Students gain STEM experience as interns in MnDRIVE labs


The Multisensory Perception Lab, part of the Center for Applied and Translational Sensory Science, can study audio-visual perception in a variety of simulated environments.

This summer, five undergraduate students gained valuable laboratory experience while contributing to MnDRIVE-related research at the University of Minnesota.

Two MnDRIVE research areas — Brain Conditions and Environment — partnered with the North Star STEM Alliance to offer the internship opportunity. North Star STEM, part of a network of similar programs funded by the National Science Foundation, provides academic support, undergraduate research and professional development to underrepresented minorities in Minnesota working toward bachelor’s degrees in the fields of science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) fields.

While this is the first year MnDRIVE Brain Conditions has partnered with North Star STEM on internship opportunities, MnDRIVE Environment had two summer interns in 2015. North Star STEM director Anne Hornickel said interns who have participated to date have benefited greatly from working with faculty and graduate students on research both in the lab and in the field.

“Opportunities to do research in the MnDRIVE program immerse our North Star STEM Alliance students in cutting-edge science and engineering relevant to Minnesota’s quality of life,” Hornickel said. “This mentoring builds research skills and also guides the students toward their next professional steps after graduation.”

Below, Inquiry asks two of this summer’s interns about their experiences in the program.

Chinwenwa IhemeCI

Internship: MnDRIVE Environment, lab of Satoshi Ishii, Ph.D., assistant professor with the Department of Soil, Water and Climate and the BioTechnology Institute.

Education: Junior at the U of M, interested in medical lab science and biological sciences.

Hometown: Imo State, Nigeria.

What sparked your interest in science?
I have been interested in doing science and lab work since middle school. Where I grew up in Nigeria, the school was science-focused, so that really influenced me in what I wanted to pursue.

What was your role in Satoshi Ishii’s lab?
I worked with anaerobic and aerobic denitrifiers. Denitrification is the reduction of N2O to nitrogen gas. It occurs naturally by bacteria in a place with little or no oxygen, but since our environment has lots of oxygen, we measured the rates at which aerobic denitrifiers reduce N2O in the presence of oxygen. This project came up because N2O gets emitted into the environment and that causes the greenhouse effect and acid rain.

What were your findings with this research?
We found that bacteria reduce N2O in the presence of oxygen slower than in the absence of oxygen. The next step is discussing how to apply these findings in farming.

What was the most challenging part about conducting this research?
The most challenging part was when I was taking an account of the rates at which N2O was reduced to nitrogen gas. I was working with a microsensor, which measures the concentration of a gas. Calibrating it can be very sensitive and how you keep it in storage is very sensitive — mistakes can ruin your data. Getting comfortable with that equipment was more challenging than any other part of the research. It took me about two weeks to be sure that the data I was getting was right.

How did this experience help prepare you for a STEM-related degree and career?
This was my first research experience in a lab. One thing Prof. Ishii challenged me to do was to make decisions on my own, to face challenges independently. That’s one thing I loved about the experience — it makes me much more confident about going into a lab and knowing how to carry out an experiment.

Sandra OseiSO

Internship: MnDRIVE Brain Conditions intern with the lab of Evelyn Davies-Venn, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Speech-Language-Hearing Sciences.

Education: Sophomore at the U of M, majoring in neuroscience.

Hometown: Woodbury, Minn. Originally born in Ghana, Osei relocated to the U.S. in 2003 and has lived in Minnesota since.

What sparked your interest in science?
I was a curious child. Growing up, I was always interested in science — specifically, animal- and human-related topics in science. I was just so intrigued by findings and discoveries that sparked innovation in new technologies and developments that went to further human life and standard of living. As a child, my parents heavily encouraged me to stick with the sciences, and to further my education in a science field of my choice.

What was your role in Evelyn Davies-Venn’s lab?
I was involved in a project testing a prototype hearing device on participants with hearing loss. This device included hearing aids and a wireless microphone that amplified nearby noise. My day to day activities involved me setting up the sound proof booth for testing. I would have the participant sit inside the booth, place the hearing aids in their ears and then place the microphone in one of three different directions. In each of these three directions I would play recorded speech and a babbling background noise, then ask the participant to relay the speech back to me. This would allow for me to see how well the microphone picked up on the speech despite the babbling noise.

What were your findings with this research?
The findings are still being processed. As of now we can see that the microphone did a very good job in concentrating on the speech from the iPad in the midst of loud and noisy environments. It correlates well with my hypothesis that the microphone would zone in primarily on wherever it was steered toward.

