Momentum: Research Archives

Civil Servants on the Silver Screen

University of Dayton political scientist Michelle Pautz explores how movies influence our opinions of government in a new book that looks at the top box office grossing films of the 21st century.

“Films are subtle in the way they inform and provoke thinking in their audiences,” said Pautz, associate professor and assistant provost for the University’s Common Academic Program. “When it comes to bureaucrats, we aren’t necessarily cognizant that we are seeing images of them but they are prominent in film — just as they are in real life — and these images can influence our views on government.”

Pautz’s book, Civil Servants on the Silver Screen: Hollywood’s Depiction of Government and Bureaucrats, examines hundreds of government workers in films released from 2000 to 2015 — from the fictional Ministry of Magic employees of Harry Potter to the pilots in the dramatization Pearl Harbor. 

While nearly half the films portrayed government as a whole in a negative way — which aligns with popular opinion — most of the individual characters were shown positively, Pautz found. They were often physically attractive and younger. Their most common attributes: intelligence, strength, loyalty, kindness and dedication.

Pautz also found evidence audiences change their opinions after watching movies. She asked people about government and policy issues — including how much people trust Washington to do what’s right — before and after watching films like The Day After Tomorrow, Argo and Zero Dark Thirty. Their trust in the government improved, for instance, after watching Argo, which chronicled a CIA operation to rescue six Americans in Tehran during the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran.

“It’s interesting that a quarter to a third of audience members changed their responses to the question after watching one movie that lasts just a few hours,” Pautz said.

Pautz cautions it’s almost impossible to prove scientifically that watching films will change your opinion. But for now she says: “Most Americans have a love-hate relationship with the government, and we see that complexity extends to film.”

Interested in learning more? In The Academic Minute, Pautz discusses how bureaucrats are shown in a different light in the dark of the theater.

Controlling Cravings

The University of Dayton Research Institute has won an Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge award for a program that will teach people with opioid addictions how to reduce their cravings by regaining control of their brains. 

UDRI software engineer Kelly Cashion, who wrote the winning proposal and will lead the program, will develop and use a system of neurofeedback therapy designed to help people “recover control of their minds and bodies and accelerate the path to recovery,” Cashion said.

Cashion’s was one of five winning proposals — two from Ohio, two from Massachusetts and one from Utah — selected for funding by the Ohio Third Frontier from entries submitted from nine countries. The Ohio Opioid Technology Challenge was developed to help engender solutions to the nation’s growing opioid addiction crisis.

“When a person initially consumes opioids, the experience creates a sense of euphoria caused by a release of chemicals in the brain. The pathways in the brain that are part of that experience grow stronger — forging an addiction — while other pathways grow weaker,” she said. “Over time, use of the drugs stops creating positive feelings, and their absence creates painful symptoms of withdrawal, so that a person with an addiction needs to use the drugs just to achieve a sense of normalcy. 

“Using neurofeedback, we’ll work with our volunteers to help them learn to regulate activity in the part of their brain associated with cravings and rewire some of those pathways, allowing them to reduce their cravings and experience a more ‘normal’ state even without opioids,” Cashion said.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback where sensors are used in conjunction with a brainwave monitoring method, such as electroencephalography (EEG), to help the wearer see his or her brain’s electrical activity in real time.

In her program, Cashion will show volunteers a graphics display — which she likened to a simple video game — on a computer monitor. By giving the volunteers tasks that require a shift in focus or other interaction with the game, they will see which activities most positively impact the signals associated with cravings. After a series of training sessions, volunteers will have learned the tasks they will need to perform to reduce cravings, even without use of the technology.

Cashion said neurofeedback is showing promise in the treatment of nicotine addiction, depression, chronic pain, post-traumatic stress disorder and other physiological disorders. “We’ll build on that body of research and transfer known protocols to the domain of opioid addiction treatment,” she said.

Cashion said neurofeedback is not meant to be a substitute for, but a supplement to, current addiction therapies, which include medication-assisted treatment and behavioral counseling. “Current treatments are not always sufficient, and medication is not always sufficiently available because of the demand on treatment centers. Even when it is, some patients reject ‘step-down’ medications, such as methadone, because they view it as replacing one addiction with another. For those patients, neurofeedback can be another avenue for recovery.”

For patients who are transitioning to recovery with the use of medication, neurofeedback can provide additional insight into the changes enabled by the medication, Cashion added.

At the outset of her program, Cashion will work with health care professionals and other experts to help establish a baseline of neurological signals and identify which signals are associated with cravings. She’ll work with other researchers in UDRI’s Software Systems group to use mathematical algorithms to map the 2-dimensional baseline signal imagery to a 3-dimensional map of the brain. “From there we’ll be able to tell which parts of the brain the signals are coming from,” she said.

When she is ready to begin testing, Cashion will work with health care professionals and agencies which serve people with opioid addictions to help identify potential volunteers. As the program progresses, Cashion will continue to consult with technology experts within UDRI and external medical specialists to validate results and make adjustments as necessary.

“Ultimately our goal is to develop and demonstrate a neurofeedback system that uses off-the-shelf hardware along with software developed here at the University of Dayton Research Institute, then work with local medical technology companies to commercialize the product and make it available to treatment centers,” Cashion said.


A Vision for Safety

Pacific Gas and Electric Company needed a way to monitor construction and demolition projects in San Francisco to identify potential intrusions into gas line right-of-ways. They found the solution 2,391 miles away at the University of Dayton’s Vision Lab.

Here, Vijayan Asari’s team developed new algorithms and technologies to detect threats to facilities like gas lines. The software analyzes satellite images to find changes in the environment and communicates the findings to the utility company for additional follow-up. The system helps combat human fatigue and error when conducting such meticulous comparisons — improving both safety and performance.

This technology could also save bridges, railroads, highways, pipelines and other areas from threats or damages. With more than 2 million miles of pipelines spanning the U.S. — impacting virtually every community — the need for advanced technologies to ensure safe operation is essential.

Recent successes with this research have helped the Vision Lab establish a long-term relationship with the Pipeline Research Council International, and there are plans to commercialize the lab’s automatic threat detection system software.

The technology can even be applied to humans. The lab is developing robots with facial recognition capabilities that can identify and assess the wounded, keeping first responders out of harm.

From Fruit Flies to Human Eyes

How do genes transform a single layer of cells into a three-dimensional organ? Amit Singh, associate professor of biology and interim director of the Center for Tissue Regeneration and Engineering at Dayton (TREND) aims to find out.

