Posts Tagged ‘NCSU’
Matt Parker, a N.C. State University associate professor, sounded almost nostalgic when he talked about the more than 700 tornadoes that were reported roaring across the South, Southeast and Midwest in April, about four times as many tornadoes as hit the U.S. during an average April.
Parker is an atmospheric scientist and has studied how tornadoes develop to help improve weather forecasts.
“This was a historic year,” Parker told science writers and educators during a Sept. 27 talk at Sigma Xi in Research Triangle Park.
A spring storm season like this year’s doesn’t come around often. That’s a good thing, considering the loss of life and the devastating destruction the tornadoes wrought.
April 2011 ranks as the most active tornado month on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. A storm system that moved across Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia in mid-April killed 43 people, 22 of them in North Carolina. One of the tornadoes it spawned April 16 cut a 180-foot-long track through suburban Wake County, Parker said.
A second storm system at the end of the month was even deadlier. It caused a super outbreak of tornadoes in the South that killed more than 300 people in four days, according to NOAA.
A month later, on May 22, a powerful tornado hit Joplin, Mo., killing 157 people. According to NOAA, the Joplin tornado packed winds of more than 200 miles per hour, it was nearly a mile wide and its track lasted 6 miles.
What about climate change? Could that be a cause for the historic outbreak of tornadoes this year?
“We really don’t know,” Parker said.
A tornado is a mere blip in a 100-year data set that tracks changes in the climate, he said. The increase in the number of reported tornadoes, he added, is likely due to better forecasting and warning systems, a higher population density and the increase in the number of storm chasers.
What was devastating and deadly to the people who lived in the tornados’ way could have provided scientists like Parker with a bevy of otherwise hard-to-come-by data.
In May and June of 2009 and 2010, Parker and his team of students were among about 100 scientists who tracked storms with radar, measured wind speeds, sent up weather balloons and fed the information to a database. The study, called VORTEX2, was one of the largest field studies to determine the origin of tornadoes and a follow-on to a more limited tornado hunt in 1994 and 1995. The teams had about $10 million worth of equipment at hand.
April 2011 was never part of VORTEX2′s data collection phase.
Working with tornadoes is often frustrating, Parker acknowledged. May and June 2009 were two very uneventful months – only two storm systems that generated tornadoes.
“Two thousand ten was much better,” Parker said. “On some days we had the pick of tornadoes.”
About 40 storm systems with the potential to generate a tornado, also known as super cells, and about 20 tornadoes occurred in May and June 2010, he said.
A super cell starts similarly to an ordinary thunderstorm. Warm, moist air rises amidst cooler surroundings and the moisture condensates. In an ordinary thunderstorm, the precipitation creates a cool downdraft that cuts off the warm, moist updraft within about 30 to 45 minutes. The storm dissipates.
A super cell thunderstorm develops when strong upper-level winds allow the warm, moist updraft to continue for up to six hours. The stage is set for the downdraft and the updraft to begin rotating.
But the process that produces a tornado in a super cell thunderstorm is not well understood, Parker said.
For example, strong super cells are not associated with tornadoes, he said. Storms with similar structures may differ in tornado production. And the relationship between near-ground wind fields and structural damage isn’t clear either.
Scientists hope that once the VORTEX2 data is crunched and analyzed and published, some of the questions will be answered, Parker said. Especially head-to-head comparisons of data collected from storms that generated tornadoes and storms that didn’t might be fruitful.
Goals of the VORTEX2 study are to extend the average lead time for tornado warnings from about 13 minutes currently to at least 35 minutes and reduce the false alarm rate, which is currently at about 70 percent.
William “Randy” Woodson has been frank about his intentions to shake things up since he moved halfway across the country from Indiana’s Purdue University to become N.C. State University’s chancellor last year.
More than doubling NCSU’s endowment to about $1 billion. Recruiting more tenure-track faculty to better serve a student population that has grown rapidly in the past decade. Woodson has repeatedly put these two priorities on the top of his to-do list. He did so again when he spoke Sept. 20 at the Triangle Area Research Directors Council in Research Triangle Park.
But he went further, telling TARDC members how another budget cut – NCSU lost about $80 million, or 15 percent, in the current school year – has made strategic restructuring necessary. To bolster NCSU’s research budget and educate top-notch graduates in science, technology, engineering and math, the NCSU model has to change, he said.
“Our goal shouldn’t be to be the biggest,” Woodson said. “We’ve got to be an engine for the economy of the state.”
