Tier 1 winners

Substance Use and Health Disparities: Assessing Brain Systems Underlying Treatment Response and Etiology
Edward Bernat, BSOS/Psychology

Disparities in substance abuse treatment outcomes among racial/ethnic groups in the United States have led to efforts to identify and understand differences in substance abuse patterns and treatment response [1]. The goal of the current application is obtain funds needed to generate preliminary data in order to develop sustained extramural funding for a new EEG neuroimaging lab in a 120-bed residential drug rehabilitation center in D.C. (Salvation Army Harbor Light, SAHL). Based on our research at SAHL so far, the resident population is 85% African American, with an average income less than $10k. Approximately 60% of patients are court ordered to treatment, while 40% present voluntarily. All of these statistics represent health disparities across domains. The funds would support a research assistant and subject payments, as well as some consumable sensors for the research. There are four proposed projects that have been developed with separate collaborators, representing distinct, but related, projects that we plan to submit for federal funding within 12-24 months. The collection of collaborators, coalesced around the different proposed projects, represents a broad target from which to obtain federal funding.


Developing an Activation Tagged Poplar Population for Functional Dissection of Nitrogen Homeostasis
Gary D. Coleman, AGNR/Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

A challenge for biomass-based energy systems is the development of sustainable systems from marginal environments that removes land-use competition between food and biomass production. These production systems will also need to maximize biomass yields with reduced production inputs to minimize environmental impacts. Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) is a key trait of sustainable biomass production, especially in marginal environments. NUE is the culmination of physiological and metabolic processes that impact N uptake per unit of root mass, N partitioning and allocation, N retention and internal cycling, and enhanced function at lower internal N concentrations. Poplars(genus Populus) are fast-growing trees and valuable as a bioenergy crop. Poplar is dioecious(each plant is either male or female) and requires years to reach reproductive maturity; making unfeasible forward genetic approaches, such as mutagenesis, to study NUE.
In this project,a population of gain-of-function mutations will be generated via activation-tagging using an approach that specifically targets genes and pathways that govern the regulation of seasonal nitrogen storage, a key factor contributing the NUE. This novel population of poplar will provide a resource for functional identification of factors that regulate this physiological process.


HarvestLink: Connecting Farmers to Markets
Taryn Devereux, AGNR/Agriculture and Resource Economics

The AREC Women in Agriculture (WIA) program has partnered with mVuno, a technology start-up company, and StepByStep Worldwide, an NGO that performs educational work in Africa, to form the HarvestLink partnership. Using an integrated model that incorporates agricultural extension, nutrition, and service delivery, HarvestLink is developing a mobile phone application that connects communities of producers to markets.

The current award, provided by the Faculty Incentive Program (Tier 1), allows the partnership to establish a research base to support the development of local and international programs that will use this mobile phone application to link farmers to markets, with the goal of reducing food waste. The award allows the HarvestLink team, led by the PI, to collect necessary data from both urban (Baltimore, MD) and peri-urban (Lusaka, Zambia) agricultural settings and to begin pilot testing for an extension program that addresses the needs of producers and consumers within the environment they are currently operating.

The funds will support exploratory visits to the initial program sites (Baltimore, MD and Lusaka, Zambia) by 3-4 key team members with three objectives: 1) Collect quantitative and qualitative data from farmers, consumers, and potential delivery service providers; 2) Solidify local relationships and institutional partnerships (farmer coops, community groups, educational centers, etc.); and 3) Test a prototype version of the program’s mobile application technology. These visits will produce data, establish the institutional relationships to support future proposals for seed grant funding for extension projects in Baltimore, MD and Lusaka, Zambia, and establish a proof of concept to seek larger awards ($10M+).


Library Lanterns: Illumination to Improve Literacy and Neighborhood Safety
Ronit Eisenbach, School of Architecture

This project explores the role design can play to improve quality of life, build cultural assets, and support environmental sustainability in underserved communities.

Carroll Avenue/Quebec Terrace (CAQT) is an underserved neighborhood of Silver Spring, Maryland that suffers from poor environmental illumination that creates a sense of vulnerability and contributes to crime. In addition, weak literacy and language skills limit opportunities for children and immigrants. The Library Lantern Project seeks to address these two issues simultaneously through the literal and metaphorical thread of illumination.

The Library Lantern concept is a mash-up of the popular Little Free Libraries, DPLA’s Open eBooks, and an illuminated solar-powered bollard freed from conventional infrastructure constraints. Prof. Eisenbach will lead a team of lighting, fabrication and literacy experts, in partnership with Arts on the Block, YMCA, CAQT community members and the National Digital Public Library of America to design and test this concept.

Funds support 1) research, design and fabrication of two prototype lanterns placed in the new LightScape Garden; 2) development of appropriate literacy content; 3) a pilot program to assist residents in adopting the Library Lanterns in their community; and 4) evaluation of the prototype with a future goal of scaling up to a neighborhood-wide installation and study.


