The Faces of Research
by LEE ANN COX
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.
It scarcely matters whether youre talking about a hundred years
or a hundred thousand years Paul Bierman, associate professor
of geology, is interested in how landscapes change over time. Hes
drawn to the science behind it, the history surrounding it, and the
fieldwork at the heart of it. Im just curious about how
the world works. Thats what keeps me doing this stuff, Bierman
says. Its fun to sit up at three in the morning and count
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.) Hes used
the technique to study erosion rates from Australia to Africa to the
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 havent had a tool to find the answers
a fundamental piece of understanding the Earths 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 bodys sensory system
led her to a doctorate in neurobiology, a convergence of disciplines
that is in keeping with current thinking in physical therapy. Henrys
work is centered around the low-back pain she once treated as a clinician,
but now shes 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, were coming up with much
better, more comprehensive interventions."
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 UVMs Breast Care Center as
a way to offer exceptional woman-centered care thats 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
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 todays 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 its to cure cancer.
Im very simple-minded this way and Im very sincere
I get goose bumps thinking about it. Whatever I can do
to aim toward that direction is what Im going to do."
For Rona Delay, assistant professor of biology, the sense of smell has
many meanings. Its a fundamental factor in our ability to taste,
its 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 its an ideal window for examining the bodys 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 Alzheimers and cystic fibrosis patients who
suffer from a reduced ability to smell.
Delays 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."
George Pinder, professor of civil and environmental engineering, has
a knack for boiling down his 35 years of innovative research: Im
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
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 hes 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."
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: hes developing the algorithms
for intelligent traffic signals that would better control traffic flow
by reacting in real-time to existing conditions. Hes using artificial
neural networks to study the relationship between land-use and traffic
volumes in order to optimize development within a given area. And hes
working on systems that would help communities integrate their infrastructure
maintenance for increased efficiency. Sadeks 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,
were trying to make the best use of what we already have
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."