When cells do not properly become three-dimensional, organs are half-formed or not formed at all, Singh explained. For example, people are born without eyes or have eye defects that affect their vision.

Under a new $439,499 grant from the National Institutes of Health, Singh is studying early eye development in fruit flies to understand the molecular basis of retinal disease and birth defects in the human eye.

“What we are trying to understand is how these genes control this process of delineating three-dimensional structure from a monolayer organ,” Singh said. “Understanding how this transcription factor works will not only have implications on birth defects of the eye, but it will also help us understand how it is involved in the growth of cancer.” 

The project is funded through July 2020 and will employ a postdoctoral researcher, two graduate students — one full-time and one part-time — and three undergraduate student researchers.

The current investigation builds on an earlier research project, in which Singh received a $218,250 NIH grant to study the genetic circuitry involved in regulating eye cell growth and patterning. Under that award, Singh identified genes responsible for the three-dimensional patterning process along the dorso-ventral axis; how the boundary between the eye and head structure is formed; and a transcription factor that could play a role in where the eye is placed on the head.

In addition to early eye development, Singh’s lab focuses on early detection of Alzheimer’s. In June, he was awarded a University of Dayton STEM Catalystgrant to identify targets and drug-like molecules for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease by studying the effects of amyloid protein.





Hypersonic Research


The University of Dayton Research Institute has been awarded a $9.8 million, three-year contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory for research and development in materials and structures for reusable hypersonic vehicles. 

Hypersonic vehicles, which travel at speeds faster than five times the speed of sound, experience significant thermal and aerodynamic loads, said Steven Olson, group leader for Structures in UDRI’s Aerospace Mechanics division, who will serve as principal investigator on the program.

 “Designing vehicles that can survive extreme environmental stresses is critical but challenging, requiring unique structural configurations and advanced materials” Olson said. “Our role will be to focus on understanding the mechanical and thermal loads experienced by hypersonic vehicle structures, then work to identify the best materials and create preliminary designs for select airframe structures.”

 As the program progresses, researchers will perform experiments and analysis to verify performance of the aerospace structures. 

UDRI has a long history of developing and transitioning advanced materials and structures for aerospace, including work in exotic materials for a variety of high-temperature applications.  “There have been a number of advances in materials over the last several decades, particularly in the area of ceramics and ceramic matrix composites, that will make them particularly well suited for this type of application,” Olson said. 

“The Research Institute will partner with the University of Tennessee and Purdue University, whose capabilities in aerodynamic modeling and wind tunnel testing complement our own capabilities,” Olson added. 

UDRI director Allan Crasto said hypersonics is one of several targeted technology  areas included in UDRI’s new strategic plan, designed to serve as a blueprint for the organization’s growth and expansion in significant fields of research for the coming decade and beyond. 


A Laser Focus

The National Science Foundation has awarded University of Dayton researcher Andy Chong $302,700 to create the next generation of pulsed lasers for hospitals and clinics. 

“Pulsed lasers are useful in medical applications, but the type being used now — solid crystal based lasers — are too bulky, too expensive and not easy to use,” said Chong, associate professor of physics. “If they don’t work, it can take even an expert a day or so to get one up and running.”

“But what if we can see the details of the cell structure? Doctors will have a precise idea where to cut and to preserve a lot more brain function of the patient so they can have a much better life after that. That was my dream project using lasers and imaging.”

Chong is focused on pulsed fiber lasers, also known as mode-locked fiber lasers, which are cheaper, smaller and more user-friendly. He is working to create such a laser that generates visible wavelengths, which could be used for microsurgeries, imaging biopsies, or even in eradicating cancer cells with gold nanoparticles.

“For medical purposes, we do believe the mode-locked fiber lasers are the future,” he said. “But for now, the visible wavelength laser is not directly available from mode-locked lasers. You have to start with the laser and convert to the visible wavelength. What I’m suggesting is we can build a laser that can generate visible light and make it readily available for medical applications in a way that is cheaper and more reliable.”

Chong’s work is funded for three years, and contributes to the more than $3 million of NSF research being conducted by College of Arts and Sciences faculty.

“Dr. Chong has become an internationally recognized leader in mode-locked fiber laser design,” said John Erdei, chair of the University’s physics department. “Our undergraduate and graduate students are fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him and work alongside him. The experience will be transformative for their education and their future careers.”

Chong began working on his laser research as a doctoral student at Cornell University. He has continued his scientific investigation during his six years as a UD faculty member. He was inspired to work in this field, he said, by the possibility to improve lives.

 “I thought about a person with a brain tumor,” he said. “Most likely, doctors are going to take out the tumor as much as they can. At the same time, they have to carve out a lot more tissue surrounding it just to make sure all the damaged cells are somehow removed from the brain. And that actually limits the function of the brain.

 “But what if we can see the details of the cell structure? Doctors will have a precise idea where to cut and to preserve a lot more brain function of the patient so they can have a much better life after that. That was my dream project using lasers and imaging.”

Chong said he hopes to collaborate with more experts in the fields of biology and medical research in the future.

“I can provide the laser, so if anyone is interested in doing collaborations I would love to have that chance,” he said.

Tales from the Tomb

Caecilia Metella is one of the most widely known women of ancient Rome. Yet, experts know almost nothing about her. Every trace of evidence about the life she lived is lost to history except one: a funerary monument erected after her death, a cylindrical mausoleum about three stories high and 100 feet in diameter ringed with limestone slabs.

It’s a human experience, and [through it] we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today."

Metella’s tomb is one of hundreds of Roman funerary sites that Dorian Borbonus, associate professor of history, has visited during more than a decade of research. While scholars have studied individual sites, none has done what Borbonus spent the 2016-17 academic year in Rome laying the groundwork to do. He plans to develop the first-ever study of life in ancient Rome over a 400-year period as it can be understood through its changing burial practices. If Borbonus is successful, his history will slash across social class because it will have at its roots the one experience inescapable for everyone: death.

Archaeologists, treasure hunters and thieves have been excavating Rome for centuries, but there remain places that are little-touched. Borbonus became interested in one narrow category of them when he was studying maps of the land along the Via Appia. The maps recorded a number of ancient, underground vaults recessed into walls for the burial of ashes — called columbaria — where nonelite Romans, often slaves and freed slaves attached to an aristocratic household, were buried.

When Borbonus looked into them more, he found very little information. “There was not a ton published, and everybody said the same thing. The same three or four pieces of information were repeated over and over again.”

