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NIH awards UConn, JAX, CCMC $1.9M grant to study regulation of tissue aging


Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

Acclaimed UConn Health/JAX geneticist, Dr. Se-Jin Lee, was recently awarded over $1.9 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for a four-year research project, “TGF-beta family members and their binding proteins in aging skeletal muscle” (1R01AG052962-01A1). Dr. Emily Germain-Lee from UConn Health/Connecticut Children’s Medical Center will serve as Co-PI on the project.

In recent years, there has been considerable interest in the possible role that members of the transforming growth factor-beta family may play in regulating tissue aging and the possibility that manipulating their levels of signaling may be a new therapeutic strategy to combat tissue dysfunction in the elderly. Much of this interest has focused on two highly related signaling molecules, myostatin (MSTN, GDF-8) and GDF-11, both of which were originally identified by Dr. Lee’s laboratory many years ago.

Some studies indicate that GDF-11 levels decrease as a function of age, and that systemic administration of the purified protein can reverse age-related tissue dysfunction in the heart, skeletal muscle, and nervous systems. Other studies report the opposite, and suggest that GDF-11 levels do not decrease with age and that administration of the protein has detrimental effects on muscle regeneration. With this project, Dr. Lee and his team respond to these contradictory findings about the signaling molecules, and aim to elucidate their roles in the regulation of adult tissue homeostasis.

The overarching goal of the NIH funded study is to determine once and for all how these TGF-beta family members and their binding proteins affect tissue aging. With a firm understanding, the team hopes to better inform the development of effective therapeutic strategies for manipulating the activities of these molecules for clinical applications in the elderly.

Dr. Lee’s breakthrough research has been critical to increasing knowledge about muscle degenerative and wasting conditions such as muscular dystrophy (a genetic disease causing muscle weakening or loss), sarcopenia (muscle loss due to the aging process) and cachexia (unexplained weight loss or wasting syndrome) resulting from diseases like cancer and sepsis.

Dr. Lee joined UConn Health and JAX in August of 2017 from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. He is the third joint faculty member appointed by UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, both located in Farmington, Conn.

New Podcast Goes “Inside UConn TIP”


UConn’s technology incubation facility at 400 Farmington Ave. on the UConn Health campus might not look all that special from the outside. At first glance, it seems like a typical university building, with attractive landscaping, picnic tables, and ample parking. But venture inside and you’ll find teams of entrepreneurs, faculty, and students working on groundbreaking technologies in a variety of fields. From retinal implants to cure blindness, technologies that leverage the human microbiome, and stem cells to correct hearing loss, there’s a lot going on inside UConn TIP. Want to learn more about these amazing technologies and the high-potential startup businesses developing them? Subscribe to our new podcast, Inside UConn TIP.

The podcast is a production of Podstories, a startup founded by recent UConn grad, Ali Oshinskie ’17. Oshinskie is an unlikely entrepreneur. As an English major with a background in theater, she already knew how to tell a compelling story. Right after graduation, she turned that skill into a business when she launched her startup, Podstories.

Oshinskie is a self-taught podcaster, and several of her projects have focused on her alma mater. She produced her first series, Professors are People Too, to learn more about the faculty shaping the learning experience for thousands of UConn students. Now she’s telling stories for researchers and startups in “Inside UConn TIP.”  According to Oshinskie, Connecticut has a lot to offer young entrepreneurs like herself and those in UConn’s TIP program who might think of seeking opportunities elsewhere after graduation. “In Connecticut, it can be both a place where ideas are growing and I’m growing. That seems like a cool marriage, right?”

UConn Health/JAX faculty wins $2.7M grant to develop better tools for biomedical modeling


Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

UConn Health/JAX faculty member, Dr. Reinhard Laubenbacher, has been awarded over $2.7 million over the next four years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for “Modular design of multiscale models, with an application to the innate immune response to fungal respiratory pathogens” (1U01EB024501-01). The project aims to develop a novel modular approach to model architecture to improve the usability of multiscale mathematical models. Such tools have emerged as essential tools in the life sciences, especially biomedicine.

Biomedical data sets have become more available and can capture integrated processes from the molecular to the whole organism level. However their complexity poses many challenges to critical functions like mathematical modeling, software design, and validation, which can hinder their benefit to researchers and clinicians.

The NIH funded project is a collaboration between Dr. Laubenbacher, Dr. Borna Mehrad from the University of Florida, and Albany-based software company, Kitware.  Dr. Mehrad will work closely with the UConn/JAX researcher and will provide experimental data for the project. Kitware will develop software for visualization and data analytics components of the team’s model.

