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Research at Boston College

2015 Ignite Award Winners

2015 Ignite Award Recipients: 1. Alicia Munnell; 2. Lichuan Ye; 3. Rebekah Coley; 4. Daniel Kirschner; 5. Gabrielle David; 6. Scott Slotnick; 7. Hugh Cam; 8. Kris Kempa
1. Hugh Cam; 2. Rebekah Levine Coley; 3. Gabrielle David; 4. Joyce Edmonds; 5. Jianmin Gao; 6. Sharlene Hess-Biber; 7. Gene Heyman; 8. Charles Hoffman; 9. Kris Kempa; 10. Kyoung-yim Kim; 11. Daniel Kirschner; 12. Kevin Mahoney; 13. Alicia Munnell; 14. Elizabeth Rhodes; 15. Scott Slotnick; 16. Lichaun Ye

Announcing the 2015 Ignite Award Recipients

In 2015, 16 Ignite grants were awarded to 20 faculty from five different schools—the Morrissey College of Arts & Sciences, the Lynch School of Education, the Connell School of Nursing, the Carroll School of Management, and the School of Social Work.

Now entering its second year, the Ignite Award program was established by the VPR’s office to help kick-start a faculty member’s research ideas with the goal of turning the idea into a publication or an external grant. Available to full-time faculty, Ignite grants are awarded twice a year, for an amount up to $30,000. The next application deadline is May 2, 2016. For more details on the Ignite Program, as well as other internal funding opportunities please visit:

The projects awarded in 2015 were:

Epigenetic control of transcriptome and genome integrity
Hugh P. Cam, Assistant Professor of Biology

Organisms go to great length to protect their genomes, the total genetic material resided in a collection of DNA molecules in every cell. In eukaryotic cells including those of humans, DNA is packaged with histones into chromatin. Accumulating evidence suggests that eukaryotic cells employ epigenetic mechanisms at the levels of chromatin to protect their genomes against internal and external threats. In particular, a convergent line of evidence has revealed that chromatin-modifying enzymes could target histones to a variety of chemical modifications, which contribute to the diversity of chromatin states. Our research aims to gain a better understanding of the processes responsible for the establishment and maintenance of chromatin states that help cells properly respond to internal and external stresses to protect the integrity of their genomes. A better understanding of the factors and processes governing epigenetic regulation of endogenous threats such as transposable elements and exogenous agents such as chemical stresses and their impact on the integrity of the genome could offer new insights into the causes of diseases exhibiting abnormal chromatin states and genome instability.


Poverty and Place: The Intersection of Income and Urbancity and Youth Health Risk Behaviors
Rebekah Levine Coley, Professor, Counseling, Developmental, and Educational Psychology Department

Psychosocial health risk behaviors explain 50% of morbidity and mortality in the U.S., with health risks, including mental health, sexual health, substance use, and conduct problems, typically emerging during adolescence and growing into early adulthood (Mokdad et al., 2004). There is tremendous individual variation in the development of these behaviors, suggesting contextual factors may contribute to disparities in adolescent psychosocial health. In particular, economic resources and geographic contexts (residence in an urban, suburban, or rural community) may be centrally important contexts associated with youth health risk behaviors. The proposed research seeks to (1) document economic and urbanicity disparities in psychosocial health from early adolescence through young adulthood; (2) delineate whether economic disparities in psychosocial health differ for youth in rural, suburban, and urban communities across America; and (3) identify central mechanisms linking economic disparities to youth psychosocial health across the urban to rural continuum.


Quantifying stream health: does stream metabolism represent both physical and biological diversity in a river?
Gabrielle C. L. David and Noah Snyder (Earth and Environmental Sciences)

Stream ecologic function and health is connected to the physical processes of large wood transport and accumulation. Stream health is a concept that links physical and biological diversity and integrity, because the river provides the material for biogeochemical processes, but it is a difficult term to quantify. A conceptual understanding of stream health exists, but we lack a way to quantify the interconnection between the physical and biological diversity. Researchers around the world have begun to use stream metabolism as an integrative measure of ecosystem function and health. However, most of these studies focus on biological processes and not how they link with the physical. We propose to use stream metabolism as a proxy for biological diversity and to link the biogeochemical processing of material with the hydraulic (changing flow patterns) and geomorphic diversity (changing channel shape) within a channel. The proposed research will further our knowledge on whether stream metabolism can become a proxy for stream health, while investigating how in-channel wood affects flow patterns, structure, and biogeochemical functions. The overarching goal of this proposal is to develop a metric of stream health that links the physical and biological functions.


