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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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John Jaszczak, Physics

Energetic and Elusive

Don't judge a mineral by its cover. Because that fine, hair-like coating might turn out to be a new mineral.

At least that was the case with the newly named merelaniite, a cylindrite-group mineral discovered by an international team of researchers led by John Jaszczak. The tiny silver-gray whiskers of merelaniite had probably been around for a while, but were typically overlooked and more than likely regularly cleaned off better-known crystals like the gemstone tanzanite. The name of the new mineral was chosen by Jaszczak and his colleagues after the township known in the mineral and gemological communities as Merelani, in honor of the local miners working in the nearby tanzanite gem mines in northern Tanzania where the new mineral occurs.

Scanning and transmission electron microscope studies and x-ray diffraction analyses of merelaniite revealed a neatly layered structure at the atomic level of primarily molybdenum and lead sulfide, with the layers rolled in scrolls like tobacco in a cigar. Although not a showcase gem, merelaniite is attractive, and has an intricate, internal beauty at the atomic scale as well. Although it currently has no human-made analog, merelaniite’s chemistry and structure could be an inspiration to materials scientists studying nanocomposites.

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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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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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