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UMD is a Founding Member of New Alliance to Expand Access and Opportunity for 50,000 Talented Students from Lower-Income Families

December 13, 2016
Contacts: 

Katie Lawson, 301-405-4622

American Talent Initiative brings together 30 of nation’s most respected colleges and universities, launches national effort to attract, enroll and graduate more high-achieving, lower-income students

COLLEGE PARK, Md. --  The University of Maryland is one of 30 of the nation’s most respected colleges and universities that have joined forces today on a new initiative to substantially expand the number of talented low- and moderate-income students at America’s top-performing undergraduate institutions with the highest graduation rates.

ATI MapThe American Talent Initiative (ATI), supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies, brings together a diverse set of public and private institutions united in this common goal. They are enhancing their own efforts to recruit and support lower-income students, learn from each other, and contribute to research that will help other colleges and universities expand opportunity.

"As a land-grant flagship at a time when many people feel left behind, our mission of social mobility and educational opportunity is more critical than ever,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “Our vigorous efforts to recruit the most talented, highest achievers, regardless of socioeconomic background, will contribute to this collaboration. Participating is an honor, a challenge, and a duty.”

Aiming to welcome more of the 270 institutions with graduation rates of 70 percent or higher over the next few years, the members of the American Talent Initiative have set a goal to attract, enroll, and graduate 50,000 additional high-achieving, lower-income students at those 270 colleges and universities by 2025. Based on the most recent federal data available, there are around 430,000 lower-income students enrolled at these 270 institutions. In other words, ATI’s goal is to increase and sustain the total number of lower-income students attending these top-performing colleges to 480,000 by 2025.

“If we're serious about promoting social mobility in America, we need to ensure that every qualified high school student in the U.S. has an opportunity to attend college. I'm so glad that so many great colleges and universities have stepped up today and committed themselves towards that goal. This is a vital first step towards creating a more meritocratic society," said Michael R. Bloomberg, founder of Bloomberg Philanthropies and three-term Mayor of New York City.

Colleges and universities participating in the American Talent Initiative aim to further the national goal of developing more talent from every American neighborhood by:
•    Recruiting students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds through robust outreach;
•    Ensuring that admitted lower-income students enroll and are retained through practices that have been shown to be effective;
•    Prioritizing need-based financial aid; and
•    Minimizing or eliminating gaps in progression and graduation rates between and among students from low-, moderate- and high-income families.

Members will share lessons learned as well as institutional data, annually publishing their progress toward meeting the national goal of 50,000 additional lower- income students by 2025. The Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program and Ithaka S+R, the two not-for-profit organizations coordinating the initiative, will study the practices that lead to measureable progress and disseminate knowledge to the field through regular publications.

Catharine Bond Hill, Ithaka S+R managing director and former Vassar president, noted that “this Initiative speaks to fairness and equal opportunity for thousands of students who currently can’t claim either, and to the enormous societal benefit that comes from nurturing all of our most talented young people. Recent research suggests that at least 12,500 high school seniors per year have SAT scores in the top 10 percent with 3.7 grade point averages or higher – and still do not attend the top 270 colleges.  If each of these institutions commits to do its share, an additional 50,000 talented students–12,500 in each grade level–will benefit from the incredible opportunity these colleges and universities offer and that these students have earned.”

Member institutions of the American Talent Initiative are committing substantial resources to attract, enroll, and graduate students at their individual campuses. This initiative is co-managed by the Aspen Institute’s College Excellence Program (www.aspeninstitute.org/college-excellence) and Ithaka S+R (www.sr.ithaka.org) and funded with an initial $1.7 million, multi-year grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Grant funding will be used for best-practice research and dissemination, convenings of college presidents and staff, and data analysis and reporting.

To learn more about the American Talent Initiative, including a list of the participating institutions, visit http://www.americantalentinitiative.org.

UMD Researchers Show How Online Communities Bridge the Rural-Urban Healthcare Divide

December 13, 2016
Contacts: 

Greg Muraski 301-892-0973

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Online communities are helping patients find and share information and connect with each other at unprecedented levels. But can they also create social value by helping to bridge the disparities between rural and urban health care?
 
As part of a recent study published by MIS Quarterly, University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business professors Ritu Agarwal and Guodong "Gordon" Gao, and former doctoral student Jie Mein Goh, now at Canada's Simon Fraser University, asked whether online health communities can create social value, by helping to alleviate regional health disparities between rural and urban patients. "It was a novel question that has not been asked before," Agarwal says of the research, "The Creation of Social Value: Can an Online Health Community Reduce Rural-Urban Health Disparities?"
 
