UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
UAB Researcher Tests the Limits of Distracted Driving
By Matt Windsor
If you are reading this story behind the wheel, do the rest of us a favor and put down the smartphone.
While texting, mobile browsing, and push e-mail have been a boon for chatty teens and globetrotting executives, they are just about the worst thing that has ever happened to the American roadway, says Despina Stavrinos, Ph.D., an expert on distracted driving and director of UAB’s Translational Research for Injury Prevention Laboratory, or TRIP Lab. When the information superhighway meets the real thing, wrecks are bound to occur.
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Can a UAB Magazine editor—and serious multitasker—pass the distracted-driving challenge? Find out in this video.
“Over half a million drivers are injured each year due to distracted driving, and more than 6,000 people die from collisions caused by cell phone-related distractions,” says Stavrinos.
You don’t need a cell phone to practice distracted driving. Old standbys like tuning the radio or applying makeup will also take your eyes off the road. In fact, distraction is probably as old as assisted locomotion. Humans are naturally attracted by novel stimuli and bored with repetition, so we all have a tendency to take our minds off what we are doing when we’re moving around—whether it’s by horse-drawn buggy or SUV.
But you have much more room for error behind the reins of a horse than behind the wheel of a Hummer pushing 80 on an urban interstate. The range of distractions open to drivers these days is wider than ever, too—with cell phones leading the way. “Texting is particularly dangerous because it involves all three categories of distraction: You have to take your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, and your mind off the road as well,” Stavrinos says.
Inside the Danger Zone with UAB's Child Safety Expert
By Matt Windsor
David Schwebel’s quest to keep children out of harm’s way began with a big purple dinosaur. When the UAB psychology professor was an undergraduate at Yale University, he knew he wanted to work with kids even though he was "naive" about how to go about doing that. So he approached a professor doing research in the field, and it just so happened the professor needed help studying a new TV show— Barney & Friends.
As an undergraduate, Schwebel
"It was just so exciting to influence millions of kids," he says. "So when
Schwebel’s mentor wanted to see if children were actually learning something when they watched Barney, a purple T. rex, cavort around the studio. “We discovered that it was actually fantastically successful,” says Schwebel. The Yale researchers gave Barney’s producers some ideas on ways to increase kids’ learning even more, and the show was tweaked based on that feedback. “It was just so exciting to influence millions of kids,” Schwebel says. “So when I went to graduate school, I decided to do something that would make a difference in people’s lives.”
Since coming to UAB in 2001, Schwebel has done just that. In a series of intriguing, headline-grabbing experiments, he has highlighted the dangers in a range of childhood activities, from crossing the street to playing on a playground and taking a swim at the local pool.
Schwebel’s fieldwork has taken him to local hockey rinks, Iowa cornfields, and communities in Africa and China. As often as not, though, his experiments are based in the Youth Safety Lab in UAB’s Campbell Hall, where danger lurks behind every door. Open one and you’ll find a virtual-reality crosswalk designed to test kids’ decision-making as pedestrians. Down the hall is a contraption, topped by a toy frog, that seeks to determine a teen’s grasp of what is and is not physically possible. Another room contains a scale model of a busy intersection, complete with lights, crosswalks, and a giant mechanical centipede that crosses streets.
These unusual pieces of scientific equipment have helped Schwebel learn some important lessons about child safety—and translate his findings into action that has helped thousands of children around the world.
By Erin Thacker
There is, at this very moment, a time capsule within your body that holds the secrets to the great deeds of your ancestors. Make that a great many time capsules, which also have some very important day jobs—namely, keeping you alive, and possibly killing you as well.
These are the mitochondria, the “powerhouses of the cell” that get their 15 minutes of fame during elementary school lessons on basic biology. Mitochondria provide the majority of the energy in most aerobic cells by using oxygen to extract the energy in food and produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, our body’s main energy source. But the mitochondria are much more than cellular power stations. These ubiquitous organelles are also involved in many other critical cellular processes, including growth, replication, movement, aging, and programmed cell death.
