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September 15, 2016

Research Notes

Swanson partners with Oberg on 3-D printing

To solve some of industry’s most difficult additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, problems, Oberg Industries and the Swanson School of Engineering have partnered to combine Oberg experience in manufacturing complex tooling and precision machined or stamped metal components with Pitt’s ANSYS Additive Manufacturing Research Laboratory.

For the next two years Oberg will have full-time employees on-site to manage technical excellence at the ANSYS lab. This additive manufacturing lab is equipped with advanced additive manufacturing devices that use metals, alloys, polymers and other materials to print components for nearly every industry. Oberg also will promote the partnership to its customer partners to broaden corporate activity at Pitt.

The partnership also will support faculty and students conducting collaborative research with Oberg and other industry partners. Pitt and Oberg will interact to pursue student recruitment and employment, as well as joint educational, scholarship and sponsorship opportunities.

Oberg and Pitt’s collaborative work in this area was initiated with funding from the federal government via America Makes (the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute). Pitt’s research includes the development and testing of new tools to optimize the design and construction of manufactured parts to improve strength, lower weight, reduce overall costs and improve sustainability of production.


Potential for “materials that compute” advances

The potential to develop “materials that compute” has advanced at the Swanson school, where researchers have demonstrated that a material can be designed to recognize simple patterns. This responsive hybrid material, powered by its own chemical reactions, could one day be integrated into clothing and used to monitor the human body, or developed as a skin for “squishy” robots.

Published in Science Advances, this work continues the research of Anna C. Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Steven P. Levitan, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Co-investigators are Yan Fang, lead author and graduate student researcher in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Victor V. Yashin, faculty member in chemical and petroleum engineering.

The computations were modeled using Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gel, a substance that oscillates in the absence of external stimuli, with an overlaying piezoelectric (PZ) cantilever. These so-called BZ-PZ units combine Balazs’ research in BZ gels and Levitan’s expertise in computational modeling and oscillator-based computing systems.

Said Balazs: “BZ-PZ computations are not digital, like most people are familiar with, and so to recognize something like a blurred pattern within an image requires nonconventional computing. For the first time, we have been able to show how these materials would perform the computations for pattern recognition.”

Levitan and Fang first stored a pattern of numbers as a set of polarities in the BZ-PZ units, and the input patterns were coded through the initial phase of the oscillations imposed on these units.

The computational modeling revealed that the input pattern closest to the stored pattern exhibited the fastest convergence time to the stable synchronization behavior, and was the most effective at recognizing patterns. In this study, the materials were programmed to recognize black-and-white pixels in the shape of numbers that had been distorted.

Compared to a traditional computer, these computations were slow, taking minutes. Noted Yashin: “Individual events are slow because the period of the BZ oscillations is slow. However, there are some tasks that need a longer analysis, and are more natural in function. That’s why this type of system is perfect to monitor environments like the human body.”

For example, Yashin said that patients recovering from a hand injury could wear a glove that monitors movement, which can inform doctors whether the hand is healing properly or if the patient has improved mobility.

Since the devices convert chemical reactions to electrical energy, there would be no need for external electrical power.

The research was funded by a five-year National Science Foundation Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) grant.


Linguistic diversity explored

Karen Park, faculty member in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Linguistics, has been awarded funding as part of a University of Oxford-led research program, Creative Multilingualism. This four-year interdisciplinary program will bring together researchers from six universities and 16 other institutions to address the importance of linguistic diversity in an increasingly global society with respect to the creative processes at work within language.

Park and Andrew Gosler of Oxford’s zoology department, with partners from the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History and BirdLife International, will investigate the creative processes at work as linguistically diverse communities respond to the natural world through naming, metaphor and myth. The project will draw on comparative and historical linguistics, anthropology and biology to investigate questions of language evolution and change, parallels between linguistic diversity and biodiversity, processes at work in language learning and broader applications of language knowledge within education, migration and conservation.

Park and Gosler will look at several questions: Are words influenced by local environments? How do we explain similarities and differences between linguistic diversity and biodiversity? What do different approaches to naming reveal about the role and mechanisms of creativity in language?

Creative Multilingualism is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.


Study focuses on self-assembly of large-scale particles

NSF has awarded Joseph McCarthy, William Kepler Whiteford Professor and vice chair for education in the Department of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering in the Swanson school, a $404,187 grant for research focusing on the self-assembly of materials into complex structures at sizes much larger than the nanoscale.

In the self-assembly of materials, component parts of a system spontaneously organize themselves into a uniform and desired structure. This process is similar to how a number of coin-shaped magnets might assemble themselves into a cylinder if they are jostled.

At the nanoscale, particles arrange themselves into organized and stable structures whereby the “jostling” is accomplished simply through natural thermal (Brownian) motion. Because nanoparticles exhibit this behavior on their own, they easily can be used to build biological and chemical sensors, computer chips with more computing power and a variety of photonic devices.