Nursing Influence on Cesarean Delivery Rates
Joyce Edmonds, Assistant Professor of Nursing

Cesarean delivery is the most common major surgery performed in the United States, with 1 in 3 women now giving birth by cesarean. Substantial variation (15-fold) in cesarean delivery rates by hospital has been observed among a standard cohort of women at lower risk for the procedure. Evidence suggests that this overuse and variation in cesarean delivery rates contributes to excess perinatal mortality and morbidity and is responsible for up to five billion dollars in unnecessary healthcare spending annually. While the observed variation in cesarean delivery was initially viewed as a reflection of differences in the clinical risk profile of women in labor, risk-adjusted analyses suggest that clinician practices are primarily responsible. Yet, despite involvement of both physicians and nurses in the clinical care of women in labor, only the physician influence on cesarean delivery has been studied. Studies that quantify the influence of nurses on cesarean delivery rates do not yet exist. Therefore, we propose to assess the contribution of nursing to cesarean delivery rates among low-risk women, as defined by public health and regulatory agencies. The overall goal is to develop an audit and feedback intervention targeted to nurses to improve quality of care.


Rigid Peptide Macrocycles as Synthetic Receptors for Membrane Lipids
Jianmin Gao, Associate Professor of Chemistry

Defining the boundary of a cell and its subcellular organelles, lipid membranes are relevant to essentially all aspects of cell physiology and disease. While many functions of a membrane are accomplished by membrane-embedded proteins, including G-protein coupled receptors and ion channels, it is increasingly clear that lipids are not mere bystanders to provide a barrier. Instead, they play active roles in many processes of cell biology. Further elucidation of the diverse roles of lipids is currently hampered by the lack of molecular probes that allow one to track specific lipids in living cells or organisms. Previous work in the field has explored the use of lipid-binding proteins to track lipids of interest. However, naturally occurring lipidbinding proteins often display secondary binding sites for proteins or other lipids in a membrane, yielding biased results of lipid distribution. Furthermore, only a small number of lipid-binding proteins are well characterized, with most of them targeting phosphatidylinositides (PIPs). It remains challenging to engineer proteins to recognize a variety of different lipids. Finally, for in vivo applications, such as imaging cell death in animals or patients, lipid-binding proteins suffer from poor tissue penetration and slow clearance problems. Synthetic small molecules that target specific lipids will greatly facilitate lipid research and enable applications in medicine, such as in vivo imaging of cell death. We have undertaken a program to develop synthetic receptors for membrane lipids. Specifically, we have been testing the hypothesis that properly designed cyclic peptides may serve as synthetic receptors to bind a lipid of interest.


Genetic Testing and Post-Testing Decision Making Among BRCA-Positive Mutation Women: A Psycho-Social Standpoint Mixed Methods Approach
Sharlene Hesse-Biber, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology

Breast cancer is the second leading cause of death among American women. It is estimated that 5% to 10% of all breast cancers are linked to BRCA1 and BRCA2 mutations (BRCA is an acronym for BReast CAncer), which are inherited genetic mutations that increase an individual’s risk for breast, ovarian and other cancers such as pancreatic cancer. Women who test positive for BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations have an approximately 60% lifetime risk of developing breast cancer and 15%-40% risk of ovarian cancer (National Cancer Institute, 2011a). The lifetime risk of breast cancer is dramatically lower at 12% for women who do not carry this genetic mutation marker (National Cancer Institute, 2011b).

Risk assessment and decision-making are difficult for women who carry the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genetic mutation because, unlike some genetic mutations in which testing positive carries a 100% risk of developing a disease in one’s lifetime, such as the Huntington’s disease mutation, testing positive for the BRCA mutation does not necessarily mean a woman will definitely get cancer in her lifetime. Much of the research literature on medical decision-making still assumes that women who test positive for the BRCA genetic mutation will adhere to their care providers’ “expert knowledge” and decide on a course of action based on a “rational” medical decision-making model (Rodney, Burgess, McPherson, & Brown, 2004). The proposed research seeks to use a large data set to help develop a causal model of understanding how these women go about making medical decisions.


