Campus investigators rake in research dollars
University of Montana scientists expended nearly $64 million in external grants and contracts to support UM’s research enterprise in fiscal year 2011. Daniel Dwyer, UM vice president for research and development, says that total demonstrates the continued competitiveness of the University’s research faculty members.
The top five new award recipients for 2011 were:
-- Terry Weidner, the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center, $3.3 million.
-- Andrij Holian, Center for Environmental Health Sciences, $3.2 million.
-- Charles Thompson, Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, $1.8 million.
-- John Kimball, Flathead Lake Biological Station, $1.65 million.
-- Brent Ruby, Department of Health and Human Performance, $1.58 million.
Big grant funds new biomolecular structure center
UM recently received a five-year, $9.9 million grant from the National Center for Research Resources, an entity of the National Institutes of Health, to fund research on physiological processes and diseases from the standpoint of atomic structure, chemistry and physics.
The grant will fund research conducted at UM’s Center for Biomolecular Structure and Dynamics, which is made up of faculty from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Division of Biological Sciences and the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences. The grant also recognizes the center as an NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE).
“This award increases the opportunity for research and training at (UM) by providing salaries for junior investigators and their support staff, as well as funds for essential cutting-edge technology,” says Dr. Barbara Alving, National Center for Research Resources director.
Insights gained from the research will inspire new therapeutic approaches to drug resistance, heart disease, behavioral disorders and viral diseases, says Stephen Sprang, UM program director of the NIH COBRE grant.
It will fund the specific research of four UM faculty members:
-- Klara Briknarova will use advanced spectroscopic methods to understand how viruses employ specialized proteins to invade human cells.
-- Xi Chu will use quantum mechanical methods to learn how physiologically critical enzymes use metal ions to catalyze reactions.
-- Valeriy Smirnov will use state-of-the-art biochemical methods to understand the catalytic mechanism of an enzyme that uses iron to convert the common amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, an important neurotransmitter.
-- Erica Woodahl will use biochemical and spectroscopic methods to understand how certain transporter proteins alter the therapeutic effect of drugs and how this information can be used to improve drug development.
“The most important immediate impact of COBRE funding will be to accelerate the research of four talented young investigators on this campus and to provide resources to help UM recruit first-rate faculty at the forefront of biophysical and biomedical research,”
By providing support for common core facilities at UM, COBRE funds also will enhance scientific collaborations with UM’s Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience and the Center for Environmental Health Sciences, both of which also have been awarded funding as COBRE centers.
Major award will aid children in Indian Country
The federal Administration for Children and Families recently announced that the National Native Children’s Trauma Center at UM and its partners have won a $3.2 million grant to apply cutting-edge research to the problems of child abuse and neglect in Indian Country. The award is one of five such grants in the nation.
The work will benefit at least three reservations in Montana during the next three years, bring pilot programs to three more reservations elsewhere in the nation and ultimately serve as a model for similar work throughout Indian Country.
“This award will allow us to forge key partnerships that will fundamentally change how agencies and institutions serve the deserving children in these communities,” says James Caringi, co-principal investigator and professor at UM’s School of Social Work. “Research nationwide has assembled vast knowledge about identifying and treating childhood trauma resulting from abuse and neglect. This grant allows us to effectively deploy this knowledge in communities that need it.”
The center at UM has been a pivotal player in the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for eight years, helping compile evidence directed at the effects of abuse and neglect on children. Until now, the center’s work has been concentrated in schools, delivering evidence-based interventions for problems rooted in trauma such as alcohol and drug abuse, delinquency and teen suicide. The new grant, however, will allow that focus to expand by moving beyond schools to involve child and protective service workers, parents, extended families and foster parents.
NNCTC will provide these key players with background training in the latest epidemiological and psychological findings that indicate child abuse and neglect lie at the root of the nation’s most important social problems.
