Research Archives - UConn Today https://today.uconn.edu/category/research/ Fri, 03 Feb 2023 19:46:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=6.0.2 UConn to Host Cannabis Research Conference https://today.uconn.edu/2023/02/uconn-to-host-cannabis-research-conference/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/02/uconn-to-host-cannabis-research-conference/#respond Thu, 02 Feb 2023 17:43:02 +0000 Jessica McBride, PhD https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194902 The University of Connecticut will hold a symposium on cannabis March 16 and 17, 2023 at the main campus in Storrs. Topics covered will include cannabis genetics and biology, clinical applications of cannabis, enhancing cannabis production, cannabis law, and more.

The symposium aims to create a space for scientists, scholars, students, and the business community to connect and share information on the emerging field of cannabis research.

“UConn has been a leader in cannabis research for some time,” says interim vice president for research S. Pamir Alpay. “We are hopeful that this conference will serve as a nexus for conversation and networking between industry and academia.”

UConn made waves in 2019 when it announced it would offer the nation’s first university class on the fundamentals of cannabis horticulture. Researchers at the state’s flagship university also conduct innovative research focused on micropropagation, molecular genetics, economics of cannabis, human health impact, and more.

The university also supports technology commercialization and workforce development related to the cannabis industry.

Along with several panels, a plenary talk will be given by preeminent cannabis scholar Aron Lichtman from Virginia Commonwealth University. Lichtman is an international expert on the pharmacological effects of cannabinoids on behavior, pain intervention, and disease.

“As legislation and societal perceptions of cannabis continue to evolve, cannabis research at world-class universities like UConn become even more critical,” says Dean of the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources Indrajeet Chaubey. “Through this symposium, we’re bringing together UConn’s three mission areas – research, education, and extension outreach – to support an industry that clearly has a lot of potential in our state and beyond.”

To learn more and register to attend the UConn Cannabis Symposium, visit the event website.

 

The UConn Cannabis Symposium is a joint initiative supported by UConn’s Office of the Vice President for Research, College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine, and School of Law.

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Patients’ Lived Experience Shapes Research for Young Adult Opioid Use Recovery https://today.uconn.edu/2023/02/patients-lived-experience-shapes-research-for-young-adult-opioid-use-recovery/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/02/patients-lived-experience-shapes-research-for-young-adult-opioid-use-recovery/#respond Wed, 01 Feb 2023 12:30:37 +0000 Mac Murray https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194813 As public health officials, community care providers, and policymakers across the country scramble to contend with the devastating effects of the national opioid epidemic, one group frequently falls through the cracks: young people. 

Dr. Kristyn Zajac
Kristyn Zajac, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Pat and Jim Calhoun Cardiology Center at UConn Health. May 4, 2022 (Tina Encarnacion/UConn Health)

Young adult recovery has long been a research specialty for UConn Health associate professor Dr. Kristyn Zajac, who is a clinical psychologist by training. For a variety of reasons, she explains, emerging adults don’t respond as well as older individuals to traditional opioid use disorder (OUD) treatments.  

Nonetheless, they comprise “the group that’s been arguably the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.” And with fentanyl’s increasing prevalence in the opioid supply, young people with OUD are increasingly at a greater risk for overdosing, a trend researchers don’t foresee reversing anytime soon. 

Residential and outpatient treatment programs for emerging adults in recovery have proliferated in recent years – including collegiate programs like the Recovery Community Center. 

“They [recovery programs] are kind of spreading like wildfire,” Zajac says. “And we think that is great, because we know that they’re helpful. But there’s been almost no research done on them. So, the NIH wants questions answered like, which of these services are the most helpful? For whom are they helpful? Under what conditions are they helpful? And how do we get them out into communities?” 

Zajac’s latest research project, the Collaborative Hub for Emerging Adult Recovery Research (CHEARR), is a cross-organizational, boundary-breaking collaboration geared toward improving outcomes for young adults in treatment for OUD. Funded by a nearly $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, CHEARR is filling a gap in existing opioid recovery research by focusing on the efficacy of specific support services for young adults. By studying the outcomes associated with these services, researchers will be able to develop a new set of standards for young adult recovery programs. 

“When you meet with a really young person who has had their whole life torn apart because of addictions, you just want to help fix the problem.”

First up for Zajac’s team will be forming two community boards that will advise and guide researchers throughout the initiative. One board will be made up of young adults with lived experience in recovery from OUD; the other will comprise recovery coaches who have worked with emerging adult populations with OUD. Zajac describes both boards as “partners” in the development of research priorities. 

“The goal is that we should really be talking with the patients who are most affected by the condition, whereas historically research has kind of come top-down — we say, ‘This is what we think is the best thing to do,’ without really having a dialogue with those patients that are most affected,” Zajac says. “These community boards are the core of what we’re going to be doing.” 

CHEARR’s second chief focus will be developing a pipeline of researchers who are interested in recovery support services. The project will encompass a variety of initiatives to stimulate further research in recovery support, as well as opportunities to synthesize existing research in the subfield through national conferences and other forms of research networking.  

“We’re going to have a student internship – hopefully we’ll have a lot of UConn undergraduate students in that – and we’re also going to have a postdoctoral fellowship,” Zajac says. “And for both of those, we’re going to be trying to choose applicants who have lived experience of their own in recovery, or with familial substance use problems, so that they have their own personal experience to pull from. We’ve learned more and more as researchers that when people have personal experiences with the problems that they’re studying, they bring a very unique perspective and really enhance the research.” 

Zajac’s cross-country collaborators include the Connecticut Community for Addiction Recovery (CCAR) and researchers at the Oregon Social Learning Center, the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School, and East Tennessee State University. At UConn, she is supported by her co-investigator Dr. Lourah Kelly, a postdoctoral fellow at UConn Health.  

As CHEARR develops, Zajac hopes that the community connections it generates will attract even more research interest and form a nationwide web of problem-solvers dedicated to supporting young adults in recovery. 

“When you meet with a really young person who has had their whole life torn apart because of addictions, you just want to help fix the problem,” Zajac says. “This is a devastating problem. It’s so widespread, and we need to figure out the best way to fix it.”

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A Self-Cooling Tent that Runs on Just Water and Sunshine https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/a-self-cooling-tent-that-runs-on-just-water-and-sunshine/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/a-self-cooling-tent-that-runs-on-just-water-and-sunshine/#respond Wed, 25 Jan 2023 12:30:34 +0000 Mac Murray https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194142 For many avid outdoorspeople, summertime and camping go hand in hand. But as climate change continues to drive summer temperatures higher, outdoor recreation could become less relaxing—and cooling technologies like fans and portable air conditioners require electricity that is seldom available at the average campsite.  

Seeing an unmet need, UConn researcher Al Kasani, working with Technology Commercialization Services (TCS) and the university’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2), has developed a new off-grid technology that allows a tent’s internal temperature to cool up to 20°F below the ambient temperature. 

The tent requires just one external element to function, one that is typically found in abundance around campsites: water. A single gallon of water can power the tent’s cooling technology for up to 24 hours. 

“Looking into nature is the key to many of our problems. Plants wick water from the ground and then sweat to cool themselves, and they get the required energy from the sun. What I did was simply to find a material that could do the same job,” Kasani says. 

Al Kasani stands in a labcoat and gloves, holding a beaker and smiling at the camera.
Al Kasani is currently a research assistant at UConn’s Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2).

A proprietary fabric wicks water from a reservoir up through the entire surface area of the tent, leading to an electricity-free temperature decrease far more substantial than existing cooling technologies. The most efficient technology currently on the market, explains Michael Invernale, a senior licensing manager at TCS, is an infrared reflective tent.  

“All the heat gets bounced off of an infrared reflective tent, and the best-case scenario there is that it’s just as hot in the tent as it is outside,” he says. “It’s not any hotter, but depending on what’s inside the tent versus outside, and air flow, it might still feel hotter inside the tent, even if the temperature is the same. With this new evaporative cooling technology, you can get the inside temperature down to 15 or 20 degrees cooler inside versus outside.” 

The tent has a tiny footprint, both physically and ecologically. Its lightweight fabric makes it packable and far more portable than electric fans, and its cooling system is “powered” by endlessly repeatable reactions between water and titanium nanoparticles – eliminating emissions and utilizing renewable resources. The wide availability of titanium ensures that the tent’s production will remain cost-effective for producers and affordable for consumers. 

The moisture-wicking technology also has an added benefit: an air-purifying effect provided by the antimicrobial nanoparticles.  

“The water and the nanoparticles are undergoing a reversible reaction, over and over as the water leaves. But the water is getting in contact with this catalytic material, and the process of that generates radicals and it will kill [infectious] material that’s in and on the tent. So, it could also be considered a bit of an air cleaner,” Invernale says. 

Industry interest in Kasani’s technology has been high, according to Invernale, whose office assists researchers in commercializing their innovations into products that benefit society and fuel economic development. Eventually, he hopes to see the tent on the market for recreational campers, as well as foresters, military personnel, and all who could benefit from a cooler place to take shelter. 

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Exercise Class for People with Parkinson’s Disease Celebrates 10 Years https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/exercise-class-for-people-with-parkinsons-disease-celebrates-10-years/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/exercise-class-for-people-with-parkinsons-disease-celebrates-10-years/#respond Wed, 25 Jan 2023 12:15:19 +0000 Jason Sheldon https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194633 There were warm embraces, touching stories, tears of joy, and lots of laughs at a celebratory lunch to mark 10 years of an exercise group to aid people with Parkinson’s disease.

Since 2012, the exercise group for people with Parkinson’s disease has met weekly for a movement-based therapy class developed by Cristina Colón-Semenza, assistant professor of kinesiology in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources.

“I believe in holistic care and this disease can bring feelings of depression and isolation,” says Colón-Semenza. “Coming together and making these social connections is good for the body and mind along with our main focus: physical rehabilitation.”

