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Drones monitoring algal blooms capture high-quality, low-cost data to protect drinking water, swimmer safety

Low-flying eyes in the sky are improving the accuracy of water quality assessments in the Great Lakes and the rivers that flow into them.

A new study at The University of Toledo finds drones armed with sensors are useful tools in the fight against harmful algal blooms, particularly for monitoring key spots within Lake Erie, such as near drinking water inlets and off the shore of public beaches.

Dr. Richard Becker used a drone to assess water quality on Lake Erie.

Researchers compared data gathered by the drones with satellite data and boat-based water sampling at 10 locations over Lake Erie and the Maumee River.

“We get the same results on both drones compared to more expensive and time-consuming measurements — including some made by probes put directly into the water,” said Dr. Richard Becker, associate professor in the UToledo Department of Environmental Sciences.

The technology places a new weapon in the arsenal of water treatment plant managers protecting the drinking water supply and public health officials monitoring beaches.

Filling the short-range surveillance gap left by more expensive remote-sensing methods such as satellites and aircraft, the unmanned aerial systems offer increased algae awareness due to their ability to hover below cloud cover and to be deployed on short notice.

“Detecting the threat of toxic algae as early as possible is critical, but it can be foggy for satellites looking through different layers of the atmosphere,” Becker said. “These drones are focused and have the ability to assess the condition at the shoreline, which people care about for swimming.”

Determined to safeguard the community’s health, Becker built and tested an algae monitoring drone in summer 2017, costing roughly $2,000. The drone took off from either the UToledo research vessel or the shoreline and flew at an altitude of between 5 and 10 meters above the water’s surface.

“Since drones are inexpensive, quick to launch, and can fly under cloudy skies, they have a lot of advantages that make up for the practical limitations of satellite, aircraft or boat-based observations,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center and professor of ecology, said.

The study published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research shows Becker’s team in collaboration with Michigan Tech Research Institute successfully demonstrated the utility of drones outfitted with hyperspectral spectroradiometers to measure water-quality parameters that include chlorophyll, suspended minerals, cyanobacteria index and surface scums.

The sensor is used to produce a cyanobacterial index, which is a measure of algal bloom intensity.

“Dr. Becker and his colleagues show that sophisticated optical measurements of harmful algal blooms collected by drone-based sensors are just as good as similar measurements made from a boat,” Bridgeman said.

Bridgeman’s research team aboard the UToledo Lake Erie Center’s research vessel collects water samples and tracks harmful algal blooms once a week every summer throughout algal bloom season to help sound the early warning for water treatment plant operators.

“This new research means that harmful algal blooms impacting a swimming beach, a reservoir used for drinking water, or the Maumee River could be scanned by someone standing on the shoreline piloting a drone,” Bridgeman said.

Making measurements with a higher spatial resolution, the drones bridge a gap and complement the measurements of satellites, Becker said, but they’re not the stand-alone solution.

“A drone is not always the right tool for the job. A satellite or airplane is a better choice when talking about wide swaths of Lake Erie, instead of a targeted area,” Becker said.

The research was supported by NASA’s Glenn Research Center and the National Science Foundation.

New Study Finds Large Rise in Suicide by African-American Adolescents

A large-scale study from The University of Toledo of young African Americans who have attempted or died by suicide suggests there is a greater need for mental health services in urban school districts, and that we need to do a better job in convincing parents and caregivers to safely secure firearms and ammunition in the home.

Taking those measures, Dr. James Price said, could save lives.

Price

Price, UToledo professor emeritus of health education and public health, recently authored the largest study to date that examines suicidal behaviors of African-American adolescents between the ages of 13 and 19.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Community Health, found the rate of suicide deaths among young black males increased by 60 percent from 2001 through 2017. Researchers documented a 182 percent increase in the rate of suicide deaths of young black females during that same time period.

“There are far more African-American adolescents attempting suicide than has been recognized in the past, and their attempts are starting to be much more lethal,” Price said.

Currently, suicide is the second leading cause of death after homicide for African Americans between the ages of 13 and 19, and the rate continues to climb. Equally troubling is that the methods black youth are using in suicide attempts are among the most lethal.

