UConn Health Logo Health

August, 2017

UConn Professor Synthesizing Pure Graphene, a ‘Miracle Material’

Published by UConn Today on August 29, 2017

Jessica McBride

Formed deep within the earth, stronger than steel, and thinner than a human hair. These comparisons aren’t describing a new super hero. They’re describing graphene, a substance that some experts have called “the most amazing and versatile” known to mankind.

UConn chemistry professor Doug Adamson, a member of the Polymer Program in UConn’s Institute of Materials Science, has patented a one-of-a-kind process for exfoliating this wonder material in its pure (unoxidized) form, as well as manufacturing innovative graphene nanocomposites that have potential uses in a variety of applications.

If you think of graphite like a deck of cards, each individual card would be a sheet of graphene. Comprised of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a hexagonal lattice, graphene is a two-dimensional crystal that is at least 100 times stronger than steel. Aerogels made from graphene are some of the lightest materials known to man, and the graphene sheets are one of the thinnest, at only one atom thick – that is approximately one million times thinner than a human hair. Graphene is also even more thermally and electrically conductive than copper, with minimal electrical charge.

Because of these unique qualities, graphene has been a hot topic for academic researchers and industry leaders since it was first isolated from graphite in 2004. Since then, more than 10,000 scholarly articles have been published about the material. But of these publications, only Adamson’s discusses a proprietary process for manufacturing graphene in its pristine form.

What others are calling “graphene” is often actually graphene oxide that has been chemically or thermally reduced. The oxygen in graphene oxide provides a sort of chemical handle that makes the graphene easier to work with, but adding it to pristine graphene reduces the material’s mechanical, thermal, and electrical properties in comparison to unmodified graphene like the kind Adamson produces.

It also significantly increases the cost to manufacture the material. Oxidizing graphite requires adding expensive hazardous chemicals, such as anhydrous sulfuric acid and potassium peroxide, followed by a lengthy series of manipulations to isolate and purify the products, known as a chemistry workup. Adamson’s process doesn’t require any additional steps or chemicals to produce graphene in its pristine form.

“The innovation and technology behind our material is our ability to use a thermodynamically driven approach to un-stack graphite into its constituent graphene sheets, and then arrange those sheets into a continuous, electrically conductive, three-dimensional structure” says Adamson. “The simplicity of our approach is in stark contrast to current techniques used to exfoliate graphite that rely on aggressive oxidation or high-energy mixing or sonication – the application of sound energy to separate particles – for extended periods of time. As straightforward as our process is, no one else had reported it. We proved it works.”

Soon after the initial experiments by graduate student Steve Woltornist indicated that something special was happening, Adamson was joined by longtime collaborator Andrey Dobrynin from the University of Akron, who has helped to understand the thermodynamics that drive the exfoliation. Their work has been published in the American Chemical Society’s peer-reviewed journal ACS Nano.

A distinctive feature of graphene that seems like an obstacle to many – its insolubility – is at the heart of Adamson’s discovery. Since it doesn’t dissolve in liquids, Adamson and his team place graphite at the interface of water and oil, where the graphene sheets spontaneously spread to cover the interface and lower the energy of the system. The graphene sheets are trapped at the interface as individual, overlapping sheets, and can subsequently be locked in place using a cross-linked polymer or plastic.

Adamson began exploring ways to exfoliate graphene from graphite in 2010 with a grant from the Air Force to synthesize thermally conductive composites. This was followed in 2012 with funding from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) award. Since then he has also been awarded a $1.2 million grant from the NSF Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future program and $50,000 from UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund program.

“Dr. Adamson’s work speaks not only to the preeminence of UConn’s faculty, but also to the potential real-world applications of their research,” says Radenka Maric, vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health. “The University is committed to programs like SPARK that enable faculty to think about the broader impact of their work and create products or services that will benefit society and the state’s economy.”

Graphene for Water Desalination

While stabilized graphene composite materials have countless potential uses in fields as varied as aircrafts, electronics, and biotechnology, Adamson chose to apply his technology to improving standard methods for the desalination of brackish water. With his SPARK funding, he is developing a device that uses his graphene nanocomposite materials to remove salt from water through a process called capacitive deionization, or CDI.

