SciTech Now Episode 511

In this episode of SciTech Now, discover more human-like Robots; a technology with endless applications; a look into Naked Mole Rats; and empowering future female Pilots.



Coming up, building more humanlike robots...

You can flip a switch, and it will change shape.

It'll actuate.

It can move and do work.

...a technology that can do everything from sustainable farming to bomb detection...

Smallholder farmers can use to detect the presence of pathogens like fungi in the crops.

...the naked truth about mole rats...

They're hairless.

I think they're incredibly cute, and the deep science that they represent is amazing.

...empowering future female pilots.

This year was especially lucky for me to sign up for this camp and experience what it's actually like for a pilot to take flight.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology and innovation.

Let's get started.

Silicone gels are being developed to create skin and muscle for robots.

Mimicking the function of human skin, engineers are revolutionizing the appearance and function of robots.

Take a look.

We're taking monomers, which are single molecules, and making these huge molecules.

We're reacting them together to make these huge molecules.

That's really what polymer chemistry is about is making these huge molecules which that enables to make really interesting materials.

So I design our materials to be electroactive, so if you think of something that's, like, a muscle, I think about my hand moving, and I can move my hand, so I use our soft materials to make devices where you can flip a switch, apply a voltage, apply a certain electric field to this material, and it will change shape.

It'll actuate.

It can move and do work.

The silicone gel sitting in this UNC Chapel Hill lab is flexible and not affected by extreme temperatures.

It could revolutionize robotics.

Engineers have been trying to design some way to get robots skin and muscle for a long time.

It's the biggest challenge to overcome before building robots that look and move more like living things.

It's easy to see why robot skin is important.

What's his problem?

Nothing, he got shot up.

The challenge for scientists is that robot skin has to be soft and flexible, but it also must be strong when it's stretched.

It has to perform mechanically, a lot like living tissue, and this gel does that.

The softness comes entirely by architecture.

There are no solvent, no water inside.

The team in Dr. Sergei Sheiko's chemistry lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created the gel.

And this silicone doesn't have any single drop of water.

This material, if you leave it on the table, and come, let's say, in 100 years, it would not change its mechanical properties.

It would basically remain fully invariant, and this material is very elastic.

This, for example, has kind of intermediate stiffness.

It is soft and flexible, and when it is stretched, it becomes pretty strong.

It performs a lot like living tissue.

Think skin and muscle.

The goal was, how to make materials as soft as gels but without water, and this is how we come up with an idea to make polymer molecules as a brush-like architecture.

Basically it says it looks a little bit like a bottle brush, and what we have here again we have this polymer chain, but this polymer chain has a lot of side chains, so there's bristles that come out of the same polymer, so this all chemically identical material.

The secret lies in polymer chemistry.

Researchers discovered that manipulating the molecular structure controls the mechanical properties of the gel.

It's the architecture of how the silicon molecules are arranged, not the chemical composition, that's most important.

If you make these bristles longer, this material will become softer.

If you increase distance between these bristles, material will become stiffer.

And important by doing this we'd only change chemical composition.

Call it the Home Depot approach -- same material, different architecture.

For example, if you want to build a house, everybody go to Home Depot and buy the same lumber, but the houses are different, and what matters is architecture, how you connect those pieces of lumber.

The silicone gel has been in development since 2001, and the creation is drawing a lot of attention because the material mimics living tissue.

It is soft and flexible but also strong and durable, and it can withstand wide temperature swings.

It's strong.

Well, this particular material is strong.

Again, we'd have a bunch of materials.

That means the gel could be customized to create different human tissues by simply changing the molecular structure of the gel.

If you're giving out a piece of tissue, any tissue, we can give you a piece of silicone which will completely mimic mechanical properties of tissue.

And this material, but see, it's very difficult to handle this, but this material has a property of brain tissue.

So this side is fundamental properties, but with all this we wanted to make something practical, something that would change our way of living, and it made us want to make materials, so there is a big step between molecules and materials, and once you make materials, you start thinking about implications.

Basically what we design is not just, let's say, one particular type of molecule, type of materials.

We do all of the new material design platform.

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Biosensors are detection devices with endless applications, from sustainable farming to bomb detection.

Joining us to discuss some of the new applications of biosensors is Dr. Omowunmi Sadik, professor of bioanalytical and environmental chemistry at State University of New York, Binghamton.

Thanks for joining us.

First, let's just get a definition.

What's a biosensor?

