Category: Research

Pasi Lautala: Railroads—Back to the Future

The US rail network comprises nearly 140,000 miles of track—and more than 200,000 highway-rail grade crossings. Photo credit: Eric Peterson.

Pasi Lautala shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive webinar this Monday, 9/26 at 6 pm. Learn something new in just 30 minutes or so, with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Dr. Pasi Lautala

What are you doing for supper this Monday night 9/26 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Dean Janet Callahan and Pasi Lautala, associate professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Engineering at Michigan Tech.

Lautala directs Michigan Tech’s innovative Rail Transportation Program (RTP), preparing students to thrive and succeed in the rail industry—something he has done for the past 15 years.

Joining in will be Michigan Tech alumnus Eric Peterson, retired assistant chief engineer of public projects at CSX Transportation, who helped establish and grow the RTP at Michigan Tech.

During Husky Bites the two will share the secrets behind the energy efficiency of rail, and guide us from past railroads to what they are today. They’ll also discuss how railroads are securing a future in the era of rapid technology development. 

“Rail is considered more energy efficient. In many ways it is a more sustainable transportation mode compared to highway and air transport, says Lautala. “However, in order for rail transportation to keep up with the other modes of transportation, it must keep developing alongside them—and with an equal amount of passion. In the US, some of those challenges (but also opportunities) include long asset lives, non-flexible structures, and private ownership.”

Pat and Eric Peterson

Before moving to the US from Finland, Lautala worked for several summers with the Finnish Railway system. After graduating from Michigan Tech with his MS in Civil Engineering, he worked for five years as a railroad and highway engineering consultant in Chicago, before returning to Michigan Tech for his PhD in Rail Transportation and Engineering Education.

Michigan Tech’s Railroad Engineering Activity Club, aka REAC, is “for students interested in establishing contacts with, learning about, getting involved with, and a hair’s breadth away from being obsessed with the railroad and transportation industries in the United States of America and beyond.” Lautala and Peterson are honorary members.

“I first met Eric as a young consultant,” Lautala recalls. “He was one of the managers for our client, CSX Transportation. Once I returned to campus as a doctoral student, I learned Eric was a former classmate of my PhD advisor. Eric became an influential force and tireless supporter of our efforts to start the Rail Transportation Program. He still teaches some signals and communications lectures for us.”

“My wife, Pat, and I supported the startup of the Michigan Tech Rail Transportation Program with Pasi as the leader,” adds Peterson. “At the time, we were hiring engineers at CSX for all types of jobs, including field supervisors—people comfortable working both in the field and in the office. The rest of the rail industry was hiring, too.” 

“The railroad industry is still hungry for young people with interest and education in rail transportation,” says Lautala. When he first came to Michigan Tech from Finland in 1996 to earn an MS in Civil Engineering, Lautala brought the railroad bug with him. The son of a locomotive engineer, Lautala grew up in a culture that embraced rail transportation as a sustainable public transit alternative, as well as an efficient way to move freight.

While the US has the most extensive and efficient freight rail system in the world, the development of railroads had been on the back burner for decades, while the rest of the world kept moving forward, he observes. 

In 2007 Lautala established the RTP at Michigan Tech in order to advance rail education to a wide range of students, with integrated coursework, for both undergraduate and graduate students, and a minor in rail transportation. CN, Canadian National Railway Company, quickly came on board as a major sponsor of the program. The RTP also collaborates closely with many industry companies, associations and alumni. Their involvement provides professional networking, education, field trips, conferences, and guest speakers for Michigan Tech students involved in the Railroad Engineering and Activities Club (REAC), the first student chapter ever established by the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance of Way Association (AREMA).

“Students can also take part in hands-on rail industry-sponsored research projects across disciplines. Some topic areas include grade crossing and trespasser safety, materials research on railway equipment, locomotive emissions, the impact of climate change on railroads, and more,” says Lautala. Learning by doing is a central component of RTP’s approach to rail education.

Rail companies actively work with RTP to fill openings with Michigan Tech RTP students, whether for for full time jobs, internships or co-ops. And the RTP Experience wouldn’t be complete without the Railroad Night, an over 15 year tradition at Michigan Tech.

“Rail just makes sense, and it’s something this country needs.”