CDI relies on inexpensive, high surface area, porous electrodes to remove salt from water. There are two cycles in the CDI process: an adsorption phase where the dissolved salt is removed from the water, and a desorption phase where the adsorbed salts are released from the electrodes by either halting or reversing the charge on the electrodes.

Many materials have been used to create the electrodes, but none have proven to be a viable material for large-scale commercialization. Adamson and his industry partners believe that his simple, inexpensive, and robust material could be the technology that finally brings CDI to market in a major way.

“The product we are developing will be an inexpensive graphene material, with optimized performance as an electrode, that will be able to displace more expensive, less efficient materials currently used in CDI,” says Michael Reeve, one of Adamson’s partners and a veteran of various successful startups.

The team formed a startup called 2D Material Technologies, and they have applied for a Small Business Innovation Research grant to continue to commercialize Adamson’s technology. Eventually, they hope to join UConn’s Technology Incubation Program to advance their concept to market.

For more information on the UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, visit the Office of the Vice President for Research website. The deadline to submit a brief letter of intents to the 2017 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund competition is Sept. 1.

Adamson, together with collaborators Andrey Dobrynin of the University of Akron and Hannes Schniepp of the College of William and Mary, previously conducted research that sparked the idea for this invention through support from the National Science Foundation as part of the Designing Materials to Revolutionize and Engineer our Future initiative: DMR1535412. This NSF program supports the federal government’s Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current prototype device.  

 

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease Through Heartbeat Signals

Published on phys.org on August 22, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for , which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

Dyes detect disease through heartbeat signals
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. Credit: Peter Morenus/UConn Photo

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometricprobes.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

UConn Professor: Why (We Think) Atheists are More Likely to be Serial Killers

Published by UConn Today on August 22, 2017

Kim Krieger

UConn anthropologist Dmitris Xygalatas and colleagues this week published research that showed global moral prejudice against atheists. They interviewed Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and secular people from several different societies and found that no matter which culture they came from, they were biased against people who did not believe in a god or gods. The study was published online in the Aug. 7 issue of  Nature Human Behavior

Here, we delve into the reasons for religion, prejudice, and why even atheists are often prejudiced against other unbelievers.

Q. Your research found that people the world over believed a serial killer was more likely to be an atheist than a believer in god(s). Why was this surprising, and what does it mean?

A. Although this result was certainly no surprise to us (it was the original hypothesis of the study), it is certainly puzzling. As an anthropologist, I have often heard people argue that without religion there is no morality. And last year, during the presidential campaign, Ted Cruz argued that people of all faiths have the constitutional right to run for the presidency, but atheists are not fit for the job. However, data from the Federal Bureau of Prisons suggest that atheists are far less likely to commit crimes than religious people, and globally the least religious countries have the lowest crime rates. This is of course correlational evidence: it does not mean that being an atheist leads to committing fewer crimes. But the intuition that our study reveals, i.e. that atheists are immoral, is definitely not supported by reality.

Q. As part of the study, people were told a story about a man who tortured animals as a child and moved on to other violent acts as he matured, culminating in murdering five homeless people. Then the people were asked: is this man more likely to be a teacher? Or a teacher who does not believe in god(s)? Those two answers are logically inconsistent why did you ask that question in that way?

A. This question was designed to exploit the “conjunction fallacy,” a common logical error that people make when asked to estimate the probability of some specific condition versus a more general one. This is also known as the “Linda problem”, and it is typically presented in the following way: “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable? a) Linda is a bank teller, or b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The correct answer is of course a), because the number of feminist bank tellers can never be higher than the number of bank tellers. But most people give the wrong answer to this problem, because the person’s description sounds more representative of option b). Our study simply looked at how often people committed this fallacy when the person in the story was described as atheist versus religious. This allowed us to examine people’s intuitions, rather than more reflective, politically correct answers.

Q. What is atheism? Is it a universally understood concept, or do people in various cultures interpret atheism differently?

