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2016 Spotlights


The first intensive care unit (ICU) is believed to have been established in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1953. Since that time ICUs have become a standard feature in hospitals, constantly updating their life saving techniques and equipment at their disposal. Xiaopeng Zhao, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineering, hopes to add to that list with the results of his current research.

Xiaopeng Zhao, associate professor of mechanical, aerospace, and biomedical engineeringZhao’s Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project is focused on taking all the unstructured data generated by ICU patients and organizing it into a scalable infrastructure of patient care management. ICU patients generate a huge amount of data, from the information collected by whatever machines may be used to monitor them, to observations made by hospital staff.

One of the challenges with ordering this data is how different it is. One ICU patient may have data from a cardiac monitor, while another has data from a blood test. Monitors used and tests performed will vary based on the patient’s particular condition. Additionally, there is a great deal of opportunity for human error in the data collection and entry.

Zhao’s team’s goal is to create a tool for structuring this data, which can then provide hospitals and doctors with useful information to inform their practices and individual patient care.

“If we can look at the ICU record to determine which patients have a higher risk of mortality then we can say those patients may need more intensive care or some special treatment,” Zhao said.

Zhao’s  partner at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Georgia Tourassi, has focused her work on big data management. The techniques developed in her corresponding Laboratory Directed Research Development (LDRD) project will be useful for Zhoa’s work, which will in turn provide a test bed for Tourassi’s work.

“The goal is to look at the patient’s data and understand the structure and information in the data and produce something useful so that the information can be used for patient management,” said Zhao.


The concept of sustainable development came into public awareness in 1987 when the Brundtland Commission presented a report entitled Our Common Future. The commission was convened by the United Nations to address the depletion of natural resources. The report it produced coined the term “sustainable development” and defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

One of the key components of sustainable development is the unification of environment and development, a concept advanced by the Brundtland Report. In keeping with this idea the National Science Foundation (NSF) released a call for proposals to explore the nexus of these areas. Liem Tran, professor of geography, hopes his project seeks will do just that.

According to Tran, most contemporary sustainability assessments evaluate water availability separately from the interconnection with human infrastructure and development across geographic regions. His Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project proposes to use network analysis and graph theory to link these different areas, capturing their interaction at a number of levels.

“When you produce electricity, you consume water. If you use a lot of water in one place and something happens to the water, for example a drought, that will affect the electricity production,” said Tran. “How does that effect spread throughout the electricity network, the water network and the food network?”

Liem Tran and Hyun Kim of the Department of GeographyTran’s JDRD team includes Hyun Kim, an assistant professor in the department of geography at the University of Tennessee. Kim specializes in the network analysis which Tran’s project will use to create a scalable methodology for observing these system interactions.

“Consider the example of population increase. You then have an increasing demand for food. How might that affect the water and energy consumption across various sectors and/or regions? That kind of information will be capture by our network analysis,” said Tran.

“We should know how to respond quickly to those situations,” added Kim. “Previous research didn’t touch on these things but we can by creating this cross-scale framework and ultimately make a nice practical picture for applying water or electric policy.”

Tran and Kim are working on models for a regional scale, but plan to create a flexible system adaptable to a variety of confines. Their Oak Ridge National Laboratory partner Dr. Ryan McManamay will use the methods and results generated by the JDRD to study the footprint of urban energy systems on river networks.


Nicole McFarlane, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer scienceThe earliest known camera captured image dates back to 1826 from the Burgundy region of France. The photo itself is dark and grainy, barely hinting at the shape of several buildings visible from the photographer’s upstairs window. In the nearly 200 years since then camera technology has advanced into a device that fits in a pocket and takes crystal clear images of its subjects. Specialized imaging devices have been developed for studying a variety of subjects, ranging from distant galaxies to subatomic particles such as neutrons.

Graduate students working in Nicole McFarlane's labIt is the latter subject that has drawn the attention of Nicole McFarlane, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and is the focus of her Joint Directed Research and Development (JDRD) project, now in its second year of funding. McFarlane’s JDRD team seeks to improve the imaging technology used for neutron detection through the creation of a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) chip.

“We’re working on an optical detector, but it’s really for neutron detection. Then our plan is to take it to Oak Ridge and actually test it with the neutron source,” said McFarlane.

