UMD Division of Research Announces Summer Tier 1 Awards

UMD Division of Research Announces Summer Tier 1 Awards

The Division of Research is pleased to announce the seven recipients of the Summer Tier 1 Awards.

The awardees represent a diversity of fields of study, and were selected from a record-breaking 28 applicants. Tier 1 Awards, made possible by Designated Research Initiative Fund (DRIF) faculty incentive funds from the Vice President for Research and individual units, support new research directions with the potential to attract funding, shape scholarship, impact society, and bring visibility to the UMD research enterprise.

Research abstracts for this summer’s awardees are listed below. A list of all Tier 1 awardees since the program began in 2009 are posted at http://research.umd.edu/development/faculty-incentive.

Library Lanterns: Illumination to Improve Literacy and Neighborhood Safety
Ronit Eisenbach, School of Architecture

This project explores the role design can play to improve quality of life, build cultural assets, and support environmental sustainability in underserved communities. Carroll Avenue/Quebec Terrace (CAQT) is an underserved neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland that suffers from poor environmental illumination, which creates a sense of vulnerability and contributes to crime. In addition, weak literacy and language skills limit opportunities for children and immigrants. The Library Lantern Project seeks to address these two issues simultaneously through the literal and metaphorical thread of illumination. The Library Lantern concept is a mash-up of the popular Little Free Libraries, DPLA’s Open eBooks, and an illuminated solar-powered bollard freed from conventional infrastructure constraints. Prof. Eisenbach will lead a team of lighting, fabrication and literacy experts, in partnership with Arts on the Block, YMCA, CAQT community members and the National Digital Public Library of America to design and test this concept. Funds support 1) research, design and fabrication of two prototype lanterns placed in the new LightScape Garden; 2) development of appropriate literacy content; 3) a pilot program to assist residents in adopting the Library Lanterns in their community; and 4) evaluation of the prototype with a future goal of scaling up to a neighborhood-wide installation and study.

Developing an Activation Tagged Poplar Population for Functional Dissection of Nitrogen Homeostasis
Gary D. Coleman, AGNR/Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

A challenge for biomass-based energy systems is the development of sustainable systems from marginal environments that removes land-use competition between food and biomass production. These production systems will also need to maximize biomass yields with reduced production inputs to minimize environmental impacts. Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) is a key trait of sustainable biomass production, especially in marginal environments. NUE is the culmination of physiological and metabolic processes that impact N uptake per unit of root mass, N partitioning and allocation, N retention and internal cycling, and enhanced function at lower internal N concentrations. Poplars (genus Populus) are fast-growing trees and valuable as a bioenergy crop. Poplar is dioecious (each plant is either male or female) and requires years to reach reproductive maturity; making unfeasible forward genetic approaches, such as mutagenesis, to study NUE. In this project, a population of gain-of-function mutations will be generated via activation-tagging using an approach that specifically targets genes and pathways that govern the regulation of seasonal nitrogen storage, a key factor contributing the NUE. This novel population of poplar will provide a resource for functional identification of factors that regulate this physiological process.

Resistance through diversity: Understanding Salmonella phenotypic plasticity and decision making in response to antimicrobials
Shirley Micallef, AGNR/Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Every year, 93.8 million illnesses due to the foodborne pathogen Salmonella occur globally, a million of which are in the United States. Salmonella associated with the consumption of contaminated fresh produce crops is on the rise, with all types of food plants, such as fruits, vegetables, leafy greens and nuts, being implicated. Salmonella may have evolved strategies to use plants as alternative hosts to survive environmental transitions and as a vehicle to re-enter herbivorous animals. Although harsh environmental conditions can injure bacteria and impair fitness, phenotypic plasticity in Salmonella may aid this pathogen to survive environmental stressors such as desiccation, ultraviolet radiation and antimicrobials. Using a molecular and microscopic imaging approach, we propose to investigate Salmonella adaptive traits which allow it to form different morphotypes and exhibit variable growth characteristics in response to stress. The findings from this study will support an external proposal to the USDA that will develop and evaluate innovative, effective detection and disinfection methods for use in the fresh produce industry, to improve food safety and public health.