A biosensor is a small-sized device that has a biological component and some sort of transducer which is electronic.


And so we try to mimic the natural sensing in the body like the tongue or the nose or even the skin, and we try to create a very small-sized device that can either sense chemical sensors or pain in the body or even tell you the safety of your food.

Okay, so give me an example of how some biosensors that might already be in the marketplace that we're not aware of.

A very common biosensor is the glucose detector, so you can buy that at CVS, and you look -- That's what diabetic patients...

Take a blood sample and know what the sugar level is, right?

...blood sample.

You just prick your finger, and it tells you the level of glucose in the blood within a few minutes.

Okay, so what are some more complicated ones?

How are they working in the fields of bomb detection?

So in the field of bomb detection, the interest may be to look at the chemical like sarin or VX, and so you again find a chemical selective layer that will be sensitive to the components in the bomb.


And it will give you an immediate response, and so we have to engineer the chemistry as well as the electronics for the detection to give you a quick answer.

And you're also working on incorporating biosensors in the agricultural spaces.

Explain that.

So we have been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a very cheap low-cost sensor on paper that smallholder farmers can use to detect the presence of pathogens like fungi in the crops, and so some pathogens actually lower the productivity by more than 70 percent, and for smallholder farmers that's a big deal.

Okay, so a farmer would have what in their hands when they go out into the field, or when would they use a sensor like this?

So they will use a sensor like this to detect or tell them the presence of this fungi pre-planting...

Mm-hmm., even before crop is taken out to the field.

So if they know that this fungus is out there in the field, don't plant there...

Don't plant.

...because it's going to eat your crops anyway.


So you look in the soil.

You look in the foliage.

You look in the crops.

Right now we have the sensor.

We're working to be able to get them to see the answers from their cellphones.

Cellphone is so ubiquitous now.

Anybody can -- Even farmers, we've spoken to farmers in Jamaica going out in the field, and they rarely have cellphone.

Right, so it's what, a sheet of paper that would have a lot of these sensors on it?

It's a paper strip just like you have with the diabetic monitor.


It's a paper strip, and we have the chemistry worked out on the paper, so this slip simply takes some samples of soil...


...swell it in water and dip our paper, and that is linked onto the cellphone, and that gives them the nice.

So instead of blood on a strip of paper, it's basically the soil on the strip of paper?

The soil on the strip of paper until you just mix it with water.

So it's almost like a lock and a key where you're finding something that is going to automatically react with the thing that you're looking for, right?

That's actually the principal behind it.

For example, we have, if you're looking at the fungi, so we have sugars that are selected for the fungi of interest.


And so they're locking, they're recognizing the same way that if microbes get into the human body, they have... You know, the fungi will have sugar selectins.


So the sugars recognize the selectins.

There's a lock-and-key principal that takes place, and that essentially gives you a sense of what's going on.

We can use nanoparticles to do the detection, or we can use colorful chloroform that will be changing color, and that is now sent into the cellphone, and that gives you this smiley face.

Now, you also cofounded the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization.

What does that do?

So the Sustainable Nanotechnology was essentially a way for me to put my passion into real life.

It's an organization.

It's a not-for-profit organization.

It's an international professional body, and the purpose essentially is to take -- create the sustainability to develop, the sustainability of nanotechnology in research, in education, in outreach, so we have a whole body of scientists and engineers coming together and discussing, you know, the state of the science and where we should be going.

Tell me kind of on the horizon, you know, right now, for us it would be kind of news and interesting and new for us to say, 'Oh, wow, she's created a strip that a farmer can use.'

15 years from now, 20 years from now, where do you see biosensors going?

How do you see the world transformed?

I see the biosensor field continuing to be smaller and relatively not as huge in terms of the development, so we want it to be microscopic, so it would not be impossible for us to put a biosensor in our pocket or just like a strip, and I can record virtually anything.

Rather than having a huge instrumentation at the airport where we have to go through, everything will just be so microscopic and minuscule.

So anything that speeds up the airport process I'm a fan of, so you're saying that we would be able to detect a chemical presence on a person's body just by something that we could stick on them instead of a magnetometer that we have to walk through today?

That's correct.


Okay, and what about in sort of the hospital sphere, you know, because they're constantly doing, if you're in the hospital, they're doing tests to see if there are infections that have gotten worse and better.

How do you see biosensors working?

We see biosensor actually creating inroads into the medical field.

You know, we have all of these methicillin-resistant bacteria, microbes, and, you know, there are sensors that can be used for that right now in the market.