Finding them to study firsthand can be difficult. They’re often recognizable from above ground only by tell-tale undulations in a grassy field. Once found, they’re not easy to access.

“None of them is open to the public, so you have to get a special permit. They’re all on private property, sometimes in the most exclusive suburbs of Rome, so it can be difficult to get in,” said Borbonus. “Once I got in, I would have maybe 20 minutes to an hour to look at one of them. I would survey the entire tomb just taking pictures I could look at later on. It’s not ideal.”

In his photos from multiple columbaria, he examined the architecture, the size and composition of inscriptions, the drawings and any decorative elements. The earliest columbaria show great architectural simplicity and regularity, epitaphs are brief, and decoration is minimal. Furthermore, they are underground. All of this data, he wrote, “squarely inverts the keen demand for attention” demanded by sites like Caecilia Metella’s monument. In the columbaria’s collective burial, Borbonus saw egalitarianism that signaled a moment of collective identity and social cohesion among Rome’s nonelite. But it didn’t last long, just a few decades.

Why study death?

“It’s something that everybody faces, no matter who it is, where they live, no matter which time period they come from,” said Borbonus. “It’s a human experience, and [through it] we can learn something about the world’s past and something about ourselves today.” 

Each year, the American Academy in Rome hosts up to 30 recipients of the prestigious Rome Prize, which provides a stipend, room and board and other benefits for 11 months to support innovative scholarly and creative projects. Borbonus, a German citizen, snagged the only 2016-17 Rome Prize available to a non-U.S. citizen.

Singleness and the Church

Those who never marry, the casually committed, the widowed, the divorced — these and other single people are being overlooked by the church today, Jana Bennett writes in her new book, Singleness and the Church: A New Theology of the Single Life, from Oxford University Press.

"It’s for the church as a whole to think through: What does it mean for us to take seriously the fact that engagements happen and widows happen?"

Bennett, associate professor of religious studies, explores the Christian tradition of single life. The topic is timely as the single population continues to grow and now includes half of adults in the U.S. and a third of Catholics.

“More people are waiting to get married or deciding marriage isn’t for them,” Bennett said. “It’s part of the culture, and it’s something the church needs to pay attention to.”

Bennett says while Christians often treat singleness “primarily as a waiting game or a kind of purgatory on the way to marriage,” they should take it seriously as a part of the Christian community.

“This book is about celebrating what gifts singleness has to offer,” she said. “It’s not a book just for single people. It’s for the church as a whole to think through: What does it mean for us to take seriously the fact that engagements happen and widows happen? People find themselves in all these states of life, but that doesn’t negate that they are Christian brothers and sisters and follow the call of discipleship.”

Some of those gifts, she said, include new ways of understanding friendship or how we make choices or seek self-sufficiency. She said the book is a starting point for “restoring singleness, in all its amazing varieties, to its rightful place in Christian tradition.”

It devotes chapters to each of the “impermanent” states of life, as she describes them, because someone could, for instance, be single, then engaged, married, widowed and left a single parent. Each chapter includes a theologian who lived that type of single life, for instance the never-married Apostle Paul. 

“My hope overall is to jump-start a conversation,” Bennett writes. “I think that Christians have thought more deeply and richly about states of singleness in other times and places than they tend to do now. I am gathering up some strands from tradition that have been dropped.”

Singleness and the Church builds on Bennett’s work, including her 2008 book on marriage and singleness titled Water is Thicker than Blood: An Augustinian Theology of Marriage and Singleness

“Dr. Bennett draws on a rich reading of Christian theological and spiritual traditions to help her students, community and academy think about what the church should be and how the church should act in a world where old boundaries have dissolved and old binaries, like the choice of either marriage or religious vocation, seem mismatched with the actual lives of Christians struggling with their vocation today,” said Daniel Thompson, chair of the religious studies department. “She steps into a long tradition of UD faculty offering theological and practical reflection on the concrete circumstances of life today, while at the same time she re-reads and expands that tradition in innovative ways.”


Deep Thoughts

University of Dayton researcher Tarek Taha hopes his third National Science Foundation award is a charm in his quest to develop a brain-inspired computer chip that can learn by itself and be more secure, efficient and compact than current chips.

“Anything small you need to be smart and powerful. The key is teaching the chip to learn and then apply it. One thing that differentiates us is we’re looking at learning on the chip,” said Taha, who is using a three-year, $440,000 National Science Foundation award to work toward that goal. “We want to make these systems more autonomous, or independent of outside systems.”

Modern intelligent systems such as self-driving cars typically ship data gathered throughout the day to servers at the manufacturer’s facility for processing. This process will likely move into smaller items as artificial intelligence further pervades our everyday lives, Taha explained.

“But chips like these can be more expensive in terms of energy and time, especially energy,” he said. “Plus, if you cannot connect to the Internet or share data, or need enhanced security or do not want to share data, a chip like this is important.”

"We want to make these systems more autonomous, or independent of outside systems."

Robots could also benefit from a learning chip.

“Big batteries in robots are heavy. Batteries and computing components take up most of the space in robots,” Taha said. “This can shrink the size of robots.”

Deep learning, an artificial intelligence approach that has caught fire, is at the root of making this work, according to Taha.

“Deep learning has created a mini-revolution in the industry by replacing decades-old approaches,” he said. “Deep learning involves mimicking what we think the human brain may do, teaching a system. And once you teach it, it works on its own. This latest project is to do the actual teaching.”

The U.S. Postal Service has been using deep learning to recognize handwritten digits, Taha said, adding that the multibillion-dollar deep learning industry hopes to ramp up to large-scale networks for applications like Google voice translation and others.

Taha has been a rising researcher in the artificial intelligence field for a decade.

In 2007, the National Science Foundation awarded Taha, then at Clemson University, a $400,000 CAREER award that supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research. A few years ago, he received another NSF award to examine ways to make computers smarter by mimicking human brains.

Taha’s research uses a type of nanoscale device, known as a memristor, which retains memory without power. His group has applied for four patents for their work.

 Taha’s group is in the process of designing a new computer chip that can provide the equivalent performance of an entire supercomputer, while consuming nearly 1 million times less energy.

Accelerating Research From Days to Minutes

Most of us have heard the adages "work smarter, not harder" or "be quick, but don't hurry." 

That will be easier for anyone on campus needing high-powered computing for research, a better view of the next solar eclipse or laser power for autonomous systems.

"UD is among fewer than 100 universities in the nation with this type of capability. In Ohio, only UD, Ohio State, Case Western and the University of Cincinnati have these networks.

