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UMaine Today Magazine


Fighting the flu with physics

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Finding a way for human cells to reject invasions by influenza, HIV, Ebola and other viruses is the focus of research by a University of Maine physicist, funded by a five-year, $615,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Sam Hess, a former NIH biomedical researcher, received the career award to study how viruses penetrate cellular membranes and what might be done to block infection.

Hess is collaborating with UMaine physicist R. Dean Astumian and NIH colleague Joshua Zimmerberg. Using laser-scanning fluorescence microscopes, Hess is studying how cholesterol and lipids play a role in assisting viral proteins to bond to the surface of cells, then penetrate and infect them.

Specifically, Hess is looking at hemagglutinin, the protein from influenza virus that opens a fusion pore in membranes of host cells to allow in the infection. Removal of cholesterol from membranes appears to have inhibitory effects on hemagglutinin.

"We're using these lasers and spectroscopy to see what's going on in a virus," he says. "If we can find out why influenza needs cholesterol, it may be the same reason HIV, or some other virus, needs cholesterol."

Investing in research to strengthen Maine

A new strategic plan at the University of Maine called Momentum aims to increase funding for research and development, and to grow programs that contribute to economic development in Maine.

Research at the university has experienced hearty growth in the past several years; expenditures topped $65 million in fiscal year 2005, and UMaine leveraged $5 for every $1 invested by the state. But the state's base-funding contributions through the Maine Economic Improvement Fund (MEIF), established by the legislature, have been mostly stagnant since 2002.

Momentum asks for an increase in base funding to bring the state's research investment up to par with that of the region and the nation.

"The University of Maine's research is unique in the state, in that our faculty develop research into products that create jobs, while contributing to science and providing an exciting education," says UMaine Vice President for Research Michael Eckardt.

Momentum builds on a tiered investment strategy: several faculty research growth projects will receive small awards; a more select group of new and emerging areas will receive larger awards. The largest portion will be invested in three to four strategic focus areas, which will be expected to become self-sustaining within five years, creating space for growing other programs.

"We want to spark innovation and support new ideas across campus, and help them to grow," Eckardt says. "We also want our already successful programs to become world-class. Ultimately, UMaine research will help improve life for everyone in the state by creating jobs and growing the economy."

Sensing education

By the year 2011, more than $4 million in funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), including $1.9 million in newly awarded monies, will translate into nearly a decade of science and engineering education in Maine middle schools and high schools through the University of Maine's GK–12 Sensors! and Research Experience for Teachers (RET) Sensors! initiatives.

In this state, GK–12 Sensors! spins off UMaine's high-profile sensor research in the Laboratory for Surface Science Technology. The initiative is directed by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor John Vetelino, assisted by Constance Holden, spatial information science and engineering instructor, and Steve Godsoe, a Bangor High School teacher.

Graduate student scientists and engineers in sensor research take their knowledge into the classroom. The graduate fellows collaborate with teachers, many of whom become involved in sensor science and engineering in RET summer sessions.

Students learn about sensor science and engineering in their chemistry, physics, biology, environmental science, math, computer science or social sciences classes, which increasingly include community outreach projects.

Ultimately, they come to understand the sensor technology that is all around them, and are encouraged to pursue careers in science and engineering.

At the end of its third year in 2005, UMaine's GK–12 Sensors! was integrated into 11 rural and urban schools.

HUD grant builds downtown coalition

They are questions that plague many urban areas: How does a city make youths feel welcome downtown while avoiding conflicts with businesses and residents? How does a community provide enough affordable housing for elderly and low-income residents? How do people build and maintain a level of connectedness that fosters a vital, dynamic downtown?

In Bangor, Maine, a battery of newly funded and far-reaching community programs may provide some answers. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently awarded nearly $400,000 to the University of Maine to establish a UMaine-Bangor Community Outreach Partnership Center (UMB-COPC), a collection of people and programs aimed at fostering a positive environment for all in Bangor's downtown neighborhoods.

The project, spearheaded by Kathryn Hunt of the Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy, involves more than 20 downtown organizations.

Distributed over three years, the federal funds will support three main initiatives: the Community Inclusion Project, helping homeless teens and other disenfranchised residents to reconnect with the city; the Salvation Army's Powerhouse Teen Center; and a needs assessment of housing and special services for elderly residents and persons with disabilities.

The project is expected to create new avenues of communication between UMaine and the community.

Dogfish sharks Down East

New tenants at the Center for Cooperative Aquaculture Research in Franklin, Maine, are proving that the facility lives up to its name.

A school of 30 common spiny dogfish, Squalus acanthias, are now swimming around in two 12-foot, 3,500-gallon tanks at the center, where research includes studies of halibut, cod and salmon. The small sharks, which average 4 feet long, belong to the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Salisbury Cove, Maine. They are helping geneticists understand human diseases, including cystic fibrosis.