“One landmark study, for instance, demonstrated that the effects of child maltreatment often last well into adulthood and are a direct cause of major health problems like obesity, heart disease and lung disease,” says Rick van den Pol, the project’s other co-principal investigator and director of UM’s Institute for Educational Research and Service. “We must intervene because abused children, on average, die 20 years earlier than the rest of us, according to one study.”
National research, however, also has developed a proven list of low-cost and effective interventions that allow recovery and resilience. NNCTC will train in these methods and ensure systems of delivery are in place and functioning during the grant’s first three years.
Finally, the work will train child welfare workers in recognizing and treating secondary traumatic stress, the burnout and compassion fatigue that can plague caregivers who face these problems daily.
All of this work will rest on a series of key partnerships and collaborations, including with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, state welfare and education agencies and tribal government on reservations that agree to participate. For this major project, NNCTC also has partnered with the Butler Institute for Children and Families at the University of Denver’s School of Social Work and has assembled an advisory council of national experts to support implementation and oversight of the project.
Sensors beneath Arctic ice to study climate change
UM chemistry Professor Mike DeGrandpre and his partners have been awarded a $926,000 National Science Foundation grant, which will fund placement of carbon dioxide and pH sensors in the perennially ice-covered portion of the Arctic Ocean.
The sensors will be placed on ice-tethered profilers to be deployed by DeGrandpre collaborators John Toole and Rick Krishfield of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Ten CO2 and pH sensors in six locations will be placed just below the ice by drilling holes through the ice.
Data will be transmitted back to Woods Hole in Massachusetts via satellite, where it can be viewed as the sensors drift with the Arctic ice pack. More information on the ITP instruments is online at http://www.whoi.edu/itp.
The ITPs will be part of a larger Arctic Observing Network, in which sensors of all kinds are used to document changes in the Arctic.
“With global warming we are seeing less summer sea ice, and the sea surface is warming and freshening,” DeGrandpre says. “This changing physical environment is altering the carbon cycle in the Arctic Ocean.”
He says it’s unknown whether carbon sources and sinks will change and whether these changes will lead to increased CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere, causing further warming.
The sensors also will measure the penetration of human-produced CO2 in the Arctic Ocean, which leads to acidification with potentially fatal consequences for many organisms. The sensors will document changes in the CO2 cycling and ocean acidification in the Arctic during the next three to four years.
The CO2 and pH sensors will be customized for deployment in the Arctic by Missoula’s Sunburst Sensors, a company co-owned by DeGrandpre and spawned by his UM research. The research project also will support development of an exhibit highlighting climate change effects on the oceans at spectrUM Discovery Area, an interactive science center for children in UM’s Skaggs Building.
USDA awards highest honor to UM wildlife professor
UM wildlife biology Professor Dave Naugle recently received a 2011 Secretary’s Honor Award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for his work on the agency’s major sage grouse conservation initiative.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack presented the annual award — the department’s most prestigious — to Naugle, his colleague Tim Griffiths and their 33-member team at a ceremony held Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C.
As a USDA science adviser for the agency’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Naugle helped develop and implement its Sage Grouse Initiative over the past year and a half.
“It’s exciting to watch Dave help the USDA use science to guide farm bill conservation that mutually benefits ranchers and wildlife in Western sagebrush grasslands,” says Dan Pletscher, UM Wildlife Biology Program director.
|Many factors in recent years, including subdivision and oil and gas development, have led to a decline in the sage grouse population so drastic the bird qualifies for listing as an endangered species. The initiative Naugle helped spearhead aims to conserve core breeding grounds for the highest density of sage grouse while simultaneously helping rural, private landowners make a living – a win-win strategy for agriculture and wildlife, according to Naugle. The initiative targets priority areas for conservation within 186 million acres across 11 Western states with funding from existing farm bill resources.
“The key to success is NRCS’s shared vision of achieving world-class wildlife conservation through sustainable ranching,” Naugle says. “Helping Western ranchers maintain large and intact grazing lands is the best way I know to maintain our wildlife legacy for future generations.”
