Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘University research’ Category

ISU AIDS research fraud: the denouement

In University research on July 2, 2015 at 8:38 am
Graphic of the HIV virus structure

In this schematic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the glycoproteins gp41 and gp120 are the base and tip, respectively, of the “spikes” protruding from the virus membrane.

Another quick post to note the final outcome of a case I wrote about frequently last year: Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admission that he faked AIDS research lab results.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys offers a wrapup of Han’s sentencing: nearly five years in prison and repayment of $7.2 million in fraudulently gained federal grants. The experts Leys consulted noted the penalty’s unusual stiffness and its ramifications. U.S. District Judge James Gritzner essentially put researchers on notice that academic misconduct has consequences. It remains to be seen whether the sentence actually inhibits other scientists from cheating, and we may never know if it does.

As I’ve written before, the scandal came to light not through a police or federal agency investigation, but through the self-checks built into research: Suspicions first were raised when other scientists failed to duplicate the ISU team’s results. That’s how the system is supposed to work. Maybe it doesn’t always succeed and some bad science and fraud slips through, but that’s true everywhere: How many crimes go undetected and unpunished every day – even crimes on this scale, with millions of dollars at stake?

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Roundup: Smartphone phobia, Alzheimer’s proteins and fracking water

In University research on May 24, 2015 at 8:20 am
Blackberry telling its owner "You cannot quit."

Photo Credit: me_chris via Compfight cc

For your Memorial Day weekend reading, here’s a review of some lesser-seen science news from Iowa universities over the last few weeks, including “addictive” cellphones, a hint at how to avoid Alzheimer’s disease and mineral water that could give you an unhealthy glow.

If you’re reading this on a mobile phone, you might want to pay special attention to the first item. Iowa State University researchers say their quiz can help determine whether you have an unhealthy attachment to your pocket brain. It could be an addiction. Or not.

Another ISU researcher’s study, meanwhile, has implications for the brain between your ears – the real one with hands-free access (unless, like me, you hold your head while thinking). The bottom line from his Alzheimer’s disease research may give you another reason to stop using your exercise bike as a clothesline.

And finally, a University of Iowa report suggests brackish underground water produced as a consequence of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for gas and oil may be more dangerous than previously thought.

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ISU star discoveries, from babies to seniors

In University research on February 2, 2015 at 7:25 am
Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for  the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

The “yellowballs” in the middle of this image from the Spitzer Space Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

Astrophysics is in the news at Iowa State University, with two publications out in the last week.

One addresses a puzzle posed by a nonscientist who was examining infrared-light images of Milky Way objects: What are those yellow balls? The answer has to do with stars’ early lives.

The second goes to the other end of the galactic timeline. With help from the planet-hunting Kepler satellite, researchers identified one of the Milky Way’s oldest stars and a collection of rocky planets orbiting it.

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Roughly speaking: How corn fields affect wind power production versus soybean fields

In University research on January 5, 2015 at 6:25 am
he corn beneath these MidAmerican Energy wind turbines near Blairsburg isn't yet quite as high as an elephant's eye. When the stalks reach maturity, their roughness can cut wind speed (and power production) at the turbine's hub, hundreds of feet up.

The corn beneath these MidAmerican Energy wind turbines near Blairsburg isn’t yet quite as high as an elephant’s eye. When the stalks reach maturity, their roughness can cut wind speed (and power production) at the turbine’s hub, hundreds of feet up. Credit: Todd Spink, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Charles Robinson rarely gives any thought to what he plants under the 3½ wind turbines (he shares one with a neighbor) on his farm near Greeley, in northeast Iowa’s Delaware County.

The giant windmills are a boon for him and dozens of other farmers in the state, providing an income stream from wind farm operators. With more than 3,000 turbines installed (PDF), Iowa is a national leader in renewable wind energy.

Like most Iowa farmers, Robinson plants a rotation of corn and soybeans. He never thought whether it was one or the other was relevant for the power the turbines produce. “The blades are so high, it wouldn’t bother anything,” he told me last week.

But Brian Vanderwende, a doctoral student in atmospheric and oceanic sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his adviser, Julie Lundquist, wondered: How do the crops planted below turbines influence the wind that spins their blades?

Last month, Vanderwende presented the surprising answer at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting in San Francisco.

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Roundup, with video: Glycerin glue, prairie STRIPS and crop-generated CO2

In Industry Research, University research on December 15, 2014 at 6:49 am
A NASA video of a computer carbon dioxide model colors the gas as it's released and circulated around the planet.

