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May, 2017

UConn TIP Farmington Startup Sets Sights on Curing Retinal-Disease Blindness

Published on UConn Today / May 24, 2017

Claire Hall

Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision, which was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009.

Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of LambdaVision, which was founded through support from UConn’s Technology Commercialization Services in 2009.

Tucked inside a small laboratory at UConn’s Technology Incubation Program (TIP) in Farmington, Conn., Nicole Wagner is trying 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.

“These are terrible diseases that truly impact the quality of life for many people,’’ said Wagner, the president and CEO of LambdaVision. “To offer patients the possibility of restoring their vision provides them the chance to see a new grandchild, resume a golf game, drive again or read a favorite book. For many people, restored vision would allow them to return to an independent life.’’

LambdaVision uses a light-activated protein, bacteriorhodopsin, to stimulate the retina of patients suffering from impaired or lost vision due to retinal degenerative diseases. The protein, isolated from high-salt environments, including the Dead Sea, is grown and purified in the laboratory. The protein works by absorbing light and converting it into a signal that is picked up by specialized cells in the retina, relayed to the optic nerve and ultimately interpreted by the brain.

More than 31 million people worldwide suffer from irreversible vision loss caused by macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa. The incidence of blindness caused by retinal degenerative diseases is increasing at a rapid rate due to an increase in the global geriatric population, Wagner said.

LambdaVision’s implant can restore high-quality vision to those patients who are no longer candidates for traditional treatments and have end-stage retinal degeneration, Wagner said. 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.

The protein is in pre-clinical trials across the country to determine the stability and efficacy of the implant.

“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,’’ she said. “In the early stages of development, they were the believers.’’

LambdaVision has won many awards, including most recently: a 2016 UConn SPARK Technology Commercialization Fund Award and the prestigious 2016 MassChallenge CASIS-Boeing Prize for Technology, which allows the company to carry out experiments aboard the International Space Station. Since gravity can interfere with the uniformity of the retinal implant films, the hope is that work done in microgravity will be faster and yield improvements in the homogeneity and stability of the product.

The company also won the $15,000 Wolff New Venture Prize, sponsored by UConn’s Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CCEI) and a National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research Grant.

“To be on the brink of a new and exciting medical breakthrough is thrilling,’’ Wagner said. “I’m very eager to see this technology available in the medical community where it can make a difference in people’s lives.’’

UConn Technology Incubation Program Company, Torigen, Inc., among Other High-impact Startups Participating in MassChallenge 2017 Cohort

Published on MassChallenge / May 23, 2017

MassChallenge, the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet, today announced the 128 early-stage startups that have been accepted into the 2017 MassChallenge Boston accelerator program. Selected by a community of more than 850 expert judges, this year’s competitive cohort represents the top 8% of applications from around the world, including 12 countries and 16 U.S. states.

Through a global network of zero-equity accelerators, MassChallenge helps the world’s highest-impact, highest-potential startups successfully launch, grow, and create impact across industries. This proven model has accelerated 1,211 alumni that have gone on to raise more than $2 billion in funding, generate approximately $900 million in revenue, and create over than 65,000 direct and indirect jobs.

“The quality of this year’s applicant pool is a real testament to the community’s efforts to inspire and support individuals who are working to solve some of the world’s biggest problems,” said Kiki Mills Johnston, Managing Director, MassChallenge Boston. “I’m excited to welcome the 2017 cohort to Boston this summer. This is just the beginning!”

Since March, top investors, serial entrepreneurs, corporate executives, academics, and more have evaluated over 1,500 applications based on each startup’s ability to demonstrate impact and potential, which ranges from scientific breakthroughs to industry disruptions. Many of these judges remain actively involved throughout the four-month MassChallenge Boston program as mentors, speakers, and even potential partners.

Of the 128 startups selected:

  • 30% are healthcare and life sciences
  • 29% are high tech
  • 20% are general, retail and consumer goods
  • 16% are social impact
  • 6% are cleantech and energy

As part of the 2017 cohort, startups will have unrivaled access to top corporate partners, expert mentorship, tailored curriculum, and more than 26,000 square-feet of co-working space in Boston’s dynamic Innovation and Design Building – all at zero cost and for zero equity. Entrepreneurs developing physical products also have an opportunity to take advantage of MADE @MassChallenge, the organization’s 5,000 square-foot research and development lab, which provides the equipment and support needed to design, develop, and scale hardware solutions.

