Bright and Early
by Anna McEntire
Record number of young USU researchers receive NSF CAREER awards.
Forecasting Climate Change Impacts
Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences
Reading, writing and arithmetic are known as the traditional skills developed in a middle school classroom, but just as important may be the ability to argue. USU NSF CAREER researcher Brian Belland has developed the Connection Log, a powerful computer technology that takes students through the construction of an argument—from determining the central problem to finding relevant evidence and synthesizing information to construct a sound argument. Students work through the program and can compare their work to arguments built by peers. The Connection Log is being tested and optimized among 325 middle school students in three districts in Utah and Idaho.
Chemistry and Biochemistry
To understand biology, you need to understand its structure. CAREER award recipient Sean Johnson harnesses the power of X-ray crystallography to make the underlying structures of biological processes crystal clear. X-ray crystallography is the workhorse for determining protein structures. Johnson is studying a specific ribonucleic acid (RNA) protein called the “Mtr4” helicase, an enzyme that monitors the quality of RNA molecules. Like a zipper on a coat, Mtr4 separates RNA strands to prepare them for destruction. The process initiated by Mtr4 is critical to biological cell function and vitality.
Probing the Depths
Current efforts to predict earthquakes are similar to what weather forecasting was like in the 19th century. Earthquakes, mountain-building and other effects of continental tectonics depend on how rocks flow miles beneath our feet, but scientists don’t yet have the tools to reach into the Earth’s depths and measure properties needed to understand these processes. NSF CAREER researcher Tony Lowry is developing new geophysical tools to remotely sense rock composition, temperature and water flux to help answer these kinds of questions. The research Lowry will be pursuing could shed new light on the earthquake cycle and the evolution of stress on faults, and why mountain chains form where they do.
Seeing the Big Picture
A macroecologist, NSF CAREER researcher Ethan White looks at “the big picture,” investigating how climate change, invasive species and other important factors impact ecological systems at continental to global scales. Scientists have access to a large number of accurate, macroecological datasets from sources all over the world but have no way of consolidating this vast ocean of data. Reaching beyond biology, White proposes an interdisciplinary approach to predict major ecological patterns from diverse datasets. White’s plan is to develop Web-based tools to automate complicated and cumbersome database tasks and allow ecologists to rapidly determine whether or not certain patterns are evident at global scales.
Networking the Body
Electrical & Computer Engineering
Thanks to NSF CAREER researcher Chris Winstead, wireless networks may soon be used to cure blindness and other neural injuries. Using low-energy electronics for bio-implantable devices, Winstead is working to create artificial communication networks that can bypass damaged neural circuits in the body. Winstead’s research would allow an implanted network to be inserted in the body and directly stimulate the brain’s visual cortex. The network would transmit neural signals across the injury site at a very low power, similar to a pacemaker. Winstead is working to make this technology robust against outside stimuli, such as metal detectors and cell phone towers, while keeping it very low power, minimizing excess heat against body tissue.