A. In a strict sense, an atheist is someone who does not believe in the existence of any deity or supernatural forces. However, there are also many people who describe themselves as “agnostic”, which means that they acknowledge the possibility of a supernatural reality, although that reality might be unknowable to us. In addition, there are many people who describe themselves as being non-religious but spiritual in other ways. Our study described the protagonist of the story as “not believing in god.” I expect that if he had been described specifically as an “atheist,” the bias would have been even more pronounced.

Q. Many people in Europe, and some in the U.S. and other places, define themselves as secular with regard to religion. Is that the same as claiming to be an atheist?

A. If we look at some of the world’s most secular countries, let’s say the Czech Republic or Denmark, we find that there are quite a few atheists, but also a very large percentage of the population who reject organized religion but still describe themselves as “spiritual,” for example they may believe in supernatural forces like karma.

Q. The study showed that even self-avowed atheists believed the serial killer more likely to not believe in god(s). Who were these atheists – which cultures were they from, and did they actually define themselves as atheists?

A. This is what philosopher Daniel Dennett has called “belief in belief.” A lot of the people who are not religious believe that religiosity has positive benefits and should be fostered even if it is fallacious. This is what we see in this study. Non-religious participants in all of the countries we surveyed, even the most secular ones, exhibited the same bias against atheists, although to a lesser degree than religious participants.

Q. How does this change how we understand morality?

A. Scientific evidence suggests that humans (and even their primate cousins) have innate moral predispositions, and religion is a reflection rather than the cause of these predispositions. However, our results show that people around the world still carry deeply-ingrained biases when judging the moral attributes of others.

Q. Does this tell us anything about the purpose of religion in society?

A. Religion has been so successful in the course of human history partly because it functions as a public signal of conformity to group norms, and that is because it involves arbitrary rather than functional rules and behaviors. For example, hunting, fishing, or trading like everyone else is the logical thing to do and offers directly observable benefits (food on the table and money in the bank). But going to church, fasting, or memorizing the Bible are costly signals of commitment to the norms of the community. Reliance on such signals has been crucial for the formation and maintenance of the first large-scale societies, in the absence of reliable secular institutions, and this evolutionary heritage is still with us today.

The research was funded by grants from the John Templeton Foundation (48275) and the John Templeton World Charity Foundation (0077), as well as the Royal Society of New Zealand, the Interacting Minds Centre at Aarhus University and the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Xygalatas collaborated on the study with researchers at the University of Kentucky, led by William M. Gervais, and at several other institutions in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

UConn Researchers: Dyes Detect Disease through Heartbeat Signals

Published by UConn Today on August 21, 2017

Jessica McBride

Vibrant tones of yellow, orange, and red move in waves across the screen. Although the display looks like psychedelic art, it’s actually providing highly technical medical information – the electrical activity of a beating heart stained with voltage-sensitive dyes to test for injury or disease.

These voltage-sensitive dyes were developed and patented by UConn Health researchers, who have now embarked on commercializing their product for industry as well as academic use.

Corey Acker, left, and Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Corey Acker, left, and cell biology professor Les Loew in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Electrical signals or voltages are fundamental in the natural function of brain and heart tissue, and disrupted electrical signaling can be a cause or consequence of injury or disease. Directly measuring electrical activity of the membranes with electrodes isn’t possible for drug screening or diagnostic imaging because of their tiny size. In order to make the electrical potential visible, researchers use fluorescent voltage sensors, also known as voltage-sensitive dyes or VSDs, that make cells, tissues, or whole organs light up and allows them to be measured with microscopes.

Not all dyes respond to voltage changes in the same way, and there is a common trade-off between their sensitivity and speed. Slower dyes can be used for drug screening with high sensitivity, but they can’t measure the characteristics of rapid action potentials in some tissues, like cardiac cells. Fast dyes can be used to image action potentials, but they require expensive, customized instrumentation, and are not sensitive enough for crystal clear results on individual cells.

Professor of cell biology and director of UConn’s Center for Cell Analysis & Modeling, Leslie Loew and his team have developed new fast dyes that are also highly sensitive, eliminating the speed/sensitivity trade-off.

Moving Ideas Beyond the Lab

Loew and research associates Corey Acker and Ping Yan have devoted much of their careers to developing and characterizing fluorescent probes of membrane potential like voltage-sensitive dyes. The team has even been providing their patented fast dyes to fellow researchers for the past 30 years, but they only recently became interested in commercializing their work.

