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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.

UMD and other Leading Academic and Research Institutions Form Global Network to Accelerate Climate Action

November 17, 2016
Contacts: 

James Stillwell 301-405-3032

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland through its Center for Global Sustainability has joined with 19 other leading academic and research institutions around the world to form Research for Climate Action (RCA), an international network connecting world-class research and analytical capabilities with key decision-makers in efforts to inform and spur action on climate change.

“There is unprecedented demand from decision-makers for robust technical and analytical input to guide action on climate change,” said Robert Orr, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland and special advisor to the UN secretary-general on climate change. “RCA will help bridge the gap between knowledge and decision-making processes by harnessing the power of networks and information sharing among leading research institutions and global policy leaders.”

The coalition was announced this week at the 22nd session of the Conference of Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where the global community is working to develop next steps in the path to implementing the Paris Agreement and achieving Sustainable Development Goals.

RCA brings together institutions actively engaged in advancing the research of climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, and connects them with decision-makers seeking to develop analytical expertise. “The United Arab Emirates is proud to support the Research for Climate Action initiative,” His Excellency Thani Al Zeyoudi, UAE minister of climate change and environment, said. “This global network aligns with the objectives of the forthcoming UAE National Climate Change Plan and will help to strengthen our policies and actions through greater information gathering/collection and data analysis.”

Lord Nicholas Stern, IG Patel professor of economics and government, chairman of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, and head of the India Observatory at the London School of Economics, emphasized that, “RCA’s focus on the demand side of the policy equation is both needed and timely. By directly offering decision-makers ideas for tailored products they should seek from the climate research community, this initiative will ensure a strong supply of cutting-edge climate knowledge which can translate effectively into ambitious action.”

Reflecting on her experiences as both a practitioner and academic, high-level climate champion Laurence Tubiana noted the important role that the research community has in supporting action: “Academic and research institutions need to acquire the capacity to provide strong analysis to inform action, and to share this with the wider community, including governments, the private sector, and civil society. Networks like Research for Climate Action will play an essential role in implementing the Paris Agreement.”

Ajay Mathur, director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in India, echoed the importance of knowledge sharing. “The implementation of the Paris Agreement and related SDGs requires multiple policy actions at different levels, and in different sectors. RCA would provide cross-country learning to these policy actions, as well as a robust relationship with local development goals.”

The need for better partnerships between research institutions worldwide was observed by Xue Lan, dean of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University. “We are excited that this initiative is launching just as the implementation of the Paris Agreement starts. Tackling climate change is knowledge-intensive, and collaboration among researchers in different countries is much needed.” This sentiment was similarly reflected by Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “The Research for Climate Action network is precisely what we need to meet our sustainability challenge: innovation, competition, and partnership on the road to a transformed, inclusive, and equitable energy and water system.”

Harald Winkler, director of the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town, captured the importance of RCA moving forward. “The focus on implementation of adaptation and mitigation actions, together with the required finance and technology, is an urgent priority, now that the Paris Agreement has entered into force. The RCA network is an exciting initiative to provide rigorous research on implementation and adaptive management.”

RCA brings together academic and research institutions that are actively engaged in advancing the research and practice of mitigation, adaptation, and resilience, and those seeking to develop analytical expertise in support of decision-makers. RCA partners reflect the commitment to being a global network addressing global challenges, with current engagement from research units in:

  • Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford
  • Energy Research Centre, University of Cape Town
  • The Energy and Resources Institute (India)
  • Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute of Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering (COPPE)
  • Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics
  • Institute for the Study of International Development at McGill University
  • International Center for Climate Change and Development (Bangladesh)
  • International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (Austria)
  • Peking University, National School of Development
  • Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research
  • Pontifical Catholic University of Chile
  • Regional Centre for Climate Change and Decision Making (an initiative of UNESCO and AVINA)
  • School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University
  • Tufts University Center for International Environment and Resource Policy
  • University of California at Berkeley, Renewable & Appropriate Energy Laboratory
  • Institute for Environment and Sanitation Studies, University of Ghana
  • University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability
  • University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment
  • University of São Paulo
  • Yale University Center for Green Chemistry and Engineering

RCA will work to identify high-priority areas for analytical support and leverage the capacity and capabilities of partners in meeting these needs. The rollout of projects is planned to begin in 2017.

For more information: www.researchforclimateaction.org

UMD Meets Climate Action Goal of Reducing Greenhouse Gases by 25 Percent

November 16, 2016
Contacts: 

Andrew Muir 301-405-7068

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- The University of Maryland has achieved a significant milestone on its path to carbon neutrality by 2050. As highlighted in a just released annual Campus Sustainability Progress Report, the university met its Climate Action Plan target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by more than 25 percent in 2015.  The next milestone will be a 50 percent reduction by 2020. 

Key factors that contributed to the university’s carbon footprint reduction:

  • Increased investments in renewable energy as a source of electricity. In 2015, 76 percent of purchased electricity was produced by wind and solar power;
  • Implementation of energy conservation projects to slow the growth of demand for energy due to new construction and increased use of technology;
  • Single occupancy vehicle use decreased with more students living on campus or near campus and/or choosing green commuting alternatives like taking Shuttle-UM and biking;
  • Waste diversion from landfills through recycling and composting efforts increased and the selection of a landfill that captures methane instead of letting it release to the atmosphere.

