The Wire

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


    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


    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


    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.

4 days ago

Dual enrollment student’s drug delivery research is third at international science fair

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Research on a better way to deliver chemotherapy drugs to reduce side effects earned a dual enrollment student at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Bob Jones High School in Madison third place in the material science category of the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair 2021 (ISEF).

Kailyn Grant, a rising senior at Bob Jones as well as a student at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, was among 1,800 international student contestants overall at the fair.

“There were around 60 excellent global entries in my category, and I wasn’t certain if my entry would even make the cut,” Grant says.

Dual enrollment allows students to receive UAH credits while still in high school. Students must receive permission from their parent or guardian, high school counselor and principal to take dual enrollment courses. Grant credits her dual enrollment education at UAH with helping her win.


“I was in school when I found out and later that day, the fact sank in that I was actually declared a grand award winner,” she says. “It’s incredibly humbling to know that your work has been acknowledged at this prestigious international competition. Needless to say, I am simply elated and very grateful for this recognition.”

Titled “Targeted Core-Shell Nanoassembly Composed of a Mesoporous Silica Core, Liposome Shell, and GE11 Peptide as a Drug Delivery Nanocarrier,” her project was selected to advance at both the North Alabama Regional Science and Engineering Fair and the Alabama Science and Engineering Fair (ASEF).

“At the ASEF level, I won two awards, the best of fair award and the first place in category award, before advancing to the ISEF level,” says Grant, who was advised at UAH by Dr. Hapuarachchige Surangi Jayawardena, an assistant professor of chemistry.

“Kailyn is an intelligent, hard-working student who has reaped the rewards of her hard work,” says Dr. Jayawardena. “I am her research advisor and I also funded her research. She carried out the research in my lab under the direct supervision of myself and my graduate student Kavini Rathnayake.”

Grant’s explored delivering therapeutic drugs by using a core-shell nanoassembly that encapsulates doxorubicin-loaded mesoporous silica nanoparticles.

“My preliminary research has proven that this delivery method is an effective alternative drug delivery system and would not harm the healthy cells surrounding the cancerous cells,” she says.

Dr. Jayawardena’s laboratory at UAH is equipped with a Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy machine and a dynamic light scattering machine, both necessary to Grant’s research.

“Additionally, I also used a UV-visible spectrophotometer to track the progress of the nanocarriers and confirmed that they had been correctly made,” Grant says. “I used the data from these machines to create and develop graphs and charts for research and data analytical purposes.”

While her research was primarily focused in the materials science arena, Grant says her UAH education in probability and statistics was essential.

“The analysis for my research required a keen understanding of statistics. I was able to apply the knowledge learned by creating the right type of analysis that is essential for my project paper,” she says. “Dr. Jayawardena’s guidance during the ISEF competition was invaluable and I appreciate everyone at the Department of Chemistry for their support in enabling me to independently complete my research.”

Her experience at UAH has enabled her to gain valuable insights into university campus life in general, says Grant, who plans to major in biomedical engineering in college.

“The interaction with other undergrad students and the classes conducted by university professors have been beneficial,” she says. “And I truly feel that my positive experience as a dual-enrolled student at UAH has given me the confidence to embrace university life during the next chapter of my learning journey.”

UAH typically admits 35-55 dual enrollment students every semester, says Austin McDonald, associate director of admissions. Most local high schools inform their students about UAH’s dual enrollment opportunities, and the university attends dual enrollment college fairs as well as sponsoring information sessions. Interested parents and students can also email

“Dual enrollment allows students to gain real college experience before graduating high school,” McDonald says. “They can learn the skills they need to be successful in college while taking just a course or two.”

Students who are dual enrolled also have the opportunity to get ahead on their coursework so that when they get to their university, they have more flexibility with their academic program and can focus on their major specific coursework, according to McDonald.

“They get the experience of interacting with faculty members, learning how to manage a college course load and becoming fully prepared to start at a university after high school.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

2 weeks ago

When the James Webb telescope launches, 25 years of UAH R&D involvement will soar


After a scheduled November launch, when NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) achieves orbit and unfurls the 18 gold-coated beryllium segments of its 6.5-meter primary mirror, over two decades of crucial UAH partnership in the project will also blossom.

The technical challenges of JWST allied UAH as a partner in the international project with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), Johnson Space Center (JSC) and private industry.

The telescope will launch aboard a European Space Agency Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. JWST will open vast new vistas to scientific exploration, viewing them via an “eye” that researchers at UAH’s Center for Applied Optics (CAO) have had critical partnership roles in conceiving, perfecting and testing.

For CAO Principal Research Scientist Dr. James Hadaway in particular, it will be a watershed event.


“I remember many times during my work on JWST when I would just stop and think to myself, ‘Wow, I’m working on the largest space telescope ever built, how cool is that?’” Dr. Hadaway says. “It is very exciting to be nearing the launch, after which I will be able to see the fruition of all that work.”

A long hauler, Dr. Hadaway has been deeply involved in JWST since 1996.

“I did want to be a part of the optical testing of the telescope optics from the beginning through to the end,” he says. “I thought that if at least one person was there for the entire process, it would provide a valuable opportunity to use the experience gained along the way to help ensure a successful overall testing program.”

For Dr. Patrick Reardon, currently the CAO director, who began in 1998 to support the design and testing work led by Dr. Hadaway, the coming launch marks a remarkable concentration of public and private research.

“First, it is hard to believe that something I and so many others here at UAH and across the city have invested so much time and talent into is finally culminating with a launch. I started on this 23 years ago – the same time my daughter was born!” says Dr. Reardon.

“Second, I am proud that I was able to be a part of this project, especially given the great work we did and the excellent leadership James Hadaway provided as the UAH project lead.”

In March, the telescope completed its final functional tests at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, Calif., to prepare for launch. Designed to observe the most distant stars and galaxies ever viewed, JWST works by gathering their faint infrared energy with its large primary mirror. During flight, the telescope’s mirror will be folded up before it flowers.

“I had been working on potential optical designs for a 20- to 30-meter diameter space telescope for Marshall Space Flight Center’s Advanced Concepts group,” Dr. Hadaway says. “When JWST came along, planned as a 6- to 8-meter telescope, NASA asked me to lead a team to develop an initial optical design.”

After that effort, Dr. Hadaway was asked if UAH could take the lead in developing and operating an optical measurement system for testing various mirror technologies that could potentially meet the requirements for the JWST primary mirror. JWST’s mission depends on a near-perfect mirror, and that meant lots of testing on Earth at temperatures approximating the extreme cold of outer space.

“So, I put together a team within the CAO to work with the folks at MSFC’s X-Ray and Cryogenic Facility (XRCF) to test these mirrors in their large vacuum chamber, which cooled them to the JWST operating temperature of minus 378 degrees Fahrenheit,” Dr. Hadaway says.

Dr. Reardon supported Dr. Hadaway, the project’s principal investigator, by assisting in the design and development of the optics test system, and then working at the XRCF performing a series of tests on different candidate mirror technologies.

“The mirrors had to be lightweight and there were several competing technologies from different organizations that had to be tested to see which was the best for JWST,” says Dr. Reardon, adding that the mirrors were both parabolic and off-axis.

“A parabolic mirror is a rotationally symmetric form, however a section that is not centered on the axis of rotation is no longer rotationally symmetric,” he says. “That meant the testing of the mirror was considerably more complicated.”

A lot of time was invested in developing a method and procedure to verify the mirror alignment, and on analysis of the system.

“I was then testing the candidate mirrors, applying the test procedures we had developed,” Dr. Reardon says. “These tests were completed and NASA made a selection of the mirror technology.”

After the flight hardware was developed, exacting appraisal of the 18 JWST flight primary mirror segments began. Working as part of a subcontractor team for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. (BATC) that included Dr. Reardon, Dr. Hadaway was about to find out how the lightweight mirrors would perform in space conditions.

From 2010-2012, the 18 mirrors arrived in six batches for examination. As anticipated, once cooled with liquid nitrogen and gaseous helium in a bus-sized chamber at the XRCF, the mirrors deformed in the extreme cold. Data from the first round of testing was then used by BATC to re-polish the mirrors to correct the deformations. Finally, a second round of testing was performed to ensure the mirrors were near-perfect at their cryogenic operational temperature.

MSFC backup generators saved the day once when a carefully cooled test batch reached its target temperature just as a supercell, multiple tornado event swept the area on April 27, 2011, cutting power.

In addition to working on mirror evaluation, Dr. Reardon supported a 24/7 testing cycle for the backplane that holds the mirror segments.

“Measurements were needed to verify that the structure the mirrors were going to be attached to was stable, and that its changes when going from ambient to cryogenic temperatures were well understood,” Dr. Reardon says.

The involvement of the CAO and Dr. Hadaway didn’t end there.

“With the experience we had gained in testing mirrors at cryogenic temperatures, the project leaders at GSFC then asked us to support the testing of the full telescope in an eight-story vacuum chamber at JSC,” Dr. Hadaway says. “I worked for several more years with ITT-Exelis, now part of Harris Corp., to successfully complete that testing.”

Though there were many technical challenges throughout UAH’s involvement in the JWST program, Dr. Hadaway says the biggest was aligning the 18 primary mirror segments during the full telescope testing at JSC.

“We had to align them to each other to within 150 nanometers, or 0.000006 inch, without being able to actually touch them, since they were inside a vacuum chamber,” he says. “But with a lot of great people on our team, we were able to meet the requirement.”

Working on JWST accelerated the growth of UAH’s CAO in optical systems modeling, optical fabrication and testing, Dr. Reardon says. As well as the research the project yielded, the telescope supported CAO student research projects, master’s theses and doctoral dissertations. At least five doctoral degrees and five master’s degrees were conferred because of the work.

“We learned a lot on this project. Optical modeling techniques. Optical test procedures for complex surfaces. Cryogenic testing. Large, lightweight optics,” Dr. Reardon says. “We were able to leverage the success and growth we had from this project to acquire our first major equipment upgrade in 15 years, the Moore Nanotech 250UPL diamond turning machine, thanks to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.”

The Nanotech enabled the CAO to produce optics for many local, regional and national companies. It can produce non-rotationally symmetric optical surfaces up to about 300 mm diameter.

“Having this diamond turning machine helped us win the National Science Foundation proposal to acquire the Zeeko IRP600X free-form polisher, an instrument that can produce optics up to about 600 mm diameter that we have successfully applied to many substrate materials including aluminum, Zerodur, borosilicate and even 3D printed Invar 36,” Dr. Reardon says.

“With some recently acquired advanced metrology equipment, from both donations and purchases, our testing now matches our fabrication capability.”

The JWST brought UAH – a university founded on America’s space quest – into close developmental partnership with NASA, the ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, all of which are involved in the telescope.

“JWST is a massive international collaboration,” says Dr. Hadaway. “The interactions with the dedicated people within all of these organizations were very rewarding for us, with many permanent relationships established.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 weeks ago

‘Lonely cloud’ bigger than Milky Way found in a galaxy ‘no-man’s land’ by UAH physics team

(European Space Agency/XMM-Newton)

A scientifically mysterious, isolated cloud bigger than the Milky Way has been found by a research team at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) in a “no-man’s land” for galaxies.

The so-called orphan or lonely cloud is full of hot gas with temperatures of 10,000-10,000,000 degrees Kelvin (K) and a total mass 10 billion times the mass of the sun. That makes it larger than the mass of small galaxies.

The cloud was discovered in Abell 1367 by a group led by Dr. Ming Sun, an associate professor of physics at UAH, which is a part of the University of Alabama System. Also called the Leo Cluster, A1367 contains around 70 galaxies and is located around 300 million light years from Earth.


The research paper was led by Dr. Ming’s UAH postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Chong Ge, and the second author is also his postdoctoral researcher, Dr. Rongxin Luo. Dr. Sun is third author and the corresponding author. Also included on the paper is Tim Edge, who now works at Dynetics Inc.

The cloud was found using the European Space Agency (ESA) X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM-Newton), Europe’s flagship X-ray telescope. The cloud was also observed with the European Southern Observatory Very Large Telescope/Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (VLT/MUSE) and Japan’s flagship optical telescope, Subaru. An image of the cloud is on the ESA site.

“This is an exciting and also a surprising discovery. It demonstrates that new surprises are always out there in astronomy, as the oldest of the natural sciences.” Dr. Sun says. “Apparently, ESA agrees as our discovery was selected as an ESA image release, which has been very selective.”

XMM took the X-ray image of the cloud and the optical images were taken by VLT/MUSE and Subaru. Except for the Subaru images, Dr. Sun is the principal investigator for the XMM and VLT/MUSE data.

“The cloud was serendipitously discovered in our XMM data,” says Dr. Sun. “The optical data come from our VLT/MUSE data and confirm the cloud is located in the cluster.”

The cloud was discovered in a cluster of galaxies where thousands of galaxies are bound together with tenuous hot gas with temperatures of about 100,000,000 K existing between them, says Dr. Sun.

“However, the cloud is not associated with any galaxy and is in a ‘no-galaxy’s land,’” he says, adding that the cloud most likely originated from a large, unknown galaxy in the cluster.

