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UToledo Psychologists Study How Americans Are Coping With Impacts of COVID-19

New research from The University of Toledo Department of Psychology aimed at establishing a baseline of how COVID-19 and social distancing measures to curb the spread of the disease are affecting Americans’ mental health uncovered something unexpected — individuals’ loneliness appears to be lessened the more they personally feel affected by the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, the study found that being under a stay-at-home order was broadly associated with increased health anxiety, financial worry and loneliness.

Tull

Even so, people who said that their lives had been significantly uprooted by COVID-19 consistently reported feeling less lonely relative to those who saw the pandemic’s disruption on their daily lives as more minor.

“COVID-19 can impact people in a number of ways. Parents may have had to take on new responsibilities at home, regular schedules and habits may be disrupted, or a person may be concerned about a loved one who is vulnerable for COVID-19,” said Dr. Matthew Tull, a UToledo psychology professor and lead author on the study. “It looks like it’s possible that those who feel COVID-19 has had a greater impact on their daily lives might be trying to connect more with people and access social support. This could have some positive mental health aspects down the road.”

The findings, Tull said, are consistent with suggestions that the shared experience of COVID-19 could increase closeness and social cohesion, similar to what has been seen following other mass tragedies.

The study was published in the journal Psychiatry Research.

That people are anxious about their health, worried about their finances, and feeling isolated from their communities in the face of a pandemic is natural and understandable. Researchers say anxiety can be a motivating factor that leads to helpful behaviors, such as taking seriously the recommendations of public health officials and being cautious in your own decisions and assessments of risk.

However, when people struggle to cope with that anxiety, it can lead to problematic behaviors — substance abuse, seeking medical care that isn’t needed for reassurance, or, alternatively, putting off an emergency room visit that could be life-saving over worries of contracting COVID-19.

Researchers surveyed 500 people between March 27 and April 5 — roughly the peak of stay-at-home orders that asked more than 300 million Americans to significantly limit interactions outside their own household. The age of those surveyed ranged from 20 to 74, with a mean age of 40. About 52% were male. Income was broken down into three brackets, with roughly one-third reporting annual household income of less than $35,000, one-third reporting earning between $35,000 and $64,999, and another third reporting household income of at least $65,000. Respondents represented 45 states.

The findings were generally uniform across the board, although people in lower income brackets reported more anxiety, financial worry and loneliness.

By getting a baseline of how Americans were being affected during the high point of stay-at-home orders, psychologists can better understand the long-term mental health impacts of the crisis.

“This is just an initial snapshot of where people are. It’s really setting the stage for the next stage of the study, which will look at how people are coping over time,” Tull said. “I think that’s going to be particularly fruitful and give us ideas in terms of what kind of interventions should be offered or needs should be addressed in the community. Our hope is this work might help us identify over time individuals who are particularly in need of services and how we can best connect with them.”

Tull and fellow UToledo researchers Dr. Kim Gratz and Dr. Jason Rose are gathering data for the second phase of their study.

New Research From UToledo Medical Resident Links COVID-19 to Loss of Taste

Nearly half of individuals who contract COVID-19 experience an abnormal or complete loss of their sense of taste, a new analysis led by a University of Toledo researcher has found.

The systematic review, published in the journal Gastroenterology, could provide yet another diagnostic hint for clinicians who suspect their patients might have the disease.

Aziz

“Earlier studies didn’t note this symptom, and that was probably because of the severity of other symptoms like cough, fever and trouble breathing,” said Dr. Muhammad Aziz, chief internal medicine resident at UToledo and the paper’s lead author. “We were beginning to note that altered or lost sense of taste were also present, not just here and there, but in a significant proportion.”

Aziz and his research collaborators analyzed data from five studies conducted between mid-January and the end of March. Of the 817 patients studied, 49.8% experienced changes to their sense of taste. Researchers suspect the true prevalence could be even higher because some of the studies were based on reviews of patient charts, which may not have noted every symptom.

“We propose that this symptom should be one of the screening symptoms in addition to the fever, shortness of breath and productive cough. Not just for suspected COIVD patients, but also for the general population to identify healthy carriers of the virus,” Aziz said.

Prior research has found that a significant number of people who have COVID-19 don’t know they’ve been infected and may be spreading the virus.

Aziz and his research collaborators suspect an altered sense of taste is more prevalent in patients with minor symptoms, though more studies are needed to validate that suspicion. Even so, changes in an individual’s sense of taste could be a valuable way to identify carriers who are otherwise mostly asymptomatic.

Taste disorders are tied to a variety of viral illnesses. The review did not attempt to identify the reason that COVID-19 is causing changes in patients’ sense of taste; however, researchers theorize it could be COVID-19’s ability to bind to what’s known as the ACE-2 receptor, which is expressed in epithelial cells on the tongue and mouth.

