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The University of Tulsa

TU, LIBR partnership at the forefront of mental health research 

The Laureate Institute for Brain Research opened its doors 10 years ago to address one of Oklahoma’s worst health factors, mental health. As scientists and researchers discover the ways in which a person’s mental health is directly linked to their overall physical condition, LIBR, in collaboration with The University of Tulsa, is using new neuroscience tools and resources to answer old questions about Oklahoma’s health crisis.

LIBR
Director Martin Paulus

LIBR was founded by the William K. Warren Foundation when then scientific director Wayne Drevets and five other colleagues from the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., transferred to Tulsa in 2009. Today, the organization includes seven principal investigators (PI) who have tenure track or tenure appointments in the OU-TU School of Community Medicine. The goal then and now is to conduct neuroscience-based research that will improve the diagnosis or prognosis of individuals with mental illness. LIBR Director Martin Paulus said the institute strives to respect the dignity of each patient while leveraging leading talent and technology to discover the causes of and cures for disorders related to mood, anxiety, eating and memory. “We’re trying to use neuroscience to find better ways to develop mental health interventions,” he said.

T-1000

When Paulus joined the LIBR staff in 2014, he set a goal to create a large data set that would allow researchers to investigate mental health prognosis and diagnosis through behavioral processes, neuroimaging, neuromodulation, psychophysiology and bioassays. LIBR’s largest research project, the Tulsa 1000 (T-1000) study, began recruiting participants with mood, anxiety, eating and substance disorders to complete more than 24 hours of baseline testing. The 1,000th and final individual was enrolled in 2018 with the goal of determining whether neuroscience-based measures can be used to predict outcomes in patients with mental illness.
Data Analytics Lead Rayus Kuplicki (B.S. ’09, M.S. ’11, Ph.D. ’14) has been heavily involved in the technical setup and analysis of T-1000 since its inception. He said the standardization of this initial data collection at the institute is critical for quality research. “My work has made it possible to take raw data from thousands of participants and compute the quantifiable traits that we compare across groups,” he explained.

LIBR
TU graduate student Bart Ford

Data analysis of T-1000 participants continues and has generated more than 40 scientific papers, currently in progress. TU graduate students in the areas of psychology, engineering and biology contribute to T-1000 research through subsets of data analysis. Biology doctoral student Bart Ford is collaborating with LIBR PI Jonathan Savitz to examine the link between latent viruses and depression. “It is well established that early life stress and childhood trauma increase the risk of physical and mental health problems later in life, but the biological mechanisms by which this occurs are not well understood,” Ford said. “Dr. Savitz and I wondered if people who experience childhood abuse and neglect are perhaps more vulnerable to a common latent herpes virus called cytomegalovirus (CMV).”

The virus is usually harmless in otherwise healthy individuals but can weaken the immune system over time. Savitz and Ford studied a group of individuals with major depressive disorder and found that higher levels of self-reported childhood abuse and neglect were associated with a greater likelihood of testing positive for CMV. They then used the T-1000 cohort to replicate the study and discovered the same results with similar effects in size. The findings were published in the prestigious “JAMA Psychiatry” journal earlier this year.
“We interpret this to mean that the stress of abuse and neglect during development may render a person susceptible to a CMV infection,” Ford stated. “This could suggest CMV contributes to later life health problems that are often seen in survivors of abuse.”

According to Savitz and Ford, T-1000 is beneficial in understanding the biological causes, mechanisms and outcomes of mental health disorders, and consequently, can help identify therapeutic targets that will lead to treatments of the sources and after-effects of mental illness.

ABCD

In addition to T-1000, another primary project ongoing at LIBR is the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) initiative, a study of more than 11,878 children, ages 9 and 10, at 21 different sites nationwide. LIBR researchers have conducted detailed assessments of 743 of the participants. Follow-up visits and scans will continue for 10 years to examine the course of wellness and mental illness during the second decade of life when mental health disorders tend to emerge. One of the first papers the data generated in 2018 was accepted to the journal “NeuroImage” and entitled “Screen media activity and brain structure in youth: Evidence for diverse structural correlation networks from the ABCD study.”

