Math Professor Studies Bone Regeneration

Alicia Prieto Langarica, a YSU assistant professor of math and statistics, is working with Marnie Saunders, a bioengineer in Akron, to see how gravity affects bone regeneration.

Prieto Langarica explained that bones contain two types of cells: cells that eat bone and cells that generate new bone.

“So, every day when you’re walking or moving or hitting something, you get mini fractures on your bones,” Prieto Langarica explained. “Once a mini fracture happens, there are all these signals that come out and say, ‘Hey, there’s a mini fracture here.’ So the cell comes around and they eat around the fracture. They take away the dead stuff and make a little dent [in your bone].”

The other cell fills that dent with new bone, repairing the mini fracture.

“When you’re little, the one that puts the bone works more than [the one that takes away bone]. Because you’re growing, you have to put more bone than you’re actually eating,” Prieto Langarica said. “But everybody — no matter who you are, either you’re a man or a woman — at some point you’re ‘putting bone’ cell is going to stop working or is going to work slower, but the eating bone cell is going to keep working so you get osteoporosis.”

What Prieto Langarica and Saunders are interested in is seeing how no gravity affects this process.

“All of the astronauts, when they come back, have osteoporosis. All of them,” Prieto Langarica said. “We think  — and this is just a theory — when you’re just floating in space you don’t have those mini fractures, so the eating bone happens, but there’s not putting back, so you come back [from space] and the density of your bones is really low.”

They’re working on creating a computer simulation model to showcase the act of the bone being broken down and then how it builds back up.

“I create little simulation movies that show exactly what’s happening in the cells, but with matrices,” Prieto Langarica said.  “If you have a model that does what you’re biology is doing, you can test things on your model.”

Testing on a mathematical model is much more economical than testing on real bone samples, considering slices of actual bone are extremely expensive. By using a mathematical model, they can write experiments that they need, instead of experimenting with everything.

Prieto Langarica and Saunders have applied for a grant to continue their research, and have hopes of someday having their model tested in space.

New Plasma Etching System Installed in Moser

For the third year in a row, YSU has received funding by the National Science Foundation. This year, YSU received $307,422 in order to purchase a plasma etching system.

The etching system is about the size of a desk, and its purpose is to remove unwanted materials; these materials can be as hard as ceramics and metals or as soft as polymers.

“That kind of equipment is a very important piece of equipment in a research institution that focuses on materials research. It is a very important addition to our suite of research instruments because it allows us to fabricate intricate devices and to conduct investigations into the structures of materials by digging inside the materials,” said Dr. Tom Oder, who is the lead investigator of the grant.

Co-investigators of the grant include Dr. Pedro Cortes, Dr. Ruigang Wang, Dr. Virgil Solomon, and Klaus-Markus Peters, who is the General Manager at Fireline, Inc.

The plasma etching system can be utilized in research projects at all levels, from large size materials to structures that are in the micrometer or nanometer scale. Oder said that the plasma that performs the etching can  be produced by various gases —such as chlorine, ammonia or oxygen — and comes down like rain, so it’s able to handle various kinds of materials.

To remove unwanted material, the plasma chemically reacts with the material, turning it into a gaseous product that is then evacuated using special vacuum pumps. The system has a robotic arm that moves samples into the etching chamber, so whoever is working does not get exposed to the dangerous gases, a feature that Oder said was unique.

Students study sloths in Costa Rica

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Ever wondered how sloths hang upside down in trees for such long periods of time? Or how it is that sloths can climb so high, and yet move so slow? Dr. Michael Butcher, of the Department of Biological Sciences, has pondered these questions and is attempting to answer them by researching the specialized anatomy of the brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus). These animals are somewhat rare in the wild, and having the opportunity to study their muscles is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Butcher and his students.