The class was originally offered through the Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic at UConn Health. The Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic offers outpatient physical therapy services to the UConn community and local residents. Using evidence-based research to deliver high-quality patient care, the clinic also serves as an educational facility and outreach setting for the Department of Kinesiology’s Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) Program.

The Parkinson’s disease exercise class provides an opportunity for students and faculty to work directly with patients to support and improve their health and well-being.

Exercise is important for everyone and those with Parkinson’s can benefit in slowing the progression of the disease and its effects on the brain and body. Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disease, affects nerve cells in the brain, which causes unintended and uncontrolled movements.

The class uses aerobic, balance, and coordination exercises, and offers a supportive space that can improve its members’ physical and mental health and motivation to exercise.

Colón-Semenza created the exercise class during her time working as a physical therapist at the Nayden Rehabilitation Clinic at UConn Health. Upon discharging a patient from their rehabilitation, she suggested they continue therapy at an exercise class for Parkinson’s patients in Glastonbury.

“There were many people in the area who had Parkinson’s disease. As I saw patients with Parkinson’s at the clinic, I’d recommend the class to them. In the time since, we’ve become more known and grown to offer the class well beyond the clinic’s patients.”

Colón-Semenza and Colleen Bonadies, physical therapist at UConn Health, have co-led the class as it transitioned from the Nayden Clinic to the Department of Kinesiology on the Storrs campus.

The class is now offered as a free service for the community through the UConn PT C.A.R.E.S. Pro-Bono Clinic, a student-run, faculty-guided program that offers health and wellness services to uninsured or underinsured members of the community to access physical therapy services.

The class creates a learning environment for students in the physical therapy program. Every semester, two students in the doctor of physical therapy program participate to gain experience working with patients with Parkinson’s disease.

Colón-Semenza has embarked on additional research exploring ways to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease, assessing their conditions and ensuring they experience the highest-possible quality of life.

Her current research examines which physical activities and interventions might work best for underrepresented populations, such as Hispanic communities. These groups have historically been marginalized in research studies on Parkinson’s disease and frequently experience barriers to access healthcare.

She is exploring peer support for exercise through a virtual program that aims to reach geographically diverse areas with support from the UConn Center on Aging.

In another project, Colón-Semenza is working with Clare Benson, an assistant professor of photography in the UConn School of Fine Arts, on an interactive project to create images through movement to improve walking ability and the motivation for practice. The project is funded by a STEAM Innovation Grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research.

“This is all research that has been spawned by this class and these participants,” says Colón-Semenza. “For the last ten years, our program has grown from clinical services to incorporate research, community outreach, and student learning. We wanted to recognize and celebrate this group for the inspiration we give one another.”

This work relates to CAHNR’s Strategic Vision area focused on Enhancing Health and Well-Being Locally, Nationally, and Globally.

Follow UConn CAHNR on social media

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Four UConn Researchers Take DoD University Research Equipment Awards https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/four-uconn-researchers-take-dod-university-research-equipment-awards/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/four-uconn-researchers-take-dod-university-research-equipment-awards/#respond Tue, 24 Jan 2023 12:01:49 +0000 Mac Murray https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194564 The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has awarded four UConn scientists with high-profile grants to fund the acquisition of technology to bolster their research capabilities.  

The highly competitive Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP), offered by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR), funds cutting-edge research projects with potential to assist national defense. 

Daniel McCarron: “Stimulated Optical Forces To Cool and Trap CH Radicals” (AFOSR) 

McCarron, a physics professor, received a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research for his work analyzing the quantum mechanical behavior of a simple hydrocarbon molecule: CH, or methylidyne. A highly reactive gas, methylidyne is abundant in the interstellar medium, and its simple composition promises to allow researchers to study the role of quantum mechanics within organic chemistry. 

In order to expose the quantum nature of these molecules, McCarron has devised a way to cool them down to a millionth of a degree above absolute zero using laser light. At such a low temperature, “quantum effects are amplified and can reveal themselves in the lab,” he says. 

“You don’t really get that in a beaker at room temperature – things just happen too quickly and too chaotically.” 

The AFOSR is funding the purchase of a high-powered laser to assist in slowing down beams of CH radicals from about 100 meters per second to a more stationary several centimeters per second. This laser-cooling and trapping technology will allow McCarron to amplify and better study the quantum behavior of this organic molecule, with an eye toward furthering scientific knowledge about the role of quantum mechanics in chemical reactions in general—a field where successful research has been scarce. 

“We don’t really know what role quantum mechanics plays in chemical reactions yet,” McCarron says. “Once we have an improved understanding here, there will likely be a wide range of applications,” from pharmaceuticals to other organic chemistry technologies. 

Naba Karan: “Thermal Characterization Test Instrument for Lithium‐Ion Battery Safety Evaluation for Advanced Marine Technologies” (ONR) 

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries are one of the most common rechargeable energy storage technologies on the market. As a rule, they are quite safe under normal operating conditions, powerful, and scalable, from smartphones to electric cars. But given the number of Li-ion batteries produced around the world, their relatively small failure rate has still resulted in some high-profile stories of Li-ion batteries going into thermal runaway – an event when a battery catches fire, explodes, and releases toxic gases. 

Karan, an assistant research professor at the Center for Clean Energy Engineering (C2E2) in the School of Engineering, isn’t surprised. 

“You can think of them as bombs,” he says, noting the high quantity of chemical energy contained within Li-ion batteries. And he’s looking to blow them up—on purpose. 

With funds from the Office of Naval Research, Karan is constructing a facility at UConn that will explode the batteries in a controlled environment to determine critical safety parameters needed for designing advanced engineering protocols to mitigate thermal runaway events. In a military context, this information will help operators of machinery that depends on these high-powered batteries, such as submarines, determine when internal battery temperatures are exceeding safety thresholds. Most crucially, it will allow them to avoid catastrophic failure by diverting some of this heat. 

The equipment will be able to analyze thermal characteristics of all types of energy storage technologies, not only Li-Ion batteries. Since it will be one of the only such facilities in the northeast region, Karan anticipates a high degree of interest and collaboration from other universities and companies looking into studying the safety characteristics of existing and emerging battery chemistries. 

Volkan Ortalan: “Multimodal Ultrafast Electron Microscopy and Femtosecond Spectroscopy in Materials for Extreme Environments” (AFOSR) 

“Nanotechnology is the science of understanding and controlling matter at extremely small dimensions, ranging from 1 to 100 nanometers (nm),” says Ortalan, an associate professor of materials science and engineering. “For comparison, a fingernail grows about 1 nm in a second.” 

Because of their small size, nanomaterials demonstrate unusual properties that can make them useful for an array of applications, such as highly sensitive sensors and new kinds of electronics, according to Ortalan. 

His imaging techniques for these nanoscale materials allow researchers to study the nearly instantaneous changes that can occur on extremely short time scales — down to a femtosecond, which is equivalent to one millionth of one billionth of a second. Nanotechnology is of increasing importance for defense technologies, he says, and these imaging techniques may facilitate the design and synthesis of superior materials. 

Ying Li: “Molecular Design of High‐Temperature Polymers” (AFOSR) 

Li, a former assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering, received a grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to continue his work designing materials that can withstand extreme high-temperature environments. This project builds on his previous work at UConn pushing the physical limits of materials like rubber and plastics to synthesize highly resilient and self-healing materials — much of which was also sponsored by the Air Force. 

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UConn Receives Inclusive Excellence Grant From Howard Hughes Medical Institute https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-receives-inclusive-excellence-grant-from-howard-hughes-medical-institute/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-receives-inclusive-excellence-grant-from-howard-hughes-medical-institute/#respond Mon, 23 Jan 2023 12:00:45 +0000 Mike Enright '88 (CLAS), University Communications https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194571 The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has awarded UConn a grant of $505,000 to study transformative strategies to advance inclusive learning experiences for students and enhance student belonging.

HHMI invited select colleges and universities in the United States to build their capacity substantially and sustainably to advance student belonging, especially for those who have been historically excluded from the sciences.

“Sustaining advances in diversity and inclusion requires a scientific culture that is centered on equity,” says Blanton Tolbert, HHMI vice president of science leadership and culture. “In science education, increasing the number of individuals from underrepresented backgrounds must go hand in hand with creating inclusive learning environments in which everyone can thrive.”

Lack of diversity is most notable, but not limited, to the STEM fields.

The financial value of the grant for UConn is over a six-year period and is complemented by extending funds of knowledge principles to organizational learning: 104 schools receiving funds as part of the Inclusive Excellence 3 (IE3) initiative; $8.625 million will go to a Learning Community Cluster of 14 institutions that UConn is paired with.  Distinct from previous HHMI education initiatives, the unique funding mechanism emphasizes cooperation over competition. IE3 started with a learning phase during which the community envisioned how support of each other during implementation may look like.

The UConn team that prepared the school’s proposal include Martina Rosenberg, Director of Teaching and Learning Assessment at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL); Andrew Moiseff, a professor of physiology and neurobiology and Associate Dean for Behavioral and Life Sciences; a professor-in-residence and Director of Undergraduate Studies Xinnian Chen; and Associate Vice Provost Peter Diplock of CETL.

“Our core team has been working on this grant and engaging in the national learning community network since 2020,” says Rosenberg. “This award is an opportunity to highlight the complexity and value of teaching-related activities. We believe that teaching cannot be effective without being inclusive and equitable. It will take more than professional development offered to faculty, it takes committed people at every single level and a sustaining community.”

A closer look at the challenge question chosen by UConn in answer to HHMI’s call underlines why collaboration within the institution is important when going forward:

How can we evaluate effective inclusive teaching, and then use the evaluation in the rewards system including faculty promotion and tenure?”  requires a departure from deficit- to-achievement-oriented thinking and practices that work in synergy.

During the next years the two anchor points will be language around understanding of inclusivity around teaching and learning as well as instructor professional development. In the executive summary of the grant proposal, the team wrote: “Articulating concepts like inclusive teaching with precision allows us to communicate about and to recognize observable behaviors that institutionalize educational justice. UConn is specifically interested in how operationalizing frameworks in different contexts work and gathering field data related to these questions:  What do faculty and students currently consider to be characteristics of inclusive and -per extension-excellence in teaching? Are views of the two groups aligned, and what evidence is reasonable to make judgements about inclusive teaching excellence?

