With Tick Study, Ciera Morris ’19 Launches Career in Tackling Infectious Disease

When biology major Ciera Morris ’19 wanted to challenge herself by completing a voluntary senior thesis, she sought a project that would reflect her interest in infectious disease research as it relates to public health. Collaborating with Assistant Professor of Biology Elizabeth Gleim and Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson, she found the perfect vehicle: Exploring tick ecology in southwest Virginia and its possible connection to the risk of Lyme disease.

“Given there are a lot of public health implications in regard to tick research, working with Dr. Gleim and Dr. Wilson was the best option for me,” Morris says. “We decided my project should focus on species composition and the abundance and phenology of ticks in southwest Virginia to better comprehend disease ecology in the Roanoke Valley. This included understanding what tick species are present and what times of the year they are active.”

“Her project has been incredibly intensive involving a year of monthly filed collections of ticks at sites all over the Roanoke Valley,” Gleim explains. “She collected almost 20,000 ticks and did a lot of lab work, too.”

With the sheer volume of ticks involved, Morris notes that the process of analyzing the ticks she gathered will have to be continued by other students after she graduates. But, she adds, “I could see this study being published in a couple of years or so.”

Another highlight of Morris’ undergraduate career was a signature internship two years ago with Climate Central, a New Jersey-based nonprofit organization that performs ecological research and produces nonpartisan information regarding climate change. During that January Short Term opportunity, “I was investigating the impact of wildfires on air quality and human health in California and Washington State,” she says.

Morris’ impressive record of research has earned her a two-year, post-baccalaureate fellowship at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana. The facility is part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

“It’s a really impressive fellowship,” Gleim states. “Some of the premier research on tick-borne diseases has historically come out of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories,” including the discovery of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.

“I’m primarily going to be looking at how pathogens are transmitted to hosts, and how disease development occurs out of that,” Morris says. “I’ll be working with and learning from a laboratory team that brings different backgrounds of knowledge and skills. I’m excited because I think it’s going to be a good transition from dealing with tick ecology to viral research in general. It’s a good stepping stone to where I want to be.”

After completing her fellowship, Morris expects to go on to graduate school and pursue either a Master’s degree or a Ph.D. focusing on infectious disease. Whatever path her career ultimately takes, she is confident her experience as a student-athlete has given her the tools to maintain a healthy work-life balance. A member of the Hollins soccer team for four years, three of which she served as team captain, Morris says her professors supported her active participation in interests outside the classroom while her coaches encouraged her to pursue undergraduate research.

“Continuing that type of balanced relationship with both academic and extracurricular interests is important. It teaches you a lot as you move into a career setting.”

 

 


62nd Annual Science Seminar Celebrates Student Research

Twenty-seven research projects representing the work of 30 Hollins science and mathematics students were showcased during the university’s 62nd Annual Science Seminar on April 25.

Students from the departments of biology, chemistry, environmental studies, physics, and psychology took part in this year’s poster session, which was held for the first time on the newly renovated second floor of the Dana Science Building.

This year’s seminar featured research conducted in a number of diverse geographic locations, from South America (the Peruvian Amazon’s white-sand forests), Central America (Panamanian coastal habitats), and the Caribbean (biodiversity and hurricane impact in the U.S. Virgin Islands), to southwest Virginia (tick activity/species abundance and emerald ash bore infestation), the southern Appalachians (forest and cave ecosystems), and the Hollins campus itself (avian window collisions and wetlands). Students also delved into topics such as Knot Theory, stock price prediction, and parent-child interactions.

Following their undergraduate careers at Hollins, seminar participants plan to pursue a wide range of interests, which include enrolling in medical school and veterinary school; completing graduate degrees in marine science, animal science/research, ecology, clinical psychology, and chemistry; and embarking on careers in quantitative analysis, wildlife rehabilitation, environmental education, and food justice.

Among the highlights of the 62nd Annual Science Seminar was the presentation of the inaugural Ella Faith Mode Award, recognizing outstanding student research. Catherine Flayhart ’20, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration and a physics minor, is the award’s first honoree.

