Gold crystals

Mineralogist is solving the mysteries of the world’s finest gold specimen

John Rakovan examines the world's largest single crystals of gold, from a 2014 study with LANSCE.
John Rakovan examines the world’s largest single crystals of gold, from a 2014 study with LANSCE.

With the help of one of the world’s most powerful linear accelerators, a team of scientists have for the first time “looked” inside the finest known specimen of wire gold.

The Ram’s Horn gold specimen, found in 1887 at the Ground Hog Mine in Red Cliff, Colorado, is shaped like a twisted bunch of wires instead of the more recognizable golden nugget.

The 263 gram (about 9 ounces), 12 centimeter (4.7 inches) tall specimen belongs to the collection of the Mineralogical and Geological Museum at Harvard University (MGMH).

“Some native metals, a metal or metal alloy found in nature can occur in what is called wire morphology,” said John Rakovan, professor of geology and environmental earth science at Miami University. “Much more common in silver, the wire morphology is rarely seen in gold samples, and this specimen is without question the finest known example.”

“Almost nothing other than the existence of the specimen is known about wire gold,” said Sven Vogel, a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory’s neutron science center, LANSCE.

Academic collaborations: A win-win with Los Alamos National Laboratory

John Rakovan examines the world’s largest single crystals of gold, from a 2014 study with LANSCE (photo by Scott Kissell).
The LANSCE accelerator — a half-mile-long particle accelerator that provides high- and low-energy protons and neutrons for a wide variety of scientific research — is mainly used for national security and fundamental science research. “We sometimes get to apply it to geological samples like this very famous gold specimen. It’s a win-win for the Laboratory and the universities,” Vogel said.

Using neutron diffractometry techniques, scientists can study the interiors of valuable specimens like this gold wire without having to cut into them or break them open.

No scientific studies have ever been published on the internal nature of this specimen, until now, according to Rakovan.

The research results suggest the wire gold is very different from wire silver. “Wire silver is a mosaic-like polycrystalline aggregate with many hundreds to thousands of crystals in a single wire,” said Rakovan.

“The gold appears to be composed of only a few single crystals. Furthermore, we discovered that these samples are not pure gold, but rather gold-silver alloys with as much as 30 percent silver substituting for gold in the atomic structure.”

The research team included Rakovan, Raquel Alonso-Perez, curator at MGMH, Frank Keutsch, professor of chemistry at Harvard University, and LANSCE scientists Vogel, Adrian Losko and Alex Long.

The wire gold study was done last summer in August and over winter term. The neutron irradiation made the sample radioactive and it had to “cool off” over the fall semester, Rakovan said.

Silver and gold

Rakovan previously collaborated with scientists at LANSCE to study the world’s largest single crystals of gold. He is also an expert on wire silver formation. Because of this, he was approached by the Harvard scientists to collaborate on the wire gold research.

Rakovan and his doctoral student Calvin Anderson (Miami MS ’18) research the formation of wire silver. They recently discovered that the growth of wire silver leads to an unexpected isotope enrichment.

The Los Alamos team is using the neutron spectroscopy data to evaluate if isotope enrichment also occurs in these gold-silver alloys.

Anderson’s research is supported by a grant from the Mineralogical Research Initiative (MRI). The goal of the MRI is to determine if there is a fair and reliable scientific method to identify whether wire silver specimens have formed naturally or have been artificially created.

World’s largest single crystals of gold

Rakovan was previously involved in another one-of-a-kind study with gold.

He was the first scientist to examine the world’s largest single crystals of gold for authenticity. The structure and arrangement of gold crystals of that size had never been studied before, Rakovan said.

“There have been gold nuggets as big as several feet in diameter, but single crystals are usually quite small. It is rare for a single crystal of gold to be formed in nature the size of these world’s largest crystals,” Rakovan said.

That study also involved neutron characterization techniques and the use of the particle accelerator with Vogel and other colleagues at LANSCE.

“The question was whether Mother Nature is responsible for their beautifully faceted shapes. One alternative is that they were cast and made to appear as large single crystals,” Rakovan said.

The largest single crystal of gold is about 1.75 inches wide (at left in photo) and was found to be natural. The “golf ball” specimen in the middle appears to have been cast, and is not a single crystal, Rakovan said this month.

Read more about that study in the Feb. 13, 2014 Miami news story: A golden opportunity: Miami geologist studies world’s largest single crystals of gold.

Rakovan, who has a mineral named after him (Rakovanite), is also the executive editor of Rocks and Minerals.


Written by Susan Meikle, University News Writer/Editor, University Communications and Marketing, Miami University. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of gold crystals by Robert Lavinsky via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license.  Photo of John Rakovan by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

A vinaigrette in which the vinegar and oil have separated

Miami biologists’ research part of a new phase in cell biology

Antarctic toothfish
Dr. Andor Kiss and his colleagues use antarctic toothfish, like the one shown here, as a model in their studies of protein-protein interactions.

Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS), analogous to the demixing of oil and vinegar in a vinaigrette salad dressing, is now one of the hottest topics in cell biology, according to Science magazine.

In their announcement of the 2018 Science Breakthrough of the Year and the nine runners-up, Science magazine states: “Beginning in 2009, researchers discovered that many proteins separate, or condense, into discrete droplets, concentrating their contents, especially when the cell is responding to stress.”

Recent research shows that LLPS promotes critical biochemical reactions and appears to be a basic organizing principle of the cell, Science editors wrote.