Dr. Butcher traveled to The Sloth Sanctuary in Penshurst-Limon, Costa Rica, on May 26 accompanied by his graduate student, Dylan Thomas, his undergraduate research assistant, Zachary Glenn, and former graduate student, Rachel Olson (YSU 2013). The team collaborated with Rebecca Cliffe, a British zoologist who has dedicated her life to studying these primitive mammals and has been featured on Discovery Channel’s “Meet the Sloths”.

“It was a once in a lifetime trip to work with the sloths and venture into the jungle with some of the most diverse wildlife on the planet,” Dylan said. “It was such a culture shock going from living in the city and waking up with an alarm clock to living in the jungle and waking up to Howler Monkeys securing their territory at sunrise around 4:30 [or] 5 a.m.”

The trip proved to be highly productive, and together they performed several experiments evaluating the strength of sloths, including detailed dissections of their limb anatomy to allow for quantifications of muscle force and power and bone stress.

“Sloths are very unique in their movement and behavior because of their very slow movement through the trees. Sloths are thought to be weak because of this and their small muscles, but this couldn’t be farther from the truth,” Dylan said. “Sloths are able to suspend their entire body weight hanging from one limb for long periods of time and have unbelievable grip strength. Sloths can produce an incredible amount of force for how ‘wimpy’ their muscles are, in fact if you were to arm-wrestle a sloth, the sloth would win every time!”

Dr. Butcher and his team also harvested muscle tissue to determine the distributions of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscles in their limbs, and how these collective muscle properties relate to their ability to ‘walk’ while hanging beneath tree branches. These tissue-type analyses will be conducted in his laboratory at YSU.

“Each day was an early start to get a jump on the dissections because each limb took approximately 10 to 12 hours to gather measurements and collect muscle samples,” Dylan said.

In addition, Butcher was able to biopsy fresh tissue from their heart, liver, and kidneys for a future project that will map out their genome. The outcomes of all of these studies will provide answers to numerous questions about the unusual biology of sloths. Perhaps most importantly, assembling a set of anatomical and genomic characteristics from three-toed sloths will allow Dr. Butcher to further test hypotheses surrounding the evolution of mammals.

Sloths are members of an assemblage of ancient placental mammals known as Xenarthrans, and knowledge of their emergence is important to understanding how and when other placental mammals like humans evolved.

“I took a lot from this trip, not only from the collected data but also from the personal experience. I realized all of the opportunities that research could bring and how much of the jungle is unknown,” Dylan said. “In the future, I would like to travel back down to Central American and do more research because it’s an area with infinite knowledge, not only for studying muscle anatomy and physiology but also possible treatments for clinical disease.”

Eye tracking in Software Engineering and Computing Education

What do developers look at when they are fixing a bug or adding new features into a software system? What if we could help developers while they work solely based on their eye movements? How do novices differ from experts while they read and understand source code? Can we use these differences to inform our curriculum to help novices learn better?

Bonita Sharif, an assistant professor in the Computer Science and Information Systems department, is collaborating with CSIS students and professionals in Germany and Switzerland to address many of these issues.

Dr. Sharif and her team are collecting data by using eye tracking devices in hopes of improving software developers’ experience while they are work on their daily tasks such as bug fixing or adding new functionality to a software system.

“Imagine a scenario where the eye tracker will be tracking the person’s eye movements while they are developing certain features or they are trying to figure out a bug. We can leverage that fine-grained eye-tracking data and use it to recommend solutions based on the task” Dr. Sharif said.

The team is using a hands-off system to track participant’s eye movements. There is no need to wear any gear. While eye movement can be tracked by wearing a tracking device on the head, in this research a device that sits at the bottom of the computer monitor is being used instead.

“[The device] shines infrared light into your eyes and the reflection actually tells you where you’re looking at on the screen, and it’s pretty accurate,” Dr. Sharif said. “You just sit in front of the eye tracker like you usually would while working and the data is collected silently.”

