July 2000

News about Science, Technology and Engineering at Iowa State University

Scientists rethink role of glial cells in brain functions
Research conducted at Iowa State University could change our understanding of how the brain works. Until recently, neuroscientists believed neurons were the only brain cells transmitting message signals. Glial cells were thought to serve only as support. In the mid-1990s, researchers, including Iowa State scientists Vladimir Parpura and Philip Haydon, discovered that glial cells are much more important to the brain's communication network than previously thought. In 1994, Parpura and Haydon reported that a type of glial cell -- the astrocyte -- releases glutamate (a neurotransmitter) and signals neurons. Now they've taken that work a step further.

"The release of glutamate is controlled by increased levels of calcium in the astrocytes," Parpura said. "Exactly how much calcium was needed to cause the glutamate release was unclear. We didn't know if it was in the normal range for calcium levels in astrocytes. That's the question we answered in the current study." They found the amount of calcium to be within the normal range, indicating that astrocytes are part of the brain's communication network. While the research is still in its early stages, Parpura said the ramifications could be great. "Neurons make up only 10 percent of the brain's cells, yet that's what we've always focused on. There's 90 percent of the brain yet to learn about." Results of the study were published in the July 18 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For more information, contact Parpura, Zoology and Genetics, (515) 294-8206, or Teddi Barron, News Service, (515) 294-4778.

Iowa State sets up computer security masters degree
Iowa State University will begin offering an interdepartmental masters of science degree in information assurance (computer security) this fall. The program, one of only six nationwide, will teach students to become information security researchers and practitioners, said Jim Davis, an Iowa State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and coordinator the program. The program will draw from the expertise of seven ISU departments and will offer technical and non-technical degrees.

"Our program will encompass a wider range of disciplines than many other programs," Davis said. "We will have the pertinent technology topics, but we will also bring in the social, policy and ethical issues as well as the technical issues of information assurance." Davis expects the program to be popular. "The shortage of qualified workers in information technology has become a national crisis," he said. For more information, contact Davis, (515) 294-0659; Doug Jacobson, Electrical and Computer Engineering, (515) 294-8307; or Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917.

New insights into the material world
A new Auger electron spectroscopy microscope at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory will give researchers new insights into materials used in optics, semiconductors, automobiles, catalysts, thin films, computer hard disks and elsewhere. The Auger (pronounced oh-zhay) microscope is an analytical device that allows scientists to understand the composition of surface layers as well as the distribution of elements in materials. Such capability is important to researchers evaluating material properties, failure, corrosion, surface cleanliness and other factors because the outer atomic layers are where a material interacts with its environment.

The Ames Lab machine, built by Japan Electron Optics Laboratory, has benefits over traditional Auger systems. "The big advantage of this system is that the probe is very small," said Vince Crist, an assistant scientist at Ames Lab. As a result, the system can resolve a region roughly a tenth as large as what can be resolved with older Auger devices. The system also features a hemispherical analyzer (HAS), which provides advanced chemical state analysis. It can, for example, accurately reveal the amount of silicon in a sample that exists as the element compared to the amount of silicon oxide. Such information can be used to create a detailed map of elements and their chemical states across a sample. For more information, contact Crist, (515) 294-4781, or Robert Mills, IPRT Public Affairs, (515) 294-1113.

International technology exchange could offer cleaner water for U.S.
Iowa State University's Center for Sustainable Environmental Technologies (CSET) is engaged in an international technology exchange that could offer cleaner water for the U.S. The center is working with Chinese scientist Maohong Fan to bring technology that converts sulfur, a waste product from coal combustion, into a chemical used to purify waste water and drinking water.

The technology Fan developed converts sulfur into polymeric ferric sulfate (PFS) a flocculating agent that speeds up the settling of suspended dirt and other solids in water. The technology was identified when Robert Brown, CSET's director, visited China through the Sustainable Development China project sponsored by ISU's International Institute for Theoretical and Applied Physics. Brown reciprocated by sharing the design of a biomass gasifier, which converts agricultural wastes to a flammable gas that can be used for household cooking in rural villages.

Two Iowa utility providers, Des Moines Water Works and Alliant Power of Cedar Rapids, are involved in efforts to evaluate the PFS. The city of Charleston, S.C., is providing pilot-plant facilities for testing, and the University of South Carolina, Columbia, is also partnering in the project. For more information, contact Robert Brown, (515) 294-7934, or Danelle Baker-Miller, IPRT Public Affairs, (515) 294-5635.

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