University of Tulsa

Roberts selected as Oklahoma Chemist of the Year

The Oklahoma section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) has named Kenneth Roberts, University of Tulsa Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the 2020 Chemist of the Year. The distinction is a once-in-a-lifetime honor awarded to chemists who have established national and international reputations in the advancement of chemistry and science.

oklahoma chemistRoberts is the current TU Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry chairperson and has served on the faculty for 18 years. He also has mentored students as the TU student local ACS section adviser. Nearly 100 students from his research group have presented at the Annual ACS Meeting.

Research from his early career is based on the origins of cancer from chemical carcinogens using low-temperature fluorescence spectroscopy. That initial investigation led to further studies in chemical carcinogenesis and other bio-analytical studies such as the pharmacology of antibiotics during labor and delivery. Other research areas have included using luminescent nanoparticles to detect pathogenic bacteria and viruses, development of nanostructured third generation photovoltaics, hybrid photovoltaic/solar concentrators, materials properties under stress and environmental chemistry of Oklahoma water sources. His research is expansive, but one of the most enjoyable parts of his career involves “working on important projects with students in the laboratory.”

I’m very honored although it’s more of an award to all of the students as much as to me,” Roberts explained. “My achievements are their achievements.”

oklahoma chemistDale Teeters, a former colleague and past department chairperson, said the award is very much deserved by Roberts.

“He is internationally known for his research in nanotechnology and environmental chemistry,” Teeters stated. “He has used his knowledge of water chemistry to serve the state of Oklahoma by leading a team of researchers and environmentally aware Oklahomans in the monitoring of water resources in Oklahoma. The state will benefit from his efforts in Oklahoma water quality research for generations to come.”

 

 

Hook and NASA team up to improve airplane safety, win national award

University of Tulsa Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Loyd Hook says the country is on the verge of a technological revolution in transportation. These changes will be brought about by automation, which has started to appear in the form of autopilot systems that must be overseen by a human driver or pilot. “The next step will be automation that makes us safer by reacting to dangerous situations faster, more precise and more dependably than a human can,” Hook said. 

Auto GCAS in Air Force F-16s

pilot safety
Professor Hook with his class at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base (138th fighter wing) in front of an Auto GCAS F-16.

This is the basic idea behind the United States Air Force Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) that Hook has worked on for the past several years with a group of researchers. This system takes control from a disoriented, or incapacitated pilot, and saves the pilot and airplane from crashing. The system already has been credited with saving the lives of 10 pilots in U.S. Air Force F-16s and is currently considered the highest level of automation in any production aircraft or automobile.  

Before coming to TU, Hook was part of a team at NASA who partnered with the U.S. Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Lockheed Martin to build and test the F-16 Auto GCAS system. Now, Hook, a small group at NASA and the FAA, led by NASA Principal Investigator for Autonomy Mark Skoog, have been working to bring this lifesaving technology to the public. “Crashes in General Aviation, which consists of small, personal airplanes, make up the vast majority of airplane fatalities in the United States, nearly 90% over the last 20 years, Hook said. 

USGIF achievement award

NASA, the FAA, and the TU team have been working to get these systems to the public as soon as possible to save pilots’ lives. As a part of this project, Hook and Skoog were awarded the 2020 United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) achievement award for terrain system development and evaluation for Auto GCAS. “Auto GCAS requires precise geospatial information from around the world,” Hook explained. It is a lot of data and it must be meticulously studied in order to assure Auto GCAS works how and when it is supposed to.” In addition to this award, the Auto GCAS team, including Hook and Skoog, received the 2018 Collier Trophy, aviation’s highest honor, which was presented to the Auto GCAS team for achievements such as “expanding the technology for F-16 users and civil aviation and setting certification standards that marked aviation’s entry into the age of autonomy.” 

The future of automation

However, Auto GCAS is just one piece to an overall larger strategy. “Automation will soon lead to cars and planes that are able to take persons where they would like to go, more or less, completely automatically,” Hook said. This will allow us to work or even sleep as our vehicles take us to our destinations faster and safer than we can ourselves.” 

