Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Research related to COVID-19 continued to receive significant external funding in FY2021, but public and private support also spurred fresh explorations in the areas of medicine, the environment, math, history, the arts, and the humanities. 

Funding also allowed UI experts from a variety of disciplines to apply their knowledge in exciting and novel ways to support Iowa communities. [UI research funding sets new record in FY2021]

New Research Funded in FY21

Wade Aldous, associate lab director at the State Hygienic Laboratory and an adjunct faculty member in the College of Public Health, received grants totaling $30.2 million from the Centers for Disease Control via the Iowa Department of Public Health and other sources to, among other things, explore how the lab’s experience meeting the high demand for COVID-19 testing might be applied in preventing and controlling future infectious disease outbreaks.

A team led by Dawn Quelle, professor of neuroscience and pharmacology in the UI Carver College of Medicine, received $2.7 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to explore the role played by the RABL6A-PP2A cancer pathways in neuroendocrine tumors, or NETs, clinically challenging malignancies whose cases are on the rise. 

Dawn Quelle

“Although tumors grow slowly, they progress relentlessly and lack effective therapies once they become metastatic,” Quelle said. “Greater understanding of mechanisms driving NET progression and metastasis is needed to inform new therapies and improve patient outcomes.”

Quelle and her colleagues discovered the RABL6A-PP2A pathways that promote development of the tumors, but she says there are multiple molecular signals driving this disease that are only beginning to be understood. The NIH funding will help the team explore those mechanisms and test if novel drugs targeting RABL6A-PP2A pathways can effectively suppress these tumors, laying the foundation for future clinical trials in patients.

Elizabeth Stone, a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry, earned a $363,731 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to explore the relationship between bioaerosols and the formation of clouds and storms in a collaboration with colleagues at Colorado State University. Bioaerosols are airborne biological particles, including pollen, fungal spores, and soil bacteria. 

“Winds and thunderstorm updrafts loft biological material from the surface, where they may serve as nuclei for the development of cloud droplets and ice crystals,” according to an abstract of the study. “The materials are then deposited back to the surface. Despite this big picture view, the magnitude of exchange and the impact on cloud processes are still poorly understood.” 

The research team, which will include students and early career researchers, will perform field experiments using drones, balloons, instrumented towers, and surface instrumentation, combined with numerical modeling. They hope to answer a range of questions about bioaerosols, improve weather and climate models, and expand understanding of how allergens are dispersed.

Cristina de Mattos Pimenta Vidal, assistant professor in the College of Dentistry’s Department of Operative Dentistry, received a five-year NIH grant totaling more than $700,000 to study the relationship between caries (a form of tooth decay) and the oral microbiome (the genome of microorganisms that reside in the oral cavity).

Cristina de Mattos Pimenta Vidal

An imbalance in a person’s diet and the acid content of his or her mouth can demineralize dental hard tissues, leading to the development of lesions in tooth enamel and, eventually, cavities. Vidal’s team is working to better understand the genetic processes behind this imbalance, and to find ways to stimulate and regenerate helpful enzymes that can repair dental tissues.

And Anya Prince, associate professor in the College of Law and member of the UI Genetics Cluster, received a $28,626 subgrant from the NIH and Jackson Laboratory to explore the ethical, legal, social, and policy implications of genomic testing in the workplace.

Support for Students, Scholarship, and STEM

Some research-related funding was related to developing and enhancing programming and resources intended to encourage undergraduate, graduate students, and post-doctorates—particularly those from underrepresented groups—to pursue careers in STEM fields and lay the groundwork for future research. Other funding supported the work of current researchers and scholars.

Keiko Kawamuro, professor in the CLAS Department of Mathematics, was awarded $2.1 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand training and research seminars in the department’s geometry and topology group.

“The activities will help postdocs to build successful research careers in academia or industry, will aid in placing more graduate students in academic or research jobs, and will encourage more undergraduates to enter graduate schools in the mathematical sciences,” Kawamuro wrote in a summary of the project.

Keiko Kawamuro

The Roy J. Carver Charitable Trust awarded Randy Nessler, director of the university’s Central Microscopy Research Facility, $600,000 to acquire a new, state of the art laser scanning confocal microscope to replace aging equipment. The microscope allows for the imaging of a large variety of samples, from live cells to sectioned tissues on slides, and is used by researchers in biomedicine to better understand how cells function.

Some of the funding supporting research and development comes in the form of contracts with companies, research centers, and federal agencies. UI Pharmaceuticals, a division of the UI College of Pharmacy that provides contract pharmaceutical product development and manufacturing services, was awarded two new drug supply contracts last year.

