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Steven J. Elmer, Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology

Mobility and Performance

Giving wheelchair users the ability to exercise more effectively? That’s research with heart.

Regular exercise is important for maintaining health, especially for wheelchair users. However, exercise equipment to be used with a wheelchair is not always readily accessible, adjustable or effective.

Steven Elmer leads a team of mechanical engineering, kinesiology and physical therapy students to develop new exercise equipment for wheelchair users and bridge the gap between engineering and rehabilitation.

And, equipped with a $50,000 research grant from the NSF for “I-Corps: A New Assistive Device for Wheelchair Users”, Elmer and his team are developing their entrepreneurial skills needed to commercialize the technology. It was the first NSF award for the Department of Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology.

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Casey Huckins, Biological Sciences
Colin Brooks, MTRI

Science, Systems, and Solutions

Helping communities eliminate invasive species means we get into the weeds. Casey Huckins and Colin Brooks work together in the Upper Peninsula’s Keweenaw Waterway, inland lakes of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, and Les Cheneaux Islands within the Straits of Mackinac, where Eurasian Watermilfoil has spread. The invader alters ecosystems, chokes local waterways, and has stymied tourism that drives the area's economy.

Brooks has a solution up in the air—he flies a modified hexacopter to do Eurasian Watermilfoil surveys.

His hexacopter is an efficient and reliable tool for field mapping an 800-acre area. The nuance of drone footage feeds back into the satellite data, and Brooks is developing methods to see milfoil from space. Specifically, he is using spectrometer data to discern different signatures of plants from reflected light that returns from earth to the atmosphere. Milfoil has a distinct—and very green—fingerprint in reflectance data.

Huckins is the lead researcher for several milfoil projects funded by the EPA and Michigan Department of Natural Resources that focus more generally on the northern Great Lakes.

He thinks of Eurasian Watermilfoil as a potential disturbance to the native ecosystem—knowing that “controlling it like a weed” is a common management technique. However, aquatic plants and especially native ones can be vital to aquatic ecosystems.

Understanding the physical and ecological needs and impacts of milfoil is important and will help determine the best treatments and predict where invasive milfoil might spread next.

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Lisa Gordillo, Visual and Performing Arts


Trained as a sculptor, with a background in theater and opera, Lisa Gordillo leads “Keep ‘Em Flying,” a project aimed at reducing bird-window collisions on Michigan Tech’s campus and beyond. Key Tech buildings include the Great Lakes Research Center, the Skywalk between Van Pelt and Opie Library and Rehki Hall, and the Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering Building, where an average of six birds die each day from window strikes during migratory season.

Keep ‘Em Flying is a long-term collaboration between Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Pavlis Honors College.

Gordillo wants her students to find ways to say “yes” to big solutions, and aims to demonstrate that beginning students can solve large-scale, real-world problems in a dramatic fashion across art, sciences, and engineering.

Since many of her students are new to this creative world, she works with them to create collaborations across campus with disciplines not traditionally known for working in the arts—transforming a STEM school into a STEAM school.

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Don Lafreniere, Social Sciences
Sarah Scarlett, Social Sciences
John Arnold, Social Sciences

Keweenaw Time Travel

Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula has a rich and colorful history. The miners in the boom days of the Copper Country knew that in order to find what they wanted, they had to “drill down.”

Today, thanks to Don Lafreniere, Sarah Scarlett, and John Arnold, those wishing to discover the people and the places of the Keweenaw’s past can drill down through history.

Keweenaw Time Traveler is an online map-based tool allowing visitors to explore the layers of history for any location in the Houghton, Keweenaw, and Ontonagon county region.

The seven-year project uses proven technologies and techniques of public participatory Historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS)—a geospatial approach that works with communities to map and analyze geographic and historical relationships through space and time. It also employs collections of geographic data and tools that are interactively connected. Users can incorporate their own information about a place and store that data long-term, to create a high-resolution database that maps changes in the social, natural, industrial, and built environments of the Copper Country from 1850 to 1970.

Using GIS, visitors to will have an opportunity to dig deep through the history of a particular location, and also dig horizontally to observe an expanding geographic location at a particular time in history.

