In the midst of the worst drought in more than half a century, U.S. farmers are drawing on their best defenses — the center pivot and their experience dealing with some of the harshest conditions Mother Nature can deal.
Now a University of Nebraska-Lincoln computer engineer is preparing to give them a new tool for their irrigation management arsenal — one that has the potential to decrease costs, conserve water, and improve yields.
Mehmet Can Vuran, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, has spent years developing wireless underground sensor networks to give agricultural producers real-time information about soil moisture and changing conditions that would allow them to more efficiently manage irrigation. He’s had the help of doctoral student Xin Dong, as well as a five-year, $418,760 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program to further develop the technology.
Now, a new grant will help them take the idea to market. Vuran, Dong and their entrepreneurial team have been awarded a $50,000 NSF Innovation Corps award. Known as the I-Corps, the program’s goal is to guide toward commercialization promising scientific discoveries that offer great benefits to society.
The team will use the grant to assess the viability of the technology for a new start-up enterprise. The team also will complete a specially designed training curriculum and present their products to venture capitalists at the end of the six-month program.
NSF specifically sought out discoveries that offer near-term benefits to society or the economy.
The team also is working with NUtech Ventures, the nonprofit corporation responsible for the university’s technology development, to commercialize this technology.
While sensors are not new technology to agricultural fields, current tools available have significant limits, Vuran said. His wireless technology can transmit information from the soil to a center pivot irrigation system or even a base station up to 25 feet away. Such information will determine when and how much to water crops. Existing technology, meanwhile, is limited to just a few feet of transmission, lacks the ability to get the data in real time, and is still largely focused on observing atmospheric conditions, he said.
“If you look at most of the technology for irrigation management, we’re still looking at the sky,” he said. “But with this technology, we’re basically trying to get into the soil and let the soil tell us what to do.”
The I-Corps award represents one more vote of confidence for the technology’s promise for the future, and it’s also a unique learning opportunity, Vuran said.
“That’s huge because one of the challenges we have with any type of research is the gap between the technology developed in research labs and the technology that is used in the world,” he said. “This program aims to minimize that gap.”
The UNL team is among 55 winners nationwide in this round of the program that was established by NSF in 2011. A team led by UNL chemist Stephen DiMagno was among the inaugural winners and has since gone on to establish a startup company that develops new imaging agents for staging and management of certain cancers and neurological disorders.
In their pursuit, Vuran and Dong are joined by two other expert team members. Stephen Reichenbach, professor of computer science and engineering, will serve as mentor. He has experience as a successful entrepreneur and in transitioning academic research into real world applications. Suat Irmak has been named team adviser. Irmak is a professor of biological systems engineering, interim director of the Nebraska Water Center and he leads the Nebraska Agricultural Water Management Network. He is well connected to Nebraska farmers and the irrigation industry.
Dong, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Computer Science and Engineering, will fill the role of entrepreneurial lead. The experience will offer him the training necessary to lead a start-up company built on the technology. Dong has worked with Vuran since 2009, including conducting field experiments in Clay Center, Neb. Dong even took agriculture classes to learn more about the properties of soil and water to help him develop the antenna technology that could work through all of it.
“For me, this is like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Dong said. “The I-Corps grant gives me the opportunity to put my research into real life and use it to help other people — to help farmers.”
Writer: Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications, 402-472-8320
Cutline: Stephen Reichenbach (from left), Xin Dong, Mehmet Can Vuran and Suat Irmak are working on a project to develop wireless underground sensor networks to give agricultural producers real-time information about soil moisture and changing conditions that would allow them to more efficiently manage irrigation.
The key to making computers and other electronics smaller, faster and less expensive lies in overcoming the limitations of existing materials. University of Nebraska-Lincoln physicist Xia Hong said she believes her research on nanoscale materials will help break through current barriers.
Hong, assistant professor of physics and astronomy and a researcher in UNL's Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, earned a five-year, $600,000 Faculty Early Career Development Program Award this spring from the National Science Foundation to continue her research. Also known as a CAREER award, it is NSF's most prestigious award for outstanding pre-tenure faculty to help them develop as teacher-scholars and researchers.
For decades, scientists have been squeezing more power out of today's silicon-based electronics, which are approaching the material's fundamental limits. To continue advancing, researchers are exploring existing materials for unique properties at the nano-level and fabricating new nanomaterials with multifunctional properties. Many materials exhibit unusual physical, chemical or biological properties at the nanoscale that are not found at the larger macro level.
With her award, Hong will combine two oxides to create a multiferric nanomaterial with both magnetic and ferroelectric properties. Ferroelectric materials have positive and negative polarization directions. Applying electricity can reverse the polarization. In a multiferric material, electricity also can control magnetism.
