KU News: New $10M grant to promote equity leadership and educator well-being

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New $10 million grant to promote equity leadership and educator well-being
LAWRENCE — The SWIFT Education Center, part of the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, was awarded a $10 million federal grant to promote equity leadership and educator well-being among educational leaders in Black, Hispanic and Native American communities. Partner schools and districts are located in Arizona, California, North Carolina and Tennessee.

KU Engineering professor wins $100K award to research wastewater intensification
LAWRENCE — A prestigious award from the Water Research Foundation will provide the opportunity for a University of Kansas School of Engineering professor to research a breakthrough approach to improving water quality. Belinda Sturm will assess how the physical, chemical and biological properties of aerobic granular sludge impact the removal of pathogens and microplastics from wastewater. The city of Lawrence is one of the project partners.

‘Black Matters’ anthology showcases emerging ‘audacious’ playwright
LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor is the editor of a new book titled “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” an anthology of three works written by the emerging Kansas City-based playwright that focus on the vivid emotional realities of modern African American life. “I pitched it with this framework that he’s not writing to Black Lives Matter. He’s not talking about post-George Floyd. He’s contextualizing this within the larger Black history: ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been here,’” said Nicole Hodges Persley, who also has directed four of Morrow’s plays.

‘Deep fake’ protein designed with artificial intelligence will target water pollutants
LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers are working to use an artificial intelligence machine-learning process to build new proteins designed to detect water pollutants. With a new three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program, Joanna Slusky will use machine learning to create “deep-fake” membrane beta-barrel proteins — a class of naturally successful biosensors — designed to detect polluting metal ions in water.

Full stories below.

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Contact: Nicole Perry, SWIFT Education Center, 785-864-3391, [email protected], @SWIFTSchools
New $10 million grant to promote equity leadership and educator well-being

LAWRENCE — The SWIFT Education Center, part of the Life Span Institute at the University of Kansas, was awarded a $10 million federal grant to promote equity leadership and educator well-being among educational leaders in Black, Hispanic and Native American communities.
The three-year award comes from the Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) program, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, U.S. Department of Education. SWIFT will provide for principals and leadership teams professional learning and networking opportunities with Historically Black, Hispanic-serving and Tribal University faculty to foster a more diverse educational workforce. School leaders’ professional learning will focus on developing student social and emotional competencies as well as ways to promote the well-being of educators.
“We are at a moment in education when many pressing concerns converge. We face an urgent need to make transformative changes in our systems to bring equity, safety, security and freedom into education, and at the same time our educators are facing intense burnout due to multiple and overlapping crises,” said Amy McCart, research professor and SWIFT co-director. “We have to offer educational leaders the strategies they need to both make change for their students and support their own well-being.”
In addition to McCart, the project is being led by SWIFT’s Dawn Miller, associate director of partner engagement and systems design; Melinda Mitchiner, associate director of partnership development and business operations; and J. Hoon Choi, assistant research professor and associate director of research and evaluation.
The project will support over 50 principals and their leadership teams in schools that serve Black, Hispanic, and Native American communities. Partner schools and districts will be San Diego Unified Schools, California; Cumberland County Schools, North Carolina; Sunnyside Unified Schools, Arizona; Millington Municipal Schools, Tennessee; and Green Dot Charter Schools, Perea Elementary and Arrow Academy of Excellence, all in Tennessee.
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Contact: Cody Howard, School of Engineering, 785-864-2936, [email protected], @kuengineering
KU Engineering professor wins $100K award to research wastewater intensification
LAWRENCE — A prestigious award from the Water Research Foundation will provide the opportunity for a University of Kansas School of Engineering professor to research a breakthrough approach to improving water quality.
Belinda Sturm, professor of civil, environmental & architectural engineering, is the winner of the 2022 Paul L. Busch Award. With this $100,000 research prize, Sturm will assess how the physical, chemical and biological properties of aerobic granular sludge impact the removal of pathogens and microplastics from wastewater.
Sturm’s research could allow municipal wastewater treatment plants to double their capacity without the need for expanding or adding new treatment equipment.
“The greatest achievement in water quality research is obtained when knowledge is put into practice to create a safer environment,” Sturm said. “This award will enable me to explore a new research application in collaboration with utility partners.”
Wastewater from residences, businesses and other properties carries materials such as carbon, nutrients, pathogens and microplastics to water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs). While WRRFs have processes in place to remove contaminants, there is a need for more research into increasing capacity, ensuring efficiency and understanding the broader applications of existing treatment technologies.
Partnering with the city of Lawrence as well as Metro Water Recovery in Denver, Sturm will assess the removal of pathogens from wastewater due to grazing by the protozoa in biofilms, as well as the sorption of microplastics onto aerobic granular sludge granules.
This research will “explore the fundamental properties of AGS while demonstrating full-scale and practical improvements for water quality,” Sturm said. This research has the potential to significantly enhance wastewater treatment and further the science related to biofilms.
In addition to her work at KU, Sturm serves as director of the Kansas National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (NSF-EPSCoR) and chair of the Water Environment Federation’s Municipal Design Symposium.
For 22 years, the WRF Endowment for Innovation in Applied Water Quality Research has supported the Paul L. Busch Award, providing more than $2 million in funding to researchers who are making major breakthroughs in water quality science. More information about the Paul L. Busch Award can be found on WRF’s website.

