Brain-Powered Robot

It sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie. Scientists grow brains in a lab and use them to power robots. But, it’s really happening at UC San Diego – to a degree. Stem cell researcher Alysson Muotri has teamed up with a high school student for the groundbreaking project. It’s called the Neurobot, and it’s really cool.

It all started thanks to a high school student with a lot of talent and initiative. Christopher Caligiuri read about the work the Muotri lab was doing with brain organoids and wanted to get involved. He reached out and said he would love to help, and had some experience in robotics if that was useful. Muotri not only agreed, he put the sophomore on a pretty impressive project.

To understand how the Neurobot works, you have to understand the basics of the Muotri lab’s brain organoid research. Brain organoids are clusters of brain cells grown in the lab from human stem cells. They don’t contain every type of brain cell, nor do they have the all the various structures of full-fledged brains. They certainly aren’t capable of independent thought. But, they do give off electrical signals, similar to those of a developing fetus.

The team is using those signals to control the Neurobot. Researchers in the Muotri lab collect and record signal data from the organoids. That data is then fed into the robot through software Caligiuri developed. The software interprets the data as a speed commands, which control how fast the Neurobot walks. If you think it sounds cool, you have to see it in action.

Watch — Neurobot: Robotics Meets Stem Cells

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War and Reflection

June 2019 marks the centenary of the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I after five years of brutal conflict. In recognition of this epochal event La Jolla Symphony & Chorus’ 64th season, “Lineage: A Memory Project,” draws to a fitting conclusion with a program built around the composers and soldiers of the Great War.

Like most French composers Maurice Ravel was suspicious of German music, with one exception: he was an unabashed fan of the waltz. In “La Valse” Ravel develops surprising themes and variations on the distinctive waltz rhythm, and the result is one of the best examples of Ravel’s keen ear for instrumental colors and textures.

Charles Ives’ “From Hanover Square North…” commemorates the sinking of the British liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915. That moment when Ives and his fellow commuters heard the news on a Manhattan subway platform became the inspiration for his composition, but in typically idiosyncratic fashion Ives didn’t render the scene realistically; rather, it was the starting point for a musical meditation in which Ives registered the emotional impact of what he had witnessed.

Originally written as the second (slow) movement of a string quartet, Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” became one of the most popular symphonic works of the 20th century in its orchestral arrangement. The solemnity of the Adagio led to its frequent use as mourning music, much to Barber’s dismay since it was not his intention to write a requiem. Whatever its unintentional cultural accretions, Barber’s melody is still both beautiful and powerful after countless hearings.

Commissioned in 1936 to compose a large-scale piece for a choral society’s centenary celebration, Ralph Vaughan Williams instead wrote for them a cantata for soprano, baritone, chorus, and orchestra entitled “Dona Nobis Pacem” (“Give Us Peace”) – and it was anything but a celebration piece. This cantata was a protest against war and a heartfelt cry for peace at a time of growing international tension. Sadly, three years later Vaughan Williams’ worst fears would be realized.

Like the Lake Poets, George Butterworth’s works grew directly out of his contact with the English countryside. This is exemplified by “The Banks of Green Willow” with its evocation of pastoral life in all its idealized simplicity and tranquility; indeed, the composer characterized it as an “idyll.” As was common in his music Butterworth based this piece on several old English folk melodies, creating a series of brief fantasias on each of the themes before drawing to a peaceful conclusion.

Watch — Remembrance of Things Past – La Jolla Symphony & Chorus

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What is in the Air We Breathe?

“What we do in my group is we zoom in on the aerosols.”

Vicki Grassian and her team look at aerosols at a microscopic level to determine their impact on our health and our climate. Aerosols can be mineral dust and sea spray from the ocean or created by human activity or stem from any number of sources. They can travel across the globe impacting people, animals, and the planet in their wake.

Grassian’s work seeks to understand how aerosols and other gases not only affect us but how we might harness them for solar geoengineering.

Watch — What is in the Air We Breathe? – Exploring Ethics

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Glaciers and Sea Level Rise

Using helicopters, icebreakers, fishing vessels, and autonomous surface and underwater vehicles for over a decade, Fiammetta Straneo and her group have been probing the edge of massive calving glaciers in iceberg-choked fjords in Greenland to explore what is the Achille’s heel of glaciers – the marine edge where glaciers meet the sea.

Their goal? Collapsing ice shelves and calving of large icebergs in Greenland and Antarctica have recently become major drivers of sea level rise. The rapidity of these changes has come as a surprise, revealing major gaps in our understanding of how ice sheets respond to a changing climate. To a large extent, these gaps are due to a lack of measurements so Fiammetta and her group have probed in these polar environments to improve models of sea-level rise predictions.

Watch — Navigating the Perilous Waters at the Edge of Glaciers to Understand Sea Level Rise – 2019 Keeling Lecture

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Breast Cancer Prevention

Despite significant advances in breast cancer treatment, people continue to be diagnosed with breast cancer at astounding rates – rates that have remained essentially unchanged over the past three decades. Of the approximately $2 billion spent on breast cancer research each year, less than 10 percent is dedicated to prevention research. The opportunity for discovery is immense, and the time for breakthroughs is now – to help prevent the more than 2 million breast cancers that are diagnosed each year.

The California Breast Cancer Research Program (CBCRP), aims to advance breast cancer primary prevention by surfacing innovative breast cancer prevention research ideas from researchers and others interested in breast cancer prevention through the Global Challenge to Prevent Breast Cancer, a competition designed to surface game-changing breast cancer prevention research ideas.

This series presents the ten finalists with the most promising ideas for advancing breast cancer prevention.

Browse more programs in Global Challenge to Prevent Breast Cancer.

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