Research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln | 2014-2015 Report Menu

Research Highlights

Tracking Soil Moisture from Cornfields to Battlefields

Despite the sci-fi name, a cosmic-ray neutron rover has the down-to-earth job of traversing farm fields to measure soil moisture. UNL hydrogeophysicist Trenton Franz helped develop this tool for precision agriculture. He’s adapting it to help the U.S. military quickly and reliably survey, monitor and map soils. The rover, a truck mounted with sensors, measures subatomic neutron particles in the air to reliably estimate water in soil. Currently, measuring soil moisture is largely restricted to small and large spatial scales. This tool fills the critical gap between the two. Soldiers moving heavy machinery could make soil maps on the fly to help them better identify muddy conditions and predict transport times. The U.S. Army’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory funds this research. Franz also is using his technology to measure soil moisture in an endangered South African forest. He’s collaborating on a National Science Foundation-funded project assessing environmental impacts of commercial groundwater pumping near Mapungubwe National Park.

Additional Links: News story – cornfield to battlefield | News story – South African forest |

Viewing Architecture as Impermanent

UNL architecture professor Rumiko Handa has written a new book urging architects to consider wear and change in a building’s life and incorporate anticipated adaptations into their designs. Allure of the Incomplete, Imperfect and Impermanent: Designing and Appreciating Architecture as Nature, published by Routledge, argues that a building is not complete once construction has finished. Its life begins when people move in, requirements change and materials deteriorate. This view runs contrary to the established ideal that architectural pieces remain permanently perfect. “I’m finding beauty in the things that are not necessarily perfect. A building is not just insufficient or old and irrelevant,” Handa said. “Of course, not all imperfect things are beautiful, but I think we need to somehow cultivate our eyes to include these values.”

Additional Link: News story |

Tiny Surgical Robots Could Be Lifesavers

Miniature, remotely controlled robots could bring lifesaving surgical expertise to remote or dangerous spots, such as battlefields. With $2.8 million from the U.S. Army Medical Research Acquisition Activity, UNL and University of Nebraska Medical Center researchers continue their collaboration to develop miniaturized surgical robots. UNL’s share is $687,000. The team, co-led by Shane Farritor, Lederer Professor of Engineering, and UNMC’s Dmitry Oleynikov, previously received $1.4 million for the project. The robots could enable a battlefield surgeon to perform complex, lifesaving surgery aided by another surgeon thousands of miles away. The mini-robot would be inserted inside the patient. Controlled remotely, it would transmit live video so surgeons could diagnose the trauma and serve as remote first responders. These tiny robots also could aid surgery in civilian settings.

Additional Links: VideoNews story – telesurgery | News story – UNL spinoff | News story – award |

Brain’s Response to Errors of Its Ways

Everyone makes mistakes, but how does the brain respond to errors? A team led by Maital Neta, a UNL psychologist and researcher in UNL’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, found that even basic errors trigger neural activity across a much broader swath of the brain than previously thought. Functional MRI scans of study participants as they completed 12 tasks found substantial differences in activity in 41 brain regions following incorrect versus correct answers for most tasks. Neuroscientists previously believed only one region responded to errors. The study’s information can be used to investigate specific linkages between regions and error-related reactions. The study appeared in the Journal of Neuroscience. Washington University in St. Louis and the Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans in Waco, Texas, contributed to this research.

Additional Link: News story | Journal article |

Whitman Poem Discovery

Digging through historic newspapers at the Library of Congress, UNL art historian Wendy Katz discovered a new poem by Walt Whitman. She found the poem in the June 23, 1842, issue of New Era while researching art criticism as a Smithsonian Senior Fellow in Washington, D.C. The poem, “To Bryant, the Poet of Nature,” addresses William Cullen Bryant, an American romantic poet and New York Evening Post editor. Katz’s attribution centers on three arguments: the poem’s accreditation to “W.W.,” Whitman’s poetics before and after writing his famous “Leaves of Grass” poetry collection and his relationship with editors of political presses during that time. Katz’s discovery was published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

Additional link: News story |

Molecular Mechanisms of Disease Program Expands

Whether metastasizing as cancer, progressing as Alzheimer’s or spreading as HIV, nearly all human disease originates from molecular interactions occurring throughout the body. With support of a five-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, a UNL training program is expanding efforts to combat and treat diseases by preparing more doctoral students for careers spent researching their molecular catalysts. Launched as a pilot program in 2013, the Molecular Mechanisms of Disease program taps expertise of 28 faculty mentors in seven departments. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences funding allows the program to add 30 doctoral trainees over the next five years. Nebraska is the first among nine neighboring states to offer an NIH-funded training program in the cellular, biochemical and molecular sciences, said founding director Melanie Simpson, Susan J. Rosowski Professor of Biochemistry.

Additional Links:  Video | News story |

Telling Refugees’ Stories

Providing a valuable news resource for a diverse refugee population is the aim of Nebraska Mosaic, a capstone course in UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. The community news project gives student journalists a chance to hone their international reporting skills by developing stories, photos and videos covering refugees navigating their new lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, a federally designated resettlement community. Their work is published online at and through social media. Nebraska Mosaic is the outgrowth of a 2010 New Voices grant from the J-Lab at American University. Tim Anderson, associate professor of practice in news-editorial, is project adviser.

