2017: A Year of Discovery

February 16, 2018

Great research universities improve lives and transform society. They are engines of innovation that advance human understanding, spur invention, and solve important challenges of all kinds. They create new knowledge while educating students, both equally important goals for Northwestern.

Cancer treatments. Next-generation energy sources. Better understanding of the economic implications of policy choices. Insights into the relationship between people and their urban environments. Theatrical and musical expression that give voice to issues, identity, and culture. Glimpses into the origin and fate of the universe. These are just a few examples of the marvelous scholarship that occurs at Northwestern every day.

At Northwestern, our extraordinary research enterprise continues to grow and produce breakthroughs in many fields — from the sciences to the arts and humanities. This
Impact Report highlights a sampling of the depth and breadth of the University’s research activity over the past year.

‘Multi-messenger’ Astronomy Reveals Cosmic Secrets

We now know more about what happens when stars collide, thanks to a global science effort involving Northwestern researchers. In 2015, the landmark detection of gravitational waves — minute ripples in the spacetime fabric caused by violent interactions of massive objects — launched a new way of observing and understanding the universe. This breakthrough is yielding spectacular results, say four Northwestern faculty who have been instrumental in the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, the project that made history by confirming a major prediction of Einstein. On August. 17, for the first time, the scientists combined data from gravitational-wave signals and electromagnetic radiation signals to detect the collision of two neutron stars, the smallest and most dense stars known. This “multi-messenger” approach melds different kinds of information to identify and pinpoint cosmic events, allowing astronomers to gain deeper knowledge of cosmic forces. Northwestern’s Vicky Kalogera, the leading LIGO astrophysicist, was one of six authorities at the National Science Foundation press conference announcing the news. “Our discovery confirms a lot of our theoretical predictions, including that double neutron stars give rise to gamma rays, optical, infrared, X-rays and radio waves,” says Kalogera, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA), one of Northwestern’s 53 University Research Institutes and Centers. Because of its diverse faculty contributions, Northwestern enjoys a unique leadership position in the discovery of the rare neutron star merger, helping to produce several of the key related science publications.

Reducing Economic, Educational, and Health Disparities

Effective strategies that lift people out of poverty and improve health don’t always mean high costs or complexity. Northwestern psychologists and developmental scientists say that simple interventions can make a lasting difference: providing support to expectant mothers to reduce stress can also reduce harmful in utero inflammation, say Greg Miller and Edith Chen, both psychology, who co-lead the Foundation of Health Research Center, which focuses on asthma and cardiovascular disease. Miller and Chen also found that forging early relationships — with nurturing parents or through mentorship programs — reduces cardiovascular risk. Other research, like that of developmental psychologist Emma Adam, studies the relationship between race-based stress and hormone fluctuation. She discovered that a lack of cortisol variation over the day contributes to inflammation and immune system dysfunction, as well as to fatigue, cancer, depression, and obesity. Northwestern faculty also are examining a multigenerational approach to breaking the poverty cycle, one that combines early childhood education for low-income children and career training for their parents.

A pioneering three-year project by Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, Terri Sabol, both human development and social policy, and Teresa Sommer, public policy, is exploring the potential of Oklahoma’s CareerAdvance initiative to do just that. Early evidence is encouraging: After one year, 62 percent of CareerAdvance participants earned a career certificate compared to 3 percent of parents in the comparison group. For kids, the program reduced chronic absenteeism in school by 17 percent. (All faculty above are affiliated with Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.)

Multidisciplinary Research Tackles Big Social Problems

Interdisciplinary research is a Northwestern hallmark, with faculty collaborating to combine different kinds of knowledge to solve important societal challenges. One of the places these advances happen is within the 53 University Research Institutes and Centers (URIC), dedicated to a broad range of fields — from nanotechnology to public policy. Over the past year, new URICs launched, including the Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci), a pioneering effort dedicated to transformative science that encourages a “healthier, earlier” population, beginning before birth. Led by Professor Laurie Wakschlag, DevSci harnesses the talents of some 125 faculty members from around the University, including those at the intersection of the biomedical and social sciences. “There is increasing evidence that the origins of lifespan health and disease reside in very early life,” says Wakschlag, medical social sciences, noting that DevSci’s goal is to accelerate translational research from discovery to application to promote health as early as possible. Addressing other social concerns is the Global Poverty Research Lab (GPRL), co-directed by leading economics scholars Chris Udry and Dean Karlan. Affiliated with Northwestern’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies, GPRL uses empirical evidence and a geographic or sector-based approach to address the challenges of overcoming poverty and improving well-being in the developing world. Current projects focus on Ghana and the Philippines. GPRL scholars actively build research infrastructure, including methodological work involving survey design and data collection. The Lab also engages in advocacy and outreach efforts.

