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Scientific Research and Discovery at AU’s Hall of Science

Advanced equipment and collaborative opportunities for departments of neuroscience, biology, chemistry, and environmental science departments

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Scientists at work in labs in AU's Hall of ScienceIt’s been a year since American University’s 125,000-square-foot Hall of Science officially opened its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, it’s been transformed into a hub of cutting-edge science teaching and research for both undergrad and graduate students.  

The Hall’s state-of-the-art laboratories and classrooms are home to AU’s departments of biology, environmental science, chemistry, and neuroscience, where exciting discoveries are being made across disciplines, ranging from food waste to climate change to cancer.

Keep reading to learn more about AU's latest scientific research and see photos of the work going on in our new Hall of Science.

Department of Environmental Science

Compostable food waste. Photo by Lenka Dzurendova.

Largest-Ever AU Grant: The Problem of Food Waste

Associate Professor of Environmental Science Sauleh Siddiqui recently landed the largest externally funded award in AU’s history, a $15 million, five-year grant to study food waste. The project includes 40 professors from 14 different institutions, including seven other AU faculty members and 45 graduate students. In the United States, about 40 percent of food is wasted, leading to negative environmental, social, and economic impacts. The project aims to synthesize a huge amount of data about food waste and help transform the food system from a linear one that generates waste to a circular one that reduces, reuses, and valorizes the food that is currently wasted.

A Water Quality Monitoring Robot

Associate Professor of Environmental Science Karen Knee is working with the Little Falls Watershed Alliance on developing and field-testing a water quality monitoring robot. Four ENVS undergrads (Bethany Perkins, Soorya Thaivalappil, Sophie Becker-Klein, and Andrew Kurz) have been involved in instrument maintenance, fieldwork, and lab work.

NOAA-funded Microplastics Project

Professorial Lecturers Barbara Balestra and Jesse Meiller have been working on a microplastics project funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Sanctuaries Foundation. Being in the Hall of Science has enabled them to collaborate more easily with Professors Shouzhong Zhou, Doug Fox, and Andrea Brothers from the chemistry department. Two graduate students (Joe Barnes and Elisa Davey) and three undergrads (Natale Landaverde, Kerrie Roan, and Kira Fontana) are also working on the project.Hands holding a sea star

Database Tracks Environmental and Human Outcomes of International Seafood Trade

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Jessica Gephart received a $785,240 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to construct the Aquatic Resource Trade in Species database, which tracks the global flow of seafood species. This database enables research on the environmental and human outcomes of food system globalization and will answer pressing questions about the role of global seafood trade in sustainable food production and nutrition security.

Sunlight filtering through trees. Photo by Vishwasa Navada

Monitoring Climate Change’s
Effects on Trees

Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Mike Alonzo is using time lapse cameras mounted on the very large windows in his Hall of Science lab and office to monitor tree phenology (when trees lose their leaves in the fall and grow new leaves in the spring). Monitoring these trees on a daily basis helps us understand how urbanization and climate change are impacting vegetation function in cities. This data also serves to validate satellite imagery that is also being collected on a daily basis over AU and much of Washington, DC. This work was initially funded internally by a Mellon grant, which allowed Alonzo to propose and win National Science Foundation (NSF) funding to continue the project.

Department of Biology

Students work in biology lab

Breakthroughs on Obesity and Cancer

Associate Professor and Department Chair Katie DeCicco-Skinner is studying underlying mechanisms by which obesity contributes to cancer progression. Using a multiple myeloma cancer model, she is studying how fat cells in the tumor microenvironment support cancer cell growth, progression and drug responses. She has recently identified different avenues by which fat from obese individuals can turn on Multiple myeloma drug resistance, making the cancer cells unable to respond well to a variety of chemotherapeutic drugs.

Studying Endocrine Disrupting Compounds in our Water

Professor of Biology Vikki Connaughton received a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), which are contaminants found in water systems. She is studying estrogenic compounds, the most prevalent EDCs. Estrogenic compounds are known to have potent effects on reproductive physiology and neural development. Connaughton is studying whether these compounds also have an effect on the adult visual system.

Student handles plant in biology lab

NYU-NIH Collaboration to Research DNA

Associate Professor of Biology Naden Krogan has a collaborative National Science Foundation (NSF) grant with principal investigators at Rutgers University and New York University to study how genome variability affects how proteins known as transcription factors bind DNA. Studying these mechanisms can help us understand regulation that occurs in cells, which can contribute to anything from improving traits in crop plants to better understanding a wide range of human diseases. 

Investigating Warming Waters and How Organisms Can Adapt

Associate Professor of Biology Dan Fong is studying whether groundwater organisms may have the capacity to evolve and adapt to warming waters due to climate change. This work is particularly relevant right now because of the growing awareness of climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity, and thus the urgent need to protect subterranean species. Many groundwater species are indicators of environmental quality, and most are under threat from pollution and especially from habitat loss. Knowledge of how such species may evolve and adapt to warming waters will be critical in informing current and future conservation efforts.

Student scoops fish with net

Saving the Honey Bee, Saving Agriculture

Associate Professor of Biology Dave Carlini is using metagenomic approaches to study colony collapse disorder in honey bees. The honey bee is one of the most important species in domestic agriculture: one-third of the food eaten in our country is derived from honey bee pollinated crops. In addition to agricultural crops, a large number of ecologically important plant species are pollinated by honey bees. Colony collapse disorder is a serious threat to agriculture and ecosystem function, so understanding why colonies collapse at a genomic level could help develop approaches to reduce its prevalence.

Department of Chemistry

A New Lab for Mastering Chemistry through Cooking

Associate Professor of Chemistry Matthew Hartings’ popular Chemistry of Cooking class has a new home in the Hall of Science — and students can actually taste test their first chemistry-cooking experiments for the first time. Previously, the associated lab courses were taught in a chemical laboratory, and students could only smell their creations.

A Crime “Room” for Forensics Teaching

Raychelle Burks is leading a retooling of AU’s Habits of Mind Forensics course to focus on a Crime Room for the laboratory component. The creation of a mock crime using a dedicated space on campus will allow students to learn the procedural and human side to data collection and analysis in the forensics field. They will need to collect data, catalog it, store it, and use proper techniques to prevent contamination of the scene.

Diagram of functional groups on dry erase board

Researching Safer and Cleaner Fuel Sources

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alexander Zestos recently received an American Chemical Society (ACS) Petroleum Research Fund grant award to measure phenols using electrochemistry in petroleum samples. The grant, which supports fundamental research in the petroleum field, is one of the most prestigious awards offered by the American Chemical Society. Zestos will use carbon electrodes to measure phenolic impurities in petroleum processing that could potentially lead to safer and cleaner fuel sources.

Examining HIV and Drug Use for Treatment and Prevention

Alexander Zestos has also teamed up with Professor of Neuroscience Anthony Riley and received the District of Columbia Center for AIDs Research (DC CFAR) Pilot award to examine neurochemical and behavioral differences in HIV model mice. The award is intended to bring scientists from diverse background together to help study and understand HIV. Zestos and Riley will study neurocognitive impairment caused by HIV on drug use and abuse as measured in the EcoHIV mouse model. While the implications of drug use on HIV are well known, this work will be one of the first studies to examine the effects of HIV on drug use and abuse, which could potentially help identify novel treatments and prevention strategies.

Using computers for pharmaceutical discovery and to fight the proliferation of chemical weapons 

Professor of Chemistry Stefano Costanzi uses computers to study the interactions between chemicals and living organisms to support the discovery of new therapies. He is currently working to find chemicals that could be used for the treatment of genetic form of gigantism. In a separate research line, he is working on the development of computational tools that can help fight the spread of chemical weapons by supporting frontline officers and enabling relevant policy changes.

Department of Neuroscience

Student works on circuit board

New Department of Neuroscience

American University’s new Department of Neuroscience, under the leadership of Terry Davidson, Trone Family Eminent Scholar Chair in Neuroscience and Behavior, was launched last spring. The new department includes a BS in neuroscience. Graduate students of neuroscience faculty can participate in its multidisciplinary PhD program in Behavior, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCaN). The department will work closely with AU’s Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, which will become one of two new university-wide centers.  

Research with Global Impact

In his new Hall of Science laboratory, Davidson is continuing groundbreaking work to advance understanding of how certain foods and drugs promote brain changes that can result in obesity and addiction. Collaborative research with Professor Richard Stevenson of Macquarie University, a world-renowned expert on diet and the controls of eating by humans, has confirmed that key diet-induced memory impairments that were identified in Davidson’s “Vicious-Cycle Model of Obesity and Cognitive Decline” are also observed in young adult college students. Based on their joint findings, Davidson and Stevenson submitted an invited review of their work to appear in the journal Reviews in Endocrine and Metabolic Disorders early next year.  

Findings obtained in collaboration with Jack Yanovski, chief, Section on Growth and Obesity at National Institutes of Health (NIH) and with AU Professors Stacey Snelling (Department of Health Studies) and Sarah Irvine Belson (School of Education), provided evidence that the threat posed by obesity to cognitive functioning can be observed in children ages 8-12, as predicted by Davidson’s model. This work has received favorable reviews and will appear in the International Journal of Obesity in 2022.  