What was the most challenging part about conducting this research?
The most challenging part about this research was consistency between each participant and how you tested them. For example, keeping a consistent volume on the iPad we were using for speech.

How did this experience help prepare you for a STEM-related degree and career?
This experience helped me immensely in familiarizing myself with research in the STEM fields. It taught me about punctuality, about carrying out procedures with participants and about working with others within the same field. I learned that things will not always be perfect or end up the way I want, but I should keep trying and find new ways and routes to take around each roadblock.

Interviews were edited for length and clarity.

MnDRIVE is a landmark partnership between the University and the state of Minnesota that aligns areas of University strength with the state’s key and emerging industries to advance new discoveries that address grand challenges.

Venture Center launches record 17 startups in FY16

The University of Minnesota announced today that it launched a record 17 startup companies over the past year based on discoveries and inventions by its researchers.

Launching new companies is one of the primary ways the University turns cutting-edge research discoveries into commercial products that fuel the economy and contribute to the public good. The 17 startups include 14 in Minnesota, with 13 of them in the Twin Cities metropolitan area and one in Duluth.

The FY16 record follows a milestone accomplishment in early June, when the University’s Venture Center announced it had launched its 100th startup since its founding 10 years ago, with 82 percent of those companies still active. A part of the Office for Technology Commercialization, the Venture Center matches intellectual property resulting from university research with experienced CEOs to provide a platform for that research to reach the public.

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Leader in research administration receives field’s top honor

A longtime leader in research administration at the University of Minnesota has been recognized with her profession’s top honor.

Pamela Webb, associate vice president for research, received this year’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research Administration from the National Council of University Research Administrators. The award recognizes Webb’s significant contributions to the field of research administration, as well as the time, knowledge and service she has provided to NCURA itself.

Pamela Webb

Pamela Webb

Webb has been involved in research administration for 32 years, with responsibilities including pre-award and post-award non-financial sponsored project services, research compliance oversight, negotiation of facilities and administrative (F&A) rates, effort reporting, and export controls. She has also worked with technology transfer, conflict of interest, animal subject tracking systems, and human subject policy and procedure. Continue reading

Fall 2016 Grant-in-Aid competition

The University of Minnesota’s Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship Program promotes the research, scholarly and artistic activities of faculty and supports academic excellence throughout the University. Administered through the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Grant-in-Aid program provides seed funding for a wide range of projects in five funding categories.

Timeline to apply:

Aug. 22, 2016        Start accepting applications
Sept. 19, 2016       Deadline for applications to be routed to approvers
Sept. 22, 2016       Deadline for approvers to submit final applications to OVPR

Visit Grant-in-Aid to learn more about the funding categories, eligibility requirements, how to apply and see samples of some exemplary proposals.

Questions? Contact the Research Advancement office: or 612-625-2356.

Improved method will enhance microbiome research

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have developed an improved method for analyzing the communities of bacteria and other microorganisms that live on or inside humans, animals and the environment.

Understanding how these communities, called microbiomes, affect the way a body or ecosystem functions can lead to innovations in a wide variety of fields, including new treatments for antibiotic-resistant diseases, eco-friendly fertilizers for agriculture and natural methods for removing contaminants like sulfates from local waterways. More accurate ways to detect different types and concentrations of microorganisms will lead to better, more reliable data in the rapidly expanding field of microbiome research.

The research team, led by U of M Genomics Center Director Kenneth Beckman, Ph.D., highlighted in a study published in Nature Biotechnology that better methodology will lead to more results that can be reproduced and that translate across studies, along with fewer misleading conclusions. Continue reading

Research explores autism prevalence among children

How common is autism spectrum disorder among children? Recent studies show that’s a complex question, and the answer can vary significantly by variables such as geographic location, race and cultural group.

Now, University of Minnesota researchers are working on a large-scale effort to better understand how autism prevalence varies across communities in the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (MN-ADDM), led by the U’s Institute on Community Integration, will study up to 3,500 records from across a group of 20,000 8-year-olds across Hennepin and Ramsey counties to track the rate of those with autism as well as those with intellectual disabilities, which researchers suspect may correlate with autism among certain demographics.

The Minnesota project, which started in early 2015, is the latest addition to a national network of ADDM sites established and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor autism prevalence in regions across the country. Continue reading

Industry experts, public invited to tour U research labs

Interested in exploring a few of the University of Minnesota’s world-class research facilities?

