Innovation and Collaboration Fund

Awarded projects

A story in Research

The Innovation and Collaboration Fund invests in University of Arkansas faculty in the early stages of their research projects. It is focused on  rewarding bold thinking and risk taking, launching discovery and creative initiatives to advance the university’s signature research areas.

The university knows there are few funding avenues for early stage research from external competitive programs and wants to ensure our faculty have a chance to further develop their intellectual and creative potential at U of A. We invest $1 million a year in interdisciplinary faculty through the Innovation and Collaboration Fund.




2017 Awardees

The following projects received funding from the Innovation and Collaboration Fund, a subset of the Chancellor’s Fund, in 2017:

Illustrating new pathways to commercialization

Illustrating new pathways to commercialization: Treatment strategy for phenylketonuria via advancements in Microbiome Engineering

  • Bob Beitle (Chemical Engineering)
  • Hannah Jensen (Biomedical Engineering)
  • Brinck Kerr (Political Science)
  • Jeff Amerine (Entrepreneurship and Start-Up Junkie)

Creating new, cost-effective drugs and treatment strategies can be accelerated when technical experts team with people well versed in determining and circumventing bottlenecks associated with commercialization and perception. This type of development team is especially important when designing new treatments for a disease that has orphan status. This Chancellor’s Discovery Grant supports the creation and assessment of a new way to treat phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is an orphan disease that is difficult to treat, causing both cognitive and growth delays, even brain damage. The proposed work aligns with five of the eight University Guiding Priorities, because undergraduate and graduate students will collaborate with faculty and a startup expert to advance the concept to the point where a funding agency, foundation or local startup company will continue the effort.


Global Expression Pathway Analysis Training: Target Obesity

Global Expression Pathway Analysis Training: Target Obesity

  • Walter Bottje (Poultry Science)
  • Byung-Whi Kong (Poultry Science)
  • Sami Dridi (Poultry Science)
  • Doug Rhoades (Biological Sciences)
  • Nic Greene (Health, Human Performance and Recreation)
  • Reza Hakkak (Dietetics and Nutrition, UAMS)

The technology for quickly generating large global expression data (i.e. levels of all genes or proteins contained in cells or tissues) far exceeds the time required in analyzing and understanding these large datasets. Advantages of a commercial analytic program (Ingenuity pathway analysis [IPA], Qiagen CA) are its ability; 1) To organize the data into documented (known) biochemical pathways and networks, 2) To make predictions of activation or inhibition of upstream regulators and disease mechanisms, 3) To quickly link gene or protein expression data to literature citations in the extensive IPA database, and 4) To quickly compare different datasets (e.g. generated from different animals, ages of animals, tissues, disease states, chemical treatments, etc.) The main instructors for the project (WBottje, BKong – Poultry Science) have been using the IPA program for 8 years and would like to pass on their experience in analyzing global expression at Univ. of Arkansas Fayetteville (UAF) in collaboration with Arkansas Children’s Research Institute (ACRI) at the Univ. of Arkansas for Medical Science (UAMS). The IPA program not only provides both a platform for data analysis, but importantly, provides a powerful tool for hypotheses generation. Participants with global expression data will receive instruction in the use of IPA either; a) using datasets already in hand with their data, the results of which will strengthen grant applications for their specific research, or b) global expression datasets provided to them by the instructors. We plan to have students at both UAMS and UAF come together twice a year to present their findings for the ‘class’ as well as to faculty, administrators (time permitting) and students that are not part of the project. We also propose to conduct global expression analyses to understand fundamental mechanisms of obesity using a diet-induced and genetic-based obesity models in poultry. Obesity in the US in general, and in Arkansas in particular , has become an epidemic costing millions of dollars in health care annually. The data generated in the research component of the project will be used to target a specific NIH program that focuses on dual purpose animals; i.e. those that are suitable for studying human related illnesses-disease and also important in food animal production. The chicken represents a very good model for studying obesity in humans because of the similarities in fat metabolism – fat synthesis in the liver and storage in adipose tissue. We will compare the global expression in chicken to global expression data (already in hand – funded through an Arkansas Biosciences Institute grant) in a diet-induced obesity model in rats in which development of fatty liver (steatosis) was attenuated in a soy-based protein diet (RHakkak, ACRI-UAMS). Soy protein is known to reduce diet-induced steatosis, but the exact mechanisms are unknown. Understanding how soy reduces obesity could be instrumental in lowering obesity in humans. The proposed project will link research programs at UAF and UAMS. Project outcomes will be that participants (students and faculty): 1) will have learned how to use an important tool in analyzing large, complex datasets, 2) will gain heightened awareness of the tremendous complexity and beauty of cell biology, and 3) will be able to obtain preliminary data crucial for winning grants in their specific area of research.

