From clean drinking water to cleaning up the Chesapeake, from disparities in school discipline to the ups and downs of workplace productivity, UVA scholars have set out to address some of the 21st century’s most complex problems.
It’s part of the University’s several-year push to up its game and redouble its commitment to research, one of the five pillars of President Teresa A. Sullivan’s 2013 strategic Cornerstone Plan. The initiative cuts across just about every school of the University and the projects circumnavigate the globe.
We checked in with some of the efforts to get just a taste of some of the progress, and the promise, of UVA research over the past year. It’s a head-spinning array but the list is by no means exhaustive.
Documenting Appalachian woes
The struggles of rural Appalachian communities have been a frequent topic in the news recently. Two recent research projects, from the School of Medicine and from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, document specific health crises affecting the region: cancer and opioid addiction. In the School of Medicine, Nengliang Yao, Héctor E. Alcalá, Roger Anderson and Rajesh Balkrishnan—all of the Department of Public Health Sciences—found significant disparities in incidence, early detection and survivorship of cancer in Appalachia. Compared with improved detection, care and survivorship in other regions, the report concluded that “rural Appalachians are faced with poorer cancer-related health outcomes across the continuum of cancer care.” At Batten, Christopher Ruhm, professor of public policy and economics, drew upon statistical analysis to argue, in a working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research, that the scope and severity of the epidemic of prescription and illegal opioid drug overdoses in the U.S., including in the hard-hit Appalachian region, have been underestimated.
Fighting a childhood killer
Globally, severe diarrhea kills some half-million children every year, making it the second leading cause of death among children under age 5 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. But recent work by an international team of researchers, including Dr. Eric Houpt and Dr. James Platts-Mills of the UVA School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases and International Health, may help bolster the battle against this childhood killer. Houpt, Platts-Mills and colleagues developed new testing methods that could determine not only the number of pathogens but also the quantities present in children who might have multiple infections. Using these methods, the study, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, determined that nearly 80 percent of cases of childhood diarrhea could be attributed to just six pathogens, a finding that could help narrow the effort to develop effective, targeted prevention and treatment. Houpt was lead author and Platts-Mills a first author of the report on the study, which was published in the scientific journal The Lancet.
Battle of the machines
From data hacking to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to Russian efforts to compromise U.S. voting systems, cybersecurity often dominates the news. Yet current cyber-defense appears to rely largely on human engineers to respond to such attacks. Using software developed at the University, a team led by professor of computer science Jack Davidson took second place and a $1 million prize in the first Cyber Grand Challenge, a two-year competition sponsored by the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to spur the development of automated security solutions. In partnership with cybersecurity firm GrammaTech, the team developed a system, Xandra, that successfully mounted an autonomous response to a flurry of cyberattacks during the competition’s final showdown in Las Vegas in 2016.
More phones, less trust
Could relying on your mobile phone to check the news or locate a new restaurant to visit make you less trusting of other people? Kostadin Kushlev—a post-doctoral research associate in the psychology department at UVA—and Jason Proulx at the University of British Columbia looked at data from the World Values Survey (WVS), which describes itself as a “global network of social scientists studying changing values and their impact on social and political life.” In their study, published in the open-access peer-reviewed journal PLOS One, the researchers found that “the more people relied on their mobile phones for information, the less they trusted strangers, neighbors and people from other religions and nationalities.” Although the association does not prove causation, the researchers note that “these findings provide an intriguing first glimpse into the possible unforeseen costs of convenient information access for the social lubricant of society—our sense of trust in one another.”
Sanctuary cities: it’s not just politics
Should state and local law enforcement be called upon to help enforce immigration law? In a recent paper, professor Barbara Armacost of the UVA School of Law argues that the “sanctuary cities” movement to resist such “immigration federalism” can be seen not as political obstructionism but as a reasonable “state/local-inspired reaction to the serious, if unintended consequences of localized immigration policing.” Such consequences can include increased incidence of racial profiling, diverting police resources from fighting serious crime, and undermining trust and cooperation between state and local police and immigrant communities. Armacost’s paper in the University of Virginia Public Law & Legal Theory Research Series suggests that the sanctuary cities movement may “point the way both to specific solutions, and to a better—and more theoretically sound—immigration federalism” and actually help reshape federal immigration policy.
