Virginia Tech Magazine
Winter 2009

Hok-E-News, Virginia Tech Magazine's online-only feature, is updated quarterly.

repairing equine fractures
battling infectious diseases
Engaging children in the sciences
Robots designed to save lives of construction workers

Innovative system used at equine medical center to repair fractures
by Kate Lee

When a human fractures an arm or leg, the results are pain, discomfort, and inconvenience. When a horse fractures a limb, however, the consequences are more serious, possibly even life-threatening.

While the surgical specialists at Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott's Equine Medical Center have always had the skill and experience to repair many types of equine fractures, they now have an innovative new fixation system--the Locking Compression Plating system--available for those cases where this advanced bone plating system will provide the best treatment option.

The state-of-the-art system is comprised of stainless steel and titanium plates and screws, along with instruments unique to the locking plate technique. It offers advantages over traditional fracture fixation systems, which are also in use at the equine medical center.

Bone plates, which were developed to fix human fractures, have been used for equine fracture repair for nearly 40 years. Over this period of time, bone plates have been improved to provide better compression across the fracture line and better stabilization, which helps speed the healing process. This same technology has helped improve the chances for repair of equine limb fractures.

In order to repair a horse's broken or weakened bone with the Locking Compression Plating system, a horse undergoes a surgical procedure which involves implanting extremely strong plates that accept two different types of threaded screws. One type of screw, the cortical bone screw, helps compress the fracture line and can be angled relative to the plate. The other type of screw, the locking screw, has special threads in the head that lock right into the plate, unifying the plate/screw unit, which provides a greater level of stability.

Because the Locking Compression Plating system also includes a tool that can contour a plate so that it exactly matches the shape of the bone being repaired, the system provides a support structure that is tailored to the individual horse's anatomy and needs. After the plate is contoured to the bone, holes are drilled in the bone, and the appropriate screws are embedded to attach the plate to the bone.

"The main advantage of the [Locking Compression Plating] system is that it provides a greater degree of stability in the horse's limb both during and after recovery," explained Dr. Jennifer Barrett, an assistant professor of surgery at the center. "With greater stability, there is less likelihood of failure, which might lead to a new fracture." The system also allows for better blood circulation, which helps facilitate healing.

"And, during the healing process, if the fracture repair is more stable, the horse is more comfortable, which can help prevent problems like laminitis in the opposite foot," Barrett added.

The Locking Compression Plating system
The Locking Compression Plating system was used to repair a fracture in the elbow of a pregnant thoroughbred broodmare at Virginia Tech's Marion duPont Scott Equine Medical Center.

In putting this innovative system to use, surgeons at the EMC have been able to give every advantage to an injured horse. Should a horse suffer a broken leg--depending on the severity of the fracture--it might have to be euthanized. The unique Locking Compression Plating system offers a much greater chance of bringing the horse back to full health and avoiding the loss of the animal.

Recently, Barrett utilized the system on a pregnant thoroughbred broodmare that was brought to the equine medical center with a broken elbow. "Fortunately, we had this state-of-the-art system at our fingertips," Barrett noted, "and the outcome was very rewarding: she recovered completely and had a beautiful foal."

The equine medical center was able to purchase the fracture fixation system as a result of annual donations. "Donations to the center allow us to continue to invest in state-of-the-art equipment so that we can maintain our high standard of delivering excellent care to our patients," said Dr. Nat White, the Jean Ellen Shehan Professor and director of the center. "Each and every year, thousands of our patients benefit from the generosity of our donors."

University researchers discover how mosquitoes avoid succumbing to viruses they transmit
by Susan Trulove

Mosquitoes are like Typhoid Mary. They can spread viruses which cause West Nile fever, dengue fever, or yellow fever without getting sick themselves.

Scientists long thought that the mosquito didn't care whether it had a virus hitchhiker, but have now discovered, "There is a war going on," said Zach Adelman, assistant professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.

The war is at the cellular level, between the host and invading RNA--the strands of code that produce different kinds of viral proteins.

