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UMD-Led Study Reveals Upsides & Downsides to the “Loosening” of America

January 31, 2019
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin 301-405-1733 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The United States is considerably “looser” today—more tolerant, open-minded and expressive—than it was 200 years ago, but that trend has resulted in certain societal tradeoffs, finds new joint research from the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a study published January 28 in Nature Human Behavior, led by Distinguished UMD Professor Michele Gelfand and UNC-Chapel Hill’s Joshua Jackson, researchers tracked changes in American culture from 1800-2000 by monitoring language in published text.

Using a computer science algorithm to map words appearing in the Google News dataset, the research team established lists of words related to rule following (e.g. restrain, prevent, comply) and rule aversion (e.g. allow, freedom, choose). They then tracked how frequently people used these words through an analysis of Google Books—a repository of more than 200 billion books published between 1800 and the present.

Researchers discovered that books contained more rule-aversion words and fewer rule-following words over this time period, suggesting American culture as a whole was loosening the strength of social norms.

“We were excited to see that the linguistic trends we identified in books mirrored other measures we collected on societal shifts,” said Gelfand. “For instance, the number of laws passed by Congress, Supreme Court cases heard, and religiously affiliated individuals dropped significantly between 1800 and 2000, while profanity in television and film increased.”

Researchers then explored the consequences and potential trade-offs, as past research by Gelfand has shown that tight, rule-abiding nations and states tend to have fewer self-control failures—such as drug abuse and alcoholism—but also fewer markers of creativity and openness, like patents, trademarks and artists. Researchers collected data on four yearly measures of societal creativity: feature films produced, patent applications, trademark applications and proportion of unconventional baby names. They also collected data on four yearly measures of societal order: crime rate, number of children in school, adolescent pregnancies and household debt.

Their results showed that years in which people used high levels of rule-aversive language had the highest rates of patent and trademark application, unconventional names and feature film production, but also the highest rates of high-school dropouts, adolescent pregnancies and household debt.

“Our findings demonstrate how changes in culture over time can have far-reaching implications for how people spend their money, generate new ideas and even name their children,” said Jackson. “That’s why it’s important to consider changes in single societies over time to understand how culture shapes behavior and psychology.”

Gelfand has spent two decades researching the tightness and looseness of cultures and recently wrote the book, “Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire our World.” However, this marks the first time she has been able to examine how a single culture changes over time.

“It’s important to understand why differences in tightness and looseness arise and its consequences for groups, but we also need to be aware of how it is changing,” Gelfand said. “While the US has loosened over the last 200 years, we weren’t able to look at more recent trends. It may be changing now in the other direction given societal disruptions and the political climate.”

In addition to monitoring future cultural shifts in the United States, the research team hopes to employ methods used in this study to look at changes in other countries.

Along with Gelfand and Jackson, the research team included Sohan De, a graduate student in the Department of Computer Science at UMD, and UMD alumna Amber Fox (PSYC, ’16) from Uniformed Services University. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Humboldt Foundation.   

Updates From the University System of Maryland

January 30, 2019
Contacts: 

Katie Lawson, 301-405-4621 

The following information was released by the University System of Maryland: 

 

UMCP President Wallace Loh to Continue through June 2020

Regent Gary Attman to Chair Presidential Search Committee

 

The University System of Maryland (USM) Board of Regents and Chancellor Robert Caret today announced that Dr. Wallace Loh will continue, by mutual agreement, to lead Maryland’s flagship campus through June 2020.  The board and the chancellor also announced plans to launch the process to select Dr. Loh’s successor, naming current regent and UMCP alumnus Gary Attman to chair the presidential search committee.

“Selecting the leader of any USM institution is among the Board of Regents’ most important responsibilities,” said USM Board of Regents Chair Linda Gooden.  “The search for the next leader of Maryland’s flagship, the University of Maryland, College Park, will be critically important to the future of that institution and the entire state.  We must take the time necessary to identify and select a bold and talented leader who can continue the upward trajectory of one of the nation’s great public research universities.”

“Over the last three months, we have been speaking with Dr. Loh and listening to members of the campus community, and to leaders and stakeholders across the state about the upcoming leadership transition,” Chancellor Caret said.  “These discussions have informed our thinking about the path forward that will best ensure an orderly transition, continued strong leadership of the university without interruption, and a successful search process.”

Loh announced last fall that he plans to retire at the end of the current academic year.  Gooden and Caret cited several specific factors that played a role in postponing Loh’s retirement.  

