SPUR 2021 Projects

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SPUR projects are listed in alphabetical order by faculty mentor last name. NOTE: While we are hoping for an in-person SPUR experience, given the structure of SPUR (many participants are not U students and/or are not local to Salt Lake City) and depending on U policy for summer 2021 (on-campus research and/or U-related travel restrictions), we are prepared to offer a fully remote SPUR experience should events necessitate the transition. 

Biomedical Informatics | School of Medicine


Samir Abdelrahman, Assistant Professor

Several types of patients are hospitalized in intensive care units (ICU), such as patients with multiple outcomes of sepsis (i.e., sepsis, severe sepsis, sepsis shock, and organ failure) in many cases, multiple sepsis outcomes (i.e., the sequential multiple onsets of these outcomes and mortality). One-third of ICU patients suffer from some types of sepsis. Sepsis types may have temporal patterns of sequential occurrences of these outcomes, leading to further complications, including mortality. Therefore, clinicians may depend on their intuition when analyzing time-sensitive information to make several clinical decisions for predicting early the likelihood of more than one type of sepsis co-occurring. Most previous modeling studies have focused on exploring a single sepsis type rather than multiple sepsis outcomes. Moreover, most of them use machine learning techniques in their clinics that may not accurately predict such temporal patterns of co-occurrences among different sepsis outcomes. The Abdelrahman lab has developed many temporal solutions that have been used effectively in critical care settings. Our primary goal is to develop a novel temporal solution that leverages our prior preliminary results, MIMIC IV dataset, and advanced machine learning techniques to better extracting patterns of the changes in multiple sepsis outcomes. The proposed solution's impact is to support the clinicians with an understanding of multiple sepsis outcomes. This project entails collaborations between informatics researchers and clinical experts to identify challenges and propose relevant solutions. It will require the student selected for the project and lab students to exchange ideas and solve problems together.

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School of Biological Sciences | College of science


William Anderegg, Assistant Professor

The future of western US forests in a rapidly changing climate hinges around how trees can survive climate stress, like drought. This research project aims to determine how aspen genetics (genotype) or environment (phenotype) influence drought tolerance in southwestern US aspen forests. Since droughts are expected to increase in frequency and severity for these forests under climate change, it is critical to understand which aspen trees will best survive future drought events. Aspen is a widely distributed tree species across North America and is composed of numerous locally-adapted populations. We will investigate this local drought adaptation by determining if an aspen population’s drought tolerance is due to its genetics or its environment. If the same level of drought tolerance exists in the population under a different environment, then drought tolerance is due to the genetics of the population. We will determine if the drought tolerance of aspen trees from natural populations across the Intermountain West US is due to genetics or environment. In 2019, aspen were propagated from roots collections from 5 natural populations in Utah and Colorado. In 2020, the propagules were planted into an experimental garden on the University of Utah campus. In spring/summer 2021, the common garden will undergo a drought treatment, and physiological and morphological traits relevant to drought tolerance (i.e. leaf size, water conductivity through the wood tissue, photosynthesis, etc.) will be measured. This research project will consist of both garden and laboratory components to collect, process and analyze samples, and measure various morphological and physiological traits on the aspen trees.

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Psychiatry | School of Medicine


Amanda Bakian, Research Associate Professor

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States with the national economic costs of suicide approximated to be $53 billion annually. While suicide’s causes are complex, suicide clusters in families and it is widely hypothesized that interactions between an underlying genetic predisposition and environmental factors are in suicide’s causal pathway. We recently reported a heightened risk of suicide following short-term exposure to fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide among all suicides in Salt Lake County, Utah from 2000-2010. Similar findings have been replicated in culturally, meteorologically, and geographically diverse regions of the world including Japan, China, Korea, and Belgium. While the biological mechanisms underlying ambient air pollution exposure’s association with suicide have yet to be well-elucidated, growing evidence implicates a role for inflammation and oxidative stress. In addition to ambient air pollution, aeropollens (i.e. pollen grains located in the air) are another potential environmental exposure linked to suicide mortality that may elicit an inflammatory response to increase risk. If so, then both ambient air pollution and aeropollens represent modifiable risk factors for suicide mortality thereby providing opportunities for intervention. If so, it is important to understand comprehensively the association between aeropollens and suicide death. The relationship between aeropollens and suicide mortality, however, has yet to be investigated in a U.S. population.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. THIS MEANS THAT IT IS OPEN ONLY TO UNIVERSITY OF UTAH APPLICANTS FROM RACIAL/ETHNIC MINORITY BACKGROUNDS. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

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History | College of Humanities
Gender Studies | School for Cultural & Social Transformation


Matthew Basso, Associate Professor

Prompted by recent federal legislation, the National Park Service (NPS), in collaboration with the National Council for Public History, has launched a major effort to revitalize its presentation of the World War II home front story. The NPS selected me as Principal Investigator for this four year project. There are three major components of this project.

  1. Update the NPS World War II home front theme study written in 2000.
  2. Produce home front histories for all 50 states and 5 territories.
  3. Conduct a reconnaissance of properties on the current NHL property list and produce one or more National Historic Landmark nominations for World War II home front sites from this list or from newly recognized sites.

This research will be of vital importance to the NPS as they continue their effort to provide the over 275 million annual visitors to NPS sites with a history of the U.S. that reflects the diversity of individual experience and the complexity of our national saga. To put it bluntly, this is a truly remarkable opportunity for students to have their research impact what millions of people learn about U.S. history. SPUR students will work with Dr. Basso and a team of graduate students on the state and territory home front histories. We will teach any SPUR student selected for our project how to conduct primary and secondary source research in digital archives following best practices in the humanities. SPUR students will read and analyze federal and state documents and historical sources that speak to the culture and society of the WWII era.

