Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

July 24, 2008


LRDC partners in STEM center

Pitt’s Learning Research and Development Center is part of a consortium that has been awarded $9.95 million by the U.S. Department of Education to establish a center for cognition and science instruction.

The 21st Century Center for Cognition and Science Instruction will be able to draw upon advancements in the field of cognitive science — how the mind receives, processes, stores and retrieves information and knowledge — to develop and evaluate theoretically driven modifications to existing middle school science curricula to improve student learning.

Other academic partners in the center are the University of Pennsylvania and the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center at Temple University.

The center will work collaboratively with the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences to conduct research that informs educators and policy-makers and to provide national leadership for improving current curricula and identifying general principles for the design of future science curricula.

The center will conduct a systematic series of studies involving up to 180 middle schools to test and refine such strategies by working with the PA STEM Initiative, a public-private collaboration for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education redesign.

The center will be managed by The 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education. For more information on the center, visit


CompSci prof gets NSF CAREER award

Alexandros Labrinidis, a professor in the Department of Computer Science, has received a National Science Foundation CAREER Award. The awards recognize junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars.

Labrinidis, who also is co-director of the Advanced Data Management Technologies Laboratory, was awarded $553,000 over five years from the NSF’s division of information and intelligent systems for his research project on

user-centric data management.

Labrinidis’s project aims to make database-driven web sites more tailorable to the preferences of users. His project will re-examine traditional query processing techniques in order to consider user preferences and also address new challenges that stem from users' need to adapt their preferences over time and their ability to collaborate. Results of the research,including software, data, and publications, will be made publicly available on the project web site

Labrinidis's award makes the sixth such award for Pitt and the second such award for the Department of Computer Science this year.


Girls’ program awarded $53K

The Girls on the Run program at Magee-Womens Hospital has received a $53,000 grant from the Highmark Foundation’s Highmark Healthy High 5 initiative. The money will stimulate program expansion in Beaver, Butler and Westmoreland counties.

Highmark Healthy High 5 endorses programming for healthy behaviors in children and adolescents. The Highmark Foundation recognizes Girls on the Run as a program that addresses all areas of health — social, mental, emotional and physical. The program’s goal is to increase the self-esteem and physical activity levels of girls in grades 3-5.

“Girls on the Run is the perfect blend of a wellness curriculum with the lifetime activity of running or walking. While training for a 5K run, participants learn that their character and values are more important than image and stereotypes,” said program coordinator Meredith Colaizzi.


Advantages of full-day kindergarten short-lived

A study by researchers at Pitt and Loyola University finds the academic benefits of full-day kindergarten programs are short-term. The study, published in the July/August 2008 issue of the journal Child Development, suggests that full-day kindergarten promotes academic achievement and those children have slightly better reading and math skills than children in part-day kindergarten. However, those initial academic benefits diminish early in elementary school.

Pitt psychology professor Elizabeth Votruba-Drzal, the study’s lead author, worked with data on 13,776 children from a national longitudinal study of the kindergarten class of 1998-99. The researchers measured the kindergarteners’ academic achievement in math and reading in the fall and spring of their kindergarten and first-grade years, and in the spring of their third- and fifth-grade years.

The researchers also looked at the type and extent of child care the children received outside of the kindergarten classroom, the quality of cognitive stimulation they received at home and their family’s poverty level.

“These study results suggest that the shift from part-day to full-day kindergarten programs occurring across the United States may have positive implications for the child’s learning trajectories in the short run,” said Votruba-Drzal. “They also highlight characteristics of children and their families that are noteworthy in explaining why the full-day advantages fade relatively quickly.”

Overall, the study found that reading and math skills of children in full-day kindergarten grew faster from the fall to the spring of their kindergarten year compared to children in part-day kindergarten, but the gains did not last.

From the spring of their kindergarten year through fifth grade, the academic skills of children in part-day kindergarten grew faster than those of children in full-day kindergarten. The advantage of full-day over part-day programs was no longer evident by the spring of third grade. According to the researchers, this is due, in part, to the fact that the children in part-day kindergarten came from more socio-economically advantaged situations and had more stimulating home environments than those in full-day programs.


