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UToledo physicist awarded $1.1 million to boost performance of solar cells

A physicist at The University of Toledo was awarded a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop ultra-high efficiency solar cells that accelerate the conversion of the sun’s energy into electricity.

Dr. Yanfa Yan, professor of physics, is teaming up with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on the photovoltaics project to create what are referred to as all-perovskite tandem solar cells that would have a higher conversion efficiency and lower cost.

Yan

While the majority of solar panels based on polycrystalline absorber materials on the market today have about a 16 percent efficiency rating, Yan’s goal is to raise the bar by creating a cell with more than 25 percent efficiency.

“We are excited about this opportunity and eager to collaborate with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to push the performance of solar cells to a higher level and make contributions to the U.S. Department of Energy’s clean energy goal,” Yan said.

Yan’s work is one of 25 projects recently awarded a total of $28 million in federal funding by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, which supports early-stage research and development to improve the affordability, reliability and performance of solar technologies on the grid.

“This $1.1 million award recognizes The University of Toledo as a national leader in photovoltaics research,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “This is part of an effort to innovate toward a cleaner energy future. With First Solar’s footprint in northwest Ohio and the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization at The University of Toledo, Toledo is a hotbed for clean energy and photovoltaics research. This is another success story for northwest Ohio’s green energy economy.”

Yan is one of the leaders of UToledo’s area of excellence in solar energy, water quality and sustainable technologies.

“I am delighted about Dr. Yanfa Yan’s continuing success in advancing his research on perovskite solar cells,” UToledo Vice President for Research Frank Calzonetti said. “Building upon his remarkably impressive publication record in solar energy science, this award confirms the quality and importance of his research and provides him and his collaborators funding to develop techniques to increase the power conversion efficiency of these cells up to 28 percent.”

Women in silent film era topic of April 4 lecture

Dr. Jamie Barlowe will deliver the Women’s and Gender Studies Distinguished Lecture Thursday, April 4, at 5:30 p.m. in the Libbey Hall Dining Room.

She will discuss “‘Back to the Future’: Retro-Active Narrative and Women in the Silent Film Industry.”

Barlowe

“This presentation is part of a larger project on women working in the silent film industry, a legacy that was buried for decades,” Barlowe said. “Recovering the story of their extraordinary success has been ongoing since the late 1970s, including efforts to explain its continuing omission from conventional film histories.

“I expand and examine this legacy as it coincided with women’s political and economic activism in the public sphere that not only provoked unprecedented social change, but also silent films, which attempted to co-opt and contain that change,” Barlowe said.

Barlowe was a professor of English and women’s and gender studies from 1990 until her retirement in January. She served as interim vice provost, as well as dean of the College of Arts and Letters, formerly the College of Languages, Literature and Social Sciences. During her time at the University, she also served as an associate dean, department chair, and president of Faculty Senate.

Light refreshments will be served at the lecture, which is sponsored by the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies; School of Interdisciplinary Studies; and College of Arts and Letters.

For more information on the free, public event, call the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at 419.530.2233.

Craft breweries increase residential property values

The craft brewery boom is good for home values.

Using Charlotte, N.C., as a case study, researchers at The University of Toledo and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte found that craft breweries have a positive impact on residential property values.

Reid

Condominiums in center-city neighborhoods show a nearly 3 percent increase on sales price after a brewery opened within a half mile.

Single family homes in center-city neighborhoods saw a nearly 10 percent increase after a brewery opened within a half mile.

The study, which is published in Growth and Change: A Journal of Urban and Regional Policy, found no significant impacts on commercial property values.

“Being able to walk to a craft brewery in the evening or late afternoon on the weekend is considered a positive amenity that would — for some people — be attractive when looking at a house,” said Dr. Neil Reid, professor of geography and planning at The University of Toledo, who is affectionately known as the “Beer Professor.” “There is a different attitude toward a craft brewery. It’s perceived differently than a liquor store or bar.”