Pasi Lautala
Michigan Tech RTP students conduct field work

Lautala initially founded RTP’s innovative Summer in Finland program, which integrated an international component to rail education. It was an intensive five-week program, a collaboration among Michigan Tech, the Tampere University of Technology, and the North American and Finnish railroad industry. “That program created sufficient interest from the students and industry to officially launch the Rail Transportation Program,” Lautala says.

Outside Michigan Tech, Lautala serves as chair of National Academies’ Research Transportation Board Rail Group. “There are so many research possibilities—everything from infrastructure, with automated track-monitoring systems and recycled materials in railroad ties, to energy efficient equipment and operations,” he says.

Team Lautala!

Lautala’s own engineering research currently involves connected and autonomous vehicle communications at grade crossings, with fellow Civil, Environmental, and Geospatial Associate Professor Kuilin Zhang. The two are working to develop safe and efficient driving and routing strategies for autonomous vehicles at railroad grade crossings. Reduced energy consumption, emissions, and potential time delays are some of their goals. Their research is supported with two separate grants from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).

Dr. Lautala, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

Prof. Lautala likes to fish, hunt, and play the accordian.

Probably my early summer internships, first at a rail construction site, and then with Finnish Railways.

Hometown?

Kangasala, Finland. I have split my life evenly between Finland and the US, twenty-five years each. I recently spent a year in Finland with my wife and two rascals (children): Olavi (10) and Ansel (8).

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Hobbies, you name it…..soccer (including coaching), hockey, golf, and many other sports. Three accordions and an equal number of bands. I’ve done some acting, too (though that’s been pretty quiet recently).

A rail adventure!

Eric, how did you first get into engineering? What sparked your interest?

I saw the Mackinac Bridge while it was under construction. A few years later when our subdivision was expanded, I spent the summer watching the grading contractor.  

Boating is another hobby. We have a 17’ boat for water skiing and a 20’ sailboat we use each summer for a few weeks on Crystal Lake near Frankfort, Michigan, when our family vacations together.

One of your most memorable accomplishments?

Training as a locomotive engineer.

Hometown?

I was born in Detroit and moved to Bloomfield Township when I was in the 4th grade. I am an only child. I married Patricia Paoli in 1970.

Eric and Pat thus far have three married adult children, and nine grandchildren.

What do you like to do in your spare time

My dad exposed me to both model railroading and real railroads. My primary hobby is model railroading in O Scale 2 rail, which is 1/48 scale. My work was all in the railroad industry.

Read more:

See Tracks? Think Train!

The Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan Operation Lifesaver are partnering together to raise rail safety awareness. Most Americans today know the dangers associated with drunk driving, distracted driving or texting while crossing the street, But many are unaware of the risks they are taking around railroad tracks.

Environmental Engineering Presentations at AEESP 2022

Environmental Engineering at the Confluence AEESP St. Louis 2022

Rose Daily and Benjamin Barrios, both PhD students in environmental engineering, traveled to St. Louis with their advisor, Daisuke Minakata (CEGE). They attended the Association of Environmental Engineering and Science Professors (AEESP) Conference on June 28-30, where they presented their research findings.

Daily gave her podium presentation about advanced reduction technology for the remediation of organic contaminants in water including per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Barrios presented a poster about an aquatic photochemistry project supported by the National Science Foundation.

The AEESP Research and Education Conference addresses the most critical environmental challenges of this era. Its theme, “Environmental Engineering and Science at the Confluence,” is designed to span the field of environmental engineering, to explore convergence and to highlight emerging developments.

Dr. Yongchao Yang Awarded 2022 Achenbach Medal

Dr. Yonchao Yang, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, Michigan Tech

Yongchao Yang, an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering – Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Technological University, is the recipient of the 2022 Achenbach Medal. This international award recognizes a young investigator, within 10 years of earning their PhD, who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of structural health monitoring. This includes the monitoring of bridges, aircraft, pipelines, buildings and other infrastructure and engineering systems. Each year a single individual worldwide is selected for the honor.

The Achenbach medal is named in honor of Jan Achenbach, professor emeritus and Walter P. Murphy Professor and Distinguished McCormick School Professor at Northwestern University. The medal was presented to Dr. Yang in the International Workshop on Structural Health Monitoring (IWSHM) on July 6 at the European Workshop on Structural Health Monitoring (EWSHM 2022) in Palermo, Italy. The workshop is held each year, rotating between Stanford University and a location in Europe.

