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July / August 2003


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UMaine Today Magazine


Insights

Prospecting pathogens

Mauricio Pereira da Cunha
Electrical engineer
Mauricio Pereira da Cunha

Photo by Michael York
 

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Electrical engineers and molecular biologists at the University of Maine have joined forces in an effort to develop a new sensor that can rapidly detect pathogens in water.

The goal is to develop a device that can help protect public and private water supplies.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, electrical engineer Mauricio Pereira da Cunha and biochemist Paul Millard are conducting their research in the UMaine College of Engineering and the Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology on campus.

Their proposed technology combines proteins and nucleic acids with crystals that vibrate under the influence of an alternating electric current. The frequency of that vibration changes when molecules bind to the crystal surface, and that change can be easily detected. For this project, the researchers will use langasite crystals and attach nucleic acids or proteins to the surface that can recognize and bind to a possible contaminant, such as E. coli, Salmonella typhi or Vibrio cholera.

Currently used laboratory technology is costly and takes too long to return a result, says Pereira da Cunha. By the time water is taken to a lab for analysis and the results come back, there is a risk of contaminating a population, he says.

To develop a device that has the ability to recognize specific pathogens, the UMaine researchers must find ways of attaching and maintaining the sensitivity of molecules that bind biochemicals or organisms in a water sample.

In addition, because the sensor will be in the water it is monitoring, one of the research hurdles involves creating an electronic device that does not short out or attenuate.


Bodacious blueberries

Blueberries may be little, but scientists are finding that they have the potential to pack a healthy punch.

Researchers at the University of Maine and elsewhere are studying the compounds in blueberries that could protect vision, maintain memory, keep arteries flexible and reduce some of the side effects of diabetes.

UMaine has a long history of supporting the wild blueberry industry through agricultural and food product research to develop new markets. Physicians and health-conscious consumers also need sound information about how blueberry consumption may promote health.

Much of the research focuses on anthocyanins, pigments that make fruits and vegetables red, blue or purple. The colorful compounds are strong antioxidants that protect cells by scavenging free radical molecules in the body.

"Maine wild blueberries are unique because of the diversity of anthocyanin and other phenolic compounds they contain," says Mary Ellen Camire, professor of food science and human nutrition. For example, elderberries have two or three anthocyanins; wild blueberries have 15 or 16.

In recent research, Camire demonstrated that blueberries can inhibit an enzyme involved in diabetes side effects, such as blindness, heart disease and kidney damage. Research elsewhere also has shown that some compounds in the fruit may help the body regulate blood sugar.

In an ongoing project with Vision Care of Maine, participants are drinking blueberry juice and having periodic eye exams to test for vision changes. And in research in cooperation with the UMaine Department of Psychology, participants are taking powdered blueberries in capsule form to explore effects of anthocyanins on memory.


Speaking volumes

Books in French are strengthening ties between people in Quebec and Maine, and helping Franco-Americans maintain their culture and language.

The nearly 10,000 books were donated by schools, businesses and individuals in Quebec and distributed to Maine communities by the Franco-American Centre at the University of Maine.

The book distribution program was organized by Le Conseil de la vie française en Amérique (the Council on French Life in America), a Quebec-based group committed to helping people of French heritage in North America better understand and maintain their culture and language.

The donated volumes include children's books, dictionaries, novels and biographies. They were made available to the public in the regions of Biddeford-Sanford, Augusta- Waterville, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor-Old Town, and the St. John Valley.

Previously, Le Conseil de la vie française en Amérique collected books for distribution in Louisiana. Yvon Labbé, the director of UMaine's Franco-American Centre and a member of the council, says he hopes more books can be collected for distribution to other New England states.


Weightless bones

Make no bones about it, Angela Ferran loves biomedical engineering. The University of Maine senior has studied the use of bone in sensors and the separation of E. coli bacteria in liquid. NASA funded her most recent project – a study of diet and bone strength.

The results of her research could help the space agency address bone loss that astronauts commonly experience during extended space flights. It also could contribute to dietary recommendations for people who suffer from osteoporosis.

Ferran's is one of three UMaine student research projects currently supported by the Maine Space Grant Consortium. Two others focus on detecting and controlling vibrations in composite structures.

Ferran, who grew up in South China, Maine, chose to major in bio-resource engineering on the basis of her strengths in math and biology. The potential for engineers to solve practical problems also was an incentive.

"Helping people is a big part of why people do engineering," Ferran says. "If my research can be even a small part of doing something that helps somebody else, that would be very satisfying."

