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Archive for Friday, August 12, 2005

KU entering brave new world

University moving to forefront of polar, climate research

August 12, 2005

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Timothy Rink, a research student in the Radar Systems and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Nichols Hall, works with a planwave radar sled constructed by lab members. The device will be sent to Greenland as part of a $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct polar research.

Timothy Rink, a research student in the Radar Systems and Remote Sensing Laboratory in Nichols Hall, works with a planwave radar sled constructed by lab members. The device will be sent to Greenland as part of a $19 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct polar research.

Following the April announcement of a five-year $19 million grant that would establish a research center to study ice in Greenland and Antarctica, the mood in Nichols Hall on west campus, which will house the new center, was one of "absolute jubilation."

"Of course, it was after two years of very hard and time-consuming work," said David Braaten, associate professor of geography and the center's deputy director.

The process of applying for the large grant from the National Science Foundation - the largest KU has ever received - was tedious, but because of the quality of the proposal and KU's proven track record in polar research, "we knew we stood a good chance," Braaten said.

The new center, one of only two awarded to universities last year, officially opened June 1. It will focus on developing and building new technologies that will be used to study melting glacial ice.

In the past couple of years, areas in Greenland and Antarctica that have not melted in 50 years have started to melt at a rapid rate, said Prasad Gogineni, director of the new center.

This melting is causing sea levels to rise, a problem that could affect millions of people.

Scientists researching the ice have data from satellites, radars and aircrafts, but there's no information on what is happening at the bed of the ice, Gogineni said.

The center will work to develop new technologies to study areas that are changing rapidly. The observations will hopefully allow scientists to better explain why the ice is changing and predict what will happen in the future, Gogineni said.

The first two years of the center will be spent developing science and technology requirements for the research. The first field experiments in Greenland and Antarctica will not begin until 2007.

Multidisciplinary curriculum

The large project will involve six academic units at KU: Electrical engineering, computer science, aerospace engineering, geography, geology and the School of Education.

A multidisciplinary curriculum will be developed for students interested in working on the project.

"Part of our effort is to really get (students) trained across the disciplines," Braaten said. "If you're a scientist and you're going to use remote sensing, you have to understand the electrical engineering aspects.

"And if you're an engineer working on this problem, you have to understand the ice sheets. It doesn't work otherwise."

Students involved in the project will also gain international exposure by working with KU's international partners, which include University College of London, University of Copenhagen, Denmark Technical University and the University of Tasmania.

A video conference room will be set up in Nichols Hall on west campus - the home of the new center - so students can take classes from experts at Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Maine. They are all collaborating institutions in the project.

Students from the KU School of Education will be involved so they can take some of the issues related to polar change and climate change into the K-12 curriculum, Gogineni said. With this incorporation, he hopes more youths will be excited to pursue science and engineering careers one day.

Advantages for Kansas

Gogineni said the project would be good for Kansas and the Kansas economy because students would learn skills that are applicable to areas outside of polar research.

"When you train students to develop (electrical) sensors, the sensors don't have to only be used for polar research," he said. "They have a wide range of applications. Both civilian and military."

Also, as part of the project, the aerospace engineering department will develop unmanned air vehicles (UAVs). Once developed, more UAVs optimized to study polar regions will probably be needed, Gogineni said.

"In that case, you have the opportunity for a small industry in Kansas to come up and supply that need," Gogineni said.

Gogineni, Braaten and other researchers at KU have been studying polar ice for several years. One of the projects they are involved with is called Polar Radar for Ice Sheet Measurements (PRISM). It will be incorporated into the new center.

Torry Akins, a research engineer for PRISM, said studying polar ice has global impact. A KU graduate, Akins worked at NASA's jet propulsion laboratory before leaving to work on PRISM.

"We're working on a problem that is very important for the U.S. and everybody in the world," Akins said. "I like that I'm part of that."

The same is true for Pannirselvam Kanagaratnam, a research assistant professor in engineering. He recently earned his doctorate from KU.

"To understand climate change and this melting of ice sheets is one of the biggest concerns facing the U.S. and other countries around the world," he said.

Jennifer Byrd is a Kansas University graduate student and works part-time for the Journal-World

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