Tech Tour Day Seven: Wonders at Western Michigan
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Day Seven of the Great Lakes IT Report’s 2010 Fall Tech Tour took me to Kalamazoo and Western Michigan University.
WMU traces its roots back to 1903 as the Western State Normal School. Like a lot of Michigan universities, it saw explosive growth in the postwar period. It’s sometimes seriously underestimated as both a Michigan research powerhouse and as a very pretty campus. It’s now a Carnegie top 100 research university with world-renowned programs in science and scholarship in areas as diverse as medieval studies and paper engineering.
But like any good Michigan university, it wants more. And so it made sense to start my Thursday with Daniel Litynski, vice president for research.
Litynski is in charge of realizing President John Dunn’s ambitious plan to grow research expenditures at Western from about $30 million a year, where it’s been stuck the past few years, to $60 million within five years.
Litynski — a retired Army brigadier general and former head of the electrical and electronic engineering department at West Point — seems like the man for the job. In his 11 years at Western, he’s served as dean of engineering, vice president of academic affairs, and interim president. After three years on loan to the National Science Foundation, he returned to Western as acting dean of the engineering college before being named to the research post effective Jan. 1.
“We’re at the point where we’re trying to expand our research and I think we have a lot of potential,” Litynski said. “Years of investment in people and facilities has put us in a good position to go to the next level.”
Several areas are targeted for growth, including geosciences, sensor technologies, hybrid and electric vehcile technologies, radio-frequency identification technologies, and teacher education in science, technology, education and mathematics.
Litynski said WMU faculty disclosures have also been flat in recent years at 10-12 a year, with tech-based industrial collaborations now at around 25. The university also has three startup companies in process — financial stimulation software, interactive therapy for depression, interactive health behavior management.
From Litynski’s office in Walwood Hall, the original student union in Western’s lovely east campus, it was off to Wood Hall on the heart of the quad created when wise planners blocked off Michigan Avenue through the middle of the part of campus developed in the 1960s and ’70s. (Thursday, it was exploding with fall color, just lovely.)
And at Wood Hall, I met people doing amazing things with environmental data.
Western principal research associate Adam Milewski and Mohamed Sultan, chair of geosciences, have developed a tool called RESDEM, for Remote Sensing Data Extraction Model, to quickly draw useful information out of the mountain of data from NASA climate satellites.
“If Adam and his group did not develop this software, it would take a graduate student … a year to run a model to extract the data,” Sultan said. “This software reduces that to about a day.”
The software allows researchers to easily subset the huge datasets in both space and time, and allows them to set threshhold value to look only for data more or less than or equal to a desired amount, making extracting useful information from reams of raw data much faster.
The initial use of RESDEM, funded by the United Nations, was to develop a precipitation map of Egypt, where there are few scientific rain gauges.
“We developed methodologies that allow you to take these huge data sets down to recommending a place where you should put the well,” Sultan said.
Satellite data on rain is checked against satellite data on cloud cover and soil moisture to make sure it’s accurate.
The WMU team is applying similar methodology to finding water along the Afghan-Pakistan border, work funded by the United States Agency for International Development, and another project for Egypt’s Sinai funded by the NATO Science for Peace project.
Said Milewski: “Basically we tell them how much recharge they can sustainably pump out each year.”
The group has also used the technology to measure dune movement on Cape Cod, coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t any until early European settlers started chopping down the vegetatation a few hundred years ago.
And they’ve established a satellite receiving station on top of WMU’s Everett Tower to gather water and air data from satellites passing immediately overhead, allowing them to sound an “early warning” for destructive algae blooms in the Great Lakes.
Sultan and Milewski said RESDEM could eventually have a commercial future and be sold to governments, research institutions and other universities. It could also be used to track agriculture and wildfires.
But perhaps even more groundbreaking is a new research technique developed by Ph.D. student Mohamed Ahmed to use data from a satellite called GRACE, Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, with rainfall data from a satellite called TRMM, Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission. Sultan said this method could be used to doublecheck and calibrate climate change predictions on relatively small areas of the earth. A paper on the technique has been submitted to the journal Nature.
From Wood Hall I headed out to Western’s spectacular $73 million engineering college building, just a few years old, to meet with Tycho Frederick, director of WMU’s Human Performance Institute, and Steve Butt, assistant chair of industrial engineering for the college.
They showed me several ways research has improved lives, both in the Kalamazoo area and nationwide.
For instance, research they’ve done for Bronson Hospital since 1999 has trimmed literally thousands of miles from the distance nurses must walk from patient rooms to work stations to storage rooms.
They started out giving nurses Palm Pilots to record exactly what they do each day. Turned out that for a general medical unit, nurses spent only 12 percent of their time in direct patient care, but were in transit or fetching something 35 percent fo the time.
