Geneseo’s Problem-Solvers

Illustration of researchers in a lab, medical students at a display and a woman picking agriculture, all linked to a light bulb

Story by Merrill Douglas | Illustrations by Bee Johnson

Alumni and faculty members make important contributions toward addressing needs in healthcare, community development and energy. 

Some people say that every problem is really an opportunity and wrestling with a problem provides the opportunity to make tangible differences for good.

While no individual alone can cure a disease or shrink humanity’s carbon footprint, each person who confronts a need joins a team that spans time and geography. Many members of the Geneseo community, including faculty, alumni and students, build on the work of others and share discoveries with colleagues who take progress further. 

On campus, problem-solvers often do research, frequently with financial support from external sources such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or from internal grants overseen by the Geneseo Research Council. 

“We have a very strong research program here,” says Anne Baldwin, director of sponsored research. “It’s one of our hallmarks.”

In 2017-2018, research projects on campus used $778,000 in funding from external sources. During the same period, the Research Council approved $304,092 in internal grants to faculty and students. Such grants are donor-supported for work in a wide variety of disciplines — business, chemistry, physics, music, astronomy, psychology, computing and information technology and more. These initiatives at Geneseo contribute to a larger body of knowledge, assembled by researchers around the world. 

Here’s a look at four members of the Geneseo community who tackle some of the world’s most pressing needs through research, product development or social and economic action. They have all made significant contributions, helping to conquer diseases, addressing food security in developing areas, advancing the cause of green energy, and making it possible to train doctors and nurses more efficiently in all parts of the world. We will also meet Geneseo’s next generation of problem-solvers at the National Institutes of Health.

GERALD RHODES ’74: NEW SOLUTIONS FOR HIV AND HEPATITIS C

As of 2017, nearly 37 million people worldwide were living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), according to UNAIDS. And, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 71 million have hepatitis C.

Gerald Rhodes ’74 has worked at the forefront of the battle against both of those diseases. 

As vice president for research at Gilead Sciences in Foster City, Calif., from 2004 to 2016, Rhodes led groups of scientists whose work produced major breakthroughs on both fronts — producing an effective, one-pill-a-day treatment for HIV and a cure for hepatitis C. 

A diagnosis of HIV used to be a death sentence, as a person infected by this virus inevitably succumbed to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). New treatments now allow patients to manage HIV as a chronic condition. But early treatments were complicated: a patient took many medications, each on a different schedule, and some of them reacted badly if taken together, Rhodes says.

“It was impossible to stay on those regimens effectively and keep the blood levels of all those drugs high enough to inhibit the virus,” says Rhodes.

Eventually, the patient became resistant to some of the drugs. 

Gilead developed a series of HIV treatments that combine three anti-viral agents in a single pill, taken once a day. The most recent of those products, Biktarvy, won approval from the Food and Drug Administration in 2018. It is effective against all strains of HIV, even when a patient has become resistant to many earlier drug treatments. 

“People can take this pill once a day, indefinitely, and live a reasonably normal life,” Rhodes says. 

Gilead introduced several new treatments for hepatitis C between 2014 and 2017, each of which suppresses the virus to the point where a person’s system can get rid of it entirely. 

The newest of those drugs works for all strains of hepatitis C, and treatment takes only eight to 12 weeks, not six months, like earlier treatments on the market, Rhodes says. “And there are no meaningful side effects that would give anybody discomfort or prevent them from completing a treatment regimen,” he says.

Rhodes oversaw the chemists and biologists who discovered the HIV and hepatitis C treatments in a process called lead optimization, which involves thousands of tests on numerous organic compounds. The goal is to learn which compounds would not only inhibit a specific protein in a virus, but also stay in the human body at the right concentration to contribute to a cure.

Rhodes retired from Gilead in 2016 but continues to consult in his field. Throughout his career, he has found satisfaction in working on tough problems with scientists from many different disciplines, he says.

“It’s a scientifically challenging, complex endeavor,” he says, “but the reward is that you can have an impact on patients’ lives.” 

BRONWYN IRWIN ’97: HELPING SMALL FARMERS THRIVE

Bronwyn Irwin ’97 spent two years of her childhood in Zimbabwe, the country where her parents grew up. At Geneseo, in an environmental studies class, she learned how agriculture can impact the earth. That course, she says, made her realize that she could make a difference in Africa by promoting sustainable agriculture there. It became her life’s path.

Irwin earned a master’s degree in agricultural economics and started to tackle the challenge of global food insecurity. She has worked on agricultural challenges for nonprofits since 2003. Today, she serves as the global practice leader for agriculture, agribusiness and food security at DAI, an international development company based in Bethesda, Md. 

Irwin leads a five-member technical team that works throughout the world, but mainly in Africa, under contract to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Her projects focus on four areas: helping small farmers improve their practices; helping them connect with markets; encouraging government policies that support agriculture; and empowering women and youth who work in farming.

