University of Connecticut University of UC Title Fallback Connecticut

October, 2017

New Research Initiatives Supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research

Dear Colleagues,

In the current climate of declining federal funding and impending reductions in state support, the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) is taking measures to provide faculty with critical additional assistance to guarantee that UConn proposals have the best chances of success. I wanted to share a few new initiatives with you as you prepare to submit new grant proposals.

Reduction of Overhead Costs

In order to provide faculty with more buying power on proposals, reduced overhead costs will be charged to grants of up to $50,000 where total costs are inclusive (i.e., direct and indirect costs capped at $50,000). This policy will be in place at UConn and UConn Health. The effective overhead rate for such grants will be capped at 20% instead of the standard 59%. This reduced rate will apply to future grant proposals, and is not applicable retroactively. Existing grants will continue to be charged the standard 59% rate. In the case where agencies, such as NSF, view a reduced F&A rate as cost share, faculty should apply the full rate and the OVPR will return the F&A back to the PI. Additional guidelines will be forthcoming on how to incorporate this lower rate on new proposals.

Faculty Grant Mentorship Incentive Program

Faculty members with a history of grant success have valuable expertise that can benefit faculty colleagues. Through this program, experienced PIs will be eligible to serve as mentors for three untenured faculty in return for a stipend of $10,000. Faculty mentors will provide untenured faculty with strategic insight and guidance to more successfully navigate the grant submission process. Activities will include introductions to program managers, review of proposals, guidance and support, help to establish individualized goals and professional development plans for each mentee, and insight on how to learn about grant solicitations that may not be announced through standard methods. In the coming weeks, we will announce an open call for senior faculty to nominate their colleagues or themselves to serve as mentors. The selection process will include an evaluation of nominees’ previous experience as a mentor for untenured faculty, as well as a review of their success winning extramural funding. Additional guidelines, mentor/mentee applications, and program requirements will be forthcoming and available on the OVPR website.

SBIR/STTR Funding

Funding through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs encourage domestic small businesses to engage in federal research and development that has the potential for commercialization. Each year, Federal agencies with extramural research and development budgets that exceed $100 million are required to allocate 3.2 percent (FY 2017) of their R&D budget to these programs, and agencies with research budgets over $1 billion are required to set aside a portion of these funds for STTR. SBIR/STTR grants range from $300,000 to $1 million each and can be a valuable source of non-dilutive funding for startups and eligible small companies. Under SBIR, the PI must be primarily employed with the small business at the time of award and for the duration of the project period, but subcontracts often occur with collaborating research institutions. Under the STTR program, primary employment is not stipulated, so the PI may be primarily employed by a collaborating institution.

These programs can be an effective tool for entrepreneurial faculty and the university’s efforts to boost our industry sponsored research portfolio. The OVPR is initiating several support programs to increase the number of successful SBIR/STTR awards submitted with UConn/UConn Health PIs or co-PIs.

First, we will host a series of workshops to expose faculty to the programs and how to successfully apply. The first workshop is sponsored by CTNext and will be held on November 29 & 30 at 400 Farmington Ave on the UConn Health campus. For more information and to register, visit the CTNext site.

The OVPR is also piloting an effort to connect faculty to SBIR/STTR program managers, as well as existing companies seeking R&D partnerships to support SBIR/STTR proposals. In order to do this we are developing a team able to offer assistance directly to faculty, their startups, and outside industry partners that are eligible for SBIR/STTR support. If you are interested in learning more about these support services, please contact ovpr@uconn.edu.

Collaboration with the UConn Foundation

Finally, in partnership with the UConn Foundation, we will continue to seek creative solutions and establish innovative programs and initiatives to increase philanthropic dollars for student and faculty research.

For existing and new initiatives to support research, we will establish metrics and methods to track success to ensure that our investments result in returns for our faculty and the university.

We will be in touch again soon to share additional information and more specific details about these new programs and initiatives as soon as they become available. In the meantime, this message serves to reassure faculty and students that we are dedicated to helping UConn’s world-class researchers succeed despite the fiscal challenges we are currently facing. We are committed to supporting UConn’s vibrant research community, and we thank you for your invaluable contribution to the university, the state of Connecticut, and the global scientific community.

 

Sincerely,

Dr. Radenka Maric
Vice President for Research
UConn/UConn Health

Coveted Class: Baseball and Society: Politics, Economics, Race, and Gender

Steven Wisensale, professor of human development and family studies, watches a baseball game in Japan. (Chris Moore for UConn)

Human development and family studies professor Steven Wisensale has designed a curriculum about baseball that isn’t a softball. (Chris Moore for UConn)

The Instructor:

Steven Wisensale remembers listening to the 1952 Republican National Convention on the radio. He was 7 years old. “Growing up, I always had an interest in politics,” says the professor of public policy in UConn’s Department of Human Development and Family Studies. “My parents engaged my interest at an early age.”

