From out-of-this-world discoveries to fresh insights into the origins of life, designing nanoscale holograms, new treatments for brain injury and a “boldly revisionist” look at World War II, Missouri S&T researchers made significant contributions to our understanding of the world around us in 2019. Here’s a look back at 19 of the most significant research stories of the year. Looking for newer stuff? Visit Missouri S&T’s research news page for the latest research news.
Black holes, LIGO and the accelerating cosmos
It was a banner year for Missouri S&T’s physics department, with a new emphasis on astrophysics research. Last spring, Missouri S&T became the only university in the state to join the worldwide LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) Scientific Collaboration (LSC), an effort of some 1,300 scientists from 18 countries and over 100 institutions dedicated to detecting the gravitational waves predicted in Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. S&T also became one of 11 international institutions to join the Hobby-Eberly Telescope Dark Energy Experiment (HETDEX) to define the force causing the accelerated expansion of the universe. Only fitting, then, that a Missouri S&T graduate, Dr. Frederick K. Baganoff, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was instrumental in one of the year’s biggest science stories: the April announcement that scientists had produced the first direct images of a black hole.
Battling traumatic brain injury
Armed with more than $5.1 million in federal funds, Missouri S&T researchers, working with Phelps Health and the Leonard Wood Institute, are helping the U.S. Army address the persistent problem of traumatic brain injury among soldiers and recruits. In all, Missouri S&T received funding for seven different research projects to detect, treat and prevent TBI. They include sensor-embedded “smart” helmets to quickly detect brain trauma, a method to quickly test urine for the presence of proteins and metabolites that may indicated TBI and development of a composite material to be used as a helmet liner to shield the brain from blast waves and ballistic impact.
Road research warriors
A stretch of highway in southwest Missouri may be more driver-friendly, thanks to the work of May 2019 Missouri S&T graduates David Doell and Matt DeMoss. The two worked with a civil engineering firm last spring to virtually evaluate a new highway design before construction began. The two used a driving simulator in their research of the Missouri Route 160 widening project from Springfield to Willard, Missouri. “The simulator provides a viable option and a much cheaper way to evaluate the roadway and how it will interact with real drivers without having to spend millions of dollars to do so and having to go back and make changes afterwards,” says DeMoss, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering. “Especially with new ideas,” adds Doell, an engineering management graduate. “If they’re building another intersection, engineers have done quite a few of those, and they have data. But for something like the roundabout that’s new to this area, it helps a lot to have this simulation.”
Downsizing power plants, scaled-up efficiency
The power plant of the future could be smaller, highly efficient and even portable, and researchers at Missouri S&T could play a key role in making this transformation happen through research funds from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). An S&T research team led by Dr. David W. Lipke, assistant professor of ceramic engineering, received a $1.45 million ARPA-E grant to develop more efficient heat exchangers for energy production. Heat exchangers are used to transfer heat between two or more fluids and are commonly used in systems such as chemical plants, petroleum refineries, and refrigeration and air-conditioning systems. “Operation of a heat exchanger under these extreme conditions has never before been attempted,” says Lipke. “Missouri S&T is uniquely poised to overcome longstanding materials challenges because of our expertise in ceramic additive manufacturing and joining methods and our unique facilities to test materials in extreme environments.”
UM System supports new research programs
Missouri S&T has launched four new research efforts through a University of Missouri System initiative announced last August. The new programs build on S&T’s strengths in materials science and engineering, civil infrastructure, and electrical power systems. In all, 19 new research programs were funded through the UM System’s strategic investment program for research and creative works. “Each of the S&T projects, as well as those of our sister universities, will leverage the talents of researchers and scholars throughout our entire system for the greater good,” says Missouri S&T Chancellor Mohammad Dehghani.
A ‘boldly revisionist’ look at World War II’s Pacific Theater
When the United States was drawn into World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the nation’s Army began to be “transformed, at times unsteadily, from an under trained garrison force to an unstoppable juggernaut,” says Dr. John C. McManus, one of the nation’s foremost military historians and Curators’ Distinguished Professor of history at Missouri S&T. McManus describes this transformation in his latest book, Fire and Fortitude: The US Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943. The book begins with an account of the Pearl Harbor attack and concludes with the November 1943 Battle of Makin, a sliver of an island in the Pacific, where U.S. soldiers were tested by increasingly desperate Japanese forces. The publisher calls McManus’ book a “boldly revisionist account” of the first two years of the Pacific Theater. “In our popular memory – or perhaps our popular mythology – the Marines fought the ground war in the Pacific,” McManus says, when in fact “the Army did the vast majority of the fighting and dying.” His purpose with Fire and Fortitude “is not to denigrate the Marine Corps, but to present a broader and more comprehensive context for our understanding of the war against Japan. At the same time, I present completely new portraits and analyses of many key leaders, most notably Douglas MacArthur, a somewhat legendary figure whose actions and behavior were nonetheless incredibly troubling.” Fire and Fortitude was named one of the top 25 books of 2019 by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Uncovering the origins of life on Earth
In a paper published last summer in American Mineralogist, researchers led by Dr. Marek Locmelis, assistant professor of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at Missouri S&T, examines if and how oxygen bound in minerals and magmas in the interiors of planets can affect the composition of oceans and atmospheres and contribute to whether a planet is habitable. Their work also uncovered possible clues into the rise of oxygen-based life forms on our planet. Known as the Great Oxidation Event, changes to our planet some 2.4 billion years ago paved the way for the rise of all lifeforms that use oxygen to break down nutrients for energy. “Without the Great Oxidation Event, there would be no plant and animal life on Earth or at least no life on Earth as we know it – including us,” says Locmelis. “We provided really solid evidence that Archean mantle oxidation contributed to it, which was something that was ruled out for the past 20 or 30 years.”
