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Catalyst for Creativity

U-M President Mark Schlissel highlights the importance of interdisciplinary research at the November 1 MCubed Symposium. Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

By Alex Piazza
apiazza@umich.edu

A team of biologists from the University of Michigan spent three months in the Peruvian Amazon searching for feisty, brightly colored little snakes.

The mix of both venomous and harmless snakes is part of an exciting game of communication, using both color and motion to convince predators to pass them over in favor of a different meal.

Scientific illustration of a harmless mimic and venomous coral snake 
drawn from preserved specimens caught at the same field site
in 1940 on a U-M Museum of Zoology expedition to Guatemala.
Photo: John Megahan

Venomous coral snakes reveal warning coloration and behavior that bird predators avoid. Snakes that look similar, but are harmless, try to dupe birds into thinking they also are venomous.

Scientists have long wondered whether both the color and behavior were required to convince predators to move on—they just never had the technology to test the idea.

Alison Davis Rabosky and her colleagues are replacing live snakes with robotic snakes to safely identify how predators react to changes in color and motion. To get the resources to test their idea, they turned to MCubed—the university’s fast track, interdisciplinary research funding program.

With funding from MCubed, Davis Rabosky teamed up with Sridhar Kota from mechanical engineering, as well as Daniel Rabosky and Talia Moore from ecology and evolutionary biology, to build “soft” robots that run on air and are capable of generating behaviors to fend off predators. The team is measuring predator reactions to these snake robots so they can identify which color and behavior combinations work best to protect snakes from harm.

“Getting eaten is a real and constant threat in nature, and which animals die and which do not is one of the main drivers shaping the world around us,” said Davis Rabosky, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “MCubed has allowed us, as early career scientists, the amazing opportunity to pursue risky and interdisciplinary research that would have been very hard to fund through traditional sources.”

Spearheaded in 2012 by U-M Professors Mark Burns, Alec Gallimore
and Thomas Zurbuchen, MCubed was developed to help spark
innovative research projects without traditional peer review.

Snake robots are just one of nearly 500 interdisciplinary projects funded by MCubed since 2012. Spearheaded by U-M Professors Mark Burns, Alec Gallimore and Thomas Zurbuchen (now with NASA), MCubed was developed to quickly help spark innovative research projects without traditional peer review.

The conventional grant review process often takes months and can prove too big a hurdle for a new team with a big idea to clear. As part of MCubed, faculty from at least two different disciplines can form a collaborative trio, or cube, and request either $15,000 or $60,000 to advance their idea right away. Although there is no formal peer review, MCubed uses publication on its website and the fact that each faculty member can only be in one cube each cycle as a powerful peer-to-peer review system.

The U-M Provost’s Office contributes $5 million each cycle, which stimulates investments by colleges, schools or departments, and participating faculty members that has historically totaled an additional $10 million.

What started as a five year, $30 million investment has tripled into a return of $94 million in follow-on funding and has resulted in 225 published studies. U-M President Mark Schlissel recently announced that MCubed would continue for another three-year cycle.

“There is no shortage of creativity among our faculty, and MCubed helps unleash their ambition more quickly by tapping into the great interdisciplinary breadth of our institution,” Schlissel said. “As a 200-year-old public university with outstanding academic breadth, we have the potential to be so much more than the sum of our many excellent parts. We need our best artists and humanists, scientists, teachers and others to pursue knowledge that will change society for the better.”

Pistons to Patients

It is estimated that as many as 10 million Americans are blind or visually impaired, according to the National Federation of the Blind.

And each year, 75,000 more people in the United States will succumb to some sort of visual impairment.

Volker Sick stands in as a test subject for a specially designed
plenoptic camera that scans the surface of the iris and quickly
renders a 3D model. 
Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

“A lot of people in this world lose vision or go blind because we don’t intervene early enough,” said Maria Woodward, U-M assistant professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences. “There are not enough providers and our system is not really set up to take care of people who are most sick.”

But what if eye doctors could examine a patient without having to be in the same room?

That idea inspired Woodward to collaborate with U-M Professors Volker Sick and David Burke on a MCubed project to test the idea quickly and lay the groundwork for further development.

Woodward and Burke both have medical backgrounds, whereas Sick’s research focuses on automotive engines. As part of his research, Sick uses a plenoptic camera that combines thousands of tiny cameras to capture how fuel is injected into an engine, how the fuel burns and then releases power that moves the piston.

“Our goal was to figure out how we could translate my engine research on pistons to patients,” said Sick, professor of mechanical engineering.

Researchers aim to fashion a plenoptic camera so that it can eventually generate a 3D image of a patient’s eye. Structural information related to blood vessels and nerves in the patient’s eye, as well as inflammation, could then be sent to a doctor for further examination.

“In order for me to see a patient and decide who is sick, I don’t have to be in the same geographic location,” Woodward said. “They could be in a rural camp in Nepal or a remote community in the Upper Peninsula. The eye is really cool, so we can use this information to study other diseases like diabetes or lupus. This really provides us an opportunity to look at a whole person’s health beyond their eye.”

Instant Feedback

Tammy Chang is working in her office when the phone rings.

It’s a policymaker and they need information related to proposed legislation.

MyVoice is an interactive text-messaging poll that empowers young
people to voice their opinion on important issues. Photo: Bigstock

“No problem,” responds Chang, U-M assistant professor of family medicine. “Let me write a grant, collect some data and write a report. I will have an answer for you in a couple years.”

The policymaker is silent, and then reminds Chang they need to vote on the proposed legislation in three days.

“What’s wrong with this situation is that the pace and timeline of science doesn’t match what’s needed to inform policies in real time,” she said. “We do not get a good return on our investment for research and we really miss the mark.”

That’s why Chang teamed up with a number of U-M researchers, including Professors Michelle Moniz and Kendrin Sonneville, to create MyVoice, an interactive text-messaging poll funded by MCubed that empowers young people (ages 14-24) to voice their opinion on issues that are important to them. Chang and her colleagues then use those responses to inform policymakers and community leaders in real-time about the needs and priorities of youth.

Here’s how it works:

  • Participants receive 3-5 questions via text message each week.
  • In return, participants receive $1 for completing each week’s poll.

“Traditional ways of understanding youth are insufficient,” Chang said. “If you think about it, youth are typically middle-age before we have the critical answers to the problems affecting their health today.”

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts recently tasked U-M researchers with measuring sentiment around proposed legislation that would restrict access to diet pills and muscle-building supplements for people younger than 18. Through MyVoice, researchers were able to pose the question to youth via text message, and then quickly share the results with policymakers.

“Our team sees youth as central to every major health issue in our nation at this time,” said Moniz, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “So now when a policymaker calls about issues affecting young people, we’ll be ready to fulfill research’s potential to inform policies in real time and improve the health of this population.”

References and Resources

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