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Creating the next generation of treatments for substance abuse disorders

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VIU Psychology alum Dr. Travis Baker receives $2.5-million grant for research

Little did Dr. Travis Baker know when he first came to Vancouver Island University more than 20 years ago that it would be the start of a successful career in researching new treatments for addiction. Now an Assistant Professor at Rutgers University-Newark’s Centre for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience, he recently received a $2.5-million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue his research.

“I will be developing the next generation of brain-based therapies for substance use disorders,” he says. “If it wasn’t for the great mentorship I received from VIU, and the excellent learning experience from the program, I have no idea where I would be today.”

Read on to learn more about Baker’s ground-breaking research, and how VIU inspired his current career in neuroscience.

Why did you choose VIU?

In 1997 I was permanently laid off from a job in the forestry industry in Port Alberni due to the poor economy at the time and then moved to Alberta to work in the oil fields like many of my peers. I knew I eventually wanted to return to the Island to pursue academia. During my time in Alberta, I worked with a career counsellor from Port Alberni (as part of a retraining program offered by the forestry industry), and he helped me find a path to university based on my interests. We both agreed that the Psychology program at VIU was the perfect fit for me, given that it had such a good reputation and covered many topics I wanted to study.

Can you share a highlight or two from your time here?

I really did not know what to expect when I arrived on campus, as I was the first from my family to go to university. But what I immediately found after a few classes was that the professors were amazing, classes were a nice size so it wasn’t too overwhelming for me, and the professors were very approachable outside of class. They were eager to chat and help you excel in your program. The learning experience was awesome, and I found a great cohort of students to work with – another benefit of the small class sizes. Meeting people who were like-minded and shared similar interests made the whole experience fun.

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Was there a particular professor or class who had a major impact on you?

There were two professors who really helped guide me to where I am today. The late Dr. Tony Robertson first introduced me to neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience. He was such a pleasant individual and so interesting to learn from. Tony provided me with a clear window into the brain and its functions and encouraged me to learn more from him outside of class. He introduced me to human electrophysiology and taught me to record my first brainwave (or electroencephalography), a technique that is the major focus of my research today, and at the heart of my recent research grant. I am forever grateful for his mentorship, and we kept in touch over the years until his passing. After learning of his passing, I dedicated my recent Nature: Scientific Reports publication to him. This study is one of the first of its kind to combine mobile-EEG and virtual reality to record EEG from people actively walking in a virtual maze to find rewards.

I am also forever grateful to Dr. Elliot Marchant. Without his mentorship, I would never have pursued a career researching drug addiction. He was hired when I was in my second year and he taught courses on neuroscience, drugs and behaviour, and also gave me the opportunity to do actual research. He recognized my passion for research, and I will never forget the day he approached me and asked if I had ever thought about pursuing research in graduate school. My initial response was: “What is graduate school?” He worked with me to actively pursue graduate school. This was all done outside of class, and he was so passionate in seeing me succeed. Without his mentorship in both research and career development, I would not be where I am today.

What have you been up to since graduating from VIU?

After VIU, I completed a Master of Science in Experimental Psychology and a PhD in Cognitive Science at the University of Victoria. I did a post-doc with the University of Montreal’s Department of Psychiatry and at the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University (Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery, specializing in neuroimaging). Both my PhD and post-doc were supported by a Canadian Institute of Health Research grant, which I am so grateful to have received. After four years of being a post-doc, I was offered an excellent opportunity from Rutgers University in Newark, NJ, where I am today. I am now an Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator of my own lab (Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroimaging and Stimulation). If it wasn’t for the great mentorship I received from VIU, and the excellent learning experience, I have no idea where I would be today.

Tell us about your research and what you hope to accomplish.

With the support of the National Institute on Drug Abuse grant, I am using a cutting-edge, robot-assisted brain-imaging technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation (Ri-TMS) to alter the brain’s response to the use of substances. This could correct processes in the brain that sustain substance-use disorders.

When people make a good choice and get rewarded, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released to help motivate and select that choice in the future. However, drugs of abuse can artificially release large amounts of dopamine, and in turn, can effectively increase the motivational value of drug-related choices. Addiction can thus be thought of as a fundamental problem of reward learning and motivation, such that drugs of abuse can create a motivational reward bias towards choices that lead to substance use while decreasing the motivation for other activities such as going to work or maintaining healthy relationships. We can measure this reward bias in individuals with a substance use disorder by recording a brainwave called the reward positivity.I hope to then use Ri-TMS to flip the brain’s response to substance use and reverse that bias, as measured by the reward positivity.

The overarching goal of this research is to reduce the frequency and severity of neurocognitive deficits among individuals with substance use disorder, and I anticipate that counteracting this reward bias may not only improve goal-directed processes, but may increase substance users’ success in treatment, and maintaining treatment goals.

What advice would you share with VIU students considering a career in research?

You are in a very nurturing learning environment. Be passionate about your studies and find ways to excel in your research direction within and outside of VIU while you are pursuing your degree. Look at the long-term goals of your studies, and always plan ahead with the advice from your mentors, they are there to guide you. VIU provided me with the foundation to achieve excellence in research and academia, so be confident in your studies and degree, and know that there will be more in store for you in the future. There will always be successes and failures in your endeavours, but trust that the foundations you are receiving at VIU will guide you through all of them.