First, the process to select a new president will likely take up to a year to complete, raising the likelihood that an interim president would need to be appointed if Loh retired this year  

Second, the university is well underway with several major initiatives in which a permanent president’s leadership will be paramount. Loh will continue to lead strategic initiatives in education, research, and innovation. Some of these initiatives are on the College Park campus and some are in partnership with the University of Maryland Baltimore, the Universities at Shady Grove, the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center, and universities abroad. These include:

  • Continuing the implementation of athletics reforms recommended by the two independent investigations related to football; 
  • Ramping up the Administrative Modernization Program to achieve significant cost savings and greater efficiency across the campus through updated infrastructure and business systems; 
  • Continuing the development of the quantum computing initiative;
  • With UMCP as the managing campus, assuming leadership of USM’s third regional higher education center in Southern Maryland and building the Universities at Shady Grove to better serve the growing needs of the state and region;
  • Continuing the revitalization of the “Greater College Park” area, with a number of new development residential, retail, municipal and innovative corporate projects, currently under negotiation, expected come to fruition by 2020.
  • Continuing the record-breaking progress of the university’s $1.5 billion capital campaign, Fearless Ideas.

“The University of Maryland, College Park has flourished under Dr. Loh’s leadership for more than eight years, rising in national rankings, growing enrollment and diversity, and expanding its research enterprise,” Gooden said.  “He is currently leading several initiatives critical to the university’s future, including implementing reforms to the athletics program, hiring key leaders, and continuing the capital campaign.”  

“To ensure these efforts continue to progress for the benefit of current and future students and faculty, the board and Dr. Loh have agreed that it is in the university’s best interests for him to continue leading the University of Maryland, College Park while the search for the new president proceeds,” Gooden said.

“For eight years, I have been honored to serve the state’s flagship institution as the accomplishments of our faculty, staff, students and alumni have propelled Maryland to new heights,” said Loh. “The board discussed with me having a smooth transition of leadership, and we mutually agreed upon a retirement date of June 2020. With all of Maryland’s supporters, I look forward to what we will accomplish together.”

Regents Launch National Presidential Search

President and CEO of FutureCare Health and Management Corporation, which he co-founded in 1985, Regent Gary Attman holds a J.D. degree (with honors) from the University of Maryland School of Law, where he published in and served as editor of the Maryland Law Review. He also earned a B.S. degree in Accounting (magna cum laude) from the University of Maryland, College Park. 

He is a member of the Maryland Bar, a certified public accountant, and is a licensed real estate broker. Attman also serves on the boards of the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Associated Jewish Charities.  

In the coming months, USM will retain an executive search firm and name other members of the search committee, which will include representatives from the UMCP faculty, staff, students, and alumni. The committee will host a series of forums to receive input from the UMCP community.  The committee's work will conclude with its recommendation of finalists for consideration by the chancellor and the Board of Regents. The board will make the final selection. It is expected that the search process will take up to a year to complete.

 

 

Machine Learning Finds Multiple Factors Underlie Cancer Immunotherapy Success

January 30, 2019
Contacts: 

Kimbra Cutlip 301-405-9463

 

COLLEGE PARK, Md – A University of Maryland-led research team is using a branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning to better target immunotherapy treatment to those who will benefit.

Immunotherapies, which use a person’s own immune system to fight cancer, have produced revolutionary results in recent years, including curing people with previously inoperable, advanced disease. Such stellar successes have propelled some of these drugs to become the standard of care for treating many forms of cancer. And yet, most of them only work for a minority of patients. In some cases, fewer than 20 in 100 patients will benefit.

Clearly improving the use of immunotherapy and reducing costs from unsuccessful, and thus unnecessary, treatments lies in more accurately predicting which patients will benefit.

Mark (Max) Leiserson, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, and colleagues from Microsoft Research and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center believe the way to better predictions lies in a new computer modeling approach, one that analyzes data on multiple facets of patients and their cancer simultaneously. In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, Leiserson and his colleagues used data from a clinical trial of bladder cancer patients to demonstrate that their approach could identify a suite of features that accurately predicted a key immune system response to treatment while reducing over treatment by half.

“If your goal is to treat everyone in that particular dataset who will respond, the type of multifactorial modeling we show in this paper will let you do that while treating many fewer people who won't respond," said Leiserson, the paper’s lead author and an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at UMD. Leiserson began conducting this study while he was a postdoctoral researcher at Microsoft Research, New England and continues to consult for the company.

  

A pair of cytoxic T cells (in red), part of the body's immune system, attack an oral cancer cell.
Photo courtesy of NCI/Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor College of Medicine 

“What’s also exciting about this study,” he said, “is that we were not just looking at patient outcome, but at a specific marker of immune response, which gave us a much better picture of what’s going on.”

In contrast, Leiserson and colleagues showed that their multifactorial computer model predictions of which patients would benefit could include as few as 38 percent of those who did not benefit while still capturing 100 percent of the patients who did. The key, they found, was to include three distinct types of data, something not currently standard in cancer studies or treatments.

