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The Faces of Research

From an African desert to a Vermont laboratory, UVM scientists are hard at work on some of the most difficult questions facing the planet. The University's research effort, which is vital to classroom teaching and learning, attracted $118 million in external funding last year, double the 1996 total. But the spirit of this vast enterprise is best seen in the personalities and passions of the individuals who pursue it. In the pages that follow, six professors provide a window on UVM scientific research by sharing their explorations of new knowledge and the motivations that drive them.

Reading Landscapes

It scarcely matters whether you’re talking about a hundred years or a hundred thousand years — Paul Bierman, associate professor of geology, is interested in how landscapes change over time. He’s drawn to the science behind it, the history surrounding it, and the fieldwork at the heart of it. “I’m just curious about how the world works. That’s what keeps me doing this stuff,” Bierman says. “It’s fun to sit up at three in the morning and count individual atoms.”

As a University of Washington graduate student, Bierman was among the first to use a revolutionary dating technique that measures a rare isotope found in rock and soil known as beryllium 10. (Now UVM has one of the few labs in the country that prepares samples for analysis, which Bierman does at Livermore National Laboratory in California.) He’s used the technique to study erosion rates from Australia to Africa to the Appalachian Mountains.
With funding from the Department of Defense — including a recent grant of nearly $500,000 — Bierman is using these isotopic measurements to compare how sediment naturally moves over desert landscapes with the changes induced by the maneuvers of tanks and other tracked vehicles. The information will help the Army, which uses huge areas of land in the western United States for military training, find ways to minimize the impact of its training as part of its environmental stewardship.

"Analysis of beryllium 10 is a way to look at geologic problems that people have thought about for decades but haven’t had a tool to find the answers…It’s a fundamental piece of understanding the Earth’s surface that was just waiting for people to solve."

Easing The Ache

As a sports enthusiast and a physical therapist, associate professor Sharon Henry spent the early part of her career focused on orthopedic problems. But a competing fascination with the body’s sensory system led her to a doctorate in neurobiology, a convergence of disciplines that is in keeping with current thinking in physical therapy. Henry’s work is centered around the low-back pain she once treated as a clinician, but now she’s interested in the interactions between the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system that may cause — and ultimately help ease — our aching backs.

With a five-year $1.8 million grant from the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research, Henry is studying whether specific trunk exercises that change the way a person uses his trunk muscles — interventions which have shown promise clinically — can ease lower back pain in people suffering from two common, debilitating subgroups of this population. Before and after ten weeks of treatment, she will test movement strategies in study participants. Besides establishing a protocol for improving and preventing low-back pain, the research could offer evidence that insurers should cover more physical therapy sessions in order to keep patients on their feet.

"In physical therapy, people have begun looking at how the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system interact and, as a result, we’re coming up with much better, more comprehensive interventions."

Cancer’s Sentinel

Professor of Surgery David Krag, M.D. is on a “maniacal, targeted pathway” with a single, overriding ambition: he wants to eradicate cancer. While staying squarely fixed on that goal, this world-renowned researcher is also a physician who is keenly sensitive to the needs of cancer patients. Krag co-founded UVM’s Breast Care Center as a way to offer exceptional woman-centered care that’s directly linked with work on innovative therapies.

Krag is leading a large randomized national trial to study the long-term outcomes of his pioneering sentinel node therapy, a procedure that uses a radioactive tracer to detect the few lymph nodes that any metastatic breast cancer cells would reach first. Those are removed and biopsied and, if cancer-free, the remaining nodes are left intact. The therapy could spare a majority of women with breast cancer the often agonizing life-long side effects — and the daily reminder of cancer — that come with the current standard of removing the full set of lymph nodes.

Aiming his other research directly on raising cure rates, Krag is working on a therapy which would allow cancer drugs to be delivered directly to tumors without affecting normal cells as today’s chemotherapy drugs do, thus increasing the maximum possible dose. Working with a “library” of some 10 million differently shaped molecules, the idea is that some will bind specifically to a tumor — and can take cancer-fighting drugs right along with them.