The researchers’ hope the Keweenaw Time Traveler will result in a one-of-a-kind space-time linked digital archive and provide a new way for the Copper Country heritage community to share their histories with the world.

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Min Song, Computer Science

The Speed of Technology

Min Song knows the world of computing moves fast, changing daily.

He founded the Institute of Computing and Cybersystems (ICC) to provide faculty and students the opportunity to work across organizational boundaries to create an environment reflective of that speed and contemporary technological innovation.

There are five ICC Centers, each focusing on a specific area of computing and cybersystems.

  • Center for Cyber-Physical Systems
  • Center for Cybersecurity
  • Center for Data Sciences
  • Center for Human-Centered Computing
  • Center for Scalable Architectures and Systems

Center members come from varied backgrounds and academic departments, and have diverse specialties, but they share common research interests. Belonging to a center allows members to conduct research specific to their own interests and specialties, while getting the input, support and partnership of their cross-discipline colleagues.

Members are also provided opportunities to collaborate on projects otherwise not available to them. This approach of multidisciplinary collaboration, which is prevalent in the computing world today, allows our members to conduct crucial, cutting-edge research in the most effective and applicable ways possible.

Connections in computer science aren’t just between systems. They’re critical between people too. The ICC is key to that.

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Nancy Langston, Social Sciences
Richelle Winkler, Social Sciences

Who We Are and Where We Go

All that remains of the ancient Sicilian city Kamarina is an allegory. Once bordered by a swamp that was drained because of a plague, their enemies invaded over the dry former swamp and ravaged the city.

Nancy Langston sees how allegories like Kamarina inform how we understand nature and the environment—how degradation and damage can be turned into restoration with the wisdom we have gained and the environmental policy we subsequently develop.

Her most recent book project asks: What can we learn from the recoveries around Lake Superior over the past century, as we face new interconnected challenges from climate change, synthetic chemicals, and forest change? Yale University Press will publish Sustaining Lake Superior: An Extraordinary Lake in a Changing World this fall.

While Langston looks as our surroundings, Richelle Winkler observes how we uproot ourselves from those surroundings and what that means for society and culture. Armed with a wealth of data, Winkler and her team have produced a website——where anyone can generate a map of migration by US county, sorted by race, gender, age, or Hispanic origin.

These two researchers work to bring knowledge together, from lessons learned in the past and present to data for decisions on the future. Their work ensures stories like Kamarina remain cautionary rather than a prediction for the future.

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Tarun Dam, Chemistry
Ashutosh Tiwari, Chemistry

Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk

Sugar, in all of its forms, gets maligned for what it does to us—a steady diet does no wonders, and we can picture children bouncing off the walls. But, we need the energy from sugars to fuel us. And they can act as words. Sugars form a language between proteins.

Tarun Dam, a winner of Tech’s Bhakta Rath, Distinguished Teaching, and Exceptional Graduate Faculty Mentor Awards, runs the Laboratory of Mechanistic Glycobiology and studies glycans, the carbohydrate (sugar) part of a glycoprotein or glycolipid. Dam and his students study how sugar molecules act as a language between proteins, which has implications in drug designing, immunology, and fighting cancer.

While Dam looks at sugar, Ashutosh Tiwari focus on proteins. Misfolded proteins.

His research shows how small errors in protein folding lead to cellular inefficiency and contribute to the onset of diseases we frequently associate with aging—and what can be done to correct them.

He and his team are developing the tools to find and correct the mistakes by targeting the right error, or misfold.

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Jared Anderson, Visual and Performing Arts

The Republic of Ragusa was a maritime state centered on the city of Dubrovnik. Their citizens were renowned as skilled diplomats and ambassadors: the city made a name for itself through the connections it forged.

Jared Anderson and the Concert Choir from Michigan Tech fostered connections on their tour of the region as well, a new generation of diplomats in the spirit of Dubrovnik, tucked at the far southern tip of Croatia. From nearby Mostar to Trebinje to Ljubljana, the choir acted as ambassadors, exchanging their musical experience for the wash of history and culture throughout the region.