This research benefits not just practitioners in the field but also pedagogy. For example, little is known as to how novices become expert programmers. How do we train our students to learn and eventually become an expert programmer? This is another long term goal that Dr. Sharif and her team are working on. They are conducting several studies in entry-level programming classes to understand how novices read source code. These results will help modify the curriculum to employ more evidence-based practices in teaching computer programming.

“[For example,] when you take for instance an entry level class in computer programming…we look at eye movements in maybe the third week and then we look at eye movements in maybe the tenth week, and we try to see if the student has learned enough that they actually solve the problem more accurately and with greater speed,” Dr. Sharif said. “Novices tend to read in a linear fashion as if they were reading natural language, whereas experts jump to the place that is most important in the program. It’s still not known how novices become experts and when that switch happens.”

Dr. Sharif and her collaborators published the following article recently in the highly selective conference on computing education:

Busjahn, T., Schulte, C., Sharif, B., Simon, Begel, A., Hansen, M., Bednarik, R., Orlov, P., Ihantola, P. (2014) “Eye Tracking in Computing Education”, International Computing Education Research (ICER 2014), Glasgow, Scotland, August 11-13 2014, pp.3-10 (25% acceptance rate)


Exploring the Unknown: Math Professor Looks into How Temperature Affects Sleep

IMA3-2Assistant professor of math Dr. Alicia Prieto Langarica is teaming up with five other women from around the world to look at how temperature affects sleep patterns.

“Sleep is really interesting, and there are a lot of things that everybody shares, but it is also extremely stochastic since it varies a lot,” said. Prieto Langarica. “So sometimes you don’t sleep very well, or you find a different position, or you just sleep different. But between people, it’s even more different. Some people need more sleep from other people and some like colder temperatures than others.”

Dr. Prieto Langarica explained that while awake, a person’s body spends most of its energy on thermoregulation. While sleeping, once a person has their rapid eye movement sleep, the body stops its thermoregulation.

“If we don’t get REM, things get bad in your mind, and we get real tired and things like that. But we cannot get a lot of REM because when you are in REM you are not thermoregulating, meaning you’re like a lizard,” she explained. “So when we’re in REM, we cannot maintain our body temperature, so it starts drifting to whatever the ambient temperature is.”

While the exact reason for shutting off thermoregulation isn’t known, she said that a doctor came up with a theory that says the energy normally used for thermoregulation is instead used for other necessary processes, such as saving memories and growing.

“You need that energy to do all these processes that you need to do once a day, like saving your memories, growing — most of the growing that you do when you’re a child and even when you’re an adult happens during your sleep — you change your skin all the time, your bones are remodeling, everything,” Dr. Prieto Langarica said. “Most of those processes happen while you’re sleeping, and you’re turning off your thermoregulation so you have all this other energy to file everything in our head. “

Dr. Prieto Langarica went on to explain that even in very similar conditions, a person sleeps differently, and while most people believe the temperature in the room matters, it’s actually the temperature between the person and the sheets that matters.

“The temperature, what we call the distal skin temperature, is the temperature right above your skin. So for example some people like it cooler because they like more covers, but they’re actually achieving the same temperature as the guy who keeps it warmer but is sleeping in shorts without covers,” she said.

The group’s first manuscript on the study has been accepted, and they are working with Dr. Markus Smith on the function of sleep on mathematical models.

Transforming the Future: Professors Look to Harness the Power of Light

It’s pretty commonplace for each of us to have cell phones, a computer, and an internet connection. In order to get information to these devices at the user end, much of the information has to be sent through wires or wirelessly. But many people don’t realize that, even with wifi, most digital information is moved as light in fiber optics. Drs. Jim Andrews and Mike Crescimanno, both professors in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, are looking at new ways of manipulating that light.

“Transmitting information via light is more effective than transmitting it via electricity, but processing it as light has always been a challenge,” said Andrews.

Essentially, Andrews and Crescimanno are looking to control light with light, instead of another means of energy.