The process of producing ATP has the side effect of generating “reactive oxygen species,” or oxidants, the most infamous of which are the free radicals. These are molecules that, lacking a full complement of electrons, steal them from other molecules. This turns the victimized molecules into free radicals themselves, perpetuating a vicious cycle that can cause cellular damage or even cell death. As mitochondria age, they seem to produce more free radicals and less ATP, which some scientists argue contributes to the winding-down process that leads to our deaths.
UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center. Singh also is the founder of the national Mitochondria Research and Medicine Society, the first organization of its kind, as well as the research journal Mitochondrion.Mitochondrial dysfunction also plays a role in many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and stroke, explains Keshav Singh, Ph.D., Joy and Bill Harbert Endowed Chair in Cancer Genetics and director of the Cancer Genetics Program in the
Singh is one of a growing number of UAB scientists exploring the boundaries of mitochondrial medicine. Victor Darley-Usmar, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Pathology and director of the Center for Free Radical Biology at UAB, says that mitochondrial research has “been a playground to develop some of the hottest ideas” in biology. In the past few decades, “we learned more about the evolution of the human race from mitochondrial genetics than we did in a couple of hundred years of archaeology.”
UAB computer scientist Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., has been attracting attention in the computing community for his research into “waste data”—the vast amounts of computer hard drives that are occupied by files that are never used. “I got interested in this idea and did some tests on my own computers,” Hasan says. “I found that anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the files on my laptop were not being read. I later repeated that on my desktop and on the department file server at Johns Hopkins and found the same numbers. So then I thought about the impact of this much waste and how we could handle it.”
The initial reaction to the waste-data problem is obvious, Hasan continues: Just delete the files. “But deletion isn’t free,” he points out. “If the files are on a hard disk, it takes considerable time to delete them. And if you have a smartphone or something else with a flash drive, you are going to be using up the available life cycle of the drive. Many people don’t realize this, but a flash drive has a fixed life cycle—often 10,000 times.”
Another seemingly simple solution—adding more storage—is also more complicated than it at first appears. “A terabyte drive may only cost $50 these days, but the total amount of person hours to maintain that amount of storage is five to seven times the amount that is spent on the drive itself.”
The problem is especially important for the “hundreds and thousands of disk drives” in cloud computer centers, Hasan says. He is convinced that the computing industry needs to take inspiration from real-life waste-management operators and focus on three steps: reduce, reuse, recycle. “In my research I have come up with a number of techniques for reducing data waste,” Hasan says. He will continue to work with student researchers at UAB to refine these techniques.
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In addition to his research interests in cloud computing and waste data, UAB computer scientist Ragib Hasan, Ph.D., is focusing on one of the Web’s most popular sites: Wikipedia. Since 2005, he has been an administrator for both the English- and Bengali-language sections of the site.
Hasan is convinced that one of the greatest threats to Wikipedia is the practice of using false identities to deface or otherwise manipulate entries in the vast online encyclopedia, especially hot topics such as abortion or the conflict between India and Pakistan. “Wikipedia is built on discussion and consensus, but people can game the system by creating multiple fake identities,” Hasan explains. “That way they can create a fake majority and throw its support behind a position.”
Wikipedia deals with this threat by looking at the IP addresses of posters—the string of numbers that identifies unique computers connected to the Internet. “That doesn’t always work, though, because people can hide or switch their IP addresses,” Hasan says. “I’m working with Dr. Thamar Solario in the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences to create a tool that analyzes what people are saying in a discussion thread to identify individual users who are masquerading as other people.”
Secure Delivery: The ability to verify the source and history of digital documents is a major interest of businesses and governments. Hasan and UAB assistant professor of computer and information sciences Thamar Solorio, Ph.D., are exploring the use of secure identifiers for documents that can determine the data’s provenance. The research has attracted the attention of the U.S. Office of Naval Research, which recently awarded the team a three-year grant to support the project.
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