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UC Irvine Nets $441 Million in Research Funding

Thursday, August 15, 2019

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Turning out educated students who earn diplomas is a big part of UC Irvine’s mission, but the school also produces a wide variety of research, and last year was a blockbuster in terms of grants supporting that work.

The second-youngest of the University of California system’s 10 campuses, UCI reported in fiscal 2018-19 it received 825 awards totaling $441 million in research funding, the most the school has ever received in a year and about a 47% increase since 2012-13, according to UCI data. The bulk of the 2018-19 grants are federal dollars from NASA, Health and Human Services, Defense Department and other agencies.

That puts UCI ahead of smaller campuses such as Riverside and Merced, but it still trails the system’s biggest schools. In 2017-18, UC San Francisco and San Diego topped the list with more than $1 billion each.

So what kinds of questions, problems and projects are UCI researchers exploring that are expected to “make important, productive contributions to the state, the nation and the world,” as university Vice Chancellor for Research Pramod Khargonekar described it? Here are a few examples of campus studies that may someday lead to new discoveries or life-changing solutions to medical, technological and societal concerns.

How early life experiences influence later mental health

Researchers already know that young brains need certain signals from the environment to develop correctly, said UCI neuroscientist Tallie Baram – for example, if a kitten doesn’t use one of its eyes during its first weeks of life, it won’t develop the proper neural pathways and will never see normally.

What if that’s also true of human babies and the signals they get from interacting with parents, and how might those early stimuli affect future susceptibility to mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress and substance abuse? Baram is heading a team looking at that question, funded by a five-year, $15 million grant from the Silvio O. Conte Center.

“Unpredictability and inconsistency are really, really important predictors of problems later in life,” she said.

Baran has already published findings from earlier research that showed inconsistent maternal care in rodent and human subjects can affect memory down the road, and now she’s hoping to learn how much early-life influences affect future outcomes. While genes play a major role in how humans develop and science can’t change those, “can we be aware and then teach about the importance of a predictable early life environment,” Baram said.

Carol Booth Olson

The U.S. Department of Education awarded Carol Booth Olson, UCI professor of education, $14.7 million to expand her Pathway to Academic Success Project. Photo: Steve Zylius / UCI

Protecting your smart devices from hacking

The earliest development of computers, servers and the internet didn’t factor in security from outside attacks, and “we’ve made the exact same mistake again with internet-connected devices that are not information-handling computers,” said Bryan Cunningham, executive director of UCI’s Cybersecurity Policy & Research Institute.

He’s overseeing a $1.4 million grant from the Herman P. & Sophia Taubman Foundation that’s taking a three-pronged approach to vulnerabilities in the Internet of Things, which includes all kinds of gadgets that can connect to the internet – from pacemakers and exercise trackers to smart speakers and apps that let you adjust the thermostat when you’re not home.

Cunningham and other researchers plan to build a testing range where they can simulate different kinds of cyber-attacks. They hope to use what they learn to create fixes for the likely tens of thousands of vulnerable devices already out in the world, and to make recommendations to regulators. Finally, part of their research explores the role of insurance companies as de facto regulators as more businesses recognize the need for insurance against cyber attacks.

Cunningham’s goal is to come up with actual fixes for cyber vulnerabilities. Universities often produce “high-end academic research,” he said, “but it’s very theoretical and it’s not as easy to apply it in the real world.”

Wound healing without scars

Accidents, burns and surgery often leave scars that can be embarrassing or debilitating, but Maksim Plikus, a developmental and cell biology professor, hopes that his work will help prevent those scars from forming. Plikus and two other researchers are using a $3.3 million National Institutes of Health grant to learn how to create ideal wound healing conditions so scars don’t develop.

Scar tissue is the quickest way for the human body to close up a wound, thus lessening the risk of infection and helping ensure a patient’s survival, Plikus said – but he’s already seen some evidence of mice regenerating hair follicles and fat cells, which are present in normal skin and absent in scar tissue. He wants to know what conditions are needed and whether the process can be induced in humans.

“Medically there’s a huge unmet need for anti-scarring strategies,” Plikus said.

Using a combination of cell tests in the lab and mathematical modeling, his team hopes to meet the need. They’ve already applied for a patent on the process of getting scar cells to convert to fat cells, and in the future, Plikus would like to find investors to start a company and seek federal approval of human treatments.

Source: Orange County Register

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