A Year of Big Ideas

December 15, 2009

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In many respects, the year 2009 was the best of times and the worst of times. While the United States marked the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth with the inauguration of the nation’s first African American president, the world suffered through the most severe economic downturn of the postwar era. It was a challenging year at North Carolina State University as well, with our faculty and staff striving to advance research, education and service in a time of limited resources.

Despite the challenges, it was a productive year at NC State, where our community of more than 31,000 students and nearly 8,000 faculty and staff continued to fulfill the promise of this institution through groundbreaking discoveries, lifesaving research and pioneering innovations. As we move forward to 2010, join us in reliving some of NC State’s best ideas and advances from 2009.

Mega Storage on Small Discs

If you think your MP3 player holds a lot of music and videos now, just wait. Engineers have created a new material that would allow a fingernail-size computer chip to store the equivalent of 20 high-definition DVDs or 250 million pages of text, far exceeding the storage capacities of today’s computer memory systems.

Led by Dr. Jagdish “Jay” Narayan, director of the National Science Foundation Center for Advanced Materials and Smart Structures at NC State, the engineers made their breakthrough using the process of selective doping, in which an impurity is added to a material, changing its properties. The process also shows promise for boosting vehicle fuel economy and reducing the heat produced by semiconductors.

“Instead of making a chip that stores 20 gigabytes, you have one that can handle one terabyte, or 50 times more data,” Narayan says.

Information storage is not the only area where advances could be made. By introducing metallic properties into ceramics, Narayan says engineers could develop a new generation of ceramic engines able to withstand twice the temperatures of normal engines and achieve fuel economy of 80 miles per gallon. And since the thermal conductivity of the material would be improved, the technique could also have applications in harnessing alternative energy sources like solar energy.

Language, Culture and Future of the Military

NC State has received a grant that will make it a hub for teaching future military leaders the language and cultural skills they will need to address conflict in critical parts of the world, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East.

NC State will use the grant to create intensive language training courses that will allow students to take the equivalent of a first-year language course in six weeks. NC State will serve as a hub for other University of North Carolina system campuses and will vigorously recruit new students to the program. The language courses, which will be held in the summer, will focus on three critical languages in the first year: Arabic, Chinese, and Urdu. Two additional languages will be added in the second year: Persian and Russian.

Lt. Col. Kenneth Ratashak, who heads the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at NC State, says the grant is crucial because the military’s future leaders “must experience first-hand the languages and culture of our global neighbors to better prepare them to minimize or resolve regional conflict.”

Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC cadets and midshipmen from NC State will have priority in registering for these courses, says Dr. Ruth Gross, head of the university’s foreign languages and literatures department. However, ROTC cadets and midshipmen from other area universities will also be permitted to enroll in these courses at NC State. Furthermore, Gross says, non-military NC State students and students from other American universities will be allowed to enroll, contingent on seat availability.

Gross says the grant will also allow NC State to incorporate cultural education into the ROTC training curriculum by bringing lecturers into ROTC training classes and creating an Internet archive of cultural and language education material that students can use. The approximately $500,000 grant extends over two years, though it is expected to be renewed for a third year for an additional $250,000. The grant was awarded by the International Institute of Education with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense.

Study Finds Risks From Bisphenol-A

Plastic water bottles not only fill up landfills, they are a direct danger to your health. New research from NC State and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) shows significant reproductive health effects in rats that have been exposed to bisphenol-A (BPA) at levels equivalent to or below the dose that has been thought not to produce any adverse effects.

BPA is a chemical found in baby bottles, water bottles, canned foods and an array of other consumer products. The potential health effects of BPA are currently the subjects of intense debate.

The study found that female rats exposed to a BPA dose of 50 micrograms per kilogram of body weight (µg /kg) in their first four days of life experienced early onset of puberty. Female rats exposed to 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight (mg/kg) during their first four days of life developed significant ovarian malformations and premature loss of their estrus cycle.

