2017 Research Highlights From The University Of Michigan

The University of Michigan had a great 2017. With about $1.48 billion spent on research, they brought forth many different and signification contributions to our understanding of the world and our place in it.

Researchers at the University of Michigan understand the importance of both looking back into our past and looking towards the future. They have unearthed one of the most complete mastodon fossils ever found in the area. With personalized medicine making strides, researchers have been able to apply that path to cancer.

They have even been able to discover a new water-repellant coating that could keep cars, phones, clothes, and many other things safe from water. It could also help to reduce our fuel usage dramatically. Among the chaos and threat of climate change, the researchers have also been working on advancing us into the future with improvements made in testing driverless cars.

Mastodon in Michigan

In a joint project between the University of Michigan and the Fowler Center, the excavation resulted in the most complete mastodon skeleton found in Michigan since the 1940s. The Fowler Center mastodon bones were discovered two years before the October 2016 dig, eroding from a stream bank on the center’s property. More than 75 complete or nearly complete bones, accounting for 60 to 70 percent of the extinct mammal’s skeletal mass, were found during the four-day dig.

Skull of the mastodon. Credit: Levi Stroud, Michigan News

Mastodons are an extinct relative of the elephants and their fossils indicate that they were fairly common in Michigan with over 300 fossils found over the decades. This particular mastodon is thought to have died around 11,000-13,000 years ago because of humans.

Preliminary studies of the bones suggested that the mastodon’s carcass may have been processed by early human hunters or scavengers. This is supported by the articulation of the fossil bones where the bones are in the same position as when it was alive. Also, the articulated bones appear to have been separated and placed in groups, further indicating that they were broken apart with relative care.

The bones have been donated to the University of Michigans’ Museum of Paleontology as the researchers currently working on understanding the extent of human interactions with the mastodon. These insights are important because they allow us to understand our ancestors and how they interacted with their prey. These kinds of behaviors are crucial in developing a picture of our former selves as we try to understand how behaviors have changed since those thousands of years ago.

Bringing Driverless Cars To The Present

As many companies begin testing their driverless cars and attempt to get through the rigorous process needed to ensure that these vehicles are safe and functional, society is looking with great intent at this revolutionary technology. As cars become smarter and driverless, they can talk to each other by sending information about speed, distance, and other factors. These functionalities contribute to increased safety, less traffic, and a more streamlined travel experience.

Testing a driverless car at Mcity (Credit: University of Michigan)

To help bring these cars into the fabric of society, Mobility researchers at the University of Michigan have worked to develop a way to test driverless cars that fast-tracks them into becoming consumer devices. To do this, the University of Michigan developed Mcity, a unique test facility designed expressly to recreate a wide variety of real driving situations under rigorous, repeatable conditions. It is this facility that allowed the University of Michigan to eliminate millions of miles of on-road testing, where traffic situations occur at random and at unpredictable times and places. They have achieved worldwide recognition for this facility and its advancement in driverless vehicle testing.

The accelerated tests take difficult real-world driving situations and break them down into components to be tested and simulated repeatedly. This exposes the driverless vehicles to challenging driving situations in a condensed way. So, using this method, an automated car that undergoes 1,000 miles of condensed testing can yield about 300,000 to 100 million miles of equivalent real-world driving.

This is a significant drop but must face some increase.  the researchers want to examine more rare driving conditions to cover any and all situations that might occur. This means that they have to create a test that covers over 100 million miles of similar real-world driving. To bolster consumer confidence, they would also have to do these simulations for urban environments, which many situations.

To develop this test, the researchers looked at data from over 25 million miles of real-world driving conducted by Safety Pilot Model Deployment and Integrated Vehicle-Based Safety Systems. Over 2 years, countless volunteers, and over 3,000 cars, data were collected to create simulations for many different conditions.

Given the risk, money, and confidence that entails of automated cars, more research is needed to create a full picture of real-world driving. If successful, automated cars would cause society to alter the way we build roads, parking garages, and any other areas that cars intersect.

Personalizing Cancer Treatment

Like driverless cars, personalized medicine stands to revolutionize our healthcare system because drug production, treatments, and other areas will be changed to accommodate the individual rather than groups. Drugs can be created in precise dosages that take into consideration the particular metabolic rate of an individual instead of being created to match the average of a group. This would create more effective drugs. Treatment for diseases will be more precise for the individual rather than used for multiple groups.

One area that personalized medicine is slowly changing is cancer treatment. Cancer is a great detriment to our society and results in the deaths of millions of people across the globe. Breast cancer is one of the most well-known cancers because of its great impact on humans, particularly women.

To begin the path of personalized treatment, the researchers at the University of Michigan have begun to look at ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer results in the deaths of over 10,000 people and finding an effective treatment would be a great success. The researchers created a process to grow and test hundreds of cultured cell masses called spheroids. Called a 384-hanging drop array, each of the spheroids is encased in a culturing medium and allows the cells to grow just as they would in the patient’s body.

The 384-hanging drop array containing hundreds of spheroids. Credit: Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering

The fact that they are grown like they are in the patient’s body is crucial because currently cells are usually grown in a serum, like bovine from cows, that cannot replicate conditions in a human body. These spheroids would create more accurate results versus the old way. Also, the spheroids are tiny so you can have hundreds of them in a small area.

The fact that researchers would be able to create hundreds of these spheroids means that each of them can receive their own treatment option. This means that you can test hundreds of drugs and treatments on cells representative of the cells in the patient’s body and find the best option for that particular patient, which encapsulates personalized medicine.

The speed, quantity, and accuracy mean that this technology can help to devise specific treatment and understand adaptability because ovarian cancer is highly adaptive and can develop resistance to treatments. As researchers work to improve the technology, we can apply this to many other situations including drug testing and development.

Water-repellant Coating

Waterproofing is becoming increasingly important as our technologies become more complex with parts that are delicate and sensitive. Protecting them from water damage ensures that a product remains useful and a good purchase for a consumer. We see it on phones as they are increasingly advertised as waterproofed (to a certain extent).

In general, most water-repellants have been unreliable because they fade over time and become ineffective. They are also not durable enough to be used on things such as clothes or ships. The researchers at the University of Michigan hope to change all of that. They have developed a self-healing, water-repellent, and spray-on coating water-repellant that maintains is effectiveness overtime and remains durable for almost anything.

The coating they created is a combination of two things: a material called “fluorinated polyurethane elastomer” and a specialized water-repellent molecule known as “F-POSS.” The coating creates a superhydrophobic surface that can repel water and heal itself. It heals itself by having molecules migrate to any damaged areas and filling in the gaps, thus sealing the surface once more and maintaining its water-repellency. The healing capability is only limited by how thick the coating is.

A water drop hitting the water-repellent coating and bouncing away. Credit: Anish Tuteja

Rather than focus on materials that could be durable and water-repellent, the researchers focused on the chemical properties of what makes a material water-repellent and durable. This leads them to understand the importance of  “partial miscibility,” which is the ability of two substances to partially mix together.

They also discovered that creating a coating that was pliable allowed it to contribute to water-repellent as well as ensure that it could withstand and adapt to harsh conditions. This allows it to be used for a wide array of items. One of the major items that the researchers want to see their coating on are the hulls of ships. Placing the coating would create a water-repellant hull that results in less drag as a ship travels through a body of water. This results in a 90% drop in fuel usage, which is great for the ships because they save a ton of money as well as the environment.

With the start of 2018, the University of Michigan will continue to strive towards understanding and helping the world. We can look forward to another successful year of work.

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