This comes thanks to a $250,000 Air Force grant awarded to the Intelligent Optics Laboratory, located in the Department of Electro-optics and Photonics, and Director Mikhail Vorontsov for his work to improve atmospheric optical systems for laser communications, LIDAR (radar using laser beams), imaging, laser beam projection and power delivery systems.

Vorontsov's group worked with PSSC Labs, a developer of custom high-performance computing and big data computing solutions, to install a cluster of 780 processing cores and four state-of-the-art graphics processing units.

"Lasers can be used to transmit all sorts of data, including high-definition images, and power various remote systems. Our lab looks at how atmospheric turbulence, clouds and other weather conditions cause the degradation or loss of data, and power transmission efficiency," Vorontsov said. "Then, we try to find ways to mitigate those effects and build better optical systems."

Vorontsov's group has studied laser beam propagation over the 4.34 miles from the University's Fitz Hall to the Dayton VA Medical Center and the 92 miles between two Hawaiian islands. He also is interested in examining laser communication links between ground stations and satellites and between low-orbit satellites. These high-performance links will eventually replace conventional radio frequency-based communication technology.

But these high-performance computational capabilities aren't just for researchers in the Intelligent Optics Lab. Anyone on campus is welcome to use the computer cluster to support their research activities, according to Vorontsov.

The cluster is part of UDsciNet, a 10-gigabyte high-performance data network that provides unimpeded connections to researchers around the nation. UDsciNet, upgraded with a quarter-million-dollar National Science Foundation grant, also allows researchers to remotely access and control instruments like electron microscopes at the Ohio State Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis. 

"UDsciNet connects to the global ‘Internet 2’ research network, thereby facilitating UD's high-performance computing/research relationships beyond our campus. All researchers can better share data regardless of its size or complexity. What used to take days, now takes minutes," said Tom Skill, the University's CIO. "This upgrade is the type of support a good research university needs. Building and sustaining a network of this caliber is an important component in advancing a vision for a far-reaching research infrastructure. These investments show current and future faculty we are serious about supporting their research needs.”

 “These high-performance research networks only exist on NSF-funded campuses,” Skill added. “UD is among fewer than 100 universities in the nation with this type of capability. In Ohio, only UD, Ohio State, Case Western and the University of Cincinnati have these networks." 

Other examples of how faculty intend to use the system include:

  •  Umesh Haritashya, geology professor, is using the network to access and analyze massive data files of high-resolution satellite imagery from NASA and others to study geohazards such as earthquake-induced landslides and river blockages.
  •  Andrew Sarangan, electro-optics professor, will work with Sinclair Community College through the network to develop new ways of learning in STEM fields, including nanotechnology.
  •  Vijay Asari, Ohio Research Scholars Chair in Wide Area Surveillance and Vision Lab director, will use the network with Central State University to send, receive and store tremendous amounts of data for their work in sensors, imaging, automatic scene analysis and three-dimensional movement analysis.
  •  Shuang-Ye Wu, associate professor of geology, will analyze massive data sets involving climate change and precipitation models through the remote use of the Ohio Supercomputer Center.
  •  Charles Browning, chair of the chemical and materials engineering department, will access Ohio State's Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis.

Not wanting to waste the opportunity his godmother gave him to pull himself out of poverty, François Vibert battled through his darkness to earn a Fulbright scholarship he hopes will enable him to provide the gift of light to his native Haiti.

"My parents were very poor and my mother wasn't well, so my godmother took me in, raised me and worked to send me to private schools," Vibert said. "I would still be in Haiti doing who knows what, if not for my godmother. She knew I always had a dream, and I couldn't jeopardize the opportunity she gave me. So, I studied a lot."

But sometimes he didn't have any electricity to study. That meant walking many kilometers to find light to study.

"It fueled my interest in doing something to help."

Vibert eventually found his way to the University of Dayton master's program in renewable and clean energy via an engineering school in Cuba. In between, he returned to Haiti to work in a power plant and volunteer with a social service agency focusing on housing.

As a UD student, he's keeping busy working with mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Kevin Hallinan on cost-effective models to provide electricity in Haiti using solar energy and interning at Fairfield, Ohio-based SonLight Power. SonLight Power is a faith-based non-profit organization providing sustainable energy solutions, knowledge and skills to help people in developing areas gain independence from energy poverty. This summer, Vibert was part of a SonLight Power team that installed a solar power project near Campton, Kentucky.

His eventual goal is to return to Haiti, launch a startup and bring solar energy to his compatriots. The Fulbright Foreign Student Program brings citizens of other countries to the U.S. for graduate study. Many foreign Fulbright grantees are early-career professionals who will return to take leadership positions in their home countries, often working at universities or in government service.

"I want to help people, especially the underprivileged," Vibert said. "I'm not a rich man but I can share my knowledge. I can help guide people."

SonLight Power Executive Director Kevin Sasson said he feels crossing Vibert's path during a talk at UD's School of Engineering was meant to be.

"All of it, it's not a coincidence." "It's supernatural. There's no other way to describe how everything unfolded for us to connect, other than it was a God-thing," he said. "Just think of the sequence of events that had to happen for François and SonLight Power to meet in Dayton, Ohio, of all places. And the precise fit between the SonLight Power mission and François' interests in applying clean energy to improve the quality of life in Haiti. All of it, it's not a coincidence."

Started in 2009, the University of Dayton renewable and clean energy graduate program focuses on energy-efficient buildings and manufacturing, and solar, wind, geothermal, biofuel and fuel-cell energy engineering. The program continues to attract students from around the globe, with applications annually three times that of seats available.

Students have the opportunity to participate in more than $18 million of energy-related research the University performs within the School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences and the University of Dayton Research Institute or hands-on sustainability learning through the University's Hanley Sustainability Institute.

A Giant Leap In Insect Control

Insect ecologist Chelse Prather is "rewriting the textbook" about the role certain minerals might play in controlling grasshopper and other insect populations under a $346,500 National Science Foundation grant.

"[...] this is groundbreaking, rewriting the textbook kind of stuff."

Prather, assistant professor of biology, and four students spent 12 weeks manipulating soil nutrients in a coastal tallgrass prairie south of Houston, Texas. Their goal? To test the nutrients’ importance in determining grasshopper density and diversity.

Grasshoppers are an important part of grassland ecosystems, eating plants and serving as fodder for other animals. But they also compete with livestock for food and in large populations can cause millions of dollars of damage to pastures and rangeland. Ranchers and farmers spend nearly $1 billion annually to control grasshoppers in these areas, but still can't predict their numbers year-to-year.