The accelerator program will culminate on November 2, 2017 at the MassChallenge Boston Awards, where the most-promising startups compete for shares of more than $1.5 million in equity-free awards.

“Over the past seven years, MassChallenge has graduated more than 1,200 entrepreneurs from our intensive accelerator, enabling them to create enormous impact around the world,” said John Harthorne, Founder and CEO of MassChallenge. “We are proud to welcome such a high-potential class of startups to MassChallenge, and are excited to help them define their future and maximize their impact.”

Now in its eighth year, MassChallenge has continued to drive innovation around the world through its global network of accelerators in Boston, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland, and the U.K. In addition to existing programs, the organization experienced significant growth in 2016 with the launch of several new initiatives. Locally, MassChallenge Boston launched the Newton Innovation Center, a 5,000 square-foot co-working space in collaboration with CIC and the City of Newton, and PULSE @MassChallenge, a zero-equity innovation lab that connects digital health entrepreneurs to the region’s leading institutions, corporates, payors, and healthcare experts. Top startups from the first-ever PULSE @MassChallenge cohort will compete for shares of more than $200,000 in equity-free awards at PULSE Finale on June 13, 2017.

UConn Generating a Buzz

Published on UConn Today / May 23, 2017

Eli Freund

Amy Gronus (wearing blue), a production chef at the Northwest Dining Hall, and Stephen Anthony, area assistant manager of Dining Services release bees at the Dining Services Apiary. (UConn File Photo)

Amy Gronus (wearing blue), a production chef at the Northwest Dining Hall, and Stephen Anthony, area assistant manager of Dining Services release bees at the Dining Services Apiary. (UConn File Photo)

The University of Connecticut recently joined a movement aimed at reestablishing the bee population worldwide.

Designated as a “Bee Campus USA,” in April, UConn pledged to educate and build a community that will aid in the fight to save the population, which has seen a decline due to the increased use of pesticides and rising temperatures.

One of 29 institutions across the country and the only in Connecticut, achieving the “Bee Campus” status was a project led by UConnPIRG as part of its “Save the Bees” campaign.

According to Emily O’Hara ’20, an incoming sophomore and bee campaign coordinator for UConnPIRG, the organization and its national branch, U.S. PIRG, have a history of pursuing environmental causes and pollinators were a next logical campaign.

“We have a 40-year track record of victories,” said O’Hara. “We challenge special interests and fight for the causes students care about through grassroots organizing.”

The bee decline has caught attention globally. The insects play an important economic role as pollinators helping sustain agricultural production for crops such as coffee, cocoa, nuts, berries and many other fruits. In the United States, that value reaches billions of dollars annually, according to a 2015 White House report.

As a designated campus, UConn agreed to pursue seven efforts, including establishing a committee to develop a Campus Pollinator Habitat Plan, offering a workshop or course on a pollinator-related topic and sponsoring service-learning projects.

“UConn has a low-toxic Integrated Pest Management plan, and we have pollinator-friendly plants on campus. I knew at such a green university, we would have most if not all of the requirements fulfilled,” said O’Hara.

UConnPIRG had to secured the information for the application from several departments. “The seven-step application came together fairly smoothly, thanks to UConn’s environmentally friendly track record,” she added.

O’Hara and UConnPIRG then designed two service-learning projects, which will take place sometime in the fall 2017 semester, created a website and committed to annual renewal of the designation. Going forward, UConn’s Office of Environmental Policy will handle the task of coordinating and applying for the designation, with the first renewal deadline being in January 2019, she noted.

UConn Researchers Launch National Study on the Lives of LGBTQ Teens

Published on UConn Today / May 17, 2017

Kenneth Best

UConn researchers and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) have launched a new, comprehensive national survey to examine the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) teenagers.

The online survey is open to LGBTQ teens between the ages of 13 and 17 living in the United States and seeks to provide detailed information on the lives of LGBTQ teens. HRC, which is the largest national LGBTQ civil rights organization, is using social media and affiliated networks to raise awareness about it.

