Research at Nebraska: February 2023 highlights

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Tiffany Lee, March 3, 2023

Research at Nebraska: February 2023 highlights

In case you missed these stories highlighting research and creative activity at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Office of Research and Economic Development’s communications team has compiled a roundup of some recent top stories from

Husker scientist developing more precise method to create polymer coatings

Who: Mona Bavarian, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering

What: Bavarian received a $576,802 CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an advanced manufacturing platform for polymer coatings, which are essential to making many electronic devices. The manufacturing standards for producing these polymers are stringent, including strict requirements for purity and production time. To help manufacturers meet these bars, Bavarian is using artificial intelligence to develop a flow chemistry process that would replace traditional batch manufacturing.

“Taking this approach, we can improve manufacturers’ ability to produce synthetic materials while limiting defects and improving the quality of high-performance materials,” Bavarian said.

Writer: Dan Moser, Office of Research and Economic Development  

Qiao named NAI senior member

Who: Wei Qiao, Clyde Hyde Professor of electrical and computer engineering

What: Qiao was named a senior member of the National Academy of Inventors, a designation that honors early-stage innovators’ success in patents, licensing and commercialization. Qiao, a named inventor on 13 issued U.S. patents, is an internationally recognized engineer in the areas of sustainable energy and energy efficiency. His work enables some of tomorrow’s most promising technologies, including next-generation wind and solar power, electric vehicles and electric grids.   

“A lot of my work is closely related to industry production, manufacturing and improving people’s daily lives,” he said. “Most of my grad students end up working in industry, developing new products that improve daily life and improve the manufacturing process. I think that’s the major impact of my work.”

Writer: Tiffany Lee, Office of Research and Economic Development

Team earns $1M grant to bridge connections between history, civil rights

Who: William Thomas, Angle Chair in the Humanities and professor of history; Katrina Jagodinsky, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of history; Jeannette Jones, Carl A. Happold Associate Professor of history and ethnic studies

What: Husker law and history scholars are collaborating to launch a curricular, research and collaboration hub that will position the university as a national leader in education and scholarship focused on U.S. law and race in American history. The project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, will establish academic programs for undergraduate and graduate students; develop an open educational resource featuring unpublished U.S. cases; and produce documentary films and oral histories in collaboration with community partners.    

“The primary reason we need this project is that, for the most part, Americans and American students are exposed to only a thin slice of American cases in history,” Thomas said. “But think of the thousands of courthouses around the United States. This is the biggest set of historical evidence that’s untapped in American history. We want to bring it into the light, share it and talk about it.”

Writer: Tiffany Lee, Office of Research and Economic Development

Husker research delves into breast milk consumption, brain development

Who: Janos Zempleni, Willa Cather Professor of molecular nutrition and director of the Nebraska Center for the Prevention of Obesity Diseases

What: Zempleni received a $638,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to advance his research linking breastmilk consumption to healthy brain development. Milk contains large quantities of natural nanoparticles called exosomes, which play a key role in cellular communication affecting organ function. Zempleni’s team will explore how the gut microbiome absorbs exosomes and produces certain nanoparticles to transmit exosome-based signals to the brain.

“If you look at the clinical and epidemiological data, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that milk consumption in infants, compared to formula, has beneficial effects on brain function and brain health,” Zempleni said. “So, the ultimate goal is maybe to arrive at a way to develop improved infant formulas, basically exosome-fortified formulas.”

Writer: Geitner Simmons, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources Media

Study explores paths to religious beliefs among underrepresented communities

Who: Dena Abbott, assistant professor of counseling psychology and research affiliate of the Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools

What: Abbott is using a grant from the John Templeton Foundation through the Queen’s University Belfast to study the causes of unbelief for people who are part of demographic groups underrepresented in atheism studies. She will examine how people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and gender-diverse individuals arrived at their atheism, including the role of oppression-related stressors and social support networks.

“I think there is a real movement right now toward equity for non-religious folks,” Abbott said. “I’m hopeful that it raises public consciousness about these issues when we live in a society in which nearly 30% of the population identifies as non-religious. From my work in health and mental health service, it brings to attention that this is a group we should be thinking about to provide adequate affirming and responsible care.”

Writer: Chuck Green, Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools

New technique yielding insights, potential inhibitors of disease-related enzyme

Who: David Berkowitz, Willa Cather Professor of chemistry; Martha Morton, research associate professor of chemistry; and Berkowitz student team members and alumni Stephany Ramos de Dios, Aina Antony, Danielle Graham, Jared Hass and Nivesh Kumar

What: The enzyme serine racemase is tied to maladies like schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease and ischemic stroke. This Husker research team recently revealed a technique for recording the enzyme in action, tracking its reactions and screening for inhibitors that could influence its activity. The platform – which is also useful for studying other enzymes – will enable researchers to learn about serine racemase’s chemistry in detail and facilitates the hunt for potential pharmaceutical-grade inhibitors.

“We can (ideally) make inhibitors of this enzyme and then dial them in at different concentrations,” Berkowitz said. “All kinds of biological readouts could be measured as a function of dialing up or dialing down this enzyme. Nobody can really do that yet, including ourselves. But we’re working toward that.”

Writer: Scott Schrage, University Communication and Marketing   

UNL Midwest Roadside Safety Facility launches fifth project for DOD

Who: Cody Stolle, assistant director for the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility; Ronald Faller, MwRSF director; Joshua Steelman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering; Weston Kelly and Andrew Loken, graduate students in engineering

What: With a new $800,000 contract award, the College of Engineering is advancing work on a modified guardrail system for the U.S. Transportation Command. The project, facilitated through the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska, will leverage the one-of-a-kind testing capabilities of the Midwest Roadside Safety Facility to develop an anti-ram barrier that can resist strenuous impacts. The ultimate goal is to design a barrier to absorb a 15,000-pound truck impacting at 50 miles per hour at a perpendicular angle.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to protect warfighters domestically and internationally. What we learn here can not only help keep our military bases safe but also enhance our research for civilian safety as well. Our research will contribute to life-saving, cost-effective protection systems to shield critical facilities,” Stolle said.

Writer: Katelyn Ideus, National Strategic Research Institute

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