Seventeen research stories from a year of discovery at UB

The freeze-dried ingredients of a liposome-based vaccine that could be developed for COVID-19. A team led by UB biomedical engineers reported on this promising technology this fall. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

From documenting inequality in Buffalo to identifying proven oral hygiene tools for happy gums, UB scholars’ work had local and international impact in 2021

By Charlotte Hsu

Release Date: December 27, 2021


BUFFALO, N.Y. — The key to detecting deepfake photos may be the light in a person’s eyes. New knowledge about how neurons sense pain could lead to non-opioid painkillers. Also, sea anemones can eat ants. Yes, ants.

These and other UB discoveries from 2021 reminded us of the multitude of wonders that grace the world we all share. In a year that challenged us all, the work of UB scholars highlighted beauty, curiosity and hope. Their findings, writings and art also called attention to the deep problems that modern societies face, and the steps we can take together to move forward in 2022 and after.

As we end another year, here are a few UB stories from 2021 that made headlines in Buffalo and around the world.

History | Ancient dogs

This bone fragment, a piece of a femur, was found in Southeast Alaska. It belongs to a dog that lived about 10,150 years ago, a study concludes. This image is a composite that employs a technique called focus-stacking to show details of the bone more clearly. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

In early 2021, UB researchers announced a thrilling discovery: a femur fragment found in a cave in Southeast Alaska belonged to a dog that lived about 10,150 years ago. That made the ancient bone — thought to be a bear’s before its DNA was sequenced — the oldest confirmed remains of a domestic dog in the Americas, according to scientists. The finding offered new insights into the story of how canines — and the people who domesticated them — first came to this part of the world. UB biological sciences researchers Charlotte Lindqvist and Flavio Augusto da Silva Coelho led the work, with a team from UB and the University of South Dakota.

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Deepfakes | A light in the eye

UB researchers have developed a tool that identifies deepfake images by analyzing reflections of light on people’s corneas. Typically, in genuine photos and videos, “The two eyes should have very similar reflective patterns” because they’re exposed to the same light sources, says UB computer scientist Siwei Lyu. Deviations can indicate trickery, as deepfakes generated using artificial intelligence fail to consistently reproduce uniform reflections. Lyu created the tool with Shu Hu and Yuezun Li.

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Cities and inequality | Three decades in Buffalo

Experts including Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies, discusses social inequity and health disparities. The center joined the Community Health Equity Research Institute at UB in 2021.

With support from community and academic partners, UB’s Center for Urban Studies released a report on inequality in Buffalo over the past three decades, looking at conditions impacting Black residents. Researchers examined metrics like poverty rates, household income, homeownership, employment and education, and concluded that “an entire generation saw little if any improvements in their lives.” Henry-Louis Taylor Jr., lead author and the center’s director, raised awareness about such inequities as Buffalo’s mayoral election captured national attention. “The problems that Buffalo face are the problems that America face,” he told CBS News.

Public art | ‘Flight of the Chickadee’

The UB Arts Collaboratory Working Artists Lab collaborative mural at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. Photo by Biff Henrich, courtesy of Cecily Brown, UB Arts Collaboratory Working Artists Lab, Buffalo and Bortolami, New York.

Bright, lively and born through a very special collaboration, a mural titled “Flight of the Chickadee” graces the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts’ building. This work of public art brought together the ideas and talents of renowned painter Cecily Brown, local artists and storytellers, and students from the academy, part of Buffalo Public Schools. All worked on every stage of the mural, which depicts regional themes including Buffalo’s seasons and plants and animals of significance to the Haudenosaunee. Brown completed her work in Buffalo as a visiting artist with the UB Arts Collaboratory.

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COVID-19 | Tracking new variants

Some of the key collaborators in the effort to do genomic surveillance of COVID-19 in Erie County include Jennifer Surtees, UB associate professor of biochemistry; Gale Burstein, Erie County Commissioner of Health; and Carleen Pope, administrative coordinator of the Erie County Public Health Laboratory. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Genomic sequencing is a critical global tool in identifying new COVID-19 variants and understanding how the pandemic is evolving. In Western New York, UB biochemist Jennifer Surtees has been leading such surveillance efforts. She and colleagues at the Genomics and Bioinformatics Core at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences conduct sequencing of regional COVID-19 samples. Their work supports public health efforts, tracking the spread of the Delta variant in the area and identifying the arrival of the Omicron variant, for example.  

