Discovery through collaboration
From manufacturing new materials and bio-engineering new plants to understanding the effect of air pollutants on people’s health and creating new ways of visualizing data, UNT is where collaboration drives innovation. Researchers work together across disciplines — tapping into partnerships with other universities and industry leaders — to make new discoveries and create innovative solutions that will improve the world and sustain the future.
BY: ERIN CRISTALES
Adjacent to his office in UNT’s Laboratory of Imaging Mass Spectrometry sits what Guido Verbeck refers to as an Erector Set. It’s how all of his research starts out, he says — as brutally ugly, Frankensteinian piles of parts. But the inherent homeliness can’t hide the truth of what this instrument, and all the others sprinkled throughout his lab, represent: aspirational deep dives into cross-disciplinary and corporate collaborations that yield tangible solutions to real-world problems.
“You start with Legos and end up with a Maserati,” says Verbeck, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry who holds seven patents for his devices.
To his point, there’s the instrument by his office. The creative combination of pieces culminated in the first iteration of a breathalyzer device to detect drugs, a collaboration with Frisco-based research and development company InspectIR Systems LLC, which focuses on portable opioid and cannabis detection tools. Funded by a National Institute of Justice grant, the device — now reconfigured into a sleeker model — addresses the need, born of the opioid crisis, to detect drugs on the spot, as well as the importance of preventing unjust jail time for presumptive drug use.
That device, in turn, is a natural extension of the instrument that sits in the back of Verbeck’s lab. Developed in 2016, it’s the world’s first mechanical drug-sniffing “dog,” which can be installed in patrol cars to locate certain chemical molecules in the air, particularly those used to create meth- amphetamines. He collaborated on an instrument grant with Inficon, a New York-based technology company dedicated to gas analysis, to build the device, and with UNT’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization and Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leader in biotechnology product development, to develop software that allows the data gathered by the instrument to be processed in real time.
And then there’s the instrument that started it all, perched right in the middle of the lab — the nanomanipulator, initially meant for forensic analysis, that Verbeck brought with him to UNT in 2006 after a stint in the corporate world. But after Regents Professor of biology Kent Chapman, now director of UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute, asked if the instrument could drill down into a single cell, the two began collaborating on a research project to determine the fats in a plant organelle. The resulting paper, published in 2011 and titled “Visualization of Lipid Droplet Composition by Direct Organelle Mass Spectrometry,” made a list of the year’s top publications in medicine and biology. Since then, the device has been used for early detection of biomarkers in breast cancer, among other applications.
“I was hooked on collaboration at that point,” says Verbeck, who as a member of the BioDiscovery Institute — established as an Institute of Research Excellence in recognition of UNT’s strong bio-based products program — continues his on-campus collaborations with faculty such as immunology, biochemistry and micro-biology professor Aaron Roberts. “One of the things I love to do, and try to inspire other faculty to do, is to have discussions with other groups. Step outside your comfort zone.”
"One of the things I love to do, and try to inspire other faculty to do, is to have discussions with other groups. Step outside your comfort zone."
— Guido Verbeck
professor of chemistry and biochemistry
You could almost view Verbeck’s wildly successful instruments as a metaphor for cross-disciplinary research itself — a melding of distinct parts that create a functional, often world-changing whole.
UNT faculty have been crossing the bounds of disciplines for years utilizing a solutions-focused thought process that involves the in-depth consideration of future problems. Through group activity, they’ve been able to drive innovation to propel industry and society forward.
“In today’s world, innovation doesn’t happen without collaboration,” says Michael Rondelli, UNT’s associate vice president for innovation and commercialization. “Our faculty who are most collaborative with other faculty on our campus — as well as with researchers at other universities or in industries — tend to be the most successful at obtaining grant funding, and that then leads to the opportunity to be innovative.”
Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation have been investing in collaborative, multidisciplinary research above all else for years, and universities that have integrated that approach into the way they do business have been the most successful. A 2012 NSF report, for example, indicated “research collaboration among multiple institutions is a growing trend,” citing a 47-percent increase in academic research and development (R&D) funding from 2000 to 2009.