Yang came to Michigan Tech from Argonne National Lab in August 2019, where he worked as a staff scientist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Engineering at Harbin Institute of Technology in 2010, and a PhD in Structural Engineering at Rice University in 2014. He was a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 2015 to 2018.

“The process of implementing a damage identification strategy for aerospace, civil and mechanical engineering infrastructure is referred to as structural health monitoring, or SHM,” says Yang, quoting the definition proposed by one of the pioneering SHM researchers, Dr. Charles Farrar at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Yang worked with Farrar during his postdoctoral research.

Dr. Yang works with a laser Doppler vibrometer system, coupled with an AI-based algorithm for full-field scanning and detection of metal structures, in this case, aluminum plates. In the back far right, PhD student Faraz Azad works at the computer on the measurement software and AI detection algorithm.

Yang’s research centers around structural dynamics in the broad areas of cyber-physical systems. “I hope to better understand the dynamic behaviors of structures and systems, in order to enable intelligent engineering systems–including software applications for structural health monitoring, and less invasive and non-destructive evaluations. That includes inferring and detecting any abnormal change in the dynamic features indicative of damage in the system.”

Yang leads the Dynamics & Intelligent Systems Group at Michigan Tech, consisting of postdocs, doctoral, master’s and undergraduate students. The group’s specific research includes sensing, modeling, analysis, and control of dynamic structures and systems.

“Our work in the lab spans the broad areas of system identification and control. We leverage approaches from experimental and computational mechanics, computer vision and machine learning—deep learning—with optical and acoustical tools,” Yang explains. “We seek to develop novel computational sensing tools and ‘physics-guided’ machine learning methodology. Our goal is to enable high-fidelity modeling and characterization of complex structural, material, and system behaviors.”

Sponsors of Yang’s research include the US Department of Energy, US Federal Highway Administration, Argonne National Lab, Los Alamos National Lab, Hyundai Corp., the MTRAC Innovation Hub for Advanced Computing at Wayne State University, and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Dr. William Predebon Retires Today After 47 Years at Michigan Tech

Dr. Bill Predebon is retiring today after a stellar career as professor and chair. He will remain always a mentor, advisor, colleague, and friend.

Today at Michigan Technological University, it feels like the end of an era.

But for Dr. William W. Predebon, J.S. Endowed Department Chair and Professor, it is the beginning of something absolutely new. Dr. Predebon will retire today after 25 years as the chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics, and nearly 47 years at Michigan Tech.

“As I look back on all those years as department chair, I want to acknowledge that the progress we made was on the shoulders of those that came before us and the great faculty, staff, students and alumni who have been a part of this journey with me,” he says.

“If there was a hall-of-fame for mechanical engineering department chairs, Bill would get in on the first ballot,” says Greg Odegard, the John O. Hallquist Endowed Chair in Computational Mechanics. “Bill is a tremendous mentor. He worked hard to help young faculty develop into world-class researchers and teachers. He has a very calm, non-dramatic approach to leadership. He is simply honest and straight-forward.”

Under Predebon’s respectful and brilliant watch, the ME-EM department made great strides in conducting interdisciplinary research, growing the doctoral program, expanding research funding, and updating the curriculum and laboratories. He also brought diversity to both the faculty and student body.

Predebon joined the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics at Michigan Tech in 1976. He served as the department’s director of graduate studies, and then, in 1997 he became chair of the department.

“The world is changing, and we need to respond to its challenges and opportunities.”

Dr. Bill Predebon

“I’ve been fortunate to work with Bill on many projects over the past 25 years,” says Gordon Parker, the John and Cathi Drake Endowed Chair in Mechanical Engineering. “Bill brought a level of positivity that exceeded the circumstances in every case. This, along with his unwavering focus and kindness, resulted in success.”

“Bill has had a profound and lasting impact on the careers of many students, faculty, and staff,” adds Parker. “He’s a ‘true believer’ in Michigan Tech and the people that define it.”

“Bill made great effort on the development and retention of minority and women faculty members,” says ME-EM Professor Bo Chen. “When I joined Michigan Tech, he assigned two mentors for me, including a woman mentor. Bill has always been supportive of my teaching and research. He always tried his best to accommodate my requests for teaching assistants and research space. I greatly appreciate his help on my career journey at Michigan Tech.”

