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Daily News

AMHERST — UMass Amherst announced a new collaboration with IntelliVen, a leading executive-team-development organization, to provide interactive remote-learning programs designed to raise the performance and effectiveness of leadership teams.

IntelliVen offers immersive programs designed to help an organization’s core leadership team tackle the unique challenges of managing a growing organization, especially in today’s turbulent markets. IntelliVen’s proprietary set of course modules enables an interactive, remote learning experience that leaders take along with their teams to unlock their true potential to perform and grow.

“IntelliVen teaches leaders, teams, and organizations to set direction, achieve team alignment, implement strategy, and make the change they want to grow faster and perform better,” said Peter DiGiammarino, managing partner.

Members of the university community will receive a discount on the standard price of IntelliVen’s leadership-development immersion programs.

“Education is a journey, not a destination. In fact, we view it as a lifelong journey, not something that ends when a person receives a college degree,” said John Wells, senior vice provost at UMass Amherst. “That’s why partnerships like this are so important. They provide affordable, convenient access to our students and alumni interested in continuous, lifelong learning.”

Daily News

AMHERST — UMass Amherst Athletics announced the cancellation of the 2020 UMass football season on Tuesday.

“After consulting with university, state, and public health officials, we have made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 UMass football season,” Athletic Director Ryan Bamford said. “We have been in constant communication with university leadership and our football staff since March, with the health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, and staff remaining our top priority. The continuing challenges surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic posed too great of a risk, and we reached the conclusion that attempting to play a season would not have placed the members of our program in the safest situation possible.”

Football student-athletes will remain enrolled in coursework full-time, either virtually or in-person, in line with the UMass Amherst’s update to its fall reopening plan, announced on Aug. 6. The university will also examine the possibility of playing football in the spring.

Football-team members began returning to campus for team activities in late June, with extensive health and safety protocols in place to mitigate the risk of COVID-19. Over the past seven weeks, the program had only one positive test with more than 600 COVID-19 tests administered.

“I am absolutely heartbroken for our players, our former players, our alumni, and our UMass football community,” said Head Coach Walt Bell said. “Our job as coaches and mentors is to provide opportunities for our players, and do everything in our power to not take them away. Today’s news was devastating, but we will be resilient and prepared to be our best when our best is required.

“I would like to give an unbelievable amount of gratitude to our medical professionals, our administration, our campus, our athletic training staff and our operations staff for creating one of the safest environments in college football,” he added. “The testing, the protocols, the risk mitigation, and the execution have been incredible.”

UMass football did not complete its spring practice regiment or host its spring game due to the NCAA’s cancellation of athletic activities in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“These times have presented us with extensive uncertainty, and we are disappointed for all the members of our fall sports programs who will not have the opportunity to compete this autumn,” Bamford said. “We remain hopeful and fully intend to conduct a competitive schedule for our fall sports in the 2021 spring semester.”

Daily News

AMHERST — Beginning with the spring 2021 term, and continuing for each spring and fall term through spring 2023, UMass Amherst will make standardized tests optional for its first-year entering applicants.

For the past several months, the university has monitored how possible, safe, and secure it will be for students to take the SAT or ACT. In recent weeks, said James Roche, vice provost for Enrollment Management, it has become obvious that the challenges to testing presented by the coronavirus pandemic will persist in the months ahead.

“UMass Amherst draws applications from throughout the world, and few, if any, states and countries currently offer testing sites that provide the access and safety that students, families, and schools have come to expect,” he said. “This is especially true for students who already encounter barriers in pursuit of a college education, including under-represented minority, first-generation, and low-income students. Given all these considerations, going test-optional is clearly the right choice.”

Historically, UMass Amherst has used a holistic review to evaluate applicants. The quantitative assessment component of that review was done using a formula that combined the applicant’s high school GPA and the best combination of test scores. Roche said the university’s research shows that, of the separate components, the high-school GPA is a stronger predictor of student performance, persistence, and success; however, it is also known that the combination of the two components provides an even stronger predictor than either the GPA or test score alone.

The university has analyzed three years of data and more than 100,000 applicant records to develop a formula for its test-optional assessment that uses the high-school GPA as the base. For applicants who either have or will submit test scores, UMass Amherst will compare the result of the formula with and without the test score included and give the applicant the highest value of the two. This test-optional approach applies to all majors. As it always has, UMass Amherst will continue to consider the rigor of students’ high-school coursework in its assessment, especially for courses that apply most directly to the applicant’s intended major.

“UMass Amherst has committed to being test-optional for the next three years,” Roche said. “As one of the country’s top 25 public research universities, we look forward to using the test-optional approach during this period to learn more about the relationship between high-school grades and standardized test scores, and to develop even better models for predicting student success in college. Our mission is to identify and recruit students who can grow and thrive at UMass Amherst, progressing to earn their degree as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Certain methods of decontaminating medical face masks for repeated use during the COVID-19 pandemic appear to damage the masks’ integrity and protective function, according to research by a UMass Amherst environmental-health scientist.

“Some treatments for decontamination had no impact on respirator performance, while other treatments resulted in substantial damage to masks,” writes Richard Peltier, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and lead author of the paper published July 16 in the journal Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

Peltier received a fast-track grant from the National Science Foundation in May to study the impact of various sterilization techniques authorized for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in light of the shortage of medical face masks, also known as N95 respirators.

“Given the global N95 shortages, clinicians face a choice: wearing a used, and potentially infected, respirator, or wearing one that was decontaminated through a process that may affect the integrity of the respirator,” added Peltier, whose co-authors include doctors and researchers at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston and UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester.

Peltier uses state-of-the-art pollution detection instruments and a mannequin head in his lab to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the masks after they are sterilized. “Respirators must be effective across a range of potential conditions to provide protection since droplets that contain virus particles immediately start to evaporate and shrink,” he explained.

While the testing was limited by the availability of processed masks provided by hospitals in Massachusetts, the study draws several generalizable conclusions, he noted.

Respirators that were treated between one and 10 times with specific vaporized hydrogen peroxide sterilizers or up to five times with shorter decontamination cycles of gas plasma hydrogen peroxide (gpHP) retain their original filtration capabilities. A decontamination process using ultraviolent germicidal irradiance slowly diminishes filtration efficiency, reaching a level that warrants caution after nine repeated treatments, the research found. “However, there are still a number of sterilizer systems that are being used on these masks which we don’t have information about and therefore can’t determine if they keep workers safe,” Peltier said.

Treatments with high concentrations of gpHP or longer processing times degraded filtration performance below the requirement for N95 masks, which should be capable of filtering 95% of 300-nanometer particles.

For comparison, Peltier also tested a KN95 mask, some brands of which have been removed from the FDA’s emergency-use list due to poor performance, and a four-ply polyester bandanna. Neither had been treated with any decontamination technique, and both performed below N95 standards. Peltier also found that immersing an N95 mask in a 10% bleach solution degraded its performance.

Peltier noted that his study did not address the masks’ fit or general integrity, including elastic function, corrosion on staples and compression of the respirator, all of which are important for proper functioning. His research highlights the importance of using decontamination techniques shown to be safe for the reuse of N95 masks.

“We hope this work supports good decision making that protects those who are on the front lines of this pandemic keeping us all safe,” he said. “Without them, none of us are safe.”

Daily News

AMHERST — UMass Amherst announced its fall 2020 reopening plan, noting that, while almost all courses will be taught remotely this fall, students will be given the option to live on campus under exacting public-health restrictions. No students will be required to return to campus, and students will determine which option, taking courses while living at home or in campus residence halls, is best according to their personal health, educational path, and home environment.

“Students who choose to attend UMass Amherst do so not only for the quality of the faculty and the academic programs, but also for the immersive experience, which offers opportunities for enrichment that can be undertaken with a diverse group of peers,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said. “As best we can — and there are severe limitations in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — we will strive to sustain the community connections that represent UMass at its best.”

The plan makes clear there are inherent risks to joining a residential campus environment this fall, and it provides students the opportunity to consult with their families and decide what is best for them. Subbaswamy emphasized that “it is important to understand that life on campus will not be anything resembling normal college life.”

In announcing the plan, UMass Amherst joins a small number of schools giving students the option to determine whether to spend the semester on campus or at home. The decision to invite first-year, transfer, and returning undergraduate students to live on campus was informed in part by the overwhelming feedback from students that they want to pursue their studies on campus — and, indeed, intended to seek out rental units in the area even if residence halls were not reopened.

For students who choose to reside in on-campus housing or expect to spend any time on campus, standards will be exacting. Students must agree not only to the standard Code of Student Conduct, but also to a set of protocols outlined in the UMass Agreement, a commitment they will be required to sign.

Protocols for students include strict physical distancing, wearing face coverings outside personal living spaces, limiting social contacts to a minimal number of people per day, the prohibition of guests in residence halls, subjecting themselves to virus testing on demand, daily self-monitoring and reporting, assisting with contact tracing, and limiting travel away from the immediate campus area for work and/or emergencies only.

Health and Safety

The university will establish a Public Health Promotion Center to be the central coordinating and operational center for COVID-19 on campus. It will focus on the following: asymptomatic testing (symptomatic testing will be conducted at University Health Services), contact tracing, coordinating isolation and quarantine, flu vaccinations, and communication outreach focused on health promotion with public-health ambassadors.

The university is developing a comprehensive surveillance, testing, isolation, and contact-tracing program that students must comply with both on- and off-campus. All students, faculty, and staff will be asked to self-monitor on a daily basis for COVID-19 symptoms before coming to campus. All students returning to campus will be tested prior to arrival. During the fall semester, any student experiencing even the slightest symptoms will be tested by University Health Services.

Students living on campus who test positive for COVID-19 will have the option to return to their home to isolate for the appropriate amount of time, or they will be placed in isolation housing on campus and be provided with support services and a daily wellness call. Off-campus students are also encouraged to develop an isolation and quarantine plan with their family and roommates. The university will provide support services in a student’s off-campus location or home, but it will not provide on-campus isolation or quarantine space.

Teaching and Learning

The university previously announced an altered academic calendar for fall 2020, with a start date of Aug. 24 for classes. Classes will end Nov. 20, at Thanksgiving break, when students will move out of residence halls. Final exams will be conducted remotely after Thanksgiving break. Classes also will be held on Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day.

A majority of the fall 2020 curriculum will be fully remote, with only essential labs, studios, performances, and hands-on courses offered in-person and focused on the upper-level curriculum to provide seniors with timely progress toward degree completion. Some students who live on campus may have a fully remote curriculum, a factor they should consider in their decision whether to come to campus.