“The university reached a difficult milestone last year by achieving a 25 percent reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions,” said Scott Lupin. Director, Office of Sustainability. It has required continuous self-evaluation of our policies and projects and a great deal of team-work. This is the combination we will need to achieve the 2020 goal.”

Energy conservation is a key area that the university is focused on to reduce its carbon footprint.  In 2014, President Wallace Loh announced the President’s Energy Initiatives, aimed at increasing the energy efficiency of all campus buildings and ensuring that by 2020 all purchased electricity comes from renewable energy sources. Projects such as the upgraded building controls for the HVAC Systems at Marie Mount Hall have made an immediate impact in reducing electricity consumption. The Department of Engineering and Energy in Facilities Management and the Department of Environmental Safety, Sustainability and Risk rolled out energy implementation guidelines to campus in an effort to communicate energy efficiency strategies. 

“Conservation is not always about high dollar investments," said Mary Ann Ibeziako, Director, Department of Engineering and Energy.  "We can all make an impact, starting today. Often times, our daily decisions can make a much bigger difference than we realize. For instance, relying on natural light whenever possible or ensuring that lights are switched off and computers are powered down at the end of the day."

Transportation is also an area where carbon emissions have declined.  The Shuttle-UM system continues to thrive and ridership has grown from about 1.5 million riders in 2005 to close to 3.5 million riders in 2015.  With increased campus bike infrastructure and the new mBike sharing program, more students are choosing to ride their bicycles to campus. Additionally, more on campus or near campus housing options have made it easier for students to access campus without needing a car. The average fuel efficiency of vehicles brought to campus by students has also been increasing. Overall, commuting emissions from faculty, staff and student-owned vehicles were 21 percent lower in 2015 than they were in 2008.  The Department of Transportation Services continues to look for ways to encourage the campus community to select green commuting options.

“As a campus, we have come a long way in reducing carbon emissions associated with transportation but we still have a lot of work to do,” said David Allen, Executive Director, Department of Transportation Services. “DOTS is looking forward to improving existing sustainable transportation programs and introducing new ones to the campus to help meet our 2020 goals.”

While the university has maintained strong institutional and individual recycling rates, one of the biggest impacts made recently was in its selection of landfill facilities.  In 2013, Building and Landscape Maintenance’s Office of Solid Waste and Recycling rebid the university’s waste disposal contract and stipulated that the disposal site should collect and combust landfill gas.  As a result, the waste material goes to a landfill that collects the methane for use in an electrical generator. Because of these efforts, UMD’s solid waste emissions are now only 6 percent of what they were in 2005.

“Contracting with a disposal site that has the ability to capture the methane gas for use in generating electricity was a win-win scenario,” said Bill Guididas, Coordinator of Administrative Services, Building and Landscape Maintenance.  “We were able to reduce our tip fee for solid waste disposal and support our goal for carbon neutrality.”

The Progress Report also showcases the university’s continued excellence in the areas of education and sustainable behavior change. Additional highlights from the report include:

  • The university co-hosted an international Climate Action 2016 forum and summit led by the School of Public Policy;
  • The Green Office Program celebrated its 5-year anniversary of changing office behaviors;
  • By using bottle filling stations around campus, the university community prevented the purchase and disposal of almost 3 million plastic water bottles.
  • The University System of Maryland announced that it will stop investing the university’s endowment directly in the top 100 public coal, oil and gas companies.

While the university was able to achieve its 25 percent carbon emissions reduction target by the end of 2015, the next Climate Action Plan (CAP) goal of reducing emissions 50 percent by 2020 will be a difficult challenge. Areas for campus improvement include sustainable water use, maintaining strong energy conservation performance, and finding ways to offset air travel. The Office of Sustainability in partnership with the Environmental Finance Center (EFC) and the University Sustainability Council are working on revising the Climate Action Plan with a new set of implementation strategies to help provide a more detailed and direct path to reach carbon neutrality in 2050. 

In addition to highlighting campus actions and achievements, the Campus Sustainability Progress Report provides the University Sustainability Council and the campus community with data that allows for future planning around sustainability issues.

To view the Campus Sustainability Progress Report:  http://go.umd.edu/progress2016

UMD-Led Study Links Extreme Heat to Increased Hay Fever in U.S. Adults

November 15, 2016
Contacts: 

Kelly Blake 301-405-9418

College Park, Md. -- Hay fever, or seasonal allergic rhinitis, affects 17.6 million adults in the United States and results in $11.2 billion in related medical expenses. A new multi-institutional study led by researchers from the University of Maryland's School of Public Health and College of Computer, Mathematical and Natural Sciences shows that exposure to more frequent “extreme heat events” increases the prevalence of hay fever among US adults.

“It is well established that extreme heat events are on the rise, and this trend is projected to continue in response to changing climate,” explained Amir Sapkota,PhD, associate professor in the School of Public Health’s Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and senior author of the study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology in Practice. “Our study is the first to provide evidence of how such increases in extreme heat events contribute to allergic diseases such as hay fever at a national level.”