The mediators that balance the interactions between mosquito and virus are virus-derived short-interfering RNAs (viRNAs), which are generated by the mosquito's immune response to infection. "If the mosquito is not able to cut up the virus genome into viRNAs, an otherwise invisible infection becomes fatal--for both the mosquito and the virus. In other words, to complete the circle and be transmitted back to a vertebrate host, the virus must submit, to some extent, to the mosquito's antiviral response," said Kevin M. Myles, assistant professor of entomology at Virginia Tech.

Myles, Adelman, and their Ph.D. students, who are with the Vector-borne Disease Research Group at Virginia Tech, report their findings about the war between the mosquito immune system and viruses in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which appears in the Online Early Edition. The article, "Alphavirus derived small RNAs modulate pathogenesis in disease vector mosquitoes," is by Myles; Michael R. Wiley of Ambler, Pa.; Elaine M. Morazzani of Vienna, Va.; and Adelman.

We asked, "How is it that the mosquito can control the pathogenicity of these viruses so well, while humans with our more complex immune systems, often develop disease when infected?" said Myles.

The eyes of genetically altered mosquito

The eyes of this genetically altered mosquito serve as a "sensor"
of the functional status of part of the mosquito’s immune system.

The researchers used the arthropod-borne virus Sindbis--a model virus for a wide variety of mosquito-transmitted viruses, such as chikungunya and eastern equine encephalitis, both of which cause serious diseases in humans. They infected a mosquito called Aedes aegypti, an important vector of yellow fever and dengue. In response, the mosquito immune system generated viRNAs, which make up 10 percent or more of total cellular small RNAs. "The proportion of the small RNAs that are viRNAs was surprising," the article states.

The researchers then altered the Sindbis genome so that it would carry a protein known to suppress the ability of a cell to cut up virus genomes into viRNAs. "We can't yet knock-out the mosquito's immune response, so we had to alter the virus," Adelman said.

The research also represents the first application of next generation high-throughput sequencing to characterize small RNAs from mosquitoes infected with an arbovirus--a virus that is transmitted by an arthropod vector, said Myles. The researchers used an Illumina machine capable of generating more than four million sequences from one sample. "It is powerful technology," said Myles.

The discovery provides a potential target for fighting mosquito-borne diseases--by upsetting the balance so the virus kills the mosquito. "We didn't know it was possible to unleash this kind of pathogenic potential in the mosquito," Myles said.

"We would still have mosquitoes biting us, but they would not be transmitting viruses," said Adelman.

Additional research will be required to determine how to manipulate the mosquitoes' immune response towards this end," said Myles.

The paper also discusses the potential of therapeutic approaches using knowledge gained from studying viRNAs from infected mosquitoes to control the pathogenesis of these viruses in mammalian hosts.

University to launch Kids' Tech University
y Susan Bland

A pioneering educational program designed to excite children about science and provide them with a real university experience will be offered for this first time in the United States thanks to the efforts of a team at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute.

Kids' Tech University (KTU) is a groundbreaking program for kids between the ages of 8 and twelve that gives children the opportunity to participate in a series of engaging scientific activities, including lectures presented by scientific researchers who also have a strong track record in communication and teaching science.

The goal is to expose kids early to cutting-edge research in science, math, engineering, and technology in a setting designed so that children will be both engaged and entertained.

Kid's Tech University

The Virginia Bioinformatics Institute and Virginia Tech Mathematics
Professor Reinhard Laubenbacher has spearheaded the initiative, which is partly inspired by a European educational program started a few years ago in Germany. Laubenbacher learned about the program, Die Kinder-Uni (Kid's University), after reading a newspaper article during a recent family visit to Germany. He says he believes that a similar program, which strives to introduce children to scientific research in a university setting, has all the right ingredients to be successful in the United States.

