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Fewer toys lead to richer play experiences, UT researchers find

Any parent knows how toys seem to magically multiply and take over a house. Do children need so many toys?

A team of University of Toledo researchers studied whether the number of toys in a toddler’s environment influenced their quality of play. Their findings: Less is definitely more when it comes to creative, healthy play.

Research by Dr. Carly Dauch, left, and Dr. Alexia Metz found less is definitely more when it comes to toys and toddlers’ creative, healthy play.

The results of the study come just in time for family and friends who are picking up holiday gifts for the children in their lives. The research, which will appear in the February issue of Infant Behavior and Development, suggests that an abundance of toys may create a distraction. Fewer new toys might be a better route this holiday season.

When toddlers had exposure to fewer toys, they played twice as long with the toys they had and in more sophisticated ways, said Dr. Alexia Metz, the study’s lead investigator and a UT associate professor of occupational therapy.

As the mother of 12-year-old twins, Metz has personal experience with the proliferation of toys phenomenon.

“I was astonished by how much our home filled up with stuff,” she said. “I wondered whether there was any risk to having that much stuff.”

Metz said she also had observed people worrying whether their toddlers had attention deficit disorder. Toddlers, by nature, are distractible, but she wondered whether their environment might be a factor in how they played or how easily distracted they were.

Metz and her team of graduate students studied 36 toddlers from 18 to 30 months of age. The children visited the playroom lab twice. On one visit, the children played in a room with just four toys; on the other, they had access to 16 toys.

The team charted how many times the toddler picked up a toy; how long they played with it; and how many ways they played with it.

“When there were fewer toys, they played with them in more ways,” Metz said.

In the 16-toy environment, many of the children played with 10 or more toys in the 15 minutes soon after they entered the room. By flitting from toy to toy, they didn’t take the time to explore the ways they could use each toy, Metz said.

Fewer toys led to “higher quality play,” meaning the toddler stuck with the toy for longer and played with it in more creative ways. Instead of stacking or tipping a toy, they began to hammer with it or feed it or hide it. This increased exploration may support development of motor and cognitive skills.

“Today there is the demand to have the latest and greatest toy that encourages a more technological mind. In this study, we used older toys that encouraged more creative play and tested the theory of is less really more?” said Dr. Carly Dauch, who graduated from UT in May following the completion of the study and is now an occupational therapist at the Wood County Board of Developmental Disabilities. “How the children played supported our hypothesis and provides support for deeper and richer play with fewer toys.”

Michelle Imwalle and Brooke Ocasio, who also graduated in May, were the other graduate students involved in the project.

The bottom line for parents: “If your child receives an abundance of toys, you don’t need to introduce them all at once,” Metz said. “Save some for later and swap them out. If they have a chance to explore a few toys at a time, they might have a richer experience.”

This is also good news for families who may feel guilty for not being able to shower their children with dozens of toys.

“They’re not depriving their children of an opportunity for meaningful play,” Metz said. “This is a less is more story.”

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, 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, 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 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.

Professor joins editorial board of mathematics journal

Dr. Zeljko Cuckovic, professor of mathematics, has been invited to join the editorial board of the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications published by Elsevier as an associate editor.

“It is an uncommon honor to be selected as associate editor of such a high-level journal,” said Dr. Donald White, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “We are proud of Zeljko and are happy to have him represent the University at this publication.”


The Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications publishes 24 issues per year and receives about 3,500 submissions annually.

“Being invited to join the editorial board of a well-recognized and highly reputable journal is a great honor,” Cuckovic said. “This invitation represents recognition of years of my research work.”

He has published nearly 40 papers and has more than 400 citations. He has given talks in the United States and abroad and has held visiting positions at several universities. In 2006, he received one of UT’s Outstanding Teacher Awards. He also serves on the board of the European Journal of Mathematics.

“In addition to personal recognition, I hope this higher visibility will help me attract quality PhD students to our Department of Mathematics and Statistics,” Cuckovic said.

Cuckovic received his PhD at Michigan State University. His research includes expertise in functional analysis, operator theory and complex analysis.

UT scientist to discuss hypertension Nov. 13

Dr. Bina Joe, an internationally recognized leader in the field of genetic determinants of hypertension, will discuss her work and its historical perspective at the University Monday, Nov. 13.

“Precision Medicine for Hypertension: A Journey Through 40 Years of Research at The University of Toledo” is the title of her talk, which will take place at 4 p.m. in Collier Building Room 1000A on Health Science Campus.


Joe’s free, public talk is part of the Distinguished University Professor Lecture Series.

She was named a Distinguished University Professor this year and also serves as chair in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences. In addition, Joe is the director of the Center for Hypertension and Personalized Medicine.

Her work has helped identify risk factors associated with high blood pressure, which plays a major role in cardiovascular and renal disease.

