Boston University’s Top Ten Research Highlights of 2021
From physical health and well-being, to previously undiscovered depths of the ocean, to addressing inequities and health disparities, and uncovering mental health risk factors and interventions — we give you the ten top breakthrough research discoveries out of Boston University’s schools, colleges, research institutes and centers during the past year (in chronological order).
Studies show that there is approximately an 8 percent risk of chronic opioid addiction after total knee surgery, using conventional surgery recovery methods in patients. Given that over 600,000 people undergo knee replacement surgery every year in the U.S., the risk of chronic opioid use stemming from knee surgery is significant. At a time when opioid use disorder and opioid addiction remain at epidemic levels both in the U.S. and worldwide, Boston University researchers discovered a preventative approach to reducing post-surgery chronic opioid use. Dr. Deepak Kumar, assistant professor of physical therapy at Boston University Sargent College and a physical therapist by training, led the largest-ever study of its kind analyzing more than 67,000 patient records — and found that even low levels of physical therapy were associated with lower risk of chronic opioid use after total knee replacement. Learn more about the study, equity issues around pain management, and why the future of pain management needs to be a multi-modal approach.
Is working from home keeping your daily step count down? While walking is a good form of exercise, intentional exercise is a more efficient way of improving your fitness level, says Dr. Matthew Nayor and his team at Boston University School of Medicine. In the largest study of its kind, dedicated exercise (moderate-vigorous physical) was found to be three times more efficient than walking alone and more than 14 times more efficient than reducing the time spent sedentary. “We hope that our study will provide important information that can ultimately be used to improve physical fitness and overall health across the life course,” Naylor said. For more insight into this study checkout Naylor’s Q&A.
New research could help Black women make decisions about the hair products they use. The lifetime risk of developing breast cancer is similar among Black and white women in the U.S., but Black women are disproportionately affected by aggressive breast cancer subtypes, such as estrogen receptor–negative tumors. Black women who used hair products specifically containing lye at least seven times a year for 15 or more years had an approximately 30 percent increased risk of estrogen receptor positive breast cancer, compared with more infrequent users. “Consistent results from several studies are needed before it can be concluded that use of certain hair relaxers impacts breast cancer development,” said Dr. Kimberly Bertrand, Boston University School of Medicine assistant professor of medicine and an epidemiologist at the BU Slone Epidemiology Center. Learn more about how environmental factors could impact breast cancer risk.
Douglas Holmes, a Boston University College of Engineering associate professor of mechanical engineering, studies how materials change shape when they are bent or warped by external forces. In a paper published in Science Robotics, Holmes and BU PhD student Yi Yang demonstrate how they were inspired by kirigami, the traditional Japanese art of paper cutting (cousin of origami paper-folding art), to design soft robotic grippers. By cutting sheets of plastic in specific shapes, and then bending them in a specific way, the plastic morphs into a gripper that can safely and securely pick up objects of various size, weight, shape, and fragility. Using the kirigami technique, they developed grippers so small they can pick up a single grain of sand, and large enough to pick up a bottle of water. Read more to learn about Holmes and Yang’s hopes for this research — namely how it will make a significant contribution to the emerging field of soft robotics.
Do forest fires impact climate change? According to research from Boston University environmental earth scientist Mark Friedl, the models currently used to simulate how Earth’s climate will change in the future underestimate the impact that forest fires and drying climate are having on the world’s northernmost forests, which make up the largest forest biome on the planet. “Fires are intensifying, and when forests burn, carbon is released into the atmosphere,” explains Friedl, whose research was published in Nature Climate Change. “But we’re also seeing longer growing seasons, warmer temperatures, which draws carbon out of the atmosphere [and into plants]. More CO2 in the atmosphere acts as a fertilizer, increasing growth of trees and plants — so, scientifically, there’s been this big question out there: What is happening on a global scale to Earth’s forests? Will they continue to absorb as much carbon as they do now?” Learn more and see some of the newly developed modeling techniques.
