Seed Grants Boost Innovation

Gait Rehabilitation
Exercise physiology major Stephanie Esker demonstrates testing equipment in the Health Assessment Laboratory. Researchers will use the technology to study how gait rehabilitation repairs brain neurons in stroke survivors.

By Karen Angelo

With the help of seed research funding from the university and the College of Health Sciences, faculty members will conduct studies that could help stroke survivors, children with cerebral palsy, rheumatoid arthritis sufferers, aging adults and college students. 

“These small grants are important to help faculty, especially new faculty, develop initial research data that can be used to apply for larger grants,” says College of Health Sciences Dean Shortie McKinney. “I’m impressed with these innovative ideas, which have huge potential to make a powerful impact on improving health and well-being.” 

Researchers were encouraged to partner with faculty across the university as well as outside the university. 

“One of our goals for funding this research is to seed interdisciplinary collaborations, which we’ve found can lead to breakthrough ideas that solve problems,” says Vice Chancellor for Research and Innovation Julie Chen. “These health science projects demonstrate the depth and breadth of what can be accomplished when faculty with different areas of expertise work across disciplines.” 

A total of $67,000 in seed grant funding was shared between the following seven projects:

Perfecting Rehabilitation for Stroke Survivors

Stroke, a leading cause of long-term disability in the United States, can reduce mobility and physical activity even after rehabilitation. A research team will study how gait rehabilitation repairs brain neurons. The researchers, Asst. Prof. Pei-Chun Kao of Physical Therapy, Prof. Chung-Dar Lu and Assoc. Prof. Mahdi Garelnabi of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences and Assoc. Prof. Eugene Tunik of Northeastern University, will use methods from neurophysiology, biomechanics, biomarkers and genetic analyses to develop optimal rehabilitation protocols, giving survivors the best chance of full recovery. 

Using Robotic Therapy and Wearable Technology to Improve Motor Skills of Children with Cerebral Palsy 

Children with cerebral palsy often are unable to perform hand functions necessary for independent daily living. While clinical rehabilitation can improve these skills, visits may be limited by insurance and frustrating for children. Asst. Profs. Yining Wu of Physical Therapy and Momotaz Begum of Computer Science are designing a smart home-based rehabilitation system using wearable technologies — glasses and an armband. Through an augmented reality game, children interact with a virtual object using the impaired arm. The system shows the image of recommended arm movements in the see-through display screen of the eyeglasses, continuously capturing and analyzing the data to give children instant feedback from an avatar. 

Preventing Rheumatoid Arthritis 

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory disorder in which the immune system attacks joint tissue, resulting in stiffness, swelling and, eventually, irreversible joint damage. Assoc. Prof. Taras Lyubchenko of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences, in partnership with Asst. Prof. Anna Rumshisky of Computer Science and Dr. Katherine Liao of Harvard Medical School, will investigate the role of the immune system — specifically, B cells that circulate in the blood and normally provide protection against bacteria and viruses that cause diseases. Under certain conditions, B cells may get “confused” and start attacking the host body in a process called autoimmunity. The research results will increase understanding of the molecular mechanisms of autoimmune arthritis and potentially lead to the development of a method that prevents B cells from attacking joint tissue. 

Examining the Gut in Older Adults 

Asst. Profs. Kelsey Mangano and Sabrina Noel of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences are studying dietary intakes related to inflammation and gut microbes in older adults. Research shows that the microbial composition of the digestive system plays a central role in maintaining optimum health — specifically in fighting inflammatory conditions that lead to obesity, diabetes and bowel disorders. Mangano and Noel will partner with the City of Lawrence Mayor’s Health Task Force and the Lawrence Senior Center to study dietary patterns among the Caribbean Latino community, a high-risk and underserved population. They will examine dietary factors that are associated with inflammation and whether improvement in diet leads to better health by altering the gut microbial composition and activity. 

Using New Technology To Investigate Health Behaviors 

Asst. Prof. Yuan Zhang of Nursing and Assoc. Prof. Guanling Chen of Computer Science have developed a methodology that can help investigate and trace a growing problem—the declining health of night shift nurses. Preliminary data gathered by the researchers shows that the average body mass index (BMI) of night shift nurses is 27.4, well into the overweight category. This data also suggests that disruptions to a normal sleep schedule could be a major influence. By using a smart watch to monitor individuals, Zhang and Chen will study the eating, exercise and sleep behaviors of night shift nurses and search for solutions that will improve overall health. 

Reducing Stress with Yoga 

In collaboration with City of Lawrence Mayor’s Health Task Force and the Lawrence Senior Center, Asst. Prof. Herpreet Thind of Public Health will conduct focus groups and surveys to assess attitudes and beliefs of the Hispanic population about physical activity and yoga. The results are expected to inform the development of a tailored community-based yoga intervention for adults with stress and obesity. Thind received partial funding from the Community Research Innovative Scholars Program of the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science. 

Improving the Health of UMass Lowell Students 

As living, working and learning environments, colleges and universities have an impact on the health of students. Asst. Prof. Herpreet Thind of Public Health, Asst. Prof Kelsey Mangano of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences, Asst. Profs. Mazen El Ghaziri and Brenna Quinn of Nursing will work with a student advisory panel, faculty and staff to conduct focus group discussions and an online survey. The researchers will gather information on health issues and assess student awareness of health resources on campus. Results will be shared with university officials and student representatives to identify programs that will improve the health of students.

Through the university’s internal seed grant program, 20 projects totaling $150,000 were funded this year. The annual program builds faculty expertise in research and scholarship and generates results that often lead to more funding.