Projects tackle quantum sensing, diabetes drug development, and more
Monday, July 3, 2023

Five projects involving  two dozen faculty members from 13 academic departments will receive funding through the Spring 2023 award cycle of the OVPR Interdisciplinary Scholars program, which is administered by the Research Development Office.

The OVPR Interdisciplinary Scholars program is part of the Seeding Excellence Initiative (SEI), a two-year effort to grow the university’s research enterprise by providing competitive seed awards in strategic focus areas. The SEI was funded in the first year of the Public-Private Partnership (P3).

“The OVPR Interdisciplinary Scholars awards aim to bring together researchers from across campus to study issues that have significant impact on our state, nation, and world,” said RDO director Aaron Kline. “By finding unique ways to partner across departments and colleges, these faculty teams further strengthen areas of excellence for the university.”

The Spring 2023 award winners, who were selected by a panel of faculty reviewers, are:

Thomas Folland, assistant professor, physics and astronomy, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS)

“Infrared sensing at the quantum limit for environmental and process monitoring”

Folland will team up with academics specializing in physics, electrical and computer engineering, and chemistry to develop a prototype quantum sensor that can detect hydrogen and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The Environmental Protection Agency has recently targeted PFAS molecules as persistent chemicals that cause health problems when they accumulate in the human body, and the detection of hydrogen leaks has become extremely important to the developing hydrogen industry. The sensor will leverage the unique mid-infrared fingerprint of both PFAS and hydrogen molecules through quantum technologies and artificial intelligence to detect the parts-per-trillion concentrations required by recent environmental regulations. Creation of the prototype will allow the team to compete for major federal funding opportunities.

Team Members:

Edward Gillan, associate professor, chemistry, CLAS; Scott Shaw, associate professor, chemistry, CLAS; Milan Sonka, professor, electrical and computer engineering, College of Engineering; Fatima Toor, associate professor, electrical and computer engineering, College of Engineering; Ravitej Uppu, assistant professor, physics and astronomy, CLAS.

Brady G’Sell, assistant professor, anthropology and gender,women’s, and sexuality studies, CLAS

“Midwest Connections: Linking narrative-based research to understand the changing Heartland”

G’Sell and a team of scholars will develop Midwestern Connections, an incubator workshop series aimed at integrating interdisciplinary narrative research on the changing cultural composition of the Heartland. By breaking down discipline-based barriers surrounding regional research on campus, the team hopes to generate new work on the Midwest’s unique social and environmental challenges and shape a more effective public discourse. The group will pilot the series with a collaborative projecton African immigrants and sustainable gardening in Iowa, aiming to produce scholarly journal articles, community storytelling events, a website story repository and op-eds. The incubator aims to foster the creation of a Midwest Studies and Stories Institute that builds on the UI’s strength as a top writing university generating cutting-edge research on the Midwest.

Team Members:

David Cwiertny, professor, civil and environmental engineering, College of Engineering, and chemistry, CLAS; Melissa Tully, professor, School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC), CLAS; Rachel Young, associate professor, SJMC, CLAS.

Philip Polgreen, professor, internal medicine-infectious diseases, CCOM

“Understanding the potential adverse health effects attributable to the CF carrier state”

Polgreen will head a cross-campus team studying the health risks associated with carrying the gene mutation that causes cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disorder that causes recurrent respiratory infections and other health problems. While individuals with CF have two defective copies of the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, recent studies have shown that carriers of a single CFTR mutation could be at increased risk for certain health conditions. Polgreen and his team will assess a large cohort of CF carriers and a control group for the risk of CF-related conditions like diabetes, osteoporosis, colon cancer, and respiratory conditions, as well as the environmental and genetic factors that affect these risks. The team will recruit CF carriers from family members of individuals with CF and will develop a machine-learning approach to identify additional potential carriers. Understanding these health risks could help prevent treatment delays and improve preventative measure for the approximately one in 33 Iowans who is a CF carrier.

Team members:

Mahmoud Abou Alaiwa, assistant professor, internal medicine-pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine, CCOM; Bijaya Adhikari, assistant professor, computer science, CLAS; Joe Cavanaugh, professor, biostatistics, College of Public Health (CPH); Alberto Segre, professor, computer science, CLAS; David Stoltz, professor, internal medicine-pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine, CCOM; and Joseph Zabner, professor, internal medicine-pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine, CCOM.

Julien Sebag, associate professor, molecular physiology and biophysics, CCOM

“Iterative chemical optimization of novel insulin sensitizers”

Sebag and a team of faculty from the Carver College of Medicine and the College of Pharmacy will research the next generation of diabetes drugs by identifying and optimizing new molecules that enhance the activity of insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. The progressive loss of insulin response in multiple organs causes type 2 diabetes, which affects about 35 million people in the United States. Currently available drugs work by either increasing the elimination of sugar from the bloodstream or increasing the amount of insulin secreted by the pancreas, and they fail to provide long term control of the disease. The team has screened a library of 50,000 compounds to identify new insulin sensitizers and will use a variety of methods to optimize the activity, bioavailability, and delivery of the molecules.

Team members:

Nikolai Artmyev, professor, molecular physiology and biophysics, CCOM; James Byrne, assistant professor, radiation oncology/biomedical engineering, CCOM; Robert Kerns, professor, pharmaceutical sciences and experimental therapeutics, College of Pharmacy.

Hongli Sun, associate professor, oral and maxillofacial surgery, College of Dentistry

“Novel personalized bioinspired 3D scaffolds for orofacial cleft reconstruction by harnessing endogenous tissue regeneration”

Sun will partner with experts on orthodontics and additive manufacturing to develop a personalized, 3D-printed composite structure to reconstruct orofacial clefts with engineered tissue. Orofacial clefts, a gap in the upper lip or the roof of the mouth, are the most common head and face birth defects and can cause developmental delays, impaired speech, and emotional and social problems in affected children. The current standard treatment is grafting tissue from another area of the patient’s body to repair the cleft, which frequently results in complications. The team will conduct a pilot study to collect data on the feasibility of 3D-printed frameworks inspired by the human body and to develop a technique to create the cell secretions involved in tissue regeneration.

Team members:

Kyungsup Shin, associate professor, orthodontics, College of Dentistry; Xuan Song, assistant professor, industrial and systems engineering, College of Engineering