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Graduate student researchers mix technology and humanity
Tuesday 17 May 2011
Graduate students are at the heart of UC research. And many package their expertise, creativity and compassion to tackle and solve key problems in California and beyond.
Katrina Gooding Petersen of UC San Diego studies how various technologies, combined with information from regular people, can be used to map disasters such as wildfires throughout the state.
To enhance green energy, UC Santa Cruz's Drew Lohn develops high-efficiency solar cells.
Adam Mendelsohn of UCSF has formed a startup company to design an implant that will deliver precise doses of lifesaving drugs directly into the bloodstream (see video).
They were among 20 UC graduate students, along with graduate division deans, in Sacramento on Wednesday (May 11) to meet with legislators to discuss the importance of graduate research and education. The Graduate Research Advocacy Day was especially timely as lawmakers are making key decisions to address state budget shortfalls.
"The legislators don't often hear very much about the research done by students and how important it is, and about how central it is to the California economy," said Patricia Calarco, dean of the Graduate Division at UCSF.
Historically, UC graduate students have played a key role in UC's research success. Many start or join new companies that are sparked by their research innovations. And those companies develop new technologies and create jobs.
Learning from Katrina
"Try going to New Orleans with the name Katrina," joked Katrina Gooding Petersen, a UC San Diego graduate student in communications.
After the BP oil spill hit the Louisiana coast in 2010, Petersen spent a week in New Orleans, not only being teased about sharing her name with a hurricane in the disaster-plagued region, but also studying how smartphones, GPS devices and other tech devices could be used to share information in a crisis. After volunteering with a grassroots group called the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Petersen left New Orleans armed with a conceptual framework that led to her dissertation on crisis-mapping during the California wildfires of 2007.
But her emphasis is not just on technology. She also focuses on how all the information — coming anywhere from satellites to people with handheld radios — is used to provide the best maps and resources for dealing with disasters. Petersen, like many other UC scholars, seamlessly merges high technology with a powerful sense of humanity.
Another example is UC San Diego's Ramsin Khoshabeh, who worried about entering a career that valued function over form — and feeling. The 28-year-old Khoshabeh almost gave up on earning a Ph.D. in engineering. He feared the field might not complement his goal of wanting to help people..
Khoshabeh had watched several surgeons perform operations using robotics with a 3-D console. But laparoscopic surgery, using tiny incisions and even tinier cameras, forces surgeons to operate without depth perception. "It's like doing surgery with one eye closed," he explained.
Khoshabeh believed that laparoscopic surgeons could operate in 3-D, using video feeds from two cameras, combined with computer estimates of depth. On his way to Peru, where he planned to "do some soul-searching," Khoshabeh emailed his idea to Stacy Liekweg, then executive director of the Institute for Engineering and Medicine at UC San Diego. Liekweg responded, suggesting he was a good candidate for the graduate program. After returning from Peru, Khoshabeh successfully entered the program and now is developing the 3-D tool at the Video Processing Laboratory at the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.
"Singlehandedly, she (Liekweg) altered the course of my life," he says.
Touch instead of technology
While his peers experiment in high-tech fields that didn't exist a decade ago, Christopher Lay, a neurobiology and behavior student at UC Irvine, pursues an idea with organic roots.
Using brain imaging, Lay and his colleagues found that if you stimulate a rat's whisker for the two hours immediately following an ischemic stroke — the most common type of stroke, caused by a blocked artery to the brain — the rat appears to make a full recovery. In humans, this might translate to rhythmic massaging of the hand and arm, which are used by humans in much the same way rats use their whiskers.
"It sounds folksy — and it may be — but the basic idea is that when someone is having a stroke, if they have a friend or loved one holding their hand and talking to them, explaining things to them, they may have a better outcome," said Lay.
Lay hastens to add that what works in rats doesn't necessarily work in humans. But the hope that this simple technique might someday be used by emergency medical technicians and family members, in the same way CPR is used now, has inspired Lay to join a team researching these techniques with humans.
Worms a clue to save crops
Samantha Lewis, a UC Riverside student in genetic, genomics and bioinformatics, combines a down-to-earth perspective with high-tech DNA research. Her subject? Tiny, lint-size worms, called nematodes, that are the most abundant animals on Earth.
Her research, funded by a National Science Foundation fellowship, focuses on understanding the DNA of nematodes that prey on insects. The research eventually may be used to develop a new alternative to insecticides and offer farmers new options in pest management.
Drew Lohn, a UC Santa Cruz graduate student in electrical engineering, investigates something even smaller than microscopic worms: nanoparticles. A former state-ranked competitive volleyball player, Lohn started his Ph.D. program working in a microscopic robotic lab, making robots the size of a human hair that could detect missiles. The following year, he jumped at the chance to join a brand-new nanomaterials lab run in collaboration with NASA and Hewlett-Packard. "My second year in graduate school, I put together the lab," he said. "I got the building permit approvals, and bought the wrenches and the screwdrivers."
His work is paying off. Lohn has visiting researcher status at Hewlett-Packard and has a stake in a startup company called International Solar that is developing high-efficiency solar cells that can be produced for the same price as the low-cost solar cell in a pocket calculator. He's working in another startup that is developing technology to turn heat directly into electricity using nanowire films. Some automobile manufacturers are experimenting with similar technology for exhaust systems, but Lohn's company is trying to use silicon rather than lead, which contributes to pollution.
"There are probably four dissertation topics that I could do," said.
If Lohn's lab director had his way, Lohn might stick around to do all of them.
"I feel truly fortunate that I found Drew," says Nobuhiko Kobiyashi, director of the Advanced Studies Laboratory at UC Santa Cruz. "Graduate students are crucial to any lab - not just their work, but their ideas. We're a new laboratory and we rely on outside funding for our research, so the university and state support for graduate students is crucial."