Penn Global is excited to congratulate the following 2015/2016 Global Engagement Fund Award Recipients:

Deciphering the Epigenetic Control of Memory Impairment Following Malnourishment During Development in India

Ted Abel (SAS), Roberto Bonasio (PSOM)

  • Abstract
  • India remains one of the foremost demographic regions where malnutrition is the chief cause of mortality of infants less than 5 years of age. Various co-morbidities such as stunted growth, wasting and associated cognitive aberrations are collateral effects of malnutrition in India, where the term usually refers to undernourishment. Of all nutritional deficiencies, chronic protein energy malnourishment (PEM) of undernourished mothers during the prenatal and lactating stages, have been reported to be the chief causality for cognitive deficits in offspring. However, a comprehensive view about the involvement of transgenerational epigenetic changes in progenies of malnourished mothers remains elusive.

    This project aims to bridge this gap by creating a rodent model system using a nutritional deficiency paradigm that will effectively recapitulate some of the phenotypes associated with PEM. Offspring of the nutritionally deprived mother animal will be assessed for cognitive impairment using a battery of behavioral tests that examine learning and memory. Both coding and non-coding transcripts of genes will be probed via next generation sequencing in an effort to unmask the role of microRNAs (miRNAs) and other non-coding transcripts in modulation of epigenetic changes in the offspring. Non-coding transcripts like miRNAs could regulate neurophysiological mechanisms in the hippocampal formation via modulating the expression of their target mRNAs, thus causing deficits in memory consolidation.

    This project will provide a collaborative platform to investigators from the state of the art behavioral and epigenetic groups at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Brain Research Centre (Manesar, India), in an effort to combine expertise in various aspects of next generational sequencing, behavioral assessment and development of animal models. Once animal models have been established and the relation between cognitive aberrations, epigenetic changes and MiRNAs has been assessed as a proof of principle, further studies would be undertaken by this collaborative platform (between the University of Pennsylvania, NBRC and All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi) to assess the epigenetic changes occurring in the age-matched human subjects in India who are progeny of malnourished mothers. The goal would be to find a causal link between miRNAs and epigenetic changes in the malnourished population in India that give rise to cognitive dysfunction with the hope of identifying therapeutic targets. Initial funding for the project would support the development of interdisciplinary collaborations across various labs of the two institutions and help develop the animal model to test our hypothesis. The findings from this study would enable us to compete for extra-mural funding from organizations like the Gates Foundation and NIH. 

The Global Institutions of Financial Regulation

Peter Conti-Brown (Wharton), David Zaring (Wharton)

  • Abstract
  • Finance is global, but the study of the law, politics, history, and economics of finance can fall into national silos. The nationalization of finance and financial regulation is deeply problematic, as it can increase the likelihood of global financial crises and exacerbate their effects when they do occur. Economic security, political stability, and human development can each be hampered by such crises.

    A key barrier to the integration of international financial regulation is proximity and personality. That is, it can be too easy for scholars to continue in their corners of the academy without gaining a better appreciation for the many other scholars the world over who are toiling on the very same issues.

    We aim to break down some of these barriers with a conference on international financial regulation that aims to facilitate conversations between US and Western European scholars on the one hand and those from India and Latin America on the other. The conference will include approximately 30 scholars selected on the basis of prior work. We will bring them to Philadelphia to present papers but also to discuss future collaborations in research, teaching, and public policy. The aim for the conference is to create enduring relationships that will promote these collaborations. Our invitations will include precisely this instruction: to come prepared with thinking about the ways these relationships can continue beyond the conference at home institutions.

    The conference itself will take place over three days, a Thursday evening through Saturday mid-day, in April 2017.

Penn in Latin America Conference 2016

Glen Gaulton (PSOM), Antonia Villarruel (Nursing)

  • Abstract
  • This request for Global Engagement Funds supports Penn’s overarching initiative to enhance campus wide engagement in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region. Led by the School of Nursing, the Penn in Latin America and the Caribbean (PLAC) initiative spearheaded an inaugural conference in Fall 2015 that bridged faculty and student engagement in this region from across Penn’s campus. Our request advances this nascent initiative by developing the 2nd annual PLAC conference to be delivered in Fall 2016 – with the overarching goal of highlighting Penn’s engagement in this region to an audience beyond Penn.

