Category Archives: University of Pittsburgh

Post-Silicon Computing

Could Pittsburgh be the nation’s next “Strontium Valley”? The University of Pittsburgh is the lead institution on a $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Nanoelectronics Research Initiative (NRI) of the Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC) to bring a new kind of computer out of the lab and into the real world. The goal of the group, led by Jeremy Levy, a professor of physics and astronomy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, is no less than transforming the way computing is done.

Jeremy Levy

The four-year grant, titled “Scalable Sensing, Storage, and Computation With a Rewritable Oxide Nanoelectronics Platform,” also involves researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University. The program aims to create new high-tech industries and jobs in the United States.

“The search for a new semiconductor device that will provide the United States with a leadership position in the global era of nanoelectronics relies on making discoveries at these kinds of advanced universities,” said Jeff Welser, director of the NRI for SRC.

From Etch-A-Sketch® to Tiny Transistors

Levy and his team have invented a tiny Etch-A-Sketch® that draws infinitesimally small “wires” on a surface, then erases them. The device works by switching an oxide crystal between insulating and conducting states. The interface between these two materials can be switched between an insulating and metallic state using a sharp conducting probe. Electronic circuits can be “written” and “erased” at scales approaching the distance between atoms (two nanometers). The device, less than four nanometers wide, enables photonic interaction with objects as small as single molecules or quantum dots.

This research grant explicitly addresses key scientific and technological challenges that, if overcome, could lead turn the “Etch-A-Sketch®” into something real and useful—from being just a toy in a science lab to a possible replacement for conventional electronics made from silicon devices.

Beyond being just plain cool, this device could be the basis of an entirely new kind of transistor.

More at Pitt Chronicle >


How the Milky Way Got Its Spiral

The signature spiral arms of the Milky Way galaxy were likely formed by an epic collision between the Milky Way and the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy, according to a University of Pittsburgh researcher and his collaborators whose findings were published last week in the prestigious British journal Nature.

The results of supercomputer simulations by Christopher W. Purcell, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, and colleagues were reported in a paper titled “The Sagittarius Impact as an Architect of Spirality and Outer Rings in the Milky Way.”

This paper is the first to identify Sagittarius as the architect of spiral structure in our Milky Way: “It presents a new and somewhat unexpected way of thinking about why the galaxy we live in looks the way it does,” says Purcell. “Cosmologically speaking, it demonstrates the idea that relatively small impacts like this can have a dramatic impact on the structure of galaxies throughout the universe,” he adds.

This idea had been assumed theoretically, but never demonstrated.

More at Pitt Chronicle >

Electric Cycle Invention Gets Pitt Student Noticed by Entrepreneur Magazine

Note: Today’s the last day you can vote for Micah in the College Entrepreneur of the Year contest. Go to and support electric vehicles, innovation, and Pittsburgh!


With a dream of revolutionizing personal urban transportation, a University of Pittsburgh undergraduate is in the running to be Entrepreneur Magazine‘s “College Entrepreneur of the Year.” Micah Toll, a senior mechanical engineering major in the University of PittsburghSwanson School of Engineering, is one of five finalists in the contest. The winner will be the focus of a feature article in the magazine’s January issue.

The mission of Toll’s company, Pulse Motors, is to build completely electric two-wheeled Personal Electronic Vehicles. The vehicles resemble bicycles but do not require pedaling.

“Our vehicles are designed to be the ideal solution for millions of commuters driving in and around urban centers,” says Toll in his contest video entry on the Entrepreneur Magazine Web site. “Instead of a single person commuting in a two-ton gas-guzzler, our vehicles allow drivers to zip effortlessly along using minimal energy and no fossil fuels while producing absolutely zero tailpipe emissions.”

Computer rendering of a 2011 PEVO, officially debuted by Pulse Motors Aug. 28 at Pitt's Student Activities Fair. (Courtesy of Pulse Motors)

A panel of judges selected the five finalists from among thousands of entries across the country. The selection of the ultimate winner of the College Entrepreneur of the Year now comes down to two components: the online voting process and voting by the panel of judges. The online voting points and panel voting points will be combined for each of the five finalists, and the winner will be the student who receives the highest total.

More at News from Pitt >


Working to Build Better Antipsychotic Drug by Treating Schizophrenia’s Cause

The classic symptoms of schizophrenia—paranoia, hallucinations, the inability to function socially—can be managed with antipsychotic drugs. But exactly how these drugs work has long been a mystery.

Now, researchers at Pitt have discovered that antipsychotic drugs work akin to a Rube Goldberg machine—that is, they suppress something that in turn suppresses the bad effects of schizophrenia, but not the exact cause itself. In a paper published in the Aug. 24 Journal of Neuroscience, they say that pinpointing what’s actually causing the problem could lead to better avenues of schizophrenia treatment that more directly and efficiently target the disease.

