Thursday, April 22, 2010

STEM Sell - 04/21/10

Another Wednesday, another edition of "STEM Sell". We were finally able to break the vicious stranglehold of JMU faculty on the coveted guest position. We interviewed Dr. Rajeev Vaidyanathan (pronounced "Vyed-ye-NA-than"), a researcher at SRI's branch in the Shenandoah Valley, the Center for Advanced Drug REsearch (CADRE). Rajeev is investigating insect-borne viruses, particularly the diseases dengue fever and leishmaniasis. These diseases are not so well-known as many other diseases, but dengue fever, prevalent in many more tropical areas of the world, is starting to make inroads in the southern U.S. Leishmaniasis is being reported in increasing numbers among U.S. soldiers deployed to the Middle East. The biochemical interactions between the virus and insect and human host are exceedingly complex and it's a fascinating challenge to unravel this Gordian Knot.

As usual, Brian and I engaged in witty repartee--at least, that's how I like to remember it--as we reported on some STEM-related tidbits in the news (a recording of the show is available at the STEM Sell website):
  • The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is on the cusp of a first-ever-in-the-U.S. vaccine for cancer. This vaccine is specifically for prostate cancer. The whole process of performing trial treatments and analyzing the results and performing new trials has lasted many years. The company seeking the FDA's approval started the trials in the early 90's. Therefore, the technology behind it, although sounding rather sophisticated as it involves tailoring the vaccine to individual patients, is actually 15-20 years old and there are more up to date treatments being studied.
  • The eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced "Oh-WAH-de-LU-na-yam", say it loudly and quickly for best effect) has precedents in the recent past, according to the historical record. And among those eruptions, there was often a second, larger eruption in the nearby volcano Katla with the most recent pair of eruptions occurring between 1821 and 1823. Naturally, scientists are keeping close tabs on Katla.
  • Researchers at the University of New Mexico have performed painstaking analyses of the genomes of 1983 people taken from all around the world and come to an unexpected obstacle. Assuming the rate of genetic mutation has remained more or less constant, comparing the genomes of the different populations with what is known about human migration patterns over the last 100,000 years, there appeared to be two distinct events of genetic disturbances that required another explanation. The researchers hypothesized that Homo sapiens populations interbred with Homo neanderthalis populations on two different occasions in two different locations to create these changes. The first hypothetical interbreeding took place about 60,000 years ago in the region of the eastern Mediterranean and the second 45,000 years ago in eastern Asia. Bolstering their hypothesis is that the genomes of people from Africa show no such disturbances.
  • Current wisdom among paleontologists is that Homo erectus populations may have existed as recently as 30,000 years ago. However, there is now some controversy over the radioisotope dating of the rock layers on the island of Java in which the H. erectus fossils are found, indicating that they may have been buried about 550,000 years ago. Scientists will undoubtedly be wrangling over these results for the foreseeable future.
  • One of the tools used in the relief efforts following the recent major earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and China are high-altitude overhead flights with high-resolution optical cameras able to identify objects as small as 1 foot across. These cameras survey the affected area and, using computer analysis, are able to distinguish between structures that have collapsed and structures that have not collapsed. These observations allow rescue workers to quickly identify locations where survivors might be trapped.
  • NEPTUNE-Canada is an oceanographic project in which cameras and sensors of all sorts have been placed in different locations in the vicinity of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate. The cameras and sensors offer free, real-time feeds on the internet for anybody to observe.
  • Physicists working for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado have set a new record for the smallest measurable force, lowering the bar to 174 yN (that prefix "y" is a metric prefix meaning "x 10^-24"). They did this by putting together 60 beryllium-9 ions into a flat plane and shining a laser beam on it and determining where the reflection went. After disturbing the plane of ions ever so slightly, they measured the change in the orientation of the beam's reflection to determine the force. To achieve this, they had to lower the temperature of the ions to an astonishingly low 0.5 mK to minimize thermal disturbances. While there are no applications of this technology on the table, researchers suggest that this technique may some day be used to measure tiny quantum-level fluctuations and maybe even the effects of quantum gravity.
  • Many extrasolar planets in young solar systems exhibit retrograde orbital motion, orbiting their primary star in directions backwards relative to the rotations of both the star itself and the cloud of dust and gas surrounding them. Some other planets have planes of orbital inclination at a relatively large angle of 20 degrees. Gravitational perturbations from a second, large body are naturally assumed to be the culprit. The Kozai Mechanism is one possible explanation of this phenomenon.
  • We here at "STEM Sell" suggest another candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize--researchers at the Zoological Institute and Museum of the University of Hamburg have discovered that males of a particular common species of European orb-web spider can more successfully mate with their own sisters than with unrelated females. Here, "successfully" means "does not get eaten afterwards".

