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UT researchers to lead 38% of Ohio’s new water quality research projects, including ‘impairment’ criteria

The University of Toledo is slated to lead eight out of the 21 new research projects to be funded with $3.5 million from the state of Ohio to address water quality and algal bloom toxicity.

UT, situated on the western basin of Lake Erie, is to receive nearly $1 million of the $3.5 million dedicated by the Ohio Department of Higher Education for these additional projects in the ongoing, statewide Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, which began three years ago after the city of Toledo issued a Do Not Drink advisory for half a million water customers due to the level of microcystin detected in the water.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman, UT algae researcher and professor of ecology, examines a water sample aboard the UT Lake Erie Center research vessel.

UT is one of the lead universities in the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, which consists of 10 Ohio universities and five state agencies.

The selected projects focus on reducing nutrient loading to Lake Erie; investigating algal toxin formation and human health impacts; studying bloom dynamics; better informing water treatment plants how to remove toxin; and aiding the efforts of state agencies.

Dr. Tom Bridgeman, professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, will lead a project to develop sampling protocols and collect samples to assess listing criteria that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency may use to monitor the water quality of the open waters of the western basin of Lake Erie and to potentially assign official designations such as “impaired” or “unimpaired.”

“Although it is obvious to nearly everyone that harmful algal blooms are impairing Lake Erie each summer, we need to develop objective scientific criteria that can be used to list the open waters of the lake as officially ‘impaired,’ and to remove an ‘impairment’ designation in the future if conditions improve sufficiently,” Bridgeman said.

UT researchers also to receive some of the $988,829 in state funding for their projects are:

• Dr. Jason Huntley, associate professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology, will be developing and testing biofilters — water filters containing specialized bacteria that degrade microcystin toxins from lake water as it flows through the filter. These biofilter studies are aimed to develop cost-effective, efficient and safe drinking water treatment alternatives for the city of Toledo and other Lake Erie water municipalities.

• Dr. Steven Haller and Dr. David Kennedy, assistant professors in the Department of Medicine, will investigate how cyanotoxins such as microcystin damage organs not only in healthy settings, but in settings that may increase susceptibility such as diabetes, obesity and inflammatory bowel disease. Their research teams are working in concert with experts in medicine, pathology, physiology, pharmacology and chemistry to not only learn how microcystin affects organ function in these settings, but also to create new therapies to prevent and treat organ damage, especially in vulnerable patient populations.

• Dr. Patrick Lawrence, UT professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, will use a transportation model to simulate potential distribution of volume of agricultural manure from permitted livestock facilities to surrounding farmland for application as a nutrient. The results will assist in determining the estimated acreage of land within the Lake Erie western basin where manure application could be undertaken and examine associated crop types, farming practices, soil types, drainage and other environmental conditions in those areas.

• Dr. Saatvika Rai, assistant professor of environmental policy in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, and Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, professor in the Department of Geography and Planning, will use GIS and remote sensing to assess the implementation of agricultural and farming practices in three sub-watersheds of the Maumee River Basin — Auglaize, Blanchard and St. Joseph — to identify where best management practices are being implemented. These maps will then be correlated with perceptions of farmers through surveys and interviews to identify hotspots and priority areas for policy intervention in the region.

• Dr. April Ames, assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Services, will apply an industrial hygiene technique to the exploration of the presence of microcystin in the air using research boats on Lake Erie. Simultaneously, residents who live on or near Lake Erie will be surveyed about their recreational use and self-reported health.

“I am proud of the work that is being done, and that researchers from our public and private higher education institutions continue to work together to address this issue,” said Ohio Department of Higher Education Chancellor John Carey. “Using the talent of Ohio’s researchers and students to solve pressing problems makes perfect sense.”

The Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative is funded by the Ohio Department of Higher Education with $7.1 million made available for four rounds of research funding since 2015. Matching funding from participating Ohio universities increases the total investment to almost $15.5 million for more than 50 projects, demonstrating the state’s overall commitment to solving the harmful algal bloom problem.

Water quality is a major research focus at UT. With more than $14 million in active grants underway, UT experts are studying algal blooms, invasive species such as Asian carp, and pollutants. Researchers are looking for pathways to restore our greatest natural resource for future generations to ensure our communities continue to have access to safe drinking water.