Although immunotherapy researchers are beginning to collect more information about cancer patients and their responses to therapy, the focus is still largely on finding a few key markers that stand out as important predictors of success. The solution, however, may be far more complex. There may not be just a handful of important features or markers for all patients, and those that exist are likely to function in some complicated combination.

“People are realizing that predicting response is more and more appropriate and needed, and to be able to do this, the traditional kind of single biomarker approach isn’t always enough,” Leiserson said.

To generate their computer model, Leiserson and his team analyzed data from a clinical trial with a uniquely rich data set that captured information about tumor cells, immune cells, and patient information such as demographics and medical history. Like many studies, the trial was aimed at finding key features associated with a specific response to the drug. Recognizing the potential in such a multi-modal data set, the researchers saw an opportunity to apply machine learning to the problem.The research paper “A multifactorial model of T cell expansion and durable clinical benefit in response to a PD-L1 inhibitor,” Mark D. M. Leiserson, Vasilis Syrgkanis, Amy Gilson, Miroslav Dudik, Sharon Gillett, Jennifer Chayes, Christian Borgs, Dean F. Bajorin, Jonathan E. Rosenberg, Samuel Funt, Alexandra Snyder, Lester Mackey was published in They fed 36 different features into their model and allowed the computer to identify patterns that could predict increases in potential tumor-fighting immune cells in a patient’s blood after treatment. (In the study patients, expansion of T cells in the blood post-therapy was associated with progression-free survival.)

The resulting algorithm identified 20 features that, when analyzed together, explained 79 percent of the variation in patient immune responses. According to Leiserson, this means that the unusually comprehensive set of features gathered for these patients is sufficient to predict the patient immune response with high accuracy.

Even more importantly, they found that if they eliminated any one of the three categories of data from the model (tumor data, immune cell data or patient clinical data) the immune response was no longer predictable—their model could only predict at most 23 percent of the variation. Leiserson stresses that it’s not necessarily the 20 characteristics that are important, but rather the reliance on a multifactorial approach.

“These features we identified may not be the only features that can be used to predict how a patient will respond,” he said. “There may be others that you could replace these with, but it’s about the method and the inclusion of all three categories of features.”

Leiserson sees this work as a natural parallel to current efforts in precision oncology, which aims to tailor treatments to the genetics and molecular profiles of individual patients’ tumors.

“We are trying to predict what’s going to happen for a single patient by looking at their molecular profile and clinical history,” he said. “It’s about building an understanding of the molecular landscape of the tumor, which provides additional information beyond which tissue it’s in or what the tumor looks like under the microscope.”

The model the scientists developed isn’t ready to be used as a diagnostic tool because it only incorporated data from 21 patients, which is far too few to be predictive for the general population. Leiserson said they are hoping to add patients to the model as more data comes in. He hopes the study’s success will encourage hospitals and other researchers to invest the time and effort into gathering more information than they traditionally have.

“One of the goals of this work was to ask the question, ‘Should hospitals prioritize gathering this type of data?’” Leiserson said. “And now we can say that this multifactorial approach lets us better predict the response to these immunotherapies. I hope that it motivates the effort and expenditure of continuing to collect this data.”

Both the data used for the study and the algorithm Leiserson and his team developed are open source and available on Github at https://github.com/lrgr/multifactorial-immune-response.

UMD-Led Study Gives Major New Insight on Honey Bee Parasite

January 15, 2019
Contacts: 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Honey bee colonies around the world are at risk from many threats, including pesticides, diseases, poor nutrition and habitat loss. However, recent research suggests that one threat stands well above the others: a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, which specializes in attacking honey bees.  Now findings of a new UMD-led study have transformed researchers’ understanding of how this parasite attacks honey bees and could point the way toward more effective mite treatments in the future.

For decades, researchers have assumed that varroa mites feed on blood, like many of their mite and tick cousins. But new University of Maryland-led research indicates that varroa mites instead have a voracious appetite for a honey bee organ called the fat body, which serves many of the same vital functions carried out by the human liver, while also storing food and contributing to bees’ immune systems. This new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 14, 2019.

“Bee researchers often refer to three Ps: parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition. Many studies have shown that varroa is the biggest issue. But when compromised by varroa, colonies are also more susceptible to the other two,” said UMD alumnus Samuel Ramsey (Ph.D. ’18, entomology), the lead author of the paper. “Now that we know that the fat body is varroa’s target, this connection is now much more obvious. Losing fat body tissue impairs a bee’s ability to detoxify pesticides and robs them of vital food stores. The fat body is absolutely essential to honey bee survival.”

In addition to breaking down toxins and storing nutrients, honey bee fat bodies produce antioxidants and help to manage the immune system. The fatty organs also play an important role in the process of metamorphosis, regulating the timing and activity of key hormones. Fat bodies also produce the wax that covers parts of bees’ exoskeletons, keeping water in and diseases out.  

