Research Roundup

Credit: GARY WATERS

Prison Time Cuts Life Expectancy

For every year spent in prison, overall life expectancy decreases two years. A new study by Evelyn Patterson, assistant professor of sociology, looked at New York parolees released between 1989 and 2003 and found a 15.6 percent increase in the odds of death compared to people who had never been to prison. That translates to a two-year decline in life expectancy for every year served inside prison.

The average American male has a 9 percent chance of going to prison during his lifetime, Patterson says, citing 1991 incarceration rates. That jumps to 16 percent for Hispanic males and 28.5 percent for black males.

The study did turn up a small bright spot. If a prisoner serves out parole without returning to prison, he eventually gains the years back to his lifespan lost during his prison stay. “This finding is in line with prior research that reports high risk of death initially that declines over time,” says Patterson, who published the results of her study online Jan. 17 in the American Journal of Public Health.

Health care during the months after prison is a particular problem when an inmate with an illness is discharged with a 30-day supply of medication and little chance of connecting with a new health care provider.

“Scientists have dedicated centuries of research in an attempt to understand the levels of mortality in human populations and lowering them,” Patterson says. “This study demonstrated that one of the United States’ core institutions does the exact opposite. This is particularly distressing given that the United States supersedes every other nation in its propensity to incarcerate.”

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Competition Aims to Revolutionize Military Manufacturing

Vanderbilt’s Institute for Software Integrated Systems (ISIS) is playing a key role in developing engineering software that could help dramatically reduce costs and lead times in developing new military vehicles by radically transforming the existing design and manufacturing process.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has challenged inventors to design a new amphibious fighting vehicle for the U.S. Marine Corps in a series of three competitions.

Vanderbilt’s multiple key roles include lead developer of a cloud-based collaboration hub where designers can organize team projects. ISIS is also the lead integrator and developer for the META-X project, which provides the open-source tool used in creating, testing and validating designs. The goal is to develop new software that can analyze interaction among design components and determine how well they work together.

The DARPA design challenge is titled FANG, which stands for Fast, Adaptive, Next-Generation Ground Vehicle. The challenge consists of three competitions of increasing complexity. The first challenge—which ran Jan. 14–April 22 and had a $1 million prize—was to design a suitable power train, including engine, drive train, suspension, and wheels or treads. The second challenge, which carries another $1 million prize, will be to design the chassis, armored hull, personnel space and related subsystems. The final challenge offers a $2 million prize for best design of an entire vehicle. The agency has invited individuals, small teams, and businesses and major defense contractors to compete.

Learn more about the FANG Design Challenges.

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By comparing input across its two nostrils, a common mole gets directional information from a single sniff. (COURTESY OF KEN CATANIA)

Smell in Stereo? Holy Moley!

Most mammals, including humans, see in stereo and hear in stereo. But whether they can also smell in stereo is the subject of a long-standing scientific controversy.

Now a new study shows definitively that the common mole (Scalopus aquaticus)—the same critter that disrupts your lawn—relies on stereo sniffing to locate its prey. The paper that describes this research, “Stereo and Serial Sniffing Guide Navigation to an Odor Source in Mammals,” was published Feb. 5 in the journal Nature Communications.

“I came at this as a skeptic. I thought the moles’ nostrils were too close together to effectively detect odor gradients,” says Kenneth Catania, the Stevenson Professor of Biological Sciences, who conducted the research.
What he found turned his assumptions upside down and opened new areas for potential future research. “The fact that moles use stereo-odor cues to locate food suggests other mammals that rely heavily on their sense of smell, like dogs and pigs, might also have this ability,” he says.

As for humans, Catania remains skeptical. “In humans this is easier to test because you can ask a blindfolded person to tell you which nostril is being stimulated by odors presented with tubes inserted in the nose.” Such studies suggest it is only when an odor is strong enough to irritate the nostril lining that humans can tell which side is most strongly stimulated.

Watch a mole sniffing demonstration.