This emerging field in cell biology — “How Cells Marshall Their Contents” — was named one of the nine runners-up to the 2018 Science Breakthrough of the Year.

Recent work by Miami researcher Andor Kiss and colleagues from the University of California, Irvine, is shedding more light on LLPS. In a study published last month in the Journal of Molecular Biology, they demonstrate a model system which they can control, and/or tune, to either prevent or encourage LLPS droplet formation.

“We now understand that within cells there are areas where certain components are brought together in regions of very high concentrations, called LLPS droplets,” Kiss said.

“Within these LLPS droplets are very high concentration of components needed for a specific cellular process or needed to prevent a cellular process. The control of the droplet formation is dictated by specific proteins and their specific sequences,” he said.

But, “when the process goes awry, what should be a liquid can become a gel, and a gel can solidify, forming the kinds of aggregates seen in neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis,” Science editors wrote.

Predicting the factors associated with protein-protein interactions is difficult, mainly because we lack the fundamental models to understand these events, according to Kiss.

“Often we only observe the aftermath of the problem — the Alzheimer’s plaques, the lens cataract,” he said.

Antarctic toothfish as a model

Kiss and his colleagues study these protein-protein interactions in the eye lens of the Antarctic toothfish — a vertebrate that is adapted to extreme environments.

The eye lenses of vertebrates are made of high density proteins called lens crystallins. Human lenses (and those of other warm-blooded vertebrates) can develop a “cold cataract” at temperatures below 20 degrees C (68 degrees F). This cold-cataract process has been used to model age-related cataracts and other protein condensation diseases such as Alzheimer’s and sickle cell disease.

But the lenses of the Antarctic toothfish, which lives year-round in -1.9 degrees C (27 degrees F), can resist cold cataract even in subzero waters, Kiss said. This indicates that “evolution has solved the lens clouding problem and can alter globular protein stability,” Kiss said.

Looking at eye lens crystallins

In their study, Kiss and his research team investigated six types of eye lens crystallins in the toothfish.

They identified specific amino acid differences and specific key locations in the protein structure that had controlling influence on their aggregation (how they accumulate and clump together) and stability (the specific three-dimensional structure that determines the activity of the protein).

They found that by simply changing three amino acids — from lysine to arginine and vice versa — they could control the temperature at which the protein aggregated and formed cold cataracts.

Now, Kiss said, by using animals adapted to extreme environments, we have models to understand protein-protein stability and models to test potential modifications (corrections) to those proteins to alter their stability.

A “new phase” in cell biology

According to a review in the June 2018 issue of Trends in Cell Biology, a combination of techniques “are starting to help establish the molecular principles of an emerging field, thus paving the way for exciting discoveries,” such as novel therapeutic approaches for the treatment of age-related disorders and human diseases associated with protein aggregation.

The work of Kiss and his research team is directly related to this new understanding of cellular physiology.

Their study, “Controlling Liquid-Liquid Phase Separation of Cold-Adapted Crystallin Proteins from the Antarctic Toothfish,” was published in the Dec. 7, 2018 issue of the Journal of Molecular Biology.

Study authors include senior author Rachel Martin, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at University of California, Irvine, and first author Jan Bierma, doctoral student in biochemistry, UC Irvine.


Written by Susan Meikle, University News and  ommunications, with Andor Kiss, Director, Miami’s Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, and adjunct assistant professor of biology and microbiology. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Vinaigrette photo by Tasha via Flickr. Antarctic toothfish photo by Pcziko via Wikimedia Common. Both used under Creative Commons license.

Cables plugged into computers at the Center for Nanoscale Materials at the Advanced Photon Source.

Research Computing Support staff member facilitates high performance computing for university’s faculty and students

Jens Mueller and a student look at data on a computer screen.
Jens Mueller (left) is the director of high performance computing services at Miami University and a Campus Champion for the Ohio Supercomputer Center, supporting faculty and students in all stages of their HPC needs.

We’re pleased to run this item, which originally appeared in the Ohio Supercomputer Center’s  2017-2018 Research Report, with the permission of  the Ohio Technology Consortium, a division of the Ohio Department of Higher Education.


The demand for high performance computing at Ohio’s universities has significantly grown and diversified. Jens Mueller, Ph.D., has witnessed that first hand at Miami University.

Mueller is the director of high performance computing services at Miami University and a Campus Champion for the Ohio Supercomputer Center, supporting faculty and students in all stages of their HPC needs.

“In some way, I’m the person for everything,” said Mueller, who has worked with OSC for more than 10 years. “The highlight at Miami is the broad spectrum of fields using computational research. I’ve only gotten busier because everything is more data driven, increasing demands.”

Traditional HPC users at Miami and many Ohio campuses include the engineering departments, computer science, math, physics, chemistry, geography and geology. However, Mueller has witnessed a growing demand from the business school, economics, finance, humanities, political sciences and even the English department.

And the broad spectrum of disciplines also means a broad spectrum of computational skill sets.

“One of the challenges in my role is to identify the proper computational resources based on experience and expressed needs,” Mueller said. “This includes software tools and specific hardware resources.”

Mueller and his team follow a tiered approach to helping researchers meet HPC needs. They start with Miami’s local clusters and, once they are exhausted, Mueller facilitates the transition to OSC.

Mueller also helps facilitate a class partially taught on OSC machines to assist people through the process of using HPC resources, everything from applying for an account to reserving compute nodes to gaining software licenses and even using OSC OnDemand.

“I look at what challenges they’ll face and how they can be eliminated,” he said. “I just want to make sure the transition is smooth.”

