An inside look at Northeastern research.

Three things you don’t often hear in the same sentence—computer science, social activism, and healthy living—form the foundation of assistant professor Andrea Parker’s research. “I am passionate about how technology can help reduce racial and economic health disparities,” she says.

Parker joined the faculty in December, having completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She is full of ideas on how to integrate her specialty into the Northeastern mix, including adding a technology component to the Healthy Kids, Healthy Futures obesity prevention program spearheaded by associate professor of health sciences Carmen Sceppa.

Parker will draw on insights gleaned from a study on a tool she developed at Georgia Tech, called Community Mosaic, which allowed low-income and ethnic minority participants to upload photographs and text messages about their healthy eating decisions to a central touch screen monitor at the local YMCA. Community members essentially got healthy advice straight from their neighbors.

Parker hopes a similar framework will encourage participants in Sceppa’s study to stay physically active.

In the aftermath of crises ranging from hurricanes to forest fires, researchers from disaster-relief groups such as the Red Cross assess community responses. Although postdisaster interviews can lend valuable insight for reaction to future events, the methodology is inherently limited by the subjective nature of the data—victims’ memories.

What if we could collect objective data about our behaviors during crises and use it to paint a more realistic picture?

Well, today we can.

Network scientist and interdisciplinary assistant professor of computer and information science and political science, David Lazer, and Drew Margolin, a postdoctoral fellow in Lazer’s lab, have created a mobile application for Android phones of people directly affected by Hurricane Sandy. They hope it will add powerful complementary data to the traditional, in-person interview.

With a user’s permission, the app reaches into the phone and downloads call logs from the time of the hurricane. Interviewers then target questions about those calls to help understand the role social networks play in crisis response.

Forty years ago, Dupont revolutionized protective gear with the introduction of Kevlar, a fiber made of superstrong, rigid polymer molecules best known for their capacity to make clothing bulletproof.

Since then, efforts to make protective clothing lighter, more comfortable, and more affordable have been only incrementally successful because such materials require more flexible polymers, which are inherently flimsy. When you look at their microstructures it’s easy to see why: They look like piles of limp, entangled spaghetti strands.

Enter mechanical engineering professor Marilyn Minus and her expertise in nanotechnology. Minus adds a pinch of carbon nanotubes in the early stages of spinning inexpensive, textile-grade polymers. These act as needlelike skates that allow the long, flexible polymer chains to slide into a more ordered configuration. The result is something more like hard, uncooked spaghetti, rather than the mess of overcooked noodles we had before.

Minus’ innovative approach has led to fibers that cost little more than the acrylic ones in your everyday shirt but are as strong, if not stronger, than the Kevlar in a bulletproof vest.

Angela Herring is Northeastern’s science writer and blogger. Before coming to Northeastern, she was a freelance science writer and a chemical technician at a nanotechnology company. She graduated from Bennington College, where she majored in chemistry and literature, with a focus in poetry. Contact her via email or at her blog.