The ’52 convention was where Dwight D. Eisenhower became the GOP presidential candidate on his way to winning the White House. That same year, the New York Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in seven games to capture their fourth straight World Series. Baseball was no less a presence on the Wisensale household radio.

The diamond interest of young Steven Wisensale ramped up in 1954, when the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore, not far from where his family lived in southeastern Pennsylvania. Five decades later, he remains a devout fan of the Baltimore Orioles.

For many years, as he was pursuing his studies and establishing himself in the world of academia, Wisensale kept his interests separate. His scholarly interest was in family policy, particularly as it relates to aging and family leave. His baseball fandom was curtained off for his leisure time.

But that changed within the past decade, once he was promoted to full professor. “I felt like I had more freedom,” says Wisensale, “and as I began to think about what I wanted to do inside the classroom, I decided I wanted to teach a course on baseball.”

Wisensale had heard of baseball-related courses at around 20 other universities. Harvard and Tufts offered courses that were quantitative in nature. Stanford and San Francisco State had courses that focused more on baseball in society, which was what Wisensale was after. “I wanted to delve into history,” he says.

Class Description:

Baseball and Society: Politics, Economics, Race and Gender, HDFS 3042, explores the connections between historical events and the history of baseball. A discussion of labor relations, for instance, digs into the evolving business of baseball as it runs parallel to the ever-changing circumstances surrounding the U.S. workforce in general.

“I hit the Curt Flood story pretty hard,” says Wisensale, referring to the ballplayer who in 1969 refused to abide by a trade, instigating a contractual challenge that made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and led to player free agency throughout the game. The drawing of historical links goes all the way back to the origins of baseball.

“A lot of students would prefer that we get right to the current day or recent history,” says Wisensale, “but they’re surprised by how rich the dead-ball era was.” It was the time of World War I, which is when baseball became directly connected with its time in history.

“When the war broke out,” he continues, “baseball owners were nervous: Do I want my right fielder being hit by a landmine? They had to figure out how to protect their assets.” So the owners cut a deal under which players could remain in baseball as long as, during the offseason, they worked in a defense plant or in some way contributed to the wartime effort.

“This is going to be fluff,” was the concern Wisensale heard when designing the course for its 2012 debut. He understood the reluctance, so he took pains to design a curriculum about baseball that wouldn’t be a softball.

Wisensale puts prospective students through a screening process in which they answer questions about their goals for the course. They also must write an essay on what baseball means to them. And Wisensale checks out every applicant; there typically are 180 to 200 for the 50 spots.

“I don’t want slackers in the class,” he says.

Wisensale’s Teaching Style:

“Baseball news! Anybody have any baseball news?”

This is how Wisensale begins each class. A discussion of current events takes up just the first 5 to 10 minutes of class. Then the professor digs in at the plate and starts swinging. The connections he draws aren’t always obvious. An example: baseball’s steroids scandal.

“Maybe I’m the only one who thinks this way, but I believe that what the ballplayers did is the same as what Bernie Madoff did,” he says, referring to the financial advisor who cheated investors (including the New York Mets ownership) with a Ponzi scheme.

“They all basically conned the system and made a lot of money, with so-called regulators not regulating. There were so many people making so much money within a corrupt system – why police it?”

The challenge in teaching this course, for Wisensale, stems from the diverse student enrollment. “Students come for different reasons,” he says. There are accounting students “who want to work for Billy Bean” and understand all the sabermetrics – or statistical analysis – but may have no interest in history. Then there are the history majors, who are deeply interested in the origins and development of the sport. And journalism students “who think in terms of writing stories about current events,” says Wisensale. “I try to get them to read Roger Angell’s stuff and John Updike’s essay about Ted Williams’ last game, things like that.”

Why We Want to Take It Ourselves:

Three strikes and four balls. Nine innings, each with three outs. Baseball has a rhythm to it, one that hearkens back to what we tend to reminisce about as simpler times. But were they really?

Baseball and Society delves into some dramatic twists and turns that the game and its surrounding culture shared. Race comes up in discussions of the Negro Leagues and Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. Gender is at center stage when the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League comes on the scene during World War II. And then there’s the steroid era. “That last item generates the most discussion in class,” Wisensale says.

