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Wells Competition awards three healthcare startup teams

Three entries to the 10th annual Michael G. Wells Competition, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Innovation Institute, won $5,000 prizes for their work toward healthcare innovation.

The winners included BioBulwark, a mesh implant that provides long-lasting prevention of infection superior to currently popular organic chemical coatings; Biocarpet, an endovascular device that can be shaped by heat to treat peripheral arterial disease occurring in small and complex anatomies, including lesions occurring across joints; and OPS, an endovascular device that provides oxygenated blood flow to critical abdominal organs to maintain organ health for transplant harvesting.

The competition usually awards grand prize winners $20,000, second-place winners $10,000 and third-place winners $5,000. The competition’s namesake, Michael G. Wells (pictured), said the decision to distribute prize money equally came from the judging panel determining that these teams could benefit from money and time to move their ideas along. Wells also said prize money that wasn’t given out will be awarded to teams early next year who have shown “demonstrable progress” in their respective projects.

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Joel Philistin named new financial wellness program director

The Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA) and Student Affairs have jointly named Joel Philistin their financial wellness program director. Philistin started in the newly created position in September.

“Financial wellness represents being equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to make informed financial decisions. The financial decisions that college students make today can impact them well beyond graduation. Our program goal is to give our students the tools to build a strong financial foundation for now and after graduation,” Philistin said.

Philistin came to Pitt from the College of the Mainland in Texas, where he served as a financial literacy educator and financial aid advisor from 2018 to 2020. There, he relaunched the college’s financial literacy program with an emphasis on classroom workshops and increasing financial aid applications; over two years, the number of students who applied for financial aid at the college increased by 3 percent.

Philistin also worked at Houston Community College where he helped develop an award-winning student loan debt series and launched several initiatives, including a food scholarship program and Hurricane Harvey emergency grant. Prior to his work in higher education, Philistin worked in the banking industry, first as a teller and then assistant branch manager, before earning a master’s degree in public administration with a focus on non-profit management.

Randall McCready, executive director of financial aid in OAFA, hopes the new position will engage students to learn more about their finances especially during a time of great economic uncertainty.

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Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center receives NSF grant for nerve cell research

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, a joint research effort by the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, recently received a $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which will continue a lab-computer collaboration that accurately simulates communications between nerve cells and muscle cells. Stephen Meriney, professor of neuroscience in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, is a principal investigator of the project.

The project has immediate applications in treating a type of neurological disease called Lambert-Eaton Myasthenic Syndrome (LEMS). It also offers fundamental insights into how nerve cells communicate with muscle cells in health and disease. LEMS is a neurological disease in which a person’s immune system attacks calcium channels, leading to a weaker communication between nerve and muscle, which causes weaker muscle contractions and an inability of patients to move and function normally.

In earlier work, scientists at the center and Pitt simulated the role of the calcium channels of the nerve-cell membrane in communication between nerve and muscle cells in frogs and mice. The work faithfully reproduced the nerve-to-muscle signaling differences seen in those species.

Ann E. Cudd in a black jacket

Provost Cudd delivers presidential address to law and social philosophy association

Provost Ann Cudd delivered the presidential address at the October 2020 biannual conference of the American Section of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy. The meeting, which focused on the topic of “Education, Inclusion and Justice,” gathered scholars from around the world for three days of intensive discussions.

Association membership includes philosophers, legal theorists, political scientists and economists with interests in probing issues about justice, society, the economy and democracy.

Cudd’s address was titled “After the Apocalypse: The Future of Higher Education.”

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More than 700 students participate in Pitt HR's annual Disability Mentoring Day

The Office of Human Resources held its annual Disability Mentoring Day in mid-October at Beaver Area High School.

The office partners with other University areas to provide mentoring to local high school students with disabilities. It focuses primarily on items like resume writing and interviewing. The office normally hosts the event on campus each year, with visits to Panther Central and Pitt Police, but this year it was held virtually.

Participants included 29 employers and more than 700 total students. They came from the city of Pittsburgh, the counties of Allegheny, Washington and Westmoreland, and 40 school districts.

“Our Pittsburgh region has always shown remarkable participation in this event, which has — and continues to get — high marks,” said Tom Armstrong, recruiter for veterans and individuals with disabilities in Pitt’s Office of Human Resources.