“These results have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the damage done to bees by mites,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a professor of entomology at UMD and a co-author of the study, who also served as Ramsey’s advisor. 

In the electron micrograph image (above-right), a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor (arrow), is wedged between the abdominal plates of a honey bee’s exoskeleton. Image credit: UMD/USDA/PNAS. Click here to download hi-res version.

Correcting a decades old error

According to Ramsey, the assumption that varroa mites consume honey bee blood (more accurately called hemolymph in insects) has persisted since the first paper on the topic was published in the 1960s. Because this paper was written in Russian, Ramsey said, many researchers opted to cite the first English-language papers that cited the original study.

“The initial work was only sufficient to show the total volume of a meal consumed by a mite,” Ramsey added. “It can be a lot easier to cite a recent summary instead of the original work. Had the first paper been read more widely, many folks might have questioned these assumptions sooner.”

Ramsey noted several observations that led him to question whether varroa mites were feeding on something other than hemolymph. First, insect hemolymph is very low in nutrients. To grow and reproduce at the rates they do, varroa mites would need to consume far more hemolymph than they would be able to acquire from a single bee.

Second, varroa mites’ excrement is very dry—contrary to what one would expect from an entirely liquid blood diet. Lastly, varroa mites’ mouthparts appear to be adapted for digesting soft tissues with enzymes then consuming the resulting mush. By contrast, blood-feeding mites have very different mouthparts, specifically adapted for piercing membranes and sucking fluid.  

The first and most straightforward experiment Ramsey and his collaborators performed was to observe where on the bees’ bodies the varroa mites tended to attach themselves for feeding. If the mites grabbed on to random locations, Ramsey reasoned, that would suggest that they were in fact feeding on hemolymph, which is distributed evenly throughout the body. On the other hand, if they had a preferred site on the body, that could provide an important clue to their preferred meal.

“When they feed on immature bees, mites will eat anywhere. But in adult bees, we found a very strong preference for the underside of the bees’ abdomen,” Ramsey said. “More than 90 percent of mites we found on adults fed there. As it happens, fat body tissue is spread throughout the bodies of immature bees. As the bees mature, the tissue migrates to the underside of the abdomen. The connection was hard to ignore, but we needed more evidence.”

Ramsey and his team then directly imaged the wound sites where varroa mites gnawed on the bees’ abdomens. Using a technique called freeze fracturing, the researchers used liquid nitrogen to freeze the mites and their bee hosts, essentially taking a physical “snapshot” of the mites’ feeding habits in action. Using powerful scanning electron microscopes to visualize the wound sites, Ramsey saw clear evidence that the mites were feeding on fat body tissue.

“The images gave us an excellent view into the wound sites and what the mites’ mouthparts were doing,” Ramsey said. “We could see digested pieces of fat body cells. The mites were turning the bees into ‘cream of honey bee soup.’ An organism the size of a bee’s face is climbing on and eating an organ. It’s scary stuff. But we couldn’t yet verify that blood wasn’t also being consumed.”

To further shore up their case, Ramsey and his colleagues fed bees with one of two fluorescent dyes: uranine, a water-soluble dye that glows yellow, and Nile red, a fat-soluble dye that glows red. If the mites were consuming hemolymph, Ramsey expected to see a bright yellow glow in the mites’ bellies after feeding. If they were feeding on fat bodies, on the other hand, Ramsey predicted a telltale red glow.

 

The above microscopic image shows a varroa mite that has consumed honey bee fat body tissue tagged with Nile red, a fat-soluble fluorescent dye. Image credit: UMD/USDA/PNAS.

“When we saw the first mite’s gut, it was glowing bright red like the sun. This was proof positive that the fat body was being consumed,” Ramsey said. “We’ve been talking about these mites like they’re vampires, but they’re not. They’re more like werewolves. We’ve been trying to drive a stake through them, but turns out we needed a silver bullet.”

To confirm this idea that mites feed on hemolymph, Ramsey performed one last experiment. First, he painstakingly perfected the ability to raise varroa mites on an artificial dietary regimen—hardly an easy task for a parasite that prefers meals from a live host. Then, he fed them diets composed of hemolymph or fat body tissue, with a few mixtures of the two for good measure.

The results were striking: mites fed a diet of pure hemolymph starved, while those fed fat body tissue thrived and even produced eggs.

“Fat bodies serve so many crucial functions for bees," said vanEngelsdorp. "It makes so much more sense now to see how the harm to individual bees plays out in the ways that we already know varroa does damage to honey bee colonies. Importantly, it also opens up so many new opportunities for more effective treatments and targeted approaches to control mites.”

Listen to Ramsey describe in an award-winning three minute video his work and what it's like to be a honey bee attacked by a varroa mite. 

