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Fast Forward

by Bailey Payne '19

From robots and space flight to education and aging, Texas A&M University researchers tackle 12 questions about our future.

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Stavros Kalafatis

How will humans and
machines work better together?

When people think of how humans and machines work together today, they might imagine an automotive manufacturing plant where robotic arms dance around the assembly line, welding parts with mechanical precision. But these, along with other manufacturing robots, tend to work in secluded cages, as their imposing size and speed combined with unwieldy programming makes them too dangerous to function alongside their human counterparts. Stavros Kalafatis, a professor of practice in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working toward a new vision.

Specializing in data center system optimization, Kalafatis enjoyed a long and successful tenure at Intel before pivoting to academia. He pursued robotics research after former President Barack Obama directed billions of dollars toward creating advanced manufacturing robots, allowing Kalafatis and other Texas A&M researchers to secure funding through the Advanced Robotics in Manufacturing consortium at Carnegie Mellon University. “If you look at that car assembly line example, robots mainly handle the more dangerous parts of the manufacturing line, with humans doing more detailed work like polishing the dashboard and attaching small parts in the cabin. We’re developing robots that could work with humans at a very close distance—inches away, in fact.”

To operate safely, these smaller robots must detect human movement accurately and predictively, veering out of the way before a worker encroaches on its space. “We use artificial intelligence to train robots in a virtual environment,” Kalafatis said. “They learn to recognize limbs moving, hand gestures and even facial expressions that might indicate frustration in the human operator.” He envisions robots and humans becoming increasingly collaborative, combining their respective talents for precision and decision-making and building the future together, hand in metal hand.

Dr. Gregory Pappas

How will we responsibly
adopt new social technologies?

While interactive technologies like the internet, smartphones and social media continue to integrate deeper into our lives, widespread faith in these technologies enhancing our personal relationships and civil society is waning drastically. In a 2022 Pew Research poll, 79% of Americans said social media had divided people in their political opinions, and 69% believed it made people less civil in discussing those opinions. Beyond political discourse, these technologies have also been criticized for deemphasizing face-to-face connection, incentivizing addictive behavior and harvesting personal data across platforms. With the promise of only more disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence on the horizon, how can we ensure we move forward responsibly?

“People tend to split opinions of technology into extreme optimism and pessimism,” said Dr. Gregory Pappas, “but most of us are somewhere in the middle.” Pappas is a Texas A&M philosophy professor and a National Humanities Center fellow who teaches an undergraduate course on the ethics of technology. “When it comes to new technologies, I think we should be experimental but cautious—experimental enough to be open to the good, but cautious enough to acknowledge the costs. And then, importantly, we should reflect on how our adoption of past technologies has changed us.”

As a more extreme example, Pappas cited Amish communities. Most assume the Amish forego modern technology altogether, but in reality, many use cars, electricity, modern farming machines and cell phones. Their slowness in adopting the latest trends stems from their hard-line convictions about preserving community, family and simple living. “We don’t need to go that far, but we can learn from how deliberate they are,” Pappas explained. “My concern is not so much that technology will one day replace us. It’s that we’ll increasingly use technology to replace our relationships with each other.” Individually and collectively, we can still choose to maintain face-to-face communities and values alongside new technologies, but only if we treat those technologies as choices and not inevitabilities.

$1.153 Billion

Research conducted at Texas A&M generated annual expenditures of more than $1.153 billion in fiscal year 2022.

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Dr. Ashok Shetty

Will we slow down or prevent
the cognitive effects of aging?

Modern medicine has done wonders for extending overall life expectancy across the developed world, promising more golden years to spend with those who matter most. But there’s a specter hanging over the horizon of our lives: the fear of cognitive decline and disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. There are more than 6 million Americans living with Alzheimer’s—about 1 in 9 people aged 65 or older. These diseases rob patients of autonomy, greatly distress loved ones, and collectively incur staggering medical and social costs. Researchers have searched far and wide for cures to these ailments, but one encouraging treatment may have been hiding in plain sight.