“In the past five years or so, we’ve really started to understand what may be going wrong with the schizophrenic brain,” says Anthony Grace, Distinguished Professor of Neuroscience and professor of psychology in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences and professor of psychiatry in the Pitt School of Medicine, who is senior author of the paper.

Schizophrenia is made up of three different types of symptoms. Positive symptoms, which are added onto a “normal” personality, include hallucinations and delusions, such as hearing voices, thinking people are after you, or thinking you’re being targeted by aliens. Those are the classic symptoms of schizophrenia and the ones antipsychotic medications work on best. Grace says these are the symptoms most likely related to a neurotransmitter called dopamine.

The other two categories of symptoms are negative (what’s missing from the normal personality—the ability to interact socially or hold down a job; some emotional flattening) and cognitive (the ability to think linearly or concentrate on one thing at a time). These two really aren’t addressed well by antipsychotic drugs. “Blocking the dopamine system seems to fix classic hallucinations and delusions a whole lot better than it fixes the other problems,” says Grace.

Grace has been studying the role dopamine plays in the schizophrenic brain since 1978. It’s long been known that after several weeks of treatment with antipsychotic drugs, dopamine-producing neurons are inactivated. “It would suggest to us that in schizophrenia there is not too much dopamine, but rather the dopamine system is too responsive,” says Grace.

Therefore, by inactivating the neurons, this overresponsivity should be able to be treated. “If there were just too much dopamine in the brain, one would expect the biggest treatment effect would be at the beginning and then it would diminish,” Grace says.

More at Pitt Chronicle

Pitt Team Regrows Blood Vessels With a Potent Molecule

Ever since the Nobel Prize for nerve growth factor was awarded more than 30 years ago, researchers have been searching for ways to use growth factor clinically.

University of Pittsburgh Professor Yadong Wang has developed a minimally invasive method of delivering growth factor to regrow blood vessels. His research, which could be used to treat heart disease, the most common cause of death in the Western world, was published in the Aug. 1 issue of the journalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. …

When the researchers injected their growth factor compound under the skin of mice, they saw something amazing: New blood vessels grew, and large ones, not just tiny capillaries. “We had structures that resembled arterioles—small arteries that lead to a network of capillaries,” says Wang.

Moreover, the structures stuck around. At least a month later, after only one injection of the growth factor complex, the new blood vessels were still there.

More at Pitt Chronicle


Pitt husband-and-wife team discovers cancer-linked virus

A husband-and-wife team at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute have discovered a virus strongly linked to Merkel cell carcinoma, an aggressive skin cancer that used to be very rare but has become increasingly common in the past two decades, particularly among those with compromised immune systems.

Yuan Chang and Patrick Moore reported their findings in this week’s Science.

Interestingly, Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV) is the second cancer-associated virus discovered by the pair. In 1993, they found the virus that causes the most common cancer in Africa, Kaposi’s sarcoma.

Chang and Moore spent nearly a decade developing a new technology that was instrumental in discovering the virus. “Digital transcriptome subtraction” is so called because it subtracts genetic sequences known to be human from the genome of the tumor under study, leaving only genetic transcripts that might have come from a foreign organism.

Using the technique in Merkel cell tumors, they found one sequence that was similar to, but distinct from, known viruses. They went on to show that this sequence belonged to a new polyomavirus that was present in almost all the Merkel cell tumors they tested, but few other tissues.

Their discovery could lead to a blood test or vaccine, similar to the recently developed vaccines against human papillomavirus (HPV) to prevent cervical cancer.

Researchers had suspected the existence of MCV, which is genetically similar to an African green monkey virus. Up to a quarter of adults–one billion people–could be infected with the human relative of this monkey virus. However, just as with HPV, most people with the virus will not develop the associated cancer.

More: NYT, Reuters

Local anthropologist/feminist activist passes away

When I interned at the Post-Gazette in college, one of my assignments was an obituary of an Oakmont doctor, T.J. Ferguson. I was really nervous about the assignment because it’s a tall order to sum up someone’s life, especially who you’ve never met.

But it turned out to be one of my favorite assignments. By the end, I was wishing I HAD met Dr. Ferguson.

That’s how I feel about this woman, whose obit ran in the PG today: Carol McAllister.

She was a professor at Pitt, which is how I first noticed the item at all. But wow — it sounds like she did some truly amazing things:

  • director of the University of Pittsburgh Women’s Studies Program and was active with the Thomas Merton Center, the Women’s Resource Center for Greater Pittsburgh and the Social Justice Action Team of the First United Methodist Church, Pittsburgh
  • work with Early Head Start, a component of Head Start which helps low-income mothers and families prepare sooner for the health and education of their children.
  • gave the children in these communities disposable cameras and told them to chronicle their lives. Her work and their photos were published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2005.
  • organized a conference with speakers from Rwanda, Israel and Canada that focused on the roles that women can play in conflict resolution and rebuilding war-torn communities.

I am so sorry for her family’s loss, a loss for the community and world as well. And, I find her story truly inspiring. I would be proud to do half as much in my own life.