I take satisfaction from being a generalist, someone who is true to the spirit of the word 'university,' where our minds rove freely and we think constantly about helping the human condition.—Murugappan Muthukumar
Eye on Research
UMass Amherst’s Murugappan Muthukumar, one of the world’s top polymer physicists, has long been fascinated by vision and the physiology of the eye.
“While I was growing up in India, I was deeply disturbed by the sight of too many blind people, unable to work and reduced to begging,” he says. “It was heart-wrenching, and still this feeling of distress is permanently etched in my memory. Every time I visit India, it strikes me again. Many times I have wondered what life would be like without sight, and I feel a terrible loss.”
As part of his focus on macromolecular phenomena, Muthukumar, the Wilmer D. Barrett Distinguished Professor in Polymer Science and Engineering, studies proteins in the lens of the human eye. His research has led to technology that holds the promise of revolutionizing the treatment of cataracts and presbyopia (the hardening of the lenses that makes it difficult to read small print as we age). UMass Amherst recently licensed this technology, based on the work of Muthukumar and former graduate student Ben Mohr ’09G, ’13PhD, to Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary. The company plans to use the findings to combat cataracts and/or presbyopia.
Muthukumar envisions great potential in the application of his research: “I hope this discovery will benefit those ill-positioned people and allow them to see the rest of the universe surrounding them,” he says.
A SHOT FOR STEREOTYPES
When is a female scientist a vaccine? When she serves as a role model to women considering a career in science, says Nilanjana Dasgupta, professor of psychological and brain sciences.
“Women who are talented in math and science may drop out of science, technology, math, or engineering because they believe, either consciously or unconsciously, that they don’t belong in it,” says Dasgupta. “People gravitate to fields where they feel comfortable.”
Dasgupta has devoted a decade of research to identifying people and environments in high-achieving academic settings that act as “social vaccines” to inoculate young women’s self-confidence, motivation, and persistence, protecting them against negative stereotypes.
She summarized her findings this spring as part of the campus Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series. She said the choice to pursue a given professional path may feel free but is often constrained by subtle social cues. Her research has shown how such constraints can be lifted to allow students real freedom to pursue any academic and professional path, especially ones where their group is underrepresented.
“Ability is not the issue,” said Dasgupta. “What is far more fragile is confidence.”
Alexandra Pope, assistant professor of astronomy, and her colleagues have detected a surprising rate of star formation, four times higher than previously found, in a dust-obscured galaxy far, far away.
“This very distant, relatively typical galaxy is known to us, and we knew it was forming stars, but we had no idea what its real star-formation rate was because there is so much dust surrounding it,” Pope says.
Pope made this intriguing observation using the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), located on an extinct volcano in central Mexico and operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics. The LMT offers astonishing new power to peer into dusty galaxies, Pope says.
She adds, “Historians want to know how civilizations were built up, and we astronomers want to know where and how the elements in the universe were formed and where everything is made of, came from.”