UAB Magazine Weekly - Features on Research
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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UAB Researcher Advances Security on Computing’s Frontier
By Matt Windsor
Imagine you are a security guard, charged with protecting a diamond necklace. Unfortunately, the necklace has been broken into a few million pieces—and they’re scattered from Seattle to Singapore and everywhere in between.
That’s the essence of the problem facing UAB computer security expert Ragib Hasan, Ph.D. Hasan is searching for ways to safeguard the far-flung packets of data created when companies entrust their information to “the cloud.” He is also preparing students for a new wave of technological change by getting them up to speed on one of the hottest topics in tech.
Apple and Google have invested heavily in cloud computing in recent years, offering users the chance to store their music and other files on computer servers rather than on their personal machines. The advantage: instant access to songs, documents, and other data from any device, whether it’s a cell phone, the office laptop, or a home computer.
A Free-flowing Conversation with UAB’s Dr. Gridlock
By Matt Windsor
Everyone likes to complain about traffic. UAB transportation expert Virginia Sisiopiku, Ph.D., is actually doing something about it. Sisiopiku, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Construction, and Environmental Engineering, is following several parallel lanes of traffic-related research that could lead to a quicker, happier, healthier commute for the rest of us—without years of paralyzing construction.
"In the past, the answer to traffic was to build new roads and add new lanes, but we have come to the conclusion that this does not work,” she says. “Eventually, your money and available space run out, and the traffic is still clogged. We are looking at ways to reduce traffic congestion and the consequences—everything from increased travel times to pollution—without building more infrastructure.”
Here is a quick spin through the science of traffic research—and four potential solutions being pursued by Sisiopiku and other researchers at the UAB School of Engineering.