For many of us, these are places we only know from the news, from reports of conflict in the last few decades. To have these places become performance spaces, to forge musical connections to place and time, is much more positive, much more representative of life there.

"These wouldn't necessarily be the first places students would go in Europe," Anderson explains. "It has such a rich history as well as recent conflict, it's so important for us to understand. We needed to be here."

The choir only tours every three or four years, and the members vote on where to go. On previous excursions, they've gone to places like China, Brazil, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Mexico. In 2017 the choir traveled to South Africa.

"When we approach touring, we try to find places that interest the choir. Some of the community members of the choir had been to the region spoke very highly of it, and we do enjoy being off the beaten path."

For many of their concerts, in fact, American choir groups were rare to unheard of. Anderson attempted to select music that reflected both the diversity of the choir and its travels as well as the legacy of the regions in which they performed. Music ranging from regional folk songs to selections from composers such as W. A. Mozart, Arvo Pärt, and Morten Lauridsen were featured throughout the tour.

More important, though, is connecting with these places, experiencing the people and culture, roots that we know better than we realize.

"There was a real warmth for our singing, and we had a real warmth for the region by the end of the tour."

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Beth Reed, Mathemaatics
Stefaan de Winter, Mathemaatics

Long before we had smartphones and tablets, graphing calculators showed that a diverse collection of functions and applications could combine on one device. After a few basic math classes, all of those calculator buttons make sense, too. We've answered everything in math, right? Not quite; mathematicians have to discover new algorithms for new technology, all the while training the next generation of mathematicians to understand and apply their knowledge in new ways.

Trained as a forester, Beth Reed moved over to math to fulfill a lifelong teaching ambition. The problems she encountered with computing forestry research data came in handy when it was time to be in front of the classroom: it became a matter of giving students the tools they need to solve problems in science and technology.

Stefaan de Winter has a love for those tools as well; he sees the underlying beauty of mathematics, going so far as using a Sesame Street song to emphasize that while we all know the deceiving simplicity of 1-2-3-4, there is a massive forest of mathematics hidden among these numeric trees.

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Matt Seigel, Humanities

PANK Magazine and Tiny Hardcore Press are based in the Walker Arts and Humanities Center, on the campus of a STEM-centric research university in a secluded corner of the country. And that is exactly what has put them on the map, at the vanguard of articulating what's next.

"We aren't Brooklyn," says M. Bartley Seigel. "Or San Francisco or Iowa City. We're in a different place, and that's given us a lot of power and space to try something different. We aren't battling anyone already entrenched, we aren't threatening anyone's turf. I mean, Houghton, Michigan… where's that?"

Launched in 2006, Seigel describes PANK's beginnings as "part hubris and part ignorance. We had no idea how to do this." Flash forward seven years, and PANK has hit a niche at just the right time.

"When we launched, online magazines were just starting to be taken seriously," he explains. While also a print publication, PANK publishes more frequently online. "We established print first for the old guard and to build our credibility. But three-quarters of what we do is online."

PANK's mission is to broaden the literary perspective. That's not some abstract mission or vision statement, either. PANK pushes the envelope, whether it's in form or in content. It takes risks. It's risque. "Publishing is conservative," Seigel explains. "They make their bank on safe, middle of the road stuff."

"That's not us."

Instead, the focus for PANK is a place for voices new and established to try to make words do something new, to hit us from directions we don't expect. A trip through the contributor notes of any given issue yields fellowships and editorial positions galore. The names might not be familiar. Not yet, at least.

Tiny Hardcore Press, a small publishing house under the same umbrella, sits in much this same place. It, too, can fly under the radar, thanks in large part to this unique placement in Michigan Tech's ecosphere. "I mean, we're a place that sometimes doesn't even appear on its own state's maps," Seigel says. "There's a mythology around us."

"We're such outsiders, and people love it."

