Matching grad student skills with regional business needs

A group of students works together on a project

Business development, market research, product improvement—these are all top-of-mind for small- and medium-sized businesses looking to grow. And for a few of these businesses, they’re also where teams of University of Minnesota graduate students are lending a hand.

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program, sponsored by the Office of University Economic Development with support from the Graduate School, connects groups of four to five graduate student consultants with Minnesota companies looking to overcome business challenges.

Each group of students is led by an economic development fellow—a grad student who has already participated in the program as a consultant and will now help manage one of the projects, provide mentorship and facilitate communication between the students and their business clients. At the end of each eight- to 12-week project, the fellows report on the project’s economic impact, including how it has helped promote economic development.

For both the fellows and the student consultants, the EDF program provides valuable experience on navigating a business environment, understanding industry partners’ priorities and working in a consulting team—skills they that complement the in-depth learning they already hold within their field of study.

Shawna Persaud, lead economic development fellow and pharmacology Ph.D. student at the U’s Medical School, said the EDF program gives her a unique opportunity to develop project management and leadership skills while solving pressing business problems.

“The exposure to diverse businesses here in the Twin Cities has been a valuable experience and helped me refine my career goals,” Persaud said. “Knowing that I’ve been able to contribute and provide value to our clients while gaining professional experience has been one of the most rewarding aspects of the program.”

A Star Tribune article recently noted EDF consultants’ work with Minneapolis-based startup Aucta Technologies, which is developing noninvasive nerve stimulation technology to help regulate appetite or treat inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. The student consultants assisting Aucta are building a business plan, sizing up the market, and conducting intellectual property research for the nerve stimulation technology to help pave its path to market.

The Aucta partnership is one of the five projects in the program this semester.

Gaining momentum

The EDF program, currently in its fourth project cycle, has quickly hit its stride, and it shows no signs of slowing. The Graduate School recently joined in supporting the program, helping spread the word about it to students, staff and faculty around the University. The results have been substantial—nearly 100 grad students showed up for the kickoff event to learn about the most recent EDF program cycle, with more than 60 of them submitting applications to participate.

“We’ve had more applicants than we’ve ever received before; it’s exciting to see students show such high interest in gaining practical business experience,” said Tim Tripp, UED’s assistant director. “We have also seen businesses benefit from the recommendations student consultants provide to them, in some cases even through a boost in revenue.”

Going forward, Tripp said the EDF program is ready to grow. He plans to reach out to chambers of commerce, venture capital firms and other organizations to recruit more proposals for business projects. And, while the program has already partnered with businesses in areas such as St. Cloud, MN, and Goodhue, MN, Tripp hopes to expand its reaches further outside the Twin Cities metropolitan area and across the state.

“We’re hoping to expand this program and continue the fruitful partnership between the University community and Minnesota businesses,” he said.

Participate in the program

The Economic Development Fellows Consulting Program will recruit the next round of volunteer consultants in May. Sign up for the email list to receive notifications or contact frontdoor@umn.edu with questions.

Companies interested in participating in the program are invited to submit a project proposal.

Workshops share best ethics practices around human research

A participant asks a panel of experts a question during the "Research Partners with Community Members" workshop, part of the U's inaugural Research Ethics Day.

A participant asks a panel of experts a question during the “Research Partners with Community Members” workshop, part of the U’s inaugural Research Ethics Day.

Across the U.S., researchers conducting studies that involve human participants must make decisions that advance scientific progress without sacrificing the welfare or freedom of their participants.

Earlier this month, University of Minnesota researchers came together with experts from across the nation to explore a range of ethics questions related to adults, adolescents and children participating in research. For example, past studies have found some research participants do not fully understand that they are signing up for research instead of routine clinical care.

Through a series of workshops and training sessions hosted by the U’s Human Research Protection Program with support from the Office of the Vice President for Research, attendees learned practical skills to help them navigate issues of informed consent while ensuring a high level of ethical conduct.

The workshops and trainings were part of the U’s first Research Ethics Day, an annual event for learning about and discussing research ethics. In establishing a day to focus on these vital issues, the University joins a group of peer institutions with similar traditions, including Rutgers University, the University of Illinois and the University of Alberta.

Allen Levine, Ph.D., the U’s interim vice president for research, said focusing on ethics provides an opportunity to lay the groundwork for improvements in research practices.

“Obtaining informed consent is a crucial element of any study that involves human participants,” Levine said. “Issues around consent are inherently complicated and challenging. If we are building a strong culture of research ethics, we need opportunities for discussion and learning, and that’s what these workshops and training sessions provide.”