“The gas in the cloud is removed by ram pressure of the hot gas in the cluster, when the host galaxy is soaring in the hot gas with a velocity of 1,000-2,000 kilometers per second.”

That’s about 50 times faster than the orbital speed of Earth around the sun. That level of force at work can rip the interstellar medium out of a galaxy, and in this case the researchers found that the temperature of the cloud is consistent with having originated from a galaxy.

“It is like when your hairs and clothes are flying backward when you are running forward against a strong headwind,” Dr. Sun says. “Once removed from the host galaxy, the cloud is initially cold and is evaporating in the host intracluster medium, like ice melting in the summer.”

Yet it is estimated that this massive, mysterious cloud has survived for hundreds of millions of years after removal from its host galaxy.

“This surprising longevity is poorly understood but may have something to do with the magnetic field in the cloud,” Dr. Sun says.

The field may act to hold the cloud together by suppressing unstable forces that would otherwise cause it to dissipate, the scientists think.

With future study, Dr, Ming says that the lonely cloud and others that are yet to be discovered could help scientists better understand stripped interstellar mediums at great distances from their galaxies, as well as the effects of turbulence and heat conduction.

“As the first isolated cloud glowing in both the H-alpha spectral line and X-rays in a cluster of galaxies, it shows that the gas removed from galaxies can create clumps in the intracluster medium, and these clumps can be discovered with wide-field optical survey data in the future.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 weeks ago

Deaf and hard of hearing high schoolers learn about cybersecurity at UAH GenCyber Camp

(Michael Kulick/Contributed)

Fifteen deaf and hard of hearing high school students from at least nine states are learning about cybersecurity and computer technologies this week during the fifth annual GenCyber Camp for deaf and hard of hearing students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

“Due to the increase in cybersecurity threats, there’s been a rapidly growing demand for specialists with the background in cybersecurity skills,” says Steven Forney, a research associate at UAH’s Systems Management and Production Center who is helping conduct the camp and who is deaf himself.

The camp, being held by UAH’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education (CCRE), has attracted campers from states including New York, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.


“This camp comes with the resources and skills that can help the deaf and hard of hearing students to become more familiar with different kinds of tools and systems and provide them the ability to perform various cybersecurity tasks with the right soft skills and mindset,” Forney says.

“Students will learn about online safety, cybersecurity careers, cryptography and more,” says Jesse Hairston, CCRE assistant director. “This year our focus is on digital forensics and programming microcontrollers.”

GenCyber is funded through a grant from the National Security Agency.

“We partner closely with the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf Regional STEM Center and the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind to bring in students from across the country and make GenCyber a memorable experience for these campers,” Hairston says. “Our partnership with the FBI gives our campers experience with real-world tools as they learn about cybersecurity careers and online safety.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

4 weeks ago

UAH-led space weather prediction research could be critical to Space Force Command

(Talwinder Singh, Mehmet S. Yalim, Nikolai V. Pogorelov and Nat Gopalswamy/American Astronomical Society)

Research to improve space weather predictions by Dr. Nikolai Pogorelov at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, will boost abilities crucial to the success of the defense mission of the Space Force Command that’s set to be located here.

“The cutting-edge research being done by Dr Pogorelov, and indeed many of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and Department of Space Science (SPA) researchers, is of immediate interest to the Space Force Command because it provides the kind of forecasting and predictive capabilities that are essential to the protection of our military and civilian space-based assets,” says Dr. Gary Zank, CSPAR director and SPA chair.

The Space Force will be concerned with the integrity and resilience of communications, global positioning and navigation, and short- and long-term response to natural threats initiated by solar disturbances, Dr. Zank says, whether they are from disruptions to the Earth’s magnetosphere or the rapid intensification of highly energetic particles capable of destroying satellite components.


“For this, an understanding and predictive capability for the complex solar-geospace coupling is critical,” he says.

The work of Dr. Pogorelov and his colleagues, which has been acknowledged by the NSF, illustrates that Huntsville possesses the scientific and technical expertise to support the new headquarters, Dr. Zank says.

“Indeed, UAH through its CSPAR/SPA researchers are leading world-class research programs that are important to space weather and so would be critical to the Space Force’s mission,” he says.

Dr. Pogorelov, a distinguished professor in UAH’s SPA and at CSPAR, is the principal investigator for the UAH-led, three-year, $3.2 million National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA project to develop the physical and computational aspects of solar atmosphere and inner heliosphere software models useful to predict space weather.

Solar storms can be strong enough to send highly-magnetized plasma battering through the Earth’s magnetosphere, the magnetic shield that protects the planet. The disruptions could hamper a space defense system, damaging electrical grids, satellites, sensitive electronics and the equipment needed to communicate with the kinds of spacecraft on which the Space Force will rely.

Those potentially catastrophic effects make accurate space weather prediction a vital goal for national defense.

“The solar wind emerging from the sun is the main driving mechanism of solar events, which may lead to geomagnetic storms that are the primary causes of space weather disturbances that affect the magnetic environment of Earth and may have hazardous effects on space-borne and ground-based technological systems, as well as human health,” Dr. Pogorelov says. “For this reason, accurate modeling of the solar wind is a necessary part of space weather forecasting.”

Dr. Pogorelov’s research team uses the Frontera supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at The University of Texas at Austin, the ninth fastest in the world, and computers at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing Facility at NASA’s Ames Research Center and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

The project team includes UAH, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (co-principal investigator Brian Van Straalen), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC; co-principal investigator Charles N. Arge), Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC; co-principal investigator Ghee Fry), and two private companies, Predictive Science Inc. (co-principal investigator Jon Linker) and Space Systems Research Corp. (co-principal investigator Lisa Upton).

The team is focused on improving the software, modeling and methodology necessary to accurately predict solar weather events, but other new science is emerging from the research. The diversity of the team makes it possible to address challenges in coupling the models of the solar corona and inner heliosphere.

Recently, Dr. Pogorelov – along with Dr. Michael Gedalin of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Israel, and Dr. Vadim Roytershteyn of the Space Science Institute – described in Astrophysical Journal the shock acceleration of non-thermal ions in the universe. Such ions are either of interstellar or local origin. They are picked up by the magnetized solar wind plasma and move radially outwards from the sun.

“Some non-thermal particles can be further accelerated to create solar energetic particles that are particularly important for space weather conditions on Earth and for people in space,” Dr. Pogorelov says.

Using the fastest national computers, Dr. Pogorelov with his team at SPA and CSPAR performed simulations to better understand physical processes occurring in the solar wind and compare them with observations from New Horizons, Parker Solar Probe, Ulysses and Voyager 1 and 2, the spacecraft that explored the outer reaches of the heliosphere and are now providing data from the local interstellar medium.

Correctly forecasting the arrival at Earth of coronal mass ejections and determining the direction of the magnetic field is essential to space weather prediction, and a study of non-thermal ions by Dr. Pogorelov’s team helped that effort, as did work published in the Astrophysical Journal in 2020 that used a flux rope-based magnetohydrodynamic model to predict the arrival time to Earth and magnetic field configuration of the July 12, 2012, coronal mass ejection.

“The connection of the interplanetary magnetic field to CME-related shocks and impulsive solar flares determines where solar energetic particles propagate,” Dr. Pogorelov says. “Data-driven modeling of stream interactions in the background solar wind and CMEs propagating through it are necessary parts of space weather forecasting.”

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts the state of the ambient solar wind and the arrival time of CMEs using an empirically-driven solar wind model. Dr. Pogorelov’s team is charged by the NSF and NASA with developing a new generation software for space weather predictions. It will use adaptive mesh refinement to increase predictive capabilities, take advantage of modern computer architectures and is projected to serve the heliospheric community for many years.

“Fifteen years ago, we didn’t know that much about the interstellar medium or solar wind properties. We have so many observations available today, which allow us to validate our codes and make them much more reliable,” Dr. Pogorelov says.

“The new models will provide more accurate solutions and will all be scalable on massively parallel systems, including Graphics Processor Units,” he says. “In addition to improving space weather predictions at Earth, our developed models and software will be data driven. They will be based on the observational data and shed light onto physical processes occurring on the sun and in interplanetary space.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

1 month ago

UAH camp teaches blind and visually impaired high schoolers about cybersecurity

(Michael Mercier / UAH)

Ten high school students with blindness and visual impairments are learning about cybersecurity this week at a GenCyber Camp at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

The students from Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina will be exposed to a wide range of cybersecurity and computer topics at the camp, which is being held by UAH’s Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education (CCRE).

“Students will build a computer, learn to program, and encrypt and decrypt secret messages,” says Jesse Hairston, CCRE assistant director. “Campers also practice digital forensics and build circuits.”

The camp is a partnership between UAH and the Center for Assistive Technology Training at the Alabama Institute for Deaf and Blind (AIDB), Microsoft, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the American Printing House for the Blind.


Camp attendees will hear from a variety of guest presenters, including individuals with visual impairments who work in the technology field.

“Many of our campers make use of assistive technologies like screen readers, magnifiers, braille devices, etc., to learn cybersecurity,” Hairston says.

The camp encourages students with visual impairments to explore cybersecurity careers through camp experiences with skills, technologies and tools used in the cybersecurity field, Hairston says.

A GenCyber Deaf Cyber Force camp for deaf and hard-of-hearing high school students is planned for June 27-July 2.

“This is the fifth year we have hosted this kind of camp, where students learn about online safety, cybersecurity careers, digital forensics, cryptography and how to program microcontrollers,” Hairston says. “We partner closely with the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf Regional STEM Center and the AIDB to bring in 15 students from multiple states, including Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, California and New York.”

The FBI leads an interactive case scenario at the camp, discusses cybersecurity careers and demonstrates the use of real-world tools for digital forensics.

Also in July, the CCRE will hold a GenCyber virtual training camp for more than 50 teachers.

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 months ago

Submersible storage system developed by senior design class could see actual Navy use

(Nadia Alexander/Contributed)

A unique storage system for a U.S. Navy Submersible developed by a senior design class team in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) will be in the running for actual Navy use.

“I have had teams work with the U.S. Special Operations Command in previous years, and this is a continuation of that partnership,” says Dr. Christina Carmen, a clinical associate professor who teaches MAE 490-491 at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

“It is a unique partnership, as it enables UAH students to have the opportunity to work directly with U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) customers and, in turn, the DoD is provided with excellent designs that they may choose to incorporate into their systems for U.S. military personnel.”


Team lead Nadia Alexander, a mechanical engineering major from Rochester, Minn., says the project is “super cool” and the team is having a great time working on it.

“Our understanding is that we are the only team working on this project,” Alexander says. “At the end of the day I’m excited that the ideas and the hard work of my team will be seen by the submersible operators and that some of our ideas may become part of the design for future submersibles.”

Besides Alexander, team members are Jay Hayman, a mechanical engineering major from Memphis, Tenn.; Tegan Ruffalo, a mechanical engineering major from Huntsville, Ala.; Christopher Smith, an aerospace engineering major from Charlotte, N.C.; Kayli Wood, a mechanical engineering major from Austin, Texas; and Nic Shelton, a mechanical engineering major from Meridianville, Ala.

The team was given a list of objects that need to be stored on the submersible and some pictures of what the interior looked like.

“We just rolled with it,” Alexander says. “We essentially determined every location where there was a small amount of space and said, ‘Can we fit something here?’ and then designed a storage solution for that space.”

Students meet with the customer every few weeks to present the various stages of the project and ensure that the team is still on the right track and within the requirements.

“Before the first meeting, we were told the general idea of what the customer is looking for and then we sent them a questionnaire to determine the requirements,” Alexander says. “From there, we made a few preliminary designs, determined which one we wanted to pursue, then proceeded with the rest of the engineering process to bring the product to life.”

The goal is to deliver a final, usable product to the customer. It’s been a fluid process and the storage solution design the team is currently manufacturing bears very little resemblance to its initial design.

“We determined spaces that needed to remain clear, objects that needed priority access, and we designed for comfort as well as practically,” she says.

Throughout the life cycle of the project there have been technical analyses done of the parts through finite element analysis, Alexander says, as well as calculations as to how the added weight may affect the balance of the craft and how to account for that.

“Once the manufacturing is completed, the product will undergo load and fatigue testing,” she says. “Once it is delivered to the customer, it will then undergo operational testing to ensure that it can be used as intended in its operational environment.”

Besides the design challenges, Alexander says the team faced hurdles from the pandemic.

“One of the largest hurdles we had to overcome was the inability to travel,” she says. “Being able to travel would have been really helpful to truly understand the point of view of the operators, outside of some pictures and drawings. In addition, the team experienced delayed parts delivery, which shortened the time available for manufacturing.”

After a product readiness review, the product will be shipped to the Navy for testing in the operational environment of a submersible. The students’ semester concludes with a product certification review that will convey final testing and cost results.

Alexander says the class blends all of her team’s previous engineering education.

“There are the big things like evaluation matrices and working through iterative designs, then there are the things that sneak up on you, like considering off-gassing due to material interactions and how adding components can affect the existing interfaces. It’s always important to keep in mind that even though something may look good on a CAD, you have to think about exactly how someone will use it, as well as build it,” she says.

“One of my biggest takeaways definitely comes from the scheduling aspect, and how to deal with the issues that arise in a calm manner, and not let any one aspect overshadow the rest of the project,” Alexander says.

