NMSU mosquito nutrient transport research may lead to better, safer insecticides

NMSU biology professor Immo Hansen, right, and postdoctoral researcher Hitoshi Tsujimoto work together in Hansen's mosquito laboratory on campus. (Photo by Darren Phillips)
NMSU biology professor Immo Hansen, right, and postdoctoral researcher Hitoshi Tsujimoto work together in Hansen’s mosquito laboratory on campus. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

Ever wonder why male mosquitoes don’t bite?

“They don’t have to make eggs,” explained Immo Hansen, associate professor of biology at New Mexico State University in the College of Arts and Sciences. “But, the females need nutrient proteins, so they take up our blood.”

It’s through this process that vector, or disease-causing, mosquitoes transmit malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya, yellow fever viruses and other illnesses.

Fortunately, as these mosquitoes continue to develop resistance to common insecticides, researchers in the biology department at NMSU, in collaboration with the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Rosalind Franklin University, may have identified a new way to stop this cycle at its earliest stages.

Specifically, the team has discovered a new type of amino acid transport in the yellow fever mosquito that may lead to the development of safer and more effective insecticides that target the mosquito’s ability to produce eggs. The findings were published last month in “Nature Communications,” in a paper titled “Substrate specificity and transport mechanism of amino-acid transceptor Slimfast from Aedes aegypti.”

“In the process of producing eggs, mosquitoes convert the blood meal into nutrients and into the components of the eggs,” said Hitoshi Tsujimoto, paper co-author and postdoctoral researcher in NMSU’s Molecular Vector Physiology Lab. “Those are mostly proteins, and are digested into smaller pieces, which are amino acids.”

These amino acids, which are large and cannot cross cell membranes, are distributed throughout the body of the mosquito using specific transport proteins that allow them to pass through the cell membranes, he explained. These transport proteins allow mosquitoes to distribute the nutrients necessary for reproduction within their bodies.

“If we could inhibit the transporter,” Tsujimoto said, “the mosquito cannot develop eggs, so they can’t reproduce — that way we can stop the cycle.”

Tsujimoto and collaborators focused their study on an amino acid transporter called Slimfast, which they found to have different modes of action depending on the concentration of amino acids in the mosquito’s body during reproduction.

The first mode, they said, is the mode of action the mosquito uses when it hasn’t yet received blood meal.

“That means there are very little amino acids to go around,” said Hansen, also involved in the study. “So, in order to get the amino acids in the cell, you have to be really efficient; this is what we call the high-affinity mode of action.”

However, when Slimfast is exposed to high levels of amino acids after a blood meal, the transporter behaves very differently.

“It opens up just like a pore and lets everything through — fast,” Hansen said. “ We call this low affinity.”

“This is unprecedented,” he continued. “Nobody has ever shown an amino acid transporter that does anything like that. This explains how a mosquito can switch from high affinity transport to low affinity blood transport within seconds, without changing the complement of amino acid transporters in its membranes.”

While this discovery alone is a novel contribution to mosquito physiology research, Hansen and
Tsujimoto said inhibiting this transport system through a new insecticide could also present a relatively safe form of pest control.

“These transporters are quite mosquito specific,” Hansen said. “So, an insecticide that attacks this one will most likely have no effect on humans because we don’t have these transporters.”

The full “Nature Communications” article can be viewed at nature.com/ncomms/2015/151009/ncomms9546/full/ncomms9546.html.

For more information on the Molecular Vector Physicology Lab in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, visit biology-web.nmsu.edu/~hansen/.


NMSU studying optimal variety, field protocol for new mechanized chile harvester

LAS CRUCES – New Mexicans love green chile. As that love expands regionally and nationally, the New Mexico growers are faced with an increasing problem – labor.

New Mexico State University graduate student Chuck Havlik watches the mechanized chile harvester run on one of his research plots. He is testing how close chile plants can be together for optimal harvest by the machine without losing chile fruit size. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman) SEP15
New Mexico State University graduate student Chuck Havlik watches the mechanized chile harvester run on one of his research plots. He is testing how close chile plants can be together for optimal harvest by the machine without losing chile fruit size. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman) SEP15

Unlike red chile that is harvested mechanically, green chile benefits from the human touch, because broken fruits are undesirable.

“Green chile is a very labor-intensive crop,” said Stephanie Walker, New Mexico State University’s Extension vegetable specialist. “At harvest time, picking crews usually go in at least once, usually twice to hand-pick the fruit.”

This workforce has decreased by 5 percent since 2002, according to New Mexico Chile Association President Dino Cervantes. “We need more product; we can grow more product, but we can’t find the people to harvest it.”

During years when labor has been scarce, or when growers have not been able to get a large enough crew when the chile was at its peak, a field may go unpicked, which is a serious economic loss for the growers.

