PRISM Magazine - January 2003
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Briefings

BIG MOUTHS, GREEN ACRES, SOUNDING OFF

FANNING THE FLAMES

Wind direction greatly dictates the spread of wildfires, and its fickleness makes the behavior of these disasters difficult to predict. Supercomputer modeling is helping, however.

Farsite, a computer model designed by Mark Finney, a U.S. Forest Service researcher at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Missoula, Mont., crunches data such as terrain and weather factors—including wind, humidity, and precipitation forecasts—to help determine where a blaze is heading. But as Finney notes, just saying that the wind will be coming out of the west is of limited value because wind patterns change over complex terrain. So he's working with the Maui High-Performance Computing Center to improve the model by plugging in gridded, three-dimensional wind predictions that have a high resolution of one or two kilometers. That allows the model to more accurately predict how a fire will burn in the short term—say 24 hours—which greatly helps firefighters plan their defenses or attacks.

The project looked promising, Finney says, but after a year's funding, the money dried up, and no operational system has yet been used in the field. That may be at least another five years away, he says, depending on if and when another source of money becomes available. Still, Finney remains optimistic. As supercomputers become faster and more common, he anticipates that the National Weather Service will eventually be able to routinely supply more precise wind data that will enable wildfire forecasters to fine-tune their prognostications. And that could spark a big advance in how we fight wildfires.

 

TROUBLE IN PARADISE

NEW ZEALAND—This South Pacific nation's universities are increasingly worried about their ability to attract top administrators. Proud of the high standards set by its education system, New Zealand has supplied engineers, scientists, and other professionals to the United States, Britain, and most often, neighboring Australia for years. With education growing as an important New Zealand export industry, foreign students represent a major source of revenue.

Of New Zealand's eight universities, two are seeking new vice-chancellors–a position similar to that of a college president in the United States. Two more universities are expected to launch searches in the next year as incumbents retire. Vice chancellors at two universities—including Massey University, which has an engineering school with an international reputation—recently left for greener pastures in Australia. While annual salary packages of around $119,000 are generous by local standards, they look paltry compared with what administrators earn in the United States or even in Australia, where New Zealand academics are highly sought after. For example, the salary of John W. Shumaker, the University of Tennessee's new president, is well over $700,000.

As homegrown candidates with the necessary expertise become hard to find, New Zealand's schools have had to go headhunting offshore. School officials believe that lifestyle factors—such as a peaceful environment, low costs and high living standards, good school systems, and leafy British-style campuses—are their strongest selling points. They hope these factors will offset the higher pay that administrators could earn elsewhere and point to the Cold War era when New Zealand's peaceful image outweighed puny pay scales and enticed substantial numbers of American academics to settle into jobs on campuses framed by scenic, sheep-studded rolling hills.

 

TAKING OUT THE OUCH

Belonephobia–the fear of needles–and diabetes don't mix. That's because many diabetics need a daily insulin injection to protect against the ravages of the chronic disease–blindness, amputation, organ failure, and death. But thanks to scientists at Penn State, a matchbook-size device could replace insulin injections using the power of ultrasound.

For years scientists have known that drugs could be pushed through the skin using certain sound waves just out of the range of human hearing. But the technique required unwieldy machines with 8-inch probes that weigh about 2 pounds. Working with materials scientist Robert Newnham, bioengineering professor Nadine Barrie Smith developed a prototype device that does the same thing but weighs less than an ounce.

Smith replaced the heavy probe with an array of four dime-size cymbal transducers that Newnham developed. A piece of piezoceramic material sits within the tiny titanium cymbals. To deliver the insulin, the scientists place a thin reservoir of the drug just in front of the cymbals. Then, by applying an electric current, the cymbals produce ultrasonic waves that silently and painlessly move the insulin through the skin and into the bloodstream. Because the device is so small, it could be worn like a patch on the body.

Experiments with human skin and rats have shown that it takes about 20 minutes of ultrasound exposure to deliver the right amount of insulin. Smith and her team are currently trying to shorten that time to five minutes or less.

The ultrasound technology also could be used to deliver other types of medication. "I think this has an application in any area where anything would have to be injected," Smith says. She sees potential for the therapy to be used to deliver AIDS drugs, pain relievers, asthma drugs, and hormones.

While she's seen good results from her patch so far, Smith doesn't expect people to be using it for at least another five years. "We think it has potential, but we also want to be careful," she says.

 

A FISH TALE WORTH TELLING

TOKYO—Environmental engineers have their hands full. From tropical Okinawa to snowy Hokkaido, Japan's native flora and fauna are being crowded out by exotic American invaders, in particular, the North American largemouth black bass. White attempting to curtail the foreign pests, the Japanese government has raised the ire of the country's estimated five million sports fishermen.

Reputedly imported from California in 1925 by a Japanese banker to indulge his sport-fishing hobby, the 22-pound black bass has become Japan's kudzu. Comfortably ensconced in practically every body of water in the country, the scaly invaders have snapped up the prime piscine real estate, including the picturesque lake at the foot of Mt. Fuji and the stately moat surrounding the Imperial Palace in downtown Tokyo.

