$3.2 Million grant funds development of new malaria vaccine

March 29, 2018

The Global Health Innovative Technology Fund has awarded the University of Florida and partners in the United States and Japan $3.2 million to advance a promising vaccine to prevent transmission of malaria.
Rhoel Dinglasan – an associate professor of infectious diseases in UF’s College of Veterinary Medicine and the university’s Emerging Pathogens Institute – has spent years developing a malaria transmission blocking vaccine, or TBV. The blood mosquitoes get from immunized humans would prevents prevent the insects from becoming infected by the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria, thus breaking the cycle of disease transmission.
Female Anopheles mosquitoes pick up the Plasmodium parasite when they bite an infected human, then spread the parasite when they bite other people.
After Dinglasan and his colleagues identified a protein in the mosquito gut that Plasmodium needs to infect the Anopheles mosquito, called alanyl aminopeptidase N, or AnAPN1, they saw a path to preventing transmission of the disease by creating a vaccine to generate antibodies to AnAPN1 in humans.
Initial vaccine testing in mice stalled because the animals primarily generated antibodies to a less-crucial fragment of AnAPN1, so Dinglasan and his team refocused their efforts on solving the structure of the protein, which allowed them to more precisely map the relevant transmission-blocking regions of the protein to target. When they tested the antibodies to the redesigned vaccine target using infected blood samples from children in Cameroon, a country hard hit by malaria, they found that minute amounts of the antibody completely prevented transmission of the parasite to the mosquito.
The new grant from the Global Health Innovative Technology, or GHIT, Fund will further development of processes to move the vaccine from the experimental stage to human trials and, ultimately, a clinical treatment. The GHIT Fund is an international public-private partnership spearheaded by the Government of Japan, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Wellcome Trust and a group of pharmaceutical companies. 
“AnAPN1 is a great pan-malaria transmission-blocking vaccine and we have made it even better,” said Dinglasan, who was recruited to Gainesville under the UF Preeminence initiative. “This funding support puts the vaccine back in the process development and vaccine production pipeline with an eye on getting to first-in-human trials in a few more years.”
Historically, malaria prevention has focused on killing the mosquitoes that transmit the disease using pesticides like DDT or shielding humans from mosquitoes with nets, but these approaches alone are not enough to prevent nearly a half-million people around the world from dying from malaria annually, many of them children under 5.
The next phase of the project involves numerous partners contributing unique capabilities.
CellFree Sciences of Japan is developing the important control antigens and Hamamatsu Pharma Research of Japan will assess the long-term potency of the vaccine in non-human primates.
The Infectious Disease Research Institute, or IDRI, of Seattle, has been a long-time longtime partner on this project and continues to assist by providing the adjuvant to boost the immune response to the antigen.
Ology Bioservices, a UF spinoff operating out of the university’s Sid Martin Biotech Incubator, will develop the large-scale, process development and manufacturing plan and supply the AnAPN1 vaccine candidate for use in ongoing pre-clinical studies and to prepare for subsequent clinical testing.
Centre Pasteur du Cameroun will test the efficacy of antibodies generated in response to AnAPN1 in mice and non-human primates against naturally circulating strains of the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, in direct membrane feeding assays in Cameroon.
Dinglasan said the TBV would work in concert with a traditional vaccine being developed by GlaxoSmithKline called Mosquirix™, which is scheduled for pilot implementation in three African countries this year.
“Our vaccine should work against all five Plasmodium parasite species that affect human health,” he said. “Mosquirix™ does not achieve full protection and many people, mostly kids, will still be infectious to the mosquito. Our vaccine puts a stop to that.” 
Ultimately, Dinglasan hopes the TBV will be the final nail in the malaria coffin, eliminating pockets of residual malaria transmission that prevention efforts and traditional vaccines cannot reach.
“This vaccine can help stamp out malaria globally,” he said.
About CellFree Sciences
CellFree Sciences (CFS) provides comprehensive solutions for protein production and analysis using the ENDEXT® Technology Platform originally developed in the laboratory of Prof. Yaeta Endo at Ehime University in Japan. With our different WEPRO® wheat germ protein expression extracts, CFS is serving the research community with protein synthesis services, reagents, and the fully automated Protemist® robotic protein production systems.
http://www.cfsciences.com/eg/
About Hamamatsu Pharma Research
Hamamatsu Pharma Research (HPR) is a preclinical CRO specializing in efficacy testing of novel therapeutics in nonhuman primate disease models. Our services provide preclinical proof of concept data that facilitates go/no-go decision making for new drug development.
https://www.hpharmausa.com/
About Ology Bioservices, Inc.
Ology Bioservices, Inc. (formerly Nanotherapeutics, Inc.) is a biologics-focused contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO) serving both government and commercial clients. The Company’s capabilities include a pilot facility for performing optimization of upstream, downstream and formulation functions, bulk cGMP manufacturing and analytical development for proteins, antibodies, viral vaccines and gene therapy drug products.
http://www.ologybio.com/
About IDRI
As a nonprofit global health organization, IDRI (Infectious Disease Research Institute) takes a comprehensive approach to combat infectious diseases, combining the high-quality science of a research organization with the product development capabilities of a biotech company to create new diagnostics, drugs and vaccines. Founded in 1993, IDRI has 125 employees headquartered in Seattle with nearly 100 partners/collaborators around the world.
http://www.idri.org/
About CPC
The Centre Pasteur du Cameroun (CPC) founded in 1959, is a state-owned public health and biomedical research institute located in Yaoundé, the capital city of Cameroon. CPC is a WHO regional reference center for several infectious diseases, and member of the Institut Pasteur International Network with headquarters in Paris, France. The main activities of the CPC include service, public health, training and research.  Research is centered on bacterial, viral and parasitic agents, and their respective major pathologies such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, malaria, dengue and other vector-borne diseases as well as neglected tropical diseases.
http://www.pasteur-yaounde.org/index.php/en/

