Thomas R. O'Donnell

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This Iowa mom uses a scooter. This Olympian vaults hurdles. A rare condition links them.

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2016 at 7:20 am
Jill Viles (with her son, Martin) uses an electric scooter to get around. Patricia Lopes-Schliep is a world-class hurdler. The women have discovered they share a rare muscle condition. For Viles, it's part of the reason she can no longer walk. For Lopes-Schliep, it's part of the reason for her dominance on the track.

Jill Viles (with her son, Martin) uses an electric scooter to get around. Patricia Lopes-Schliep is a world-class hurdler. The women have discovered they share a rare muscle condition. For Viles, it’s part of the reason she can no longer walk. For Lopes-Schliep, it’s one reason for her dominance on the track. Image via the Toronto Star.

The idea seemed ludicrous: A muscle-bound world-class athlete and an Iowa mom with arms and legs reduced to sticks, sharing the same rare muscle condition.

When her sister suggested it, Jill Viles scoffed. “Who in a million years would possibly put together somebody who can’t walk and somebody who’s an Olympic hurdler?” Viles said this week from her home in Gowrie, in north-central Iowa

But doctors had been wrong before about Viles, who lost use of her legs several years ago. And the more she examined photos of Priscilla Lopes-Schliep, a Canadian who won bronze in 2008, the more she began to think her sister was right.

Looking a picture of Lopes-Schliep from the back, “it was absolutely my dad. It was something I had seen since I was a little girl,” said Viles, a Des Moines native. “Our family is connected to that picture and we have a mutation” in a gene that led to the unusual physique. “It’s uncanny.”

But did they really share a genetic hiccup? And if so, why did it put Jill Viles into a motorized scooter but made Priscilla Lopes-Schliep a track champion?

The search for answers led Viles onto another leg of an already remarkable tale of discovery. It’s a science story, but also a human-interest story that has gotten attention from across America and around the world.

The quest goes on. Viles is seeking donations to support research into the differences and similarities between her and Lopes-Schliep – the anti-Jill Viles – with the hope it could lead to new therapies, even for those suffering from more common muscle conditions. With enough donations, Viles also hopes to help others travel to consult with the world’s leading expert in her condition.

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Ames Lab gets small with new microscopes

In Uncategorized, University research on January 5, 2016 at 7:02 am
Ames Lab's Matt Kramer with the Tecnai transmission electron microscope at the new Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF). The Tecnai TEM was moved to the SIF from Wilhelm Hall, one of the buildings the lab occupies on the Iowa State University campus.

Ames Lab’s Matt Kramer with the Tecnai transmission electron microscope at the new Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF). The microscope was moved to the SIF from Wilhelm Hall on the Iowa State University campus.

In 2015 Ames Laboratory scientists who investigate materials’ fundamental properties received their Christmas presents early.

In November and December technicians unpacked and installed around $6 million worth of high-tech microscopes, some capable of identifying individual atoms and how they’re arranged in materials. The three new devices joined one already owned by the lab, a Department of Energy (DOE) facility Iowa State University manages on its campus.

The equipment is installed at the lab’s Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), a fortress against interference recently finished northwest of the ISU campus. In my last post, I described the many steps the building’s designers took to keep vibrations and electromagnetic noise from disturbing the powerful microscopes inside.

In this post I’ll tell you more about the devices themselves. With their power, scientists can better understand materials and develop new ones that save energy and improve the performance of devices we use every day. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s shaking? At this building, not a thing

In Uncategorized, University research on December 22, 2015 at 7:00 am
A SIF schematic with notations designating the location of each instrument. From Ames Laboratory's Inquiry magazine.

A SIF schematic with notations designating the location of each instrument. From Ames Laboratory’s Inquiry magazine.

It’s not a much to look at from the outside. The long, low building just northwest of the Iowa State University campus could be classrooms or offices, maybe for a small manufacturer or a medical practice.

