Researchers discuss technologies for national defense

A soldier asleep on a couch.
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided more than $25 million in research funding to the Sleep and Performance Research Center.

Scientific understanding of sleep and the potential consequences of sleep deprivation have come a long way since Hans Van Dongen arrived in the fall of 2005 at WSU Spokane’s Sleep and Performance Research Center.

The year before Van Dongen joined the lab while working elsewhere, Van Dongen and colleagues had discovered some people are more resilient to sleep loss than others. But Van Dongen knew there was more to understanding this ability than simply some people being better equipped to deal with fewer hours of shuteye.

The WSU research that followed would be watched closely not only by private industry with round-the-clock workforces but by the U.S. military and other federal agencies responsible for national security. Whether it’s soldiers in the field, military commanders making life-and-death decisions or civilian shift workers with irregular sleep schedules, understanding the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive performance and decision-making can be critical.

“To understand what sleep deprivation does to someone, we needed to have a better understanding of what happens in the brain when someone is asked to perform a variety of functions,” Van Dongen explained.

Van Dongen and his team have published research in recent years showing that even among those resilient to sleep deprivation, there can be significant variance in their ability to accomplish certain tasks. Some may struggle with forming new memories or acting quickly, but remain cognitively flexible, that is, able to recognize unexpected changes in their environment and responding accordingly.

Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided more than $25 million in research funding to the Sleep and Performance Research Center. The support of the national security community has been foundational to the center since the very beginning, Van Dongen said, but it’s not the only WSU lab doing vital national defense research.

DARPA Forward conference

Next month, the U.S. agency at the center of much of the nation’s most advanced military research is coming to the Pullman campus for a two‑day conference designed to engage the Pacific Northwest scientific community.

The DARPA Forward conference at WSU Pullman is one of six regional conferences being held nationally and organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the research arm of the U.S. armed forces. The agency chose WSU Pullman for its Pacific Northwest conference, which is taking place Sept. 13 and 14 and will include a variety of talks and presentations from world-leading experts.

“With DARPA Forward, we want to inspire new thinking across and at the intersection of disciplines to support our mission of creating technological surprise,” said Stefanie Tompkins, DARPA director. “We want people to take from these events a desire to help change the world for the better and to know working with DARPA is a tangible way to do it.”

The federal agency describes DARPA Forward as an opportunity for new talent and familiar partners to find inspiration and contribute the DARPA mission, which is to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security.

Among the DARPA Forward presenters from WSU will be Van Dongen, whose talk will focus on the challenges of understanding and effecting resiliency to deficits caused by sleep loss and how these challenges could be overcome in the future. Conference attendees will also hear from Mani Venkatasubramanian, a Boeing Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and director of WSU’s Energy Systems Innovation Center.

For more information on the conference, including how to register, visit DARPA’s website.

Two sleep researchers sit in front of a bank of computer screens as one speaks to someone via a microphone.
Since 2005, the U.S. Department of Defense has provided more than $25 million in research funding to the Sleep and Performance Research Center.

Department of Defense funded WSU research

“Washington State University has a long tradition of research supporting national security and we’re honored DARPA selected our Pullman campus to host this important gathering of top research scientists,” said WSU Vice President for Research Chris Keane. “This is an opportunity for the Pacific Northwest’s research community to come together and demonstrate the strength and breadth of the region’s experience.”

The university’s connection to national security indeed stretches back decades.

From exploring the musculature of rodents to developing materials that are more resilient to explosive armaments, military-funded research at WSU spans an array of fields of study. Since 2018 alone, the Defense Department has provided more than $45 million in research support to WSU.

It’s not surprising to see WSU’s Institute for Shock Physics or the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering among the recipients of defense funding. Shock wave research at WSU began in the late 1950s. In 1968, WSU’s Shock Dynamics Laboratory began experimental shock wave research in condensed mater with the support of the Department of Defense. ISP was formed in 1997 as a way to ensure continued research in the field with support from the Department of Energy. 

Both the federal defense and energy departments remain critical supporters of WSU research to this day. The research funding, however, goes far beyond developing materials that better withstand the impact of explosives or advancing artificial intelligence.

Since he was a doctoral student, David Lin has been interested in designing better engineered systems. He’s pursued that goal by examining how animals have evolved to overcome challenges posed by their environments.

“If you look at animals in extreme environments, they’ve evolved to adapt to meet these challenges and as a result often exhibit the extremes of motor performance,” Lin, who is in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, said.

In classical robotics, environmental challenges are tackled with ever more elaborate feedback systems. But rather than responding to challenges with more sensors and controllers, Lin is interested in seeing whether the muscular structure of highly evolved species can inspire mechanical components that handle the burden of harsh or unexpected terrain.

In his work, Lin studies the ballistic motor performance of kangaroo rats, work that was funded by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. While kangaroo rats have a large percentage of their body mass located in their hind legs, it’s actually the toughness of their tendons that stands out. Toughness in this context refers to their ability to absorb energy before breaking. In the lab, Lin and his students have also used a custom-built treadmill to examine the ability of kangaroo rats to hop on varied terrain.

“What we see in nature is that animals have multiple muscles that span individual joints, creating redundancy,” Lin said. “You typically wouldn’t design a robot with that kind of redundancy, but by better understanding the biology of evolved species, you can look for ways to build better engineered systems.”

Research funding from the Department of Defense doesn’t just go toward developing new technology. For decades, funding from the Army Corps of Engineers has gone toward the study and preservation of significant artifacts uncovered in the Pacific Northwest.

“Many of the collections we have are from water reclamation projects associated with dam building in the 1960s and 1970s,” said Shannon Tushingham, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology and director of the WSU Museum of Anthropology.

The Army Corps of Engineers brought in WSU professors and students to excavate archaeological sites and entrusted the university with safeguarding and study of these collections. Masters and doctoral students, researchers from other institutions as well as tribal groups have all been able to examine and study many collections over the years. Culturally significant artifacts aren’t simply stored or displayed either; often times the latest techniques are used to reexamine previously uncovered objects.

For instance, Tushingham and her colleague David Gang from the WSU Institute of Biological Chemistry in collaboration with the Nez Perce Tribe recently innovated a new bio‑molecular residue analysis technique to figure out what kinds of plants native populations smoked in their pipes.

“So much of this salvage archeology was done so quickly university staff didn’t have time to fully analyze and curate the artifacts, and so we’ve continued to go back and examine these materials to make sure they are properly stored, preserved and cataloged for future students, scientists and native groups to research and appreciate,” Tushingham said.

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