The workshops were part of two days of conferences, collectively called “Frontier Issues in Research Ethics,” that brought together leading researchers, policymakers, scientists, clinicians, bioethicists, and lawyers from across the nation. The event’s panel discussions explored major challenges facing informed consent, such as research involving vulnerable populations, the emergence of new technologies and the recent revisions to federal rules governing research with human participants.

A culture of research ethics

The conferences were the latest part of a University-wide effort to cultivate a culture of research ethics. This effort, which began in early 2015, centers on protecting human research participants, upholding the highest ethical standards and improving research oversight at every step of the process. Since then, the U has implemented more than 60 improvements to its human research protections.

Later this month, the U’s Ethical Oversight Submission System, or ETHOS, will go live. ETHOS, run by the Human Resources Protection Program, is a streamlined, online platform for submitting applications to the Institutional Review Board (IRB) for review and approval. The new platform will make it easier for IRB reviewers and staff to efficiently communicate with the more than 10,000 faculty, staff, and students involved in research with human participants.

Going forward, the University will continue to evaluate ETHOS and other new processes to ensure they help to maintain the highest standards around human research protections.

Photo: Brian Carnell

Capacity-building sets stage for international research partnerships

Herd of sheep near mountains

Researchers at the University of Minnesota will soon come together with their counterparts from across Latin America to improve animal, human and environmental health through collaborative research.

This international network, launched through a two-year International Capacity Building grant from the U’s Office of the Vice President for Research and matched by endowed chair funds from the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety, will serve as the framework for forming new research projects around subjects that can benefit both the U.S. and Latin America. The International Capacity Building funding provides for a project manager to support the development of grants and provide administrative assistance for research projects that focus on promoting aquaculture (farming fish or shellfish for food), supporting livestock health, curbing zoonotic (animal-to-human) diseases and preserving ecosystems, as well as addressing the issues that lie where these four areas intersect.

The transdisciplinary effort will bring together U of M researchers from the colleges of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences; Public Health; and Veterinary Medicine, as well as the corresponding experts from these fields in Central and South American research institutions.

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Bell Museum’s cooked wood highlights niche industry opportunity

Close-up of wooden planks

A few years ago, architecture firm Perkins+Will came to a conclusion while drawing plans for the new Bell Museum of Natural History and Planetarium on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus: it was time to get cooking.

Now, following the architects’ design, workers are covering nearly half of the Bell’s exterior with Minnesota white pine that has been cooked in a giant kiln. The process, called thermal modification, is a chemical-free way to make wood more stable and water-resistant. Workers will finish installing the specialized wood in March, with the Bell Museum itself reopening in summer 2018.

The Bell project highlights an economic opportunity for Minnesota — and one where the Natural Resources Research Institute at the U of M Duluth plays a crucial role. Researchers involved in NRRI’s Wood Products and Bioeconomy initiative, which focuses on helping strengthen Minnesota’s forestry industry in an environmentally sound way, are leading research into the field of thermally modified wood. Continue reading

Bringing new drug therapies to life

A variety of pills

When the prescription drug abacavir, developed in University of Minnesota labs by Robert Vince, Ph.D., gained federal approval in 1998 and appeared on pharmacy shelves under the brand name Ziagen, it gave new hope to those with HIV. Today, the 1.2 million people the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates live with HIV nationwide have access to this treatment.

Bringing a breakthrough treatment like abacavir to the people who need it takes more than a groundbreaking scientific discovery — researchers must also work to refine their new treatments, bring them through clinical trials and help them reach the market.

Today, the Institute for Therapeutics Discovery and Development (ITDD), founded by the  U’s College of Pharmacy in 2007, provides the expertise and instrumentation researchers need to bridge the gap between a compelling pharmaceutical idea and a market-ready drug treatment. The institute is a resource for the over 1000 biomedical researchers at the U of M and Mayo Clinic whose work may lead to the next breakthrough drug therapies. Continue reading

Streamlined system will improve, expedite human research oversight

Man working on laptop

A new online platform, over a year in the making, will go live next month to streamline and enhance oversight of research involving human participants at the University of Minnesota.

The Ethical Oversight Submission System, or ETHOS, is an online platform that allows researchers to submit applications to the U’s Institutional Review Board for review and approval. The system will cater to the nearly 10,000 faculty, staff and students involved in research with human participants, as well as to researchers conducting similar studies at Fairview Health Services and Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare, which both send studies for review at the U’s IRB.