Crescimmano_Andrews story POEM 2014 zoom“It was one of those things that we came up with, and I really wanted to push it a bit further,” said Crescimanno. “When you pick up an old-fashioned telephone, there’s a wire that goes to the wall, and guess what happens? When the signal in the wire goes into the wall and goes to the bottom of the building, it gets converted to light and sent into fiber optics.”

Currently, information being transferred via light has to be converted into electricity and then converted back to light at every branch point along its path. Andrews and Crescimanno are working toward not having to convert the light to electricity, but instead having the light control other light directly by changing its polarization, that is, the direction of the light’s electric field, transverse to its propagation direction.

“So what we’ve done,” Crescimanno explained, “is thought very critically about how to change the polarization of light in a device more completely and efficiently. We’ve been looking rather critically at combining the existing methods of rotating the polarization of light by using wave interference in a process we call ‘coherent perfect rotation’.”

By harnessing the power of light and cutting out the middle step of converting the light to electricity, this makes for a more efficient and more cost effective way to transfer information.

Andrews and Crescimanno are working on this research with Dr. Chuanhong Zhou of the physics department and several students. They received support for this work from the National Science Foundation through a $129,750 Early concept Grant for Exploratory Research, or EAGER.

Astronomy professors receive Hubble time

hs-2009-07-h-large_webDrs. Pat Durrell and John Feldmeier, both astronomy professors at YSU, have received time to use the Hubble Space Telescope for their research. Drs. Durrell and Feldmeier will be working with three other astronomers from Case Western Reserve University, including Dr. Chris Mihos,  who is leading the project.

The astronomers will be focusing on the outer disk of the popular galaxy M101, which is a spiral galaxy located roughly 22.5 million light years away.

“It sounds like a lot, but for galaxies, it’s just down the block,” Durrell said. “So because it’s really near by, we can get a really good look at it. Some galaxies are so far away they look like just two pixels on an image. M101 is close enough that we can do a detailed study of it.”

The project will center around researching the individual stars on the outskirts of the galaxy, where the galaxy has an asymmetrical shape. The goal is to figure out why the galaxy doesn’t hold the classic spiral disk shape.

“The thing is, when we look at [the galaxy], it’s not nice and round. Spiral galaxies are shaped like a plate; they’re flat and often round,” Durrell said. “Well, we’re looking at this one straight down on it, and it’s not round. It’s actually very bowed out on one side.”

They will be able to study the galaxy for a total of 26 orbits of the telescope, which equates to roughly 20 hours.

In order to receive time to use the telescope, a proposal had to be written explaining what they would do with the time requested. Only about one in eight proposals get accepted.

“I know students work hard on writing their term papers and their final exams and stuff; well, we’re still doing that now. This is when we write our final papers. The only problem is that only one in eight passes,” Durrell said.

The project is slated to start September 2015, but the research team is still waiting to see if funding has been granted for the project.

After the data is taken and analyzed, the group plans on publishing a pair of research papers, and creating a new fulldome show for the Ward Beecher Planetarium based on the findings.

Dr. Feldmeier said that this a huge opportunity for YSU, and that he was extremely happy when they were informed they received the Hubble time.

“For YSU, this means three things: 1) Access to one of the most advanced and powerful telescopes in the world, 2) Being able to do world-class research, 3) Creating opportunities for students who want to do real astronomical research,” Feldmeier said in an email. “I was thrilled and grateful. Competition for the Hubble Space Telescope is very keen - less than 10% of the proposals receive time on the telescope, and many excellent proposals do not get time. In astronomy, getting Hubble time is like scoring a touchdown in football.”

Publications from Dr. Sharif and her students!

Some new publications from Dr. Sharif!

The first paper by Busjahn et al. was a collaboration with several international researchers.  It was recently published in August 2014. The premise of the paper is that eye tracking technology holds great promise in the realm of computing education. A coding scheme was developed and expert gaze on source code was analyzed. This work is ongoing and in the near future novice gaze will also be analyzed. Continue reading

YSU Receives First Patent

Pict-Oder2014Dr. Tom Oder, a professor of Physics and Astronomy, has received a patent for a silicon carbine barrier diode. While this isn’t Oder’s first patent, it is the first for YSU.

