Research, Scholarship and Creative Achievement at UTSA


UTSA Geoscientist Hongjie Xie Participates in Chinese Arctic Expedition
Researchers gather Arctic data to explore global warming science and possible navigation opportunities

After spending two months in the Arctic Ocean aboard the Chinese vessel Xuelong, or “Snow Dragon,” University of Texas at San Antonio Associate Professor of Geological Sciences Hongjie Xie says global warming is both real and imminent. In fact, Arctic ice is melting quicker than researchers thought it would.

While much of the global warming debate has focused on the reasons for global warming and the disadvantages brought on by it, such as the impacts on Arctic ecology, marine mammals, indigenous communities, etc., Xie says the Chinese believe it also creates a significant opportunity.

“Global warming in the Arctic is an extremely hot topic in navigation,” says Xie, who manages UTSA’s Laboratory for Remote Sensing and Geoinformatics. “The Chinese are extremely interested because they and others would be able to sail their cargo ships through the Arctic Ocean to North America and Europe at a much-reduced cost. At the melting rate we are observing now, they may be able to do so in 30 to 50 years.”

Xie adds, “In the past, travelers could only get to the lowest Arctic latitudes in the summer season, but now the ice has melted so much, large ships can navigate into the higher latitudes. Xuelong traveled to 88.4 degrees latitude with no problems. A few years ago, we could not have done that. We would have run into ice blocks three meters or more in thickness.”

He notes, however, “While there is a great opportunity, Arctic navigation is a complex issue. Those involved will need to consider a variety of factors, such as environmental pollution, oil spills, search and rescue, national security, and navigation rights in territorial waters.”

Xie and a scholar from the University of Georgia were the only Americans invited to take part in the Fourth Chinese Arctic Expedition, a two-month data-gathering trip organized by the Chinese government. The trip served as a fact-finding mission for Xie, who represented the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Ice Outlook Program. The Chinese focused their research on the mechanisms of sea ice melting, how that melting is impacting the Arctic ecosystem and how it might affect the Chinese climate.

In all, 61 researchers, 54 crew members and six Chinese journalists participated in the expedition. They represented France, Finland, Taiwan, Estonia, the U.S., and numerous Chinese universities and research programs.

So why does Xie think Arctic sea ice is melting so rapidly? “It’s a positive feedback system,” he says. “Sea ice melts both from the bottom up due to increased ocean temperature and from the top down. When that happens, the melted ice leaves more open water, which absorbs more solar radiation and raises the temperature of the water even more. The temperature increase causes even more ice to melt and so on and so forth.”

While in the Arctic, Xie took photos, videos and quantitative measurements of Arctic sea ice. That in situ data will be combined with satellite data to help researchers across the world better understand Arctic climate and change.

Xie launched his career in 2002 after earning his doctorate in Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) from the University of Texas at El Paso. In 2004, he joined UTSA’s faculty. He and UTSA Research Associate Professor Stephen Ackley, a worldrenowned sea ice scientist, gained funding from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Cryosphere Science Program. Since then, Xie and his group have taken two expeditions to Antarctica (2006 and 2007) in addition to his 2010 Arctic expedition. Xie and Ackley sent researchers and students on two additional Antarctic sea ice trips in November and December 2010. Xie hopes to participate in the 2012 Chinese Arctic expedition by sending a couple of UTSA graduate students as well.

Army Research Laboratory Awards UTSA $2.4 Million to Develop Real-time Cognitive Monitoring Tools
Kay Robbins, Nandini Kannan and Yufei Huang will develop methods to monitor the mind in stressful environments

Imagine the daily work environment of Army soldiers. Seated in windowless tanks and restricted from visual cues, they travel over bumpy roads, bouncing wildly up and down over rugged terrain. Their tanks’ audio and video monitors are their only connection to the outside world, but they know their environment is dangerous. As the situation becomes more intense, they try to respond to an array of informational cues, but soon it becomes hard to focus. When will their attention decline? When will fatigue set in? What is happening in the brain?

University of Texas at San Antonio researchers Kay Robbins, professor of computer science in the UTSA College of Sciences; Nandini Kannan, professor of management science and statistics in the UTSA College of Business; and Yufei Huang, associate professor of electrical engineering in the UTSA College of Engineering, hope to answer those questions soon. Led by Robbins, the study’s principal investigator, the interdisciplinary trio has been selected to receive a five-year, $2.4 million award from the Army Research Laboratory. Their fundamental research project is part of a $25 million initiative to improve human-system interactions.

To date, cognitive monitoring tools have been limited, mainly allowing researchers to collect data in a laboratory environment and interpret it long after the monitoring session. Over the next five years, however, UTSA’s researchers will develop methods to monitor the brain and interpret the massive amounts of data collected in real-time.

