Research Communications

Stimulus program pumps in $7.1 million to date for faculty research, airport improvements 

June 18, 2010

By Andrea Gibson

From a study on climate change in Antarctica to an examination of how diabetes impacts kidney disease, Ohio University faculty members are using federal stimulus dollars to advance their research.

The university has received $7.1 million to date in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the federal program created to stimulate job growth in the United States. About $5.3 million came from major federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health for faculty research projects. In addition, the Ohio University Gordon K. Bush airport received $1.8 million for runway improvements to the facility.

 Alycia Stigall
Alycia Stigall, geological sciences, is using stimulus funding this summer to conduct field work in the Cincinnati area on ancient invasive species.

“Our success with the ARRA program shows that Ohio University faculty can be competitive at the national level in securing funding for their research. For some junior faculty, this may be their first experience with pursuing a major federal grant, and receiving an award from a large agency such as the National Science Foundation is a true boost for their careers,” said Rathindra Bose, vice president for research and dean of the Graduate College.

As of June, the university had received 23 ARRA awards for faculty research. In addition to funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, researchers have received support through Harvard University, the Interthyr Corporation and the Univenture Corporation.

Ohio University is awaiting notification of about 29 additional stimulus funding proposals that have been submitted to state and federal agencies this year. Last week, Gov. Ted Strickland announced that two of those proposals, for a composting facility and a solar energy system, will be awarded, for a total of $1.5 million in additional stimulus funding.

Faculty members started to receive the first round of stimulus funding in fall 2009.  Some researchers already have begun work on the projects, while others plan to use the funds for summer 2010 field work.

Stimulus Snapshots

Jared DeForest, an assistant professor of environmental and plant biology, laid the groundwork on his four-year study on the impact of acid rain on the soil fertility of Ohio’s forests last fall. The researcher and his collaborators at Holden Arboretum and Case Western Reserve University applied 12 tons of lime to forests in Athens, as well as 17 tons of lime to land in northern Ohio, to determine how acid rain changes the nutrients available to soil microorganisms and plants in these areas. This is of particular concern in southeastern Ohio, which is home to a large number of coal-fired power plants on the Ohio River.

“With this grant, I can improve our understanding of the impact acid rain has on soil microbial communities and the ecosystem-level processes they mediate, such as the cycling of phosphorus, which is relatively understudied in the United States,” said DeForest, who added that his goal is to maintain the forest plots long term for scientists to use for other studies. 

The stimulus funding, a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, supports graduate students, DeForest’s summer salary, a post-doctoral researcher at Case Western, and supplies and travel costs. In addition, DeForest has funding to hire one paid local high school student intern for each of the next four years. The research experience helped the previous high school student, who was unpaid, to gain admission to Cornell University.

The ARRA grant received by Alycia Stigall, an associate professor of geological sciences, allowed a former nurse to return to graduate school for an advanced degree in science. The $152,000 award from the National Science Foundation also supports an additional graduate student and one undergraduate student researcher for each of the five years of the project, as well as travel and field work supplies.

Stigall and her students will conduct field work in the Cincinnati area this summer to study how brachiopods, shelled marine animals, responded to an influx of invasive species millions of years ago. The team will explore fossils and rock formations to create a picture of ancient environmental changes. The work can inform scientists about what modern species are most likely to survive conservation efforts, and how conservation resources can most effectively be allocated, said Stigall, whose previous work was funded by the American Chemical Society.

Several of the ARRA grants will allow Ohio University faculty members to make advances in the laboratory as well.

Scott Hooper, a professor of biological sciences, received a $919,000 grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse to create mathematical models of individual neurons. The brain isn’t composed of identical neurons, Hooper explained, and each may have unique computational abilities. The issue is of interest to the funding agency, he added, because drugs affect the function of neurons.

The stimulus funding has allowed Hooper to retain two research associate positions in his laboratory, hire a new postdoctoral researcher, and buy out time for three faculty collaborators, Ralph DiCaprio, Ellengene Peterson and Michael Rowe, as well as funding for the department to hire an instructor to take on their teaching loads. In addition, the grant will support a new supercomputer for the lab to assist with data analysis.