“Bill is the reason I came to Michigan Tech, and the reason I am still here today,” says Brad King, Richard and Elizabeth Henes Endowed Professor of Space Systems. “When I interviewed 22 years ago, Bill convinced me of his vision to broaden MEEM into new areas, which could include aerospace, and I jumped at the chance to be a part of that change.”

“True to his word, Bill always made room for new ideas and encouraged and rewarded innovation,” adds King. “As a result, there are now hundreds of Michigan Tech alumni in leadership positions within the commercial and government space industry, one Michigan Tech satellite orbiting the Earth, and two more in development. Just last week I saw a commuter bus driving around Houghton with a big satellite graphic on the side. Because of Bill, space and satellites are now an integral part of Michigan Tech’s identity.”

“By hiring talented faculty and staff, together with our great students, our generous and supportive alumni, and with the support of the university administration, we have been able to innovate, push boundaries, be creative, take risks, and be entrepreneurs,” Predebon says.

Over the past 10 years he led the ME-EM Department to rapidly evolve its educational methods, infusing into undergraduate and graduate curriculum the knowledge and critical skills to use big data, machine learning and artificial intelligence in the solution of engineering design problems.

“Bill is the master of the long game.”

John Drake ‘64, ‘69, Michigan Tech mechanical engineering and business alumnus
Dr. Predebon’s early days at Michigan Tech

Predebon grew up in New Jersey, then earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1965 and his master’s and doctorate from Iowa State University in 1968 and 1970, respectively. After he graduated, Predebon held summer appointments at Argonne National Laboratory, Southwest Research Institute, and Honeywell Inc./Alliant Techsystems Inc.

Predebon’s research in ceramics, computational modeling and simulation of impact phenomena, and explosive fragmentation has involved experimental, analytical, and computational elements and has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and other government agencies and industrial partners. He has over forty publications and two US patents.

A Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), Predebon has received numerous honors, including the Outstanding Service Award for his work with the student chapter of the Society of Automotive Engineers. At Michigan Tech he earned the first annual Martin Luther King Award by Michigan Tech’s Black Student Organizations; and the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award. He received the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Michigan Association of Governing Boards of Colleges, and the Michigan Tech Honorary Alumni Award. He also gained membership in Michigan Tech’s Academy of Teaching Excellence.

In 2015 Predebon was recipient of the Michigan Tech Diversity Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of a faculty or staff member who contributes to diversity and inclusion through exemplary leadership and actions. Predebon stood out for his long-term persistence in working on issues of diversity.

“Bill has been known for his willingness to try out-of-the-box strategies for recruiting underrepresented minorities and female faculty and students,” said Carl Anderson, ME-EM professor emeritus and former associate dean of research in the College of Engineering. “He recognized the importance of a diverse workforce well before it became part of the common expectation of a department chair. He led the way.”

“My observations, from over 20 years of Dr. Bill Predebon’s leadership:

Passionate
Resourceful
Enthusiastic
Dedicated
Energetic
Balanced
Optimistic
Notable

Gerald Haycock ‘68, mechanical engineering alumnus

Predebon also led efforts to create the Michigan Tech Learning Resource Center for Self-Paced Programmed Instruction, the ME-EM Engineering Learning Center, as well as a distance learning doctorate degree in mechanical engineering, and a Design Engineer Certificate program with General Motors in 2000. More than six hundred GM employees earned the certificate.

In 2010 Predebon started a Peace Corps Master’s International program in mechanical engineering at Michigan Tech, the first and only one of its kind in the nation.

Predebon is a captain in the US Army Reserves and is a member of four honor societies: Tau Beta Pi (engineering), Phi Kappa Phi (academic excellence), Omicron Delta Kappa (leadership), and Theta Tau (engineering).

In 2019 he was inducted into the Pan American Academy of Engineering, which brings together engineers from across the continent of North America, South America and Mexico—a total of 18 countries.

At Michigan Tech he advised both the Nordic and Alpine ski teams and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity, and chaired building committees for both the Dow Environmental Sciences and Engineering Building and the Great Lakes Research Center.

“The ME-EM department and Michigan Tech are better as a result of Bill’s hard efforts. I only wish I had an opportunity to be one of his students!”

Geoff Weller ‘75, mechanical engineering alumnus

So what are Dr. Predebon’s next steps after retirement? He plans to keep working—this time in development and outreach activities for Michigan Tech, as a Professor and Chair Emeritus.

