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Canine in training on campus through Rocket Service Dogs

She was one of the most popular residents in Ottawa House West: an energetic blonde with sparkling brown eyes and an outgoing personality.

“Aspen is why most people come to our room,” Alana Shockley, a sophomore majoring in communication, said and then laughed while petting the Labrador retriever.

Aspen, center, was happy to pose for a photo Courtney Koebel, left, and Alana Shockley of Rocket Service Dogs in Ottawa House West.

The 1-year-old dog definitely turned heads and made a lot of friends.

“Some people ask, ‘How did you get a dog in a residence hall?’ And we explain she’s a service dog in training,” Courtney Koebel, a sophomore majoring in education, said. “Some ask if they can pet her, and we have to calm her down first.”

Settling down is just one thing Shockley and Koebel worked on with Aspen.

“We are trying to teach her commands — sit, stay, kennel — and to get her to focus,” Koebel said. “It’s going well. She has a good work ethic, but she gets distracted sometimes.”

Koebel and Shockley welcomed their four-legged roommate last fall. They are members of Rocket Service Dogs, a University organization partnering with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence and the Ability Center of Greater Toledo to encourage students to foster and train dogs.

“We were trying to figure out how to get more involved on campus and were looking at all the organizations,” Shockley said. “And once we saw Rocket Service Dogs, we fell in love because we’re really crazy animal lovers, it’s dogs, and we’re helping people.”

Students in the organization take an orientation and policy class through Rocket Service Dogs, and then a handling course taught by Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence.

Aspen is the first canine to live and train in a residence hall through Rocket Service Dogs.

It took a year of planning between the University, Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence and the Ability Center of Greater Toledo to make the placement possible, according to Josephine Biltz, a third-year student majoring in biology and president of the Rocket Service Dogs.

“Aspen seemed to really like the residence hall from the second she walked in, and I think it was a really great atmosphere for her to be exposed to a lot of different people,” Biltz said.

While Aspen wasn’t ready to attend class on campus with Shockley and Koebel, she did go to school once a week. Every Friday, the trio headed to Flower Hospital for class with Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence.

“We practice attention, loose-leash walking. Sometimes they teach us new commands, and then we’ll practice old commands,” Koebel said. “We work on Aspen’s attention, get her to focus for long periods of time, so she’ll be able to come to University classes with us. And sometimes instead of class, we’ll have outings. We’ll go out with [Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence] to a public place to see how she reacts.”

Praise and rewards bolster Aspen’s desire to please — and learn.

“We usually give her small treats to motivate her; sometimes we just use her kibble,” Shockley said. “We bought her some little Milk-Bones, and she really likes those.”

“When you’ve been working with her for a while and she finally understands what we’re trying to do, it’s rewarding to see her get excited,” Koebel said. “She really likes treats, so she’s kind of always excited.”

Aspen recently moved on to continue training through Assistance Dogs for Achieving Independence’s prison program, where she was paired with an inmate.

While their time working with the Lab was brief, Koebel and Shockley will remember Aspen and her goal.

“Depending on how well Aspen does and if her attention span gets longer, she could be paired with someone with a disability,” Shockley said. “But if not, she’ll be a therapy and emotional support animal.”

“It makes me feel good that I’m able to help someone who has a disability and can’t help themselves, so it’s cool to know I’m part of the process to help make their life a little bit easier,” Shockley said.

Learn more about Rocket Service Dogs at facebook.com/rocketservicedogs, or email rocketservicedogs@gmail.com.

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.

Fly fisherman hooked on conservation to speak at Lake Erie Center March 21

The community is invited to a free, public talk on fishing, conservation and healthy habitat at The University of Toledo Lake Erie Center.

Brad White, president of the Fallen Timbers chapter of Trout Unlimited and an avid fly fisherman, will speak Thursday, March 21, at 7 p.m. at the Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bayshore Road in Oregon.

Brad White, president of the Fallen Timbers chapter of Trout Unlimited, shown here with a rainbow trout, will speak at the Lake Erie Center Thursday, March 21.

Trout Unlimited, which has about 300,000 members nationwide, is a nonprofit organization that works to conserve, protect and restore North America’s cold-water fisheries and their watersheds. The local chapter has 300 members.

“I want to introduce people to Trout Unlimited and talk about the varied activities and programs we get involved in, such as our Trout in the Classroom program,” said White, a retired software entrepreneur in Perrysburg. “We also host events for veterans, stream cleanups and more. Our efforts in the Great Lakes region continue to expand.”

White also serves as vice president of the Merickel-Farley Trout Club and is a member of the Anglers of the Au Sable, Fly Fishers International and the North Branch Boys.

The local chapter of Trout Unlimited meets monthly in Maumee and takes trips to locations where trout and salmon can be found.

“Even though the western basin of Lake Erie is not a hot spot for cold-water fish, Trout Unlimited is interested in local problems on the lake,” Dr. Christine Mayer, professor in the UToledo Department of Environmental Sciences and Lake Erie Center, said. “Most members are avid anglers who also care deeply about conservation.”

White’s talk is part of the Lake Erie Center’s Public Lecture Series.

A shuttle will be available to transport visitors from UToledo’s Main Campus to the Lake Erie Center and back. The shuttle will depart at 6:15 p.m. from the south side of Bowman-Oddy Laboratories. Passengers must reserve a spot. Email lakeeriecenter@utoledo.edu or call 419.530.8360 to make a reservation for the shuttle.

The Lake Erie Center is UToledo’s freshwater research and science education campus focused on finding solutions to water quality issues that face the Great Lakes, including harmful algal blooms, invasive species and pollutants.

