EUREKA: SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS IN THEIR OWN WORDS
“Superconductors, the materials I’m studying, conduct electricity very efficiently as long as they’re kept very, very cold—between minus 452 and minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit. That requires expensive cooling systems that use liquid helium or liquid nitrogen. Superconducting magnets are used in everyday objects like MRI machines, but in order to be competitive for use in other applications, you have to improve the manufacturing process or create a material that doesn’t have to be kept quite so cold. If you can do that, projects like superconducting power lines, wind generators, and, on a bigger scale, fusion reactors—a type of nuclear reactor that wouldn’t create radioactive waste—might become affordable.
Right now, my lab is trying to figure out how different mechanical configurations will affect the performance of different superconductors. We’re looking at how cables and magnets are assembled, and measuring how forces that the superconductors experience affect their behavior. That’s important to understand, since most superconductors will carry less current if they are subjected to mechanical or electromagnetic forces.”
—Luisa Chiesa, assistant professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering
Motherhood and the Brain
“During pregnancy and childbirth, hundreds of hormonal changes occur in the mother. Many have long-lasting effects on the brain. My lab studies a hormone called prolactin that does a lot of things. It tells mammary glands to produce milk, and we’ve also found that it helps stimulate maternal care in rats.
We know that in small mammals, giving birth corresponds to a big boost in sensitivity in areas of the brain that react to prolactin—but we’re not certain if that’s caused by pregnancy and birth itself. To answer that question, we are about to examine the brains of rats using high-powered MRI machines. We’ll take female rats that have given birth, separate them from their young, and reintroduce them later, all while scanning their brains to measure areas of activity. We’ll then compare their response to females that have never given birth. We think that if we can better understand the neurobiology of the female brain, we can potentially address postpartum depression or other mood disorders caused by changing hormones.”
—Robert Bridges, professor of biomedical sciences, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
Healthy Cells for Diseased Tissue
“My lab studies a type of stem cell that can develop into almost any type of cell in the human body—bones, skin, muscle, nerve, etc. These ‘pluripotent’ stem cells have enormous potential to make healthy tissues that can be used to help treat nonhealing wounds like a diabetic foot ulcer. Until several years ago, pluripotent cells had to be harvested from human embryos that were no longer needed after in vitro fertilization. That method has been subject to intense political and legal debate.
In 2006, though, a Japanese team found a way to create pluripotent stem cells by ‘reprogramming’ adult cells back to an embryonic-like state. We use a similar technique in our lab. By manipulating the cell’s epigenome—the biochemical system that controls which genes are turned on or off at any given time—we can coax an adult cell to revert to an embryonic-like state. From there, you can develop it back into almost any cell type.
At the moment, we’re taking diseased skin cells from nonhealing diabetic foot ulcers and using this method to ‘reboot’ them. Once we’ve created a pluripotent stem cell from these nonhealing cells, we can grow healthier skin cells from it. It may then be possible to place these healthy, lab-made skin cells back onto the wound site to help the wound finally heal.&rdquo
—Jonathan Garlick, head of the Division of Cancer Biology and Tissue Engineering and director of the Center for Integrated Tissue Engineering, Tufts School of Dental Medicine