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Graduate Students Seek Solutions to Complex Challenges Through Novel Research

Graduate Students Seek Solutions to Complex Challenges Through Novel Research

What if you could predict when a civil war would break out in a country? Or, what if there was a way to reverse the nerve damage associated with traumatic brain injury? Two graduate students at Penn State are doing extraordinary research to solve these problems that impact our global society. 

For John Beieler, a doctoral student in political science, his career has advanced exactly as he envisioned four years ago when he first came to Penn State to study political science with a focus on political methodology. A recipient of a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education & Research Training Fellowship, Beieler joined the Human Language Technology Center of Excellence at Johns Hopkins University this past March as he neared completion of his doctor of philosophy degree requirements.

Beieler’s work as a research scientist focuses on collection and analysis of large amounts of social and public media-derived data to explain and forecast political conflict. He describes his efforts as “generating data that other researchers can use to answer questions that are relevant to them.”

“The data sets that we make are continually updated daily with a global coverage,” Beieler explained. “So, you are able to dive into the data sets that we make and say, for example, ‘What happened in Syria yesterday,’ and there is some data on that.

 “If you have ten million documents and want to know who did what to whom in a political event—something like Syrian rebels attacking the town of Aleppo—we would be able to pull that information out and say, there was this event that happened, there was an attack, the source of the attack was the Syrian rebels and the target was Aleppo,” Beieler said. “We would put that into a format that is usable and other researchers could read that data into a statistical software. Often times, they try to figure out things like why civil wars happen or forecast when a civil war happens.”

According to Burt L. Monroe, Penn State professor of political science and chair of Beieler’s dissertation committee, “John’s work blends an international relations scholar’s understanding of political violence, a social science methodologist’s understanding of measuring human behavior, a computational linguist’s understanding of how to automate learning from text, and an engineer’s understanding of how to build cool things that work. John’s research is of tremendous value both to social scientists and to society. What could be more important than improving our ability to understand, explain, predict, and prevent events like terrorist attacks?”

“I get to ask interesting questions that don’t really have an answer right now,” Beieler said. “I can throw things at the wall and see what sticks, but also by working on the research and development programs, I am able to sit down with end users and understand their problems and help make their lives easier. There are a lot of people out there who are working really hard to make a difference in the world. My goal is to help make their job easier.”

There are many potential applications for Beieler’s research. The ability to predict civil wars and terrorist attacks would be of great benefit to our country’s military operations. Military personnel in conflict zones risk their lives in service to our country and when they do, they are also at risk for suffering traumatic brain injuries. The U.S. Military Health System’s Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center reports that 352,619 service members have been diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury since 2000. Certain individuals with a traumatic brain injury also have nerve damage, which can be permanent.

Matthew Shorey, a doctoral student in the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences intercollege graduate degree program, has a very personal understanding of nerve damage. Shorey served in the U.S. Army Infantry from May 2003 to April 2008 (including two deployments to Iraq), and his time in the military exposed him to the impacts of nerve damage, including injuries such as traumatic brain and spinal injuries that have limited treatment options. Shorey is now working to understand how neurons respond to injury and damage, with the hope of finding a way to reduce cell death and encourage nerve regeneration. 

Shorey’s primary research project is focused on creating a new model of injury that better reflects what happens in real life when nerve damage occurs. The neuron’s response to damage is different depending on the type of injury and each response initiates different downstream reactions.  Understanding these downstream reactions are key to developing potential treatments, which is why there is a need for new models. 

Central to his research are zebrafish, which he utilizes to study and observe how nerves cells, specifically the axons and dendrites within the neuron, respond to injury. Melissa Rolls, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and chair of the Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biosciences graduate program, oversees Shorey’s work in her lab. 

Rolls stated, “We have been studying how neurons respond to injury in a fly model system for quite a few years. Matt is taking what we have learned there and testing whether all the same responses occur in zebrafish. This translation from a very fast and tractable system like flies to a vertebrate system closer to us is a key step in using the ideas to help people with nervous system injuries. He is also developing new models of neuronal injury with the idea that these will be relevant to different types of injuries that can occur in people.” 

The idea is that one day this research can be used to derive new treatments to regenerate nerve cells and restore full function for individuals with permanent nerve damage. Shorey is especially hopeful that this type of research will help future generations of military members.

With their combination of energy, curiosity and ambition, Beieler and Shorey personify Penn State graduate students who are asking probing questions and pursuing in-depth levels of investigation that produce critical insights and generate new innovations. Significantly, these scholars, and thousands of others like them across Penn State, are helping to advance solutions to our most pressing societal problems and global challenges.

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