September 10, 2014
A UAB/Vivo Biosciences/Birmingham Business Alliance team will be participating in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) new Innovation Corps Program.
Diamonds may sparkle on the hand, but they really shine under pressure. Diamond’s durability — it is the hardest naturally occurring mineral — and its superior mechanical and thermal properties, make it ideal for tough industrial jobs, such as heavy grinding and fine cutting.
May 01, 2014
UAB’s Nuclear Magnetic Resonance FacilityBy Dale Short
Seeing brighter and sharper images of inside the human body has long been a goal of researchers and physicians. X-rays were a major breakthrough, but more recently the science of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) was so revolutionary that it won two Nobel prizes for two different teams of scientists.
UAB’s new NMR facility is the largest and most advanced in the state. Its centerpiece is a Bruker BioSpin Avance III HD 850 MHz NMR spectrometer, equipped with a cryoprobe, a coil that’s cooled with a stream of very cold Helium gas to increase the probe’s sensitivity and reduce the level of thermal noise generated by the device’s components.
“This puts UAB in the category of leading institutions that have this level of technology,” says N. Rama Krishna, Ph.D., professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics and director of the NMR facility. “This facility is a unique platform that merges both basic science and translational research — from structural biology of proteins to drug discovery, and NMR-metabolic profiling of biofluids to assess toxicity and physiological changes induced by drugs.”
Using technology that sprang from World War II radar designs, NMR devices use powerful magnets that target the hydrogen nuclei of proteins. The nuclei respond by producing signals that can be encoded by the machine and converted into data points of an image.
Big Lab On Campus“The new facility has been intricately designed with power, HVAC, security, and vibration dampening capabilities,” Krishna says, “that make it one of the best designed NMR facilities in the U.S. The consolidation of the 19th Street and 14th Street NMR Cores into a central facility will allow for more efficient maintenance, scheduling and upkeep of the NMR systems, more economical usage of the cryogens involved, and the availability in one location of a critical mass of NMR scientists with expertise in mutually complementary areas to support the research projects of Cancer Center faculty members.”
And the facility redesign brings an aesthetic bonus as well, says Dr. David Graves, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “There’s a big ‘wow’ factor with this facility and its view of the beautiful Campus Green,” he says. “We included as many windows as possible, to show off the facility and illustrate our commitment to research excellence. We can do a lot more collaboratively than we can do separately, and this partnership among the Department of Chemistry, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics, the School of Medicine, and the College of Arts and Sciences clearly reflects this synergy.”
“Drs. Rama Krishna and David Graves have built a world-class NMR facility at UAB,” says Tim Townes, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. “The 850 MHz NMR spectrometer with cryoprobe is a state-of-the-art spectrometer that can define the structure and dynamic movements of proteins at the atomic level.
While the facility will be helping researchers solve puzzles of proteins for years to come, bringing the pieces together in their interdisciplinary framework was a major puzzle of logistics in itself.
Early in 2009, when Krishna’s High End Instrumentation grant for a 800 MHz NMR system with a cryoprobe was funded by the National Institutes of Health-National Center for Research Resources, the size of the magnet outshone the size of the loading dock’s corridor at the 19th Street facility known as CH19. Installing the machine there would require major construction and renovation, with a price tag to match. Krishna and chemistry chair David Graves, Ph.D. conferred about the option of relocating the 19th street facility instruments and combining them with the Department of Chemistry’s NMR systems operating at 700 MHz, 400 MHz, and 300 MHz.
This Plan B would have required upgrading the magnet to a “compact shielded” version, as well as renovating parts of the Chemistry building. The plan was proposed to UAB leadership. What happened next was, as Krishna puts it, “serendipity.” Twice.
First, the manufacturer of the Bruker-Biospin machine announced a new compact shielded version of their Ascend 850, which is small enough to fit in a single story lab such as the Chemistry Building. Not long afterward, the National Cancer Institute announced a new competition for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) supplements to Cancer Center Support (CCSG) Grants, of the type that help support the Comprehensive Cancer Center, which would be aimed at consolidating Cancer Center Cores.
Krishna and Graves wrote and submitted an application for consolidating the NMR instruments to a Chemistry Building location. The grant was funded, work began on renovating the space, and the new facility was set to house all four NMR instruments.
The largest device will mainly support structural biology studies on high molecular weight proteins and their complexes, Krishna says, and the 700 model will continue to support structural biology in addition to cancer drug discovery projects. The 600 system is dedicated to studies of metabolomics—chemical processes involving metabolites, which have been described as “the chemical fingerprints that specific cellular processes leave behind” — in addition to work on peptides, smaller proteins, complex carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. The 500 system will assist in heteronuclear observation, and the 400 and 300 systems will be used chiefly for synthetic chemistry research.
