WSUV hearing research nabs grant

Assistant professor’s long-term proposal is to ‘build an ear’

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Did you know?

DARPA last week announced its “Shredder Challenge.” It is offering up to $50,000 for the best process for reconstructing shredded documents seized by U.S. troops in war zones. DARPA added that “computer scientists, puzzle enthusiasts and anyone else who likes solving complex problems” also would help identify vulnerabilities in the shredding practices of our national security community. Shredder Challenge.

A Washington State University Vancouver scientist who is studying hearing has received a grant from a Defense Department agency that funds high-risk/high-payoff research.

Jie Xu, assistant professor in WSUV’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, was tabbed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for one of its 2011 Young Faculty Award grants.

Xu was chosen for his work, which combines biology and technology and might help military personnel recover from combat-related hearing loss.

He received $193,000 for his project, “Ear on a Chip: Microfluidics for Characterization and Control of Hair-Cell Sensing with Acoustic Stimuli.”

“We’re reinventing biology,” Xu said a few days ago in a WSUV lab.

That can come in handy after human biology is subjected to combat. If you don’t see a connection there with “Ear on a Chip,” consider this: According to a recent report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the No. 1 disability in the war on terror is hearing loss.

“I propose to build an ear,” Xu said.

As an engineer, Xu said, his goal is to learn from nature and then create things that can benefit people.

This project is based on microfluidics, a technology that can control and manipulate small amounts of fluids. “Ear on a Chip” will be a microfluidic system containing live cells to sense different sound frequencies.

“The plan is use the cells to convert sound into an electronic signal in the device,” the 28-year-old Xu said. “Sound is vibration.

“For the short term, we hope to use this sort of a device to test if drugs are protective” of the ear’s function, Xu said.

“In the long term, maybe it will be engineered into a prosthetic,” to replace a person’s damaged sense of hearing, Xu said. “That is far, far down the road.”

That is what DARPA does — look far, far down the road.

Earlier innovations

DARPA was created in 1958, a few month after the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik showed that the U.S. needed to fundamentally change its defense research and technology. In the 50 years that followed, DARPA (also known as ARPA) was involved in initiatives that led to NASA, the Internet, stealth aircraft and the Global Positioning System.

Several grad students are working with different aspects of Xu’s project in different labs.

Mike Yu has been testing microscopic bubbles to see what size bubble vibrates at what frequency. The four bubbles on his computer screen during a recent lab session ranged from 100 microns — a bit larger than the diameter of a human hair — to 500 microns.

Across the hall, Nan Lei is working on an even smaller scale in the nanotechnology lab.

There are 1,000 nanometers in a micron, so the graduate student uses a scanning electron microscope to observe and fabricate materials that will be used as sensors in the “Ear on a Chip” project.

“This is compatible with the silicon industry,” Xu said. The WSUV nano lab includes a “clean room,” illuminated in a yellow tint, where wafers are processed.

Xu is among 39 on-the-rise faculty members who are getting a total of $11.7 million in this year’s grants.

The awards also provide mentoring and industry contacts within the Department of Defense for research involving national security.