From using artificial intelligence and engineering new devices to promote better health care to developing out-of-the-box approaches that improve educational outcomes and collaborating in an effort to combat COVID-19, UNT researchers lead the way in confronting today’s toughest challenges.
Text by: Erin Cristales
The biomedical Artificial Intelligence Lab in UNT’s Discovery Park is a place where “the only chemical is coffee,” but the energetic number crunching is applied to conditions including cancer, Parkinson’s disease, spasticity, leg amputations, aphasia and cerebral palsy.
The lab is led by Mark Albert, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and computer science and engineering, and his primary goal is to provide the kind of career-shaping, discipline-disrupting experiences that can boost academic potential and better society in the process. Albert’s grad students collaborate on artificial intelligence projects ranging from real-time tumor tracking with radiation oncologists to improving assessments of microprocessor-controlled prosthetic legs with physical therapists.
In March, COVID-19 forced the lab, along with nearly every other part of campus, to temporarily shut its doors. The desire to use research as a tool for changemaking, however, stayed very much open for business.
For example, just a month after the pandemic made its way to Texas, 30 teams of students taking AI classes with Albert and Ting Xiao, computer science and engineering assistant professor, used real-world data to predict the number of infections and fatalities for each region of the world as part of the Kaggle COVID-19 Global Forecasting challenge. Many students used state-of-the-art recurrent neural network models tuned for the task — and found they predicted the path of the virus with a fair amount of accuracy. The exercise, Albert says, emphasized the potential for data to help improve people’s lives and plan for future events.
“There are problems that need to be solved, and more data out there to solve them than any number of people can manage,” Albert says, “so we’re using machine learning to sift through that sea of data and make an impact.”
“Making an impact” could easily be UNT’s research motto — it’s an institution where education never stops and world-bettering interdisciplinary innovations know no bounds. For instance, UNT’s approach to AI — for which it added a master’s program this fall — means faculty from business, engineering, information, health and public safety, and music collaborate on machine learning, deep learning and data science in areas as varied as natural language processing, computer vision and autonomous control. And this fall, the university launched several new cutting-edge degree programs including a B.S. and M.S. in cybersecurity, an M.S. in engineering management and an M.B.A. in music business.
UNT also is a place where researchers possess the flexibility to change focus when tough times require it — in the months since COVID-19 ravaged the globe, faculty from nearly every field have pivoted to address the insidious effects of the pandemic, looking for solutions to problems ranging from linguistic barriers to health care to the efficacy of proposed treatments.
All of that and more is what makes UNT’s research footprint so indelible. Last year, UNT’s Tier One status was reaffirmed, making the university one of only 131 institutions in the nation to be included in those ranks — its diversity of doctoral programs and strengths in non-STEM research areas were major factors in UNT earning, and retaining, that designation. In fall 2019, Mark McLellan joined UNT as vice president of research and innovation, bringing 35 years of experience in leading major university research programs, including stints at Portland State, Utah State, the University of Florida, Texas A&M and Cornell. And like all great researchers, McLellan understands the power of iteration. That’s why he’s drawing on his past successes — along with a healthy dose of support from UNT President Neal Smatresk and UNT Provost Jennifer Cowley — to illuminate the path forward.
“Not every institution has that all hands-on-deck approach to its future in terms of building out the role of discovery and innovation,” McLellan says. “We’re relatively young in this game, but our opportunity and potential are sky high.”
And faculty are harnessing that potential — quite literally, in the case of Barbara Trippeer, assistant professor of fashion design. She’s collaborating with researchers from Columbia University’s College of Engineering and the Fashion Institute of Technology to create a brassiere lined with optical sensors that can track changes in breast cancer tumors.
Trippeer brings a unique perspective to the table — yes, the sensors are potentially gamechangers, but will patients actually wear them? She’s applying her knowledge to ensure the garment will feature the kind of comfortable, fashionable design that promotes patient satisfaction, which in turn could ultimately prevent more invasive forms of therapy.
“Fashion is like people’s armor — it’s what you put on every day to feel confident,” says Trippeer, who in February took part in UNT’s Washington D.C. Research Faculty Fellows program, in which 19 junior faculty from across all disciplines traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with funding organizations. “The challenge is that often scientists only care if the technology works. But with medical regime adherence, if the patient doesn’t like the product, they may not wear it. So, how can we include patients in the process so they are engaged and invested?”
Trippeer’s user experience expertise means she’s able to see the project from a divergent, yet no less critical, angle. It’s those kinds of multidisciplinary meetings of the minds — both in-house and across industry and institutions — that have long been an essential component of UNT’s scholarly culture.
