Twelve ways UB researchers made groundbreaking discoveries — and headlines — in 2018

Alia Lesnek surveys rocks in Alaska.

University at Buffalo PhD candidate Alia Lesnek (center) in Alaska. She co-led a research study showing that that glaciers receded around 17,000 years ago, opening up a coastal pathway for possible migration. The findings support the hypothesis that at least some of the earliest settlers arrived via the coast, as opposed to trekking inland through Canada on foot. Credit: Jason Briner.

From identifying a potential autism treatment to creating fungal-fighting 3-D printed dentures — here are some highlights from a year of discovery

Release Date: December 21, 2018

BUFFALO, N.Y — We explored the path taken by the first humans to the Americas. We designed beaver-inspired autonomous robots to support space travel. We identified deadly superbugs, examined the gender gap among corporate leadership and provided context to a contentious election season.

In 2018, University at Buffalo students and faculty reached new scientific heights and pushed the boundaries of innovation, shaping the world for years to come. Their discoveries made headlines in news outlets worldwide, from The New York Times and The Washington Post to The Guardian and CBC Radio.

Politics | Predicting election outcomes

Map of USA showing red and blue states

Democrats made major gains in the House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections, but that came as no surprise to UB campaigns and elections expert James Campbell. His Seats-in-Trouble election forecasting model predicted the surge within three seats months ahead of time. Meanwhile, UB political scientists James Battista and Jacob Neiheisel offered insight on everything from political rhetoric to state elections in New York.

As featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Buffalo News

Medicine | Reversing autism symptoms

Youth sitting alone on stairs

Stock image. May not be republished.

Social difficulties are among the most devastating challenges of autism spectrum disorder. However, new research led by UB neuroscientist Zhen Yan revealed that a brief treatment with a low dose of the anti-cancer drug romidepsin ameliorated social deficits in animal models of autism by restoring the expression of hundreds of genes involved in the disease. The therapeutic effects spanned the juvenile to late adolescent period, a critical developmental stage for social and communication skills, offering hope to millions afflicted with the disorder.

As featured in Daily Mail, New Atlas, Medical Xpress

Planetary exploration | Beaver-inspired robots

Beaver-inspired robots

Credit: Douglas Levere/University at Buffalo.

Autonomous robots excel in factories, but they struggle with the randomness of nature. To help these machines overcome uneven terrain and other obstacles, UB computer scientist Nils Napp has turned to beavers, which build their dams in response to simple environmental cues, as opposed to following predetermined plans. The work could have implications in search-and-rescue operations, planetary exploration for Mars rover-style vehicles and other areas.

As featured in New Atlas, Mechanical Engineering magazine, WKBW

Prehistoric travel | The peopling of the Americas

Alia Lesnek surveys rocks in Alaska

Credit: Jason Briner/University at Buffalo.

How did the first humans arrive in the Americas? A study led by UB geologists Jason Briner and Alia Lesnek adds to evidence that the story may be more complicated than we once thought. The research shows that glaciers covering islands in southern Alaska receded around 17,000 years ago, opening up a coastal pathway for possible migration. The findings support the hypothesis that at least some of the earliest settlers arrived via the coast, as opposed to trekking inland through Canada on foot, as once believed. Study co-authors included UB biologist Charlotte Lindqvist.

As featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Smart News, Newsweek

Dental | Infection-fighting 3D-printed dentures

Man holding a pair of dentures

Credit: University at Buffalo.

To better treat oral thrush, an oral fungal infection common among denture-wearers, UB researchers have turned to 3D printers to build dentures filled with antifungal medication. Unlike current treatment options, such as antiseptic mouthwashes and microwave disinfection, the dentures periodically release microscopic capsules to prevent infection while in use. The innovation could be applied to various other devices such as splints, stents, liners, wound dressings and prosthesis, says oral biology researcher and lead investigator Praveen Arany.

As featured in Yahoo News, New Atlas, Digital Trends

Business | Why so few female leaders?

Man and a woman on opposite ends of a seesaw

Stock image. May not be republished.

Roughly 95 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are men. To find out why this gender gap persists, UB researchers Katie Badura and Emily Grijalva studied 59 years’ worth of literature on leadership emergence. Men were more likely to be considered leaders, they found, partly because they had more assertive personalities. However, women emerged as often as men after people spent more time getting to know them — possibly because people tend to rely less on gender stereotypes upon becoming better acquainted.

