The National Science Foundation has granted the University of Arizona $30 million over five years to establish a new NSF Science and Technology Center. The New Frontiers of Sound Science and Technology Center, which comes with an additional $30 million funding option over the following five years, will bring together researchers working in topological acoustics.
Biomedical engineering professor and BIO5 Institute Director, Dr. Jennifer Barton has spent nearly a decade developing a falloposcope to detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. The device is now used to capture images of study participants' fallopian tubes for the first time.
The BIO5 Institute supports innovative projects and new ideas to further interdisciplinary early-stage research by funding seed, pilot, and equipment grants.
BIO5 seed funding typically exceeds $1M annually, and this year, three BIO5-fueled funding mechanisms are supplying 28 faculty members and an additional 51 co-principal investigators with $1.68M for initiatives that include how to improve MRI imaging, better understand how exercise improves aging, and uncover microbial drivers of soil volatile compounds.
Equipment Enhancement Fund
State-of-the-art equipment drives discovery and invention. The Equipment Enhancement Fund (EEF) enhances research capabilities across several departments and colleges by providing the means to purchase new equipment or upgrades for existing technology.
With the help of up to $150K, researchers can purchase equipment and upgrades that not only augment the capabilities of the core or shared use facility, but also increase their competitiveness for new external funding.
A total of almost $730K funded seven EEF proposals through the 2022 grant cycle. With these funds, researchers plan to purchase equipment to better measure blood circulation, enhance neuropsychology research, and facilitate faster, automated screening of compounds for drug discovery.
Optical coherence tomography (OCT) imaging equipment that will help shed light on human tissues. OCT is a non-invasive imaging technology like an ultrasound that uses near infrared light waves instead of sound to provide high-resolution images with applications that span from cancer diagnosis to retina health.
Dr. Travis Sawyer, assistant professor of optical sciences, was awarded $126K to purchase a high-resolution, rapid, customizable polarization-sensitive OCT system. This state-of-the-art system will enable advanced research studies including cancer imaging in the GI tract, brain and eye imaging, and surgical guidance.
The device will be housed in the Translational Bioimaging Resource, a Research Innovation & Impact facility in the basement of the Biosciences Research Laboratories, and promises to be greatly impactful at the University, with collaborators among five colleges and eight departments.
“As a new faculty member, receiving support through the Equipment Enhancement Fund is extremely valuable for starting my research program - the award will enable several collaborative projects focused on advancing biomedicine using optical technology. I am honored and grateful to have such strong institutional support early in my career and I look forward to advancing the research aims of the University,” said Sawyer.
Faculty Seed Grants
To be competitive for long-term extramural funding, researchers need to obtain preliminary data that demonstrates the promise of their proposed research, as well as the feasibility of their proposed methods. The Faculty Seed Grants (FSG) provide one-time support of up to $15K to jump-start projects.
These grants are targeted towards two different career stages. Early career researchers and assistant professors are encouraged to submit proposals that will enable them to gain independence by generating new data for future grant proposals or scholarships. Mid-career professionals and associate professors can receive funding for proposals that will also lead to greater funding opportunities in order to take their research in a new direction or develop their career to lead a future research center or institute.
Two proposals were awarded a collective $30K in 2022, one of which is led by Dr. Jennifer Andrews.
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Andrews, an assistant professor of pediatrics and director of research in the Division of Genetics and Developmental Pediatrics, was awarded an FSG for her proposal to adapt the Social-Ecological Model of Adolescents and Young Adult Readiness for Transition (SMART) approach to better prepare and support adolescents in their transition to adulthood. Her program focuses on four key areas of positive youth development theory: agency, assets, contribution, and enabling environments.
“Applying for NIH grants requires pilot or proof of concept data that is challenging to generate without pilot funding when dealing with human subjects,” Andrews said. “The FSG award allows me to collect the data that I need while providing students with the opportunity to learn how to run a research project.”