Hook thinks this will have far reaching impacts on the way we live, not just the way we travel, and according to Hook, TU students will have a role to play in this future. “It will open up a larger set of possibilities for us to live where we want, instead of having to live close to our work or school, he explained. “TU students, working with our team, have already made significant contributions to vehicle automation and I feel the best is still to come.” 

Genome research published in Science explains color differences in birds

A University of Tulsa researcher has helped discover the gene responsible for creating sexual dimorphism in birds. Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Matthew Toomey and an international team of biologists published the article “A genetic mechanism for sexual dichromatism in birds” this week in the prestigious research journal Science. 

Sexual dichromatism is a term describing the phenomenon observed in many bird species, in which males and females exhibit striking differences in coloration. Typically, male birds display flashy, colorful feathers, while females tend to be drab. Scientists have proposed that the explanation for this difference is that male birds are competing among other males for the attention of females. Although outwardly males and females can display very different color patterns, their genomes are nearly identical. How then do these color differences between the sexes arise? Toomey’s research collaboration explains for the first time how changes in the expression of a single gene can generate dramatic coloration differences between male and female birds. 

genome research
Photo courtesy of Geoff Hill.

To investigate the mechanisms of sexual dichromatism, Toomey and his colleagues studied the mosaic canary (pictured). This breed of canary was created by bird fanciers decades ago by breeding the yellow canary species, where males and females are the same color (monochromatic), with a sexually dichromatic species, the red siskin. The initial goal of the bird fanciers was to produce a red canary. In 2016, Toomey and the team found that these red canaries carry red siskin genes for an enzyme that converts yellow pigments to red. Along with monochromatic red canaries, bird breeders also produced mosaic canaries that carry the red siskin genes for both redness and sexual dichromatism. To identify the gene for dichromatism, Toomey and the group sequenced the genomes of the dichromatic mosaic canaries, compared them to the typical monochromatic canary and identified differences associated with the gene for enzyme β-carotene oxygenase 2 (BCO2). 

Toomey and his colleagues recently discovered that BCO2 plays a key role in breaking down pigments controlling the coloration of the beaks and legs of birds by studying another oddly colorful canary, the urucum breed. “We compared the urucum canary breed, which has uniquely colorful beaks and legs, to typical canaries, with drab beaks and legs,” he explained. “We found that the urucum birds have a mutation in BCO2 that renders it non-functional. The urucum birds become colorful in the beak and legs because they are not able to break down pigments the way a typical canary does. This result suggests that bright beak and leg coloration might be easily switched on and off through the course of evolution with simple changes in the expression of BCO2.” 

In the dichromatic mosaic canaries, the research team showed that the expression of BCO2 differs between sexes. Female mosaic canaries express higher levels of the enzyme than males, which destroys colorful pigments in developing feathers and leads to the relatively drab appearance of females. The research team also observed female-biased expression of BCO2 in other dichromatic bird species suggesting that may be a common mechanism of dichromatism amongst birds. 

This result paves the way for deeper investigations into how other factors such as mating systems, nesting behaviors, predation pressures and light environments affect bird coloration. Toomey explains, “We now have an unprecedented opportunity to trace how coloration has evolved in response to these evolutionary pressures, through specific genetic regulatory changes.”    

See the published research in Science.

My love affair with TU, by alumnus Gustavo Coronel

Gustavo Coronel, (BS ’55) geology

An April morning in 1951, I left New York City for Tulsa, Oklahoma. I had been studying English for 15 weeks at Queens College before going on to The University of Tulsa to study geology. I had traveled to New York City from Los Teques, Venezuela, a town of about 10,000 people, quite a change of scenery for a 16-year-old, small town boy. I paid $19 for the Greyhound bus ticket and started on my 42-hour trip to Oklahoma.

We traveled from New York to Saint Louis and, from there on to Tulsa, with some brief stops to get something to eat. My first travel companion was a black soldier to whom I gave some Venezuelan cigarettes. At a point in time he stood up and left to the back of the bus. I thought I had said something he did not like but I later found out that we had reached the border of Missouri, where blacks were discriminated.

My second companion was a sweet old lady who looked very concerned when I told her I was going to Tulsa. She told me that she understood the Indians were still in the war path.

