Making sense of big data

We collect mountains of information about everything, but what are we supposed to do with it? Bala Krishnamoorthy says mathematics can help figure it out.

People, businesses and institutions are collecting more and more data, but often don’t know what to do with it. That’s where mathematics comes in. Bala Krishnamoorthy, associate professor and program leader of mathematics and statistics at WSU Vancouver, is participating in a project funded by the National Science Foundation that he describes as follows: “The grant is about applying mathematical techniques to make sense of the loads and loads of data that people are collecting.”

bala-krishnamoorthy-2-940

Specifically, the grant will use data analysis to help develop new management techniques for agricultural crops. Using maize as their model system, the researchers want to understand how certain genes interact with environmental conditions to produce higher or lower yields. “The same gene behaves differently depending on where the plant is growing,” Krishnamoorthy said. “Even within a few acres of a farm, there will be local climate changes.”

He is one of three WSU scientists who received a $761,428 NSF grant for the three-year project in July. The others are computer scientist Anantharaman Kalyanaraman (principal investigator) and statistical genomics expert Zhiwu Zhang, both in Pullman. The multiuniversity project also includes Patrick Schnable, a plant scientist from Iowa State University, and Bei Wang Phillips, a visualization expert from the University of Utah, who also received NSF support, bringing total funding for the project to $1.2 million.

Historically, growers have used trial-and-error methods in their efforts to improve crop yields. But technology has made it possible to amass vast amounts of data through sensors in their fields. The challenge now is to figure out what data is most important. Was it temperature or humidity or irrigation—or something else—that made the difference?

“Right now they don’t know what to look for,” Krishnamoorthy said. “They have the capability to collect all sorts of data, but they are blindly collecting it. They would rather be more strategic, with some goal in mind. We are developing the tools to help them formulate hypotheses that could then be tested—so they can evaluate the genotypic variety of crop that will do well under certain conditions.”

Broad application

The tools can have many applications beyond crops—helping to make sense of data in healthcare, political voting patterns, the power grid, even sports. In basketball, for instance, “some guards play well under certain conditions, while others do not,” Krishnamoorthy said. “You can apply similar techniques to see patterns in that.”

And you won’t have to be a mathematician to use the tools. “The math needs to be done,” he said, “but it will be useful only if non-mathematical practitioners can understand what it does. We are developing software that will be intuitive and interactive.”

Krishnamoorthy’s dream research situation, he said, encompasses both pure and applied mathematics: He meets someone who has a question or a need, then goes to work: developing a pure mathematical theorem, based on that developing new computational tools, and then giving the problem-solving software to the person who brought the question in the beginning.

He believes deeply in disseminating research through open source publication. The current system of peer review, with its anonymous comments and long time frame, lacks accountability, he said. And yet the stakes are so high—for the person publishing the research, tenure and promotion often hang in the balance.

“We need to make things more open,” he said. “Any federally funded research or publication should have some version of the publications available for the public to look at. The more open, the more people will look at it, and it will get feedback. Change won’t happen overnight, but maybe in two decades it will be the prevalent model for all academic research—but particularly mathematics.”

For more information, visit the project’s web page: tdaphenomics.eecs.wsu.edu.

Posted in big data | 2 Comments

RETURN OF THE BUTTERFLIES: As environmental conservation efforts put science into practice, Cheryl Schultz finds reasons to be optimistic about the future of endangered species.

Butterflies have captivated Cheryl Schultz ever since she was a “naïve and idealistic” graduate student at the University of Washington, looking for a way “to make real contributions to conservation.” The first professional conference she attended opened her eyes to the political realities. Hearing a discussion between The Nature Conservancy and academic ecologists, she realized that “the academic side had strong interests and The Nature Conservancy had strong needs, but there was a gap between them.”

SchultzBridging that gap has become her life’s work. At the time, The Nature Conservancy was looking for a way to mitigate species declines by buying land for preserves. Schultz, now an associate professor of biological sciences at WSU Vancouver, wanted to use scientific research for conservation purposes: to construct solutions that would protect the environment while enabling the people who live in a place to use its resources. She decided to make the pros and cons of one potential solution—habitat corridors—her thesis project.