 

Photo:  Savannah Goodbar ’20 (far left) and Autumn Woodbury ’20 (far right) share their research into vehicle driver responses to snake and stick models placed on the edge of two Virginia roads, one surrounded by rural farmland and the other in a mix of forest, residential, and light business.

 


Hollins Goes to Greece!

One of the qualities that makes January Short Term at Hollins so special is the opportunity for undergraduates to engage in a travel/study program. Professor of Classical Studies Tina Salowey and Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter are leading a group of 20 students as they spend three weeks this month immersing themselves in the history and culture of Greece.

“Tourists tend to think of Greece as a destination, but for this J-Term abroad course, we will study it as a crossroads, where people of different backgrounds have traveled from ancient times to the present,” Salowey explains.

The topics the group may experience onsite include Greek myths that involve travel quests, ancient pilgrims who traversed Greece to attend Panhellenic festivals, early modern perceptions of the territory as a crossroad of East and West, and the related ways that Greece historically has been a site for invasion, occupation, and empire, as well as a point of transit for refugees. Geographically, the Hollins student travel group will emphasize Athens/Attica, the Peloponnesus, and parts of central Greece.

Follow our students’ adventures this month on the Hollins Goes to Greece ’19 blog.


Through NIH Research, Biology Major Continues Working Toward Goal of Attending M.D./Ph.D. Program

Last summer, biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a research team in the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One of only 1,300 students chosen to work in the program from over 10,000 national and international applicants, Greene spent 12 weeks investigating a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are only 300 cases known worldwide.

The NIH experience offered Greene valuable credentials and crucial preparation for achieving her goal of gaining acceptance to one of the nation’s highly selective M.D./Ph.D. programs, so she was delighted when the UDP invited her back this summer to continue her research into CHD.

“I was back in the same lab working with the same people, but this summer’s research focused on a different facet of the disease,” she explains. “Last year, I primarily conducted tissue culture experiments on fibroblast skin cells, but this year I was studying CHD’s neuropathology.”

While the classic CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, and immunodeficiency, adult sufferers of CHD are prone to experiencing neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s: balance issues, motor skill loss, and/or some developmental delay. “We have no idea what causes these neurological symptoms, so I did a lot of experiments on the neuropathology of the mouse models of CHD.”

Greene zeroed in two factors that cause Parkinson’s, the first being Purkinje cell loss in the cerebellum. “This part of the brain is located at the base of the skull and Purkinje cells are responsible for the cerebellum’s role in managing motor function. One theory is that Purkinje cell loss or death might cause Parkinson’s, because if you lose them, they never grow back, and you’re going to lose motor function over time.”

She also explored a particular pathway in the brain that, if not functioning correctly, could create symptoms of Parkinson’s. “An enzyme called tyrosine hydroxylase, or TH for short, is part of this pathway and it converts the amino acid L-DOPA into dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps in part to regulate movement. If TH isn’t functioning properly, you’re stuck with just L-DOPA and you’re not going to have enough dopamine.”

While this research shows promise, Greene says much of her work proved frustrating. But, she found that her experience with failure as a researcher last summer with NIH was invaluable in building her persistence and resilience.

“What I learned from my epigenetic reading is that the essence of research is that you’re not trying to prove anything, you’re trying to disprove something. In order to be successful, you have to fail. Goodness knows, I failed so many times this summer, but I was more prepared for it having gone through it the previous summer.”

Greene was also ready to handle lab politics for the first time. “The research world can be dog-eat-dog and very competitive. Sometimes egos get into the way of each other. But I drew upon my experience from the Batten Leadership Institute (BLI) at Hollins to deal with that, and as a result I feel that someday I can be a successful leader in the lab.”

Greene says she is tentatively planning to work at NIH again next summer as a springboard to gaining one to two more years of solid research experience, a prerequisite for many M.D./Ph.D. programs. In the meantime, she’s enjoying her senior year experience at Hollins. “It’s a time to reflect and enjoy where you are and who you are, and so honestly my goal this year is to have fun with that. I’m taking Latin 101 and learning about Roman culture, and I’m also taking a theatre appreciation class because I’ve always loved theatre, and I’m mentoring students through BLI.