    Following outreach from multiple university stakeholders, the Perelman School of Medicine’s Center for Global Health agreed to lead the organizational effort for this endeavor. Working with the PLAC steering committee, which includes membership from four Penn Schools, general topics and goals for this conference were considered and a 2016 conference subcommittee was formed. As an outcome of the subcommittee meetings, an exciting – and timely – topic for this year’s conference has been identified: ‘Examining Regional and Governmental Public Health Responses to Emergent Threats in Latin America and the Caribbean.’ Within this broad domain, we envision two specific subtopics: [a] emerging threats through infectious disease, and [b] emerging threats linked to non-communicable diseases, such as obesity and related metabolic disorders.

    While logistical details of the conference are still under development, the objectives will be to: (1) mobilize LAC-interested faculty throughout Penn to participate in a half-to-one day symposium; (2) engage faculty from at least five Schools of the university to serve as speakers in this symposium; (3) invite distinguished external guests who couple to ongoing and/or desired strategic relationships in LAC – e.g. Costa Rica, Guatemala, Brazil, Colombia and Peru; (4) coalesce the conference observations/conclusions in a white-paper to be submitted for publication; and (5) provide seed funding for 2 research projects which were enhanced or initiated through conference networking activities.

    Thus, one of the major expectations of this conference is to promote more LAC-related collaboration among faculty across campus. A second major goal is to support existing relationships while forging new collaborations between Penn faculty and individuals from the countries noted above. A third goal is to inform our trainees, at multiple levels, of research and service opportunities in this region. Lastly, a fourth goal is to demonstrate Penn’s global leadership role in promoting research and engagement on managing emergent health threats in the LAC.

Penn India reSEARCH: A Collaboration for High-Impact Health and Demographic Research

Devesh Kapur (SAS), Jere Behrman (SAS), Michel Guillot (SAS)

  • Abstract
  • This proposal seeks to develop a collaboration between Penn and a demographic surveillance site in India called SEARCH (in the district of Gadchiroli, Maharashtra) for the purpose of generating new knowledge about important health and demographic outcomes in India. This project has two main components. First, we will use existing rich data from this site to study four important but under-studied topics in the Indian context: (1) the distribution and determinants of birth weights; (2) Patterns of under-five mortality in relation to health interventions; (3) Patterns of adult mortality with a focus on risks factors such as smoking and alcohol; and (4) Health differentials between indigenous vs. non-indigenous populations and their associated factors. Second, we will lay the foundations for future Penn-SEARCH collaborative projects, building on SEARCH’s infrastructure and experience, as well as common research interests between Penn and SEARCH. For this purpose, we will conduct pilot studies towards the design and evaluation of interventions to alleviate high-burden health conditions in the SEARCH site, and employ behavioral economic strategies to induce behavioral changes to improve maternal and child health and reduce tobacco- and alcohol-related disease burden. The outcomes of this project will include: (a) collaborative research papers based on existing data; (b) applications for external funding for future collaborative projects; (c) training of undergraduate and graduate students as well as younger faculty researchers and SEARCH staff.

Multi-Disciplinary Local Case Studies on Higher Education Reform in India

Laura Perna (GSE), Matt Hartley (GSE)

  • Abstract
  • This proposal furthers Penn’s engagement in India through a set of activities related to the reform of higher education. The Indian government is engaged in several efforts designed to create substantial reform of its higher education system. One initiative seeks to create 20 world-class universities while another focuses on changes at its state universities. Together, these initiatives seek to improve governance, enhance academic quality, advance research, address challenges of affiliated colleges, improve university management, and increase relevance. One mechanism developed to implement these reforms is the Higher Education Leadership Academy (HELA). Led by faculty at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), HELA is intended to build the skills and knowledge of existing and emerging higher education leaders and administrators who can implement the government’s reforms within individual higher education institutions.