Price and a co-researcher at Ball State University found 52 percent of the 560 males aged 13 to 19 who died by suicide from 2015 to 2017 used firearms — a method for which the fatality rate approaches 90 percent. Another 34 percent used strangulation or suffocation, which has a fatality rate of about 60 percent.

Among the 204 females who died by suicide over that time period, 56 percent used strangulation or suffocation and 21 percent used firearms.

“When we look at research with these adolescents, we find that they report their attempt to suicide is a cry for help. Two-thirds of the kids didn’t really want to die, but they’re using the most lethal form of attempting suicide,” Price said. “If you can have those lethal forms of suicide inaccessible to them, then that period of crisis and not seeing the irreversibility of this impulsive decision will pass. And with adequate mental health services available to young people, you may actually reduce the chance they’ll do that act again.”

Previous surveys have found that among inner-city elementary school students whose parents own a handgun, three-quarters knew where the gun was kept.

Keeping firearms locked away, unloaded and separate from ammunition unequivocally would reduce unintentional firearm injuries and impulsive suicide attempts, Price said.

The research also suggests a far greater need for mental health services in African-American communities. Public health researchers have repeatedly documented that black youth are less likely than the youth population as a whole to receive adequate mental health treatment, setting the stage for situations that contribute to self-harm.

“What needs to be done early on is to make sure that young people have adequate access to mental health-care services, and mental health-care services have always taken a backseat to other forms of health care,” Price said. “If you look at where young people in urban areas, especially adolescents, are getting mental health care, it’s in the schools.”

Previous studies have found increasing mental health access in urban public schools could reduce suicide attempts by as much as 15 percent, Price said.

“While that doesn’t solve all the problems, it’s a good first step toward reducing the problem toward severe self-violence,” he said.

If you or someone you know is thinking or talking about suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org for additional resources.

UToledo Research Links Fracking to Higher Radon Levels in Ohio Homes

A new study at The University of Toledo connects the proximity of fracking to higher household concentrations of radon gas, the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Measuring and geocoding data from 118,421 homes across all 88 counties in Ohio between 2007 and 2014, scientists found that closer distance to the fracking wells is linked to higher indoor radon concentrations.

Dr. Ashok Kumar, left, and Dr. Yanqing Xu published a study showing homes located near fracking wells in Ohio are linked to higher indoor radon concentration.

“The shorter the distance a home is from a fracking well, the higher the radon concentration. The larger the distance, the lower the radon concentration,” Dr. Ashok Kumar, Distinguished University Professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said.

The study also found the average radon concentrations among all tested homes across the state are higher than safe levels outlined by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization standards. The average is 5.76 pCi/l, while the EPA threshold is 4.0 pCi/l. The postal code 43557 in the city of Stryker has the highest radon concentration at 141.85 pCi/l for this data set.

“We care about air quality,” Dr. Yanqing Xu, assistant professor in the UToledo Department of Geography and Planning, said. “Our motivation is to save the lives of Ohioans. I hope this eye-opening research inspires families across the state to take action and have their homes tested for radon and, if needed, install mitigation systems to protect their loved ones.”

The results of the study were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health. The research is a collaboration between UToledo’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Department of Geography and Planning. The radon data collection was supported by grants from the Ohio Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following the publication in the journal, UToledo is working with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to examine the terminology used in this study related to fracking wells to address discrepancies related to the number of wells in Ohio.

Radon, which cannot be smelled or seen, begins as uranium found naturally in soil, water and rocks, but transforms into gas as it decays.

Fracking, or drilling the rock formation via hydraulic fracturing, stimulates the flow of natural gas. In Ohio, natural gas is available in deposits of the ancient Marcellus and Utica shales.

Most fracking wells are located in eastern Ohio, while Athens County has the highest number of fracking wells with 108. Fulton County is the only county with more than 20 fracking wells in western Ohio.

The researchers used data from the publicly accessible Ohio Radon Information System, which the UToledo Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering started developing more than 25 years ago and maintains to improve public knowledge about indoor radon concentration. Licensed testers collect data each year in basements and first floors of homes in Ohio’s 1,496 ZIP codes.

“You can find the average radon concentration in your ZIP code on the website,” Kumar said.

