Young Researchers Awarded Nearly $3 Million in Grants

Faculty members receive grants from Office of Naval Research, Department of Energy and National Science Foundation to study a range of scientific questions

Sara Mednick

Sara Mednick

By Jeanette Marantos

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (— During our waking hours, we tend to stuff our heads with all kinds of information—a better way to cook salmon, perhaps, the name of a new coworker or some eye-popping revelation about the current administration.

How do we store all that information? Sleep researchers like Sara Mednick, assistant professor of psychology at UC Riverside, have discovered we consolidate many memories while we’re sleeping, and the quality and duration of our sleep can affect the way we remember. She is one of six UCR faculty members to receive important federal grants for young investigators.

Researchers already know that imbalances in our autonomic, i.e. unconscious nervous system can lead to a variety of health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, sleep apnea and obesity. Can it also affect memory?

That’s what Mednick plans to study in her project titled: “Heart rate variability during daytime naps as a predictor of memory consolidation in healthy, well-rested adults.” The Office of Naval Research has awarded Mednick $550,000 to research the question over three years through its Young Investigator Program for pre-tenured faculty. She is one of 36 pre-tenured faculty in the country to receive such a grant in 2015.

“Sleep is called a cardiovascular holiday, because it can slow down our heart rate and the restorative processes are emphasized during sleep,” Mednick said. “We have evidence now that the way your heart behaves during sleep is directly correlated with how well you remember things when you wake up, but it’s really an un-researched area. We know so little about (memory) consolidation. If we discover a connection between cardiovascular problems, consolidation and sleep, it would really break open a new area of research.”

Five other assistant professors at UCR have been recently awarded grants:

  • Lorenzo Mangolini, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering, received the 2015 Department of Energy Early Career Award for his project “On the interaction between non-thermal plasmas and small metallic particles: plasmonic plasmas.” The five-year, $750,000 award will support an investigation into the fundamental properties of dusty plasmas – electrical discharges with small particles dispersed within their volume. The results from this study will be beneficial for several applications including lighting, EUV sources, catalysis and for plasma-enhanced materials processing.
  • Xin Ge, assistant professor of chemical and environmental, has received $500,000 for his project titled: “Generation of Highly Selected Inhibitory Antibodies by Novel Paratope Design, Function-Based Screening, and Deep Sequencing.” The research is designed to develop antibodies that interfere and inhibit the binding of protein-cleaving enzymes or proteases.
  • Vincent Lavallo, assistant professor of chemistry, has been awarded $405,000 for his project titled: “Olefin Polymerization Catalysts with Ligands Featuring Weakly Coordinating Carborane Anions.” Polymers are long-chain organic molecules and the preparation of useful polymers, such as plastics, requires a catalyst to encourage the chain-building process. Lavallo is developing catalysts with unique properties and he is using the project to not only mentor UCR students, but to create a mentorship program for economically disadvantaged high school students as well, to encourage their involvement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) research.
  • Roya Bahreini, assistant professor of environmental sciences, has received $233,776 for her project titled: “Researching Chemical and Optical Properties of Secondary Organic Aerosol and Effective Practices for Environmental Science Education.” Secondary organic aerosols (SOA) are small particles composed of compounds formed from the atmospheric transformation of volatile organic gases, such as solvents, car exhaust, plastic production and forest fires. The research is designed to improve our understanding of how SOA create haze and influence climate and will support professional development for high school STEM teachers.
  • Elisa Franco, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, has received $189,630 for her biomaterials science project titled: Programming Dynamic Growth and Reconfiguration in Nucleic Acid Nanomaterials.” The goal is to develop responsive, programmable synthetic materials made with RNA and synthetic genes. Franco and her team of students will also collaborate with University of California Television (UCTV) and the UCR Media Relations office to produce educational clips to be aired on UCTV.

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