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Research That Serves Society


Research and the drive toward innovation are shaping the University in the twenty-first century. The passion for discovery is shared by all—faculty in the sciences and the humanities, postdoctoral students, professional students, graduate students, and undergraduates. Any discovery that expands knowledge of the world in which we live enriches society, but at times like these, the efforts of University researchers—in areas such as health, the environment, and education—are particularly valuable.

Focusing on Health and a Healthy Environment

Robert Grainger

The work of Robert Grainger, the W. L. Lyons Brown Professor of Biology, may ultimately promote the regeneration of human organs and tissues. With $3.4 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health, he established the Developmental and Regenerative Center, which uses Xenopus, a genus of frog, to understand the sequence of genetic events that allows it to regenerate organs after they become damaged. Because of Xenopus's similarities to the human genome, this knowledge may give physicians the ability to manipulate genes to replace tissue damaged during a heart attack or to produce a new lens for people with cataracts.

Jacquelyn Shuman and Hank Shugart

Other researchers are gaining a more detailed understanding of climate change. Using satellite data, Hank Shugart, the W. W. Corcoran Professor of Environmental Sciences; and postdoctoral research associate Jacquelyn Shuman (Graduate Arts & Sciences '10) found that Russia's northern boreal forest—the largest continuous expanse of forest in the world—is undergoing an accelerating shift in vegetation as the climate warms. Tree species that are more tolerant of warmer weather are advancing northward as species that are less tolerant are declining in number. Larch trees drop needles in fall, allowing the vast snow-covered ground to reflect sunlight and heat back into space and help keep the region's climate very cold. But evergreen conifers, which retain needles year-round, absorb sunlight and cause ground-level heat retention. This creates ideal conditions for evergreen proliferation, to the detriment of the leaf-dropping larches. The shift itself is likely to produce additional climate change. Mr. Shugart and Ms. Shuman have received $987,000 from NASA to continue their studies.

Additional projects focus on cutting greenhouse gases by reducing reliance on petroleum. Robert J. Davis, the Earnest Jackson Oglesby Professor of Engineering and Applied Science; and Matthew Neurock, the Alice M. and Guy A. Wilson Professor of Chemical Engineering and professor of chemistry, are exploring the use of gold and other metals as catalysts to produce an array of commodity chemicals from biorenewable carbon feedstocks rather than petroleum.