Month: June 2022

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program

from UConn Today

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program
Arash Esmaili Zaghi, left, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, left, Fabiana Cardetti, professor of mathematics, and Jie Luo, a graduate student, with the fMRI, and Fumiko Hoeft, professor of psychological sciences, Nicole Landi, associate professor of psychological sciences, are in the control room at the UConn Brain Imaging Research Center on March 7, 2022. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

An ambitious team of researchers from across the University has won $3mn from the National Science Foundation to pursue a project in the neuroscience of learning.

The program, known as TRANSCEND: TRANSdisciplinary Convergence in Educational Neuroscience Doctoral training, aims to get graduate students from both classic and atypical backgrounds into educational neuroscience research.

“We will take an innovative approach and truly break the silos in educational neuroscience between lab research, research in the schools and the community. We also have a particularly strong focus not only on neurodiverse learners as the topic of research but also to involve them as graduate students. Neurodiverse learners are one of the most underrepresented groups in higher ed and the STEM workforce despite their tremendous talent,” says Fumiko Hoeft, interim director of the Waterbury campus, director of UConn’s Brain Imaging Research Center (BIRC) and the principal investigator on the project.

The team also includes co-principal investigators Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology Ido Davidesco, Associate Professor of Developmental Psychology Nicole Landi, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and IMS faculty member, Arash Esmaili Zaghi, and Professor of Clinical Psychology Inge-Marie Eigsti; and co-investigators Professor of Psychology James Magnuson, Professor of Mathematics Fabiana Cardetti, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Jinbo Bi, and Vice Provost for Graduate Education Kent Holsinger. Hoeft and Landi will co-direct TRANSCEND.

TRANSCEND will use the grant to allow second year graduate students to spend a full year researching convergent questions in educational neuroscience, with an emphasis on virtuous cycles between school and lab-based research, interdisciplinary team science, and in all areas of learning such as STEM and reading as well as developing the next generation of learning technologies using artificial intelligence (AI), with an underlying theme of neurodiversity.

The hope is that the students will then stay in the program and continue research on their topic of choice for their dissertation. Graduate students can be from any field of cognitive science, neuroscience, educational psychology, mathematics, computer science, and engineering. All graduate students in the program will have the opportunity to collect data in classrooms and in UConn labs, including the BIRC, the Cognitive Sciences Shared Electrophysiology Resource Lab, and the new mobile neuroscience lab by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences that is planned to come online by this winter.

Community engagement will be key for generating project ideas and at every step of the process; graduate students will research questions that communities and teachers want answered. Leveraging Hoeft’s new position at

Multidisciplinary Team Wins $3M for Graduate Program
Researchers from Dr. Landi’s lab training high school student interns to place an EEG cap on a younger student’s head at the AIM Academy. (Landi Lab Photo, with permission from AIM Academy).

UConn Waterbury and this grant, she hopes to engage the Waterbury students and the community to bring new programs and collaboration to the campus.

For example, a team of students from computer science, educational psychology and cognitive neuroscience may develop a learning technology leveraging AI and natural language processing models, using accessible neuroimaging technologies such as portable electroencephalography, in partnership with an education technology company and a school.

“We want every STEM and Education grad student in the University to know they can join this. The funding is for their second year, but we want the graduate students to stay involved in the program throughout graduate school,” says Arash Zaghi, a structural engineering professor.

Zaghi began researching neurodiversity when he was diagnosed with ADHD early in his career as an engineer. He found that there was a lot of research showing great creative potential from neurodiverse people, but also great difficulties that lead them to drop out of university settings. Part of the motivation behind this collaboration is to generate strategies that both teachers and students can use to create strength and success from neurodiversity.

Hoeft and Zaghi also emphasize that neurodiverse students are strongly encouraged to apply. The team has partnership with universities in the NSF INCLUDES national network such as Landmark College, a college for students with learning disabilities. They hope to attract their students into graduate school at UConn through this grant. There are also almost 40 other partners, including schools, the Connecticut Department of Education, advocacy groups, and technology companies, all of whom are interested in gaining interns from the program and participating in research through partnership with UConn. Through this program, their hope is that neuroscience can help design and deliver education that helps all students reach their full potential, and at the same time enhance the STEM workforce.

IMS Faculty Members Working to Solve the Nation’s Energy Problems

from UConn Today

Yang Cao
Dr. Yang Cao

Three new grants totaling $7.5 million from ARPA-E and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) are enabling UConn researchers to conduct ground-breaking work on some of the nation’s most pressing energy problems. 

Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) grants provide funding for the development of transformational technologies that provide new ways of generating, storing, and using energy.  

