Back to top

Inquiring Minds

murugappan_muthukumar_alt_web.jpg

Murugappan Muthukumar

Murugappan Muthukumar, the Wilmer D. Barrett Professor of Polymer Science and Engineering at UMass Amherst.

Photo by

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.”


 

DUSTY GALAXY

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.”


 

Smokey Bear

SMOKEY WAS RIGHT

Like most of us, Bethany Bradley used to think of wildfire as an event that was primarily natural and driven by lightning. Now she knows differently: fires started by humans are more common than we thought, she says. 

A recent, first-of-its-kind analysis of wildfire records over 20 years shows that human-started fires accounted for 84 percent of all wildfires, tripled the length of the fire season, and dominated an area seven times greater than that affected by lightning-caused fires. Humans have “a remarkable influence” on modern U.S. wildfire regimes, concludes the study, which was co-led by Bradley, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation.
 
She explains, “It’s generally pretty well known that people start a lot of fires; everything from campfires to burning yard waste to accidental fires in homes and other structures.” What wasn’t well known was that “humans are expanding fires into more locations and environmental conditions than lightning is able to reach.”

Bradley concludes, “Since we humans are the source of most fires, we are also the solution to reducing the number of costly and damaging fires.” 

In other words, as Smokey warned: “Only you can prevent wildfires.”