"This type of information could actually help us predict outbreaks better and has lots of implications for how we manage these systems," Prather said.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential elements for plant and animal growth, but these "macronutrients" are now abundant in most soil because of their prevalence in fertilizer. Prather is studying whether less common "micronutrients" such as calcium, potassium and sodium might help determine the structure of grasshopper communities. 

In the laboratory, Prather discovered grasshoppers can detect the amount of calcium in blades of grass and actually choose to eat ones with specific levels of these micronutrients. In the field, she found a correlation between the level of micronutrients in plants and the number of grasshoppers in that area.

Under the National Science Foundation grant, Prather is testing her hypothesis using every combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and sodium across nearly 29 acres at the University of Houston Coastal Center. For the second year, she and her students spread 10 tons of fertilizer in 128 10,000-square-foot plots, replicating each treatment eight times.

"We are going plot to plot testing grasshopper density, sweep-netting insects and looking at grasshopper diversity," said Kiersten Angelos, a senior biology major.

In summer 2016, Prather saw vast differences in the plant communities in the various plots. Insects also started to respond to the micronutrients — particularly grasshoppers, which responded strongly to calcium and sodium.

"People didn't think that animals like insects were limited by micronutrients, so this is groundbreaking, rewriting the textbook kind of stuff," she said. "It's also showing us that dumping all this nitrogen and phosphorus on the ground has significant effects for how ecosystems function — in particular these grasslands."

Prather hopes her tests will show whether adding large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer to soil has resulted in plants and animals responding differently to other nutrients.

"I think this project will hopefully produce a lot of papers," she said. "We're getting results that are the most exciting of my career." 

In addition to her micronutrient work, Prather is researching whether grasshopper diversity affects how grasslands function under a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in collaboration with Angela Laws, research assistant professor at the University of Houston. Prather is also part of a team to receive a University STEM Catalyst grant to study grasshopper biomes by tracking decomposition rates and invasive fire ant rates in the region.

Seismic Activities

Earthquakes in high mountain regions can trigger large landslides that bury villages, flood rivers and block important international roads, resulting in catastrophic human and economic losses.

"Dr. Haritashya’s work is not just cutting-edge science; it is directly beneficial to thousands — perhaps millions — of people who live in this earthquake-prone region."

Under a new $1.17 million grant from NASA, Umesh Haritashya, associate professor of geology, and a pair of University of Arizona research colleagues hope to better understand the relationship between earthquakes and landslides, and their potential for recurrence and disruption. The research could help determine safer locations for communities and infrastructure in the national border areas of Bhutan, China, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

Currently, little is known about earthquake wave propagation and its relationship to large landslides. For example, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in one part of the region resulted in 3,000 to 4,000 landslides. Another earthquake of the same magnitude in China several years ago resulted in 50,000 to 80,000 landslides. "The project is going to advance the science to a new level," Haritashya said.

Using satellite imagery, Haritashya will map historic landslides and determine the speed at which they moved. He also will create computer models of rivers blocked by the debris, which can form large, artificial lakes behind the landslide that are hemmed in by loose sediment.

"Once the water pressure increases, that artificial lake could bust out and flood downstream," Haritashya said. "I will be modeling the hydrology of such flood scenarios."

His colleagues' research will include modeling earthquakes and the region’s mountain ridges. They will simulate seismic events of various magnitudes to track the resulting energy waves through the mountains, as well as their potential impacts.

The April 2015 Nepal earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing 21 people, and landslides in the Langtang valley, where 250 people were reported missing. Entire villages were buried, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

"Dr. Haritashya’s work is not just cutting-edge science; it is directly beneficial to thousands — perhaps millions — of people who live in this earthquake-prone region," said Dan Goldman, professor and chair of the Department of Geology.

The project also will benefit students in Haritashya's courses.

"These opportunities absolutely, 100 percent affect my teaching," Haritashya said. "I'm not just bringing textbook knowledge to the classroom; I am bringing in real-life experience and scientific data that support the textbook's teachings. It is definitely going to bring a lot of new science into the classroom."

This is the third time in five years NASA has awarded research funding to Haritashya. Last year, his team received a $630,000 grant to study how the heating of glacial lakes is accelerating the melting and retreat of glaciers in the Asian Himalayas. In 2012, they were awarded nearly $1 million to conduct analysis of glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. This new funding isn’t related to his previous NASA projects.

Cracking Diversity’s Code

Tom Williams, associate professor of biology, is using an $839,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research why organisms that share the same genes look and behave differently — and the findings could have implications for human health.

Williams' research is rooted in 1980s discoveries that found radically different organisms have similar sets of genes, suggesting much of the Earth’s biological diversity comes not from new genes, but from how the same genes are used differently.

In previous research, Williams developed an investigative model using color patterns on the abdomens of fruit flies to study the ways in which DNA sequences function to switch genes "on" and "off" during an organism's development. Now Williams is examining the genetic codes of closely related fruit fly species to tease out the DNA sequences that function as switches. His goal? Understanding the changes that make one species' switch behave differently from that of another.

These switch sequences are thought to be a common factor in human health issues such as obesity. For example, a person's genome sequence could determine whether they easily burn off calories or store them instead, impacting their ability to lose weight.

Hard Knocks

In her two decades of experience in the field of school psychology, Susan Davies, associate professor of counselor education and human services, has seen the consequences of concussions left unaddressed. 

After sustaining a brain injury, students may experience learning and behavioral difficulties, she said, but "because educators weren't often well-trained in identifying and understanding brain injuries, these students were not receiving the school-based supports and services they needed in order to be successful."

"Concussions aren't just a sports thing; educators often don't make the link between a child’s fall from the monkey bars and her lack of attention in a kindergarten class." Her mission? To use her research to educate those who work in schools — as well as the parents and students themselves — to identify injuries, acknowledge their myriad impacts and create a community of care to help the students return to learn. In addition to authoring Managing Concussions in Schools: A Guide to Recognition, Response, and Leadership, Davies offers training, sponsored by the Ohio Department of Health, that school-based professionals and health care providers can take back to their schools.

"My strategy with schools for concussion cases is helping them understand that if they have the right supports and adjustments to the workload and academic environments in place, those kids can get better in a few days or weeks," Davies said. "On the other hand, if students come back to an educational environment that is not understanding their unique needs, it can really do some physical damage and prolong their recovery."

