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UT chemists discover how blue light speeds blindness

Blue light from digital devices and the sun transforms vital molecules in the eye’s retina into cell killers, according to optical chemistry research at The University of Toledo.

The process outlined in the study, which was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, leads to age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the United States.

Dr. Ajith Karunarathne examined toxic oxygen generation by retinal during blue light exposure.

“We are being exposed to blue light continuously, and the eye’s cornea and lens cannot block or reflect it,” Dr. Ajith Karunarathne, assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said. “It’s no secret that blue light harms our vision by damaging the eye’s retina. Our experiments explain how this happens, and we hope this leads to therapies that slow macular degeneration, such as a new kind of eye drop.”

Macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that results in significant vision loss starting on average in a person’s 50s or 60s, is the death of photoreceptor cells in the retina. Those cells need molecules called retinal to sense light and trigger a cascade of signaling to the brain.

“You need a continuous supply of retinal molecules if you want to see,” Karunarathne said. “Photoreceptors are useless without retinal, which is produced in the eye.”

Karunarathne’s lab found that blue light exposure causes retinal to trigger reactions that generate poisonous chemical molecules in photoreceptor cells.

“It’s toxic. If you shine blue light on retinal, the retinal kills photoreceptor cells as the signaling molecule on the membrane dissolves,” Kasun Ratnayake, a PhD student researcher working in Karunarathne’s cellular photo chemistry group, said. “Photoreceptor cells do not regenerate in the eye. When they’re dead, they’re dead for good.”

Karunarathne introduced retinal molecules to other cell types in the body, such as cancer cells, heart cells and neurons. When exposed to blue light, these cell types died as a result of the combination with retinal. Blue light alone or retinal without blue light had no effect on cells.

“No activity is sparked with green, yellow or red light,” Karunarathne said. “The retinal-generated toxicity by blue light is universal. It can kill any cell type.”

The researcher found that a molecule called alpha tocopherol, a vitamin E derivative and a natural antioxidant in the eye and body, stops the cells from dying. However, as a person ages or the immune system is suppressed, people lose the ability to fight against the attack by retinal and blue light.

“That is when the real damage occurs,” Karunarathne said.

The lab currently is measuring light coming from television, cell phone and tablet screens to get a better understanding of how the cells in the eyes respond to everyday blue light exposure.

“If you look at the amount of light coming out of your cell phone, it’s not great but it seems tolerable,” Dr. John Payton, visiting assistant professor in the UT Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, said. “Some cell phone companies are adding blue-light filters to the screens, and I think that is a good idea.”

To protect your eyes from blue light, Karunarathne advises to wear sunglasses that can filter both UV and blue light outside and avoid looking at cell phones or tablets in the dark.

“Every year more than two million new cases of age-related macular degeneration are reported in the United States,” Karunarathne said. “By learning more about the mechanisms of blindness in search of a method to intercept toxic reactions caused by the combination of retinal and blue light, we hope to find a way to protect the vision of children growing up in a high-tech world.”

UT neuroscientist awarded $1.75 million to develop method to modify traumatic memories, treat PTSD

A neuroscientist at The University of Toledo is creating a new way to help people face their fears.

The National Institute of Mental Health awarded Dr. Jianyang Du, assistant professor in the UT Department of Biological Sciences, a five-year, $1.75 million grant to develop a method to modify fearful memories, which could lead to new treatment options for mental health illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and schizophrenia.

Du

“Excessive fear memories such as war-time trauma or a near-death experience can be crippling,” Du said. “However, fear memories also can be critical for survival. Developing means to either erase or to strengthen fear memory could aid understanding of how memories are formed and may suggest novel therapeutic strategies.” 

Du, who studies how protons regulate brain circuits and behaviors, found in mouse brains that manipulating pH in the amygdala can influence or control fear memories during recollection, creating a short window of increased susceptibility to either erase or enhance the memory.

Du manipulates the pH levels by using carbon dioxide inhalation and activating key molecular components of the central nervous system called acid-sensing ion channels, which spread throughout the body and allow for transmission of signals in the nervous system. The acid-sensing ion channels are important targets for pharmaceutical drug designers because of their importance to learning and memory.

