UB stories heard around the world in 2019

A bioluminescent jellyfish sculpture.

UB architecture alumnus and adjunct instructor Randy Fernando was among the designers of Ocean Cube, a pop-up exhibition in New York City that asked visitors to consider the ocean and sustainability. Credit: Randy Fernando

From analyzing the avocado genome to designing a stingray-inspired space exploration vehicle, here are some highlights from a year of discovery

Release Date: December 26, 2019

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BUFFALO, N.Y. — We predicted new forms of superhard carbon, including some that could be harder than diamonds. We made groundbreaking discoveries about memory loss. We told the forgotten stories of women who helped build the Bauhaus, a design school and movement known around the world.

In 2019, University at Buffalo faculty and students conducted scientific research and produced creative works that could shape the way we think about the world for years to come. News outlets worldwide covered these endeavors, with UB projects featured in The New York Times, Scientific American, NBC News, Fast Company and more.

Whether we are peering through a microscope or considering problems of a cosmological scale, our community of thinkers and tinkerers is working together on a shared mission here at UB: Understanding our world, and making it better.

Oceans | The art of pollution

Plastic bottles hanging in a blue room.

One-thousand plastic beverage containers — and counting — dangle from the ceiling of the last room of “Ocean Cube.” Credit: Randy Fernando

“Come for the Deep-Sea Selfies. Stay to Learn About Sustainability,” read the headline in The New York Times. The article profiled “Ocean Cube,” a pop-up exhibition in Manhattan that immersed visitors in dreamlike rooms filled with objects such as floating jellyfish sculptures, luminescent bubbles and curtains of hanging plastic bottles. “Ocean Cube” — whose designers included UB architecture alumnus and adjunct instructor Randy Fernando — explored underwater wonders while provoking people to ponder pollution. Fabrication took place at UB, in workshops in the School of Architecture and Planning and the Sustainable Manufacturing and Advanced Robotic Technologies (SMART) Community of Excellence. Watch a video of "Ocean Cube."

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Materials | Harder than diamonds?

Three diagrams showing the molecular structures of new carbon forms.

An illustration depicts three newly predicted superhard carbon structures. Credit: Bob Wilder / University at Buffalo, adapted from Figure 3 in P. Avery et al., npj Computational Materials, Sept. 3, 2019. The original diagrams from the paper are licensed under CC BY-4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

Superhard materials can slice, drill and polish other objects. They also hold potential for creating scratch-resistant coatings. Research led by UB chemist Eva Zurek opens the door to the development of novel materials with these seductive qualities. Her team used computational techniques to predict 43 new forms of superhard carbon, including some that could be harder than diamonds. Theoretical studies like these are becoming more important in the quest for new materials, as Zurek discussed with Science Friday and Scientific American.

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Food and agriculture | DNA of guacamole

Two halves of an avocado in a white bowl.

Credit: Kjokkenutstyr, can be reused under the CC BY license

As Earth’s climate changes, avocado growers worry that extreme environmental conditions could threaten crops. To protect the fruit and keep prices down for future generations, UB biologist Victor Albert co-led a study to sequence the avocado genome. The findings shed light on the origins of the popular Hass variety and could aid breeders in enhancing traits like disease resistance and drought tolerance. The research was led by UB, the National Laboratory of Genomics for Biodiversity in Mexico and Texas Tech University.

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The brain | Restoring memory function

An illustration showing a puzzle piece and a head with a section the shape of the puzzle piece missing.

Stock image. May not be republished

Memory loss, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease, can be devastating for patients and their loved ones. A study led by UB medical researcher Zhen Yan asked the question: Is it possible to restore memory function? The answer was yes, at least in mice with cognitive impairment resembling that seen in people with Alzheimer's. Yan’s team used an epigenetic approach to improve the working memory of the rodents, giving them drugs that reversed the loss of glutamate receptors and synaptic transmission in cortical neurons, which are important for cognitive processes.

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Sleep | Good for the bones?

An illustration of a pencil eraser against a skeleton.

