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UAB looks to build on many 2014 successes in the new year

  • December 19, 2014
Looking forward to a promising 2015, UAB News revisits some top stories of 2014.

campusThe University of Alabama at Birmingham experienced many successes and milestones in 2014, including student accomplishments, faculty hires, records set, campus improvements, groundbreaking research and more.

In 2014, UAB saw its sixth straight year of record overall enrollment, with 18,698 students. In its inaugural year, 45 students enrolled in Blazing Start, a program that encourages student success through intensive advising and ongoing academic support, and 361 students took advantage of the Joint Admissions program. The Honors College, which offers experiential learning opportunities and includes the signature University Honors Program, Science and Technology Honors Program, and Global and Community Leadership Honors Program, had its largest-ever incoming freshman class of 375 students, with an average grade-point average of 4.1.

The growing student body is complemented by growth in facilities. In January 2014, the new Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts opened to the public and has hosted more than 5,000 visitors to date. The first major show by an artist of global renown at the AEIVA is the “Warhol: Fabricated” exhibition, coming Jan. 9-Feb. 28, 2015.

The new UAB Student Health and Wellness Center opened in September 2014. It boasts 23,000 square feet of space dedicated to the health, counseling and wellness needs of UAB students. A new freshman residence hall will open in summer 2015 and will house more than 700 students. By the fall semester, students, faculty and staff will enjoy the new 159,000-square-foot UAB Student Center, which will be home to student services and activities, as well as Full Moon Bar-B-Que, Panera Bread, Mein Bowl and Starbucks.

“Excitement for the construction of a new student center is growing,” said Carolyn Farley, director of Academic and Student Services. “This incredible building will create a much better student experience.”

Thousands of middle and high school students in Alabama’s Black Belt will be on the path to higher education in 2015, as UAB recently secured the largest nonhealth-related grant in its history to lead the U.S. Department of Education’s Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant program in Alabama. The UAB School of Education has been awarded a seven-year, $49 million grant to increase the number of low-income students prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education. UAB will serve as the hub of GEAR UP Alabama. This is the first time Alabama has been awarded funds from GEAR UP, which began in 1998.

UAB is making significant investments in UAB Teach, which gives undergraduate students studying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines the ability to enhance career opportunities while improving education across Alabama.

UAB honors student Ameen Barghi was elected to the Rhodes Scholar Class of 2015. He is one of 32 outstanding students in the United States who will start their all-expenses-paid, graduate educations at Oxford University next fall. Barghi is the third UAB student since 2000 named as a Rhodes Scholar.

Barghi, 22, was able to work on computational analyses of MRI neuroimaging, publishing five papers in peer-reviewed research journals as part of the lab of Edward Taub, Ph.D., a world-renowned behavioral neuroscientist in UAB’s psychology department in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences.

“I had the opportunity to learn clinical neuroscience at its finest,” Barghi said. “I’m getting experiences at UAB that kids from the best institutions around the world can’t get.”

Barghi was admitted to UAB’s Early Medical School Acceptance Program. The EMSAP gives highly qualified students an enriched undergraduate experience, with promised admission to the UAB School of Medicine after successful undergraduate work. Barghi is a double-major in the UAB Undergraduate Neuroscience Program, which is run jointly by the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine, and is working toward an individually designed major in translational research. He is enrolled in the UAB Honors College in the Science and Technology Honors Program, as well as the Business Honors Program at the UAB Collat School of Business.

Some of the transformational research produced yearly by UAB investigators is supported in part by funding from the National Institutes of Health. In 2014, UAB NIH funding increased by 20 percent to $225 million, which puts UAB 10th among public universities, and several of its schools highly ranked nationally.

This funding success helped bring about a partnership between UAB and the Southern Research Institute, developer of seven FDA-approved cancer drugs, to develop new medical devices to improve health care in the U.S. and around the globe. This strategic partnership, which is called the Alliance for Innovative Medical Technology (AIMTech), combines the research and discovery expertise of Southern Research Institute scientists and engineers UAB biomedical engineers and clinicians from the UAB School of Engineering. They will take a patient-centric approach to medical technology development.