“We are aiming at departments among our 130 undergraduate degree programs that wish to impact faculty mindsets but lack high visibility of traditional STEM classes. A synergistic UConn proposal, HHMI Driving Change, focusses on gateway courses with high enrollment. Activities are building on existing internal and external training to advance capacity for equitable teaching, educator engagement to operationalize UConn’s mission and commitment to ongoing improvement of individual and programmatic practices.”

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New Paper Presents Multifaceted View of Land Change through the Lens of Remote Sensing https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/new-paper-presents-multifaceted-view-of-land-change-through-the-lens-of-remote-sensing/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/new-paper-presents-multifaceted-view-of-land-change-through-the-lens-of-remote-sensing/#respond Mon, 23 Jan 2023 12:00:31 +0000 Anna Zarra Aldrich '20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194207 In a new paper published in Remote Sensing of Environment, a team of UConn researchers from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources) proposes a new framework that emphasizes the multifaceted nature of land change through the lens of remote sensing.

Many scientists are studying land change using remote sensing satellite data. But, given that land change science is still relatively new, there is often confusion about what language to use to describe what, exactly, people are observing.

Zhe Zhu, assistant professor and director of the Global Environmental Remote Sensing Laboratory (GERS), is also editor for multiple remote sensing journals. In this capacity, he noticed many authors using terms that have different meanings interchangeably, something he noticed this among his own lab members as well.

“I think the most important problem is that land change is an extremely complicated term,” Zhu says.

Land change is not a binary process in which land either changes or does not. It is a multifaceted and dynamic process, meaning scientists need a consistent and systematic framework to accurately describe their observations.

In their recent publication Zhu, Research Assistant Professor Shi Qiu, and postdoctoral researcher Su Ye define the need for a multifaceted perspective in remote sensing of land change.

“If you look at different facets of land change, you see different aspects of change,” Zhu says.

There are five major aspects of land change the authors define: location, time, target, metric, and agent. The location is where the change happens. The time is when the change happens. The target is what is changing; this can be factors like how the land is being used and what the land cover looks like. The metric describes how the land is changing; this aspect considers factors like if the change is abrupt or gradual, subtle or dramatic, and the duration of the change. The agent, or driver, explains why the land is changing; this can be something direct like a natural disaster, human construction, or an insect infestation. There may also be distal drivers, which are less direct forces like changes in human population or land management policies.

If you look at different facets of land change, you see different aspects of change. — Zhe Zhu

Qiu’s work is addressing this final aspect with a project that uses the group’s previously developed algorithm to map land change location and time, and combines it with machine learning algorithms that can define the drivers of land change in the conterminous U.S.

The paper emphasizes scientists publishing in this field should first clearly identify which change aspect they are talking about, then consider the multifaceted nature of land changes, and third, engage in multi-source data fusion.

Incorporating data from multiple sources and even other fields is critical to creating an accurate picture of land change.

As part of this paper, the researchers reviewed the current available global and North American remote sensing land change datasets. They found these datasets only capture one or two aspects of land change.

Data from the social and environmental sciences can contribute important ancillary data. For example, data on human population density and poverty levels can provide insight into the drivers of land change not captured in satellite data.

Scientists can even use social media to capture near-real-time images of land conditions. For example, during a natural disaster, data from social media can be combined with satellite data to determine where an image was taken and gather important information about the conditions on the ground.

“This is a direction we think will be very important in the future,” Zhu says.

Another problem the paper addresses is that when using satellite data, scientists have access to a tremendous wealth of information about where and how the land is changing. But this data also includes noise that scientists need to untangle.

Ye is developing a model that can isolate subtle land changes, which are often confused with noise.

“Usually, subtle change and data noise would be very easy to mix up, so we need some sample data to direct our models,” Ye says.

Zhu says his research group plans to implement this framework moving forward to investigate all aspects of land change from this multifaceted perspective, a framework he says will be useful for others in the field as well.

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The Road(side) to a Thriving Native Ecosystem https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/the-roadside-to-a-thriving-native-ecosystem/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/the-roadside-to-a-thriving-native-ecosystem/#respond Fri, 20 Jan 2023 12:15:54 +0000 Anna Zarra Aldrich '20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194074 The side of Interstate 91 may not be the most obvious site for developing habitat for native plants and pollinators. But roadsides in New England can provide significant ecological benefits when properly managed.

Professor of Horticulture Julia Kuzovkina in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources has received a grant from the New England Transportation Consortium to make New England’s roadsides more ecologically valuable and sustainably managed by introducing native plants and sustainable management practices to these vital yet overlooked areas.

Because roadsides are long, continuous strips of land, they provide migration pathways for pollinators. Many pollinators have lost these pathways in recent years as human developments fragment landscapes. This means pollinators need to expend extra energy to travel between patches of habitat, making the trip more taxing and dangerous.

“Roadsides constitute a lot of land,” John Campanelli, a graduate student working with Kuzovkina, says. “So their impact, ecologically, is far more than people realize.”

Roadside flora also provides ecosystem services like runoff filtration, carbon sequestration, supporting biodiverse habitats, and improving aesthetics.

The grant will establish demonstration sites in three different New England states. The researchers say they are currently considering areas along Interstate 91 since it corresponds with monarch butterflies’ migration route.

One change Kuzovkina’s team will implement in these test sites is swapping out the “cool-season” turf grasses currently planted along roadsides with more ecologically appropriate “warm-season” grasses.

As their names suggest, cool-season grasses can grow in both warm and cool seasons, while warm-season grasses only grow in warmer seasons, meaning they need to be mowed less frequently.

CT DOT worker and Campanelli (right) select a demonstration site in a meadow of warm season grasses. (Contributed photo)

The need to mow cool-season grasses year-round means the state uses more time, labor, and carbon-emitting machines to maintain them. Warm-season grasses only need to be mowed once a year, reducing all these costs.

Mowing less frequently also allows native plants to thrive and provide wildlife with habitat to nest and lay larvae.

Connecticut implemented reduced mowing practices in 2016, designating Route 6 as a conservation road. Since then, milkweed, the only plant on which monarch butterflies lay their eggs, and other native plant populations along this road have proliferated.

“We can achieve significant benefits by doing just reduced mowing in many areas,” Kuzovkina says. “This is our goal of the project to develop these practices for other states.”

Warm-season grasses also have much deeper roots – three to four feet – compared with cool-season grasses’ six-inch root systems.

Because of their deeper root systems, warm-season grasses are much better at erosion control, which protects the ecosystem and the roads. They are also more drought-resistant because they can reach water deeper underground. This will become increasingly important as global warming makes droughts in New England more common.

In addition to warm-season grasses (which will include little bluestem, purple top, and purple love grasses) the research team will create seed mixes with a variety of native plants that will be short enough to maintain sight lines for drivers and not out-compete each other. The mixes will be designed to include flowers that bloom at different times of year, providing blooms year-round. They will include flowering plants like asters, goldenrod, bee balm, foxglove beardtongue, and milkweed.

All native bees, all native pollinators will benefit from the roadsides. — Julia Kuzovkina

This effort will support all New England pollinators including butterflies and “buzz pollinators” like bumblebees, who use buzzing to vibrate the plant and release its pollen.

“All native bees, all native pollinators will benefit from the roadsides,” Kuzovkina says.

As part of this project, the researchers will help build up New England’s ecotypic seed industry. Ecotypic seeds are native plant seeds grown and used in the same region.

Currently, New England gets its seeds from other parts of the country, like the Midwest, where they have a more robust agricultural infrastructure. Seeds acclimated to the climate in which they were grown may not do well in New England’s environment. This could disrupt the genetic balance between plants and have a negative impact on biodiversity.

With this study, the researchers will connect private seed producers with the stakeholders to encourage the development of the region’s ecotypic seed capacity.

“The seed is harvested from our area, and grown in our area under our climatic conditions,” Campanelli says.

The project will include recommendations for developing public education campaigns to help residents understand that the less-manicured look of the roadsides reflects significant ecological and economic benefits.

“One of the problems that some DOTs encounter, is there’s public resistance because people are so used to the aesthetic of mowed roadsides,” Campanelli says.

While this grant is a two-year study, the researchers say they would like to continue the work since many plants take three to five years to meaningfully establish in a new ecosystem.

“It requires more than two years to see the proliferation of the species and dynamics of this re-installed ecosystem,” Kuzovkina says.

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UConn Professor, Students Help Connecticut Towns Make Smart Energy Choices with SmartBuildings Program https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-professor-students-help-connecticut-towns-make-smart-energy-choices-with-smartbuildings-program/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-professor-students-help-connecticut-towns-make-smart-energy-choices-with-smartbuildings-program/#respond Thu, 19 Jan 2023 12:30:49 +0000 Jaclyn Severance https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194198 Amy Thompson is always teaching, even when she’s not in the classroom.

As a professor-in-residence at UConn in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, she helps to guide students through the complex, interdisciplinary field of systems engineering and engineering management.

But a large part of her work at UConn is educating students in a completely different way – and, at the same time, educating Connecticut municipal leaders, town managers, and school administrators on how readily available technologies can help guide and improve energy efficiency and sustainability efforts within their towns.

“I always admire the research and the methods that are created here at UConn,” Thompson says. “When I’m not teaching, the thing I’m really interested in doing is getting those advanced technologies and advanced methods into the hands of people more quickly, so that they can make an impact. What you don’t want is a barrier to that, and I feel like our program is an example of technology transfer and knowledge transfer. It’s a great way to support Connecticut.”

Thompson came to UConn in 2017, and brought with her a growing program she created called SmartBuildings CT. Supported by Energize CT – the state’s energy efficiency fund, which is administered by the public utility companies Eversource and Avangrid – SmartBuildings CT primarily works directly with towns to help benchmark energy usage in public buildings.

