2011 Michigan Tech Research Magazine

Research Magazine Cover 2011

Erupting volcano.

Occasionally the Earth shrugs its shoulders and reminds us that our powers have limits. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, pictured here with lightning flashing from its ash cloud, was a case in point. Yet the grounding of European air traffic for a few weeks, while vastly inconvenient for our own species, was not such a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Research by Michigan Tech’s Aleksey Smirnov suggests that the same heat engine underlying Iceland’s volcanoes was once responsible for an ancient apocalypse so immense it has become known as “The Great Dying.”

Dimetrodons feed near a river in this Permian scene. Millions of years before the dinosaurs, they and most other forms of life were wiped out in the largest mass extinction in Earth's history. Illustration by Karen Carr

"The Great Dying"

by Frank Stephenson

It's been called "the mother of all mass extinctions." It happened about 251 million years ago—20 million years before the first dinosaur drew breath.

Earth scientists know it as the Permian mass extinction (so-named because it occurred at the end of Earth's Permian period). Also called "The Great Dying," the massive cataclysm was far more lethal than four other major mass killings recorded in the geologic record, including the one that doomed the dinosaurs.

The event hardly happened overnight—scientists believe the global carnage unfolded over at least a million years. When it was over, an estimated 96 percent of all the planet's marine life, along with 70 percent of all living things on land, was gone forever, never to be replicated. Some scientists believe that it took 30 million years for Earth to fully recover from its effects . . .

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Moose get arthritis too, as the pock-marked bone above illustrates. Michigan Tech scientists have discovered that moose growing up in times of plenty are more likely to have healthy joints in adulthood, like the one on the right. Jonathan May Photo

Moose Bones Yield Clues to Age-old Affliction

by Jennifer Donovan

As a 150-pound person ages, the aches and pains of osteoarthritis—a degenerative and progressively crippling joint disease—often become an unpleasant fact of life. Think how the same condition feels to a thousand-pound moose.

In a report published in Ecology Letters in September 2010, Michigan Tech wildlife ecologists Rolf Peterson and John Vucetich; Thomas Drummer, professor of mathematical sciences; and colleagues in Minnesota and Ohio identified a link between malnutrition early in a moose's life and osteoarthritis as the animal ages.

"I've long thought that there was a nutritional link to the increase in osteoarthritis in moose on Isle Royale as the population of the animals grew in the 1960s and 1970s," . . . 

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Adrienne Minerick loads a blood solution into an electronic microdevice that can determine blood type. Mariusz Nowak Photo

A Lab in your Pocket

by Marcia Goodrich

If you were feeling a little under the weather on Star Trek, there wasn't a lot of waiting around for a diagnosis. You didn't have to describe your symptoms to your doctor, and you didn't have to yield a vial of blood for shipment out to a lab for tests. Perhaps most importantly, you didn't have to pace the floor for days, wondering if that headache was a brain tumor or allergies. Bones simply scanned you with his medical tricorder and announced (whew!) that you've got hay fever.

Adrienne Minerick doesn't expect that physicians will be wanding patients with gadgets anytime soon. But the associate professor of chemical engineering is now working on a technology that may one day provide a diagnosis from a single drop of blood just as quickly as Dr. McCoy's tricorder.

Minerick's research revolves around a property called dielectrophoresis . . . 

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Death of the Doughnut

by Marcia Goodrich

The Asian carp may be a scene stealer, leaping out of the Mississippi River like popcorn in a skillet, smacking boaters in the face, and starring in no end of slap-happy YouTube videos. But for sheer destructive might, this algae-eating invader can't hold a candle to a certain European mollusk about the size of a fat lima bean.

Michigan Tech biologist W. Charles Kerfoot got his first insights into the quagga mussel back in 2001, when he and his research team were checking on a huge, green ring dubbed "the doughnut" they'd discovered a few years earlier in southern Lake Michigan.

No one knew about the doughnut, much less the quagga, until Kerfoot and his research team first saw it in 1998. Using NASA's new Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project, they saw a roughly circular river of phytoplankton—algae and other tiny plants—that was drifting counterclockwise around the southern end of Lake Michigan, creating a doughnut . . . 

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Ranjit Pati

Lessons from the Brain

by Marcia Goodrich

Networking is powerful, for people and for our brains, which draw upon a vast web of neurons to manage information. It's a model that has eluded computers, and it's one thing that has long distinguished our living gray matter from the silicon-based variety.

Now, a team of researchers has built a molecular computer using lessons learned from the human brain.

Physicist Ranjit Pati of Michigan Tech provided the theoretical underpinnings for this tiny computing device composed not of silicon . . . 

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