Attention allocation
Gene Heyman, Senior Lecturer of Psychology

The goals of the proposed research are to (1) evaluate the correlations between individual differences in the capacity to allocate covert attention (also called “executive attention”) and reading comprehension, (2) to establish training exercises that will enhance the capacity to allocate attention, (3) to test whether increases in the ability to allocate attention increase reading comprehension, (4) and to test whether attention allocation is guided by the same or similar principles as is the allocation of choice. These goals follow from a new study in which, with the help of BC undergraduates, I developed a procedure that improves our ability to measure attention. Although attention is a covert capacity of the mind, the procedure provides a continuous, quantitative description of its allocation. The procedure makes it possible to (1) evaluate precisely the role that attention plays in higher cognition, (2) quantitatively test whether the allocation of attention is optimal, as is often claimed, and (3) test methods for training more efficient attentional control.


Genetic and chemical genetic studies of the Pseudomonas aeruginosa ExoY virulence factor
Charles Hoffman, Professor of Biology

We have begun to study the ExoY enzyme by taking a genetic approach that involves its heterologous expression in the fission yeast Schizosaccharomyces pombe. Over the past 25 years, my laboratory has been studying cAMP signaling and PKA activation (PKA is a protein kinase that is activated by cAMP) in S. pombe and has developed a battery of tools to assess cNMP levels in order to 1) identify mutations in S. pombe genes that alter PKA activity, 2) clone genes that encode enzymes that produce or destroy cNMPs, and 3) screen collections of small molecules for inhibitors or activators of these heterologously-expressed enzymes. Based on our preliminary data, described below, we believe that we are in a strong position to 1) identify the co-factor or co-factors required for ExoY activity, and 2) identify small molecule inhibitors of ExoY that do not inhibit the activity of mammalian adenylyl cyclases.


Hot-electron plasmon protection for ultra-high efficiency plasmonic solar cells
Kris Kempa, Michael Naughton, and Kenneth Burch (Physics)

Photovoltaics is the energy source of the future, with the potential to exploit a virtually inexhaustible source (the Sun) with what can be negligible environmental impact. This is in contrast to fossil fuels, which as of today, unfortunately, remain much less expensive. In spite of dramatic progress in solar cell technology over the last 20 years, even the best solar cells in use (~20% efficient) still convert more than twice as much solar energy into heat than into electricity. Eliminating this unwanted heat conversion is the main challenge of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology. As of today, there has been no demonstration of a working and economically feasible scheme to solve this problem. Recently, a collaboration between Profs. Kempa and Naughton has led to development a nanoplasmonic concept which could uniquely accomplish this task. In a collaboration between Profs. Kempa, Naughton and Burch, we are developing a hot electron

PV structure based on plasmonics that provides a path to record efficiency solar cells.


Olympic Games, Transnational Politics of the Environment, and Ecological Injustice: Japan—Korea Comparison
Kyoung-yim Kim, Visiting Assistant Professor of Sociology

Winter Olympics heavily (ab)use nature and bio products as part of the games, however environmental problems caused by sports are vastly underestimated or unknown. Recently, there are emerging criticisms on Olympic Games and its environmental risks and social costs. After the Sochi, Russian Winter Games in 2014, there has been escalating public awareness of the scale of the event ($50 billion) and its impacts on debt, environmental and social problems. This has also resulted in increasing concern around the affects of sports mega-events including: excessive water and energy use, toxic waste and pollution, destruction of the ecosystem, gentrification, and militarization of public space (e.g., The Nation, 2014; Karamichas, 2013). This project is aims to investigate the environmental politics of the upcoming 2018 Pyeong Chang Winter Olympic Games in relation to the IOC’s environmental policy. The primary focus is the transnational power relations and its impacts among the global organizing body and the local city/nation.


Chasing the Constituents of Nerve Myelin Using Neutron Diffraction
Daniel Kirschner, Professor of Biology

The nervous system contains specialized cells called neurons, which are capable of transmitting information throughout the body in the form of electrochemical signals along neuronal processes, called axons. Membrane sheets wrap around axons in a spiral fashion forming the lipid-rich, multilamellar structure known as the myelin sheath, which facilities rapid nerve conduction. As disruption of myelin’s structure is linked to many severe human neurological disorders, much effort is being directed into understanding myelin structure in normal and disease states. To directly study myelin’s lipids and proteins, which cannot be specifically or substantially labeled via bulk H2O-D2O exchange, alternative deuterium-labeling approaches must be used. The proposed research will explore the use of alternative sources of deuterium and different modes of administration of deuterated compounds for the purpose of deuterium-labeling myelin lipids and proteins in vivo.