New gene therapy delivery studied

Dexi Liu, professor of pharmaceutical sciences, has received a $1.87 million grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering to develop new technology for safe, target-specific and efficient gene delivery for gene therapy.

Liu introduced the concept of hydrodynamic gene delivery, demonstrating in rodents that a hydrodynamics-based procedure was superior in gene delivery to liver cells through a simple tail vein injection of plasmid DNA.

Using these earlier findings, Liu has developed a computer-controlled injection device applicable to hydrodynamic gene delivery in humans.

In the proposed study, hydrodynamic gene delivery will be combined with an image-guided catheter insertion technique to demonstrate site-specific gene delivery into liver hepatocytes in pigs. The research is designed to validate the new injection device and to establish a procedure applicable to a clinical setting with a goal of gathering data essential for the preparation of clinical trials.


Faith’s impact on public policies studied

Paul Nelson, professor of international development in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, has been awarded $275,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation.

The grant will fund a three-year project, “Religious Institutions and Voices in International Development,” which includes research projects on the roles of religion and of religious and faith-based non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in shaping development and human rights policy, and editing a book on religion and development.


Gender & history impact concussion recovery

Pitt researchers have found that female soccer players and soccer players who have had a previous concussion recuperate differently from males or players without a history of concussion.

Co-author Alexis Chiang Colvin, sports medicine fellow for the Department of Orthopaedics at UPMC, said: “The results of this study suggest that physicians should not be taking a one-size-fits-all approach to treating concussions. Our study shows that patients with a history of a previous concussion perform worse than patients without a previous history on neurocognitive tests taken after they sustain a concussion. Furthermore, females perform worse than males on post-concussion testing, as well.”

The research was presented recently at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s annual meeting.

The authors examined concussion recovery patterns in 234 soccer players (61 percent female, 39 percent male) ages 8-24 who were given neuropsychological tests to measure attention, memory, processing speed and reaction time after their concussion.

The study found that females performed significantly worse than males on tests of reaction time. Females also were significantly more symptomatic than males. Additionally, there was a trend, although not significant, toward females testing poorly regarding verbal memory and processing speed when compared to males.

Soccer players with a history of concussion performed significantly worse on verbal memory testing after another concussion, the study found.

“There’s a theory that males typically have a stronger neck and torso that can handle forces better,” said Colvin. “But when we accounted for body mass index in this study, we still found a difference between males and females. Therefore, there are differences in recovery between genders that cannot simply be attributed to size difference. More studies are needed to determine the reason for differences in recovery between males and females.”


Circulatory deformities studied

Pitt-led researchers could provide new insight into how two common congenital circulatory problems — aortic arch deformity and arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) — develop in humans, as reported in the June 15 edition of Developmental Biology.

Led by biological sciences professor Beth Roman, a Pitt research team created the first complete published description of how aortic arch vessels form and, in a separate finding also described in the paper, determined that AVMs (a condition in which an artery fuses with a vein and diverts blood flow) can form as a result of combined genetic and physiological factors and not solely because of genetics.

In humans, the aortic arch vessels contribute to several of the body’s major arteries and often develop improperly, resulting in a wide range of vascular defects. While AVMs in humans generally are thought to form in utero, they typically are discovered only when they cause a serious health problem later in life.

The researchers discovered, by creating an aortic arch vessel development model from zebra-fish embryos, that the gene unc45a plays a critical role in the formation of the vessels and that mutations in that gene can result in AVMs.

AVMs can form in various organs, including the brain, lungs, spinal cord and liver. By diverting blood, the misconnections rob parts of the body of nutrients and oxygen. The fragile fusions are prone to rupturing and hemorrhaging; a ruptured AVM in the brain can cause a stroke.

“We discover AVMs in humans when something goes wrong and we can never go back and trace the shunt’s development,” Roman said.