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COVID-19 | Freeze-dried vaccines?

Moustafa Mabrouk, University at Buffalo biomedical engineering PhD student, holds a vial containing ingredients of a liposome-based liquid vaccine that could be developed for COVID-19. Mabrouk is among UB researchers who have studied the possibility of freeze-drying liposome-based vaccines. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

In 2021, a COVID-19 vaccine candidate under development by UB spinoff POP Biotechnologies and South Korean biotech company EuBiologics moved into human trials in South Korea. The vaccine, a liquid injection, employs specialized liposomes designed by UB biomedical engineer Jonathan Lovell and colleagues. Research is now underway on another useful advance: the possibility of freeze-drying vaccines that leverage the liposomes. Dry doses could be shipped at room temperature and rehydrated at clinics, eliminating refrigeration needs that can slow vaccination campaigns. Lovell’s team reported promising findings on freeze-drying this fall, with UB biomedical engineer Moustafa Mabrouk as first author on a paper in Science Advances.

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Animals | Ant-eating sea anemones

The giant plumose anemone is a sea creature. It’s an animal, but it looks like cauliflower. Also, it eats ants. Yes, you read that right: ants. Led by UB geology researcher Christopher Wells, scientists used a method called DNA metabarcoding to identify the gut contents of anemones fixed to floating docks in the Pacific Northwest. Surprising menu items included pale-legged field ants, which may get pushed into the ocean by wind during mating flights.

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Hospice | The dreams we dream before we die

Portrait of Carine Mardorossian, UB professor of English and Global Gender and Sexuality Studies, and co-author, with Christopher Kerr, of "Death Is But a Dream. The two had been friends for years before they began writing. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

As death draws near, many people begin experiencing vivid, transformative dreams and visions — ones that resurrect past relationships and reunite the dying with loved ones they’ve lost. In 2020, UB English professor Carine Mardorossian worked with local hospice doctor Christopher Kerr to author a book on these end-of-life experiences, which Kerr had observed through years of caring for patients. This spring, public television stations across the U.S. aired a documentary based on that work, “Death Is But A Dream.” In an essay published in March, Mardorossian reflected on the meaning of these end-of-life experiences in the midst of a global pandemic: “It may help to know that the dying rarely speak of being alone,” she wrote. “They speak of being loved and put back together.”

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Addiction | Alternatives to opioids

Left to right: Rasheen Powell, PhD, first author on the study, conducted the research under the supervision of Arin Bhattacharjee, PhD, senior author, with Garrett Sheehan, a doctoral candidate in UB's neuroscience program. Credit: Sandra Kicman / University at Buffalo

How do we sense pain? In the course of exploring this question, UB medical researchers discovered that certain pain-sensing neurons engage in an activity called endocytosis as part of the process to signal inflammatory pain. Blocking endocytosis can lead to relief, according to a study led by pharmacology and toxicology researchers Arin Bhattacharjee and Rasheen Powell. Bhattacharjee has co-founded Channavix Inc., a biotech company that’s leveraging this knowledge to develop non-opioid painkillers.

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Education | The next generation — of teachers

In 2019, the UB Graduate School of Education launched a program that enables educators to earn initial teacher certification in 15 months through a paid, hands-on residency. Participants co-teach at an urban school alongside a mentor teacher, and engage in coursework, too. Called the UB Teacher Residency Program, the effort is a partnership with Buffalo Public Schools (BPS). It works to increase equity, diversity, justice and inclusion in schools through teacher education. A variety of media have reported on the program in recent years, and in 2021, a team from UB and BPS authored a book that describes the program’s development.