While Laubenbacher and his colleagues are confident the technology will be broadly applicable, they plan to focus this early work on the development of a multiscale model that captures the early stages of aspergillosis, an invasive fungal infection. According to the CDC, although it is uncommon, invasive aspergillosis is a serious infection and can be a major cause of mortality in immunocompromised patients.

In contrast to current therapeutic approaches that focus primarily on the aspergillosis pathogen, this project aims to gain a better understanding of how components of the patients’ immune systems respond to infection, which they hope will lead to the development of more effective treatments.

Dr. Laubenbacher was the first joint faculty member hired at UConn Health and The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in May 2013 as Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Quantitative Medicine (UConn Health) and Professor of Computational Biology (JAX).

Other current interests in Dr. Laubenbacher’s research group include the development of mathematical algorithms and their application to problems in systems biology, in particular the modeling and simulation of molecular networks. An application area of particular interest is cancer systems biology, especially the role of iron metabolism in breast cancer.

UConn spinout wins CT Bioscience Innovation Fund investment award for retinal implant


Jessica McBride, Office of the Vice President for Research

LambdaVision, the UConn spinout, today announced that it was awarded $500,000 in Series A Equity from Connecticut Innovations, the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies, through the Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF).

Led by Co-Founder and CEO, Nicole Wagner, PhD, LambdaVision is developing a retinal implant to cure vision impairment and blindness for more than 30 million people worldwide. Using a protein grown in the laboratory and implanted behind the retina, this promising new procedure offers hope for patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other retinal diseases. The protein is in pre-clinical trials across the country to determine the stability and efficacy of the implant.

LambdaVision’s novel implant can restore high-quality vision to those patients who are no longer candidates for traditional treatments and have end-stage retinal degeneration. Current treatments only succeed in slowing the progression of disease.

LambdaVision was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009. Dr. Robert R. Birge, distinguished professor of chemistry at UConn, led a research group that included Wagner.

“LambdaVision has been incredibly fortunate to have the continued support of UConn and the State of Connecticut, and we owe much of our success to the incredible mentors that have helped us to propel the research and development and commercialization of the technology,’’ Wagner said. “In the early stages of development, they were the believers.’’

The Connecticut Bioscience Innovation Fund (CBIF) is a $200 million fund that makes investments in biotechnology. The new funding from CBIF will support continued R&D and expansion of the LambdaVision team in order to bring on more critical expertise for commercialization. To date, LambdaVision has secured $2.4 million in funding from state and federal sources.

“This university spinout is a prime example of the value UConn’s researchers provide for the state’s citizens and economy,” said Radenka Maric, Ph.D., UConn’s vice president for research. “We are thrilled to support these high-potential startups to propel UConn technologies from the lab to the clinic where they can have life-changing impacts for patients.”

LambdaVision is currently located in UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, CT.


About UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP)
UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) is the only university-based technology business incubation program in Connecticut. Established in 2004, TIP couples UConn’s world-class research resources, facilities, and business support services with a network of experienced investors and entrepreneurs to help launch high-potential startups. Since 2004, the program has helped over 90 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt.

About Connecticut Innovations Inc.
Connecticut Innovations is Connecticut’s strategic venture capital arm, providing funding and strategic support to early-stage technology companies. In addition to equity investments, CI provides grants that support innovation and collaboration through CTNext, and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. To learn more, visit

UConn TIP startup, Bioarray Genetics, Receives $4M in Series B Equity Financing


Bioarray Genetics, a personalized medicine startup, announced today that it has received $4 million in Series B Equity Financing from Quark Venture and GF Securities through their Global Health Science Fund and Connecticut Innovations.

Bioarray, a personalized medicine startup housed at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, is a molecular diagnostics company developing predictive cancer treatment test technology. The platform, consisting of unique genes and proprietary algorithms, provides patient-specific information to determine the optimal course of treatment.
Bioarray will use this funding to bring their first product, BA100, to clinicians and conduct R&D on other tests in the company’s pipeline, including those focused on treatments for metastatic breast and colon cancers.

“Bioarray’s unique approach to developing a diagnostic test is an excellent example of how genomics is advancing personalized medicine. BA100 has the potential to impact oncology care, in the very short term, by sparing patients exposure to ineffective chemotherapy and unnecessary toxicity. Bioarray’s clinically validated tests are unique; there is nothing else on the market that addresses this need,” said Karimah Es Sabar, Chief Executive Officer of Quark Venture and Director of GHS Fund.

BA100 is a breast cancer diagnostic test that provides actionable information about patient response to the standard of care chemotherapy treatment. BA100 is able to identify the population of triple negative breast cancer patients that have the worst survival rates and would benefit from more aggressive treatment. Bioarray’s test isolates RNA biomarkers from the initial tumor biopsy, and in combination with the company’s proprietary algorithms, can predict the patient’s response prior to treatment.