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Pathology | School of Medicine


Maria Bettini, Associate Professor

Type 1 Diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune disease that precipitates as a result of destruction of insulin producing beta cells by the rogue cells of the immune system. This leads to dysregulation of glucose metabolism leading to negative effects on multiple systems and disease associated complications. There is no cure for T1D. Our laboratory is investigating the interactions, both direct and indirect, between T cells and beta cells. T cells can target beta cells for destruction, but there also exists an anti-inflammatory subpopulation of T cells that can prevent or reverse autoimmunity – regulatory T cells. Regulatory T cells are currently tested in multiple clinical trials as a therapy for autoimmune diseases and transplant tolerance, but we still do not have complete understanding of their functional potential and molecular mechanisms. What is exciting, is that several molecules produced by regulatory T cells can signal directly to beta cells and potentially improve their survival under inflammatory conditions. Current work in the lab is further dissecting these signals using mouse models of T1D, flow cytometry, microscopy, and single cell genomics. We are also interested in how T cells themselves are affected by diabetes, and how they respond to changing metabolic conditions.

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neurology | School of Medicine


KC Brennan, Professor

Altitude affects the brain as well as the lungs. It is well known that high altitudes can cause severe headaches and ultimately brain swelling. It is less known that moderate altitudes, like that of Salt Lake City (SLC), can also have effects on the brain. This is important because approximately 1 billion people live at moderate altitudes. Migraine headaches are more common at moderate altitudes, and we have recently shown that migraine aura, a wave of sensory changes that precedes the headache, is significantly more frequent in people who live in SLC compared to lower elevations. This is an important clue because we know that migraine aura is caused by a spreading depolarization (SD), a wave of activity that moves across the brain like a ripple in a pond. While the pain of migraine is difficult to model in the lab, SD is readily measured. We thus have a biomarker that we can use to examine the mechanisms by which altitude affects migraine susceptibility. We have two potentially related hypotheses: 1. Hypoxia, reduced oxygen concentration, is known to trigger SD. Though there are only moderate changes in oxygen levels in SLC and other moderate elevations, they are physiologically significant, and may be sufficient to trigger SD. 2. Red blood cell mass increases significantly, even at moderate elevations. Though this helps deliver oxygen, it also makes the blood thicker and more likely to clot. Even transient clotting can trigger SD. Using optical techniques, we are able to directly visualize blood oxygenation, blood flow, and clotting, in real time in awake animals. We will use these techniques, along with an altitude chamber, to test our hypotheses in wild type mice, and in mutants carrying migraine genes.

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Educational Leadership & Policy | College of Education


Erin Castro, Associate Professor

The University of Utah Prison Education Project (UPEP) is a multidisciplinary effort assisting incarcerated students and non-incarcerated volunteers to live lives of impact, both in prison and post-incarceration, by fostering academic excellence, leadership, and civic engagement. UPEP began engaging the campus and local communities in 2016 and providing onsite, face-to-face college courses at the Utah State Prison in Draper in 2017. Committed to social transformation, UPEP advances educational equity through onsite higher education, empirical research, and advocacy.

The Research Collaborative on Higher Education in Prison launched in Summer 2017 as part of UPEP. The Research Collaborative is interested in two central issues regarding higher education in prison: quality (what is being provided?) and equity (who has access?). These two questions drive the work of the Collaborative and we currently have three externally funded research projects all aimed at expanding the provision of quality higher education for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. Specifically, the project seeks to provide baseline research regarding postsecondary education in U.S. prison through outreach, internet documentation, and survey research, as well as to qualitatively examine how college-in-prison stakeholders provide and support programming using a purposeful sample of multiple institutions of higher education in the U.S.

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Internal Medicine | School of Medicine


Owen Chan, Associate Professor

Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is the most serious acute complication in insulin-treated diabetes and it remains the limiting factor in maintaining proper glycemic control. The brain, and especially the ventromedial hypothalamus (VMH), plays a crucial role in sensing hypoglycemia and initiating the physiological hormone responses to correct it. However, both recurring exposure to hypoglycemia and longstanding diabetes can impair the mechanisms that normally correct the fall in blood glucose levels. Our laboratory utilizes a combination of neuroscience (microdialysis, microinjection, optogenetics), metabolic (glucose clamps), genetic (targeted knockdown or overexpression), molecular biology (qRT-PCR, westerns, immunohistochemistry) and cell culture techniques to identify the neural mechanisms that are involved in the detection of hypoglycemia and understand how these central sensing mechanisms are impaired by recurring exposure to hypoglycemia and in diabetes.

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Neurology | School of Medicine

Melissa Cortez, Associate Professor (Clinical)

Migraine is associated with an increased sensitivity to the sensory environment – both during, and outside of, the migraine attack. Second only to the head pain, photophobia is the most debilitating symptom reported by people with migraine. Melanopsin containing intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells (ipRGCs) are thought to play a role in migraine-associated light sensitivity, and may influence chromatic (color-specific) differences in light sensitivity. A better understanding of the effects of chromaticity in migraine-associated photophobia could have widespread benefits, including improving understanding of neural mechanisms and leading to opportunities for individualized therapies (personalized medicine). The current project will examine chromatic specificity of light sensitivity in migraine subjects. In previous work, we have found that severity of photophobia in migraine scales with disease severity, and is associated with shifts in pupillary light responses. These alterations are thought to result from centrally mediated autonomic adaptations to chronic light sensitivity. Emerging data suggests that pupillary responses to light and light sensitivity in migraineurs may be linked by differences ipRGC function. We want to follow-up this prior work by examining the chromatic-specificity of light sensitivity, and their associated pupillary responses in photophobic migraine subjects. Thus, this project will examine differences in light sensitivity in migraineurs exposed to various wavelengths of light.