“Our goal is to uncover the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which traumatic memories are stored in the brain and how carbon-dioxide inhalation and acid-sensing ion channels influence or control emotional behaviors, such as anxiety and depression,” Du said. “The ability to rewire the brain to modify existing fearful memories is very important as it relates to mental disorders.”

Study shows overeating during breastfeeding may lead to health problems for offspring

Breastfeeding has many health benefits for children, such as reducing their risk of obesity and strengthening their immune system. However, new mothers who consume a high-fat diet while breastfeeding may undermine some of those advantages, according to new research at The University of Toledo.

When mouse moms ate a high-fat, high-calorie diet while nursing, their offspring developed obesity, early puberty, diabetes and fertility issues.

Wang

Dr. Mengjie Wang, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, is the lead researcher of a team that used mice as a model to study the impact of excess calories during the breastfeeding stage on the offspring’s metabolism and reproduction.

“All over the world, puberty is starting earlier than it did in the past,” said Wang, who is earning her PhD at UT after graduating from medical school in China at Guangxi Medical University. “Childhood obesity, a common health issue, is one of the risk factors for early puberty. Previous evidence from animals has revealed that post-weaning overeating advances the timing of puberty, but we lack knowledge of how nutrition before weaning influences metabolism and reproduction.”

To determine how excess body fat alters the timing of puberty, Wang’s team gave female mice that are new mothers a high-fat diet from the date they gave birth and started breastfeeding until they weaned their offspring. A second group of mice that also were new mothers were given a regular diet. The onset of puberty was evaluated in the offspring after weaning, and fertility tests were done on the mice in adulthood, as well as an examination of their metabolic function.

“We found that excess calories during the breastfeeding phase can cause early obesity and early puberty and increases the risk of developing diabetes, metabolic dysfunction and subfertility during adulthood,” Wang said. “These results show that the breastfeeding phase is a critical window that influences when puberty happens.”

The study found that offspring of the mothers fed a high-fat diet while breastfeeding suffered from glucose intolerance and insulin insensitivity. They also had decreased litter sizes and impaired pregnancy rates.

“Human studies are needed to know whether these results apply to our species,” Wang said. “Still, I recommend that mothers consume a moderate and healthy diet while breastfeeding to protect their child’s long-term health.”

Wang said the research is significant in the clinical setting because doctors don’t always follow the same patients from puberty to adult life.

“Our findings can alert doctors and patients with early puberty that other health problems may arise after they become adults,” Wang said.

UT researcher cures high blood pressure in rats

A University of Toledo researcher recently won a prestigious award for his cutting-edge hypertension study that cured high blood pressure in rats.

Dr. Xi Cheng, a UT College of Medicine postdoctoral fellow, won the Physiological Genomics Group New Investigator Award from the American Physiological Society and presented his research in April at the Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego.

Cheng

In his trailblazing research, Cheng identified a gene responsible for inherited high blood pressure in rats, and then he genetically engineered that gene to cure hypertension in the rats. Both were firsts in the field of genomic science that is focused on essential hypertension.

About one in three U.S. adults suffers from essential hypertension, or high blood pressure, which is a complex condition with no clear cause. Blood pressure can be affected by environmental factors such as diet and weight, but hypertension also runs in families with no identifiable, pre-existing cause. This kind of hypertension is what interests the UT researchers.

Cheng also discovered that another kind of genetic material — circular RNA — also seems to play a role in hypertension. His paper, published last fall in Physiological Genomics, was chosen as an APSselect article, an award given to authors of the most exciting original research articles published by the American Physiological Society.

Cheng has been studying hypertension since 2013, when he came to UT as a doctoral student in molecular medicine. He continues to work with his mentor, Dr. Bina Joe, Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, and director of the Center for Hypertension and Personalized Medicine. Their research focuses on how to correct and, if possible, permanently cure hypertension.

Scientists believe patients with hypertension inherit multiple genetic defects, which are difficult for researchers to find on strands of DNA that are millions of base pairs long. It’s also difficult to prove whether the defects “cause” or are “associated” with high blood pressure.

