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Biology Professor Recognized by Alma Mater for Success, Service and Leadership

Jim Bull is an essential IMCI participant. He is a member of our Internal Advisory Committee (IAC) and participates in several working groups. The U of I is lucky to have him! View the original press release here.

February 17, 2021

College of Science Professor Jim Bull has been recognized as the 2021 Arts and Sciences Distinguished Alumnus by Texas Tech University College of Arts and Sciences, where he earned an undergraduate degree before earning his doctorate from the University of Utah. The award recognizes former teachers and students for their “innovation, community service and leadership, pursuit of excellence, public accountability and diversity.” Jim was also recognized for his “professional success and service to the community and representation of the university” as an “undeniable candidate for this prestigious honor.”

When Jim, an evolutionary biologist, joined the U of I faculty in fall 2019, he was the first National Academy of Sciences (NAS) member to be affiliated with an educational institution in Idaho. He was elected to NAS in 2016. The academy is a nonprofit, private society of scholars charged by Congress to provide the nation objective and independent counsel on scientific and technological matters.

Jim specializes in the evolution of viruses and sex determination. He served on the Science board of reviewing editors for 13 years, chaired the National Institute of Health’s Genetic Variation Evolution Study Section for two years and is an American Academy of Arts and Sciences member.

What’s your COVID-19 exposure risk in a gathering?

What’s your COVID-19 exposure risk in a gathering?

Thank you to reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel for highlighting some of U of I’s COVID-19 modeling efforts, as originally published in the Post Register.

University of Idaho mathematics professor and modeler Benjamin Ridenhour poses for a photo on UI’s Moscow campus.

If you’ll be at the dinner table with people you don’t live with this week, research from the University of Idaho can help you gauge how likely you are to bump into someone who has COVID-19.

In Bonneville County, for instance, 1 in 16 people are likely actively transmitting coronavirus, according to estimates Monday morning. In Madison County, that’s about 1 in 10.

Exposure risk is incredibly high, according to health officials, hospital administrators and experts who are pleading with people to practice safety precautions such as masking and distancing if they choose to gather with extended family and friends during Thanksgiving. Last week, the Idaho Falls Fire Chief said the region’s largest EMS system was on “razor’s edge.”

“We’re trying to express things in ways that might relate to people a bit more,” project director Benjamin Ridenhour, a U of I mathematics professor, said of his team’s map.

Determining risk is hard. One way is through rates of spread in an area — calculated by averaging the number of new cases, each week, and dividing that by a region’s population. That’s how most national virus trackers do it.

Or, as Eastern and Southeastern Idaho Public Health districts do, you could determine how many cases are suspected to be active.

Both those measurements don’t include people who have COVID-19 but don’t get tested.

Ridenhour said that “silent” COVID-19 population — asymptomatic people, and people with such minor symptoms they don’t get tested — account for much of the virus’ spread.

“There’s a range of symptoms from being asymptomatic to being life threateningly sick,” Ridenhour said. The Centers for Disease Control says about 40% of all people with the virus don’t ever show symptoms. Ridenhour said “only a small portion of those cases are you going to pick up in surveillance.” That’s because although testing has expanded significantly, “it doesn’t change the fact that you have this huge group of people … who are not going to get tested.”

The U of I exposure risk map is based off a national modeling effortfrom Georgia Tech University researchers. That map lets users plug in the size and location of a gathering to show the odds that someone will have COVID-19 there.

At a gathering of 15 people in Bonneville County, there’s a 52% chance that someone will have COVID-19, according to Georgia Tech estimates on Monday.

These risk displays only say the odds of someone having the virus. They don’t predict the likelihood of spread, nor do they account for whether masks or distancing will be practiced at an event — all things that can significantly reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Research from the U of I pandemic modeling team comes through a supplemental grant from the National Institutes of Health. Originally, the new modeling team had a five-year grant from NIH for around $11 million. But as the pandemic began, NIH gave the team around $500,000 more to model COVID-19 in rural communities.

