In this third special report from the University of Tulsa, we are joined by Travis Lowe, Assistant Professor of Sociology, who discusses racism and inequality is highlighted in a Pandemic.
In this third special report from the University of Tulsa, we are joined by Travis Lowe, Assistant Professor of Sociology, who discusses racism and inequality is highlighted in a Pandemic.
In this special report from the University of Tulsa, we are joined by Tom Seng, the Director of School of Energy Economics, Policy and Commerce, who shares about the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the oil industry.
Cities and states across the nation are lifting safer-at-home orders, and businesses are taking extra precautions to prepare for the return of customers but cleaning high-contact surfaces and maintaining safe social distance is only the start. Findings by Richard Shaughnessy, director of The University of Tulsa’s Indoor Air Program, show that improving air quality through enhanced ventilation and filtration can decrease the advancement of harmful bacteria and viruses, like COVID-19. “We’re trying to get simple, useful, practical information to the public that they can use now,” he said.
According to Shaughnessy, the virus can be transmitted through both human contact and aerosol transmission. “This virus can survive on smaller aerosols (less than 5 microns in size) in the air for three to four hours, and on surfaces, depending upon the surface, for two to three days,” Shaughnessy explained. “If ever there was a time in history for improved indoor air quality, it would be now,” Shaughnessy stated.
After being confined at home for weeks, residents are ready to shop, visit salons, see movies and eat at local restaurants. “There is an immediate need to identify what businesses can do to supplement social distancing measures, such as improving indoor air quality,” Shaughnessy explained. “These practices go hand-in-hand with other effective approaches such as the cleaning/disinfecting of high-contact surfaces.”
When fighting viruses and bacteria, few businesses consider cleaning the air in their buildings, adding supplemental filtration or upgrading the filtration system they already have established. “All air cleaning requires is making sure that your filters are in place,” Shaughnessy said. “If you have a heating or cooling system, make sure your filters are adequate. Use the highest efficiency filters you can, but remember you only have fresh air filtering through the mechanical system when the system is running.”
For more than 25 years, Shaughnessy’s research has focused on indoor environmental concerns. In the past decade, he has specifically investigated whether illnesses are more easily transmitted because of inadequate ventilation or air filtration. Shaughnessy and his team have conducted testing in commercial businesses, homes and densely occupied environments such as schools and hospitals.
“If you’re relying on your heating and cooling system, you turn it on, and it moderates as a function of temperature. You want to put that fan on, so it runs 24/7. Otherwise, the system may run only 18% of the day and you’re getting little filtration during that time,” he said.
The virus also can be harbored on particles that fall out of the air onto floor surfaces, and Shaughnessy explained that if someone is shedding the virus, tens of thousands of particles from skin can dissipate to the floor. As people step across the floor, the particles are resuspended back into the air where they may be breathed in.
“People do not have to buy gallons of bleach to chlorinate everywhere, which can be extremely hazardous to their health,” Shaughnessy said. “The thing to remember when cleaning surfaces is the virus is very susceptible to common disinfectants, soap and water. This thing isn’t that hard to inactivate and to kill.”
Shaughnessy has shared his expertise across the country and internationally on studies related to COVID-19. More recently, he has provided webinars for more than 2400 researchers and practitioners from state and federal agencies in 40 different countries. He has spoken with media about mitigation and best practices in order to lessen the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“Now is not the time to let down our guard. There is no overnight cure or fix for this virus, just common sense,” Shaughnessy said. “These issues I am bringing up are based on science and research we’ve been doing for years. Let’s accept the virus for what it is and let’s take steps to make it safer — not only to protect workers but also to protect customers.”
The University of Tulsa’s 2020 nationally competitive award winners include a Goldwater Scholar, a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, two Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research Internship recipients and three Gilman Scholars.
Mechanical engineering junior Emily Tran of Broken Arrow is one of 396 students from across the United States to win a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. Students majoring in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering were nominated to apply for the award, which recognizes scientific talent.
In the summer of 2019, Tran worked as a Vanderbilt Institute of Surgical Engineering (VISE) Fellow in the Medical Engineering and Discovery (MED) and Computer Assisted Otologic Surgery (CAOS) labs alongside mechanical engineering alumna Katy Riojas (BS ’16). Tran participated in the design and development of a manual insertion tool for image-guided, minimally invasive cochlear implant surgery. Her summer involved analyzing CT scans, assisting in cadaver trials and designing a phantom model for user and force testing.
