Archive for the ‘News Releases’ Category

Flu Fighting

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

In the ongoing struggle to prevent and manage seasonal flu outbreaks, animal models of influenza infection are essential to gaining better understanding of innate immune response and screening for new drugs. A research team led by University of Maine scientists has shown that two strains of human influenza A virus (IAV) can infect live zebrafish embryos, and that treatment with an anti-influenza compound reduces mortality.

It is the first study establishing the zebrafish as a model for investigating IAV infection.

“A zebrafish model of IAV infection will provide a powerful new tool in the search for new ways to prevent and treat influenza,” according to the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Disease Models & Mechanisms.

The research team is led by professor Carol Kim and graduate student Kristin Gabor of UMaine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering, and includes four other UMaine researchers and one from Ghent University.

Most studies of viral pathogens that can infect zebrafish have been limited to fish-specific viruses. However, in recent years, four human viral illnesses have been reported to be modeled in zebrafish — herpes simplex, hepatitis C and chikungunya and now influenza A.

For studies of flu virus infection, the researchers focused on specific sialic acids and cytokines comparable in zebrafish embryos and humans. For these studies the zebrafish embryos also were kept in a temperature range comparable to the human respiratory tract (77 to 91.4 degrees F).

“The transparent zebrafish embryo allows researchers to visualize, track and image fluorescently labeled components of the immune response system in vivo, making it ideal for immunological research,” said Kim, a UMaine microbiologist and vice president for research and graduate school dean, writing earlier this year in the journal Developmental and Comparative Immunology.

In this study, visualization of a fluorescent reporter strain of IAV in vivo demonstrated that IAV infects cell lining surfaces of the zebrafish swimbladder, as it does in the human lungs.

In addition, the antiviral drug Zanamivir, known for being effective in treating influenza A and B in humans, was tested in vivo and was found to reduce IAV infection.

The researchers note that studies of IAV infection in adult zebrafish have the potential to provide valuable insights into infectious disease processes, particularly in understanding adaptive immune response and vaccine efficacy. This is critically important in light of the rapidly developing resistance of the influenza virus to drug therapies.

“This zebrafish embryo model of IAV infection will be an important resource for dissecting molecular mechanisms of host-pathogen interactions in vivo, as well as for identifying new antiviral therapies,” write the researchers.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

Stephen King’s Ghost Brothers debuts Nov. 8 at CCA

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a Southern gothic supernatural musical written by Stephen King, debuts Saturday, Nov. 8, at the Collins Center for the Arts at the University of Maine.

King, a best-selling author and UMaine alumnus, teamed with Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp and Grammy Award-winning T Bone Burnett to create the haunting tale of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and revenge.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is a collaboration 16 years in the making. The staging is both old fashioned, resembling an old-style radio show, and modern and unique in its interactive use of storytelling, music and singing to move the macabre story forward. Eerie blues roots music reveals the inner workings of the characters. The full cast for the musical was announced Sept. 30. Actor/writer/producer Billy Burke (The Twilight Saga) and actress/writer/singer Gina Gershon (Killer Joe, House of Versace, Boeing, Boeing) play the lead roles of Joe McCandless and Monique McCandless, respectively.

The tale begins with Joe McCandless reflecting on a past tragedy involving his two older brothers battling over a girl, which ended in the unfortunate deaths of all three. Now, with Joe as an adult and two boys of his own, he’s watching an all-too-familiar scenario play out before his eyes. With his sons at each other’s throats, Joe’s story will either save or destroy the McCandless family.