Former award recipient Dr. Jennifer Stern, assistant professor of medicine, says the FSG award not only benefited her research, but paved the way for success for her grad student, as well.
“This FSG award enabled my laboratory to embark on a new avenue of research and these studies have yielded crucial data which are now part of an NIH R01 proposal,” she said. “On top of this, my graduate student who worked on this project was awarded first prize in a poster competition for a poster which summarized this data.”
In 2020, Stern was awarded funding to collect preliminary data on the role of tissue specific glucagon (a hormone that supports blood sugar levels) receptor signaling in obesity accelerated aging, as a lack of this receptor has been shown to decrease lifespan and speed up the aging process. Her NIH R01 proposal is aimed at understanding the role of glucagon signaling in exercise-induced improvements in healthy lifespan.
The BIO5 RAPID Grants were established to provide quick funding for interdisciplinary basic science, technology, clinical, or population research, with special emphasis on projects relating to bioinformatics and regenerative medicine. Teams of two or more interdisciplinary investigators can receive up to $50K to purchase supplies and small equipment, compensate staff and students for their time, and use core facilities. These grants are intended to assist teams in generating preliminary data for extramural grant applications.
An unprecedented 19 teams were awarded a collective $913K in 2022 for projects including understanding the effect of a common household compound on the fetal placenta, using patient-derived neurons to model pediatric epilepsy, and taking a big data approach to understanding the breakdown of immunity during Valley fever infection.
Dr. Elizabeth Hutchinson, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, was awarded funding to use a low-intensity version of the traditional ultrasound to provide treatment for people who have experienced a traumatic brain injury (TBI). This type of injury is the result of a blow, bump, or jolt to the head, and it’s a major cause of death and disability in the U.S.
“For the past few months, I’d been talking with other BIO5 members Drs. Kaveh Laksari, Russ Witte and Paulo Pires about running a set of experiments to try transcranial ultrasound (tUS) as a protective or regenerative therapy after TBI,” said Hutchinson. “When we saw the BIO5 RAPID award announcement, it seemed like a great chance to get the evidence we would need to proceed in this new direction and the proof-of-concept data to support and strengthen our larger federal funding proposals in this area. We were quite excited to receive the award because it allows us the opportunity to begin a line of research to develop tUS into a novel, non-pharmacologic therapy to improve brain recovery and clinical outcomes after TBI.”
About the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute
The BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona connects and mobilizes top researchers in agriculture, engineering, medicine, pharmacy, data and computational science, and basic science to find creative solutions to humanity’s most pressing health and environmental challenges. Since 2001, this interdisciplinary approach has been an international model of how to conduct collaborative research, and has resulted in disease prevention strategies, innovative diagnostics and devices, promising new therapies, and improved food sustainability.
About the Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF)
The Technology and Research Initiative Fund (TRIF) that helped launch BIO5 in 2001 continues to be a catalyst in enabling effective, cross-disciplinary bioscience research and innovation at the University of Arizona, where initiatives and projects are carefully chosen to align with areas of state and national need. Since 2001, over $135M has been invested in building critical facilities and research services that UArizona is leveraging today to respond to the world’s greatest scientific challenges. TRIF resources are also instrumental in funding events and programming that promotes STEM education, outreach, and training.
Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but only 27% of the STEM workforce. The University of Arizona and the BIO5 Institute are working to combat this gender inequity, and Dr. Betsy Cantwell, Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation, and Dr. Jennifer Barton, BIO5's director, are leading the charge. Cantwell and Barton share tips for succeeding as a woman in STEM, particularly engineering, as well as how they navigate the intersection between STEM and business to bring valuable innovations to their stakeholders.
You're both accomplished engineers as well as academic leaders. Was there a defining moment in your early years or in your school years that led you to this career choice?
BC: The defining moment for me was when I had completed an undergraduate degree in psychology. I started my career there and was about to enter graduate school for a master's in social work. I had an epiphany when they were running us through how the program would go, and I went, “Nope.” I literally got up and walked out, but I didn’t know what I’d do next.