“A lot of our work is focused on introducing either a new technology or a new management practice, but we try to introduce these through the market system, rather than giving things away for free,” Irwin says. “That way, when we leave, farmers can still get tractor services, good-quality seed and information on good agricultural practices.”

To that end, the team often builds relationships between farmers and private sector companies. Those bonds are crucial for sustaining a project’s benefits over time, she says. For example, DAI’s employees don’t teach small farmers better agricultural methods.

“If we train the farmers, then when we leave at the end of five years, there’s no one there to continue to train the farmers,” Irwin explains. Instead, the team finds a company in the region that could benefit from the farmers’ success, and asks it to provide the training.

By building a relationship between farmers and an in-country organization, Irwin and her team make sure that the systems they develop will continue to thrive after they complete their work. 

From 2009 to 2011, Irwin and her team worked with local Zimbabwean companies that contract with small farmers to grow crops. One of the goals was to increase engagement with women, who made up 67 percent of farmers in that area but often hung back from signing contracts.

“We did a lot of work with the companies to make sure they understood how important it is was to sign contracts with the women, to give the inputs (such as seeds and fertilizer) physically to the women and to pay the women,” Irwin says. “Otherwise, for instance, a husband might collect the company’s fertilizer on his wife’s behalf but then put it on his own crops, which were not under contract.”

By the project’s end, 57 percent of small farmers who earned money in contracts with local companies were women, Irwin said. One key to this initiative’s success was the fact that Irwin’s team swapped insights with people from other organizations doing projects in the area.

“Cultural change is easier to make happen when there’s a broader group working on it,” she says. 

One of the greatest pleasures Irwin derives from her work, she says, comes from staying with a project until she can see the difference her team has made. “The impact on the farmers is pretty amazing,” she says. 

Proof of those impacts lies not only in numbers, but also in stories. Irwin remembers the ceremony that marked the end of the project in Zimbabwe. One woman who spoke at the event told how her husband used to take the money she’d received to grow crops, using it instead to go out and party. 

“Now, I’ve learned I can keep control of the money, and I’ve already bought my inputs,” the woman told the assembled group. Come planting time, she would already have her seed and fertilizer. 

Says Irwin, “It’s the individuals who really help you understand the broader impact.” 

Illustration of two hands handling DNA and molecules

Illustration by Bee Johnson

RABEKA ALAM: NANOMATERIALS FOR SOLAR CELLS

Rabeka Alam, assistant professor of inorganic chemistry at Geneseo, is one of many scientists trying to wean humankind from carbon-based power sources. Alam studies a new class of nanomaterials that seem to hold promise for creating inexpensive solar cells. 

The official name of this material is perovskite inorganic nanoparticles. “But really, they’re very, very tiny rocks,” Alam says. These particles respond to sunlight by fluorescing — giving off light. Through a second material bonded to these particles, it’s possible to capture electrons emitted during fluorescence and convert them to electricity. 

Perovskites generate electricity almost as efficiently as the silicon used today in solar cells, Alam says. But they’re a lot cheaper to make.

“They would help drive down the cost, introducing new, cheaper materials to the market,” Alam says.

Scientists first synthesized perovskites about five years ago, and they’ve become a hot topic, Alam says. “There’s a lot more we know about them now than we did five years ago, but there’s still so much more to know.” 

Three Geneseo students who work in Alam’s lab synthesize the particles, make them fluoresce in different colors and study their properties to learn how effectively they might work in solar cells.

“A first step would be to see if we can transfer energy from these nanoparticles to other materials like titanium oxide, which is super cheap,” she says. 

Labs elsewhere have used perovskites to build small solar cells, but no one knows if the particles are stable enough to give solar panels an effective lifespan of 30 or 40 years, Alam says. 

And no one has yet made the material in volumes needed to produce commercial products. 

“We make maybe half an ounce, or 2 milliliters, of a sample,” Alam says. “That’s not enough to cover solar panels for the roof of your house.” It’s not clear how long it might take to make the leap from laboratory experiment to industrial production, she says. 

When that leap does occur, it could bring humankind one step closer to reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and our negative impacts on the environment. 

As a graduate student, Alam studied the bioluminescent materials in fireflies, conducting studies that might someday pave the way for lighting products that don’t use electricity. “I really like the bio-nano interface,” she says. And she enjoys the puzzle-solving aspects of research. “You’re trying to put all the pieces together. A lot of times, it doesn’t work, but when it does, it’s very rewarding.” 

Working in the lab with undergraduates also is a pleasure, Alam says. “I love mentoring students and seeing them go on to pursue careers in science.” 

CRAIG KNOCHE ’75: THE VIRTUAL PATIENT

To prepare for a trek in Nepal, Craig Knoche ’75 and his wife, Anne Knoche, enrolled in several medical courses in 1995, so they could be medically self-sufficient while climbing big mountains in any remote area of the world. They aced the quizzes in those classes but didn’t do as well with practical application.

