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Spring 2007 Vol. V, No. 3

Technology @ AUB: A Research Revolution

Rethinking Technology and Research at AUB

Technology is not only changing how research is done, it is also expanding the possibilities in every field. Research to discover what motivates people to shop on-line or to model the human brain is relatively new both at AUB and at research centers worldwide. For scientists who have been working in laboratories for many years, however, the availability of technology may not have changed their research topics but it has certainly revolutionized the research experience and has led to some surprising results that directly impact the lives of those who live and work in the region.

Modeling the brain
It is hard to imagine anything more “high-tech” than modeling the human brain. It turns out, however, that this is something that scientists and researchers have been doing for some time. Fadi Karameh, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working with a modified EEG (electroencephalogram) machine that has been especially designed for research to increase his understanding of how the brain works. (EEGs, which measure electrical activity in the brain, have been routinely used in hospitals for many years for a wide range of purposes including detecting tumors.) Karameh explains that his approach is slightly different from that of many researchers who work in this field, in part because of his training as an engineer. “My work is integrative. I want to pull it all together, to look at the big picture, and identify common organizing principles.” By looking at different brain areas and finding similar neuronal “microcircuits,” he hopes to learn how information is shared in the brain and how higher cognitive centers in the brain, such as attention and planning, recruit lower cognitive areas, such as motor execution. Karameh explains that this is a “vast field” and that “experimentation occurs at several scales and spans the molecular level, cellular level, networks of neurons, all the way to the EEG scale, which is a signature activity recorded from the scalp.” His challenge is to find what he calls “simplified engineering models” of how components in this system work.

Both faculty and students have taken advantage of the EEG to expand their research. In 2005-06, Salam Akoum, Mariam Itani, and Rayan Jaber (who were all fourth-year students in electrical and computer engineering last year and have since graduated) designed a final-year project to explore “new techniques in brain-computer interface.” They were curious to see if the machine could detect when someone thought, for example, about moving a limb. When it came time to test their hypothesis, Jaber volunteered to be the “guinea pig.” (It turns out that he was a particularly good candidate because the machine works better on people with less hair.) With the cap firmly on his head and the electrodes hooked up to the EEG, Jaber places his hands on his knees. When his professor (Karameh) tells him to think of moving his right arm, the visual monitor registers this “movement”—except of course that there has been no movement, at least none that was visible to those of us in the room. Although Jaber did not move (his hands never left his knees), Karameh explains that it is possible to find an electrical signature from a bunch of electrodes hooked on to the cap over brain centers responsible for movement planning and execution. This type of research has biomedical applications and could, for example, make a huge difference in the lives of people who are fitted with artificial limbs. “Imagine if you could move your artificial arm or leg the way you wanted to just by thinking about it?” Karameh asks.

Assessing the Impact of the Jiyyeh Oil Spill on the Food of the Poor
When Israel bombed the Jiyyeh Power Plant south of Beirut on July 13 and again on July 15, 2006, it caused an oil spill that dumped more than 15,000 tons of heavy fuel oil into the Mediterranean Sea and polluted almost 90 miles of Lebanese coastline. In addition to the devastating short- and long-term environmental and economic effects, the oil spill may have also caused severe and long-lasting damage to the marine ecosystem, affecting fishermen’s livelihoods and the food supply of many people who live in the area. Professor Elie Barbour, Department of Animal Sciences, is leading an AUB team which includes Houssam Shaib, Alia Sabra, and Alexander Barclay that is looking at one aspect of the oil spill: its impact on the marine species that make up a significant part of the diet of the poor. They are doing this by measuring the levels of two contaminants, namely, PAH (a family of chemicals known as polyaromatic hydrocarbons, some members of which can be carcinogenic, that is present in the oil spill) and PCB (a family of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls) and three heavy metals (lead, nickel, and vanadium) in two types of fish (Siganus rivulatus or

“Muasta” as it is known in Lebanon and Mugil capito or “Bouri Dehben”), and in oysters.

All of this testing from A to Z will be done on campus at AUB labs. Sabra, an AUB master’s student in ecosystem management-agriculture who is writing her thesis on the oil spill, explains that Greenpeace collected the oyster samples 72 days after the bombardment of the Jiyyeh Plant from six sites: two south of Jiyyeh and four to the north. (Because of the prevailing sea currents at the time of the attack, the affected areas are all in Lebanon to the north of Jiyyeh.) Barbour, who has been adopting new technologies in the Animal Science Laboratory of the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Sciences explains that this type of work is becoming “easier, cheaper, and less time-consuming.” He explains that the technologies are more environmentally friendly these days: “We now use safe reagents and avoid using those that are toxic or radioactive.” There are also fewer “false positives,” (a result that would, for example, indicate contamination when there is no contamination). “The technology is also more sensitive, and therefore can detect as little as 0.2 ug per gram of dried tissues of the collected samples. In addition, the technology is cheaper.” Rami Zurayk, who is working with Barbour on this project, agrees: “We can now do things with $10,000 that we could not have done in the past with $50,000.”

The Jiyyeh oil spill in July 2006 polluted almost 90 miles of Lebanese coastline. AUB professors are assessing the potentially long lasting damage to the ecosystems and to a marine species that makes up a significant part of the diet of the poor.