I fell in love with Tulsa at first sight. Los Teques, my hometown, was a small, charming community and New York an overpowering metropolis. Tulsa was a city in the human scale, with wide avenues lined by trees, with schools and churches all over the place. Downtown had a few tall buildings, up to 15 stories high, but the city was mostly flat with single homes, most of them with well-kept gardens. There was a big, artificial lake, several parks, a zoo and several museums, one of them dedicated to western American art, particularly the works of Frederick Remington.

In Tulsa I found the ideal balance between a big city and a small town. When I arrived at the Tulsa bus station I decided to walk to the university to save some money. In those days the suitcases did not have wheels. During the walk I got a good first impression of the city. I arrived at the university U and saw, at its center the imposing Mc Farlin Library, built of limestone and granite from the surrounding mountains. I had received in the mail a map of the campus and this allowed me to identify the different buildings along the U: the men’s dormitory, John Mabee Hall and the Engineering Building on the one side and the Music School, the Business school and the women’s dormitory, Lottie Jane Mabee Hall, on the other. The center of the U was a well-kept, large green.

TU had about 2,000 students, one professor for every 14 students and an administrative body of some 60 persons, including security and maintenance workers. Much of the work was done by the students themselves, in exchange for food and, if I remember correctly, some tuition discounts. In a second line behind the U there were smaller buildings, including another dormitory. A little further away the university had a large stadium, Skelly field, where football was played. This seemed to me an impressive infrastructure for such a small amount of students.

There were also fraternity and sorority houses near the main campus. These organizations were a mixture of social clubs and secret societies with, it seemed to me, strange initiation rituals. They were exclusive and demanded special attributes from their prospective members. Coming from Venezuela, a complete outsider, I did not even try to belong to one of them.

The imposing infrastructure was mostly financed by donations from the alumni. At this time the university had a fund of about $100 million and prominent alumni had donated entire buildings to the university. I found this admirable because in Venezuela the tradition of donations from alumni was (and is) almost non-existent. In the 1950s almost all Venezuelan universities were state-owned and were free (in fact, they still are). Free education was considered a right by the students and, as they graduated they felt no sense of duty regarding financial support to their alma mater. This striking difference between the two countries largely explains the reasons for Venezuelan underdevelopment, the belief that the state must assume all burdens and must provide all basic services either free or at subsidized costs.

Like most international students that are uprooted from their familiar surroundings I experienced a cultural shock, coming to Tulsa from a small Venezuelan town. However, it was not as strong as it could have been because Tulsa was a placid city. People were kind and cordial and I immediately became aware that they emphasized the positive components of my personality. In my hometown, as a rather unattractive teenager I was often the target of unkind comments that led me to social isolation. When I arrived in Tulsa my self-esteem was very low. But at TU people told me: “Your English is very good,” “Your accent is very nice.” “You have pretty brown eyes.” I was particularly happy when a girl told me I had “bedroom” eyes. I considered this comment very promising, although the bedroom never really materialized.

The kind treatment I received in Tulsa did wonders to my self-esteem. I started having a much better opinion of myself. This was one of the several wonderful gifts I received from Tulsa. The timid, insecure person I had been in Los Teques began a transformation, the worm becoming a butterfly. Since nobody knew about me  in Tulsa I decided I could be any person I wanted to be. I had never danced in Los Teques but started dancing in Tulsa, with the help of a couple of lessons at the Arthur Murray studio. I had natural rhythm and I added a lot of improvised steps that everybody in Tulsa took as genuine.  I acted at Varsity Night at the university, wearing a Venezuelan native dress called a “liquiliqui,” I sang “Besame Mucho,” made a few jokes which were so  bad they were good and even did a tap dancing routine, “Tea for Two”  teaming with Tom Sullivan, a student from New York.

My first roommate in John Mabee Hall was Lee Hall, from Nevada. He kept his side of the room very well organized and had an impressive collection of multicolor shirts neatly hanging in the closet. In my second year I moved to Kendall Hall and had a roommate, Tom Tipping, who shared with me a great love of classical music. The next room to ours was occupied by Ronnie Modell, a trumpet player. Ronnie later on became a member of the New York Symphony orchestra, working under Leonard Bernstein. A few years ago I made contact with him.