The UT Water Task Force, which is composed of faculty and researchers in diverse fields spanning the University, serves as a resource for government officials and the public looking for expertise on investigating the causes and effects of algal blooms, the health of Lake Erie, and the health of the communities depending on its water. The task force includes experts in economics, engineering, environmental sciences, business, pharmacy, law, chemistry and biochemistry, geography and planning, and medical microbiology and immunology.

PhD student spreading love to children with cancer on Valentine’s Day

Love is in the air year-round for Michaela Margida.

The 29-year-old University of Toledo PhD student who solves environmental problems through mathematical modeling prepares for Valentine’s Day with a passion to put a smile on the faces of hundreds of children with cancer or other chronic illnesses.

Michaela Margida started the Valentine Project seven years ago to brighten up the holiday for children with cancer and chronic illnesses.

“Valentine’s Day is all about love, but it can end up feeling isolating for those children because of social stigma associated with illness, appearance changes or absences from school,” Margida said. “Instead of being about the number of cards a child receives or whether someone has a crush on someone else, I wanted to take this holiday and reclaim it for these kids so they can forget about the way that illness affects their life just for a few minutes and feel special and loved.”

Margida, a childhood brain tumor survivor, and her brother, Gregory, created the Valentine Project seven years ago. The nonprofit organization collects care packages from volunteers around the world and ships them to children’s homes in time for Valentine’s Day.

It’s first year started with 80 children in Ohio. It has grown to nearly 1,000.

“For the first time this year, we branched out geographically,” Margida said. “My brother moved to San Francisco and started a branch in California.”

The Valentine Project’s local drop-off point — Margida’s home in the Old Orchard neighborhood adjacent to campus — recently received a care package for a 5-year-old girl that includes a U.S. puzzle, Wonder Woman doll, stuffed poodle, book, heart-shaped box of chocolates, and a pair of Disney leggings.

Margida and her mother, along with other volunteers, examine each donated care package to ensure all gifts are safe and age appropriate. They add to the packages, if needed, and then ship them to reach the children by Valentine’s Day.

This labor of love is a way of giving back after the acts of kindness her family received when Margida was a little girl.

“I was 5 years old when I started getting sick,” Margida said. “After I had surgery to remove the brain tumor, I had to learn to walk and feed myself again. Hearing stories of how family and friends supported my family during that incredibly hard and scary time by bringing us a meal or visiting us in the hospital taught me that small acts of kindness can mean so very much to people going through difficult times. Those acts of kindness and love kept my parents going. That’s the spirit of the Valentine Project.”

This time of year, the charity work is all-consuming. Margida credits her PhD adviser, Dr. Daryl Moorhead in the Department of Environmental Sciences, with helping impose order on her “sometimes crazy life.”

When not organizing care packages, Margida is focused on her research in plant litter decomposition.

“I am interested in what happens to the carbon dioxide stored inside leaves and other plant parts when they die,” Margida said.

Before she arrived at UT, Margida worked as a marine biology teacher for middle and high school students in Sarasota, Fla. She also volunteered with Jesuit Volunteer Corps to teach lower-income adults how to manage their electric bill through using less energy in Baltimore.

“I feel called to give back,” Margida said. “Life is happening right this moment, and we can all begin to make a difference today. Love is what will change the world.”

The Valentine Project is in need of volunteers and donations to help pay for shipping costs. Go to thevalentineproject.org to learn more. Registration begins in December to make a care package for Valentine’s Day 2019.

Staff Leadership Development Program to improve careers, UT’s future

The University of Toledo has launched its inaugural class of the UT Staff Leadership Development Program to cultivate high-potential emerging leaders who, in the years ahead, may assume leadership roles, as well as grow in their current positions.

“In alignment with UT’s strategic plan to foster a culture of excellence for our faculty and staff, we’ve launched this program to provide a more formal process for career development for employees at all levels throughout the University,” said President Sharon L. Gaber.

“The program is designed to assist participants with honing leadership skills, as well as to expose them to cross-campus networking and dialogue with many current leaders,” stated Wendy Davis, associate vice president for human resources and talent development.

“A selection committee chose this first class based on their leadership potential and selected individuals from across all campuses, as well as from many different job categories throughout the organization,” Davis explained. “In addition to experienced UT faculty and leaders who guide class discussions, this diversity helps to ensure participants are exposed to many different perspectives on any given topic.”

