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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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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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