Shrinking Substations for Green Energy Integration 

Yang Cao, a professor in the School of Engineering, is working on a three-year ARPA-E project to create a new technology that will help stabilize the power grid and integrate renewable energy sources into the existing energy infrastructure. 

Substations are sprawling networks of wires, towers, and transformers. Substations change the high voltage that comes directly from energy generation stations into low voltage that can safely be delivered to homes or businesses. 

The century-old energy infrastructure in the United States is prone to power outages, especially during increasingly common severe weather. 

This infrastructure is also poorly suited to renewable energy sources as they were designed for fossil fuels. 

With something like wind or solar energy, the energy sources are spread out across a huge expanse rather than coming from a neatly packaged oil barrel. Solar panels or wind turbines also tend to be in remote areas far from major cities that have massive electrical needs. This means we need more efficient technologies that can link distributed energy generators to urban areas. 

Cao will work with Virginia Tech on the project, titled Substation in a Cable for Adaptable, Low-cost Electrical Distribution (SCALED), to develop high-voltage cables to replace bulky substations. 

“We need a more versatile and compact conversion and integration solution for distributed renewable energies,” Cao says. “This overall project is targeting that.” 

Making something this compact will be highly advantageous as they can be placed almost anywhere, whereas current substations require a tremendous amount of open space. 

The goal of the project is to greatly reduce the footprint of substation technologies without compromising its effectiveness. 

“We could really have a very compact substation that helps to convert and integrate the distributed energy generation into a grid instead of having really large, bulky substations,” Cao says.  

A Better Path for New Materials 

James N. Hohman
Dr. J. Nathan Hohman

Nate Hohman, assistant professor of chemistry, is working on a new DOE grant to develop artificial intelligence (AI) tools to improve the synthesis of new materials. 

While scientists are constantly innovating new materials for energy, biotechnology, and many other applications, currently, the best tool they have at their disposal for this process is trial and error.  

“Engineering a new hypothetical material today requires guesswork at every step,” Hohman says. “We guess what compounds might crystallize into a structure that may have a property of interest, hope we get the material we expected, and pray it has the properties we imagined. This is inefficient, labor intensive, and has a low likelihood of success.”  

Hohman will combine nano-crystallographic characterization with Euclidean neural networks to develop a better technique for real-time characterization of materials using a continuously variable model material system.  

Crystal characterization allows scientists to see how the atoms that make up a molecule are arranged. This information is critical for designing new materials as this structure is what determines what the material can do.  

Hohman recently found a way to study crystal structure using an X-ray beam. This allowed his team to capture a crystal’s single diffraction pattern and merged them into a data set they can use to determine the atomic structure. This speeds up the process of characterizing new materials from months or even years to just hours.  

Euclidean neural networks are artificial neural networks inspired by the human brain. A set of artificial neurons transmits signals to other neurons in the system in order to classify objects. Hohman’s collaborator Tess Smidt at MIT developed Euclidean neural networks that can handle 3-D geometries, like those of molecules.  

Hohman in collaboration with other synthetic materials scientists, computational crystallographers, and deep learning researchers will use these networks to train machine learning algorithms to predict new phases of materials. This will help eliminate guesswork from materials development.  

Hohman will have the neural networks will help scientists design and generate novel atomic geometries with desirable properties based on what the scientists want the material to do.  

Designing for High Heat 

Julian Norato
Dr. Julián Norato

Julián Norato, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is working on an ARPA-E grant to develop computational techniques to design highly efficient and compact heat exchangers. 

Heat exchangers are mechanical devices that transfer heat from a hot to a cold fluid. They are found in everything from air conditioners to space heaters to chemical plants to airplanes. 

The heat exchangers Norato’s group will focus on operate at temperatures above 1100 degrees Celsius (approximately 2000 degrees Fahrenheit). These high-temperature heat exchangers are used in many applications, including gas turbine engines, waste heat recovery and hydrogen production. 

The grant will focus on plate-and-frame heat exchangers, which consist of stacks of plates bolted together to a frame. The hot and cold fluids flow between alternate plates. Each plate has a pattern of obstacles to the flow embossed on one side. This helps increase the amount of heat transferred from the hot fluid to the plates, and to the cold fluid flowing through the adjacent plates. 

“The fluid is forced to go through the flow structures inside the plates,” Norato says. “Essentially, you’re putting obstacles to the fluid to force it to mix and spend more time going from the inlet to the outlet of the plate.” 

What these obstacles look like will determine how efficient the heat transfer is. The computational techniques that Norato’s group will formulate will determine the optimal shape and pattern of these obstacles to maximize the heat transfer. At the same time, the design must ensure the pressure drop the fluid experiences as it flows through a plate is kept to a minimum, and that the plates can sustain the pressure the fluid exerts at the high operating temperatures. 