In just the past year, there have been numerous research endeavors that have proven UNT’s collaborative power. A few highlights include the work of Kent Chapman, Regents Professor of biology and director of UNT’s BioDiscovery institute, who — in conjunction with researchers from Huazhong Agricultural University in China — created the first complete DNA sequence of jojoba, a drought-tolerant, wax-bearing desert shrub that is a major ingredient in cosmetics and skin care products because it supports moisture retention in human skin. Misty Sailors, professor of teacher education and administration, and Jim Hoffman, professor of language and literacy, are part of the BETTER project — implemented by CODE (Canada) and Associação Progresso (Mozambique) with funds from the Government of Canada and in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Human Development of Mozambique — which reimagines primary literacy teacher preparation through an initiative that promotes personal, literacy-focused relationships between preservice teachers and primary-aged students. And Ifana Mahbub, assistant professor of electrical engineering, received a $500,000 National Science Foundation CAREER grant to develop a wireless recording, stimulation and power system that will allow medical researchers to study and possibly treat brain diseases such as chronic neuropathic pain and post-stroke paralysis. The project is a collaboration with other chronic pain mitigation researchers, including one from Texas A&M.
“Opioids are a problem, and people are trying to find alternative ways to solve chronic pain,” Mahbub says. “We have to work together to solve the problems that exist.”
Over the past few months, the number of problems has substantially increased, as has the urgency to solve them. The COVID-19 pandemic has united UNT scholars across every discipline — early on, for instance, researchers in the College of Engineering and CVAD combined their talents to produce transparent face shields in response to an in-house equipment shortage caused by the pandemic, a move that enabled lab-based researchers to continue their hands-on quest for answers.
Of course, not all COVID research requires test tubes and centrifuges. Back in March, Sara Champlin, assistant professor of advertising and a participant in the fellows program, was looking for ways to contribute her expertise to the COVID-19 pandemic. At one meeting, there were ideas pitched from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics — all crucial areas, but none that directly applied to her work in the social sciences. And then Shobhana Chelliah, associate dean and professor of linguistics, said the magic word: communication.
“I sent her a message,” says Champlin, whose expertise is in health communications. “And I was like, ‘We don’t know each other, but we have overlapping interests.’”
That led to the two collaborating on a project — along with Kelly Harper Berkson, assistant professor of linguistics at Indiana University, and Ken Van Bik, assistant professor of linguistics at the University of California, Fullerton — that aims to discover how to effectively communicate information about COVID-19 to refugees of Myanmar, who are members of the Chin language community. The group, which recently received a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research grant for the project, is preparing to gather feedback from the minority language community through interviews and narratives, which Chelliah will linguistically analyze. Ultimately, those translations will be given to Champlin’s students, who will create visual materials for Chin speakers.
Chelliah hopes that by learning how to best communicate COVID-19 information to the Chin community, the team will deduce how to better support speakers of any underserved language, particularly when it comes to their health.
“Whether you are applying the scientific methods of documentary linguistics or conducting tests in a lab, science matters,” she says. “You need science to make a significant impact on things like public health.”
And other researchers have certainly heeded that call, applying their knowledge in areas including mental, physical, educational and financial health. Wendy Middlemiss, associate professor of educational psychology, received a grant from OneStar National Service Commission to examine what the Texas Home Institution for Parents of Preschool Youngsters State Office can do to support AmeriCorps members during times of disaster. Buddy Scarborough, assistant professor of sociology, co-authored a study with researchers from Washington University in St. Louis, the Maryland Population Research Center and the University of Melbourne that found mothers reduced their work hours four to five times more than fathers during the pandemic, further widening employment-based gender gaps. And Norman Dulch, an adjunct professor in the College of Health and Public Service, released the book Nonprofit Crisis Management: Response to COVID-19 that tells stories of nonprofits and their responses to those they serve.
Then there’s Christopher Long, assistant professor of teacher education and administration. In the months before the pandemic wound its way across the globe and gained a foothold in the U.S., he had teamed up with fellow assistant professor Lauren Eutsler to study virtual reality headsets as part of K-12 science-based learning environments.
But when public schools closed their doors following spring break, he was forced to address another question: How could he gauge students’ attitudes about learning environments if they were no longer physically in the classroom?
“Our entire study that we’d spent the year setting up vaporized in front of us,” Long says. “But then it occurred to me that with our undergrads, we could actually look at learning environments before and after students had to start learning from home.”
Long sent surveys to roughly 4,000 undergraduates from his department and the Department of Kinesiology, Health Promotion and Recreation, gauging feelings about their learning environments prior to the spring break closure, and after. Of the 230 students who fully participated, most students reported that at-home learning left much to be desired — they cited internet issues and feelings of social disconnectedness as primary areas of concern. Those findings, Long says, can likely be extrapolated to K-12 students — and in discovering students’ misgivings regarding online instruction, educators can look for ways to make the experience better.
For example, Long says, a university in Holland employed a Discord server — typically used for video games — to set up virtual lab groups for students to work on projects remotely, improving both collaboration and connectivity.
