The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

5 months ago

UA, Auburn, others join for Antarctic biological research

(Pixabay, YHN)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Twenty scientists soon embark on a 14-week voyage to study unexplored Antarctic waters to improve understanding of biodiversity undergoing rapid changes because of a changing climate.

The expedition includes researchers from The University of Alabama, Auburn University, Central Michigan University, the University of Alaska Anchorage and other institutions who will also train the next generation of zoologists in developing expertise on marine invertebrate animals using traditional and cutting-edge techniques.

Funded by four grants totaling more than $2 million from the National Science Foundation, researchers will explore the biodiversity, evolution and biogeographic patterns of animals and microbes living in the Weddell Sea. Using data and biological samples collected during the trip, the scientists will use morphological and molecular tools to assess Antarctic biodiversity and unrecognized genetic variation and patterns of relatedness between populations of marine Antarctic species.

605

The research is led by Dr. Kenneth M. Halanych, professor and Schneller Endowed Chair of biological sciences at Auburn; Dr. Kevin M. Kocot, UA assistant professor of biological sciences and curator of invertebrate zoology for the Alabama Museum of Natural History; Dr. Andrew Mahon, professor of biology at CMU; Dr. Deric Learman, professor of biology at CMU; and Dr. Sarah Gerken, professor of biological sciences at UAA.

“Antarctica is changing more quickly than anywhere else in the world,” Kocot said. “Conserving the deep sea and polar regions is really important even if people don’t see it. Having this baseline of what lives there, and having more people who can do that in the future is really important.”

Antarctica is among the most rapidly warming places on the planet, and some reports suggest the Antarctic environment is approaching, or possibly beyond, the tipping point for ice shelf collapse. The loss of ice around Antarctica is dramatically changing habitat availability for marine life, particularly invertebrate species living on the ocean floor.

The joint research by Halanych at Auburn and Mahon at CMU attempts to understand environmental factors shaping patterns of diversity in the invertebrates living on the ocean floor in the Southern Ocean through studying their DNA. The findings will inform predictions about how species distributions may change as Antarctic ice sheets melt and how organisms adjust their geographic range in response to environmental changes.

“An organism’s history is written in their genome,” Halanych said. “We will use evolutionary genomic tools to explore biodiversity in Antarctic marine invertebrates and use this information to inform us on how human-mediated climate change may shape populations of marine animals in the future.”

For Kocot, this will be the first of two trips to the Antarctic waters over the next four years to find new species of aplacophorans, a group of poorly known worm-like mollusks with scales or spines, and use advanced imaging and DNA sequencing techniques to identify and classify them.

Aplacophora is one of many groups of organisms diverse and ecologically important in the deep sea and polar regions, but studied by just a handful of researchers worldwide. Kocot and his students aim to understand the diversity of this group and its evolution.

“If we don’t know what’s down there, we can’t know what we’re losing,” he said. “We have to continue to explore the world.”

Similarly, Gerken is a leading expert on “comma shrimp,” formally called Cumacea, that are small crustaceans living in ocean sediment. Cumaceans are potentially ecologically important, occasionally occurring in high enough densities that grey whales prey on them, and yet not much is known about them. Her planned monograph on the Antarctic Cumacea will provide a resource for future work in the region.

“It is a constant surprise how much there is left to learn about our world.”

Work led by Learman at Central Michigan aims to better understand how tiny organisms in the sea floor called microbes are impacting carbon cycling in an ecosystem experiencing massive changes. Through studying the genetics and function of microbes collected during the expedition, researchers will determine the species in the community and how they break down organic matter, which drives the distribution of nutrients in the sediment’s ecosystem.

“While microorganisms are the smallest forms of life on Earth, they are the gatekeepers of the cycling of essential nutrients, such as carbon and nitrogen, and the foundation of the food chain that support larger and more complex forms of life,” Learman said.

Follow the researchers on their journey through their blog online at Icy Inverts.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

5 months ago

UA program helps small businesses with challenges in pandemic

(Alabama Retail Association/Facebook, YHN)

Over the last five months, a program based at The University of Alabama helped thousands of small businesses in the state successfully tap into federal disaster funds to preserve jobs and stay open during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Alabama Small Business Development Center led an effort to assist businesses to learn about the federal disaster programs and to aid their efforts to access the critically needed federal funds.

The statewide SBDC, part of the UA Office for Research and Economic Development, delivered over 55 workshops on applying for disaster funding, addressing almost daily changes in the funding programs. Close to 6,600 individuals participated in the SBDC training webinars and advising services, resulting in $117 million in funding for small businesses.