The researchers are also interested in making the device as small and light as possible, which is especially important in aerospace applications that have space and weight restrictions. 

The project will be conducted in collaboration with Altair Engineering, whose computational fluid dynamics software the researchers will use to simulate the heat transfer and the mechanical behavior of the heat exchanger. 

Norato will also collaborate with researchers from Michigan State University, who have developed an additive manufacturing technique to efficiently 3D print the heat exchanger plates out of a metal alloy that can operate at high temperatures. They will 3D print the plate designs obtained by the computational techniques developed by Norato and test the performance and integrity of the heat exchanger in an experimental setup. 

Cato Laurencin Honored by American Orthopaedic Association

from UConn Today

Dr. Cato Laurencin
Dr. Cato T. Laurencin is now added to the AOA Award Hall of Fame (AOA Photo/Kyle Klein).

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin, University Professor at the University of Connecticut, has been honored by the American Orthopaedic Association (AOA) with its Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics Award adding him to its AOA Award Hall of Fame.

Laurencin, the Albert and Wilda Van Dusen Distinguished Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery at UConn School of Medicine, was selected for the special recognition by his AOA member peers for his remarkable personal achievement and contributions to orthopaedic surgery.

He accepted the award the evening of June 15 at the AOA’s Annual Leadership Meeting at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence. “I am so honored to accept the American Orthopaedic Association Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics Award and be recognized in the AOA Awards Hall of Fame. I feel so fortunate to be an orthopaedic surgeon.”

The AOA Distinguished Contributions to Orthopaedics (DCO) Award recognizes Laurencin for his personal achievement and broad contribution to the orthopaedic specialty, leadership, impact on patient care, and clinical and basic science research. The mission of the AOA is engaging the orthopaedic community to develop leaders, strategies and resources to guide the future of musculoskeletal care.

In addition to being a practicing sports medicine and shoulder surgeon consistently named to America’s Top Doctors list, Laurencin is a world-renowned surgeon-engineer-scientist and a pioneer of the field of regenerative engineering.

In fact, Laurencin is leading the first international effort ever for knee and limb engineering with his Hartford Engineering a Limb (HEAL) project which aims at regenerating a human limb by 2030. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation currently fund this research work through Laurencin’s large grant awards including the NIH Director’s Pioneer Grant Award and the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Grant Award.

In orthopaedic surgery, Laurencin has been the first to win the “trifecta” of orthopaedic research lifetime awards: the Nicolas Andry Award from the Association of Bone and Joint Surgeons, the Marshall R. Urist Award from the Orthopaedic Research Society, and the Kappa Delta Award from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

Nationally, Laurencin is the first surgeon in history to be elected to all four national academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Inventors. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Laurencin is a laureate of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, America’s highest honor for technological achievement, awarded by President Barack Obama at the White House. He is the recipient of the prestigious Spingarn Medal, the highest honor of the NAACP bestowed upon such Americans as Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, George Washington Carver, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Ellington.

At UConn Laurencin is also a professor of chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, and biomedical engineering and serves as CEO of The Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering. He has received the highest honors in engineering, medicine and science, including the Philip Hauge Abelson Prize given for “signal contributions to the advancement of science in the United States.”  The American Institute of Chemical Engineers recently established the Cato T. Laurencin Regenerative Engineering Founder’s Award in honor of his breakthrough achievements in that field.

Laurencin received his BSE in chemical engineering from Princeton University, his MD, magna cum laude from the Harvard Medical School, and his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering/biotechnology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anna Tarakanova is Studying Elastins to Develop Aging-Related Therapies

from UConn Today

Dr. Anna Tarakanova
Mechanical engineering professor Anna Tarakanova listens during the 2020 Women in STEM Frontiers in Research Expo, which she co-organized. (Contributed photo)

Anna Tarakanova has long had an interest in how objects and bodies work. Her chosen specialty in the field of Mechanical Engineering – studying the structure, function, and mechanics of biological systems and materials, especially fibrous protein materials such as elastin and collagen – merges the two.

The assistant professor of mechanical engineering and her team are working to establish a high-fidelity modeling framework for both healthy and degenerated elastins for use as a tool to resolve different pathological stressors affecting how elastin functions from a nanoscale.

During aging and with chronic, often age-related illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and osteoarthritis, elastin can degenerate, causing a decline in normal function. Elastin is an essential structural protein that gives the skin, heart, blood vessels, and other elastic tissues in the body the stretchy quality they need to function.

“At the molecular scale, there are a number of physical-chemical modifications that occur that drive this mechanical degeneration over time,” Tarakanova says. “Because they are quite numerous and act in parallel, it’s difficult to deconstruct which triggers impact mechanics and to what degree. If we can understand the mechanism, we can think about novel therapies to target aging and aging-associated diseases.”