Dr. Ashok Shetty, professor and associate director at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the School of Medicine, has performed studies using metformin, a common drug for treating Type 2 diabetes, to maintain cognitive and memory function in the aging brain. It works by controlling microglia, the resident immune cells in the brain. “In physiological conditions, microglia are good cells that perform basic housekeeping by removing pathogens and debris,” Shetty explained. But just as white blood cells in patients with immune disorders can turn against the body, microglia can react to a brain injury or neurodegeneration by continually secreting proinflammatory cytokines, weakening cognitive function.

In a 2021 study, Shetty and his team observed metformin regulating microglia in aging mice, enhancing brain performance and preventing cognitive decline. He and his team aren’t the only ones studying the drug’s unexpected benefits. The American Federation for Aging Research is conducting a landmark six-year study of the drug in more than 3,000 people between the ages of 65 and 79 to test metformin’s efficacy in delaying the development of dementia and other age-related chronic diseases. “Finding a cure for a disease like Alzheimer’s after its onset is very challenging,” Shetty said. “Therefore, our focus is also on extending our health spans—the time in which we enjoy physical and mental health—to keep up with our improved lifespans to promote healthy aging.”

Dr. Deborah Bell-Pedersen

Will we harness our circadian
clocks to enjoy healthier lives?

Circadian clocks don’t get a lot of respect these days, especially at a university like Texas A&M. As soon as finals come around and due dates creep up, students start chugging energy drinks like water and daisy-chaining one all-nighter after another. And even if your college days are behind you, the beginning and end of daylight savings time can serve as a bothersome reminder of how much even one hour’s difference can impact the body. Dr. Deborah Bell-Pedersen, director of the Texas A&M Center for Biological Clocks Research, thinks it’s about time to consider our clocks an integral part of wellness.

“Almost every organism has an internal clock to keep it synchronized with the 24-hour environmental cycle,” Bell-Pedersen explained. “Our clocks don’t just influence our sleep cycle. They regulate our bodies to ensure certain biochemical reactions don’t overlap. We’re physiologically different people depending on the time of day.” This has marked effects on how we take prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

For example, many older people take statins to lower their cholesterol. But those drugs are only effective when taken in the evening, as the body doesn’t produce the enzyme they’re targeting during the day. Bell-Pedersen has joined other researchers in her field in advocating for more consideration of biological clocks in medical trials and criticizing the harmful physiological effects of daylight savings time.

Her research, supported by the WoodNext Foundation, includes testing chemical compounds that could “reset” the body’s clock, potentially eliminating the symptoms of jet lag and helping shift workers like nurses, firefighters and truck drivers who are at greater risk for metabolic disorders due to their nocturnal work schedules. “We’re studying that as well as compounds that could help with sleep fragmentation,” she said. With the center’s myriad projects, Bell-Pedersen and her team have firmly established Texas A&M at the forefront of a burgeoning field.

$838 Million

Life sciences and engineering make up the bulk of the university’s research expenditures, collectively generating more than $838 million in fiscal year 2022.

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Dr. Neil Geismar

Will we overcome obstacles to
producing renewable biofuels?

Biofuels have a complex reputation in the world of energy. Their potential is promising: carbon-friendly renewable energy from sources like corn, vegetable oils and lumber waste. Corn-produced ethanol, for example, already makes up around 10% of gasoline at the pump partly because it helps petroleum burn more efficiently. But just as you can’t have your cake and eat it, too, if we burned all our corn for fuel, we wouldn’t have any left to make tortilla chips, popcorn and high-fructose corn syrup. Also, we would starve.

To avoid burning more valuable food supplies, scientists have developed a fuel produced from corn stover—all the husks, stalks and leaves we don’t eat. Reusing this byproduct is an admirable solution that has its own setbacks. For one, it takes a lot of the stuff to produce at economies of scale. “One biorefinery designed to produce 30 million gallons of ethanol annually would require about 375 tons of corn stover,” said Mays Business School researcher Dr. Neil Geismar. “To visualize that, imagine a stack of corn husks 100 feet tall, 100 feet wide and 20 miles long.” Storing and transporting material of that magnitude can incur steep costs within the supply chain.

Dr. Geismar’s research investigated whether reducing these costs could have prevented several recent failures by large biorefineries. Rather than have farmers take their stover directly to biorefineries, he proposed a network of depots that could compress the material into pellets, which are cheaper to store and transport. These pellets also have a longer shelf-life than does raw biomass, which deteriorates between its harvest and its use. “This supply chain structure reduces logistics costs, but the real savings comes from creating pellets that do not decay,” Dr. Geismar said.

