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Stimulus response

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    With support from close to $90 million in stimulus-backed grant awardsand countingfrom various federal agencies, University of Miami investigators have embarked on research projects aimed at finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems.

    Stimulus-backed research is being conducted on UM's Coral Gables, Miller School, and Rosenstiel School campuses.

    The bioreactor that will enable Weiyong Gu to analyze the growth characteristics of intervertebral tissue without having to remove samples from the device hasn’t even been invented yet. But the University of Miami biomedical engineer is in a race against time, working long hours in his lab to build the instrument that could help pave the way for advanced techniques in the engineering of human tissue to replace organs.

    At UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the challenge that confronts geochemist Peter Swart lies not in building a new device, but in using existing tools to determine whether the technique of carbon capture can actually help solve the global-warming crisis.

    Both investigators are conducting their research with the blessing and backing of Uncle Sam. They are beneficiaries of hefty grants that have been flowing from the federal government’s coffers ever since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) pumped $10.4 billion into the National Institutes of Health, with $8.2 billion earmarked for scientific research priorities.

    Several slices of the ARRA federal stimulus pie designated for scientific research grant awards have found their way onto the plates of many UM investigators. They’re using the funds to probe promising therapies for the world’s greatest ills, find solutions to pressing problems, and spur the economy.

    So far UM has received 114 stimulus grants totaling nearly $90 million. The awards have supported 286 University employees and created or retained nearly 110 jobs.

    Grants range from the $65,102 that will help the UM-NSU Center for Autism and Related Disabilities retain an employee who helps children with the condition to the $15 million that will go toward the construction of the Rosenstiel School’s new seawater laboratory, where scientists and engineers will study how hurricanes and other extreme weather events affect natural and manmade environments.

    Applications for ARRA funding are still pouring in, keeping the UM office that is charged with processing grant proposals busier than ever.

    Ever since Congress passed the $787 billion stimulus package and earmarked a portion for research, labs, and other facilities, the University’s Office of Research has noted a huge spike in its proposal volume.

    “Recently there was a Monday deadline for NIH Challenge Grants,” says Jennifer McCafferty-Cepero, assistant dean for research at the Miller School campus-based Office of Research. “We got information from Washington that the system (the federal infrastructure to accept grants) was so strained that investigators were being told not to wait till Monday to put in their submissions. So our staff worked the entire weekend and all day Monday to make sure that all of our faculty members’ grant applications made the deadline.”

    Churning out grant proposals is just one of the monumental responsibilities undertaken by the Office of Research. The unit has also done a yeoman’s job of informing investigators of emerging ARRA-funding opportunities by conducting workshops on all three campuses. The workshops, some of them standing-room-only, highlight what McCafferty-Cepero calls the “barrage” of proposal requests coming from not only federal agencies that normally award grants, but those that typically don’t. In addition to agencies such as the NIH, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Science Foundation, research awards have also poured in from the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Energy, and Transportation.

    To manage its ARRA-related endeavors, UM created a 25-member Stimulus Working Group, which has gleaned information on funding opportunities the moment they are released. “That’s definitely been one of the keys to the success we’ve had,” says Rudy Fernandez, vice president for Government Affairs. “The working group represents the University’s diverse activities and expertise, allowing us to vet every granting opportunity with an eye toward our strengths.”

    Fernandez notes that stimulus funding is driving more than research. It’s also cementing the University’s future through upcoming construction projects such as the planned seawater lab at the Rosenstiel School and the recently announced Neuroscience and Health Annex. The latter project, funded by a $14.8 million NIH grant and scheduled for completion in early 2012, will be a 37,700-square-foot addition to UM’s Cox Science Center where scientists from the College of Arts and Sciences and Miller School of Medicine will conduct interdisciplinary studies based on neurological imaging and health research.

    Stimulus money is also ensuring the future of UM students. With a stimulus grant from the Department of Education, the Division of Enrollment Management has been able to make some additional awards to support 134 needy incoming freshmen and transfer students in the Federal Work Study program.

