By Janet Perez
Researchers from NMSU are working around the world
The crash of tectonic plates, the harnessing of water energy, the spread of lethal microorganisms — researchers at New Mexico State University are traveling the globe to study these and many other subjects of vital interest to all people.
“Our faculty members are making great strides in understanding the challenges that our planet faces today,” said Vimal Chaitanya, vice president for research at NMSU. “In the process, they also are making invaluable contributions to the global body of work aimed at developing solutions to these challenges.”
Beyond addressing the critical issues, NMSU researchers also are improving the quality of life for people throughout the world by looking ahead to create technological advancements and looking backward to preserve arts and culture.
NMSU faculty members are conducting research from Europe and West Africa to the Himalayas and the Mekong River Delta.
The Fulbright Scholars
Created in 1946, the Fulbright Scholars program was started by the U.S. government to increase international educational exchanges. At NMSU, the Fulbright Scholars program continues to be a rich resource for faculty members wishing to expand and share their knowledge globally.
In January, Nadipuram (Ram) Prasad, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, went to Vietnam as a Fulbright Scholar, where he will research and share ideas for harvesting hydroelectric energy in an eco-friendly manner.
Prasad will teach and conduct research at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology. He will focus his work on the Mekong River Delta.
“The Mekong River Delta has tremendous hydroelectric potential and there is a great need for energy in the region, but there are a lot of forces against building dams and any potential impact on biological life and fishing,” he said.
For the past several semesters, Prasad has been teaching a course on energy harvesting at NMSU, as well as working with the Elephant Butte Irrigation District to harvest energy from the canal system. Prasad said his work at Elephant Butte is a good fit for the canal system used in farming along the Mekong Delta.
Another Fulbright Scholar, Robert Smits, spent the past summer in Lisbon, Portugal, researching numerical approaches to spectral gaps and nonlinear analogues.
Smits, an associate professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, worked with other researchers at the Institute of Interdisciplinary Investigations at the University of Lisbon. They explored insulation and how fast heat escapes closed spaces.
While conducting research in France, Smits was referred to Pedro Freitas, a mathematics professor from the University of Lisbon. Frietas was looking for an American professor in mathematics to help conduct research. That prompted Smits to apply for a Fulbright.
“It’s difficult to find American mathematics professors who focus on physics; it was really by chance this worked out,” Smits said.
With her Fulbright, English professor Connie Voisine will go from the Land of Enchantment to the Emerald Isle to teach poetry and conduct research on Anglo-Irish poetry.
This spring semester, Voisine will be working at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University in Belfast.
“This Fulbright was especially appealing to me,” Voisine said. “It’s a new Fulbright and specifically for poets. I’m curious to see how creative writing is taught in other countries and how people see themselves and express that in their writing.”
As part of her work, Voisine will examine the parallels between Belfast and Las Cruces.
“(Belfast) is a border city of sorts and living on the border ourselves, it will be interesting to see how another artistic community deals with borders,” she said.
For some, speech for computers might be the stuff of science fiction, but for Phillip De Leon, a professor in the Klipsch School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, it’s all in a day’s work.
Thanks to his Fulbright, De Leon had the opportunity to teach and conduct research at Austria’s largest scientific-technical research and educational institution, the Vienna University of Technology.
During his stint in Austria a few years ago, De Leon taught and researched digital speech processing, which uses computers to recognize, analyze, filter and code speech signals. In his course, he incorporated aspects of the German language, such as the subtleties of the Viennese dialect, in speech synthesis. De Leon’s research focused on ways to simplify data.
“Vienna afforded me an opportunity to not only work with both research groups and teach at an outstanding technical university, but also to attend and present papers at several conferences in Central Europe,” De Leon said.
Small and deadly
A number of NMSU researchers are fanning out across the globe in efforts to protect humans from the deadly effects of the tiniest of organisms.
Susan Wilson, an associate health science professor, has traveled to Egypt to study avian influenza, also known as H5N1. In particular, she is looking at how avian flu spreads in Egypt and why women and children in that country are disproportionally stricken with the virus.
“Egypt is second in the world in the number of human cases of bird flu,” Wilson said. “They’re also third in the world for the number of deaths caused by the disease.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, of the human cases associated with H5N1 outbreaks in poultry and wild birds in Asia, parts of Europe, the Near East and Africa, about 60 percent have died. Most of the human cases have occurred in previously healthy children and young adults as a result of direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.
