How lions became social

Lake Pride - Photo By Craig Packer

Photo credit: Craig Packer

Cats have a well-deserved reputation for independence. From tabbies to tigers, they hold individual territories. But lions are a glaring exception.

Lions’ habit of living socially in prides has long been viewed as an adaptation to life on the African savanna, where grass dominates the landscape and resources like game, water and shade trees tend to be found in clumps.

Now, work led by Anna Mosser, a teaching assistant professor in the College of Biological Sciences, indicates that it was a combination of the savanna landscape and certain behaviors that drove the evolution of lions’ social living. The work is published in Behavioral Ecology.

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Center to advance sensory research across disciplines

Making a hearing test

As older adults continue to make up a larger portion of Minnesota’s population, sensory loss related to aging — which includes problems with unsteady balance, poor vision and hearing loss — is becoming a greater challenge. Sensory deficiencies can cut people off from their social and physical environments and limit their quality of life.

A coordinated research effort to help older adults retain their sensory capabilities and age healthily is one focus of the University of Minnesota’s new Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science. CATSS, which opened earlier this month, will bring together world-leading experts in the sensory sciences to tackle the problems faced by millions with sensory deficits and will translate this cutting-edge research into devices and therapies that can improve quality of life for those affected. The transdisciplinary center will bring together 50 faculty from across five U of M colleges, including biomedical engineers, speech and language experts, vision surgeons, movement researchers, and ear, nose and throat doctors.

The center and will also serve as a hub for partnership with industry and the community, and will conduct outreach to inform the public about state-of-the-art technology and rehabilitation options for those with sensory deficiencies. Continue reading

MSI Beta experiments with new technologies

binary background

A key tenant of design thinking is rapid prototyping — the idea that testing a new idea early and often in an environment that supports and learns from failure is crucial to driving innovation forward.

Now, the University of Minnesota is bringing that same concept to high-performance computing. As part of its goal of advancing research, the U’s Minnesota Supercomputing Institute launched a new program July 1 that aims to give researchers and staff a chance to try a variety of new and experimental computing technologies, including visualization, data mining and big data systems. The program, called MSI Beta, allows MSI to investigate technologies in an environment that embraces failure as part of the discovery process and supports the development of novel applications that have the potential to accelerate research at the U.

“Universities are known for finding new ways to work with cutting-edge technology,” said Claudia Neuhauser, Ph.D., interim director of MSI. “It is important for the U of M to have exploratory, low-stakes environments like MSI Beta to let us try, fail and learn from the experiment. This program will ultimately outfit MSI with more tools and knowledge to better help university researchers push the boundaries in their fields.” Continue reading

U alumni channel entrepreneurship experience into startup

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Before a small startup team overshot its Kickstarter goal by almost $600,000 and garnered widespread interest in their smart water bottle technology, they were University of Minnesota students honing their knack for entrepreneurship through mentorship opportunities and experiential learning.

Hidrate Inc., a Minneapolis-based startup led by CEO Nadya Nguyen, is now working toward releasing a high-tech water bottle that tracks the amount of water its users drink during the day and reminds them when it’s time to drink more. Nguyen and her team of fellow U of M alumni — Alexandra Feeken, Alexander Hambrock, Coleman Iverson and Daniel Worku — plan to launch their product at the end of the year. They have already generated buzz in publications like Wired, Fast Company and Business Insider and spurred more than 8,000 Kickstarter pledges. But in many ways, their entrepreneurial spirit began before Hidrate, during their undergraduate years at the U.

“We learned to get to the core of what the customer wants and understand how they find out about products,” Nguyen said. Continue reading

U among leaders in federally named med-tech partnership

Medical Equipment

Minnesota has a long history of leadership in the medical device world. In 2013, the state ranked first nationwide in medical patents per capita and second in medical device manufacturing employment, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce recognized that leadership by naming Minnesota’s medical technology sector one of the nation’s 12 Manufacturing Communities, a designation intended to support best practices and economic development strategies through access to federal aid. The University of Minnesota is among the leadership team for a coalition formed around this designation called the Minnesota Medical Manufacturing Partnership. The MMMP includes nonprofits, economic development groups, higher education institutions and state government organizations, all of which were convened by the economic development group Greater MSP.

“The university’s long history of expertise in developing new medical technology makes it a natural fit for this partnership,” said Maura Donovan, executive director of the U’s Office of University Economic Development. “Overall, this effort is a great example of how Minnesota can identify its key industry sectors and leverage them in creative new ways to spur economic development across the state.” Continue reading

Precision farming targets major threat to soybean crops

Drone at sunset

Over the last 15 years, farmers across the U.S. have faced a daunting challenge. The soybean aphid, an invasive species first reported in the U.S. in 2000, has flourished on farms. These tiny yellow insects can destroy up to 40 percent of a soybean field when left unchecked. This is bad news for Minnesota, where soybeans are the top export crop and farmers produce 3 billion bushels of beans a year, according to the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers is working to give farmers better tools and techniques to protect their crops from pests like the soybean aphid. Using high-tech robotics and sensors and computer modeling software, the team aims to develop faster and more efficient methods of monitoring crops that help farmers make informed decisions on exactly when and where to apply pesticides. The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges.

Demoz Gebre-Egziabher, Ph.D., lead principal investigator on the project and associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics with the U’s College of Science and Engineering, said greater precision when spraying for pests is crucial for farmers. Applying pesticide too soon could end up killing the aphids’ natural predators, which then allows the aphids to grow out of control. Waiting too long, on the other hand, lets the aphids reproduce freely and take over the crop.

