Foundation support increases seed funding for UO research

A view of the Lokey Labs

With recently announced seed funding from the UO’s research office, a team of scientists is turning to the nervous system of the human gut, also known as the enteric nervous system, in an effort to better understand intestinal diseases that afflict almost 1.4 million Americans.

The project is one of four that received funding aimed at boosting new research projects with a strong chance of attracting outside funding for continued work. The awards are part of the seed funding program known as Incubating Interdisciplinary Initiatives, or I3.

The intestinal research could help advance the understanding of ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease and other illnesses that involve chronic inflammation of the intestine and colon. Previous studies have focused on the gut itself, but the UO team hopes its approach will yield new clues.

“The enteric nervous system is likely a key regulator of both chronic gut inflammation and intermittent disease recovery,” said Annie Powell, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and a member of the Institute of Molecular Biology who serves as principal investigator on the project. “By measuring neural activity in the intact mammalian gut, we aim to make the first measurements of the disruption of neural activity during periodic inflammatory episodes.”

The project, “Live Imaging of the Gut-Brain Axis: Examining the Intersection between Neurons and Inflammation,” was among the top proposals submitted to the UO’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation as part of the I3 seed funding program. The awards provide a year of funding for new interdisciplinary research projects in areas likely to generate external funding.

Typically awards go to two teams, but this year a strong applicant pool and the generous support of the UO Foundation allowed the university to fund four teams. Each team received $50,000, thanks to a $100,000 match from the UO Foundation.

“This kind of seed funding for basic research really works,” said Brad Shelton, interim vice president for research and innovation. “With the help of the UO Foundation we are advancing the UO’s reputation for groundbreaking interdisciplinary research and making an already successful program even more impactful.”

The I3 program awards projects that are interdisciplinary in nature, demonstrate innovation and take advantage of unique perspectives from multiple approaches. The proposed research must target external grant opportunities from private foundations and federal agencies.

Proposals are peer reviewed by a panel of faculty members who consider those factors along with UO’s institutional strengths, academic priorities and institutional history. Recipients are eligible for up to $50,000 in funding to be used to position projects to compete successfully for funds that will support long-range research programs. 

In March, Shelton gave a presentation to the UO Foundation Board of Trustees on the program and its successes. He noted that in just four years the initiative has generated a return of $5.9 million in research funding on an investment of $500,000. That success convinced the foundation to support the program this year. 

“The UO Foundation Board of Trustees was inspired by the success of the I3 Awards and the doors it opens for groundbreaking researchers,” board Chair Steve Holwerda said. “We recognize this program as an opportunity to make a direct, impactful investment in the academic excellence of the university, and are proud to support faculty innovation in this significant way.” 

This year’s I3 winners included the following teams:

  • “Live Imaging of the Gut-Brain Axis: Examining the Intersection between Neurons and Inflammation,” Annie Powell, assistant professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Molecular Biology; and Cris Niell, assistant professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Neuroscience; Yashar Ahmadian, assistant professor, Departments of Biology & Math / member, Institute of Neuroscience to perform novel analyses of neural activity; and Judith Eisen, professor, Department of Biology / member, Institute of Neuroscience (ION) to provide her expertise on biology of the enteric nervous system.
  • “Neuroimaging Approaches to Studying the Neurodevelopmental Effects of Malnutrition in Southeast Asia,” Jeffrey Measelle, associate professor, Department of Psychology; Dare Baldwin, professor, Department of Psychology; Geeta Eick, laboratory manager and research scientist; Geraldine Richmond, professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; and Josh Snodgrass, associate professor, Department of Anthropology.
  • “Neural circuit mechanisms underlying speech processing,” Mike Wehr, associate professor, Department of Psychology, and member, Institute of Neuroscience; and Kaori Idemaru, associate professor, Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures
  • “Personalized Thermal Comfort in the Built Environment,” Chris Minson, professor, Department of Human Physiology; Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, associate professor, Department of Architecture, Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory; Susan Sokolowski, associate professor, Product Design Program; Michel Kinsy, assistant professor, Department of Computing and Information Sciences; and additional co-investigators.

In choosing the recipients, preference was given to projects with significant scientific or scholarly merit and strong potential for outside funding as well as those representing a new direction for the lead faculty member or research team and those that promise to build or strengthen cross-disciplinary research partnerships. Past recipients include:

  • In 2014 a UO team successfully parlayed its I3 award into a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant to study the effects of climate change and better inform the response to the mountain pine beetle epidemic in Western mountain states.
  • In 2015, a research team composed of Michael Raymer, a professor in the Department of Physics, and Andy Marcus, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, leveraged an I3 award to win a $3.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to work with an international team to explore the role of coherence in electronic transport processes that occur in the biomolecular machines responsible for energy transduction in living organisms.

Full synopses of the I3 recipients can be viewed at http://bit.ly/23IYnEO.

By Lewis Taylor, University Communications