MnDRIVE program catapults undergraduate researcher to national stage

Undergraduate researcher Tamirat Ali

By Deirdre Manion-Fischer

Tamirat Ali spent last summer growing fungi in Jonathan Schilling’s lab at the University of Minnesota. He was studying ways to mitigate climate change by measuring the ability of fungi to capture methane. The technique, called biofiltration, relies on fungi to capture pollutants and bacteria to degrade them. While other research has focused on optimizing bacterial degradation, Schilling and Ali suspected they could find a more efficient fungus to optimize methane capture.

Over the course of the summer, Ali injected methane into glass vials containing tiny blocks of wood inoculated with fungi. Twenty-four hours later, he measured the decrease in methane. One type of white-rot fungus (Ganoderma lucidum) used in traditional Chinese medicine worked better at capturing methane than the species widely used in bioremediation (Pleurotus ostreatus). His success earned him a competitive travel award to attend the Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference where he presented his results in Washington D.C. earlier this month.

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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.

Developing data science tools to study how the brain works

fMRI scans

A team at the University of Minnesota aims to give researchers a better set of tools for exploring how the brain functions.

In a recent study, an interdisciplinary team of researchers investigated ways to better analyze the data that results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a technique that records images of brain activity over time. While fMRI holds enormous potential for neuroscience research, researchers need new ways to interpret the fMRI data as a network of activity between different regions of the brain.

The study, published in IEEE Computer this month and funded by the National Science Foundation along with a MnDRIVE Fellowship in Neuromodulation, investigated different methods for analyzing and modeling fMRI data. The study’s goals align with the White House’s BRAIN Initiative, launched by the Obama Administration in 2013 which aims to revolutionize our understanding of the human brain. Continue reading

U named Udall Center of Excellence in Parkinson’s research

A network of neurons

University of Minnesota researchers have received a major grant that will amplify efforts to develop new treatments for complex and debilitating brain disorders.

Today, the University was named a Morris K. Udall Center for Excellence in Parkinson’s Disease Research by the National Institutes of Health. The designation provides $9.07 million over the next five years to establish a Udall Center at the University and fund multidisciplinary research that aims to reveal the fundamental causes of Parkinson’s and improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with the disease. With its new designation, the U of M joins nine other centers at research institutions across the country.

Jerrold Vitek, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the University’s Department of Neurology, will lead the Udall Center. His team will collaborate with world-class researchers from across the globe, bringing together some of the brightest minds in Parkinson’s research. Continue reading

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.

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Expanding MnDRIVE research at the U

Over the past two years, MnDRIVE—Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy—has allowed the University of Minnesota to further develop areas of research strength and work directly with industry partners to advance innovation. The $36 million recurring investment by the state of Minnesota targets four key research areas (brain conditions, robotics, environment and global food) that address grand societal challenges.

Each of the four research areas has had significant successes across the University system and has also worked collaboratively with the other areas through transdisciplinary projects. Notable accomplishments by participating faculty and staff across all areas include:

  • Leveraged $76 million in external funding from private, public and nonprofit sources
  • Submitted disclosures for 143 new inventions and launched three startup companies
  • Engaged more than 225 external partners, including 3M, Boston Scientific, Syngenta, Tonka Waters and Toro
  • Hired 442 faculty, students, fellows and staff
  • Published 1,500 research papers Continue reading

MnDRIVE technologies move beyond the lab

Since its inception, MnDRIVE (Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and InnoVation Economy) has fueled a multitude of research projects, all with the common goal of finding innovative solutions for grand challenges that fall within four research areas.

Along the way, the cutting-edge technologies developed as part of these projects are moving beyond the lab to become actual inventions. To date, nearly 180 MnDRIVE-related intellectual property disclosures have been filed with the University of Minnesota’s technology commercialization office. These disclosures mark the first step in moving inventions beyond the lab. Included within these are 50 disclosures stemming from transdisciplinary research and 28 that have included graduate or undergraduate student researchers.

“The mission of MnDRIVE is to enhance quality of life and economic vitality in Minnesota and beyond,” said Brian Herman, Ph.D., the U’s vice president for research. “The program has proven effective in developing innovative, practical technologies, which have the potential to further Minnesota’s leadership in key industries and promote prosperity across the state.” Continue reading

U participates in national ‘smart’ fabrics initiative

The University of Minnesota is fast becoming a leader in the field of wearable technologies and smart fabrics. Pioneering researchers have been laying the groundwork in developing wearable electronics, including this recent multi-disciplinary collaboration to treat tinnitus, a vexing brain condition, with a flexible, electronic patch.