“As the consortium conducts experiments in increasingly complex environments and learns more about how the brain works, UTSA researchers will use the findings to develop and tune new, more-sophisticated brain cognition tools.” UTSA’s research collaborators include the Army Research Laboratory; DCS Corporation; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Osnabrück in Germany and National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

“Traditionally, cognitive monitoring has been conducted in simple lab settings under controlled conditions,” says Robbins. “This study takes that concept to the next level by developing adaptive tools researchers can use to collect, manage and interpret neurological and sensory data in real-time. It is our hope that the tools will help individuals focus on their critical needs so they can quickly process information and make decisions in a variety of stressful situations.”

Could an Iron Overdose Kill Breast and Prostate Cancer?
UTSA chemist Donald Kurtz wins $200,000 to research the possibility

Lutcher Brown Distinguished Chair Donald Kurtz in the UTSA Department of Chemistry has been selected to receive $199,906 from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to develop a novel approach to delivering iron at toxic levels to kill cancer cells and tumors. The two-year research project is considered “High Impact High Risk” and, if successful, could have a tremendous impact on cancer therapy.

“Iron is essential for all cells in the body to function properly and is safe up to certain levels; however, the cells’ iron transfer process is highly regulated,” says Kurtz. “If we overload cells or tissues with iron, it becomes toxic. Our goal is to develop a method for delivering iron at toxic levels specifically to cancer cells.”

Over the next two years, Kurtz and his research team will focus on developing a photochemical, or light-activated, cancer therapy. The treatment will be driven by a nanoscale protein scaffold filled with approximately 2,000 iron atoms in its hollow center. The scaffold will include peptides on its outer shell that will allow it to be recognized specifically by cancer cells. The peptides would make the scaffold bind to the cancer cells like Velcro.

Once researchers deliver the iron-loaded scaffold to cancer cells, they will zap the scaffold with tissue-penetrating, near-infrared light. The light treatment will cause the scaffold to release its iron into the cells. The released iron will induce the production of free radicals, which, at sufficiently high levels, will overwhelm the cells’ antioxidant capacity, thereby killing the cells. The peptide on the outer shell of the protein scaffold can be varied to target specific types of cancers, such as breast or prostate.

"The basic idea is to use light as the trigger to shoot iron out of our protein scaffold and into the cancer cells," says Kurtz. "Think of it as shooting iron bullets to kill cancer."

Kurtz joined UTSA’s faculty in 2006 after serving for 20 years on the chemistry faculty at the University of Georgia. He is a specialist in bioinorganic chemistry and studies metalloenzymes such as nonheme iron enzymes at the molecular level.

stablished by Texas voters in 2007, CPRIT will invest up to $3 billion for groundbreaking cancer research, prevention programs and services in Texas.

Team Seeking to Develop and Market Gastric Bypass Technology Wins UTSA Entrepreneurship Competition
Competition takes student entrepreneurship beyond the classroom

UMDI, a team comprising four engineering students and three business students who developed a prototype electrolytic gastric leak detector (eGLD) and wrote a business plan to market the technology, triumphed at the $100,000 Student Technology Venture Competition, presented by The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship (CITE). The technology, a smart drain with electronic sensors, monitors and reports the balance of electrolytes in patients undergoing gastric bypass surgery.

UTSA teams ATALIS and Voice Detection for the Deaf placed second and third in the business-planning competition held April 23, 2011, at the UTSA Downtown Campus.

ATALIS offers an RFID-based technology that identifies and weighs bottles stocked by business and bar owners in real-time to determine if the correct amount and type of alcohol is used for a particular drink and if the charge is correct. Voice Detection for the Deaf offers a mobile technology to assist in the awareness of their surroundings by the deaf and hard-of-hearing through integrating an alerting wristband with a mobile phone application.

IDEA Finishing School Chief Financial Officer Rudy De La Garza has now judged three iterations of UTSA’s $100,000 tech competition. His company identifies new entrepreneurial talent and helps those young entrepreneurs develop their companies and take them to market.

“This year’s presentations were probably the best of all the presentations they’ve had in the past,” says De La Garza. “We like the technology we see out of UTSA.”

In all, nine student teams competed at UTSA’s $100,000 Student Technology Venture Competition.

UTSA’s biannual $100,000 tech competition is the largest business-planning competition in San Antonio. UTSA established the competition in 2007, when it observed that its engineering students were developing new technologies and its business students were writing business plans, but neither group continued their efforts after turning in their projects for a grade. With the competition in place, UTSA’s students are now developing marketable technologies and forming viable new companies based on those technologies.

“The final test of the competition is the venture-pitch portion of the competition,” says Cory Hallam, director of CITE. “Each team is given the stage for eight minutes to convince investors to invest in their company. At this year’s competition, investment discussions were initiated between a local investment group and several of the teams the morning of the competition. The outcome remains to be seen but looks positive.”

