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Monday, January 30, 2006

  • Nanotech devices to aid doctors
  • Many roles for mathematician
  • Pixels in the big picture
Chris Redmond

Charles I, 1649

[Yeow holds plaque]

John Yeow of systems design engineering was the 2005 winner of the Douglas R. Colton Medal for Research Excellence from the federal non-profit CMC Microsystems. He's the third UW-affiliated person in a row to receive the medal.

Nanotech devices to aid doctors

An endoscope probe as big as the diameter of a toonie is a hard thing for a patient to swallow when doctors need to see the inside of the stomach -- but UW research is leading to a new device no bigger than a strand of spaghetti.

"It's a sad fact that often the equipment used by doctors and nurses is badly designed for their work," says a release written by Graeme Stemp-Morlock for the UW media relations office and issued last week. "Nanotechnology, however, offers a chance to redesign many instruments to achieve better results."

The release says John Yeow of the systems design engineering department is working every day to find a way to help doctors save lives. "It may be the best technology in the world but if hospitals don't like it, they won't use it," says Yeow, who spent much of his engineering master's degree period listening to doctors complain about unwieldy equipment.

As a result of the frustration among doctors, Yeow began several projects to use the novel properties of nanotechnology for medical purposes. One of those projects is to design a much more patient-friendly endoscope -- the long, snake-like device used by doctors to see inside a patient's stomach and intestines. Yeow's micromachine-based endoscope is only as thick as a piece of spaghetti. Plus it has a much higher resolution than the existing fat devices, about 10-20 microns -- enough to get visual images of a fruit fly's central nervous system during tests.

The consequence is that a patient suffers far less, while doctors can use the new endoscope to see greater detail further into the intestines. Yeow expects that the micromachine-based endoscope, which is just moving from fruit fly to animal testing, could be ready for use in a clinical setting in less than five years.

Yeow's team is also working on helping miniaturize hospital X-ray machines. Currently, X-rays are produced by heating huge filaments to very high temperatures at which point electrons burst forth, hitting a heavy metal screen and producing X-rays. The system is not energy efficient and wastes many of the X-rays it produces, and the filaments must be frequently replaced resulting in lost time.

Nanotechnology has an answer. When placed in an electric field, carbon nanotubes emit electrons, which could hit a heavy metal and produce X-rays. That would mean energy and space could be saved, plus fewer X-rays would be wasted.

Yeow is also seeking to improve the precision of X-ray beams. Every morning, technicians must measure where the X-rays are being shot to make sure there is no unnecessary radiation. By creating a vast array of tiny sensors, technicians would have a more exact profile of the radiation to assure patients weren't getting too much or too little radiation.

Finally, Yeow envisions building micromachines that can move about in a patient's body or analyze a sample in a portable device. These nanotech bots would be able to work on the cellular level, allowing doctors to not only move a cell from point A to B but also break it apart and release the cell content. Point-of-care diagnosis (referred to as "lab on a chip" nanotechnology) could give essential information about the composition of cells on the spot, rather than sending the sample out to a lab and having to wait several days for a result.

All of Yeow's work comes back to a desire to make functional devices that can be deployed in the real world. "In addition to working with models or software, I want to be able to hold and move the things I build."

[Brown on the lawn]

Many roles for mathematician

Steve Brown (right, in drier weather) has excellent timing, says a profile of the statistics and actuarial science professor published on the web this month by UW's Keystone Campaign. For example? "Take his effectiveness at delivering a punch line," says the profile, "something many witnessed recently when he performed a stand-up comedy routine for a United Way fundraising event in the fall.

"Steve's arrival on campus years ago couldn't have been better timed. In 1967, he began his undergraduate studies in mathematics at UW at just the time when visionaries Ralph Stanton, Ken Fryer, and Wes Graham were establishing North America's first Faculty of Mathematics.

"Steve became involved with Bill Forbes, Winston Cherry, and Dave Sprott in health-related research as a PhD student in Biostatistics at UW. Again, Steve had impeccable timing. That work lead to collaborations with Alan Best on smoking prevention studies, and more recently to collaborations with Roy Cameron, Paul MacDonald, and others in the Faculties of Applied Health Sciences, Arts, and Mathematics. Steve is currently co-director of UW's Population Health Research Group.

"Early in Steve's well-timed teaching career in the Faculty of Mathematics, his connections with Ken Fryer, Ron Dunkley, and Ron Scoins led to involvement with high school math teachers, UW's mathematics contests, and high school liaison, all of which have contributed greatly to the Faculty's success and world renown. Today, Steve oversees these Math Faculty initiatives in his role as Associate Dean for External Relations."

How did you get involved in high school liaison? "I was influenced by visits to my high school by Ken Fryer and Ralph Stanton, who had begun telling high school students about UW's math and computer science programs before the Faculty was established. I began doing high school liaison on a volunteer basis with Ken and others in the mid 1970s. I have fond memories of a 10-day northern Ontario driving tour of schools in 1977 that Ron Scoins and I made to tell students about the exciting future of mathematics and computer science."