The skinny on the world’s thinnest optical hologram
By reconstructing tiny holographic images of the Chinese character for the word “light,” two mechanical engineering researchers demonstrated their concept for creating holographic images that could lead to the creation of smart watches with holographic displays, printed security cryptograms on bank notes and credit cards, and new possibilities for data storage. Researchers Dr. Xiaodong Yang and Dr. Jie Gao, both associate professors of mechanical and aerospace engineering, reconstructed several kinds of holographic images with tungsten disulfide monolayers of the thickness of around 0.7 nanometer. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, and a tungsten disulfide monolayer only contains one layer of tungsten atoms sandwiched between two layers of sulfur atoms. Their work was published in the research journal Nano Letters.
Something’s phishy about overconfident computer users
When it comes to identifying email phishing scams, computer users may not be as cyber-savvy as they think they are, says Casey Canfield, Missouri S&T assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering. But employers may benefit from teaching employees how to spot phishing by using the tricks of scammers and regularly sending employees fake phishing emails, she explains in a paper published in the journal Metacognition and Learning. “You should just be pretty suspicious in general with email,” Canfield says. “People definitely tended to be overconfident in their ability to spot phishing emails.”
Reducing jet fuel emissions
Armed with a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Missouri S&T researchers are studying the emissions characteristics of black carbon from burning conventional and sustainable alternative jet fuels in jet engines at cruise altitudes.“With the data we produce, it will be possible for the international commercial aviation community to benchmark particulate matter emissions for global commercial fleets, then guide regulators to establish the requirements needed to reduce them from future jet engines,” says Dr. Philip Whitefield, Chancellor’s Professor and professor emeritus of chemistry. The project expands the scope of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) recent ASCENT Project 02 Ambient Conditions Corrections for Non-volatile PM Emissions Measurements that quantifies emissions data from various aircraft engines and fuels. Whitefield leads both projects.
Analyzing past earthquakes to help predict future seismic activity
Dr. Kelly Liu, a professor of geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering at Missouri S&T, is digging deeper into the earth’s past data by analyzing shear wave splitting – which is based on the observation that when a wave originated from an earthquake travels through a directionally dependent area formed by plate motion, it will split into two waves. Doing so may lead to new insights for predicting future seismic activity. “The relative movement of the tectonic plates against each other produces majestic mountains and deep ocean basins, but also causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions,” says Liu. “Improving our understanding of such processes is essential not only for understanding how the earth works, but also for achieving the ultimate goal of reliably predicting and mitigating natural hazards.”
Fighting floods with big data
In the wake of historic flooding along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers last spring, Missouri S&T researchers are tackling the issues such massive flooding brings. One team is looking at ways to use artificial intelligence to improve evacuations from areas before the floods hit, while another is working to identify how floods spread toxic contaminants into the soils, lakes, ponds and groundwater affected by the high waters. Drs. Suzanna Long and Steve Corns of S&T’s engineering management and systems engineering department are using a form of AI known as deep learning to develop forecasting tools that integrate water level rates of change as part of evacuation planning. Their research is supported by the Missouri Department of Transportation and the Mid-America Transportation Center. Three researchers in geosciences and geological and petroleum engineering — Drs. Marek Locmelis, Jonathan Obrist-Farner and Ryan Smith — received a rapid-response grant from the National Science Foundation to identify floodwater contaminants, understand how they are transported and deposited, and determine any potential public health risks.
Getting down to the nitty ‘grit’-y
The personality trait of “grit,” or strength of character, is believed to be a better predictor of academic success among college students than more commonly used measures, such as standardized test scores. Now, Missouri S&T researchers are trying to answer the question: Is it possible to increase grit? Dr. Susan Murray, chair and professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T, set out to discover if first-year college students majoring in a STEM program (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) could improve their grit score through a targeted intervention. “If we could provide students with a means to increase grit and improve their ability to persevere, we could affect the outcomes of higher education,” says Murray. “Retention rates would improve and the return-on-investment for college education expenses would be greater.” Murray published a research paper on the topic earlier this year in the journal Quality Approaches in Education with co-authors Dr. Nathan Weidner, assistant professor of psychological science, and Stephanie Dukes, a psychological science student.
