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Rowan researchers aim high to target lower back pain

Lower-back pain causes distress for millions of people, but this enormous problem often can be traced to a tiny piece of tissue — a cushioning disc between the vertebrae in the spine.

As a person ages, intervertebral discs frequently degenerate, causing the vertebrae to rub together, resulting in chronic pain that can disrupt almost every facet of everyday life, ranging from work tasks to sleep.

To help relieve this suffering, researchers in Rowan University’s College of Engineering and College of Science and Mathematics are zeroing in on these worn discs, developing a new material that may someday help rebuild damaged tissues.

Research has shown that new cells infused into the disc can help develop new tissues, but it is difficult to keep the cells in place. “The problem is there are many materials that work, but if you try to implant them into a disc, research has shown they most likely will be expelled,” said Dr. Jennifer Vernengo, Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering.

Therefore, Rowan researchers are exploring ways to develop a three-dimensional hydrogel scaffold containing these cells that begins as a liquid and will become more solid after it is injected into a damaged intervertebral disc and reaches body temperature.

New Solutions

Vernengo, along with Dr. Cristina Iftode, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, and Dr. Jennifer Kadlowec, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, are working to develop a material that will adhere to surrounding tissue, remain in place and enable cells to regenerate healthy tissue. However, such a material must enable the new cells to survive. “Existing adhesive polymers are very toxic to cells,” Vernengo said.

As Vernengo works with her team of engineering students to develop the polymer, Kadlowec performs mechanical tests on the material.

“Mechanical tests mimicking loading conditions in the body are performed as well as tests to determine adhesive strength,” Kadlowec said.  “We want to be sure that the polymer behaves like native tissue and is not expelled if implanted.”

Meanwhile, Iftode and her team collaborate with Vernengo and her students to test the polymer to determine whether cells can survive within the material and how long it will take them to regenerate and develop new tissue.

Strength in Collaboration

The researchers’ diverse backgrounds are strengthening this research. “Cristina’s expertise in biology is very complementary to my expertise in materials,” Vernengo said.

“Collaboration is really very powerful because a different perspective on a common goal is always beneficial,” Iftode said.

This partnership not only fortifies their work, but it offers students majoring in different disciplines the opportunity to interact with each other and share their data. “The chemical engineering students would not be exposed to that in a traditional chemical engineering curriculum,” Vernengo said. “This gives them a more competitive edge and strengthens their background and professional development, making them more marketable for jobs in the biomedical engineering field.”

Collaborations also expose students to new opportunities. “It opens their eyes to the possibilities of doing interdisciplinary work, and they may not have been aware of that before,” Iftode said. “My students often sought more traditional types of Ph.D.s, and now some are talking about pursuing specializations in the areas of regenerative medicine and bioengineering.”

Ongoing Plans

The researchers have applied for a National Institutes of Health grant for their continuing work. Their preliminary research was published in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of Materials Science: Materials in Medicine.

After the teams optimize their hydrogel formulation with control cell lines, they will switch to using adult stem cells. Control cell lines are well established and characterized cell lines that are easy to manipulate, generate highly reproducible data and are cheaper to maintain; thus, they are preferred in preliminary testing. But tissue regeneration is possible only with stem cells. In this sense, the adult stem cells are almost as potent as the embryonic stem cells for disc tissue reconstruction, without the controversial ethical implications of the latter.

As their next step, they hope to collaborate with researchers at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University to obtain fat (adipose) stem cells derived from liposuction tissue. “Surplus body fat is a really good source of adult stem cells, which can be isolated, proliferated and then used to populate the scaffold we develop,” Iftode said. “Then these scaffold-embedded stem cells will be exposed to a cocktail of growth factors that will induce them to differentiate into the type of cells that mimic the cells in the intervertebral disc.”

New Potential

Although research is still in preliminary stages, it may ultimately go a long way in solving a widespread problem. “It addresses a real need in terms of being able to translate tissue engineering and regenerative medicine into actually helping people with lower back pain, which is one of the most common medical problems,” Vernengo said. “I think it will make an important impact down the road.”

The project is one of numerous studies conducted by teams at Rowan, which continues to grow its research initiatives, many of which are funded by such organizations as the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health and Fortune 500 companies.

“This work is a wonderful example of students and faculty collaborating on practical research that provides solutions to real problems. This has the potential to change the lives of our neighbors who suffer from chronic back pain,” said Dr. Anthony Lowman, dean of the College of Engineering.

Beautifully bald

This was nervousness. Hardcore nervousness.

“It wasn’t even butterflies in my stomach,” Rowan junior Courtney VanLeuvan says. “It was jumping monkeys.”

