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Pitt HR Reports Success from Annual Disability Mentoring Day

The University of Pittsburgh Office of Human Resources reported success from its annual Disability Mentoring Day, which took place at Beaver Area High School in mid-October.

In the annual event, the office partners with other University areas to provide mentoring to local high school students with disabilities. It focuses primarily on items like resume writing and interviewing. While the office hosts the event on campus each year, with visits to Panther Central and Pitt Police, this year’s event was held virtually.

Participants included 29 employers and more than 700 total students. They came from the city of Pittsburgh, the counties of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland, and 40 school districts.

“Our Pittsburgh region has always shown remarkable participation in this event, which has—and continues to get—high marks,” said Tom Armstrong, recruiter for veterans and individuals with disabilities in Pitt’s Office of Human Resources.

Stephen Meriney in a blue shirt

Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center Receives NSF Grant for Nerve Cell Research

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, a joint research effort by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, recently received a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which will continue a lab-computer collaboration that accurately simulates communications between nerve cells and muscle cells. Stephen Meriney, professor of neuroscience in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, is a principal investigator of the project.

The project has immediate applications in treating a type of neurological disease called Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS). It also offers fundamental insights into how nerve cells communicate with muscle cells in health and disease. LEMS is a neurological disease in which a person’s immune system attacks calcium channels, leading to a weaker communication between nerve and muscle, which causes weaker muscle contractions and an inability of patients to move and function normally.

In earlier work, scientists at the center and Pitt simulated the role of the calcium channels of the nerve-cell membrane in communication between nerve and muscle cells in frogs and mice. The work faithfully reproduced the nerve-to-muscle signaling differences seen in those species.

Ann E. Cudd in a black jacket

Ann E. Cudd Delivers Presidential Address to Law, Social Philosophy Organization

Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd delivered the presidential address at the October 2020 biannual conference of the American Section of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (AMINTAPHIL). The meeting, which focused on the topic of “Education, Inclusion and Justice,” gathered scholars from around the world for three days of intensive discussions.

AMINTAPHIL membership includes philosophers, legal theorists, political scientists and economists with interests in probing issues about justice, society, the economy and democracy.

Cudd’s address was titled “After the Apocalypse: The Future of Higher Education.”

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Changfeng Tai Receives $10.5 Million DARPA Award

Changfeng Tai, associate professor of urology and pharmacology in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was awarded $10.5 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a medical device that would help people who suffered spinal cord injuries.

Through the five-year award, Tai and his team will develop a fully implantable, wirelessly controlled and chargeable stimulator to restore three visceral functions including bladder, bowel and sexual functions for people with spinal cord injuries. Restoring these visceral functions remains a top priority for functional recovery in people with spinal cord injuries, and can dramatically improve the quality of life and prevent potential kidney failure caused by bladder-sphincter dyssynergia. The device would act similarly to how a pacemaker helps the heart pump blood, except it would be inserted under the skin in the lower back.

“This award is significant in the progress of this device,” said Tai. “The hope is that this will one day ease the burden that people with disabilities related to spinal cord injuries face every day, including military veterans. We will work with our collaborators to build a system that will allow for human clinical trial use.”

DARPA is a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. The award is part of DARPA’s BG+ program.

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Amanda Godley Recognized with Award for Teacher Development

Amanda Godley, vice provost for graduate studies, received the 2020 Richard A. Meade Award from the National Council of Teachers of English for “outstanding research in English and language arts teacher development.”

The award recognizes published, research-based work that promotes English language arts teacher development at any educational level. It was established in 1988 in honor of the late Richard Meade for his contributions to research in the teaching and training of composition and teacher preparation.

Godley, also a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Leading in the School of Education, received the award for “Critical Language Pedagogy: Interrogating Language, Power and Dialects in Teacher Education,” a book she co-authored with Jeff Reaser of the University of North Carolina on how teachers develop critical perspectives on teaching about language and dialects. Their research was funded by the Spencer Foundation.

“This is a big honor for Jeff and me, particularly since it was important to us that our project not only contributed to research on teacher learning but also provided a practical resource for English teachers and teacher educators,” said Godley.