To learn more about the science of entrepreneurship, they took advantage of several of UConn’s homegrown programs. Loew and Acker’s first step into entrepreneurship began in the fall of 2016, when they were accepted into UConn’s National Science Foundation (NSF) I-Corps site, Accelerate UConn. They credit the program with giving them a solid foundation to evaluate their technology and business strategy.

Launched in 2015, Accelerate UConn aims to successfully advance more university technologies along the commercialization continuum. Under the auspices of the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI), Accelerate UConn provides participants with small seed grants and comprehensive entrepreneurial training.

“Dr. Loew’s experience is a prime example of how UConn can transform high-potential academic discoveries into viable products and services with the right training,” says Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “Accelerate UConn helps our preeminent faculty move their ideas beyond the lab so they can join the ranks of other successful Connecticut entrepreneurs and industry leaders, and have an impact in our communities and on the state economy.”

Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes in the lab at the Cell and Genome Sciences Building at UConn Health in Farmington on Aug. 4, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
Research associate Ping Yan prepares voltage-sensitive dyes, that cause cells, tissues, or whole organs to light up as a result of electrical impulses and allow this activity to be measured. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Acker says the program also helped them identify an exciting new market opportunity targeting pharmaceutical companies. These companies need dyes that are both fast and sensitive for high-throughput screening of potential therapeutic targets. In high-throughput drug screening, scientists create special cell lines, and then use advanced equipment to robotically apply different drugs to rotating dishes of cells. The cells are stained with a voltage-sensitive dye that displays any change in membrane potential or voltage after drug application with changes in fluorescence. Acker estimates that pharmaceutical companies and contract research organizations (CROs) spend over $10,000 on these dyes for each week-long study.

The dyes that Loew, Acker, and Yan develop will also allow drug companies to respond to new cardiac safety screening regulations from the Food and Drug Administration called CiPA (the Comprehensive in vitro Proarrythmia Assay).

CiPA regulations aim to establish better ways to detect side effects of new drugs that could cause a cardiac arrhythmia. In a key component of CiPA, screening is completed in cardiac cells with a realistic electrical heartbeat. The Loew team’s fast-sensitive dyes could offer drug companies more effective options than are currently available. Since CiPA applies to any new therapies from weight-loss drugs to allergy medications, Loew and Acker anticipate high demand for their technology.

“We initially joined the Accelerate UConn program to learn how to build a business so we could sell our existing fast dyes to other scientists like us. Instead, we ended up discovering an entirely new customer segment with greater potential and more urgent need,” says Acker. “We feel lucky to have had the opportunity to participate in this elite program based right here at UConn.”

Gaining Outside Input

By following one of Accelerate UConn’s most important tenets to “get out of the building,” Acker conducted dozens of interviews with experts from industry who use VSDs for drug screening. They all expressed a need for dyes with improved sensitivity, faster speed, and fewer unwanted interactions or toxicity with the cells being tested.

Loew and his team were confident they could deliver.

Loew, Acker, and Yan’s new dyes improve on the current sensors used for drug screening, which involve a two-component system and energy transfer between the components. The researchers produce dyes that use a novel VSD system where energy transfer is more efficient, resulting in faster, more sensitive, and less toxic dyes.

Loew says that support from UConn’s entrepreneurship programs was pivotal in transforming their initial discovery from project to product.

“We learned so much from these programs, and we’re still reaping the benefits,” says Loew. “Targeting the right customer helped us gain additional research funding through UConn’s SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund, and encouraged us to form a startup, Potentiometric Probes, to advance our product towards the market.

“We’ve been supplying VSDs to hundreds of cardiac and neuroscience research labs for over 30 years,” he adds. “We’re hopeful that Potentiometric Probes will assure that this continues, especially now that the demand is high and new commercial sector applications are emerging.”

The team is currently developing a new website that will be a resource for researchers using these voltage imaging techniques. Once launched it will be accessible at www.potentiometrics.com.

Looking to the Future

Through their UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization funding, the team has been able to develop and test two new dyes, and they have conceptualized a few additional possibilities. One of their current prototypes is extremely promising, Loew says.