Cheng identified a new gene that regulates blood pressure in rats and pinpointed the mutation that is inherited and causes high blood pressure. He found a 19-base sequence of DNA in rats with lower blood pressure that was missing in rats with higher blood pressure.

Using a new technology, he extracted that critical DNA sequence from the rats with normal blood pressure and inserted it into the genome of hypertensive rats to see if correcting the mutation would cause their blood pressure to decrease. It was the first time anyone had used the new technique, called CRISPR/​Cas9 technology, to perform genome surgery in rats for correcting mutations for hypertension.

The embryos with the edited gene were implanted into surrogate mother rats. When the rodents were born, they became the world’s first genetically altered rats created to pinpoint the area on their DNA that caused them to inherit hypertension. More importantly, Cheng’s new rat strain no longer had high blood pressure. The “cure” had worked.

Cheng’s first-of-its-kind research proved that genome surgery — editing genes — can permanently cure a genetically inherited cause of hypertension in rats.

Allen Cowley, an internationally renowned hypertension researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, remarked in his review of Cheng’s work that “the work represents a technical tour de force and illustrates the critically important role of animal models that can mimic human traits of a complex disease to advance our understanding of the polymorphic associations that have been defined in human populations.”

Human patients can’t throw out their blood pressure meds just yet, though.

“Additional research will determine the possibility of this approach to cure hypertension in humans as we work to identify all the genetic pieces within the human genome that contribute to hypertension,” Cheng said.

The particular region that controls blood pressure in rats is similar to a region on a chromosome in humans in which scientists have reported associations with cardiac dysfunction and high blood pressure.

It’s much more difficult, though, to test this in humans, whose genes vary in millions of ways from person to person. To pinpoint the piece of genetic material that causes high blood pressure is like finding that proverbial needle in a haystack.

But the researchers are hopeful about the future of the research being conducted at the Center for Hypertension and Personalized Medicine.

“Here in Toledo, we are contributing to a piece of the puzzle,” Joe said. “When Xi and I were born, we didn’t have genome sequencing ability. Now we do.”

In the future, she said, scientists will use artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict who will get what diseases. And those scientists will rely on researchers like Joe and Cheng for data and to understand the blueprint of the genome.

Cheng has been accepted into a highly competitive online master’s program in computer science and machine learning at the Georgia Institute of Technology and will apply what he learns in the program to his research in Toledo.

UT astronomer part of NASA mission that discovered famously furious star system shoots cosmic rays

The average person encounters cosmic rays when the fast, tiny particles shoot through the clouds and cause bright pixels on photos. Very few actually reach the ground, and they are not known to be harmful.

Astrophysicists long believed those lightweight protons or electrons moving close to the speed of light reach Earth’s atmosphere after supernova explosions, deflecting off electromagnetic fields in their scrambled path through space that ultimately masks their origin.

The left panel shows the Hubble image of Eta Carinae, and the right shows an X-ray image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory on the same scale. The green contours show where NuSTAR detected the very high-energy source, which also proves that it is Eta Carinae and not another source in the region. The images are courtesy of NASA.

However, a groundbreaking new study involving NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope shows the most luminous and massive stellar system within 10,000 light years also is a source of cosmic rays that sometimes reach Earth, no explosion necessary.

The Eta Carinae discovery, which was published this week in the journal Nature Astronomy, was made by an international team, which includes an astronomer at The University of Toledo.

Dr. Noel Richardson, postdoctoral research associate in the UT Department of Physics and Astronomy, analyzed data from NuSTAR observations of Eta Carinae acquired between March 2014 and June 2016. The space telescope, which was launched in 2012 and can focus X-rays of much greater energy than any previous telescope, detects a source emitting X-rays above 30,000 electron volts at a rate of motion approaching the speed of light.

Richardson

“Most stars can’t produce that much energy,” Richardson said. “Eta Carinae is one of only three star systems NuSTAR has been able to observe. The new technology allowed us to push what we understand about the high-energy universe. And we discovered that we don’t always need an exploding star, but rather two stars with massive winds pushing out cosmic rays.”

