Who determines how we die?

Road Sign

“Time is running out on fixing the way we die.”

This is the argument made in a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine and related post from Harvard Law School’s Bill of Health blog. Susan M. Wolf, J.D., chair of the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences joins co-authors Nancy Berlinger, Ph.D., of the Hastings Center and Bruce Jennings, M.A., of the Center for Humans & Nature, providing an overview of 40 years of end-of-life discussions and outlining more that needs to be done.

End-of-life issues take on new urgency as Baby Boomers age and their children and grandchildren grapple with how best to respect the wishes of a generation that is famously resistant to growing older. The reality on the ground is that, despite case law and legislation in the 1990s granting patients the right to refuse unwanted, life-sustaining treatment, declaring those rights was not enough to alter treatment patterns and larger systemic issues. Continue reading

Report highlights strength of Minnesota’s academic research

Minnesota State Flag

When it comes to research, Minnesota publishes more — and gets cited more  — than the national average.

A report released today by academic publisher Elsevier in conjunction with the Council of State Governments highlights Minnesota’s research strengths as part of a larger comparison of research performance across the nation. The report, “America’s Knowledge Economy: A State-by-State Review,” lauds public research universities as crucial contributors to the knowledge economy —advances in knowledge and technology that drive innovation, attract jobs and foster economic growth.

According to the report, the impact of academic research in Minnesota exceeds the national average for nearly all fields of study. Minnesota ranks third in the nation for the number of publications produced per $1 million spent on research and has the highest number of publications per capita in the Midwest. Continue reading

Ultra-fast supercomputer Mesabi to fuel complex research


Mesabi’s high-speed network switch, pictured here, allows for ultra-fast communication and data transfer among supercomputing nodes.

The University of Minnesota is boosting its research infrastructure with a mountain of computing power.

Supercomputer Mesabi recently became the newest addition to the Minnesota Supercomputing Institute. Sporting a name that shares the Ojibwe word for “immense mountain,” Mesabi is projected to be among the five fastest supercomputers used for academic purposes in the country. Its computing capabilities will drive U of M research forward and open up new possibilities in a wide range of academic fields.

“Researchers rely on high-performance computing to advance and support their research,” said Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D, director of the U’s Informatics Institute and interim director of MSI. “Mesabi will provide the power required to handle more complex and massive scientific data sets than any of our other supercomputers, allowing researchers to forge ahead with their data and make new discoveries.”

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U leaders tour Minnesota to learn about regional business needs

Open Road

This spring, research and business leaders from the U will travel across Minnesota to meet with leaders in industry, government and economic development to discuss the needs of local economies.

“Traveling across the state and having these discussions is the best way for us to get to know businesses’ needs and discover economic opportunities,” said Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research. “Our goal is to listen, learn and find out where our mutual interests intersect.”

Maura Donovan, executive director of University Economic Development (UED), will join Herman in leading the tour, visiting economic development groups, foundations and companies across the state to learn where and how the university can partner to support each region’s economy.

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Regional USPTO director highlights crucial role of patents

USPTO Dr. Christal Sheppard 4 web

Patents play an important role in protecting the ideas behind technological breakthroughs.

That was the message Christal Sheppard, Ph.D., director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s satellite office in Detroit, used to kick off the second day of the 2015 Design of Medical Devices Conference at the University of Minnesota with a keynote address on the role of patents in medical technology. Sheppard went on to further discuss the subject during a breakout session moderated by Jay Schrankler, director of the U’s Office for Technology Commercialization.

Patents have been an important part of the U.S. since the country’s founding, Sheppard said, but are often undervalued as a means for encouraging innovation through research and development. In order to innovate, inventors must spend great effort and expense on research and development. Without patents, another person could take that inventor’s ideas and use them to launch a competing product or service faster and at a lower cost. Continue reading

Scarce resources for research tough on young scientists


Brian Herman, University of Minnesota vice president for research, cites chronic underfunding of biomedical research as the root cause of a disturbing new trend. Many new graduates are turning to industry jobs rather than pursuing careers in research, largely due to decreased federal support and a increasingly competitive finding environment, especially for younger scientists.

Many new graduates hoping for a career in bioimedical research are finding that the wait for a lab of their own at a university is longer than ever – if it happens at all. It’s a situation leading many to opt for a career in industry instead, where advanced degrees are welcome and well-paid.

Read VP Herman’s full commentary in The Washington Post’s Grade Point blog.

Startup Profile: The Actives Factory

Autumn Birch Trees

The Actives Factory prepares the natural chemicals found in birch tree bark for use in environmentally friendly cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and more. The company is based on scientific discoveries by Pavel Krasutsky, director of the Chemical Extractives Laboratory at the University of Minnesota Duluth’s Natural Resources Research Institute.


The birch tree has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to protect itself from harmful bacteria, fungi and viruses by producing natural chemicals. Studies show these compounds, found in the trees’ bark, kill bacteria and prevent the growth of viruses, making them ideal for use in many different personal care products, such as soaps, shampoos and body lotions. The Actives Factory uses patented technology invented at the U of M to extract beneficial chemicals from the bark on an industrial scale, which can then be sold wholesale to manufacturers.

Potential impact

Birch bark is a widely available byproduct left over from pulp and paper mills. Rather than discarding it through burning, the Actives Factory puts this resource to use, processing it into a form that can be used in a wide range of everyday cosmetic and hygiene products, as well as many pharmaceuticals that treat serious illnesses. With its natural ability to limit inflammation, bacterial infection and virus growth, birch bark is an effective ingredient in medicines and completely safe for human use. Continue reading

Working toward Uniform Guidance


By Pamela Webb, Suzanne Paulson and Nicole Pilman

The Uniform Guidance, which took effect Dec. 26, 2014, represents the most dramatic shift in federal research administration policy in 50 years. Released by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in December 2013, the new guidelines are an attempt to bring uniformity to the funding regulations provided by 27 federal agencies to their grant recipients. While achieving this level of consistency is no easy task, the goal is ultimately to streamline the requirements for federal awards and reduce administrative burden and financial fraud, waste and abuse.

