News from the Office of Research and Innovation at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio
Author: Research & Innovation Staff
The mission of the Office of Research & Innovation is to encourage, facilitate, and support the Miami University community in all forms of research, education, scholarly, creative, service, and outreach activities. Our communication channels provide news for Miami's researchers and students, as well as for businesses and community members who want to engage with our researchers and their work.
The University Senate Committee on Faculty Research (CFR) invites Miami University’s tenure-eligible and tenured faculty (including librarians holding the M.S.L.S. degree or equivalent) to apply for support from the Publication, Reprint, Exhibition, and Performance (PREP) Costs program. The PREP program provides reimbursement up to $500 for the following:
Journal page charges
Article or book chapter reprint costs
Exhibition or performance costs
Performance or composition costs
Applications to this program may be made at any time. Reimbursement is limited to $500 per faculty member per academic year.
Questions about the program may be directed to OARS or to Po-Chang Chen, 2019-2020 CFR Chair (513-529-2261).
CFR is charged with supporting and encouraging the development of research and creative activity at Miami University. In carrying out this charge, the CFR administers programs that support and celebrate faculty research and creative activities. Application to these programs is made through OARS. Guidelines for all CFR programs — including detailed information, eligibility criteria, and application procedures — are available on the OARS website.
OARS’ 10th Annual Proposals and Awards Reception will be held Wednesday, February 12, from 4:30 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. in the Advanced Instructional Space (AIS) in King Library, Suite 134.
Miami faculty and staff who submitted proposals and/or received awards from July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019 have been invited to celebrate their accomplishments. Department chairs and deans have also been invited to join in the celebration, and we encourage invitees to extend an offer to the office support staff who assist with their grant-seeking endeavors.
Those who have not already done so, are encouraged to register no later than Monday, February 10.
We look forward to this opportunity to honor Miami’s researchers, scholars, and creative artists.
The University Senate Committee on Faculty Research (CFR) Faculty Research Grants Program awards three types of funding — summer research appointments, research graduate assistantships, and grants to promote research. Proposals are due annually during fall semester, with awards typically announced during J-term.
For 2019-2020, CFR received 57 proposals and funded 25. Congratulations to the following recipients:
Elizabeth Bell (Political Science) — Summer Research Appointment
Mithun Bhowmick (Mathematical & Physical Sciences) — Summer Research Appointment
Eileen Bridge (Microbiology) — Grant to Promote Research
Nathanial Bryan & Paula Saine (Teacher Education) — Grant to Promote Research
Qing Burke (Accountancy) — Summer Research Appointment
Andrew Casper (Art) — Summer Research Appointment
Wen-Ching Chuang (Western Program) — Summer Research Appointment and Grant to Promote Research
Michael Crowder (Chemistry & Biochemistry) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Kate Dannies (Global & Intercultural Studies) — Summer Research Appointment
Saruna Ghimire (Sociology & Gerontology) — Summer Research Appointment
Paul James (Biology) –Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Joseph Johnson (Psychology) — Summer Research Appointment and Grant to Promote Research
Andrew Jones (Chemical, Paper, & Biomedical Engineering) –Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Mahmud Khan (Physics) — Grant to Promote Research
Emily Legg (English) –Summer Research Appointment
Imran Mirza (Physics) — Summer Research Appointment, Grant to Promote Research
Jason Rech (Geology & Environmental Earth Science) — Summer Research Appointment
Paul Reidy (Kinesiology & Health) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Carlo Samson (Physics) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Jay Shan (Information Systems & Analytics) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Jinjuan She (Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Haifei Shi (Biology) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Mark Sidebottom (Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering) — Summer Research Appointment, Research Graduate Assistantship, and Grant to Promote Research
Yoshi Tomoyasu (Biology) — Research Graduate Assistantship
Christopher Wolfe (Psychology) — Summer Research Appointment, Grant to Promote Research
Updated January 24 to include the number of proposals received by CFR in 2019-2020.
The chemical, psilocybin, is naturally found in a specific mushroom, Psilocybe cubensis. Jones said to mass produce psilocybin from its natural mushroom host would require extensive real estate and time. Currently, alternative synthetic chemical production methods are used but are very expensive. Jones, the principal investigator of this research, wanted a solution that maintains biological integrity and reduces production costs.
