Fifteen UB research projects that made headlines worldwide in 2015

Microscope image of neurons, which look like streaks of fireworks on a dark background.

"Designer" dopamine neurons. In 2015, UB's Jian Feng worked with colleagues to pioneer a technique for efficiently converting skin cells into dopamine neurons.  

From robot bees to designer neurons, here are highlights from a great year of research

Release Date: December 21, 2015


BUFFALO, N.Y. — We studied black holes and robot bees. We investigated the psychological consequences of terror. We asked why newborn babies continue to die in their sleep, even though safe-sleeping recommendations came out years ago.

In 2015, University at Buffalo researchers contemplated topics both cosmic and earthly, both automated and human, and their findings made headlines around the globe. News outlets from CNN and NPR to VICE’s Motherboard reported on UB work and discoveries, which are helping us understand the world we live in and improving the quality of our lives.

Robot bees, laser vision

Robotic insects.

Credit: Microrobotics Lab, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Robotic insects could one day pollinate our crops or conduct surveillance for disaster relief missions. But first, these miniature machines need eyes. UB computer scientist Karthik Dantu is leading a $1.1 million project to equip the automatons with laser-powered sensors that would enable the bugs to detect the size, shape and distance of approaching objects.

As featured in NBC News and LiveScience.

Black holes: imperfect vaults?

Artist’s impression of the surroundings of a supermassive black hole.

Artist’s impression of the surroundings of a supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Physicists have argued for years that black holes are the ultimate vaults: Anything that falls in is gone forever, and observers standing outside have no way to discern what got sucked inside. But conventional wisdom may be wrong, say UB physicists Dejan Stojkovic and Anshul Saini. Their new paper outlines how interactions between particles emitted by a black hole can reveal information about what lies within.

As featured in EarthSky and the Science Channel Facebook page.

Voices of slavery

A UB workshop this fall brought together descendants of Dred Scott, Solomon Northup and other former slaves who authored narratives about their enslavement. The gathering, planned by transnational studies professor Kari Winter, may have been the first of its kind. It gave participants a chance to reconnect with history, explore their identity and discuss ways to carry their ancestors’ stories into the future.

As featured in The Buffalo News, WBFO, The New York Times and NPR.

Trust and aging

An older woman at the grocery store.

Stock image. May not be republished.

The old curmudgeon may be a Hollywood myth. Sure, grumpy older adults exist, but new research co-authored by UB psychologist Michael Poulin shows that people actually become more trusting as they age. This could create risks — susceptibility to scams, for example. But overall, there’s a positive association between trust and well-being, Poulin says.

As featured in TIME and CNN.

Slinky lookalike hyperlens

A flat device that is patterned like a slinky.

A metamaterial hyperlens. Light passes through the hyperlens, improving the resolution of very small objects.  

A device dreamed up at UB looks like a slinky, but it’s not a toy. Called a metamaterial hyperlens, the technology could help scientists see single molecules and other diminutive things. “There is a great need in health care, nanotechnology and other areas to improve our ability to see tiny objects that elude even the most powerful optical systems,” said UB electrical engineer Natalia Litchinitser.

As featured in VICE Motherboard and Gizmag.

“Designer” dopamine neurons

Microscope image of neurons, which look like streaks of fireworks on a dark background.

Designer dopamine neurons. Image shows a protein found only in neurons (red) and an enzyme that synthesizes dopamine (green). Cell DNA is labeled in blue.

New research by UB’s Jian Feng brings us closer to a holy grail of Parkinson’s disease research: creating healthy dopamine neurons to replace malfunctioning cells in patients. Feng, a professor of physiology and biophysics, worked with colleagues to pioneer a technique for efficiently converting skin cells into dopamine neurons. The method could enable scientists to reprogram many cell types with new functions.

As featured in IFLScience and RedOrbit.

NFL scheduling biases

Football helmets clashing.

Stock image. May not be republished.

Could NFL schedules be fairer? Of course, say UB engineers who analyzed current scheduling practices and devised a system of their own to minimize competitive imbalances, such as those caused by having to play a disproportionate number of well-rested teams coming off bye weeks or Thursday night games. The research caught the attention of NFL officials, who contacted the UB team for more information.

As featured in ESPN and ProFootballTalk.

Hard questions at death’s door

Older man holding the hand of another person.

Stock image. May not be republished.

