Author: Ashley Orcutt

Mercury Remains a Persistent Poison in Connecticut’s Still River

Early 20th century postcard with an image of a hat factory in Danbury, CT
Hat factories in Danbury, like the one featured on this early 20th century postcard, left mercury pollution in the Still River that researchers are still detecting today. (UConn Library Archives and Special Collections)

Western Connecticut is known for rolling hills, rich history, and industry, such as hat making. Once called the “Hat City of the World,” Danbury thrived. Anyone familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter may also be aware of the dangers of hat making, due to the industry’s use of the potent toxin mercury. Starting in the late 1700s, Danbury hat factories were a point source of pollution, dumping large quantities of mercury into the nearby Still River.

Fashions change, the use of mercury in hat making was outlawed in 1940, and now all that remains of the once-thriving hatting industry in Danbury is its history – or is it?

A group of researchers from UConn and Wesleyan University spent four years studying a stretch of the Still River, and found that the industrial waste of a century ago is still very much present in 2020.

Kayla Anatone ’12 (CAHNR), a current PhD student at Wesleyan University, was interested in the local history but also in learning if “legacy” mercury was impacting the environment and making its way into the food web. She and co-authors from the UConn Marine Sciences department – including PhD student Gunnar Hansen, Professor Robert Mason*, Assistant Research Professor Zofia Baumann and Wesleyan University Professor Barry Chernoff – recently published the findings in Chemosphere. Continue reading

Bird Eggshells Just Became More Colorful

Two eggs showing novel eggshell pigments: guacamole green and purplish-brown of two tinamous speciesFor well over 100 years, only two pigments have been identified in avian eggshells: rusty-brown protoporphyrin (e.g., brown chicken eggs) and blue-green biliverdin (e.g., turquois eggs of robins). However, tinamou (chicken-like forest dwellers of South America) eggshells display unusually colored eggshells, suggesting the presence of other pigments. The Brückner Group, in collaboration with the ornithologists and eggshell and bird color experts Daniel Hanley (Long Island University) and Richard Prum (Yale University), investigated this. Through extraction, derivatization, spectroscopy, chromatography, and mass spectrometry, they identified two novel eggshell pigments: yellow–brown bilirubin and red–orange uroerythrin from the guacamole-green and purplish-brown eggshells of two tinamous species. Both pigments are known porphyrin catabolites and were found in the eggshells in conjunction with biliverdin. A colour mixing model using the new pigments and biliverdin reproduced the respective eggshell colours. These discoveries expand our understanding of how eggshell colour diversity is achieved. The ability of these pigments to photo-degrade may have an adaptive value for the tinamous – this is the subject of follow-up studies for the ornithologists.

Hamchand, R.; Hanley, D.; Prum, R.O.; Brückner, C. ‘Expanding the Eggshell Colour Gamut: Uroerythrin and Bilirubin from Tinamou (Tinamidae) Eggshells’ Sci. Rep. 202010, 11264.

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A Day in the Life of an Analytical Scientist

Curtis GuildIn a recent podcast with OnePointe Solutions, Curtis Guild ’17 Ph.D. describes his journey in inorganic and analytical chemistry.

Originally an undergraduate English major, Curtis became passionate about chemistry when he was offered a research opportunity during his sophomore year.

Choosing between industry and graduate school, Curtis credits an undergraduate mentor with recommending graduate school. Ultimately, Curtis chose UConn’s graduate program based on a tour that led to “some really great conversations with professors, with different program directions, and a lot of promise and growth.”

At UConn, Curtis became a member of the Suib Research Group. There, he developed a particular technical expertise with equipment, such as spectrometers and X-Ray equipment. Curtis believes that understanding how to utilize and leverage the proper research equipment has been one of the most valuable career development experiences he has had thus far.

During his years at UConn, Curtis also became involved in outreach efforts to get youth more involved in science. Curtis credits his experience as a volunteer for the Connecticut Middle School Science Bowl as “arguably the most fun that [he] has ever had in terms of [his] science journey so far.” Curtis believes in the value of making science fun for the next generation of scientists.

To promote personal and career development, Curtis encourages the use of professional social media—such as LinkedIn—to network and share expertise with others.

Curtis is currently a Contract Analytical Scientist at Cytiva (formerly GE Life Sciences) and Founder of Centaur Technologies.