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Petra Huentemeyer, Physics

In the grand scheme of things, the twin Voyager spacecraft are close by. Petra Huentemeyer is looking beyond the wobbling radio signals from our interplanetary probes: she measures energy from our galaxy and throughout the universe with the help of a collection of giant water tanks. Near Puebla, in southern Mexico, the High-Altitude Cherenkov (HAWC) Gamma-Ray Observatory catches fleeting glimpses of that energy's strength. Part of a multi-national effort—with primary institutions in the United States and Mexico augmented with researchers from Europe—this instrument is the latest in the arsenal scientists like Petra—who was involved at CERN as a grad student—use to understand the most intense energy sources in the universe.

Gamma rays are energetic and elusive. When a particle resulting from the interaction of a cosmic or gamma ray with our atmosphere enters a water tank, it creates a cone of photons, a brief explosion of light that the very sensitive detectors of HAWC can measure. Software, written by Petra and her team, then records the results, determining the nature of the energy, and extrapolates the origin of the gamma ray in the sky. More detectors means more sensitivity and finer precision on the origin of the burst. HAWC Observatory has been completed and was inaugurated in March 2015. Currently, scientists are taking data while the observatory is being extended with a sparse array of "outrigger" detectors around the central HAWC array.

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Lanrong Bi, Chemistry

A first set of crayons usually has eight colors in it. An artist's palette then expands into hundreds of hues and shades and tints. But Lanrong Bi only needs one dye to come up with the colors she needs.

The color she's using is for more than portraits and landscapes, however. Her canvas is mitochondria, the incredible power plants inside each living cell. A variety of maladies have been ascribed to an afflicted mitochondria, and the dyes that Bi and graduate student Nazmiye Yapici spread specifically highlight mitochondria that are sick. When mitochondria are sick, they tend to change shape in order to stay alive. This makes them a viable target.

"The secret is in the molecular configuration," Bi explains of the dyes. "Their chemical structures are built to bind only with the molecules that make up mitochondria."

It isn't just mitochondria that can be painted this way, either. The dyes they've developed can be engineered to highlight any part of the cell a researcher needs to see. One of them targets the lysosome, the equivalent of a stomach within a cell. Lysosomes can be susceptible to disease and damage as well, and some dye programming puts them right under Bi's brush.

The pair were honored with the Bhakta Rath Research Award, recognizing research here at Tech that demonstrates the potential to have a big impact in engineering and the life sciences. The work has been relentless; Yapici has put in extraordinary efforts to get results, receiving national recognition from the American Chemical Society along the way.

"To demonstrate one fluorescent dye, she will test it under two thousand experimental conditions," Bi says. "She works very hard."

That level of detail means a lot of time on the equipment. Which means they've wound up working some odd hours, ideas swirling together in the middle of the night.

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Raymond Shaw, Physics
Will Cantrell, Physics
Lynn Mazzoleni, Chemistry
Claudio Mazzoleni, Physics

High in the Sky

A Brocken spectre—also known as a “glory”—is a tight, tubular rainbow formed around a shadow, the Sun projecting the image onto the clouds below. The conditions and timing have to be just right. What if we can make atmospheric conditions just right, here in the Keweenaw, any time we want?

Atmospheric science researchers at Michigan Tech no longer have to cross their fingers for cooperative weather. The University’s cloud chamber allows them to make their own. The lab is one of only a handful in the world and the only one capable of sustaining clouds for hours.

But why is this study of clouds so important? Understanding clouds means understanding climate and the processes that drive our weather. The chamber is modular, allowing for instruments to be added or subtracted as needed. This means it can stay on the cutting edge long into the future.

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Rudy Luck, Chemistry

When you join the military, there are certain risks you expect. Anything from enemy combatants to training accidents can strike in the blink of an eye.

What you don't expect is for the air you're breathing to spark an explosion.

Rudy Luck was presented with precisely this problem by the US military. The associate professor of chemistry at Michigan Tech was brought in when the military discovered R40—an unapproved coolant maintenance personnel were sold by local suppliers—in some of their armored vehicles. R40 reacts with aluminum to create the highly reactive gas trimethylaluminum, TMA. This is a problem in an environment like Iraq, where cooling is vital and continuous.

Making this more complicated is the fact that the impressively armored vehicles are not designed to open easily. With hydraulic doors that require additional time to open—preventing unwanted access from the outside—it's not like there's a margin of error when an explosive mix is washed in through the air vents.