Over the past decade, UNT has been devoted to establishing labs that promote collaboration among faculty, other institutions and corporations. UNT’s BioDiscovery Institute, where faculty like University Distinguished Research Professor of biological sciences Richard Dixon — recently elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in London for his groundbreaking work in plant science — consistently push the limits of what’s possible. Chapman leads the institute, where he and assistant professor of materials science and engineering Diana Berman — as part of a joint effort between BioDiscovery and UNT’s Advanced Materials and Manufacturing Processes Institute, along with researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and Huazhong Agricultural University in China — are investigating the Chinese violet cress, whose seeds contain an oil that could be a competitor in the lubrication industry. Read more.
“As with any new knowledge, it takes a broad, in this case international, interdisciplinary team to fully take advantage of a discovery such as this,” Chapman says.
UNT’s Materials Research Facility — a state-of-the-art lab space that promotes innovative materials work — generated more than $7 million in research grants last year. It’s where Regents Professor of materials science and engineering Rajarshi Banerjee develops multi-phase high-entropy alloys to revolutionize aircraft construction as part of a $900,000 grant from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and where Regents Professor of mechanical and energy engineering Nandika D’Souza introduces her students to high-powered equipment that helps the team conduct boundary-crossing research to address unique consumer needs such as fiber sensors and bio-based foams for building applications.
“My research is trying to bring government, academia and industry together,” D’Souza says.
And that’s just scratching the surface of the collaborative hubs on campus. There’s also UNT’s Advanced Environmental Research Institute, which conducts science-based interdisciplinary environmental research that provides an understanding of how human actions impact the environment and suggests scientific, engineering, policy and educational solutions to environmental problems. Additionally, UNT’s Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research — which specializes in business logistics, economics, information technology, transportation and operations research — provides the capability to develop effective solutions to complex problems confronting public and private organizations.
And the UNT-Chile Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program, an international interdisciplinary cooperative, approaches conservation by coupling the social and biological dynamics within policymaking. The program, led by its director and professor of philosophy and religion Ricardo Rozzi, recently was awarded $20 million from the Chilean government for the construction of a new Sub-Antarctic Cape Horn Center. In June, the Catholic University of Chile and the University of Magallanes, along with UNT and the conservation program, consolidated a partnership strategy for the management of the future center, expected to open in 2020. Read more.
“We, as a university, are breaking down the barriers of linear thinking and fostering interdisciplinary collaborations to push innovation across all disciplines,” UNT President Neal Smatresk says.
"My research is trying to bring government, academia and industry together."
— Nandika D'Souza
Regents Professor of mechanical and energy engineering
Tackling air pollution
Those collaborative opportunities aren’t lost on UNT researchers, either. In fact, they’ve become so adept at working together, their connections are akin to six degrees of separation — chat with one faculty member, or visit their colleagues in the same building or even right next door, and you’ll find work that leads you to a researcher in a different discipline. Verbeck, for example, connects to departments ranging from visual arts — in 2013, his students collaborated with associate professor of printmaking Andrew DeCaen’s students on a Metabolic Science in Art exhibit — to biology. He points out the students in his lab who he shares with Chapman, biochemistry and molecular biology professor Rebecca Dickstein, and toxicologist Amie Lund.
Lund, an assistant professor of biology, often utilizes the instruments in UNT’s Laboratory of Imaging Mass Spectrometry in her research, which investigates the effects of air pollutants on the progression of cardiovascular disease, neurovascular blood brain barrier disruption and obesity. The nanomanipulator allows her to look at the particle components of complex mixtures to determine if they are driving negative outcomes in the body.
Verbeck introduced Lund to Yong Yang, associate professor of biomedical engineering, who she now collaborates with on her research. Yang and his team use nanomaterials to build matrices for cell culture models that more closely resemble what one would see in a human or animal body, which can be used for research and pharmaceutical development.
