service needs of travelers, as well as determining which factors need to be considered in constructing effective interventions for this unique group of young people. The pilot project aimed to set the stage for a series of HIV and drug use intervention studies designed to reduce risk behaviors and engage this specific population in health and social services in the region. EXITO scholars Linsdey Romo and Victoria Cali de Leon contributed to interview transcription and data analysis for the EXITO pilot study. Dr. Orellana is also a part of an EXITO-funded Research Learning Community, where EXITO scholars Joseph Ramirez and Abram Zamora have been involved in the implementation the Portland-based arm of the National HIV Behavioral Surveillance study which is closely related to the pilot project. Their activities include data collection through qualitative and survey interviewing, data analysis, and surveillance data dissemination.

Dora Raymaker, PhD

Dora Raymaker

Project title: Narratives of Autism and Skilled Employment

There is a large and growing population of individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder who are of employable age, yet a disproportionate number are unemployed or under-employed. The disparity is particularly apparent in individuals who have the skills and training for employment in professional settings. However, little is known about what facilitates skilled employment from a holistic, systems-based perspective. The goal of Dr. Raymaker’s research was to use a community based participatory research approach to conduct a qualitative study of autistic employees retained in, or seeking, skilled positions understand their experiences and ideas for change. This exploratory data will then help inform future intervention research.

EXITO scholar Mirah Scharer became familiar with data management and qualitative methods, learned how to html code, learned how to communicate scientific information to a wide range of community and academic audiences, and learned about research ethics and confidentiality. Mirah also concluded a narrative analysis on a set of qualitative interviews related to healthcare and worked on a manuscript from that analysis. She presented on the results of this pilot at INSAR, the premiere international autism conference.

Dr. Raymaker will use pilot project data--along with data from a currently-funded NIMH R21--to support an application for an NIH K0.