“Our study takes a holistic approach to better understand the lived experiences of LGBTQ young people,” says Ryan Watson, assistant professor of human development and family studies and principal investigator for the study. “We are asking questions about sexual and gender identity, experiences at school and home, health behaviors, and the types of supports these teens receive from important people in their lives.”

The survey will continue online through the end of the summer, with a report based on the findings expected by early 2018.

Watson notes the groundbreaking survey comes after the announcement earlier this year by the Trump Administration that the United States Census Bureau will not collect data on the LGBTQ community as part of the 2020 Census. The Census Bureau conducts its survey every 10 years and is the leading source of quality data about the nation’s people and economy. The Bureau staff also conducts special surveys in areas such as health, crime victimization, housing and medical care used by other government agencies.The survey will continue online through the end of the summer, with a report based on the survey findings expected by early 2018.

Watson says most previous studies of the LGBTQ population have generally focused on adults, but that it is critical to learn about the multifaceted experiences of LGBTQ youth. Earlier this year, HRC released the findings from its survey of 50,000 young people, which also included non-LGBTQ youth, about their experiences since the start of Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign. More than 70 percent of participants said they had witnessed bullying or harassment during that time.

“A key goal of this study is to examine the diverse forms of victimization that LGBTQ youth face,” says co-investigator Rebecca Puhl, professor of human development and family studies and deputy director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at UConn. “For example, we will examine links between weight-based bullying and bullying due to sexual orientation; these two forms of bullying are both very common in youth but have not been examined as shared experiences. This research is critical to understand the impact of sexual orientation and gender identity in combination with other stigmatized identities on the health and well-being of sexual and gender minority youth.”

Watson says that their national survey will also assist researchers in studying the intersections of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual and gender identity, which has not yet been comprehensively examined among LGBTQ youth.

“This study will allow us to look at how intersecting experiences related to disability, racial, and ethnic identities affect health behaviors, substance use, safety, and bullying for LGBTQ teens.” Learning more about these experiences can help researchers and policymakers to better understand how the current political climate of legislative battles over issues such as access to bathroom facilities in schools and other public buildings might impact particular youth in unique ways, says Watson.

Adds Puhl, “A novel aim of our study is to examine disparities for sexual and gender minority adolescents across health indices, such as obesity, eating behaviors, and physical activity. This can help to identify which vulnerable groups of LGBTQ youth are in need of increased support to improve health.”

Among the questions the survey hopes to answer are:

• How might support from peers, family and others shape LGBTQ young people’s lives and create opportunities for resiliency?
• What kinds of health concerns, such as smoking or stress, are common among LGBTQ teens?
• How many transgender teens feel their identities are respected at school, and are able access gender-appropriate facilities?
• How do intersecting identities, such as race or disability, affect the challenges and opportunities that LGBTQ youth encounter?

Watson says this new survey will provide informative data for scholars across a variety of disciplines, such as psychology, sociology, and public health; and that policymakers, school officials, and other stakeholders will be able to use the findings to better support LGBTQ teens.

UConn Professor on The Dangerous Brew of Politics and Water

Published on UConn Today / May 18, 2017

Kenneth Best

Safe water for drinking is necessary for life on Earth. The rise of civilization began along the banks of rivers and waterways and was important to the development of agriculture, commerce and advances in industry, science and technology.

But water also historically has been a factor in politics, where decisions about the delivery of government services can help or harm people depending on their access to clean water.

“What’s not tied to water?” says Veronica Herrera, assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and the author of Water and Politics: Clientelism and Reform in Urban Mexico, recently published by the University of Michigan Press. “Our food supply, our health, industries and businesses need water. Everything is tied to it; it’s not a trivial issue.”

Herrera says access to water is a political issue particularly in young democracies emerging in developing nations, where it is an essential service provided by government. Clientelism is the political science term for the exchange of material resources for the vote, sometimes referred to as patronage, or buying votes. She describes how these practices existed as the United States developed and expanded westward in the 19th century and today can be commonplace in developing nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

In her study of several regions in Mexico Herrera found that during the week of an election, state officials turned off water to cities where the opposition party was in control in order to create chaos for local elected officials as voters went to the polls. In other instances, politicians redirected water from one population area to another purely for partisan reasons.

Her research traces the 70-year history of eight metropolitan districts governed by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party) and how water services changed following the transition to opposition political parties and the ability of some citizens to influence political decisions.

