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FIU in the Next Gen: Research

FIU in the Next Gen: Research

June 15, 2015 at 12:00am

How will the discoveries and inventions of FIU faculty impact the world of the future? In the 50 years since its founding, FIU has risen as a research institution. So, what will the next 50 years bring? FIU Magazine spoke with university leaders and educators to understand where some of our strengths will take us in the coming decades and how FIU will continue to influence the world at home and beyond.

Sea level rise and water conservation

Not just a natural resource, water in the 21st century also has become a commodity and a challenge in the face of climate change. FIU researchers are working to ensure the next 50 years aren’t like the last, which have been full of controversy and uncertainty.

In the next generation, people won’t be talking about how to protect the Everglades, South Florida’s water supply or the communities along the coastline. They will be doing it. Miami Beach’s landscape already will have changed with the rising seas. But as the College of Arts & Sciences Dean Mike Heithaus attests, today’s generation will be defined by its response to climate change. And that response will determine the challenges faced by the next.

For scientists, the conversation focuses on how to adapt. Partnerships forged today with the City of Miami Beach, the Everglades Foundation and others will shape the future of South Florida. As a result, communities along coastlines throughout the world will define their responses, redesign their infrastructures and revise their building codes based on what South Florida scientists, architects and engineers research today. In the next 50 years, South Florida’s role of a living laboratory will evolve into proven examples of solutions that work.

Yet in 2065, certain truths likely will remain. Florida will continue to be the lowest and flattest state in the country. Miami’s water supply will remain dependent on the Biscayne Aquifer, which rests beneath the Florida Everglades. And the seas will be higher, though how high remains a mystery. Some say a foot by 2100, while others believe it could be as high as six feet.

It is difficult to plan based on best guesses. But FIU ecologist Rene Price says statistical certainties will come very soon. She says that in just a few years scientists will be able to predict how high the seas will rise over time. That will give communities time to prepare. During the next 50 years, governments will be able to develop and execute plans based on realistic expectations for the 22nd century.

The foundation for these plans will largely come from the research being done at FIU. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine recently said that what people cannot imagine today will actually be what is invented to make coastal cities resilient in the future. Today, students and faculty throughout FIU are dreaming up the potential solutions that could help define water in South Florida in 2065 and beyond.

Disaster mitigation and urban resilience

As climate change and urban population growth create stress upon the natural environment, FIU researchers are looking at ways to help government agencies and other stakeholders understand related challenges to our built environment. The goal: to support better design, improved construction and long-term management of resources.

Predicting the future is never easy, but the Infrastructure System-of-Systems Research Group within the OHL School of Construction aims to introduce a degree of clarity in a climate of uncertainty. The team is developing computational models that will demonstrate how physical infrastructure might perform under a variety of conditions. The term “systems-of-systems” refers to a holistic approach that looks at infrastructure as complex and interdependent. To underscore the value of a wide view, professor of construction management Ali Mostafavi gives the example of frequent inland flooding, which can lead to pumping station failure, sewage-system backups and contamination of the water supply.

“From one event,” he says, “you can see the cascading impacts.”

This and other studies complement university research efforts focused on disaster mitigation. The International Hurricane Research Center, for example, has for nearly two decades brought together scientists to probe how urban areas can best prepare for high-threat storms. And the College of Engineering and Computing’s Wall of Wind — the largest and most powerful university research facility of its kind — investigates how construction materials perform under extreme conditions, tests whose outcomes can influence Florida building codes.

The work of the university helps demonstrate that decisions made today can change the course ahead and encourages public policy for the long haul.

FIU in the Next Gen: Education | Partnerships

Neuroscience and brain imaging

A person enters a doctor’s office for a physical. As part of the routine, blood pressure is taken and temperature recorded and, finally, the brain is scanned.

In a single scan, lurking disorders within the mind and body are revealed. A doctor can diagnose neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, as well as psychological issues including depression and even addiction. Symptoms may or may not be present. The need for lengthy testing and intensive evaluations are no more. A single scan. A snapshot of the brain. A picture that tells a story and gives a roadmap for curing or overcoming problems.

The science isn’t there yet, but in the next 50 years, FIU researchers believe it will get there.

According to Angela Laird, director of FIU’s Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging Center, in 50 years, with a prick of your finger and a hand-held imaging device, clinicians may be able to immediately assess your health status in terms of physical, emotional, genetic and neurobiological profiles, and then prescribe an optimized treatment strategy based on your unique brain signatures.

The brain is the most complex organ in the human body. It makes up 2 percent of a body’s mass yet uses 20 percent of its blood and oxygen supply. It controls the way we think. It controls our movements. It dictates the way we make decisions. And it determines how we recall memories. It is powerful and yet fragile.

FIU scientists from across the disciplines – medicine, nursing, education, engineering, arts and sciences – have dedicated their careers to understanding mental processes in the healthy and diseased human brain. They study brain activity, including language, cognition, emotion, action, sensory perception and mental health, while working to develop new technologies in cognitive neuroimaging.

Through collaborative research, the future is likely to bring advances in neurotechnology that allow physicians to tap into or activate the nervous system to provide personalized neurotherapy, says Ranu Jung, chair of biomedical engineering and interim dean of the College of Engineering & Computing.

But more than diagnostics and treatment, FIU researchers believe cognitive neuroscience also can lead to better students. It is likely that students in the class of 2065 will be taught using methods developed from studies under way today. Using neuroimaging techniques, these studies examine how college STEM majors learn reasoning and problem-solving skills. Understanding this could help educators better craft the way these courses are taught in the future.

Today’s FIU scientists hope that someday the brain scan will be as routine as an EKG.