I think the challenge is the transition.

You know, people are kind of resistant to really adopt new technology.

I have just been funded by the National Science Foundation to what they call the Innovative Corps Program, and that program really allows us to go and speak with customers which is what scientists really do.


We want to know exactly what is the pinpoint?

What do they need?

How do they want this technology to work for them?

And we then go back and essentially create value for them based on their need.

It's called customer discovery.

All right.

Omowunmi Sadik from sunny Binghamton, thanks for much for joining us today.

Thank you very much for having me.


Looking at severe weather event, after severe weather event, we found it to be important to study cloud tops.

Using this latest-generation satellite technology, we have found these clouds that are a bit odd and looked a bit unusual.

It looks a bit like smoke, and it also has a very warm appearance.

When you look at storms that produce the really damaging tornadoes and large hail, you're taking very unstable air, hot and humid air and near to the ground and raising it up into the upper atmosphere very, very fast, and then it hits the layer of the atmosphere above, called the stratosphere.

Clouds that are especially strong eject into the stratosphere.

It's like a smoke plume emerging from those bubbling updrafts, and because the stratosphere is warmer, you can see this pattern.

One of the most exciting things that we found in this research is that over 85 percent of the really damaging storms produced this kind of smoke-like plume, and also this plume pattern tends to occur about 30 minutes prior to when these severe weather events are happening, and so this is especially valuable for the public at large.

A forecaster can instantly see this pattern when it emerges in a cloud, and they're going to be able to issue warnings faster and tell people to take cover or get their belongings inside.

Satellites observe everywhere all the time, so being able to do something that helps warning just from a satellite perspective can really offer benefits around the world and save lives.

Naked mole rats, they might not be the cutest animals, but scientists are hopeful these rodents could hold important answers about the aging process and cancer resistance.

Here is the story.

Despite the naked mole rat name, these crazy-looking creatures are not naked, nor are they moles or rats, but what naked mole rats are is unique, and these rodents could hold clues for researchers about evolution, aging and cancer resistance.

At the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey, a colony of these critters causes a stir among visitors.

Manager of animal husbandry, Melissa Chin, shares her thoughts on naked mole rats over the din of excited school kids.

A lot of the guests are horrified initially, but once we start talking to them, they are interested, and they're like, 'Okay, these animals are kind of cute now,' so it's really fascinating to see the gamut from, 'Oh, my God. They're so gross,' to 'Oh, they're so adorable.

I want to take one home.'

However you see them, the naked mole rats' features are fascinating and functional.

Naked mole rats originate from drier areas of East Africa where they spend most of their time burrowing underground.

Barring the occasional snake or bird, they don't have many predators, so it's thought that the species has been more easily able to evolve over time to suit its environment and live as long as possible.

They live deep underground, and the environment can be really, really warm, so they don't really need those hairs except for sensing.

The teeth stick out, and their mouth is closed behind it, and that's because they can dig, and when they're underground, they want to be using those teeth to help dig, but they don't want dirt inside their mouths.

Additionally, while naked mole rats have eyes, they're basically blind, and their skin is loose and pain-resistant to allow for maneuvering through tight hot spaces.

They're fascinating to watch.

President and CEO Paul Hoffman is a long-time fan of the animal and helped bring a colony to the Liberty Science Center.

The deep science that they represent is amazing.

They can go about 18 minutes with no oxygen.

They rarely get cancer or any other disease of cellular aging.

I mean, they live to be about 30 years.

A normal rodent maybe lives 2 or 3 years, so there's at least 1,000 research teams around the world that are studying naked mole rats.

Biology professor Vera Gorbunova is part of one such research team at the University of Rochester in upstate New York.

We are interested in understanding the mechanism that make naked mole rats live so long, so naked mole rat is the longest-living rodent, and they're also very healthy.

As they get older, they don't develop diseases with aging such as cancer, neurodegenerative disease, heart disease, arthritis.

They're resistant to all of them, so we want to understand why.

Gorbunova researches a process called cellular senescence in which cells stop dividing.

It's a phenomenon that helps, for example, slow down the spread of cancer cells in humans which is a positive outcome.

However, by slowing cell division to prevent a disease from spreading, an organism's overall aging process speeds up because the good tissues are not replenishing either.

This is why the likelihood of an animal dying increases with age.

The older the species become, the older your animals are, their chance of dying goes up, but with naked mole rats it doesn't have the same pattern.