“Middle class consumers have more financial security and purchasing power. They are more involved and make organized demands on the government,” Herrera says. “They also are more linked to the water-intensive industries that manufacture products that need good water quality. The party that comes to power in those cities is more responsive. It’s the middle class communities that are more able to pay a little bit more money and get better services.”

In addition to human consumption, there are water needs for commercial and manufacturing uses. In Mexico, for example, Herrera says leather tanneries use water to manufacture leather products such as shoes, clothing and automobile seats. Water is also an important part of food processing.

“Any kind of negative effect of that production on the environment or on people’s health affects those local people,” Herrera says. “If they’re having water scarcity, or if their water supply is contaminated because of production, they are the ones being affected. The water crisis is very local; it affects different countries in different ways. At the same time, it’s greatest humanitarian impact is in water scarce areas in the developing world.”

She notes the politics of water also is linked to issues centering on infrastructure, most often the deterioration of pipes buried underground for many decades that can result in water contamination. Herrera says politicians would rather build something new rather than repair something old, a factor that is global in nations around the world, including in the United States.

“Politicians love to create infrastructure because they are able to cut ribbons on infrastructure,” she says. “It’s big it’s bold, it’s beautiful. To maintain invisible, underground infrastructure you have to literally rip up all the roads; it’s very expensive and disruptive to people. A politician is in office a short time and is always thinking about the short-term political calculation. Engineers can say it’s going to break, there are going to be these issues, but politicians often see it as another guy’s problem. That’s the challenge. These issues get attention when there is a crisis.”

Over the past two decades, global studies on water have reported ongoing issues. In 2008, the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report said that while there is greater access to drinking water, there are still about 1 billion people without access to safe water and more than 2.5 billion people without good sanitation. The Charting Our Water Future Report by a consortium of business partners in 2009 said that water demand will exceed supply by 50 percent in 2030.

Herrera says she hopes people will understand that many times political decisions, not scientific reasoning determines the fate of natural resources, the environment or other key resources.

“We need to be aware of that when we are making policy recommendations or trying to change the way those resources are managed. We also need to be aware of that as citizens,” she says.
“When you have strong societal demands, that’s when you make a difference in how our resources are managed and distributed. When we become more literate about how politics influences natural resources management, we are more effective in holding government accountable and exercising citizenship rights associated with access to clean water, land and air.”

In Cuba with UConn Biostatistician Tania Huedo-Medina

Published on UConn Today / May 19, 2017

Angelina Reyes

Cuba has had extraordinary success in communicating important health messages around preventing things like HIV, obesity, and addiction to its citizens, but a lagging technological infrastructure has made collecting and storing that data challenging. UConn biostatistics professor Tania Huedo-Medina visits the country regularly, going door to door with health workers there and gathering information that could improve the way we collect health data in the U.S., as well create a system for better analyzing and storing that data in Cuba.

UConn TIP Company Finds Drug Triggers Immune System to Fight Cancer in Pets

Published on UConn Today / May 22, 2017

Claire Hall

Every time the veterinarian removed the cancerous tumor from the back of “BW,’’ a sweet-faced, well-loved, white cat, the malignancy would return two or three weeks later.

The cat’s owner opted to try a revolutionary veterinary cancer treatment, called VetiVax, which triggers the animal’s immune system to fight the disease. After the third treatment, the fibrosarcoma tumor didn’t recur, and “BW’’ has been healthy for 2½ years.

UConn alumna Ashley Kalinauskas is the CEO of Torigen Pharmaceuticals, the Farmington, Connecticut-based company that creates the new treatment. She is currently marketing it to veterinarians and is anticipating rapid growth for her startup.

“When I meet people whose family pets have been diagnosed with cancer, they are heartbroken,’’ Kalinauskas said. “They want the very best for their pet. But few people can afford to pay upwards of $5,000 for chemotherapy and radiation.’’

Each year over 8 million dogs and cats are diagnosed with cancer. Almost half of all dogs and cats over age 10 will die of one form of the disease.

Until now, the standard treatment was chemotherapy and radiation, which are both expensive and could potentially have negative side effects. Vetivax uses the animal’s own tumor and tumor-associated antigens to stimulate the pet’s immune system to fight the disease. The personalized treatment, a series of injections, costs about $1,200.

