Thursday, February 23, 2017

From Skin Cells to Stem Cells: How STU Students are Helping Advance Autism Research

Senior Leana Ramos studying neural stem cells.
When you walk by professor Dr. Alexis Tapanes-Castillo’s lab, you would never know that the gloved students dressed in lab coats hunched over microscopes are working with neural stem cells.

Under the watchful eye of Tapanes-Castillo, STU undergraduates are growing and manipulating stem cells, and essentially, trying to cure autism in a petri dish. In collaboration with the University of Miami (UM), these students are playing a key role in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) research using stem cells taken from the skin of patients with autism.

“In the labs at UM, a microscopic piece of skin is taken from participants with autism and reprogrammed into a stem cell,” Tapanes-Castillo explains. “Using different techniques and drugs, the stem cells are then turned into neural stem cells. At STU, we grow these neural stem cells from patients with autism, as well neural stem cells from patients who do not have autism.”

Under a microscope the cells look like sunbursts with branches. To the untrained eye, the only difference between the ASD cells and the control cells appears to be the number of branches (connections) they make, and how far they branch out. Many believe that having so many connections is what causes individuals with autism to easily become overwhelmed by the environment.

“One of the theories is that the cells of those with autism grow too quickly and make too many connections,” explained Tapanes-Castillo. “Ironically enough, genius is also thought to originate from cells making too many connections.”
Senior Carlos Canales makes is a daily routine to check in on the cells and make sure they are receiving the nutrition they require.

Since the stem cells are just a few weeks old when STU students receive them, they are responsible for culturing (growing) the cells. In other words, they are responsible for nurturing the cells to maturity, which can take 100 days.

In the lab, students are also testing molecular differences between the control cells and autistic cells. The testing of specific candidate molecules is based on data obtained by UM, who has sequenced the DNA of thousands of people with autism, and family members that don’t have autism. These differences are tested at STU using genetic engineering techniques.

“Since we grow the cells in the lab, we can control which molecules they make. We can turn genes on and off; and we can manipulate the levels of specific molecules using lab viruses,” said Tapanes-Castillo. “We can see if changing the levels of these molecules, which are different between autistic and non-autistic people, make the autistic cells look and behave more like the control cells.”

Last week the cells were infected with viruses, which the students helped create in the lab, and the experiment is under way to see how the cells will react to the virus. They should start understanding how the virus affects the biology of autistic cells over the next several months.

Leana Ramos, an STU undergraduate majoring in biology and chemistry, as well as completing specializations in research and English literature, says she feels very fortunate to be participating in such groundbreaking research.

“Research of this caliber isn’t available to undergraduate students at other universities,” Ramos said. “It’s exciting to work on something that could possibly help millions of people with autism.”

Ramos credits the University’s undergraduate research programs and its professors for the year-long fellowship she was recently awarded at the National Institute of Health (NIH).

Tapanes-Castillo stresses a very important aspect of their research–they are not trying to completely eradicate autism. They’re trying to treat it, so that those with autism can manage it better.

“We want to understand the biology of autism so that we can help patients manage its challenges–the feelings of anxiety, the sensory overload. However, we would not want to eliminate the ability of autistic cells to make extra connections. This ability may be what gives autistic individuals special talents.”

Currently there are no medications for autism because not enough is understood about the biology of the disorder to suggest specific medications. ASD patients are usually prescribed medications that treat other conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder, epilepsy, anxiety, and so on. Although the symptoms range dramatically in type and severity, autism can be characterized by problems communicating, difficulties interacting with others, and repetitive behaviors.

Autism spectrum disorder is a disorder that affects the lives of millions around the world. In the United States, one in 68 children live with autism, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Addressing Immigration Orders with Intellect, Faith and Action

St. Thomas University has decided to address President Donald Trump's executive orders on immigration and refugees with a combination of intellect, faith, and action.

Shortly after the order - now on hold due to a federal court ruling - was issued, the university’s School of Law and Center for Community Engagement co-hosted a panel discussion titled, “Justice for All?: The Moral and Legal Implications of President Trump’s Executive Orders on Immigration.”