Mechanized harvests could eliminate this problem.

“As with other crops, moving to mechanization for the green chile is a challenge and something we are researching here at NMSU,” Walker said. “The question is, can we get a machine, a variety of chile and field management all coming together to give us an efficient, clean mechanical harvest of green chile?”

In previous years, researchers at NMSU have worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ag Research Service to find the perfect machine.

“We have tested many different machines, many different picking heads, to see which one would work best on green chile harvest,” Walker said. “We think we have found it.”

The machine that has given the researchers minimal damage to the harvested fruit is a machine that is manufactured in Israel by inventor Elad Etgar.

“The machine is used in that country’s chile industry, and is now being field tested in New Mexico,” Walker said. “It is working very well on our crops.”

As a result, NMSU has purchased a one-row, small-plot machine to do experiments at its agricultural science centers to fine-tune the variety and field production protocol to come up with the best scenario for a good, clean mechanical harvest.

Walker and graduate student Chuck Havlik conducted two studies – a variety trial and plant spacing experiment – this year at NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

“We looked at six different breeding lines and commercial cultivars that we picked with the machine to see if different plant attributes impact the efficiency of the mechanical harvest,” Walker said. “We measure many different attributes of the plants in the field prior to harvest, and then aspects of the fruit after the harvest, such as the number of fruit successfully picked and the quantity remaining on the plant and ground.”

Plant spacing may also help get a more efficient mechanical harvest.

“In red chile, which is almost all mechanical harvested, we have found that closer spacing tends to make the plant taller and brings the fruit up off the ground. These plants feed into the machine better,” Walker said. “We would like to take what we’ve learned with red chile and apply it to green chile.”

The issue is that if the plants are too close together, it can impact the size of the chile pod.

“With green chile the fruit size is critical; everyone wants a nice big, solid fruit to make their chile relleno,” Walker said. “If the plants are very close together, it may hurt the quality of the fruit.”

The researchers tested planting four, six and 12 inches apart to see the impact on the fruit and harvesting.

Another big challenge with mechanical harvesting is the destemming of the pod. When crews are hand-picking the chile, the stems are removed at the same time the fruit is harvested.

“Having a stemless fruit is important for the processing plants’ product flow,” Walker said. “If we mechanically harvest the green chile, we need a mechanism to destem the fruit.”

NMSU recently joined forces with Nag Kodali, who worked on destemming chile in his native country of India.

“He has come up with a very efficient, straightforward mechanical method of destemming,” Walker said of Kodali, who now lives in New Hampshire. “Early field testing is proving successful.”

NMSU researcher helps explore cost-effective, non-polluting enhanced geothermal systems

Tapping the natural heat of the earth may be more cost-effective and clean thanks to a research project led by researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in collaboration with New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Kenneth C. Carroll.

 New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Kenneth C. Carroll, third from left, and other researchers have created a new fracturing fluid that may increase the development of geothermal energy.
New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Kenneth C. Carroll, third from left, and other researchers have created a new fracturing fluid that may increase the development of geothermal energy.

Carroll is a member of a group that has published two papers related to a new area of geothermal energy, called enhanced geothermal systems. These systems are designed to enable power production in areas where conventional geothermal techniques don’t work.
The group, led by Carlos Fernandez, Ph.D., at PNNL, has developed a new fracturing fluid that uses an environmentally friendly polymer to create tiny cracks in bedrock deep below the surface of the earth. The cracks provide places for water to be pumped into the rock, a process called “reservoir stimulation.” There, the heat of the earth – around 150-400 degrees Celsius at depths of 900-4,000 meters – is hot enough to turn the water to steam. The steam then can be returned to the surface and used as an energy source for power plants.

Unlike typical geothermal systems, which rely on porous rock, enhanced geothermal systems have much greater potential to tap the energy of geothermal hot spots in areas of otherwise impermeable bedrock.

The potential could be especially high in the western U.S., including New Mexico.

“The U.S. Geological Survey says most of the western U.S. has heat areas close to the surface,” Carroll said. “New Mexico and most of the West has basin and range geology,” characterized by narrow mountain ranges and flat basins or valleys. This often means heat sources in the earth are closer to the surface than in other areas, making geothermal development more practical.

The new fluid addresses some of the concerns about commonly used fracturing techniques used in the development of oil and gas. Those economically costly techniques require fluids and methods that generate unacceptable environmental impacts.

Carroll is part of a collaborative research project between the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and NMSU.

“Our new fluid can make enhanced geothermal power production more viable,” Carroll said. “And, though we designed the fluid for geothermal energy, it could also make unconventional oil and gas recovery more environmentally friendly.”

The group’s findings have been published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the journal Green Chemistry, as well as by Elsevier in Geothermics, the International Journal of Geothermal Research and its Applications.