Classroom capacities will be limited to adhere to social-distancing guidelines. Additional sections of courses may be added to reduce class sizes. Course schedules will be adjusted to increase time between classes to reduce interactive foot traffic on campus and provide time for increased cleaning of lab and classroom spaces when needed. Students will be encouraged to be patient and flexible regarding classroom assignments and course schedules.

Libraries are currently working on a phased reopening plan for restoration of in-person services and on-site access to their collections. Until then, the libraries will continue to provide access to materials through the Library Express service.

Residential Life

While all courses that do not require physical presence on campus will be offered remotely this fall, all undergraduate students who have reserved on-campus housing for the upcoming semester, and for whom there is space available, are invited to live on campus under strict public-health behavioral restrictions.

After July 1, Residential Life will communicate with students who have a current housing assignment about their eligibility to live on campus. Students who plan on canceling their housing assignment should contact Residential Life immediately to inform them of their change of plans.

Life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow restrictions, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls until further notice.

Move-in for fall semester will take place over multiple days to reduce the amount of people on campus at any time, and students may bring only two family members or helpers to assist them. Students are advised to bring fewer items to campus this fall and plan for 12 weeks of residential time as opposed to an entire school year due to the uncertainty of the pandemic. Also, if COVID-19 cases spike in Massachusetts, the university may close down residence halls and send students home.

Students who either do not have access to the main campus or who are seeking a residential option beyond the main campus may apply for housing on the Mount Ida campus in Newton. All health and safety protocols on the main campus will be in effect in Newton, but the total residential population at the Newton campus will be limited by available housing to fewer than 500 students. All courses taught in Newton beyond essential face-to-face courses for on-site programs (such as veterinary technology) will be offered remotely.

Campus Life

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university is offering its immersive residential experience, which is conducive to students’ learning and academic progress, in a manner that is intended to provide safeguards for the health and well-being of the entire campus community. Given this situation, campus life will be a different experience in the fall, with all members of the campus community playing an important role in mitigating the infection and spread of the virus.

Most student services will be offered remotely, including the services of the Center for Counseling and Psychological Health. The Recreation Center will be open, but there will be limits and restrictions on activities. The center will also livestream fitness classes through the intramural leagues.

UMass Dining will adapt its services to current federal and state guidelines for food service. It will offer new grab-and-go stations, online ordering for many of its retail locations, and tents for outdoor dining on campus.

Student activities will center on small-group, in-person events, and larger virtual events.

The complete reopening plan, including a detailed set of frequently asked questions, can be found at www.umass.edu/reopening.

Daily News

AMHERST — The Massachusetts eHealth Institute at MassTech (MeHI) selected six new healthcare research and development (R&D) hubs to join the Digital Health Sandbox Network, including UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS).

The Sandbox Network program connects digital-health startups to cutting-edge R&D facilities in the Commonwealth and allows Massachusetts startups to apply for funding to test their innovations at one of the networks’ labs, now including IALS. Sandbox R&D facilities provide a range of services supporting validation and testing for digital health companies throughout their life cycles.

“Establishing a translational institute at UMass that provides startup lab space; more than 30 industry-friendly, staffed core equipment facilities; and individualized venture-mentoring services creates an exciting environment for digital-health companies in Western Massachusetts,” IALS Director Peter Reinhart said.

Andrew Vinard, IALS director of Core Facilities, added that “our core facilities will now have access to a wider network of potential users who may not have found us but for the Sandbox program and MeHI’s engagement. This will be a catalyst to bring digital health-focused companies to our doors to access the broad array of resources and expertise we can devote to their projects. Being in the Sandbox Network also broadens our core facilities access to expertise, which we hope will translate to inter-institutional projects to take advantage of the wealth of resources Massachusetts has to offer to our digital-health industry.”

IALS helps to shepherd and translate fundamental research into new product candidates, technologies, and services that benefit human health and well-being. IALS also helps users address both basic and translational questions, deliver technologies and product candidates more rapidly, and become more competitive in obtaining funding. Facilities include a state-of-the-art test bed for mobile health experiments at scale, the Center for Human Health and Performance, a roll-to-roll fabrication and processing facility, and research laboratory space for lease.

In 2019, Gov. Charlie Baker announced $500,000 in funding for the Sandbox program as part of the Commonwealth’s efforts to boost the digital-health ecosystem under the Massachusetts Digital Health Initiative.

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — In one of the latest COVID-19 response projects at UMass Amherst, the Advanced Digital Design and Fabrication (ADDFab) laboratory is collaborating with a global network of design, engineering, and manufacturing experts to help develop an open-source N95 face mask.

ADDFab, one of the core facilities at UMass’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences, has been rapidly preparing 3D prints of prototype parts and molds for Cofab Design in Holyoke. Cofab business partner and design engineer Aaron Cantrell is one of the primary leaders of the Open Standard Respirator project, a nonprofit effort to broaden protective equipment supply for COVID-19 and beyond. The other leaders are biomechatronics engineer Matt Carney of the MIT Media Lab Biomechatronics Group and Philip Brown, assistant professor of Biomedical Engineering at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

The project grew out of a grassroots desire to address the critical shortage of N95 masks caused by the pandemic. “There was a huge increase in demand that was beyond the ability of existing manufacturers to keep up with in a quick way,” Cantrell said. “There were no designs for people who wanted to chip in and start to help with this problem.”

Cantrell and Cofab’s two other partners, Mike Stone and Jake Horsey, with whom ADDFab has previously worked, needed a prototyping partner that could produce parts overnight and economically for the modular, reusable, filtering facepiece respirator. ADDFab student workers were able to turn around prototype pieces in both laser-sintered nylon and UV-cured polymer the day after the designs were digitally received in the lab.

“This project is a really good fit for our lab,” ADDFab Director David Follette said. “We can use high-end printers to print molds for silicone parts, which have very demanding requirements for accuracy and surface finish.”

Both Follette and Stone agree that the ongoing, local working relationship between ADDFab and Cofab quickly pushed the project forward. “To get prototypes that quickly from a third party or online service bureau would just be astronomically expensive, and then require overnight shipping,” Follette said.

Added Stone, “there was a huge amount of pressure to do this quickly, and we were sprinting to get things done. We had a trusted relationship with someone within driving distance from us who can deliver high-quality components using world-class materials and processes. This was the best-case scenario.”

Among other parts, ADDFab printed the mold tooling for the silicone face piece, allowing Cofab to test it out before committing to expensive metal tooling necessary for mass production.

“By locally 3D printing the molds and testing them quickly, they could be much more confident in their design when beginning to manufacture at scale,” Follette explained.

Cofab used the prototypes to finalize its design of the mask, which is now being field-tested at sites around the world. “It’s free for people who want to produce it,” Stone said. “At the end of the day, we want safe, reliable PPE to be in the hands of more people.”

A nonprofit will hold the license for the respirator design, and the makers will be responsible for seeking any certifications or approvals, if desired.

“On a bigger-picture front,” Stone said, “this is how open-source medical products might be able to work in the future.”

Daily News

AMHERST — Nearly 100 colleagues recently joined an online celebration to honor Professor Hava Siegelmann of the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS), as she received the rarely awarded Meritorious Public Service Medal from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the third-highest honor the Department of the Army can bestow on a private citizen.

“The distinctive accomplishments of Dr. Siegelmann reflect great credit upon herself, DARPA, and the Department of Defense,” reads the citation in part.

Added Siegelmann, “I didn’t know that anyone was noticing what I do. It was so touching, and a complete surprise. I feel honored to be contributing. I think UMass should get credit for supporting me to run a very advanced AI lab such that the government wanted to invite me, and for allowing me to join what is literally the world’s most advanced and sophisticated AI initiative.”

CICS Dean Laura Haas added that “I am extremely proud of Hava’s service to DARPA and the nation. Our college is dedicated to a vision of computing for the common good, and Hava’s work at DARPA has helped to advance AI for us all.”

Siegelmann went to DARPA as a program manager in July 2016, where her charge included “that the United States needs to stay on top in AI,” she recalled.

Her citation noted that “she created and managed some of DARPA’s largest and most advanced AI programs, including L2M — developing next-generation advanced AI systems capable of learning in real time and applying learning to environments and circumstances not specifically trained for.”

Siegelmann, whose career is characterized by thinking outside the box, created a different atmosphere for the L2M project than is usual at DARPA. With its support, she insisted that the large, diverse teams of scientists she chose from the nation’s top university and industry research organizations must actively collaborate. “Such a large leap in AI technology can only be achieved when we top researchers all put our strengths together and learn from each other,” she said.

The medal cites another major DARPA program Siegelmann created called GARD (Guaranteeing AI Robustness Against Deception), which aims to establish the theoretical machine-learning system vulnerabilities, characterize properties that will enhance system robustness, and encourage the creation of effective defenses. As systems become more advanced, these advancements open new avenues by which they can be attacked. GARD identifies often-obscure, technically complex vulnerabilities and builds new-generation defenses for them, she noted.

DARPA also points out that Siegelmann’s “exceptionally productive” term included developing a system that administers insulin plus dextrose to maintain glucose at safe levels for patients in critical care and those with diabetes; sensors to identify dangerous chemicals from a safe distance; collaborative, secure learning systems that allow group collaboration without revealing sensitive data; and methods to identify attacks by reverse engineering to secure the system and find the attacker.

“L2M has had major success in creating systems capable of learning and improving in real time,” Siegelmann said.

Daily News

AMHERST — A group of artificial-intelligence experts, including computer vision researcher and lead author Erik Learned-Miller of the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences, recently proposed a new model for managing facial-recognition technologies at the federal level.

In a whitepaper titled “Facial Recognition Technologies in the Wild: A Call for a Federal Office,” the authors propose an FDA-inspired model that categorizes these technologies by degrees of risk and would institute corresponding controls.

“There are a lot of problems with face recognition, like breach of privacy, surveillance, unequal performance across subgroups, and profiling,” Learned-Miller explained. “Due to the high-stakes situations in which this technology is being deployed, such as in police work, financial decision making, and analysis of job applicants, harms from inaccuracies or misuse are a real and growing problem.”

Further, “people have proposed a variety of possible solutions, but we argue that they are not enough. We are proposing a new federal office for regulating the technology. We model it after some of the offices in the Food and Drug Administration for regulating medical devices and pharmaceuticals.”

He said the FDA provides a model or precedent of centralized regulation for managing complex technologies with major societal implications. Such an independent agency would encourage addressing the facial-recognition technology ecosystem as a whole. The whitepaper describing the researchers’ proposal is accompanied by a primer and basic introduction to the terminology, applications, and difficulties of evaluating this complex set of technologies.