Current hard drives and other data storage devices rely on magnetism, which limits their storage density, or capacity, and requires lots of energy to operate. In contrast, ferroelectric-based devices enable much higher density storage. Storing data with an electric charge alone or using electricity to manipulate magnetic signal would be more energy-efficient and allow greater storage capacity in a smaller space.
Hong said she believes it will take one to two years to fabricate the multiferric nanostructure. Then, using cutting-edge techniques, she will study the new material's characteristics. Her research promises to advance the understanding of magnetoelectric coupling and could lead to novel materials and devices.
The grant allows Hong to purchase equipment and hire graduate students and post-doctoral graduates.
The expertise of other faculty in UNL's NSF-funded Materials Research Science and Engineering Center and its focus on nanoscale magnetism and magnetoelectric interfaces aid her research, Hong said.
"My research is very complementary to the existing efforts here," she said. "There is a lot of collaboration. We need a theoretical point of view to understand the new properties we are studying."
Through the grant, Hong also is continuing her interest in making physics accessible to young people, particularly girls. For the educational component of her CAREER award, she will use her drawing skills to develop educational cartoons.
"Many people think physics is very difficult," Hong said. “I thought it was a good idea to use a teenage girl's point of view to illustrate physics principles, not using extensive math equations, but how they operate in real life, to make physics more likable."
The Walt Whitman Archive is undertaking an ambitious project to provide unprecedented access to the famed literary figure’s prose manuscripts and to “illuminate his creative process” with the help of a $275,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Whitman’s prose manuscripts, including drafts of essays, fiction, memoranda, notebooks and other writings, are housed in more than 70 repositories around the world. The expense and time involved in finding and examining such documents has proven a daunting challenge for everyone from scholars interested in studying the development of Whitman’s writings, to those casually interested in exploring Whitman’s working habits.
The NEH grant will support the creation of finding aids that will include item-level descriptions and digital images for all the prose manuscripts organized not around their physical location, but the conceptual work that they contribute to. The project also proposes to create an extended integrated guide that will provide access to all of Whitman’s known literary manuscripts, both poetry and prose.
The effort builds on a similar undertaking to create and aggregate finding aids for Whitman’s poetry manuscripts. That project won the 2006 C.F.W. Coker award from the Society of American Archivists, which recognizes innovative archival projects that in some significant way, set national standards, represent a model for archival description, or otherwise have a substantial impact on descriptive practices.
The current project is expected to take three years to complete.
The Walt Whitman Archive, established in 1995, is an electronic research and teaching tool that sets out to make Whitman's vast work conveniently accessible to scholars, students, and general readers. It is co-directed by UNL’s Kenneth Price, Hillegass University Professor of American Literature and co-director of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, and The University of Iowa’s Ed Folsom.
The Whitman Archive can be found online at http://www.whitmanarchive.org.
A potentially life-saving innovation developed by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln chemist is among 21 concepts across the country selected to receive support through a new National Science Foundation program that aims to guide promising scientific discoveries toward commercialization.
Professor Stephen DiMagno and his entrepreneurial team are among the inaugural recipients of NSF's Innovation Corps award, also known as the I-Corps. Winners were announced today.
Video: interview with DiMagno and lab footage
"This award confirms the importance of the four years of work that went into helping to develop the technology," DiMagno said. "The selection process also helps validate the value of the technology for translation into clinically important medicines."
Each recipient team will receive $50,000 to begin assessing the viability of the technology for a new start-up enterprise. They also will complete a specially designed training curriculum and present their products to venture capitalists at the end of the six-month program. NSF specifically sought out discoveries that offer near-term benefits to society or the economy.
With support from a previous NSF grant, DiMagno developed a new way to make imaging agents for staging and managing certain cancers, including pediatric cancers, cardiac disease, as well as various neurological disorders, like Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
"Our research program allows us to create imaging agents that previously were very difficult to synthesize or were unknown," DiMagno said. "Such compounds will allow us to understand each person's specific disease process better and apply optimum therapies on a patient-by-patient basis."
He said he got the initial idea to pursue this research as he contemplated how to get back to the reason he chose to become a chemist: to have a positive impact on people's lives through science.
"It sounds trite, but it's true," he said.
DiMagno had the help of Kiel Neumann, a graduate student from O’Neill who is pursuing a doctorate in organic chemistry. Neumann has been involved with the project from its infancy and helped establish a collaboration with St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, an internationally recognized pediatric treatment and research facility based in Memphis, Tenn. It's there that he and DiMagno complete the final step in making the radioactive compounds. That's necessary because the compounds only have a half-life of 110 minutes, meaning to be effective they must be used immediately or they disappear.
