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UMD Research Uncovers Warning Signs for Stone Age Population Collapse

August 31, 2016
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin 301-405-1733
Sean Downey 301-405-1423

Findings demonstrate relationship between behavior, innovation and population shifts

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Following the arrival of early agricultural crops from southwest Asia, ancient European societies experienced a series of population booms followed by a collapse that historical scientists are still working to explain. New research from the University of Maryland published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) uncovers indicators—called early warning signals—that foretold of this dramatic shift in population long before it happened.  

Led by Sean Downey, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of AnthropologySean Downey, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, the UMD research team analyzed a catalogue of radiocarbon dates from the European Neolithic period (Stone Age), which began roughly 8,000 years ago. In 2013, it was Downey and colleagues who first discovered the boom-bust cycle in ancient Europe, but the researchers next wanted to determine whether statistical patterns could be detected that preceded the population decline. 

“To our knowledge, this study is the first to find early warning signals of major demographic shifts among human populations,” Downey said. “You need long time sequences to show these collapses or shifts are coming. And although we have seen studies showing this in biology and ecology, nobody’s ever shown it for humans, mainly because the data requirements are very high.”

Understanding why ancient populations experience rapid growth or decline is monumentally important to the health of modern societies, Downey suggests, in order to prevent the past from repeating itself. In this instance, the invention of human agriculture served as the catalyst for major population changes that led to an eventual collapse. Downey explains that there is relevance to contemporary debates over whether modern technological developments can continue to outpace rapidly increasing population growth.

“Our population structure is being perturbed by our behavior,” Downey said. “Technology may not necessarily buffer us from all the consequences of rapid population growth. In fact, it may have been innovations in agricultural technology that triggered the kinds of instability we’ve seen during the European Neolithic Period.”

Downey is hopeful the statistical framework developed in this research will provide a way to analyze complex dynamics in human populations and ultimately help the emerging field of sustainability science monitor and prevent catastrophic consequences of societal shifts. 

“You have to look at these issues from an evolutionary time frame and we simply don’t have the data to be able to do that except from archaeology,” Downey said. “The historical sciences contain information that can help improve the resilience of modern society.”

Downey’s research team included W. Randall Haas, Jr., a post-doctoral associate in the UMD Department of Anthropology, and Stephen J. Shennan, Professor of Theoretical Archaeology for the Institute of Archaeology at University College London.

Early warning signals (EWS) increase before Early Neolithic population collapse in Ireland. Image courtesy of Sean S. Downey, University of Maryland.

UMD Researchers Study Brain Circuits and Social Interactions in Children with Autism

August 29, 2016
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin 301-405-1733

Psychology faculty awarded $2.6 million to study brain pathways associated with social interactions in autism

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — A research team from the University of Maryland Department of Psychology received a $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) to investigate whether certain brain networks in children with autism spectrum disorders make social interaction more difficult than for typically developing children.

“While it is clear that atypical social interaction plays an important role in autism, we still do not understand what may be going on in the brain to account for these difficulties,” said Dr. Elizabeth Redcay, an assistant professor of psychology, who is leading the five-year study.

While other researchers have attempted to answer this question using more traditional methods, Dr. Redcay and her team will use an innovative, interactive approach to examine how brain circuits change during social interactions in real-time while children are undergoing a functional MRI scan.

Both typically developing children and children with autism spectrum disorders between the ages of seven and 14 will visit UMD to complete activities and games in the Developmental Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and then to undergo a brain scan at the university’s Neuroimaging Center. Researchers will spend a significant amount of time prior to the scans getting to know the children and making them comfortable with the process by having them practice lying still inside a mock scanner decorated to resemble a spaceship. Once inside the real machine, children will be able to hear and see an experimenter through an image projected onto a mirror. As the experimenter and child engage in back-and-forth conversation and go through various scenarios, researchers will be watching for changes in various areas of the brain.

“We actually have children receive live feedback from a social partner (the experimenter) so if they do something like perform a task quickly enough, such as pushing a button to answer a question, then they can see their social partner come online and give them a positive thumbs up or some kind of positive reward,” Dr. Redcay explained. “This way we can study these brain networks and how these brain networks are interacting with each other when children are actually having social interactions.”

Gaining a better understanding of the systems underlying social interaction could lead to the development of new strategies to help children on the autism spectrum overcome social challenges, which may improve other aspects of life as well.

“The amount that a child shares with others and that motivation to engage with others in social settings is important to forming friendships and close personal relationships, but it’s much more than that too,” Redcay said. “It’s directly related to how many words a child learns, how good they are at understanding people even years later so basically that fundamental ability of being able to engage in social interactions successfully is really important early in development in autism but continues to be important throughout the life span.