Learned-Miller’s co-authors are Joy Buolamwini of MIT’s Media Lab and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, computer scientist Vicente Ordóñez of the University of Virginia, and Jamie Morgenstern at the University of Washington. The project was supported by a grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The authors write that, while various cities and states have begun to pass laws that provide oversight of facial-recognition technologies, these individual measures are not enough to guarantee the consistent protection of people’s rights or set shared expectations for organizations that buy and sell in the tech market. Although the task is complex, this whitepaper provides actionable recommendations.

Buolamwini said the paper is a starting point for how society might establish redlines and guidelines for a complex range of facial-recognition technologies. “Left unchecked,” the authors write, “they threaten to propagate discrimination and intensify the risks for eroding civil liberties and human rights.”

Last year, Learned-Miller and two others received an award from the International Conference on Computer Vision for work on one of the most influential face datasets in the world, Labeled Faces in the Wild. It has been used by companies like Google and Facebook to test their facial-recognition accuracy.

Daily News

AMHERST — The American Institute of Architecture’s (AIA) Committee on the Environment (COTE) announced recently that the John W. Olver Design Building on the UMass Amherst campus is a winner this year of its highest honor, the COTE Top Ten Awards. Projects “illustrate the solutions architects have provided for the health and welfare of our communities and the planet,” the AIA citation says.

The COTE jury wrote of the Olver Building, “the space is made possible by an innovative wood-truss system showing us how to reach beyond the cross-laminated timber (CLT) systems to make larger spaces. Its courtyard guarantees views and access to campus to everyone within the building and is well-integrated into the larger campus.”

Called the most technologically advanced CLT building in the country, the Design Building opened in 2017 to house the campus’s Department of Architecture, Building and Construction Technology Program (BCT), and Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. The BCT program developed some of the CLT technology used and has since been testing native Massachusetts wood species for CLT suitability.

The building is named for former congressman and UMass Amherst Chemistry professor John Olver and was designed by Boston architectural firm Leers Weinzapfel. In 2014, Olver attended a talk by associate professor of Environmental Conservation Peggi Clouston of the BCT program. She noted how CLT construction using lower-quality wood was enjoying a comeback. Olver, recognizing an expanded use for regional wood, encouraged campus officials to consider adopting the new technology.

Built of CLT timber and glue-laminated columns, the 87,000-square-foot Design Building saves the equivalent of more than 2,300 metric tons of carbon compared to a traditional energy-intense steel and concrete building. It uses 54% less energy than a typical campus building and is one of two in North America to use CLT for wind and seismic resistance.

Its footprint once a parking lot, the building now includes a rooftop garden and rain-garden landscaping. A central courtyard highlights natural light while reducing heat loss. Its open central stairway invites visitors to take the stairs instead of an elevator.

Previously, among other awards, the Olver Design Building was named the Jury’s Choice for Wood Innovation in the WoodWorks 2018 Wood Design national awards for excellence in wood building design. In November 2017, it was honored with an Award of Merit in the Engineering News-Record list of New England’s 2017 Best Projects in the Higher Education/Research category.

Daily News

AMHERST — In the largest study of its kind in any non-European population, an international team of researchers, including a UMass Amherst genetic epidemiologist, has identified new genetic links with type 2 diabetes among 433,540 East Asian individuals.

The findings, published in Nature, “provide additional insight into the biological basis of type 2 diabetes,” said co-lead author and statistician Cassandra Spracklen, assistant professor of Biostatistics and Epidemiology in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences.

Spracklen served as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill during the research. “How diabetes comes about in different populations can occasionally vary in subtle but significant ways,” she says. “With studies like these, we are able to come at that question a little better.”

Ultimately, the goal is to identify potential genetic targets to treat or even cure the chronic metabolic disorder that affects and sometimes debilitates more than 400 million adults worldwide, according to the International Diabetes Federation.

The international team of more than 100 researchers was led by scientists at five institutions in Singapore, the U.S., South Korea, the U.K., and Japan. The research was funded by more than 30 governmental sources and foundations.

“Such a large-scale study would never have been possible without the commitment and dedication to collaboration among so many scientists around the world, especially in Asia,” said Karen Mohlke, professor of Genetics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine and one of the study’s senior authors. “The data this team collected and analyzed has provided the research community with much-needed new information about the biological underpinnings of diabetes.”

The other senior authors are Xueling Sim of the National University of Singapore, Dr. Bong-Jo Kim of the National Institute of Health in Cheongjusi, South Korea; Robin Walters of the University of Oxford, U.K.; and Dr. Takashi Kadowaki of the University of Tokyo, Japan.

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that the Mechanical Ventilator Milano (MVM) is safe for use in the U.S. under the FDA’s emergency-use authorization, which helps support public health during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

An international team of physicists and engineers, including physicist Andrea Pocar at UMass Amherst, brought a simplified ventilator from concept to approval in just six weeks, from March 19 to May 1. It was conceived by physicist Cristian Galbiati of Princeton University and the Gran Sasso Science Institute in L’Aquila, Italy, who was in Italy when the pandemic hit that country.

Galbiati, Pocar’s long-time friend and fellow researcher on the DarkSide-20k project recalls, “the sense of crisis was palpable. It was clear that many patients would need respiratory assistance.”

Moved to help, Galbiati reached out to fellow researchers from the DarkSide-20k dark-matter experiment to develop a ventilator with minimal components that could be quickly produced using commonly available parts. Dark-matter researchers have extensive experience designing and using sophisticated gas-handling systems and complex control systems, the same capabilities required for mechanical ventilators.

Pocar noted that particle physicists “build our own stuff, one-of-a-kind instruments, and we have experience in developing unique electronics and software for our experiments.”

Soon engineers and physicists in nine countries, particularly in Italy, the U.S., and Canada, jumped in to help. Steve Brice, the head of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab Neutrino Division, noted that “there’s a huge benefit we’ve gained from the way particle-physics collaborations work. The structure already in place has large, international, multi-disciplinary groups. We can retask that structure to work on something different, and you can move much more quickly.”

The MVM is inspired by the Manley ventilator built in the 1960s. Its design is simple, cheap, compact, and requires only compressed oxygen or medical air and a source of electrical power. The team updated the electronics and control system. Stephen Pordes, a member of DarkSide stationed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), noted that “we’re concentrating on the software and letting the hardware be as minimal as it can be.”

The team also worked with doctors, medical-device manufacturers, and regulators to make sure they were making something valuable and easy for medical staff to use, with a robust supply chain, and which could be quickly produced. Doctors tested the MVM prototypes on breathing simulators. Anesthesiologists from COVID-19 wards in a hard-hit region in Italy also offered detailed guidance on the design, the MVM team reported.

“MVM demonstrates that international cooperation that advances intellectual and technological innovation is possible not only in the academic arena, but also in areas where basic research impacts society and political decisions,” Pocar said, adding that the next step will be to facilitate the development of devices based on the open-source MVM in other countries, and to “try to facilitate as much as possible the seeding of entrepreneurship around this device. The intellectual property behind it would come for free for whoever wants to use it.”

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Emergency federal financial-aid grants totaling $8.3 million were distributed to more than 7,700 undergraduate students this week by UMass Amherst, the latest in a number of steps the campus has taken to support students experiencing economic distress due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The funds were allocated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Securities (CARES) Act. Grants were calculated based upon a number of factors, including financial need and an estimate of additional costs of food, housing, course materials, technology, healthcare, and childcare. To receive the grants, the law requires that students must be U.S. citizens or eligible non-citizens, according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. These are students who are eligible for federal aid under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. The grants provide additional financial aid to students and will not affect their existing financial-aid award.

Meanwhile, a $1 million pool of financial aid is being established for graduate students, a combination of CARES Act funds and university money.

UMass Amherst’s disbursement of CARES Act grants follows a series of previous measures taken to support students. These include issuing more than $40 million in room, meal, and parking refunds; $150,000 in COVID-19 hardship grants; support from the Student Care and Emergency Relief Fund; short-term emergency loans; approximately $300,000 to assist students returning from study abroad with airline-rebooking fees; and assistance offered by the Student Legal Services Office and the international Programs Office.

“We are appreciative of all the support provided by the Massachusetts congressional delegation, which pushed so hard for the inclusion of this funding that allows us to assist our neediest students in this time of crisis,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said. “Of course, we realize that, for some, even with the combination of these resources, there will still be hardships. We encourage them to seek additional counsel from our Dean of Students Office. We will steadfastly work with the state and federal governments, and our generous donors, to continue to help all our students pursue their studies and complete their degrees without delay or hindrance.”

Added UMass President Marty Meehan, “these grants will help keep the aspiration of a college degree alive for thousands of UMass students who will go on to make a valuable contribution to society. I am grateful for the skilled advocacy that our congressional delegation demonstrated in securing these funds, and the outstanding leadership that Chancellor Subbaswamy and his team have shown in rapidly getting these critical funds to students.”

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Researchers at the UMass Amherst Labor Center released a new report providing some of the first data on the safety and security of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Clare Hammonds and Jasmine Kerrissey conducted an online survey of more than 1,600 essential workers in Western Mass. who were at work April 17-24. As of late April, Massachusetts had the third-highest COVID-19 case count among all states, and two cities in Western Mass. ranked among the cities with the highest death rates per 1,000 population in the country — Springfield (which ranked seventh) and Greenfield (11th), according to data compiled by the New York Times.

Hammonds and Kerrissey found that more than half of all essential workers surveyed, 51%, report that they do not feel safe at work. Among respondents, 65% say they are unable to practice social distancing, 29% did not receive COVID-19 transmission training, 21% lack masks, 17% lack hand sanitizer, 8% lack regular hand-washing opportunities, and 16% were asked by their employers to not share their health information with co-workers.

“Essential workers sustain our ability to live during this crisis, going to work to provide critical food, shelter, transportation, health, and safety, in a range of industries from healthcare and transportation to social services and public safety,” said Hammonds, professor of Practice in the UMass Amherst Labor Center. “Essential workers risk exposure to COVID-19 without proper safety precautions. The findings of this research provide important insight into how to protect the workforce as we begin to reopen the economy.”

The report, titled “A Survey of Essential Workers’ Safety and Security During COVID-19,” also found that:

• 67% of grocery and other retail workers report feeling unsafe at work, which is greater than healthcare workers (51%);

• Low-wage workers (less than $20 per hour) were two to three times more likely than high-wage workers (more than $40 per hour) to lack access to basic safety measures, including masks, hand sanitizer, regular hand washing, and training;

• Substantial numbers of low-wage workers report that they have been unable to meet their family’s food needs (34%), housing needs (9%), and childcare needs (16%) in the last week;

• 38% of Latino essential workers report food insecurity, compared to 21% of their white counterparts;

• About half of the survey’s respondents (52%) report their work has become more intense;

• Only 20% report receiving hazard pay; and

• 17% of essential workers lack paid sick leave, and roughly half say they are unable to use paid time off if a family member falls ill.