What is it you like most about the many hats you wear on campus? "It's the people I most enjoy. I enjoy collaborating with investigators and colleagues on health research problems, working with committed teachers, faculty members, and talented students through our contests, and teaching statistics to our students."

To what projects do you designate your gifts to UW and why? "I give to undergraduate and graduate scholarships in the Math Faculty to encourage bright young students to study mathematics, statistics, and computer science at UW."

Joint health and safety committee 10 a.m., Commissary room 112D.

Computational mathematics colloquium: Jonathan M. Borwein, Dalhousie University, "Plausible Reasoning in the 21st Century (or What Is High Performance Mathematics?)", 2:30, Math and Computer room 5158.

Career workshop: "Interview Skills: Preparing for Questions" 3:30, Tatham Centre room 2218, registration online.

Centre for International Governance Innovation presents Marie Bernard-Meunier, former ambassador to Germany, "Germany's Role in the Integration of Europe", 7 p.m., 57 Erb Street West, free tickets 885-2444.

LunarFest Chinese new year celebrations Tuesday 10:30 to 4:00, Student Life Centre, with food, crafts, entertainment. Evening event with dancing and music, Wednesaday from 10 p.m., Federation Hall, $15 at the door.

Faculty association special (confidential) general meeting on issues related to the elimination of mandatory retirement, Wednesday 2:30, Davis Centre room 1302.

'Critical Thinking' teaching workshop, February 8 or February 16, 12 noon, details and registration online.

Pixels in the big picture

A pink invitation has gone across campus bearing the signatures of all the members of UW's executive council -- the senior administration: "To all staff: Please come to a celebratory luncheon in your honour. Members of Executive Council would like to thank you for the important contributions you make to the success of the University of Waterloo. Join us for a time of socialization, fun and good food." The event will be held Tuesday, February 14, from noon to 1:30 in Federation Hall. "Offices are expected to be closed over this period," the invitation notes. "Departments providing essential services and thus obligated to remain open are urged to make arrangements so as many staff as possible can attend." There will be a repeat event for night-shift staff at 10:00 that evening in the Student Life Centre.

The Certified Management Accountants of Ontario (CMA Ontario) held their "first annual" Case Competition on Saturday, attracting 156 students from 19 universities. The winning team: UW's "Blue Balance", with team members Edmund Li, Sarah Lau, Michael Tang and Melissa Lai. They . During the competition students were invited to put their management leadership skills to the test, and with the use of a computer-based, decision-driven simulation, interview a fictional company's executive team and review corporate documents, in order to strategically advise senior management. "This type of competition and skills development helps build Canada's future business leaders -- well beyond the opportunities of the classroom," says Len Crispino, CEO of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce. "This challenge puts the competitors to the test and shows if they've got the skills needed to succeed in business." Each team player taking part was a CMA associate member and had completed, or is in the process of completing, CMA Ontario Introductory Management Accounting course. Main location for this year's competition was McMaster University.

With David John of UW's department of Germanic and Slavic studies on sabbatical leave this season, one of his hats -- as director of the Waterloo Centre for German Studies -- is being worn by colleague Grit Liebscher. The centre has just published its third newsletter, with word in English and German about what's being done to promote not just study and research in German at UW, but links with the local German community and between Canada and Germany. It includes a list of German film screenings being offered on Tuesday evenings this term as part of a course on "German Film after Fassbinder". Next event is the 1995 film "Keiner Liebt Mich" ("Nobody Loves Me"), tomorrow at 6:30 in Modern Languages room 216.

At the January meeting of UW's senate, president David Johnston spoke briefly about the research megafunding that had been announced a couple of days earlier in a campaign appearance by Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. Among the agencies scheduled to receive federal funds: the National Institute for Convergent Technologies, in which UW is a partner along with York University, the City of Markham, and others. While the institute's main establishment is to be in Markham, north of Toronto, "there will be a physical facility here," Johnston told the senate, "probably on the north campus." He added that the university and its partners will keep working with whatever government is in power to make sure the project goes ahead. The centre will be a focus for research in the area where health intersects with computational mathematics.

The campus recreation program will hold its Frozen Frenzy Football Tournament this Saturday. . . . Noon on Wednesday is the deadline for ordering Keystone Campaign "treat-a-grams" for delivery next week. . . . Here's a reminder that that the annual University and College Job Fair will be held Wednesday at Waterloo's RIM Park. . . .

Watch for details tomorrow about the drama department's New Directions festival of short plays, which opens Wednesday night in the Studio 180 theatre in Humanities. . . . The UW Recreation Committee is offering a feng shui discussion group tomorrow aimed at staff and faculty members. . . . More than 600 people are typically coming out for the Perimeter Institute's monthly lectures, says publicity for the next in the series, geologist John A. Grant talking about "Mission to Mars" this Wednesday night. . . .


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