In addition to Ramsey and vanEngelsdorp, UMD-affiliated co-authors of the research paper include Entomology Associate Professor David Hawthorne and UMD alumni David Lim (B.S. ’15, biological sciences) and Judith Joklik (B.A. ’16, anthropology). 

The research paper, “Varroa destructor feeds primarily on honey bee fat body tissue and not hemolymph,” Samuel Ramsey, Ronald Ochoa, Gary Bauchan, Connor Gulbronson, Joseph Mowery, Allen Cohen, David Lim, Judith Joklik, Joseph Cicero, James Ellis, David Hawthorne and DennisvanEngelsdorp, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on January 14, 2019.

 

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Award No. 16-8130-0518-CA) and the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

 

 

 

 

NICER View of Black Hole Gives New Insight into Source of Dramatic X-ray Flashes

January 11, 2019
Contacts: 

 

Matthew Wright 301-405-9267, Lee Tune 301-405-4679

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – A team of astronomers led by Erin Kara, the Neil Gehrels Prize Postdoctoral Fellow in the University of Maryland’s Department of Astronomy, has provided the clearest picture to date of exactly how black holes generate massive X-ray outbursts.  And their findings may help settle a long-standingdebate about where around a black hole these outbursts originate.

Using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) instrument aboard the International Space Station, the team detected an enormous explosion of X-ray light from a recently discovered small (star-mass) black hole as it consumed material from a companion star.

By measuring the differences, or lag times, between these X-rays and the “echoes” of these X-rays reflected off swirling gas near  the black hole, the researchers revealed information on how the black hole changed during the outburst. In a study published January 10th in the journal Nature, the team reports evidence that as the black hole consumed material from a nearby star, its coronathe halo of highly-energized particles that surrounds a black holeshrank significantly.

“We don’t really understand the source of these relativistic jets [X-ray burst] that are basically common in many accreting systems. However, these results indicate [the process] really is driven by the change of corona,” said Kara, the lead author of the paper, who is also a Hubble Fellow with a co-appointment at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Joint Space-Science Institute a UMD and NASA Goddard collaboration..

Black hole J1820, studied by the team is located about 10,000 light-years from Earth. Its existence was unknown until March 11, 2018, when the outburst was spotted by the Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency’s Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI), also aboard the space station. In the space of a few days, it went from a totally unknown black hole to one of the brightest sources in the X-ray sky.  NICER was used to quickly capture this dramatic transition and continues to follow the fading tail of the eruption.

“NICER is the only instrument out there capable of making these measurements,” said Kara. “So we were lucky in that we saw this incredibly bright object, but we also were prepared to study it with this new instrument [NICER] on the international Space Station.”

X-ray Insight into Black Hole Evolution

A black hole can siphon gas from a nearby companion star and into a ring of material called an accretion disk. Gravitational and magnetic forces heat the disk to millions of degrees Celsius, making it hot enough to produce X-rays at the inner parts of the disk, near the black hole.

Above the disk is the corona of a black hole, a region of subatomic particles heated to 1 billion degrees Celsius that glows in higher-energy X-rays. Many mysteries remain about the origin and evolution of a black hole’s corona. Some theories suggest the structure could represent an early form of the high-speed particle jets these types of systems often emit.

Astrophysicists want to better understand how the inner edge of the accretion disc (the spiraling ring of material being pulled in by a black hole)—and the corona above it—change in size and shape as a black hole consumes material from a companion star. If scientists can understand these changes in stellar-mass black holes over a period of weeks, they could gain new insights into how supermassive black holes evolve over millions of years and how they affect the galaxies where they reside.

In this case the research team used a method called X-ray reverberation mapping to study changes in this black hole during its X-ray outburst. This technique uses X-ray reflections in the environment of a black hole in much the same way radar is uses sound wave reflections to map undersea terrain. Some X-rays from the black holes corona travel straight toward us, while others light up the disk and reflect back at different energies and angles, plotting these reflections over time allows changes in the black hole to be mapped.

X-ray reverberation mapping of supermassive black holes has shown that the inner edge of the accretion disk is very close to a black hole’s event horizon— the point beyond which no matter or energy can escape. The corona is also compact, lying closer to the black hole rather than over much of the accretion disk.

Previous observations of X-ray echoes from stellar mass black holes suggested the inner edge of the accretion disk could be quite distant—up to hundreds of times the size of the event horizon. However, J1820 behaved more like its supermassive cousins.

As they examined NICER’s observations of J1820, Kara’s team saw a decrease in the delay, or lag time, between the initial flare of X-rays coming directly from the corona and the flare’s echo off of the disk. This indicated that the X-rays traveled over shorter and shorter distances before they were reflected.

To confirm that the decrease in lag time was due to a change in the corona and not the accretion disk, the researchers used a signal called the iron K line, which is created when X-rays from the corona collide with iron atoms in the disk, causing them to fluoresce.