Assessing tornado damage to improve building codes
Less than 24 hours after tornadoes swept through communities across Missouri last May, Dr. Guirong (Grace) Yan was inspecting the damage in Jefferson City, one of the cities hit by the tornado outbreak. The information she gathered there will help in her efforts to improve building codes for municipalities. “Most of the building codes we see now design a structure to withstand straight line winds,” Yan says. “We need to design structures to resist tornadoes.”
Forging ahead with high-performance computing
High-performance computing is a necessity for any research university, and Missouri S&T is no exception. “Over the last two decades, computational simulations have emerged as a third, independent scientific method that can complement or even replace traditional laboratory experiments and theoretical studies,” says Dr. Thomas Vojta, Curators’ Distinguished Professor and chair of physics at Missouri S&T. “The explosive growth in computing power now lets us tackle problems that would be almost unsolvable without a computer because they would be too expensive or dangerous to study through experiments.” S&T’s computing ability received a big boost in 2019 thanks to a $1.96 million grant from the National Science Foundation to purchase and install a new supercomputing system on campus. It’s part of a multi-institution partnership to enhance high-performance computing-enabled research and educational activities across the state of Missouri. The new system, named “The Foundry” in a nod to Missouri S&T’s metallurgical engineering roots, operates at a speed of 320 TFlops, or trillion floating point operations per second for mathematical calculations using decimals. This new system will supersede Missouri S&T’s existing smaller HPC system, named “The Forge,” says Vojta, who is the project’s principal investigator.
Spin doctors at work with epitaxial films
Dr. Jay Switzer is a spin doctor of sorts. His latest research involves using commercial spin coaters to create inorganic thin films, or “epitaxial” films, used in the manufacture of semiconductors for flexible electronics, LEDs and solar cells. It’s “a super-easy method that has never been done before to make these films from a solution using commercial spin coaters,” says Switzer, the Donald L. Castleman/Foundation for Chemical Research Professor of Discovery in Chemistry at Missouri S&T. “This is an inexpensive and readily accessible route to single-crystal-like materials that should exhibit superior electronic and optical properties.” The research was published last April in Science. “We’ve learned to use spin coating to make highly oriented films and nanocrystals on a variety of inorganic substrates,” Switzer explains. “Until now, atomically perfect epitaxial films have been made by several other methods, and some of those are very expensive and require ultra-high vacuum.” Switzer’s method is far more economical.
Examining the dark side of smart tech
Smart phones. Smart watches. Smart speakers. Smart appliances. Smart devices are everywhere these days, and sold on the promise of improving people’s lives. It’s true that advances in smart technology are helping people stay connected, find information and organize their lives. But is there a dark side? With technological advances comes a sense of unease and insecurity – concerns about privacy, personal data sharing and ethics. “The dark side could be the frustration of being tracked without our knowledge, which is a privacy and security issue,” says Dr. Fiona Nah, professor of business and information technology and one of several Missouri S&T researchers looking at technology’s affect on our lives. “The bright side could be the benefits and entertainment – gaming, shopping, and making us more efficient. It goes both ways. Technology is becoming very smart. A smart device is almost like a companion, and there are benefits to that.”
What happens when permafrost warms?
As global temperatures warm, communities in the Arctic regions of Alaska face long-term changes to their way of life. Missouri S&T researchers are working as part of a five-year, $3 million National Science Foundation (NSF) project to help those communities plan for a warmer future. Dr. Xiong Zhang, associate professor of geotechnical engineering at Missouri S&T, and researchers at Penn State University are developing a geotechnical hazard map to predict the effects of warming and thawing of permafrost. When frozen, permafrost provides a solid foundation for roads, airports, oil pipelines and railroads. But as the soil warms and softens, infrastructure can be damaged and possibly destroyed. Along Alaska’s coastline, thawing permafrost can cause a loss of land mass, which in turn could force entire communities to relocate. Zhang’s research will help determine where and how much damage could occur.
Risky business in the workplace
Conventional wisdom holds that employees who show initiative are the best workers. But research by Dr. Clair Kueny, assistant professor of psychological science at Missouri S&T, shows that proactive approaches may not always be welcome by other team members. “It’s the first study to assess how taking initiative within a team may impact whether others trust you as a team member, and how a person’s social skill and role on the team can influence that trust,” Kueny says of her study, published last summer in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. “Previous research indicates that proactive behavior, or challenging the status quo, can positively affect an individual’s career progress. But we found a key gap in knowledge about how individuals within a team react to a member’s proactive behavior.”