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Around Circle Drive

  • Author:
    Robert Bao
  • Published:
    Fall 2013
MSU is one of eight sites used by the Association of American Universities in a project to improve undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering and math education—the STEM disciplines.
“It’s only fitting that MSU is a site for this initiative, as we are a recognized national leader in STEM education,” says Melanie Cooper, the Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education and MSU project leader. 
MSU will focus on reforming the “gateway” courses within STEM, that is, the introductory courses that are prerequisites for all STEM majors.  “There is a great deal of evidence that many students are turned off by these courses or, at best, look at them as a hurdle,” says Cooper. “In addition, students often emerge from these courses without a meaningful understanding of important concepts and how to use them.”
Teams of faculty from various STEM disciplines will come together to reform these courses. Their involvement in this project is part of a plan to promote a university culture that values faculty contributions to teaching, research and scholarship. The AAU initiative is funded by a three-year, $4.7 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. 
Training young children in spatial reasoning can improve their math performance, according to a groundbreaking study from MSU. 
Education researchers trained 6- to 8-year-olds in mental rotation, a spatial ability, and found their scores on addition and subtraction problems improved significantly.  The training involved imagining how two halves of an object would come together to make a whole, when the halves have been turned at an angle.
Past research has found a link between spatial reasoning and math, but the MSU study is the first to provide direct evidence of a causal connection.  The findings are published in the Journal of Cognition and Development.  Kelly Mix, professor of educational psychology, author of the study with doctoral student Yi-Ling Cheng, says the findings suggest spatial training “primes” the brain to better tackle calculation problems. 
Some education experts have called for including spatial reasoning in the elementary math curriculum. But there are many forms of spatial ability and Mix said it’s important to first figure out how each of them may or may not relate to the various math disciplines. Mix’s research into spatial ability and math is funded by two grants totaling $2.8 million from the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Dept. of Education.
Mosquitoes are deadly efficient disease transmitters.  MSU researchers, however, have found they can also help cure diseases such as malaria.  A study in Science shows that the transmission of malaria via mosquitoes to humans can be interrupted by using a strain of the Wolbachia bacteria—which would protect mosquitoes from malaria parasites.  This would prevent mosquitoes from transmitting malaria to humans—some 219 million in 2010, causing an estimated 660,000 deaths.
“Our work is the first to demonstrate Wolbachia can be established in a key malaria vector, the mosquito species Anopheles Stephensi, which opens the door to use Wolbachia for malaria control,” says Zhiyong Xi, MSU assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.
Xi previously had success using Wolbachia to halt Dengue fever, which helped launch a global effort.  MSU scientists from the microbiology and molecular genetics department contributing to the study include Deepak Joshi, Peng Lu, Guoli Zhou, Xiaoling Pan and Yao Xu. 
Like malaria, dengue fever is an infectious disease transmitted by mosquitoes. Unlike malaria, there is no vaccine.  As many as 100 million people contract dengue each year, but MSU researcher Zhiyong Xi, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, is working to change that.
Among the estimated 2.5 billion people at risk for dengue, more than 70 percent live in Asia Pacific countries, which spurred Xi to establish a collaborative research institute at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, China.
There, Xi and his colleagues have made a promising breakthrough. They’ve determined that the Wolbachia bacterium can stop the dengue virus from replicating in the mosquitoes.  Once the researchers pinpoint the mechanisms responsible for interrupting virus replication, they’ll be able to improve the efficiency of the interference—a critical step in breaking the fever.
Thanks to Zhiyong Xi’s work with mosquitoes and Wolbachia bacteria, researchers are closer than ever to eradicating this devastating disease.
“My long-term goal is to develop control strategies to block dengue virus transmission in mosquitoes,” says Xi, director of the Sun Yat-sen University–Michigan State University Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Diseases. 
MSU technology spin-out company BioPhotonics Solutions Inc. is the first venture to win equity funding from the $2 million Michigan Angel Fund.
Founded in 2003 by chemistry professor Marcos Dantus, BioPhotonics is commercializing technology to automate 
measurement, compression and shaping of ultrashort laser pulses, improving lasers’ usefulness for surgery, biomedical imaging and potentially for other medical, industrial, scientific and defense applications.