The professors say that while the question demands further study, their research did find that conversations within the online community played an instrumental role in bridging the divide, "amplifying" the health capabilities of rural users.
 
It works in two ways, they say. First, online communities provide a platform for rural patients to ask questions and to learn from urban patients about the nature of the disease and treatment options that might be more readily available in better-serviced settings. Secondly, they offer emotional support, similar to what's available at in-person support groups, and that can make a big difference, the researchers say, in managing disease conditions and maintaining a positive outlook, which can be crucial for longer-term health outcomes.

The researchers note their findings may apply generally to health and/or wellness social network sites, including ones like Inspire or DaoCloud, the later founded by UMD/Smith School alum Eric Green. 
 
The disparities between urban and rural patients have been well-documented through the years, with rural residents facing a distinct lack of access to healthcare resources and knowledge. In their research, Agarwal and Gao took a closer look at that gap, and studied whether online health communities might "plausibly provide an alternative forum that transcends geographic constraints" and create a supportive social network that spans the divide.

"Obviously it's no substitute for a doctor who might need to perform a procedure," Agarwal says, "but you can understand better how to cope with your condition and also understand better what your treatment options are, because urban patients have access to very sophisticated medical resources."

In their research, Agarwal and Gao used data from an unidentified online community that was centered on a rare disease. Because of the disease's uncommon nature, the online community attracted a broad cross-section of urban and rural patients, making it an "ideal setting" to examine the value potential of social support among patients.

Through the data, they observed the interactions in the community over a 44-month period. The results showed that far more social support was sent to rural users from urban ones, which the authors say demonstrates social value creation and underscores the potential for online networks to positively influence public health.

"We truly believe that these communities can empower patients and build their own capabilities to manage their disease," says Agarwal. "It's not simply a matter of giving people treatment or access to healthcare, you want to enhance their own capability to manage their disease." This is an overriding theme in the national healthcare discussion today about how we can move toward more patient-centered healthcare.

The researchers note their findings also generally can apply to wellness social network sites like Inspire or DaoCloud, the later founded by UMD/Smith School alum Eric Green. 

These online communities have grown in prominence and relevance in recent years, alongside the expansion of other social media platforms, the professors say, as people become increasingly more comfortable talking candidly about aspects of their lives online.

For patients grappling with a rare disease, there is often a strong drive to find other people they can relate to. "It's a matter of desperation almost," says Agarwal. "For people who have these unique situations, sometimes the Internet is the only way to reach out widely to determine who else might be suffering." 

"The power of being able to connect with others like yourself," she adds, "is enormous."  

For health care providers, the online forums offer a chance to understand more fully how patients experience a disease, Gao says.

"I think doctors can learn a lot by what patients are discussing, and that can provide an important channel for them to understand how care might be delivered better," he says.

The forum also provides an outlet for the topics that patients might not feel comfortable discussing with their physicians, he says. "Especially where it relates to questioning whether doctors are doing the right thing," Gao says. "Patients do not normally confront a doctor directly. But they will talk about their concerns in the communities."

The role of the online health communities, meanwhile, is something that policymakers should pay attention to, Agarwal says.

"From a policy perspective, this is a lower-cost way of making health care more accessible for everyone, at least from the perspective of knowledge and understanding," she says. However, given the lingering urban-rural, digital, education and economic divides across the country, more must be done to train people in "less-advantaged areas of the country to use these online tools as effectively as they can."

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UMD Alumnus and Arcode Corporation Founder, President to Deliver 2016 Winter Commencement Address

December 12, 2016
Contacts: 

Katie Lawson, 301-405-4622

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland announced that David M. Baggett, a UMD alumnus and founder and president of Arcode Corporation, will deliver the university's winter commencement address on Dec. 20, 2016. He will be joined by this year’s student speaker, Jacob Lowenstein, who is graduating with degrees in accounting and finance.

"I am excited and honored to be addressing this graduating class of seniors," says Baggett. "The University of Maryland has transformed a great deal since I graduated nearly 25 years ago and has become one of the nation's top public research universities. I am proud to stand among top-notch students of the winter 2016 graduating class at an institution that I am proud to call my alma mater."