383

“We experienced unprecedented demand for our workshops and one-on-one advising services, up 560% and 1,300% respectively, pointing to the magnitude of the disaster,” said Michael Brooks, SBDC associate director, who spearheaded the workshops with finance specialists from the SBDC Capital Access Program. “The impact on the state’s small business sector, which accounts for an estimated 789,000 employees, or 48% of Alabama’s private sector workforce, has been devastating.”

To deal with the economic crisis created by the coronavirus pandemic, the federal government rolled out two major programs. The Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans were created to provide needed liquidity for businesses and preserve jobs. The U.S. Small Business Administration was tasked with delivering both programs throughout the country.

As a longtime resource partner of the SBA, the Alabama SBDC was asked to lead the effort in Alabama to help businesses to learn about the technical details of the PPP and EIDL programs.

Based on a survey of the 6,600 individuals that participated in the training and advising, nearly 80% of respondents attributed their success in securing funding to SBDC assistance. The survey indicated 434 firms received the EIDL advance; 106 firms received the EIDL disaster loan; and 773 firms received PPP funding.

Many organizations partnered with the SBDC to spread the word about the federal loan programs and SBDC webinars to their customers and members.

“The University of Alabama is proud to partner with the state’s small business community in protecting jobs and businesses during this unprecedented situation, and the Alabama Small Business Development Center will continue in its support of our state’s vital small businesses,” said Dan Blakley, associate vice president of the UA Office for Economic and Business Engagement.

Recently, the SBA provided the SBDC with additional financial support through a grant to increase its technical assistance capability for Alabama’s small businesses, especially those in heavily hit market sectors and rural areas of the state.

The Alabama SBDC provides training and confidential advising services in all 67 counties in Alabama for business start-up, growth, and access to capital. Hosted at UA, part of The University of Alabama System, the SBDC operates as a partnership program with the SBA, the state of Alabama and higher education institutions.

For more information and updates on other programs, visit the center’s website.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

7 months ago

National leader in water resources to head Alabama Water Institute

(University of Alabama/Contributed)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Scott Rayder, an expert on building opportunities and funding for scientific organizations, was selected as the executive director of the Alabama Water Institute for The University of Alabama.

Water is a signature research and academic focus at UA, and AWI was formed to conduct integrated research and education on complex issues of water quantity, quality and security globally and locally.

“The University of Alabama strategically focused on water as a signature research thrust not only because of the profound importance of water in all facets of life, but also because we believe the University is ideally positioned to become a national and influential leader in the discipline. I believe Scott has both the vision and ability to work with faculty and students to make this happen,” said President Stuart Bell.

508

The executive director position and AWI are vital to UA’s plan to increase research productivity and innovation in research, scholarship and creative activities that impact economic and societal development. Rayder will play a key role in continuing collaboration with the National Water Center, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration center located on the UA campus.

Currently senior advisor to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and to the president and vice president of the UCAR Foundation, Rayder will join UA Aug. 1.

He has extensive experience in building relationships and opportunities with both the private and public sector, including longstanding relationships with federal funding agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NOAA, U.S. Geological Survey and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“The University of Alabama has the unique opportunity, working with federal, state and industry partners, to propel the state of Alabama to become the epicenter for water research, water resource management and the new water economy in the United States. Scott is well-known both nationally and internationally and is the ideal leader to take full advantage of this opportunity,” said Dr. Russell J. Mumper, vice president for research and economic development.

Rayder’s involvement with higher education and research extends to the beginning of his career at NOAA, and includes nearly two decades of experience in senior leadership positions in large government, not-for-profit and private sector companies.

“I am honored to be joining the dedicated AWI team. UA science, policy and engineering expertise is uniquely positioned to help improve our understanding and application of the latest science and technology in support of critical water issues that affect everyone across the globe to citizens right here in Alabama,” Rayder said. “I look forward to engaging with the faculty, public and private stakeholders, philanthropists and future Alabama graduates in growing this capability here at the University.”

His work at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in support of the National Center for Atmospheric Research as well as at the Center for Ocean Leadership included working with research universities and private sector partners in the pursuit of funding to better understand and utilize the world’s resources.

He was also part of the presidential transition team in 2016 for the U. S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.

Rayder holds a bachelor’s degree in government and geology from Hamilton College, New York, and a master’s in public administration with a concentration in science and technology policy from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

The committee for this national search was co-led by Dr. Mark Elliott, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, and Dr. Behzad Mortazavi, professor and chair of biological sciences. Dr. Patricia Sobecky, UA’s associate provost for academic affairs, professor of biological sciences and founding executive director of AWI, was also integral to the search process.

“We are grateful to Dr. Sobecky for her dedication in standing up the Alabama Water Institute as founding executive director,” Mumper said. “Her leadership created an excellent foundation for transformative research and economic development relating to water.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

8 months ago

UA kick-starts six projects related to COVID-19 and future pandemics

(University of Alabama/Contributed)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Six projects designed to deepen understanding of the coronavirus pandemic and future pandemics and positively influence society will receive seed funding from The University of Alabama.