Because the novel coronavirus was unknown prior to its emergence in January, scientists have been moving rapidly to learn more about both the virus and the disease it causes.

Aziz said the drip of new information shows the need for more scientists to dig into the impacts of COVID-19.

“A lot of things are being missed, which is why I think researchers from every field should try to look into this and see if it’s affecting their specialty in one way or another,” he said. “Who knows what systems this virus is affecting. If we can catch it earlier in the disease course, we can prevent the spread of the virus and potentially have ways of managing it.”

UToledo Chemists Identify Toxic Chemicals in Fracking Wastewater

Before water produced during hydraulic fracturing is disposed of in waterways or reused in agriculture and other industries, chemists at The University of Toledo are zeroing in on water quality and environmental concerns of fracking wastewater to determine if it is safe for reuse.

The research scientists of the new Dr. Nina McClelland Laboratory for Water Chemistry and Environmental Analysis at UToledo created a new method that simultaneously identified 201 chemical compounds in fracking wastewater, called produced water.

Dr. Emanuela Gionfriddo, assistant professor of analytical chemistry, and Ronald Emmons, UToledo Ph.D. candidate, are studying water quality and environmental concerns of fracking wastewater to determine if it is safe for reuse.

The research, which is published in the Journal of Separation Science and was carried out in collaboration with scientists at the University of Texas at Arlington, shows that many of the chemicals found in produced water are carcinogens, solvents and petroleum distillates that can directly contaminate drinking water sources.

“The issue with produced water is that this is a very new and overlooked source of pollution, and disposal and purification practices are not yet fully optimized to guarantee total removal of environmental pollutants,” said Dr. Emanuela Gionfriddo, assistant professor of analytical chemistry in the UToledo Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and the School of Green Chemistry and Engineering. “Our work aimed to provide a new, simple and cost-effective method for the comprehensive characterization of chemicals and fill the gap of knowledge currently existing about the chemical composition of this waste product of the oil and natural gas industry.”

Scientists and natural gas companies are seeking creative ways to use produced water because current treatment processes to remove salts and radioactive substances — processes that include reverse osmosis and distillation — are expensive.

“Current methods for chemical characterization of produced water can give an estimate of the total amount of contamination, but do not give information about what type of contamination is present,” Gionfriddo said. “It could be that a molecule can be still very toxic even if present at very low concentration, or it has the potential to accumulate in the body over time, so the point is to know exactly what is in produced water, not only how much.”

Gionfriddo’s research outlines how the chemists developed and optimized a thin-film, solid-phase microextraction approach to characterize the organic compounds in the produced water.

The team identified many chemicals, including a pesticide called atrazine; 1,4-dioxane, an organic compound that is irritating to the eyes and respiratory tract; toluene, which at low exposure has health effects like confusion, weakness, and loss of vision and hearing; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which have been linked to skin, lung, bladder, liver and stomach cancers.

“There are many chemicals that still need to be identified at this time,” said Ronald Emmons, UToledo Ph.D. candidate. “More research also is needed to test the uptake of these chemicals in crops when produced water is recycled for agriculture. We need to study if and how these chemicals from the produced water can accumulate in the soil watered with produced water and if these chemicals can transfer from the soil to the crops.”

The collaborative research between UToledo and UT Arlington will continue using the new method for screening the presence of toxic molecules in produced water samples from various sampling sites in Texas.

UToledo scientists also are developing new methods for the extraction of heavy metals and rare earth elements that will aid the full characterization of produced water samples.

UToledo Electrical Engineer Leading Charge to Build Ventilators in the Congo

Feeling powerless to help her native country in Africa amid the coronavirus pandemic, an electrical engineer at The University of Toledo found a way for people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to build their own breathing machines from scratch using equipment and materials accessible to them.

Using Twitter, Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga, assistant professor of electrical engineering technology, tapped into her worldwide network of engineers with ties to the DRC and engineers and students inside the country.

Mubenga

Mubenga is the founder of the STEM DRC Initiative, a nonprofit organization that has awarded scholarships to pay all associated costs, including transportation and books, for more than 60 students in the Congo to go to college since 2018.

“There are less than 1,200 ventilators in a country with nearly 85 million people, and about 50 of those machines are in the capital city of Kinshasa,” Mubenga said. “Kinshasa will need a minimum of 200 ventilators by mid-May when COVID-19 cases are expected to peak in the Congo.”

In the DRC, there are more than 1,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, more than 40 deaths caused by the new coronavirus, and about 3,000 suspected cases. An estimate last week showed the country had a maximum capacity of 200 tests per day for the whole country.