Winners receive $100,000 in services and prizes including consulting, marketing and legal services, office space, and other benefits.

GenOsteo and SpineSmith Will Take UTSA’s First Licensed Technology to Market
Bone scaffolding technology will advance spinal fusion and treatment of bone injuries and defects

San Antonio-based GenOsteo Inc. and Austin-based SpineSmith Partners jointly announced that they have inked an agreement to commercialize a synthetic scaffold that can be used with Adult Stem Cells (ASCs) to produce a new and highly effective bone graft material. The scaffold, developed by biomedical engineers at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), provides an optimal way to use ASCs for spinal fusion and restoring bone lost due to trauma or disease.

“Our scaffold offers surgeons a new and better way to deliver ASCs to promote bone formation. Delivering the right type of cells on the right scaffold will improve clinical results in orthopedic bone grafting procedures,” says Daniel Oh, Ph.D., UTSA research assistant professor in the UTSA Department of Biomedical Engineering, President/CSO of GenOsteo and a member of the team that developed the new technology

In addition to the use in spinal fusion and general orthopedics, the scaffolds can be used to support the regeneration of craniofacial bone in patients who have lost a portion of their skull due to trauma, surgery or disease. GenOsteo plans to undertake the evaluation of its scaffold for use in orthopedic applications that impose greater mechanical demands on the graft material. Scaffolds that can withstand mechanical loading, while eventually being replaced by the patient’s own bone as it heals, will represent another significant advance in bone grafting and tissue regeneration technology

SpineSmith will focus on the marketing, sales and distribution of the product.

“This agreement is an exciting opportunity for both SpineSmith and GenOsteo,” says James Poser, Ph.D., executive vice president of Regenerative Medicine at SpineSmith. “This development program will bring together one of the brightest and most innovative teams of materials scientists and experts in musculoskeletal tissue regeneration. I fully expect that when the results of this collaborative effort are realized, we will be able to provide surgeons with the best option for their patients.”

Founded in 2008, GenOsteo is the first start-up company out of UTSA’s New Venture Incubator, which serves as a bridge between San Antonio entrepreneurs and the region’s research and development community. Established earlier this year at the UTSA Main Campus, the incubator supports start-up companies commercializing UTSA intellectual property and sponsors research that the university expects will enhance the UTSA intellectual property portfolio.

National Science Foundation Grants $400,800 for UTSA Neuroscience Research
Todd Troyer sees link between songbird learning and brain disorders

Todd Troyer, an assistant professor of neuroscience in The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Biology and a member of the UTSA Neurosciences Institute, has received a threeyear, $400,898 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Neural Systems Cluster to continue his research into how birds learn to sing.

Although U.S. universities only employ a handful of songbird researchers, their findings are influencing how the research and clinical communities view neurological disorders like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and Parkinson’s disease. During OCD, patients are unable to switch off a brain circuit that produces a certain task. Understanding how a songbird’s brain controls changes from one musical note to a different note is helping researchers form new hypotheses about how the human brain may get stuck repeating a single behavior.

Songbird researchers have also demonstrated that the basal ganglia circuits behave similarly in human and bird brains. In humans, the basal ganglia have long been known to regulate motor skills and learning. The circuit malfunctions in Parkinson’s patients, who have difficulty starting or changing tasks. Songbirds use their basal ganglia during song practice and performance and to regulate song variability.

Troyer has spent a significant amount of time studying zebra finches, which learn to sing by mimicking their fathers. The process takes about three months to fine-tune and results in a song unique to each finch. The new funding will allow Troyer to determine how a finch’s brain sequences musical notes and how it controls changes from one note to a different note. Ultimately, he will map the bird’s active brain cells to corresponding parts of its song.

Troyer will also repeat his research in adult birds. Using Bengalese finches, he will collaborate with University of California, San Francisco, electrophysiologist Michael Brainard to record the activity of single brain cells as birds sing. They will analyze the variation in both brain activity and song output. These data will then be used to build computer models of how the brain activity is coordinated as the birds sing.

“It is extremely important to support basic science, because we rarely know where the next advance is coming from,” says Troyer. “Researchers didn’t set out to make a link between song learning and neurological disorders. It’s just something that happened after years of fundamental research. Given this type of unpredictability, there is great value in conducting general research. The knowledge it generates will surely help out in ways that are currently unknown.”

UTSA Biomedical Engineer Joseph C. Salamone Elected by Peers to Join National Academy of Engineering
Salamone will be region’s fifth NAE Fellow

Joseph C. Salamone, chief scientific officer at Rochal Industries LLP, UTSA adjunct professor of biomedical engineering and professor emeritus of chemistry and polymer science at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell, Mass., was elected by his peers to become a Fellow in the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in February 2011. The NAE is a member of the National Academies, which includes the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.