“Health and safety protections, hazard pay, greater enforcement of municipal ordinances, and protection of workers’ rights to self-organize are critical to improving worker safety,” said Kerrissey, assistant professor of Sociology in the Labor Center.

“I go to work six days a week,” one office cleaner told the researchers. “I go in after all employees have left to clean and disinfect the entire bank. I do six a night. When I am home, I do not leave my house for anything. I get all food/supplies delivered. What would improve my situation would be to not be working so I can stay home, as I’m quite afraid to leave my house now. But that’s not financially possible.”

When asked about what they need, a convenience store worker said, “the part that makes me feel unsafe is the customers. People are only supposed to come out for essential things, and that is not the case. People that are staying at home come in for a cup of coffee five times a day. Make it at home. People do not know the difference between what they want and what they need … About 50% of guests have no concept of six feet. They think because our backs are to each other, it’s fine … or, just quickly getting a coffee, it’s OK to be within six feet of each other.”

One hardware-store worker said, “going to a hardware store and buying bird food is not really essential, and it’s putting us at risk. Customers don’t seem to care about this virus that’s going around, making us workers not feeling safe.”

A low-wage retail worker added, “we are risking infecting our family by working, and they don’t give us anything extra in our paychecks to be able to buy more food. What we earn is for paying rent, electricity, insurance, and the rest is barely enough to buy food.”

COVID-19 Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — UMass Amherst has donated 300 face shields to the skilled-nursing center at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing. The face shields were developed by UMass researchers, engineers, nurses, and other health care professionals, and arrive at a time when personal protective equipment (PPE) is in very short supply for many nursing facilities in the region and throughout the country.

The design created by UMass enables the face shields to be mass-produced quickly by existing manufacturers. The first order placed by the Face Shield COVID-19 Response Team at UMass Amherst produced 80,000 face shields, manufactured by K+K Thermoforming, a company based in Southbridge.

“During challenging times such as these, we celebrate the spirit of collaboration and cooperation evidenced by the donation of needed face shields to Loomis by the University of Massachusetts,” said Marge Mantoni, CEO of the Loomis Communities. “The shields are being immediately employed in the Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing nursing center by our medical and related staff in serving our nursing-center residents. Many times over the past 12 years, the Loomis Communities has collaborated with the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and we welcome this generous gift of face shields as we work together in this time of crisis.”

UMass contributed more than $30,000 toward the initial production of face shields and hundreds of volunteer hours designing, testing, revising, and manufacturing the shields.

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — With the rapid onset of smell and taste loss emerging as symptoms of COVID-19, scientists around the world — including a sensory expert at UMass Amherst — have united to investigate the connection between the chemical senses and the novel coronavirus.

The wave of reports from patients and clinicians about anosmia, or smell loss, inspired the creation of the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Researchers. Alissa Nolden, UMass Amherst assistant professor of Food Science, is among the 500 clinicians, neurobiologists, data and cognitive scientists, sensory researchers, and technicians from 38 countries gathering data in a worldwide survey to unravel how the virus is transmitted and how to prevent its spread.

Nolden was invited by a colleague at the National Institutes of Health to help develop strategies around measuring the sensory-related symptoms of the coronavirus. “Smell and/or taste loss may be an early indicator of COVID-19, as individuals appear to report loss of smell or taste prior to other symptoms,” she said. “We also want to better understand the mechanism behind taste and smell loss as a result of this virus.”

She notes that the common cold, influenza, and other viral infections are known to cause changes in smell, which are thought to be related to blocked or stuffed-up nasal passages. “This prevents both smelling odors outside and inside the mouth, which can also result in reduced perception of food flavor,” she said. “But typically, you do not have a reduced sense of taste, meaning your perception of sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami remain the same.”

Another interesting characteristic of COVID-19, Nolden said, is that some patients also appear to have a reduced sense of chemesthesis, or chemical sensitivity. “This is unique, unlike the common cold. Some individuals have reduced oral burn from chili peppers or reduced or loss of cooling sensation from menthol.”

Nolden noted that some people with COVID-19 who experience sensory losses may not have any other coronavirus symptoms. The researchers hope to learn more about this from the survey, since people with sensory symptoms alone are not likely to qualify for a COVID-19 test.

“This has been a tremendous effort from collaborators from around the globe to gain a better understanding of the negative impact of COVID-19 on loss of taste and smell,” she said. “We hope to learn a lot about these symptoms and believe it will have a great impact on our understanding of the virus.”

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Engineers from UMass Amherst responded to a request from Baystate Health in Springfield for help in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by designing new, longer control cables for ventilators and the elimination of battery power sources. The design changes, developed by a team of electrical and computer engineers, allow medical personnel to control the ventilators at a distance and without using personal protection equipment, and they provide a more reliable source of power.

The UMass Amherst team includes Christopher Hollot, professor and department head at the department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE); Baird Soules, a senior lecturer at ECE; and Shira Epstein, a lecturer at ECE. Other contributing members are ECE alumnus Tom Kopec; undergraduate Jeremy Paradie; Scott Glorioso, president of the Battery Eliminator Store and son of former UMass ECE Professor Robert Glorioso; and Chris Denney, chief technical officer at Worthington Assembly in South Deerfield.

Hollot said these two projects were a team effort. “This engineering response spanned the greater UMass family, including alumni, undergraduate, the makerspace community, local industry, and faculty.”

Baystate Health resident physician Dr. Mat Goebel initially contacted the Electrical and Computer Engineering department to fabricate a 25-foot control cable for hospital ventilators. The existing cable length is less than 10 feet. The engineers determined that longer cables did not exist and that the original shorter cables are extremely back-ordered. They also found that a key part of the design, the connectors, is proprietary.

They modified an old control cable from Baystate to analyze the signaling and determined that a longer cable was theoretically viable. The team then fabricated a 50-foot cable that was successfully tested on one of Baystate’s ventilators for empirical validation.

The team then tracked down the control cable manufacturer, Amphenol Sine Systems. At the request of the UMass Amherst researchers, the company agreed to design and fabricate these longer control cables. Baystate is now ordering the longer cables directly from the manufacturer.

Goebel and Kyle Walsh, respiratory specialist in Clinical Engineering at Baystate Health, also requested a design to allow portable ventilators to run on ordinary electrical power from a wall socket. The portable ventilators are designed to run on two D batteries with a lifespan of 48 hours. In a clinical setting, a wall-power solution removes the need for checking and replacing batteries every two days.

The UMass team solved the problem using a commercial off-the-shelf battery eliminator. They ordered a suitable battery eliminator and successfully tested it on a portable ventilator at Baystate. Subsequently, Baystate ordered 50 of these power supplies directly from the Battery Eliminator Store.

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Answering an urgent call for assistance from regional healthcare systems, a volunteer team of scientists at UMass Amherst is preparing, testing, and delivering thousands of vials of viral transport media, a chemical solution needed for COVID-19 diagnostic testing. Their work is having a statewide impact.

Team leaders have recruited and trained several dozen volunteers, producing 13,000 vials for seven healthcare systems: Baystate Health, Berkshire Medical Center, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Harrington Hospital, Heywood Hospital, Holyoke Medical Center, and the Northampton VA. In addition, Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Response Command Center has requested 10,000 tubes a week.

A critical shortage of the solution, which largely had been sourced from Northern Italy, has limited testing capabilities across the nation. Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the UMass Amherst scientists initially gathered ingredients from their own labs to produce the viral transport medium, which protects the patient’s testing sample from degradation.

“Viral transport medium is an isotonic mixture of salts and minerals, as well as serum proteins designed to stabilize the virus in the patient sample until testing can be done. It also includes antibiotics to inhibit yeast or bacterial growth, which can interfere with the test and destroy the patient’s sample,” said Michael Daley of the Cell Culture Core Facility at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS), which is spearheading a broad COVID-19 response effort at UMass Amherst.

“The creation of these virtual COVID-19 response teams has proven to be an effective way to rapidly address regional healthcare shortages, even in a time of social distancing,” noted Peter Reinhart, founding director of IALS, whose mission is to translate fundamental research into innovations that benefit humankind.

In a whirlwind of activity after Reinhart sought out UMass Amherst volunteers, a small group of scientists quickly produced some 600 vials of the viral transport media, painstakingly preparing exact proportions, quality-testing the solutions to ensure sterility, printing specialized labels, and affixing them to the vials before University Health Services clinical staff delivered them to two local hospitals.

“Within one week, we had verified and released our first batch,” Daley said. “A lot of credit goes out to everyone involved for us to have been able to pull this off.”

Added James Chambers, director of the Light Microscopy and Cell Culture Core Facilities at IALS, who is overseeing the labeling of the vials, “once the word got out to a few people that we were ramping up production this week, we were inundated with volunteers who want to do something to help with this fight.”

With an efficient process in place, including social-distancing setups in labs where volunteers wear gloves and face shields, the team is ready to speed creation of the viral transport medium. They now have the capacity to make 60 liters and fill 15,000 to 20,000 tubes each week, and are armed with enough supplies to create 120,000 tubes — each representing one COVID-19 diagnostic test.

“We are now at the stage where we are scaling up production and delivery to meet the needs of the frontline workers in our community and across the state,” Daley said.

A key team member is Barbara Osborne, distinguished professor of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, who helped get the project off the ground by providing ingredients from her own lab. She continues to volunteer her time to aliquot, or measure and dispense the medium from a large container into tiny vials, a highly quantitative task being carried out in IALS’ Cell Culture Lab. “This is all being done in one place, and that really is critical for the quality control,” Osborne noted.

She said additional UMass Amherst volunteers are ready to help if the sterile space and personal protective equipment are available. “There are tons of us who know how to make sterile media. I had to tell people to stop volunteering,” she said. “We could easily double the troops we have already enlisted.”

The life-sciences faculty and staff volunteers come from such departments as Biology, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Microbiology, and Psychological and Brain Sciences. Other volunteers include IALS administrators and staff, as well as some Ph.D. candidates and one undergraduate.

In addition to Daley, Chambers, and Osborne, team leaders are Rebecca Lawlor, Osborne’s longtime lab technician; Amy Burnside, director of Flow Cytometry and the Animal Imaging Core Facility at IALS, in charge of testing the batches for sterility; and Erin Poulin, lab manager at University Health Services, who handles the delivery of the vials to the hospitals.

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — Medical face masks, which have fallen into short supply during the COVID-19 pandemic, endangering both front-line healthcare workers and their patients, may be safely reused after sterilization, according to initial results from urgent research conducted this week by a UMass Amherst environmental health scientist.

