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Research across Florida 2017

Danger, Danger, Danger

Good news for expecting parents everywhere on Zika. “Basically, the epidemic is over,” says Dr. J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.

The virus, however, provides an example of what Morris sees as the problem with pathogen research. The public’s attention span — and government funding — is too short. What’s needed is a standing emergency fund to address novel outbreaks and also more continuing funding into known ones. He cites the unexplained mysteries of Zika, including why an obscure African monkey virus broke out with previously undocumented side effects in Brazil in 2015. “There is a huge amount of science that still needs to be done on Zika,” Morris says.

The Legislature appropriated $55 million in 2006 to create the Emerging Pathogens Institute to focus on human, animal and plant pathogens — an unusual trio. Morris became its first director the following year. “When I got there, I had a small office in a little shed,” he says. The institute now has its own 88,000-sq.-ft. building and 200 affiliated faculty from 11 UF colleges. Its research is funded by grants, about half from the National Institutes of Health and the other half from a mix of federal departments and, for one Zika research project, the European Union.

Morris can reel off dangers from pathogens spread by bugs, people and food. Viruses evolve constantly, and modern travel allows them to spread fast. “You can have a problem in Korea or Afghanistan, and in 24 hours it’s a problem in Orlando,” Morris says.

“If you ask me what my major worry was, it’s probably influenza,” he says. “All it takes is a couple viruses getting together in a pig in Iowa, and we could lose millions of people.”

“There is a huge amount of science that still needs to be done on Zika,” says J. Glenn Morris Jr., director of the UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute.


Autistic Students: Unlocking Potential

Every year, about 16,000 people diagnosed with autism head off to higher education. Roughly one in three pursues a degree in science, technology, engineering or math. Unfortunately, people on the autistic spectrum often don’t do well in college or in employment. Florida State University College of Education associate professor Brad Cox last year received a nearly $300,000, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to figure out the prevalence of autism-related characteristics among STEM students, see how it affects their performance in “gateway” STEM classes such as calculus and chemistry and investigate how formal disability accommodations play out. Cox’s grant says “the very traits that can cause students with autism-related characteristics to struggle in college classrooms may also serve as a springboard from which this population can make distinctive contributions to STEM fields and workplaces.” Cox founded the non-profit College Autism Network to facilitate the translation of research into real-world improvements for students. Says Cox, “We’re hoping our study will begin to show schools how to unlock these students’ potential for college success.”


Analysis Breakthrough

Here’s the problem in chemical testing for medical labs, coroners and environmental scientists: Analyzing a substance — blood on a towel, for example, means separating it from the sample, and that takes time, solvents and expensive equipment. At Florida International University, Kenneth Furton, FIU’s provost and an analytical chemist, and Abuzar Kabir, an analytical chemist and materials expert, found a way to simplify things. They found that by coating cotton muslin — an everyday textile — with a special polymer, it would soak up enough of a component from a sample in 15 minutes to allow a chemical analysis. More component means more conclusive results. FIU, which holds a patent on the method and process, is working on commercializing it. FIU says researchers at 30 universities globally have invested time in validating different applications of the technology and have produced more than 25 peer-reviewed articles for publication. “We hope this will be a game changer for the industry,” Furton says.

Neuroscience Pillar

No Florida university has been as well sited to take advantage of the state’s massive investment in out-of-state life science research organizations as Florida Atlantic University.

Rather than pump the money into its own public universities, Florida chose, beginning in 2003, to lay out hundreds of millions of dollars to recruit branches of renowned researchers Scripps, Max Planck and Sanford Burnham Prebys to Florida. FAU wound up home to two of the recruits; Scripps and Max Planck have their state-of-the-art buildings on FAU’s Jupiter campus.

The two high-profile institutions came as FAU itself was developing and launching its own med school and raising its life sciences profile. But FAU looks to do more than ride the coattails of its internationally known campus-mates. FAU has made neuroscience one of the university’s four research “pillars.” (The others are healthy aging, environmental and ocean science and sensing and smart systems.)

In 2016, FAU hired Vanderbilt University scientist Randy Blakely to head its newly formed FAU Brain Institute with offices on FAU’s Boca and Jupiter campuses. The institute aims to understand how the brain works and how diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, depression and Alzheimer’s come to be. (FAU President John Kelly says Max Planck CEO and scientific director David Fitzpatrick and Scripps chair Ronald Davis served on the search committee that went after Blakely.)

Blakely brought 12 faculty, post-docs and grad students with him from Vanderbilt, has brought in more since arriving and plans to hire still more. The institute also draws on existing FAU faculty from its four campuses — 52 faculty in all — and 17 affiliate faculty from Max Planck and Scripps.