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Changfeng Tai receives $10.5 million DARPA award

Changfeng Tai, associate professor of urology and pharmacology in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, was awarded $10.5 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a medical device that would help people who suffered spinal cord injuries.

Through the five-year award, Tai and his team will develop a fully implantable, wirelessly controlled and chargeable stimulator to restore three visceral functions including bladder, bowel and sexual functions for people with spinal cord injuries. Restoring these visceral functions remains a top priority for functional recovery in people with spinal cord injuries, and can dramatically improve the quality of life and prevent potential kidney failure caused by bladder-sphincter dyssynergia. The device would act similarly to how a pacemaker helps the heart pump blood, except it would be inserted under the skin in the lower back.

“This award is significant in the progress of this device,” said Tai. “The hope is that this will one day ease the burden that people with disabilities related to spinal cord injuries face every day, including military veterans. We will work with our collaborators to build a system that will allow for human clinical trial use.”

DARPA is a research and development agency of the United States Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. The award is part of DARPA’s BG+ program.

Four engineering faculty received CAREER awards in 2019-20

Four faculty in the Swanson School of Engineering received Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) awards from the National Science Foundation during fiscal year 2019-20, bringing to 15 the number of the school’s faculty who have received the awards since 2016.

According to NSF, the CAREER Program is its most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization.

The 2020 recipients include:

Takashi D-Y Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering, received $437,144 for Uncovering the Impact of Traditional and Novel Chronic Stimulation Modalities on Neural Excitability and Native Neuronal Network Function.

Sangyeop Lee, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, received $500,000 for Machine Learning Enabled Study of Thermal Transport in Polycrystalline Materials from First Principles.

Jason Shoemaker, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, received $547,494 for Enabling Immunomodulatory Treatment of Influenza Infection using Multiscale Modeling.

Feng Xiong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, received $500,00 for Scalable Ionic Gated 2D Synapse (IG-2DS) with Programmable Spatio-Temporal Dynamics for Spiking Neural Networks.

For more information about the research projects, go to the Swanson School of Engineering’s website.

Starzl documentary honored with Donate Life award

Burden of Genius,” a documentary that tells the story of Pittsburgh transplant pioneer and surgeon Thomas Starzl, was honored on Oct. 8 with the Donate Life Hollywood Inspire Award for motion pictures, television shows and documentaries that shed a positive light on organ donation.

Other recipients included NBC’s “New Amsterdam,” Showtime’s “Kidding” and Nova’s “Transplanting Hope.”

The Starzl documentary, co-produced by Carl Kurlander, a senior lecturer in Pitt’s Film and Media Studies Program, details the surgeon’s 60-year career, including the world’s first successful liver transplant in 1967 at the University of Colorado University Hospital.

Starzl joined the Pitt School of Medicine in 1981 as professor of surgery and led a team of surgeons who performed 30 liver transplants that year, launching the first liver transplant program in the country. Starzl’s achievements in both surgery and research have been widely credited as transforming modern medicine.

Find more information about the award on Pittwire.

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Public Health's Albert named editor of Gerontological Society's Innovation in Aging

The Gerontological Society of America — the nation’s largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to the field of aging — has named Steven M. Albert, chair of the Graduate School of Public Health’s Department of Behavioral and Community Health Sciences, as the next editor-in-chief of the journal Innovation in Aging, effective January 2021.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. Albert as editor-in-chief. He has a stellar career in aging research and has profound leadership and management skills that will be essential in this role,” said Ishan C. Williams, the chair of the society's Program, Publications and Products Committee. 

Innovation in Aging is an online open access journal. It contains conceptually sound, methodologically rigorous research studies that describe innovative theories, research methods, interventions, evaluations and policies relevant to aging and the life course.

“In its four years as an online journal, Innovation in Aging has already made its mark as a place for cutting-edge research,” Albert said. “It attracts high-quality research that cuts across the disparate fields of gerontology.”

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Engineering researchers receive NSF award

Nathan Youngblood and Feng Xiong, assistant professors of electrical and computer engineering, have received $380,000 from the National Science Foundation to study phase-change materials and overcome the challenges inherent in the technology, which is promising for new applications like high-speed computing and advanced optical storage.

Read more about their work

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NSF grant funds Madison's collaborative efforts to build research coordination network

Michael Madison, a professor at Pitt Law, is co-leading a novel research collaborative called The Governing Knowledge Commons Project, which received a National Science Foundation award to support efforts to build a research coordination network. 

