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Casey tours Lehigh research centers

Robert Alpago, left, deputy director of ATLSS, shows U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. around the Mountaintop center.

Near the end of his first formal visit to Lehigh as U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania, Bob Casey Jr. had good reason to feel like he was cramming for a difficult final exam.

Casey, a Democrat from Scranton, had already crisscrossed northeastern Pennsylvania on Feb. 20—speaking at Misericordia University in Dallas and at TEK Park in Breinigsville, and meeting with the editorial board of the Morning Call in Allentown—before arriving for his 4 p.m. appointment with Lehigh research and government relations officials.

He then proceeded to squeeze as much learning as he could into a 90-minute tour of the university.

He stopped for 15 minutes each at three research centers—the Center for Advanced Technology for Large Structural Systems (ATLSS), the Center for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology (CAMN) and the Center for Optical Technologies (COT)—that have received funding from state and federal agencies.

Following his research tutorials, Casey met with Lehigh President Alice P. Gast to discuss issues in higher education as well as several of the educational initiatives that Gast is leading at Lehigh.

While his earlier engagements had required him to speak and answer questions, Casey confined his activities at Lehigh primarily to listening.

“We have a lot to learn,” the senator quipped after a second host compressed years of research into a 10-minute presentation.

Going to the Mountaintop

Casey’s Lehigh itinerary began when he met Bruce Koel, vice provost for research; Bill Michalerya, associate vice president for government relations and economic development; and Vito Gallo, assistant vice president for state relations, outside Whitaker Lab.

Accompanied by Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan, the group boarded a Lehigh van and drove through South Bethlehem, passing the John M. Cook Technology Center along the Lehigh River, as Callahan discussed the role Lehigh is playing in the city’s economic revitalization efforts.

The party then drove to the ATLSS Center on Lehigh’s Mountaintop Campus. There, Robert Alpago, deputy director of the 22-year-old research center, described ATLSS’s unique ability to conduct full-scale experiments on the components of bridges, skyscrapers and other large structures.

ATLSS, Alpago told Casey, has received grants from the National Science Foundation, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Technology Alliance, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development, the Federal Highway Administration, and other government funding agencies.

This support has enabled researchers to develop high-performance steels and other new construction materials, to design new wireless systems that monitor the performance of structures in real time, and to help determine the causes of such major structural failures as Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge (2000), the I-35W Mississippi River Bridge in Minneapolis (2007) and the World Trade Center (2001).

Alpago also described ATLSS’s involvement, through the National Science Foundation’s George E. Brown Jr. Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation program, in a national effort to design and test buildings that can survive earthquakes with little or no damage.

A microscopic view

From ATLSS, Casey’s party drove back to Whitaker Lab to meet with CAMN officials, including director Martin Harmer; Gene Lucadamo, industrial liaison officer; and David Ackland, research scientist and electron microscopist, as well as Chris Kiely, director of Lehigh’s Nanocharacterization Lab.

Casey viewed two images—one of silicon atoms, the other of strontium-titanate molecules—obtained by Lehigh’s JEOL 2200FS transmission electron microscope, one of two aberration-corrected microscopes owned by the university.

“To develop advanced materials we need to be able to dissect materials atom by atom,” Harmer told Casey.

Lehigh, he added, is one of only four research institutes in the world with two aberration-corrected microscopes. The instruments can resolve images to about half the width of an atom and can determine the chemical identity of atoms in crystalline materials. The microscopes can also be used via the Internet by researchers or students at remote sites.

Harmer displayed two of the advanced materials that CAMN researchers are helping to develop. One, a thin, transparent and blast-resistant ceramic, could potentially be used for the windows of armored military vehicles as well as for bulletproof windows.

When Harmer handed Casey a stack of educational publications, the senator’s eye fell on a book titled Nanotechnology for Grades 1-6 that was written by Harmer’s wife, Andrea Harmer, who is CAMN director of Web-based instruction.

“I see we have some reading to do,” Casey said. “I’ll start with this book. I think quite a few of my colleagues would benefit by reading this.”

Reaching out to school children

Casey and his party then walked from the CAMN to the COT in neighboring Sinclair Lab, as Michalerya apologized a second time for the onslaught of acronyms.

COT director Tom Koch and industrial liaison officer Kim Trapp told Casey that, like ATLSS and CAMN, the optical technologies center strives to share its expertise and laboratory facilities with industries and with K-12 schools.

These outreach efforts include week-long camps, several of which are held each summer, for local and regional middle-school students.

“We feel that students in grades 5-8 are getting to the age when science stops being cool and starts being nerdy,” Koch said. “We want to reach them before their interest in science is snuffed out.”

Gast, who met with Casey last summer in his Washington, D.C., office, updated the senator on the progress that has been made toward key educational initiatives in environment and energy and in health-care issues.

She also stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain its position of global leadership in higher education as educational systems are improving in other nations. And she discussed Lehigh’s efforts to increase fundraising and thereby boost the amount of financial aid provided to students.

Casey was accompanied to Lehigh by several members of his staff, including his regional field representative, Ari Mittleman, who worked with Michalerya to arrange the tour.

--Kurt Pfitzer

Photo by Douglas Benedict

Posted on Monday, February 25, 2008

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