Larger particles are more difficult for scientists and engineers to manipulate, and they have not yet shown the potential for the same range of applications that has caused the explosion of nanotechnology in recent years. However, the results of McCarthy’s research have suggested the self-assembly of larger particles is possible.

Said McCarthy: “Fabricating the self-assembly of larger particles had been done a handful of times before we started trying it, but we’ve pushed the possibilities a lot further. Other researchers noticed the phenomenon occurring empirically, but we are trying to formalize it. We are working with particles that are at least 100 times bigger than anything that has been done before.”

While nanoparticles respond dramatically to Brownian motion, larger particles often have too much mass to self-assemble in a useful way. McCarthy and his team artificially thermalize the larger particles to allow them to arrange themselves into different sizes and shapes. The results could open up new engineering possibilities across multiple fields.

“Cells are typically about 10 microns,” noted McCarthy. “If we took a traditional approach to forming tissue engineering scaffolding via self-assembly, the pores between the components would be much too small for the cells to infiltrate. The methods we will be experimenting with and modeling would allow us to create scaffolding with pore sizes similar to those f cells and which also helps keep the cells alive by promoting good nutrient flow due to the regularity of the pore structure.”

Another field that might benefit greatly from large-scale self-assembly is microelectronics. Next generation batteries with higher charge capacities suffer from phase changes, meaning the cycles of charging and discharging cause changes to the battery’s internal structure. These variations hinder the battery’s performance and eventually prevent it from holding a charge at all. Chemical engineers would be able to apply large-scale self-assembly to create batteries in which ions were able to be transferred more precisely, potentially resulting in longer life spans.


Parents’ math skills “rub off” on children

Son doing homework while father standing byParents who excel at math produce children who excel at math. A study by lead researcher Melissa E. Libertus, psychology faculty member in the Dietrich school and research scientist in the Learning Research and Development Center (LRDC), shows a distinct transfer of math skills from parent to child. The study specifically explored intergenerational transmission — the concept of parental influence on an offspring’s behavior or psychology — in mathematic capabilities.

Said Libertus: “Our findings suggest an intuitive sense for numbers has been passed down — knowingly or unknowingly — from parent to child. Essentially, the math skills of parents tend to ‘rub off’ on their children. This research could have significant ramifications for how parents are advised to talk about math and numbers with their children and how teachers go about teaching children in classrooms.”

The researchers found that the performance levels for early school-aged children on standardized mathematic tests could be reliably predicted by their parents’ performance on similar examinations. Specifically, they observed major correlations in parent-child performance in such key areas as mathematical computations, number-fact recall and word-problem analysis. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that children’s intuitive sense of numbers — the ability to know that 20 jelly beans are more than 10 jelly beans without first counting them — is predicted by their parents’ intuitive sense of numbers. Researchers determined that such close result parallels could not have been produced through similar institutional learning backgrounds because their previous research showed that this intuitive sense of numbers is present in infancy.

The findings represent evidence of intergenerational transmission of unlearned, nonverbal numerical competence from parents to children. While separate studies have pointed to the existence of intergenerational transmission of cognitive abilities, only a few have examined parental influences in specific academic domains, such as mathematics.

For the current study, the math abilities of parents and children were assessed using subtests from the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement, a standardized exam of baseline math ability. Children completed three subtests designed to gauge their capabilities in mathematical computations, basic number-fact recall and word problems with visual aids. Parents completed a math fluency subtest as a measure of mathematical ability and were surveyed on the importance of children developing certain math skills.

The study sampled 54 children ages 5-8 as well as 51 parents — 46 mothers and five fathers — ages 30-59. Among the children, 45 were Caucasian, five biracial, three African American and one Asian. Forty-six parents had at least a college degree and all possessed at least a high school diploma.

Emily J. Braham, a doctoral student with a cognitive-neuroscience concentration in the Department of Psychology, assisted in the research.

The study was published in Developmental Science.


NIH funds decade of research into autoimmune disease

Mark Shlomchik, faculty member and chair of the Department of Immunology in the School of Medicine, has been awarded a 10-year, $3.8 million MERIT Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will provide long-term support for research into autoimmune diseases and the body’s immune response.

Shlomchik and colleagues have studied lupus and other autoimmune diseases for decades, making contributions to current understanding of the biology of these diseases, which are difficult to treat. Said Shlomchik: “Since these are complex diseases, our work, which uses genetically modified mice, takes significant time and effort. The 10 years of this MERIT Award will truly make it possible to advance our understanding of autoimmune diseases using the new tools we plan to make.”


PSC’s Bridges system enters production

The Bridges system at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) entered production operations last month, in support of advances in science, research, engineering and education. Following approval by the National Science Foundation (NSF), this marks the transition to completing integration with other Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) computing resources, which will streamline use for the approximately 400 research projects that are already using Bridges.