The state of Arkansas was ranked 4th in high school obesity in 2015.


Enabling Proactive Mitigation of Environmental Stresses in Crops and Efficient Use of Resources through In-Plant Sensing

Enabling Proactive Mitigation of Environmental Stresses in Crops and Efficient Use of Resources through In-Plant Sensing

  • Jia Di (Computer Science and Computer Engineering)
  • Alan Mantooth (Electrical Engineering)
  • Simon Ang (Electrical Engineering)
  • Jie Xiao (Chemistry and Biochemistry)
  • Trenton Roberts (Crop, Soil and Environmental Science)

The majority of human food comes from crops. Productivity of crops is affected by various factors, especially environmental stresses such as drought and salinity. With the worsening trend of water deficit stress, proper management of water resources and maximization of water use efficiency play a pivotal role for human existence. Additionally, soil nutrient levels interact with crop water availability and affect plant growth and productivity. Either a deficiency or an excess of nutrients results in plant stress which affects growth, development, and ultimately, yield. Over-fertilization has a series of adverse effects not only on the plant, but also the environment and the use of resources including energy wasted in producing and applying the excess fertilizer. However, with the lack of real-time knowledge of the plant’s nutritional status, the current routine irrigation and fertilization mechanism may cause over-irrigation and over-fertilization, resulting in wasted water, fertilizer, and energy, and even increased soil salinity and yield reduction. The proposed DCIC project will develop a miniaturized sensing platform prototype that can be inserted into the stems of crops, in order to provide agricultural users the fidelity of information they have always desired. Consisting of sensors, control/communication circuitry, and a microbattery, this sensing platform will be able to take measurements continuously from inside the plant and transmit the data outside for processing. This data, combined with relevant factors (e.g., weather condition), help determine the needs for the corresponding plant/field, and provides guidance for controlling the irrigation and fertilization activities, thereby avoiding waste and enabling the efficient use of water and fertilizer, which in turn saves energy. Moreover, with an accumulated database, users will be able to predict upcoming environmental stresses and act to mitigate them in a proactive manner. Expertise required for developing and evaluating this in-plant sensing platform encompasses sensor development, electronic circuit design, microbattery development, and agricultural assessment, thereby naturally bringing in faculty from 3 colleges and 4 departments. The potential outcomes are twofold: the research aspects include an in-plant sensing platform design, a prototype, and field and greenhouse test results, which will serve as convincing evidence in subsequent grant proposals to agencies such as NSF and USDA; the educational outcomes are the training of the graduate students in not only learning the scientific and engineering knowledge and skills, but more importantly understanding application-driven academic research, thereby facilitating the independent thinking in their future career in making economic, social, and scientific impacts.


Closing the Gap between Food Waste and Hunger in Northwest Arkansas

Closing the Gap between Food Waste and Hunger in Northwest Arkansas: Food Insecurity and the Development/Implementation of a Mobile Food Delivery System

  • Kevin Fitzpatrick (Sociology and Criminal Justice)
  • Xuan Shi (Geosciences)
  • Matt Spialek (Communication)

