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The past year saw SDSU scientists exploring the microscopic world, the universe at large, and everything in between. (Photo: Jeffrey Brown) The past year saw SDSU scientists exploring the microscopic world, the universe at large, and everything in between. (Photo: Jeffrey Brown)

Top Research Stories of 2016

It was a banner year for SDSU's research community.
By Michael Price

Another trip around the sun, another great year for San Diego State University’s research community. For fiscal 2015-16, SDSU secured $130 million in public and private funding, up from $120.6 million the previous fiscal year. The past year saw SDSU scientists exploring the microscopic world, the universe at large, and everything in between. Here are our picks for the top research stories from 2016.

Big Data, Better Health

Spearheaded by Guadalupe X. “Suchi” Ayala, professor of health promotion and behavioral science in SDSU’s Graduate School of Public Health, the university received a $10 million endowment from the National Institutes of Health to overhaul and modernize the infrastructure needed to conduct innovative research into health disparities. The endowment will contribute $2 million per year over the next five years to SDSU’s philanthropic auxiliary, the Campanile Foundation.

Fighting Barnacle Buildup with Biology

The coating of barnacles and other growth along the bottoms of boats is more than just an eyesore, it’s an economic issue. Biofouling, as it is known, slows down ships and impedes the readiness of emergency response and military vessels. A new study by SDSU biologist Nick Shikuma identified key developmental steps barnacles must take to metamorphose from their larval to adult state. Understanding this process could lead to new technologies to prevent the organisms from attaching to ships in the first place.

SDSU’s Brain Imaging Pioneer

Early next year, SDSU’s new, work-in-progress Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences Complex will receive SDSU's first state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. To direct the new brain imaging center, SDSU hired Martin Sereno, a pioneering figure within brain imaging who helped write the first software to accurately and automatically reconstruct the cortical surface from brain images in order to map out brain activity.

New Planet Is Largest Discovered That Orbits Two Suns

A team led by astronomers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and SDSU used the Kepler Space Telescope to identify a new planet, Kepler-1647 b, the largest planet yet discovered around a double-star system. The planet is 3,700 light-years away and approximately 4.4 billion years old, roughly the same age as the Earth.

Could Flies Help Us Understand Brain Injuries?

Each year, an estimated 1.7 million people in the United States sustain traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A new study led by SDSU biologist Kim Finley found that fruit flies could be the perfect candidate to use as a model organism for studying TBI.

Going Viral

During the past several years, the Viral Information Institute (VII), led by microbial ecologist Forest Rohwer, has been assembling a super-team of diverse, highly skilled researchers to combat problems too big for any single scientist or discipline to solve. This story showcased four VII scientists taking an unorthodox approach to some of the most boggling puzzles in microbiology today.

Algae Disrupt Coral Reefs’ Recycling

Coral reefs—the world’s most productive and diverse marine ecosystems—rely on a masterful recycling program to stay healthy. When this system goes awry, the recycling breaks down and endangers the coral reef’s health. A new study led by researchers at SDSU and published in the journal Nature Microbiology explores how human activity, especially overfishing, launches a process known as “microbialization” that destroys links in this delicate food chain.

Building a Better Concussion Test

The problem with standard on-field concussion protocols, including the one currently used by the National Football League, is that several of their components are subjective and prone to human error. Researchers from SDSU have developed an inexpensive, ultraportable balance board called BTrackS that provides fast, objective feedback on an athlete’s balance disruption following a suspected concussion.

Runaway Global Warming

The steady march of global warming over the past century has led to the thawing of permafrost—a layer of subsurface soil in the Arctic that usually remains frozen year-round. While that’s troubling for local ecosystems, it could have disastrous global impacts as well. SDSU biologist Donatella Zona wrote about this issue in a commentary article in the journal Nature.

Jimi Hendrix Lends New Plant Species His Name

Jimi Hendrix died more than 45 years ago, but his botanical legacy will live forever. A team of researchers, including SDSU plant biologist Michael Simpson, identified a new and rare species of succulent found only in Baja California and dubbed it Dudleya hendrixii, or “Hendrix’s liveforever,” in honor of the guitar virtuoso.