The project addresses some of the shortcomings of typical geothermal systems. In addition to the prospect of developing systems in areas of impermeable rock, enhanced geothermal systems also would not require that water already be present underground.

Because of the advantages, researchers see great potential for enhanced geothermal systems. Existing U.S. geothermal power plants generate up to 3.4 gigawatts of energy, making up about .4 percent of the nation’s energy supply. A 2006 Massachusetts Institute of Technology report estimates enhanced geothermal systems could boost the nation’s geothermal energy output to 100 gigawatts, enough to power 100 million American homes.

That potential has attracted the interest of the Department of Energy, which has funded five enhanced geothermal system demonstration projects in the U.S. At one project in Nevada, enhanced geothermal methods increased a conventional geothermal plant’s productivity by 38 percent. However, technical challenges and concerns over cost and the amount of water used in these systems has limited their use.

Hydraulic fracturing processes, similar to those used in oil and gas production, also have been used in enhanced geothermal systems, but those processes have drawbacks due to the amount of water required, the potential toxicity of the chemicals used and the high costs of retrieving and treating the water.

In contrast, this novel fluid is a solution of water and 1 percent polyallylamine, a chemical made of carbon and nitrogen that is similar to polymers used in medicine. After it is pumped into a well at a geothermal hot spot, pressurized carbon dioxide is injected into the well. Within 20 seconds, a chemical reaction causes a hydrogel to form, expanding the fluid up to 2.5 times its original volume, expanding existing cracks in the rock and creating new ones. The process is expected to cut in half the amount of water and time needed to open up an underground reservoir, lowering the cost of power generation.

Researchers at PNNL are testing the fluid’s performance on cylindrical samples of impermeable rock. The samples are placed inside a high-pressure, high-temperature test cell created by the researchers. Small amounts of the fluid and liquid carbon dioxide are injected into the test cell, then pressure and temperature are adjusted to match the conditions of the underground geothermal reservoirs.

The researchers found that the fluid consistently created small but effective cracks in the samples that allowed water to flow through. This led them to believe that larger scale tests might produce larger cracks.

The research team also expects that the fluid could be inexpensively recycled.

Additional studies are necessary to more thoroughly evaluate the fluid’s performance. The team is planning lab studies to measure the level at which the fluid can be recycled as well as its ability to fracture larger pieces of rock. The ultimate goal is to conduct a controlled field test.

The research was funded by the Geothermal Technologies Office within DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The team also is studying a similar fluid for unconventional oil and gas recovery.

“It would use a different polymer though the chemistry is similar to the one used in the geothermal energy extraction fluid,” Fernandez said. The fluids are stable and can withstand extreme temperatures, pressures and acidity levels, unlike some fluids used in oil and gas recovery, which degrade over time. The new non-toxic, potentially recyclable fluid also would result in more efficient use of water.

NMSU physics department to acquire new instrumentation through DOD funding


NMSU physics professor Stefan Zollner speaks at a research rally event on campus. (Photo by Darren Phillips)
NMSU physics professor Stefan Zollner speaks at a research rally event on campus. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

A team of faculty led by Professor Stefan Zollner of New Mexico State University has received a grant of about $300,000 for the acquisition of a high-resolution, high-intensity X-ray diffractometer and reflectometer.

The grant was awarded through the Army Research Office from the Department of Defense Research and Education Program. The new instrument will be housed in Gardiner Hall and will replace an older diffractometer with lower resolution and intensity. 

“We can perform thickness measurements with this instrument; we can measure very thin structures,” Zollner said. “Crystals are made out of atoms which have regular arrangements. There are bonds between the atoms and these bonds have certain lengths and the atoms are certain distances apart. This device can measure distances between atoms, bond angles, lengths of crystal structures and film thickness, and can be applied to a broad range of materials – semiconductors, metals and oxides.” 

Zollner, head of the physics department in the College of Arts and Sciences, gave a presentation of his work at a Research Rally held Friday, May 2, at NMSU. 

The device will aid scientists pursuing a variety of research areas at NMSU, including Zollner’s colleagues Heinz Nakotte and Edwin Fohtung of the physics department and Shuguang Deng and Hongmei Luo of the chemical engineering department. 

“This acquisition is truly an interdisciplinary collaboration of two departments in two different colleges,” Zollner said.

“I commend Dr. Zollner for his efforts to secure this award,” said Vice President for Research Vimal Chaitanya. “Once operational, this XRD will fill a gap that our researchers presently have in order to become more competitive in pursuing research endeavors in materials science and engineering.” 

Zollner, an expert in the areas of semiconductor process integration, complementary metal-oxide semiconductors, device engineering, semiconductor metrology and process control, and optical properties of materials, said he is especially interested in preparing students in the operation of these instruments.

