• Podcast
  • Apr 15 2022

‘Research Made Possible’ Podcast: UK awarded $14 million NSF grant for EduceLab

It’s the signature on a bourbon barrel. It's the ancient footprints in Mammoth Cave. Heritage science is all around us and has deep roots in the Commonwealth. Kentucky’s story begins in prehistoric times, when mammoths roamed the Ohio River Valley at Big Bone Lick.

In November 2021, the University of Kentucky announced a new $14 million mid-scale infrastructure grant from the National Science Foundation, that will allow UK to tell that story in new, groundbreaking ways through the lens of heritage science.

For more than 20 years, Brent Seales, UK Alumni Professor in the Department of Computer Science, has been working to create and use high-tech, non-invasive tools to rescue hidden texts and restore them to humanity. Dubbed “the man who can read the unreadable,” he has garnered international recognition for his “virtual unwrapping” work to read damaged ancient artifacts — such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and Herculaneum papyrus rolls — without ever physically opening them.

Now, expanding on his research, Seales is positioning UK as a regional leader in heritage science. He gathered a team of experts from the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences to build EduceLab. This collaborative user facility will focus on developing innovative artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for the unique challenges presented by cultural heritage objects.

“The word educe means ‘to bring out from data’ or ‘to develop something that is latent but not on its own explicit.’ That’s what we’ve been doing with our virtual unwrapping work. And that context has created an opportunity to expand the very focused question of, ‘Can we read what’s inside a scroll?’ to a broader question of, ‘What heritage science questions can we answer right here in Kentucky?’ Seales explained. “My goal is to rally some of the best researchers here around that theme and build a world-class laboratory that allows us to pose and then answer some of those questions.”

In this two-part “Research Made Possible” podcast, we take a deeper dive into EduceLab. In part 1, we meet the College of Engineering faculty (Brent Seales, Suzanne Smith, Corey Baker and John Balk), who share the impact of NSF funding, what this new equipment will allow researchers to explore and how they will partner with the community to answer new questions. In part 2, we meet the anthropologists (Hugo Reyes-Centeno and George Crothers) in the College of Arts and Sciences, learn about the Webb Museum — where EduceLab is based — and find out how this grant will impact their research, UK student learning and career opportunities.

Part 1: UK awarded $14 million NSF grant for EduceLab

OPEN: Have you ever wondered who is doing the research that impacts your future? The “Research Made Possible” podcast lets you meet those people and learn how research, scholarship and creative activity at the University of Kentucky is changing what’s possible in Kentucky and beyond. Here’s Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications.

ALICIA GREGORY: Heritage science is all around us. It’s there in ancient footprints in Mammoth Cave. It’s there in a maul, a tool for breaking and crushing, made by some of the earliest native Kentuckians. And heritage science is here, at the University of Kentucky thanks to a new $14 million National Science Foundation mid-scale infrastructure grant. Today we’ll meet Brent Seales, Suzanne Smith, Corey Baker, and Jon Balk from the UK College of Engineering. These researchers are partnering on EduceLab. We begin with Computer Science Professor and EduceLab Principal Investigator Brent Seales.

BRENT SEALES: Heritage science is so varied in the kinds of questions that we can ask. And how the science can help us answer those questions. In the bourbon industry, for example, you'll find that they've gone through hard times, lean times and boom times. And we're in a boom time right now. But all of that heritage, much of it is encompassed in the life in the rickhouse, for example. If you go to Jim Beam, you'll find that on the fifth floor of the rickhouse they have barrels that have been signed by people who worked there in the 1920s.

With heritage science we can record those signatures. We can capture them using cameras. We can store them. And then we can make them available in a library for people who are interested in who those folks were. Why they were there. What happened to them. What their history was. That's an example of a problem in heritage science that the infrastructure could help solve.

It turns out that there are all kinds of pieces of history in Mammoth Cave, right here in Kentucky, that remain unassembled in terms of a formal library. Because they're located in the place. Things that are in the cave: footprints, paintings, carvings, even the geography of the place. How does one capture that and then answer questions about who the people were, why were they there, how does it relate to history?

That heritage question of all of the different things around the development of Mammoth Cave are questions we can start to answer using equipment like ground-penetrating radar, spectral cameras, drones that can fly and capture geometry, chemical analysis of soils. These things become accessible as problems we can solve and as scientific inquiry when we have the equipment that allows us to dig into the questions around the heritage of a place like Mammoth Cave.

I have become well-known for trying to solve one of the hardest problems that I've faced in heritage science. And that is to read the Herculaneum scrolls. And along the way, in my attempt to do that, we've managed to build technologies that have done some amazing revelations.

