Public health crises fueled by federal funding cuts

Bacteria abstract

Nothing focuses the mind like a crisis. For several years, many of us in the scientific research establishment have been warning of the potential impact on public health should the federal government continue to cut research spending.

The Ebola crisis has brought new clarity to that argument. As the virus burns a path through Western Africa and threatens these shores, the threat of Ebola – and contagions like it – is forcing the recognition that there is a direct correlation between reduced budgets and reduced treatments.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a [Ebola] vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said U.S. National Institutes of Health Director Dr. Francis Collins in an Oct. 12 interview.

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Q & A with Carissa Slotterback

Carissa Slotterback

It is hard to imagine anyone more suited to engagement work than Carissa Slotterback.

Carissa Slotterback, Ph.D., is associate professor in the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, where she teaches courses in environmental planning, public engagement and sustainability planning. Among other leadership roles across campus, she serves as director of the Humphrey School’s Urban and Regional Planning program as well as director of the Resilient Communities Project, a university-community engagement program focused on sustainability. She is actively involved in interdisciplinary partnerships and projects throughout the U and serves as adjunct faculty or fellow in multiple departments, institutes and centers.

Recently, Slotterback accepted a part time appointment as director of research engagement in the Office of the Vice President for Research. In her new role, Slotterback will help to advance collaborative research throughout the university and facilitate alignment among the U’s multiple strategic initiatives related to research. Among other responsibilities, she will lead planning efforts for the university’s upcoming Convergence Colloquia, a series of events designed to bring researchers together from across the university around specific, interdisciplinary research topics. Slotterback also serves on the Executive Steering Committee for the research strategic plan, Five Years Forward.
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MnDRIVE takes on grand challenges

Made in Minnesota_MnDRIVE

Through a landmark partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state, U researchers and industry partners are working to solve grand challenges across the globe.

MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) aligns university strengths with the state’s key and emerging industries to propel the state’s economy forward, fulfill workforce needs, conserve natural resources and improve human health.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature made a $36 million investment in four university research areas to address issues of societal impact: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving the environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions.
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The wide reach of university research

Twitter word cloud

[Click image to enlarge]

From new technology to better medical practices, university research contributes to nearly every aspect of society.

In June, Inquiry set out to explore just how important research is by posing the question, Why university research? The Twitter community responded with hundreds of examples demonstrating how universities’ scientific and technological advances have addressed global challenges and improved the well-being of society.

The word cloud above pulled the most talked-about research subjects from those tweets to show a small sample of the multitude of subjects that benefit from university research.
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U of M, St. Jude partner to tackle Parkinson’s, depression

Patient care

By Matt DePoint

University of Minnesota researchers and St. Jude Medical are collaborating to treat some of the most challenging and debilitating movement and neuropsychiatric disorders using deep brain stimulation (DBS), a treatment which uses electrical current to directly stimulate parts of the brain. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state that aims to solve grand challenges in areas that align with Minnesota’s industries, including discoveries and treatments for brain conditions.

MnDRIVE’s ongoing partnership with industry leaders will help to achieve its goals for treatments of brain conditions through neuromodulation, a therapeutic intervention that modulates (or changes) the activity of brain circuits to decrease symptoms and improve function.

“We are excited to be collaborating with St. Jude Medical to identify new and better approaches to delivering DBS therapy for patients with Parkinson’s disease, including, for example, changes in how the pulsed electrical stimuli delivered to targets deep within the brain are patterned, or organized,” said Kenneth Baker, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota. “We hope not only to improve the direct response of the motor abnormalities to DBS, but also to improve patient care by reducing technological and surgical burdens, such as battery replacements.” Continue reading

Collaboration seeks to boost renewable energy in Minnesota

Renewable energy

Renewable energies are on the rise in Minnesota, increasingly contributing to the state’s energy supply.

The portion of the state’s energy generated from wind is rapidly growing — up to almost 13 percent today from 3 percent in 2005 — and its solar potential matches portions of Florida and Texas, according to the state Department of Commerce. Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport recently announced a $25 million project to cover two airport parking ramps with a 3-megawatt solar installation that will be the single largest solar installment in the state.

As renewable energies continue to expand, a team of experts at the University of Minnesota are researching new ways to integrate them into the power grid. Using advanced sensors and control systems, the team aims to think about new ways renewables and demand management could be used to boost the power system’s reliability and shift industrial energy demands to lower costs, initially in rural Minnesota where there is already a sizable renewable energy infrastructure in place. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state that aims to solve grand challenges. As a part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the project will bridge multiple research areas, bringing together experts from across the U.

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Treating brain disorders through wearable electronics

flexible circuit
Researchers are integrating printed flexible electronics, like this one, into patches that can automate treatments for brain disorders like tinnitus.

More than 16 million people in the U.S. have severe enough tinnitus to seek medical attention, according to the American Tinnitus Association. Patients with the disorder perceive a continuous ringing or hissing sound in their ears, originating from a network of brain cells that process what the ears hear.

