In this edition of Research Connections, find links to researchers in the news, updates on important deadlines, and more news for University of Rochester researchers. Email not displaying correctly?
View it in your browser.

Effect of developmental exposure to methylmercury: Images are of late pupa-stage flies that have been reared on normal food medium (left) or on methylmercury-treated food medium (right). Insets in both panels show an overall normal development of adult structures (head, thorax and abdomen, eyes, bristles). Imaging of a red fluorescent label in flight muscles in the thorax (white circle) reveals specific disruption of muscle bundle formation and attachment with methylmercury exposure (right panel) compared to control treatment (left panel).

Genomic analysis helps explain variable susceptibility to mercury in seafood

Why are some people more susceptible to the toxic affects of mercury found in seafood?

Methylmercury (MeHg) is a persistent environmental toxin that can accumulate in fish and seafood. High-level MeHg exposure is clearly detrimental for the developing nervous system in humans. However, studies of low-levels of MeHg exposure that occur in seafood eating populations have found variable outcomes for human health. This has complicated the Federal government's efforts to put forth a consistent and widely accepted advisory for fish consumption by pregnant women and young children.

Genomic analysis of a panel of 200 unique strains of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) is helping the lab of Matthew Rand, Assistant Professor of Environmental Medicine, to identify factors that may explain this variability -- including a finding that caffeine may lessen the effects of exposure. These study's findings could help interpret the variable outcomes of MeHg exposure seen in humans by showing the role played by genetics, not only in populations but in individuals.

A genome-wide analysis (GWA) across the multiple strains of flies demonstrated that susceptibility to MeHg toxicity varies widely and is clearly under genetic control, the Rand group reports in a paper published recently in the online journal Plos One. The study also involved researchers Trudy MacKay and Robert Anholt at North Carolina State University, who developed this unique panel of genome-sequenced flies.

The investigators further explored the ability to alter MeHg toxicity via dietary means and remarkably found that caffeine evokes a significant tolerance to MeHg in a majority of the fly strains. More than 140 genes were associated with MeHg tolerance, and over 100 with the effects of caffeine on MeHg toxicity.

Among these candidate genes, bioinformatic algorithms identified concerted gene networks controlling muscle and neuromuscular development. Closer examination of MeHg effects in developing adult flies revealed a stark selective disruption of flight muscle development. Targeting of muscle development is a logical extension of the developing nervous system's known susceptibility to MeHg. "In most cases, where developmental methylmercury exposure shows an effect, some aspect of motor function is compromised," Rand says. "What role the muscles play in these outcomes simply has not been looked at." Rand plans to expand these studies, working with colleagues in the Environmental Health Science Center, including Deborah Cory-Slechta, Professor of Environmental Medicine, who has worked extensively with MeHg in rodent models.

Rand is also collaborating with the international team of researchers conducting the Seychelles Child Development and Study, based at the University and now in its 25th year. Rand and colleague Karin Broberg of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have previously identified genetic polymorphisms in transporters and liver enzymes that associate with developmental outcomes in children in the Seychelles.

Rand's research is a continuation of a remarkably long history of mercury research at the University of Rochester. "I was blown away to discover that the first paper I could find reporting on factors promoting tolerance to mercury toxicity was published in 1932, and it was research done by (Nobel laureate) George H. Whipple, founder of the University of Rochester Medical School."

Do you have an interesting photo or other image that helps illustrate your research? We would like to showcase it. Send a high resolution jpg or other version, along with a description of what it shows, to

Applying visual analysis software to the "transmutations" of architecture

Facial recognition software has advanced to the point that it is considered as reliable as fingerprinting for determining a person's identity. So when Apple's iPhoto mistakenly confused one of Peter Christensen's friends with a photo of the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, Christensen enjoyed the humor.

But Christensen, an Assistant Professor of Art History, also thought of the as-yet unfulfilled potential that this accident of visual analysis could offer to the digital humanities.

After all, if building patterns could be detected, even in error, by a facial recognition program, just think of the possibilities if visual detection software could be specifically programmed for that purpose?

And that's what Christensen proposes to do as part of this current book project, entitled "Transmutations: Architecture and the German Construction of the Ottoman Railway Network."

Specifically, he'd like to find out what visual analysis software might reveal about the local modifications that Turkish, Arab, Greek and Armenian workers, among others, made to the prefabricated designs of the German engineers at the helm of the railways' development, as they built the Ottoman empire's train stations, barracks, water towers and signal booths in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

However, such software could apply to any number of digital humanities projects, Christensen adds. For example, it could "serve as a tool for researchers working with any kind of mass- or serially-produced objects that inevitably go through adaptations as they travel and as their authors shift."

Christensen, who joined the University last summer after two years as a junior faculty member at the Munich Technical University, researches modern architectural and environmental history -- particularly of Germany, Central Europe, and the Islamic Middle East --- with a focus on their transactional contexts.

