FOX 22/WFV Bangor featured Rob Wheeler, University of Maine assistant professor of microbiology, who received a $500,000 five-year grant to study how common pathogens can become killers.
Wheeler and students will study how Candida albicans, the most common human fungal germ, transforms from to a potentially fatal fungus in vital organs of a person whose immune system has been compromised. “One of the issues with Candida infection is people with dentures or a prosthesis can get Candida in those areas of attachment that then interact with the skin and can pass through the skin in ways that doesn’t in healthy people,” Wheeler said.
The Maine Public Broadcasting Network spoke with Robert Wheeler, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Maine, who was awarded a five-year, $500,000 fellowship from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) to study a pathogen. Wheeler will study how and why Candida albicans — the most common human fungal pathogen — transforms from an innocuous yeast in the digestive tract of a person with a healthy immune system to a potentially fatal fungus in vital organs of a person whose immune system has been compromised. Wheeler said Candida albicans is the fourth most common bloodstream disease in hospitalized patients and one in three patients with impaired immune systems who contract the fungal infection while in the hospital will die from it. “A combination of better diagnosis and better drug treatment regimes could make a really big impact in the lethality associated with fungal infection,” Wheeler said. He called the fellowship a new high point in his career and a major boost for microbiology at UMaine. The Associated Press and WABI (Channel 5) also reported the research award.
How does a normally peaceful agent break through a previously impenetrable barrier and become a potential killer?
Robert Wheeler has just received a five-year, $500,000 fellowship from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) to figure that out.
The University of Maine Assistant Professor of Microbiology will study how and why Candida albicans — the most common human fungal pathogen — transforms from an innocuous yeast in the digestive tract of a person with a healthy immune system to a potentially fatal fungus in vital organs of a person whose immune system has been compromised.
“This award marks a new high point in my research career,” says Wheeler, one of 12 scientists nationwide to receive the 2014 Investigators in the Pathogenesis of Infectious Disease Award. After internal competitions at colleges and universities, each institution may nominate two investigators; this year, 144 scientists were put forward.
“This provides substantial funding that we can use to pursue high-risk projects with the potential to change our perspective on how dangerous infections begin.”
The goal, he says, is to improve diagnosis and therapy of fungal infection due to better understanding of the interactions between host and pathogen cells.
Wheeler’s lab will explore the host-fungal dialogue at mucosal surfaces where C. albicans — the leading cause of hospital-acquired infection that annually kills several thousand patients in the U.S. — is normally kept in check. “We expect that this will allow us to understand how the healthy immune system normally inhibits infection and how C. albicans invades past the epithelial wall,” he wrote in his application.
What happens at the earliest stages of active infection is one of the biggest mysteries about opportunistic pathogens, he says. And solving that mystery is imperative as infections complicate treatment of diseases, including leukemia, that require suppressing the immune system.
Wheeler’s lab will use zebrafish models of candidiasis at multiple levels — holistic, cellular and molecular genetic — to investigate the interaction between fungal cells and host cells during the earliest stages of infection. The integrated approach will utilize a new set of tools to address questions that have previously been inaccessible, he says.
His lab already has conducted pioneering studies with transparent zebrafish, which model infections caused by bacterial and fungal pathogens of humans. The resulting findings, he says, “opened the door to a deeper understanding of host and pathogen activity at the beginning stage of infection.”
Wheeler credits the previous scientific breakthroughs, and the work on the grant, to the talented, highly motivated and hard-working students and post-doctoral fellows in the laboratory. “The award is based on the pioneering work that they have done to change our perspective on fungal infection over the last five years,” he says.
With this fellowship, Wheeler says his lab will seek to exploit “that opening to discover the mechanistic underpinnings of the dialog between C. albicans and innate immunity at the epithelial barrier.”
On a personal level, Wheeler says he’s humbled to join the creative group of scientists that have previously held or currently hold BWF grants. “It pushes me to further excel and tackle the most important problems in infectious disease,” he says.
Wheeler’s peers lauded both his prior research and his potential.
Aaron Mitchell, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, says Wheeler has “been an insightful innovator for his entire scientific career.”
This award, Mitchell says, will allow Wheeler to build upon his initial findings “to look at the way that the host manipulates the pathogen, and how the pathogen manipulates the host. The remarkable zebrafish toolbox will allow Rob to look for key features of host defense that we can strengthen to thwart the pathogen before it gets a foothold.”