The NSF-funded PSC Bridges system is a flexible resource for high-performance computing and big data that emphasizes a rich software environment, interactivity and large memory. These factors contribute to its usability and value for a wide range of applications. Bridges also introduces important new technologies for the benefit of the research community.

Bridges has enabled early scientific successes, for example in metagenomics, organic semiconductor electrochemistry, genome assembly in endangered species and public health decision-making. Over 2,300 users currently have access to Bridges for research spanning neuroscience, machine learning, biology, the social sciences, computer science, engineering and many other fields.

The system also has supported workshops, tutorials, classes and intensive summer sessions on big data, biology and causal modeling delivered by PSC, other XSEDE institutions and university faculty.


Genes control much of facial variation

Newborn Baby LipsWhile you might roll your eyes at a pronouncement from relatives cooing over a newborn — “She has her mother’s nose!” — research does suggest our facial features are controlled in part by genetics. However, few studies have examined the specific genetic factors behind facial shape and size. In a sstudy published in PLOS Genetics, John Shaffer, human genetics faculty member in the Graduate School of Public Health, and colleagues performed a genome-wide association study with 3,118 healthy individuals of European ancestry, looking for links between 20 facial characteristics and single base pair variations (SNPs) in their genomes.

The genetic regions significantly associated with different facial measurements, along with nearby potentially relevant genes.

They found that characteristics including facial width, distance between eyes and nose size were all associated with distinctive SNPs found in certain regions on chromosomes 11, 14 and 20, among others. Several genes in these regions are known to play a role in facial abnormalities, so the authors hope that future research might track down genetic risk factors behind anomalies such as cleft lip and palate.


$110M NSF grant expands nation’s cyberinfrastructure ecosystem

The Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), of which the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) is a leading partner, has been awarded a $110 million, five-year NSF award to continue expanding access to advanced cyberinfrastructure resources among the nation’s scientists and engineers.

The XSEDE 2.0 project is led by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign and 18 partner institutions across the nation. Ralph Roskies, PSC scientific director, is co-principal investigator in XSEDE 2.0 and co-director of the project’s Expanded Collaborative Support Service (ECSS).

Last year, XSEDE provided computational and data services to more than 6,000 scientists, engineers and students and supported more than 20,000 users through its web portal. Over the past four years, users have acknowledged support by XSEDE and its related computational resources in roughly 14,000 publications. Among these XSEDE-supported studies were efforts that confirmed the discovery of gravitational waves, developed high-resolution maps of the Arctic, uncovered the structure of HIV and helped prevent injuries from car accidents.

The project is a central feature of NSF-supported cyberinfrastructure and aligns with the strategic objectives of the National Strategic Computing Initiative, which fosters a coordinated federal strategy in high-performance computing research and deployment.

Cyberinfrastructure refers to the advanced instruments, computing systems, data tools, software, networks and people collectively improving the research productivity of the nation’s computational scientists and engineers, enabling breakthroughs not otherwise possible. Critically important to cyberinfrastructure is the increasingly dynamic interplay between these resources and human developers and users.

Among its critical functions, XSEDE 2.0 will:

• Manage and deliver a set of common and coordinated services for a portfolio of supercomputers and high-end visualization and data-analysis resources across the country to address increasingly diverse scientific and engineering challenges.

• Manage the allocation process by which researchers access advanced computing resources, including continuing to improve this process in alignment with new research access workflows and new resources.

• Offer extended collaborative support services, which pairs XSEDE computational or software engineering experts with domain scientists to advance a project or develop a tool needed to advance research.


Economic impact of decline in pollinating insects studied


bumblebee (Bombus)NSF has awarded Vikas Khanna, civil and environmental engineering faculty member at the Swanson school, a $259,582 grant to investigate the impact of declining insect-mediated pollination on the United States economy.

Said Khanna: “Economic sectors that are directly impacted by insect-mediated pollination are the agricultural sectors, for example: fruit, tree nut, vegetable and melon farming. However, there are other sectors that are indirectly dependent on insect-mediated pollination … such as fertilizer manufacturing, pesticides and agricultural chemical manufacturing and even power generation.”

A colleague from Penn State will join Khanna on the study.

The researchers anticipate this study will lead to a greater appreciation of the role of surrounding ecosystems on the development of economic products and services.

“Understanding the economic value of pollination services attributable to managed honeybees and wild insects will help highlight the critical importance and dependence of the U.S. economy on pollinators and the role played by pollinators in sustaining human and industrial activity,” said Khanna.


