Can a succinct idea written on the back of an envelope have the spark of research genius?

(From left to right) Rui Feng in Biostatistics, Sadeep Shrestha in Epidemiology, David Becker in Health Care Organization and policy and Claudiu Lungu in Environmental Health Sciences were the inaugural Back of the Envelope award winners.
Certainly, said UAB School of Public Health (SOPH) Dean Max Michael, M.D., talking about the origins of the inaugural Back of the Envelope Awards – a seed money grant project for health research. The awards are funded out of the school’s own budget.

“It seemed like an interesting way to allow people to be creative, identify them and give some of them an opportunity to play with an idea,” Michael explained.

After SOPH faculty were invited to submit ideas – literally on the back of a standard letter envelope – 19 researchers responded by a late October deadline. Winners were chosen for creativity, innovation and other factors.

The four 2008 winners were: David Becker, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Health Care Organization and Policy; Rui Feng, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Biostatistics; Claudiu Lungu, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Environmental Health Sciences; and Sadeep Shrestha, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Epidemiology.

The award includes seed money based upon the number of months each researcher plans to devote to the project and how much laboratory time, biosamples and other equipment they need, Michael said.

Winning projects
• Becker will examine the health insurance and pension benefits of Major League Baseball players to see if differences in coverage translate to differences in long-term health status. Specifically, he will compare and contrast the health and longevity of those who played before and after dramatic changes in benefits borne from a 1981 players’ strike agreement. The work holds relevance to an ongoing debate about health care reform, Becker said.

• Feng will work to create statistical models that better show how combinations of or repeating gene variations can help predict a person’s risk of getting sick or having a disease. Geneticists now scan those variants for patterns and compare the results to the genomes of healthy volunteers, a process called whole-genome association (WGA) studies. Feng said he hopes to provide researchers with new algorithms and better software that effectively combine WGA study results.

• Lungu will test the viability of using versatile, tiny carbon “nanotubes” in monitoring devices that measure air quality. Environmental health experts and doctors would like improved sensitivity for devices measuring dangerous smog-causing gases and vapors called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Nanotubes are tiny, porous and strong enough to revolutionize air monitoring, Lungu said.

• Shrestha will examine underpinnings of a human gene that, when missing bits of DNA or appearing with extra DNA segments, seems to confer some protection from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Many trials of a proposed HIV vaccine have failed, and a back-to-basics DNA approach to HIV immunity has gained interest. Shrestha’s lab-based analysis could help create a model for gene-based studies that would work for many diseases, he said.

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