As featured in Scientific American, Salon, MarketWatch

Energy | Blue dye, green batteries

UB chemists Anjula Kosswattaarachchi and Timothy Cook. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo

UB chemists Anjula Kosswattaarachchi and Timothy Cook. Credit: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki/University at Buffalo.

A bright blue, sapphire-colored dye found in wastewater from textile mills could be the next advance in green energy. In laboratory experiments, UB chemists Timothy Cook and Anjula Kosswattaarachchi showed that the dye — called methylene blue — is good at storing and releasing energy on cue when dissolved in water. These properties make the compound a promising material for rechargeable liquid-based batteries used to stockpile energy from wind farms or solar homes.

As featured in The Verge, Futurism, Cosmos magazine

Disease | Identifying flesh-eating superbug

A human neutrophil (grey) is interacting with Klebsiella pneumoniae (pink). A hypervirulent version of this pathogen is sparking increasing concern due to recent reports describing hypervirulent strains that are antimicrobial resistant.

A human neutrophil (grey) is interacting with Klebsiella pneumoniae (pink). Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Hope you never run into Klebsiella pneumonia, an antibiotic-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria that can cause blindness in a day and death in less than a week. A rare strain of a common bacteria, clinicians have struggled to test for the disease due to its similarity to its less aggressive near-twin. But this year, a research team led by UB professor of infectious disease Thomas Russo took a major step forward by discovering DNA biomarkers that accurately identify the deadly strain.

As featured in Business Insider, Business Standard, Medical Research

Behavior | Getting the ‘drunchies’

A salt jar spilled on a table

Stock image. May not be republished.

The “drunchies” — short for “drunk munchies” — are real. After an episode of heavy drinking, people really are more likely to opt for salty snack foods than healthy greens, according to a study led by UB community health and health behavior expert Jessica Kruger. That’s just one finding of the research, which explored the understudied question of how drinking influences dietary choices. Given the obesity epidemic, “We need to be aware of not only the negative effect of alcohol consumption, but also the impact it has on what people are eating while they are drinking,” Kruger says.

As featured in Newsweek, MarketWatch, New York Post

Social media | Rumors spread during disasters

Map of USA showing how false tweets spreads

In 2012, a Twitter user incorrectly tweeted that the New York Stock Exchange building was flooded during Hurricane Sandy. That tweet was retweeted by news organizations and spread across the nation, as shown in the map above, before it was debunked. Credit: University at Buffalo.

We know that Twitter is full of misinformation. But how good are the social media platform’s most active users at detecting falsehoods, especially during public emergencies? Not good, according to UB industrial engineer Jun Zhuang, who published a study examining more than 20,000 tweets during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing. Among its findings: Up to 91 percent of users spread false news, either by retweeting or “liking” a post that contained inaccurate or false information.

As featured in The New York Times, CBC Radio, The Washington Post

Climate change | Reviving coral reefs

Scientists working at coral reefs

In her new book, “Coral Whisperers: Scientists on the Brink,” UB law and geography professor Irus Braverman interviews and observes the work of more than 100 scientists striving to protect coral reef ecosystems. Despite covering 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, coral reefs support 25 percent of marine life. However, coral reefs are dying at a rapid rate due to repeated devastation by global warming, pollution and ocean acidification. While the crisis affecting reefs elicits despair, she writes, corals also emerge as a sign of hope and a catalyst for action.

As featured in The New Yorker, The Guardian, NPR

Sociology | Where cities and suburbs begin

Aerial view of Buffalo, N.Y.

Do you live in an urban or suburban area? Though a person’s zip code is a strong predictor of response, research from UB sociologist Shelley M. Kimelberg and co-author Chase Billingham shows that other factors influence perceptions. For example, suburban residents who thought their neighborhoods were unsafe or had low-quality schools were just as likely to say they lived in an urban area as people who lived within a city’s boundaries but had positive views of local schools and public safety. The study suggests that lawmakers and other leaders should consider how people see their communities — rather than relying exclusively on geographic borders — when making policy.

As featured in The Atlantic, FuturityThe Wichita Eagle

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