Prism Magazine - February 2002
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Briefings

BRIEF TERRORISM, TOP PROF, FLUNKING Science

 

Biotech Boom

In the weeks after the September 11 terror attacks, bioterrorism quickly went from being a theoretical threat to a real one as cases of anthrax exposure multiplied, infecting 15 people and leaving five dead. In response, an alarmed American government began enlisting biotechnology companies to help defend against a large-scale biological attack.

Brent Erickson, a spokesperson for the Biological Industry Organization (BIO), said "the campaign against bioterrorism will create a boon for smaller companies," many of which have "some really neat stuff that's been sitting on their shelves" that could prove useful in combating germ warfare. While the initial anthrax scare faded as the number of cases of contamination dwindled to nil, the notion of vulnerability that it created still exists, and the demand for technology that might work as a defense against bioterrorism has not abated.

One company that has benefitted from the bioterrorism threat is Avant Immunotherapeutics, based in Needham, Mass. It is a leading developer of oral vaccines that protect against such diseases as cholera and typhoid fever. In October, it licensed some of its vaccine technology to DynPort Vaccine Co., which has a government contract to develop products to protect against biological warfare agents.

California's Cepheid is another biotech company that's been drafted into the bioterror war. It makes a portable DNA detection kit that can, within minutes, determine if biological agents have been released in an area. The company's device uses a real-time chemical reaction that is capable of detecting trace levels of a target organism's DNA. "Rapid, accurate test results are critical for emergency preparedness and response, and our DNA detection technology has demonstrated its value for these types of time-critical applications," says Chairman and CEO Tom Gutshall.

GeneSoft, also located in California, is working on creating chemicals that bind and neutralize the DNA of harmful bacteria. No one wishes that any of these defensive technologies will ever need to be used. But there is a certain comfort factor in knowing that if a bioterror attack can't be thwarted, there are technologies in the offing that may help mitigate its effects.

Handle With Care

Urban myth or dirty secret? There have been news reports that some microbiologists routinely take samples of pathological agents to conferences to swap with colleagues. "I've never heard of anyone doing that. I just don't believe it," says Janet Shoemaker, spokesperson for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). "Who in their right mind would want to carry vials of ebola virus or anthrax in their briefcase?" she asks.

Nonetheless, Congress--alarmed by last fall's anthrax attacks--is cracking down on the handling of the most dangerous biological agents in university labs. Researchers who work with radioactive material or plant or animal pathogens already labor under much stricter controls, proponents say. And although some scientists have groused that the incoming regulations will have a chilling affect on research, the ASM says that's not likely. "It won't be unduly burdensome," Shoemaker says. Much of the legislation is aimed at increasing somewhat lax lab security: making sure freezers are locked, people have security cards, and that lab employees have undergone background security checks. "In our opinion, this is something labs should have been doing all along" under existing guidelines, she explains. The ASM did successfully fight a proposal to ban all foreign nationals from working with the 36 most pathological agents, a deadly list of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Now, only those researchers who come from the seven countries designated as sponsoring terrorism (Iraq, North Korea, and Cuba, among them) are banned. After the anthrax attacks, law enforcement officials were astounded to discover that there are no databases listing which U.S. labs store these materials, and what and how much they have in stock. That's an oversight that will quickly be remedied.

Tiny Jaw takes a Bigger Bite

Scientists at the Sandia National Laboratories have created the world's first microjaw. It may have only a minuscule bite, but it could pack a big wallop in the fields of drug discovery and delivery and bioengineering. The tiny apparatus, which is about one-third of the width of a human hair, opens and closes in a split second. And with each chomp, its small teeth are capable of puncturing 10 cells flowing through a microchannel. In the prototype, researchers have used red blood cells, but it will work with other types of cells. The masticating machine, nicknamed Pac-Man by its creators because of its resemblance to the video game figure, could be used to implant DNA or proteins into a cell. The teeth will soon be replaced by tiny needles that could inject drugs to battle bacterial or viral infections. Another possible application of the microjaw is implanting genes in stem cells. Stem cells can change into a variety of tissues if given the proper genetic orders. “We've shown that we can create a micromachine that interacts at the scale of cells,” says Murat Okandan, a Sandia researcher.

It's a demonstration tool with a flexible technology that may have a wide number of applications, he adds. Moreover, the microjaw relies on computer-chip production techniques, so it can be manufactured cheaply and easily. Sandia anticipates a huge appetite for the jaw from biotech companies and hopes to start licensing the technology later this year.

