Thomas R. O'Donnell

Roundup: Mars meteors, robotic gardeners, a tight squeeze for molecules, and atom bomb history

In University research on November 13, 2014 at 6:13 am
MARSIS spectrographs showing ionosphere fluctuation due to contact with cometary debris.

Spectrographic MARSIS data from radar soundings of the Martian ionosphere midway between the equator and north pole at three different times. The horizontal axis is the MARSIS radio wave pulse frequency. The vertical axis is the estimated altitude above the planet’s surface. Increasing intensity is indicated by color-coding from blue to red, as shown by the scale. The normal ionospheric reflection can be seen extending up to about 2.8 megahertz on all three spectrograms, corresponding to an electron density of about 100,000 electrons per cubic centimeter. The top spectrogram shows conditions about eight minutes before the comet’s closest approach. The middle spectrogram shows conditions about seven hours later, when a temporary layer of enhanced electron density had formed within the ionosphere. It extends to very high frequencies, from about 2.8 to 3.8 megahertz, and corresponds to an electron density of about 200,000 electrons per cubic centimeter. This layer is at an altitude below the normal peak in the ionosphere. By comparison with the ground reflection, which can be seen at frequencies above 4 megahertz, the layer of enhanced ionization is estimated to be at an altitude of 50 to 60 miles. Credit: ASI/NASA/ESA/JPL/Univ. of Rome/Univ. of Iowa

Here’s a little bit of everything (almost) going on in Iowa science, from the interplanetary to the tiny and from the latest in robotics to the history of Iowa’s role in the atom bomb.

University of Iowa researchers last week released results from a probe that tracked the impact of a comet flyby on Mars’ atmosphere. The impact was something like a massive meteor shower.

On Earth, Iowa State University plant scientists plan to staff a high-tech growing facility with a robot. (Don’t worry, postdocs and grad students; I’m sure they’ll need some human help, too.)

Ames Laboratory researchers, meanwhile, have taken a mathematical look at the uncomfortable situation that occurs when tiny particles meet in a nanoparticle’s narrow pores. It’s a bit like people trying to squeeze past each other in a tight hallway.

And finally, for hardcore historians, there’s a look back at the war-era events behind the lab’s founding.

Researchers accuse Iowa company of delaying Ebola vaccine safety trial

In Industry Research on October 27, 2014 at 2:34 pm
Liberian sign promoting hand-washing as a means to avoid spreading the Ebola virus. It also lists symptoms and precautions.

Advice to avoid Ebola; also good advice for avoiding flu, food poisoning, etc. Credit: CDC Global Health via photopin cc

Ebola is making millions of Americans sick.

No, they’re not contracting the virus, which has killed thousands of Africans in the worst outbreak in history.

I’m saying people are sick of the breathless reports and fear-mongering pronouncements from politicians, cable news outlets and talk radio hosts.

The fact is that in a country of 300 million people, only two have actually become infected here in the United States (due to poor protocols at a Dallas hospital). Two others (one of whom died) developed symptoms here after visits to West Africa.

A few other patients were brought here for treatment after developing symptoms overseas. At the Omaha, Atlanta and Maryland hospitals where those patients were treated (and where the two Dallas healthcare workers have been hospitalized), no healthcare workers have contracted Ebola. The government built special units at these hospitals to handle contagious patients in a post-9/11 effort to prepare for possible biological attacks.

Also: No one the Dallas patient was with before he was hospitalized has become ill. That says something about how hard it is to spread this virus – unlike, say, influenza.

Meanwhile (here comes the Iowa angle), an Ames company has been in the headlines for its work on an Ebola vaccine. Iowa press coverage of NewLink Genetics has largely tracked the company’s plans to get the vaccine into human trials. It’s rarely gone beyond a single source: NewLink.

Reports outside the state, however, have been more critical. NewLink denies it, but some say the company has purposely delayed the trials while Ebola spreads in Africa and people die.

Rats on the brain: U of I researchers chase a stress-memory connection

In University research on July 2, 2014 at 6:30 am
A brain diagram from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia,1890-1907.

A brain diagram from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia, 1890-1907. Credit: Double–M via photopin cc

When I talked with Jason Radley, he was nearly back home in Iowa City after a weekend trip to Minnesota with his wife and two children, ages seven and 10.

Fortunately, the kids were riding in another car with grandma and grandpa, so Radley was feeling pretty good. The grandparents are “probably the ones who are stressed,” he said.

Given their ages, “we probably put them in undue risk, if you extrapolate my work” to humans, joked Radley, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Iowa.

That work, done in rats, suggests stress may cut into cognitive ability – specifically memory – as people age.

The research, published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that older rats showing signs of stress – that is, elevated levels of a stress-related hormone – not only performed more poorly on memory tests; they also had structural changes in a key brain region responsible for short-term memory.

The report follows other research with similar conclusions, making chronic stress a likely addition to the cast of health villains that contribute to declining brain function late in life.

But don’t tell your significant other you’re spending your days playing video games and drinking beer, all in the name of reducing your stress to preserve your memory. There are caveats to the study, which included a fascinating experiment involving a T-shaped maze.

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