“For both pet owners and veterinarians, VetiVax is another tool in the toolbox,’’ she said. “It provides hope to have an affordable treatment option with limited side effects. The reaction from veterinarians has been very positive.’’

“Our end goal is extending the survival time for these animals and achieving remission,’’ Kalinauskas said. To date, more than 150 animals have been treated with 60 percent exceeding expected survival benchmarks.

The novel approach to treatment of cancer in pets has resulted in a successful preliminary response in 11 types of cancer. Fewer than 3 percent of the animals experienced side effects, and most were minor, including mild lethargy, irritation, and redness at the injection site.

Kalinauskas earned a bachelor’s degree in pathobiology and veterinary sciences at UConn, and then went to the University of Notre Dame for graduate degrees in science and business. There, she won second place in the Notre Dame McCloskey Business Plan Competition alongside her professor and inventor of this technology, veterinarian Mark Suckow. The business plan competition inspired the team to launch Torigen and VetiVax and bring them to the marketplace.

“Connecticut is my home and I wanted to return here,’’ she said. Through the UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP), she has dedicated laboratory space, access to unique research and development facilities, and advice from business experts and investors that can help grow the company.

“We recently received $100,000 from the UConn Innovation Fund, and additional funding from Connecticut Innovations and private investors,’’ she said. “The funding from UConn is allowing me to collect and present additional clinical data to veterinarians.’’

“Veterinarians are ‘scientific skeptics’ and want to see evidence of results. When I show them what we’ve accomplished, they are very excited,’’ Kalinauskas said. “Immunotherapy is the future of cancer medicine, not only for animals but for humans as well.’’

UConn Technology Incubation Program Hosts Inaugural Investment Event

Published on UConn Innovation Portal / May 17, 2017

It was standing room only at the inaugural UConn Technology Incubation Program (TIP) Innovation & Investment Series event this week at UConn Health in Farmington. Startup CEOs, entrepreneurs and members of the angel and venture capital community from throughout New England were in attendance.

The UConn Technology Incubation Program was established in 2004 to accelerate the growth of technology-based startups with a strong connection to the university.  Since then, TIP has grown from its roots in Storrs with space for five companies to a three campus operation able to support up to 60 companies.

This first Innovation & Investment Series event marks a renewed commitment by UConn to support the growth of promising ventures that come out of university labs, as well as external startups.

In addition to active networking, guests heard from Canaan Partners venture capitalists, Colleen Cuffaro and Peter Farina. Canaan Partners is a global, early stage venture capital firm with more than $4 billion in assets under management, and that has invested in some of the world’s leading technology and health care companies.

Cuffaro and Farina offered an inside look at what makes a biotech company attractive for investors. According to Cuffaro, the partners at Canaan “really need to swing for the fences” to get a sufficient return on their investment.

UConn’s executive director of venture development, Mostafa Analoui, explained why events like the TIP Innovation & Investment Series are critical for startups.

“Insight from active venture capitalists from firms like Canaan Partners can mean the difference between winning funding to propel a startup towards success or halting R&D because of insufficient financing,” Analoui said. “The university is committed to supporting events like these that can expedite investments and increase the chances of success for high-potential ventures throughout the state.”

The VCs from Canaan also critiqued pitches from several current TIP companies:

Bioarray Genetics is a molecular diagnostics company focused on changing the way that cancer patients are evaluated and treated with tests that predict patient response to cancer treatments.

Biorasis is a privately held company co-founded by two UConn professors who developed a wireless, needle-implantable biosensor platform for real time, continuous glucose monitoring.

CaroGen Corporation is an emerging vaccine company with a platform technology involving virus-like-vesicle (VLV)-based nanoparticle vaccines to address a broad range of infectious and chronic diseases, such as Hepatitis B, colon cancer and Zika.

The event was sponsored by Locke Lord, LLP and took place at the TIP incubator facility in Farmington at UConn Health. A $19 million addition was completed at this facility in January 2016 as a part of the state’s Bioscience CT initiative. TIP is currently home to 33 companies – the most in the program’s history. Companies in the program had a record year in 2016, with almost $40 million raised in debt and equity. This is $15.5 million more than the previous record set in 2014.

