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Tech Tour Day Nine: Kettering Is Cool

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Kettering University Map

Kettering University was founded in 1919 as an automotive trade school, and the fledgling General Motors Corp. acquired it in 1926. GM would separate from Kettering in 1982 as it reduced operations in Flint during a brutal recession. And while the school still has plenty of automotive heritage, boy, does it have a lot of other cool research going, as I learned Friday morning on the final tour stop of the Great Lakes IT Report Fall Tech Tour for 2011.

The tour started on the automotive side with Kevin Bai, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who showed me an electric motor test lab funded by a $500,000 Department of Energy grant. The five-kilowatt motors stand in for 50-kw motors in electric and hybrid cars so students can learn controls and embedded systems.

Bai’s lab also had sponsored research going, by a battery charger maker called Progressive Dynamics Inc., studying which charging algorithms work best and do the least damage to battery terminals.

A separate lab managed by Bai is developing a 10-kilowatt battery charger, up from the current state of the art at 6.6 kilowatts — meaning faster recharging for plug-in electrics and hybrids.

Bai, a native of China, joined Kettering a year ago after a stint at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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My next interview was with a pair of Kettering profs, one of whom — Stacy Seeley, professor and department head of chemistry and biochemistry — I had met before, and another — John Geske, professor and department head of computer science — I hadn’t.

Seeley and Geske told me how Kettering built a major in bioinformatics, a fast-growing scientific field in which biology, computer science and information technology are melded into a single discipline.

“Bioinformatics is the storing and retrieval of information, primarily genetic information, DNA information,” Geske said. “It’s how you store and retrieve this vast quantity of information and make sense of what you’re looking at, predict what those sequences mean.”

Geske came to Kettering in 1994 to create the university’s computer science program. Since then, Kettering has become one of only six universities in Michigan to have a computer science program accredited by ABET Inc., formerly the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. The school now has 110 computer science majors.

Seeley, a biochemist, joined Kettering in 2000 and has been instrumental in building Kettering’s pre-medicine program.

Geske said he’s wanted to offer bioinformatics at Kettering for a long time, but it wasn’t until Seeley’s arrival and the addition of courses like molecular biology and genetics that it became feasible.

Geske said the degree program was approved in December and already attracted its first two incoming majors for the 2011-12 academic year, despite not being marketed. This year, the major is being marketed heavily.

And Geske said potential co-op employers have shown a strong interest in bioinformatics. Flint’s Hurley Medical Center “wants to hire 10 students on co-op right away for medical informatics. We don’t have 10 students yet. Beaumont is also seeking bioinformatics co-op students.” Geske also said the students will be prized by agribusiness for their knowledge of genetically modified crops.

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Continuing in the medical vein, my next stop was with Prem Vaishnava, professor of applied physics, a veteran of Kettering, having joined the university in 1986.

Among his current research passions is a new heat-based treatment of tumors, research being conducted with Wayne State University’s Department of Radiation Oncology and Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy.

Vaishnava said killing cancers with heat has been recorded in medical literature for literally thousands of years, with ancient peoples lancing tumors with heated objects, obviously “a very crude method, very painful.” More recently, in the 1950s, microwaves were used to heat and kill tumors — but this method was abandoned by the 1960s based on blistering and other painful damage to nearby tissues.

Vaishnava said the fact remains that you can kill cancer cells quickly at 45 degrees Celsius  (113 Fahrenheit) while healthy cells can stand brief excursions up to 60 to 70 Celsius (140 to 158 Fahrenheit) — so how do you get the heat to the cancer cells and limit it elsewhere?

Vaisnava thinks he has the answer — magnetic nanoparticles and a rapidly oscillating magnetic field. His “ferrofluid” is a suspension of magnetic particles in water that can be directed to the tumor with magnets. Another possible approach is using a virus to introduce the ferroparticles into the cancer cells. How to get the ferroparticles out of the body is still under study.

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Next up, Bassem Ramadan, who is collaborating with researchers at the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan State University to look inside a diesel engine cylinder to determine the best way to configure the fuel injector’s spray nozzle, piston shape and air motion for optimal combustion.

