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2001 ISSUE


Originally published in the Winter 2001 Virginia Tech Research Magazine.

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•  Teaching/diagnostic software

•  Gaulish inscription may be oldest literary text

•  Neurobiological impact of fires on children

•  Tech teams with Army on exercise research

•  River management reduces life on the Colorado River Delta

Biomedical Informatics Research Group develops teaching/diagnostic software

A multidisciplinary informatics research group in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine has created a Java-based "Problem List Generator" that helps veterinary students improve deductive reasoning skills as they learn the art and science of diagnosing disease.

The software is the brainchild of veterinary clinical pathologist Holly Bender and a 16-member interdisciplinary team of faculty members and graduate students from across the university collaborating as the Biomedical Informatics Research Group.

The technology appears to be so successful the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded a Higher Education Challenge Grant to develop a diagnostic training module for food animal diseases.

Bender began working on the project to improve the way veterinary students learn how to apply knowledge in a problem-solving environment. While first-year DVM students spend their time learning facts, second year students are challenged to apply their knowledge in "case-based" problems. There is a tendency to jump to diagnostic conclusions on the basis of pre-conceived notions without fully considering all available evidence, says Bender. The Web-based tutorial forces the students to work through a process where they "arrange data abnormalities in a causal hierarchy."

For example, clinical pathologists routinely evaluate blood and urinary chemistry assays that provide information on blood hemoglobin, white blood cells, and a range of other parameters. By systematically identifying all available data as it relates to normative values, hypothesizing about mechanisms responsible for the aberrations, and factoring those into a problem-solving hierarchy, the students build a deductive "argument for the complete pathogenesis of the disease," Bender says. "They are thinking better," says Bender. "They are accounting for their decisions better."

The Biomedical Informatics Research Group, which has been meeting weekly for three years, includes faculty members and students from the Departments of Teaching and Learning, Computer Science, and Accounting and Information Systems, as well as veterinary medicine. "There is even a faculty member in the Department of Marketing with great interest in our tool," says Bender, adding that the tool will be extended to develop insights into the human learning process itself.

— Jeffrey S. Douglas, Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine

Gaulish inscription may be oldest literary text

Joe Eska, associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, received a National Endowment for the Humanities $4,000 grant to do a linguistic analysis of the Gaulish inscription from Chteaubleau.

Eska, a linguist interested in the ways language changes over time and the ways one change often triggers another, focuses most of his work on the Celtic languages. However, he has done a considerable amount of work on Northwest Native American and Australian aboriginal languages. He has written one book, edited another, and written 60 articles on all aspects of language change. He is on the editorial boards of the Journal of Celtic Linguistics and General Linguistics.

Eska's will be the first attempt at a full analysis of the language and content of an 11-line Gaulish inscription discovered in 1997 during excavations at Ch teaubleau, a village east of Paris. The inscription, dated on archeological grounds to 300-350 AD, is important from the linguistic point of view because of its relatively late date and its northern location, Eska said.

"Preliminary inspection suggests that the inscription is not legal or religious in nature like most other longer Gaulish inscriptions, but might be literary in nature." Eska says. Should this possibility be proven, he says, the Ch teaubleau inscription will predate the earliest-known European literary text in a non-Classical language by at least 250 years.

Eska will travel to the site to inspect the inscription in person and attempt to translate the difficult Roman cursive script in which it is written. Afterwards, he will work on the analysis of the text at the libraries of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, and Virginia Tech.

— Sally Harris, College of Arts and Sciences

Jones adds neurobiological impact to study of children and fires

A decades-long project to help prevent injury to children involved in home fires and to help them cope after a firew will take on a new aspect, thanks to a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

For the past four years, Russell Jones, professor of psychology, along with colleague Thomas Ollendick, has been using a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study the psychological and emotional effects of fire on children. Families from Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have participated in the study. Recently, Jones acquired a grant from the Georgia Firefighters' Foundation in Atlanta, which has enabled the team to extend the project into Georgia.

Findings thus far suggest that many things affect the level of psychological and emotional distress in children who are involved in a fire, and the "major predictor of distress is loss of internal and external resources," Jones says. Those resources include sense of control, self efficacy, possessions, social relationships, money, time, and skills. The more loss incurred in the fire, the higher the level of distress.