The event gathered Catholic immigration advocates including Randolph McGrorty, CEO of Catholic Legal Services of Miami; Christine Reis, director of St. Thomas’ Human Rights Institute; Lauren Gilbert, St. Thomas University professor of immigration law; and Diego Sanchez, a St. Thomas Law student who played an important role in efforts to pass the DREAM act and other legislation for undocumented youths.

At the event, McGrorty explained the details of a number of the orders, while also noting that they were being contested in the courts, leaving their future unclear. Reis and Gilbert echoed McGrorty’s sentiments, while noting the Catholic Church’s longtime support for immigrant rights.

They emphasized the important role Catholics have in expressing their concerns to their elected officials and advocating for more just policies toward immigrants and refugees.

Sanchez spoke about the numerous gifts that immigrants bring to the South Florida community, and the role that students can play in addressing policies as they are developed.

Following the panel discussion, St. Thomas University’s Campus Ministry sponsored a Mass and candlelight vigil in solidarity with immigrants titled “Welcoming the Stranger.”

Following the Mass, students made a “pilgrimage” around campus, with stops at various stations to pray and hear testimonies of fellow students who had fled violence in their own countries and come to the United States as refugees.

St. Thomas University will be transforming their study and prayer into action over the next weeks, with visits to legislators to advocate for more inclusive policies toward immigrants.

In an official statement, Msgr. Frankyln Casale, president of St. Thomas University, echoed the sentiment of Catholic university leaders throughout the country in expressing strong opposition to the executive orders.

“We celebrate the value of diversity within Catholic higher education," Msgr. Casale said, "(and) we reaffirm the commitment of our institutions to creating inclusive, welcoming campus environments that embrace people of all faiths and cultures. Catholic higher education was founded precisely to serve the children of Catholic immigrants who in their own time were excluded from higher education. This is a legacy that we proudly pledge to continue.”

Friday, February 17, 2017

VITA Kicks Off Free Tax Services on Campus

For 22 years, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program at St. Thomas University has helped community residents secure tax refunds. VITA is the oldest pro bono program at St. Thomas University School of Law. Founded by St. Thomas Law Professor Mark J. Wolff, the program has secured taxpayers in excess of $10,000,000 in refunds; student, faculty, and staff pro bono hours have exceeded 40,000.

Last year, St. Thomas Law’s VITA program assisted hundreds of taxpayers. St. Thomas Law School students and other volunteers will spend each Saturday until the end of tax season providing this important free service to the most needy and vulnerable members of our surrounding communities.

IRS Certified Volunteers are available at St. Thomas University every Saturday through April 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., to prepare federal income tax returns, free of charge for individuals and families with a yearly income of $54,000 or less. For more information: 305.474.2415, e-mail, or visit

For the flyer with more information, click here.

President's Day Schedule

On Monday, Feb. 20, the University is closed in observance of President’s Day. Please note the following scheduling changes:
  • The Law Library will be closed. The Law School’s South Reading Room will be open to use for study from 12 to 10 p.m.
  • The Main Library will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Law Students: your Monday classes will meet on Tuesday, Feb. 21. Tuesday classes will not meet. Wednesday through Friday classes meet as regularly scheduled.
  • Students Enrolled in A1 Term: your classes will meet during the regularly hours.
  • Regular Spring Term Students (16-week semester): Enjoy your day off! No class session.
  • Dining Hall Hours:
    • Continental Breakfast: 9 – 11 a.m.
    • Brunch: 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
    • Dinner: 4:30 – 6:30 p.m.
    • Einstein Bagels and Rathskeller will continue with regular operation hours.
  • Fernandez Family Center Hours: Open 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Imagining Humans on Mars

Dennis Chamberland, a bioengineer, scientist, writer, explorer and aquanaut, will be speaking to STU students, faculty and staff about the quest for the permanent human settlement of Mars. Chamberland’s career spans working as a nuclear engineer to developing advanced life support systems for Moon and Mars bases, as well as many scientific articles, papers and journal publications. He is a leading expert on undersea habitation, and has spent more than 30 days living and working undersea.