The offices and public spaces are airy and furnished in a style echoing IKEA. There’s no hint that the structure is unique in Iowa and rare in the United States.
But take a tour, as I did last week, and you learn that this, the first new scientific structure Ames Laboratory has built since 1961, is a near-fortress against even the tiniest outside interference.

The Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), still awaiting its first occupants, can’t be disturbed. Really. And that’s what makes it a great place for researchers to make some minuscule discoveries. Read the rest of this entry »

A brief update: Next Generation Science Standards

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2015 at 5:45 pm
"Dr. Doom" menaces the world, from Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum.

From Science Comics, April 1939, via the Digital Comics Museum. Perhaps conservatives view the Iowa Department of Education this way. They would be wrong.

Here’s a quick update on Iowa’s possible adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

You may recall that a task force of educators began considering the standards in October as part of a regular review of Iowa classroom standards. After weighing the benefits of several sets of standards, the task force said the NGSS (which were developed by a coalition of states and education organizations) were the best choice to adapt for Iowa.

Since then, the group has been busy writing its report to the State Board of Education. On Friday, the board heard a brief report on the task force’s status. Your faithful correspondent was there. Read the rest of this entry »

Marker to recognize location of H.A. Wallace’s first corn-breeding experiment

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2015 at 7:10 am
Henry A. Wallace in 1939, as secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Henry A. Wallace in 1939, as secretary of agriculture under Franklin D. Roosevelt. Credit: washington_area_spark via photopin cc

It’s hard to think of it now, but at the turn of the 20th century the area of Des Moines just southwest of Drake University was a largely open field. And on 10 acres at 38th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, where Grace United Methodist Church now stands, the roots of an agricultural and scientific revolution began to take hold.

The land once was the home of Henry C. Wallace, the founder, with his father, “Uncle Henry” Wallace, of the influential Wallace’s Farmer magazine. Henry C.’s son, Henry Agard Wallace, was 13 when the family moved to the location, according to the definitive Henry A. Wallace biography, “American Dreamer.”

Henry A., of course, went on to become secretary of agriculture, vice president and secretary of commerce. He also founded the hybrid seed corn company that today is the giant DuPont Pioneer in Johnston.

The seed empire’s embryo was formed on that Des Moines acreage. Now a local committee wants to recognize the location’s significance.

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ISU research fraud probe staked out faked results

In Uncategorized on January 27, 2014 at 1:05 pm
Lactobacillus casei

Lactobacillus casei, a strain of bacterium similar to what Michael Cho and colleagues have engineered to express proteins in the hope of sparking an immune response to HIV. AJC1 via photopin cc

The investigation into faked AIDS vaccine tests “followed an atypical path compared to most research misconduct cases,” an Iowa State University administrator wrote in a report last October.

The case “began with proof of research misconduct and only after considerable effort was the responsible party identified,” Charlotte Bronson, Iowa State University’s associate vice president for research and research integrity officer. Multiple researchers handled samples that later proved questionable. The research also hadn’t been published, at which point other scientists may have questioned the results.

The investigation, which led ISU scientist Dong-Pyou Han to resign, played out over nearly 10 months, starting a year ago this week. It actually began at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where Han and the leader of his lab group, Michael Cho, worked before Iowa State recruited Cho.

The investigation exonerated Cho and other members of his lab, but it doesn’t erase their embarrassment and chagrin at having pursued a dead lead – and at facing questions about the federal financing that supported the research.

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Roundup: Van Allen belts give electrons a jolt, a super scanner and a flood study dries up

In Uncategorized, University research on August 26, 2013 at 5:00 am
Van Allen belts with graph of electron acceleration

Recent observations by NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes show that a local kick of energy accelerates particles in the radiation belts surrounding Earth. The readings help explain how these particles reach energies of 99 percent the speed of light. Image Credit: G. Reeves/M. Henderson

I was in knee pants when I first heard about the Van Allen radiation belts, the donut-shaped rings of charged particles circling the Earth. In the movie (and later television series), “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” the belts catch fire, threatening the planet with global warming at hyperspeed – an impossible apocalypse.