Collaborators on Dr. Redcay’s research team include UMD Psychology Professor Dr. Luiz Pessoa, Dr. Audrey Thurm from the National Institutes of Health and several UMD graduate and undergraduate students.

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Use it or Lose it: UMD Study Shows Stopping Exercise Decreases Brain Blood Flow

August 29, 2016
Contacts: 

Kelly Blake 301-405-9418

AthleteCOLLEGE PARK, Md. - We all know that we can quickly lose cardiovascular endurance if we stop exercising for a few weeks, but what impact does the cessation of exercise have on our brains? New research led by University of Maryland School of Public Health researchers examined cerebral blood flow in healthy, physically fit older adults (ages 50-80 years) before and after a 10-day period during which they stopped all exercise. Using MRI brain imaging techniques, they found a significant decrease in blood flow to several brain regions, including the hippocampus, after they stopped their exercise routines.

“We know that the hippocampus plays an important role in learning and memory and is one of the first brain regions to shrink in people with Alzheimer’s disease,” says Dr. J. Carson Smith, associate professor of kinesiology and lead author of the study, which is published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in August 2016. “In rodents, the hippocampus responds to exercise training by increasing the growth of new blood vessels and new neurons, and in older people, exercise can help protect the hippocampus from shrinking. So, it is significant that people who stopped exercising for only 10 days showed a decrease in blood flow to brain regions that are important for maintaining cognitive health.”

The study participants were all “master athletes,” defined as people between the ages of 50 and 80 (average age was 61) who have at least 15 years history of participating in endurance exercise and who have recently competed in an endurance event. Their exercise regimens must have entailed at least four hours of high intensity endurance training each week. On average, they were running ~36 miles (59 km) each week or the equivalent of a 10K run a day! Not surprisingly, this group had a V02 max above 90% for their age. This is a measure of the maximal rate of oxygen consumption of an individual and reflects their aerobic physical fitness.

Dr. Smith and colleagues measured the velocity of blood flow in brain with an MRI scan while they were still following their regular training routine (at peak fitness) and again after 10 days of no exercise. They found that resting cerebral blood flow significantly decreased in eight brain regions, including the areas of the left and right hippocampus and several regions known to be part of the brain’s “default mode network” – a neural network known to deteriorate quickly with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. This information adds to the growing scientific understanding of the impact of physical activity on cognitive health.

“We know that if you are less physically active, you are more likely to have cognitive problems and dementia as you age,” says Dr. Smith. “However, we did not find any evidence that cognitive abilities worsened after stopping exercising for just 10 days. But the take home message is simple - if you do stop exercising for 10 days, just as you will quickly lose your cardiovascular fitness, you will also experience a decrease in blood brain flow.”

Dr. Smith believes that this could have important implications for brain health in older adults, and points to the need for more research to understand how fast these changes occur, what the long term effects could be, and how fast they could be reversed when exercise is resumed.

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DOE Awards $1.25M to UMERC Researchers to Develop Safer, Better Batteries

August 25, 2016
Contacts: 

Lee Tune 301-405-4679
Amanda McCrum 301-405-9378

Department of Energy funds UMD research on safer, better lithium-ion battery technology as part of a
$57 million investment to improve vehicle efficiency

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A team of researchers at the University of Maryland Energy Research Center (UMERC) recently was awarded a $1.25 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) for research to develop better, safer Lithium-ion battery technology. 

Credit: Department of EnergyUMD’s award is part of a total of $57 million in DOE funding for 35 projects aimed at reducing the cost and improving the efficiency of plug-in electric, alternative fuel, and conventional vehicles.  The Department of the Army is contributing an additional $2.2 million through the Advanced Vehicle Power Technology Alliance to support projects specifically focused on advanced high-voltage electrolytes for batteries and advanced engine and powertrain technologies to improve vehicle fuel efficiency.  The UMERC project and most of the other 34 projects will support the goals of EV Everywhere, a DOE program that aims to make plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles by 2022.

UMD’s DOE-funded project is to design “self‐healing, 3‐D conformal solid state electrolytes to prevent dendrite formation and achieve high battery cycle life.” Researchers have long known that lithium-ion batteries that currently power electric vehicles, laptops and smartphones could have significantly higher energy if their graphite anodes (electrodes) were replaced by lithium metal anodes. Hampering this change, however, has been the so-called dendrite problem. Over the course of several battery charge/discharge cycles microscopic fibers of lithium, called “dendrites,” sprout from the surface of the lithium electrode and spread like kudzu across the electrolyte solution until they reach the battery’s other electrode (cathode). An electrical current passing through these dendrites can short-circuit the battery, causing it to rapidly overheat and in some instances catch fire.