Jeff Vancouver, a professor of psychology, also will use stimulus funding for research on computational models, but his focus is predicting human behavior and decision-making processes. A $408,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will support two graduate students and the summer salaries of Vancouver and fellow psychology faculty member Claudia Gonzalez-Vallejo to advance their work on how people set goals and what resources they choose to allocate to achieve them. In partnership with faculty member Jim Zhu, from engineering, and Ronald Vigo, from psychology, they’ll learn how to apply control theory, commonly used in engineering, to psychology to create mathematical models of human behavior over time.

Vancouver, who is part of an interdisciplinary cognitive science research team at Ohio University called the Human Environmental Interactive Dynamics Initiative (HEIDi), noted that the studies also include understanding why we make risky choices—a topic quite relevant to the recent economic downturn that prompted the federal stimulus program.

“A lot of what went wrong was misperception of the amount of risk, but with these models we’re studying how people handle risks,” he said.

The stimulus funding also is helping Ohio University faculty members secure high-tech scientific equipment for research comparative biomechanics. A team led by Susan Williams, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, received a $400,000 major research instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation for the university’s new large animal research facility. The scientists purchased a motion analysis system, cinefluoroscopes, a force plate treadmill, pressure maps and computers to study biomechanics, such as walking, running, chewing and feeding in mammals and other animals. In addition, the grant will fund a new postdoctoral position in comparative biomechanics.

Ohio University is now one of only a few universities in the United States that can develop 3D models of the skeletal movements of animals, using a technique called X-ray reconstruction of moving morphology (XROMM). The institution will become part of the National Science Foundation’s XROMM Research Coordination Network, a national network of scientists, Williams said.

“That alone will probably create more interest in our graduate program and in developing collaborations with researchers who need to use this technique,” she said.

An ARRA grant received by Hao Chen, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, also hopes to engage more students in science. His $314,000 grant from the National Science Foundation will support basic research that uses mass spectrometry, an analytical technique that can determine the elemental composition and structure of molecules. The award also will support several undergraduate and graduate student researchers, travel to conferences and outreach activities at local elementary schools, he said.

Students also will be involved in two other ARRA-funded projects that are exploring very topical issues: diabetes and climate change.

A $234,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs will provide summer research jobs to two undergraduate students and one graduate student in the Department of Geography who will work with Assistant Professor Ryan Fogt over the next three years to study climate change in Antarctica. New research this year suggests that two major areas of the continent that host research stations and tourism are warming faster than the global average. Fogt and his students will analyze data in the lab to understand how low pressure systems and storms impact the climate of the region, and also will evaluate how climate models can simulate these features.

 “If we can understand  what’s happening with the warming climate, we’ll learn whether this is something to be alarmed about or whether it might be part of the natural cycle,” said Fogt, who also serves as director of Ohio University’s Scalia Laboratory for Atmospheric Analysis. “Though it’s very remote from the United States, significant ice loss in Antarctica could have an impact on the coastal regions that would be affected by rising seas.”

The grant also will give a boost to the academic careers of Fogt and his students. The project will offer students an exposure to advanced data analysis techniques that they might not learn otherwise, he said. The award is not only Fogt’s first National Science Foundation grant, but it was the first grant proposal he’d ever written.

Karen Coschigano, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, already had a grant from the National Institutes of Health when she sought supplemental funding through the agency’s stimulus program. But the two ARRA grants she received, for a total of $50,000 in extra funding, will provide a big boost to her research on the impact of type 1 diabetes on the kidneys. The awards will allow her to conduct more detailed work on how growth hormone may protect kidneys from the damage caused by the chronic disease, and also will allow her to fund an undergraduate and a graduate student in her lab for  two years.

The first undergraduate funded in her lab through the ARRA program said the research experience helped her focus in her career path and gain entry to graduate school, Coschigano said.