UT News » Research

UT News

Categories

Search News

Archives

Resources

Research

Student wins NASA fellowship to help hunt for Earth-like planet with future space telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the 26-year-old Hubble, will be the largest and most powerful ever sent into orbit when it blasts off in fall 2018.

To prepare for Webb’s decade in space in search of a planet that could support life, NASA selected a University of Toledo PhD student studying small stars and the exoplanets closely orbiting them to join the team.

UT doctoral student Kevin Hardegree-Ullman is part of a NASA team that will help select what planets the new James Webb Space Telescope will focus on when launched in 2018.

UT doctoral student Kevin Hardegree-Ullman is part of a NASA team that will help select what planets the new James Webb Space Telescope will focus on when launched in 2018.

Kevin Hardegree-Ullman will contribute to choosing which planets the new space telescope will observe.

“There is going to be a lot of competition between astronomers for time on that telescope, which has an enormous gold-coated mirror and is much larger than Hubble,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “Before Webb launches, we will choose the best stretches of sky to look for another Earth-like planet. The best candidates are around low-mass stars that are less than half the size of the sun. Those are the stars that I have been focused on for years. This is an awesome opportunity.”

Because of his published work and experience collecting data about brown dwarfs using the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hardegree-Ullman won a NASA Graduate Fellowship that will pay for him to work with NASA scientists for six months.

In January, Hardegree-Ullman will head to the NASA Infrared Processing and Analysis Center for Infrared Astronomy at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to identify a handful of locations to target in our galaxy where it’s most possible to find planets with water.

“We’ve already identified a bunch of star systems with planet candidates,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “My job will be to make sure there is a planet there using the data from the Spitzer Telescope and then figure which of these planets are the best to look at in follow-up observations with the future telescope.”

Hardegree-Ullman is the second UT PhD student in astronomy to recently win one of these competitive awards. Aditya Togi won the same NASA Graduate Fellowship in 2014.

“Kevin will get to interact with some of the best scientists in the world in an entirely new academic environment — something graduate students very rarely get to do,” said Dr. Mike Cushing, associate professor of astronomy and director of UT’s Ritter Planetarium, who is Hardegree-Ullman’s faculty advisor.

Hardegree-Ullman worked as a NASA Space Grant intern in 2011 while an undergraduate at the University of Arizona. He studied a specific molecule in interstellar clouds where stars form.

The PhD student now hunts for exoplanets by identifying dimming patterns caused when a planet blocks out a portion of a star’s light.

“It’s easier to find a smaller planet around a smaller star,” Hardegree-Ullman said. “Low-mass stars have a lower temperature, and that means a habitable planet has to orbit a lot closer to the star. It’s beneficial to an astronomer because you might only have to wait a couple weeks to watch the transit and find an Earth-size planet that could potentially contain water. You can determine size and radius monitoring the star’s light output. With a star the size of the sun, you have to wait an entire year.”

“Winning this fellowship highlights the caliber of scientist that Kevin has become during his time at UT,” Cushing said.

Researchers take cross-disciplinary look at addressing side effect of cancer treatment

Radiation and chemotherapy treatments can have negative impacts on normal functions in the body and become so severe that some patients choose to discontinue their treatment plans.

Dr. Heather Conti, UT assistant professor of biological sciences, recently was awarded $60,000 from Ohio Cancer Research to support a study titled “Proinflammatory Cytokines IL-23 and IL-17 in Radiotherapy Induced Oral Mucositis” to explore what mechanisms cause one of the most common debilitating complications of cancer treatment called oral mucositis.

Conducting research to better understand oral mucositis with Dr. E. Ishmael Parsai, right, and Dr. Heather Conti are, from left, Nathan Schmidt, research assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences; Jackie Kratch, graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences; Lisa Root, director and attending vet in the Department of Lab Animal Resources; and Dr. Nicholas Sperling, assistant professor of medical physics. They are standing by the Varian Edge System at UT’s Eleanor N. Dana Cancer Center.

Conducting research to better understand oral mucositis with Dr. E. Ishmael Parsai, right, and Dr. Heather Conti are, from left, Nathan Schmidt, research assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences; Jackie Kratch, graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences; Lisa Root, director and attending vet in the Department of Lab Animal Resources; and Dr. Nicholas Sperling, assistant professor of medical physics. They are standing by the Varian Edge System at UT’s Eleanor N. Dana Cancer Center.

Oral mucositis occurs when cancer treatments break down the lining of the inside of the mouth, leaving it open to sores and infection. Patients experience sores on the gums or tongue, difficulty swallowing, bleeding and pain.