In Charlotte, a relatively large and growing city with an increasing competition for land and housing, 21 breweries opened between March 2009 and October 2016.

For the study, researchers focused on properties sold between 2002 and 2017 within a half mile buffer of a brewery and found that while many areas in close proximity to a craft brewery appear to have been associated with relatively higher price premiums even before the opening of the brewery, breweries tend to add to this premium.

Nilsson

“These results are informative to policymakers considering revising zoning laws and other regulations in efforts to promote the growth of craft breweries and spur economic development in their local economies,” said Dr. Isabelle Nilsson, assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Nilsson earned a Ph.D. in spatially integrated social science at UToledo in 2015 and her master’s in economics at UToledo in 2011.

Reid’s previous research has shown that craft breweries often tend to be located in neighborhoods that have recently experienced economic distress, and craft breweries have played a key part in revitalization efforts in many urban areas by restoring old, abandoned buildings.

Craft breweries contributed $76.2 billion in economic impacts to the U.S. economy in 2017, including more than 500,000 total jobs with more than 135,000 jobs directly at breweries or brewpubs, according to the Brewers Association.

“This new research shows that craft breweries contribute to increased property tax revenues for local governments, in addition to job creation and aiding neighborhood revitalization efforts,” Reid said. “However, the effects to residential property values may not be as significant in places with higher rates of vacancies and lower population growth, as well as in more established cities such as Chicago or New York.”

In a separate study recently published in Papers in Regional Science, the researchers took a close look at craft brewery closures in Chicago, Denver and Portland from 2012 through 2016 after a decade of rapid industry growth.

In those four years, 27 craft breweries closed and 225 opened for business.

Peak growth in all three cities took place in 2013 and 2014, and since then the number of entries into the market have declined while the number of closures has increased.

“I think that the craft brewing industry is following a natural progression, with rapid growth at the onset followed by diminishing growth rates as it matures,” Nilsson said. “As it continues to mature, we will see shakeouts involving closures of less competitive breweries.”

The economic geographers found that being in a cluster does not have a significant effect on brewery survival.

“Many craft brewers who open a business choose to locate close to the competition to draw more people in for brewery hopping, though it also is partly driven by zoning restrictions, too,” Reid said. “However, clustering also creates a more competitive environment, which can make it harder for one to remain open.”

Although closures do not appear to occur in brewery districts or in areas with a high concentration of breweries, closures tend to occur in more residential areas outside of downtowns.

Closed breweries had an average of one other brewery within one mile, while those that were still open as of 2016 had around 2.5 other breweries surrounding them.

The researchers also identified other trends related to business survival:
• Being in a neighborhood where incomes are higher is positively related to brewery survival.

• As the population of white and millennials in a neighborhood increases, the probability of a brewery surviving decreases.

• Higher population density also is associated with greater likelihood of closure.

“Even though millennials are driving the industry and craft beer drinkers are predominantly white, income is more important than racial composition or age composition,” Reid said.

Dr. Oleg Smirnov, associate professor of economics at UToledo, and UToledo doctoral student Matt Lehnert, also served as co-authors on the study of closures in the craft brewing industry.

To learn more about the evolving appetite of craft beer drinkers and the experimentation of craft brewers, check out Reid’s blog about the beer industry.

Community-Engaged Research Symposium slated for April 17

The Office of the Provost invites all faculty, staff and students to attend the University’s premiere Community-Engaged Research Symposium Wednesday, April 17, from 3 to 6 p.m. in the Nitschke Engineering Commercialization Complex.

This year’s theme, “Impacting Our Region Through Community-Engaged Research,” focuses on how UToledo faculty are collaborating with key community partners to impact the region and improve life for area residents.

More than 40 booth and poster presentations will be available for viewing between 3 and 5 p.m., representing research, scholarship and creative activities in many different fields across UToledo’s campuses.

