Photo Credit: Patrick Mansell

Penn State’s research expertise is undeniable. Last year, the university’s research expenditures exceeded $1 billion and, according to the National Science Foundation, Penn State surpasses all other universities in the country when it comes to research expenditures by key fields and subfields. Last year’s funding came from a variety of sources, including federal and private, with contributions from the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy and the Department of Health and Human Services, as well as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

How is all of that research and money actually solving problems? What are the tangible impacts of Penn State’s research? Here are just five examples:

  1. Smarter sensors and new skin printing capabilities are a boon for those with disabilities.

For those with disabilities, finding the right technology to address their individual needs can make all the difference in quality of life. A team of Penn State researchers, along with researchers in China, have recently found new ways for smart robotics to mimic human movement, as well as new capabilities for printing wearable sensors directly on skin.

The smart robotics research can eventually lead to changes that would help those with prosthetic limbs better control variables such as force, while the break-through wearable sensors would allow for easy and convenient monitoring of vitals such as temperature, blood oxygen and heart rate.

  1. Agricultural research offers potential options for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Many researchers (and other tech businesses alike) are turning their attentions to COVID-19 and lessening the impact of the pandemic in whatever ways possible, so it’s no surprise that researchers at Penn State are doing the same.

Most recently, though, a researcher from the university’s College of Agricultural Sciences got involved. With an approximate $3.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the researcher and team are attempting to create a vaccine that will protect all segments of the population, but particularly older adults. To do so, they’re looking at the bovine adenovirus vector system as a delivery vehicle for the vaccine.

  1. Student research addresses a large swathe of racial injustice issues.

Four Penn State graduate students were recently awarded research grants from the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, to focus on work reducing racism and promoting anti-racist practices and culture — a particularly relevant endeavor in 2020.

The graduate students plan to use their awarded grants to focus on promoting anti-racist behaviors in families; the links between institutional racism, mental health and academic efficacy; cyber aggression related to Black and Asian women; and radicalization in online undergraduate education.

  1. Researchers use knowledge of the natural world to improve IoT, sensors.

Penn State researchers are using sensing phenomena usually found in the animal world to improve man-made sensors used in factories and homes, as part of Industry 4.0. Their findings? To boost sensor signals, simply add the perfect amount of background noise.

“Stochastic resonance is a phenomenon where a weak signal which is below the detection threshold of a sensor can be detected in the presence of a finite and appropriate amount of noise,” said researcher Akhil Dodda. Stochastic resonance is used in the natural world by jewel beetles, to detect dangers such as forest fires, from as much as 50 miles away. Similarly, paddlefish use comparable sensors to detect food sources via weak electric signals.

In terms of human application, the researchers say such technology could be used to boost sensors employed by the military, or in environments where it’s necessary to monitor very weak signals, such as in volcanoes or beneath the ocean.

  1. Documentation shows how bioenergy “done right” can address global warming.

Bioenergy and biofuels and their role in fighting climate change have been debated. Is growing crops for biofuel a truly good use of land, when planting a forest may do more to combat climate change?

New documentation from Penn State’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment confirms that growing certain biofuel crops in certain landscapes offers net climate benefits, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and removing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The documentation concludes that growing switchgrass on lands transitioning away from crops or pasture has comparable climate benefits to reforestation, and actually greater benefits than grassland restoration.