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UMaine Today Magazine


Scientist Rebecca Anderson of the Desert Research Institute examines a section of the WAIS Divide ice core recovered from a depth of 500 meters.
Scientist Rebecca Anderson of the Desert Research Institute examines a section of the WAIS Divide ice core recovered from a depth of 500 meters.

Photo courtesy of Kendrick Taylor

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100,000 years of climate change

As part of an unprecedented, multiyear effort, researchers have retrieved the first section of an ice column in Antarctica that could provide the most detailed record yet of greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere during the last 100,000 years.

Working as part of the National Science Foundation's West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS Divide) Ice Core Project, a team of scientists, engineers, technicians and students from multiple U.S. institutions recovered a 1,900-foot ice core the first section of what is hoped to be a 11,360-foot column of ice detailing 100,000 years of climate history, including a precise annual record of the last 40,000 years.

The dust, chemicals and air trapped in the 2-mile-long ice core will provide critical information for scientists working to predict the extent to which human activity will alter Earth's climate, according to the chief scientist for the project, Kendrick Taylor of the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education.

Researchers at the University of Maine have received a piece of the WAIS Divide ice core for analysis of the physical and chemical properties of the trapped atmospheric dust. In collaboration with colleagues at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, the group plans to use the information to examine changes in atmospheric circulation, volcanic eruptions and the impact of dust deposition on ocean biogeochemistry.

Fighting childhood obesity

Increasing the "dose" of behavioral interventions the use of verbal and tangible rewards, self-monitoring and stimulus control and parental involvement can enhance the effectiveness of established diet and exercise regimes for combating childhood obesity, according to psychology researchers at the University of Maine, who conducted a meta-analysis of 13 years of treatment studies.

The meta-analysis of 11 published studies conducted since 1994 provides new information about the effectiveness of existing treatments for childhood obesity by identifying patterns among the therapeutic components. The meta-analysis, started four years ago as a class project in a graduate course on child and adolescent treatments, introduces a variation of the commonly used statistical techniques that allow for the direct comparison of active treatment components. It is the first of its kind in the social science or medical literatures, says Professor of Psychology Douglas Nangle, one of the study's six coauthors.

The analysis showed that the already established comprehensive interventions combining diet/decreased sedentary lifestyle/increased exercise components could be even more effective through enhanced behavioral interventions rewards such as praise and incentives for meeting goals, as well as teaching children to better self-monitor their eating and exercise patterns, and stimulus control, such as making healthy foods easily accessible and identifiable.

The study also found the involvement of parents from providing nutritious foods in the home and parental weight loss to modeling healthy eating habits and active lifestyles key to helping youngsters battle obesity. Results of the analysis will be published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.

A strong coat

Construction panels with a lightweight coating that gives them the strength to withstand bomb blasts and hurricane-force winds are being prototyped at the University of Maine for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The composite coating, developed by UMaine's Advanced Engineered Wood Composites (AEWC) Center, was applied to wood framing and sheathing panels used to construct a 12-foot by 20-foot building that can be raised by a dozen people in approximately 90 minutes. Such a blast-resistant structure could have military and homeland security applications, and residential uses in areas prone to severe weather.

Blast testing of the modular structure at Fort Polk in Louisiana last August found the coated construction material to be up to seven times more energy absorbing than conventional wood structures.

The coated wood is the second type of blast-resistant building material developed by AEWC in the past two years. Ballistic panels that fit inside tents to protect soldiers in combat zones were developed in AEWC labs and are now being field-tested in Iraq and Afghanistan. That technology was recognized by the American Composites Manufacturers Association as the "Best of the Best" in 2007, signifying its status as the year's top composites technology innovation.

Without borders

Last year, University of Maine civil engineering mjors Heather Martin and Lee Rand joined a group of other UMaine students visiting a small, poor community in Honduras during spring break as part of a Spanish language service-learning class.

While some in the group led by Spanish professor Kathleen March worked with orphans, handed out toothbrushes and toothpaste in schools, and volunteered in nursing homes and health clinics, the engineering students looked at water and sanitation problems in the tiny village of Dulce Vivir, part of the community of Dulce Nombre in central Honduras.

When they returned to campus, Martin and Rand helped establish a UMaine chapter of Engineers Without Borders (UM-EWB) and embarked on a three-year project to see how UMaine students could help with water and sanitation improvements in Dulce Nombre.

This spring, March led her fifth visit to the area, this time with 13 UMaine students. They included four members of UM-EWB, who began an assessment to explore options for improving water quality and sanitation.

UM-EWB offers an opportunity for a transformative experience, "where students and the rest of us get to see what is really going on in the world," says Jean MacRae, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and UM-EWB's faculty adviser.

For this spring's trip, UM-EWB collaborated with UMaine's Central America Service Association (CASA). Under March's leadership, CASA has been participating in service projects in the community since 2004, which included supporting the construction and development of a library and a healthcare clinic.