“Getting it right is going to take a lot of trial and error,” Long says. “One way forward is for teachers to create cooperative learning environments where students are interacting with each other rather than just teacher-student interactions. We have to make sure we’re giving instructors room to try things.”
Trent Petrie, professor of psychology, is addressing COVID’s effects on the mind from a different perspective. Like Long, he tweaked the project he was tackling prior to the pandemic, an investigation into student-athletes’ experiences following graduation.
“Then, all of a sudden, collegiate sports shut down,” Petrie says. “So we did ‘pivot,’ to use that term, to address the reality of this unique situation for college athletes.”
Petrie began to look at how COVID-19 affects student-athletes’ mental health — everything from body image issues and depression stemming from changes in training to their concerns about returning to in-person practice. That holistic approach is important, Petrie says, because there hasn’t been much nationally-based research regarding college athlete’s mental health and well-being beyond some NCAA studies based on single-item questions.
“One of the things that we wanted to do in this study was to use measures that have been linked to actual clinical diagnosis so we could determine the percentage of athletes who are at risk for more severe psychological distress,” Petrie says. “And so that became our driving force — to collect data on which psychologists who were working with athletes could base their interventions.”
In the hard sciences, researchers’ goals have largely centered on the physical effects of the virus — and how to prevent them from taking hold.
A team from UNT’s College of Engineering, for example, used 3D-printing technology to manufacture ventilator splitters that will allow doctors to use a single ventilator to treat two patients. Using biocompatible materials that can be sterilized for medical applications, the team printed 20 splitters along with flow limiter inserts to enable medical providers to adjust air flow for each patient.
And a student research team led by Yijie Jiang, assistant professor of mechanical and energy engineering, has developed open source codes for a mask and nose plugs that have high virus trapping efficiency and allow for smooth inhalation. The best part? Anyone with a 3D printer at home can make their own.
“Our next phase,” Jiang says, “will include researching efficient ways to sanitize the masks and nose plugs with medical disinfectant as a person breathes.”
That impulse to use research expertise and collaboration to explore the possibilities of curbing — and potentially treating — COVID-19 is no stranger to Andrés Cisneros, professor of chemistry, whose focuses include theoretical and computational chemistry, biochemistry and inorganic chemistry. For years, he’s performed computational simulations to better understand the structure of DNA polymerase, the enzymes essential for replicating the entire genome of any living organism before cell division. After reading a study in mid-March that discussed the structure of RNA polymerase in SARSCoV- 2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — the proverbial light bulb switched on.
“We already know how polymerases work for DNA, so for RNA, it’s not going to be much different,” Cisneros says. “I talked with my team and said, ‘I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of doing nothing for this particular pandemic.’”
The team already was conducting plenty of potentially life-changing research, including looking at cancer-related mutations on DNA polymerases. But they jumped at the opportunity to examine at the atomic level interactions between inhibitors and RNA dependent RNA polymerase (RDRP) and the main protease (MPro) in SARS-CoV-2. The idea, essentially, is this: If a drug can inhibit these enzymes, the virus could stop replicating in cells and would no longer be able to spread in the body.
Cisneros and his team, which also includes collaborators from France and two other U.S. institutions, applied for a grant from the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium. Just three days later, they were awarded 500,000 hours of supercomputer time at national labs, including the Texas Advanced Computing Center and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which houses Summit, the world’s fastest supercomputer for academic use. Additionally, the team was given $250,000 in credit to run simulations on Microsoft’s cloud computing service Azure. So far, Cisneros says, the results have been “very interesting.” Right off the bat, they were able to deem two of the six inhibitors under review as ineffective, and have developed a model for the RNA polymerase. Still, much like the various vaccines that are currently being tested, Cisneros knows it’s a numbers game — granting institutions are providing scientists with access to as many resources as possible to see who comes up with the best ideas. That time crunch makes collaboration even more critical.
“It’s very hard for one person or one team to have expertise in everything,” he says. “If everything is homogenous, you’re not going to have the difference of ideas you need. That’s why collaborations are crucial not only within, but also outside of, institutions.”
While in many ways it’s been a banner year for UNT and its researchers — 2019-20 saw its highest-ever number of CAREER awardees, a record $78.4 million in research expenditures, and an all-time high income in technology licensed for commercialization — it’s not yet mission accomplished. But for an institution that, in the 130 years since its founding, has continually strived to provide bigger and better outcomes for its students, and society in general, it probably never will be. And it’s exactly that kind of tenacious commitment to creating a brighter future that leads institutions to the top of the Tier One pack.
“The move to Carnegie’s top tier is a validation of our impact and an important milestone as we increase our national prominence,” Smatresk says. “It doesn’t change UNT’s trajectory, but it does change the speed at which we can move forward, because it gives us momentum to further our impact. We’re making great strides.”