The migratory sharks show up in the Gulf of Maine in May or June. But to maintain their stock year-round, MDIBL researchers had to buy live dogfish in Cape Cod, which then had to be trucked to Maine — a time-consuming and expensive process, not to mention a missed opportunity for Maine fishermen, says MDIBL Associate Administrative Director Charlie Wray.

Boarding the fish in Franklin is a win-win solution. UMaine's new building includes a high-tech, temperature-controlled, closed-circulation system, providing a warm environment that is much to the fishes' liking. MDIBL researchers now have a relatively short trip to retrieve the dogfish as needed, and can continue to buy them live from local groundfishermen.

The arrangement demonstrates the university's ability to extend its services to enterprises throughout the state.

Insight Lite: Maine Women

In an online women's studies course on Maine women, taught by Carol Toner, coordinator of the Maine Studies Program at the University of Maine, each student starts the semester by listing five of the most important women in state history. In observance of Women's History Month in March, we're sharing the most frequent names on that list. The first six are mentioned most.

Sarah Orne Jewett — author
Edna St. Vincent Millay — poet/author
Margaret Chase Smith — politician
Susan Collins — politician
Olympia Snowe — politician
Ruth Moore — author
Mabel Wadsworth — women's health reformer
Elizabeth Russell — geneticist
Mildred Brown Schrumpf — home economist
Joan Benoit Samuelson — marathon runner
Molly Spotted Elk — dancer
Chansonetta Stanley Emmons — photographer
Lillian Nordica — opera singer
Dorothea Dix — mental health reformer
Cornelia "Fly Rod" Crosby — outdoorswoman
Carolyn Chute — author
Martha Ballard — midwife
Harriet Beecher Stowe — author
Rhea Coté Robbins — author
Louise Bogan — author
Edith Patch — author and entomologist
Gail Laughlin — lawyer and women's rights activist
Emma Eames — opera singer
Cathie Pelletier — author
Donna Loring — politician

Oil crops for biodiesel

With the help of a University of Maine Cooperative Extension crops specialist, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians is exploring the logistics of establishing a biodiesel refinery in northern Maine.

Assistant Extension Professor Peter Sexton, based in Aroostook County, provided expertise as part of a feasibility study for the Maliseets, conducted by the consulting firm Regent Associates. He contributed research data and field expertise for the initial grant proposal, and helped to outline the potential for oil crop production in the state.

Sexton also is pursuing research that involves testing the viability of Maine-grown canola and other oil crops as potential sources of raw material for the manufacture of biodiesel.

According to John Cancelarich of Regent Associates, the proposed refinery would produce 5 million gallons of biodiesel annually for distribution in the state. Currently, Maine does not produce enough oil crops, including soybeans, to supply such a facility, but Cancelarich predicts that acreage in the state would double or triple in a short time.

Talks have begun regarding potential markets and investors.

What is an idea?

Sparking and supporting student entrepreneurship is an important new dimension of the undergraduate experience at the University of Maine. A number of initiatives are under way, setting the stage for the Student Innovation Center, scheduled to open on campus this year.

One of these initiatives is an interdisciplinary studies course, designed to help students develop a systematic, engineering approach to inventing, evaluating and selling innovative ideas with commercial viability.

Innovation Engineering I: The Beginning of an Idea is taught by UMaine chemical and biological engineer Darrell Donahue, English scholar Margaret Lukens and musician Elizabeth Downing. Together, the three faculty members offer perspectives from their fields on how a variety of bright ideas can come to fruition.

Students learn how to separate big ideas from smaller ones, and how to know if an idea is worth the investment of time and money.

Entrepreneurs, both novice and seasoned, have to know how to confidently talk about and present an abstract idea in concrete terms in order to increase the odds of marketplace success. They also have to understand the logistics that are involved in taking an innovation from concept to reality.

The three-credit class is in its second semester.

Secrets of the Irish coast

A three-month geological expedition to gather data on the history of sea level change along Ireland's spectacular coastline has produced new evidence about the Emerald Isle's historical relationship with Scotland.

University of Maine geologist Joe Kelley, and fellow researchers Andrew Cooper and Derek Jackson of the University of Ulster used seismic reflection and coring techniques, finely tuned through years of similar data collection in the Gulf of Maine, to disprove some previous theories about the composition of marine sediments. The data suggest that Ireland was never linked to Scotland via a land bridge, thus answering an important geological and anthropological question.

Using carbon dating of buried seashells as a temporal point of reference, Kelley examined the stratification of sand, gravel and marine mud deposits, establishing a timeline for the emergence of the unique geological characteristics of the Irish coast spanning tens of thousands of years. That timeline contradicts the long-held notion that Ireland's first human population walked to Ireland from Scotland.


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