Investiture SparkTalks highlight breadth of research at UIC 

Lisa Powell, director of the Policy, Practice and Prevention Research Center in the UIC School of Public Health, talks about how taxes on products such as sodas affect public health. Photo by Jenny Fontaine
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Threaded throughout Chancellor Marie Lynn Miranda’s remarks at her investiture ceremony on April 4 was a subject close to her heart: research excellence.

With annual research funding of over half a billion dollars and thousands of faculty members tackling today’s most intransigent problems, the University of Illinois Chicago simultaneously improves the world and offers invaluable access to its students. 

Those elements of the UIC mission were featured during the investiture-week events in two sessions of SparkTalks — the university’s periodic showcase of lightning talks by faculty from across UIC. Miranda brought the short-presentation format to UIC soon after her arrival in 2023. Previous SparkTalks were held in December and February.

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UIC Chancellor Marie Lynn Miranda talks with speakers and attendees at a special edition of SparkTalks, part of a week of activities for her investiture as the university’s 10th chancellor. Photo by Jenny Fontaine

The latest round invited back select speakers from earlier dates and added new voices to the lineup of three-minute presentations. Participants not only demonstrated the disciplinary diversity of research and scholarship at UIC, but also the breadth of scale addressed by this work — from atomic structures up to the known universe. 

On the small end of the spectrum, physicist Robert Klie talked about how the world-class electron microscope facilities at UIC allow scientists to study and design the structures of new advanced materials. UIC biochemist Ruixuan Gao described new techniques to visualize the complex machinery of cells.

“We need the largest public university in the city to play a role in building a diverse, quantum-smart workforce,” Searles said. “We can change the lives of young people and create a safe environment where they can think freely to study quantum here in Chicago.” 

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Associate professor of accounting Melissa Martin delivers a short talk on innovative uses of data to study management accounting decisions at a special edition of SparkTalks. Photo by Jenny Fontaine

Exploring these tiny mysteries can lead to innovations in technology and drug discovery — several speakers talked about new therapies for cancer, infectious disease and pregnancy complications. Thomas Searles of the College of Engineering highlighted opportunities for UIC in the booming field of quantum engineering — opportunities to invent applications of this breakthrough science and to train tomorrow’s workers. 

Many of the talks exemplified how UIC activities produce impact on a personal level. In readings of their work, poets Christina Pugh and Daniel Borzutzky showed how poems can capture and share the depth of human experience. Yamilé Molina of the School of Public Health talked about seeing patients not as passive recipients of care but as leaders and change agents, capable of spreading health information through their social networks.

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Attendees heard presentations on health science, engineering, social work and even poetry at two special editions of SparkTalks on April 3 and 4 that aligned with Marie Lynn Miranda’s investiture as UIC’s 10th chancellor. Photo by Jenny Fontaine

Personal interventions can be scaled up to positive change on a local scale. The Illinois Heart Rescue program led by Terry Vanden Hoek of the College of Medicine started by collecting data on cardiac arrests across Illinois. Sharing that data among health care systems has led to improvements in CPR training and patient outcomes statewide. Andrea Vaughan from the College of Education provided examples of how the Center for Literacy has changed the lives of parents and children by helping caregivers earn their GEDs and high school diplomas.

“We are one of the primary ways that UIC shows up in Chicago neighborhoods,” Vaughan said. “Every year we serve over 5,000 people, primarily on Chicago’s south and west sides, and we see our impact reverberating outward to impact not just those individuals but their families and communities as well.” 

Other UIC experts probed broader structures of society through the lenses of design, education and policy. Architect Clare Lyster talked about her research on how infrastructure systems such as communications and package-delivery networks influence the shape of cities. Decoteau Irby of the College of Education explained how an organization’s resources can constrain their progress on racial equity. Lisa Powell and Jamie Chriqui from the School of Public Health described studies on the impact of laws aimed at reducing the consumption of sugary beverages, part of an approach Chriqui called “policy surveillance.” 

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Pharmaceutical science professor Alexander Mankin talks about his research on discovering new antibiotics in bees during a special edition of SparkTalks April 3, 2024, at the Isadore and Sadie Dorin Forum. Photo by Jenny Fontaine

The scope of UIC research also goes international, through the globe-trotting work of the Center for the Recovery and Identification of the Missing in the department of anthropology. Director John Monaghan described how the group uses historical records, archeological techniques and drones to find the remains of missing U.S. service members in the Philippines and other sites.  

It’s hard to fathom a larger scale of research than Aurora, a supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory described by UIC computer scientist Michael Papka as capable of more than one billion billion calculations per second.

But connecting all these projects — from seeing a microscopic molecule to simulating the entire known universe — was a shared mission, Miranda said at the second SparkTalks session. 

“We aim to enrich the world through innovation, curiosity and collaboration across people, across disciplines and across organizations,” Miranda said. “These ideas will help us to forge a future that is brighter and more hopeful for our students, our communities, our nation and indeed the entire globe.” 

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