Serendipity sparks new ideas to meet needs of an aging population

Colloquium event photo - Aging

Minnesota’s population is aging. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, the number of adults age 65 or older is anticipated to double between 2010 and 2030. As this portion of the population grows larger, Minnesota will have to prepare for its growing needs, from transportation to nursing homes.

In anticipation of these upcoming challenges, University of Minnesota researchers gathered with experts from industry, community groups and nonprofits Tuesday to explore “Big Ideas and Compelling Issues in Aging,” the second event in the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia series. Over 80 experts from across disciplines and sectors came together to identify some of the most pressing issues related to aging and discover opportunities for new partnerships and programs that can meet those needs.

“Bringing people of different expertise and backgrounds together creates fertile ground for the type of serendipitous thinking that leads to innovation,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “By combining university research expertise with the practical knowledge of industry, nonprofits and community groups, we can create partnerships that have the ingenuity and capacity needed to make a difference.” Continue reading

Serendipity grants target emerging societal issues

Whole world in a laptop

In February, experts, practitioners and community leaders from across Minnesota came together to discuss how their collective knowledge and resources could create more intelligent, efficient and livable communities.

The event, Smart Cities and Infrastructure, was the first of the University of Minnesota’s Convergence Colloquia, which are designed to bring together U researchers and private, public and nonprofit stakeholders to discuss emerging issues in society. These transdisciplinary collaborations aim to engineer the type of serendipity that can only occur when experts from different fields work together to solve a common problem. The colloquia advance cutting-edge research, develop innovative solutions and build long-term partnerships that improve our world.

Throughout the Smart Cities and Infrastructure event, participants worked to identify priorities in research and opportunities for collaboration that could improve the communities in which we live. See the Smart Cities and Infrastructure report for more about the event’s outcomes and next steps. Continue reading

Startup Profile: Minnepura Technologies Inc.

Modern urban wastewater treatment plant

Minnepura Technologies Inc. uses bacteria-based biotechnology to purify water that has been contaminated by chemicals from industrial processes. The company is based on scientific discoveries by University of Minnesota researchers Alptekin Aksan, Ph.D., of the College of Science and Engineering and BioTechnology Institute, and Larry Wackett, Ph.D., of the College of Biological Sciences and also of the BioTechnology Institute.


The U of M-patented technology behind Minnepura uses small, sponge-like silica beads to trap certain types of bacteria in place. The beads, once placed in water, allow the bacteria to eat away potentially dangerous chemicals, naturally breaking these compounds down into harmless, environmentally friendly byproducts. And because the bacteria are contained within silica, scientists can ensure they stay alive and effective for months. Minnepura’s team identifies which bacteria are best suited for removing specific problematic chemicals in water, and then designs silica beads with the right type of bacteria inside to remove those contaminants. The company manufactures these beads for use in industrial and municipal water purification needs.

Potential impact

From industrial waste to agricultural runoff, there are numerous forms of chemical pollution that end up contaminating lakes, streams and groundwater, creating health risks for humans and animals alike. While there is a growing need to remove these chemicals, traditional methods are complex, costly and unsustainable, requiring condensed chemicals to be stored in a landfill as hazardous waste or pumped into injection wells deep inside the Earth. Minnepura’s silica beads provide a natural, low-cost alternative that can be custom-designed for specific chemicals from a wide range of industrial operations. The technology is also flexible enough to use in existing water treatment systems. Continue reading

Crowdsourcing helps researchers analyze large collections

Greek Writing

An emerging trend in research is lending a few extra sets of eyes to researchers in the humanities, astronomy and more.

Crowdsourcing — where volunteers help analyze enormous collections of writing samples, images or videos — is helping researchers understand quantities of data too large for them to handle on their own. At the University of Minnesota, researchers are crowdsourcing select research projects through, a platform started by the Citizen Science Alliance in 2009 to orchestrate the contributions of a growing global community of volunteer scientists who help with ongoing research projects.

Lucy Fortson, Ph.D., one of the cofounders of Zooniverse, brought the platform to the U of M after she became a physics professor with the U’s College of Science and Engineering in 2010. Now, Fortson leads a team from across the U to identify and promote the research projects that stand to benefit from the help of Zooniverse’s volunteers. Continue reading

Probing a planetary system like ours

Artist Conception of HR 8799

An artist’s conception of the HR 8799 system. Gemini Observatory/AURA illustration by Lynette Cook.

The extraordinary sensitivity of the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) in southeastern Arizona has revealed the architecture of a young stellar system whose structure promises to shed light on how our own solar system formed and help answer questions about the number and locations of Earth-like planets.

An international team of astrophysicists, including Professor Chick Woodward of the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics, studied the planetary system called HR 8799, which is only 30 million years old and 130 light-years away, in the northern constellation Pegasus. The findings are the first results from the LEECH (LBT Exozodi Exoplanet Common Hunt) survey and were published April 20, 2015, in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics.

The stellar system has four known giant planets similar to Jupiter. Similarly, our solar system has four “gas giants”: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The HR 8799 system may also have smaller planets closer to its central star.

Continue reading

Low-cost, eco-friendly fertilizers from bacteria

Growing Seed

For the last hundred years, farmers have provided plants with much-needed nitrogen in the form of ammonia fertilizer, which they synthesize through a process that uses natural gas and nitrogen derived from air. While effective, the process has its downfalls: It releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and accounts for 1-2 percent of all global energy use.

Now, a team of University of Minnesota scientists is working on a sustainable alternative. Led by Brett Barney, Ph.D., assistant professor of bioproducts and biosystems engineering with the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, the team is genetically editing a type of bacteria that naturally produces nitrogen to make it produce a much greater amount of the nutrient. That nitrogen, in turn, will fertilize the soil and steadily supply crops with the nutrients they need to thrive. Ultimately, the team aims to develop a new standard for supplying Minnesota’s key crops — like corn and wheat — with reliable nutrition to meet the growing demand for food, while curbing the environmental side effects of injecting ammonia-based fertilizers into the soil.

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

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.”

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.