“I’m very lucky to be working with such an amazing team full of people ready to step up and help out their fellow teammates. Everyone had great ideas that blended together into a really cool product. We did great work, and we had a fun time doing it. It was a joy to work with such fantastic people.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

3 months ago

Two UAH teams competing in COVID-altered NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge

(David Fikes/Contributed)

Two teams from a senior design moon buggy class at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, are competing in a pandemic modified version of NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge (HERC).

In January, MAE 490/1-05 Senior Design Moon Buggy class teams Twisted Metal and Falcon presented a design review to a NASA panel consisting of subject matter experts. The teams then presented an operational readiness review to the same NASA panel in March.

“The big change this year was NASA had to cancel their in-person event,” says Twisted Metal Team and Financial Lead Michael Wexler, a senior in engineering from New Orleans, La. “Every year, teams from around the world come to Huntsville to compete in the Human Exploration Rover Challenge. With the travel and safety restrictions from Covid-19, that was not possible.”


Virtual competition meant the teams would do all events online, including videos, pictures and status reports to NASA, says Falcon Team Lead John Baggett, a senior in mechanical engineering from Clarksville, Tenn.

“Even though we are getting this very rare opportunity to make our buggies look absolutely perfect, we have no idea how the Human Exploration Rover Challenge Committee will view them, since this is the first year that they have ever attempted it virtually,” Baggett says.

Funded by the UAH College of Engineering and the Alabama Space Grant Consortium and supported by Prototype Development Specialist Jon Buckley at the UAH Engineering Design and Prototyping Facility, both teams are awaiting recognition in the awards ceremony on April 16.

Twisted Metal’s buggy design is articulated so that the front and back halves move independently of each other, Wexler says.

“This design reduces the stress in the moon buggy’s frame and allows us to have fewer reinforcements elsewhere,” Wexler says. “This led to less material in the buggy overall, which cuts down on the weight and cost of the buggy.”

Weight is important because the HERC competition has a weight scoring section where lighter buggies score more points.

“This is to simulate the real-world prospect of a buggy going to the moon,” Wexler says. “A lower-weight buggy requires less fuel to launch into space, making it cheaper to send.”

Team Falcon inherited its buggy from a previous student team and rebuilt it from the ground up, Baggett says.

“We have based the design concepts on pure simplicity. This is different from most of the other UAH teams because we have no major suspension components, a single speed, independent drivetrain and an extremely lightweight frame,” Baggett says.

“Even though we are lacking in places where the other buggies might excel, the Falcon rover’s low weight helps it excel,” he says. “Plus, if anything breaks, it is simple to fix.”

For the Twisted Metal team, the greatest design challenge was creating a buggy it was confident in while following NASA’s guidelines.

“To be eligible for NASA’s HERC competition, every rover can be no larger than 5 feet wide, it needs to be able to disassemble or fold to fit inside of a 5-foot cube, and you get points based on weight, with lighter buggies gaining more points,” Wexler says. “They also need to be able to navigate the many obstacles on the competition course NASA builds each year.”

One challenging obstacle is called Bouldering Rocks, a path of boulders that the buggy needs to be able to traverse without breaking.

“This did not sound like much of a challenge at first; the team just needed to reinforce the most common breaking points on the rover,” Wexler says. “Suddenly our buggy is 30 pounds over the projected weight and the points we would gain for successfully navigating the obstacle are then lost because our buggy is too heavy.”

Prioritizing the limitations NASA expected the team to follow “kind of felt like a tug of war, except there were five ropes tied together instead of just one,” says Alex McLeod, Twisted Metal’s drivetrain and communications lead.

“I believe this is what makes the competition fun and what makes this a valuable senior design class,” McLeod says. “We can all optimize any one system but optimizing every system is what every engineer aims for.”

Wexler says the optimization effort was one of the most valuable lessons learned. “Anyone can optimize one system, but it takes a team to optimize all systems simultaneously.”

For team Falcon, the drivetrain became an obstacle.

“The greatest challenge in redesigning Falcon was keeping the chains from slipping on the drive gears and keeping the rover from vibrating itself apart on hard surfaces,” Baggett says. “This took a lot of problem solving – and mostly blue Loctite – to rise above the challenges of the course that this rover would eventually be traversing.”

Even after all the additions made to Falcon, the buggy stilled weighs in under 150 pounds, which Baggett says is extremely light compared to the other rovers in the UAH fleet.

For testing, the teams made use of a temporary moon buggy obstacle track near Olin B. King Technology Hall that was built by students last year.

“It has shown areas of weaknesses on the rovers that were addressed, reworked or redesigned and improved,” says David Fikes, a mechanical and aerospace engineering lecturer who teaches the class.

Work on a permanent on-campus testing and obstacle course near the WLRH radio station will begin soon, Fikes says. Meanwhile, the teams are planning an all-UAH race with at least six UAH-built rovers on the temporary course that will be closed to the public due to the pandemic.

“The students were willing to put in the time that it took to do the extra things that are required to successfully build a rover,” says David Fikes, a mechanical and aerospace engineering lecturer who teaches the class. “They met a lot on weekends to get the work done. The pandemic didn’t seem to slow them down that much. Some put in many, many extra hours to complete their project.”

Designing, fabricating, assembling, testing and competing with a moon buggy is similar to real-world industry experiences students will encounter on the job, Fikes says.

“The many approvals, financial aspects, purchasing, etc., all take a lot of effort and time to accomplish correctly. Also, the importance of teamwork and meeting your commitments to your team are illustrated,” Fikes says. “It is the most enjoyable thing that I do at UAH.”

Falcon Team Lead Baggett says Fikes’ influence was felt by the students, as well.

“Professor Fikes has been there pushing us from the very start,” Baggett says. “He would never say this to anyone outside the class, but he is a very competitive person.”

Twisted Metal team members:

  • Lauren Black, fabrication team, senior, mechanical engineering, Alabaster, Ala.
  • Nathan Gusewelle, steering team, senior, mechanical engineering, Herrin, Ill.
  • Noah Hansen, frame team, senior, mechanical engineering, Gurley, Ala.
  • Anias Hawkins, tasks team, senior, aerospace engineering, Buford, Ga.
  • Quintin Jordan, wheels team, senior, mechanical engineering, Pulaski, Tenn.
  • Jonathan Leyden, wheels team, senior, mechanical engineering, Jasper, Ga.
  • Alexander McLeod, drivetrain team, senior, aerospace engineering, Vancouver, British Columbia.
  • Matthew Methe, frame team, senior, aerospace engineer, Houma, La.
  • Michael Wexler, team lead and financials, senior, mechanical engineering, New Orleans, La.

Falcon team members:

  • John Baggett, team lead, senior, mechanical engineering, Clarksville, Tenn.
  • Susan Duron, rider and practice course lead, senior, mechanical engineering, Fairview, Tenn.
  • Maggie Fielder, social media lead, senior, mechanical engineering, Kennesaw, Ga.
  • Julia Fullinwider, team financial lead, eenior, mechanical engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Lindsey Kaesemeyer, task design and integration lead, senior, mechanical engineering, Lebanon, Ohio
  • Robert Lewallyn, rider and design team, senior, mechanical engineering, Dunwoody, Ga.
  • Haley Schumann, financial team and backup rider, senior, mechanical engineering, Hazel Green, Ala.
  • Luke Smith, financial and design team, senior, mechanical engineering, Raleigh, N.C.

(Courtesy of UAH)

5 months ago

Six UAH research programs rank in top 20 for federal funding, NSF reports

(Michael Mercier/UAH, YHN)

Research activities at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) continue to rank among the top federally funded programs in the United States, according to the latest information available from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The annual NSF Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey ranked six UAH programs in the top 20 nationally, up one from last year. UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System, ranks 13th nationwide in overall NASA research expenditures and 26th in overall Department of Defense research expenditures for fiscal year 2019, the latest data available.


“UAH strives to continuously improve in areas that provide support to the federal agencies on Redstone Arsenal and the corporate presence in Cummings Research Park,” says Dr. Bob Lindquist, vice president for Research and Economic Development.

“The success in ranking is possible through the valuable partnerships that have existed for decades in the Huntsville community, and UAH is proud of its researchers who strive to provide effective and innovative outcomes to the technological challenges that exist in the world today.”

The HERD Survey ranks UAH as:

  • #6 in federally-financed aerospace/aeronautical/astronautical research expenditures;
  • #10 in federally-financed atmospheric sciences research expenditures;
  • #11 in federally-financed computer and information sciences research expenditures;
  • #14 in federally-financed astronomy research expenditures;
  • #15 in federally-financed economics research expenditures;
  • #17 in federally-financed industrial and manufacturing engineering research expenditures.

(Courtesy of UAH)

5 months ago

Yamaha recognizes UAH as Institution of Excellence

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Yamaha Corporation of America has named The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, as a 2021 honoree in its inaugural Institution of Excellence program, acknowledging the school’s extraordinary commitment to innovation in the study of music.

Only 10 outstanding schools nationwide earned the prestigious designation this year. Yamaha is committed to working with UAH in substantive ways for the long-term growth and benefit of its music students and faculty. The Institution of Excellence program is tailored to respond to each honoree’s unique mission and the designation unlocks benefits for the institution, its faculty and its students.


“For more than a century, Yamaha has focused on defining and elevating the quality of musical performance,” says Dan Rodowicz, senior director, institutional sales, Yamaha.

“We chose The University of Alabama in Huntsville for its outstanding work in pursuing relevant, real-world experience for the students in its school of music. From synergistic partnerships with UAH’s world-class STEM programs to our international remote music collaborations, UAH has built a global network designed to broaden horizons for both students and faculty,” Rodowicz says.

“Programs with the city of Huntsville, NASA and the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal demonstrate its commitment to a strong and vibrant ecosystem,” he says. “All of this is why we are pleased to invite UAH to become part of a program that demonstrates our commitment to finding, celebrating and collaborating with institutions who share our vision for music’s crucial role in society.”

“The Yamaha Institution of Excellence distinction highlights our innovative music program in Huntsville and resonates with our pioneering DNA as a university and city,” says Dr. C. David Ragsdale, chair of the UAH Department of Music. “This recognition from a corporation like Yamaha, respected around the world for cutting-edge products, will be powerful in establishing a similarly leading reputation for UAH. We are proud and grateful for Yamaha’s support of Music at UAH.”

This year’s 10 schools were selected by Yamaha following a rigorous, nationwide nomination and review process. Honorees are chosen for their dedication to providing unique and challenging experiences to their music students through diversity of thought and curriculum, exposure to a wider variety of voices and opportunities and an emphasis on preparing students for the modern world of music. Each year new institutions will be selected for recognition and added to the roster.

“UAH has been connected to Yamaha through its Piano Loan Program with local affiliate A.B. Stephens for more than two decades,” says Dr. Sean Lane, dean of UAH’s College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences.

“In recent years, our extensive use of Yamaha’s Disklavier technology to reach students as far away as China as well as establishing UAH as a hub for remote teaching with universities across the U.S. has only deepened our longstanding relationship with Yamaha,” Dr. Lane says. “I am proud of the groundbreaking work our faculty and students of the Department of Music have done using Yamaha’s instruments and technologies, and we are honored to be among the schools chosen for its Institutions of Excellence program.”

The Department of Music at UAH is an accredited institutional member of the National Association of Schools of Music.

(Courtesy of UAH)

5 months ago

Huntsville near top of work from home report for good reasons, professor says

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Huntsville is the No. 2 midsize metro nationwide that’s most prepared to work from home, according to a report by, and the city’s connectivity, workforce and job mix have a lot to do with that, says an associate professor of management at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

“Huntsville is a booming community and some of the jobs that are here – and that continue to come here – lend themselves well to working from home,” says Dr. William “Ivey” Mackenzie, a faculty member at the College of Business at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

Huntsville’s high standard of living boosts its adaptability to working from home and has made such a transition easier for the community in general during the COVID-19 pandemic.


“People here are more likely to have access to home computers, have home offices or extra space to set up a place to work in their homes,” Dr. Mackenzie says.

“We also benefit from access to relatively inexpensive fiber internet access,” he says. “Obviously this isn’t the case for everyone, especially if there are security issues, but many workers are benefiting from the types of jobs we see in Huntsville.”

The evolution of the Huntsville area’s economy has put many workers in the right place to be location flexible.

“The type of worker who is able to work from home is typically more educated or works in a knowledge-based industry,” Dr. Mackenzie says.

“Many knowledge workers already had deliverables before COVID that could not be directly measured, which would be another reason this group is virtual,” he says. “We still see lots of workers in traditional onsite work contexts, but the attitudes towards COVID-19 early in the pandemic pushed many companies to go remote.”

The pandemic was the change catalyst, and companies like Zoom and Skype were the facilitators, but the tangible and intangible benefits for companies are now gradually being realized. They include reduced infrastructure needed to support onsite workers and greater flexibility in work hours, as well as fewer travel expenses for meetings.

If the wane of the pandemic still finds a strong Huntsville work from home corporate culture, he says the community will definitely be impacted by changes to infrastructure needs.