Shows at the CCA are at 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 8 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 9. Prior to Saturday’s debut, a 2014 season gala will be held at Fogler Library. A reception begins at 5 p.m. and a Southern-inspired dinner commences at 6 p.m. To order tickets, call 207.581.1755, visit, or

Joe McCandless Billy Burke
Monique McCandless Gina Gershon
The Shape Jake La Botz
Zydeco Cowboy Jesse Lenant
Drake McCandless Joe Tippett
Frank McCandless Lucas Kavner
Anna Wicklow Kylie Brown
Dan Coker Eric Moore
Andy McCandless Travis Smith
Jack McCandless Peter Albrink
Jenna Farrell Kate Ferber
Young Joe Zac Ballard
Featured Background Vocalist Carlene Carter
Newt Hoggenbeck / Ensemble Joe Jung
Ensemble Gwen Hughes
Ensemble Rob Lawhon


Music Supervision, Arrangements,
Band Leader, Guitarist Andy York
Percussion Dane Clark
Keyboards and Harmonica Troye Kinnett
Upright Bass Jon E. Gee


Nov. 8 Orono, ME Collins Center for the Arts
Nov. 9 Orono, ME Collins Center for the Arts
Nov. 11 Toronto, ON Massey Hall
Nov. 13 Philadelphia, PA Merriam Theatre
Nov. 14 Durham, NC Durham Performing Arts Center
Nov. 15 Washington, DC Warner Theatre
Nov. 16 Baltimore, MD The Modell Performing Arts Center at the LYRIC
Nov. 18 Red Bank, NJ Count Basie Theatre
Nov. 20 Portland, ME Merrill Auditorium
Nov. 21 Boston, MA Emerson Colonial Theatre
Nov. 22 Providence, RI The VETS
Nov. 24 New York, NY Beacon Theatre
Nov. 26 Detroit, MI Fisher Theatre
Nov. 28 Chicago, IL Broadway in Chicago’s Oriental Theatre
Nov. 29 St. Louis, MO Peabody Opera House
Dec. 1 Denver, CO Temple Hoyne Buell Theatre
Dec. 3 Phoenix, AZ Orpheum Theatre
Dec. 4 Los Angeles, CA Saban Theatre
Dec. 5 San Francisco, CA SHN Curran Theatre
Dec. 6 San Francisco, CA SHN Curran Theatre

Contact: Karen Cole, 207.581.1803

Think Big, Go Small, Mass Produce

Monday, September 29th, 2014

University of Maine researchers have been awarded $700,000 to develop eco-friendly particleboard panels with adhesive made of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF), as well as design a commercial-scale plant to manufacture the CNF.

With one $350,000 grant, UMaine scientists Mehdi Tajvidi, William Gramlich, Doug Bousfield, Doug Gardner and Mike Bilodeau, as well as John Hunt from the USDA Forest Service (USFS), are tasked with making strong, stiff and fully recyclable particleboard panels that can be used in countertops, door cores and furniture.

UMaine researchers taking part in the project have areas of expertise ranging from forest products to chemistry to chemical and biological engineering.

The adhesive in the particleboard will be made from CNF, rather than what has commonly been used — urea-formaldehyde. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has classified formaldehyde as a probable human carcinogen.

Cellulose nanomaterials are natural structural building units from wood; they’re 1/100,000th the width of a human hair and can be used in high-value products with superior properties, including exceptional strength.

“High-volume applications of cellulose nanomaterials, such as what we will be doing in this research, are a key step toward commercialization of these wonderful all-natural nanomaterials,” says Tajvidi, assistant professor of renewable nanomaterials in the School of Forest Resources.

“Replacing formaldehyde-based resins with a biomaterial has always been desired and we are happy this is happening at UMaine.”

University scientists say utilizing CNF in particleboard has considerable market promise, and optimizing both techniques and methodology are key to successful mass production and commercialization.

To optimize techniques and methodology, UMaine has been awarded another $350,000 to construct a commercial-scale CNF manufacturing plant with a capacity of 2 tons per day.

“This first commercial cellulose nanofibril manufacturing plant is the next phase in demonstrating the scalability of the technology,” says Bilodeau, director of the UMaine Process Development Center.

“It will accelerate commercialization of CNF by making large quantities of CNF available to support the growth in application development activities.”

Paperlogic, a Southworth Company, is a collaborator on the plant project. The CNF plant is slated to be built at Paperlogic’s mill in Turners Falls, Massachusetts; it is expected to be commissioned in late 2015.

Both projects are funded through P3Nano — a public-private partnership founded by the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities and the USFS.