The 15 percent budget cut – the largest in three years of state revenue shortfalls – prompted NCSU to pool resources rather than cut across the board. Courses were cut, administrative staff laid off, programs consolidated. NCSU lost about 780 employees, Woodson said.
Tuition increased. Although NCSU received about 20,000 application for about 4,000 student spots this year, Woodson said he knows he’s not popular among students fearful of further increases. But the adjustments were necessary.
“We didn’t ask for the model to be changed,” he said.
To further bolster revenue and research, NCSU is stepping up its efforts of marketing technologies developed in its labs and is getting more involved in helping the state and the region recruit companies. (More on NCSU’s economic development efforts here.)
In 2010, NCSU spun off four companies and took in $5.1 million in royalties, Woodson said. He would like to see the number of spinoffs double to about eight or 10 a year, he added.
To recruit more tenure-track faculty – graduate enrollment has increased nearly 50 percent in the past 10 years while new faculty enrollment rose only 2 percent during the same period – Woodson said NCSU established a faculty recruitment program and funded it with $5 million.
An issue he’s also burning to address: NCSU’s ability to raise salaries to prevent faculty from being raided.
Currently, a raise requires a letter from another university offering a faculty member a job with a higher salary. By that time, the faculty member has very likely already decided to leave and NCSU offering a pay raise comes too late, Woodson said.
A month later than originally planned, researchers from Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, RTI International and N.C. State University gathered Monday at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park to talk about the benefits of federally funded research.
The NIEHS, one of 21 institutes under the National Institutes of Health and the only one outside Bethesda, Md., had planned the roundtable discussion in July, because support for research is under fundamental review. But then the date coincided with the debate that a month ago was raging in Congress over raising the national debt ceiling.
For roundtable member David Price, a Democratic Congressman who has represented North Carolina’s Research Triangle since 1987, the debt ceiling debate signaled the sentiment shift in Washington, D.C. that also affects research funding.
“There’s nothing in the world that comes close to the NIH’s 100-year history, though other countries aspire,” Price said, talking about the role the NIH have played in supporting health-related research at universities and institutes nationwide with federal tax dollars.
Federal funding for research in disciplines from medicine to engineering has been the foundation onto which Research Triangle Park and its more than 40,000 jobs were built over the past 50 years.
But, Price said, “things we might have taken for granted, parts of the RTP success story, may have to be redefined.”
In 2009, UNC-CH, Duke, NCSU and RTI spent about $2.5 billion on research, according to the latest figures from the National Science Foundation and RTI’s 2009 annual report. Federal tax dollars made up more than two-thirds of the money spent.
The expenditures represented nearly 2.9 percent of the Research Triangle’s gross product that year. In 2009, the metropolitan areas surrounding Raleigh and Durham generated services and goods worth about $86.9 billion, according to figures of the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Sponsored research is a formidable economic engine in the Research Triangle, paying salaries and creating jobs when startup companies are formed around technologies that were developed at area universities or research institutes. (More on sponsored research in the Research Triangle here and here.)
NIEHS injects about $200 million in federal tax dollars into the local economy per year, said Linda Birnbaum, NIEHS director and member of the roundtable discussion. About 1,400 employees work on the sprawling NIEHS campus in RTP.
“We’re really making an impact, not only economically, but scientifically,” Birnbaum said.
As proof, NIEHS had invited researchers from RTI, NCSU, UNC-CH and Duke to participate in the roundtable discussion. NIEHS has awarded grants to researchers at the three universities anchoring RTP and the research institute that started operations shortly after RTP was established in 1958.
Dr. John Hollingsworth, an associate professor of medicine at Duke, receives funding from the NIEHS to study whether environmental pollutants such as diesel exhaust and ozone cause genetic changes that affect how the immune system works.
His research is tracking the interaction of genetic and environmental factors behind inflammatory diseases such as asthma, especially during vulnerable periods like pregnancy. About 8 percent of the U.S. population suffers from asthma, Hollingsworth said, and his research could lead to new, innovative therapies.
Heather Patisaul, an assistant biology professor at NCSU, studies the effects of hormone-like substances on the developing brain. Among the environmental estrogens she’s tracking are genistein, which is in soy-based foods including soy baby formula, and bisphenol A, a chemical that is in metal food can linings and many plastic containers.
Genistein and BPA are suspected to impair fertility and trigger early puberty in girls.