Godley is a former high school English teacher. Her research focuses on secondary literacy instruction, including critical language pedagogy, peer review of writing and developing apps to improve classroom discussions. Her research has been published in various journals, including Research in the Teaching of English and Reading Research Quarterly.

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Lillian Chong Chosen for Open Science Fellows Program

Lillian Chong, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has been chosen as one of five members of the 2020 Silicon Therapeutics Open Science Fellows Program. The program was created in 2017 to advance the open science movement within the drug discovery industry and support investigators committed to the open science movement through their contributions to open source software. Chong’s research involves the development and application of molecular simulation approaches to model a variety of biophysical processes.

The Cathedral of Learning

Critical Care Physician-Researchers Assume JAMA Editorial Roles

One of the world’s most prestigious academic medical journals announced that it is strengthening its editorial team with expertise from UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Derek Angus, chief health care innovation officer at UPMC and professor and chair of the Department of Critical Care Medicine at Pitt, will become a senior editor at the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Christopher Seymour, UPMC intensivist and director of the Translational and Clinical Science Program at the Clinical Research, Investigation and Systems Modeling of Acute Illness Center in Pitt’s School of Medicine, will take Angus’ place as associate editor at JAMA, focused on critical care medicine.

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Public Health's Steven Albert is Next Gerontological Society of America's Innovation in Aging Editor

The Gerontological Society of America (GSA)—the nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to the field of aging—has named Steven M. Albert, chair of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, as the next editor-in-chief of the journal Innovation in Aging, effective January 2021.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Albert as editor-in-chief. He has a stellar career in aging research and has profound leadership and management skills that will be essential in this role,” said Ishan C. Williams, the chair of GSA’s Program, Publications and Products Committee. 

Innovation in Aging is an online open access journal. It contains conceptually sound, methodologically rigorous research studies that describe innovative theories, research methods, interventions, evaluations and policies relevant to aging and the life course.

“In its four years as an online journal, Innovation in Aging has already made its mark as a place for cutting-edge research,” Albert said. “It attracts high-quality research that cuts across the disparate fields of gerontology.”

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Engineering Researchers Receive NSF Award

The University of Pittsburgh's Nathan Youngblood and Feng Xiong, assistant professors of electrical and computer engineering, have received $380,000 from the National Science Foundation to study phase-change materials and overcome the challenges inherent in the technology, which is promising for new applications like high-speed computing and advanced optical storage.

Read more about their work

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NSF Grant Funds Michael Madison's Collaborative Efforts to Build Research Coordination Network

Michael Madison, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, is co-leading a novel research collaborative called The Governing Knowledge Commons Project, which received a National Science Foundation award to support their efforts to build a research coordination network. 

The other co-principal investigators are Brett Frischmann, the Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics, at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law; and Katherine Jo Strandburg, the Alfred B. Engelberg Professor of Law at New York University's School of Law.

This NSF-funded project will extend existing research, supporting a new network designed to build a research community to advance the work systematically and scientifically. 

This network, funded by a $350,000 grant, will assemble researchers from around the world and from law, the social and behavioral sciences, computer science, and engineering, allowing them to coordinate, integrate and communicate research across multiple disciplinary and organizational boundaries.

The project, which will take place over three years, will facilitate a series of focused working conferences, each organized around a specific subject matter, as well as a capstone convergence conference bringing the entire network and its research together.

“It’s an exciting time for knowledge commons research. IP law focuses on exclusive property rights. We’re focused on the power of collaboration. I’m thrilled by the recognition by the NSF and what these resources offer to the future of the field and to the future of technology policy,” said Madison.

The Cathedral of Learning

PhD Student Robin Zwier Honored by American Association of University Women

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) awarded one of its 2020-21 fellowships and grants to Robin Zwier, a scholar at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a PhD in rhetoric. Recipients will pursue academic work and lead innovative community projects to empower women and girls.

Since 1888, AAUW has awarded more than $115 million in fellowships, grants and awards to 13,000 recipients from more than 105 countries. For the 2020–21 academic year, AAUW awarded a total of $3.5 million through seven fellowships and grants programs to more than 200 scholars and community projects and programs promoting education and equity for women and girls.

