University of Vermont

Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR)

2017-18 REACH Recipients

Congratulations to our 2017-18 REACH recipients! Please see their names and project descriptions below.

Isabelle Desjardins; William Cats-Baril; Chris Danforth; Peter Sheridan Dodds, Psychiatry/Larner College of Medicine; Grossman School of Business; Mathematics & Statistics/Computer Science
Identifying Predictors of Suicide using Social Media

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US (44,000/year). Suicide claims more lives than motor vehicle accidents (32,000/year). Costs associated with suicide are estimated at $44 billion/year. The urgency to address this serious public health issue is rising as the suicide rate in the US jumped 26% from 1999 to 2014, from 10.5 to 13.3 deaths per 100,000 people. A high priority area in suicide prevention is better identification of high risk individuals. We aim to develop a highly-innovative machine-learning, social media based algorithm to identify individuals at high near-term risk of suicide. Our interdisciplinary team — faculty from CEMS, the Larner College of Medicine, and the Grossman School of Business — proposes to accomplish three goals: 1) create and curate a dataset of social media posts authored by individuals who have attempted or died by suicide; 2) analyze the dataset using machine-learning algorithms to identify markers of suicide risk; and, 3) perform a market assessment to commercialize a clinical decision-making tool based on those algorithms. We will apply for external funding in Fall of 2017 to both the NIMH STTR/SBIR program on Zero Suicide and to the AFSP program on assessing short-term risk of suicide.

Tyler Doggett, Philosophy
Burlington Thinks

I am asking for funding to support a week of public philosophy — a festival — in the Burlington area. It will be modeled on BarcelonaPensa, a weeklong, popular, successful philosophy festival in Barcelona. The content will be philosophical issues of public concern and interest. The form will be a series of interactive events involving philosophy professors but also community partners across the area.

To explain what I want out of the festival, let me explain part of what motivates me to create it: In a newspaper interview two years ago, a director of a local homeless shelter said that Burlington homeless have in common feelings of "total aloneness" and meaninglessness and that these help to keep them homeless. Of course, there are other causes. Yet the feelings of aloneness and meaninglessness are (a) something philosophers have worked on, (b) something philosophers can help with, but (c) something that people wouldn’t know philosophers work on and can help with nor (d) something philosophers do help with. I want the festival to provide a place for people to talk about philosophical issues such as the nature of loneliness and meaningfulness and to do so with philosophers and non-philosophers alike.

Mathew Failla, Rehabilitation and Movement Science
Muscle Tissue Adaptations in Chronic Rotator Cuff Tears

Shoulder pain is one of the most common reasons for medical visits, with 4.5 million visits attributed annually. Rotator cuff injuries make up a large portion of these visits, causing shoulder pain, stiffness, reduced function, and decreased quality of life. The majority of rotator cuff injuries are chronic in nature, resulting in adaptations beyond the tendon injury such as muscular fibrosis, atrophy, fatty infiltration, and decreased contractility. The relationship of these muscle adaptations to shoulder disability and function is not well understood. The underlying mechanisms for how these adaptations occur, have been studied in animal models, but little is known in humans. Thus, there is a need to identify the muscular changes and mechanisms by which they occur in humans with rotator cuff tears. This work will utilize various methods of measuring rotator cuff muscle quality to identify muscle changes and their relationship to shoulder function and disability. In addition, the basis will be formed by which interventions can be designed to improve functional outcomes and disability associated with rotator cuff tears and surgical repair.

Rex Forehand, Psychological Science
Intervention for Opioid Dependent Parents

With over 2 million Americans abusing opioids, this substance dependency has been labeled as an epidemic both nationally and in Vermont. Opioid abuse of parents places their children at high risk for multiple psychosocial problems. Parenting deficits and the broader family context (e.g., inadequate communication with co-caregivers) have been identified as contributing factors to children’s maladjustment in these families. Unfortunately, a challenge, particularly in rural states, is how to ensure that opioid dependent parents have access to treatment to enhance their parenting skills and improve the broader family context. The purpose of this grant is to initiate development and piloting of an innovative smartphone-delivered treatment for opioid dependent parents of young children which can meet the treatment accessibility challenge.