“Patients receiving chemotherapy or radiation of the head and neck can develop severe damage to the lining of the oral cavity,” Conti said. “The inflammation and sores can make it difficult and painful for the patient to speak, eat or drink, and can lead to an increased risk of serious infection.”

She has joined forces with Dr. E. Ishmael Parsai, radiation oncology professor and chief of the Medical Physics Division, to take a cross-disciplinary approach in examining oral mucositis in mouse models.

“I am thrilled to be working alongside Dr. Parsai. He has amazing, cutting-edge radiology equipment that he uses to treat patients, and it is one of the leading reasons why I chose to come to UT to conduct my research,” Conti said. “He will provide radiation treatments to the mouse models that are very similar to what cancer patients receive. We can then examine how interleukins, IL-23 and IL-17 are involved in cell-to-cell communication and are involved in the development of oral mucositis.”

These proteins are proinflammatory cytokines produced by both humans and mice.

Candida albicans is a yeast fungus that naturally occurs within the mouth, gut and vaginal tract, but given the chance to flourish in a patient where damage to the mucosal tissue has occurred due to radiation treatments, it can take hold and cause inflammation. It is the most common secondary infection in cancer patients.

Parsai said that despite advances in radiation treatment that have made it highly precise, such as the Varian Edge System used at UT’s Eleanor N. Dana Cancer Center, healthy tissue still can be affected.

“I am looking forward to working with Dr. Conti to better understand how oral mucositis develops,” he said. “This research could lead to the development of better drugs to treat it and its associated infections, so that patients are able to successfully complete their course of cancer treatments.”

UT awarded federal innovation grant to invest in academic researchers throughout northwest Ohio

The U.S. Department of Commerce awarded The University of Toledo $500,000 to help launch startup companies, move ideas to market, and spur job creation through faculty research.

Nearly $15 million was given to 35 organizations from 19 states through the Economic Development Administration’s Regional Innovation Strategies program. 

Business Hlogo 1c BlackThe total available to researchers in the northwest Ohio region is nearly $1.3 million after the University matched the i6 Challenge grant with an additional $767,903 through the Rocket Fuel Fund.

Researchers from academic and other nonprofit institutions are eligible to receive funding.

“This is an incredible opportunity for UT faculty and academic researchers throughout the northwest Ohio region to apply for this funding and help move their new technologies toward commercialization, including women and minorities who are typically underrepresented in innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Anne Izzi, licensing associate at UT’s Office of Technology Transfer. 

The selected recipients of Rocket Fuel grants will be awarded between $5,000 and $50,000 each to enhance the scope or patentability of inventions and improve market potential through targeted research, customer discovery, and development of a prototype and business model.

“The Regional Innovation Strategies program advances innovation and capacity-building activities in regions across the country by addressing two essential core components that entrepreneurs need to take their ideas to market: programmatic support and access to capital,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said. “As America’s Innovation Agency, the Commerce Department has a key role to play in supporting the visionaries and job creators of tomorrow. Congratulations to today’s awardees who will make U.S. communities, businesses and the workforce more globally competitive.”

Dr. William Messer, professor in the UT Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, plans to apply for i6 Challenge grant funding as his lab creates a drug to help autism patients make new patterns of behavior to live a more normal life. 

“There is a lot of work to do, but we would like to move this compound into clinical trials to see if it can help treat restricted and repetitive behaviors associated with autism,” Messer said. “We are exploring a number of options to obtain the funding needed to develop the patented technology, and the i6 Challenge grant represents an important new source of funding at the local level.”

A total of 215 organizations applied for the grant funding; these included nonprofits, institutions of higher education and entrepreneurship-focused groups.

“The 2016 Regional Innovation Strategies grantees will reach a variety of communities and help entrepreneurs gain the edge they need to succeed,” said Jay Williams, U.S. assistant secretary of commerce for economic development. “The diversity in programs and regional representation proves that innovation and entrepreneurship are igniting all corners of the country and is a recognized tool for economic growth and resilience.”

Undergraduate research in the spotlight at UT

Even with the upfront construction and ongoing maintenance costs that go into a wind turbine during its average life span of 20 years, it makes enough energy to be cost-effective, according to undergraduate student research at The University of Toledo.

The life cycle analysis of wind turbines is one of nearly two dozen research projects that will be on display for the UT Scholars’ Celebration Undergraduate Research Showcase from Tuesday, Nov. 29, through Friday, Dec. 9, in Carlson Library.

Provost Andrew Hsu will host a welcome reception Monday, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m. in Carlson Library Room 1005. Students will be available to answer questions about their research.