At RTI, researcher have received NIEHS grants to study air quality inside and outside of homes and diseases associated with poor air quality, said Charles Rhodes, a senior fellow at RTI.
Rhodes brought a sensor that RTI developed to run the air quality tests. Similar sensors will be used in a study that is scheduled to start next year in areas devastated by hurricane Katrina six years ago. The sensors will measure the air quality in trailers the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided residents whom Katrina rendered homeless. The trailers have been called “toxic tin cans,” for high formaldehyde levels in the air inside and health problems that have plagued many who have lived in the temporary housing.
UNC has worked with the NIEHS for a long time, training more than 500 researchers, looking for ways to determine susceptibility to environmental diseases, tracking how carcinogens and toxicants make people sick and how environmental toxins interact with human genes.
In the past decade, UNC has received about $112 million in research funding from the NIEHS, said James Swenberg, a UNC professor in environmental sciences and engineering.
Swenberg said he’s been trekking to Washington for 25 years to talk to federal lawmakers and lobby for research funding. In the past, lawmakers were generally eager to learn regardless of their politics.
“Research had never been a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s not going to be the same this time around. That’s really sad.
Republicans, especially in the House, and candidates running for President in next year’s election are “catering to extreme antigovernment views,” Price said. “We have to leave no doubt, that we’re good stewards of our tax dollars and that [research funding] is not some academic pork barrel.”
The N.C. Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park announced today that it will spend $2.5 million to help generate marine biotech jobs in the eastern part of the state.
The four-year grant will establish a center of innovation – the fourth in the state – to develop commercial products from North Carolina’s marine life with the help of biotech tools.
Coastal marine labs are doing research that could be applied in several areas, such as health, energy, aquatic foods and diagnostics, according to John Chaffee, director of the biotech center’s eastern office, which is the fiscal agent for the marine biotech consortium.
The biotech center already spent $100,000 to plan for the marine biotech center of innovation or MBCI. This first grant was used to develop a business plan. With the new award, the MBCI must meet business milestones and ultimately establish itself as an independent, self-sustaining entity. The first milestone will be the hiring of an executive director, who will lead the center in identifying and prioritizing key market sectors, said Chaffee.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the UNC-CH Institute for Marine Science, N.C. State University’s Center for Marine Science and Technology and the Duke Marine Lab helped during the planning phase. East Carolina University technology transfer staff assisted with new innovation center’s business plan.
In a lab on N.C. State University’s Centennial Campus, engineers are probing the potential of the Chevrolet Volt’s T-shaped battery once it no longer powers General Motor’s plug-in hybrid electric car.
The research is based on an agreement GM and the ABB Group signed three months before the first Chevy Volt rolled off the lot, which was in December. The carmaker and the Swiss-based engineering firm are considering options that range from energy storage to powering bicycles.
ABB provides power and automation technologies to utilities and industrial customers worldwide. The firm concentrates on renewable energy and supplies wind and solar energy generators with electrical equipment and services. Its North American headquarters is in Cary and the R&D projects with the Chevy Volt batteries are conducted in the ABB lab on Centennial Campus. ABB employs about 500 in the Research Triangle area and 1,500 in North Carolina.
A first step in the research is combining a Chevy Volt battery with a commercially available ABB inverter, a device that exchanges direct current from the battery into alternating current used to transmit electricity on the grid.
The next step is hooking up several of the batteries to the inverter, said Sandeep Bala, an R&D engineer in the ABB lab.
“There’s a lot of work to do yet,” Bala said during a tour of the lab. “What the cost is, what the business case is.”
The learning curve will be steep, Pablo Valencia, the senior manager GM has assigned to the project, agreed. It’s not even known when it’s worth reconfiguring the battery, Valencia said.
The T-shaped lithium-ion battery consists of several cells and is built into the bottom of the Chevy Volt’s passenger cabin, with the cross bar being located under the back seat. The battery can power the car for about 40 miles in the city and has to be recharged. That’s the plug-in electric portion of the car. The Volt also has a gasoline tank to go another 300 miles. That’s the hybrid portion of the car.
The two power sources make the Chevy Volt the most fuel-efficient car on the market with a fuel economy of 90 miles per gallon to 95 mpg on the highway, according to the Edmunds.com review.
How long it takes before a battery becomes available for reuse only time will tell. GM’s warranty on the battery is for eight years or 100,000 miles and after 10 years, the Volt’s battery retains about 70 percent of its capacity. But GM and ABB intend to figure out where else the batteries can be used once they come out of the cars.
