Technologies That Make a Difference

Posted: July 6, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: July 6, 2009 at 9:50 am

By Marjorie Musick and Jennifer Edgerly

Three new innovations developed by Mason faculty members may play a key role in improving the lives of people worldwide. One will assist those with writing disabilities, another may reduce injuries from land mines and a third aims to improve global food production.

A Helping Hand for Writing

My Scrivener can help people with writing disabilities. Image courtesy of Sue Palsbo

My Scrivener can help people with writing disabilities. Image courtesy of Sue Palsbo

Sue Palsbo, principal research associate in the College of Health and Human Services’ Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability, has developed an inexpensive computer game device that could help people with writing difficulties to regain control of their writing skills.

My Scrivener, which is currently undergoing a clinical trial in Oregon, provides repetitive motion training for individuals who have trouble with fine-motor control of their hands. The device is intended to provide personalized occupational and physical therapy for children or adults with disabilities and to serve as an assistive technology device for those with permanent handwriting deficits.

It may also fill a major unmet need in rehabilitation science for technology that analyzes fine-motor movement in the arms and hands, and could one day become a valuable tool for rehabilitating patients with traumatic brain injuries.

“This virtual teaching system is an inexpensive, portable and user-friendly interface that provides a repetitive and engaging approach to letter writing,” says Palsbo. “We are hopeful that this technology will improve the quality of life for people with writing difficulties.”

Zoran Duric, associate professor in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering’s Department of Computer Science, and his students contributed to this research.

My Scrivener is owned by George Mason Intellectual Properties and by Obslap Research LLP. Funding for the research and development of My Scrivener was provided through the U.S. Department of Education’s Small Business Innovation Research Program (SBIR). This YouTube video provides a demonstration of the tool.

Listening to Land Mines

Ken Hintz

Ken Hintz

People living in the United States don’t have to worry about land mines when walking across an open field. But for many people living in Africa and Asia, the fear is very real. The U.S. Department of State estimates that 45-50 million land mines worldwide remain to be cleared and that land mines claim 15,000-20,000 victims each year in 90 countries.

Ken Hintz, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and his co-principal investigator Nathalia Peixoto, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, are currently working on a new way to detect and identify land mines in the ground. Their research is funded by the Office of Naval Research.

“Conventional ground-penetrating radars, typically used to locate land mines, have difficulty distinguishing among land mines and other small objects that are just clutter,” says Hintz. “This leads to a high false alarm rate and is the problem we are trying to target. We are working on a method that uses syntactic pattern recognition to distinguish among rocks, hubcaps and land mines.”

Nathalia Peixoto

Nathalia Peixoto

To detect land mines, the researchers are using a ground-penetrating radar that radiates an electromagnetic signal. This signal bounces off objects in the ground when there is a change in materials, reflecting electromagnetic energy back to the surface and allowing them to see patterns inside the land mine.

Hintz explains that he processes the radar return to produce a sequence of 1s and 0s when it hits an object in the ground. This sequence varies, depending on the object. Each type of land mine produces a unique sequence, making it much easier to distinguish land mines from clutter. Hintz refers to these sequences as the “language of mines.”

“Using our methodology, we are concerned about what’s inside the land mine, not what’s outside around it,” says Hintz. “If this technique continues to work as well as we believe it does, we may someday be able to not only detect and remove all land mines quickly, but also make it no longer cost effective to put land mines in the ground.”

A Revolutionary Chip Speeds Up Genetic Research in Cows

Lakshmi Mattamukalli

Lakshmi Matukumalli

The bovine chip

The BovineSNP50 BeadChip

Lakshmi Matukumalli, research assistant professor in the Department of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, has helped to lay the groundwork for improving the quality of milk and beef while lessening the environmental impact of cattle.

A visiting scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Matukumalli collaborated with researchers from the USDA, the University of Missouri, the University of Alberta and Illumina Inc. to develop a high-density DNA mapping and identification tool called the BovineSNP50 BeadChip. The chip is revolutionizing cattle genetic improvement and genomics research.

Matukumalli and his colleagues recently won two outstanding technology transfer awards from the Agricultural Research Service, USDA and Federal Laboratory Consortium for the development and commercialization of the BovineSNP50 assay.

“This chip is a small etched glass slide that can simultaneously analyze 12 individual cattle DNA samples each for 54,001 variations. Each of the 12 stripes on the chip contains millions of coded probes. You can spread one DNA sample on each of these stripes and the probes will produce a specific color of light that identifies the animal’s genomic makeup,” says Matukumalli.

“This chip has allowed us to rapidly capture important genetic information to determine and compare the genetic merit of bulls used in artificial insemination for making animal selection decisions at reduced costs. The dairy industry adaptation of this technology in the U.S. is almost 100 percent. This chip has also helped identify core marker sets for use in dairy and beef industries at still lower genotyping costs.”

An article describing the SNP chip development was published in PLOS One.

This project was funded by the USDA and cattle artificial insemination industries, and was developed through a specific cooperative agreement between the USDA and Illumina Inc. For the benefit of cattle genome researchers throughout the world, this product has been commercialized as The BovineSNP50 BeadChip and is produced by Illumina.

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