The Legislature in its past two sessions gave FAU a total of $12 million to develop plans for a building for the Brain Institute. The university needs another $20 million to erect it. Meanwhile, FAU this academic year launches a neuroscience graduate program that aims to have 50 grad students in five years able to pursue Ph.D. studies with FAU and Max Planck researchers. FAU and Scripps already offer a joint M.D./Ph.D. degree.

It helps FAU’s direction that Scripps Florida is heavily invested in neuroscience and Max Planck Florida is devoted exclusively to it. They all share equipment and facilities. “Anything they have is available to us, and anything we have is available to them,” says Kelly. Like Max Planck and Scripps, FAU has put money into microscopes. One of FAU’s first core facilities is cell imaging with $1 million in high-end microscopes and a designation as the only Nikon Center of Excellence in the Southeast United States. Blakely nevertheless cheered the arrival of Max Planck’s super-resolution microscope. “The kind of faculty I want to recruit will be the people that thrive in this environment,” Blakely says.


Rollins College
Tooting Their Own Horns

Thomas Moore, physics professor at Rollins College, received a $371,645 National Science Foundation grant to involve undergrads in original scientific research to settle a topic debated in scientific literature for more than a century: Whether the vibrations of the metal of brass musical instruments affects the sound. Along with students, he and his colleague, assistant professor Whitney Coyle, also will study clarinet reeds to see whether it’s possible to accurately model how they’ll perform when played. The research should provide instrument makers with information on how to improve instruments and make it easier to synthesize the sound of woodwind instruments while contributing to the understanding of the physics of the instrument. Musicians, especially woodwind players, are at the mercy of their instruments. “With a little luck, we will at least understand the issues, if not the solutions,” Moore says.


Virtual Reality as Therapy?

Design Interactive, an Orlando augmented, virtual and mixed reality company, and Florida Institute of Technology received a $148,924 early-concept National Science Foundation grant to see whether virtual reality- and game-based tech can improve the physical abilities of children with cerebral palsy. Design Interactive and FIT will work with Maitland-based tech company BlueOrb and the non-profit Conductive Education Center of Orlando.

Florida Museum
Fossil Find

Earlier this year, Florida Museum of Natural History paleontologists and community volunteers raced to empty a Levy County site southwest of Gainesville of fossil bones. The 5-million-year-old bone site was uncovered in 2015 on private property by workers digging up clay for roadwork. It proved quite a site, with complete skeletons in some cases. The landowner was willing to give paleontologists until the spring 2017 to collect what they could before putting it into agricultural use. Bones from 55 different vertebrate species were found, including rodents and river-dwelling creatures like alligators, and turtles but also extinct rhinos, llamas, horses and an elephant-like creature called a gomphothere. “No other fossil site of this age in the southeastern United States produces such a rich abundance of freshwater vertebrates,” said Florida Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology Jonathan Bloch.


Knowledge in the Ruins

University of Central Florida archaeologist Scott Branting’s summer took him to central Turkey to research a short-lived Iron Age city that’s the subject of the long-running UCF-based Kerkenes Project to uncover its secrets. The city lasted about 60 years until the mid-500s BC, when it was burned and abandoned during a war between the Persian and Lydian empires. The Kerkenes Project, under Branting’s direction, brings together an international scientific team to excavate and use new technology to study the city. This year, the project won a new National Science Foundation grant to study the city’s social organization. The grant says the analysis could help modern cities plan better for change.


Mayo & Sanford Burnham
Parkinson’s Progress

Working with a grant from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, scientists from the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville and Sanford Burnham Prebys in Orlando spent two years searching through 800,000 chemical compounds for substances that might stop or reverse the accumulation of proteins in the brain that causes Parkinson’s. They found eight that were promising. Now, with further support from the foundation, Mayo’s Pamela McLean and Sanford Burnham’s Layton Smith will work to understand how the molecules affect the protein buildup and how to improve them to safely combat the disease. Animal trials will follow the initial research.


In the Red

Avoid this story at your peril.

The field of color psychology teaches that people associate red with danger. University of Miami finance professor Henrik Cronqvist and colleagues set out to study how color affects people’s investing choices. The takeaway: Avoid red in your presentations — unless you’re in China — if you want people to buy. If you want to scuttle an investment, present it in red.

Cronqvist found investors grew pessimistic when presented data in red. When shown a stock decline in red ink, investors predicted more declines and invested nearly 24% less in the stock. They were less likely to invest when potential losses were shown in red.

In China, where red is associated with good luck, the national flag, the Communist Party and important festivals, rather than as in the U.S. where we have red ink, red alerts and red herrings, investing behavior didn’t change based on color.

Cronqvist’s conclusion: “It would be smart for IR (investor relations) professionals to steer clear of red in their next financial reports, for instance, and instead use only black for negative numbers. It is a small change that could make a big impact.”