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Winners of Multidisciplinary Research Seed Grants Announced

What research topics are likely to gain traction at Old Dominion University in the next few years? One answer to that question comes each year with the announcement of awards from the Office of Research's Multidisciplinary Seed Grant Program.

Mohammad Karim, vice president for research, instituted the program in 2005 to nurture research projects to the point that they can attract external funding. The 2013 winners will share almost $250,000 in seed money.

One of the five teams of researchers chosen in this latest round proposes to develop a new, safer type of defibrillator using technology from ODU's Frank Reidy Research Center for Bioelectrics, one of the leading facilities of its type in the world.

Other funded projects will harness recent advances by ODU researchers in areas such as image computing, data mining and biology/health care, and still another will involve a multidisciplinary collaboration aimed at keeping autistic children calm when they go to the dentist or doctor's office.

The final project springs from ODU's last five years of research into ways to convert algae into energy and other useful products. This particular proposal zeroes in on biochar, which can be the byproduct of the algae-to-biodiesel fuel conversion process. ODU researchers have developed evidence that the biochar itself may be a very valuable substance.

Here are the projects funded for 2013; all investigators are from ODU unless noted:

"Defibrillation of Cardiac Tissue with Nanosecond Pulsed Electric Fields," Christian Zemlin, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (PI). Other investigators: Andrei Pakhomov, Center for Bioelectrics; Masha Sosonkina (consultant), Department for Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Engineering; and Arkady Pertsov (consultant), Department of Pharmacology at SUNY Upstate Medical University.

Defibrillation is a technique to terminate otherwise lethal arrhythmias that saves tens of thousands of lives every year. The state of the art of defibrillation is to apply electric fields of approximately 100 volts per centimeter at 10-millisecond duration via panels that are placed on the thorax of the patient. While such shocks are so strong that they can significantly damage cardiac tissue, this is considered a necessary risk in the face of imminent death if fibrillation goes untreated.

The researchers propose to develop an alternative method of defibrillation that uses pulsed electric fields with pulse durations between 1 and 1000 nanoseconds, but with much higher amplitude. Tissue damage is expected to be dramatically reduced or even eliminated in such a scheme because nanosecond pulses do not have a long-term effect on the cell membrane. The Center for Bioelectrics is one of the few places in the world that has experience with the effects of nanosecond pulses on tissue and the expertise to build nanosecond defibrillators. The results could be a superior defibrillation technology.

"A Multidisciplinary Approach for Gene Expression Pattern Image Analysis," Shuiwang Ji, Department of Computer Science (PI). Consultants are Andrey Chernikov and Nikos Chrisochoides, Department of Computer Science; Christopher Osgood, Department of Biological Sciences; Sudhir Kumar, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University; and Patric Lundberg, Microbiology and Molecular Cell Biology, Eastern Virginia Medical School.

The researchers propose to initiate the development of a set of computational methods to automate the analysis of gene expression pattern images in the fruit fly, a canonical model organism. Currently, although a large number of gene expression pattern images has been made available in Drosophila, it is still a standard practice to analyze these images by visual inspection. This manual practice fails to provide an unbiased and systematic comparative analysis, hindering the pace of biological discovery. The objective of this multidisciplinary seed grant is to initiate a long-term project aimed ultimately at building a complete computational pipeline for the analysis of gene expression pattern images in the fruit fly.

This set of methods includes techniques and algorithms for image processing, segmentation, registration, machine learning, data mining and knowledge discovery, and a test bed for result evaluation and interpretation.

"The Utilization of Video Face Replacement Technology (VFRT) for Routine Clinical Procedures in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)," Jonna Bobzien, Department of Communication Disorders and Special Education (PI). Other investigators are Chung-Hao Chen, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Ann Bruhn, School of Dental Hygiene; Debra M.G. Murray, School of Nursing (unpaid co-PI); Rebecca Deal Poston, School of Nursing (unpaid co-PI); Amy Lee, School of Nursing (unpaid co-PI); Lee Belfore, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (consultant); and Norou Diawara, Department of Mathematics and Statistics (consultant).

The purpose of this pilot study is to evaluate whether the implementation of Video Face-Replacement Technology (VFRT) reduces inappropriate behaviors - consisting of biting, kicking, hitting and yelling - in children ages 11 and younger with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) during routine medical and dental visits. Since the prevalence of ASD is on the rise, it is increasingly important to examine ways to help reduce deficits in behavior for children with ASD in clinical settings.

Researcher-created VFRT will consist of a DVD for the child with ASD to view before routine health care visits. Unlike current commercially created and animated systems, innovative VFRT will imbed the child's and health care providers' lifelike facial expression, skin pigmentation and head position. Children will be able to view the video prior to the healthcare visit to overcome fear and anxieties. An experiment will involve 20 children with autism who will view the VFRT before a clinic visit and another 20 who will be a control group.

"Toward Solutions to Big Data Challenges in Multiple Disciplinary Applications," Yaohang Li, Department of Computer Science (PI). Other investigators are Duc T. Nguyen, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Masha Sosonkina, Department of Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Engineering; and Jin Wang (consultant), Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Recent years have witnessed a dramatic increase of data in many fields of science and engineering, due to the advancement of sensors, mobile devices, biotechnology, digital communication and Internet applications. These massive, continuing growing, complex, diverse, distributed data sets are referred to as the "big data." Big data touches every aspects of our life. On one hand, big data provides a rich information source to enable us to gain important insight into various scientific and engineering domains at a scale and level that have never been possible before. Successfully addressing the big data challenge can lead to broad scientific and economic impacts. On the other hand, the growth of big data has outpaced our capability to process, analyze and understand these data sets. Most traditional data processing approaches have failed to scale to big data.

In this proposal, an interdisciplinary team of ODU faculty members plans to tackle the big data challenge by targeting the kernel "big matrix" problem. Instead of the traditionally considered big matrices, typically ranging from hundred by hundred to thousand by thousand, the team will target the big data matrices at the scale of million by million or even billion by billion. One aim will be to develop novel computational methods for low-rank approximation of big matrices, solving extremely large systems of linear equations, and big matrix processing by taking advantage of the most advanced high-performance computing architectures. Another will be to apply the big data solutions that are found to several real-life big data applications, including protein structure prediction, coastal circulation and storm surge finite element models, nuclear physics and tumor modeling.

"For a Sustainable Future on Earth: High-Tech Biochar," James W. Lee, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (PI). Other investigators are Sandeep Kumar, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Patrick Hatcher, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (consultant).

This research project will provide a proof-of-principle demonstration of a novel technology concept for creating a partially oxygenated high-tech biochar material that can enhance soil fertility and filter out toxic substances. This concept is based on a recent finding by Lee and colleagues that the oxygen-to-carbon atomic ratio in biochar material correlates with its cation exchange capacity. The technology is directed at biochar chemical compositions containing the partially oxygenated biochar materials with higher cation exchange capacity for soil amendment and carbon sequestration.

The researchers have developed high-tech biochar materials through innovative applications of oxygen plasma treatments and biomass pyrolysis engineering techniques such as adjusting pyrolysis temperature and steam injection. The proof-of-principle experimental data obtained through this seed project are expected to help in the development of innovative biochar proposals, such as applications of high-tech biochar as filtering materials to generate cleaner water and air that may be targeted to the EPA's clean air and drinking water programs. This work will expand upon a recent federally funded project that Lee led, titled "A Pathway to Sustainability: Biochar Soil Amendment and Carbon Sequestration."