UMERC researchers already are rapidly developing safer, higher capacity and longer lasting lithium batteries based on a number of different technological approaches. The new DOE-funded project will build on technology developed by UMERC Director Eric Wachsman and Department of Materials Science and Engineering professors Liangbing Hu and Yifei Mo

This team has already shown breakthroughs in developing the first flexible, solid-state, ion-conducting membrane based on a 3D Li-ion conducting ceramic nanofiber network. In June in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), they published research on the development of a flexible solid battery electrolyte with superior thermal stability and electrochemical stability to high voltage. 

“This technology is unique in its ability to replace current flammable organic liquid electrolyte systems in lithium-ion batteries with a solid electrolyte that enables both higher energy density lithium-metal anodes and the use of conventional battery manufacturing facilities,” says Wachsman.

Hu adds that “the 3D interconnected network with percolated garnet nanofibers can lead to high ion conductivity and great flexibility, which are important for safe, solid state battery fabrications and operations.”

Related stories: Safer, Better Li-Ion Batteries

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UMD Named a Top LGBTQ-Friendly University by Campus Pride

August 22, 2016
Contacts: 

Kristen Seabolt 301-405-4621

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - The University of Maryland has been named to Campus Pride’s 2016 “Best of the Best” Top 30 list of LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities. The listing highlights the positive efforts UMD and other top institutions have made to promote diversity, inclusion and safety for LGBTQ students.

Campus Pride is the leading national educational organization for LGBTQ and ally college students and campus groups building future leaders and safer, more LGBTQ-friendly colleges and universities. For eight years, the list has highlighted the most LGBTQ-inclusive colleges and universities when it comes to policy, program and practice in higher education.

“We are truly honored by this recognition,” said Luke Jensen, Director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Equity Center at UMD. “By naming the University of Maryland among the ‘best of the best’ for the fifth time, Campus Pride acknowledges the many campus collaborations at UMD needed to create an LGBTQ-friendly campus and the continuing effort necessary to maintain our national leadership in LGBTQ campus inclusion.”

The “Best of the Best” list is based on ratings from the Campus Pride Index, a national benchmarking tool which self-assesses LGBTQ-friendly policies, programs and practices. Each campus updates their index annually and uses the Campus Pride benchmarking tool to make improvements for LGBTQ life on campus. In order to be in the top 30, an institution has to score the highest percentages in the LGBTQ-friendly benchmarks. UMD was the only Maryland/Washington, D.C.-area university to make the 2016 list.

“Prospective students and their families today expect colleges to be LGBTQ-friendly.  They want to know what LGBTQ programs, services and resources are available on the campus - and which are the 'Best of the Best,'” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride and creator of the Campus Pride Index. “Now more than ever, there are colleges that are recruiting LGBTQ youth - and they are investing in a campus that is fully supportive of LGBTQ students. This Top 30 list showcases those campuses leading the way.”

During the 2015-2016 academic year, UMD launched two new initiatives, including Q-TEAM (Queer Training, Education And Mindfulness) and the LGBT Sports Summit. Spearheaded by the LGBT Equity Center, Q-TEAM was a year-long series of sessions led by experts on the health and wellness needs of LGBTQA+ communities. The LGBT Sports Summit, an initiative of the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, focused on LGBT inclusion in intercollegiate sports. 

In addition to UMD’s nationally recognized LGBT Studies Program, continuing programs during the past year included Quelcome, the annual welcome event at the beginning of each academic year; Hearth (formerly Queer Camp), an annual fall weekend retreat attended primarily by incoming students; an Alternate Spring Break to New York City concentrated on LGBTQ youth; Lavender Leadership Honor Society and the spring Lavender Leadership Retreat, groundbreaking programs building and supporting LGBTQ student leaders; and the 18th annual Lavender Graduation celebrating UMD’s LGBTQ graduates. 

For more information on UMD’s LGBT Equity Center, visit http://www.umd.edu/lgbt/. To view Campus Pride’s “Best of the Best” listing, visit https://www.campuspride.org/campuspridetopcampuses. 

UMD Supports Young Entrepreneurs, Encourages Startup Growth in Greater College Park through Startup Village

August 22, 2016
Contacts: 

Katie Lawson, 301-405-4622

Partnership offers affordable, local housing to students and alumni who are ambitiously pursuing university-affiliated companies

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland has partnered with several student and alumni startup companies to create the area’s first “Startup Village.” Part of the university’s Greater College Park initiative to rapidly revitalize the Baltimore Avenue corridor and academic campus, the Startup Village was created to help bridge the gap for student and alumni entrepreneurs as they grow their business ideas on campus and work toward launching them in the market.