Loew and Acker are continuing to optimize their dyes and pursue follow-on funding to commercialize their products through the NSF’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program and BiopipelineCT, which is administered by Connecticut Innovations.

They have also continued to grow as entrepreneurs by participating in the CCEI Summer Fellowship. Potentiometric Probes was named a finalist in this program, and will compete for an additional $15,000 prize in the Wolff New Venture Competition, also administered by CCEI.

The team members hope that one day their dyes will have a major impact for both the pharmaceutical industry and fellow university researchers.

“As academics,” says Loew, “we don’t really think about money. We’re just happy to do our science and hope that it helps people one day. But considering the needs of an end user beyond other scientists will potentially lead to greater adoption of our discoveries, more funding for our projects, and ultimately more scientific breakthroughs. That’s a culture change worth considering.”

Loew previously conducted research through an award from the National Institutes of Health (R01 EB001963-32), which was in continuous operation for more than 30 years and provided all prior funding for the development of voltage-sensitive dyes. However, no resources from this previous award were used to fund product development or testing of the current technology.

UConn Names VP for Research

Published by Hartford Business Journal on August 18, 2017

Radenka Maric has been appointed vice president for research at UConn and UConn Health, where she intends to grow the university’s research enterprise by increasing strategic connections within and beyond the university. Maric will focus on linking researchers across schools, departments and campuses to enable cross-disciplinary research that aligns with federal science and health initiatives, such as those for manufacturing technologies, microbiome research, and the National Institutes of Health’s recent BRAIN Initiative.

Prior to her new role, Maric served as executive director of UConn’s Innovation Partnership Building at the UConn Tech Park and leveraged more than $80 million in industry and federal agency projects. As vice president of research, the IPB will remain within the scope of Maric’s responsibilities and extends her ability to connect UConn with startups and industry leaders.

Maric is also the founder of a biotech startup based on her research.

InfoEd for UConn Health Now Available

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services would like to notify UConn Health researchers and administrators that the scheduled upgrade to the InfoEd portal for UConn Health is complete and the system is available for use as of 7:00 AM on Monday, August 21, 2017. If you are still seeing the InfoEd upgrade in progress page, please perform a hard refresh (Windows: hold down Ctrl and press F5; Mac: hold down ⌘ Cmd and ⇧ Shift key and then press R) or clear your browser’s cache.

We appreciate your patience and cooperation during the upgrade. If you are unable to access InfoEd or encounter issues utilizing the system, please contact the OVPR eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,
Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President, Research IT Services
Office of the Vice President for Research
University of Connecticut

New Program Pairs Undergraduates with UConn Health Researchers

Published by UConn Today on August 17, 2017

Chris DeFrancesco

Seeking a summer research opportunity to follow his freshman year, honors student Rohit Makol ’20 (ENG) had choices.

He applied for summer positions with – and heard back from – several UConn Health faculty. He chose the lab of David Martinelli, assistant professor of neuroscience, with whose work, as it turns out, Makol has a very personal connection.

Martinelli is studying the auditory system, specifically the outer hair cells in the inner ear.

“I have always wanted to learn more about this because it applies to me directly,” says Makol, a biomedical engineering major. “I have bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, which means that many of my cochlear hair cells are damaged.”

He has been working in the Martinelli lab since early June, spending much of his time working with mouse models as part of a larger effort to create a genetic tool to selectively manipulate outer hair cell afferent synapses, which carry a neuron’s message toward the central nervous system.

The research opportunity with Martinelli is part of the University’s Health Research Program, which debuted this year with the vision of providing health-related research opportunities to UConn undergraduates by pairing them with scientists in Farmington.

“My experience this summer has been a real-life application of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong,” Makol says. “I’ve seen this happen on numerous occasions this summer with some of the minor setbacks we have encountered in our experiments. I have learned the importance of being persistent, because it pays off in the long run. If it wasn’t for my stubbornness, dedication, and hard work this summer, I don’t think that this experience would have been as rewarding.”

One of those rewards was obtaining publishable results in the space of about 10 weeks.

