Research at the Forefront

URI researchers are working across disciplines to help find answers and solutions to benefit all of us.

East Farm: URI’s Living Laboratory

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For 94 years, URI’s 85-acre East Farm, a mile from the Kingston Campus, has housed research ranging from plant science and entomology to fisheries and poultry science.

URI professor of plant sciences and entomology Steven Alm, who conducts honeybee research on the farm, calls it a hidden gem. “We can conduct field experiments here,” he says. “Things you can’t do in a 20-by-20-foot lab.”

In the 1990s, URI’s Master Gardener program, which trains people in environmentally sound gardening practices, took up residence at the farm. Today, Master Gardeners volunteer on grounds maintenance.

Dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences John Kirby says the farm has room to grow. He would like to see it used for interdisciplinary research that goes beyond traditional agriculture.


Storm Team

What happens if a hurricane stalls right over Providence, resulting in floods caused by heavy, sustained rainfall? If the designated evacuation route floods, what then?

Thanks to URI researchers, emergency managers can see exactly what happens—and plan for it. Oceanography professors Isaac Ginis and Austin Becker, and Pam Rubinoff of the Coastal Resources Center, led a team that partnered with emergency managers across R.I., creating a tool to predict how flooding, hurricanes, storm surges, and sea-level rise will impact critical public infrastructure, such as generators, transformers, roads, and pump facilities.

The RI-CHAMP project—which has earned $2.6 million in federal funding—features a digital dashboard that can overlay storm prediction models onto data points across Rhode Island that mark critical infrastructure locations.
Clara DeCerbo ’18, director of the Providence Emergency Management Agency, says, “RI-CHAMP has done a really good job of including people from the practitioner realm, which makes the tool much more user-friendly and valuable.”

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Ramnarain studies how gender-based assumptions in accepted economic theories limit our understanding of what is valuable and what sustains our lives and economies.

Working Knowledge

“The production of any form of knowledge tends to be a political process. It is incumbent on scholars to be aware of our roles and responsibilities in this exercise to the extent that we can. We do this work because there is a desire to better understand our world and the human condition.”

–Smita Ramnarain, URI associate professor of economics

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The Unremembered

URI photography professor Annu Palakunnathu Matthew

While researching the partition of British India, URI photography professor Annu Palakunnathu Matthew discovered the story of 2.5 million Indians who fought in World War II. The research led to a commission from the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the biggest art festival in Asia, held in Kerala, India. A more recent installation at the Newport (R.I.) Art Museum highlighted the same theme.

Matthew believes art can help broaden people’s knowledge of history. “People will rarely take out a history book and read it,” she says. “Art can be a way to make history more accessible.”

On a Fulbright-funded trip to India, Matthew collected photos and stories from families whose relatives served in WWII. For her Newport show, she created crystal cubes etched with the photos. The installation also included audio to connect the viewer with the personal stories of the soldiers.

“We are at a moment where memorials and histories are being reevaluated and reconsidered in significant ways,” says Matthew. “Art can play a crucial role in shaping remembrance.”


Helping Students Become Scientists

Niall Howlett, URI professor of cell and molecular biology and principal investigator of MARC*U*STAR

Students in URI’s MARC U*STAR program receive scholarships, faculty mentors, and academic and pre-professional support, including guidance on applying for Ph.D. and M.D./Ph.D. programs. The National Institutes of Health-funded program aims to increase diversity in biomedical fields by supporting students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Niall Howlett, professor of cell and molecular biology and principal investigator of MARC U*STAR, says, “By helping to create a community of student scholars with a strong sense of belonging in biomedical research, the program is promoting a sustainable and inclusive culture of undergraduate research excellence at URI.”

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How Does Exposure to Microplastics Affect Brain Health?

Assistant Professor Jaime Ross (left) with undergraduate students Danielle Burge and Kristen Harder

There’s lots of research on how microplastics affect oceans and marine life, but Jaime Ross noticed there wasn’t much on how microplastics affect human health. The assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences, who also holds an appointment at URI’s George and Anne Ryan Institute for Neurosciences, seeks to close this gap.

A series of pilot studies assessing the behavior of mice after acute microplastics exposure hint at startling results: striking changes in behavior and movement.

Ross and her team are seeking funding to expand and continue their research to answer questions about how microplastics interact with the body and how environmental and genetic factors impact the results of exposure.

For more on URI research, check out Momentum: Research & Innovation, the magazine of URI’s Division of Research and Economic Development.

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