“The 50 mg/kg level is important,” says lead researcher Dr. Heather Patisaul, “because it is equivalent to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘Lowest Observable Adverse Effect Level’ for BPA. So, by definition, we should not have seen significant effects at or below this level, but we did.”

Patisaul, an assistant professor of biology at NC State, explains that the 50 µg /kg level is also significant because it is EPA’s listed reference dose for BPA – meaning it is the level of BPA that EPA says a person can be exposed to on a daily basis without expecting any adverse effects after a lifetime of exposure.

Patisaul stresses that the research was done on rats, making it difficult to determine its applicability to humans, but notes that “this adds to a growing body of evidence that exposure to low doses of BPA during development can impact female reproductive health.”

Down with the Gown

Researchers at NC State are working to solve a nearly century-old problem –what to do with those skimpy, derriere-exposing hospital gowns.

They are filmy, uncomfortable – and if you happen to catch a draft, you’re in trouble.

“The fact is, when patients are in a hospital they are already feeling vulnerable – the last thing they need to deal with is a garment that intensifies that feeling by leaving them uncovered and overexposed,” says Dr. Traci Lamar, associate professor of textile and apparel technology and management at NC State.

Lamar and her team in the College of Textiles received a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio to design a patient garment that would allow patients to feel more dignified, while still providing easy access to medical personnel.

NC State’s research suggests that patients and caregivers alike hate the current gown. If a more dignified, respectful patient garment can be designed and taken up widely in the patient-care market, this seemingly subtle but innovative change may have far-reaching effects on patient engagement and the quality and safety of patient care.

“This garment almost needs to be all things to all people,” Lamar says. “We obviously want patients to feel comfortable during their hospital stay, but doctors and nurses still need to have easy access to check a patient’s heart rate, administer an IV or monitor blood pressure.”

Lamar’s team recently finished the first phase of the study in which they conducted patient and caregiver surveys, held focus groups with nurses and spoke with various medical personnel and stakeholders in the supply network about their needs in a gown.

A Clearer Look at a Supernova

Researchers at NC State have found a way to sweep aside cosmic dust from a zillion miles away, but it has nothing to do with a deep space leaf blower. The researchers are using a mathematical model that allows them to get a clearer picture of the galaxy’s youngest supernova remnant by correcting for the distortions caused by cosmic dust. Their new data provides evidence that this remnant is from a type Ia supernova – the explosion of a white dwarf star – and raises questions about the ways in which magnetic fields affect the generation of the remnant’s cosmic ray particles.

NC State physicists Dr. Stephen Reynolds and Dr. Kazimierz Borkowski, with colleagues from Cambridge University and NASA, re-examined their original X-ray images of supernova remnant G1.9+0.3 in an attempt to glean more information about the remnant’s origins, rate of expansion, and any cosmic particles that may have resulted from the explosion. Scientists know that supernovae create cosmic rays – fast-moving subatomic particles that play a role in the formation of stars – but they aren’t sure how this occurs or what other functions the particles may serve.

“We knew the dust was a problem – it’s why we never saw the original supernova light in Victorian times,” Reynolds says. “Our high-powered orbiting telescopes use X-rays to take pictures of these objects, and the dust scatters these X-rays, so in order to get data that might be helpful to us, we first had to correct for the dust distortion.”

A mathematical model allowed the scientists to deduce how many X-rays from each part of the remnant were scattered from another part. After this correction, they found that the “bright” and “dim” sides of the remnant had more and fewer of the highest-energy X-rays, respectively. Reynolds says that this pattern is best explained by a type Ia supernova, and that the difference in brightness corresponds to the level of synchrotronic X-rays present. Synchrotronic X-rays (like those produced by terrestrial synchrotron particle accelerators) are produced by high-energy cosmic particles, making this remnant one of the best examples of a cosmic ray accelerator that scientists have.

Taking the Resistance Out of Drug-Resistance Microbes

It started out as a research project focused on getting rid of harmful bacterial accumulations called biofilms. Now it has the potential to make conventional antibiotics work against stubborn, drug-resistant bacteria.