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UF plant biologist Pam Soltis receives SURA’s Distinguished Scientist Award

March 7, 2018

University of Florida plant biologist Pam Soltis will receive the Southeastern Universities Research Association’s 2018 Distinguished Scientist Award, given annually to a scientist whose extraordinary work fulfills the association’s mission to “advance collaborative research and strengthen the scientific capabilities of its members and the nation.”

Soltis, a distinguished professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF, will be presented with the award and its $5,000 honorarium at the SURA Board of Trustees meeting at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia, on April 26.
A member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Soltis studies plant diversity, with emphasis on the origin and evolution of flowering plants, plant genome evolution and conservation genetics. She uses genomic methods, natural history collections and computational modeling to understand patterns and processes of plant evolution and identify conservation priorities.
To help increase the public’s understanding of biodiversity, she joined an interdisciplinary team to create multimedia art pieces and an animated film that use the “Tree of Life” as a metaphor for how all living things are related to one another.
In nominating Soltis for the award, UF Vice President for Research David P. Norton wrote that her work in genetics and genomics was not only groundbreaking for plant scientists but for all scientists who want to understand the genetic relationships between populations and species.
“Dr. Soltis’ research has dramatically changed our understanding of the natural world,” Norton said. “Her work uncovers new relationships in the Tree of Life, illuminates fundamental aspects of plant biology, points to areas of greatest conservation concern and continually pushes the boundaries of what is possible in bioinformatics. In addition to being a world-class researcher, Dr. Soltis also shows a tremendous commitment to training and mentoring the next generation of scientists and engaging the minds and imagination of the public. UF is very fortunate to have such a leader.”
SURA Board of Trustees Chair Kelvin Droegemeier, who is also vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma, said, “Dr. Soltis is the kind of researcher every university hopes to have on its faculty. She is a renowned scholar cited in respected journals, an aggressive researcher winning multiple grants and a passionate teacher impacting scores of students.”
Soltis has won numerous honors for her contributions to the study of plant diversity. Jointly with Doug Soltis, she received the Darwin-Wallace Medal from the Linnean Society of London, the R. Dahlgren International Prize in Botany, the Asa Gray Award from the American Society of Plant Taxonomists, the Botanical Society of America’s Merit Award and the Stebbins Medal from the International Association of Plant Taxonomists. Thomson Reuters named her one of the World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds in 2014. She also won the Botanical Society of America’s Centennial Award.
Soltis earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Central College and a doctorate degree in botany from the University of Kansas. She joined UF in 2000, after serving on the faculty of Washington State University for 14 years.
She is the founding director of the UF Biodiversity Institute and a member of the UF Genetics Institute.
She has published more than 400 peer-reviewed journal articles and oversees a diverse lab of more than a dozen graduate students and postdoctoral fellows and routinely trains at least five undergraduate students per semester.
Soltis has received more than $37 million in support for her research on the evolutionary history and genomics of flowering plants. She became the lead investigator on the project that launched the new Genetic Resources Repository at the Florida Museum and is one of the principal investigators for iDigBio, a project that made UF the hub for the NSF-funded program to digitize the collections of all U.S. natural history museums. This led to a $27-million award that has brought widespread recognition to UF for its leadership role in bioinformatics. She is also a co-principal investigator of a $7-million Department of Energy project to pinpoint the genes that allow certain plants to fix nitrogen and engineer this genetic pathway into other plants for food and fuel.
“I am very honored to receive this award,” Soltis said. “I have a fantastic group of collaborators at UF and elsewhere, and this award is for all of them as well. I’m also thankful for the supportive environment at UF, where collaboration is both valued and encouraged.”
SURA is a nonprofit consortium of more than 60 research institutions in the southern U.S. and the District of Columbia.
The SURA Distinguished Scientist Award was established in 2007, commemorating the organization’s 25th anniversary. SURA’s development & relations committee manages the solicitation, screening and selection of the recipient from a SURA member institution. The president and trustee of each of SURA’s member research universities are eligible to make one nomination for the Distinguished Scientist Award.
Soltis joins UF College of Pharmacy Dean Julie Johnson, who received the award in 2015, and microbiology Distinguished Professor Lonnie Ingram, who was recognized in 2008.