Tran said she enjoys this type of research because it is at the cross section of engineering and medicine: “With this type of research, it is easy to see how heavily intertwined they can actually be. After pouring so much work into the research projects, there’s a certain indescribable feeling that comes with seeing the lives of the kids or patients benefit from it.”
Tran also has assisted with Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) projects and served as a student researcher in TU’s Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC). She has been a member of the TU Robotic Mining Crew, the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society and many other organizations and activities.
Working at Vanderbilt opened Tran’s eyes to the direct interaction that often occurs between engineers and physicians seeking to develop life-changing technology. After graduating from TU, she plans to attend medical school and work as a clinical physician. “This experience made me aware of my love for research,” Tran explained. “I will continue working in medical and surgical device research in the future.”
National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
Stephanie Call (BS ’18) of Tulsa is a pre-med chemical engineering alumna currently pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At TU, she participated on the women’s rowing team and expanded her scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills in her senior lab and design classes.
At UMass Amherst, Call will use her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to focus on synthetic biology and genome engineering in bacteria. She uses CRISPR interference (CRISPRi) to engineer E. coli and S. aureus to elucidate the genes associated with cell attachment and biofilm formation on biomaterial surfaces, such as catheters and pacemakers. “By finding these genes and investigating their interactions, we hope to find potential targets that could be used to prevent and treat biofilm infections using targeted antimicrobials and/or antibiofouling agents,” Call said.
After her PhD, Call plans to become a professor and establish her own engineering lab to continue researching and developing new technologies. She also wants to teach and mentor the next generation of engineers and researchers.
Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research Internship
Biochemistry, pre-med student Ritvik Ganguly and John Reaves, a triple major in political science, Spanish and economics, were honored as inaugural Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research program interns. This internship program is offered to U.S. students interested in visiting Canada to undertake advanced research projects in their area of interest. Weeks after the announcement, however, the program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ganguly, of Tulsa, was scheduled to complete 12 weeks of research with a neurosurgeon in a neural repair and regeneration laboratory located in Toronto, Ontario. His project would have focused on human induced pluripotent stem cells that target the microenvironment of spinal cord injuries for the development of a new treatment for traumatic spinal cord injuries.
Ganguly is a Presidential Scholar, Honors Scholar and a member of the TU College Philanthropy Initiative. He plans to attend medical school and pursue a career in internal medicine.
“I believe that the future of medicine relies not only on our ability to innovate in the field of biomedical research, but also on our ability to foster cross-cultural academic exchanges and work together on a global scale,” he remarked.
Reaves, from Fairview, Texas, would have spent his 12 weeks in Winnipeg, Manitoba, helping compile a history of the oil industries in the United States, Canada and Brazil, and using the data to perform economic forecasting.
“I wanted something that would prepare me for whatever line of work I ended up in,” Reaves said. “My eventual career goal is to work for the U.S. State Department.”
Gilman International Scholarship
Meagan Henningsen (sociology) of Tulsa; Manal Abu-Sheikh (psychology) of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; and Paris Clark (international business, Spanish) of Silver Spring, Maryland, were selected to receive the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and supports study abroad opportunities for Pell Grant recipients. Unfortunately, the international adventures for Henningsen, Abu-Sheikh and Clark ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about their global scholarships.
University of Tulsa chemical engineering senior Luis Juarez and chemistry senior Madison Reavis were recently selected to participate in the 25th Annual Research Day at the Capitol in Oklahoma City.
Twenty-two undergraduate students representing 16 Oklahoma colleges and universities were identified to participate in the prestigious event, which was canceled due to COVID-19 health risks. The event is designed to raise awareness of the outstanding undergraduate research at Oklahoma’s colleges and universities.
Reavis’ research is a kinetic study of the non-enzymatic hydrolysis of aqueous l-arginine ethyl ester in vitro. Juarez’s research focuses on electrochemistry, specifically exploring Silicon Dioxide (SiO2), the main component of sand, for potential new optoelectronic technologies.
Research Day is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the Oklahoma Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research Oklahoma (EPSCoR) and Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) recently cited research from The University of Tulsa in a paper titled “Mental health in elite athletes: International Olympic Committee consensus statement.” The paper used research about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and stigma from the lab of Lisa Cromer, an associate professor of psychology at TU.