Effect of Chemicals on Transgenerational Gene Silencing
Antony Jose, CMNS/Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics

The effect of most chemicals on life and health is not well understood. Yet, some have been reported to cause transgenerational changes in rodent studies. Therefore there is a need for simple assays that can determine if a chemical can affect epigenetic processes that are critical for the health of the exposed animal and its descendants. Here we propose to develop a simple assay to evaluate the effect of chemicals on transgenerational gene silencing using the worm C. elegans. This work will build on our recent findings that extracellular RNA can cause stable transgenerational gene silencing through epigenetic processes.


The molecular mechanism and architecture of the methylosome
Nicole LaRonde, CMNS/Chemistry and Biochemistry

The methylosome is a large molecular machine that decorates proteins with methyl groups to impart important biological outcomes. This function is necessary for proliferation of certain cancers. The multi-component complex contains four copies of PRMT5, the methyltransferase, and RIOK1, an enzyme that cleaves ATP. RIOK1 brings protein targets to the methylosome and uses ATP in the process. One of these target proteins, Nucleolin, is important for the production of new ribosomes, or protein synthesis machinery, in the cell. The role of RIOK1 is poorly understood in this context, and we hypothesize that it acts as a molecular switch utilizing ATP hydrolysis to promote substrate recycling on PRMT5.

We will undertake an ambitious project to determine the currently unknown atomic resolution structure of the methylosome containing all its known components: PRMT5, MEP50, RIOK1 and Nucleolin. This project will begin with the structure determination of the complex using cryo-Electron Microscopy (cryo-EM). This technology, along with our expertise in X-ray crystallography and biochemical techniques, will allow us to produce a comprehensive picture of the molecular architecture and mechanisms of the methylosome. Armed with this new information, we will have a roadmap to allow modulation of methylosome activity for beneficial therapeutic outcomes.


Resistance through diversity: Understanding Salmonella phenotypic plasticity and decision making in response to antimicrobials
Shirley Micallef, AGNR/Plant Science and Landscape Architecture

Every year 93.8 million illnesses due to the foodborne pathogen Salmonella occur globally, a million of which are in the United States. Salmonellos is associated with the consumption of contaminated fresh produce crops are on the increase, with all types of food plants, such as fruits, vegetables, leafy greens and nuts, being implicated. Salmonella may have evolved strategies to use plants as alternative hosts to survive environmental transitions and as a vehicle to re-enter herbivorous animals. Although harsh environmental conditions can injure bacteria and impair fitness, phenotypic plasticity in Salmonella may aid this pathogen to survive environmental stressors such as desiccation, ultraviolet radiation and antimicrobials.

Using a molecular and microscopic imaging approach, we propose to investigate Salmonella adaptive traits which allow it to form different morphotypes and exhibit variable growth characteristics in response to stress. The findings from this study will support an external proposal to the USDA that will develop and evaluate innovative, effective detection and disinfection methods for use in the fresh produce industry, to improve food safety and public health.


A novel approach to solar energy using the plasmoelectric effect
Jeremy Munday and Marina Leite, ENGR/Electrical and Computer Engineering

Global power demand is currently ~18 TW, and a majority of the power generation comes from fossil fuels. Alternatively, the sun delivers ~120,000 TW at the earth’s surface (significantly more than will ever conceivably be needed); however, in the US only about 1% of our electricity is provided by solar. Given solar energy’s potential, there is a need to reduce costs and improve the efficiency of devices by exploring new mechanisms for energy conversion from the sun. Here, we propose to use the plasmoelectric effect, involving the generation of an electrostatic potential in a metal upon optical illumination, as a new solar energy harvester. Because this phenomenon was only recently discovered, we have the unique opportunity to be at the forefront of this new field, and this seed grant will enable us to perform the preliminary experiments necessary to successfully secure external funding for future experiments. The PIs have effectively collaborated on multiple research projects in the past and their complementary expertise will put them at an advantage as this field further develops.


Essence Work: A New Approach for New Plays
Jennifer Barclay Newsham, ARHU/Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies

I am a creative researcher in the area of playwriting. With Essence Work: A New Approach for New Plays, I will address an unmet need in national theatre by creating an innovative model for new play development. In this project I will work with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and director Shana Cooper over 10 months to originate a groundbreaking, collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to developing a play about the national crisis of human trafficking. At the conclusion of the Seed Grant period, I will be able to advance the project both by publishing documentation of the process, and by bringing my play forward for consideration for national awards and productions. A Tier 1 DRIF Seed Grant would provide the support necessary for in-depth interdisciplinary research on human trafficking and extended collaborative development of the play. This project will position me for advancement to Associate Professor, while simultaneously bringing empathetic awareness to one of the great socio-political issue our times.