Participants will be three therapists and 27 parents in treatment for opioid addiction. Using an iterative process, therapists will be interviewed and seven parents will participate in three focus groups over 4 months to identify challenges faced by these parents. Pilot application modules then will be developed to address these challenges and tested in a small randomized control trial (n = 20). This pilot work will be used as leverage to submit proposals for extramural research funding.

Shana Haines, Department of Education
Bridging the Gaps: Improving Partnerships between Refugee Families and their Children’s Teachers to Increase Achievement

A vast achievement gap exists in our current educational system, even here in Vermont, and refugee children are often far below their peers academically (DeCapua & Marshall, 2015; Ladson-Billings, 2006). Exacerbating the achievement gap, there is a gap in the level of partnership between families and their children’s teachers within refugee communities. These two gaping differences are particularly disconcerting when occurring together; emerging research from a related study indicate that families whose children are significantly behind in school may be ignorant of this fact, may not recognize that their child needs help, and may not be given the opportunity to partner with teachers to help their child succeed. We are proposing a study involving interviewing 25 students, their families, their teachers, and multilingual liaisons who work with their families to deeply understand the nuances of both the achievement gap and the gap in family-professional partnership within the refugee population, how these two gaps relate to each other, and what can be done to improve family-professional partnership to alleviate the achievement gap. The results of this study will be used to design an intervention aimed at increasing family-professional partnership specifically for the refugee community.

Arti Shukla, Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine
Exosomal micro RNA-16-5p for early diagnosis of mesothelioma

Malignant mesothelioma (MM) is a devastating cancer of mesothelial cells primarily caused by exposure to asbestos. MM is an aggressive cancer diagnosed only terminally due to lack of identified biomarkers that can lead to early diagnosis. We propose a unique and untested hypothesis: that miRNA contained in exosomes and secreted from MM cells may have a unique signature that may help us identify biomarkers of this disease. To our knowledge, no study to date has measured the exosomal miRNA signature of MM tumors. We generated a miRNA signature from two MM cells and demonstrated a several-fold upregulation of mir-16-5p, a tumor suppressor miRNA in exosomes, as compared to mesothelial cells. Published studies report low levels of mir-16-5p in MM tumor tissues. Based on this observation we hypothesize that MM cells spit out tumor suppressor mir-16-5p in exosomes in order to survive. In the present proposal we will validate our findings (mir-16-5p) in five different MM tumor cells and measure exosomes secreted from them by qRT-PCR. Preliminary data generated from this grant could pave the way for a more in-depth study on the identification of MM biomarkers. This will be a significant contribution to the study of MM diagnosis and treatment.

Johannes Steiner, Internal Medicine, Cardiology
Heart Failure with Preserved Ejection Fraction – Biochemical Risk Stratification and Phenotyping

Heart failure (HF) with a normal cardiac contraction pattern [HF with preserved ejection fraction (HFpEF)] is a clinical syndrome of enormous public health impact affecting millions of patients. HFpEF constitutes a major unmet health need, as no treatment to date has been shown to modify its long-term outlook. A number of prior therapeutic HFpEF trials have failed, very likely due to phenotypic diversity and a multitude of contributing cellular signaling pathways. An emerging, key component of the syndrome is systemic inflammation, neuro-hormonal activation and oxidative stress. Novel biomarker profiles related to those conditions were shown to correlate with disease severity and prognosis. Ultimately, they have the potential to differentiate distinct HFpEF phenotypes biochemically, and help to discover patient phenotype-specific, 'tailored' therapy.

It has also been proposed that changes in thyroid hormones constitute an important pathophysiological component in the development of cardiac fibrosis and subsequent symptomatic HF with impaired contraction [HF with reduced ejection fraction (HFrEF)]. These associations have not yet been tested in HFpEF patients.

We hypothesize that in HFpEF patients, changes in novel biomarkers reflect a central mechanistic role in the pathophysiology of acute decompensated HF, characterize different HFpEF phenotypes, and are related to thyroid deficiencies.

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