In 2011, U.Va. Researchers Probed Outer Space, Inner Space and Many Points in Between

As the year draws to a close, UVa Today will look back at milestones, achievements, trends and big stories of 2011. To share your 2011 thoughts, visit the UVA Today News Blog or send us a tweet @uva using hashtag #uva2011.

December 20, 2011 — University of Virginia researchers explored an array of topics this year, from black holes and supernovas to the chemistry of the atmosphere; from how the mind and brain work to artificial intelligence. Biomedical engineers teamed with biologists and chemists and physicians to make discoveries and win major grants. Some of their findings made national and international news.

Here's a look at some of the research stories that made an impact in 2011:

Astronomers Discover Supermassive Black Hole in Center of Tiny Galaxy
Jan. 9 — Astronomy graduate student Amy Reines and colleagues discovered a supermassive black hole in the center of a tiny low-mass galaxy, suggesting the formation of supermassive black holes may precede the growth of galaxies.
Genetically Targeted Medication Shows Great Promise in Treating Alcohol Addiction, Landmark U.Va. Study Finds
Jan. 19 — For the first time in alcohol addiction research, U.Va. investigators have successfully treated alcohol-dependent individuals with medication that is tailored specifically to match their genetic profile.

U.Va. Global Health Researchers Discover Hormone That Prevents Obesity Also Protects Against a Potentially Fatal Infection
Feb. 22 — A 10-year study of urban slum children in Bangladesh has resulted in a groundbreaking discovery that helps explain how our bodies control susceptibility to a life-threatening diarrheal infection.

U.Va. Biology Professor Earns Basil O'Connor Research Award
March 2 — The March of Dimes awarded biologist Sarah Kucenas a $150,000, two-year Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award to further her investigations into the role of glial cells in the construction and maintenance of the peripheral nervous system – work that could have long-term implications for the understanding and treatment of various diseases and birth defects.

U.Va. Aerospace Engineers to Unveil Hypersonic Jet Engine Prototype on Monday
March 10 — Aerospace engineering researchers and students are helping to create a hypersonic "scramjet" engine that can travel at five times the speed of sound – or 3,700 mph. That's about twice the speed of a bullet, and it's technology that could one day allow a plane to fly from New York to Los Angeles in just 40 minutes.

U.Va.'s William Keene Studies Winter Air Chemistry in Colorado
March 14 — Atmospheric chemist William Keene and his research group were in Erie, Colo., working with scientists from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and several academic institutions on a month-long study of the wintertime atmosphere. The study is shedding new light on how air pollution forms.

Russian Boreal Forests Undergoing Vegetation Change, Study Shows
March 24 — Russia's boreal forest – the largest continuous expanse of forest in the world – is undergoing an accelerating large-scale shift in vegetation types as a result of globally and regionally warming climate, according to research published in the journal Global Change Biology.

U.Va. Researchers Helping to Chart Biomedicine's Next Frontier: The Human Neurome
May 4, 2011 — Researchers from around the world are working to map the tens of millions of neurons that make up the central nervous system. The "neurome" project – similar to the more widely known genome projects – will give researchers a clearer view of the function of the brain and a more detailed picture of a multitude of human diseases. U.Va. researchers are contributing to this new frontier with expertise in three-dimensional image analysis techniques and biology, specifically neural circuitry.

New Study Shows Scientists Can Detect Impending Ecosystem Collapse
May 5 — Eavesdropping on complex signals from a remote Michigan lake, a multi-institutional team of researchers – including environmental scientists Michael Pace, James Coloso and David Seekell – detected an unmistakable warning of impending dramatic transformation of the lake ecosystem. The finding, published in the journal Science, was the first experimental evidence that radical change in an ecosystem can be detected in advance, possibly in time to prevent ecological catastrophe.

University of Virginia Partners with Peer Institutions, Industry and the Commonwealth to Launch Virginia Nanoelectronics Center
May 25 — U.Va, in partnership with the College of William & Mary and Old Dominion University, has launched the Virginia Nanoelectronics Centerto advance research aimed at developing next-generation electronics.