Additional Link: Mosaic website |

Bloom Expands U.S. CMS Leadership Role

As experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider restarted in spring 2015, UNL physicist Ken Bloom focused on U.S. contributions to the worldwide computing grid that captures the massive data from this research. He was named software and computing manager for the U.S. Compact Muon Solenoid operations program in 2015. The CMS is one of two particle detectors for the LHC in Switzerland. Bloom and UNL’s particle physics team collaborate with scientists worldwide on LHC research that led to discovery of the Higgs boson. U.S. CMS operations coordinates U.S. support for the CMS detector and its software and computing infrastructure. Previously Bloom led the U.S. CMS Tier 2 program and was deputy manager of software and computing. In his current role, he oversees an annual budget of $18 million, which supports staff and funds computing hardware at the Department of Energy’s Fermilab in Illinois, as well as seven Tier 2 computing sites at universities nationwide, including UNL, that store and share data used by physicists worldwide.

Additional Link: Nebraska Magazine story |

UNL Research Fair

The biannual UNL Research Fair provided opportunities to explore university research priorities, hear from federal experts and celebrate faculty and student successes. The fall 2014 event featured a faculty retreat on digital creativity and interdisciplinary collaborations with the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. It included presentations on defense funding opportunities, increasing participation in STEM disciplines, mentoring for postdocs and a celebration of the Center for Children, Youth, Families and Schools’ 10th anniversary. Featured presenters included Barry Pallotta, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; Cindy Daniell, SRI International; N. Radhakrishnan, consultant; Thomas W. Brock, National Center for Education Research; and Ellen McCallie, National Science Foundation. The spring 2015 event featured poster sessions that showcased research and creative accomplishments by UNL graduate and undergraduate students.

Driver’s Ed Reduces Teen Crashes, Tickets

Driver’s education significantly reduces crashes and traffic violations among new drivers, according to a UNL study of nearly 152,000 Nebraska teen drivers over eight years. Young drivers who have not completed driver’s education are 75 percent more likely to get a traffic ticket, 24 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal or injury accident and 16 percent more likely to have an accident, the study showed. Findings by educational psychologists Duane Shell and Ian Newman of UNL’s Nebraska Prevention Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse challenge more than three decades of assumptions about the value of driver’s education. The study appeared in Accident Analysis and Prevention.

Additional Link: News story | Journal article |

Sending Drones into Storms for Science

Flying drones into storms is giving researchers new insights about severe weather. To stay on the forefront of this burgeoning research area, UNL and University of Colorado Boulder colleagues founded the Unmanned Aircraft System and Severe Storms Research Group. This consortium provides a structured working relationship among an expanding number of research partners. It’s an outgrowth of ongoing research by UNL atmospheric scientist Adam Houston and University of Colorado colleagues. The CU-UNL team’s research with drones has yielded several firsts, including the first direct sampling of a thunderstorm system by a drone and the first simultaneous samplings of thunderstorm outflow by multiple drones. Consortium collaborators from universities, federal laboratories, the private sector and other institutions work to advance the use of drones in severe storms research.

Additional Link: News story | Journal article |

Understanding Immunity

Understanding how a poxvirus evades human defenses may lead to better treating some viral diseases, including HIV and herpes. With $1.8 million from the National Institutes of Health’s Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, UNL virologist Matthew Wiebe studies how the poxvirus vaccinia disables BAF, a key human defense protein. BAF seems to bind to viral DNA, preventing it from replicating. Understanding how the vaccinia virus controls BAF provides clues about how the protein works. That could lead to treatments for viruses, such as HIV, that attack by injecting viral DNA into cells. Wiebe’s research is part of a scientific effort to understand how human immunity defends against foreign DNA, while protecting the body’s DNA. Wiebe, of the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is a member of the Nebraska Center for Virology.

Additional Link: News story |

New Home for College of Business Administration Going Up

A new home for UNL’s College of Business Administration is taking shape on campus. Construction is underway on the $84 million, 240,000-square-foot structure, the largest academic building project in recent UNL history. Located in the heart of City Campus at 14th and Vine streets, it is slated to open in fall 2017. The new building will include interactive learning in state-of-the-art classrooms, one-stop student support services and a space to host events. It is funded exclusively from private donations from CBA alumni and business partners. “This building is truly being built by our alumni for future alumni,” said CBA dean Donde Plowman. To accommodate its growing enrollment, CBA added 36 faculty in the past four years and were recruiting another 20 in 2015.

Additional Links: News story |

Digitizing Pueblo Archaeological Records

The excavation records of an ancient pueblo civilization soon will be publicly available, thanks to UNL anthropologist Carrie Heitman and a multi-institutional effort. With a $300,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, researchers are digitizing about 1.5 million photographs, field notes and other records generated during 1970s and 1980s excavations of the 1,000-year-old Salmon Pueblo in northwestern New Mexico. A remote outpost of the Chaco Canyon cultural hub of ancient pueblo people, Salmon Pueblo is known for its 300-room “great house.” The Chaco Research Archive, which Heitman directs, will house the digitized records. Digital access will allow researchers to explore more fully this historically and culturally significant community. Collaborators are the Salmon Ruins Museum, Archaeology Southwest, UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities and the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, home to the Chaco Research Archive.