The projects come from across disciplines on campus, and were selected through the University’s Joint Institute Pandemic Pilot Project, sponsored by the UA Office for Research and Economic Development and UA’s research institutes.

“It is essential as the flagship university in the state that UA contributes to improving the lives of Alabamians in the face of this pandemic and future pandemics,” said Dr. Russell J. Mumper, vice president for research and economic development. “All of our institutes are coming together in recognition that the nature of the problem and its solutions require an inherently interdisciplinary approach.”

548

Support for the projects comes from the Alabama Transportation Institute, Alabama Water Institute, Alabama Life Research Institute and the UA Cyber Initiative.

The effort was guided by the strategic plan for the Office for Research and Economic Development that encourages interdisciplinary and transformative research.

Along with the viability of projects to garner external funding after being established, the review process of proposals emphasized a project’s potential to sustain beyond the current global pandemic stemming from COVID-19 and scale to other large challenges.

Projects include:

  • Development of a model to track transmission of infectious diseases that can help develop testing and quarantine strategies that contain infections without locking down a region. It could also evaluate the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders. The project is led by Dr. Jun Liu, assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering.
  • Using a bacteria’s immune system known as CRISPR-Cas, sequences of genetic code inside bacteria that store information on invading viruses, to develop a low-cost, point-of-care test for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The goal is to offer an alternative diagnostic test that uses a smart phone app to detect a color change in the sample instead of the labor-intensive test used now on expensive lab equipment. The work is led by Dr. Jack Dunkle, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry.
  • Determining if lifestyle factors such as vaccination history, diet and outdoor activity may impact severity of COVID-19 symptoms through a nationwide survey of adults younger than age 50 who recovered from a diagnosis. Survey data can be used to conduct future clinical study with blood and genes investigation. The project is led by researchers from human nutrition and hospitality management, Dr. Han-A Park, assistant professor, and Dr. Amy Ellis, associate professor.
  • Exploring and understanding how adolescents and parents dealt with school closings and confinement at home during the spring and summer pandemic. The aim is understanding the differences among families in the decisions, opportunities and losses that occurred and carried forward into the next school year. The research team wants to understand the positive and negative ripple effects on children’s peer experiences and behavioral adjustment while evaluating the effectiveness of affordable school-based medical and behavioral services to support families and children. The project involves collaboration among developmental and educational psychologists, nursing educators, experts in marriage and family therapy, social work experts, and experts in evaluation and school improvement. The cross-campus research is led by Dr. Jeffrey Parker, associate professor of psychology.
  • Creating a transformative training program to equip rural Alabamians with skills needed for the evolving job market since it is predicted many of the jobs lost during the pandemic will not return. The project will identify skills associated with programming jobs, conduct a needs assessment of rural communities and identify residents and community leaders willing to participate in training and development. Dr. Kimberly Stowers, assistant professor of management, leads the project.
  • Assessing emergency messaging used during the pandemic in Alabama and the perceptions of the public and decision-makers of the response to messaging. Interviews, surveys and workshops with emergency managers around the state will help develop a pandemic and catastrophic event planning guide for dissemination to government officials. The project will be led by Dr. Laura Myers, director and senior research scientist at the Center for Advanced Public Safety.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

10 months ago

UA students offer space-centered virtual classroom to Alabama schools

(University of Alabama/Contributed, YHN)

Students at the University of Alabama are continuing outreach efforts to state schools during the COVID-19 pandemic through online lessons.

The group of students called UASpace has created lessons using Alabama math and science standards that teach about space, satellites and space exploration. The lessons are available on an open Google Drive, and are an extension of their efforts this school year to bring space-centered lessons into classrooms in rural areas of the state.

“To our team, outreach is a core competency and is our reason for doing what we do,” said Piper Daniels, UASpace member. Daniels is from Grapevine, Texas, working on a Master of Business Administration after recently earning an aerospace engineering degree at UA.

352

“Space exploration is about what we are doing for the next generation and we want to teach them the importance of it,” she said. “We knew that changing our medium of outreach would be a process but we felt that reaching students was still critical to our mission as an organization and that it needed to be done.”

It’s just one way the students are adjusting while the University is on limited business operations with remote instruction. They are continuing the process of readying a small satellite to be launched into space as part of a NASA program.

The UA project is one of 18 small research satellites — called CubeSats — from 11 states selected by NASA to fly as auxiliary payloads aboard rockets launching in 2021, 2022 and 2023. Educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and NASA centers proposed the selected missions in response to NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

“It’s really stiff competition, and we are really excited to get The University of Alabama’s name on that list,” said Daniels.

