Anyone who has ever tried to kick the smoking habit knows the tight grip nicotine has on its users — and the difficulty of weaning oneself from the highly addictive drug.
Mike Zhang, a professor biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is developing a way to release nicotine’s grasp on the nearly 1 billion smokers worldwide that struggle with nicotine addiction and its ill effects.
How’s Zhang becoming a smoking cessation program officer’s best friend?
He’s developing a vaccine that will make those inoculated immune to nicotine.
The vaccine works by using haptens — small molecules that elicit an immune response — attached to proteins that act as carriers in the bloodstream and make their way to the brain where the vaccine is distributed and blocks the pleasure response.
Zhang said the nicotine vaccine could ultimately be developed as a patch or nasal spray. Patients who are vaccinated will cease deriving the physiological pleasure of lighting up to in one to two days.
So, twenty years from now when someone asks a former smoker if they have a light, it’s likely he or she can thank Mike Zhang when the response is, “Sorry, I don’t smoke.”
Advancing technology has indisputably sharpened the tools of scientific inquiry. The most powerful telescope can see 15 billion light years away, particle accelerators can drive a proton to the speed of light in a matter of hours, and the newest microscopes have a resolution that’s more than 20 million times that of human sight.
These incredibly precise instruments are extensions of human faculties: The computer extends our brain, microscopes and telescopes extend our eyes, lasers and accelerators extend our hands. In many cases, we don’t even have to physically observe anymore. Our machines observe for us, and they tell us what we would see if we could see that far, that close, that deep. Scientists connect the dots, draw conclusions, and fit these conclusions into our growing understanding of the world.
Although this rapid technological evolution has given the scientific process a face-lift, it’s still the same underneath. The scientific method (hypothesize, test, analyze, etc.) is the foundation, but, depending on the discipline and the experiment, many of the steps are now digitized.
As a science communicator, this can make my job difficult. It’s tricky to get the general public psyched about an excel file of experiment results.But one of my favorite things about working with the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab is that, although we do stare at computers most of the day, occasionally we get to see sciencehappening. And that people bring snacks to the office. It’s really cool when those two things combine. Here’s how it happened today: It was a slow, rainy Friday morning in the Office of International Research, Education, Development. But someone (cough-me) brought in a giant bucket of wild pears for colleagues to munch on and take home. They’re pesticide-free, but, in order to preserve the integrity of the pears, I did not wash them.
Naturally, IPM Director Muni Muniappan snags a pear and pops it, not into his mouth, but under his microscope. I don’t know how long he pored over the puckered surface of the fruit, but before I had finished eating my first one, he found what he was looking for: a tiny insect.
When Muni called me into his office, IPM Associate Director Amer Fayad was peering into a microscope crooning, “I don’t know what it is, but it is so cute!”
It was cute. Even after Muni informed us that it was a wingless psocid, or in laymen’s terms, a booklouse. On my pears. So embarrassing. Good thing it was so darn cute.
In a few minutes, most of us working in the IPM quad had crowded into the office. The insect was difficult to pin down, so to speak. It was too small to be seen by the naked eye, and it could move fast. Muni explained that it probably didn’t like the bright microscope light and was searching for shadows. I thought that perhaps it was a little camera shy. Finally Amer got it in focus, and we snapped a few pictures.Booklice, we learned, are not true lice. While they resemble lice in size and shape, they feed only on fungi or mold. In fact, Muni told us that this little guy was probably eating the fungi growing on the pear skin. If you find them in grain or other stored food products, it is an indication of high humidity, which encourages mold growth. They can also be found under wallpaper, in furniture, along the sides of windows or in — you guessed it — books! The starchy paste of old books can support mold growth and booklice. But thankfully, outside of annoyance, their damage is insignificant. And, yes, on fruit, they can be taken care of with a quick rinse in the faucet. And, after all the lousy excitement, I went back to the kitchen and stuck a post-it note on the pears. “Help me eat these pears! But, please, wash them first!” Happy pear-season and have a great weekend! Booklice information from: http://ento.psu.edu/extension/factsheets/booklice
The other day when I picked my three year old son up from daycare, I noticed his teacher had taped an image from a kid’s magazine up on the wall. Beneath it were all of these cute little musings and observations made by the daycare students. “This picture shows a boy and a girl. The boy is sitting on a ball. The girl is being silly.”