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Rare ‘big fuzzy green ball’ comet visible in B.C. skies, a 50000-year sight

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In the night sky, a comet is flying by Earth for the first time in 50,000 years.

Steve Coleopy, of the South Cariboo Astronomy Club, is offering some tips on how to see it before it disappears.

The green-coloured comet, named C/2022 E3 (ZTF), is not readily visible to the naked eye, although someone with good eyesight in really dark skies might be able to see it, he said. The only problem is it’s getting less visible by the day.

“Right now the comet is the closest to earth and is travelling rapidly away,” Coleopy said, noting it is easily seen through binoculars and small telescopes. “I have not been very successful in taking a picture of it yet, because it’s so faint, but will keep trying, weather permitting.”

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At the moment, the comet is located between the bowl of the Big Dipper and the North Star but will be moving toward the Planet Mars – a steady orange-coloured point of light- in the night sky over the next couple of weeks, according to Coleopy.

“I have found it best to view the comet after 3:30 in the morning, after the moon sets,” he said. “It is still visible in binoculars even with the moon still up, but the view is more washed out because of the moonlight.”

He noted the comet looks like a “big fuzzy green ball,” as opposed to the bright pinpoint light of the stars.

“There’s not much of a tail, but if you can look through the binoculars for a short period of time, enough for your eyes to acclimatize to the image, it’s quite spectacular.”

To know its more precise location on a particular evening, an internet search will produce drawings and pictures of the comet with dates of where and when the comet will be in each daily location.

Coleopy notes the comet will only be visible for a few more weeks, and then it won’t return for about 50,000 years.


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Extreme species deficit of nitrogen-converting microbes in European lakes

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Sampling of Lake Constance water from 85 m depth, in which ammonia-oxidizing archaea make up as much as 40% of all microorganisms

Dr. David Kamanda Ngugi, environmental microbiologist at the Leibniz Institute DSMZ

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Leibniz Institute DSMZ

 

An international team of researchers led by microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH in Braunschweig, Germany, shows that in the depths of European lakes, the detoxification of ammonium is ensured by an extremely low biodiversity of archaea. The researchers recently published their findings in the prestigious international journal Science Advances. The team led by environmental microbiologists from the Leibniz Institute DSMZ has now shown that the species diversity of these archaea in lakes around the world ranges from 1 to 15 species. This is of particularly concern in the context of global biodiversity loss and the UN Biodiversity Conference held in Montreal, Canada, in December 2022. Lakes play an important role in providing freshwater for drinking, inland fisheries, and recreation. These ecosystem services would be at danger from ammonium enrichment. Ammonium is an essential component of agricultural fertilizers and contributes to its remarkable increase in environmental concentrations and the overall im-balance of the global nitrogen cycle. Nutrient-poor lakes with large water masses (such as Lake Constance and many other pre-alpine lakes) harbor enormously large populations of archaea, a unique class of microorganisms. In sediments and other low-oxygen environments, these archaea convert ammonium to nitrate, which is then converted to inert dinitrogen gas, an essential component of the air. In this way, they contribute to the detoxification of ammonium in the aquatic environment. In fact, the species predominant in European lakes is even clonal and shows low genetic microdiversity between different lakes. This low species diversity contrasts with marine ecosystems where this group of microorganisms predominates with much greater species richness, making the stability of ecosystem function provided by these nitrogen-converting archaea potentially vulnerable to environmental change.

Maintenance of drinking water quality
Although there is a lot of water on our planet, only 2.5% of it is fresh water. Since much of this fresh water is stored in glaciers and polar ice caps, only about 80% of it is even accessible to us humans. About 36% of drinking water in the European Union is obtained from surface waters. It is therefore crucial to understand how environmental processes such as microbial nitrification maintain this ecosystem service. The rate-determining phase of nitrification is the oxidation of ammonia, which prevents the accumulation of ammonium and converts it to nitrate via nitrite. In this way, ammonium is prevented from contaminating water sources and is necessary for its final conversion to the harmless dinitrogen gas. In this study, deep lakes on five different continents were investigated to assess the richness and evolutionary history of ammonia-oxidizing archaea. Organisms from marine habitats have traditionally colonized freshwater ecosystems. However, these archaea have had to make significant changes in their cell composition, possible only a few times during evolution, when they moved from marine habitats to freshwaters with much lower salt concentrations. The researchers identified this selection pressure as the major barrier to greater diversity of ammonia-oxidizing archaea colonizing freshwaters. The researchers were also able to determine when the few freshwater archaea first appeared. Ac-cording to the study, the dominant archaeal species in European lakes emerged only about 13 million years ago, which is quite consistent with the evolutionary history of the European lakes studied.