The program, which launched in October 2017 and concludes in October 2018 with a capstone project, requires members to spend approximately three hours each month discussing topics such as fiscal responsibilities; human resources policies and procedures; health-care operations; student recruitment and enrollment management; creating a culture of customer service; ethical leadership; career success; and legal issues in higher education.

“These individuals also are required to complete summer reading assignments on various leadership topics,” said Carrie Herr, director for the Center for Continuous Improvement, who was instrumental in developing the curriculum. “I see much potential in this first class. The skills they hone over the next several months should have a significant impact on UT throughout the next decade and beyond.”

The cohort selected for the inaugural class of UT’s Staff Leadership Development Program are Cristina Alvarado, College of Medicine and Life Sciences; Stefanie Bias, Neurosciences; Stacey Jo Brown, Legal Affairs; Candace Busdiecker, College of Medicine and Life Sciences; Lori DeShetler, Judith Herb College of Education; Josh Dittman, Intercollegiate Athletics; Kelly Donovan, Controller’s Office; Shelly Drouillard, Career Services; Jamie Fager, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Beth Gerasimiak, Office of the Provost; Melissa Hansen, Medical Education; Heather Huntley, Office of the Provost; Angelica Johnson, College of Arts and Letters; Deirdre Jones, Edward H. Schmidt School of Professional Sales in the College of Business and Innovation; Vickie Kuntz, Engineering Career Development Center in the College of Engineering; Sara Lockett, Purchasing/Finance; Elliott Nickeson, Registrar’s Office; Daniel Perry, Facilities and Construction; Tiffany Preston-Whitman, University College; Jason Rahe, Division of Technology and Advanced Solutions; Staci Sturdivant, College of Health and Human Services; Craig Turner, College of Business and Innovation; and Matthew Wise, Division of Technology and Advanced Solutions.

“It is wonderful to see the University focus so many resources on developing the next generation of leadership in higher education,” said Dr. Jenell L. S. Wittmer, associate professor of management, who facilitates sessions on communication with diverse groups and emotional intelligence. “The participants bring their work experiences into the classroom, and they are learning from each other. This program is a perfect example of the positive transformation underway at UT.”

NASA flight director for International Space Station to speak Feb. 8

An alumnus of The University of Toledo and NASA flight director for the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control in Houston will return to his alma mater as part of UT’s continuing celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Ritter Astrophysics Research Center.

Dr. Robert Dempsey, who received a master’s degree and PhD in physics from UT in 1987 and 1991, will speak at the University about guiding human space flights and astronomical exploration Thursday, Feb. 8, at 6 p.m. in the Driscoll Alumni Center Auditorium.

Dempsey

The free, public event is titled “Houston, We Have a Problem — When Things Go Wrong on the International Space Station.”

“We all have contingency plans, but what do you do when something goes wrong in space?” said Dr. Jillian Bornak, associate lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and chair of the UT Astronomy 50th Anniversary Committee. “If you enjoyed watching ‘Apollo 13,’ ‘The Martian’ or ‘Gravity,’ you will appreciate the window Dr. Dempsey will give into being the flight director of the space station.”

Dempsey worked for Computer Sciences Corp. as a resident astronomer on the Hubble Space Telescope from 1992 to 1997, and for United Space Alliance as a command and data handling flight controller from 1997 to 2003. He joined NASA in 2003 as a communications and tracking officer for the International Space Station.

“We are especially excited because Dr. Dempsey is one of our own: He is an alum of The University of Toledo’s Department of Physics and Astronomy,” Bornak said. “I hope everyone joins us as we continue our yearlong celebration of the golden anniversary of Ritter and our astronomy program.”

The next event in honor of Ritter’s 50th anniversary will be Thursday, Feb. 22, at 6:30 p.m. in Wolfe Hall Room 1205. It will feature Dr. Ken Sembach, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, which handles the Hubble Space Telescope and James Webb Space Telescope that is expected to be launched next year.

Saturday Morning Science returns with ‘Twisty Puzzles,’ ‘Green Goo,’ ‘Talking Trees’

If you’re curious about solving the Rubik’s Cube or the break of a pitcher’s curve ball, ask a mathematician or scientist.

Saturday Morning Science is back for 2018 at The University of Toledo with six programs to give the community the opportunity to learn about hot topics in modern science.