In addition to the efforts of the engineers this spring, nursing students offered medical expertise and the Spanish language students provided the communication bridge between their peers and the community.

Insight lite: Pack your intergalactic bags

The summer travel season is fast approaching. And just in case your plans include space travel, we asked University of Maine Professor of Physics Neil Comins to list 10 of the top hazards every orbiting tourist should know. Comins is the author of numerous books on space, including the most recent, The Hazards of Space Travel: A Tourist's Guide. According to Comins, the following hazards are just the tip of the "spaceberg."

  • Bone and muscle mass loss

  • Radiation poisoning from a solar flare or solar mass ejection

  • Rapid degrading of medicines in space

  • Early (i.e. soon after launch) onset of nausea

  • Early inability to digest food

  • Interpersonal issues among space travelers, and between space travelers and people on the ground

  • Hardware failures

  • Impacts from particles in space

  • Claustrophobia

  • Dust from surfaces of the worlds you visit

An NSF notable

A sensor developed by a University of Maine engineer to detect the presence of dangerous chemical and biological agents has been chosen as one of the National Science Foundation's notable achievements for 2008.

John Vetelino, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is one of the world's leading researchers in sensor technology. An expert in microsensors, microacoustics and solid-state electronics, Vetelino is one of the founding members of UMaine's Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology.

With NSF funding about four years ago, Vetelino and his research team focused on development of a sensing element for certain chemical and biological agents that pose a serious health threat in high concentrations.

The UMaine-patented sensor can detect an organo-phosphate pesticide known as phosmet, which is similar to chemical-warfare agents. It also senses a particularly virulent strain of E. coli, as well as saxitoxin, the worst of several toxins released during the seasonal algae blooms known as red tide.

David Frankel, LASST senior research scientist, was part of the sensor research team, along with Carl Tripp, professor of chemistry, and Paul Millard, associate professor of chemical engineering.

Vetelino's sensor project led to two more NSF grants, totaling $250,000, to continue his work with E. coli detection. He also received $400,000 in September from NSF to develop a sensing element to detect peroxide-based explosives that can be made with common household ingredients.

NSF will use Vetelino's sensor work, along with other noteworthy research efforts nationwide, to demonstrate the importance of federally funded scientific activity.

Fighting cancer with vitamin D

Healthy levels of serum vitamin D provide significant protection against several cancers, according to University of Maine researchers, who did a literature survey of vitamin D studies conducted in the past 37 years.

"These studies find that the higher the UV exposure, dietary intake and serum level of 25(OH)D, the lower the incidence and mortality from cancers of the breast, colon, lung, pancreas, prostate, melanoma and Hodgkin's lymphoma," write UMaine researchers Betty Ingraham, Beth Bragdon and Anja Nohe in the journal Current Medical Research and Opinion.

Vitamin D, obtained from diet, supplements and sunlight, is essential in cell growth and function. In particular, calcitriol, an active form of vitamin D, has a critical role in regulating cellular mechanisms involved in cancer.

But while preclinical, epidemiological and clinical trials show overwhelmingly that calcitriol can prevent cancers of the colon, breast, prostate, pancreas and ovary, as well as Hodgkin's lymphoma, nearly all studies indicate that most people have below-normal levels of serum vitamin D.

The clinical research community is now revising upward recommendations for levels of optimal serum and sensible sun exposure. The last time that the recommendations were made in 1997, the Food and Nutrition Board of the Institute of Medicine set daily adult dietary intake of vitamin D at 400 IU. Since then, most researchers in the field believe that, for optimal wellness, intakes between 1,000-4,000 IU would lead to a more healthy serum level.

Ancestral alewives

A genetic study of alewives living in landlocked lakes in Connecticut found that the popular baitfish evolved from a common anadromous rather than a freshwater ancestor.

The research found no evidence to uphold a common belief that all Connecticut landlocked alewife populations are nonnative, the result of intentional stocking years ago to provide forage for game fish.

The landlocked populations examined diverged from a common anadromous ancestor between 300 and 5,000 years ago, according to Eric Palkovacs, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Maine School of Biology and Ecology, and his colleagues at Yale University. This time frame overlaps with the onset of human dam construction in Connecticut.

The study of genetic and phenotypic divergence between anadromous and landlocked alewife populations was conducted as part of Palkovacs' dissertation at Yale. It was published in a recent issue of Molecular Ecology.

Like other anadromous fish such as Atlantic salmon and sturgeon, alewives make annual runs up freshwater streams to spawn, then return to the sea. They can be found in the coastal waters from Labrador to North Carolina.

But landlocked alewives have lost the marine phase of their life cycle. The researchers found that foraging traits have evolved in the landlocked populations in Connecticut to allow them to survive by eating smaller zooplankton.

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