“I want to do things to make myself a well-rounded person. M.D./Ph.D. programs want to see that. Of course, they want to know that you are dedicated to your science, but they also want to know what you’re doing outside of that to enrich your research.”

 


Summer Tick Study to Aid in Understanding the Spread of Lyme Disease

In the fight to stop the spread of Lyme disease in the United States, one crucial question has baffled scientists: Why is the disease so prevalent in the northeastern U.S., but in the southeast, relatively few cases have been reported? The trend persists even though the blacklegged ticks (also called deer ticks) that transmit Lyme through their bites can be found throughout the eastern part of the country.

Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies/Environmental Science Liz Gleim, who is also a tick biologist, says one hypothesis has recently gained traction: the possibility that “the northern and southern populations of the blacklegged tick are genetically distinct, and that difference manifests itself in terms of how ticks quest for a host. A questing tick is one that’s crawling up on the tips of vegetation and hoping a human or animal host is going to brush up against them and they can hop a ride.”

Northern ticks have been found to be far more aggressive when questing and thus more likely to get on people than southern ticks, who tend to live in leaf litter where humans are less prone to come in contact with them.

Even within Virginia, Gleim notes that ticks from the coastal, central, and southwestern parts of the state exhibit different questing behaviors from one another. This phenomenon is the basis for a project this summer in which Gleim is collaborating with scientists from Old Dominion University and the University of Richmond to discover what makes ticks tick.

“Ticks along the coast are generally not as aggressive as those here in the Roanoke area. So what we’re doing is collecting ticks locally, around Richmond, and along the Virginia seaboard, sort of an east-west gradient, in the hope that we get populations that may be showing different questing behaviors,” Gleim explains. “Is their behavior actually controlled by genes, or it prompted by three distinctive climates? The hope is that we’ll be able to find out.”

Tick Arenas 2
Tick arenas have been placed in the woods adjacent to the Hollins campus to study the behavior of the parasites that will be brought in from throughout Virginia.

Gleim and her fellow researchers are taking the ticks they gather between Roanoke, Richmond, and the coast, and placing them in what she describes as “tick arenas,” containers that are located in mature hardwood forest areas, the preferred habitat of blacklegged ticks. At Hollins, the tick arenas have been situated in the woods adjacent to the northeastern part of campus.

“It’s a very cool way in which we can take advantage of our beautiful natural forests that are convenient to campus,” Gleim states. “We’re really lucky because the folks who are conducting research in Richmond and on the coast are having to use public lands, so they have to go through the process of working with state and public officials and securing permission.”

Students from Hollins and the University of Richmond will be working with Gleim on the project at the Hollins site. “They’ll be coming out multiple times a week to make observations on the ticks to see what sorts of questing behaviors they are exhibiting.”

Tick Arenas 3
Associate Prof. of Biology Liz Gleim (left) and biology lab technician Cheryl Taylor prepare a forest space for a tick arena installation.

Faculty members from the biology and environmental studies/environmental science programs at Hollins assisted Gleim in constructing the tick arenas and addressing a key concern: how to ensure the ticks they’re studying stay in place while keeping out the ticks that already live in the surrounding forest. “We’re putting sterilized leaf litter into the containers so that we’re certain we’re not inadvertently picking up ticks that aren’t part of our research,” Gleim says. “Installing metal flashing and chicken wire will not only help us keep ticks out but also prevent small mammals or wildlife from entering the arenas. The last zone of defense is this sticky material that’s almost like a paste that we use to coat the inside of each area. So, any ticks that try to leave or enter the arenas will get stuck.”

Gleim and her fellow researchers will be placing ticks in the arenas during the last couple of weeks in May. The study will continue through early and mid-July to coincide with when the blacklegged tick is naturally active.

Conducting tick research at Hollins is fitting. As Gleim notes, “Roanoke itself is a major focal point for Lyme disease. If you look at a map of Lyme cases in the U.S., there’s literally this bright red spot on Roanoke. Areas north of here have a seen a lot of it, too, but southward, there isn’t much. One theory is that northern ticks are making their way down through the mountains to the southern region.”

