Inquiring Minds
By David Appell

Drop a Line, Save a Whale
Diction Afflictions
Forest East vs. Forest West

Drop a Line, Save a Whale

As often as not, good science comes from a mix like this: An idea fueled by personal experience, a little serendipity, a lot of knowledge, years of hard work, and voilá! A new invention.

The "voilá" point isn't there yet for Yvon Durant, UNH research associate professor of materials science, but with any luck it will come within reach next spring. That's when he and his two-person research team hope to do the first open-ocean tests of SeaLine, a rope-like material that slowly self-destructs in seawater.

Marine researchers would like a cheap SeaLine because they could use it to tie marking buoys directly to underwater equipment, where the buoy couldn't be destroyed by passing boats. When SeaLine dissolved, the buoy would bob to the surface, signaling that it's time for the equipment to be picked up.

Champions of whales and other sea life would like it because buoys could be attached by SeaLine to commercial fishing nets. If the nets were lost, they would sink to the bottom of the ocean after the SeaLine dissolved. Currently, many float for years as "ghost nets," fatally entangling all they encounter.

Durant even thinks SeaLine could be popular with lobstermen and recreational sailors like himself. In New England, lobstermen lose traps when boats accidentally catch the colorful buoys that mark their location. With SeaLine, a buoy could be tied directly to the trap on the ocean bottom, and only float to the surface when it was time for the lobsterman to check the trap.

That's the insight, fueled by personal experience, that helped get SeaLine started. The serendipity occurred when Durant attended a research conference two years ago and heard a Cargill-Dow official talk about polylactic acid, a polymerized form of lactic acid made from corn that creates a strong yet biodegradable material. "I fell in love with polylactic acid," Durant recalls.

A native of France, Durant is director of UNH's Advanced Polymer Laboratory, and has an engineering degree in chemistry, a master's in business administration and a doctorate in polymer chemistry. His idea is to combine polylactic acid with beads made of a benign chemical catalyst one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. When seawater slowly diffuses through the material, it reacts with the catalyst, and the SeaLine decomposes.

With $150,000 in funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration secured by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Durant and his team are testing different combinations of the materials. With any luck, before long all this will result in a SeaLine product that UNH can patent and then license to be developed by a private company. In other words, voilá—a more appropriate term than "eureka" for a researcher from the land of joie de vivre.

Diction Afflictions

If a child has trouble reading, would you try to improve his speech?

Probably not, and until a decade or so ago, neither would most educators or therapists.

But that has changed with the recognition that the same difficulties which lead pre-schoolers to confuse sounds or fail to remember words can also lead older children to have trouble reading, says Penelope Webster, associate professor and chair of the UNH Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, who for many years has studied the way our minds handle those complex cousins, the spoken and the written words.

"Reading was considered to be a visual thing, and dyslexia was thought to be visually-based. What has been discovered is that 80 percent of the time, a reading disability is actually speech-based," she says. This fact has been reflected in some of Webster's own work, including a longitudinal study that followed a group of New Hampshire students who had speech problems starting in preschool.

Webster says over time, most children resolved their speech problem by the age of 4 or 5, but other problems with processing speech sounds remained. "To hear them speak at that point, you'd never suspect they had a problem," she says. "It goes underground, and is only revealed in literacy. It's a long-term problem that they take with them throughout their lives."

As a result of such discoveries, early reading problems are now often tackled with aggressive speech-processing therapy, including a process-based education program developed by the Lindamood-Bell Learning Processes organization.

The question now absorbing Webster is whether this principle can be extended from reading to the more complicated task of writing. She and colleague Amy Plante, a UNH clinical assistant professor, are in the midst of a study of 30 middle-schoolers in New Hampshire's Seacoast area with histories of different language problems.

"We're looking to see how a history of oral language impairment plays out in their writing, and we're beginning to see it's exactly as one would predict," she says.

What this may show, Webster and others believe, is that people have a continuum of ability in processing language. Weaknesses first appear most obviously in speech, then in reading, and finally and more subtly in writing. In many cases, however, these are all manifestations of the same weakness and can be managed in similar ways.

"Language is, indeed, what makes us human, but it's a very complicated process," says Webster.

Forest East vs. Forest West

After nine trips to Japan over more than a decade, working with Japanese forest managers and researchers, Ted Howard, professor of forestry economics, has come to a realization about the wildernesses of Japan: They really aren't what we would call "wild."

"There is a concept in Japan of being in harmony with nature, but with a human-defined nature, a human-sculpted nature. The American concept of wilderness is completely foreign to them," says Howard, who is also director of the UNH Center for International Education. "When we think of wild and natural, the images that are evoked are those of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Robert Marshall: the towering mountains, the wilderness in which man is only a visitor. That's not the case in Japan."

Part of Howard's job involves finding ways to help protect, use and enjoy America's forests. Looking at how this is done in another culture can provide perspective.

Howard has been interested in Japan since his graduate-school days. He first visited the country on sabbatical leave, and has gone back for additional study funded by UNH, private foundations, the Japanese Agency for Science and Technology and a Fulbright scholarship. In the process, he has learned Japanese and visited places seen by few foreigners.

Many of the differences between American and Japanese forest management, he says, are due to geography--Japan is only as big as California but has a population half the size of the United States. It doesn't have the luxury of leaving large tracts of land untouched.

"I'm not sure there's any place in Japan where human beings haven't been on a regular basis. They've been shaping their landscape for 2,000 years," he says. "Today, for example, if you see a pure conifer stand, even in a remote mountainous region, people put it there."

But some differences are cultural, often due to the Japanese people's love of group activity. "It's not uncommon to find groups on weekends working on their insect collections, swinging the nets through the bushes and seeing what they can catch, or going to parks to observe nature, all together," he says.

"In Japan, volunteer groups actually have an area of national forest assigned to them, and they go out to prune branches to increase the value of the wood or to erect fences to protect young trees from marauding deer. Instead of adopting a road as groups do in the U.S., they'll adopt 10 hectares of forest land."

In a difference that U.S. officials must envy, Howard says Japanese rarely challenge bureaucratic decisions. "Once a natural resource decision is made, major debate is completely unheard of in Japan. There's some public input, but it's rather low key and fragmented," he says.

Studying forestry practices in both countries allows Howard to pick the best of both worlds. He believes that Japan needs to integrate its forest management approaches rather than maintain overly detailed distinctions.

On the other hand, he believes America could learn from Japan by placing more emphasis on the role of healthy forests in protecting water quality. One other lesson he has learned from his trips to Japan, as well as on research visits to everywhere from Chile to the Czech Republic, is that love of forests is nearly universal.

"Anywhere in the forested world, if you show up at a forestry office and identify yourself as a professional forester, the local forester will drag you off to the woods, even if you don't speak the language," he says. "They just want to show you how they are managing their forest."

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