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Disappearing Acts: Arctic Ice, Languages, 3D Objects

Professor Ken Dunton talks about the changing arctic in a video picked up by The Atlantic. See the video and read more major media hits by UT researchers.

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Researchers, scholars and experts from The University of Texas at Austin are sought by news outlets every week for their knowledge, expertise and insights. Here’s a selection of recent media hits.

Adapting to Life in ‘the New Arctic’
The Atlantic

Kenneth Dunton, Marine Science Institute, College of Natural Sciences

The Atlantic featured a video from the college’s Daniel Oppenheimer, in which Ken Dunton, professor of marine science, talks about what the disappearing ice means for both animals and humans in the “New Arctic.” Watch as Oppenheimer pairs Dunton’s interview with the scientist’s aerial footage shot from a plane. The Atlantic’s Kasia Cieplank-Mayr von Baldegg describes the result as a “moving portrait of a fading landscape.”

Dunton, who’s based at the Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas, Texas, has been studying the marine ecosystems of the Arctic for more than 30 years. He’s currently leading a team of marine scientists in a comprehensive study of the Hanna Shoal ecosystem in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast with a $5.6 million grant from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE).

Catholicism’s Secret Weapon
The New York Times

Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Department of History, College of Liberal Arts

Virginia Garrad-Burnett

Virginia Garrad-Burnett 

Professor Virginia Garrad-Burnett wrote an op-ed in The New York Times March 15 about the Catholic Church’s choice of a Latin American as pope. Garrad-Burnett writes the church has been losing members for the past three decades.

“The election of the new pope signals as clearly as white smoke that the church takes this threat seriously, as well it should,” she writes.

Garrad-Burnett opines that the Catholic Church has three options to stop hemorrhaging membership to evangelical Protestantism. And while those options may be insufficient, there may be a secret weapon.

Read the op-ed to find how Garrad-Burnett says the Catholic Church may rediscover its competitive advantage.

Related item:
A New World Pope

Watch Out, Harry Potter: New Invisibility Cloak (Mostly) Works
The Christian Science Monitor

Andrea Alù, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering

Researchers at the university have created an invisibility cloak that uses a technique called mantle cloaking, which cancels out light waves that bounce off the shielded object so that none appear to the observer’s eye. Andrea Alù, co-author of the study published in the New Journal of Physics, says that practical applications are likely coming down the line, including uses in noninvasive sensing devices and biomedical instruments. Read an excerpt:

Andrea Alu

Andrea Alù, assistant professor of engineering 

In lab tests, Alù and his colleagues successfully hid a 7-inch-long (18 centimeters) cylindrical rod from view in microwave light. They said the same technology should be able to cloak oddly shaped and asymmetrical objects, too.

“The advantages of the mantle cloaking over existing techniques are its conformability, ease of manufacturing and improved bandwidth,” Alù said. “We have shown that you don’t need a bulk metamaterial to cancel the scattering from an object a simple patterned surface that is conformal to the object may be sufficient and, in many regards, even better than a bulk metamaterial.”

In principle, the same kind of cloak could be used to hide objects in the visible range of light, as well, though it may work only for teensy-tiny objects, at least at first.

Read the entire article on the Harry Potter-like invention.

A ‘Like’ for Linguistics: Can Social Media Save Mexico’s Unwritten Languages?
The Christian Science Monitor

Hilaria Cruz, Department of Linguistics, College of Liberal Arts

Hilaria Cruz

Hilaria Cruz, doctoral candidate in linguistics 

Hilaria Cruz, doctoral candidate in linguistics, is changing the way indigenous languages with no formal written system can communicate through social media. Cruz had a part in creating an alphabet for her native Chatino that she now uses to post messages on Facebook. Read an excerpt:

“wa2 nkeq3 lo4 sa24 a?”

In other words: “Is lunch ready?”

That’s one phrase posted on the Facebook page Cruz created for Chatino speakers as a meetup to learn and practice the evolving writing system. The numbers represent tones, given that the same word can have different meanings depending on whether it is pronounced in a higher or lower tone.

Cruz is a bridge herself: a native speaker of Chatino who learned Spanish in elementary school and is fluent in English. She went to Texas in 2004 with the dream of studying her native tongue and creating a written system that could be taught and promoted back home.

Read more about the development of the Chatino alphabet and the online revival of the written word.

Related item:
UT Linguist Hilaria Cruz is in the News

Texas Longhorn’s Genetic History Decoded: How the Cattle First Arrived in the U.S.
Science World Report

David Hillis and Emily Jane McTavish, School of Biological Sciences, College of Natural Sciences


Emily Jane McTavish, a doctoral student in the lab of biology professor David Hillis, hangs out with Longhorns at Hillis’s Double Helix Ranch. [Photo by Liz Milano] 

In the most comprehensive analysis to date, doctoral student Emily Jane McTavish and biology professor David Hillis analyzed nearly 50,000 genetic markers from 58 cattle breeds. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which revealed how the longhorn first arrived in the United States. However, it was some time before the longhorn wound up in Texas.

Read more about the migration.

Related item:
Texas Longhorn Genome Decoded

University of Texas Researchers Design Synthetic Trees for Producing Water and Energy Efficient Algal Biofuels
Scientific American

Halil Berberoglu and Thomas Murphy, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Cockrell School of Engineering

Berberoglu Murphy

Graduate student Thomas Murphy (left) and assistant professor Halil Berberoglu (right) have developed a novel approach to cultivating algal biofuels by designing synthetic trees. [Photo by Carol Grosvenor, Department of Mechanical Engineering] 

To grow algae in sufficient quantities to synthesize transportation fuels or produce bio-plastics and other materials, large amounts of water and energy would be needed to scale up the current production process. Assistant professor Halil Berberoglu and graduate student Thomas Murphy are using clues from natural processes to improve algae cultivation by designing “tree” structures. Surface Adhering Bioreactor (SABR), the system used by the team, mimics the way trees deliver nutrients and transport sap. Here’s an excerpt from Scientific American:

In this concept, algae cells are grown as photosynthetic biofilms on porous surfaces that keep them hydrated and provide them with the nutrients they need for growing to maturity. Once the biofilm is matured, the supply of certain nutrients is stopped and the growth of cells is inhibited. At this point, the algae are provided with the necessary inputs to carry on photosynthesizing and secreting out energy dense molecules, such as free fatty acids. These are carried away from the cells in small channels mimicking the veins in plants and concentrated using evaporation-driven flows.

Learn more about their research.