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The School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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Nov. 2013
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Faculty News

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Research News
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Student News

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Alumni/ae News
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Science Dean Laurie Leshin
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Message from
Dean Laurie Leshin

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Greetings colleagues and friends,

At this time of year, it is common to reflect upon things for which we are thankful: good health, close families, dear friends, and the like. As I prepare to spend my third Thanksgiving as a part of the Rensselaer family, I want to take the opportunity to express my thanks to our entire community of scholars and supporters.

Discovery is a team sport - it takes a committed group of people to enable the creation of new knowledge, and to share that knowledge with our students and the world. I am thankful for the faculty who lead the charge in this arena - you can read about more of their successes in this newsletter. Their dedication to breaking barriers and understanding the unknown is inspiring. I am thankful for our students whose unbounded curiosity and commitment to learning motivates us all to be at our best. I am thankful for our amazing staff in the School - they make everything we do possible! We would be lost without them. And finally, I am thankful for our alumni and friends. You support our efforts in countless ways, investing your time, talent and funds in our success - we appreciate you!

Thank you to everyone in the School of Science extended family. I wish you all a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!

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science.rpi.edu

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Web version of this email

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The Jefferson Project at Lake George
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Jefferson Project at Lake George Kicks Off Scientific Study of Lake With High-Tech Survey

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High-Resolution Survey of Lake Bed and Surrounding Mountains

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The Jefferson Project at Lake George is building one of the world's most sophisticated environmental monitoring and prediction systems, which will provide scientists and the community with a real-time picture of the health of the lake. Starting next week, scientists will use a combination of sophisticated aerial and boat-based surveying techniques to create a high-resolution contour map and images of the lakebed and surrounding mountains.

Residents and visitors at Lake George will see a combination of survey boats and aircraft collecting scientific data. The study will not impact the lake or disturb its ecosystem.


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Berman

Research Data Alliance/US to Expand Scope with $5 Million NSF Grant

RDA is accelerating the development of global infrastructure for data sharing and exchange among diverse research areas.

Curioisiy

Senator William H. Hernstadt '57 and Jerene Yap Hernstadt Gallery

The gallery in the CBIS was dedicated in their names in honor of their $1 million unrestricted gift to the Rensselaer endowment.

Asteroids

My Night with SOFIA

I finally did it: I flew on SOFIA - and it was truly amazing.

Gilbert

Exciting Developments in the Department of Biological Sciences

Starting with a name change, the Department of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce several updates.

Fall 2013 Dean's Seminar Series:
"The Science of Big Data"

December 4
Heidi Newberg, Prof., Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy
Peter Fox, Prof. and Tetherless World Constellation Chair

For more information, please contact Amanda Thibault, thibaa2@rpi.edu.

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Jefferson Project at Lake George Kicks Off Scientific Study of Lake With High-Tech Survey

The survey is critical to the development of an accurate computer model of water circulation within the Lake George watershed, which is part of a suite of new technologies and techniques being developed in the three-year, multimillion-dollar collaboration between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM, and The FUND for Lake George.

The circulation model built from this survey information will expand our understanding of how water, nutrients, invasive species, and pollutants move through the watershed and within Lake George. The circulation model is part of a series of advanced data analytics, computing and data visualization techniques, new scientific and experimental methods, 3-D computer modeling and simulation, and historical data expected to provide an unprecedented scientific understanding of Lake George.

The Jefferson Project has contracted Substructure Inc., a New Hampshire-based company with significant expertise in precision geophysical and hydrographic surveying. Substructure will use highly specialized vessels to conduct the lakebed survey. The boats, which are equipped with multibeam SONAR, will cruise a repetitive pattern in deeper areas of the lake, beginning in the southern basin and continuing for the next several months as they map the lake. The boats cannot survey in the shallowest areas due to risk in damaging precision measurement equipment suspended from their hulls.

Shallower areas will be surveyed by Aerial Cartographics of America, with aircraft equipped with custom-designed bathymetric LiDAR (light detection and ranging) equipment. The initial aerial survey will take approximately three days, with each flying day chosen dependent on weather conditions. The planes will fly slowly at an altitude of approximately 500 meters above the lake in a repetitive pattern for the mapping. A second round of aerial surveys of the surrounding watershed will commence later in the project.