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UF first in Florida to crack U.S. News list of top 10 best public universities

September 13, 2017

The University of Florida has become the first Florida school to break into the list of top 10 best public universities, coming in at No. 9, according to the 2018 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges rankings released today.
Among all universities both public and private, UF is now tied with the University of California, Irvine, the University of California, San Diego, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. All four schools were ranked No. 42 overall.
Now the state’s highest-ranked university, UF last year was ranked No. 14 among publics and No. 50 overall.
“This is a significant milestone that we can all be proud of, and it happened as the result of many years of focused work and a keen sense of purpose,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “Our faculty – the core of our academic reputation – and staff deserve tremendous credit for lifting us up to get us here, as do previous leaders, particularly Bernie Machen, and UF’s Board of Trustees. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott and the Board of Governors for their continued support to ensure that the nation’s third most-populous state has the world-class university it deserves.”
The U.S. News rankings are based on up to 15 key measures of quality that are used to capture the various dimensions of academic quality at each university. The measures fall into seven broad areas: undergraduate academic reputation; graduation and retention rates; faculty resources; student selectivity; financial resources; alumni giving; and graduation rate performance.
Factors that helped UF’s ranking improve this year include:

Undergraduate academic reputation – Created from an annual survey of college and university presidents, provosts and admissions officers as well as high school guidance counselors. Each individual is asked to rate peer schools’ undergraduate academic programs on a scale from 1 (marginal) to 5 (distinguished). It counts for 22.5 percent of each school’s overall score. UF’s score in that category this year was 3.7, up from 3.6 last year.
Selectivity – A function of how many student applicants a school admits each year and students’ SAT and ACT scores and high school class standings. It accounts for 12.5 percent of the total; UF’s score was up seven points from 54 last year to 47 this year.
Graduation rate performance – A comparison between the actual six-year graduation rate for students entering in fall 2009 and the predicted graduation rate. The predicted graduation rate is based upon characteristics of the entering class, as well as characteristics of the institution. UF’s score rose four points this year over last year, in part because U.S. News this year began factoring in the percentage of STEM (science, technology, math and engineering) graduates into its calculation.

Fuchs extended congratulations to the other Florida schools that saw their U.S. News rankings improve this year: Florida State University, Florida A&M University, the University of Central Florida, the University of South Florida and Florida International University.
UF’s quest to become a top-10 public research institution officially began in 2013, when the Legislature passed, and Scott signed, a bill designating it a preeminent university and providing special funding to be used for helping it reach top status. Florida State University also received the preeminent designation.
UF has since used preeminence funding to hire more than 100 senior leading faculty from all over the world. Earlier this year, the university announced a plan to increase the faculty by an additional 500 members to continue to increase research excellence and reduce class sizes.
Many new UF researchers have cited the school’s exceptional breadth of disciplines and the numerous opportunities for collaboration that brings as a reason for coming to work at the university. UF is one of only six universities in the country with colleges of law, medicine engineering, agriculture and veterinary medicine on one campus.
Fuchs said UF alumni – half a million strong – and friends represent one of the strongest and most loyal communities in the world and should be especially proud. He also offered his thanks to university leaders around the country for their votes of confidence in UF.
“We have benefitted greatly from their wise advice and sage counsel,” he said.
While he welcomed the new ranking, Fuchs said the university’s work is far from done.
“Now is the time to double down,” he said. “We have the talent, the collective will and the means to keep moving up. We owe it to our students and the people of Florida to be the very best public research institution we can be.”

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UF to receive additional $7.4 million in state performance funding

June 22, 2017

The University of Florida will receive an additional $7.4 million in state performance funding this year versus last year, bringing the total allotted to the university since 2014 to more than $103 million. The money will be used in UF’s ongoing efforts to hire and retain the world’s best and brightest faculty and keep the university on the path to becoming one of the nation’s very best public research universities.
UF received 95 points out of 100 – the highest score of all the 11 public universities in Florida measured in the performance-funding model created in 2014 by the Florida Board of Governors, the governing body for the State University System of Florida.
The university’s high score was due in part to increasing its number of licenses and options executed on technologies developed at the university, a measure of how successful its ideas are in the marketplace, from 147 to 261. That distinction gave UF a No. 3 ranking nationwide, according to the latest statistics released in November by the Association of University Technology Managers.
UF credits its success in that arena to playing “the long game,” focusing on closing deals, fostering a great reputation and encouraging commercially targeted thinking among faculty.
“I am very pleased with the University of Florida’s top score and grateful for the ongoing support of the governor, the Legislature and the Board of Governors,” UF President Kent Fuchs said. “When UF succeeds, the state of Florida wins.”
Eight of the metrics are common to all universities. They are the following, with UF’s score indicated on a 1-to-10 scale with 10 being the best:

percent of bachelor’s graduates employed (Earning $25,000+) or continuing their education — 8
bachelor’s degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis — 10
median wages of bachelor’s graduates employed one year after graduation — 10
university access rate (percent of undergraduates with a Pell grant) – 9
average cost to the student — 8
graduate degrees awarded in areas of strategic emphasis — 10
six-year graduation rate — 10
academic progress rate — 10

Two of the 10 metrics are “choice” metrics: one picked by the Board of Governors and one by the university boards of trustees. For UF, those metrics are:

number of licenses and options executed annually on its technologies — 10
faculty awards — 10