Xu, a health geographer who previously studied obesity, installed a radon mitigation system after testing her home with a $10 kit.

“Shale is not in Toledo, but radon can get into homes because of uranium concentration in the soil, unrelated to fracking,” Xu said. “My 2-year-old son likes to play in the basement, but radon concentration is higher in the basement. I did not hesitate even though the system cost around $1,000.”

The data in the study are from self-reported devices and not distributed equally throughout Ohio.

Medical Student Earns Fellowship to Study Blood Clotting in Cancer Patients

Innovative research that may explain the precarious connection between lung cancer and serious blood clotting disorders has earned a University of Toledo medical student a fellowship with the North American Society for Thrombosis and Hemostasis.

Adam Meisler, who will be entering his second year of medical school, was one of only three students in the country to receive the 2019 award. The fellowship includes a $5,000 stipend and a $1,000 award to the lab.

Medical student Adam Meisler took a blood sample for his research focusing on the connection between lung cancer and blood clotting disorders. Meisler is one of three students in the country to receive a fellowship with the North American Society for Thrombosis and Hemostasis for his research.

“This is a huge honor for him,” said Dr. Randall Worth, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and assistant dean for student affairs in the UToledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences. “You don’t often have students who have a fellowship on their resumé when it comes time to apply for residency. Adam is an outstanding student. If he maintains that, it’s going to put him at the top of the national competitive scale.”

Lung cancer patients have an elevated risk of strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms. Approximately one-fifth of the 150,000 annual deaths tied to lung cancer in the United States are the result of large blood clots.

Meisler’s project is focused on whether cancer-fighting T-cells bonding with blood platelets in those patients might explain why.

“We suspect that the interaction between platelets and T-cells is largely contributing to that phenomenon,” Meisler said. “If we can find a way to break up those aggregates, I think that would be huge.”

In healthy individuals, a relatively small portion of T-cells are attached to blood platelets — somewhere around 15 percent. However, in lung cancer patients, Meisler and Worth have found as many as 65 percent of their T-cells are bonded with platelets.

Worth said science has already shown that a portion of lung cancer patients who have had a stroke or heart attack don’t respond to the normal anti-coagulants that would be prescribed to prevent a second event.
“There’s a big push from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Heart, Lung and Blood trying to understand why that is,” Worth said. “I think with these platelet T-cell aggregates, we may have discovered the time bomb.”

With the fellowship, Meisler will continue his research and present his findings at the North American Society for Thrombosis and Hemostasis conference next spring.

“To apply my research to something as high impact as lung cancer is really special,” Meisler said. “This project and the fellowship is definitely making me lean toward a future specializing in hematology-oncology.”

UToledo breakthrough in how cells link together has implications in proliferation of cancer

For cancer to be successful — from its point of view, anyway — the disease has to find a way to break out beyond its initial foothold and spread throughout the body. Newly published research from The University of Toledo could bring fresh insight into one of the first ways cancers proliferate.

Dr. Rafael Garcia-Mata, associate professor of biological sciences, recently identified a protein complex that regulates how epithelial cells bond together in such tight connections.

Dr. Rafael Garcia-Mata identified a protein complex that regulates how epithelial cells bond together, a breakthrough that could advance cancer research.

There are more than 150 different types of epithelial cells that carry out essential functions in a wide variety of tissues. Those jobs include making our skin resilient, producing the mucus that lines and guards our airways, and helping with the absorption of nutrients in our digestive system.

The discovery, which builds on Garcia-Mata’s research focus of how cancer cells spread throughout the body, is intriguing because it explains the behavior of cells that are by far the most common starting place for cancer.

“Eighty percent of cancers originate from epithelial cells, and most cancers will have to disassemble the adhesion system to grow and spread,” Garcia-Mata said. “If we understand how these adhesive structures are built, we can also try to understand what happens when cancer cells disassemble them.”

His research was published June 27 in the Journal of Cell Biology.

Epithelial tissues line the outer surfaces of organs and blood vessels throughout the body, as well as the inner surfaces of cavities in many internal organs. Their ability to form nearly impermeable junctions enables them to establish boundaries that separate the inside of organs and other tissues from the outside environment.