“Commute times will decrease. Areas like Hampton Cove will see more development to serve workers looking for a quick bite to eat for lunch, while restaurants that were struggling in the heart of the city might not see their customer base return to pre-COVID levels,” Dr. Mackenzie says.

“Some communities will see workers move further away in search of affordable housing,” he says. “Huntsville benefits from a relatively low cost of living, so while we might not see a decrease in residents, we may find more people wanting to live in our area because they can work remotely.”

Area businesses facilities will be smaller if more employees are regularly working from home, and the layout of offices will change, he says. Shared office space will increase to house remote workers on days when they work onsite.

Company travel could change, too.

“Employee travel is often a desirable perk, so while companies may see reduced travel costs in the future, my guess is many employees will want to travel to desirable locations but the less desirable destinations will probably see an increase of remote meetings,” Dr. Mackenzie says.

More virtual meetings could unlock greater employee productivity because workers aren’t physically moving from one meeting to another, and there could be declines in absenteeism when working from home is an option. As well, having a system that allows employees to work from home allows employers to continue operations during emergency or unforeseen circumstances like bad weather.

Employees gain a more positive work/life balance but that would be tempered by uneven access to remote technologies across all employees and the need for certain jobs to be performed onsite.

“Many workers gain hours of additional time each week by eliminating their commute,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “Pets are the clear winners of the pandemic.”

He says he’s also read many anecdotes from workers about being able to eat better and get more activity because they have been able to adopt a healthier lifestyle while working from home. For those with families, it’s great to be able to work from home if a child needs to be home that day.

On the other hand, lack of access to the internet and technology can create a second class of workers in companies that could create legal issues for employers. Remote workers may also get left behind for raises and advancement.

“They miss out on the day-to-day exchange of information, and being offsite could negatively impact them when it comes to promotion opportunities,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “I mentioned pets and children earlier, but they can also be distracting for workers, and young children at home can negatively impact productivity.”

No longer having a commute to unplug from work also could make it harder to disconnect and transition to personal life.

“There also becomes an expectation that employees are always available when they work from home,” he says.

For employers, disadvantages include weaker worker connections to the company and the difficulty of finding and retaining workers under certain circumstances.

“Culture is a very important asset for successful businesses,” Dr. Mackenzie says. “If employees are unable to interact with one another in meaningful ways, it can really disrupt the organization’s culture.”

That could impact employee turnover, performance and other important employee outcomes of interest. Employee connectivity is so important that companies have studied how to encourage it.

“There are companies that have studied their onsite cafeteria waiting lines to make certain they are long enough to promote employee interactions,” he says. “A quick, spontaneous conversation in the hallway has tremendous value for some organizations.”

Companies that require employees to work onsite while competitors are having employees work remotely could see negative impacts to their ability to recruit and retain workers.

Still, Dr. Mackenzie says the benefits of a home-based workforce may result in substantial numbers of Huntsville’s knowledge-based workers logging in from home long after the pandemic has waned.

“The big catalyst for change would be necessity, but as people become accustomed to working from home, companies recognize this is a desirable benefit for recruiting and retaining talent,” he says. “My guess is that we will see employers becoming more open to working from home.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

6 months ago

Bioscience discoveries show the power of collaboration

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Two recent research accomplishments in which the UAH Department of Biological Sciences closely collaborated with partners from outside the university illustrate the strength in such partnerships.

Dr. Jerome Baudry (pronounced Bō-dre), a molecular biophysicist and the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in Biological Sciences, joined with Hewlett Packard Enterprises (HPE) to employ its Cray Sentinel supercomputer to rapidly identify 125 naturally occurring compounds that show promise as treatments for the COVID-19 coronavirus.

In separate research, Dr. Eric Mendenhall, a UAH associate professor of biological science, teamed with the HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology to identify the function of 208 proteins responsible for orchestrating the regulation genes in the human genome. The research was published in Nature in July.

The partnerships were essential to the discoveries, says Dr. Paul Wolf, Biological Sciences chair, and UAH provides an ideal environment to nurture partnerships with industry and other entities.


“Solving complex problems requires integration of a diversity of thought,” Dr. Wolf says.

The Department of Biological sciences at UAH encourages faculty and students to work with each other and with local and national entities on collaborative projects, he says.

“The research successes of Eric Mendenhall and Jerome Baudry illustrate the kind of breakthroughs that can be made with such partnerships,” Dr. Wolf says. “We very much hope to see these collaborations grow in the future.”

Potential COVID treatments

Together Dr. Baudry’s lab and HPE used the Sentinel supercomputer to rapidly assess a batch of 50,000 chemicals to identify 125 naturally occurring compounds with a computational potential for efficacy against COVID-19.

The research was noted in a keynote speech by Antonio Neri, HPE president and CEO, at the HPE Discover Virtual Experience event. Neri told over 100,000 registrants from the computing, scientific and business worlds that the HPE collaboration with Dr. Baudry “allowed his research team to deliver results in weeks versus months or years.”

The idea for an alliance with HPE developed months before the COVID-19 crisis, following a meeting to discuss how to integrate natural products, artificial intelligence and supercomputing.

“One of the presenters, Dr. Rangan Sukumar, is a distinguished technologist in high-performance computing (HPC) and artificial intelligence at HPE,” says Dr. Baudry. “He talked to his colleagues there and they reached out to us to inquire about the possibility of working together.”

As the collaboration was becoming more operational the COVID-19 pandemic developed. Located in UAH’s Shelby Center for Science and Technology, the Baudry Lab was searching for potential precursors to drugs that would help combat the global pandemic.

“At HPE we are committed to being a force for good, and since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, we have been on a mission to extend our technologies and resources to scientists on the front line of drug discovery,” says Bill Mannel, vice president and general manager of HPC at HPE.

“We found a perfect match with Dr. Baudry and his team at UAH, who have used our cloud-based supercomputer running in Microsoft Azure and a dedicated technical staff to support their research,” Mannel says.

By using the supercomputer through the cloud, the team was able to increase outcomes of drug candidates through biodiversity at an unprecedented speed, he says, saving them years of research and millions of dollars in costs.

“It has also been an honor helping Dr. Baudry realize his vision and be a part of the overall journey to advance treatment efforts to combat COVID-19 and end human suffering.”

The partnership marked the first time a supercomputer was used to assess the treatment efficacy of naturally occurring compounds against the proteins made by COVID-19.

“We used supercomputers to predict natural products most likely to bind to three proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” says Dr. Baudry. SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name of the COVID-19 virus.

“Out of the 50,000 natural products that we looked at using supercomputers, we found several hundred to be predicted to be potentially binding on the proteins of interest,” he says. “We further found 125 – but there may be more – that are particularly interesting because they bind right where we want to, they are not too big, not too small and they have the chemical profiles of pharmaceuticals.”

There are many diverse natural sources for the chemicals of interest, Dr. Baudry says.

“Many are from relatively common medicinal plants that can be found in the U.S., and many are from more distant plants from Southeast Asia and South America, as well as from some ground and oceanic bacteria strains and fungi.”

A Biological Safety Level 3 laboratory in Memphis is testing natural products that were identified by the Baudry Lab for their activity against the COVID-19 virus. Chemical molecules found most efficacious will form the basis for future testing for efficacy, tolerance and adverse effects in human trials, a process that might include chemical modifications to make the drug more efficient, better tolerated or both.

“Every drug that ends up surviving this long and winding road of development and testing starts as a hit that binds to a protein. It is this initial event that we are modeling here using supercomputers,” Dr. Baudry says.

The fight against COVID-19 has created a new meeting of modern high-capacity artificial intelligence with humankind’s most ancient healing knowledge, Dr. Baudry says.

“Normally it would take a very long time and a lot of money to achieve that, but with the supercomputers we can perform this initial hit discovery step much faster and cheaper,” he says. “Even five years ago, this would not have been possible.”

Located in a Microsoft Azure data center in Texas, Sentinel made the work more rapid than ever before possible and an HPE team helped facilitate it. Dr. Baudry’s UAH team accessed Sentinel through the cloud with Microsoft Azure.

Sentinel is capable of computing 147 trillion floating point operations per second and can store 830,000 gigabytes of data. That’s as fast as the Earth’s entire population doing 20,000 calculations every second.

At the same time, Dr. Baudry’s lab also collaborated in other COVID-19 research with the Alabama Supercomputing Network and Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

Understanding how cells work

A close collaboration between the UAH lab of Dr. Mendenhall and the lab of Dr. Richard Myers, who is the president, M. A. Loya Chair in Genomics, science director and a faculty investigator at HudsonAlpha, resulted in new understanding of the function of 208 proteins responsible for orchestrating the regulation of genes in the human genome. These proteins and others play major roles in determining the type and function of new cells, a process known as differentiation.

The working partnership was a fundamental building block for the resulting discoveries, says Dr. Myers.

“We have greatly enjoyed and benefited from this close collaboration with Dr. Mendenhall and his team, which involves a combination of complex ‘wet-lab’ experiments and computational analysis and interpretation of large amounts of data,” Dr. Myers says.

“One of the most satisfying things about this work is that we are creating a knowledge base of how human genes are regulated that is being used by thousands of researchers and clinicians around the world,” he says. “The data and findings are made freely available rapidly to everyone, and this has helped to greatly speed up our understanding of the human genome.”

It is critical that genes be turned on and off in different cell and tissue types, but scientists haven’t had a good idea of how that was controlled, says Dr. Mendenhall.

“Ours and many other groups have been working for years to find what regions of the human genome controlled this turning on and off – what we call enhancers and promoters,” he says.

“We wanted to determine what proteins control this turning on and off. These are called transcription factors, and our group looked at where 208 of them function. It was a large number and we helped to add a significant amount of information to how genes are turned on and off.”

Transcription factors can make a cell into a heart cell, a liver cell or even a cancer cell. Their location along the DNA strand, or genome, is critical to what role a cell will play during its lifetime. The genome in each of our cells is identical. It’s the transcription factors that act as the switches to turn on or off genetic functions and differentiate the capabilities of one cell from another.

“We have close to 20,000 genes in our genome, and about 1,800 of these belong to the class called transcription factors, which is a pretty large portion of our genes,” says Dr. Mendenhall.

“These genes code for proteins that work in our nucleus to turn genes on or off by binding to the DNA. Once they bind to the DNA, which is tightly controlled by many chemical and biological mechanisms we don’t yet fully understand, they find a nearby target gene to usually turn on, but occasionally turn off.”

It’s important to have a complete catalog to get a full picture of how genes are controlled, Dr. Mendenhall says. That’s a key part of how humans develop from embryos and it’s important to how our cells do their jobs and keep us healthy.

“An incomplete picture leaves we scientists unsure whether we are missing key transcription factors, or of how to explain why certain transcription factors bind here but not there, or turn this gene on but not that one,” Dr. Mendenhall says. “We have a lot of outstanding questions and a lot of these questions will be easier to answer once we study all 1,800 transcription factors.”

Teams led by Dr. Myers and Dr. Mendenhall employed the latest rapid genetic sequencing techniques, running dozens of parallel experiments at one time to quickly locate and flag transcription factors in a lab-grown line of liver cancer cells called HepG2 that are used for research purposes.

The new discoveries came as part of the $31.5 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project to further the construction of a comprehensive list of functional elements in the human genome. A scientific offspring of the Human Genome Project, the ENCODE Project launched in 2003 and is a scientific consortium that is tasked with creating and sharing genomics resources that are used by many scientists to study human health and disease.

Advances in a new technology called CRISPR-Cas9 hastened progress by allowing scientists to test almost any transcription factor. Key to the research was a procedure developed in 2015 by Dr. Myers and Dr. Mendenhall called CETCh-seq.

With CETCh-seq, scientists first use the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic editing technique to design a reagent to modify a genome in cells. Once they are flagged, in the second part of the CETCh-seq method a protocol called ChIP-seq tells them where the transcription proteins are located.

“It took a lot of dead ends,” Dr. Mendenhall says, “but we also found a lot of new questions to pursue that we couldn’t have predicted.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

6 months ago

UAH scientists are part of first discovery of giant neutron star flare outside Milky Way

(UAH/Contributed, NASA, YHN)

The first-time discovery of a giant flare from a neutron star that’s outside Earth’s galactic neighborhood is the subject of a new research paper in the journal Nature that has four co-authors from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

“This is the first time we could claim, without a doubt, a giant flare from outside of our galactic neighborhood,” says co-author Dr. Peter Veres, a research scientist at UAH’s Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR).

Only three such giant flares have been detected since satellites have observed the gamma-ray sky. All three are nearby by space standards. Two are located in the Milky Way and one in the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy.


Video of the unique magnetar outburst can be seen at

The find was made by the Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM), an instrument aboard the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope with 12 low-energy sensors and two high-energy sensors. The bulk of the study is based on GBM data with additional measurements from the Burst Alert Telescope instrument aboard the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission satellite and some radio observations.

Early in this decade UAH developed GBM’s performance requirements and its ground and flight software. Dr. Michael Briggs, CSPAR assistant director and senior principal research scientist, is the deputy principal investigator for the Fermi GBM. The instrument was built through a collaboration between UAH, NASA and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany.

