University at Buffalo has compiled a list of fifteen ways that its researchers managed to change the world in 2017. The researchers also made headlines around the world in the process. From fish hopped up on pharmaceuticals to using a heart as a secure log-in for cybersecurity purposes, students and faculty managed to conduct valuable research on some of the world’s top issues, in order to shed light on a variety of social, technological, environmental, etc. topics that concern all of us, one way or another.
Storytelling | Making comic book history
UB English professor Nnedi Okorafor (lead image) made headlines as the creative mind behind “Blessing in Disguise,” the first Marvel comic set in a real African city. The tale follows teenage heroine Ngozi as she fights evil in Lagos, Nigeria. Okorafor says the character was inspired by the story of perseverance of Nigeria’s Chibok girls, who were abducted by Boko Haram. Okorafor also wrote Marvel’s Black Panther comic this year, with her story line, “Long Live the King,” debuting in December. In a TED Talk, Okorafor discussed how she is helping to redefine the fantasy genre, saying, “My science fiction had different ancestors — African ones.”
Technology | Clean water, via sunlight
Need drinking water? Just add sun. UB electrical engineer Qiaoqiang Gan and partners used low-cost materials including foam and carbon black to build a highly efficient solar still for evaporating and purifying water. The device, the size of a mini-fridge, could help alleviate drinking water shortages in developing areas and regions affected by natural disasters. UB spinoff Sunny Clean Water is working to bring the technology to users.
Cybersecurity | Your heart as a log-in
Worried about cybersecurity? Can’t remember passwords? UB computer engineer Wenyao Xu has an answer. His team designed a computer security system that uses your heart as a log-in. The platform employs low-level Doppler radar to verify the shape of your heart, then monitors continuously to make sure no one else has stepped in to run your machine.
Human origins | The Neanderthal in all of us
Scientists have known for several years that the ancestors of modern humans interbred with other hominin species, including Neanderthals. But what is the legacy of these ancient trysts? Studies led by UB biologist Omer Gokcumen are helping to answer that question. One identified Neanderthal DNA that may affect the health of people in Western Asia today. Another, co-authored by UB’s Stefan Ruhl, a renowned expert in salivary research, found that modern populations in sub-Saharan Africa likely inherited a variant of an important salivary gene from an unknown “ghost species” of archaic human.
Law | Freedom of the press
The right to privacy. The freedom of the press. In a new book — “Newsworthy: The Supreme Court Battle Over Privacy and Press Freedom” — UB law professor Samantha Barbas revisits a seminal 1967 court case that pitted these rights against each other. The book explores legal and cultural wars surrounding the Supreme Court’s decision in Time Inc. v. Hill, which upheld press freedoms at the expense of privacy. Though 50 years have passed, the themes resonate today as digital reporting fuels new tensions between privacy and the press.
Health | Concussion recovery in young athletes
“Cocooning,” or severely restricting physical activity, may not be the best way to recover from a concussion. Researcher John Leddy of the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB first proposed this idea about a decade ago, and now, new treatment guidelines are reflecting this view. The recommendations draw on years of research by Leddy and UB’s Barry Willer suggesting that controlled exercise can speed recovery.
Health | Cancer risks in older women
A study of more than 65,000 postmenopausal women found that those with a history of gum disease also had a higher risk of cancer. The research, led by Jean Wactawski-Wende, dean of the UB School of Public Health and Health Professions, sheds light on factors affecting the health of older American women.
Medicine | A new pneumonia vaccine?
A new immunization for pneumonia targets 72 strains of bacteriathat cause the disease — including dozens that current vaccines don’t cover.
UB researchers reported these results in the fall, marking another step forward for Abcombi Biosciences, a startup launched by UB PhD graduate Charles Jones and UB chemical and biological engineering professor Blaine Pfeifer to develop the vaccine.
Environment | Fish on Zoloft?
Human antidepressants are polluting waterways and building up in the brains of fish. A team led by UB chemist Diana Aga found these pharmaceuticals or their metabolized remnants in the brain tissue of 10 species in the Niagara River. Wastewater treatment plants don’t remove the chemicals from water, so “fish are receiving this cocktail of drugs 24 hours a day,” which may endanger biodiversity, Aga said.
Society | Immigration and wages
Cities that welcome foreign-born residents may have brighter economic prospects, too. In a year of contentious debate on immigration, UB geographer Abigail Cooke weighed in with a new study showing that diverse immigrant populations can boost wages, with benefits going disproportionately to communities that embrace newcomers.
Society | Graphic violence on the news
A study on news coverage of violence could help editors make better decisions about how to cover tragic events. Led by UB communication expert Matthew Grizzard, the research found that showing graphic content increases moral sensitivity and the desire to help victims. The study gauged how people responded to more and less graphic versions of a TV news story on a mass execution conducted by ISIS militants.
Parenting | How to talk to kids about death
Disney and Pixar movies are often tear-jerkers, with highly emotional plots. Caregivers can take advantage of these storylines, using the films as a springboard to educate children about sensitive subjects, says UB communication expert Kelly Tenzek, who co-authored a paper on the topic. “These films can be used as conversation starters for difficult and what are oftentimes taboo topics like death and dying,” she says.
Business | The best diversity training
Effective diversity training helps people understand other perspectives and cultures. Changing behaviors, however, is more difficult — and poor training can backfire and reinforce stereotypes. That’s what UB School of Management expert Kate Bezrukova discovered by examining more than 40 years of research. The best programs, she found, are integrated with other initiatives, focus on developing both awareness and skills, and take a significant length of time, demonstrating organizational commitment to diversity.
Mind | Mini brains and schizophrenia
New work by UB medical researchers Michal and Ewa Stachowiak explores the roots of schizophrenia, an ancient and misunderstood disease. Their study reveals that the disorder may begin early in human development, in utero.
The scientists reached this conclusion by growing miniature brain structures called cerebral organoids to simulate stages of brain formation in the womb.
Folklore | Deciphering the Yeti
Research by UB biologist Charlotte Lindqvist is shedding light on the origins of the Yeti myth — and on the evolutionary history of enigmatic bears. Asked by documentary filmmakers to analyze nine DNA samples from purported Yetis, her team linked one to a dog and the other eight to elusive Asian bears. Genetic insights from the study could one day aid in the conservation of these animals, some of which are endangered.
Lead image: UB English professor Nnedi Okorafor speaks at TEDGlobal 2017 — Builders, Truth Tellers, Catalysts — in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bret Hartman/TED.