The raging winds from Eta Carinae’s two tightly orbiting stars smash together at speeds of more than six million miles per hour approximately every five years. Temperatures reach many tens of millions of degrees — enough to emit X-rays.

“Both of Eta Carinae’s stars drive powerful outflows called stellar winds,” Dr. Michael Corcoran, team member at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said. “Where these winds clash changes during the orbital cycle, which produces a periodic signal in low-energy X-rays we’ve tracked for more than two decades.”

“We know the blast waves of exploded stars can accelerate cosmic ray particles to speeds comparable to that of light, an incredible energy boost,” said Dr. Kenji Hamaguchi, astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and lead author of the study. “Similar processes must occur in other extreme environments. Our analysis indicates Eta Carinae is one of them.”

Eta Carinae’s primary star is almost 100 times more massive and five million times more luminous than the sun. That star also is famous for losing 10 suns worth of material — huge amounts of gas and dust — into space in an enormous explosion in the 1830s that briefly made it the second-brightest star in the sky.

Richardson studies massive stars and also was part of the international team that captured the first sharp image of Eta Carinae’s violent wind collision zone and discovered new and unexpected structures in 2016.

In addition to UT and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, researchers from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, Catholic University of America, California Institute of Technology, University of Leeds, Hiroshima University, University of Utah and San Jose State University contributed to the new study.

Read more and see a video here.

Researchers discover molecule that could stop movement of cancer cells

Researchers at The University of Toledo have designed a first-of-its-kind gene-targeting molecule that could serve as a therapy to stop cancer growth and to help cancer patients who are resistant to current drugs.

Dr. Terry Hinds, assistant professor in the UT Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, and Lucien McBeth, a second-year medical student, received a full international patent last fall for “Sweet-P,” a new type of anti-cancer molecule.

Dr. Terry Hinds, right, is quick to credit his research team for helping to discover Sweet-P, a new type of anti-cancer molecule. Team members are, from left, Maggie Wong, Vikram Sundararaghavan, Darren Gordon, Charles Hawk, Justin Spear, Lucien McBeth, Abdul-Rizaq Ali Hamoud, Jonathan Demeter, Kari Neifer-Sadhwani and Jonnelle Edwards.

“When cancer cells are moving to other parts of the body, Sweet-P stops the migration,” Hinds said. “There’s nothing like it out there.”

Sweet-P has the potential to be a unique anti-cancer therapy, Hinds said, but more research is needed. It first needs to be used in preclinical investigations in mice before it can be tested in human patients.

Like many scientific discoveries, this one came about as Hinds and his team were studying something else — obesity.

Their work centered on GR beta, one of two proteins that originate from a gene called the glucocorticoid receptor (GR). Hinds genetically modified stem cells to have a higher level of GR beta and hypothesized based on other studies that the stem cells would change into large fat cells.

But they didn’t. They rapidly proliferated instead.

“GR beta was driving the growth phase of the cells,” Hinds said.

This discovery led Hinds and his team to ask more questions about GR beta, which is known to cause cancer cells to grow, proliferate and migrate.

Hinds’ team focused on the place on a gene where small RNAs, in this case microRNA-144, bind on the GR beta gene. Very little is known about microRNA-144 or what it specifically controls, but reports show that levels of it are significantly higher in patients with bladder cancer.

“Typically, microRNAs suppress genes. But this microRNA activates GR beta, especially during migration,” Hinds said. “We’d never seen this before.”

No one had ever created a drug to target microRNA-specific interaction with a gene. So Hinds got to work.

The end result is Sweet-P, a peptide nucleic acid molecule that resembles DNA.

Hinds tested the molecule on bladder cancer cells and found that it did indeed suppress GR beta. It latches on to the microRNA binding site of the GR beta gene and stops the microRNA from activating the protein. If the GR beta doesn’t work properly, the cancer cells don’t migrate.