The way epithelial cells link together is unique in biology and involves a large number of components that work in synchrony to control their assembly. However, the science behind how they manage to form such perfect bonds has up to now been elusive.

“The way these cells organize is very important. What we’ve identified is a new molecular mechanism that controls a lot of the properties that make the ‘right’ epithelial tissues,” Garcia-Mata said. “Understanding how they normally function allows you to understand what happens when things go wrong.”

The implications of these findings go well beyond cancer. Garcia-Mata’s research also helps explain how cells coordinate to generate organ cavities, which may broaden the knowledge of early development and organ formation. It could add significant new pathways for explaining conditions such as asthma and inflammatory bowel disease.

“A lot of diseases are essentially leaky epithelia. Understanding how these structures are modulated may help us learn why we get some of these diseases,” he said.

Garcia-Mata’s research into epithelial cells grew out of prior National Institutes of Health grant-funded work investigating how cancer cells spread away from the primary tumor.

“My lab studies basic, hardcore cell biology. This is where we make discoveries that lead to our ability to understand and target particular diseases, and the initial event in most cancers is the disassembly of these epithelial structures,” he said.

UToledo professors invent safer way to treat prostate cancer

Two innovative professors at The University of Toledo from different fields of expertise teamed up to create a clever, common-sense way to solve a problem in treating prostate cancer, the second leading cause of cancer in men.

Recognizing the potential, the Ohio Third Frontier Commission awarded $150,000 to the startup company founded by the mechanical engineer and medical physicist to develop and commercialize the new technology they invented that allows a higher level of radiation to safely be delivered at each session, decreasing significantly the number of treatment sessions needed to eradicate the cancer, while reducing damage to nearby, healthy tissue.

Dr. Mohammad Elahinia, left, and Dr. Ishmael Parsai developed the rectal retractor, which could help treat prostate cancer. The Ohio Third Frontier Commission awarded $150,000 to their startup company to commercialize the new technology.

Dr. Mohammad Elahinia, professor and chair of the UToledo Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, and Dr. Ishmael Parsai, professor and chief medical physicist in the UToledo Radiation Oncology Department and director of the Graduate Medical Physics Program, created the company called Retractor with the support of UToledo Launchpad Incubation, Rocket Innovations and the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program.

The new, patent-pending technology, which is being tested on cadavers, is a minimally invasive device that moves the rectum away from the vicinity of the radiation fields targeting the prostate cancer. This allows for the delivery of higher doses of more focused radiation beams, resulting in shorter treatment days while reducing damage to healthy rectal tissue.

the rectal retractor

“The rectal retractor provides a safer, more efficient way to treat prostate cancer,” Elahinia said. “The medical device is inserted into the body and set in motion by passing a small electrical current in a reliable, clean, silent process known as nitinol actuation, solving the persistent challenge in radiation therapy of prostate tumors.”

“Instead of a patient undergoing daily radiation treatment sessions for nearly two months in a conventional method of radiotherapy, he can come in and have five sessions,” Parsai said.

Through his work with patients at the Eleanor N. Dana Cancer Center at The University of Toledo Medical Center, Parsai came up with the idea for the rectal retractor and approached Elahinia to engineer a prototype.

“Normally during radiation therapy for prostate cancer, we work to reduce as much as possible the impact of the radiation dose on any healthy organs, such as the bladder and rectum, but often some damage to healthy, nearby tissue is unavoidable,” Parsai said. “This new device, however, allows us to move the rectum out of the field of radiation so we can eliminate the risk of sacrificing healthy tissue while safely delivering a higher dose for more effective treatment of the tumor. This especially is promising when implementing what is called high-dose rate brachytherapy, as well as newer techniques such as stereotactic body radiotherapy for treatment of prostate cancer.”

While the retractor will mainly serve prostate cancer patients, it also can be applied during radiation therapy for all pelvic tumors, such as cervical, uterine, vaginal and endometrial cancers.

The award to Retractor is part of $2.25 million given by the Ohio Third Frontier Commission to develop new technologies and move them out of the lab and into the marketplace.

