From superfast rocket engines to a history book on common sense, here’s a look at some of the most compelling research and ideas UVA faculty are working on right now.
Revealing the Invisible
Imagine if students could touch a piece of metal in real life and see how energy flows from their hand to an object as it happens. Or if students could push on a container of air and see how gas molecules create pressure through collisions against the container walls. Scientists might have rich mental pictures of how the world works, but students often have different ideas about unobservable processes based on what they experience in everyday life. Over the last two years, Curry School of Education professor Jennifer Chiu and colleagues at the Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational lab in Massachusetts, have been developing what they call "mixed-reality technologies." Those technologies include Frame, which enables students to interact with the world by feeding real-life sensor data into responsive scientific visualizations. Chiu says students using Frame can discover scientific relationships while receiving real-time simulation information that help them develop explanations for whatever phenomena they are studying. The Frame project won a $1.35 million grant from the National Science Foundation to set up trial labs in several schools, a project that began last fall.
Reforming Prosecution Practices
In his book Convicting the Innocent, UVA law professor Brandon L. Garrett examined how 250 people later exonerated by DNA testing were initially convicted of their crimes. His conclusion was that these innocent people were convicted based on a series of flawed practices, including contaminated confessions, flawed forensics, lying informants and lineups by police that were anything but blind. What was especially haunting about these cases, Garrett says, is that when he examined what little information jurors had about the integrity of the evidence, it was not surprising that they convicted these innocent people. The book's research has been cited by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts across the globe, and has led some states, including Virginia, to reform some evidence-gathering practices. "I've been happy to see the book relied on by judges and policy makers," Garrett said. "Even nonlawyers have found it interesting and taken notice, and that's gratifying."
The Wisdom of Ordinary People
The premise behind UVA history professor Sophia Rosenfeld's Common Sense: A Political History is that the value given to what we call common sense—the wisdom of ordinary people—was crucial to the invention of Western democracy and remains central even to today's populist style of politics. Tracing common sense's usage from 18th-century London to New York City in the second half of the 20th century, Rosenfeld's book won rave reviews and several prizes, including the $10,000 Mark Lynton History Prize, one of the top historical book prizes in the country. Her upcoming book—for which she recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship to complete—looks at the consequences of living in a society where having the maximum number of choices, from consumer goods to political candidates, is equated with freedom.
Better Protecting Our Soldiers
When soldiers in armored Humvees were being killed and injured in high numbers by IEDs during the Iraq War, the Pentagon introduced the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP. Its hull-like underside is designed to deflect the explosive blast away from the vehicle and keep it intact. But soldiers inside were still enduring significant injuries, so Rob Salzar (Engr '90, '94), a scientist at UVA's Center for Applied Biomechanics, decided to find out why. Working from his biomechanics lab a few miles north of Grounds, Salzar and his team ran a series of tests on the vehicles, and discovered that the force from an IED explosion sends a shock wave through the floor at a rate the vehicle designers had never accounted for. "The vehicle could withstand the explosion, but could not stop its force," Salzar says. Salzar then used cadavers in the vehicles for his ground-breaking work to find out the threshold for when injuries occur from a force coming from below. That information will be vital as the military develops its next-generation armored carrier, which Salzar says will need new shock-absorbing features.
Finding DNA in New Places
Since its discovery decades ago, DNA, the blueprint used to transfer genetic characteristics from cell to cell and from parents to children, was believed to be held only in our chromosomes. But Anindya Dutta, chair of the biochemistry and molecular genetics department, is leading a team of scientists that recently discovered that theory is not true at all. Human cells actually contain thousands of micro DNAs-- small, circular pieces of those well-known DNA ladder strands that are quite separate from the chromosomes. They'd gone undetected, Dutta says, because biologists typically study DNA that's far larger than these small circles. Dutta suspects the circles are bits of DNA that get cut out from our chromosomes during tissue development. "It's as if we are losing bits and pieces of our DNA from our chromosomes when cells replicate," Dutta says. "It's been quite a surprising discovery, and seems quite random." It will take years to know how the circles actually get formed and what they do, but Dutta says it's possible the discovery might hold clues for how our genes become mutated even as our tissues develop, and better account for the causes of many diseases than what scientists know today. They could even be used as biomarkers to detect diseases such as cancer.
Lights, Camera, Teach
What makes a teacher most effective? Curry School Dean Robert Pianta and his team at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning have spent years studying that question. Now their answers have become the model for developing a teacher assessment system that is being integrated into a number of schools and programs nationwide, including Head Start and most of the states where President Barack Obama wants to expand pre-K programs. "We've been able to demonstrate that these procedures for rating teachers' behavior predict student learning and test scores, dropout rates and even motivation among students," Pianta says. In one study, students of teachers in schools that use Pianta's Classroom Assessment Scoring System and coaching program averaged a 10-point gain in their standardized tests, a giant leap forward, he says. The centerpiece of that model is quite simple: teachers record themselves teaching and use that recording when working with a coach. CASTL is now working on developing a web-based program of courses and other supports so that teachers and schools across the globe can access the system.
Really Super Supersonic Jets
Fly from New York to Tokyo in just two hours? UVA engineering professor Chris Goyne is leading a team of scientists from across the nation that might make that a reality. Goyne and his colleagues are helping to develop a supersonic combustion ramjet engine, or SCRAMJET, which could allow aircraft to travel from five to 15 times beyond the speed of sound. The engine, which relies on high aircraft speed to compress and decelerate incoming air before combustion, could also one day replace conventional rocket engines, because it will likely be cheaper to operate and more efficient when launching to space. Goyne is currently using a supersonic wind tunnel on Observatory Hill to study the engine's combustion process with laser diagnostics. "We're measuring different aspects of the air and fuel flow and comparing it with computer simulations to understand the physics and accuracy of our models," says Goyne, widely considered one of the world's leading scientists in the field of hypersonic research.