The goals of the project are to commercialize cellulosic nanomaterials, create jobs and improve forest health.

Experts in business, government and academia chose to fund the UMaine proposals and seven others from 65 submissions.

Carlton Owen, chair of the P3Nano Steering Committee and president of the endowment, said in addition to creating high-value products, the research could result in jobs and improve the health of forests.

Federal matching funds are provided by the Forest Service’s State and Private Forestry and Research and Development branches and work is coordinated with the USFS Forest Products Laboratory.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

A Master’s Degree at 85

Monday, September 29th, 2014

Six years ago, Howard Reiche Jr. started “putting things away” that he felt he could “do without” in order to devote as much time as possible to other more pressing family commitments, including caring for his beloved wife, Stevie. About six months ago, shortly after his 85th birthday, he renewed his focus on some longstanding personal goals, priorities and “unfinished business.”

“I realized I needed a change in my life,” says the Portland, Maine, native who is a long-time resident of Falmouth.

That’s when Reiche got to work on his bucket list. He dusted off his cello that, six years ago, he’d put in the corner of his office, and he started taking lessons. He took up watercolor painting again and started swimming three half-miles every week. He also renewed his 20-year passion of collecting 18th-century autographs of the original signers of the Declaration of Independence (he has 37 of the 55).

In August, he also contacted the University of Maine Graduate School to see if he could finish the master’s degree he started in 1950.

“I have a bucket list of things that I want to accomplish and this was on my list to talk to somebody about,” says Reiche. “I just needed somebody to say it might be worthwhile looking at this.”

After graduating from Bowdoin College, Reiche enrolled at UMaine in 1950 to pursue a master’s degree in zoology and study microbial genetics. He completed the two semesters of coursework, passed his final exams and was set to finish his thesis when he was told that he was supposed to have taken organic chemistry at Bowdoin prior to enrolling in the master’s program at UMaine.

“At the time, I was 21, married, with no money and the draft hanging over my head,” says Reiche. “Spending another year at UMaine to take one undergraduate course was out of the question. But it’s been on my bucket list all this time.”

Reiche left the university to take a temporary teaching position, and then spent three years as a medical services corps officer in the U.S. Air Force. Following discharge from the military, he launched what would become a 32-year career in Maine’s paper industry.

“S.D. Warren Paper Company was looking for nonengineers who had college degrees with an abundance of science and math,” Reiche says. “Four of us were hired, along with engineers from UMaine and Syracuse.”

Through the years at S.D. Warren and then Scott Paper, Reiche worked in product quality control, sales and customer service, and production. Before retiring in 1988, he was mill manager at the Westbrook, Maine, mill and a vice president in the global corporation.

He also researched and wrote books, including Closeness: Memories of Mrs. Munjoy’s Hill (2002) and The Smile of Providence: A History of Gilead, Maine 1804–2004 (coauthored in 2004).

It was that body of lifetime workplace experience that UMaine evaluated as prior learning equivalent to the few remaining credits needed to fulfill a nonthesis master’s degree. Oct. 7 in a ceremony in Falmouth, UMaine will award Reiche a Master of Professional Studies degree in Biochemistry.

“Mr. Reiche’s career in the fields of medicine, science, engineering and business, coupled with his broad body of unique experiences over a lifetime, stand as a tribute to the man and highlight the importance of maintaining interest, pursuing knowledge and giving 100 percent,” said Carol Kim, UMaine vice president for research and dean of the Graduate School. “We’re happy that, by conferring the long-overdue master’s degree on Mr. Reiche, we could help him with this important accomplishment.”

With his UMaine degree, Reiche will join a dozen other family members who are University of Maine alumni. Both of his children, Stacey and Ford, graduated with UMaine degrees in 1979 and 1976 respectively. His father and namesake graduated from UMaine with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, both in biology in 1924 and 1936, respectively, and went on to a legendary career in education. The Howard C. Reiche Community School in Portland’s West End is named for his father.