“When you bring together people from across different fields, you’re bringing in new ways of finding solutions to a problem,” says Lund, a member of AERI. “I could never produce the novel cell cultural matrices that Dr. Yang does, because I’m not of that engineering mindset. It allows a different approach that increases the validity of the science.”
In addition, she collaborates with neuro-endocrinologist Rebecca Cunningham, of the UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, in research that investigates the effects of air pollutants on the vasculature of the brain, including possible links to Alzheimer’s disease and dementia and the appearance of Alzheimer’s-related pathways in the brains of children.
“There may be significant alterations on brain function and behavioral effects when air pollutants cross from the blood into the brain,” Lund says. “Dr. Cunningham has the expertise to train us on how to assess the resulting neurobehavioral effects from our exposure studies.”
And then there’s the $437,964 National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences grant Lund was recently awarded to study the effects of air pollution on obesity. Her co-investigator on the project is Brian McFarlin, professor of kinesiology, health promotion and recreation in the College of Education and director of UNT’s Applied Physiology Laboratory. Lund is gearing up to conduct a probiotic study, based on results from McFarlin’s research in probiotic benefits in humans coupled with pollutant exposures, and will use the equipment in the Applied Physiology Laboratory to analyze different biomarkers they have identified as being associated with obesity and increased propensity for heart attacks and strokes.
“What’s exciting to me about our current research is that we’ve taken a step back. Instead of focusing on one disease state, we’re saying, ‘Wait a minute — if we can figure out the main pathways that contribute in some way to each of these interrelated diseases, then we can target those, whether by decreased exposure, pharmaceutical therapy, probiotics, whatever it happens to be,’” Lund says. “With this interdisciplinary approach, we can investigate these questions related to human health from different angles and possibly hit multiple birds with one stone.”
"When you bring together people from across different fields, you’re bringing in new ways of finding solutions to a problem."
— Amie Lund
assistant professor of biology
Digging into drought
Just one floor down from Lund’s office in the Environmental Science Building, archaeologist Lisa Nagaoka also mulls the human-environment connection. And like Lund, she’s not doing the mulling alone.
“We’re pretty much looking at anything and everything that can be studied today, but in the past,” says Nagaoka, an associate professor in UNT’s Department of Geography and the Environment.
In her current research, funded by a $116,206 National Science Foundation grant, Nagaoka teamed up with UNT geography professor Steve Wolverton, Regents Professor of environmental science and director of UNT’s Advanced Environmental Research Institute Sam Atkinson, UNT hydrology professor Feifei Pan, and a researcher from Washington State University to study the impact of climate change, particularly drought, on societies reliant on dryland agriculture. The research is focused on the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado, where the team is looking at prehistoric culture change — in terms of both community collapse and resilience — to determine what factors lead to failure or sustainability of dryland farming over the long term.
Pan takes the landscape data the team collects and creates hydrological models that convey an area’s ability to retain moisture and for how long, while Atkinson conducts drone work to ground truth the data the team receives from the federal government. Both, Nagaoka says, are key to understanding the potential effects of climate change on soil.
“We’re able to see what moisture the soil can hold, to see the implications of years of drought in a modern context,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out the magnitude of the drought that could lead to the collapse of the agricultural system.”
Right next door to Nagaoka, biophysical geographer Alexandra Ponette-González also is focused on rain and soil, but from an atmospheric perspective. An associate professor in the Department of Geography and the Environment whose work spans diverse ecosystems from tropical forests to urban areas, she has long been fascinated by what is deposited to ecosystems through rain and fog, whether nutrients from fire, pollutants from fossil fuel combustion or dust particles from dryland soils.
Currently, Ponette-González is working on several projects, including research on intra-urban variability in carbon deposition funded by a $534,263 NSF Geography and Spatial Sciences and Ecosystems CAREER grant. She and her colleagues — from the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and the Environment, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Baylor University’s department of environmental science — are investigating to what extent city trees can function as “urban air filters”: capturing soot particles from the atmosphere and then depositing them into soil, where they can be stored long-term. The research has implications for urban planning, specifically in determining where city trees should be planted.