Currently, this test is intended for patients with stage 1, 2, and 3 non-metastatic breast cancer, and is administered immediately after diagnosis before the doctor decides on the patient’s treatment plan.

“We invested in Bioarray at the earliest stages of company development,” said Pauline Murphy, senior managing director of investments at Connecticut Innovations. “We’re excited to see the company progress to this stage and we look forward to their continued success in the future.”

According to Bioarray’s CEO and Founder, Marcia Fournier, this funding provides the startup with critical support to continue development of a technology that reduces healthcare costs and improves patients’ quality of life.
“This new funding enables Bioarray to fulfill our mission to eliminate the trial and error approach in the treatment of cancer patients. We are excited about our growth and the ability to expand our team with diversified skills and expertise,” said Fournier.

Originally based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Bioarray chose to locate their startup in Connecticut because of the vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem and robust state investment in bioscience, according to Fournier. She credits UConn’s Technology Incubation Program with allowing her to transition from a virtual company.

“UConn is committed to supporting growing technology startups that will help continue to position Connecticut as a hub for bioscience,” said Radenka Maric, UConn’s vice president for research. “From world-class faculty experts to state-of-the-art facilities to our proximity to The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine—UConn has a tremendous amount to offer these companies.”

Bioarray plans to explore other applications for their platform technology, which could serve as a valuable tool for pharmaceutical companies in the drug research and development process. The technology provides novel insight into the mechanism of response and interconnected cellular pathways and could be used to stratify patients in clinical trials, as well as develop companion diagnostics to improve the response rate to specific treatments.

About Global Health Science Fund
Global Health Science Fund was jointly established by Quark Venture Inc. and GF Securities in late 2016. Global Health Science Fund is a health sciences venture fund that invests globally in a diversified portfolio of innovative biotechnology and health sciences companies who are addressing unmet medical needs through innovations in drug development, medical devices, health IT and emerging convergent technologies.

About Connecticut Innovations
Connecticut Innovations (CI) is the leading source of financing and ongoing support for Connecticut’s innovative, growing companies. To maximize each business’ growth potential, CI tailors its solutions and often combines its funds with resources from other financial leaders to provide venture capital and strategic support for early-stage technology companies; grants that support innovation and collaboration; and connections to its well-established network of partners and professionals. For more information, please visit

About UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP)
UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) is the only university-based technology business incubation program in Connecticut. Established in 2004, TIP couples UConn’s world-class research resources, facilities, and business support services with a network of experienced investors and entrepreneurs to help launch high-potential startups. Since 2004, the program has helped over 90 companies that have raised more than $50 million in grants and $135 million in equity and debt.

UConn Launches Chapter of National Academy of Inventors


The University of Connecticut recently hosted the inaugural gathering for Connecticut’s first chapter of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) at the Lyceum in Hartford on Friday September 29, 2017 at 5 pm.

The UConn NAI chapter was established as a result of the efforts and prodigious invention history of three distinguished researchers at UConn who are NAI Fellows. To receive this distinction from NAI, a researcher must be named inventor on patent(s) issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and must be affiliated with a university, non-profit research institute, or other academic entity.

Dr. Cato T. Laurencin M.D., Ph.D., President of the UConn Chapter of the National Academy of Inventors became the first UConn NAI Fellow in 2013. Laurencin is well known for his pioneering work in the field of regenerative engineering and is an elected member of both the National Academy of Engineering and the National Academy of Medicine, and recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation and the Connecticut Medal of Technology. In 2015, Dr. Pramod K. Srivastava, who is recognized globally for his groundbreaking discoveries in cancer immunotherapy, was named an NAI Fellow. Dr. Lakshmi Nair was inducted in 2016. Her work in regenerative biomaterials to enhance tissue repair and regeneration has resulted in many novel and valuable discoveries.

“The University of Connecticut is the state’s ‘Public GE’. It is the state’s ‘Public United Technologies,’” Dr. Laurencin said. “It is a driver of innovation while at the same time it’s an economic business engine in its own right. Moreover, in training and graduating extraordinary students, rooted in innovation, it provides the life’s blood for business and technology for our state. It is a formidable state asset and treasure.”

UConn faculty generate an average of 80 invention disclosures a year, and UConn has been issued 559 total U.S. patents and 810 total foreign patents since tracking began. An average of twelve agreements aimed at commercializing UConn technologies are executed annually.

According to Dr. Paul R. Sanberg, founder and president of NAI, the Academy was formed in 2010 to recognize and encourage academic inventors, enhance the visibility of academic technology and innovation, encourage the disclosure of intellectual property, educate and mentor innovative students, and translate the inventions of its members to benefit society.