“Typically in a diesel you have direct injection to the cylinder, so there is less time for fuel to evaporate and mix with the air,” Ramadan said. “That’s a disadvantage to the diesel engine, so you end up with soot. We’re now trying to develop a piston bowl, a cavity within the piston, so we can control the mixture and make it uniform.”

That will keep diesel engines from having to use expensive particulate filters to meet air quality standards, Ramadan said.

He’s using advanced software developed at Los Alamos National Laboratory to model the interior of the internal combustion engine.

Ramadan has been at Kettering for 13 years, coming from MSU.

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Back in biotech it was for a visit with Montserrat Rabago-Smith, assistant professor in chemistry and biochemistry, who’s part of an effort to use a magnesium alloy to help regrow damaged bone in injuries where the distance between the two broken bone ends is beyond the human body’s ability to regenerate and heal.

The current state of the art is titanium or stainless steel, but those can cause severe problems later, including inflammatory reactions or bone building up around the ends of the rods.

An alternative, magnesium, has the opposite problem — it’s absorbed back to the body too quickly.

Rabago-Smith’s work involves a coating to protect the magnesium just long enough so that bone can grow to fill the gap. She said as many as 16 formulations of the coating are under study.

Tests in rats and rabbit show the material is well tolerated like the body, and that bone indeed uses the ladder-shaped magnesium implants to bridge the magic gap — and the material begins to biodegrade as the bone grows.

“We’re just in the beginning stages,” Rabago-Smith said of her research, adding that more funding is needed to continue it.

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My final formal appointment at Kettering was with Mehrdad Zadeh, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. Zadeh operates Kettering’s haptics lab, a field that involves sensory feedback in electronics — allowing a user to touch virtual objects by using forces, vibrations or movements of the user in simulation.

I got to “touch” and feel the “weight” of a virtual object in a virtual room. Other students of Zadeh’s worked on coding for the touch and feel of switches and operated robots that provide feedback of their environment through a steering wheel. A graduate student from Iran, Fariba Kosravian, is researching power saving functions for robots through haptics.

Zadeh designed an elective course in the electrical and computer engineering department called “haptics systems,” one of a handful of similar courses offered across the country.

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My last stop at Kettering — and on the Tech Tour — was a working lunch with Neil Sheridan, director of Kettering University’s TechWorks business incubation program.

TechWorks has been up for a year now, assisting innovators with developing advanced technology products and services and then bringing them to the market.

Sheridan said TechWorks has so far put more than 300 people through commercialization training and is currently working to select 12 potential companies for more intensive support.

I met a couple of likely suspects at the lunch. Included were two brothers, University of Michigan Flint students, who had created a new Web site, mylifesecret.com. Its mission is simple — to help people unburden themselves of secrets in a completely anonymous fashion. Philip Pirkovic and his brother Saso said they’ve already received emails from people who said things like, “thanks to you I decided to turn my life around.”

Also attending was Mark Richardson, a Kettering graduate who is seeking funding to bring back plastics education to the university, and Terry Beltran, president of Beltran Media and Vista Latina. Beltran’s effort includes “Ask the Latina,” a social media Web site containing video and a gateway to content personalized for Hispanic women.

And finally, there was a demonstration in the parking lot fo NuStand, a battery-powered patient transfer and upright mobility device. It’s intended to reduce caregiver industry from patient transport, as well as giving people who now use wheelchairs a way to get around while standing up.

Adults with limited mobility can roll up to a NuStand in a wheelchair, scoot forward on their seat, and be lifted into a standing position with the touch of a button. Once they’re upright, the user can move around with a joystick.

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Overall, once again, I was stunned at the quality and quantity of research under way at such a small school — it’s up there with anything the big guys are doing. Part of that is reflected in Kettering’s mission as a school that’s really serious about STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

And once again, I was amazed at the quality of research and programs at Michigan’s universities overall. That’s what the Tech Tour is all about — checking out research and ‘science projects’ under way at Michigan universities that will translate into the companies and jobs of Michigan’s tomorrows. Thanks to sponsors OnStar and Verizon for helping me out with the means to make the trip, and thanks to all of you for reading.

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