“As a major public research university, this inaugural symposium is a fantastic way for faculty and staff to discover each other’s work across various disciplines,” said Dr. Amy Thompson, vice provost of faculty affairs and co-chair of the symposium.

“It’s also a great way for students to meet with leading faculty and learn how they can get involved in research and other endeavors as part of their academic pursuits,” she added. “They’re welcome to drop by the symposium at any time, depending on their schedule.”

Additionally, from 5 to 6 p.m. in Nitschke Auditorium, President Sharon L. Gaber will welcome participants to a panel discussion on the region’s opioid crisis response. Everyone is welcome to attend.

Panelists will include Dr. Cheryl McCullumsmith, UToledo professor and chair of psychiatry; Gary Johnson, Toledo City Council; Scott Sylak, Mental Health Recovery Services Board of Lucas County; and Drug Abuse Response Team representatives from the Lucas County Sheriff’s Office. Dr. Linda Lewandowski, dean of the College of Nursing and co-chair of the UToledo/Community Partners Opioid Task Force, will serve as moderator and welcome questions from the audience at the end of the session.

Regional partners, including community agencies and organizations that have collaborated with this year’s symposium presenters or that have been impacted by their work, as well as their guests, also are invited to attend any or all portions of the symposium.

Complimentary refreshments and hors d’oeuvres will be available, and parking is conveniently located next to Nitschke for all participants.

For more details about the Community-Engaged Research Symposium, including a complete list of University presenters, visit the Research Symposium 2019 website.

Study explaining side effects of statins finds drug can have unexpected benefits

While investigating why cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins cause negative side effects such as blurred vision, short-term memory loss or increased risk for diabetes, cellular chemists at The University of Toledo discovered several previously unknown benefits.

It is well-established statins can help lower the risk of heart attack by lowering blood cholesterol, but statins also may play a protective role in the event of a heart attack because they can suppress a biological process that disrupts cardiac function.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in The University of Toledo Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, monitors Mithila Tennakoon, UToledo Ph.D. student, as she exposes living cells to statins in his lab.

By suppressing the activity of key cellular receptors called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) and their interacting partners called G proteins, statins have the potential to alter various bodily functions controlled by this important pathway, according to research published in the journal Molecular Pharmacology.

“We believe this and our future investigations can help physicians make more informed decisions about prescribing statins, opening a whole new door to what statins can do in addition to cholesterol control,” said Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in The University of Toledo Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

GPCR signaling pathways are crucial to our survival. They are the largest pharmaceutical drug target — more than one-third of all drugs on the market — because GPCR pathways regulate the body by controlling a variety of functions from vision to heart rate and neurotransmission.

Statins are designed to target and inhibit the cholesterol-synthesis pathway, which is why it is an effective and popular drug to lower cholesterol. But parts of the cholesterol-synthesis pathway are needed for the GPCR signaling pathway to function, which explains the temporary negative side effects while taking statins, such as blurred vision or short-term memory loss.

The UToledo scientists also revealed another crucial finding: The cholesterol-lowering drugs reduce the ability of migratory cells, such as cancer and immune cells, to travel.

When testing GPCR-directed cell invasion, Karunarathne’s lab found that statins reduced movement more than 10-fold compared to the control group.

“This indicated that GPCR-governed cancer cell migration also can be reduced by statins,” Karunarathne said.

The research was done using cells, not human patients. Karunarathne’s lab uses light to control cell behavior — through a novel method named subcellular optogenetics — and studies the way cells respond to light through signal transduction pathways.

“We observed that different types of statins induce very different deviations or changes to G proteins in the GPCR pathway,” said Mithila Tennakoon, a UToledo Ph.D. student in Karunarathne’s lab and first author of the study.

“The side effects of statins are not uniform,” Karunarathne said. “Cells in the eyes, brain, heart and lungs can have completely different impact levels because they have different types of G proteins.”