The Jefferson Project at Lake George, launched in June 2013, aims to understand and manage multiple complex factors - including road salt incursion, storm water runoff, and invasive species - all threatening one of the world's most pristine natural ecosystems and an economic cornerstone of the New York tourism industry. The collaboration partners expect that the world-class scientific and technology facility at the Rensselaer Darrin Fresh Water Institute at Lake George will create a new model for predictive preservation and remediation of critical natural systems in Lake George, in New York, and ultimately around the world.

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Research Data Alliance/US To Expand Reach and Scope With $5 Million NSF Grant

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a five-year, $5 million grant to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and partners to expand United States leadership and engagement in the international data community through the Research Data Alliance (RDA). RDA is accelerating the development of global infrastructure for data sharing and exchange among diverse research areas - including tools, code, institutional policy, and best practices - that provide the foundation for new data-driven insights and discoveries. RDA/US is comprised of the United States members of RDA, which was officially launched in March 2013 with support from the NSF, European Commission, and the Australian Commonwealth Government.

The $5 million grant broadens the reach of RDA/US with three pilot programs in the U.S. and expanded participation in the international RDA. The three pilot programs will engage more U.S. data-oriented organizations in the RDA, disseminate techniques and tools developed by the RDA within the U.S., and provide opportunities for students and young professionals in the U.S. to work with the RDA, according to Francine Berman, chair of RDA/US and the Edward P. Hamilton Distinguished Professor of Computer Science at Rensselaer. The new grant is a collaboration between Rensselaer, Indiana University Bloomington, and the Corporation for Networked Research Information (CNRI), and part of a suite of activities at the new Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA).

"In one year, the Research Data Alliance has grown from an organizing group of eight individuals to a vibrant community of more than 1,000 members from 53 countries and all sectors," said Berman. "The dramatic growth of the RDA emphasizes the need for data infrastructure and coordination worldwide and has enhanced U.S. leadership and competitiveness in the data arena. U.S. engagement in the RDA is particularly timely, as U.S. 'big data' and 'public access to research' initiatives are emerging as top national priorities to spur innovation."

"The new grant promotes practical advances in data sharing that are key to scientific collaborations enabling discoveries to address needs of our global society," said Robert Chadduck, NSF program director for data and cyber infrastructure. "NSF is proud to join our global colleagues in continuing to support the RDA initiative."

RDA supports interest groups that discuss broad-based topics from preservation of e-infrastructure, to agricultural data interoperability, as well as 12- to 18-month working groups that focus on the development and use of specific tools, software, standards, and other infrastructure to facilitate data sharing for a targeted purpose.

Mark Parsons, managing director of the RDA/US and the Rensselaer Center for the Digital Society, said the organization produces deliberately flexible tools that can be adapted to suit the purpose of diverse research needs. For example, said Parsons, one RDA working group is facilitating research that correlates pollution levels with asthma risk, and must link health data with environmental data. The group may devise a simple protocol aligning the format of physical addresses in datasets, a step that could be widely applicable to other research.

"We know that what we need is something like an Internet for data, but we don't know what the best configuration for that infrastructure will be," said Parsons. "So instead of building a monolithic one-size-fits-all system, we are providing small building blocks - protocols, pieces of code - for specific situations, and then looking for other research scenarios where those building blocks might be applicable."

Indiana University Bloomington will lead two of the three pilot programs. The first is a series of "data challenges" that will encourage and reward the community to adapt and use the techniques and tools developed by RDA working groups. These challenges will range from computer science tools such as a registry of data types, to specific applications that could, for example, help improve crop yields by integrating diverse agricultural data.

"The data challenges bring together multiple teams over a compressed and energetic timeframe. These are researchers who can benefit from an RDA emergent technology, and that gives them a chance to ‘kick the tires,'" said Beth Plale, professor in the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University, and RDA/US executive committee member.

Indiana University Bloomington will also lead a program to engage emerging data scientists and users. RDA/US will provide internships for students and fellowships for early career professionals to contribute to and use the products of RDA, according to Plale.

"The career trajectory of the data scientist is a topic of considerable attention in academia and industry. The emerging scholar program gives the RDA/US community an opportunity to enhance and integrate the emerging scholar into the fabric of RDA in ways that strengthen their career path," said Plale.