“My goal is training students so they can be successful and get jobs,” he said. “It would be a misconception to think that only faculty perform the research on campus. I would rather compare a faculty member to the director of our marching band, who supports and directs the band from the sideline; but the music is produced by the students on the field. It is the same with research. 

“I’m confident we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in semiconductor technologies and many innovations and energy applications are still ahead of us.”

A self-described basic scientist, Zollner explained that many consumer technologies (smart phones, for example, which contain semiconductor chips) would not exist without basic research at the university level.

Physics graduate student Dennis Trujillo from Espanola will be in charge of maintaining the XRD and will train others on the operation of the instrument. He will be assisted by Luis Barrera from Las Cruces, a double major in mechanical engineering and engineering physics. 

Although there is no semiconductor industry in Las Cruces, there is a plant in Albuquerque, as well as state-of-the-art semiconductor plants in Austin and Phoenix.

During the rally, Luo gave a brief presentation of the research she is conducting, researching chemical solutions to creating metal oxide films. 

The Department of Defense has awarded more than $1.7 million in grants and contracts to the NMSU Department of Physics. These funds are used to train undergraduate and graduate students and acquire equipment. 

“You look at this project and you see research, teaching and outreach all coming together,” said Greg Fant, associate vice president and deputy provost. “That’s what we’re all about. Bringing in the industry from Dr. Zollner’s background (he previously worked at Motorola and IBM) and showing that to our students and making things grow, we’re much appreciative. These competitive grants are hard to get. We’re proud of the work he’s doing.”

The XRD is expected to be installed this fall.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/8yTugULAQEE.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

Researchers launch smart grid epicenter at NMSU


Enrico Pontelli speaks about his involvement in the iCREDITS research project on smartgrid technology during a resarch rally event at O'Donnell Hall. (Photo by Darren Phillips)
Enrico Pontelli speaks about his involvement in the iCREDITS research project on smartgrid technology during a resarch rally event at O’Donnell Hall. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

Professor Enrico Pontelli has received a $5 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation’s Center for Research Excellence in Science and Technology (CREST) to launch research that will focus on intelligent technologies for smart grids and develop a broad culture of smart grids at New Mexico State University.

Pontelli and his colleagues were recognized for their efforts at a Research Rally held Friday, April 11, on the NMSU campus. There, Executive Vice President and Provost Dan Howard commended Pontelli for his tenacity and dedication.

“Getting any NSF grant is an achievement,” Howard said. “Workforce development is very important and I see this as a great opportunity for NMSU students.”

A computer science professor and department head in the College of Arts and Sciences, Pontelli is partnering with Satish Ranade, electrical and computer engineering department head, and other colleagues in disciplines across the university to study the development and use of smart grids. Like solar panels, smart grids allow consumers to be producers of energy as well as users. They utilize digital data and communications technology to predict patterns and operate automatically – thus promoting sustainability. 

“Smart grids represent the future of the electrical generation and distribution infrastructure, and present a number of challenges that the research community is trying to address,” Pontelli said, adding that he hopes to create a broad culture of smart grids at NMSU. “Smart grids try to make a directional relationship between power plants and customers by predicting when customers need electricity. If they had that information, production would be more efficient.”

“We want NMSU to become known as a hub of knowledge and we realized if we want to make a difference, we had to have an epicenter of research and training in smart grids. We have a great amount of talent at NMSU that can contribute to advancing the state-of-the-art in smart grid technologies.”

The Interdisciplinary Center of Research Excellence in Design of Intelligent Technologies for Smart Grids (iCREDITS) brings together a coalition of experts in electrical engineering, computer sciences, mathematics, management and education.

Pontelli and Ranade will act as co-directors of the iCREDITS Center, with a faculty steering committee consisting of Sukumar Brahma, electrical engineering; Jay Misra, computer science; William Yeoh, computer science, Huiping Cao, computer science; Son Tran, computer science; and Susan Brown, director of the NMSU STEM outreach center.

The center will focus its efforts on energy, communication, coordination and monitoring. One of its core goals is to increase the number of trained scientists and engineers in smart grid technologies. The staff is in the process of establishing an undergraduate minor and a master’s of science in smart grid technologies. 

The College of Engineering is researching how to best manage, control and protect electricity grids.

“This technology allows you to use what you have smarter,” Ranade explained. “It allows you to design things in a smarter way, and the ultimate promise is whether or not customers wants to do something with the information, it would be nice to know that when they’re using electricity at a premium time and the cost is high.”

Ranade added that in the last six months, companies, including electric co-ops, have already begun to express interest in the research.

The center will also focus on education of K-12 students, including recruitment, training and retention of female and Hispanic students. Brown said the STEM Outreach Center already extends to thousands of students annually and its programs will incorporate this research and create excitement about smart grid technologies.