These findings help explain the molecular sources for side effects of statins, which Karunarathne’s lab discovered can have different effects on tissues and organs.

This research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Former NSF director, water quality expert to speak at University

A former director of the National Science Foundation who is known worldwide for her work in addressing water quality issues will visit The University of Toledo next week as part of the Jesup Scott Honors College Distinguished Lecture Series.

Dr. Rita Colwell was the first scientist to discover cholera can enter a dormant state and lurk in water until conditions are again favorable for it to grow. Her finding opened the door to new research about the link between the natural environment, climate, and the spread of infectious diseases.

Colwell

She is working with the British government on a project to track and better respond to likely cholera outbreaks.

“Dr. Colwell is one of the most influential and well-known life scientists in the world today,” said Dr. Heidi Appel, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College. “She is a leader not only in her academic discipline, but in pulling people together from many academic disciplines to focus on water quality and interdisciplinary approaches to solve major societal challenges.”

Colwell is scheduled to present a pair of lectures at the University:

• A public presentation of how connections between climate and oceans affect human health on Monday, March 25, at 6 p.m. in Doermann Theatre on Main Campus.

• A technical talk about how next-generation DNA sequencing has revolutionized the study of the relationship between microbial communities and how that new knowledge can be used in diagnostics, drug development, public health and water safety Tuesday, March 26, at noon in Radisson Hotel Suite C on Health Science Campus.

Both lectures are open to the public, but reservations are requested to the technical talk luncheon; go to the Distinguished Lecture Series website.

Much of Colwell’s six decades of research has been dedicated to understanding and preventing cholera outbreaks. Among her many discoveries, she demonstrated how algal blooms, spurred by high nutrient loads and warming ocean waters, increases the population of cholera-carrying zooplankton.

Though Lake Erie’s algal blooms raise concerns of microcystin — not cholera — Colwell’s innovative research methods and multidisciplinary way of developing solutions could prove a helpful roadmap to addressing the problem in northwest Ohio.

“We believe the kinds of tools she’s developed and the way of thinking about interdisciplinary research-based problem solving will be of interest and value to the people in our region who are dedicated to protecting water quality,” Appel said.

Colwell was the first woman to lead the National Science Foundation, serving as director from 1998 to 2004. She was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2006 and the Stockholm Water Prize in 2010.

She has a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology, master’s degree in genetics and doctorate in oceanography. She holds distinguished professorships at both the University of Maryland at College Park and Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Physicist’s review article featured on cover of high-impact, international scientific journal

A review article by Dr. Yanfa Yan, professor of physics at The University of Toledo, was chosen as the cover story for the February issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science published by the Royal Society of Chemistry.

Yan is the lead author on the paper titled “Oxide Perovskites, Double Perovskites and Derivatives for Electrocatalysis, Photocatalysis and Photovoltaics.” He is an expert in theory of defect physics and electronic properties in semiconductors, materials synthesis and thin film solar cell fabrication.

“Energy & Environmental Science happens to be one of the highest impact-factor journals — with an impact factor of 30 — in all of science,” said Dr. Sanjay Khare, professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “It is truly an achievement and honor to get such a cover page feature and invitation.”

Energy & Environmental Science links all aspects of the chemical, physical and biotechnological sciences relating to energy conversion and storage, alternative fuel technologies, and environmental science. Its readership spans the globe and includes chemical scientists, chemical and process engineers, energy researchers, bioscientists, and environmental scientists from across academia, industry and government.

Practical utilization of clean energies requires energy conversions among solar energy, electrical energy and chemical energy, involving different processes such as from solar energy to electrical energy, from electrical energy to chemical energy, and from solar energy to chemical energy.

The key to realizing high-efficiency conversion is searching novel, stable, low-cost and environmentally friendly functional materials.