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Radiology & Imaging Sciences | School of Medicine

Ed DiBella, Professor

The DiBella lab seeks to invent and refine new and better methods for the acquisition, reconstruction, and post-processing of MRI, with particular emphasis on cardiac and stroke applications. Our lab seeks to translate these improvements to clinical studies, and to use the methods to better understand physiology in health and disease. One set of current projects involves development of improved methods for measuring myocardial perfusion and fibrosis with MRI. Methods for higher spatial resolution, greater coverage, and elucidating differences across the cardiac cycle are being developed. We have pulse programmed new simultaneous multi-slice (SMS) and 3D acquisitions on the MRI scanner. Advanced reconstruction methods including constrained reconstruction and deep learning methods are also being developed for cardiac applications. Another project is to develop and evaluate methods for imaging the brain microstructure with diffusion MRI. SPUR students could work on either or both projects.

The stipend for this SPUR project is funded by an American Heart Association grant awarded to Dr. Stavros Drakos, MD, PhD. The stipend for this project is $4,000 instead of $5,000 due to grant funding limitations.

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InTernal medicine | school of medicine


Stavros Drakos, Professor

Ischemic heart disease and heart failure HF is the leading cause of death and disability worldwide. Activated myofibroblast induced by injury or heart diseases adversely affects the cardiac function by depositing excess extracellular matrix and remodel the structure of myocardium resulting in increased stiffness and reduced compliance of cardiac muscle. Currently there are no effective interventions that specifically attenuate or reverse pathological cardiac fibrosis. To identify and quantify the cellular populations that correlated with quiescent and activated cardiac fibroblasts, we performed single cell RNA sequencing of non-myocytes from human non-failing hearts (donor hearts that were not allocated for transplant for non-cardiac related reasons) and failing hearts (HF). RNA expression profiles showed 2 distinct clusters characteristic of fibroblasts and myofibroblasts respectively in HF whereas non-failing heart donor reveal only one cluster of quiescent fibroblasts. The goal of this project is to investigate the molecular activation of quiescent cardiac fibroblast to myofibroblast based on the differential expression profile observed in human normal fibroblast, HF fibroblast, and myofibroblast. We will use ischemic heart model in mice to analyze expression of candidate proteins that correlated with the activation of myofibroblast after myocardial injury. The RNA inhibitor and overexpression strategies will be utilized to explore the mechanism of candidate genes in myofibroblast activation of primary cultured cardiac fibroblast.

The stipend for this SPUR project is funded by an American Heart Association grant awarded to Dr. Stavros Drakos, MD, PhD. The stipend for this project is $4,000 instead of $5,000 due to grant funding limitations.

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Biomedical Informatics | School of Medicine


Karen Eilbeck, Professor


As sequencing technologies have advanced; sequencing data has shown the extent of polymorphism in the human population. Understanding which of these DNA changes impact an individual’s clinical phenotype (cause disease), and which are silent is necessary for the interpretation of genetic tests.  ClinVar is an international, submission-driven archive of variant-condition-interpretations hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). ClinVar is increasingly becoming the central repository of interpreted genomic variants; as of July 2018, 997 submitters had contributed 427,882 unique variants and 11099 conditions to ClinVar. Sharing variants and associated supporting evidence in the ClinVar database enables the transparent review of data by users and supports clinical variant interpretation. Submissions to ClinVar represent the first time that clinical labs and other submitters have shared and compared their variant interpretations, and this reveals both conformity and discrepancy in variant interpretation. In some cases the disagreement in interpretation is clinically significant – pathogenic versus benign. This growing and evolving database relies on submitters to resolve discrepancies and update findings when knowledge changes. It also provides the starting point for expert curation of variants and genes. My group developed ClinVar Miner; a tool that enables deep exploration of the ClinVar dataset. The goal of ClinVar Miner is to enable management of the upstream and downstream processes related to submitting to and using the data. ClinVar Miner as a counterpoint to facilitate use of ClinVar data.

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nutrition & integrative physiology | College of Health


Rajeshwary Ghosh, Research Assistant Professor

Heart failure is often caused by the inability of the heart cells (cardiomyocytes) to clear damaged, mutant or misfolded proteins. Our cardiomyocytes have several specialized mechanisms to remove these harmful proteins. One such mechanism is called chaperone mediated autophagy (CMA) which can selectively clear a single diseased protein. Although CMA is known to be active in the heart, its role in this organ has been rarely studied. We will define the function of CMA in the heart under physiological and pathological conditions.

Project 1: Our preliminary data show that genetically upregulating CMA is beneficial against hypoxic- and proteotoxicity-induced stress in cardiac cells. One significant question we will address is whether CMA-activating drugs can eliminate the pathological proteins in the heart, as well. Using various biochemical and molecular biology approaches, we will access the effect of CMA-activating drugs in the amelioration of cardiac pathologies in animal models of heart failure and in cultured cardiomyocytes.

Project 2: Apart from CMA, there are two additional protein degradation pathways: the ubiquitin proteasome system and the macroautophagy pathway. Both these processes play a beneficial role in maintaining proteostasis i.e., protein homeostasis however the coordinated interplay among the three pathways in response to physiological and pathophysiological interventions is not known. We will characterize the three degradation pathways in myocardial samples obtained from heart failure patients and normal donor controls. Understanding how these pathways interact under stressed and unstressed conditions will help in the design of therapeutic strategies for treating heart failure patients.