Making movement of large datasets more efficient

A project to make movement of the largest datasets more efficient has tested for the first time networking hardware components necessary for scheduling network bandwidth using Software Defined Networking (SDN). Researchers from the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE), of which the Pittsburgh Supercomputing 
Center is a partner, reported how they tested transfer of big data between two XSEDE sites: PSC and the National Institute for Computational Sciences (NICS) at the University of Tennessee.

High-performance computing users regularly need to break their projects into pieces, and one of these pieces inevitably involves moving data into and out of where researchers do their computation. Unfortunately for those moving the largest big data sets, research wide-area networks (WAN) are more a free-for-all than their compute and storage counterparts, which are scheduled and managed. By design, the protocol software that regulates the network data flow treats all data packets as equal. When the networks are not crowded it resembles an empty freeway. When they are crowded, though, the situation becomes much like a convoy of buses getting broken apart by other traffic. For large datasets traveling across the WAN, that can mean slow movement or even failures to move the data completely in a reasonable amount of time.

The NSF-funded DANCES (Developing Applications with Networking Capabilities via End-to-End SDN) is researching a kind of on-demand high-occupancy vehicle lane for large data transfers across the WAN, allowing big data users to specify how much bandwidth they would like to use and schedule their job so that they can be assured the data will get through in a timely fashion.

The team surveyed network switching hardware that met the DANCES OpenFlow feature requirements, then successfully tested it using the DANCES research environment in moving large data between PSC and NICS.

OpenFlow 1.3, the latest commonly deployed version of the standard network communications interface, has features that support such bandwidth management. But the problem is that compliance with a given version of OpenFlow doesn’t require a particular network switch to support every facet of that version’s specification. The researchers had to test a number of switch products, eventually choosing the Corsa DP6410 as most fully compatible with the DANCES requirements, successfully testing the combination in a number of data-transfer scenarios between PSC and NICS.


NSF grant funds development of fast computational modeling for 3-D printing

As additive manufacturing (AM), or 3-D printing, becomes more commonplace, researchers and industry are seeking to mitigate the distortions and stresses inherent in fabricating these complex geometries. Researchers at the Swanson school and Pittsburgh-based manufacturer Aerotech Inc. have received a $350,000 NSF grant to address these design issues by developing new, fast computational methods for additive manufacturing.

The three-year GOALI (Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry) grant is funded by NSF’s Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation. The team, based in the Swanson school’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science, includes faculty members Albert To, principal investigator, and co-PIs Sangyeop Lee and Stephen Ludwick. Aerotech will provide designs and evaluation.

Said To: “The ability to create geometrically complex shapes through additive manufacturing is both a tremendous benefit and a significant challenge. Optimizing the design to compensate for residual distortion, residual stress and post-machining requirements can take days or even months for these parts.”

To mitigate these challenges, To and his group first will develop a simple, accurate thermomechanics model to predict residual stress and distortion in an AM part. Next, they will develop a topology optimization method capable of generating designs with both freeform surfaces and machining-friendly surfaces. According to To, this will compensate for the geometric complexity and organic nature of AM parts, which contribute to their potential for distortion and post-machining problems. These approaches then will be developed and tested using real parts and design requirements provided by Aerotech.

“By utilizing advanced mechanic theory, we hope to reduce design optimization of additive manufactured parts to minutes, thereby reducing the time of design life cycle,” said To. “This would lead to wider adoption of AM by the U.S. manufacturing base.”


NCI funds preclinical cancer drug development

University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), partner with UPMC CancerCancer, secured a contract from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to perform preclinical research toward the development of new cancer drugs. This commitment could bring up to $10 million in research projects to UPCI over the next five years.

Co-principal investigators are Julie Eiseman, faculty member in pharmacology and chemical biology in the School of Medicine, and Jan Beumer, faculty member in pharmaceutical sciences in the School of Pharmacy and medicine in the School of Medicine, both of UPCI.

UPCI will perform the research necessary to collect drug pharmacology data and determine the most efficacious routes and doses of proposed cancer drugs so that they can be used in human clinical trials.

The researchers do not yet know specifically what potential drugs they’ll be investigating or which cancers they’ll ultimately be intended to tackle.

Said Eiseman: “That’s what we help to determine. It’s a team effort. No one person could develop these therapies alone.”


$62.3 million speeds translating research into action

The Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) will receive nearly $62.3 million over five years from NIH to broaden its mission of speeding translation of scientific research into realistic treatments for the people who need them.

In 2006, CTSI was among the first 12 recipients of NIH’s Clinical and Translational Science Awards (CTSA). Since then, Pitt’s CTSA funding has totaled more than $221 million. Including the recently announced funding for Pitt’s participation in NIH’s precision medicine initiative cohort program, CTSI-supported programs have been awarded approximately $108 million in research funding over the next five years.

New initiatives during the upcoming grant period include innovation as a discipline, biomedical modeling, integrating special populations, clinical trial recruitment and efficiency, clinical trial innovation and multidisciplinary team science.