In The Nature Conservancy newsletter, she reached out to TNC stewardship ecologists who were thinking about corridors. “Within a couple of weeks, I started getting letters and calls from reserves across the country saying they were thinking about corridors—corridors for birds, corridors for butterflies, corridors for reptiles and more” Schultz said. By the time she had completed her thesis on butterfly corridors, she had learned that dispersed habitats—the “stepping stone” approach—would be more beneficial than a long, narrow flyway corridor. That was a solution that dispersed nature reserves could manage.

Monarch_at_Elkton4

The project also introduced Schultz to her longtime collaborator, Elizabeth Crone, a National Science Foundation fellow at the time and now a professor at Tufts University. Over the last 25 years, they have collaborated on dozens of projects, studying many species of butterflies, including western monarchs, the Oregon silverspot and—their primary model species—Fender’s blue.

The science of land stewardship

Schultz and Crone seek to combine ecological theory with natural history to develop management techniques that can benefit butterfly populations, such as planting native species and controlled burning. The goal is to develop “flexible guidance” useful to conservation-minded property owners and agencies.

Their practical approach is exactly what many funders have been looking for. “A lot of inquiries have been coming in,” Schultz said. “That rarely happens, especially in this funding climate.”

This summer, Schultz and Crone’s study of western monarch butterflies made headlines across the country. In a paper for Biological Conservation, they reported that migratory monarchs in the American West have declined rapidly over the past 35 years, and could be extinct as we know them in another 35 years. “In the 1980s, 10 million monarchs spent the winter in coastal California,” Schultz said. “Today there are barely 300,000.” Although the reasons are not yet clear, loss and modification of butterfly habitat and widespread pesticide use are likely culprits, the researchers said.

SchultzButterfly

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which funded the study, is currently considering whether to list the monarch butterfly as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.

Time to rebuild

The main focus of Schultz’s work, however, is not so much to document risks to vulnerable species but to reverse them. Her studies have generated much hopeful news. For example, several nature reserves adopting study recommendations have made great strides in restoring land for butterfly habitat, reducing weeds and enhancing nectar resources.

In one patch of land owned by the Bureau of Land Management in the Eugene, Ore., area, for example, where Schultz has been working since the 1990s with several agencies, the Fender’s blue population has grown from less than 100 to more than 9,000 in 2015. Using experimental fire, weed control and planting of nectar sources, “they took restoration to heart,” Schultz said. “As a result, they will call back and say we have other questions we want answers to, and that will lead to other projects and other questions. I’ve been fortunate to work with good people who really listen and care about using science to do conservation.”

New on the horizon is a five-year grant looking at the viability of various species on Department of Defense lands. The project is funded by SERDP—the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program—which is DoD’s environmental science and technology program. Schultz and Crone will use butterflies as a model system to examine how environmental changes affect endangered populations. The research will lead to three activities designed expressly to improve land stewardship: fact sheets, a decision support framework, and meetings with local managers to help make sure the framework addresses their needs.

“We argued that butterflies are a good system to answer their questions,” she said. “Because of their short life spans, we can get several generations in a five-year project.”

Fenders-blue-butterfly-on-Camas-e1477432978450

Fortunately, that idealistic young graduate student found her calling. “We really can come together, do the science, build the partnerships and take the time to rebuild the populations,” Schultz said. “With Fender’s blue, we’ve been doing the science for the last 25 years, and it’s working. For monarchs and other butterflies, I want to leave people with a sense of the possible: It’s not going to happen overnight, but we can do this. Working with Fender’s blue has been a very positive experience. The potential to help turn around other butterfly species keeps me going.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

AGING IN PLACE THROUGH TECHNOLOGY

Roschelle (Shelly) Fritz usually draws her research conclusions from qualitative rather than quantitative data. That is, instead of building a case with numbers, she typically reads a narrative or asks questions to detect patterns and derive meaning. A recent grant awarded to Fritz and two Washington State University colleagues gives her a new challenge: qualitative analysis of quantitative data. Now, instead of looking for meaning in what someone says, she remarked, “I am looking for meaning in data regarding how someone moved.”

