At West Virginia University, researchers are looking to restore the American chestnut, unearth the benefits of fire on forests and soil, reimagine refugee narratives and understand the link between opioid use and advanced cancer. Those researchers are graduate students.

Each year, the WVU Office of Graduate Education and Life hosts a Three-Minute Thesis Competition, which challenges doctoral students to present their research and its significance in three minutes using just one slide for a lay audience.

Read on about 2022’s winners and those research topics.

Restoring the American chestnut

Once upon a time, the American chestnut tree dominated forests in the eastern United States – it was tall, big and grew fast in both the wilderness and urban settings. The wood from this tree was strong and lasted seemingly forever, making it a perfect material for barns, furniture, houses, railroad ties, telephone poles and more.

Further, the American chestnut provided food for wildlife and humans (hence the “roasting on an open fire” lyric in “The Christmas Song”) but all of this changed when the tree species was all but wiped off the face of the forests by a blight that spread like wildfire.

The chestnut blight fungus originated in Asia and was introduced in the U.S. in the early 1900s; 50 years later, the tree that helped build America usually only grew as a shrub whose roots still struggle.

But as the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was vulnerable to a tiny fungus, that fungus is susceptible to an even tinier virus, chestnut blight hypovirus, that could cure what ails America’s once prolific tree, enabling a return to both the forest and for building supplies, contributing to a native wood economy.

Danielle Mikolajewski, a graduate student in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, is working on using the hypovirus to restore the American chestnut back to the wilderness and into homes and everyday lives.

The original research began in Europe, where scientists used the hypovirus to attack the fungus that affects native tree species there; however, the virus has not been as effective with the American chestnut. Mikolajewski has not been deterred and continues to work toward creating a “super donor.”

“The super donor is like a universal blood type – able to donate a virus to any strain of chestnut blight that it comes across,” she said.

Beyond useful building materials, the American chestnut could also benefit the environment.

“It has environmental purposes like carbon sequestration, cleaning our air, while also providing habitat and food for wildlife,” Mikolajewski said. “It provides food for us, too, and its tannins were used in leatherworking.”

Mikolajewski won first place in the 2022 WVU Three-Minute Thesis Competition for her presentation, “Super Donor Transmission in Chestnut Blight Strains.”

In the meantime, Mikolajewski will be in the lab looking at her samples from fieldwork, closely examining and isolating a part of the tree’s DNA that did not accept the “super donor.”

Future Americans could see a return of this magnificent tree, with help from WVU researchers like Mikolajewski.

A prescription for fire

During the last two years alone, forest fires caused more than $11 billion in damage across the United States. But Gregory Martin, ’22, found that fires, when prescribed and controlled, can create beneficial changes to forests and the soils that feed them.

Martin concluded that human activities, including fire suppression, can have dramatic effects on soil function. His team studied the interactive disturbances of legacies of fire, large herbivore densities and canopy gap creation in a deciduous forest, finding that fire was “far more influential” than the others on microbially-mediated forest soil functions.

His research titled “Forest Fires, Friend or Foe?” – which earned second place in the 3MT - shows that prescribed burns can help increase plant productivity, eventually decrease the effects of climate change and after two decades, change the microbial communities in the soil. After a fire, the soil became less acidic and ammonium, a form of nitrogen important for plant growth, increased, said Martin, a soil microbiologist who has since graduated from the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.

“It looks like our national policy of fire suppression could actually be harming forest productivity,” he said. “If we manage actively with fire, using prescribed fires, like my work suggests we should, that could increase forest productivity, which will ultimately mean more carbon in soil and less carbon in the atmosphere, ultimately reducing the effects of climate change if we can get carbon out of the atmosphere.”

Unexpectedly, he found himself coding to interpret and analyze his data, along with processing his collected soils in the lab. Martin said the variety of the work, as well as locations from forest to lab to computer screen, made his field exciting.

His next step is working for the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, examining soil samples and performing similar work in soil microbial ecology.

With the support of WVU, Martin was able to attend conferences that allowed him to disseminate his research findings.

Changing the narrative

Survival migrants often suffer stereotypes, and their experiences are misrepresented in a way that plays down their personhood.

Gabriella Pishotti, a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, embarked on a project that focused on how literature can reorient the minds of readers about refugees or those migrating for the purposes of survival.

The project emphasized rethinking some of society’s conceptions about these migrants and argues for people to place migrants’ individuality at the forefront of their stories, using the ontological concept of affect. The concept of affect entails a different way of thinking about emotions and how the human body interacts with the environment, objects as well as people that surround it.

“I am using affect studies as a theoretical intervention into refugee literature,” Pishotti said. “I am arguing that, by paying attention to these emotions and the ways our bodies are interacting with their environment, survival migrants and refugee narratives can help resist universalizing the refugee experience and refocus attention to the emotional, racial, and gendered complexities of refugee lives.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 2020, the number of refugees in the world had surpassed 26 million. This number has continued to increase with crises in Ukraine, Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other places causing more people to flee.

Due to this steady rise, politicians and the media often refer to refugees as “floods” or “tides” of people, a description that depicts refugees as a dehumanized force to be protected against, rather than as a group of people in need, Pishotti said.

Her project dispels viewing refugees as a mass group, but instead as individual people.

“Through a focus on affect and its impact on time, space and personal growth, I show how survival migrant narratives position perseverance over progress,” Pishotti said. “By proving how they differ from traditional narrative forms, I reveal revised ways of understanding refugee narratives and why these ways of reading are necessary for recognizing survival migrant narratives as their own developing branch of world literature.”

Pishotti won third place in the 3MT.

Opioids and cancer

As the opioid epidemic lingers throughout the United States, one overlooked consequence is how long-term use of prescription opioids could lead to advanced cancer.

Rudi Safarudin, of the WVU School of Pharmacy, explored the effects of long-term use of prescription opioids among older cancer survivors, with non-cancer chronic pain conditions.

“I was inspired to focus on prescription opioids and older adults because the elderly are prone to chronic pain conditions such as low back pain, joint pain, headache and many others,” Safarudin said. “That makes them the most vulnerable population to be prescribed opioids compared to other age demographics.”

Recent studies suggest that opioids may suppress the immune system and are associated with incident cancers.

His study investigated the opioid-cancer relationship using a national dataset of more than 58,600 adults aged 65 and above diagnosed with either non-Hodgkin lymphoma, breast, prostate or colorectal cancer.

“Opioids have been proven to be powerful in pain management, but the pain relief may also come with adverse consequences,” Safarudin said. “Laboratory pieces of evidence suggest opioids have the potential to lead to cancer through their immunosuppression effects and free-radical formation process.”

The research was not centered on illicit consumption but on prescription opioids that could result in long-term use. He defined long-term opioid users as patients with 90 days of a prescription opioid supply with an allowed 30-day gap between the last day of supply and the next prescription.

He found that one out of nine elderly people with cancer had long-term opioid use before cancer diagnosis. One in five of these patients was more likely to be diagnosed with advanced cancer.

“Collectively, the association between long-term use of opioids and advanced cancer at diagnosis is statistically significant, though the strength of the relationship is modest,” Safarudin said. “The relationship between opioids and cancer is there. It is statistically significant but clinically not so strong; this is why we need to elaborate more on the individual types of cancer to purify the relationship further.”

Safarudin’s doctoral program is focused on health services and outcomes research. He earned the 3MT’s “People’s Choice Award” for his presentation.

“The 3-Minute Thesis Competition challenged me to bring the best out of myself,” Safarudin said. “Learning at WVU and under my advisors has taught me to ensure I use research to serve the betterment of the U.S. society, my home country Indonesia and the world as a whole.”