Research at Nebraska: March 2023 highlights

News for Researchers

Posted April 3, 2023 by Tiffany Lee

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

NIMBUS receives $2M to advance robotics’ role in climate change research

Who: Brittany Duncan, Ross McCollum Associate Professor of computing; Justin Bradley, associate professor of computing; Carrick Detweiler, Susan J. Rosowski Professor of computing

What: The university’s Nebraska Intelligent MoBile Unmanned Systems Lab, known as NIMBUS, has received nearly $2 million in funding to advance work on an integrated suite of robotics and drone technologies that will push forward research in the state and around the world. The grants – one from the National Science Foundation, the other from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – will enable NIMBUS researchers to push the boundaries of what robots can do and expand understanding of how climate change is impacting agricultural, aquatic and wildland systems.  

“We’re adapting systems that we have so they will work together in a way we haven’t thought about before,” Duncan said.

Writer: Tiffany Lee, Office of Research and Economic Development

Study IDs how business turnover unfolds amid ‘unit-level shocks’

Who: Jenna Pieper, associate professor of management

What: Pieper and collaborators recently published a study in the Journal of Applied Psychology focused on collective turnover in an organization, which is the often-destabilizing phenomenon of multiple employees leaving a unit or organization in close succession. Collective turnover is often triggered by a unit-level shock. Pieper’s team studied one type of shock – manager departure – and found that it can spark turnover, but in a way that is inconsistent and unpredictable. Companies can suppress turnover through effective communication plans, targeted retention efforts and internal promotions.

Companies should “consider the dynamic effect of collective turnover and realize that it may not all happen at a single point in time, and it may not happen right away,” Pieper said.

Writer: Dan Moser, Office of Research and Economic Development

Wiebe expands study of poxviruses, immune function

Who: Matthew Wiebe, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences

What: Wiebe received a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to explore how poxviruses hijack our cellular circuitry during infection, evading host defenses and tuning the environment for unfettered replication. He is particularly interested in how and why poxviruses have evolved to mirror many of the genes and proteins found in host cells. Research findings could help identify strategies for fighting viruses and other diseases.

“It’s our hypothesis that by understanding why the viruses have made these copies (of host genes and proteins) and what they are using them for, we can better understand ourselves, and potentially key weaknesses in our immune system,” Wiebe said.      

Writer: Tiffany Lee, Office of Research and Economic Development

Research aims to develop boars more tolerant of gestational heat stress

Who: Amy Desaulniers, assistant professor of veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences

What: With a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Desaulniers is leading a team studying how in utero heat stress impairs the fertility of boars, a problem with the potential to hamper U.S. pork production. Gestational heat stress impairs boar sperm production, which threatens the productivity of an industry almost exclusively reliant on artificial insemination. Desaulniers’ team will explore how heat stress impairs boar reproductive physiology and test a novel strategy for mitigation – genomic selection for heat tolerance.

“The rationale is that this work will advance our understanding of the biological pathways affected by in utero heat stress in reproductive organs of the boar,” Desaulniers said.

Writer: Dan Moser, Office of Research and Economic Development

Study confirms nitrate can draw uranium into groundwater

Who: Karrie Weber, associate professor of biological sciences and earth and atmospheric sciences

What: Weber’s team published the first study establishing that microbes in natural sediment work in concert with nitrate to prime uranium to flow into groundwater. This is problematic because uranium is associated with kidney and bone damage in humans when consumed over a certain threshold. The team recreated the flow of groundwater through an aquifer site located near Alda, Nebraska, which contains natural uranium traces. The goal was to test whether adding nitrate to water flowing through the sediment samples increased the amount of uranium carried away. It did, raising questions about nitrate’s role in elevating uranium levels in U.S. aquifers.

“Most Nebraskans do rely on groundwater as drinking water,” Weber said. “So when you have high concentrations (of uranium), that becomes a potential concern.”

Writer: Scott Schrage, University Communication and Marketing  

Husker team develops revolutionary plant-based masonry blocks

Who: Marc Maguire, assistant professor in the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction  

What: Macguire’s team has developed a plant-based mixture for concrete masonry blocks that is environmentally friendly, sustainable and strong enough to help meet the world’s construction demands. The new composite – a combination of hemp plant stalk components and a binding agent – is lighter than the traditional Portland cement, but also meets industry standards for strength, water absorption and weight. The lighter weight may benefit the physical health of the masons who carry the blocks around. And because of the plant components, the material removes 102 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents per square, which is about four times more than standard mixes. Eventually, this could open the door to an alternative crop for Nebraska farmers.

“There’s nothing else out there in the world like this – a load-bearing capable, hemp-based composite,” Maguire said.

Writer: Karl Vogel, College of Engineering  

Ghose receives grant to continue radio fingerprinting research

Who: Nirnimesh Ghose, assistant professor of computing

What: With National Science Foundation funding, Ghose will advance his work on radio fingerprinting, a technique for identifying a wireless device based on its radio transmission characteristics. A device’s fingerprint is difficult to imitate and can play a key role in security strategies for wireless networks. The approach itself isn’t new, but Ghose is innovating the field by incorporating machine learning. His work will promote the robustness, scalability and resilience of radio fingerprinting.

“In a wireless network connection, the verification server can verify a device’s radio fingerprint. This will prevent a malicious device from authenticating someone who has compromised the password,” Ghose said. “It can also be used to detect malicious devices, such as blacklisted UAVs that attempt to forge credentials to evade detection.”   

Writer: Victoria Grdina, School of Computing

Mirror-imaging in molecules can modify neuron signaling

Who: James Checco, assistant professor of chemistry; Baba Yussif, doctoral candidate in chemistry; Cole Blasing, undergraduate student in biochemistry and chemistry

What: Checco’s team showed, for the first time, that the orientation of a single amino acid in a peptide dictates whether it activates one neuron receptor versus another. The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that when a single amino acid in the neuropeptide of a sea slug has what chemists call a “D” orientation, it activates a different receptor than is targeted by an “L” peptide. This suggests that amino acid orientation is a means by which a brain or nervous system regulates cellular communication. No D-containing peptides have been found in humans – but Checco suspects that will change.

“I think it is likely that we will find peptides with this kind of modification in humans,” Checco said. “And that’s going to potentially open up new therapeutic avenues in terms of that specific target.”

Writer: Scott Schrage, University Communication and Marketing      

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