Shelly-Fritz-smaller

That someone would be an older adult living independently in a “smart home,” with sensors recording the person’s movement. Fritz’s job is to interpret that data using a clinical lens. The project seeks to determine whether technology can help people stay in their homes longer.

To investigate how smart-home technology can monitor the health and safety of older adults from afar, the project received a five-year, $1.77 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research—part of the National Institutes of Health. Its title: “A Clinician-in-the-Loop Smart Home to Support Health Monitoring and Intervention for Chronic Conditions.”

The three researchers, all female, have complementary perspectives. Diane Cook, professor in the School of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science, provides the technology expertise. Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, a professor of psychology, is exploring whether health interventions affect cognitive health. Fritz, an assistant professor of nursing at WSU Vancouver, provides the clinical judgment.

THE MEANING OF BEHAVIORAL CHANGE

For the study, multiple sensors are placed strategically in five homes in retirement communities in Spokane. (The research may expand to other locations during the grant period.) The sensors detect motion and record the residents’ data moment by moment. The clinician analyzes the data to determine their routines, such as getting out of bed to go to the bathroom or the kitchen at night. When the clinician flags a particular pattern as important, the engineer creates an algorithm to trigger an automatic alert to caregivers in the absence of that motion. If the change is significant, it may indicate the need for a “health intervention,” such as a visit or call.

Installation_Participant Home

Fritz is well suited to the task. She has been a nurse for 25 years, with experience in emergency rooms, public health, hospitals and employee health, as well as teaching.

The sensor technology adds something lacking in previous research, where people tell the researcher about their experience. That something is accuracy. “Sensor data has more credibility than when someone self-reports,” Fritz said. While someone might neglect to tell a caregiver about a recent slip, for example, the behavior change cannot be ignored by the smart home.

During the grant period, the research will focus on developing the machine learning piece of the puzzle. Taking into account the person’s health condition—such as a chronic disease—Fritz will tell the engineers what she believes she is seeing in the data, and they will develop an algorithm and alerts when motion indicating a change in health state is noted.

“We are not doing diagnostics,” Fritz said, “but training an intelligent machine to understand what a change in health state looks like, much as a home health nurse would assess that.” Essentially, they are training the machine to learn about the individual’s health and behavior.

BRIDGING TECHNOLOGY AND HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The research also seeks to inform engineers’ ability to communicate effectively with clinicians, Fritz said. “The only way the data can impact clinical decision making is if we are provided information we can understand. How do you take big data like this and present it to a healthcare provider in a way that’s meaningful and relevant to their work—which medicines or treatments to prescribe?”

Students will be working on the project along with the researchers. Cook’s and Schmitter-Edgecombe’s student engineers and psychologists are developing visual analytics based on the data and working with Fritz’s nursing informatics students to determine what visuals nurses like best. “Classes will go back and forth doing that,” Fritz said. “It’s very fun and innovative, multidisciplinary teaching.”studentsThe project’s long-term goals address today’s major health concerns, from growth of the aging population to the shortage of caregivers to the cost of healthcare. One big question: Can technology make it possible to extend the reach of caregivers and nurses? Perhaps.

Cost is another matter. “It’s a very simple sensor technology,” Fritz said. “What’s expensive is the infrastructure and brains behind the algorithm.”

Smart homes are not new. For example, Cook has developed a “Smart Home in a Box,” currently deployed in more than 110 homes around the world. Bringing in a clinician to study the data, along with automating health monitoring, assessment and evaluation of the intervention impact, is an important new step in determining whether the system can help individuals manage chronic health conditions.

“We are nowhere near a market-ready product,” Fritz said. “This is very futuristic.”