I thought a lot about what I really wanted to do, and I was very motivated by moon landings. In kindergarten or maybe even preschool, they put this little TV on the stage in the school auditorium. We all filed in, and nobody could actually see it, but we could hear it - we listened to the moon landing.
I decided I wanted to be an astronaut, but in order to be an astronaut, you either need to be in the military, which I was not, or get a Ph.D. in something STEM related. So I went back to school and started all over again, and here we are today.
JB: I came from a whole STEM family. My father was an aerospace engineer, and my mother was a chemistry and math major. I have four brothers, and the three older ones are all engineers. My parents believed very firmly that you went to school, you got a four-year degree, and you went out and worked, so you needed a first job that you could get a good job or needed a degree where you could get a good job.
I was allowed to study anything I wanted as long as it was engineering. I thought, if I'm going to be an engineer, I might as well be the one that makes the most money. The top of the list at the time was a petroleum engineer. I was in Texas, but I didn't want to work on an oil rig, so number two was electrical engineering. I went and got an electrical engineering degree. I have to admit, electrical engineering is an incredibly great background to have, but it was not my passion.
I went to work for the space station program, where I got to work on the electrical system layout and the external lighting system that led me to the NASA Johnson Space Center, where I got to work with the astronauts on a mock-up of the International Space Station. I then realized there was this thing called biomedical engineering that you could do that would work with human systems in the context of engineering.
When I had the opportunity, I went back and got a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and figured I'd go back to work for NASA because I also wanted to be an astronaut. I think we all wanted to be astronauts at some point! I wasn't ever selected, but it led me to the opportunity to come to the University of Arizona, and this has been fantastic.
You both hold multiple degrees in engineering and worked for NASA as engineers. With the odds stacked against you as female engineers, how have you found success? What are some life lessons that you can share with young girls and young women about opportunities as they present themselves?
BC: Women are just as good engineers as men. If you get the opportunity and you get the job, you'll probably do better because you perform better, or at least equally well. The trick is to find those places to work where your performance is what matters.
JB: You may have heard of the Sherlock Holmes versus Hermione Granger idea, where disciplines where charisma and brilliance are valued tend to be male dominated because Sherlock Holmes was brilliant. He didn't work. He just thought of the answer, and it was right. Very many of the sciences that are dominated that way. On the other hand, someone like Hermione Granger is a hard worker, and that explains her accomplishments.
I remember hearing this theory, and there's some flaws in it, but it's an interesting thought application - Are women more accepted in field where hard work and results are what matters? I thought if that's the case, engineering ought to be female dominated because you cannot talk your way into a bridge being sound. It either is, or it isn't, and your hard work gets you there. Thinking about that really helped me. I work hard, and I succeed by learning through my experiences.
BC: I think a lot more women in STEM fields, especially engineering, have a high appreciation for the privilege of working around other smart people. That's not a gender specific thought process, but an awful lot of women in engineering are appreciative of being around all these smart women. It does take a village to get a big engineering job done, just as an example. It's really hard to be the brainiac in the room - the Sherlock Holmes in the room - and get something like a big bridge built. The point is to appreciate that you may not always be the smartest person in the room, but that's actually not nearly as good a position to be in as the one where you understand that there are lots of smart people and they have an enormous amount of value. Together you get a lot more done.
You both work at the intersection of business and science. How do you integrate those two to achieve your goals?
JB: One of the great experiences I had was working on the space station program and having to write grants - you had to look at the specifications and write what the prime contractor wanted to hear. I think that is one of the points that people sometimes get hung up on - they want to write about what's in their head. They’re not thinking about what the customer wants. That mentality of thinking about what the customer wants, or what value you can provide to the customer, is something that is persistent in all different dimensions of your life.
I've always tried to keep that in mind, and I've always tried to think of what I can provide that’s going to provide value or have a return on the investment.