Pontelli pointed out that it is also imperative to keep those students in Las Cruces and NMSU. 

“We’re ambitious,” he said. “I think this has a lot of potential and could create new job opportunities in the state.”

The team is also creating partnerships at the local, national and international level. 

One of the benefits of smart grids is a decrease in prices, as researchers create a market place that currently doesn’t exist. The U.S. Army, for example, has already begun to develop smart grid prototypes in new military installations.

“They want to be as self sufficient as possible,” said Pontelli, who already has years of experience in intelligent systems. This, however, is his first endeavor in smart grid technology. He hopes NMSU will become an innovator in the smart grid industry and the first institution in the Southwest to offer training programs and a graduate degree track.

“We’re very excited about this grant,” he said. “There are a lot of statistics that show the demand for people with that kind of expertise is very high and going to explode in the next few years. It’s going to be a very marketable skill and we want to help meet that demand with our programs.”

To learn more about the research center, visit http://icredits.nmsu.edu.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/dHFuKMfcuaI.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU developing food supplement to improve cattle digestive system


New Mexico State University beef cattle nutritionist Eric Scholljegerdes is conducting research on an amino acid feed supplement for pregnant cows to see if it improves the digestive system of their offspring. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)
New Mexico State University beef cattle nutritionist Eric Scholljegerdes is conducting research on an amino acid feed supplement for pregnant cows to see if it improves the digestive system of their offspring. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

During drought, having cattle that can tolerate poor nutritional forage is the difference between a cow and calf operation going under, or staying in business.

Pregnant cows have a harder time during drought because they are eating for two. If they are not able to consume and digest the required nutrients during pregnancy, calf development can be negatively influenced, which in turn has an impact on the dollars in the cattle producer’s bank account.

To help the cows’ digestive systems to be more efficient in harvesting nutrients from poor-quality forage, New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Eric Scholljegerdes is developing an amino acid feed supplement and studying the influence it has on fetal programming.

“This particular amino acid has been shown to stimulate blood flow by increasing the number and size of blood vessels going to the placenta,” said Scholljegerdes, beef cattle nutritionist. He is conducting research on cattle at NMSU’s Corona Range and Livestock Research Center. 

“This increase in blood flow should stimulate the overall nutrients supplied to the fetus. By giving the amino acid supplement to the cow 40 days into gestation when fetal organs are developing, in particular the digestive tract and associated organs, it should help the digestive system function better after birth.”

The first generation of calves, born during the fall of 2013, is currently being monitored to assess the impact of this feeding program. 

“One of the first questions we hoped to answer is how it was going to influence the birth weight. The answer is that the offspring of the amino acid supplemented cows did not have higher birth weights, and that is important to cattle producers,” he said. “We are now conducting performance tests on the calves to determine if their digestive system is more efficient than the control group of the mothers who did not receive the amino acid.”

A second part of the study is looking at the impact of the amino acid feed supplement administered 200 days into gestation, during the last trimester of the pregnancy.

“During the third trimester, the calf is pretty well developed and it is growing,” Scholljegerdes said. “However, our thought is that if we can improve blood flow to particular tissues, we could see an improvement in meat quality.”

“Overall, we hope that we can improve females’ longevity by enhancing the digestive system,” Scholljegerdes said. “So when the cow is pregnant and we are in a drought, we are hopeful that through this feeding program she will be able to tolerate poor forage and extract the nutrients she needs for her developing fetus.”

The downside to this work, he said, is that during the early period of gestation when this program may have the greatest impact, grass is starting to grow and is typically of high quality. Many cattle producers do not want to supplement cows because quality of the grass is sufficient to meet their needs. 

“I don’t disagree with that at all, but if we can come up with a 30-day nutrient supplement program that’s going to stimulate the calf’s future abilities to thrive, then I would argue the ends may justify the means,” Scholljegerdes said. 

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU professor redesigns scheduling in healthcare clinics to improve quality of service


Yu-Li Huang, New Mexico State University industrial engineering assistant professor, has been researching methods to improve the efficiency of scheduling outpatient medical appointments for a number of years and has recently worked with several local medical providers, reducing patient wait time and increasing access to patients. (NMSU photo by Emilee Cantrell)
Yu-Li Huang, New Mexico State University industrial engineering assistant professor, has been researching methods to improve the efficiency of scheduling outpatient medical appointments for a number of years and has recently worked with several local medical providers, reducing patient wait time and increasing access to patients. (NMSU photo by Emilee Cantrell)

Imagine going to the doctor’s office, seeing the doctor right away, and avoiding lengthy amounts of idle time in the waiting room.

