Fifteen ways UB researchers changed the world — and made headlines — in 2017

By CHARLOTTE HSU republished from UBNow.

Published January 3, 2018

We studied the roots of schizophrenia. We explored the origins of the Yeti myth. We designed a solar-powered water purifier, a vaccine for pneumonia and a cybersecurity system that scans the dimensions of a user’s heart.

In 2017, UB students and faculty broke new scientific ground and pushed creative boundaries in ways that will benefit human societies for years to come. News outlets worldwide took note, with coverage of UB projects in The New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic and more.

Some highlights from a year of discovery and invention.

Making comic book history

English professor Nnedi Okorafor made headlines as the creative mind behind “Blessing in Disguise,” the first Marvel comic set in a real African city. The tale follows teenage heroine Ngozi as she fights evil in Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor says the character was inspired by the story of perseverance of Nigeria’s Chibok girls, who were abducted by Boko Haram. Okorafor also wrote Marvel’s Black Panther comic this year, with her story line, “Long Live the King,” debuting in December. In a TED Talk, Okorafor discussed how she is helping to redefine the fantasy genre, saying, “My science fiction had different ancestors — African ones.”

As featured in CNN, Reuters, okayafrica

Clean water, via sunlight

Need drinking water? Just add sun. Electrical engineer Qiaoqiang Gan and partners used low-cost materials, including foam and carbon black, to build a highly efficient solar still for evaporating and purifying water. The device, the size of a mini-fridge, could help alleviate drinking water shortages in developing areas and regions affected by natural disasters. UB spinoff Sunny Clean Water is working to bring the technology to users.

As featured in NASA Tech Briefs, Science, Salon.com, WIVB, The Buffalo News

Your heart as a log-in

Worried about cybersecurity? Can’t remember passwords? Computer engineer Wenyao Xu has an answer. His team designed a computer-security system that uses your heart as a log-in. The platform employs low-level Doppler radar to verify the shape of your heart, then monitors continuously to make sure no one else has stepped in to run your machine.

As featured in The Boston Globe, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American

The Neanderthal in all of us

Scientists have known for several years that the ancestors of modern humans interbred with other hominin species, including Neanderthals. But what is the legacy of these ancient trysts? Studies led by biologist Omer Gokcumen are helping to answer that question. One identified Neanderthal DNA that may affect the health of people in Western Asia today. Another, co-authored by UB’s Stefan Ruhl, a renowned expert in salivary research, found that modern populations in sub-Saharan Africa likely inherited a variant of an important salivary gene from an unknown “ghost species” of archaic human.

As featured in VICE, The Guardian, IFLScience, Northeast Public Radio

Freedom of the press

The right to privacy. The freedom of the press. In a new book — “Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom” — law professor Samantha Barbas revisits a seminal 1967 court case that pitted these rights against each other. The book explores legal and cultural warssurrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in Time Inc. v. Hill, which upheld press freedoms at the expense of privacy. Though 50 years have passed, the themes resonate today as digital reporting fuels new tensions between privacy and the press.

As featured in SCOTUSblog, Inside Higher Ed

Concussion recovery in young athletes

“Cocooning,” or severely restricting physical activity, may not be the best way to recover from a concussion. Researcher John Leddy of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences first proposed this idea about a decade ago, and now, new treatment guidelines are reflecting this view. The recommendations draw on years of research by Leddy and UB psychiatrist Barry Willer suggesting that controlled exercise can speed recovery.

As featured in The New York Times, WKBW

Cancer risks in older women

A study of more than 65,000 postmenopausal women found that those with a history of gum disease also had a higher risk of cancer. The research, led by Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the School of Public Health and Health Professions, sheds light on factors affecting the health of older American women.

As featured in The New York Times, ReutersTIME

A new pneumonia vaccine?

A new immunization for pneumonia targets 72 strains of bacteria that cause the disease — including dozens that current vaccines don’t cover. UB researchers reported these results in the fall, marking another step forward for Abcombi Biosciences, a startup launched by PhD graduate Charles Jones and chemical and biological engineering professor Blaine Pfeifer to develop the vaccine.

As featured in New Atlas, CBC Radio, New York Daily News

Fish on Zoloft?

Human antidepressants are polluting waterways and building up in the brains of fish. A team led by chemist Diana Aga found these pharmaceuticals or their metabolized remnants in the brain tissue of 10 species in the Niagara River. Wastewater treatment plants don’t remove the chemicals from water, so “fish are receiving this cocktail of drugs 24 hours a day,” which may endanger biodiversity, Aga says.

As featured in The Buffalo News, Michigan Radio, USA Today, Radio Canada International

Immigration and wages

Cities that welcome foreign-born residents may have brighter economic prospects, too. In a year of contentious debate on immigration, geographer Abigail Cooke weighed in with a new study showing that diverse immigrant populations can boost wages, with benefits going disproportionately to communities that embrace newcomers.

As featured in The Atlantic’s CityLab, NPR, CBS MoneyWatch

Graphic violence in the news

A study on news coverage of violence could help editors make better decisions about how to cover tragic events. Led by communication expert Matthew Grizzard, the research found that showing graphic content increases moral sensitivity and the desire to help victims. The study gauged how people responded to more and less graphic versions of a TV news story on a mass execution conducted by ISIS militants.

As featured in The New York Times, NPR’s The Takeaway, Quartz

How to talk to kids about death

Disney and Pixar movies are often tear-jerkers, with highly emotional plots. Caregivers can take advantage of these storylines, using the films as a springboard to educate children about sensitive subjects, says communication expert Kelly Tenzek, who co-authored a paper on the topic. “These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying,” she says.

As featured in The Guardian, U.S. News and World Report

The best diversity training

Effective diversity training helps people understand other perspectives and cultures. Changing behaviors, however, is more difficult — and poor training can backfire and reinforce stereotypes. That’s what School of Management expert Kate Bezrukova discovered by examining more than 40 years of research. The best programs, she found, are integrated with other initiatives, focus on developing both awareness and skills, and take a significant length of time, demonstrating organizational commitment to diversity.

As featured in Harvard Business Review, Psychology Today and Business News Daily

Mini brains and schizophrenia 

New work by medical researchers Michal and Ewa Stachowiak explores the roots of schizophrenia, an ancient and misunderstood disease. Their study reveals the disorder may begin early in human development, in utero. The scientists reached this conclusion by growing miniature brain structurescalled cerebral organoids to simulate stages of brain formation in the womb.

As featured in Newsweek, Business Insider, Futurity

Deciphering the yeti

Research by biologist Charlotte Lindqvist is shedding light on the origins of the yeti myth — and on the evolutionary history of enigmatic bears. Asked by documentary filmmakers to analyze nine DNA samples from purported yetis, her team linked one to a dog and the other eight to elusive Asian bears. Genetic insights from the study could one day aid in the conservation of these animals, some of which are endangered.

As featured in The Atlantic, National Geographic, The Washington Post, NPR Science FridayThe Buffalo News, WIVB