3-D ‘Menstrual Cycle’ Model May Revolutionize Reproductive Science

Northwestern researchers have created a version of the female reproductive system that promises to transform our understanding of diseases such as endometriosis, cancer, fibroids, and infertility. The technology is called EVATAR and resembles a small cube that fits in one’s hand, but its implications are much bigger. The 3-D model, made with human tissue, features miniature ovaries, fallopian tubes, and other female reproductive organs, to offer scientists a powerful new way to test drugs for safety and effectiveness. “This is the first time that we’ve been able to model the entire female reproductive hormone profile, and that profile allows us to connect those dynamic hormones to downstream tissues, like the fallopian tubes, uterus, or cervix, together with the liver. That integration now allows us to understand better the reproductive tract itself,” says Teresa Woodruff, obstetrics and gynecology, who developed the model’s ovaries. Northwestern colleagues Julie Kim, obstetrics and gynecology, designed the model’s uterus, while Spiro Getsios, dermatology, developed the cervix and vagina. Joanna Burdette (University of Illinois-Chicago) developed the fallopian tubes. The researchers say this “systems” approach may revolutionize the study of cancer and hormonally driven diseases, and could ultimately use a patient’s stem cells to create a personalized reproductive model.

Biomedical Breakthroughs for Better Health

From next-generation wearable devices that monitor wellness to new materials that reshape regenerative medicine, Northwestern researchers continue to make discoveries that improve people’s health. Led by John A. Rogers, materials science and biomedical engineering, a multi-institutional team has developed a first-of-its-kind flexible microfluidic device that softly adheres to the skin and measures sweat biomarkers to reveal important information about the body’s response to physical exercise. About the size of a quarter, the device can quickly determine health irregularities and is already being used in initial trials for cystic fibrosis screening at Lurie Children’s Hospital and for monitoring stroke patients at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. Taken together with Rogers’ pioneering “epidermal electronics platform,” this complex network of microfluidic channels and storage reservoirs permits a broad range of biophysical and biochemical measurements. In addition to uses in clinical settings as a non-invasive, skin-mounted analysis systems, advanced versions of this technology are being developed as chronic implants, with interfaces to the heart and the brain. Northwestern scientists also have designed a bioactive nanomaterial that excels at stimulating bone regeneration and could become the surgical preference for treating disc degeneration, trauma, and other back problems. The nanomaterial could also repair trauma from bone cancer and grow bone for dental implants. “Regenerative medicine can improve quality of life by offering less invasive and more successful approaches to promoting bone growth,” says Samuel I. Stupp, materials science and biomedical engineering, who developed the nanomaterial. “Our technology platform is very flexible and could be adapted for the regeneration of other tissues, including muscle, tendons, cartilage, spinal cord, and brain tissue.” For the interdisciplinary study on bone regeneration for spinal fusion, Stupp collaborated with Wellington K. Hsu and Erin L.K. Hsu, both orthopaedic surgery and members of the Simpson Querrey Institute.

Drug Innovations Target Deadly Brain Cancer

In the fight against glioblastoma, Northwestern scientists at the Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center have developed two new investigational drugs that may offer patients the best chance at beating this aggressive brain cancer. One of those drugs uses a novel approach of combining neural stem cells as a vehicle to infect cancer cells with a modified common cold virus, which then replicates and selectively destroys malignant cells. The very first human clinical trial is currently ongoing and has already recruited six patients. The innovation is founded on a decade of preclinical development by principal investigator Maciej “Matt” Lesniak, neurological surgery, and a treatment framework established by renowned neuro-oncologist and co-PI Roger Stupp. By combining novel therapy and medical expertise, the researchers created what Lesniak calls “a powerful weapon against brain cancer ... that our patients are desperate for.” Also approved for Phase 0 clinical trial this year is a second drug, which uses spherical nucleic acids — globular, rather than linear, forms of DNA and RNA linked to gold nanoparticles invented by Chad Mirkin at Northwestern. This effort aims to deliver cancer-fighting medicine across the blood-brain barrier. The drug was developed in collaboration with Alexander Stegh, neurology, and Mirkin, chemistry, biological engineering, and medicine. “The development of a therapeutic vehicle that can stably and robustly deliver small molecules to a brain tumor was groundbreaking,” says Stegh, an affiliate of Northwestern’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, an interdisciplinary research hub directed by Mirkin. The PI of this early stage trial with four participants is neuro-oncologist Priya Kumthekar, neurology and medicine.