Although managing traumatic brain injury in school settings has been Davies' area of research for more than 10 years, she's seen an uptick in interest during the last five with the national attention on sports-related concussions. "But you can't forget about these kids who've fallen, been in fights or been in car accidents. Concussions aren't just a sports thing," she said, adding that educators often don't make the link between a child’s fall from the monkey bars and her lack of attention in a kindergarten class.

From Fish Tank to Gas Tank

Once known only as the slimy scourge of backyard ponds and lakes, algae is emerging as a superhero in the race for cleaner and renewable energy resources. But this hero is not without its Achilles' heel: algae is vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and temperature, limiting commercial growers and researchers in their selection of growing systems and locations.

“The University of Dayton Research Institute has developed the technology to generate a cost-competitive biofuel intermediate in the United States,”

But researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute are addressing that limitation — and producing a high volume of algae in an outdoor, fully automated, closed system designed to operate 24/7, 365, regardless of the weather.

"Our goal was to design and build an economical and efficient system that could be transported anywhere, easily assembled and operate in any climate, and we’ve done just that," said Sukh Sidhu, head of UDRI’s energy technologies and materials division. "This is all about cleaner air, cleaner water and cleaner energies."

"Algae feeds on carbon dioxide and converts it to a highly desirable oil, which accounts for as much as 70 percent of the organism's body weight in some strains. So we can capture carbon dioxide from stacks of coal boilers and other combustion processes before it’s released into the atmosphere and run it through algae growing systems. We consider this a far better alternative for dealing with CO2 emissions than geosequestration, where carbon dioxide is pumped deep into the earth."

In turn algae oil can be extracted and, along with the proteins and carbohydrates that also make up the body of algae, used to create renewable resources for biofuel.

"We discovered that there are no 'best strains' of algae, but that the key factors to high yield are environmental — factors such as weather and temperature, which can be so unpredictable," Sidhu said. "That's why most systems are open, such as natural or man-made ponds, and found in warmer climates.

"And that's why our system is different. It will operate well in any location, regardless of season or climate."

Aside from being more cost-efficient, UDRI’s growing process is "greener" than other systems, using livestock manure instead of chemical fertilizer as a nutrient source for the algae.

After demonstrating the technology, which includes proprietary design modifications engineered by program principal investigator Moshan Kahandawala, the next step will be commercialization.

"The University of Dayton Research Institute has developed the technology to generate a cost-competitive biofuel intermediate in the United States," Sidhu said. "We've taken it from beakers and jars in the lab to full-size and fully operational modules that can be transitioned to the marketplace for commercial use. And we’re pretty proud of that."

UDRI has been performing research, testing and development of algae and algae-growing systems for pollution control and alternative energies since 2009 under funding from the Air Force Research Laboratory Materials and Manufacturing Directorate. 

The Eyes Have It

Can the common fruit fly (Drosophila) provide a better understanding into how Alzheimer's disease affects the human brain? In a single word: Yes.

Just ask Matt Riccetti, a biology major, who is working in the lab of Amit Singh, associate professor of biology.

"We are taking the human Alzheimer's protein and introducing it to the Drosophila's eye," Riccetti explained. "The eye is made up of a number of photoreceptor neurons that show similar reactions to that of the human brain. We can then monitor the degradation of these neurons due to the introduction of the Alzheimer’s protein, which exhibits the effects and degradation that occurs in a human brain with the Alzheimer's disease."

"I wholeheartedly believe that no one creates opportunities for undergraduate research the way UD does."

Once their lab gains a better understanding of the pathology of the disease and the way it affects the brain, they will look for either other proteins or drugs that will target the disease state.

This type of research is useful because flies are very quick to reproduce and share 70 percent of disease-related genes with humans. Once the lab identifies possible solutions and treatments for the disease, it is their goal to have their research used in future clinical trials and other related programs.

Riccetti said the research he has done in Singh's lab has given him a new passion – not to mention top honors. Riccetti was one of seven undergraduates across North America to earn the prestigious Victoria Finnerty undergraduate travel award and attended the 58th Drosophila Research Conference, an international meeting that brings together Drosophila geneticists for intense discussion about their cutting-edge research and its impact on human health.

"This is an incredible award and honor both for Matt and for Dr. Singh's lab," said Mark Nielsen, Department of Biology chair. "The Drosophila Research Conference is one of the largest international science meetings and for Matt to win this award shows the quality of Dr. Singh’s lab and the ability that he has to raise young people into science research. I wholeheartedly believe that no one creates opportunities for undergraduate research the way UD does, which is due to the culture of our department, the passion of our faculty and ultimately the passion of our students."

Out of This World

In early February, NASA scientists narrowed down potential landing sites for Mars 2020 to three — Northeast Syrtis, Jezero Crater and Columbia Hills — at least one of which is likely to be warmer than sites where previous rovers have landed. Simultaneously, researchers at the University of Dayton Research Institute performed a high-temperature qualifying test on a power generator prototype to see if it would successfully operate at the higher temperatures that may be experienced by the generator powering the next rover.

There are only three of this type of MMRTG. Two are here at UD, and the third is on Mars.

The Mars 2020 rover will be powered by a Multi-Mission Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (MMRTG) —similar to the unit currently providing power to Curiosity in Gale Crater — which converts heat created by naturally decaying plutonium radioisotopes into electricity to power the rover’s instruments, computers, wheels, robotic arm and radio. The heat generated by the MMRTG also keeps the rover's mechanical, computer and communication systems at operating temperature, even as the Martian nights dip to as low as minus 150 F.

UDRI houses two MMRTG qualification units that are identical to Curiosity's generator, except they are powered and heated with electricity rather than plutonium. For the last three years, researchers have been designing and running experiments to provide NASA with critical information related to Curiosity's continued exploration, as well as in support of Mars 2020 and other future missions.

And so with cots and sleeping bags handy, UDRI scientist Chad Barklay and UES (Beavercreek) engineer Allen Tolston spent 36 hours camped next to one of the generators — sleeping only 2.5 hours each during the test — while they heated the unit to 428 F, approximately 100 degrees higher than the max temperature Curiosity’s generator experiences. They held the unit at that temperature for 24 hours, prepared to quickly shut down the experiment if they observed any behavior that threatened the system.

Barklay said the test was necessary because at least one of the potential landing sites for the Mars 2020 rover is warmer than Gale Crater, where Curiosity is exploring. "The maximum temperature at Gale Crater is about 32 F during the day, but it could be up to 35 degrees warmer at Columbia Hills," he said. “Although that doesn't sound like much, an increased Martian surface temperature means the surface of the MMRTG could potentially get much hotter."