When I got to my son’s write-up, it was nearly a page long and he had something to say about everything.
“I think the girl is laughing because the boy has shark teeth on the bottom of his shoes.” (He did!) “The girl has curly hair and the boy likes that her shoes are pink. He likes playing ball games and wants her to be his friend. His skin is a little bit lighter than hers and he has a sweater on…”
The son of a scientist and a writer; he is both observant and prolific.
Devi Parikh, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, has recently won a Google Faculty Award to take a very similar idea and use it to teach computers a little bit of common sense. Although, instead of using toddlers and magazines to generate data, she is using Amazon Mechanical Turk Workers (“Turkers”) and clip art. Through this visual-outsourcing, hundreds of thousands of vetted users from all over the world can create abstract scenes to teach computers object recognition, properties, relationships and poses. These extremely rich scenes touch on something that has never been done before — turning semantic visual features into language.
We all know that (most) kids are afraid of bears. A scene depicting a scared child next to a large, snarling bear would surely make sense to us, but to a computer this is a real head-scratcher. Parikh hopes to use these user-created clip art scenes and depictions to teach computers much of the information we as humans take for granted. In doing so, she will advance computer vision and enhance a variety of machine learning applications, such as autonomous driving.
And as a mother of two young children and oftentimes distracted minivan driver, anything that brings autonomous driving closer to reality definitely gets the green light.
The human mind can only hold so much information at a given time.
Most of us have played the memory game where the host brings out a tray of assorted knick-knacks and gives us a few moments to stare at it before it is whisked away and we are asked to recall as many items as we can.
Generally speaking, this number falls within the “seven plus or minus two” range. One of the most highly cited papers in psychology, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information,” speaks to this phenomenon.
Recent advances in Big Data have great promise for solving some of society’s most challenging problems, but how does the human mind handle staring at over a thousand different data points?
Big Data Analytics methods typically require the expertise of a highly skilled analyst. The “human in the loop” method of analysis allows the user to change the outcome of an event or process by modeling different scenarios. Analysts sort through large, complex collections of data sets by employing different models and running simulations. However, most researchers do not possess this level of analytics expertise, and although companies are investing large sums of money to gain insight from the surplus of publically streaming information, they often do not have employees on staff who are able to make much sense of it.
A recent grant award from the National Science Foundation aims to change all of that. Chris North, a professor of computer science and associate director of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science’s Discovery Analytics Center and his well-seasoned team of researchers have won a $1 million grant award to make Big Data Analytics more user-friendly.
The team is using a spatial metaphor system, known as Andromeda, to bring large data clouds down to manageable working sets.
In this system, similar objects are placed in closer proximity. When the user changes the layout of the items, the system updates and learns which data features make those items similar. When people re-organize the data, the data responds and the user is able to learn what features are responsible for that change.
Think back to the aforementioned memory game. Imagine how many more items you could remember if you were able to manipulate the tray and group like objects together to create patterns of similarity. Andromeda allows users to visually interact with the data and glean more meaning from the data points. And using it doesn’t require a Ph.D.
North is excited about the fact that people can apply their own knowledge on the subject area and recognize interesting, new patterns when they arise. The visualization is then tailored to how a person thinks about the data, and the tasks of organization and discovery can occur simultaneously.
By making Big Data a “meaningful picture that users can manipulate,” North and his team are bringing Big Data Analytics to the masses.
Written by Emily Kathleen Alberts
Today kicks off the 2nd Annual Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) Program Review.
Join us at the Holtzman Assembly Hall near the Inn with opening remarks by Director Roop Mahajan, followed by Presidential remarks by Timothy D. Sands.
Highly diverse research topics including nanoscale science and engineering, the nano-bio interface, sustainable energy, renewable materials, sustainable water, cognitive systems, and national security are being explored in this two-day event (October 2nd-3rd).
