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University of Nebraska–Lincoln

Nebraska Notables

A Culture of Discovery

Celebrating more than a century of research and graduate education, the University of Nebraska's research achievements date back to the days of researchers such as physicist Dewitt Bristol Brace, who a century ago demonstrated that there was no detectable "ether" thought by some scientists to be responsible for the propagation of light. This discovery figured into Einstein's early ideas about the universe, which eventually led to the theory of relativity. Brace's work was hailed as one of the greatest achievements in modern physics.

Researchers have made significant contributions to both natural and social sciences. Achievements in agriculture include the pioneering work in horticulture by Charles Bessey and the development of modern ecology by his students, Frederic and Edith Clements. Nebraska was also home to the development of the practice of no-till plowing that transformed the face of agriculture world-wide (attributed to work by Frank L. Duley, J.C. Russel and others); and the rustsresistant wheat varieties developed by John M. Schmidt and Virgil Johnson that became the major wheat varieties in the United States in the 1970s.

PLANT SCIENCE INITIATIVE. A cooperative venture between the College of Arts & Sciences and the Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources, this initiative will establish an internationally recognized plant science research program at UNL. Coordinated by the Center for Biotechnology, the initiative is led by plant biologist Sally Mackenzie. Much of the work in this initiative can be found at the George W. Beadle Center for Genetics and Biomaterials Research, which is named for Nobel Prize-winning geneticist and alumnus George Beadle.

ON THE FRONT LINE IN AIDS RESEARCH. Molecular Virologist Charles Wood is on the front lines in the battle against AIDS, looking for ways to block the virus in a place where it is spreading most quickly - the African nation of Zambia. A five-year, $2 million National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute grant finances the Zambia project. The project is a collaborative effort among UNL, the University of Miami, and the University of Zambia. Wood is also collaborating with researchers from Harvard University to find a way to block HIV transmission from mothers to babies. In another NIH-funded project, Wood is using recombinant DNA technology to study the HIV/HHV-8 interaction.

FOCUS ON CATARACT RESEARCH. Cataracts - the clouding of the lens of the eye - afflict more than half of the over-65 population to some degree. Biochemist Marjorie Lou's (Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences), work on the naturally occurring enzyme thioltrans-ferase may provide that alternative - a new drug-based therapeutic treatment. Lou's commitment to research extends beyond her own work to teaching and training young scientists. Her lab group includes four graduate students, a post-doctoral fellow and two visiting scholars from China and she speaks with pride of her role as co-organizer of the first three Asian Cataract Research Meetings, aimed at training and promoting the research of young scientists in Asia.

READING GENETIC CIRCUITS. Understanding the genetic circuitry that allows herpes viruses to become latent is a first step in figuring out how to control latency. Veterinary scientist Clinton Jones discovered a viral gene and its protein product that control latency in two disease-causing viruses, Bovine Herpes Virus 1 in cattle and Human Herpes Simplex Virus Type 1 in people. BHV-1 costs cattle producers more than $500 million annually. HSV-1 is a serious venereal disease and the leading cause of infectious corneal blindness. His long-term goal is to turn off the genetic switch that allows these viruses to become latent. Preventing latency could lead to better vaccines and slowing or stopping these herpes viruses from spreading.

A NEW TWIST ON FAVORITE BLOOMS. The university has developed several native ornamental plants, such as Husker Red Penstemon, that have been commercially released to nurseries for consumer purchase. With the growing interest in prairie gardening and climate-appropriate gardening, native plants and their hybrids continue to have increasing consumer appeal. Another popular new plant release is the My Antonia Aster. Normally lavender in color, the My Antonia variant was propagated from a pure-white form discovered in 1997 near Willa Cather's hometown of Red Cloud. It is a 1999 release of the Great Plants Program, a joint effort of the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum and the Nebraska Nursery and Landscape Association.

PLANT PATHOLOGISTS AMONG TOP IN NATION. UNL's plant pathology program is one of the strongest in the nation. Two of the 72 known families of viruses were discovered in the Plant Pathology Laboratory at UNL. James Van Etten discovered a family of viruses in the mid-1980s whose scientific name is phycodnaviridae. Viruses from this family are proving to be a new source of enzymes that can be used to diagnose certain human genetic diseases. Twenty years earlier, UNL plant pathologist Anne Vidaver discovered a family of viruses, named cystoviriade, while looking for a way to control halo blight, a disease organism which did extensive damage to bean crop production. Vidaver's discovery was also the first time that a double-stranded RNA was discovered in a plant virus.

ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY TURF. Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources turf scientists tamed a native prairie grass to develop improved buffalograsses for lawn and turf use that are easy on the environment and homeowners. These turf-type buffalograsses require far less water, fertilizer, and mowing than conventional turfgrasses. Several UNL-developed cultivars are commercially available and in use across the nation.

SHEDDING LIGHT ON PLANT GROWTH. Pill-Soon Song, Dow Chemical Professor of Chemistry, has helped uncover the connection between a plant's initial detection of light and its physiological response. This discovery could result in such applications as increased size of rice grains and slow-growing lawns.

GREENER PASTURES. Nearly all of the improved perennial grass varieties grown on Nebraska's almost 3 million acres of planted pasture land were developed through joint research by Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources and USDA scientists at UNL. The improved digestibility of Trailblazer switchgrass, an IANR/USDA release, adds about $4 million a year to farmers' profits compared with Pathfinder, an earlier variety. This program provides most of the raw material for Nebraska's $2 million-a-year certified grass seed industry.

A FEW FIRSTS. The Department of Chemistry claims title to the first graduate program offered west of the Mississippi. One of its early students, George Bell Frankforter, was also the first to earn a master's degree west of the Mississippi (1898). The first woman to earn a graduate degree west of the Mississippi was Rosa Bouton in 1893. Hired to teach at UNL, she founded the School of Domestic Science, which ultimately became the College of Human Resources and Family Sciences. During its first three decades, half of the Chemistry Department's faculty were women, as were one fourth of its graduate students.

HAMILTON HALL, the home of Department of Chemistry, was named for Clifford Hamilton, the department's research star from the late 1920s through the 1960s. He trained more than 120 graduate students, including 1987 Nobel Prize winner Donald Cram.

TECHNOLOGY PARK UNL, the University of Nebraska Foundation, and the City of Lincoln operate the 130-acre University of Nebraska Technology Park Lincoln in the Highlands area north of Lincoln as a joint effort. The hub of the industrial park is the Technology Development Center, which opened in the fall of 1997 and offers space for a variety of technology-based companies, university technology transfer specialists, and shared support staff.

BOUNCING LIGHT. The Center for Microelectronic and Optical Materials has long been recognized nationally and internationally for its work in spectroscopic ellipsometry, the study of what happens to light as it bounces off a surface. Researchers in the center have recently developed an ellipsometer that operates in the infrared range, allowing studies of materials as minute as one atom.

CANCER-FIGHTING CLUES. The University of Nebraska and the National Institute of Health have patented a protein that might help prevent some cancers and slow HIV/AIDS progression. Biochemist Vadim Gladyshev discovered the protein, which contains selenium, while working for NIH and broadened his studies of this protein and its function since joining the university in 1998. Researchers hope they eventually can harness the protein's novel characteristics to develop early cancer detection tests or to identify people at risk of developing certain cancers, especially prostate cancer.

BATTLING DEADLY E. COLI. Using a new genetic finger-printing technique they developed, food scientist Andy Benson's team discovered some surprising differences in populations of E. Coli 0157:H7, the potentially deadly bacteria responsible for ground beef recalls and food poisoning outbreaks. Initial results show that almost two-thirds of E. Coli 0157:H7 isolates found in cattle appear to be incapable of causing illness in people. These findings and their powerful new tool should help more accurately trace the source of E. Coli-related illness.

LOOKING FOR DINOSAURS AT SEA. Geologists David Watkins and Mary Ann Holmes were members of the scientific crew aboard the ocean-drilling ship Joides Resolution, which recovered evidence that a huge asteroid smashed into the Earth 65 million years ago, causing atmospheric and climatological changes that likely led to the demise of dinosaurs. The party also included a UNL graduate student, Jean Self-Trail.

OLD AS THE HILLS. Conservation and Survey Division studies of the age of the formation of the Nebraska Sand Hills have resulted in revision in the dating of dune formation and have provided insight into climate change on the Great Plains. Jim Swinehart, a division geologist, and David Loope of the Department of Geology have examined lengthy droughts of the last 20,000 years and turned the region into a "laboratory" for the study of geologically recent climate change. Whereas previous theories put the development of the sand dunes at more than 20,000 years ago, some as much as 100,000 years ago, new evidence points to more recent dune formation during extended periods of drought many times in the last 20,000 years.

SPLASH, a UNL Cooperative Extension water management program offered in cooperation with state and federal agencies shows farmers how to reduce water waste, use less power, and keep fertilizer from leaching into the groundwater. From 1994 through 1999, the program helped 165 Central Platte Valley irrigators reduce their annual water use by about 44.6 million gallons each. That's a total of 7.4 billion gallons over the 5-year life of the project - enough water to fill a train of tanker cars 2,675 miles long.

