2010 marks a year of advances for SMU scientists and their research

SMU scientists are in the forefront of those seeking solutions to some of the world's greatest challenges.

robotic hand

By Margaret Allen
SMU News

From picking apart atomic particles at Switzerland's CERN, to unraveling the mysterious past, to delving into the human psyche, SMU researchers are in the vanguard of those helping civilization understand more and live better.

With both public and private funding — and the assistance of their students — they are tackling such scientific and social problems as brain diseases, immigration, diabetes, evolution, volcanoes, panic disorders, childhood obesity, cancer, radiation, nuclear test monitoring, dark matter, the effects of drilling in the Barnett Shale, and the architecture of the universe.

"Research at SMU is exciting and expanding," says James E. Quick, Associate Vice President for Research and Dean of Graduate Studies. "Our projects cover a wide range of problems in basic and applied research, from the search for the Higgs particle at the Large Hadron Collider in CERN to the search for new approaches to treat serious diseases.

"The University looks forward to creating increasing opportunities for undergraduates to become involved as research expands at SMU," says Quick, who is also a professor in the Huffington Department of Earth Sciences and an expert in volcanoes.

A sample of research by SMU scientists:

CERN and the origin of our universe

Ryszard StroynowskiLed by Physics Professor Ryszard Stroynowski, SMU physics researchers are members of the global consortium of scientists who are investigating the origins of our universe. The scientists are monitoring high-speed sub-atomic particle collisions at the world’s largest physics experiment, the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland.

Compounds to fight neurodegenerative diseases

Synthetic organic chemist and Chemistry Professor Edward Biehl leads a team developing organic compounds for possible treatment of neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. Preliminary investigation of one compound found it was extremely potent as a strong, nontoxic neuroprotector in mice.

Ice Age humans

David MeltzerAnthropology Professor David Meltzer explores the western Rockies of Colorado to understand the prehistoric Folsom hunters who adapted to high-elevation environments during the Ice Age. Meltzer, a world-recognized expert on paleoIndians and early human migration from eastern continents to North America, was inducted into the National Academy of Scientists in 2009.

Robotic arms for injured war vets

Electrical Engineering Chairman and Professor Marc Christensen is director of a new $5.6 million center funded by the Department of Defense and industry. The center will develop for war veteran amputees a high-tech robotic arm with fiber-optic connectivity to the brain capable of “feeling” sensations such as hot and cold.

Paleoclimate in humans’ first environment

Bonnie JacobsPaleobotanist and Associate Earth Sciences Professor Bonnie Jacobs is one of a handful of scientists researching ancient Africa’s vegetation and assembling its fossil record to better understand the environmental and ecological context in which our ancient human ancestors and other mammals evolved. She also identifies and prepares flora fossil discoveries for Ethiopia’s national museum.

Reducing anxiety and asthma

A system of monitoring breathing to reduce CO2 intake is proving useful for reducing the pain of chronic asthma and panic disorder in separate studies by Associate Psychology Professor Thomas Ritz and Assistant Psychology Professor Alicia Meuret.

Breast Cancer community engagement

Georita Marie FriersonAssistant Psychology Professor Georita Friersen is working with African-American and Hispanic women in Dallas to address the quality-of-life issues they face surrounding health care, particularly during diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer. Her research addresses cancer prevention, education, and survivorship. She also examines health disparities regarding prevention and treatment of chronic diseases among medically underserved women and men.

Green energy from the Earth’s inner heat

The SMU Geothermal Laboratory, under Earth Sciences Professor David Blackwell, has identified and mapped U.S. geothermal resources capable of supplying a green source of commercial power generation, including resources that were much larger than expected under coal-rich West Virginia.

Exercise can be magic drug for depression and anxiety

Jasper SmitsPsychologist Jasper Smits, director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at SMU, says exercise can help many people with depression and anxiety disorders and should be more widely prescribed by mental health care providers.

Virtual reality “dates” to prevent victimization

Psychology Department Chairman and Professor Ernest Jouriles led (or leads?) a team of psychologists and SMU Guildhall in developing an interactive video gaming environment where women on virtual-reality dates can learn and practice assertiveness skills to prevent sexual victimization.

Pacific Ring of Fire volcano monitoring

James QuickAn SMU team of earth scientists led by Professor and Research Dean James Quick works with the U.S. Geological Survey to monitor volcanoes in the Pacific Ocean’s Ring of Fire near Guam on the Northern Mariana Islands. Their research will help predict and anticipate hazards to the islands, the U.S. military and commercial jets.

Human speed

An expert on the locomotion of humans and other terrestrial animals, Associate Professor of Applied Physiology and Biomechanics Peter Weyand has analyzed the biomechanics of world-class athletes Usain Bolt and Oscar Pistorius. His research targets the relationships between muscle function, metabolic energy expenditure, whole body mechanics and performance.

Understanding How Humans Evolved

Alisa J. WinklerAlisa Winkler's research interests focus on the systematics, paleobiogeography and paleoecology of fossil mammals, in particular rodents and rabbits. Her study of prehistoric rodents in East Africa and Texas is helping shed more light on human evolution.

Hunting for dark matter

Assistant Professor of Physics Jodi Cooley belongs to a high-profile international team of physicists searching for elusive dark matter — believed to constitute the bulk of the matter in the universe — at an abandoned underground mine in Minnesota, and soon at an even deeper mine in Canada.

Controlled drug delivery agents for diabetes

Brent SumerlinAssociate Chemistry Professor Brent Sumerlin leads a team of SMU chemistry researchers in developing nano-scale polymer particles to deliver insulin to diabetics.

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