Students mentored by Heritage College faculty receive American Heart Association fellowships

Jan 9, 2019

Dallin Tavoian, left, and Bijinu Balakrishnan, Ph.D., have been awarded fellowships by the American Heart Association.

Two trainees working on research projects headed by faculty at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine have been awarded fellowships for 2019 by the American Heart Association.

Bijinu Balakrishnan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher at the Heritage College, and Dallin Tavoian, a doctoral student in Ohio University’s translational biomedical sciences program, have each received a prestigious AHA fellowship. Tavoian’s fellowship supports work toward his doctoral degree, while Balakrishnan’s is for postdoctoral research.

“These external fellowships are highly competitive, and both Dr. Balakrishnan and Mr. Tavoian should be proud of this significant accomplishment,” said Darlene Berryman, Ph.D., R.D., L.D., associate dean for research and innovation at the Heritage College. “That the AHA has chosen to award two of these fellowships to individuals working with our Heritage College faculty says a lot about both the quality of the research being done in the laboratories of Drs. Clark and Puri, and the mentoring they provide to young researchers.”

Post-doctoral research looks at fat metabolism

Balakrishnan, who has a Ph.D. in biological sciences from Myongji University in South Korea and did a year of postdoctoral work at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, is being mentored by Vishwajeet Puri, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical sciences and holder of the Heritage Endowed Professorship in Diabetes, Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Ralph S. Licklider, D.O., Research Endowment. Balakrishnan will be working on research into fat metabolism, which is related to Puri’s ongoing work in this area.

“That’s why we brought him here, because at the Mayo Clinic he was working on fat metabolism,” Puri explained. “He is a fine molecular biologist interested to work in lipid metabolism and shape up his career based on his previous expertise.”

The fellowship covers the years 2019 and 2020 and provides more than $104,000, funding Balakrishnan’s salary as a postdoctoral researcher on a project titled, “Identifying a novel role of FSP27 in regulating vascular function.” This topic relates to a line of research led by Puri, which recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

FSP27 is a fat-specific protein that Puri discovered to be associated with fat and to play a role in regulating insulin sensitivity and the metabolism of fat in human fat cells.

Some of this research involves mice that have been modified to express human genetic material – an area in which Puri said Balakrishnan has made advances, having modified mice to express a specific human gene. “What he’s done is brought a gene from humans and expressed it in mouse endothelial cells, which are associated with the formation of blood vessels,” he explained.

This line of research could result in new medicines for combatting obesity and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and – of particular interest to the AHA – cardiovascular disease.

Balakrishnan called it an honor to get the AHA award. “Receiving the AHA fellowship at this point in my career is highly encouraging in my pursuit to become an independent researcher,” he said. “The research that I perform at Dr. Puri’s lab could potentially lead to identifying new pharmacological targets to treat cardiovascular disease.” He praised Puri as “a truly dedicated mentor,” and also thanked Judi Rioch, sponsored programs manager in OHIO’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, for her support.

Doctoral research compares exercise strategies

Tavoian’s fellowship, which provides $53,688 covering 2019 and 2020, is associated with his doctoral dissertation project, “Cycle high-intensity interval training to improve cardiorespiratory and muscular function in older adults.”

Tavoian is mentored by Brian Clark, Ph.D., professor of biomedical sciences; Osteopathic Heritage Foundation Harold E. Clybourne, D.O., Endowed Research Chair; and executive director of the Ohio Musculoskeletal & Neurological Institute.

Clark said Tavoian’s research project looks at “exercise optimization strategies for older adults. In particular, it’s really honing in on the most effective way to enhance the cardiovascular health and musculoskeletal health of older adults.” This research involves comparing the health-improvement effects of different types of exercise regimens.

“This is looking to see whether or not high-intensity interval bicycle training will enhance cardiovascular health and musculoskeletal health or physical function,” Clark explained. “And comparing that to a group that will be in a resistance exercise training program or a group that will be in an aerobic exercise training.” This study, he said, is perfectly aligned with OMNI’s interests in identifying optimal lifestyle medicine-based strategies for enhancing older adults’ physical mobility, such as exercise.

Tavoian, whose project has also received funding through this year’s John J. Kopchick Awards, said his advisors, Clark and David Russ, P.T., Ph.D., OHIO associate professor of physical therapy, “were great at helping me to put together a focused project with a strong rationale, and they really helped me to develop my grant writing skills. I have been incredibly fortunate to have access to the resources that are available here at Ohio University, as well as the support and guidance from my advisors, OMNI and the Clinical and Translational Research Unit. This project wouldn't be possible without their support.” He said he hopes his research will “provide aging adults with evidence-based exercise options, giving them more freedom to control their health outcomes.”