Funding boosts Big Sky Brain Project for kids
The Big Sky Brain Project, a collaboration between UM’s Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience and spectrUM Discovery Area, recently received a five-year, $1.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The grant, awarded by the NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, will fund a neuroscience learning center called the Brainzone that will feature four hands-on exhibits, a computer lab and a working laboratory aimed at increasing science literacy and interest among K-12 students.
UM will work with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to develop the Brainzone, which will be housed in a future spectrUM location off campus set to open in the fall of 2013. The Brainzone also will be incorporated into spectrUM’s mobile science center that travels to schools across Montana, including many in rural and tribal regions.
Michael Kavanaugh, director of the Center for Structural and Functional Neuroscience, worked with Holly Truitt, spectrUM director, to secure the grant. Kavanaugh says the project is a result of a long-term partnership between his center and spectrUM. The two also are collaborating with other local organizations, including Missoula County Public Schools and Community Medical Center, to bring the Brainzone learning experience to thousands of K-12 students in Montana and around the country.
“One of the unique goals of the project is to expose kids to ‘real life’ neuroscience research and teach about career opportunities in the fields of science, technology and medicine,” Kavanaugh says. “So in addition to the world-class exhibits, we will host a working laboratory with the involvement of UM faculty, including neuroscientist Sarah Certel and clinical neurologist Tom Swanson.”
Campus earns funding to study biomass
Two new grants place UM on the forefront of efforts to use forest biomass to help replace fossil fuels.
First, three College of Forestry and Conservation professors were awarded a $1.1 million USDA grant as part of a research team investigating how to turn forest biomass into an alternative energy feedstock.
The project, part of the U.S. Forest Service’s Biomass Research and Development Initiative, will involve faculty members Woodam Chung, Christopher Keyes and Tyron Venn. Each will work on a component of the project over the next four years.
“This research will really help energy providers and the public make important decisions about how and where to efficiently use biomass as an alternative to fossil fuels,” Keyes says.
Chung develops spatial models to show where biomass feedstock is located, the various land management objectives across ownerships and the best transportation network for getting the feedstock to a processing facility. Keyes will conduct a long-term study on the effect of biomass harvest for overall forest productivity. Venn studies the economics of deploying woody gasification technology at sawmills to produce biofuels and bioproducts.
With the other grant, UM’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research will receive $500,000 during the next five years to conduct logging-use studies in the Pacific Northwest.
The project is part of a $40 million grant awarded to the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance, a group trying to make wood-based jet fuel and petrochemical substitutes economically viable. Headquartered at Washington State University in Pullman, NARA includes a broad consortium of scientists from universities, government laboratories and private industry.
“I am honored and excited to be invited to participate in this project,” says the BBER’s Todd Morgan. “We will learn a great deal about the regional viability and sustainability of a woody-biomass fuel industry, and I’m glad UM will play a role in gathering and sharing that knowledge.”
UM science department celebrates 100 years
UM’s Department of Physics and Astronomy celebrated its 100th anniversary with a research conference, reception and observing night on Sept. 30.
“It is an honor to think that we are carrying on a tradition of teaching physics and astronomy at UM that has been ongoing for 100 years,” says Andrew Ware, department chair.
“We were lucky to have a distinguished group of alumni return to UM to tell us about their current work.”
The department honored the milestone with an alumni research conference that included Hilary Martens, California Institute of Technology graduate student; David Westerly, University of Colorado-Denver assistant professor; Brent Buffington, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission specialist; and Ahmed Diallo, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory scientist. That was followed by a reception and observing night at the Blue Mountain Observatory.
Technology magazine honors UM for innovation
UM recently joined the likes of Duke, Penn State, Purdue and Pepperdine as winners of a 2011 Campus Technology Innovators award. UM’s Academic Planner, a homegrown Web application that helps students plot short-term course schedules and develop long-term academic strategies, was deemed one of the 10 best innovations in higher education out of 393 nominees.