Think of it as a basketball game. GR beta is the point guard, the playmaker. It sends the basketball (a signal) to other players (the cancer cells) to move and drive to the basket (other parts of the body). MicroRNA-144, then, is the coach screaming at GR beta to go faster. Sweet-P is akin to the referee giving a technical foul to silence the “coach” and slow down the game.

Because Sweet-P targets just one specific gene interaction — between the microRNA and the GR beta gene — it could significantly reduce side effects of potential treatments created with it, Hinds said.

“It’s precision medicine at its best,” he said.

Sweet-P’s ability to target GR beta could have implications for treating other cancers in which GR beta is highly expressed, including glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, and prostate and lung cancers.

Sweet-P also could be a potential treatment for other diseases, like asthma, Hinds said.

Glucocorticoid hormones (GCs), the most commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory drugs, are often used to treat asthma, as well as cancer and other diseases. A high level of GR beta can cause those hormones to become ineffective, a condition known as GC resistance. Asthma patients often have high GR beta in their airways.

“When Sweet-P inhibited the GR beta, it increased the responsiveness of GCs, so Sweet-P may reverse GC-resistant diseases,” Hinds said.

If Sweet-P someday becomes an approved therapy, Hinds, who has asthma, might be able to get rid of the EpiPen on his desk.

UT team receives research award at international Biodesign Challenge Summit

UT students who thought outside — and inside — the hive won the Outstanding Field Research Award June 22 at the Biodesign Challenge Summit in New York.

“Apigiene Hive: Rethinking Bee Hygiene” was selected for the honor that recognizes a team that takes the initiative to go into the field and interview experts as well as potentially affected communities in order to find and understand the social impacts of their project.

Members of the UT team — from left, Madeline Tomczak, Jesse Grumelot, Domenic Pennetta and Lucya Keune — posed for a photo with the Outstanding Field Research Award they won June 22 at the Biodesign Challenge Summit, which was held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Members of the UT team are Madeline Tomczak, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science in May; Domenic Pennetta, a sophomore majoring in art; Jesse Grumelot, who graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in bioengineering; and Lucya Keune, a senior studying visual arts.

The four were in New York for the award ceremony and exhibition with Brian Carpenter and Eric Zeigler, assistant professors in the Department of Art in the College of Arts and Letters, who taught the Biodesign Challenge class spring semester.

“We are very proud of our UT students,” Carpenter said. “This challenge is fantastic. It encourages students to think creatively, take risks, and gather science and data. They realize their designs can work.”

“This competition was such an incredible opportunity for our students,” Zeigler said. “For UT to win an award our first year in the challenge shows the dedication and creativity of our students.”

Solving problems creatively is what the Biodesign Challenge is all about. The Genspace NYC program offers college students the chance to envision future applications of biotechnology by working together interdisciplinarily.

At UT, the Biodesign Challenge class brought together students majoring in art, bioengineering and environmental science, as well as peers from the Jesup Scott Honors College.

UT went head to head against 29 schools from across the United States, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Guatemala, Japan and Scotland. Six awards were presented at the challenge.

“This was an incredible win on a world stage. Our students competed against teams from New York University, Rutgers, the University of Sydney, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Ghent University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Georgetown. It was our first time out of the gate, and UT took an award,” said Barbara WF Miner, professor and chair of the UT Department of Art. “We are ecstatic!”

“[The 30] finalists were selected from a pool of 450 participants,” Daniel Grushkin, founder and director of the Biodesign Challenge, said. “I firmly believe that they are leading us into a sustainable future with their visions.”

The UT team wanted to help the bee population and created additions for the popular Langstroth hive to fight one of the insect’s biggest foes: mites.

A fibrous brush filled with zebra mussel powder at the hive entrance targets Varroa destructor mites on the surface of adult bees. The insects will clean off the powder — and the mites — and leftover powder will help kill the intruders inside the hive.

And to tackle the Acarapis woodi mites, which invade the hive and lay eggs, the team turned to a natural deterrent: mint, which was infused with the wax frames.

At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the UT students presented their project to more than 200 scientists, designers, entrepreneurs and artists.

“Our students’ design is economically feasible; beekeepers would just add two simple modifications to their existing hives,” Zeigler said. “It’s a happy solution, and one that could have tremendous market impact all over the world.”