Listen to the full podcast

Atomwise Partnership Enables UConn Researcher to Investigate COVID-19 Drug Target

University of Connecticut professor of molecular and cell biology James Cole* is working on identifying new therapeutics for COVID-19.

Through a collaboration with Atomwise, a California-based company which uses artificial intelligence to advance small molecule drug discovery, Cole is one of the 15 researchers looking at different coronavirus protein targets for COVID-19 treatment.

Cole is focusing on the NSP15/EndoU ribonuclease enzyme the COVID-19 virus needs to replicate as well as degrade viral RNA to hide it from host cell defenses. Cole is looking for a molecule that can inhibit the enzyme and thus inhibit replication of coronaviruses.

“The virus and the host carry out this war,” Cole says. “The virus has to evade the host’s innate immunity response while the host is trying to stop the virus from replicating.”

By inhibiting this enzyme, the body’s innate immune system would prevent the virus from replicating. Continue reading

UConn Researcher Invents Nanoparticle for Overcoming Leukemia Treatment Resistance

UConn associate professor of pharmaceutics Xiuling Lu, along with professor of chemistry Rajeswari M. Kasi, was part of a team that recently published a paper in Nature Cell Biology finding a commonly used chemotherapy drug may be repurposed as a treatment for resurgent or chemotherapy-resistant leukemia.

One of the largest problems with cancer treatment is the development of resistance to anticancer therapies. Few FDA-approved products directly target leukemia stem cells, which cause treatment-resistant relapses. The only known method to combat their presence is stem cell transplantation.

Leukemia presents unique treatment challenges due to the nature of this form of cancer. The disease affects bone marrow, which produces blood cells. Leukemia is a cancer of the early blood-forming cells, or stem cells. Most often, leukemia is a cancer of the white blood cells. The first step of treatment is to use chemotherapy to kill the cancerous white blood cells, but if the leukemia stem cells in the bone marrow persist, the cancer may relapse in a therapy-resistant form. Continue reading

IMS Researchers Make Cover of Advanced Materials

May 26th Issue of Advanced Materials cover showing the work of Dr. Greg Sotzing and collaboratorsA molecular engineering principle in which repeat units of fairly rigid fused bicyclic structure and alkenes, separated by freely rotating single bonds, is proposed by Gregory A. Sotzing, Yang Cao, and published as a cover highlight of the May 26th Issue of Advanced Materials in article number 2000499, led by Dr. Chao Wu, a PDF at EIRC, and Ajinkya Deshmukh, a Polymer Program Ph.D. student for energy storage at elevated temperature.

The piston‐like crankshaft structure endows the system with a large bandgap of ≈5eV and flexibility, while being temperature‐invariantly stable. The piston/pendant allows engineering for temperature‐invariant dipolar polarization for energy storage. As part of a UConn lead MURI program, the design strategy uncovered in this work reveals a hitherto unexplored space for the design of scalable and efficient polymer dielectrics for electrical power and electronic systems under concurrent harsh electrical and thermal conditions.

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Blurb courtesy of IMS News

Halle Barber ’20 (CLAS) Receives Outstanding Senior Women Academic Achievement Award

Halle BarberHalle Barber ’20 (CLAS) has been an undergraduate researcher in the Rouge Lab since her first year at UConn, starting in the Fall of 2016. During her first two years in the lab, she helped with the synthesis of lipoplex nanoparticles designed to mimic endosomes and participated in fluorescence studies focused on the ability of modified DNA to rupture the lipoplexes, a study for which she co-authored a paper in ChemBioChem (https://doi.org/10.1002/cbic.201800302). More recently, her research focus has been on the synthesis and design of a new DNA-based bioconjugation approach for crosslinking surfactant micelles. For this independent project she received the Chemistry Department’s 2018 Summer Research Fellowship, and the following year a 2019 UConn Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF) award to continue her work. Also in 2019, Halle was the recipient of the 2019 LSAMP Fellowship Award which funded an opportunity for her to do research in Australia under the mentorship of Dr. Katharina Gaus at the University of New South Wales. Continue reading

The Journey to International Environmental Policy Starts with a Single Step

Penny Vlahos
Penny Vlahos, Assistant Professor of Marine Sciences

In the 1980s and 90s, concern about the destruction of the ozone layer was a topic on everyone’s mind. The international community rallied around the issue and the Montreal Protocol of 1987 was created to tackle the problem. As a result, the compounds causing ozone destruction, chlorofluorocarbons (called CFCs for short), were phased out. Since then, other international efforts have been undertaken to face other environmental crises, such as the Paris Agreement, the Rio Summit, and the Minamata Convention.