BC: Engineers make good corporate, and even institutional, managers and leaders because we are frequently trained to think about the complex system that must come together and function, which is why business attracted me.
I had reached a point in my career where I had to learn a lot about business in order to function and make all the things that I was trying to make happen, like get huge buildings or build a hundred-million-dollar program. I had to understand all the companies that were coming to work with us. I worked at a national lab at the time, but I had to really understand the business ecosystem and the different social constructs at those organizations.
Communication has been key. Every student in STEM should understand that they will become a communicator. It will be a core part of what they must deliver in order to get through any aspect of working in a STEM business environment, and absolutely in academia where you have to really think about communicating in all its glorious forms about your data. I spend so much of my time thinking about how to communicate what we do at the university.
Dr. Cantwell, prior to coming to the University of Arizona, you were the CEO of the ASU research enterprise. How are our competitive rivalries and collaborations with the other institutions in the state driving bioscience innovation in industry and research and advancing our education goals in our state?
BC: It makes an impact waking up every day and wanting to make a difference. We're clan-based creatures, right? The way that competition works the best across between ASU and U of A is really where we are taking that, “I want to make the world a better place,” mindset and pitting ourselves against one another. Sometimes however, we come together, and we compete against the California schools for instance. Competition is always best and works really well when we're using it to accelerate our mindset of wanting to do better. When you look up how many of our grants and contracts are done jointly with ASU, there are hundreds of them. Our people are talking to each other because they want to get the work done. They want to work with people who think like they do, and they want to do better for the world. You see it at NAU as well.
Our universities in this state are driven to find solutions, to provide value, and culturally, I think that's an aspect of Arizona. Other universities have people who feel that way, but it isn't nearly as embedded in their culture.
JB: I agree. I like to say that my competition is cancer. We’re working against the diseases that affect people, or it could be in the inequities that are in the world, or threats to our environment, or just the unknown pushing back the unknown.
I am thrilled that we have such a cooperative state, and I have many, many collaborators and cooperators. Sometimes they're your competition when you're trying to get grants, because there is only so much money that the federal agencies are handing out. But sometimes they're your collaborators. I think everybody keeps in mind that we aren't each other's competition so much as we are here to help build on each other. I also think Arizona is unique in that respect,
Competition is great. We love it. We thrive on it. We want to be the first that gets us up in the morning, and we're going to do something better. It’s a very healthy, good thing.
One of the top goals of BIO5 is driving innovation through research and education. But sometimes we get tired and bogged down by the administrative tasks of our jobs. How do you remind yourself of the mission, and how do you share that with your students?
BC: I like to think about where I can create the next runway out into the future, and how I can include students and collaborators. That keeps me going, and it provides the university with a sense of forward motion and the ability to have new thoughts and ideas. That's kind of what innovation really ought to be for us.
JB: I don’t ever get to be stuck in that mode without innovation for very long because I just walk in the lab, and I've got five grad students and half a dozen undergraduates. Then the KEYS high school student comes in and says, “Why are you doing it this way? Why aren't you doing that?” It's so refreshing to have the students come in and ask why, and they’ll come up with their own ideas. Some are out there, but there's always at least one out of the 10 that's a really, really fantastic idea.
I'm here at the University of Arizona because of the students. The students are the heart and soul of the research we do, and it's so much the better for them that we bring people in young. I love having the high school students, and I love having the undergraduates - the undergraduates keep the graduate students nervous because they're just nipping at their heels and making them perform. We need to nurture that friendly competition. We need to encourage these students to be innovative and to come up with their novel ideas that are changing the way that we do research and business.
Partnering with a surgeon from the Banner – University Medical Center, Biomedical engineering professor and BIO5 Institute Director, Dr. Jennifer Barton has spent nearly a decade developing a falloposcope to detect ovarian cancer in its early stages. The device is now used to capture images of study participants' fallopian tubes for the first time.
Adam Raikes explains his educational journey, working in Dr. William Killgore's lab, and creating colorful images of the human brain for analysis.