The free, public talks are presented by the UT College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics and kick off Saturday, Feb. 3, at 10 a.m. in Memorial Field House Room 2100 with “A Brief History of Twisty Puzzles,” most famously the Rubik’s Cube.

“Puzzles are more important than most people realize,” said Dr. Nathaniel Iverson, lecturer in the UT Department of Mathematics and Statistics, who will lead the session and teach strategies to solve a Rubik’s Cube.

“Mathematics is not just about numbers and calculations, but also about analyzing the world around you and solving problems. Puzzles are valuable for developing dexterity, problem-solving strategies, spatial reasoning, refinement of practice techniques, and intuition for higher-level concepts in mathematics.”

A limited number of custom UT/Saturday Morning Science cube puzzles will be given away to attendees of the Feb. 3 presentation.

Listed by date, additional programs and speakers are:

• Feb. 17 — “Bio-Inspired, Bio-Hybrid, and Organic Robots: The Many Roles of Nature in Robotic Development” by Dr. Roger Quinn, director of the Biologically Inspired Robotics Laboratory at Case Western Reserve University, and Dr. Victoria Webster-Wood, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Case Western Reserve University, in Memorial Field House Room 2100.

• Feb. 24 — “From Fork to Fauna: Unlocking the Secrets of Nutrition to Optimize Our Health” by Sally Itawi and Manish Karamchandani, medical students in the UT College of Medicine and Life Sciences, in Wolfe Hall Room 1205.

• March 17 — “Talking Trees and Babbling Bushes: How Plants Communicate with Each Other” by Dr. Jack C. Schultz, senior executive director of research development at UT and director emeritus of the Bond Life Sciences Center at the University of Missouri, in Wolfe Hall Room 1205.

• April 21 — “The Great Green Goo of Lake Erie: Harmful Algal Blooms and Your Drinking Water” by Dr. Tom Bridgeman, UT professor of ecology in the Department of Environmental Sciences, in Memorial Field House Room 2100.

• April 28 — “The Physics of Baseball” by Dr. Alan Nathan, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in Memorial Field House Room 2100.

“One theme running through this year’s series is our relationship with nature,” said Dr. John Bellizzi, UT associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and co-director of Saturday Morning Science. “We’re connected to the environment through the food we eat and the water we drink, and we can also draw inspiration from understanding how animals move and plants communicate.”

All talks begin at 10 a.m. and include complimentary light refreshments.

For more information about the upcoming events, visit facebook.com/saturdaymorningscience.

Panel presentation to explore peace studies, peace education

The UT Peace Fellows will hold a meeting and panel presentation focusing on the topic of peace and justice issues Monday, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m. in Gillham Hall Room 5300.

The free event is open to students from any academic discipline, as well as campus and community members.

The UT Peace Fellows is a group of faculty, students and community members that meets three times a year to discuss current events, theory and research in peace studies and peace education, and how a community can contribute to help create a more peaceful and just society.

“We work together to bridge academic interests related to peace studies, to aid in the promotion of peace-related programs and events on campus, and to foster the roots of peace and justice into the core of the UT mission and culture,” said Dr. Dale T. Snauwaert, professor of philosophy of education and peace studies.

The event will allow attendees to participate in group discussions and exchange ideas and research related to the topic of peace and justice issues.

Feature presentations will be given by Dr. Jeannine Diller, associate professor of philosophy and religious studies, and Dr. Hans Gottgens, professor of environmental studies.

“Drs. Diller and Gottgens will speak about their scholarship, which is situated in different disciplinary areas, yet they will both highlight how peace and justice issues impact their scholarship, teaching and service to the community,” said Dr. Florian Feucht, associate professor of educational psychology and peace education. “The speakers are examples for how peace and justice connects and impacts our daily work and local community.”

The Peace Fellows is affiliated with a new undergraduate minor in peace and justice studies at the University. The minor includes four core courses and two electives that students can take from across campus.

“By completing the peace and justice studies minor, students gain a deep understanding of the meaning of peace as not merely the absence of violence, but more broadly as the presence of justice, human rights, ecological sustainability and human security,” Snauwaert said. “Students understand and are able to apply and create just and effective responses to threats to and violations of peace and justice on all levels of human society from the local to the global.”

