Unlocking Puzzles of the World Together
Through interdisciplinary collaborations, UCR faculty members are finding solutions to real-world problems.
Each day, UCR researchers and creative artists are in labs, classrooms, performance halls, and in the field, making new discoveries, inventions, and works of art.
Increasingly, though, creating new knowledge requires working not only within one’s own discipline, but also in collaboration with scholars and researchers from across campus.
“Many of the most important problems the world faces lie at the intersections between fields,” says Cynthia Larive, interim provost at UCR. “That makes cross-disciplinary collaboration critical to address those scientific questions.”
Collaboration, Larive says, is a way of developing synergies — among faculty members, students, researchers, and institutions. The benefits are myriad: Aside from innovation and efficiency, Larive says collaborating is fun, thus making research more productive. “It is a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.”
Here are a few examples that illustrate how collaboration by faculty members is today opening opportunities to take on difficult issues. As Larive says, “What we want to do is address compelling questions and problems in science, the arts, and society. The impact that scholars can have is often greater if they work as part of an interdisciplinary team.”
CAN CERTAIN ASPECTS OF AUTISM BE REMEDIATED?
At UCR, the research on understanding autism involves more than searching for its causes; it also means helping families manage the challenges of living with the condition.
The Molecular Neurobiologist
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects about 1 in 100 children with a range of communication, social, and behavioral impairments. People with fragile X syndrome (FXS) are at high risk for ASD, and Professor of Biomedical Sciences Iryna Ethell’s research on the development of brain cells has led to an effective treatment for FXS. A few years ago, Ethell discovered that mouse models with FXS had altered cognitive behaviors and responses to sound.
Ethell sought out Associate Professor of Psychology Khaleel Razak, an auditory neurophysiologist, to team up on ways to examine these responses and target an enzyme for drug development. “Our long-term goal is to develop novel pharmacological approaches to treat FXS symptoms and to identify the appropriate developmental time points for treatment. FXS provides a window to study autism spectrum disorders, so the treatments developed for FXS may also benefit children with autism,” says Razak.
Associate Professor of Biomedical Sciences Devin Binder joined the team to help identify how auditory responses can work as physiological biomarkers in mouse models, which will then help improve drug testing in clinical trials. The trio’s collaboration has resulted in FXS research that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. One such study was on alleviating auditory habituation-related symptoms in the FXS mouse model. Ethell provided the molecular expertise, Binder taught the team how to do EEG recordings, and Razak provided the auditory stimulation and system connection.
Distinguished Professor of Education Jan Blacher established the SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center in 2007 to help Inland-area families living with autism get more information about accurate diagnoses, proper treatment, and possible intervention options. Last year, the SEARCH Center partnered with the School of Medicine and First 5 of Riverside to intensify its focus on helping families living with ASD.
The Medical Student
Ana-Naomi Racataian, M.D. ’17, part of the School of Medicine’s first graduating class, took part in a psychiatry rotation that involved a direct collaboration between psychiatrists, county clinics, school psychologists, and various evaluations and therapies. “Integrating so many different parts of social and mental health with social and county services [is crucial] because doctors can’t do it all. [Autism treatment] is about understanding all the moving parts and communicating it,” Racataian says.
The Medical Doctor
Associate Dean for Graduate Medical Education and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine Gerald Maguire, M.D., says the School of Medicine’s collaboration with the SEARCH Center on education, research, and clinical care was important in establishing the Child Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship Training Program, which will welcome two fellows for 2017-2018. The benefits involve learning the evaluations for autism and collaboration on research opportunities. “It will also enhance the care of our community, which is our mission here at UCR Psychiatry and the School of Medicine,” Maguire says.
CAN WE PREVENT THE SPREAD OF DISEASE BY INSECTS?
Scientists at UCR are creating sophisticated algorithms designed to identify patterns and analyze massive amounts of data sets within various disciplines. This technology has been especially helpful in solving problems in medicine, anthropology, and entomology.
The Computer Scientist
“As computer scientists, we have all these amazing tools and hardware that can solve problems. But we need data,” says Eamonn Keogh, a professor of computer science and engineering in UCR’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering. Several years ago, Keogh started collaborating with other researchers on campus. They provided data sets, Keogh’s team mined the data, and problems were solved — together. Most recently, Keogh collaborated with entomologists to find easy and inexpensive ways to stop mosquitoes that spread human diseases. These collaborations led to the creation of a graduate program in computational entomology, called National Science Foundation Research Traineeship in Integrated Computational Entomology, or NICE. The program aims to expand the understanding of insects, improve human health, and alleviate food waste. It will launch in the summer and fund at least 80 graduate students.
Associate Professor Anandasankar Ray does olfactory research to control insects that transmit deadly diseases such as West Nile virus, malaria, and Huanglongbing. “Insects use the sense of smell to identify their hosts, so we can potentially disrupt this behavior by using cheap, environmentally friendly odors,” he says. In 2013, his lab designed computer software to find alternatives to the insect repellant popularly known as DEET. These are now being developed into a new generation of broad-spectrum insect repellents to protect from mosquitoes and crop pests at a startup he founded called SensoryGen. His previous research also led to odors that blocked mosquitoes’ ability to detect carbon dioxide, their primary means of finding blood.