WATER RESOURCES NATIONAL NETWORK. The Water Center/ Environmental Programs unit in the School of Natural Resource Sciences is part of a national network of water resources programs at land-grant universities established by the U.S. Congress in 1964. UNL's world-renowned Water Sciences Laboratory was founded in 1990. It has helped train graduate students from around the world and works in conjunction with many other universities worldwide.

CLEANER GROUNDWATER. A simple, safe and effective sprinkler irrigation technique developed at UNL to clean volatile organic compounds from groundwater could save millions of dollars compared with conventional cleanup methods. The technique uses common sprinkler irrigation systems equipped with nozzles that produce a fine spray to harmlessly release the volatile compounds from groundwater into the atmosphere. The water then irrigates crops normally. The technique, tested at the U.S. Environmental Agency's Superfund cleanup sites in Hastings, could cut costs from $25 million to $500,000 or less.

BUFFER AGAINST PESTICIDES. A team of UNL and USDA researchers found that constructing vegetative buffer strips along stream and creek banks can trap field water runoff containing sediments and pesticides from agricultural fields. The strips (sometimes called riparian buffers) can also reduce the amount of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus entering a stream.

FEN RESTORATION is one of the most ambitious landscape-restoration projects in state history. Funds from a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust will be used to increase understanding and monitor regional groundwater system surrounding rare Sand Hills wetlands known as fens. Work on the fens should help researchers better understand ancient climate change and the hydrology of the region, a key to understanding how the fens came to be and respond to stress such as drought.

LEADER IN GEOGRAPHIC INFORMATION SYSTEMS. The Nebraska Remote Sensing Center, founded in 1972 to apply satellite imagery to land-use/land-cover mapping, evolved by 1986 into the Center for Advanced Land Management Information Technologies. CALMIT has become a national leader in geographic information systems, computerized means of displaying and analyzing spatial data and remote sensing, aerial photography and satellite imagery.

AMERICA'S FARM, developed by CALMIT and the Office of Internet Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, is actually UNL's 9,500-acre Agricultural Research and Development Center near Mead, where CALMIT already conducts much of its research on remote sensing and agriculture. Web cameras deliver real-time video of farm operations, and the farm will be instrumented for the collection and transmission of field, aerial, satellite and environmental data.

VIRTUAL NEBRASKA, UNL's new Consortium for the Application of Space Data to Education (CASDE), is a collaboration between CALMIT and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of Pasadena, Calif., and the Office of Internet Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Virtual Nebraska is an easily accessible archive of digital space imagery, aerial photography and other remote sensing data that educators, students and resource managers can explore via the World Wide Web.

ANCIENT ICE YIELDS CLUES. David Harwood, who holds a Presidential Young Investigator Award for continuing research expeditions to Antarctica, has made significant discoveries regarding the growth and decay of ice sheets in Antarctica over the past 40 million years. Discoveries by Harwood challenge beliefs that Antarctica has been in a deep freeze for the last 14 million years and that its ice sheet has been a permanent feature throughout the period. Marine and terrestrial fossils recovered by Harwood in the Transantarctic Mountains suggest that Antarctica has been warmer and the ice sheets more dynamic than previously thought.

SECRETS OF SHIFTING SANDS. Professor David Loope of the Department of Geosciences has spent several summers in the Gobi Desert of Mongolia as a member of a team of geologists and paleontologists assembled by the American Museum of Natural History. The team studied skeletons of dinosaurs that were buried by blowing sand 80 million years ago when that region was thought to resemble the present-day Nebraska Sand Hills.

REMEMBER (AND PRESERVE) PEARL HARBOR. Nebraska mechanical engineers Donald Johnson, William Weins and John Makinson are studying the effects of the underwater environment on the wreckage of the Battleship USS Arizona sunk at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. From samples they collected at the site, they are determining the condition and the remaining life of the famous sunken war memorial.

IMPROVED BONE IMPLANTS. Professor of Chemistry Jody Redepenning is developing an electrochemical process for bone implants. His research indicates that the calcium phosphate coatings produced using an electrocrystallization technique have significant advantages over the more conventional ways of depositing the calcium phosphate in bone implants. He has begun a collaboration with researchers at the University of Nebraska Medical Center to compare the strength of metal implants coated using the two processes.