Finding an optimal organic host
Through metabolic engineering, which finds ways to increase a cell’s ability to produce a compound of interest, his team of students developed a series of experiments to identify optimal psilocybin production conditions. The recently published article describes their work to optimize the production of psilocybin in the Escherichia coli bacteria. The team is using a well-known E. coli strain that is engineered for safe lab production.
“We are taking the DNA from the mushroom that encodes its ability to make this product and putting it in E. coli,” he said. “It’s similar to the way you make beer, through a fermentation process. We are effectively taking the technology that allows for scale and speed of production and applying it to our psilocybin-producing E. coli.”
Their end result is a significant step toward demonstrating the feasibility of producing this drug economically from a biological source.
“What’s exciting is the speed at which we were able to achieve our high production. Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per liter to over a gram per liter, a near 500-fold increase,” Jones said.
He gives much credit and praise to his students who designed many of the experiments performed during the 18-month-long study.
“A big part of my job is training undergraduates to do this work. The basic idea was mine, but much of the experimental design fell on the students. Early on, I would help guide them in the experimental design process. Toward the end, they were becoming more independent. That’s the type of student we want as they near graduation,” Jones said.
Learning to run laboratory experiments
Lead author Alexandra (Lexie) Adams, a junior chemical engineering major, became a member of the research team her freshman year, just as the Jones Lab was getting started. Patient and meticulous, Jones worked with the admittedly nervous Adams on the basics of laboratory research. It paid off.
The initial work was done in the summer of 2018 as Adams and another undergraduate student co-author, Nicholas Kaplan, took part in Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars Program. The program provides funding to students for undergraduate research.
Both students, working on separate studies, learned the ins and outs of research, gaining confidence and learning lessons as the summer progressed.
Kaplan, a junior chemical engineering major, studied the feasibility of cyanobacteria as another potential metabolic engineering host. His findings showed mixed results, and it was decided that the lab team would focus on Adams’ psilocybin in E. coli project.
Celebrating a research breakthrough
Adams remembers when they saw the breakthrough in their research. Their goal was to transfer the DNA from the mushroom and see activity in the E. coli host.
“Once we transferred the DNA, we saw [a tiny] peak emerge in our data. We knew we had done something huge,” she said.
Other members of the team included graduate Zhangyue ‘Tom’ Wei (Miami ’19), graduate John ‘Jack’ Brinton (BS Miami ’17, MS Miami ’19), junior Chantal Monnier, senior Alexis Enacopol, and staff member Theresa Ramelot, instrumentation specialist.
Both Adams and Kaplan continue to work with Jones. The students are leading projects that build on the recent success of the psilocybin work. Each of them is starting to pass down what they have learned in the lab by mentoring new undergraduate students who join the Jones Lab.
“It’s important for [the new students] to understand the big picture so they see the reasons for the different steps of the experiments,” Kaplan said.
Jones is pursuing the next phase of this research by studying ways to make the E. coli bacteria a better host — the next step toward enabling sustainable production at levels required by the pharmaceutical industry.
A team of Miami University scientists, led by Mike Vanni, professor of biology, received its fourth National Science Foundation Long Term Research in Environmental Biology (NSF LTREB) grant in support of long-term research at Acton Lake, a reservoir in Oxford, Ohio.
The LTREB grant provides $634,999 over the next five years for Vanni and his research team. It is the only LTREB project currently funded in Ohio.
The research looks at how long-term changes in agriculture affect streams and lakes, using the Acton Lake watershed as a model system.
The research team
Vanni has studied Acton Lake and its watershed for more than 25 years. His research on Acton Lake has been supported continuously since 1994 by the NSF, with the past 15 years through the NSF LTREB award program (researchers can only apply for an LTREB grant after they have six years of data from their study sites).
Maria Gonzalez, professor of biology, is a co-principal investigator of the project. Bart Grudzinski, assistant professor of geography, joined Gonzalez and Vanni this year, replacing original team member Bill Renwick, now professor emeritus of geography.
Long-term agricultural changes affect streams and lake
Little is known about long-term effects of agricultural changes on streams and lakes, Vanni said.
The practice of conservation tillage, which involves plowing the soil less frequently to reduce sediment runoff, was encouraged in the watershed area by the USDA in the early 1990s.