Next week, the U’s College of Science and Engineering and Office of University Economic Development will hold an open house of 10 research facilities specializing in materials analysis, molecular analysis and device fabrication. Register now to tour research facilities, speak with subject matter experts, discover ways to connect with collaborators, and learn about access to services and research equipment.

All are welcome to attend, from industry R&D experts to those who just want to learn more about research at the U. After checking in at the Physics and Nanotechnology Building at 115 Union St. SE. on the East Bank Minneapolis campus, visitors are welcome to come and go as they please. Continue reading

Research ethics — a responsibility of the University and individuals alike

ResearchEthics_InquiryBlog version2

The University of Minnesota is a research university dedicated to the advancement of knowledge. Our research enterprise is premised on the idea that our faculty, staff and students will pursue the truth and allow the data to speak for itself. It also relies on researchers conducting their work in ways that respect the rights and interests of people participating in their studies, as well as the community in which those people live.

As I indicated in a note to researchers this month, faculty, staff and others have made an immense effort to strengthen human research protections across the University. There is a great deal of that work in motion right now, and, as part of those efforts, we are launching a University-wide research ethics campaign, one that includes posters, digital communications, events and other activities to promote and build awareness of the University’s principles, policies and processes that support and require ethical research practices. Continue reading

IRB recognizes departing members’ years of service

East Bank, University of Minnesota

The University of Minnesota’s Institutional Review Board recently recognized the contributions of its departing members, whose time, experience, expertise and insight have helped ensure the protection of research participants and uphold the ethical conduct of human research.

The IRB acknowledged its 12 retiring members’ collective 125 years of dedicated service, which these members performed in addition to fulfilling their other professional duties and obligations, both at the U and other organizations. Over the past year, the members’ important contributions were exemplified in their work laying the foundation for a new IRB model that would guide the University in its renewed commitment to protect every research participant, uphold the highest ethical standards and improve the U’s research practices at every step.

Congratulations to the members listed below, who have completed their service to the IRB. An asterisk (*) indicates that the retiring member will temporarily work to support the board’s transition to a new model, helping to ensure its success. Continue reading

Investing in nature pays off

Qutang Gorge, Yangtze River

China’s rapid economic growth has taken a toll on its environment, threatening the work that ecosystems do for free in the form of “ecosystem services” that benefit people. For example, healthy ecosystems store carbon, filter nutrients to provide clean water, prevent erosion, mitigate floods and sandstorms, and provide habitats that preserve biodiversity.

In 2000 China began investing in the restoration of its ecosystems to increase its “natural capital.” By 2009 the country had spent more than $50 billion on the effort. Writing in a recent issue of Science, a panel of researchers—including the U’s Stephen Polasky, Regents Professor of Applied Economics—reports a favorable result. Six of seven ecosystem services improved during the decade 2000-2010, and China’s ecosystem-restoration policies likely contributed significantly to four: carbon sequestration, soil and water retention, and sandstorm mitigation.

Polasky, along with coauthors from the United States and China, says the Chinese experience shows that improving ecosystem services can coexist with economic growth—a lesson that could be applied in other countries, including the United States. Also, its benefits ought to appeal to parties on both sides of the political divide.

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Studying the heart, hands-on

Usually, saying a heart is beating out of its chest is just an expression.

For researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Visible Heart Laboratory, however, that phrase has become more literal. One of the lab’s main features is a living, beating pig heart that has been removed from its original body for researchers to better study how it functions. The lab is led by Paul Iaizzo, Ph.D., professor of surgery with the U’s Medical School, and supported by Medtronic Inc. Its research ranges from cellular and tissue studies to those involving whole bodily organs.

Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research, recently visited the lab to learn more about the work of Iaizzo and his team. Here is a glimpse into the visit:

MN-REACH seeks health care innovators for fourth funding cycle

Various colorful medicine capsules

Researchers who have developed cutting-edge medical technologies or pharmaceuticals can soon apply for funding to help bring those discoveries to market.

The University of Minnesota’s MN-REACH program, part of the National Institutes of Health’s Research Evaluation and Commercialization Hubs, is now entering its fourth funding cycle to help commercialize new med-tech and pharma inventions. MN-REACH aims to improve health care by fostering the development of breakthrough lab innovations — such as therapeutics, preventatives, diagnostics, devices and software tools — into products that create health, economic and societal benefits.

Researchers can submit pre-proposals from Thursday, July 14 through Friday, Aug. 12. Funding is available in the range of $10,000 to $150,000 per project. See the list of projects selected for MN-REACH funding during Cycle 1 and Cycle 2. Awardees of Cycle 3 grants will be announced later this month. Continue reading