Between September and December of 2022, ten researchers from Portugal headed to Austin for a new adventure. With the UT Austin Portugal’s support, these researchers packed their bags for an up to three-month stay, during which they got to establish longer-term collaborations, access advanced research infrastructures and unique expertise and further develop research work started in the frame of ongoing projects.
One aspect that distinguishes this batch of participants is the different areas in which they conduct research, from health, computing, mechanical engineering, renewable energies or even a combination of these. Time to pack your bags too and find out a bit more about these researchers’ journeys and how they were received by the Longhorn community.
Prevention, treatment and everything in between: how participants are contributing to the biomedicine field
Half of the ten participants are developing solutions within the biomedicine field, but the topics are spread across the various stages of health care. The solutions aim to improve patients’ quality of life or make diagnostic and treatment methods more efficient. So that we can better understand what each one focused on during their experience, let’s go by parts, starting with prevention, the first stage of health care, and ending with treatment.
Dalinda Eusébio was developing a DNA vaccine against cervical cancer in 2019 as part of her PhD in biomedicine at the University of Beira Interior. In 2020, she changed focus with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through a funding opportunity, she adapted the vaccine to combat Sars-cov-2 and help reduce its harmful effects, which were already widely known. This vaccine has unique features: a small-sized non-viral DNA vector (“minicircle”), which facilitates its entry into target cells, is included in a dry powder formulation that can be administered through the nose and lungs, making it a more patient-friendly and cost-effective alternative. The biomedical researcher flew to UT Austin and landed in the Zhengrong Cui Lab, to access a technique that is not available in Portugal. “Thin-film freeze-drying (TFFD) is a proprietary technology developed at UT Austin, which was applied to convert the liquid minicircle DNA nanovaccine into a thermostable dry powder formulation”, says the researcher. Dalinda was able to create a formulation which demonstrated good aerosol proprieties for pulmonary delivery. In Portugal, Dalinda will continue exploring the efficacy of this vaccine against COVID-19, hoping to return to UT Austin to continue the work started during this internship.
From COVID-19 infections, we move on to infections in patients with prosthetics, quite common in various types of surgical interventions and for which Estela Carvalho, a PhD student at the University of Minho, is developing a bioactive injectable hydrogel. This hydrogel can mimic the natural cellular environment and thus understand cell behavior. It contains antibacterial and osseointegration compounds that prevent surgical infections, which happen twice as often in people who undergo bone implant surgery compared to other surgeries. This would also reduce the costs and complications associated with these procedures. Estela acquired the know-how of UT Austin in synthetic cell development and materials from the laboratories of professors Adrienne Rosales and Brian Belardi. “UTAustin provided me with the tools and knowledge I needed to complete the work I set out to do. I worked in collaboration with foremost scientists. We are all hoping that this internship will result in great future collaborations for discoveries”, says Estela.
When prevention is not enough or even possible, a timely diagnosis can make a difference in the recovery and prognosis of various diseases, such as those with a neurological and psychological focus. João Duarte, a doctorate researcher at the University of Coimbra, dedicates his time to digging deeper into biomarkers. He is particularly interested in developing biomarkers of altered brain connectivity based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) images to improve the diagnosis and follow-up of neurological disorders. However, on MRI, brain connectivity measures can be affected by noise and biases (i.e. movement, equipment, breathing and heartbeat) during image acquisition and data processing. These artifacts can lead to wrongful interpretations of data and, therefore, wrong diagnoses or progression evaluations.
For this reason, João seized this opportunity at Austin to acquire knowledge and training at the Biomedical Imaging Center, a center of excellence in MRI and artifact mitigation led by Douglas Befroy, João’s Host. After this experience, he can implement his own MRI studies with similar equipment available at his home institution in Coimbra. “This knowledge will be crucial to develop useful applications for clinical practice”, adds João.
When dealing with a disease such as breast cancer, people can see their body subject to various changes, either from the symptoms or its treatments. Placing the patient at the center of decisions can minimize these changes’ effects on their confidence and self-esteem. To reduce this phenomenon and predict how certain treatments will aesthetically affect the body, Maria Gonçalves is studying the mechanical properties of the breast to create realistic breast models. She joined Emily Porter in Austin to validate a previously developed algorithm and simulate the tissues’ behavior in 3D. These models will predict the outcomes from procedures such as surgery and microwave hyperthermia or ablation, taking into consideration the cosmetic aspect without compromising treatment efficacy. “The principal beneficiaries of an outcome-prediction tool would be the patients, as this would allow them to estimate the aesthetic outcome of the treatment and hopefully reduce the psychological trauma related to changes in body image”, says the PhD student from the University of Lisbon.