Publicly shaving your head—especially when you are a female with long, beautiful locks—is no joke.

But when VanLeuvan walked onto the stage of Rowan’s Chamberlain Student Center with three other fearless females, when she saw the love and support from classmates and family members who had squeezed into every inch of floor and balcony space in the Pit to cheer them on, when the barber’s cape was secured ceremoniously around her neck, her nervousness gave way to pride…and a true sense of purpose.

After all, Rowan’s third annual St. Baldrick’s Day event, which included 54 students—49 men, five women—publicly shaving their heads, had raised a phenomenal $20,500 for pediatric cancer research.

To view the 2013 St. Baldrick’s Day video, visit the Rowan YouTube page.

So what’s a few bald heads between Rowan friends?

“These ladies,” Graduate Coordinator of Student Activities Lauren Thompson gushed as the razors began buzzing, “have raised more than $6,000—just among themselves—to fight childhood cancer. Let them feel the love.”

That was no problem for the St. Baldrick’s Day crowd. The women who took the stage for the final, emotional, public shaving of the evening were clearly rock stars in the eyes of their supporters. Van Leuvan, Rebekah Russell, Katie Cesario and Janille Olivo all watched their long locks flurry to the ground. Theater arts major Christina Higgins, the other female shavee, had her head shaved earlier in the evening.

“You’re beautiful!” male and female students shouted as the women gathered up their pony tails, all of which were donated to Locks of Love, an organization that provides hairpieces to children who have lost their hair due to medical problems.

Making a statement

Many of the St. Baldrick’s participants shaved their heads in tribute to family members or friends who have battled cancer. The female shavees had those goals—and a few more.

They wanted to make a public statement about beauty, about confidence, about courage. Kids with cancer, they note, don’t have any choice when they lose their hair due to treatments.

“I’m trying to make a statement and illustrate the point that hair is not beauty. It doesn’t define who we are and it certainly doesn’t define our beauty,” says Russell, an art major whose family traveled from Cary, N.C. to watch her shave her mane of red ringlets.

“As women, we’re so attached to our hair. We think that makes us who we are. But it doesn’t,” says VanLeuvan.

Russell raised $2,300 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, while Cesario, a sophomore history and education major, raised $1,000. Olivo, a junior liberal studies major, raised $2,070 and Van Leuvan raised more than $800.

Clinical mental health counseling student James “Bubba” Castorina was the top male fundraiser at $1,070. He asked his barber to carve out “$20K” in the back of his head in celebration of Rowan students reaching their goal. As they have for the past three years, barbers from Glassboro’s Hair To There volunteered their services for the evening.

Rowan’s Student University Programmers (SUP) was the event sponsor. Cesario serves as director of signature events for SUP and spent the evening coordinating the event before taking her turn in the barber’s chair.

Remarkably, since 2011, Rowan students have raised more than $50,500 for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation.

The support from the St. Baldrick’s Day crowd was exhilarating, Van Leuvan says.

“Until I got onto the stage, I didn’t realize how many people were there. We had students from all majors at the university standing together, side by side.

“This event gave us a chance to sit back and see that we’re a community and a family at Rowan. It was so great—so emotional—to see the support, especially from students,” says Van Leuvan.

“I will be talking about this experience for the rest of my life.”

Robots make a splash at Rowan University

Twenty-four teams of middle and high school students and their robots will compete on Saturday, April 13, when Rowan University and the Naval Air Systems Command, Lakehurst, N.J., sponsor the first New Jersey Regional SeaPerch competition from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. in Rowan’s Esbjornson Gym and College of Engineering building, Glassboro, N.J.

SeaPerch, an underwater robotics program, integrates science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula by providing students the resources needed to construct an underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), according to its site.

Competitors will bring their ROVs to Rowan’s Esbjornson pool, where they will compete in teams of three to four. They’ll be judged on speed, navigating an obstacle course and a Q&A session. The winner will receive the opportunity to compete at the National SeaPerch competition in Indianapolis, Ind.

“Students learn basic engineering and science concepts while being introduced to ship and submarine design and have fun in the process,” said Dr. Steven Chin, Rowan University’s College of Engineering associate dean. “It’s exciting to see the competition and see kids succeed, especially when they’re learning something in the process.”

Students also will have the opportunity to learn about Rowan’s College of Engineering, touring the Rowan Hall engineering building and meeting current engineering students.

The competition is free and open to the public.

(Participating teams are: Cape May County 4H, Burlington School District, U.S. Sea Cadet Lakehurst Squadron, Fort Dix Warriors 4H, Manchester School District, Harrington SeaPerch Club in Mt. Laurel, Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science {MATES} in Ocean County, St. Raphael School in Hamilton, Lacey School District, Colts Neck Cadets and Millville School District.)