If putting historical events into context isn’t enough of a draw, how about the opportunity to have your own baseball card? During the enrollment process, Wisensale instructs students to create their card. “It can be a childhood dream come true for some,” he says.

That includes the professor himself. He creates a Wisensale card before each semester, a reminder that for him this course represents a second wind after many years of teaching and writing. “This really has energized me,” he says. “It has taken me back to my youth.”

Who wouldn’t want to be in a classroom with a professor who feels that way?

UConn Health Researchers Visualize a Life in Silico

October 3, 2017 – Kim Krieger – UConn Communications

Researchers at UConn Health have just released a new version of the Virtual Cell that allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to more easily build models and simulate how a cell functions. (Getty Images)

Researchers at UConn Health have just released a new version of the Virtual Cell that allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to more easily build models and simulate how a cell functions. (Getty Images)

Programming a molecular biology experiment can be similar to playing Sudoku; both are simple if you’re working with only a few molecules or a small grid, but they explode in complexity as they grow. Now, in a paper published on Oct. 3 in the Biophysical Journal, researchers at UConn Health’s Virtual Cell Project (vcell.org) have made it far easier for cell biologists to build complex biological models.
Leslie Loew

The Virtual Cell, or VCell as it’s known, is a software platform that offers the most comprehensive set of modeling and simulation capabilities for cell biology in the world. It allows biologists without strong math or computer programming skills to build models and simulate how a cell functions. VCell first came online almost 20 years ago, in 1998, and the UConn Health team headed by UConn Health biophysicist Leslie Loew has developed and maintained it since. Using VCell, a biologist can predict what happens when a certain drug encounters a filtration cell in the kidney, for example, or how a hemoglobin molecule in a red blood cell deals with a spike in carbon dioxide.

But until now, a biologist still needed strong programming skills to do detailed cell models at the molecular level, and even more than that, patience. Each molecule involved in a model has a certain number of states, or things it can do and places it can be. Each possible combination of molecules and their states had to be coded out by hand. And as the number of moving parts increases, the number of lines of computer code do, too. If you increase the size of a Sudoku grid to nine by nine, you suddenly have 6.7 sextillion possible scenarios … and you get an idea of the nightmare molecular biologists faced when they tried to code even a slightly complex biological system. The common name for this problem is a “combinatorial explosion,” and the solution to it, called “rule-based modeling,” was developed 12 years ago by VCell team member Michael Blinov and colleagues James Faeder and William Hlavacek, who all worked during that time at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

However, every modeler using rule-based modeling faced a complication. The program detailing interactions among molecules had to be written out in text. In this age of iPhones and computers you can navigate with swipe and click, everyone expects a computer to have a gorgeous graphic interface. Until now, using rule-based modeling wasn’t like that. It looked more like the text command boxes you can call up if you need to navigate the guts of your machine quickly. But it gets tiresome fast, and catching mistakes in thousands of lines of repetitive, almost-but-not-quite-identical code can be maddening. Cell biology models quickly get so unwieldy that only an experienced modeler or programmer can handle them. This sharply limited who could use such modeling.

“Before, only programmers or experienced modelers could create rule-based models to describe details of molecular interactions,” says Loew. “We wanted to make rule-based modeling available to the cell biologists who really need it.”

Loew and the VCell team of Michael Blinov, Ion Moraru, James Schaff, and Dan Vasilescu decided to make things easier. In their new paper, they describe a user interface for VCell that uses colored shapes to represent molecules. The shapes look a bit like colored bricks. Bubbles show binding sites, and lines show links between molecules. The links can also be different colors and shapes to represent different interactions. A simple model describing hemoglobin resembles a map or wiring diagram.

Instead of writing thousands of lines of code, biologists using VCell can now just define their molecules and explain to VCell how they can interact with each other. The biologist doesn’t have to worry about the combinatorial explosion. The computer – all 60 teraflops, 3,000 processors, and 2 petabytes of storage hosted at UConn Health’s Cell and Genome building – handles it.

Loew and Blinov believe the new version of VCell will dramatically expand the number of people who can use rule-based modeling. This is because it allows scientists to use the comprehensive set of simulation methods available in VCell with rule-based models in a single, unified, user-friendly software environment.

Now, a trained biologist should be able to take a day to go through the tutorials on the site and learn enough to figure out how to model a new problem on VCell. Previously, there were about 5,800 active users of VCell globally (you can log in from anywhere that has an internet connection). Those modelers had created 76,600 models and run about 479,000 different simulations on them. These simulations test everything from whether a certain mutation causes cancer to how a new drug might interact with the heart. And with the newly released version of VCell, the number of active users should increase.