Art + Science Reveals Ancient Mysteries

A new collaboration between the Block Museum of Art and the McCormick School of Engineering sheds light on ancient artifacts. The exhibit, “Paint the Eyes Softer,” features mummy portraits produced in Egypt during the Roman period, a complete intact portrait mummy, and other archeological finds from the Fayum region. Combining expertise from across the University — including from classics, materials science, medicine, archeology, art history, and molecular biology — this groundbreaking installation explores how interdisciplinary partnerships can deliver new insights into ancient mysteries. As part of a comprehensive investigation, the mummy traveled to Argonne National Laboratory to undergo a synchrotron X-ray experiment — led by Stuart R. Stock, cell and molecular biology — that probed the materials and objects inside without damaging the wrappings. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our undergraduate students,” says Marc Walton, materials science. “Today’s powerful analytical tools allow us to nondestructively do what archaeology scientists couldn’t do 100 years ago.” Previous Block-McCormick initiatives have focused on intersections of creativity and scientific research, allowing artists and engineers to learn from one another.

Interrupting Parkinson’s Disease

Northwestern scientists have identified a toxic cascade that leads to neuronal degeneration in patients with Parkinson’s disease (PD) and figured out how to interrupt it with mitochondrial antioxidants.  PD is a neurodegenerative disorder, primarily caused by the death of dopamine-containing neurons in a region of the brain involved in motor control. Understanding how and why these neurons die is an important step in identifying treatments, says Dimitri Krainc, chair of neurology and the study’s senior author. Previous research indicated that the mechanism behind the cell death involved mitochondria and lysosomes, but how these pathways converge in dopamine neurons to cause cell death remained unknown until now. Using human neurons from Parkinson’s patients, Krainc and colleagues identified a toxic cascade of mitochondrial and lysosomal dysfunction initiated by an accumulation of oxidized dopamine. The study showed that the oxidized dopamine also depressed the activity of an enzyme implicated in PD. That depression weakened overall lysosomal function and contributed to neuronal degeneration. “The mitochondrial and lysosomal pathways are two critical pathways in disease development,” says Krainc, director of the Center for Neurogenetics. “Combined with the alpha-synuclein accumulation, this study links the major pathological features of PD.”  The study was published in the September edition of Science.

Materials Research Center Continues Pioneering Discovery

Since 1959, the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center has helped secure Northwestern’s global reputation as a leader in the field. Now, with a $15.6 million, six-year renewal from the National Science Foundation, NU-MRSEC is the nation’s longest-running, continuously funded center of its kind. The center’s mission combines research, teaching, and outreach initiatives to produce high-impact knowledge with societal value through the efforts of its two main research groups: one explores reconfigurable nanoelectronic materials systems with the potential for applications in neuromorphic (brain-like) computing; the other looks to discover inorganic materials with novel combinations of properties, such as high electrical conductivity and low thermal conductivity. NU-MRSEC pursues both basic and applied science, collaborating across disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and engineering within Northwestern and with external partners in industry, academia, and national laboratories, including Argonne. Training the next generation of early career scientists is central to the center’s mission, and NU-MRSEC does so in part by overseeing and supporting 18 shared core facilities and laboratories. The Center also provides access and training to more than 175 instruments to both on-campus and external users, says Mark Hersam, center director.

Life Under the Spotlight: Finding Meaning on Stage

Art may imitate life, but it also helps us gain insight into life’s complexities. At Northwestern, performance studies thrives as a dynamic vehicle to advance scholarship in the humanities, allowing faculty and students to explore important social issues, such as race, gender, sexuality, and identity. “In performance studies, we’re interested in how those categories are sustained in practices of communication that involve creative engagement with embodiment and self-presentation,” says Ramón Rivera-Servera, department chair. Through immersive ethnographic field work and archival investigation, researchers use performance — theater, concert dance, and other forms — as an “embodied practice” that articulates research questions while providing the means to begin answering those questions. Performance also brings such questions, and their associated philosophical, cultural, and societal aspects, into the public arena for discussion. Most broadly, performance studies examines the material and process behind a script or composition. It can also shine a light on the very idea of performance itself: how actors see and hear; perceive and interpret; and produce meaning. Vigorously cross-disciplinary, performance studies offers an academic framework to dissect the moments, gestures, elements, and dialogue of a performance while also providing a method for embodying today’s complex, often contradictory voices and histories.