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Biomedical informatics | school of medicine


Ramkiran Gouripeddi, Assistant Professor

About 50 – 70% of health and well-being is determined by the environment and the lifestyle of an individual lives in and their behaviors within these environments. The sum total of all the environmental exposures an individual encounters in their lifetime is called the exposome. The exposome includes molecular constituents involved in direct biological pathway alterations as well as mutagenic and epigenetic mechanisms of environmental influences on the phenome. Exposures to different chemicals have been shown to play a role in different conditions including asthma, obesity, as well as other respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, and metabolic conditions and cancers. Similarly, excessive use of digital devices have been linked to various mental conditions. Understanding the effects of these chemical exposures and digital device use requires representing these molecules in research studies that involve generating and utilizing exposomes. The Center of Excellence for Exposure Health Informatics (CEEHI) is developing systematic informatics methods for generating and utilizing such exposomes for performing translational research.

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Orthopaedics | School of Medicine


Man Hung, Professor

E-cigarettes are becoming very popular in this decade because they satisfy the psychopharmacologic desire of smoking with the smokeless delivery of nicotine. Even though e-cigarettes were introduced to the market with intentions of being an alternative to the conventional cigarette smoking, the amount of nicotine delivered to the lungs is still significant enough to cause an addiction. Some former cigarette smokers who use e-cigarettes as an alternative quit smoking, continue using nicotine-containing e-fluids. With the age of e-cigarette consumers lowering to adolescents, nicotine addiction has increased. E-cigarette’s tech-friendly device appearance is also appealing to the public that not only adults but approximately 4 million middle and high school students have embraced the vaping culture, demonstrating that this is becoming a growing concern for policy makers as e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway to cigarette smoking, especially amongst young adults. This research will use publicly available data from the Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) Study for examining patterns and usages of e-cigarettes, in addition to investigating the effects and behaviors of vaping in the population. PATH is a population-based registry that stores national and longitudinal tobacco and e-cigarette use data in the United States.

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Communication Sciences & Disorders | College of Health
Neuroscience Program


Skyler Jennings, Associate Professor

Although current hearing devices improve listening in quiet environments, they do little to improve speech understanding in noisy backgrounds. The long-term goal of this research program is to fully understand the relationship between auditory perception and physiological mechanisms responsible for adapting to the local soundscape. The objective of this particular application is to understand the role of the medial olivocochlear (MOC) reflex in the perception of fluctuating sounds and on speech-in-noise performance in normal hearing and hearing impaired listeners using perceptual, electrophysiological, and auditory modeling techniques. The central hypothesis of the proposed research is that cochlear hearing loss limits the ability of the MOC reflex to regulate cochlear gain, thus preventing the putative perceptual and neural benefits associated with the reflex. The rationale of the proposed research is that a detailed description of the influence of the MOC reflex on human auditory function has the potential to translate to a better understanding of why hearing devices provide little benefit to improving speech-in-noise performance in hearing impaired adults. This detailed description will be obtained by completing the following specific aims: 1) Determine the role of the MOC reflex in the detection of temporal fluctuations and the identification of speech syllables in noise; 2) Determine the effect of eliciting the ipsilateral MOC reflex on the compound action potential (CAP) in human subjects with and without cochlear hearing loss; and 3) Simulate the influence of the MOC reflex on auditory function in listeners with and without cochlear hearing loss.

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Biomedical Informatics | School of Medicine


Kensaku Kawamoto, Associate Professor

The University of Utah’s ReImagine EHR initiative is a multi-stakeholder effort to re-imagine how patient care and the provider experience can be optimized in the EHR, including through the development, evaluation, and dissemination of innovative, interoperable extensions of native functionality provided in the electronic health record (EHR). Through ReImagine EHR, we are developing various clinical applications and decision support capabilities that are seamlessly integrated with the rest of the EHR. We are leveraging emerging health IT standards such as FHIR, SMART, and CDS Hooks with the goal of enabling these apps and services to be shared across healthcare organizations and EHR platforms. We are developing apps and services spanning the continuum of care, including prevention, chronic disease management, acute care, and transitions of care. Several of these initiatives are being pursued with the support of research grants, such as a project funded by the National Cancer Institute for identifying and managing individuals with elevated risks of breast and colorectal cancer using standards-based, interoperable, and ultimately widely scalable approaches. Another project, funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, focuses on lung cancer screening, which could save more lives than breast cancer screening. The director of the initiative, Dr. Ken Kawamoto, MD, PhD, MHS, has been recognized for this work as a Top 25 Innovator in health care by Modern Healthcare.

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Chemical Engineering | College of Engineering
Global Change & Sustainability Center


Kerry Kelly, Assistant Professor

More than 90% of the world’s population lives in areas where air quality does not meet health standards. Indoor and outdoor air pollution cause serious adverse health effects, such as asthma, heart disease, cognitive impairment, and premature mortality. Recently studies have identified an increased risk of mortality due to COVID-19 in regions with elevated particulate air pollution and identified COVID-19 genetic material on air pollution particles. Indoor air quality is particularly important because most individuals spend over 80% of their time indoors. The goals of this project are twofold. First, the students will fabricate and test air quality sensors for measuring indoor air quality in the homes of 10 families living on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. These sensors will include digital and color-coded displays. Second, students will study how hosting sensors changes families’ exposure experiences, including their perceptions and behaviors. The exposure experience encapsulates the nexus between embodied health experiences and scientific understandings of pollutant exposures that influence decision-making regarding the management of risks. Students will: fabricate indoor air pollution sensors; conduct pre- and post-sensor installation interviews with the 10 families; administer surveys to families via a mobile app; analyze indoor air quality data; identify sources of air pollution and barriers to reducing exposures in families’ homes; and advise families on how to mitigate air pollution in their homes. This interdisciplinary research project will provide students with opportunities to construct sensors and conduct social science research and help local families improve indoor air quality.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. THIS MEANS THAT IT IS OPEN ONLY TO UNIVERSITY OF UTAH APPLICANTS FROM RACIAL/ETHNIC MINORITY BACKGROUNDS. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

