SciTech Roundup, 4/11

CMU RESEARCH: Ph.D. students compete in Three Minute Thesis competition

Eight doctoral students competed in Carnegie Mellon's Three Minute Thesis competition on March 30, which challenges participants to present their highly technical and sometimes years-long research to a general audience in under three minutes. First place went to Piyumi Wijesekara in biomedical engineering, second place to Suzy Li in architecture, and third place to Emma Benjaminson in mechanical engineering. The audience choice award went to Mohammad Ayaz Masud in electrical and computer engineering, and the alumni choice award went to Amaranth Karra in materials science and engineering.

CMU RESEARCH: Another way to move for people with paralyzed muscles

Patients that have paralyzed limbs sometimes require robotic limbs to assist their movements. But it is difficult to control robotic limbs: voice controls and joysticks have difficulty translating intentions for movement into instructions for a robot, and brain-computer interfaces require complex and expensive surgery. Professor of Mechanical Engineering Doug Weber and the Neuroscience Institute partnered with an international group of institutions to research an alternative method to control limbs using myoelectric signals. Myoelectric signals are electric pulses caused by muscles contracting. The team found that even if patients had paralyzed limbs, just attempting movement generates myoelectric signals. The team anticipates that this could make it a lot easier for patients to use robotic limbs and other assistive devices.

SCIENCE: A magnetic slime robot that could wiggle through digestive systems

Imagine a dark brownish-green goop that can move, encircle objects, deform itself, and even self-heal when broken. This is the magnetic slime robot that researchers in Hong Kong have created, announced in a paper published on April 1 (though the researchers insist that it is not an April Fools joke). The slime is made of neodymium magnet particles, borax and polyvinyl alcohol, which allows it to sometimes behave as a liquid, sometimes a solid, just like cornstarch and water. The slime's magnetism allows the researchers to control its movements using a magnetic field. The researchers envision that the slime could be used to travel through the digestive system and grab objects that were accidentally swallowed, for instance to encapsulate a small battery, preventing toxic electrolytes from leaking out into the digestive system. However, they emphasize that this is project is for research purposes; they currently have no intentions of testing it out on patients, as the slime itself is toxic and requires a stable protective coating that they have yet to implement.

SCIENCE: Scientists finally sequence the entire human genome

You may have heard of the Human Genome Project, a government funded effort running from 1990 to 2003 to sequence the entire human genome, and they did sequence the entire genome. Or at least most of it. While fairly successful, the researchers were unable to sequence about eight percent of the genome, equivalent to 200 million bases, due to technological limitations. In six papers published in Science, the Telomere-to-Telomere (T2T) Consortium has been able to correct issues with the first sequencing and fill in its gaps, leaving 10 million bases unknown. They used several sequencing technologies, such as a nanopore device and a sequencer.

T2T believes their work is not over. They'd like to sequence complete genomes from a more diverse group of people to see the variations in the DNA which could influence disease and traits. This could be more challenging since, unlike their initial genome, they don't have identical pairs of chromosomes.

TECH: r/place comes to an end for 2022

For April Fools Day this year, Reddit revived a social experiment from 2017 April Fools Day called Place. Place was a large image in the r/place subreddit active from April 1 to April 5, and each Reddit user can place one pixel of color onto this image, then must wait five to 20 minutes until placing another. What results is Reddit community members collaborating with each other, and against other communities, to occupy different regions of the image. Reddit reports that over 10.4 million users placed down tiles, with over 16 million tiles placed, and at its peak had over 1.7 million users placing 5.9 million tiles. Notable images in Place include many country flags (including Canada's flag, which at some point transitioned to a banana flag), many fandom posters, and tiny Among Us characters blending in with the shadows of other communities. Communities outside of Reddit also contributed, with Twitch streamers mobilizing their fans to pitch in, or in the case of XQC, to overwrite as many pixels with black as possible. Toward the end of r/place, the only color users could place down was white, and users watched as the entire board was erased.

Reddit has released a lot of information on r/place: other than the statistics earlier, they also have CSV datasets on tile placements, open-source code of 2017 r/place in Github, and information on how they built r/place in 2017. It is also notable that the first version of r/place in 2017 was conceived by John Wardle, creator of the popular "Wordle" game now owned by the New York Times.