A screenshot from a NASA video visualizing a simulation of a year’s worth of carbon dioxide emissions. Image from NASA at

For most of the Midwest, the crops are in, whether corn, soybeans, oats or other commodities. Perhaps it’s a good time for a harvest of recent agriculture-related research developments to round out the year.

One has to do with new uses for crops and the byproducts of converting them into fuels. It could mean an inexpensive new adhesive.

Meanwhile, Iowa-based technology to make mass-scale commodity production more sustainable is getting national attention and praise.

And finally, there’s research showing that widespread crop production is having an out-sized influence on the carbon cycle.

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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. Read the rest of this entry »

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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Materials roundup: disappearing antennae, metal molding, tiny cubes and pond scum

In University research on May 13, 2014 at 6:43 am


As I was messing around with arctic research, zombie tractors and NGSS – and doing my taxes – there was a burst of materials science news out of Iowa State University and its on-campus Department of Energy facility, the Ames Laboratory.

It’s all about putting stuff together in new ways for new purposes – whether it’s electronics that (maybe) melt in your mouth, a machine that spits out metal objects, minuscule building blocks that line up just right, or tiny, powerful catalysts to create diesel from relatives of common pond scum. (That last bit isn’t a reference to your Uncle Purvis, the one who lives in that crappy mobile home.)

Almost all the work is fundamental, but some projects are easier to grasp and have more immediate applications than others.

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A zombie tractor and ISU plant research’s new direction

In University research on April 14, 2014 at 6:30 am
The automated phenotyping robot, or as I call it, the zombie garden tractor: RTK-GPS, autosteer system, multiple 3-D digital camera.

The automated phenotyping robot (zombie garden tractor): RTK-GPS, autosteer system, multiple 3-D digital camera. (From a Patrick Schnable presentation)

The zombie garden tractor gets your attention.

The driverless machine can move through rows of sorghum, going for hours with only a GPS navigation brain to guide it. High-tech cameras, meanwhile, take three-dimensional photos of every sorghum plant it passes – a kind of Google Street View for fields.

More importantly, the unmanned machine represents Iowa State University’s push into phenomics, a research frontier that promises to reshape the way we grow the food and substances we count on.

Just as genomics researchers aim to understand a plant’s total genetic makeup – every letter in the long book of its DNA – and how it influences plant development, phenomics aims to understand plant phenotypes in similar depth.

A phenotype is the way an organism grows, appears and performs, given its genetic makeup, the environment it lives in, and how the two interact.

“What’s cool – and this is what makes it most interesting to me – is the interaction between genetics and environment,” said Patrick Schnable, an ISU distinguished professor of genetics.

Schnable leads ISU’s drive into phenomics research. He took over as director of the Plant Sciences Institute (PSI) in February with the charge to bring it (and the university) to international prominence in one or more research areas.

He’s targeting phenomics, knowing the field is ripe for discovery. Read the rest of this entry »

Cold facts: UNI-led effort probes Arctic sustainability

In University research on March 10, 2014 at 10:07 am
UNI Geography Professor Andrey Petrov, in furry hat and gloves, holds a piece of Lake Baikal ice in front of his face  during his most recent Siberian visit.

UNI Professor Andrey Petrov hold a piece of Lake Baikal during his recent Siberian visit. Credit: Andrey Petrov.

When I contacted Andrey Petrov a week ago, he was returning from the Irkutsk region of Siberia.

The University of Northern Iowa geography professor makes frequent visits to Siberia and other similarly remote – and cold – regions, including Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern Russia. This time he was interviewing residents of villages and towns near Lake Baikal about the region’s reindustrialization. In the last century the area had seen an inflow of industry that went bust. Now it’s rising again, thanks to the search for oil.

“Unfortunately, it’s warmer there than here,” Petrov said from Cedar Falls on Monday, when the thermometer was scraping to get above zero Fahrenheit. “It was pretty sunny there and it was probably 20s. … For them it’s warmer than usual.”

The extreme conditions and isolation are some of the reasons Petrov, a native Russian, returns to places like Irkutsk and Yellowknife. “I’m fascinated with the resilience of people living in difficult conditions,” he says, but the challenges facing Arctic communities go beyond the weather and distance.

Those challenges are the subject of a new project Petrov directs. Headquartered at UNI, the five-year program, supported with nearly $750,000 of National Science Foundation money, will knit researchers from multiple institutions around the globe’s northern regions. Their goal: understanding Arctic communities and how they can enhance their development, health and well being while preserving societies and ecosystems.