U.Va. Astronomers Observe Supernova Remnant Getting Brighter
June 15 — In 1987, astronomers observed the closest supernova explosion witnessed in nearly 400 years. They dubbed it Supernova1987A, and they've been eyeing its changes ever since. "A supernova is an exploding star and it acts like a big bomb when it goes off," said astronomer Roger Chevalier, co-author of a study detailing recent observations, published in the journal Nature.

Income Inequality Increases Unhappiness, Study Shows
June 21, 2011 — As high earners earn more, and lower or modest-income people earn less or see their incomes sit flat, the losers in the equation increasingly feel less happy and more inclined to believe that others are unfair and untrustworthy, according to a U.Va.-led study published in the journal psychological science.

U.Va. Researchers Get $6 Million Grant to Continue Neurotransmitter Research
July 1 — Three U.Va. researchers, in three departments at two schools – the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine – are working to better understand the mechanism of neurotransmitter release, the molecular pathways that allow neural cells to pass crucial chemicals from cell to cell.

U.Va.'s Pfister Accomplishes Breakthrough Toward Quantum Computing
July 15 — A sort of Holy Grail for physicists and information scientists is the quantum computer. Physicist Olivier Pfister published findings in the journal Physical Review Letters demonstrating a breakthrough in the quest.

New Chair of Biomedical Engineering Conducts Medical Imaging Research to Personalize Treatment of Heart Ailments
July 28 — As medical imaging continues to improve – providing sharper and clearer pictures of living human tissues – U.Va. biomedical engineering professor Frederick Epstein is moving beyond better pictures toward images that quantify the details of the workings of organs such as the heart. This can allow physicians to make more accurate diagnoses and develop more effective treatment plans.

University of Virginia Researchers Uncover New Catalysis Site
Aug. 4 – A new collaborative chemistry and chemical engineering study detailed for the first time a new type of catalytic site where oxidation catalysis occurs, shedding new light on the inner workings of the process. The discovery has implications for understanding catalysis with a potentially wide range of materials, since oxidation catalysis is critical to a number of technological applications.

Light Switch: U.Va. Study Finds Increased Light May Moderate Fearful Reactions
Aug. 9 — Biologists and psychologists know that light affects mood, but a U.Va. study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicated that light may also play a role in modulating fear and anxiety. Psychologist Brian Wiltgen and biologists Ignacio Provencio and Daniel Warthen worked together to combine studies of fear with research on how light affects physiology and behavior.

U.Va. Research Helps Explain How the Adult Brain Cleans Out Dead Cells and Produces New Ones
Aug. 10 — Adult brains generate thousands of new brain cells, called neurons, each day; however only a small fraction of them survive. The rest die and are consumed by scavenger cells. Until now, scientists have not fully understood how this process works. Researchers at the U.Va. Health System have made a pivotal discovery in understanding this complicated process, and their findings could one day help scientists devise novel therapies to promote neurogenesis in the adult brain.

U.Va. Researchers Win $25 Million Grant to Reduce Effects of Stroke in Diabetic Patients
Aug. 15 — Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System have received a $25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to lead a national clinical trial investigating a promising new treatment that could greatly benefit thousands of acute ischemic stroke patients every year.

U.Va. Environmental Scientists Study Coastal Change, Effects of Hurricanes
Sept. 7 — Researchers at the Virginia Coast Reserve on the Eastern Shore monitor and study sea-level rise, storm frequencies, groundwater flow rates, marsh growth and erosion, water chemistry, finned fish and shellfish populations, vegetation and bird and mammal populations. They also study the effects of hurricanes, including Hurricane Irene, which passed off the coast in August.

U.Va. Biomedical Engineer Shows Clear Pathway for Bioengineering Algae-Based Fuels
Sept. 9 — Researchers worldwide are looking at practical ways to use algae as the basis for biofuels. While the environmental sustainability of these fuels is enticing, creating economical algae-based fuels requires lengthy and expensive bioengineering experiments. Biomedical engineering professor Jason Papin and colleagues have developed a computational model that will help to greatly reduce the time and effort of manipulating algae genes so they can be efficiently grown into a source for biofuels.

