Momentum: Research Archives

Accelerating Research From Days to Minutes

Most of us have heard the adages "work smarter, not harder" or "be quick, but don't hurry." 

That will be easier for anyone on campus needing high-powered computing for research, a better view of the next solar eclipse or laser power for autonomous systems.

"UD is among fewer than 100 universities in the nation with this type of capability. In Ohio, only UD, Ohio State, Case Western and the University of Cincinnati have these networks.

This comes thanks to a $250,000 Air Force grant awarded to the Intelligent Optics Laboratory, located in the Department of Electro-optics and Photonics, and Director Mikhail Vorontsov for his work to improve atmospheric optical systems for laser communications, LIDAR (radar using laser beams), imaging, laser beam projection and power delivery systems.

Vorontsov's group worked with PSSC Labs, a developer of custom high-performance computing and big data computing solutions, to install a cluster of 780 processing cores and four state-of-the-art graphics processing units.

"Lasers can be used to transmit all sorts of data, including high-definition images, and power various remote systems. Our lab looks at how atmospheric turbulence, clouds and other weather conditions cause the degradation or loss of data, and power transmission efficiency," Vorontsov said. "Then, we try to find ways to mitigate those effects and build better optical systems."

Vorontsov's group has studied laser beam propagation over the 4.34 miles from the University's Fitz Hall to the Dayton VA Medical Center and the 92 miles between two Hawaiian islands. He also is interested in examining laser communication links between ground stations and satellites and between low-orbit satellites. These high-performance links will eventually replace conventional radio frequency-based communication technology.

But these high-performance computational capabilities aren't just for researchers in the Intelligent Optics Lab. Anyone on campus is welcome to use the computer cluster to support their research activities, according to Vorontsov.

The cluster is part of UDsciNet, a 10-gigabyte high-performance data network that provides unimpeded connections to researchers around the nation. UDsciNet, upgraded with a quarter-million-dollar National Science Foundation grant, also allows researchers to remotely access and control instruments like electron microscopes at the Ohio State Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis. 

"UDsciNet connects to the global ‘Internet 2’ research network, thereby facilitating UD's high-performance computing/research relationships beyond our campus. All researchers can better share data regardless of its size or complexity. What used to take days, now takes minutes," said Tom Skill, the University's CIO. "This upgrade is the type of support a good research university needs. Building and sustaining a network of this caliber is an important component in advancing a vision for a far-reaching research infrastructure. These investments show current and future faculty we are serious about supporting their research needs.”

 “These high-performance research networks only exist on NSF-funded campuses,” Skill added. “UD is among fewer than 100 universities in the nation with this type of capability. In Ohio, only UD, Ohio State, Case Western and the University of Cincinnati have these networks." 

Other examples of how faculty intend to use the system include:

  •  Umesh Haritashya, geology professor, is using the network to access and analyze massive data files of high-resolution satellite imagery from NASA and others to study geohazards such as earthquake-induced landslides and river blockages.
  •  Andrew Sarangan, electro-optics professor, will work with Sinclair Community College through the network to develop new ways of learning in STEM fields, including nanotechnology.
  •  Vijay Asari, Ohio Research Scholars Chair in Wide Area Surveillance and Vision Lab director, will use the network with Central State University to send, receive and store tremendous amounts of data for their work in sensors, imaging, automatic scene analysis and three-dimensional movement analysis.
  •  Shuang-Ye Wu, associate professor of geology, will analyze massive data sets involving climate change and precipitation models through the remote use of the Ohio Supercomputer Center.
  •  Charles Browning, chair of the chemical and materials engineering department, will access Ohio State's Center for Electron Microscopy and Analysis.

Not wanting to waste the opportunity his godmother gave him to pull himself out of poverty, François Vibert battled through his darkness to earn a Fulbright scholarship he hopes will enable him to provide the gift of light to his native Haiti.

"My parents were very poor and my mother wasn't well, so my godmother took me in, raised me and worked to send me to private schools," Vibert said. "I would still be in Haiti doing who knows what, if not for my godmother. She knew I always had a dream, and I couldn't jeopardize the opportunity she gave me. So, I studied a lot."

But sometimes he didn't have any electricity to study. That meant walking many kilometers to find light to study.