Stock image. May not be republished

If getting more sleep is one of your New Year’s resolutions, here’s another reason to make it happen: It could help keep your bones healthy. In a study of postmenopausal women in the U.S., UB epidemiology and environmental health researcher Heather Ochs-Balcom and co-authors found that sleeping five or fewer hours a night was associated with lower bone mineral density and higher odds of osteoporosis. The research included thousands of participants in the Women’s Health Initiative.

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Queer history | Blurring boundaries, 50 years after Stonewall

A colorful work of art featuring floral patterns and flowers blooming from a body.

"Spring Awakening," by Nick Cave with Bob Faust, installed near the entrance to the Wrightwood 659 gallery space in Chicago as part of the exhibition, "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art.” Photo by James Printz

The Stonewall rebellion, in which protestors clashed with police raiding New York City’s famed Stonewall Inn, is often said to be the spark that gave rise to the modern LGBTQ movement. To mark the uprising’s 50th anniversary, UB art and queer history expert Jonathan Katz curated an expansive exhibition that asked visitors to reconsider rigid definitions of Stonewall as a beginning and of gender and sexuality as binary concepts. The focus was on art “in which boundaries blur,” according to the description of the exhibition, “About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art.”

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Technology and politics | Deepfakes are here

David Doermann, director of UB’s Artificial Intelligence Institute.

Just a few years ago, expertly doctoring videos to show someone doing something they didn’t might have seemed like a device in a sci-fi plot. But deepfakes, as such content is known, have arrived. In June, David Doermann, director of UB’s Artificial Intelligence Institute, testified before Congress on the issue. According to Doermann, “The technology behind these videos is getting so sophisticated, yet simple to use, that it poses an increasingly serious national security threat.” He later told the Financial Times, “We knew it was coming, but not nearly this fast.”

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Automation | The most vulnerable jobs

Illustration of robots working at laptops.

Stock image. May not be republished.

Among self-employed workers, artificial intelligence (AI) poses the greatest risk to those in some of the lowest paid and most popular jobs, according to a report co-authored by Kate Bezrukova in the UB School of Management. The analysis, published by the Centre for Research on Self-Employment, found that independent sales people, drivers, and agriculture and construction workers are in the most danger of seeing their livelihoods computerized. AI could also create jobs in areas such as robot maintenance, but society needs to prepare for changes through public awareness programs, education and research, Bezrukova says.

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Design | Forgotten histories of the Bauhaus

Black-and-white photo of people perched on a balustrade on the outside of a building.

Students on the balustrade of the canteen terrace, around 1931 (photographer unknown). Collection of the Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau

The Bauhaus school of design opened its doors in Germany in 1919, and female artists were heavily involved in building the institution, whose teaching philosophy has influenced art education worldwide. But their stories were largely forgotten — until now. As the Bauhaus marked its centennial, UB art historian Libby Otto co-authored “Bauhaus Women: A Global Perspective,” a book that profiles 45 of the many women who helped the institution rise to international acclaim. “Haunted Bauhaus,” a second book Otto released in 2019, further elucidates the Bauhaus movement’s rich history, tracing how the school’s teachers and students engaged with occult spirituality, gender fluidity, queer identities and radical politics. Her research reclaims the Bauhaus legacy — often associated with a few famous men — to include a diversity of lives and voices.

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Civil rights | Railroad porters in Canada

The book cover of "They Call Me George," featuring the book title and a man in uniform.

In the history of U.S. slavery, Canada is oft thought of as a free land, a destination for former slaves escaping the American South. A book by Cecil Foster, UB professor of transnational studies, adds a new dimension to this narrative by exploring the experiences of black railroad porters in Canada, laying bare social injustices that existed there well into the 1900s. “They Call Me George: The Untold Story of the Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada,” describes how these workers’ struggle against racism helped secure civil rights for marginalized populations, putting the country on a multicultural path.

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Psychology | Choice overload

Illustration of a person on a minimalist background, with lines and arrows following many paths.

Stock image. May not be republished.

Whether you’re shopping for a winter coat online or picking a movie to stream, the choices may seem limitless. But variety isn’t always good. A study led by UB psychology researchers Thomas Saltsman and Mark Seery adds to evidence that too many options can trigger stress. The research looked, in part, at biological factors such as how much blood people’s hearts were pumping as they contemplated fictional dating partners. To help take some of the pressure off, Saltsman suggests thinking about which choices are actually important. As he points out, “Choosing the wrong menu item for dinner or what to binge-watch is not going to define you as a person.”