In 2014, countless published articles from UAB-affiliated authors appeared on ScienceDirect, the world’s leading source for scientific, technical and medical research. Over the last four years, UAB articles published on ScienceDirect combined for an average of more than 1 million downloads a year.

The New England Journal of Medicine, the most widely read general medical periodical in the world, published its Top Articles of 2013 in early 2014, with five Top 10 lists that represent the most popular content among NEJM physician-readers. Myths, Presumptions, and Facts about Obesity, published in NEJM on Jan. 30, 2013, by an international team of researchers led by David B. Allison, Ph.D., associate dean for science in the UAB School of Public Health, made three of the Top 10 lists.

UAB’s cybercrime experts have global influence, and for the second year in a row, the National Security Agency and the Department of Homeland Security took note by designating UAB as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense Research. UAB takes an interdisciplinary approach to its research in these fields, stemming from the innovation of the Center for Information Assurance and Joint Forensics Research. Faculty from schools and departments across campus, including the Department of Computer and Information Sciences, the Department of Justice Sciences, and the Collat School of Business, all play an integral role in furthering education and research in information assurance and joint forensics through the center’s efforts.

As 2014 showed with the Ebola virus, viral infections with limited or no treatment options can pose a major global health threat. A new national research consortium centered at UAB and led by the UAB School of Medicine, the Antiviral Drug Discovery and Development Center, or AD3C, will focus on the discovery of new and better drug therapies as these viruses emerge. The center is funded by an up to $35 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

AD3C principal investigator and program director Richard Whitley, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, says the creation of the Alabama Drug Discovery Alliance in 2008 by UAB and Southern Research Institute helped make this new center possible.

“UAB and SRI have spent a lot of time, money and energy developing the ADDA over the last five years,” Whitley said. “This grant shows how that investment can pay off.”

A UAB School of Optometry researcher is studying a leading cause of death among newborns worldwide. Group B Streptococcus is a bacterium carried by about 40 percent of healthy women, and as many as 25 percent pass it to their infants during birth, despite screening and preventive treatment. Narayana Sthanam, Ph.D., professor of structural biology in the School of Optometry, is working to discover how it escapes the mother’s natural defense systems in hopes that knowledge will lead to a therapeutic intervention. His research is funded by a $1 million R01 grant from the NIH/NIAID.

The start of 2015 will see recruitment begin for a potentially groundbreaking human clinical trial to test a drug shown to completely reverse diabetes in human islets and mice. The three-year, $2.1 million trial funded by the JDRF, known as “the repurposing of verapamil as a beta cell survival therapy in type 1 diabetes,” has come to fruition after more than a decade of research efforts in UAB’s Comprehensive Diabetes Center. Too much of the protein TXNIP – which is increased within pancreatic beta cells in response to diabetes – leads to cell death and thwarts the body’s efforts to produce insulin, thereby contributing to the progression of diabetes.

“We have previously shown that verapamil can prevent diabetes and even reverse the disease in mouse models and reduce TXNIP in human islet beta cells, suggesting that it may have beneficial effects in humans as well,” said Anath Shalev, M.D., principal investigator of the verapamil clinical trial and director of the Comprehensive Diabetes Center.

The nation’s largest single-site kidney transplant chain will also continue into 2015 at UAB. The UAB kidney chain began Dec. 5, 2013, and was featured nationally on the ABC News program “Nightline” on July 3, 2014, and across multiple news outlets. The program featured several members of the current chain and showcased the work of UAB Medicine physicians, nurses and staff who helped make this lifesaving, complex chain a reality.

“To me, these are miracles,” said Jayme Locke, M.D., surgical director of the Incompatible Kidney Transplant Program UAB’s School of Medicine and coordinator of the chain. “From our perspective, this is a significant achievement for the 100,000 people around the country on the waiting list for a transplant, including almost 4,000 people here in Alabama.”

Cancer survivors will continue to have the opportunity to cope, heal and grow, thanks to Harvest for Health, a UAB study that pairs cancer survivors with master gardeners from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Harvest for Health began with a pilot study in Jefferson County, Alabama, in 2011.