Protecting mothers and babies
An assessment-and-intervention program, developed in collaboration between researchers in the schools of nursing at the University of Virginia and Johns Hopkins University, has proved effective in decreasing incidents of intimate partner violence (IPV) during and following pregnancy for women at higher risk of such abuse. IPV is harmful not only to mothers but also to their babies, increasing the risk of premature birth, low birth weight, and cognitive and emotional developmental delays during childhood, among other problems. The structured, brochure-based DOVE (an acronym made from “Domestic Violence Enhanced Home Visitation Program”) is a screening and empowerment program developed by co-investigators Linda Bullock, a professor and associate dean for research at the UVA School of Nursing, and Phyllis Sharps of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. The program was administered over a six-year period by home-visiting nurses or community health workers to half the women enrolled in the study. Compared with the women in the study who did not receive the intervention, those who did experienced an average of between 20 and 40 fewer instances of IPV and continued to benefit from less IPV during the post-partum period, even if they remained with the abusive partner.
Cleaner water, healthier world
Globally, 650 million people are estimated to be living without safe water, and climate change is expected to make the problem worse. At the University, professor James Smith in the School of Engineering and Applied Science developed two innovative technologies—a ceramic water filter and a clay disk—that both use silver nanoparticles to purify water safely. Now Smith, along with other researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Venda in South Africa, is conducting a randomized-controlled trial of the technologies with 400 families in South Africa who don’t have access to safe water. Preliminary information gathered from the ongoing study seems to show “essentially zero coliform bacteria in the drinking water of these … treatment groups,” according to Smith, despite the fact that the source water contains hundreds of coliform bacteria per liter of drinking water.
Could an effective prescription for fighting depression be found in your grocery store cooler? A growing body of research is building the case for a strong link between the human gut microbiome—the microbes living in our gastrointestinal tracts—and mental health. Recently, an interdisciplinary team of researchers led by assistant professor Alban Gaultier of the UVA Department of Neuroscience and its Center for Brain Immunology and Glia found that feeding mice Lactobacillus—a bacteria found in live yogurt cultures that is “probiotic,” or beneficial to the gastrointestinal microbiome—reversed depressive-like behavior in the mice. The research was published online in the journal Scientific Reports, and the team plans next to look at whether a similar beneficial effect can be achieved with human patients.
Your nitrogen footprint
How can you help “save the Bay”? If you are one of the more than 15 million people who live in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, a new online “Bay Footprint” tool created in partnership between the University of Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation can help you calculate how individual lifestyle choices like what you eat and how much you drive can make a difference in the health of the Bay. Environmental sciences professor James Galloway led the project’s focus on nitrogen; excess amounts of this nutrient enter the Bay from both the air and the water, promoting large algal blooms which, when they decompose, leave oxygen-depleted “dead zones” harmful to aquatic life. The new online calculator helps individuals determine how to reduce their “nitrogen footprint” for a healthier Bay.
More costs for unequal school discipline
In the U.S. school system there is a well-documented disparity in the frequency and severity of out-of-school suspensions imposed on black students vs. their white peers, even though rates of actual misbehavior do not meaningfully differ between the two groups. However, recent research by Jessika Bottiani and Catherine Bradshaw of the Curry School of Education (along with Tamar Mendelson at Johns Hopkins University) demonstrated that the negative effects of this discipline gap extend even to those students not themselves suspended. According to Bottiani, “Having a sense of belonging at school is linked to students’ engagement in school and their academic achievement.” But looking at nearly 20,000 students in 58 Maryland high schools, the researchers found that black students in schools with a discipline gap perceived their schools as “less fair and less welcoming” and reported higher levels of adjustment problems such as impulsiveness and anger. The researchers argue that their study’s results further highlight the importance of finding ways to eliminate the discipline gap.
Work like an Olympian
What does Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky’s gold medal performance have to tell us about workplace productivity? In a recently published Darden Business School working paper, “It Is Time to Get Some Rest,” professor Manel Baucells and Lin Zhao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing propose a fatigue model that explains the energy-efficient strategies of Olympic distance swimmers, who pace their races with a “high-low-high” pattern. The swimmers begin with a fast start but soon settle into a steady, constant pace that allows them to conserve energy for the final leg of the race, when they pick up the pace again for a fast finish. Baucells and Zhao suggest that an efficient workday could follow a similar pattern, with workers beginning and ending the day at a higher level of intensity, but maintaining a steady, lower-energy pace through the hours in between. The paper also considers work that is “all or none”—where you can’t give less than full effort while working. In that case, the high-low-high pattern can be approximated by taking regular breaks during the middle period that would even out the energy expenditure.
An article in this magazine’s Winter 2016 edition looked at breakthrough research in the Department of Neuroscience’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia establishing a connection between the brain, the immune system and behavior. Building on the unexpected 2015 finding that the brain and adaptive immune system are not isolated from each other, as was long believed, Dr. Anthony Filiano and his colleagues found evidence that a molecule in mice that fights infection also appears to play a role in regulating their social behavior. Although Filiano cautions that these same associations have not yet been established in humans, the researchers’ work suggests intriguing new possibilities for understanding neurological disorders that may ultimately open up doors to new therapies.