The other co-principal investigators are Brett Frischmann, professor at Villanova University's Charles Widger School of Law; and Katherine Jo Strandburg, professor at New York University's School of Law.

This NSF-funded project will extend existing research, supporting a new network designed to build a research community to advance the work systematically and scientifically. 

This network, funded by a $350,000 grant, will assemble researchers from around the world and from law, the social and behavioral sciences, computer science, and engineering, allowing them to coordinate, integrate and communicate research across multiple disciplinary and organizational boundaries.

The project, which will take place over three years, will facilitate a series of focused working conferences, each organized around a specific subject matter, as well as a capstone convergence conference bringing the entire network and its research together.

“It’s an exciting time for knowledge commons research. IP law focuses on exclusive property rights. We’re focused on the power of collaboration. I’m thrilled by the recognition by the NSF and what these resources offer to the future of the field and to the future of technology policy,” Madison said.

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Social Work’s Whitfield receives National Institute of Mental Health grant

Darren Whitfield, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, received a $443,533 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to investigate the relationship between psychosocial factors (depressive symptomatology, substance use, social support, perceived HIV risk) and adherence and persistence to HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) among young Black gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men.  

Young Black men who have sex with men continue to experience a disproportionate rate of HIV infections in the United States. HIV PrEP is a biomedical prevention intervention shown to reduce risk of HIV infection; however, studies suggest young Black men are less likely to be prescribed PrEP and have significantly lower levels of adherence to PrEP compared to white men. In addition, persistence on PrEP among young Black men is low, with discontinuation rates ranging between 17 to 22 percent within six months of starting.

This study will examine the factors associated with long-term adherence to PrEP in young Black men in Atlanta, a city with a large concentration of young Black men impacted by HIV. The study is a collaboration between the Pitt School of Social Work and Emory University Rollins School of Public Health. 

The co-principal investigator of this study is Jeb Jones at the Rollins School and the co-investigator for the study is Patrick Sullivan at the Rollins School. Further collaborators in the study include Positive Impact Health Centers, NAESM Inc. and the Fulton County Board of Health.  

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Swanson School’s Melissa Bilec receives NSF funding

Melissa Bilec, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Swanson School of Engineering, has received $98,000 from the National Science Foundation to convene a panel of experts to meet for a workshop on the circular economy that will help set the research agenda for years to come.

In the course of three three-hour sessions over three weeks, the workshop will be an opportunity for the wide array of invited constituents to discuss and develop ideas in circular economy research.

Bilec will team up with Eric Beckman, distinguished service professor of chemical engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, and Gemma Jiang, director of the Organizational Innovation Lab at the Swanson School. They are collaborating with the University of Georgia’s Jason Locklin, professor of chemical engineering and founding director of the New Materials Institute; Jenna Jambeck, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia; and Gregg Beckham, senior research fellow at the National Renewable Energy Lab.

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Pitt research unit receives funding for work on veteran suicide prevention

The Pitt Program Evaluation and Research Unit (PERU), in partnership with the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, recently announced a cooperative agreement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to implement and evaluate a comprehensive public health approach to suicide prevention, focusing especially on service members, veterans and their families.

The CDC awarded PERU $700,000 in funding each year over the next five years for suicide prevention by creating the Northwest Pennsylvania Veteran Suicide Prevention Program.

The program will consist of an assessment of active county, state and national suicide prevention initiatives to identify gaps in services and programming. Following the assessment, PERU will develop and implement additional risk assessment programs, community-based trainings and healthcare-related initiatives across a 15-county target region. Quantitative and qualitative data will be collected throughout the program to identify best practices and develop future policy.

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SHRS teaming up with DePaul School for Hearing and Speech

The Pitt School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS) and DePaul School for Hearing and Speech are teaming up to provide research and educational opportunities to improve academic programming at both institutions. A strategic and official partnership, marked by the signing of a memorandum of understanding, is significantly expanding collaboration between the two Pittsburgh schools.

For many years, DePaul School has served as a training site for speech-language pathology and audiology students from SHRS’s Department of Communication Science and Disorders (CSD). DePaul School for Hearing and Speech teaches children who are deaf, hard of hearing or with speech impairments to listen and speak. By utilizing Listening and Spoken Language Education, DePaul School currently serves approximately 60 students ranging from infancy through eighth grade. 