 

 

Posted in Aging | Leave a comment

Discovering some of world history’s missing links

In the late 1970s, when Candice Goucher began researching African metalwork, she had the field practically to herself.

“I’m recognized as being kind of an old timer in terms of research on African ironworking,” said Goucher, professor of history at WSU Vancouver. Initially she worked with a blacksmith in 1979 in a small village in Ghana. Around the same time, she was involved in an archeological excavation of a medieval town. There, she discovered the extraordinary technology involved in the production of iron objects, implements and weapons that supported everyday life.

Goucher-InTogo

Goucher climbing into an iron-smelting furnace in Togo, 1984.

Now, her decades of research are coming to fruition in a monumental exhibition, “Striking Iron: The Arts of the African Blacksmith,” which opens in spring 2018 at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles and travels to Paris and other cities. Goucher is a collaborator on the project and also co-editor of a book to be published by the University of California Press in conjunction with the exhibition.

In addition, she is working on another volume about African ironworking as it has spread throughout the African diaspora via immigration. “I am looking at the global impact of African technology, which has been very understudied and underappreciated,” Goucher said. Tentatively titled “The Memory of Iron,” this book will seek to restore the role of African ironworkers to the history of technology, which for centuries has ignored Africa.

In her proposal for “The Memory of Iron,” Goucher points out the “terrible ambivalence” of iron in the lives of African people. The metal meant brutality as well as beauty. She writes:

Between about 1508 and 1880, iron was ubiquitous across the Atlantic: iron shackles and chains restrained the 12 million enslaved Africans, destined for voyages in ironclad sailing vessels. As key agricultural laborers, these Africans and their descendants would wield iron cutlasses in Caribbean sugarcane fields. In the hands of rebels and freedom fighters, their iron tools and weapons could transform moments of brutality into successful resistance.

Skills with iron were valued in the New World, and the knowledge of African craftsmen helped forge a new understanding of working with metal. “We now know Africans contributed essential knowledge and skills, especially to the Americas but also to the whole Atlantic world,” Goucher said. She sees “The Memory of Iron” as the culmination of decades of interdisciplinary scholarship around African metallurgy.

Image0050.jpg

After excavation of an iron foundry in Jamaica, 1995.

AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVE

Ironwork is just one thread of Goucher’s scholarship. Her work combines the theories and methods of history, archaeology, ethnography, art history, ecology and chemistry. She is well known for her books and articles on African foodways, metallurgy, and popular and political culture, as well as global themes in world history.

Goucher has studied Caribbean food almost as long as she has studied African ironworking. Among her many honors, her 2014 book “Congotay! Congotay!” won both the National and the World Gourmand Awards for Best Book on Caribbean Food.

In the classroom, Goucher has been instrumental in shifting the teaching of world history from an outdated rise-and-fall-of-civilizations approach to a more engaged thematic approach to the past, which makes it possible to see contemporary global and environmental issues borne of history. “It’s a way to make history more relevant to our lives,” Goucher said.

The approach has been widely adopted by secondary schools and colleges. Goucher is co-author of one of the leading textbooks, World History: Journeys from Past to Present, (2008; second edition, 2013), which has been translated into Chinese, Korean and Portuguese. Her online multimedia project Bridging World History (with 26 videos) has been viewed on public television stations and classrooms in nearly every state as a model of the thematic approach to world history. In 2015, Goucher was awarded the Pioneer in World History prize from the World History Association.

Goucher joined WSU Vancouver in 2000, after chairing the Black Studies Department at Portland State University. In 2017, she received the Chancellor’s Award for Research Excellence at WSU Vancouver.

Next year’s exhibition in Los Angeles promises a different kind of thrill than solitary scholars usually get to experience—as well as the possibility that a missing link in the worldwide history of technology will receive its rightful recognition. “It is so much fun to be around other people who are so excited about these works of art that African blacksmiths created over centuries,” Goucher said. “The longevity of African ironworking over the millennia and the survival of the arts into 21st century makes the African continent an important place to think about the history of technology.”