Yu-Li Huang, assistant professor of industrial engineering, and six NMSU students are researching how to redesign the outpatient scheduling system in clinics to be more efficient and reduce patient waiting. 

Huang and his students are working on the project for Presbyterian Health System in Los Lunas, New Mexico. The team’s goal is to make the outpatient scheduling system more efficient, improve patient access and reduce patient waiting time. So far, the team has done the analysis, collected the results and finished the preliminary findings for the project.

Huang said two problems they found were appointment scheduling and the amount of time doctors spend on charting at the clinic. He found that in an eight-hour day a doctor spends more than two hours charting. He said that if the charting time is reduced, physicians will be able to see more patients and patient access will be improved.

“What we have found right now is the physicians in this clinic, they tend to spend about 20 percent of their time doing charting,” Huang said. “I think two hours of charting time can be reduced by providing a better computer interface.”

Huang said they are not far enough along in the project to give their recommendation to the physicians for their appointment scheduling. He believes the physicians should spend most of their time with patients and the charting should be part of the patient visit rather than leaving their schedule open to catch up on all of their charting. He also said reducing charting time is a must before he can provide a recommendation to the physicians on how to more efficiently schedule appointments. The expected outcomes will not only improve patient waiting and access to care, but also reduce the physician’s stress in a clinic day.

“One of the key elements for the type of scheduling I do is to improve the patient’s quality of service and patient access to care,” Huang said.

He said there are solutions to these healthcare issues, but there is a gap between the “theoretical base” and the “practical sense” since the solutions haven’t actually been adopted by many clinics. 

“I have the theoretical base and I want to use this clinic as a pilot to see if the theoretical base can actually be implemented,” Huang said. 

In October 2013, Huang hosted a workshop at Presbyterian where the chief operating officer and managers listened to his proposal and decided they wanted to move forward with the project. Huang said if they are successful in this study then Presbyterian will work with them to implement the solutions into other clinics in the Presbyterian Healthcare Services system.

Huang has also worked on similar projects, one in the radiology department at Mimbres Memorial Hospital in Deming and another at the Women’s Health Center in Las Cruces. 

Huang said the Women’s Health Center had an issue with their scheduling and sought his help for a better scheduling system to reduce stress on their midwives, improve access to care and reduce the patient waiting time. Huang said their reduction in patient waiting time was significant. It started at an average of about 40 to 45 minutes, and currently the patient waits 10 to 15 minutes on average.

To come up with a successful solution, Huang looks at the data, considers the amount of time the physician spends with the patient and the variation of the treatment time. Although his projects at Presbyterian and the Women’s Health Clinic are similar, they are not identical.

Huang said for the Women’s Health Clinic he used the theory of constraints, a method that uses many different constraints to come up with an “optimal solution.” For the Presbyterian project, he is using a grid scheduling system, which is based on minimizing the costs. In the grid scheduling system he discovers the average amount of time a physician spends with a patient, then schedules appointments based on that amount of time with consideration of variation.

For example, if the grid system determines that the minimum appointment length should be 15 minutes, then returning patients will be scheduled with 15-minute appointments. Other appointments, such as new patient appointments, that might take longer, would be scheduled in 15-minute increments. That means a new patient would get a 30-minute appointment and if a patient had a need for a long appointment it might be 45 minutes long. “The process of this grid system is interchangeability,” Huang said.

“For the non-grid appointment system, where a return visit could be scheduled at 15 minutes and a new patient could be scheduled at 20 minutes, if I put the new patient into a 15-minute slot, the physician is going to be delayed and the delay is going to compound all the way to the end of the day. On the other hand, if I put the return visit patient into a new patient slot, the physician may be idle, so there’s underutilized medical resources, ” Huang said.

Huang started researching outpatient scheduling when he was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan. He studied three clinics in Michigan and after he redesigned their schedule, the reduction in patient waiting was as much as 56 percent. The clinics not only had a reduction of patient waiting, but Huang said the environment was also less stressful.

“In a couple clinics it was addressed that they used to have a very huge headache by the end of the day, but after implementing my solution the headache is gone,” he said.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/yVgGpEBP0_E.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU researchers studying new invasive pest from Africa, Asia


A new invasive pest – a stink bug called Bagrada hilaris. (NMSU photo)
A new invasive pest – a stink bug called Bagrada hilaris. (NMSU photo)

LOS LUNAS – Brassica crops in New Mexico are in danger of attack from a new invasive pest – a stink bug called Bagrada hilaris, which is currently spreading through the Southern part of the United States.

Researchers from New Mexico State University have joined others from California and Arizona to determine ways to control this insect, which could devastate some of the niche-market crops raised by New Mexico’s small-scale and organic growers.

