Public Affairs

Freeze-casting materials in space: Meeting the challenges of vacuums and microgravity

Northwestern University’s SpaceICE team, led by Northwestern Professor David Dunand, is preparing to test freeze-casting of materials in space, in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Bradley University. Fabricating materials is essential for a journey to Mars or for future space colonies. The SpaceICE team is pioneering the freeze-casting instrumentation for the small CubeSat, a cubic satellite that UIUC is building for the 2018 NASA-funded mission. Medill reporter Lakshmi Chandrasekaran is embedding with the researchers as the mission efforts rev up this summer.

By Lakshmi Chandrasekaran

I was meeting with Krysti Scotti, who kick- started the Northwestern University’s SpaceICE project in the Dunand Lab while she was still an undergraduate. She just finished her bachelor’s degree this spring and is starting work on her Ph.D. as SpaceICE readies for a space launch.

While waiting for Krysti to arrive at the lab, I met with another of Dunand’s first-year Ph.D. students, Stephen Wilke, as he completed freeze-casting experiments with iron oxide nanopowder. We chatted for a bit and I learned that his wife (a fifth year Ph.D. student in environmental sciences at NU) is pursuing a career in science writing in California through a mass communication fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is a small world and I often seem to be running into Ph.D.s, pursuing science communication as a career! That’s what I am doing in graduate school at Medill after working as a science reporter with a Ph.D. in mathematics. The graduate program gives us a chance to embed with science research teams to produce in-depth stories and I am embedding with SpaceICE.

Krysti arrived a bit late for our 11 a.m. meeting and dashed into the lab! “I overslept,” she says. Considering, that she was up until 6 a.m. working on the research, I am not too surprised.

Continue reading

Severe storms lab developing remote flash flood sensing system

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center, the oldest church camp in Oklahoma, hosts more than 50,000 kids and teens who come for summer camp each year. Falls Creek originates from the Washita River in Murray County and flows directly into the campgrounds named for it.

But flash floods now menace the camp and the facility all but closed after a 2015 flood left a few hundred campers stranded for more than 36 hours. So far, scientists do not know what caused the flooding.

With warming global temperatures, though, flash floods are becoming an increasing threat across many area of the US. So on a balmy April morning this spring, three researchers from the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla., drive more than 60 miles to the camp in a black pickup truck crammed with instruments in big boxes.

Continue reading

Building a better tornado warning system

By Puja Bhattacharjee

People start trickling into the National Severe Storms Laboratory holding coffee cups and laptops. By 8 a.m., eight people fill a room for the Spring Experiment. The laboratory in Norman, Okla., is open all year. But now it’s tornado season.

Researchers, forecasters, software developers, IT personnel and scientists from different parts of the country have come together for the annual experimental program held during the spring severe weather season to test and evaluate new techniques and tools for hazardous weather forecasting.

One of the goals this year is to continue testing software that could possibly eradicate false alarms, issue more accurate and detailed warnings for tornadoes and other severe weather. “The false alarm ratio of a one-hour forecast of a tornado should be smaller in the future if the research pans out – meaning fewer one-hour forecasts of tornadoes will be wrong,” says Greg Stumpf, who heads this program.

Continue reading

Student researchers move step by step to prepare for NASA launch

By Lily Williams

A combined team of undergraduates at Northwestern University and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are working together to build a satellite and instruments to test the fabrication of building materials in space.

The NASA mission is due to launch into orbit in the summer of 2018. It has two parts: a box-like satellite called a CubeSat (UIUC’s job) and a payload of instruments (NU’s job at the SpaceICE lab) to test freeze-casting . The instrumentation will freeze suspensions and study the corrugated structures of materials left behind in the freezing and thawing process. The undergraduate-only collaboration will determine if freeze-casting could be a viable mechanism for fabricating many different materials, from fuel cells to cocoa tablets, both on Earth and eventually on other planets.

The work is complex, rigorous and constantly evolving, especially because, as students graduate, they need to be replaced and re-trained from the ground up. Each university team not only has to design and test their own product, but also make sure that CubeSat and the SpaceICE payload work together.

Below are some photos that attempt to chronicle the day-to-day tasks of both teams, at NU and UIUC, where the satellite makers  need to configure their spacecraft for the instrumentation.

Photo at top: Northwestern materials science and engineering senior Jonathan Young spoons his suspension into the collection vestibule of the freezing instrument SpaceICE has specially designed for their research. (Lily Williams/MEDILL)

Chicago River enthusiasts take a group photo to focus on conservation

By Allie Burger

April is Overflow Action Month on the Chicago River. Because of how the city’s sewer system was designed, sewage can enter the river during heavy rains when the drains overflow.