Based on their excellence or improvement on the board’s metrics, universities are eligible for a share of the $520 million allocated by the governor and Legislature during the 2017 legislative session.
“In the past four years, we’ve seen steady improvements at the system level and for individual universities,” said Tom Kuntz, Board of Governors’ chair. “Especially exciting is that we’ve seen universities in the bottom three soar to the top of the pack as they’ve renewed their focus on student success.”
The board’s newest metric, cost-to-the-student, also pointed to positive outcomes. The average cost in the SUS of earning a bachelor’s degree is less than $15,000 after financial aid (grants, scholarships and waivers).  The average cost at the University of Florida has been calculated by the board to be $10,700.  Furthermore, University Work Plans, in which institutions lay out their future financial goals, indicate that SUS universities are expected to decrease their prices further in the coming years, cutting the student cost per degree from $14,820 to $14,090 by the 2019-2020 school year.
“Affordability has been a priority for the governor and the Legislature as well as the Board of Governors because it increases student access and relieves student debt,” said Ned Lautenbach, vice chair of the Board of Governors and chair of the Budget and Finance Committee. “It’s exciting to see the universities turning that goal into a reality.”

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UF to hire 500 new faculty in major initiative

June 9, 2017

The University of Florida will hire 500 new faculty to further enhance teaching and research and to continue to be one of the very best research universities in the nation, UF President Kent Fuchs announced today. UF’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution in support of the announcement.
Funding for the new hires and compensation increases will come from state allocations, alumni and friends, as well as university resources.
“We know what we need to do and we are laser-focused on several areas that will have the greatest impact on our educational and research missions while giving UF an edge to compete successfully with the nation’s other top institutions for talented faculty, students and staff,” Fuchs said. “UF ranks among the top 10 public research universities and we have our eye on being among the top five.”
The 500 new faculty hires represent a number over and above the 300 to 400 faculty that UF hires annually to replace those who retire or leave the university, UF Provost Joe Glover said.
Funding for new hires and compensation increases will come initially from a $52 million allocation to UF that the Legislature approved earlier this year and from reallocated internal resources, Glover said. The university will also seek additional funding from a variety of sources for future years.
The hiring plan was created to address two primary university goals: reaching top-ranked status by strengthening various research disciplines, and improving the university’s student-faculty ratio, a widely recognized metric in determining an institution’s excellence and stature.
UF’s current student-faculty ratio is 20 to 1; the 500 new hires ultimately will result in a student-faculty ratio of 16 to 1. By comparison, the ratio at the University of Michigan, is 15 to 1. (Michigan, like UF, belongs to the Association of American Universities and is considered a peer institution to UF; others include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Berkeley.)
The new faculty will be hired in a variety of fields, Glover said, but “certainly a good portion will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and health. We will also give priority to areas focused on new business start-ups, tech transfer and economic development.”
The new hires will be in addition to the growth of 115 faculty hired in the past three years with funding the Legislature has provided as part of UF’s designation as a preeminent university.
The announcement of the new hiring initiative follows Wednesday’s news that UF faculty achieved a new high of nearly $800 million in research expenditures for the year. UF also announced an expected new record in annual fundraising topping $440 million. Additionally, five faculty became members of the National Academies during the year.
Fuchs said that UF has already made tremendous progress – and the new initiatives and records will propel UF to the highest ranks.
“In the vast majority of university rankings, the University of Florida is among the top 10 public research universities in the nation,” Fuchs said.  “Our goal now is to be among the top five.”

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UF to hire 500 new faculty in major initiative

June 9, 2017

The University of Florida will hire 500 new faculty to further enhance teaching and research and to continue to be one of the very best research universities in the nation, UF President Kent Fuchs announced today. UF’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a resolution in support of the announcement.
Funding for the new hires and compensation increases will come from state allocations, alumni and friends, as well as university resources.
“We know what we need to do and we are laser-focused on several areas that will have the greatest impact on our educational and research missions while giving UF an edge to compete successfully with the nation’s other top institutions for talented faculty, students and staff,” Fuchs said. “UF ranks among the top 10 public research universities and we have our eye on being among the top five.”
The 500 new faculty hires represent a number over and above the 300 to 400 faculty that UF hires annually to replace those who retire or leave the university, UF Provost Joe Glover said.
Funding for new hires and compensation increases will come initially from a $52 million allocation to UF that the Legislature approved earlier this year and from reallocated internal resources, Glover said. The university will also seek additional funding from a variety of sources for future years.
The hiring plan was created to address two primary university goals: reaching top-ranked status by strengthening various research disciplines, and improving the university’s student-faculty ratio, a widely recognized metric in determining an institution’s excellence and stature.
UF’s current student-faculty ratio is 20 to 1; the 500 new hires ultimately will result in a student-faculty ratio of 16 to 1. By comparison, the ratio at the University of Michigan, is 15 to 1. (Michigan, like UF, belongs to the Association of American Universities and is considered a peer institution to UF; others include the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of California, Berkeley.)
The new faculty will be hired in a variety of fields, Glover said, but “certainly a good portion will be in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and health. We will also give priority to areas focused on new business start-ups, tech transfer and economic development.”
The new hires will be in addition to the growth of 115 faculty hired in the past three years with funding the Legislature has provided as part of UF’s designation as a preeminent university.
The announcement of the new hiring initiative follows Wednesday’s news that UF faculty achieved a new high of nearly $800 million in research expenditures for the year. UF also announced an expected new record in annual fundraising topping $440 million. Additionally, five faculty became members of the National Academies during the year.
Fuchs said that UF has already made tremendous progress – and the new initiatives and records will propel UF to the highest ranks.
“In the vast majority of university rankings, the University of Florida is among the top 10 public research universities in the nation,” Fuchs said.  “Our goal now is to be among the top five.”