“Research is one of the best modes of experiential learning. It is something unique that a comprehensive research university like UT can offer to our students, and it is what distinguishes our students and graduates from others,” Hsu said. “This is the 10th anniversary of UT’s Office of Undergraduate Research, so it’s especially fitting to recognize undergraduate students who are participating. Our faculty members help our students link their classroom scientific knowledge to the pursuit of innovation and discovery. These students are learning how to communicate, think logically, and be patient and creative — highly-valued skills in today’s competitive world.”

Other undergraduate research projects include an analysis of the boundless beauty of women, as well as a piano performance titled “Schumann Fantasy in C, Op. 17.”

“This is a great opportunity for professional development for our students and for the community to see the depth and breadth of research that UT students are conducting,” said Dr. Thomas Kvale, professor emeritus of physics and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Department of Sociology and Anthropology to offer international field school in Dominican Republic

A new study abroad program will be offered next summer: Dr. Karie Peralta and Dr. Shahna Arps from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology will co-teach an international field school in the Dominican Republic.

“The purpose is to give students an experiential learning opportunity to develop their research skills and learn about Dominican culture and social life,” Peralta, assistant professor of sociology, said. “We will be collaborating with a community organization in the Dominican Republic to provide students a hands-on experience in participatory methods and fieldwork.”

Dr. Karie Peralta, left, and Dr. Shahna Arps conducted a workshop last summer in the Dominican Republic.

Dr. Karie Peralta, left, and Dr. Shahna Arps conducted a workshop last summer in the Dominican Republic.

The organization the program will work with, Project Esperanza, has the only grassroots bilingual school in the Dominican Republic. Participants in the program will help support the school by volunteering in the organization’s summer camp.

Students in the program will use the time facilitating activities throughout the camp to get to know the local children and become familiar with the challenges of learning in a school in a marginalized community.

“This will give students the chance to volunteer and also learn about the children’s lives and their living and educational conditions while participating in the summer camp,” Peralta said.

The students also will work with the organization to carry out a survey to gather information about the schoolchildren’s families and household demographics.

This Summer Session II program is a six-week course. The first two weeks will be spent preparing for the immersion component of the field school; the second two weeks will be held in the Dominican Republic; and the final two weeks students will analyze data collected and discussing what was learned while there.

This is a 4000-5000 level class (SOC4980/5980 or ANTH 4980/5980) and is open to students of all majors who are interested in advancing their research skills.

Peralta has 11 years of experience traveling to and from the Dominican Republic and spent some time as a Peace Corps volunteer there. She also managed a study abroad program prior to coming to UT.

Arps also has several years of experience in the Dominican Republic working with college student groups that carried out medical missions in the country.

Peralta and Arps traveled to the Dominican Republic last summer to plan the program and lay the foundation for field school activities. They also provided a two-day research training workshop to local youth who were going to carry out a survey about their community members’ interests in creating a public space.

Peralta encourages students to sign up for the program so they can apply their skills in an international setting.

“The students can get out of their comfort zone and push their own boundaries,” she said. “This will help them grow professionally and personally.”

An information session about the class will be held Wednesday, Nov. 30, at 3 p.m. in University Hall Room 4380.

To learn more about the class, click here.

Can reptiles survive climate change?

It’s possible the turtle population could be made up entirely of one sex as a result of warming temperatures, according to an evolutionary ecologist and global change biologist at The University of Toledo.

Refsnider

Refsnider

Dr. Jeanine Refsnider, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences, will take on the topic in her lecture titled “Can Reptiles Survive Climate Change?” Thursday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m. at the UT Lake Erie Center, 6200 Bayshore Road in Oregon.

The event is part of the UT Lake Erie Center Fall Lecture Series.

“Although we rarely hear about them, reptiles are particularly vulnerable to climate change,” Refsnider said. “Reptiles are entirely dependent on the environment around them to regulate their body temperature. If air temperatures become too warm, reptiles can suffer heat stress and even death.”

The scientist says in many reptiles — including most Ohio turtles — the sex of juveniles is determined entirely by the temperature in the nest during egg incubation.

“Therefore, climate change could result in reptile populations made up entirely of one sex,” Refsnider said.

The public is invited to Refsnider’s free lecture about how reptiles are coping with climate change around the world and in Toledo.

Undergraduate student presents cancer research at global conference

A junior studying biology at The University of Toledo is one of 200 students around the globe chosen to participate this week at the inaugural World Congress on Undergraduate Research.