“When I was watching the news here in Ohio and heard the president of the United States announce that General Motors was going to build 100,000 ventilators, I thought, ‘What is going on in the Congo?’” Mubenga said. “We have the opportunity, means, technology and knowledge to do that here, but the Congo is a state that is rebuilding its infrastructures with very few factories for assembly.”

In three weeks, the team of about 20 people who answered her call to volunteer worked together — through videoconferencing and emails — and developed a prototype of a life-saving ventilator using open-source specs from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The working prototype next needs to undergo testing and certification, which Mubenga hopes to accomplish by the end of this year.

Nicole Bisimwa, a student at Loyola University in Congo, is helping to build ventilators.

“It costs up to 30,000 U.S. dollars to buy a ventilator right now,” Jonathan Ntiaka Muzakwene, who teaches engineering on the faculty of Loyola University of Congo, said. “Dr. Mubenga is timely to respond to the needs of our country and help save lives.”

Mubenga teamed up with many partners, including a hospital in Kinshasa and the national trade school.

Dividing the team based on their talents, they built an emergency ventilator that makes use of Ambu resuscitator bags commonly hand-operated in hospitals by medical professionals to create airflow to a patient’s lungs until a ventilator becomes available. The new device includes a mechanism that automates the squeezing and releasing motions.

“Instead of having a doctor or a nurse pressing the bag manually, we have a machine pumping the bag so the patient can breathe,” Mubenga said.

Muzakwene and his engineering students inside the DRC made use of their school’s 3D printer in their work to fabricate, assemble, program and test the prototype, a process made more challenging because of troubles with internet access, expert resources, and unclear laws and standards for validation of the technology.

“All the materials, components, parts and equipment necessary for the production of these ventilators are difficult to find here on site in the DRC,” Muzakwene said. “The big challenge then is to find what we need to make these ventilators locally here in the country, challenges that the United States does not have.”

“A ventilator is very delicate,” Mubenga said. “You have medical, mechanical and electrical specifications that have to be met. And while MIT provided most of the design documents, it did not include the most important piece until very recently: the controls code of the model. We’re talking about how to get feedback from different sensors to the microcontroller and adjust the system based on that feedback.”

The controls adjust the timing and compression of the Ambu bag based on three main input parameters: the volume of air pushed into the lungs, the ratio between inspiration and expiration time, and the respiratory rate, or breath per minute.

The task is personal for Nicole Bisimwa, a student at Loyola University in Congo. She worries about friends, family and loved ones across the African country.

“The clinics of Ngaliema and university have only one ventilator each, which is sorely insufficient in case they have several patients who need it,” Bisimwa said. “Limiting international trade is a barrier to supply, but we continue to find solutions to overcome this problem. Any help is welcome.”

The project also is personal for Mubenga, who understands the life-changing power of technology. When she was 17 years old in the DRC, she waited three days for surgery after her appendix burst because there was no power at the hospital.

“I was living in a small town called Kikwit, far away from the big and beautiful capital city of Kinshasa,” Mubenga said. “I was very sick, doctors needed to do surgery, but they couldn’t find any gas to turn on the power generator. For three days, my life depended on electricity. I was praying. I could not eat. And decided if I made it alive, I would work to find a solution so people wouldn’t die because of lack of electricity.”

The hospital found fuel to power the generator, doctors did the surgery, and Mubenga survived.

Mubenga started studying renewable energy at the UToledo College of Engineering in 2000 and earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. in electrical engineering. After receiving her professional engineer license in Ohio, she went on to found her company called the SMIN Power Group, which develops and installs solar power systems in communities throughout the DRC.

Mubenga next plans to test the ventilator prototype using software from the DRC that can be accessed online.

“We still have a lot to do, but this prototype is a big step,” Mubenga said. “We are putting together the clinical team of doctors who will provide feedback so we can improve the device. After that, we will proceed through certification. We have applied for funding to help spark production, but we’re committed to continue volunteering our time, talent and resources. Taking action to find a solution is our way to bring light in this dark, gloomy time. It’s the right thing to do.”

State Awards UToledo $613,436 to Lead Harmful Algal Bloom Research Projects

The University of Toledo is among four Ohio universities to receive a total of $2.08 million from the Ohio Department of Higher Education’s Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative in this year’s round of state funding to address Lake Erie water quality and find solutions for algal bloom toxicity.