After spending hours commuting from out of state to College Park every day, a group of UMD entrepreneurs were on the lookout for affordable housing options close to the university to give them more time to work on their startups. Through a partnership with UMD, the students and alumni worked together to renovate a house just on the edge of campus and create the Startup Village. Starting as one house with the potential to grow, the current residents of the Startup Village include The Q Truck, Javazen, Ready Box and David Mitchell Clothing. On any given day, several other businesses can be collaborating or working out of the flexible space.

“At the University of Maryland, the spirit of entrepreneurship extends well beyond graduation,” said Ken Ulman, the university’s chief strategy officer for economic development. “We see more and more that alumni want to stay in the area because they recognize the role UMD is playing in the innovation economy. Being part of the Startup Village allows these entrepreneurs to not only work on growing their companies, but contribute to their community as well.”

The Startup Village is an informal living-learning experience for UMD alumni and current students who are in the processing of launching a business or currently run a business. Living together helps the entrepreneurs create a robust support and resource network of operations experts, legal advisors, accountants and business professionals.

“Startup Village allows everyone to focus fully on their companies without the hassle of commuting,” says UMD alumnus David Engle, co-founder of The Q Truck. “Our self-care and self-starter attitudes are what we work to foster in a house of entrepreneurs living together – a culture which the Startup Village aims to incubate and spread to the wider community.” Engle co-founded the Startup Village with Eric Golman, co-founder of Javazen.

“College Park is a strong supporter of local businesses and we are thrilled to welcome these new and innovative companies into our community,” said College Park Mayor Patrick L. Wojahn. “I look forward to finding creative ways to partner with these entrepreneurs to make the Startup Village a growing part of our city’s culture.”

To learn more about Startup Village, visit its website at http://www.startupvillagecp.com/.

National Endowment for the Humanities Grants UMD Libraries $250K to Digitize Historic Newspapers

August 18, 2016
Contacts: 

Eric Bartheld 301-314-0964 

Front page of Maryland Free Press (Hagerstown, Md., November 21, 1862) featuring an account of General George McClellan’s farewell to his soldiers after he was removed from command of the Union Armies. The masthead reads “Common consent is the only legitimate basis of government.”COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The University of Maryland Libraries received a grant of $250,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to extend its successful project to digitize historic Maryland newspapers.

The grant was one of only 14 awarded through the NEH’s National Digital Newspaper Program, which grants funds to make the nation's historic newspapers broadly and freely accessible. This is the third such grant the University Libraries have received to support this effort.

Since being awarded its first NEH newspaper grant in 2012, the University of Maryland Libraries have digitized more than 200,000 pages from Baltimore, Hagerstown and Cumberland newspapers, with efforts well under way to represent every region of Maryland. The project has received a total of $865,000 from the NEH.

Project leaders plan to digitize approximately 100,000 newspaper pages over a two-year period. 

Published between 1690 and 1963, the newspapers reflect the political, economic and cultural history of Maryland.  One noteworthy example is the Frostburg Mining Journal, a prominent union publication from western Maryland.

Advertisement for “The Wonder Car” featuring what “any sane man wants when he buys an automobile:” a promise to take him anywhere and bring him back. Cost for the automobile (without electric starter) was $695.  (The Democratic advocate, Westminster, Md., April 20, 1915.)“Support of this program is especially meaningful because it points to a partnership with the Maryland State Archives and Frostburg State University, both of which are providing access to either the newspapers themselves or microfilm copies,” said Babak Hamidzadeh, Dean of University Libraries. “Together we are able to expand access to these historic documents citizens of the state and researchers around the world.” 

The newspaper project reflects Hamidzadeh’s efforts to showcase the technical know-how of the University Libraries, which are home to information managers, programmers, systems analysts and digitization experts.

“Ongoing support from NEH parallels the increased growth of our digitization program,” said Robin Pike, who manages the digitization and conversion operations throughout the University Libraries. “It is an honor to receive the third grant from this major federal granting agency. We’ve demonstrated that we have the expertise and capacity to continue expanding this project.”

Pike’s staff, sometimes in concert with external vendors, digitize numerous formats including books, posters, archival manuscripts, photographs, slides, negatives and audiovisual media, such as the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange video collection and UMD football films.