"KTU is a new approach for getting kids excited about science," Laubenbacher explains. "The goal is not to offer a set curriculum for students, but to give children access to passionate speakers who are committed to sparking kids' interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. While this kind of initiative has never been offered in the United States, we believe KTU has significant potential to serve as a model for the development of other Kids' Tech Universities all around the country."

Laubenbacher has partnered with Kristy DiVittorio, a senior research associate in education and outreach at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, to make KTU a reality. Laubenbacher and DiVittorio have worked closely on the development and design of the program.

DiVittorio also manages all aspects of the program, from scheduling speakers to procuring funding. "We plan to give kids a full experience of what it is like to be enrolled at a real university. By this we mean lectures by real professors in a real university setting accompanied by lab activities that provide hands-on experiences," says DiVittorio.

The first semester of KTU is scheduled to begin in January 2009. Parents with children living within a three-hour drive of the Blacksburg, Va., campus can enroll their children in the program. Parents are also strongly encouraged to participate in the program's campus-centered activities, which include a semester-long series of lectures in a Virginia Tech lecture hall, lunch in one of the on-campus dining facilities, and hands-on activities developed in partnership with Virginia 4-H to build on the lecture concepts.

The program also incorporates an online lab component with activities designed to promote a continued interest in the lecture topics, as well as providing a forum area to promote discussion and teamwork for after the children leave campus.

"We want to help change the way science is presented to children," says Laubenbacher. "Science is one of the great adventures of the 21st century. We want children to understand that, through science, they can in their own way become scientific explorers like Albert Einstein or Jane Goodall. They can go to new places, participate in discoveries, and make significant contributions to the world we live in."

The KTU spring 2009 semester will feature four scientific events. Dates, topics, and speakers include the following:

  • Jan. 31, 2009: "Why are there animals with spotted bodies and striped tails, but no animal with a striped body and a spotted tail?" presented by Keith Devlin, known as "The Math Guy" on National Public Radio and co-founder and executive director of Stanford's Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute, who is interested in how mathematics relates to the everyday world.
  • Feb. 28, 2009: "Why are some computer programs so frustrating?” presented by Caitlin Kelleher, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, who designed the software program "Storytelling Alice" to help teach girls in middle school about computer programming.
  • March 28, 2009: "Why are plastic bottles bad for alligators?" presented by Louis Guillette, professor and director of the Howard Hughes Group Advantaged Training of Research (G.A.T.O.R.) Program at the University of Florida, who wrestles alligators in the swamps of Florida for sample collection to study the effects of environmental contaminants on wildlife.
  • April 18, 2009: "Why can't humans survive on Mars?" presented by Phil Christensen, professor in Arizona State University's Department of Geological Science, who has been a driving force in building several NASA instruments launched into space to map the Martian surface, including the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, Mars Global Surveyor, and the Mars Exploration Rover.

"We have ambitious plans for Kids' Tech University. We hope to see similar universities take hold across the country, building on the success of Dr. Laubenbacher's program and using some of the online tools that we will be making available in the near future," says Bruno Sobral, executive and scientific director of the institute.

Laubenbacher adds, "This innovative project is naturally scalable and can lead to a virtual network of similar Kids' Tech Universities all over the United States. The educational benefits of such a network could be profound."

The application deadline for KTU is Jan. 15, 2009. Find more information about the program at or contact Kristy DiVittorio at (540) 231-1389 or at

Team wins international competition with robots designed to save lives of construction workers
y Steven Mackay
robot designed to save lives of construction workers

This HyDRAS serpentine robot prototype climbs a pole by converting the oscillating motion of the joints to a whole body rolling motion to climb up pole-like structures.

The Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory (RoMeLa) of the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech won the grand prize at the 2008 International Capstone Design Fair with a trio of pole-climbing serpentine robots designed to take the place of construction workers tasked with dangerous jobs such as inspecting high-rises or underwater bridge piers.

