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Research Roundup

Dr. Sandeep Reddivari, seated, looks at a computer image of what student Jason Smith sees in virtual reality googles

Faculty members and students at the University of North Florida — in virtually all disciplines — are conducting research in hopes of discovering useful knowledge. Here are a few questions that UNF researchers hope to answer.

Will virtual reality tools improve the quality of your healthcare?

Imagine this: Your doctor plans to search through patient medical files to find the most effective way to treat a tumor. Rather than reading information on a computer screen, the doctor puts on virtual reality goggles. Now the data and images of tumors appear in 3-D virtual reality. Better yet, the technology — which includes virtual hands — makes it possible to touch the tumor in order to learn more about the size and shape. 

Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In fact, a prototype of the virtual reality or VR tool is now operational thanks to research being done by Dr. Sandeep Reddivari, an assistant professor of computing, and senior Jason Smith, a computing and information sciences major. They have named the tool VRvisu. 

“We’ve designed a tool that does two things,” Reddivari said. “First, it allows you to visualize large and complex medical datasets by creating 3-D representations of MRI and CT scan images. Then it displays the data and images in a virtual reality space.” Reddivari explained that while many tools are able to visualize healthcare datasets, little has been done using VR. “This would allow medical practitioners to observe trends based on the physical shape of the object,” he said. “It adds a new perspective to the information.”

The view through the VRvisu goggles reveals a 3-D plot graphed with patient ages, survival rates and a medical score. A patient data window pops up by touch, if desired, to provide users with additional patient information at their virtual fingertips. 

Smith believes the tool offers a hands-on approach to interact with data. “For me personally, if I can have my hands on something, I am better able to understand it,” Smith said. “Virtual reality is the perfect tool to be able to work on complex problems.”

Future plans include adding features that will allow multiple users to connect in the same space as well as enabling users to resize the view and actually step into the data plot to observe it more closely.

“The applications of VR in the medical domain are limitless and data visualization using virtual reality is an emerging area,” Reddivari said. “By leveraging VR, researchers can develop novel visualization techniques to analyze data more efficiently in order to make better decisions.”

How do chemistry and biology connect in the search for anti-cancer drugs?

Organic chemistry professor Dr. Kenneth Laali and student researchers have been synthesizing new compounds in the lab over the past year. The team has synthesized 30-plus new chemical compounds that offer promise to the scientific community. The compounds have already attracted the interest of researchers at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville who are looking for promising compounds to fight leukemia. 

It’s the collaboration between scientific teams: one working on the synthesis and characterization of new compounds and one testing how those compounds affect the biology of specific cancer cells. 

On the chemistry side, Laali and his student researchers are designing synthetic analogs of the natural product curcumin — found in very small amounts in the spice turmeric and long known for its health benefits. Using the essential skeletal component of curcumin, the researchers are designing ways to modify its molecular structure in order to alter how it interacts with cells. A small change to the structure can have a huge impact, Laali said.

“This is new science,” Laali said. “What we’re doing is creating a lot of new information and compound characterization data that are of interest to the scientific community, irrespective of whether or not the effort turns out to be biologically significant. Yet it will be a great bonus if this work also leads to the discovery of compounds that can stop the growth and kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells.”

To determine cancer-fighting potency, Laali has been sending these compounds to the National Cancer Institute where they are tested against multiple cell lines of six or seven different types of cancers. In each batch submitted, several of the compounds have performed above the threshold needed to warrant further study. The reports Laali receives from NCI show the efficacy of the compounds for stopping cell growth and also for killing cells. Further tests will use the compounds at different concentrations to find the lowest dose where the drug could still be effective. 

In addition, Laali delivers some of these compounds to the researchers at Mayo Clinic who will continue to test their potency against leukemia cells. “This is the biology side,” Laali said. “They are interested in doing additional work with us to perform more refined tests of these compounds.”

Laali recently filed a provisional patent application for his project that not only will protect his findings as he publishes results, but also provides additional time to continue his research and secure a full patent. Meanwhile, working with Research and Sponsored Programs, he is seeking companies interested in taking the biological studies to the next level with the aim to develop and commercialize a new anti-cancer drug. He also plans to submit a grant proposal to the National Institute of Health, one of the most competitive arenas for funding in biomedical research.

Should teachers go full STEAM ahead in the classroom to engage the brightest learners?

Many educators of gifted learners believe that adding an “A” for Art into the STEM curriculum — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — increases critical and creative thinking. Though these professionals have observed the success of the art-science approach in the classroom, what’s missing is research that directly demonstrates the impact of STEAM on gifted learners.

Dr. Hope Wilson, an associate professor of education, has studied many aspects of what it means to be gifted and what the implications are for those learners. Most recently, she has completed several steps in her K-12 STEAM research and is now working with teachers to test the effectiveness of an art-science teaching model. 

Working with several groups, such as the National Association for Gifted Children, Wilson first reached out for teachers to submit STEAM lesson plans. After a panel evaluated the submissions and made selections, Wilson arranged for teachers in states across the country to use the plans in classrooms in order to explore what is working.

Wilson hopes to find specific classroom principles that can be generalized to larger groups. In the end, she believes the research will uncover best practices to help teachers better serve gifted kids. Wilson is the head researcher for the Innovation Collaboration, a nonprofit organization and national coalition of many groups. The Collaboration is working with the Congressional STEM Education Caucus and pursuing grants with corporate partnerships such as Exxon and Crayola.

“In our country, we have many great laws to protect students with special needs,” Wilson said. “But we don’t have any legislation nationally that protects the needs of our gifted learners. So part of my research is to find out what those needs are and what happens when states and counties develop programs directly tied to gifted learning.” 

How does Wilson define gifted? “I tell my students that if you ask 10 researchers, you will get 10 different answers,” Wilson said. “Florida uses a strict IQ cutoff, but I think research would indicate that gifted kids have a combination of either ability, IQ or achievement. And it’s probably also more domain specific, so a child could be gifted in math or language, but wouldn’t necessarily have to excel at both.”