Tuesday, January 17, 2012

When you can't be there: Cheap, solar-powered sensors to monitor remote Alaska infrastructure

Solar-powered sensors already exist, but are expensive and lack the capabilities of a new monitoring device that electrical engineering professor John Lund is now designing.

His wireless device would likely be used along remote roads in Alaska, keeping an eye on culverts, telephone poles, bridges and other essential infrastructure.  The sensor could be programmed to measure a feature like light, lean or orientation – some indicator of change, and constantly transmit that data whenever the device has the solar power to do so – which would be about every 30 seconds.

Circuit board for solar-powered sensor
Lund won an INNOVATE award in December 2011 to design and create the sensors over the next six months. He intends to pursue a patent and publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

The cool part of Lund’s design is that – because these devices have FRAM, or special memory qualities – each sensoring device receives and stores all data from every other device in its same network; if one fails, every other monitor in the system contains all the data for the entire network.

Imagine an Alaska state vehicle (State Troopers or DOT trucks) or even commercial truckers traveling remote main roads across the state. A sensor on that vehicle would be capable of scooping up vast amounts of data as it travels along. Transmitting devices attached to telephone poles, for example, would be capable of sending information across at least one kilometer.

Pass over a bridge, and the sensor on the bridge could report even a minute change in the bridge’s orientation – a deviation that might not be even noticeable to the traveler.

Move along a highway and gather data from every side road you pass. 

Further, if one node in the system is connected to a power grid, it can report the entire network’s data over a cellular network.  It would be possible to sit in a warm office in Fairbanks, and monitor infrastructure hundreds of miles away.

Imagine that this device costs no more than $10, and because it doesn’t have any batteries, lasts more than 50 years. Imagine that it gets installed at the point of construction – so no expensive retrofits are required.

Telephone poles can cost $4,000 a piece, a culvert can be $300.  A $10 monitoring device for expensive infrastructure security makes sense. Lund’s devices are aimed at long-term monitoring, capturing small changes that signal the need for more attention before something significant -- like a bridge failure -- occurs.

But what happens in winter, when light disappears and snow covers everything? If there is no snow cover, ambient light will be enough to power sensors. They’ll just report a little more slowly -- like every 90 seconds instead of every half-minute.  When covered by snow, they’ll go silent until light returns.

Their battery-free quality means temperature is no factor in their function. According to Lund, electronics only function to about minus 40 degrees F; batteries only to about minus 10. That eliminates a lot of Alaska’s geography, a flaw that his devices can overcome. 

Lund is using mostly off-the-shelf hardware to create the device. Programming its function is his added value.

“Until now, we haven’t put high tech and low tech together like this,” he said, “High tech was much too expensive. Now it’s possible.”

John Lund
John Lund grew up in Anchorage and graduated from East High School. He earned a B.A. in computer engineering from Washington State University in Pullman, WA, and his master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from the University of Washington in Seattle.

He joined the UAA School of Engineering faculty in 2009. His research emphasis is micro/nano-scale fabrication, analog/digital filter design, control systems, automation, microscopy, computer vision, system integration, biosensors, surface/molecular engineering.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Alaska blueberries: Who knew they were THIS good for you?

Photo by Jeff Fay, UAF Cooperative Extension Service
There’s a certain delight in knowing that a UAA chemistry professor deciphering the exact properties of Alaska’s bog blueberries that make them so good for us is Fairbanks-born and raised. Surely his time spent gathering these gems on the tundra sparked curiosity about their antioxidant qualities?

Well, surprise, surprise, that wasn’t the case.

In  2005, as Colin McGill faced a choice between two research options for his doctoral work at UAF, he chose a new blueberry project because he hoped to discover and isolate the as-yet-unknown natural chemical compounds in the berry.  Today, he’s very glad he made that choice: Blueberries are turning out to be a new gold rush for health.

The berry’s beneficial qualities were already known when McGill started his research; but at every science conference where they were discussed, the first, second and third question was always: What is it – EXACTLY – that makes this berry so powerful?

People assumed it was the colored compounds that turned them blue, the anthocyanins. But McGill isolated two other anti-inflammatory compounds that give the berry its tartness: citric acid and malic acid. Domesticated berries have relatively little; Alaska’s bog blueberries are loaded.

In fact, the farther north and the harsher the climate, the higher the concentrations of these two acids in Alaska blueberries. If you dried interior berries, they would be 10 percent citric acid (that’s the same amount as a lemon!) and one percent malic acid, making those two compounds the berry’s dominant ingredients.

“It’s not just the species, but the location, that matters,” McGill says, noting that berries picked 400 miles north of Anchorage are more potent than those picked only 150 miles away. Again, the harsher the climate, the better the berry.