“My presentation will highlight knowledge gained from pioneering studies and discuss the individualized approach for future clinical management of hypertension,” Joe, who joined the University in 2001, said. “This journey on researching the genomic and thereby inherited aspects of hypertension has not only revealed novel genes that are not currently targeted in the clinic for treating hypertension, but also led us to understand the rather surprising link between the other genomes of gut bacteria to have a definitive role in regulating blood pressure. I will be detailing some of these pioneering studies that have opened a field of new possibilities in combating hypertension by altering gut bacteria.”

Since 2004, Joe has received sustained research funding from the National Institutes of Health totaling more than $20 million. She is the principal investigator of two active grants from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute totaling more than $7 million. She has published more than 70 papers in peer-reviewed journals, including the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cell, Public Library of Science Genetics and Nature Communications. In 2015, she was named editor-in-chief of Physiological Genomics, a journal of the American Physiological Society, and is a member of the editorial board of Hypertension.

For her groundbreaking work, Joe received the 2010 American Society of Hypertension’s Young Scholars Award and the 2014 American Heart Association’s Council on Hypertension Lewis K. Dahl Memorial Lecture Award.

“It is humbling to be recognized by my colleagues and peers who nominated and selected me for this honor. Being named ‘Distinguished’ to me is to be recognized for the distinguished work of dedicated young trainees in the laboratory,” Joe said. “I am blessed to be surrounded by trainees and colleagues with insatiable passion and relentless persistence, which brings much joy along the way on our journey to reveal the many marvelous secrets of Mother Nature.”

Following the lecture, a reception sponsored by the Office of the Provost will be held.

UT researcher makes discovery about massive stars as part of international team of astronomers

For the first time, astronomers have mapped the surface of a massive hot star, proving a decades-long theory that hot spots on the star’s surface affect the behavior of stellar winds. A University of Toledo astronomer was a member of the international research team that made the groundbreaking discovery.

“We’re now better able to understand how massive stars send out material into space through their winds,” said Dr. Noel Richardson, postdoctoral research associate in the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, who was a member of the research team. “This research gives us a better understanding of how stars lose material, which then forms new stars and planets.”

This artistic rendering depicts Zeta Puppis, a massive star that astronomers studied to learn how hot spots affect stellar winds. Dr. Noel Richardson, UT postdoctoral research associate, was a member of the international team that made the groundbreaking discovery.

The team’s research appears in a paper recently published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, one of the world’s leading astronomy journals.

For decades, astronomers have theorized that there were hot spots on the surface of massive stars that affected stellar winds, but they didn’t know how those spots behaved or how they impacted the winds.

To test that theory, the research team chose as its test subject a supergiant called Zeta Puppis, a massive star 60 times larger than the sun and seven times hotter at the surface. Massive stars are rare and usually travel in pairs. But Zeta Puppis flies solo — and it flies fast. The star hurtles through space at 37 miles per second, 60 times faster than a speeding bullet.

Using a network of nanosatellites from the “BRIght Target Explorer” (BRITE) space mission, researchers monitored the surface brightness of Zeta Puppis every 100 minutes for six months in 2014. They simultaneously monitored the behavior of its stellar winds over time from several ground-based observatories.

After correlating the two sets of data, the team found that Zeta Puppis rotates at tremendous speed — once every 1.78 days. In comparison, our sun, which is 60 times smaller, takes almost a month to rotate once.


Astronomers in the past had never had enough data to verify their claims about hot spots and their effects on stellar winds. The new data allowed them to map the surface of Zeta Puppis. It proved what the astronomers suspected: The structures on the star’s surface were indeed there, and these hot spots did affect the star’s winds.

Astronomers have mapped the surfaces of cooler stars, Richardson said, but this is the first time they’ve mapped a hot star. They learned that a brighter, hotter spot creates huge spiral structures in stellar winds that scatter more material into space.

A team of more than 40 astronomers participated in the research. The group included six amateur astronomers in Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, who spent three to four hours every night for six months peering into their telescopes and collecting data.

Sociology and Anthropology students and faculty conduct research, volunteer in Dominican Republic

This past summer, eight undergraduate students and one graduate student from the University journeyed to the Dominican Republic for a field school where they partnered with a social and education development nongovernmental organization called Project Esperanza.

The two-week program was part of a six-week course offered through the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and was co-taught by Dr. Karie Peralta and Dr. Shahna Arps. The program was designed to follow the steps a researcher would take to enter a community and begin work for the first time.

UT students Jacalyn DeSelms, left, and Perfenee Womack ran a camp activity with local children at the Project Esperanza’s school in the Dominican Republic.

During the first few days, students visited cultural museums and local monuments to become more familiar with the history and culture of the Dominican Republic. Students then began volunteering at Project Esperanza’s annual summer camp, which serves the children who attend the organization’s grassroots, bilingual Haitian Creole and Spanish school.