“I am pleased to see UConn strengthen its role with NAI,” Sanberg said. “As demonstrated by existing UConn Fellows, the University continues to demonstrate a commitment to innovation and supporting the many leading researchers at UConn and UConn Health who are working to find solutions for some of our greatest national and global challenges.”

NAI has 214 member institutions, 15 international affiliates, and more than 4,000 individual academic inventor members. The total number of NAI Fellows is 757. There are 42 chapters in all. An NAI chapter can include faculty, staff, students, alumni, and affiliates.

UConn’s Vice President for Research, Dr. Radenka Maric is UConn’s member representative to NAI. An expert in materials science and the CT Clean Energy Fund Professor of Sustainable Energy, Dr. Maric anticipates that the new UConn chapter will be a vehicle for the University to recognize and honor researchers who translate their findings into inventions that may benefit patients, industry, and society.

“UConn’s NAI chapter provides a great opportunity to bolster the University’s strong history of innovation by facilitating forums for established inventors to share their knowledge and experience with aspiring student and faculty inventors,” Dr. Maric said.

Collectively, the Fellows hold more than 26,500 issued U.S. patents, which have generated over 9,400 licensed technologies and companies, and created more than 1.3 million jobs. In addition, over $137 billion in revenue has been generated based on NAI Fellow discoveries.

“NAI has played a vital role in ensuring the culture in Academia of valuing patents and commercialization” said Dr. Lakshmi Nair who organized the NAI event. “We are so pleased to welcome 24 members to the UConn chapter.”

Should the Vegas Mass Murder Be Memorialized?

October 19, 2017 – Kenneth Best – UConn Communications

Mourners gather at the Oklahoma City National Memorial around chairs representing relatives killed during the 1995 bombing, on the day perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was executed, June 11, 2001. On the wall behind them, the time when the bomb was detonated is recorded at 9:01. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Mourners gather at the Oklahoma City National Memorial around chairs representing relatives killed during the 1995 bombing, on the day perpetrator Timothy McVeigh was executed, June 11, 2001. On the wall behind them, the time when the bomb was detonated is recorded at 9:01. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Kenneth Foote, professor and head of the Department of Geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is a specialist in cultural and historical geography and author of the book Shadowed Ground: American Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy (University of Texas Press), which examines how Americans have dealt with the after-effects of tragedy. He spoke with UConn Today about the recent shootings in Las Vegas and how such incidents are memorialized.

What were your thoughts when you saw the news on the Las Vegas shootings?

What I’m reminded of almost immediately is the parallels with the way places have been treated after events like this in the past. I’m wondering what will happen. I expect there will be a tremendous amount of community remorse, some efforts to develop a memorial or monument there. It may become the site of a continuing pilgrimage or ceremony, because people do feel that loss at the family level, the community level all across the nation.

You’ve looked at the subject of memorials specifically for your research focusing on well-known memorials built many years after an event or battle. You’ve said there seems to be a generational difference in when this happens now.

I think there has been a shift. It’s quite recently that people have been willing to note or mark the loss caused by mass murder, bombings, and other malicious acts of violence. Those events often carry a strong sense of shame, and communities don’t want to call attention to such atrocities. Up until the 1960s or ’70s, it was very rare for events like mass murder to be commemorated at all. There was that sense we will do something at the cemetery, we will do something from a personal point of meaning, but not at the site itself. I think the change is that no matter how horrible the crime, that something should be done for the victims, for the victims’ families, for the community. There have been these terrible killings; we don’t want to forget the victims themselves.

You mention the 1960s, and for many their thoughts would go to Dealey Plaza in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Is that a marking point?

One of the real tensions is that by drawing attention to the killing, it also draws attention to the killer. — Ken Foote

Absolutely. That case is very informative. There was incredible resistance to marking the site of the Texas School Book Depository, and it was a long time before they put up the cenotaph for Kennedy close to the assassination. For many of these events, one of the real tensions is that by drawing attention to the killing, it also draws attention to the killer. In Dallas, people objected to creating a museum at the former School Book Depository, arguing that it would serve as a tribute honoring Oswald rather than Kennedy. That building was almost torn down, and in some ways I find it remarkable that it still exists.

The ’60s was a very violent decade because it was not just John Kennedy. It was the killings of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, the death toll of the Vietnam War, urban riots, the assassination of Black Panthers in Chicago, and [in 1970,] events like Kent State and Jackson State. Eventually some of these events were marked, because they were tied to very important issues like civil rights or the anti-Vietnam War movement, but others have largely disappeared from view. But beginning in this period, it became a bit more common to commemorate and remember a greater range of violence, no matter how horrible.