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UF convenes Early Childhood National Summit

February 14, 2017

Giving children a strong start in their first five years doesn’t just help children and their families. The benefits of their success radiate throughout their communities – as do the consequences when they struggle. But the many fields that help shape what happens for young children and their families during these critical years don’t always work together.
Collaborating across disciplines related to early childhood development and learning was one of the challenges posed to over 100 scholars, policy makers, advocates, philanthropists and practitioners who gathered in Orlando for the University of Florida’s Early Childhood National Summit Feb. 8-10. In the first five minutes, UF President Kent Fuchs made it clear that the summit was focused on creating actionable ideas and steps to move the field forward.
“It is crucial that our work on behalf of children is tangible, that it is scalable, and that it reaches the children who need it,” Fuchs said.
The summit, also attended by UF Provost Joseph Glover, professors from six UF colleges and the deans of UF’s College of Education, Levin College of Law, College of Medicine, and College of Public Health and Health Professions, brought together early-childhood leaders from around the country.
University of Kansas special-education professor Judith Carta, the interim director of early childhood research at KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and one of the summit’s expert panelists, lauded UF for recognizing the importance of the issue and taking action.
“We’re using the University of Florida as an example of what universities can do if they just get behind the right issues,” she said.
After a welcome from philanthropist and InterTech Group CEO Anita Zucker, a UF alumna who created the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at her alma mater, the group heard from keynote speaker Jacqueline Jones of the Foundation for Child Development. After her speech, Jones, who served as the U.S. Department of Education’s first deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, stressed the importance of working to retain bipartisan support for early childhood initiatives.
“Where is the common ground, and how do we get to it and hold on to it?” Jones said. “We have to do that, or we’ve failed the children and families we work for.” 

Before summit attendees broke out into workgroups, panelists with expertise in psychiatry, pediatrics, psychology, law, education and advocacy shared perspectives to inform the discussions. Their presentations illustrated just how high the stakes are during early childhood, detailing chronic medical conditions with roots in early childhood and factors that influence children’s potential before they’re even born. Then the workgroups got down to the business of the summit: creating recommendations and actions on how to move forward.

By the afternoon, each workgroup had addressed three themes – discovering the keys to opening young minds, influencing the influencers to unlock children’s potential, and inspiring new initiatives for the next generation – drawing on the diverse backgrounds and expertise of participants such as New York University pediatrics professor Dr. Benard Dreyer, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The summit’s multidisciplinary approach “is absolutely the only way we’ll make progress,” Dreyer said.
The day closed with talks by Glover, Zucker and early childhood advocate David Lawrence Jr., a UF alum, president of the Early Childhood Initiative Foundation and chair of the Children’s Movement of Florida. The next morning, Anita Zucker Center director Patricia Snyder, UF’s David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, presented each workgroup’s recommendations for feedback and further development.
“The recommendations and action steps will compel us to continue to be a convener of early childhood activities and will help elevate this work to a broader level,” Snyder said.
After final input from the summit attendees and facilitators, the recommendations and action steps will be shared with the policy makers, practitioners and scholars who will shape the future of early childhood.
As Anita Zucker Center co-director Maureen Conroy put it: “We really want this summit to be the beginning, not the end.”

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Four state universities collaborate on $10 million center to address Zika and other diseases