Now, the human body can make these compounds on its own. But McGill theorizes that when we are under “oxidative stress” (an imbalance that can create free radicals, which figure in lots of diseases), we may deplete our own supply. These two acids suppress inflammation, and their lack makes us more susceptible to it. Can we somehow inoculate ourselves against excess inflammation by fortifying ourselves with blueberries?

With the INNOVATE funds he just received, McGill will try and find out. He’ll apply these acids under different circumstances to document and understand their effects. He’s collaborating with Penn State researchers who’ve shown the compounds can slow tumor growth rate.

 “One way tumors grow is by inflaming surrounding tissue,” McGill explained. “While the compounds didn’t kill the cancer, they slowed it down.”

McGill has an additional collaborator from UAF, Kriya Dunlap, who is examining how the blueberry compounds – citric and malic acid -- affect insulin uptake in the body.

McGill’s own question is about neurodegeneration. In the case of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, cells – healthy cells – begin to commit suicide.  Why?

When cells are under oxidative stress, they show a slight increase of a fat or lipid molecule, called a ceramide. These are known as “signaling” molecules and are known to trigger “programmed cell death.” The presence of a little ceramide launches a feedback loop, ratcheting up ceramide levels and avalanching cell death – hence the memory loss and disorientation of aging.

Could the malic and citric acid so common in Alaska bog blueberries be used to intervene here? To literally step in and stop this catastrophic chain reaction?

Stay tuned.  The world of blueberry-based pharmaceuticals is definitely heating up. McGill notes that research papers on the topic have tripled between 2005 and 2008.

“Americans, and people internationally, are much more concerned about what they eat, and where it comes from,” he said.

Meanwhile, McGill is enthusiastic about what he’s learned about blueberries, and a few other edibles that help prevent inflammation.

“If I were to make three dietary recommendations, they would be eat blueberries, drink green tea and take fish oil. All three are anti-oxidative and prevent inflammation,” he said.

He’s thrilled to be working with compounds that figure so prominently in important cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative research.


Colin McGill is an assistant professor of Chemistry in UAA's College of Arts and Sciences.  Born and raised in Fairbanks, he completed his doctorate in Biochemistry/Molecular Biology at UAF in 2010 and subsequently trained as a Postdoc with the UAA WWAMI program. His research focus is on the identification of biologically relevant compounds in medicinal plants and determining the mechanism of their actions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Does copper deficiency lead to liver disease?

The liver is the second largest organ in the body, located under the right rib. It weights three pounds and is shaped like a football, but flat on one side.

The liver processes what we eat and drink into energy and nutrients the body can use. It also removes harmful substances from the body.

Nonalcoholic fatty liver disease occurs when the liver has trouble breaking down lipids or fats, causing them to build up in the organ. Doctors are not sure what causes this to happen, but if more than 5-10 percent of the liver’s weight is fat, that person has the disease. It tends to develop in those who are overweight or obese, or have diabetes, high cholesterol or high triglycerides.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, Wikipedia Commons
This image illustrates nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. The white/clear/oval spaces represent fat accumulation that is so large it distorts the cell’s nucleus.

This is a common disease (about 30 percent of the U.S. population has it) and for most people, it causes no signs and symptoms and no complications. But at its most severe, it can progress to liver failure.

The liver is also the central organ for maintaining proper levels of copper, an essential metal nutrient we get through diet. Too much copper is lethal. Too little copper has been linked to the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.

Jason Burkhead was recently awarded INNOVATE seed money to develop a mouse model to investigate the role of copper in non-alcoholic liver disease.

“We know that copper deficiency causes changes in liver lipid metabolism, but we do not know why deficiency induces these changes, or the changes in gene expression and cell machinery that lead to pathology, “ Burkhead said.

His main questions are:
  • What is the copper handling machinery in cells and how is it regulated?
  • What are the molecular-level changes due to copper excess or deficiency?
  • How do these changes lead to disease?
Looking forward, he says he’s excited about moving from basic to translational research, and developing collaborations with clinicians who specialize in liver disease, including the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.


Jason Burkhead is an assistant professor of Biology and researcher at UAA affiliated with INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedial Research Excellence) and ENRI (Environment and Natural Resources Institute). He came to UAA after earning a Ph.D. in biology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO and doing postdoctoral work at the Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, OR. His research focuses on understanding the molecular machinery that regulates cellular copper levels and what goes wrong when those levels aren’t maintained.

The fast-fattening arctic ground squirrel may hold clues to why and how humans become obese

U.S. obesity rate, 1960-2004, CDC
Obesity is a concern in most industrial nations, and especially in the United States where 74.1 percent of the population is either overweight or obese.  This condition can be a prelude to some serious illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

The medical costs are astounding, estimated at $117 billion in direct and indirect costs, half of that borne by Medicare and Medicaid. Did someone mention out-of-control health care costs?

So how can the humble little arctic ground squirrel help with such a serious health issue?