“Our program is really a technical support, education, and training program specifically to support communities and school districts in Connecticut,” Thompson explains. “We create an energy portfolio for each of the towns and each of the public school districts in Connecticut.”

Building Portfolios for Success

In a residence or small business, it’s easier to see your energy costs – you get an electric bill, maybe a home heating oil or gas bill, and possibly a report from a solar or alternative energy system.

But for municipalities and school districts, energy usage can be much more difficult to quantify and track. There’s the town hall or office building, all the school buildings, public works buildings, police and fire stations, libraries, recreational facilities, and community centers – all with their own electric service and other energy usage factors, all using varying amounts and types of energy depending on their design,  the month of the year, and even the time of day.

To date, SmartBuildings CT has worked with more than 70 towns, school districts, and other agencies. More than 2,885 buildings in the state have been benchmarked through the program.

For local officials, a municipality’s energy-use landscape can get really complicated really quickly. Tracking where and how much energy is used can be labor intensive, and it’s often challenging to know how to best invest limited tax and grant dollars to improve energy efficiency in town facilities.

“If you only have one building and you have one electric and one gas meter, an energy portfolio is still helpful, because you can track your energy over time,” Thompson says. “But you can imagine for a lot of the towns that have twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty buildings, it can really help them organize and understand the energy usage and cost for their organization.”

Through the federal Energy Star program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a free tool called Portfolio Manager, which allows anyone to measure and analyze patterns of energy consumption.

Buildings benchmarked through Portfolio Manager also receive an Energy Star score that compares their performance to similar buildings across the country.

The data provided by Portfolio Manager can help target underperforming buildings that might be in need of energy improvements – telling towns where to invest resources and attention to get the best bang for their buck – as well as helping to identify best practices from efficient buildings that can be replicated in other facilities.

Buildings that earn an Energy Star score of 75 or greater through Portfolio Manager may also be eligible for Energy Star certification. Energy Star-certified office buildings, on average, use 35 percent less energy, generate 35 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and cost $0.54 less per square foot to operate.

But setting up an energy portfolio can be an intensive process. Utility accounts need to be linked. Things like oil and propane bills, as well as historical information about energy costs, need to be manually entered for each building. Square-footage and building-usage information, like hours of operation, need to be added to the portfolio as well.

That’s where SmartBuildings CT comes in. Thompson and her team of graduate and undergraduate students partner with towns and school districts to start benchmarking their buildings – at no cost.

“There’s not a lot of heavy lifting for the towns – we’re doing the heavy lifting for them, at the beginning, to get it built,” says Thompson. “And the second thing we’re really doing is making sure that the portfolio is built correctly. You can make mistakes if you don’t exactly know what you’re doing, but we’re checking it to make sure it’s built right, so that going forward they can have some confidence that when it’s telling them information, that information is correct.”

Thompson also provides training to municipal officials so that they can maintain their portfolios going forward, and continues to assist the towns even after they’re set up, troubleshooting any problems they might encounter along the way and offering help analyzing and interpreting reports and energy use data.

“A little bit of support, a little bit of cheerleading – you can do this, you can do the data analysis, you can understand your information,” she says. “The thing I’m most proud of is that we have a program that’s transferring best methods to the towns so that they can make these better investment decisions using some more advanced tools. They’re using a tool that’s really geared toward helping them make better decisions.”

A Sustainable Partnership

“Towns will connect with us and say, ‘We want to work on the energy stuff,’ and we say, ‘Great! Here’s Amy!’ We put them in touch, and she just picks it up and provides the support,” says Lynn Stoddard, the executive director of Sustainable CT, a nonprofit organization that works to support sustainability actions in Connecticut towns in order to grow local economies, protect the environment, offer assistance to towns looking to advance sustainability initiatives, and recognize those that achieve sustainability goals.

“We’re trying to support, accelerate, and showcase sustainability action by towns,” Stoddard explains. “We define ‘sustainability’ very broadly. We sat down with a bunch of municipal leaders and other stakeholders for a year to ask, ‘what are the ingredients that make a town a great place to live?’ And one of those ingredients is effective use of energy and renewable energy.”

Thompson and Stoddard joined forces when Sustainable CT launched five years ago as a way to support towns looking to take action toward decreasing energy usage and costs and investing in energy efficiency improvements. Energy benchmarking is one step toward achieving Sustainable CT’s recognition as a Certified or Climate Leader community.

“Understanding your building use, and then monitoring that, identifying opportunities to reduce energy in town buildings – the EPA tool is supported by all of our taxpayer money, and it’s a great tool, but it’s cumbersome,” says Stoddard. “Without Amy’s help, you can probably imagine that’s a lot for a town to take on and get these accounts established and set up and working properly, and with their help, there’s just so many opportunities for energy improvement and cost savings. And as we’ve learned with schools, in particular, and offices – when they’re more energy efficient and comfortable and even using things like day lighting, they are also healthier and better places to learn and work.”

The partnership has been so productive for both programs that Sustainable CT recognized Thompson with its 2022 Partner of the Year award at a ceremony this past November.

To date, SmartBuildings CT has worked with more than 70 towns, school districts, and other agencies – reaching into every county in Connecticut – to benchmark buildings. More than 2,885 buildings in the state have been benchmarked through the program.

And while efforts have been largely focused on public buildings, Thompson is currently working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to pilot an expansion of SmartBuildings CT into privately owned commercial and industrial buildings as well.

“We’re getting these advanced methods and advanced tools into the hands of Connecticut communities,” says Thompson, “and then also, ultimately, through other commercial and industrial programs, into the hands of small and medium-sized businesses, who often don’t have access. They sometimes don’t have the staff at their own facilities who are aware of these tools or who know how to use these tools.

“And so, this is where people at UConn – researchers, professors, and even students at UConn – can really help communities.”

New Avenues for Engineers

Much of the heavy lifting to get nearly 3,000 buildings benchmarked has been accomplished by the students hired by Thompson to work on the program.

“There’s really two main goals here,” Thompson explains. “One is the community service aspect, to serve and support Connecticut communities. But the other is workforce development and training. I think the thing that this experience does for our engineering students is that it broadens their perspective about what fields and types of work they can do.

“A lot of times, engineers come in, and they think cars or planes are things that I can do. But I like this program, because it opens them up – you could be an energy engineer. If you’re interested, you can work on sustainability. You can do things, as an engineer, to help folks lower their energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and contribute to sustainability.”

That was the case for Julia De Oliveira ’22 (ENG), who worked on the SmartBuildings CT program while studying mechanical engineering at UConn.

“If you look at the sources of greenhouse gases in the U.S.A. back in 2019, and also 2020, it’s pretty much evenly distributed between sectors like transportation, electricity production, agricultural, and then industry, and then when you further distribute that electricity used by end use, commercial and residential buildings are accountable for around a third of those emissions,” says De Oliveira, who found that the program helped her develop a lot of interpersonal skills while interacting and building relationships with stakeholders in the program.

But it also helped show her new ways that her engineering studies could be applied after she graduated.

“During that period of my engineering studies, I was not sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “I just knew that I wanted to work in something energy-slash-sustainability, and I felt kind of lost because, at the time, I just thought that as an engineer I would have to make stuff and design products or consumables that people buy. And I wasn’t really interested in doing that. I’m really fortunate to have had the experience, because it introduced me to the whole concept and sector of building energy and maintenance.”

After graduating last spring, De Oliveira now works as a plant engineer for Collins Aerospace in Windsor Locks, helping to maintain different utilities around the facility’s campus and also working on energy efficiency projects.

“A lot of my job is working with technical products and data, and then also working with people like contractors and my own team,” she says. “Dr. Thompson herself really supports the students and helps them in their next opportunities, guiding them to what they may be interested in. Where I’m at now pretty much wouldn’t be possible without the program and Dr. Thompson.”

Mohammed Albayati ’23 Ph.D, a mechanical engineering graduate student who worked on the program for about two years, was drawn to the program through his interest in not only understanding how energy efficiency systems worked but also helping Connecticut communities.

“I’m very proud of working on this project with Professor Thompson, and mainly helping Connecticut municipalities and K-12 schools to understand their building energy usage and performance so they can better fund resources for energy efficiency programs and become more sustainable communities,” says Albayati, who not only did benchmarking work but also gave presentations to municipal leaders and supervised undergraduate students working with him on the program.

“The other part I’m really proud of is gaining those professional skills through this program, including learning how to communicate professionally with stakeholders like municipal leaders, directors of finance and buildings, utility employees, and even selectmen and women and mayors,” he says.

 

SmartBuildings CT is a part of the Pratt & Whitney Institute for Advanced Systems Engineering, located at the Innovative Partnership Building at UConn Tech Park. For more information, visit techpark.uconn.edu.

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Knowledge is Flowing: Connecting the Dots and Chipping Away at Modeling Uncertainty https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/knowledge-is-flowing-connecting-the-dots-and-chipping-away-at-modeling-uncertainty/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/knowledge-is-flowing-connecting-the-dots-and-chipping-away-at-modeling-uncertainty/#respond Thu, 19 Jan 2023 12:00:46 +0000 Elaina Hancock https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194217 When working to find solutions for complex problems, it can be easy to focus either too broadly or too narrowly. Oftentimes the answers lie somewhere in the middle.

UConn Department of Natural Resources and the Environment researcher James Knighton and his group are working to connect two fields of research – one with a global focus, the other with a local focus — to overcome a disconnect and improve models used for studying how water moves through the earth’s systems. The study is published in the Journal of Advances in Modeling Earth Systems.

Knighton explains that projections for climate change over the next 50 to 100 years rely on complex models called general circulation models or earth systems models.

“In those models, people try to simulate the flow of the atmosphere, the flow of the ocean, water exchanges with the continents, how that water moves as freshwater out to the ocean, and how a significant portion of it moves back to the atmosphere. About half of all rain that falls on land goes back to the atmosphere directly and most of that through plants.”