Richard Peltier, a School of Public Health and Health Sciences professor, partnered with Dr. Brian Hollenbeck, chief of Infectious Disease at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, to test in his lab whether used N95 face masks were still effective at blocking infectious particles after sterilization.

This critical research aimed to address the worldwide shortage of N95 masks caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. “As environmental health scientists, we are always looking for opportunities to improve public health,” Peltier says. “These results show that there is no real difference in filtration between a new mask and one that has been sterilized.”

N95 face masks are worn over the mouth and nose and capture particulates in the air. They are designed to be worn once and then discarded. When new, they are very effective at protecting a person from particulates, including droplets that carry infectious agents like COVID-19.

“While these are ordinarily disposable protective devices for medical workers, these are not ordinary times,” he said, “and this science shows that sterilized face masks will protect our healthcare providers who are working under extraordinary conditions.”

Peltier used state-of-the-art pollution instruments and a mannequin head wearing a face mask to measure whether microscopic particles can pass through the mask after it’s sterilized. He carried out the testing in a small chamber, in which he affixed the masks to a mannequin that had a small pipe extending from its mouth. The chamber was flooded with pollution, and air was collected through the mask as if the mannequin were breathing inside a room filled with pollutants.

The air was delivered to analyzers that used lasers to both count and estimate the size of millions of microscopic particles. Peltier switched between measuring the air from the chamber and the air from behind the mask to calculate how many particles passed through each mask type. He tested both a new mask, as well as one that had been sterilized with hydrogen peroxide.

While there was concern that sterilization might substantially degrade the filter material, causing it to function improperly, this turned out not to be the case. “They work just as well after sterilization,” he said.

Ordinarily, Peltier would repeat the test dozens of times, but the hospital in Boston could not spare additional masks, which, once tested, were unusable. “We are no longer under ordinary circumstances, and we have to improvise as best we can,” he noted.

Because the particulates blocked by the face mask are retained by the mask, they must be sterilized if not thrown away, he explained. “A used mask could have COVID-19 on it, so reusing it without sterilization poses a danger to the wearer or to another patient.”

COVID-19 Daily News

AMHERST — A UMass Amherst biostatistician who directs the UMass-based Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence was invited by the White House Coronavirus Task Force to participate in today’s coronavirus modeling webinar.

The four-hour, virtual gathering includes 20 of the world’s leading infectious-disease and pandemic forecasting modelers, from researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. to those based at institutions in England, Hong Kong, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

According to White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Charles Vitek, “this webinar is designed to highlight for the task force what modeling can tell us regarding the potential effects of mitigation measures on the coronavirus outbreak. The unprecedented speed and impact of the COVID-19 epidemic requires the best-informed public-health decision making we can produce.”

Nicholas Reich, associate professor in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences at UMass Amherst, heads a flu-forecasting collaborative that has produced some of the world’s most accurate models in recent years. He and postdoctoral researcher Thomas McAndrew have been conducting weekly surveys of more than 20 infectious-disease-modeling researchers to assess their collective expert opinion on the trajectory of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. The researchers and modeling experts design, build, and interpret models to explain and understand infectious-disease dynamics and the associated policy implications in human populations.

Reich is co-author of a new study in Annals of Internal Medicine that calculates that the median incubation period for COVID-19 is just over five days and that 97.5% of people who develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days of infection. The incubation period refers to the time between exposure to the virus and the appearance of the first symptoms.

The study’s lead author is UMass Amherst biostatistics doctoral alumnus Stephen Lauer, a former member of the Reich Lab and current postdoctoral researcher at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

The researchers examined 181 confirmed cases with identifiable exposure and symptom-onset windows to estimate the incubation period of COVID-19. They conclude that “the current period of active monitoring recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [14 days] is well supported by the evidence.”

Last fall, Reich received a grant of up to $3 million over the next five years from the CDC to operate the Flu Forecasting Center of Excellence at UMass Amherst, one of two in the nation the CDC has designated. The center’s mission is to identify new methods and data sources to sharpen the accuracy and improve communication of seasonal and pandemic flu forecasts. 

Daily News

AMHERST — Two tree species native to the Northeast have been found to be structurally sound for use in cross-laminated timber (CLT), a revolutionary new type of building material with sought-after sustainability characteristics, according to research by a UMass Amherst timber engineer.

The findings, published in the Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering, suggest that these trees — the eastern hemlock and eastern white pine — could support local markets for CLT. The manufacturing of CLT, a type of mass timber used for wall, floor, and roof construction, could create jobs, improve rural and forestry economies, and support better forestry management, which is a strategy to address climate change, the research says.

“This is the future — prefabricated, panelized wood,” said lead author Peggi Clouston, professor of Wood Mechanics and Timber Engineering in the School of Earth and Sustainability. “It’s far more efficient, and there’s far less waste than site construction. It’s less time- and labor-intensive than building with cast-in-place concrete,” and has a much lower carbon footprint.

Clouston’s leadership in state-of-the-art wood construction technology was instrumental in the creation of UMass Amherst’s John W. Olver Design Building, a showcase for best practices in sustainability. When the structure opened in 2017 to house academic departments and offices, it was considered the most technologically advanced CLT building in the country. All the CLT for the Design Building was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, ensuring it came from responsibly managed forests that deliver environmental, social, and economic benefits.

“We wanted to show the world how to build a contemporary mass timber structure, and we are doing so. Groups have come from as far away as Taiwan to see it,” Clouston said.

She and her team of researchers tested the eastern hemlock and eastern white pine in the UMass Wood Mechanics Lab at the Olver Design Building. They made the composite building panels by gluing together wooden boards from hemlock and pine trees that were grown in the region.

“We then broke them in a strength-testing machine to find out if they would be safe to use in a university-size building,” Clouston explained.

The researchers analyzed the results, comparing them to engineering requirements, and showed that both tree species met building standards, with eastern hemlock outperforming pine.

Salvaging wood from eastern hemlock is a key forest-management priority, Clouston noted, because the trees are under attack by an insect, the hemlock wooly adelgid. “The insect doesn’t harm the wood, but it kills the tree, which in five to 10 years will rot and fall down, becoming hazardous fuel for forest fires.”

Eastern hemlock also is considered low-value because it’s prone to a wood defect called ring shake and isn’t used in structural framing. “Turning this particular species into CLT turns a very low-value material into a very high-value building product,” she said.

Identifying low-carbon materials for construction is an emerging buzz among architects, and the timing is right to encourage CLT production in the Northeast, the research concludes.

“The testing we did shows that anyone who would want to invest in a local plant has a reason to do so,” said Clouston, whose trailblazing work was recently highlighted in a Washington Post feature story. “The prospect of being able to use local wood in CLT and manufacture it locally makes it all the more sustainable by avoiding the environmental cost of transporting the material long distances.”

Construction

Training Ground

Jeff Napolitano says he hears from contractors weekly that they need more skilled workers to grow.

Every week, Jeff Napolitano hears from contractors, and the message is always the same: We need more help.

“Contractors are always looking for skilled labor,” said Napolitano, project director of Community Works, an innovative arm of the Worker Education Program at UMass Amherst funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

“With the building trades, you have an older, whiter, maler workforce that has been retiring because, really, the biggest push for the trades ended in the ’70s,” he explained. “Back then, the mantra was, ‘after you graduate high school, you go to college.’ Going into the trades has been less and less common. But we’re finding now that, whether it’s electricians to wire things or laborers to work on job sites or carpenters to construct things, there’s a need for skilled trades. That’s where our programs come in.”

Community Works is an adult pre-apprenticeship program for the construction trades and the transportation and highway industry, with a specific focus on women, people of color, and veterans, although people of all demographics may participate.

A six‐week course offered in Springfield and Holyoke to prepare qualified applicants for an apprenticeship in the building and transportation industry, Community Works uses classroom and hands‐on learning experiences to equip participants with the skills needed to be accepted into a state‐registered apprenticeship program or transportation-industry employment, from which they can build a career. Participants also receive case-management and placement services to help achieve their career goals.

Even though he works on a university campus, Napolitano admitted the program is, from a financial perspective, much different than the college pathway.

“There’s almost no debt that you really have to rack up,” he told BusinessWest from his office at UMass Amherst. “We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever. So people don’t have to take any debt; in fact, they get paid, with benefits, to train to become a journey-level tradesperson. That’s a lot better deal than college.”

The training — delivered by instructors experienced in the trades as well as guest presenters who have expertise in their field — replicates an actual work experience to increase the likelihood of successful placement into apprenticeship. Classes run Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to mirror a typical construction workday.

“We’re a workforce-development program on steroids, Napolitano said. “A lot of programs have a very narrow niche — afternoon training for a week to do one particular technique in one part of the industry. Our program is six weeks, five days a week, eight hours a day.

“We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever.”

“So our program is way more intensive, and people graduate with OSHA 10 certification, first-aid/CPR certification, highway flagger certification, and other certifications that are, by themselves, extremely valuable,” he went on. “Over those six weeks, it isn’t just classroom training, things like blueprint reading and construction math, but also a lot of hands-on training.”

For instance, last year, 14 participants spent a day at a Habitat for Humanity site in Holyoke and insulated the whole house, he noted. “Folks also spend a whole week at the official carpenters’ apprenticeship training facility in Millbury, learning, as other carpenter apprentices learn, how to hang drywall and do flooring and that sort of thing. So they get exposed to a wide range of tools and equipment and techniques.”

And not just in carpentry, as they also visit electricians, sheet-metal workers, and others who can provide hands-on training experience.

“Instead of this being a program that just narrowly focuses on ‘you need to manufacture these widgets, and this is how you do it,’ we actually train folks in a wide variety of things. We bring in the folks from the ironworkers, the plumbers, the glaziers, the operating engineers, the elevator constructors, to basically explain these specific trades and what’s involved in getting into them. We have a very broad focus, and despite having that larger focus, it’s still a very intensive program in terms of amount of time and detail and exposure to the work.”

Immediate Success

Community Works began in 2009 as Springfield Works, a 20-member employer/union partnership to address a gap in the regional workforce-development system: too many Springfield residents were in need of additional skills training for entry into apprenticeship programs. Within a year, the program had the highest job-placement rate in the state among pre-apprenticeship graduates.

The program was rebranded in 2013 with an expansion into Holyoke, and continues to target underserved populations in the construction and transportation trades, including women, people of color, and veterans.

“Our focus is on closing the demographic gaps. These industries are heavily male, heavily white,” Napolitano said, noting that some public-works projects mandate 5% or higher percentages of women on the job.

