“Hey, Alexa…” Students Compete for Amazon’s AI Prize

By Bonnie Dickson

A UC Davis student team is one of eight teams worldwide  recently selected to compete in Amazon’s 2018 Alexa Prize Challenge – an artificial intelligence competition to advance the technology behind the company’s popular social bot.

Team Gunrock includes 12 graduate students and two undergraduate students with diverse, interdisciplinary backgrounds related to artificial intelligence. Advised by Zhou Yu, an assistant professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, the team has received a $250,000 research stipend, Alexa-enabled devices and support from Amazon’s web services team to assist with their development efforts during the competition. The team also has access to Alexa’s application programming interfaces as well as additional tools, data and support from Amazon’s Alexa team.

Chemical Messengers, Calcium and Neutrophils

Neutrophils are the most abundant type of white blood cell. They play a vital role in defending us from infections, by engulfing and destroying bacteria and viruses or cancerous cells. A new study by UC Davis engineering student Emmet Francis, working with Professor Volkmar Heinrich in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, adds to our knowledge of how neutrophils are drawn towards infection sites and how they can attack their targets.

First, Francis and Heinrich looked at how isolated neutrophils respond to chemical messengers called anaphylatoxins. These molecules guide immune cells to their targets but can cause severe illness in excessive amounts.

Piezomagnetic Material Changes Magnetic Properties When Stretched

Piezoelectric materials, which generate an electric current when compressed or stretched, are familiar and widely used: think of lighters that spark when you press a switch, but also microphones, sensors, motors and all kinds of other devices. Now a group of physicists has found a material with a similar property, but for magnetism. This “piezomagnetic” material changes its magnetic properties when put under mechanical strain.

Magnetic experiment

Top: A piece of BaFe2As2 is stretched while magnetic measurements are taken (the copper wire coil is part of the NMR device). Lower diagram shows atoms in a plane, with black arrows showing how magnetic spins lie in plane and point in opposite directions. Grey arrows show how the magnetic spin of atoms shifts as the material is stretched.

Podcast: A New Book Explores The Glass of Wine

Glass and wine have gone together for thousands of years. A new book, “The Glass of Wine,” delves into the science, history and artistry of this pairing. The book is by Jim Shackelford, distinguished professor emeritus of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering, and writer and blogger Penelope Shackelford.

Glass scientist Jim Shackelford and blogger Penelope Shackelford are the authors of a new book, “The Glass of Wine” that explores the relationship between the drink and its perfect host. Photo by Daniela Wood.

California Water-Saving Drive Saved Energy, Too

California’s drive to save water during the drought had a double benefit: it saved a lot of energy as well.

Graphs of water and energy use

This interactive website shows how California cities and water districts saved energy and water

In April 2015, Governor Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent cut in urban water consumption in the face of continuing drought. Water suppliers were required to report their progress to the State Water Resources Control Board. Now analysis of those figures by researchers Edward Spang, Andrew Holguin and Frank Loge at the UC Davis Center for Water-Energy Efficiency shows that while the state came within 0.5 percent of the water conservation goal, California also saved 1830 GigaWatt-Hours of energy — enough to power more than 270,000 homes.

Plants by the Numbers: Math, Computation and the Future of Plant Biology

by Greg Watry

What does the future of plant biology education and research look like? That’s the question on the mind of Siobhan Brady, associate professor of plant biology at UC Davis.

Big data approaches will be key to advances in plant biology, so students need to be trained in these areas. Unknown author/Wikipedia (CC BY 2.5)

In a Plant Physiology commentary paper, Brady, along with 37 other plant biologists from around the world, call for universities to integrate more quantitative and computational techniques into biology-oriented academic curricula. Introducing these skills early, the group advises, will help prepare tomorrow’s plant biologists for the next era of genomics research.

College of Engineering Hosts National Academy of Engineering Symposium

By Bonnie Dickson

On Nov. 16-18, the UC Davis College of Engineering hosted more than 60 engineers from the U.S. and European Union for the National Academy of Engineering’s 2017 Frontiers of Engineering symposium.

UC Davis’ College of Engineering hosted the National Academy of Engineering’s 2017 EU-US Frontiers of Engineering symposium Nov. 16-18. Attendees discussed diversity, space travel, neuroengineering and coffee, among other things. Photo: Reeta Asmai/UC Davis

The goal of the symposium was to facilitate an interdisciplinary transfer of research, ideas and methodologies between outstanding early-career American and European engineers under the age of 45 from industry, universities and other research institutions.

UC Davis Releases New Version C-STEM Studio for Teaching Math with Coding

The Center for Integrated Computing and STEM Education at the University of California, Davis, has released version 4 of its popular C-STEM Studio software suite. In addition to free breakthrough tools for teaching math, coding, robotics and making, this major update includes expanded support with textbooks and curriculum for Lego Mindstorms NXT and EV3 robots, Raspberry Pi computers and Arduino control boards as well as Barobo Linkbots. These hardware platforms and related curriculum are seamlessly integrated in C-STEM Studio for learning math with hands-on physical computing and real-world projects.

C-STEM Studio is compatible with robots widely used in school classrooms.

Where Things Go Wrong: Perspective on Cascading Failures

By Aditi Risbud Bartl

Sometimes, one darn thing leads to another in a series of cascading failures. Understanding the weak points that lead to such cascades could help us make better investments in preventing them.

Professor Raissa D’Souza in the UC Davis College of Engineering studies complex systems and how they can go wrong.

In the Nov. 17 issue of Science, Raissa D’Souza, professor of computer science and mechanical and aerospace engineering at UC Davis, wrote a perspective article about cascading failures that arise from the reorganization of flows on a network, such as in electric power grids, supply chains and transportation networks.

Supercomputer Simulates Dynamic Magnetic Fields of Jupiter, Earth, Sun

By Becky Oskin

As the Juno space probe approached Jupiter in June last year, researchers with the Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics’ Dynamo Working Group were starting to run simulations of the giant planet’s magnetic field on one of the world’s fastest computers. While the timing was coincidental, the supercomputer modeling should help scientists interpret the data from Juno, and vice versa.

Video: Simulation of Jupiter’s magnetic fields 

“Even with Juno, we’re not going to be able to get a great physical sampling of the turbulence occurring in Jupiter’s deep interior,” Jonathan Aurnou, a geophysics professor at UCLA who leads the geodynamo working group, said in an article for Argonne National Laboratory news. “Only a supercomputer can help get us under that lid.”