Meet the Skolar Award 2016 semifinalists!

The jury has chosen ten excellent research ideas that will proceed to the Skolar Award semifinals. Are you ready to have your mind blown by science?

Text: Kristiina Markkanen

The power of the civic visual in democracy

Tanja Aitamurto, @tanjaaita
Stanford University
Social Sciences & Technology

Reading a text on something complicated, like the implications of an immigration law reform, can leave you puzzled and lost. An interactive infographic, on the other hand, can help you get the grasp of the subject in a few minutes.

We are increasingly exposed to visual information in advanced digital forms such as interactive infographics, 360° videos and augmented reality applications. This project examines the impact of visual information on citizens’ understanding about complex societal issues and on their capacity to act upon the received information. By identifying the most effective ways of representing information visually, this project harnesses the power of visual representation for advancing citizens’ learning and understanding about societally relevant matters, such as migration or taxation.

In the era of the information overload, misinformation and societal distrust there is a growing need for knowledge that contributes to mitigating civic ignorance and empowering citizens with actionable information. This research helps create informed citizenry by harnessing the power of visual information and educating citizens and thus increasing understanding about complex topics and empathy towards others.

Tackling climate change with a carbon dioxide capture mechanism

Cyril Jose Bajamundi, @cyrilbajamundi
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Humanity has reached a point of no return. The carbon dioxide levels on this planet are alarming and we’re looking at a 1.5°C increase in the global temperature. It’s time to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and use it as a resource.

That’s what this research project wants to achieve. Cellulose from Finnish forests will be converted into a material that attracts carbon dioxides, an absorbent, and will be used to directly capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This procedure still is very energy intensive, but it isn’t impossible.

The main problem this project aims to tackle is climate change. While traditional carbon capture and storage technologies prevent the emission of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, direct air capture (DAC) is the only technology that can collect the carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere right now.

Towards real-time image-based medical diagnosis on wearable devices

Miguel Bordallo López, @gatafunho
University of Oulu

Imagine a doctor wearing a camera-based device to unobtrusively monitor a patient’s physiological measurements or diagnosing possible diseases by simply observing a patient’s face from a distance. Sounds convenient, right?

Automated medical diagnosis assistance and health monitoring provide objective information on a patient’s condition. For example, this group’s recent research suggests that up to 30 medically relevant symptoms or conditions can be detected or at least assessed objectively using computer vision methods and facial images. The main research objective here is to gain understanding on how to build the future wearable platforms in order to meet the requirements of novel real-time medical applications. Another objective is to find information that will help propose solutions to the development challenges and trade-offs that need to be dealt with when considering small-sized battery powered devices, such as camera-based wearables.

During the past decade, there have been numerous research and development efforts in the field of wearable health monitoring systems. However, most of the proposed techniques require users to strap on bulky sensors, chest straps or sticky electrodes. This project has the promise to transform the future of healthcare by creating real-time and invisible medical diagnosis and health monitoring technology, accessible by ordinary people. This revolution will take place in our everyday lives.

Language as a vehicle for vision

Maija Hirvonen
University of Helsinki

300 million people around the world are blind or have low vision. In the near future they could be assisted by an automatic technology that translates the visual and audiovisual contents on the web or in the environment into text.

This project concentrates on studying and developing automatic content description of audiovisual material to both benefit visually impaired people and advance the work by researchers, historians, and the media industry as a means of managing audiovisual big data. The research relates to contemporary issues of for instance human-machine interaction and artificial intelligence and complements them with a human perspective: What are the limits and usage possibilities of automatic translation from images into words, and how usable is the resulting description?

We are in the midst of a cultural revolution in which we interact with audiovisual and visual forms of communication instead of or along with language. Because of this there’s a risk that visually impaired people might be left outside the modern society and culture. This research aims to solve the problem of exclusion from visual culture.

Biomarkers for Early Onset of Sepsis

Craig Richmond
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Millions of people globally are affected by sepsis.  In the USA alone, more than 215.000 people die from sepsis each year. It is estimated that nearly 100.000 of these deaths could be prevented by early detection. In addition, it is the most expensive condition treated in USA hospitals, costing over $20 billion annually.

Early medical diagnosis and treatment is essential for saving patient lives, as well as reducing the pressure on health care systems all around the world. This project aims at creating a device that could detect the early onset of sepsis using only exhaled human breath. The isotopic composition of carbon dioxide (CO2) in exhaled breath has shown promise as a potential biomarker for the early onset of sepsis.

This project will fill an urgent need for real-time, sample-bag free breath analysis. Importantly, it is suitable for use with mechanically ventilated patients. In addition, it will investigate an exciting opportunity to permit detection of the onset of sepsis significantly earlier than current methods.

Manufacturing industrial size nanomaterials in just a few seconds

Juha Heikki Koivisto
Aalto University School of Science

A typical laboratory produces litres of nanoparticles a day. A typical factory buys materials by the truckloads. How to solve the volume difference? By selling air using particle-laden foams.

