The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

After two combat tours, University of South Alabama student PAVEs way forward for other veterans

Zack Aggen, a second-year University of South Alabama medical student, tutors and mentors a half-dozen undergraduates as part of a national program called Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. “It’s hard to open up to people who aren’t service connected in some way,” he said. (Mike Kittrell)

“Everybody reacts to trauma differently,” said Zack Aggen. He reacts by helping.

Aggen knows a lot about trauma. As a U.S. Army medic during two combat tours in Iraq, he saw terrible wounds, heard horrifying screams of pain and worked desperately to save the lives of the fellow soldiers who had become, in his word, “family.”

Aggen also remembers a quieter but still agonizing trauma: feeling “lost and hopeless” as he transitioned from the structured intensity of his military career to a baffling civilian life where none of the skills he’d learned seemed of any use.

“When I first got back,” he said, “I went from putting in chest tubes and bandaging amputations to the only job I could find, which was as a patient care tech at St. Vincent’s hospital in Birmingham. I went from saving people’s lives to changing bedpans.”

Now a second-year medical student at the University of South Alabama, Aggen managed to find his way to a future he envisioned on his hardest days. A little guidance from someone who had been where he’d been would have made it a lot easier.

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So that’s what he now provides. He tutors and mentors a half-dozen undergraduates as part of a national program called Peer Advisors for Veteran Education. PAVE, which began as a pilot program in 2012, operates out of the University of Michigan. It now has 46 partner campuses. In September 2019, the University of South Alabama became the first campus in Alabama.

Joshua Missouri, South’s coordinator of veterans affairs (and a Navy veteran himself), runs South’s PAVE program. The University has about 350 students who are veterans or service members. When Missouri proposed that South sign on with PAVE, he said, “We got institutional support almost immediately. We got funding. That shows the commitment from the university to serve veterans.”

PAVE is a low-key, all-volunteer program. Aggen is one of a half-dozen or so peer advisers at South. They’re military veterans who have already experienced at least a year or two of campus life. They’re trained to support incoming veterans who are just starting college.

Aggen tutors in math and science, listens if the undergrads want to talk, gives them tips about campus services and outside organizations that might be a good fit and even recommends babysitters and local schools. Whatever they need.

As a medical student, he’s paired with undergraduates in health fields. Two-thirds are women. To them, he represents someone who understands. Even now, 11 years after leaving the Army, “There are very few people I will talk to things about,” he said. “Mostly it’s other service members. It’s hard to open up to people who aren’t service connected in some way.”

He makes sure to check in regularly. “The thing I’m really sensitive to is veteran suicides. I’ve had several friends who have killed themselves. And so being another advocate for guys who may be struggling, that’s what’s important to me.”

Aggen spent four and a half years with the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, which was based in Germany during his service. In 2004-05 and 2006-07, he was deployed to Iraq. In 2007, as part of the increase in troop strength known as “the surge,” his battalion suffered the most combat deaths of any Europe-based U.S. military brigade in Iraq.

After he left the Army in 2008, he lived down the street from a police station in Birmingham. “Every time their siren would kick off, it would make a sound like an incoming mortar,” he said. “I would freeze. It went on for a year before I finally got used to it.”

He started college that year at the University of Alabama in Birmingham and graduated in 2011 with a degree in molecular biology. He had already taken a couple of college classes while in the service. He squeezed the rest into three years because GI Bill education benefits end after 36 months.

At UAB, he met the woman who became his wife. Dr. Ashlen Aggen is now a family medicine physician in Bayou La Batre, a half-hour south of the USA campus. The Aggens have three children, boys who are 11 and 5, and a 1-year-old girl.

After Ashlen’s graduation from UAB, South accepted her into medical school and, later, residency. Zack took advantage of an Alabama program that fast-tracks high school teaching certificates for holders of college math or science degrees. He taught for seven years, supporting his wife through her medical training.

Then it was his turn. Aggen, now 34, finally has an opportunity to fulfill a promise he made to himself during his medic days to learn everything he can about medicine. He and his wife would like to work together to meet the medical needs of an underserved community like Bayou La Batre. They haven’t figured out all the details.

“She does family medicine, so she can do the cradle-to-the-grave care,” Zack said. “So things that I might do are obstetrics or general surgery or something else that’s needed out there. I don’t know yet, really.”

