UMaine, Northeastern fund shared research projects of social, economic significance

The University of Maine and Northeastern University and its Roux Institute have jointly awarded seed funding to five collaborative research teams to address topics important to people in Maine and beyond.

Broadly, the projects involve improving aquaculture vaccines, examining the link between pacifier use and sudden infant death syndrome, better understanding influenza A, creating an improved model of human-artificial intelligence interaction in self-driving vehicles, and developing an instrument that could have vast applications for human health monitoring.

The projects are the first funded in a new collaborative research initiative established between the two universities. Through a rigorous review process involving peer faculty reviewers and research leaders at each university, the five projects were selected from a pool of 21 applications. 

Each team has been awarded $50,000 to conduct the one-year projects and will work together to pursue larger external funding programs through federal and private sponsors. 

“As manifested by the five selected joint research initiatives, faculty from both institutions should be commended for developing such high-impact projects of significant social and economic benefit to Maine and beyond,” says Kody Varahramyan, UMaine vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School.

David Luzzi, senior vice provost for research and vice president of Northeastern’s Innovation Campus at Burlington, Massachusetts, says, “In today’s world of complex, interdisciplinary challenges, partnerships bring together researchers with complementary expertise that accelerate research progress. This program taps the diverse, deep expertise at our institutions. In addition to funding five impactful projects in the areas of human health and sustainability, the program has resulted in many more new collaborations that will drive progress against important societal challenges for Maine and globally.”

UMaine and Northeastern began to seek ways to formalize partnerships in areas of shared expertise and significance — artificial intelligence (AI), Earth and climate sciences, health and life sciences, manufacturing and marine science — after the formation of The Roux Institute at Northeastern University was announced in January 2020. 

Officials signed a research agreement between the two universities in May and a request for seed grant proposals followed in June.

The Roux Institute, in Portland, Maine, seeks to build expertise at the intersection of humans and machines. This focus dovetails into the Artificial Intelligence Initiative and other strengths of UMaine, the state’s research university.    

“It is part of the Roux Institute’s mission to help build the Maine tech and life science economy with the power of Northeastern’s research and learning enterprise,” said Michael Pollastri, senior vice provost for Portland and academic lead for the Roux Institute. “The projects we are funding through this program highlight the exciting complementarity between the research ecosystems at the University of Maine and at Northeastern University — and this type of complementarity will quickly drive us forward in our mission.”

Following are the projects and the collaborating researchers:

A Novel Adjuvant for Aquaculture Vaccines Using Engineered Bacteria Targeting the STING Pathway

Viral and bacterial infectious diseases in fish represent a major economic issue in aquaculture worldwide. 

 This team will test the safety and effectiveness of a new, cost-effective, easily deployable and highly potent ingredient to help create a stronger immune response in fish. 

Collaborators are Jiahe Li, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern; Deborah Bouchard, director of the Aquaculture Research Institute (ARI) and division lead for University of Maine Cooperative Extension Diagnostic Research Laboratory’s Aquatic Animal Health Lab; Ian Bricknell, professor of aquaculture biology at UMaine; Sarah Turner, master’s candidate and scientific research specialist at University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the ARI; and Xin Sun, doctoral candidate at Northeastern.

Whispering Gallery Mode Resonator Analysis of Dermal Interstitial Fluid

Dermal interstitial fluid (ISF), which surrounds cells in body tissues, is an alternative to blood for monitoring human health. ISF can be accessed with minimal invasiveness, it contains many of the same biochemical constituents in blood plasma, and it’s clear.

This team will seek to develop a new biofluid analysis instrument that would have unprecedented sensitivity and selectivity, and could have broad applications for health care and medical diagnoses.

Researchers are Rosemary Smith, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UMaine; Srinivas Tadigadapa, professor and chair of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern; Caleb Berry, master’s student in chemical engineering at UMaine; and Vedant Sumaria, Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at Northeastern.

Using artificial intelligence to examine the interplay between pacifier use and sudden infant death syndrome 

In 2018, about 1,300 babies younger than 1 year old died due to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). While causes of death are unknown in SIDS, pacifier use has been shown to be protective in reducing SIDS. 

UMaine and Northeastern researchers will design an AI-guided monitoring platform to examine how nonnutritive sucking movements with and without a pacifier can alter babies’ respiratory frequency and arousal levels during sleep.

Collaborators are Emily Zimmerman, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northeastern; Rebecca Schwartz-Mette, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Peer Relations Lab at UMaine; Marie Hayes, cofounder, chief executive officer and chief strategy officer at Activas Diagnostics, LLC and retired professor of psychology at UMaine; Sarah Ostadabbas, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern; Xizofei Huang, Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern; and Matthew Rothman, Ph.D. student in clinical psychology at UMaine.

Developing an Artificial Intelligence-based gene network modeling approach to characterize the regulation of the innate immune response to Influenza A virus infection

The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as 650,000 people die annually from respiratory diseases associated with seasonal influenza infections. 

This team will investigate the immune system’s response to the influenza A virus infection and develop an automated AI-based network modeling approach to find new antiviral therapeutic targets. 

Researchers are Benjamin King, assistant professor of bioinformatics at UMaine; Mingyang Lu, assistant professor of bioengineering at Northeastern; Ataur Katebi, associate research scientist in the Department of Bioengineering at Northeastern; and Brandy-Lee Soos, Ph.D. student in molecular and biomedical sciences at UMaine.

Combining Real-Time Deep Learning and Human-Vehicle Collaboration Techniques in Autonomous Vehicles to Assist Older and Visually Impaired Passengers

Global investment in fully autonomous vehicles (FAVs) is projected to reach more than $556 billion by 2026. FAVs have many advantages, and this project addresses their untapped societal benefit to assist older drivers and those who are blind and visually impaired (BVI). 

The team will develop a new model of human-AI vehicle interaction to support BVI and older adults by ensuring they understand what the AI driver is doing and that the AI driver can sense, interpret, and communicate with the passenger. 

Collaborators are Nicholas Giudice, professor of spatial informatics, and founder and chief research scientist at the Virtual Environments and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) Laboratory at UMaine; Shelley Lin, assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Northeastern; Richard Corey, director of the VEMI Lab and associate graduate faculty in the School of Computing and Information Science; Mengshu Sun, Ph.D. student in electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern; and Grant Beals, multimodal engineer at the VEMI Lab.

“Including students at all levels in these seed projects was of paramount importance to both institutions, and the reviewers really took this to heart during their rigorous process,” says Kim Holloway, vice provost for research development at Northeastern. “Students are the next cadre of research superstars, and we should make every effort to nurture their development in these strategically important areas.”  

Jason Charland, senior advisor to the president and director of research development at UMaine, says the next steps are to get the five project teams up and running by Nov. 1 and to convene a spring research summit at which teams can update the public on their work.

“The Offices of Research Development on both campuses will also work with and support the other 16 project teams that submitted applications to the joint seed grant program,” says Charland. “The level of response and quality of applications received in this first round demonstrate a strong interest in collaboration among the faculty at both universities and we plan to run a second round of seed grants next summer.”

Contact: Beth Staples, beth.staples@maine.edu