Beyond that, Community Works applicants must be at least 18 years old; have a high-school degree or equivalent; be authorized to work in the U.S.; pass a drug test; pass a physical test, consisting of a ladder climb and other tasks; be a proficient (if not perfect) English speaker; and have a valid driver’s license and a registered, working vehicle.

“You don’t need to have any experience,” he said. “It can definitely be a plus, but you don’t need any. I’ve had people who weren’t even familiar with a measuring tape go on to construction careers. We presume that folks don’t have that experience. At the end of the class, everyone’s in roughly the same place, ready to go.”

After the six-week course (the next one runs from Feb. 24 to April 3) comes the apprenticeship placement phase, and that’s where Napolitano comes in.

“When they graduate, I help them figure out where they want to apply, what jobs they want to do,” he said. “Our partners commit to taking a look at people. After MGM was finalized, there was a dip in the labor market, but it’s coming back now. Contractors are calling me in a weekly basis looking for graduates to be put to work.”

The goal is to place graduates into apprenticeships in the building trades or into careers in the transportation industry, and sometimes both, he explained. The skills required for most trades take years to learn and are usually developed through apprenticeships, which combine classroom instruction and paid on-the-job training under the supervision of an experienced tradesperson. The sponsoring apprenticeship program pays the costs of apprenticeship training, and, upon successful completion of the apprenticeship, the participant is credentialed as a journey-level tradesperson.

In fact, all the training is free, starting with the six-week Community Works course, Napolitano added, and people receiving unemployment benefits are not required to search for a job during the program to maintain those benefits. Furthermore, all participants — there are between 20 and 25 slots in each annual class — also receive a basic set of tools and equipment.

It’s the kind of opportunity that has some college graduates rethinking that degree.

“Apprentice program directors are seeing more and more people with college degrees, who have a lot of debt and can’t get a good enough job with just a college degree,” he noted. “I had a couple of people with master’s degrees in my program last year. So it’s pretty remarkable.”

Do Your Job

After listing the requirements to apply for Community Works — things like English proficiency and the ability to drive — Napolitano remembered the most important one.

“The thing that’s required the most is the enthusiasm and initiative to want to get into the construction industry,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a physical job, and it requires some hustle. That’s really what we’re looking for in people.”

That’s why participants are bounced from the program for multiple absences and tardies. “We’ve been told that 95% of the industry is showing up on time. The other 5% is having a good attitude and being willing to learn something.”

After all, the construction and transportation industries, in dire need of new blood to replace an aging workforce, are certainly willing to teach a few things.

“It’s definitely an issue, particularly for the larger companies that are trying to expand their base of work,” he said. “They need an expanding group of workers who can do the job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Pipeline to Progress

When the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released a study last fall examining potential locations for water-technology demonstration centers in Massachusetts — thus raising the Bay State’s profile and potential in the increasingly critical field of water supply, treatment, and sustainability — UMass Amherst was a natural choice, because it’s been making connections between water research and industry for some time. A host of key stakeholders believe it can become even more so in the decades to come.

Talk to experts in the broad realm of water technology innovation, and it doesn’t take long for Israel to come up, at least in terms of government investment.

It’s not exactly by choice.

“There are countries facing severe water issues right now,” said Loren Walker, director of the Office of Research Development at UMass Amherst. “Israel is the world leader in terms of state-led efforts to purify water — because they have to. They have a real water-constraint situation there.”

But several entities in the Bay State — from the university to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to a host of industry players, both established companies and startups — are intrigued by the potential to make Massachusetts an international leader in water innovation as well. And they’ve got plenty of progress to build on already.

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on, so there’s a need to innovate ways to treat water, both wastewater and surface water,” Walker told BusinessWest.

“It’s an active area of university research, an active area of industrial research,” he went on, “but there’s a gap between the kind of research the universities do — federally funded, more basic or fundamental — and technologies being developed by industry that they can ultimately commercialize and sell. There’s a gap between that fundamental research and the later applied research where you’re prototyping, scaling up, and seeing what technologies really work — and that’s where you need a pilot site. You need a way to go from fundamental laboratory research to commercial-scale research.”

UMass could be that site, he said.

Loren Walker

Loren Walker says the Amherst Wastewater Treatment plant provides UMass researchers and partnering companies a flow of wastewater on which to test new technologies.

Last fall, MassCEC released a comprehensive study that evaluates the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers across Massachusetts, including one at UMass Amherst. Such centers, proponents say, could offer a test bed to pilot new water technologies and position Massachusetts as a global leader in the water-innovation and energy-efficiency sector, providing significant business and employment opportunities.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, said one of the EDC’s goals is to help identify and develop sectors where Massachusetts could become a center of excellence. Back when he served as secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs under then-Gov. Deval Patrick, he and the governor traveled to several locations, including Israel, to learn about water innovation, recognizing this was an issue of growing international concern.

“Water is just a really big issue, and becoming more important every day,” Sullivan said. “So we started asking, ‘can Massachusetts actually play in this water cluster?’ The short answer is, yes we can — because it’s already a multi-billion-dollar business in the Commonwealth.”

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on.”

That figure includes everything from delivery systems to public-works projects; from filtering, purifying, and clarifying water to security of freshwater sources like the Quabbin Reservoir, he noted. “So it’s a bigger field than I think a lot of people realize.”

UMass Amherst has long been involved in water research. Then, in 2016, a $4.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — on the heels of a state earmark of $1.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for water innovation — helped launch one of only two national research centers (the other is in Boulder, Colo.) focused on testing and demonstrating cutting-edge technologies for drinking-water systems.

All things considered, Sullivan said, UMass Amherst is an ideal spot to develop a demonstration center. A conference last October, called “Innovations and Opportunities in Water Technologies,” brought together the business and startup community, area municipal leaders who spoke about challenges to current water and wastewater systems, and UMass experts who detailed some of the cutting-edge work already being done on campus.

“At the end of the day, all of those panels and all the discussion and information kind of led back to reinforcing the idea that this is a really smart investment for the Commonwealth,” Sullivan said, noting that the investment to create the three centers was approved as part of the state’s 2014 environmental bond bill, but has not yet been appropriated in the state budget.

“When you talk to the companies that are in the innovation sector, one of the biggest needs they have is to be able to take their product and demonstrate that it works in real life — and to be able to do that not just in a lab, but out there in the real world,” he continued. “UMass has the ability to provide that infrastructure with some investment from the Commonwealth.”

In the Flow

The MassCEC study analyzed the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers around the state: the so-called Wastewater Pilot Plant at UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in Barnstable, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor.

Establishing this network could create jobs, lower energy costs, and optimize municipal operations in addition to supporting water-technology research, the study noted. A test-bed network could serve existing Massachusetts-based water technology companies, help attract new companies to the Commonwealth, advance new solutions to both local and global water challenges, and provide a strong foundation for innovation.

Key to UMass Amherst’s feasibility as a demonstration center is the fact that it already acts as a pilot site for industry — albeit on a limited basis — because of its access to flowing streams of municipal wastewater at the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next to the university’s Water Energy Technology (WET) Center.

“You need flowing streams of municipal wastewater and surface water; you need to have access to this to test your filtration membrane or electrochemical treatment technologies, whatever they may be,” Walker said.

“Those facilities are few and far between,” he added. “But we happen to have one of just a couple facilities in the country that have some of the key attributes necessary to do some of this pilot testing — access to flowing wastewater and flowing surface-water streams, proximity to a research university, and access to stakeholders and end users.”

The issue, he said, is size and scale.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

“We have the fundamental key attributes needed to make this kind of pilot facility, but we’re limited,” he went on. “We have bays now and already have companies using the facility to do their own research and scale up. It’s already an active space for research and development collaborations — but it gets filled up very quickly, so we would love to expand it, see even more companies come in and use this space, both established companies as well as new startups.”

The center was established in the 1970s and ran as a research pilot site for decades, but fell into disrepair in the late 1990s, he explained. Since its grant-funded renovation in 2016 as a research and collaboration space, it has hosted numerous industrial collaborators. “But it’s limited how many projects can happen in parallel. So there’s a case to be made for investing in infrastructure improvements, expansion, and modernization, do more projects in parallel.”

As an example of the kind of research being done there, Walker brought up ultrafiltration membranes — nanoscale membranes that can remove contaminants when water is forced through. One problem is that the membranes tend to get fouled up by materials in the water and eventually don’t work so well, and have to be replaced regularly, which is costly.

But Jessica Schiffman, an associate professor of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of naturally occurring biopolymers that can be used as a nanofiber’s mat to prevent fouling in these ultrafiltration membranes, he explained. “Then you have a membrane that lasts longer and is more valuable, more efficient, and processes water more effectively.”

Then there are startups like Aclarity, whose CEO, Julie Bliss Mullen, presented at the fall conference. Her company specializes in electrochemical advanced oxidation, which is essentially using electricity to decontaminate water.

“Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here.”

“Then there are companies developing their own technologies we don’t even know about,” Walker said. “When they get to the stage where they’ve tested it at the lab scale and they know it works at that scale, they still can’t sell it; they can’t turn it into a technology and market it to anyone until they’ve tested it at the municipal scale, and that’s where a facility like the WET Center comes in.

“We already know there’s interest here, and we have more interest than we can serve presently,” he went on. “And we’re hoping we can find ways to expand and renovate the facility so we can meet that interest.”

It’s not just companies that benefit, he added. “Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here. So it’s a very fruitful partnership, to have our basic researchers working with companies, and companies hopefully getting some value out of the investigations we can lead, and we get a lot of value from the questions they ask, which informs the research we do here at the university.”

Current Events

One end result of all this innovation and connection, Sullivan said, is a real economic-development boost in a field that promises to become more critical over the next several decades.

“Companies these days are looking for direct ties to the university for two reasons: one, the students are graduating and they need the talent, and they also want to tie back to the research and development that’s occurring with the grad students and professors and other staff, so they can stay on the cutting edge,” he told BusinessWest.

The test-bed potential, to have a site big enough to accommodate real-life testing for more companies, only enhances that potential, he added, noting that it’s only one way UMass is leading the way in connecting scientific research with real economic development, with the core facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences being another.

“It’s such a resource and economic opportunity for the region,” he said of the university as a whole, “and I think a lot of people don’t understand and appreciate the potential it has and the importance it has.”

Walker was quick to add that the state and region have been taking the water-technology issue seriously for some time. For example, the New England Water Innovation Network is a nonprofit trade group that examines the water cluster in Massachusetts — companies developing water-purification technologies, university researchers at UMass and other universities, and industry — and connects those dots to help foster collaboration and innovation that will develop technologies, attract companies interested in developing these technologies, and hopefully create more jobs and an economic boost, all while attacking a major global problem.