Last year, Ferran and Darrell Donahue, associate professor of chemical and biological engineering, went to California to meet with scientists and engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center. There they learned of ongoing projects in biomedical engineering and some techniques that can be used to simulate the effects of space travel on laboratory mice.

When she returned to Orono, Ferran built plexiglass cages for 40 mice and designed a study to probe the impact of dietary salt intake on bones. Some research suggests that salt can cause bones to lose calcium and weaken.

The project sets the stage for future simulated microgravity testing at UMaine.

This fall, Ferran will study biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins. She then hopes to work in industry, possibly developing new approaches to prosthetics or tissue engineering.


A $6 million boost to biophysical research

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $6 million grant to the University of Maine, Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough for the establishment of a Center for Molecular Biophysical Sciences. The funds will be used to build a research partnership between the three institutions and to conduct interdisciplinary work leading to better treatment of genetic diseases.

Better understanding of structure/function relationships on a molecular and cellular level could open the way for the treatment of gene-based disabilities and diseases. It also is expected to lead to the development of more effective drugs and to advances in plant genome research, and in ecological and environmental sciences.

The grant will expand existing cooperative relationships among the three organizations. Last winter, they established an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in functional genomics.

The primary objective of the new grant is to create a nationally recognized interdisciplinary center for biophysical research and graduate education.
 


Secrets of sharing

Sharing can be a tough lesson for children to learn, but understanding what influences positive behavior could help educators and parents to promote it.

For her project in the University of Maine Honors College, Elizabeth Jutton, a senior in psychology, studied the factors associated with sharing behavior in children. In particular, she focused on the aspects of temperament that contribute to pro-social behavior.

Working with the staff at UMaine's Child Study Center and Cynthia Erdley, associate professor of psychology, Jutton developed a study that included questionnaires for parents and preschool teachers, as well as direct observation of children, ages 3-5 years old.

Jutton used crayons to find out if children would exhibit cooperation without adult intervention. Two children at a time were given a piece of paper on which to draw. One youngster had new crayons; the other had used and broken ones.

Cooperative sharing occurred in only four out of 18 trials, Jutton reports. Those children who did share tended to be older and have more open, less introspective personalities.

Last March, Jutton presented the results of her study in a poster at the Eastern Psychological Association in Baltimore, Md. She is now in UMaine master's program in social work, and hopes to work with expectant parents and young families.


Hitting a high note

In the bright lights of Broadway, the Maine Steiners took third place in the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella.

Receiving the competition's top award for vocal percussionist was Ben Feeney, a chemical engineering major at the University of Maine.

UMaine's 10-member, all-male a cappella group represented New England and central Canada in the international competition in New York City in late April. It was one of six collegiate groups chosen from a field of 108 to participate.

Maine Steiners was established in the late 1950s as an extension of the Men's Glee Club. Today, the group is affiliated with the select 64-member University Singers.

Maine Steiners performs contemporary music and popular classic tunes, as well as arrangements by its members. It has recorded four CDs.


Northern exposure

Extending the Free Trade zone to Latin America and South America should be a priority in a post-Sept. 11 world, according to Brian Mulroney, prime minister of Canada from 1984-93, who delivered the University of Maine's fourth William S. Cohen Lecture.

Expansion of the North American Free Trade Agreement to include 34 countries with 800 million people would create "an area whose socioeconomic security is indivisible," he said. "We need to act together to protect our external borders."

Mulroney, who spoke on campus May 9, was introduced by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, for whom the lecture series is named. Mulroney and Cohen are strong advocates for improving growth in trade and cultural exchange between the United States and Canada.

Mulroney retired from political life in 1993 and currently practices law in Montreal.

The lecture series is a function of UMaine's William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce, part of the College of Business, Public Policy and Health.


Early educators

It's never too early to learn. That's the philosophy behind the new Future Teachers Academy, offered this summer by the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Maine.

Last month, 30 Maine high school students aspiring to be teachers came to campus for a preview of their post-secondary preparation. The seniors and juniors have a year or more before graduating, but are highly motivated to pursue education careers.

The four-day academy, offered at no cost to the participants, featured workshops with UMaine faculty, high school teachers and students already in the UMaine teacher preparation program. The goal is to provide aspiring teachers with a realistic overview of the profession, including opportunities, challenges, issues and the accountability standards expected of today's teachers, as well as the latest research in teaching and learning.

Students were selected based on their academic records and interest in teaching, especially in those areas where there are shortages of educators.

 

UMaine Today Magazine
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