Curiosity knows no bounds. We hunger to understand the world around us through patterns, data, explanations, interpretations, relationships, and more. Our most creative thinkers mine knowledge across disciplines for metaphors, connections, contexts, models, and ideas that can be applied fruitfully in new venues.
By sharing the perspectives of colleagues with different points of view, researchers hone their questions and improve experiments. In fact, the practice of science is predicated on exposing theories and discoveries to open inquiry, analysis, and criticism. Reaching out broadly and working with people with varied backgrounds is the backbone of effective research. It takes advantage of the differences in ways that reveal the consistency and unity in nature.
At Rensselaer, we encourage a focus by both our students and our faculty on the great global challenges—humanity's food, water, and energy supplies; human health and the mitigation of disease; our great need for sustainable infrastructure; national and global security; and the intelligent allocation of valuable natural resources.
Looking past boundaries and working in the spaces between is part of our heritage. In recent years, we facilitated bringing together partners in different fields of inquiry through the establishment of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies. And because new combinations of knowledge can occur by serendipity, Rensselaer created the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, which draws together under one roof artists, social scientists, engineers, and those who explore the hard sciences.
We continue to pursue collaborations among people whose diverse backgrounds and perspectives promise new ventures that can provide answers to humanity's most important questions. This is why we have embraced the perspective of The New Polytechnic, which recognizes that the divisions between areas of inquiry are artificial, and it is often fruitful to find fresh perspectives and to re-contextualize and reimagine familiar concepts. In this way, we gain the insights needed to innovate and to discover truths that would otherwise be invisible to us.
ROOMS WITH A VIEW
Rensselaer and IBM Research have launched a multi-year collaboration to pioneer new frontiers in the scientific field of cognitive and immersive systems. The research collaboration will be housed in the newly established Cognitive and Immersive Systems Lab (CISL) in the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.
CISL's mission is to explore and advance natural, collaborative problem-solving among groups of humans and machines. The lab is built around a futuristic "Situations Room" that can be adapted to industry-specific environments (including cognitive boardrooms, design studios, diagnosis rooms, and immersive classrooms) and is designed to surface new ways to improve how people work together.
"With the new lab, we are taking an important step toward a future in which smart machines and smart humans potentiate each other, and the end result is better decisions and outcomes," said President Shirley Ann Jackson. "We are bringing together two separate strains of emergent technologies to enhance the power of the other: cognitive computing technologies coupled with intensive visual and auditory immersive environments we are developing at Rensselaer."
"Cognitive computing is poised to transform every profession, industry, and economy, and immersive cognitive systems will play a vital role in shaping the symbiotic work environments of the future in which critical business decisions will be made," said John Kelly III '78, senior vice president, solutions portfolio and research at IBM and a member of the Rensselaer board of trustees. "We are excited to collaborate with Rensselaer on the development of this new frontier as we continue to progress the science that will transform the way professionals around the world work."
Cognitive computing systems are designed to collaborate with human experts in more natural ways, learn through this interaction, and enable individuals and teams to make better decisions by making sense of massive unstructured data. The CISL platform is an immersive, interactive, reconfigurable physical environment that enhances group cognition. It proactively responds to its occupants by "listening" to and "watching" them, engages multiple users working in small groups at the same time on different aspects of a larger activity, and explores interactions and visualizations that would be impossible with a few people looking at limited screens.
To learn what different cells do, scientists switch them on and off and observe the effects. There are many methods that do this, but they all have problems: too invasive, too slow, or not precise enough. Now, a new method to control the activity of neurons in mice, devised by scientists at Rensselaer and Rockefeller University, avoids these downfalls by using magnetic forces to remotely control the flow of ions into specifically targeted cells.
Jonathan Dordick, the Isermann Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering and vice president for research at Rensselaer, and colleagues successfully employed this system to study the role of the central nervous system in glucose metabolism. The findings suggest that a group of neurons in the hypothalamus plays a vital role in maintaining blood glucose levels. Glucose metabolism is fundamental to human health, and a mechanism for controlling metabolism through remote activation of specific regions of the brain may provide new routes to therapies for a range of important diseases.
"These results are exciting because they provide a broader view of how blood glucose is regulated—they emphasize how crucial the brain is in this process," said Jeffrey Friedman '77, Marilyn M. Simpson Professor and head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller.
"We can imagine adapting this method in a number of in vitro applications in drug discovery," said Dordick. "Depending on the type of cell type we target, and the gene expression we enhance or decrease within that cell, this approach holds potential in development of therapeutic modalities, for example, in metabolic and neurologic diseases."