The lecture titled “Surprising Advances in the Human Settlement of Mars” will take place in the Main Library Tuesday, Feb. 21, at 11 a.m. The lecture is part of STU’s Main Library’s Popular Culture Series, which explores diverse facets and features of pop culture.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Law School Welcomes New Advisory Board Chair and Members

St. Thomas University Law School has announced the appointment of its new chair and five prominent South Florida legal professionals to its esteemed board of advisors.

Dan Dolan, a founding partner of Dolan Dobrinsky Rosenblum, will serve as chairman of the board. In addition to Dolan, the following members were appointed to the law school’s 32-member board: Joni Armstrong Coffey, Tom Equels, Rene Murai, Antonio Roca, and Joseph Zumpano.

“We are pleased with the addition of these distinguished members of the profession from both the private and public sectors,” said School of Law Dean Alfredo Garcia. “They will undoubtedly enhance the stature of our law school.”

Dan Dolan, a ’96 STU Law School alumnus, spent the first several years of his 20 year legal career representing doctors, hospitals, corporations and insurance companies. Dolan's familiarity with the methods and strategies used by major corporations in assessing risk and defending lawsuits gives him a unique perspective in fighting against these same industries today. His firm’s national practice concentrates on civil trials and has recovered over $200 million on behalf of those catastrophically injured and the families of those suffering from the loss of preventable deaths caused by medical errors, inadequate security, product defects and motor vehicle accidents. Dolan was selected by his peers as one of the Best Lawyers in America and as a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). He has been recognized by the South Florida Legal Guide as one of the region's leading trial lawyers, and has been named in the list of Florida Super Lawyers and to Florida Trend Magazine's prestigious Florida Legal Elite every year since 2010. In both 2013 and 2015 he was voted one of the "Top 100 Lawyers in Miami."

Joni Armstrong Coffey has served as the County Attorney for Broward County since 2011. She has been a Florida Bar Board Certified city, county and local government lawyer since 1996, and is past chair of The Florida Bar’s Board of Legal Specialization and Education. Coffey is also past chair of the City, County and Local Government Law Section of The Florida Bar, and has been the recipient of numerous statewide awards for public law service. Coffey teaches as an adjunct professor at STU Law School, in the areas of land use law and Florida constitutional law, and has taught elections law, administrative law, and environmental law as well. She graduated with honors from the University of Florida Law School, where she served on the University of Florida Law Review, and was privileged to serve as judicial law clerk to Judge Peter T. Fay, United States Court of Appeals.

Tom Equels currently serves as the CEO of Hemispherx Biopharma, an advanced specialty pharmaceutical company engaged in the manufacture and clinical development of new drug entities for treatment of seriously debilitating disorders, and managing partner of The Equels Law Firm, a leading boutique legal practice focused on complex business litigation, including cases related to corporate finance and market issues. Equels received his Juris Doctor degree Magna Cum Laude from Florida State University School of Law, and he is a Bachelor of Science Summa Cum Laude graduate of Troy University, where he also received a management related Master of Science degree.

Rene Murai is a partner in the law firm of Murai Wald Biondo and Moreno P.A., specializing in business law. He serves as vice chairman of the Board of Directors of Premier American Bank, a bank he co-founded in 2001. Murai has been involved in numerous civic activities, having served as president of the Florida Bar Foundation, the University of Miami Citizens Board, Cuban American Bar Association and on the boards of the United Way, Dade Community Foundation, American Red Cross and the University of Miami. He has a bachelor of arts in economics from Brown University, and his juris doctorate degree from Columbia Law School.

Antonio Roca ’00, after working for several years in commercial litigation and government relations, Roca founded Roca Gonzalez, P.A. specializing in assisting clients across various fields, including tax, corporate and real estate law. Additionally, Roca serves as the President of Mater Academy, Inc., the largest charter school operator in Miami Dade County.

