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From Sticky Marine Mussels to Nanotech

Research on obesity to pandemics to science networks presented at AAAS meeting

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February 18, 2013 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- The cutting-edge work of six Northwestern University faculty members in data science, biomedical materials, nanotechnology, anthropology and communications science was presented last week at the 2013 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The meeting was titled “The Beauty and Benefits of Science.”

The far-ranging Northwestern research included work on the evolution of obesity, the predictability of pandemics and the use of networks in helping women succeed in science. It also shed light on the wonders of nanotechnology in medicine, the remarkable ability of the brain to recover from stroke with appropriate training and the useful things scientists are learning from the “sticking” power of marine mussels.

The AAAS meeting drew thousands of researchers, educators, journalists and science enthusiasts from around the world to Boston’s Hynes Convention Center from Feb. 14 to 18. AAAS is said to be the largest general scientific society in the world.

Northwestern research presented at AAAS:

• At a session on “Predictability: From Physical to Data Sciences,” Dirk Brockmann discussed his computational model demonstrating how disease spreads in a highly connected world. In “Are Pandemics Predictable?” Brockmann talked about using transportation data to develop models to pinpoint infectious disease sources and the spread of disease. He is associate professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.

• Women in science and research can find it difficult to locate a network of colleagues in their specialized area of study. Noshir Contractor discussed his work on networks in a presentation titled “Understanding and Enabling Networks Among Women’s Groups in Sustainable Development.” Contractor is using his understanding of networks to help women in science have greater success in their research by helping them find mentors and colleagues. He is the Jane and William White Professor of Behavioral Sciences in the McCormick School and in the School of Communication.

• When it comes to sticking power under wet conditions, marine mussels are hard to beat, according to Phillip Messersmith. He has created new biomedical materials that mimic mussel adhesive proteins and have important practical applications in health and medicine. Messersmith, the Erastus O. Haven Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the McCormick School, delivered a talk titled “Mussel-Inspired Materials for Surgical Repair and Drug Delivery.”

• Chad Mirkin, a world-renowned leader in nanotechnology research and its application, spoke on “Nanostructures in Biology and Medicine” as part of a panel on “Convergence of Physical Engineering, and Life Sciences: Next Innovation Economy.” In a separate presentation, he discussed his research on “Nucleic Acid-Modified Nanostructures as Programmable Atom Equivalents: Forging a New Periodic Table.“ “We have always had a vision of building matter and controlling architecture from the bottom up,” he said. “Now we’ve shown it can be done.” Mirkin is the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering.

• Not long ago, stroke sufferers who lost the ability to talk were thought to have only three to 12 months to recover it. In decades of research, world-renowned stroke and brain damage researcher Cynthia Thompson has shown that, with appropriate training, gains can be made 10 or more years after a stroke’s onset. Thompson discussed plasticity of the brain in a session titled “Teaching the Brain to Speak Again.” She also gave a preview of work she will conduct as recipient of a $12 million National Institutes of Health Center award. That work will explore the role of blood flow in language recovery and use eye tracking to discern problems underlying language deficits resulting from brain or stroke. Thompson is the Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Sciences in the School of Communication.

• The research of anthropologist William Leonard (who was unable to attend the AAAS meeting) was presented by a colleague in a paper titled “Metabolic Challenges of the Modern World: Evolution and Human Nutritional Health.” Leonard has conducted extensive research on the diets and ways of prehistoric populations. His work shows that the transition from subsistence to modern, sedentary lifestyle has created energy imbalances that play a major role in obesity today. Leonard is chair and professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.