EUREKA: SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Meds for Chronic Stress
“When you’re really stressed out, your heart rate goes up, your breathing is more rapid, and there’s increased production of stress hormones. Normally, those hormones are only around for a short time. But if you’re experiencing chronic stress, they can stick around for a lot longer, or stay at elevated levels. That has a lot of negative long-term effects. It causes changes in the immune system, and makes you more susceptible to colds and flus. It can also trigger seizures in epileptic patients, contribute to cardiovascular disease, and maybe even kill brain cells, causing permanent damage.
Our lab is trying to understand the chemical pathways in the brain that lead to stress, and we’re examining ways to reduce the body’s physiological response to it. One of our recent studies looked at Finasteride, a drug that’s normally used to prevent hair loss. It blocks the activity of hormones that cause baldness. In mice, though, we found that it can also block the production of a brain chemical called THDOC, which speeds up the production of stress hormones. Blocking THDOC could blunt the body’s response to chronic stress.
Ultimately, Finasteride may have too many side effects to be a useful treatment. It changes the body’s response to too many other hormones. But it’s helping us understand which neural connections to focus on, and might help us develop a better solution in the future.”
—Jamie Maguire, assistant professor of neuroscience, Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences
Homing in on Crud
“The field I’m in, signal processing, involves taking information from a sensor and turning it into something useful like an organized data set. Sometimes, sensors give you limited info, so you have to sort of work backwards to flesh out details.
Right now, I’m working on a project with Linda Abriola, dean of the School of Engineering. We’re trying to find a way to create detailed maps of underground pollution plumes at former industrial and military sites. The pollutants can sink down deep and stick around for decades.
Cleaning them up is tough. You can’t just go dig them out and cart them off—you have to know exactly where the chemicals are in order to treat them. Problem is, that’s hard to do accurately. You can dig a few wells and sample where the chemicals are, but you get really sparse data.
So we create a model that predicts the spill’s shape and size from the amount of chemicals spilled, the type of soil, and other site-specific data. That only gives a ballpark view of the chemical plume, so I create computer programs that can combine the model with our limited sensor data to make it more accurate.
We’re testing this method with computer models of spills. It’s not ready for the field, but we’re hoping to provide a better picture of what’s in the ground to cleanup crews, or a regulator like the EPA.”
—Eric Miller, professor of electrical engineering
Simpler Water Purification
“Most water supplies have organic matter in them from decaying tree leaves, animal waste, things like that. It’s possible to filter out big particles, but to get the really small stuff, like microbes or organic molecules, you need to use oxidation—basically, pairing oxygen with other atoms. If you pair oxygen with harmful organic molecules like formaldehyde, or with molecules that make up the cell membranes of microbes, they break apart and their components turn into harmless gases like carbon dioxide. This takes a lot of energy, though, so you need a catalyst to set the process in motion.
My lab is looking at titanium dioxide, or TiO2. You encounter it every day: It’s what gives your toothpaste or your creamy salad dressing its white color. People eat tons of it. It’s also great at absorbing energy from the sun, which means it can oxidize a lot of the harmful stuff in drinking water.
I envision using TiO2 in a small-scale purification system that would look like a double-paned window. It’ll be open at the top and bottom, and filled with tiny “hairs” lined with TiO2. As water flows through, it would contact the TiO2, and be cleaned. Now, this wouldn’t catch everything, but it might prevent a lot of water-borne illnesses in small rural villages, single-family houses, places of that sort.”
—Mary Jane Shultz, professor of chemistry