“The Bagrada bug was first found in New Mexico in 2010 in Las Cruces and has since migrated as far north as Santa Fe County,” said Tessa Grasswitz, NMSU Extension integrated pest management specialist and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s state IPM coordinator. “This insect is native to southern Africa and has recently spread to parts of southern Europe and Asia, becoming a serious problem in India and elsewhere.” 

It mainly attacks crops in the brassica family, which includes various Asian greens, such as bok choy, as well as mustard greens, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli. Grasswitz’s research at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas is among the first in the nation to address management tactics for this pest in organic growing systems. 

“Until now, this has been a neglected area of research, because in California and Arizona, where the insect was first found, the main concern has been to protect large-scale conventionally grown brassica crops,” Grasswitz said.

“This insect has sucking mouth parts, which it uses to suck nutrients from the plant,” she said. “While feeding, it also injects a toxin that causes affected leaves to take on a scorched appearance, eventually turning brown and dying

In the main vegetable growing areas of California and Arizona, growers struggle with establishment of their plants because the pest can kill the emerging seedlings. 

“Some of these commercial growers have been spraying with various conventional insecticides every three days for three weeks during the establishment phase of the crop to get a stand,” she said. “For organic growers, it’s much more problematic, because organic insecticides are not as potent as conventional products. So dealing with Bagrada bug is a real issue for organic producers.”

Grasswitz is trying to develop integrated pest management strategies for organic growers to use against the Bagrada bug. These tactics include determining the insect’s host plant preferences in order to develop a trap-cropping system, assessing the impact of native predators and parasites and testing various organic insecticides.

“One of our first tasks was to find the insect’s preferred host plant to use as a trap-crop,” she said of her research that began in 2012. “We found that Bagrada bugs are strongly attracted to spring raab, so we used this plant as a basis for a trap-cropping experiment in 2013, with arugula as the main crop.”

In an IPM program, a trap-crop of the preferred host is planted to attract the pest away from the main crop. Once the insect is attracted to the trap-crop, controls are applied to eliminate the bug.

“The trap-crop proved highly attractive to adult Bagrada bugs,” Grasswitz said of the 2013 research. “But the system as a whole failed because we were unable to control the pest with currently available organic insecticides before it started to reproduce.”

However, Grasswitz conducted an additional late-season insecticide trial in October that was more successful.

“The better control may have been due to the slower breakdown of active ingredients under the less intense sunlight at that time,” she said. “Trap-cropping may still be useful in protecting fall brassica plantings in organic systems, or for mid-season production of conventionally grown crops.”

For the time being, while Grasswitz continues to look for better ways to manage the bugs, she is advising growers of brassica crops to use a physical method of control.

“For small-scale and organic growers, if the pest is established in their region, the best thing they can do to protect the crop, at least initially, is to use floating row covers, which can be very effective” she said. “We are also trying to work out some strategic planting dates for brassica crops in different parts of the state so that growers can avoid peak Bagrada populations.”

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU’s annual poster fair explores wide array of research, creative activity

University Research Council judge Mary O’Connell, left, discusses a poster representing a research project titled “Minimum Lab PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” by Katrina Doolittle, right, and David Schoep, not pictured, of the Department of Facilities and Services.
University Research Council judge Mary O’Connell, left, discusses a poster representing a research project titled “Minimum Lab PPE (Personal Protective Equipment),” by Katrina Doolittle, right, and David Schoep, not pictured, of the Department of Facilities and Services.

Date: 2013-10-21
Writer: Darrell J. Pehr, (575) 646-3223, [email protected]

More than 40 research posters were presented at the 13th annual University Research Council’s Research and Creative Activities Fair Oct. 4 at New Mexico State University.

With topics ranging from urban entomology and beet armyworms to a study of the mysteries of the universe, NMSU students, faculty and staff shared updates on their research efforts in an afternoon of academic discussion, interaction and contemplation.

“The Research and Creative Activity Fair is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the vast diversity in research projects constantly underway at New Mexico State University,” said Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research. “Our university truly is a place where the quest for discovery is an ongoing process. I am very proud of our research and creative endeavors, and I thank all who participated for taking the time to share their progress with others.”

The annual fair is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research.

Projects looked at the preparation of autism spectrum specialists, analyzed methods to “Identify Native American Student Cultural Sources of Strength that Reinforce Persistence in Higher Education” and examined “Spacecraft Guidance, Navigation and Controls.” Others explored topics like liquid algae extraction, tribal wisdom for business ethics, a transcriptomic approach to identifying an orphan’s home and lab personal protective equipment.

In all, 44 poster presentations were made, up from about 30 posters during the 2011 and 2012 fairs. Of the 44 posters this year, 18 were from the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, nine were from the College of Arts and Sciences, eight were from the College of Engineering, four were from the College of Health and Social Services, three were from the College of Education, one was from the College of Business and one was from the Department of Facilities and Services.