“Ohio’s world-class research and medical institutions are developing breakthrough technologies,” said Lydia L. Mihalik, director of the Ohio Development Services Agency and chair of the Ohio Third Frontier Commission. “We are helping get these products to market where they can make a difference.”

The Ohio Third Frontier Technology Validation and Start-Up Fund provides grants to Ohio institutions of higher education and other nonprofit research institutions. The funding is to demonstrate that a technology is commercially viable through activities such as testing and prototyping. The ultimate goal is to commercialize the technologies.

Retractor is a success story for UToledo’s Launchpad Incubation program and Rocket Fuel Fund. LaunchPad Incubation provides entrepreneurial assistance, state-of-the-art facilities and valuable resources to early-stage, technology-based concepts and startup companies. The Rocket Fuel Fund is a program in the UToledo Office of Research funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to support early-stage technology development.

“We serve the community, faculty, staff and students,” Brian Genide, director of incubation and venture development at Launchpad, said. “Our team helps with the advancement of early-stage technology concepts, providing funding support for feasibility testing, proof-of-concept validation and prototyping. Our team also has proven to increase the success of grant applications.”

Launchpad Incubation is located in the Nitschke Technology Commercialization Complex. Go to the LaunchPad Incubation website for more information on how the program helps launch new businesses.

Collaborative research between colleges of Pharmacy, Natural Science and Mathematics uncovers potential cancer drug

Scientists at The University of Toledo investigating improvements to a commonly used chemotherapy drug have discovered an entirely new class of cancer-killing agents that show promise in eradicating cancer stem cells.

Their findings could prove to be a breakthrough in not only treating tumors, but ensuring cancer doesn’t return years later — giving peace of mind to patients that their illness is truly gone.

Dr. William Taylor, left, and Dr. L.M. Viranga Tillekeratne are investigating a small molecule that locks on to and kills cancer stem cells.

“Not all cancer cells are the same, even in the same tumor,” said Dr. William Taylor, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the UToledo College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “There is a lot of variability and some of the cells, like cancer stem cells, are much nastier. Everyone is trying to figure out how to kill them, and this may be one way to do it.”

Taylor and Dr. L.M. Viranga Tillekeratne, a professor in the Department of Medicinal and Biological Chemistry in the UToledo College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, reported their findings in a paper recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Cancer stem cells are an intriguing target for researchers because of their potential to re-seed tumors.

When doctors remove a tumor surgically or target it with chemotherapy drugs or radiation therapy, the cancer may appear to be gone. However, evidence suggests that a tiny subpopulation of adaptable cancer cells can remain and circulate through the body to seed new metastasis in far-off locations.

Those cancer stem cells, Taylor said, are similar to dandelions in a well-manicured lawn.

“You could chop the plant off, but it will drop a seed. You know the seeds are there, but they’re hiding,” he said. “You pull one weed out and another comes up right after it. Cancers can be like this as well.”

The small molecule they have isolated appears to lock on to those stem cells and kill them by blocking their absorption of an amino acid called cystine.

UToledo was awarded a patent for the discovery late last year.

For Tillekeratne and Taylor, uncovering a new class of therapeutic molecules could prove to be an even larger contribution to cancer research than the project they initially envisioned.

“At present, there are no drugs that can kill cancer stem cells, but people are looking for them,” Tillekeratne said. “A lot of drugs are discovered by serendipity. Sometimes in research if you get unexpected results, you welcome that because it opens up a new line of research. This also shows the beauty of collaboration. I wouldn’t have been able to do this on my own, and [Taylor] wouldn’t have been able to do it on his own.”

Tillekeratne also has received a three-year, $449,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health National Cancer Institute to continue testing the effectiveness of the newly identified therapy.

Because the molecules so selectively target cancer stem cells, it’s possible they could ultimately be paired with other chemotherapy drugs to deliver a more comprehensive treatment.

However, the researchers have found their agents show stand-alone promise in treating sarcomas and a subtype of breast cancer known as claudin-low breast cancer, which represents up to 14 percent of all breast cancers and can be particularly difficult to treat.

Families invited on cruise to learn how UToledo monitors health of rivers, Lake Erie

Scientists and students at The University of Toledo work tirelessly to study the waters of Lake Erie and its tributaries in the fight against harmful algal blooms and invasive Asian carp. They also evaluate potential for reintroducing historic fish, such as sturgeon.