"What they discovered was that vehicles would come back for refurbishing and the chloromethane (R40 coolant) could be reacting with the aluminum in the engine," says Luck. Chloromethane isn't supposed to be there. It's a cheap substitute that local suppliers use instead of the proper refrigerant, tetrafluoroethane.

The resulting mixture is explosive. "We brought two vehicles up here and demonstrated just how dangerous this can be," says Luck. "We shot a flask of this mixture at a test range to show what could happen. It was quite a bang."

The proper refrigerant, called R134a, works well, but the atmospheric effects are stark: more than 1300 times the warming effect as the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The European Union is now mandating a newer option referred to as HFO-1234yt. It's hard to make, however, and it may not work in the current generation of cooling systems.

Luck's team has devised a method to safely deactivate the TMA.  They are also finding ways to test for the unapproved coolant in both combat vehicles and Apache helicopters. So far they've found traces in a few, though not enough to produce the explosive TMA.

Still, even that small chance is enough for Luck to keep his focus.

"My neighbor's son went to Iraq three times," Luck explains. "I've seen pictures of him in these same vehicles. This is personal. This is important."

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Jason Carter, Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology

It's odd if you think about it. We have to spend a third of our lives unconscious or we can't function. And that's not I-forgot-where-I-parked function, that's everything from development to physical and mental well-being.

But for how much it dominates our lives, there is so much about the connection between sleep and our existence we're yet to understand. Jason Carter dreams of shedding light on those ties.

Supported by the National Institutes of Health, Carter's lab, in conjunction with healthcare providers, has been studying how sleep deprivation in women leads to an increased risk of hypertension, as well as the effects of interrupted sleep at various times throughout the night. Both genders are also susceptible to the effects of stress, a major factor Carter is studying.

Sleep science, as a field, is only about a third of a century old; there's a great deal we do not yet know, leaving a rich landscape yet to explore. "We are just beginning to realize the importance of getting a good night's sleep," Carter says. "There is a cumulative effect from not getting enough sleep."

The seven to eight hours of sleep we need per night is getting harder and harder to come by, and for those who work a disrupted schedule, the effects can be even more pronounced.

That much time devoted to sleep makes Carter wonder, just like the rest of us. "We spend one-third of our lives, more or less, asleep, and we still don't know the real physiological purpose."

It isn't that wonder that keeps him up at night, though. Despite being aware of the need for a good night's sleep, it doesn't always come easily to Carter.

He has insomnia.

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Tim Scarlett, Social Sciences

It wasn't a door to anything in particular anymore. Rusted, warped, with cracks repaired some time in the distant past, the old iron stove door was dug from the ground near the old settlement of Clifton on the Keweenaw Peninsula. For Tim Scarlett, behind this door is a story, one that connects physical objects to their environment. More than anything, however, objects like the stove door tell a uniquely human story. From this door Scarlett is able to pull details like the stove's expense, where it was probably installed, and how it came to have parts of it in a field.

The past they study physically and philosophically connects people with each other and their surroundings. Ultimately, that means the industrial archaeologist has to be a bit of an intellectual dilettante, bringing together knowledge from a variety of fields to build wisdom, but it also requires being aware of what there is to know, what knowledge there can be.

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Myounghoon (Philart) Jeon, Cognitive and Learning Sciences

A Symphony of Technology

Technology acts like a kind of progressive symphony, adding feature after feature; the options in a modern automobile would have been simply overwhelming only a few decades ago. Technology can work wonders, but technology that is immersive, that brings us together, that makes our lives better, is what is most profound. The question we literally face is how to keep up with all of this input.

In lab spaces all across campus, Myounghoon (Philart) Jeon works to make technology engage all of our senses by better understanding the human factors within technological interaction; his research touches a bit of everything and everyone at Michigan Tech. With the help of a driving simulator, his work in the Mind Music Machine (Tri-M) Lab focuses on developing a new generation of sound technology in cars. The results of his research could help drivers pay better attention, regulate their emotions while driving, and drive their cars in a more eco-friendly manner. And this makes driving a safer, more harmonious experience.

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