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Twelve UB research projects that caught the world’s attention in 2016

A glowing solution of BODIPY dye is swirled under a black light. A new UB study shows the dye has interesting chemical properties that could make it an ideal material for use in large-scale rechargeable batteries. Photo: Douglas Levere

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published December 16, 2016

We studied beardogs and brewed our own lava. We designed a vortex laser to accelerate computing. We challenged the status quo when it comes to treating concussions, and we helped show why bite-mark analysis may not be a reliable form of evidence to use in criminal courts.

In 2016, UB students and faculty brought vision and ingenuity to studying the world around them. They tackled pressing problems and their discoveries made headlines in news outlets from The New York Times and BBC to Engadget and VICE.

PhD student Anjula Kosswattaarachchi holds a flask of the BODIPY dye. Photo: Douglas Levere

A glowing dye for batteries

Could a glow-in-the-dark dye be the next advance in energy-storage technology? Yes, according to UB chemist Timothy Cook. In tests, his team found that a glowing dye called BODIPY performed well as the main ingredient of a rechargeable battery that was drained and re-energized 100 times. Such fluid-filled batteries could store wind energy for future use or power solar houses at night.

LiveScience, UPI

Faulty courtroom evidence exposed

Mary and Peter Bush. Photo: Douglas Levere

Bite-mark analysis, which matches crime suspects’ teeth to bite marks on victims, has historically been used as evidence in court. But studies by UB dental researchers Mary and Peter Bush show this methodology is flawed: Bite marks from different people can be indistinguishable and a single set of teeth can leave varied impressions. The work helped lay the foundation for a landmark 2016 recommendation to ban such evidence from Texas courts.

Wall Street Journal, BBC, VICE

Exercise and the brain

John Leddy watches as a patient uses a treadmill. Photo: Douglas Levere

When athletes get concussions, doctors often prescribe a prolonged period of rest. But UB medical researchers John Leddy and Barry Willer have shown that low-level exercise can actually be beneficial to recovery. To understand why this might be, the two have launched a new study to investigate how the brain changes after a concussion and how the organ returns to normal.

CBS This Morning, Buffalo News, WBFO, Business First

Beardog origins

This image depicts a beardog, an early carnivore that roamed the Northern Hemisphere millions of years ago.

Ferocious beasts called beardogs — neither bears nor dogs — roamed the Northern Hemisphere millions of years ago. But where did they originate? A study co-authored by UB paleontologist Jack Tseng points to the southwestern U.S. as an early home for this lineage of prehistoric mammals. The research helps to clarify the evolutionary history of this now extinct, once-successful group of predators.

Associated Press, Discover, Ars Technica

America, Polarized

About 4,000 people gathered in Minneapolis to protest the election of Donald Trump. Protesters denounced bigotry, racism, sexism, Islamophobia and Trump's proposed policies on immigration. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

At the end of a grueling election season, many people wondered: How did the country become so divided? UB political scientist James Campbell offered insights in a 2016 book, “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America.” He says that while it’s tempting to see polarization as a top-down process spurred by the media and politicians, it’s the changing views of ordinary Americans that have driven growing segmentation.

Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News

Architecture’s missing women

While women study architecture in great numbers, far fewer actually practice.

Architecture has an attrition problem: Women represent almost half of all students in the field, but less than 20 percent of licensed practitioners. UB architectural historian Despina Stratigakos explored the roots of this disparity in her 2016 book, “Where Are the Woman Architects?” Her analysis took on new urgency this spring with the death of Zaha Hadid, widely regarded as the world’s most prominent woman architect.

Slate, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times

Homemade lava

A recipe for lava.

UB geologists are brewing their own lava. The process takes about four hours, with a high-powered furnace heating batches of basaltic rock to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit. The research, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to record what happens when molten rock meets water. The study could elucidate the danger that volcanoes near ice, lakes and other water sources pose to surrounding communities.

Washington Post, The Guardian, Smithsonian SmartNews

Food-tracking necklace

This necklace hears what you eat.

The sounds of our chewing may not be charming, but they may prove a useful tool for researchers designing gadgets to help us watch what we eat. UB computer scientist Wenyao Xu is cataloguing the unique sounds that foods make as we bite, grind and swallow. The data will be integrated into a high-tech necklace that tracks the wearer’s diet and calorie intake.

CNET, Engadget, VICE Motherboard

Love and storytelling

Is good storytelling the key to love?

A good story can fuel romance. That’s the conclusion of a series of studies by UB communication expert Melanie Green and her colleague John Donahue at Columbus College of Art and Design. The research found that when it comes to prospects for long-term relationships, women prefer men who are good storytellers to those who can’t spin a tale.

CBS News, Wall Street Journal, The Conversation

Undermined — and undermining

Toxic behavior can be recycled in the workplace.

Selfish acts can cause a workplace to become toxic. A study led by UB School of Management researcher KiYoung Lee shows that when employees are undermined at work, they feel entitled to undermine colleagues — sparking a vicious cycle. The researchers advise organizations to develop ethics training programs, hire employees who value morality, and encourage managers to emphasize moral values at work.

Monster.com, Business News Daily

Corkscrew communication

A vortex laser on a chip.

As society’s demand for information-sharing grows, UB engineers Natalia Litchinitser and Liang Feng have devised a new tool for accelerating light-based communication. Their team created a mini vortex laser. The technology distributes light in a corkscrew pattern, enabling the transfer of 10 times more data than conventional, linear lasers.

Wired UK, New Atlas

A cloud cover atlas

Want to know where threatened species live? Look to the clouds. Photo: Adam Wilson

An important part of understanding where endangered plants and animals live may be hidden in the sky. Using satellite images, UB geographer Adam Wilson and Yale researcher Walter Jetz built a database containing images of cloud cover for nearly every square kilometer of Earth for every day over the past 15 years. This catalogue revealed that cloud patterns can be used to pinpoint the borders of ecological biomes and the habitats of individual species.

The New York Times, New Scientist, Washington Post