“One aspect of the new installation that will multiply its impact is its collaborative nature,” says Edward Partridge, M.D., director of UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. “This new facility is going to take biomedical research to the next level — not only with its state-of-the-art instrumentation, but most importantly, with the collaborative expertise of our researchers, who will better our understanding of disease and disease progression. UAB as a whole has long been recognized for its efforts in drug discovery and development. When it comes to cancer, this facility is going to play a pivotal role in creating therapeutic agents in the laboratory, helping us nurture it through the ‘research pipeline’ of tests, animal studies, and clinical trials before it’s ultimately brought to our patients.” Collaboration
The installation’s name is as substantial as its equipment list: The Central Alabama High-Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility, which was derived from the title of Krishna’s successful High End Instrumentation grant funded by the NCRR. At 1,600 square feet and $3.5 million, the facility was created as a multidisciplinary partnership of the NIH-NCRR, UAB Health Services Foundation, National Cancer Institute, the offices of the vice president for Research and Economic Development and the deans of the School of Medicine and the College of Arts and Sciences.
According to director Krishna, the facility “provides state-of-the-art sensitivity and resolution for biomedical research and drug discovery” for a wide-ranging list of diseases including cancer, hypertension, diabetes, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, HIV-1, Parkinson’s disease, and others. It combines the new machines with existing instrumentation from the university’s chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular genetics departments.
“These precise measurements are essential to gain insights into the proteins that cause disorders as diverse as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and cardiovascular disease. Equally important, the state-of-the-art NMR facility further strengthens the Structural Biology Program at UAB and helps us attract outstanding students into our Graduate Biomedical Sciences Program.”
May 01, 2014
NSF Funds Partnership for InnovationBy Nicholas Patterson
Industrial diamonds may be less flashy than their multifaceted, organic cousins, but their durability offers great potential for scientific use Yogesh Vohra, Ph.D., professor of physics and associate dean of the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, has been conducting research on manmade diamonds for many years. Recently he was awarded lead investigator status on a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study potential applications for diamonds.
The highly competitive $600,000 NSF Partnership for Innovation grant will fund applications using diamonds in knee implants, lasers, and sensors, says Vohra, who’s also director of UAB’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and Biointegration and UAB Campus Director for the NASA Alabama Space Grant Consortium. The grant also recognizes the partnership between the university’s new Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Birmingham Business Alliance.
“I think the main goal of this grant is to provide funds for conducting translational research on a scientific discovery in order to take it to the next level, which is commercial viability,” Vohra says. “So the two-year funding will finance research to overcome the barriers for using the materials in real-world applications.”
The NSF grant also funds the work of a graduate and a post-doctoral student and will help build and outfit a diamond micro-fabrication lab, Vohra says. UAB undergraduate students also will be engaged in the project.
Times ThreeAll aspects of the three-pronged project involve diamonds, but they each have distinctive characteristics and individual business applications.
“We have three very clear application areas,” Vohra says. “These include diamond-based sensors, diamond-coated knee joints, and diamond-coated media for high powered lasers. The goal is to move these ideas from the laboratory across the hurdles separating them from commercial use.”
“For example, in the diamond-coated knee prosthesis application, we have to overcome the limitations of how to actually deposit nanostructured diamonds over a large area of the knee. That will involve answering what are the fundamental process innovations that you have to achieve so that you get a uniform coating over a large area.”
The potential is great for patients who need artificial knees or other articulating joints, which Vohra pointed out in a recent paper: “UAB researchers have demonstrated and patented a process for depositing ultra-hard nanostructured diamond coatings on metals that are very resistant to mechanical wear for applications in articulating joints like hip, knee, and dental implants. These coatings are mirror-finish, do not require any post-growth polishing and can be applied on large surfaces. The hardness and wear resistance of these coatings is two to three times better than the standard surfaces in hip and knee prosthesis.”
Real-World ViabilityThe NSF grant will allow the knee prosthesis, coated with nanostructured diamonds, to be tested in a UAB knee simulator to prove its durability and marketability, Vohra says. That testing would “establish its longevity in clinical settings and establish its competitive advantage over the standard knee prosthesis on the market.”
A second area the grant will facilitate involves installing multiple sensors on a single diamond crystal. Overcoming the barriers to manufacturing a multisensor diamond could have significant impact in situations where conditions are extreme. “These diamond-based sensors would wrk in applications where conventional sensors would fail because of extreme temperatures, stress, chemicals, or high radiation levels,” Vohra wrote.
“That is where we still have to answer some fundamental questions about whether we can put multiple sensors into one diamond device,” Vohra says. “Because to be commercially viable you would like a multisensor capability. That would involve putting an electrical sensor, a magnetic sensor, and a stress sensor on the device. We have done single stage in which we encapsulated a single sensor. But we really need to do multiple sensors in one device. So that’s why I think the grant is pushing research into new directions, with the goal of developing a viable commercial product.