December 22, 2016

With a $10 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Florida will lead a highly collaborative research program focused on stopping diseases such as Zika before they spread farther into the United States.
The grant is part of nearly $184 million in funding the CDC announced Thursday to states, territories, local jurisdictions, and universities to support efforts to protect Americans from Zika virus infection and associated adverse health outcomes, including microcephaly and other serious birth defects. These awards are part of the $350 million in funding provided to CDC under the Zika Response and Preparedness Appropriations Act of 2016.  
“Zika continues to be a threat to pregnant women,” said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden. “States, territories, and communities need this CDC funding to fight Zika and protect the next generation of Americans.”   
The Southeast Regional Center of Excellence in Vector-Borne Disease: The Gateway Program will be led by principal investigator Rhoel Dinglasan, an associate professor of infectious diseases in UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. Dinglasan has enlisted the University of Miami, Florida International University and the University of South Florida to collaborate on research to address the statewide and regional challenge of Zika and other diseases.
“While everyone is imagining the introduction of diseases like Zika into their states, we don’t need to imagine it,” Dinglasan said. “We have seen Zika, dengue and chikungunya, and it is our responsibility as scientists to do our part to stop them.”
Florida provides a unique environment to examine the biocomplexity of vector-borne diseases in real time. Miami-Dade is often an entry point for such diseases, adding to the urgency of the research and providing a real-world lab. Solutions that work in the densely populated urban environment of South Florida should work in other locations as well, Dinglasan said.
“Florida really is ground zero. We are the gateway for vector-borne diseases into the United States,” Dinglasan said. “But we have the research capability to stop them.”
State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser II and UF Vice President for Research David Norton noted the significance of the work.
“By leveraging the resources and expertise of multiple institutions, Florida is poised to make the next major breakthroughs on Zika and other vector-borne diseases,” Criser said. “This is an excellent example of how collaboration between higher-education institutions and businesses can lead to scientific advances that help us all live healthier, better lives.”
Norton added: “The research at this Center of Excellence is remarkably important to the state, nation and the world. By teaming with other universities within the state, we are able to deliver a unique array of talent that greatly enhances the impact of this work.”
Dinglasan, who was recruited under the state’s Preeminence Program, had only moved to UF from Johns Hopkins University a month before the call for proposals for the Center of Excellence went out in September. A globally recognized malaria researcher, he knew just where to turn to assemble a team quickly, and he called on international experts at UM, FIU and USF.
Each university has a particular expertise in diseases carried by vectors such as mosquitoes, ticks, flies and fleas. Although Zika has dominated the news lately, the long list of vector-borne diseases includes malaria, dengue, Chagas, chikungunya and yellow fever. The World Health Organization estimates there are 1 billion infections a year from vector-borne diseases and 1 million deaths.
Dinglasan said he also looked for broad regional support for the Center of Excellence and found it in leading scientists at the Scripps Research Institute-Florida, the Naval Entomology Center of Excellence, the USDA Center for Medical, Agricultural & Veterinary Entomology, Florida A & M University, Georgia Southern University and the Florida departments of Health, and Agriculture and Consumer Services. The Center of Excellence also will leverage Florida’s 61 mosquito control programs as a sizable ground surveillance force that could report conditions and bring recommendations back to the labs.
“It was very important to engage the mosquito control people; they know those neighborhoods much better than those of us in the lab,” said Dinglasan, who is also a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine. “They’re on the front line. They’re the ones who are going to tell us if there’s a problem with our strategy.”
Training is a huge component of the center, with a focus on tackling the shortage of workers in public health entomology and addressing an impending retirement wave among mosquito control managers. The UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences will play a key role in training, partly through its Center for Leadership, Dinglasan said.
Each university brings a robust research program to the enterprise, Dinglasan said. FIU is conducting research on mosquito neural genetics, testing a bait that lures female mosquitoes to lay eggs in a trap that kills all the eggs.
UM has developed an attractive toxic sugar bait that has been tested in Africa but not in an urban environment in the United States. Mosquitoes use sugar for energy, so using a toxic sugar bait to attract and then kill mosquitoes could reduce the need for spraying.
At USF, researchers are working on a way to block transmission of eastern equine encephalitis by migratory birds, who winter in Florida and fly north in the spring. USF has identified locations where the birds contract the disease from mosquitoes and is working to target mosquito control in those areas to keep the migrating birds free of the disease.
One of UF’s contributions is in mathematical modeling, to quantify how well the research-based solutions work. Dinglasan said modeling will allow researchers to test predictions over the five-year research program, with the goal of stopping vector-borne diseases before they travel north.
“The powerhouse within UF is our mathematical modeling, and that is the linchpin for a data-driven project like this,” Dinglasan said. “Data modeling is the one thing that unites all the research.”
Key to that modeling ability and to the Gateway Program is UF’s supercomputer, HiPerGator 2.0, the most powerful university supercomputer in the Southern U.S. and one of the fastest university supercomputers in the country.
The collaboration on the Center of Excellence has already led the four universities to explore other research collaborations, Dinglasan said. Where one university had a need, another university has stepped in.
“We each have our own niche, our own expertise, but together we’re unstoppable,” Dinglasan said. “We’re a natural team.”

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Merging neuroscience and education research to personalize multimedia and online learning

