Fall 2013 Magazine

Data as Art

Stories From the Intersection

Energy and environment • Health and wellness • Materials • Systems • Creating leaders


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Health and wellness

Biofilms research may help in battle against stubborn infections

Bacteria on a surface wander around and often organize into highly resilient communities known as biofilms. Within biofilms, bacteria change their gene expression patterns and are far more resistant to antibiotics and the body’s immune defenses.

Erik Luijten, associate professor of engineering sciences and applied mathematics and of materials science and engineering, worked with a multidisciplinary team of researchers from UCLA and the University of Washington to elucidate the early formation of biofilms. The study is the first to identify the strategy by which bacteria form the microcolonies that become biofilms. The research, published in May in the journal Nature, may have significant implications for battling stubborn bacterial infections that do not respond to antibiotics.

Bacteria lay sugar trails (shown here in computer simulations) to help find each other. The green/yellow areas have the highest sugar concentration and act as formation points for bacterial colonies that grow into biofilms.The researchers developed algorithms that describe the movements of the different strains of the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa and conducted computer simulations tomap the bacteria’s movements. P. aeruginosa can cause difficult-to-treat and even lethal infections, including those found in cystic fibrosis and AIDS patients.

The researchers found that as bacteria move across a surface, they leave trails. This network of trails creates a process of positive feedback and enables bacteria to organize into microcolonies that mature into biofilms. Interestingly, the researchers found that these biofilms develop in accordance with Zipf’s Law, which has been used to describe the rich-get-richer phenomenon in the US economy.

Energy and environment

Insights could help preserve coral reefs

Corals that are less efficient at light scattering are more likely to survive under stressful conditions.Corals themselves contribute to their susceptibility to deadly coral bleaching due to the light-scattering properties of their skeletons, an interdisciplinary research team from Northwestern and the Field Museum of Natural History has found.

Using optical technology designed for early cancer detection, the researchers discovered that corals that are less efficient at light scattering retain algae better under stressful conditions such as temperature changes and are more likely to survive. Corals whose skeletons scatter light most efficiently have an advantage under normal conditions but suffer the most damage when stressed.

The study of nearly 100 different species of reef-building corals, including many from the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, was conducted by Luisa A. Marcelino, research assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Vadim Backman, Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering, with researchers at the Field Museum.

The team used Backman’s low-coherence enhanced backscattering technique to measure light transport and light amplification inside the skeletons of 96 coral species. Until LEBS became available, it was impossible to measure how fast light amplification increases with the loss of algae.

Creating leaders

Students build home for Nicaraguan family

Volunteers with Architecture Brigades with the newly built homeAs volunteers with Architecture Brigades, a group of McCormick students traveled to Nicaragua during spring break to build a home for a family in need. The program, part of the student-led global health and sustainable development organization Global Brigades, enables students to design and construct socially responsible and sustainable architecture solutions in underdeveloped countries.

Working with members of the community, the students mixed concrete, dug trenches, and built a new house from the ground up. While their engineering skills came in handy, the most important thing they brought to the experience was compassion.

“I learned that going down to Central America to help build a home for somebody doesn’t require any complex equations or any high-level thinking,” said junior Ryan Yang. “It just really requires the desire and the will to help somebody out.”

Global Architecture Brigades in Action

In spring 2013, a group of students from Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering traveled to Nicaragua. While building a home for a family in need, they used their design and engineering skills and, in the process, learned an important lesson about helping others.


Researchers create desktop nanofabrication tool

Chad MirkinA new low-cost, high-resolution tool is primed to revolutionize how nanotechnology is produced from the desktop, according to Northwestern researchers.

Most nanofabrication is currently done in multibilliondollar centralized foundries. This breakthrough allows the construction of very high-quality materials and devices, such as processing semiconductors over large areas, with an instrument slightly larger than a printer.

The research was led by Chad Mirkin, the George B. Rathmann Professor of Chemistry in the Judd A. and Marjorie Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of medicine, chemical and biological engineering, biomedical engineering, and materials science and engineering.

Mirkin’s team created a tool that produces working devices and structures at the nanoscale level in a matter of hours, right at the point of use—the nanofabrication equivalent of a desktop printer. The tool is poised to prototype a diverse range of functional structures, from gene chips to protein arrays to building patterns that control how stem cells differentiate.

Because the materials used to make the desktop nanofabrication tool are easily accessible, commercialization may be as little as two years away.


Andriod antivairal products easily evaded, study says

Working with partners from North Carolina State University, McCormick researchers tested 10 of the most popular antiviral products for Android and found each could be easily outsmarted.McCormick researches found that 10 of the most popular antiviral products for android could be easily outsmarted.

Yan Chen, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and his group began by testing six known viruses on the fully functional versions of 10 of the most popular Android antiviral products, most of which have been downloaded by millions of users.

Using a tool they developed called DroidChameleon, the researchers applied common techniques—such as simple switches in a virus’s binary code or file name—to transform the viruses into slightly altered but equally damaging versions. Dozens of transformed viruses were then tested on the antiviral products, often slipping through the software unnoticed.

The researchers found that all of the antiviral products could be evaded but weren’t equally susceptible to the transformed attacks.

The products’ shortcomings are due to overly simple content-based signatures, special patterns used to screen for viruses, the researchers said, suggesting that the products should use a more sophisticated static analysis to accurately seek out transformed attacks.