Academics and Research

A new DU center takes a multifaceted approach to the study of aging

A new center at the University of Denver is encouraging faculty and students from across campus to come together to study an issue that will directly affect millions of Americans over the coming decades.

Funded in part by a $10 million naming gift from Betty Knoebel, widow of Denver food-service pioneer Ferdinand “Fritz” Knoebel, the new Knoebel Center for the Study of Aging will pull together experts from a wide range of disciplines to focus on the challenges associated with aging — studying not just medical issues around growing older, but addressing questions around law, lifestyle, housing and psychology, to name just a few. It also will provide new areas of focus for DU faculty and students.

“With 10,000 people turning 65 every day in this country, the study of aging is critically important,” says University of Denver Chancellor Rebecca Chopp. “The Knoebel Center for the Study of Aging will bring together the University of Denver’s many academic and professional programs, research faculty and students to make a positive impact on the Denver metro area and on society at large. A holistic approach to how we age well is one of the greatest frontiers for research, support and engagement at DU.”


The origins of a new center

The story of the Knoebel Center began more than 10 years ago, when University officials started looking for a signature project, one that could become a regional center of excellence as well as a focus of the institution’s research and academic talent.

Lynn Taussig, past president and CEO of the Denver-based National Jewish Medical and Research Center and a current special advisor on life sciences at DU, was asked by the University to lead an effort to find a life sciences focus that would be unique to the institution.

“It became apparent that aging was a good focal point for moving forward,” Taussig says. “Robert Coombe, who was chancellor at the time, said it should be a campus-wide initiative. And there really has been tremendous interest. This is such a huge issue for the country. There are so many different aspects to our aging population. We can’t cover them all, but we can focus on a number of areas with the expertise we’re developing.”

Scheduled to open this fall, the Knoebel Center will be located on the fifth floor of the new engineering facility currently under construction on the south side of campus. The building, which was funded by a $27 million gift from Chancellor Emeritus Dan Ritchie, will have four floors dedicated to the newly renamed Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science.


Finding the right leadership

DU officials also conducted a national search to find the right leader for the new effort. In April 2015, the University named internationally known neurobiologist Lotta Granholm as the center’s executive director.

Most recently director of the Center on Aging at the Medical University of South Carolina, Granholm also earned her PhD at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. She officially begins her duties at the Knoebel Center on Sept. 1.

“We wanted to bring someone in who knew what needed to be done,” says Corinne Lengsfeld, associate provost for research at DU. “Lotta is from a medical background, but what she’s really excited about is this idea of not just preventing disease, but helping people live the fullest, most independent lives.”

For her part, Granholm says the 15 years she spent at the University of South Carolina taught her a lot about building a program from the ground up. “I have had to be very resourceful and collaborative, due to the lack of resources at the university and in the state of South Carolina,” she says. “I’ve learned that nothing is impossible.”

In her new role at DU, Granholm says, she is looking forward to bringing together several strong programs to address issues around aging. “For me, this was a unique opportunity to tie widely different lines of research together, such as engineering, law, biology and business,” she says.

“If we are to design a better future for older individuals, we must think about all aspects, including not only health, but also elder law, social work and clinical psychology,” she says. “DU appears to be ready to take on novel ideas in education and also in research, so I think it is a place where this kind of interprofessional project has a chance to succeed.”

Shelly Smith-Acuna, dean of the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, expects that the center will not only give faculty across campus the chance to work together in a whole new way, it will allow the University to work with the Denver community in a new way as well.

“This topic area is going to give us such an opportunity for the kind of seamless integration of research, service and training that the University wants to be known for,” she says. “For example, [the Graduate School of Professional Psychology has] faculty members who are interested in stroke recovery, so our faculty and students can be involved in assessment of post-stroke functioning, with the understanding that they’ll be providing a service and also collecting data on what interventions are possible to aid stroke recovery.

“I think it’s great that we’ll be pulling together faculty members with different areas of expertise,” Smith-Acuna says, “and knowing we’re going to amplify our impact by having them work together.”


Bringing the pieces together

According to David Greenberg, the University’s vice chancellor of institutional partnerships, DU is well equipped to begin exploring aging issues. “DU is the oldest and largest private research university in the Rockies. We have a wide group of graduate programs, all of which fit well with aging issues,” he says. “It’s just a good set of departments and colleges we have here that lends itself to being able to do cooperative work.” He notes that issues such as housing, mobility and independence are all areas that researchers at DU can work together to address.

One project that already has demonstrated the promise of the interdisciplinary approach is a research initiative by Leslie Hasche, of the Graduate School of Social Work, and Anne DePrince, chair of the Department of Psychology. The two collaborated on research into risk factors for elder abuse — a study that drew $500,000 in funds from the U.S. Department of Justice.

DU can provide research that goes beyond medical geriatric care or other health care-related issues, Lengsfeld says. It’s quality of life that matters to seniors.

“It’s not just about living longer anymore; it’s very much about living longer and living to the full capacity that’s possible,” she says. “This center is needed because there needs to be a place where people think about that aspect. What should the expectations be — how long can we push independence, and how do we define what people need to make them truly independent?”


The future of the center

Lengsfeld says the center will allow graduate and undergraduate students to expand their research to topics that will be of interest to those in other departments and divisions. “We know from the University’s recent strategic planning process that students want these opportunities,” she says. “We also intend to leverage the activities of the faculty to move the age-related work they do into the classroom more often, which is already happening, but we want to do more of it. As the number of course opportunities grows, options for minors and degree specializations will naturally spring up.”

Granholm notes that community involvement also will be part of the center’s work. “We are planning to organize many community events, including going into area churches or senior centers, and we’ll develop a resources website and newsletters with information,” she said.

The center also will reach out to international institutions, as well as the business community. “An important area is to enhance entrepreneurialism in the aging field,” Granholm says. “DU has researchers who have designed novel drugs, tools, applications or engineering equipment that should be developed into future businesses. Providing incubator space and business know-how will be extremely important.”

Lengsfeld also is interested in how research on aging will translate into new enterprises and business opportunities. “If you look around, over the last five years, companies that are dedicated to assisting seniors and caregivers have seen tremendous growth,” she says. “The only reason that companies would be growing in this area is if the general public had been demanding it.

“People are more and more aware [of aging issues],” she continues. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I’m not just interested in preventing disease; I want to be skiing in Aspen when I’m 85.’ So the expectation is not just getting up in the morning. They want to maintain the lifestyle they have.”

Granholm says she is looking forward seeing where the work of the new center leads. “This will be an experiment, in that DU does not have any other interdisciplinary centers that span such wide areas,” she says. “I am excited to get the opportunity to help develop this center — I think we have a real chance of developing something unique.”











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