“Rohit has been the best imaginable student to have in my lab,” Martinelli says. “He did not have the typical undergraduate lab experience, in which the student serves as an assistant to a project already in motion. As a new professor, I am starting projects from the ground up. Rohit literally developed the assays and techniques that my lab will be using for years to come.”

Makol is one of 40 undergraduate students who spent this summer as research assistants to UConn Health faculty. Like most of the others, he will continue that work as part of his fall course load.

“The Health Research Program is a great opportunity to explore different fields of medical research working alongside leading experts,” he says. “Dr. Martinelli’s interactive teaching approach has allowed me to learn a variety of things and skills in such a short amount of time.”

The Health Research Program started as a pilot in January, with 17 students matched with UConn Health faculty and spending six to nine hours a week in the lab in Farmington. When the semester ended, 16 stayed on to work full-time during the summer break (the 17th had another opportunity for the summer and is rejoining the program this fall). Students in the program over the summer receive a $4,000 stipend to cover living and travel expenses.

“We’re looking to create a structure that allows students to work with faculty mentors over an extended period of time, intensively in the summer and extending that into the academic year,” says Caroline McGuire, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research in Storrs, which oversees the program. “This complements other University initiatives and is part of UConn’s research excellence.”

The Health Research Program is jointly funded by the Office of the Provost, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the UConn Schools of Medicine and Dental Medicine.

“One of the things we’ve been really pleased with is the strong interest we’ve seen from UConn Health faculty across the schools and departments,” McGuire says. “We have a little niche in the overall territory of research programs that are happening up at UConn Health, and it’s been really great to see the collaboration between campuses.”

Students also have shown strong interest, indicated by the hundreds who’ve applied already. McGuire says the program also should serve as a recruitment tool for UConn Health by drawing prospective medical, dental, and graduate school students.

Another undergraduate who had been looking to spend the summer doing research is honors student Alexandra Grimaldi ’18 (CAHNR, CLAS), a dual-degree senior studying English and allied health sciences with a concentration in public health and health promotion. She is passionate about universal access to health care, and driven to improve the infrastructure of the American health care system.

This past spring, she learned of an opportunity in the UConn Health lab of Julie Robison in the UConn Center on Aging. She would assist with studying Money Follows the Person, a Medicaid program designed to help those in a long-term care facility return to the community. It was a full-time commitment with a stipend.

“I knew that this would be a perfect fit for me,” says Grimaldi, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in public health. “I am very interested in research related to health policy implementation and efficacy, which is exactly the kind of research that Dr. Robison is doing in the Center on Aging. I was really excited to do actual quantitative and qualitative research on exactly how effective this program is.”

When Grimaldi wasn’t interviewing people in the Money Follows the Person program to collect data for the research, she was helping implement and distribute surveys and coding the results.

“This program gave me the opportunity to work with incredible mentors in my field, increased my confidence in my potential for a career in health care research, and allowed me to see what that career would look like,” Grimaldi says. “It allowed me to really know that I’m on the right path to doing what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

Like Makol, Grimaldi is returning to the lab in a part-time role this fall to continue her work. She says she hopes to apply what she’s learned to her senior thesis in the spring.

UConn Health InfoEd System Unavailable: 6 PM 8/16 – 8 AM 8/21

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR), Research IT Services would like to notify UConn Health researchers and administrators that the InfoEd portal for UConn Health will be offline between 6:00 PM, Wednesday August 16, 2017 and 8:00 AM, Monday August 21, 2017 for a planned upgrade of the system. During the planned maintenance period, access to the UConn Health InfoEd portal will be unavailable. This outage does not affect the submission of proposals to external sponsors, as they are not submitted through InfoEd. Also, InfoEd for Storrs/regional campuses is not affected and will remain operational for those users who utilize both information systems.

We appreciate your understanding and cooperation as we upgrade the system to bring you additional functionality, enable system improvements, and correct defects. Should you have any questions, please contact the eRA Help Desk at era-support@uconn.edu or 860-486-7944.

Sincerely,
Khamis Abu-Hasaballah, Ph.D.
Assistant Vice President, Research IT Services
Office of the Vice President for Research
University of Connecticut

UConn Sports Safety Advocates Urge States to Adopt Lifesaving Measures

Published by UConn Today on August 8, 2017

Colin Poitras

Many states across the country are not fully implementing important safety guidelines intended to protect student-athletes from heat stroke, sudden cardiac arrest, and other potentially life-threatening conditions, researchers with the UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute announced today.