At UAH’s Cramer Research Hall, the university’s scientists regularly monitor the data from GBM together with colleagues from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Max Planck Institute. The principal investigator for the Nature paper is Oliver Roberts of USRA, headquartered in Maryland. The UAH co-authors are Dr. Veres; Dr. Briggs, who this year won NASA’s Exceptional Public Achievement Medal in part for his GBM work; Dr. Narayana Bhat, a CSPAR research scientist; and Rachel Hamburg, a UAH graduate research assistant (GRA).

Co-authors are from nine universities and also include UAH alumnae Dr. Colleen Wilson-Hodge of MSFC, who is the principal investigator for Fermi GBM, as well as authors from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.

The giant flare was observed as a short burst of gamma-rays by the GBM instrument on April 15, Dr. Veres says.

“Neutron stars are very compact, city size objects with mass that is somewhat larger than the mass of the sun,” Dr. Veres says. “These flaring neutron stars have extra strong magnetic fields and also go by the name magnetars.”

Giant flares are also very bright, he says.

“The three known flares were all so bright that every instrument observing them was blinded by the huge number of gamma-rays.”

Because the photons from those earlier discoveries were arriving faster than the instruments could count them, Dr. Veres says that even though scientists know how a giant flare looks in broad terms, measuring their detailed properties was elusive.

“Now, with the observation of this giant flare, we can see details of the event that were not possible to discern before,” he says. “The picture we have for this giant flare is that the magnetic field became strong enough to produce cracks in the neutron star.”

As a result, an energetic jet was released and hurtled toward the GBM instrument at very high speed.

“For the first time we were able to determine the speed, which turns out to be very close to the speed of light,” Dr. Veres says. “Through all of this the magnetar should be rotating and we also find signs of this rotation. We don’t know exactly how fast, but a good estimate is once every eight seconds – that is consistent with our observations and interpretation.”

Even at such a large distance, the giant flare was bright enough that it caused problems in a small segment of the GBM data.

“We overcame this issue by using data from the BAT and patched up this short part,” Dr. Veres says.

The entire event was unusually short, lasting less than two-tenths of a second. “For me, the outstanding result is that we observed even shorter variations, about 1/10,000th of a second,” Dr. Veres says. “This is a record among cosmic gamma-ray flash sources. The variations tell us about the size of the object responsible for the emission and point to a neutron star origin.”

The UAH research team contributed data analysis, mitigation of instrumental effects and data interpretation. Dr. Briggs and Dr. Bhat used their expertise with GBM to show where the data needed correction. Dr. Veres analyzed the spectrum, calculated the total energy involved and worked on interpreting the findings. Hamburg, the GRA, put the event in context of other observations from GBM to show it was unlikely to be a gamma-ray burst.

Research for the new discovery was funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the data is another feather in the cap for the 12-year-old Fermi satellite and its GBM, which launched in 2008 as a mission with a five-year lifespan.

“The Fermi mission was designed for five years at first and extendable for five more years,” says Dr. Bhat, a recipient of MSFC’s Golden Eagle Award in 2018 for quickly restoring GBM to operation after it was turned off when the Fermi spacecraft had an anomaly.

“GBM is now more than 12-years old and I am happy to say that it is working flawlessly,” Dr. Bhat says. “There are several reasons for it to function well even now, and maybe even 10 more years, perhaps.”

First, GBM doesn’t have consumables on board that could run out and limit its life, he says. Second, the detectors were well designed and fabricated by the German scientists from the Max Planck Institute per the mission requirements. Third, the onboard electronics were designed, fabricated and well tested in the U.S.

“Recently there was some scare about a couple of detectors that were overheating,” Dr. Bhat says. “Then we carried out an elaborate high-temperature stability test in our laboratory and demonstrated that there is no danger to the detectors functioning at those temperatures. As a result, it is no surprise that GBM is functioning well and will remain healthy for a long time to come.”

Scientific discoveries from GBM data have brought national and international recognition to its team of researchers, including the 2018 Rossi Prize from the High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society. The Rossi Prize is awarded annually in honor of Italian physicist Bruno Rossi for a significant contribution to High Energy Astrophysics, with particular emphasis on recent original work.

GBM’s high detection rate for gamma ray bursts led to a joint science and observation partnership with the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory (LIGO) group that first observed gravitational waves. The LIGO partnership resulted in GBM becoming a major player in multi-messenger astrophysics.

(Courtesy of UAH)

6 months ago

UAH researchers developing glass fiber drinking water monitor with EPA grant

(Michael Mercie/UAH, YHN)

A novel sensor network using glass fibers to safeguard drinking water supplies is being developed under a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant in a cross-campus collaboration at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

The grant is through the EPA’s P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet.

Led by Dr. Tingting Wu, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Dr. Lingze Duan, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, the research team will include students and will utilize glass fibers to develop a novel sensor network with distributed fiber probes and a centralized interrogation-detection-data processing system for real-time water quality monitoring.


“Turbidity is caused by the existence of suspended particles, organic matter and chemicals, and is widely measured in natural resources, irrigation water, the food and beverage industry, and drinking water,” says Dr. Wu. “As an important water quality parameter, turbidity not only indicates the efficiency of some treatment processes but also reflects water quality changes in the distribution systems.”

Increased turbidity has been correlated with contamination with Giardia and Cryptosporidium and it is used as a surrogate measure for risk of contamination by those pathogens. Studies also revealed a strong temporal relationship between turbidity and gastrointestinal events during and preceding the major waterborne disease outbreak in Milwaukee in 1993.

“All these findings emphasize the importance and necessity of turbidity monitoring in a contamination warning system,” she says.

Current turbidity measuring systems are lab-based or are bulky and expensive. The high costs and limited timeframe for measurements can prohibit their application in drinking water distribution systems. A limited lifetime and higher maintenance are also prohibitive.

“On the other hand, fiber optical turbidity sensors possess some important advantages such as low cost, compactness, great flexibility, high stability over a wide temperature range, immunity to electromagnetic interference, water and corrosion resistance, and compatibility with multi-sensor schemes,” says Dr. Wu.

Using glass fibers rather than the commonly used plastic fibers also provides system advantages, researchers think.

“Glass fibers have much lower loss than plastic fibers, permitting long-distance light delivery and enabling true distributed networks,” Dr. Duan says. “They are also more compact and corrosion-resistant than plastic fibers.”

In Phase 1, the team is focusing on developing and evaluating the glass fiber-based optical system under drinking water relevant conditions. Later, it will build the architecture of the hub-spoke monitoring system from scratch.

“In a hub-spoke sensing network, a large number of sensor stations are linked together via a small group of central hubs, much like the nation’s airline system, where a handful of large airports connect flights from hundreds of smaller cities,” Dr. Duan says.

The advantage of the network topology is its efficiency in lowering the cost of interrogation-detection systems, as many sensor stations can share the service of one central hub.

Since a single interrogation-detection system can support a large number of sensors, the investigators note that it’s economically feasible to develop more complicated multi-function interrogation-detection systems, allowing future multi-parametric sensor networks.

(Courtesy of UAH)

7 months ago

Are we alone in the universe? UAH’s Dr. Gary Zank doesn’t think so

(NASA/Contributed, YHN)

Hello? Is there anybody out there?

It’s one of humankind’s most interesting questions. Are we alone in the universe? Is Earth the singular planet supporting life among the billions and billions of planets circling stars light years away?

Research by Dr. Gary Zank at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, and collaborators from UAH and other institutions has helped to inform the search for planets that could harbor life.

With his collaborators, Dr. Zank, director of the UAH Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) and the Aerojet Rocketdyne chair of the Department of Space Science, has examined the effect of space weather in early planetary systems. That research probed how shock waves are driven from the sun and how it generates very energetic particles.


“This is important because energetic interplanetary particles can drive interesting and important chemistry in an atmosphere,” says Dr. Zank, who is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

“One idea that’s also applicable to exoplanets is that the less hospitable early atmosphere of the Earth was changed by numerous shock waves driven off a sun that was more active than it is now, accelerating copious amounts of energetic particles that then helped modify the atmosphere creating more oxygen, perhaps water, etc.”

UAH researchers and their collaborators also used the Hubble Space Telescope to examine nearby stars at different stages in their stellar lives to determine how their winds changed over billions of years.

“This effectively provided a history of the solar wind, and helped us explain why Mars lost its atmosphere,” Dr. Zank says. “The solar wind was much stronger in the days when the sun was young, and without a Martian magnetic field, the solar wind can simply erode the atmosphere away.”

It’s almost inevitable that virtually every star possesses its own solar-like exoplanet system, based on how we think stars form from the coagulation of interstellar gas, he says. An exoplanet, or extra-solar planet, is one outside our solar system.

“This gravitational collapse of a cloud of gas to form a star typically creates some form of co-rotating disk made of the remnants of the gas cloud that produced the star and so the heavier material tends to collect closer to the star and lighter material further from the star, like a centrifuge,” says Dr. Zank.

“Further coagulation of the disk material leads eventually to planets and the like, and their composition will depend on where they were located relative to the star – rocky planets are likely closer in and gaseous planets are likely further away.”

The challenge is to observe exoplanets and confirm the expectation that they exist.

“Observational techniques have become ever more sensitive, allowing for the detection of progressively smaller planets and ones orbiting quite close to the star,” he says.

The Goldilocks Zone

Dr. Zank and his UAH colleagues, Department of Space Science professor Dr. Gang Li and CSPAR post-doctoral research assistant Dr. Junxiang Hu, are among the scientists looking for the factors that make conditions correct for exoplanets to fall into the so-called Goldilocks Zone – they’re not too hot and not too cold, but just right to possibly nurture life.

Like our sun, the so-called G-type or G-class stars radiate more light toward the infrared end of the spectrum and look promising for exoplanetary life. And there are lots of them, including our nearest neighbors, Alpha Centauri A and B, a binary system composed of two G-class stars.

“If nothing else then, I would expect that a sizable fraction of these solar-like stars would possess some planets that resemble the Earth, Mars and Venus, as well as some of the gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn,” Dr. Zank says. “It is so hard to argue that the Goldilocks Zone has to resemble the Venus-Earth-Mars regions, since our experience of what life is and how it forms and evolves is based on a single sample” – our own.

“Based on a single sample, I think it’s presumptuous to suppose that life forms have to be carbon-based,” he says. “To be honest, I’m not even sure that we understand fully what life is or can define it, and I suspect that with the development of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, we blur our understanding of life even more.”

While science works toward an encompassing definition of life, the planetary conditions under which carbon-based life may arise have been pretty well defined by our own experience.

“The key is that there is energy available to convert, whether it is stellar warmth or thermal activity or something else,” Dr. Zank says. “That may require an evolving, tectonically active planet.”

Because long-term stability of conditions is critical to ensuring the slow process of evolution of life, it’s probably important that some form of planetary shield such as a planetary magnetic field is present, Dr. Zank says, to preserve an atmosphere or other conducive conditions.

“It doesn’t have to be a magnetic field to preserve an atmosphere,” he says. “It may be an ice covering, as on Europa, that maintains a perhaps stable liquid ocean for eons.”

Dr. Zank says that if nearly every star has a planetary system and there are a huge number of G-class stars like the sun with planetary systems like our own, future research into extraterrestrial life could prove to be quite revealing.

“I think that the search for life in this and the next few decades will transform, not just our science, but the very nature of our understanding of humanity.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

8 months ago

Promising lab results in quest to find naturally occurring anti-COVID therapies

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

There are promising new laboratory results in an award-winning effort to find naturally occurring compounds that are therapeutic against the COVID-19 virus.

So far, 35 of 125 naturally occurring compounds identified computationally at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) to have potential against COVID-19 that have shown computational efficacy are undergoing first-batch testing at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (UTHSC RBL) that’s the next step in the process to becoming a drug.

The 125 candidate compounds were discovered in award-winning computational research by the lab of Dr. Jerome Baudry, the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAH, a part of the University of Alabama System.

In a partnership between the Baudry Lab and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), the HPE Cray Sentinel supercomputer was employed to winnow the 125 candidates from an initial batch of 50,000 prospective naturally occurring compounds.


“There is very good news on vaccine developments, and it is great, but it is important that we continue working on other pharmaceuticals,” Dr. Baudry says. “It’s a bit like for the flu, where there are vaccines and there are pharmaceuticals, and they work together, not against each other. And what we learned here will be priceless to respond to other similar crises, if and when they show up in the future.”

The computational research relied on some data produced by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), which leads an international effort to find therapeutic drugs to fight COVID. The Baudry Lab is involved in those efforts, as well.

“We used some of the ORNL-produced data, and we basically added value to it,” Dr. Baudry says. “Although it is unique in many ways – our focus on natural products, for instance – it is important to note that this project of ours is still integrated into the national COVID-19 research effort.”

In Memphis, the biosafety level 3 rated UTHSC RBL directed by Dr. Colleen Jonsson is testing the candidate compounds for the capacity of the chemicals to kill the virus and/or prevent cell infections, Dr. Baudry says.

“They use live virus infections of living cells grown in the equivalent of Petri dishes,” he says. “The chemicals that will have a good profile can then be tested in animal models using mice.”

This first group will be tested by the RBL collaborators in several doses and assays to ensure statistical accuracy, Dr. Baudry says.

