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Top Texas Science Stories and Discoveries of 2019

Top Texas Science Stories and Discoveries of 2019

As we look back on 2019, it's been a year filled with fascinating discoveries and big developments in the College of Natural Sciences and beyond. Read on to see some of the highlights from this year in Texas Science.

Faculty in the Spotlight

Math's highest honor

Karen Uhlenbeck, professor emeritus in mathematics, was awarded the Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. The award has been called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, and media around the world covered the story with Uhlenbeck as the first woman to receive it. Uhlenbeck's work has been described as some of the most important in 20th century mathematics, constituting revolutionary advances in geometry. She was also awarded the Steele Prize for Lifetime Achievement by the American Mathematical Society.

Dr. Uhlenbeck this week at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where she is a current Visitor in the School of Mathematics. Photo credit: Andrea Kane, Institute for Advanced Study

Quantum supremacy

When Google announced earlier this year that it had achieved supremacy in quantum computing, resident expert Scott Aaronson, professor of computer science, helped put things in perspective for media around the world. Everyday folks outside of quantum science came to understand the impact of the technology.

The magic angle

An eight-year-old paper by Allan MacDonald, professor of physics, took on new life after a team of experimental scientists proved the theory he had first published about: that layering 2D materials called graphene with a slight twist, at a 1.1-degree angle, would produce unusual properties. MacDonald's so-called "magic angle" was found to produce superconductivity.

Assists from AI

Undergrad + AI = two new planets

Then-undergraduate astronomy student Anne Dattilo, working in partnership with other UT researchers, used AI to uncover two previously unknown exoplanets in a cache of archived data from the Kepler space telescope. The story was picked up by major media outlets, as the technique shows promise for identifying many additional planets that traditional methods could not catch.

See like me

Computer science teams led by professor Kristen Grauman attracted media attention for new work to teach artificial intelligence agents to see more like humans. In one breakthrough, her team described an agent that can take a few quick glimpses around and infer its whole environment, a skill necessary for the development of effective search-and-rescue robots that one day can improve the effectiveness of dangerous missions. In another development, she and fellow researchers developed an artificial intelligence advance that can analyze an image of a user's clothing and suggest changes to make the outfit more fashionable

Advancing Human Health

Get moving

Nutrition sciences researcher Molly Bray found that young adults that began an exercise program were more likely to choose foods like vegetables and lean meats, while their preference for fried foods and sodas decreased.

New vaccine in the making

An experimental vaccine against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), one of the leading causes of infectious disease deaths in infants, showed early promise in a Phase 1 human clinical trial. A team of researchers, capitalizing on a discovery by Jason McLellan, associate professor of molecular biosciences, found that one dose of their vaccine candidate elicited large increases in RSV-neutralizing antibodies that were sustained for several months.

A little help from my friends

Human development and family sciences researcher Karen Fingerman found that older adults who spent more time interacting with a wider variety of people were more likely to be physically active and have greater emotional wellbeing. She found that study participants who interacted more with family members and close friends, as well as acquaintances, casual friends, service providers and strangers were more likely to have higher levels of physical activity, less time spent sitting or lying around, greater positive moods and fewer negative feelings. It is the first study to link social engagement with physical activity throughout the day.

Training the body's assassins

Scientists led by associate professor of molecular biosciences Lauren Ehrlich captured on video for the first time what happens when T-cells—the immune system's personal assassins that target trouble-making intruders like viruses—undergo training before being unleashed in the body. 

Learning and Education

Grades and growth mindset

Faculty members in the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences, Jared Murray and Carlos Carvalho, contributed to research that found that a short online intervention that emphasizes a growth mindset led to positive outcomes for high school students. A growth mindset includes the belief that intellectual abilities are not fixed but can be developed.

Bullying in context

Human development and family sciences professor Stephen Russell led a research team that found that youth belonging to marginalized groups, like LGBTQ youth, are more likely to be bullied at school during periods of public discussion about those groups. The study suggests adults' actions in public can cause spikes in rates of bullying among young people, as happened in California when bullying of LGBTQ youth spiked during discussion of Proposition 8, a ballot measure regarding same-sex marriage.

Having help in higher ed

A journalist who spent six years researching U.S. higher education, Paul Tough published "The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us," which covers challenges on many campuses and promising efforts at UT Austin. In particular, he chronicled learning about programs developed by chemistry professor David Laude and the teaching approach adopted by math professor Uri Treisman

Paul Tough, Uri Treisman and David Laude at an event on the UT Austin campus in October.

Life as We Hadn't Known It

Ancestral insights

An international team of researchers, including marine scientist Brett Baker, have found new evidence that strengthens the hypothesis that the first complex life forms, called eukaryotes, arose from the merger of two simpler life forms: a microbe belonging to the Archaea group and a bacterium. The new research outlined how the metabolism of this new dual organism may have worked.

Monogamy's genetic formula

UT scientists learned that evolution used a kind of universal formula for turning non-monogamous species of animals into monogamous ones with a trick that leads to certain genes' expression. First author and research associate Rebecca Young remarked, "Most people wouldn't expect that across 450 million years, transitions to such complex behaviors would happen the same way every time."

Newer, bigger DNA

A team of synthetic biologists, including professor of molecular biosciences Andy Ellington, synthesized a new kind of DNA that uses eight building blocks instead of the four found in all earthly life. The researchers suggest the new eight-letter DNA could find applications in medicine and biological computing. The finding also has implications for how scientists think about life elsewhere in the universe.

Species discovered

David Hillis, professor of integrative biology, led a team of researchers that discovered three new species of groundwater salamander living in Central Texas. One species is already endangered. 

This newly identified, unnamed salamander lives near the Pedernales river west of Austin, Texas. Photo credit: Tom Devitt.

Insights into the Cosmos

Perplexing planet

Astronomer and UT vice president for research Dan Jaffe and a team detected a paradoxical planet, seemingly too large for the young star in its system. The exoplanet orbits a star that's only 2 million years old.

Slingshot giant

Astronomers, including Michael Endl, discovered an exoplanet three times the size of Jupiter that orbits its star in a unique egg-shaped path that astronomers have never seen before.

Most distant galaxy

As the year came to a close, astronomer Caitlin Casey played a leading role in a major announcement from a team that used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array to detect the giant distant galaxy, MAMBO-9, one of the oldest galaxies ever found.

Unraveling Mysteries of the Brain

Forgetting isn't easy

Neuroscientists, led by Jarrod Lewis-Peacock, found that forgetting something takes more mental effort than remembering it. The findings could contribute to treatments to help people rid themselves of unwanted memories.

Keys to conversation

Studying the songs of mice from the cloud forests of Costa Rica, researchers, including Steven Phelps, have identified a brain circuit that might enable the high-speed back and forth of human conversation. This insight could help scientists better understand the causes of speech disorders and point the way to new treatments.

Alston's singing mouse. Photo by Bret Pasch.

Fear itself

A team of neuroscientists, led by associate professor Michael Drew, discovered the mechanism in the brain that causes frightening memories to spontaneously come back to haunt us. The finding could lead to new recommendations about when and how often certain therapies are deployed for the treatment of anxiety, phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Thursday, 27 February 2020

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