New Faculty Members, New Minor Boost Life Sciences at Behrend

Dr. Ashley Russell

Dr. Ashley Russell

Credit: Penn State Behrend

A new minor in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and a new teaching lab in the Otto Behrend Science Building have expanded research and student opportunities at Penn State Behrend for the study of life sciences, including genetics.

The new resources also advance Penn State Behrend’s $26 million partnership with Magee-Womens Research Institute of Erie—a women’s health initiative that will bring locally focused clinical medical trials to the region. Two faculty members have been hired to further that effort.

“It’s extremely important that our students who are pursuing the life sciences be fluent in the language of genetics and molecular science,” said Dr. Ivor Knight, associate dean for research and graduate studies. “The career options in these fields are expanding at a tremendous pace, and that’s only going to accelerate in the years ahead.”

The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology minor is a 33-credit program that includes coursework in general biochemistry, cell biology, and molecular biology. A required lab course introduces basic research techniques and instrumentation.

Much of that work will be conducted in a new advanced molecular biology teaching lab, a 720-square-foot space that will be used to study DNA, RNA, and proteins. Students will learn fundamental research procedures, including western-blot testing, which identifies specific proteins as they are extracted from cells.

A second lab in the Advanced Manufacturing and Innovation Center will be used to conduct translational research for the MWRI-Erie partnership. That space will include cell-culture and advanced microscopy labs.

To support that research, and to strengthen the life-sciences curriculum, Penn State Behrend has hired two new faculty members: Dr. Ashley Russell and Dr. Jeremiah Keyes.

Russell, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, studies extracellular vesicles, which allow cells to communicate with one another. She also studies the effects of chronic stress during pregnancy.

“Research has shown that when women who are pregnant experience very high levels of stress, that can lead to adverse outcomes in regard to both the development of the fetus and the well-being of the mother,” she said. “We know these things happen, but we don’t know exactly why. We’re looking at differ­ent measures to identify specific biomolecules that might be up- or down-regulated during pregnancy in response to chronic stress.

“If we can identify women at higher risk of develop­ing stress-related complications, we might be able to intervene to help them better manage stress during pregnancy and reduce those negative effects,” she said.

Russell, an Erie native and a 2012 graduate of Penn State Behrend, previously worked as a post-doctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Keyes, an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, studies the complex signaling networks that control a cell’s response to stimuli. He previ­ously worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of California at San Diego.

His research has focused on extracellular signal-related kinase, or ERK, a signaling pathway that is hyperactivated in 90 percent of all human cancers.

Previous attempts to inhibit the ERK pathway have led to resistant cancers and devastating side effects, including the paradoxical development of melanoma, due to the pathway’s ubiquitous role in physiological processes.

“If we can better understand how ERK is regulated,” Keyes said, “we can develop more specific thera­peutics that target the ERK pathway in the context of cancer without inhibiting ERK in its role in normal physiology.”

“Dr. Russell and Dr. Keyes will help set the direction for MWRI-Erie,” Knight said. “Their research could, over time, become the framework for broader medical studies, including clinical trials.

“Without the MWRI-Erie partnership and the resources that the Erie community is investing to support it, we likely would not have been able to recruit them from top medical research universities.