ETHOS, run by the U’s Human Research Protection Program, uses software developed by Huron Consulting Group that has been adapted for use at U of M. Many prominent research universities — including Pennsylvania State University, Northwestern University and Harvard University — use this software to handle submission, review, storage and communication related to studies that need IRB review and approval. Continue reading

The sound of music

Orchestra

Suppose a flute player and a bass player are playing a tune where they must hit notes simultaneously. A new University of Minnesota study suggests that if a high flute note comes a tad earlier than its bass counterpart, the audience probably won’t notice. But if the bass note comes early, they will.

Also, the ability to detect a lack of synchrony between a low note and a high note had nothing to do with whether either note came on the beat; all that mattered was the order in which the notes were played.

The study revealed quirks in how humans process and perceive musical sounds that have evolutionary significance. And because it concerns how the inner ear and brain work together, it could aid in the design of better hearing aids or cochlear implants.

“These surprising results have given us more insight into the complex interactions that occur between the ear and brain when we perceive sound,” says Andrew Oxenham, a psychology professor and study author.

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Highlights from a year of excellence in research

Collage of Annual Report story images

Last month, the University of Minnesota’s annual State of Research report highlighted a research enterprise that continues to grow, driven by greater diversification of funding sources and enhanced public-private partnership.

The report, produced by the Office of the Vice President for Research, also highlighted several ongoing research projects that are advancing knowledge across a wide variety of fields. These efforts are shedding light on youth brain function, boosting computing technology, exploring new mining processes and improving transportation systems.

Below, Inquiry explores each of these projects and their potential to benefit society. Continue reading

MnDRIVE: Innovation drives Minnesota forward

MnDRIVE advances the University of Minnesota’s research strengths through state investment to solve Minnesota’s greatest challenges.

During the current legislative session, the University will request funding from the state Legislature to expand MnDRIVE — or Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy — into four new research areas: fighting cancer, strengthening communities, cleaning water and advancing data.

Check out the video below to learn about highlights from current MnDRIVE research and to find out more about the program’s proposed expansion.

ApoGen receives $7 million investment for cancer therapy

Researcher in a lab

A University of Minnesota startup recently attracted a major investment to support continued development of drug therapies that make cancer treatments more effective.

ApoGen Biotechnologies Inc., launched in October 2014, announced last month that it had received $7 million from life science investment firm Accelerator Corporation to continue developing a new class of drugs that slows the evolution of cancer cells and to move these treatments toward clinical trials. ApoGen is based on discoveries by two U researchers: Reuben Harris, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics; and Daniel Harki, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicinal chemistry. John Santini Jr., Ph.D., is the company’s president and CEO.

Cancer therapies often become less effective over time as cancer cells become resistant to treatment. ApoGen’s drugs are designed to block a key enzyme that causes drug resistance, potentially making current and future treatments more effective. Continue reading

Meet Allen Levine, interim VP for research

University of Minnesota flag outside of a building

Allen Levine, Ph.D., has more than a passing familiarity with the University of Minnesota’s research enterprise — in one capacity or another, he has been connected to the U for more than 45 years.

Levine, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition and adjunct in the Department of Psychiatry, began his role as the U’s new interim vice president for research this week. He previously served as vice provost for faculty and academic affairs, as well as dean of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. As head of the Office of the Vice President for Research, Levine will oversee the University’s $900 million research enterprise across all its campuses and facilities, including the administration of sponsored projects, research compliance and regulatory offices, and offices dedicated to economic development and technology commercialization.

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“In my new position, I look forward to keeping the University’s research enterprise moving forward and preparing the office for its next permanent director,” he said. “Since arriving, I have found the staff at OVPR to be knowledgeable and well suited to the important work they do for the U.” Continue reading

Forty years with tigers

Tiger in tall grass

Tiger at night, caught in a camera trap in Nepal. Photo credit: David Smith.

Few tiger biologists venture into dens to photograph and collect data on cubs. But University of Minnesota tiger researcher David Smith has done it twice, once with the mother just 200 yards away.

Using radio and GPS collars, Smith has tracked tigers for 40 years with one goal in mind: to achieve larger and more secure tiger populations by keeping their prey abundant and their habitat connected rather than patchy. This matters because top predators are critical to ecosystem health.

So are Smith’s graduate students. Most come from Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Taiwan or the Philippines. Degrees completed, they return home and mobilize local people for conservation efforts.

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