Meanwhile, he’s helping with the PAVE program, organizing rural healthcare initiatives, carrying out the duties associated with being president of his class, coaching a special needs baseball team, and helping care for his three kids.

“I’m just one of those people who can’t take his foot off the gas,” he said.

And what keeps him from crashing and burning, like too many other combat veterans? “The honest answer is my wife. She met me when I was still recovering from that experience and chose to stay with me even though I was a mess. She’s still supporting me as I get through my medical training. I wouldn’t be where I am without her.”

Most veterans don’t have an Ashlen. Most who go to college don’t fit in with students just out of high school.

Missouri, South’s veterans’ affairs coordinator gives an example: People fresh out of the military tend to speak directly, even bluntly, “They mean well,” he said. “But it’s not interpreted that way sometimes. So they need help with those soft skills.”

And when they need help with academic skills, Aggen said, “It’s tough to sit there and be tutored by some 19-year-old kid with no life experiences. It’s hard to relate.

“But if you’ve got this gruffer, tatted-up old dude who happens to be good at whatever you’re struggling at, it helps. Then it’s like, I don’t feel so different.”

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute studies published for 2019 ASCO meeting

(USA Health/Contributed)

New research studies by physician-scientists at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute have been published online in advance of the 55th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, taking place May 31-June 4 in Chicago.

The event is the world’s largest clinical cancer research meeting and draws more than 32,000 oncology professionals from around the globe who share the latest cancer research affecting patient care. Advances in therapies for rectal cancer, colon cancer and melanoma were among the MCI research projects accepted for online publication.

“Oncologists at the Mitchell Cancer Institute are dedicated to advancing the science of cancer care,” said Dr. Rodney P. Rocconi, interim director at MCI. “It’s encouraging to see their work recognized by a worldwide organization of 45,000 oncology professionals.”

The following MCI research projects were among 3,200 studies accepted for online publication by ASCO:

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  • A study examining the difference in exosomal markers between right-sided and left-sided colon cancer tumors, led by Dr. Moh’d Khushman, medical oncologist and assistant professor of interdisciplinary clinical oncology at MCI. The collaborative research involved the USA College of Medicine departments of pathology and surgery, USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute medical oncology and oncologic sciences, and radiation oncology at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
  • An experimental model identifying specific gut microbiota associated with improved responses to immune checkpoint inhibitor therapy in melanoma, led by Dr. Arthur E. Frankel, the Arlene and Mayer Mitchell Chair of Medical Oncology at MCI. The research also involved the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo and Vedanta Biosciences in Cambridge, Mass.
  • A study exploring the prognostic value of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) following treatment with chemo-radiation for patients with locally advanced rectal cancer, led by Khushman. The collaborative research involved the USA College of Medicine departments of internal medicine, radiology and pathology; USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute medical oncology; the University of South Alabama department of mathematics and statistics; and radiation oncology at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.

MCI was also a collaborator on two studies to be highlighted in poster presentations at ASCO. That research will be presented by Caris Life Sciences in conjunction with the Precision Oncology Alliance, of which MCI is a member. For those studies, MCI contributed tumor specimens for molecular profiling.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

USA Health’s Madeira da Silva honored for cancer research at AACR annual meeting

(USA Health/Contributed)

Luciana Madeira da Silva, Ph.D., a researcher at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute, has received a 2019 Minority and Minority-serving Institution Faculty Scholar in Cancer Research Award.

The travel award was presented to 15 researchers at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Atlanta. The AACR is the world’s oldest and largest professional association related to cancer research.

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Madeira da Silva presented a poster on experimental anti-cancer compounds discovered at MCI that inhibit cell growth in mice by disrupting the RAS oncoprotein. These first-in-class RAS inhibitors warrant further development as a selective and effective treatment for ovarian cancer, she said.

Madeira da Silva, who heads the Gynecologic Oncology Lab at MCI, collaborates with Professor of Oncologic Sciences and Pharmacology Gary A. Piazza, Ph.D., who leads the MCI Drug Discovery Research Center.

The purpose of the award is to increase the scientific knowledge base of minority faculty members and faculty members at minority-serving institutions, and to encourage them and their students to pursue careers in cancer research, according to the AACR.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

USA Health’s Ajay Singh honored by Society of Asian American Scientists in Cancer Research

(USA Health/Contributed)

Cancer researcher Ajay Singh, Ph.D., is one of 10 scientists to receive an Outstanding Achievement Award from the Society of American Asian Scientists in Cancer Research. The awards were presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in Atlanta.

