ASEE PRISM - Feb 2001
Hanging Out in Space

Illustration by Stephen SwenyPerhaps the most famous commercial application of space technology is the most frivolous: Tang, the powdered, orange-flavored breakfast drink. But NASA has actually been the launch pad for a host of commercially successful technologies, including many that have re-energized the U.S. economy. Among them: satellite communications, computers, robotics, medicines and composite materials. Now the space agency has awarded $2.5 million to the University of Florida to create a center to develop technologies that will not only enable astronauts to live in space for extended periods, but prove environmentally useful on Earth.

In the past, commercial applications of technologies were a happy spinoff of space research--welcome, but after the fact. But this time, NASA wants Florida scientists and engineers to develop the projects with technology transfer as a goal. Nonetheless, the research is also needed to ensure that astronauts can make prolonged trips to the Moon or Mars. So-called "closed loop" technologies recycle necessary consumables, like oxygen and water, and free up valuable space aboard spacecraft. The center's first two pilot projects will focus on air, water, and solid-waste revitalization.

The air and water project involves the use of nanosized photocatalyst-coated magnetic particles that will intercept and degrade such toxic compounds as toluene.

The solid-waste project is not as palate-challenging as it sounds. It will use anaerobic--that is, sans oxygen--composting of the wastes to recover energy and nutrients. "The recovered energy could be used to power other operations and the nutrients used to grow crops for consumption," explains John J. Warwick, chairman of the Department of Environmental Engineering Services, where the center will be housed.

Technologies such as these may have many applications elsewhere. Water recovery systems, for example, could be used in military submarines and ships, as well as aboard cruise liners. As each project is completed, Warwick says, commercialization plans will be established. "Many individuals and groups should benefit: Individual inventors and their institutions, companies selling the new products, and society from the implementation of more cost-effective pollution-removal technology," he says.

Sounds like a concept worth toasting--a round of Tang, please.

College Enrollment Declines Following Olympics

AP Photo/ Katsumi KasaharaAUSTRALIA--It's more a quirk than a crisis, an odd spinoff of Sydney's successful staging of the Olympic Games. Fewer students will enroll at the 11 universities in the Australian state of New South Wales for the next academic year than in 2000.

Blame the Games, say university officials in the New South Wales state capital, Sydney. They've interviewed prospective students, thousands of whom worked as volunteer Olympic workers during the festive Games period. It turns out that would-be students want to take a break following a hectic spell of unpaid work and hard partying. Some have been bitten by the travel bug after rubbing shoulders with athletes and spectators from around the world. Others want to do a year's paid work to build up their bank balances after working gratis at the Games and spending lavishly on food, drink, and other entertainment.

In Australia, unlike in the U.S., the academic year follows the calendar year, with classes starting in February after the southern hemisphere summer vacation. The agency that keeps tabs on enrollments says numbers of first-year students will decline by about 1,500, or just over 2 percent. "Many potential applicants have been distracted by the Olympics," says the center's director, Andrew Stanton. The drop included all areas of study. The number of engineering students will decrease by about 2 percent.

Universities aren't alarmed by the drop in students since they believe it is a minor aberration. At Sydney-based Macquarie University, one of the city's main schools, acting vice-chancellor John Loxton says that in spite of the small drop, his school "is happy with the situation."

Illustration by  Pieter HorjusBosses know that teamwork usually pays off. Permanent or ad hoc teams are often the best way to tackle special projects or specific problems. Of course, the best teams pull together and members respect and trust one another. But, according to a new study by a University of Missouri at Rolla researcher, teams featuring two or more people with common work backgrounds could start out handicapped by mutual distrust and suspicion.

Tony Ammeter, of the school's engineering management faculty, says his initial hypothesis was that people who shared similar traits were most likely to get along. "But my results were counterintuitive," explains Ammeter, who studied teams of first-year MBA students who worked for four months on class assignments. Being of the same gender or sex had no effect at all on trust, good or bad. Only race mattered; at least at the beginning of a task, racial similarity helped build quick trust.

More surprising, however, was the finding that people with similar work experience tend to be less trusting. Although he's working on new research to understand why this occurs, Ammeter thinks that professional jealousy and fear may be factors. People may harbor deep-seated worries that they could be shown up by someone who shares their expertise.

One way to dampen suspicions and build trust: take them out for a drink. Socializing is a good way to make people comfortable with one another. "The more they interact, the more they trust, which makes sense. Any interaction is good interaction, because then they can no longer rely on stereotypes,"says Ammeter, whose study is based on his doctoral dissertation in organizational science from the University of Texas at Austin. He also suggests that during the first ice-breaker, team members should be asked to give short profiles of themselves, explaining their expertise and interests.

"That will give other members a sense of where they're coming from," Ammeter says, and that could allay any festering fears.

At room temperatures, the subatomic particles within cells are always moving, or "jiggling," explains Scot C. Kuo, a biomedical engineer at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. If all that dancing around can be observed and measured, the mechanical properties of the material that cell comes from can be deduced, which can help our understanding of how cells move and control their shapes.

Photograph by Jay Van Rensselaer

Biochemical researchers James McGrath (left) and Scot Kuo are using this laser tracking device to study the "tails" that propel Lysteria microbes.

That was Kuo's claim in a paper published three years ago. Now, he and colleague James L. McGrath have created an optical microscope with a built-in laser that proves his point. The microscope is a natural follow-up to the optical tweezers that Kuo invented in 1993, which use lasers to move particles.

In a tour-de-force test of the device, Kuo and McGrath made unexpected new findings on how the bacteria--Listeria monocytogenes, a common source of food poisoning--maneuver from one host cell to another. Their findings were published in an October edition of the medical journal, Nature.

Scientists had believed that, as filaments of the Listeria bacteria grew, the microbe was nudged along at a smooth pace. But Kuo's microscope discovered that the filament "tails" make step-like motions that propel the bacteria to neighboring cells. "That was the wild thing, those steps," he says.

Kuo says the microscope could be used for many kinds of research where the noninvasive measurement of mechanical properties is helpful. It could also be used to determine the mechanical properties of any material, from a minute slice of an airport tarmac to a fraction of a drop of honey. "It's as good as a mechanical rheometer in determining mechanical properties," Kuo says. "I can imagine lots of applications."

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