So far, VCell hasn’t helped with a Sudoku game. But someone might just write a model for that.

Website Breaks Down Statewide Benefit of UConn Research Funding

October 2, 2017 – Colin Poitras – UConn Communications

State residents interested in seeing how UConn research dollars benefit local communities can now find that information quickly and easily through a new website.

State residents interested in seeing how UConn research dollars benefit local communities can now find that information quickly and easily through a new website.

Connecticut residents interested in seeing how UConn research dollars benefit local communities can now find that information quickly and easily through a new website called granttrails.

The interactive website allows users to see how much UConn research benefited a particular town simply by clicking a location on a state map, typing in the town’s name, or using a zip code.

Alternatively, visitors can zoom out for a broader statewide view, where the impact of UConn research is shown in small-to-large blue circles, their size being based on how much grant money was spent in a particular location.

Users can filter results to show the total research expenditure amount for a given town or they can isolate the funding by source such as federal, state, or corporate grants. The data reflects where grant dollars received by UConn faculty were spent within Connecticut between fiscal years 2014 and 2017.

“This website helps people see how UConn’s research grant expenditures help support local economies in ways that often get overlooked,” says Daniel Schwartz, director of UConn’s Center for Open Research Resources & Equipment or COR²E, which developed the website.

Millions of dollars in grant money received at UConn and UConn Health are used each year to pay for equipment, reagents, consumables, salaries, etc. that are critical to any research project moving forward. Many of the companies from which those purchases are made are located in Connecticut. UConn graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and technicians involved in University research also tend to live near the institutions in which they work, providing an additional benefit.

UConn junior Brandon Cheng spent several months over the past summer building the granttrails website, which is based on data gleaned from the University’s electronic financial records. Cheng is the lead developer for UConn Squared Labs, a group of top undergraduate student web developers overseen by Schwartz. Squared Labs builds websites that support UConn’s research infrastructure.

Adding $1 to Minimum Wage = Less Child Neglect

October 2, 2017 – Kenneth Best – UConn Communications

Kerri Raissian, assistant professor of public policy, at the Hartford campus on Sept. 28, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Kerri Raissian, assistant professor of public policy, at the Hartford campus on Sept. 28, 2017. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Kerri M. Raissian, an assistant professor of public policy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, conducts research focused on child and family policy, with an emphasis on understanding how polices affect fertility, family formation, and family violence. She previously spent 10 years working with children and families in the public and nonprofit sectors. Earlier this year, she and her colleague Lindsey Rose Bullinger of Indiana University, published their study, “Money matters: Does the minimum wage affect children maltreatment rates?” in Children and Youth Services Review. They found that a $1 increase in the minimum wage can result in a statistically significant 9.6 percent decline in child neglect reports. She spoke with UConn Today about the study.

How did you come up with the idea to examine this question?

There’s been a small but burgeoning literature about the causal effects of income on child maltreatment, which includes neglect, physical and sexual abuse, and other forms of abuse. We chose to examine this income lever because several stylized facts lead us to believe there might be an association. For example, it turns out that minimum wage earners are often family breadwinners, and notably, they are often single moms. Neglect is by far the most common type of child maltreatment – nationally it’s about 70 percent to 75 percent of all child maltreatment referrals. And finally, single moms are the most likely group to actually engage in child maltreatment, usually neglect. Of course, that is not to say all single moms making minimum wage maltreat their children, but it did say to us that an increase in the minimum wage might really benefit this population. It could especially lessen neglect – something often associated with material items and supervision. Our interest was piqued, and we decided to test it out empirically.

Was it evident in the literature and other materials you reviewed that this very simple solution could be significant in easing that discomfort of struggling to earn enough money just to put food on the table, put a roof over your head, and otherwise take care of yourself and your child?

Families with low incomes have a great ability to make a dollar go a long way. On average, the weekly SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) food stamp benefit for a family of three is about $30. That’s about what a one dollar an hour minimum wage increase translates into for full-time workers. Other studies show that a $1,000 tax refund results in similar declines in child maltreatment – neglect, specifically. So for really low-income families that probably have pretty severe material deprivation or economic hardship, that extra dollar can make a really big difference.

There was a breakdown between toddlers, school-aged children, and teenagers, where the youngest children benefited the most. Is there any indication of why there was that split?