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Orthopaedics | School of Medicine


Amy Lenz, Research Instructor, OUR Certified Mentor

Clinical evaluation of end-stage ankle osteoarthritis (OA) is primarily derived from 2D conventional x-rays. To improve on current medical imaging and interpretation new emerging weightbearing CT technology, a computational study is proposed to characterize ankle joint complex disease by quantifying 3D anatomical variation through statistical shape modeling of patients with ankle OA. The proposed research is relevant to public health because patients with end-stage ankle osteoarthritis are in general 10 to 15 years younger than patients suffering of knee or hip OA, making the likelihood of patients outliving current surgical treatment options a challenging clinical problem. Our lab's contribution here is expected to be a 3D computational study to characterize ankle joint complex osteoarthritis by quantifying anatomical shape variation through Statistical Shape Modeling of the tibiotalar and subtalar joints. This new and substantially different approach to computationally evaluate ankle morphometrics is expected to allow us to overcome the current limitations of clinical radiographic evaluation of ankle joint complex osteoarthritis, thereby opening new horizons for more quantifiable methods to aid in treatment planning for patients with end-stage ankle OA.

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Educational psychology | College of education


Monika Lohani, Assistant Professor

Suicide rates are rising dramatically in the U.S. Timely interventions are necessary so that high risk individuals get help to identify their personal warning signs and adopt coping strategies to manage emotional dysregulation that heightens suicidal tendencies. Crisis response planning (CRP) intervention teaches a range of coping strategies and provides support that can reduce suicide attempts and ideation. CRP is used in both psychiatric and non-psychiatric health care settings, and has been shown to significantly reduce suicide attempts by 76%. Little is known about the role of emotional dysregulation that is believed to explain improvement in suicidal behaviors after CRP therapy. The current project will be the first to examine the impact of CRP intervention on suicide risk and emotional dysregulation by comparing it to treatment as usual control groups. Improvements from pre-to-post intervention will be measured by adopting ecological momentary sampling (e.g., suicide attempts and ideation) methods and interview that will provide reliable measures of changes and delineate the underlying mechanisms of change that mitigate suicidal vulnerabilities. This project will inform the refinement of an effective suicide risk management intervention. This is a collaboration between University of Utah and Ohio State University. All aspects of this research are being conducted completely online.

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City & Metropolitan Planning | College of Architecture + Planning
Global Change & Sustainability Center


Daniel Mendoza, Visiting Assistant Professor

Exposure to air pollution has been associated with multiple negative health outcomes such as pulmonary and cardiovascular events, particularly among vulnerable populations. Over 200,000 people live in Salt Lake City, capital city of Utah and county seat, with over 1.2 million residents in the Salt Lake City Metropolitan area. Salt Lake City is surrounded by mountains to the south, east and west, creating a topographical basin that traps pollution during wintertime stable layers or cold-air pools (also known as inversions) leading to high levels of pollutants, especially fine particulate matter (PM2.5). Interstate highways, an international airport and railroad traffic, industrial pollution sources, windblown dust and wildfires are among the complex sources that contribute these episodic pollution events that are most frequent and severe in the winter and summer. With a growing population and increasing wildfire and dust storm occurrences summertime air quality is becoming an increasing public health concern. Due to the lack of granular, reliable air quality measurements, all previous pollutant exposure and health-related studies have intrinsic resolution issues when examining scales smaller than a county or city. This reduces applicability, since a single sensor cannot portray intra-city variability, nor truly represent individual or neighborhood-scale exposure. This leads to significant mischaracterization of a population’s vulnerability and potential health outcomes. Understanding that the burden of poor air quality is not shared equally among populations is a key motivator for understanding environmental exposure at neighborhood scales.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. THIS MEANS THAT IT IS OPEN ONLY TO UNIVERSITY OF UTAH APPLICANTS FROM RACIAL/ETHNIC MINORITY BACKGROUNDS. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

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nutrition & integrative physiology | college of health


Anandh Babu Pon Velayutham, Associate Professor

The research in Velayutham laboratory is focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms by which blueberry/strawberry-derived microbial metabolites improve endothelial dysfunction during metabolic syndrome (MetS). Human studies support the vascular beneficial effects of berry anthocyanins. Anthocyanins are extensively metabolized by the gut microbiota in humans, suggesting their vascular benefits might be mediated by their microbial metabolites. Velayutham lab showed that: blueberry/strawberry supplementation improves vascular inflammation and dysfunction, and increases the beneficial gut bacteria in diabetic mice; key blueberry metabolites attenuate palmitate-induced endothelial inflammation and vascular dysfunction (Mol Nutr Food Res 2018, Int J Cardiol 2018 & 2019, J Nutr Biochem 2019). Current research in Velayutham lab is focused on (1) determining the mechanisms by which anthocyanins-derived metabolites improve endothelial dysfunction in MetS, (2) determining the role of gut microbiota in mediating the vascular effects of blueberry/strawberry, and (3) determining the impact of circulating metabolites on endothelial dysfunction and identifying the most active metabolite(s). Physiologically relevant models and state of the art techniques will be used to evaluate the mechanistic roles of microbial metabolites of blueberries/strawberries at the cellular level, tissue level and organism level. This study will provide strong scientific rationale for recommending dietary intake of berries to improve vascular health in the US population and worldwide.