This work, the context of this work, has created for me an opportunity to be able to expand from that very focused question of, can we read what's inside a scroll? To this broader question of, what are the heritage science problems that are available right here in Kentucky? Right here in the Southeast? And what kind of equipment could we assemble here at the University of Kentucky that would enable everyone in this area to pose and then answer those questions?

So the work that I've done with scrolls and with ancient manuscripts is very much the genesis of this broader run at being able to build that infrastructure at Kentucky, rally some of the best professors and researchers here around that theme, and begin to build a world-class laboratory that allows us to pose and then answer some of those questions.

And so we really just went after it hard. With the confident idea that our prior work and that the idea of the team we put together would be really strong. The tools that we use to do science applied to heritage situations are really varied. So we wanted to put together clusters, or groups of instrumentation, that would cover most of the scenarios that heritage scientists are interested in working. The way we did that is, we grouped the equipment into these four main clusters, giving us the ability to cover scientific questions like material composition, imaging, site work that requires careful, precise equipment at the lab and at the institution at the same time. So the clustering helps us achieve those goals.

ALICIA GREGORY: EduceLab has four parts: FLEX, BENCH, MOBILE and CYBER.

BRENT SEALES: And the four main clusters that we arrived at were modeled by the European approach to heritage science. Where laboratories that have bench equipment provide a way to do very careful analysis in a laboratory environment. A flexible system allows you to configure the equipment for the variety of things that you see in a heritage context. There's so much variety in the way human-made artifacts express themselves, that there isn't a one-size-fits-all set of instruments.

We also have a mobile unit that allows us to go out on site and analyze and answer questions about things that are in the field-- archaeological digs, architecture, as-built infrastructure, --that it's not possible to bring to the lab. You can also imagine using mobile equipment to go to another institution that has valuable collections that aren't going to be able to travel. We could set up in the parking lot of an institution like that and do meaningful work.

And then finally the cyber infrastructure allows us not only to manage the data science but it allows us to build inspired algorithms around the AI environment--- artificial intelligence and data science environment -- that is driving so many pieces of technology today.

I believe that once this infrastructure is in place, we will see an acceleration of projects and objects that represent for many people big technical challenges that, because we didn't have the infrastructure, couldn't be approached. I feel like it's a little bit-- it's going to be a little bit like going to a picnic and realizing that everybody brought their own lunch. And they're all going to bring it out and share. And that's what's going to happen. We're going to see an amazing display of objects that we didn't know existed. Problems that we now can solve.

We're building this infrastructure for the community. It's going to function as a user facility. And what's really important about that is that we're bridging what we think is a big gap across the country, geographically. There's world-class equipment and material at the Getty, for example. One coast. Also at the Smithsonian. Another coast. But we're in the middle of the country. And we have all kinds of institutions and projects and people who aren't going to have access to that infrastructure. So being able to give them access to infrastructure through the NSF's funding is crucial in terms of our geography.

It's just not possible for every university, for every research lab, to be able to have some of the equipment that we're going to be able to acquire through this program. What's wonderful and brilliant about the NSF's vision, which we strongly embrace, is that we can build this infrastructure in our location and then show people how it's done, and then we can see that be replicated in other strategic places in the country.

There's real strength and power in interdisciplinary work. I believe that very deeply. My work has benefited so many times from being able to talk with people who are in other disciplines. Being able to understand their insights. Being able to learn from them. One of the key hallmarks of the team we've put together, the EDUCE lab team, is that we have disciplinary diversity. That brings that magic together.

I have a researcher who is an expert in archaeology and anthropology -- biological anthropology, in fact. And his insight into understanding those archaeological sites and the artifacts that come from them is crucial. And I don't have any experience in that area. We need to be able to capture information across an archaeological site, or perhaps a burial site, that can't be captured any other way than with drone technology. We have a member of our team who is an absolute expert, a world-class expert, at building and running drones.

ALICIA GREGORY: That expert is Mechanical Engineering Professor Suzanne Smith. She heads the MOBILE part of EduceLab.

SUZANNE SMITH: So the mobile piece has two parts to it. One part is where we can take instrumentation to a museum and look at smaller objects at the museum. But the other part of it, which is very exciting and that really pulls in all the expertise that Mike Sama, Sean Bailey, and I have together, is where we take Unmanned Aerial Systems, UAS, out into the field and do what we would call a field campaign. And in that field campaign, we do all kinds of measurements from the air over a larger area.

And what's great about this is this can give us the historical context of that whole larger area. It's just such a bigger scale of where that history has happened, and whether that's a cemetery, or whether that's something related to the extent of Mammoth Cave, or whether it's something that's a former industrial site that is now residential area. But there's some kind of historic remnant of that industrial site that people really care about knowing today. There are all kinds of things that you need that slightly larger scale, but from close enough, or closer than a manned aircraft would be able to give you.