Mueller also works one-on-one with research groups and faculty labs. And while he helps Miami’s researchers a great deal, he also helps OSC. He was part of the OnDemand committee to give feedback on its usability and regularly communicates to OSC what is working well and what isn’t.

“We contribute to OSC and that’s beneficial to them, of course the benefit to us is great as well,” he said. “Researchers can get amazing things accomplished using OSC.”

Mueller highlighted a few recent Miami projects in which he helped researchers make the most of OSC’s resources:

  • Graduate student Melvin Ikwubuo, with David Munday, Ph.D., associate professor in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, is studying the effect of geometric features on film cooling efficiency. The project was featured in a poster presentation during the OSC Statewide Users Group in April.
  • Amelie Davis, assistant professor of geography, is in a research collaboration on computational analysis of satellite imagery, using the tool R at OSC to predict forage suitability for honey bees and other pollinators.
  • Graduate student Erik Brodin, with Jessica Sparks, Ph.D., in chemical, paper and biomedical engineering is in a research collaboration on 3D printer syringe modeling.
  • Amy Yousefi, Ph.D., a professor in chemical, paper and biomedical engineering, has a senior design student project attempting to model flow of cell culture fluid in bioreactors with the goal to improve bone growth in artificial scaffolds.
  • Rachel Blum, Ph.D., assistant professor of political science, used automated content analysis to study the dynamics of political parties via a topic model. The sources were a vast collection of blog posts and interview data.
  • Andor Kiss, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioinformatics and Functional Genomics, had a project studying the genome of the wood frog, a species that freezes in the winter and comes back to life in spring when it thaws.

Photo of high performance computer by Argonne National Laboratory via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Jens Mueller by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

John Bailer, Bri Clements and Katherine Shockey look at a data visualization on a screen.

Student-developed web app explores overdose deaths in Butler County

overdose-screenshot
Data depicted on the Overdose Deaths in Butler County web app shows a sharp increase in the use of fentanyl.

A new interactive web app promises to become an important component in battling the opioid crisis in Butler County by exploring the patterns of overdose deaths.

Using data from the Butler County Coroner’s office, statistics students at Miami University developed the Overdose Deaths in Butler County web app. The app documents select details about overdose deaths in Butler County between 2013 and 2017.

These details include the types of drugs found in the lab testing of overdose victims, the demographic profiles of victims and data about where the overdoses and deaths occurred.

For instance, yearly data on trends of drugs found in overdose victims show that fentanyl climbed substantially from 2013 to 2015, and then from 2016 to 2017 (see chart above).

More than 80 percent of Butler County overdose deaths during this time period were associated with opioids, according to the Butler County Coroner’s office.

According to Butler County Coroner Lisa Mannix, the app is intended to make it easier for law enforcement agencies, emergency responders and care providers to access the data they need to target prevention and treatment efforts.

“It is my goal to help reduce the number of fatal drug overdoses in Butler County, and this web app can be vital to achieving that goal,” said Mannix. “The more information made readily available, the easier it will be for our partners in the community to target those regions that need the assistance the most.”

The web app is available at dataviz.miamioh.edu/Butler_County_Overdose_Deaths and is accessible to the public.

John Bailer is University Distinguished Professor and chair of Miami’s department of statistics. He also is a member of the steering committee for the Center for Analytics and Data Sciences at Miami. The center provides a collaborative research space to develop real solutions for business and other organizations that partner with the university.

Bailer said his class was asked by the coroner to develop tools to explore the overdose death data. In the fall of 2017, multiple student teams worked on this project and presented their work at the end of the semester.

“While this was a great start, additional development was needed before this web app was ready for general sharing,” he said.

Bri Clements, a student in the data visualization class, worked on an independent study project this spring to do this finish work on the app that she and her classmate, Katherine Shockey, had developed. Both are majoring in statistics and analytics.

Clements explained the work she did on the project not only improved her coding skills, but it also gave her the opportunity to learn how to better communicate with clients, understand their wants and incorporate their feedback.

“I learned a great deal from this project, and it was a great pleasure to work on a nationwide issue that has especially impacted my local community,” she said.

Updating and maintaining the web app will be coordinated by Bailer, who will recruit students to participate. He explained that Clements added general code to allow for relatively easy incorporation of 2018 and 2019 data.

“We hope that this will help to communicate the impact and features of this epidemic,” Bailer said.


Written by Carole Johnson, Miami University News and Communications, and Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Data visualization from Overdose Deaths in Butler County web app. Photo of John Bailer, Bri Clements, and Katherine Shockey by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.

Proto Nazca deformed skull, c 200–100 BC.

Misinterpretation of early archaeology led to stories of aliens and witches

Jeb Card sits at a table.
Jeb Card, assistant teaching professor of anthropology, has published a book that traces the roots of many of today’s myths.

Where do all these ideas and stories about aliens and witches come from? Archaeology can explain, says one Miami University anthropologist.

Jeb Card’s latest book, Spooky Archaeology: Myth and Science of the Past (University of New Mexico Press, 2018), traced the roots of many of today’s myths to the Victorian era and in the early twentieth century, before the field of archaeology became professionalized.

What he found was a series of events that led to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of archaeological finds. These created beliefs in the paranormal and established the roots of today’s conspiracy theories.

It’s about “real” versus “alternative” archaeology, said Card, an assistant teaching professor of anthropology. “Real archaeology provides the basis for human identity. Alternative archaeology provides the basis for conspiracy theories and overarching paranormal belief systems.”