The research was originally performed as part of the Student Health Athletic Performance and Education (SHAPE), a free program started by Cromer to help student-athletes develop sport psychology skills. Cromer was not personally notified of the citation, but rather discovered it by chance.
“While working on a new manuscript, I wanted to double check a fact, and when I went to the web, this IOC article popped up. I started reading it and then realized they cited a lot of work from my lab, here at TU,” she recalled. “The International Olympic Committee consensus statement is basically a task force from the IOC telling the world about the health of elite athletes, so citing the work performed at TU in a paper about best practices is a tremendous honor.”
One of the citations caught her eye because it was the work of Mitchell Johnson, who was an undergraduate student at the time.
Johnson (BS ’12) was pleased with the recognition.
“When I heard the IOC was citing our work, I was thrilled to see this topic receiving greater attention within athletics, especially from one of sports’ highest governing bodies,” he said. “I expect this topic – the mental health of athletes – to continue to receive more attention at the high school, collegiate and professional levels, and it’s great that The University of Tulsa is contributing to this important work.”
Cromer recounted how Johnson came to work in the research lab. “I tend to have a lot of undergrads in my lab and support undergraduate research,” she said. “In this case, one student that was just a gem in my undergrad classes. He took advantage of the opportunity to work with my graduate students, and together their work was so impactful that now one of the most important committees of sport recognized it.”
Danielle Zanotti (MA ’16, PhD ’19), whose work was also cited, said that the research, in addition to the work of the SHAPE program at TU, is spotlighting an increasingly prevalent issue.
“Collegiate athletes are extremely resilient and high-achieving individuals,” Zanotti said. “However, that doesn’t mean they are immune to mental health issues and in some ways are at a higher risk for developing mental health issues due to the multiple and compounding stressors they face related to academic, athletic and developmental demands.
“It’s an honor to have played a role in several years of research and intervention carried out by the SHAPE research team that has contributed to a growing research base focused on understanding and improving the mental well-being of elite athletes. The citation from the IOC is both an honor and a reflection of the importance of the work that so many people at TU have contributed to.”
Cromer agreed, and said it was not a stroke of luck that work from an undergraduate was cited, but rather a combination of hard work and an environment that supports such research. “This highlights the strengths of TU: small class sizes allow me to get to know each student and his or her strengths; I have my own research lab; and having graduate assistants to help coordinate and support research allows me to publish work, including work with undergrads.”
She added, “I’ve always known I have incredible grad students and undergrads, but times like this show the world how special TU can be.”
The Laureate Institute for Brain Research opened its doors 10 years ago to address one of Oklahoma’s worst health factors, mental health. As scientists and researchers discover the ways in which a person’s mental health is directly linked to their overall physical condition, LIBR, in collaboration with The University of Tulsa, is using new neuroscience tools and resources to answer old questions about Oklahoma’s health crisis.
LIBR was founded by the William K. Warren Foundation when then scientific director Wayne Drevets and five other colleagues from the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., transferred to Tulsa in 2009. Today, the organization includes seven principal investigators (PI) who are faculty within TU’s Oxley College of Health Sciences and have tenure track or tenure appointments in the OU-TU School of Community Medicine. The goal then and now is to conduct neuroscience-based research that will improve the diagnosis or prognosis of individuals with mental illness. LIBR Director Martin Paulus said the institute strives to respect the dignity of each patient while leveraging leading talent and technology to discover the causes of and cures for disorders related to mood, anxiety, eating and memory. “We’re trying to use neuroscience to find better ways to develop mental health interventions,” he said.
When Paulus joined the LIBR staff in 2014, he set a goal to create a large data set that would allow researchers to investigate mental health prognosis and diagnosis through behavioral processes, neuroimaging, neuromodulation, psychophysiology and bioassays. LIBR’s largest research project, the Tulsa 1000 (T-1000) study, began recruiting participants with mood, anxiety, eating and substance disorders to complete more than 24 hours of baseline testing. The 1,000th and final individual was enrolled in 2018 with the goal of determining whether neuroscience-based measures can be used to predict outcomes in patients with mental illness.