Tipping and I became used to studying with classic music playing in the background. Brahms was good for chemistry. Wagner was excellent for physical geology, Rachmaninov helped with algebra and Gershwin was welcome at all times.

Classical music also provided me with welcome, unexpected funds. The music students had a game which consisted in identifying musical compositions played in a record player by the “house”, a kind of roulette. I started to participate in this game and, being a geology student, I posed no apparent threat to the “house”. In fact, I started winning consistently since I had been listening to music since I was a child and knew composers the musical students had not even heard of. I won more than once recognizing McDowell, a relatively little known composer I was very familiar with because he had been a student of the Venezuelan pianist Teresa Carreño.

I also started to make a little money singing Spanish in a Tulsa downtown nightclub.

In my second year at TU my sister, Cristina, came from Venezuela to study a semester at the university and stayed at Lottie Jane Mabee Hall. One night I was returning from a movie and saw a big crowd in front of the dormitory where my sister was staying. I went closer and heard shouts from the windows and saw   some of the male students trying to get into the dormitory. I planted myself in front of the door and shouted that anyone trying to enter would have to fight me. There was great confusion in the faces of the boys and I heard shouts from the girls, something about “my hero”, mixed with laughs.

Next day in the cafeteria the story of the day was about the Venezuelan jerk who had tried to spoil the panty raid because he thought his sister was in danger. Opinions were mixed, some blamed my father, some my mother.

As I started my geological studies I welcomed the manner they were conducted. Every Friday we took a Quiz, a test on the material given during the week. This was easy, as the amount of new material was limited. The results of these quizzes made up a sizable percentage of the final grade. The final exam, although important, was not the only deciding factor. This meant that if I studied a little every day I had an excellent chance of getting a good grade. In Venezuela our system relied primarily on the final test. The material to be digested by the end of each semester was enormous. We studied into the long hours of the night, day after day, before the test. Many students took pills to keep awake and, by the time they sat in front of the test, many were mental wrecks. I felt the system at TU was highly civilized. Only once I came close to failure. I had to take a final test on Paleontology and the night before I had spent most of my time in a date. The results of my test were poor and my professor wanted to know the reason. I explained it to him and he said: “As these results are inconsistent with your weekly quizzes, I will give you another final, come tomorrow to my office.” I went and found the test on his desk with a note: “Answer questions and leave test on my desk.” I did much better and gave me a passing grade but also told me that I had been irresponsible. This admonition was all I needed never to fail my responsibility again.

As I left the room he added: “I gave you a second chance because you have been the best Venezuelan student I ever had.” I later found out that I was the only Venezuelan student he had ever had.

University life in TU was idyllic. There were no labor, student or professor strikes like the ones we frequently had in Venezuela, there were no “professional” students, those who never graduate because they become political leaders within the university classrooms. There were no recurrent financial crises such as the ones afflicting our universities. The walls of the university buildings were free from graffiti or “revolutionary” slogans. Libraries and class rooms were open to students. Books, new or used, could be found in the bookstore of the university, together with all kinds of personal utensils and university logos and memorabilia. All of this helped to identify the student with its alma mater, to make them feel members of a big family.

For the size of the university it was surprising the amount of sports and cultural events throughout the whole year: games, concerts, plays. The surrounding areas abounded in small eateries and drug stores where you could either get a hamburger or a couple of alka seltzers and both were often required. The owner of one of them, Ben, was like a big father to us. We could always eat there until our monthly check arrived. My father sent me $90 a month, which almost lasted until the end of the month, not quite, but the gap was filled by Ben. In my second year I earned a Shell Company scholarship that ended my financial worries.

My favorite place was the McFarlin Library, which I remember with long and tall study halls of partly medieval aspect. Few would know that this library of a small mid-western university would have so many treasures. It would come to possess the best collection of James Joyce manuscripts outside of Dublin.

I came out of Tulsa with a degree, yes, but, almost more importantly, with a new personality. TU prepared me for life. I almost got married to a girl of blue eyes and long legs but her mother disapproved of me, because I was not very religious. I have never forgotten either the girl or the mother.

