Recent News

To support a broadly shared Graphic Processing Unit (GPU)-enabled high-performance computing cluster for the Institute for Applied Sciences (IALS), computational biophysicist Jianhan Chen, chemistry and biochemistry and molecular biology, with others, recently was awarded a two-year, $415,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will fill what Chen calls “a critical need” for enabling computation-intensive research activities on campus.

Although the UMass system has a traditional shared cluster housed at the Massachusetts Green High-performance Computing Center (MGHPCC) in Holyoke, Chen points out, the current cluster has “minimal GPU capacity” and the campus and IALS need dedicated GPU computing hardware to support their research communities. His co-principal investigators on the project are Erin Conlon, mathematics and statistics, Peng Bai, chemical engineering, Chungwen Liang, IALS director of computational modeling, and Matthew Moore, food science.

“When we put in the grant we solicited comments and surveyed the need from IALS and identified 30 labs that could use it,” Chen explains. “They testified to the need and committed to the cost share with NSF, which will come from IALS, the College of Natural Sciences, College of Engineering, central IT and the Vice Chancellor for Research and Engagement. This is going to be a really unique entity on campus, and it will have far-reaching impact,” he predicts. “It will be busy from the get-go.”

“I think NSF saw how much need and support we have. I want to particularly highlight the important contributions of Chris Misra and John Griffin of IT,” he adds. “They have taken the leadership in providing technical support that’s absolutely critical to me and other principal investigators on campus. Without them and their excellent help, this will not work, period.”

The new cluster, once carefully built up by Griffin, Chen and his co-investigators, will be managed by the IALS Computational and Modeling Core to provide long-term stability for operation and management, serving 250 IALS-affiliated research labs across 27 departments and seven colleges. “The GPU facility offers high-speed single- and double-precision operations as well as extreme parallelism to enhance current activities that contribute to the open science movement,” project leaders state.

It will also contribute to efforts to integrate regional education, outreach, diversity and economic activities, as the GPU facilities will be made available to researchers through Internet2 links and regional computing partnerships at MGHPCC. The researchers predict that the new cluster “will most likely lead to new developments and discoveries including novel GPU-enabled modeling and simulation technologies that may elucidate molecular mechanism of drug delivery, computational design catalysts for renewable energy and chemical synthesis, advanced computational analysis tools for next generation informatics and big data, and improved understanding of risk and resistance to breast cancer.”

A gift of $1.25 million from Mahoney Family, over five years to the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst, will significantly expand the reach of the Integrated Concentration in Science program (iCons) by recruiting more faculty, providing more mentors for STEM students and funding the spread of the pioneering iCons program to other higher education institutions.

“Interdisciplinary solutions have always been the key to solving the tough problems,” says Richard J. Mahoney, a longtime UMass supporter whose family is providing the increased funding for iCons. “Although academic institutions are often stuck in their silos in the way they teach and operate, I’m happy to see that UMass Amherst is pioneering a more integrated real-world education for its students. I was present at the creation of iCons, and having watched the program grow, I've seen first-hand its impact on students and their future in science.

Mahoney’s family, including Barbara M. Mahoney ’55, William E. Mahoney ’55, and Robert M. Mahoney ’70 and Kathleen S. Mahoney ’70 are longtime supporters of the sciences at UMass Amherst.

“The iCons program has invented a revolutionary approach for teaching that fosters innovation, integration and impact,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy. “This generous gift from the Mahoney family enables UMass to provide national leadership in this 21st century way of learning.” Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and a member of the UMass iCons Advisory Board, observed, “The UMass iCons program is unique across the USA. From my experience, iCons students have the leadership skills to ask the right questions, and the technical skills to find the right answers.”

Mahoney’s gift supports three separate funds that will dramatically broaden the impact of the UMass iCons program: the Directorship Fund, the Instructional Fund and the Evolution Fund. The Directorship Fund allows UMass Amherst to attract a world-class educator and researcher in STEM to direct the UMass iCons program. The director will be responsible for recruiting top-notch iCons faculty and partnering with companies and other universities to spread the program’s impact. Scott Auerbach, professor of chemistry at UMass Amherst and the iCons program’s founding director, is the first person to occupy this position as the newly appointed Mahoney Family Sponsored Executive Director. Auerbach has published two books and over a hundred articles on nanotechnology and clean energy, and has been at the forefront of educational innovation in STEM.

 

Assistant professor Mingxu You, chemistry, recently received a five-year, $1.9 million NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA) to fund his research in developing new tools – DNA-based probes – to quantify intercellular mechanical forces and understand a variety of mechano-sensitive cell signaling events at the molecular level.

As he explains, intercellular forces are critical regulators in many physiological and pathological processes, but scientists have until recently lacked the tools and approaches to characterize these mechanical events. “It is a whole new way to understand growth, division, intercellular motion and interaction,” You says. Cells are usually touching each other or a substrate, pushing and pulling each other to work together as a tissue, an organ and at the whole body level, he adds. But these forces are so tiny and ever-changing, it is very hard to see how cells are physically communicating with each other, for example, during development, cell differentiation, normal physiological and various disease processes.

The You Lab, which includes postdoctoral researcher Bin Zhao and chemistry Ph.D. students Yousef Bagheri and Puspam Keshri, will team with biologists Barbara Osborne and Tom Maresca, Lisa Minter of veterinary and animal sciences and Yubing Sun, mechanical and industrial engineering, to further develop these DNA-based tools to visualize, monitor and quantify such cellular forces. You says, “In the near future, people will be able to apply these tools broadly to depict the basic principles of tissue morphogenesis, growth, and homeostasis. They will serve as a critical foundation for developing novel strategies in tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, immunotherapy and cancer treatment.”

Specifically, You says, “We are interested in the Notch signaling pathway. It’s widely conserved in most cells and organisms, very common to find, and it’s interesting because it’s really simple. There are only five Notch ligands and four Notch receptors but they regulate quite a diverse range of downstream functions,” he adds.

 

Peter Reinhart, director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Institute of Applied Life Sciences (IALS), has announced that six campus research teams have been named recipients of the first Manning/IALS Seed Grants. The awards will support next steps in their research such as proof-of-concept studies and business development, fundamental research into new products, technologies and services to benefit human health and wellbeing.

Earlier this year, alumnus Paul Manning and his wife, Diane, committed $1 million through their family foundation to establish the Manning Innovation Program. It provides three years of support in advancing a robust and sustainable pipeline of applied and translational research projects from UMass Amherst.

The seed grants announced this week were awarded after a competitive process that narrowed 35 teams to six winners. Faculty researchers will receive seed funding of $100,000 each over three years, along with business training and mentorship from IALS, the College of Natural Sciences, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship and the Isenberg School of Management, among others.

Chemistry’s winning team leaders and their projects are:

• Jeanne Hardy, chemistry, “Development of Potent Zika Virus Protease Inhibitors”

• S. “Thai” Thayumanavan, chemistry, and Steve Faraci, “Pre-Clinical efficacy evaluation of liver-targeted, thyromimetic-encapsulated IntelliGels for the treatment of non-alcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH)”

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