People don’t usually think of mathematics as an occupation that requires survival skills, but they might change their minds if they saw Kenneth Golden and his research team in action. He and his team at the University of Utah are developing mathematical formulas to help scientists make more accurate predictions about how quickly sea ice will melt as our planet continues to warm. Read more.


Crystal of the Week: Zinc Oxide!

Yo sunbathers, golfers, tennis players and lifeguards! Here is a #CrystaloftheWeek that should definitely have you celebrating the International Year of Crystallography: zinc oxide.  Yes, that ubiquitous white cream on the tip of so many sun lovers’ noses at this time of year does make an outstanding skin protector, able to reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays rather than absorbing them like the rest of the sunscreen ingredients in today’s sunscreens. However, zinc oxide is incredibly versatile and does so much more.

Literally, that summertime white face paint is only touching the surface of zinc oxide’s many uses. Sure, households have long seen zinc oxide’s value in anti-dandruff shampoos, antiseptics, and treating persistent diaper rash in powders and creams. But, zinc oxide is remarkably versatile.  It whitens paint. It improves cigarette filters. It’s a coating that prevents metal corrosion. And most exciting of all is how its crystalline structure is being studied in several electronic applications.

Yes, you may be off celebrating zinc oxide at the pool, beach or soccer pitch, but zinc oxide is hard at work in an assortment of labs where researchers look at optimizing its naturally occurring conductive, reflective and binding attributes into semiconductors, better lasers and sensors, and even as potential ingredient to ultimately creating quantum computers.

Photo credits: Bryan; Department of Energy’s Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory.


Bioengineer Karen Burg and her colleagues at Clemson University are building scaffolds that mimic the 3-D structure of human tissue to culture cancer cells and test various treatments. Their research may one day change the way doctors treat breast cancer. Read more.


The goby fish, also known as the “inching climber,” thrives in the waters off Hawaii, and the amazing physical feat it must perform to survive is no fish tale! To reach the safe haven of its freshwater spawning area, this goby must scale a waterfall, or at least the rock behind it, using suction cups on its body. Biologist Heiko Schoenfuss and his colleagues study these extraordinary fish to better understand how they’ve adapted and evolved in order to achieve such vertical feats. Read more.


Biomedical engineer Bin He and his team at the University of Minnesota try out their brain-computer interface using a flying object known as a quadcopter and controlling its flight with someone’s thoughts. The goal of the interface is to help people with disabilities, such as paralysis, regain the ability to do everyday tasks. Read more. 


To diagnose prostate cancer, urologists and pathologists use biomarkers, which are biochemical signatures in blood, urine and tissue that suggest the disease may be present. Engineer Brian Denton is working with urologist John Wei and pathologist Scott Tomlins to develop a quicker and less expensive way to evaluate biomarkers, using computational models. Read more.


It’s after school, but this building in downtown Oakland, Calif., is buzzing with enthusiastic teenagers looking to learn. Welcome to Youth Radio, part of a youth media project funded by the National Science Foundation to engage underrepresented 14-24 year olds with training and hands-on experience in engineering, and the social, physical and biological sciences. Read more.


Crystal of the Week: Citronella

It’s the time of year when mosquitoes seem to outnumber humans. We often go to great lengths to find the perfect pest repellent, allowing us to remain outdoors and enjoy our favorite summertime activities, whether it’s fishing and camping, swimming and tennis, or a leisurely picnic with friends. With summer’s ever-present mosquito battle in mind, we chose citronella as this week’s crystal.

People are accustomed to seeing citronella as an oil or spray, so it may be hard to believe it could be a crystal. But think about butter, which has a similar chemical structure: At warm temperatures, butter melts. At cool temperatures, butter solidifies.

Compared to butter, the citronella molecule has a really short backbone of single-bonded carbon atoms, with one terminal oxygen atom. (If citronella were a fatty acid, like butter, we could call it “saturated” because the carbons have as many hydrogen atoms attached as possible.) Because the molecule is so small and composed of so many lightweight atoms, it has a low vapor pressure, which means that it evaporates easily when warm. That’s good news for repelling mosquitoes.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, oil of citronella was initially registered in 1948 as an insect repellant under the name of McKesson’s oil of citronella. It had human applications (as in you could use it on your body, hair, clothing and footwear) to repel adult gnats and mosquitoes. Citronella is a biochemical pesticide with a non-toxic “mode of action.” Some studies have shown it to be effective in deterring lice and the mosquitoes that cause Dengue Fever.

These days, citronella is found in “natural” insect repellents, candles, deodorants and perfumes, astringent skin cleaners, and aromatherapy aimed at addressing nervous fatigue and headaches. 

A side effect of the oil is that when directly applied to human skin, it has been known to cause irritation. The warm sensation it creates on the skin has also purported benefits for joint pain.

Want more info on repelling mosquitoes? Check out this Science Nation video about Vanderbilt University researchers working to unleash a more-powerful-than-DEET insect repellent. The EPA also has great resources on mosquito control.

Top photo: An Asian Tiger mosquito. Credit Ary Farajollahi, USDA Forest Service

Middle photo: An aerosol spray canister. USDA researchers Lyle Goodhue and William Sullivan invented the aerosol spray canister, dubbed the “bug bomb,” to dispense insecticides. The design, patented in 1943, is the ancestor of many popular commercial spray products. Pressurized by liquefied gas, which gave it propellant qualities, the small, portable can enabled soldiers to defend against malaria-carrying bugs by spraying inside tents during World War II. Propellants used in these older aerosol cans have since been replaced with environmentally friendly ones. Credit: USDA

Bottom photo: A Culex species mosquito biting a human hand. Credit: Bob Dusek, USGS


Until now, biofilms—colonies of microbes like bacteria that grow together in a matrix produced by the cells themselves—have been poorly understood. Yet, they can be costly and dangerous. Dacheng Ren and colleagues at Syracuse University are working to better understand how biofilm cells communicate. Read more.


What the microscope did to unlock the secrets of biology, the “chemiscope” is intended to do, to revolutionize chemistry. The ultimate goal for chemist Ara Apkarian and colleagues is to observe chemistry in the act, to see the making and breaking of bonds in real-space and real-time. Read more.


In a tsunami, devastation is created by far more than the wave itself. Debris that hits homes and other structures plays a huge role in a tsunami’s destructive power. Engineers from across the country have teamed up to design and carry out a series of large-scale tests aimed at better understanding exactly what happens when debris strikes. Read more. 


A High-Performance First Year for Stampede

Sometimes, the laboratory just won’t cut it.

After all, you can’t recreate an exploding star, manipulate quarks or forecast the climate in the lab. In cases like these, scientists rely on supercomputing simulations to capture the physical reality of these phenomena—minus the extraordinary cost, dangerous temperatures or millennium-long wait times.

When faced with an unsolvable problem, researchers at universities and labs across the United States set up virtual models, determine the initial conditions for their simulations—the weather in advance of an impending storm, the configurations of a drug molecule binding to an HIV virus, the dynamics of a distant dying star—and press compute.

And then they wait as the Stampede supercomputer in Austin, Texas, crunches the complex mathematics that underlies the problems they are trying to solve.

By harnessing thousands of computer processors, Stampede returns results within minutes, hours or just a few days (compared to the months and years without the use of supercomputers), helping to answer science’s—and society’s—toughest questions.

Stampede is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the U.S. for open research, and currently ranks as the seventh most powerful in the world, according to the November 2013 TOP500 List. Able to perform nearly 10 trillion operations per second, Stampede is the most capable of the high-performance computing, visualization and data analysis resources within the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE).

Find out more about Stampede and the discoveries it enabled in its first year.