October 15, 2012
By Matt Rousch
MT. PLEASANT — One of the favorite things about my university Tech Tours is hearing people’s reactions, usually along the lines of “They’re doing WHAT?!”
I got example after example of that Monday at Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, the second stop on Day Five of the Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report’s 2012 Fall Tech Tour.
My very first appointment of the day, I learned shortly after 8 a.m., was on the team that invented the technique to look for invasive species in lakes by the telltale DNA they leave in the water.
And Andrew R. Mahon has some very bad news for us: the dreaded Asian carp are already in Lake Michigan, and there’s evidence they’re also in Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron and Maumee Bay of Lake Erie.
The easy-to-use, inexpensive technique, called laser transmission spectroscopy, provides justification for more expensive field-based identification.
The work of Mahon and a group of research colleagues in the Great Lakes were recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, an international peer-reviewed scientific journal.
The Great Lakes is already now home to more than 180 invasive species, most of which were introduced through the discharge of ship ballasts from foreign ships that came up the St. Lawrence waterway. Dreissenid mussels, more popularly known as zebra mussels and quagga mussels, cause $150 million in damage a year by clogging water intake pipes in power plants, water supplies and industrial plants.
Mahon will expand his research far beyond the Great Lakes this winter. He and two CMU undergraduates are headed for Antarctica in January for a month and a half of research into how invertebrates like sea stars and sea spiders are connected genetically around the southern continent. They’ll be sampling on the Getz Ice Shelf, only the second expedition every to do so, aboard the 300-foot research vessel Nathaniel Palmer.
Mahon, who studied at Truman State University (formerly Northeast Missouri State), the University of Alabama Birmingham and Old Dominion University, has been at CMU for a little over a year now. He’s one of five CMU staffers hired to build the Institute for Great Lakes Research, which will study the geography, earth and atmospheric sciences of the Great Lakes. It will also see the addition of a 33-foot research vessel, the Chippewa, at CMU’s biological research station on Beaver Island in Lake Michigan.
Mahon said the next big bad invasive species in the Great Lakes is the snakehead fish. This spectacularly ugly specimen can live out of water for a few minutes, and is ferociously competitive, enough to outcompete native species like walleye and bass.
And don’t even ask him about the golden mussel, a Chinese mussel that’s already made it to South America.
“If that makes it to the Great Lakes, it could be worse than we have it now,” Mahon said.
Next, it was across campus to the office of Debra Zellner, executive director of the Isabella Bank Institute for Entrepreneurship in the CMU College of Business Administration.
The institute is an absolutely gorgeous addition to the CMU business college’s home in Grawn Hall.
The institute gives business students the business basics they’d need to start a company, so they can get a major or minor in entrepreneurship within the business school, said Zellner, who was a researcher, marketer and product manager at Dow Corning before joining CMU a little over a year ago.
“We teach, we inspire, we connect with many resources,” said Robby Roberts, associate director. “Last year we gave students more than 15 opportunities to connect with more than 100 business people and investors.”
The institute connects students with faculty entrepreneurs, startups, venture capitalists, angel investors, professional experts and individual mentors, as well as with incubators such as the on-campus Central Michigan University Research Corp., the Mid-Michigan Innovation Center in Midland, and other resources like the Michigan Small Business and Technology Development Centers and the Great Lake Entrepreneur’s Quest. More than 300 business students are majoring in entrepreneurship at the business school.
A key to the effort is the CMU New Venture Competition, now in its third year, which will culminate with a pitch competition March 22. Last year’s event drew 30 teams, who competed for $60,000 in startup capital and noncash services worth more than that. The competition is held in partnership with Michigan Technological University.
An “intent to participate” form for the competition is due Nov. 28, an executive summary Jan. 8, and a business plan Feb. 26.
I also spoke to one of last year’s competitors, Samantha Fiani, who had an idea called Bright Bikes — a battery pack attached to a bike that can charge wireless phones or music players, as well as run bike lights for safe nighttime riding. It charges on a solar panel attached to a bike rack. Fiani is a graduate researcher for the Great Lakes Institute for Sustainable Systems who is pursuing a graduate degree in recreation administration.
I then headed across Mt. Pleasant to the medical office of Dr. Sandra Howell, a breast surgeon who’s a faculty member on the brand-new CMU College of Medicine, which will admit its first class of 60 future doctors next summer.
Howell is a 1979 CMU graduate who established her medical practice in Mt. Pleasant in 1994. She said she was an early adopter of ultrasound to assist in the precision of surgery, buying an ultrasound machine in 1996 and using it for the diagnosis of breast lesions. She was similarly an early adopter of MRI technology.
“When CMU decided to start a medical school I was very keen to get involved,” she said. “I met with them on curriculum, and became a member of the faculty in June 2012. The College of Medicine bought my practice, and I’ll spend about 65 percent of my time there, and about 35 percent in the medical school.”
Howell’s latest interest is cryoablation of non-cancerous breast tumors. Howell said she has seen many women with benign breast tumors worry about the disfiguring results of the surgery to remove them.
Now she uses liquid nitrogen at 360 degrees below zero to freeze the tissue off in a non-invasive procedure that freezes and destroys the diseased tissue.
“Before this, women would always have to go to the operating room,” she said. “This is truly gorundbreaking. Even a lumpectomy is a disfiguring surgery to go through. With cryoablation, there’s a minimal incision and no loss of normal tissue.”
Cryoablation has been used for 20 years to remove tumors of the liver, kidney and prostate.
Howell said there’s also an ongoing study by the American College of Surgeons Oncology Group using cryoablation on cancerous breast tumors. Results of the study are expected to be announced in the next six to 12 months.
My final stop at CMU Monday was at CMU’s stunning Health Professions Building with Xavier Leveque, a post-doctoral researcher in stem cell therapies.
Leveque and his boss, assistant professor Julian Rossignol, are working adult pluripotent stem cells as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
Leveque said it’s possible to “reprogram” cells to become new neurons, helping the brain and nervous system surmount the protein problems that cause Parkinson’s symptoms. Right now, the effort is being tested in cell cultures and rats.
Two graduate students and 10 undergrads are also working on the effort.
And that was the end of my Central Michigan visit — impressive again. Clearly, there’s a heck of a lot more going on here than a good ol’ teacher college and liberal arts school, which is the image CMU has most places I know of. It’s yet another example of Michigan’s hidden Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics gems.