 

Featured photo: Associate Professor of Biology Morgan Wilson (left) and Professor of Biology Renee Godard work on several of the tick arenas that will facilitate this summer’s study of blacklegged tick behavior and the impact of genetics versus the environment.

 

 


Vet School Next Stop for Bio Major Who Conducted Amazon Rainforest Research

Katlin Gott ’18 came to Hollins four years ago with a goal of becoming a veterinarian, and now the biology major and chemistry minor has earned the opportunity to take the next major step in making her dream a reality.

The senior from Fairfax, Virginia, has been accepted at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg, a leading biomedical teaching and research center. The college admits just 50 Virginia residents to its Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (D.V.M.) program each year.

Gott complemented her classroom and lab work at Hollins by working as a veterinary assistant and completing internships in Roanoke and elsewhere, including a Signature internship in West Virginia with veterinary physician and Hollins alumna Jacqueline Chevalier ’01.

Another highlight of Gott’s academic career was spending Spring Term of her junior year in the rainforests of Peru with the School for Field Studies Center for Amazon Studies. While there, she was able to combine her interests in ecology and animal disease by studying gut parasite loads in primates. Her research project, “The Effect of Environmental Factors on Endoparasite Load and Diversity in Black-Capped Night Monkeys (Aotus Nigriceps),” was featured at Hollins’ 61st Annual Science Seminar last month.

“Our results suggest that human disturbance significantly increases parasite species diversity based on the changes in forest density,” Gott reports. “Future research will focus on determining if the degree of forest disturbance plays a role in these relationships, and if zoonotic transmission of parasites between humans and the black-capped night monkeys is occurring.”

Along with her academic work, Gott has been actively involved in a range of campus activities. Along with serving as vice president of the Pre-Med Club, she has represented the group Voices for Unity in the SGA Senate, and, she adds, “I also play guitar, and I’ve been a part of ensembles and played as an accompanying guitarist for a few choral events.”

Gott will begin pursuit of her D.V.M. degree this fall.

 


61st Annual Science Seminar Celebrates Student Researchers

From the Dana Science Building and the surrounding community to the Chesapeake Bay, Caribbean Sea, South America, and Southeast Asia, Hollins students worked closely with science and mathematics faculty throughout this academic year to perform considerable hands-on research in biology, chemistry, environmental studies, mathematics, physics, and psychology.

Twenty-three students discussed their research with the campus community during the 61st Annual Science Seminar, held April 26 in Moody Student Center’s Ballator Gallery. Science Seminar 1

This year’s poster session featured abstracts for 18 research projects. The initiatives included endeavors that focused on the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on fish biodiversity and abundance in the U.S. Virgin Islands; the effect of environmental and social factors on black-capped night monkeys in Peru; and the abundance and richness of fish in the wetlands of Cambodia. Closer to home, student researchers studied glioblastoma, the most lethal and most common form of brain cancer, at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, and explored the economic and ecological benefits of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. At Hollins, they examined the impact of the emerald ash borer on the campus tree population; the functionality of prosthetic limbs for upper extremity amputees; and new, promising treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

Science Seminar 2Seniors, juniors, sophomores, and first-year students were all among the researchers featured at this year’s Science Seminar. Some of the goals members of the class of 2018 who participated in the event plan to pursue after graduating from Hollins include:

  • Attending Eastern Virginia Medical School to complete an M.D. degree.
  • Pursuing a career as a physician assistant.
  • Beginning a Ph.D. program in ecology, evolution, ecosystems, and society at Dartmouth College.
  • Attending the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine to complete a D.V.M. degree.
  • Studying sustainability science and policy through a graduate program in The Netherlands.

Watch highlights of the 61st Annual Science Seminar.

Science Seminar 3

 

Science Seminar 4

For the First Time, Hollins Students Take Top Spots at Research Forum

Megan David ’18 and Emili McPhail ’18 have earned an unprecedented achievement for Hollins.

