The SEH building was designed to spur collaboration between faculty members representing varied disciplines, students and different schools within GW.
SEH Building’s Seventh Floor Serves as Hub for Cutting Edge Research
Travel up to the seventh floor of the recently completed Science and Engineering Hall (SEH) and take a look around at the state-of-the art meeting space, offices and laboratories, which now serve as home base for a number of Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) researchers. SEH is a showcase of the George Washington University’s significant investment in science and engineering and the modern facilities and laboratory equipment will give Milken Institute SPH an edge in competing for research grants, strengthening existing partnerships and forging new ties with influential scientific and technical organizations.
The building was designed to spur collaboration between faculty members representing varied disciplines, students and different schools within GW. For example, the seventh floor public health laboratories are linked to the eighth floor, which is home to researchers from the GW School of Medicine & Health Sciences, by way of a spiral staircase. Cancer research is just one of the areas in which public health researchers, genetic epidemiologists, physicians and others will share ideas, research space and launch inter-disciplinary projects aimed at better treatment, detection and prevention of diseases that affect millions worldwide.
The public health floor has 15,260 square feet of lab space, a teaching laboratory, a 30-seat classroom, 3 conference rooms, 86 lab cubicles for researchers and post-docs and 26 faculty offices. The labs support the many research projects in the school including virology, environmental and occupational health, analytical chemistry and the Antibiotic Action Research Center. The research being conducted on the seventh floor adds a deeper dimension to the school’s research portfolio and exemplifies GW’s commitment to educating the next generation of innovators.
The following faculty members have laboratory space on the seventh floor and are conducting research at the forefront of their fields:
Patti Gravitt, PhD, Professor of Global Health
Professor Gravitt recently joined Milken Institute SPH from the University of New Mexico and now is hard at work on research that has long been her passion: The study of the human papillomavirus and how infections with the risky kinds of HPV can lead to cervical cancer, a preventable disease that still kills millions of women worldwide.
Her latest project, which will take her from the light-filled seventh floor of the SEH building to the Amazon, focuses on the development of a better way of preventing cervical cancer. For that project, Gravitt and colleagues will be developing a better way to prevent cervical cancer in at-risk women in the Loreto region of Peru. They’ll look at an HPV-based screen and treat strategy, in which women with a risky HPV infection are sent to treatment—before a pre-cancer has the chance to turn malignant.
“Such an approach could save many women’s lives,” says Gravitt. “We hope we’ll come up with a model that can be used in other underdeveloped countries to reduce the high burden of cervical cancer.”
Matias Attene Ramos, PhD, Associate Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health
Cell-based tests for identifying health impacts of exposure to the vast number of untested chemicals are in great demand in the U.S. and throughout the world. Associate Professor Matias Attene-Ramos, who recently joined the Milken Institute SPH from the University of Quebec at Montreal, has expertise in a key area of research into using such cell-based tests to evaluate perturbations of different cellular functions. For example, understanding how chemical exposures can alter the mitochondria that serve as “the cell’s powerhouse” will be crucial to establish a causal link between such exposures and the development of diseases with environmental health components, including cancer, autism and diabetes.
Attene-Ramos is working to create and improve biochemical and molecular biology tests using human and mammalian cells to reveal how chemical compounds may be damaging cells by harming mitochondria and other important cellular components such as the DNA. His research also looks at the issue of toxicity from the other side of the equation by testing environmental samples, such as drinking or surface water, to look at endpoints that allow toxicity to be predicted.
“Knowing what chemicals can harm us is crucial, and I also want to help implement effective strategies to mitigate the negative effects of chemical exposure,” Attene-Ramos says.
Amanda Northcross, PhD, Assistant Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health
Her curiosity about how to capture and analyze data about the air people breath, ranging from the smoke from cookstoves in the developing world to the air in poor urban neighborhoods, has inspired Amanda Northcross to travel the world. Trained as a chemical engineer and environmental chemist, Northcross has skills to both identify problems and design interventions to solve them. She also enjoys the challenge of analyzing complex airborne pollutants, such as the wide array of compounds that can adhere to particles in the air, to understand what chemical constituencies may be more hazardous to human health.
In addition to regularly evaluating new air pollution monitors—and perfecting her own designs— Northcross is energized by her teaching duties, which include dreaming up creative ways to show GW students how to use portable air monitoring equipment.
“Air quality monitoring can help empower socioeconomically disadvantaged communities and give them tools to ensure that the people living there can stay healthy,” Northcross says.
Melissa Perry, ScD, MHS, Professor and Outgoing Chair of Environmental and Occupational Health
Melissa Perry’s research has drawn international attention to the health effects of pesticide exposure on farming communities, agricultural workers, and the general public. She and her group research how exposure to pesticides and other chemicals may impact men’s sperm with an automated technique she developed using Fluorescence In Situ Hybridization (FISH) to identify chromosomal anomalies linked to cancer, infertility, and birth defects. In the new lab facility, Perry and the members of her research group appreciate being housed in the same building as GW’s imaging center and its Leica inverted fluorescent wide field microscope that quantifies their FISH data.
Last year, Perry’s FISH research was the first to identify associations between adolescent exposure to organochlorine pesticides and defective sperm. Her current projects include a study investigating links between men’s overall health and lifestyle—including environmental factors--with their fertility and abnormalities in their sperm.
“In addition to helping us advance research that can improve the lives of people throughout the world, our department’s facilities on the 7th floor of GW’s Science and Engineering Hall are giving the faculty, staff, and students many more opportunities to interact on a regular basis,” says Perry, who now is the Interim Associate Dean of Research for Milken Institute SPH. “The new facilities are already inspiring new collaborations.”