“An invitation by one’s peers to join the National Academy of Engineering is one of the highest honors an engineer can receive,” says Mauli Agrawal, Dean of the UTSA College of Engineering. “Dr. Salamone has made significant contributions in biomaterials, specifically in ophthalmology and wound healing. His election to the NAE reflects a dedicated life of academic and professional service.”

Throughout his career, Salamone has developed more than 40 products and product lines in eye and wound care. That intellectual property has led to more than 200 U.S. patents (pending and issued) for products that have generated more than one billion dollars in commercial sales.

Salamone is a co-founder of the Polymer Technology Corporation, which commercialized the world’s first high-oxygen-permeable rigid contact lenses. In 1983, the company was sold to Bausch + Lomb, where he consulted for a number of years and served as vice president of research.

In 1986, Salamone co-founded Rochal Industries, a San Antonio biomedical research company that has invented and licensed a number of revolutionary and useful wound and burn care products.

The biomedical engineer is the fifth person from the greater San Antonio area elected to join the NAE.

Founded in 1964, the NAE provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. It operates under the same congressional act of incorporation that established the National Academy of Sciences, signed in 1863 by President Lincoln.

How Can the U.S. Promote Cyber Security?
UTSA cyber security expert addresses National Academies’ research roundtable, GUIRR

Faculty and staff at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) lent their expertise to an elite group of government, academic and industry professionals at the winter meeting of the Government-University- Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR), an elite sub-group of the National Academies, the nation’s advisers in science, engineering and medicine. GUIRR meets three times each year to improve the climate for U.S. researchers in science and technology by addressing critical national policies and making recommendations to facilitate national and international research collaboration. In 2010, UTSA suggested GUIRR’s winter meeting topic, the intersection of cyber security and intellectual property, then coauthored a meeting proposal with GUIRR member Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). The resulting meeting was titled “Cybersecurity in the Coming Decade: Using Security to Support the Value of Intellectual Property.” Attendees and presenters at the meeting included experts from the White House, FBI, Google, IBM, Northrop Grumman, and the University of California, Berkeley, as well as other academic institutions and industry organizations.

Ravi Sandhu, a world-renowned expert in cyber security and executive director of the UTSA Institute for Cyber Security, discussed “the game of cyber security.” He demonstrated why San Antonio is a major U.S. cyber city and addressed the realities that network attackers, defenders and technology developers face on a daily basis. Sandhu called for policies to balance productivity and security and an increasing focus on cyber security research and education to meet the nation’s future technology needs.

James Casey, director of UTSA’s Office of Contracts and Industrial Agreements, also presented at the meeting. Casey is an active participant in GUIRR, serves as co-chair of its International Research Collaborations project (better known as GUIRR’s “I-Group”) and was instrumental in encouraging UTSA and SwRI to apply for GUIRR membership.

GUIRR provides a platform for leaders in science and technology from academia, government and business to discuss and take action on national and international scientific matters. This includes such topics as university-industry partnerships; scientific training in academia; the relationship between academia, government and business, and the effects of globalization on U.S. research. Through roundtable meetings and projects, GUIRR’s government, university and industry partners provide guidance and suggest possible solutions to streamline policies and procedures unique to the government-university-industry interface.

“GUIRR is an extremely valuable forum for UTSA and Southwest Research Institute, especially now, as UTSA works to achieve Tier One research status,” says Robert Gracy, UTSA vice president for research. “Our membership in GUIRR gives us the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to national research policy. This is exactly where we want to be.”

Uno, One or 1: Does It Make a Difference in Math Class?
UTSA neurobiologist receives $150,000 to study math in the bilingual brain

Assistant Professor Nicole Wicha at The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) Department of Biology and UTSA Neurosciences Institute has been awarded $150,000 over the next two years from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD) to study how the bilingual brain computes simple mathematical calculations. The grant is the result of a collaborative effort between Wicha, who studies the underpinnings of the bilingual brain, and Elena Salillas, a math cognition scholar who recently completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Wicha’s neuroscience laboratory.

“Neuroscientists have just begun to study how the brain processes simple numerical calculations,” says Wicha. “Bilinguals pose an interesting problem for the field, because they have two languages to represent the same mathematical concepts. Our findings suggest that bilinguals are faster and more accurate at processing calculations, such as simple multiplications, if those calculations are given in the language in which they originally learned them, even if the bilinguals are more proficient in another language. Using non-invasive brain recordings, we are able to see that the brain actually uses arithmetic concepts differently based on the language in which they are presented.”

Wicha’s laboratory is now looking for bilingual math teachers. The teachers will answer a series of simple mathematical calculations using English and Spanish words and numerical digits, while their brain function and responses are recorded. In the long run, Wicha plans to extend this work to bilingual children learning math concepts and hopes that her work will help develop new teaching and testing techniques for all students learning math.

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