The belts were new and little explored then, and one of my siblings told me they were named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist and a born and bred Iowan. In typical chip-on-the-shoulder Iowa fashion (“Hey, we’re more than corn! We have scientists!”), I’ve been proud of that discovery and its name ever since.

Van Allen’s research brought prestige and fame to U of I’s physics department and attracted some top scientists. And almost 60 years after the belts’ discovery, the university’s research still yields new insights.

The latest, published last month, shows the belts act as a potent particle accelerator, pushing electrons to nearly light speed.

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Could Branstad’s task force be a smokescreen to kill new science education standards?

In STEM, Uncategorized on August 20, 2013 at 4:06 am
Kids looking into microscopes and doing science

Photo credit: Atli Harðarson via photopin cc

Terry Branstad and his lieutenant, Kim Reynolds, have been pushing Iowa educators to do more to engage kids in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The idea is to have a well-trained workforce for all those high-tech jobs they want to bring to the state.

So far, they’ve accompanied the drive with action, starting the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council, handing out grants to scale-up activities, like FIRST LEGO League, that are designed to engage and attract students to technical fields, and holding annual summits of educators, administrators and business people.

Now, however, Branstad may face the biggest test of his resolve to make Iowans STEM leaders. His administration will have to decide if and how to adopt new science education standards – guidelines and goals that have prompted controversy elsewhere and could upset the conservative base of Branstad’s Republican Party.

For Iowans who support the standards, there have been reasons for despair – and perhaps for hope.

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Paper: Too much precaution stilts innovation, could perpetuate hunger

In Uncategorized on July 14, 2013 at 6:08 pm
Caution tape

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via photopin cc

I’m a pretty careful guy. I wear my seatbelt, floss my teeth, and look both ways before crossing the street. These precautions keep me safe and healthy.

Precautions are generally prudent, wise and forward-looking. We all want to be safe as possible. Why risk a bad outcome?

This is a simple way to consider the Precautionary Principle, an approach regulators often use to consider new technology. It’s best, they say, to be careful, lest unexpected, unwanted consequences crop up. What can be wrong with that?

Plenty, a new report from an Ames-based agricultural policy think tank says. Citing a long string of academic papers and case studies, it blasts misapplication of the Precautionary Principle for blocking technology like genetic engineering of grains while ignoring the costs: less food for a growing population, less income for rural farmers and greater environmental harm.

The principle is ambiguous, arbitrarily applied, and biased against new technologies, the paper says, and its consequences have been mostly negative. It ignores technology’s many benefits while focusing on its risks, no matter how small.

“The [principle] has been tried but has failed as a risk management strategy,” the authors say. “It is time to move beyond it” – a conclusion some environmentalists are sure to challenge.

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Roundup: Obsessive mice, strange quasicrystals and the “peckscreen” (with video)

In Uncategorized, University research on June 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm
High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory's powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source.

High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a
single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory’s powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source, with the beam parallel to the grain’s five-fold axis. Scientists can tell something about a material’s structure by the way it diffracts X-rays, with more powerful sources providing greater detail.

For this post, here’s a roundup of a few interesting Iowa science items over the last couple weeks, including obsessive-compulsive and obese mice, a new family of quasicrystals and pigeons pecking touchscreens. (In this case, shouldn’t they be called “peckscreens”?)

If you’re not in the fields associated with these projects, you may not have heard of them. As with a lot of other Iowa science, they didn’t get a lot of attention here at home.

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NASA flood study splashes down in Iowa

In Uncategorized, University research on June 11, 2013 at 1:17 am
NPOL radar south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds.

NASA’s NPOL radar in late May, located south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds. Copyright Brenda Dolan, Colorado State University.

If you want to study rainfall and floods to help improve satellite predictions of both, you couldn’t choose a better place this year than Iowa.

But Witold Krajewski and the researchers at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Flood Center didn’t know that last year, when they planned the project with NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center.