“Soot has multiple adverse effects on human health and is the second most important contributor to global climate change after carbon dioxide,” says Ponette-González, who heads UNT’s Ecosystem Geography Laboratory and also utilizes the technology available in UNT’s Materials Research Facility for her urban air filters research. “If we can use trees to clean the air, then we have to think creatively about how we manage our landscape to promote that process.”
She’s also exploring dust impacts, both positive and negative, on terrestrial ecosystems. She and her colleagues are studying the effects of the 2011-2014 drought on dust emissions and dust deposition across Texas. As the PI on the study funded by NSF Geomorphology and Land Use Dynamics, Ponette-González is collaborating with researchers Gary Glass, Todd Byers and graduate student Jack Manuel from UNT’s Department of Physics, as well as researchers from the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas A&M-San Antonio, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and Middle Tennessee State University.
And along with three other UNT faculty — associate professor of biology Jeff Johnson, associate professor of geography Matthew Fry and University Distinguished Research Professor of photography Dornith Doherty — Ponette-González is part of a working group that received funding from a 2017-18 microgrant through UNT’s Office of Faculty Success. As part of the group, Ponette-González will study if bird feathers can serve as biomonitors of air pollution.
“Collaborating allows you to answer bigger questions,” she says. “You can go places you just can’t go alone.”
"Part of the creative process that art shares with science is making connections between ideas to create something new."
— Dornith Doherty
University Distinguished Research Professor of photography
Power of visualization
Across campus, in the College of Visual Arts and Design’s Department of Studio Art, Doherty explains her essential role in the working group. As the only member with a humanities background, she is uniquely equipped to offer what would otherwise be an unexplored perspective.
“Part of the creative process that art shares with science is making connections between ideas to create something new,” says Doherty, who will use a scanning electron microscope to make images of bird feathers and air pollution as a way to encourage new modes of thinking in regards to birds as biomonitors. She and Ponette-González also are sponsoring undergraduate research fellowships as part of the project, in which geography and art students will conduct collaborative research. “For me, the access to scientific instrumentation like the SEM literally allows a different point of view into these topics.”
Over the past decade, another of Doherty’s projects, Archiving Eden, has taken her to 20 national seed banks over four continents, where she often uses x-ray technology available in research laboratories to “peer into these little sparks of life.” The banks serve as botanical backup systems meant to preserve genetic diversity in case of catastrophic climate change or political unrest.
“Part of my work is documentation, but the other important aspect is creating visual metaphors that make connections in a more open-ended way,” she says. “A lot of the time, those metaphors center on the ideas of time and the fragility of life that are harder to show in a direct, concrete way.”
Doherty’s Archiving Eden project will be on display at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., and the Ontario Science Center beginning in January as part of a prestigious solo exhibition. She continues to add to Archiving Eden even as she tackles three other projects, including a collaborative endeavor with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in which she worked with the institute’s research labs to look at the role of ecosystems in spreading mosquito- and tick-carried diseases.
“These are ways to explore the edges of our experience that people might not think about otherwise,” Doherty says. “It’s about bringing the invisible to light.”
Of course, the connections just keep going on a campus where collaboration is king. UNT’s College of Music, for example, began offering a Ph.D. in Performing Arts Health this fall in conjunction with the UNT Health Science Center. Last year, UNT partnered with the Indian Institute of Technology in bioimplant longevity research, led by associate professor of materials science and engineering Sundeep Mukherjee. And in May, the ribbon was cut on the NetDragon Digital Research Centre — a collaboration between UNT and Digital Train Limited, a leader in internet and mobile educational content and delivery — which will give faculty and students additional opportunities for research and technology development.
“By working together, UNT is challenging what is known — and what is possible,” Rondelli says. “We are bringing disparate techniques together and looking at things from many angles both inside and outside the box. This allows for the creation of new ideas, new information and new solutions.”