An innovative thinker who has been writing software since childhood, Baggett is always searching for new ways that technology can solve everyday, practical problems. The son of an electrical engineer and cookbook writer, Baggett earned degrees in computer science and linguistics from the University of Maryland in 1992. By the time he graduated, he had already founded companies that designed video game development systems and published interactive fiction.

While pursuing his master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he became part of the team behind the groundbreaking and wildly popular Sony PlayStation video game “Crash Bandicoot.” Besides giving Sony a mascot, the game series from Naughty Dog Inc., where Baggett was a programmer and vice president, was pioneering in its graphic speed and detail.

In 1997, Baggett co-founded ITA Software, which revolutionized how people could travel with the help of cheaper and more powerful computer programs. By assisting airlines like America West and websites like Orbitz, the company’s software greatly expanded the choices and convenience of booking flights. As COO, Baggett oversaw software development, operations and customer relations, expanding the company from 20 employees to more than 500, with revenue topping $70 million a year. In 2011, Google acquired ITA for $700 million.

More recently, Baggett, founder and president of Arcode Corp., has focused his creative and entrepreneurial spirit on email and messaging: his new startup's product Inky makes it easy for anyone to encrypt their email with any mail account, ensuring confidentiality and preventing identity theft and phishing attacks.

Named a distinguished alumnus by both the College of Arts and Humanities and the Department of Computer Science, Baggett has supported undergraduate scholarships and post-baccalaureate fellowships at UMD in linguistics research.

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Lenzer to Cultivate UMD Innovation-Based Economic Development Efforts

December 9, 2016
Contacts: 

Elise Carbonaro 301-405-6501

Julie Lenzer to serve as Associate Vice President for Economic Development and Director of UM Ventures – College Park

Julie Lenzer. Credit: Maryland Center for EntrepreneurshipCOLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland (UMD) today announced the appointment of Julie Lenzer as Associate Vice President for Economic Development, effective December 12, 2016. Lenzer will also serve as Director of UM Ventures – College Park in the UMD Division of Research.

Lenzer is an award-winning software entrepreneur, ecosystem builder, investor, and educator with a foundation in innovation-based economic development.

Lenzer joins UMD after a two-year appointment at the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration, where she was director of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship and senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker. In this role, Lenzer developed and launched the Regional Innovation Strategies program, deploying $40 million in grants across the country over the course of two years. The program was recently recognized as one of President Barack Obama’s Top 10 Actions to Accelerate American Entrepreneurship. Additionally, Lenzer led the successful reorganization and institutionalization of the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship within the Economic Development Administration, and as a result was named the U.S. lead for the G20 Innovation Task Force.

“Julie’s remarkable experience and connections will ignite our growing innovation ecosystem,” said University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh. “She has launched her own enterprises and worked in and out of government to build innovation networks. She has done it all and will do it here.”

Prior to her work in the Commerce Department, Lenzer served as the first leader of the Maryland Center for Entrepreneurship. As executive director, Lenzer built and connected regional entrepreneurial ecosystems and delivered entrepreneurship development and growth programs across complex local, regional and state markets. She is also a founding co-chair of Startup Maryland, which through its statewide bus tour, Pitch Across Maryland, connected innovation communities and increased entrepreneurial success across the state. Recently, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan appointed Lenzer to the Maryland Economic Development Commission.

“The university’s academic and research programs are incredibly strong, and there is a great opportunity for university innovation to flow into the surrounding community, transforming good ideas into economic growth and jobs,” said Lenzer. “I look forward to channeling my most recent experience at the national and international level to benefit my home state of Maryland.”

As Associate Vice President for Economic Development and Director of UM Ventures-College Park, Lenzer will report to the Division of Research and the President’s Office. She will foster and support the development that is currently underway in the UMD Research Park and Greater College Park. She will also promote and facilitate productive, university-wide collaboration to launch startup ventures based upon University intellectual property, as well as maximize synergies between UMD and the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) to leverage strengths of each and encourage technology commercialization.

“Julie’s technology commercialization experience at the regional, state, national, and international level will surely benefit the university’s efforts to bring ideas from the laboratory to the marketplace to help stimulate the regional economy,” said UMD Interim Vice President for Research Amitabh Varshney.

In all of these efforts, Lenzer will foster collaboration between the university’s entrepreneurship and venture creation groups, including the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Maryland Technology Enterprise Institute (Mtech), the Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, the Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, and the Maryland Small Business and Technology Development Center.