The partnership between the institutions aims to fulfill various mutually beneficial goals including the development of graduate student scholarships, the creation of doctoral student and post-doctoral research fellowships and community partnership initiatives, among many others. Pitt CSD will contribute the resources and expertise to carry out this work while providing opportunities for students to experience hands-on clinical and research training.

Annual dB-SERC Leadership Award winners announced

The Discipline-Based Science Education Research Center (dB-SERC) has announced the recipients of the 2019-2020 Leadership Award. This annual award recognizes and celebrates the contributions to the dB-SERC community made by faculty members in the natural sciences departments in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences.

The dB-SERC promotes and supports evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning in Pitt’s natural sciences departments. More information about dB-SERC can be found at its website.

Leader Award winners for 2019-2020:

Danielle Andrews-Brown, Geology and Environmental Science

Peter Bell, Chemistry

Russell Clark, Physics

Robert Devaty, Physics

Jenny Ganger, Psychology

Sean Garrett-Roe, Chemistry

Joe Grabowski, Chemistry

Ericka Huston, Chemistry

Kirill Kiselyov, Biological Sciences

Barbara Kucinski, Psychology

Tamika Madison, Chemistry

Dave Nero, Physics

Jessica Wandelt, Biological Sciences

Kyle Whittinghill, Geology and Environmental Science


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Sanjeev Shroff elected as fellow of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering

Sanjeev Shroff, distinguished professor and Gerald E. McGinnis Chair of Bioengineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, was elected as a fellow of the International Academy of Medical and Biological Engineering. The virtual induction ceremony was held in conjunction with the Carnegie Mellon Forum on Biomedical Engineering on Sept. 18.

This competitive election is in recognition of distinguished contributions to and leadership in the field of medical and biological engineering on an international level. Presently, there are around 200 living IAMBE fellows.

Shroff was selected for his significant research contributions to cardiovascular engineering and bioengineering education. His research in Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering has two focus areas: regulation of cardiac muscle contraction by changes in cardiac proteins and their chemical modifications, and the role of vascular stiffness in cardiovascular function and potential therapeutic applications of vascular stiffness-modifying drugs and/or hormones.

His research efforts have been continuously funded by the National Institutes of Health since 1986, with additional support from other funding agencies such as the American Heart Association and the National Science Foundation.

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Michael Hatridge to lead $115 million grant to support quantum computing center

Michael Hatridge, assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, has been named a principal investigator in a $115 million U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science initiative to advance quantum computing research. The Co-design Center for Quantum Advantage, led by the Brookhaven National Laboratory, will feature five National Quantum Information Science Research Centers designed to advance and scale quantum computing capabilities. Under the grant, Hatridge will help his center develop devices for connecting quantum computers into large-scale machines and amplifiers designed to read bits of quantum data.

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Tia Lynn Ashman publishes flower pigmentation study

The effects of climate change have led to increases in floral pigmentation over the last 76 years, according to research featuring the work of Tia Lynn Ashman, a distinguished professor of evolutionary ecology in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

The paper, “Floral Pigmentation Has Responded Rapidly to Global Change in Ozone and Temperature,” was published Sept. 17 in Current Biology. It was coauthored with Drew MacQueen, a geographic information systems specialist at the University of Virginia, and Clemson University Assistant Professor Matthew Koski, who earned his Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh. The research outlines how global changes in ozone and temperature have affected UV-absorbing pigmentation of flowers during the 20th century.

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Gig economy researchers receive Knowledge Challenge grant

Spyridon Lagaras, assistant professor of finance in the Katz Graduate School of Business, has been awarded a $220,000 Knowledge Challenge grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for "Securing the Gig: Entrepreneurship and the Rise of the Platform Economy,” a joint project with Matthew Denes of Carnegie Mellon University, Margarita Tsoutsoura of Cornell University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.

“The proposed project will investigate the effect of the gig economy on entrepreneurship using detailed administrative microdata from the Internal Revenue Service,” said Lagaras. “We plan to study how the gig economy affects entry into entrepreneurship, nascent firm growth and their sources of capital/funding.”

Together with funding from CMU's Block Center for Technology and Society and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, their gig economy research has received nearly $400,000 in funding.

Read more about the award in this Katz school news feature.