“Closing on this investment is an integral part of the strategy set in motion last year to grow the company,” Dantus says.  “Thanks to (Angel Fund managing director) Skip Simms, we were able to hire Kiyomi Monro, an industry leader with excellent track record, as the new CEO.” 
The company’s proprietary technology manipulates laser pulses—measured in femtoseconds or a millionth of a billionth of a second—shaping them for each application and avoiding beam distortion and shock.  
BioPhotonics has distribution contracts with a dozen laser companies around the world and products manufactured in Michigan. The company has won several industry honors, published a number of technology papers and has won federal small-business technology transfer funding awards as it scales up.
This capsule of MSU history was written by 
Megan Badgley Malone,collections & outreach archivist for University Archives & Historical Collections
In the 1890s the Michigan Agricultural College had a problem.  The overwhelmingly male student population was out of control.  They smoked, drank, gambled and disobeyed their professors.  Pranks, such as stacking rooms, dumping water out of windows onto passersby and smashing windows were regular occurrences.  This negatively impacted the college’s reputation and contributed to stagnant enrollment.  The State Board of Agriculture, the College’s governing body, tasked a committee to address the problem.  This panel of experts recommended the creation of a women’s program, concluding that co-eds would “be extremely helpful in elevating the moral tone of the students and increasing their regard for the amenities of polite society.”
On the committee’s recommendation, M.A.C. created the Women’s Course in 1896, and hired Edith McDermott as the first professor of Domestic Economy.  M.A.C. remodeled Abbot Hall to house the new women students and built an addition for a cooking laboratory, sewing room, and classrooms.  Dubbed “Naughty-Naughts” in reference to the year of their graduation (1900), the new co-eds enrolled in classes such as cooking, calisthenics, mechanics, and chemistry.
Not everyone was happy with the accommodations in Abbot Hall.  Irma Thompson (1900) and the other co-eds who commuted to M.A.C. were only given a small room in which to store their belongings and eat their lunches.  One day in 1898, they heard that members of the State Grange were coming to Abbot Hall for a tour.   The downtown girls aired their grievances by “stacking” their room, piling tables, chairs, discarded raincoats, and other assorted objects in the middle of the room.  President Jonathan Snyder was furious when he discovered the crime scene, and placed Miss Thompson on probation.  Still, her message was received.
Due to the popularity of the women’s course, M.A.C. made plans to erect a Women’s Building.  In 1899, the state legislature appropriated $95,000 for the Women’s Building, which provided rooms for 120 residents, some faculty members, cooking laboratories, sewing facilities, offices, and a two-story gymnasium.  It even had a Day Students’ Lounge with lockers, comfortable chairs, tables, and a place to prepare meals.  This building, later renamed Morrill Hall, became the first residential college on campus.
This season promises to offer another great selection for area lovers of performing arts.  A sleeper to watch for is the fanciful Tony award winner, Peter and the Starcatcher (Jan. 22-26, 2014).  A little known gem, Peter is the prequel to Peter Pan and is filled with great humor and heart.
This year’s Broadway Series includes some of the top productions touring today: Flashdance the Musical (Oct. 8-13), Ghost the Musical (Dec. 10-15), Peter and The Starcatcher, Beauty and the Beast (Feb. 18-23, 2014), The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (Mar. 18-23, 2014) and of course, The Book Of Mormon (Jun. 10-15, 2014) , which according to is “still the hottest ticket on Broadway” this summer.  In addition, the Wharton Center will also have a special showing of Mamma Mia! (Nov. 15-17).
Other noteworthy shows this fall include superstars like Diana Krall (Sep. 28), and Johnny Mathis (Oct. 17), dance performers such as the Balé Folclorico Da Bahia (Oct. 27), and classical music such as the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra (Nov. 8), Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott (Nov. 18) and the Vienna Boys Choir (Dec. 3).  There is something for everyone in this season from jazz to ballet to classical music. 