“Due to the extreme flexibilities in terms of their structures and compositions, oxide perovskites and their derivatives provide a rich family of materials candidates that may meet the diverse applications aforementioned,” Yan said. “This review highlights the progress of oxide perovskites and their derivatives in this field. It describes connections between the structural and compositional flexibility and the resulting tunable materials properties desirable for those applications.”

UToledo researchers capture first newly hatched invasive grass carp within Great Lakes watershed

A genetic analysis conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey recently confirmed that larval, or newly hatched, fish collected by researchers at The University of Toledo from the Maumee River during summer 2018 are grass carp, one species of invasive Asian carp that threaten the Great Lakes. The Maumee River is a tributary to Lake Erie.

These young fish are the first grass carp collected in their larval stage from within the Great Lakes watershed. Other life stages, including fertilized eggs, juveniles and adults, have been previously documented in tributaries and shoreline areas of Lake Erie. Identifying locations with larval grass carp in the Maumee River will help inform management decisions and allow natural resource agencies to better focus limited resources on grass carp removal efforts.

These images taken by Nicole King, aquatic ecology research technician at The University of Toledo Lake Erie Center, show grass carp larvae from the Maumee River. Characteristics of larval grass carp include overall length, left, skeletal muscle development, center, and presence of an eye spot that lacks pigmentation (pigment starting to develop on lower eye).

“If grass carp become abundant in Lake Erie, they could consume large amounts of aquatic vegetation, ultimately reducing habitat for native fish and other aquatic animals, and diminishing food resources for waterbirds,” said Patrick Kočovský, U.S. Geological Survey scientist. “The Lake Erie ecosystem is a major contributor to the Great Lakes’ multi-billion-dollar fishery.”

On June 13 and 26, 2018, a sampling crew from The University of Toledo collaborating with the U.S. Geological Survey sampled the Maumee River in Toledo for early life stages of grass carp. The larval grass carp were collected near the I-280 bridge in the city of Toledo and near the river mouth adjacent to Brenner’s Marina during high water flow events typical of spawning conditions for grass carp. While the samples were being processed in January 2019, six larval fish resembling grass carp were identified.

These larval fish were sent to the U.S. Geological Survey for genetic confirmation. Scientists analyzed DNA extracted from each larva in early February and confirmed with high confidence that the species of every hatchling was grass carp. Subsequent genetic sequencing of the larval fish DNA in late February confirmed that the larvae were grass carp.

Mayer

“Collecting larval fish in a Great Lake is like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Dr. Christine Mayer, professor in the UToledo Department of Environmental Sciences and Lake Erie Center. “Our finding helps make the haystack smaller when looking for spawning grass carp.”

The capture of these larval grass carp confirms previous evidence that they spawn in the Maumee River, and the capture of larvae during separate high flow events confirms the possibility of more than one successful spawning event within a year. This new discovery does not indicate the population size in the Maumee River, but underscores the continued need for early detection.

The U.S. Geological Survey and The University of Toledo have previously documented grass carp spawning in the Sandusky River.

For more information about the threat of Asian carp in the Great Lakes, visit the U.S. Geological Survey Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website.

NIH grant supports study of central nervous system’s precise connections

A University of Toledo researcher who studies embryonic development has received a $448,500 research grant to further understanding of how the central nervous system’s extraordinarily precise connections are made in the first few weeks of life.

With that information, it might be possible to address brain disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and dyslexia during development, or to rewire the central nervous system in people who have had strokes or spinal cord injuries.

Liu

The three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development will enable Dr. Guofa Liu, associate professor in the UT Department of Biological Sciences, to study the role of microRNA in mapping the central nervous system.

The brain and spinal cord each have two sides, which link together to control everything from movement to the sense of touch.

Those connections between the two sides are made early. Commissural neurons in a developing embryo send out a tiny fiber known as an axon that finds its way to a corresponding target cell to link the two sides of the central nervous system.

