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NC universities use federal funds for military-related research

In a third-floor lab on Duke University's campus, Assistant Professor Kenneth Morton explains how research is helping to improve the mine detectors used by soldiers in Afghanistan.

A collection of aged explosives, similar to what research is helping to uncover overseas, sits behind the projector screen in the otherwise nondescript room in Duke's Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences.

The disarmed mortars and other military-grade weapons are helping researchers at Duke develop software that can more accurately detect hidden bombs in a split second.

The lab also is developing camera technology that could recognize changes in the landscape, pinpointing potential hiding places for the bombs.

"It's a game we're fighting," Morton said. "They're trying to beat us, and we're trying to beat them."

The research -- led by Professor Leslie Collins and involving Morton, another assistant professor and nearly a dozen graduate students -- wouldn't be possible without funding from the Department of Defense.

Across the state, researchers at all of North Carolina's major universities are leveraging defense dollars to fund research with military applications. Funding at some schools has increased significantly during the past decade of war.

"The work that research universities do to support our military has never been more important," N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson said on his school's Military Appreciation Day last fall.

Using defense funding, N.C. State is studying the breeds of dog best suited to detect roadside bombs. It also is working on developing a surface that can make ships barnacle-proof, saving fuel and cleaning costs, and studying which materials best protect humans from heat and flame.

Many of the research projects have potential uses outside the military.

At Duke, Drs. Chris Woods and Micah McClain hope their military-funded research will eventually lead to better diagnoses of disease in general.

The pair is developing a test that may be able to detect illnesses long before any symptoms manifest themselves.

"It's a great example of collective work between the military and a top-level research institution," Woods said. "We are on the cusp of changing the way a lot of diagnoses are made."

Woods' research began in the middle of the last decade, in response to a request from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Woods said his research could help prevent soldiers with infectious diseases from deploying and could keep soldiers who may soon suffer serious medical symptoms from going on patrol.

But it's the nonmilitary application that really excites him.

"The downstream benefit to practical medicine is potentially huge," he said. "It's a great public benefit."

At the University of North Carolina's main campus in Chapel Hill, officials said researchers are using Pentagon money to study post-traumatic stress in veterans and its connection to criminal behavior, as well as the psychological impact of war on military spouses. Other researchers at UNC are using military dollars to study cancer-causing stem cells.

At Fayetteville State University, defense dollars for research amount to nearly $800,000, with another $815,537 projected in grant funding through 2017, FSU spokesman Jeff Womble said.

Those projects include the genetic mapping of seeds to help learn how to grow healthier soybeans, which could reduce the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The military funding boosts more than just research budgets.

At UNC-Chapel Hill, officials partnered with Army Special Operations Command to create a new degree program for veteran medics.

The physician assistant master's degree program will enroll its first class in 2015, aiming to build on extensive medical training already received by Special Forces medics.

FSU also has used military funding to develop a new graduate degree.

The university's master's program in social work is for soldiers at Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Fayetteville State also is developing a certificate in geospatial intelligence -- the collection of information through satellite imagery, aircraft and other mediums -- for its main campus.

While not all universities could provide the total amount of defense funding they've received, some have drawn millions from their partnerships with the military.

Last year, Duke netted more than $33 million in defense funding, nearly double the more than $17 million it received in 2008 but less than the school's peak funding of more than $44 million in 2010.

It's unclear how sequestration and other budget cuts may affect the research.

A Duke spokesman said the school had not heard whether its military funding would be affected.

Among the school's projects are the research into improving detection of land mines and improvised explosive devices, and the study of sea creatures to help with camouflage.

The latter involves the study of cephalopods, such as cuttlefish and squid, which change color and shape to blend into their environments.

Yakir Gagnon and other Duke researchers want to know why the creatures pick the particular colors and shapes they do and how they form the patterns so quickly.

The end result, Gagnon said, may ultimately help the military pick a better camouflage for its troops.

Another high-profile research project on Duke's campus is the use of metamaterials -- artificially constructed materials with unique electromagnetic properties -- to create an "invisibility cloak" that could be used to conceal military equipment.

Assistant research professor Yaroslav Urzhumov said his research is 99 percent funded by the military.

He said nearly all of the service branches are interested in metamaterials.

"It's hard to come up with a Department of Defense agency that hasn't funded some research," he said.

Part of Urzhumov's research is aimed at cloaking ships, planes and drones to make them virtually invisible to radars and sonar.

Using metamaterials to coat the objects, he said, has returned results "previously thought unthinkable or surreal."

"The current stealth technology works very well, but stealth aircraft can be seen with help of arrays of radars," he said. "One way to get around that is to develop a true cloak. That's what we want."

While bomb-detection software and "invisibility cloaks" don't appear to have any practical application outside of the military, it may just be too early to tell.

The common GPS mapping system used in smartphones and car navigation systems, and that lowly roll of duct tape, are among the many commonly used products designed for the military.

 

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