UASpace, made up of nearly 50 students, calls their first mission BAMA-1. They aim to demonstrate an emerging technology to bring satellites out of orbit quicker. A launch date is not set, but the team requested a launch in the third quarter of 2021. The UA satellite will be taken to the International Space Station before deploying into orbit.

They are continuing their project through online communication and video conferencing amongst themselves and NASA while conducting initial testing over software programs.

“They all worked really hard and are dedicated to the mission,” said Dr. John Baker, professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics and a team adviser. “It’s a testament to their hard work. They are amazing students, and we should all be very proud of them.”

Along with Baker, faculty advisers include Michael Pope, instructor of marketing in the STEM Path to the MBA Program, and Dr. Rohan Sood, assistant professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics.

UASpace has received support from UA, Lockheed Martin, Linc Research Inc. and the Alabama Space Grant Consortium.

(Courtesy of University of Alabama)

1 year ago

UA engineers help find site to drill for Antarctica’s ancient ice

(Dr. David Lilien, Dr. Drew Taylor/Contributed)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A unique radar developed by engineering researchers at The University of Alabama helped find the location to recover some of the oldest ice buried in Antarctica as part of an international effort to better understand the Earth’s climate history.

Using information collected by the radar, scientists leading the project confirmed the site where they intend to drill a core of ice in East Antarctica, located at Little Dome C, an area of about six square miles nearly 620 miles inland. It is possible the drilling will recover ice nearly 1.5 million years old, which may reveal why the climate cycle for the Earth’s ice ages lengthened roughly 1 million years ago.

“With active participation of UA students, our team developed very complex, high-sensitivity remote sensing radars in less than a year and successfully mapped deep layers no other group has been able to accomplish,” said Dr. Siva Prasad Gogineni, Cudworth Professor of Engineering, director of the UA Remote Sensing Center, and an internationally recognized expert in the field of remote sensing.

Dr. Stephen Yan, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, led the project for UA.

646

The work is part of Beyond EPICA, a more than $12 million project supported by the European Union involving 12 institutions in 10 European countries and with UA selected to perform precise radar imaging. It follows a previous effort, dubbed EPICA, which recovered an 800,000-year-old ice core.

Scientists, led by Dr. Carlo Barbante from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy, hope ice layered 1.5 million years ago can reveal Antarctica’s climate and the greenhouse gasses present during the Middle Pleistocene Transition, which happened between 900,000 and 1.2 million years ago.

During this time, the periods between glacial climates transitioned, lengthening from about 41,000 years to 100,000 years between ice ages. This change is the mystery Beyond EPICA seeks to resolve.

Little Dome C, nearly 25 miles from the nearest research station in an area administered by the French and Italian polar agencies, was selected as the potential site to recover the ancient ice after an initial two-year Radar Echo Sounding survey that covered more than nearly 2,500 miles of airborne and ground-based measurements as part of the previous EU project.

In November, UA’s radar was deployed to the site to scan nearly 2 miles below the ice to precisely select the exact drilling site. The work was conducted by Dr. Drew Taylor, UA assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, with international collaborators Dr. Daniel Steinhage from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany and Dr. David Lilien from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

The ultra-wideband radar and antenna capable of penetrating deep into ice was able to image, with high definition, the ice layering in the deepest part of the ice sheet. The radar was designed and fabricated by UA researchers, including seven graduate and eight undergraduate students in the UA College of Engineering, and led by Dr. Charles O’Neill from the UA Remote Sensing Center.

Radar development was supported by the University of Copenhagen, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the National Science Foundation and UA.

The radar was previously used in Greenland as part of another international effort to unveil ancient climate history and to provide perspectives on improving climate models.

“We’re proving we have the expertise in remote sensing with our radar systems and design to provide unique solutions to answer the questions the scientists have about the ice and our climate,” Taylor said.

Taylor and the team at Little Dome C drove a tightly spaced grid over two areas about 2.5 square miles in size. The radar collected a tremendous amount of data initially analyzed on-site using software developed by students and faculty from UA.

“It became apparent to everyone these data were much improved from anything seen before in this area,” Taylor said. “It is a testament to the effort put forth by the leadership, faculty, staff and students of the Remote Sensing Center over the past weeks and months.”

The data was further analyzed and modelled in European laboratories, allowing scientist to confirm with a meter-scale resolution the exact future drilling site. The radar imaging showed there should not be any ice melting at the base, despite the tremendous pressure of the mass of ice above it. The characteristics of the deeper layers, with ice at least 1.5 million years old, should be preserved with a good temporal resolution, the scientist believe.

“It is the first time that a site for deep drilling has been selected with such a high precision and effort,” said Dr. Olaf Eisen with the Alfred Wegener Institute and one of the leaders of the Beyond EPICA project. “The new radar measurement showed more clearly than before, that the ice there is well stratified and most probably very old.”