In February, ASL-LEX 2.0, the world’s largest American Sign Language database, became even more accessible thanks to the continued collaboration between Dr. Naomi Caselli, a Boston University Wheelock College of Education assistant professor and researcher of deaf studies and researchers from San Diego State University and Tufts University. ASL-LEX 2.0 makes learning about the fundamentals of ASL easier. “English speakers know cat and hat rhyme in English, and we have all kinds of resources for thinking about the properties of English, French, and many spoken languages, but at the outset we really didn’t know much about the lexicon of ASL,” said Caselli. In spoken languages a lexicon refers to the vocabulary that makes up a language — for ASL, the lexicon describes the language’s movements and sign forms. The database could help advance ASL resources and related language-based technologies. Read more on the research and its implications.
Is immunity universal to all ecosystems? A collaborative study among the Rotjan Marine Ecology Lab at Boston University, the Kagan Lab at Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital, the government of Kiribati, and others found that there are some bacteria so foreign to humans that our immune cells can’t register that they exist. This discovery overrides the long-held belief of universal immunity, or that our cells can recognize any bacteria they interact with. Rather, the study, published in Science Immunology, found some bacteria are solely defined by their local habitat or surroundings. Take a deep dive into the research implications.
During the expedition, Dr. Randi Rotjan and collaborators discovered about a dozen candidates for new animal species, including never-before-seen crabs, corals, and jellyfish. They were also lucky enough to capture the rarely seen, nearly transparent, alien-looking glass octopus on film. Check out the footage.
As COVID-19 has spread across the globe over the last two years, research has emerged concluding that women — particularly mothers, and especially mothers of color — are disproportionately affected by the burdens of the pandemic, both on the front lines, and in their own homes. “The news was reporting these studies as if they were a surprise…but there’s already been a lot of data gathered about this issue,” explained Boston University College of Arts & Sciences professor of biology Dr. Robinson Fulweiler. “But there have been no solutions. Our level of frustration peaked. We decided we need to make a plan to fix things.” Fulweiler and Boston University assistant professor of Biology Dr. Sarah Davies led a group of 13 researchers from around the world — all mothers themselves — to author a manifesto for supporting working mothers in academia. Together, they spelled out a roadmap for policies that would support women, and particularly mothers and parents of color, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. Explore their focus areas.
A nation-wide survey led by Boston University School of Public Health’s Dr. Sarah Lipson and her Healthy Minds Network collaborators surveyed just under 33,000 students across 36 colleges and universities to gain a better understanding of the key risk factors, prevalence and impact of mental health conditions within this population during the fall 2020 semester — and their attitudes and beliefs about mental health services. The results showed the highest prevalence rates of both depression and anxiety of any semester since the annual survey’s launch in 2007 — with 47 percent of students screening positive for clinically-significant symptoms of depression and/or anxiety. Among students with a positive screen for depression or anxiety, only 40 percent had received any mental health counseling and/or therapy in the past year — uncovering a 60 percent treatment gap. Learn more about the findings and opportunities for higher education institutions to better support college students.
Have you ever ‘double-checked’ whether you locked the door, or made sure that the oven and stove were turned off before leaving your home? Although we all experience these tendencies to some degree, nearly one billion people worldwide experience these urges so intensely and continuously that they cannot help but do these actions compulsively, over and over again. Despite the prevalence of this distressing condition, our mechanistic understanding of obsessive compulsive behaviors has been incomplete, and there has been little progress in developing effective therapeutics — until a Boston University research discovery. Dr. Robert Reinhart, assistant professor of psychological & brain sciences at Boston University and Director of the Reinhart Lab, along with his students discovered a drug-free and noninvasive breakthrough in reducing compulsive behavior. Their findings suggest that this new frontier of personalized, drug-free, brain modulation may be effective in rapidly producing long-lasting benefits in people experiencing distress due to actions such as compulsive eating, gambling and shopping, and particularly in people suffering from mental health problems and neuropsychiatric disorders. Learn more.
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