Friday, March 27, 2015

Hunting Viruses: LETU's Partnership with Howard Hughes Medical Institute

­Introducing Dr. Gregory Frederick: He’s recently joined LETU as Professor and Department Chair of biology. He has 35 years of experience as a biologist, has been professionally published dozens of times, serves on editorial boards of three scientific journals, and has received multiple professional awards. He’s now helping LETU biology students get an extreme head start on their futures as scientists in health-related fields.

In 2008, the renowned Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Maryland started the Science Education Alliance (SEA) to give college students the opportunity to do hands-on research in lab settings. With only about 80 higher education institutions worldwide accepted to participate, the program is very exclusive.
Dr. Gregory Frederick

“HHMI realized it’s important to get undergrad students involved in research as quickly as possible,” Frederick said.  “That’s what this program is about.”

LeTourneau University’s biology program was recently accepted in this exclusive number. SEA offers several different programs, and LETU will be participating in their Phage Hunters Advancing Genomics and Evolutionary Science (PHAGES) project over the 2015-2016 school year.

“A phage is a virus that attacks bacteria. I explain it like we’re training virus hunters,” Frederick said. “Students are going to go out and find new viruses. That gets them pretty excited because we’re implementing it in the lab of our general biology course. They’ll get the experience immediately in their freshman year.”

This research program content will be incorporated with Frederick's general biology course in Fall 2015. To clarify the importance of this project, Frederick cites the well-known problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

“There are a lot of bacterial strains that are becoming resistant to antibiotics. Most everyone realizes that. The problem is that making a new antibiotic takes a lot of time. During that time, that bacteria we’re trying to treat mutates,” Frederick explained.

It’s very difficult to treat bacteria that have a tendency to mutate, Frederick explains. The antibiotic doesn’t change once it enters the body, but the organism it’s working to treat does, rendering the antibiotic ineffective. Some disease organisms have the genetic makeup that causes them to mutate more quickly than others, one being the organism that causes tuberculosis.

That’s where the LETU “virus hunter” students come in via the PHAGES program. Frederick does point out that they will not be handling any bacterium or viruses that have the potential to harm humans. Their research may, however, help solve the problem of drug-resistant bacterium by researching viruses that attack the TB-causing bacteria.

“The students will be isolating viruses that can kill a cousin of the organism that causes TB,” Frederick said. “The cool part is, when you throw a virus at a bacterium, the bacterium may mutate, but so does the virus. So as the bacterium mutates, the virus is also throwing off new strains that hopefully will be able to infect the bacterium that change. It’s an interesting therapy with lots of potential, and we’re going to see it more and more in medical therapy down the road.”

This opportunity will allow freshman bio students to learn a wealth of new skills as they complete their research. They will collect virus samples, characterize them using an electron microscope, purify and separate them to get a pure culture of one virus type, and extract the virus’ DNA material—and that’s just in the first semester.

Over Christmas break, the DNA samples will be sent to HHMI to be sequenced. In the second semester, Frederick and his bio students will use that data for further characterization, using software to identify and annotate the genes. That way, they’ll be able to determine the virus’ capabilities. It’s an area of research that Frederick says very few undergraduate students have the opportunity to take on.

Frederick is confident that getting students involved in research and equipping them with the skills that PHAGES requires will get them excited to execute further research later in college. The course isn’t for the faint of heart, though. It’s a two-hour, twice-a-week lab that requires more outside work than most general biology courses.

“It’s real research, and research takes time,” Frederick said.

That work will pay off. Students will present their research during at least one scientific conference, and their DNA sequence research will also be published in an international database, with their names permanently attached. If the virus they’re working with hasn’t previously been discovered, there’s a strong possibility that their work will be published in a scientific journal.

Again, that’s all work that will be done during freshman year. The possibilities afforded by this kind of experience so early in a student’s career will prepare him or her for an abundance of notable future opportunities.  PHAGES embodies the heart of LETU: to equip students to excel in their fields with ingenuity while making a positive impact across the globe.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Dr. Wilson Cunha's Contribution to Biblical Interpretation Studies

The Bible. Many read it on a daily basis, but few delve into it with the fervor of Dr. Wilson Cunha, Assistant Professor of Theology at LETU. He’s recently published his first book that he describes as a “contribution to the history of Biblical interpretation studies.”

LXX Isaiah 24: 1-26:6 as Interpretation and Translation: A Methodological Discussion (Septuagint and Cognate Studies) explores different interpretations, considering historical and literary contexts, of this specific Biblical passage.

Cunha’s love for Scripture began at age 15, when he set out to become a pastor. He attended seminary in his home country of Brazil, and while he did pastor a church directly after graduating at age 22, seminary gave him a love for studying Biblical text in Hebrew and Greek. This passion led him to pursue his Th.M. in Old Testament at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan, followed by receiving a Ph.D. in Old Testament from Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands.