WHITER, BRIGHTER WASH. When Patricia Crews, a nationally recognized textiles expert and UNL professor of textiles, clothing and design, tested fabrics with UV absorbers added to them to see how they stood up to repeated washings, she was pleasantly surprised. Instead of losing their sun-protection abilities, she found that cotton fabrics actually increased their sun protection levels through washings. The reason: Detergents contain optical brightening agents that absorb UV rays, and these brightening agents boost blocking ability as washing is repeated.

NEW MARKETS FOR WHEAT. The first hard white winter wheat adapted to Nebraska's growing conditions was made available for planting in fall 2000. This new variety, called Nuplains, gives Nebraska wheat growers the chance to compete in new markets. Hard white wheat is used for whole wheat breads, tortillas, pitas and Asian noodles, a growing market. University of Nebraska and USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientists developed Nuplains, the most winter-hardy white wheat available.

HEALTHY EGGS. An Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources poultry scientist has unscrambled the mystery of how to economically produce eggs rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids help reduce heart disease risk. Sheila Scheideler devised a complete management system for economically producing the so-called Omega eggs. The university patented this Omega egg production system and licensed the technology for processed egg products.

TRACKING ALLERGENS. Tests developed by UNL food scientists could be a real lifesaver for people with food allergies. They've devised fast, accurate tests to detect traces of peanut and egg in processed foods. A Michigan company markets the tests to the food industry under a university licensing agreement. Tests to detect traces of other allergenic foods are in the works to help protect consumers with food allergies.

HUNT FOR BURIED LAND MINES. Dennis Alexander, professor of electrical engineering and director of the Center for Electro-Optics, is leader of a team of researchers from Mission Research Corporation of Albuquerque, N.M., who are using a detection system formulated by Alexander to detect buried land mines. Alexander's system uses a thermal pulse to detect mines, and researchers are trying to discover how long and powerful the thermal pulse must be in order to discern mines and other objects.

ATTACK OF THE BEAM EATERS. The Beam Eating Steel Terminal (BEST), a safety device developed by UNL engineering researchers, has been adopted as an alternative guard rail design by state roads departments in Texas and Alabama and is being considered by several other states. The BEST system is designed to eliminate accidents by capturing a vehicle and bringing it to a stop. When the guardrail's impact head is hit, three cutter teeth slice the guardrail into strips that are bent away from the path of the vehicle. An 1,800-pound vehicle can be brought to a safe halt in about 15 feet, according to the research engineers.

FIRST BRIDGES OF THEIR KIND. The nation's first high-performance concrete bridge was built at 120th Street and Giles Road in Omaha in the late 1990s, climaxing research by UNL civil engineering professors Maher Tadros, Amin Einia and Atorod Azizinamini. The bridge boasts concrete strengths roughly double those of conventional bridges.

BIGGEST INDOOR BRIDGE. Atorod Azizinamini, civil engineering, is responsible for constructing the largest bridge ever built indoors. The bridge, a 70-foot-long, two-lane steel girder bridge, was erected in the UNL structural laboratory for research purposes.

TRANSPORTATION CENTER. The College of Engineering and Technology is home to the Mid-America Transportation Center. The center conducts research and educational activities aimed at improving the design and operation of transportation facilities and to minimize negative environmental effects of transportation systems. The Department of Transportation provide $1 million in federal funding each year, matched by a consortium of five universities collaborating in the center along with state transportation departments in Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, private industry and the Center for Infrastructure Research at UNL.

CONSTRUCTION SOFTWARE TRAINING. The Department of Construction Management is home to the Timberline Training Center, a world leader in construction estimating and accounting software. UNL is the only university in the nation with such a center.

RARE COMBINATION. In 1998 The College of Engineering and Technology introduced its Architectural Engineering Program on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The program is one of just 14 in the nation.

DRY HIGHWAYS. UNL is the site of one of only five hydraulic labs in the country where highway design engineers test improved ways of draining water from highways. Rollin Hotchkiss, associate professor of civil engineering and several graduate students developed the lab. They built a full-scale roadway 80 feet in length and l2 feet wide contained in a modeling basin. The plywood roadway can be moved in its entirety by rotating it up, down and sideways.

ANALYZING TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS. Researchers in the Center for Communication and Information Science in the College of Engineering and Technology have developed software that allows traffic investigators to collect digital video images at the scene of traffic accidents and then conduct computer analysis of the images to create improved understanding of the accident. The research was conducted in cooperation with the Omaha Police Department. UNL engineers who participated were Stephen Reichenbach, Ashok Samal and Sharad Seth in computer science and engineering and Patrick McCoy in civil engineering.