Council on International Programs awards mechanical engineering proposals

Two mechanical engineering faculty members recently received grants from the ISU Council on International Programs (CIP) for their proposals on international research collaboration, teaching, and outreach.

Xinwei Wang, professor of mechanical engineering, and Gloria Starns, senior lecturer of mechanical engineering, both believe international partnerships promoted by the CIP are important to education.

Wang says the council’s objectives are good for the university as well. “Iowa State has a strong national reputation for its educational programs, including engineering, but it is less known internationally in places like China,” he said. “The kinds of collaboration we are working on through CIP will make people more aware of what we are doing here, improving the visibility of the university in other countries.”

Along with increasing worldwide awareness of Iowa State, the funding from CIP is a big part of the university’s outreach with other countries. “Without CIP to fund this,” said Starns, “it would have been just another idea.”

Both Starns and Wang have spent months gathering research and information for their proposals, and with the council’s help, they are ready to move forward on two very different ideas.

Xinwei Wang

Early breast cancer detection using hair samples

Wang made a proposal for early breast cancer detection through hair called “Development of joint international research programs on dynamic thermal-based biomedical imaging/diagnostics.”

His research deals with thermal transport, in which he has years of background experience, but it also deals with biomedical imaging. Since Iowa State does not have a medical program, that part of the research is done by one of four partner universities in China, where Wang has worked on previous collaborative projects and still maintains connections.

The early stages of breast cancer are difficult to detect, and by the time something is found, it is usually irreversible, Wang says. Human head hair could be a valuable diagnostic tool because hormone levels are different in patients with cancer, and the changes in blood cause the hair’s structure to change.

While he is not yet sure how much earlier breast cancer could be diagnosed with this method, he does believe it would make a big difference since testing would be simple enough to be done at any clinic without needing a lab or an engineer.

The proposal requested funding for supplies and some travel expenses to visit all four universities in China over a two-week period in June 2013. The preliminary data development is scheduled to continue throughout that time.

Wang is hopeful that his team can finish its research with good results in about a year and move forward on a larger scale. At that point, making new equipment and instruments for the application will be key.

Gloria Starns

Breaking down cultural barriers through service work

Starns submitted the proposal “Human centered design for the third world” with a plan to create a one-course study abroad program in Nicaragua for students to study and work on service projects directly with customers.

The idea evolved from one of her classes, in which students work to develop micro-economies in third world countries. “We always stress the importance of the customer to students, and yet there’s really no way to hear the voice of the customer because we’re in Ames, Iowa, and the customer is in Uganda or Nicaragua or Mali,” said Starns.

The course called Human Centered Design will teach students how to communicate with international customers and make products they actually need by understanding cultural differences.

Starns said it is important to recognize the cultural norms of other countries to make useful developments. “You can’t really design anything without looking at what your customer wants to use it for,” she said. “If people aren’t going to use your product, there’s no point in spending the time developing, fabricating, and offering it on the market.”

The project is in the beginning stage, with the next step being a general inspection of the site. Two ME professors will go to Nicaragua to see if it is a safe environment for students and look into housing, health facilities, and transportation. An experimental course will be set up for the 2014 spring semester if all goes well.

The budget has not been made yet, but Starns said it is a relatively inexpensive country to live in. She is planning for the trip to be four to six weeks once a year for about 12 students and several faculty members to attend.

Starns says programs that introduce people to new cultures make students less risk-averse and more self-sufficient. “I think that’s a good feeling to have,” she said, “to know you can go virtually anywhere in the world and, on your own wits and your own skill, be okay at the end of the day.”

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