As America continues to test new energy sources to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil, work like Geismar’s will be critical in exploring ways to sustainably power the country.

Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles

Will we adapt our bodies
to thrive without gravity?

With NASA’s much-publicized Artemis program and private ventures like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX putting space travel in the headlines, the final frontier is returning to the American imagination. Science fiction visions of colonizing Mars, interplanetary travel and even accessible commercial spaceflight are still far from becoming reality. But the pervasiveness of these ideas has inspired a research push from government entities and private interests, who are looking to the stars once again. Dr. Ana Diaz Artiles, an assistant professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, is contributing to that push by examining what happens in the human body when it abandons the gravitational forces that have kept it grounded for millennia.

Diaz Artiles has dreamed of helping humankind return to space since adolescence. “In high school, I watched the TV show ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ about the Apollo program and thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she remembered. But her current research focuses less on helping people leave Earth’s atmosphere and more on adapting their bodies to the radically different conditions that lie beyond. “The most-known physiological problems we face in weightless environments are muscle atrophy and loss of bone mass. But those are just parts of the picture.”

Besides putting constant, strengthening pressure on our bones and muscles, gravity also pulls blood and other bodily fluids downward. Without that pull, the heart no longer has to work as hard to pump blood upward, and astronauts experience blood rushing to their upper body the same way it does for children hanging upside down from monkey bars. Using specialized methods such as parabolic flight, lower body negative pressure chambers and short-radius centrifugation, Diaz Artiles is investigating how this affects astronauts’ motor function, vision and overall cardiovascular health long term. “Our next big step will be finding solutions to mitigate these issues,” she said. After all, if humanity hopes to one day expand beyond Earth or even the solar system, it will first need to adapt to a new world of health challenges.

5 Nobel Prize Winners

Texas A&M has hosted five Nobel Prize winners in its history, two of which are current faculty members: Dr. David Lee, who helped discover a breakthrough in low-temperature physics, and Dr. Bruce McCarl, who took part in the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Dr. Julie Howe ’95 ’99

Will innovative farming methods
sustainably feed the world?

Dr. Julie Howe ’95 ’99 isn’t afraid to get down in the dirt. As a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, her research is grounded in studying soil and unlocking its potential through innovative farming and land management practices. “Soil is at the center of everything,” she said. “It influences food production, water purification and even our air quality.” Texas’ wide range of arable soil types, for instance, affects vegetation, land use and water resources, which influenced settlers and development throughout the state’s history. But good soil is fragile, and despite dramatic advancements in agricultural techniques over the past few centuries, maintaining it has proven challenging.

Even when the state survives droughts, severe rainfall and winter storms like the dramatic 2021 ice storm, agriculture releases a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, worsening the effects of climate change and depriving the soil of the carbon it needs to stay healthy. “We want to address these problems in a way that benefits society and the average farmer,” Howe said.

With support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, she and her team are working with Texas farmers to implement practices like cover cropping—planting crops in the off-season for soil health rather than harvest—that aim to strengthen soil by retaining organic material, which is made of carbon. “In addition, we’re working to reduce the formation and emissions of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, which forms from poor nitrogen fertilizer management. These practices will make agriculture more resilient to environmental stress and help mitigate climate change.”

Implementing these practices has its share of hurdles. For one, in an industry where one lousy harvest can spell financial doom, farmers are justifiably wary of adopting unfamiliar methods, especially when those methods require an upfront investment. “Our practices are cost-effective in the long run, but we need financial incentives to encourage adoption in the short run,” Howe stated. Continuing in the tradition of past Texas A&M AgriLife researchers bolstering the state’s agricultural industry with research-backed techniques, she hopes her relationships with farmers can foster greater economic viability and environmental sustainability at once.

Dr. Andres Jola-Sanchez

How will organizations navigate
human-made disasters?

Dr. Andres Jola-Sanchez grew up in Colombia amidst violence between the government, paramilitary forces, guerilla groups and powerful drug cartels—a layered conflict that still wages on at a low level today. “I saw the development of that conflict through the ’90s to the present,” he said. “It was informative, so to speak.” His perspective only grew deeper after he started working for the Colombian government’s National Planning Department and Ministry of Finance. As an assistant professor at Mays Business School, he draws from his experience to study how human-made disasters like war and conflict impact operations across firms.