“Bill is a pioneer at Michigan Tech in advancement. He showed the university how it could be done successfully,” notes Parker.

And Dr. Predebon just might journey with his family to Italy at some point, in order to meet relatives there for the very first time.

“ I thank all of you from the bottom of my heart.

Dr. Bill Predebon

Michigan Space Grant Consortium Awardees for 2022-2023

Michigan Space Grant Consortium NASA

The University of Michigan – Michigan Space Grant Consortium has announced grant recipients. Michigan Tech faculty and staff researchers receiving grants are:

Faculty Led Fellowships for Undergraduates

Brendan Harville for “Seismic Amplitude based Lahar Tracking for Real-Time Hazard Assessment.”

Sierra Williams for “Understanding the Controls of Solute Transport by Streamflow Using Concentration-Discharge Relationship in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.”

Graduate Fellowships

Espree Essig for “Analyzing the effects of heavy metals on vegetation hyperspectral reflectance properties in the Mid-Continent Rift, USA.”

Caleb Kaminski for “Investigation of Ground-Penetrating Radar Interactions with Basaltic Substrate for Future Lunar Missions.”

Katherine Langfield for “Structural Characteristics of the Keweenaw and Hancock Faults in the Midcontinent Rift System and Possible Relationship to the Grenville Mountain Belt.”

Tyler LeMahieu for “Assessing Flood Resilience in Constructed Streambeds: Flume Comparison of Design Methodologies.”

Paola Rivera Gonzalez for “Impacts of La Canícula (“Dog Days of Summer”) on agriculture and food security in Salvadoran communities in the Central American Dry Corridor.”

Erican Santiago for “Perchlorate Detection Using a Graphene Oxide-Based Biosensor.”

Kyle Schwiebert for “LES-C Turbulence Models and their Applications in Aerodynamic Phenomena.”

HONES Awards

Paul van Susante for “Lunabotics Competition Robot.”

Research Seed Grants

Xinyu Ye for “Analyzing the effects of potential climate and land-use changes on hydrologic processes of Maumee River Watershed using a Coupled Atmosphere-Lake-Land Modeling System.”

Pre-College Educational Programs

Jannah Tumey for “Tomorrow’s Talent Series: Exploring Aerospace & Earth System Careers through Virtual Job-Shadowing.”

Q&A with Xin Xi: Uncovering Global Dust-Climate Connections

Dr. Xin Xi: “Surface weather observations are worth a refreshed look and can be used for improving our dust-climate modeling capability.”

GMES Assistant Professor Xin Xi’s new open-source dataset, duISD, is featured in Michigan Tech’s Unscripted Research blog. Here, he tells us more about it.

Q: How did you get started studying dust and desertification? 

XX: I grew up in humid southern China and had no experiences with dust storms when I was young. When I started college in Beijing, I had personal encounters with the “yellow dust” or Kosa (in Korea and Japan). The sky turned murky yellow every spring, while the whole city was shrouded in a cloud of dust blown from northwestern China. 

When I started graduate school at Georgia Tech, atmospheric aerosols emerged as a central theme in climate research, largely because they are capable of counteracting the warming effect of greenhouse gasses and play a crucial role in the hydrological cycle. Like many others, I became interested in my research due to the positive influence of my Ph.D. advisor, an expert in atmospheric aerosols, particularly mineral dust. 

Q: Why did you decide to revisit the use of horizontal visibility? 

XX: Primarily because of the long timespan of the visibility record from surface weather stations. It is by far the longest instrumental data record of dust, including regions near the dust source where modern-day satellites have difficulties providing reliable observations. 

Long-term, uninterrupted data records are paramount for understanding the variability of dust in response to climate and land use changes. I believe the visibility record has not been used to its full potential, so I took on the effort to develop a homogenized dust-climate record.

Q: Who do you imagine will get the most use from your new dataset? How would a researcher make use of it, and why? 

XX: This new dataset is an initial version of the dust-climate dataset I have been working on. Currently it consists of monthly records of the ambient dust burden at more than 10,000  weather stations worldwide. It is presented in an easy-to-read format, so anyone familiar with spreadsheets can use it. Dust researchers may find it useful, because they can avoid the tedious preprocessing steps with the raw data and are presented with summary statistics to help them pick the stations for their region of interest.

