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FSU Med school students watch a replay of a classmate's initial treatment of a "patient" as part of new high-tech training.

Digitizing Docs

In this cyber-infused world, it was inevitable that some day, doctors would blend bedside manners with bits and bytes.

It's now a formalized part of training at FSU's young College of Medicine. This fall, the college opened a Clinical Learning Center, a uniquely wired training lab thought to be the first of its kind in the nation. The center is pioneering the use of electronic medical records as a teaching tool in a clinic that serves as a classroom.

Trainees in the center carry hand-held wireless computers instead of charts when examining "patients." About 12 percent of doctors nationwide record their patients' information into computers. But FSU is the first medical school in the country to use the technology in a standardized patient program, says Sarah Sherraden, center director.

The center has seven exam rooms where digital video cameras are mounted in the ceiling to record the interaction between student doctor and patient. It is one of the few such facilities designed to teach a combination of bedside manners, medical information technology and basic clinical skills, Sherraden said.

"There's the science of medicine—the examining and treatment of illnesses—and then there's the art of medicine, how one talks to a patient and develop a partnership with the patient," she said. The new facility is all about refining the art side of doctoring, she said.

The center's patients are in fact paid actors who portray people suffering from various sicknesses. Following the simulated examination students and instructors watch a playback of the encounter and discuss interviewing, examining and counseling techniques.

Sherraden says although the check-up is staged and the patient is not actually ill the sessions teach students how to deal effectively with difficult situations such as a cancer diagnosis or eliciting information from a teen about substance abuse.

"It enables us to give students immediate feedback and help them build interpersonal relationships with patients," says Sherraden. "When they go out into the community they will have had the opportunity to learn the skills needed to work with real people."

This academic year, 70 students will train at the new center.

Sandy Science

Millions of years ago, Florida's coastline was shaped far differently than it is now—the Gulf of Mexico went so far inland that around Gainesville, sharks swam where gators now roam. Over time, the earth's climate changed dramatically. The northern glaciers came and went, and the waters receded, leaving Florida's coastline with the basic shape it has today.

However, over the last several decades, the coastline has been in a general—and in some places drastic—retreat, thanks to subtle climate changes, an increase in severe weather and stepped-up coastal development, historically among Florida's more dubious talents.

Much-needed renourishment of eroding beaches is quite costly and the right sand necessary to do the work has become a scarce commodity. As part of a strategic countermeasure by the state, FSU has embarked on a multi-year project to systematically locate useable offshore sand deposits.

A great portion of the state's coastline is classified as critically eroding by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Office of Beaches and Coastal Systems. When beaches are classified as critically eroding, it means that the shoreline has retreated to the point where drastic measures are required to prevent wholesale loss of beachfront property. Typically, the state's (or the local community's) response is to pump in large quantities of sand to refurbish a stricken beach. Each year, the state alone spends nearly $30 million on beach renourishment work. On top of that, local governments, the federal government and private homeowners spend untold amounts to fight back the advancing tides.

Among the hardest hit stretches of Florida's coast is its Gulf beaches of the Panhandle. FSU's coastal geology laboratory, headed by Joseph Donoghue, is focusing on mapping the available sand deposits along the Panhandle coastline, from St. Marks to Pensacola. At the same time, the researchers and students are developing a model for the geologic evolution of the panhandle coast, which will be used for predicting the location of shelf sand deposits.

Finding the sand to rebuild the beaches is not as simple as it may sound, says Donoghue. Sand comes in many different shades, compositions and grain sizes, and almost every stretch of beach in Florida is different, he said. For instance, the grainy, dark sand of Alligator Point, a peninsula in Franklin County just south of Tallahassee, is very different from the sugar-white, fine sand found on Destin's beaches a hundred miles westward. To preserve the integrity of each beach, renourishment sand that is identical to "native" sand must be found.

Partnered with the coastal laboratory of the University of South Florida and URS—Greiner, an international geosciences consulting firm, Donoghue's team has spent much of the last year collecting data on the geology of the region's coast and shelf.

The data, which includes sediment analyses and sub-seafloor seismic profiling surveys, is being poured into a geographic information system (GIS) database and an online interactive mapping tool. The result is a computer model of sand deposits lying offshore throughout the Panhandle coast. Donoghue says coastal planners and engineers can soon use this model to more easily locate sand that is a match for replenishing specific beaches.

"The evolution of this region of Florida's coast is complex and scientifically intriguing," Donoghue said. The tools we're developing will help coastal engineers restore Florida's eroding beaches for years to come."

Up, Up and Away: Twice each day from atop FSU's Love Building, headquarters of the Department of Meteorology, weather balloons soar into the skies and begin firing data back to campus, thanks to the university's new collaboration with the National Weather Service. Last February, the service's Weather Forecast Office moved from the Tallahassee Airport into new offices within the meteorology department, marking the first time the NWS has shared facilities with academic weather scientists at a university.

Next Big Thing

Magnetically speaking, what's new under the hood of the National High Field Magnetic Laboratory is a doozie.

This summer, technicians inched closer to the roll-out of a new magnet that may set the world record in bore size—the size of the machine's central chamber where fields are focused to fierce levels of magnetism.

The new machine's "horsepower" is pegged at 900 megahertz (MHz), which translates to 21.1 Tesla, the standard unit of magnetism. (A single Tesla is 20,000 times the strength of the Earth's magnetic field; a small refrigerator magnet is typically one Tesla or less.) The giant magnet weighs 24 tons and cost $13 million to build.