“Those chemicals that do well, if any, will be moved to being tested in animal models,” he says. “If we do not have enough promising test results, we can go to the next batch of chemicals that were predicted computationally to be of interest.”

Dr. Baudry’s research was recently awarded one of five 2020 Hyperion HPC Innovation Excellence Awardsfrom 62 nominations. The award recognizes noteworthy achievements by users of high-performance computing (HPC) including simulation, AI and other advanced analytics, quantum computing and other methods and technologies. Winners were selected by independent judges primarily based on the demonstrated or projected impact of the innovation on science or engineering.

“Hyperion, the award sponsor, is the most respected group of industry experts in HPC,” says Dr. Baudry. “I was very surprised about the award because I didn’t even know that we had been under consideration.”

Nominations come from the HPC industry, so even being nominated is a sign of recognition, he says.

“I was both very happy and very humbled. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” Dr. Baudry says.

“I have received awards and accolades before, but it is certainly the most important recognition of my career so far, because it recognizes a team rather than an individual. And so, it is not only the results we obtained that were recognized, but how they were obtained: in a collaborative and multidisciplinary project that involved science, communication, biology, physics, chemistry and, of course, supercomputers.”

Presented as part of the 2020 International Conference for High Performance Computing, Networking, Storage and Analysis, the awards recognize HPC-enabled innovations in science, engineering, and data analytics, including both public sector advances in science and public or private sector returns on investment. They showcase HPC accomplishments in various environments such as traditional HPC centers, enterprise data centers and cloud computing platforms, as well as quantum computing. Dr. Baudry says the high degree of professional cooperation in the fight against COVID is notable.

“As terrible as this Covid19 crisis is, how we all came together in research has been incredible,” he says. “In my nearly 25 years of performing and leading scientific research, I have never experienced anything like that.”

The effort is unique for its level of collaboration, he says.

“There are no competitors, only collaborators, and a unique feeling of purpose that is absolutely wonderful,” Dr. Baudry says.

“This may be the most important experience of my professional life. It reminded me of what I read happened during the space exploration of the ’60s. There is nothing we cannot do when we work together.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama in Huntsville)

9 months ago

UAH leads new program to develop cyber workforce from underserved academia

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A new program conceived and led by the Center for Cybersecurity Research and Education at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) is aimed at developing a robust cybersecurity workforce from students in underserved areas of academia.

The charter for the SMDC Underserved Community Cybersecurity and Engineering Education Development (SUCCEED) program was signed on Redstone Arsenal on Tuesday, Oct. 20. It serves as the cornerstone to solidify the SUCCEED board representative organization’s commitment to creating opportunities for students to learn, gain experience and network within the Department of Defense community.

“SUCCEED will help SMDC achieve its goals to develop a robust and qualified pipeline of technical students into industry, while simultaneously reaching into diverse and underserved areas of academia within Alabama to accomplish these goals,” says Katrina Bristol, a CCRE research engineer.


“SUCCEED will enact partnerships that will leverage the talent of students attending Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and underserved high school communities throughout the state, to equip and prepare minorities to compete and succeed in STEM careers with the federal government in general and at SMDC, in particular.”

As the program lead, CCRE administers an almost $1 million SMDC contract for fiscal 2021 that includes work by other members of the SUCCEED board. Members of the SUCCEED board include UAH/CCRE, Alabama A&M University, Tuskegee University, Alabama State University, the Alabama School for Cyber Technology and Engineering, Black Data Processing Associates – Huntsville Chapter, the LeBlanc Foundation and SMDC. UAH and CCRE are represented on the board by Oscar McCants.

“The contract will provide for the time of the non-SMDC board members as well as nominations of, and employment of, students from the organizations and institutions represented by the board,” says Bristol.

The contract also funds UAH students who are doing ongoing small satellite research, quarterly speakers and workshops for SMDC workforce development and faculty advisors to selected senior capstone projects at affiliated HBCUs and UAH.

“Through SUCCEED, SMDC and CCRE are committed to fostering an inclusive and diverse environment while providing real-world career experience and opportunities in the federal government,” Bristol says. “The program grew out of an existing relationship between CCRE and SMDC, whereby CCRE students have had the opportunity to work on-site and off-site for various projects.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

10 months ago

Rotating Detonation Engine test-fired for first time at UAH’s Johnson Research Center

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A new kind of rocket engine has been test-fired for the first time at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System.

It’s called a Rotating Detonation Engine (RDE), and UAH mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE) master’s student Evan Unruh says it took him about a year to design and build it through UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC). Unruh is advised by Dr. Robert Frederick, PRC director.

Seed funding was provided by Dr. Gabe Xu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and a PRC associate, through the National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research: Connecting the Plasma Universe to Plasma Technology in Alabama.


“Once I have finished the developmental testing of the engine. Dr. Xu and his student Michaela Spaulding will be using the engine for that program to research the effects of transient plasma ignition on the detonation reactions within the combustor,” says Unruh.

Besides Unruh, Dr. Frederick and Dr. Xu, the RDE team is Dr. David Lineberry, PRC research engineer; Tony Hall, PRC test engineer; James Venters, PRC undergraduate research assistant; Jon Buckley, shop supervisor at the UAH Engineering Design and Prototyping Facility; Scott Claflin, director of power innovations at Aerojet Rocketdyne; and Spaulding, a graduate student who is also working on detonation engine research at the PRC.

Claflin’s RDE expertise has come in an unofficial capacity, Unruh said, adding, “The Propulsion Research Center is open to working with companies that are interested in researching and developing detonation engines.”

The engine was first test fired at UAH’s Johnson Research Center in late August and has had several firings since.

RDEs are a tantalizing engineering concept that could be transformative for rocket propulsion, offering better fuel efficiency than continuous-burn solid or liquid propellant engines if the inherent instabilities that make them run can be better controlled. Instead of a continuous burn, RDEs use a continuous spinning explosion to create supersonic gas and generate thrust.

“As a concept, RDEs may facilitate the design of more efficient rocket engines. This would enable rockets that could fly higher, faster and more efficiently, thereby enabling greater access to space than what we see today,” says Unruh, who completed his MAE undergraduate career at UAH before going on to his master’s.

“There are still practical roadblocks to overcome before detonation engines become a viable option, but if there weren’t, we wouldn’t need to research them. We hope to overcome these obstacles by better understanding how the detonation process works inside these engines.”

The UAH engine is intended as a test-bed to allow researchers at the PRC to study various phenomena related to detonation combustion in RDEs, Unruh says.

Most RDEs are cylindrical but Eagle Creek, Oregon, native Unruh’s engine is designed in a racetrack-like shape.

“By designing ours to have a racetrack shape, we are able to add optical windows in the straight sections that allow us to directly observe the detonation wave inside the combustor,” he says. “In particular, this optical access will allow us to observe interactions between the detonation wave and the spray plumes of the propellants as they are injected into the engine.”

Another innovation is the use of shear-coaxial injectors, the spray nozzles that inject the propellants into the engine. Shear-coaxial injectors have previously been used extensively in traditional rocket engine designs, most notably in the Rocketdyne J-2 engines on the Saturn V rocket, and in the U.S. Space Shuttle’s main engines, but not commonly in RDEs.

Designed for research versatility, the engine runs on a variety of propellants. It’s currently being tested on liquid propane and gaseous oxygen.

Typically, a liquid or solid fuel rocket engine – or a jet engine combustor – relies on the deflagration phenomenon to react fuel with an oxidizer, Unruh says.

“This deflagration phenomenon is typically a subsonic burning process that is propagated through heat transfer mechanisms,” he says.

In contrast, he says that a detonation reaction in an RDE consists of a strong supersonic shock wave that adiabatically compresses a fuel/oxidizer mixture, bringing it up to its ignition temperature. Adiabatic systems are more efficient because they transfer energy to surroundings as work without transferring heat or mass.

“The reaction then occurs behind this high-pressure shock, and the expanding gasses from the reaction in turn drive the shock wave forward, continuing the propagation of the detonation. This detonation reaction happens much faster than the deflagration-based reactions currently used in jet and rocket engine combustors,” Unruh says.

“Theoretically, the detonation reaction is more efficient, because it produces a lower increase in entropy than the deflagration reaction,” he says. “Furthermore, the chemical reaction in a detonation happens in the high-pressure zone right behind the shock wave.”

Think of the detonation shock wave in an RDE as acting similar to a piston in a car engine. Combustion happens at a pressure that is higher than the initial pressure of the fuel and oxidizer mix because each prior shock wave compresses the incoming mixture before combustion, a phenomenon known as pressure gain combustion.

“From thermodynamics, we know that when chemical potential energy is converted into thermal energy during combustion, the higher the pressure of the combustion, the more efficiently the released heat can be converted into useful work,” Unruh says.

“So, detonation-based combustion is more efficient than deflagration combustion because of a lower increase in entropy when converting the chemical potential energy into thermal energy and because the pressure gain phenomenon facilitates a more efficient conversion of that thermal energy into useful work.”

But theory can be tough to put into practice. So far no one has designed an RDE that is more efficient. The challenge is that in an RDE the propellants must be exploded supersonically rather than burned subsonically.

“As you might expect, exploding propellants are harder to understand and control,” Unruh says. “The RDE is one concept for an engine that shows promise of being a design that can detonate propellants in a controlled fashion and finally provide a practical realization of the theoretical promise of an increase in efficiency through detonation.”

RDE theory has been around since the 1940s and some primitive experiments were conducted in the past, but Unruh says that modern data acquisition equipment, better modeling and a greater historical collection of research is leading to a resurgence of RDE research. Engineers now have the capability to design engines that function in a rotating detonation mode.

“The next challenge,” he says, “is to further understand the detonation phenomenon so we can figure out how to finally build an engine that is more efficient than traditional deflagration-based engines.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

11 months ago

UAH leads $3.2 million solar software model effort to aid in space weather predictions

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA have awarded $3.2 million over three years to development of open-source solar atmosphere and inner heliosphere software models useful to predict space weather, a project led by The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), a part of the University of Alabama System, with a UAH professor as principal investigator.

“We will develop an innovative, publicly available software that would make it possible to perform space weather simulations starting from the sun’s photosphere and extending to Earth orbit,” says Dr. Nikolai Pogorelov, a distinguished professor in UAH’s Department of Space Science and the UAH Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR).


It is one of seven projects awarded. The project team includes UAH, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (co-principal investigator Brian Van Straalen), Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC; co-principal investigator Charles N. Arge), Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC; co-principal investigator Ghee Fry), and two private companies, Predictive Science Inc. (co-principal investigator Jon Linker) and Space Systems Research Corp. (co-principal investigator Lisa Upton).

The fastest NASA and NSF supercomputers will be employed. Dr. Pogorelov is one 49 awardees nationwide to get NSF-approved 2020-2021 supercomputing time on Frontera, the fastest NSF supercomputer. Time on Frontera is awarded based on a project’s need for very large-scale computing and the ability to efficiently use a supercomputer on the scale of Frontera.

“This project is aimed to develop a new data-driven, time-dependent model of the solar corona and inner heliosphere to predict the solar wind’s properties at Earth’s orbit,” he says.

“This software will have a modular structure, which will make it possible for its users to modify the individual components when new observational data sets become available from emerging space missions and our knowledge of the physical processes governing solar wind acceleration and propagation improves.”

In addition to the inner heliosphere model, the team will develop a new solar surface transport and potential field models to describe the solar atmosphere. That work will be done at Predictive Science Inc. and Space Systems Research Corp.

“All our codes will be easily extensible for further development,” Dr. Pogorelov says. “We expect that our software will serve the heliospheric and space weather research communities for many years.”

Space weather prediction

The effort focuses on the physical and computational aspects of software development but the team will use MSFC’s expertise to develop operational codes and add some features designed to simplify space weather community efforts to create new operational tools to improve space weather predictions.

“The development of successful numerical models and their application to space weather modeling strongly depends on the observational data used to run the codes,” says Dr. Pogorelov. “The expertise of GSFC and MSFC in data assimilation and analysis, and operational software design, will be of major importance for this project.”

Dr. Pogorelov is the leading developer of the Multi-Scale Fluid-Kinetic Simulation Suite (MS-FLUKSS), which will be used as a basis of the new software. He will coordinate software development and ensure a proper level of synergy. He will also promote the inclusion of the codes in students’ class projects.

Together with Dr. Pogorelov and a to-be-hired postdoctoral researcher, CSPAR researchers and co-investigators Dr. Tae Kim and Dr. Mehmet Yalim will supervise simulations in the inner heliosphere and perform quantitative evaluation of the simulation results.

Accurate space weather forecasting is important to a high-tech Earth, Dr. Pogorelov says.

“The solar wind emerging from the sun is the main driving mechanism of solar events, which may lead to geomagnetic storms that are the primary causes of space weather disturbances that affect the magnetic environment of Earth and may have hazardous effects on space-borne and ground-based technological systems, as well as human health,” he says. “For this reason, accurate modeling of the solar wind is a necessary part of space weather forecasting.”

Structuring of the solar wind into fast and slow streams is the source of recurrent geomagnetic activity, Dr. Pogorelov says. The largest geomagnetic storms are caused by solar coronal disturbances called coronal mass ejections (CMEs) that propagate through and interact with the solar wind.

