Research in Brief: Spring 2011

Using ultrasound to prevent premature births

Premature birth is a leading cause of infant mortality in the United States. In fact, 1.1 million infants die each year during the first four weeks of life due to prematurity, and if premature infants do survive nearly 25 percent suffer a major disability. Currently, doctors cannot do much to help patients delivering babies prematurely because contractions are the only symptom that indicates a premature birth will occur, and by the times contractions occur, it is too late for doctors to prevent most premature births.

Timothy Bigelow, assistant professor, is developing a noninvasive ultrasound technique that could diagnose the risk of premature delivery earlier during pregnancy, allowing doctors to better help their patients and potentially increase survival rates of infants. Specifically, the technique and new treatment methods Bigelow and his collaborators from the University of Illinois-Chicago and Rush University Medical Center in Chicago are developing could detect tissue property changes in a woman’s cervix using new signal processing methods on ultrasound echoes. This would detect signs of premature delivery long before contractions begin occurring.

In a new research project funded by the National Institutes of Health, Bigelow and his collaborators, are using a new clinical ultrasound system that allows them to access raw radio frequency (RF) data to test algorithms they have developed by comparing ultrasound echoes from the cervix before and after giving patients drugs to induce delivery.

Results from this research could transform how pregnant women at risk of pre-term delivery are treated and monitored.

Stimulating the brain with magnetic fields

David C. Jiles, Palmer Department Chair, and his research team recently have invented new coil designs for magnetic field generation that could help treat patients recovering from strokes. The coils Jiles and his collaborators have developed can generate magnetic fields within the brain to determine which part of the brain is responsible for certain functions. By influencing the brain’s plasticity, responsiveness, or excitability with magnetic fields, doctors may be able to improve a patient’s feeling, movement, or language skills lost after suffering a stroke.

Lawrence Crowther, a graduate student working on the project, says their new coil designs address the principal challenges faced in improving the performance of stimulator coils: the ability to stimulate the brain at depth and increasing the localization of stimulation.

“With existing coil designs, it is extremely difficult for researchers to stimulate tissue below the cortical surface to accurately stimulate a chosen cortical target,” Crowther says. Recent research results show that Jiles and his research team’s new coil designs can overcome these difficulties.

The research is a United Kingdom government-funded project and two companies, The Magstim Company and Gatmetrix, are collaborators on the project.

Managing power for analog and RF loads

Ayman Fayed, assistant professor, has developed a new control technique that allows engineers to directly power sensitive analog/RF modules in battery-operated portable electronics, thus eliminating energy inefficient linear regulators and expensive noise filtering. This significantly improves power and thermal efficiency of portable devices used in military and commercial applications, leading to longer battery life and lower costs.

“This new technology will result in significant reduction in system power consumption, which translates into extended battery life or reduced number of batteries needed by the system in both military and commercial applications,” Fayed says.

Fayed’s research was funded by a Grow Iowa Values Fund grant and with support from Rockwell Collins. Fayed also is collaborating with employees from Rockwell Collins to test the technology and implement it in various products.

Read more on Fayed’s research.

Increasing student enrollment, retention

Since 2008, Diane Rover, professor, has been leading a National Science Foundation-funded effort to increase the number of engineering graduates at Iowa State University by 100 per year, as well as increase the number of women and minority students in engineering at Iowa State to 20 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Rover and her colleagues have implemented two programs—an engineering orientation course at Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC) and Engineering Admissions Partnership Program at Iowa State for community college students—that have resulted in increasing enrollment of transfer students in engineering at Iowa State.

The engineering orientation course for pre-engineering for community college students at DMACC’s Ankeny campus provides information about the transfer process, engineering career opportunities, and engineering disciplines. Enrollment in this engineering orientation course has grown from 13 in 2007-08 to nearly 40 in 2010-11, and the course is being implemented at two additional DMACC campuses.

The Engineering Admissions Partnership Program (E-APP), which focuses on increasing community college students’ engagement prior to coming to Iowa State in order to increase their retention and graduation rates, provides a learning community experience to students that connects them to Iowa State’s College of Engineering faculty, staff, and students via an online professional network and events. It also assigns an ISU engineering adviser to help them choose courses that will transfer. 42 students who participated in E-APP registered as full-time engineering students at Iowa State from fall 2009 to summer 2010.

Rover and her ISU colleagues are collaborating with Des Moines Area Community College (DMACC)’s Harry McMaken, a professor of engineering and math, on these projects.