Let’s go blue: Rowan to ‘light it up blue’ for autism awareness

Rowan University’s colors are brown and gold, but during the first week in April, the University will go “blue” to spread awareness about autism.

During “Rowan Lights it Up Blue for Autism,” beginning Monday, April 1st, at 7:30 p.m., five Rowan buildings will be illuminated in blue. The buildings will include: Campbell Library, Bunce Hall, the campus greenhouse, Hollybush and the South Jersey Tech Park. The buildings will remain blue during Autism Awareness Week, which runs through April 8.

Richard Jones, vice president for student life and dean of students, will speak at the lighting ceremony in the lobby of Campbell Library on April 1 at 7:30 p.m.

“We’re pleased to again have this opportunity to celebrate and promote autism awareness on our campus,” says John Woodruff, director of the Academic Success Center/Disability Resources.

Autism Awareness Week will continue with a “Light it Up Blue” Autism Walk and Resource Fair on Saturday, April 6, at the Rowan Rec Center. The one-mile walk for autism begins at 10:30 a.m. Meanwhile, a resource fair, featuring the Young Profs Exploration Camp, Just 2 Moms, Cooper University Hospital, The Autism Shoppe and Faces 4 Autism, runs from 10 a.m.-noon.

Autism Awareness Week at Rowan is a collaboration of Rowan’s Academic Success Center, Department of Facilities Management, the Applied Behavior Analysis Club, the Student Council for Exceptional Children, and Sigma Pi.

For information, contact Woodruff at 856-256-4234 or visit the event’s Facebook page at!/groups/321902511188338/

While the University community is celebrating “Light It Up Blue” in April, Rowan takes an active role in autism awareness throughout the year, Woodruff notes.

“At Rowan, autism awareness actually takes place year round with faculty-led trainings, mentoring for Rowan students with Asperger Syndrome and a unique summer camp for teens on the autism spectrum,” Woodruff says.

Campus buzz: Students look to raise $20,000 for pediatric cancer research during St. Baldrick’s Day

It’s just hair.

Rebekah Russell—who loves her long, luxurious, curly, crimson mane—has to keep reminding herself of that.

As part of Rowan University’s third annual St. Baldrick’s Day event, Russell will be one of 54 Rowan student shavees—and one of six women—to shave their heads to raise funds for pediatric cancer research. Proceeds from the event, which is Tuesday, March 26, at 7 p.m. in the Pit of the Chamberlain Student Center, will go to the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (

Rowan students have set a goal of $20,000 for the foundation. Russell already has reached her $2,000 fundraising goal. In fact, she’s currently the leading Rowan fundraiser at $2,222.51. It seems a lot of supporters want her to shed her signature locks. And Russell, herself, is leading the charge.

“I’m incredibly nervous, but incredibly excited as well,” says Russell, a junior art major from Cary, N.C. In addition to raising funds for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, Russell will donate her hair to Locks of Love to help make wigs for children who have lost their hair due to cancer treatments. “It took a whole year to prepare myself mentally for this, but it’s going to be worth it.

“In our society we have become so attached to our hair, myself included. I’m hoping to be able to break away from that—at least for some time. I’m trying to make a statement and illustrate the point that hair is not beauty. It doesn’t define who we are and it certainly doesn’t define our beauty.

“The kids who lose their hair due to cancer have no choice and they should not have to worry about losing their beauty or who they are,” she adds.

Russell and Courtney VanLeuvan, a junior psychology and Honors major from Toms River, made a pact to shave their heads this year. VanLeuvan decided to become a shavee after volunteering with Give Kids the World Village in Florida as part of an Alternative Winter Break Trip this year at Rowan. Children with life-threatening conditions and their families visit the village for a respite from treatments.

“At Give Kids the World Village, I saw children having so much fun and enjoying life despite their illness,” VanLeuvan says. “If they have the strength to go through treatment and fight cancer, I can give up my hair to support their fight. St. Baldrick’s Day shows that the children—and their families—have support from thousands of people.”

During St. Baldrick’s Day, students will publicly shave their heads in the Pit of the Chamberlain Student Center.  A group of volunteer barbers will do the honors. Students also conduct raffles of donated prizes throughout the evening to raise additional funds for the foundation.

In 2011, the first year for St. Baldrick’s at Rowan, students raised more than $13,000. Last year, they raised more than $17,000, well above their original $12,000 goal.

For information about St. Baldrick’s Day or to donate to the event, visit