Well, there are a lot of different sensors that you could fly in order to give you this larger context, and a lot of these sensors are imaging with different kinds of-- different parts of the spectrum. Some of it is visible spectrum. So it's not just taking pictures, it's using all different kinds of sensors that can give different perspectives on the shapes that are being measured, and can even see through some of the materials. We're talking about things like aerial LiDAR that give you really accurate surface imagery. Mike Sama is really great at instrumentation and remote sensing. And Sean Bailey is really great at bringing data together from a lot of different sensors, and really conducting these larger field campaigns and working with this kind of equipment. And so all of us together have worked together for a long time and really bring a lot to bear for this.

We're going to be testing and calibrating and commissioning all of this equipment at what we call our Wildcat Agricultural and Atmospheric Research Pavilion. We call it WAARP. It's just north of town here. But we're also going to be able to set up for users or communities that are interested in the heritage science and being able to use this infrastructure could actually be able to come in and see them in action in advance. And we're excited about that, too. Because interaction with those communities is so important as we plan any kind of campaign where we go and gather information about a heritage site that's really important to their culture or to their community. We know that community involvement, even before you plan the campaign, is going to be a key to success of this heritage science research. But even after that, you want everybody to be able to come. And so our equipment is designed in such a way that while, say, the UAFs are flying, you'll be able to see data displayed. With the mobile van, we're going to have external displays so that the community can be involved, and they can actually see this information coming in and be able to understand how some-- how much is going to have to be looked at after the fact. But also, there are going to be exciting discoveries that happen in the moment, and they'll be able to be right there in part of that as well.

ALICIA GREGORY: So how does the team plan to get to data from the UAVs to the mobile van, especially in locations without internet? That’s where Corey Baker’s expertise comes in, as the CYBER part of EduceLab.

COREY BAKER: So my area of research is typically in wireless communications when the internet is limited or nonexistent. And how do you build systems and applications to disseminate information? So of course, those areas are typically related to natural disasters, developing areas, rural areas. And so if internet is limited there, how do you propagate information? There's a lot of devices going around when it comes to the mobile vehicles or the unmanned vehicles themselves, the UAVs. And so they'll pick up data, transfer data. But many times, they may not have internet connectivity. And so how do you store that information and essentially forward it at another time? And then, in addition, building mobile applications that the different entities, such as the anthropologists or just the people in the community that might use to input information. So most applications are set up for internet, meaning that they can only be used if you have connections there. But how do you store information to the device first, make it still operable for the person, and then take that information back and pass it to the cloud for essential data storage later? It presents many challenges. One is, depending on what's being captured, the data is going to come in many different sizes.The data that I'm typically looking at is usually a few megabytes or up to maybe 10, 15, like a size of a photo or something. And so in these scenarios when you're looking at the UAVs capturing ground-penetrating information, this data could be large. And so if connection is there, if a strong connection is there, that's helpful because then you can just push it straight to the cloud. But if it's not, you have to ensure that you have enough data storage on a device to be able to disseminate the information later. And so the UAVs, they're going to have a certain storage on them. We might have to add additional pieces for them to be able to carry this information since the internet might not be available. So they determine what the data is. And then, what we have to figure out a way of getting it to -- not necessarily straight to the cloud, but if we can get it back to the vehicle, then we know we can get it to the cloud because we'll have servers in the vehicles. If it's large we might have to compress it. And so it might be in formats that look different initially that need to be converted over for the actual end researcher to take advantage of. Since it is heritage science and there's many different, say, anthropologists, researchers, the community involved, the parts that come into play typically is mobile applications. And so in order to design these applications in a way that's going to be useful to all entities, you have to go through the proper process of co-design, meaning that whether I'm a computer scientist, somebody is an anthropologist, whether somebody lives in a particular community that we're trying to assist with this type of infrastructure, we're sitting down in the same place, and we say, what do these applications need to have in them for you to be able to use? How do you design in a way to where, say, buttons are placed correctly, the language inside the application is designed in a way that's going to be familiar and easy for you to use?

Even when you're going back into presenting the data to, say, people in the community or to the researchers, how do you convey that information in a way that they can take advantage of it? If you can display the data in a way to where it says you help gather information in from this particular area in this way, they can then further proceed to learn from that and then gather other types of information. If you present or design clunky applications that don't have the end user in mind, then it can be a great piece of technology, but it never gets taken advantage of. It's designed to make a difference and a difference while people are using, while we're actively collecting data, or also in a way to inspire people to think of different use cases of the types of tools and applications, the infrastructure, that we're laying out. A lot of times, I think as a computer scientist or engineers, we can get stuck in a situation where we're building technology and we're only thinking about how we would use it. And I mean, I guess that could be OK. But that's not where the real benefits comes to designing for me.