For one of the contracts, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences charged UI Pharmaceuticals through the NIH’s Office of Logistics and Office of Administration with evaluating PTH-IA as a candidate for treating Jansen metaphyseal chondrodysplasia (JMC). The extremely rare progressive disorder causes portions of the bones of the arms and legs of young children to develop abnormally and can exhibit as unusually short limbs and stature (known as short-limbed dwarfism).

Stephen Baek, now a former assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering in the College of Engineering and assistant professor of radiation oncology in the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, along with Professor Nick Street and colleagues in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business’s Department of Business Analytics received $1 million from the NSF for their collaboration on a study that seeks to improve the accuracy of medical diagnoses using artificial intelligence. The research will support the NSF Convergence Accelerator, a platform that seeks to remove hurdles related to the safe and secure sharing of sensitive medical imaging data across institutions.

Boost to Arts and Humanities

Research and scholarship goes beyond benchtops and pipettes, and support comes from private sources as well as public funding agencies. The arts in particular benefit from external funding provided by foundations, trusts, and other organizations.

Private gifts from the Reuben and Muriel Savin Foundation last year funded a number of UI arts-related programs and performances, including a visit to Hancher by the American Ballet Theatre on July 4 and completion of the UI Stanley Museum of Art, which is under construction on Burlington Street.

Colin Gordon

Colin Gordon, the F. Wendell Miller Professor of History at the UI, received $60,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities to examine segregation and race-restrictive covenants in St. Louis between 1890 and 1950. The NEH Faculty Fellowship is the nation's most prestigious for humanities scholarship. 

University Knowledge Aids Iowa Communities

Some of the public, private, and COVID relief funding is being used to support and strengthen Iowa communities, provide training, and improve health and wellbeing.

Stanley Museum Director Lauren Lessing was awarded $220,000 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, & Economic Security (CARES) Act for a collaboration with the UI Pentacrest Museums, UI Office of the State Archeologist, and UI Libraries to develop synchronous virtual programs to help seniors and senior living communities in Iowa—populations especially vulnerable to COVID-19 and often underserved in outreach and engagement programs—to increase their sense of connection and engagement. 

UI Associate University Librarian Linda Walton received $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the UI’s continued involvement in the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM), which provides U.S. researchers, health professionals, public health workforce, educators, and the public with access to biomedical and health information resources and data. The UI’s Hardin Library, which serves as the NNLM’s Region 6 base, also awards grants to communities in Iowa and six other Region 6 member states to educate medically underserved populations about everything from diabetes to pregnancy using public speakers and other activities.

Craig Just, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the UI College of Engineering,  will use a five-year, $2.9 million Iowa Economic Development Authority grant to the UI IIHR-Hydroscience and Engineering to assist rural communities in wastewater management. The grant will be used to build and install instrumentation at the Iowa Wastewater and Waste-to-Energy Research Program (IWWERP) Innovation Center and Tech Park, located at the Iowa City Municipal Water Resource Recovery Plant.

IWWERP will provide real-world, pilot-scale data that can be applied by technology developers, the industry, and Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources to advance the state’s ability to treat waste, generate renewable energy, protect the environment, and develop the state’s economy.

And a team led by Allison Bruhn, an associate professor of special education in the UI College of Education, received nearly $1 million from the U.S. Department of Education to address national, regional, and Iowa shortages of special education and school psychologists by better preparing UI students going into those fields to work with school-age children with disabilities and high-intensity needs. The training will include intensive training—including content knowledge and practical experiences—needed to design, implement, evaluate, and adapt interventions.

Cormac O'Sullivan

One of the largest grants in FY2021 went to Cormac O'Sullivan, an associate clinical professor, and Jacinda Bunch, an assistant professor, both in the College of Nursing. The pair received $7.9 million from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust to develop and operate a mobile, dynamic “Simulation in Motion-Iowa” (SIM-IA) educational program for rural first responders, emergency room nurses and physicians, surgeons, anesthesia providers, and hospital staff members.

Modeled after successful programs in Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, and North Dakota, SIM-IA will equip and operate three trucks to provide educational sessions across the state, with the first hitting the road in June 2022.

“The SIM-IA program will be able to simulate just about any healthcare situation, in any aged patient, in any kind of crisis, from a pediatric patient who fell out of a tree, to multiple victims in a car crash, to a pregnant woman delivering her first child,” O’Sullivan said.

Images (from top): Dawn Quelle, Cristina de Mattos Pimenta Vidal, Keiko Kawamuro, Colin Gordon, and Cormac O'Sullivan.