The experiment, supported by additional UDRI researchers and attended by representatives of Teledyne Energy Systems, Aerojet Rocketdyne and Oak Ridge National Laboratory — who also had an interest in its outcome — was highly successful, Barklay said. "It went better than anybody could have hoped. Everyone was very impressed with our ability to design and develop a test setup and protocols that were unlike anything ever done before. We were very pleased.”

NASA is expected to select a landing site for the mission in the next two years. Mars 2020 is targeted for launch in July 2020.

Grow On

Located less than 2 miles from the University's campus, Twin Towers is a community where 63 percent of the children live below the poverty level, more than double the statewide average. The neighborhood's population boomed during World War II, but that all changed in 1962 with the construction of U.S. Route 35 through Dayton, which forced thousands of Twin Towers families to relocate and many of its businesses and industries to close.

"The University of Dayton really stresses being part of your community [...] I think a lot of people embrace that idea and want to come out and help."

But today, citizens are reclaiming their neighborhood. And a partnership among the University of Dayton, East End Community Services and Mission of Mary Cooperative is working to transform the former Lincoln Elementary School site into an urban farm and greenspace.

Dubbed Lincoln Hill Gardens, the 5-acre site is the first high-profile project for the University's Hanley Sustainability Institute. Established in 2014 with a $12.5 million gift from the George and Amanda Hanley Foundation, the institute aims to extend the University’s sustainability efforts across campus and into the Dayton community.

In addition to urban food production, Lincoln Hill Gardens will allow students to work on projects that meet both learning goals and community needs, said Kelly Bohrer '96, '01, director of community-engaged learning in the University’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community.

For example, students in Bohrer's sustainability research classes designed possible site elements, including aquaponics and composting facilities, that were presented to MKSK, the chosen architecture and design firm. In addition, students in associate professor Suki Kwon’s art and design course worked with Niels Braam, MKSK’s environmental graphic designer, to develop branding and signage proposals. Recently, a group of students installed sensors to monitor garden temperatures to ensure optimal growing conditions.

After a year, Lincoln Hill Gardens has produced nearly 2 tons of food for 80 families, plus more to be sold at local markets. The proceeds go toward developing Lincoln Hill Garden, according to Stephen Mackell, urban farm manager at Mission of Mary Cooperative.

"Through the 2017 growing season, families are getting 10-15 pounds of vegetables a week, plus they are getting in the habit of cooking and eating fresh food all of the time," Mackell said. "We expect to have another 20,000 pounds combined from the spring and summer growing seasons."

But it's not just about the food. The gardens allow families to spend quality time together and for neighbors to get to know one another. The property will also be a natural playground, according to Abby Lisjak, the Hanley Sustainability Institute intern for the Lincoln Hill Garden project.

"I've been learning the importance of nature for childhood development and the benefits of a playscape that's different than a traditional playground," said Lisjak, a mechanical engineering major with a minor in human rights. "This is a great fit with my passions and confirmation I want to work in this area. I've always really liked the science, math and process of engineering, but I've sought ways to use engineering to make a difference, to use human rights as a guide to apply engineering."

Where Engineering Meets Wellness

Combine students interested in engineering, physical therapy and medicine, and what do you get? The Engineering Wellness through Biomechanics Lab at the University of Dayton, helping people move and live better.

"Engineering students sometimes wonder if they should stay in engineering or go into physical therapy. The great thing about biomechanics is they can do both," said associate professor Kim Bigelow, Engineering Wellness through Biomechanics Lab director.

In the lab, Bigelow and her students conduct research that can transform clinical care – especially for individuals who have balance issues.

"That's the beauty of engineering ... you can easily find a connection between the science and your passion. For me, it was finding ways to help people and improve their quality of life."

In collaboration with Dr. Kurt Jackson and students in UD’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, Bigelow is developing new and practical ways to help people with multiple sclerosis (MS) improve their health and well-being. One surprising solution? Kickboxing. Their research suggests the kicks, punches and knee movements associated with kickboxing are a safe and feasible option to improve balance and mobility. The group is now examining how ankle-foot orthoses can improve walking and reduce fatigue for individuals with MS.

Older adults are another group with proportionally high balance issues. One in three individuals aged 65 and older falls each year. To improve this statistic – and quality of life for seniors – Bigelow and her students are establishing ways to better identify individuals who might be at risk, prevent falls and mitigate related injuries.

In addition to her team's efforts in the lab, students in Bigelow's first-year design course, along with students in the School of Engineering's Innovation Center, have worked with both the Kettering Health Network NeuroRehab & Balance Center and United Rehabilitation Services on assistive devices — funded by a three-year, $75,000 National Science Foundation General & Age-Related Disabilities Engineering project grant. Devices include hinged wrist orthotics for patients with clenched fists, easier-to-open pill boxes for patients with limited dexterity, and modified golf clubs for stroke patients.

"I've always wanted to help make a difference in the lives of others — and that's the beauty of engineering," said Bigelow. "The field is so broad, you can easily find a connection between the science and your passion. For me, it was finding ways to help people and improve their quality of life."

Since Bigelow opened the lab in 2009, she has mentored nearly 80 students. They've achieved great things for medical device companies like 3M and Ethicon and have been admitted to preeminent graduate schools. Four of her students received National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships to pursue their doctoral degrees.

Working Smarter, Together.

The University of Dayton looked at a former brownfield site adjacent to its campus and saw opportunity. On land now owned by the University, two Fortune 500 companies — GE Aviation and Emerson — have established research and development facilities.

In 2013, GE opened the GE Aviation Electrical Power Integrated Systems Center. Inside, University of Dayton researchers and graduate students work side by side with GE Aviation scientists and engineers to create advanced electrical power technologies such as new power systems for aircraft, longer-range electric cars and smarter utility power grids for more efficient delivery of electricity. 

"Nowhere else will you find a similar facility where academic researchers and industry participants can come together under one roof [...]"

"We toured 11 other possible sites in the Dayton area, but being next to the University of Dayton was what clinched it for us," said Vic Bonneau, president of Electrical Power Systems for GE Aviation.

University president Eric Spina, himself an aerospace engineer, said Bonneau has praised the agility and problem-solving abilities of UD researchers at the EPISCenter. “While engineers were testing a new power-generation system in the EPISCenter, they discovered a vibration issue at extremely high speeds. One of our researchers offered to assemble an interdisciplinary team of colleagues and students, who quickly developed a real-time software solution to fix the problem,” Spina said. 