Previous work led by Friedman and Dordick tested a similar method to turn on insulin production in diabetic mice. The system couples introduction of a natural iron storage particle, ferritin, and a fluorescent tag to an ion channel called TRPV1.
HOW REAL IS REALITY TV?
According to June Deery, professor in the Department of Communication and Media, reality TV has changed television and changed reality, even for those who are not among the millions who watch. Deery's latest publication, Reality TV, is written for a broad audience and it addresses questions such as: How real is reality TV? How do its programs represent gender, sex, class, and race? How does reality TV relate to politics, to consumer society, to surveillance? What kind of ethics are on display?
Drawing on current media research and the author's own analysis, the publication encompasses the history and evolution of reality television, its production of reflexive selves and ordinary celebrity, its advertising and commercialization, and its spearheading of new relations between television and social media.
"To dismiss this programming as trivial is easy," says Deery. "Today, reality television merits serious attention and I believe that the analysis included in this study will interest students in media studies, cultural studies, politics, and sociology—or anyone who is simply curious about this global phenomenon."
Deery's research focuses on media studies and she is particularly interested in contemporary television and its interface with the Internet. She writes on commercialization, politics, gender, and class. For some time, Deery has also been investigating cultural understandings of fact and fiction and is now exploring their status in multiplatform environments.
Two-dimensional phosphane, a material known as phosphorene, has potential application as a material for semiconducting transistors in ever faster and more powerful computers. But there's a hitch. Many of the useful properties of this material, like its ability to conduct electrons, are anisotropic, meaning they vary depending on the orientation of the crystal. Now, a team including researchers at Rensselaer has developed a new method to quickly and accurately determine that orientation using the interactions between light and electrons within phosphorene and other atoms-thick crystals of black phosphorus.
Phosphorene—a single layer of phosphorous atoms—was isolated for the first time in 2014, allowing physicists to begin exploring its properties experimentally and theoretically. Vincent Meunier, head of the Department of Physics, Applied Physics, and Astronomy and a leader of the team that developed the new method, published his first paper on the material—confirming the structure of phosphorene—that same year.
Meunier says Raman spectroscopy uses lasers to deliver energy toward the phosphorene that causes it to vibrate intrinsically. However, lighting the material from different directions would produce varying results because of the electron and light interaction within the material. With this, the electron-photon interaction, in itself, is anisotropic as well.
Meunier and researchers at Rensselaer contributed to the theoretical modeling and prediction of the properties of phosphorene, drawing on the Rensselaer supercomputer, the Center for Computational Innovations, to perform calculations. Meunier and his team are able to develop the potential of new materials such as phosphorene to serve in future generations of computers and other devices.
THE FUTURE OF ENERGY
Today, the development of clean energy is critical to the economy and the environment of the state and the nation. Recently, the Rensselaer Center for Future Energy Systems (CFES) was selected to receive a state grant re-designating the center as part of the New York State Center for Advanced Technology (CAT) Program. The 10-year designation amounts to over $9 million in investment into Rensselaer, the Capital Region, and New York state.
CFES is the locus of energy research at Rensselaer, where world-leading science and engineering researchers from all fields gather to collaborate on advancing energy technologies for the benefit and promotion of economic growth in New York. The center's research thrusts range from advanced materials for energy conversion and storage, to energy efficiency, renewable energy, smart grids, and grid resiliency.
"The Center for Future Energy Systems was chosen during a very competitive process to be one of 15 New York State Centers for Advanced Technology, and re-designation will enable the center to expand further its partnership, multiply its economic impacts, and help New York realize its vision for a cleaner, more efficient, and affordable future energy system," said Jian Sun, professor and CFES director.
CFES actively partners with small and mid-sized companies, global corporations, state and federal agencies, and educational institutions to accelerate energy research, move technologies from the laboratory to the marketplace, and ultimately build value and create jobs. Over the last decade, the center has worked with over 70 New York state companies, with a cumulative economic impact of $84 million, leading to the creation of more than 200 jobs.
TRANSFORMING WASTE INTO SUSTAINABLE BUILDING MATERIALS
In Ghana, like many tropical countries around the world, people widely use and export coconuts for their fruit, milk, and cooking oil. The husks are thrown away by the millions, leaving to waste what might instead be transformed into a multifaceted building material.
Building panels made of upcycled coconut husks made a statement at the Chalewote Street Art Festival in Accra, Ghana, last summer. The festival is a forum for showcasing experimental ideas in art and design.
"The coconut is not just any waste product; it has a lot of great properties," said Josh Draper, an architect and clinical professor at the Center for Architecture, Science, and Ecology (CASE), which hosts Rensselaer's graduate program in Built Ecologies. "The question is 'what if we could take it and make it into something useful and something beautiful for our buildings?'"
