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Archive for Saturday, August 11, 2007

10 on the fast track

KU makes advances in research

Rose Emergo and Hua Zhao, both KU graduate students, research nanoparticles and nanotechnology for Judy Wu, professor of physics and astronomy, in this October 2006 file photo.

Rose Emergo and Hua Zhao, both KU graduate students, research nanoparticles and nanotechnology for Judy Wu, professor of physics and astronomy, in this October 2006 file photo.

August 11, 2007

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1. Cloning proteins

Just west of the Lawrence campus is a lab designed to clone mass quantities of proteins to test how they react to thousands of different chemicals.

Ernst Schonbrunn, an associate professor of medicinal chemistry, oversees the facility known as the high-throughput screening laboratory.

The lab lets scientists test as many as 10,000 chemical compounds in a day. Previously, the testing of hundreds of thousands of compounds - something that now can be done in a couple of days - could take up to a year.

The lab, which helps to discover new drugs, is one of the few in the nation housed at a university. The lab has made headlines for helping further research on a male contraceptive pill.

2. Leading the way in nanotechnology

On the other end of the scale, Dr. Judy Wu, a distinguished professor of physics and astronomy, is on the leading edge of nanoscale development at KU. The field of nanoscience studies the basic building blocks of the universe - atoms and molecules - that are so small they are measured in nanometers.

Wu works with thin film, the basis for modern microelectronics and technologies. She also is an expert of high-temperature superconductors. Wu is now looking at different ways to use the nanoscale devices that she is building in her laboratory.

3. Back to the beginning

Joy Ward researches how global warming will affect plant life in the years to come. Ward is an assistant professor of plant physiological ecology and plant genomics at Kansas University.

Joy Ward researches how global warming will affect plant life in the years to come. Ward is an assistant professor of plant physiological ecology and plant genomics at Kansas University.

On the street

What is an area where you think KU leads in academics or research?

Probably medical research, I would guess, because of our association with hospitals in Kansas City.

More responses

To understand how plants will fare in a future of global warming, Joy Ward has gone to the other extreme: the last Ice Age.

For the past few years, Ward - an assistant professor of plant physiological ecology and plant genomics at Kansas University - has been studying 20,000-year-old plants found in California tar pits. The plants were deposited there during the Earth's last Ice Age.

What she has uncovered are the plants' ability to adapt to a changing climate.

During the Ice Age, when carbon levels were lower than they are today, plants coped by altering their leaves to let in more gas. The tradeoff was that they lost more water.

The opposite could be true in a time of global warming, Ward said.

Right now, Ward is gearing up for a project that looks at the rings from ancient juniper trees found in the tar pits. The rings give clues to how the trees responded to the extreme weather conditions year by year.

Ward's research isn't just limited to the past. On KU's campus at Haworth Hall, Ward leads experiments that place plants in growth chambers that have higher concentration of carbon and warmer temperatures than what is found today. The goal is to see how plants will adapt to the conditions that global warming is expected to bring about in the next 50 years.

Because carbon is what plants used to make sugar - and thus their basic food - Ward said the plants can grow faster with higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

"These are questions that are relative to the yield of crops and productivity," Ward said. "We really want to understand that now, so we aren't surprised by this later."

Ward isn't the only at KU who looks to the past and experiments in the present to better understand the future.

To say that the research occurring at KU is diverse is an understatement. Research areas are literally as big as the galaxy and as small as the universal building blocks of atoms. Here are nine more examples of where KU is leading the way in research.

4. Flying in Antarctica

Starting this fall, students at KU could start spotting unmanned aircraft in the sky. However, the aircraft - which will be about the size of a Cessna plane at 1,100 pounds and a 30-foot wing span - is destined for colder climates.

Working with KU's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, Rick Hale, an associate professor of aerospace engineering at KU, is leading a team that is building the aircraft this summer. In December, Hale and a graduate student traveled to Antarctica to test a small-scale version of the aircraft.

The hope is to have the full-size model up and running and ready to test in Greenland by next summer. They then want to take the aircraft to Antarctica in 2009.

The plane would be equipped with a radar system that collects data on the shrinking ice sheets.

The unmanned aircraft would mean that pilots wouldn't have to go on potentially dangerous low-flying trips across the sparse polar ice sheets. The planes could be operated by hand-held controls from the ground, Hale said.

The planes, which have much newer technology and are smaller than the ones used in Antarctica now, would also require less gas and put out fewer carbon emissions.

5. To the galaxy

Of all the research going on at the university, perhaps the studies of two KU physicists - Adrian Melott and Mikhail Medvedev - reach the farthest into the galaxy.

The two have recently received recognition in the science arena for their idea about the movement of the galaxy and how it relates to massive die-offs on Earth.

The solar system orbits around the center of the galaxy. And, according to Melott and Medvedev, our solar system wavers up to the top edge of the galaxy about once every 64 million years. At that point, the Earth is bombarded with higher doses of radiation as the top of the rising galaxy collides with gases in the universe.

The theory provides an explanation for why massive extinction happens on Earth about once every 62 million years.