Funding is being provided through NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.


Regenerative medicine aids severe muscle injuries

Results of a study conducted by researchers at the School of Medicine and the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine showed significant improvement in strength and range of motion, as well as evidence of skeletal muscle regeneration, in 13 patients who were surgically implanted with bioscaffolds derived from pig tissue to treat muscle injuries. The patients had failed to respond to conventional treatment before use of the extracellular matrix (ECM). The findings were published in npj Regenerative Medicine.

Said senior investigator Stephen F. Badylak, faculty member in surgery at Pitt and deputy director of the McGowan Institute, a joint effort of Pitt and UPMC: “Previously, there was no effective treatment for these patients, but this approach holds significant promise. This approach could be a game changer and not just an incremental advance.”

For the muscle tendon tissue unit repair and reinforcement reconstructive surgery research study, which was sponsored by the Department of Defense, 11 men and two women who had lost at least 25 percent of leg or arm muscle volume and function first underwent a customized regimen of physical therapy for four-16 weeks.

Lead study surgeon J. Peter Rubin, UPMC Professor and Chair of Plastic Surgery in the School of Medicine, then surgically implanted a “quilt” of compressed ECM sheets designed to fill in their injury sites. Within 48 hours of the operation, the participants resumed physical therapy for up to 24 additional weeks.

By six months after implantation, patients showed an average improvement of 37.3 percent in strength and 27.1 percent in range-of-motion tasks compared with pre-operative performance numbers. CT or MRI imaging also showed an increase in post-operative soft tissue formation in all 13 patients.

Said Rubin: “For well-selected patients with this type of loss, we now have a treatment available to help improve their function.”

The new data builds upon a previous Pitt study that showed damaged leg muscles grew stronger and showed signs of regeneration in three out of five men whose old injuries were surgically implanted with ECM derived from pig bladder. Those patients also underwent similar pre- and post-operative physical therapy.

The recent results included more patients with varying limb injuries; used three different types of pig tissues for ECM bioscaffolds; investigated neurogenic cells as a component of the functional remodeling process; and included CT and MRI imaging to evaluate the remodeled muscle tissue.

“The three different types of matrix materials used all worked the same, which is significant because it means this is a generic property of these materials and gives the surgeons a choice for using whichever tissue they like,” Badylak said. “Prior to the surgery, each patient went through physical therapy focused on getting them to the point where they couldn’t get any better. We then started active rehab 24 hours after surgery, which proved to be critically important for these patients.”

The research team included lead author Jenna Dziki and others from Pitt and McGowan.


Study targets way of custom designing nanoparticles

Building upon their previous research, engineering faculty at the Swanson school and Carnegie Mellon University were awarded NSF grants to develop a novel computational framework that can custom design nanoparticles. In particular, the group is investigating bimetallic nanoparticles to more effectively control their adsorption properties for capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The three-year grant is led by Giannis Mpourmpakis, chemical and petroleum engineering faculty member in the Swanson school and group leader of the Computer-Aided Nano Energy Lab. Co-investigator is Götz Veser, chemical and petroleum engineering faculty member and associate director of the Center for Energy. A Carnegie Mellon colleague also is participating.

The NSF Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation awarded $350,395 to Pitt and $199,605 to CMU to support computational research and targeted experiments.

Said Mpourmpakis: “Bulk metals behave differently than their related nanoparticles, and our research has shown that bimetallic nanoparticles exhibit unique adsorption properties. Our previous research focused on the size and shape of gold nanoparticles toward their catalytic behavior, and now we are investigating copper nanoparticles and their ability to adsorb and activate carbon dioxide.”

The researchers will use the Center for Simulation and Modeling to computationally identify bimetallic nanoparticles that maximize their performance for a given application. By optimizing the shape, size and metal composition of bimetallic nanoparticles through computer simulation, the researchers can reduce the need for expensive and time-consuming experiments in the lab, which often are based on extensive trial and error.

“Because we know that copper-based bimetallics effectively adsorb CO2, we can now fine-tune the nanoparticle morphology to maximize adsorption,” Mpourmpakis said. “The benefit to the environment of being able to capture CO2 and potentially convert it to a useful chemical would be profound.”


Grant funds study of aluminum alloy microstructures

A three-year, $503,435 grant from the NSF Division of Materials Research was awarded to principal investigator Jörg M.K. Wiezorek, mechanical engineering and materials science faculty member. It will enable researchers to use a one-of-a-kind transmission electron microscope (DTEM) developed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to examine in real time how microstructures form in metals and alloys as they solidify after laser beam melting. They will study rapid solidification processes in aluminum alloys that are associated with laser or electron beam processing technologies used in welding, joining and additive manufacturing.

The grant also will fund educational outreach and enhance Pitt’s materials science curriculum.

