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Valleybrook lab boon for researchers of all ages

Madison Mathews • Mar 23, 2012 at 11:42 PM

Twelve-year-old Kalin Sokell loves science and french fries. So much so, in fact, the University School sixth-grader just completed scientific research to determine which fast food chain served up the most nutritious fries.

“I did this research because I love McDonald’s fries. I love them, and I just wanted to test them,” he said.

In order to do the research right, Sokell contacted Dr. Andy Clark, a professor of clinical nutrition at East Tennessee State University, to see if he could utilize the newly designed nutritional biochemistry lab at ETSU’s Valleybrook campus.

The ETSU Nutrition and Dietetics Research Laboratory at Valleybrook was dedicated Friday. The facility is a research and educational center located near Eastern Star Road.

Beginning in August, Sokell was the first student researcher at the lab as he worked with Clark to set up his experiment to enter into his school’s science fair.

Sokell utilized special equipment in the lab to extract fat particles from french fries from Arby’s, Burger King and McDonald’s in order to determine if the fat and total calories measured in the lab matched the published values listed by each of the restaurants.

What Sokell discovered might surprise you.

McDonald’s had the least amount of fat with 13.91 grams, compared to Burger King’s total of 16.5 grams and Arby’s total of 20.76 grams. Those lab-determined numbers are much lower than the listed values at each corresponding restaurant.

McDonald’s also had the least amount of kilocalories per serving in its fries at 358.2 kilocalories, compared to Burger King’s total of 496.9 kilocalories and Arby’s 544.4 kilocalories. The listed amounts at Burger King and Arby’s were much higher than the listed values.

“So, out of the fat samples, I would pick McDonald’s as the healthiest,” Sokell said.

All of the in-depth laboratory research and experimenting yielded the first-place prize for Sokell, setting him on the path toward the state level of the science fair.

In addition to Sokell, Jane Underdown, a junior Honors College student at ETSU, has also been working in the lab, developing gels for use as a topical treatment for burn patients.

“It’ll be applied directly to the wound so that the antioxidants can battle the free radicals and you’ll have faster healing and less scarring,” she said.

The gels are also being designed to stabilize the moisture content of the wound.

Underdown’s work is part of her senior thesis in the nutrition and dietetics program. She has been working in the lab since January, and has already seen much success with her research.

“For the most part, it’s been really fun and we’ve gotten, as you can see, a lot of gels ready so far. We perfected the process last week, so we’re going to begin testing and adding antioxidants and hopefully finding that perfect balance between them,” she said.

When she first started out in the program, Underdown said she never imagined she would have the opportunity to do the kind of research she’s doing. It’s because of the lab she’s able to do so.

“I couldn’t imagine a better opportunity for me, especially in the field that I want to enter,” she said.

With about $150,000 worth of equipment in the lab, that kind of research can be done more and more with students in the area and at ETSU. It’s also research that couldn’t have been done if Eastman Chemical Co. had not donated Valleybrook to ETSU last year.

“If the lab was not here, we couldn’t do the research that’s required. We have analytical equipment that you have to use in order to find out what’s going on,” Clark said.

But it’s not just students who are reaping the benefits of the lab.

Clark, who worked at Eastman for 18 years, was one of the first scientists to utilize Valleybrook when it was operated under the chemical company. He was also one of the first scientists to make himself at home when it was gifted to ETSU.

Clark has been developing a new formulation of vitamin D3 and coenzyme Q10 to aid the more than 20 percent of the world’s population above the age of 50 who are vitamin D3 deficient and are unresponsive to traditional supplemental protocols.

In collaboration with the Quillen College of Medicine, Gatton College of Pharmacy, and chemistry, physical therapy and clinical nutrition departments, Clark has created a trial for the new substance that is designed to help raise the level of vitamin D3 in the body.

“We have 60 patients that in the clinical trial,” Clark said.

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