Research at Kean continues to thrive

By Trevor Conlow

While news about research projects at Kean University sometimes falls under the radar, a few are making a difference in the lives of students and communities at home and abroad.

Dr. Daniela Shebitz, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Science, is one such example. Shebitz is a plant ecologist who studies the effects of land management on plant diversity. Recently Shebitz and 10 Kean students from the School of Environmental and Life Science as well as several colleagues travelledto Costa Rica where they studied the effects of land management on biodiversity.

“I study changes that occur as the forests return after the area was managed for agriculture,” said Shebitz. “My colleague, Dr. Bill Eaton, studies the changes that happen in below-ground diversity that correspond to changes that I see below ground. Dr. Feng Qi is mapping the site, and Dr. Codella studies insect diversity in these areas.”

Through interviews with locals in Costa Rica, Shebitz learned of more than 60 plant species used for medicinal purposes. She one day hopes to help the local people grow these plant species to use them to treat illness.

The dual benefit is that by teaching the locals ways of growing these plants on their own, income can be generated for the community without having to resort to plant depletion in the forests. It’s an outcome that can provide benefits for the people and the ecosystems where they live.

The faculty and students who went to Costa Rica in 2010.
Photo Credit: Dr. Daniela Shebitz

A little closer to home, Shebitz has been working with students to create a medicinal plant garden in Elizabeth at the Old First Presbyterian Church that reflects the plants used as medicine in the late 1600 and 1700’s. The work, which began over the previous summer, is part of a medicinal botany course which will continue in the spring.

Inside his office, Dr. Evros Vassiliou, an associate professor in the School of Natural Sciences, has biological calculations scribbled all over a dry erase board dealing with the questions he hopes to solve in his research on anti-inflammation.

Vassiliou has been working with three students at Kean to improve on an anti-inflammation drug that would be similar to aspirin, a common over the counter drug, which has properties that can reduce the tendency for blood to clot and provide anti-inflammatory benefits.

“It’s something which I’ve been working on for some time,” Vassiliou said.

He hopes it will one day be a common alternative to steroid type drugs like cortisone or prednisone, which can have serious side effects for patients.

“Several students have been working on this project, and I’ve already come up with a name for the drug,” he said.

When asked about what that name might be, Vassiliou smiled, and said: “That one is a secret.”

Dr. Rongsun Pu of the Department of Biological Sciences, who was recently granted sabbatical leave in order to further her research on Primary Cilium, was thrilled to discuss her findings even to a reporter who admits he was a little puzzled by her work.

“What do eyes, fingers, spinal cords and kidneys have in common,” Pu asked. “Cilium!”

This was the topic in her recent keynote speech to student initiates of the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi, the oldest collegiate honor society in the country. Pu discussed her work in Cilium research, a hair like structure on the outside of cells that are present on most cell types of vertebrates.

During her sabbatical leave from Kean, Pu conducted research at Princeton University on the effects of Ciliopathy, a disease caused by malfunctioning Cilium. Pu found that since Cilium is present on most cell types of vertebrae, when cilium malfunctions, it can potentially cause defects such as extra fingers during development, kidney disease, and split spine.

These are small examples of the many exciting projects taking place at Kean. A wide range of projects are taking place around the campus that encompass all the schools of study.

More information on research going on at Kean can be found at

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