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Psychology | College of Social & Behavioral Science


Lee Raby, Assistant Associate Professor

Emotion dysregulation refers to experiencing emotions that are excessively intense, prolonged, or unpredictable. Emotion dysregulation is a feature of many mental disorders, and it often interferes with appropriate goal-directed behavior and interpersonal relationships. Emotion dysregulation can be transmitted intergenerationally from parent to child, resulting in increased risk for poor mental health and other problematic outcomes among children. The goal of this research study is to better understand exactly how emotion dysregulation is transmitted to young children early in their development. Specifically, we are examining how mothers’ levels of emotion dysregulation may: (a) program the child’s developing stress response systems during the prenatal period and (b) impact how they interact with their child during the first two years of the child’s life. To do this, we are recruiting approximately 220 pregnant women. During women’s third trimester of pregnancy, we are collecting questionnaire, behavioral, and physiological measures of emotional dysregulation from the women. After they give birth, we then evaluate their newborn's behavior. When the children are 7 and 18 months of age, we follow up with the families to examine how the children physiologically and behaviorally respond to stressful situations along with how the mothers interact with their children. This research project will advance our understanding of the consequences of mothers’ experiences of emotional dysregulation for their children’s early developmental outcomes. This information, in turn, can be used to help identify vulnerable young children and intervene early in order to prevent the development of problematic outcomes later in life.

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Internal Medicine | School of Medicine

Peripheral Limitations to Maximal Oxygen Uptake in Patients with Heart Failure and Preserved Ejection Fraction
Russell Richardson, Professor

Heart failure with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF) accounts for greater than 50% of all heart failure cases, and the prevalence relative to heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF) continues to rise at a rate of 1% per year, with a 5-year survival rate as low as 50%. The pathophysiological differences between HFpEF and HFrEF, coupled with unsuccessful therapeutic strategies, highlight the need for improved understanding of HFpEF. The pathophysiological differences between HFpEF and heart failure with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF), coupled with unsuccessful therapeutic strategies, highlight the need for improved understanding of HFpEF.

The defining symptom of HFpEF is marked exercise intolerance that greatly limits physical activity and quality of life. In patients with HFpEF, maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), a primary determinant of prognosis and quality of life, has best quantified the severity of exercise intolerance. The peripheral limitations to VO2max will be determined in patients with HFpEF and controls by measuring leg maximal O2 delivery, O2 consumption, and mitochondrial oxidative capacity (Aim 1). Next, the identification of an O2-supply or O2-demand limitation will be validated by measuring the hyperoxia-induced changes in leg maximal O2 delivery and O2 consumption in patients with HFpEF and controls (Aim 2). Finally, the effect of knee-extensor training on the peripheral limitations to VO2max will be assessed by measuring the training-induced changes in leg maximal O2 delivery, O2 consumption, and mitochondrial oxidative capacity in patients with HFpEF and controls (Aim 3).

The stipend for this SPUR project is funded by an American Heart Association grant awarded to Dr. Stavros Drakos, MD, PhD. The stipend for this project is $4,000 instead of $5,000 due to grant funding limitations.

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Biomedical engineering | College of Engineering

Predicting Recovery in Heart Failure Using Microscopy and Image Processing
Frank Sachse, Associate Professor

Patients with end-stage heart failure (HF) benefit from the implantation of left ventricular assist devices (LVADs). The two primary functions of these devices are first to restore cardiac output by active propulsion of blood from the left ventricle to the aorta and second to produce mechanical unloading of the left ventricle. Several studies demonstrated that a significant number of patients (‘responders’) with end-stage dilated cardiomyopathy and end-stage HF can recover substantial cardiac function following left ventricular unloading.
Patients with chronic HF that rely on implanted LVADs are usually placed on a list of individuals destined to receive heart transplants. This list includes responders as well as non-responders. Clearly it would be desirable that potential responders undergo clinical protocols, which might lead to cardiac recovery and thus help to preserve hearts for other patients.

A critical barrier to the treatment of end-stage HF patients exists because, until now, it has not been possible to predict at time of LVAD implantation if a patient will respond to unloading with sustained cardiac recovery. Our prior studies suggest that we have a criterion that will allow us to decide whether a patient is likely to be a responder. The criterion is derived from microscopic images of cardiac tissue that are analyzed with methods of image processing.

The stipend for this SPUR project is funded by an American Heart Association grant awarded to Dr. Stavros Drakos, MD, PhD. The stipend for this project is $4,000 instead of $5,000 due to grant funding limitations.

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Electrical & Computer Engineering | College of Engineering


Benjamin Sanchez Terrones, Assistant Professor

Cancer is the 2nd leading cause of death globally and was responsible for 9.6 million deaths in 2018. From all types of cancer, skin cancer is the most common cancer worldwide with approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. diagnosed every day. Despite the relevance, most dermatologists perform simple visual examination of skin lesions. Literature shows, however, that the accuracy of clinical diagnosis of skin cancer is far from 100%. The consequences of this lack of diagnostic certainty are, on the one hand, life-threatening skin cancer may be missed and, on the other, as a safety precaution, non cancerous lesions are unnecessarily surgically removed. To address this worldwide health challenge, we have created a new objective and quantitative diagnostic tool for non-visual diagnosis of skin cancer with potential to provide immediate impact to patient care, dramatically improve survival and reduce costs to the healthcare system on a global scale. By gathering and analyzing precise and localized electrical measurements in the skin, we can obtain reliable information of the condition of the skin unavailable through any other method. Through this simple and painless procedure, the physician will be able to objectively evaluate suspicious lesions prior to excision.

