Human Health and Well-being
From Seeds to Standards
One in eight U.S. preschoolers is considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control. One-third of three- and four-year-olds and half of five-year-olds in Mississippi’s Head Start programs are considered obese or overweight, according to the Mississippi Department of Education’s Office of Healthy Schools. Overweight children have a greater risk of chronic health conditions in adulthood. Healthy eating is one way to help prevent childhood obesity. That’s why Drs. Julie Parker and Lori Elmore-Staton, researchers in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, created a comprehensive obesity prevention program aimed at educating children, teachers, and parents on how gardens can help foster healthy-eating habits. Drs. Parker and Elmore-Staton established a garden at the MSU Child Development and Family Studies Center along with vertical garden structures at the MSU Aiken Village Preschool. By participating in structured curricula centered on the garden, children were immersed in an outdoor-learning environment that went beyond teaching basic gardening skills and covered science, math, art, music, physical education, and literacy. There were also opportunities to further develop social and emotional skills. The fruits of their labor resulted in a comprehensive manual titled, “Watch Us Grow: From Seeds to Standards,” an experiential learning project, which provided a step-by-step guide for early childhood educators interested in starting a school garden as an experiential outdoor learning environment.
Food insecurity impacts 8.5 percent of adults age 65 and older in the U.S. That percentage climbs to 12.3 in Mississippi, the state with the greatest number of older adults who experience some level of food security. David Buys, researcher in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and health specialist with the MSU Extension Service, recently authored a chapter about food insecurity and older Americans in the third edition of the “Handbook of Clinical Nutrition and Aging” published by Humana Press. The chapter discusses how food insecurity impacts public health. Buys is conducting research on programs for people returning home from the hospital. His study has found that the health implications of food insecurity in older adults are considerable, specifically for those who have been admitted to the hospital for treatment of chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Buys said food insecurity increases these individuals’ chances of returning to the hospital.
The point of impact
Nayeon Lee, MSU biological engineering doctoral student, conducted research on woodpecker beaks to discover more about their shock-absorbing capabilities. Insight from the study could help researchers apply biological principles to man-made design including the design of football helmets with better shock-absorbing capabilities. Lakiesha Williams, associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering in the university’s Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station and Mark Horstemeyer, CAVS chair professor in mechanical engineering, directed Lee’s research. Results from this research contributed to a recently patented idea. Horstemeyer was successful in patenting specific shock-mitigating materials and methods found in nature for use in man-made design principles. The research also addresses an Experiment Station research priority to prevent disease, injury and disability, subsequently enhancing the quality of life for Mississippi residents.
Encouraging healthy sleeping routines
Mississippi State researchers initiated a project at a local child-care center to offer research-based strategies for developing healthier families, including ways to develop bedtime routines to ease kids into sleep. Human development and family studies researcher Lori Elmore-Staton and family life specialist Cassandra Kirkland worked with parents in a new program called “Shape Care,” which stands for Sleep Hygiene and Parental Engagement: Children’s Academic Readiness Enhancement. They emphasized the importance of sleep and how it impacts school readiness, physical health, brain development, and general well-being. Since children carry into adulthood many habits formed while they are young, developing proper nighttime routines to get the recommended amount of sleep is vital.
Developing an antidote for nerve agents
The use of nerve agents in warfare has been a concern since World War II, but the only currently available antidotes act only after these weapons have damaged the nervous system. However, MSU researchers are working to develop an antidote that works before severe damage occurs. Toxicologist Howard Chambers and chemist Steven Gwaltney are developing an antidote that could protect victims from the usual signs of nerve agent poisoning: tremors, seizures, and respiratory collapse. Scientists in the College of Veterinary Medicine will test the experimental antidotes. They will use compounds similar to nerve agents—not actual chemical weapons—to safely test the antidotes, which are formulated to enhance the ability of a blood enzyme to degrade agents before they enter the nervous system. The antidote under development at MSU could also be used in cases of insecticide poisoning.
Repairing reproductive disorders
Biomedical engineer Jun Liao is performing groundbreaking research that could lead to a new treatment for Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a reproductive disorder that affects about one in 5,000 women whose pelvic organ development is incomplete. MRKH causes pain, inability to conceive, improper hormone development, and other problems. The most common surgical treatment is the McIndoe vaginoplasty, where a skin or muscle graft from the patient’s leg is used to create a tissue-engineered vaginal patch. Liao is developing a method of using microscopic tissue from the reproductive organs of female sheep—the most similar to human tissue—to create grafts for treating MRKH. Preliminary results suggest that the bioengineered vaginal tissue can work as a treatment. However, further research must be conducted to determine the biocompatibility and cell-support capability of these grafts.
Promoting gardens for sustainable living
With three growing seasons, Mississippi has an ideal climate for showcasing small-scale raised beds for food production. Landscape architect Pete Melby and dietician Sylvia Byrd directed a teaching and research project to determine if household raised vegetable beds would provide the recommended amount of vegetables for a family of four. Equally important is the project’s goal of demonstrating one of the key components to sustainable living: food production. Students in Melby’s sustainable communities class built four 3-by-40-foot raised beds on the MSU campus and planted a spring garden. Nutrition students planted a summer garden and quantified the nutritional value of the harvests. Melby and Byrd hope their findings will inspire homeowners to plant similar gardens.