This summer, families are invited to board the Sandpiper and cruise the Maumee River while learning how researchers at the UToledo Lake Erie Center collect water information.

“The Maumee River may look like just a muddy river, but it’s full of life,” Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, UToledo professor of ecology and director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center, said. “We show kids how sediment and algae affect water clarity, but they also get to see the tiny, shrimp-like animals that are eating the algae and — in turn — feeding the fish that make western Lake Erie the ‘Walleye Capital of the World.’”

The two-hour “Discover the River” cruise starts at 10 a.m. every Saturday through August at the dock at Water Street and Jefferson Avenue near Promenade Park in downtown Toledo.

Admission to the 100-passenger Sandpiper is $19. Children younger than 12 are $11. Purchase tickets in advance on the Sandpiper website.

UToledo student studying suicide and opioids awarded prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

Margaret Baer, a first-year doctoral student in The University of Toledo Department of Psychology, uses science to help make sense of suicide and substance use, leading causes of death in the United States.

Baer’s somber work is driven by these widespread sources of pain and unlocking new ways to ease suffering and prevent the loss of more lives.

Baer

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Baer a Graduate Research Fellowship in clinical psychology, recognizing her potential for significant research achievements.

The fellowship is worth $34,000 a year for three years. It is regarded as one of the most competitive and respected scientific fellowships in the country. This year the NSF awarded fellowships to 2,050 students around the country out of about 12,000 applications.

“I am immensely grateful for the NSF support,” said Baer, who is currently examining the link between suicide and substance abuse. “My passion is to conduct impactful, innovative research that ameliorates these large-scale public health problems. Among other studies, I hope to investigate the mechanisms underlying the co-occurrence of suicide-related behaviors and opioid misuse.”

Baer, who is from Evansville, Ind., works in the Personality and Emotion Research and Treatment Laboratory of Dr. Matthew Tull and Dr. Kim Gratz, both UToledo professors of psychology.

“Margaret is highly dedicated to conducting innovative and clinically relevant research, particularly in the areas of substance abuse and suicide,” Tull said. “I am incredibly pleased that the NSF has recognized her with this fellowship, which will provide her with even more opportunities to contribute to the field, as well as provide a foundation and resources for Margaret to build a highly impactful career.”

Baer’s own undergraduate experience at several different colleges sparked her interest in becoming a suicide researcher.

“I thought of college as a very exciting, hopeful time. I was shocked at the number of students who struggled with thoughts of suicide,” Baer said. “Kids were at their healthiest and youngest, on the cusp of exploring their extraordinary potential in higher education. It was an eye-opener. I felt the urgency of suicide prevention.”

Before arriving at UToledo in August 2018 to pursue her Ph.D., Baer worked with researchers at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md.

“There is great need for suicide prevention at all ages — adolescents, seniors and middle-aged adults. All may resort to risky behaviors, such as substance abuse or self-injury — cutting, for example — while also having thoughts of suicide or attempting suicide,” Baer said. “My focus right now is on substance use impacting barriers to suicide. Soon I hope to examine the relationship between negative social interactions in daily life and opioid craving.”

Since 1952, NSF has funded more than 50,000 Graduate Research Fellowships out of more than 500,000 applicants. Currently, 42 Fellows have gone on to become Nobel laureates.

UToledo astronomer wins observing time on Hubble after most competitive cycle in history

This summer’s 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing also marks a major life milestone for The University of Toledo astronomer who is a world leader in her particularly male-dominated field.

“I was born in 1969, two months after Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Dr. Rupali Chandar, professor of astronomy, said. “I am delighted every time the anniversary comes up in July — the moon landing epitomized the human spirit of discovery, and that same spirit drives my research to understand our universe of galaxies.”

Dr. Rupali Chandar, professor of astronomy, was awarded 40 hours of observing time with the Hubble Telescope between July and early 2020. Her work will focus on star formation in nearby galaxies.

Chandar, who studies star formation in galaxies far, far away with her feet firmly on Earth, is gearing up to once again use NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope for her research.

However, this year is extra-special for two reasons.