This is where the first problem arises, says Knighton; since it’s difficult to simulate the nuances of how plants influence the flow of moisture through the system, plants present a significant source of uncertainty.

The current modeling approach simply organizes plants into functional groups by region. For instance, in the Eastern United States, the forests are a complex mixture of coniferous and deciduous species, but the whole area is organized into one functional group, despite the plants that make up these forests having different hydrological qualities from species to species (see sidebar).

“Across the whole world, there are around 30 to 40 functional types, so every patch of vegetation on the planet has to fit into one of these coarse groups, and whatever the parameters are for that group, that’s what is used to simulate water flux,” Knighton says. “Everything is assigned one value and that’s that.”

Models estimate many things about the functional types, from “conductance,” or how fast water moves through the plants, to how deep the roots of the whole function group descend, and therefore, how readily they can access groundwater.

In contrast to the broad, whole-earth-system approach, Knighton’s group sought to refine this approach with data from researchers in the field who collect information on what the modelers estimate.

“They’re not taking a global view, rather, they go into a forest that contains tens of thousands of trees, and select, maybe ten to sample to represent what was going on over those 10,000 trees,” says Knighton.

Knighton’s team also wanted to address the fact that field researchers encounter uncertainty in choosing which trees to sample from when there are so many options. Which trees will give the most representative data?

“We took a large-scale hydrologic model and showed that you could derive viable plant traits for an individual species by using these small-scale measurements on individual trees,” he says.

They took water samples from the trunks of 30 different trees, called xylem water, and also sampled soils near the trees to analyze the chemistry of the water. With these data, the researchers traced the water’s path through the ecosystem.

“We can get decent estimates of how deep the roots are,” Knighton says. “For example, if the chemical signature in the tree matches the signature at one meter deep, that’s probably where the roots were drawing water.”

The researchers then used these results to calibrate one of the hydrological models, and Knighton says they were able to estimate and validate many parameters including how fast the water moves up through the plant, how much light the canopy intercepts, and how deep the roots reach.

“Field researchers have been taking these measurements for decades, but no one’s ever attempted to use them to pin down what’s going on with plants in these big-scale models,” says Knighton, who hopes this research illustrates a potential path out of the plant functional group dilemma and help remove some of the uncertainty that arises with the overgeneralizations the models currently rely on.

“One of the problems people always point to is that it isn’t feasible to collect data to include individual species, and we’re saying no, much isotopic data already exists for many tree species, and you can use it in this viable way. There are thousands of species that have had these measurements taken by field researchers.”

The team also found that the model was validated more effectively using data from younger trees, an important detail to help inform future field experiments.

“Smaller and younger trees gave a better overall fit in the model so when we go back to do our field research, we might not sample the rare 100-year-old tree, we might instead focus on the much more common 30 to 40-year-old trees. The smaller trees let us match everything in the model simultaneously whereas, with the larger trees, there was always a conflict.”

The team chose to focus on hemlock because the species is critical, as these trees inhabit river and wetland areas throughout the northeast. They are also threatened by an invasive insect called the hemlock woolly adelgid.

“If you hike through UConn Forest along the Fenton River, you’ll be surrounded by hemlock trees, and if you move up the slope a little bit, there are oak and maple everywhere so they’re in a very specifically important hydrologic area right along the banks of the stream. Climate change is pushing the woolly adelgid insect further and further north.”

This is troubling news considering mounting evidence that losing the hemlock will fundamentally change the region’s hydrology, says Knighton:

“When we conducted this experiment, we didn’t see any of the woolly adelgid insects, but now they are on most hemlock trees along the river. We specifically focused on the hemlock, not just to do this study of modeling, but because we wanted to know what the hydrologic function of these plants is, so we have a baseline for studying the future if they’re lost.”

This highlights another issue with the functional groups, in that they make the models inflexible and unable to simulate some of the impacts of climate change, like what happens when we rapidly lose a single species such as the hemlock which plays a unique role within the ecosystem.

“Another point of the paper was to show that the issue of not representing all species explicitly is a problem because we are likely to see these shifts in forest species composition. We can’t just say the only thing that’s going to change is air temperature. We must acknowledge that there will be ecological changes that will feed back to water and climate.”

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Meet the Researcher Mingyu Qiao, Nutritional Sciences https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/meet-the-researcher-mingyu-qiao-nutritional-sciences/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/meet-the-researcher-mingyu-qiao-nutritional-sciences/#respond Wed, 18 Jan 2023 12:30:19 +0000 Anna Zarra Aldrich '20 (CLAS), Office of the Vice President for Research https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193964 Mingyu Qiao’s career in food science has incorporated his interest in engineering and entrepreneurship into investigating the use of food-based compounds to create safer foods.

Qiao joins the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources this semester as an assistant professor of innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Future is Nature

At Northwest A&F University in China, Qiao majored in food safety and quality. But he was also interested in materials science and engineering.

“Because food science is a very multidisciplinary major, I could use a lot of materials science engineering and chemistry,” Qiao says.

As an undergraduate, Qiao worked on research detecting foodborne pathogens using molecular detection methods.

As a graduate student at Auburn University, Qiao focused on how to use natural chemicals to protect food from pathogens.

Qiao worked on extracting the natural antimicrobials found in the clitocybe nude mushroom. These antimicrobial compounds could be used to wash lettuce or other produce instead of chemical disinfectants.

The molecules in the clitocybe nude are broad-based antimicrobials that kill all major food-borne pathogens, like salmonella or E. coli.

As consumers increasingly prefer natural products, especially when it comes to their food, this is a growing and important research area.

That’s the future – everything will be natural. — Mingyu Qiao

“I’ve learned the trend is that consumers don’t want synthetic chemicals, so that’s the future – everything will be natural,” Qiao says.

Further, natural chemicals are likely more effective with fewer molecules. Traditionally, produce is coated in multiple antimicrobials, fungicides, and pesticides to ensure they catch all potential pathogens. But natural chemicals can likely combat all these categories since they are much more complex.

“For natural antimicrobials, I believe, there’s a possibility you only need to use one or two extracts to accomplish that,” Qiao says.

Another advantage is that since these chemicals are naturally derived, users don’t need to disclose their use on the label, as they do with synthetic chemicals. This will allow consumers to know they are buying a cleaner product.

However, it can be difficult to extract natural molecules. Additionally, these methods are more expensive, and natural chemicals are harder to apply as widely as artificial antimicrobials. This means you may need to use more product to get the same effect, driving costs up.

During his PhD, Qiao turned to developing synthetic versions of the clitocybe nude molecules. While effective, these turned out to be less marketable since they are not a natural compound.

Now at UConn, Qiao is interested in collaborating with colleagues working with sugar kelp, like Ji-Young Lee and Young-Ki Park. Qiao says sugar kelp polymers may be able to encapsulate the small antimicrobial molecules with which he works. This would allow Qiao to design a controlled release of the antimicrobials that would use less product while still achieving maximum antimicrobial effect, making it a sustainable and affordable option.

“In that way, it will have minimal impact to the environment while it provides us a safe and nutritious product through smart engineering,” Qiao says.

Bringing Research to Market

Qiao’s advisor at Auburn University, Tung-Shi Huang, was collaborating with a chemist, S.D. Worley, who had invented a new antimicrobial compound known as N-halamine.

Qiao and Huang were the first to test the compound’s use for food safety.

“I was amazed by the efficacy,” Qiao says.

As a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, Qiao partnered with Minglin Ma, a chemical engineer, and continued working with N-halamine to develop a series of products that could disinfect an array of surfaces.

In 2018, Qiao founded a startup, Halomine Inc., based on this invention.

N-halamine forms a “re-chargeable” bond with chlorine. When chlorine, an established disinfectant chemical, leaves the bond to kills a pathogen on the surface to which it is applied, N-halamine holds its position by binding to a hydrogen molecule. Then, once the pathogen is killed, the chlorine molecules can return to the bond. This process extends the antimicrobial efficacy of chlorine by days or even weeks, compared to the 10-15 minutes chlorine is normally active.

Halomine has received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Defense to study applications of this technology for disinfecting in healthcare settings, wound dressings, food safety, and public surfaces.

Halomine has licensed its products to one of the world’s largest professional cleaning and hygiene companies.

“For a product to be successful you need to have a very broad market,” Qiao says. “That one product has many applications, so that’s a pretty good starting point for a startup.”

Innovating at UConn

Qiao will bring his expertise in translating research from the lab to the market to UConn.

Qiao is one of the recently hired faculty brought aboard as part of the Innovation Faculty Hires & Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Initiative.

“I have a good understanding of both science and technology and business,” Qiao says. “I have translated a very fundamental science into technology and into a product. I have seen it the whole way.”

In his work, Qiao is driven by the question, “How can I use my research to develop technology that can benefit people?”

The answer comes from responding to two other critical questions: “Is this commercially viable?” and “Is this really effective?”

“The biggest lesson I learned is that a lot of good research can’t be translated into a commercial product,” Qiao says. “But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good research. It’s about finding the best connection between the two.”

Qiao hopes to encourage other UConn researchers and his future graduate students and postdocs to become entrepreneurs, learning how to connect their research to the market.

“I feel like this College is much better [than many others] because there’s a lot of application already, and through UConn Extension it’s already pretty close to the market and what people want,” Qiao says. “I hope we can do something to change the course of research and incubate more startups out of UConn.”

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UConn Researcher Invents ‘Plant Factory’ for Urban Agriculture https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-researcher-invents-plant-factory-for-urban-agriculture/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-researcher-invents-plant-factory-for-urban-agriculture/#respond Wed, 18 Jan 2023 12:15:55 +0000 Jessica McBride, PhD https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193706 With urbanization increasing worldwide, the popularity of urban gardening is on the rise. People are growing food on rooftops, balconies, and backyards – but how about in abandoned warehouses or basements?

Professor Xiusheng (Harrison) Yang in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources has invented a technology, GREENBOX, that can grow high-quality food in existing indoor urban spaces.