These numbers should give some idea of the significance and immediate impact of the changes:

  • 81 university policies and procedures required review, resulting in dozens of minor changes and several more significant policy changes in the areas of grant closeouts, subawards, procurement and direct charging
  • 176 training courses, tutorials, forms and job aids are being reviewed and updated this year
  • More than 300 Notice of Grant Award (NOGA) terms were reviewed and updated

All of this may seem abstract to a general reader, but in the world of research funding, it translates to countless real-life impacts on all aspects of research, grant administration, education and training. Of course, the long term goal of the policy changes is to make the federal award process more streamlined and less burdensome. As with any major change, there is short term pain to achieve long term gain. Continue reading

Bacteria tapped for eco-friendly industrial cleanup

Collecting water samples

Water plays a crucial role in industry. It helps generate electricity, mine for precious minerals and support numerous other functions that fuel the economy and provide society with the products and services essential to everyday life.

During industrial use, however, water is sometimes contaminated by one of over 100,000 chemicals used commercially. If these chemicals are untreated, they can pollute the environment and create health risks for humans and animals. Industry leaders are continually seekingsmart, cost-efficient ways to clean up after themselves and minimize their company’s environmental impact.

Now, a collection of scientists and business experts at the University of Minnesota are developing new methods of remediation — the act of removing pollutants from the environment. The researchers are developing software that models how enzymes break down chemicals at the microscopic level to optimize the selection of bacteria that biodegrade those chemicals. Meanwhile, business experts are conducting market research to discover the best ways to apply this new knowledge and learn how it can lead to viable industrial processes and products.

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A new spin on computer technology

Binary code

By Mike Lotti

Spintronic computers, featuring zero boot-up time, ultra-low energy use and high processing speeds, aren’t available to consumers yet. But the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spintronic Materials, Interfaces, and Novel Architectures (C-SPIN) has been guiding a national “dream team” of researchers since 2013 to accelerate progress toward spintronic computing.

Spintronic promise

Here’s an overview of how this breakthrough technology works. Your computer, tablet, smart phone, and even calculator are basically machines that encode and process ones and zeros in the form of electric current. But all those electrons moving around cause heat, and it’s getting harder and harder to make electric devices small enough to meet the ongoing demand for more computing power in less space. The spintronic solution is to rethink ones and zeros as the “up” or “down” orientation of electrons in ultra-small magnets. Want a one? Make two magnets point “up.” Want a zero? Make them point in opposite directions. No moving electrons, very little heat, lots of room to cram magnets together. What’s not to like?

While the theory behind spintronic computing is solid, the technology to carry out the theory is still being developed in the lab. For example, C-SPIN researchers are exploring topics such as “What materials are best for recording a magnetic one and zero?” “What’s the most energy-efficient way to switch a one to a zero and vice versa?” “How can spin-based information be easily transferred from one part of a computer to another?”

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Patent roll call, spring 2015

Lightbulb drawing

Patents play an important role in bringing cutting-edge research to the market. By protecting intellectual property, patents allow research breakthroughs to thrive in the market and become solutions to real-world problems.

Congratulations to these University of Minnesota faculty who were recently awarded patents for their discoveries. To learn more about reporting an invention, contact the Office for Technology Commercialization at 612-624-0550 or umotc@umn.edu.

Engineering and physical sciences

Nanoparticles with grafted organic molecules
Inventors: Lorenzo Mangolini, Uwe Kortshagen and Rebecca Anthony

System and method for making metallic iron with reduced CO2 emissions
Inventors: Richard Kiesel and David Englund

Pulse gap cycling for improved SWIFT
Inventors: Curtis Corum, Djaudat Idiyatullin, Steen Moeller and Michael Garwood

Replication of patterned thin-film structures for use in plasmonics and metamaterials (see license)
Inventors: David Norris, Sang Eon Han, Aditya Bhan, Prashant Nagpal, Nathan Lindquist and Sang-Hyun Oh

Wireless communication system having linear encoder
Inventors: Georgios Giannakis and Zhengdao Wang

For more information on licensing engineering and physical sciences technologies, contact Dale Nugent or Eric Hockert.

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Foundation will expand researcher’s spatial data software

Digital world

The University of Minnesota is no stranger to software innovation. Back before the World Wide Web took hold, the U’s invention of Gopher protocol in 1991 allowed users to find and retrieve documents over the Internet in a more easily navigable format than its alternative, the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). More recently, U researchers teamed up with Google to pioneer next-generation smartphone mapping software that can draw 3-D maps just by scanning the interior of a building.

The trend continued in 2013 when Mohamed Mokbel, Ph.D., an associate professor of computer science and engineering with the U’s College of Science and Engineering, created a platform that could handle giant sets of spatial data more quickly and gracefully than anything that came before it. He distributed the software online under the name SpatialHadoop, allowing it to spread rapidly as an “open source” project — one that lets its users freely access and add to its code. Now the Eclipse Foundation, an international organization backed by industry leaders like IBM, Google and Oracle that encourages commercially friendly software development, has adopted the project under the name GeoJinni. Supported by the foundation’s resources, Mokbel’s system will be able to grow and develop in ways that would never have been otherwise possible.

“This software, born through university research, holds enormous potential in opening doors in a field that previously went underserved by the software available to it,” Mokbel said. “I am honored to have the interest of the Eclipse Foundation, whose efforts and resources can help this platform grow much faster. I am intrigued to see how users will apply it to fit their needs in business and in research.”

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