Summer research projects spark innovation in fields

By Claire Goscicki, Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 7, 2011

From working in University laboratories to serving underdeveloped communities overseas, four University students share their experiences conducting research this summer and make a positive impact on people's lives.

TESTING A NEW TREATMENT FOR DIABETES

Medical School student Ina Chen and her colleagues at the Michigan Diabetes Research and Training Center — a unit of the University of Michigan Health System — may be one step closer to creating a new treatment for diabetes after testing a prototype for a diabetes treatment drug over the summer.

Intended to replace commonly prescribed diabetes drugs called glitazones, the prototype drug that Chen studied works similarly to glitazones in that it induces insulin sensitivity — an important aspect of treating diabetes. Working under primary investigator Yuqing Chen, a professor of internal medicine at the Medical School, Chen examined the effects of the prototype on cell cultures to better understand its mechanisms and whether or not it will be safe to develop for human use.

“Before we can use the drug in people or even animals, we have to learn more about this prototype,” she explained. “It's a prototype because we haven't exactly designed a drug out of it; it's something that's naturally found in the human body.”

Though Chen and her colleagues are still in the early stages of their research, she said their data has been promising so far. The group will continue studying the prototype this semester in hopes of publishing a paper on their findings next year.

Calling her time in the lab “exciting,” Chen said she is grateful for the opportunity to conduct formal research and be part of an ever-changing area of study.

“(Research) is not a stagnant field,” Chen said. “There's so much exchanging, and there's always something new out there to keep up on.”

TRANSFORMING THE TELECOMMUNICATIONS LANDSCAPE

In Rackham student Carl Pfeiffer’s engineering research lab at the University, antennas the size of quarters are being mass-produced through a new process that has the potential to revolutionize the telecommunications industry.

Working under Stephen Forrest, the University’s vice president for research and a professor of engineering, and Anthony Grbic, an associate professor of engineering at the University, Pfeiffer spent his summer developing an efficient method to duplicate tiny antennae for cell phones and other wireless devices.

According to Pfeiffer, the antenna’s performance capabilities are comparable to those of larger ones, but the miniature antennas can now be produced more quickly and at a cheaper cost. Antennae of this size have been difficult to fabricate in the past due to a process that was painstaking and expensive.

“We wanted to develop a process that would be attractive for people in industry to use,” Pfeiffer said.

The group’s innovative process of duplicating the antennae involves techniques that are similar to how computer processers are produced, he added. Once an antenna’s desired shape is determined, the engineers stamp design patterns on the base material through a procedure called imprint processing.

Pfeiffer said the use of smaller antennas, which are typically the largest component in a wireless device, could allow for a number of new applications in wireless and cellular technology.

“We now want to make things that people haven’t even considered before, since they haven’t had the ability to print these patterns,” he said.

CREATING SOLUTIONS FOR RURAL SCHOOLS

Growing up in rural Kenya, Engineering junior Rama Mwenesi and his siblings were taught in classrooms that lacked adequate textbooks, desks and sanitation. More than a decade later, not much has changed, he said.

Seeking to make possible the seemingly impossible, Mwenesi is one of a group of University students that worked in Kenya this summer to improve schools for students.

E-MAGINE — the group Mwenesi leads — plans and implements solar-powered, sustainable communications systems for rural and off-the-grid communities. The systems allow Kenyan teachers and students to use the Internet and other technologies to facilitate a better classroom experience.

"The teachers are familiar with technology, but they are in places where they have no access whatsoever," Mwenesi said. "I thought it was a no-brainer to try to support these schools and teachers by providing them with a means to access the Internet, and ultimately, more educational resources."

To evaluate the need for the communications systems, Mwenesi spent his time in Kenya researching sustainable development techniques and seeking funding from non-governmental organizations. Having gained support from a number of NGOs, Mwenesi said E-MAGINE will have the resources needed to develop three to five communications systems during the next two semesters. Once the systems are functioning, the classroom possibilities are endless, he said.

“I want to help kids have the chance to realize their own potential,” Mwenesi said.

RESHAPING LIBERIAN COMMUNITIES

Working in Liberia for the past four years, Rackham student Jose Alfaro has been helping rural schools and communities engage in sustainable practices and reeevaluate educational initiatives.

Along with colleagues from Clemson University and the University of Liberia, Alfaro tackled two separate community-based projects in Liberia this summer. The first, supported by an Excellence in Higher Education for Liberian Development grant, involves curriculum development at the college level to help raise the nation’s educational standards and prepare students to be more competitive upon entering the workforce.

In one of the project’s cohorts of Liberian students — a group considered top performers in their respective classes — the average grade point average is about a 2.7 on the 4.0 scale, according to Alfaro.

“Of the (cohort’s) 70 students, about 50 had probably never touched a computer in their lives,” he said.

Alfaro and his colleagues will assess the students over the next five years in the hope they will progress scholastically and enhance their academic skills.

Going beyond the classroom, Alfaro’s second project focuses on creating sustainable solutions for small villages. One solution is a sewage treatment system that creates biogas — gas generated from the decomposition of organic material — to help fuel stoves.

The goal is to allow Liberians to take the lead and continue the community development measures while University of Michigan and Clemson University students serve as consultants, Alfaro said.

“A concentration of resources does not translate into development,” he said. “We are not looking at development as a simple solution but instead looking at the whole system within a community.”