In addition to Canaan Partners, investors from Axiom Ventures, Connecticut Innovations, Elm Street Ventures, Horizon Technology Finance, Jefferson Investors, Pickwick Capital and Vital Venture Capital came to the event to learn about UConn venture opportunities.

For more information about the UConn Technology Incubation Program and to find out about future events, visit

UConn Study: Migratory Birds Arriving Late to Breeding Grounds

Published on UConn Today / May 15, 2017

Loretta Waldman and Natalie van Hoose

Morgan Tingley, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology

Morgan Tingley , assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. (Photo/Emily Darling)

New research shows climate change is altering the delicate seasonal clock that North American migratory songbirds rely on to successfully mate and raise healthy offspring, setting in motion a domino effect that could threaten the survival of many familiar backyard bird species.

A growing shift in the onset of spring has left nine of 48 species of songbirds studied unable to reach their northern breeding grounds at the calendar marks critical for producing the next generation of fledglings, according to a paper published today in Nature Scientific Reports.

That’s because in many regions, warming temperatures are triggering plants to begin their growth earlier or later than normal, skewing biological cycles that have long been in sync.

“The birds are trying to keep up with the speed of climate change but they can’t…it’s just too fast,” said Morgan Tingley, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, and a study author. “They can’t adapt quickly enough.”

The multi-institutional study used data from satellites and citizen scientists to study how quickly the interval between spring plant growth and the arrival of 48 songbird species across North America changed from 2001 to 2012.

Researchers found the gap lengthened by over half a day per year across all species on average, a rate of five days per decade—but for some species, the mismatch is growing at double or triple that rate.

Nine species were clearly unable to keep up with the shift: great crested flycatchers, indigo buntings, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern wood pewees, yellow-billed cuckoos, northern parulas, blue-winged warblers and Townsend’s warblers.

The study is the first to investigate the increasing mismatch between songbirds’ springtime arrival and plant growth at the continental scale and across dozens of species, the researchers said.

Previous studies have predicted climate change will drive hundreds of bird species to extinction and greatly reduce the ranges of others. But some are shifting the timing of their major life events, such as reproduction and laying eggs, in an attempt to keep up with the changes.

The key question is whether this strategy will work long term, author said Stephen Mayor, a postdoctoral researcher with the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.

“If anything could adapt to climate change, you’d think that birds that migrate thousands of miles could,” he said. “It’s much easier for them to move in response to climate conditions than salamanders, for example, or trees.”

Birds leave their winter homes in Central and South America for the north based on the seasonal shift in hours of daylight, a cue unaltered by climate change. To produce healthy young, they must arrive at their breeding grounds to take advantage of the early-season boom in insects that emerge with springtime plant growth.

But as climate change shifts the timing of when plants put out new leaves – a temperature-driven process known as green-up – migrating birds become more likely to reach breeding grounds when temperatures are still frigid and food is scarce or after insect numbers have begun to dwindle.

The researchers found green-up is beginning earlier in eastern North America and – surprisingly – later in the West. Birds that breed primarily in eastern temperate forests tended to lag behind while species that breed in western forests reached breeding grounds too early.

The rate of change is concerning given predicted accelerating climatic changes, which could mean timing will be more out of sync in the future.

“How quickly we can adapt and whether and how much of the natural world, including ourselves, lags behind where we should be in response to climate change is really one of the key challenges,” said Tingley.

The increased variability in weather conditions that comes with climate change could also compound birds’ difficulties in tracking year-to-year changes.

A resource that enabled the study’s broad-scale investigation of nearly 50 bird species across North America are the tens of thousands of data points contributed by citizen scientists, the researchers said. The so called “citizen scientists” are mainly amateur birdwatchers who enter their observations into the eBIRD database of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“As a single scientist no one ever collects data across the scale of a continent, a decade or multiple decades,” said Tingley. “The study would not have been possible if it weren’t for citizens – non-scientists – that are contributing their observations in their backyards and in their parks so we can actually study what has been happening over an entire continent over more than a decade.”

Diving deeper into the data to determine whether population numbers of bird species are falling is one of the next steps in the project.

“The natural world is very complex,” Mayor said. “When you kick it with a big change by altering the climate, different parts of that natural world respond in different ways. We’re just beginning to understand the consequences of this grand unnatural experiment.”

Funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada helped support the research.

In addition to UConn and the University of Florida, Memorial University of Newfoundland, the University of Colorado, Florida International University, Murdoch University and the Illinois Natural History Survey also contributed to the study.

UConn Wins Funding for Study of Insulators

Published on UConn Today / May 16, 2017

Josh Garvey

Chiho Kim (left), postdoctChiho Kim (left), postdoctoral fellow, and Rampi Ramprasad, professor of materials science and engineering, discuss a capacitor that Ramprasad is holding. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)oral fellow and Rampi Ramprasad, professor of Material Science and Engineering, discuss a capacitor that Ramprasad is holding. (Chris LaRosa/UConn Photo)

Chiho Kim (left), postdoctoral fellow, and Rampi Ramprasad, professor of materials science and engineering, discuss a capacitor. (Christopher LaRosa/UConn Photo)

A team of researchers from UConn and other universities was recently awarded a multi-million dollar grant from the Department of Defense to learn how insulating materials exposed to very high electric fields break down.

UConn researcher Ramamurthy ‘Rampi’ Ramprasad leads the team behind “Tracking, Diagnosing, and Impeding Dielectric Breakdown in Polymers,” which received a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, or MURI, award. The award is for $4.5 million over 3 years, with an additional $3 million over two years possible after review.

“This program is about understanding how insulators behave when exposed to high electric fields,” said Ramprasad, professor of materials science and engineering. “If you want to design materials that are tolerant to enormous electric fields, you must first understand how they fail.”

UConn researchers on this project include Ramprasad, Yang Cao, an associate professor of electrical engineering, and Gregory Sotzing, a professor of chemistry. All are members of the Institute of Materials Science. Mukerrem Cakmak from Purdue University, Michael Fayer from Stanford University, and Priya Vashishta from the University of Southern California are also members of the team.

The team will learn about the response of a variety of polymeric materials to very strong electric fields using experimental, computational, and data-driven methods, to see how the field affects the material over a wide range of length scales, ranging from sub-nanometers to microns. Ramprasad said that learning how insulators break down could eventually lead to increased efficiency for a number of important military and civilian technologies.

“The applications could be insulation that you find in electronic devices, electric cables, and most importantly, insulation in capacitor dielectrics,” Ramprasad said. “Capacitors are used in many applications, and the Navy is interested in electrostatic energy storage and high energy density capacitors.”

A capacitor is composed of an insulator sandwiched between metal electrodes. Electrostatic energy is stored in the capacitor by applying an electric field across the sandwich. One of the limiting factors in how much electrical energy a capacitor can store is the point at which the insulator breaks down and gets irreversibly transformed to a conductor – too much energy in the electric field and the insulator will fail.

Capacitors are often used in conjunction with batteries in electric and hybrid electric vehicles. A capacitor can hold less energy overall than a battery, but it can charge and discharge its energy much faster, which makes it useful for capturing and releasing energy quickly.

By understanding how the insulator in a capacitor breaks down, this research will eventually lead to materials that can result in more efficient and long-lasting capacitors capable of storing more energy than is possible today, which can lower the weight and increase the efficiency and effective range of an electric or hybrid vehicle. The military is interested, for similar reasons, to lower the weight of electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as in the development of reliable all-electric ships.

The MURI awards funding to teams of university researchers for carefully chosen and timely research topics identified for their long-term importance. This year, 23 MURI grants totaling $163 million were awarded. In addition to research, the grant funds the training of graduate students in cutting-edge technologies.

“The […] MURI supports research by funding teams of investigators that include more than one traditional science and engineering discipline in order to accelerate the research progress,” said Dale Ormond, principal director for research in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.

Over the past 30 years, DoD’s MURI program has resulted in significant capabilities for U.S. military forces and opened up entirely new lines of research. Notable examples include foundations in artificial intelligence, compressive sensing and automated scene recognition, ultracold atoms, and advanced sensing and navigation; advances in optoelectronics and mid-infrared imaging technology; and direct brain-computer communication. These and other important technological advances from the MURI program have an impact on current and future military capabilities, as well as multiple applications in the commercial sector.

This is the second MURI awarded to a team led by Ramprasad. The first, which is about to come to an end, explored new materials for use in capacitors.