Technology should be an enabler. And in this case, infrastructure is an enabler. And I can't wait to see what happens with it just because I think we're going to put out some initial things from what we learn, and then that's going to allow the community and the researchers to take it to a whole new level. I think in order to solve these types of problems you have to have the different areas involved. You have to have a good understanding of the types of process that anthropologists typically go through when they're trying to assess these areas, which for the most part technically usually engineers are not as familiar with. Right? And so if you're going to build tools to work in these scenarios, you have to have that well-rounded understanding of people to provide their expertise to solve the problem.

I really look at this as an interdisciplinary project. It has to be interdisciplinary to solve the project or to provide a great infrastructure and solution to the area. And I think undergrads and other graduate students are going to benefit extremely from it. Looking at it from the computer science students that may be involved and other engineering students, it basically encourages them to start thinking out of the box a different way as opposed to the great way, but limited perspective that they might get in just engineering and computer science courses.

ALICIA GREGORY: Chemical and Materials Engineering Professor John Balk heads the BENCH part of EduceLab.

JOHN BALK: So I'm a materials engineer, and I look at what materials are made of, so the elements, the phases. That helps us understand how a specimen was made in the first place and the technology that was used to create it. And so I apply that to metals and alloys, or ceramics that are used in industry, but we can also apply that to cultural heritage artifacts.

So it's definitely a new application space for me, but we can apply these scientific techniques and really learn about the material — the artifact — and put that in the right context of cultural heritage. I'm the director of the Electron Microscopy Center at UK. We serve the entire campus community, and we have users and customers from across the state and region. And again, that's mostly on the technical side, let's say, the scientific or applied science side, but we can just as easily apply that to cultural heritage. It's not really done in a lot of places, but what we're going to be able to do with this new equipment that we're getting in the BENCH part of the EduceLab grant is build out from the Electron Microscopy Center base and really have a comprehensive suite of instruments to fully characterize materials.

And if we look at it going from macro, or what we can see with our eyes, to micro and nano, what we need an electron microscope for, we'll start off with optical 3D scanners that allow us to map out, in terms of 3D topography, but also just high-resolution X, Y scanning across a sample, see in detail what we would be able to visualize just with our eyes, but see it at a much finer scale, and then bring that to X-ray tomography. Most people are familiar with a CT scan that allows you to see what's inside of a patient's body. We can apply the same technique, just with different instrumentation, to cultural heritage artifacts. We'll be able to see inside, and, ideally, what we'll do is we'll pair the optical scanning with the three-dimensional tomographic scanning and overlay those, so that you can see, OK, we see what's on the surface, but now we can see inside the material.

And then we can move on to other techniques. X-ray fluorescence is a big technique here. We'll have multiple X-ray fluorescence machines that allow us to really see the chemical makeup of a sample across a broad area. One of the instruments is actually able to scan samples that are around 2 by 3 feet in size. So you could map out an entire painting, for example. And so sometimes you'll have paintings where an old painting was covered up with a new painting, and XRF is a good technique for not only mapping out what's in the new painting, but detecting what's below that in the original painting, and doing it non-destructively.

Going down in length scale from there, we go to our electron microscopes. We will acquire two scanning electron microscopes for EduceLab. One of them will be an all-purpose one, with a fairly large chamber, and the other one will be much more specialized, in terms of its ability to do surface scanning, but also high-resolution imaging. It'll be the highest resolution scanning electron microscope in the university, and also in the state, as far as I know. It'll be very capable. And so we'll really be able to run the gamut from macro, or what we can see with our eyes, to the nanoscale.

The good thing is materials science and engineering permeates a lot of science and engineering fields, and it underlies a lot of technological advancement. So we're used to working with people outside of our formal discipline, and we also have a perspective that's a little bit different from a typical engineering perspective. We look at it not just from an engineering perspective, but as the name implies, from a fundamental science viewpoint. We want to understand what a material's made of, why it was made that way, why its structure gives it the properties that it has. And in cultural heritage, maybe there are some structural properties, but a lot of times it's aesthetic or ornamental. But in these cultural heritage fields, materials are used for what they can convey visually, and in addition to that, we want to understand why that particular material was chosen, how it was made. It allows us to contribute to really understanding the full context of what these cultural heritage artifacts are.

I think it also aligns well with NSF's focus these days on large-scale grants that embody convergence, so converging with different and disparate fields, often to tackle bigger problems. Normally, materials scientists don’t work with anthropologists. We work with computer scientists. Big data is a very big issue right now in materials characterization, but, yeah, without opportunities like this that NSF is giving us, we wouldn't necessarily be able to bring our perspective and techniques to bear on this issue. In a way, it makes me a little uncomfortable, pushing me outside of my comfort zone, but it's a great opportunity. I think it's great to be able to work with new colleagues. We have a very comprehensive university. The climate nowadays is really even more supportive and pushing people towards that, which is good, because that's where the national funding landscape has moved, and we should be doing big picture projects like this. So we will be unique in the country, in terms of our characterization efforts, as applied to heritage science. I think that's one reason why NSF gave us the grant. I, and materials characterization, play a role in that. I would not claim that we are the reason we got it. But I think it really does give us some uniqueness. And I also think there are lots of opportunities. Depending on how we bring people in, or how many people really come to us as a national center, I think we might very soon be busier than we expected, fielding all of these requests and working on heritage science.