That leads to the question of what type of memorial to establish, if any. UConn art historians Robin Greeley and Michael Orawicz have worked on this issue in the area of human rights violations and the appropriate way to honor victims. After initial violence like that in Las Vegas, what is appropriate?

People oftentimes make the point it is better to have a living memorial that involves fellowships, teaching, and regular activities that serve to remember and honor those who have died. I’m thinking of the efforts in New York City to create more of a living memorial for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. Every year, there are events where they chalk the names of the victims on the sidewalks where they lived, to make it evident to the people of the community how much has been lost. These living memorials, I think, got beyond the notion of creating a single physical monument or memorial.

Another change is that in recent decades, artists and landscape architects have been trying to develop innovative ways of symbolizing and expressing loss and grief. Good examples are the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. The Oklahoma City memorial provides different spaces in the area of the memorial for people to reflect on the event from the standpoint from those killed, the rescuers, the children who were lost, and so forth. The artists and designers are being much more reflective of the meaning of these events and trying to express these meanings in new symbolic forms. Other new monuments, like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin or many other Holocaust memorials in Europe, reflect this trend.

You started writing Shadowed Ground looking at historically significant places. Do you see a distinct difference in activity around a war memorial versus a mass violence situation?

They are interpreted very differently. The book project got started in Salem, the site of the witch trials. It was just visiting Salem and seeing that there was very little marked at the time I first visited. The next case was the horrible mass murder at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. That really hit me: how was this going to affect the community? The first cases were mass murders, and then I moved on. Battlefields are marked and wrapped into this national tradition. They become points of moral or ethical lessons or to celebrate the heroism of the soldiers. As we know from this [current] debate over the Confederate memorials, the politics of interpretation involve a wide range of issues about slavery, race, and history that remain alive today. And each of America’s wars raises different issues and tensions, and each is celebrated and commemorated in a slightly different way.

After the elementary school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, you wrote a piece for The Hartford Courant outlining the process you think needs to take place before these decisions can be made, including asking how to prevent such violence and how to properly mourn and remember the victims. More recently, there has been discussion about remembering the victims of the Pulse Nightclub shootings in Florida. Have you seen this process change?

One part of the process I continue to stress is that after events like the Orlando and Las Vegas shootings, there is almost always an attempt to distance the killer from the community. I call it “othering,” but it’s basically an effort to distance the killer from the community by explaining away the violence as the act of a unstable or deranged person. Rather than search for ways to prevent future violence, it’s easier to say the killer was crazy, is now dead, and this sort of thing won’t happen again. But this speaks to a larger issue – that it is very difficult for people to accept that members of their own communities are sometimes willing to turn their guns on their neighbors. This happened almost right away in Las Vegas, with the murderer described as a sort of mysterious, furtive loner who came from outside the community.

How has your thinking changed about these issues, given the events that have since occurred in the past decade?

The speed of this memorialization has ramped up. I was looking at sites from the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and they could take decades or centuries before people would settle on how to build them into this narrative of the national past. Now people are doing this within a year, two years. The Oklahoma City memorial went up within five years. I think some of those sites like Oklahoma City have set a precedent in terms of trying to make sure the different constituencies are consulted during the process, rather than just the victims’ families or the survivors. This is important because events like 9-11 impact lots of people outside of the immediate community.

When I was writing Shadowed Ground, I was focusing mostly on historic events rather than contemporary events. I discounted those temporary, spontaneous memorials and the personal things left behind. Since then I’ve changed my mind. I’ve worked with my friend Sylvia Grieder, [professor emerita of anthropology] at Texas A&M, one of the people who began to write about these memorials. She noticed that “spontaneous” shrines or “makeshift” memorials were anything but spontaneous or makeshift. Instead, people invested considerable time and thought in trying to personalize such memorials. It was not just teddy bears and candles. People really try to tailor them to the individual being honored. Now I realize the early process that we’re seeing in Las Vegas is very important because it established the debate, the main themes about what will be done and how this will be judged in the long term.

Where do you see the need to establish memorials going?

I find it promising that sites of violence and tragedy sometimes become rallying points for change. — Ken Foote

First, I think it’s better to mark than not to mark. Marking tragedies and honoring the dead forces the issues behind the violence into the open. Hiding the evidence and scars of such events is, in many ways, an act of denial. Denial is perhaps the easy way out, kind of like arguing that if we ignore violence it will simply go away. I think we will continue to see denial as one of the most common outcomes after events like the Las Vegas shootings.