They just keep dying at about the same rate, and it doesn't increase, so that was the most striking observation.

Previously, researchers thought that naked mole rats might not experience cellular senescence, but earlier this year, Gorbunova's team discovered that is not the case.

What does differentiate naked mole rats, Gorbunova says, is their tissues are saturated in hyaluronic acid, a gooey substance that retains moisture.

And it provides various health benefits to them.

Human cells can make hyaluronic acid, but in the naked mole rats it's much larger molecule, and there is much more of it.

So the question becomes, if hyaluronic acid can be artificially increased, could that slow down the aging process in humans?

First we did it in a mouse, so this is very new work.

We just seen very first results, but these mice seemed to be healthy, so it's very exciting, and then, of course, the next step will be how we can then apply it to humans.

Back at the Liberty Science Center, the next generation of scientists is making its own discoveries by following naked mole rats through the complex of tubes that houses their colony.

I think they're completely fascinating.

You can watch them on one side gathering food.

You can sight some of the other ones digging tunnels.

They have a queen who basically has all the young, and all of the other workers help take care of those babies, so you can see some of the animals kind of moving around and doing their jobs.

The rodents fill their maze with all kinds of movements -- working, relaxing, cuddling and climbing, delighting visitors and demonstrating that there's much more to naked mole rats than meets the eye.

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A group of girls in Logan, Utah, who aren't even old enough to get behind the wheel of a car are learning how to fly a plane at a program at Utah State University.

It's all part of an effort to empower girls to become our nation's next aviators.

It's important to get girls involved in some activities because those opportunities haven't always been open to women.

It used to be, you know, women weren't allowed to go to engineering school, and, you know, just kind of building up that camaraderie as well, especially when you get out into the industry and even when you're in classes.

Just having, you know, another woman in a class with you can help a lot and just kind of showing that those options are open to them.

My name is Aleigh Allred.

I am studying political science as my major, and then I have a minor in drone technology, and I'm a senior here at Utah State University.

So we did a 6-week program with the Cache Maker 4-H group here in Logan Valley.

We were looking for volunteers 2 years ago to kind of run the program, and I just kind of wanted to give back to the community, inspire some girls to do aviation as well.

We brought in about 12 girls.

It was all girls, had them do flight principals.

We taught them about how an aircraft flies.

We taught them about weather.

We brought them over into the maintenance lab, and they were able to go over and do some riveting, taught them a little bit of basics about what goes into aviation maintenance, and then we also had them fly around in the Redbird simulator here on campus.

Now, you see four white lights.

Two will turn red in about 10 or 15 seconds, so those are the piano keys right there.

Now, make small corrections as we come down to the runway, small corrections.

As you get closer to the ground, then you'll want to pull back.

Wait until I tell you.

Not yet.


So keep the nose up a little bit more.

There's one red.

Beautiful. Two red.

So pull the nose up a little more.

Don't hit the fence.


Now small corrections, aim for the middle of the runway.

I'm going to let you do this.


Pull back on the nose a little bit.

Just hold that.

Small corrections, keep the wings level.

Pull back a little bit more.

Pull back a little bit more.

Pull back a little bit more.

Oh, I'll tell you what.

Now we're on the asphalt.

Very nice.

A pilot came in, a professional pilot from SkyWest, she came in and gave a talk to the girls about what her job entails, how she got to be where she is today, and then on the last day, we were able to take them out to the Logan Airport and have them fly around in our DA40s, and they got to go up in the aircraft and got to do a little bit of controlling after we got them safely up at a safe altitude.

My name is Camie Yuan, and I'm part of the Cache Makers Club and their program of girls' aviation camp.

First, we learned about all of the controls and how they work, and we also learned about how important the weather is, and for example, if it's super cold, then it's probably going to travel even faster than before, and it'll be slightly harder to land.

We've also learned more about simulation and how we're actually going to fly the plane, and we've learned about all the parts to a plane and even riveting.

So when I was a little child, I always really, really liked planes, and I wanted to fly like a bird throughout the skies, and when I first heard about this around 2 years ago, it was a little too late for me to already sign up, so this year was especially lucky for me to have the ability to sign up for this camp and experience what it's actually like for a pilot to take flight.

The program I was in is super amazing, and I encourage everyone else to come and join in.

What I want girls to take away with the 6-weeks program is just the excitement of flight that I have and the excitement to be pursuing aviation and for them to, you know, leave this program knowing that this is something that they can do, and hopefully they'll come to Utah State to be able to do our flight program with us.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