Lenzer is a serial entrepreneur, technology transfer educator, and an active member of the Maryland community. She received the EDA Bronze Award for Excellence in Development, participated in the President Leadership Workshop, and has been recognized as one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women, an Influential Marylander, and a Bisnow Federal Innovator. Lenzer earned a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from Texas A&M University.

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UMD-Led Study Sheds New Light on How Socioeconomics Impact Childhood Language Comprehension

December 8, 2016
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin 301-405-1733

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — New research from the University of Maryland Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences suggests that understanding the effect of socioeconomic status on children’s ability to learn and understand language requires identifying not just what children hear but how they use it.

Prior studies have found systematic relationships between how much caregivers talk to children and what they learn. A famous 1995 study by researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley indicated that some children heard thirty million fewer words by their 4th birthdays than others. On average, research has found that children from higher-socioeconomic status families hear more language than their lower-socioeconomic status peers; and it is commonly assumed that exposure to fewer words is a significant barrier to language learning for children in lower-socioeconomic households.

Now, the results of a new UMD-led study forthcoming in the journal Cognition suggest that socioeconomic status differences are much more targeted .
U.S. Dept. of Education_children-progress-in-our-schools photo
“Our research tests the hypothesis that all children—regardless of socioeconomic status—learn grammatical structure with minimal input, but hearing more language allows children to retrieve their knowledge from memory more efficiently during comprehension,” said Yi Ting Huang, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences, who led the study. “This means the effect of socioeconomic status on development reflects not a failure to learn language but challenges with recalling what has already been learned during communication.”

Huang and study co-authors Kathryn Leech from the University of Maryland Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology and Meredith Rowe from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education tested roughly 130 English-speaking three- to seven-year-olds from families of various socioeconomic levels on their comprehension of an infrequent grammatical structure (e.g., passives like “The seal is eaten by it”). Relative to the higher- socioeconomic status (SES) peers, children from lower-SES families had more difficulty understanding sentences that introduce high comprehension demands. Yet, when these demands were removed (e.g., “It was eaten by the seal”), no SES differences were found.  These findings suggest that all children learned infrequent structures, but language experience may enable some to access this information more readily during later comprehension.
 
This work also sheds light on why vocabulary size differs across socioeconomic backgrounds. Current interventions like the 30 Million Words Initiative are based on the assumption that children’s failure to learn words reflects a lack of experience with those words at home. Yet Huang and her colleagues found that even when that input exists from caregivers, learning can be challenging if children can’t accurately retrieve grammatical knowledge in order to comprehend sentences.
 
“In total, our results suggest that isolating why outcomes vary across populations requires identifying not just what children hear but how they use it,” said Huang. “Gaining a better understanding of the effects of socioeconomic status on early language development is crucial for reducing achievement gaps in school readiness. I hope our research can help in the development of new strategies and interventions to help all children with language development, regardless of their socioeconomic status.”

The full article can be downloaded here for a limited time.

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UMD Model Offers New Perspective on How Pluto’s “Icy Heart” Came to Be

December 1, 2016
Contacts: 

Irene Ying 301-405-5204

COLLEGE PARK, MD. – Pluto’s “icy heart” is a bright, two-lobed feature on its surface that has attracted researchers ever since its discovery by the NASA New Horizons team in 2015. Of particular interest is the heart’s western lobe, informally named Sputnik Planitia, a deep basin containing three kinds of ices—frozen nitrogen, methane and carbon monoxide—and appearing opposite Charon, Pluto’s tidally locked moon. Sputnik Planitia’s unique attributes have spurred a number of scenarios for its formation, all of which identify the feature as an impact basin, a depression created by a smaller body striking Pluto at extremely high speed.

Pluto, shown here in the front of this false-color image, has a bright ice-covered "heart." The left, roughly oval lobe is the basin provisionally named Sputnik Planitia. Sputnik Planitia appears directly opposite Pluto's moon, Charon (back). Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI.

A new study led by Douglas Hamilton, professor of astronomy at the University of Maryland, instead suggests that Sputnik Planitia formed early in Pluto’s history and that its attributes are inevitable consequences of evolutionary processes. The study was published in the journal Nature on December 1, 2016.

“The main difference between my model and others is that I suggest that the ice cap formed early, when Pluto was still spinning quickly, and that the basin formed later and not from an impact,” said Hamilton, who is lead author of the paper. “The ice cap provides a slight asymmetry that either locks toward or away from Charon when Pluto’s spin slows to match the orbital motion of the moon.”

