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From volcanoes to cancer cures, stimulus funds support a wide range of research at Stanford

The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has received the lion's share of recovery act awards, with $90.2 million in funding, followed by the School of Medicine, with $63.1 million, and the School of Humanities and Sciences, with $20.1 million.

stefangus.com Chart of Stanford stimulus grants

Click to enlarge chart showing distribution of Stanford recovery act awards

BY KATHLEEN J. SULLIVAN AND CHRISTINE BLACKMAN

In the year since President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Stanford has received $190.4 million in stimulus funds.

Five schools – Earth Sciences, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, Medicine – have received approximately $97 million in recovery act grants, according to the university's Office of Sponsored Research.

The National Institutes of Health, which conducts and supports medical research, and the National Science Foundation, which promotes science and engineering through research programs and education projects, provided most of the funding –more than $90 million, including prime research awards and subcontracts – to the five schools.

The U.S. Department of Energy also provided recovery act research funding to the School of Earth Sciences and to the School of Humanities and Sciences.

The Energy Department also awarded $90.2 million in stimulus funds to the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, which Stanford operates for the agency on 400 acres of university land just west of the main campus.

Nine H&S departments have received stimulus funds

The School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S) has received recovery act grants ranging from $13,000 for optical equipment for cystic fibrosis research to $5.1 million to develop software to help individuals reduce energy consumption.

The $20.1 million in funding covers a wide range of research topics, including jumbo squid (biology), the Milky Way (physics), the spread of flu-like infectious diseases (anthropology) and the Stanford Advanced Gravitational Wave Detector Research Program (applied physics).

L.A. Cicero Byron Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication

Byron Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication

Keeping track of energy consumption could be fun

The largest H&S grant to date – $5.1 million – was given to Professor Byron Reeves to develop software and interactive programs to help people share ideas for reducing energy consumption using games, social networking, school programs and communication networks.

"Energy information, for a lot of people, is dull and boring," said Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication.

"We want to present the information – gleaned from smart meters, plug monitors and circuit boxes – in ways that will nudge behavior in more efficient directions, get people engaged with energy a little bit more, make it easier to process and make it more fun."

On campus, Reeves and his team – more than a dozen faculty members in the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Engineering, Education and Medicine – will collaborate with researchers at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and at the Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute.

They also are working with software engineers and user interface designers at Google, and with program directors at California utilities working on energy efficiency.

New campus program acquires MRI scanner

A team of Stanford scientists and engineers has received a $2.5 million stimulus grant to purchase a magnetic resonance imaging scanner and related equipment to study the structure of the human brain and to measure brain activity.

The scanner will be the centerpiece of the new Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging program. It will be the first MRI machine located in a basic science building on campus, and the first such instrument whose principal aim is to advance research in the behavioral and social sciences.

L.A. Cicero Psychology Professor Brian Wandell

Psychology Professor Brian Wandell

The MRI scanner will be used to support research that advances understanding of the brain, including decision-making, cognition, perception, child development, education and emotion. It also offers the opportunity to integrate teaching about brain functions and systems into graduate student courses.

"As scientists discover more about the brain, we find that these discoveries have implications for many fields, including business, law, social sciences and education," said psychology Professor Brian Wandell, director of the new program.

"Every Stanford student should have a basic appreciation of brain function. The center will support basic scientific investigations into the brain, and we will work to make the rigorous connections between neuroscience and society accessible and interesting to the entire Stanford community."

The new program, which will be located in the basement of Jordan Hall in the Main Quad, is expected to open in January 2011. The university also has contributed $1 million to the project.

Kids learning science while roaming a virtual world

Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education, received a $691,000 recovery act grant from the National Science Foundation to improve adolescents' abilities to make effective choices for how and what to learn when using virtual science worlds – online environments where they are represented by avatars and can interact with each other, with "agents" they can teach and with virtual objects.

L.A. Cicero Education Professor Daniel Schwartz

Education Professor Daniel Schwartz

Schwartz will pursue answers to many questions. Do they just want the answer? Do they choose to learn by teaching their agents? Do they use simulations to understand causal relations? Do they spend all their time getting points?

"We consider improving students' abilities to make effective learning choices a major goal of education," said Schwartz, the sole recipient of a prime research award in recovery act money in the School of Education.

"Once students leave the scripted and mentored environment of the school, they will need to make choices that determine whether, what and how they learn. Modern computer technologies provide environments where students can learn to make effective choices. They provide rich, choice-filled virtual worlds, and they can also track and evaluate student choices. Using new algorithms for analyzing patterns of choice, the computer environments can adapt to help the student develop better learning choices and understand science more deeply."

Three departments in the School of Earth Sciences won funding

The School of Earth Sciences has received eight recovery act awards ranging from $63,400 to $522,700, according to the university's Office of Sponsored Research.

The $2.2 million in research funding has been distributed among three departments: geophysics, environmental Earth system science, and geological and environmental sciences. Faculty members will use the money to explore a variety of research topics, including sea ice ecology in Antarctica and the rock physics of geological carbon sequestration and storage.

Studying an active volcano in the Northwest

Geophysics Professor Paul Segall received $144,600 from the National Science Foundation to model the eruptive behavior of Mount St. St. Helens, the active volcano in southwest Washington state.