And so we let the tale of arachnid incest bring this week's entry to a close along with our traditional admonition, "You have a brain, don't be afraid to use it."

Thursday, April 15, 2010

STEM Sell - 04/14/10

Last night's edition of "STEM Sell" is now one with eternity. Our guest this time was Sean Scully, meaning that we could trade lots of geeky physics jokes while on the air. We got him to expound upon his interest and research into cosmic rays both of the low energy and high energy varieties. Their relationship to the Big Bang model as well as determining if there was evidence that went against the predictions of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity were also on the docket. We spent a little more time discussing his role in the Astronomy Park and the types of activities performed by his research students.

Apart from Sean, there were the usual tidbits of news accompanied by verbal nonsense ranging from inanity to depravity. Fortunately, Brian was more coherent, although both of us almost fell off the Monty Python precipice towards the end. Here's a rundown of what we talked about:
  • JMU is hosting a talk by Chad Mirkin, a very renowned nanotechnology scientist who is known as the most cited chemist in peer-reviewed literature. He'll be on campus April 19-20 and will deliver the Faraday Lecture in Science while here.
  • DNA identification techniques were used to discover that high-end restaurants in Santa Monica, CA and Seoul, South Korea, were using illegally obtained whale meat in their sashimi. The California restaurant has since closed.
  • In an ironic environmental twist, oil companies are paying good money for carbon dioxide, not out of any sense of obligation but because they pump the gas into underground oil reserves in order to build up pressure to bring oil to the surface.
  • Finally, some good has come from Texas Stadium, former home of the most justifiably reviled team in professional sports ;-) . With demolition scheduled for April 11th, geologists in the area mobilized an array of seismic wave detectors. When the sequence of explosions occurred, the ground waves generated from them were measured. Analysis is ongoing, but scientists are hoping that the measurements will improve our understanding of the geology of the region, known as the "Oauchita Deformation", which is somewhat interesting as it was the site of a collision of supercontinents about 300 million years ago.
  • British scientists have successfully transferred genetic material from one fertilized human egg to another that had its genetic material removed, where "successfully" means that some of the retooled eggs started to develop into embryos. The result is remarkable in that only the genetic material was transferred, the rest of the structure of the cell was essentially left behind. This procedure could prove useful in treating diseases involving mutations in the cell outside the genetic part, such as in the mitochondria of the cell (mitochondrial mutations give rise to type II diabetes and some neuromuscular diseases).
  • Turtles have displayed a greater than expection level of cognition. Some turtles were trained to perform a particular task to obtain food. Other turtles observed the first group of turtles while a third group didn't observe the first group. The second group was more successful at performing the same task as the first group than the non-observers were. This offers some unexpected data in the development of reptilian brains.
  • The amount of wind energy in the United States was briefly discussed with a little bit of surprise over the fact that the state of Iowa now gets 14.7% of its electrical energy from wind-powered turbines.
  • The ability of small, non-conductive particles to spontaneously gain significant electrical charge was briefly discussed and the implication that understanding could have in the manufacture of some materials such as polyethylene.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Another fine picnic ...

In Purcell park and Shelter 2 (the one next to the castle playground), the department spring picnic was held on April 10th. A good crowd gathered to enjoy the burgers and 'dogs cooked by Gabe and served out by Sean.

There was climbing on the children's playground:


whip cracking:

and soccer:

Oh yeah, everybody had something to eat as well:

A good time was had by all.

Congratulations to our newest Tenured and Promoted Faculty

The official word is out...

Gabriel Niculescu, Scott Paulson and Brian Utter have all earned tenure and promotion this year.