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, time runs slower in strong gravitational fields and at high velocities. When the iron atoms closest to the black hole are bombarded by light from the core of the corona, the wavelengths of the X-rays they emit get stretched because time is moving slower for them than for the observer.

Kara’s team discovered that J1820’s stretched iron K line remained constant, which means the inner edge of the disk remained close to the black hole. This indicated that the disk was not the source of the X-rays.  These observations give scientists new insights into how material funnels into a black hole and how energy is released in this process.

The research team and other scientists say that these new findings point to the corona and not the disk as the driver of the evolution of X-ray outbursts in stellar-size black holes, but other studies in similarly sized black holes are needed.

“These observations also offer a new framework through which to study the evolution of accretion in supermassive black holes,” Kara said.

This work was supported by NASA (Award Nos. HST-HF2-51360.001-A, NAS5-26555, and PF5-160144), the National Science Foundation (Award No. AST-1351222), and the Royal Society. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

 

UMD Gets First-Ever ‘New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award’

January 9, 2019
Contacts: 

Samantha Watters 301-405-2434

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research for the first time has awarded a UMD researcher the foundation’s “New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research Award”, designed to invest in the next generation of scientists committed to changing the way food is grown, processed, and distributed.

University of Maryland Assistant Professor Yiping Qi, department of plant science and landscape architecture, was one of only nine U.S. early-career researchers who in late December were given the foundation’s 2018 award. With support from the foundation and matching funds from Syngenta, Qi’s new award totals $560,000.

According to the foundation, this funding will support his research “to develop CRISPR-Cas12a based plant genome editing systems with broadened targeting range and improved editing activity and specificity. If successful, these new gene editing tools will promote accelerated plant breeding for generating crops of high productivity and stress resistance under climate change and global warming.”

Qi recently also got a $500,000 grant from the Biotechnology Risk Assessment Grant Awards Program (BRAG) from USDA-NIFA for a combined funding of more than $1 million for his work to perfect CRISPR technology and its application for creating better food crops.

“CRISPR technologies are revolutionizing biology, agriculture, and medicine. CRISPR can be thought of as molecular scissors that cuts DNA so that the piece related to a certain trait can be removed, replaced, or edited,” said Qi.

Qi and others say CRISPR, as a new precision breeding technology, will enable scientists and breeders alike to do the same things once done with traditional cross-breeding programs, but in a much shorter amount of time. The goal is to help ensure global food and nutritional security and feed the world by accounting for new issues like disease resistance, pests, heat, drought, and other major concerns of a changing climate and growing population.

Earlier this year, Qi published papers in Genome Biology and Plant Biotechnology Journal looking at the specificity of CRISPR Cas9 and Cas12a in rice and maize, respectively. Qi and his team were the first to assess CRISPR Cas12a for off-targeting by whole genome sequencing in any higher organism.

“FDA and USDA regulate safety of crops and food from many different aspects as they should, so having data to show that we can make very precise edits with basically no error is very important for the future of gene editing, and to have science-based data to make policies,” explained Qi. “In our previous work, we are finding that these tools are incredibly specific in rice and maize, both major crops for feeding people around the world. It is very encouraging.”

With the $500,000 in funding from USDA-NIFA, Qi will be similarly using the concept of whole genome sequencing to look at how efficient and specific base editing is. Base editors are CRISPR-derived technologies for making DNA changes down to a single base pair. A base pair is one A, T, C, or G and its corresponding counterpart in a sequence of DNA. Single base pair editing is highly specialized and specific, but can still result in significant changes in traits that are expressed.

“Breeding is all about harvesting useful mutations. We need mutation - it is a part of evolution. We are ensuring the safety and efficacy of these gene editings systems while also fostering new useful mutation in a controlled and very precise way, even targeting single base pairs,” said Qi. “I am excited to use these new technologies as an opportunity to help people, advance science, and as a chance to educate people with a transparent understanding of gene editing.”

 

Federal Government Shutdown FAQs

December 31, 2018

The University of Maryland is committed to keeping its community updated on the partial federal government shutdown and its potential impacts on our community. Below are some frequently asked questions. The university will update this information as federal agencies continue to release more guidance to the public.

Click here and here for guidance from the White House Office of Management and Budget. 

Specific agency contingency plans can also be found here.


Updated 12/30/2018

A government shut down, even a partial one, can have significant negative impact on advanced research projects at UMD and all US research universities.The negative consequences are greater, the longer the shutdown lasts. 

Congress has already approved funding for several federal agencies that support the university, including the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Labor (DOL), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Department of Education (DoED), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and the Department of Energy (DOE).  These agencies will continue to operate as usual.

Congress has yet to pass funding for several agencies that are important to the university, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Commerce (including NIST, NOAA, and EDA), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the State Department (including USAID), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).  The FAQ below applies to individuals on campus that are working with these agencies in some capacity.