? For more information, visit
Since the state of Michigan began offering specialty license plates, MSU’s license plate has surged as the most popular.
As of July, MSU tops the list with 501,725 sold, according to the Lansing State Journal.  In second place is a patriotic USA Plate with 416,472.  In third place is the University of Michigan with 361,909.
The state shares the profit from the plates with each organization.  Since 2000 MSU has received more than $6.2 million from specialty plates income.  MSU allocates the income like all trademark royalties—45 percent for athletics programs, 45 percent for student scholarships and 10 percent for auxiliary services, like student programming.
“We pride ourselves on being the university for the state, so it’s definitely refreshing to hear we have the most popular one,” says Jason Cody, of MSU Communications and Brand Strategy.  “Anytime you can get the Spartan brand more visible, it’s a good thing.”
“Pain in the workplace is not normal,” says Lisa DeStefano, associate professor and chair in MSU’s Dept. of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine and a physician with the MSU HealthTeam. 
As a spokesperson for the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), DeStefano is campaigning to educate office workers about staying pain-free.  A survey shows that two-thirds of office workers had experienced physical pain in the past six months.
What’s causing so much pain? “People slouch,” DeStefano says.  “The pain goes with sitting at a computer all day if you treat your spine like a coat hanger.”
To prevent office pain, DeStefano and the AOA recommend that workers sit properly—with torso balanced over pelvis, hips rolled forward and weight in the “butt bone,” not the tail bone, DeStefano says.  Workers should sit closer to the edge with feet flat on the floor, looking straight ahead at the computer and not up or down. Workers should be sure to get up out of their seat at least five minutes every hour. Finally, says DeStefano, build some strength.
DeStefano notes that workplace pain is a serious public health issue; the AOA estimates that chronic pain affects 100 million Americans. 
Drivers of electric vehicles are always on the lookout for where they can get their next “fill up,” or battery charge.
MSU researchers could soon ease this range anxiety.
Jeff Sakamoto, associate professor of chemical engineering and materials science, and his team are seeking to improve the lithium ion battery—a rechargeable battery that works well in hybrid vehicles but still needs improvement for all-electric vehicles.
“We’re working to create the next generation of batteries for electric vehicles,” Sakamoto says.  “If you want to eliminate range anxiety and sticker shock, you must have a battery that stores a lot more energy—four or five times more and are a fourth or fifth of what the current lithium ion batteries cost today.”
Sakamoto is testing solid materials—superionic conductors—that might work better than the liquids currently used as the conducting medium for lithium ions.
“The goal is to move away from liquid cells and toward solid state batteries that are safer, cheaper to manufacture, less sensitive to degradation at higher temperatures and more durable,” Sakamoto says.
In what could eventually slow the spread of Alzheimer’s disease in the brain, MSU researchers found that a particular substance, when injected into mice, lowers levels of a peptide linked to the disease.
The scientists found that L-cylcoserine injected into mice significantly lowered their levels of a peptide that creates plaques in the brain—a hallmark of Alzheimer’s.
“This could be a possible therapeutic strategy for Alzheimer’s disease,” says Hirosha Geekiyanage, a recent graduate of MSU’s Genetics Program who conducted the research in the laboratory of Christina Chan, professor of chemical engineering and material science.  Both are members of the research team.
Autopsy results have shown that people who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease had increased levels of ceramide in their brains. This lipid compound was synthesized from saturated fatty acids by an enzyme known as serine palmitoyltransferase, or SPT.
When ceramide and SPT are elevated, they help produce amyloid-beta, a peptide that is known to deposit plaques on the brain, which is linked to Alzheimer’s.
 “L-cylcoserine reduces SPT activity and SPT is the enzyme that produces ceramide,” Chan says.  
Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most common forms of dementia. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. It’s estimated that more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease.
You have to wonder what Eliot Ness might think if he were alive today.  Kris Berglund, MSU university distinguished professor of food science and chemical engineering, has spearheaded legislation to allow distillers to sell their product on site.
As a result, more than $400 million has been added to Michigan’s economy, comprising nearly new 25 distilleries and about 1,400 new jobs.