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Contact: Jon Niccum, KU News Service, 785-864-7633, [email protected]
‘Black Matters’ anthology showcases emerging ‘audacious’ playwright
LAWRENCE — What word best describes the work of Lewis Morrow?
“Audacious,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, associate professor of American studies and African & African American studies at the University of Kansas.
She is the editor of a new book titled “Black Matters: Lewis Morrow Plays,” an anthology of three works written by emerging Kansas City-based playwright Morrow that focus on the vivid emotional realities of modern African American life. It’s published by Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury.
“I can’t name a playwright right now who is writing such unapologetic language,” Hodges Persley said. “And he’s not doing it so that someone will see his work and hopefully pick it up for a TV series. He writes stories that really appeal to the urgency of what it means to live as a Black person in America.”
Morrow’s trilogy includes “Baybra’s Tulips,” about a former convict who moves in with his sister under the pretense of rehabilitation but is actually there to take revenge on his abusive brother-in-law. “Begetters” explores generational trauma through the lens of a couple in their 60s. “Mother/son” finds a Black man hoping to help his drug-addicted white parent get clean, only to discover that may be the least of their problems.
Hodges Persley said two of the three plays that are bookends are stories about absence.
“There’s this idea of how you wish your mother would be in ‘Mother/son.’ She’s not that, but it doesn’t mean that need doesn’t go away. Same with ‘Baybra’s Tulips.’ He wanted a relationship with both his mother and father that turned out very different, but even the absence of those relationships shaped him,” said Hodges Persley, who is also serving as interim vice provost for diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging at KU.
In addition to Morrow’s command of language, Hodges Persley particularly appreciates his ability to counter the cliches often seen in mainstream American theatre about Black lives.
“When you see these tropes around absence of a father figure or a certain negative stereotypical representation of Black mothers, he doesn’t give you those. He gives you families that have money, they have a relationship, they’re not living in poverty. He’s taking average representations of Black families and saying, ‘You can’t continue to impose these stereotypes and mythologies on us.’”
Also serving as artistic director of the KC Melting Pot Theatre (the city’s premier African American theatrical company), Hodges Persley has directed four of Morrow’s plays. At times, she feels they have a comparable working relationship similar to the late Lloyd Richards and August Wilson of “The Piano Lesson.” Richards and Wilson had a collaborative relationship as director-playwright that Hodges Persley admires.
“We share apartments in each other’s brains,” Hodges Persley said. “We can have the best hangout and collab, and then when we’re ready to slam doors, we’re ready to slam doors. We often agree to disagree but ultimately have created a great partnership. I completely trust his writing, and he trusts me as a director to turn the story into a 3D, living, moving thing that reflects the intention of what he wants as a playwright.”
Already in the middle of two book projects with London-based Bloomsbury (best known as the original publisher of the Harry Potter books), the professor took a gamble that Morrow’s work might also get the company’s attention. But she made it clear his talent went deeper than mere cultural zeitgeist.
“I pitched it with this framework that he’s not writing to Black Lives Matter. He’s not talking about post-George Floyd. He’s contextualizing this within the larger Black history: ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been here,’” she said.
A Detroit native, Hodges Persley came to KU in 2009, where she honed her expertise in African American theatre and hip-hop performance. (She is one of a small group of scholars in the U.S. who focus on hip-hop’s musical and cultural influence in theatre.) Her recent publications include “Breaking It Down: Audition Techniques for Actors of the Global Majority” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Sampling and Remixing Blackness in Hip-Hop Theater and Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2021).
With constant political assaults on Black rights and culture going on now, do theatrical plays really matter?
“In African American communities and particularly in the American theatre, the erasure of Black theatre voices historically and systemically in the United States has been strategic,” Hodges Persley said. “We need the theatre — whether that be the church pulpit or the street corner or the library. It’s vital for us to continue to tell our stories because if we don’t tell our stories, they don’t exist.”
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Don’t miss new episodes of “When Experts Attack!,”
a KU News Service podcast hosted by Kansas Public Radio.

