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IU researchers in Indianapolis tackle state, national and global challenges

Jun 14, 2023

As Indiana University looks toward the future of IU in Indianapolis, the campus is also reflecting upon a long history of research improving lives across the state of Indiana, the country and the world.

The work of researchers across IU’s Indianapolis campus addresses innumerable challenges of major significance. But a sampling of the campus’s work includes efforts to address health inequities, such as poor maternal health and exposure to toxic chemicals; solve intractable medical challenges, such as treating Alzheimer’s disease; and address vexing global challenges, such as environmental sustainability.

Improving infant and maternal health

IU researchers in Indianapolis are partnering with community members and organizations to confront some of the state’s greatest social, environmental and cultural issues, including housing insecurity and exposure to toxic chemicals.

Among these projects is Housing Equity for Infant Health, part of the Grassroots Maternal and Child Health Initiative, which works to improve maternal and child health outcomes in Indiana — a state whose maternal mortality rates are twice the U.S. rate. Supported by a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the project provides safe, secure and affordable housing to pregnant women who are homeless, or at risk of homelessness, for the first two years of their infants’ lives. Project partners include the Indiana Justice Project, which will focus on legal-system interventions to support stable, quality housing for pregnant Hoosiers.

Also a part of the initiative is Mothers on the Rise, a project in partnership with the Indiana Department of Correction that connects women who give birth in prison to community navigators who provide social support after their release. As of 2022, the program had helped 13 mother-baby pairs transition from the prison nursery to the community, with all 13 pairs remaining together post release.

“We have lots of data that show the relationship between housing insecurity and poor birth outcomes,” said Jack Turman, a professor at the IU School of Medicine who started leading these projects while at the Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. “If you really want to sustainably improve birth outcomes in our community, we’ve got to start with housing.”

Pursuing environmental justice, reducing prejudices

Another research initiative helps protect Indiana residents from exposure to lead, a toxic chemical whose exposure rate is higher than the national average in Indiana. Reducing exposure to the substance is often regarded as a matter of environmental justice since exposure to the chemical disproportionately impacts people of color.

The 360 Dust Analysis Project, co-led by IU Chancellor’s Professor Gabriel Filippelli at the School of Science at IUPUI, works with community members to collect dust and dirt samples from Indiana households for lead analysis. The program has also partnered with faith-based organizations in Indianapolis to distribute lead test kits to the community.

Since 2018, the project has analyzed over 700 samples from Indianapolis homes, providing evidence that supports measures to reduce chemical exposure. In 2020, IU experts from the project contributed to a state report on lead poisoning titled “Environmental Injustice: Lead Poisoning in Indiana.” The Indiana Department of Health subsequently adopted an emergency rule that lowered the threshold to diagnose lead poisoning in children, opening up more access to support for affected families.

Outside the laboratory, IU researchers in Indianapolis are addressing racial inequality through efforts such as the Arab Indianapolis Community History Project. Led by Edward E. Curtis, professor of religious studies at IUPUI, the project reveals the important role of Arab Americans in the city’s past.

Drawing upon digital databases and personal interviews with descendants of the city’s earliest Arab-speaking immigrants, Curtis and students are raising awareness about this group’s “hidden history” in the region through a book, a public television documentary and educational resources for K-12 students. The project seeks to push back against prejudice toward Muslims and Arabs by emphasizing that these groups are not “fundamentally different” but rather “a part of Hoosier history,” Curtis said.

Leading the fight against Alzheimer’s disease

In the realm of health care, IU researchers in Indianapolis are leading the charge in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease — a condition that could rob nearly 14 million Americans of their memory by 2060 — for over 30 years.

The university is home to one of the oldest centers in the United States solely committed to Alzheimer’s disease research — the Indiana Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center — and the National Centralized Repository for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias, which includes blood, tissue and DNA samples used in Alzheimer’s research across the globe. This complements the Komen Tissue Bank, another groundbreaking tissue bank on campus focused on the fight against breast cancer, a topic in which IU researchers also excel.

IU scientists’ leadership on Alzheimer’s disease is evident in the sheer number of large federal grants on the topic that the IU School of Medicine has received in the past five years alone. Among these projects are:

IU scientists are also working to advance the development of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease through an initiative to identify the best drug targets for the disease. This is one of only two National Institute on Aging-funded efforts to improve, diversify and reinvigorate the Alzheimer’s disease drug development pipeline in the U.S.

Researchers in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are also applying their knowledge to the challenge, including a project at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing and Engineering in Indianapolis to predict Alzheimer’s risk based on brain-scan analyses.

The university’s many patient volunteers express the significance of IU’s work: “Hopefully, this kind of study will make it easier for us,” said Mary Estrada, a patient who participated in IU’s study on Alzheimer’s disease early onset, in 2019. “Hopefully, it won’t be as difficult as what my mother went through … many years ago.”


Addressing global challenges: Sustainability and food insecurity

Finally, IU researchers in Indianapolis are also advancing research in the realm of sustainability. The campus has been named one of the top 10 universities internationally for delivering on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals by the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings, the only global performance metric that assesses universities against the goals.

This achievement is based upon the campus’s commitment to sustainability in its practices, teaching and research. For example, faculty at the School of Science at IUPUI are pursuing research on topics such as the connection between the water cycle and global vegetation levels as well as innovative solutions to feeding the planet’s rapidly growing population.

An associate professor at the School of Science at IUPUI, Christine Picard is co-leader of the Center for Environmental Sustainability Through Insect Farming, established by a $2.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2021. As a forensic scientist with deep experience in molecular biology and etymology, Picard focuses on the genetic analysis of insects to identify the breeds with greatest potential as livestock.

Although the idea of using insects to supplement the world’s protein supply may seem unexpected, it’s also clearly what many of the world’s biggest food producers see on the horizon as the planet’s population surpasses 8 billion and arable land declines dramatically. The center’s partners include at least 30 companies in the U.S. and abroad, including major brands such as Mars and Tyson Foods.

Picard said the work they do “will allow us to feed the growing population in this era of climate change.” She said having that sort of impact on society is “how you gauge success.”


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