The study, “Exposure to extreme heat events is associated with increased hay fever prevalence among nationally representative sample of US adults: 1997-2013,” linked National Health Interview Survey Data (1997-2013) with extreme heat event data. The research team, which included five UMD researchers as well as scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Johns Hopkins University, identified extreme heat events during 1997-2013 at the county level by comparing the daily maximum temperature (Tmax) to the county and calendar month specific thresholds (95th percentile of Tmax values) that were calculated based on 30 years of baseline data (1960-1989).

The research team used statistical analysis to investigate the association between increased frequency of extreme heat events and hay fever prevalence, taking into account other factors such as age, race/ethnicity, sex, educational level, poverty status, and urban/rural residence. They found that adults in the highest quartile of exposure to extreme heat events had a seven percent increase in hay fever compared to those in the lowest quartile of exposure.

“While the exact mechanisms by which long-term exposures to extreme heat events increase the risk of hay fever remain unclear, one potential explanation is changes in plant phenology,” said Crystal R. Upperman, PhD, lead author of the study. “Higher frequency of extreme heat events, particularly in the winter and spring may lead to a longer pollen season as warmer temperatures contribute to earlier onset of greening and flowering of plants -- including trees-- which are major sources of pollen.”

Researchers found the timing of extreme heat events also made a difference in hay fever rates. The association between exposure to extreme heat events and hay fever was more pronounced for extreme heat events that occurred during the spring season, with evidence of a clear exposure-response relationship. This was not the case for extreme heat events that occurred during the fall season.

Sapkota and Upperman say the seven percent increase in prevalence of hay fever is modest, but they argue it could have significant implications for millions of people in the United States who suffer from allergy, including decreased quality of life and additional medical expenses.

According to Raghu Murtugudde, a leading UMD Earth system scientist and study co-author, U.S. chronic disease burdens like asthma and other respiratory diseases can cost tens of billions per year in terms costs of treatment and of lost labor. "Climate change and atmospheric emissions directly play into changes in vegetation and pollen combining with heat and pollution to exacerbate these morbidities. Thus this [study] is another cautionary tale on the need to factor in such impacts on health as we evolve new emission and climate policies for the country," Murtuggude said. Read Murtugudde's LiveScience climate op-eds here.

The study was funded by National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant 1R21ES021422-01A1 to researchers Chengsheng Jiang (UMD SPH), Frank C. Curriero (JHU), and Amir Sapkota (UMD SPH). Publication was also made possible by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science To Achieve Results (STAR) grant (F13B20312) to Crystal Romeo Upperman (UMD SPH).

Plant Scientists Identify Gene to Combat Crippling Wheat Disease

November 11, 2016
Contacts: 

Graham Binder 301-405-9235

College Park, MD -- A major breakthrough in the cloning of a resistance gene to eliminate wheat scab -- a widespread disease responsible for drastic reductions in crop yield as well as millions of dollars in annual losses worldwide -- has been achieved by a multi-institutional team of researchers including Nidhi Rawat, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Michael O. Pumphrey, associate professor in Washington State University's Crop and Soil Sciences Department, who together performed most of the experimental work.
Healthy wheat head (left) vs. one infected with Wheat Scab
This discovery has broad implications for the future as a promising source of resistance to not only wheat scab, but a variety of similar host plants affected by the fungal pathogen known as Fusarium graminearum. Ultimately, once the nature of gene action is known, the findings can be applied to control other Fusarium species which causes rot in cucurbit, tomato and potato to name a few.

Fusarium graminearum produces a toxin that makes the infected crop unfit for human and animal consumption. James Anderson, a professor of wheat breeding and genetics at the University of Minnesota, said there are frequent epidemics of the disease reported in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia and South America.

Historically, wheat scab -- otherwise known as Fusarium Head Blight -- has been a very difficult problem to solve. 20 years of research that includes input from scientists in China and several American Universities has been slow to produce results, with resistance only found in a select group of local Chinese plants. Until now, nothing was known about the Fhb1 gene and its ability to provide broad-spectrum resistance. The multi-University team, which also included researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Minnesota, used sophisticated wheat genome sequencing techniques to isolate the gene. Now that the DNA source of the resistance is known, processes that would take years to replicate can be done in much quicker fashion in a diagnostics lab. The team recently published their work in Nature Genetics.

“After quite a long research process into Fusarium Head Blight, we are thrilled to uncover a solution to help the international farming community combat this devastating disease,” says Dr. Rawat. “Fhb1 is very special, as only a few broad-spectrum resistance genes have been cloned so far that provide multi-pathogen resistance. The durability and applicability of Fhb1 puts it in a category all to itself and we must learn how to harness it appropriately.”

Moving forward, Rawat and her colleagues will work towards utilizing Fhb1 for solving a multitude of diseases caused by the pathogen. Research will involve optimizing the transfer of this resistance to other crops infected by Fusarium species through breeding, transgenic, cis-genic, and genome editing techniques.

Funding for this project has been provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative and the National Science Foundation. The agricultural experiment stations at each of the participating universities also provided support.

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