University of Alabama Research Surges

Left, undergraduate student Holly Nuffer, from Slapout, Alabama, works with microgreens with Jiannan Feng, research associate and lab manager for Lingyan Kong, University of Alabama assistant professor of human nutrition.

For a seventh consecutive year, the University of Alabama has earned record external funding for research and other sponsored activities. For the 2020 fiscal year, sponsored awards at UA reached more than $168.4 million, an increase of more than 27% over the previous year. In the last two fiscal years, sponsored awards, which include all external funding, increased by 70%.

“UA’s research enterprise is thriving and making a difference to our students and to the lives of citizens in our state and beyond,” said UA President Stuart Bell. “Innovation in research at UA promotes economic development through faculty and student-led start-up companies, providing solutions to industry partners and critical services to Alabama communities, businesses and the state.”

External grants and contracts directly supporting UA research for fiscal year 2020 also increased at more than 30% from 2019 levels — a third consecutive year for totally externally sponsored research to hit record highs.

In 2019, the Office for Research and Economic Development announced a five-year strategic plan to grow and develop faculty, involve students in research and enhance the role and impact of the Alabama Research Institutes. This included investing in transformative initiatives and engaging with industry.

“To a large extent, UA promotes its signature research areas through the Alabama Research Institutes, which focus on transportation, water, life research, cyber and multi-scale analytical solutions,” said Russell Mumper, UA vice president for research and economic development.

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Some of the most recent research endeavors that have been undertaken at UA within fiscal year 2020 include:

  • A project aimed to help extend the freshness after harvesting of microgreens. Led by UA Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition Lingyan Kong, with help from UA Assistant Professor of Human Nutrition Libo Tan and University of West Alabama Assistant Professor of Microbiology King Tiong, the project studies post-harvest interventions, such as temperature control, packaging and washing, to extend the shelf life. The researchers are working with Spencer Farms and Alabama Microgreens, family-owned, organic farms in Alabama that currently sell their produce to farmer’s markets, supermarkets and restaurants around Birmingham, Montgomery, Huntsville, Selma and Tuscaloosa.
  • A $1.7 million research instrumentation grant from the National Science Foundation assisted UA in purchasing a Siemens 3.0 Tesla MAGNETOM Prisma MRI scanner that will encourage interdisciplinary collaborations and allow for leaps in neuroscience research. Located within the University Medical Center, the machine will be used by researchers across campus, including from psychology, education, communicative disorders, health sciences and engineering, who will study the human brain and its development. The Alabama Life Research Institute will oversee the UA MRI Center and encourage cross-disciplinary projects.
  • The National Institute on Aging awarded UA $1.6 million to design touch-screen technology to improve communication between dementia patients and their caregivers. Led by UA School of Social Work Associate Professor Nicole Ruggiano, the project will span five years and will include a pair of clinical sites at both the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Memory Disorder Clinic and Miami Jewish Health. In Alabama, there are roughly 300,000 people providing care for someone living with dementia.
  • Biologists at UA are part of a national research project to address water quality at the connection between streams that flow continuously and those that have intermittent flow. The four-year project, dubbed the Aquatic Intermittency, will create the field infrastructure needed to study intermittent streams and train researchers to interpret and use the data collected at the sites. The project, which is being led by the University of Kansas, involves 18 professors at eight institutions across the United States. Those researchers are installing new sensors and field sites, training graduate and undergraduate students in team-science approaches and training 36 new instructors in teaching data science methods.

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