The FEMA grant, in excess of $100,000, extends the project into New England, where aspects of neurobiology in children who experience fire-related trauma will be examined. Jones will oversee this project, which includes a group of medical researchers at Boston University who are currently examining the role of such biological factors as cortisol in burned children. Previous studies by others have shown that the level of the chemical cortisol in the body changes with the incidence of various traumatic events.

This project and previous fire-related studies have helped researchers find ways to teach children how to avoid being injured during a fire. Some of Jones' and Ollendick's previous work has already been used in programs to teach children what to do in the case of a fire at home.

Next, the researchers hope to find ways to help children whose home has burned, but who were not seriously injured, cope with their emotions following the fire. And, the researchers hope to help severely burned children cope with their injuries. The researchers also help families, firefighters, and counselors respond in helpful ways to
the children's distress.

Jones has been nominated to serve as a member of the Advisory Committee for Injury Prevention and Control at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia.

— Sally Harris, College of Arts and Sciences

Tech teams with Army on exercise research

Female soldiers suffer stress fractures along the tibia, or shin bone, at twice the rate of their male counterparts during training, compromising military readiness. To combat the problem, the Army is funding Virginia Tech research on the effects of specialized exercise on bones in young women. Bill Herbert, professor in human nutrition, foods, and exercise, is the primary investigator on the $739,421 Department of Defense project.

The study will determine the effects of 30 weeks of isokinetic resistance exercise on the non-dominant arms and legs of 160 women between the ages of 18 and 26. The women will use a special exercise machine, the Biodex, which controls the speed of the working muscles, thus allowing expression of more force than free weights over the entire range of motion. The contrasting exercises in the study will be a concentric type (muscles shorten while contracting) or eccentric type (muscles lengthen as contraction occurs due to external force). These exercises provide different degrees of high but controlled force loading of the muscles and bones during training, and may promote the kind of bone strengthening that the investigators believe may help protect long bones from stress fracture.

A Mechanical Response Tissue Analyzer (MRTA), one of only a limited number of such machines in the world, will be used to gauge the stiffness of the arm and leg bones as the experiment progresses. Loaded with software and algorithms specifically designed for this study, the MRTA painlessly measures the entire tibia or ulna using vibrations and sensors. The shape of a bone may be subject to change through the exercise training, and the reorganization of the bone matrix affects its overall strength. Participants will also have bone density and lean/fat mass measured by a DXA machine, a high-tech body scanner.

While this work has important implications for reducing stress fractures, it also has implications for preserving bone mass and preventing osteoporosis in women. Shelly Nickols-Richardson, who has worked extensively with osteoporosis and nutrition studies, is co-principal investigator. The statistics compilation includes 471
variables. Major players include Michael Slayton, a Blacksburg physician; Warren Ramp, formerly senior scientist of the Baxter Orthopedic Research Lab at the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte; and David Wootten, a clinical exercise physiologist who will serve as the project coordinator. In addition, five graduate assistant positions will be funded through this research.

— Jean Elliott, College of Human Resources and Education

River management virtually wipes out life on the Colorado River Delta

The biological productivity of the Colorado River Delta is only 5 percent of what it was before the mighty Colorado's water was diverted for human uses. Since the 1930s, an environment that supported billions of clams and other life has disappeared because dams and irrigation projects have reduced the flow of nutrient-laden fresh water to the tidal flats, where the river empties into the Gulf of California.

Satellite images and field data indicate that at least two trillion (2x 1012) clam shells make up the area's beaches and islands. At any given time during the last 1,000 years before 1930, there were six billion clams living on the delta. The researchers found that where there were 50 specimens per square meter in the past (about five per square foot); today there are only three per square meter (0.3 per square foot).

"We combined paleontological, biological, geochemical, and satellite image data," says Michal Kowalewski , geological scientist at Virginia Tech. "It was exciting to find out that we can use fossils to address environmental issues that have direct societal relevance."

The novel approach can also be used to estimate the prehistoric productivity of coastal ecosystems in other parts of the world. Such estimates will be useful to the attempt to restore productivity and especially valuable in areas where no biological surveys were made before humans modified the habitat.

The report by Kowalewski, Guillermo Avila of the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, Karl Flessa of the University of Arizona, and Glenn Goodfriend of George Washington University was published in the December 2000 issue of Geology. The research was funded by the Eppley Foundation for Research, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Geological Survey.