One idea is to break down the battery and use single cells to power electric motors on bicycles.
Another is to use the batteries as storage – for renewable energy or as backup for electric outages. Renewable energy is dependent on the sun and the wind, which follow their own schedule. But stored in batteries, renewable energy would be available to flatten peaks and valleys in power consumption and allow utilities to run their power plants more evenly, and therefore more efficiently.
“The utilities love that,” Valencia said.
Power customers might like a backup system during power outages. The engineers estimated that 33 Chevy Volt batteries have enough storage capacity to power up to 50 homes for about four hours during a power outage.
Editor’s note: North Carolina’s Research Triangle is home to hundreds of young companies. Scientists and entrepreneurs started them to develop technologies and medicines for better detection and treatment of diseases. Some of the companies work on innovations that are the result of research done at one of the area’s universities. Others are outgrowths of established companies. Galaxy Diagnostics, which chases a stealth bacteria that infects pets and their owners, is one of those young companies.
Galaxy Diagnostics is going where few have gone before, to borrow a phrase from the American science fiction franchise Star Trek.
The startup is an outgrowth of work researchers at the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine have done on Bartonella bacteria, pathogens that live in the digestive guts of lice, fleas, biting flies and ticks and are transmitted through the insects’ poop. Cats are particularly prone to harboring Bartonella; about 40 percent of them carry a strain called Bartonella henselae at some time of their lives. That’s why Bartonella infections in humans are best known as cat scratch fever.
Scientists have found signs of Bartonella infection in a 4,000-year-old human tooth from southeastern France. At the time, the pharaohs were building the pyramids in Egypt. But today’s physicians aren’t much better at diagnosing a Bartonella infection than their colleagues were in ancient Egypt.
To track down the elusive bacteria, the NCSU researchers combined lab skills common in the 1950s with 21st century genetic sequencing technology.
In 2009, with little hope of attracting outside investors while the U.S. economy was reeling, the researchers teamed up with a sociologist to launch Galaxy Diagnostics.
Amanda Elam, the sociologist, runs the company. Her title is president, but she calls herself “chief cook and bottle washer.”
To earn her doctorate in sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Elam studied entrepreneurship. She taught at the NCSU College of Management last year and she continues to publish papers in her academic specialty. The company has received a state loan and a federal grant totaling about $230,000, but unlike the three lab technicians Galaxy Diagnostics employs, Elam doesn’t get paid for the more than 40 hours she puts in as the company’s president.
“It’s field work,” she said.
As Elam’s assessment of her job suggests, Galaxy Diagnostics is an experiment in more ways than one.
The test that the company has developed promises to detect a Bartonella infection earlier than other tests, before symptoms progress from a low-grade fever and muscle and joint aches to brain seizures, loss of sight, poor coordination and muscle weakness. But Galaxy Diagnostics also straddles human medicine and veterinary medicine, two health care disciplines that have more in common than most people think.
Animal pathogens can adapt and cause new diseases in humans. Severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, bird flu and swine flu are among the most recent examples. All three diseases emerged in the past decade after viruses jumped from animals to humans.
The quicker viruses and bacteria multiply, the faster the infection develops. Two E.coli can form a colony of hundreds of bacteria in just a few hours. Bartonella bacteria double in numbers just once every 24 hours and infections can take years to develop.
Left to multiply, Bartonella bacteria infect red blood cells and the cells lining blood vessels and they manage to hide where the body’s immune defenses cannot detect them. That’s why tests looking for immune system antibodies to Bartonella bacteria often produce false negative results.
Galaxy Diagnostics goes after the bacteria themselves. The company uses a patented enrichment media in which even small numbers of Bartonella grow in a bottle. Genetic fingerprinting follows to positively identify the bacteria. A multi-drug antibiotic treatment usually gets rid of the bacteria.
More than 250 veterinarians in the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Brazil have already sent Galaxy Diagnostics blood, tissue or fluid samples from pets that the company has tested for Bartonella bacteria.
In the past three to four years, a research lab at the NCSU vet school has run more than 800 human blood samples through Galaxy Diagnostics’ testing process. The samples came from patients suffering from symptoms their physicians couldn’t allocate to a disease. About 28 percent of the samples were positive for a Bartonella infection, Elam said.