The National Digital Newspaper Program, a partnership between NEH and Library of Congress, is a long-term effort to develop an internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers. The Maryland newspapers are added to a growing collection of more than 10 million digitized newspaper pages freely available to the public at Chronicling America

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Wood Windows are Cooler than Glass

August 16, 2016
Contacts: 

Lee Tune 301-405-4679, Martha Heil 301-405-0876

UMD study shows natural microstructures in transparent wood key to lighting and insulation advantages

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Engineers at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland demonstrate in a new study that windows made of transparent wood could provide more even and consistent natural lighting and better energy efficiency than glass.    

Wood composite as an energy efficient building material: Guided sunlight transmittance and effective thermal insulation. In a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Advanced Energy Materials, the team, headed by Liangbing Hu of UMD’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Energy Research Center lay out research showing that their transparent wood provides better thermal insulation and lets in nearly as much light as glass, while eliminating glare and providing uniform and consistent indoor lighting.  The findings advance earlier published work on their development of transparent wood.  

The transparent wood lets through just a little bit less light than glass, but a lot less heat, said Tian Li, the lead author of the new study.  “It is very transparent, but still allows for a little bit of privacy because it is not completely see-through. We also learned that the channels in the wood transmit light with wavelengths around the range of the wavelengths of visible light, but that it blocks the wavelengths that carry mostly heat,” said Li. 

The team’s findings were derived, in part, from tests on tiny model house with a transparent wood panel in the ceiling that the team built. The tests showed that the light was more evenly distributed around a space with a transparent wood roof than a glass roof.

The channels in the wood direct visible light straight through the material, but the cell structure that still remains bounces the light around just a little bit, a property called haze. This means the light does not shine directly into your eyes, making it more comfortable to look at. The team photographed the transparent wood’s cell structure in UMD’s Advanced Imaging and Microscopy (AIM) Lab.

Transparent wood still has all the cell structures that comprised the original piece of wood. The wood is cut against the grain, so that the channels that drew water and nutrients up from the roots lie along the shortest dimension of the window. The new transparent wood uses theses natural channels in wood to guide the sunlight through the wood.   

As the sun passes over a house with glass windows, the angle at which light shines through the glass changes as the sun moves. With windows or panels made of transparent wood instead of glass, as the sun moves across the sky, the channels in the wood direct the sunlight in the same way every time. 

"This means your cat would not have to get up out of its nice patch of sunlight every few minutes and move over," Li said. "The sunlight would stay in the same place. Also, the room would be more equally lighted at all times."

Working with transparent wood is similar to working with natural wood, the researchers said.  However, their transparent wood is waterproof due to its polymer component. It also is much less breakable than glass because the cell structure inside resists shattering. 

The research team has recently patented their process for making transparent wood.  The process starts with bleaching from the wood all of the lignin, which is a component in the wood that makes it both brown and strong.  The wood is then soaked in epoxy, which adds strength back in and also makes the wood clearer.  The team has used tiny squares of linden wood about 2 cm x 2 cm, but the wood can be any size, the researchers said.

UMD Research Finds Maternal Death Rate Increasing in U.S.

August 11, 2016
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin 301-405-1733

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The number of women who die during or soon after pregnancy is on the rise in the United States, while on the decline internationally, according to new research from the University of Maryland Population Research Center (MPRC).

The U.S. maternal mortality rate rose by nearly 27 percent between 2000 and 2014, according to the study. For every 100,000 live births, nearly 24 women died during, or within 42 days after pregnancy in 2014. That was up from nearly 19 per 100,000 in 2000.

“It’s important to note that maternal death is still a rare event, but it is of great concern that the rate is increasing, rather than improving,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Marian MacDormanDr. Marian MacDorman, an MPRC research professor. “Maternal mortality is an important indicator of the overall quality of health care both nationally and internationally.”

MacDorman noted that some of the national increase in maternal deaths has to do with better reporting. In 2003, U.S. states began revising their death certificates to include specific questions about pregnancy. However, the 27% increase was found after taking into account these changes in reporting, MacDorman said. What makes the U.S. statistics even more discouraging is that the numbers are trending in the opposite direction around the world: Study authors say the United States would rank 30th on a list of 31 countries reporting data on maternal mortality to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—beating out only Mexico.

pregnant woman“Clearly, the U.S. maternal mortality rate is moving in the wrong direction,” MacDorman said. “There is a need to redouble efforts to prevent maternal deaths and improve maternity care for the 4 million U.S. women giving birth each year.”

The UMD research team did discover one bright spot amid a glum national picture. California showed a marked decline in maternal mortality from 2003 to 2014, following concerted efforts in the state to address the issue, including a statewide pregnancy-associated mortality review and initiatives focused on preventing some of the most common contributors to maternal death; obstetric hemorrhage and preeclampsia.

“These efforts appear to have reduced maternal mortality in California and could serve as a model for other states,” MacDorman said.

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