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Aug. 9, 2023

Secret Science

Remarkable research can be found around every corner on MSU’s main campus. Explore some of the surprising ways Spartans are transforming our understanding of life, our world and the cosmos.

On the banks of the Red Cedar, there’s a school that’s known to all. Its specialty, as a public research university, is helping to improve lives, protect our planet and deepen our understanding of the universe.

And 2022 was a record year for Michigan State University. Spartan research expenditures reached their highest level to date and continue to grow. That means MSU’s students, staff and faculty are steering a huge number of scientific projects dedicated to innovation and discovery.

So, although everyone knows the school, it’d be nearly impossible to know everything about its research. Yet it’s easy to get a sense of the breadth and depth of that research happening every day across MSU’s 5,200-acre campus.

All you need is someone who can open a few laboratory doors to reveal ideas, instruments and even animals that may surprise you, all while being unmistakably Spartan.

'Fishigan' State University

Michigan State’s aquatic animal research spans many species — including octopus, gar and lamprey — to help deepen our understanding of life and biodiversity.

Life began in the water. With that in mind, it makes sense that the creatures residing in rivers, lakes and oceans still hold many clues to help solve life’s mysteries. While many researchers are looking for those clues, the Spartan approach to studying aquatic life is distinctive.

For example, around the world, researchers rely on the diminutive zebrafish as a model organism to explore genetics and gain insights into human health and disease. MSU’s scientists are no exception, but they’re doing this work while also establishing other fishes as new model organisms. This enables researchers to dive deeper into evolutionary history, vertebrate biology and human physiology through advanced genetic studies.

Zebrafish are one of several aquatic animals that Michigan State University researchers study to answer questions about health, biology and physiology.

Speaking of fish genetics, Spartan researchers were also part of the first team to sequence the genome of the sea lamprey, an invasive species in the Great Lakes. MSU’s lamprey work continues — thanks, in part, to an international treaty — revealing more about how these animals operate at a molecular level to develop better, more environmentally friendly control measures.

And it’s not just fishes that are inspiring projects from the depths. For example, MSU engineers are studying octopus to develop more sophisticated designs for prosthetics that will feel more natural to their human users.

This list of submarine species is by no means exhaustive, but it helps illustrate how individual animals can shine light on specific questions in a variety of fields. There’s also a synergy to having all these animals in the same place. Spartans can more easily share ideas and forge connections to investigate broader questions about the planet’s biodiversity and, potentially, how to protect it.

Where undergrads help reveal the rules of the universe

Spartan undergraduates have built thousands of devices — long, cylindrical metal sheaths threaded with fine wire — that will detect particles called muons at the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.

Spartans are no strangers to particle accelerators. After all, the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams resides on campus. Still, it may be a surprise to learn that Spartans are an instrumental part of the success of the world’s most powerful particle accelerator half a world away.

Michigan State University undergraduate students have built precision detectors for the world’s most powerful particle accelerator and getting hands-on experience in the process.

In Geneva, Switzerland, the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, is probing some of the most fundamental physics in the universe. And in the basement of the Biomedical and Physical Sciences Building at MSU, undergraduate students have been building some upgrades to the ATLAS detector at the LHC.

The LHC is the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator and it’s housed at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN — the acronym comes from the French “Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”. While the FRIB’s goal is to create new nuclei — the globs of protons and neutrons at the cores of atoms — the LHC accelerates particles to much higher energies to shatter protons to see what’s inside.

Spartans, in particular, have been working on the LHC’s ATLAS experiment, helping capture, analyze and explain data acquired by the general-purpose ATLAS particle detector. While MSU’s faculty experts have helped guide the experiment for over a decade, they’ve also been training the next generation of leaders with one-of-a-kind opportunities and invaluable hands-on experience. The 25,000 detector tubes that were built in the basement of BPS by Spartan undergraduates are the latest example of that.

Once the team finishes building the detectors this summer, the lab space will be repurposed to create new opportunities for Spartan students and scientists. Stay tuned.

A supercomputer at your service

Although the Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research’s hardware is impressive, what makes it truly super is the team of staff working to help MSU’s researchers make the most of it.

What has more than 3 million gigabytes of memory, over 56,000 processors and is available, for free, to support Michigan State’s research community? That’d be the supercomputer ran and maintained by the Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research, or ICER, at MSU.

Staff at the Institute for Cyber-Enabled Research at Michigan State help ensure that the university’s supercomputer is accessible to serve a wide range of research needs. Credit: Michelle David/ICER

In the biz, this is also known as a high-performance computing cluster. It used to be that such high-performance tools were needed almost exclusively by researchers working at the extremes of science, mathematics and engineering. Today, however, supercomputing has gone mainstream.

Advances in technology have made it easier for virtually every field of research to collect more data than ever before. When it comes to making sense of all the data that’s now available, it helps to have more computational power than is found in the average laptop.

This also means more researchers than ever before are stepping into the world of supercomputing. At MSU, ICER’s staff is there to give them a helping hand. With a team of experts and more than 1,200 software titles and versions, ICER works to ensure Spartans from across campus have the support they need to put its resources to work.

That’s why ICER’s portfolio of projects includes research from areas folks typically wouldn’t associate with supercomputing, such as agriculture and social science. Of course, ICER still has time and computing nodes available for those who are pushing the extremes — from exploring the quantum realm to probing supermassive black holes.

Observing the cosmos from campus

The MSU Observatory opens a window to the cosmos for researchers and the general public. Credit: Elias Aydi

If you live near Michigan State University’s main campus, there’s a good chance the MSU Observatory is no secret to you. Although MSU’s first observatory opened in 1881, the current structure is only in its 50s, which has been more than enough time to establish its dome as a campus icon.

Members of the community are welcome to stargaze at the Michigan State University Observatory during its regular public observing nights. Credit: Elias Aydi

And thanks to the current observatory’s outreach program, thousands of people within the Spartan community have seen the heavens brought down to Earth through the lenses of a 24-inch telescope.

But what may be a surprise, even to those who have visited the observatory, is that it’s also an active research site. Its research projects — like its outreach — are powered largely by undergraduate students. These students are preparing themselves to be leaders in a field with a storied history and bright future while furthering our knowledge of the cosmos and providing their neighbors in the community with out-of-this-world learning experiences.

Although observatories like MSU’s may not be as famous or powerful as the likes of Hubble and NASA’s newer space telescope known as the JWST, they’re still providing invaluable support to space research missions. These observatories on the ground can observe celestial objects for longer periods of time at a much lower cost than their more sophisticated, space-based counterparts. For its part, the MSU Observatory is chipping in to help NASA protect Earth from asteroids and confirm the existence of planets beyond our solar system.

By: Matt Davenport, Deon Foster, Jacob Templin-Fulton and Nick Schrader

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