 

1. What is the impact on federally-funded research projects?  

No new grants or contracts are usually awarded during a shutdown. Researchers can likely submit proposals, but they will not be reviewed until the government is operational again. A shutdown can also have negative impact on our research partnerships and collaborations with federal agencies.

Work may continue on most federally-funded projects that have already been awarded. Routine administrative and support services provided by federal agencies to grant and contract recipients likely will not be available. Awarded projects may be disrupted during a shutdown if they are housed in a federal facility, if the project includes federal personnel, and/or if an award includes restrictive terms and conditions that require administrative action to approve a drawdown of funds.

Federal agency staff likely will not be available to approve no-cost extension requests, grant transfers, re-budgeting approvals or other actions requiring agency approval.

 

2. What is the impact on federal financial aid?

The partial shutdown will not impact federal financial aid programs supported by the Department of Education as Congress approved FY2019 appropriations for these programs.

 

3. What is the impact on veterans’ education benefits and services?

The partial shutdown will not impact veterans' education benefits and services as Congress approved FY2019 appropriations for these programs.

 

4. What is the impact on immigration services?

Because these activities are funded by fees, most of these services are expected to remain operational during a shutdown. For additional information, view the DHS shutdown plan linked above.

 

5. What is the impact on international students at UMD? 

If you have questions or concerns about how the shutdown affects you as an international student, please contact UMD’s International Student & Scholar Services office at 301-314-7740. 

 

6. What is the impact on students who are interning with federal agencies? How will this affect internship credits earned? 

Students who have an internship with a federal agency should contact their supervisor to determine how their work is affected by the shutdown. Students should also contact their internship coordinator at UMD to determine any effects on credits being earned. 

 

7. Will the Metro still run? 

The metro’s service and schedule are not affected by the shutdown. 

 

UMD Research Reveals Massive Cropland Expansion in Brazil

December 18, 2018
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin, 301-405-1733

soybean crops in brazilCOLLEGE PARK, Md.— Brazil, one of the world’s leading producers of commodities like soybean, corn, sugar cane and cotton, now has almost twice as much land dedicated to growing crops than it did in 2000, new research from the University of Maryland Department of Geographical Sciences finds. 

Using detailed satellite data, researchers analyzed cropland area in Brazil between 2000 and 2014. They discovered about 80 percent of the cropland expansion in the country was due to conversion of pasture and 20 percent from conversion of natural vegetation. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) December 17.  

“Brazil was already one of the world’s top producers of commodity crops in the year 2000, when our study began, so it was striking to see the extent of cropland expansion that has occurred since then,” said Viviana Zalles, a doctoral candidate in geographical sciences and lead author on the study in PNAS. “Brazil is a country with the potential to cultivate an area much larger than the United States’ Corn Belt and, therefore, our findings have implications for global supply chains.”

The research project was conducted by the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) team in the Department of Geographical Sciences at UMD. The GLAD lab is a world leader in mapping large-scale land cover change and monitoring these changes using remote sensing data. The research team hopes their latest findings in Brazil will inform further studies on the causes and effects of cropland expansion, in order to help policymakers and stakeholders implement sustainable land management practices.

“Whenever you have such a significant shift in land use over a relatively short period of time, there will inevitably be environmental and socioeconomic challenges, such as biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, impacts to human health and national economies,” said Professor Matthew Hansen, co-director of GLAD. “By monitoring these types of dynamic changes, we hope to help mitigate or even prevent the negative repercussions.” 

The GLAD team is now working on mapping cropland in all of South America dating back to 1985 to provide a broader understanding of land use changes on the continent. 

The study published in PNAS was funded by the Gordon and Betty More Foundation (Grant #5131) and the NASA Land Cover and Land Use Change Program (Grants NNX15AK65G and NNX12AC78G).

 

 

Unpredictable Food Sources Drive Some Bats to Hunt Cooperatively

December 17, 2018
Contacts: 

 Irene Ying 301-405-5204

 

Three Mexican fish-eating bats hunting over the ocean at night. Photo: Glenn Thompson (Click image to download hi-res version.)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Humans aren’t the only species that have dinner parties. Scientists have observed many animals, including bats, eating in groups. However, little was known about whether bats actively help each other find food, a process known as social foraging.

With the help of novel miniature sensors, an international group of biologists that included University of Maryland Biology Professor Gerald Wilkinson found that bat species foraged socially if their food sources were in unpredictable locations, such as insect swarms or fish schools. In contrast, bats with food sources at fixed locations foraged on their own and did not communicate with one another while foraging or eating. The results of the study were published recently in the journal Current Biology.

“We were able to show that bats who can’t predict where their food will be are the ones that cooperate with each other to forage,” Wilkinson said. “And I don’t think they are unique—I think that if more studies are done, we will find that other bat species do similar things.”