Slowed evolution of freshwater archaea
The major freshwater species in Europe changed relatively little over the 13 million years and spread almost clonally across Europe and Asia, which puzzled the researchers. Currently, there are not many examples of such an evolutionary break over such long time periods and over large intercontinental ranges. The authors suggest that the main factor slowing the rapid growth rates and associated evolutionary changes is the low temperatures (4 °C) at the bottom of the lakes studied. As a result, these archaea are restricted to a state of low genetic diversity. It is unclear how the extremely species-poor and evolutionarily static freshwater archaea will respond to changes induced by global climate warming and eutrophication of nearby agricultur-al lands, as the effects of climate change are more pronounced in freshwater than in marine habitats, which is associated with a loss of biodiversity.

Publication: Ngugi DK, Salcher MM, Andre A-S, Ghai R., Klotz F, Chiriac M-C, Ionescu D, Büsing P, Grossart H-S, Xing P, Priscu JC, Alymkulov S, Pester M. 2022. Postglacial adaptations enabled coloniza-tion and quasi-clonal dispersal of ammonia oxidizing archaea in modern European large lakes. Science Advances: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adc9392

Press contact:
PhDr. Sven-David Müller, Head of Public Relations, Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures GmbH
Phone: ++49 (0)531/2616-300
Mail: press@dsmz.de

About the Leibniz Institute DSMZ
The Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures is the world’s most diverse collection of biological resources (bacteria, archaea, protists, yeasts, fungi, bacteriophages, plant viruses, genomic bacterial DNA as well as human and animal cell lines). Microorganisms and cell cultures are collected, investigated and archived at the DSMZ. As an institution of the Leibniz Association, the DSMZ with its extensive scientific services and biological resources has been a global partner for research, science and industry since 1969. The DSMZ was the first registered collection in Europe (Regulation (EU) No. 511/2014) and is certified according to the quality standard ISO 9001:2015. As a patent depository, it offers the only possibility in Germany to deposit biological material in accordance with the requirements of the Budapest Treaty. In addition to scientific services, research is the second pillar of the DSMZ. The institute, located on the Science Campus Braunschweig-Süd, accommodates more than 82,000 cultures and biomaterials and has around 200 employees. www.dsmz.de

PhDr. Sven David Mueller, M.Sc.
Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
+49 531 2616300
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Scientists are closing in on why the universe exists

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Particle astrophysicist Benjamin Tam hopes his work will help us understand a question. A very big one.

“The big question that we are trying to answer with this research is how the universe was formed,” said Tam, who is finishing his PhD at Queen’s University.

“What is the origin of the universe?”

And to answer that question, he and dozens of fellow scientists and engineers are conducting a multi-million dollar experiment two kilometres below the surface of the Canadian Shield in a repurposed mine near Sudbury, Ontario.

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Ten thousand light-sensitive cameras send data to scientists watching for evidence of a neutrino bumping into another particle. (Tom Howell/CBC)

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (SNOLAB) is already famous for an earlier experiment that revealed how neutrinos ‘oscillate’ between different versions of themselves as they travel here from the sun.

This finding proved a vital point: the mass of a neutrino cannot be zero. The experiment’s lead scientist, Arthur McDonald, shared the Nobel Prize in 2015 for this discovery.

The neutrino is commonly known as the ‘ghost particle.’ Trillions upon trillions of them emanate from the sun every second. To humans, they are imperceptible except through highly specialized detection technology that alerts us to their presence.

Neutrinos were first hypothesized in the early 20th century to explain why certain important physics equations consistently produced what looked like the wrong answers. In 1956, they were proven to exist.

A digital image of a sphere that is blue and transparent with lines all over.
The neutrino detector is at the heart of the SNO+ experiment. An acrylic sphere containing ‘scintillator’ liquid is suspended inside a larger water-filled globe studded with 10,000 light-sensitive cameras. (Submitted by SNOLOAB)

Tam and his fellow researchers are now homing in on the biggest remaining mystery about these tiny particles.

Nobody knows what happens when two neutrinos collide. If it can be shown that they sometimes zap each other out of existence, scientists could conclude that a neutrino acts as its own ‘antiparticle’.

Such a conclusion would explain how an imbalance arose between matter and anti-matter, thus clarifying the current existence of all the matter in the universe.

It would also offer some relief to those hoping to describe the physical world using a model that does not imply none of us should be here.

A screengrab of two scientists wearing white hard hat helmets, clear googles and blue safety suits standing on either side of CBC producer holding a microphone. All three people are laughing.
IDEAS producer Tom Howell (centre) joins research scientist Erica Caden (left) and Benjamin Tam on a video call from their underground lab. (Screengrab: Nicola Luksic)

Guests in this episode (in order of appearance):

Benjamin Tam is a PhD student in Particle Astrophysics at Queen’s University.

Eve Vavagiakis is a National Science Foundation Astronomy and Astrophysics Postdoctoral Fellow in the Physics Department at Cornell University. She’s the author of a children’s book, I’m A Neutrino: Tiny Particles in a Big Universe.

Blaire Flynn is the senior education and outreach officer at SNOLAB.

Erica Caden is a research scientist at SNOLAB. Among her duties she is the detector manager for SNO+, responsible for keeping things running day to day.


*This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic and Tom Howell. It is part of an on-going series, IDEAS from the Trenches, some stories are below.

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