Take for instance, the presence of “oddly” (to outsiders) shaped ancient skulls in South America. Victorian-era and later alternative-minded scientists would create narratives based on Theosophy.

“Led by H. P. Blavatsky, theosophists claimed secret knowledge received from ascended masters of lost root races and civilizations,” Card said. “They believe they came from lost worlds (think the lost city of Atlantis), located on sunken continents, and in some versions, contacted beings from beyond Earth.”

However, looking at the scientific facts, the “odd”-shaped skull can be explained.

“People of the Paracas culture of southern Peru two thousand years ago, like those in other cultures around the world, bound children’s heads for reasons of aesthetics, group identity and other motives,” Card said.

“This might seem strange, but then what would people from another culture make of binding our children’s teeth with plastic and metal and pushing them to reshape the jaw for aesthetic purposes? We call this ‘braces.’”

Although those early theories were thrown out by the mainstream scientific community, they provided fodder for later alternative ideas, some benign, some much more dangerous.

“Margaret Murray, an early archaeologist, reinterpreted the Early Modern (16th and 17th centuries) witch panic and trials as evidence of an ancient pagan cult,” Card said. “This idea would be instrumental in the creation of Wicca and other neopagan religions in the 20th century.”

Fiction over fact

Blavatsky and Murray’s generally positive narratives combined together became the catalyst to what we know today as pulp fiction, but with a de-emphasis on the word ‘fiction’ and a decidedly darker cast.

“H. P. Lovecraft, considered a horror author in the 1920s, pioneered many of the techniques and tropes that today underpin large amounts of popular culture including movies, comics, video games, literature, and alternative “facts” and conspiracy theory,” Card said.

Although his works were fiction, a fact he stated over and over again, he did cite Murray’s essays, giving the stories an air of reality. These fictional stories then became the seeds of conspiracy theories about ancient extraterrestrials and secret societies that are today believed by large numbers of people.

Lovecraft’s popularity increased at the same time mainstream media published numerous stories about ancient archaeological discoveries, like the tomb of King Tutankhamun. During the period between the world wars, newspapers like The New York Times added to the popular belief that archaeology is dangerous and mysterious with stories of dead archaeologists and reports of overzealous searches for sunken cities.

Miami junior Emily Ratvasky shows these prominent themes in detailed drawings she created for Card’s book. Ratvasky began working with Card during her freshman year. Noting her artistic talent, he asked her to create artwork to illustrate his charts and graphs. “My charts were boring,” he said.

Over the course of a semester, the anthropology major created an artistic story of Card’s research. She added imagery to highlight the influences of the time, including intricate facts, even down to the book titles of Lovecraft and other fictional authors works of the time.

These fictional characters were just that, fictional.

And, Card said, “Laughing at some of the colorful characters of today’s television and film may seem amusing to non-believers, but these ideas have played a huge role in mainstreaming attacks on scientific knowledge and methods and the advancement of conspiracy theory and political extremism.”


Written by Carole Johnson, Associate Director of University News and Communications, Miami University. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photo of artificially deformed skull by Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Jeb Card by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

Rick Page working with senior Matt Morris, a 2018 Beckman Scholar

In a first at Miami, two biochemists awarded MIRA grants

Gary Lorigan and Dan Drew work with an EPR spectrometer.
Gary Lorigan, left, with doctoral student Dan Drew.

A new type of grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is designed to allow proven and promising researchers to be more ambitious and creative in their research.

The NIH has recognized Miami University biochemists Gary Lorigan and Rick Page: They were each awarded about $1.8 million over five years, as part of the Maximizing Investigator’s Research Award, or MIRA.

The MIRA grants, part of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), are highly competitive and essentially set the researcher for a career in NIH funding, said Mike Crowder, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“It would be rare for a school like Miami to have two MIRAs; it is very unlikely for one department to have two,” he said.

After the first five years of funding, the MIRA program is set up to provide another funding cycle to the researchers, as long as the group was productive, Crowder said. The current system requires researchers to apply repeatedly for a grant.

“Given their success rate on NIH grant proposals using the ‘old’ system, Gary and Rick are positioned for consistent funding for many years. I could not be happier for them or for their students,” Crowder said.

Describing the new grant program, now in its second year, NIGMS director Jon Lorsch said, “We hope that by creating the stability for investigators, we can really empower them to be more ambitious and more creative in their research. We also hope to increase the flexibility for investigators to follow new ideas and new research directions as they arise during the course of their work. If they discover something very interesting, they’ll be able to follow that.”

Freedom to let the science guide the research

Lorigan, professor, and Page, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, will each receive around $360,000 per year for five years. Page received the MIRA for Early Stage Investigators (MIRA ESI).

The funding supports their research programs, rather than individual projects.

Portrait of Gary Lorigan
Gary Lorigan

Lorigan’s research program: Membrane protein structure; heart disease

The MIRA grant gives his research group a lot of flexibility and the ability to explore new scientific directions, Lorigan said.

His research program focuses on membrane protein channels that are directly related to heart disease.

Internationally recognized as a leader in the field of membrane protein structure, he and his research group have pioneered strategies to characterize membrane proteins by using magnetic resonance techniques, such as electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopies.

His expertise has attracted several significant collaborators with important biological problems.

His goal:

  • To develop transformative biophysical techniques to study the structural and dynamic properties of membrane proteins.
  • These state-of-the-art pulsed EPR spectroscopic techniques will move the field forward by dramatically increasing sensitivity and accuracy of distance measurements for all membrane protein systems.