HOW CAN ART HELP US SEE THE UNIVERSE DIFFERENTLY?
It’s important to give students majoring in fields such as social sciences, humanities, business, and arts a gateway to science, says postdoctoral researcher in astrophysics Mario De Leo-Winkler. Through these collaborations, students get a chance to develop critical thinking and learn about the scientific method.
As a child, the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” meant something real to Professor of Physics and Astronomy Gabriela Canalizo. “I just loved looking at the stars,” she says. Today, she teaches a course that capitalizes on students’ wonder at the universe. Along with De Leo-Winkler (profiled below) and Professor of Physics and Astronomy Gillian Wilson, Canalizo created the astrophotography course for students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. It was such a hit that their students even considered changing their majors to astronomy. Collaboration, Canalizo says, breeds opportunity: “When you’re only around people who look and think like you, your idea of the universe is limited. When you interact and collaborate with people who aren’t like you, your parameter space is expanded.”
De Leo-Winkler, a former UC MEXUS fellow and a current education director for a NASA program at UCR, came to campus with the idea of creating outreach programs for the astronomy research group. Astrophotography works as a gateway to science, he says, because it’s beautiful and accessible. “It has this impact just through images that catch people’s attention.”
Professor of Music Tim Labor is part of the cohort that De Leo-Winkler gathered to lead a capstone project for Honors Program students majoring in computer science, media arts, and biomedical sciences funded through the NASA MIRO FIELDS program. The collaboration also involves the Sweeney Center for Media Studies and faculty members from the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The goal? To create a virtual reality game that shows what it’s like to fly through the galaxy. “Creating the experience is a chance,” Labor says of the project, which kicked off last spring. “Synergies are being created, but they still have to be exploited.”
WILL THERE STILL BE ORANGES IN THE UNITED STATES?
It was discovered first in China. Citrus trees bore fruit that wouldn’t ripen; instead, they stayed green, misshapen, and bitter. And once a tree was infected, there was no cure. Eventually, the tree just died.
The disease was named citrus greening, also known as Huanglongbing (HLB). Spread by a bacteria-bearing insect, the Asian citrus psyllid, it is one of the most serious citrus plant diseases in the world and has destroyed millions of citrus trees in the United States and abroad. In Florida, HLB has led to a 75 percent decline in the $9 billion citrus industry. HLB was detected in Los Angeles County in 2012, and in Orange County in 2016.
Luckily, California has UCR, which is using its core strengths in citrus research, plant pathology, engineering, and entomology to minimize the threat to its citrus industry. Collaborations between citrus growers, academics, the government, the UCR Citrus Variety Collection, the UCR Citrus Clonal Protection Program, and the National Clonal Germplasm Repository for Citrus signal that California is ready and united in a joint effort to fight HLB.
The Plant Pathologist
Wenbo Ma, a professor of plant pathology, is studying the disease at a molecular level. Understanding how HLB occurs will identify ways to stop it from killing citrus trees and develop varieties that are resistant to the disease. Her research has also led to the identification of molecular markers that can be used for robust HLB diagnosis.
The Biomolecular Engineer
Xin Ge, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering, has developed novel technologies, such as a synthetic library, deep sequencing, and functional screening, to rapidly identify antigen-specific monoclonal antibodies (mAbs). These mAbs could lead to new diagnoses and treatments for diseases — not just in humans, but plants as well. Collaborations between Ge and Ma allow the application of cutting-edge technologies on HLB management by generating high-affinity antibodies that efficiently target the pathogen.
The Plan Pathologist
Caroline Roper, an associate professor of plant pathology, is studying which bactericides (chemicals that kill bacteria) target HLB, and the pathways those bactericides travel inside citrus trees. Roper calls UCR’s collaborative citrus environment a forward and reverse continuum. “We are trying to translate our research to practical use, and then getting feedback from the growers through this continuum.”
The Cooperative Extension Specialist
Georgios Vidalakis, a professor and UC Cooperative Extension specialist in plant pathology and director of the Citrus Clonal Protection Program at UC Riverside, emphasizes that UCR’s unbreakable ties with the citrus industry have helped keep HLB devastation at bay in California. “We took action (against HLB) immediately, as soon as the psyllid entered California in 2008,” says Vidalakis.
Mark Hoddle is a UC Cooperative Extension specialist in entomology and director of the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside. In recent years, Hoddle has released two species of parasitoids — tiny wasps the size of a sesame seed — native to Pakistan that are natural enemies of the Asian citrus psyllid (ACP). Hoddle says the Pakistani natural enemies “are a really important weapon to control the ACP in urban areas where pesticides are seldom used by homeowners and where ACP and HLB currently reside.” He adds, “We have no other choice except to use natural enemies in people’s gardens or do nothing. And the ‘do nothing’ option is unacceptable.”