Can artificial intelligence be trusted? How might DNA be altered to deliver targeted cancer treatments? What happens to soldiers’ brains when they’re exposed to battlefield explosions? Is it possible to recharge an electric car as quickly as it takes to fill up your gas tank? How can we break the bias of stereotypes in science, engineering and technology fields? If a new song comes on the radio, how long will it take before you decide if you like it?
These are a few of the many questions Missouri S&T faculty and students sought to answer during 2018 through their research. Some of their quests are only beginning, in the form of new grants or new partnerships, while others have been long-term pursuits. All of their work reflects the Missouri S&T ethos of exploration, curiosity and ingenuity.
Of the many stories about research and innovation that appeared on this website in 2018, we narrowed the field to 18 articles that demonstrate the variety and depth of research and scholarship that make S&T distinctive.
Crushing it with aerogels
As the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” That maxim holds true for the strong, flexible and ultralight materials known as aerogels, Dr. Chenglin Wu has discovered. Wu, an assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering, studies the mechanical properties of aerogels at the nanoparticle level by combining experiments with computer modeling to look at how polymeric aerogels can fail and become deformed. By crushing and indenting aerogels, Wu gained a better grasp on their properties. The results “will be useful in the design, optimization and engineering of polymeric aerogel and soft nanoporous materials,” he says. Wu discussed his findings last August in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Soft Matter.
Stronger seals, safer mines
Dr. Kyle Perry is building an “explosively driven projectile generator” to blow the doors off underground tunnels, all in the name of mine safety. The projectile generator — “basically … a big cannon” — will be set up at S&T’s Experimental Mine and will shoot concrete blocks, hard hats and roof bolts at concrete seals designed to be used in coal mines. Perry’s goal: to test how well those seals hold up against high-speed projectiles. Miners use these seals to shut off tunnels once they’re through mining them. But if gases build up in those abandoned tunnels, “damaged seals could start leaking methane into the active portion of the mine,” says Perry. “That could become an explosive mixture and would be dangerous for the miners.” Missouri S&T received a $249,000 grant from the Alpha Foundation for the Improvement of Mine Safety and Health, an organization formed in the wake of one of the worst mining disasters in U.S. history – the one that killed 29 miners at the West Virginia Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010. S&T’s Experimental Mine was chosen because of its large-scale testing facilities and expertise.
Making Tornado Alley safer
“Our mission is to make Tornado Alley safer,” says Dr. Guirong (Grace) Yan, assistant professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering. Yan studies how high-speed twisters behave by using two small-scale tornado simulators in her lab. But even the most state-of-the-art research won’t help improve safety if there is no support from the communities affected by tornadoes, she says. “We realized our research may not change people’s lives until we awaken the entire community to work together.” So in addition to studying complex mathematical models to measure the correlations between varying tornadic wind patterns and infrastructure resiliency, Yan relies on a pair of analytical observations more commonly associated with fields such as cognitive psychology, economics or political science — prospect theory and game theory — to emphasize public safety. That mission is what prompted her to present a TedXMissouriS&T talk on the vitality of tornado preparation last spring.
Sound advice: trust your gut — and your ear
“Don’t touch that dial!” TV and radio announcers of old would admonish audiences just before a commercial break. Now we know why, thanks to research by Dr. Amy Belfi, assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T. In a Journal of Experimental Psychology paper published last July, Belfi detailed her research on how quickly listeners decide whether they like a particular piece of music. It turns out that we can make snap judgments on music in, well, a snap. “Our experiments showed that listeners can accurately identify how much they like a piece of music quite quickly, within hundreds of milliseconds,” Belfi says. “Your initial decisions really mean something,” she adds. “While limited to aesthetic judgments of music, in this case, the results of our research suggest that our intuitions tend to be quite accurate.” In other words, trust your ear — and your gut.
An inside look at nuclear fuel pins
The search for safe, renewable energy sources is one of humanity’s biggest challenges. One energy platform under development is the next generation of nuclear reactors and, along with them, new types of fuels. To test the performance of these new fuels, however, researchers must develop new ways to investigate their structural, thermodynamic and chemical characteristics. Dr. Joseph Graham, assistant professor of nuclear engineering at Missouri S&T, has developed a device to do just that. It’s about the size of a microwave oven and can see through and image spent nuclear fuel using gamma radiation. “It is hard to see what changes are occurring within a fuel pin when it is actively being irradiated in a nuclear reactor,” says Graham, who manages Missouri S&T’s nuclear reactor. “Current measurement capabilities are limited to removing an active fuel rod, waiting for it to cool within a pool of water, and then scanning it or cutting it open to try to piece together what took place while it was in the reactor.” By lowering Graham’s new measuring device into the pool, researchers can begin to measure the fuel’s changes throughout the pin between irradiation cycles, almost as soon as it is removed from the core.