Joseph Heitman, chair of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke University Medical Center, says Wheeler’s research on how “Candida albicans … shields its immunogenic cell surface from immune surveillance in a variety of ways, which can in part be circumvented by drugs that unveil immunogenic signals” has blazed trails.
Heitman says the award will allow Wheeler, a “highly creative and innovative” investigator, to continue to be a leader in the field.
Gerald Fink, the Herman and Margaret Sokol Professor at the Whitehead Institute/Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the award “recognizes [Wheeler’s] preeminence as a leader in the battle to combat Candida, a feared human fungal pathogen … for which we have no satisfactory protection.”
Fink anticipates Wheeler’s research will “provide critical insights into our natural immunity from Candida infections, which is the first step towards developing antifungal agents.”
And Deborah Hogan, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College, says, “Ultimately, this work is likely to provide important insight into better ways to prevent and fight these often dangerous infections” in babies, in people undergoing chemotherapy and in those with suppressed immune systems.
The first installment of the award will be sent to UMaine on July 15, according to BWF, an independent private foundation based in North Carolina that supports research to advance biomedical sciences.
Victoria McGovern, senior program officer at BWF, says Wheeler’s selection was “based on the scientific excellence and innovation” of his proposal, as well as the strength of the scholarship at UMaine and Wheeler’s accomplishments as a researcher.
Wheeler says he’s pleased the award showcases UMaine and the laboratory to the national research community and he’s excited for opportunities to be in “contact with a number of the best and brightest infectious disease investigators in the U.S., through yearly meetings and a number of networking opportunities at national conferences.”
“The University of Maine is very proud of Dr. Wheeler’s achievement,” says Carol Kim, UMaine vice president for research.
“The BWF is a very prestigious award and identifies Rob as a leader in his field.”
Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777
Gloria Vollmers, an accounting professor at the University of Maine, spoke with the Portland Press Herald and the Bangor Daily News about a possible merger of graduate business programs at UMaine and the University of Southern Maine. Vollmers said a joint program would have benefits, such as allowing faculty to offer more electives. “We would end up with a more robust MBA and possibly could offer a specialty MBA (in health care, for example). Also, exposing students to more faculty is always good,” she wrote in an email to the Press Herald.
The Free Press reported Paul Mayewski, a University of Maine professor and director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI), will appear June 9 on the series finale of the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously.” The show is a nine-part documentary series about the impact of climate change on people and the planet. Mayewski was filmed gathering ice cores 20,000 feet atop a glacier on Tupungato, an active Andean volcano in Chile. He also was filmed at home, where he enjoys his family, dogs and sailing. Mayewski said climate change is causing and will continue to cause destruction, and how scientists and media inform people about the subject is important.
It’s Showtime for Paul Mayewski. Check out the preview of the season finale of Years of Living Dangerously that airs at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9. The episode also features President Obama, Thomas Friedman and Michael C. Hall.
University of Maine professor Paul Mayewski is featured in the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously starring Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon.
It’s a thriller with an ending that hasn’t been written yet.
Executive producer James Cameron, who has also directed the blockbusters Avatar, The Terminator and Aliens, describes Years of Living Dangerously as the biggest survival story of this time.
The documentary, developed by David Gelber and Joel Bach of 60 Minutes, depicts real-life events and comes with an “adult content, viewer discretion advised” disclaimer.
The nine-part series that premiered April 13 shares life-and-death stories about impacts of climate change on people and the planet.
Correspondents, including actors Ford and Damon, as well as journalists Lesley Stahl and Thomas Friedman and scientist M. Sanjayan, travel the Earth to cover the chaos.
They examine death and devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy; drought and lost jobs in Plainview, Texas; worsening wildfires in the U.S.; and civil unrest heightened by water shortage in the Middle East. The correspondents also interview politicians, some of whom refute the science or are reluctant to enact legislation.
And they speak with scientists who go to great lengths, and heights, to do climate research. Mayewski, director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI), is one of those scientists. He is scheduled to appear in the series finale at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9.
Climate change, he says, is causing and will continue to cause destruction. And he says how scientists and media inform people about the subject is important.