TU Tough

LIBR
Professor Robin Aupperle

Robin Aupperle is another LIBR PI and assistant professor of community medicine who uses neuroscience and psychological research to improve mental health and gain insight into the causes of anxiety, depression and trauma. She is interested in identifying factors that support resilience to college-related stress and strategies to optimize a student’s psychological well-being. Paulus said meta-analyses show one in three students will develop significant anxiety and depression during their first year of college — a major reason why some students choose to drop out of school. That’s why Aupperle developed the four-week TU Tough program that teaches the skills and mindset necessary for mental toughness to effectively respond to stressful or challenging situations. “This is the idea that our abilities are not set in stone — that we can learn, improve and adapt,” she explained. “Likewise, our ability to be resilient in the face of stress is not hard-wired but can be built and strengthened through practicing certain skills as we seek out and face challenges.”

Aupperle is a mentor to graduate students such as TU clinical psychology Ph.D. student Tim McDermott. His predoctoral training grant application to the National Institute of Mental Health received a qualifying score for funding, which will support McDermott’s research to study the brain circuits underlying people’s ability to manage their emotional reactions. Understanding the brain circuits involved in the processing and regulating of emotions could potentially inform future anxiety and depression treatments. “We will examine whether individuals can learn to regulate their prefrontal cortex activation during emotional processing in response to feedback about their brain activation during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning,” he said.

As an assistant in the TU Tough project, McDermott has led lectures in TU Tough modules and supervised small group leaders during breakout discussions. He also has managed data processing and analysis for fMRI neuroimaging scans performed before and after TU Tough treatment. Prepared by lead author Elisabeth Akeman (BS ’15) as well as Aupperle and McDermott, a recently published manuscript in the journal “Depression and Anxiety” reports findings from the first two cohorts of TU Tough. The research shows students who complete the program (compared to those who did not) experienced lower rates of self-reported stress and depression symptoms throughout their first semester of college, particularly as measured during finals week. Aupperle explained TU Tough is a strong example of LIBR research that can improve the overall mental health of Oklahomans. “By taking measures to improve resilience to stress and mental health among TU students, we are benefiting the community in general,” she said. “Supporting the health and well-being of our students is the equivalent to supporting the health and well-being of our community.”

LIBR
TU graduate student McKenna Pierson

Other ongoing treatment studies at LIBR use behavioral activation or cognitive behavioral therapy (as part of ongoing studies in Aupperle’s lab) or novel intervention approaches such as the Float Clinic and Research Center led by PI Justin Feinstein. His studies use flotation as an intervention approach to mental illness, providing patients with a way to disconnect with the world and reconnect with signals firing in their bodies. His research was featured on the CBS This Morning’s “Pay Attention” series in 2018.

TU and LIBR’s unique partnership

Paulus is pleased with the substantial data collection, analyses and treatment LIBR has been able to provide to residents within its first decade. Although Oklahoma has a long way to go in improving its overall mental health, he explained LIBR intends to serve as the starting point for large sets of basic health information that support a biotech approach to mental health treatment and diagnosis. “We want to know how far we can develop, how advanced is our research and can we potentially establish startups that can be developed into effective treatments and commercial products,” Paulus said. In one example, LIBR Chief Technology Officer and physicist Jerzy Bodurka, created a way to use a real-time MRI to train a specific part of the brain to give instant feedback on if the training is effective. Paulus explained the training has reduced levels of depression in research participants, and Bodurka now is developing a turnkey system that will allow for scalability of the intervention at any site with MRI imaging capabilities.

LIBRBehind every principal or associate investigator stands a team of student researchers eager to get involved, serving as valuable assets for LIBR’s mission. When asked if TU depends on LIBR or if LIBR relies on TU, Paulus said the partnership is unique in that it is based on both concepts; while the institute focuses on quality research, TU is a generator of knowledge. “TU’s primary mission is teaching, but the goal of our faculty is to be top-level researchers,” Paulus said. “The research provides training opportunities for students, and we couldn’t train them if we didn’t have this relationship with TU.”

Close ties to LIBR are an incentive for students, especially those at the graduate level, to choose TU for advanced experience in their field of research. Students are invited to participate in rotations through the institute and contribute to the facility’s mental health mission. Although LIBR’s primary method of research is brain imaging, Paulus said there will be opportunities for additional biology-based research in the future as researchers pursue exciting advancements into the new decade.

Chapman Professorships allow faculty to innovate for student engagement 

The University of Tulsa has announced recipients for its new Chapman Professorship award, established to promote student learning and faculty enrichment across campus.