Dr. Xi used the dataset to characterize dust variability and climate connections around the world. The results of his study are featured in an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres

Q: Do you intend to update with future versions? 

XX: Definitely. I plan to conduct data fusion by combining the surface observations with additional climate and land information from satellites or models.

Q: What are the most unique and noteworthy aspects of this research? 

XX: It is a climate data record development project, and the ultimate goal is to create a quality-controlled dataset for the climate community to study trends, variability and relationships about dust and climate. In addition, I believe the dataset can offer other insightful information about the deficiency of current climate models. 

Q: What do you plan to research next? 

XX: I plan to take on the next step of updating the initial dataset I created, and develop new analytic results, which can convince myself — and, hopefully, the climate community — that surface weather observations are worth a refreshed look and can be used for improving our dust-climate modeling capability.

Xi’s open-source dataset, duISD, can be accessed online

Michigan Tech Represented at Midwest Growth Capital Symposium

SuPyRec logo.
ZiTechnologies logo with statement Clean Energy Pellets from Non-Recyclable Plastic-Paper.


Jim Baker (VPR) presented “Supporting Tech Companies from Pre-Launch to Investment” at the Midwest Growth Capital Symposium, held virtually and hosted by the University of Michigan’s Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.

The symposium also was attended by two Michigan Tech startup companies, SuPyRec and ZiTechnologies. Company representatives presented to prospective investors and hosted virtual booths throughout the event.

SuPyRec is led by David Shonnard (ChE) and is commercializing plastics recycling technology developed in his lab. ZiTechnologies is led by PhD graduate Stas Zinchik and is commercializing clean energy technology based on research conducted in Ezra Bar Ziv’s lab (ME-EM).

Both companies are leveraging support resources available within Michigan Tech’s Office of Innovation and Commercialization through Nate Yenor, director of technology business incubation, in close collaboration with MTEC SmartZone, the Michigan Small Business Development Center and Husky Innovate.

By Jim Baker, Vice President for Research Office.

The symposium took place May 17 and 18, 2022.

Powering the Moon—with Microgrids

MOON POWER — An artistic rendering of what a resilient microgrid for a lunar base camp might look like. Sandia engineers are working with NASA to design the system controller for the microgrid. (Illustration by Eric Lundin)

Professor Wayne Weaver and Research Professor Rush Robinett III were mentioned in a Sandia LabNews story, “Powering the moon: Sandia researchers design microgrid for future lunar base.”

The article details Sandia National Labs’ partnership with NASA to design a reliable and resilient microgrid for the moon. Weaver and Robinett are “heavily involved” in developing controller software to maintain an even voltage level on the grid, according to the story.

Tom Werner: Butterflies, Moths, and Fruit Flies in the Keweenaw

Butterly or moth? Find out during Husky Bites!

Thomas Werner shares his knowledge on Husky Bites, a free, interactive Zoom webinar this Monday, April 4 at 6 pm ET. Learn something new in just 30 minutes (or so), with time after for Q&A! Get the full scoop and register at mtu.edu/huskybites.

Dr. Thomas Werner

What are you doing for supper this Monday night 4/4 at 6 ET? Grab a bite with Dean Janet Callahan and Biological Sciences Associate Professor Thomas Werner. Joining in will be one of his former students, alumna Tessa Steenwinkel.

Tessa Steenwinkel

Steenwinkel earned her BS in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and her MS in Biology/Biological Sciences, all at Michigan Tech. She works now as an Educational Assistant at Madison Country Day School near Madison, Wisconsin, and she will start a PhD program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, this fall.

During Husky Bites, they will share the most beautiful butterflies, moths, and fruit fly species of the Keweenaw Peninsula. And we’ll learn much more about their Encyclopedia of North American Drosophilids. Be sure to bring your questions!

Dr. Werner started studying insects as a childhood hobby, at age 10, when a beautiful butterfly flew in the window of his family’s 9th floor apartment in Erfurt, in East Germany. Many years later, his interest in insects is still strong, as he leads a fruit fly research lab at Michigan Tech. 

Werner’s research bridges the miniscule and the massive in an effort to better understand the mechanisms behind several unique features of fruit flies, such as the developmental genetics of color pattern formation as well as those of mushroom toxin resistance, among several other questions. Some of their research questions aim to provide insight into human cancer development.