The DTEM, unlike a traditional electron microscope taking before-and-after images, can record nanoscale transformations in materials with nanosecond time-resolution. Said Wiezorek: “Predicting microstructure formation during rapid non-equilibrium processing of engineering materials is a fundamental challenge of materials science. Prior to advent of the DTEM we could only simulate these transformations on a computer. We hope to discover the mechanisms of how alloy microstructures evolve during solidification after laser melting by direct and locally resolved observation. Thermodynamics provides for limiting constraints for the transformations of the materials, but it cannot a priori predict the pathways the microstructures take as they transition from the liquid to the final solid state.”

Wiezorek expects the research to help validate computer models and determine how composition changes and temperature gradients affect the microstructure. The data will assist in providing a stronger scientific underpinning for establishing relationships between the processing conditions, structure and properties of the alloys obtained by laser processing.

“We are hoping to unravel details of the kinetic pathways taken from the liquid to the final solid structure,” Wiezorek said. “This research will help us to refine solidification related manufacturing processes and to identify strategies to optimize how materials perform.”


New voice therapy program expanded

woman's profile with open mouth
A voice therapy program that was refined by experts at the UPMC Voice Center and successfully piloted on a small group of patients with voice disorders will be reaching more patients due to a $300,000 NIH grant awarded to the School of Medicine.

The new voice therapy approach, Conversation Training Therapy (CTT), concentrates on voice training in spontaneous, conversational speech for patients with voice impairment.

Said lead researcher Amanda Gillespie, faculty member in the School of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology and director of clinical research at the UPMC Voice Center: “With this approach, we focus on patients becoming aware and efficient in conversation, instead of in voice exercises. Results from our initial trial showed that patients met their voice therapy goals in just three sessions, substantially below the number of sessions typically required in traditional voice therapy programs, which can take up to 12 or even 24 sessions. Patients also reported that they noticed marked improvement in their voice impairment.”

Treatment aimed at modifying behaviors that cause or contribute to voice disorders is the standard of care for many people experiencing voice issues. Although voice therapy is effective at treating voice disorders, substantial limitations exist with traditional treatment models. These limitations cause a protracted length of time in required treatment, as well as dropout and voice problem relapse rates approaching 70 percent, which contribute to the high costs associated with treating voice disorders.

CTT was developed by a team of expert voice-specialized speech-language pathologists at voice centers around the U.S. The goal of this study is to determine the effectiveness of CTT in the rehabilitation of patients with two common voice disorders — benign vocal fold lesions and muscle tension dysphonia. Once that is determined, the long-term goal is to conduct multicenter trials comparing CTT to traditional voice therapy programs in people with voice disorders.

This study is the first to look at a voice therapy program based in theories of motor learning and neuroplasticity, developed with input from patients with voice disorders and expert clinical speech-language pathologists.

Said Jackie L. Gartner-Schmidt, co-investigator on the study, co-director of the UPMC Voice Center and director of speech-language pathology-voice division in the School of Medicine: “Results of the current research have the potential to dramatically change how voice therapy is delivered, including the necessary time spent in treatment, resulting in a potential savings of health care funds and improved quality of life for people with voice disorders.”

Researchers will recruit 60 participants to undergo four weeks of treatment with a CTT-trained voice therapist. Each will be evaluated prior to starting CTT, before each treatment session and at one-week and three-month intervals after the last CTT session. Outcome measures will include participant-perceived voice handicap, acoustic, aerodynamic and audio-perceptual voice analyses, and will be compared to matched past patients who previously underwent traditional voice therapy.

The study is supported by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.

Other Pitt co-investigators are Clark Rosen and Jonathan Yabes.


Study will better ID hazardous chemicals

Researchers from the Swanson school, the Dietrich school’s Department of Chemistry and Temple University will collaborate on a study funded by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s (DTRA) Joint Science and Technology Office in the Department of Defense. Researchers will investigate the use of multifunctional metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) with plasmonic cores that can be used to detect and destroy chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals.

DTRA funds academic research concentrating on combating weapons of mass destruction. The researchers will receive $1.5 million over three years with the potential to be increased to $2.5 million over five years.

Principal investigator J. Karl Johnson, chemical and petroleum engineering faculty member, will lead the study by modeling multifunctional MOFs at the atomic scale. The team will design new MOFs that facilitate selective transport of toxic chemicals to a plasmonic nanoparticle core within the MOF, where they can be detected and neutralized.

Said Johnson: “What we want to do is produce new hybrid materials that use light to detect chemical warfare agents. When you shine a light on plasmonic nanoparticles, electrons in the material are excited by the light. We can use these excited electrons to detect chemicals and carry out chemical reactions once the substances are identified.”

