A new era of scientific research is evolving at UNT, and it is being led by the Signaling Mechanisms in Plants research cluster. The most mature of the university's initial collaborative research groups created in 2008 to strengthen the state's economy, bolster research and develop technology vital to societal needs, the cluster has made strides in hiring faculty and developing infrastructure.
New Faculty Hires
World renowned plant scientists Ron Mittler, Vladimir Shulaev and Rajeev Azad all joined the university in 2010. Together with six founding plant cluster researchers, they have helped bring more than $15 million in research funding to UNT in the last three years.
Joining the group in February 2013 is Richard A. Dixon, a specialist in metabolic engineering of plants and a National Academy of Sciences member. He has served as the director and founder of the plant biology division at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation since 1988.
Dixon's research focuses on how to use metabolic engineering to produce plant-derived chemicals that could treat human diseases, create biorenewable products and improve the quality of forage crops.
He is the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on active grants exceeding $9 million, including a Department of Energy grant focused on producing biofuels more efficiently and a National Institutes of Health grant investigating the potential of chemicals derived from grape seeds to prevent the onset of Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to successes in faculty hiring, the cluster also has made strides in creating new state-of-the-art laboratories. In fall 2012, the Metabolomics and Metabolic Signaling Pathway Research Laboratory overseen by Shulaev opened and was named a Center of Innovation by the Waters Corp., a leading manufacturer of mass spectrometry instruments.
The lab will use analytical methods such as mass spectrometry and liquid chromatography to analyze the chemical make-up of living organisms. The ability to characterize small molecules called metabolites is a powerful tool for understanding how cells work and how their function changes during metabolic processes.
Metabolomics can be used to help understand human disease and improve crops. Shulaev says the technologies in the lab can lead to a better understanding of the molecules that respond to stress in plants, giving researchers the tools to improve natural defenses in crops. Metabolomics also can help to identify novel plant-derived chemicals with potential benefits for health and nutrition.
Shulaev's lab is one of about 20 world-wide to be selected for the Waters Corp. Centers of Innovation program, which recognizes analytical scientists facilitating breakthroughs in health and life science, environmental protection and other areas.
As a Center of Innovation, Shulaev's lab will be able to use newly commercialized instrumentation and technology on an evaluative basis. He says the new lab will facilitate teaching the use of analytical instruments to students at all levels.
"It's very important to train the next generation of scientists, especially in mass spectrometry," he says.
The lab already includes instruments rarely found outside the top biomedical labs. The team will collaborate with the Waters Corp. to develop new technologies and metabolomics applications for the various tools.
"We have one of the best labs, especially in plant signaling, in academia," Shulaev says.
The University of North Texas celebrated a 10-year partnership with the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México in 2012 -- a collaboration that has supported research and student exchange through the years and fostered cultural ties for students and faculty of both universities.
"Many institutions have bilateral agreements across the globe, but to our knowledge, few if any have developed the level and depth of mutual commitment that is today in place between UAEM and UNT," says Warren Burggren, UNT provost and vice president for academic affairs.
From the first faculty collaborations to the research funding and exchange programs of today, initiatives between the two universities continue to expand.
The partnership began with the work of Witold Brostow, UNT Regents Professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Laboratory of Advanced Polymers and Optimized Materials. He was the first UNT faculty member to establish a connection to UAEM, which is located in Toluca in the state of Mexico, about 45 miles west of Mexico City.
He says it all began when his postdoctoral researcher, Gonzalo Martinez Barrera, became a UAEM faculty member.
"I was visiting Gonzalo in Toluca when I met Rafael López Castañares -- a fellow materials scientist and the UAEM rector at the time," says Brostow, who collaborated with Castañares on a materials science education project and invited him to visit UNT.
With the help of Burggren, then dean of UNT's College of Arts and Sciences, a formal agreement allowing the universities to work together was signed in 2002.
Research Seed Funding
A popular initiative of the partnership has been the Research Seed Funding Program, created to support joint projects between faculty members and graduate students of the two universities.
Since 2010, the program has provided more than 30 awards to faculty members across UNT departments, recently including library and information sciences, physics, anthropology and geography.
"The seed fund has established itself as one of the most successful means of connection between the two institutions," says Manuel Goel, director of the UAEM academic liaison office at UNT.
When UNT educational computing doctoral student Adriana D'Alba needed financial assistance to conduct research for her dissertation, her major professor, Greg Jones, helped her write a grant proposal for the seed funding program.
Using software created by Jones, associate professor of learning technologies, D'Alba had designed a 3-D virtual environment for an exhibit of murals on permanent display at UAEM, where she had earned her undergraduate degree.
The award allowed her to test her project in Toluca, where she worked with Bertha Abraham, an investigator at UAEM's Research Center in Social Sciences and Humanities.
D'Alba is now an assistant professor of education at Grambling University after earning her doctorate from UNT in 2012.
"I could not have done this research or gone this far without UNT and UAEM," she says.
Bruce Hunter, acting director of UNT's Institute of Applied Science, has visited UAEM numerous times since 2004 as part of a team evaluating hydrologic environmental services at one of Mexico's national parks. He has taught courses in Toluca on geographic information systems and human impacts on the environment.
"When our students go to Mexico and see the people in their ordinary lives, their eyes are opened," Hunter says. "We can learn a lot from Mexico about the way that environmental resources are used. We take water for granted in the U.S., but in Mexico, water is often used more wisely."
Stacey Antilla, a doctoral student in environmental science, visited UAEM twice in 2012 to research Mexico's environmental services for her dissertation.
"I had spent time at a resort in Cancun, but going to the 'real' Mexico was a life-changing experience for me. It broadened the coursework that I've been doing here at UNT," she says.
The Research Seed Funding Program is just one of numerous UNT-UAEM connections.
Other initiatives include a scholarship program for UAEM graduates who enter doctoral degree programs at UNT, a summer institute hosted by UNT's Department of Linguistics and Technical Communication that provides UAEM students and faculty with intense English language instruction, the academic liaison offices for the UAEM and UNT campuses, and exchange programs for students of both universities.
"The partnerships benefit students and faculty going both ways," Brostow says. "With our global economy, it's important for students to have exposure to different cultures and customs."
As an undergraduate at UAEM in 2003, Oscar Olea-Mejia attended a lecture delivered by Brostow and later came to UNT as a doctoral student, inspired to be a materials scientist. He earned his UNT doctorate in 2007 and now teaches in UAEM's College of Chemistry, using green chemistry techniques to research materials science at the nano-level.
"I wanted to be a researcher, but I became a teacher too. I learned that one goes with the other," he says, adding that some of his students have also come to UNT through joint research projects with Brostow.
"The partnerships and achievements of the students at both universities are a win-win situation," Olea says. "Different perspectives, experiences and equipment complement each other."
Burggren says that mutual understanding continues to be a benefit of the partnership as a whole.
"As we celebrate the first decade of our formal collaboration, the common themes of reciprocity, respect and quality of our endeavor have been retained and strengthened," he says.
"This successful international cooperation has enriched both universities."
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