Lance Price, PhD, Professor of Environmental and Occupational Health
Lance Price’s pioneering use of genomic epidemiology to understand how the misuse of antibiotics in food animals affects public health recently inspired him to found GW’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center (ARAC), which he directs in addition to his teaching duties. By analyzing the genomes of bacteria found in humans, food, livestock, and environments near food-animal production sites, Price and his colleagues have traced new strains of antibiotic-resistant pathogens to industrial livestock operations.
The laboratory space now occupied by Price and his ARAC group is equipped with cutting edge tools including new liquid-handling robots made by Hamilton Instruments. These robots are capable of isolating genetic material from human specimens much more quickly and accurately than it can be done even by the best lab technicians. They are able to perform the high-resolution analysis necessary to investigate outbreaks and look at the contribution of food as a source of antibiotic-resistant infections, and they are also helping Price and his team in their research into microbiomes, the collection of all the microbes associated with humans plus their genes.
Like Perry, Price values the space’s potential for fostering cross-disciplinary collaborations. “As students, technicians and post-docs from different research teams share spaces in the new facilities, we anticipate novel ideas and collaborations to germinate. For ARAC in particular, we're excited to finally have the communications and policy people working side-by-side with our bioinformaticists and laboratory scientists. This challenges us to learn each other's lingo and synergize to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics,” Price says.
Mimi Ghosh, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
After growing up in one of India’s largest cities, Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), Mimi Ghosh received a scholarship to a college in a small town in West Virginia. After getting over the culture shock, Ghosh earned her BS and MS and then went on to get a PhD in Infectious Diseases and Microbiology at the University Of Pittsburgh Graduate School Of Public Health, where she started working on HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. After moving to Dartmouth Medical School, Ghosh started to zero in on her life’s work: She combined her interest in women’s rights and women’s health issues with the field of HIV acquisition and transmission in women.
Worldwide, the number of women with HIV is on the rise, especially among vulnerable populations such as adolescent girls, postmenopausal women, and women who experience sexual violence. Yet not much is known about the risk factors affecting these populations. Ghosh’s research aims to look at immunological factors that might affect a woman’s chances of getting HIV. In addition, Ghosh says sexual violence against women also affects older women but often goes unreported. Her research will try to find out if injuries to older women that result from sexual trauma can increase the risk of contracting HIV.
In addition, her studies may lead to an understanding of not just of factors that can increase a woman’s risk but also interventions that might help prevent transmission of the HIV virus. Such research has the potential to help women all over the world.
Jeanne A. Jordan, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics
In laboratory space overlooking Foggy Bottom, Jeanne Jordan can be found hard at work to develop faster methods to diagnose bloodstream infections, which are the seventh and eleventh leading cause of all U.S. deaths for infants and adults. Currently, blood culturing is the the gold standard for diagnosing bloodstream infections, a method that takes several days. The delay in the diagnosis can be fatal because doctors have only a small window of time in which to prescribe the most effective antibiotic for these serious infections.
Jordan’s work focuses on the use of a sophisticated genetic technique called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), one that might be able to correctly identify the organism in the blood causing the infection—and shave time off the diagnosis.
Jordan, who came to Milken Institute SPH from the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, says a faster test might mean the difference between life and death. Other studies have shown that every hour of delay in administering antibiotics to severely ill patients can result in an increased risk of dying from these serious infections.
In addition to her work on bloodstream infections, Jordan and her colleagues are also using a method known as Next Generation Sequencing in a study that might help public health officials better understand the HIV epidemic in the District of Columbia. Washington, DC is one of the areas in the United States that has been hardest hit by HIV. Her work aims to find the pathways by which the virus continues to be transmitted--knowledge that could help with the public health goal of getting to zero.
Jordan is also working on HIV eradication in another part of the world: Africa, where AIDS is still one of the top causes of death. To that end, she serves as a consultant to the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) and has been charged with training and implementing HIV viral load testing in African clinics.
Keith Crandall, PhD, Director, Computational Biology Institute
In 2016, Keith Crandall, Director of the Computational Biology Institute, and his staff expanded from the GW Virginia Science and Technology campus to the seventh floor of the SEH building. In their new home, Crandall and his team plan to continue their cutting-edge research in which they analyze huge volumes of data generated in genetics and genomics, including gene mapping and DNA sequencing. Crandall will also develop a Genomics sequencing core for the SPH in the new state-of-the-art lab in the SEH.
Crandall and the CBI joined the Milken Institute SPH under the Office of the Dean and they’ve already jumped into cross-disciplinary collaborations with many faculty members that will help find answers to basic questions about medicine, biology, public health other fields. Their work will advance the state of scientific knowledge and might lead to better treatments or ways to prevent infectious diseases.
CBI’s landmark work involves the application of data-analysis approaches to biological systems through software development. Crandall and the CBI researchers have already pioneered ways to analyze genome data, trace disease outbreaks, study the evolution of drug resistance and diagnose the root cause of illnesses faster and more effectively.
CBI and its staff blend their skills with the expertise of engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, clinicians and faculty members at Milken Institute SPH to work collaboratively on problems that range from the HIV epidemic in Washington, DC to the impact of the gulf oil spill on biodiversity in the Gulf of Mexico.
Crandall, who came to GW in 2012 from the Brigham Young University, says he values the SEH building’s capacity to foster collaborations and interdisciplinary research with teams of scientists working to hunt down the spread of old diseases, such as HIV and new or emerging ones.
“Using the fields of computational biology, basic epidemiology and other areas we will soon be able to make informed, targeted interventions in neighborhoods where a disease like HIV is spreading,” say Crandall. “Computational biology has the potential to prevent outbreaks in real time and thus has the capacity to save countless lives.”