Krajewski, the flood center’s director, was persuading NASA to base its study in Iowa because the state has no mountains and sea coasts, which sometimes make it difficult for radar to distinguish rainfall from other things. “We do have floods,” Krajewski says he told the NASA collaborators. “I wasn’t wishing for a flood, but I was saying this when we were in a drought.”

NASA took a chance, despite 2012’s dry weather, and it’s paid off with a rush of data that’s expected to improve computer forecast models’ ability to predict flooding. The study’s observational phase wraps up this week, after employing some powerful radar and a small army of rain gauges and soil moisture sensors.

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Checking the nursery in a baby star boom

In Uncategorized, University research on June 9, 2013 at 1:28 pm
Infrared composite image of NGC 6334, the Cat's Paw Nebula.

In this composite infrared image of NGC 6334, pink shows gas and dust that make up the nebula, illuminated by bright high-mass stars. Many young stars appear yellow to red and most are found buried within the dark clouds extending from the upper left to the lower right. High-mass stars peek into view by carving out bubbles within the dense clouds of gas and dust that formed them. Click on the image for a high-resolution version. Credit: Sarah Willis, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; NASA/Jet propulsion Laboratory at Caltech/Spitzer Science Center; Cerro-Tololo Inter-American Observatory/National Optical Astronomical Observatory/Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy/National Science Foundation.

Scorpius is one of the few constellations I can regularly pick out in the summer sky. It often sits low on the southern horizon, with two bright stars marking its pincers and the red multiple star Antares highlighting its long body.

Scorpius, I learned last week, also is home to a star nursery. It’s difficult for amateurs to see, but Iowa State University graduate student Sarah Willis says it’s one of the Milky Way’s most active star-forming regions. In a paper delivered last week at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Indianapolis, Willis described this “star burst,” which is generating tens of thousands of new objects. Read the rest of this entry »

Riding a robot to a world title

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2013 at 9:30 pm
beta team_picture

Team Beta, from left: Tanvi Yenna, Sidd Somayajula, Jordan Burklund, Chase Schweitzer, Saketh Undurty, Daniel Miller, Annie Howard

In the tradition of Gabrielle Douglas and Shawn Johnson, West Des Moines has produced another world champion.

This team, however, isn’t receiving nearly the attention or accolades, although the competition was equally demanding and the culmination of years of work. It’s unlikely you’ll see these competitors on a Wheaties box, on “Dancing With The Stars” or making product endorsements.

But you may soon see them designing computers, teaching English or running a corporation. They crossed oceans – remotely ­– to reach the pinnacle.

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Snail episode illustrates science news’ slow crawl

In Uncategorized, University research on April 22, 2013 at 5:36 pm
snail dime

The tiny shells of the New Zealand mud snail. U.S. Geological Survey photo.

Since I posted it about a week ago, more than 2,000 visitors have read my report on the conservative criticism directed at University of Iowa professors Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon. Along with Jeffrey Boore at the University of California, Berkeley, they study the genetic makeup of two genetic lines of a New Zealand snail, one of which reproduces sexually and the other asexually.

Their goal is to elucidate the genetic foundation for sexual reproduction. But conservative websites, bloggers and pundits from Michelle Malkin to Fox News blasted the four-year, National Science Foundation grant as a waste of tax money for studying “snail sex.” The big number of hits (thanks in large part to Logsdon and Neiman spreading the word) indicates how interested people are in the intersection of science, government and politics.

What’s surprising is how big this was on conservative media, but how other press – even Iowa news operations – missed the story. Read the rest of this entry »

STEM goes for the state title

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2013 at 2:59 pm
Iowa Governor's STEM Advisory Council

Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council

There was a lot going on in downtown Des Moines on March 5. At the Wells Fargo Arena, the state boys basketball tournament was attracting droves of fans, screaming at the top of their lungs.

Next door, at the Veterans Memorial Community Choice Credit Union Convention Center (whew!), a couple hundred educators, industry representatives and state officials gathered for the second Iowa STEM Summit, organized by the Governor’s STEM Advisory Council.

There wasn’t screaming, but just as much cheering.

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Mary Murphy

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