Posted in Art, world history | Leave a comment

ENVIRONMENT AS ART EXPERIENCE: Geography and architecture inspire Avantika Bawa’s installations.

Visitors entering the gallery see jagged swaths of color—the earthy colors found in topographical maps of the San Fernando Valley and San Gabriel Fault line in California.

Rumbling sounds of tremors and earthquakes interrupt the silence. It is as if visitors have entered a troubled landscape where the ground beneath their feet cannot be trusted.

Avantika Bawa’s most recent installation, “Parallel Faults,” was on view from March 16 through April 6 at Los Angeles Valley College, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. Visitors might feel a sense of foreboding from the landscape around them—a valley run through with invisible fault lines, shadowed by a ring of mountain ranges.

Bawa_ParallelFaults

“I wanted to respond to the colors of the topography as seen in maps and the idea of being sunken in, with this force that surrounds you and can implode any time,” she said.

A FOUNDATION IN RESEARCH

Bawa, an associate professor of fine art at WSU Vancouver, creates installations that respond to the geography or architecture of specific sites. She begins with extensive research, scouring the Internet, visiting libraries, poring over maps and books, and talking with researchers in the field. For “Parallel Fault,” she obtained field recordings of earthquakes and tremors from geologists.

Sometimes the research is playful. For “At Owners Risk,” a show in Seattle in 2012, for example, she wanted to capture the idea that the gallery was housed in a former body shop. So she visited body shops to observe their work. Bawa color-coded each element in the installation according to function: blue upright hydraulic lift, yellow clamp forms and so on. “The mechanical form of the hydraulic lift dominates the room and anchors the exhibition as the most obvious reference to auto repair,” wrote Craig Drennen in the catalog essay.

As part of the Portland Biennial in the summer of 2016, Bawa created an installation in Astoria, Ore., for which she received a faculty research minigrant from WSU Vancouver. Called “Mineral Spirits,” the installation is a haunting evocation of the economic cycle that characterizes life on the Oregon coast.

The Astoria building offered for use had once been a grand hotel, then low-income housing, and now was slated to be turned into condominiums and retail spaces. “It was beautiful but falling apart,” Bawa said. “I was taken aback by its vacuousness, its splendor and the decayed state it was in. I thought it would be interesting to address all those issues.”

As her primary material, she built scaffolding—a symbol of growth and construction—and painted it gold to symbolize the hotel’s former prosperity. “But it’s also isolated, which is why it sits in middle of the room,” Bawa said. “It looks like it does something, but it doesn’t—it’s just an object that’s more a metaphor for past and future.”

Bawa_MineralSpirits

A BIGGER CHALLENGE

Her position as a fine artist teaching at a research institution with a lot of scientists intrigues Bawa. In fact, it was one of the reasons she came to Vancouver in 2010.

A native of India, Bawa earned her Master of Fine Arts degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and taught at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. In April 2004 she was part of a team that launched Drain—Journal for Contemporary Art and Culture, which she still edits.

She’d had a lot of success, with work represented in museums and private collections, numerous exhibitions as both artist and curator, prestigious visiting teaching assignments, and many grants, awards and residencies. Looking for a change from the East Coast, she gave herself a year off, drove across the country for a residency and decided to see what happened. She found herself in Portland, where her success as a teacher, artist and lecturer continued. In 2014 she was appointed to the Oregon Arts Commission.

The move west also changed her work. She went from teaching at an art school to being one of two faculty members in a small fine arts department.

“It changed my research component too,” she said. “All these scientists and geologists around me—I wanted to make sure my work was significant in the larger context of life and not just a cool art community. It was a bigger challenge. And I do love working with a diverse body of students who don’t necessarily major in art. It’s a different perspective.”

 

Posted in Art | Leave a comment

Studying soil processes of the critical zone on the Vancouver campus

For Marc Kramer’s fall 2016 class called Soil Processes in the Earth’s Critical Zone, students found an outdoor laboratory just steps from their classroom.