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Opioid epidemic | On the front lines

Folders with the words "Buffalo MATTERS" on the front.

Folders with information on the Buffalo MATTERS program were available at a UB media briefing about the program's statewide rollout. Credit: Douglas Levere, University at Buffalo

Emergency rooms are a frontline in the opioid crisis. To steer opioid users toward the care they need, UB emergency medicine expert Joshua Lynch created Buffalo MATTERS, which gives emergency department patients a short course of the opioid treatment buprenorphine, along with the chance to enroll at a treatment clinic within two days. This program has been so successful that it’s now being rolled out statewide.

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Childhood obesity | Risk factors in babies

A mother and child playing in a living room-type setting.

Stock image. May not be republished

A mother’s warmth and sensitivity during play time can reduce obesity risk in infants who experience adversity in the womb, according to research led by UB pediatrics expert Kai Ling Kong. One reason the results matter: The study engaged high-risk families from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Nearly all participating mothers had used cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or cocaine during pregnancy. In a separate project, Myles Faith in the UB Graduate School of Education researched another high-risk group: babies born to mothers with gestational diabetes. The study found that these children were in more danger of becoming obese if they were easy to soothe temperamentally as infants, possibly due to the use of sweet drinks for calming.

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Sports law | Not just a pastime

UB sports law expert Nellie Drew.

UB expert Helen “Nellie” Drew has established a reputation as a leading academic expert on legal issues in sports. Now, as director of the UB School of Law’s Center for the Advancement of Sport, she’s running a unique education and research program focused on the growing fields of sports law and sports business. In 2019, media outlets nationwide sought her expertise on matters ranging from compensation for college athletes to women’s hockey leagues.

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Cybersecurity | Unlock your smartphone — with earbuds

A diagram showing schematics of the ear and the EarEcho device.

When a sound is played into someone’s ear, the sound propagates through and is reflected and absorbed by the ear canal — all of which produce a unique signature that can be recorded by a microphone attached to the earbud, which then sends the info via Bluetooth to the user's smartphone for verification. Credit: University at Buffalo

Visit a college campus, and chances are you’ll spot students sporting earbuds. With this technology proliferating, UB computer science and engineering researcher Zhanpeng Jin wondered: What other purposes could earbuds serve? That curiosity led to EarEcho, a biometric tool that authenticates smartphone users via the unique geometry of their ear canal. The device, under development in Jin’s lab, would consist of modified wireless earbuds.

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Space exploration | The dark side of Venus

An illustration showing stingray-like spacecraft flying through dark cloud formations.

The spacecraft would circumnavigate Venus every four to six days, with solar panels charging every two to three days on the side of planet illuminated by the sun. Credit: CRASH Lab, University at Buffalo

What is night on Venus like? The planet rotates very slowly, and as a result, parts of it stay shrouded in darkness for long periods of time. To learn about these mysterious regions, UB’s Crashworthiness for Aerospace Structures and Hybrids Laboratory (CRASH Lab) is developing a stingray-inspired spacecraft with wings that flap like the animal’s pectoral fins. UB engineering researcher Javid Bayandor is leading the project, with support from a highly selective NASA program that funds revolutionary, early-stage advanced space technologies.

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Cosmology | Spotting a wormhole (if they exist)

An artist's illustration of a supermassive black hole.

An artist’s concept illustrates a supermassive black hole. A new theoretical study outlines a method that could be used to search for wormholes (a speculative phenomenon) in the background of supermassive black holes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Scientists don’t know if wormholes, theorized to connect two separate regions of spacetime, exist. But if they do, UB cosmologist Dejan Stojkovic and former UB postdoc De-Chang Dai have come up with a way to potentially spot them. As Stojkovic explains, “If you have two stars, one on each side of the wormhole, the star on our side should feel the gravitational influence of the star that’s on the other side.” The result? Astronomers could detect a wormhole by searching for small deviations in the orbit of stars near hypothesized passages.

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