 

 

Grounding Space Age Technology

The TV show “Star Trek” calls space the final frontier. And just like previous Earth-based exploration efforts helped bring about advances in shipping, railroads, and communications that had commercial applications, many of the technologies needed to explore space have industrial and consumer uses as well. For example, a sensor developed by NASA to monitor atmospheric air quality may soon help smokestack industries reduce pollution. But getting space technology into the hands of businesses that can adapt it is not always easy. In a new commercial effort, the European Space Agency (ESA), in partnership with D'Appolonia, the Italian engineering company, has launched T4Tech (www.t4tech.com), an online portal aimed at transferring space technology to small- and medium-sized companies.

T4Tech's portal includes an online consulting service that has access to 200 experts drawn from Europe's leading research labs. And a partnership formed with the European Association of Research and Technology Organizations will soon increase that pool of experts to 20,000. Another goal is to put manufacturers of space technology in contact with small companies that can adapt those technologies to their needs, explains Raimondo De Laurentiis, project manager. Because space-age technology isn't cheap, the site also offers information on European Commission and ESA funding programs that are available to small businesses.

T4Tech already has had several success stories. ICOP is a company that develops landslide containment systems, and it wants to incorporate robots in its work. T4Tech put the company in contact with experts at the University of Genova, and they are now involved in a $805,000 project with ICOP called Roboclimber. In a $40,000 deal, a company that makes highly specialized gears for satellites will make its hardware available to a railroad company that wants to use it to help move huge shipping containers from roads to railways.

Currently, T4Tech's revenues are derived from corporate sponsors of the Web site. The site's first-level consulting service will remain free, but royalties will be charged to those companies that want more in-depth expert help. And T4Tech also plans to charge a finder's fee when it successfully brokers deals between companies. Helping transfer space technology to industry has its rewards.

Wind Off the Old Block

LONDON—Anyone who has walked amid urban canyons of tall buildings on a blustery day knows just how much city blocks spilling over with offices can affect the wind. But imagine if those buildings could capture that wind power and transform it into energy. That's exactly what a group of academic and private-sector engineers in Britain set out to do. They've come up with a conceptual prototype to incorporate wind turbines into buildings. Project WEB, or Wind Energy for the Build Environment, combined the talents of engineers from London's Imperial College of Science, Technology, and Medicine, Germany's University of Stuttgart, BDSP Partnership (a London engineering firm), and Mecal Applied Mechanics (a structural and mechanical engineering company, also based in London).

With funding from the European Union, the project's goal was to design a building that could produce at least 20 percent of the energy it required. As BDSP says, “These buildings must be energy efficient; otherwise the turbines risk becoming a purely aesthetic feature.” The finished product is an aerodynamic, twin-tower design that bookends the huge turbines. The design is rounded to channel the wind into the turbines' blades. The project's goal was to develop wind enhancement and integration techniques that make the most out of available wind. A small-scale prototype was field tested and passed with flying colors, though Neil Campbell, a BDSP engineer, says that a real building would require solving a few detailed design problems.

Most wind energy comes from wind farms, a collection of land-based turbines. Project WEB hopes that building-based turbines sidestep the problem of gaining planning approval that wind farms often face. Alison Hill, spokesperson for the British Wind Energy Association, applauds the idea of placing turbines into urban towers, but says the notion that wind farms face NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) opposition is largely a myth, at least in Britain, Europe's windiest country. About 74 percent of Britons approve of wind power, and that approval rating shoots up to 79 percent among people who live close to wind farms. Perhaps the British have come to accept turbines because wind power has proven cost-efficient in their country. Compared with traditional fuels, only gas is marginally cheaper than wind there. In the last decade turbines have become bigger, and technology has made them better at transforming wind into energy. Says Hill: “Wind will be a significant power producer in the future no matter what country you're in. The technology is well established.” And it makes for pretty neat architecture, too.

In a Class of His Own

First Class Cadet Brendan Gavin, a senior in mechanical engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, was initially a bit wary when he got Commander Vince Wilczynski as a professor this fall. “Something like Experimental Methods of Fluid and Thermal Systems doesn't have the most inviting sound to it,” he explains.

He said his apprehension about the classes was for naught, however. “Commander Wilczynski taught them in a way that made sense to me and everyone else. He is one of the best instructors I have ever had,” Gavin said.

Wilczynski was selected from more than 400 nominations to win the Outstanding Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year award—and even more impressive is the fact that he is only the second engineering professor to win the award in its history. The annual award is sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Wilczynski helped develop the Academy's mechanical engineering program six years ago and has held administrative positions as both department head and associate dean. He reports, however, that his heart lies with his interactions with the students. Although he has been asked to take administrative positions again, he has turned them down. “I suspect that it would cut down on my chance to work with cadets building autonomous submarines, table top robots, and thermal measurement systems, so I'm holding out a bit longer,” he says.