Singh is a professor of oncologic sciences and head of the Health Disparities in Cancer Research Program at USA Health Mitchell Cancer Institute. He joined MCI in 2009.

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“Dr. Singh is an outstanding scientist and a leader at MCI,” said MCI Interim Director Dr. Rodney P. Rocconi. “I’m so pleased that his research is being recognized at this level.”

Singh’s research focuses on the molecular mechanisms involved in cancer progression and chemoresistance, and the development of novel mechanism-based approaches for cancer therapy and prevention.

Singh received his Ph.D. in Life Science from Devi Ahilya University in India and completed postdoctoral training in cancer biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center/Eppley Cancer Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. He has received numerous honors and awards and is a co-inventor on five issued U.S. patents, of which three were granted for his discoveries relating to prostate and pancreatic cancer. He has been awarded research grants from all major federal funding agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Singh also is a recipient of the University of South Alabama 2016 Russell and Robin Lea National Alumni Excellence in Faculty Innovation Award and the 2016 Mayer Mitchell Award for Excellence in Cancer Research.

The Society of American Asian Scientists in Cancer Research is a nonprofit organization of more than 5,000 scientists from Asia who are working in the U.S. and Canada in the field of cancer research.

(Courtesy of Alabama Newscenter)

Michelob Ultra Terrace announced for new University of South Alabama stadium

(CDFL Sports Architects + Engineers/Contributed)

The University of South Alabama and Budweiser-Busch Distributing Co., Inc. have reached an agreement on a commitment to the new Hancock Whitney Stadium that includes recognition of the terrace in the facility’s south end zone.

In recognition of a $1 million gift, the Michelob Ultra Terrace will feature several rows with walk-up drink rails that offer an intimate and immersive view of the game action near field level, bringing tailgating to the field. The Michelob Ultra Terrace is expected to emphasize social interaction among fans, with the middle sections being an ideal setting for group events.

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When the Jags are not at home, the venue has the ability to transition to large-scale concert staging.

“Since our inception on April 1, 1965, the Budweiser-Busch Distributing family has always supported the greater Mobile community. We are very excited to be a part of the University of South Alabama and its commitment to Mobile, our citizens and students,” said Alexis Atkins, Budweiser-Busch Distributing Vice President and a 1977 USA graduate. “We strongly believe the new stadium will play an important role in continuing to grow the university and greater Mobile as well as increasing our student enrollment. Go Jags!”

The date of the announcement coincides with the 54th anniversary of the founding of Budweiser-Busch Distributing Co., Inc., which made the first corporate gift dedicated to the Jaguar football program when it donated $50,000 in unrestricted funds in March 2008.

“We are excited to continue our partnership with the local company that was the first to commit to supporting the Jaguar football program over a decade ago,” said University of South Alabama President Dr. Tony Waldrop. “We are looking forward to seeing the excitement and game-day atmosphere the Michelob Ultra Terrace will provide in 2020 and beyond after the new Hancock Whitney Stadium opens.”

The 25,000-seat Hancock Whitney Stadium will be on the west side of campus, adjacent to the Jaguar Training Center, football fieldhouse and football practice fields. Included in the plans are a state-of-the-art video board and sound system, an end-zone terrace and concert stage, 18-seat suites, a club level with 800 seats, and premier chair-back and bench-back seating options. The site will include hospitality areas for tailgating, events and recreational vehicle parking.

“We are forever grateful to Budweiser Busch Distributing and their leadership for their ongoing support and belief in the University of South Alabama, Jaguar Athletics and our emerging football program,” USA Director of Athletics Dr. Joel Erdmann stated. “Gifts such as this do not happen without the personal commitment from Budweiser Busch Distributing individuals such as Alexis Atkins, and Jim and Chris Fuchs and others.”

Fundraising for the stadium continues, and additional sponsorship and donor opportunities are available. To support Hancock Whitney Stadium, contact Erdmann at jerdmann@southalabama.edu or 251-460-7121, or Jacob Ludwikowski at jludwikowski@southalabama.edu or 251-461-1553, or visit GetOnCampus.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

University of South Alabama researchers study progression of deadly lung syndrome

(University of South Alabama/Contributed)

Researchers at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine have developed a pre-clinical model for Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), a progressive disease that occurs in critically ill patients. A team led by Dr. Diego F. Alvarez and Dr. Jonathon P. Audia published the results of this NIH/NHLBI-sponsored study in the March 11 online edition of Pulmonary Circulation.