Using a model he developed, Hamilton found that the initial location of Sputnik Planitia could be explained by Pluto’s unusual climate and its spin axis, which is tilted by 120 degrees. For comparison, Earth's tilt is 23.5 degrees. Modeling the dwarf planet’s temperatures showed that when averaged over Pluto’s 248-year orbit, the 30 degrees north and south latitudes emerged as the coldest places on the dwarf planet, far colder than either pole. Ice would have naturally formed around these latitudes, including at the center of Sputnik Planitia, which is located at 25 degrees north latitude.

Hamilton’s model also showed that a small ice deposit naturally attracts more ices by reflecting away solar light and heat. Temperatures remain low, which attracts more ice and keeps the temperature low, and the cycle repeats. This positive feedback phenomenon, called the runaway albedo effect, would eventually lead to a single dominating ice cap, like the one observed on Pluto. However, Pluto’s basin is significantly larger than the volume of ice it contains today, suggesting that Pluto’s heart has been slowly losing mass over time, almost as if it was wasting away.

Even so, the single ice cap represents an enormous weight on Pluto’s surface, enough to shift the dwarf planet’s center of mass. Pluto’s rotation slowed gradually due to gravitational forces from Charon, just as Earth is slowly losing spin under similar forces from its moon. However, because Charon is so large and so close to Pluto, the process led to Pluto locking one face toward its moon in just a few million years. The large mass of Sputnik Planitia would have had a 50 percent chance of either facing Charon directly or turning as far away from the moon as possible.

“It is like a Vegas slot machine with just two states, and Sputnik Planitia ended up in the latter position, centered at 175 degrees longitude,” said Hamilton.

It would also be easy for the accumulated ice to create its own basin, simply by pushing down, according to Hamilton.

“Pluto’s big heart weighs heavily on the small planet, leading inevitably to depression,” said Hamilton, noting that the same phenomenon happens on Earth: the Greenland Ice Sheet created a basin and pushed down the crust that it rests upon.

While Hamilton’s model can explain both the latitude and longitude of Sputnik Planitia, as well as the fact that the ices exist in a basin, several other models were also presented in the December 1, 2016 issue of the journal Nature.

In one of those papers, UC Santa Cruz Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences Francis Nimmo, Hamilton and their co-authors modeled how Sputnik Planitia may have formed if its basin was caused by an impact, such as the one that created Charon. Their results showed that the basin may have formed after Pluto slowed its rotation, migrating only slightly to its present location. If this late formation scenario proves correct, the properties of Sputnik Planitia may hint at the presence of a subsurface ocean on Pluto.

“Either model is viable under the right conditions,” said Hamilton. “While we cannot conclude definitively that there is an ocean under Pluto’s icy shell, we also cannot state that there is not one.”

Although Pluto was stripped of its status as a planet, an ice cap is a surprisingly Earth-like property. In fact, Pluto is only the third body—Earth and Mars being the others—known to possess an ice cap. The ices of Sputnik Planitia may therefore offer hints relevant to more familiar ices here on Earth.

The research paper, "The rapid formation of Sputnik Planitia early in Pluto’s history," Douglas P. Hamilton; S. A. Stern; J. M. Moore; L. A. Young; and the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics & Imaging Theme Team, was published in the journal Nature on December 1, 2016.

This research was supported by NASA’s New Horizons project. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of that organization.

UMD Researchers Crack the Code of a Deadly Virus

November 28, 2016
Contacts: 

Abby Robinson 301-405-5845

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV) is an unforgiving killer of horses, donkeys and zebras, resulting in mortality as high as 80 percent of infected animals. It causes rapid, catastrophic swelling of the brain and spinal cord, leading to severe neurological symptoms and—in many cases—sudden death. The virus also can infect people with similar results. According to the Centers for Disease for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there are about 6 human cases a year in the U.S. with a mortality of about 33 percent. The U.S. and Soviet Union both weaponized VEEV during the Cold War, prompting the CDC and the National Institutes of Health to classify VEEV as a category B pathogen.

A research team led by the University of Maryland has exploited a weakness in VEEV’s genetic code, resulting in a far less deadly mutant version of the virus when tested in laboratory mice. The new discovery could enable the development of a vaccine and other drugs to combat VEEV. The findings were published online November 16, 2016 in the Journal of Virology.

Like many other dangerous viruses, VEEV has RNA as its genetic material instead of DNA. Because a similar weakness exists in RNA viruses that pose serious health risks to humans—such as HIV, Zika, chikungunya and others—the discovery could advance the development of treatments for these viruses as well.