This unexpected development might have come as a surprise to the NC State researchers involved in the project, Dr. Christian Melander, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. John Cavanagh, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry.

What’s not surprising, however, is the researchers’ willingness to try seemingly unusual or unconventional methods to solve common problems. After all, getting rid of biofilms meant figuring out something odd to people who aren’t chemists: how to safely and efficiently mimic a sea sponge.

Bacteria have a number of ways of protecting themselves from antibiotics, including casing themselves in a protective barrier known as a biofilm. Biofilms comprise about 80 percent of the world’s microbial environment and are, according to statistics from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, responsible for up to 80 percent of all bacterial infections.

In addition to medical concerns – certain biofilms in the lung kill cystic fibrosis patients, for example – biofilms also have enormous impacts in agriculture and industry. Biofilms destroy crops, foul ship’s hulls and coat medical devices. Biofilms also coat – don’t be alarmed – your teeth. As anyone who has had plaque scraped from their teeth knows, getting rid of biofilms once they adhere to a surface is really difficult.

To create chemical compounds that can scrub away biofilms, Melander and Cavanagh looked to a particular sea sponge, Agelas conifera, that lives in the Caribbean Sea.

“Somehow, this sponge that can’t run away and that has no immune system stays remarkably clean while everything around it is covered in biofilms, so the sponge has some molecular way of keeping them at bay,” Cavanagh said. “We’ve never seen a sea sponge up close, but we understand the chemical processes going on. So Christian devised chemical compounds to mimic the sponge compound, ageliferin, that keeps the sponge free of biofilms. Our compounds are not toxic to mammals like ageliferin is, though, and we can make the compounds in enormous quantities.”

The NC State chemical compounds don’t kill biofilms outright, but cause them to revert to their single-celled form. Common antibiotics are then able to do their job of eliminating the single-celled bacteria.

Shape-Shifting Antennas

Antennas aren’t just for listening to the radio anymore. They’re used in everything from cell phones to GPS devices. Research from NC State is revolutionizing the field of antenna design – creating shape-shifting antennas that open the door to a host of new uses in fields ranging from public safety to military deployment.

Modern antennas are made from copper or other metals, but there are limitations to how far they can be bent – and how often – before they break completely. NC State scientists have created antennas using an alloy that “can be bent, stretched, cut and twisted – and will return to its original shape,” says Dr. Michael Dickey, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State and co-author of the research.

The researchers make the new antennas by injecting an alloy made up of the metals gallium and indium, which remains in liquid form at room temperature, into very small channels the width of a human hair. Once the alloy has filled the channel, the surface of the alloy oxidizes, creating a “skin” that holds the alloy in place while allowing it to retain its liquid properties.

The innovation opens the door to a host of new applications. For example, an antenna in a flexible silicone shell could be used to monitor civil construction, such as bridges. As the bridge expands and contracts, it would stretch the antenna – changing the frequency of the antenna, and providing civil engineers information wirelessly about the condition of the bridge.

Flexibility and durability are also ideal characteristics for military equipment, since the antenna could be folded or rolled up into a small package for deployment and then unfolded again without any impact on its function.

Memory Loss Could be Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Thinking your memory will get worse as you get older may actually be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Researchers at NC State have found that senior citizens who think older people should perform poorly on tests of memory actually score much worse than seniors who do not buy in to negative stereotypes about aging and memory loss.

In a study published in April, psychology professor Dr. Tom Hess and a team of researchers from NC State show that older adults’ ability to remember suffers when negative stereotypes are “activated” in a given situation.

“For example, older adults will perform more poorly on a memory test if they are told that older folks do poorly on that particular type of memory test,” Hess says.

Memory also suffers if senior citizens believe they are being “stigmatized,” meaning that others are looking down on them because of their age.

“The take-home message,” Hess says, “is that social factors may have a negative effect on older adults’ memory performance.”