ARDS has a mortality rate of 40 to 60 percent in patients who develop the disorder, which is characterized by worsening lung function. Typically ARDS develops as a result of community- and hospital-acquired pneumonia and patients are treated in an intensive-care setting.

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“Right now there are no therapies to treat these patients once ARDS develops other than supportive care,” said Audia, associate professor of microbiology and immunology. “Our goal is developing comprehensive models to understand the disease progression and how it resolves, and then ultimately being able to use this model to test new therapies.”

Audia and Alvarez, who is an associate professor of physiology and cell biology, have been researching the pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common cause of hospital-acquired pneumonia, and its impact on lung biology and pathogenesis for the past nine years, publishing numerous scientific articles on the subject.

The current study was the first to take a comprehensive look at the progression of ARDS in animal models examining effects on the lung vasculature, building upon the team’s previous work in cell cultures, Audia said.

The researchers examined two groups of rats infected with Pseudomonas aeruginosa – one group after 48 hours and the other after seven days. The first group of mice displayed the clinical hallmarks of ARDS, while the second group displayed lingering effects of infection, inflammation and fibrosis seen in patients who succumb to ARDS, but signs of lung repair also were observed.

The modeling sets the stage for future research. “We don’t know whether the host response is not strong enough to kill the bacteria or if there’s something defective with the repair pathway and the patients never fully recover,” Audia said. “It’s one of those things that’s a black box. Nobody knows which part goes awry.”

He said further research could help doctors predict how patients will fare in response to an initial pneumonia infection, and ultimately lead to the development of new interventions and therapies to combat pneumonia and ARDS.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

University of South Alabama alum protects Alabama’s marine resources

(University of South Alabama)

By Maj. Jason Downey’s best recollection, he was about 5 years old when his two grandfathers began taking him to the woods and waters of Alabama to fish, ski and hunt.

As natural as Alabama’s outdoors felt to him growing up, however, it wasn’t until he found himself on a ride-along with a lieutenant for the Marine Resources Division of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources that he realized with all certainty exactly what he wanted to do with his career.

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“I fell in love,” he said. “This is what I want to do.”

Sixteen years after landing his first job with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Downey has been named chief enforcement officer for its Marine Resources Division.

A 2002 University of South Alabama graduate, Downey says leading the enforcement of state laws that deal with Alabama’s waterways has only increased his conviction that conservation is essential.

“Everything we do is for the public to be able to continue to enjoy all the wonderful natural resources Alabama has to offer,” he said. “I’d like people to think about how great it is and how it would be if we did not have it.”

Downey grew up in west Mobile the son of two educators. He graduated from Theodore High School and won a leadership scholarship to another university. His initial plan was to pursue coaching, a path that would have led him in footsteps laid by father Joe Downey, a longtime football coach for Theodore High School who enjoyed a 40-year coaching career.

But being three hours from home didn’t feel right to Jason Downey. After his freshman year of college, Downey transferred to the University of South Alabama. Here, he was closer to his family — and, not coincidentally, his future wife and future South Alabama alumna, Mindy, whom he’d dated since high school.

Following that eye-opening ride-along, Downey sought input from USA’s counselors about how he could leverage the college courses he’d already taken into a degree that would best position him to quickly begin work with the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He’d already collected many of the credits needed to obtain a bachelor of science degree in sociology, so that’s what he chose.

Downey was so motivated to get to work, he landed a job as an aid with the agency in his final year of college. Soon, he rose from a laborer in the enforcement section to being named a conservation enforcement officer in 2004. Eight years later, Downey became a lieutenant, overseeing conservation enforcement in Mobile County. He spoke about his job in a 2014 video produced by the Alabama Department of Conservation & Natural Resources.

Today, he resides in Daphne with Mindy and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10. Downey’s job has taken him pretty much anywhere water goes or touches, from diving during search and rescue missions to checking fishing licenses to inspecting seafood shops. Downey is also certified by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to provide firearms training to his officers and supervisors.

In his new position overseeing the division, Downey says he’s becoming reacquainted with his love of coaching. “I really enjoy dealing with the people I supervise,” he said. “It’s kind of like being head coach. You’re the leader of the team.”

This story originally appeared on the University of South Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)