Come find out about our latest research endeavors and hear how we are addressing society’s most challenging needs by transcending traditional academic boundaries.
ICTAS is a premier institute with a mission to advance transformative, interdisciplinary research for a sustainable future.
We hope to see you there!
Ebola virus is headlining across the world, including at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Erica Ollmann Saphire will present “The Molecular Toolkit of Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers” as a part of the institute’s 2014–15 Frontiers in Biomedical Research Seminar Series. The lecture will take place on September 12, from 11 a.m. to noon, in R3012 at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute in Roanoke.
A professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, California, Ollmann Saphire studies viruses with compact genomes. Those viruses, including Ebola, offer the most functional “bang” for the polypeptide “buck,” according to Ollmann Saphire. These viruses are coded with only a few proteins, each of which is critically important to the function of the virus.
Ebola, specifically, has seven genes in its genome. Ollmann Saphire and her research team discovered the virus changes function by rearranging those seven genes throughout its lifetime. Ebola looks structurally different as an independent structure than it does as it invades a host. Learning how the physical, molecular changes of Ebola affect the virus’s function has provided invaluable insights for vaccine development.
The Frontiers in Biomedical Research Seminar Series is one of three programs at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, all of which aim to bring the top scientists to Roanoke. Information on all three programs may be found on the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute website.
Science starts with a question. The research is not flashy, even with all of those glinting test tubes and fancy microscopes. It’s slow and specific. Answering that question takes years – sometimes even decades – and that’s just to gather information about one gene or one specific part of a mechanism that might be the solution. There’s no guarantee that the question will ever be answered.
The question is usually big: What causes cancer? Why does this gene mutate? When do neurons age? The path to a solution is usually narrow; it has to be, so how does any one ever choose what to focus on?
When rising fourth-year Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine student James Dittmar had to decide on a research project, he was overwhelmed with having to pick just one thing.
“How do you focus?” Dittmar asked. “How do you prioritize research?”
Dittmar explored a number of options with his mentor, Gregorio Valdez, an assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, but none seemed quite right. It was in that exploration that Valdez was inspired to guide Dittmar into finding his ultimate project – helping others decide how to focus their own research. Thus, EvoCor was born.
EvoCor is a free search engine for genes. Type in a gene and EvoCor searches through thousands of mapped genes, different genomes, and larger datasets maintained by the National Institutes of Health. It pulls together a list of genes that evolved similarly. The genes are ranked by likelihood that they’re related functionally to the initial gene submitted.
Take a gene that is already well studied for a certain disease, like MUSK’s role in motor impairment in aging individuals. A scientist can type MUSK into EvoCor and EvoCor will return a list of possibly related genes that might work with MUSK to impair motor function as people grow older.
It’s not a slam-dunk, but it’s a far cry better than picking a random gene that may or may not be related at all. It’s a starting point.
Read the full story here.
It is that time of year when graduating seniors start to wonder what they’re going to wear to those upcoming job interviews, or for those ahead of the game, what they’re going to wear to work. But at least our dear graduates won’t have to worry about finding that perfect outfit for commencement. Tomorrow our VT students will be a sea of black robes, with only the color of a dangling tassel to set them apart.
The origin of the goofy garments
The cap and gown custom started during the 12th century when early universities were still forming in Europe. At that time, no sufficient heating system was provided and students were forced to improvise to keep warm. The scholars, who were usually aspiring clerics or already clerics, started the practice of wearing a long robe with a hood for heat. Later that century, gowns were made the official dress of academics to prevent people from piling on layers and looking “frumpy” on their big day. It is quite ironic how nowadays, most of us are burning up in these robes!
Now for the hat. Commonly called a “mortarboard” due to its funny shape and similarity to what masons used to hold mortar, the graduation cap was based on the birettas worn by scholarly clergies to signify their superiority and intelligence. These hats became popular in the 14th and 15th centuries and were worn only by artists, humanists, students, and all those learned. They usually came in the color red signifying blood and life, hence, power more than life and death. We know them now as the hats worn primarily by religious cardinals.
