Recently, three professors of the College have received sizable grants for their respective projects.
Matt Carter, assistant professor of biology, received a $361,539 grant from the National Institutes of Health for his research into the role of neurons in feelings of hunger and satiation.
Through standard techniques of optogenetics, Carter uses light-sensitive proteins to stimulate regions of the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates basic body functions like hunger, thirst, sleep and fatigue. With these proteins, hunger and satiation can essentially be turned on or off just by shining a laser, which causes the proteins to interact with the associated neurons.
Carter and his researchers hope to study the extent to which these neurons control feelings of hunger and satiation. For example, they plan to research whether manipulation of the neurons can be used to overcome stomachaches or food poisoning. While his current project with this grant only deals with hunger, Carter hopes to also study how other functions, such as thirst and sleep, are controlled by neurons in the hypothalamus.
Though his current research deals with mice, the human applications are significant. Manipulation of these particular neurons could make a person feel full at a time when they would normally feel hungry and vice versa, which may be useful in remedying weight gain or severe eating disorders.
Jeannie Albrecht, associate professor of computer science, received a $42,000 portion of a $1 million National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation grant. Her work is part of a larger project with other researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in a partnership with the Holyoke Gas and Electric Company.
“The idea is basically just to take a deeper look at energy usage and see if we can help people have a better understanding of how they’re using their electricity,” Albrecht said. In addition to finding ways to gather and sort a building’s electrical data, Albrecht is also working on creating a user-friendly interface for communicating energy consumption data.
“Instead of making people read a bar graph, which is not always intuitive, we just have hexagons,” she said. The interface receives data and displays it in clusters of different colored hexagons that change based on the energy currently being used.
“The hexagons capture both power and energy, two important metrics, in a way that’s qualitative,” Albrecht said. She hopes that energy users will notice changes in the hexagons and then adjust their consumption habits accordingly.
Albrecht and her research team have set up their energy collection devices in the Class of 1966 Environmental Center’s kitchen and will implement the hexagon display as well. Their future plans include studying responses to the display and expanding their data collection into other rooms of the building.
Ronadh Cox, chair and professor of geosciences, received a $277,509 grant from the National Science Foundation to study how powerful storm waves affect boulder movements on the coasts of the Aran Islands in Ireland.
Cox plans to create numerical models of the storm waves using a physical wave tank simulation. This may show how the waves had enough force to move these boulders. As sea levels slowly rise, storm waves like these will become more common, according to some predictions. Therefore, it is important to study these systems so that coastal infrastructure can be built appropriately.
Students at the College also aid Cox in her research. “This summer, Josh Harrington ’16 began his thesis on this project, doing fieldwork on the Aran Islands, collecting Unmanned Aerial Vehicle imagery to make 3-D maps of boulder deposits,” Cox said. “Josh will be presenting some of his initial results at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Baltimore at the beginning of November.”