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Undergraduate Researchers Tackle Critical Problems

What if we could save lives with a more accurate early detection radar system for tornadoes such as the one that recently hit Springfield? Or what if we could help amputees walk more easily by giving them a better “feel” for their artificial limbs? Or replace our unsustainable oil supply with sustainable biofuel? Or cure a group of child-killing diseases known as lysosomal storage disorders. Are these just pipedreams? Not for 52 undergraduate engineering and science students doing summer research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In fact, these four ambitious projects were just a tiny fraction of the agenda on Friday, July 29, when all 52 students presented their posters and talked about their summer research. The session was covered by TV channels 40 and 22 in Springfield and by public radio station WFCR.

The students were from four different summer research programs at UMass Amherst: the College of Engineering Research Experience (REU) for Undergraduates; the Institute for Cellular Engineering (ICE) REU; the Engineering Research Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA) REU; and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Summer Research Internships Program in the Department of Biology.  

As part of the ICE partnership with the National Technical Institute for the Deaf to involve deaf and hard-of-hearing students in our REU program, two hearing-impaired students are doing research on campus this summer. All the undergrads work with prominent faculty researchers to help solve some of society’s most pressing needs.

Take the key research being done by Hantz Alvarez, Sean Lopes, and Michael Lorenzo for CASA. CASA is testing a revolutionary network of low-cost Doppler radars that, going below and beyond standard weather radars, can detect tornadoes at critical lower altitudes, where twisters form and fall to earth. CASA has deployed a test network of radars in the tornado belt of rural Oklahoma which has demonstrated that it can track twisters more accurately, and alert emergency personnel earlier, than was ever before possible. But the CASA test network has a critical problem.

“It keeps losing data from sensors in the field, due mostly to cows breaking the data wires running from the sensors to the logging station,” the three students explained the reason for their work with faculty mentor Michael Zink of CASA. The role of their project is to convert these transmissions from wired to wireless communication and thus make CASA’s data safe from cows and other agents of chaos in the field.

Mechanical engineering major Andrew Erwin (pictured) is working with haptic technology, or haptics, to help leg amputees use their sense of touch to orient themselves better to their artificial legs. Haptics is a tactile feedback technology that takes advantage of a user's sense of touch by applying forces, vibrations, and/or other stimulants.

“Many attempts have been made to create a prosthesis that incorporates haptic feedback,” explained Erwin, “but no true haptic feedback prosthesis has been commercialized. Methods to develop haptic feedback have been to use vibrating motors, voice coils, and heat to stimulate proprioception on the amputee’s residual limb.”

The goal of Erwin’s REU is to perfect a device developed in the lab of his faculty mentor, Frank Sup of the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department, by a previous undergraduate student. Erwin will be designing, fabricating, and experimenting with this new haptic feedback device.

Chemical engineering major Ross Kendall is also following up on previous REU research by one of last summer’s students, measuring many of the compounds involved in biomass pyrolysis, which converts grasses, wood, and the inedible parts of many other plants into sustainable biofuel, sometimes nicknamed “grassoline.”

“If we can understand how each compound interacts and the properties that it has through the catalyst we use, we could synthesize a better model of the fast reaction,” explained Kendall. His faculty mentor is biomass pyrolysis researcher Paul Dauenhauer of the Chemical Engineering Department.

Emily Schutsky, a biochemistry student in the HHMI summer research program, is working on a group of killer diseases known as lysosomal storage disorders, which affect mostly children, who often die at a young age, many within a few months or years of birth. Lysosomal storage disorders are caused by dysfunction of the lysosome, commonly referred to as the cell’s recycling center because it processes unwanted material into substances that the cell can utilize.

“My lab uses structural and biochemical techniques in order to elucidate the structure and function of lysosomal enzymes, which normally play integral roles in the breakdown of certain macromolecules in the cell,” says Schutsky. “A dysfunction in one or more of these lysosomal enzymes leads to an accumulation of their respective substrates in the lysosome, which become toxic to the cell, causing this group of genetically inherited diseases known as lysosomal storage disorders.”

Obviously, no problem seems too overwhelming for these enterprising young researchers. The students are funded through a variety of sources, including alumni donations, endowment funds, faculty REU supplements, and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (July 2011)