Breaking the bias of STEM stereotypes
Despite widespread efforts to draw more women into the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), men continue to greatly outnumber women in many of those disciplines. In her research on this issue, Dr. Jessica Cundiff, assistant professor of psychological science, finds that STEM fields are inaccurately perceived as being unlikely to fulfill “communal goals” of working with or helping others. People are motivated to pursue careers that help them achieve their goals and values, Cundiff says, and women are particularly likely to be communally oriented. “Unfortunately, students are not getting the message that math-intensive STEM careers involve collaboration and can positively benefit society and help others,” says Cundiff, who contributed a chapter on gender bias for the book The War on Women in the United States: Beliefs, Tactics and the Best Defenses, which was published last February.
A faster charge for electric vehicles
One aspect of electric vehicles that hinders their widespread adoption is the time it takes to charge them. But what if you could plug in your EV and fully charge it as quickly as it takes to fill up a conventional car with gasoline? Missouri S&T researchers, working with three private companies, are looking into make speedy charging a reality. “The big problem with electric vehicles is range, and it’s not so much range as range anxiety. People are nervous about not being able to get where they’re going,” says Dr. Jonathan Kimball, Missouri S&T professor of electrical and computer engineering. “With a conventional vehicle, you pull up, get gas, and in 10 minutes you’re back on the road.” Kimball is leading a team that received a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop an extreme fast-charging system for electric cars over the next three years.
A helping hand with mirror-image molecules
Long before Meagan Kelso was born, the morning sickness drug Thalidomide caused infant deaths and birth defects worldwide. That disaster transformed drug regulation systems, and changed the pharmaceutical industry’s understanding of chiral properties: the notion that molecules with otherwise identical properties are in fact mirror images, like your right and left hands.The drug industry’s continued efforts to fine-tune how it first identifies and then separates chiral compounds is driving Kelso’s Ph.D. research in materials science and engineering. She is looking into a simpler, less costly process to separate chiral compounds: adsorption — the adhesion of a substance, in an extremely thin layer, to a solid surface — using the combination of thin layers of gold, silver and other materials electrodeposited atop silicon. The initial results look promising, says Kelso and her advisor, Dr. Jay A. Switzer, the Donald L. Castleman/FCR Endowed Professor of Discovery in Chemistry at Missouri S&T.
Can AI be trusted?
Given the choice of riding in an Uber driven by a human or a self-driving version, which would you choose? The reliability of self-driving cars and other technology that rely on artificial intelligence is one of several factors that affect humans’ trust in AI, machine learning and other technological advances, says Dr. Keng Siau, professor and chair of business and information technology. “Trust is the cornerstone of humanity’s relationship with artificial intelligence,” write Siau and Weiyu Wang, a Missouri S&T graduate student in information science and technology, in a paper published last February. “Like any type of trust, trust in AI takes time to build, seconds to break and forever to repair once it is broken.”
Rediscovering America’s first female Egyptologist
Egyptologists are famed for sifting through the ruins of forgotten places to uncover hidden secrets of a past civilization. Dr. Kathleen Sheppard, associate professor of history and political science at Missouri S&T, took a similar approach in her quest to learn about America’s first university-trained female Egyptologist, Dr. Caroline Ransom Williams. Sheppard spent two years researching, transcribing and editing 240 letters between Ransom Williams and Dr. James Henry Breasted, the first American Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. This collection of correspondence is now published in the first book-length discussion of Ransom Williams’ life and career, My dear Miss Ransom: Letters between Caroline Ransom Williams and James Henry Breasted, 1898 – 1935, edited by Sheppard and published last March. “In the history of archaeology, it was the men who went out into the exotic fields to dig in the dirt and make exciting discoveries; women usually stayed back in the institutions to do the maintenance work of curating the collections and performing administrative duties,” says Sheppard. “Although this work was essential to preserving the early stages of Egyptology, it has largely been ignored. Through the letters in this volume, we see a woman’s life that is unique while at the the same time, similar to the lives of other professional women of that period.”
Drone detective: finding land mines from the sky
From U.S. Navy laboratories to battlefields in Afghanistan, researchers are lining up to explore the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to detect unexploded landmines. Missouri S&T civil engineering doctoral student Paul Manley is enlisting a third variable — plant health — to see if drones can be used to more safely locate such weapons of destruction. A UAV equipped with a hyperspectral camera allows for image collection across hundreds of bands that can detect subtle changes in how plants such as corn and sorghum gain or lose water and nutrients, or how they biochemically respond to stress. “As drought increases, so does the relative temperature around that area,” says Manley. “So we can use thermal imaging to see how plants are responding to drought stress. When you add in those hundreds of bands, you can really ‘see’ how the plants are responding.” The research is funded in part through Missouri S&T’s share of a five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation grant to nine institutions across the state that are teaming up to better understand climate variability and its potential agricultural, ecological and social impacts.