I graduated in 1955. When I was a senior I once sat in a bench near the TU green and reflected that after many years I would come back to this bench to think back of my beautiful Tulsa days. I thought then that a son of mine would also graduate from TU. I smelled the air and admired the colors of the autumn leaves. I have been back to Tulsa many times after I graduated. When I returned to celebrate the 50 years of my graduation I sat on that bench. My son had graduated from TU Autumn leaves were turning and the air smelled just as before. It was a sweet, melancholy moment.

TU gave me several gifts. One was education. Another was self-esteem. A third was the gift of generosity. I became a Distinguished Alumnus, a member of the College of Engineering Hall of Fame and a member of the Board of Trustees.

I have been overwhelmed by distinctions from TU. Although I have had a very successful life in terms of career and personal happiness, I never made any money and have been unable to give TU any significant material gift. I almost succeeded in getting a million dollars from the Venezuelan state oil company to fund a chair at the university but this attempt failed at the eleventh hour due to Venezuelan internal politics. At the end I could only give TU my love.

Every time I return to Tulsa and get to the U I feel I am, again, at home.

Student researchers honored with nationally competitive awards

The University of Tulsa’s 2020 nationally competitive award winners include a Goldwater Scholar, a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, two Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research Internship recipients and three Gilman Scholars. 

Goldwater Scholar 

nationally competitive awardsMechanical engineering junior Emily Tran of Broken Arrow is one of 396 students from across the United States to win a Barry Goldwater Scholarship. Students majoring in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering were nominated to apply for the award, which recognizes scientific talent. 

In the summer of 2019, Tran worked as a Vanderbilt Institute of Surgical Engineering (VISE) Fellow in the Medical Engineering and Discovery (MED) and Computer Assisted Otologic Surgery (CAOS) labs alongside mechanical engineering alumna Katy Riojas (BS ’16)Tran participated in the design and development of a manual insertion tool for image-guided, minimally invasive cochlear implant surgery. Her summer involved analyzing CT scans, assisting in cadaver trials and designing a phantom model for user and force testing. 

Tran said she enjoys this type of research because it is at the cross section of engineering and medicine: “With this type of research, it is easy to see how heavily intertwined they can actually be. After pouring so much work into the research projects, there’s a certain indescribable feeling that comes with seeing the lives of the kids or patients benefit from it.” 

Tran also has assisted with Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) projects and served as a student researcher in TU’s Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC). She has been a member of the TU Robotic Mining Crew, the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society and many other organizations and activities. 

Working at Vanderbilt opened Tran’s eyes to the direct interaction that often occurs between engineers and physicians seeking to develop life-changing technology. After graduating from TU, she plans to attend medical school and work as a clinical physician. “This experience made me aware of my love for research,” Tran explained. “I will continue working in medical and surgical device research in the future.”  

National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship 

nationally competitive awardsStephanie Call (BS ’18) of Tulsa is a pre-med chemical engineering alumna currently pursuing a doctorate in chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. At TU, she participated on the women’s rowing team and expanded her scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills in her senior lab and design classes. 

At UMass AmherstCall will use her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to focus on synthetic biology and genome engineering in bacteria. She uses CRISPR interference (CRISPRi) to engineer E. coli and S. aureus to elucidate the genes associated with cell attachment and biofilm formation on biomaterial surfaces, such as catheters and pacemakers. “By finding these genes and investigating their interactions, we hope to find potential targets that could be used to prevent and treat biofilm infections using targeted antimicrobials and/or antibiofouling agents,” Call said. 

After her PhDCall plans to become a professor and establish her own engineering lab to continue researching and developing new technologies. She also wants to teach and mentor the next generation of engineers and researchers. 

Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research Internship 

Biochemistry, pre-med student Ritvik Ganguly and John Reaves, a triple major in political science, Spanish and economics, were honored as inaugural Fulbright Canada-MITACS Globalink Research program interns. This internship program is offered to U.S. students interested in visiting Canada to undertake advanced research projects in their area of interest. Weeks after the announcement, however, the program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

nationally competitive awardsGanguly, of Tulsa, was scheduled to complete 12 weeks of research with a neurosurgeon in a neural repair and regeneration laboratory located in Toronto, OntarioHis project would have focused on human induced pluripotent stem cells that target the microenvironment of spinal cord injuries for the development of a new treatment for traumatic spinal cord injuries. 