ALICIA GREGORY: Learn more about EduceLab in our second podcast.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to the Research Made Possible Podcast. To subscribe to our podcasts on SoundCloud or iTunes, search “University of Kentucky Research Media.” And click “News” on our site, research.uky.edu.

Part 2: UK awarded $14 million NSF grant for EduceLab

OPEN: Have you ever wondered who is doing the research that impacts your future? The “Research Made Possible” podcast lets you meet those people and learn how research, scholarship and creative activity at the University of Kentucky is changing what’s possible in Kentucky and beyond. Here’s Alicia Gregory, Director of Research Communications.

ALICIA GREGORY: This is the second part of our podcast on the University of Kentucky EduceLab, funded by a new $14 million National Science Foundation mid-scale infrastructure grant. The grant will set up a user facility for heritage science. Our first podcast introduced you to the engineers on the project. This podcast will introduce you to UK’s experts in the UK College of Arts and Science’s anthropology department. First, we meet Assistant Professor Hugo Reyes-Centeno.

HUGO REYES-CENTENO: It's a lifelong project for me. I was, of course, as a young child interested in archaeology and antiquities that went on, of course, to be ultimately my major as an undergraduate in anthropological sciences at Stanford University. And from there, I moved to Europe to pursue graduate studies. So it all started as an undergrad doing fieldwork in archaeology.

And I developed an interest, particularly in understanding human origins and that meant, not only doing the archaeological aspects of looking at material culture and the materials that humans left behind, but also, at the fossils that they left behind and looking at the shapes of their skeletons. So it's been a lifelong work. It's very exciting to integrate both the cultural components and the natural scientific components in this kind of research.

I am from the US. I've spent most of my life in the US, so it's somewhat of a homecoming. And I knew of Brent's work and looking at the Dead Sea Scrolls using technology that I also use, he applies it in a cultural context primarily, whereas I apply it on a natural context, looking at fossils, looking at sediments that are found on archaeological sites. And I said, wow, there's tremendous potential to really develop something here in Kentucky. And so here we are trying to do that over the next five years initially, and then going forward in the long term.

And we, at UK, are tremendously well positioned to bring in collaborations by the fact that we have all major colleges in one contiguous campus. That is a huge advantage. That is not the case in most American institutions and indeed, throughout the world. So what I find most exciting is that we can bring in collaborators from fields as it may not seem so intuitive, like in College of Dentistry. So I have colleagues there at the moment, where I'm developing projects, and we will be using some of the technology that will be available through this infrastructure. And it is that. I think there's tremendous potential to develop this here at UK.

We're in a very interesting time in the discipline in the U.S., where we are seeing changes in how we look at anthropology, what the discipline means. And it seems to mean different things to many of us. I see tremendous potential to integrate quantitative analysis, to integrate new methodologies, that will inform the theoretical perspectives that are the hallmark of the social sciences. So from a disciplinary perspective, there's great potential in developing this, both methodological and theoretical component, and from a human resource perspective, there's a great potential to bring in student populations that are attracted to the humanities and social sciences, and realize that there's also this avenue in the so-called STEM fields: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, and that we compare them very well to address questions that we're all interested in.

I am a strong proponent of undergraduate research. It was what led me to the field and to develop a strong research curriculum, now as a faculty member, previously as a doctoral candidate. And so having that experience, particularly for students that have never even imagined it possible, is very important. And having the infrastructure to be able to do that is a very unique component. And it can draw in a lot of groups of students that traditionally would not have been able to do so. I'm a son of farm workers. I think that's the case for many of our students here, as well. Never would have imagined that I would have gone into academia to pursue some of the questions that I was always interested in. But if it were not for that undergraduate research experience that ultimately led me to Europe and to the discovery of this field of heritage science, I probably wouldn't be here now. So that's something that certainly I'm interested in developing over the long term. And that I think there is certainly the need of our students to be able to have those opportunities.

Kentucky is perfectly placed. We're not quite south, we're not quite Midwest and we can bring these communities together. Or also, represent, of course, an important region, namely Appalachia. So just being geographically placed in the center and having infrastructure that normally would require to visit these two different coasts in one place, will give us a tremendous advantage. There's, of course, a tremendously rich culture in Appalachia. A lot of it, which is what I'm interested in, is what we don't hear about often, and namely, Native American heritage, because as we know most native populations were displaced, now in Oklahoma. And so bringing that perspective will be a key component in this project, as well.