A total of 38 full-time resident faculty members from all five of TU’s colleges received the $5,000 grants made possible by the Chapman Trust Funds. They will be recognized as Chapman Professors for the 2019-20 academic year and have the potential to renew their awards for up to three years.

The initiatives, activities and programs proposed by this inaugural group of applicants reflect faculty who are eager to provide students with creative avenues of instruction and research. Most universities, especially larger state schools, lack the financial means to support faculty on such a personal level. At TU, administrators and the Board of Trustees agreed professors deserve additional resources to further enhance the college experience. The $5,000 awards encourage professors to think outside the box and engage with students in ways that inspire academic ambition.

“These grants represent the university’s commitment to funding novel ideas that promote learning and research,” said President Gerard P. Clancy. “Providing resources to professors who are seeking to further empower their students inside and outside the classroom is money well spent. I’m thrilled we could offer an award to every eligible applicant, and I look forward to seeing their projects develop throughout the academic year.”

Studio visits in the art industry

Teresa Valero, director of the TU School of Art, Design and Art History, plans to use her Chapman Professorship Award to expand curriculum content and help students embrace emerging practices they will encounter in the design industry. Specifically, the funds will support travel to the Dallas Society of Visual Communications conference in April 2020 where students can compete in graphic design events, participate in portfolio reviews, represent TU in an exhibition and network with industry professionals. While in Dallas, students also can visit a design studio and marketing firm to experience the day-to-day operations of agency life.

“These visits give them a sense of where they’d like to go, it gives them a goal,” Valero explained. “They can imagine themselves beyond TU and say, ‘I know what I want to do, and this is how I’m going to get there.’”

Chemical engineering in the kitchen

Tyler Johannes, Wellspring associate professor of chemical engineering, intends to use his award to pique the interest of current and prospective students in science and engineering and incorporate hands-on demonstrations that involve modern cuisine techniques into the curriculum. The funds will help develop cuisine modules for TU’s ChE 1011 course and teach students about the field in a fun and interactive way while increasing enrollment and improving retention in his department.

“The complex field of chemical engineering is often difficult to explain to high school and first-year students,” Johannes said. “Food production processes are a safe and easy way to introduce them to chemical engineering. Demonstrations will focus on films, foams, coffee and spheres to help students understand the concepts of material balances, dehydration, fluid flow and reaction kinetics.”

Expanding Project Commutation

Law Professor Stephen Galoob is a founder of the Oklahomans for Criminal Justice Reform’s Project Commutation, which helps lessen the sentences of prisoners whose crimes were reduced from felonies to misdemeanors by Oklahoma State Question 780 in 2016. He helped supervise 30 TU Law student interns who have staffed Project Commutation since it launched in 2018. These students have benefited greatly from participation in Project Commutation, refining their skills in legal analysis and advocacy while developing new tools critical for criminal law practice. Galoob’s Chapman Professorship award will fund a formalization of this experiential learning opportunity that ultimately convinced Gov. Kevin Stitt to overhaul the Pardon and Parole Board in support of the TU students’ work.

“Some of the funds will be used to compensate a student who is working on a project to secure the commutation of sentences for approximately 65 people who are serving 10 years or more for low-level property crimes, many of which are no longer even felonies under Oklahoma law,” Galoob said. “Other portions of the funds will be used to reimburse our students as they travel across the state to meet with applicants in nearly every correctional institution in Oklahoma.”

Data mining in health care

Chapman funding will also prove useful for faculty in the Collins College of Business such as  Kazim Topuz, assistant professor of operations management and business analytics. His vision for the grant is to partner with a group of students to develop an online course, analytics programming, that will connect students to the R and Python data analytics community. Topuz plans to invite those same students to work on a couple of his health analytics projects, one of which includes predicting graft survival after liver transplantation.

“In existing organ transportation literature, only a handful of studies utilized data mining approaches in predicting graft survival,” he said. “The overall goal of this study is to contribute to the advance of matching algorithms for liver transplantation. Students will have hands-on experience in data science and will have published conference proceedings and recognition very early in their careers.”