Chemistry faculty members Nathaniel Rosi and Jill Millstone also are participating in the study. Rosi will lead research into the chemistry of the MOFs and work to design MOFs with stratified layers that direct the chemical warfare agents and toxic industrial chemicals to the plasmonic core.

Said Rosi: “The porous MOF contains gradients of functional layers that lead to the plasmonic core. The sponge that’s on your kitchen sink has pores, but they are uniform inside and out. The MOFs we are developing have multiple porous layers, and each layer has affinity for different molecules. It would be like having a sponge with a special layer for cleaning up water, another for oil and another for coffee or any other mess in the kitchen.”

Another key component of the research will be finding the right substances to make up the plasmonic core.
Gold and silver traditionally are used because they exhibit the appropriate oscillating behavior when light is shined on them. However, their expense limits widespread use. Millstone will lead the research into finding other materials to replace gold and silver.

Said Millstone: “About 99 percent of the plasmonic materials studied for these technologies have been made with either gold or silver. Our work is to develop new materials from cheaper, earth-abundant metals and metal combinations.”


Mechanical exoskeletons tested

Two new NSF grants totaling $500,209 will help researchers at the Swanson school aid paraplegics in walking while wearing a mechanical exoskeleton.

Nitin Sharma, mechanical engineering and material science faculty member, will lead the research on walking exoskeletons — mechanical frames placed over parts of the human body.

The first grant comes from the general and age-related disabilities engineering division of NSF. “UNS: Optimal Adaptive Control Methods for a Hybrid Exoskeleton” will investigate a new class of control algorithms that adapt to allocate optimized control inputs to functional electrical stimulation (FES) and electric motors during single joint movements.

The civil, mechanical and manufacturing innovation division of NSF will fund “Coordinating Electrical Stimulation and Motor Assist in a Hybrid Neuroprosthesis Using Control Strategies Inspired by Human Motor Control.” In this study, Sharma will research control algorithms to determine an optimal synergy between FES-induced multi-joint movements and movements aided by a powered exoskeleton.


New way to deliver therapeutic cells proposed

Vascular bioengineering researchers at the Swanson school are proposing a new strategy for delivering therapeutic cells to the diseased cells in order to restore elastin levels and regenerate the aorta.

Funded through NIH’s competitive exploratory/developmental research grant award program, the research is being led by David A. Vorp, associate dean for research at the Swanson school and William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Bioengineering.

The proposal, “Outside-in Regenerative Therapy for Abdominal Aortic Aneurysm,” will receive $439,220 through April 2017, and is a collaborative effort with Vanderbilt University.


Research will enable visualization of atomic structure

Tevis Jacobs, mechanical engineering and material science faculty member at the Swanson school, received an NSF grant to observe and measure nanoscale contact inside an electron microscope, enabling for the first time visualization of the atomic structure of the component materials while they are in contact.

Jacobs will serve as principal investigator of the study, “Collaborative Research: Understanding the Formation and Separation of Nanoscale Contacts,” which received $298,834 over three years.

He and his team will collaborate with the University of California-Merced.

As the electron microscopy examines the materials’ surfaces, the experiments using molecular dynamics computer simulations will be replicated to reveal atomic-scale detail about the phenomena occurring inside of the nanomaterials.

LRDC grantees to study language, aid, memory

Diane Litman, LRDC research scientist and computer science faculty member; Richard Correnti, LRDC research scientist and School of Education faculty member; and Lindsay Clare Matsumura, LRDC research scientist and interim dean and associate dean of research and faculty development in the School of Education, have been awarded an Institute for Education Sciences (IES) grant for their project, “Response-to-Text Tasks to Assess Students’ Use of Evidence and Organization in Writing: Using Natural Language Processing for Scoring Writing and Providing Feedback At-Scale.”

IES is the independent, nonpartisan statistics, research and evaluation arm of the Department of Education.

LRDC research scientist and Education faculty member Lindsay Page and her collaborators have been awarded a grant from IES for their project “Financial Aid Nudges: A National Experiment to Increase Retention of Financial Aid and College Persistence.”

LRDC research scientist and faculty member at the Center for Neural Basis of Cognition Marc Coutanche received an award from Pitt’s Research Council Central Research Development Fund 2016 for his project “Individual Differences in the Memory Systems Employed in Learning and Retrieval.”


Improved quality of life helps pre-diabetes

The value of a healthy lifestyle isn’t reflected only in the numbers on the scale or the blood pressure cuff. Pitt researchers demonstrated that it also can be measured through improved health-related quality of life.

In an analysis published in Quality of Life Research, the scientists showed that participation in a community-based behavioral lifestyle intervention program to improve health not only helped people lose weight, increase their physical activity levels and reduce their risk of diabetes and heart disease, but also increased their health-related quality of life by an average of nearly 10 percent. The research was funded by NIH.