    With support from the Global Engagement Fund, the proposed projects will enable us to gain a deeper understanding and insights into the complex environment in which Indian higher education operates and, consequently, improve our understanding of how government reform is unfolding at the university level. The proposed case studies will generate research-based exploratory knowledge to frame future research and development activities in the country .The proposed project capitalizes on the scope of higher education reform in India and the opportunity to engage in collaborative research projects and activities with Indian colleges.

The Impact of Pain Reduction on Productivity and Cognitive Function: A Penn-IFMR Collaboration in India

Heather Schofield (PSOM)

  • Abstract
  • Physical pain is a common but largely overlooked aspect of the lives of the poor, yet its consequences are not well understood. While evidence is scarce, chronic pain appears to be highly prevalent among the poor in developing countries due to frequent involvement in hard physical labor, uncomfortable living conditions, and limited access to adequate medical care.

    Chronic physical pain may have significant and widespread impacts on these individuals’ lives via a number of channels. Not only does pain directly reduce life quality and happiness, it may also lower productivity and incomes and hamper cognitive function and decision-making in important ways. For example, workers with chronic pain may work fewer days, taking longer breaks, and make less-considered choices regarding inputs; all outcomes that would reduce output and lead to greater impoverishment. However, despite the importance of chronic medical pain both in publich health and economic terms, pain has been largely overlooked in existing academic development studies and policy-making.

    The proposed seed project seeks to take the first steps in understanding the broader causal impact of physical pain on the lives of the poor via a collaboration between faculty and students at the University of Pennsylvania and a local partner organization, The Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR).

    Specifically, we will enroll 360 low-income women in Chennai, India in a randomized-controlled trial in which participants are randomly assigned to receive 600 mg of ibuprofen, a placebo pill, or no medication (pure control). All participants will engage in a task identical to their everyday work to measure their economic productivity, a battery of cognitive tests, a task providing an objective benchmark for pain ratings, and a survey to gather demographic and health information. This study will provide data to apply for funding for a larger and longer duration study of the impact of pain reduction on productivity in the workplace, as measured by daily earnings and cognitive outcomes.

Engaging the Local Community to Study Invasive Species in the Galápagos Archipelago

Michael Weisberg (SAS), Deena Skolnick Weisberg (SAS), Erol Ackay (SAS), Tim Linksvayer (SAS)

  • Abstract
  • The Galápagos Archipelago is a series of 18 large volcanic islands and a number of smaller rocks906km off the coast of mainland Ecuador. Famously the inspiration for many of Darwin’s ideas in Origin of Species, the islands remain an important focal point of biological work due to their relative isolation, their large number of endemic species, and their unique, fragile ecosystems. However, due to the increasing popularity of ecotourism, the growing local population on three of the islands, and changes in global climate, these fragile islands face many ecological challenges.

    One of the greatest threats to these islands are invasive ants, whose impact is especially high in the settled areas. Invasive ants can outcompete and exclude native ant species, eliminate other invertebrates, and threaten vertebrates such as ground-nesting reptiles and birds. If the Galápagos is to be preserved in more-or-less its current state, current invasions must be monitored and controlled, and future invasions must be prevented. The only way to realistically accomplish this is in partnership with the local population. Although advances have been made in preventing and controlling invasion, these often take the form of protocols imposed on the community, without a lot of effort to cultivate local understanding. Our prior research suggests that this is a mistake; scientific and ecological literacy require appreciating the nature and character of the scientific research process.

    We thus propose a two-pronged research project in the town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, on the island of San Cristóbal: The research team will study the invasion front of bigheaded ants on San Cristóbal, and at the same time, will train local high school students in the techniques of field ecology and in scientific methodology more generally. By having local students conduct the bulk of the fieldwork, we aim to not only do high quality science, but also address problems of invasion by cultivating a deeper understanding of ecology and a deeper appreciation for science in the community.