Five students measured various aspects of the “critical zone,” where the bulk of the planet’s life forms reside. The critical zone is an enormously complex area stretching from the treetops, through soil to the groundwater and housing a vast array of interdependent biogeochemical processes. These processes have a huge hand in ecosystem services, such as clean water and air, as well as the fate of carbon, global warming’s fundamental element.

The WSU Vancouver campus sits amid a swatch of field and forest just east of the loop road. Open meadow at its edge, then a mix of deciduous and conifer forest sloping down to a stream, it offered a chance to take measurements related to several processes within the watershed—soil, water, trees and leafy matter, vegetation that falls from the trees. “It provides a nice snapshot,” said Kramer, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry.

“One of the many exciting things about the WSU Vancouver campus is you can literally walk outside the campus and have access to field sites that can be used in teaching,” Kramer said. It is not uncommon for students at other universities to have to drive 20 or even 30 minutes off-campus to reach field sites that can be used in course instruction.

An ideal learning context

The students’ aim was to identify soluble organic carbon and nitrogen response to seasonal, land-use and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Last fall’s extraordinary rainfall provided the ideal context for analysis.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

In the meadow, Sarah Kintner, a first-year master’s student from Green Bay, Wisc., collected water to test for dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen. In the woods, Corey Ruder, a doctoral student from near Sacramento, could measure changes in carbon-dioxide concentrations in and around the ground. Greg Clark, a first-year master’s student from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, measured precipitation with instruments in the open meadow and under the canopy.

Luke Reyes, a doctoral student from New Jersey, patrolled litter traps, screens that caught leafy matter as it fell from the trees. He would dry the contents, weigh them and do carbon and nitrogen analyses to see how the vegetation is contributing inputs to the soil. And Geoff Kahl, a geology master’s student from Portland, sampled stream and groundwater to analyze their chemistry.

Kramer2

Doctoral student Luke Reyes collects tree litter to gauge carbon and nitrogen impact.

The students then developed indicators of how water arrives and moves through the system, plus measures of soil moisture, carbon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The next time the course is taught, students will be able to study the movement of metals and other mobile elements such as calcium or silicon, thanks to a recent large research grant from the Murdock foundation.

“The students will have access to new equipment—an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer and an ion chromatograph—that will allow them to measure many additional constituents in water,” Kramer said.

More rain, more intense storms?

Kramer encourages the students to answer the questions they started with but also to look for new questions that might arise from the data they chart. It’s science as a reality-based creative process.

While analysis continues, the students research in the course has already been making an impact. WSU’s Washington State Magazine published a story in its spring issue. In February, the students made a presentation to the WSU Vancouver faculty seminar and displayed a poster at the graduate student symposium. They will be presenting their results at the Ecological Society of America conference in Portland this summer. And they are writing a paper for publication.

By semester’s end, based on reading the scientific literature and analyzing their data, they had an interesting finding—that the carbon and nitrogen and water responses they observed during the heavy warm rains of this October provided a rare opportunity to gain insight into how future climates may impact soil processes. Their observations may well be a sign of things to come.

Predictions that climate change will bring increased rainfall have been around for a long time. “But no one knows what that means for life on the ground,” Reyes said. “We see evidence that the increased rainfall may come from more intense storms rather than more frequent storms. Our study provides a rare opportunity to better understand how water, dissolved carbon, and nitrogen may respond to these type of storms, which may well become the new norm.”

One of Kramer’s goals was to make field and lab-based measurements an integral part of the classroom experience. Not only does it provide practical experience, but it benefits the students in another way too. “Gathering so many pieces of data and working in a team, the students dramatically increase their capacity to do big science,” he said.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

RESEARCH EQUIPMENT FOR THE NEXT GENERATION: John Harkness and Ryan Todd want to make lab equipment practical, affordable and beautiful.

Postdoctoral fellow John Harkness and scientific assistant Ryan Todd were working in Barbara Sorg’s neuroscience lab on the WSU Vancouver campus when they ran into an expensive equipment problem.