By the end of the summer, Galaxy Diagnostics expects to be able to test human samples at its new lab in the Alexandria Innovation Center at a cost of about $600 to $800 per patient.
Innovation capital, money to turn some of today’s most innovative discoveries into tomorrow’s medical treatments, is getting so scarce in the U.S., politicians, economic developers and entrepreneurs in regions specializing in early stage biotech research and development are scrambling.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle, the third largest U.S. biotech hub, is one of those regions.
Some of the world’s largest R&D companies have operations in the Triangle, including GlaxoSmithKline, Novartis and Bayer. But the lifeblood of the area has long been young, early stage companies in pursuit of ideas developed at local research universities such as Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and N.C. State University or hatched by researchers who used to work in corporate labs in Research Triangle Park.
A little more than two years after a deregulated U.S. banking industry stumbled in the fall of 2008, investors are increasingly shying away from early stage biotech companies, a high-stakes, high-rewards gamble in the best of times. Innovation capital is drying up in the U.S., according to a 2011 report the U.S. accounting firm Ernst & Young published this month.
One consequence, a Research Triangle venture capital investor said, is “deals are dying on the vine.”
“More and more small, really good startups are having problems finding money,” said Norris Tolson, chief executive of the N.C. Biotechnology Center. “We’re about the only game in town for early stage biotech companies.”
The biotech center, which offers grants and loans up to $250,000, has seen the number of funding requests increase by about 10 percent, Tolson said. In the past year, about 280 applicants asked for financial support. About 130 were approved.
Traditionally, young biotech companies have relied on private investors, often venture capital investors, to kick their R&D into gear.
U.S. biotech companies raised $5.5 billion in venture capital in 2007, about twice as much as in 2000, according to Ernst & Young. But in the past three years, the amount has stagnated at about $4.5 billion annually and venture capitalists have begun to hold money back until companies reach certain milestones.
Total capital raised by biotech companies in the U.S. bounced back to $20.7 billion last year, from about $13 billion in 2008, according to Ernst & Young. But much of that capital went to mature companies. Young, early stage companies, which work on the most innovative technologies and generate more jobs than large, established companies, actually received about 20 percent less in capital than the year before.
In Europe, capital raised was more evenly distributed among startups and mature companies. In Singapore, China and India, governments are ratcheting up efforts to bolster biotech innovation. And in Latin America, Brazil’s already strong agricultural biotechnology sector is gaining attention.
But politicians, economic developers and university administrators in the Research Triangle have come up with ideas to encourage the formation of R&D startups despite the early stage funding crunch
The biotech center teamed up with Alexandria Real Estate Equities, a Pasadena, Calif.-based real estate investment trust, to attract young companies working in agricultural biotech research. Alexandria, which already owns lab buildings in the Triangle, will build a $13.5 million business incubator with about 18,000-square-feet of greenhouse space near RTP.
Several universities and the Council for Entrepreneurial Development are working with the charitable arm of the Blackstone Group, a global investment firm, to turn more technologies developed at universities into companies and bolster the Triangle’s existing entrepreneurial network.
The chancellors at UNC-CH and NCSU have set up innovation funds to further support spinoffs.
And state legislators are again considering establishing a nonprofit that can loan young companies money. The legislation has come up twice before and would use about $100 million an out-of-state investor is willing to provide, Tolson said. Initially, only life science companies could benefit, but recently state lawmakers suggested that information technology and green technology companies should also be included.
“There’s a huge need for startup capital across the U.S.,” Tolson said. In North Carolina, “a lot of people are understanding the need.”
On his visit Monday to Cree’s Durham manufacturing plant President Obama brought his advisors from the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness along to impress on North Carolinians that his administration is focused on lowering the stubbornly high U.S. unemployment rate, which in May was 9.1 percent.
Jobs council members, which come from the business sector, labor and universities, are dedicating their time and energy to one singular task, Obama told Cree workers. “How do we create more jobs in America?”
Not far from where Obama was talking about getting out of the Great Recession, a job creation effort was under way to lower the state unemployment rate, which in April was 9.7 percent, and particularly the unemployment rate in the Research Triangle, which in April was at 7 percent in the Durham-Chapel Hill area and at 7.7 percent in the Raleigh-Cary area.
NCSU, Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have long been engines of economic development in the region. They drove the formation of Research Triangle Park in the 1950s and educated the work force that attracted corporate research and development operations to RTP in the following three decades. The three universities that anchor RTP have also brought about technologies that started many an R&D company in the area.