Similar changes are occurring in agriculture throughout the Midwest.
This practice strongly affected nutrients and sediments in streams that feed downstream Acton Lake, the researchers found.
They found an increase in the abundance of bottom-feeding fish, such as gizzard shad. These fish consume sediments and excrete nutrients into the water, providing more sources of nutrients for algae growth.
The amount of algae is controlled mostly by concentrations of sediment in the water and the abundance of bottom-feeding fish, Vanni said.
The LTREB research explores the long-term changes in these interactions.
“We wanted to compare how much nitrogen and phosphorous were coming in from the watershed, versus what was being supplied by the fish,” Vanni said. “We thought that movement of nutrients through the fish could be really important—and it turns out that it is.”
Decades of data reveal unexpected trends
Decades of data have revealed some surprises that would not have been detected in the short term. Research shows that stratification of nutrients in soil due to conservation tillage may be having unintended consequences in the Acton watershed. These effects are also seen in the Lake Erie watershed, according to Vanni. (See below for recent publications from the research team on storm events and on contrasting long-term trends in nutrient loads.)
Climate change and summer storms
Changes in agriculture are also mediated by climate change. Very wet springs followed by very dry summers have become more common in recent years in the Midwest, according to Vanni. This also affects nutrient input.
Water temperatures are increasing faster than the air temperature in some lakes, Vanni said. But in our area — and in similar agricultural landscapes — the effects of changing precipitation patterns on nutrients and sediments may be more important than the effects of temperature.
Big storms bring in a lot of the nutrients. In Acton Lake, more than half of the nutrients that come in one year can come in a matter of about 10 days, Vanni said. Learn more on the Acton LTREB Blog.
Long-term environmental research — more important now than ever
Long-term environmental research is fundamental to understanding an ecosystem’s response to environmental change. It is key to informing policy decisions about natural resources and environmental issues, especially in response to climate change.
After the first and second decades of their research, Vanni and his team discovered unexpected trends in nutrient and sediment inputs in Acton Lake.
“Now, what is going to happen after the third decade? Things can change and surprise us,” Vanni said.
Research opportunities for 100+ students over the years
The Acton Lake LTREB project has provided research opportunities for more than 100 Miami undergraduate students over the years, on projects mentored by Vanni, Gonzalez, Renwick and Grudzinski.
Many of these students conducted research full time in the summers, supported by fellowships from Miami’s Undergraduate Summer Scholars or Miami Hughes Intern programs. Others were supported by NSF REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) supplements to the LTREB grants.
Martina Rogers, junior chemistry major, works with Vanni. This past summer she was funded through a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) supplement from Vanni’s previous LTREB grant.
Ashley Mickens, senior geology and environmental earth sciences major and sustainability co-major and a French minor, worked with Vanni in summer 2018 as a member of the Ecology REU program.
Ferdos Abdulkader, junior kinesiology major and premedical studies co-major, also worked with Vanni in summer 2018, funded through his REU supplement.
Isabelle Anderson (Miami ’19), currently a doctoral student at Baylor University, was a 2018 Undergraduate Summer Scholar with Vanni. She is first author of a paper with Vanni and others recently accepted in Limnology and Oceanography, the top aquatic sciences journal.
Josh Tivins, a junior biology major and previous Miami Regionals student, currently works with Gonzalez. He was a 2019 Miami Hughes intern.
Izzy Aristizabal, senior geography major and sustainability co-major, and Claire Stock, junior environmental earth science major and sustainability co-major, work with Grudzinski.
Current graduate students:
Tanner Williamson is a doctoral candidate advised by Vanni. He is the recipient of the 2019 Biology Dissertation Scholar Award. Graduate student Carrie Ann Sharitt is also advised by Vanni.
Heather Luken and Xiu Gao, master’s students in biology, are advised by Gonzalez.
Tessa Farthing is a master’s degree student in geography and geographic information science, advised by Grudzinski.
Recent publications from the research team include:
Miami University’s 26th Annual Undergraduate Research Forum will be held Wednesday, April 22, 2020. This showcase of faculty-mentored student research and scholarly and creative activities by Miami undergraduate students will feature poster sessions and 10-minute talks. The Miami University community and the public are encouraged to save the date for this free event.