“Only when we fully understand the mechanisms leading to these malformations will we be able to develop better diagnostic tests and preventative treatments to pinpoint the best time to intervene.”

The full article is available at


Connection between fatty liver/hepatitis C studied

A key enzyme may explain how hepatitis C infection causes a buildup of excess fat in the liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, report Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and School of Medicine researchers.

The study, published in the July 9 online issue of Hepatology, shows that an enzyme known to play a major role in lipid production, fatty acid synthase (FAS), was highly elevated in human liver cells exposed to the hepatitis C virus.

While preliminary, the research suggests that testing for elevated levels of FAS could help determine which patients with hepatitis C virus may go on to develop more serious, long-lasting health consequences brought on by fatty liver.

Unlike hepatitis A and B, there is no vaccine to prevent hepatitis C infection. Since hepatitis C typically has no symptoms, many people do not know they have the infection until they develop signs of liver failure or fatty liver, sometimes decades after infection.

Tianyi Wang a professor in the GSPH Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology and the study’s lead author, said: “Our study has provided new insight into how hepatitis C causes fatty liver. This has important implications for future studies and efforts to understand how the virus causes an increase in fatty acid levels that can lead to serious liver conditions.”

To identify possible proteins in the hepatitis C virus linked to an increase in fatty acids, Wang worked with Thomas Conrads, co-director of clinical proteomics at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI), and colleagues. Of the 175 proteins they identified, only FAS was highly elevated in cell cultures. When they blocked the expression of FAS, they noted a three-four times decrease in the level of the virus, indicating that FAS is directly linked to the virus’s expression.

Further study includes testing FAS levels in tissue samples from hepatitis C patients to determine whether elevated FAS levels directly result in overproduction of fat in livers.

Other authors included Wei Yang, Sara Chadwick and Shufeng Liu of GSPH, Brian Hood of UPCI and Simon Watkins of the medical school’s Department of Cell Biology and Physiology.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and Pitt’s Central Research Development Fund.


Marijuana’s impact on schizophrenia studied

Alterations in a molecular brain pathway activated by marijuana may contribute to the cognitive symptoms of schizophrenia, according to a report by Pitt School of Medicine researchers in the July issue of Archives of General Psychiatry.

Expression of the cannabinoid 1 receptor (CB1R), the site of action of the main chemical ingredient of marijuana, is reduced significantly in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia. Activation of CB1R impairs signaling by gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an important neurotransmitter essential for core cognitive processes such as working memory. The use of marijuana in individuals with schizophrenia appears to worsen this deficit in GABA synthesis.

Since reduced GABA is known to be present in schizophrenia, these findings suggest possible new drug targets that could help to improve function in people with the mental illness.

David A. Lewis, corresponding author of the study and UPMC Endowed Professor in Translational Neuroscience at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, said: “Heavy marijuana use, particularly in adolescence, appears to be associated with an increased risk for the later development of schizophrenia, and the course of illness is worse for people with schizophrenia who use marijuana.

“We wanted to understand the biological mechanisms that could explain these observations, and with this study I believe that we can narrow down at least part of the ‘why’ to CB1R, the receptor for both tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and the brain’s own cannabinoid chemical messengers.”

In a comparison of brain tissue collected after death from people with schizophrenia and normal comparison subjects, researchers found CB1R levels were significantly lower in those with schizophrenia. The reduction of CB1R, he noted, appears to be the brain’s way of compensating for lower levels of GABA, and the use of marijuana defeats this compensation.

Authors included Stephen Eggan and Takanori Hashimoto, both of psychiatry.


The University Times Research Notes column aims to inform readers about funding awarded to Pitt researchers and to report briefly on findings arising from University research. We welcome submissions from all areas of the University, not only health sciences areas.

Submit your information via email to:, by fax at 412/624-4579 or by campus mail to 308 Bellefield Hall. We regret we are unable to accept verbal submissions. For guidelines on what information to include in your submission, please click on the DEADLINES tab on the University Times home page.

In all cases, please be sure to include your name and phone number (not for publication) in case we need additional information.

Leave a Reply