If the project proceeds according to plan, it will take six years to drill, collect and analyze the ice from what will be a deep hole.

(This story originally appeared on The University of Alabama’s News Center website)

2 years ago

Cognitive neuroscientist to lead Alabama Life Research Institute at University of Alabama

(Alabama NewsCenter/Contributed)

After a national search, a noteworthy researcher in cognitive neuroscience will lead the Alabama Life Research Institute as executive director.

As the first full-time head of ALRI, Dr. Sharlene D. Newman will provide a coherent vision for collaborative life research that embraces the full range of disciplines represented on campus while strengthening the University of Alabama’s research portfolio and profile.

602

“Life research is a signature research theme at UA and needs teams from across campus to address major opportunities and challenges,” said Dr. Kevin Whitaker, UA executive vice president and provost. “Dr. Newman has demonstrated the ability to bring together and lead cross-disciplinary teams, so we are so pleased she will be joining us.”

ALRI was established two years ago to serve as a focal point for interdisciplinary bio-psychosocial research that seeks to investigate the human condition at all levels, from the molecular to the environmental. An umbrella organization, ALRI facilitates collaboration across campus with other institutions, government agencies, community-based organization and the health care and biotechnology industries.

“We firmly believe Dr. Newman has the vision, experience and skill set to be highly successful as the executive director of the Alabama Life Research Institute,” said Dr. Russell J. Mumper, UA vice president for research and economic development. “We will fully support her vision to ensure leading-edge research into the human condition thrives at the university.”

A native of Abbeville, Alabama, Newman comes to UA after more than 14 years at Indiana University, where she was a Class of 1948 Herman B. Wells Endowed Professor in psychological and brain sciences as well as associate vice provost for undergraduate education.

“I see a great opportunity for the ALRI to make a significant impact on the health and well-being of the state of Alabama, and to become a leader in life science research by leveraging the expertise present in multiple departments across campus,” Newman said.

Newman’s research focuses on understanding human brain functioning using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. Her work examines language processing, executive function and problem solving, substance addictions, psychopathology and MRI methodology.

She has helped clarify functional distinctions between brain regions involved in sentence comprehension, strengthening earlier interpretations of the functional roles assigned to different brain regions and providing strong empirical support for a particular theoretical model of sentence comprehension.

Among the first scientists to use neuroimaging to study complex language function, Newman is a founding member of the IU Imaging Research Facility and later served as its director, where she developed collaborations investigating schizophrenia, the impact of cannabis and other substances on brain function, and concussions and brain health.

She later became the director of the Program in Neuroscience within IU’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Newman also chaired the Diversity Advancement Committee in her department, initiating regular gatherings for the department’s minority students to discuss concerns and opportunities.

During her time in Indiana, she collaborated across campus with clinical scientists in her own department along with researchers in speech and hearing sciences, vision science, the media school and second language studies.

Newman earned her master’s and doctorate in biomedical engineering from the University of Alabama at Birmingham after finishing her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University.

After graduating from UAB in 1999, she worked as a postdoctoral associate and adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University until 2004. She joined IU that year as an assistant professor, becoming associate professor in 2011 and a full professor in 2017. She was tapped as an associate vice provost in 2016.

At UA, Newman holds a joint academic appointment in the department of psychology along with the department of electrical and computer engineering.

She replaces Dr. John E. Lochman, Saxon professor emeritus in psychology, who served as interim executive director.

“We are grateful to Dr. Lochman for his strong leadership of ALRI and moving life research forward at UA,” Mumper said. “He and the search committee accomplished outstanding work in identifying superb candidates and helping UA land the very best leader for life research.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

University of Alabama researchers uncover critical insights into bacterial immune systems

(University of Alabama/Contributed)

Researchers at the University of Alabama discovered how a common skin bacteria wards off viruses by leveraging cellular processes normally not considered part of any immune system.

This discovery constitutes another milestone in understanding how to harness bacterial viruses to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.

An immune system in Staphylococcus bacteria UA researchers studied does not function on its own. Instead, it collaborates with other enzymes inside the cell to mount an effective defense against viral infection, according to a paper published in the journal eLife.

427

Dr. Asma Hatoum-Aslan, UA assistant professor of biological sciences, and one of her graduate students, Lucy Chou-Zheng, are co-authors on the paper.

“There are a lot of far-reaching consequences of the work,” Hatoum-Aslan said. “This basic research provides first glimpses of how an important bacterial defensive system mobilizes other parts of the cell in times of need.”

The human body hosts all sorts of bacteria and the viruses that attack them, called phages. There is limited knowledge about what transpires between phages and their bacterial hosts within the microbiome.

Some phages are lethal to their hosts and constitute attractive candidates that might one day supplement or replace antibiotics. However, bacterial defenses threaten to undermine the effectiveness of phage-based antimicrobials.