UToledo scientists situated on the western basin of Lake Erie from diverse research areas were awarded $613,436 to lead four projects related to protecting public health:

• Dr. April Ames and Dr. Michael Valigosky, assistant professors in the School of Population Health in the College of Health and Human Services, will assess microcystin inhalation risk to shoreline populations;

• Dr. Steven Haller, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine in the College of Medicine and Life Sciences, will work to create a new therapy for microcystin exposure and hepatotoxicity using naturally occurring Lake Erie bacteria that removes microcystin released by harmful algal blooms in drinking water;

• Haller also will conduct deep phenotyping of human organ biobank specimens for cyanotoxin exposure in at-risk populations; and

• Dr. Von Sigler, professor of environmental microbiology in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, will investigate any risks to beach visitors who come in contact with sand along a beach that has had bloom-enriched water wash up on the shoreline.

The UToledo Lake Erie Center research vessel helps to monitor the lake’s water quality.

“Foreshore sands are frequently contacted by beach visitors and are known to play a crucial role in accumulating bacteria, often harboring potentially pathogenic bacteria in densities exceeding those in nearby waters,” Sigler said. “Although no data is currently available that describes the ecology of microcystis in sands, there is potential for human health impacts.”

UToledo and Ohio State University lead the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, which consists of dozens of science teams across the state and is managed by Ohio Sea Grant.

Researchers from UToledo, Ohio State University, the University of Akron and Bowling Green State University will lead 12 newly announced projects — four from UToledo — to track blooms from the source, produce safe drinking water, protect public health, and engage stakeholders.

The selected projects focus on reducing nutrient loading to Lake Erie, investigating algal toxin formation and human health impacts, studying bloom dynamics, and better informing water treatment plants how to remove toxins.

Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, professor of ecology, director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center and co-chair of the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative, examines a water sample aboard the UToledo Lake Erie Center research vessel.

“Thanks in part to past HABRI projects, the primary threat of microcystin algal toxin to our Lake Erie-sourced drinking water has been greatly diminished,” said Dr. Thomas Bridgeman, professor of ecology, director of the UToledo Lake Erie Center and co-chair of the Harmful Algal Bloom Research Initiative. “Even under the best-case scenario, however, we are likely to be living with harmful algal blooms for many years to come. This new set of HABRI projects allows us to follow up with questions about other algal toxins such as saxitoxin and anatoxin that we know much less about, long-term exposure to toxins, and secondary routes of exposure, such as inhalation.”

Harmful algal blooms are not only a Lake Erie problem.

“Many lakes and rivers across Ohio are having similar issues,” Bridgeman said. “Several new projects are dedicated to helping smaller Ohio lakes and rivers use remote sensing, groundwater tracing and improved toxin-testing methodology.”

Previous HABRI projects have developed algal toxin early warning systems for water treatment plants, changed the way state agencies collect data for fish consumption advisories, and helped modify permit procedures for safer use of water treatment residuals as agricultural fertilizer.

“Lake Erie is an invaluable resource and a true treasure for the state of Ohio, and we have a responsibility to do all we can to preserve it and protect it,” said Randy Gardner, chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education (ODHE). “I’m pleased that our university researchers are collaborating to lead this endeavor.”

The projects also aid the efforts of state agencies such as the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio Department of Health, and Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“Direct engagement with these front-line agencies continues to allow HABRI scientists to develop research proposals that address both immediate and long-term needs of the people tackling this important statewide issue,” said Dr. Kristen Fussell, assistant director of research and administration for Ohio Sea Grant, who leads the initiative’s daily administration.

A total of $9.1 million in funding was made available through ODHE in 2015 and designated for five rounds of HABRI projects. Matching funding from participating Ohio universities increases the total investment to almost $19.5 million for more than 60 projects, demonstrating the state’s overall commitment to solving the harmful algal bloom problem.

Information about HABRI projects, partner organizations and background on the initiative is available on the Ohio Sea Grant website.

The UToledo Water Task Force, which is composed of faculty and researchers in diverse fields spanning the University, serves as a resource for government officials and the public looking for expertise on investigating the causes and effects of algal blooms, the health of Lake Erie, and the health of the communities depending on its water. The task force includes experts in economics, engineering, environmental sciences, business, pharmacy, law, chemistry and biochemistry, geography and planning, and medical microbiology and immunology.

Water quality is a major research focus at UToledo, with experts studying algal blooms, invasive species such as Asian carp, and pollutants. Researchers are looking for pathways to restore our greatest natural resource for future generations to ensure our communities continue to have access to safe drinking water.

UToledo Scientists Discover New Targets for Preventing Damage From Viral Infections

When the body faces stressful conditions such as high temperatures or lack of nutrients, cells produce the same large structures they make to combat virus infections.

Scientists at The University of Toledo discovered the connection that could be an attractive bulls-eye to aim for when identifying new antiviral targets and immune modulators to fight diverse viruses.

Dr. Malathi Krishnamurthy worked in her lab.

“In light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this is a promising avenue to protect people by enhancing immune response and stop the spread of deadly viral infections,” Dr. Malathi Krishnamurthy, associate professor in the UToledo Department of Biological Sciences, said. “There is an urgent need to identify new drugs and new drug targets.”