Manipulating these foams through porous media to various molds requires one crucial thing, though: mastering the currently unknown time-dependent aspect of their stress-strain response. Once we understand the behavior of functional particle-laden foams we can distribute the expensive and scarce nanoparticles to places where they have the most significant effect. That’d be the bubble boundaries. A high active surface area is important in drug delivery, catalysators and portable batteries. The use of foams as raw material reduces the resource consumption by 99 percent, resulting in greener industrial products and processes.

To solve the mysterious behavior of particle-laden foams we need to create a measurement technique without any boundary effects. Thus, the foam is levitated on a dense carrier gas and manipulated with soundwaves to a desired form. This results in scientific measurements so precise you wouldn’t believe. These measurements can then lead to new discoveries in shear localization.

Detection of a weak link

Juha-Pekka Kulmala
Helsinki University Central Hospital

We use our locomotor muscles every day. Just a simple walk puts them into good use. Despite this a very significant question remains unanswered: to what extent of their capacity must our key locomotor muscles (the muscles that we use to move) work to enable antigravity support?

To be able to walk safely and without falling over our leg muscles have to develop enough force to support our body weight. Although we use our leg extensor muscles to produce the majority of our locomotor support, very little is known to what extent of their functional capacity these key muscle groups work during walking. And because no general procedure exists to objectively reveal the “weak links” in walking (that is the muscles operating closest to their maximum available capacity), detecting and targeting the precise muscles that limit the individual’s functional ability is challenging.

Previously this research team found out a very reasonable approximation of the primary locomotor muscle efforts across human walking and running in healthy young adults. The next steps aim to expand these methods to clinical practice, in order to better plan individualized therapies to support a patient’s motor capabilities, and initiate a general test station for public use in order to detect individual weak links in walking and posture control.   

The proposed project plays a pivotal role in putting the gained information into the general practice. Specifically, this project will provide new ways of exploring the way the human body works and how that varies depending on for example age, gender or physical condition.

How to increase sustainability by using carbon dioxides

Cristina Mottillo
McGill University
Natural Sciences

Carbon dioxide is everywhere. It bubbles our drinks and sustains our plant life. At the same time it’s the most detrimental greenhouse gas on the planet. What if we could not only remove all that carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, but use it to make highly advanced and useful materials?

The team behind this project has developed a patent-pending technology where carbon dioxide is put to use as a green, environmentally-friendly medium to make sponge-like materials called metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). MOFs are porous powders: one particle less than 1mm in size has the surface area of a football field. MOF-based materials have been used in food packaging and gas storage industries. There is one caveat, though – the typical synthesis of MOFs requires high temperatures, large amounts of toxic solvents and corrosive salts. There lies the motivation behind this technology: The drive to make cleaner and more environmentally-friendly materials.

The global energy crisis is increasing in scale as we struggle to source, store, and effectively use the energy we need to sustain life. MOFs could help solve for example gas storage challenges.

Zebrafish stem cells could help us recover from injuries

Mari Palviainen, @mpalviai
University of Helsinki

Cells produce and release tiny extracellular vesicles, EVs in short, which mediate communication between cells and tissues. EVs contain all main forms of biomolecules (nucleic acids, proteins, lipids) and can thus uniquely provide a multimedia message in cellular communication. Because of this cargo EVs are already considered for therapeutic applications, and they could be particularly useful for regenerative medicine.

This researcher compares the molecular cargo of EVs originating from human and zebrafish stem cells and identifies components that promote optimal tissue regeneration. Why zebrafish? You’ll see. Stem cells, a source of regenerating potential, are intensively investigated for therapeutic use. They don’t enter the injury site, though, but their effects are rather mediated by secreted substances, such as EVs. Although adult mammals cannot renew most damaged tissues, zebrafish have the astounding ability to regenerate tissues and even organs. Their EVs, derived from stem cells, could have multipotent – that is self-renewing and specifically differentiating – abilities for regeneration and tissue repair.

If mammalian tissue could completely recover from an injury with the help of EVs originating from zebrafish stem cells, this could open up a limitless new toolbox for multifaceted therapeutics.

The coniferous forest – a novel source for antibiotics?

Virpi Virjamo
University of Eastern Finland
Environmental & Biological Sciences

Trees are not only wood, but a valuable source of highly active compounds. Some of them are even useful as antioxidants or antibiotics. You could say they have healing powers – or at least potential.

This research project steps on unmanned territory. Coniferous trees produce three chemically different groups of compounds, but only the two most abundant ones – phenolics and terpenes – have been focused on. The third group, alkaloids, is present in lower concentrations than the better known groups, and is not visible in standard laboratory analyses. But with suitable methods these compounds have been detected in both young twigs and resin, plant parts used in traditional remedy. The goal of this research is to find out if these compounds specific to conifers are responsible of the healing effect of spruce and pine, and if these compounds could be further utilized in science-based medicine.

Antibiotic resistance is a growing and alarming global problem. Discovering new wide-spectrum drugs that could replace defunct antibiotics has seemed like a difficult task. The possibility of finding a new type of compounds with antimicrobial activity in coniferous trees offers the world an enormous opportunity.

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