Scientists know there’s a process that works almost like a relay race as the axons cross the midline of the central nervous system. As the axon approaches and crosses the embryonic midline, there’s a sort of molecular switch that hands off guidance from one side of the central nervous system to the other.

“Axon pathfinding is very important for early development of the nervous system, but we don’t know much about the switch that pushes or pulls the nerve fiber to make the right connections,” Liu said. “If we find that mechanism, we may be able to find a way to rescue defects in axon guidance that lead to neurodevelopmental disorders.”

MicroRNA are tiny molecules that work as biological programming to regulate gene expression. Liu’s previous research has suggested they play a key role in the handoff as axons cross from one side of the central nervous system to the other.

Work funded by the new grant will dig deeper into how that molecular switch actually works.

Beyond understanding how the central nervous system develops, the new knowledge could be applied toward nervous system regeneration in individuals impacted by paralysis.

“If we find the mechanics that can promote axon growth and reach the proper target, that could give us potential treatment for stroke or brain trauma patients,” he said. “Currently, there are some clinical methods to create axon growth, but because scar tissue can create a barrier, the axon cannot reach the right place. Even if they can grow past the scar, they don’t know where to go. Understanding this mechanism and the role microRNA plays might allow us to help route the axon pathways.”

Insects hijack reproductive genes of grape vines to create own living space on plant

A team of scientists at The University of Toledo uncovered new, galling details in the intimate relationship between insects and plants, opening the door to new possibilities in protecting the source of wine and raisins worldwide from a major agricultural pest.

The biologists discovered grape phylloxera — the insect that nearly wiped out wine production at the end of the 19th century in France — hijacks a grape vine’s reproductive programs to create a leaf gall, which it uses as a pseudo apartment for the parasite to siphon off the plant’s nutrients. The research is published in the latest issue of Nature Scientific Reports.

The researchers studying how insects control grape vines are, from left, Dr. Melanie Body, postdoctoral associate in the Department of Environmental Sciences; Dr. Jack Schultz, senior executive director for research development; and Dr. Heidi Appel, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College and professor of environmental sciences.

A gall is an organ a little smaller than a marble on a plant that can look like a wart, flower or fruit and provides insects with a protected place to feed and reproduce.

“When galls form on a leaf, the flower genes are on. They shouldn’t be activated, but the insect is manipulatively inserting its own signals into the pathway to get a flower-like result,” said Dr. Heidi Appel, dean of the Jesup Scott Honors College at The University of Toledo and professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences.

The insect lays an egg and starts the process to exploit the plant’s reproductive genetic machinery, directing the plant to create these structures.

Insects have set up house in phylloxera galls on this leaf. This cross-section of a gall taken with a stereosmicroscope shows an insect mom — the orange ball in the center — surrounded by eggs she laid — the yellow ovals.

Appel and Dr. Jack Schultz, senior executive director for research development at The University of Toledo, said Charles Darwin guessed at the idea in 1867 when he observed that the gall bears a certain degree of resemblance to the inside of a peach when cut open.

“We examined Darwin’s hypothesis and found the insect forces the plant to use the same genes to make a gall that the plant uses to make a flower or fruit,” Schultz said. “The plant produces the central part of a flower known as the carpel in a place the plant would never produce one on its own.”

“In each case as we genetically held up a mirror to see the differences in the plant at each stage of galling, an insect injected some kind of signal into the plant,” Appel said. “The signal took over the plant’s development and told the plant to make a gall on a leaf instead of normal plant tissue.”

Galls damage grape vines by draining resources and getting in the way of photosynthesis, resulting in lower yields.

By identifying the genes in grape vines that have to be activated for an insect to produce a gall, scientists can next find a way to block the insect from attacking the plant.

“While North American grape vines have developed the ability to resist phylloxera, one option is to crossbreed plants to be genetically resistant,” Schultz said. “Another option is to create a biologically based pesticide to spray on grape vines to manipulate the hormones in plants to be active at different times.”