Still within the cancer field, Tiago Ribeiro went to Austin for two reasons: 1) to optimize a biodegradable magnetic nanoparticle to treat cancer; 2) to design a new nano-formulation to destroy cancer tissue with high temperatures under the Exploratory Research Project MagTubeCancer. These magnetic nanoparticles would eventually combine several cancer therapies in one system while specifically targeting tumor cells, increasing the therapeutic outcomes and reducing the adverse effects of such treatments in healthy tissues. “By combining medical physics with nanotechnology, we are able to develop a cancer treatment system that we can control from the outside by triggering the therapy with magnetic fields and at the same time record the progress by taking contrast images using MRI”, adds the PhD student from the Institute for Research and Innovation in Health (i3S). During his stay in Austin in the BioPhotonics Group, with James Tunnell as host, Tiago learned new techniques and methodologies that can be applied in his future research.
The always-evolving world of computing
Artificial Intelligence is trending, and it is not new that machines and humans are becoming increasingly connected, such as through the Internet of Things (IoT). As these technologies develop and are used to understand human nature, humans will become an integral part of IoT, converging on what we call Human-in-the-loop (HiL).
It is to this area that Jorge Silva dedicates his career. “I believe that in the coming years, we will continue to see the expansion of IoT devices in our lives. However, we will need, more than ever, to resort to another type of AI solutions to infer intentions, abilities, psychological states, emotions and actions of users through Edge AI solutions and IoT devices”, says the researcher from the Institute for Systems Engineering and Computers at Coimbra (INESC Coimbra). Jorge took this opportunity at UT Austin to establish collaborations with Radu Marculescu, bringing together the best Edge AI expertise at this university with research in the HiL area in Coimbra. This collaboration is enhancing future partnerships, which have already borne fruit with a joint publication submitted at the 8th ACM/IEEE Conference on Internet of Things Design and Implementation.
Computing is evolving at a quick rate, and storage systems have a hard time keeping up the pace. Mariana Miranda, a researcher from the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), is responsible for the development of a Software Defined Storage data management component under the Strategic Research Project BigHPC. “My research focuses on proposing an alternative that allows better orchestration of data flows, so that these centers are able to take better advantage of the storage systems and, consequently, mitigate this problem”, says the researcher. Mariana flew to Austin to work on a challenge that storage management face: scalability. Under the guidance of host John Cazes, she studied at the Texas Advanced Computing Center the limits current prototypes pose.
A more accessible outer space and a greener inner space
From 1957, when the first artificial satellite (Sputnik I) was launched, until now, many research efforts have been put into understanding their diverse capabilities. From communications to climate change studies, it is no doubt that satellites shaped how societies function today.
Hugo Silva, a master’s student at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, took this opportunity in Austin to enrich his career and work in developing a model for orbit determination in satellites. These models, developed in the Computational Astronautical Sciences and Technologies (CAST) group led by Professor Moriba Jah, would be further adapted for spacecraft in interplanetary missions to verify if they are following a previously defined orbit.
Due to their incredible versatility, satellites can also be explored to help the green energy sector.
In the case of Mário Vieira, Mechanical Engineer at the +ATLANTIC Colab, his stay at Austin, with host Dragan Djurdjanovic, enabled him to understand the viability of using satellite data and visual images, processed by artificial intelligence, to create a tool to monitor the location and operational parameters of floating offshore wind farms. Adequate monitoring reduces the operating costs and operational risk of these wind farms and thus helps develop the Portuguese blue economy sector. “Investing in these technologies will allow us to respond not only to the impact of climate change, reducing carbon emissions associated with electricity production, but also guarantee our country greater energy independence, a factor that is seen as a critical challenge for the future of Europe”, says Mário.
The path to a greener world does not only revolve around finding and monitoring different energy sources. Sometimes it is also in optimizing industrial processes to reduce energy consumption. According to the International Energy Agency, the industrial sector accounts for 38% of total global final energy use, and research efforts have been made to reduce this percentage.
Since he was a child, Fábio Ferreira was already fascinated by the mechanics’ world, and would often dismantle his toys to understand how they worked. Now, as a researcher at the Centre for Mechanical Engineering, Materials and Processes in Coimbra, Fábio is focused on developing more effective and environmentally friendly lubrication and coating solutions, that will benefit the industry and reduce its emissions. As a Principal Investigator (PI) of the Exploratory Research Project LubEnergy, the researcher is testing the friction and wear response of an advanced class of coatings and “green” lubricants. He went to Austin to work closely with his host Filippo Mangoliniand also LubEnergy’s PI at UT Austin.“This opportunity will consequently have major positive consequences in achieving the objectives of the LubEnergy project”, says Fábio.
A new batch of researchers will fly to Austin to conduct their research
Through these testimonials, it is noticeable how international research mobility strengthens connections, triggers collaborative projects and joint publications and offers researchers access to methods, advanced research infrastructures and technologies new to them. A new call for Expressions of Interest for the Short-term Research Internships at UT Austin 2023 is again on the horizon. The upcoming edition will give another batch of researchers the opportunity to cross the Atlantic and experience the UT Austin’s motto: what starts here changes the world.