To promote awareness of the issue, and to encourage water conservation, Friends of the Chicago River invited residents to “photobomb” the river.

Photo at top: The event included almost 200 participants downtown. (Friends of the Chicago River)

The calm before the storm: Weather chasers gear up for the next tornado

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Sean Waugh is building two mobile mesonets from scratch In the Research Vehicle Equipment Bay of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Okla.  These mobile weather stations measure temperature, pressure, humidity  and wind in any  conditions.  But old vehicles with low floors make it difficult to chase tornados and other severe storms across dirt roads and uneven terrain.

So, NSSL rented two pickup trucks from the federal government.  NSSL is the weather research lab under the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organization (NOAA).

Waugh builds a metal frame around each rental car, one red and one black. The frames hold the instruments to track the intensity of tornadoes and other severe weather. They also shield the cars from hail  by adding wire meshing to the tops of the frames.

Spring is a busy time for meteorologists – chasing tornadoes and taking atmospheric measurements to study and analyze during the rest of the year.  The season has been quiet so far, this year and for a few years now in the Oklahoma area. Single tornadoes touch down in a day but not the multiples that are so dangerous for communities but offer ideal conditions to study storms.  Storm chasers are watching beyond Oklahoma, of course, and Canton, Texas, was hard hit in April. But NSSL did not have an active watch there. So, until the storms show up, lab meteorologists are busy preparing for when it does.

Continue reading

Victim advocates, survivors stand in silence against sexual assault

By Wenjing Yang

A silent protest in downtown Chicago attracted 170 survivors of sexual violence, their supporters and victim advocates. The lunch-hour protest was a visual demonstration of the silencing of survivors of sexual violence, the organizers said.

They wore T-shirts bearing the stories of sexual assault survivors in order to raise awareness.

“There’s usually a lot of stigma around sexual violence,” said Brendan Yukins, prevention educator at Rape Victims Advocates. “By having people standing here with shirts that tell their stories, it erases a little bit of that stigma.”

“We are doing it in such a public space,” said Megan Blomquist, director of education and training at RVA. ”This really demonstrates a public show of support for survivors.”

After an hour, they broke the silence.

Photo at top: Participants wearing handmade shirts stand silently. (Wenjing Yang/MEDILL)

Logan Square teens preserve their Latino culture

By Alissa Anderegg and Stephanie Rothman

Logan Square is a trendy, up-and-coming neighborhood that has seen thriving new businesses and rising rents. But gentrification is pushing out the Latino population that has lived there for decades. According to U.S. Census data, in the last 15 years, Logan Square has seen the most Latino displacement of all 77 Chicago neighborhoods.

Young teens at the Logan Square Neighborhood Association are getting involved to try to preserve their culture in the face of gentrification. These teenage activists are speaking out against the changes that are directly affecting their families, neighbors and local businesses.

Photo at top: An installation dedicated to the heritage of Logan Square families is on display at the XingonX Cultural Festival, sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. (Alissa Anderegg/MEDILL)

Sawdust carpets cushion Nicaragua’s streets on Good Friday

By Mariah Quintanilla

Boaco, Nicaragua – Nicaraguans marched across colorful sawdust carpets alongside their savior in the final carrying of the crosses Friday during the Catholic Holy Week.

The bright, fluffy carpets lined the lower main street of Boaco, a municipality in central Nicaragua with the slogan, “The city of two floors.” The “bleeding” crosses, orange suns, hearts, flowers and birds each represented the stations of the Viacrucis procession, signifying Jesus’ final walk toward crucifixion.

Continue reading

Englewood couple opens home as a haven to children of all ages

By Alex Whittler

Quilen and Hannah Blackwell offer a place of refuge to children in an area that often makes headlines for its gun violence and crime rates.

“The Chicago Eco House is an anti-violence strategy and nonprofit that’s focused on using sustainable technologies to invest in the community,” Quilen Blackwell said while a group of kids ate s’mores in his backyard in Englewood, which ranks as the tenth most dangerous Chicago neighborhood.

Those statistics have deterred potential homebuyers in the past, but that’s exactly what drew the Blackwells to Englewood.

With a large tarp welcoming students into their home hanging from a black iron fence, the young married couple said they proudly live and serve through their nonprofit on South Peoria. The Blackwells said they don’t hesitate to offer their home to anyone in the community who needs a haven– especially the nearly 30 kids who are likely to stop by on their way home from school.

Continue reading