Associate Professor Andrew Burton and Research Assistant Lynette Potvin look at root samples culled from global change experiments.
Associate Professor Andrew Burton and Research Assistant Lynette Potvin look at root samples culled from global change experiments.
Professor Craig Friedrich focuses on nanotechnology.
Professor Craig Friedrich focuses on nanotechnology.
Students combine technologies with theater in Tech's visual and performing arts department.
Students combine technologies with theater in Tech's visual and performing arts department.
“Michigan Tech produces what the world craves.”

Tackling Society's Toughest Problems

by Susan J. Burlingame

The news is spreading fast and far: Michigan Tech is addressing society's important issues.

The work of Roshan D'Souza, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, was featured by the New York production company ScienCentral, which does science news pieces on National Science Foundation-funded research for ABC. D'Souza and his students found a way to use video graphics cards to model the progression of diseases and to better understand the human immune response.

David Hand, professor of civil and environmental engineering, was quoted in the Washington Post on the new water recovery system for the International Space Station. The story was distributed widely.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette included Michigan Tech's railway engineering program in an October 14 story about unusual majors, titled "Some Schools' Majors Fall Off the Beaten Path."

In November 2008, the Detroit Free Press featured the YES! Expo in an article titled "Detroit Expo's Video Games and Experiments Get Kids Hooked on Science." Since 2004, Michigan Tech has been the chief organizer of the YES! Expo, which attracts thousands of middle- and high-school students each year.

Michigan Tech received high marks for academics, career preparation, and quality of life in the Princeton Review's "Best 368 Colleges."

The message is clear. Michigan Tech is gaining national exposure for its programs, its people, and its research. In fact, funded research expenditures have doubled in the last five years from $30 million to over $60 million. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the US Department of Energy are just a few examples of organizations that have endorsed Michigan Tech through research grants.

The US Department of Energy's National Institute for Climatic Change Research (NICCR) has gone beyond merely funding Michigan Tech research projects. It selected Michigan Tech—and only five other universities in the country: Penn State, Duke, Northern Arizona, and Tulane—to direct and manage NICCR's regional research centers. As leaders of the Midwestern Regional Center, Michigan Tech faculty members in several departments review research proposals from other institutions and recommend which ones are worthy of funding. Through NICCR, Michigan Tech has funded over $6 million in climate change research projects.

What Drives Michigan Tech?

Our constantly changing and increasingly more complex world looks to the nation's best research institutions to find solutions to its greatest challenges and to educate the next generation of problem solvers. As Michigan Tech's research profile and the quality of its facilities, faculty, and students increase, we are prepared to meet these challenges head on.

Tech is seeking treatments and cures and researching better ways to diagnose diseases like cancer and osteoporosis and diabetes. Michigan Tech is addressing issues related to our physical environment—to sustaining earth, sea, and sky in spite of constantly changing climate conditions and the pressures humans place on them through pollution, land development, and progress. Tech is contributing to a tomorrow that depends less on fossil fuels and more on environmentally friendly, renewable, and sustainable forms of energy to keep us warm, power the engines in our automobiles and planes, and support life on the planet in countless ways.

Today's global financial woes compel us to train a new generation of highly educated, technologically savvy, and talented people who will be ready to enhance the workforce, commercialize innovations, start new companies, and add to the economic vitality of society.

Through our programs and our research, we are also finding new ways to make life more enjoyable. Now, perhaps more than ever, the visual and performing arts enhance life and culture by providing a respite from our health and economic and environmental challenges.

What is the common thread that runs through all of our initiatives, ideas, and programs?

Technology.

Albert Einstein said, "It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity."

People at Michigan Tech would argue that humanity, in fact, depends on technology for its enrichment and its survival. And at every turn, in every academic department, Michigan Tech faculty members and students—undergraduate and graduate—are developing innovative technologies to address every major challenge people in the world are facing today.

"Michigan Tech produces what the world craves," says President Glenn Mroz, citing graduates in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields and innovative research: working on areas such as environmental sustainability, for example. Tech graduates a higher percentage of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics than any other Michigan university: 82.3 percent. "Michigan Tech is also one of the keys to Michigan's economic future."

Shaping the World Through
Technological Innovation

Nanotechnology, a science of the ultra-small scale (100,000 nanotubes equal the width of a single human hair), has the potential to revolutionize everything from computing to space travel to health care. Enter Michigan Tech, where research in nanoscale diagnostics could change the way diseases are detected and treated.

"I like to think of it as ‘On-Star' for the body," says Professor Craig Friedrich, associate chair of Michigan Tech's mechanical engineering and engineering mechanics department and director of the Multi-Scale Technologies Institute. "Just like wireless technology can communicate the condition of a vehicle, we might be able to do that for our bodies using nanosensors."

Researchers and students at Michigan Tech are looking at ways to use carbon nanotubes for a variety of sensing applications. One example is a new way to monitor blood glucose levels in diabetes patients.

"Today, you can buy a pager-sized glucose monitoring system," explains Friedrich. "Someday, we will be able to use nanosensors to determine the body's chemical condition noninvasively using urine, sweat, or saliva because these substances have tiny concentrations of the same chemical markers found in blood. Sensors may one day be able to analyze a person's basic health and then relay the information to health care providers using something similar to cell phone technology."

Associate Professor Shuanglin Zhang, from Michigan Tech's mathematical sciences department, is taking a different approach to finding cures from some of humankind's most devastating illnesses. Zhang and his team develop statistical tools to isolate the genetic causes of disease. They have

identified eleven genes associated with type-two diabetes using a novel statistical method that first narrows the field of potentially dangerous genes and then determines which genes act on their own and which act in combination.