Right now, Ward is gearing up for a project that looks at the rings from ancient juniper trees found in the tar pits. The rings give clues to how the trees responded to the extreme weather conditions year by year.

Ward's research isn't just limited to the past. On KU's campus at Haworth Hall, Ward leads experiments that place plants in growth chambers that have higher concentration of carbon and warmer temperatures than what is found today. The goal is to see how plants will adapt to the conditions that global warming is expected to bring about in the next 50 years.

Because carbon is what plants used to make sugar - and thus their basic food - Ward said the plants can grow faster with higher levels of carbon in the atmosphere.

"These are questions that are relative to the yield of crops and productivity," Ward said. "We really want to understand that now, so we aren't surprised by this later."

6. Changing views of the Amazon

William Woods' research takes him into the heart of the Amazon and back more than 2,000 years.

As a professor of geography and director of the Environmental Studies Program, Woods examines the physical and chemical changes in soil to better understand past cultures.

Long after buildings have fallen down and pottery shards have scattered, much can still be learned from the way an ancient culture interacted with the land.

Through soil samples, researchers can find where societies did their cooking, stored their food, celebrated in the ceremonial plaza and even piled their trash.

In digging through the dirt, Woods said that what has been uncovered in the Amazon changes the traditional perception of who has lived there.

Woods' work and that of other researchers in the area contradicts the long-held belief that the Amazon has been home only to primitive hunting-and-gathering societies. Patches of earth - some as large as Lawrence and others as small as a backyard - show a farming technique that turned the Amazon's somewhat infertile red and yellow dirt into a black soil rich in nutrients.

The findings indicate that the Amazon was home to orchards, fields and large population centers for hundreds of years before Europeans arrived.

The findings alter the reality of the Amazon being a pristine wilderness to what Woods calls a "feral garden."

"What we see is not what it was like; what it was like was a very managed landscape, like Europe," Woods said.

Besides getting a chance to rewrite history, Woods said by studying the dark, rich soil - called terra preta de Indio - the research could lead to more sustainable farming practices in the Amazon and even curb global warming.

The techniques that earlier societies used basically worked charcoal from smoldering fires and nutrient-rich debris into the soil.

"What they were doing was very, very sophisticated. What we are trying to understand now are what formulas were used to change the soils," Woods said.

And in a time of global warming, the ancient agriculture tool could teach farmers in the Amazon a practice that emits far less carbon into the air than slashing and burning the forest.

"It is so darn interesting to do something that might be important," Woods said.

7. The lower back

Lisa Friis doesn't have to go far to study her subject: the lumbar spine.

For the past seven years, Friis - an associate professor of mechanical engineering at KU - has been working on a model of the lower back portion of the spine that has the same mechanical properties of those in adult humans.

The mechanical model is used in helping companies and researchers work with back implants.

Without a mechanical replica, companies and researchers have had to use the spines from human cadavers to test their products, which Friis said is "difficult if not impossible."

The model that Friis engineered can test disc pressure, where vertebrae bump into each other and the load amounts joints can handle.

"It measure things you could never measure on human cadavers or patients. Or patients had to wait and see what happens," Friis said. "This helps solve (the problems) and helps us figure out what they will be in advance and refine the implants."

The technology for the mechanical spine was developed at KU, but Friis has partnered with a private company to turn the model into a commercial product, which is expected to come out this fall.

Next on Friis' to-do list is working on a spine model that can be used to study scoliosis.

8. The DNA of tuberculosis

In an effort to find out why certain groups of humans are resistant to tuberculosis and others are not, a KU professor is leading an international study.

Headquartered at KU under the direction of anthropology professor Michael Crawford is the International Consortium for the Study of Tuberculosis. Crawford is one of the founders of the field of anthropological genetics, which studies the DNA makeup among different groups of human populations.

Two other KU faculty members in the anthropology department are helping with the project, Alan Redd and Bart Dean.

The research will look at the DNA of people who have the disease as well as the genetic makeup of the disease itself. The hope is for the group to someday partner with a drug company to develop specialized medicines to treat the different strains of the disease and people with a specific genetic trait.

9. Early modern spain

For much of Luis Corteguera's research, he has to go back a few hundred years and to Spain.

Corteguera, an associate history professor at KU, examines popular politics in 16th- and 17-century Spain. In doing so, he hopes to find the answer to what the political ideas of the common men and women were in Spain's early modern era and what moved them to obey or rebel.

Corteguera has received a fellowship from the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens and a summer stipend from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his work "Talking Images in the Spanish Empire."

10. New insights into Shakespeare

And finally, research isn't just limited to faculty members at KU. In December, student Garth Kimbrell, an English major from Wichita, won a national prize for his research on an obscure word used by William Shakespeare.

His research was prompted by English professor David Bergeron's assignment to write a critical essay on a Shakespeare play that had not been discussed in class. Kimbrell chose the play "Coriolanus."

As Kimbrell researched the play, he came across a word he hadn't seen before - directitude. He looked it up and couldn't find any other uses of the word. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, no one but Shakespeare has ever used the word.

For his work, Kimbrell was the recipient for the 2006 Norton Scholar's Prize. The award came with the bonus of $2,500.

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