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Surgery | School of Medicine


Jill Shea, Research Assistant Professor

Bone loss due to trauma or disease is an increasingly serious health problem within the military and civilian populations. Bone grafts are utilized in these situations to aid bone repair and regeneration. Material and performance are considered as two main problems in the development of customizable bone scaffolding. An ideal bone substitute material should have osteogenic properties and the capability to fill and integrate large bone defects with a variety of shapes and sizes. The goal of this project is to develop a scaffold that can be used to repair bone defects or injuries. The device will consist of a 3-D bone scaffold and adipose derived stem cells. The overall aims are:
1. design device
2. evaluate stem cell differentiation in vitro, and
3. evaluate in vivo efficacy in a model system.
This multi-pronged approach is hypothesized to increase bone growth following an injury and improve patient outcomes.

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Psychology | College of Social & Behavioral Science


Jack Silcox, Graduate Assistant, OUR Certified Mentor

Most of us are familiar with driving down the road while chatting with a passenger. The ease and regularity by which we both drive and listen to speech belie the computational complexities that underly these two different tasks. Speakers produce 140-180 words per minute and often blend words together, requiring the speaker to normalize and process the speech almost instantaneously. Much research has shown that when speech is degraded, either by environmental noise or hearing impairment, successful comprehension decreases, and memory outcomes are worse. Driving does not simply involve muscle memory. It requires the driver to stay vigilant and be aware of and adapt to a changing environment. A profusion of empirical evidence has shown that driving performance drastically decreases as a driver’s attention is split between multiple tasks, such as texting. Indeed, one study has found that talking on the phone while driving resulted in impaired performance that was similar to driving while being intoxicated at the legal limit. The effects of distraction on driving performance and the effects of degraded speech on comprehension have been well documented. However, it is less clear how listening to perceptually challenging speech while driving affects the cognitive processes associated with either process. Does listening to acoustically degraded speech while driving reduce a listener’s ability to remember the content of the speech? Does driving performance suffer more when listening to degraded speech versus nondegraded speech? To answer these and related questions, we will be conducting lab-based listening effort experiments in a driving simulator.

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Psychology | College of Social & Behavioral Science


David Strayer, Professor

Writers, philosophers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike have long believed that spending time in nature is good for the mind and the body. In line with this, many researchers have studied how exposure to nature can improve an individual’s mood, emotions, stress physiology, and attentional capacity. In our lab at the University of Utah, we use electroencephalography (EEG) to explore whether or not immersion in nature changes our brain activity. To do this, we take participants on a 5-day camping trip and record their brain activity before, during, and after the trip. So far, we have found changes in three brain wave components called the error-related negativity, the reward positivity, and the P300. However, access to nature is becoming increasingly difficult as more and more people move to urban centers and protection of wilderness spaces continues to be threatened. Therefore, the current project will explore if viewing images of nature is powerful enough to elicit changes in these brain components. Participants’ brain activity will be recorded after viewing images of either natural or urban environments, and we will compare these laboratory-collected results to the previous findings we observed on the camping trips. This research is important, as it may help answer the long-standing question regarding what “dosage” of nature is required to elicit changes in the brain. This research may also reveal a more accessible option for individuals that don’t have access to real nature, such as those in prisons or hospitals, to gain the benefits associated with nature exposure.

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nutrition & integrative physiology | College of Health
molecular biology program


J David Symons, Professor

Project 1. Vascular dysfunction contributes to cognitive decline. Our lab has shown that ceramide accrual in preclinical models of type 2 diabetes (T2D) leads to vascular dysfunction. It is unknown whether vascular ceramide biosynthesis leads to cognitive decline in preclinical models of T2D and / or exacerbates cognitive decline in preclinical models of T2D upon exposure to ischemic stroke. We will use novel, vascular specific, "gain of ceramide" and "loss of ceramide" murine models to explore this.

Project 2. Cardiovascular diseases affect 80% of persons > 65. Cognitive decline is associated with an aging endothelial cell phenotype, but the mechanisms are unknown. Repressed endothelial cell autophagy mimics an aging phenotype and we will determine whether this is sufficient to evoke cognitive decline in young mice. Importantly, we will assess the potential for a novel small molecule - bryostatin - to correct EC homeostasis to an extent that maintains cognitive function in older mice.

Project 3. We obtain endothelial cells (ECs) that line the arteries of healthy individuals and patients with cardiovascular disease. After verifying the purity of the ECs, we treat them with a variety of agonists and antagonists to evaluate their integrity. Next, we use unbiased discovery approaches to discern signaling pathways that might be upregulated or downregulated in the context of aging, hypertension, diabetes, heart failure.

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college of nursing


Djin Tay, Assistant Professor

In recent years, immunotherapies and other targeted therapies have transformed the clinical management of a growing range of cancers, including breast, colon, and lung cancers, and melanoma. In the hopes of a “silver bullet” cure for patients’ cancers, patients and family caregivers may avoid or delay thinking about palliative and hospice care approaches, experience emotional distress if treatment fails, and be underprepared for coping with death. The goal of this study is to better understand the end of life, decision making, and bereavement impact associated with immunotherapy receipt among four common cancer diagnoses--colon, lung, melanoma, and breast cancer. We propose to pilot survey measures to conduct cost-effectiveness analyses, assess for changes in socioeconomic status, and identify unmet supportive care needs among N=300 registered cancer caregivers at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. This data would allow us to examine the caregiving and bereavement implications involved in immunotherapy care, to promote timely and appropriate end-of-life care in the changing landscape of cancer treatment.