Risk of neglect declines with age: so the very young kids (ages 0 to 5) are at the highest risk, followed by school-aged children (ages 6 to 12), and that puts teenagers (13 to 17) at the lowest risk of neglect. So, we actually expected the minimum wage to affect young kids the most – just based on their risk. Young kids have the highest risk for many reasons; one being that small children are very expensive and public school, which may offer things like daytime activities and free and reduced price meals, isn’t yet available. It’s also true that the definition of neglect changes with a child’s age, and there are just more ways to neglect a young child compared to a teenager. For example, leaving a toddler home alone is considered neglect in most states, but usually leaving a 13-year-old home alone is just fine. But even with all of that, we do see an association between a rising minimum wage and a decline in all types of maltreatment for all ages, just that the results are not always statistically significant, and so our conclusions are more tentative for the older ages.

From a public policy perspective, it would seem that you would want to implement a measure than can cause an effect like this, yet there’s resistance. How can you overcome that?

From a public policy standpoint, I think we have to consider cost-effective ways of dealing with really extensive problems, and the minimum wage seems to fit that description. But whenever a policy has tradeoffs, as most do, it is important to have an informed debate. Step one is putting the information out into the public arena. Often in our conversations about the minimum wage, we just think about income and employment levels, because they are the obvious and direct outcomes. We also have to look at the indirect outcomes, like health and child maltreatment. Now we have information on things that have previously been ignored in our debates about the minimum wage, and we have to extend the work. There could also be impacts on things like maternal well-being, kids’ educational attainment, and more. It’s important to engage all along the way with policymakers about this work, so that they can feel confident in the decisions they are making and also perhaps inform the research process. Part of the value of UConn is that we can create partnerships to answer the questions to which policymakers really need to know the answers.

Business organizations say increasing the minimum wage will prevent small businesses from being able to stay open and keep their employees. Yet the other side would be to help improve people’s lives. How do you argue back against the objections?

Most policies have costs associated with them. But if we don’t have a sense of the benefits, the cost side will dominate the discussion. Ideally, we would create policies that maximize benefits and make costs equitably shared or even minimized. One cost is that what if people lose their jobs after an increase in the minimum wage? That certainly wouldn’t help people, but fortunately, when minimum wage increases are small, we really don’t see increases in unemployment as a result. I think we have to be sensible. Really large and swift increases – like going from $7 to $15 an hour – could lead to unemployment, and so policymakers should think about their local labor markets and what is reasonable. It’s also probably true that certain businesses might struggle more with increases in the minimum wage than others; for example, a small business or businesses that rely a lot on people to get the job done. For these industries, I think it’s reasonable to ask, why should the cost be entirely borne by the employer? Why not have a state subsidy or tax relief for employers, at least initially? This would allow us to still reap the benefits of higher incomes, reward hard work, help businesses attract high quality workers, improve children’s outcomes, and potentially save on very expensive interventions like child protective services.

One of the things you note in your conclusion are the limitations of the data. You were looking at state level rather than local data. What do you think might happen by looking at that more local or person-level data?

I think we could get a better sense of where the minimum wage has an effect and why it has an effect. So we are currently extending this study in two ways. The first is to look at counties rather than states. This would help to answer questions like: is the effect the same in a rural county as opposed to a metro county? We also have a study where we are looking at households – so if a household lives in a jurisdiction with a higher minimum wage, is that household better off? [There are] lots of questions when you get down to that level. What did families spend the money on? Do families use the extra money to make each week a little bit easier? Did they save their money and spend it on a really big item like a car that allows them to get to school, to work, and/or to medical appointments more easily? We can also look at parenting behaviors. With some extra income, are you more likely read with your child? Does the parent or caregiver feel less stressed in the home? Those kinds of things don’t get picked up when looking at child maltreatment, because maltreatment is at the extreme end. These answers can inform other public policies about how we move forward: Is an incremental increase in someone’s income the way to go? Is giving them a lump sum the way to go? We’re really excited about these next steps, and I look forward to letting you know what we find.

In the current environment, with budget issues in most states, what do you think this could mean in the overall effect on state budgets and services, even noting that we have raised the minimum wage in Connecticut?

It could certainly have an immediate, positive effect on the state budget. A referral to the Department of Children and Families kicks in a whole array of services that are costly, extensive, ongoing, and necessary. Other sectors like schools and healthcare also have higher costs if kids are maltreated. This is really an investment in families that has immediate and long-term returns; it’s something we would want to look at. Most of the states don’t have a minimum wage at or above $10; Connecticut does. It’s possible Connecticut may be at the threshold. It’s also really important to note that, while our study looks at the minimum wage, this could really be an income story – remember other studies find similar results when incomes are increased in other ways. Our very low-income families might be facing other reductions in their incomes that will be costly to us as a state. We should consider that, moving forward.