“The connection of the interplanetary magnetic field to CME-related shocks and impulsive solar flares determines where solar energetic particles propagate,” he says. “Data-driven modeling of stream interactions in the background solar wind and CMEs propagating through it are necessary parts of space weather forecasting.”

Currently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Space Weather Prediction Center forecasts the state of the ambient solar wind and the arrival time of CMEs using an empirically-driven solar wind model.

“The new models will provide more accurate solutions and will all be scalable on massively parallel systems, including Graphics Processor Units,” he says.

“In addition to improving space weather predictions at Earth, our developed models and software will be data driven. They will be based on the observational data and shed light onto physical processes occurring on the sun and in interplanetary space.”

The research efforts will include conferences and training programs targeted to increase diversity and inclusion of under-represented groups, both inside the participating institutions and in the entire heliophysics community. Two users’ meetings will be organized at UAH, with up to 40 participants across the country.

The developed software will be promoted in classes and also through the US-Germany-South Africa Space Weather Summer Camp and NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) activity at UAH. Its advances will also be shared with the Alabama plasma physics community through the NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) led by Dr. Gary Zank, chair of UAH’s Department of Space Science and CSPAR director.

“The project led by Dr. Pogorelov is the culmination of more than a decade of extraordinarily wide-ranging research activities that CSPAR and the Department of Space Science researchers have been engaged in, ranging from the physics of the large-scale heliosphere to particle acceleration models for solar energetic particles, heating of the solar corona and detailed solar wind models,” Dr. Zank says.

“Dr. Pogorelov’s project combines all these elements and takes the research to a new level of predictive capability,” Dr. Zank says. “This is a remarkably exciting decade for heliophysics research and it’s very exciting that CSPAR and UAH are very much at the center of it.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

11 months ago

DOE-funded UAH directed plasma research may advance pulsed fusion propulsion systems

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A professor at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has been awarded a one-year, $98,930 grant by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for plasma research that could advance pulsed fusion propulsion for spacecraft.

The grant funds work by a team led by Dr. Gabe Xu, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Dr. Xu’s team is working on how the deflection magnetic nozzle for a fusion propulsion system would work and how to scale it up to the size needed for a spacecraft.

“The research is a part of a larger study at UAH’s Propulsion Research Center (PRC) on pulsed fusion propulsion,” Dr. Xu says.


On the team are Dr. Jason Cassibry, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; doctoral student Zachary White, who is doing his dissertation based on the project; Declan Brick, a mechanical and aerospace engineering junior; NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center; and a post-doctoral researcher.

“In the lab at the PRC, we’re doing small-scale experiments using relatively low magnetic fields, a few hundred to 1,000 Gauss, which is about the conventional limit in the lab,” Dr. Xu says. “With this funding, we’ll be able to go use the specialized high magnetic field facility at Auburn University that can general magnetic fields up to 40,000 Gauss.”

The researchers are studying how to deflect a spherically expanding plasma from a fusion reaction into the axially directed thrust needed for propulsion. The fusion reaction creates a ball of expanding plasma in all directions. But the half of that ball that is directed forward toward the spacecraft is not producing thrust, and can damage the spacecraft.

“So, we need to turn that plasma around so it all goes out the back similar to a rocket nozzle,” Dr. Xu says. “But we can’t use a physical nozzle to turn the plasma, since the plasma would dissipate and lose energy when it hits a physical object.”

Instead, the UAH team uses a magnetic field to electromagnetically turn the plasma.

“Our work is predicated on finding the mechanisms that create thrust in deflection magnetic nozzles, investigating the instabilities that occur between the plasma and magnetic field interface that could hinder thrust, and designing nozzle configurations and operating conditions that minimize instabilities and maximize thrust,” says White, the doctoral student.

“The DOE grant allows us to explore high magnetic field regimes that otherwise would not be available to us,” White says. “Our hope is that this will give us some insight into the plasma deflection in a near force-free field – a high magnetic pressure and low plasma pressure regime.”

“How to construct a magnetic field to do that, how the plasma responds and what kind of power is needed are the main questions of the research,” says Dr. Xu. “This is a great opportunity to conduct plasma research at very high magnetic fields that you cannot normally generate in the lab.”

The small laboratory plasma source Dr. Xu’s team is using was originally developed under a UAH led, nine-university, $20 million five-year National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program to develop new predictive plasma-surface interaction technologies. UAH’s Dr. Gary Zank serves as that project’s principal investigator.

The grant money was part of $13.3 million in new funding for research in plasma science recently announced by the DOE.

“This DOE program is great, as it helps investigators use the advanced facilities supported by the DOE,” Dr. Xu says. “The resulting gains from the research will improve our fundamental understanding of plasma-magnetic field interactions, as well as contribute to the fusion propulsion goal.”

Plasma science is an important area with many scientific opportunities and technological applications, says Dr. Chris Fall, director of DOE’s Office of Science. “The research funded under this initiative will enable the U.S research community to address very important research opportunities and help ensure continued American leadership in these critical areas.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

11 months ago

Support for telehealth and mobile health monitoring rises since COVID, study says

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

Support for telehealth and mobile health monitoring has risen among healthcare workers and consumers since the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study.

Dr. Emil Jovanov, a pioneer in the wearable health monitoring field from The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), participated and was a coauthor of the study conducted by a task force of experts organized by the Mass General Brigham (MGB) Center for COVID Innovation.

“According to our interviews with healthcare professionals, we found out that the support for telemedicine and tele-rehabilitation increased from about 10% before the pandemic to almost 60% now,” says Dr. Jovanov, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering who was selected as an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) fellow in 2020 for his contributions to the field of wearable health monitoring.


“That can create a significant change in digital healthcare that would otherwise take decades,” Dr. Jovanov says.

According to the study, mobile health technologies (mHealth) create tremendous opportunities for monitoring, mitigation and testing in the COVID-19 pandemic and future pandemics.

Dr. Jovanov says the nation’s COVID battle could be assisted by an integrated mHealth system that can help assess who needs to be tested by providing relevant information through contact tracing, tracing of shared space and infrastructure, and monitoring of physiological changes.

“All this information can be used to inform decisions and optimize the use of resources,” he says. “An integrated system can also characterize disease spread by tracking spatio-temporal patterns of new cases.”

Dr. Jovanov joined experts from top bioengineering institutions across the globe for the three-month effort organized by lead author Dr. Paolo Bonato, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Bonato’s team at the Motion Analysis Laboratory, which he directs. The laboratory is located at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, a member of the Mass General Brigham Integrated Health System.

“The task force was assembled by recruiting experts in electronic patient-reported outcomes (ePRO), wearable sensors and digital contact tracing technologies to review and explore the use of mobile health technologies to monitor and mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.

“We identified technologies that could be deployed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to predict symptom escalation for earlier intervention, to monitor individuals who are presumed non-infected and to enable prediction of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.”

“Wearable monitoring has tremendous potential, particularly in extraordinary circumstances such as the current pandemic,” says Dr. Jovanov, who in 2000 was first to propose Wireless Area Body Networks and was the 2014 Alabama Inventor of the Year for a smart pill bottle he developed that’s licensed to the company AdhereTech and used by thousands of patients.

“A combination of off-the-shelf ubiquitous technology already in use, such as smartphones, smartwatches and wearable sensors, new advanced sensors and the integration of mobile health systems could better prepare us for dealing with the challenges of future surges of COVID-19 cases and to minimize the effects of future pandemics on routine clinical services,” he says.

The devices could provide early warning of onset, detect health deterioration that requires hospitalization, offer automatic triage and large-scale monitoring in improvised hospitals, and monitor patients after they are discharged to ensure continuity of clinical care services, says Dr. Jovanov. With Dr. Aleksandar Milenkovic, 15 years ago he implemented the first low-power wearable wireless body monitor in cooperation with Mayo Clinic to introduce the era of mobile health.

“Our task force summarized some of the opportunities that most of health professionals are not even aware of,” he says.

“We currently have more than 60 million wearable device users in U.S., more than double the users of five years ago. Last year, 20 million new smartwatches were sold. Device intelligence and ubiquitous connectivity create tremendous healthcare opportunities, as outlined in our paper.”

Home monitoring applications could be augmented with self-reporting of symptoms, a system that can be implemented at much bigger scale, Dr. Jovanov says.

“As a result, we can avoid unnecessary visits for people with some other conditions, like colds, who otherwise would come to see their physician and risk additional possible exposures to SARS-CoV-2,” he says.

“Teleconferencing in combination with monitoring of physiological signals and history of changes of physiological status would provide more effective help at home, without the need to take trips to physicians or hospitals.”

Personal monitors can detect COVID warning signs at very early stages, he says.

“Wearable monitors can also monitor heart activity and changes in the autonomous nervous system,” says Dr. Jovanov, who demonstrated the wearable wireless remote heart monitor in a personal area network 20 years ago at UAH.

“Even before the patient feels short of breath, it has been noted that they may experience desaturation which could be easily identified and monitored through an oximeter inside a healthcare facility, as well as in the home setting.”

In addition to the onset of COVID, wearable monitors can also track the recovery of patients at home and detect delayed cardiovascular and circulatory system problems caused by exposure.

“Most people have a long recovery from COVID-19, particularly in the case of other comorbidities,” Dr. Jovanov says. “Following trends of recovery, or even deterioration of a user’s state, the system can certainly raise the flag in real-time if the recovery is not going as expected or if the user’s state turns worse at home after release from hospital.”

In addition, monitoring systems would provide physicians with a record of recent health changes, instead of the snapshot of the patient’s current state that an examination provides.

Another very important application is monitoring of frontline healthcare workers, a very vulnerable population exposed to the virus daily, for possible infections or burnout.

Since wearable devices can detect other wireless devices around them, tracking of users and contacts can be automated.

“For example, an intelligent visitor’s badge can detect all the places a person visited and their contacts with other people,” Dr. Jovanov says. “If it turns out that the visitor was sick at the time of the visit, you can implement additional cleaning of places and testing of people that person was in contact with.”

Google and Apple are currently working to enable the use of Bluetooth technology to help governments and health agencies reduce the spread of the virus while maintaining user security and privacy.

“The main implementation barriers are related to privacy, not the technological issues,” Dr. Jovanov says. “We describe both systems and applications in our paper.”

In fact, most of the factors limiting applications of mHealth technology are not technology related, Dr. Jovanov says.

“There are many issues, ranging from Food and Drug Administration approval of novel sensors and applications to privacy concerns and even liability issues,” he says. “Those are not easy problems to solve because of the deep-rooted perceptions and possible misuse of technology.”

Because they are scalable and can be deployed in spaces with no infrastructure in a very short period, wearable health monitoring systems present an opportunity for field hospitals that may become necessary in pandemic outbreaks, Dr. Jovanov says. The same technology and system can be applied to different disaster scenarios.

As part of the research, the task force prepared a web-based questionnaire to assess requirements for contact tracing in hospitals and asked faculty at UAH’s College of Nursing and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to provide feedback independent of the current technological capabilities.

“We truly appreciate the timely feedback we received from our UAH colleagues,” Dr. Jovanov says.

“We believe that papers like this one can raise the awareness of the medical and technical communities and create truly multidisciplinary collaborations to implement new applications and develop new technologies,” Dr. Jovanov says.

“Massive deployment of mHealth systems provides the big data necessary to apply artificial intelligence methods to a fundamental understanding of underlying conditions, better and more accurate methodologies, personalized healthcare and more efficient mitigation of the effects of pandemics.”

(Courtesy of UAH)

12 months ago

NASA awards its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal to Dr. Michael Briggs

(UAH/Contributed, NASA/Contributed, YHN

NASA has awarded its Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for sustained performance that embodies multiple contributions on NASA projects, programs or initiatives to Dr. Michael S. Briggs, an assistant director of the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).

Dr. Briggs, who is a senior principal research scientist at CSPAR, received the award recently for critical prior and ongoing contributions to the success of the Fermi Gamma-ray Telescope mission’s Gamma Ray Burst Monitor (GBM) project.

“I was surprised when the Steve Elrod, the GBM project manager, announced the award during a GBM tele-meeting,” Dr. Briggs says. “I thought that it was a routine GBM group meeting for updates. The GBM principal investigator helped fool me by asking me to give a status report.”


Dr. Briggs arrived at UAH in November 1991 with a NASA fellowship to do research with the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE).

BATSE overturned the previous scientific consensus that gamma-ray bursts originated from nearby neutron stars. When BATSE wound down, Dr. Briggs became an original member of the GBM team. He worked on the formulation of the GBM proposal starting in 1999. Originally called the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), Fermi is the home of GBM. It launched in 2008 and continues on-orbit as an extended mission.

“The team at NASA, the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and UAH spent most of the 2000s building the instrument, which was launched in June of 2008,” Dr. Briggs says while emphasizing the importance of teams.

“These space projects are team efforts, the result of hard work by many engineers, programmers and scientists. MSFC and UAH jointly worked to develop and fly the BATSE experiment. The GBM detectors were contributed by Germany, led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Garching.”

In Huntsville, MSFC and UAH engineers and scientists worked closely together to integrate and test the instrument and to write the software, he says.

