Thursday, December 15, 2011

UAA launches INNOVATE awards to support new research

UAA Provost Mike Driscoll and Vice Provost for Research Helena Wisniewski surrounded by UAA research scholars.

Maybe there was no red carpet and white envelopes to rip open at the mic, but UAA’s initial INNOVATE research awards ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 14, held the promise of new opportunity for campus researchers and future industry partners.

Thirteen research proposals from across the university’s seven colleges and schools earned seed money to advance their work. Ideas were wide-ranging, including how Alaska’s bog blueberry staves off dementia, to effects of water-borne plastics on the endocrine and immune systems of rainbow trout, to how iqmik, a blend of chewing tobacco and ash from a fungus that grows on birch trees, interacts with oral cells in the mouths of users. (A full list of the funded proposals follows).

The evening’s highlight came when UAA professors Kenrick Mock and Bogdan Hoanca were inducted as first members of UAA’s “Patent Wall,” the new home for plaques identifying UAA researchers who have successfully patented their work.

Mock and Hoanca  earned a patent for their sign-on computer security authentication process – using iris recognition and gaze to identify and admit the correct user. Their patent was awarded July 26, 2011. Already they are collaborating with Timothy Smith in the Music Department, employing the eye-tracking technology to follow the eyes of an advanced piano student, documenting that skilled pianists “read ahead” as they play. They are actively seeking other educational and community partnerships.

New addition to UAA

Helena Wisniewski, Vice Provost for Research
Yes, this signals a new direction for research at UAA, brought to the campus by Dr. Helena Wisniewski, UAA’s new Vice Provost for Research and Graduate Studies and Dean of the Graduate School.  She hosted and emceed the awards event.

Wisniewski warned that the United States is in danger of losing its premier global position as a research capital. As she met faculty upon her arrival, one repeated request stood out: Restore the opportunity for seed money to get new research off the ground. The campus once had a similar program, called the Chancellor’s Awards, but funding for it ended after 2009. The INNOVATE program now fills that breach.

Read the vice provost’s full profile here, but an important part of her experience includes many career shifts from private industry to government to higher education.

A mathematician by education, Wisniewski came to UAA from her post as Chairman/CEO for Equinox Toys LLC, a company she founded in 2009. Other industry positions include vice president of Titan Corporation and a senior executive at Lockheed. She also serves on the board of directors of Greatbatch Inc., a company that specializes in medical devices.

In government, she launched the first mathematics program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and served as a research mathematician at the CIA.  In higher education, she tripled research revenues as vice president for university research and enterprise development at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

Guest speaker urges more time for research
Diane Hanson, anthropologist
The awards were preceded by remarks from anthropologist and UAA professor Diane Hanson, who used $9,000 in seed money from a Chancellor's Award  to launch investigations into upland house sites in the Aleutian Islands that led to a $430,000 National Science Foundation research grant and an emerging new view of Aleut cultural life.

“That’s a good return on investment for high-risk research,” she said, adding that it has allowed her to draw graduate students into anthropology to assist her research and launch their own.

Besides documenting how she managed to stretch seed money (and airline miles and personal credit cards) in her early Aleutian research days to finally win the sizeable NSF grant, she announced her latest pursuit of a $1 million NSF grant.  But she said teaching professors expected to advance in research need time to do both well.

“If time is not provided, research is not sustainable at UAA, ” she said.

INNOVATE award winners

Just before the awards, state legislators Rep. Berta Gardner and Rep. Sharon Cissna congratulated the recipients and proclaimed this new venture an exciting one for UAA.

As she announced the winners, Wisniewski commented on how much of the funded research utilizes Alaska properties (such as fish, plants, mammals and climate), a fact that will go a long way toward putting Alaska researchers on the map. She also noted that 44 proposals were reviewed. To fund them all would have required seed money totaling $650,000. With a budget of $200,000, she was able to fund 13 projects at $186,000.

Winning proposals needed to identify research that could:
·      Be published in a peer-reviewed journal
·      Be funded by a national agency
·      Or create new intellectual property

And now, congratulations to the first INNOVATE award recipients:
  • Dr. Jason Burkhead, biology, for “Development of a copper-deficient mouse model of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.”
  • Dr. Don Spalinger, biology, (and Co-PIs Dr. John Lund and Dr. Herb Schroeder, for “The Trophic Dynamics of Nutrient Cycling in Western Alaska Tundra Ecosystems.”
  • Dr. Khrys Duddleston, (Co-PIs Dr. Fred Rainey and Dr. Loren Buck) for “Host-gut-microbiome interactions in the arctic ground squirrel: investigations in an extreme hibernator.”
  • Dr. Cindy Knall, WWAMI Medical School of Education, “Assessing NFkB Targets in Oral Epithelial Cells Exposed to Iqmik.”
  • Dr. John Lund, electrical engineering, (Co-PI Dr. Todd Peterson) for “Ultra-Long Lifespan Wireless Sensor Devices for Asset Management.”
  • Dr. Anthony Paris, mechanical engineering, (Co-PIs Dr. Jennifer Brock and Dr. John Lund) for “Evaluation of Instrumentation to Assess Accelerations of the Head Due to Soccer Ball Heading.”
  • Dr. Scott Hamel, civil engineering, “Performance of Wood-Plastic Composites in Cold Regions.”
  • Dr. Frank Moore, computer science/mathematics, “Improving the Science Value of CCSDS Lossy Compressed Images via Evolutionary Computation.”
  • Dr. John Kennish, chemistry, (Co-PI Dr. Patty Zwolla), for ”Development of an Integrated Cellular-Chemical Approach for Quantifying Effects of Marine Phthalates on the Function of Trout Immune Cells.”
  • Dr. Colin McGill, chemistry, “Inhibition of TNFa-mediated nsMase activation by citrate and malate in a human neuroblastoma model.”
  • Dr. Karen Ward, Center for Human Development, “Teen Friendships & Dating Program.”
  • Dr. Vivian Gonzalez, psychology/Center for Behavioral Research and Services, (Co-PI Dr. Monica Skewes) for “Social Validity of Alcohol Treatments for Alaska Native College Students.”
  • Dr. Don Rearden, college preparatory and developmental studies, for “Heart of a Whale.”

Stay tuned to this blog for details on the research these "innovators" are engaged in. And if you have research you'd like to share, please contact Kathleen McCoy, (907) 786-1490 or