The collaborative nature of the University’s culture has nurtured its nearly four-decade relationship with Emerson, a company best known for air conditioning and refrigeration technologies. 

The Helix is Emerson’s premier innovation center where UD students and faculty work with Emerson engineers and industry leaders to develop innovations in the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration industry. The 40,000-square-foot center contains six simulated environments that provide UD students a real-world refrigeration research playground they can’t find anywhere else — a fully functioning and furnished home, model supermarket, light commercial environment, commercial kitchen, data center, and industrial refrigeration system. 

"This facility fills a real and critical need for the HVACR industry today,” said Ken Monnier '83, chief technology officer for Emerson's commercial and residential solutions business. "Nowhere else will you find a similar facility where academic researchers and industry participants can come together under one roof to discuss, develop and test technology solutions through various real-world applications. Here, new game-changing technologies and services will be conceived and tested to create beneficial change in our industry and world." 

In fact, the collaboration has already resulted in a patent application – for an ice machine simulator which is designed to help achieve the U.S. Department of Energy's target of reducing energy in ice machines by 10-15 percent by 2018.

Silence Is Not Always Golden

A boss yells at his employee. The employee is afraid to lose his job and stays silent about it. And the abusive behavior continues. It's a vicious cycle — and a problem that's hurting businesses, says Christian Kiewitz, professor of organizational theory and behavior.

Kiewitz is an expert on workplace aggression and abusive supervision — sustained hostile behavior by a supervisor toward a subordinate that does not include physical violence. While shootings in the workplace make headlines, Kiewitz said it's much more common for workers to experience low-level aggressive incidents.

"Your boss yells at you. Your co-worker doesn't forward an important email to you or keep you in the loop. Somebody might sabotage you," he said. "For most employees, experiencing physical workplace aggression or violence is not the norm. Instead what we experience is hostility."

"But you have to look at: Why is it that people keep silent? Silence is intentionally withholding information, so the motive behind the silence is really important."

While researchers have long focused on employees who speak out, looking at silence is something newer.

"The assumption was silence is the absence of voice," Kiewitz said. "But you have to look at: Why is it that people keep silent? Silence is intentionally withholding information, so the motive behind the silence is really important."

He explains when subordinates remain silent because they fear their managers, it also results in more abusive supervision down the road. The effects can include people leaving, sabotaging their bosses or losing their emotional attachment to the company – all problematic for the organization. 

While his research does not prescribe what to do in cases of abusive supervision, Kiewitz explains one way to break the cycle is to get top management involved. "It comes back to what kind of a culture you want to have in your organization. The best way of dealing with abusive supervisors is not to have them in the first place."

Built out of needs
With the help of some bricks and hard work.

Eight thousand miles from the University Dayton, Wasambo High School is rising from foundations in the green hillside overlooking Lake Malawi.

It will serve as an experiential learning hub for University students while also helping meet the needs of the people of Sangilo Village, Karonga District, Malawi. In the eastern African nation, the median age is 16 1/2 years old and only 18 percent of primary school graduates continue on to high school.

The school was built out of needs articulated by local people in their conversations with UD students involved with the University's Malawi Practicum on Research and Development.

"Their research gives credibility to our mission and influences the direction we take our programming."

"It's amazing when we have our UD students here, as they can dig into an issue and, with their Malawian counterparts, help us understand where we should focus our efforts," said Matt Maroon '06, founder of the Malawi-based nongovernmental organization Determined to Develop. "Their research gives credibility to our mission and influences the direction we take our programming."

University research and development to improve the human condition in Malawi has been a team effort since 2010. In the last year, students from the School of Engineering ETHOS program have surveyed land for the school site and helped with plans and construction. Faculty and students from UD's teacher education program are developing training and curriculum materials. And students and alumni have contributed funds to support the building of Wasambo school to benefit students both in Malawi and Dayton. 

As an experiential learning hub, the school will showcase the University's transdisciplinary, liberal-arts education guided by the Marianist spirit of partner-based community building.

"It's a reflection of the commitment and passion of the community in Malawi, of Matt and of the different programs at UD,” said Jason Pierce, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "It's really quite exciting. It's terrific experiential learning for our students, and it resonates deeply with the mission of the Marianists."

Construction began in September 2016. The boys' school and dormitory and houses for teachers, staff and volunteers will be complete when school begins Sept. 1, 2017. A second phase will include a girls’ school and dormitory. When the boarding school reaches full capacity, it will educate more than 300 students annually.

James Mayni, 14, is excited that his dream of continuing his education is so close to reality: "I will keep hoping that my next chapter of my life at Wasambo High School awaits."

Wasambo School - Artist Rendering

Body Building

Engineering researcher Kristen Comfort won a five-year, $542,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award to support her quest to build a cellular model that acts more like a human body, allowing for a better understanding and visualization of human-drug interactions. Her research could lead to better ways to deliver medicine straight to the source of an illness – a malignant tumor or infection — without the cost and ethical concerns of animal testing.

Comfort has tested 3-D cultures, multicellular systems and fluid flow models individually, but she wants to use her award to tie it all together. Comfort will set up the systems in her first year and use the rest of the term to examine how nanomaterials, tiny particles used to deliver medications in the body, interact with the systems.

"It's more than just the results; for students, it’s also about the experience."

"Traditional tissue cultures are typically static. You sit them in an incubator and they stay there. These cultures are two-dimensional, grown in a single layer," Comfort said."But humans are 3-D beings with systems where everything is moving. I want to use this grant to build a 3-D scaffold to support cell culture systems that mimic a human's physiological flow using a pump to reproduce capillary flow rates."

One model will have lung, liver and skin components to replicate how people inhale a material, which is filtered through the liver and settles in the skin. Another planned model will replicate an immune system. Comfort also hopes to have those systems communicate with each other.

This new system could allow for a faster way to screen potential drugs without the use of animals.

"Expanding from a simple cell system to a large animal system is where most models fall apart," Comfort said. "In addition to ethical issues, the large number of nanomaterials and drugs that need to be tested means animal testing is not always an option. In our system, in addition to determining how the cells respond, we can capture the nanomaterials and examine their properties after they have been run through the system."

Comfort will be able to employ a graduate student and two undergraduate students for the five-year term.

"It's more than just the results; for students, it's also about the experience. In addition to having the resources to carry out some really exciting and innovative research, I’m thrilled to be able to use the CAREER award to introduce science to a new group of students."

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