Research News

Buffalo Blue Sky: Are you ready to launch your world-changing ideas?

The Buffalo Blue Sky program brings together researchers from different department and schools to solve high-risk/high reward challenges. Photos: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published January 31, 2019

“We’re letting faculty decide what they think is important, and we want people to take a step outside of what they’re usually doing and take a risk on projects that could really have an impact on solving important problems.”
Ken Tramposch, senior associate vice president for research

A new program called Buffalo Blue Sky offers just-in-time seed funding for investigator-led, multidisciplinary research that pushes the boundaries.

Through Blue Sky, UB researchers earn digital coins that they can then redeem for real research dollars. Investigators from different departments/schools combine their tokens, earning up to $60,000 to jumpstart their new collaborative projects.   

The Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development is sponsoring this new program, confident that UB investigators will expand their research circles, using diverse expertise to solve high-risk/high-reward challenges.

To earn a gold coin, worth $20,000, investigators must have submitted at least 12 funding proposals to external agencies, such as the National Science Foundation or National Institutes of Health, over a two-year period. Obtaining a $5,000 silver coin requires submission of six such proposals over the two-year period.

To convert the digital currency into real funding, Blue Sky coin holders must locate two coin holders from at least one other UB department and combine coins to fund a new multidisciplinary project distinct from their ongoing research. Another possibility is for two coin holders from different departments to work together, along with a third UB faculty member hired after July 1, 2016.

“Buffalo Blue Sky uses a novel funding mechanism to inspire collaborations between researchers in different departments. It’s an innovative concept nationally — there aren’t a lot of universities that have programs like this,” says Venu Govindaraju, vice president for research and economic development. “The projects that have been funded so far are exploring issues of societal importance, such as healthy eating in children, ethics in 3D printing and the effect of harsh weather on automated vehicles.”

“The concept is to make it simple for faculty members to get together and test smart ideas,” says Ken Tramposch, senior associate vice president for research. “We’re letting faculty decide what they think is important, and we want people to take a step outside of what they’re usually doing and take a risk on projects that could really have an impact on solving important problems.”

“Blue Sky has reached out and done something really unique, which is recognizing the effort faculty members put into grant writing and applying for funding,” says gold coin holder Praveen Arany, assistant professor of oral biology in the School of Dental Medicine. “I think the name of the program is very appropriate. It’s a very innovative way of enhancing collaboration.”

Inspiring collaboration across disciplines

The list of Blue Sky coin holders includes investigators from diverse fields, ranging from science, engineering and medicine to architecture and planning.

“The problems that are out there, ready to be solved, require team science,” Tramposch says. “The researchers we’re targeting with the program are very successful in their own right but also are interested in collaborating with others.”

Pinaki Sarder, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, and Michelle Visser, assistant professor of oral biology, connected through the Blue Sky program’s online ideas forum, accessible only to coin holders.

After learning that he had earned a silver coin, Sarder posted a proposal to the forum about the role that white blood cells called neutrophils play in lupus nephritis, an autoimmune disease that can lead to kidney failure.

“Any opportunity to get funding, I’m always looking at it,” Visser says. “So when I heard about Blue Sky, I thought, ‘How will I find partners? There are so many people who have these coins.’ I looked at the ideas that were posted internally, and Pinaki had written about neutrophils, so it was a good fit. This is exactly what I work on, I know about that.”

Together, Visser and Sarder have launched a $10,000 Blue Sky project that explores how structures called neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are involved in the progression of lupus nephritis. Jack Tseng, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, is also a partner.

The project includes developing computational tools to quantify NETs in kidney tissue, based on bioimaging of tissue sections. If successful, the research could lead to new diagnostics and a better understanding of how NETs might be used to identify when lupus nephritis is transitioning into a more serious chronic stage in patients.

Tackling important questions with innovative proposals

Other Blue Sky teams are also exploring questions of societal importance.

Optimizing the installation of green infrastructure is the goal of a project led by Jose Walteros, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Assistant Professor Zhenduo Zhu and Professor Joseph Atkinson, both in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. All three are silver coin holders.

Using modeling, the researchers are investigating how cities can best leverage financial incentives to encourage property owners to install rooftop gardens, rain barrels, trees and other tools that trap rainwater and snowmelt, decreasing stress on sewer systems during storms. The team is interested in how to distribute incentives in a way that maximizes the benefits for both property owners and local governments.

“I love it,” Walteros says of Blue Sky. “I was not expecting this type of new grant possibility. I’ve been here at UB since 2014, and since then, most of the internal money that you could get was through a narrowly defined competitive processes. Blue Sky spreads the funding out across a larger population and encourages collaboration.”

Arany, from the oral biology department, joined two silver coin holders — Kathryn Medler, associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, and Frank Scannapieco, professor and chair of the oral biology — to fund a $30,000 Blue Sky project. Ann-Marie Torregrossa, assistant professor of psychology, is also a member of the team.

Their research focuses on how low doses of light, termed photobiomodulation therapy, may help oral cancer patients recover their sense of taste following chemotherapy, including the possibility that light treatment may stimulate the generation of new taste cells. A loss of taste or altered taste — in which many foods that normally taste good start tasting bitter or metallic — is a common side effect of chemotherapy.

“When people lose their taste system, there is a very negative effect on their appetite,” says Medler, who, along with Torregrossa, is an expert on taste. “As a result, many chemotherapy patients do not consume enough calories to maintain their health and can start to become malnourished. This will impair their ability to tolerate the chemotherapy, as well reduce their overall recovery.”

“We have been very interested in understanding how low-dose lights can be used for medical treatments,” Arany says. “The research we are doing on taste has the potential to really help cancer patients and improve their quality of life.”