Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘Iowa State University’

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 »

This biotech discovery could help malnourished millions; plus a rare earth landmark and a distant dirty river

In University research on December 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm
Arabadopsis thaliana.

Arabadopsis thaliana. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

For many people, running low on protein is an easily corrected annoyance. For instance, new vegetarians who fail to replace the protein meat once provided can feel sluggish, weak and brain-fogged.

For those with the means, a cure is quick: a dose of some kind of protein, whether animal or vegetable.

Unfortunately, millions of children and adults in poorer countries don’t have the means. For them, prolonged protein deficiency can mean retardation, organ damage and death.

Two Iowa State University professors have a possible solution, thanks to an unusual gene found in a common plant. The question is whether the very countries that could most benefit from the high-protein grain the gene produces will permit it.

Elsewhere in this month’s roundup: Honoring a rare earths pioneer, and the University of Northern Iowa plans to study one of the world’s most polluted rivers – in one of the world’s most beautiful regions. Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Pitchman or teacher, Borg mussels and tell-all textbooks (with videos)

In STEM, University research on October 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The cover to John Cisna's book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via

The cover to John Cisna’s book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.

So much science, so little time.

The last few weeks have seen Iowans and Iowa universities garnering attention for so many controversial, strange and cool science-related ventures it’s hard to keep up. For example:

  • An Iowa high school science teacher’s experiment with a McDonald’s-only diet made him famous. Now health advocates say his presentations to students around the country are thinly veiled commercials for the fast-food chain.
  • University of Iowa engineers are coming out of their shells to flex their electronic mussels. (Ba-dump ching!)
  • And teachers are using digital textbooks to spy on their students’ performance – with an eye on improving it, an Iowa State University professor says.

Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Ebola shots, big computer plans and a sunny outcome for ISU

In Industry Research, University research on August 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm
A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an  Ebola virus virion, created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an Ebola virus virion, created by U.S. Centers for Disease Control microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

Iowans and Iowa institutions have played roles in nationally and internationally significant science and technology developments in the last week, but sometimes you have to know the background to understand their involvement.

For instance, there was big news on Friday when the British medical journal The Lancet published results from an Ebola vaccine trial. The medicine appears highly effective – 100 percent, statistically – against the deadly disease. An Iowa company had a hand in it.

Just the day before, President Barack Obama signed an executive order putting the United States on course to build the most powerful computer ever. What few have noticed is the work a top University of Iowa official put in to helped set the stage for the program.

Meanwhile, Iowa State University students in Texas were celebrating after winning a race of sun-powered cars. And they not only won – they dominated, taking home the trophy for the first time since the team began racing 25 years ago.

Read the rest of this entry »

Going dark: ISU abandoning the Fick Observatory

In University research on July 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm
The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU's Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU’s Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

For nearly 40 years, Iowa State University students and researchers made nightly drives west to a humble steel building in a wooded clearing southwest of Boone.

When skies were clear, they would roll back the roof and fire up a 24-inch reflector telescope and other, smaller instruments to focus on distant stars and galaxies.

But a visit to the Erwin W. Fick Observatory today finds no students or professors and little more than weeds. ISU has closed it and moved most of the telescopes and equipment to campus.

For the first time in decades, Iowa State has no major astronomical facility – and it’s unlikely to ever have one again.

Read the rest of this entry »

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?

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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