The awards are presented annually by Campus Technology magazine, a monthly publication focused on the use of technology in higher education.
Academic Planner provides advanced search tools to help students sift through hundreds of University course offerings and create primary and alternative course schedules. Jon Adams, lead programmer on the project, says the most popular feature of Academic Planner is an interactive visual calendar. Students can simply mouse over search results and see how each course would fit into their schedule.
The first version of Academic Planner was released in 2009. Since then, 12,600 people have logged in and used the tool.
While Academic Planner was developed by UM’s Information Technology office, Interim Chief Information Officer Loey Knapp credits more than two dozen people serving on advisory groups for guiding the development and evolution of the tool. The Office for Student Success also played a key role in the development and adoption of Academic Planner, Knapp says.
“They did the project an enormous favor by seeing the value in it and adopting it,” she says.
UM Office for Student Success Director Sharon O’Hare says that an early prototype of Academic Planner convinced her that the tool had great potential.
“It allows students to develop a specific pathway for four-year graduation,” she says. “And it gives them the ability to play with ‘what-if’ scenarios and what it would mean to take different paths.”
Scientist discovers ancient coral fossils in Nevada
A team of researchers led by UM geosciences Professor George Stanley Jr. found fossil corals in central Nevada representing the oldest occurrences in North America of ancestors of modern reef-building species.
The team found annual bands in the coral’s skeleton, allowing them to accurately measure growth rate and to make comparisons with living reef-building species. The comparisons revealed nearly identical results.
The discovery provides the most unequivocal evidence to date for the presence of photosymbiosis among the earliest corals some 230 million years ago and long before coral reefs with modern corals evolved, Stanley says.
“We live in a symbiotic world,” he says. “Photosymbiosis is a process whereby microorganisms live inside and benefit a host animal. This process is best exemplified in corals, the master builders of reefs, whose fast growth rates and improved nutrition are attributed to symbiotic algae.
“In fact,” he says, “we wouldn’t have modern or ancient reefs if it weren’t for photosymbiosis, and photosynthectic algae and corals account for the success of reefs, which today are key players in global climate change.”
Stanley says it may well be that the symbiotic algae, not the corals, are the real masters of the reef, because discovery of photosymbiosis among ancient corals in the Nevada site pushes the origin of this important relationship to the Middle Triassic period, about 20 million years earlier than previously thought.
The research, which was published in GeoScience World’s journal Palaios, was selected earlier this year to be featured in BioOne, a global, free access site that brings together scientific societies, publishers and libraries to provide access to critical, peer-reviewed research in the biological, ecological and environmental sciences.
Research sheds light on modern human origins
An international team that includes UM researcher Jeffrey Good studied DNA from a 30,000-year-old finger bone found in 2008 in the Denisova Cave in southern Siberia, Russia. The scientists discovered previously unknown connections that occurred among the ancient ancestors of modern human populations.
The team, led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, sequenced the nuclear genome of the bone that came from a female of a group of hominins – a term used to refer to humans and their recent ancestors – in Asia who shared an ancient origin with Neanderthals but had a distinct history. The researchers call this group of hominins the Denisovans and published a paper about their findings in Nature.
Some members of this same team, including Good, sequenced the genome of the Neanderthals and published their results in Science. This earlier work indicated that Neanderthals exchanged genes with the ancestors of present-day Europeans and Asians. In contrast, the Denisovans did not contribute genes to all present-day Eurasians but do show genetic evidence of interbreeding with the ancestors of Melanesians.
Good, an assistant professor in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences, says the research shows the genetic interactions of our ancestors may have been much more complex than previous scientific studies have shown.
“These two studies have transformed our view of human population history,” he says. “In the span of one year, the study of ancient DNA has allowed us to identify a previously unknown and potentially widespread group of extinct humans and to determine that there were likely multiple instances of interbreeding between ancient hominin groups living in Europe and Asia and the ancestors of present-day Eurasians.