“The University of Maine has always been a part of the family,” says Reiche, whose UMaine memories include attending football games as a boy and hearing his father reminisce about putting himself through college as a member of the Harmony Hounds. “It made me very, very happy that UMaine followed up on my weird request.”

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

Shaping a Sustainable Future

Monday, September 29th, 2014

The Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions at the University of Maine will host the 7th annual Mitchell Lecture on Sustainability Oct. 2 with a talk by Harvard University’s William Clark of the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Sen. George J. Mitchell and UMaine President Susan Hunter are scheduled to make remarks.

Clark’s talk, “Mobilizing knowledge to shape a sustainable future,” will focus on strategies for linking knowledge with action to improve human well-being while protecting the planet’s life-support systems.

A pioneer in the emerging field of sustainability science, Clark will discuss how collaborations involving universities, government, the private sector and civil society are helping to tackle the challenge of sustainable development. Drawing upon lessons learned in both local and global efforts, he’ll show how university–stakeholder partnerships can accelerate the transition to a sustainable world.

The lecture will run from 1 to 2:30 p.m. at Hauck Auditorium with a reception to follow. The event is free and open to all, but tickets are required and can be obtained by calling 207.581.3244 or by making a reservation online.

William Clark is the Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development and co-directs Harvard’s Sustainability Science Program. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is a recipient of a MacArthur Award, the Humboldt Prize, the Kennedy School’s Carballo Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Harvard College Phi Beta Kappa Prize for Excellence in Teaching.

Previous Mitchell Lecture speakers include the late Elinor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics and the only woman to ever win the prize; Jane Lubchenco, Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon University and the first woman to serve as administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); and James Gustave “Gus” Speth, co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and founder of the World Resources Institute.

The mission of the Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions is to help search for, implement and evaluate policies and practices that protect ecosystems while improving economic well-being and fostering strong communities in Maine, New England and beyond. The overall strategy for achieving the goal is to transform the creation and support of interdisciplinary teams within the university as well as working to meet the needs of stakeholders. In essence, working to link knowledge to action more effectively.

The vision for the Mitchell Lecture on Sustainability is to bring together people from across Maine who seek a clearer understanding of the economic, social and environmental challenges and opportunities we face, as well as to present constructive options that will facilitate a renewed commitment to the development of collaborative approaches to problem solving.

Contact: Tamara Field, 420.7755

11th Annual ESTIA Conference to be Held Oct. 24–25

Monday, September 29th, 2014

“Building Sustainable Communities: International, National and Local Perspectives” is the theme of the 11th annual ESTIA conference to be held Oct. 24–25 at the University of Maine.

The goal of this year’s conference is to inform the UMaine community about international, national and local efforts in sustainability and peace by emphasizing the importance of ethics and social responsibility as foundations for community development.

Presenters include congresswoman Chellie Pingree, who has worked on sustainability and agriculture; Jan Wampler, an architecture professor at MIT who has focused on designing ecocities and spaces in urban environments; Bernard Amadei, founder of Engineers Without Borders and Science Envoy for the U.S. Department of State; Soren Hermansen and Malene Lunden, co-directors of the Samso Energy Academy in Denmark; Ceren Bogac, an environmental designer from Cyprus; and Vasia Markides, a documentary filmmaker and Famagusta Ecocity Project founder.

Several UMaine faculty and other community members are also scheduled to speak during the conference that will be held in the Wells Conference Center from 6–9:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 24 and from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 25.

Regular admission is $50 per person, $35 for students. Price includes both Friday and Saturday sessions plus a Friday reception and Saturday lunch. Registration is online.

ESTIA (Ecopeace Sustainability Training and International Affiliations) is a Maine-based ecological organization that promotes and facilitates sustainability and peace through education.

For more information or to request a disability accommodation, contact Emily Markides at 207.581.2636 or

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 581.3747

UMaine Ecologist Joins Role Models as Mercer Award Recipient

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

A University of Maine marine scientist has won a prestigious award for publishing an outstanding ecological research paper before the age of 40.

Douglas Rasher, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center in Walpole. Maine, received the Mercer Award at the 99th annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Aug. 11, in Sacramento, California.