The program also offers access to resources such as the Betty A. Reardon Collection in the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections in Carlson Library, as well as a peace studies and peace education library housed in Gillham Hall.

For more information about the event or about the peace and justice studies minor, contact Snauwaert at dale.snauwaert@utoledo.edu.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist to deliver UT commencement address Dec. 17

Toledo native and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D. Sallah will return to his alma mater Sunday, Dec. 17, to deliver the keynote address during The University of Toledo’s fall commencement ceremony.

The event will begin at 10 a.m. in Savage Arena.

Sallah

Sallah will address 2,067 candidates for degrees, including 118 doctoral, 523 master’s, 1,370 bachelor’s and 56 associate’s.

The ceremony is open to the public and can be viewed live at video.utoledo.edu.

Sallah’s investigative work as a reporter and editor with award-winning newspapers across the country has revealed public corruption, police abuses and government blunders, resulting in grand jury investigations, legislative reform, and the recovery of millions of taxpayer dollars.

He is a reporter on the national investigations team at USA Today/Gannett Network in Washington, D.C.

“This is where it all began for me,” Sallah said. “From the time I took my first journalism class in the fall of my freshman year, I fell in love with journalism, and UT is a big part of that. It’s part of my foundation — the professors, the values they conveyed to me about journalism, and why it’s so critical to our society, especially investigative work. I’m honored to be coming home to be the commencement speaker.”

“Journalists have an important role to inform the public about the issues that affect our lives, and Michael Sallah has embraced that responsibility uncovering many misdeeds through investigative reporting that resulted in positive change,” UT President Sharon L. Gaber said. “I look forward to him sharing with our graduates how he got his start here in Toledo and inspiring them to stay curious and serve their communities.”

Born in Toledo, Sallah is a 1977 alumnus of The University of Toledo, graduating cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in journalism. He was named UT’s Outstanding Alumnus in the Social Sciences in 2004. Sallah also is a 1973 graduate of St. John’s Jesuit High School.

He was a reporter and national affairs writer at The Blade for more than a decade, and was the lead reporter on the 2003 project “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths” that exposed the U.S. Army’s longest war crimes case of the Vietnam War. The series won numerous national awards, including the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

While investigations editor and reporter at the Miami Herald, Sallah led an inquiry into local corruption. His team’s 2006 “House of Lies” series exposed widespread fraud in Miami-Dade County public housing and earned the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. He was named a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his series “Neglected to Death,” which uncovered deadly conditions in Florida assisted-living facilities, led to the closing of 13 facilities, and was the impetus for a gubernatorial task force to overhaul state law.

During his two years at The Washington Post, Sallah received a Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism for an investigation that exposed a predatory system of tax collection in the District of Columbia. 

He returned to the Miami Herald in 2014 and was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2016 for uncovering one of the nation’s most corrupt sting operations in a police unit that laundered $71.5 million for drug cartels, kept millions for brokering the deals, and failed to make a single significant arrest. 

Sallah is the author of the books “Tiger Force: A True Story of Men and War” and “Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba.” He also was a consultant for the Public Broadcasting Service documentary “American Experience.”

UT’s fall commencement ceremony will recognize graduates from the colleges of Arts and Letters; Business and Innovation; Judith Herb College of Education; Engineering; Graduate Studies; Health and Human Services; Honors College; Natural Sciences and Mathematics; Nursing; and Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences; and University College.

For more information, visit utoledo.edu/commencement.

UT publishes first research paper making substantial use of Discovery Channel Telescope partnership

The University of Toledo’s partnership with the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona has helped launch the UT astronomy program onto a new level. For the first time, a UT graduate student published a significant paper made possible by data collected from observations with the telescope.

The paper on the properties of interstellar dust appears as a cover feature article in the September issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics. The UT research team studied the dust properties present in the Vulture Head nebula, a collection of dust and gas 420 light years from Earth. The team observed the nebula with the Discovery Channel Telescope, a 4.3-meter telescope located south of Flagstaff, overlooking the Verde Valley. It is the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States and one of the most technologically advanced.

In one of the first detailed images of the Vulture Head nebula, the cloud is illuminated by the faint starlight of the Milky Way and couldn’t have been captured in this detail without the power of the Discovery Channel Telescope. Dr. Aditya G. Togi took this photo.