“Our results suggest that 2 to 3 percent of the genomes of all present-day Eurasians derive from Neanderthals and that an additional 4 to 6 percent of genetic material in present-day Melanesians comes from Denisovans,” Good says.
The sequencing of genomes from the extinct Neanderthals and Denisovans are major technological feats made possible by recent advances in DNA sequencing and years of research on the study of ancient DNA, Good says.
“It is really exciting to think about what we might find next,” he says. “There certainly is the potential for many more surprises in the coming years as researchers sequence more genomes from the fossil remains of other archaic hominins.”
Study challenges assumed climate change effect
UM researchers, with colleagues from the University of Idaho and the University of California, Davis, have completed a study that challenges a widely held assumption that vegetation will move uphill in response to climatic warming.
The results of the study were published in an article titled “Changes in Climatic Water Balance Drive Downhill Shifts in Plant Species’ Optimum Elevations” in Science. They are based on two unique datasets of vegetation surveys collected across the mountain ranges of California — the first in the 1930s and the second in the 2000s.
“These data sets provide us with an unprecedented view of the large-scale distributional changes that have occurred for vascular plants in the past 75 years in California,” says Assistant Professor Solomon Dobrowski of UM’s Department of Forest Management.
The study is the first to report widespread downhill shifts in elevations of plant species because of climate change. Researchers who participated in the study with Dobrowski are UM graduate student Shawn Crimmins, the lead author, and UM research analyst Alison Mynsberge; UI Department of Geography Assistant Professor John Abatzoglou; and UC-Davis Center for Spatial Technologies and Remote Sensing Project Scientist Jonathan Greenberg.
“It is widely believed that as global temperatures increase, species will shift their distributions uphill or away from equatorial latitudes in order to take advantage of cooler temperatures,” Dobrowski says. “There is evidence for this for some species, but the pattern is not universal. The assumption that temperature is the principal factor defining species’ distributions ignores the fact that many species, including plants, are constrained by energy and water availability.”
The new research shows that plant species’ optimum elevations in California have moved downhill by about 80 meters (about 262 feet) between the 1930s and 2000s, despite widespread and substantive increases in temperature during the 20th century.
“We demonstrate that plants within our study region are tracking changes in climatic water balance — the balance between the amount of water that is lost to evaporation and the amount of water that is available from precipitation — as opposed to changes in temperature,” Dobrowski says.
Increases in precipitation in California during the 20th century have outpaced increases in evaporative demand, and this has led to increased water availability across the northern half of the state. Consequently, Dobrowski says, plants are able to maintain adequate water supplies at lower elevations than they were previously capable of, and this has led to downhill shifts in their distributions.
“Forecasts of species response to future climate change are alarming in that they predict widespread extinction and range-shifts for hundreds of plant and animal species,” he says. “Much of this research assumes temperature is the dominant driver of species distributions.
“Our study demonstrates that in some cases actual elevation shifts under warming conditions may be counter to widely held expectations but can be mechanistically explained by accounting for coupled climatic constraints on species distributions.”
The findings have global implications, given that regional increases in climatic water balance have been identified elsewhere in the northern hemisphere.
“Many locations north of the 45-degree latitude have experienced increased precipitation over the past century,” Dobrowski says, “and global climate models generally predict these locations to become wetter over the next century.”
Message from the Vice President
UM works to enhance its research enterprise
UM science highlights from the past year
UM's Window on Space
Researchers help NASA reveal secrets of the solar system.
Planting New Ideas
UM ecologist promotes concepts of plant community interdependence.
Researcher maps earthquake zones to help those at risk.
Historian reveals UM's role in river restoration.
Scientist finds fascinating relationships between insects and one-celled stowaways.
UM professor's company seeks answers for deadly diseases.
Diabetics in study burned fat faster.
Mechanics of Movement
New University researcher studies limits of 'the human machine.'