“Eric, the students and I want to thank the University for its support,” Carpenter said. “We wouldn’t have been able to develop this class without assistance from the College of Arts and Letters; the Jesup Scott Honors College; the College of Engineering; the Department of Art; and the Department of Environmental Sciences. We’re already looking forward to next year’s challenge.”

UT engineering team first to make 3D objects with high-temperature shape memory alloys

A University of Toledo engineering team’s research on additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, could lead to smaller, lighter aircraft and biomedical devices that can be customized to a patient’s specific needs.

The team, led by UT Professor Mohammad Elahinia, was the first to successfully make 3D objects using high-temperature shape memory alloys, smart materials used in the next generation of airplanes and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles).

Elahinia

The group published its findings in the March issue of Scripta Materialia, a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

To understand the importance of this research, one needs to understand actuators. Actuators are the components of a machine that control motion, like the mechanisms that trigger anti-lock brakes, open a valve, or help a prosthetic limb move.

Scientists are always seeking to improve the manufacture of actuators and to find ways that they can better mimic organic motion.

Shape memory materials offer simple and lightweight actuators. Unfortunately, the usual process of machining creates heat, which makes manufacturing challenging.

Additive manufacturing — building a 3D shape by adding layer upon layer of a material — solves that problem.

It has other benefits as well. It allows for the creation of more complex shapes, Elahinia said, and is a quicker, more efficient and adaptable process that can be customized to specific needs.

Another huge plus: Manufacturers can make actuators with more flexible motion, such as the ones used for morphing airplane wing tips.

The UT research is of special interest to NASA, which helped fund the work and is a partner in the project, said Elahinia, professor of mechanical, industrial and manufacturing engineering in the College of Engineering.

“They have expertise in alloy development and were instrumental in identifying the right composition of alloy for our research,” he said.

The breakthrough in UT’s research involved the high-temperature shape memory alloys. The team was able to 3D print the alloys to harness their ability for faster and more powerful actuation, which makes them more practical to use when manufacturing actuators in the aviation, automotive and biomedical fields. Actuators made with these alloys can operate at much higher temperatures and are faster and more powerful, Elahinia said.

“It’s an enabling technology,” he said. “Once you harness it, you can use it for many systems and make many different shapes. It opens the door to a lot of possibilities.”

For instance, it could be possible to replace the heavy, noisy hydraulic systems in the wings of fighter jets, drones and commercial airplanes with lighter, less costly actuators. An added bonus? Nervous flyers would no longer hear the churning hum of the hydraulic system as the plane takes off and descends.

Additive manufacturing with high-temperature alloys also could have implications for the biomedical field, Elahinia said, because manufacturers could customize medical devices quickly based on the anatomical needs of the patient.

This new technology probably won’t replace conventional manufacturing, Elahinia said, but is a better alternative for building actuators that are sensitive to heat and complicated to create.

The UT team’s next step is to fabricate prototype actuators using this technology and test them in vehicles.

Elahinia’s research was funded by more than $700,000 in grants from the Ohio Federal Research Network and the NASA Glenn Research Center. Research partners include the University of Dayton Research Institute, Case Western Reserve University and Ohio State University.

UT recognizes areas of research excellence

The University of Toledo has identified three areas of research excellence as it pursues its goal of achieving national recognition for contributions to advancing knowledge.

UT’s current areas of research excellence identified by the University Research Council and endorsed by external reviews are:

• Astronomy and Astrophysics;

• Solar Energy, Water Quality and Sustainable Technologies; and

• Cell Architecture and Dynamics.

“These areas emerged from a yearlong review process and were selected because of the highly accomplished faculty members UT has in these areas who are recognized nationally for contributions to their fields of study,” Vice President for Research Frank Calzonetti said. “Identifying these areas of excellence will help promote the University’s standing as a strong research university and create opportunities for collaboration.”

This will be a continual process with ongoing invitations to consider new areas and to update existing areas of excellence, Calzonetti said.

