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So Much Science

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SCIENCE! It’s all around us, particularly in the Valley where members of the Knowledge Corridor continue to bang out some heady innovation. Check out what they’ve been up to lately:

14 Patents for UMass: In 2015, the state’s flagship university in Amherst received 14 patents stemming from original scientific research of the faculty. The patents include: Geckskin, a super-strong adhesive modeled on the mechanics of gecko feet; microbial fuel cells; and flame-retardant polymers.

The Elephant Not in the Room: UMass researchers, wildlife ecologist Curt Griffin and postdoctoral researcher Scott Schlossberg, were part of a team that conducted the Great Elephant Census in Africa, a count that took place over two years and 15 countries. The findings were not good: there have been massive declines in the African savannah elephant population over the last decade. The current rate of species decline is 8 percent per year, primarily due to poaching. The population declined by 30 percent, or 144,000 animals, between 2007 and 2014.

Can I Bum a Charge? UMass professor Deepak Ganesan took the lead on development of a prototype radio that could help to extend the battery life of small mobile devices like Fitbits and smartwatches. It’s called Braidio, for “braid of radios,” and it’s a combination of Bluetooth and RFID tag technology, essentially allowing a smaller device to use the energy of a larger device to communicate.       The Bluetooth Braidio acts like a standard radio when the device is powered up, but turns into an RFID (the same tag technology that keeps people from swiping sweaters at the mall), offloading energy use to a device with a larger battery when supplies are low.

Welcome Aliens? One-sixth of the world is ripe for alien invasion, according to UMass research. Not the Martian kind of alien, though — the invasive species kind of aliens. “First, we analyzed threats of invasive species introduction and establishment globally,” said biogeographer Bethany Bradley. “Then, we took a look at national policies to see how prepared we are to combat these threats. Our results show some pretty clear vulnerabilities — high risk, but few policies to deal with invasion.”

Suspicions Confirmed: Results of a new UMass study prove what many skeptics have believed for years: You know those inexpensive cloth masks worn by people to reduce their exposure to air pollution? They’re probably not protecting you as much as you think, say researchers Richard Peltier and Kabindra Shakya.      Not all cloth masks provide a false sense of security while making you look like a paranoid weirdo; the commercial-grade N95 is well tested and does cut down on pollutants entering the body. But such masks are not readily available in most developing countries and cost $3 or $4 each. By contrast, the popular cloth masks cost 10-15 cents each and provide little protection. Researchers tested four masks: one pleated surgical type, two cloth, and one cone-shaped cloth with exhalation flaps. The mask with the exhaust valves worked best, removing 80-90 percent of synthetic particles and 57 percent of diesel exhaust. The plain cloth masks were only effective at catching larger particles (2.5 micrometers and up), about 39-65 percent of the standard particles inhaled through the mask. Some cloth masks only caught 15 percent of diesel exhaust.     The lesson: Don’t assume a cloth mask will protect you from pollutants, but wearing one is probably better than going without.

Upcoming Research: Clinical psychology researchers at UMass lead by professor Michael Constantino have launched a study that will scientifically match the needs of mental health patients to clinical providers’ strengths. The team will compare the effectiveness of a new,  scientifically based patient-provider match system for mental health treatment against the more traditional method known as “pragmatic case assignment,” which is based on provider availability, convenience or self-reported specialty. Research has found that providers differ significantly in their ability to help patients and they have different patterns of effectiveness. For example, some providers are reliably effective in treating depression and substance abuse, yet appear to struggle in other areas such as treating anxiety and social functioning.

What’s Up, Scientist? In the Amherst College chemistry department, researchers are doing science on: inorganic and hybrid material synthesis, high resolution molecular spectroscopy of jet-cooled species, protein folding, and the design and synthesis of self-assembling organic nanostructures.

Zebrafish Are Like Us, Only Better: At least in early cell development, that is. At Smith College, hundreds of zebrafish, each about the size of a gummy Swedish Fish, are contributing to a better understanding of how neural stem cells work in the spinal cord. “We are able to sever the spinal cord, and the absolutely amazing ability in zebrafish is they can regenerate,” said Michael Barresi, director of Smith’s Zebrafish Research Center, (unlike in humans where spinal damage is permanent). “So how do they do that?” Barresi plans to study how stem cells affect regeneration and also investigate how genetic defects can yield brain tumors.

Couples Who Fight Win: A study by Mount Holyoke College professor Katherine Haydon found that couples who actively discuss their relationship problems to a conclusion are more likely to stay together — and be happy about it — than couples who smooth over fights rather than settle them. In interviews with 100 couples, Haydon found that people whose partners tried to avoid talking about problems were more likely to sabotage attempts at reconciliation in the moments after conflict — and the partners of post-conflict saboteurs were less happy one year later. But in terms of long-term stability, resolving the conflict itself was more important than how partners behaved directly after difficult discussions. Couples who had better conflict resolution skills were twice as likely to remain together after a year than couples who did not—regardless of post-conflict sabotage behavior. “The take-home point is, get into it so both of you can get over it,” said Haydon.

News From 3.5 Billion Years Ago: Recent research by Mount Holyoke College astronomer Caleb Fassett suggests that all major volcanic activity on Mercury ceased 3.5 billion years ago due to planetary cooling and contracting. The study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, contrasted the Mercury example with the volcanic activity on Venus, Mars, and Earth. Volcanoes on Venus were active just a few hundred million years ago, a few million years ago on Mars, and continue to erupt today on Earth. Mercury’s volcanoes ran out of steam first because the planet’s mantle — the layer that sits right under the outer crust — was thinner than others. The resulting quick contraction of the planet led to a solidly sealed crust with no room for volcanoes.

Bee on a Diet: A Hampshire College alum’s student research on bees was recently published in the scientific journal PLOS One. The study looked at how some pollins collected from various plants helped to strengthen bees’ defenses against disease. Olivia Masi Biller hopes her work will help other scientists figure out plant species that can aid in bee health. Specifically, Biller’s research focused on the chemicals thymol and nicotine, which occur naturally in nectar, and their relationship to those parasites that may decrease bumblebee populations. “We found that the combination of nicotine and thymol, when fed to bees, decreased their parasite load more than did any other treatment,” she said. “It wasn’t statistically significant, but it lowered their parasite load by 30 percent compared to that of the control population.”

Contact Kristin Palpini at [email protected].