The proposed project begins with a year-long endeavor necessary to address the issues of food insecurity and hunger in local communities by working on the processes of connecting food insecure citizens with healthy food options obtained through a mobile food recovery and repurposing network. The primary goal of the project is to work directly with community partners in the development of a mobile food rescue, repurpose, and redistribution system (R3) to serve those that are food insecure and hungry. The key integrative research component to the project is the development of a countywide database. The proposed database would provide detailed information on food insecure clients, the organizations these clients are connected to (schools, churches, local care agencies, etc.), the service agencies providing food (schools, restaurants, caterers, hotels/convention centers, etc.) and the organization rescuing the food for repurposing and redistribution. In addition to the database, both web and mobile applications will be developed to help identify high-risk food insecure zones, and the potential delivery routes that would be used to serve those families and locations. The proposed project will be piloted in Northwest Arkansas and will serve as a model to communities across the country, particularly those struggling with food access, transportation logistics, and wide gaps between those who need food and those that have access to or can provide food. The project is designed to engage the entire community (university, city, county, schools, businesses, and local/regional NGOs) in a conversation that focuses on practical solutions to reducing food insecurity and hunger at the local level. In addition, efforts to develop a comprehensive database that could be used to address critical issues related to food/hunger has the potential to provide a framework for use regardless of community or region. They key to developing this smart and connected community is by developing a service-focused architecture that provides critical linkages between food user, supplier, and deliverer.


Determining risk factors and establishing preventative strategies of neck pain development due to smartphone use.

Determining risk factors and establishing preventative strategies of neck pain development due to smartphone use

  • Kaitlin Gallagher (Health, Human Performance and Recreation)
  • John Jefferson (Physical Therapy, UAMS)

Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers have made a tremendous impact on our ability to access information. Of Americans between the ages of 18-29, 92% own a smartphone and spend 5 hours per day using these devices. Many medical professionals believe that this has led to “text neck”–neck pain caused by excessive smartphone use. People typically use their smartphone with the head bent forward, and this has been linked to long-term neck pain. We will assess the impact of 30 minutes of smartphone usage on reports of neck pain in people who have never seen a clinician (such as a medical doctor or physical therapist) for neck problems. We will measure body position and muscle strength to determine if it is possible to predict who will develop neck pain when using a smartphone. This will allow us to create exercise programs and recommend changes in how a person uses their phone to prevent people from having to visit the doctor in the future. This will help reduce out of pocket costs, which for those with severe spine problems can be over $6000 per year. The nature of this project requires a clinical collaborator. The Physical Therapy program at UAMS is the ideal partner for this project. Combined with Dr. Gallagher’s expertise in measuring posture, movement, and muscle activity, the UAF Exercise Science and UAMS Physical Therapy program will develop a foundation for future rehabilitation studies and expand our funding opportunities. The potential outcomes of this project are pilot data for an NIH R15 proposal submitted to the National Institute for Child and Human Development in June 2018, one to two manuscripts, and multiple conference presentations at regional and national meetings. For our institutions, the outcome will be an educational program on the risks of pain due to smartphone use, with the goal of promoting healthy ways to interact with technology. This program can be disseminated through University Perspectives and freshman courses, as well as other campus wellness initiatives at both UAF and UAMS.


Mid-Century Modern: Fay Jones and the American House

Mid-Century Modern: Fay Jones and the American House

  • Greg Herman (Architecture)
  • David Fredrick (World Languages, Literature and Culture and Tesseract)

This interdisciplinary project will 1) develop a prototype website designed to bring the houses of Fay Jones, now largely unknown and inaccessible, to a wide public audience. Through interactive timelines, maps, and 3D WebGL models, the website will unfold how Jones, in dialogue with Wright and the Prairie School, developed his alternative blueprint for an American house grounded in its regional setting, connected fundamentally with earth and sky, and intricately designed to connect its inhabitants with each other and the natural world. To complement the website, the project will 2) prototype public-access kiosks, to be located at cultural sites in Northwest Arkansas, that encourage users to explore the rich architectural heritage of the region, a heritage that speaks quietly against excess and isolation, and will serve to encourage preservation of cultural resources through enhancement of access and general knowledge of the work of the architect. Through the website and kiosks, the project aims to foster a deeper public understanding of the enduring themes in the humanities expressed in the mid-century modern houses of Fay Jones.