Research published in the Journal of Virology shows how cells in our body use a unique platform that is normally made during stress to combat virus infection. These new targets have potential to lead to new drug therapies to prevent serious damage to human health by harmful viruses.

“Understanding the molecular mechanisms of how the body defends itself is critical for the development of new treatment strategies against viruses,” Krishnamurthy said. “Currently available antiviral therapies target viral replication or viral proteins, but high mutation rates of viruses often lead to drug resistance. Therefore, identification of host response pathways identified in these studies that are common to many viruses can be used to combat a broad range of viral infections, including SARS-CoV2, and improve human health.”

In this study, the researchers demonstrated how a combination of proteins and RNAs called stress granules produced in response to different types of environmental stress also is produced when an enzyme present in all our cells called Ribonuclease L (RNase L) is “turned on” in virus-infected cells.

During virus infection, double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) molecules are produced that alert the host cells of an infection to activate immune pathways.

Specialized cells in our body sense these dsRNAs, which are unique to a virus-infected cell, and produce a chemical called interferon to protect the body and clear the virus infection.

These interferons activate RNase L, which is “turned on” by a small molecule that is produced only during virus infection, and its activity produces more dsRNA to produce more interferon to clear the virus.

“In addition to RNase L, several other proteins in our cells orchestrate response to virus infection, and timely expression and coordination of response is critical to fight viral infections,” Krishnamurthy said.

Unlike the body’s response to conventional stress, these stress granules produced during virus infection orchestrate a more effective and rapid response to increase interferon production to clear viruses.

“Many viruses adapt and evade these host response pathways, and knowledge gained from these studies may help scientists find targets that can prevent serious damage to human health by harmful viruses,” Krishnamurthy said.

UToledo Research Earns Spot on International Space Station

Protein crystals prepared by researchers at The University of Toledo and grown aboard the International Space Station could one day help scientists better understand basic life functions at the molecular level, unlocking some of the greatest secrets of biochemistry.

Earlier this year, a SpaceX capsule loaded with more than 150 crystals splashed down in the Pacific Ocean after spending six months and traveling some 50 million miles in low Earth orbit. Following retrieval by NASA, the experimental cargo was transported to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for analysis.

Victoria Drago, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in biochemistry, helped design the unique crystal growth system that flew aboard the International Space Station.

UToledo’s mission? Growing near-perfect crystals large enough to be used in neutron diffraction — a high-tech process that enables researchers to map out the precise location of a molecule’s every single atom.

“We have been able to view our metabolic world at the atomic level for quite some time now. However, hydrogen, the smallest of atoms and responsible for most of the activity, cannot be seen,” said Dr. Timothy Mueser, professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the UToledo College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. “Neutrons allow us to see the missing hydrogens, but the signal is very weak. We need extraordinarily large crystals for the technique to work, and crystal growth in microgravity on the International Space Station is vital to achieving that.”

Mueser’s lab is one of only a handful of groups in the United States working on neutron crystallography. They’ve sent experiments on three prior space flights and regularly collaborate with Oak Ridge National Lab and Institut Laue-Langevin, a leading nuclear research facility in Grenoble, France.

“There’s a lot of good research that’s going on here,” said Victoria Drago, a third-year Ph.D. candidate in Mueser’s lab, who helped design the unique crystal growth system aboard the International Space Station. “From the 2018 flight, we determined that our setup works. The only thing we saw problems with was that we were not getting much growth when they returned. That indicated we didn’t leave the crystals up there long enough. On the most recent flight, we got back several neutron-worth crystals.”

On that flight, which launched in July 2016, the International Space Station National Lab allowed the experiments to stay on board for six months. The extra time improved results dramatically. Several crystals on the flight grew five to 10 times larger than comparable crystals previously grown on Earth and contained no noticeable defects.

Some of those crystals are scheduled to be taken to the Institut Laue-Langevin this spring for further validation and, hopefully, a complete neutron diffraction analysis. That analysis could unlock precise atomic details about the active form of vitamin B-6, which is essential for a number of metabolic processes in the human body.

Equally — if not more — important is proving the viability and success of UToledo’s novel technique for growing crystals in microgravity.

After disappointing results with another commercially available growth system on their first flight, UToledo researchers developed their own system, which was approved by NASA for the second and third flights. Slightly larger than a deck of playing cards and costing about $100, the system is significantly less expensive and smaller than others. With real estate aboard the International Space Station extremely limited and costly, the size of UToledo’s apparatus makes it particularly appealing.

The hope is that UToledo’s system may make it possible for an explosion of new research to define an array of metabolic processes with major ramifications in the understanding of human health and treatment of disease.