“The first focus was on urban communities because that’s where the first outbreaks were,” said principal investigator Holly Wichman, a U of I biology professor who directs the university’s recently started modeling center. New York and Seattle were some of the nation’s first hotspots. “I think people in rural communities felt pretty safe. They felt like … they were naturally isolated; they were naturally distancing. But over time, as the virus spreads into these communities, they’re in some ways less prepared to deal with it.”

“It’s harder to get access to testing; it’s harder to get access to hospitals. Now what we’re seeing is a huge explosion in cases in rural communities,” Wichman said. “If you look at the maps, it’s changed over time. And we knew it was coming. That’s why we proposed this modeling effort.”

The exposure risk map isn’t the only tool the U of I team is working on. Others include a forecast of Idaho’s COVID-19 virus progression, along with a survey on behaviors in rural communities that can help test what resources can help curb virus spread.

It Takes a Village (and a Research University)

This article was written by Alexiss Turner, Marketing and Communications Manager from the College of Engineering, for the recently published “Here We Have Idaho” magazine. IMCI and many of our faculty participants have been very involved in the COVID-19 pandemic response. We are proud to be part of the many research efforts campus-wide that continue to help ensure the health and safety of Idaho residents. Read the article in its entirety here.

U of I Works with Communities to Bring Innovation and Research Expertise in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

As the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to impact Idaho, experts across the University of Idaho have united to bring innovative solutions to Gem State communities in need and help ensure the health and safety of Idaho residents…

A Cure Through Defense

A research team in the Department of Biological Sciences is working to develop a one-size fits-all drug that could protect human cells from many coronaviruses, including the one responsible for COVID-19.

“Humans have similar genetics,” Department of Biological Sciences Virologist and Assistant Professor Paul Rowley said. “From the point of view of a human protein, a targeted drug therapy could be a universal solution.”

The COVID-19 virus attaches to a human cell using spike proteins that have evolved to dock with the specific ACE2 receptor. Once attached, the spike protein begins transferring genetic material to the cell, tricking the cell to generate more virus.

Rowley is working with Jagdish Patel, a College of Science molecular modeling specialist and research assistant professor, and others to use computational modeling to virtually sift through millions of molecules and optimize existing drugs to identify potential inhibitors that could shield the ACE2 receptor, preventing the virus that causes COVID-19 from docking in the first place.

“By using a computational 3-D map of this human cell receptor, we can determine which virtual molecules, out of thousands, would bind strongly,” said Patel. “Using chemistry and physics-based algorithms, we can rank the binding and visualize the molecule on the computer to see how they bind. The strong binders — which bind as intended — will be purchased and sent to Dr. Rowley’s lab for empirical testing in the fall.”

Working collaboratively with researchers in the Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation has helped the team earn funding needed to keep research developing through the summer and fall semesters.

3-D Printer to Revolutionize Biofluids and Biomechanics Research

This news article comes from central University of Idaho Communications and Marketing. View the original here. While IMCI was not involved in the funding of this research project, we are honored to have Dr. Tao Xing as one of our IMCI participants.

October 20, 2020 – With the help of a more than $300,000 major research instrumentation grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), the University of Idaho College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering is installing a high-resolution, mixed-material 3-D printer. To be housed in the Integrated Research and Innovation Center (IRIC), this state-of-the-art 3-D printer can print large, geometrically detailed and flexible 3-D structures. The printer can also produce pieces in extremely high resolution, 16 microns, about one-third the average cross-section of a human hair. This complex printing is not currently possible using other 3-D printers on the Moscow campus.

Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor and project lead Tao Xing said 3-D printed materials on the U of I Moscow campus are currently printed in several components that are later connected, which can introduce additional errors in the geometry and add difficulty in conducting high-fidelity experimental measurements.

“Using this new printer, researchers can analyze the physical constructs of complex structures to improve understanding of different mechanisms in the body, from breathing to brain-drug delivery, the effect of brain cancer drugs in-vitro and therapeutic approaches to traumatic brain injury,” said Xing. “This instrument will facilitate and enhance multidisciplinary research and expand academic-industrial collaborations at U of I.”