The Corporation for Networked Research Information will take the lead on the third pilot - a program to engage more data-oriented organizations in RDA. RDA/US will offer informational and working sessions at key meetings of data-oriented organizations over a wide variety of domains. It will coordinate relevant activities with such organizations, and develop joint activities with the RDA/US student and young professionals program, according to Larry Lannom, of CNRI.

"We want to develop RDA as the foremost venue for organizations and individuals to come together to craft the tools and approaches that will let us unlock the potential in the vast amounts of scientific data now being gathered by research institutions worldwide, enabling that knowledge to be applied to the great challenges we face as a global society," said Lannom.

Big Data, broad data, high performance computing, data analytics, and Web science are creating a significant transformation globally in the way we make connections, make discoveries, make decisions, make products, and ultimately make progress. RDA/US is part of the university-wide effort at Rensselaer to maximize the capabilities of these tools and technologies for the purpose of expediting scientific discovery and innovation, developing the next generation of these digital enablers, and preparing our students to succeed and lead in this new data-driven world.

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Rensselaer Dedicates the Senator William H. Hernstadt '57 and Jerene Yap Hernstadt Gallery

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute today dedicated the gallery in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) as the Senator William H. Hernstadt '57 and Jerene Yap Hernstadt Gallery in honor of their $1 million unrestricted gift to the Rensselaer endowment.

The Hernstadt Gallery, located outside of the CBIS auditorium, provides an open space for the Rensselaer community to congregate and engage in discussions regarding the variety of interdisciplinary lectures occurring in the auditorium.

"The Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies was designed to advance the extraordinary opportunities for discovery and innovation at the intersection of the life sciences with engineering, the physical and computational sciences, and technology, particularly in areas related to health and energy security," said Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson. "One never knows where the next research breakthrough will come from, but conversation is key to expediting serendipity. The gallery space outside of the CBIS auditorium has become a vital hub for the exchange of ideas and the fostering of innovation. For that reason, it is the ideal place to honor the generosity of the Hernstadts."

"Senator William Hernstadt and Jerene Yap Hernstadt's gift to Rensselaer, in support of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, is most welcome and comes at a time during which we are enhancing the pace of basic research in CBIS and translating our findings to develop diagnostic tools and treatments for some of the most challenging public health issues of our times, including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis," said Deepak Vashishth, director of CBIS.

"I am pleased with the growth of Rensselaer throughout the years, particularly under the leadership of Dr. Jackson," William Hernstadt said. "Rensselaer has played an important role in my life, and I hope that my gift supports future generations in their pursuit of a high-caliber, technological education."

Hernstadt, who graduated from Rensselaer with a degree in physics in 1957, has had a long and varied career as a radio and television station owner, recruiting company founder, and mining company investor. He also served as a Nevada state senator from 1977 to 1984. He currently resides in Singapore with his wife, Jerene. The Hernstadts have been longtime supporters of Rensselaer and are members of the Stephen Van Rensselaer Society of Patroons.

CBIS opened in 2004 and supports several leading-edge research cores that are available to all Rensselaer faculty, staff, and students, and also to external academic and industrial collaborators and researchers. Today, these research cores include: analytical biochemistry, bioimaging, bioresearch, cell and molecular biology, microbiology and fermentation, microscopy, nuclear magnetic resonance, proteomics, and stem cell biology.

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My Night with SOFIA

(We've been following Daniel Angerhausen, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy, in his quest to conduct research aboard NASA's flying observatory, SOFIA. From anticipation in April, to disappointment in May, we are pleased to at last report success and joy. Congratulations Daniel!)

"So I spent the night at 42,000 feet on a billion dollar NASA aircraft observing an alien world 63 light-years away. How was your night?" - Tweet from Daniel the morning after his very first flight on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).

I finally did it: I flew on SOFIA - and it was truly amazing.

Earlier this year, I wrote about my research through the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy at RPI, observing extra-solar planets with airborne NASA/DLR observatory SOFIA. At the time, I was looking forward to a scheduled flight on SOFIA, but in my last post, I explained how my flight was derailed by a technical difficulty with the plane. And then I got a back-up date!

Just like last time, things did not look good in the beginning. During my first layover on the way to NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., I got a disconcerting email saying that one of the science instruments had problems with its liquid helium cooling mechanism. Also, the looming government shutdown was jeopardizing the planned missions.

