University of Texas at Austin

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Research Roundup Spring 2011: Black holes, subsurface fjords, early mammal brains and more

In the last few months, researchers at The University of Texas at Austin dealt with black holes, dead zones and ice kilometers under the surface of Antarctica.

They found that early mammals evolved bigger brains for the sense of smell. They found that alcohol helps a brain to remember.

They made a carbon “sponge” that could store energy and a $1 biosensing diagnostic device that’s self-powered.

They found that teenagers who don’t fit in are less likely to go for higher education.

To help you catch up to those significant research stories and others, here’s the Research Roundup for the spring 2011 semester.

Think something’s really cool? Let us know what it is in the comments section. Or check in on the UTexas Research Facebook page.

Big Stories: Spring 2011

Texas Astronomers “Weigh” Heaviest Known Black Hole in our Cosmic Neighborhood

Artist's concept of what a future telescope might see in looking at the black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87.

Artist's concept of what a future telescope might see in looking at the black hole at the heart of the galaxy M87.

Astronomers led by Karl Gebhardt of The University of Texas at Austin have measured the most massive known black hole in our cosmic neighborhood by combining data from a giant telescope in Hawai’i and a smaller telescope in Texas. The result: a mass of 6.6 billion suns for the black hole in the giant elliptical galaxy M87.

It’s the largest ever measured for a black hole using a direct technique. Given its massive size, M87 is the best candidate for future studies to “see” a black hole for the first time, rather than relying on indirect evidence of their existence as astronomers have for decades.

Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone Severely Impairs Reproduction In Atlantic Croaker, Researchers Find

Researchers found that ovaries in Atlantic croaker are smaller if the fish are found in the Dead Zone's hypoxic waters.

Researchers found that ovaries in Atlantic croaker are smaller if the fish are found in the Dead Zone's hypoxic waters.

Atlantic croaker living in the large Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone” exhibit severe reproductive impairment with potential long-term impacts on the fish’s population abundance, researchers from The University of Texas at Austin’s Marine Science Institute found. Females in the hypoxic Dead Zone waters were masculinized—some 20 percent produced sperm in their ovaries. The sex ratio was also heavily skewed toward males in the hypoxic area.

The occurrence of low oxygen (hypoxic) waters in coastal regions worldwide has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, but its impacts on marine animals are just beginning to be understood.

New Map Reveals Giant Fjords Beneath East Antarctic Ice Sheet

This radar cross section of the ice sheet reveals the dramatic landscape at the base of the ice.

This radar cross section of the ice sheet reveals the dramatic landscape at the base of the ice.

Scientists from the U.S., U.K. and Australia have used ice-penetrating radar to create the first high-resolution topographic map of one of the last uncharted regions of Earth, the Aurora Subglacial Basin, an immense ice-buried lowland in East Antarctica larger than Texas.

The map reveals some of the largest fjords or ice cut channels on Earth, providing important insights into the history of ice in Antarctica. The data will also help computer modelers improve their simulations of the past and future Antarctic ice sheet and its potential impact on global sea level.

Mammals First Evolved Big Brains for Better Sense of Smell

CT scans of modern short-tailed opossum (upper left) and Hadrocodium (bottom right) brains (pink) through cut-away skulls. Olfactory bulbs are at front of brain (reddish pink).

CT scans of modern short-tailed opossum (upper left) and Hadrocodium (bottom right) brains (pink) through cut-away skulls. Olfactory bulbs are at front of brain (reddish pink).

Mammals first evolved their characteristic large brains to enable a stronger sense of smell, according to a new study published this week in the journal Science by paleontologists from The University of Texas at Austin, Carnegie Museum of Natural History and St. Mary’s University in San Antonio.

This latest study is the first to use CT technology, similar to medical scanners, to reconstruct the brains of two of the earliest known mammal species, both from the Jurassic fossil beds of China. The 3-D scans revealed that even these tiny, 190-million-year-old animals had developed brains larger than expected for specimens of their period, particularly in the brain area for smell.

Enhanced Electrical Energy Storage May Result from Research at The University of Texas at Austin

Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering have created a new porous, three-dimensional carbon that can be used as a greatly enhanced supercapacitor, holding promise for energy storage in everything from energy grids and electric cars to consumer electronics.

The findings of the group, led by materials science and mechanical engineering Professor Rodney S. Ruoff, will be published May 12 byScience magazine in its online publication ScienceXpress.

Self-powered, Blood-activated Sensor Detects Pancreatitis Quickly and Cheaply

The self-powered pancreatitis sensor can be made for less than a buck.

The self-powered pancreatitis sensor can be made for less than a buck.

A new low cost test for acute pancreatitis that gets results much faster than existing tests has been developed by scientists at The University of Texas at Austin.

The sensor, which could be produced for as little as a dollar, is built with a 12-cent LED light, aluminum foil, gelatin, milk protein and a few other cheap, easily obtainable materials.

The sensor could help prevent damage from acute pancreatitis, which is a sudden inflammation of the pancreas that can lead to severe stomach pain, nausea, fever, shock and in some cases, death.

Alcohol Helps the Brain Remember, Says New Study

Drinking alcohol primes certain areas of our brain to learn and remember better, says a new study from the Waggoner Center for Alcohol and Addiction Research at The University of Texas at Austin.

The common view that drinking is bad for learning and memory isn’t wrong, says neurobiologist Hitoshi Morikawa, but it highlights only one side of what ethanol consumption does to the brain.

Teenagers Who Feel Like They Don’t Fit In Less Likely to Attend College, Sociologist Finds

High school students who feel they do not fit in are less likely to attend college — particularly girls who are gay or obese — according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

“Because social experiences in high school have such demonstrable effects on academic progress and attending college, the social concerns of teenagers are educational concerns for school,” sociologist Robert Crosnoe says.

Crosnoe has completed one of the most comprehensive studies of the long-term effects on teenagers who say they don’t fit in. He used national statistics from 132 high schools and spent more than a year inside a high school in Texas with 2,200 students, observing and interviewing teenagers. His findings will be published in his new book “Fitting In, Standing Out.”

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» Research Roundup Spring 2011: Black holes, subsurface fjords, early mammal brains and more

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