Faculty News

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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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

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

LambdaVision/Birge Group Receives $5 Million from NASA

LambdaVision was awarded five million dollars from NASA to continue their work on the International Space Station (ISS) for an artificial retina that could help patients regain their sight. The award will fund flights to the ISS for the next three years to manufacture and improve the artificial retina technology previously developed by LambdaVision. The layer-by-layer process of producing the protein-based artificial retina requires less materials in a microgravity environment, reducing its cost and production time. In the future, LambdaVision hopes to begin clinical trials for their artificial retina technology.

LambdaVision was founded as part of the UConn Technology Incubator Program (TIP) and is spearheaded by Nicole Wagner (CEO) and Jordan Greco (CSO). Wagner and Greco are alumni of Dr. Robert Birge’s research group and currently serve as Assistant Research Professors in UConn’s Chemistry Department.

Read the full Business Wire article here.

“Outpouring of Support” as Researchers, Barnes & Noble Donate Lab Supplies to UConn Health

Labcoat
UConn Health is on the frontline of the response to COVID-19, and in need of supplies like those collected by Yashan Zhang and others at UConn. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

“UConn is really my home,” said Yashan Zhang.

She lives in Farmington – just minutes from UConn Health – and she’s an assistant professor in residence in the Chemistry Department on UConn’s Hartford Campus. She’s also Chinese, though she’s been in Connecticut and part of the UConn community for the past 13 years.

“I started my PhD here in the Chemistry Department, and then I got my PhD and I got a job here,” Zhang said. “So I’ve been at UConn for a long time.”

For Zhang, it feels like the coronavirus pandemic has hit home twice: first, as it threatened her family and friends still living in China, and now, as its impact grows daily in the United States. It’s overwhelming for her at times – her voice fills with emotion when she talks about images of doctors forced to wear makeshift personal protective equipment, or to use the same protective mask for their whole shift. The daily reports of increasing positive cases of COVID-19 are tough for her to hear.

“Every day I see the numbers,” she said. “I always feel like, behind those numbers, they are actual, real people. That just makes me feel really sad.”

But like so many, it’s also empowered her to take action to help her neighbors and her UConn community – and her determination to help inspired a recent campus-wide effort to help support the doctors, nurses, and medical staff on the frontlines of the pandemic at UConn Health.

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Research Spotlight: Following your scientific passion with Gregory Sotzing

Professor Gregory Sotzing
The University of Connecticut’s Professor Gregory Sotzing, who has developed different polymers like a color-changing fabric. Photo courtesy of Sotzing Research Group

Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Sotzing Research Group are studying conductive and dielectric polymers for a number of applications, from color-changing fabric to medical applications of chemicals in cannabis to high-speed projectile launchers for the military.

The group is led by chemistry professor Gregory Sotzing. The group’s wide-ranging base of research is due to the number of applications for the polymers they study.

Sotzing explained that studying polymers really just means making new kinds of materials.

“We’re pretty much the people who make new materials, new compositions of matter. Then the engineers will take and test out these new things and see how well they work inside of certain kinds of applications,” Sotzing said.

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