“Already we use a single sensor in the laboratory for extreme conditions where material is under high pressure high temperature conditions. A question we really want to explore, once we develop these vertically integrated sensors, can we extend the application to oil drilling where you put this multisensor device into a hostile chemical environment? From that point of view, I think this research is really important.”
Movie Magic Made RealThe third project is in collaboration with Onxy Optics, a Dublin, California-based company, to develop a device that figured into the 1971 James Bond movie titled Diamonds are Forever—a high-powered, diamond-based laser.
Of course, in the movie, the satellite-based laser was being used for evil purposes—to destroy nuclear weapons from space. But Onxy Optics, which bills itself as “the world leader in the manufacture of finished composite crystal and glass components for solid-state lasers,” builds its devices for far less nefarious clients.
In fact, Vohra says, the reason for using diamonds as heat sinks and bonding agents in lasers is that they are the best thermal conductors and the diamond surface is chemically inert. Diamonds “can carry the heat away very efficiently. Right now, the best thermal conductor in commercial use is copper and is used extensively for that purpose. Diamond is four to five times better than copper so it can carry away heat very efficiently. So the idea was that if we provide a diamond layer on the laser crystal, there will be a potential application in high-powered lasers.”
Currently high-powered laser crystals are limited by thermal run away problems leading to failure. “It’s the same technology in your Pentium chip,” Vohra says. “The chip generates a lot of heat. If you turn off your cooling fan, your chip will fail. So diamond is being considered as a very efficient heat conductor in those devices. It can conduct the heat away from any source.
“This is a new area for us. We had not done research into diamond coating of laser crystals before. So we’re going to look at this opportunity with our commercial partners to see if we can overcome the technological barriers.”
UAB has more than one connection with Onyx, and that points to potential advantages for what Vohra calls UAB’s primary product. “Our main products are students. Onyx had hired a physics Ph.D. student trained in Vohra’s lab in the past. This research really provides excellent training and networking opportunities for graduate students, undergrads, and post-docs. Hopefully some of the personnel would be involved in opening up new companies.” Those new companies could be located in Birmingham, he notes.
May 01, 2014
Four faculty members win prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER AwardsIn a stunning achievement, four College faculty members were awarded CAREER Awards by the National Science Foundation. The recipients are Dr. Eugenia Kharlampieva, Chemistry; Dr. Karolina Mukhtar, Biology; Dr. Thamar Solorio and Dr. Ragib Hasaan, Computer and Information Sciences. The total value of the four prizes is $2,500,000.
The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development Program offers the Foundation’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.
The College of Arts and Sciences last had a faculty member recognized in 2011, when Dr. David Hilton (Physics) was awarded $600,000 over five years for his work in coherent manipulation in quantum systems. UAB has never had four faculty honored in a single year.
Dr. Yogesh K. Vohra, professor and Associate Dean, notes that the number and value of this year’s awards is directly related to the College’s investment in faculty development and mentoring, since three of the four winners received grant money and coaching from senior College faculty before they embarked on the NSF CAREER grant process. “These things don’t happen in a vacuum,” says Dr. Vohra. “For Dr. Kharlampieva and Dr. Hasan, we funded a CAS Interdisciplinary Team Award for $30,000 each. Dr. Solorio received a Graduate Entrepreneurship Award for $10,000. So for spending $70,000 we have received more than $2.5 million in federal money in return. I would say that is a wise investment.”
Research Grants and Monetary AwardsDr. Eugenia Kharlampieva
Title: Shape Responses of Ultrathin Hydrogel Microcapsules.
Award amount: $525,000
Dr. Karolina Mukhtar
Title: Regulatory Mechanisms of Pathogen-Mediated Cellular Stress Signaling in Arabidopsis: Taking Plant Molecular Biology to the Urban Garden
Amount: $1.1 million
Dr. Thamar Solorio
Title: Authorship Analysis in Cross-Domain Settings
Dr. Ragib Hasan
Title: Secure and Trustworthy Provenance for Accountable Clouds
May 01, 2014
Beyond SoundStudents of music technology have a new guide to college and careers in the industry, thanks to a new book by Scott Phillips, Ph.D., assistant professor of music at UAB. Beyond Sound, The College and Career Guide in Music Technology, was published last year by Oxford University Press.
Phillips is co-director of the UAB Music Technology program and has spent his career researching and documenting the development of college music technology programs across the United States.
