RPI faculty make fresh discoveries

A research study supervised by Assistant Professor of Computer Science Barbara Cutler has produced a model that uses computer graphics to visualize lunar eclipses of the past and future. Using celestial geometry and data about the earth and moon, the model was able to create images nearly identical to photographs of the eclipses. Cutler and graduate student Theodore Yapo combined models dealing with the refraction and scattering of sunlight, the different layers of Earth’s atmosphere, and other astronomical occurrences to create their model. Cutler noted that the models can help with “investigations into historical atmospheric phenomena, and they could also be of interest to artists looking to add this special effect to their toolbox.”

Yapo and Cutler’s paper on the study, which includes pictures and video of the models, is available at http://www.cs.rpi.edu/graphics/eclipse_gi09/.

Mark Platt, assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology, has published a paper in the Journal of Proteome Research detailing the molecular changes that result in a sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg. Sperm are not capacitated—able to fertilize—until they have spent time in the female reproductive tract, but scientists have been unsure why. Platt’s laboratory extracted proteins from capacitated and non-capacitated sperm and used analytic techniques to determine the sequence of each protein and where each had been phosphorylated. By comparing the samples, the researchers were able to identify specific sites on the protein that were changed by capacitation.

This new information has promising potential applications. While cautioning that “these applications are currently hypothetical at this point,” Platt noted that the information could be used to create a contraceptive for males similar to the birth control pill for women. “If phosphorylation on a particular amino acid is absolutely required for sperm capacitation, a drug could be developed which prevents phosphorylation from occurring at that specific site, thereby preventing the entire capacitation process,” he explained in an Institute press release. The discoveries also have implications for male infertility, as certain types may be caused by a mutation in the sequence that has recently been catalogued by Platt and his collaborators. “If you could correct that specific mutation or design a drug which mimics phosphorylation on that particular amino acid, for example, you might be able to improve fertility,” observes Platt.

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Michael Symans and the new Dean of Engineering David Rosowsky will be traveling to Miki, Japan, to perform an earthquake simulation as part of the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation Wood program. The simulation will be the largest ever performed on a wooden building, with the force of an earthquake that occurs only once each 2,500 years. Symans said a major goal of the simulation is to collect information about how wooden structures react to a large earthquake, as this is not currently known, making wood an impractical building material for mid-rise buildings. Symans and others in the NEESWood program hope to gather data that will aid them in designing wooden buildings that can minimize damage during an earthquake. “With this shaking table test, we’ll be collecting data that will help us to further the development of design approaches for such structures,” Symans explained.

The experiment can be viewed live on the Web at www.nsf.gov/neeswood/ on Tuesday, July 14 at 11 am.