Working to develop the technology has been rewarding to say the least, Neumann said.
"I think a lot of people see chemistry as this esoteric thing that nobody really knows about and it's all sort of voodoo magic," Neumann said. "But it's nice to see what you develop at the benchtop translate into impacting children’s well-being."
With its team format, the I-Corps program is structured to train the next generation of entrepreneurs to look at all aspects of high-tech business development, DiMagno said.
"The goal is that the student eventually will lead a company or have the training necessary to start his own company in the future," he said.
Besides Neumann, DiMagno's team includes Allan Green, a physician, research scientist and lawyer with extensive experience in the pharmaceutical industry, including the launch of imaging products. Green will serve as a mentor.
In his quest toward commercialization, DiMagno also has worked closely with NUtech Ventures, a nonprofit affiliate of the University of Nebraska that connects university researchers with the private sector. NUtech staff help manage the technology, file patents to protect the technology, and offer advice about how best to proceed with establishing a viable business enterprise around the technology.
DiMagno said he is happy about the amount of progress made to date and with the NSF grant in hand, is confident about the potential surrounding his discovery.
"I'd like to think we have arrived at the cutting edge of molecular imaging, starting from nothing, in four years," DiMagno said. "And that is really a testament to the amount of support we get from the people of Nebraska and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln."
UNL has received nearly $1.5 million from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to enhance digital humanities research and education and to expand the University of Nebraska Press' offerings. The three grants will enable UNL to establish an endowment for the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, catalog the UNL Libraries' and Nebraska State Historical Society's railroad history archives, and help the University of Nebraska Press publish new monographs by junior scholars on endangered indigenous languages of North America. The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities received a four-year, $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to permanently support some of the center's key programs. An internationally recognized leader in digital humanities research, the center is a joint initiative of UNL Libraries and UNL's College of Arts and Sciences and is a UNL Program of Excellence. NEH challenge grants help universities secure long-term improvements and support for humanities programs. They require a three-to-one match from the university. Over the next four years, the University of Nebraska Foundation, UNL Libraries and the College of Arts and Sciences must raise $1.5 million to receive the full $500,000.
Scientists believe they have discovered a common link between such disparate diseases as Parkinson's disease and some types of cancer. Studying these links could lead to advances in combating these and other human diseases.UNL biochemist Mark Wilson studies a protein believed to play a critical role in causing mitochondrial abnormalities leading to Parkinson's and some cancers. He's expanding his research with a recent $1.35 million grant from the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of General Medical Sciences.Scientists now know that inheritable forms of Parkinson's disease develop from mutations in genes found in the mitochondria, the "cellular power plants" that perform a variety of functions within an organism's cells. For example, a genetic mutation that alters the DJ-1 protein disrupts the mitochondria's response to oxidative stress, an imbalance in molecular reactions that can damage cells and lead to diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and ALS.
Above: Patrick Dussault, professor of chemistry, and Donald Weeks, professor of biochemistry.
Two new research centers at UNL - one on algal biology and another on nanohybrid research - received a more than $11 million boost this week from a National Science Foundation award.The funding award is the major part of a five-year, $20 million Nebraska EPSCoR grant announced Oct. 4, involving 29 faculty from seven disciplines at five universities: UNL, UNMC, UNK, Creighton, and Doane College. The "Track 1" award from NSF also expands opportunities for private industry-university research and development partnerships.UNL's planned Center for Nanohybrid Functional Materials will combine the efforts of chemists, engineers, and biologists to develop fundamental new science related to sensing and separation of targets ranging from small molecules to toxins. The center will include 15 faculty members - including 10 from UNL - and will be led by Professors Patrick Dussault and Mathias Schubert, UNL faculty members in the Departments of Chemistry and Electrical Engineering, respectively.
Above: UNL's Diocles Laser is housed in Behlen Laboratory. A $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant will allow expansion and upgrade of existing laser research space in the building.