With more than 7.8 million high school students participating in sanctioned sports each year, it is vital that individual states begin taking proper steps to ensure their high school athletes are protected, said Professor Douglas Casa, executive director of the Korey Stringer Institute, a national sports safety research and advocacy organization based at UConn.

The call for action came as UConn researchers announced the results of what is believed to be the first comprehensive state-by-state assessment of high school sports health and safety polices today at NFL Headquarters. The NFL is a sponsor of the Korey Stringer Institute.

Each state received a percentage score based on the extent to which it met a series of evidence-based best practice guidelines addressing the four leading causes of sudden death among secondary school athletes. Those causes are: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injuries, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling, a potentially deadly medical emergency occurring in athletes carrying the sickle cell trait.

The guidelines – endorsed by leading sports medicine organizations in the United States – recommend, at bare minimum, that all states implement the following health and safety policies for secondary school athletics:

1. Automatic external defibrillators and certified athletic trainers on site at all athletic events.

2. Phasing in summer practices and taking other steps to protect athletes from heat stroke.

3. Training coaches on concussion symptoms.

4. Detailed emergency action plans for all life-threatening emergencies.

5. Mandated screening of athletes for sickle cell trait.

KEY FINDINGS: North Carolina has the most comprehensive health and safety policies, with a top score of 79 percent. Colorado has the fewest policies, with a score of 23 percent. The median state score was 47 percent. States ranked in the top 10 percent with a score of 60 percent or higher were North Carolina (79%), Kentucky (71%), Massachusetts (67%), New Jersey (67%), and South Dakota (61%). States representing the bottom 10 percent, with a score of 34 percent or lower, were Minnesota (33%), Montana (33%), Iowa (33%), California (26%), and Colorado (23%).

“We know the implementation of these important health and safety policies has dramatically reduced sport-related fatalities at both the collegiate and national level,” Casa said. “We hope these findings will motivate states to take appropriate action to protect the tens of thousands of young athletes in their care.”

Between 1982 and 2015, there were 735 fatalities and 626 catastrophic injuries among high school athletes. Research has shown that nearly 90 percent of all sudden death in sports is caused by four conditions: sudden cardiac arrest, traumatic head injury, exertional heat stroke, and exertional sickling. Adopting evidence-based safety measures significantly reduces these risks. States that have mandatory heat acclimatization guidelines, for example, have completely eliminated exertional heat stroke deaths since the policies were implemented.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM: Unlike national organizations such as the NCAA and NFL, the National Federation of State High School Associations has no governing authority over an individual state’s health and safety policies for secondary schools. Each state has the autonomy to develop and implement its own health and safety policies, which are voted upon by a state’s high school athletic association, based on recommendations from a sports medicine advisory committee or via state legislation.

Many state high school athletic associations responsible for adopting health and safety policies lack members with appropriate medical expertise, a situation researchers at the Korey Stringer Institute say needs to change.

“The policies and procedures for minimizing the risk of sudden death in sports need to be managed by the sports medicine advisory committee in each state and not the state high school athletic associations,” says William Adams, the lead researcher on the study and a former vice president of sport safety for the Korey Stringer Institute. Adams is currently an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Placing oversight responsibility with a medical advisory committee ensures that those with the most knowledge of serious sport injuries are the ones making the final decisions on these potentially life-saving practices.”

Adams points out that the National Federation of State High School Associations oversees rules pertaining to sportsmanship, fair play, equipment requirements, and other areas for 16 different high school sports across the country. While those rules are meant to protect athletes from direct traumatic injuries to the face, skull, neck, and brain, they do not address indirect causes of death such as sudden cardiac arrest and exertional heat stroke.

“It is our hope, indeed our plea, for the state high school athletic associations to adopt these life-saving best practices to protect the health and well-being of the seven million high school athletes participating in sports across the country every year,” said Casa.

The full study and more details regarding each state’s assessment can be found here. The study will appear in the September issue of The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine.