The researchers selected five bat species from around the world for the study—two species with unpredictable food sources and three with predictable food sources. They fit each bat with a small, lightweight sensor that operated for up to three nights. Because the sensor only weighed approximately 4 grams, it did not hinder the bat’s movements. The sensor recorded GPS data to log each bat’s flight path and audio in ultrasonic frequencies to document bat calls. The researchers recaptured each bat to download the data. In all, the researchers tracked 94 bats in this study.

Edward Hurme, a UMD biological sciences graduate student in Wilkinson’s laboratory and a co-lead author of the paper, tracked one of the bat species—the Mexican fish-eating bat, which lives on a remote Mexican island.

A Mexican fish-eating bat with a sensor strapped to its back. Photo: Stephan Greif (Click image to download hi-res version.)

“We took a fishing boat to an uninhabited island where these bats live and camped there for a month at a time,” Hurme said. “Field work can be challenging. One time, a hurricane came and all we could do was hide in the tent. Fortunately, we survived and so did our data.”

After collecting data on all five bat species, the researchers charted the bats’ flight paths and analyzed the audio recordings. They listened for the distinctive, species-specific calls the bats make during normal flight and when trying to capture prey. The research team used this information to map where and when the bats found and ate food and whether other bats were nearby.

The results showed that the three species of bats that eat predictable food sources, such as fruits, foraged on their own. When they found food, they also ate alone. This makes sense, according to Wilkinson, because they didn’t need any help finding food. In fact, having other bats around could create harmful competition for food.

In contrast, the two species of bats with unpredictable food sources often flew together with other members of their species. Moreover, when a tracked bat found prey, other individuals nearby also began to forage. The findings suggest that these bats forage cooperatively and socially within their own species.

The researchers also found that socially foraging bats may eavesdrop on one another by staying close enough to hear each other’s feeding calls.

“We tested this hypothesis by playing recordings of white noise, normal calls and feeding calls for these bats to hear,” Hurme said. “We found that bats who heard normal calls became more attracted to the speakers than those who heard white noise. And when we played feeding calls, bats dive-dombed the speakers.”

The next step for this research is to investigate what strategies bats use in social foraging. In particular, Hurme hopes to discover whether these bats pay attention to the identity of their fellow foragers.

“We would like to know if socially foraging bats will follow any member of their own species or if they prefer specific individuals who are the most successful at finding food,” Hurme said. “There is some evidence that bats can recognize each other by voice, so we are working on ways to identify individuals by their calls.”

 

Three Mexican fish-eating bat flight paths (black, red and green) while foraging. White circles indicate calls from bats of the same species during flight; orange circles indicate feeding calls. The data shows that multiple Mexican fish-eating bats frequently flew and fed together. Video: Edward Hurme.

 

The above video shows three Mexican fish-eating bat flight paths (black, red and green) while foraging. White circles indicate calls from bats of the same species during flight; orange circles indicate feeding calls. The data shows that multiple Mexican fish-eating bats frequently flew and fed together. Video: Edward Hurme

 


Photos: 

Three Mexican fish-eating bats hunting over the ocean at night. Photo: Glenn Thompson (Click image to download hi-res version.)

A Mexican fish-eating bat with a sensor straped to its back.  Photo by Stephan Greif. (Click for high-res image) 

 

 

University of Maryland to Host Winter 2018 Commencement

December 14, 2018
Contacts: 

Natifia Mullings, 301-405-4076

 

COLLEGE PARK, Md.—The University of Maryland will host its 2018 winter commencement ceremony on December 18, 2018 at XFINITY Center to celebrate this academic milestone for approximately 3,200 graduates from bachelor’s and master’s degree programs from across the university. The commencement address will be delivered by John B. King Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama and current president and CEO of The Education Trust -- a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds. He will be joined by this year’s student speaker, Rehan Staton, who is graduating with a degree in history.

 

WHO:

  • University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh
  • Commencement Speaker John B. King Jr., president and CEO of The Education Trust
  • Student Commencement Speaker Rehan Staton
  • December Class of 2018 University of Maryland Graduates

 

WHEN: Tuesday, December 18, 2018

  • Processional—5:40 p.m.
  • Ceremony—6 p.m.

*Media should arrive prior to the processional*

 

WHERE:

XFINITY Center, University of Maryland, College Park

XFINITY Center is located on Paint Branch Drive, near the intersection of Paint Branch Drive and Route 193/University Boulevard). Clickhere for directions.


PARKING/CHECK-IN:

Media must park in lot 4B and enter the Xfinity Center through the loading dock.To ensure access to the ceremony, media must RSVP and show credentials upon entry.

 

LIVE VIDEO STREAM:

The ceremony will be streamed live on the University of Maryland’s YouTube channel,here.

 

For more information, visit www.commencement.umd.edu.

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