“We’re not in the field where we’re going to be designing drugs, but it could be really useful in that if you truly understand the mechanism at a molecular level, versus making speculations, you can better inhibit it,” Drago said. “We’ve already shown with some of our previous research that we can redefine mechanisms this way to make things a little bit clearer. Down the road, people could use this for better drug design.”

Drago, who completed an undergraduate degree in biochemistry at UToledo, returned to UToledo to pursue her doctorate specifically to work in Mueser’s lab. The decision has afforded her unique opportunities, including being present for the launch of two SpaceX rockets that carried their experiments to the International Space Station and working closely with national and international laboratories.

“I’ve got to experience a lot because of coming here. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing and I wouldn’t have the connections I have if I was anywhere else,” Drago said.

Growing protein crystals in space offers several benefits over earthbound growth, but one of the most prominent is that it slows down the entire process.

“Slow crystal growth is good crystal growth,” said Dr. Constance Schall, UToledo professor of chemical engineering, who is one of the researchers involved in the project. “It’s kind of like a crowd trying to get into a door. If you take your time and line everybody up in an orderly fashion, things go much more smoothly. Zero gravity slows the growth and removes convection currents. You end up with much larger and higher quality crystals.”

Smaller, microscopic crystals can be used to map out atomic positioning of proteins via X-ray crystallography, but the process does not show the location of hydrogen atoms or protons.

Neutron crystallography shows those atoms, but it requires the significantly bigger, more perfect crystals that Mueser’s team is growing. Several of the crystals that returned in January were about 1 cubic millimeter.

“This is very exciting work, and I’m grateful to be part of it,” Drago said.” Our Toledo Crystallization Box has the ability to mainstream large crystal growth for the neutron crystallography community, the largest and most time-consuming obstacle in this work. We are in the process of trying to secure more flights with the Toledo Crystallization Box to the International Space Station in order to benefit both our research and others in the field.”

UToledo Teams With National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Partners to Accelerate Promising New Solar Technology

Advancing our country’s global leadership in solar energy technologies, The University of Toledo is a founding member of a new organization called the U.S. Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium, which is focused on moving a breakthrough new technology out of the lab and into the marketplace to enhance economic and national security.

The group is working together to accelerate U.S. commercialization of perovskite solar cell technology in partnership with leading domestic companies, including First Solar, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar cells and a company that originated in UToledo laboratories.

Members of the Industrial Advisory Board posed for a photo during a meeting in March. They are, front row from left, Daniel Kroupa, BlueDot Photonics; Nancy Terjo, Swift Solar; David Ginger, the University of Washington; Joel Jean, Swift Solar; Joe Berry, NREL; and Jinsong Huang, the University of North Carolina; and back row from left, Stephan DeLuca, Energy Materials Corp.; Gang Xiong, First Solar; Colin Bailie, Tandem PV; Billy Stanbery, NREL; Yanfa Yan, The University of Toledo; Michael Heben, The University of Toledo; Jao van de Lagemaat, NREL; Michael Irwin, Hunt Perovskite Technologies; and Devin MacKenzie, the University of Washington.

Known as US-MAP, the consortium’s founding members are UToledo’s Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization; the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo.; Washington Clean Energy Testbeds at the University of Washington; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Perovskites have the potential to become a game-changer for solar and many other fields,” Martin Keller, NREL director, said. “By combining our research efforts, this new consortium will bring this technology to market sooner than if we were all operating alone.”

Perovskites are compound materials with a special crystal structure formed through chemistry.

Dr. Yanfa Yan, UToledo professor of physics, has had great success in the lab drawing record levels of power from sunlight by using two perovskites in a so-called tandem architecture on very thin, flexible supporting material.
Yan’s efforts have increased the efficiency of the new solar cell to about 23%. In comparison, silicon solar panels on the market today have around an 18% efficiency rating.

Dr. Michael Heben, UToledo professor of physics and McMaster endowed chair, also is a leading researcher in this field working on studying the reliability of perovskite solar cells.

“We have a talented team of physicists on faculty making significant advancements using perovskites to make solar energy more affordable, working closely with students and our industry partners,” Heben said. “UToledo is already well-known internationally for its work on cadmium telluride solar cells, which are already being manufactured at large scale by First Solar. We are proud to share our resources and expertise to support U.S. companies in the face of international competition and help the country have control over our energy infrastructure.”

“I applaud The University of Toledo and the National Renewable Energy Lab for their new and exciting partnership advancing U.S. leadership in solar energy technology,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “The U.S. Manufacturing of Advanced Perovskites Consortium will move our country and region forward in solar energy development at a time when it is needed more than ever. As the chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, I will continue to prioritize Department of Energy programs that help fund these important programs through competitively awarded grant opportunities. I thank The University of Toledo, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and other partnering organizations, including First Solar, for their commitment to solar energy.”