“Beyond Sound” offers an in-depth consideration of music technology education. Phillips provides detailed comparison of more than 200 schools that offer music technology, recording, industry and business programs. He offers clear explanations of different types of degrees and provides practical guidance on career preparation, including how to get a great internship, land a first job, make connections and move up in a variety of businesses, from recording to television and film to video games. The book is available through Oxford University Press, Amazon.com, UAB’s Barnes and Noble Bookstore and booksellers nationwide. Go to www.beyondsoundbook.com to learn more. Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Beginning Partial Differential EquationsThis new textbook from Peter O’Neil, professor emeritus in the Mathematics department, focuses on methods of writing and determining properties of solutions of partial differential equations, concentrating on those that describe diffusion processes and wave phenomena.
As O’Neil explains, a simple diffusion problem might involve determining changes in temperature along the length of an object. Wave motion is seen in vibrations of guitar strings, drums, support beams on bridges, and the like. At a more sophisticated level, partial differential equations are used in economics, the physical and life sciences, studies of global weather and ocean current patterns, and many other areas of interest and importance.
O’Neil’s textbook guides students through the process of mapping these and other equations. O’Neil is at email@example.com.
One of those scientists is UAB senior Bliss Chang, with a double major in chemistry and biology and concentrations in biochemistry and molecular biology. In a nutshell, Fas is a chemical receptor on the surface of a cell that plays a role in a process known as “cell apoptosis,” a sort of pre-programmed death, as the body’s cells continuously die off to make room for new ones. If that Fas “switch” determines whether cells live or die, is it possible to turn it on and off in the lab? Could a new generation of oncology drugs kill off cancer cells internally by activating their apoptosis process?
“Research is a voyage into uncharted waters,” Chang says. ‘I’ve truly enjoyed the intellectual challenge posed by the various steps of a project. One of the key elements of a qualified researcher is the ability to troubleshoot a problem — and those problems don’t always come with a straightforward troubleshooting guide. They require thinking critically regarding an experiment, and analyzing in minute detail what might be causing a deviation from the desired result. The desire to succeed and obtain tangible results is what always motivates me forward.” Chang plans to enroll in a joint M.D./Ph.D. program and eventually to teach medicine at a leading medical research university.
Roxanne Lockhart knows first-hand how spinal cord injury can affect a family. So it’s no surprise that she’s gravitated toward molecular biology, a field that could hold the answer to therapies for brain and spinal cord traumas.
Lockhart was a senior in the Math and Science Department of the Alabama School of Fine Arts when she was assigned a senior research project. For her subject matter, she chose the work of UAB’s Candace Floyd, Ph.D.
“I was able to spend my senior year of high school working with Dr. Floyd, and I immediately loved conducting research,” says Lockhart. “And when she found out I was going to attend UAB, she said I could keep working in her lab.”
Now a senior biology major at UAB, Lockhart is studying the effect of a drug known as thiamet-G, that may have the effect of reducing the process of inflammation, a major factor in cells damaged by traumatic brain injury (TBI). Her studies are concentrated in molecular biology, with mentoring by Farah Lubin, Ph.D., in the Department of Neurobiology.
Her plans after graduation are to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. degree, and continue clinically relevant research in her field. She was recently honored by a Beckman Scholars award, an honor aimed at helping “exceptional students in the biological, chemical, and biomedical sciences learn how to conduct independent research in a nurturing environment.”
“When I graduate from UAB,” she says, “I plan to receive an M.D./Ph.D. degree and continue clinically relevant research.”
May 01, 2014
There are actually 223 small islands (in geology-speak, an “archipelago”), and UAB Honors Program student Yoonhee Ryder recently spent six weeks getting to know one of them, named Vanua Levu, personally.
The Huntsville, Alabama, native was part of a group of students conducting an archaeological excavation in the area.
“It was an absolutely amazing experience,” Ryder says of the project. “I learned more in the six weeks than I ever have, including how to dig, do lab work, camp, cook over a campfire, take ‘ocean baths,’ and more.”
Her international interests also extend to the Middle East. She’s pursuing a double major in biology and anthropology, with minors in Middle Eastern studies and chemistry. She plans to spend time abroad doing humanitarian work, en route to her eventual goal of becoming a physician.
Ryder is one of 10 students chosen from the U.S. by the Clinton Presidential Foundation to “expand their educational and cultural horizons by studying in the Arab world.”
March 24, 2014
Two advanced students in The College, Nicole Watkins in History and Kyle Besing in Mathematics, won second and first place, respectively, in this year’s Graduate Student Research Days, hosted by UAB Graduate School.
Selected by peer review, rather than faculty (as had been done in the past), the two winners were scored on content, delivery, visual aid and preparation.
Selected by peer review, rather than faculty (as had been done in the past), the two winners were scored on content, delivery, visual aid and preparation.
We’ve all heard the term “big data,” and we know that genomic research is the future of medicine, from diagnosis to therapeutics. Scientists are making regular advances in understanding how genes and proteins determine our likelihood to develop chronic conditions including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cancer.