Alabama academic researchers work to power new discoveries

Researchers at universities across Alabama are involved in groundbreaking work that is bringing promising new developments to industry, health care and community life.

In many instances, the projects have been recognized by national research groups, which are funneling millions of dollars in funding into the state.

At the University of South Alabama, an engineering professor has extensively studied carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites, which are increasingly used in new airplane construction.

Kuang-Ting Hsiao’s work has been funded by NASA, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. He’s also collaborated with aerospace giant Airbus, which began delivering its first Alabama-made passenger jets in 2016.

Airbus, as a global leader in the aerospace industry, is definitely a great partner to help us in aligning and renewing our research vision and effort toward the innovative research in composite materials,” Hsiao said.

Airbus also has worked with USA and Auburn University by donating large airplane components for students and faculty to use in their studies. The partnership is helping to create aviation leaders of the future, the company says.

At the other end of the state, at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a new $2 million wind tunnel system is capable of supersonic flow research with airspeeds of up to 2,000 mph.

The facility puts UAH in an elite group of institutions nationwide with such research prowess, according to Phillip Ligrani, UAH eminent scholar in propulsion and the project’s principal investigator. Test applications include supersonic engine intakes, scramjets and hybrid space vehicles and components.

The wind tunnel has also provided valuable experience for students.

“I’m really glad I got this opportunity, because not a lot of people can say that they worked on a supersonic wind tunnel as an undergraduate,” engineering student Andrew Miller said. “I think it’s going to contribute a lot to my future career and it’s really been a unique experience.”

An estimated $2.4 billion in federal research and development funds are spent each year in Alabama, ranking it 11th among the 50 states, District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, according to a report from the nonprofit think tank RAND Corp.

Here’s a look at several other compelling research projects happening at Alabama’s universities.

Battling red tide

At Auburn University, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has received a five-year, $703,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to study the problem of coastal red tides.

Steve Mansoorabadi, an assistant professor in Auburn University’s Chemistry and Biochemistry Department, oversees student research in his lab. (Auburn University)

Steven Mansoorabadi’s project, “Mechanistic and Biosynthetic Studies of Dinoflagellate Bioluminescence,” looks at dinoflagellates, which are marine microorganisms found in coastal and freshwater environments that bioluminesce, or glow.

Mansoorabadi and his team are studying a particular enzyme that causes the dinoflagellate to glow to better understand how it works.

“Once we have a better understanding of the enzyme, come the applications,” he said. “We can then create algaecides for red tides and even use enzymes that glow as a biological tool for cell imaging and tracking infection in the body. The enzyme can really be developed for a number of potential applications.”

From snakes to treatments

Stephen Secor, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama, is exploring the ability of snakes to grow and restructure particular organs, and that work could affect future treatments for diabetes and other diseases in humans.

University of Alabama researcher Stephen Secor is studying how snakes can grow and restructure organs, which could lead to new treatments for diabetes and other diseases. (University of Alabama)

Secor was recently awarded a five-year, $296,430 National Institutes of Health Transformative Research Award, which encourages investigators to develop “bold, innovative and often risky approaches” to solve seemingly unsolvable problems.

The grant is part of a $2.5 million award with the Broad Institute Inc., a research partnership with Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Secor will study the pancreatic beta cells of four species of snakes: the Burmese python, the boa constrictor, the green tree python and the diamondback water snake. Two of the species have shown the ability to double the mass of their pancreas, which is responsible for releasing and controlling insulin to control blood sugar, in a few days.

He will collect the snakes and house them at UA, where he will extract plasma and pancreatic samples to send to researchers at Broad. He will isolate the pancreatic islet from each snake, both fasted and fed, and analyze the islets’ alpha and beta cells that produce the hormones glucagon and insulin, respectively, which serve to regulate blood glucose levels.

“We’re leveraging, in a sense, these extreme responses these snakes possess, and, in this case, focusing on a way to remodel human beta cells, especially those that have lost the capacity to produce insulin,” Secor said.

Genomic training

The University of Alabama at Birmingham and HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology are partners in a project that is training postdoctoral fellows in genomic medicine.

The Illumina HiSeqX Sequencing System at the HudsonAlpha Institute of BioTechnology in Huntsville can sequence genomes. (HudsonAlpha)

The project has been awarded a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which is the first of its kind for a program that emphasizes both research and medical training in genomic medicine.

The field of genomic medicine is changing rapidly, and it requires a workforce that is on top of the latest developments, said Bruce Korf, professor and chair of the Department of Genetics in the UAB School of Medicine and director for the Heflin Center for Genomic Sciences at UAB.

Bruce Korf directs the Heflin Center for Genomics at UAB. (UAB)

“We now have the ability to use genomic technology to understand better the risks of disease as well as diagnoses and even institute new approaches to treatment,” he said. “But all these things require a workforce who is familiar. It’s a different kind of discipline than genetics was just a few years ago, when you looked at one gene at a time. Now you can see thousands at a time.”

UAB and HudsonAlpha have a history of collaboration, Korf continued. It’s a unique partnership that brings together HudsonAlpha’s vast expertise and resources in genomics and UAB’s tremendous depth of experience in the diagnosis and management of a whole range of genetic disorders.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve done better working in partnership than we possibly could have achieved in working individually,” he said, adding that more collaborations between UAB and HudsonAlpha are in the pipeline.

“There’s a lot of power in bringing these two institutions together,” he said.

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.