“In any civil war or conflict, you have so many actors involved,” Jola-Sanchez said. “You have the public sector, private companies and humanitarian organizations, and the conflict affects them all differently.” He pointed to inventory management as an example of how armed conflicts turn conventional operations strategy on its head. “In peacetime, inventory is a tool to mitigate financial risk. But in conflict, keeping a large inventory could actually increase risk by turning your supplies into a strategic target.”

For companies operating in conflict-affected areas, continually assessing and mitigating risk is critical. However, it’s easier said than done, especially since human disasters are often more unpredictable than natural ones. “When a hurricane strikes, you know when it will make landfall and roughly when it will stop so you can start rebuilding,” Jola-Sanchez said. “Most human conflicts don’t have a set end date. When you don’t know if a war will end in a week, a year or a decade, it makes it difficult to accurately forecast what your firm will need and when.”

As the world grows increasingly interconnected and large companies broaden their span across continents, Jola-Sanchez emphasized the importance of global firms monitoring the areas they operate in and preparing their operations for the unpredictable ripple effects of modern conflict.

Top 10

A survey by the National Science Foundation ranked Texas A&M among the top 10 public higher education institutions in the nation in fiscal year 2021.

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Dr. Joyce Juntune ’97

Will creativity take center
stage in our classrooms?

When Dr. Joyce Juntune ’97 began her educational career teaching pre-K through middle school students in California and Minnesota in the ’60s and ’70s, her principal regularly preached the power of creativity. “He wanted to help teachers learn how to be better thinkers,” she said. “After all, how could we teach our students to think creatively without doing it ourselves?” In California, her school largely taught children of migrant workers, many of whom spoke English as a second language. Teaching by the book just wouldn’t cut it. “For example, before a lesson, I might have had my students draw a simple sketch to remember what we were learning. Later, we would learn the words to describe that sketch and make the lesson stick.”

Using simple but out-of-the-box methods to stimulate students’ natural creativity now defines much of Juntune’s teaching philosophy. As an instructional professor and researcher in the School of Education and Human Development, she approaches her undergraduate courses with the same thinking she learned nearly six decades ago. “I ask myself, ‘What will these students know at the end of the week they don’t know today?’” she said. “‘And how will I know they know it?’” Her current students, many of them future teachers, learn to prioritize creativity not just as a natural byproduct of learning but as its driving force across all subjects. “When you develop creativity, you learn to constantly ask questions, look for solutions and then let those solutions prompt more questions.”

There is ongoing debate in education around standardized tests like Texas’ STAAR test, which assesses schools across the state based on their students’ performance. “When you ‘teach for the test,’ you risk being more concerned about your input to students rather than the outcome of their learning,” Juntune said. She emphasized the importance of teaching each student holistically to keep them engaged in lessons. “If you can do that, the test will take care of itself.”

Dr. Sunil Chirayath

How will we determine the
source of nuclear threats?

It starts with a scenario out of a Tom Clancy novel: Nefarious actors have attempted to smuggle nuclear material into the United States, only for it to be intercepted by authorities before their plan could come to fruition. In the ensuing days, federal investigators would need to determine the material’s origins and other characteristics quickly and accurately. If it’s plutonium, it would have had to come from one of the world’s 439 nuclear power reactors scattered across 30 countries or from one of 220 research and training reactors across 53 countries. Knowing which one would prove critical in determining our government’s response—the fate of nations would be at stake.

“We’d take a sample from the intercepted material to verify whether the material is plutonium,” explained Dr. Sunil Chirayath, professor of nuclear engineering and director of Texas A&M’s Center for Nuclear Security Science and Policy Initiatives. “If so, we’d analyze for three parameters of interest: What type of reactor produced it? How long ago was it produced? And how long did the uranium burn inside the reactor to produce the plutonium sample?” Nuclear forensics researchers like Chirayath would then use existing statistical methods to analyze a “fingerprint” from the sample to determine all three parameters of interest and match them to a small grouping of potential reactors. But this method wouldn’t work if an adversary mixed material from two different sources to conceal their origins. “That’s where artificial intelligence comes in.”