Now, the University of Minnesota is part of a $317 million public-private partnership to develop the next generation of “smart” fabrics and fibers that incorporate technology to create innovative new tools and products in a range of high tech fields, from medical devices to transportation to consumer products and smart clothing.

The partnership, named Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), will be led by MIT and includes dozens of academic and industry partners. Mechanical engineering professor David Pui and assistant professor Julianna Abel from the U’s College of Science and Engineering are lead researchers for the initiative at the U of M. Abel was hired in the fall 2014 as part of the state-funded MnDRIVE, Minnesota’s Discovery, Research and Innovation Economy, initiative. One of the focus areas of MnDRIVE is robotics, sensors and advanced manufacturing.

Read the press release

Boosting bioreactor technology to limit farm runoff

Kansas Creek

Some farmers across the Midwest have installed bioreactors to help stop nutrients in agricultural runoff from washing into nearby lakes, rivers and streams. By filtering drainage water through a trench filled with woodchips or a similar material, these systems take advantage of naturally occurring microbes to break down nitrogen compounds and improve regional water quality.

There’s just one problem with this low-cost, easy-to-maintain technology: It isn’t very efficient, and scientists do not understand it well enough to improve it.

A team of University of Minnesota researchers is now studying the microbial mechanisms behind bioreactors to discover how to make them more efficient at removing nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff. Led by principal investigator Carl Rosen, Ph.D., head of the U’s Department of Soil, Water and Climate, the team has constructed a 360-foot-long, field-scale bioreactor in Willmar, Minn., to measure the way different variables affect the system’s efficiency. The project’s initial funding came from the MnDRIVE Advancing Industry, Conserving Our Environment research area, with additional support from Discovery Farms Minnesota. Continue reading

Exploring gut bacteria’s role in disease and human health

Family having a meal

For as long as humans have been around, the normal function of their intestinal tract has relied on the complex interplay of trillions of microscopic organisms, which in turn thrived off of the food we ate. Now, through pressure from modern diets and medicines, that longstanding partnership may be falling out of balance.

Dr. Alexander Khoruts, medical director of the University of Minnesota Microbiota Therapeutics Program, highlighted at a recent lecture how some of the growing health challenges we face today could stem from the changing composition of the microbes in our intestines. Microbes constitute an integral part of the human body and interact with it in complex ways. Recent research suggests that the diversity of microbes in people is shrinking and this may be causing significant health problems in our population. “The Evolving Human Microbiome,” hosted by the U’s Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment and the Life Sciences on Feb. 17, explored the ramifications of our bodies’ changing microbial communities.

“We’re discovering that these microbes are important for our health and for disease,” Khoruts said. “For the most part, it has been a mutualist relationship — what’s good for them [the bacteria] is good for us. But these relationships can go wrong.” Continue reading

VP Herman: Federal budget plan’s research boost a good start

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Research VP Herman

University of Minnesota Vice President for Research Brian Herman applauded the vision behind a 2017 federal budget plan released yesterday that would increase funding for research into major environmental, health and societal challenges. The additional funding, part of the $4.1 trillion overall spending plan President Barack Obama has sent to Congress, includes a government-wide investment in research and development that would help fuel discovery at public research institutions around the country.

“President Obama’s final budget plan provides a good starting point for ensuring that we at the University of Minnesota, along with other research universities, can continue to generate new knowledge and develop innovative ideas and technologies to tackle society’s greatest challenges,” said Herman. “Although the University of Minnesota is moving to a more diversified portfolio for research — in part to deal with long-term uncertainty around federal funding for research — funding from federal agencies still comprises more than half of sponsored research performed by our scientists and investigators. Continue reading

UAV flight system, used at NASA, getting major upgrade

For most people, testing out a computer system means pulling a chair up to a desk. For Brian Taylor, it means craning his neck upward and watching it soar through the skies.

That’s because Taylor and his team of aerospace researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Uninhabited Aerial Vehicle Laboratory, which also includes the contributions of about 10 graduate students and 15 undergrads at any given time, are creating the next generation of research aircraft flight control system. The lab, part of the College of Science and Engineering, is continuing development on its “Goldy” system, which serves as the brain of professional-grade UAVs (or drones) used for scientific research and allows researchers to pilot the aircraft from the ground, collect data as it flies and process that data into useful information.

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