Improving battlefield safety
Biomedical engineer Lakiesha Williams is creating digital models of how the human body responds to blasts from improvised explosive devices (IED) to provide the data necessary to better protect men and women in uniform. Her primary focus is on the lower extremities, specifically how bone, muscle, and skin deform under very high blast pressure such as that suffered in an explosion that occurs under a vehicle. Williams’s work is unique because other simulations have not focused as specifically on IED explosions or produced the level of anatomical and mathematical detail in their models. The MSU models show how an IED blast causes the skin to tear, bones to break, and muscles to rip. Ultimately, this data will be coupled with research to develop enhanced safety countermeasures for soldiers with the goal of increasing battlefield survivability.
Developing a new antifungal drug
A MAFES researcher’s discovery of an agricultural phenomenon could lead to the development of a new antifungal compound that shows significant promise for treating serious fungal infections in people with compromised immune systems, such as those undergoing chemotherapy or those with HIV or AIDS. While studying crop reactions to disease-causing organisms, plant pathologist Shien Lu discovered a patch of soil in Mississippi that suppressed diseases. This finding led him to identify a new compound called “occidiofungin,” with broad antifungal properties. Occidiofungin has great potential as a crop fungicide or as a pharmaceutical product for humans and animals. Upcoming clinical evaluations will examine its effects on animal fungal infections and its performance in controlling plant disease. Lu works with other researchers, including scientists in the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine, to explore the potential of occidiofungin, define how it works, and determine whether it is safe for humans and animals.
Education Key to Combat Obesity
Overweight and obesity rates continue to rise in the U.S. and worldwide, increasing the threats of associated chronic diseases and disabilities. A MAFES study investigated demographic and lifestyle variables associated with increased body mass index (BMI). Researchers found that several factors were predictive of higher BMI: lower levels of education and physical activity; higher levels of diet soda consumption; greater number of dieting attempts; and likelihood of starting a diet program based on advertising testimonials. This research highlights the need for more education emphasizing the importance of increased healthy behaviors versus the use of diet products and fad diets to improve success of weight-loss efforts.
Does the Government Make Food Affordable?
Those who contend payments to farmers ultimately result in lower food costs for consumers frequently use the term "cheap food policy" to describe U.S. commodity programs. More recently, farm policy has been criticized for contributing to the obesity problem in the U.S. by making large quantities of fattening foods widely available and relatively inexpensive. MAFES agricultural economists evaluated the impact of government payments to farmers on the affordability of food in the U.S. as a whole and across specific food groups. They found that direct payments do not significantly affect the affordability of food.
Single Parents’ Decision Process
Role strain is of particular interest when studying single parents because of their need to serve multiple family roles. MAFES scientists examined the consumer decision process for single parents in the context of grocery shopping. The study found that advertising positively influenced proactive shopping behaviors and had a negative relationship with reactive shopping behaviors. The study provides suggestions to retailers to better meet the needs of single parents.
MSU Research Takes the Bite Out of Mosquitoes
Since 1999, the United States has had 30,062 cases of West Nile virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of these cases, 1,247 were fatal. Mississippi has had 842 cases, including 48 fatalities.
Like malaria, West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes. West Nile virus and malaria cases together make mosquitoes the world’s No. 1 vector for disease transmission. After Hurricane Katrina, coastal states became prime mosquito-breeding grounds, creating the possibility for a spike in West Nile cases and associated deaths.
The U.S. Congress earmarked a sizeable grant to enhance mosquito control in states most vulnerable to post-Katrina mosquito infestation. The Mississippi Department of Health (MDH) administered the funds to the 49 counties declared disaster areas after Katrina.
Before distributing any money, the MDH held mosquito- education workshops throughout the state. The agency conducted pre- and postgrant surveys designed to gauge practices, knowledge and attitudes of local personnel in mosquito- control programs before and after disbursement of funds.
Postdoctoral associate and veterinarian Kristine Edwards and associate Extension professor Jerome Goddard, both in entomology and plant pathology, conducted research and workshops based on survey responses.
"The workshops stressed that mosquito- control efforts should follow a hierarchy, and the use of spray trucks should be a low-priority option," said Edwards.
However, before 2007, many Mississippi communities had their mosquito control priorities reversed, Edwards said.
"You usually see the trucks go first, but all that does is kill adult mosquitoes. By then it’s usually too late," Edwards said.
Educating the general public on how to protect themselves has always been the most important way to control mosquitoes. The next priority is source reduction, which involves removing breeding grounds such as standing water in old tires and other containers. Destroying mosquito larvae in standing water comes next.
The final solution, which Edwards said is too often the first approach taken, is killing adult insects. Slow-rolling trucks equipped with $8,000 bug sprayers rumbling down neighborhood streets are a common sight in this process.
The study provided guidelines for cities to combat the disease-carrying pest. Steps include first surveying to find which ditches have mosquitoes, and then spraying larvicides to kill larvae in the standing water. The final tactic is spraying adulticides to kill mature mosquitoes.
The guidelines also recommend adult mosquito trapping, which captures seven to 10 mosquitoes on a typical night. When the count swells to 50 to 100 specimens, usually a week after a good rain, it is time to spray. Edwards said simple tactics like surveying and trapping can save local governments time and effort.