UT astronomers have produced groundbreaking discoveries in the origins of stars and star clusters. They have access to highly competitive time on the world’s best telescopes, including NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory. UT also is a partner with Lowell Observatory, which provides guaranteed access to the Discovery Channel Telescope in Arizona. The University regularly engages undergraduate and graduate students in research projects with that telescope.

The strength of the University’s astronomy and astrophysics program was recognized nationally in 2016 when UT was selected to join the prestigious Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, which includes many of the country’s top programs.

Solar energy, water quality, and sustainable technologies were identified in part due to the University’s strong reputation in research, development, and commercialization of thin-film photovoltaic technologies. For example, in solar energy, Dr. Yanfa Yan, Ohio Research Scholar chair and UT professor of physics, has one of the strongest publication records among researchers in his field.

The UT Lake Erie Center receives attention for its work studying harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie and its efforts to protect the quality of the region’s drinking water. Additional faculty members are making important contributions to green chemistry and other sustainability studies.

The cell architecture and dynamics category recognizes the basic science researchers involved in the study of the cell and its structures to better understand cell movement and how that affects disease progression. For example, Dr. Rafael Garcia-Mata, associate professor of biological sciences, has three active National Institutes of Health grants to study the migration of cancer cells away from the primary tumor and their subsequent metastasis to distant organs.

The identification of these areas of research excellence and a plan to advance them is part of the University’s strategic plan. As part of the process to identify existing strong research programs, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs also recognized spotlight areas of unique distinction, areas of emerging research excellence, and areas of future opportunity.

The spotlight areas of unique distinction include programs that have received national recognition with strong faculty leadership, but with few faculty experts on campus currently advancing that field of study. Those spotlight areas identified are:

• Human Trafficking, led by Social Work Professor Celia Williamson and supported by the UT Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute;

• Disability and Society, which includes Professor Kim E. Nielson, who is the author of the only book to cover the entirety of American disability history titled “A Disability History of the United States.” UT also offers the only humanities-based undergraduate degree in disabilities studies; and

• Hypertension and Precision Medicine, led by Distinguished University Professor Bina Joe, a recognized leader in the field of genetic determinants of high blood pressure.

Identified areas of emerging research excellence are those with growth opportunities based upon the significance of their work to science and society. The areas that could benefit from further development are:

• Legacy Cities, which includes a collaborative group of faculty members across the social sciences who study how former industrial cities that experienced massive decline are being reinvented, and

• Cancer, Immune Therapy and Precision Molecular Therapy, which features advances in targeting specific genes or proteins for more effective and less invasive treatment options.

Lastly, areas of future opportunity were identified where a group of faculty members are working in an area of emerging importance in science, technology and society. The areas that could gain recognition through focused investment are:

• Vector Biology, which studies mosquitos and other insects that transmit diseases and affect public health;

• Smart Transportation, which includes advances in autonomous vehicles;

• Data 2 Decision, which is the study of big data and how it is used, analyzed and protected;

• BioPsychoSocial Determinants of Chronic Disease, which studies the economic and social conditions that impact health factors, such as the work underway by UT’s opioid task force; and

• Community-Based STEAM, which features community partnerships, such as with the Toledo Museum of Art, that advance the arts and promote continued education. STEAM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math.

“The University of Toledo has strong research programs across the institution,” said Jack Schultz, senior executive director for research development. “Our goal with this process was to identify those areas with a high level of recognition at the national level. We look forward to exploring opportunities to elevate their standing and bring more attention to these areas of research excellence.”

The identification of the University’s focus areas does not imply that research without these designations will be unsupported. The University values all faculty research and the contributions each faculty member makes in their fields.

Bee proactive: UT students to compete in Biodesign Challenge in New York

A team of University of Toledo students is buzzing with excitement, preparing to compete against 29 schools in the Biodesign Challenge Summit in New York this month.

The four students will present “Apigiene Hive: Rethinking Bee Hygiene” at the international contest Thursday and Friday, June 21-22, at the Museum of Modern Art.

“We decided to focus on bees because of the recent problems with colony collapse disorder,” said Madeline Tomczak, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in environmental science in May.