“RNA viruses tend to cause acute infections,” said Jonathan Dinman, professor and chair of the UMD Department of Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics, who is the senior author on the research paper. “You either fight them off quickly, like the common cold, or they overwhelm you, like Ebola.”

Dinman and his colleagues exploited a mechanism known as programmed ribosomal frameshifting (PRF), which allows RNA viruses to pack a larger amount of genetic information into a relatively short sequence of RNA. By prompting an infected cell to read the same sequence of RNA in two different phases, PRF allows a virus to create two different proteins instead of one.

The researchers created a mutant version of VEEV with a disrupted PRF mechanism, which impaired the virus’ ability to create a second protein from a specific section of RNA. Tests in cultured cells did not reveal a large difference in the rate of virus production. But when the researchers tested the mutant virus in laboratory mice, they saw a dramatic increase in the rate at which infected mice survived the disease.

“With some simple mutations, we compromised VEEV’s ability to be a virulent virus,” said Joe Kendra, a biological sciences graduate student at UMD and the lead author of the study. “This result shows that PRF might be a therapeutic target for other viruses. If we can confirm that the mutant virus confers immunity, opening the door to a vaccine, that will be very exciting.”

In addition to a higher survival rate of mice infected with mutant VEEV, the researchers also noted a lower incidence of the virus accumulating in brain tissues. Dinman, Kendra and their co-authors suspect that the missing protein in the mutant virus plays a role in the virus’ ability to cross the blood-brain barrier—an essential step to cause brain swelling.

“It’s interesting that the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV) virus uses PRF to survive, but we can also manipulate that mechanism to work against it,” said study co-author Yousuf Khan, an undergraduate biological sciences major and Goldwater Scholar at UMD. “This is a new way to target viruses and make vaccines. It opens up a lot of new research questions.”

According to Dinman, the finding is particularly encouraging in light of the challenge posed by climate change, as viral diseases begin to extend their range north beyond the tropics.

“So many of these diseases are borne by mosquitoes. Chikungunya is now established in the Caribbean, and Zika has been found in two counties in Florida,” Dinman said. “These viruses are on our doorstep. But these results give us hope. Developing a vaccine takes a long time, but with a concerted effort across government and academic labs, we have a good chance.”

The research paper, “Ablation of programmed -1 ribosomal frameshifting in Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus results in attenuated neuropathogenicity,” Joseph Kendra, Cynthia de la Fuente, Ashwini Brahms, Caitlin Woodson, Todd Bell, Bin Chen, Yousuf Khan, Jonathan Jacobs, Kylene Kehn-Hall and Jonathan Dinman, was published online November 16, 2016 in the Journal of Virology.

This work was supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (Award No. HDTRA1-13-1-0005) and the National Institutes of Health (Award No. 2T32AI051967-06A1). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

UMD Biological Sciences Senior Aaron Solomon Named Marshall Scholar

November 28, 2016
Contacts: 

Abby Robinson 301-405-5845

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- University of Maryland senior Aaron Solomon has been named a 2017 Marshall Scholar. The Marshall Scholarship, which allows American students to pursue graduate study at any university in the United Kingdom, is considered one of the most prestigious academic awards available to college graduates. Aaron Solomon named Marshall Scholar

“Aaron is a young man bursting with ambition, creativity and grace,” said Mary Ann Rankin, senior vice president and provost at UMD. “He has already compiled a notable record of solution-driven research accomplishments and made extraordinary investments in service activities demonstrative of his deeply held commitment to improving the lives of others. We are privileged to count him among our own.”

Solomon—who is majoring in biological sciences, with a specialization in cell biology and genetics, and minoring in computer science—plans to use the scholarship toward a Master of Science degree in genomic medicine at Imperial College London followed by a Master of Philosophy degree in bioscience enterprise at the University of Cambridge. His long-term plans include earning his Ph.D. and pursuing a career in computational genomics.

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” said Solomon, who also completed a citation in the Integrated Life Sciences Program of the Honors College. “The Marshall Scholarship will enable me to study cutting-edge biomedical science on a global scale and collaborate internationally to enhance human health. Throughout my years in the United Kingdom, I hope to prepare myself to tackle future challenges at the nexus of science and society.”