Lorigan is currently adviser to a postdoctoral researcher and four graduate students and is mentor to nine undergraduate researchers.

Portrait of Rick Page
Rick Page

Page’s research program: Protein quality control; antibiotic resistance

The award “provides my laboratory with the freedom to let the science guide us,” Page said. It will advance both the protein quality control and the antibiotic resistance projects in his lab.

The three-dimensional structures of proteins determine the roles and functions proteins play within cells, Page said. Exposure to chemical or mechanical stresses can cause proteins to misfold, resulting in large changes in three-dimensional structure and loss of protein function.

To survive, cells have developed quality control systems that guide misfolded proteins towards pathways that lead to them either being repaired or discarded.

Defects in protein quality control pathways can contribute to diseases including neurodegenerative disorders and cancers.

His goal:

  • To enhance our fundamental knowledge of protein quality control pathways and identify avenues that may be exploited for future therapeutic targeting.

He has multiple research collaborations with colleagues in chemistry and biochemistry and in bioengineering on his research project on clinical inhibitors of metallo-beta-lactamases (MBLs), which render bacteria resistant to antibiotics.

Page is currently adviser to six graduate students and mentor to 12 undergraduate researchers.

Proven and Promising
Lorigan (2003) and Page (2016) have each been named a Miami University Junior Faculty Scholar. Lorigan was named a Distinguished Faculty Scholar in 2014.

They each received a National Science Foundation CAREER grant – one of the organization’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faulty. Lorigan was the first scientist at Miami to receive one, in 2003. Page is the eighth to receive one, in 2016. (Dominik Konkolewicz, asssitant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, recently received the ninth NSF CAREER grant at Miami).

Last month Lorigan received a $450,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his research on membrane proteins.

Research at Miami is competitive at the highest level

“We are incredibly proud to have received a MIRA ESI,” Page said. “That there are now two MIRAs in the department is continued evidence that research at Miami is competitive at the highest levels,” he said.

There are 231 established MIRA grantees and 192 ESI MIRA grantees nationally, awarded over the first two years of the program, according to the NIGMS.


Written by Susan Meikle, University News Writer/Editor, University Communications and Marketing, Miami University. Originally appeared as a “Top Story” on Miami University’s News and Events website.

Photos by Scott Kissell and Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services.

 

Exterior of a building on the main campus of NREL in Golden, CO.

Miami students place in annual U.S. Department of Energy design competition

Miami University participants who took part in the 2018 Race to Zero Student Design Competition pose with their award certificates. A banner in the background reads, "U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Student Design Competition" and has the Race to Zero logo.
Participants from Miami’s Team EcoEdge and Team Optimize at the 2018 U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Student Design Competition.

Two multi-disciplinary teams of Miami University students have won first and second place awards in the 2018 U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Student Design competition.

The Race to Zero is an annual competition, open to students and faculty from collegiate institutions worldwide. The competition encourages students to work with builders, developers, community leaders, and other industry partners to meet stringent design requirements and create marketable, affordable concepts.

Seventeen students from architecture and mechanical engineering majors collaborated in the 2018 Race to Zero competition studio. The studio fielded two teams in the first phase of the competition. In March, their progress entries were selected to be among the 40 finalist teams representing 34 institutions from the U.S. and internationally. The Miami students presented their final proposals at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) April 21-22 in Golden, Colorado. Miami’s EcoEdge team won first place in the small multifamily contest. Miami’s Optimize team won second place in the attached housing contest.

The Teams and the Projects

Rendering of Team EcoEdge's "Freedom's Path to Zero" project submission. A three story, multi-unit building has covered balconies and shaded windows. Landscaping surrounds the base of the building and a person walks a dog on the lawn.
Team EcoEdge project submission: Freedom’s Path to Zero

Miami’s team EcoEdge competed in the small multifamily category. They developed an innovative design for a 60-unit building to house homeless veterans on the VA Medical campus in Chillicothe, Ohio. After touring an existing veterans housing facility on the site and learning of the high demand for veterans housing, the students were inspired to design a neighboring building to provide the additional housing. Their project, Freedom’s Path to Zero, is envisioned as a high-performance, transformative space to serve veterans’ needs with specific goals for universal design, interior environmental quality, privacy, community, and access to health resources. The ultra-low energy design is achieved through strategies of compartmentalization, high-performance building envelope, decentralized geothermal heating and cooling system with energy recovery ventilation, and photovoltaic systems. In addition to efficient, healthy and accessible apartments, the project features many common spaces where veterans can find community: An open-air roof terrace is shaded by PV panels, a ground-floor community room, outdoor patio.

TEAM EcoEdge participants:
NICOLE RUSK, Team Lead: B.A. in Architecture, Sustainability Co-Major
JACQUIE EDWARDS: B.A. in Architecture
TREVOR HAYES: Mechanical Engineering – B.S. in Engineering
MCKENNA MARTIN: B.A. in Architecture
JOAO GUILHERME NOBREGA DE CASTRO: B.A. in Architecture
ANDREW PORTEN: B.A. in Architecture
JENNY SCARBOROUGH: B.A. in Architecture
TINGYU ZHANG: B.A. in Architecture

Rendering of Team Optimize's project submission. A series of attached homes features solar panels on the roofs. Pergolas shade outdoor living spaces. Two people walk on a paved path that runs alongside the buildings.
Team Optimize project submission: The Wright Path to Zero

Miami’s team Optimize competed in the attached housing category. They developed a new vision for military family housing, choosing the Properties at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio as their site. After studying the unique needs of military families, the students designed a new prototype for attached housing centered on concepts of community and universal design. Their project, The Wright Path to Zero, challenges the traditional format of a cul-de-sac. The four-unit houses are arranged in unique linear layout that creates an internal “community garden courtyard” to promote a walkable and interactive community. The buildings are aligned along an east-west axis with windows and roof overhangs that optimize daylight inside the homes. The ultra-low energy design is achieved through strategies of high-performance building envelope, daylight optimization, ducted mini-split heating and cooling system with energy recovery ventilation, and a micro-grid photovoltaic with on-site battery storage. Residents are encouraged to monitor and adjust their energy and water usage as well as stay informed about community events through a customized smartphone interface.

