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UC researchers continue to blaze new trails in science, medicine, business, education, engineering and the arts — literally transforming the way we live, work and learn.

Research stories behind the funds

Findings Staff Report | Dec. 9, 2020

Excluding student aid and CARES Act funding, University of Cincinnati researchers brought in over $207 million in sponsored awards in Fiscal Year 2020—a 27% increase over the year before and a 47% increase since 2015.

But these statistics are not what we celebrate, says UC Vice President for Research Patrick Limbach. What, or more appropriately who, we celebrate are the 937 individual projects, the research teams and each individual researcher behind them, carrying out the important work.

“UC is creating an impact in society by making discoveries, generating knowledge and solving problems that matter,” Limbach says. “Our world-renowned researchers and scholars collaborate across disciplines, colleges and campuses, with esteemed external partners, as many of these awards demonstrate.”

We’ll tell you about a few of them shortly, but first, some shoutouts. UC grew its federal research support by nearly 30% and state/local funding almost doubled in the past year. Also, the colleges of Allied Health Sciences, Engineering and Applied Sciences, Medicine and Nursing all grew their sponsored awards by 25% or more over Fiscal Year 2019.

Without further ado, see what three of our research teams are up to in their important sponsored work this year.

“Science is critical to our society and the public needs to understand how it impacts our day-to-day lives.”

Melissa Jacquart, A&S Philosophy When Melissa Jacquart worked at the National Science Foundation for two years, she helped applicants with questions related to funding proposals. The scientists she talked to generally understood the criterion known as Intellectual Merit, meaning they could show the potential of their proposed work to advance knowledge in their field of research. But when it came to the Broader Impact criterion, scientists struggled to express the benefit to society and possible contributions to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

“Often they lacked training in how to do good, meaningful public engagement and why it’s important,” Jacquart says. “We need a society that feels ownership of science. Not that it is just some elite abstract thing.”

With a doctorate in the philosophy of science, Jacquart liked helping scientists think about their work through the broader lens. 

So when the University of Cincinnati posted a post-doctoral fellow position in the new Center for Public Engagement in Science, Jacquart felt like the job had been created just for her. Center Director Angela Potochnik thought so, too, and hired her. Jacquart has since been hired as an assistant professor in the Philosophy Department and is now the Center’s associate director.

In the last three years, the center has developed an undergraduate class called How Science Works, a graduate course called Public Engagement with Science and a Science Talks series at the Mercantile Library in downtown Cincinnati that introduces science themes to a general audience, such as last year’s talks on how climate change has impacted Greater Cincinnati.

“Scientists cannot simply communicate more scientific facts to the public to improve public understanding of scientific issues,” the Center’s vision reads. “New approaches to public engagement are needed—approaches that take seriously complex issues like trust in science, political polarization, the identities and worldviews of scientists and understanding scientific methods and social structure.”

Now, Jacquart has secured funding for a new center initiative. With the support of an NSF grant, she and Potochnik have developed a Public Engagement with Science Workshop that will be offered online—free to anyone with interest—this spring. 

The sessions should appeal to anyone in the philosophy of science community, Jacquart says, but also many UC researchers and graduate students in sciences or communication.

Participants are invited to as many of the sessions as they want, which will be held on three consecutive Fridays, April 30, May 7 and May 14. 

Sessions include: 

  • Science communication: public-facing events, writing, and social media.
  • Science education: engaging with students and educators about science.
  • Informal science education: science encounters for all ages in settings such as museums, zoos, and libraries.
  • Scientific work with communities: research with public participation, such as citizen science and community-based research.

All of the material, including white papers on each session topic, will be made available after the workshop concludes; more information can be found on the workshop website.

“We’re excited to offer this to our UC researchers and graduate student community to broaden their skill sets,” Jacquart says. “Science is critical to our society and the public needs to understand how it impacts our day-to-day lives.”

“What we want to do is help patients plan better to deal with pain.”

Caroline Freiermuth, College of Medicine If the human race understood more about the genes that are associated with opioid use disorder could we better mitigate the public health crisis that claimed the lives of nearly 70,000 Americans last year and is surging during COVID-19?

University of Cincinnati researcher Dr. Caroline Freiermuth and a mighty team of researchers believe it’s worth finding out.

As does Ohio Attorney General David Yost, whose office awarded Freiermuth and her research partners $2.73 million late last year to explore the 180 genetic markers they postulate might be associated with opioid use disorder.

“While Ohio’s first responders and treatment and recovery experts are fighting a heroic battle to curb opioid-related fatalities,” Yost said when he issued the grant, “the key to victory is stop people from becoming addicted in the first place.”

The money came from legal settlements, which Ohio has won against opioid drug producers and the study will focus on up to 1,500 emergency department patients. 