Also this year, Chris Hughes is promoted to full professor.

Congratulations to four people who have worked hard to make the department an outstanding place for students to learn through research, to learn in the classroom and grow into the next generation of physicists.

The department is proud of their many accomplishments and look forward the continued fruits of their labors.

Research Support from the NSF

March is the season for hearing from the National Science Foundation about the success (or failure) of a proposal. This year all the nuclear physics folks - Steve Whisnant, Kevin Giovanetti, Ioana and Gabriel Niculescu - were on pins and needles as all waited for the news on pending proposals.

The good news that both Ioana and Co. and Steve were funded!

Ioana, Gabe and Kevin submitted a proposal entitled "RUI: Probing Subatomic Physics Via Lepton Interactions" For the three years of the grant, they've been funded for $358,000.

Steve's proposal, "RUI: The Study of Photonuclear Physics with Polarized Beams and Targets" was funded for three years for a total of $171,000.

This means three more years of student research opportunities in nuclear physics. Three more years of student participation in nuclear research both on- and off-campus. And three more years of quality preparation of our students for entry into the workforce and graduate school.

Congratulations all around.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

"STEM Sell" - April 7, 2010

Another airing of STEM Sell, the radio program devoted to issues in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, has come and gone. Our guest was Kristen St. John from JMU's Department of Geology and Environmental Science. From our perspective, the interview went by very rapidly and we found ourselves at the end with a lot of questions we still wanted to ask. Nevertheless, we were able to discuss her work in extracting and analyzing cores taken from deep sea beds. She's able to use those cores to study the Earth's climate for as far back as 100 million years! Too bad she gets seasick during those ocean voyages. We also discussed her ongoing efforts to improve curricular materials by incorporating inquiry-based learning techniques as well as up-to-date results from her research.

In addition to the interview with Kristen, Brian Utter and I discussed the following topics, often interspersed with stream-of-consciousness thoughts that had little bearing on the subject at hand:
- A report on how the United States government is considering establishing a free online database accessible by anyone for science publications that were partly or entirely funded by taxpayer dollars
- The synthesis of the nucleus of element 117, an element within an "island" of relative nuclear stability that exists around element 118
- Animals--small on our scale of life but visible to the naked eye, making them decidedly larger than microbial life--existing without oxygen in deep sea deposits at the bottom of the Mediterranean
- The surprisingly large costs of doing an internet search, thanks to the maintenance necessary for the huge numbers of dedicated servers
- A study published in the prestigious journal Nature that shows how pigeons in a flock follow the leader (I personally think this study is a candidate for the Ig Nobel Prize, thanks to the backpacks that researchers placed on the pigeons)
- The discovery on the Phillipine island of Luzon of a new species of lizard, heretofore unknown to science, that is about 2 meters long and, according to natives, is rather tasty
- The susceptibility of thousands of different protein molecules towards the development of fibrils along the "sticky" parts of the molecule and how that can lead to such conditions as Alzheimer's Disease
- The editor of the last of the non-peer reviewed journals in mainstream science literature, Medical Hypotheses, has been told that it's time to go to a peer reviewed system, which will disrupt the journal's reputation as being a resource for some more controversial ideas
- The search for what gave rise to the seeds of the weak but gigantic magnetic fields generated by galaxies

The next airing of STEM Sell is Wednesday, April 14th at 8:00 p.m. on WXJM 88.7. And please remember that you have a brain, don't be afraid to use it!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

2010 Spring Symposium Winners

This year three students distinguished themselves by presenting excellent papers on their research work. The faculty select the top three papers and small monetary prizes are awarded.

This year the first prize goes to Christopher Willis for his paper "Direct Observation of the Sigma- hyperon in electroproduction using the CLAS Detector at Jefferson Lab". This work was done with Drs. Ioana and Gabriel Niculescu.

Second place goes to Collin Wilson for the work he did with Dr. Sean Scully on "Testing the Influence of Stochastic Processes on the Ultrahigh Energy Cosmic Ray Spectrum"

And third place goes to Patrick McCauley for "Formaldehyde... In Space! Determining the densities of protostellar cores" done with Dr. Harold Butner.
Congratulations to these outstanding students! We are proud of them.