“There are going to be some scary things that happen but they won’t be everywhere and it won’t be all at the same time,” he says. “You want people to think about it but not to terrify them so they turn it off completely. You want them to understand that with understanding comes opportunity.”
In February 2013, Sanjayan and a film crew joined Mayewski and his team of CCI graduate students for the nearly 20,000-foot ascent of a glacier on Tupungato, an active Andean volcano in Chile, to collect ice cores.
Sanjayan calls Mayewski “the Indiana Jones of climate research” for his penchant to go to the extremes of the Earth under challenging conditions to retrieve ice cores to study past climate in order to better predict future climate.
Sanjayan, a senior scientist with Conservation International, wrote in a recent blog on the Conservation International website that while people may distrust data, they believe people they like.
He thought it would be beneficial to show the scientific process at work and to introduce the scientists’ personalities to viewers. “He’s the sort of guy you’d want to call up on a Wednesday afternoon to leave work early for a beer on an outdoor patio,” Sanjayan writes of Mayewski.
So for the documentary, Mayewski was filmed in the field — gathering ice cores at an oxygen-deprived altitude of 20,000 feet atop a glacier with sulfur spewing from nearby volcanic ponds. “It’s a strange place to work,” Mayewski says, “but it’s where we can find amazing, productive data.”
He was also interviewed at home, where he enjoys his family, dogs and sailing.
Mayewski likes the series’ story-telling approach. Scientists, he says, need to explain material in a way that is relatable, relevant and empowering.
Take for instance Joseph Romm’s baseball analogy. Romm, a Fellow at American Progress and founding editor of Climate Progress, earned his doctorate in physics from MIT.
On the Years of Living Dangerously website, Romm writes, “Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is ‘caused’ by steroids. Home runs become longer and more common. Similarly climate change makes a variety of extreme weather events more intense and more likely.”
Mayewski says it’s also imperative to provide tools that enable people to take action to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to it.
“When we have a crystal ball, even if the future is bad, we can create a better situation,” he says. “We have no choice but to adapt.”
Maine is in a good position to take action, he says, especially with regard to developing offshore wind technology. “Who wouldn’t want a cleaner world, to spend less money on energy and have better jobs? We will run out of oil at some point but the wind won’t stop,” he says.
Wind is up Mayewski’s research alley. He has recently been studying ice cores from the melting glacier that serves as the drinking water supply for 4 million residents of Santiago. Temperature in the region is rising, greenhouse gases are increasing and winds from the west that have traditionally brought moisture to the glacier have shifted, he says.
And the glacier is losing ice.
“Our biggest contribution is understanding how quickly wind can change,” Mayewski says. “Wind transports heat, moisture, pollutants and other dusts.”
By understanding trends, Mayewski says it’s possible to better predict where climate events will occur so plans can be made. Those plans, he says, could include determining where it’s best for crops to be planted and where seawalls and sewer systems should be built.
Harold Wanless, chair of the University of Miami geological sciences department, says sea levels have been forecast to be as much as 3 to 6 feet higher by the end of this century. On the Years of Living Dangerously website he says, “I cannot envision southeastern Florida having many people at the end of this century.”
In Maine, Mayewski says climate change is evidenced by the powerful 2013–2014 winter, the lengthening of summers, increased lobster catches and northward spread of ticks.
While climate change has become a political topic, Mayewski says it’s a scientific and security issue. He says it’s notable that previous civilizations have collapsed in the face of abrupt, extreme changes. And climate change, he says, is far from linear in the way it evolves.
For decades, Mayewski has been interested in exploring and making discoveries in remote regions of the planet. “When you go all over the world, you get a global view,” he says. “By nature, I’m an optimist. That is tempered with this problem. I do believe there will be a groundswell of people, or governments, or some combination so that there will be a better future in store.”
To watch clips from previous episodes of Years of Living Dangerously, as well as the entire first episode, visit yearsoflivingdangerously.com.
Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777
When Ryu Mitsuhashi was a toddler, her grandfather advocated that music be part of her life.
Her grandfather, an elementary school teacher and Japanese prisoner of war in Russia during World War II, believed music had the power to bring people together in harmony and peace.
Mitsuhashi’s parents heeded the advice. When Mitsuhashi was 3, she and her mother learned — via the Suzuki Method — to play violin in her hometown of Tokyo.