The communication studies majors won first and second place, respectively, at the 16th annual Student Undergraduate Research Forum (SURF), held at Lynchburg College on March 17.

The Lynchburg College website says SURF “brings together undergraduate students from colleges in the region to present original undergraduate research. The students’ original research and oral presentations are evaluated by a panel of judges and awards are given. The students gain valuable experience in doing research and get insight into the possibility of pursuing their research interests in graduate school.”

In addition to Hollins and Lynchburg, participating institutions include Liberty University, Longwood University, Radford University, Randolph College, and Sweet Briar College.

David captured the top prize with her paper presentation, “Oh the Places We Have Gone: The Interplay between Study Abroad and Social Media.” McPhail’s second-place paper, “Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities: Finding Meaning with the Famous,” also focused on social media. Both papers were based on the students’ individual senior theses, which were completed under the guidance of Associate Professor of Communication Studies Chris Richter.

Sponsored by Associate Professor of Communication Studies Lori Joseph, Hollins communication studies students have participated in SURF since 2013 and have consistently earned honors.


Chem Major’s Cancer Research Is a Different Kind of “SURFing”

 

One of the ways in which the liberal arts demonstrates its power is when faculty from one academic major actively support and encourage a student from a completely different major, even when those programs seemingly have nothing in common.

Chemistry major Veronica Able-Thomas ’19 learned first-hand last winter the strong connection across disciplines found at liberal arts schools such as Hollins.

“Ever since I can remember I’ve always loved chemistry, but at Hollins I also took French classes throughout my first year and during the first semester of my sophomore year. I actually got to spend the January 2017 Short Term in France,” Able-Thomas recalls. “While I was there [Professor of French] Annette Sampon-Nicolas contacted me about a summer research opportunity that would complement my pre-med track and biochemistry concentration at Hollins.”

Sampon-Nicolas urged Able-Thomas to pursue a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTCRI) in Roanoke, where undergraduate students spend ten weeks in a rigorous experiential learning program.

“We’re bringing students from Virginia Tech and several other universities into an environment of trans-disciplinary collaboration and working relationships,” VTCRI Associate Professor Michael Fox said in a recent Virginia Tech news article. “We’re providing the students with hands-on, independent research at VTCRI in the laboratory as well as special seminars that highlight cutting-edge neuroscience research at Virginia Tech.”

Able-Thomas was one of only 20 students accepted out of more than 80 applicants into the SURF program. She spent the summer working with Assistant Professor James Smyth and Research Assistant Professor Samy Lamouille in the Molecular Visualization SURF program investigating brain cancer.

“I focused on glioblastoma, an extremely lethal brain tumor that accounts for the highest number of all malignant tumors,” she explains. “Glioblastoma encompasses a group of cells known as glioma stem cells, which have shown to be resistant to temozolomide, a drug taken during chemotherapy.

“Previous research identified a new molecule that can prevent migration of glioma stem cells. My project was to analyze its effect on microtubule dynamics in these cancer stem cells. This involved the use of various laboratory techniques, imaging technologies, and computing software to visualize and analyze cells.”

Able-Thomas describes the lab atmosphere at VTCRI as “very collaborative, any time I had questions I could always ask,” and credits her academic experience at Hollins for successfully preparing her to thrive in such an intensive program. “The classroom is very open at Hollins, everyone has their own voice and everyone can speak out. Discussions are always happening. I wasn’t intimidated at all when I went to VTCRI.”

Following its completion, Able-Thomas presented her research project at the Virginia Tech Undergraduate Research Symposia. She says her work as a SURF student has convinced her to consider specializing in oncology, and during the January 2018 Short Term she plans to complete an internship shadowing physicians in Gambia, where she grew up. Next summer, she hopes to return again to VTCRI.

“It was so wonderful the way a professor who isn’t even in the sciences at Hollins reached out to me with this opportunity,” she says. “It’s a great example of how professors interact here. I’m extremely grateful.”