Cree itself is a NCSU spinoff. The RTP company that makes light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, was formed in 1987 based on technology developed at NCSU.
With budget cuts for higher education looming, Triangle universities are stepping up and retooling their economic development efforts.
At NCSU, Terri Lomax, vice chancellor for research and innovation, is taking on responsibilities starting July 1 to help the state recruit companies and jobs, and the university is trying to boost the formation of spinoffs and their chances to survive and expand, be acquired or go public.
William Woodson, who was named NCSU chancellor in January 2010, established an innovation fund that will provide $2.5 million over the next five years to NCSU researchers to work on technologies that could be licensed or spun out as a company. To get off the ground, the young companies could tap into expertise at the university through a so-called proof-of-concept center on NCSU’s Centennial Campus.
To further accelerate startup formation, NCSU has joined forces with UNC, Duke, the Council for Entrepreneurial Development and N.C. Central University. The consortium is getting involved in the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Center, which has $3.6 million available over three years to evaluate technologies and tutor new companies.
“Most new jobs come from companies less than five years old,” Lomax said in an interview with Science in the Triangle. “We want to do everything we can to help these companies be successful. Especially after a recession that’s extremely important.”
She suggested that the efforts could double the number of successful startups that NCSU spins out per year to 10 to 12 by 2015.
“What we want is sustained economic development,” Lomax said.
Watch the entire Science in the Triangle interview with Terri Lomax here:
Software programmers who build Web sites that map incidents reported by mobile phone. A branchless banking system that allows customers to send cash by mobile phone text message. Medical specialists who diagnose patients hundreds of miles away with the help of images uploaded through a mobile phone app and stored as electronic medical records.
These are just three innovative uses for mobile phones, crowdsourcing and open-source technology. But this type of innovation isn’t happening in rich, developed countries like the U.S. or in Europe.
The Ushahidi mapping tool has collected crowdsourced incidents reports in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mexico. Kenyans mail small amounts of cash through M-Pesa‘s branchless banking system. SANA‘s open-source technology brings healthcare screening to rural areas in India and the Philippines.
Presented at a TED talk independently organized by IntraHealth June 2 at the Varsity Theatre in Chapel Hill, these innovative technological applications provided a glimpse of what’s possible in places without functioning transportation, healthcare and banking infrastructures.
As Diali Cissokho & Kairaba, a band of Senegalese and North Carolina musicians, played between presentations, the crowd of more than 250 in the filled-to-capacity movie theater just across from the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus was left to re-examine perceptions of developed versus developing countries.
“It’s the new era of global technology,” said Heather LaGarde, special projects advisor to IntraHealth OPEN, an initiative that encourages the use of the latest technological advancements to improve healthcare in poor countries.
TED talks are an outgrowth of a conference that brought together technology geeks, entertainers and design mavens. The concept is owned by a private foundation a magazine publishing entrepreneur started in 1996.
TED talks follow in the footsteps of storytellers who spread knowledge and wisdom. Their purpose is to disseminate ideas.
TEDxChapel Hill was the fourth independently organized TED talk in the Research Triangle. Three previous talks took place in the past 18 months, one at the Research Triangle Park headquarters, one at N.C. State University and one in Raleigh. (More about the TEDxTriangle event at RTP here.)
The Chapel Hill talk was organized by IntraHealth, a UNC spinoff focused on global health. Among the speakers featured was Holden Thorp, UNC-CH’s chancellor, who as a UNC chemistry professor developed technology for electronic DNA chips and founded companies.
Thorp encouraged scientists to bring their research to bear upon problems people around the world are dealing with, such as drought, poverty and climate change.
“We have a leg up addressing these problems,” he said.
Thorp could draw some inspiration from the venue. In the mid 1980s, while he was an undergraduate at UNC, Thorp said, he watched the “Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” 16 times at the Variety Theatre. The science fiction movie was about an adventurer, surgeon and rock musician who took on evil alien invaders with his band of men.
UNC and other universities as well as nonprofit research institutes and global health organizations in the Triangle are trying to do just what Thorp suggested.
At UNC, the Carolina Global Water Partnership developed a microfinancing program for Cambodians to buy biosand and ceramic filters and gain access to clean drinking water.
At Duke University, Robert Malkin, director of Engineering World Health, is encouraging engineers to develop medical equipment that works in hospitals in Sudan, Nigeria, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Haiti, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The World Health Organization estimated that 70 percent of the medical equipment developed in the U.S. or Europe doesn’t work in poor countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including used and new surplus equipment donated by U.S. hospitals.