After his time overseas, Cunha decided to bring his expertise to LeTourneau University by joining the Department of Theology as Assistant Professor, where he currently teaches classes such as Hebrew, Old Testament Backgrounds, Pentateuch and Poetic Books.

Cunha has a long-standing interest in the Septuagint – an early translation of original Hebrew texts into Koine Greek  - and interpretation of Biblical text. These became foundation of his book that focuses on long-disputed issues of the interpretation of Isaiah 24:1-26:6.

“It’s a very interesting topic because there are so many debates surrounding it. I went to Septuagint Isaiah to see how a translator living in the second century B.C. would have interpreted this passage,” he said.

Cunha explains that the importance of the Septuagint, often overlooked among today’s church, lies in that it was the Bible that early Christians used to study the Old Testament and serves as the bridge between the Old and New Testaments..

“In these specific chapters in Isaiah, when you compare the Hebrew and the Greek text, the Greek is very different from the Hebrew. Scholars have debated since the early nineteenth century how we can explain the differences in the text,” Cunha said. “Most of the explanations have tended to say that the translator didn’t know the Hebrew very well, or he had another Hebrew text that we no longer have, or he made mechanical errors. I wasn’t very content with that explanation.”

Cunha took his dissatisfaction with the explanations and threw himself into what would become five years worth of research, taking a non-traditional angle.

“I decided to look at this from the perspective of the Greek itself. I took two and a half chapters from this book to see if these chapters had a coherence of their own - and actually, they do have a coherence of their own. All these differences that we see make sense in the context of the Greek text, therefore suggesting that this was not a mistake or from a different Hebrew text, but it was the way the translator read the Hebrew. It happens to be different from the way that scholars today read the same Hebrew text.”

In his book, he discusses such topics as the imagery of God preparing a great banquet for the nations, including the often-quoted Isaiah 25:8: “He will swall
ow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.”

Cunha points out the importance of interpretation and translation in personal Biblical study:

“When we go to the biblical text, there are three worlds at play. There’s the biblical text itself, the world behind the text – what was happening historically when the text was being produced? And there is the world in front of the text – your world. It’s very important that you don’t infuse your personal view of the world into the text. Rather, let yourself be transformed by it. The most important thing is to not read into the text, but to read out from it.”

Cunha said the five years of research and writing strengthened him spiritually by relying on God for endurance to finish the massive project. Those disciplines will most likely continue to develop in his life – he’s in the beginning stages of research for another book, this time on chapters two and three of Genesis.

Dr. Cunha’s book is available for purchase on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Online and Entirely Personal

Collegiate experiences usually conjure images of lecture halls and late nights in the library. As we progress further into the 21st century, however, the collegiate landscape is becoming broader.

Thanks to technology, the opportunity to obtain a college degree extends far beyond the traditional live-on-campus-for-four-years model. Many LETU students have families and full-time jobs that shouldn’t suffer at the hands of pursuing their college degree, and with the university’s online degree programs, they don’t have to.

Renee Breaux is one LETU student who experienced this balance firsthand. She’s attending LETU as an online student majoring in teacher education. She has a husband and two young daughters, works full-time as a teaching assistant and also has a part-time second job. Despite her busy schedule, she decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree and chose LETU’s online program. Her reasons for doing so were two-fold.

I chose LETU because of the amount of courses offered online.  The online courses fit into my schedule the best,” Breaux said. “I also took courses at another university, and I was able to transfer those in easily and apply them toward my degree.”

However, Breaux’s decision to attend LeTourneau wasn’t based solely on logistics.

“I was looking for a faith-based education. I loved the idea of being a part of a university that places God first.”

University founder R.G. LeTourneau advocated for work done well for the glory of God. Our faculty and staff carry on that vision in giving an extra measure of support to working, online students so that they succeed in both their jobs and educations.

“I always feel at LETU that I am a person who matters.  I have been in contact on a regular basis with my academic advisor, who always seems genuinely interested in my success,” Breaux said. “I also feel the professors take a genuine interest in their students. I recall having difficulty understanding an assignment, and the professor was on the phone with me until midnight trying to help me understand it.”

Breaux’s degree will allow her to accomplish her ultimate goal of being a special education teacher.

“I love working with children who have special needs and feel that God has called me to teach these children,” Breaux said.

There are many online programs nationwide from which to choose; however, there are few that offer the same personal attention as one would receive from being physically on campus, and even fewer that are authentically Christ-centered. It’s what makes LETU’s online program incredible.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Incredible Partnerships: Dr. Byron Lichtenberg & NASA

It's never been a secret that LeTourneau University's influence spans worldwide; however, "worldwide" is now too narrow a description for LETU's reach.

Dr. Byron Lichtenberg has been a professor at LETU for the past year, and his experience before joining LETU knows almost no bounds, including gravity.