UNL has received nearly $2 million in federal stimulus funds from the National Science Foundation for renovations to expand its high-power laser research capabilities. The $1,825,345 grant will enable UNL to renovate the sub-basement and basement of Behlen Laboratory. The project will convert outdated physics labs and offices into a state-of-the-art, high-power laser collaborative laboratory, known as the High Power Laser Science Collaboratory. The grant from NSF's Academic Research Infrastructure Program is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. "This renovation will give UNL and the U.S. one of the most powerful and versatile research laser laboratories in the world, creating the capability for potentially transformative research," said Prem Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development. The 4,991-square-foot expansion will create shared core research facilities adjacent to the Extreme Light Laboratory, home to the Diocles Laser, one of the world's most powerful lasers. The expansion will include five laboratories, collaborative research space for laser scientists and a chamber for a second high-power laser, to be built by UNL physicist Donald Umstadter and his team, with funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research. The facility, which adds the new laser to Diocles' capabilities, will place UNL among the top international leaders in laser science. Construction is scheduled to be completed by fall 2012. "This project allows us to significantly expand our capabilities for scientists to work at the frontier of laser research, which enables us to attract top faculty and students to UNL," said David Manderscheid, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and project leader. The Diocles Laser, also built by the UNL team, became operational in 2006 and has enabled studies that are putting UNL in the forefront of high-field physics and laser research. Diocles, with 1 petawatt (1 quadrillion watts - a 1 followed by 15 zeros) of power and ultra-fast repetition and pulse rates, has the potential to produce the highest light intensity ever created, but only for a brief moment. What sets it apart is its compact size. It is essentially a table-top laser with power equal to laser facilities hundreds of times larger. The new laser to be housed in the renovated space will offer new capabilities not now available at UNL. It will be less powerful (40 terrawatts, or 40 trillion watts) than Diocles, but will have a 10 times higher repetition rate, the highest of any in existence. The High Power Laser Science Collaboratory will provide increased access and collaborative space for scientists and engineers pursuing basic research and innovative applications. Potential areas of research include molecular, optical, plasma and nuclear physics, materials science and medicine. Innovative applications include detection of shielded nuclear materials for homeland security, detection of cracks in turbine blades to prevent aircraft failure, generation of laser-accelerated protons for cancer therapy, imaging of ultra-fast chemical reactions and production of novel radiation sources. - Vicki Miller, Research and Economic Development
The National Science Foundation has awarded UNL two Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship program grants totaling $4 million. The Noyce grants support improved mathematics and science education in Nebraska schools by encouraging majors and professionals in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics to become K-12 math and science teachers in high-need school districts.UNL's Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education will administer both grants.
High-need schools include those that educate a large percentage of students living in poverty, or have high teacher turnover rates or a significant number of teachers educating outside their training.
"With these grants, UNL is building on our faculty's expertise and national leadership in math and science education as well as strong ongoing partnerships with schools statewide to increase the number of highly qualified math and science teachers," said Prem S. Paul, vice chancellor for research and economic development. "This is a win-win for our Nebraska students and school districts. What we learn from these projects can offer national models for improving math and science education."
The scholarship program is named for Robert Noyce, who co-founded Intel and invented the integrated circuit, which sparked the personal computer revolution. Noyce cared deeply about the dwindling number of students heading into math and science careers.
A team led by Jim Lewis, Aaron Douglas professor of mathematics and director of UNL's Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, has secured a six-year, $3 million grant to improve math education.
The new math program will cover tuition, fees and a stipend for 16 students. They will complete a 14-month course of study and earn a master's degree and certification to teach math for grades 7-12. Courses begin next summer.
Program participants must commit to teaching in a high-need school for four years, but will receive $10,000 each of those years as an incentive.
The program builds on previous successful efforts to enhance mathematics teaching and learning in Nebraska schools, including the Math in the Middle Institute and NebraskaMATH, Lewis said.
"I'm excited that UNL has seized another great opportunity to improve math education to the benefit of the state and future generations," he said.
The grant also will fund an effort to keep 24 strong, master's-degree-holding, K-12 teachers in high-need schools. The selected "master teaching fellows" will take courses that will give them the skills they need to improve math education in their schools and school districts.
Prospective participants can find more information about both scholarship programs and how to apply athttp://scimath.unl.edu/noyce/.
UNL has earned a share of millions of dollars in grants awarded by the National Science Foundation to help spur the development of a more robust, secure and reliable Internet. UNL is part of a Rutgers University-led research team that aims to develop a future Internet design optimized for mobile networking and communication. The team was awarded a three-year, $7.5 million grant for the project called "MobilityFirst." The project reflects the shift of Internet traffic from PCs to smart cellular phones, tablet computers and other mobile devices. There are more than four billion mobile devices in use worldwide today, and experts predict that by 2015, these wireless devices will significantly outnumber wired devices on the Internet. Byrav Ramamurthy, associate professor of computer science and engineering (pictured), will lead the UNL team. It will study the impact of the rising number of mobile users on the Internet core, which consists of a fiber-optic network. In addition, UNL researchers will contribute to the overall design and evaluation of the MobilityFirst Future Internet architecture. UNL's share of the grant is $300,000 over three years. The MobilityFirst research team is one of four chosen by the NSF to participate in its Future Internet Architecture program. The awards, each worth up to $8 million over three years, will enable researchers at dozens of institutions across the country to pursue new ways to build a more trustworthy and powerful Internet. - Jean Ortiz Jones, University Communications