    “We have seen an 8- to 10-percent increase in the number of students working in the program this [academic] year,” says Grisel Valdes, assistant dean of enrollment management and director of the Office of Student Employment. “It’s impossible to track if the increase in the working numbers is due to the ARRA funds specifically, but it’s my opinion that it helped.”

    Still, research projects—many of them addressing social, medical, and environmental problems—account for the lion’s share of the stimulus money UM has received. And because the money runs out in two years, UM researchers are working against tight deadlines designed to move their respective research projects forward and quickly jumpstart the economy.

    Richard Bookman, vice provost for research and executive dean for research and research training at the Miller School, says recovery funding is sure to “bolster our faculty and staff’s continuing commitment to pursue new knowledge and innovative approaches to understanding the most pressing problems of our generation while providing some local economic relief.”

    Here’s a look at just a handful of the stimulus-backed research initiatives being conducted across the institution.


    Miller School professor of epidemiology Lisa Metsch.

    After someone tests positive for HIV, counseling is typically offered as both a first step to initiate medical care and as a strategy to reduce the patient’s risky behavior. But what researchers need to learn more about is whether counseling can help those who test negative for the virus.

    Now, Lisa Metsch, a Miller School of Medicine professor of epidemiology who studies HIV prevention, has embarked on a two-year stimulus-backed study to find out.

    Her $12.3 million grant, to be shared with the San Francisco Department of Health, will examine the effectiveness of HIV prevention counseling by following some 5,000 patients at nine sexually transmitted disease clinics in six states and Washington, D.C.

    The subjects, who will be from groups at a higher risk for contracting the virus, will be given “client-based, brief risk-reduction counseling,” says Metsch, noting that the study will also look at the cost-effectiveness of counseling. It will begin at the end of February.

    “Counseling was shown to be efficacious in previous trials conducted by the CDC and NIH. But those studies were done before rapid HIV testing,” Metsch says. “In the absence of a vaccine and cure for HIV, prevention has now really ballooned in terms of being one of the biggest strategies to curb the virus. There’s a big push right now to get everyone to know their HIV status. But we need to recognize that most people will not have an HIV-positive test. So for the people who will get the negative test, is it just enough to test? Or is there a value in also doing counseling? That’s why this study is needed.”


    Three years ago, Associate Professor of Psychology Patrice Saab initiated a $1.3 million NIH-funded study aimed at educating the public about and increasing scientific knowledge of heart health.

    An interactive exhibit based at the Miami Science Museum became one of the focal points of Saab’s Heart Smart study. Since the exhibit’s opening last October, museum patrons have played a critical role in the study, getting their blood pressure taken and entering information about their level of physical activity, nutrition, general health status, age, gender, and ethnicity at different computer kiosks. Biobehavioral researchers will eventually analyze the data.

    Now, armed with an NIH-funded stimulus administrative supplement award of nearly $450,000, Saab is expanding the study. She’s adding materials written in Haitian-Creole to the exhibit, which already has a Spanish-language component, and recruiting Haitian and Haitian-American students to serve as docents.

    The supplement will also allow Saab to eventually take the exhibit to a community center in Miami’s Little Haiti and to add a classroom discussion activity to the study’s randomized control trial, which seeks to improve the health knowledge and habits of students from Miami-Dade’s John A. Ferguson High School.

    Had it not been for the ARRA funding, Saab says, she wouldn’t have been able to expand Heart Smart, which, she says, “addresses very important public health concerns about cardiovascular health and well-being. The exhibit will make visitors aware of simple behavior and lifestyle changes they can do to improve their health and offset future complications.”


    When he finally completes it, a first-of-its-kind bioreactor Weiyong Gu is developing could bring the world a step closer to engineering tissue that would replace damaged cartilage, intervertebral discs, and other body parts.

    The bioreactor on which Gu and colleague Charles Huang, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering, are working could make it possible to monitor the electrical, chemical, and mechanical characteristics of engineered tissue and predict its growth and other characteristics without having to remove it from the device—something that can’t be done with current bioreactors.