In the midst of the world-wide health crisis that is the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers continue forging ahead to identify steps to be taken to continue combating environmental threats and pollutants. Penny Vlahos, associate professor of Marine Sciences at UConn*, recently served on the scientific advisory panel for the International Panel on Chemical Pollution to advise United Nations policymakers on issues related to emerging environmental contaminants and pollution. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in Zurich, Switzerland, but in light of the pandemic, was held virtually instead.

The path towards a protocol, treaty, or agreement – especially one like the universally ratified Montreal Protocol – can be a long and complex one. Vlahos shared her experience with UConn Today about some of the steps necessary to set plans into motion for tackling some of the world’s biggest environmental issues. Continue reading

UConn Recognized As Top Producer of Fulbright Scholars

The University of Connecticut has been recognized among the top producers of Fulbright U.S. Scholars from research institutions for the second time in the past four years.

The University has six Fulbright Scholars on its faculty who are teaching and performing research around the world in the 2019-20 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which was featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Monday.

The Fulbright Program is the government’s flagship international educational exchange program. Scholars are selected for their academic merit and leadership potential, with the opportunity to exchange ideas and contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.

The Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program operates in more than 125 countries. The following UConn faculty are pursuing Fulbright projects abroad:

  • Associate Professor of Sociology Matthew Hughey, will conduct research on “White Racial Identity, Organizational Homogeneity, and Stratification of Benefits in Surrey” at the University of Surrey in Guildford, England.
  • Professor of Chemistry Challa Kumar, will conduct research on “BioNanoMaterials for Additive Manufacturing (3D Printing) of Biobatteries” at the University of Wollongong in Wollongong, Australia.
  • Professor of Painting in the School of Fine Arts Kathryn Myers, will lecture in “Professional Practices for Studio Artists” at Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, India.
  • Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering Malaquias Pena-Mendez, will conduct research on “Ensemble Predictions for Urban Areas” at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceio, Brazil.
  • Associate Professor of English Bhakti Shringarpure, will conduct research on “The World Novel from Africa: Mapping Migrant Forms in East African Literature” at the University of Nairobi in Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Associate Professor of Marine Sciences Michael Whitney, will conduct research on “The Icelandic River Influences on Coastal and Open Ocean Waters” at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland.

UConn’s Office of National Scholarships & Fellowships collaborated with the Office of Global Affairs and the Asian and Asian American Studies Institute to host Fulbright Week at UConn for the first time in 2019.

This year, Fulbright Week at UConn events will be held April 13-17, 2020. Together with a representative from the Institute of International Education, which administers the Fulbright programs, information sessions for faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students will be offered, along with one-on-one faculty advising sessions with the IIE representative, a live session with a current Fulbright student abroad, and a reception for current and former UConn Fulbright Scholars.

The Fulbright Program is funded through an annual appropriation by the United States Congress to the Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations, and foundations in foreign countries and the U.S. also provide direct and indirect support.


Article courtesy of UConn Today

Across the Pond and Back: Chemical Biology in Edinburgh, Scotland

Eric Mohan-University of Edinburgh Photos
Eric Mohan, Chemistry Department, UConn. Summer 2019: University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Undergraduate student Eric Mohan ’20 (CLAS), recipient of an Office of Undergraduate Research award, shares his experience conducting research abroad.

“I am the recipient of the 2019 Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) award, and I had the privilege of spending last summer in the laboratory of Professor Dominic Campopiano, in the School of Chemistry at the prestigious University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom. This was an amazing experience to work with a renowned professor helping solve an unmet and urgent medical need related to the resurgence of antibiotic resistance. My project focused on the inhibition of an important enzyme found in many infectious bacteria, such as those causing Tuberculosis. I was tasked with synthesizing, modeling, and characterizing the pathway by which a compound, ERG240, blocked the branch chain amino acid aminotransferase enzyme. I used optically active coupled reactions in this work. We then co-crystallized the inhibitor with the enzyme and employed x-ray crystallography to fully understand the mechanism of the enzyme. My research was presented as a poster at the Fall Frontiers program 2019 at UConn, Storrs. Continue reading