Chandar not only won coveted observing time in the most competitive cycle in history, she also leads the Space Telescope Users Committee.

Chandar heads the group of 12 astrophysicists from around the world who act as the direct interface between astronomers who want to use the telescope and top-level management of the Hubble project. Committee members hail from places with prestigious astronomical communities such as Harvard and Arizona State, as well as Paris, Spain and Italy.

She is the second UToledo astronomer to lead this powerful committee. Dr. Michael Cushing, associate professor of physics and astronomy, and director of Ritter Planetarium, led the committee in 2015 and 2016.

“It’s unusual for one university to have had more than one representative in the group — let alone two people who have led the committee’s work,” said Dr. Karen Bjorkman, interim provost and Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy. “Dr. Chandar is a shining star for women in science and contributes significantly to The University of Toledo’s research excellence in astronomy and astrophysics.”

Even as a child, Dr. Rupali Chandar was looking skyward. She was born two months after the Apollo moon landing and is shown in this photo with her mother, Sneh Chandar.

Every year astronomers around the world vie for precious minutes of Hubble’s view of unfathomably distant celestial targets. It is NASA’s flagship space telescope.

“I’ve used Hubble data from the beginning of my career, and this cycle was the most challenging one in my experience, with only one in 12 proposals being successful,” Chandar said. “I am thrilled that my proposal was approved.”

As head of the Space Telescope Users Committee, she helped implement the dual-anonymous selection process that debuted this cycle, which means the names of the proposers and reviewers are made known only after the review process is complete.

“Hubble is leading the way in emphasizing the science and ideas that are proposed, and not who is doing the proposing,” Chandar said. “Although it’s too early to tell, this double-blind review process has the potential to reduce inherent bias.”

Chandar, a mother of two who joined the UToledo faculty in 2007, was awarded approximately 40 hours of observing time spread out between July and early 2020. Her work will help understand star formation in some of the most intensely star-forming galaxies found in the nearby universe.

And by nearby, she means those 130 million to 300 million light years away.

These galaxies are generating stars at a pace about 100 times faster than the Milky Way.

“In the modern-day nearby universe, most galaxies form stars at a modest rate,” Chandar said. “I will be observing a sample of the few actively merging, nearby galaxies that have rates of star formation that are as high as galaxies in the early universe. Studying them gives us insight into what was happening when the universe was young and galaxies were just starting to form.”

Astronomers can’t study details of star formation in early galaxies because they’re too far away. We’re talking billions and billions of light years.

However, astronomers believe new, more powerful telescopes in the pipeline, like the James Webb Space Telescope, will make it possible to study the evolution of the earliest stars in greater detail than ever before.

As Chandar looks ahead to the next 50 years of space exploration, it’s vitally important for her to inspire children, especially girls, to take the step toward science.

“Girls in elementary school are just as interested in science as boys. It’s alarming how much that changes during middle school,” Chandar said. “When I was in fifth and sixth grades, I read about the formation of the solar system and wrote reports about black holes, but I didn’t think you could do astronomy as a career until I took a class during my sophomore year of college.”

She ended up earning her Ph.D. in astrophysics at Johns Hopkins University in 2000.

“Good professors make a difference,” Chandar said. “Without many female astronomers around, my mentors have been almost exclusively men. Their support has been critical for achieving my dream career.”

Chandar has one more connection to the moon landing, besides being born in 1969.

“I was lucky enough to hear Neil Armstrong’s last public address at the July 21, 2012, First Light Gala to celebrate the debut of the Discovery Channel Telescope when The University of Toledo joined as a scientific partner,” Chandar said. “We were all devastated when Neil died just a few weeks after that.”

As part of the partnership, UToledo students and researchers use the Discovery Channel Telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona to collect data on a wide variety of objects, from the closest failed stars known as brown dwarfs to star-forming regions within our own galaxy to more distant merging galaxies.

The 4.3-meter telescope located south of Flagstaff overlooks the Verde Valley and is the fifth largest telescope in the continental United States and one of the most technologically advanced.

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

“It’s another powerful tool at our fingertips to continue NASA’s mission and push technology to new frontiers over the next 50 years,” Chandar said.