“And we simply found those tiny yellow-and-black insects adorable,” added Domenic Pennetta, a sophomore majoring in art. “By focusing on bees and their problems, we could help both bees and apiarists here in Ohio, and also have solutions that could potentially be used to benefit others around the globe.”

Solving problems creatively is what the Biodesign Challenge is all about. The Genspace NYC program offers college students the chance to envision future applications of biotechnology by working together interdisciplinarily.

At UT, the Biodesign Challenge class in spring semester brought together students majoring in art, bioengineering and environmental science, as well as peers from the Jesup Scott Honors College.

“The really wonderful part about participating in this challenge is it started with the students — they approached us about having the class,” Eric Zeigler, associate lecturer in the UT Department of Art, said.

“One thing we thought was paramount in teaching this class: We were their peers. We were in the trenches with the students, asking questions, learning together,” Brian Carpenter, lecturer and gallery director in the UT Department of Art, said. “It’s been so inspiring. I tell everyone this is my favorite class I’ve taken.”

Carpenter and Zeigler will travel with the team to the Big Apple, where the UT students will vie with teams from across the country, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France, Guatemala, Japan and Scotland for awards, including the Animal-Free Wool Prize sponsored by PETA, Stella McCartney and Stray Dog Capital.

“These finalists were selected from a pool of 450 participants,” Daniel Grushkin, founder and director of the Biodesign Challenge, said. “I firmly believe that they are leading us into a sustainable future with their visions.”

Tomczak and Pennetta worked with Jesse Grumelot, who graduated in May with a bachelor of science degree in bioengineering, and Lucya Keune, a senior studying visual arts, to create additions for the popular Langstroth hive to fight one of the bees’ biggest foes: mites.

“A fibrous brush filled with zebra mussel diatoms will target Varroa destructor mites on the surface of adult bees,” Grumelot said. “In addition, mint-infused wax frames will eliminate Acarapis woodi mites, as well as Varroa destructor juveniles.”

“We researched the problem, talking to specialists and professionals, and focused on natural ways to give bees a better environment to thrive,” Keune said.

Part of that new environment includes placing a brush at the hive entrance to use what beekeepers call the sugar shake — but in a new way. To encourage bees to be more hygienic, beekeepers sometimes put powder sugar on the insects so they’ll clean off the sweet stuff — and the nasty Varroa destructor mites.

“We use powdered zebra mussel to increase hygiene behaviors, which in turn helps kill the mites,” Tomczak said.

The zebra mussel powder acts like diatomaceous earth, which, when crushed, can be used as a treatment for fleas and ticks on household pets.

“Since diatomaceous earth is often from oceanic rocks, we wanted to bring this part of the hive closer to home by looking at Lake Erie,” Tomczak said. “Zebra mussel shells are abundant and easy to collect, and can be ground down to a fine powder.”

The powder is then baked, sterilized, and made finer with a mortar and pestle. It will prompt the bees to clean up and get rid of the mites, and it will help kill any mites inside the hive.

And to tackle the Acarapis woodi mites, which invade the hive and lay eggs, the team turned to a natural deterrent: mint.

“We wanted to avoid the chemical sprays that can be harmful and stressful to the bee colony,” Keune said. “We learned mint is used to fight mites; it’s better for the bees and the honey.”

“Our new hive features starting frames of beeswax infused with natural corn mint and peppermint,” Grumelot said. “This method is a more accurate way to focus on the mite infestation, and it avoids spraying the entire hive, leaving the honey untouched and the bees happy.”

In New York, the UT students will present their project to more than 200 scientists, designers, entrepreneurs and artists.

“This is a great resumé-builder for our students,” Zeigler said. “Their design is economically feasible; beekeepers would just add two simple modifications to their existing hives. It’s a happy solution, and one that could have tremendous market impact all over the world.”

“This challenge is fantastic. It encourages students to think creatively, take risks, and gather science and data. They realize their designs can work,” Carpenter said.

“I hope that by participating in this challenge that others will begin to look at relevant issues critically and try to find better solutions in creative ways,” Pennetta said.