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Engineering Faculty Awarded Grants for Health Center Collaborations

The University awarded grants to 11 multi-disciplinary research teams, of which four include engineering faculty members. The one-year start-up grants were made under a new UConn Health Center/Storrs and Regional Campus Incentive Grants (UCIG) program aimed at nurturing interdisciplinary research collaborations that are seen as having long-term promise and a strong potential for attracting significant external funding after the seed money concludes. The average funding level was $50,000.

According to Suman Singha, Senior Vice Provost and Interim Vice President for Research, the UCIG program was developed to promote inter-campus research collaborations among researchers at the UConn Health Center and other UConn campuses. Commenting on the quality of submissions, Dr. Singha said “We were very pleased with the quality of the proposals and are excited with the potential that this competition has to stimulate creative, innovative and interdisciplinary scholarly activities.”

Computer Science & Engineering faculty members Yufeng Wu and Ion Mandoiu are partnering on a project aimed at understanding the mechanism of phenotypic drift in human embryonic stem cells. Their collaborators are principal investigator Rachel O’Neill of the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology and Theodore Rasmusson of the Animal Science Department – both in Storrs, and Brenton Gravely of the UConn Health Center’s Genetics & Developmental Biology Department. A phenotype is any observable characteristic or trait of an organism, such as appearance, biochemical or physiological properties, and behaviors. Phenotypes are rooted in an organism’s genetic makeup as well as environmental factors. On this project, Drs. Mandoiu and Wu will contribute their expertise in bioinformatics and develop efficient algorithms for data analysis of the high-throughput sequencing data. Read more about the research of Drs. Wu and Mandoiu at:
www.engr.uconn.edu/drwufunding.php and www.engr.uconn.edu/nsfstory06.php.

Ranjan Srivastava, an associate professor of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering – along with UConn Health Center colleagues, principal investigator Rajesh Lalla of Oral Health & Diagnostic Sciences, Leslie Loew of Cell Biology and Douglas Peterson, Oral Health & Diagnostic Sciences – will investigate severe oral lesions, dubbed “mucositis,” that arise when cancer patients are undergoing high-dose chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy. The ulcers, said Dr. Srivastava, are quite painful and substantially compromise nutrition and oral hygiene as well as increase risk for infections. He said that cancer patients experiencing oral mucositis can develop significant clinical complications, including dose reduction of their chemotherapy or interruption of radiation therapy, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the primary cancer treatment. Currently, there are few options for patients afflicted with mucositis. Dr. Srivastava and his colleagues seek to develop effective treatment modalities. “Our overall goal is to use detailed computational models derived from clinical and laboratory data to design new treatment strategies that minimize the severity of this important toxicity,” he said. “These models may enable us to maximize drug efficacy (that is, the cancer treatment) while minimizing mucosal injuries.”

Quing Zhu, a professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE), and associate professor Molly Brewer, a specialist in gynecologic oncology at the UConn Health Center, received funding for their work involving the use of photoacoustic/ultrasound imaging for the detection and characterization of certain ovarian cancers. According to Dr. Zhu, “Ovarian cancer has the lowest survival rate of all gynecologic cancers. With our current screening and diagnostic abilities, 70% of women will continue to be diagnosed at stage III or IV, and the majority of them will die of their disease.” She and Dr. Brewer will develop a novel hand-held probe that may be inserted internally for non-invasive diagnosis of early stage ovarian cancers. The probe, which will expand upon a technology developed by Dr. Zhu, will employ a combination of photoacoustics and conventional ultrasound. They believe the technique will allow doctors to detect ovarian cancers much earlier, contributing to greater rates of survival. The team also includes research professor John Gamelin and doctoral student Andres Aquirre – both of ECE. Please read more about Dr. Zhu’s research atwww.engr.uconn.edu/zhu07.php and www.engr.uconn.edu/qingzhu1206.php.

A fourth team, involving Robert Weiss, the UTC Professor of Advanced Materials and Processing in the department of Chemical, Materials & Biomolecular Engineering and Jon Goldberg, a professor of Oral Rehabilitation, Biomaterials & Skeletal Development at the UConn Health Center, will involve the study of “Phase Transformations to Control Morphology and Cell Behavior in Polymer Scaffolds for Tissue Engineering.”