“Since phages are being explored as alternatives to conventional antibiotics, it is essential to understand precisely how bacterial immune systems work and interact with their immediate environment, especially in pathogenic bacteria,” Hatoum-Aslan said. “In addition, detailed molecular-level studies of this sort usually provide fertile grounds for the conception and development of new biotechnologies.“

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

EPA grant to University of Alabama team assists in understanding wastewater issues in rural Alabama

(University of Alabama/Contributed)

Researchers from the University of Alabama are shedding light on the issue of raw sewage draining into waterways of the state’s Black Belt region, a problem garnering international attention.

With a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, UA researchers from environmental engineering and geology will build a model to quantify the extent of untreated raw sewage discharges from homes throughout five counties in the Black Belt, an economically depressed region in the state named for its dark, rich soil.

593

“Basically, the big issue with rural wastewater that we see in Alabama is the confluence of impermeable soil and rural poverty,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, UA associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “The fact is, though, the scope of that problem is not well understood.”

The situation has brought the attention of the United Nations, which sent an official to examine straight pipe drainage in 2017. There has also been national and international reporting on the conditions as studies have shown diseases and parasites common in tropical areas, and once thought contained in the United States, are appearing in the Black Belt.

Much of the country can dispose of household wastewater safely, either into a sewer system that leads to a treatment plant or into a septic system that uses engineering and natural geology to filter out contaminants before reaching the groundwater.

The Black Belt, an area of 17 counties across southwest Alabama, is often different. Underneath the topsoil is clay and chalk, which holds water. This can cause a backup of a septic system and risk sending untreated wastewater into the streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater nearby.

Added to the soil challenge, the Black Belt is a poverty-stricken area of the country, especially outside its small towns. Many find it difficult to afford advanced septic systems needed for the soil, instead using a straight pipe running from the home to some other part of the property to drain untreated wastewater.

A 2017 survey by Elliott’s group in Wilcox County conservatively estimated that 60 percent of homes drain wastewater without treatment. Elliott said it is possible more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage enter the rivers and streams in Wilcox County each day.

Site surveys are expensive and time-consuming, so the full extent of straight pipe drainage in the region is largely unknown.

“Not knowing the scope of the problem prevents any sort of estimate of how much it costs to fix the problem or the benefits of fixing the problem,” Elliott said.

Aaron Blackwell, a graduate student in Elliott’s lab, leads the work of making maps to predict the risk of homes using straight pipe drainage. The maps combine geological information of the soil, property values from the county government and population density to show areas where there is greater risk of homes discharging untreated waste through straight pipes.

“Based on a just a few publicly available data sets, we can come up with decent estimates of where these straight pipes are located and how much wastewater is being discharged untreated to the environment,” Elliott said. “This is an important step.”

The maps can show areas where intervention could be effective, such as clusters of homes outside a town that could share a simple treatment system, he said.

The $15,000 grant to UA comes through EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet, or P3, program. Research teams receive funding to develop sustainable technologies to help solve environmental and public health challenges. The P3 competition challenges students to research, develop and design innovative projects that address a myriad of environmental protection and public health issues.

UA’s team is in the first phase of the program, and it will attend the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo in Boston in June to showcase its research. The team can then apply for a second-phase grant for funding up to $100,000 to further the project design.

Other members of the team include Dr. Joseph Weber, UA professor of geological sciences; Dr. Sagy Cohen, UA associate professor of geological sciences, and Rebecca Greenberg, a UA graduate student studying geology.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

EPA grant to University of Alabama team assists in understanding wastewater issues in rural Alabama

University of Alabama graduate student Aaron Blackwell, left, works with fellow graduate student Parnab Dason on an earlier project studying straight pipe drainage. (University of Alabama)

Researchers from the University of Alabama are shedding light on the issue of raw sewage draining into waterways of the state’s Black Belt region, a problem garnering international attention.

With a grant from the federal Environmental Protection Agency, UA researchers from environmental engineering and geology will build a model to quantify the extent of untreated raw sewage discharges from homes throughout five counties in the Black Belt, an economically depressed region in the state named for its dark, rich soil.

“Basically, the big issue with rural wastewater that we see in Alabama is the confluence of impermeable soil and rural poverty,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, UA associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering. “The fact is, though, the scope of that problem is not well understood.”

555

The situation has brought the attention of the United Nations, which sent an official to examine straight pipe drainage in 2017. There has also been national and international reporting on the conditions as studies have shown diseases and parasites common in tropical areas, and once thought contained in the United States, are appearing in the Black Belt.

Much of the country can dispose of household wastewater safely, either into a sewer system that leads to a treatment plant or into a septic system that uses engineering and natural geology to filter out contaminants before reaching the groundwater.