In addition to harnessing sunlight to generate electricity, perovskites have shown promise in a range of other applications, including solid-state lighting, advanced radiation detection, dynamic sensing and actuation, photo-catalysis and quantum information science.

Early research investments by DOE’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, its Office of Science, the Department of Defense and by the domestic industry partners have enabled the United States to engage at the forefront of many of these technology areas and has fostered a vibrant community of industrial leaders.

US-MAP founding members will form the executive board that will oversee successful completion of projects. The executive board and the member institutions will be informed and guided by an industrial advisory board composed of new U.S. startups and established companies in the perovskite area. The founding members of the board are six U.S. industry players: BlueDot Photonics, Energy Materials Corp., First Solar, Hunt Perovskites Technologies, Swift Solar and Tandem PV.

US-MAP capability providers will share research and development, validation, and pilot manufacturing capability and experience, which should reduce development costs and times to minimize technology risks for potential investors. The main focus areas of the consortium include durability, development of advanced analytical tools, scalable manufacturing tools, in-line metrology and more with each partner providing capabilities according to their areas of strength. The commercial members will have access to the array of research facilities at the four founding members or other capability-providing institutions.

The organizers and members of US-MAP have already begun expanding this network to include the University of Colorado at Boulder and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

The founding organizers of the US-MAP consortium will explore funding from a variety of sources, including industrial members and the federal government.

Leadership of the consortium will be provided at NREL by Dr. Joseph J. Berry, senior scientist and perovskite team lead, and Dr. Jao van de Lagemaat, director of the Chemistry and Nanoscience Center, who will work with the key points of contact of the other founding member institutions and industrial advisory board.

“Forming this collective will enable innovation in the U.S. that will strengthen our position in these important materials and associated technologies,” Berry said.

For more information about US-MAP, visit the NREL website.

NREL is the U.S. Department of Energy’s primary national laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development. NREL is operated for the Energy Department by the Alliance for Sustainable Energy LLC.

UToledo to Maintain Critical Research Operations Only

The University of Toledo, in adherence to the Ohio Department of Health’s recent Stay at Home Order, will restrict research operations to critical research and related essential functions beginning Tuesday, March 24.

Critical research is defined as activity that if discontinued would generate significant data and sample loss; pose a safety hazard; or negatively impact the patient’s care. This includes coronavirus-related activity that has a timeline for deployment that could address the crisis and activity in support of essential human subject research. In addition, this also includes activity that maintains critical equipment in facilities and laboratories; critical samples, reagents and materials; animal populations; and critically needed plant populations, tissue cultures, bacteria, archaea and other living organisms.

Last week UToledo researchers were advised to begin planning for significant disruptions to routine operations. Those plans identified critical research functions and associated essential research personnel for those functions.

From UToledo to NASA, Recent Graduate’s Discovery Sheds New Light on Newborn Stars

Making her dreams come true, a recent graduate of The University of Toledo’s physics program is in the midst of a sky-rocketing year.

Dr. Nicole Karnath earned her Ph.D. last summer and quickly moved to California to serve as instrument scientist at the SOFIA Science Center, which is based in NASA Ames Research Center, where she flies regularly aboard the world’s largest airborne observatory.

Dr. Nicole Karnath, UToledo alumna and instrument scientist at the SOFIA Science Center in California, stands in front of SOFIA, the world’s largest airborne observatory.

On top of her already soaring career success, this week the Astrophysical Journal published Karnath’s research completed while she was a UToledo student, sharing her discovery that reflects a new understanding of what happens at the early stages of star formation.

She credits her student research and the support of her advisor, Dr. Tom Megeath, UToledo astronomy professor, for the job offer from NASA before she had her diploma.

“I am very happy. I enjoy the science, and I love studying the universe,” Karnath said. “Astronomy is an international, collaborative field because we’re working on telescopes all over the world and taking in huge amounts of data. The opportunities are there for students to break in. UToledo astronomy professors know so many people all over the world. Take advantage of their expertise, connections and need for help analyzing data. That’s how I ended up here.”

“Nicole made one of the most exciting discoveries to come out of our UToledo star formation group,” Megeath said. “Just as a talent agent’s biggest dream is to find the actor or actress who will become the next star, for an astronomer, the dream is to find the blob of gas that’s in the process of becoming a star. Nicole has found four such blobs — collapsing gas clouds that are in the first 6,000 years of forming what is called protostar. In ‘star years,’ this is the first 30 minutes of their lives.”

While a graduate student at UToledo, Karnath was part of an international team of astronomers who used two of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world to create more than 300 images of planet-forming disks around very young stars in the Orion molecular clouds.