Additional Link: News story | Video

Team IDs Four New Tuco-tuco Species

A UNL-led research team identified four new species of tuco-tuco, a burrowing gopher-like rodent found throughout much of South America. Identifying new mammal species is rare, said team leader Scott Gardner, director of the H.W. Manter Laboratory of Parasitology and a University of Nebraska State Museum curator. The discovery demonstrates the broad range of biological diversity in Bolivia, where the new species from the genus Ctenomys were found. Three live on geographically isolated high ridges, which fostered the evolution of distinct species. A fourth was found in the eastern lowlands. The Museum of Southwestern Biology at the University of New Mexico and New York’s American Museum of Natural History collaborated on this project.

Additional Link: News story |

Nebraska Lectures

Unraveling the mystery of the “God particle” and studying brain behavior were timely topics in the 2014-2015 Nebraska Lectures: Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series. Dennis Molfese, Mildred Francis Thompson Professor of Psychology, presented “The New Normal: A Brain After Concussion.” In his fall lecture, Molfese explained how researchers in UNL’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior are investigating the long-term effects of concussion on athletes’ cognitive, emotional and behavioral functions, a growing concern in athletics at all levels. Dan Claes, professor and chair of physics and astronomy, presented “What the Heck is a Higgs boson?” at the spring lecture. Claes discussed the Higgs boson’s significance in understanding matter, how UNL researchers contributed to its discovery and UNL’s ongoing work on international research at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. The Office of the Chancellor, Research Council and the Office of Research and Economic Development, in collaboration with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, co-sponsor these lectures featuring prominent faculty.

Additional Links: Claes lecture video | Molfese lecture video |

Charlton Named Associate Vice Chancellor for Research

William Charlton is a new UNL associate vice chancellor for research and professor of mechanical and materials engineering. Charlton came to Nebraska in June 2015 and divides his time between UNL and the University of Nebraska’s National Strategic Research Institute, where he is research director for nuclear programs. As associate vice chancellor, Charlton works with UNL faculty and sponsors on defense-related research. An expert in nuclear nonproliferation research and education, Charlton joined Nebraska from Texas A&M University, where he was the founding director of the Nuclear Security Science & Policy Institute since 2006 and a nuclear engineering faculty member since 2003. He has been a consultant and technical staff member in the Nonproliferation and International Security Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. He continues to work closely with several national laboratories. Charlton holds doctorate, master’s and bachelor’s degrees in nuclear engineering from Texas A&M.

Modeling New Atomic Structures of Gold Nanoparticles

Gold nanoparticles hold promise for their potential to remove air pollutants and deliver drug therapies, among other applications. UNL’s Xiao Cheng Zeng, Ameritas University Professor of Chemistry, and colleagues revealed four atomic arrangements of a gold nanoparticle cluster that appear more stable than previously reported configurations. The team modeled the configurations using computational analysis through the university’s Holland Computing Center, a nontraditional approach to atomic structure analysis. Identifying the nanoparticle’s most stable configurations could allow researchers to improve its use in drug delivery to treat cancers and other diseases and as a catalyst in neutralizing carbon monoxide vehicle emissions. Zeng’s team reported its findings in Science Advances. The Shanghai Institute of Applied Physics collaborated on this project, which was funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the Nebraska Center for Energy Sciences Research.

Additional Link: News story | Journal article |

Weller Named Museum Director

Susan J. Weller is the new director of the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History and professor of entomology at UNL. She joined Nebraska in October from the University of Minnesota where she was executive director and curator of invertebrates at the Bell Museum of Natural History and professor of entomology. Active in scientific and museum organizations, Weller is vice president-elect of the Entomological Society of America and will be president in 2017. She earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from Grinnell College and her doctorate in zoology from the University of Texas. At UNL, Weller will lead Nebraska’s premier natural history museum, which has more than 5 million specimens in its research collections and a statewide mission of research, education and public outreach. The museum is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums and is a Smithsonian Affiliate Museum. She succeeds Priscilla Grew, who retired after 12 years as museum director.

Additional Link: News story |

Improving Low-moisture Food Safety

Nuts, spices, peanut butter and other low-moisture foods, long considered safe, can contain enough harmful bacteria to sicken people. Current pasteurization methods that kill pathogens are time-consuming and frequently harm quality of dry foods. A UNL food science and engineering team received nearly $950,000 to develop and implement technologies that eliminate pathogens and protect food quality. This research is part of a $5 million U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to enhance low-moisture food safety. The team will share findings with food processors and work with them to meet new food safety regulations. Collaborators are Michigan State University, Washington State University, Illinois Institute of Technology and North Carolina State University.

Additional Link: News story |

Fueling Global Collaborations