https://kansaspublicradio.org/when-experts-attack
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Contact: Brendan Lynch, KU News Service, 785-864-8855, [email protected], @BrendanMLynch
‘Deep fake’ protein designed with artificial intelligence will target water pollutants

LAWRENCE — If you’ve ever used a text-based artificial-intelligence image generator like Craiyon or DALL-E, you know with a few word prompts that the AI tools create images that are both realistic and completely synthesized.
The machine learning that powers such websites will scan millions of images on the internet, analyze them and assemble facets of them into fresh, but fake, images.
Now, University of Kansas researchers are working to use a similar machine-learning process to build new proteins designed to detect water pollutants. With a new three-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Molecular Foundations for Biotechnology program, a KU researcher will use machine learning to create “deep-fake” membrane beta-barrel proteins — a class of naturally successful biosensors — designed to detect polluting metal ions in water.
“These beta barrels are super useful because they can bring things across membranes,” said principal investigator Joanna Slusky, associate professor of molecular biosciences at KU. “Barrels make good enzymes — there are so many different things that barrels can do.”
Previous research on the tube-like beta barrels has altered their binding properties for a variety of tasks. However, much of this work was arduous and completed by hand, usually resulting with minor variations of a limited number of scaffolds, or barrel structures.
“In this case, we’re using machine learning to generate large numbers of barrels,” Slusky said. “But, how about if we can both generate barrels and have them be useful? We asked ourselves, ‘What’s a biotechnology application of barrels?’ Well, one would be metal sensors that could perhaps detect metal pollutants.”
Slusky and her co-principal investigators, professors Rachel Kolodny and Margarita Osadchy of Haifa University in Israel (along with KU postdoctoral fellow Daniel Montezano), will develop a new machine-learning process that generates beta-barrels with scaffolds similar to those found in nature, but with different sequences.
“There’s a website called ‘This X Does Not Exist,’” Slusky said. “If you go to that site, you see all these AI-generated things and people don’t really exist. But a computer made an image, for instance, of a cat. But that’s not really a cat — a computer took a bunch of pictures of cats and said, ‘OK, we can just sort of generate as many cat pictures as you want now, because we figured out what is a cat.’ We need to make something real so we see it more like generating a recipe.
“The question is, how to make computers generate a recipe for proteins.”
Beta barrels are well-suited to advancement through machine learning because “natural proteins are sort of a small blip in the number of possible sequences.”
If a computer algorithm can learn the essence of what makes a protein a protein, Slusky said, it will avoid generating useless sequences.
“Most sequences would never actually be proteins— they wouldn’t have a particular fold,” she said. “They would just kind of bond with themselves in weird, nonpredictable ways over and over again. To be a protein, you need a sequence that makes one shape. When people tried to make random sequences, or even somewhat directed sequences, they found that only a very, very small percentage of them might actually be a protein.”
With machine learning creating new and viable sequences resulting in this common fold, Slusky and her colleagues hope to generate a beta-barrel especially well-suited to finding metal ions in water. This result of the work will be biosensors based on beta barrels that can identify pollutants like lead in waterways.
“If we make them the right size, this molecule will be ideal to put some particular metal in, and you can have the right substituents so that it would bind that metal,” Slusky said. “Because it’s in a membrane, it can give you some sort of conductance difference — there’s a difference between when it’s bound and when it’s not bound. If you’re able to do that, you could sense for different metals, and different concentrations of those metals. There are a lot of big steps we want to accomplish, but I’m hopeful and excited.”
The work also will help train undergraduate researchers in Slusky’s lab, as well as inform Slusky’s teaching at KU as well as outreach to high-school science students.

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