A silicon carbine barrier diode is an electronic device made using silicon carbide semiconductor material that Oder said has been an idea of his since he was a graduate student, but it wasn’t until he was hired at YSU in 2003 that he began his research.

“What you have in your cell phone and most of your electronics is made of silicon. The problem of silicon is that it cannot withstand high temperature. So if your device is working at a high temperature, it has got to be cooled otherwise it is going to fail,” Oder said. Silicon carbide, however, is a great alternative material. Continue reading

3…2…1…Maker Shootout!

On Sunday, August 3rd, almost 400 people from around the Youngstown area gathered under a tent along the side of America Makes to meet the maker. Well, not that maker, but there were plenty of makers available to answer questions, show examples, and compete to see who was the best.

The Maker Shootout is part of the Maker Magazine’s efforts to show our communities the advances in 3D printing. The shootout featured several different companies and several different desktop printers, with the winner to be featured in the next issue of Maker Magazine.

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Celebrate STEM Achievement with the STEM Showcase

The annual STEM Showcase provides students not only the opportunity to present their research, but to show the community and area high school students what they have been working on all year. On April 26th, 2014, the STEM College had over 50 student projects to present this year, including the Baja Car, the Concrete Canoe, and nanoflowers.

The Showcase has always been an opportunity for the community to come out and share in the excitement, but there was a new twist this year. The STEM College gave out two scholarships to incoming STEM students who attended the event, in an Continue reading

Estee George Wins 2014 Professional Promise Award

Left to Right: Douglas Price, Estee George, Gisica Abdallah, Max Henderson, and Pedro Cortes.

Left to Right: Douglas Price, Estee George, Gisica Abdallah, Max Henderson, and Pedro Cortes.

Youngstown State Chemical Engineering Senior Estee George was the 2014 recipient of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers Professional Promise Award at the Pittsburgh Local Section of AIChE held at Carnegie Mellon University on February 18, 2020. Estee and fellow students Gisica Abdallah and William “Max” Henderson presented posters of their research at the event. Estee was recognized for her research in the mathematical modeling of the production of biofuels from carbohydrates. She has made three national conference presentations and is currently looking to pursue graduate study after graduation in May 2014.

Congratulations, Estee!

NASA and MAGNET land on campus

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network (MAGNET) arrived on campus Thursday, December 5, 2020 for the NASA Roadshow.  NASA and MAGNET combined forces to help four Northeast Ohio companies brainstorm their projects and advance local industry.

“[This] is a good opportunity to get some outside help,” said Mark Fetchel of Delta Systems. Continue reading

On the right track: Engineering Management


There are a lot of things going on in Youngstown today. There is new industry developing all around us, but there is even more going on to revitalize the City. An important part of the process is having flexibility in education that forms to what the industry needs. A master of science degree in Engineering Management helps, not only, a student to become more marketable, but it also helps the companies that hire them to be more efficient.

The engineering management track was started approximately thirteen years ago. The program has had quite a few students over the years, but this year the program has made a change. Now that industry has moved back to Youngstown and the economy is on the rise, the program has been revamped to meet the industries’ and students’ needs. The program is now being offered online, rather than in the classroom, which has allowed more students to pursue this track.

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Looking Deeper with the X-Ray Diffraction Lab

Youngstown State University College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics has always prided itself on being the first and only STEM College in the state of Ohio. Now the STEM College can excitedly declare that and our technological advancements make us one of the top colleges in the STEM field. Dr. Allen Hunter, with the help of other university professors, including our own Dr. Matt Zeller, has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation for new equipment in the X-ray Diffraction Lab.

The new equipment, the cyber-enabled, single-crystal X-ray Diffractometer, will produce data 700 times better than that from the 11-year-old system (also NSF funded) that was previously the mainstay on campus. Continue reading