The Molecular Mechanism and Architecture of the Methylosome
Nicole LaRonde, CMNS/Chemistry and Biochemistry

The methylosome is a large molecular machine that decorates proteins with methyl groups to impart important biological outcomes. This function is necessary for proliferation of certain cancers. The multi-component complex contains four copies of PRMT5, the methyltransferase, and RIOK1, an enzyme that cleaves ATP. RIOK1 brings protein targets to the methylosome and uses ATP in the process. One of these target proteins, Nucleolin, is important for the production of new ribosomes, or protein synthesis machinery, in the cell. The role of RIOK1 is poorly understood in this context, and we hypothesize that it acts as a molecular switch utilizing ATP hydrolysis to promote substrate recycling on PRMT5. We will undertake an ambitious project to determine the currently unknown atomic resolution structure of the methylosome containing all its known components: PRMT5, MEP50, RIOK1 and Nucleolin. This project will begin with the structure determination of the complex using cryo-Electron Microscopy (cryo-EM). This technology, along with our expertise in X-ray crystallography and biochemical techniques, will allow us to produce a comprehensive picture of the molecular architecture and mechanisms of the methylosome. Armed with this new information, we will have a roadmap to allow modulation of methylosome activity for beneficial therapeutic outcomes.

A Novel Approach to Solar Energy Using the Plasmoelectric Effect
Jeremy Munday and Marina Leite, ENGR/Electrical and Computer Engineering

Global power demand is currently ~18 TW, and a majority of the power generation comes from fossil fuels. Alternatively, the sun delivers ~120,000 TW at the earth’s surface (significantly more than will ever conceivably be needed); however, in the US only about 1% of our electricity is provided by solar. Given solar energy’s potential, there is a need to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of devices by exploring new mechanisms for energy conversion from the sun. Here, we propose to use the plasmoelectric effect, involving the generation of an electrostatic potential in a metal upon optical illumination, as a new solar energy harvester. Because this phenomenon was only recently discovered, we have the unique opportunity to be at the forefront of this new field, and this seed grant will enable us to perform the preliminary experiments necessary to successfully secure external funding for future experiments. The PIs have effectively collaborated on multiple research projects in the past and their complementary expertise will put them at an advantage as this field further develops.

Molecular Underpinnings of Long-Term Memory Formation: Unique Computer Modeling of Dendritic Spine Structure and Dynamics
Garegin Papoian, CMNS/Chemistry and Biochemistry

Dendritic spines are small mushroom-like protrusions that receive input from other neuronal axons. They are implicated in many neural processes, including formation of long term memories that can last over an organism’s lifetime. Recent experimental work has shown that spectrin family proteins form a filamentous network at the spine’s neck, which is essential for maintaining spine’s structural stability and function. Mutations of these proteins lead to various neuro-pathologies. The PI will develop a unique molecular model of dendritic spines, based on the software recently developed in their group, called MEDYAN (http://medyan.org). The latter provides powerful computational algorithms and software for modeling cytoskeletal dynamics, taking into account both chemical events, molecular diffusion and mechanical deformations, and the interplay among these processes. Simulations will reveal the molecular mechanisms that underlie the stability and dynamics of dendritic spine structures, making predictions for how the spines will transform upon mutations of various proteins. Researchers will closely collaborate and validate their predictions working with the group of Prof. Tatiana Svitkina at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies dendritic spines using advanced experimental techniques, including electron microscopy. This work will eventually lead to integrating information from a number of disparate experiments into coherent, systems’ view of the dendritic spine functional dynamics and pathophysiology.

Purple Line Outcomes on Transportation (PLOT) Study: An Examination of Pre-Purple Line Active Transportation Behaviors and Attitudes among Prince George’s County Residents
Jennifer Roberts, SPHL/Kinesiology

Approximately two-thirds of adults and youth in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC comprised predominantly of African Americans, are overweight or obese. While weight reduction and maintenance is associated with physical activity, only 46% of adults and 35% of youth are achieving physical activity recommendations within Prince George’s County. Physical activity is most frequently considered within a recreational context; however, it can also be classified into other domains of life describing how people spend their time including active transportation (AT), such as walking, biking or using public transportation (PT). AT, with PT, is considered a strategic and integral pathway to improving physical activity levels and thus reducing overweight and obesity levels. Even though prior research has demonstrated that PT use is associated with physical activity, there are still research gaps in understanding how contextual effects (a) neighborhood built environment; b) sociodemographics; and c) “sense of community”) impact PT use, AT behaviors and attitudes and how these variables promote physical activity using a longitudinal research framework at the neighborhood level. Despite the Washington, DC area having the second highest PT ridership among all U.S. rapid transit systems, there is a lack of data from controlled, long-term studies in this region. Utilizing an expansion of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) system as a natural experiment, the Purple Line Outcomes on Transportation (PLOT) Study will address these research gaps. Overall, the PLOT Study will determine if Purple Line development affects PT use, AT behaviors and attitudes and physical activity levels pre-and post-implementation of the Purple Line among Prince George’s County residents.

August 31, 2017


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