The URC Fair is held in conjunction with the Alliance for Minority Participation conference, which allows students from all over the state of New Mexico to learn about research taking place at NMSU. It also provides an opportunity for faculty members to see other research or creative scholarly activity taking place on campus, which opens the door for potential collaboration between research projects.

The following posters were selected to receive prizes by URC judges Muhammed Dawood, associate professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Shanna Ivey, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences; Mary O’Connell, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences; and Steve Stochaj, Distinguished Professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Tied for First Place:

“Infection Dynamics of Sylvatic Dengue Virus in a Reservoir Host Species” by K. Hanley, T. Kautz, M. Brown, S. Whitehead, S. Weaver, N. Vasiakis, and P. Marx


“Striving to be Tobacco Free” by S. Wilson, C. Kratzke, C. Spurny, M. Wilson and C. Luna

Second Place:

“Minimum Lab PPE (Personal Protective Equipment)” by K. Doolittle and D. Schoep

Third Place:

“Beet Armyworm, Spodoptera exigua, and Cotton Bollworm, Heliocoverpa zea, Development on Glandless Cotton” by J. Pierce, P. Monk, A. Garnett, O.J. Idowu, R.P. Flynn and C. Vasquez

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.

NMSU cancer researcher pursues potential of unique estrogen receptor for diagnosis, treatment

NMSU researcher Jeffrey Arterburn in his lab with a former NMSU student working on GPR-30, a unique kind of estrogen receptor, which has potential for diagnosing and treating breast cancer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)
NMSU researcher Jeffrey Arterburn in his lab with a former NMSU student working on GPR-30, a unique kind of estrogen receptor, which has potential for diagnosing and treating breast cancer. (NMSU photo by Darren Phillips)

Date: 2013-10-14
Writer: Minerva Baumann, (575) 646-7566, [email protected]

The Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which is having its annual fundraiser this week, and Cowboys for Cancer Research are among the first organizations that helped a New Mexico State University cancer researcher and his team to pursue efforts to unlock the potential of a unique kind of estrogen receptor to diagnose and treat breast cancer.

“One of the fundamental discoveries that we have made over the past few years is the identification of a new type of estrogen receptor that functions differently than the classical nuclear receptor,” said Jeffrey Arterburn, Regent’s Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences.

His research in organic and organometallic synthetic chemistry specifically focuses on the development of receptor-targeted molecular probes, imaging agents, anticancer and antiviral drugs.

Arterburn’s work has contributed to the development of synthetic compounds that target GPR-30, a type of estrogen receptor found in breast, ovarian and endometrial cancers. Estrogen receptor status is important for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancers. This alternative receptor is activated in response to the drug Tamoxifen, which is used to block the nuclear estrogen receptors in breast cancer cells.

Over the last decade, Arterburn’s research at NMSU has been funded mainly through grants from the National Institutes of Health. He currently has two major research proposals pending with Eric Prossnitz, a cell biologist at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, Arterburn’s a long-time partner in this area of cancer research.

“Our research program has focused on studying these different types of estrogen receptors and looking at molecules that are able to control the activity,” Arterburn said. “We’ve recently identified a molecule that is the first known case of a compound that is selective for nuclear estrogen receptors and does not interact with the G-protein coupled estrogen receptor, so this is a key starting point.

“Through computational modeling of the estrogen receptor site, we’ve identified a strategy for designing new drugs with improved selectivity that should be able to bind and deactivate this receptor,” Arterburn said.

In addition to drug therapies, Arterburn and his team are developing diagnostics that would be able to tell patients more about the type of tumor they have and to monitor the status of a tumor in response to therapy.

“We’re very interested in the process of detecting and monitoring the status of the cancer through treatment,” Arterburn said. “The targeting part of it, the interaction of these novel molecular scaffolds that fit like special hands in the gloves of the receptors can serve both as the mechanism for controlling the action and for delivering a detectible entity.”

Support for researchers like Arterburn is a large part of the purpose behind NMSU’s Tough Enough to Wear Pink campaign, which seeks to raise awareness about breast cancer and raise funds for cancer research.

“Tough Enough to Wear Pink and Cowboys for Cancer Research have both helped support our initial efforts to explore these leads to develop new and improved drugs and diagnostics that could be used to enhance the treatment of breast cancer,” Arterburn said. “We started about 10 years ago and it’s been the most exciting science I have experienced and could imagine, and we hope this research will ultimately lead to new breakthroughs in cancer treatment.”

Learn more about the Tough Enough to Wear Pink activities at NMSU at http://www.pinkaggie.com/.

Watch this video on YouTube at http://youtu.be/V0AAp7Azo40.

For more information on this, and other NMSU stories, visit the NMSU News Center.