“For many of our students, this was their first time gaining experience working with children, particularly in an educational setting, and several of them recognized that they were good at it,” Peralta, assistant professor of sociology, said. “This involvement was important for our students because it facilitated connections with and deeper understandings of the children whose parents were participants in our household survey.”

Students spent eight mornings running the camp and seven afternoons conducting surveys to gather data on the social demographics and living conditions of families with children who attend Project Esperanza’s school. They collaborated with interpreters and local community guides in the data collection phase, which enhanced students’ cross-cultural research skills. Under the guidance of Peralta and Arps, they also worked on data coding and data entry.

Dr. Shahna Arps, standing left, and Meg Perry started a craft activity with camp participants in the Dominican Republic. UT students Madeline Bengela, seated left, and Melissa Tehan also were on hand to help.

“From a faculty perspective, it was fascinating to observe our students gain confidence in their survey administration, note-taking, observation, and data entry skills,” Peralta said. 

“Our students were eager to learn, adaptable and open-minded,” Arps, lecturer in sociology, added.

In total, the students ended with 92 surveys. The data collected will help inform Project Esperanza’s programming efforts.  

Students also were given the opportunity to attend a talk by a local teacher on Haitian-Dominican relations and Vodou, a creolized religion; a presentation on natural medicine and herbal remedies made from common plants; and a discussion on sustainable tourism.

They also learned about the historical and present challenges of coffee growing, and they planted coffee seeds, made bug traps, and brewed coffee.

“The field school in the Dominican Republic was an outstanding opportunity and experience, and I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part of it,” said Meg Perry, a fourth-year anthropology student. “Working with a developing, materialistically impoverished population has added to my worldview and has made me a more empathetic and humble person.” 

Students who went on the trip presented a panel session titled “Reflections on Field School Research in the Dominican Republic” Oct. 20 at the 16th annual Ohio Latin Americanist Conference at Ohio State University.  

UT team receives entrepreneurial award

A group from UT recently was awarded the Spirit of I-Corps award for exceptional overall performance in the Bay Area National Science Foundation Innovation Corps Program.

The team — made up of Dr. Kevin Czajkowski, UT professor of geography and planning; Kimberly Panozzo, UT graduate student; and businessman Navin Singhania — participated in the seven-week curriculum to promote entrepreneurship and see how their innovation can have a commercial impact.

Kimberly Panozzo, Navin Singhania, center, and Dr. Kevin Czajkowski posed for a photo in front of the Domaine Chandon Winery in Napa Valley, where the UT team interviewed grape growers about using tile drains.

Their research focused on agricultural drainage tiles that are used to remove excess water from fields and help make the soil more fertile. Farmers have expressed how hard it is to find old underground tiles to repair or to add on to.

The UT team, called Drain Tile Mapper, developed a technique to detect underground drainage tiles using remote sensing.

“When we started the program, we thought that there may be interest in knowing where tiles were,” Czajkowski said. “We found out that there is a real need for mapping them.”

Drain Tile Mapper received a $50,000 grant to conduct customer discovery and attend the national program.

“Receiving the award was really quite a surprise. We felt like we were just barely keeping up with the teams,” Czajkowski said.

Panozzo and Czajkowski traveled to New York, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and throughout Ohio to interview potential customers about tile drains. Each week, Panozzo prepared a web presentation based on what they learned from the interviews.

The group is discussing whether to form a company based on their experience with I-Corps and the research they did with drainage tiles.

Public invited to celebrate 50th anniversary of astronomy at UT Oct. 26

The University of Toledo is celebrating a milestone in astronomy: 50 years of education, outreach and celestial exploration.

The public is invited to an open house in honor of the 50th anniversary of UT’s astronomy program, Ritter Observatory and Planetarium, and Brooks Observatory.

The free event will take place Thursday, Oct. 26, at 6:30 p.m. at Ritter Planetarium and will feature a look back through half a century of northwest Ohio’s connection to astronomy.

“One of the joys of astronomy is that people are inherently curious about it, and so sharing our research and our telescopes with the community have been vital in our mission from the beginning,” said Dr. Jillian Bornak, associate lecturer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and chair of the UT Astronomy 50th Anniversary Committee.

The event will include a presentation of stories submitted by Toledoans of their memories, such as visits to UT for full-dome movies, public viewings with telescopes in the observatories, and special events for Apollo 11 and the impact of the Shoemaker-Levy comet on Jupiter.

The event also will include talks by Dr. Adolf Witt, Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of Astronomy, who served on the NASA Universe Working Group, and Dr. Jon Bjorkman, professor of physics and astronomy, who studies stellar winds.

The Ritter facility was dedicated Oct. 13, 1967. It was intended to blend research and public education for the University, local schools and community. The 1-meter-diameter telescope housed on top of the Ritter building is the largest optical telescope in the United States east of the Mississippi River.