Pointing both the Very Large Array (VLA) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to the region in space where many stars are born, the result is the largest survey to date of young stars, called protostars, and their protoplanetary disks, or planets born in rings of dust and gas.

Among the hundreds of survey images, four protostars looked different than the rest and caught Karnath’s attention.

“These newborn stars looked very irregular and blobby,” Karnath said. “We think that they are in one of the earliest stages of star formation and some may not even have formed into protostars yet.”

It is significant that the scientists discovered four of these objects, which Karnath estimates to be younger than 10,000 years old.

“We rarely find more than one such irregular object in one observation,” said Karnath, who used these four infant stars to propose a schematic pathway for the earliest stages of star formation.

To be defined as a typical protostar, stars should not only have a flattened rotating disk surrounding them, but also an outflow — spewing away material in opposite directions — that clears the dense cloud surrounding the stars and makes them optically visible. This outflow is important because it prevents stars from spinning out of control while they grow. But when exactly these outflows start to happen is an open question in astronomy.

One of the infant stars in this study, called HOPS 404, has an outflow velocity of only 2 kilometers per second, or 1.2 miles per second. A typical protostar outflow has a range of 10 to 100 kilometers per second, or 6 to 62 miles per second.

“It is a big puffy sun that is still gathering a lot of mass, but just started its outflow to lose angular momentum to be able to keep growing,” Karnath said. “This is one of the smallest outflows that we have seen, and it supports our theory of what the first step in forming a protostar looks like.”

“These very young protostars don’t match existing theory very well, meaning that we still have a lot to learn from future studies,” Megeath said.

This schematic shows a proposed pathway, top row, for the formation of protostars, based on four very young protostars, bottom row, observed by Very Large Array (orange) and Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) (blue). Step 1 represents the collapsing fragment of gas and dust. In step 2, an opaque region starts to form in the cloud. In step 3, a hydrostatic core starts to form due to an increase in pressure and temperature, surrounded by a disk-like structure and the beginning of an outflow. Step 4 depicts the formation of a class 0 protostar inside the opaque region, which may have a rotationally supported disk and more well-defined outflows. Step 5 is a typical class 0 protostar with outflows that have broken through the envelope — making it optically visible — an actively accreting, rotationally supported disk. In the bottom row, white contours are the protostar outflows as seen with ALMA. This image is courtesy of ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), N. Karnath, and NRAO/AUI/NSF, B. Saxton and S. Dagnello.

Karnath’s stellar work continues in California at the SOFIA Science Center. SOFIA is a flying observatory made out of a modified Boeing 747, capable of making observations that are impossible for even the largest and highest ground-based telescopes.

SOFIA, which stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a partnership of NASA and the German Aerospace Center and under contract with the Universities Space Research Association.

As an instrument scientist, Karnath is responsible for one of five instruments rotated on and off the telescope on the plane, depending on the type of data astronomers are looking to gather.

“I work on an instrument called FORCAST. It’s an imaging instrument and also a spectrometer,” Karnath said. “I’m up there making sure we’re getting the filters needed or the different wavelengths, or looking at a certain target for the right amount of time, and also troubleshooting issues.”

Karnath also is using SOFIA to continue her own research. She submitted a proposal and was awarded observation time on SOFIA scheduled for February 2021.

The curiosity and determination that first fueled her journey as a little girl still powers this successful woman in science today.

“My dad was an amateur astronomer who had a telescope and regularly had me looking at Saturn or a meteor shower,” Karnath said. “I thought astronomy was the most fascinating subject I ever studied. In high school I enjoyed physics and learned that you could make a living off of this. I never looked back, and I’m so lucky that I still love it.”

Karnath said she couldn’t have accomplished so much so soon without the support of Megeath, the UToledo astronomy program, and past advisors at Lowell Observatory and Ohio State University.

“The best part of my job is handing over astronomical data from a cutting-edge observatory, such as the Spitzer Space Telescope, Hubble Space Telescope, ALMA, or the Lowell Discovery Telescope, to a graduate student and seeing the discoveries they make from the data. They never know exactly what they will find,” Megeath said.

“In Nicole’s case, she did an extraordinary job working with an international team spanning three continents and involving universities and institutes across the U.S., Chile and Spain. She combined data from two of the most powerful radio telescopes on Earth to discover these objects. The exciting part is that every discovery brings new mysteries to solve.”

Prior to UToledo, Karnath earned a master’s in applied physics from Northern Arizona University and a bachelor’s in physics and astronomy from Ohio State University.

UToledo is a member of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, a prestigious consortium of 47 U.S. institutions and three international affiliates that operates world-class astronomical observatories for the National Science Foundation and NASA.