The Black Belt, an area of 17 counties across southwest Alabama, is often different. Underneath the topsoil is clay and chalk, which holds water. This can cause a backup of a septic system and risk sending untreated wastewater into the streams, lakes, rivers and groundwater nearby.

Added to the soil challenge, the Black Belt is a poverty-stricken area of the country, especially outside its small towns. Many find it difficult to afford advanced septic systems needed for the soil, instead using a straight pipe running from the home to some other part of the property to drain untreated wastewater.

A 2017 survey by Elliott’s group in Wilcox County conservatively estimated that 60 percent of homes drain wastewater without treatment. Elliott said it is possible more than 500,000 gallons of raw sewage enter the rivers and streams in Wilcox County each day.

Site surveys are expensive and time-consuming, so the full extent of straight pipe drainage in the region is largely unknown.

“Not knowing the scope of the problem prevents any sort of estimate of how much it costs to fix the problem or the benefits of fixing the problem,” Elliott said.

Aaron Blackwell, a graduate student in Elliott’s lab, leads the work of making maps to predict the risk of homes using straight pipe drainage. The maps combine geological information of the soil, property values from the county government and population density to show areas where there is greater risk of homes discharging untreated waste through straight pipes.

“Based on a just a few publicly available data sets, we can come up with decent estimates of where these straight pipes are located and how much wastewater is being discharged untreated to the environment,” Elliott said. “This is an important step.”

The maps can show areas where intervention could be effective, such as clusters of homes outside a town that could share a simple treatment system, he said.

The $15,000 grant to UA comes through EPA’s People, Prosperity and the Planet, or P3, program. Research teams receive funding to develop sustainable technologies to help solve environmental and public health challenges. The P3 competition challenges students to research, develop and design innovative projects that address a myriad of environmental protection and public health issues.

UA’s team is in the first phase of the program, and it will attend the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo in Boston in June to showcase its research. The team can then apply for a second-phase grant for funding up to $100,000 to further the project design.

Other members of the team include Dr. Joseph Weber, UA professor of geological sciences; Dr. Sagy Cohen, UA associate professor of geological sciences, and Rebecca Greenberg, a UA graduate student studying geology.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

2 years ago

In frigid Greenland, University of Alabama engineering student helps understand climate

(Joshua Nunn)

Joshua Nunn had never been outside the United States before graduate school. In fact, he’d never flown in a plane. That all changed on a visit to Greenland, a journey that included a flight on a C-130 military plane.

That’s a long way from his hometown of Talladega. And the weather differences during Greenland’s “summer,” as it’s technically called, and Alabama’s are vast, too. While people sweltered in Alabama’s heat, it never warmed above freezing for the two weeks Nunn and two other researchers from the University of Alabama worked in Greenland.

398

“The whole experience was a lot of fun,” Nunn said. “It was a great opportunity and great experience. I would go again if I could.”

He was there to help drag a one-of-a-kind radar across the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream. Developed and built by UA professors and students, the radar helps scientists unveil ancient climate history and provides perspectives on improving climate models.

The team included Nunn, graduate student Christopher Simpson and Dr. Stephen J. Yan, who specializes in ultra-wideband radar and antenna research.

The radar is 1,000 times more sensitive than the current state-of-the-art radar used to image glaciers, operating at a higher power with a bigger, yet lighter, antenna than similar radars for ice sounding, said Yan. The research team was the first to use a radar to image the bottom 10 percent of the ice stream, which is about 1.7 miles deep, Yan said. These results will contribute to developing satellite missions to completely map Greenland and Antarctic ice.

Nunn grew up in Talladega and graduated from Victory Christian High School in Pell City, coming to UA to study electrical engineering. After earning his bachelor’s degree in December 2017, he stayed at UA to get a master’s in electrical engineering.

Nunn worked on the radar technology under Yan before the trip, and while in Greenland he used his knowledge to troubleshoot issues and back up data from the radar.

“I helped make sure the radar didn’t break,” Nunn said. “I learned how these missions generally go and learned how field work is conducted.”

The team stayed on top of the ice stream at a camp housing scientists studying its flow into the ocean. In the middle of white ice, Nunn and the UA team hunkered down at night in a tent with electricity supplied by a generator. Still, one morning, Nunn awoke to find frozen water in a cup beside his bed.

The team had internet with Netflix and could call home, too. In a common area under a domed structure, there was space for a kitchen, meals, shower and laundry. An on-site chef served up some of the best food Nunn had ever eaten.

It was an international team of scientists and engineers, but everyone spoke English, Nunn said.

“It was good to work with folks from another country,” he said. “Everyone should go, if they get a chance.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

3 years ago

University of Alabama wins fourth straight championship — in robotics

(University of Alabama)

Make it four in a row.