“So there’s a need, and it’s likely only going to grow,” he said. “UMass Amherst is going to help develop some of the solutions to solve that problem and, hopefully, in the process of doing so, create some economic opportunity for Massachusetts and Western Mass. in particular.”

While UMass is ahead of the curve, Walker noted, this isn’t an unknown area for innovation potential, and other states, like Georgia, are currently looking to develop similar pilot-scale and commercial-scale projects.

“Right now we’re in a good place. We have a lot of interest, and we have a lot of expertise here, but I think that, going forward, we’ll see a lot more competition from other states and other regions that want to get in on this game. But to be successful, you have to have combination of physical infrastructure, stakeholder relations, and, critically, the expertise. That means having experts at the university level, which we have in spades here.”

David Reckhow is one of the more prominent of that group. The director of the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems at UMass Amherst, he has traveled to Israel, Singapore, and other places to learn about global water needs and the innovation occurring worldwide to meet those needs.

“They talk about water being the next oil,” Reckhow told BusinessWest in December 2014. “We’re running out of quality water. There’s plenty of water on the planet, but most of it is not usable; the water in the ocean is not usable, or, at least, it’s very expensive to use. So, as we move forward, there’s going to be more conflict over existing high-quality water sources. We have seen it in the Middle East for a long time, but it’s going to be more widespread. It’s an issue of national security around the world.”

The intervening years have only made it more of one. And UMass Amherst has the potential, Walker said, to be a national center for water innovation that will benefit the region, but also attract players from across the U.S., both industry and academic collaborators.

“I do think it’s new enough of a cluster that it’s just starting to get some real recognition of its importance,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Western Mass., and UMass in particular, to play a role here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Form and Function

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

The Isenberg Innovation Hub, a $62 million expansion and renovation of the business school’s facilities on the UMass Amherst campus, will open its doors to students later this month. The building’s exterior design is stunning, and it gives a new face to Isenberg and perhaps the university, but the architects have made it functional as well.

Dramatic. Striking. Stunning. Powerful. Distinctive.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as one takes in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, a $62 million, 70,000-square-foot addition and renovation to the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and its copper cladding, circular design, and falling-dominoes effect.

And those who conceptualized this project and then went about raising the money for it certainly had all those adjectives in mind when they went about hiring architects to create something that would effectively, and loudly, announce the Isenberg school’s ascension to the ranks of the best business schools in the country — and also help recruit the next generation of top students.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools. And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space.”

But that’s certainly not all they wanted — or demanded.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools,” said Tom Moliterno, interim dean at Isenberg. “And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space; there is a requirement, much like a football team needs good facilities, for facilities of a certain caliber in order to ensure that we get the best students.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he went on. “You need more than a pretty building; you need a building that’s designed to train students and to prepare students for careers in the 21st century.”

Elaborating, he said business schools today require space that is geared far more toward student collaboration, team working environments, distance learning, and career services than even a decade or two ago.

And all of this is reflected in what’s behind the flashy exterior of the Business Innovation Hub. Indeed, as he conducted his formal tour of the new facility, Moliterno seemed to be constantly pointing out places where people, and especially students, could come together and collaborate.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

In the learning commons, which doubles as event space, there are dozens of soft chairs and small round tables at which people can gather; in the classrooms, the chairs have wheels, and for a reason — so they can be moved and maneuvered to face in any direction, toward the instructor in the front of the room or the student across the table; in the hallway outside the classrooms, there are more soft chairs and gathering spaces; in the courtyard, there are stone benches; on the grand stairway, there are wooden planks affixed to one set of the concrete stairs — again, for a reason.

“If you’re heading up the stairs and you see someone coming down that you want to talk to, you can pull over, sit down on the stairs, and talk,” said Moliterno, adding that the architects — Boston-based Goody Clancy, in partnership with the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of New York and Denmark — went to extremely great lengths to inspire and facilitate collaboration, and this, perhaps even more than the stunning exterior and interior designs, is what the new addition is all about.

Roger Goldstein, the principal at Goody Clancy who headed the Isenberg project, agreed, and said the firm applied lessons from two decades of work designing college business schools and additions to the Isenberg initiative.

An aerial view of the expansion project

“Their aspiration was for something with real distinction — something that would be forward-looking and quite contemporary,” he explained, referring to Moliterno and Mark Fuller, the former dean of the Isenberg School and now associate chancellor at UMass Amherst. “But also a building that works really well and will stand up in the long run.”

Yu Inamoto, lead architect for the BIG group on this project, concurred. “One of the desires put forth by the dean, the faculty, and all the others we interacted with was to have a space that was not only impressive, but a place for gathering, and this is reflected throughout.”

Faculty and staff are currently moving into the new facilities, said Moliterno, adding that the building will be ready when students return to classes later this month.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

What they’ll find is a state-of-the-art, user-friendly facility that does a lot for Isenberg, and UMass Amherst on the whole.

It gives the business school — and perhaps the university itself — a bold new face. It also gives the school a powerful new recruiting tool and perhaps the ability to rise still higher in the rankings, something that’s difficult to do as it moves up the ladder.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Business Innovation Hub and learned how it blends form and function and punctuates the Isenberg School’s ongoing ascent among the nation’s top business schools.

Space Exploration

While obviously proud of the expansion’s ground floor, with its learning commons, courtyard, hallways crowded with gathering spaces, and generous amounts of glass, Moliterno was anxious for his tour to reach the second floor.

Because this is where more of that all-important functionality can be found. And it manifests itself in a number of ways, from greatly expanded and enhanced space for the Chase Career Center to separate lounges for students waiting to be interviewed and recruiters waiting to do some interviewing, to the small interviewing rooms that, when not being used for that purpose, can double as additional gathering spaces for students, thus maximizing each available square foot of space.

“Those rooms are sized and furnished to swing one way or the other depending on what the need is,” said Goldstein. “And that improves efficiency because you’re not creating spaces that have only one use and are empty half the time.”

Before elaborating on this mindset and what the Business Innovation Hub means for Isenberg, its students, faculty, the recruiters who will visit it to query job candidates, and other constituencies, Moliterno first went back to roughly the start of this decade, when the seeds for this facility were planted.

And they were planted out of need, he went on, which came in many forms.

The first was simply spacial. Indeed, while the original Isenberg building, built in 1964, was expanded with the so-called Alfond addition in 2002, by the start of this decade, and actually long before that, a growing Isenberg was busting at the seams.

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

“What we used to say is that we were a family of eight living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Moliterno, noting that undergraduate enrollment at Isenberg had risen from 2,500 in to 3,400 in just a few years earlier this decade.

Facilities were so cramped that some departments within Isenberg, such as Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, were spread out in other buildings, said Goldstein, creating an inconvenience for students and faculty alike. The Business and Innovation Hub brings all of Isenberg’s departments and offices together under one roof.

Beyond the need for more space, though, Isenberg also needed better space, said Moliterno — space that reflected its climb in the rankings in the U.S. News & World Report listings of business schools — both public institutions (it’s now 26th nationwide and first among undergraduate programs in the Northeast) and overall (44th in the nation). And space that would help Isenberg compete for students applying to the other schools just above or below them on those lists.

“Relatively early in his tenure, Mark Fuller realized that the school was on a trajectory, both in terms of growth and in terms of quality, that was going to necessitate new physical space,” said Moliterno, adding that the first discussions and estimates on square footage required date back to 2010 or even 2009.

At this point, the project essentially “went into the queue,” as Moliterno called it, noting that there were a number of building projects being forwarded for consideration and funding. To move up in the queue — something deemed necessary as the school continued its torrid pace of growth as well as its ascent in the rankings — the Isenberg School took the unusual step of committing to provide 60% of the funding for the project, with the rest covered by the university.

This commitment translated into the largest ever made by a specific school for a campus building project, he went on, adding that this bold step did, indeed, move the initiative up in the queue. And in 2014, formal planning — including specific space requirements and preliminary cost estimates — began in earnest.

However, in the two to three years since the initial discussions and rough sketching were undertaken, construction costs had increased 50%, he said, bringing the total cost to $62 million.

While raising that sum was a challenge — met by tapping into a growing base of successful Isenberg alums — it would be only one of many to overcome.

Another would be fitting the building into that crowded area of the campus while also negotiating a veritable rat’s nest of underground utilities in that quadrant.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines,” said Moliterno. “And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Designs on Continued Growth

Creating a road map for navigating this bowl of spaghetti was just one component of the assignment eventually awarded to Goody Clancy and the Bjarke Ingels Group — a partnership that Moliterno called a ‘perfect marriage’ of an emerging force in the design world (BIG) and a company with vast experience in designing not only academic buildings, but business-school facilities.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines. And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Indeed, BIG has been on a meteoric rise, with a portfolio now boasting Two World Trade Center in New York, Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters building, and several dozen other projects either under construction or in the planning stages.

As for Goody Clancy, as noted, it has spent the past 20 years or so developing a strong niche designing new buildings and additions for business schools, and the portfolio includes recent work at Harvard, Boston University, Georgetown University, Texas Tech, and the University of New Hampshire.

Development of this niche wasn’t exactly by design, to use an industry term, said Goldstein, but as often happens in this business, a single project or two can lead to additional opportunities.

And that’s what happened after the firm took on a project for Babson University, known for its programs in entrepreneurship.

“We then did a few more, and before you knew it, we had three business-school buildings, and we thought, ‘OK, this looks like a specialty,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company has another four or five business-school projects in various stages of completion, a reflection of the need for such institutions to keep up with the Joneses, if you will, so they can effectively compete for the best students.

“Business schools have wealthy donors and want to build buildings that will advance their brand,” he said. “They want something that will differentiate them.”

Inamoto agreed. “Schools definitely want to make a statement with these buildings,” he said, adding that the Isenberg addition is the first academic project taken on by the firm in this country, and thus it sought to partner with a firm with a deep portfolio in that realm.

As they went about designing the addition, the team of architects focused on both of their priorities — form and function. They conceptualized an exterior that would fit in — sort of — and respect the brutalist style so prominent in other buildings in that part of the campus, such as the Fine Arts Center and the Whitmore Administration Building.

The circular design, meanwhile, would create a dynamic look that would also connect, in dramatic fashion, with the existing Isenberg facility (as the aerial architect’s rendering on page 18 shows) and “close the loop,” as Goldstein put it.

As for the copper exterior, Inamoto said it was chosen — after aluminum was first considered — because the material, like the school itself, isn’t stagnant; it changes over time.

“As a firm, we like the look of copper, and we like to recommend naturally aging materials,” he explained. “The copper panels are already starting to weather; when they’re first installed, they’re a bright, shiny orange, and within weeks, that starts to become darker and brown, and over time, they’ll oxidize to a green copper look.