Ganguly is a Presidential Scholar, Honors Scholar and a member of the TU College Philanthropy Initiative. He plans to attend medical school and pursue a career in internal medicine. 

“I believe that the future of medicine relies not only on our ability to innovate in the field of biomedical research, but also on our ability to foster cross-cultural academic exchanges and work together on a global scale,” he remarked. 

nationally competitive awardsReaves, from Fairview, Texas, would have spent his 12 weeks in Winnipeg, Manitoba, helping compile a history of the oil industries in the United States, Canada and Brazil, and using the data to perform economic forecasting. 

“I wanted something that would prepare me for whatever line of work I ended up in,” Reaves said. “My eventual career goal is to work for the U.S. State Department.”  

Both Ganguly and Reaves are members of the TU Honors Program, Global Scholars and many other extracurricular activities. 

Gilman International Scholarship 

Meagan Henningsen (sociology) of Tulsa; Manal Abu-Sheikh (psychology) of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma; and Paris Clark (international business, Spanish) of Silver Spring, Maryland, were selected to receive the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of State and supports study abroad opportunities for Pell Grant recipients. Unfortunately, the international adventures for Henningsen, Abu-Sheikh and Clark ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more about their global scholarships.

TU, Noodle Partners team up to offer online degrees

The University of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s highest-ranked national university, is launching an online MBA and elevating its online master’s in cybersecurity with Noodle Partners, the fastest-growing online program manager.

Increasingly, adult learners are opting for programs that fit their busy lives. TU is working to improve the accessibility of their programs by meeting those students where they are — online.

The online MBA offers a part-time option to prepare students for career advancement in the private and public sectors as well as for positions of leadership and responsibility in business and society.

Cybersecurity is one of the fastest growing job sectors in the United States; the BLS projects a 32% increase in employment from 2018 to 2028, more than six times higher than the average for careers in the U.S. For 20 years, TU has been one of just a handful of institutions designated as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance and Cyber Defense Education.

“The University of Tulsa is excited to leverage the resources and expertise of Noodle Partners to further develop these two online degree programs and meet the needs of students seeking a research university-level education outside of a traditional classroom setting,” said Interim President Janet Levit. “TU’s MBA and MS in Cybersecurity attract highly motivated working professionals who will use the degrees to advance their careers and support the nation’s thriving business and technology industries.”

TU’s online MBA program features readily available student access to top-notch faculty along with small class sizes that promote participation and interaction among peers and faculty in the online environment. The degree is ideal for online learners seeking a flexible schedule that allows them to balance work and other priorities. Students who enroll in two courses per semester can complete the program in 24 months and receive career placement assistance from the Business Career Center.

The online MS in Cybersecurity requires 30 credits to graduate. The program offers an entirely online curriculum, along with an option to take immersive courses in which students spend one week on campus completing hands-on, intensive training guided by faculty. The program is designed to be completed in 24 months, and students can continue to work as full-time professionals while completing the degree.

“TU is making an excellent strategic move by launching these innovative online programs,” said John Katzman, CEO of Noodle Partners. “We have total confidence in our partnership with TU, and we’re excited to see how its incoming cohorts of students leverage their degrees in the workforce.”

About Noodle Partners
Founded by a team of education and technology veterans, Noodle Partners creates innovative online and hybrid programs while improving traditional classroom models. Noodle Partners has the capability to work with universities on every aspect of building a certificate or degree program that they choose—marketing, student recruitment, enrollment, curriculum design, student engagement, support services, graduate placement, and alumni engagement—and provides a high level of fit and finish. For more information, visit noodle-partners.com or follow us on Twitter @Noodle_Partners or LinkedIn.

Alumnus Charlie Evans helping save lives with Owl technology

The world is experiencing more natural disasters now than at any other time in history. Severe weather, earthquakes or floods can devastate communities, cutting off all communications. Each year, billions of residents are left in the dark with no way to call for help, request supplies or notify others of their status. To prevent such life-threatening emergencies, a group of five technology entrepreneurs from across the country has teamed up to create OWL (Organization, Whereabouts and Logistics), a low-frequency Wifi network paired with a cloud-based software solution that provides first responders with a reliable network to manage disasters when other primary communications systems are down.