"It fueled my interest in doing something to help."

Vibert eventually found his way to the University of Dayton master's program in renewable and clean energy via an engineering school in Cuba. In between, he returned to Haiti to work in a power plant and volunteer with a social service agency focusing on housing.

As a UD student, he's keeping busy working with mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Kevin Hallinan on cost-effective models to provide electricity in Haiti using solar energy and interning at Fairfield, Ohio-based SonLight Power. SonLight Power is a faith-based non-profit organization providing sustainable energy solutions, knowledge and skills to help people in developing areas gain independence from energy poverty. This summer, Vibert was part of a SonLight Power team that installed a solar power project near Campton, Kentucky.

His eventual goal is to return to Haiti, launch a startup and bring solar energy to his compatriots. The Fulbright Foreign Student Program brings citizens of other countries to the U.S. for graduate study. Many foreign Fulbright grantees are early-career professionals who will return to take leadership positions in their home countries, often working at universities or in government service.

"I want to help people, especially the underprivileged," Vibert said. "I'm not a rich man but I can share my knowledge. I can help guide people."

SonLight Power Executive Director Kevin Sasson said he feels crossing Vibert's path during a talk at UD's School of Engineering was meant to be.

"All of it, it's not a coincidence." "It's supernatural. There's no other way to describe how everything unfolded for us to connect, other than it was a God-thing," he said. "Just think of the sequence of events that had to happen for François and SonLight Power to meet in Dayton, Ohio, of all places. And the precise fit between the SonLight Power mission and François' interests in applying clean energy to improve the quality of life in Haiti. All of it, it's not a coincidence."

Started in 2009, the University of Dayton renewable and clean energy graduate program focuses on energy-efficient buildings and manufacturing, and solar, wind, geothermal, biofuel and fuel-cell energy engineering. The program continues to attract students from around the globe, with applications annually three times that of seats available.

Students have the opportunity to participate in more than $18 million of energy-related research the University performs within the School of Engineering, the College of Arts and Sciences and the University of Dayton Research Institute or hands-on sustainability learning through the University's Hanley Sustainability Institute.

A Giant Leap In Insect Control

Insect ecologist Chelse Prather is "rewriting the textbook" about the role certain minerals might play in controlling grasshopper and other insect populations under a $346,500 National Science Foundation grant.

"[...] this is groundbreaking, rewriting the textbook kind of stuff."

Prather, assistant professor of biology, and four students spent 12 weeks manipulating soil nutrients in a coastal tallgrass prairie south of Houston, Texas. Their goal? To test the nutrients’ importance in determining grasshopper density and diversity.

Grasshoppers are an important part of grassland ecosystems, eating plants and serving as fodder for other animals. But they also compete with livestock for food and in large populations can cause millions of dollars of damage to pastures and rangeland. Ranchers and farmers spend nearly $1 billion annually to control grasshoppers in these areas, but still can't predict their numbers year-to-year.

"This type of information could actually help us predict outbreaks better and has lots of implications for how we manage these systems," Prather said.

Nitrogen and phosphorus are essential elements for plant and animal growth, but these "macronutrients" are now abundant in most soil because of their prevalence in fertilizer. Prather is studying whether less common "micronutrients" such as calcium, potassium and sodium might help determine the structure of grasshopper communities. 

In the laboratory, Prather discovered grasshoppers can detect the amount of calcium in blades of grass and actually choose to eat ones with specific levels of these micronutrients. In the field, she found a correlation between the level of micronutrients in plants and the number of grasshoppers in that area.

Under the National Science Foundation grant, Prather is testing her hypothesis using every combination of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, potassium and sodium across nearly 29 acres at the University of Houston Coastal Center. For the second year, she and her students spread 10 tons of fertilizer in 128 10,000-square-foot plots, replicating each treatment eight times.

"We are going plot to plot testing grasshopper density, sweep-netting insects and looking at grasshopper diversity," said Kiersten Angelos, a senior biology major.

In summer 2016, Prather saw vast differences in the plant communities in the various plots. Insects also started to respond to the micronutrients — particularly grasshoppers, which responded strongly to calcium and sodium.