The center of the fray is scenic Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake, located in the center of Japan's main island, Honshu. With an ecosystem scientists have traced back 400,000 years, the lake once brimmed with indigenous species such as carp and trout. But Biwa is rapidly heading toward a real lack of piscine diversity. A line cast there nine times out of ten will lure black bass or bluegill, a second invasive species. This small but equally voracious fish is believed to have come to Japan in 1960, a gift from the mayor of Chicago to then crown prince Akihito. These gilled hooligans, which feed on other fish voraciously and reproduce prolifically, frightened the Shiga Prefectural Assembly–the Japanese governing body akin to our state legislatures–into banning catch-and-release of exotic species starting April, 2003. The move is expected to decimate sports fishing tourism in the area.

Japan's fishermen say their beloved game fish is taking the rap for problems not completely of its own making, namely declining water quality and construction projects that have ruined habitat for domestic fish. Anglers have called for setting up bass-safe zones, where the aggressive fish could continue to be hauled in. But biologists and officials at the Environment Ministry say quarantining the wily bass is impossible and that retaining even a small number would be enough to restore the fish's hegemony nationwide.

 

PLANTING A GREENER PLASTIC

Once upon a time, the soybean—an often integral part of a vegetarian diet—had a very green image. But then along came genetically-modified beans, and they ran afoul of some environmen-talists who don't cotton to any sort of bioengineered foods. But a new use for the lowly soybean could once again bolster its ecological bona fides. Urethane Soy Systems Company (USSC), of Princeton, Ill., has developed a method for making polyurethane—a widely-used plastic—out of soy. Polyurethane's key ingredient is a polyol, derived from petroleum. But USSC has devised a soy oil, it calls SoyOyl, that can replace polyols. Currently, the process requires blending the SoyOyl with polyols. Depending on the type of plastic being produced, the SoyOyl can replace as much as 20 to 60 percent of the polyols. But within five years, polyurethanes based entirely on SoyOyl will be feasible, says Tom Kurth, USSC president. Ecological advantages are clear: Soybeans are a cheap, renewable resource, and using less petroleum to manufacture ubiquitous plastics lessens U.S. reliance on imported oil. Alas, Soy-based plastics are no more biodegradable than oil-based ones. But, Kurth adds, they are potentially easier to recycle, and the technology needed to commercially reclaim soy plastics is perhaps no more than five years away.

Already manufacturers of heavy and farm equipment—including John Deere, Case, and Caterpillar—are using the soybean polyurethanes for such component parts as panels, hoods, and fenders. And Kurth says the auto industry is a potentially big client, because it uses polyurethane for everything from seats to fenders to dashboards to steering wheels. Other possible applications include carpeting, bedding, foam insulation, and shoe soles.

Competition may come from yet another cash crop: corn. Some manu-facturers are making a polymer based on a modified enzyme that changes corn sugar to lactic acid, which can be used to replicate all petroleum-based plastics. Kurth applauds that tech-nology and admits it will one day prove useful. But for now, he argues, his bean plastic is the cheaper product. And that should make both manu-facturers and environmentalists oh soy happy.

 

TINY SPEAKERS, BIG SOUND

Forget about bookshelf speakers. How about flyspeck speakers—A pair of engineers at England's University of Warwick has devised a technology that will enable manufacturers to build speakers no more than a centimeter wide yet that can fill a room with sound. Roger Green, an electronics engineer and communications specialist, and David Hutchinson, an ultrasound expert, have come up with a means of producing audible sound from ultrasonic wavelengths. Since ultrasonic sounds are beyond the human capacity for hearing, that's a pretty cool trick. And trick is the right word because Green and Hutchinson's speakers merely fool us into thinking we hear the sounds. They designed transducers that synthesize ultrasonic sounds that our brains detect, but we are not really hearing without our ears—we just think we are. If that sounds, well, weird, one need only look to a TV set to be similarly fooled. As Green explains, TV viewers perceive continuous moving images in all colors. But cathode ray tubes can produce only three colors—blue, red and green—and the images we "see" are densely packed horizontal lines with pixels. Yet our brain and eyes are fooled into thinking we see colors and movement that are not there.

Green sees all sorts of applications for his mighty-mite speakers, from extremely small hi-fi systems to better-sounding laptops and cell phones. The pair has started a company to commercialize the technology.

"Hearing" ultrasonic sound from supermini speakers has other salubrious effects. Ultrasonic frequencies can't penetrate walls, only bounce off them, so just two of the speakers give listeners a surround-sound experience. That also means the sound can be isolated to one room. So you'd never hear the thudding bass lines from your kid's stereo upstairs or your neighbor's 3 a.m. party.

 

SMU TO GO HALF AND HALF

Engineering schools have not done a particularly good job of attracting female students. Nationally, only 20 percent of undergraduate engineering students are women, and women earn only 15.5 percent of engineering doctoral degrees. Southern Methodist University in Dallas hopes to change things. SMU's school of engineering has announced a five-year plan to bring female student levels to 50 percent. The university already does better than most schools: 30 percent of its nearly 500 undergraduate and graduate engineering students are women.