Rasher joins influential scientists, and some of his role models — E.O. Wilson, Jane Lubchenco, Robert MacArthur and Joseph Connell — as a recipient of the award.

“Over the past half-century, many well-known ecologists received this award for publishing what are now considered ‘classic’ papers,” Rasher says. “These studies shaped who I am as a scientist and how I view the natural world. That makes receiving this award very personal and special to me.”

Rasher was chosen the recipient of the 2014 Mercer Award for his eye-opening study on Fiji’s coral reefs that provided insight into management and conservation of coral reefs.

He was a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology when he conducted the research that demonstrated diverse grazing fish are essential to keep coral reefs clean and free of harmful seaweeds that quickly out-compete baby corals for space on the reef.

Clean reefs, he found, are healthy reefs and are better able to recover from hurricanes and other disturbances. Ecology published the study online in June 2013.

The Mercer Award, which has been presented annually since 1948, is named in honor of George Mercer, a young ecologist killed in World War II. ESA gives the award to promote contributions of early-career ecologists.

Bob Steneck, professor of marine ecology and biology at UMaine, said some awards are for a lifetime of achievements — for a job well done.

“Others are bellwethers of great things to come,” he says. “The Ecological Society of America’s Mercer Award is clearly in the later camp.”

Rasher says he pursued funding for a position at UMaine, in general, and the Darling Center, in particular, because it would enable him to work with Steneck, whom he calls a “world-class scientist,” as well as to study “one of today’s most pressing environmental issues.”

Rasher’s awarding-winning research paper, “Consumer diversity interacts with prey defenses to drive ecosystem function,” may be read at online.

Contact: Linda Healy, 207.563.8220

UMaine Study Finds BP Assessments Atill an Important Diagnostic Tool to Preclude Cognitive Decline Due to Hypertension

Monday, September 15th, 2014

Untreated and sustained hypertension has an adverse effect on brain structure and function, and is a risk factor for cognitive decline and dementia. Blood pressure (BP) variability from measurement-to-measurement has been associated with lower cognitive functioning and is considered a stronger predictor of mental performance than averaged BP.

However, recent studies suggest that BP measurements on a single health care office visit are insufficient to detect relations between variability in BP and cognitive performance, as compared to significantly more expensive ambulatory blood pressure assessments in the home.

In a new study published in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, a team of University of Maine investigators report that BP assessments during an office visit using an optimal measurement procedure are sufficient to find relations between blood pressure variability and cognitive performance and function. The UMaine researchers also report that the relation between higher BP variability and cognitive performance is seen only for hypertensive individuals whose blood pressure cannot be reduced to normal levels (140/90 mmHg), despite aggressive treatment and sustained treatment.

Using the Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Data (MSLS) set, the UMaine study employed 972 community-dwelling women and men who are free from stroke, dementia and kidney disease requiring dialysis (mean age 62 years, range 23-98 years). In cross-sectional analyses, the researchers found variability in BP and averaged BP from 15 BP measurements at a single study visit were related to cognitive function, including measures of overall performance, fluid ability and abstract reasoning ability.

They also found variability in BP was a stronger predictor of cognitive ability than averaged BP, with statistical control for demographic variables, including age, cardiovascular risk factors, and cardiovascular disease.

There were four important new findings in the UMaine study:

  •  There were no significant relations between variability in BP and cognition with only two assessments at a single occasion.
  • Measuring BP values five times in each of three positions — sitting, reclining and standing — resulted in the strongest relations between variability in BP and cognition.
  • Variability in diastolic BP was a stronger predictor of cognitive performance than variability in systolic BP.
  • These relations were only seen in persons for whom BP could not be reduced to normal levels despite aggressive treatment.

The findings are clinically important because scheduling demands in health care settings and research studies often result in only one or two BP measurements being taken in the sitting position. Including measurements of recumbent and standing BP can increase the information gained about variability in BP, according to the UMaine researchers.