At a conference earlier this year, Wilson presented a model that looks at the economic, sociopolitical, urban and cultural environments, coupled with human behavior, that contribute to the spread of bird flu in Egypt. Wilson pointed out that in countries such as Egypt, women and children are more likely to tend to poultry and are thus more apt to come in contact with avian influenza.
By understanding how the virus functions and spreads in other countries, Wilson hopes to help community health workers here in New Mexico and across the nation better educate the public.
“At this point, this form of avian influenza isn’t in the Western Hemisphere,” she said. “Hopefully, we don’t get it in our avian population. We have a lot of people who raise their own poultry.”
Like Wilson, Kathryn Hanley, associate professor of biology, is dedicated to finding ways to fight another deadly virus – dengue.
Hanley’s work in Senegal in West Africa with the dengue virus began while she was conducting post-doctoral research at the National Institutes of Health. As a result of her work at NIH and NMSU, Hanley has helped to design a vaccine for the dengue virus that is now in Phase II clinical trials.
The need for a vaccine is urgent. According to the World Health Organization, about 2.5 billion people live in areas where there is a risk of dengue transmission. Dengue is endemic in at least 100 countries in Asia, the Pacific, the Americas, Africa and the Caribbean. WHO estimates that 50 million to 100 million infections occur yearly, including 22,000 deaths, mostly among children.
Along with her work on the vaccine, Hanley continues to research the emergence of dengue and its molecular biology, which is helping to shed light on the risk of new emerging strains of the virus in Africa, as well as the creation of potential new drugs to treat the disease.
Biology Professor Michele Nishiguchi has traveled the world to see how one species – the bobtail squid – provides a model for examining modes of infection and pathogenesis between animals, bacteria and their habitats.
Bobtail squid can create a beam of light produced by bacteria found in an organ inside their bodies.
“By examining these squid, we are able to see how interactions between the bacteria and the animals are similar to pathogenic bacteria like cholera that affect tissues,” Nishiguchi said. “However, unlike cholera, the bacteria found in these squid are not harmful to its host.”
Understanding how these non-pathogenic bacteria affect and interact with host tissue may make it easier to understand how harmful bacteria interact with humans, as well as help to develop ways to cure strains of bacterial infections.
Graduate and undergraduate students in Nishiguchi’s lab have the opportunity to travel and conduct fieldwork in places like France, Thailand, Hawaii, Indonesia and the Philippines.
“I love introducing my students to new and exciting things,” Nishiguchi said. “Taking them out to the field, they become so much more involved, focused and learn so much more.”
Top of the world
At first glance, the Rio Grande region and the Himalayas seem to have nothing in common. But as physics Professor James Ni can tell you, you should look again.
Ni studies the evolution of continents, in particular, regional tectonics. For the past decade, Ni has been a principal investigator in five National Science Foundation projects studying the creation of the Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau and the Rio Grande Rift.
The Rio Grande Rift separates the Colorado Plateau in the west from the stable interior of the North American continental crust in the east. The rift extends 700 miles from central Colorado in the north to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, in the south. The Rio Grande River follows the course of the rift from southern Colorado to El Paso, Texas.
Ni studies the Tibetan Plateau and the Rio Grande Rift because the regions represent two fundamental tectonic processes affecting continents – collision and rifting. Also, Tibet and the Rio Grande Rift can be sites for earthquakes and volcanism.
Apart from their relationship to the Rio Grande Rift, Ni has been studying the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau at “the roof of the world” for more than 30 years through INDEPTH, an interdisciplinary program of geophysical and geological studies designed to help better understand the structure and mechanics of the Himalaya-Tibet region. INDEPTH is a collaboration among researchers in China, the United States, Germany and Canada.
Closely working with Ni is associate professor of physics Tom Hearn, who also has taken part in the INDEPTH program. He was part of a team that spent a month in Tibet extracting more than 60 seismometer stations imbedded in the ground. The data collected in the seismometers is being analyzed to try to learn more about the violent collision of the Indian and Eurasian continental plates that formed the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Hearn also has conducted field research in Quebec, Canada.
“Just from these examples, we can see the breadth and depth of the types of international research programs that NMSU faculty are conducting,” Chaitanya said. “While our faculty members are bringing back valuable information to the campus, they also are giving to the world their own expertise and knowledge. The name New Mexico State University is most definitely being heard around the world in conjunction with numerous critical research projects.”