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Showalter’s research focuses on coupled chemical oscillators, which may shed light on the unique capability of certain animals to sleep with one eye open, a skill vital to their survival in nature.
An oscillator is a system that performs rhythmic or periodic behavior. It occurs everywhere in nature, especially in living systems. For example, your heartbeat, neurons that control your breathing, circadian rhythms—commonly known as your internal body clock—and much more are systems of oscillators.
Showalter is interested in how these systems synchronize, how they are able to “find the beat,” in order to better understand how biological systems organize themselves to execute essential processes and activities.
Research on coupled chemical oscillators in Showalter’s group resulted in one of the first experimental examples of the chimera state. “The chimera is a new, dynamic state. It had not been seen before. It was discovered by theoretical physicists in Japan about 10 years ago,” said Showalter.
The chimera state is counterintuitive. Before that discovery, it was widely thought that groups of oscillators could only be either synchronized or unsynchronized—never both at the same time. Now scientists have been able to demonstrate that a group of oscillators can be made up of coexisting groups of both synchronized and unsynchronized oscillators.
“Studying this behavior can lead to better understanding of unihemispheric sleep seen in some animals, in which half of the brain is in slow-wave sleep while the other half is awake and alert.”
There are many animals that engage in unihemispheric sleep—dolphins, seals, birds, and so forth—often animals of prey. “Dolphins can be in the state of unihemispheric sleep for 15 days, allowing them to sleep while also surfacing to breathe,” said Showalter. “Certain migratory birds can rest while flying hundreds of miles, because half their brain is asleep while the other half is doing the work.”
Showalter received a Humboldt Foundation Research Award (Forschungspreis) in 1999 and an extension award in 2007. As an award recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Showalter will conduct research in Germany at the Technical University of Berlin.
Showalter and his co-workers, Mark Tinsley and Simbarashe Nkomo, published their research on chimeras in Nature Physics in 2012.
Tinsley is a research assistant professor of chemistry at WVU, and Nkomo, a recent WVU graduate, is now teaching at Bowdoin College.
Desmond Yengi, Razan Snari, Sadegh Ganjabad and Tianran Chen are WVU doctoral students also studying coupled oscillators in Showalter’s group.
For more information, contact Ken Showalter at (304) 293-0124 or Kenneth.Showalter@mail.wvu.edu.
CONTACT: Devon Copeland, Director of Marketing and Communication, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, West Virginia University, 304-293-6867, Devon.Copeland@mail.wvu.edu
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