So this is, first and foremost, a user facility. And users are not only researchers, my colleagues, are not only a private company's. Of course, they're an important part of the user base, but it can be tribal members, as well. It can be groups that are interested in understanding their heritage, particularly in the more recent time periods. And this goes, of course, along what we said before, about Kentucky's rich history. So it is a very important component for us to tweak some of the research questions we have and develop completely new areas of research and innovation.

In academia we often remain very isolated in our own fields and our own departments. And even within departments, particularly in anthropology, we often have these subdisciplines of biological anthropology on the one hand, cultural anthropology and so forth. And it's tremendously rewarding to have collaborations between different subfields across colleges and across disciplines. And so by doing that, we're able to look at a different perspective. Perhaps, approach a technology we would not have thought of had we been working alone. And that's, of course, going to inform the research that we do, and will inform how innovation happens here at UK and in the long term in this country.

The U.S. is quite behind in terms of heritage science. So I spent the last 10 years in Europe, where, as I mentioned before, this is developed in a very structured manner. It's well funded at the highest levels by the European Union. Of course, there are a lot of heritage sites and a longer time period of human occupation. But prior to European colonization in the U.S., there was a long time period of occupation here by humans and we're actually pulling back that time period so the possibilities for discovery will really be important in this project. And the possibilities for putting Kentucky at the center, of course, are really key.

ALICIA GREGORY: George Crothers is the director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology, located on Export Street in Lexington, next to the UK campus. The part of EduceLab called “FLEX” will include laboratory space at the Webb Museum, where members of the community can bring objects for analysis.

GEORGE CROTHERS: Well, I think most people don't know much about the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology. It's fitting that this Educe Lab is going to be associated with the Webb Museum. William S. Webb was actually a physicist, but he started the Department of Anthropology along with William Funkhouser because he had an interest in the history and the prehistory of Kentucky. He was a native Kentuckian. But as a physicist, he understood the importance of measurement and physical properties. And that's one thing he emphasized. So it's fitting that it's going to be at the Webb Museum, because he would understand probably more than anybody how important good techniques, good technology, good measurement is to science.

I got involved in this project through Hugo, who is one of the co-PIs. He's in our department, a new colleague in the anthropology program who does some pretty high-level human evolution research using some high-end equipment. And he knew that already at the Webb Museum we had a geophysical program, archaeological geophysics. We use some high-tech equipment to measure properties of the ground to help us identify where and what might be buried before we excavate and sometimes we can avoid excavation.

I'm an archaeologist who concentrates in Eastern North America, and I'm interested in the transition to early Agriculture among the native populations who were here. And these are, for the most part, small, carbonized, hard to identify objects. And within Kentucky, it's probably a well-kept secret is we have some of the best collections that relate to this question of the first agricultural populations in Eastern North America. We have some amazing sites with extremely good preservation. And so the Webb Museum, which is primarily a research center, it's not your classic bricks and mortar display, large displays. And so we maintain the collections for the State of Kentucky for research purposes. These are projects that occur on federal or state land and some private land. So it's excavations that have been done by the University of Kentucky, and it's also consultants and other institutions in the state doing archaeology. So we're recognized as one of only two federally recognized locations in the state to curate collections.

It's going to impact what we do in the museum and in archaeology in general, because it's providing us access to some of the most sophisticated and high-level equipment that in the first case is very costly to either purchase or even to get access to the equipment because it's owned by someone else, you have to pay for time. So the kinds of questions we want to look at that will allow us to measure things or analyze materials in new ways that we've always known we could do, but didn't always have the resources or the access to the equipment that we could do this. So it's only limited by our imagination of what kinds of new things we can do with access to this equipment. And that means both in the lab, the bench sciences, as they say, things that we have in the collections now that we can pull out and look at in different ways, as well as taking equipment into the field where objects or artifacts cannot necessarily be removed from their surroundings or their context and brought into the lab. And that's a lot of what I do, is the geophysical survey I do is something you have to go out into the field to collect data. All kinds of new ways of doing that with GPS-linked data, remote sensing technologies that can be put on drones and flown at low-level altitude to collect measurements on the ground surface. LiDAR is one big one, magnetometry. There’s going to be a number of new instruments that we can employ almost immediately in the field. I can come up with a dozen projects in a matter of minutes that I'm ready to apply this equipment when we have it. Of course, it still takes some money to get the equipment out into the field and to where it needs to go to do that. And it takes the expertise of people in the College of Engineering, who understand how to use these and keep these equipment in their top-notch form, calibrated and whatever else needs to be done to keep them performing at their top level. So it's a good combination of interdisciplinary cooperation between the College of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Anthropology.