Joseph Zumpano, President and Managing Shareholder of Zumpano Patricios & Winker, P.A., focuses his practice on complex managed care litigation and international litigation. Representing hospitals and health care providers, Zumpano has architected and argued cases that have resulted in recovery of over $200 million dollars to the benefit of hospitals and healthcare providers. He has led a number of international litigation efforts, including the historic case of Weininger v. Castro, in which almost $24 million was collected in a lawsuit against Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and the Army of Cuba. Zumpano recently tried and obtained a $191.4 million ruling on behalf of the son of a former Colombian Senator and Ambassador to the United Nations for the nation of Colombia. Zumpano’s experience in recovering funds in cross border disputes also includes representation of a client in the successful piercing of a Bahamian trust. Zumpano led the multi-jurisdictional effort against the defendants and the court ordered the turnover of approximately $4 million in assets.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Jigging to the beat

Victoria Molina
Jigs, reels, ghillies, hornpipes and feisanna. No, it’s not Urban Dictionary’s latest slang words; it’s Irish step dance.

For 22-year-old Victoria Molina, an STU communications major and education minor, these words have been part of her everyday vocabulary since the age of 4. She began Irish step dancing at her great-grandmother’s encouragement, competing and performing across Florida and the United States.

“My heritage has a lot to do with my passion for Irish step dancing, and dancing in general,” Victoria said. “I’m part Irish/Italian on my mother’s side, and part Cuban/Spaniard on my father’s side.”

Trying to balance a social life, school and work can be hard enough for most college students. But for Victoria that struggle is compounded by hours of dance training and practice, working at the Law Library, and teaching dance to elementary school children.

“More than anything else, my hectic schedule is a blessing,” she said. “Throughout high school I was very ill – battling two bouts of mononucleosis [mono], and an unknown virus – and I was bed ridden for months at a time. So I’m very thankful to be able to do all that I do.”

The health setbacks she suffered also affected her dance training, but in 2014 she got a clean bill of health and focused years of pent up dance energy into Irish step dancing.

Competing at the highest levels of Irish dance requires progression through a series of skill levels, from beginners to novice to prizewinner, then preliminary to open champion to world champions. The only way to move up is to do well in competitions, and in a short timeframe Victoria has exceeded expectations. Currently, she is considered an Open Champion, one level away from World Champion, and she is nationally ranked #2 in the United States.

An Irish step dancing competition is called a feis (pronounced fesh), or feisanna, if referring to more than one. During a feis Victoria is barely recognizable. She dons a wig with cascading jet black curls, wears elaborately bedazzled dresses called solo dresses, and high white socks called poodle socks. Depending on the dance routine, the shoes on her feet are soft shoes similar to ballet shoes (called ghillies) or hard shoes, which are similar to tap shoes.

“If you've seen an Irish step dance, you'll notice the dancers stiffen their upper body with no arm movement – the only thing moving is our lower body,” explained Victoria. “We’re judged on several things: the difficulty of our steps; control of our upper body; being up on your toes at all times; and having your feet turned out during the entire dance routine. It’s difficult and challenging, but it’s fun.”

Given the rigorous competition schedule lined up for this year, Victoria, who has been with the STU dance team since her freshmen year, decided to step down as team co-captain. It was a tough decision to make, but it was the best decision for the team. She has several local competitions throughout the year, as well as some in other cities. This month she has Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Then, in April, she has the Irish Step Dancing World Championships in Belfast, Ireland.

Victoria, second from the left standing, with her dance teammates.
“It’ll be my first time out of the country, so I’m really excited,” she said. “Shortly after I get back, I graduate! It’ll be bitter sweet - I’ll be leaving the school that’s helped me become the leader I am in and out of the dance studio.”

As to her future goals, she said she’ll be pursuing a master’s degree, and becoming a certified Irish step dancing teacher. She’s delaying the dance teacher certification because once she begins the process, she is no longer allowed to compete.

“I’ve got a lot more dance competitions in me, and for the time being I’m happy teaching and mentoring my elementary dance students,” she said.

Victoria takes the stage at the 2017 World Irish Dancing Championships April 9 – 16.