UMD’s fifth Marshall Scholar, Solomon has extensive community service and research experience, including projects focused on drastically reducing greenhouse gas pollutants in agricultural fertilizers using nanoscience techniques, genetically engineering fungi to attack mosquitos carrying malaria and developing bioinformatic tools to better understand breast cancer patient data.

During a summer research internship in 2015, Solomon analyzed trauma resuscitations and developed new software to flag drugs effective at lowering mortality rates caused by infectious pathogens at the University of Maryland Medical Center’s R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. He also coordinated the efforts of lawyers, researchers and institutional officials to negotiate a major data-use agreement with other medical institutions, enabling the resumption of a five-year research program that had been halted by institutional conflicts over information sharing.

“I would easily rank Aaron as the top undergraduate I have mentored during my 25-year career,” said Maureen McCunn, professor in the Department of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Solomon’s mentor at the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. “Aaron’s work ethic is incredibly strong, he is never afraid to ask questions and is barely able to contain his inquisitiveness during even the most stressful situations. His curiosity seems genuinely boundless.”

Solomon has also applied his scientific knowledge and computational skills to the bioterrorism arena for the past year.

“When I received funding to develop a tool to assess the threat of insiders smuggling nuclear weapons by air, I took the unusual move of asking Aaron—an undergraduate—to lead the project's software development efforts,” said Gary Ackerman, director of the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at UMD. “It’s important to note how rare this was; this project is not mere academic research, Aaron and the team he assembled are producing a tool that will be used by government agencies, air carriers and airports around the world to prevent catastrophic threats.”

In March 2017, Solomon and two classmates will watch a biology experiment they developed launch to the International Space Station. The experiment aims to expand our understanding of how bacteria behave in microgravity—and ultimately how to safeguard space travelers.

“There’s nothing like fulfilling a childhood dream of flying to space—even if it’s by proxy of an experiment,” said Solomon, who is a graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s Science and Technology Magnet Program in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Among his several community service activities, Solomon currently directs the Maryland Minorities in Math tutoring program, which enables underprivileged youth at nearby schools to build the mathematical competency necessary for success in the sciences. As president, he tripled the size of the program, integrated computer science into the curriculum in hopes of spurring interdisciplinary curiosity and innovation among the students, and initiated the program in middle schools.

“Aaron is extraordinary,” said Richard Bell, a UMD associate professor of history who serves as UMD’s faculty advisor for United Kingdom fellowships. “He has a knack for teamwork and for building consensus and has repeatedly seized opportunities to apply his training in the biological sciences and computational mathematics to pressing real-world problems.”

Founded by a 1953 Act of Parliament and named in honor of U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall, the Marshall Scholarships commemorate the humane ideals of the Marshall Plan and they express the continuing gratitude of the British people to their American counterparts. The first class of 12 Marshall Scholars arrived in the United Kingdom in 1954; those elected today will enter universities in 2017.

The scholarships, which can be extended up to three years, provide university fees, cost of living expenses, an annual book grant, a thesis grant, research and daily travel grants, fares to and from the United States, and a contribution toward the support of a dependent spouse.

UMD Receives $3M NSF Grant to Train Graduate Students in Network Biology

November 22, 2016
Contacts: 

Abby Robinson 301-405-5845, Barabara Brawn-Cinani (writer)

 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The University of Maryland recently received a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation grant to help researchers in the life sciences learn how to transform the massive amounts of raw data made possible by the advent of powerful new technologies into useful information from which new biological insights can be inferred.

Through the NSF Research Traineeship grant, UMD is establishing a new training and research program in network biology. The Computation and Mathematics for Biological Networks (COMBINE) program will teach graduate students in the life sciences how to marry physics-style quantitative modeling with data processing, analysis and visualization methods from computer science to gain deeper insights into the principles governing living systems.

“More data does not mean better information without the interdisciplinary tools required to make the transformation,” said COMBINE’s principal investigator Michelle Girvan, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology. In her own research, Girvan combines methods from statistical physics, nonlinear dynamics and computer science to develop network science tools that can address problems in computational biology and sociophysics.

The COMBINE program anticipates training approximately 60 Ph.D. students, including 35 who will be supported by 12-month fellowships. Participants will receive training in four areas of network analysis: quantitative metrics for biological networks; mechanistic models of biological networks; network statistics and machine learning for biological applications; and visualization techniques for large, complex biological data sets. This training will provide the foundation for research in at least one of the following areas: biomolecular, neuronal and/or ecological/behavioral networks.