Said lead author Yvonne L. Eaglehouse, a postdoctoral researcher in public health: “These community-based lifestyle intervention programs have additional valuable benefits, beyond the improvement of risk factors for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Our study demonstrates that these programs, delivered in diverse community settings such as senior centers and worksites, simultaneously and significantly improved the quality of life of the participants.”

Eaglehouse and her colleagues investigated the impact of the group lifestyle balance program, modified from the lifestyle intervention program used in the highly successful U.S. Diabetes Prevention Program. DPP was a national study demonstrating that people at risk for diabetes who lost a modest amount of weight and increased their physical activity levels sharply reduced their chances of developing diabetes and metabolic syndrome and outperformed people who took a diabetes drug instead.

Group lifestyle balance is a 22-session program administered over a one-year period aimed at helping people make lifestyle changes to improve their risk for diabetes and heart disease. The goals of the program are to help participants reduce their weight by 7 percent and increase their moderate-intensity physical activity (such as brisk walking) to 150 minutes per week.

As part of the Pitt community intervention effort, 223 participants were enrolled to test the effectiveness of the group lifestyle balance program at a worksite and three community centers in the Pittsburgh area. The participants averaged 58 years of age and had pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome or both.

Before beginning the program, each participant ranked his or her current health on a scale from 0 (worst imaginable health state) to 100 (best imaginable health state). The U.S. average is 79.2, whereas the participants averaged 71.5 at baseline.

After completing the yearlong group lifestyle balance program, the participants increased their average health-related quality-of-life score to 78.2. When looking at only those with baseline health-related quality of life below the U.S. average, there was an even greater magnitude of improvement, from 61.8 at baseline to 74 at the end of the program. Once scores were adjusted for meeting weight loss and physical activity goals, participants who met the program goals were found to have increased their health-related quality-of-life score by nine more points compared to those participants who met neither program goal.

Said senior author Andrea Kriska, faculty member in the Department of Epidemiology and principal investigator: “It is exciting that we were able to document an improvement in health-related quality of life in addition to improvement in risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This important benefit was most evident in those who started the intervention program having a relatively lower quality of life — in other words, those who needed to improve the most.”

Additional Pitt authors on this research were M. Kaye Kramer, Vincent C. Arena and Rachel G. Miller. A colleague from Carroll College also contributed.

This study was funded by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.


How do we recognize the printed word?

Focused senior man reading newspaperReading is a relatively modern and uniquely human skill. For this reason, visual word recognition has been a puzzle for neuroscientists because the neural systems responsible for reading could not have evolved for this purpose.

Noted Avniel Ghuman, faculty member in the School of Medicine’s Department of Neurological Surgery and one author of a new study on the role of the visual word form area: “The existence of brain regions dedicated to reading has been fiercely debated for almost 200 years. Wernicke, Dejerine and Charcot, among the most important and influential neurologists and neuroscientists of the 19th century, debated whether or not there was a visual center for words in the brain.”

In recent years, much of this debate has centered on the left mid-fusiform gyrus, which some call the visual word form area. This study addresses that debate and sheds light on our understanding of the neurobiology of reading.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study by Ghuman, Elizabeth Hirshorn of LRDC, and colleagues from the Department of Psychology and Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition used direct neural recordings and brain stimulation to study four patients with epilepsy. The patients chose surgical treatment for their drug-resistant epilepsy and volunteered to participate in the research study. Neurosurgeons implanted electrodes in the patients’ visual word form area, providing an unprecedented opportunity to understand how the brain recognizes printed words.

First, painless electrical brain stimulation was used through the electrodes to disrupt the normal functioning of the visual word form area, which adversely affected the patients’ ability to read words. One patient dramatically misperceived letters, and another felt that there were words and parts of words present that were not in what she was reading. Stimulation to this region did not disrupt their ability to name objects or faces.

In addition to stimulating through these electrodes, the activity from the area was recorded while the patients read words. Using techniques from machine learning to analyze the brain activity that evolved over a few hundred milliseconds from this region, the researchers could tell what word a patient was reading at a particular moment. This suggests that neural activity in the area codes knowledge about learned visual words that can be used to discriminate even words that are only one letter different from one another (for example, “hint” and “lint”).

Said Hirshorn: “This study shows that the visual word form area is exquisitely tuned to the fine details of written words and that this area plays a critical role in refining the brain’s representation of what we are reading. The disrupted word and letter perception seen with stimulation provides direct evidence that the visual word form area plays a dedicated role in skilled reading. These results also have important implications for understanding and treating reading disorders. The activity in the visual word form area, along with its interactions with other brain areas involved in language processing, could be a marker for proficient reading. Having a better understanding of this neural system could be critical for diagnosing reading disorders and developing targeted therapies.”

—Compiled by Marty Levine


The University Times Research Notes column reports on funding awarded to Pitt researchers as well as findings arising from University research.

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