Impact of glucosinolate-rich broccoli on gut microbiota, microRNA profile, and immune health in infants

Impact of glucosinolate-rich broccoli on gut microbiota, microRNA profile, and immune health in infants

  • Jae Kyeom Kim (Human Environmental Sciences)
  • Sabrina Trudo (Human Environmental Sciences)
  • Mechelle Bailey (Human Environmental Sciences)
  • Jiangchao Zhao (Animal Science)
  • Allison Scott (Nursing)
  • Marilou Shreve (Nursing)
  • Jung Ae Lee (Agricultural Statistics)

Diets profoundly influence the composition of gut microbiota. Of note, early modification of the gut microbiota provides an opportunity for immune education because, in the first 3 years of life, the microbiota and immune system are not yet matured and established. Thus, early infancy is a critical target for dietary strategies and food-based interventions focusing on the reduction of disease risk and enhancement of immune functions. Specifically, cruciferous vegetables (e.g., broccoli) are a good source of unique phytonutrients which can be converted to secondary bioactives by gut microbial enzymes. These bioactive products may cause epigenetic changes that directly and/or indirectly modify gut microbiota and the innate immune system. Surprisingly, scarce data exist regarding the effects of phytonutrients on shaping gut microbiota and/or epigenetic markers. Therefore, we would like to investigate the effects of short-term cruciferous vegetable intervention on (1) the composition of the gut microbiome; (2) fecal epigenetic markers; and (3) the occurrence of common infections in infants. Given the challenges and costs of early childhood infections, the aims of this project relate to identifying specific plant foods to recommend that may enhance early development of immune-enhancing microbiota profiles in the nascent gastrointestinal tract. Further, accumulating evidence suggest that infection and use of antibiotics may increase risk for other health conditions, in particular, childhood obesity. Therefore, this project directly seeks to use diet and nutrition as a means to favorably shape the development of the gut microbiota during the “open window of opportunity,” if you will, in order to enhance the quality of life for infants and young children by equipping them with a healthy microbiome and thus, improving their adult lives as well. As specific foods are identified for their impact on the developing infant’s microbiota profile, relatively simple feeding recommendations can be made to the general population that strengthen gut-mediated immunity and decrease the frequency and duration of childhood infections.


Systems genetics approaches to understand the interplay between abiotic and biotic stress

Systems genetics approaches to understand the interplay between abiotic and biotic stress: a case study on bacterial panicle blight of rice

  • Clemencia Rojas (Plant Pathology)
  • Andy Pereira (Crop, Soil and Environmental Science)

Rice is a staple food for more than half of the world’s population, and the state of Arkansas is the number one rice producer in the United States. However, rice production in the state has been significantly debilitated in recent years due to plant diseases that have become more detrimental due to increasing temperatures during the growing season. Of particular importance is the disease “Bacterial Panicle Blight (BPB)” caused by the bacterial pathogen Burkholderia glumae. Currently, this disease does not have a cure as the use of antibiotics to control bacterial diseases in plants is not recommended for crops. Therefore, the only way to mitigate the effects of the disease is by improving the available rice cultivars such that they can withstand the pathogen even under high temperatures. Resistance to pathogens (biotic stress) and high temperatures (abiotic stress) are genetically controlled, and finding the genes responsible for such resistance is critical not only to individual rice growers but for rice production worldwide. In general, rice cultivars exhibit wide genetic variation, and consequently a range of responses against abiotic and biotic stresses, from highly susceptible to highly resistant. The main goal of this proposal is to conduct a genome-wide analysis of the genetic determinants of disease resistance by identifying rice cultivars that are resistant to BPB under high temperature conditions, and uncover the genes and regulatory networks responsible for this response, to ultimately develop molecular markers that can be used for crop improvement, the long-term goal of this project. The project will combine the expertise on biotic stress from Dr. Clemencia Rojas and the expertise on abiotic stress and quantitative genetics from Dr. Andy Pereira and, will integrate biological research on plant responses to abiotic and biotic stresses with computational analyses of large-scale genomics and transcriptomics data. It is expected that the project will enhance the large-scale data analysis capabilities of the University of Arkansas and, later engage other talented scientists during the translational stages. Large-scale data is playing an ever-increasing role in the advancement of plant research, thus this collaborative project will generate significant amount of preliminary genomic, phenotypic and genetic data to increase the competitiveness of the faculty when applyingfor external funding. Lastly, the multi-disciplinary nature of the project will provide comprehensive training to postdoctoral fellows, graduate and undergraduate students that will allow them to advance their careers when finishing at the University of Arkansas.