TEAM Optimize participants:
MARGARET WOOLF, Team Lead: B.A. in Architecture, Urban Design Minor
SHUTING CHEN: B.A. in Architecture
ALANNA KUETHER: B.A. in Architecture, German Minor
ANDREW MALONEY: Engineering Management – B.S. in Engineering, Manufacturing Engineering concentration
DANNY NOLAN: B.A. in Architecture, Sustainability Co-Major
KELLY RICHTER: B.A. in Architecture with Urban Geography concentration
PETER WITT: B.A. in Architecture, Sustainability Co-MajorDEANGELA WEAKLEY: B.A. in Architecture
JUSTIN WRIGHT: Mechanical Engineering – B.S. in Engineering, Management Minor

The teams used energy modeling in their process to arrive at designs that meet climate-specific performance targets for carbon and energy reduction and healthy indoor air quality as established by the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS) Passive Building Standard. Passive House guiding design principles include Super insulated walls, Air tightness, Balancing the loss and gains in energy, Minimize thermal bridging from the construction, High performance windows and Renewable energy. Both Freedom’s Path to Zero and Wright Path to Zero projects met or exceeded the net zero energy target through the provision of photovoltaic solar panel arrays that produce enough energy on-site to offset the buildings predicted annual energy use.

Both housing proposals are designed to be 100% accessible and employ Universal Design principles which seek to create a built environment that is usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone regardless of their age, status in life, ability, or disability.

The student teams were advised by industry partners including Heapy Engineering, Green Building Consulting, Prosoco, Ultimate Air, and Miller Valentine Group. The 2018 Race to Zero studio was led by John Becker with consulting faculty advisors Mary Rogero and Mary Ben Bonham (architecture and interior design), Padmakar Niskode and John Richter (mechanical and manufacturing engineering). Miami students first entered the competition in 2017, bringing home a second-place win in the multifamily contest in that inaugural effort.


Originally appeared on Miami University’s College of Creative Arts news website.

Photo of NREL main campus by NREL/DOE, used under license. Participant photo by Ellen Jaskol/NREL, DOE Race to Zero. Project submission renderings by Team EcoEdge and Team Optimize.

Xiao-Wen Cheng sits in front of a microscope in his lab.

Microbiologist hopes effort to build a better flu test will catalyze a start-up

Group photo of Miami University's I-Corps@Ohio team: Xiao-Wen Cheng, Michael Nau, and Hui Shang.
A team from Miami University participated in I-Corps@Ohio in 2018. The team included Xiao-Wen Cheng (left), associate professor of microbiology who served as principal investigator; Michael Nau (center), a senior microbiology major and management minor who served as the entrepreneurial lead; and Hui Shang (right), a graduate student in the cell, molecular, and structural biology program who served as the co-entrepreneurial lead.

Some years, as much as 20% of the U.S. population becomes infected with the influenza virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Most people who get the flu experience mild illness that amounts to little more than an unpleasant inconvenience. However, some cases of the flu can be very severe, and even mild cases can be life-threatening for young children, the elderly, and those with certain medical conditions. For these vulnerable patients, early treatment with antiviral drugs is critical.

Yet, to be treated, the flu must first be diagnosed, and doing that is not as easy as many clinicians would like. Although there are two different kinds of tests that can be used to diagnose the flu while a patient is in the doctor’s office, these tests don’t catch every case. A third test is more accurate, but requires processing and analysis in a lab, making it more expensive and time-consuming as well. The net effect is that critical treatment may be delayed, if it happens at all.

Xiao-Wen Cheng is working on a better way. An associate professor of microbiology at Miami University, Cheng’s innovation is to detect a virus directly, using a method that doesn’t require extracting viral RNA. Detecting a virus directly is more diagnostically reliable than detecting the antibodies a patient has developed in response to a viral infection – the method used in currently available rapid influenza diagnostic tests (RIDTs) – because patients in the very early stages of infection may not yet have developed antibodies. Cheng’s method is also cheaper and faster than direct-detection lab tests that rely on RNA extraction.

The key to Cheng’s innovation is an engineered enzyme known as RTAKAS-mix. RTAKAS-mix was initially inspired by an enzyme produced by a group of German scientists. That enzyme – which Cheng learned about in a paper the team published – was capable of detecting certain viruses. However, as Cheng discovered when he replicated it, the enzyme was not very robust, so its usefulness in practical applications was limited.

To benefit clinicians and patients, Cheng knew a useful viral diagnostic enzyme would have to be sturdy enough to withstand some harsh conditions. “Diagnostic test kits have to be shipped from the manufacturer to doctors’ offices,” he says. “They’re transported by truck across the country all year. It can be more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside a truck in the summer, and the test kit has to be able to survive that.”

