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School of Engineering
Growing a Microforest

Research wouldn’t be research without unexpected results. That’s what a group of Rensselaer researchers realized when an experiment designed to grow carbon nanotubes under high-temperature conditions resulted in the growth of a completely different form of carbon.   

Where they expected to see nanotubes, Pulickel Ajayan, associate professor of materials science and engineering, and his colleagues instead discovered a forest of pure carbon trees. Their research appeared in the March 16 issue of Nature as well as the March 28 issue of The New York Times’ “Science Times.”   
“This is a whole new form of carbon based on a form of graphite that’s been around for a long time. This is why we do fundamental research,” says Richard W. Siegel, the Robert W. Hunt Professor and chair of materials science and engineering. In addition to Ajayan, Siegel, graduate student John Nugent, and two other researchers from the Max-Planck-Institute fur Metallforschung (Stuttgart, Germany) are co-authors of the Nature paper.   

The Rensselaer team used rapid chemical vapor deposition, or “flash CVD,” a process in which a graphite electrode is rapidly heated in an atmosphere of methane and helium. Each cycle of heat lasts only about 30 seconds, causing deposits of carbon atoms on a graphite surface that grow into micron-sized, treelike carbon structures.   

Unlike most researchers, they performed their experiment without using metal particles on the electrode as a catalyst, proving that carbon tree growth can be tailored simply by controlling the rate of deposition through flash CVD.   

Ajayan and Siegel aren’t exactly certain what applications this new form of carbon will have. The carbon trees are less perfect structures than carbon nanotubes and may or may not have similar electronics applications. But because they are porous, they might be used for gas storage, Ajayan notes.


Lally School of Management and Technology
Entrepreneurship Encourages Economic Stability

Increased entrepreneurial activity leads to a more stable economy, says Phillip Phan, Bruggeman Distinguished Associate Professor of Entrepreneurship.   

Phan, who spent a year in Singapore studying the effects of the Asian economic crisis, claims that Taiwan avoided economic collapse because of its robust entrepreneurial enterprise.   

Nearly 70 percent of Taiwan’s economy is based on small to medium-sized enterprise, he says. In the depths of the Asian economic crisis, Taiwan announced annual growth of 4 percent.   

If the U.S. can learn anything from Taiwan, it’s that big government should stay out of small business, Phan says.   

“It’s a paradox. The less government gets involved, the more small business will thrive,” Phan says.   

If the state and federal governments can remove barriers to creativity and entrepreneurial drive, such as unnecessary licensing, fees, and permits, more people will consider starting businesses and local economies will thrive as a result, Phan says.   

“The U.S. has pockets of incredible entrepreneurial activity like the Silicon Valley, but we also have former industrial cities, like Troy or Altoona, Pa., that have been decimated,” Phan says. “Government won’t bring wealth to those areas—entrepreneurship will.”


School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Just the Ticket!

Say you’re about to shell out hundreds of dollars for tickets to a big game or concert, but you’re worried about the view from the seats.   

If students in Rensselaer’s Studio Design in Human Computer Interaction class have their way, Dodger fans will be able to point and click on any seat in a virtual, 3-D model of Dodger Stadium, and see the view before they buy.   

Cheryl Geisler, professor of language, literature, and communication, teaches the course and says the goal is for students to pinpoint an industry need, do market research, prove their design concept, then put together a team to market the product or find a funding source.   

“The focus is on innovation. I try to get them to understand how technology can transform the way people do things,” Geisler says.   

This spring, Jeff Levitt and Sondra Biere, both master’s students in technical communication, planned to present a prototype model of the stadium showing views from a few seats; they hope to have full functionality by the end of this year.   

Levitt came up with the idea as an undergraduate in Rensselaer’s EMAC program. He approached the Dodgers’ organization with the idea last summer and the team lent its name to the prototype.   

Biere, who designed the user interfaces and navigational tools, says ticket buyers will be able to order tickets electronically and get 360-degree views from their virtual seat.   

Studio Design is part of the Human Computer Interface (HCI) certificate program being taught on campus and at-a-distance to sites in Germany, Minnesota, and across New York state.


Schools of Architecture AND Humanities and Social Sciences
Can Humans Fly?

Some 300 dance enthusiasts turned out for a performance of “Embodied,” an experimental collaboration between architecture and electronic arts students from Rensselaer, and dancers from Skidmore College.   

The work was staged April 18 at Boardwalk Center, a converted sewing factory on River Street in Troy. The choreography was inspired by the work of Elizabeth Streb, a dancer/choreographer from New York City and a 2000 winner of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur “genius award.” Streb helped with the production and attended the performance.   

“She poses the question, ‘Can humans fly?’ She wants to liberate human action so there are no boundaries,” says Frances Bronet, associate dean and associate professor of architecture, and an adviser and designer on the project.   

The audience moved through and around eight interactive installations, including a spider web-like mesh made of spandex and cables, a series of sliding walls triggered by motion-detecting devices, and two 130-foot former sewing tables.   