Educational funding is especially important given that women are disproportionately burdened by student debt. And their ability to pay off that debt is hampered by a lifelong pay gap that affects women in nearly every profession. The pay gap widens over time and has consequences on all aspect of a woman’s financial life, from paying for an education to saving for a comfortable retirement. AAUW’s awards help to alleviate the burden of student debt so women can focus on developing their skills and experience. 

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Social Work’s Darren Whitfield Receives National Institute of Mental Health Grant

University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work Assistant Professor Darren Whitfield received a $443,533 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to investigate the relationship between psychosocial factors (depressive symptomatology, substance use, social support, perceived HIV risk) and adherence and persistence to HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) among young Black gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM).  

Young Black MSM continue to experience a disproportionate rate of HIV infections in the United States. HIV PrEP is a biomedical prevention intervention shown to reduce risk of HIV infection; however, studies suggest young Black MSM are less likely to be prescribed PrEP and have significantly lower levels of adherence to PrEP compared to white MSM. PrEP use among young Black MSM is estimated at between 3%-20%. In addition to concerns with adherence, persistence on PrEP among young Black MSM is low, with discontinuation rates ranging between 17% to 22% within six months of starting PrEP.

This study will examine the factors associated with long-term adherence to PrEP in young Black MSM in Atlanta, a city with a large concentration of young Black MSM impacted by HIV. The study is a collaboration between the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work and Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. 

“Currently there is an explosion of activity in the development of PrEP products. This study is important because irrespective of the administration of PrEP, adherence will always be the determining factor for maintaining HIV-negative. Ultimately, the goal of this study is to determine intervention opportunities which will increase adherence and persistence and lead to a decrease in HIV infections among young Black MSM,” said Whitfield.

The co-principal investigator of this study is Jeb Jones at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health and the co-investigator for the study is Patrick Sullivan at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. Further collaborators in the study include Positive Impact Health Centers, NAESM Inc. and the Fulton County Board of Health.  

Tow people in hard hats look downwards together

Research Ties Andean Drought To Greenland Warming During Last Glacial Period

A paper published by Arielle Woods, a PhD student in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has tied abrupt warming in Greenland ice cores to changes in tropical South American climate during the last glacial cycle. “Andean Drought and Glacial Retreat Tied to Greenland Warming During the Last Glacial Period,” examines sediment records from a lake in the Peruvian Andes to document how climate change has impacted drought conditions and glacial retreat.

Woods, who is lead author on the paper, worked with Mark Abbott, a professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Science, postdoctoral associate Sophie Lehmann, and Pitt alum Nicholas Weidhaas, in addition to national and international collaborators, to complete the work. The paper was published in Nature Communications on Oct. 12.  

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Postdoctoral Scholar Millie Rincon-Cortes Named Ford Foundation Fellow

Millie Rincon-Cortes, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was named a Ford Foundation Fellowship Scholar for 2020.

Rincon-Cortes’ research focuses on postpartum stress exposure, a translational risk factor for postpartum depression. Rincon-Cortes said, “This project is of human relevance because human parental care is disturbed under conditions of adversity and/or chronic stress, and this is replicated in rodent models, which enable causality and more invasive brain manipulations.”

The foundation seeks to increase the diversity of the nation’s college and university faculties by increasing their ethnic and racial diversity, to maximize the educational benefits of diversity and to increase the number of professors who can and will use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.

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SHRS Teaming Up with DePaul School for Hearing and Speech

The University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) and DePaul School for Hearing and Speech are teaming up to provide research and educational opportunities to improve academic programming at both institutions. A strategic and official partnership, marked by the signing of a memorandum of understanding, is significantly expanding collaboration between the two Pittsburgh schools.

For many years, DePaul School has served as a training site for speech-language pathology and audiology students from SHRS’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders (CSD). DePaul School for Hearing and Speech teaches children who are deaf, hard of hearing or with speech impairments to listen and speak. By utilizing Listening and Spoken Language Education, DePaul School currently serves approximately 60 students ranging from infancy through eighth grade. 