Finally, collaborative research with AU Professor of Neuroscience Anthony Riley has provided initial evidence that same brain changes identified in Davidson’s model as producing excess food intake leading to obesity may also underlie loss of control of drug intake in addiction. Based on their joint efforts, Professors Davidson and Riley have been invited to contribute a chapter to the upcoming Handbook of Food and Addiction that is published biennially by the Oxford University Press.

Open Source Tools for Neuroscience Research

The lab of Neuroscience Professor Mark Laubach and collaborators at Washington University in St. Louis received a $648,138 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support the OpenBehavior project. The project has created a database of open source tools used for neuroscience research and a repository of video recordings of animals engaged in standard behavioral tasks used in neuroscience research. In addition, the team is working with researchers around the world on establishing guidelines for the use of video analysis methods, especially those using deep learning methods, and will be offering training workshops on using open source tools at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting.

Student drawing diagram on dry erase board

Researching how HIV impacts self-control

Mark Laubach also received a $50,000 pilot grant from the NIH-funded District of Columbia Center for AIDs Research (DC CFAR) to examine mechanisms of HIV-associated Neurocognitive Disorder (HAND) using a rodent model system. Laubach's lab is studying how toxins produced by HIV damage neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex and may lead to changes in brain signals associated with self-control. The team is also examining effects of anti-retroviral therapies on the prefrontal cortex.

Examining HIV and Drug Use for Treatment and Prevention

Professor of Neuroscience Anthony Riley has teamed up with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Alexander Zestos and received the District of Columbia Center for AIDs Research (DC CFAR) Pilot award to examine neurochemical and behavioral differences in HIV model mice. The award is intended to bring scientists from diverse background together to help study and understand HIV. Zestos and Riley will study neurocognitive impairment caused by HIV on drug use and abuse as measured in the EcoHIV mouse model. While the implications of drug use on HIV are well known, this work will be one of the first studies to examine the effects of HIV on drug use and abuse, which could potentially help identify novel treatments and prevention strategies.

Student handles EEG cap

How do hormones affect memory?

Professor of Neuroscience Colin Saldanha’s latest research in collaboration with Associate Professor of Biology John Bracht is supported by a 1.5 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Hormones travel through the blood and affect tissues far from their source. Neurons communicate with electrical signals, and talk to other neurons with synaptic connections. Saldanha and Bracht discovered a combination of these two signaling systems; the ability of individual synaptic connections to make estrogen, particularly in parts of the brain important in learning and memory. However, we do not know how exactly electrical signals affect hormone synthesis or vice versa. We also don’t understand how synaptic estrogen synthesis modulates learning and memory. Saldanha and Bracht will study how synaptic steroid synthesis interacts with electrical activity and neurotransmitter release. Then, they will ask how synaptic estrogen synthesis modulates learning, storage and recall of newly learned spatial information. Lastly, they will probe changes in the genome associated with learning, memory, and synaptic estrogen synthesis.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations and Outreach

One of the most important outcomes of the new facility is the fostering of collaborations. The use of core facilities means researchers can learn about each other’s research and share ideas when they cross paths while running experiments. Many naturally partnering departments are now located in a single building, and short discussions about potential partnerships are that much easier.

Cutting-Edge Equipment for Cross-Discipline Research

The Department of Chemistry has established a partnership with scientific equipment corporation Shimadzu to acquire three new state-of-the-art instruments for separating and identifying materials. Placing these instruments in the Analytical Core allow cross-discipline research and student training in the advanced laboratories. There are now MS projects with committees composed of chemistry and psychology faculty to identify neurotransmitters, as well as chemistry and environmental science faculty to identify microplastics in sediments.

Students work in Hall of Science lab together

Training Future Scientists

In the summer of 2021 American University hosted the National Student Leadership Conference (NSLC) in the Hall of Science. High school scholars from around the country, participating NSLC’s Biotechnology and Neuroscience intensives enjoyed faculty lectures and received hands-on training in the new state of the art teaching laboratories. Director of STEM Partnerships and Innovation, Professor Kathryn Walters-Conte and the other faculty are looking forward to hosting more hands on STEM outreach experiences for DC area high school students in the coming months.

Merging Science with Policy, Business, and Law

The Department of Chemistry is designing a new non-thesis MS track named Chemistry and Society. It will foster interdisciplinary work between the chemistry department and fields such as policy, business, or law. The Hall of Science classrooms are designed to facilitate these type of collaborations.