Most of the largest research magnets now being produced have a bore width on the order of 50 millimeters, or about two inches. The lab's newest effort will double that standard, coming in at 100 millimeters (a handful of commercial-grade 900 MHz magnets exist, though none have the bore size of the NHMFL machine, an advantage that enhances both imaging capability and experimental adaptability).

The magnet is sensitive enough to require a month to chill down to its working temperature—and two days just to turn on.

Super-Sized: The mag lab's new, 24 ton machine doubles the bore size of 900 megahertz experimental magnets now in use in research.

When the magnet has been cleared for service, it will be moved—carefully—to a special bay and encased in a permanent cryostat (a large metal cylinder) that, with the help of liquid helium, will maintain the magnet just a couple degrees above absolute zero, the temperature at which all molecular activity ceases. Once the magnet is sealed in place, it cannot be moved again.

As few as 15 years ago, magnet labs were the sole domain of scientists who worked in the arcane realm of condensed matter physics. The added bore width of the 900 MHz magnet will allow more effective research in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy, an analytical technique applied in fields ranging from molecular biology to materials science. Such work will benefit from the magnet's power that will push the sharpness of images to a three-dimensional clarity previously not possible.

If all goes well, the first experiments with the fully operational magnet should begin next spring.

Farm History Retold

Just where and when did agriculture begin in the New World? A recent study by an FSU anthropologist has turned up evidence that 7,000 years ago , Native Americans along the present-day Mexican Gulf Coast were raising maize, sunflowers and a variety of other crops. If confirmed, the finding would mean that farming got started in Mexico more than a millennium earlier than scientists had previously thought.

"The evidence supports the characterization of Mexico as a hearth for New World domestication of plants," says Pohl. The National Science Foundation and the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., funded Pohl's latest project, a collaboration with Kevin Pope of Geo Arc Research, David Lentz of the New York Botanical Garden and Loren Rieseberg of Indiana University.

Scholars had pointed to the highlands of western Mexico as the site of the first domestication of plants. But Pohl said that the evidence indicates maize was being cultivated along the Gulf Coast at least a thousand years before it showed up in the highlands. Maize was first cultivated near Panama around 5,800 B.C.

"We're pushing back the date and are on the trail of the domestication of maize," says Pohl. "People were definitely cultivating an early form of maize in what is today the Tabasco province 7,000 years ago."

Using core sampling and excavation, Pohl's group found traces of maize pollen and forest clearing dating to 5,100 B.C. a time when, Pohl says, people were making a significant lifestyle change—going from foraging to cultivation of food.

Sediments in which ancient maize pollen is found is well stratified and securely dated by a number of radiocarbon dates. The evidence indicates people were clearing fields of trees and weeds and introducing other plants.

"They're picking up maize, sunflowers and manioc and making a transition from foraging to farming. The shift laid the foundation for the rise of the Olmec civilization," says Pohl.

The Olmecs lived in the East Mexico lowlands around 1,300-400 B.C. They established what is considered the first civilization in the Americas. Many of their traditions were continued and refined by succeeding civilizations.

The Pohl group also dated two sunflower seeds to 2,500 B.C. That is more than a 1,000 years earlier and almost a continent away from where it was assumed the sunflower had originated. Before Pohl's discovery it was generally believed that the sunflower was first cultivated about 1,300 B.C. in what is now the eastern United States.

Deeper Bioscience

When Mary Shelley penned her most famous work, Frankenstein, in 1818, her fantastic renderings of future science, including the manipulation of biological systems, was just that—fantasy.

But with the establishment of an interdisciplinary partnership at Florida State, such science is edging closer to reality. Nanotechnology—the hot science of building atomic-length devices—is poised to make the transition from the mechanical to the organic.

Scientists from FSU's biology department have teamed up with the physics department and the Center for Materials Research and Technology (MARTECH) to conduct fundamental research into machines built at the nano-scale—literally below the size of most biological molecules. Such wondrous devices hold the prospect of some day replacing bulkier, less efficient technologies in fields ranging from disease diagnostics to drug delivery.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded Florida State $1 million over the next four years for research into nanoscale biological sensors. Complementing that is an $800,000 support grant from the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). If the initial phase shows promise, FSU will be eligible for another $1.2 million to continue the research.

One project involves the creation of a hybrid biological/mechanical actuator, a sort of tiny power plant fueled by protein. Using a nickel rod 100 nanometers in diameter—about 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair—the researchers hope to build a motor powered by the same proteins and fuel that muscles use to move.

The research could produce a device that moves about in the body to perform a variety of functions, such as delivering powerful medicine at the center of a tumor or controlling the flow of blood in a damaged artery.

Another project aims to build a nano-size biosensor that can detect a single molecule of various substances in the body and viruses in the air. Researchers hope to develop a portable blood chemistry test kit that doctors and emergency medical technicians could use to determine immediately whether someone has suffered a heart attack by measuring in a single drop of blood the level of certain proteins released after an attack. A lengthy lab test is now required to detect these protein levels.

The implications for such research reach far beyond these preliminary projects, as scientists seek new and different ways to heal and grow biological systems and monitor the environment—and profoundly alter the ways that humans perceive life, death, and the limits of science.

nanopump: This "micro-pump" is part of a micron-sized "lab" under development at the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering. Smaller than the width of a human hair, the pump is designed to impel nanomagnetic spheres that are used to detect a heart attack and ascertain whether a person has suffered heart damage within three minutes of an attack. Mechanical engineers Ching-Jen Chen (dean of the college) and Yousef Haik also developed a way to coat the main silicon element of the micro pump with magnetic material. The coated magnetic material will enable the engineers to run the micro pump remotely. The pump also can be used to regulate intake of drugs such as insulin and cumadin.