By Linda Coutant
Eating apples benefits our health, right? To what degree is a research topic Appalachian State University senior Leslie McCullen is exploring with her professor Dr. Martin Root in the university's College of Health Sciences.
They are measuring the presence of triterpenoids in the peels of 47 different varieties of North Carolina apples. Triterpenoids are compounds that possess health promoting properties that have been shown to fight cancer, inflammation and other disease.
"We're starting by surveying apples in North Carolina to see which varieties are high or low in levels of triterpenoids, and then in later studies we would want to find out if the effects of these compounds can be studied in people," said Dr. Martin Root, who teaches in Appalachian's Department of Nutrition and Health Care Management.
Root was eager to study the compounds after reading research by others that linked the triterpenoid known as ursolic acid to reduced obesity in mice. "The potential for these compounds is amazing, but no studies have been done with people. What Leslie is doing is the first step towards that," Root said.
Their work recently got a financial boost from Appalachian's new Creating a Healthy, Just and Sustainable Society Student Research initiative. A nutrition and foods major, McCullen applied for the grant and was among 13 students who received $7,995 in total funding from the university.
McCullen used her $400 award to purchase three acids in the triterpenoid family—ursolic, oleanolic and betulinic acids—to use as standards for comparison. Using apples her professor purchased at farm stands, she cuts, peels and extracts them and then puts the extract through a high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) method in the College of Health Sciences laboratory to separate and quantify the levels of the naturally occurring acids found in the peels. The HPLC method requires multiple tests, so the standards she purchased are used for comparison and to ensure accuracy in the lab equipment.
"I've always had an interest in nutrition. I like the science aspect of it," McCullen said, a senior from Apex. She began the project last summer. The research opportunity has taught her important lab skills, she said, but also how to adapt to unexpected change and solve problems creatively.
McCullen is applying to graduate school with the goal to earn a master's degree in nutritional science. "This study has been perfect because it's about why foods are healthy, why these compounds are good for us and how we can prove that. That's what I'm interested in doing," she said.
Appalachian's new Creating a Healthy, Just and Sustainable Society Student Research Projects grant initiative is sponsored by Appalachian's Office of Student Research and the university's Research Institute for the Environment, Energy and Economics (RIEEE).
The grants support individual students and/or student groups engaged in a year-long research project that contributes to sustainability and human well-being through the use of economic, natural and human resources. Funding was provided by the academic deans and other units across campus.
"To be able to fund 13 faculty mentored student research projects with a focus on sustainability for a first time grant opportunity is a significant success," said Alan Utter, Appalachian's interim vice provost for research and director of the Office of Student Research. "This amount of participation from our faculty and students demonstrates a continued motivation of seeking discovery and new knowledge at the intersection of a healthy, just and sustainable society on our campus."
The recipients comprise three students from the College of Arts and Sciences, one from the Walker College of Business, one from the Reich College of Education, two from the College of Fine and Applied Arts and six from the College of Health Sciences.
Students and their projects are:
7th in the U.S. - North Carolina's ranking for apple production (Source: N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services)
13 - number of students who received funding from Appalachian's Creating a Healthy, Just and Sustainable Society Student Research initiative
$7,995 - the initiative's total funding