We have a number of objects, they're fairly common at certain time periods. These are what are called grooved axes, or in this case, it's actually a grooved maul. So it was more for breaking things and crushing things. But what's interesting about these objects is, and we have a number of them in the collection. Typically for something for cutting or heavy work like that, you want something that's a very strong stone like a granite, and many of these things are made out of granite or other hard stones. Well, these are made out of what appears to be a relatively soft stone called limonite, which is common in Kentucky. It's basically iron ore. It's what gets turned into iron ore. So it looks like they're shaping these objects first into artifacts, and then they're heating them to extreme temperatures. And if our hypothesis is right, we think they're basically turning the outer layers of this stone into iron. It's not directly iron production or metallurgy, but it's the beginnings of understanding the properties of a material that later becomes iron working. Now in North America, the civilizations that were here never developed full iron production. They did work with a lot of metals, but mostly in their raw form. But this actually, could be some of the earliest evidence of experimenting with materials that later is used to produce iron metallurgy. We wanted to use the CT scan to see if we could see the inner layers of this. If it is a limonite and is being heated, the outer surface is being turned into iron, but the inner part of the rock stays limonite. They're not heating it enough that they can actually turn the entire object into iron.

And so we subjected this artifact to the CT scan so we can see those inner layers. That keeps us from having to break it or cut it in half to look at that. And indeed, through this high-resolution CT scanner, you can see the bands of this material going from the outer layers, which are hard, red iron-like material into the inner soft limonite that it's made from. So if this is true and our hypothesis holds up, this is fairly revolutionary. This is a 5,000-year-old object, to say that Native Americans in Kentucky, and probably other parts of the country, eastern U.S., were experimenting with pretty high sophisticated technologies to transform material from one form into another form. This isn't what you'd want to make a tool out of because it's such soft material. Why would they do this? And at first we thought, well, maybe it's just kind of more symbolic. They didn't actually use it as a tool. But these things have wear on them, so they're using them and they're creating them. So we've got to do some experimental work to see if we can replicate what they did, and how high a temperature can you, they didn't have furnaces or blast furnaces like we could think of to melt iron ore. But you can get a campfire hot enough to probably change the properties of this material. So we'll experiment with that.

Because one of my specialties is geophysical survey, archaeological geophysics, I'm especially interested in that part of the mobile program that will give us some new equipment to take into the field and measure landscapes, survey landscapes in new ways. So I'm particularly excited about the LiDAR mounted on a drone. The College of Engineering has a very big drone program here, so they've already got the sophistication to fly these things and in ways that we can measure the surface. We can map a surface with traditional means of a total station, or a theodolite and a stadium rod, but we can't get the resolution. We can't get the detail. And I just came back from a three-week project in Croatia these are Greek and Roman sites that are built up on hillsides so they're heavily terraced, but of course they've been continuously occupied since about 300 BC. So everyone is built on top of them, but we know parts of them are original Greek and Roman construction. I'm very excited to take a LiDAR unit based on a drone and fly these over these sites to map them in extreme detail. And then working with a Croatian archaeologists, we can go on the ground and start looking at patterns we're seeing that you don't see just walking on the surface. But once you get out there, you say, oh, that's what this is. Now we can see this. But that's modern and this is not. And so we can begin to separate what the Greek city plan looked like and the Roman construction on top of that. We just need the equipment and a plane ticket over, and we're ready to do it.

I think when most people think of archaeology in North America, they don't think, maybe, of Kentucky, or parts of the U.S. continent. They might think of Mayan temples, and Inca sites in Central and South America. But we have incredibly sophisticated populations of people here in the midwestern U.S., southeastern U.S. like, as I was referring to, the primitive metallurgy that's occurring, construction of elaborate earthworks and mound sites that sometimes go over hundreds of acres. These are planned, and laid out, and designed for specific purposes. And so it's important to have access to this equipment that we can catch up with the rest of the world in some of the technologies being applied to archaeological problems. We are behind in many parts of the world, Europe especially. Unfortunately, we don't invest enough in research. Nearly all the equipment, a lot of the equipment I use is manufactured outside of the U.S. because we've lost that competitive edge. So this will provide access to equipment and, I think, encourage development of new equipment, or adaptations of that equipment to apply specifically for archaeology.

Geophysics, one of my specialties, was really designed for most geological exploration, oil and gas and mineral exploration. So we adapt it to a much higher resolution, finer measurements than they would use in geology, to look for very subtle archaeological features. So whereas they're looking for a massive iron ore body that's buried in the earth, we're looking for a pit feature that might be a meter or two across. And our measurements are on a scale that would be error to them. But to us, it's important data. So this will give archaeologists more access to the equipment so they can apply it. And as they apply it, they'll find new questions to use it for, and it'll open up new kinds of research.

