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From Fossils To New Tech: Research Highlights From 2010

From prehistoric penguins, which help us understand the mysteries of evolution, to “artificial leaves” that could change the face of solar energy, 2010 was a fascinating year of research at North Carolina State University. As we prepare for 2011, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the interesting research stories to come out of NC State over the past year (including links to more information, if you’re curious).

Artificial Leaves: What’s wrong with real leaves? Nothing. But NC State researchers showed that water-gel-based solar devices – “artificial leaves” – can act like solar cells to produce electricity. The findings proved a concept for making solar cells that more closely mimic nature. They also have the potential to be less expensive and more environmentally friendly than the current standard-bearer: silicon-based solar cells.

Fatherless Boas: Bad news for dads. In a finding that upended decades of scientific theory on reptile reproduction, NC State researchers discovered that female boa constrictors can squeeze out babies without mating. More strikingly, the finding showed that the babies produced from this asexual reproduction have attributes previously believed to be impossible.

The Bigfoot of the Ant World: Sasquatch this ain’t. An NC State graduate student found the Bigfoot of ants, named not because of its massive size but because of its elusive nature, took its photo – and promptly lost it again.

Big Help For Small Towns: NC State researchers are  finding ways to reach students in rural areas at a time in their lives when research has shown they are most likely to consider careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Their goal is to help kids learn what it takes to be a rocket scientist or video-game programmer.

Tracking Invasive Species: Tracking invasive pests is a dirty job, but someone has to do it. NC State researchers are partnering with scientists and analysts from around the globe to determine recommendations to improve pest-risk mapping to better inform decision makers on where and how to best combat pests.

Protecting Firefighters From The Ground Up: The rubber boots that emergency personnel wear when responding to situations where hazardous materials (HazMat) are present may be functional, but they’re not very comfortable. Research from NC State hopes to provide a next generation HazMat boot that meets both criteria.

Ribbit Radio: Frogs don’t have the same charisma that, say, dolphins do. But tracking amphibian populations is important because these animals are sensitive to changes in their environment and can serve as “canaries in the coal mine” to give researchers early warnings about pollution or other ecological problems. Research from NC State used “Ribbit Radio” to show that data from the largest amphibian monitoring program in the country may have flaws that, if uncorrected, could result in overestimates of frog populations.

Putting A Radar In Your Shoe: Paging Maxwell Smart! The prevalence of global positioning system (GPS) devices in everything from cars to cell phones has almost made getting lost a thing of the past. But what do you do when your GPS isn’t working? New research from NC State has led to a shoe-embedded radar system that may help you find your way.

Tequila and Cheese: They may sound like the makings of an awkward cocktail party, but research from NC State showed that tequila and cheese have a lot to tell us about efforts to boost rural economies around the world.

Destroying Biofilms: Kryptonite for superbugs? Researchers from NC State found a chemical compound that, when used in conjunction with conventional antibiotics, is effective in destroying biofilms produced by antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria such as the Staphylococcus strain MRSA and Acinetobacter. The compound also re-sensitizes those bacteria to antibiotics.

Stem Cells and Cancer: NC State researchers found that the overproduction of a key protein in stem cells causes those stem cells to form cancerous tumors. Their work may lead to new treatments for a variety of cancers.

Giant Prehistoric Penguins: An NC State researcher is part of a team that discovered fossilized feathers from a giant penguin that lived near the Equator more than 36 million years ago. These feathery fossils reveal color patterns in an ancient extinct penguin species, and offer clues to how modern penguin feathers evolved.