For being so small, fruit flies have had a large impact on genetic research, thanks in great part to Dr. Tom Werner at Michigan Tech.

Werner also teaches courses on general immunology, introduction to genomics, developmental biology, and he used to teach genetics and with a genetic techniques lab. He’s been bestowed with the state-wide Michigan Distinguished Professor of the Year Award 2021 and won Michigan Technological University’s Distinguished Teaching Award twice (both in the non-tenured and the tenured categories).

Callout quote:

“Werner is the epitome of the scholar-teacher. His enthusiasm in the classroom is remarkable, as is his devotion to mentoring more than 100 undergraduate researchers,” says David Hemmer, dean, College of Sciences and Arts.

“Thinking about the long winters here, I would call teaching a powerful antidepressant.”

Dr. Thomas Werner

Steenwinkel started at Michigan Tech in the fall of 2017 by joining the Pavlis Honors College. She majored in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-Biological Sciences with a minor in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Originally from the Netherlands, Steenwinkel has lived in the United States since she was 12 years old.

“On Michigan Tech’s annual Preview Day in March 2017, Tessa visited my lab at Michigan Tech as a high school student,” Werner recalls. “I offered her a job on the spot, because I felt that she would become the best student I have ever mentored. And I was correct about that: As my undergraduate research assistant and master’s student, she has published two books and 10 papers with me, while she won 8 university-wide and national awards!”

Tessa at work in the Werner Lab

“When I walked into the lab, I knew that this could be the place for me,” adds Steenwinkel. “After getting started at Tech, I immediately reconnected with Dr. Werner and essentially started working in the lab the next day. I worked there for over four years, working alongside grad students, leading my own project, and managing the lab even when Dr. Werner went on sabbatical in Singapore. I was always so grateful to have Dr. Werner as a mentor.”  

During her first year, Steenwinkel went from assisting in Werner’s research lab to becoming a co-author on his book, Drosophilids of the Midwest and Northeast, with John Jaenike, a professor of biology at the University of Rochester. The three later published a second book together “Drosophilids of the Southeast”, published under the umbrella name “The Encyclopedia of North American Drosophilids.” Both books welcome researchers, teachers, and young students alike into the amazing world of flies and the diversity of their potential use in research.  

The Encyclopedia of North American Drosopholids, Vol 1: covers the Midwest and Northeast.
The trio’s second book covers the Drosophilids of the Southeast.

The books also include a significant outreach component that speaks to young children about science and nature in the form of a bedtime story about fruit flies written by Steenwinkel. Open-access books, they can be downloaded for free here and here.

While at Michigan Tech, Steenswinkel became the first recipient of the Soyring Foundation Scholarship. John Soyring, Tech alumnus and Pavlis Honors College External Advisory Board member, established the scholarship for Pavlis Honors students expressing interest in research and innovation related to water quality management, renewable energy, or solutions to prevent and cure cancer. 

Prof. Werner, what sparked your interest in biology, fruit flies and genetics?

I am a biologist by heart. It all started in former East Germany when a butterfly entered my bedroom on the ninth floor in the middle of the city. On that July morning in 1981, I started collecting butterflies as a 10-year-old boy. This moment defined my life, and today I am associate professor of genetics and developmental biology.

Family?

I have a wife Megan, a daughter Natalia (10), and two sons: Oliver (7) and Oscar (5).

Any hobbies? Pets? What do you like to do in your spare time?

As a hobby, I collect and rear butterflies and moths. I like camping (and collecting fruit flies on these trips for my next field guides). I also have a dog named Frosty, who also likes camping.

Tessa, what sparked your interest in science?

My brother with Down Syndrome first got me interested in biology. From there, I started to learn about genetics, development, and diversity. This is what brought me to Michigan Tech and to start working in Dr. Werner’s lab, where he was using fruit flies to model human cancer. When I started working there, he had just published his first book on fruit flies, and I was immediately fascinated by the beauty and diversity of these small bugs. 

Hometown, family?

I’m originally from the Netherlands. I grew up there with my parents and two younger brothers. In 2012, we moved to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, before moving to Madison, Wisconsin, in 2014. In 2017, I decided to start college at Michigan Tech, where I obtained my undergraduate and master’s degrees.

Any hobbies or pets? What do you like to do in your spare time?

When I’m not in the lab, I enjoy running outside and teaching ski lessons to the local kids. When you live in Houghton, you have to make the best out of it. I’m currently getting ready to start my PhD. I currently have two very enthusiastic turtles. 