Having access to the equipment for students to use in either their research or just being exposed to it as in a classroom, or in a practicum kind of way to learn how these instruments work and how to operate. It's one thing to read about it in a textbook and know someone's applied it, and it's one thing to apply it yourself. They don't write that stuff into the manuals on how to use this equipment. There's a lot of things that go into collecting data in the field and processing the data. And you make mistakes with it and you learn, and you go back and do it better the next time. So having constant access to this equipment will provide our students with another step up, because it's going to only grow. Application of these kinds of technologies and equipment to archeological problems is going to continue to increase.

ALICIA GREGORY:: Brent Seales, John Balk and Suzanne Smith from the UK College of Engineering share more about the student impact and the future of EduceLab.

BRENT SEALES: We're absolutely going to drive the training part with students. This user facility is absolutely going to involve students. And we hope that we can build programs around the ability of having this infrastructure at the University of Kentucky. I think it'll be a huge benefit for the students who come to the University of Kentucky. That these students in their programs will be able to have this kind of instrumentation available. They'll be able to learn how it works. They'll be able, ultimately, to train other people. And they'll be able to be involved in projects that we can't even imagine right now. The infrastructure is going to make all of that possible and the students are going to benefit for sure.

JOHN BALK: So what I like about this opportunity for our students is that it will also broaden their horizons. It'll expand their perspective on what their engineering and science knowledge can be applied to. And actually it’s not as much of a stretch as somebody might think for an engineering student in MSE to work in heritage science. So I’ve been at UK for 17 years. We’ve had several students who completed an MSE degree after completing an art degree. We appeal to people who have interests outside of traditional engineering disciplines. And so I think this is a great way for us to put out even a bigger umbrella, a bigger tent, to bring in these students, but then also show the students who just might not have thought of it already what they can do. A lot of our grads work in metals or manufacturing or something like that, but every few years, we have students who want to do something that's different, and integrating educational opportunities and activities with EduceLab will help us bring more of our engineering students into that fold.

SUZANNE SMITH: This is a mid-scale infrastructure project. It's not a student training project. And so this complements student training projects that are typical, as I understand, from my new friends now in archaeological history, and history, and all that I've been talking to about this project. They typically are able to propose to get student support. But they typically are not able to propose to get the kinds of scientific measurement infrastructure that this is representing. And so this is a perfect marriage for having this infrastructure and the ability to then train students on state-of-the-art technologies, so that they can make discoveries about their discipline, whether it's history, archaeology, whatever, and come to new understandings that benefit these heritage communities. And so we also have some really exciting vision for beyond the EduceLab infrastructure. We would love to set up a training facility alongside our flight facility, and maybe have something there where students could learn not only how to use all this equipment, but also to do some more traditional archaeological things in the ground there and have those married together.

BRENT SEALES: In the long term, this facility is going to function for the community and for the institutions in this area, as a tool that they don't have to fund. A tool that they'll be able to use to be able to go get funding on their own. To be able to pose and answer questions that were never possible before. And so we see that this infrastructure will become the basis for something that will continue to build. Clearly, equipment doesn't last forever, so what we hope is that the concept and the expertise will be a driving force for the industry and the academic side of the user group for the equipment that we're going to build. I think the equipment will have an industrial use. And although heritage science is our theme, having industry interest is really helpful because that will also drive jobs. A lot of our students who become familiar with this kind of equipment open up commercial opportunities for themselves from having had that experience, even if it's not in the heritage sector. The heritage focus is a driver for inspiration. Because some of the questions are so fascinating. And our diverse heritage is so interesting. But the science has multiple applications in industry and in academics outside of just heritage. And that means our students are going to have that experience. And it will open those commercial doors as they move on in their careers.

There are a number of things that make work in heritage science, and work in that area in Kentucky, apropos and even urgent. Of course, we see climate change and its effect. And so we know that, as always, objects are at risk of being lost. But even more, so we feel the urgency of that. Flooding, natural disasters, always the risk of fire. These things can take from our collections things that are invaluable. And so, understanding that that's happening and accelerating our ability to understand those objects is crucially important. But more than that, we're in a time now where our cultural heritage is the key to understanding and embracing our diversity. We know that there is strength in diverse groups of people working together collaboratively to shape the future. But what we don't always understand, I think, is how best to leverage that diversity. How best to activate and understand the diversity that we see in front of us and our individual heritage. So focusing on heritage science can be very much, I think, a key to unlocking, in a positive way, how that heritage can help us understand each other, collaborate together, and shape our future.

CLOSE: Thank you for listening to the Research Made Possible Podcast. To subscribe to our podcasts on SoundCloud or iTunes, search “University of Kentucky Research Media.” And click “News” on our site, research.uky.edu.