Data Analytics Lead Rayus Kuplicki (B.S. ’09, M.S. ’11, Ph.D. ’14) has been heavily involved in the technical setup and analysis of T-1000 since its inception. He said the standardization of this initial data collection at the institute is critical for quality research. “My work has made it possible to take raw data from thousands of participants and compute the quantifiable traits that we compare across groups,” he explained.
Data analysis of T-1000 participants continues and has generated more than 40 scientific papers, currently in progress. TU graduate students in the areas of psychology, engineering and biology contribute to T-1000 research through subsets of data analysis. Biology doctoral student Bart Ford is collaborating with LIBR PI Jonathan Savitz to examine the link between latent viruses and depression. “It is well established that early life stress and childhood trauma increase the risk of physical and mental health problems later in life, but the biological mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood,” Ford said. “Dr. Savitz and I wondered if people who experience childhood abuse and neglect are perhaps more vulnerable to a common latent herpes virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV).”
The virus is usually harmless in otherwise healthy individuals but can weaken the immune system over time. Savitz and Ford studied a group of individuals with major depressive disorder and found that higher levels of self-reported childhood abuse and neglect were associated with a greater likelihood of testing positive for CMV. They then used the T-1000 cohort to replicate the study and discovered the same results with similar effects in size. The findings were published in the prestigious “JAMA Psychiatry” journal earlier this year.
“We interpret this to mean that the stress of abuse and neglect during development may render a person susceptible to a CMV infection,” Ford stated. “This could suggest CMV contributes to later life health problems that are often seen in survivors of abuse.”
According to Savitz and Ford, T-1000 is beneficial in understanding the biological causes, mechanisms and outcomes of mental health disorders, and consequently, can help identify therapeutic targets that will lead to treatments of the sources and after-effects of mental illness.
In addition to T-1000, another primary project ongoing at LIBR is the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) initiative, a study of more than 11,878 children, ages 9 and 10, at 21 different sites nationwide. LIBR researchers have conducted detailed assessments of 743 of the participants. Follow-up visits and scans will continue for 10 years to examine the course of wellness and mental illness during the second decade of life when mental health disorders tend to emerge. One of the first papers the data generated in 2018 was accepted to the journal “NeuroImage” and entitled “Screen media activity and brain structure in youth: Evidence for diverse structural correlation networks from the ABCD study.”
Robin Aupperle is another LIBR PI and assistant professor of community medicine who uses neuroscience and psychological research to improve mental health and gain insight into the causes of anxiety, depression and trauma. She is interested in identifying factors that support resilience to college-related stress and strategies to optimize a student’s psychological well-being. Paulus said meta-analyses show one in three students will develop significant anxiety and depression during their first year of college — a major reason why some students choose to drop out of school. That’s why Aupperle developed the four-week TU Tough program that teaches the skills and mindset necessary for mental toughness to effectively respond to stressful or challenging situations. “This is the idea that our abilities are not set in stone — that we can learn, improve and adapt,” she explained. “Likewise, our ability to be resilient in the face of stress is not hard-wired but can be built and strengthened through practicing certain skills as we seek out and face challenges.”
Aupperle is a mentor to graduate students such as TU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Tim McDermott. His predoctoral training grant application to the National Institute of Mental Health received a qualifying score for funding, which will support McDermott’s research to study the brain circuits underlying people’s ability to manage their emotional reactions. Understanding the brain circuits involved in the processing and regulating of emotions could potentially inform future anxiety and depression treatments. “We will examine whether individuals can learn to regulate their prefrontal cortex activation during emotional processing in response to feedback about their brain activation during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning,” he said.
As an assistant in the TU Tough project, McDermott has led lectures in TU Tough modules and supervised small group leaders during breakout discussions. He also has managed data processing and analysis for fMRI neuroimaging scans performed before and after TU Tough treatment. Prepared by lead author Elisabeth Akeman (BS ’15) as well as Aupperle and McDermott, a recently published manuscript in the journal “Depression and Anxiety” reports findings from the first two cohorts of TU Tough. The research shows students who complete the program (compared to those who did not) experienced lower rates of self-reported stress and depression symptoms throughout their first semester of college, particularly as measured during finals week. Aupperle explained TU Tough is a strong example of LIBR research that can improve the overall mental health of Oklahomans. “By taking measures to improve resilience to stress and mental health among TU students, we are benefiting the community in general,” she said. “Supporting the health and well-being of our students is the equivalent to supporting the health and well-being of our community.”