“We came face to face with the yawning gap between the knowledge and competency — the application of knowledge,” Knoche says. Book learning was easy, but putting knowledge to use demanded a whole different kind of training. 

Today, the Knoches work to close the gap between academic knowledge and applied skill, making practical experience in patient care easily accessible to future healthcare professionals. 

The company they founded, i-Human Patients, develops cloud-based, interactive patient simulations for educating doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. The company is focused on improving patient assessment and diagnostic reasoning skills, with the ultimate goal of improving patient care, including reducing rates of patient misdiagnosis. According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, 5 to 15 percent of adult outpatients in the United States are misdiagnosed every year, says Knoche.

With i-Human Patients, students practice their diagnostic reasoning skills by interacting with virtual cases that represent a broad range of medical conditions. Say an educator needs a virtual patient who has trouble breathing. “We have a patient with asthma, one who’s having an anaphylactic reaction, one who has COPD, another with pneumonia, maybe another with flu,” Knoche says. 

The user can ask the patient questions, take vital signs, order tests and get results — everything but conduct a hands-on exam. Users and faculty receive detailed evidence-based feedback on the quality of their patient assessment and reasoning.

A philosophy major at Geneseo, Knoche spent many years as a technology entrepreneur and executive before founding i-Human Patients. The company has received major funding from the National Science Foundation and grants from the National Science Foundation and the American Medical Association. Kaplan Inc., the healthcare licensure test preparation firm, acquired the company in 2018. 

i-Human Patients also receved funding from the philanthropic arm of the Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries, in the hope that the technology will someday help to support medical training in India, where Knoche says there is a shortage of doctors and nurses. 

The system gives students that patient experience anywhere in the world, even in training programs with limited facilities.

“i-Human is entirely cloud based,” Knoche says. “Moreover, it’s been optimized to work in regions of the country and the world with limited network bandwidth, which is important in places like India, where until relatively recently, access to reliable high-speed internet has been limited.” 

GENESEO’S NEXT GENERATION OF PROBLEM-SOLVERS

Among the latest researchers to take on the world’s big challenges are recent Geneseo graduates who work at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Currently, at least seven Geneseo alumni work at NIH with teams of researchers on issues such as HIV, aging and cancer. Their contributions will help pave the way for future innovations.

One of those alumni is Robert Tumasian III ’18, a post-baccalaureate research fellow. Since August 2018, he has worked at NIH’s National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Baltimore as part of a project to learn how a person’s genes influence aging. 

Tumasian studies skeletal muscle degeneration. “I’m trying to identify RNAs — genetic sequences — that are statistically associated with healthy skeletal muscle aging, using data obtained from healthy individuals,” he says. 

After identifying about 500 of those RNAs and presenting a poster on his work at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University, Tumasian started working with a much larger data set. He is preparing to submit his research to a peer-reviewed journal. 

Tumasian is part of a large team at NIA that includes other statisticians, data scientists, epidemiologists and biologists, all investigating different aspects of skeletal muscle aging. Other labs explore genetic factors that might affect aging elsewhere in the body. “The long-term goal is to mitigate the symptoms of aging and improve the quality of life for older people,” he says. 

This fall, Tumasian will start graduate studies in biostatistics at Columbia University. One day, he hopes to develop a machine learning algorithm to determine whether a person taking prescription opioids is vulnerable to addiction. “I became interested in the opioid epidemic about a year ago, when the crisis directly affected my family,” he says. 

In Bethesda, Hannah Loo ’17 is a post-baccalaureate, cancer research training fellow at NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). Her lab studies glioblastoma, a deadly form of brain cancer. 

Loo has two projects. The first looks at data on patients who receive radiation for glioblastoma and then repeat the treatment. 

“Some patients who are re-irradiated have a pretty good outcome, and some do rather poorly,” Loo says. Her project examines factors — such as gender, body mass index (BMI) and the tumor’s molecular signature — that might help predict how a patient will respond to radiation. 

“Even if we’re not able to cure the cancer, finding ways to determine how different patients will react to different therapies will increase the likelihood of increasing their lifespan,” Loo says. 

In the second project, Loo is testing a drug that was developed to treat an entirely different disease, to see if it can sensitize glioblastoma cells, so they’re more likely to die under radiation. Colleagues in Loo’s lab are doing similar tests on other compounds. 

When she leaves the NIH, Loo will continue to study glial cells — where glioblastomas form — in graduate school. Along with brain cancer, those cells may also play a role in Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ataxia and other conditions.

“It’s a relatively new area, but it’s very exciting,” she says. “Glia have historically been thought of as ‘support cells’ for neurons, but we’re finding out that they’re more important than that, and that understanding their function could provide crucial insights into our understanding of neurological diseases. Day to day, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. Working at an institution like the NIH, I’ve been reminded that every person here is part of something much larger. Even the seemingly small things are steps towards uncovering cures and understanding disease.”

 

Author: geneseoscene

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