Preserving the Continuity and Quality of Self-Directed Supports Across the Lifespan For Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities: Family Caregivers’ Perspectives
Kevin Mahoney and Melissa Brown (National Resource Center for Participant-Directed Services)

Over the past twenty years, self-direction has emerged as a promising service delivery option to address the unique needs and challenges of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. Self-direction is a person-centered approach that enables individuals with disabilities to manage the services they receive, including how and when services are provided and by whom. This proposed study would address gaps in family support by determining ways in which self-directed programs, in tandem with other community supports, might help parents developing person-centered long-term care plans for their child. The knowledge gained could then determine what adjustments might be made to self-directed programs to ensure that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities can continue to elect and fully utilize self-directed services throughout their lifespans, regardless of whether a parent or family member is available to direct services on their behalf.


Constructing a Nationwide Dataset on the Availability of Home and Community-Based Services for the Elderly
Alicia H. Munnell, Geoffrey Sanzenbacher, and Matthew Rutledge (Center for Retirement Research)

Facilitating “aging in place” has become an important policy goal in the face of 1) the rising cost of institutional long-term care and 2) the desire of the elderly to remain independent. The challenge of aging in place is ensuring health, safety, and quality of life for elderly residents who find themselves less able to take care of themselves without help. Home and community-based services (“HCBS”), ranging from home health care to food programs like “Meals on Wheels,” should make health care, transportation, meal preparation, and home maintenance easier. Yet, because the provision of HCBS is fragmented and the sources of payments diverse, researchers have lacked consistent or coordinated data to evaluate the overall impact of these services. The aim of this project is to create a database of HCBS at the ZIP-code level from a myriad of sources to assist in future research efforts on the effectiveness of HCBS at allowing seniors to remain in their homes.


Assault in the Archives: Complex Trauma in Early Modern Religious Writing by Catholic Women
Elizabeth Rhodes, Professor of Hispanic Studies

This proposal is to focus research for an upcoming book, which will use recent studies of neurological, psychological and cultural responses to trauma to identify traumatic experiences embedded in the religious writings of Catholic women who lived in early modern Spain. To date, I have found evidence of these experiences in two types of documents. (1) When Spanish women claimed to have had close contact with God, their confessors often required them to write a type of religious autobiography in order to discern whether that contact was with God or the devil. (2) Women testifying in cases of beatification and in Inquisition trials recited or wrote accounts of their lives, documents that form part of court dossiers. In these documents I have found clear, if encoded, representations of what is now defined as complex trauma, in writings by women of all social classes.


The role of the human hippocampus during spatial memory
Scott D. Slotnick, Associate Professor of Psychology

The hippocampus and the surrounding medial temporal lobe structures of the human brain have long been known to play a prominent role in memory. However, despite the extensive amount of research on the hippocampus, the functional role of this region remains a hotly debated topic in the field of neuroscience. The current proposal aims to investigate the functional role of the hippocampus by distinguishing between the specific space processing hypothesis and the general context processing hypothesis. If memory for the distinct spatial location produces activity in different regions of the hippocampus. it would support the specific space processing hypothesis. If memory for the distinct spatial locations produces activity in the same region of the hippocampus, it would support the general context processing hypothesis.


Sleep Promotion Toolkit
Lichuan Ye, Associate Professor of Nursing

The importance of restorative sleep does not diminish due to hospitalization. In fact, a person’s need for sleep is greater during periods of illness, and adequate sleep is critical to optimizing recovery from illness. In spite of the growing body of evidence linking sleep deprivation to hospitalized patient outcomes, sleep is not valued as a recovery modality during hospitalization. Therefore is not considered essential for assessment or to be included within the care plan for management, even though the patient’s most prevalent concern is the inability to experience restorative sleep during hospitalization. Sleep disruption often is unrecognized and unmanaged throughout hospitalization, which affects the recovery from illness and leads to a chronic lack of restorative sleep extending through discharge resulting in numerous physical and psychological consequences. With the support of Ignite Award, we will develop and iteratively refine an innovative sleep promotion toolkit (SPT) for hospitalized patients.