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.”

Registration open for youth Patch Day Workshop at Lake Erie Center

Friday, Feb. 22, is the deadline to register for Partners for Clean Streams’ 17th annual Youth Patch Day Workshop.

The event will be held Sunday, March 3, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. at The University of Toledo’s Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bayshore Road in Oregon.

The Patch Day Workshop is open to second- through fifth-grade students interested in learning about conservation, as well as Cub Scouts or Girl Scouts seeking to fulfill merit and environmental badge requirements.

“Outreach efforts such as Patch Day are meaningful because they bring many organizations together to collaborate on a program that is really meaningful for students,” said Rachel Lohner, education program manager at the Lake Erie Center. “We work hard to create a theme and content that will interest a broad range of kids. These types of programs are great to inspire students and teach them to respect the world around them.”

This year’s workshop theme is “Habitats” and will feature presenters from the city of Oregon, the city of Perrysburg, Wood Soil & Water Conservation District, Lucas Soil & Water Conservation District, the UT Lake Erie Center, and Black Swamp Bird Observatory. In addition, there will be hands-on activities.

This program is an excellent way for youth and their leaders to learn more about their roles in protecting the environment.

“We spark a love of the environment by offering youth fun and hands-on educational activities from an early age,” Lohner said. “It only takes one person to connect with a student to inspire him or her to go on and do something really great.”

Registration can be done online at the Partners for Clean Streams website. Cost is $5 per participant and must be paid prior to the event.

For more information, call the Partners for Clean Streams office at 419.874.0727.

Lake Erie Center talk to focus on saving birds in urban areas

We often hear about the psychological benefits of reconnecting with nature. Take a walk. Listen to birds chirping. Plant flowers.

Bringing people back into harmony with nature also can save wildlife.

Shumar

The University of Toledo Lake Erie Center is hosting a free, public event about community-level solutions to wildlife conservation in an increasingly urban landscape.

Matthew Shumar, program coordinator for the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative and co-editor of “The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Ohio,” will give a talk titled “It Takes a Village” Thursday, Feb. 21, at 7 p.m. at the Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bayshore Road in Oregon.

The avian ecologist plans to speak about the Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative’s Lights Out program designed to address light and glass issues that threaten birds in urban areas.

“Artificial lighting has become a major concern for migratory bird populations,” Shumar said. “Birds attracted to bright lighting often fatally collide with buildings, and it is estimated that between 365 and 988 million birds are killed by collisions each year in the United States.”

“Programs like the ones led by Matt are making a measurable difference in human impacts on migratory birds,” said Dr. Henry Streby, ornithologist and assistant professor in the UT Department of Environmental Sciences. “Often the hardest part is gaining the attention of the public and policymakers about small changes that can make big differences for conservation. That’s the hard work that Matt and his colleagues are taking on.”

Streby studies rare songbirds and red-headed woodpeckers. His groundbreaking migration research revealed the key to population declines in golden-winged warblers.

The Ohio Bird Conservation Initiative is a collaboration of nonprofit groups, businesses, citizens, and state and federal agencies working to advance bird conservation efforts.

Shumar’s talk is part of the Lake Erie Center’s Public Lecture Series.

A shuttle will be available to transport passengers from UT’s Main Campus to the Lake Erie Center and back. The shuttle will depart at 6:15 p.m. from the south side of Bowman-Oddy Laboratories, 3100 West Towerview Blvd. Passengers must reserve a spot. Email lakeeriecenter@utoledo.edu or call 419.530.8360 to make a reservation for the shuttle.

The Lake Erie Center is UT’s freshwater research and science education campus focused on finding solutions to water quality issues that face the Great Lakes, including harmful algal blooms, invasive species and pollutants.

Water quality is a major research focus at UT. With more than $14 million in active grants underway, researchers are looking for pathways to restore our greatest natural resource for future generations.

Saturday Morning Science returns with blue light, shipwrecks, gene-editing and glass

Saturday Morning Science is back for 2019 at The University of Toledo with five programs to give the community the opportunity to learn about hot topics in modern science.

The free, public talks, which are presented by the UT College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, kick off Saturday, Feb. 2, at 10 a.m. in Memorial Field House Room 2100 with “Regional Water Resources Management: A Great Lakes Perspective,” presented by Dr. Andrew Gronewold, associate professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.

“We’re excited to bring in speakers who will discuss issues of great importance to the city of Toledo, such as the intersection of science and art in glassmaking and the past and future of Lake Erie,” Dr. John Bellizzi, UT associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and co-director of Saturday Morning Science, said. “We are also fortunate to have experts discuss topics that have generated a lot of media coverage, including gene-editing technology in the wake of reports that a Chinese scientist edited the genomes of two babies, and blue light research carried out here at UT showing how digital devices may be damaging to your eyes.”

Listed by date, additional programs and speakers will be:

• Feb. 16: “And There Was Light” by Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

• Feb. 23: “Archaeology and Shipwrecks” by Carrie Sowden, archaeological director of the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

• March 16: “Gene Editing with CRISPR/Cas9” by Dr. Ron Conlon, associate professor in the Department of Genetics and Genome Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.

• April 27: “Glass Is a Verb, Just Like You” by Dr. Jane Cook, chief scientist at the Corning Museum of Glass.

All talks begin at 10 a.m. and include complimentary light refreshments donated by Barry’s Bagels and Costco Wholesale Corp. The program is funded by the Office of the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

For more information about the upcoming events, visit the Saturday Morning Science’s Facebook page.