The Ottoman railway project offers many examples of the "transmutations" that architecture can undergo, particularly in colonial or semi-colonial contexts. For example, when comparing the drawings of the stations to how they ultimately were built, you will find subtle and not-so-subtle differences from one example to another. The image found here, for example, shows how the shape of the window morphs from one with a rounded profile at its top, typical to the German styles of the day, to one that is pointed, typical to the architecture of the Islamic world.

The dissimilarities result from variables "that made a cogent, uniform architectural program across time and space impossible, despite an earnest attempt to do so on paper in Germany where the plans were laid," Christensen notes. Those variables include the unpredictable availability of natural building materials at any given locale along the railroad, which stretched from Bosnia to Baghdad. "The foremost variable, though was the composition of the ethnic subgroups who constructed buildings based on the plans provided by the German engineers and architects," Christensen suggests.

Armenians and Greeks, for example, were superior stonemasons, while Turkic Ottomans were superior woodworkers. "These differences in craft expertise are subtly and pervasively apparent within the context of the one-size fits all building plans of the German engineers . . . most commonly in small details that are evident to a careful eye and often only at a very minute scale."

That's where visual analysis software would come in handy.

Christensen is launching a project that will test the ability of four facial recognition programs -- iPhoto, Photoshop Elements, Picture Motion Browser and OpenCV -- to recognize non-humanoid images. Christensen intends to study and adjust the algorithms of these programs into "a more robust recognition algorithm for non-humanoid features." Christensen intends to then return to Turkey to test the software on 18 buildings, "identifying the sites' dissimilarities from the building prototype set on paper for the German engineers and architects."

"The project implicates the tremendous capacity computer technology holds for empirical inquiry with the humanistic concerns of authorship and process in the design professions," Christensen says.

In the context of his project, Christensen adds, "evidence of ambiguity, and its particular persistence in a relationship like the German-Ottoman case, carries a deeper meaning that can help us understand the correlation between the perception of physical dissimilarity and its actual existence, the shades of grey between sovereignty and colony, and the complimentary role man and computer can play in humanities research."

Web site provides access to Fenno's research

The scholarly work of Richard Fenno Jr., Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science, is accessible through a new web portal created in part by the River Campus Libraries. The site,, provides access to books, interviews with members of Congress, and memorabilia from Fenno's decades of travel and award-winning research. Read more...

Grant funds research on HIV treatment, heart risk

A $3.8 million grant will bring together clinical and bench researchers to better understand why individuals who receive anti-retroviral treatment for HIV are at greater risk for heart disease and stroke. "The good news is that the drugs being used to fight HIV are increasing life expectancy to normal levels," said Giovanni Schifitto, Professor of Neurology and one of the co-leaders of the study. "However, one of the long-term complications is that these treatments, the infection itself, or a combination of the two are increasing risk for cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease in this population." Read more...

Slaughter's histories provide a 'clear lens' for looking at today's issues

Thomas P. Slaughter, Professor of History, "is a firm believer that history is a good way to start understanding today's problems," the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports in a recent profile.

"Some of his six books have looked at flash points in history -- be it the American Revolution, a rebellion against a tax on liquor during the early days of the Republic, or armed resistance to an effort to put the shackles back on escaped slaves.

"His probing insights into the past provide a clear lens for looking at such issues as race and inequality and fairness in taxation." Read more . . .

Allen challenges conventional wisdom about dementia

"Just about everything you think you know about Alzheimer's disease and other dementias is wrong. And because the conventional wisdom is so off-track, so are the ways we -- both family members and professionals -- respond to those with dementia," says of G. Allen Power's new book, Dementia Beyond Disease.

Power, an Clinical Associate Professor at Highland Hospital, "wants us to stop thinking that people with dementia are victims of a terrible debilitating disease that destroys their memory and perception. Instead, Power argues, dementia is 'a shift in the way a person experiences the world.' "

In his new book Power argues that people with dementia "are not psychotic or delusional," notes. "Rather, they see the world differently than others. Power's goal is not to treat a disease. It is to improve the well-being of those who have it. And unlike drug therapies, which have been high-cost failures, Power identifies dozens of ways that may enhance the lives of those with dementia." Read more . . .

Drug Discovery pilot award applications due Jan. 30

The Drug Discovery Pilot Award Program is accepting applications through Jan. 30 for the next round of grant funding. The program is designed to help drug discovery projects at the Medical Center overcome specific hurdles standing in the way of future research, funding, and commercialization. Click here for more information about submission criteria and guidelines.

Regulatory science competition invites applications

University students are invited to participate in the 2nd annual "America's Got Regulatory Science Talent" competition. The competition aims to promote student interest in Regulatory Science -- the science of developing new tools, standards and approaches to assess the safety, efficacy, quality and performance of FDA-regulated products. Each team develops and presents a proposed solution to a current opportunity in the area of Regulatory Science. The deadline for submitting information sheets is Friday, Jan. 30. Click here for more information. Questions? Contact

Training important before using i2b2

i2b2 is an open-source software system that allows users to query clinical data to estimate the size of clinical cohorts available for specific studies, allows for the creation of "data marts" to support the requirements of particular studies, and supports an efficient mechanism to transfer clinical data directly to REDCap. Data is available in a de-identified manner for study planning, but HIPAA identifiers can be made available in the context of an IRB-approved study.