Then Frederick and Butt put pedometers and heart monitors on the nurses to see how far they were walking and how hard they were working physically. It turned out moving a single nursing station 50 feet could reduce more than a mile off a nurses walking over a 12-hour shift.
Other studies from their institute include determining how often hurses were interrupted or distracted during tasks and developing ways to screen nurses based on different types of nursing based on their personalities.
Butt and Frederick also helped Holland-based Haworth develop their best-ever-selling chair, the Zody, through a test of 206 subjects at the engineering school. Test subjects were given a chair with 35 pressure points on the back of the chair, with the chair purposely set in an uncomfortable position, and were then allowed to make it comfortable.
They learned that 74 percent of the time, people wanted at least 20 percent more lumbar support on one side than the other — and these were people who had no diagnosed back problems.
Haworth turned it into the Zody, their best selling chair ever, which won a silver medal at the annual Neocon commercial furniture show.
The institute even includes high school students from the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center in its research.
I then headed to another relatively new Western building, the 2001 Center for Health and Human Services, and the office of Richard Long, associate dean of health and human services.
Long has led a cross-disciplinary, multi-university research team since 2000, funded by a $9 million National Eye Institute grant, to study various approaches to ensure that compelx intersections are accessible to the blind and visually impaired.
Long met with me just an hour after meeting with 60 traffic engineers about a new type of traffic signal for traffic circles. First used in Tucson, Ariz., now being tested in Oakland County, it’s called the Hawk. Pedestrians actuate the signal, which makes a yellow light blink, then go solid, then two red-lit globes light up at the roundabout’s crosswalk. Then the pedestrian gets an audible walk location. Collaborating with WMU on the work are Vanderbilt University, Boston College, the University of North Carolina and the Maryland School for the Blind.
Long is also working on research to give new, super-quiet hybrid vehicles noise when they’re at low speed. He said automakers, including GM and Nissan, are working on their own proprietary sound technologies for hybrids and electric vehicles at low speeds.
Long said Western is literally world renowned for care for the blind.
“Western Michgan University has the oldest and largest educational and training program in the world in the areas of blindness and low vision,” Long said. “We started in 1961 doing this work. We have four program areas, we have 10 faculty members. We have a very visible presence in the research arena related to blindness and low vision issues. Blindness and low vision are relatively young disciplines, and we are working hard to develop research space that the field can use so we practice from some base of evidence.”
Western offers four masters degrees in the discipline: orientation and mobility, which help the blind find where they are and get around; vision rehabilitation therapists, which help blind individuals learn all skills that are not travel related, including Brialle, home and personal management, recreation and leisure and more; teaching of visually impaired children; and rehabilitation counselors, which help youth and adults identify job opportunities and get the proper training for them.
My final stop at Western was the four-year-old Center for Advanced Vehicle Design and Simulation, back on the Parkview engineering campus.
Eaton Corp., Dana Corp., L3 Communications and Mann and Hummel were original members, with the Oak Ridge National Laboratories and the United States Army’s Tank-Automotive Research Development and Engineering Command as associate members.
Dedicated to advanced vehicle development, the center recently dedicated an exciting addition: the CAViDS Hybrid Electric Applied Research (CHEAR) Laboratory, which just opened Oct. 7.
Running CHEAR will be William Liou, director of CAViDS and a professor with research interests in computer simulation; Bade Shrestha, associate professor of mechanical engineering, with research interests in hybrids, alternative fuels and fuel cells; Claudia Fajardo, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, with research interests in turbulence, fluid mechanics and diagnostics; and CAViDS executive director John Bair, a veteran truck manufacturing executive with Eaton.
A cross-disciplinary group of no less than 14 professors will be involved all told, Liou said.
CHEAR will test batteries and motors for hybrid electric vehicle. The new $1 million Eaton/WMU lab will work on both commercial and military hybrid drives, with a focus on systems integration.
Eaton has said its desires for the lab are to provide reserach space for its growing reserch needs, perform the research, and fill the talent pipeline with graduates knowledgeable in hybrid electric initiatives.
Besides the faculty, I also met with four undergraduates who were selected to learn the testing software at Eaton last summer, and who helped move in equipment this fall. Good luck, not that I think these hard-chargers need much, to Nick Gillette of Battle Creek, an electrical engineering major; Brandon Lewis of Three Rivers, an aeronautical engineering major; Cody Kammeraad of Holland, a mechanical engineering major; and Tyler Gravlin of Muskegon, a computer engineering major.
Bair said WMU is hoping to develop research relationships with the hybrid battery suppliers now moving into Michigan.
And that was it for Western, a terrific institution that I’m sure I could make similar calls on for two weeks and not exhaust all the relevand research under way.
Now it’s on to the biggest university Michigan offers, Michigan State University. Talk about lots of choices for tech meetings! Let’s go!
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