A common theme helps students become better scientists

Students and faculty members at Virginia Tech are hoping to find solutions to some of our most pressing health issues by creating a better understanding of free-radical and oxidation processes through interdisciplinary training.


Raisins Researchers are conducting studies to look at antioxidant benefits of specific foods.

This training is being conducted through the Macromolecular Interfaces with Life Sciences (MILES) program, funded by a National Science Foundation Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) award. The program uses free radical and oxidation processes as the thematic basis for research and education at the chemistry-biology interface.

Oxidation is a process that involves free radicals, which cause food to spoil or taste bad and damage cellular processes in living things. Oxidative stress is implicated in many chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity as well as the compromise of immune function.

MILES is led by a team of researchers: Susan Duncan, professor of food science and technology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Tim Long, professor of chemistry in the College of Science; and Craig Thatcher, large animal clinical sciences professor in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.


John Koontz working in a polymer lab John Koontz working in a polymer lab

“The scientific scope of the program is broad, crossing traditional boundaries of science from the oxidation of fats to understanding disease mechanisms,” says Long. “The program bridges the gap between traditional macromolecular science and biological disciplines.”

MILES supports the interdisciplinary training of doctoral scientists and engineers. Twenty core faculty members from five of Virginia Tech’s colleges–Agriculture and Life Sciences, Engineering, Science, Natural Resources, and the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine–provide cooperative research, interdisciplinary education, and outreach experiences to more than 30 students. Other departments, institutes, universities, and national laboratories are affiliated with the program as research collaborators and for internships, for instance.

Future Leaders

    The group of students working with the MILES program.

“We are focused on training the future scientific leader, one who functions in an ever increasingly interdisciplinary field at the intersection of biology and chemistry,” says Long. “We also hope to develop leaders who can convey scientific advances to the general public and who are involved in the educational process from an earlier point of their training.”

To facilitate the development of these skills, students take a set of core courses, which help to establish the foundation for their research.

Read more: Student Research (PDF | 362KB)

Students learn the fundamentals of oxidative processes at the interface of chemistry and biology. They also receive training in grant writing and ethics.

The program also encourages outreach activities and mentoring as well as leadership opportunities through committees and presentations at scientific meetings.


The MILES program encourages collaboration that may not have traditionally formed among faculty members and students in multiple disciplines.

“There are no walls in this experience, and we use the entire strength of the university to accomplish our training,” says Long. “We value the importance of speaking many scientific languages, which requires students to immerse themselves.”

To foster this collaboration, students participate in industrial tours, seminars, lunches, discussion groups, novel classes, and for the first time, laboratory training at the graduate level.


Sharlene Williams (left)and Ben Lepene work together on research projects in the lab. Sharlene Williams (left) and Ben Lepene work together on research projects in the lab.

MILES students are required to seek knowledge beyond their specific research focus and work collaboratively with students and faculty members in other disciplines to create novel projects.

For example, graduate students Sharlene Williams, chemistry; and Ben Lepene, biomedical and veterinary sciences, are working together on research projects focused on polymer-based drug-delivery systems designed to reduce oxidative damage present in many conditions associated with human aging and disease. One aspect of their research is the development of antioxidant delivery systems with unique polymer architectures that allow the systems to target specific cell receptors.

They have worked together to synthesize a new polymer drug-delivery system, conducted in vitro testing to quantify cellular uptake and bio-compatibility, as well as conducted efficacy studies designed to investigate the impact these antioxidant delivery systems have on oxidative damage to lipids, proteins, and DNA,” says Lepene.

Beyond the Laboratory


Post-doctorate student Amy Turpyn Peairs, works in the lab measuring amounts of inflammation marker, CRP, in blood. Post-doctorate student Amy Turpyn Peairs, works in the lab measuring amounts of inflammation marker, CRP, in blood.

Understanding the process of oxidation and its effects on food and health is important to scientists and non-scientists alike. Faculty members and students have developed the Mentoring Academic Growth in the Community (MAGIC) program and have collaborated with the Science Museum of Western Virginia to create educational modules about oxidation and its impact on society for K-12 audiences.

“The key to teaching kids about oxidation is to find examples that make concepts relevant in their own lives,” says Duncan. “Food tastes better if oxidation is prevented or minimized. Everyone can relate to food, so demonstrating improvements to flavor, appearance, and shelf life as a result of oxidation control methods is interesting on a personal level.”

  • For more information on this topic, contact Lori Greiner at lgreiner@vt.edu, or (540) 231-5863.

From the homepage

    Researchers working in the lab

Tameshia Ballard (left) and Kumar Mallikarjuna are working to find the best ways to transform peanut skins into nutraceuticals such as an antioxidant extract.

Featured research

Several of the MILES research projects were presented at the Deans' Forum on Health, Food, and Nutrition.

So what are free radicals?

    Hydroxyl radical reactivity is increased by interacting with water (known as hydrogen bonding).

Free radicals are generated by the transfer of energy and the creation of molecules with an unpaired electron that is seeking a partner.

These are high-energy, reactive intermediate compounds that will react with oxygen.

Learn more »

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