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Improving the human condition

U.Va. research seeks answers to health, environmental and security issues

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Print this page by Carlos Santos
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U.Va. engineers John Stankovic and John Lach
Photo by Jay Paul

Editor’s Note:  This is a continuing series profiling Virginia’s colleges and universities.

What makes children fat? Is their home environment to blame? University of Virginia engineers are teaming up with behavioral psychologists to better understand how family-eating dynamics lead to childhood obesity.

Their data-driven idea is simple: Set up a monitoring system in homes where children and teenagers are overweight to track a family’s eating behavior. The goal is to identify environmental triggers that lead to weight problems.

“The basic idea is we have a collection of remote sensors installed in homes that monitor activity and moods,” says John Stankovic, who with John Lach heads the program funded with $1.7 million from the National Science Foundation. “The approach is novel. Everybody else counts calories.”

Stankovic’s expertise is in real-time computing, cyber-physical systems and wireless sensor networks.

“The opportunity to deploy this system in the real world and have people benefit from this is exciting,” says Lach, who specializes in wireless body sensory networks and cyber-physical system design. “This is an indirect approach to understand family eating dynamics related to obesity. Other direct methods have been less successful.”

The two professors are part of a vast research complex at U.Va. seeking ways to improve the human condition.

U.Va. School of Medicine researchers discovered last year that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The discovery could  affect the study and treatment of neurological diseases ranging from autism to Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis.

The discovery was cited as one of the biggest scientific breakthroughs of 2015 in year-end lists compiled by Scientific American, Science and the National Institutes of Health.

When the discovery was announced in June, Jonathan Kipnis, professor in the U.Va. Department of Neuroscience and director of U.Va.’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia (BIG), said it “changes entirely the way we perceive the neuro-immune interaction. We always perceived it before as something esoteric that can’t be studied. But now we can ask mechanistic questions.”

Sponsored research
U.Va. research is growing. The university received $311 million in sponsored research awards during the past school year — an increase of almost 10 percent over the previous year.

Faculty at four U.Va. schools led the way: 58 percent of the money was awarded to School of Medicine projects; 16 percent to the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; 12 percent to the College of Arts and Sciences; and 8 percent to the Curry School of Education.

“Research is important for a number of reasons,” says Phillip A. Parrish, U.Va.’s interim vice president for research. “There are complex societal issues without easy solutions for which research is imperative in order to progress.”

Research in the fields of health and life sciences for example  — especially in cancer, diabetes, neurological and cardiovascular diseases  — has led to significantly longer life expectancies and quality of life, he says.

Environmental research is focusing more on “resilience to environmental change, water and air quality, and strategies and policies to mitigate impacts upon coastal and urban regions,” Parrish says.
Meanwhile, science and engineering research supports national security initiatives, including projects for high-performance aircraft and naval applications, as well as efforts addressing terrorism and cybersecurity threats.

“By and large, research is awarded in an intense competition among faculty from universities from across the United States,” Parrish adds. “Sponsored research awards come from a number of sources, but primarily from federal and state governments, from industry and from foundations.”

There is an immediate, practical side to research, too. “Public universities, including U.Va., have the responsibility to bring the fruits of their research to the marketplace, thereby enabling growth of jobs for citizens,” says Parrish.

New patents and products
In the last year, U.Va. has set school records in patents filed with the U.S.  Patent Office by faculty (187), and commercialization through deals with industry (70), as well as starting seven new companies, says Parrish.

Examples of the benefits of research include:

  • Faculty research in the medical and engineering schools led to development of an “artificial pancreas” prototype, which soon will enter final testing in two clinical trials. The art­­­i­­­­­­­­­ficial pancreas would help  diabetics monitor very closely and control insulin levels, enabling greater quality of life. Favorable results from trials could lead to approval by the Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory groups.
  • Engineering school research on extremely low-power circuits has enabled the use of wearable sensors. They wirelessly monitor a person’s health without requiring batteries. Instead, thermoelectric materials transform body heat into electricity to power the sensors and wireless communications to monitoring devices. The low-power circuitry intellectual property has led to formation of a significant spin-out company in Charlottesville called Psikick. It has attracted venture funding and has created high-paying jobs.
  • James Smith, a U.Va. civil and environmental engineer, has played a leading role in developing MadiDrop  —  an inexpensive water disinfecting tablet that could help billions of people worldwide.
  • Robert Salzar, whose expertise is in engineering mechanics, is leading a team of researchers at U.Va.’s Center for Applied Biomechanics. They are looking at ways to change the design of military combat vehicles to better protect soldiers riding in them.
  • Research today is not just the purview of faculty or even graduate students. Undergraduate research is growing. “It is a new interest in entrepreneurship that’s bubbled up in the past five years,” says Parrish. “It’s a broader area than research, but it includes taking new products and new ideas into a company.”

“We believe in providing undergraduates opportunities to participate in research, and more and more undergraduate students have a strong interest in research and entrepreneurship,” Parrish says. “It is vital to the economies of Virginia and the nation that more students be involved in the STEM disciplines, which are engines for growth.” 

Joint venture with USC
Research tackling the problem of childhood obesity fit right into the university’s mission.

Stankovic and Lach’s project is a joint venture with Donna Spruijt-Metz and Kayla de la Haye,  behavioral psychologists at the University of Southern California. Their goal also is to identify environmental triggers that lead to unhealthy eating patterns. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says obesity now affects one in six children and adolescents in the U.S. Approximately 17 percent (or 12.7 million) of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese, according to the CDC. In 2012, more than one-third of American children and adolescents were considered overweight or obese.

In this project, 20 families in California with overweight or obese children or teenagers volunteered to have their movements, moods and voices detected by the U.Va. engineers’ sensing system. The sensors, which are unobtrusive and wireless, were placed on kitchen cabinet doors where food is located, on refrigerator and freezer doors and even on scales. A smart wristwatch detects eating motions. Pressure pads detect when people sit at the dinner table. Microphones in the dining area pick up voices from which moods and stress levels can be ascertained. The project kicked off in September.

“This collection of data monitors activity and moods,” says Stankovic. “In the past you would only get behavioral data through surveys, which are notoriously inaccurate. This captures data never before collected at this level of granular detail.”

“The data can be turned into information we can use,” says Lach. “We hope it will lead to a more significant and substantial impact on the problem of childhood obesity.”

Lach and Stankovic tested their monitoring system in the lab by having students stage scenarios like arguments at the dinner table, for example. The initial four-year study will be focused on data collection, not on modifying behavior. That will come later.

“The long-term goal is to provide real-time interventions in a way that improves the family eating dynamic,” Lach says. “It’s a matter of trying to understand each family’s dynamics. The dynamics in each family may be different.”

Throughout the study, Stankovic and Lach will rely on the data to steadily adjust their monitoring system and make it as accurate as possible.

Another important outcome is that the system could also be put into general use. “It could possibly be adapted for other types of preventative treatment or other home health monitoring,” Stankovic says.

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