 

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NIH Summer Research Teaches Sunny Greene ’19 Failure’s Value

 

“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” Paul Simon’s 1986 song, “The Boy in the Bubble,” proclaims, and more than 30 years later, those words continue to resonate. Constant breakthroughs in medical research and treatment, for example, offer many the confidence that healthcare professionals can recognize and effectively address the vast majority of maladies and disorders.

Yet, despite the rapid pace of medical progress, there remain a remarkable number of people who suffer from illnesses that cannot be identified or remedied. As a result, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, created the Undiagnosed Diseases Program (UDP) in 2008. Today, the UDP welcomes more than 100 new pediatric and adult patients each year from across the nation and around the world whose afflictions are a mystery to the medical community.

“Ultimately, the UDP offers patients the hope of a diagnosis and the possibility of therapeutic strategies,” the program’s website states. “In return, patients provide UDP researchers the opportunity to gain new insights about genetic and biochemical mechanisms of disease and insights into normal cell biology, biochemistry and physiology.”

This summer, Hollins biology major Sunny Greene ’19 was part of a UDP research team. She competed with over 10,000 national and international applicants to earn one of only 1,300 12-week student positions within the NIH Intramural Research Program, the world’s largest biomedical research institution.

“I worked on a rare genetic disorder called Chediak-Higashi Disease (CHD), of which there are roughly only 300 cases known worldwide,” Greene explains. “The classical CHD case affects children and is characterized by partial albinism, easy bruising, and prolonged bleeding and clotting issues, which can be dangerous. Children with CHD also have immune deficiencies that make them prone to recurrent infections, and while a bone marrow transplant can help boost the immune system, the procedure is effective only temporarily. The disease can accelerate and be fatal.

“The atypical CHD case occurs in early adulthood. Adults with CHD don’t face the rate of infection that children do, but they are more likely to experience neurological symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. We don’t know why that is.”

To learn more, the scientists with whom Greene studied CHD are focusing on the LYST gene. “We don’t know what this gene does, that’s what we’re trying to figure out, but we know when this gene mutates it causes CHD. To truly solve this disease and do more than treat its symptoms, you have to understand the pathogenesis of the disease, and to that end we’re comparing the mutations of the LYST gene for classical and atypical patients.”

Greene calls the UDP lab atmosphere “open, welcoming, and wonderful. You have a supervisor and of course they are going to tell you what to do, but communication is a two-way street. You’re encouraged to brainstorm and collaborate and help one another. It’s an incredible community for learning.”

Sunny Greene '10
Biology major Sunny Greene ’19 investigated a rare genetic disorder at the National Institutes of Health.

Because of her time at NIH, Greene says she is convinced she can pursue both her passions in the medical field. “I enjoy the clinical side and I love the research side and I kind of want to marry the two together,” she explains. “Both are important to me because I want to see who I’m helping.”

After graduating from Hollins, Greene is looking at enrolling in a combined M.D./Ph.D. program where she is able to work on her doctorate while attending medical school. Such programs are very selective – Greene cites one in particular that admits just 13 students from over 800 applicants – but she says NIH has given her valuable credentials and crucial preparation.

“What M.D./Ph.D. programs look for is research experience and how you handle the failure that comes with that experience. I’ve never been at a place like NIH that is so successful and yet talks so much about failure, the certainty of it as a researcher, and how you react to it. Are you going to get frustrated and throw in the towel, or are you going to be resilient, persistent, and keep going? The schools I’m considering all want to see how you fail because that is guaranteed, and NIH sees failure as a launching pad to success.”

Greene plans to take two years after she graduates to conduct research “and have this opportunity to fail and succeed.” In the meantime, she plans to build upon the foundation of research she’s established as a Hollins undergraduate. “The biology department faculty is amazing and they have been so supportive of me in growing my curiosity, not just in the biomedical field but also in ecology, zoology, and marine biology. For example, I have gone with [Professors Renee Godard and Morgan Wilson] to St. John in the Virgin Islands during J-term to research marine biodiversity. I’ve definitely become invested in it.”

Greene will spend Spring Term 2018 studying abroad in Ireland at the University of Limerick.

“The Dana Science Building, and all of Hollins, is its own community that is supportive and provides a framework for the future.”

 

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