Week in Review: The Scientific Lens

UNC-TV Science Week In Review 

UNC-TV Science Week in Review: June 13, 2013
The Scientific Lens


One of the beauties of science is that it provides us with different lenses through which we can see our world. A scientific explanation can change an indifferent “whatever” or a confused “what the?” to a gratified “Oh, that’s neat!” This week, North Carolina scientists took a look at ordinary objects and current events with a scientific eye to provide new techniques and new insight to our daily lives.

Experimenting with Tropical Storms
While many North Carolinians stayed at home bummed that Tropical Storm Andrea cancelled UNC and NC State baseball Friday, scientists from North Carolina Sea Grant jumped at the opportunity to test out their Coastal and Inland Flooding Observation and Warning (CI-FLOW) system.

CI-FLOW tracks radar and rain gauge data and uses models of tides, storm surge and the North Carolina landscape to determine where flooding might occur. The goal of this project is to better predict water levels and flash floods in the Neuse and Tar-Pamlico Rivers along with Pamlico Sound, leading to more accurate flooding advisories.

North Carolina Sea Grant will share their data from Andrea with the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Housing Market Going Under?

Termites and weather damage can hurt the value of your home, but researchers from UNC-Wilmington and East Carolina University recently published a study of what effect the ocean might have. 

Using economic models and sea level rise data, Dyaln E McNamarra, PhD (UNC-W) and Andrew Keeler, PhD (ECU) published a model describing how sea level rise, storm surge, property values and the cost of maintaining beaches could affect people’s desire to live on barrier islands or the coast. 

Based on their model, they found that if the sea rises at 3 mm per year, it will no longer be economically viable to live on barrier islands in 314 years. That number drops to 50 years if the sea rises at 10 mm per year.

The NC Sea Level Rise Law, passed in July 2012, calls for more joint economic and environmental studies.

Body Parts You Can Grab Off a Shelf
Flex your arm. You can probably see some squiggly blue veins popping up. In some kidney dialysis patients, new veins have to be implanted to speed up blood flow, but synthetic grafts often form blood clots and transplant veins require extra surgeries.

This week surgeons at Duke successfully implanted an artificial vein into the arm of a kidney dialysis patient for the first time in the United States. The artificial veins, developed at Duke, are made from donated human cells grown around a biodegradable mesh that dissolves as the vein grows. 

The vein is scrubbed of identifiers that could cause the body to reject it and it can be stored on a shelf for use whenever the surgeons need it. The FDA has approved the veins for clinical trials in dialysis patients and if those go well, they may eventually be used in bypass surgeries.

Making Wood Less Woody
Have you ever wondered what makes trees more woody than flowers? The answer is a large molecule called lignin, which gives wood its strong, hard structure. Removing lignin from wood is a challenge for paper producers and biofuel engineers.

But two researchers, Shanfa Lu, PhD and Quanzi Li, PhD, from North Carolina State University were the first to prove that a tiny hairpin-shaped RNA molecule (a single-stranded cousin of DNA) can reduce lignin content by up to 20%.

The RNA hairpin restricts the enzymes that build lignin and by treating plants with it, biofuels and paper may become cheaper to make.

PRISM and Paul Revere
Ever since the revelation that the NSA has been gathering metadata on phone calls and Internet activity, people have wanted to know just what the NSA can figure out using metadata.

Duke sociologist Keiran Healy chose to answer that question by examining social network data not from today, but from 1772 Boston. Using some neat statistics and metadata from that time, he was able to identify Paul Revere as a person of interest to the British.

Check out Healy’s blog for the full explanation and an interesting look at history and the NSA’s capabilities.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.