Zhang has authored or coauthored sixty papers in many of the top journals in his field. He has been the principal or co-principal investigator on over $2 million in research funding from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Climate change is another of the global challenges being tackled by students and researchers at Tech.

Andrew Burton, associate professor of forest resources and environmental science and director of the Midwestern Regional Center for the National Institute for Climatic Change Research, is conducting research that will allow climate change modelers to better predict the future—and to develop strategies to address problems before they emerge.

Burton's research, with a local focus and international implications, deals with measuring the effects of soil warming on the root systems of trees. Michigan's Upper Peninsula is the ideal place for conducting forest-based research.

Since we depend on trees for the air we breathe, explains Burton, it is important to know if they are increasing their output of carbon into the atmosphere when the soil is warmed due to climatic change.

"So far it looks like good news," Burton says.

"Our research is suggesting that trees can acclimate themselves to new conditions without adversely effecting the atmosphere."

Another important role Michigan Tech plays in solving today's challenges dates back to the early 1900s when Tech developed new programs to respond to the boom in the automotive and chemical industries. Today, Tech researchers and students are looking to revolutionize the transportation and power industries by investigating ways to create biofuels from the abundant woody biomass in the region, by exploring ways to use highly efficient thermoelectric generators to harvest waste heat and create "green" electricity, and by designing new engines and new vehicles.

A research project that could lead to the development of an internal combustion engine that will continuously adapt to different fuels, environmental conditions, and engine conditions is being conducted by Jeffrey Naber, associate professor in the mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics department. Naber, an expert who worked in the automotive industry in research and development before joining the Michigan Tech faculty in 2004, is hoping to develop advanced engine technologies that will both advance flexibility and reduce emissions. To do so, he is building a $2.5-million combustion chamber—the only one of its kind in the world—to study the development of real-time, event-by-event combustion feedback methods.

"If all goes well, adaptable combustion engines could appear as soon as 2011," says Naber.

While programs such as mathematics and chemistry, biological sciences and physics in Tech's College of Sciences and Arts are natural places to look for technological innovation, the College is also committed to incorporating it into less-obvious programs. The visual and performing arts, for example, distinguish themselves from programs at other universities by taking a technology-driven focus.

"Whether they realize it or not, people in society today have much higher expectations of the arts because of technology," says Mary Carol Friedrich, associate professor of theatre and director of design and technology programs in the visual and performing arts department. "Technology creates a wonderful world. Sometimes it's subliminal and sometimes it's obvious, but technology enhances the entire theatrical experience."

Michigan Tech faculty members and students are shaping the world of drama by providing programs that balance the aesthetic with the technological.

"All of our students take courses in the School

of Technology or in computer science, depending on their area of emphasis," Friedrich explains.

"They come to Michigan Tech because they know they will get hands on experiences in all the technical aspects of theatre as well as traditional training in acting, set and costume design, and lighting."

"We create programs that take advantage of what the university does well," adds Friedrich. "Stories can be made richer with technology. Michigan Tech graduates create the technology that becomes the subtext that enriches the story."

Create the Future

Michigan Tech has become a place of consequence. Our research engine is bringing in more external funding each year. We are attracting world-class researchers and top-notch students. We are partnering with some of the nation's household names in business and industry: Dow, Kimberly-Clark, NASA, Rockwell Collins, and Michigan's big three automakers.

Our technological expertise is evident in a number of other ongoing and exciting research projects:

  • Alex Mayer, geological and mining engineering and sciences, is leading a National Science Foundation-funded team of researchers to predict freshwater availability over the next thirty years.
  • L. Brad King, mechanical engineering-engineering mechanics, is recognized internationally for work involving ion propulsion, which could be used to power tiny rocket engines to change satellite positions.
  • Tess Ahlborn, civil and environmental engineering, is working on creating "super concrete," a material that could be used to build bridges that last 500 years.

Our signature Enterprise programs have yielded results for their industry and technology partners. Students in the Aerospace Enterprise, for example, created a new dust-removal system that could potentially repel lunar dust to make space travel safer. Students in the Innovative Castings Enterprise are developing new technologies for companies that manufacture cast metal products ranging from engines to faucets.

Finally, our alumni, who espouse the ingenuity and responsiveness that sets Michigan Tech apart, are doing their part to contribute to Tech's international reputation as an institution where important work is going on and where the next generation of leaders in technology are being inspired and educated.

"The great thing about Tech is that we know what we are good at: hands-on, practical knowledge," says David Reed, vice president for research. "Tech leverages what we do well and our historic strengths in science and engineering when we partner with federal agencies, business and industry, other institutions, and the state."

"That's the reason we are attracting great new faculty members and students, why we have more corporate partners than other institutions in the state, and why we are recognized for our ability to create and commercialize practical solutions," Reed continues.

"Reinforcing it all is our strong student emphasis—on providing undergraduates and grad students with a discovery-based hands-on education. Because of our students, our faculty members, and our partners—as well as our focus on producing interdisciplinary solutions to society's great challenges—our potential impact is great and will continue to grow."

So where do we go from here?

"The problems the world is facing are more and more complex and will require more and more breadth in the terms of the expertise needed to solve those problems," concludes Reed. "When we look at society fifty years from now, the biggest issues will be alternative energy sources and the availability of fresh water. At Tech, we will continue to seek experts—and educate future experts—in these as well as other fields. We will reinforce our capacity for bringing people together across all disciplines of science and technology to solve whatever challenges the future holds."