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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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Also In This Issue

Lab Work: Research Developments

Protecting Autonomous Vehicles

Researchers worldwide are investigating the challenges of making automated transportation safe and secure for a technology-driven future. Among them are Dr. P.R. Kumar, distinguished professor of electrical and computer engineering, and a team of Texas A&M graduate students.

Autonomous vehicles use sensors to gather data about the environment, which is transmitted through the internet to the vehicle’s controls and actuators, such as the brakes and steering wheel. The vehicle then uses these measurements to know when and how much to turn, determine whether it needs to slow down or stop, or make other adjustments.

“While highly sophisticated, these technologies are subject to vulnerabilities,” said Kumar. “If the sensors are defective or hijacked, they can transmit false information on vehicle speed, location or proximity to other objects, causing collisions.”  

To enhance security, the team developed a safeguard known as dynamic watermarking. The process involves adding a random watermark to data transmissions and ensuring the presence of this watermark is known to every node in the system. If the data reported by the vehicle’s sensors does not contain the proper watermark, the actuators deduce that the sensors or their data have been tampered with. When this happens, the vehicles respond accordingly, such as halting to avoid collisions.

The Science of Couch Potatoes

Genes dictate our height and eye color, but do they also play a role in our activity level? While researchers previously thought that activity levels were based entirely on individual motivation, Texas A&M University kinesiologists have found that genetics do influence activity level.

Dr. Timothy Lightfoot, director of the Texas A&M Huffines Institute for Sports Medicine and Human Performance and the Omar Smith Chair in Health and Physical Education, was instrumental in the discovery. “Everyone knows someone who can’t sit still or someone who can’t get off the couch,” he said. “Most traits or behaviors have a biological component, so we asked: Do genetics control activity?”

Translational studies have found that between 40 and 70 percent of your daily activity as an adult is controlled by your genetic architecture. Activity is defined as any kind of voluntary movement, from gardening to jogging.

Lightfoot cautioned that a genetic predisposition is not destiny. Environmental factors in a person’s life also play a role, including family support, diet and toxins. “We can’t change anybody’s genes, but if we know that someone is genetically prone to a lesser activity level, there are behavioral change mechanisms we can use to help them become more active,” he added.

A New Reading Experience for the Blind

Thanks to a novel technology developed by Francis Quek, a Texas A&M visualization professor, blind individuals can gain increased command over their reading experiences.

Known as STAAR Description Format, Quek’s technology converts any PDF to a version the blind can read on an iPad. The technology consists of software and a user interface. The software, designed with graduate student Niloofar Zarei ’19, renders audio for every word and formats the document, while a plastic overlay provides a tactile landmark grid.

With the overlay applied to an iPad screen, blind readers scan the text left to right at their own pace, and as their fingers glide over the words, the system announces them audibly. The sound of crinkling paper alerts readers when they stray outside the boundary of a sentence; a clicking noise alerts them when they move too quickly and miss a word; and an old-fashioned typewriter “ding” lets them know when they reach the end of a line.

Braille, on the other hand, only allows the blind to read letter by letter, rather than word by word. Quek and Zarei are refining their system to give blind readers the ability to highlight text and make notes, just as sighted readers studying often do.

Manning Mars

Texas A&M University aerospace engineering graduate student Mauricio Coen ’15 is preparing for life on Mars. Coen participated in a Mars simulation called AMADEE-18 that took place in the Middle East in February. His project, A3DPT-2 Mars, was a collaboration with a group of seven international students and one of 18 experiments conducted during the simulation. It investigated how 3-D printers could transform scientific work—particularly geological sampling— for astronauts.

A 3-D printer would provide astronauts with the ability to build, repair and replace tools, parts and materials that would otherwise need to be transported from Earth to Mars.

“Instead, astronauts could just 3-D print these things as needed, allowing them to adapt more quickly to changing mission goals,” Coen said. “Crew time is one of the most valuable assets in any space exploration mission, and 3-D printing embedded in daily operations can reduce the time spent on cumbersome tasks.”

Having a 3-D printer on board would take up less space and allow astronauts to operate more efficiently by bringing along only the printer and a hunk of plastic that could be melted and reused as needed. Although Coen is awaiting the results from his experiment, he hopes his idea will help reduce exploration costs and revolutionize how scientists manufacture technology for space.

  • Healthy Canines

    Researchers in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences created a new diagnostic test, the TickPath LayerPlex, that can detect 11 types of tick-borne diseases in dogs. The test identifies pathogens on the molecular level, allowing veterinarians to more successfully treat canines, and is significantly more cost effective than previous tests.
  • Community Restoration

    Using terrestrial laser scanners and drones, Texas A&M architecture students developed detailed images and 3-D models of Temple Freda, the oldest religious building in Bryan. The models will aid city efforts to restore the 106-year-old Greek Revival-style synagogue, which is the only temple in the country named after a woman.
  • Safe Water

    Texas A&M researchers collaborated with Mexican researchers from the University of Guanajuato to study vulnerable mountain aquifers in the Independence Basin. The team will develop recommendations to help stakeholders in the region enact new water management policies benefiting public health.
Contact:

Dunae Crenwelge '15

Marketing Communications Manager/Spirit Editor