“We asked the question ‘If cancer survivors started a vegetable garden, would they eat more vegetables?’” said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., R.D., associate director for Cancer Prevention and Control in the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center and a professor in the Department of Nutrition Sciences in the UAB School of Health Professions. “We found they not only ate more vegetables, they also got more exercise. And their physical functioning improved dramatically,” she said, noting that the study has since been expanded to many counties surrounding Birmingham, along with the Cullman, Montgomery, Mobile and Dothan areas, with support from the National Cancer Institute.

Efforts of a new clinical research program to combat chronic pain and fatigue will be ongoing in 2015 and will be led by Jarred Younger, Ph.D., who came to UAB in 2014 from Stanford University’s School of Medicine. He has a primary appointment in the Department of Psychology and secondary appointments in the Department of Anesthesiology and the Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology.

Younger’s work at Stanford yielded new treatments for pain and fatigue, and he is continuing that work at UAB. “We believe that, in many cases when someone is suffering from chronic pain or fatigue, they may be suffering from low-level inflammation in their brain,” Younger said. “We are investigating ways to return the brain to its normal state.”

The UAB School of Nursing and Birmingham VA Medical Center are again expanding their 43-year-old partnership and the focus on veterans' mental health needs. Created with a five-year grant from the Veterans Health Administration to the Birmingham VAMC, the two are partnering on the VA Nursing Academic Partnerships in Graduate Education (VANAP-GE), the only one of its kind in the country, and will put 48 new psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioners into the VA workforce over the next five years.

The School of Nursing’s ongoing partnership with the Birmingham VAMC played a role in the site’s selection, says Cynthia Selleck, Ph.D., R.N., FNP, the School’s associate dean for Clinical and Global Partnerships. Since 2008, the two institutions have worked together on several key projects, including the VA Nursing Academy Partnership, which teams VA Medical Centers with accredited schools of nursing with the goal of providing compassionate, highly educated nurses to meet the health care needs of America’s heroes.

The UAB School of Dentistry has secured several grants to improve oral health care and access in Alabama and is applying for more to continue widening its scope. With the help of community collaborations, the School of Dentistry has the ability to use its resources to improve the oral health of Alabamians and positively shape the education of the students within the school.

“We like our students to be exposed to these types of activities and initiatives because it gives them a broader perspective,” said Allen Conan Davis, DMD, assistant dean for Community Collaborations and Public Health in the School of Dentistry. “Many of our students choose to do a year’s extension program with a general practice residency, and we want to provide opportunities in the state so they will stay here. By locating them in nearby areas, we hope they will choose to practice in these areas, too.”

UAB will also continue using arts education to empower young people in the Woodlawn community through the ArtReach program, which has had over 1,500 participants since its inception. ArtReach is an endeavor of ArtPlay, the Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center’s home for arts education.

ArtPlay will present two premieres for the upcoming 2015 season: “The Clever George Washington Carver” on Saturday, Feb. 21, and DanceE’s “A DanceE Wild Rumpus” on Sunday, April 26.

The ASC’s new season of shows will feature legendary and rising artists including Branford Marsalis, The Jung Trio, Arlo Guthrie, Aaron Neville Duo, the Wailers, California and Montreal Guitar Trios, Diana Krall, Australia’s Sway Poles, Steve Winwood, and Dr. John and the Nite Trippers. Young Concert Artists and rising stars Andrew Tyson and Julia Bullock will bookend the season and perform as part of the intimate ArtPlay Parlor Music Series. For tickets, a copy of The Center Magazine or more information, call 205-975-2787 or visit

The Campaign for UAB: Give Something, Change Everything, the institution’s largest-ever philanthropic campaign that will run through 2018, continues to support efforts of the institution that advance faculty excellence, support research innovation and economic development, enrich the student experience, develop programmatic support, and enhance UAB’s facilities. In 2014, UAB reached the halfway point to its ambitious $1 billion goal.

To read more about UAB’s top stories of 2014, visit