Office visit BP readings can be used as an important preliminary diagnostic tool in terms of future brain injury and cognitive decline at very low cost, compared to more expensive ambulatory BP methods, say the researchers. Further, these findings indicate that the target of concern for relations between variability and cognition are important in treatment-resistant hypertension, where BP is not reduced to acceptable levels.

Research literature suggests that averaged BP values do not capture the beat-to-beat high and low values in BP, which may be more destructive to the brain than high steady-state average pressure on the arterial wall.

The Maine-Syracuse Study, initiated in 1975, was the first longitudinal study specifically devoted to the study of hypertension and cognitive performance and has been supported by the National Institute on Aging and the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of NIH for many years. UMaine’s MSLS investigators include Georgina Crichton, who also is affiliated with the National Physiology Research Centre, University of South Australia. Crichton, the lead author of the journal article, had research support from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia.

Other members of the UMaine research team: Merrill Elias and Michael Robbins, faculty members in the Department of Psychology and the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and Engineering at the University of Maine; Gregory Dore, a former UMaine student now at the National Institute of Aging in Baltimore; and Rachel Torres, an undergraduate research assistant in psychology.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 581.3745

UMaine Researcher: Timing Clutch for Greater Sage-Grouse

Friday, September 12th, 2014

It’s an oft-repeated phrase that the early bird gets the worm.

And, according to a collaborative study between the University of Maine and University of Nevada, Reno, it’s also true that a greater sage-grouse that lays her eggs earliest, lays the most eggs.

During a 10-year study of greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in Eureka County, Nevada, UMaine wildlife biologist Erik Blomberg found the single most-important determining factor of clutch size (number of eggs a hen lays in one nest) was the date the clutch was started.

Clutches laid earlier in the season had, on average, more eggs than those laid later in the season. The earliest clutches contained, on average, twice as many eggs as those laid later in the season.

The span of time during which greater sage-grouse laid eggs varied as much as 67 days in one nesting season, which typically occurs during April and May. The average clutch contained seven or eight eggs.

Similar seasonal patterns have been demonstrated in a number of other avian species.

The results are important, Blomberg says, as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is considering greater sage-grouse — a large ground-nesting species that resides in western North America where sagebrush dominates the landscape — as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The “sagebrush sea” where they breed is an imperiled ecosystem due to residential development, oil and gas drilling, wind farms, invasive plant species and other human uses of land, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“An important finding from this work is that clutch size in greater sage-grouse is influenced by the same evolutionary factors that we see throughout the avian world,” says Blomberg.

“This means that general principles of conservation known to benefit populations of other species (improvements to habitat quality that increase the availability of food resources to pre-breeding females) are likely to also be a good fit to the life histories of sage-grouse.”

Blomberg and his colleagues found that females laid more eggs during wetter years and at high-elevation sites, which also suggest that a degree of large-scale resource availability affects the numbers of a clutch.

Females that entered breeding season in better than average condition also laid more eggs. This was particularly true for second clutches laid after the females’ first nesting attempts had failed, which Blomberg says also indicates that food availability affects how many eggs a female sage-grouse will lay in a single clutch.

Studies conducted in northern latitudes consistently reported larger clutches for sage-grouse than those done at southern latitudes, according to the researchers. This pattern has been demonstrated repeatedly with bird species around the world, he says.

The research team located 400 sage-grouse nests using radio-telemetry, and flushed the females to record the number of eggs in each nest and to measure the size of the eggs.

The study, titled “Individual and environmental effects on egg allocations of female Greater Sage-Grouse,” was published in The Auk; Ornithological Advances. The study team included Daniel Gibson, Michael T. Atamian and James S. Sedinger, all affiliated with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Contact: Beth Staples, 581.3777

UMaine Researcher Developing Tool That Incorporates Sound and Touch to Aid Blind and Low-Vision Community

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

Nicholas Giudice knows what it’s like to be vision-impaired, and he’s using his personal experiences and research background to develop an affordable tool to help others in the blind and low-vision community in school, on the job and with independent travel.