    The two College of Engineering researchers hope to have the instrument ready and tested within two years. It’s not a lot of time to create something that holds such promise. But that’s the window in which the two investigators are working, as stipulated by an ARRA grant of $735,000 from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

    The device would be a prototype. But if it is successfully produced, Gu envisions replicating several of them. He and Huang work in their McArthur Engineering Annex lab almost every day, and are assisted by a team of graduate students.

    “Imagine using engineered tissue to replace diseased or damaged organs,” Gu says. “That’s the potential of this work.”


    With a $2.6 million NIH stimulus grant, Akira Chiba is studying how individual proteins interact with one another in their natural environment: intact cells that have not been dissected.

    With a $2.6 million NIH stimulus grant, Akira Chiba hopes to do for proteomics—the study of proteins—what the mapping of the human genome did for genomics. He has a powerful new tool in his arsenal to make it happen.

    The photon-based microscope that Chiba’s UM colleague, Daichi Kamiyama, helped design will allow the biologists to study how individual proteins interact with one another in their natural environment, as intact cells that have not been dissected.

    “Until recently, we really couldn’t look directly at molecules in this way,” Chiba explains. “With new technologies, we can now study proteins as they bind and signal with each other to form complex signaling networks.”

    Fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy makes it possible, taking 3D images of living tissue at least 50 times faster than anything else previously found in a lab. Kamiyama played a major role in the microscope’s development while working as a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before joining Chiba at UM as an associate scientist.

    Chiba said he and Kamiyama have used the new microscope “to demonstrate that the binding of two interacting proteins can be visualized directly within the intact brain of a fruit fly—a remarkable achievement that we now propose to repeat for 10,000 different protein pairs in the first 24 months of our project.” UM’s Center for Computational Science will provide memory space and assist in data analysis.

    By the end of the project, the team hopes to have created a map of protein interactions. Chiba says the project will shine a new light on the dynamics of the molecules of life and transform the field of proteomics: “Now we have direct access to the protein network, and that should help improve medical strategies.”


    Trapping harmful gases in a bottle, then putting it away where it won’t poison the air, might sound like a simplistic approach to fighting pollution. But that’s exactly the premise behind carbon sequestration.

    The technique, also known as carbon capture, is a means of capturing carbon dioxide from large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants, converting it to a liquid, and storing it underground. The gas is thus, in theory, kept out of the atmosphere so that it won’t contribute to global warming.

    “The problem is that we’re not really sure exactly what happens to carbon dioxide when it gets pumped in the ground,” says Peter Swart, professor and chair of marine geology and geophysics. “It could react with minerals down there and get caught in stratigraphic traps—places where oil was once trapped. It might also leak out.”

    The U.S. Government wants Swart to find out, and it has given him and his colleagues $2 million—$300,000 of which is stimulus funding—to do so.

    With the ARRA portion of his award, the UM researcher will train a group of doctoral students in techniques to determine whether carbon dioxide is leaking from the ground or staying put at predetermined sites around the country where the Department of Energy has been conducting carbon capture and storage.

    Just where his team will go hasn’t yet been determined. But Swart is aware of test sites in California, Indiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Utah where the government has been pumping C02 underground.

    When they arrive at a test site, Swart and his team will deploy equipment such as seismometers to detect minor seismic activity and GPS receivers to measure a rise in ground levels—both of which are telltale signs that carbon dioxide has been pumped underground. They will also use synthetic aperture radar to measure ground height, take readings of stable isotope composition, and study rocks, examining them closely to see if they’ve undergone a chemical change after reacting with the carbon dioxide.

    “This is new territory,” says Swart, explaining that a study integrating so many different technologies to gauge the effectiveness of carbon capture has never been done before.

    He is teaming on the project with fellow Rosenstiel scientist Tim Dixon, codirector of the Center for Southeastern Tropical Advanced Remote Sensing, which will contribute data from its powerful receivers and satellites. Rosenstiel scientists Falk Amelung, Guoqing Lin, and Dan Riemer are also partnering with Swart on the project.

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