Research experiences, interdisciplinary coursework, peer-to-peer tutorials and internships with partners—including the Smithsonian Institution, the National Institutes of Health, the University of Maryland School of Medicine and industry partners—will provide the graduate students with the skills needed to communicate complex scientific ideas to diverse audiences to maximize impact. Outreach activities will extend the benefits of the program to undergraduates, middle and high school students, and to the public at large.

COMBINE brings together a unique, multidisciplinary team of researchers. Co-principal investigators of the program are Associate Professor Daniel Butts and Professor Bill Fagan of the Department of Biology, and Associate Professor Hector Corrada Bravo and Professor Amitabh Varshney of the Department of Computer Science and the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies. Varshney also serves as interim vice president for research and chief research officer at UMD.

The highly competitive NSF Research Traineeship  program fosters development and implementation of bold, new, potentially transformative models for graduate education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Fewer than 10 percent of proposals submitted to the program are funded.

"Innovative and interdisciplinary approaches will be key to tackling tomorrow’s scientific challenges, and today’s STEM graduate students will need to develop the skills to meet those challenges," said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF assistant director for education and human resources. "The NSF Research Traineeship program is testing new models to train graduate students across STEM disciplines and to prepare them for contributions in diverse careers.”

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation (Award No. DGE1632976). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the view of this organization.

Giant “Great Valley” Found on Mercury by Scientists from UMD and other Institutions

November 21, 2016
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A newly discovered giant valley on the planet Mercury makes the Grand Canyon look tiny by comparison. Located by an international team of scientists from the University of Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution, the German Institute of Planetary Research and Moscow State University, the expansive valley holds an important key to the geologic history of the innermost planet in our solar system.
Mercury’s great valley (dark blue) and Rembrandt impact basin (purple)
Discovered using stereo images from NASA’s MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging (MESSENGER) spacecraft, the “great valley” lies in the planet’s southern hemisphere and overlaps the Rembrandt Basin—a large crater formed by a relatively recent impact from an asteroid or other such body. But the “great valley” formed in a much different way, according to a research paper published online November 16, 2016 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. In the image at right Mercury’s giant valley is shown in dark blue and its Rembrandt impact basin in purple.

Unlike Earth, which has a crust and upper mantle (collectively known as the lithosphere) divided into multiple tectonic plates, Mercury has a single, solid lithosphere that covers the entire planet. As the planet cooled and shrank early in its history, roughly 3-4 billion years ago, Mercury’s lithosphere buckled and folded to form the valley, much like the skin of a grape folds as it dries to become a raisin.

“This is a huge valley. There is no evidence of any geological formation on Earth that matches this scale,” said Laurent Montesi, an assistant professor of geology at UMD and a co-author of the research paper. “Mercury experienced a very different type of deformation than anything we have seen on Earth. This is the first evidence of large-scale buckling of a planet.”

The valley is about 250 miles wide and 600 miles long, with steep sides that dip as much as 2 miles below the surrounding terrain. To put this in perspective: if Mercury’s “great valley” existed on Earth, it would be almost twice as deep as the Grand Canyon and reach from Washington, D.C. to New York City, and as far west as Detroit.

More notable than its size, according to Montesi, is how the valley most likely formed and what that reveals about Mercury’s geologic history.

The valley’s walls appear to be two large, parallel fault scarps—step-like structures where one side of a fault moved vertically with respect to the other. Both scarps plunge steeply to the flat valley floor below. According to Montesi and his co-authors, the best explanation is that Mercury’s interior cooled rapidly, forming a strong, thick lithosphere. The entire floor of the newly discovered valley is one giant piece of this lithosphere that dropped between the two faults on either side.

This would make sense if, like most planets, Mercury has been steadily cooling since its formation. But Montesi notes that there are several clues to suggest that Mercury went through a more recent period of warming. This analysis, if true, would upend some time-tested assumptions about Mercury’s geologic past.

“Most features on Mercury’s surface are truly ancient, but there is evidence for recent volcanism and an active magnetic field. This evidence implies that the planet is warm inside,” Montesi said. “Everyone thought Mercury was a very cold planet—myself included. But it looks like Mercury might have heated significantly in recent planetary history.”

The research paper, “Fault-bound Valley Associated with the Rembrandt Basin on Mercury,” Thomas Watters, Laurent Montési, Jürgen Oberst, and Frank Preusker, was first published online November 16, 2016 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

This work was supported by NASA (Award No. NNX07AR60G) and the Russian Science Foundation (Award No. 14-22-00197). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

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