A campaign for student health

chapman professorshipsProposals from the Oxley College of Health Sciences include a plan from Eric Wickel, associate professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitative Sciences, to develop a university leadership team to implement Exercise is Medicine® On Campus (EIM-OC). “Despite reported benefits of physical activity on chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, about half (54%) of college students do not meet current physical activity guidelines,” he said.

The EIM-OC campaign will promote physical activity as a vital sign of health and conduct surveillance studies among students to assess daily physical activity and unique sedentary behavior. “Implementing EIM-OC through TU’s Department of Kinesiology and Rehabilitative Sciences will facilitate student engagement projects across campus, such as 5K runs and daily health and fitness tips, to promote health and wellness and provide valuable mentorship opportunities,” Wickel said.

The university congratulates all of the 2019-20 Chapman Professorship award recipients:

Kendall College of Arts and Sciences 
Miriam Belmaker – Anthropology
Mark Brewin – Media Studies
Emily Contois – Media Studies
M. Teresa Valero – Art, Design & Art History

Collins College of Business 
Meagan Baskin and Timothy Hart (joint) – Management & Marketing
Meagan McCollum – Finance, Operations Management & International Business
Rob Moore – Energy Economics, Policy & Commerce
Eric Olson – Finance, Operations Management & International Business
Kazim Topuz – Finance, Operations Management & International Business

College of Engineering and Natural Sciences 
Kimberly Adams and Amy Schachle (joint) – Mathematics
Mark Alan Buchheim – Biological Science
Dustin Donnell – Mechanical Engineering
Laura Ford – Chemical Engineering
Tyler Johannes – Chemical Engineering
Gabriel LeBlanc – Chemistry & Biochemistry
Peter LoPresti – Electrical & Computer Engineering
Tom Rendon – Mechanical Engineering
Dale Schoenfeld – Computer Science
Robert Sheaff – Chemistry & Biochemistry
Akram Taghavi-Burris – Computer Science

Oxley College of Health Sciences 
Samantha Beams – Kinesiology & Rehabilitative Sciences
Tedi Courtney – Nursing
Lori Davis – Communication Sciences & Disorders
Cassy Abbott Eng – Nursing
Greg Gardner – Kinesiology & Rehabilitative Sciences
Rachel Hildebrand – Kinesiology & Rehabilitative Sciences
Brandon King – Nursing
Angela Martindale – Nursing
Sheryl Stansifer – Nursing
Suzanne Stanton – Communication Sciences & Disorders
Eric Wickel – Kinesiology & Rehabilitative Sciences
Nicole Wilkins – Kinesiology & Rehabilitative Sciences
Laura Wilson – Communication Sciences & Disorders

College of Law 
Chuck Adams
Stephen Galoob
Gina Nerger

Three faculty named TU Outstanding Researchers

The University of Tulsa honored its inaugural group of Outstanding Researchers at spring commencement on May 4. The Outstanding Researcher Award is a lifetime distinction, received only once in an individual’s career. It is intended to honor career-spanning achievements that have been validated in the scholar’s professional field.

These are the 2018-19 recipients:

outstanding researchersRose F. Gamble, Tandy Professor of Computer Science Engineering. Gamble developed a safety and security requirements model that can be embedded and used by a self-adaptive system to intelligently determine the least risky adaptation to deploy at runtime.

outstanding researchersJamie L. Rhudy, Director of the Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and Professor of Psychology. Rhudy’s research identifies mechanisms that contribute to and/or maintain chronic pain (particularly in Native Americans) and seeks to develop non-invasive methods for assessing individuals at risk for developing chronic pain.

Outstanding ResearchersCem Sarica, F.H. “Mick” Merelli/Cimarex Energy Professor of Petroleum Engineering. Sarica’s research has been disseminated to the public at large through more than 240 publications and incorporated in various software. He has been recognized internationally with several awards by the Society of Petroleum Engineers, most notably with an SPE John Franklin Carll Award in 2015.

Candidates for the Outstanding Researcher awards were nominated by deans from the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, Collins College of Business and the Oxley College of Health Sciences. Nominees were selected for their recognition of outstanding research and scholarship achievements based on a single project or a cumulative contribution.

Other considerations included pedagogical awards, honors from scholarly societies, grants, publication citation counts or other forms of public recognition. External recognition of a faculty member’s work also factored into the selection process.

Learn more about this year’s distinguished faculty awards, including the 2018-19 Outstanding Teachers and Medicine Wheel Award recipients.