At least my last-minute clearance to access the NASA facility worked out after some phone calls, and I was able to attend a so called "line ops" observation the following night. During line ops the SOFIA plane is pulled out of the hanger and put out on the airfield. Then the "garage door" that covers the telescope cavity is opened and SOFIA basically used like a ground-based telescope.

The observations made during line ops usually do not have much scientific use, but are of great value to characterize and calibrate the telescope and the instruments. The procedures for these test observations are pretty similar to an actual flight, the only difference being that the plane stays on ground - so it was also a great exercise for me to get ready for my first flight … scheduled for the very next day.

On Sept 26, at 6:43 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, I had my very first take off aboard SOFIA. The 6-hour 11-minute flight felt much shorter because everything was so exciting and new to me. During the flight we spent one hour of observation time on HD 189733b, ‘my' object of interest: a star with a transiting hot Jupiter-like planet. We needed these tests to calibrate our instruments and to find the best setup for the upcoming observation of an actual transit three days later. "We" in this case were the team of 25-30 people on the plane - pilots, engineers, scientists, telescope and instrument operators (one of them, by the way, RPI alumni Sachindev Shenoy, who now works for SOFIA Universities Space Research Association at NASA Ames).

On the second flight, I got a special surprise: the pilots offered one free seat in the cockpit for take-off, and I got it! We tookd off at 8:56 p.m. on Sept. 30 - literally four minutes before the government shutdown took effect. After ourflight, SOFIA stayed on the ground until the shutdown ended. On this second flight we conducted the very first observations of an extrasolar planet from SOFIA. I brought my little timelapse camera on board and took a video of our mission.

In this video, you'll see that the telescope is on the other side of the blue bearing that you can see in the video, in a cavity open to the outside. You will also see the science instruments (in this case HIPO and FLITECAM) and some counterweights. The telescope is basically swimming on a thin oil film in that bearing and inertia is keeping it stable against the plane's vibrations. So when you see it "move" in the video it is actually stable with regard to the stars and just compensating for the aircraft's movement and turbulences.

I am very excited about the data we got on this mission. Despite some technical difficulties we already learned a lot about these observations and the instruments we used. Some of the raw data shows a quality that we usually only can expect from space-based satellite telescopes like the Hubble or Spitzer space telescopes.

I worked on making this flight happen for more than five years, there were lots of obstacles on the way, and I am very happy and really thankful that it finally worked out.

However, this is just the beginning: there are still lots of things to learn from a more detailed analysis of the data. I cannot wait to get my hands on it in order to prepare for (hopefully plenty) upcoming exoplanet observations with SOFIA!

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Exciting Developments in the Department of Biological Sciences

Starting with a name change, the Department of Biological Sciences is pleased to announce several updates. The department, formerly known as the Department of Biology, changed its name to reflect where biology, and the department itself, are today. Faculty and students of the department study life at all scales, from individual molecules to single cells, whole organisms, and global ecological networks. Cutting-edge technologies at the interface of physical sciences, mathematics, and engineering are incorporated with the goal of allowing students to become comfortable applying mathematical and systems approaches to biological problems.

In addition to the name change, the department has also added a Neuroscience concentration to the curriculum. The field of Neuroscience is highly interdisciplinary with scientists and engineers from many different backgrounds using multiple experimental approaches. "The aim of the Neuroscience Concentration is to provide students from diverse majors a foundation to understand the inner workings of the human mind and nervous system, to investigate what goes wrong in disabling neurological disorders, and to determine if neurons can be stimulated to regrow their connections following neuronal degeneration or injury," said Susan Gilbert, department head and professor.

With expertise from department faculty, this summer Rensselaer announced a partnership with IBM and the FUND for Lake George to understand and manage multiple complex factors threatening one of the world's most pristine and natural ecosystems. The Jefferson Project at Lake George, based at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, recently launched a high-resolution survey of the lakebed and surrounding mountains using specialized boats and aircraft. This survey will be critical to the development of an accurate water circulation computer model.

The department also recently welcomed Catherine Royer, an expert in molecular biophysics, as a Constellation Chair in Biocomputation and Bioinformatics, and Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. Royer's research seeks to understand the physical mechanisms by which biological molecules work. "My work is somewhere between chemistry, physics, and biology, and I was really attracted by the interdisciplinary nature of research, and the institute-wide support for interdisciplinary research at Rensselaer," said Royer. She most recently served as director of the Centre de Biochimie Structurale in Montpellier, France.

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* The School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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