By Jeff Evans '01

Cornell engineering graduate students abandoned their laboratories to discover what kind of research their peers conduct at the inaugural Engineering Graduate Research Symposium in G10 Biotechnology Building, March 31. Five graduate students were chosen to present their research, focusing on such varied topics as engineering applications in biology, understanding the rowing stroke and the creation of tangles in wires.

The five presenters were awarded $250 each. Another 28 graduates presented research posters, and 10 were chosen for a $100 "best of show" awards. The event was sponsored by the College of Engineering and the Engineering Graduate Association. Presenting the keynote speech at the symposium lunch, John Silcox, Cornell's vice provost for physical sciences and engineering, noted, "Cornell can be proud of the high level of its graduate research." Andrew Spence, one of the oral presenters, said, "If you told me that when I came to Cornell I would be listening to an insect larvae's thinking in a couple of years, I probably wouldn't have believed you." Spence, who is in applied and engineering physics, spoke on the topic of "Microfabricated Tools for Neuroscience" that can be used to study the information encoded in the firing of small groups of neurons in animals such as insects. "Some of the things that insects do are really incredible," said Spence. "For example, a fruit fly flies through the forest at a meter per second, avoids trees, lands on the ground, has dogfights with other fruit flies and does all of this with 14 large visual motion sensor neurons, in real time." In his research, Spence has fashioned silicon microelectrode arrays that are similar in size to single cells, using a method that is "kind of the same way Pentium chips or inkjet printer nozzles are made," he said. Cornell's crew teams might want to examine graduate student David Cabrera's "Optimization of the Rowing Stroke" study of why some coordination strategies are chosen over others. Cabrera, who is in theoretical and applied mechanics, said, "Competitive rowers seem to go through a series of actions. They are generally taught to row a certain way: Push off with your legs, then with your back, pull in with your arms and then do the opposite."

In order to make a dynamic stick figure model of the rowing stroke in his research, Cabrera had to account for the energetics that make the stroke optimal. If you lift an object up with your bicep, you do positive work, and when you release, your bicep is doing negative work, said Cabrera. The bicep is absorbing energy, "and that's considered wasteful." In another student presentation, "Automated Construction of Genomic Comparative Maps," Debra Goldberg, who is in applied mathematics, used her computer programming abilities to develop algorithms that speed up and improve the comparison of genomes -- the sum of all the genes in an organism. "You might be surprised to find out that virtually every part of the human genome is similar to some large stretch of other mammals' genomes," said Goldberg. We can discover ancestral relationships of species with quickly produced comparative maps that take only minutes instead of weeks or months to create, she said, as well as handle a wide variety of species and use consistent rules of comparison with the new algorithms. Grad student Cedric Langbort, who is in theoretical and applied mechanics, reported on "How Bifurcation Theory Can Help Untangle Your Telephone Wire," by demonstrating the buckling and looping motions of a computer wire that are created by varying its tension and torque.

In Carlos Garcia's materials science and engineering presentation on "Magnetic Nanospheres and Nanocylinders as Markers for a Biosensor Detection System," Garcia noted that disease detection should be easier in the future, as a result of the production of cylinders that can be attached to immune system antibodies, which normally bind to disease antigens.