December 21, 2016

Setting the stage
Antonenko’s journey to UF started in the late 1990s when he was a high school teacher. He became fascinated with computers at a time when his hometown of Nizhyn, Ukraine had no internet connections and few computers. He began building and selling computers to supplement his income while he earned a master’s in linguistics in English and German languages.
“I was one of the first people in my hometown to get an internet connection, but it wasn’t very good. I started building websites even before I had internet, but they were just sitting on my computer,” he recalls.
His career path changed dramatically in 2002 when he traveled to Orlando to work as an interpreter at a conference on education technology, a discipline that wasn’t even recognized in Ukraine. But Antonenko had found his passion: exploring ways computer technology can improve education.
“Everything I heard there and the people I met, I said ‘wow, this is what I want to do as my graduate education and job,’” he says.
Within a few months, he and his wife, Yuliya, moved a half-world away to settle in Ames, Iowa, where he spent five years at Iowa State University earning a doctorate in curriculum and instructional technology and human-computer interaction.
Along the way, Antonenko worked with Iowa State neuroscientists on one of his personal research interests—the use of electroencephalography, or EEG, to monitor brain activity known as “cognitive load,” which is the amount of mental effort expended by the working memory during a learning task. EEG, which records the brain’s electrical activity, is most commonly used in medicine as a first-line, non-invasive method of diagnosing stroke and other brain disorders.
It would have been intriguing to monitor Antonenko’s own brain activity as he thought to himself, “Hmmm, I wonder if EEG might be a reliable way to study the mental processes underlying learning.” He wrote his dissertation on the topic and became one of the first education researchers to use EEG to measure the cognitive dynamics of learning.
The stars begin to align
After earning his doctorate and serving five years on the education technology faculty at Oklahoma State University, Antonenko joined UF’s ed. tech faculty in 2012. His appointment coincided with the education world’s identification of personalizing online learning as a global challenge and a top research priority of the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.
UF administrators also targeted research of personalized e-learning for investment of state “preeminent university” funds, which enabled the College of Education in 2014 to recruit top ed. tech scholar Carole Beal from Arizona State University, where she was conducting her own pioneering neuro-education studies. Beal became the first director of UF’s new campuswide Online Learning Institute.
The College of Education made a priority of integrating neuroscience with education research to improve online learning at all levels. Pivotal developments during the 2015-16 academic year made that push a certainty.
Merging neuroscience and education research at UF
In 2015, Antonenko, Beal and UF education technology colleague Kara Dawson attracted vital grant funding to lead novel interdisciplinary research projects using wireless EEG brain monitoring and other neuro-technology to study how multimedia learning can be impoved for all students, not just those who test well on academic exams.  These studies focus on education in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math—areas in which the use of multimedia learning tools “has far outstripped the ability of research to keep pace with,” says Antonenko.
Their focus on custom-tailoring instructional design for individual learner differences, rather than a “one-size-fits-all” approach, is a distinctive feature of their studies.
“Virtually all research on multimedia learning methods has been performed on high-achieving students at elite research-intensive universities, where studies like this usually occur. We are evaluating these methods with more diverse student populations and those with special needs,” Antonenko says. 
NSF study focuses on community college students
Antonenko heads a team of highly specialized researchers drawn from multiple institutions on a three-year study, supported by a $765,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The researchers are gauging how effective technology-assisted learning practices are for a diverse group of community college students, which now constitute nearly half of all U.S. higher education students.
In 2015, Antonenko became the first UF education faculty researcher to win 5 NSF grants in the same year.
The team, dubbed the Science of Learning Collaborative Network, includes top scholars in education technology, neuroscience, STEM education, neuropsychology, computer science and educational measurement. They hail from UF, the University of Massachusetts-Boston and Washington State University.
Some 120 students from three colleges—Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and SUNY Buffalo State in Buffalo, N.Y.—are participating in the study. The students are screened for demographics and learning differences, such as working memory and visual attention levels, to ensure a varied test group.
Team specialists in cognitive neuroscience are employing EEG and other high-tech methods, including functional near infrared spectroscopy (to measure neural changes in blood oxygenation) and eye tracking (to understand visual attention) to assess the students’ attention and mental processes while they learn using multimedia materials that include text, images, videos, animations and audio.  
The researchers hope to land follow-up NSF grants by demonstrating the effectiveness of their network’s organization, infrastructure and integration of diverse research strategies, along with their unique approach to personalized learning.
“Working with scholars from other disciplines and other institutions is really exciting but it’s also challenging because each discipline and each person has a different way to work,” Antonenko says. “We have to make sure everyone is invested and feels valued and make sure we pull all of the expertise together in a way that makes sense.”
UF co-researchers are faculty members Dawson and Beal, and psychology professor Andreas Keil. Co-principal investigators are computer science and STEM education scholars Matthew Schneps from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Marc Pomplun from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and Richard Lamb of SUNY Buffalo State, who focuses on science education and measurement.
Adapting digital media for students with dyslexia
Professor Dawson heads an educational neuroscience study focused on multimedia learning for students with dyslexia, the most common language-based disability. People with dyslexia typically have difficulty reading and processing words.
Dawson was awarded $85,000 for the one-year project from UF’s Office of Research, which awards Research Opportunity Seed Fund grants to UF scholars for the merit and potential of their research proposals. Antonenko is a co-principal investigator.
The study involves 72 college students with dyslexia, each participating in one of four multimedia learning settings while wearing wireless EEG headsets to monitor and record brain activity during the multimedia exercise and comprehension assessment. The student volunteers are drawn from four institutions: Santa Fe Community College and the universities of Central Florida, North Florida and South Florida.
While neuroscience-based methods are central to the study, Dawson is quick to make one thing clear: “In no way am I a neuroscientist.”
“To me, this is not about neuroscience,” she says, “I am interested in what neuroscience techniques can tell us about the learning process. That is what it’s all about for me.”
Dawson and her team will use their findings to evaluate the validity of merging EEG and behavioral measures and, ultimately, to develop new instructional strategies and materials that teachers can personalize for individual students with varied learning traits and backgrounds.
Besides Dawon and Antonenko, the research team includes UF colleagues Beal and Albert Ritzhaupt, dyslexia diagnostic specialist Linda Lombardino from UF’s special education program, and UF neuropsychologist Keil. Doctoral students participating are Kendra Saunders from school pyschology and Nihan Dogan, Jiahui Wang, Li Cheng, Wenjing Luo and Robert Davis from the School of Teaching and Learning. Matthew Schneps from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysicists also is collaborating.
 “We all share this mutual goal of figuring out how technology can help all types of learners,” Dawson says. “We need to make technology work so everyone feels they can learn and be smart and successful.”
Much promise but not yet ready for prime time
The researchers describe both educational neuroscience studies as exploratory, but Antonenko says he expects them to yield solid preliminary findings that may lead to follow-up NSF research proposals.
 “EEG appears to be a great tool for educational research that can produce important implications for teaching and learning in education.” he says. “Our focus is on helping people who need additional support as they learn using 21st century online and multimedia tools in education.”
“That is what I find most rewarding.”