For seven years, researchers at CASE in New York City and in the School of Architecture in Troy have been developing building products from coconuts and other agricultural waste as a sustainable, low-energy alternative to plywood and other materials made with synthetic adhesives. They are using coconuts to create non-toxic wall modules and an acoustical panel system that can help cool buildings passively.
Ghana is a target country because construction is booming, building materials are largely imported, and coconuts are commonly used and their by-products are discarded.
The ropelike coir fiber extracted from a coconut husk is very strong. And the coir can be pressed with the coconut's pith, a dust in the husk that acts as a natural binder, to form a biocomposite that is as strong as plywood.
In addition, Draper says, the coir and pith are dessicants, which remove moisture and pollutants from the air. CASE researchers and other Rensselaer collaborators are developing an acoustical panel with these materials, which could save energy and money by reducing loads on air-conditioning.
Nanophotonics expert and physics professor Shawn-Yu Lin received the 2016 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Nanotechnology Council Pioneer Award in Nanotechnology "for pioneering contributions to the development of 3-D optical photo crystals and the discovery of the darkest nano-material on Earth."
The darkest material was discovered by Lin and his team in 2008. The material, a thin coating comprised of low-density arrays of loosely vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, absorbs more than 99.9 percent of light and could one day be used to boost the effectiveness and efficiency of solar energy conversion, infrared sensors, and other devices. The research has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records.
The total reflectance of conventional black paint, for example, is between 5 and 10 percent (or absorptance of between 95 and 90 percent). The darkest man-made material, prior to the discovery by Lin's group, boasted a total reflectance of 0.16 percent to 0.18 percent (or absorptance of 99.84 to 99.82 percent).
The end result of Lin's work was a material with a total reflectance of 0.03 percent (or absorptance of 99.97 percent)—more than three times darker than the previous record, which used a film deposition of nickel-phosphorous alloy. Lin's darkest material has a higher absorptance than the recently reported value of 99.965 percent by Surrey NanoSystems. The original darkest material from Rensselaer is still the darkest man-made nano-material on Earth.
IS YOUR CITY HEALTHY?
Scientific research plays an integral role in how cities are governed, and in the cities' overall environmental health. But policymakers in such areas as transportation and public health approach science from different perspectives, and, historically, they do not consider how their practices interrelate.
A $300,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to faculty in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences will be used to examine how science is applied in six cities, and how it is used to manage air quality. Of significance is the fact that the study of science-based policies in six cities is being conducted through the lens of the humanities.
"This is an attempt to characterize the governance styles of officials, scientists, nonprofit organizations, and concerned citizens," said Kim Fortun, professor of science and technology studies and principal investigator on the project. "There are remarkable differences between, say, Houston and New York, which partly result from the political and cultural history of the places."
In addition to those two cities, the two-year project, "Environmental Health Governance in Six Cities: How Scientific Cultures, Practices and Infrastructure Shape Governance Styles," will study Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Albany, New York; Bengaluru, India; and Beijing, China.
Teams in each city will examine policy governing the environment, health, transportation, and education. Researchers, coordinated by the core team at Rensselaer, will do extensive interviews with the stakeholders to see how they approach and apply science to address air pollution and other health threats.
"The relationships between the departments of environment, health, and transportation are often very minimal and they can benefit from seeing how they can work together to deal with air pollution," Fortun said. "We will involve these stakeholders in workshops so we all work together to address the health stressors."
To support its groundbreaking work in the emergent field of "exposomics," the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded two grants to research teams from Rensselaer and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. In addition, the state of New York and Mount Sinai provided $3.2 million to these grants in matching funds through the state's Division of Science, Technology, and Innovation program; these funds were critical in securing the grants.
"Exposomics" is the comprehensive study of environmental exposures in humans, from conception through development. The grants, totaling $20 million over four years, are from the NIH's newly formed Children's Health Exposure Analysis Resource program, or CHEAR.
The first grant—made possible by the Icahn School of Medicine's partnership with Rensselaer—will be for a Data Repository, Analysis, and Science Center. The Data Center will address methodology for combining data from a wide range of environmental health studies, developing precise vocabularies for semantically accelerating the exposomics field, developing statistical approaches for analyzing exposomic/chemical mixtures, and performing big data science, integrating exposomics with genomics and epigenomics. The Rensselaer team's principal investigator, Deborah McGuinness, Tetherless World Research Constellation Professor, and co-principal investigator Kristin Bennett, professor of mathematical sciences, will lead the ontology and data science research for the data center.
Almost all diseases have both environmental and genetic causes. The overarching goal of CHEAR is to bring together environmental exposure measures with genomic measures of health risk.