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College of Arts and Sciences Newsroom

Catalyzing STEM Research

The University of Dayton's new STEM Catalyst grant program is funding eight faculty and student research projects this summer that aspire to help address societal and public health issues - supporting the institution's goal to become "The University for the Common Good."

The grant program encourages research proposals that benefit humanity by addressing significant, unmet needs or that utilize collaborative teams to address challenges across multiple academic disciplines.

The projects include building an electricity-free refrigeration system that can be used to store vaccines in remote communities, and developing a system to test psychological theories about perception and learning in children with autism.

Launched in March, the STEM Catalyst grant program is intended to advance new and existing research programs across the sciences, mathematics and engineering that have potential to rise to national prominence. The grant program will provide up to $500,000 to support faculty and student research during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 academic years.

The eight projects funded this year reflect the research focus areas outlined in April by University President Eric F. Spina during his inaugural address: sustainability and human rights, autonomous systems, and health and bio-sciences. Spina emphasized the essential role research plays in addressing societal problems, driving economic development and expanding opportunity.

"All of the recipients had a specific and compelling vision for advancing research within their disciplines, serving society and transitioning their program to external sponsorship," said Doug Daniels, executive director of the University of Dayton SupraMolecular Applied Research and Technology (SMART) Center, who coordinated the fund's review committee. "We hope to support them in building self-sustaining programs aligned with our University-level vision."

Less than 25 percent of grant applications received funding during this first round, signifying strong competition among nearly three dozen research proposals.

"There were many meritorious proposals that we could not fund this cycle," Daniels said.

The College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and University of Dayton Hanley Sustainability Institute support the grants. Engineering Dean Eddy Rojas said the program's executive committee was pleased with both the number and caliber of the proposals.

"It is clear from the overwhelming response of our faculty to the STEM Catalyst grant that there is both a desire to advance research for the common good and an abundance of promising ideas that deserve to be funded," Rojas said. "It is our hope that these projects will advance to the point of attracting outside funding."

Five projects involve cross-discipline teams representing the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Engineering and School of Education and Health Sciences. The other three projects each involve a single University researcher but envision external collaborations, in keeping with Spina's call for deeper and more impactful community partnerships.

The largest collaboration involves developing a "smart walker" to reduce falls and improve health outcomes for older adults. Mechanical engineering professors Kim Bigelow and Tim Reissman have partnered with Kurt Jackson, associate professor of physical therapy, and Julie Walsh-Messinger, assistant professor of psychology, to develop a prototype that can provide feedback to the user on their posture and position with the hope of preventing falls.

While Reissman and his students work on sensor development, Bigelow and her students will perform user testing and provide feedback. The sensor also records how the walker is used, providing valuable data. Jackson first proposed the idea based on requests from senior care facilities and serves as clinical consultant. Walsh-Messenger joined the team to help determine the types of older adults who would embrace the technology and how to overcome potential objections.

"This grant came at a great time," Bigelow said. "We needed to build a prototype that we could test in a retirement community and weren't sure how to fund it. The data we collect will serve as a proof of concept to apply for larger federal grants so we can refine the walker. Another nice perk of the program is that it is serving as a catalyst for some of our students to perform research this summer and is shaping their careers."

College Dean Jason Pierce said the level of interest and selectivity speaks to the caliber of STEM research taking place at the University.

"It's exciting to see the breadth of projects, each of which addresses some facet of the strategic vision," Pierce said. "They show strong promise — many with potential commercial application — and will provide students with that invaluable opportunity to work elbow-to-elbow with their faculty mentors."

In addition to the aforementioned smart walker project, 2017 STEM Catalyst grant recipients include:

  • Zelalem Bedaso (geology): Establish oxygen isotope baseline in geological records to understand historical climate change and the environment in relation to human evolution.
  • Amy Ciric (chemical and materials engineering) and Jun-Ki Choi (mechanical and aerospace engineering): Build a second-generation prototype and explore a less expensive solvent that provides refrigeration through heat extraction to develop affordable, non-electric powered refrigeration in underdeveloped countries.
  • Tam Nguyen (computer science) and Phu Phung (computer science): Develop a framework for next-generation CAPTCHA technology to distinguish human from machine input by using overlapping images in a collage.
  • Pothitos Pitychoutis (biology): Develop a cutting-edge mouse model to investigate a novel calcium protein implicated in the neurobiology of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • Chelse Prather (biology) and Yvonne Sun (biology): Maintaining coastal tallgrass prairies though the study of grasshopper biomes, and by tracking both decomposition rates and invasive fire ants that are new to the region.
  • Ju Shen (computer science) and Benjamin Kunz (psychology): Develop a virtual reality-based self-modeling system that allows users to see themselves in the first- or third-person to test theories about how self-perception can aid in perspective and learning for children with autism.
  • Amit Singh (biology): Identify targets and drug-like molecules for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease by studying the effects of amyloid protein — a potential driver of Alzheimer’s — using a fruit fly's eye as a model.

For more information, please visit the STEM Catalyst grant program website.

- Dave Larsen, College of Arts and Sciences, and Kelly Garrow, School of Engineering

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