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UF awarded $10 million in grants to personalize virtual learning

December 7, 2016

The University of Florida is assembling researchers from multiple fields to seek solutions in two areas of 21st century education – personalizing online math instruction and adapting educational technology for students with visual impairments.
The studies are funded by two grants, worth more than $10 million combined, from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.
Nearly $9 million of the grant money supports a new project called Precision Education: Virtual Learning Lab, which brings together top experts in informatics, math education and professional development for teachers. Their charge is to advance a new approach for exploring massive sets of archived student data to update and personalize virtual instruction for future math students.
“With the increased use of computers in education, the large-scale mining of existing education data represents a big new opportunity for computers to help teachers adapt their practice for today’s digltal world and help their students to improve their virtual learning,” said UF education technology professor Carole R. Beal, the principal investigator of both studies (pictured above).
The new Virtual Learning Lab team comprises faculty researchers at UF and the University of Notre Dame, and experts from Study Edge, a Gainesville-based online tutoring company.
Over the next five years, the researchers will conduct studies in the emerging discipline of precision education, which uses large-scale education data from prior students — such as standardized test scores, administrative records from schools and universities, and teaching methods used — to personalize the learning experience for future individual students.
No more one-size-fits-all lesson plans geared to some “statistically average” student profile.
The researchers will focus on online or virtual learners in math using the new technology of “big data” learning analysis. The precision education approach has researchers using powerful supercomputers to rapidly scrutinize the massive education data, plus figures from students’ use of interactive or group learning tools.
“Our grand challenge is to improve the achievement of struggling online students,” said Beal, who was recruited to UF’s College of Education from the University of Arizona in 2014 to head the new UF Online Learning Institute. “We will design new teacher development programs on the use of learning analytics and personalizing instruction, and how to track student progress when every student is doing something unique.”
Researchers at the Virtual Learning Lab will develop and test their prototype personalized model of precision education on a popular online tutoring tool called Algebra Nation, which the UF Lastinger Center for Learning launched in 2013 in tandem with Study Edge. Algebra Nation has since been used by more than 3,000 teachers and 200,000 math students from all 67 Florida school districts—mostly ninth graders gearing up for the mandatory end-of-course exam in Algebra 1.
Near the end of the study, researchers will compare test results of students using the updated and personalized version of Algebra Nation with the scores of students using the regular version.
Beal said the Virtual Learning Lab also will serve as a national hub for researchers—forming a network for sharing findings and collaborating on new efforts to advance the fledgling field of precision education and personalized virtual learning.
The project’s co-principal investigator is Walter Leite, UF professor of research and evaluation methodology (REM) with expertise in big-data mining and learning analysis.
Other College of Education faculty researchers involved are: Corrine Huggins-Manley (REM), and Don Pemberton and Philip Poekert from the college’s Lastinger Center for Learning.
Two other participating UF faculty scholars are: George Michailidis, director of the UF Informatics Institute; and Juan Gilbert, chairman of computer and information sciences and engineering, and a pioneer in the field of human-centered computing.
Other key team members are psychology and computer science professor Sidney D’Mello of the University of Notre Dame and online tutoring specialist Ethan Fieldman of Study Edge.
Adapting education technology for math students with visual impairment
The theme of personalized online learning carries over to Beal’s second federal grant, a three-year, $1.4 million project to help solve the unique challenges that visually impaired students must overcome in learning online.
Think about it: How can students who can’t see the images on their computer screen solve algebra or geometry problems filled with line, bar and circle graphs, figures, geometric shapes and maps?
“In my investigations, I have found that students who appear disengaged in the traditional classroom are often among the most active learners in the online learning setting,” Beal said.
For this study, Beal has assembled a research team with colleagues from Arizona and Florida to explore how technology can make online learning more accessible to students with special needs. Nicholas Gage from UF’s special education program is co-principal investigator.
The researchers will develop and test an iPad-based instructional system to train students with visual impairments to locate and decipher targeted information in math graphics problems. The system includes audio, print and braille cues in accompanying books to point users to targeted graphics and word problems.
They plan to recruit up to 150 middle and high school students with visual impairments for the project from regular schools and specialized residential programs in Florida, Arizona and other states.
 

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