In addition to his work at the Academy, Wilczynski is involved in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a nonprofit organization created by famed inventor Dean Kamen that brings high school students together with professionals in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering.

Wilczynski donated his award money to the Academy's alumni association “to be used to help provide a margin of excellence to cadet learning,” he said, another way for him to give back to the community he so clearly works to develop.

United States fares poorly in Science

How important is science to the America of today and tomorrow? Unparalleled. The war on terrorism, for example, will require advances in everything from microbiology to structural engineering to telecommunications. And, recession aside, huge increases in U.S. wealth and productivity in the last decade were largely hatched in laboratories.

In short, science remains of utmost importance to American economics and security. Eerily, a report released early last year by the U.S. Commission on National Security likened poor math and science results among American students to “a weapon of mass destruction” detonating in a U.S. city. Nonetheless, educators fear that Americans still don't give science enough respect. Those worries were underscored by the recently released results of the National Assessment of Educational progress, a quadrennial report card on how American students are faring. And when it comes to science, the answer is, “not very well.” The performance of high school seniors in the test's science sector was down from 1996 levels, indicating that student understanding of the fundamentals of science is declining. Eighty-one percent of 12th-graders scored below proficient in science, as did 71 percent of 4th-graders and 68 percent of 8th-graders.

Gerry Wheeler, national director of the National Science Teacher's Association, says the results prove that U.S. parents and school districts don't place nearly enough importance on science teaching, which he says should be the “fourth 'R.” This lack of emphasis on science exacerbates an acute problem in education, he says: A lack of qualified teachers. Retention and recruitment of science teachers has been hit by the demand for scientific skills in industry, which lures away many good or potentially good teachers to better-paid, private-sector jobs. Wheeler acknowledges that teacher pay will never achieve parity with industry, especially in highly compensated jobs in engineering and information technology, but says the gap should be greatly narrowed. Today's classroom salaries are an “injustice” that don't reflect the professional status of teachers, he adds. “As a result, many school are finding it harder and harder to keep good science teachers in the classroom.” Proposed federal legislation will provide more money for differential pay, bonuses and merit pay, but it won't come close to bridging the salary gap. Wheeler says.

“It's safe to say that if science were considered an essential subject by the general public, additional support—and funds—would be allocated accordingly,” Wheeler claims.

A Whole Lot of Shakin'

In a few years, designers of buildings and bridges who are working in, say, Texas, will be able to operate earthquake or tsunami simulation experiments at a lab in California. Or one in Colorado. Or any one of 20 engineering centers that will comprise a grid called the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation. The broadband, Internet-based virtual lab should be available for limited used as a prototype in 2003, and fully operational in fall 2004.

Users will also be able to quickly share data and software. “It is absolutely a goal of the (network) to encourage collaboration” among structural engineers, earthquake researchers, tsunami specialists and emergency-response experts, says Tom Prudhomme, a scientist at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, which is designing the grid. The project has received a $10 million National Science Foundation grant.

Cyber-labs that can be used from afar are becoming de rigueur. For instance, astronomers can access some telescopes remotely, and materials scientists can peer into online electron microscopes. The network's objective, Prudhomme adds, is to “comprise a collaboratory for the earthquake engineering community to use to get more work done, better and faster.” Structural engineers will be shaking with anticipation to log on.

Turning Trash into Cash

SYDNEY, Australia—Slag heaps are mountainous eyesores of waste found on the fringes of steel mills. But Australian engineers say they have found a way to turn trash to treasure by recycling more of this byproduct into highways.

Slag is currently used worldwide in buildings and roads for cement blending and improving the life expectancy of concrete structures. But, explains Vute Sirivivatnanon, head of the sustainable materials engineering unit research team at the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (ASCIRO), “that is blast furnace slag resulting from production using mined raw material.”

His group's research involves another type: electric arc furnace slag, a byproduct of the process in which scrap metal is used rather than the output of mines. And after a year of testing, ACSIRO business development manager Robert Baker is confident that this form of slag promises a number of commercially viable options.

Among them are anti-skid surfaces for paved highways. The highways department in Victoria tested slag from the mill and found that it provides an excellent skid-resistant material for roads. The researchers believe it will be popular for stretches along curves or near dangerous intersections. Other uses include blending it into asphalt or concrete for different types of road surfaces and as an inexpensive additive instead of stone and sand to low-strength concrete for sidewalks and bicycle paths.

“We've found a way to turn something ugly that just sat there into a useful and profitable product,” Sirirvivatnanon said.

 

 

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