Researchers catch up on each other’s work at forum

Yale News - May 4, 2017

From neutrinos to fly vision to follicle regeneration, university researchers talked about a wide array of research at the Yale Science and Engineering Forum on May 3.

The Yale Quantum Institute hosted the event, which has taken place annually since 1995. Professor A. Douglas Stone, who has been one of the principal organizers of the event since it began, said the intent is to give Yale faculty members a chance to see what their colleagues have been working on.

“Over the years, many people who have spoken at this have gone on to become leaders in their field, and various collaborations have come out of it,” said Stone, the Carl A. Morse Professor of Applied Physics and professor of physics.

Although the presentations are aimed at scientists, they’re also designed to be accessible to researchers from all disciplines. That means Stone will occasionally break into a presenter’s talk to ask that a particularly jargon-laden sentence be rephrased. Others in the audience are also encouraged to speak up if they lose the thread of the discussion.

The event was broken into three sessions — quantitative biology and biophysics, physics of the visible and invisible, and regenerative biology — and featured a diverse roster of speakers:

Damon Clark, assistant professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, discussed how flies sense motion — a process that involves putting the insects on tiny spherical treadmills — and how they ably elude the swatter despite having relatively low-resolution vision.

Jonathon Howard, the Eugene Higgins Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry and professor of physics, discussed a family of motor proteins known as kinesin and how they travel along microtubules.

Peter Rakich, assistant professor of applied physics, discussed how the power of sound can be used to amplify light waves on a silicon microchip and the new applications this could lead to (navigational sensors, and low-noise lasers, for instance).

Karsten Heeger, professor of physics and director of the Wright Laboratory, presented his research on neutrinos, dark matter, and other mysteries of the universe.

Josien van Wolfswinkel, assistant professor of molecular cellular and developmental biology, discussed a group of flatworms known as planaria that have the capability to regenerate any missing body region.

Valerie Horsley, the Maxine F. Singer ‘57 Associate Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology and associate professor of dermatology, discussed adipocytes — cells that store energy as fat — and their role in the regrowth of hair follicles and the healing of skin wounds.

“We try to get to a good mix that would appeal to a wide range of scientists,” said one of the event’s organizers, Thomas Pollard, Sterling Professor of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and professor of cell biology and of molecular biophysics and biochemistry. “It’s just a chance for the science community at Yale to enjoy the excitement of their colleagues’ work. We’re all so busy during the rest of the year that we don’t get much of a chance to hear our colleagues speak.”

The event does more than just satisfy scientific curiosity; it’s been known to kick start cross-disciplinary collaborations. Audience member Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recalled his talk at the event in 2005 on his research into the optics of bird feathers.

“We had made some very important general progress, but we were still far from an analytical solution,” he said. Attendee Eric Dufresne, then a professor in Yale’s chemical engineering department, suggested that one of Prum’s images looked like a “spinodal decomposition” and was perhaps part of a phase separation process.

“I said, ‘I’ve got no idea what you’re talking about, but let’s have lunch.’” They did, and it turned out Dufresne’s intuition was correct. More than 12 years later, the collaboration continues, and has brought in more faculty members from engineering and physics. It’s an example of why events such as Wednesday’s forum are so important, Prum said.

“It’s hard to get scientists out of their own labs,” he said, “so this is absolutely necessary to bring people out of their silos.”

William Weir, Yale News