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Postdocs in UAB News

  • Floyd named president-elect of National Neurotrauma Society

    UAB’s Candace Floyd is set to take a top leadership post with the National Neurotrauma Society.

    Candace Floyd, Ph.D., associate professor in the University of Alabama at BirminghamDepartment of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, is the president-elect of the National Neurotrauma Society. The president-elect will assume the duties of president in June 2016 for a one-year term. Floyd previously served terms as vice president and secretary/treasurer.

    The National Neurotrauma Society seeks to accelerate research that will provide answers for clinicians and ultimately improve the treatments available to patients. It is open to scientists interested in neurotrauma research and promotes excellence in the field by providing opportunities for scientists, establishing standards in both basic and clinical research, encouraging and supporting research, and promoting liaisons with other organizations that influence the care and cure of neurotrauma victims.

    Floyd is the holder of the Women’s Committee of Spain Rehabilitation Center Endowed Chair in Rehabilitation Neuroscience Research and the director of Research for the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. The central focus of her research is to develop new treatments for spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury.

    She earned her doctorate from the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University and did postdoctoral training in traumatic central nervous system injury research at the University of California, Davis. She joined UAB in 2006.

    She serves as grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Her research is currently supported by the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health and private organizations including the National Football League.

  • A researcher in motion, chasing trials and trails
    Epidemiologist Olivia Affuso studies new ways to prevent obesity and chronic disease through physical activity. She also volunteers with two groups that use running to help women and girls achieve fitness and personal goals.

    As a member of UAB’s Nutrition Obesity Research Center and Center for Exercise Medicine, Olivia Affuso, Ph.D., has a clear goal: preventing obesity and chronic disease through physical activity. During many of her evenings and weekends, she helps women and girls put these ideas into practice.

    Affuso, an associate professor of epidemiology in the UAB School of Public Health, has developed a patent-pending, photography-based method that could change the way obesity interventions are measured. She is also a board member of the Birmingham Council of Girls on the Run, an international organization that uses running “to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident,” Affuso said.

    Girls on the Run Birmingham has served more than 1,000 girls in third through fifth grades at schools around the Birmingham area since 2011. The program, which combines group runs and lessons on everything from bullying to teamwork, “is for every girl,” Affuso said. “We use running as a creative, fun activity to help the girls learn to establish goals and healthy habits.”

    Finding your own happy pace

    During each Girls on the Run season, in spring and fall, Affuso and the group’s other board members “adopt” the teams at participating schools. Each team is led by volunteer teachers and coaches from the school; in spring 2015, there were 17 teams at 14 sites. Affuso usually volunteers for the long-distance treks, bringing a small token of appreciation for the coaches and a healthy snack for the students. “For the past few seasons, I’ve worked with a team in Sylacauga, and with the Boys and Girls Club team in Montevallo,” she said. “I am willing to drive wherever I am needed to support the girls.” At the end of each season, the teams gather for a 5-kilometer race. This spring, nearly 260 girls from the program completed their goal at Veterans Park in Hoover, along with friends and others from their communities.

    Girls on the Run isn’t about competition, Affuso said: “Everyone is encouraged to go at her own happy pace.” When she runs on her own, Affuso pushes harder. Since taking up the sport as a master’s student at Georgia State University, she has steadily increased her mileage, completing her first marathon in 1999. In March 2014, she attempted her first 100-mile race, Alabama’s Lake Martin 100. Bad weather forced the vast majority of participants to drop out; Affuso made it 62 miles before stopping. However, she conquered the 100-mile challenge this past September at a race in Michigan, finishing in 29 hours and 17 minutes. Her goal is to complete a 50-kilometer trail race in all 50 states.

    Curves and computation

    In her lab, Affuso is tackling another daunting challenge. In this case, the hurdles are technical — is it possible to use simple photos to accurately estimate a person’s body composition? Studies examining obesity interventions generally use body mass index (BMI) to determine whether participants are successful at losing weight. To measure BMI, all you need is a participant’s height and weight and a calculator. But this simple formula is also imprecise. People with lots of muscles may appear overweight, for instance, and those who are tall can appear normal or even underweight, when they actually have too much body fat. A much more accurate way to measure body composition is the DXA (pronounced dex-a) scan, but these expensive machines are not portable and aren’t widely available for clinical or field research.