Training is strongly encouraged before a new user may access the system because use of the system without training may lead to misinterpretation of results. See the CTSI Events List for upcoming training dates, including these:

i2b2 REDCap Integration, 3-4:30 p.m., Jan. 20, TLL Classroom (2-8513).

i2b2 Fundamentals, 3-4 p.m., Feb. 3, TLL Classroom (2-8513).

Introducing a new faculty member

Andrew White has joined the Department of Chemical Engineering as an assistant professor. His group will use experiments, molecular simulations, and machine-learning to design new materials for biomedical devices and lithium ion batteries. Much of his work involves peptides, which are derived from the constituent amino acids that make up proteins. His Ph.D. is from the University of Washington (2013) where he worked on applying computational modeling to the discovery of new biomaterials, and understanding how nature interacts with biomaterials. He comes here from postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, where he worked on developing new methods for combining simulations and experiments for applications in biochemistry and materials science. Read more here.

UR research in the news

A collaborative study published in the International Journal of Obesity by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Rochester Medical Center found that the amount of added sugar (read: baked goods and soda) teen mothers eat during pregnancy affects the body composition of their babies. Eva Pressman, Professor and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and her colleagues sought to identify components of adolescent mothers' diets that may spell trouble for their unborn children. Read more . . .

In what they call a "weird little corner" of the already weird world of neutrinos, a team including Rochester physicists has found evidence that the tiny particles might be involved in a surprising reaction. Read more here.

In a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, former UR grad student Ting Qian and Richard Aslin, William R. Kenan Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, explain that our tendency to detect patterns in data is built into our cognitive processes, even when it's at the risk of overestimating the importance of such patterns. Read more . . .

PhD dissertation defenses

Yu-Shan Huang, Biomedical Genetics, "Primitive Erythroblasts in the Fetal Circulation Assemble a Functional Cytoskeletal Network Prior to Enucleation." 9 a.m., Jan. 19, 2015, K-307 Auditorium (3-6408). Advisor: James Palis.

Peter Carlsen, Chemistry, "Synthesis of Tetrapetalone A-Me Aglycon." 2 p.m., Jan. 20, 2015, 473 Hutchison Hall. Advisor: Alison Frontier.

Michael Maniaci, Social Personality Psychology, "For Better, For Worse: Discrepancies between Implicit and Explicit Evaluations in Newlywed Marriage." 1 p.m., Jan. 22, 2015, locaton not given. Advisor: Harry Reis.

Click here for a chronological list of PhD dissertation defenses, by discipline, reported to Research Connections since April 2014.

Mark your calendar

Jan. 15: Finding interactions between environmental exposures and socioeconomic status: An example in The Seychelles Child Development Study, presented by Tanzy Love, Dept. of Biostatistics and Computational Biology. 11 a.m., EHSC Conference Room (Med. Ctr. 4-8820).

Jan. 15: Policy Paths: Science, Technology, and National Security, presented by Scott Steele, Director, Office of Research Alliances. 3 p.m., Graduate Women in Science (GWIS) Meeting. Case Method Room (1-9576).

Jan. 20: "Assessing the Market Opportunity of New Technologies," part of UR Ventures lecture series, "Intellectual Property and Commercializing Technology." Noon, Gowen Room of WIlson Commons. Lunch provided. RSVP to

Jan. 21: Drug Supply for Clinical Trials: Contractual Issues with Drug Supply, presented by Cornelia Kamp, Director, Clinical Materials Services Unit (CMSU) and Pat Bolger, CMSU Director Clinical & Business Affairs. Part of the series, Good Advice: Case Studies in Clinical Research, Regulation, and the Law. Noon, Helen Wood Hall Auditorium (1w-304).

Jan. 30: Deadline for submitting information sheets for students to participate in the 2nd annual "America's Got Regulatory Science Talent" competition. Click here for more information. Questions? Contact

Jan. 30: Deadline to apply for Drug Discovery Pilot Awards to help drug discovery projects at the Medical Center overcome specific hurdles standing in the way of future research, funding, and commercialization. Click here for more information about submission criteria and guidelines.

Feb. 2: Applications due for PumpPrimer II funding to support AS&E innovative and high-risk projects that need proof of concept and/or pilot funding to get off the ground. Read more . . .

Feb. 2: Applications due for University Research Awards to support new research with a high probability of leveraging future external funding. Applications are due via email to Vini Falciano.

Feb. 20: Applications due from new investigators for pilot project funding from the University's Core Center for Musculoskeletal Biology and Medicine. Click here for the full RFA.

Please send suggestions and comments to Bob Marcotte. To see back issues, click here.

Copyright 2013, All rights reserved.
Rochester Connections is a weekly e-newsletter for all faculty, scientists, post docs and graduate students engaged in research at the University of Rochester. You are receiving this e-newsletter because you are a member of the Rochester community with an interest in research topics.