Indeed, much of this equipment is stacked in large warehouses, collecting dust, Malkin said. (More on barriers for medical devices in the developing world here.)
During his presentation at TEDxChapel Hill, Malkin said he observed this first-hand when he attended a heart surgery in a Nicaraguan hospital many years ago and the overhead surgery lights caught on fire. The nurses responded calmly, protecting the patients from the billowing smoke with a blanket, Malkin said. He found out later, that the special light bulbs for which the donated surgery lights were designed weren’t available in Nicaragua. The 100 Watt light bulbs the hospital used instead caught on fire routinely.
IntraHealth, which mostly deals with community health workers in developing countries, is also looking for hands-on solutions. IntraHealth’s OPEN Council brings together some of the most innovative thinkers, such as Jon Gosier, the founder of Appfrica, a company that invests in East African software startups; and Josh Nesbit, the chief executive of Medic Mobile, a nonprofit that uses mobile technology to create health systems in developing countries.
Gosier and Nesbit also participated in TEDxChapel Hill, and so did Dr. Radhika Chigurupati, a surgeon at the University of California San Francisco Children’s Hospital, who talked about her work with SANA.
Mobile device technology developed by a team of students, volunteers and faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston allows SANA to bring health screening to remote rural area.
More than half of the population in developing countries are mobile phone subscribers, according to a 2010 United Nations report.
In India, Chigurupati said, community health workers use their mobile phones to take high-resolution pictures of potentially cancerous lesions in patients’ mouths or on feet. The images are uploaded to a server to which physicians in faraway urban areas have access.
Trips from the countryside to see a doctor are prohibitively expensive for the patients. But mobile telemedicine enables community health workers to screen for cancerous lesions and connects them with experts who can help treat the lesions and save lives.
In 2010 alone, more than 4,000 patients in rural India were screened for oral cancer, a disease that is prevalent because of widespread tobacco and beetle nut chewing.
“I think the tide is high,” Chigurupati said. “If you’re shrewd enough and committed enough, you can make a difference in the lives of millions.”
NASA’s interest in North Carolina goes back to the 1960s, when U.S. astronauts came to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to learn at the Morehead Planetarium how to navigate in space by looking at stars, according to a N.C. Museum of History report. In the past 25 years, a handful of North Carolinians flew on space shuttle missions, including Beaufort native Michael Smith, who died in 1986 when the Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff.
To prepare for and support NASA missions, researchers at N.C. State University have studied how to more precisely land a vessel on Mars and how to grow plants in a spacecraft operating in zero gravity.
But NASA’s involvement in North Carolina goes further. Since 1991, teachers and students at North Carolina universities, community colleges and public schools have received about $15 million to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics, to research issues related to space missions and to work in companies contracting with NASA.
Funding for the research grants, scholarships and summer internships has been provided through the N.C. space grant, a program administered at NCSU.
“The goal is to keep the pipeline filled for NASA,” Christopher Brown, director of the N.C. space grant, told members of the Triangle Area Research Directors Council who gathered this week at Research Triangle Park headquarters.
But “this isn’t just rockets and aerospace,” Brown said. Space grant projects in North Carolina include satellite tracking of red wolves and the development of an undergraduate robotics course at Duke University.
As a professor of plant biology at NCSU, Brown teaches a space biology class and some of his plant experiments will travel to the international space station on the last shuttle flight scheduled to take off in August.
NASA funds the N.C. space grant and similar programs in all other states through its annual budget.
In the past five years, the total for these grants has increased from about $30 million to $45.6 million. North Carolina’s portion is about $800,000 annually, Brown said. That includes a state match. The match used to be about $200,000 per year, but budget cuts have reduced it to $180,000.
Federal cuts are also looming, but Brown said he didn’t think the program would be eliminated, because every Congressional district receives money. For fiscal year 2012, which starts Oct. 1, President Obama’s budget request for the space grant program is $26.5 million, according to NASA budget information. That’s a reduction of more than 40 percent.
In the past, N.C. space grant money has supported research of young university faculty, helped develop new college courses and paid for professional development of K-12 teachers, provided scholarships and summer internships for graduate and undergraduate students and students at community colleges.
Thirteen university campuses across North Carolina are affiliated with the N.C. space grant, from UNC Asheville to Elizabeth City State University.