I find it promising that sites of violence and tragedy sometimes become rallying points for change. They are places or events around which people take a stand and say they aren’t going to put up with violence anymore. We’re going to try and end gun violence and do things to prevent these and others kinds of atrocity from coming around again. I think of sites like the Stonewall Inn in New York City, which became this rallying point for the gay rights movement, or the Manzanar Japanese-American relocation center in California from the period of the Second World War that became a place for reunions and rallies that helped lead to redress legislation for the families that were unjustly interned. These days, some of the most exciting developments involve greater recognition of sites associated with African American history and Native American heritage – even those of extreme violence, such as those associated with America’s legacy of slavery and dispossession and violence against native peoples. So perhaps we will sometimes see an event like Las Vegas turn the corner on debates over mass violence and become a rallying point for finding solutions rather than excuses.

Our Calculator Will Guess How Many Healthy Years of Life You Have Left

October 18, 2017 – Jay Vadiveloo, Goldenson Center for Actuarial Research at UConn

Living longer is one thing. Being healthy enough to enjoy it is another.

Living longer is one thing. Being healthy enough to enjoy it is another.

As the old saying goes, the only things certain in life are death and taxes. While death is inevitable, the quality of life you experience until death is often within an individual’s control.

This is what our team at the Goldenson Center for Actuarial Research chose to focus on by developing a rigorous measure of quality of life. How many healthy years of life do you have ahead before you become unhealthy?

Everyone understands the benefits of living a long healthy life, but this also has implications for industry and society. Medical costs, financial planning and health support services are directly related to the state of health of an individual or community.

We call this measure of quality of life “healthy life expectancy” and its complement “unhealthy life expectancy.” We define entering an unhealthy state as a severe enough state of disablement that there is no recovery, so you remain unhealthy until death.

It follows that life expectancy – a measure of the total future years an individual is expected to live – is simply the two added together.


Imagine a healthy 60-year-old male who exercises regularly, has a healthy diet and healthy body mass index and sleeps at least eight hours a night. By our estimate, he could have an additional 13 years of healthy living compared to his unhealthy counterpart. That’s 13 more years of quality living with family and loved ones.

This is quite a startling revelation, not only because of the significant difference in healthy life expectancy between these two individuals, but also because this difference is driven by lifestyle choices within the individual’s control.

So what factors contribute to a better healthy life expectancy? Two factors that are not lifestyle-related are age and gender. All other things being equal, healthy life expectancy decreases with age. Women have a longer healthy life expectancy compared to men.

We have already seen that diet, exercise and sufficient sleep positively impact healthy life expectancy. Other positive factors that we have incorporated in our model include level of education, level of income, perception of one’s own state of health, moderate alcohol intake, not smoking and absence of Type 2 diabetes. The higher the level of education and income, the higher your healthy life expectancy. Having a positive perception of your state of health helps, too.

Try it yourself

Want to know your own estimate of healthy years ahead? We developed a free online tool that lets you calculate healthy, unhealthy and total life expectancy. This is work in progress.

This is the first time such a measurement tool has been developed. While it’s too early to validate the accuracy of our calculations with actual data, we have been careful to ensure that the model assumptions are based on established actuarial sources and the modeling results are logical and consistent.

It should be noted that healthy life expectancy is simply an educated prediction. Unforeseen incidents – like being hit by a truck – could render this estimate invalid, no matter how well you manage lifestyle habits. Also, there could be other nonmeasurable factors impacting healthy life expectancy that we have not included in our model, like level of stress, a positive attitude to life or social connections.

Putting our model to work

Our team plans to explore some of these practical applications of healthy life expectancy in industry.

For example, the concept of healthy life expectancy can help with retirement financial planning. Annual retirement spending should not be level across your life expectancy. More discretionary retirement spending should happen during healthy years and less during unhealthy years, while spending on basic expenses increases during unhealthy years.

Insurance products can be also designed using healthy life expectancy measures in mind. This can protect an individual against additional basic living expenses during the unhealthy period. One such product could be a deferred long-term care or temporary deferred life annuity, where the deferral period is for healthy life expectancy and the temporary coverage is for the unhealthy period. This can be a significantly cheaper and a more needed product compared to what is available in the marketplace currently.

Since healthy life expectancy is also related to quality of life and level of health, a relative index could compare an individual’s results against a benchmark healthy life expectancy for someone with “average” characteristics. This can then be used as an underwriting tool and to predict future health care costs. Our model could also serve as a patient screening tool for medical providers by incorporating more detailed lifestyle and dietary details as well as prior medical history information.

We hope that other researchers and practitioners will continue to build on this. Then society could focus on not just prolonging life, but prolonging quality of life using our model. As the saying goes, “In the end, it is not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Fueling the Future with Seaweed

October 17, 2017 – Combined Reports – UConn Communications

Students measure sugar kelp at the Yarish lab at the Stamford campus on Oct. 19, 2016. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

UConn researchers are part of a major federally funded project to boost seaweed production for use as a biofuel. Here, sugar kelp is measured at the Yarish lab at the Stamford campus. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Currently used as a food source for humans and animals in the U.S., seaweed may soon fuel machines, too.