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Pediatrics | School of Medicine

Induced pluripotent stem cell derived cardiomyocyte models of human cardiovascular disorders
Martin Tristani-Firouzi, Professor

Advances in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology allow for reprogramming of adult somatic cells into stem cells from which patient-specific (and thus disease-specific) cardiomyocytes (CM) can be derived. The impact of this technology has far-reaching implications, ranging from drug discovery, pre-clinical drug screening, mechanistic understanding of disease processes, and advances in personalized medicine. Specifically human iPSC-CMs offer a unique model system to study phenotypic variation in Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), by allowing for direct comparisons of gene expression in human cardiac cells derived from family members who share the same mutation, but manifest severe versus mild symptoms. However, the potential of iPSC technology to answer this and other crucial research questions is limited by several technological barriers. For example, human iPSC-CMs in culture behave more like embryonic than mature myocytes and thus may not recapitulate key features of childhood or adult-onset disease. The overall goal of this proposal is to overcome the maturational hurdles in order to design a valid iPSC-CM model system for the study human arrhythmia disorders. This proposal utilizes cutting-edge technological approaches that will advance the field of cardiovascular medicine in a very practical manner.

The stipend for this SPUR project is funded by an American Heart Association grant awarded to Dr. Stavros Drakos, MD, PhD. The stipend for this project is $4,000 instead of $5,000 due to grant funding limitations.

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Neurobiology & Anatomy | School of Medicine


Matt Wachowiak, Professor

Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter capable of modulating information processing throughout the brain. There is a high density of local dopaminergic interneurons and receptors in the olfactory bulb. Pharmacological manipulation of dopamine release in vivo alters the ability for mice to discriminate odorants. Likewise, decreases in dopaminergic tone and a loss of smell are associated with numerous diseases, such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. To understand dopamine's role in shaping neural circuit activity, this project will investigate how dopamine release and subsequent circuit activity changes as a function of experience.

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Mechanical Engineering | College of Engineering

Roseanne Warren, Assistant Professor

The development of low-cost energy storage technologies is of critical importance for large-scale implementation of renewable energy, including wind and solar power. Batteries are a promising technology for grid-scale energy storage because of their high energy density and ability to be implemented in any location (unlike “site-specific” energy storage options such as pumped hydro). The current price of lithium-ion batteries is approximately $400/kWh, far exceeding the price target of $2-$80/kWh for grid-scale energy storage set by the US Department of Energy. Sodium-ion batteries are a promising, lower-cost alternative to lithium-ion batteries, however widespread implementation of sodium-ion batteries is currently limited by a lack of low cost, high energy density anode materials. The goal of this research is to explore the use of an ultra-low-cost carbon source–coal char–as a novel material for sodium-ion battery anodes. Utah has abundant coal resources that have traditionally been burned for power generation. As alternative energy resources (e.g. natural gas, solar, and wind) replace coal power generation, considerable research efforts are focused on finding alternative uses for Utah coal. Battery anodes made from coal char represent an exceptional high-value opportunity for Utah coal, with coal raw material costing approximately $0.01-$0.03/kg, and commercial carbon battery anodes valued at approximately $12.50/kg. In this research project, we are testing the effects of various post-processing methods on the sodium-ion battery performance of Utah coal char, with the goal of maximizing energy density for coal-derived anodes.

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school of dentistry


Melodie Weller, Assistant Professor

Chronic environmental pathogen exposures are potential triggers in the development of autoimmune diseases. The Weller Lab studies the role of select environmental exposures in the development of a chronic autoimmune disease called Sjogren's syndrome. This female-predominant autoimmune disease affects 1-4 million people in the United States and is characterized by decreased saliva and tear production, inflammation in the salivary gland tissues and development of autoantibodies. Low-level, chronic viral exposures in connection with genetic susceptibility factors contribute to the underlying mechanisms of this chronic autoimmune disease. The Weller Lab has focused on further characterizing viral signatures and identifying routes of exposure in Sjogren’s syndrome patients. Projects in the lab utilize viral-genome sequencing, microarray gene expression analysis, bioinformatics, infectious disease epidemiology, immunohistochemistry and cell culture to further define the role of chronic viral exposures in the development of autoimmunity. Ultimately, our goal is to understand the mechanism(s) of viral-mediated triggers of Sjogren's syndrome to 1) identify routes of pathogen exposure, 2) further define mechanisms supporting viral persistence and 3) develop targeted therapeutics.

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Psychiatry | School of Medicine


Robert Welsh, Associate Professor

Over the past decade there has been an increasing focus on the adverse neurological and cognitive effects of air pollution. Increasing evidence implicates chronic exposure to high levels of particulate matter (e.g. PM2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometer in diameter) and other air pollution in cognitive decline. Additionally, research suggests that air pollution leads to changes in brain structure. Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s evidence neuropathological similarities to animal models of pollutant exposure, as well as to autopsy studies of children living in high-pollution areas. Air pollution exposure is associated with cardiovascular and cerebrovascular functioning and concomitant adverse effects on cognition, including progression to dementia. Prospective studies have identified inverse associations between amount of exposure over a given number of years with current cognitive functioning or decline in functioning. Cross-sectional studies also indicate that individuals, and especially older individuals, exposed to poor quality air demonstrate worse performance on objective cognitive measures relative to individuals with less exposure. Understanding how air pollution affects various groups, including ethnic minorities is paramount. In the coming decades, the proportion of elderly that are Hispanic in the U.S. will double or even triple. These facts point to the pressing need to better understand the interaction of air pollution, socioeconomic factors, health, and lifestyle on cognition and brain changes in an older Hispanic population. This project will collect state-of-the-art neuroimaging data, air quality data, and cognitive testing from a cohort of elder Hispanics.

This project is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (PIs: Sara Grineski and Tim Collins). In addition to being part of SPUR, it is also part of the HAPPIEST program. THIS MEANS THAT IT IS OPEN ONLY TO UNIVERSITY OF UTAH APPLICANTS FROM RACIAL/ETHNIC MINORITY BACKGROUNDS. Two students will be selected to work on this project together.

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