Segall and his team are studying how magma volume and pressure accumulate inside the volcano and cause the mountain to swell. He is also tracking the earthquakes that occurred between 2004 and 2008, and the slow eruptions of lava that contributed to the formation of a huge dome inside the crater.

The dome has a volume of 100 million cubic meters, which is about the size of 40,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The model tracks the rise of magma from a chamber deep inside the mountain through a conduit to the surface. Segall's team will use Global Positioning System measurements and data on the growth of the dome to determine the volume of the magma chamber, its initial pressure and the types of dissolved gases inside.

By better understanding the volcano's internal activities, Segall's team hopes to improve forecasts of eruptions around the world.

Seven engineering departments receive stimulus awards

The School of Engineering has received recovery act grants ranging from $35,000 to $1.2 million, according to the university's Office of Sponsored Research.

The $8 million in research funding has been distributed among seven departments: computer science, chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, materials science and engineering, electrical engineering, and management science and engineering.

L.A. Cicero Chemical Engineering Professor Stacey Bent

Chemical Engineering Professor Stacey Bent

Finding ways to make solar energy cheaper

Stacey Bent, a professor of chemical engineering, and Bruce Clemens, a professor of materials science and engineering, have received $325,000 from the National Science Foundation to investigate the use of novel materials and new fabrication techniques for making inexpensive, high-efficiency solar cells.

They said existing solar cell designs are too expensive to be adopted for large-scale application and that new materials and designs are urgently needed.

"The research promises to introduce a new approach to making photovoltaics – devices that convert solar radiation into direct current electricity," Bent said. "We are studying a new way of creating a promising solar cell architecture that is expected to be more efficient than standard designs. If we're successful, it could have a significant worldwide impact."

They said their approach has the potential to provide high-efficiency solar cells at a cost comparable to cheap window glass coating, allowing solar electricity to be competitive with that produced from coal, and leading to significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomaterials that release medications at signals from patient's body

Sarah Heilshorn, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new biomaterials using recombinant protein engineering technology that can be used to treat people with spinal cord injuries.

Currently, there is no treatment that can lead to complete recovery for people with spinal cord injuries, which commonly occur among young people who go on to live for decades with extreme health complications, a compromised quality of life and immense medical costs. Surgeons can only mitigate the effects of the injury and try to prevent it from worsening over time.

Joel Simon Sarah Heilshorn, assistant professor of materials science and engineering

Sarah Heilshorn, assistant professor of materials science and engineering

Heilshorn and her team are designing a biomaterial with an active release mechanism that would deliver medication in response to signals from the patient's own body, providing the right dose at the right time.

"You might want the drug to be delivered faster or slower, depending on how severe the injury was, on the age of the patient, on the patient's activity level and on how quickly the injury may be healing on its own," she said.

"We're making our material active, so the drug that is linked to the material only gets released in response to enzymes naturally secreted by the patient's neurons. The enzymes – complex proteins that act as catalysts for biochemical reactions – specifically act on our material to release the drugs we have encapsulated. The biomaterial will slowly degrade away and release the drugs in response to some specific biochemical state of the cells present at the injury site."

Heilshorn said the research is in the very early design stages; clinical trials with people are more than a decade away.

Stanford Medical School

The Medical School, which has received $63.1 million in recovery act awards, is using the money to search for cures to cancer, develop stem cell therapies and gain new insights into the causes of heart disease.

The school has created a stimulus funds website to showcase its work. Among the professors and projects featured on the website:

  • Michael Longaker, MD, is developing a new approach to repairing skeletal damage to the head and face from accidents, birth defects, cancers and other causes. His hope is that doctors may one day use stem cells to regenerate new tissue to heal the ravages of disease and wounds from injuries.
  • Chin-Pin Chang, MD, hopes to develop a treatment for children who are born with a common heart condition in which a fetal arterial passageway that shunts blood away from the lungs to the heart fails to close after birth.
  • Minnie Sarwal, MD, hopes that in a few years kidney transplant recipients will be able to forgo biopsies to see if their bodies are rejecting donated organs; instead, a lab will analyze their urine samples to catch the telltale signs of rejection months earlier than biopsies would – and at a fraction of the cost.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

The lab, which has received $90.2 million in stimulus funds, is a multi-purpose facility focused on photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research.

The lab created a website, The Recovery Act at SLAC, to provide information on its grants, which include the following:

  • $19 million to modernize its electrical substation and four infrastructure systems (compressed air, water piping, fire alarms and sewer systems);
  • $3 million for seismic upgrades and $2 million for improvements to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, such as the addition of a new experimental station that will allow scientists to study materials in the realistic conditions required for energy, environmental and technological applications;
  • $13 million to study plasma acceleration at its Facilities for Accelerator Science and Experimental Test Beams;
  • $33.6 million for three experimental instruments at the Linac Coherent Light Source, which produces ultrafast pulses of X-rays millions of times brighter than even the most powerful synchrotron sources – pulses powerful enough to make images of single molecules;
  • $20 million for an instrument that will observe matter at temperatures nearly twice the temperature at the surface of the sun and at pressures 10 million times the Earth's atmospheric pressure at sea level, enabling unprecedented understanding of exotic states of matter.

Christine Blackman is a science-writing intern at Stanford News Service.

Media Contact

Lisa Lapin, University Communications: (650) 725-8396, lapin@stanford.edu