UConn Study: Fast-Food Restaurants Not Promoting Healthy Kids’ Meal Options

Published by UConn Today on August 10, 2017

Daniel P. Jones, UConn Rudd Center, and Bret Eckhardt & Elizabeth Caron, University Communications

A new study evaluating major U.S. fast-food restaurant chains’ pledges to offer healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides shows inconsistent implementation at the chains’ individual restaurant locations. In addition, promotion of healthier items varied widely between the chains examined, according to a new report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

“Since 2013, the fast-food restaurants we examined have made changes to offer and promote healthier drink and side options for kids’ meals,” says Jennifer Harris, associate professor of allied health sciences, director of marketing initiatives for the UConn Rudd Center, and lead author of the report. “Still, about one-third of menu boards inside the restaurants we examined continued to list sugary soda and other soft drinks as an option for kids’ meals. And perhaps more importantly, there was wide variation in whether customers were offered the healthier options when they ordered a kids’ meal.”

“Some personnel at all the chains examined continued to give customers a cup for a soft drink and/or french fries with kids’ meal orders without offering any healthier options – despite the pledges,” she adds.

The new study evaluated implementation of pledges made since 2013 by McDonald’s, Burger King, Subway, Wendy’s, KFC, and Dairy Queen to remove sugar-sweetened fountain drinks from their menu boards and/or offer healthier drinks and sides with kids’ meals.

Researchers analyzed kids’ meal drink and side items listed on the chains’ websites; kids’ meal drink and side items listed and pictured on menu boards and on signs at a sample of individual restaurants; and drinks and sides offered by individual restaurant personnel when mystery shoppers ordered kids’ meals. To assess changes over time, results were compared to data collected in 2010 and 2013.

Healthier drinks and sides included 100 percent juice, low-fat milk, and water, non-fried fruits and vegetables, and other options. Unhealthy options included sugar-sweetened soda and other fountain drinks, fried potatoes, and desserts.

Key results of the study include:

  • In 2016, none of the restaurant chains examined listed sugary soda and other soft drinks on the kids’ meal menus posted on their websites, a notable improvement from 2013, when all restaurants except Subway listed them. In addition, all chains listed at least one healthier kids’ meal drink, such as low-fat plain milk, 100 percent juice, and/or water.
  • All chains also listed at least one healthier side item on their websites’ kids’ meal menus, including fresh fruit, applesauce, and/or yogurt. However, all restaurants except Subway continued to list unhealthy kids’ meal side items too, such as french fries or desserts, on their websites’ kids’ meal menus.
  • Individual restaurants at all chains consistently listed healthier drink and side options on their kids’ meal menu boards inside restaurants in 2016. However, despite pledges to remove sugary soda and other soft drinks from kids’ meal menus, approximately one-third or more of restaurants visited at each chain also continued to list these drinks for kids’ meals on menu boards.
  • Some personnel at all restaurant chains continued to only offer sugary soda and other soft drink options with kids’ meal orders, ranging from 16 percent to 18 percent of orders at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, to 44 percent of orders at KFC and Wendy’s, and 67 percent of Dairy Queen orders.
  • Just 8 percent of restaurant personnel at Burger King and 22 percent at Wendy’s offered the restaurants’ healthier kids’ meal side options, compared with 100 percent of orders at McDonald’s.  However, at all three restaurants, the majority of kids’ meal orders automatically received french fries – ranging from 68 percent at McDonald’s (the chain’s kids’ meals come with two side items) to 90 percent at Burger King.

The evaluation found that restaurants have increased the number of healthier side and drink options available with kids’ meals, but customers often received sugary soda and other soft drinks and/or french fries automatically when they ordered a kids’ meal. When restaurant personnel suggested the healthier options, they typically offered them as one of several choices, often together with unhealthy options.

“Restaurant chains should do more to actively encourage customers to purchase their healthier kids’ meal drinks and sides at the point of sale,” Harris says. “Offering healthy drinks and sides as the default with kids’ meals would make them the easiest choice for parents, and help improve the nutrition quality of fast food consumed by children.”

Support for this research was provided by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation.

Report co-authors include Maia Hyary, Nicole Seymour, and Yoon-Young Choi of the UConn Rudd Center.