Nicholas Stimes, who is studying abroad in England this semester, will present his work on colon cancer cells at the conference Nov. 13-15 at Qatar University in Qatar, a country located in the Persian Gulf.

Nicholas Stimes, a junior majoring in biology, will present his work on colon cancer at the inaugural World Congress on Undergraduate Research at Qatar University in Qatar.

Nicholas Stimes, a junior majoring in biology, will present his work on colon cancer at the inaugural World Congress on Undergraduate Research at Qatar University in Qatar.

“It is an honor to represent UT at a global conference and share the meaningful research I have been working on for several years that will help develop cancer-targeting drugs and improve current treatment options for patients,” Stimes said. “This also is an opportunity to experience a new culture and learn about dozens of other research projects.”

The 20-year-old started working in Dr. Deborah Chadee’s lab as a first-year student. For the past two years, Stimes continued to work in her lab as part of the summer fellowship program through the UT Office of Undergraduate Research.

“It is wonderful for an undergraduate to have an opportunity to present research at an international conference,” Chadee, associate professor of biological sciences, said. “Nick has done outstanding work. I am very excited that he was selected to present his research on proteins called MAP kinases and their function in controlling the growth and spread of colon cancer cells.”

Through his experiments, Stimes helped discover a way to slow the spread of colon cancer cells and identified what may be blocking the effectiveness of a drug known for attacking proteins associated with the spread of cancer.

“Without a specific protein called MLK3, cells are less invasive and have impaired ability to spread or metastasize,” Stimes said. “Then we experimented with the drug called geldanamycin, which is being tested in clinical trials and has shown promising results with other cancers. Geldanamycin reduced levels of MLK3. However, we demonstrated that hydrogen peroxide and other reactive oxygen species that are common in cells block geldanamycin from working.”

The goal of Stimes’ research, titled “Oxidative Stress and MAPK Signaling in Colon Cancer Cells,” is to provide information about a possible therapeutic target for new colon cancer treatments.

“You can think of it as a significant piece of a much larger puzzle,” Stimes said.

According to organizers of the World Congress on Undergraduate Research, “Our aim is to bring together the best undergraduate research in the world to focus our collective minds on some of the most significant challenges facing the global community today.”

Researchers explore connection between kidney and heart disease

Chronic kidney disease affects nearly 25 percent of the adult population in the United States. It is closely associated with cardiovascular disease and can lead to a patient requiring dialysis or kidney transplant.

Researchers at The University of Toledo are exploring the connection between the kidney and heart in an effort to understand the molecular mechanisms, which can help develop new treatments to improve patient outcomes.

Dr. Steven Haller, left, Dr. David Kennedy, center, and Dr. Jiang Tian are examining the connection between the kidney and heart.

Dr. Steven Haller, left, Dr. David Kennedy, center, and
Dr. Jiang Tian are examining the connection between the kidney and heart.

A recent study titled “Attenuation of Na/K-ATPase Mediated Oxidant Amplification With pNaKtide Ameliorates Experimental Uremic Cardiomyopathy” was published in Scientific Reports earlier this month.

UT researchers, in collaboration with Marshall University and New York Medical College, identified a peptide that could reduce kidney disease-related cardiac fibrosis in mice, which could potentially lead to the development of new treatment options for patients diagnosed with kidney disease.

“We know patients with kidney disease often develop cardiac fibrosis, which is a condition where their heart tissue becomes damaged and scarred,” said Dr. Jiang Tian, associate professor of medicine and lead co-author of the study. “Cardiac fibrosis was previously thought to be untreatable, but this new discovery shows promise for reversing or preventing the condition.”

The research builds upon pioneering work by co-author Dr. Zijian Xie, director of the Marshall Institute for Interdisciplinary Research, who discovered a new function of the Na/K-ATPase during his tenure at UT. Xie found that the Na/K-ATPase can mediate cell signaling in addition to its role in regulating the potassium and sodium level in each cell of the body.

The research team subsequently learned that dysfunction of kidneys signals the body to produce steroids that bind to the Na/K-ATPase, but that a long term “off-target” effect of this causes scarring to develop in the heart.

“We discovered that these sodium-potassium pumps don’t just move sodium and potassium around, but they are multitasking proteins that are involved in other functions as well,” said Dr. David Kennedy, assistant professor of medicine and co-author of the study. “It’s like finding out your car is a spaceship and you didn’t even know it.”

When the team introduced a peptide called pNaKtide in a mouse model with kidney disease, the associated cardiac fibrosis was reduced.

“We are excited about these findings and will further explore the possibility to use this peptide as a therapeutic treatment for cardiac fibrosis,” Tian said.