Utilizing machine learning, a type of artificial intelligence (AI), Chirayath and his research team have developed a methodology that can simulate different material mixtures, producing a database of identifying markers for investigators to reference in their search. To validate the methodology, doctoral student researcher Dr. Patrick O’Neal ’16 ’20 ’23 successfully used it to identify the sources of three plutonium samples with known origins. While this AI-assisted approach has great potential, Chirayath emphasized, “It’s not a silver bullet. Technical forensic techniques can only go so far. You need policies, agreements and other intelligence gathering to prepare for potential threats and attribution.”

40 Countries

Texas A&M maintains formal agreements for research collaborations and faculty-student exchanges with more than 117 institutions in 40 countries, plus active research programs in all continents.

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Dr. Michelle Meyer

How will we help communities
survive climate disasters?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, news media and public sentiment focused on Houston, which experienced severe flooding that damaged more than 200,000 homes. While the massive response to devastation in the city was warranted, some of the areas hit hardest by the storm were small, rural communities along the Gulf Coast that had fewer resources dedicated to extreme weather events. “They have less data, less planning and less consideration for what they might need,” said Dr. Michelle Meyer, director of Texas A&M’s Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center. “Sometimes, the town’s mayor, emergency manager and volunteer firefighter director are the same person. It’s our job to help them however we can with what they have.”

Meyer comes from a sociology background. Much of her work at the center involves studying how disaster preparedness and response policies can inadvertently threaten some communities more than others. “For example, lower-income people are buying and increasingly renting cheaper homes that often aren’t built to code and can’t withstand damage from a disaster,” she explained. “Or they can only afford to live in neighborhoods that are cheaper precisely because they’re more likely to flood.” And while federal funds aim to mitigate losses, those funds are often doled out based on property values rather than personal need, sending disproportionately more money to middle- and upper-class homeowners and leaving out renters almost entirely.

The Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center is now heading a project to help small towns and rural communities, particularly low-income communities and communities of color, build resilience to increasingly prevalent climate hazards. In addition to that project, the Department of Energy recently awarded a grant for Meyer and Texas A&M researchers to collaborate with The University of Texas at Austin, Prairie View A&M University, Lamar University and Oak Ridge National Lab to study the risks and impacts of flooding and air pollution in Beaumont, Port Arthur and the greater southeast Texas area.

Dr. Mark Benden ’90 ’92 ’06 & Dr. Jay Maddock

Will virtual reality help
us thrive in life and work?

A serene field stretches toward a tree line in the late afternoon. Light birdsong and the occasional high-pitched chorus of cicadas fill the air. The environment isn’t quite photorealistic, but as the user audibly crunches leaves beneath their feet and even smells the piney air, their heart slows as they stroll through the calming virtual world projected through their headset. This is Dr. Jay Maddock’s vision for a more conscious application of virtual reality (VR) technology designed to give residents of bustling urban areas and others without ready access to nature, like astronauts, a chance to experience the natural health boost of a walk in the woods.

“We can look at biometrics and see that just being in nature has tangible positive effects,” said Dr. Mark Benden ’90 ’92 ’06, who oversees Maddock’s work in the School of Public Health. With more young Americans than ever reportedly struggling with mental health, Maddock and his team at the school’s Center for Health & Nature are exploring VR as a therapeutic tool for anxiety and mood disorders. Artificial nature scenes are not meant to replace the real deal, he said, but combined with other forms of treatment, they could provide a “hair of the dog” solution for young people entangled in our fast-paced digital society. “The target audience is more likely to adopt a technological solution, and we want to see if this can positively impact them.”

As director of the school’s Ergonomics Center, Benden is interested in how technology and product design can encourage healthier, safer behavior on and off the clock. Complimenting Maddock’s work, Benden and his team are also exploring using VR to train workers in hazardous occupations the same way commercial pilots train on simulators. “We could teach someone how to use a tool on a particular valve in a controlled environment, so they don’t have to figure it out on an oil rig in the middle of winter,” he explained. As VR technology evolves and some tout it as a means of escaping reality, Benden, Maddock and their peers continue to imagine new ways to use the virtual world to improve the real one.

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