Since the enzyme originally created by the German team was not that robust, Cheng and his team put the enzyme through a series of mutations, finally developing the stable, long-lived RTAKAS-mix, which can withstand temperatures up to 54°C (129°F) for at least two days.

Once his lab had an optimized enzyme, Cheng needed a path to commercialization, so he applied and was accepted to I-Corps@Ohio, a program that uses methodologies pioneered by the National Science Foundation in its Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program. As its website explains, I-Corps@Ohio is “a statewide grant-funded program to assist faculty and graduate students from Ohio universities and colleges to validate the market potential of their technologies and launch startup companies.”

In addition to Cheng, who serves as the project’s principal investigator, the I-Corps@Ohio project team includes Michael Nau, a senior microbiology major and management minor who serves as the entrepreneurial lead; Hui Shang, a graduate student in the cell, molecular, and structural biology program who serves as the co-entrepreneurial lead; and Dan Rose, an angel investor, entrepreneur, and I-Corps@Ohio instructor who serves as the entrepreneurial mentor.

Together, Nau and Shang interviewed more than 100 potential customers – nurses, doctors, veterinarians, and other clinicians – to learn about their day-to-day practices and what they need from a viral diagnostic tool. Some of the interviews were via phone or email, but many of them were in person, with Cheng driving Nau and Shang to hospitals and doctors’ offices all over the Columbus area.

One insight that came from the interviews surprised Cheng: when it comes to flu, clinicians don’t really care about viral load, or how many copies of the virus are circulating in a patient’s body. Cheng’s test is so sensitive it can detect the presence of a single virus particle in a sample, and that’s all that’s needed for the flu – a simple infected/not infected diagnosis is enough to make appropriate treatment decisions.

But Cheng’s test can also determine viral load, and he learned from the interviews with clinicians that viral load is very important to treatment decisions for certain other viral infections, including HIV. Cheng has already used RTAKAS-mix to detect FIV, a feline virus similar to HIV that causes an AIDS-like disease in cats. Now he’s heading back to the lab to see if he can apply his solution to develop a direct-detection test for HIV – and HIV viral load – that doctors can use in their offices while patients wait.

At the same time, Cheng and his I-Corps@Ohio team will look for an investor to form a company that will manufacture and market a flu test kit using RTAKAS-mix. “The company will probably operate for a short time before it is bought by a larger company,” he says. “That’s the business model, to attract investment through acquisition.”

Being involved, however briefly, in the management of the new start-up company will provide Nau and Shang with valuable experience. Even negotiating their eventual exit from the company will become part of a roadmap they can use to navigate future entrepreneurial ventures.

That’s important because commercialization of biomedical innovations is as critical to improving the lives of Ohio’s citizens and ensuring the vibrancy of its economy as the scientific discoveries behind those innovations. After all, as Cheng puts it, “If technology stays in the lab, it creates no value.”


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Xiao-Wen Cheng by Jeff Sabo, Miami University Photo Services. Photo of I-Corps@Ohio project team by I-Corps@Ohio.

At the center of this short scroll, the scholar Ruan Yuan (1764–1849) travels on a boat that carries a prominent bronze vessel on its bow, approaching a monastery at the foot of a hilly island. He is about to present an inscribed Han dynasty tripod to the monastery on Jiaoshan, Zhenjiang, Jiangsu Province, where it will be paired with an important Zhou dynasty bronze vessel. Jiaoshan was a center for the study of ancient scripts preserved on bronze and stone artifacts. Ruan’s act epitomizes the intellectual ethos of his time, when antiquarian and epigraphic research was a mainstream form of scholarship in China. His generous gesture—sharing his ancient treasure with the scholarly community—was celebrated by his contemporaries and immortalized in this painting.

Early 19th Century Chinese paintings hold more than meets the eye

Miami University assistant professor Michael Hatch in the Astor Court at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Miami University assistant professor Michael Hatch is Andrew W. Mellon Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he is conducting research for his book on early 19th Century Chinese painting. He is pictured in the museum’s Astor Court.

In the 1790s – the Qing Dynasty’s halcyon days – no one could have imagined that a system of government China had known for two millennia would be completely dead within the space of a century and a half. Although the cracks in China’s dynastic foundation wouldn’t become obvious until the 1860s, art from the early 19th Century suggests willful conservatism in the face of ominous signs on the horizon. During this time, Chinese artists looked to the past to embrace familiar tropes that provided a sort of cultural reassurance that things would continue as they always had.

That’s according to Michael Hatch, an assistant professor of art at Miami University, who studies a period of Chinese painting he says has been largely ignored by other art historians.

“There’s almost no writing about this period by scholars in the West” Hatch says. “And no stand-alone books, even in Chinese. Major scholars have actively disparaged this period as one in which nothing interesting happens. It’s like a dead zone that isn’t worth attention.”

Hatch plans to remedy that situation with a manuscript of his own, tentatively titled The Senses of Painting in China, 1790-1840. He’s conducting research for the book at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he currently serves as Andrew W. Mellon Fellow. Affiliation with the museum not only gives Hatch access to paintings in the Met’s own collection, but also facilitates access to works at museums in China, Hong Kong, and Japan, which are not easily made available, even to academics.

Hatch says painters and poets of the early 1800s often imitated the styles and themes of previous periods. Since an early 19th Century painting done in 15th Century style offers nothing new visually, it’s understandable that art historians might not be excited by it. But Hatch says there’s value in moving beyond the visual to consider other senses.

