UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
Inside UAB's 3D Superstore
By Matt Windsor
Looking for a 12th century chess piece? A custom Rubik’s cube? An exact copy of a seashell, the inside of an eyeball, a relief map of an Egyptian burial ground, or an obscure protein?
UAB computer scientist Kenneth Sloan, Ph.D., has them all in stock. If you’re searching for something else—anything else—he can get it. Or, to be precise, make it. Just give him a day or two, and $20 per cubic inch.
Inside Sloan’s lab on the ground floor of Campbell Hall are five 3D printers, ranging from entry level to commercial grade. These magic machines, which recently earned a spot on the cover of Wired magazine, transform computer files into reality. Instead of ink, their “print heads” extrude a thin stream of superheated plastic in layers seven-thousands of an inch thick. Building layer upon layer, a 3D printer can make a nearly infinite variety of objects.
3D Print Lab with their own designs.Sloan and his students have made life-size models of Tetris pieces, intricate puzzles, and elaborate contraptions that could be produced in no other way. But these “toys” only offer a hint of what is possible, Sloan says. The printers’ true value is becoming clear as other UAB researchers come to the
Putting a New Spin on Computer SecurityBy Matt Windsor
Computer security researchers put themselves into the minds of cybercriminals to figure out what they might do next. Nitesh Saxena, Ph.D., takes a different approach. His mission is to get inside the minds of users—quite literally, in his latest project—to figure out how to protect them from new attacks.
Saxena is the head of the SPIES (Security and Privacy in Emerging Computing and Networking Systems) research group in the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences. “Most traditional security research focuses on the attackers,” Saxena says. “We work on the defense side, with an emphasis on the end users.”
The SPIES lab puts the “strengths and weaknesses of the computer user” under the microscope, Saxena explains. Or under the brain scanner, to be precise. In one new project, Saxena has partnered with Rajesh Kana, Ph.D., a researcher in the UAB Department of Psychology who specializes in using brain imaging for autism research. The interdisciplinary duo has started scanning volunteers while they perform everyday security tasks. The subjects have to decide whether the sites they are looking at are real or fake—the actual Facebook home page or a knockoff, for example—or they are asked to heed a security warning while reading an article.
“We want to understand, from a neuroscience perspective, what happens when people are making these security decisions, and especially what happens when they are rushed into making decisions, as often happens online,” Saxena says. “We are still in the early stages, but this may give us clues on how to design warnings and safeguards that are more effective.”
Zombies Inspire Student’s Disease Research
By Charles Buchanan
Virginia Chu admits that she was a bad zombie.
During her undergraduate years at Georgia Tech, the Atlanta native participated in the campuswide “Humans vs. Zombies” game. Players begin as humans, except for one student zombie with a mission to “infect” the others by touching them. Once tagged, the new zombies seek their own prey, setting in motion a weeklong race to survive the apocalypse.
Players wear bandanas identifying them as human or zombie, so “it’s hard to be sneaky and infect somebody”—always her downfall, recalls Chu, now an epidemiology student in the UAB School of Public Health. But her attempts to hunt human victims helped her to discover the science within the game—and translate it into a tool for modeling the spread of infectious diseases.
“The textbook case for disease modeling is cruise ships—figuring out how fast a disease can spread depending on the size of the ship, and whether quarantine or treatment is the best solution,” explains Chu, who has had a longstanding interest in infectious diseases. The zombie game, however, provides a living, breathing case study that researchers can follow as it progresses in a real-world setting.
How Human Interaction Impacts Evolution
By Tara Hulen
Literature tells us that no man—or woman—is an island. Over millennia, humans have formed an interconnected web that spans the planet.
In fact, that interaction may play a key role in human survival. Eduardo Neiva, Ph.D., professor in the UAB Department of Communication Studies, and James Lull, Ph.D., emeritus professor at San Jose State University, have written The Language of Life: How Communication Drives Human Evolution (2012: Prometheus Books), which revolves around “the idea that communication is central to all biological development,” Neiva explains. In other words, survival goes to the most communicative as well as to the fittest. And since communication involves cooperation, the one who offers the helping hand usually has the advantage over the backstabber.
UAB Magazine: As a humanities professor, what brought you to write about what is usually a topic for biologists?
Neiva: The humanities have operated with the strict notion that what matters are differences: of cultures, of the sexes, in everything. The idea in this book is that everything is unified. Life is actually a great chain of interaction; all living forms interact with one another, and that creates change.
UAB Magazine: People usually think of that interaction in evolution in a negative way—survival of the fittest—but you don’t seem to see it like that.
Neiva: One reason we wrote the book is that we were very frustrated with some general notions that were attached to evolution—one of them is it’s all about survival of the fittest. Evolutionary theory has always favored that phrase, which has, in the popular mind, been considered the dominant factor. But that notion forgets many other things that are absolutely key to evolution, such as cooperation.
The idea is not a new one. Prince [Pyotr Alexeyevich] Kropotkin wrote a brilliant book, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, in 1902 about how mutual aid drives evolution. Oral traditions, passing on skills, the existence of societies—all of these advance evolution and require mutual aid.
Communication and social life are not just human traits, either, despite what people often think of as the rule. Social life is everywhere. Bees, for instance, are a marvel of elaborate social division.
What Glutamate Can Teach Us About Depression, Schizophrenia, Cancer, and More
By Kathleen Yount
Glutamate is the incredible, edible neurotransmitter. This amino acid is found in chips, yogurt, and ice cream, as well as the much-maligned MSG. It is also the key ingredient that helps neurons communicate, learn, make memories, and perform other essential functions.
For years, scientists have kept an eye on glutamate, suspecting that it plays a role in several debilitating diseases. But only recently have they discovered how to do anything about it. UAB researchers are leading the way in studies that could bring new treatments and new hope for people suffering from depression, schizophrenia, and even brain cancer.
All Hail the King
Glutamate is the most abundant excitatory neurotransmitter, which means its job is to stimulate neurons. It works in tandem with GABA, the main inhibitory neurotransmitter, to maintain balance in the brain.
Glutamate and GABA are the king and queen of neurotransmitters. All others—including the more-famous serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine—have important functions of their own, but ultimately they serve to modulate the glutamate and GABA systems.
The brain’s glutamate balancing act revolves around a highly evolved system of molecules called receptors to which glutamate binds to produce actions in the brain’s cells. Another family of molecules called transporters mops up unused glutamate after it has been released. Much of the current research on glutamate dysfunction centers on these processes of give, take, and transport, to see if understanding the exchange can shed light on what happens when the glutamate system goes wrong, and how we might make it right again.