Mural mystery solved
Dr. James Bogan believes he’s solved a mystery – the identity of a pivotal African American figure in artist Thomas Hart Benton’s 1936 mural A Social History of the State of Missouri, which adorns the walls of the Missouri House of Representatives Lounge in the Missouri State Capitol. Depicted in the mural is one man, leaning on a tree and listening to a political speech, who was the subject of an important story in Benton’s memoir on the mural’s creation, but who has remained anonymous until now. “In 1992, we released Tom Benton’s Missouri, a documentary about the mural, and the identity of the mystery man defied our research at the time,” says Bogan, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor emeritus of art history and film at Missouri S&T. “When I retired a few years ago, I returned to what amounted to an art historical cold case file on a missing person.” But the case is a mystery no more, Bogan claims. Based on evidence from a newspaper obituary, he believes the man was a well-known St. Louis “vote getter-outer” who, after objecting to Benton’s portrayal of African Americans, was invited by the artist to become a part of the mural.
Nano advances in precision drug delivery
A promising discovery for advanced cancer therapy reveals that the efficiency of drug delivery in DNA nanostructures depends on their shapes, according to research by Dr. Risheng Wang, assistant professor of chemistry at Missouri S&T. In a study published last March, Wang and her co-authors found that certain “origami” shapes of DNA molecules were more effective at delivering the drug doxorubicin. “For the first time, a time-lapse live cell imaging system was used to observe the absorption and controlled release of the drug doxorubicin (DOX) in live breast cancer cells,” Wang says. “The optimization of the shape and size of self-assembled DNA nanostructures loaded with anti-cancer drugs may allow them to carry a greater quantity of the drugs, rendering them more effective.” The research may be significant as the University of Missouri System and its four universities move forward on a precision medicine initiative.
An explosive approach to traumatic brain injury research
Dr. Catherine Johnson, assistant professor of explosives engineering, is mapping blast waves that reflect off the ground and damage structures in an explosion to investigate how exposure to these blast waves affects the brain. Working with the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine and the federal Department of Veterans Affairs, she and Barbara Rutter, a Ph.D. student in explosives engineering, hope their research will lead to a better understanding of the behavioral and neuropathological changes to people with blast-induced traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs. Johnson says the ultimate goal of the research is to eventually improve the quality of life for anyone with a traumatic brain injury, from athletes to car crash victims. “This sort of brain trauma is extremely difficult to diagnose,” she says. “Experimental models can provide insights into the basic mechanisms underlying what for many remains an ‘invisible’ injury.”
Old-school gaming unlocks secrets of flow
As an undergraduate, Tejaswini Yelamanchili would spend hours a day playing video games like Counter-Strike and Age of Empires. Time would speed by – hours seemed like minutes – as she focused on the process of gaming. Last spring, while completing her master’s degree in information science and technology at Missouri S&T, she spent much of her time getting others into gaming as part of her research to better understand how the brain works when players are in the zone, or the mental state known as “flow.” She and her advisor, Dr. Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, a professor of business and information technology at S&T, sought to fill that knowledge gap by studying how people engage with the classic video game Tetris. By looking at how gamers respond during different levels of the game, Nah hopes to gain a better understanding of “the neuropsychophysiological correlates of different states of user experience.” Somewhere between a state of boredom (when the game is too easy) and anxiety (when the game is out of control) is where flow can be found.
Babies and big data
Research on fetal heart rates may lead to a better understanding of potentially life-threatening conditions at childbirth. Dr. Steve Corns, associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering, is studying fetal heart rate patterns to develop a computational model to predict the risk of dangerous conditions such as fetal hypoxia and acidosis after a mother has entered labor. “The goal is to look at the heart rate to try to predict what those conditions are (that cause oxygen deprivation during birth),” Corns says. “And then before we get to the situation where the baby is highly acidotic, go in and do an intervention.” The research is funded by the Ozark Biomedical Initiative, a joint effort of Missouri S&T and Phelps County Regional Medical Center.
Protection from UAV security threats
As unmanned aerial vehicles become commercially available to the public and more commonplace, they present new threats to national security. Those threats range from intelligence gathering to delivery of a weaponized payload. They also could unintentionally create havoc by becoming caught in the air intake of a jet engine. Missouri S&T’s expertise in electrical and computer engineering will help play a part in addressing that threat through a federally funded national security research project led by the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
A new approach to oil and gas discovery
Missouri S&T is working with three other universities to study an 8-million-acre portion of Louisiana and Mississippi in hopes of boosting unconventional oil and gas recovery in that region. S&T and its partners will receive nearly $10 million from the U.S. Department of Energy and several energy companies as part of a $30 million investment by the federal agency’s Office of Fossil Energy to boost production in reservoirs with less than 50,000 barrels per day of current production. “This project offers tremendous potential for new knowledge and innovation for unconventional energy production in the U.S.,” says David Borrok, chair of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at Missouri S&T. The 8-million-acre Tuscaloosa play is considered “unconventional” based on both geological factors and geographic size, Borrok says. “Challenges with the types, conditions and continuity of mineralogy and organic matter have made the Tuscaloosa play a tough nut to crack,” Borrok says. “Through this research project, we hope to identify ways to overcome these challenges and help increase production.”
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