According to Hatch, subjects common in Chinese paintings of this era, including tea-preparation, plum blossoms, and inscribed stone monuments, evoke tastes, scents, and tactile sensations. While they may be derivative visually, they are dynamic in their appeals to those other senses.

For instance, Hatch says, brushwork in this period was often praised for being “awkward and antique.” These words were not only inscribed directly on early 19th Century paintings (writing text on paintings was common throughout Chinese history), but they were also used to describe the surfaces of 2nd Century engraved stone monuments. Rather than rendering the art “bad,” however, Hatch says those clumsy, antiquarian painting techniques instead serve to mimic the tactility of the surfaces of those stone monuments.

In many ways, Chinese paintings from the early 1800s are like today’s food blogs and sandy beach feet photos. They communicate specific sensory details to elicit vivid memories among their audiences. And like today’s live video streams and selfies, they documented events and commemorated one’s participation in them.

“From their writings and from inscriptions on paintings we know these artists were actually going out into the landscape to engage in cultural activities with their friends, and then they painted about it,” Hatch says. He points to a painting of plum blossoms inscribed with a poem rich in metaphorical references to delicate scents that might be akin to the smell of plum blossoms in early spring. “As someone read the poem and looked at the painting,” he says, “it would strike up this sort of bodily memory of enjoying plum blossoms with their friends in real life. The paintings were about securing that experience in the present for the maker and allowing the viewer to re-experience that.”

They were also about relating those experiences to the past. A yearning for the good old days is suggested by the ways that Chinese artists layered into their work references to their history and cultural traditions at the same time the first industrial revolution was accelerating globalization.

“These early 19th Century painters and poets and writers might have found an appeal in staying in a kind of insular environment where the same sorts of references to the past have always worked and would still continue to work,” Hatch says.

Examining the ways Chinese artists made those appeals in the early 1800s could shed light on how similar conservative isolationist appeals are being made visually and culturally throughout the West today.


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Wang Xuehao’s Presenting the Tripod (1803) by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, public domain. Photo of Michael Hatch courtesy of Michael Hatch.

A young woman places her hand over the hand of an older woman holding a cane.

Scripps Gerontology Center research fellows study effects of social services on patient outcomes

John Bowblis and Amy Roberts discuss data they see on a computer screen.
John Bowblis (left) and Amy Roberts (right) are working with Medicare data to determine whether social services staffing affects patient outcomes.

Wellness is about much more than physical health. Even people in top physical condition can experience the ill-effects of depression, isolation. Those things can have an even greater impact on people with a recent illness or injury. Sometimes, these so-called psychosocial factors can even be the difference between temporary and permanent nursing home care.

“Most people who go into a nursing home are short-stay residents,” says John Bowblis, associate professor of economics and Endres Associate Research Fellow in Miami University’s Farmer School of Business and a research fellow with the Scripps Gerontology Center. “Residents go to a nursing home for rehab after some type of hospitalization, and the goal for most of those people is to go back home.”

With physical and psychosocial functioning so intertwined, whether a patient is, in fact, able to return home depends not just on the nursing services these facilities provide, but also on the social services. Yet, while there are many regulations for professional nursing staff in nursing homes, there are few for social services staff. In practice, according to a study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), the typical nursing home resident has about 3 hours of contact with CNAs, LPNs, and RNs each day, but only about 6 minutes of contact with social workers.

Whether changes in public policy related to social services staff might lead to better outcomes for patients is a question Bowblis and his collaborator, Amy Roberts, also a research fellow with the Scripps Gerontology Center and assistant professor of family science and social work, would like to answer. The pair are currently leading one of the first national studies to assess the impact of social services staffing in nursing homes.

The data Bowblis and Roberts are working with comes from CMS’s Minimum Data Set (MDS), merged with the Certification and Survey Provider Enhanced Reporting (CASPER) system. Together, these data sets document every Medicare fee-for-service admission to a nursing home, along with the staffing characteristics of those facilities. Bowblis applies statistical methods to this data to identify statistical relationships between social services staffing data and patient outcomes. Roberts then helps interpret the practical implications of those insights for organizational and public policy.

One concern for Roberts is credentialing. “Nursing homes do not always hire licensed social workers but instead hire unlicensed paraprofessionals for social services positions,” she says. “In this study, we want to see if having qualified social workers in such positions leads to better psychosocial functioning for residents.”

Bowblis and Roberts expect to have the first results of their study sometime this summer, with publications and presentations to follow. When their findings are released, policy wonks will not be the only ones paying attention. Advocacy groups, including the Retirement Research Foundation – which provided the $50,000 grant to fund Bowblis and Roberts’ study – and professional organizations, such as the National Association of Social Workers, will take note as well.

The same is true for nursing home providers. “Nursing homes don’t necessarily want to spend money on this type of staff,” Bowblis says of social workers. “But they’re willing to do things that produce good returns on investment. If managers know that hiring qualified social workers is going to get patients back into the community, they know that will enhance the quality of their services and attract more people to their facility. That’s a good thing.”

For Roberts, that kind of win-win-win for patients, providers, and society would be a natural extension of a win-win research partnership. When she and Bowblis met at a networking event at the Scripps Gerontology Center, they quickly realized their individual areas of research – his on the quality of care provided by facilities and hers on residents’ quality of life – could complement each other.

“The interdisciplinary work we’re doing together is innovative and mutually beneficial,” Roberts says. “Teaming up has worked out even better than we’d hoped.”


Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Hands photo by Government of Alberta, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license. Photo of Bowblis and Roberts by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services.