Researchers from UConn and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) are leading a project that recently secured major funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to boost seaweed farming so that seaweed can be mass produced for expanding markets in biofuel.

The MARINER program (Macroalgae Research Inspiring Novel Energy Resources), a program of the DoE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), awarded $5.7 million to Woods Hole for two projects that develop tools and technology to advance mass production.

Seaweed, primarily used in food and food processing in this country, mainly comes from imported farmed product or wild harvests. Expanding domestic seaweed farming relieves pressure on wild stocks, creates jobs, and revitalizes working waterfronts, say researchers.

From left, Bren Smith of GreenWave, Scott Lindell of Woods Hole, and UConn biologist Charles Yarish, hold up a rack of seaweed.
From left, Bren Smith of GreenWave, Scott Lindell of Woods Hole, and UConn biologist Charles Yarish, hold up a rack of seaweed on a boat in Long Island Sound. The three are all participating in a federally funded project to advance the mass production of seaweed. (Photo courtesy of Professor Charles Yarish)

“The MARINER program addresses a critical challenge that land production systems are unlikely to solve,” says Scott Lindell, a principal investigator from Woods Hole. “How do we meet growing global biofuel needs and also meet the 50 to 100 percent increase in demand for food expected by 2050? Seaweed farming avoids the growing competition for fertile land, energy intensive fertilizers, and freshwater resources associated with traditional agriculture.”

A major portion of the funding – $3.7 million – will support a team of seaweed biologists, geneticists, and entrepreneurs that will develop a breeding program for sugar kelp Saccharina latissima, one of the most commercially important species – in hopes of producing plants with a 20 to to 30 percent increased yield over wild plants.

As chief scientist on this portion of the grant, UConn seaweed biologist Charles Yarish, who has a longstanding research program promoting the cultivation of seaweeds in U.S. coastal waters, will develop enhanced tools for the isolation of cultures and establish a world-class germplasm collection (living genetic resources maintained for the purpose of breeding and preservation) of the sugar kelp, Saccharina latissima from the coastal waters of the U.S. This culture collection will enable his UConn team to use both classical breeding technologies and modern genomic tools to  select sugar kelp that are best suited to offshore farm environments, are highly productive for use as a bioenergy feedstock, and are also temperature tolerant.

Yarish will provide oversight of the cultivation and nursery systems at UConn and at the National Marine Fisheries Service labs in Milford.

Other partners in the breeding program are the USDA Agriculture Research Service at Cornell, which will apply DNA sequencing and genomic analysis to direct selective breeding for important traits; and GreenWave, an ocean farming organization headed by Bren Smith, a longtime collaborator with Yarish’s kelp program, which will operate the field trials of the selectively bred families.

The remaining $2 million of the DoE grant will be used by a team from Woods Hole to develop an autonomous underwater observation system for monitoring large-scale seaweed farms for extended periods of time without human intervention.

In a separate project, Yarish and colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Marine Biology Lab, will work with the University of Puerto Rico developing cultivation systems for tropical and subtropical aquaculture of the red seaweed called Eucheuma isoforme.

The ARPA-E estimates that in the U.S. combined brown and red seaweed farming could yield about 300 million dry metric tons per year. When converted to energy, that could fuel about 10 percent of the nation’s annual transportation needs.

As for job creation, a World Bank estimate suggests the farming kelp in less than 5 percent of U.S. territorial waters could create 50 million direct jobs.

Old Specimens, New Insights

October 12, 2017 – Elaina Hancock – UConn Communications

Sam Stine '18 (CLAS) working at the Biodiversity Research Collections facility. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Undergraduate Sam Stine ’18 (CLAS) working at the Biodiversity Research Collections facility. Scientists, like detectives, are discovering new information about species today, even from specimens collected decades ago. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Tucked away in the Biology and Physics building at the heart of the Storrs campus, tray upon tray of carefully preserved creatures wait to tell their stories. These curiosities belong to UConn’s Biodiversity Research Collections, where scientists, like detectives, are discovering novel information about the world today, even from specimens collected decades – or centuries – ago, including fossils dating back 400 million years.

In the future, a lot of research will have to be done in collections because those species will no longer exist in the wild. — Jane O’Donnell

“We have close to a million specimens in here,” says Jane O’Donnell, manager of Invertebrate Scientific Collections in the Biodiversity Research Collection, part of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Many of these specimens have proven invaluable over the years, providing necessary data for hundreds of research papers. In 2016 alone, specimens from the UConn collections served research studies presented in more than 20 publications.