Architecture students and others from the Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer (iEAR) program worked on the projection, lighting, and sets. Sound designers from iEAR composed the interactive music. The Department of Arts sponsored the project as part of its Electronic Arts Series.   

The performance was made possible by a gift from Marcia and Christopher Jaffe ’49, visiting professor of architecture. C. Michael Kitner ’78, owner of Boardwalk Center, made the space available.


School of Science
Unfolding the Protein Puzzle

Molecular biophysicists have characterized about 700 unique protein structures, and speculate that as many as 800 remain to be described.   

Because proteins are large, highly complex molecules, determining their three-dimensional structures is painfully time-consuming labor. With the aid of a Strategic Initiative grant from Rensselaer, two researchers are collaborating on a project to solve the so-called “protein-folding problem.”   

Chris Bystroff is an assistant professor of biology and Mohammed Zaki is an assistant professor of computer science. Together, they are employing highly sophisticated data-mining techniques to develop a process for predicting the three-dimensional structure of proteins.   

“Because the problem is so complicated, molecular biologists are moving away from traditional experimental approaches. The process is becoming much more statistical,” Bystroff says.   

Knowing the three-dimensional structure of a protein helps researchers identify the function of a specific gene. With this knowledge, medical science moves closer toward treating and even curing such illnesses as early-onset diabetes and Huntington’s disease.   

“For each protein, using the older methods, it would take months. I’m interested in high-performance computing to speed up the process. I am developing a parallel data-mining tool kit to work on this problem,” Zaki says.   

“What we’re learning is the nature of the physical forces that hold proteins together, Bystroff adds. “This is fascinating work.”


School of Science

Add “ecoinformatics” to your lexicon of new words describing new fields of research at Rensselaer.   

That’s “eco” as in ecology and “informatics” as in bio-informatics. The term signifies the study of large databases of information culled from eco-systems. The discipline is so new, its basic assumptions and terminologies are unformed.   
“In bioinformatics, we’re dealing with DNA and protein sequences. Those are the basic units. In ecology, we don’t know what the fundamental units of information are,” says Jackie Collier, assistant professor of biology.   

Collier is one of seven researchers from five universities to share a five-year, $4.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study “Biocomplexity of Aquatic Microbial Systems: Relating Diversity of Microorganisms to Ecosystem Function.”   

Collier will use her share of the grant, $420,000, to research urease, an enzyme that breaks down urea, a soluble solid found in urine. The work is close to traditional bioinformatics, but ultimately could lead to the emerging field of ecoinformatics.   

“We’re working toward the goal of being able to use modern molecular biological and biochemical techniques, combined with a detailed physiological knowledge gained from working with laboratory cultures, to allow the patterns of gene expression found in natural microbial populations to tell us about their ecology,” Collier says.


Schools of Engineering and Science
The “Eyes” Have It

Badri Roysam, associate professor of electrical, computer, and systems engineering, and Chuck Stewart, associate professor of computer science, are collaborating on research to provide a three-dimensional image of the retina that could markedly improve results of laser retinal surgery.   

To locate retinal degeneration, physicians must first image the retina in the visible spectrum, then image the layer beneath the retina in the near-infrared spectrum using a fluorescent dye that reveals blocked blood vessels. A combination of the two images often is inaccurate.   

This is one of the reasons why the current success rate for retinal laser surgery is below 50 percent, explains Roysam. The Rensselaer researchers’ new system will allow surgeons to see both views simultaneously while simulating curves of the retina.  

“Phase I in our two-phase computer vision system will involve constructing a composite image of the retina from a sequence of incomplete views,” says Roysam.   

Phase II of the system involves real-time tracking of the retina in order to stabilize the position of a surgical laser beam. “We like to think of this as a sort of GPS [global positioning system] for the eye,” Roysam says. “Doctors can use it to target laser treatment to avoid destruction of healthy tissue much like military personnel use GPS to target missiles accurately.”   

“While our goal is to eventually improve laser surgery, our three-dimensional modeling can be used for diagnosis and treatment procedures prior to surgery, which is a great improvement on the methods already in use,” says Stewart.


Student Life
Clean Bill of Health

Rensselaer’s Student Health Center has been recertified for three years by the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care.   

The AAAHC is an independent national organization that evaluates the quality of care at ambulatory centers, such as outpatient surgery centers, clinics, and college health centers. Such evaluation, which is voluntary, is seen as the highest form of public recognition a health organization can receive for the quality of care it provides.   

“This certification represents a great deal of work on the part of a very dedicated staff,” says Robert Athanasiou ’62, medical director of health services. “We are the only practice in the Capital Region to submit to this [AAAHC] independent certification process.”   

The Student Health Center is a comprehensive physician-directed program that features an outpatient medical clinic, a certified laboratory, several specialized clinics, and a counseling center. The center also provides health education and a wellness program.   

The certification process of the AAAHC, which is sponsored by leading health-care groups around the country, addresses issues such as the rights of patients, and the quality of management, care, and safety.   

“The certification holds us to national standards and it shows that we’ve made the effort and commitment to be of the highest standard,” says Katrin Wesner ’89, health systems manager.


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