Why basic research matters I: Mark Green
Mark Green, Faculty of Science, UOIT | December 10, 2013
This summer, I gave a keynote presentation that covered more than 30 years of my own research. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on the research results that have made an impact, particularly in industrial practice.
The field of computer science moves so quickly that you can observe the long-term impact of your research within your own lifetime. I found that the my most significant long-term impacts came from my pure or curiosity-driven research. I have done a lot of applied research, but its impact has been short-term and quickly forgotten. In addition, it’s the results of the pure research that I now teach to undergraduate students, including in our introductory computer science course. History demonstrates how pure and applied research are intertwined.
In the 1970s, I started working on the problem of automating the design of graphical user interfaces. This may seem like an applied problem now, but long before the introduction of the Mac OS and Microsoft Windows, it was viewed as relatively useless research of no practical value. I can still vividly remember industry leaders calling me another of those crazy university researchers and insisting that “no one would ever want to use a mouse with a computer.”
In 1986, I wrote a paper on the foundations of user-interface software. At the time, it was viewed as a very theoretical paper. The journal editor thought the paper was so theoretical that I had to move some of the material, theorems and proofs to a technical report before he would accept it. He told me that no one would read the paper.
In 2005, I returned to Canada to start a new computer science program at a new university. I prepared by reviewing the standard undergraduate computer science curriculum produced by the two leading professional societies in the area. Much to my surprise, this paper was listed as one of the topics that all undergraduate computer science students should be familiar with. In 20 years, it had gone from too theoretical for an academic journal to part of the undergraduate curriculum.
In the 1980s, I was part of a small group of researchers investigating a “curiosity” that was an offshoot of our main line of research. We didn’t think it would amount to much, but we wrote a few papers on it. Over time the main line of research died out, but this offshoot started to gain traction. It has now become a standard part of software development, which I teach in our first computer science course.
Why is this important? After presenting the topic, I then state that I was one of the people who developed it. For first year students this demystifies the whole research process. Research isn’t done by people who are long dead, but by people just like them. We need to teach our students early that they are the innovators of the future. They can’t just follow along – they can and must lead. I believe it helps to have this message delivered by someone who has been there, who can make the story real.
If we do not expose our undergraduate students to pure research, we are doing them a great disservice. In fast-paced fields like computer science the “applied” topics that we teach them now are often out of date shortly after they graduate. To prepare them for the future we need to whet their appetite for curiosity-driven research that will empower them to continue to explore new and different ideas long after they graduate.
The whole package
Teresa Pitman | September 26, 2014If you’ve ever bought ready-to-eat sushi, you may have noticed a blob of wasabi on the tray. It’s a convenient way to add pungent flavour to your lunch, but it also serves another purpose: it protects your food from micro-organisms. As food science professor Loong-Tak Lim explains, wasabi contains allylisothiocyanate, (AITC) a natural and potent anti-microbial that kills yeast and bacteria. Of course, not every food is enhanced by the strong flavour of wasabi, so Lim has developed a packaging system that offers the same antimicrobial benefits . Lim derives his AITC from ground mustard powder, and uses a patented nanotechnological process to spin tiny fibres that encapsulate the naturally sourced agent in the packaging. “The conventional approach to adding preservatives has been to add them to the food,” says Lim's research colleague Suramya Mihindukulasuriya. “But processing the food may break down the preservative. By having the preservative in the packaging, we don’t need as high a concentration to enhance the shelf-life, safety and quality of the food.” So-called “active packaging,” responds to changes in the environment and the food itself, Lim says. In this case, the membrane responds to a certain level of moisture and releases a preservative to prevent spoiling. Other active packaging materials respond to heat and light. Mihindukulasuriya works with a preservative called hexanal, the volatile organic compound you smell when you cut grass or slice a cucumber. Hexanal helps preserve cell membranes of fruits and vegetables so they don’t become soft or soggy as they ripen. The preservative also has some anti-microbial properties, which are activated by heat and humidity. Mihindukulasuriya calls her technique of enclosing the preservative using ultra-high electrical forces “electrospinning.” Lim jokes that “we are like Spiderman, spinning tiny fibres.” And the fibres are tiny – about 400 times smaller than a human hair. When exposed to humidity or water, these fibres become permeable and release the hexanal. During her PhD studies, Mihindukulasuriya also developed an oxygen indicator that is activated by ultraviolet radiation. When there is little or no oxygen in the package, the indicator is white, but if the package is damaged or torn, allowing oxygen to enter, the indicator turns blue. This matters because oxygen causes rapid deterioration of some foods, and higher levels of oxygen encourage the growth of more micro-organisms. These foods are sealed in vacuum packs or in packages flushed with nitrogen to remove the oxygen, but if the package becomes damaged at some point, oxygen can get inside. That’s where Mihindukulasuriya’s product comes in: a label with a blue line would indicate that the package should not be purchased. What’s next in active and intelligent packaging? Mihindukulasuriya is planning to develop a compound that will detect the volatile compounds produced by food when it spoils and indicate to consumers that the food should not be eaten. The technique would supplement expiry dates, which are only estimates based on typical situations. Not only would such packaging warn people that food had spoiled, it could also reassure them when it was safe to eat – even if the expiry date had passed. “People throw away lots of food that has expired but is still perfectly good to eat,” says Lim. This article was originally published by the University of Guelph. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and style, and is republished here with permission.