    Affuso had an idea for a better approach. Previous studies had shown that trained DXA technicians could accurately guess a person’s body composition before they were ever measured by the machine. Affuso wanted to see if she could mimic that judgment using digital photographs and some advanced computer algorithms. Her initial project was funded by Max Michael, M.D., dean of the School of Public Health, in the school’s annual Back of the Envelope Awards competition. After a successful pilot test with that funding, Affuso is now in the fourth year of a five-year, $2.5 million NIH study to test the idea at scale. The Photobody study is enrolling 2,000 men and women, ages 6–70. To help the computer detect body contours, men have to wear spandex shorts, and women wear shorts and a close-fitting top. Eventually, Affuso hopes to have the system work with minimal everyday clothes. (Learn more about the work in this UAB Magazine feature.)

    “We know the process works,” Affuso said. “Now we’re breaking it down to questions like, How well does it work with women in a certain age group, or with different racial/ethnic groups?”

    The power of nudges

    Affuso recently launched a new technology-based study exploring movement and motivation. She is recruiting both college-age women ages 19–30 and girls ages 8–11 in order to study their responses to new wearable activity trackers, like the popular Fitbit bands. (Her study is using the MovBand, primarily because of its objective measurement of physical activity and long battery life, she says.) Affuso wants to know whether participants will actually use the devices in their daily lives. Then she plans to see whether the immediate feedback the trackers give on activity can help the women and girls stay more active. “What we want to do is reduce the amount of time they’re being sedentary,” Affuso said. “Even if someone exercises 30 minutes per day, if they spend the rest of the time being sedentary, they’re likely to have negative health effects.”

    Affuso plans to create challenges that indirectly get participants to move regularly, “without saying explicitly, ‘You need to walk more’ or ‘You need to go for a run,’” she said. “It’s using the behavioral economics model of nudging.”

    Community in motion

    At the end of the workday, Affuso hits the trails — often in the company of runners from one of many groups in Birmingham. Since 2011, she has been involved with the national organization Black Girls Run, which encourages black women to run by building a safe, supportive community. She was one of the founding ambassadors of the group’s Birmingham affiliate, which was the first in Alabama. “We started with 10 people, and now we have more than 4,600 women on our Facebook page,” Affuso said. “We have at least seven opportunities to run during the week here in Birmingham,” she added, and there are also groups running in Anniston, Tuscaloosa, Huntsville and Montgomery. “The success of this group relies heavily on the tireless volunteers and dedicated runners,” Affuso said.

    The members of Black Girls Run also help to support the Girls on the Run participants by serving as running buddies during the annual 5K race, or becoming “SoleMates” — raising money by asking people to sponsor them for a race. “It can be any running event,” Affuso said. For her SoleMate challenge, she chose the Leadville Marathon in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, which involves climbing “to over 13,000 feet of lung-crushing elevation,” she said.

    Charting a course to Birmingham

    Affuso, who is originally from Orangeburg, South Carolina, earned a master’s degree in sports nutrition at Georgia State University and a Ph.D. in nutritional epidemiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I was very interested in the interaction between diet and physical activity in the prevention of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes,” she said. “While at Georgia State University, I worked on projects with elite athletes as well as community-based interventions — both of which included a diet and exercise component.”

    In 1999, as she started her doctoral work in Chapel Hill, Affuso met UAB’s David Allison, Ph.D., at a conference, and the two researchers kept up with each others’ work. In 2006, after Affuso finished a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Miami, Allison invited her to give a seminar at the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center. “I had never visited Alabama and wasn’t thinking about moving here,” she said, “but once I came and saw the resources that UAB had available and the opportunity and the entrepreneurial spirit, it turned out this was a good place for me to be.”

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UAB Research News

  • Research says ‘play value’ gap exists between playgrounds in affluent and nonaffluent communities
    Play is an important part of child development, and a UAB student research project shows that disparities exist between play spaces depending on where one lives.

    Parks with low play value have physical and social barriers for play activities. These include limited open areas with closely mown grass for open play, and lack of security fencing. Such park environments serve only limited play purpose, with static rather than dynamic features of play equipment, and do not support children’s daily requirements for physical activity. Parks with low play value often lack environmental biodiversity features or loose play materials for manipulation.The play value of parks, playgrounds and open play spaces is higher in affluent communities than in nonaffluent communities, according to research from occupational therapy students in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Health Professions.

    The findings, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, suggest that the disparity in play spaces can affect the physical and psychological health benefits that children receive from play.