University of Alabama students who competed in a NASA robotics contest came away with the top prize again, making it four straight years for the team from UA to win.

Alabama Astrobotics took the top prize at the NASA Robotic Mining Competition, besting student teams from more than 50 other institutions in the challenge to build a robot capable of navigating and excavating simulated Martian soil, or regolith.

420

Made up of about 65 students from across eight disciplines including engineering and computer science, Alabama Astrobotics is the only team to win more than once in the nine-year history of the NASA contest, placing first in 2012, 2015, 2016, 2017 and, now, 2018.

“Our team is just like a football team, you have seniors who graduate at the end and you have new people coming in at the beginning, so every year it’s a completely different team,” said team lead and electrical engineering student Max Eastepp. “For us to be successful this year says a lot for this team and says a lot for how we adapt to new challenges each year.”

Eastepp, a native of New Orleans, said teamwork is critical as students worked from July through the contest this month to design the robot and tackle the new problem NASA presented this year.

Contest organizers revised the rules and rubrics this year to reflect the discovery that water ice is prevalent throughout the Red Planet. The challenge is to mine the precious icy regolith, simulated with gravel in the contest, since water ice will provide oxygen, water and fuel for future off-world colonists.

What that meant for the contest, though, is no points were awarded to teams for digging the top foot of regolith. Teams earned points for collecting the gravel 12 inches below the surface.

UA’s robot mined more of the gravel than any other team in the contest, with many teams failing to mine any gravel.

Also, Alabama Astrobotics was the only team with a robot that competed entirely autonomously, meaning the robot used computer programming to guide itself, mine and deposit the soil and gravel without any directions from students during the contest.

The team placed first in five of nine categories: mining, autonomy, systems engineering paper, efficient use of communications power and outreach reports. In all, the students won $11,000 for use on next year’s robot.

Dr. Kenneth Ricks, team adviser and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, said the team’s consistent success comes from a culture of sticking to a plan – meeting deadlines, testing thoroughly before competition and paying attention to detail.

“We know what needs to be done and when it needs to be done,” he said. “If our students buy into that process, they know they will have opportunities to be successful.”

The team received funding from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, NASA, DyneticsFitz-Thors EngineeringCrank N Chrome and the university.

(Courtesy of University of Alabama)

3 years ago

UA Study — State crash data shows seat belt use critical in saving lives

(State Farm/Flickr)

Those involved in auto crashes while not wearing seat belts are 40 times more likely to die than those who buckle up, according to an analysis of state crash records from the past five years.

For the study, University of Alabama researchers at the Center for Advanced Public Safety examined crash records from 2013 through 2017 provided by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, or ALEA.

Crash records showed about one out of every 25 unrestrained motorists involved in a crash will suffer a fatal injury, but only about one out of every 1,000 restrained motorists involved in a crash will have a fatal injury. This means that people are 40 times more likely to be killed without restraints.

383

One reason for this is those ejected from vehicles during crashes have 50 times the death rate as those who remain in the vehicles, and the probability of being thrown from vehicles increases about 337 times for those not restrained.

“There is no doubt that seat belts are the most effective way of reducing the chances of getting killed in a crash,” said Dr. David Brown, a research associate at CAPS who led the study. “The chances of avoiding a crash altogether that involves injury over your driving lifetime is very low, so these are not just hypothetical or extreme examples. They are real life-and-death probabilities.”

Along with an increased chance of dying in a crash if unrestrained, there is an increased chance of serious injury. About one in seven unrestrained motorists involved in a crash will sustain a serious injury, while only about one in 50 properly restrained motorists will have a serious injury.

The chances of serious injury for those unrestrained increase by more than a factor of seven. For those who buckle up, nine out of 10 are not injured during a crash.

Some of the other interesting factors include driver and passenger demographics and other correlations:

–Those between the ages 17 and 36 are unrestrained significantly more than average.
–Males are about twice as likely to be unrestrained as females.
–If all back-seat occupants were properly restrained, it would result in an estimated saving of 62 lives per year in Alabama.
–Unrestrained drivers are about 2.5 times more likely to have their crashes in the rural areas than in the cities.

Brown said there are many things drivers should do to prevent severe traffic crashes in addition to the use of seatbelts. They include, in the order of ability to prevent fatal crashes:

–Slowing down, as the probability of fatality doubles for every 10 mph increase.
–Pulling over to a safe stopping point until distractions, such as cell phones, are resolved.
–Never driving or riding with anyone who has had any alcohol or who has taken any mind-altering drugs, even if prescribed.
–Anticipating and avoiding bad weather, especially when coupled with darkness.
–Watching for deer if traveling just after dark and slowing down.
–Driving defensively to reduce risk by putting distance between others vehicles, staying out of the blind spots of large trucks and letting aggressive drivers pass.

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)