Molecular Underpinnings of Long-Term Memory Formation: Unique Computer Modeling of Dendritic Spine Structure and Dynamics
Garegin Papoian, CMNS/Chemistry and Biochemistry

Dendritic spines are small mushroom-like protrusions that receive input from other neuronal axons. They are implicated in many neural processes, including formation of long term memories that can last over organism’s lifetime. Recent experimental work has shown that spectrin family proteins form a filamentous network at the spine’s neck, which is essential for maintaining spine’s structural stability and function. Mutations of these proteins lead to various neuro-pathologies.

The PI will develop a unique molecular model of dendritic spines, based on the software recently developed in their group, called MEDYAN (http://medyan.org). The latter provides powerful computational algorithms and software for modeling cytoskeletal dynamics, taking into account both chemical events, molecular diffusion and mechanical deformations, and the interplay among these processes. Simulations will reveal the molecular mechanisms that underlie the stability and dynamics of dendritic spine structures, making predictions for how the spines will transform upon mutations of various proteins. Researchers will closely collaborate and validate their predictions working with the group of Prof. Tatiana Svitkina at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies dendritic spines using advanced experimental techniques, including electron microscopy. This work will eventually lead to integrating information from a number of disparate experiments into coherent, systems’ view of the dendritic spine functional dynamics and pathophysiology.


Can Tailored Text Messages Reduce Cardiometabolic Risk among Health Disparity Populations?
Susan Passmore, SPHL/Health Services Administration

Cardiometabolic Syndrome (CMS) is a constellation of risk factors including hypertension, dyslipidemia, and visceral obesity that leaves individuals at a substantially higher risk for premature illness and death for a range of conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal and breast cancer. A second commonality of the conditions related to CMS is that they disproportionately impact social and economically disadvantaged populations. The purpose of this exploratory study is to test the feasibility and acceptability of a tailored text messages based intervention with individuals at risk for CMS recruited through the 2017 Mission of Mercy emergency dental clinic hosted at the UMD Xfinity Center. This exploratory study utilizes the evidence based Group Life Balance (GLB) lifestyle protocol demonstrated to be effective for weight loss delivered through “CommunityWell,” an electronic wellness and interactive platform created in collaboration with the Smith School of Business, Center for Health Information and Decision Systems. If successful, the approach can be sustained, commercialized and scaled up for wider dissemination. By targeting underlying factors that contribute to a range of health disparities, we hope to create a great leap toward our goal of health equity.


Purple Line Outcomes on Transportation (PLOT) Study: An Examination of Pre-Purple Line Active Transportation Behaviors and Attitudes among Prince George’s County Residents
Jennifer Roberts, SPHL/Kinesiology

Approximately two-thirds of adults and youth in Prince George’s (PG) County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. comprised predominantly of African Americans, are overweight or obese. While weight reduction and maintenance is associated with physical activity, only 46% of adults and 35% of youth are achieving physical activity recommendations within PG County. Physical activity is most frequently considered within a recreational context, however, it can also be classified into other domains of life describing how people spend their time including active transportation (AT), such as walking, biking or using public transportation (PT). AT, with PT, is considered a strategic and integral pathway to improving physical activity levels and thus reducing overweight and obesity levels. Even though prior research has demonstrated that PT use is associated with physical activity, there are still research gaps in understanding how contextual effects ((a) neighborhood built environment; (b) sociodemographics; and (c) “sense of community”) impact PT use, AT behaviors and attitudes and how these variables promote physical activity using a longitudinal research framework at the neighborhood level. Despite the Washington, DC area having the second highest PT ridership among all U.S. rapid transit systems, there is a lack of data from controlled, long-term studies in this region. Utilizing an expansion of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) system as a natural experiment, the Purple Line Outcomes on Transportation (PLOT) Study will address these research gaps. Overall, the PLOT Study will determine if Purple Line development affects PT use, AT behaviors and attitudes and physical activity levels pre-and post-implementation of the Purple Line among PG County.


Tracking Teenagers’ Evolving Technology Use during High School: Optimizing the Balance between Information Privacy and Disclosure across Rapidly Evolving Norms
Jessica Vitak, iSchool

Teenagers are among the heaviest users of communication technologies. Importantly, these digital natives often become immersed in a mediated lifestyle long before they begin thinking or learning about the consequences of their disclosures. They are often given a device like a smartphone, tablet, or laptop with little to no training on basic digital literacy skills, including how to safely use these technologies and protect their personal data, as well as determining what is acceptable—and unacceptable—sharing within their network. To better understand how teens’ normative practices around digital privacy and disclosure emerge and evolve throughout adolescence, this project will collect longitudinal data from students and parents at two Baltimore-area high schools through surveys and focus groups. Findings from this project will be used to develop ground truth for an extensive, longitudinal study of teenagers’ technology use, information disclosures, and privacy protection strategies. Data collection and analysis will focus on expanding our understanding of key tenets of communication privacy management theory to mediated settings and will provide first steps to developing new resources for parents, teens, and educators to increase digital literacy and prepare young people to navigate new technologies safely and securely.

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University of Maryland
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