A team of researchers at the University of Minnesota has its sights set on treating the symptoms of tinnitus, the first in a line of neurological disorders — without the need for surgery. These experts, ranging from computer engineers to apparel designers, are working together to develop a groundbreaking new technology—thin, wearable electronics that attach to the skin and deliver low electric currents to specific regions of the brain and decrease symptoms of brain disorders. The project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), a $36 million biennial investment by the state of Minnesota that aims to solve grand challenges. As a part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the project will bridge multiple research areas, bringing together experts from across the U.

While disorders such as tinnitus are centered in the brain, the new treatment researchers are investigating allows for stimulation against the skin on other parts of the body, such as the legs, wrists or arms, providing an alternative to surgical procedures currently being used to treat the disorder, like deep brain stimulation, where doctors must plant an electrical node inside the brain. Continue reading

Q&A with MnDRIVE research leaders

MnDRIVE collage

MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) is a landmark partnership between the University of Minnesota and the state that aligns areas of university strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to produce breakthrough research that addresses our state and society’s greatest challenges.

In 2013, the Minnesota Legislature authorized $36 million to be invested in four university research areas, and after a year of ramping up, more than 120 projects have been funded, 111 people have been hired and 21 patents and licenses for new technologies have been submitted.

As this groundbreaking effort begins to take shape, these MnDRIVE leaders share what they see as their biggest research challenges and their hopes for what the future holds as a result of this ambitious initiative. Continue reading

Addressing grand challenges through transdisciplinary research

Connecting networks

While the word “transdisciplinary” may not be familiar to many outside of academia, the concept has taken root in universities across the U.S. as a way to bring multiple stakeholders and areas of expertise together to address global challenges in areas such as health care, food systems, energy and the environment.

Referenced in the 2013 Arise 2 report, produced by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, transdisciplinary research provides a strategy for advancing scientific discovery in an environment of uncertain government funding, increasing competition among researchers for limited dollars and the emergence of “wicked problems” occurring on a world-wide scale. Transdisciplinary goes beyond collaborative, multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary in that it aims to leverage existing concepts and approaches from multiple disciplines to create new disciplines and new solutions for a rapidly changing world.

Many national models for transdisciplinary research exist. For example, four universities (Harvard, UC San Diego, University of Pennsylvania, and Washington University in St. Louis) participate in the Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer initiative, funded by the National Cancer Institute, to study the complex relationships between obesity, energy balance, nutrition, physical activity and cancer risk. The University of Vermont’s Transdisciplinary Research Initiative is centered on three, major university-wide initiatives in key areas of research strength and impact, and Texas Tech University’s Transdisciplinary Research Academy supports and promotes a range of transdisciplinary research efforts with global reach. Continue reading

Cluster hires pave way for new biology research

DNA chips

When it comes to top research talent, the University of Minnesota is searching the world over.

An article in the Minnesota Daily recently highlighted how the U’s College of Biological Sciences (CBS) is searching across the globe for a number of new faculty members to fill multidisciplinary research areas. CBS aims to use the practice, known as cluster hiring, to bring in the best talent for emerging fields, from cellular biophysics to synthetic biology. Clarence Lehman, the college’s associate dean for research and graduate education, said the approach was a better fit for modern academic pursuits.

“The disciplines in biology that had developed when it was a pure science really don’t apply anymore,” Lehman told the Minnesota Daily. “One has to break them; one has to connect them up.” Continue reading

Harnessing the wind to create sustainable fertilizer

wind turbine in a field

Minnesota farmers send more than $400 million a year out of the state to buy nitrogen fertilizer, most of which comes from outside the U.S. and leaves a hefty carbon footprint.

Now, a team of researchers from across the University of Minnesota has set out to develop a cleaner, more sustainable alternative. Their recipe relies on three abundant resources: air, water and wind.

Coming together under a single project, these researchers are developing a new, wind energy-based production method that allows Minnesotans to produce and purchase renewable fertilizers locally. Their project is part of MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy), an $18 million annual investment by the state of Minnesota that aims to solve grand challenges in four key areas: robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing; global food ventures; advancing industry, conserving the environment; and discoveries and treatments for brain conditions. As part of MnDRIVE’s Transdisciplinary Research Program, the sustainable fertilizer project will bridge several of these areas, bringing together experts from across the U to meet farmers’ demand for fertilizer while vastly reducing the carbon emissions released during production. Continue reading

Art and biology grow new perspectives on life

Enigma flower

Many times, new ways of thinking and viewing our world stem not from deliberate planning, but from happy accidents, sparked from a chance meeting or an unexpected question.

The University of Minnesota’s Office of the Vice President for Research is exploring how serendipity can grant new perspectives and lead to new discoveries and breakthrough research. Through its strategic plan, Five Years Forward, a work group made up of faculty from across the U is looking at ways to create new spaces, tools and opportunities for researchers to come together across departments, colleges and disciplines to think creatively and cultivate new ideas. One of these faculty members, Department of Plant Biology professor Neil Olszewski, Ph.D., can attest to the value of serendipitous collaboration from prior experience.

From 2003 to 2008, Olszewski worked with Eduardo Kac, internationally recognized artist and professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, on a project to create a transgenic flower — one that incorporated genes from another organism (in this case human genes). Their efforts brought together art and plant biology in an unprecedented way. Continue reading