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A Disturbed Amazon
Mark Bush, head of the Department of Biological Sciences, earned a $590,000 National Science Foundation Grant to research the extent to which indigenous peoples impacted the Amazonian forest prior to European arrival. Florida Tech's portion of the grant is about $407,000; scientists at the University of Florida and Wake Forest University share the balance.
According to Bush, a prevailing view among archaeologists is that many ecosystems that ecologists have assumed to be mature or undisturbed may be only one-to-several tree generations removed from intensive management. The widespread fire use by pre-Columbian humans for slash-and-burn agriculture, coupled with "gardening" the forest to enrich the proportion of useful plants, may have created the forest as we know it today.
"If, indeed, Amazonia has been managed this way, there exist radical implications for our understanding of ecological gradients, biodiversity distribution and ecosystem function, as well as conservation and global change biology," said Bush. "If the archaeologists are right, what we see today may not be a timeless forest but relatively young re-growth."
Assessing a Fragile Alaskan Ecosystem
Professor of Oceanography John Trefry is amid research conducted through contracts from the U.S. Department of Interior [government] as well as Shell Exploration & Production Co. and ConocoPhillips Alaska Inc. to make chemical and biological assessments in Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. These areas could be opened up for offshore oil and gas drilling, though in depths of up to 150 feet. One of his challenges is to discern whether any future chemical or biological changes may be related to oil and gas activities, climate change or natural variability.
“The combined funding is a strong indicator of the commitment of Alaskans to preserving their natural resources,” he said. “Good cooperation is essential among governmental and non-governmental agencies, and oil and gas companies to coordinate research activities in Alaska.”
Biologically Inspired Security Research
Richard Ford, computer sciences associate professor and director of Florida Tech's Harris Institute for Assured Information, was awarded a $1.85 million contract from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) to continue his research developing a biologically inspired tactical security infrastructure (BITSI) for military computing and disaster relief operations. The funding continues work he began in 2007 under $954,000 from the ARL. Collaborating with him is a team led by Marco Carvalho, Ph.D., from the Institute for Human & Machine Cognition (IHMC).
"The natural world is wonderful at adapting to change, whereas computer systems are rather brittle. We're taking our inspiration from biology in this next-generation system, trying to build computers that can protect themselves when under attack" said Ford.
"We're trying to create systems that are more difficult to compromise by viewing a system as you would the human body. When attacked, the immune system switches on. We're building artificial immune systems, stealing from Mother Nature by design. No one else is doing this work quite the way we are and we're very excited about it."
Gulf Oil Spill: Lending a Hand
Gulf Oil Spill: Lending a Hand
Florida Tech marine scientists and students are part of the effort to determine where the oil from the Deep Horizon gulf oil spill is spreading.
Marine scientists Stephen Wood and Michael Splitt of the Department of Marine and Environmental Systems, led research trips with university students on observation cruises from St. Petersburg to Key West and the Dry Tortugas on the 130’ oceangoing research vessel R/V Weatherbird II.
To monitor the Loop Current impact, students dropped three ocean drifter buoys beside and into the current from the ship, which will collect and send data, which is being analyzed by the researchers.
“The drifter data will give us some initial evaluation of the ocean models we are using. Florida Tech is particularly looking at the Real-Time Ocean Forecast System (RTOFS). We are now downloading that data and students will analyze the model data and the drifter data over the next few weeks,” said research professor Michael Splitt.
Lightning: A Striking Topic
Professors Joseph Dwyer and Hamid Rassoul are unraveling one of nature’s great mysteries: how thunderstorms make lightning. In fact, they’re learning all kinds of things about lightning through their research, which is well-funded by the National Science Foundation and other sources.
The elusive high-voltage discharge has already revealed many of its secrets to the researchers. They’ve discovered, for example the role the runaway breakdown of air phenomenon plays in thunderstorm electrification, lightning initiation and propagation.
The scientists developed a new technique to remotely measure thunderstorm electric fields on the ground. And, new information they’ve gleaned about a thunderstorm’s lightning-emitted x-rays, gamma rays and high-energy electrons, raise concerns about potential exposure of commercial airline passengers and crews to harmful levels of radiation.
Origin of Alzheimer's Tangle
Associate professor of biological sciences Shaohua Xu's theory on the genesis of Alzheimer's disease is a dramatic departure from conventional wisdom. Medical researchers familiar with his work are keenly positive about his ground-breaking hypothesis.
What Xu finds is that the disease begins when molecules of a normal brain cell protein called "tau" do something abnormal: they join to form tangled fibers that the cell cannot remove. The fibers accumulate over months or years until essential substances cannot move through the cell and the cell dies.
Xu has observed for the first time the actual process by which the fibers form. He uses purified human proteins produced in bacteria by genetic engineering.
The current theory of Alzheimer's is that the filaments form by the addition of individual tau protein molecules directly to the tip of the growing fiber. But by using the new technology of atomic force microscopy, Shaohua has produced images which reveal that this is not the case.
Advocates of Xu's theory include KSC physician Daniel Woodard, the first medical doctor to review the research. He says, "Shaohua's theory is revolutionary and his evidence is overwhelming. The medical implications are beyond anything in my experience."
Protecting the River
The St. Johns River Management District (SJRWMD) contracted with Florida Tech scientists for a two-year, $300,000 project to obtain additional data regarding the fish larvae and eggs (ichthyoplankton) that inhabit the St. Johns River. The study is part of a comprehensive SJRWMD effort to address public concern regarding the cumulative impact of possible water withdrawals from the St. Johns River.
One measure of the river's current and future health is its role as a nursery habitat for fishes. Jonathan Shenker, associate professor of biological sciences, was funded by the grant to study the ichthyoplankton at six locations along the river.
His team's data will enable the researchers to develop predictions on the vulnerability of ichthyoplankton to water withdrawals or environmental changes, and ultimately, project the effects of these losses on juvenile and adult abundance.
"I have no preconceived notions about the magnitude of any impacts," said Shenker. "We'll have to see what the data show. In addition to the impact assessment, this work will give us insight into many of the fishery species that live in the St. Johns. It's a fantastic biological experiment."
Smooth, Biofriendly Sailing
Smooth, Biofriendly Sailing
Slime, bio-film, oysters, tubeworms and barnacles all cause drag on boats and ships, and damage to aquatic structures. Coatings exist to repeal the unwanted creatures, but they must be tested and found safe for the environment.
Ocean Engineering Professor Geoffrey Swain’s life work continues to be testing and evaluating ship hull coatings for effectiveness and safety at test sites near Sebastian Inlet and Port Canaveral.
Funded by grants for 25 years, Swain says that one of the most exciting projects he’s involved in currently is a fully autonomous underwater grooming device, a proactive approach to biofouling prevention. He’s passionate about improving antifouling technology and making the shipping and marine industries more efficient.
Stop Throw-away Light
Stop Throw-away Light
Dr. Terry Oswalt, Head of the Physics & Space Sciences Department, doesn’t take wasted light lightly. He knows that over-used or inefficient lighting wastes electricity. And the fuel burned to create it contributes to the carbon dioxide load on the Earth’s atmosphere. “Outdoor lighting fixtures commonly used by businesses and houses cast as much as 50 percent of the light skywards and some advertising lighting wastes as much as 80 percent,” he says.
Wherever light spills beyond areas of actual need it can imperil human and animal welfare and safety. For example, on Florida’s east coast newly hatched sea turtles are attracted away from the safety of the ocean towards manmade light, exposing them to predators.
If you have any questions or want to know more, Oswalt can shine a light on these issues.