Science, Stimulated: 7 Stimulus-Funded Research Projects [Slide Show]
From building robotic bees to studying real mosquitoes, these researchers were able to pursue their scientific dreams thanks to being banked by 2009 economic recovery act funding
Credits: THE HARVARD SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES
STIMULATING STUDY OF THE STIMULUS One researcher figured that some of the Recovery Act money should go studying the impact of the influx itself. Amy Pienta, an associate research scientist at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is heading up an NSF-funded project to evaluate the ramifications of the stimulus on social science research.
Her previous research has focused on what kind of research ends up exerting the biggest influence. And with the one-year award of $199,951, she and her team will start "laying the foundation to survey ARRA funding" to later assess whether the funding infusion helped boost research, and how it might have changed the field. And such data is in high demand: "We are always trying to understand how valuable research data are," she says. New approaches to analysis will attempt to merge quantifiable data based on paper publications, citations and grants with more nuanced information from interviews and less traditional types of communication, such as blogs. "We're developing the initial instrument for social science," Pienta says, but she notes that they hope to be able to expand to assess the impact of stimulus funds on the physical sciences, as well. AMY PIENTA
GOING VIRAL If you were an unknown species of virus, where would you hide? That is the question Mark Young, a professor of molecular biosciences at Montana State University in Bozeman, has been occupying himself with lately. He is currently stalking new strains in remote hot springs in the Andes.
Although much of the world's megafauna has been classified, most of the smaller life-forms are still living in scientific obscurity. "We are just at the very beginning stages of understanding biodiversity on this planet," Young says. "This is just one little step." "Little" in some respects—the viruses he is currently studying infect archaea, which are single-celled organisms similar to bacteria. But big in others—he and his group have already turned up entirely new families of viruses that are "completely unrelated to previously known viruses."
His $1.3-million ARRA grant will propel his and his team's virus-finding mission well into 2014. "It's very difficult to get finances to do fundamental evolutionary biology," Young says. Without the stimulus, "it would be very difficult to get this magnitude of a project funded." WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/WINGCHI
HOMING IN ON HORMONE REGULATION "A lot is known about estrogen," says Melinda Wilson, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, but "not nearly as much is known about how [it] is regulated."
She and her team are using a three-year, $591,929 NSF award to develop animal models that will help explain how estrogen receptors work in the brain over a complete life span. "These mechanisms have been known for quite awhile to regulate breast cancer," she notes, but "people hadn't looked [at them] in the brain." The team joins researchers from the established field of endocrinology with those in the growing field of epigenetics.
"We might be able to apply that into an adult brain in the case of aging or neurodegeneration," she says. The team already published a study on some of their early findings this year in the journal Endrocrinology. Much of their award has gone to supporting graduate and undergraduate students who work in the lab. ISTOCKPHOTO/THEASIS
DIGGING UP HUMANS' RESPONSE TO CLIMATE With forecasts of sea-level rises and changing weather patterns, people today have been forewarned about some likely ramifications of climate change. But those living thousands of years ago, during the Holocene climatic optimum, could not have known what lay ahead of them and how their land—and lives—would be changing.
Ezra Zubrow, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and an international team of researchers are trying to paint a picture of how these ancient humans coped with changing climes and what impact the shifts had on their cultures. With the help of $845,796 in stimulus award money from the NSF, he has enlisted the help of geologists, geochemists, paleoecologists, anthropologists and others to study the environmental, geographic and social changes of the past (through core samples and ancient settlements in Kamchatka in Russia's far east)—in hopes of better preparing for ones in the future. As Zubrow points out, despite more sophisticated prediction and technology overall, many of the world's people have residences and lifestyles that are similarly vulnerable to climactic shifts.
For those who question spending U.S. stimulus money abroad, Zubrow reiterates a point he often tells his students: Such research is "good for science, good for the economy, good for the government—and good for the international reputation of the United States." DUSTIN KEELER Advertisement
BUZZING ROBOTIC BEEHIVES Busier than robotic dogs, or even so-called robotic vacuums, a colony of robotic bees is being built at Harvard University thanks to a $9.3-million grant from the stimulus bill. The goal? No honey-making here, but the results might be even sweeter—scientifically speaking. The team, led by Robert Wood, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Harvard's Microrobotics Laboratory, aims to create "a colony of autonomous, microscale flapping-wing robots," the researchers explained in an e-mail.
Their self-proclaimed "lofty goal" involves engineering and computing problems from flight dynamics to electronic brains and social interactions. Although their materials and techniques are decidedly man-made, "nature is our inspiration," they noted.
In the long run, the researchers hope that the project will create more than just a hive of "robobees" as they are known. They propose that the problems that they will have to solve along the way will add insight to everything from search-and-rescue missions to traffic monitoring.
The project will continue buzzing along until mid-2014, and the research is already being taken into local high school classrooms to "inspire students to go into engineering and computer science." THE HARVARD SCHOOL OF ENGINEERING AND APPLIED SCIENCES
USING LASERS TO SEE THE FOREST--AND THE TREES Lasers can be used for all sorts of scientific pursuits, from blasting cancers to playing with plasma physics. But one team of stimulus-backed researchers, led by Qinghua Guo, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced, is putting them to work to measure Earth's surface dynamics.
By doing a series of flyovers on specially equipped planes, Guo's team can obtain three-dimensional maps of forests, hills, snow and rivers. Lasers pulse downward at a high frequency and carefully calibrated equipment measures the reflected beams to produce a "very high precision" image, Guo says. The resulting maps are so hyperdetailed, he notes, that "you can look at individual trees."
The data-rich maps can help hydrologists, geomorphologists and others to better understand the physical dynamics in their fields. Nuances of erosion, vegetation change and stream bank movement are often missed in course measurements of other aerial mapping (such as the standard used by the U.S. Geological Survey, which has a resolution of about 30 meters, Guo notes). But the information will not just be squirreled away for specialists. "We're going to make the data available to the broader Earth science community as well as to the public," Guo says. The NSF grant of $935,457 was awarded last September and the team—with assistance from the NSF's National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping—is preparing to make their first flights next month. QINGHUA GUO
DEMYSTIFYING MALARIA IN A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT Cumbersome climate change models often produce chunky intel about averages and means, which can help scientists get a handle on trends over time. But when trying to plan for specific animal or pathogen behavior in the short-term, some researchers require more detailed data.
Matthew Thomas, a professor at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics and the Department of Entomology at The Pennsylvania State University, is studying the impact of climate change on malaria and dengue fever transmission. "Mosquitoes don't experience mean monthly temperatures," he says. "They're experiencing what's happening
One of the earliest ARRA-funded projects to start, having kicked off in June 2009, Thomas's project will help to resolve some of this lack of resolution, drilling down to hourly temperature predictions in specific locations. He and his lab aim to marry that information with new findings about mosquito and malaria biology. Real-time temperatures affect everything from mosquito metabolism (which influences how often they are inclined to bite us for a blood meal) to the growth rate of the malaria parasite, "but they do so in a very nonlinear way," Thomas says. "So, small changes in temperature can have a very big impact on biology and physiology." MATTHEW THOMAS Advertisement