A data hub for emergency responders

owl technology
Charlie Evans

University of Tulsa computer science alumnus Charlie Evans is one of the original five who helped develop Project Owl in 2018 with founder and CEO Bryan Knouse. The group began to take shape and build a software platform known as OWL DMS, or a disaster management system, to act as a hub for data during natural disasters. The stars aligned when Project Owl welcomed a developer to the team who had the idea for a piece of hardware that would transmit the data using the long-range wireless technology known as LoRa. “It’s a particular frequency used for IoT (Internet of Things) devices in America and nothing else will interfere with it,” Evans explained, who serves as the team’s chief software architect. “It has the capability to reach further distances between two points than a traditional wireless network.”

Learn more about the Tandy School of Computer Science.

These networks of ducks, once deployed, cluster to communicate with civilian devices and reach first responders to help coordinate resources, track weather patterns and retrieve data analytics through the IBM Cloud.

owl technology
Project Owl with IBM CEO Ginni Rometty

Project Owl’s software platform paired with hardware capable of data transmission proved to be a winning combination, and in 2018, the team won the inaugural Call for Code Global Challenge, a hackathon sponsored by IBM with 100,000 developers from 156 countries. The win granted Project Owl an opportunity to deploy its technology through the IBM Corporate Service Corps and pursue further development of its model. “When we started, our focus was based on natural disasters, and we were very inspired when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico,” Evans said. “We’ve made several trips to Puerto Rico in the past 15 months to connect with local governments and universities to discuss what they went through and try to get people involved in the project.”

Test Owl in Puerto Rico and Texas

University of Puerto Rico faculty and staff currently maintain Project Owl hardware installed in their local area and have assisted in a pilot study where clusters of the duck devices were deployed in March of 2019. “We got up to 30 to 35 devices, and every couple of minutes, we received temperature, wind and barometric pressure readings from those devices,” Evans said. “We’re working on building this up to include more devices and cover a bigger service area.”

owl technologyIn May, Project Owl ran another pilot study in Evans’ local community of Katy, Texas. The Houston suburb was an important area to test after its overwhelming devastation of Hurricane Harvey in 2017. “Houston is so humid, and humidity is definitely a large factor in radio frequency transmission,” he explained. “We noticed that in more humid areas, we couldn’t place two devices as far apart as say New York City or Connecticut.”

These international and domestic pilot studies provide priceless information to the Project Owl team and have presented new possibilities for the technology. Evans said the group has conducted high-altitude testing with scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory by sending ducks up into the atmosphere in a weather balloon. Project Owl’s hardware also shows promise with a private security firm in Syria, can monitor methane output for operators in the oil and gas industry and could track the temperature of trucks used to ship Red Cross medical supplies.

Dropping ducks in the middle of disasters

owl technologyAnother benefit to the device’s versatility is its inexpensive price tag. Project Owl reports the ducks are simple to assemble at a cost of less than $40 each. Also, the duck’s quarter-mile to half-mile service range makes it a good candidate for dropping the devices out of a helicopter or airplane — blanketing an area with a simple communication network that connects via normal Wifi on a phone.  “It pulls up a form, you fill out the form and it will use the long-range capability of the hardware to transmit and find its way through the network until it hits a point that it has internet connectivity,” he said. “It goes up in the cloud and then lands on the other side, which involves the cloud-based software we’re developing.”

Evans is a key component of Project Owl’s mission, but it’s not the only company to which he devotes his time; his primary job is senior programmer analyst at Helmerich & Payne in Houston. After earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science from TU in 2009, Evans worked for a couple of small technology companies in Tulsa before joining H&P five years ago. His wife, Sara, also is a TU alumna who earned her undergraduate degree in petroleum engineering in 2010.

“In my professional career and everything I’ve learned to help start Project Owl, the main root of it all was that TU’s program taught me how to learn,” Evans stated. “Now when I’m faced with a challenge, it’s like second nature to know how to formulate a solution. TU’s theory-based classes laid the foundation for what I do.”

After an award-winning start, Evans and Project Owl anticipate a bright future for the technology and its ability to connect communities with life-saving resources.