TECH SCEnE Offers the Best of Both Worlds in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal members share their knowledge, wisdom, and culture with TECH SCEnE REU students. Apply for TECHSCEnE Summer 2022 by March 15 at https://www.techscene.mtu.edu. Tentative program dates are June 3, 2022- July 29, 2022. Tribal college, community college or university students, women and students from underrepresented backgrounds are all encouraged to apply.

What are you doing this Summer 2022? Want to combine cutting-edge engineering research with direct community involvement and impact? With a generous stipend, travel allowance, plus all expenses paid for 8 weeks?

Samantha Haynes, future biomedical engineer, spent 8 weeks as a TECH SCEnE REU researcher last summer.

Biomedical engineering student Samantha Haynes decided to immerse herself in something entirely new via TECH SCEnE, a National Science Foundation Undergraduate Research Experience (REU) at Michigan Technological University. Haynes came all the way from Arlington, Virginia, where she studies biomedical engineering at Virginia Tech.

The 8-week, all-expense paid program offered at Michigan Tech is called TECH SCEnE (short for Technology, Science and Community Engagement in Engineering). Haynes stayed on campus, went on outdoor trips throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula, guided by the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, and conducted hands-on research in campus labs alongside a faculty mentor.

TECH SCEnE research projects include water quality testing for heavy metal contamination, smart adhesives for underwater applications, remote monitoring and mobile robots, simulating daylight for hatcheries, and in vitro modeling of the impact of heavy metals.

Samantha is seventh from the left. TECH SCEnE stands for Technology, Science and Community Engagement in Engineering

In addition to hands-on laboratory experience, Haynes and her fellow students took plenty of field visits to the beautiful lakeshores of Lake Superior and Keweenaw Bay. Application deadline for Summer 2022 is March 15. Tentative program dates are June 3, 2022- July 29, 2022.

This year is forecast to be outstanding for viewing the Northern Lights in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Located just 20 minutes or so from the Michigan Tech campus, McLain State Park on Lake Superior is a great potential viewing spot!

Haynes pioneered research on heavy metal contamination in the soil and wild rice beds around the Keweenaw last summer as an undergraduate researcher taking part in TECH SCEnE. She also worked alongside members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), her fellow REU students, and other volunteers to plant over 75 trees, build hoops houses, harvest foods, and upkeep a large community garden, the tribe’s People’s Garden.

Wild rice, known as manoomin, the good berry, is both a spiritual and nutritional staple of the Keweenaw Indian Community.

Samantha, what did you like most about TECH SCEnE?

I applied to TECHScENE REU because I thought the internship was very unique. I was excited to have the opportunity to work in Michigan and learn about the local Indian community. I personally value diversity and learning about different communities very much, so I appreciated that this type of internship existed. I’m also passionate about creating positive social change, helping to protect the environment, and using science to bridge gaps in education and educate the public on pressing issues.

What was the best part?

Samantha and fellow volunteers tending to plants in one of the many Hoop Houses of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community People’s Garden

Out of all the experiences activities we did throughout TECH ScENE, building relationships with my fellow peers, mentors, and the Native American community was my favorite part.

What was the most challenging aspect?

The unlearning process of everything I thought I knew about Native Americans. We participated in weekly workshops to unlearn false, preconceived ideas and to learn factual information about Native American tribes and tribal members, especially those we were working with as part of TECH SCEnE. 

“Boozhoo! Welcome to our wellness trail,” says this sign, located on Keweenaw Bay Indian Community tribal land. Take a moment to learn a few words of the Ojibwe language. “Miikaans means “trail”. “Aki” means Earth. And “boozhoo!” means “greetings!” or “hello!”

What next? What are your future plans?

Currently I am a junior in biomedical engineering, so the next step is to secure another internship for summer 2022, in order to gain more experience. Once I graduate, I plan to start working and possibly consider graduate school after a year or two.

Samantha’s final presentation, with her TECH SCEnE research mentor, Professor Rupali Datta

Are you an adventurous college student? Want to learn how to use science and technology to benefit both the community and the environment? Apply to TECH SCEnE by March 15. Tribal college, community college or university students, women and students from underrepresented backgrounds are all encouraged to apply. Learn more and apply for free at techscene.mtu.edu.