To many, the term ‘collections’ conjures up displays of dusty taxidermy specimens and rows of insects impaled on pins with tiny handwritten labels. But there is nothing old-fashioned about how collections are used in some of the latest STEM research.

Sam Stine '18 (CLAS) working at the EEB Collections Facility in the Biology/Physics Building on Oct. 5, 2017. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)
A drawer of ant specimens in the Biodiversity Research Collections facility at the Biology/Physics Building. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

O’Donnell says collections are not only a vital part of STEM education, but they also make many research studies possible at a time when species diversity is decreasing rapidly worldwide.

“In the future, a lot of research will have to be done in collections because those species will no longer exist in the wild,” says O’Donnell, “and we have to be clever enough to understand the story that each of these specimens is telling us.”

Collections have proven their usefulness in diverse roles. From investigating plane crashes caused by birds to determining the cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 19th century. Collections have even been used to detect the Lyme disease bacterium in ticks collected decades before the first documented case of Lyme disease in humans.

Recently, UConn graduate student Veronica Bueno and postdoctoral fellow Kevin Burgio ’17 (CLAS) were co-authors of a paper on parasite biodiversity and extinction, showing that one-third of parasites may become extinct by 2070. For their research, they relied entirely on records preserved in institutions from around the world.

Burgio anticipates that his life’s work will revolve around specimens-based research. He says he and his collaborators are currently the only people he knows of who are actively studying the Carolina Parakeet – a species whose last known captive individual died in 1918 – in depth.

In another recent UConn study, researchers in associate professor Chris Elphick’s lab studied differences in breeding strategies and molt timing in two closely related species of tidal marsh sparrows. They were able to increase the sample size obtained in the wild by examining the feathers of specimens in natural history collections at UConn and other institutions.

And earlier this year, a research group led by UConn professor and director of the Biodiversity Research Collections Bernard Goffinet published work investigating more than 900 lichen samples from UConn and other collections worldwide. Analysis of DNA sequences from these specimens revealed an expansive and previously unrealized diversity of lichen-forming fungal species and their symbiotic partners.

Providing access

With huge amounts of data and so many researchers relying on it, extensive efforts are underway to digitize collections to make this information available to anyone wishing to access it. This is no small undertaking.

For any institution, the digitization process can be like building a house of cards if care isn’t taken, says O’Donnell. It is essential that the data are recorded accurately so they will be correct when accessed down the line. Great care is taken in digitizing the UConn collections to ensure that good data are going in, with researchers, collection managers, and students working together to complete the task for as many specimens as possible.

O’Donnell also emphasizes the importance of being able to go back to the original specimen if needed, to ensure the accuracy of the data being stored and shared. Whole specimens may also be loaned to researchers at other universities, saving them a trip to the field, or sometimes as a substitute for field research where those habitats no longer exist.

Just as a library will loan out books, collections loan out specimens. UConn is preparing to send some slugs specimens to researchers at the University of Montreal who are studying invasive slugs in North America. Other research groups worldwide studying army ants have been able to access specimens from the University’s extensive ant collections. Recently, Christopher Martine, a UConn ecology and evolutionary biology alum now at Bucknell University, and his colleagues from the University of California-Berkeley used samples from UConn’s collections to describe a new species of tomato from Australia in a study they published last year.

Vital Time Capsules

Just maintaining the collections is a daunting task. Hundreds of thousands of bottles of continuously evaporating ethanol need to be refilled eventually, and constant monitoring is required to control the climate and lighting conditions that are necessary to ensure the preservation of specimens.

Security is also important. Many of the UConn specimens, for example, are highly valuable because they have a lifetime of experience and skill behind the information that’s stored with them.

Unfortunately, however, Natural History Collections and Museums aren’t always referenced in publications and often don’t get the recognition they deserve.

Perhaps due in part to these omissions, funding and appreciation for the collection enterprise is growing scarcer, with some universities being forced to abandon their collections. This is a troubling trend because in addition to the research value held in these collections, they also enrich the education of the students, says O’Donnell. Their absences surely will be felt.

Another problem facing the future of collections is that fewer and fewer researchers have the critical expertise to staff even existing collections. In-depth training is needed to spot sometimes very subtle and easily missed traits that distinguished closely related species apart, and unfortunately, taxonomists well-versed in the science and art of classifying specimens accurately are retiring faster than new taxonomists are being trained.

“At a time when funding for these collections seems to be disappearing, it’s important to remember how valuable they are and how much we can learn from them,” says Bueno, who is deploying her skills in taxonomy to deposit new parasites in the UConn collections as she completes her dissertation work.

To ensure that natural history collections remain available for generations to come, it is important to recognize them as the keepers of vital time capsules in a world that is rapidly changing. As these specimens have their stories told, UConn will play an important role in the preservation of this global and regional natural heritage.