They were investigating sleep deprivation in rodents by examining how structures surrounding neurons, called perineuronal nets, change throughout the day and during periods of limited sleep. They believe perineuronal nets are important for regulating neural plasticity and could be important in storing memories—with potential clues for treating various addictions.

They needed “sleep deprivation boxes,” which prevent mice or rats from sleeping for a period of time. The Sorg lab hypothesizes that neurological changes occur from lack of sleep that make the brain more susceptible to drug addiction. After a rat is sleep deprived, the researcher can measure drug-seeking behaviors over time and see how perineuronal nets are involved.

Although these devices are available commercially, they cost upwards of $3,000 apiece. Multiplied over the number of devices (typically 6 to 24) needed for a study, the cost is prohibitive for a small lab’s budget.

“We don’t have that equipment, so Ryan and I started building it,” Harkness said.
INVENTING FROM NECESSITY

Their prototype is “really simple,” Todd added, “but it does what we need, and better than anything else on the market.”

To measure the effects of sleep deprivation in the rewireneuroscience2brain, Sorg wanted the animals to be kept awake but without stressing them. Harkness and Todd’s solution was to use the rat’s home cage, with a little wheel in the middle (called an agitator trolley) that runs back and forth so the rat has to keep out of its way. It’s big enough to hold food and water. “Nothing in the rat’s environment has changed,” Harkness said.

Todd did the mechanical engineering of the device, and Harkness did the coding of the computer that can control up to eight devices simultaneously. The device can be remotely operated from a researcher’s desktop computer, a laptop and even a smartphone.

The device is installed on a platform, next to a small computer that controls the agitator trolley.

“It’s easy to repair, adjust and clean,” Todd said. A researcher could easily add monitoring equipment to see what’s happening in the rat’s brain while the device is running.

EMPOWERING THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE

They worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization on a preliminary patent. Then, realizing that other researchers could also benefit from using the device, they applied for a Commercialization Gap Fund award from the commercialization office. They received the $50,000 grant, which will fund the continued development and validation of the device and help them bring the product to market.

In addition, Harkness and Todd founded a company, Rewire Neuroscience, to bring the product to market. “Our vision for this company is that it’s built around the future of neuroscience,” Harkness said. “We want to help early career investigators build their own equipment that’s customizable and cheaper than what’s available now.” (For more information, see facebook.com/RewireNeuroscience.)

rewireneuroscience1

Rewire Neuroscience’s first product is already being sought out by young researchers. Called the Journal of Abstracts (jabstracts.org), it allows researchers to upload their science posters—work often done in grad school but seldom recognized beyond—so they can get their work seen before the long process of publication in a traditional journal can take place.

“It’s part of empowering future of science,” Harkness said. “It’s difficult for students to get their names out there before they have a lot of publications. Graduates and undergraduates present lot of posters at conferences. Then the posters die in a box, and the data never sees the light of day again.”

“I see this as bridging that gap between the work a lot of people do in labs that might go unseen, and their next job or grad school,” Todd said. “They can now send a link to someone who can look at all of the posters they’ve been on, and potentially collaborate with.”

Harkness, who earned his doctorate at Oregon Health and Science University, and Todd, who has a master’s degree in whole systems design from Antioch University in Seattle, are a good pair. “We both appreciate the challenge of coming up with these ideas and piecing things together, as opposed to going out and spending a lot of money on something that may or may not meet our needs,” Todd said. “We’d rather design and build something that meets our needs exactly.”

Much of the lab equipment out there was designed two or three decades ago. “John and I hope to reduce the expense of lab equipment in the future by developing products that are simple in design and easy to use,” Todd said. “We also want to modernize lab equipment by using technology typical in everyday devices, such as wireless printers and smartphones.”

And while they love the thrill of invention, they also love the research and discovery it enables. “Science is where our passion is,” Harkness said. “We’re just excited to do it better.”

Posted in commercialization | Leave a comment