It’s a big job. Five years won’t be enough, Petrov says. Read the rest of this entry »

Documents hint at rationale for ISU fraud

In University research on January 21, 2014 at 2:11 pm
Graphic of the HIV virus structure

In this schematic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the glycoproteins gp41 and gp120 are the base and tip, respectively, of the “spikes” protruding from the membrane. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The saga of Dong-Pyou Han and his research misconduct continues.

Late last week, Iowa State University responded to my request for a report the university sent to the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The documents include Han’s signed admission of how he spiked blood samples to make it appear rabbits developed antibodies to HIV, the AIDS virus.

Michael Cho, the project’s lead researcher, reported the suspected misconduct one year ago this week, and after an investigation stretching into August, pegged Han as the likely culprit. He resigned in October.

Han is the only researcher suspected in the fraud.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys also received the documents – including emails concerning the investigation, which I did not request – and wrote a piece Thursday night. Another piece on Friday quotes Arthur Caplan, the go-to source when journalists need a comment on bioethics.

Leys’ initial story covers Han’s grammatically clumsy mea culpa but omits many details – including what appears to be his rationale for the whole fraud.

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Iowa State vaccine research scandal: an update

In University research on January 6, 2014 at 1:01 pm

Office of Research Integrity logoAt the time I wrote my last entry, about Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admitted research misconduct, I had an email seeking additional information out to ISU spokesman John McCarroll.

I wasn’t sure how soon McCarroll would get back to me, given the skeleton staff ISU maintains during semester break, so I went ahead with the post, which raised questions about what kind of a deal Han may have reached to settle charges that he tampered with research for an AIDS vaccine.

McCarroll’s response, just before New Year’s Day, sheds some light on those questions – but not much.

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ISU scandal a science failure? Not so much

In University research on December 31, 2013 at 1:38 pm

In this blog, I usually highlight Iowa science developments that don’t get a lot of attention. If something is splashed across the headlines, I’ll generally let it go or say little about it. I want to concentrate on things most of the press misses.

What happened at Iowa State University just before Christmas, however, is too big and unusual to let pass: A federal agency announced sanctions against a professor for falsifying research.

The nature of the case and what it gained the offender are unusual. Since the offiense was revealed, bloggers and commentators also have cited it to support their views on everything from vaccinations to climate change.

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Selected shorts: crappy typing pays off, bone regrowth, and babies grasp food and words

In University research on December 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm
Some illegible scribbles from Tom O'Donnell's reporter's notebook.

A typical selection from my reporter’s notebook. Can you make out any of it?

Anyone who’s seen my handwriting would have a hard time mistaking it for someone else’s. The loops and slashes that fill my reporter’s notebooks are unmistakably mine, even if they’re indecipherable to most people. (Fortunately, I can read them… mostly.)

My typing, of course, is easily legible – even though my typing is pretty terrible. I’m able to erase the typos, blank spaces, merged words and other errors.

Now it turns out that my crappy typing is just as recognizable as my crappy handwriting. In fact, we each have a characteristic typing pattern, and some Iowa State University computer researchers are capitalizing on that to strengthen information security.

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Exoplanets from a somewhat different angle

In University research on October 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm
TILT TILT pinball machine

Photo credit: via photopin cc

It’s often how the best scientific discoveries start: When a scientist says, “Well, that’s weird.”

That was pretty much Steve Kawaler’s reaction when he saw data from Kepler-56, one of dozens of stars NASA’s Kepler space telescope flagged as likely to have orbiting planets, known as exoplanets.

Kawaler, an Iowa State University professor of physics and astronomy, is part of a committee overseeing Kepler’s asteroseismic (no, that’s not a typo) research. Asteroseismology is a lot like Earth-bound seismology, Kawaler says. “It’s the same mathematics, the same physics” describing wave propagation and response to conditions like pressure.

But with stars 3,000 light-years away, as Kepler-56 is, scientists can’t plant monitors on the surface to detect and measure waves, like they do here. Instead, astronomers watch for subtle oscillations in light from the star. The frequency and magnitude of those oscillations, combined with readings from instruments like spectrometers, can tell astronomers a lot, including the radius, mass and age of a star and how fast it rotates.

Asteroseismology and other data seemed to tell Kawaler and others in an international team something about Kepler-56 and its planets that they had never seen before.

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