Improving access to and the comprehension of visual material such as charts and maps is the focus of a National Science Foundation-sponsored project led by Giudice, an associate professor in the University of Maine’s School of Computing and Information Science. The research aims to develop and evaluate an intuitive, low-cost tool to aid the interpretation of graphic data for those who can’t rely on vision to do so.

The ability to effectively use and accurately understand graphs, figures and other visual representations of numeric data is critical for success in the classroom and at work, Giudice says. Spatial learning and navigating in and outside the home also frequently depend on the use of maps and other graphical aids, which can be challenging for blind people to use, he says.

The World Health Organization estimates vision impairment affects as many as 285 million people worldwide, with numbers expected to rise due to the aging population. About 11 percent of blind or low-vision people have a bachelor’s degree and 75 percent are unemployed, according to Giudice. He says providing blind people with a way to process graphics will boost their employability, as well as confidence, independence and overall quality of life.

The tool has the potential to reduce the information gap between blind people and their sighted peers, Giudice says, giving an example of a teacher displaying a diagram to a class. Instead of relying on descriptions from the teacher, a student who can’t see could pull up the same image on a handheld device and use touch and audio to comprehend what the other students see.

“Many jobs deal with graphics and interpreting them,” Giudice says. “If this tool is developed, deployed and broadly implemented, it would make blind people more confident. Employers would see it’s no big deal if someone can’t see a graphic as long as they can understand and interpret it, and can act upon it.”

Gaining access to these forms of information is often difficult and expensive, Giudice says, citing as an example a printer worth thousands of dollars that creates tactile graphics but can only be used for one purpose.

By developing software that works on commercial, multifunctional and portable hardware such as smartphones and tablets, the tool Giudice and his team create would be readily available and comparably inexpensive.

Screen-reading software that uses text-to-speech is helpful for written material but lacks the ability to convey graphic elements, Giudice says. His proposed tool would present graphics on the touchscreen of a device equipped with a vibration motor.

The tool would allow users to experience touch combined with vibration, or vibrotactile feedback, when they touch a graphic element perceived as points, lines or regions, similar to feeling traditional hard-copy graphics. Sound would be used to enhance the vibrotactile information, creating a vibro-audio approach to materials traditionally processed strictly by vision.

Giudice would like to eventually pair the tool with a real-time map that automatically updates using GPS when the user moves, helping the 70 percent of people with little to no vision who don’t navigate independently outside their home.

Giudice’s research in spatial informatics and cognitive neuroscience is guided by his own experiences of living with vision impairment. The core of his research is multimodal spatial cognition — how we learn about, think about and act in space using different senses. Through personal experiences and research, Giudice has found many spatial tasks done with vision can be completed equally well using other senses.

“If you touch a desk as opposed to seeing it, your brain processes the desk edges and recognizes it as a desk. It doesn’t care how it got the information,” says Giudice, who also directs the Virtual Environment and Multimodal Interaction (VEMI) Laboratory, which houses the university’s first, and Maine’s only, virtual reality research facility.

Giudice has a preference for working with the sense of touch because it’s more closely related to vision than the other senses and shares a lot of the same properties, he says.

The new project, “Non-visual access to graphical information using a vibro-audio display,” recently received $177,568 from the National Science Foundation — the first installment of a three-year $500,000 grant.

The research team is at the early stage of the project, developing a tool that best works with how people process tactile information; discovering an intuitive approach is the team’s first task.

“We know this can work, but to make sure it can be used commercially, we need to understand about cognitive factors, how well it can work compared to hard-copy or traditional tactile approaches,” Giudice says.

Initial data has shown learning similar to that achieved using printed lines is possible using a vibro-audio approach for graphs and shapes, Giudice says, but the process needs to be optimized.

“Early research has worked amazingly well, there’s a lot of potential here. But there’s still a lot we don’t know,” Giudice says, such as determining the best alignment, vibration and resolution.

Preliminary work on map panning and zooming has also been done, he says, adding his team plans to develop software to manipulate on-screen movement; a common practice, especially for reading maps, that’s difficult without sight.

In the future, Giudice would like the tool to be available as an app, or multiple apps, that could be used to supplement existing apps, such as Google Maps.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747