Tarakanova’s work has earned her a 2022 Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation. She is one of 11 junior faculty members at UConn this year to receive the coveted award, which recognizes the recipient’s potential as a role model in education and research.

CAREER Awards come with five years of funding intended to provide a foundation for a young professor’s research program. Beyond advancing her research, Tarakanova plans to use the funding to create activities and events to engage and support undergraduate and graduate students, especially those from underrepresented groups. The effort will include a reboot of a Women In STEM Frontiers in Research Expo she co-organized with a colleague in January 2020.

“For me, it was kind of a natural extension of what I wanted to do as a professor, being a woman in STEM and being a minority for most of my education career,” Tarakanova says.

Elastin and collagen are not the only protein materials getting her attention. Early in the pandemic, Tarakanova and two of her graduate students began exploring the spike protein associated with SARS-CoV-2 to figure out how it moved when it interacted with the immune system. She is now working with Paulo Verardi, a pathobiologist in UConn’s College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, and UConn biochemist Simon White to develop new and potentially better ways to stabilize spike proteins for use in COVID-19 vaccines, particularly in relation to emerging new variants of the virus.

“Some of the methods we are using to study the spike protein are related to the methods that we’ve used and continue to use to look at elastin,” she says. “It’s a different project, but it does broadly fall under this fusing of computing and computational models, physics, biomechanics, and biochemistry to understand the dynamic behavior of the COVID spike protein, the protein that sits on part of the corona.”

In Memoriam: Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer

Jeffrey S. SchweitzerIMS is saddened to report the recent passing of Dr. Jeffrey Schweitzer, Professor in the department of Physics with an appointment in IMS.  We are grateful to Dr. Peter Schweitzer (not related) for the following recap of Dr. Schweitzer’s background and tenure at UConn:

Dr. Schweitzer earned his B.S. from Carnegie Institute of Technology (1967) and M.S. (1969) and Ph.D. (1972) from Purdue University. He was postdoc at the California Institute of Technology (1972-1974) and Scientific Advisor for the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory (1974-1996). Since 1997,  was Research Professor in the Department of Physics at UConn.

After receiving a PhD in low energy nuclear physics, Jeff’s research activities have included many areas of basic research in a broad range of fields employing nuclear physics techniques. Jeff has conducted basic nuclear physics and astrophysics research using of radioactive ion beams. He studied the kinetics of chemical reactions including nanoscale studies of cement chemistry with nuclear resonant reaction analysis. He has worked on the development of new detectors for nuclear radiation, and was an expert in non-linear time series analysis of variable solar and astrophysical phenomena. Other areas of research have included medical physics, forensic science, nuclear geophysics, geology and geochemistry, as well as industrial applications.

Jeff’s more recent research was funded by NASA and focused on planetary science topics and instrument development for satellites and landers including the modelling of surface bulk elemental composition measurements on Venus as well as Martian subsurface elemental composition measurements with neutron and gamma ray instruments.

At UConn, Jeff mentored many students and younger professors. Among his PhD advisees are:

  • Nada Jevtic, now Assistant Professor of Physics, Bloomsburg University, Pennsylvania
  • James Zickefoose, now Senior Research Scientist, Mirion Corporation (formerly Canberra Industries), Meriden, Connecticut

Jeff’s Research Gate profile contains links to many of his works:

IMS sends our deepest condolences to the family of Dr. Schweitzer.

Xiuling Lu Promoted to Professor

Xiuling Lu
Professor Xiuling Lu

(from UConn Today)

IMS Faculty member Xiuling Lu has been promoted to professor in the School of Pharmacy.  She joined the School of Pharmacy as an assistant professor in 2011. She has been active in the teaching and research programs as well as contributing to the service mission of the school and university. Lu’s research program is focused on nanoparticle-based drug delivery systems for improving therapeutic effectiveness utilizing biologically compatible approaches. Since her promotion to associate professor in 2017, Lu has established strong collaborations with cross-disciplinary external researchers and garnered external grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Federal Drug Administration (FDA), American Cancer Society, pharmaceutical industry and the Center for Pharmaceutical Processing Research (CPPR). Her service contribution to the school and beyond were recognized when she received the 2019 Robert L. McCarthy Faculty Service Award.

Lu has taught classes in both the professional (Pharm.D.) and graduate (Ph.D.) programs and has trained more than 30 BS, MS and Ph.D. students, as well as 12 postdoctoral scholars and visiting scientists doing research in her lab. Her overall goals are to teach and train the next generation of pharmacy professionals and pharmaceutical scientists, serve the university and broader community promoting science and education, and to utilize formulation science and platform technologies to enable effective pharmaceutical products for improving human health.