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Families | Parenting in a pandemic

How is COVID-19 shaping family life in the U.S.? As school and child care centers closed and other support systems fragmented, UB sociologist Joanna Pepin set out to understand some of the impacts on parents. She co-authored research exploring divisions of household labor and changes in employment during the pandemic, focusing on gender inequality in different-sex couples with kids in the U.S. One study found that while fathers were doing more at home, mothers still reported “retaining primary responsibility” for domestic chores. The other paper highlighted how homeschooling and the loss of child care disproportionately impacted women’s employment. This and other work have made Pepin an important voice in conversations on family policies.

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Materials | 3D-printing and organs

A machine dips into a vat of translucent yellow goo. Out comes a life-sized model of a hand. This takes just 19 minutes using a 3D printing method called stereolithography and jelly-like materials called hydrogels. And it’s not just fun to watch: Developed further, this tech could save lives. “Large size cell-laden hydrogel models hold great promise for tissue repair and organ transplantation,” according to a study on fast stereolithography led by UB industrial and systems engineering researchers Chi Zhou, Hang Ye and Zipeng Guo, and UB biomedical engineering researchers Ruogang Zhao and Nanditha Anandakrishnan.

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Synthetic biology | Start with sugar, end with hydrocarbons

Zhen Wang, University at Buffalo assistant professor of biological sciences, is an expert in synthetic biology. Credit: Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo

Researchers have harnessed the wonders of biology and chemistry to turn sugar into hydrocarbons. Co-led by UB biological sciences faculty member Zhen Q. Wang, the project involved genetically engineering bacteria to convert glucose — the microbes’ food — into fatty acids. Then, a catalyst was used to remove portions of the fatty acids and generate the final product: the hydrocarbons, called olefins. Olefins are found in gasoline and employed in materials manufacturing. A commentary in Nature Chemistry reflected that the research “moves us closer to making commonplace petroleum-based materials, such as wire and cable coatings, from renewable sources.”

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Climate change | How we can slow the melt

The edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet. For a decade, glaciologist Sophie Nowicki has played a lead role in coordinating international efforts to understand how climate change is impacting the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Credit: Jason Briner

How will climate change impact Earth’s ice sheets in the 21st century? And how much will sea levels rise as a result? It depends on how quickly we act, says UB geology researcher Sophie Nowicki. A renowned glaciologist, she co-led a major modeling study showing how deep cuts to greenhouse gas emissions could still dramatically slow the process of sea level rise this century. That research helped inform the latest assessment report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which tapped Nowicki to be a lead author of a chapter on ocean, cryosphere and sea level change.

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Careers | Strike a power pose

Looking for a job? Striking a power pose can make an impression on hiring managers, says UB School of Management researcher Min-Hsuan Tu, who led a study highlighting the importance of nonverbal cues in interviews. The project was motivated by decades of research suggesting that when people are considered to be attractive, it can benefit their careers. In an op-ed in Fast Company, Tu and her co-authors shared their findings, while emphasizing that — more importantly — society needs to address attractiveness bias to “ensure that people are consistently evaluated based on the knowledge, skills and abilities needed for their jobs.”

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Aging | Risks of falls

Falling can be extremely dangerous for older adults, leading to injuries like hip fractures and head traumas that can be fatal. A UB study found that in 2017, 94% of adults 65 and older were prescribed a drug that increased their risk of falling — up from 57% in 1999. The rate of death caused by falls in older adults more than doubled during this time, the team concluded. UB public health researcher Amy Shaver, who conducted the study with UB pharmacy experts, says she hopes the results will start conversations about the pros and cons of medications prescribed for vulnerable populations.

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Dental health | Best tools for happy gums

Proven oral hygiene tools include the basic toothbrush; interdental brush; water pick; and CHX, CPC and essential oil (Listerine) mouth rinses. Image may not be republished.

Mouthwashes. Probiotics. Dietary supplements. Floss. What oral hygiene tools help to prevent gum disease? UB oral biologist Frank Scannapieco led a project to review what existing research says. The effort identified interdental brushes and water picks as proven strategies, among others, for reducing gingivitis. And though few studies have looked at toothbrushing and flossing alone, both are essential, Scannapieco says. UB dental school graduate Eva Volman collaborated as first author alongside UB health sciences librarian Elizabeth Stellrecht as co-author.

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Media Contact Information

Charlotte Hsu is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.