Yang, a professor in the Department of Natural Resources, first had the idea to develop GREENBOX five years ago after observing the unmet need to grow food locally in urban environments.

“There’s a need to produce food locally in urban areas where people need it the most,” Yang says.

Current GREENBOX models are about the size of a standard commercial pallet – 48 inches by 40 inches. Yang says that the height can be variable, depending on the crops, reaching upwards of 84 inches high.

The insulated boxes contain programmable LED lights that Yang and his team can adjust to fit the light needs of a specific crop and a hydroponic growing system. Hydroponic systems grow plants without soil, using water-based mineral nutrient solutions instead.

Yang’s team can control the temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels in the GREENBOX and monitor the plants’ progress remotely using the video systems with which each GREENBOX unit is equipped.

“It’s a true plant factory,” Yang says.

Yang and his students conducted a feasibility study where they demonstrated that they could successfully grow 48 heads of lettuce (24 heads each in two units) in 30 days, through every season in Storrs, Connecticut. They published their results in Agricultural Sciences in 2021.

Yang emphasizes that this feasibility study was a proof-of-concept and GREENBOX’s technology can easily be scaled up.

“It creates a lot of flexibility for food production so it can meet the needs of different seasons and different varieties with very limited space,” Yang says.

GREENBOX offers many advantages over traditional greenhouses. Because they are designed to be set up in unused urban structures, GREENBOX units greatly reduce transportation costs, both in terms of money and carbon emissions.

Further, GREENBOX does not face many of the challenges traditional farming does, such as weather-related disruptions to the growing season or pests. The latter also means there is no need to apply pesticides to GREENBOX crops.

GREENBOX also uses less energy and water than traditional greenhouses, which Yang outlined in another publication for the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

Yang also published a financial feasibility study in 2022 showing that GREENBOX would be profitable in major cities across the U.S. Yang’s study included Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City. He found that GREENBOX was most profitable in cities, like Dallas, where the cost of renting space and labor were lower, but it would still be profitable in locations like New York City where these costs are some of the highest in the nation.

Yang says the crops best suited for growing in GREENBOX are leafy greens, like lettuce, as well as cannabis, since these plants have low maintenance needs and do not need soil to grow, like potatoes or carrots would.

“We see a lot of potential for the technology in urban applications,” Yang says.

Yang is now working with his students to analyze how to optimize the heating and ventilation systems by testing alternative materials and designs.

GREENBOX’s development has been supported by funding from the USDA Hatch Act.

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School of Social Work Celebrates 10-Year Initiative to Improve Services for Connecticut Families https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/school-of-social-work-celebrates-10-year-initiative-to-improve-services-for-connecticut-families/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/school-of-social-work-celebrates-10-year-initiative-to-improve-services-for-connecticut-families/#respond Tue, 17 Jan 2023 12:10:58 +0000 Ziba Kashef https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194136 A decade ago, UConn School of Social Work (SSW) launched the Performance Improvement Center, or PIC, with the goal of helping one of its long-time partner agencies, the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF), evaluate a new initiative for families discharged from DCF. Led by co-principal investigators Brenda Kurz, Patricia Carlson, and Megan Feely, PIC uses data and analyses to help DCF identify trends and improve how it responds to vulnerable families in the state’s child welfare system.

An early focus of PIC was a DCF program launched in the same year called Community Support for Families. The voluntary program provides services to families who have been discharged from DCF and are considered low risk for future reports of abuse or neglect. Through the program, these families receive support and links to community services such as parenting classes, housing, and access to food or other basic needs with the intent of preventing future involvement with the child welfare system.

While such community-based prevention programs are widespread nationally, their effectiveness in preventing maltreatment has not been well studied. That’s where PIC comes in. They evaluate both implementation and effectiveness of the Connecticut program, providing DCF and partner agencies with actionable data. PIC has developed data dashboards for the agency and produced reports that answer questions about program enrollment, interventions, and outcomes. “We look at their data and analyze it in ways that they ask us to but could not do themselves,” says Kurz.

Based on the data and analysis, PIC has made specific recommendations for key improvements. For example, instead of referring families to Community Support for Families the second or third time a family has contact with DCF, they suggested making referrals earlier. PIC not only made the recommendation but provided statistical evidence to support it.

Another example is extending the length of services. Early on in their evaluation of the community program, PIC examined the length of service, or time families spent in the program, which was typically less than three months. But the data showed that families often needed more time. In response, DCF changed their contracts with local agencies to extend service up to six months.

“That was an excellent example of DCF using the research evidence we provided to change the program to increase the provider’s ability to stay with families that needed it longer,” says Carlson.

“As the nature of child welfare evolves in Connecticut, it takes strong partnerships to evaluate the outcomes of our interventions leading to enhanced practice,” says DCF Commissioner Vannessa Dorantes. “The collaborative work between DCF and UConn has resulted in both the collection and analysis of data to confirm existing successes and to provide recommendations for the future — all toward informing the next generation of our workforce. Connecticut’s children and families have benefitted from this relationship, and I look forward to our continued work.”

Room for Improvement

In a recent study, PIC looked at 25% of families (6,272) referred to Community Support for Families to determine the program’s impact on child safety and characteristics of families who enrolled. Co-authors Kurz, Carlson and Feely, and former PIC team member, Joshua Pierce, now a doctoral student at Brown University, found that the community program did improve child safety and lower the risk of a future maltreatment for families that completed the program.

More research is needed to understand why two out of five families return to the child welfare system after participating in the program. Yet the program is meeting some important goals. It’s a “dynamic community-based program that has been very successful and helped a lot of families,” says Carlson.

Since its early focus on Community Support for Families, PIC has expanded its role to evaluate other aspects of DCF’s work, such as the Family Assessment Response (FAR) track, which is DCF’s feeder track for the CSF program. Launched in 2012, FAR uses a team approach to engage families, discover their strengths, and view family members as key to the solution, referring them to needed services on discharge if needed. “FAR was created because DCF was seeing low-risk families who had been discharged without receiving any services returning at a higher level of risk as their needs had not been addressed,” says Kurz.

To evaluate that approach, PIC published a study describing the FAR system. They found that while the families served are low risk for abuse or neglect, they still have significant issues that need addressing, such as mental health.

Since PIC began its evaluation some 269,536 families have been served by the two child welfare tracts. Going forward, PIC is utilizing a “research-to-practice” model. “The initial goal was to evaluate the Community Support for Families program and to see if it was making a difference,” says Carlson. “The goal now is helping DCF get a deeper understanding of this data and making it more accessible so they can take what we are learning and use it to influence practice and policy.”

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It’s Time to Save All Athletes: Korey Stringer Institute on Player Safety after Damar Hamlin Emergency https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/its-time-to-save-all-athletes-korey-stringer-institute-and-partners-on-player-safety-after-damar-hamlin-emergency/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/its-time-to-save-all-athletes-korey-stringer-institute-and-partners-on-player-safety-after-damar-hamlin-emergency/#respond Fri, 13 Jan 2023 13:24:05 +0000 Jessica McBride, PhD https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194311 Researchers from UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute discuss the recent on-field cardiac event experienced by professional football player Damar Hamlin. At a time when the world is watching, they explain the importance of life-saving resources like those Hamlin received to be available to athletes at all levels around the country.

Last week, many of us watched the traumatic events of a sudden cardiac arrest unfold live during the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals Monday Night Football game. Thankfully reports of Damar Hamlin’s current medical status are very encouraging. There is little doubt that the on-site medical staff and execution of the emergency action plan saved Damar’s life.

But sadly many athletes in our country who experience cardiac arrest or other medical emergencies during sport don’t have access to this type of immediate care.

At UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) and our partner PlaySafe, we believe that all athletes deserve access to high quality and timely healthcare regardless of income, geography, level of competition, or any other factor.

“The mission of the Korey Stringer Institute is to provide research, education, advocacy and consultation to optimize safety, maximize performance, and prevent sudden death for the athlete, warfighter, and laborer,” says Douglas Casa, CEO and professor of kinesiology in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources (CAHNR). “That commitment applies to all athletes, from youth sports through professional and Olympic caliber competitors.”

Prepared for Anything

While a sudden cardiac arrest in sports is rare it can happen at any time, in any sport, at any level of competition. Sudden cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death in sports, contributing to over 60% of all catastrophic injuries in sports.

But as we saw in the case of Damar Hamlin, sudden cardiac arrest does not need to be a fatal event for athletes. A 2019 study found that 83% of athletes who sustained a sudden cardiac arrest survived if an athletic trainer was on-site and involved in the resuscitation. The study found that 89% of athletes survived if an on-site automatic external defibrillator was used in the resuscitation.

Sadly, Athletic Training Locations and Services (ATLAS) data reveals that more than one-third of high schools in the United States that have athletics have no access to athletic training services. This needs to change.

With proper prevention, recognition, and treatment of sudden cardiac arrest in sport, athletes can survive. Through KSI’s research, programs, and advocacy, we are working to ensure all athletes have access to on-site athletic trainers and venue specific athletic emergency action plans.

We also believe that early action when a problem occurs – from recognition of sudden cardiac arrest, to activation of emergency medical Services, and access to automated external defibrillator (AED) within 1-3 minutes of all athletic venues will help save lives.

“This past week, through the efforts of athletic training colleagues and other medical staff, a young man’s life was saved,” says Jason Powell, director of athletic training for PlaySafe. “It is our hope at PlaySafe that awareness of athletic trainers and the importance of having these trained medical professionals at all levels of athletics will continue to evolve.” PlaySafe, a non-profit provider of athletic training services, provides access to medical services through the development of community partnerships and other sources at large.

Advocacy for Athletes

Why doesn’t every team have access to these lifesaving resources? Athletic training services are often not state funded. School are responsible for seeking other financial support, which may be challenging. Through the innovATe project, PlaySafe’s and KSI have been instrumental in affording athletic training services for high schools in South Carolina. These efforts also support PlaySafe in providing educational opportunities for high school coaching staff and school administration on health and safety in athletics such as the care and management of sudden cardiac arrest and the development of emergency action plans. With these services and resources in place, more student athletes have the access to critical healthcare in the event of an emergency.