“Over time, the building weathers,” he went on. “And we didn’t want something that was too flat or too plasticky, if you will. That’s part of our design strategy; we try to select something that’s authentic and real.”

In designing what’s behind the copper façade, they started by gathering extensive feedback, via focus groups, from a number of constituencies, including Isenberg administrators and staff, students, faculty, and others. And they incorporated what they learned into the final design, said Moliterno, citing everything from a café to greatly expanded space for the career center and undergraduate advising.

“They brought in Career Services and said, ‘walk us through everything you do — what are your space needs? You have interviewers here — how many, and what do they need?’” he recalled. “And then, they had that same conversation with Undergraduate Programs and with a committee of faculty who talked about the classroom space.

“And they had the same conversations with students,” he went on. “And this is where we learned that students are often here from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, and thus they want a place to eat in the building, because if they leave the building, they break up their team process.”

As for the career center and undergraduate advising facilities, these are as important to the ultimate success of Isenberg students (and the school itself) as the classrooms, said Moliterno, adding that these facilities provide more services to far more students than they did even a few years ago.

“Students don’t just show up when they’re juniors and look for job postings,” he explained. “They’re working with the career services offices constantly in order to get internships, résumé review, and structure their social-media profile. The hands-on career prep, the number of hours one spends in career services, has grown dramatically over the years, and this is reflected in the design of this building.”

Seeing the Light

As he walked through the expanded career services office during his tour, Moliterno put the Business Innovation Hub and the chosen designs for it in their proper perspective.

“At the initial bid process, when I was speaking to all the architects who were bidding, I said, ‘I want to be clear about something: this might be the most beautiful building in the world, but if it doesn’t work for the students, if it doesn’t enhance and improve the student experience, it will be a failure — full stop,’” he recalled.

‘Most beautiful building in the world’ is a purely subjective matter for discussion, he went on, while the matter of whether a building works for students certainly isn’t.

He’s quite sure that this one does, and while that quality generally doesn’t warrant adjectives like ‘dramatic, ‘striking,’ ‘stunning,’ or ‘powerful,’ it probably should.

And it explains, even more than that façade, why the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub is such an important development for the school and the university.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Venturing Forth

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs as the new executive director of the Berthiaume Center.

People may know the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship from its public events, most notably the Innovation Challenge, where UMass Amherst students compete for seed money to turn entrepreneurial ideas into viable businesses. But the center’s new director, Gregory Thomas, wants to broaden the center’s reach and help more young people understand that the goal isn’t to win a competition — it’s to develop a true entrepreneurial mindset that will serve them well no matter where their lives take them.

On the surface, the UMass Amherst students who competed in the recent Minute Pitch at the university’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship were vying for a top prize of $1,000 and the ability to move to the next stage of competition in a program known as the Innovation Challenge.

But, on a broader level, there’s a lot more at stake.

Take, for example, the winner, an app called Find a Missing Kid, which aims to help identify missing or exploited children in public settings like schools, routine traffic stops, and public transportation. It was proposed by Grace Hall, Arta Razavi, and Cameron Harvey.

Earning second prize was Let’s Talk About It, developed by Ashley Olafsen and Thomas Leary, which seeks to provide relevant wellness-related curriculum to schools and individuals, with a focus on topics like mental health, self-esteem, consent, eating disorders, and relationships.

Third prize went to Devin Clark for Digital Mapping Consultants, with the goal of producing crop-health maps for the agricultural industry in order to guide precision agriculture to increase yields while reducing inputs throughout the growing season.

These are all with the potential to change the world — or, at least, dramatically change the lives of individuals who use them.

Gregory Thomas likes when ideas like that emerge, and are given the support to advance beyond the idea stage. And, as the new executive director of the Berthiame Center, he wants to see more of them.

“We need to figure out how to get more stuff into the funnel,” Thomas told BusinessWest. “The more ideas and more ventures we get coming through the funnel, the more we get on the other end, stimulating the economy.”

The Innovation Challenge, a four-part entrepreneurship competition that launches promising ventures to the next levels of startup, is perhaps the best-known of the Berthiaume Center’s initiatives, but Thomas is hoping to increase the center’s impact in other ways, both on campus and off — and even across the planet, through ventures that break through to market.

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch from Gregory Thomas (left) and Tom Moliterno, interim dean of the Isenberg School of Management.

“Our mission is to teach students how to be a successful entrepreneur, how to run a venture so it’s successful — which includes knowing when to pivot and shut down an idea and find a new one,” he noted. “We also encourage curiosity — what really drives you. You may have a cool idea, but who would buy it and why? How would you make money? We have to teach those fundamentals to our ventures. Otherwise, they’re just polishing presentations to win a challenge. The challenge is the carrot to get them in the door. After that, we teach them to be entrepreneurs.”

He added that most of these students aren’t going to become the next Steve Jobs, but whether they wind up working for somebody or start their own business, entrepreneurial skills translate well to the workplace, and will always make them more effective on whatever path they choose.

That’s why he wants to broaden Berthiaume’s programs and keep students interested in them — not just those who win money to advance their ideas, but the ones who didn’t make the finals, or didn’t apply in the first place. Because those students, too, have ideas that could one day change lives.

“What can we do to help them perfect their craft and work on their ventures and keep them in our ecosystem, continue to educate them?” Thomas said. “There’s a reason why we’re not getting everything into the funnel, and that’s something I’d like to work on with key leaders on campus. How do we get more into the funnel?”

There’s plenty of room in that funnel, he said, and sufficient brainpower on campus — and well beyond it — to help students not just win a prize, but think like entrepreneurs for the long term.

Growing an Idea

Ask Julie Bliss Mullen about that. She developed an innovative technology that uses electricity for water filtration. In 2016, trying to figure out how to bring the idea to market, she filed a provisional patent with UMass and enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

“The Berthiaume Center has been instrumental in making my ideas reality,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest. “As a Ph.D. student, I was used to conducting research, but had no clue what to do with an idea, let alone form a startup. They helped me to put things into perspective, making me think about what box I envision the water-purification device being sold to consumers even before I came up with a name for the company. This kind of thinking quickly made my idea a reality.”

The center also helped her vet potential co-founders for her business. While taking a graduate-level entrepreneurship class, she met Barrett Mully, a fellow at the Berthiaume Center who was attending the class as a teaching assistant. The two partnered up and eventually won the top award at the Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

They were accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding — including a $27,500 prize from the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Awards earlier this year — and embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market.

“It was through Berthiaume that I learned how important product-market fit and developing and testing a business model is,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest, adding that they were introduced to investors, subject-matter experts, accelerators, grant agencies, and mentors through the Summer Accelerator. “I’ve always had a spark for entrepreneurship, but it was really Berthiaume that guided me through the unknowns and made me realize my passion.”

The Innovation Challenge, simply put, is a series of competitions designed to assist and reward UMass students and young alumni pursuing a novel business idea and developing it into a marketable product. The goal is for interdisciplinary teams to conceptualize a product with regard to its scientific and technological design, identify customers, and create a business plan for the product’s commercialization.

The first phase is the Minute Pitch, the event won last month by Find a Missing Kid. True to the name, students have 60 seconds to pitch their venture ideas to a panel of judges. No written business models or plans are required, and mentors are on site to provide feedback.

The second phase is the Seed Pitch Competition, in which participants form business models and perfect their elevator pitch. Where the Minute Pitch offers $2,500 in total awards, this second step distributes $15,000 to select teams as determined by the judges.

The third phase, the semifinal, simulates an investor boardroom experience, in which the young entrepreneurs present their venture to a panel of judges in a closed-door setting and compete for a spot in the final. During that final, the best projects vie for a total of $65,000 in seed money to move their ventures forward.

Events like that are complemented by a series of entrepreneurship classes across campus, student clubs focused on different elements of entrepreneurship, the Summer Accelerator, and partnerships with organizations across the Valley.

“The first chapter of Berthiaume was really focused on building a foundation of events and curriculum for UMass students — and, quite honestly, it has been a limited group of UMass students,” Thomas said.

While the center has distributed more than $300,000 to new ventures and built partnerships across campus and the Valley, he added, the next step will be to broaden all of that.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

“We want to expand on campus and expand partnerships in the Valley with organizations like VentureWell, which focuses on entrepreneurship and training, and Valley Venture Mentors and the EDC. We should be building and rebuilding our connections there,” he went on. “Today, Berthiaume is a catalytic entity to stimulate entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking in the ecosystem.”

Building a Network

To that end, the center has started building a “mentor network” of community leaders and social entrepreneurs, he explained. “It could be alumni and entrepreneurs who are interested in volunteering their time to coach our team, so they can get better at not just reaching out in the community, but expanding our community and growing the ecosytem.”

Thomas brings a broad base of business experience to his current role of evolving the Berthiaume Center’s mission. Most recently, he held various senior-level global manufacturing, finance, and control roles with Corning Inc. During the last five years at Corning, he was a strategist in the Emerging Innovation Group, focusing on bringing new products, processes, and businesses to market.

“There are some cool things happening here,” he said. “For a guy who graduated from Technical High School in 1986 but hasn’t lived in Springfield for 32 years, it’s very exciting for me to come home and see all that’s going on. I’ve come home to a bustling Pioneer Valley.”

He also brings experience as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, as well as being a prolific volunteer and fundraiser. A 1991 alumnus of UMass Amherst, he never lost touch with his alma mater, recently serving as president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. board.

“I’ve been involved and seen most of the progress that UMass has made,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, instead of volunteering, I’m doing everything I love and used to do as a hobby, and being paid for it.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Brand, who has taught entrepreneurship at colleges and universities across the country, was recently named Berthuame’s new associate director. Thomas and Brand join Carly Forcade, operations and student engagement specialist; Amy LeClair, office manager; and Molly O’Mara, communications, events, and constituent relations coordinator, all of whom joined the center during the past year. Bruce Skaggs, Management Department chair, serves the center as its academic coordinator, aligning curricular offerings between Berthiaume and the various departments across UMass.

Recently, Thomas visited MIT to visit with Trish Cotter, executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, to exchange ideas, including how to develop a system where people are interested in investing in startups in an altrutistic way — not angel funders looking for a return, “but people who just genuinely want to help them and will volunteer some of their time to strengthen our economy and our community,” he said.

It’s just one of many ideas being kicked around by Thomas, who said he stopped drinking coffee in August, yet is enjoying a higher energy level than ever, simply because he’s energized by the potential of the Berthiaume Center to make a difference in even more lives.

“It’s hard for me to sleep. I wake up ready to go. There are so many exciting things going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Entrepreneurship affects lives — and I’m excited to be back in the Pioneer Valley, seeing the impact of entrepreneurship on lives and communities.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]