In a related UT study, Dr. Steven Haller, assistant professor of medicine discovered use of the immunosuppressant drug Rapamycin also helps in reducing cardiac fibrosis in animal models with kidney disease.

“Given that we now know Na/K-ATPase signaling is known to initiate events that leads to cardiac fibrosis, we can look at ways to interrupt this sequence,” Haller said. “Rapamycin inhibits an enzyme implicated in the progression of many different forms of kidney disease, and we now know it also regulates a pro-fibrotic steroid, which binds the Na/K-ATPase and causes fibrosis.”

The study, “Rapamycin Attenuates Cardiac Fibrosis in Experimental Uremic Cardiomyopathy by Reducing Marinobufagenin Levels and Inhibiting Downstream Pro-Fibrotic Signaling,” was published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

All undergrads encouraged to apply by Nov. 21 to present research at showcase

Undergraduate students who have done research or a creative activity project in the past year are eligible to apply to present their work at the Scholars’ Celebration Undergraduate Research Showcase.

The deadline to apply is Monday, Nov. 21.

“All projects in all majors are welcome to participate independent of their funding source, if any,” said Dr. Thomas Kvale, professor emeritus of physics and director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “This is a great opportunity for professional development and to showcase the depth and breadth of research that UT students are conducting.”

Research will be presented in a poster format Tuesday, Nov. 29, through Friday, Dec. 9, in Carlson Library.

Provost Andrew Hsu will host a welcome reception Monday, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m. in Carlson Library Room 1005 for the campus community. Students will be on hand to answer questions from other students, faculty and staff about their research.

To apply, download and complete the participation form at utoledo.edu/honors/undergradresearch/research/scholarsCelebrationUGRShowcase.html. Return the form to the Office of Undergraduate Research at undergraduate.research@utoledo.edu or Scott Hall Room 0119.

For more information, contact the Office of Undergraduate Research at 419.530.2983.

National advocacy board recognizes UT physician for groundbreaking research

Recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on syncope and disorders of the autonomic nervous system, Dr. Blair Grubb, UT Distinguished University Professor of Medicine and director of the Clinical Electrophysiology Program, recently was honored for his groundbreaking work in dysautonomia research.

Dysautonomia describes a group of diseases in which the autonomic nervous system does not work properly, affecting the heart, bladder, intestines, and other organs and blood vessels.

Dr. Blair Grubb received a $25,000 award from the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation last week. Posing for a photo with the physician were, from left, Kaylee Sills, acting executive director of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation; Sarah Glenn Smith, president of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation; and Ainsley Glenn, founding director of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation.

Dr. Blair Grubb received a $25,000 award from the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation last week. Posing for a photo with the physician were, from left, Kaylee Sills, acting executive director of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation; Sarah Glenn Smith, president of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation; and Ainsley Glenn, founding director of the Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation.

The Dysautonomia Advocacy Foundation recognized Grubb at a reception in his honor Oct. 25 in Charleston, S.C. The association presented Grubb with a $25,000 award to support his research efforts.

“We presented Dr. Grubb with $5,000 last year, and we are so impressed with his progress in groundbreaking research into the role of autoimmunity in the pathogenesis of postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), we decided to quintuple our gift this year,” said Sarah Glenn Smith, president of the association’s board.

Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, known as POTS, is a form of dysautonomia and the condition characterized by an inappropriate elevation in heart rate and drop in blood pressure when standing up that can cause lightheadedness and palpitations.

“We see people from all over the world with varying levels of disability due to these diseases. We are working hard to determine what causes dysautonomia so we can improve their lives,” Grubb said. “This funding will help us to continue our exploration of dysautonomia as an autoimmune disease.”

Grubb pioneered many of the diagnostic and treatment modalities that are in common use for these disorders today and has authored more than 240 scientific papers, as well as five books and 35 book chapters.

He was recognized as one of “America’s Top Doctors” for 12 years in a row and received UT’s Distinguished University Professor award in 2009 and 2015. He was named Dysautonomia International’s Physician of the Year in 2015 and the Medical Professional of the Decade by the British Heart Rhythm Society and Arrhythmia Alliance in 2015.

While in South Carolina, Grubb also presented a lecture, “Autonomic Disorders: A Guide for the Clinician,” at the Medical University of South Carolina’s Grand Rounds Continuing Medical Education.

A research fund has been established to support Grubb’s mission to care for patients impacted by this condition. Visit https://give2ut.utoledo.edu/grubb.asp to make a donation. For more information, contact Allie Berns, assistant director of annual giving programs, at 419.530.5414 or allison.berns@utoledo.edu.