    Play value refers to the usability of any environmental features or play areas as a setting for play, generating diverse play opportunities and experiences that suit various children’s needs, motivations and abilities.

    “Children learn through play, and studies have shown that access to safe, well-designed parks provides health benefits to children,” said Gavin Jenkins, Ph.D., OTR/L, assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy who mentored the student research project. “Understanding the quality of play environments will help communities ensure that all children have access to imaginative, stimulating play environments.”

    The four UAB OT students, Amy Maher, Emily Rose, Kristina Gregory and Megan Cotton, studied six parks in Mountain Brook, Alabama, and five parks in Irondale, Alabama. According to the most recent United States Census Bureau American Community Survey, the median annual income for Mountain Brook ($131,281) is more than double that of Irondale ($50,157), which is below the U.S. average. 

    The students, paired in teams of two, conducted independent evaluations of each play park using the Playable Space Quality Assessment Tool, or PSQAT. The PSQAT provides scores based on location, play value, and care and maintenance. Mountain Brook’s median scores were nearly 50 percent higher in play value (61.00 vs. 43.50) and care and maintenance (76.43 vs. 53.57) and almost double Irondale’s location score (82.14 vs. 47.14).

    “The children who were actively using the Mountain Brook play spaces appeared to have all needs available, such as clean restrooms, accessibility to play structures and spaces, and cleared walking surfaces,” Maher said. “There was also a noticeable sense of safety as police or maintenance was present while the children engaged with other children in their play environments.”

    The student authors say parks with high play value draw children and young people to visit, and also provide opportunities for a variety of play activities, including allowing children to adapt park elements for their own play purposes and support free exploration.The student authors say parks with high play value draw children and young people to visit, and also provide opportunities for a variety of play activities, including allowing children to adapt park elements for their own play purposes and support free exploration. These characteristics of parks entice children and young people to return time and again for repeat visits.

    On the other hand, parks with low play value have physical and social barriers for play activities. These include limited open areas with closely mown grass for open play, and lack of security fencing. Such park environments serve only limited play purpose, with static rather than dynamic features of play equipment, and do not support children’s daily requirements for physical activity. Parks with low play value often lack environmental biodiversity features or loose play materials for manipulation, the authors suggest.

    “Studies like this could be used to help communities determine how well they are doing, but perhaps more importantly help them to prioritize the improvements needed to their sites,” Jenkins said. “This study provides a further window into the challenges of providing suitable play environments and opportunities for children and young people who live in low-income neighborhoods.”

    “Improving parks and playgrounds would encourage families to use the play spaces, and that in-turn would give children more access to active play, which is central to child development and social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being,” Maher said.

    The students’ research was part of their final research project supported by their Occupations of Infants, Children and Adolescents class in the Master of Science in Occupational Therapy program. As part of the program, the students learn the importance of play, stages of play, functions of play, and more, for their careers as OTs.

    In the conclusion of this study, the students noted that their research provided them “a further window into the challenges of providing suitable play environments and opportunities for children and young people who live in low-income neighborhoods.”

  • UAB faculty recognized nationally for biomedical research
    Sorge honored as a young leader in the field of pain research and neuroscience by national organization.

    Robert Sorge, Ph.D., was named one of seven Rita Allen Foundation Scholars for 2015. Sorge is an assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program supports basic biomedical research in the fields of cancer, immunology and neuroscience. Scholars are early-stage investigators and leaders in their respective fields who are advancing our understanding of the human condition.

    Sorge’s research is primarily in the field of neuroscience, specifically focused on pain. His lab explores the interplay between addiction and pain, as well as the role of the immune system in pain sensitivity. As a scholar in pain research, Sorge will be granted $50,000 per year for up to three years to support his work.

    The Rita Allen Foundation Scholars program has supported more than 140 scientists since 1976. The program embraces innovative research with above-average risk and groundbreaking possibilities. Scholars have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, the National Medal of Science, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

    “By investing in outstanding biomedical scientists at the early stages of their careers, we are providing resources to these scholars to pioneer new approaches and discoveries,” said Elizabeth Christopherson, president and chief executive officer of the Rita Allen Foundation. “Researching basic biological questions is essential to improving human health and alleviating suffering caused by cancer, chronic pain, mental illness and other maladies.”

    Sorge joins a prestigious class of scholars, with other recipients representing Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, New York University and others.

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