“To understand the evolution of the universe, it’s important to understand the galaxy evolution and how stars are formed,” said lead researcher Dr. Aditya Togi, a former UT doctoral student who is now a research assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “If you know dust properties of the cloud, you can better understand star formation.”

The research team also included Dr. Adolf N. Witt, UT professor emeritus of astronomy, and Demi St. John, an undergraduate student from Murray State University. St. John, selected by the UT Physics and Astronomy Department to join the team, was part of the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. She is in her first year of graduate school at Montana State University.

The team chose to observe the nebula with the Discovery Channel Telescope to test a model developed by French astronomers about the types and properties of dust particles. No one had ever tested those models through observation.

The French model posited that certain dust grains have specific properties. But the astronomers didn’t know for sure what types of dust grains were in the nebula or what size, temperature or density they were, Togi said.

The UT team measured the temperature and mass of the nebula’s dust and found that the dust grains in the cloud closely matched the properties predicted by three dust grain models in the French astronomer’s work. The research confirmed most of the model’s predictions and led the astronomers to new understandings about the dust particles that form stars.

They also learned that the cloud had something called “core shine.” The team knew that in order to scatter the light that creates core shine, some of the dust grains had to be larger than normally encountered in interstellar space. They found that the grains were more complex or “evolved.” They were coated with ice and frozen gases and had grown to about 100 times the volume of a typical interstellar dust grain.

“In order to reach this grain growth, the cloud must be at least a million years old,” Witt said.

Access to the Discovery Channel Telescope was crucial to this research. It’s also a powerful tool when attracting graduate students and young faculty.

“To be truly competitive, to have a first-rate program, you’ve got to have this kind of access to a first-class instrument,” Witt said.

UT is scheduled to host the annual Discovery Channel Telescope partner board meeting Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8 and 9, at the Driscoll Alumni Center. About a dozen representatives from UT, the Lowell Observatory, Boston University, Yale University, the University of Maryland, Northern Arizona University and the University of Texas at Austin will meet to discuss shared governance of the telescope and the best scientific uses of the instrument.

The Discovery Channel Telescope partnership has been a boon to UT astronomers and helped put the astronomy department on the map.

“Our astronomy program at Toledo is on an accelerating path,” said Dr. J.D. Smith, UT professor of astronomy, who is planning the board meeting. “We’re being recognized nationally and internationally, and this partnership is a big part of the reason why.”

Researcher’s study of how cells move could lead to enhanced medical therapies

A University of Toledo chemistry and biochemistry faculty member and his research team of graduate students have answered a fundamental biological question about cell migration that could have implications for enhanced medical treatments.

Results from the two-year study have been published in the Oct. 20 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne look at optically controlled cell migration using a next generation confocal imager.

“If we better understand how cells migrate, we can target some of these molecules for therapeutic purposes,” said Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, who led the research team.

Scientists have long been trying to better understand exactly how cells move throughout the body. If you can control a cell’s movement, you might be able to prevent cancer cell movement and secondary tumor formation in vital body organs such as the lungs or pancreas. Or you could help immune cells move to the site of an infection and accelerate healing.

In their research, the UT team targeted the cell’s G protein-coupled receptors, or GPCRs. These receptors are known as the “sniffers,” Karunarathne said, because they sense the environment and steer the cell where it’s needed in the body. They also regulate everything from heart rate to how much insulin the pancreas kicks out.

One-third of marketed drugs are used to control the GPCR pathways, according to Karunarathne. That includes everything from beta blockers to cancer and diabetes medicines.

When a cell moves, the front of the cell scoots forward, while the back of the cell retracts. You need both things to happen for the cell to move. It’s called “treadmilling.” Until now, scientists haven’t had much information on the how the retraction piece of the puzzle works, Karunarathne said.

In its study, the research team inserted GPCR receptors from the eye, which are sensitive to light, into cells from other parts of the body. They then used light to activate the receptors and target a specific area in the front of the cell. In this way, they could take a look at how the back of the cell reacted — the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing.

The use of light receptors was an important innovation in the team’s research. It is part of a fairly new field called subcellular optogenetics, Karunarathne said.

Normally, chemicals are used to activate receptors. But chemicals, which dissipate throughout the cell, are hard to control. By using light instead to stimulate the receptors, researchers could target specific, small regions on a single cell. They also could turn the light on and off, stopping and starting the activation.