The NSF grant was awarded to a team consisting of nine faculty from four U of I colleges, including engineering, the College of Science, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and the College of Natural Resources.

The installation of the printer is expected in spring 2021.

The printer will be part of a new lab in the IRIC focused on 3-D printing for studying biofluids and biomechanics. Both undergraduate and graduate students will have access to the printer and future lab. A one-credit course is currently being developed to provide training to use the new printer. The printer will also be used in 3-D-printing projects and competitions, including a partnership with the U of I chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) during their Women in Engineering events, held twice annually. Equipment time and training will be provided to advisors at local K-12 schools, including the Moscow High School Science Club and Near Space Engineering Club through the mission of the U of I Library’s Making, Innovating, Learning Laboratory training programs.

“Students will be exposed to structure-function relationships in tissues, 3-D drawing, mechanical analysis and state-of-the-art multi-material 3-D printing,” Xing said. “These outreach capabilities will broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities in engineering and related fields.”

This project was funded to University of Idaho by National Science Foundation under award 2019231. The total project funding is $360,774.00 of which 70% is the federal share.

University of Idaho Receives Grant of Nearly $11M for Biomedical Research Modeling

MOSCOW, Idaho — Aug. 13, 2020 — The University of Idaho has secured a grant of nearly $11 million from the National Institutes of Health to support continued modeling for biomedical research at U of I’s Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation (IMCI).

The funding comes as Phase 2 of a Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant received by the U of I in 2015. COBRE grants support the establishment and development of biomedical research through awards granted in three sequential phases.

During Phase 1, grant funds of $10.6 million helped U of I students, staff and faculty researchers from nearly every college incorporate modeling in their projects. Funds financed projects such as studying disease severity and transmission rates in hosts infected with multiple pathogens at the same time and the role of social influence and human perceptions of infection risk when making vaccine choices. Phase 1 money also supported major equipment purchases that help facilitate the production of quantitative data, sponsored 11 postdoctoral fellowships and assisted faculty acquire nearly $20 million for additional research in the state of Idaho.

IMCI is supporting several research projects related to COVID-19.

“We are proud of our Institute for Modeling Collaboration and Innovation researchers who make important contributions to the state of Idaho and our nation,” University of Idaho President Scott Green said. “This team was instrumental to guiding statewide decisions in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This biomedical research grant that is focused on cancer and the human microbiome will enable this talented team to further advance those efforts, helping our leaders and medical community save lives and improve living conditions in our country.”

The Phase 2 COBRE funds will continue to bolster U of I interdisciplinary biomedical research with new research projects studying cancer genomics, cancer imaging and interpreting variation in the human microbiome. New projects will be added over the course of this five-year grant.

“This funding allows us to continue what we’ve started and is particularly important to the campus community as we elevate our research profile,” said Holly Wichman, distinguished professor, IMCI director and principal investigator on the grant. “IMCI is a team-based idea generator that encourages participation across disciplines and among people who might otherwise never connect. Such collaboration fosters big ideas, and big ideas solve big problems.”

Brainstorming is a focus of IMCI. The COBRE grant finances research projects for early career faculty and pilot grants to explore possible new research directions. Funding also supports IMCI’s Modeling Core, a unique service center of postdoctoral researchers that offers diverse skills in various modeling approaches to principal investigators and working groups. It also supports learning opportunities for the campus community through a seminar series, workshops and hands-on data management and analysis training.

“We think all researchers should use modeling,” Wichman said. “Modeling improves research at all stages – hypothesis formulation, experimental design, analysis and interpretation – and provides a unifying language by which exchange of ideas can highlight commonalities and uncover unforeseen connections between problems.”

Modeling is especially useful when it is not feasible to experimentally explore all solutions to a problem. IMCI modeling approaches include everything from using mathematical formulas to replicate and predict real-world behavior to simulating molecule interactions to building physical and computational models of 3D objects. This funding will allow IMCI to bring new modeling expertise to the U of I research community.

This project was funded to University of Idaho by National Institutes of Health/National Institute of General Medical Sciences under award 2P20GM104420-06.The total project funding is $10,999,565.00 of which 100.00% is the federal share.