Figuring out what makes eBay tick
Rima Fayad is working in a field that would not exist without technology. She laughs when I ask her about this: “You’re right. This field is very new.” Fayad, who has been at the Suliman S. Olayan School of Business since fall 2006, is working on e-commerce. “The internet created this new market—called e-commerce—that we don’t really understand yet. How does it work? How is it different from traditional commerce? What are the factors that cause people to go on-line to shop and, quite often, to actually buy something? That is my research topic.”

To study the behavior of on-line buyers, Fayyad created a website that sold music. When people visited the site, they were asked a series of questions to determine why they had come to the site and what motivated them to make a purchase or not to make a purchase. Fayad explains that in traditional research, behavioral intentions (the intention to visit or buy) are used as a substitute for actual behavior, which is difficult to measure. In her research, however, she has been able to examine actual behavior by “using four measures, namely: actual purchase, access number, access total time, and access average time.” The results of her study indicate that there is a relationship between actual on-line behavior and satisfaction with the process, and outcome of the on-line shopping experience. “In addition,” according to Fayad, “the results of the study substantiated that satisfaction with buying on-line (receiving the exact item ordered, receiving the item on time, the availability of a good return policy, etc.) was related to the actual purchase of a product.”

“The internet created this new market—called e-commerce—that we don’t really understand yet. How does it work? How is it different from traditional commerce? What are the factors that cause people to go on-line to shop and, quite often, to actually buy something?

Technology as preventative medicine
Using technology that was not available just two or three years ago, Pierre Zalloua, an associate professor in the Cellular and Molecular Biology Unit at the Faculty of Medicine, is working on a European Commission funded project to identify genetic and other markers for cardiovascular disease. Zalloua, who trained as a geneticist, notes that cardiovascular diseases are the leading cause of death in many countries including Lebanon and the United States. Working with colleagues at Oxford, Imperial College London, Centre National de Génotypage Paris, Novo, and two small biotech companies, he is trying to “figure out who is at risk before they develop cardiovascular disease.” Zalloua explains that they are using a multidisciplinary approach in which “many novel technologies are brought together” and will be simultaneously using something called a “mouse model,” a laboratory mouse that is used for medical research because it has specific characteristics that resemble a human disease or disorder.

Discovering the anti-cancer potential of Lebanese sage

Hala Muhtasib, a professor of biology, is also doing things that she could not have imagined not so long ago. With research interests that range from cancer chemotherapy and cancer prevention to identifying potential “targets” for prevention and therapy, Muhtasib says that there has been a significant change in her work in the laboratory. “Thanks to technology, some of our greatest concerns (such as the risk of contamination) are no longer a problem.” She continues, “We now use fluorescent markers that enable us to quickly identify cells that carry a particular ‘label’. This makes it possible to identify specific drug targets. By knowing more precisely how specific drugs impact individual cells, we can treat disease more effectively.”

As a member of IBSAR (the Initiative for Biodiversity Studies in Arid Regions) at AUB, Muhtasib is using some modern lab techniques to conduct experimental studies of a traditional product: Lebanese sage, a plant that is endemic to the region and has long been used in traditional medicine to treat colds, coughs, and stomach aches. Muhtasib’s work has revealed that Lebanese sage may also have anti-cancer potential. “For the first time, we are figuring out which of its 11 components are responsible for biological activity and how they work.” This is exactly the type of research that IBSAR, a group of faculty members who are dedicated to preserving the region’s biodiversity, is seeking to promote. “To make nature conservation a viable alternative for those who live and work in the region today,” Muhtasib explains, “we need to work with farmers and others to help them identify economic opportunities that give them a reason to get involved in sustainable nature conservation.”

Muhtasib points out that although many of the changes in laboratory procedures and equipment are not recent, they have occurred in a relatively brief period of time. She laughs, “I’m not that old and yet I have seen enormous changes during my career.” Muhtasib, who has been at AUB since 1994, says that there has been a significant improvement in the equipment and laboratory resources at AUB in recent years. She mentions the Central Research Science Laboratory, which was established in 2000, in particular. (Kamal Shair, AUB trustee, recently made a $1.5 million gift to endow and name the laboratory.) “It is the most amazing facility on campus,” she says. She is quick to add, however, that the need for funding for equipment and staff support, especially for individual departments, remains.

“Muhtasib is using some modern lab techniques to conduct experimental studies of a traditional product: Lebanese sage, a plant that is endemic to the region and has long been used in traditional medicine to treat colds, coughs, and stomach aches. Muhtasib’s work has revealed that Lebanese sage may also have anti-cancer potential.”

Is clean fuel an economically viable option for Lebanon?
The focus of Maher Ahmadieh, Randa Alameh, and Rola Fakhoury’s project is also about pollution. All fourth-year students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, they are doing their final year project on the different options for improving emissions from Lebanon’s power plants, which are one of the biggest contributors to air pollution in the country. There are several alternatives under consideration: switching to low-sulfur fuel oil; using end-of-pipe technology (by, for example, installing flue gas desulfurization systems); or shifting to natural gas. Their supervisor, Professor Farid Chaaban, explains that the group “is developing software for advanced economic analysis to examine the three alternatives under consideration.” The study will be conducted at the Jiyyeh and Zouk power plants and will consider both economic and environmental factors. The software and the study itself will be made available to the Ministry of Energy and Water and to interested students.