Every Thursday, North by Northwestern's science and tech section will bring you five of the week's most important and noteworthy stories (some of which – let's be honest – won't be that important but are fun anyway). This week, Northwestern scored big with a few relatively major discoveries and a $5 million grant for nanotechnology research.
At the flick of a switch
Neurobiology professor Dr. Ravi Allada led a research team that discovered why animals wake up and fall asleep. The team studied circadian neurons – those which determine the timing of animals' sleep-wake cycles – in fruit flies and mice. They found that, in both animals, two electrical drives collaborate to "impose rhythmicity" on these neurons. In the morning, sodium conducts through an ion channel and depolarizes the neurons, causing the animal to wake up, while potassium currents "peak" in the evening, silencing the neurons and causing the animal to fall asleep.
Those who deal with constant jet lag or irregular sleep cycles could benefit from the finding, which could be used to create drugs for those issues.
We may or may not be screwed for the next major tsunami, according to a study published Sept. 21 by seismologist, tsunami expert and Northwestern professor Emile A. Okal. In his paper, Okal graded the performance of scientists and other decision-makers in 17 tsunamis since 2004 using a measurement system called a “wisdom index.”
Okal based his scores on “the warning issued (or not) during the event, and on the response of the population,” according to the paper. He found that tsunami mitigation was erratic among the 17 cases and called tsunami earthquakes – tame enough to avoid creating panic but large enough to trigger major tsunamis – a remaining major challenge.
Biochemical engineer Michael Jewett led a team of Northwestern researchers who, in collaboration with Yale, developed a protein synthesis platform technology that helps scientists understand how proteins work and, perhaps more importantly, how to fix broken proteins. The technology allows researchers to manufacture certain types of proteins, which they can then study to identify whether the protein is associated with disease. This could in turn lead to the production of new drugs for various types of diseases, including cancer.
Northwestern gets paid to be more awesome at nanotechnology
The National Science Foundation gave Northwestern and the University of Chicago a $5 million grant to create a nanotechnology tool – called the Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental (SHyNE) Resource – that will allow the two institutions to collaborate on nanoscale research.
Northwestern operates six nanotechnology facilities under its International Institute of Nanotechnology, each of which are open to academic and industrial users both within and outside Northwestern. SHyNE will coordinate cryogenics, characterization and soft-nanopatterning capabilities at these facilities, along with deepening existing collaborations between Northwestern and the University of Chicago, according to a Northwestern press release.
Reuters News ranked Northwestern sixth on its list of the 100 most innovative universities in the world, based in part on the University’s $600 million in annual research funding and the 143 patents granted to NU from 2008 to 2013.
According to a McCormick news release, Northwestern’s startup successes also factored into the high ranking. Examples include ventures like MAKO Surgical, a company founded by mechanical engineering professor Michael Peshkin that creates robotics for orthopedics, and Naurex, a biopharmaceutical startup that used research conducted by professor Joseph Moskal.