The innovATe project, which is funded through the NFL’s Education Fund is a $3 million dollar initiative to increase access to medical care provided by an athletic trainer for secondary school athletes in under-resourced communities around the country.

“The innovATe project helps fund the addition of athletic training services in high schools that have not previously been able to support that type of position,” says Christianne Eason, president of sport safety and director of the innovATe project. “Communities like the Abbeville County School District in South Carolina clearly care about the health and well-being of their student athletes. Thanks to funds provided through the innovATe project and support from PlaySafe, this community now has access to the medical care that an athletic trainer is able to provide.”

To enact widespread change, we need the understanding and support of decisionmakers and representatives. Another KSI initiative is working to enhance sports safety policies for high schools across the country. The Team Up for Sports Safety (TUFSS) project, sponsored by the National Athletic Trainer’s Association and the NFL Foundation, was established to drive change and adoption of policies proven to reduce catastrophic sport injury at the high school level. Working together in the context of individual states around the country, we aim to formalize actionable items for adoption or improvement of health and safety policies.

“We have seen that when stakeholders for high school athlete health and safety come together for a collaborative conversation surrounding lifesaving measures for sport, these critical policies are adopted faster,” says Rebecca Stearns, chief operating officer of KSI and assistant professor in residence at CAHNR. “In TUFFS’ first three years alone, 38 states adopted policies that made high school athletes safer. States where health experts collaborated through TUFFS saw an increase of about 10% in the number of policies to reduce catastrophic sport injury.”

While projects enacted by KSI and partners like PlaySafe are moving the needle in player safety, more needs to be done. Every athlete deserves the expert, immediate, lifesaving care provided to Damar Hamlin. That’s why we at the Korey Stringer Institute and PlaySafe will continue to advocate for athletic training services and evidence-based sports safety policies, because we know they will help keep our young athletes safe, reduce the incidence of catastrophic injuries and illnesses, and ensure appropriate care is given in the event of a catastrophic incidence.

 

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Podcast: Addressing Alcohol Addiction https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/podcast-addressing-alcohol-addiction/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/podcast-addressing-alcohol-addiction/#respond Thu, 12 Jan 2023 14:08:07 +0000 Christopher DeFrancesco '95 (CLAS) https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194234 An international collaboration of addiction health researchers is out with updated findings on how social, cultural, and environmental factors influence alcoholism and harmful drinking, plus policy recommendations to address them. UConn School of Medicine Professor Emeritus Thomas Babor is a lead author of the third edition of Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity.

If you can understand how alcohol works on the body, just about every organ system is affected, and it provides you a way of learning a great deal about the human condition and about how medicine combined with public health can allow people to achieve the full measure of a healthy life. — Thomas Babor

The book is scheduled to be available for hard copy purchase in the U.S. in late January. An open-access PDF is available for free download now.

Addressing Alcohol Addiction

 

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Protective Bacterial Cultures Offer Promising Path for Antibiotic Resistant Salmonella in Food https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/protective-bacterial-cultures-offer-promising-path-for-antibiotic-resistant-salmonella-in-food/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/protective-bacterial-cultures-offer-promising-path-for-antibiotic-resistant-salmonella-in-food/#respond Wed, 11 Jan 2023 12:15:35 +0000 Jessica McBride, PhD https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193776 Dennis D’Amico, associate professor of dairy foods in the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources has continued to advance his work using protective bacterial cultures to prevent illness from food-borne pathogens.

In a new publication in Food Microbiology, D’Amico and his team looked at the ability of a protective culture called Hafnia alvei B16 to prevent infection by two Salmonella serovars, a grouping within the Salmonella enterica species. The serovars D’Amico studied are common culprits in food-borne illness outbreaks and are resistant to multiple antibiotics.

Almost immediately after the introduction of antibiotics like ampicillin, scientists began observing bacterial resistance to the drugs. By the mid-1990s, scientists were identifying multi-drug antibiotic resistance in the Salmonella serovars D’Amico studied.

“One of the biggest challenges in food safety, just like in human medicine is this emergence of superbugs,” D’Amico says. “And these particular strains, as with a lot of Salmonella, have developed resistance to most of the antibiotics we use in food production and human medicine, so we wanted to focus on them as a target.”

This new publication is an expansion of D’Amico’s ongoing work studying the use of protective bacterial cultures to control the growth of pathogens in food products and impede their ability to cause sickness.

Protective cultures work because when bacteria are in the presence of other, similar bacteria, they produce antimicrobial metabolites. When a pathogenic bacterium detects the presence of these protective cultures and their metabolites, it can enter a kind of “fight or flight” mode. The pathogen can turn its focus to expressing genes important to surviving the competitor and turn off many of the nonessential functions that allow it to cause illness such as those needed to attach to and invade human intestinal cells.

Most of the protective cultures on the market target “Gram-positive” bacteria rather than “Gram-negative” ones. This distinction refers to differences in the structure of bacterial cell walls. Gram-positive protective cultures are generally most effective against Gram-positive pathogens, meaning there is a need for effective protective cultures against Gram-negative pathogens, like Escherichia coli and Salmonella, as well.

D’Amico’s lab previously identified Hafnia alvei B16 as effective in inhibiting the growth of both E. coli and Salmonella in milk. Hafnia alvei also effectively stopped the growth of another pathogen, Staphylococcus aureus, and prevented it from producing toxins – critical steps in the bacterium’s ability to cause illness.

“What we learned from our previous work is that not only can these protective cultures stop the growth of pathogens in different situations, in our case it was in milk and dairy products, but they also had these impacts on the virulence of those pathogens when they were able to grow,” D’Amico says.

Hafnia alvei works differently than other protective cultures. Most cultures produce antimicrobial metabolites that stop the growth of competing bacteria. But when Hafnia alvei’s metabolites were added to a pathogenic culture, it didn’t stop their growth as expected. But when the entire Hafnia alvei bacterium was in the presence of E. coli or Salmonella, it did. This told the team it was inhibiting the pathogen’s growth through some other mechanism.

D’Amico’s lab found that growth in the presence of Hafnia alvei decreased the expression of virulence genes in Salmonella and reduced the pathogen’s ability to subsequently invade human intestinal cells by nearly 90%. They also found that when Hafnia alvei attaches to intestinal cells, it does not stop Salmonella from adhering to the cells, but protects them from invasion.

“Because the Salmonella could still adhere to, but not invade intestinal cells, this culture could potentially have stimulated those cells to protect themselves against the invading pathogen, so that could be another mechanism by which these protective cultures exert an effect,” says D’Amico.

D’Amico’s study did find differences in gene expression and how the two serovars, S. Typhimurium and S. Newport, responded to the protective culture in milk.

For example, coculture with Hafnia alvei in milk prevented S. Typhimurium from adhering to intestinal cells but not the Newport serovar.

“We did find some difference between the two serovars, so it does look like these effects are not necessarily universal across Salmonella,” D’Amico says. “Even though they’re very similar, they do differ ever so slightly. And some of those differences may have an impact on the ability of this culture and other cultures to have an effect more globally.”

 

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Less Space, More Plants: How Retipping Improves Efficiency in Cannabis Cultivation https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/less-space-more-plants-how-retipping-improves-efficiency-in-cannabis-cultivation/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/less-space-more-plants-how-retipping-improves-efficiency-in-cannabis-cultivation/#respond Tue, 10 Jan 2023 12:17:41 +0000 Jessica McBride, PhD https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193572 A novel method for making new cannabis plants works as well as traditional methods in less space according to a recent UConn study published in HortScience.

The new method known as “retipping” takes cuttings from strong, disease-free “mother” plants that were micropropogated in laboratory-controlled settings.

“Retipping has the potential to produce nine-times as many plants in a similar amount of floor space as stem cuttings from traditional stock mother plants,” says Jessica Lubell-Brand, Ph.D., professor of horticulture at UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources and principal investigator on the project. “This method could help cultivation facilities grow more in less space while maintaining the quality of their final product.”

The research team, which also included doctoral student Lauren Kurtz, studied the growth of plants in a greenhouse to determine if there were differences between three methods: microcuttings, stem cuttings, and retip cuttings.

The findings suggest that all three methods of making new plants grew to a similar size and had the same chemical profile. The end product, which in this case is the cannabis flowers, did not differ between the three methods either.

While the yields were similar, retipping required the least propagation space and would potentially allow cultivators to grow more starter plants in their facilities.

Today, most cannabis cultivation facilities rely on large, conventionally grown mother plants and stem cuttings to make new, identical plants. The problem is that mother plants take up significant cultivation space, accumulate diseases, and lose vigor over time.

The micropropogated mother plants used in this study were grown in a laboratory and produce identical plants that are disease free and vigorous. They are grown in small containers under sterile conditions, taking up less space than conventional growing.

By using recently micropropogated mothers for the new method called retipping, the researchers harvest cuttings from plants that have been acclimated to conditions outside of the lab. Retipping can enhance output from the micropropagation process by using the plants as mothers instead of and in addition to using them as production plants to grow flowers.

“Not every cultivation facility has the means to build a laboratory and grow micropropagated plants,” says Lubell-Brand. “However, there are plant nurseries with laboratories that can step in to provide them, especially as more cannabis cultivation becomes legal in more states. This supply chain strategy is commonly used in the ornamental nursery trade.”

The research team explains that while decades-long prohibition of cannabis is coming to an end around the country, there is still a lot to learn.

“The legal cannabis industry is forging ahead of the science,” says Kurtz. “Our lab is helping to bridge the gap and provide evidence-based strategies to improve cultivation.”

To further advance collaboration and knowledge sharing between researchers, the cannabis industry, and policymakers, UConn will host a cannabis symposium March 16-17, 2023 on the Storrs campus. Panel discussions, research presentations, and posters will be shared.  Topics covered will include cannabis horticulture, pharmaceuticals, health applications, production and delivery, policies, law, and other topics. There will also be opportunities for networking. To learn more, contact psla@uconn.edu.