The project aims to: 1. Determine which genetic markers are associated with the development of opioid use disorder; 2. Develop an Opioid use Risk Score to better classify patient likelihood for opioid dependence and 3. Estimate the prevalence of genetic markers associated with OUD risk in the general population. 

Jon Sprague, director of science and research for the Office of the Attorney General and Bureau of Criminal Investigation Eminent Scholar at Bowling Green State University co-leads the project.

UC is responsible for oversight of the overall scientific content, writing the study protocol, obtaining necessary approvals and monitoring patient enrollment across sites. We serve as the central data coordinating center and ensure that all data sharing is completed in a secure manner.

Freiermuth’s UC research partners include: Dr. Michael Lyons, associate professor of emergency medicine; Jennifer Brown, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry and Brittany Punches, an assistant professor in nursing. They’re working with a team of researchers from Ohio State University, as well, because patients are being enrolled in the study at University of Cincinnati Medical Center but also Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Ohio State East Hospital.

DNA has been retrieved from roughly 300 patients thus far, Freiermuth says. Each participant is asked to take a lengthy survey assessing prior substance use, prior opioid exposure, mental health disorders, medical conditions and trauma experience to help establish the Opioid Use Risk Score. About 40% of emergency patients who have been approached have agreed to do the survey, Freiermuth says, which is encouraging.

“What we want to do is help patients plan better to deal with pain,” Freiermuth says. “In the past, doctors have done a poor job in identifying those who may be at risk for opioid use disorder. We need to think more about it. If we ask enough questions, we may learn something.”

“Not one study in the entire research-base of policing on de-escalation.”

Hannah McManus and Robin Engel, School of Criminal Justice Robin Engel had been a researcher of law enforcement for many years when she was asked to become the temporary head of the University of Cincinnati Police Department in the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Samuel DuBose by UC Police Officer Ray Tensing in 2015. 

Around her, the Cincinnati community was demanding police reform. Engel, a criminal justice professor had consulted many agencies—local, national and international—on data-driven best practices in areas such as police behavior, use of force and minority relations. Her first step was to do a systematic review of department policy and training, looking for areas to reduce chances of harm to the public and to officers.

“What this researcher turned police department head learned was there’s a serious lack of research in our field in some areas,” Engel says. “It was shocking to me.” She noted, in particular, a complete absence of evaluations examining the impact of de-escalation training and policies for law enforcement.

“I found a few studies in nursing, but there was not one study in the entire research-base of policing on de-escalation,” Engel says. A lack of research is a common theme for training of police officers. Although the evidence base is growing, it is often outpaced by calls for reform in officer training and education.

Now, Engel gets a chance to change the status quo. In the last two fiscal years, she and a considerable team of partners were awarded two multi-million dollar grants by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, a component of the U.S. Department of Justice. 

The multidisciplinary team includes researchers from UC and their partners: Policy Research Associates, a women-owned small business out of New York that’s a national leader in behavioral health and research; The Arc’s National Center on Criminal Justice and Disability, which serves as a bridge between the criminal justice and disability communities and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, with its 30,000+ members in 155 countries.

“We’re the glue that brings this group together,” Engel says. 

Together, the objective is to research, create, pilot, and evaluate academic-based trainings to improve police responses to people with behavioral health issues and intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).  Engel noted that while training currently exist for policing persons with behavioral health issues, there is a lack of integration with IDD. Also, many small and mid-size police agencies (representing the vast majority of policing) lack the resources or organizational capacity to provide specialized training.

To address this need, the team is revising current in-person training, while also developing virtual toolkits for widespread dissemination to officers. The effort is being led by Engel and co-principal investigator Hannah McManus, a doctoral student in the School of Criminal Justice. There are two other co-PIs at UC; Nicholas Corsaro and Paula Smith, also of the School of Criminal Justice.

McManus is working full-time on the project and is deep in the research stage, scouring the research available on responses to those with BH issues and or IDD. She’s finding very different responses around the country: including those that are law enforcement-based (meaning only police respond); collaborative (police show up with someone trained in behavioral health); mental health-based (meaning only behavioral health professionals respond) and or community-based (sending a civilian with lived experience). They are also looking at how dispatchers decide who to send to a crisis or non-emergency situation. This work is particularly important with public outcry to defund the police, Engel says. 

“We can’t say yet what’s right because it’s so varied,” McManus says but the partners are all working together to ultimately build out tool kits for police agencies to adopt the academic-based training and protocols—including e-learning materials for smaller agencies and for times like these, when COVID-19 is limiting travel and in-person interactions.

For both women, this work is also personal. Engel has a sister with intellectual/ developmental disabilities and McManus’ mother and sister work with the visually impaired. 

“What some police agencies don’t realize is how different it can be for these communities of people and how their disabilities might impact how they interact with law enforcement,” McManus says. “We can’t expect officers to have the best training, if we don’t know what works."