Betsy Willis, director of student programs and outreach at SMU's School of Engineering, says perhaps the biggest hurdle in recruiting women is perception. The public image of what engineers do often comes across as decidedly male and uncool, admits Willis, who holds a Ph.D. in engineering. "They think it's all people in white coats in labs working on widgets." Moreover, women tend to be more altruistic then men, and it's often not clear to them that engineering is more than just making things. A big part of the effort is a marketing strategy to change these perceptions, Willis says. SMU wants to show students that an engineering degree "prepares you for a whole world of opportunities. Engineering teaches you critical thinking and good analytical skills." Students can use these skills in many ways, including food production, medicine, and patent law.

The effort will also use curriculum enhancements to show first-year students how to quickly and practically apply the new skills they're learning. This might include community-based efforts, like having students design exhibits for local museums. The initiative also gives female students support systems, professional development opportunities, and the addition of new majors, such as engineering and the arts.

 

THE MUSIC MAN

- By Thomas K. Grose

It reads like the curriculum vitae of a 21st century Renaissance man. George D. Stetten has an M.D. from SUNY-Syracuse, a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke, a master's in neuroscience from New York University, and an engineering degree from Harvard. He was involved in the startup of MIT's Media Lab. And lately, he's getting a lot of enthusiastic press for his "sonic flashlight," an ultrasound device that superimposes on the patient, in real time, the internal image being scanned. But Stetten, 48, insists that his "so-called career" is less than the sum of its parts, and the variety of interesting jobs he's held and degrees he's acquired resulted from indecision—he says he did not know what he wanted to do.

False modesty? Perhaps, but Stetten says that music has really driven and shaped his career. He calls it "an essential part of my life." An accomplished musician—he sings, and plays the piano and guitar—music has been the one constant in Stetten's life since his fingers were first taught to dance over a piano keyboard 42 years ago. Now he's recorded and produced a 10-track CD of his music, Asleep at the Wheel.

Stetten—whose musical influences include James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Carol King—calls his music a "mix of folk, rock, and jazz . . . thoughtful lyrics and humable tunes." An apt description. His next goal is to sell a few thousand copies via cdbaby.com, an online retailer of independent labels. That may take awhile. As of press time, he's sold only 10 copies. But Stetten calls his goal achievable, because the Internet can help talented unknowns find a fan base outside the mega-marketing machines of the major labels. He cheerfully admits to "piggybacking" his CD marketing onto the publicity generated by his sonic flashlight. "I am not allowed to, and would not want to, shamelessly sell the sonic flashlight. But, if I can get somebody to listen to my music in the meantime, that's great," says Stetten, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies a sharp sense of humor.

Stetten says academia wrongly snubs pop music. The engineering that goes into making music, from the instruments to the recording techniques, "is very advanced, and it's something that should be taught at universities." Not only would many students be interested, he insists, but there's a huge market for those skills.

Although he studied classical piano for 12 years, Stetten preferred pop music, partly because it offered more social interaction. "You couldn't exactly sit down at a party, start playing Beethoven and get a girlfriend." Tinkering with microphones and sound systems while playing in rock bands generated his interest in electrical engineering. After Harvard, he spent a year studying at the New England Conservatory of Music. In the late ‘70s, Stetten was in Cambridge, Mass., working at the MIT Music Lab—which eventually morphed into the Media Lab. There he helped develop a touch-sensitive keyboard that just missed getting a patent. Next stop was Woods Hole, Mass., where he played guitar at a local coffee shop. That's where he met Jim Atkins—an engineer who was involved with the Deep Submersible Alvin, a tiny, three-person research submarine. Stetten developed the sub's first onboard computer system. Next, he enrolled at NYU, and while getting his master's, got involved in the fledgling field of biomedical engineering. "That's when I realized I could do engineering and have a lot of fun with it."

Stetten eventually followed in his father's footsteps and got an M.D. His first prognosis: "That I was clearly not a doctor." He hated blood and making life-and-death decisions. So he focused on biomedical engineering and got his doctorate from Duke. And still, the music muse beckoned. He produced a CD, The Voices of D.U.M.E., that featured songs by Duke students and faculty— including himself. The album sold a few hundred copies at the campus bookstore. Today, he specializes in visualization—putting images from scanning devices on screens—and image analysis—getting computers to analyze those shapes. He's an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh and a research scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. For one of his courses, he had students inventing new musical instruments. One student's novel idea: a "grimace guitar" whose sounds are shaped by the way the player scrunches his face.

Stetten clearly enjoys his work. Nevertheless, he hopes music provides a career coda. "I want to retire on my songs. My dream is to go to the mail box and pick up my royalty checks." But, he adds wryly, "In the meantime, I'll keep my day job."

 

Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
He can be reached at tgrose@asee.org.

 

 
 
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