Lichtenberg began his career with the Air Force and was a combat pilot in Vietnam in 1972. He then attended graduate school at MIT, receiving his master's and doctorate degrees in biomedical engineering.

In the early 1980s, he was selected by NASA as a payload specialist contractor and flew his first space shuttle mission in 1983 on the Columbia, NASA's 9th shuttle mission. NASA selected him to fly again in 1992 on the Atlantis STS-45. Over two missions, he's spent 19 days in space. 

In 1992, he began a 17-year job as a commercial airline pilot for Southwest Airlines.

In subsequent years, he started Zero Gravity Corporation, the only company that lets individuals experience zero gravity on earth via a specially modified Boeing 727. Stephen Hawking was one of the company's many patrons.

Lichtenberg was also a founding member of the XPRIZE foundation, a non-profit that offers a series of prizes, ranging up to millions of dollars, to encourage innovation in areas including but not limited to medical diagnostics, ocean stewardship and lunar exploration.

NASA chose him three decades ago. He's since chosen LETU; now NASA's chosen him again, this time for the Commercial Crew Program (CCP).

It's a first in space exploration. Through the CCP, NASA is seeking commercial contracts from companies Boeing and SpaceX that will transport astronauts and civilians to the International Space Station, ending reliance on Russia's space program by 2017.

Last spring, NASA contacted Dr. Lichtenberg, asking him to serve as the Chairperson of their Standing Review Board for the CCP.

"This is a small group of people who are generally independent of NASA," Lichtenberg said, describing the Standing Review Board. "We are asked to look at how the program's doing, whether the companies are meeting their objectives, if NASA is managing it properly and to provide an independent assessment of risk of the program, technical surety, and viability.

"We will review projects from both Boeing and SpaceX, convene and develop an independent assessment to give NASA a recommendation. It's another set of eyes and ears that have experience in the industry."

The CCP - a $7 billion program - is groundbreaking in that it's the first time NASA will utilize privately built spacecraft.

"What it's going to do is free up NASA money that they would have had to put into building this whole thing on their own. Even though NASA is still putting money into it, these commercial companies are putting at-risk capital into it as well," Lichtenberg explained. "This lets NASA take that money that it would have spent and put it into deep space exploration. Now we can start doing the big rockets again - go back to the moon, around the moon and start getting ready to go to Mars. That's the goal in the next 15-20 years."

Lichtenberg first became involved with LeTourneau when his wife chose LETU's online program to earn her teaching degree (which she did, with a 4.0 GPA). He then suggested LETU to his daughter, who was interested in engineering, during her college search. She's currently a biomedical engineering major at LETU.

During his first year on campus, Lichtenberg has been instrumental in launching LeTourneau's Master of Engineering Management (MEM), with specializations in aerospace, oil & gas, software engineering and program management. He now serves as Program Coordinator for the MEM, a degree that marries the university's tradition of excellence in engineering and business, which happen to also be two of Lichtenberg's areas of passion and expertise.

Dr. Ron DeLap, Dean of LETU's School of Engineering, shared that "Dr. Lichtenberg contributes a richness to our business and engineering programs that only an astronaut can bring. His decision to join our team is just one more example of how God continues to draw his very best to LeTourneau. Our students are thrilled that as a part of their education, they can meet one-on-one with a godly man who has been in space multiple times, and has also started several space-related businesses as an entrepreneur. I look forward to what God will continue to do through Dr. Lichtenberg at LeTourneau University."

We at LETU take great pride in that an individual whose advice is sought from one of the most advanced institutions in the world simultaneously teaches our students every day. Since 1946, we've had some of the world's leading experts instruct our students, and we're thrilled that we can now count a leading expert from space in that number.

You can find LeTourneau's resident astronaut on earth, in Longview Hall, bringing his entrepreneurial expertise to School of Business students, and teaching an occasional engineering class. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Fall Fest Recap: Our Nine Favorite Moments

We've just concluded another year of Fall Fest and wanted to take a moment to recap our favorite moments of the week. If you have a favorite moment we missed, comment below! 

1. These Car Cram faces that basically say, "I have made a terrible mistake." 

2. 41's amazing cramming skills; they topped out at 17 people.  

You're looking at the eighth wonder of the world. 

3. These sweet dance moves. 

4. This stache...

5. ...and this fro. 

6. G2 and 41's Sailor and Red Cross theme.

7. A cameo from everyone's favorite canine sleuth. 

We hope he was rewarded with a Scooby Snack for his stellar performance.

8. D2's beach-themed bacon.

In a perfect world, the sun would be made of this deliciousness and send
sunshiny rays of bacon bits down to earth.

9. And for our final favorite 2014 Fall Fest moment (drumroll, please): Behold, ZOMBIE PUMPKIN! 

Enough said. 

See you at Fall Fest 2015 - unless you've graduated by then. In that event, commence in feeling nostalgic about LETU traditions.