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innovation

Craisins and ‘Q microbes’

Some of UMass-Amherst’s earliest breakthroughs can be linked to its agricultural college heritage. By the beginning of the 20th century, the school had food production down pat; food preservation was the natural next step. In 1918 — partly in reaction to a wave of food shortages during World War I — the school started the country’s first food science program, working to develop new preservation methods and even selling the results of their research via a local Amherst storefront. WWII brought increased demand from the front lines, and the faculty responded with new breakthroughs in canning and freeze-drying. In recent years, UMass-Amherst’s partnership with Ocean Spray has led to the development of some unique cranberry-based consumables, including cran-apple juice and Craisins.

There’s also been a considerable amount of research at Amherst dedicated to ensuring there’s still a planet to feed in the future. One of climate change’s early academic heavyweights, the UMass geosciences professor Raymond Bradley, was the coauthor of the now-famous “hockey stick” graph study, which shows that the earth had a generally stable temperature until about 1900, when it started to spike upward. A few of the science faculty have had breakthroughs in sustainable energy in recent years, including microbiologist Susan Leschine’s 2002 discovery of a bacteria called the “Q microbe,” which eats plant material and spits out ethanol, and Derek Lovley’s 2003 identification of a microbe that can produce electricity from mud and wastewater.

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Recent research by engineering faculty into fire-safe polymers that, unlike most plastics, don’t burn could cut down on plane crash casualties, which are often caused not by the impact, but by the ensuing fire. Software developed by computer science professor Brian Levine and research scientist Marc Liberatore has been used in recent years by police units nationwide to track down people who share child pornography over peer-to-peer networks, helping to gather enough evidence to open almost 3,000 new cases in its first year of use.

The duo of Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. and Russell Hulse were awarded a 1993 Nobel Prize for their 1974 discovery of binary pulsars — a pair of stars whose irregular light bursts provide evidence of the existence of gravitational waves, a key element of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Hulse, a doctoral student at the time of the discovery, and Taylor, an astronomy professor and Hulse’s thesis adviser, were aided in their early research by a radio telescope they fashioned out of surplus military equipment, wire mesh purchased from Sears, and old telephone poles.

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