Neutron detection is a popular imaging method used at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for a variety of materials, from strands of DNA to chunks of rock. This imaging is currently performed with cameras that use Photomultiplier tubes, which are large and expensive.

Equipment in Nicole McFarlane's labMcFarlane’s CMOS chip lets electronics and diodes exist on a single chip, creating a less expensive, smaller product. This proximity allows the chip to communicate and generate information more quickly. A first generation of the chip has already been fabricated and awaits testing at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at ORNL.

“I’m hoping it will show that I can, with their scintillator, measure incoming neutrons. They have specific levels that they look at for their imaging and I really want to see whether we can measure their entire range,” McFarlane said.

If testing with the SNS yields positive results, McFarlane is hoping to test her chip against commercial silicon photomultiplier arrays for efficiency and full range detection.


What do baseball and computers have in common? According to Jian Liu, assistant professor of physics and astronomy, the answer is spin or, more specifically, spin-orbit coupling.

Jian Liu, assistant professor of physics and astronomySpin-orbit coupling is the interaction that occurs between an object’s spin and its motion or trajectory. With baseball this is illustrated in pitching. A pitcher is always propelling the ball forward toward the catcher. However, the spin he applies to the ball as it makes its way to home plate will affect the way the ball behaves as it travels. Spin applied in one direction can result in a curveball, while when applied in another direction can yield a screwball.

In Liu’s Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project, spin-orbit coupling presents a new way to tackle speed and efficiency in computers.

“In computers, the basic idea is you switch between two states, ‘0’ and ‘1’. How fast a computer can go or how much data it can store depends on how well it can switch between these two states,” said Liu.

A graduate student examines magnetic material with a micrsocopeMagnetic materials are commonly used for this and an alternating magnetic field is applied to them to induce the changing state by flipping the direction in which the electrons are spinning within the materials. According to Liu, this method requires a great deal of electric current and is very energy consuming as a result. The goal of his JDRD project is to increase the speed with which these changes are made while using less energy.

“What we’re trying to do here is build a structure where the magnetic property and the electric property would have an intrinsic correlation, and the concept behind all of this is to utilize the spin-orbit coupling,” said Liu.

Liu’s work could lead to major advances in electronics technology. Hard drives could store more, devices could perform faster on less energy and entirely new devices could be created.

Liu’s partner at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), Dr. Michael Fitzsimmons, is developing a sample environment of polarized neutron reflectometry (PNR). This environment is dedicated to investigating interfacial structures with controls over magnetic and electric fields and Fitzsimmons will use it to characterize the material the JDRD team is creating for Liu’s research.


Francisco Barrera observes a graduate student's workMuch like the walls of a house protect the people and objects inside it from the outside, cell membranes surround and protect individual cells. Also known as the plasma membrane, the cell membrane serves as a barrier to the external environment and is involved in a number of complex cellular processes, including cell signaling.

Cell signaling is the system of communication by which cells perceive and respond to their environment. Miscommunications in cell signaling and information processing are thought to be responsible for autoimmune diseases, cancer and diabetes. Cell membranes regulate this entire process but much of how and why membranes are organized is unknown.

Francisco Barrera, assistant professor in the department of biochemistry and cellular and molecular biology, seeks to change that with his Joint Directed Research Development (JDRD) project. Barrera’s project is focused on the formation of lipid domains, or groupings of lipids, in the cellular membrane and how proteins impact them.

“It’s an area many people are investigating. They are believed to be important for instance with viral infection,” said Barrera. “When a virus comes to a cell, some types prefer to attach where these lipid domains are present. Scores of key physiological functions have been associated with the formation of lipid domains.”

Graduate student working in Francisco Barrera's labBarrera’s JDRD team hopes to characterize how proteins affect these domains by using a very simple synthetic protein. Barrera believes the experiment will show the proteins disrupt the formation of lipid domains, thereby failing to create those attractive targets to viruses. This research could have far reaching implications.

“Lipid domains are involved in a large number of processes, so this information will inform several areas of cell biology, including signal transactions and drug interactions,” said Barrera.

Barrera’s team is partnering with Xiaolin Cheng, Fred Heberle, and John Katsaras at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Methodology designed by Katsaras and Heberle will be used in Barrera’s experiment. Additionally Barrera, Katsaras, Heberle and Cheng are active participants in a recently launched biomembranes initiative developed by the Joint Institute for Biological Sciences (JIBS).