As the researchers activated the GPCR in the front of the cell, the cell generated proteins. Through trial and error, and by targeting combinations of those proteins, the UT team found two pathways that affect how the back of the cell retracts and that are essential to cell migration. Stop either of those pathways and the cells can’t move.

With this discovery, scientists can now begin thinking about how to create therapies that either slow, stop or accelerate a cell’s movement. Karunarathne said one possibility is gene therapy whereby patients are injected with genes that make cells to produce light-sensitive GPCRs. Tumor cells could be “told” not to migrate, and immune cells could be “told” to attack nasty infections.

Three researchers elected Fellows of American Association for the Advancement of Science

Three University of Toledo researchers have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in recognition of their important contributions to scientific discovery.

The UT faculty members who are among the 396 AAAS Fellows elected in 2017 are Dr. Heidi Appel, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College and professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences; Dr. Karen Bjorkman, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, and Helen Luedtke Brooks Endowed Professor of Astronomy; and Dr. Steven Federman, professor of astronomy.

AAAS is the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific and engineering society. Since 1874, it has elected Fellows to recognize members for their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

“I am proud three UT faculty members earned this prestigious national honor in one year,” UT President Sharon L. Gaber said. “This recognition by AAAS is an external validation of the talented experts on our campus. UT faculty make important contributions to their fields of study and actively engage our students in research projects in the process.”

Appel

Appel, who joined UT in 2016, is being elected to the biological sciences section of the AAAS for her contributions to the field of chemical ecology. Her research on how plants can “hear” by detecting feeding vibrations from insects and responding with an enhanced chemical defense has been widely cited.

Her other research project explores how galling insects trick plants into making novel structures that they then use as protected places to feed and reproduce. Some of these insects are major agricultural pests worldwide on grapes, wheat and rice.

“Plant defenses against insects are mostly invisible to us because they are chemical. Just think about all of the herbs and spices we use — plants evolved that chemistry to defend themselves against their own diseases and insect pests,” Appel said. “I’ve been fortunate to spend my career working with great collaborators to advance our understanding of how plants detect and respond to insect pests, including a sensory modality we didn’t realize plants had.”

Bjorkman

Bjorkman, who has been a member of UT’s faculty since 1996, is being elected into the association’s astronomy section for her leadership in the field of stellar astrophysics and spectropolarimetry to better understand the disks around massive stars.

The massive stars she studies, which are 10 to 20 times the mass of the sun, can have unpredictable gaseous disks around them that change over time for reasons as yet unknown. Bjorkman studies these disks both in individual stars and in larger samples within star clusters to better understand their physical characteristics and the mechanisms behind their formation and variability.

“Most of the atoms that make up everything around us originated in the center of stars, so it is important to advance our understanding of stars and their evolution, while at the same time applying the laws of physics. That is how we learn things, by continuously testing our understanding,” Bjorkman said. “It is an honor to have one of the largest science associations in the world acknowledge our contributions to science. When two of the seven astronomers in this year’s class of Fellows are from UT, that is nice recognition from our colleagues about the strength of our program here.”

Federman

Federman also is being elected into the astronomy section of the AAAS for his contributions in the research of interstellar matter and for advancing the field of laboratory astrophysics.

He has been a UT astronomer since 1988 and for much of his career has studied interstellar gas clouds to better understand the elements and isotopes within these clouds that form stars. He also is a leader in establishing the field of laboratory astrophysics that brings together theoretical and experimental astronomy research to combine observational and lab data to better test theories. He was the first chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division of Laboratory Astrophysics.

“Studying the abundances of elements and isotopes in the material between stars informs about the reactions and processes that happened in the past that led to the outcome we see today,” Federman said. “I’m proud to have been able to contribute over the years as we’ve moved from modeling to observations to lab studies as we continue to learn more and more about the chemical makeup in material that will become the next generation of stars and planets.”

Appel, Bjorkman and Federman will be recognized at the AAAS Fellows Forum at the association’s annual meeting Feb. 17 in Austin, Texas.

The 2017 AAAS Fellows join UT’s Dr. Carol Stepien, Distinguished University Professor of Ecology, who was elected last year, and Dr. Jack Schultz, who joined UT in September as senior executive director of research development and has been an AAAS Fellow since 2011 when he was elected while at the University of Missouri.