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Inquiring Minds


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Not-So-Mighty Joe 

Since at least the 1920s, anecdotes and some studies have suggested that chimpanzees are “super strong” compared to humans, with muscle fibers—the cells that make up muscles—greatly superior to ours. Not so fast, says a research team, including UMass Amherst biomechanist Brian Umberger of the School of Public Health and Health Sciences, an expert in musculoskeletal biomechanics. The team reports that the maximum dynamic force and power output of chimp muscles are only about 1.35 times greater than those of human muscles of similar size—a difference the team calls modest and in no way supportive of the mythical claims of chimps being many times stronger than humans. The researchers found that the chimps’ performance advantage was due not to stronger muscle fibers, but to the different mixes of muscle fibers found in chimpanzees and humans.



Taking Cues from Nature

UMass Amherst chemist Sankaran “Thai” Thayumanavan has received a three-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a multiuniversity center in an exciting new research area—autonomous chemistry. There, he and colleagues, including UMass chemist Vince Rotello, will seek to design artificial self-activating systems, or, as Thayumanavan says, “automatic control as nature does it. We’ll be looking to nature for mechanisms and techniques—looking into biomimicry—to try to understand how biological systems accomplish autonomous responses to subtle changes in their environment.

“If, for example, we had a system that could sense an individual’s response to a prescribed drug, that would be beneficial. Some people hyperreact to medication, some respond just fine, some don’t respond at all. A quick test, an autonomous biomarker without the need for heavy diagnostic testing, would enhance medicine for many, many people,” Thayumanavan says.




A drone in flight.
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Watch That Drone

Drones literally fly under the radar. Existing aircraft surveillance systems don’t scan the airspace closest to the ground where they fly. As the number of drones increases, so will the chances that they will pose dangers. There is a near collision between a drone and an airplane or helicopter almost every week. 

Researchers at the College of Engineering are developing a multipurpose radar system that can detect low-flying drones and also serve as a severe weather warning system for airports and urban settings. The project is funded with a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Michael Zink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and codirector of the Center for Collaborative Adaptive Sensing of the Atmosphere (CASA), says CASA researchers have already demonstrated that a dense network of short-range radars can be used to track tornadoes down streets and anticipate areas where flash flooding might take place. “With this new grant, we want to show that we can use the same system to also monitor the airspace for low-flying drones that might breach secure facilities or threaten public safety,” says Zink.



Tackling Youth Suicide

Lisa Wexler, associate professor of health policy and promotion in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences and a veteran researcher in Alaska Native youth suicide prevention, is leading part of a new, five-year, $4.25 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to identify the most effective ways of preventing suicide among Alaska Native youth. The grant creating the Alaska Native Collaborative Hub for Resilience Research was one of just three awarded nationwide. 

“The job is huge,” says Wexler. “It aims to bring people together from all of the state’s 16 tribal health regions—which has never been done before—to talk about what people in the trenches on the tribal level and the clinical level know about suicide prevention.”




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Indigestibly Good

Here’s a tidbit for your holiday table: science is taking new interest in prebiotics—molecules that we eat but cannot digest—because some may promote the growth and health of beneficial microorganisms in our intestines. In a new study, UMass Amherst nutritional microbiologist David Sela and colleagues report that, when fed a carbohydrate found in cranberries, certain beneficial gut bacteria grow and exhibit a special nontypical metabolism. What we eat, Sela points out, not only nourishes us, but feeds the beneficial bacteria—the microbiome—in our intestines. Food scientists are increasingly interested in these less-obvious food benefits. There may be as many bacterial cells as human cells in our bodies, so that, Sela says, “we’re basically eating for two. These gut bacteria are extremely significant to us. Our food makes a difference for us, as well as the beneficial microbes that we carry around with us.” The study findings could add value to future food products or lead to a new supplement based on the cranberry.