Other ongoing treatment studies at LIBR use behavioral activation or cognitive behavioral therapy (as part of ongoing studies in Aupperle’s lab) or novel intervention approaches such as the Float Clinic and Research Center led by PI Justin Feinstein. His studies use flotation as an intervention approach to mental illness, providing patients with a way to disconnect with the world and reconnect with signals firing in their bodies. His research was featured on the CBS This Morning’s “Pay Attention” series in 2018.
Paulus is pleased with the substantial data collection, analyses and treatment LIBR has been able to provide to residents within its first decade. Although Oklahoma has a long way to go in improving its overall mental health, he explained LIBR intends to serve as the starting point for large sets of basic health information that support a biotech approach to mental health treatment and diagnosis. “We want to know how far we can develop, how advanced is our research and can we potentially establish startups that can be developed into effective treatments and commercial products,” Paulus said. In one example, LIBR Chief Technology Officer and physicist Jerzy Bodurka, created a way to use a real-time MRI to train a specific part of the brain to give instant feedback on if the training is effective. Paulus explained the training has reduced levels of depression in research participants, and Bodurka now is developing a turnkey system that will allow for scalability of the intervention at any site with MRI imaging capabilities.
Behind every principal or associate investigator stands a team of student researchers eager to get involved, serving as valuable assets for LIBR’s mission. When asked if TU depends on LIBR or if LIBR relies on TU, Paulus said the partnership is unique in that it is based on both concepts; while the institute focuses on quality research, TU is a generator of knowledge. “TU’s primary mission is teaching, but the goal of our faculty is to be top-level researchers,” Paulus said. “The research provides training opportunities for students, and we couldn’t train them if we didn’t have this relationship with TU.”
Close ties to LIBR are an incentive for students, especially those at the graduate level, to choose TU for advanced experience in their field of research. Students are invited to participate in rotations through the institute and contribute to the facility’s mental health mission. Although LIBR’s primary method of research is brain imaging, Paulus said there will be opportunities for additional biology-based research in the future as researchers pursue exciting advancements into the new decade.
This summer, The University of Tulsa is hosting 13 rising high school seniors from the Tulsa area and surrounding communities as TURC Junior Scholars. The program stems from the nationally recognized Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC), which allows standout high school students to engage with tenured and tenure-track faculty in the university’s state-of-the-art laboratories. The Junior TURC program has hosted more than 70 high school students since its establishment in 2012.
Seerut Parmar, a senior at Holland Hall, has been working with Gordon Purser, a TU chemistry professor. The two have taken on a project to determine whether a workout supplement is providing the extra boost that it claims.
Purser explained that the supplement, l-arginine ethyl ester, has been endorsed by athletes for several years, but “we haven’t found any evidence in the literature to support that position.”
As a TURC Junior Scholar, Parmar has the opportunity to look for such evidence or disprove the claims altogether. The high schooler was not shaken by being thrust into an academic environment at the university level.
“I felt prepared coming in,” she said. “I had to adapt and learn things about arginine that I didn’t know, but the people at TU helped me feel included and engaged from the first day. They made the transition from an AP Chem classroom to an actual research project a comfortable one.”
Purser, likewise, had nothing but good things to say about Parmar and the Junior TURC program.
“The high school students do not have the preparation of TU students – they haven’t had organic chemistry here, for example. But they’re also exceptional students from around the Tulsa area, so with very little guidance, they can come into the program and make a big impact. Working with Seerut this summer has been a pleasure. Nobody has been more eager to help and driven to learn.”
As the team continues researching, Parmar is laying the foundation for a potential career. She wants to double major in chemistry and journalism in college, planning a future where she can explore “writing with chemistry, or doing chemistry with writing.”
In the Department of Biological Sciences, Junior TURC scholar David Steichen is working with TU Associate Professor Akhtar Ali on a project about mycoviruses, or viruses that infect fungi.
One of these fungi, Fusarium oxysporum, has destroyed large percentages of cotton crops in Texas and will only continue to spread if no remedy is found. Since cotton is a major cash crop of the southwest, a deadly fungi could significantly damage the economy.
Steichen and Ali are working to prevent this. Their research with mycoviruses is aimed at using these mycoviruses as a control agent to stop the spread of the fungal disease.
