Guest Blog: Can we forecast the next pandemic?

From James Kaufman, Manager, Healthcare Information Infrastructure at IBM Research - Almaden:

In order to create effective policies and response plans for pandemics, public health officials need the ability to track how both seasonal flu and emerging strains like H1N1 can spread. If you think about it, an infectious disease spreading through a population is analogous to a storm moving across the ocean. Like weather, infectious disease can be studied and forecast using mathematical models.

For the past few years, we have been working on a new tool, the Spatio-Temporal Epidemiological Modeler or STEM, that’s designed to help public health officials and scientists model infectious disease scenarios. STEM can help us test and implement better response measures and protect populations from emerging disease. Epidemiologists have developed a wide range of mathematical tools to predict the future state of a disease in space and time. To rapidly develop new models, and to assess possible responses, we need a community of scientists and public health officials able to bring to bear freely available, open, technologies. This community should be able to reuse, share, and extend reference data and models, which allows users to rapidly build on each other's work. Eventually, the near real-time monitoring made possible by an electronic health record will provide epidemiologists with up-to-date input for new dynamic mathematical models of infectious diseases.

In the past, the best numerical studies of epidemiology have been conducted in university research groups using custom scientific software. While this approach has produced a foundation of knowledge that can be drawn upon as the field advances, the traditional development of scientific software may be too slow to respond on a time scale relevant to unexpected pandemics. With that in mind, STEM is an open source tool that is freely available through the Eclipse Foundation. Any scientist or researcher may contribute to and build on its growing library of mathematical models, computer code, and denominator data. As a part of Eclipse, STEM also provides a platform for collaboration and open exchange of models and ideas. Written in Java, STEM is Platform independent and available in versions for Microsoft, Apple, and Linux operating systems. It already contains denominator data for the entire world and it allows users to model the entire world on a fast workstation.

A video tutorial on how to download and use STEM is now available in English (below) and Spanish.

We encourage you to try it out and contribute to its growing library of models. You can also read more about STEM on Eclipse and in this paper that we recently published on infectious disease modeling.


Guest blogger: IBM scientists reinvent the record player needle?

Well, not exactly - let me explain.

Do you remember the last time you used a record player? For those readers born in the age of CDs and MP3s let me explain. Records have tiny grooves on them with peaks and valley's that are "read" by a tiny needle, which are then projected through a speaker for your listening pleasure. Often though, the needles wear out and eventually break, sometimes scratching your favorite Frank Sinatra or Beatles record beyond repair causing much heartburn.

I am taking you on this little tour down memory lane because a similar challenge is faced when scientists explore at the nano-scale using scanning probe-based techniques, which also employ a "needle" or tip as we call it. And while it's been a challenge for quite some time, IBM scientists in Zurich have effectively created a "needle" that will effectively never wear out, thus improving our ability to develop the next generation of more powerful computer chips with ultra-small features, that could extend their capabilities, quality and precision beyond the projected limits of current production and characterization tools. Let me explain.

Scanning probe-based techniques utilize tiny, nanometer-sharp tips borrowed from atomic force microscopy to characterize or manipulate nanostructures and devices by scanning or rather sliding in very close proximity over the surface - similar to the example of the way a needle plays records, except they never touch. Today, these techniques represent the scientists’ “eyes”, “ears”, “nose”, and “hands” as they explore the smallest objects known to mankind .

In the semiconductor industry, these techniques due to their atomic resolution and manipulation capabilities, have become increasingly attractive for next generation chips with ultra-small feature sizes. While small by most standards, today's 40 nm transistors can still shrink further, but it becomes increasingly challenging, due to the mechanical wear on the tips and due to the costs of the current tools and methods to process the chips out of silicon wafers, which approach their physical limitations.

To solve this challenge we have applied an AC voltage between the cantilever—similar to the arm of a record player with a needle—and the sample surface. The cantilever bends and the tip vibrates with an almost imperceptible estimated amplitude of one nanometer. Though vanishingly small, it is this vibration that greatly reduces friction and “effectively” eliminates tip wear under experimental conditions.

With the wear problem tackled, researchers at IBM Research – Zurich are now investigating a number of possible applications of scanning probe-based technologies including nanofabrication, nanolithography and high-speed metrology.

Now if I could just get those original records of yesterday fixed I could sleep better again.

Mark Lantz
IBM Research - Zurich


Inventors’ Corner: U.S. Patent # 7,519,658- Automatic blogging during media viewing

Imagine being able to comment about your favorite TV show or program in real-time via social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter -- without having to turn on a computer.

This patented invention allows you to post, tweet and communicate with friends via an enhanced remote control, which enables a viewer to “autoblog” and receive responses from other bloggers.

IBM inventors Howard Anglin, Yvonne Young, Elizabeth Silvia, Emily Ratliff and Chaitanya Kandagatla earned a patent for this invention, which permits viewers to share their observations with others as they experience “ juicy bits” of a favorite show or the big play that just happened during a televised sporting event.

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