"People didn't think that animals like insects were limited by micronutrients, so this is groundbreaking, rewriting the textbook kind of stuff," she said. "It's also showing us that dumping all this nitrogen and phosphorus on the ground has significant effects for how ecosystems function — in particular these grasslands."

Prather hopes her tests will show whether adding large amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer to soil has resulted in plants and animals responding differently to other nutrients.

"I think this project will hopefully produce a lot of papers," she said. "We're getting results that are the most exciting of my career." 

In addition to her micronutrient work, Prather is researching whether grasshopper diversity affects how grasslands function under a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in collaboration with Angela Laws, research assistant professor at the University of Houston. Prather is also part of a team to receive a University STEM Catalyst grant to study grasshopper biomes by tracking decomposition rates and invasive fire ant rates in the region.

Seismic Activities

Earthquakes in high mountain regions can trigger large landslides that bury villages, flood rivers and block important international roads, resulting in catastrophic human and economic losses.

"Dr. Haritashya’s work is not just cutting-edge science; it is directly beneficial to thousands — perhaps millions — of people who live in this earthquake-prone region."

Under a new $1.17 million grant from NASA, Umesh Haritashya, associate professor of geology, and a pair of University of Arizona research colleagues hope to better understand the relationship between earthquakes and landslides, and their potential for recurrence and disruption. The research could help determine safer locations for communities and infrastructure in the national border areas of Bhutan, China, Nepal, India and Pakistan.

Currently, little is known about earthquake wave propagation and its relationship to large landslides. For example, a 7.9-magnitude earthquake in one part of the region resulted in 3,000 to 4,000 landslides. Another earthquake of the same magnitude in China several years ago resulted in 50,000 to 80,000 landslides. "The project is going to advance the science to a new level," Haritashya said.

Using satellite imagery, Haritashya will map historic landslides and determine the speed at which they moved. He also will create computer models of rivers blocked by the debris, which can form large, artificial lakes behind the landslide that are hemmed in by loose sediment.

"Once the water pressure increases, that artificial lake could bust out and flood downstream," Haritashya said. "I will be modeling the hydrology of such flood scenarios."

His colleagues' research will include modeling earthquakes and the region’s mountain ridges. They will simulate seismic events of various magnitudes to track the resulting energy waves through the mountains, as well as their potential impacts.

The April 2015 Nepal earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people and injured almost 22,000. The magnitude 7.8 earthquake caused an avalanche on Mount Everest, killing 21 people, and landslides in the Langtang valley, where 250 people were reported missing. Entire villages were buried, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless.

"Dr. Haritashya’s work is not just cutting-edge science; it is directly beneficial to thousands — perhaps millions — of people who live in this earthquake-prone region," said Dan Goldman, professor and chair of the Department of Geology.

The project also will benefit students in Haritashya's courses.

"These opportunities absolutely, 100 percent affect my teaching," Haritashya said. "I'm not just bringing textbook knowledge to the classroom; I am bringing in real-life experience and scientific data that support the textbook's teachings. It is definitely going to bring a lot of new science into the classroom."

This is the third time in five years NASA has awarded research funding to Haritashya. Last year, his team received a $630,000 grant to study how the heating of glacial lakes is accelerating the melting and retreat of glaciers in the Asian Himalayas. In 2012, they were awarded nearly $1 million to conduct analysis of glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region. This new funding isn’t related to his previous NASA projects.

Cracking Diversity’s Code

Tom Williams, associate professor of biology, is using an $839,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research why organisms that share the same genes look and behave differently — and the findings could have implications for human health.

Williams' research is rooted in 1980s discoveries that found radically different organisms have similar sets of genes, suggesting much of the Earth’s biological diversity comes not from new genes, but from how the same genes are used differently.

In previous research, Williams developed an investigative model using color patterns on the abdomens of fruit flies to study the ways in which DNA sequences function to switch genes "on" and "off" during an organism's development. Now Williams is examining the genetic codes of closely related fruit fly species to tease out the DNA sequences that function as switches. His goal? Understanding the changes that make one species' switch behave differently from that of another.

These switch sequences are thought to be a common factor in human health issues such as obesity. For example, a person's genome sequence could determine whether they easily burn off calories or store them instead, impacting their ability to lose weight.

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