Khrys Duddleston, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAA, is finding that out in her lab, examining the microbial community in the intestinal tract of Urocitellus parryii. These squirrels are good for this study because they fatten up fast for hibernation  -- in only about three weeks time.

Duddleston, along with her collaborators Dr. Loren Buck and Dr. Fred Rainey, and her graduate and undergraduate students Tim Stevenson and Brian Quinlan, are curious whether the squirrel’s gut microbial community assists the host animal in putting on weight.  Using “next generation” genetic sequencing and other methods, they are mapping changes in the gut-microbial community during pre-hibernation fattening.

How does this work relate to humans and obesity?

In humans, microbes live within the human digestive system and contribute to immunity, synthesize vitamins and help digest fiber. Studies have shown that the gut microbial community in lean individuals is different from that of obese individuals, and that gut microbes may send signals to the host that predispose them to deposit fat. Duddleston and her colleagues contend that the arctic ground squirrel, due to its rapid fattening, is the ideal organism in which to further study the potential role the gut microbial community plays in obesity.

“We are doing basic science, using genetic sequencing to identify members of the gut-microbial community and how the community makeup changes as the squirrels deposit fat in preparation for hibernation,” Duddleston said.

Duddleston’s project received INNOVATE seed funds, which she is linking to start-up funding she received from INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence, sponsored by NIH). This work has been supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Defense, and her undergraduate and graduate students have successfully applied for grants and fellowships from NIH-INBRE, the UAF Center for Global Change and the Alaska Hearth Institute that they used in this early work.

“INNOVATE funding will allow us to use next generation sequencing to get a deeper look at the gut microbial community,” she said. The results will enable her graduate student to publish his master's thesis with better, more specific information in a top-flight science journal. This, in turn, will strengthen Duddleston's application over the next one to two years for larger grants from the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation.

Duddleston says a logical next step is to consider the use of antibiotics to manipulate the community of gut microbes to see how this affects pre-hibernation fattening in the squirrels. Could the growing propensity of humans to become obese be shut down by adjustments to our own digestive microbes?


Khrys Duddleston teaches microbiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at UAA. She graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor's and master's in Biology, and earned her doctorate in Microbiology from Oregon State University.  She is an INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) faculty affiliate. She joined UAA in 1998 as a post-doctoral research associate. (That Kenai king, by the way, weighed 42 pounds.)

Beetle-killed spruce: finally good for something?

Make that a definite maybe.

Alaska is an abundant source of fish, wildlife, mountains, minerals and wide-open spaces. Something we don’t necessarily toss into that “abundant” category is beetle-and fire-wasted spruce. But we’ve got acres by the millions of it.

If civil engineering professor Scott Hamel has anything to do with it, these damaged trees might someday become the source for manufacturing wood-plastic composite building materials right here in Alaska. Think jobs, and lower construction costs.

Alaska-made planks for your dream deck?
If you’ve added a deck in the last 10 years, you likely used planks formed from wood-plastic composite (WPCs). It’s been a hot commodity for about a decade. WPCs are considered sustainable because they use recycled plastic and wood by-products. They also don’t require the same chemical treatments that wooden planks do. However, because of their plastic component, they are sensitive to temperature, and little or no testing in cold has been performed. That’s Hamel’s aim.

Hamel, who arrived in August of 2011 at UAA, will set up his first lab here with the newly-awarded  INNOVATE dollars. He’ll test the properties of WPCs at cold temperatures in three different conditions, including one called “relaxation response,” but it’s not the “relaxation response” we usually think of.

Those testing situations are: 
  • Ramp, “applying an increasing extension to a specimen at a constant strain rate until failure.” This will provide findings on stress-strain, strength and rupture.
  • Creep, “applying and maintaining a constant load on the specimen and measuring time-dependent strain response.”  Or, how much does the plank sag over time.
  • Relaxation, “applying and maintaining a constant displacement to the specimen and measuring the time-dependent stress response.”  Or, how much softer or more flexible does the plank become?
Off-the-shelf equipment will be used for most of the testing, except for relaxation. In that case, Hamel will be designing and creating it.

He hopes to add one or two undergraduate research assistants. His timetable for results is a year, and includes publication in peer-review journals. His results may influence an ASTM building standard for structural grade plastics currently under discussion. (ASTM stands for the American Society for Testing and Materials). Hamel is a member of the subcommittee that governs this standard.

Originally from New Hampshire, Scott Hamel completed a B.S. in Civil Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.  After inspecting and designing bridges in Boston for three years, he moved to Boulder, CO to complete a master’s in Civil Engineering with an emphasis in structures. He worked for a structural engineering firm in Denver for three years, designing commercial buildings and earning his license as a Professional Engineer. He completed his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in structural engineering with a dissertation on computer modeling the behavior of Wood-plastic Composites. He joined the engineering faculty at UAA in 2011 where he teaches courses in structural engineering, such as steel and concrete design.