“MSFC, the Universities Space Research Association and UAH scientists and programmers continue to work closely to keep GBM running, provide the GBM data to the scientific community and to use GBM to make discoveries.”

Currently serving GBM as the deputy principal investigator, Dr. Briggs was the primary author of the flight software, which integrates 14 gamma ray detectors with the flight data processing unit, the power unit and the Fermi spacecraft. He was a pivotal team contributor during instrument development as well as through fabrication and testing, spacecraft integration and now with mission operations.

Dr. Briggs developed an unanticipated technique for using GBM to detect terrestrial gamma ray flashes (TGFs) and adapted this method to find weaker gamma ray bursts than are found by the flight software.

Within a few years of launch, GBM detected the strongest and closest gamma ray bursts that had ever been recorded. GBM’s high detection rate for gamma ray bursts led to a joint science and observation partnership with the Laser Interferometer Gravity Wave Observatory (LIGO) group. The LIGO partnership resulted in GBM becoming a major player in multi-messenger astrophysics.

“A high point of GBM was waking up one morning to learn that GBM had observed a gamma ray burst in conjunction with gravitational wave observation,” Dr. Briggs says.

In 2018, the GBM team received the Bruno Rossi Prize for the discovery of gamma rays coincident with a neutron-star merger gravitational wave event. The discovery confirmed that short gamma ray bursts are produced by binary neutron star mergers and enabled a global multiwavelength follow-up campaign. It cemented GBM’s place in astrophysics history.

According to NASA, Dr. Briggs’ capabilities in software, data analysis and his communication skills have played an invaluable role in the success of the Fermi mission, which steadily continues to perform in the extended mission phase.

His expertise continues to be in strong demand for future funded missions such as BurstCube, a Cubesat collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) that will search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources, and Glowbug, a gamma ray telescope for bursts and other transients developed by the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C.

Dr. Briggs is also working on the LargE Area burst Polarimeter (LEAP), a mission that is one of four proposals approved by NASA for further review. Led by the University of New Hampshire, LEAP would mount on the International Space Station to study the energetic jets launched during the explosive death of a massive star or the merger of compact objects such as neutron stars.

Another MSFC project Dr. Briggs is involved with is the Moon Burst Energetics All-sky Monitor (MoonBEAM), a Cubesat concept to deploy gamma-ray detectors in cislunar space to probe the extreme processes in cosmic collisions of compact objects and facilitate multi-messenger time-domain astronomy to explore the end of stellar life cycles and black hole formations.

“Working with long-term and new collaborations, we are developing new projects to propose to NASA such as LEAP and MoonBEAM,” Dr. Briggs says. “We hope to continue the collaborations and have opportunities for the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

NASA cited Dr. Briggs’ instrumental role in locating, recruiting and mentoring sharp and resourceful graduate students who have worked directly for the Fermi GBM team, several of whom have moved on to exciting and noteworthy careers in astrophysics and space flight development.

Since his arrival at UAH almost 29 years ago, Dr. Briggs has worked with MSFC scientists and engineers on NASA projects in a continuing close collaboration on gamma-ray astrophysics that extends back to the 1980s with the start of the BATSE experiment.

“I picked Huntsville and BATSE because I thought that gamma-ray bursts were an exciting research topic,” he says, “and I have been here since then!”

(Courtesy of UAH)

12 months ago

UAH student rocket team takes third overall, first in safety at NASA Student Launch

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

A student rocket team at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) earned first place in project safety and third place overall in competition at a COVID-shortened national NASA Student Launch.

“The students worked really hard and faced a lot of technical challenges this year, not to mention a shutdown at the end of the spring semester,” says Dr. David Lineberry, team advisor and a research engineer at the UAH Propulsion Research Center (PRC).

“This is well deserved,” Dr. Lineberry said. “It would not have happened without support from the College of Engineering, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the Alabama Space Grant Consortium and the PRC.”


The UAH team was mentored by Jason Winningham, who assisted in rocket launches and advised throughout the project.

“We are very proud of the accomplishments of the students and their UAH instructors and mentors,” says PRC Director Dr. Robert Frederick. “Safety is an essential part of rocket science and these experiences will serve them well as they transition to industry.”

Named Baedor and designed by the UAH Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering 490/491 Rocket Design team, the rocket carried a rover as its payload. It uses a Level 2 Aerotech L2200G solid fuel motor, is 136 inches long and 6.17 inches in diameter and weighs 61.5 pounds with a loaded motor and payload.

Little Dipper, the rocket’s rover, is piloted by remote control. Its mission was to deploy from the vehicle after landing, advance to a mission collection area and use its scoops to collect samples of simulated ice.

“During the spring semester, as segments of the country started to close down, the team recognized the potential impacts on the project and felt a sense of urgency to complete a demonstration flight,” Dr. Lineberry says. “After a busy couple of weeks, they were able to demonstrate the full vehicle and payload missions at a launch in Woodville, Ala., with the Huntsville Area Rocketry Association.”

Baedor achieved an apogee of 4,454 feet in its final demonstration flight, days before the UAH campus closed as a precautionary measure for COVID-19. When it landed, the rocket successfully deployed Little Dipper, which achieved its collection mission.

Competition category and overall winners were announced virtually by NASA on July 23.

NASA Student Launch challenges middle school, high school, college and university teams from across the United States to build and fly a high-powered amateur rocket carrying a complex payload to over 4,000 feet above the ground. The rocket then must descend and land safely before its scientific or engineering payload can begin its work. This year’s competition drew teams from 19 states and Puerto Rico.

College and university teams developed payloads to navigate to a designated sample site, retrieve a simulated sample of planetary ice, and navigate at least 10 feet away from the site with the sample stored safely aboard. How they tackled the challenge was up to them.

Teams earn points for progress and successes during the eight-month competition, and the team with the most points wins. Awards also are presented in 11 different categories that range from payload design and safety to best social media presence and STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – outreach.

UAH team members are:

  • Nicholas Roman, project manager; senior, aerospace engineering, Cullman, Ala.
  • Joshua Jordan, chief engineer; senior, mechanical engineering, Mount Vernon, Wash.
  • Peter Martin, vehicle team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Coopersburg, Penn.
  • James Venters, payload team lead; senior, mechanical engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Jessy McIntosh, safety officer; senior, mechanical engineering, Beaufort, N.C.
  • Maggie Hockensmith, technical writing coordinator and vehicle safety deputy; senior, aerospace engineering, Lexington, Ky.
  • Claudia Hyder, payload safety deputy; senior, mechanical engineering, Knoxville, Tenn.
  • Patrick Day, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Johnson City, Tenn.
  • Will Snyder, project management team; senior, aerospace engineering, Cleveland, Ohio
  • Rodney L Luke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Pleasant Grove, Ala.
  • Roman Benetti, vehicle team; senor, aerospace engineering, Woodbury, Minn.
  • Rachel O’Kraski, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Huntsville, Ala.
  • Ben Lucke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Saint Petersburg, Fla.
  • Jeremy Hart, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gainesville, Ga.
  • Jacob Zilke, vehicle team; senior, aerospace engineering, Wilmington, N.C.
  • Joseph Agnew, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, New Market, Ala.
  • Johnathon Jacobs, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Valley Head, Ala.
  • Thomas Salverson, payload team; senor, mechanical engineering, Gretna, Neb.
  • Kevin Caruso, payload team; senior, mechanical engineering, Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
  • Jacob Moseley, payload team; senior, aerospace engineering, Gaylesville, Ala.

(Courtesy of UAH)

1 year ago

Baudry Lab finds 125 naturally occurring compounds with potential against COVID-19

(Michael Mercier/UAH)

The Baudry Lab at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) has identified 125 naturally occurring compounds that have a computational potential for efficacy against the COVID-19 virus from the first batch of 50,000 rapidly assessed by a supercomputer.

It’s the first time a supercomputer has been used to assess the treatment efficacy of naturally occurring compounds against the proteins made by COVID-19. Located in UAH’s Shelby Center for Science and Technology, the lab is searching for potential precursors to drugs that will help combat the global pandemic using the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Cray Sentinel supercomputer.

The UAH team is led by molecular biophysicist Dr. Jerome Baudry (pronounced Bō-dre), the Mrs. Pei-Ling Chan Chair in the Department of Biological Sciences. Dr. Baudry is video blogging about his COVID-19 research journey using HPE’s Cray Sentinel system. His research is in collaboration with the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy and HPE.


“We have used supercomputers to predict natural products most likely to bind to three proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” says Dr. Baudry. SARS-CoV-2 is the scientific name for COVID-19.

“Out of the 50,000 natural products that we have looked at using supercomputers, we find several hundred to be predicted to be potentially binding on the proteins of interest,” he says.

“We further found 125 – but there may be more – that are particularly interesting because they bind right where we want to, they are not too big, not too small and they have the chemical profiles of pharmaceuticals.”

There are many diverse natural sources for the chemicals of interest, Dr. Baudry says.

“Many are from relatively common medicinal plants that can be found in the U.S., and many are from more distant plants from Southeast Asia and South America, as well as from some ground and oceanic bacteria strains and fungi.”

Promising compounds will undergo a computational technique called pharmacophore analysis to find what the chemicals have in common and flag chemical features important for future research.

The next phase for the compounds is in vitro testing by a partner laboratory that will use live virus and live cells. Those chemical molecules found most efficacious will form the basis for future drug research and development processes that include testing for efficacy, tolerance and adverse effects in human trials. That process might also include chemical modifications to make the drug more efficient, better tolerated or both.

“Maybe we will need a cocktail of drugs, as is the case in many anti-AIDS treatments. But every drug that ends up surviving this long and winding road of development and testing starts as a hit that binds to a protein. It is this initial event that we are modeling here using supercomputers,” Dr. Baudry says.

“Normally it would take a very long time and a lot of money to achieve that, but with the supercomputers we can perform this initial hit discovery step much faster and cheaper,” he says. “Everything is being accelerated for COVID-19, so the whole process that can take up to a decade may end up being shorter here.”

More batches are being prepared for supercomputer testing, according to Baudry Lab researcher Dr. Kendall Byler, who is running the calculations on Sentinel. Dr. Byler is highly experienced in using computational approaches for natural product research.

“Actually, there are over 400,000 compounds we’d like to test,” Dr. Byler says.

Blocking proteins

In the initial batch, naturally occurring compounds were found that seem likely to bind to two important proteins, COVID-19’s papain-like protease, or PLpro, and the main protease, or Mpro. The proteins are enzymes from the virus’ genome that are responsible for processing all the virus’ proteins in infected cells. Infected cells are forced to manufacture them so that the virus can replicate.“If we can block these viral proteins from self-assembling and performing their functions inside the cell, we may not have been able to save that one infected cell, but we will prevent the virus from replicating and it will die with that cell,” Dr. Baudry says. “If we find a chemical that ‘sticks’ in these reactive regions of the proteins, the processing reactions will not be possible anymore and we will stop the infected cells from making and releasing more virus.”

The third protein of interest is COVID-19’s spike protein, which is how the virus attaches itself to a cell to initiate the infection process. This spike protein is present on the surface of the virus and gives the virus its characteristic crown-like (corona in Latin) appearance. It binds to a protein called ACE2 on the cell surface to begin the infection process.

“We are trying to find chemicals that would bind on the surface of the virus’ spike protein and prevent it from locking itself with the cell’s ACE2,” Dr. Baudry says.

In the initial batch modeled, scientists found the interactions of 24 compounds interesting in the spike protein, 41 molecules interesting in the main protein and 60 compounds interesting in the PL-pro protein.

“We can then have a good idea of what the natural products exhibit that makes them successful in these different proteins, and that is the starting point for screening larger databases of millions of chemicals much faster, helping chemists to synthesize novel molecules down the road, maybe more potent and more selective than the original natural products against these proteins,” Dr. Baudry says.

AI and ancient knowledge

Located in a Microsoft Azure data center in Texas, the Sentinel supercomputer makes the work more rapid than ever before possible and an HPE team is helping facilitate it. Dr. Baudry’s UAH team has access to Sentinel’s powerful capabilities through the cloud with Microsoft Azure.

Sentinel, which features HPE’s Cray XC50 end-to-end high-performance computing (HPC) system, is capable of computing 147 trillion floating point operations per second and can store 830,000 gigabytes of data.

Sentinel helps to cut compound testing time from months or even years to weeks, Dr. Baudry says. The supercomputer is as fast as the Earth’s entire population doing 20,000 calculations every second and has storage capacity for more than 45 years of high definition video.

The fight to prevent COVID-19’s sometimes devastating health consequences has created a new meeting of modern high-capacity artificial intelligence with humankind’s most ancient healing knowledge, Dr. Baudry says.

“Even five years ago, this would not have been possible,” he says. “It is fortunate for us that this kind of very advanced, very rapid computational power is available at this time when we need it so much.”

At UAH, the Baudry Lab collaborates on machine learning and big data in drug discovery with the laboratory of Dr. Vineetha Menon, an assistant professor of computer science.

The lab also collaborates in a separate COVID-19 compound search led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee and is working with the Alabama Supercomputer Center on COVID treatment compound research.

(Courtesy of UAH)