"I drive to work in the morning and it’s to cure cancer.
I’m very simple-minded this way and I’m very sincere about this.
I get goose bumps thinking about it. Whatever I can do
to aim toward that direction is what I’m going to do."

Brain Work

For Rona Delay, assistant professor of biology, the sense of smell has many meanings. It’s a fundamental factor in our ability to taste, it’s a link to the human emotional center (for Delay, the scent of baby powder will forever be associated with her grandmother and the smell of diesel fuel on an icy cold day means boarding the ski bus), and it’s an ideal window for examining the body’s neurobiological complexities. Delay studies the intricate biophysics of olfaction, how we respond to odors, and how factors like hormones and certain drugs affect our sense of smell.

The olfactory epithelium works like an orchestra, with some instruments (olfactory neurons) playing while others are quiet. Of particular interest to Delay are those cells which get turned down or inhibited by odors. Her work could help explain why individuals taking certain drugs experience a change in their ability to detect odors, while the study of olfaction as a whole could aid Alzheimer’s and cystic fibrosis patients who suffer from a reduced ability to smell.

Delay’s research is under the umbrella of the Center of Biomedical Research Excellence in neuroscience at the UVM College of Medicine. On the strength of a five-year, $11 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the center creates greater opportunities for the study of things neural or brain-related, which for years has been an area of outstanding research at the University.

"I find research fascinating.
You may answer one question
by a series of experiments, but mostly
your results lead you to ask more questions
about how a particular system works."

Groundwater Guru

George Pinder, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has a knack for boiling down his 35 years of innovative research: “I’m trying to find ways of using the computer to solve problems in groundwater.” By developing a complex arsenal of mathematical modeling concepts, Pinder, who was portrayed in the book and film A Civil Action after giving expert testimony in the 1986 Woburn, Massachusetts toxic waste trial, has created tools for detecting contamination and designing cleanup strategies that can save hundreds of millions of dollars at a given site.

Determining the health risk of toxic chemicals is as much an art as it is a science, so Pinder is using fuzzy logic, which allows computers to work with shades of truth rather than absolutes, to translate expert opinions into mathematical equations. His goal is to build a computer knowledge base that will offer answers to questions about the risks of environmental toxins. The questions he’s tackling are fundamental — how clean does a particular contaminated site have to be before it is safe? His tools for drawing answers out of ambiguity could apply to other areas, like homeland security and medical diagnosis, where sound opinion is easier to come by than factual certainty.

"I teach others to be able to do the sort of things that
I do, so there are many hands at work. I have more ideas
than I have the ability to pursue, so I can multiply our
search for answers through my students."

Road Warrior

With his serenely affable manner, Adel Sadek, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, may have never experienced road rage, but he does get worked up about traffic. Eschewing the “hard” or construction side of engineering, Sadek has turned a life-long love for mathematics and computer modeling into an effort to resolve complex transportation issues. Building ever-more roads and bridges is not the solution, Sadek insists. Building better management systems for the ones we have, he says, is the way out of the jam.

Using computational intelligence tools, Sadek is seeking solutions for an array of problems on the road: he’s developing the algorithms for intelligent traffic signals that would better control traffic flow by reacting in real-time to existing conditions. He’s using artificial neural networks to study the relationship between land-use and traffic volumes in order to optimize development within a given area. And he’s working on systems that would help communities integrate their infrastructure maintenance for increased efficiency. Sadek’s work, which is supported by a $375,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, could not only lessen traffic congestion but have positive economic and environmental impacts as well.

"Instead of building new roads or building new infrastructure,
we’re trying to make the best use of what we already have…With simple solutions like tweaking the timing of a traffic light during a snowstorm or coordinating work schedules when maintaining a road and a nearby bridge we can make a difference."