TAMS student research covers broad range of topics

Article Author: 
Leslie Wimmer

Students enrolled in UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, an early college entry program for advanced high school students, conduct research and gain experience in UNT's cutting-edge lab spaces, working on projects that span the sciences and have real-world impact.

TAMS students develop medical technology, research alternative energy sources, investigate neurological conditions and help develop new materials that can change how everyday products are manufactured and used.

"The precocious intellect and high energy of TAMS students matches well with the state-of-the-art research being conducted in UNT's laboratories," said TAMS Dean Richard Sinclair. "For a quarter of a century, TAMS students have been productive participants in scientific research at UNT."

Monitoring vital signs

Natalie Wingfield recently worked with Vijay Vaidyanathan from UNT's College of Engineering to develop a vital signs monitoring device that can measure a person's pulse, blood pressure, ECG and oxygen levels, and send that data via Bluetooth technology to a computer. The device is valuable for doctors to be able to monitor patients away from an exam room, she says.

Wingfield also is currently working on a computational project with Vaidyanathan to investigate whether running various electrical currents through cancerous tissue may provide physicians with a more affordable way to detect cancer.

For Wingfield, the biomedical field is personal.

"The reason I'm interested in these projects is because of my little sister. She was adopted from China, and over the years I learned a lot about the poor conditions many people live in there," she says. "Eventually, I want to create medical technology for third world countries, and the experience I'm gaining here at UNT will help me do that. It has really solidified my interest in the field."

Thermoelectric generators

Annabel Wang conducts research on thermoelectric generators with Haley Lobland, research associate, and Witold Brostow, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in UNT's College of Engineering, along with John White from Marlow Industries in Dallas.

Thermoelectric generators use temperature differences to generate electricity and have potential to help the products people use every day, such as freezers, become more environmentally friendly.

"Freezers use the chemical compound Freon, which bonds with oxygen molecules in the atmosphere and are a main cause of ozone depletion," Wang says. "If we can replace those ozone destroying components with a thermoelectric device, we will help the environment by creating alternative energy sources as well as reducing ozone depleting compounds."

However, one challenge in working with thermoelectric generators is finding a material that can withstand long-term use. Semiconductor materials in thermoelectric devices carry electrical currents, which react with oxygen in the atmosphere, leading to degradation. As the material degrades, so does its ability to generate voltage from temperature differences. Wang is investigating various high-temperature polymers to identify materials that can withstand the temperature stresses of operation and can be incorporated in thermoelectric devices to increase the service life of thermoelectric generators.

Transition metal compounds

Sivabalan Manivasagam researches computational chemistry, with a particular focus on transition metals, with Angela Wilson, professor of chemistry.

Transition metals are found in the central block of the periodic table, and include iron, chromium and copper, among other metals. Transition metals are used in nearly every industrial sector, including medical, food production, transportation and energy.  

One of the most important aspects of transition metals is their potential for use as catalysts in chemical reactions, Manivasagam says.

"Scientists want to know at what temperature these compounds work best, how easily can we produce these as catalysts, and how efficient are they with reactant molecules," he says. "Understanding their thermochemical properties is important for us to understand how they can be used."

Manivasagam currently is using computational methods Wilson developed to gather thermochemical information about transition metals. Wilson's computational methods are highly accurate and cost effective, as other highly accurate methods of testing can be very expensive in terms of computer time, memory and disk space requirements.  

"So far we have applied these methods to more than 180 transition metal compounds," he says. "There isn't much accurate and current experimental data available for most of these compounds, so these results will be important to the field."

Epilepsy

Valerie Huynh, Keven Chen and Bobby Wang are working with Biology Professor Jannon Fuchs, professor of biology, to study two brain receptors in the hippocampus region that may play a role in the severity of seizures in epilepsy.

The receptors the group is focusing on play an important role in mediating seizures, and haven't been studied in depth before. The group also is researching the rate at which stem cells multiply after a seizure.

"So far our results have been very interesting," Huynh says. "We're seeing that stem cells proliferate rapidly after seizures and generate new cells to replace damaged cells."

Also, by better understanding how receptors are involved in seizures, researchers may be able to develop better treatments for epilepsy, Fuchs says.