Team RoMeLa scored the cash prize of 1 million won--the currency of South Korea--with its robots, the HyDRAS-Ascent (Hyper-redundant Discrete Robotic Articulated Serpentine for climbing), the HyDRAS-Ascent II, and CIRCA (Climbing Inspection Robot with Compressed Air), at the 2008 International Symposium on Educational Excellence 2008 competition. The event took place at Seoul National University of Technology in South Korea.

The autonomous robots are designed to climb scaffolding and buildings by wrapping around a poll or beam and then rolling upward via an oscillating joint motion. Using built-in sensors and cameras, the robots would then inspect the structures or handle other dangerous tasks now done by humans, said Dennis Hong, director of Virginia Tech's Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory and the faculty adviser on the project.

The robots are each roughly three feet in length and use a movement unique even in nature. "These are really wicked cool robots," he added.

The need for autonomous tools in the construction field is great. Hong cites a 2006 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that tracked the workplace deaths of 1,226 construction workers in 2006, an increase of 3 percent from 2005. The same report listed 809 deaths as a result of falls from raised structures such as scaffolding, Hong said.

"Unlike inchworm-type gaits often being developed for serpentine robot locomotion, this novel climbing gait requires the serpentine robot to wrap around the structure in a helical shape and twist its whole body to climb or descend by rolling up or down the structure," Hong said.

The HyDRAS robots operate using electric motors, while the CIRCA robot uses a compressed air muscle. "The use of compressed air makes this approach feasible by enabling it to be light weight, providing compliant actuation force for generating the gripping force for traction, and allowing it to use a simple discrete control scheme to activate the muscles in a predetermined sequence," Hong said. For now, the robots operate by a tethered wire attached to a laptop, but Hong and his students are reconfiguring the devices to function independently using an onboard microprocessor and power source.

"This family of novel robots will serve as a practical inspection tool for construction sites without putting workers in harm's way," he added.

The robots were developed by mechanical engineering students Gabriel Goldman of Richmond, Va., and Nick Thayer of Poquoson, Va., who are both currently pursuing mechanical engineering doctoral degrees at Virginia Tech. The remaining student developers, all of whom are recent graduates, are Michael Bloom, Florian Böss, Cory Kaser, Vic Kassoff, David McDowell, Spencer Patton, and Jeff Philis.

Goldman and Thayer traveled to Seoul with the robots to display and present the team's work at the international symposium. Universities from more than 15 countries submitted 44 entries, according to Hong, who remained in Blacksburg during the event. The prize of 1 million won, the currency of South Korea, prize equals roughly $690 U.S. dollars. Korea currency rates have been hard hit by recent worldwide economic woes and are now at half their normal power, Hong said.

"There was a lot of great talent in that room and everybody brought back some good experiences," said Thayer.

"Being able to compete against so many other great projects from around the globe and be recognized like that is truly an amazing feeling," said Goldman.

The award was based on display and technical presentation, Hong says. Goldman and Thayer showed video of the robots climbing polls at the RoMeLa lab in Blacksburg, while the actual robots slithered horizontally on the floor. The event's location did not allow the graduate students to demonstrate the robot's vertical-climb capabilities.

The robots debuted this past spring and already have won several awards, including CIRCA taking first place with a cash award of $10,500 for the 2008 CAGI Innovation Award conducted by the Compressed Air and Gas Institute, and HyDRAS winning second place with a cash award of $2,500 at the 2008 ASME Student Safety Engineering Design Competition.

Hong has overseen several other award-winning student RoMeLa teams in the area of robotics, including TEAM DARwIn for RoboCup 2007, an international autonomous robot soccer competition. The group was the first and only team from the United States ever to qualify for the RoboCup humanoid division.

Additionally, a team of students won third place with a cash award of $500,000 for the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, an autonomous vehicle race in the urban environment, where he served as the co-team leader. Last year he received $20,000 to continue his work in humanoid robotics from the Virginia Tech Student Engineers' Council.

Hong is a National Science Foundation CAREER Award recipient. He received a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1994, and master of science and Ph.D. degrees in mechanical engineering from Purdue University in 1999 and 2002, respectively.

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