The partnership between the institutions aims to fulfill various mutually beneficial goals including the development of graduate student scholarships, the creation of doctoral student and post-doctoral research fellowships and community partnership initiatives, among many others. Pitt CSD will contribute the resources and expertise to carry out this work while providing opportunities for students to experience hands-on clinical and research training.

The Cathedral of Learning

PERU Receives Funding for Work on Veteran Suicide Prevention

The University of Pittsburgh Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU), in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, recently announced a cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement and evaluate a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention, focusing especially on service members, veterans and their families.

The CDC awarded PERU $700,000 in funding each year over the next five years for suicide prevention by creating the Northwest Pennsylvania Veteran Suicide Prevention Program.

The program will consist of an assessment of active county, state and national suicide prevention initiatives to identify gaps in services and programming. Following the assessment, PERU will develop and implement additional risk assessment programs, community-based trainings and healthcare-related initiatives across a 15-county target region. Quantitative and qualitative data will be collected throughout the program to identify best practices and develop future policy.

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Swanson School’s Melissa Bilec Receives National Science Foundation Funding

Melissa Bilec, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, has received $98,000 from the National Science Foundation to convene a panel of experts to meet for a workshop on the circular economy that will help set the research agenda for years to come.

In the course of three three-hour sessions over three weeks, the workshop will be an opportunity for the wide array of invited constituents to discuss and develop ideas in circular economy research.

Bilec will team up with Eric Beckman, distinguished service professor of chemical engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, and Gemma Jiang, director of the Organizational Innovation Lab at the Swanson School. They are collaborating with the University of Georgia’s Jason Locklin, professor of chemical engineering and founding director of the New Materials Institute; Jenna Jambeck, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia; and Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

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Sanjeev Shroff Inducted as Fellow of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering

Sanjeev Shroff, distinguished professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, was elected as a Fellow of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering. The virtual induction ceremony was held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Forum on Biomedical Engineering on Sept. 18.

This competitive election is in recognition of distinguished contributions to and leadership in the field of medical and biological engineering on an international level. Presently, there are only around 200 living IAMBE fellows.

Shroff was selected for his significant research contributions to cardiovascular engineering and bioengineering education. His research in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering has two focus areas: regulation of cardiac muscle contraction by changes in cardiac proteins and their chemical modifications, and the role of vascular stiffness in cardiovascular function and potential therapeutic applications of vascular stiffness-modifying drugs and/or hormones.

His research efforts have been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1986, with additional support from other funding agencies such as the American Heart Association and the National Science Foundation.

A panther statue

Pitt Receives Funding to Study Laser Treatment for Glaucoma

The University of Pittsburgh, in partnership with West Virginia University (WVU), received a combined $15.2 million from the National Institutes of Health to study using laser treatments to better manage glaucoma.

Goundappa K. Balasubramani, research associate professor of epidemiology, and Stephen R. Wisniewski, professor of epidemiology and vice provost for budget and analytics at Pitt, will enroll 600 patients across 20 locations to receive selective laser trabeculoplasty (SLT). The study explores whether having one STL procedure a year can delay patients’ need for the expensive and often irritating eye drops usually prescribed to treat glaucoma. Pitt will be the data coordinating center for the trial, and WVU will oversee the clinical sites.

Glaucoma is caused by damage to the optic nerve and is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world.

Read more about the partnership.

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Audrey Murrell to Serve on Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority Board of Directors

Acting Dean of the Pitt Honors College and professor of business administration Audrey J. Murrell was nominated by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to serve on the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) board of directors.

A resolution appointing Murrell as a member of the board of directors for the PWSA for a term to expire Dec. 31, 2023, was approved at the September meeting of the Pittsburgh City Council. Murrell will be serving a seat that had been vacant. 

Murrell said, “it is a tremendous honor to serve the city in this capacity and it fits well with the work we are doing within the Pitt Honors College on issues related to water sustainability with our region.”

Murrell also serves as senior research fellow for the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership.