[From CASE Reports, Vol. 12, No. 2, 1997]


IN BRIEF: Science and Technology Notes from Around Connecticut


BETTER NET. Yale scientists joined with representatives from 90 other universities to develop plans for Internet II, an improved, speedier version of the Internet that will transport data at gigabytes per second. The system will be able to transmit speech and images in real time, permitting, for example, commands to be transmitted to robots. Although Internet II, which will use a different operating system than the original, will be limited at first to research university users, scientists expect that its methods and technology will eventually be available to everyone.

RAYS OF SOUND. By combining the old-fashioned "ray" theory of light with chaos theory, Yale physicist A. Douglas Stone has developed a more powerful and efficient way to sort out the light frequencies sent through fiber-optic cables. Typically, fiber-optic cables carry half a million phone calls simultaneously, transmitting the information via different frequencies, or colors, of light. Professor Stone's device, called an asymmetric resonant cavity, or ARC, is used to detect the different frequencies, and can boost the performance of these cables dramatically by allowing the signals to be sent at greater speeds. Professor Stone predicts that eventually a ten-fold increase in speed may be obtained.

BABY TALK. Language comprehension in toddlers is influenced primarily by the children's environment, but a child's propensity to talkativeness depends on environment and heredity equally, according to a study done by Yale psychologist J. Steven Reznick, who developed a method of tracking comprehension in children by following their eye motions. Professor Reznick studied 408 pairs of identical and fraternal twins as part of the MacArthur Longitudinal Twin Study, funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; the study was designed to identify genetic and environmental influences on cognitive development.

COP CALL Through a program co-sponsored by the Hartford County sheriff's office and Bell Atlantic NYNEX, residents of East Hartford, West Hartford, New Britain and Bristol have been given cellular phones through which they can quickly report crimes to the police. Known as "Communities on Phone Patrol" (COPP), the program is part of a national effort to provide 50,000 free cellular phones, plus free air time, to community groups across the country. The Bell Atlantic phones are programmed to call into the local police departments.

DEAF WHALES. High noise levels from commercial shipping and tourist whale-watching vessels may cause deafness in Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence Seaway, according to Peter M. Scheifele, a University of Connecticut marine mammal bioacoustics researcher who has been studying noise in the Beluga habitat for the past two years. The animals rely on sound to communicate, navigate, find food, and mate and, according to Professor Scheifele, are living permanently in an environment so loud that it would cause hearing damage to humans after just eight hours of exposure. To find a way to protect the whales, Professor Scheifele has proposed a two-year study which will include hearing tests and audiograms, and will use whales living in Connecticut aquariums.


AROUND THE WORLD. Over 7,000 Connecticut students will retrace Marco Polo's route from Italy to China via the Internet, through an expedition run by GlobaLearn, a nonprofit New Haven company. GlobaLearn explorers will make the trip, using portable high-tech cameras and satellite links to send back pictures and logs. Children in 15 other countries will guide the explorers through their homes, schools, and favorite places; the Connecticut students will use computers to send similar information about their own communities to the expedition team.

ROBOT RODEO. Student teams from South Windsor, Farmington, Enfield, Windsor Locks, East Hartford, and Rockville built robots to compete in a national robot rodeo in Orlando in April. Sponsored by divisions of United Technology Corp, the teams competed in Toroid Terror, in which the student-designed robots race to stack inflated inner tubes on a pyramid-or stop their robot opponents from doing so. UTC engineers served as mentors for the teams, which were each given $3,000 worth of parts and $425 for additional supplies. "This is where the kids learn that engineering isn't just pushing papers and doing calculations," said Jim Hodrinsky, an Enfield teacher.

MY EINSTEIN FOR YOUR . . Trading cards aren't just for sports nuts any more! Retired physics teacher Nick Georgis, of Shelton, has created a set of trading cards featuring famous scientists from Aristotle to Einstein. Each card shows a picture of a scientist, summarizes his or her most famous achievements, and gives a reference for future study. Georgis created the cards because he wanted it to be fun for students to learn about science.

NEW IQ. An intelligence test that measures analytical, practical, and creative abilities may provide a way to teach students more effectively. Developed by Yale psychology professor Robert Sternberg, the Sternberg Triarchic Abilities Test (STAT) was used in a five-year study that grouped 199 high school students according to their strengths, as pinpointed by the STAT. Students placed in classes where the teaching style matched their abilities performed better than students who were mismatched. "This study demonstrates that the triarchic test is good at pinpointing intellectual talents, and that it is possible to teach in ways that enhance learning in each of the three areas of successful intelligence," said Professor Sternberg, a longtime critic of standardized tests.

SUMMER SCIENCE CAMP. Saint Joseph College will host a summer camp for 9th grade girls from July 7–11, 1997. "Women in Science for the 21st Century: Forensic Science" will be funded by United Connecticut for Women in Science and will provide opportunities for participants to learn about forensic science, talk to women role models working and studying in the field, and try out hands-on-explorations in the college's laboratories. The camp administrator will be CASE member Clare Markham.


RECHARGEABLE. A rechargeable nickel-zinc battery developed by Energy Research Corp, of Danbury, has been licensed to Corning Inc. The agreement allows Corning to develop, manufacture and sell the battery for a variety of applications world-wide.

MORE METHANE. A New Haven landfill will become the site of a gas collection center, as the city joins forces with a Chicago trash-to-energy company to convert methane produced by the landfill into electricity. By allowing the company, Resource Technology Corp., to capture the gas, the city avoids the need to construct a venting system needed to burn off the gas before the landfill is capped. The collection center is expected to begin operations next year.

FUEL CELL. The Science Center of Connecticut, in East Hartford, would like to use a 10-foot high, 18-foot long fuel cell to produce its electricity. Built by Onsi Corp. of South Windsor, the fuel cell converts natural gas and methane into component parts, using the hydrogen to produce a chemical reaction that creates enough electricity to power 150 homes. The reaction also produces hot water, which can be used for heating. The fuel cells, which cost $600,000, are already in use at two Connecticut sites.


SWEET SONGS. To further his study of katydid bioacoustics, University of Connecticut entomology graduate student Poitr Naskrecki has compiled a database containing information about more than 10,000 species of the insects. The database includes songs of many of the insects, along with an oscillogram, a graphical representation of sound that shows the differences among the songs. "Different sounds tell what species it is," Nasrecki said. "If you can see the differences graphically, you can tell how they are related to each other." Nasrecki is collaborating with a Philadelphia scientist to compile a CD-ROM that contains all the taxonomic information ever published about katydids.

HEALTHY WOODS. Ninety percent of Connecticut's forests are owned by private individuals, and, through the Coverts Project, co-sponsored by the University of Connecticut's Cooperative Extension System, these landowners can now learn how to manage their forests more effectively. Project participants attend a three and a half day course at the Yale Forestry Camp in Norfolk, learning how to make wildlife healthier, more diverse, and more abundant.

WEED PULL. To halt the advance of phragmites, a 12-foot high reed that has begun to take over many of the wetlands in the lower Connecticut, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has instituted several control programs, including mowing, herbicide applications, and restoration of tidal flows. While no one understands why the reeds, which have been native to Connecticut for 5,000 years, have suddenly become so aggressive, biologists hypothesize that one reason may be that the culverts and gates built to prevent tidal flooding also restrict salt water flow, providing a more hospitable environment for the plants.

HOMING FISH. In a new twist on a 30-year effort to restore salmon runs to the Connecticut River, two dozen fish that had already spawned once were released into an estuary near East Haddam. Since most fish die after spawning unless they receive special care, only hatchlings are typically released into the river. However, some fish, known as "black salmon," are strong enough to return to their home river and breed again year after year. In a similar release program in Massachusetts, 12% of the fish returned.

SEEING FEWER SPOTS. By analyzing the sun's polar magnetic fields, Sabatino Sofia, chairman of Yale's astronomy department, has concluded that sunspots will decrease over the next decade, a prediction that contradicts the conclusions of many other astronomers. Sunspots, which occur when the sun's magnetic fields force patches of cooler gas to the sun's surface, act as "holes" from which solar radiation and cosmic rays can escape. A decrease in sunspots would result in cooler temperatures on Earth, fewer magnetic storms, fewer power blackouts, and less interference with radio waves. Reduced solar activity has been linked to long-term climatic changes on Earth, such as the "Little Ice Age" in the 1600s.

BIRD COUNT SOARS. Over 10,000 blackbirds were among the 90 bird species logged during the 50th annual Hartford-area Christmas Bird Count. The more than 200 birdwatchers who took part found record numbers for almost 20 species rarely seen in winter. In addition to the exceptionally high number of blackbirds, participants found almost 1,000 robins, a huge flock of crows, 2 peregrine falcons, and 3 bald eagles. Jay Kaplan, co-compiler of the count, attributed the unusual sightings to December's exceptionally mild weather. Watchers looked for birds within a 7.5-mile radius of the Old State House in Hartford.

BEETLE BREAKFAST. Galerucella beetles are a key weapon in a battle to control purple loosestrife, an invasive European wildflower that is choking Connecticut swamps, meadows, and waterways. The beetles, in both larva and adult forms, feed on the leaves, stems, shoots and developing flower buds. Through a program funded in part by the University of Connecticut, 3,000 of the beetles, a host-specific species native to Europe, were released at three sites last summer. More releases are planned this summer; the biological control program is expected to take 10 to 20 years, a measured pace that will allow the weed to be controlled without damaging other parts of the environment.


HIGH-RISE BEDS. United Illuminating Co. has agreed to store two 60-foot-high piles of oyster shells at its Steele Point site, a former power plant. The shells will be used to seed 3,000 acres of public and private oyster beds; while the shells are usually stored in the ocean, they must be sun-dried and bleached on land before they can be used for the beds, which are known as cultch. The project, which resulted from an agreement between the utility company, the state Department of Agriculture, and Tallmadge Brothers, an oyster-producing company, may provide 400 jobs for Connecticut's aquaculture industry.

NOURISHING NORI. Long Island Sound could provide an ideal spot for aquaculture farms that grow nori, a nutritious seaweed commonly used in Japanese cooking, says University of Connecticut professor Charles Yarish. Through a 3-year, $1.2 million Sea Grant project, Professor Yarish is working with other New England scientists to domesticate wild American species of nori. Professor Yarish, who is establishing a seed collection of nori species, has already collected over 100 strains. In addition to being grown for food, nori could be cultivated for its pigments, some of which fetch up to $300 a milligram, he said.

YEAR-ROUND TOMATOES. A mechanized production process that allows greenhouse tomatoes to be harvested year-round has been patented by University of Connecticut professor Richard MacAvoy and two researchers from Rutgers. Their system substitutes "single cluster" plants, grown in pots, for the traditional method, in which tomato plants are fixed in place by string attached to greenhouse walls. Professor MacAvoy's process takes advantage of movable bench technology, in which robots carry tomato plants on benches for spraying and other cultural practices. It lets farmers take advantage of mechanical transplanters, artificial lights, and computer control systems to produce tomatoes throughout the year on a staggered, commercially advantageous schedule. With single cluster cropping, 40,000 to 50,000 plants can be grown on just one acre; with traditional methods, an acre supports only 8,000 to 10,000 plants.

HOME GREENHOUSE. Tunnel houses-Quonset-hut shaped greenhouses made of plastic fitted over a rigid frame-are allowing commercial and hobby growers to extend the Connecticut growing season, enabling them to grow some hardy crops, such as salad greens and herbs, throughout the winter. Leanne Pundt, an educator at the Haddam Extension Center, noted a growing interest in these greenhouses, which sell for about one-sixth the cost of a traditional glass greenhouse.

STRANGE FISH. Two Stonington fishermen, dragging ocean waters over half a mile deep and more than 100 miles offshore, have discovered at least 50 species of unusual deep-sea fish, including a previously unknown, 4-inch long, orange isopod. Working separately, William I. Bomster and Walter L. Allyn were searching for deep sea species to replace the depleted commercial fish populations on the Continental Shelf. Their explorations were funded through Saltonstall-Kennedy and Fishing Industry grants, provided by the federal government to help fishermen dependent on now-restricted species to find other ways to make a living.


ASTHMA RESEARCH. The Yale University School of Medicine has been awarded an $8.6 million grant by the National Institutes of Health to study the causes of asthma. Under the direction of Jack A. Elias, researchers will investigate the cellular and molecular biology of the disease. They will explore the role of cytokines, "signal proteins" produced by the lungs in response to viral infections; they will look at the Th2 lymphocyte, a type of white blood cell that may summon the other cells and molecules that cause asthma; they also will study a form of occupational asthma that is caused by exposure to chemicals. Asthma, which has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, kills 400 to 500 Americans annually.

TREATMENT TESTS. Bridgeport Hospital has joined the Yale Oncology Network, enabling its cancer patients to receive the latest in cancer advances by letting them participate in the clinical research trials of anti-cancer treatments developed at Yale. The network, which includes hospitals and practices in Danbury, Greenwich, Norwich and Torrington, hopes to eventually treat 10,000 of the 16,000 new cancer cases in Connecticut annually. During the past 15 years, the cancer mortality rate for children under 15 has dropped by 70% because two-thirds of young patients participate in clinical trials, said CASE member Vincent DeVita Jr., director of the Yale Cancer Center. Studies conducted at Bridgeport will include the evaluation of treatments to alleviate the toxicity of anti-cancer drugs, and tests of new agents used to stimulate the growth of blood cells, which are often damaged by chemotherapy.

ABORTION DRUGS. Planned Parenthood of Connecticut will participate in a nationwide study to confirm the effectiveness of an abortion method that combines two drugs already approved for other purposes. Methotrexate, an anti-cancer drug, destroys rapidly-dividing cells, halting the development of the fetus. Misoprostol, used for chronic arthritis, causes the uterus to contract, inducing an artificial miscarriage. This abortion method, which is already used unofficially by a growing number of doctors, is considered 90 to 95% effective, said Moriah Ritson, medical services coordinator for Planned Parenthood of Connecticut. The group hopes that the Federal Drug Administration, which has approved the study, will declare the drug combination safe and effective.

POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS. Using MRI magnetic resonance imaging, Yale scientists have shown that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a significantly shrunken hippocampus, a part of the brain involved with memories. PTSD, which affects 15% of all who experience traumatic stress such as war, child abuse, or car accidents, is generally resistant to treatment. However, Yale researchers are investigating drugs known as beta blockers which, if administered at the time of the trauma, may prevent the disease by stopping memories from being encoded into the brain.

WINTER BLUES. Similarities between light-sensitive pigment molecules in plants and humans has led Yale professor Dan A. Oren to speculate that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may be a disease of pigments and of the neurotransmitters they carry through the blood. SAD, a seasonal melancholy that affects about 10% of the people in the northern United States, can be cured by exposure to light, but, intriguingly, although light therapy succeeds with blind people suffering from SAD, it does not help people with normal vision who are blind-folded. Professor Oren suspects that light may affect a molecule in hemoglobin that is almost identical to the light receptor molecule in green plants. "When it comes to the biological clock, plants behave remarkably similarly to people," said Professor Oren. He plans to compare the light-absorbing pigments of SAD patients to those of people unaffected by the disorder.

PNEUMONIA VACCINE. Although a vaccine exists that protects patients from pneumonia, only 37% of eligible Connecticut residents receive the inoculation, and University of Connecticut medical professor Mark Metersky is conducting a poll of 3,200 Connecticut physicians to find out why. Studies have shown that the vaccine could reduce pneumonia hospitalizations by 10%, which translates into millions of dollars in health care savings in the state annually. Professor Metersky hopes that his study, which is financed by the Albert B. Sabin Foundation of New Canaan, will help formulate a plan to improve the number of elderly receiving the vaccine.


WHERE OH WHERE. New digital mapping techniques provide a powerful tool for tracking trends in infectious diseases, insect populations, water resources, and social problems throughout Connecticut, according to University of Connecticut professor Ellen Cromley. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Professor Cromley has worked on several projects for the state Department of Public Health, exploring the distribution of problems as varied as teen births and Lyme Disease. "We have seen a digital revolution," she said. "Instead of using paper maps, we now store and analyze geographic data using computers."

RABBITS TO THE RESCUE. Transgenic rabbits developed by University of Connecticut professor Jerry Yang produce genetically altered milk that contains a rare enzyme needed to help victims of a muscle disorder known as Pompe's disease. Using a micro-injection process, Professor Yang implanted a gene for alpha-glucosidase in a rabbit genome; the altered animals provide about 1 gram of the enzyme per liter of milk. The enzyme, which can reduce or eliminate the effects of the disease when injected in a functional form into humans, will be extracted by a Dutch pharmaceutical company. The company, which expects to have its rabbit-milking facilities ready in about two years, will maintain a stable of 200 rabbits, which will be able to produce enough of the enzyme for Pompe's disease victims throughout the world.

PROGRESS IN ROBOTIC VISION. Moving away from stalled attempts to create a complex, human-style visual system that can recognize anything, Yale computer scientist Gregory Hager has begun to achieve breakthroughs in the field of robotic vision by taking advantage of powerful desktop computers to develop a software-based, modular approach to robotic vision. His system, which allows robots to recognize objects by analyzing images to detect underlying components, involves writing separate software programs to solve each visual problem, and then linking the programs together. "That may not be the way humans perform vision tasks, but it seems to be a good model for computers," he said.

NEW DNA By washing DNA sequences in solutions of copper and vitamin C, Yale biology professor Ronald Breaker has produced new forms of DNA that act as enzymes, binding to and cutting into other DNA strands. Stemming in part from the work of Yale Nobel laureate and CASE member Sidney Altman, who first isolated RNA enzymes, Professor Breaker's work suggests that DNA may have evolved as an enzyme rather than an information storehouse. His new DNA eventually could be used to treat genetic diseases by snipping out flawed gene segments and replacing them with corrected versions; RNA enzymes are already being developed for such treatments.

EYES TO THE ARIZONA SKY. A remote viewing room recently constructed at Yale University allows astronomers to use a $13.4 million telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory while they are still in New Haven. The new system, which uses two work-stations, each displaying five or six data screens at a time, allows scientists to avoid flying back and forth to Tucson. The telescope, which is the second largest on Kitt Peak, is considered one of the finest optical ground-based telescopes, with several technological breakthroughs that prevent mirror distortion, and the ability to view as many as 100 stars or galaxies at a time.

BRAIN ORIENTATION. The human brain may work like the inertial guidance system on an intercontinental ballistic missile, says Yale neuroscientist Patricia E. Sharp. Professor Sharp, who is studying how human brains track their changing location by investigating neural activity in rats, theorizes that in humans, one group of brain cells keeps track of the direction that the head is facing, while another group monitors how much it moves. Like a missile's guidance system, the brain keeps track of location by measuring its deviation from a previous course. The research could be used to design navigational instruments for robots, and to develop neural network computer circuits.


MOSQUITO KILLER. Using software designed for precision welding, Groton-based entrepreneur James A. Nolen has developed a mosquito zapper than can kill 200 to 300 of the insects a night, without hurting other, beneficial bugs. The device, known as Dragonfly, lures mosquitoes by emitting the exact amounts of carbon dioxide and octanol used by mosquitoes to home in on their prey. Octanol is a type of alcohol produced by digestion. Since mosquitoes also rely on body temperature to find their victims, Dragonfly contains a thermal lure as well. The 23-pound device, which will be manufactured by Waterbury Cos., will be marketed to dairy farmers, restaurateurs, and homeowners.

CHINESE DNA. Perkin-Elmer Corp, of Norwalk, and a California company will join in a DNA-sequencing project in Shanghai, giving the companies access to the genetic diversity of China, which contains 20% of the world's population. The two companies will provide large-scale, automated DNA analysis, and gene sequencing services. Chinese officials have said that they want to increase the country's contribution to DNA research.

RUSSIAN METAL PACT. Metal Workers Worldwide, a division of Ulbrich Stainless Steels and Special Metals Inc., of North Haven, has signed an agreement with a Russian company to trade metal alloys. Under the agreement, the Russian company, FIKO Group, J.S.C., will supply Ulbrich wire, strip, bar, and sheet metals to aerospace and energy markets in the Ukraine and Russia.

WATER SOLUBLE DRUGS. Vion Pharmaceuticals of New Haven has received a $100,000 grant from the National Institute of Health to help the company develop a water-soluble form of an anti-cancer drug. According to Vion president John Spears, new drugs are often in solid form and cannot be dissolved in water, preventing the human body from absorbing them; the challenge is to find water-soluble forms of the drugs that still retain their effectiveness. The potential drug, known as OCX-191, is intended to fight leukemia and lung cancer.

IMAGING BREAKTHROUGH. XiTec, of East Windsor, has signed an agreement with Varian Imaging Products that will allow it to incorporate an innovative medical imaging device into its portable x-ray machines. The machines will use amorphous silicon arrays, which can economically make sensors large enough to be used for diagnostic imaging. Developed by Varian, the silicon arrays should increase the efficiency of diagnostic x-rays while decreasing their cost.


ROAD REVIEW. According to a study by the Connecticut Policy and Economic Council (CPEC), federal surveys rank Connecticut's highway system above those in any other New England state. This is a result, says CPEC vice-president Michael Levin, of a $13 billion, 11-year overhaul of the state's transportation network. The rehabilitation program, financed primarily by gasoline taxes, was begun after the 1983 collapse of the Mianus River Bridge on Interstate 95. Federal surveys found 57% of Connecticut's highways to be in better than fair condition, and 69% of its bridges to be better than deficient.

GAS-POWERED ELECTRICITY. South Windsor-based International Fuel Cells (IFC) is developing a fuel cell that allows electric cars to rely on gas, methane or alcohol, instead of batteries. Fuel cell technology, which produces electricity through a hydrogen reaction, has not been used for cars because, in the past, the hydrogen needed to be compressed and stored in heavy, costly tanks. However, a new process extracts the hydrogen directly from gasoline. IFC hopes to develop a fuel cell that can be used in all types of cars; one car manufacturer recently announced plans to produce a prototype fuel cell car by the year 2005.

SKY HIGH. Connecticut state police will soon have their own helicopter fleet, thanks to a federal program that donates decommissioned military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The state will receive two airworthy helicopters, plus four out-of-commission helicopters which will be used for spare parts. The helicopters, which are expected to be in service within a year, will be used for search missions, observation of crime scenes, vehicle pursuits, and rapid deployment of bomb squads, SCUBA teams, and canine units.

--Compiled and edited by Karen Miller


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