Mitsuhashi, a 2013 University of Maine graduate, was a fast learner. When she was 9, her family moved to Westchester, New York and at age 10 she was accepted into The Juilliard Pre-College Division — “a program for students of elementary through high school age who exhibit the talent, potential, and accomplishment to pursue a career in music” — in New York City.
When Mitsuhashi and her family returned to Japan a couple of years later, she toured Europe with the Tokyo Junior Philharmonic.
For much of her 23 years of life, Mitsuhashi has been spreading goodwill through her music. She has shared her talents in concerts broadcast on network TV as well as on stages around the world, at UMaine, with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra and in area retirement homes.
Mitsuhashi, who has played solo violin concertos with the University of Maine Orchestra, recently returned from a tour of Croatia and Slovenia with a professional orchestra — Orkester Camerata Austriaca — from Linz, Austria. On the tour, she performed a solo of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major.
She credits Anatole Wieck, who teaches violin and viola and conducts the University of Maine Chamber Orchestra, with helping her relax on stage.
While she worries she might forget the music or that a violin string could break, she says Wieck encourages her “to enjoy what she’s doing and to give pleasure to other people by enjoying to play.”
And she says she’s thrilled and energized when concertgoers tell her that they have been entertained by her performance.
While she’s used to living in New York and Tokyo, with populations of 8 and 13 million respectively, Mitsuhashi says she has not been homesick in Orono.
Initially, though, she was “light sick.” Mitsuhashi says in Tokyo she was used to 24-7 bright lights and big-city action. Here, “everything closed at 9 p.m. and it was dark.”
Soon, she’ll again be amid the lights and action as she’s returning this summer to Japan for a monthlong visit. In addition to spending time with family and friends, she’ll play in two concerts.
Since graduating from UMaine with a bachelor of music degree in performance in 2013, Mitsuhashi has been taking part in Optional Practical Training — working in her field of study, which includes teaching music at Bangor Montessori and providing private music lessons.
This fall, Mitsuhashi plans to begin pursuing a master of music degree in performance at UMaine.
Careerwise, she dreams of being a musician with Cirque du Soleil. The Montreal-based company’s shows are celebrated for their “dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment.”
Mitsuhashi says that recently she also has been considering following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a surgeon.
WABI (Channel 5) and the Bangor Daily News reported on a conference co-hosted by the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs (SPIA) and the Maine Army National Guard that brought together military, political, economic and academic leaders to discuss challenges and opportunities presented by the diminishment of sea ice in the Arctic. George Markowsky, a professor of computer science and cooperating professor for SPIA, spoke with WABI about the possibility of opening new trade routes between Maine, Greenland and Europe. “One of the things that might happen is the shipping routes through the North Pole would start opening up and Maine would be kind of the last stop on the East Coast in the United States for any ships that want to use this polar route,” Markowsky said.
The Working Waterfront carried an article about two University of Maine-based research projects involving lobster shells.
The article featured UMaine food science graduate Beth Fulton and associate professor of food science Denise Skonberg who determined that pigment from lobster shells rich in carotenoid can be extracted and used for coloring in food for farm-raised salmon. The lobster shell pigment could be a natural alternative to synthetic carotenoids. While Fulton’s grant money is depleted, the article reported that she hopes another researcher will advance the project.
The article also included an update on a project first covered in 2011 when UMaine graduate Carin Poeschel Orr hit on the idea of a golf ball made of lobster shells that could legally be hit from cruise ship decks. Orr shared the idea with Robert Bayer, executive director of the University of Maine Lobster Institute, and Bayer consulted with others, including David Neivandt, director of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering. The article reported that Neivandt said the biodegradable lobster shell golf ball is patented and ready to be marketed.
The Associated Press previewed a conference co-hosted by the University of Maine School of Policy and International Affairs and the Maine Army National Guard that aims to explore challenges and emerging opportunities in the Arctic. “Leadership in the High North: A Political, Military, Economic and Environmental Symposium of the Arctic Opening,” will be held May 20–21 at the Maine Army National Guard Regional Training Institute in Bangor. Paul Mayewski, a UMaine professor and director of the Climate Change Institute, is one of several scheduled speakers that will address global, national and Maine issues related to the environment, trade, politics and policy. The Portland Press Herald, WABI (Channel 5) and WLBZ (Channel 2) carried the AP report.