Electrophysiological signatures of E/I balance and the ongoing brain dynamics of motor function

Electrophysiological signatures of E/I balance and the ongoing brain dynamics of motor function

  • Woodrow Shew (Physics)
  • Nathan Parks (Psychology)

Numerous brain disorders from autism, to stroke, to Parkinson’s disease manifest with abnormal body movements and other compromised motor functions. For many of these disorders, it is thought that an imbalance between two competing types of neurons – excitatory (E) vs. inhibitory (I) – plays a key role in causing dysfunction. Effective methods for measuring E/I imbalance are essential for gaining insight on these disorders and potentially valuable tools for clinicians. Such methods are readily available in animal research, for which invasive access to the brain is feasible, but noninvasive techniques for use in humans remain challenging. Here we propose to meet this challenge with a new approach, based on the ‘criticality hypothesis’ developed by Dr. Shew’s lab and others. The criticality hypothesis posits that under normal healthy conditions, the cerebral cortex operates near the tipping point between two distinct types of neural network dynamics. Importantly, the criticality hypothesis makes quantitative predictions about how the dynamics of cerebral cortex should change due to modulation of E/I balance. These predictions have been confirmed by Dr. Shew’s group in recent animal experiments but the greatest potential lies in their explanatory power in humans, which has not yet been tested. Here, we propose carefully designed parallel experiments in rodents and humans, taking full advantage of the complementary expertise in the Shew Lab and Parks Lab. We will leverage the invasive access afforded by animal experiments to perform measurements that can’t be done in humans, and design our experiments to facilitate direct comparison between humans and rats. We will seek principles of brain function (and dysfunction) that generalize across the two species. More specifically, we will test the hypothesis that ongoing activity can be analyzed to assess changes of E/I balance in motor cortex.


Towards Fairness Aware Learning in Big Data

Towards Fairness Aware Learning in Big Data

  • Xintao Wu (Computer Science and Computer Engineering)
  • Anna Zajicek (Sociology and Criminal Justice)

The increasing likelihood of discrimination in the context of massive data collection and analysis has emerged as a critical social problem, attracting attention of computer scientists and social scientists. As huge volumes of information about individuals are generated and processed using big data technology, government agencies and private companies increasingly integrate individual data and predictive models to make critical decisions about employment, college admissions, credit, insurance, and legal judgements. But both data and predictive models built with the data may contain and create discrimination against individuals based on gender, race/ethnicity, age, religion, or disability status. The objective of this interdisciplinary research is to develop discrimination discovery and prevention technologies to rigorously capture, measure, and remove all potential discrimination from data and decision-making. The proposed project will integrate social, behavioral & economic sciences research (with focus on organizational and institutional factors leading to discrimination) and computing (with focus on causal modeling and deep learning) to develop a unifying framework to deal with all types of discrimination (e.g., direct and indirect, conditional, group and individual) in both organizational databases such as financial/commercial transactions and predictive models. Our proposed project will greatly advance discrimination discovery and prevention research by 1) documenting discrimination in big data applications and understanding main factors leading to discriminatory outcomes; 2) producing a suite of novel causal modeling and deep learning-based technologies anda prototype system for simulating different types of discrimination and evaluating our approaches based on various metrics; 3) creating a web portal that includes anti-discrimination policies, regulations, practices, algorithms, tools and a collection of publicly available datasets and real data from our business partners; and, 4) organizing a workshop to broaden participation in anti-discrimination research and education as well as to increase the awareness of fairness, and benefits and risks of big data.