“What we’ve done at MSU is position ourselves to be the leader in helping the artisan distilled spirits industry,” says Berglund, an MSU AgBioResearch scientist. “We’re the only university that has access to a commercial license and commercial-scale equipment, so we’re able to teach students how to be successful on a corporate scale.”
Before 2008, it was illegal for distillers to sell their product on site.  Berglund helped write Public Law 218, which allows manufacturers of less than 60,000 gallons annually to sell spirits by the bottle or glass onsite.  To help develop leaders for this burgeoning field, MSU launched the Beverage Science and Technology specialization. Many entrepreneurs have taken advantage, as have established businesses who have launched lines of spirits. 
Every semester, MSU faculty, staff and students earn kudos too numerous to list exhaustively here.  Some examples:
 Melanie Cooper, professor of chemistry and the Lappan-Phillips Professor of Science Education at MSU, has received the 2013 James Flack Norris Award from the American Chemical Society.  Cooper is jointly appointed in MSU’s departments of chemistry and teacher education.
 Phanikumar Mantha, associate professor in the MSU Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has been named a fellow of the Geological Society of America.  Mantha’s research interest is in hydrology, the study of water and water contaminants.
 Neal Schmitt, university distinguished professor, has won a 2014 James Mckeen Cattell Fellow Award from the Association for Psychological Science.  Schmitt’s research focuses on breaking the barriers that hinder women and racial and ethnic minorities from achieving success in the workplace.
 Kurt Stepnitz, a photographer with MSU Communications and Brand Strategy,  won first place for photo essay from the University Photographers Association of America.  His 2013 essay captured the development of medical clinical programs by MSU students and faculty in Merida, Mexico.
 Susan Sonnenschein, Honors College student majoring in psychology and neuroscience, and Ari Walter, a human biology major in Lyman Briggs College, were the grand prize winners of MSU’s annual University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum.
 Suresh Mukherji, division director of neuroradiology at the University of Michigan, has been named professor and chairperson of MSU’s Dept. of Radiology, a department affiliated with the colleges of osteopathic medicine and human medicine.
MSU scientists will lead a $14.1 million initiative to better understand how environmental contaminants called dioxins affect human health and to identify new ways of removing them from the environment.
The researchers will use a five-year grant from the Superfund Research Program of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to support multiple studies on the industrial byproducts, which work their way up the food chain to humans, potentially raising the risk of certain cancers and other diseases.
“Dioxins are ubiquitous,” says lead researcher Norbert Kaminski, director of MSU’s Center for Integrative Toxicology and a professor of pharmacology and toxicology.  “This class of compounds can be detected virtually everywhere in the world, and they can remain in the environment for decades.”
While previous research on the compounds has involved mice and other animal models, the new project will include studies on donated human cells and tissue to build a more direct understanding of how dioxins affect human health. They’ll focus in particular on how dioxins impact the liver, the immune system and the microbiome – the community of microorganisms living in the gut that play an important role in human health, including immune function.
Other institutions collaborating with MSU on the project include Rutgers University, Purdue University, the Hamner Institutes for Health Sciences and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Reaching a new generation of writers, MSU launched its first massive open online course (MOOC) in the humanities on June 30.
Jeff Grabill, professor and chairperson of MSU’s Dept. of Writing, Rhetoric and American Culture, and Julie Lindquist, director of first-year writing, presented “Thinking Like a Writer,” a free online non-credit course.
“We hope the course can answer the question, ‘Is it possible to teach and learn writing online and at scale in ways that evidence suggests is effective?’” Grabill says. “Students in the course will be improving their own writing skills, but they’ll also be helping us create a new kind of experience for teaching writing to others.”
Who can benefit from MSU’s fourth MOOC?  Students preparing for college-level writing; international students looking to improve their English language writing; and professional writers wanting to sharpen their skills, says Grabill.  In addition, “Thinking Like a Writer” focuses on the review and revision process—the methods most likely to lead to better writing, Grabill adds.  
The course also will help students with persuasive writing, narrative writing, summarizing texts and organizing thoughts in the writing process, he says.