Fast-Paced, Fantastical Television Shows May Compromise Learning, Behavior of Young Children, Study Shows
Sept. 12 — Young children who watch fast-paced, fantastical television shows may become handicapped in their readiness for learning, according to psychologist Angeline Lillard in a study published in the October issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Earth's Acidity Rising, Joint U.Va./USGS Study Shows
Sept. 28 — Human use of Earth's natural resources is making the air, oceans, freshwaters and soils more acidic, according to a joint U.Va. U.S. Geological Survey study published in the journal Applied Geochemistry.

NSF Awards $3.3 Million to Build Planet-Finding Instrument
Oct. 12 — University of Virginia astrophysicist Fred Hearty is a member of a team designing and building a new state-of-the-art instrument – a precision spectrograph for finding planets in habitable zones around nearby stars. Working with researchers at The Pennsylvania State University, Hearty is part of a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

$9.55 Million Grant to Improve Treatment for Advanced Prostate Cancer
Oct. 12 — A team of cancer biologists has been awarded $9.55 million from the National Cancer Institute to fund prostate cancer research over the next five years. The Program Project Grant, "Signaling and Progression in Prostate Cancer," brings together a multi-disciplinary team of basic scientists and physician scientists at the University of Virginia Cancer Center and the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Fighting Fire With Fire: 'Vampire' Bacteria Has Potential as Living Antibiotic
Oct. 31 — A vampire-like bacteria that leeches onto specific other bacteria – including certain human pathogens – has the potential to serve as a living antibiotic for a range of infectious diseases, a study, published in the journal BMC Genomics, by biologist Martin Wu and graduate student Zhang Wang, indicated.

Arabian Sea Tropical Cyclones Are Intensified by Air Pollution, Study Shows
Nov. 3 — A recent increase in the intensity of tropical cyclones in the Arabian Sea may be a side effect of increasing air pollution over the Indian sub-continent, a new multi-institutional study, led by environmental scientist Amato Evan, found. He detailed the findings in the journal Science.

Virginia Brook Trout Streams Mostly Recovering From Acid Deposition
Nov. 4 — Virginia's brook trout streams are showing encouraging signs of recovery – in most cases – from the debilitating effects of acid rain, according to the most recent results from a long-term study led by U.Va. environmental scientists.

Study: Ozone From Rock Fracture Could Serve As Earthquake Early Warning
Nov. 16 — New research by engineering professor Raúl A. Baragiola, research scientist Catherine Dukes and visiting student Dawn Hedges suggests that ozone gas emitted from fracturing rocks could serve as an indicator of impending earthquakes.

University of Virginia, Charlottesville On Cusp of Revolution in Astrochemistry
Nov. 17 — Astronomy has always been about finding our place in the universe, about seeking origins. A new international astronomical observatory called ALMA will bring new insights to our understanding of the farthest reaches of space and answers to our most fundamental questions as to how the universe evolved and became what it is, and how the building blocks of life began. U.Va. astronomers and chemists are at the forefront of this adventure.

U.Va.'s Artificial Pancreas a Real-World Success for Diabetes Patients
Dec. 1 — For the first time, patients with Type 1 diabetes have controlled their disease in a real-life setting using an artificial pancreas system developed by U.Va. researchers. This milestone means researchers are even closer to revolutionizing diabetes care for millions.

Health System Research Aims to Stop 'Superbugs' in Their Tracks
Dec. 6 — University of Virginia Health System researchers are the first in the world to develop a new and faster method to track major infection-causing "superbugs" – a major key in preventing the spread of deadly infections. Their research, published in the November/December issue of the online journal mBio, comes at a critical time.

Physicists Announce Possible Signs of Higgs Particle
Dec. 13 — An international team of scientists announced that experiments conducted during the past two years at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe may be seeing a hint of the Higgs particle (sometimes called "the God particle"), which is believed to give mass to every other particle in existence and may be the underlying basis of matter. Several U.Va. physicists are part of the investigation.

— By Fariss Samarrai

Media Contact

Fariss Samarrai

Media Relations Associate Office of University Communications