Cap and Gown etiquette
Okay, so maybe our grads do have to worry a little…
Men: It is recommended that men wear dark trousers or khakis, dark socks, shoes, and a neatly-pressed, light-colored dress shirt with dark tie underneath an academic gown. Jeans and shorts, sandals and tennis shoes should be avoided. The cap is worn flat on the head. Men should remove their caps during the school song and the National Anthem.
Women: Graduates should wear dark slacks, dress, or skirt, and a light-colored dress blouse with dark shoes. High heels are not recommended for reasons of safety and comfort, flats or pumps are suggested. Sandals and tennis shoes should not be worn. Women are allowed to keep their caps on during the National Anthem.
Left to right? Right to left?
You’ve made it through college and are ready to graduate into the real world, but there is one more question you need answered. Where does the tassel go? Tassels are usually worn on the right side and shifted to the left when graduates receive their diplomas. Now whether or not you want to toss your cap into the air at the end is entirely up to you.
Finding jobs in the 21st Century
With all of the technological breakthroughs we’ve made in this Information Age, it is safe to say that there is still no magic bullet for finding a job. Hard work, good communication skills, and yes, etiquette are still just as important today they were decades ago. Of course using the web to do research on a company, find an internship, or see when the next career fair is being held doesn’t hurt either. Good luck out there, graduates!
Written by Emily Kale
What if technology could predict traffic patterns the same way meteorologists predict the weather? That is a question graduate student, Hao Chen, has answered through his research under mentor Hesham Rakha, Director of the Center for Sustainable Mobility within the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and College of Engineering.
At the 2013 Intelligent Transportation Systems World Congress in Japan, Chen won the Best Scientific Paper Award for this research. In his paper, he was not only able to show that this is possible, but also developed a very accurate algorithm for practical applications.
To develop this algorithm Chen used temporal and spatial information to match analogous traffic patterns with real-time and historical traffic data.
Dr. Rakha indicated, “the research that Hao conducted is cutting edge because it not only predicts what will happen on average, but also, the likelihood of certain events. For example the likelihood that your trip will be longer today.” In addition, Dr. Rakha mentioned that “another unique aspect of Hao’s research is the forecast period. Specifically, Hao is predicting traffic conditions up to four hours into the future, something that is far longer than what is reported in the literature (less than an hour). Clearly the longer you predict into the future the more complicated the problem is.”
With the advancement of technology among vehicles and infrastructure, the ability to collect data associated with real time vehicular behavior is becoming a reality. Connected vehicle technology will allow vehicles and roadways to communicate instantaneous information with each other; for example information about vehicle speed, vehicle location, number of vehicles on roadways, changing roadway conditions (such as ice or fog) etc. can become connected or shared.
Therefore, once data from present conditions and historical traffic patterns are measured, the implementation of Chen’s algorithm can predict traffic the same way weather is predicted. Much like a cloud’s anticipated route can be seen through radar, traffic patterns of the past can inform future ones. They can even be represented through a colorful map, similar to the radar map on weather forecast.
This historical traffic data set of roadways in the United States is stored by a company called INRIX. Chen utilized this information to test the accuracy of his algorithm. He looked back at high-traffic scenarios along interstates I-64 and I-264 in Virginia from June and July of 2010 to predict the travel times of the same route on August of 2010. The information of the predicted travel time was updated every five minutes and involved various traffic scenarios. Using his algorithm Chen was able to predict travel time with 96 percent accuracy two to four hours in the future.
Current systems used by most traffic management centers employ only historical data, making them less accurate. While, Chen’s model has the potential to improve accuracy, because it adapts as the environment adapts; as time lapses it increases the amount of historical data collected continually improving. For Chen’s study only two months of traffic data were used, in the future, a growing data set could further narrow the accuracy gap from 96 to 100 percent.
Chen’s algorithm may one day be used to assist drivers in planning their day. This technology has the potential to save drivers a lot of time and money.
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute conducts research to save lives, time, money, and protect the environment. One of the seven university level research institutes created by Virginia Tech to answer national challenges, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is continually advancing transportation through innovation and has impacted public policy on the national and international level.