UB social work researcher Deborah Waldrop recently tackled a largely unstudied area about end-of-life care: What happens when paramedics and EMTs are called to situations in which a terminally ill patient is imminently dying. Her study provides insight into how first responders — and families — can better prepare for these deeply emotional situations and ensure that people's last wishes, which may include a do-not-resuscitate order, are met.

As featured in New York Magazine.

Saving sleeping babies

A baby sleeping on its back.

Stock image. May not be republished.

Guidelines for keeping babies safe during sleep are decades old, so why do sudden unexpected infant deaths continue to occur by the thousands? UB nursing researcher Deborah Raines is studying what factors influence people to place newborns in unsafe sleep positions. One possibility: Cultural forces — including outdated advice from grandparents — may exert a powerful influence.

As featured in The Huffington Post and BabyCenter.

Genomic jewel box

The rounded bladder of a humped bladderwort plant.

The tiny bladder of a bladderwort plant (color added). Such bladders use vacuum pressure to suck in prey at great speed. Credit: Enrique Ibarra-Laclette, Claudia Anahí Pérez-Torres and Paulina Lozano-Sotomayor.

Bigger isn’t always better when it comes to your genome. Take it from the humped bladderwort, an eccentric carnivorous plant that lives in an aquatic environment and uses vacuum pressure to capture prey. According to research led by UB biologist Victor Albert, this complex organism’s tiny genome is packed with treasures, housing more genes than grape, coffee and papaya plants, all of which have much larger genomes.

As featured in The Washington Post and The Scientist.

Adolf Hitler as country gentleman

A room with a framed Hitler portrait hanging on the wall.

Photograph of Eva Braun’s room in the Berghof with a framed Hitler portrait. Credit: Eva Braun Photographic Albums, National Archives, College Park, Maryland

History sees Adolf Hitler as a mass murderer, the architect of countless atrocities. But there was a point in time when media from Vogue to The New York Times fawned over the Nazi leader’s domestic style and taste, says UB architectural historian Despina Stratigakos. Her new book, “Hitler at Home,” traces how Hitler’s inner circle constructed and sold this now-haunting image of the Führer to news outlets worldwide in the decade before World War II.

As featured in BBC History Magazine, The Washington Post and The New York Review of Books.

Pitfalls of school security

A security guard in a school.

Credit: Getty Images. May not be republished.

A study by UB education professor Jeremy Finn and Canisius College colleague Tim Servoss renews the debate on school security. Among the findings: In U.S. high schools, security measures are disproportionately adopted in large schools with high African American student populations, independent of objective dangers such as actual crime levels. This is problematic because high security can result in increased suspensions and make students feel less safe.

As featured in Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post.

3-D printed arteries

What if you could practice on a patient before engaging in brain surgery? UB neurosurgeon Adnan Siddiqui was able to do the next-best thing: Before operating on aneurysm patient Teresa Flint, Siddiqui tested surgical techniques on a model of her blood vessels fashioned by a 3-D printer. The results changed Siddiqui’s thinking about the best way to perform the procedure, which was a success. It’s just one of the ways that he and colleagues at the Jacobs Institute and Kaleida Health’s Gates Vascular Institute have been using 3-D printing to improve patient care.

As featured in The Buffalo News, WBFO, Business First and CNBC.

Narcissistic men

A man looking into a mirror.

Stock image. May not be republished.

Emily Grijalva, UB human resources management expert, led a team that pored through 31 years of narcissism research to find out whether the widely held belief that men tend to be more narcissistic than women is true. The answer: Apparently, yes. Men exhibited more narcissistic traits, regardless of age. The research provided Grijalva with unique insights on narcissism, including its potential role in leadership, and the effects of gender stereotypes.

As featured in CBS News, MTV News and Fast Company.

Fear and resilience in times of terror

Daniel Antonius.

Daniel Antonius, director of forensic psychiatry at UB, studies terrorism, violence and aggression.

In a year when terror attacks in Paris, Mali and San Bernardino made headlines, Daniel Antonius, director of forensic psychiatry at UB, spoke to news media about the psychological impact of terrorism. He noted that attacks hurt economies by making people more hesitant to fly, use public transit or occupy places with large crowds. But he also offered a message of hope: While PTSD symptoms often spike in a population after an attack, the rate of disorders often returns to normal within months. The recovery speaks to humans’ inherent resilience, Antonius said.

As featured in USA Today, The Conversation and Discover.

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