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Q&A: Dr. Pramod Srivastava Explains the Hunt for a Breast Cancer Vaccine https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/qa-dr-pramod-srivastava-explains-the-hunt-for-a-breast-cancer-vaccine/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/qa-dr-pramod-srivastava-explains-the-hunt-for-a-breast-cancer-vaccine/#respond Tue, 10 Jan 2023 12:10:03 +0000 Kim Krieger https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193974 The University of Connecticut is joining five other colleges and universities to raise money for cancer research. UConn Health will use its part of the money to develop a vaccine for triple-negative breast cancer, one of the deadliest forms of the disease. Here, UConn Today explores the details of cancer vaccine development with Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center Director and School of Medicine Professor Pramod Srivastava.

Why develop a vaccine for triple negative breast cancer?

Dr. Srivastava: A lot of progress has been made in treatment of breast cancer in general. There are three common targets for treatment, depending upon the characteristics of each individual patient’ breast cancer; estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor, and HER2. We have medicines against each of these targets. But if a woman’s breast cancer has none of these targets, we call it triple negative, and we don’t have as good medicines for her. That is why triple negative breast cancer is so challenging; it has the worse prognosis, and it is the highest unmet need in breast cancer.

How long have you been working on a vaccine for triple negative breast cancer?

Dr. Srivastava:  We have been working on a triple negative breast cancer vaccine for two or three years. We have been using mouse models primarily. Vaccines are normally given to people who are healthy. But for breast cancer, we make vaccines for people who already have the disease. After people are treated for breast cancer with surgery or chemotherapy, the disease often comes back. We hope a vaccine will prevent the disease from ever coming back, or at a minimum, will delay the recurrence. 

The triple negative breast cancer vaccines with which we are experimenting in mice, stimulate the immune system to prevent the disease from recurring. 

The familiar vaccines we use for viruses would look for a unique molecule on the virus that the immune system could latch onto—what would a vaccine for triple negative breast cancer look for?

Dr. Srivastava:  We sequence all the genes in the tumor, and we also sequence all the genes in the normal breast tissue. We compare them to find what is unique to the tumor, and we make a vaccine that targets that uniqueness. We are looking for differences between cancerous and normal breast tissue for individual patients; it would be cumbersome to make vaccines for individual patients, but we certainly could. We are also looking for differences that are common to all triple negative breast cancers, so that we can make an off-the-shelf vaccine. We are looking at every possibility.

You have worked on ovarian cancer vaccines in the past. How does that inform your work on the triple negative breast cancer vaccine?

Dr. Srivastava:  We were making individual vaccines for women with ovarian cancer. We had accrued four patients in that clinical trial. Unfortunately, that clinical research had to be shut down during the pandemic. Some of the approaches we took for ovarian cancer are similar to what we are doing for the triple negative breast cancer vaccine. Our broader focus is on the most lethal cancers of women. Ovarian cancer is often lethal for women, and there are few good treatments. Triple negative breast cancer is also often lethal, and we need good treatments for it.

How close are you to developing a triple negative breast cancer vaccine that can be tested in women?

Dr. Srivastava: We are already analyzing samples of women’s breast cancers. We are perhaps about two years away from starting a clinical trial for triple negative breast cancer vaccines.

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UConn Research 2022: Advancing the Mind, Medicine, Society, and Beyond https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-research-2022-advancing-the-mind-medicine-society-and-beyond/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/uconn-research-2022-advancing-the-mind-medicine-society-and-beyond/#respond Mon, 09 Jan 2023 21:15:48 +0000 Matt Engelhardt https://today.uconn.edu/?p=194100 Through a series of strategic partnerships and investments, societal contributions, and life-changing breakthroughs, UConn strengthened its position as the Northeast’s leading public research university in 2022.

Many of UConn Research’s accomplishments over the calendar year are chronicled in the 2022 Annual Report. The retrospective captures visits from national and state leaders across all areas of government, industry, and environmental protection.

A 2019 rally against gun violence in New York City. An April 1 panel organized by UConn scholars brings together researchers, lawmakers, and activists to share perspectives on the persistent public policy issue.
A 2019 rally against gun violence in New York City. An April 1 panel organized by UConn scholars brings together researchers, lawmakers, and activists to share perspectives on the persistent public policy issue. (Photo by JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)

Additionally, the report examines UConn Research’s new partnerships that promise continued progress toward clean energy innovation and climate change mitigation. Such initiatives include an agreement with National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the establishment of the Future Climate Venture Studio.

While milestone presidential visits and faculty members earning once-in-a-lifetime honors received their due fanfare, many of the greatest research successes of 2022 were much lower profile or contributions toissues of national importance. Here are 12 of Research Enterprise’s most notable, intriguing, or uniquely UConn discoveries and breakthroughs of 2022:

1. Standing Against Despair – Gun violence continues to plague the United States, and 2022 brought more than its share of tragedy and pain. This article explores the expertise and tools that UConn researchers offer to reduce incidents of gun violence and working with stakeholders to enact meaningful change.

2. Dangerous Counterfeit Drugs are Putting Millions at Risk, a New Study Says – As millions of Americans continue to struggle with opioid addiction, counterfeit medication rings are profiting from pushing their false products onto the market, endangering lives in the process. Pharmacy Professor C. Michael White published a study about the trend in the Annals of Pharmacotherapy.

3.  Professor Cato Laurencin Publishes Breakthrough Report on Rotator Cuff Regeneration Treatment – Dr. Cato T. Laurencin’s pioneering work in the field of regenerative engineering yielded new methods to encourage muscle growth for injuries affecting millions of people every year.

4.  School of Social Work Researchers Explore New Model to Sponsor Refugees – With refugee crises across the globe, a team of School of Social Work researchers published an article exploring the history and impact of different ways to sponsor refugees in the U.S.

The volunteers distributing donations to refugees on the Ukrainian border, Russian-Ukrainian war concept.
Volunteers distributing donations to refugees on the Ukrainian border, Russian-Ukrainian war concept. (Adobe Photo)

5.  Light it Up: Using Firefly Genes to Understand Cannabis Biology: UConn is a leader for the state in cannabis research as Connecticut establishes an industry and sets parameters

for legal use. Yi Ma and Gerry Berkowicz of the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Sciences are using their understanding of firefly genes to help farmers better control the levels of THC and CBDs in their crops.

6.  UConn Offers Nation’s First Intraoperative Neuromonitoring Master’s Program – Brain surgery requires the utmost skill and concentration. The presence of an expert neuromonitor is a tremendous help as well. UConn is the first in the nation to offer a postgraduate degree program in intraoperative neuromonitoring.

7.  The Science of Distraction – Education Professor Ido Davidesco believes that planned breaks in concentration might be beneficial to helping students learn difficult subjects like biology. The NSF was intrigued, awarding Davidesco UConn’s first ever NSF CAREER Award for the Neag School of Education.

8.  UConn Researchers Explore the Role of the Black Female Principal in Schools  – At the height of the pandemic and raised awareness of racial inequity in the U.S., black principals have held firmly to the communities they serve. These are the findings and conclusions of three Neag researchers who have studied how the job of the principal has changed publicly and personally.

A blood vessel blocked by red blood cells that are affected by sickle cell anemia and are crescent shaped. (Getty Images)
In sickle cell disease, a patient’s red blood cells are abnormally sickle – or crescent – shaped, which can lead to painful blood vessel blockages. (Getty Images)

9. Grant Enhances Solar Energy, Storm Readiness Efforts – The Eversource Energy Center at the Innovation Partnership Building has enhanced its ability to restore power in the face of bad storms. Now, through a new federal grant, the Center is developing transformative technologies to advance community preparedness.

10. Nearly $3 Million Awarded to Study Sickle Cell Disease at UConn Health – More than 3.5 million people suffer from sickle cell disease, a debilitating, painful condition disproportionately affecting African Americans and Hispanics. Dr. Marja Hurley is leading efforts to understand the disease and develop therapies to improve the lives of those afflicted.

11. UConn Researcher Invents Low-Abundance Biomarker Detection Platform for Early Diagnosis – Chemistry and biomolecular engineering Professor Yu Lei’s invention can perform high-sensitivity readings for biomarkers that could provide early detection for a variety of diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

12.  Study: Being a Fan at Gampel Pavilion (and Elsewhere) Absolutely Rules – There is nothing quite like taking in a Huskies game live with thousands of your closest friends. Researchers have the data to back it up, following a study led by a former UConn doctoral student working with a team from Oxford University.

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Science in Seconds: Cannabinoids https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/science-in-seconds-cannabinoids/ https://today.uconn.edu/2023/01/science-in-seconds-cannabinoids/#respond Mon, 09 Jan 2023 12:30:41 +0000 Thomas Rettig https://today.uconn.edu/?p=193637 Ever wonder what happens when your body experiences pain and how cannabinoids influence pain management? If so, step into the world of UConn’s Center for Advancement in Managing Pain (CAMP).

“We’re in a really exciting, potentially transformative time…”

Director of CAMP and UConn Nursing professor of nursing Steven Kinsey has been researching the use cannabinoids since 2007. The focus of his current study is to understand the body’s physiological response to cannabinoids with an overall goal of developing new pharmacological treatments for pain and inflammation that have limited risk of causing substance use disorders.

This includes both the positive effects, such as decreasing pain, inflammation, and stress, but also the abuse potential of cannabinoids and ways to reduce outcomes such as drug withdrawals. This study is currently funded by the National Institute of Health.

CAMP is a diverse group of faculty, researchers, clinicians, students, and others, who all collectively invest their time, research, and curiosity in creating a path toward innovation in pain research. CAMP members are innovators in their respective fields. They investigate individual cell physiology, probe the cannabinoid system, help patients control pain-related stress, and use cutting-edge methods to objectively quantify pain responses in patients.

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