As Steichen explained, “We are trying to isolate the virus and purify it, find its specific RNA, DNA and genetic material, then eventually get that into sequencing.”
Doing so would make the cure achievable.
“After sequencing, we would have to make a solution to drip near the root of every plant,” Ali added. “The virus would be transferred by nature. It would be a solution with no pesticides, no environmental pollution and positive long-term effects.”
In other words, Steichen has spent the summer focusing on research that can help the Midwest economy. Come August, he will return to high school at Bishop Kelley to focus on AP tests and choosing a university to attend next year.
Steichen spoke on this dichotomy of high school life versus college research, saying that he finds joy in both and values them for different things.
“I recently took AP Bio and learned about DNA and how it’s sequenced,” he said, “But never had I actually sequenced it. At TU, after watching, learning and asking a lot of questions, I was able to dive into the research, and being immersed in what I’ve studied helped me truly understand it.”
Ali, regarding the Junior TURC program, said, “It’s a pleasure to work with such bright, intelligent high school students that want to engage with a research project such as this.”
While Steichen hopes to pursue more research or a career as a medical doctor, Ali will continue his research on crops, and both of them will certainly help advance their fields.
“This is a great experience to learn as much as I can to work with college research while in high school,” Steichen said. “I’m seeing how research works and getting a clear path of where I want to go.”
The University of Tulsa honored its inaugural group of Outstanding Researchers at spring commencement on May 4. The Outstanding Researcher Award is a lifetime distinction, received only once in an individual’s career. It is intended to honor career-spanning achievements that have been validated in the scholar’s professional field.
These are the 2018-19 recipients:
Rose F. Gamble, Tandy Professor of Computer Science Engineering. Gamble developed a safety and security requirements model that can be embedded and used by a self-adaptive system to intelligently determine the least risky adaptation to deploy at runtime.
Jamie L. Rhudy, Director of the Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology. Rhudy’s research identifies mechanisms that contribute to and/or maintain chronic pain (particularly in Native Americans) and seeks to develop non-invasive methods for assessing individuals at risk for developing chronic pain.
Cem Sarica, F.H. “Mick” Merelli/Cimarex Energy Professor of Petroleum Engineering. Sarica’s research has been disseminated to the public at large through more than 240 publications and incorporated in various software. He has been recognized internationally with several awards by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, most notably with an SPE John Franklin Carll Award in 2015.
Candidates for the Outstanding Researcher awards were nominated by deans from the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Collins College of Business and the Oxley College of Health Sciences. Nominees were selected for their recognition of outstanding research and scholarship achievements based on a single project or a cumulative contribution.
Other considerations included pedagogical awards, honors from scholarly societies, grants, publication citation counts or other forms of public recognition. External recognition of a faculty member’s work also factored into the selection process.
The University of Tulsa will soon improve its interdisciplinary research and training with a new Department of Defense award received by Associate Professor of Computer Science Roger Mailler. The Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP) award, totaling more than $1 million, will allow faculty working in neuroscience to purchase a state-of-the-art scanning confocal microscope that can provide a clearer picture of individual neurons.
“The system will be used like an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), similar to the one used to study humans,” Mailler said. “Instead of measuring how a nervous system produces behavior on a scale of tens of thousands of neurons, this system does it on the scale of individual neurons.”
The microscope will be used to reverse engineer the nervous system of roundworms in ongoing research titled “Choosing a Direction: Neural Models of Decision Making.” In this study, Mailler and a group of TU scientists will investigate how these creatures regulate their speed and direction. Roundworms, or specifically Caenorhabditis elegans, exhibit qualities of autonomy and adaptability. Researchers in this project hope that it will be a stepping stone toward developing advanced, adaptive machines that can recognize and respond to the outside world, also known as intelligent systems.
According to Mailler, “The technology is the most sophisticated technique available, relying on the fusion of genetic engineering, cutting-edge optics and advanced image processing and data analysis.”
The technology can essentially analyze individual neurons and reverse engineer nervous systems using light. This empowers more than just current research projects, but also opens the door to pioneering discoveries in multiple disciplines.
In addition to the benefits to TU researchers, it also affords students the opportunity to train on cutting-edge technology that will set them apart in science, technology, engineering and math fields. This award opens access to one-of-a-kind tools exceeding anything available in the southcentral United States, distinguishing TU as a True Blue institution for faculty and student-researchers alike.