December 10, 2007

The Orange County Register

UCI researchers circled globe in name of science

By Gary Robbins

They traveled from the Antarctic to Athens, and points in between, this year to share their findings and learn from others.

Bob Reed couldn't chitchat. On a recent morning, the young biologist had to catch a plane so he could go catch butterflies. And like so many UC Irvine researchers, the trip ahead would be a long one.

Reed was headed to a spot in the Peruvian Amazon that's about 4,000 miles from campus.

As the size of UCI's full-time faculty has risen above 1,000, the university's global research has become broad and deep.

At least one of his colleagues has already visited the Amazon this year. Another trekked to Antarctica, while others went to more accessible locales like Paris and Tokyo, Bangkok and Bangalore.

"You can't be a great research university without collaborating with the best scientists in the world," says Bill Parker, chairman of UCI's physics department.

The trips are subsidized by sources as different as the National Science Foundation and Intel Corp. And as the samples below show, they involve everything from physics to gerontology.

1. In Beijing, anthropologist and informatics Professor Bonnie Nardi sat with gamers at Internet cafés, studying how they used "World of Warcraft," the immensely popular computer game produced by Blizzard Entertainment of Irvine. Nardi learned that the Chinese are far more likely than Americans to play the most challenging version of the game. She also says that, "People here play with brothers and sisters. But in China, people don't have brothers and sisters, for the most part, so friend relationships are very important."

2. Astrophysicist Steve Barwickwent to the bottom of the world – the Ross Ice Shelf in the Antarctic– to measure the reflection and transparency of radio waves as they traveled through ice. He hopes to turn a 20-mile-by-20-mile expanse of the shelf into a neutrino detector, enhancing science's understanding of one of the universe's elementary particles. During this year's trip, Barwick stayed in an unheated tent. "I woke up (on several occasions) with an icicle extending from the covered hood of the sleeping bag to my nose." Barwick hopes to return to the Antarctic in November 2008 to continue his work.

3. Evolutionary biologist Bob Reedwent to the dense rainforests of the Peruvian Amazonto collect butterflies for his ongoing research into how butterflies and other creatures have evolved over time. Earlier this year, Reed published a paper that identified the genes that produce the beautiful red wing patterns in Heliconius Erato butterflies. He also found that the same genes are responsible for making the eyes of fruit flies red.

4. Earth system scientist Charlie Zender is in Grenoble, France, studying "dirty snow." Such snow may be responsible for one-third of the warming trend in Arctic regions. The snow is made dirty by soot from tailpipe exhaust, smokestacks and forest fires. Darker surfaces absorb more heat, making the pollution a factor in global warming.

"At my request, my colleagues speak in French so I can learn it," Zender says by e-mail. "Unless I'm in immediate danger of splashing them with liquid nitrogen or tattooing them with a laser. Then they speak a more universal language."

5. Informatics Professor Don Patterson visited villages in South Africa and Zambia to examine how such aid groups as the Agathos Foundation use information technology to help care for children, particularly orphans whose parents died of AIDS. He also worked on a cell phone tool that makes it easy for donors who give money for aid projects to get feedback about how their money is spent.

6. Physicist Andrew Lankford traveled to the CERN laboratory in Geneva to develop a particle physics experiment for the Large Hadron Collider, which will become the largest, most powerful particle accelerator and collider in the world when it goes online next spring. The LHC, CERN says, will "allow scientists to penetrate further into the structure of matter and re-create the conditions prevailing in the early universe, just after the Big Bang."

7. Evolutionary biologist Michael Rose went to the University of Cambridge in England to share fresh insights about "negligible senescence," which he describes as slowing aging to the point where it no longer has any effect on mortality or morbidity. Rose has extended the average life span of fruit flies, insects that came to be known as Methuselah flies. He believes something similar is possible in humans, given advances in medicine and drugs. "My predicted range of average longevities of U.S. children born today would be 100 to 150 years," Rose says.

8. Civil engineer Maria Feng traveled to Nanjing, China, to explain to other engineers how she is using small automated sensors to monitor the condition of huge structures, such as the Vincent Thomas Bridge, which spans Los Angeles Harbor, and the enormous Three Gorges Power Plant on China's Yangtze River. Feng has spent a lot of time on catwalks, 200 feet above Los Angeles Harbor, improving and testing sensors that are about the size of an iPod.

9. Linda Levine went to Turin, Italy, to work with fellow psychologists on a study of how adolescents in that country cope with their stressful high school exit exams. "The exit exams are kind of like our SAT or ACT exams," Levine says, "except that they are mandatory, they include a written part plus an oral test in front of teachers that the students don't know, and the results determine both whether students are eligible to enroll at a university at all and which university and field of study students can be admitted to."

10. Earth system scientist Susan Trumborewent to a field station in the Amazon region of Brazil, more than 90 miles north of the city of Manaus, where jaguars can be seen cutting across the rutted dirt/mud roads. She studied how carbon moves in and out of soil and trees in work meant to explain how rising carbon dioxide levels and global warming will change the carbon stored in these forests.

11. Physicist Gary Chanan traveled to Munich, Germany, to work with scientists at the European Southern Observatory on the alignment and control of giant segmented telescopes. Chanan played a key role in the 1990s aligning the Keck telescopes, which each had 36 segments. He's now involved with ESO's so-called Extremely Large Telescope, which will have about 1,000 segments. "Fortunately, computers are a lot faster than they were in the 1990s, or the problem would be hopeless," Chanan says.

12. Criminologist Ronald Huff went to Bologna, Italy, to share research with the European Society of Criminology about "gang intelligence databases in all 50 U.S. states; how definitions of gang vary from one jurisdiction to another and are often very loose, leading to inaccurate identification."

13. Sherry Rowland, who shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for identifying how certain household chemicals damage the ozone layer, visited Montreal, Athens,Greece, and Tokyo to give "perspective" talks on the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol, the international treaty that has reduced the hole in the ozone layer.
UCI researchers circled globe in name of science