“Optimizing pesticide application is a complex science,” Gebre-Egziabher said. “We’re developing a cost-effective way for farmers to collect data from the field, process it and come up with an action plan for how to curb their crop loss without spending too much on treatments.”

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U invests $4 million in research infrastructure

Gold Schematic

The University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research has announced the recipients of its 2015 Research Infrastructure Investment Program, which helps maintain the robust, state-of-the art equipment key to propelling research and innovation.

The awards, which totaled over $2 million from OVPR and were matched one-to-one by funds from the supporting colleges or centers, are a one-time investment in university research infrastructure designed to ensure crucial research facilities and support services on all campuses are viable and up-to-date for cutting-edge research. The program, which impacts researchers in at least five colleges and 12 centers and institutes, supports transdisciplinary research and encourages collaboration across the U’s colleges and campuses.

Thirteen proposals were chosen for funding, ranging from a new 3D bioprinting facility that uses living tissue to create transplantable organs to an expansion of the Multisensory Perception Laboratory, where researchers can measure audio-visual perception in a variety of simulated environments.

Visit Research Advancement to learn more about the projects selected.

Researcher alert: New subaward invoice payment process

Recent changes to federal research policy outlined in the Uniform Guidance have had ripple effects across nearly every aspect of grant administration across the U.S. and at the University of Minnesota. Some of the most significant changes have been related to managing subawards (subcontracts). In March, Sponsored Projects Administration released a PI Quick Guide to help researchers and grant administrators better understand and respond to the new subaward guidelines.

One outcome of the new Uniform Guidance subaward guidelines has been updating the university’s subaward invoice payment process. The new system is meant to expedite the payment approval process and make it easier for PIs to keep track of the status of subaward invoices on their sponsored projects. On-screen instructions provide quick and easy reminders about how to use the new system, but here’s a snapshot of how it works:

  • The SPA subaward system sends an email to the principal investigator (PI) inviting him/her to approve a subaward invoice (Click here to see a sample of the email that PIs will receive.)
  • The PI is prompted to open and review the subrecipient’s invoice. If everything is correct, the PI clicks “approve.”
  • If the invoice isn’t correct, the PI can notify SPA that there is a problem and that additional work is needed before the invoice can be paid.
  • Once approved, the invoice will route back to SPA staff for final review and payment.

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Resilient communities: Q&A with Rolf Weberg

Ore Docks and Harbor in Duluth

Rolf Weberg came to the University’s Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) in Duluth in the spring of 2014 following a successful 25-year career at DuPont in global research and development. His graduation from the University of Minnesota Duluth in 1982 led to a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1986 before he launched his career.

Weberg has tremendous enthusiasm for NRRI’s unique mission of sustainable natural resource management and economic development for resilient communities. And that enthusiasm is reaching out across the University of Minnesota, the state, even the globe. Fresh from a trip to Germany with Minnesota legislators to learn about new energy opportunities, Weberg effuses about NRRI’s opportunities.

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Smart bioremediation to clean water, protect wild rice

Lake shore with mirror smooth surface

What does wild rice mean to Minnesotans?

For some, the crop is a food source. Others see it as an economic value to the state, which is among the nation’s leading producers. The crop is also a cultural resource for the state’s tribal communities, and it’s a habitat for the region’s waterfowl.

Despite its important and iconic role in the state, however, wild rice crops are threatened in regions where Minnesota’s water contains too much sulfate from natural sources and from industrial sources like mining, road building, water treatment and agriculture.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers from the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses are now working together to design and develop smart technology that will more efficiently and cost-effectively lower those sulfate concentrations, helping keep the water clear of pollutants and providing a clean, healthy environment for wild rice to grow.  The systems, which will use naturally occurring bacteria and operate on renewable energy, will function year-round to clean Minnesota’s water and protect this critical natural resource even in remote locations.

The project is part of the state-funded MnDRIVE Transdisciplinary Research Program, where researchers from different departments work beyond the limits of their disciplines to address complex challenges. Continue reading

Students lead research into emerging aquaponics industry

Aquaponics system

In Minnesota, an emerging industry is starting to capture the attention of crop growers, fish processors, distributors, restaurants and many others. Aquaponics — a year-round way to grow aquatic animals and plants in the same system — lets growers produce food locally and sustainably, and it’s on the rise. There are now more than 40 aquaponics producers in the state, up from only three in 2010.

There’s just one problem with growing aquaponically: Even the growers themselves aren’t sure how best to do it.

In response to the need for more knowledge in aquaponics, a team of University of Minnesota faculty developed a new undergraduate course called “Aquaponics: Integrated fish and plant food systems,” which set students to work discovering industry challenges and researching solutions. The course debuted in spring semester this year as part of a larger collaborative effort, which includes research projects and continuing education opportunities, to position Minnesota as a national leader in the field of aquaponics. Backed by funds from the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), the effort brought together experts from fisheries and wildlife, veterinary medicine and aquaculture, horticulture and plant sciences to form a team of experts to help inform and guide an emerging industry. Continue reading

2015 Minnesota Futures awards aim to boost human health

Solution concept

Medical research brings about the breakthroughs in technology that allow people around the world to lead longer, healthier lives.

This year’s Minnesota Futures grants include two projects that are pushing to improve human health by developing new approaches to disease treatment. The two-year grants, provided by the University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research, fund research opportunities that cross disciplinary and professional boundaries and support in-depth research that aims to address society’s grand challenges.

Here are the 2015 award recipients. Continue reading