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Feb. 11, 2010 Volume 31, No. 19

Supplying the know-how

Stepping up to challenges

Researchers in the Department of Psychological Sciences rely on Delvin Mellerup, senior laboratory mechanic, to find money-saving ways to produce research equipment. The accomplished metal and woodworker recently designed and built a simulator for MU's new Brain Imaging Center that saved tens of thousands of dollars. Nicholas Benner photo

Research support

Staff member is part of the psychological sciences team

During his 21 years as a senior laboratory mechanic in the Department of Psychological Sciences, Delvin Mellerup, 46, has repaired or constructed everything from bookshelves — more than 70 at last count — to a high-tech helmet wired with fiber-optic cables to capture brain images in a research project. Based in his metalworking and woodworking shop in the Psychology Building, his top priority is making things to help researchers, and a recent project has a prominent place at MU’s new Brain Imaging Center in the Marx Building.

Mellerup’s homeplace on 60 acres in northern Boone County, where he lives with his wife, Carrie, and daughters, Shalynn, 13, and Skyla, 11. He met Carrie in 1987 in the psychology department where she did office work, and they married in 1991. Carrie now uses her bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti as she plays home-schoolmarm to Shalynn and Skyla.

True to form, Mellerup built his family’s wood-frame home himself. The construction lumber was store-bought, but he also harvests wood from his land, mills it on a large homemade band saw and dries it in a homemade solar kiln. His favorite wood to work is walnut. “It looks great and it’s nice and hard but still easy to work,” he says. Mellerup used his own wood to make made a crown molding of walnut for his kitchen and his honey-do list includes solid oak kitchen cabinets with walnut trim.

Mellerup has always loved making things. He grew up south of Columbia near Rock Bridge State Park watching and learning woodworking from his father, Dale Mellerup. At Rock Bridge High School, he spent much of his junior and senior years learning woodworking, metalworking, agricultural mechanics, welding and electronics, winning some national competitions for his work.

In the winter of 2008, Assistant Professor of Psychological Sciences Shawn Christ came to him with a big request. Christ was helping plan MU’s new Brain Imaging Center, which includes a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine dedicated to research. It’s a powerful tool, but one that requires subjects to lie still. Since Christ works with children who have autism or other disorders that make it difficult for them to remain motionless, he went looking for a simulator where he could acclimate them to the task. A store-bought simulator is pricey at about $30,000, so Christ asked Mellerup if he could make one. The materials cost only $2,500, and Mellerup supplied the know-how, including some demanding work with wood, wire mesh and plaster to form the curved opening.

“The projects I like most are the challenging ones,” Mellerup says, “the ones where I really have to think about what needs to be done.”

The result is a realistic-looking mockup of an MRI that includes wiring for audio and video as well an electrically powered bed that moves respondents in and out of the simulator. Christ trains respondents to lie still by placing a sensor on their forehead to detect movement, sliding them into the simulator and starting a movie for them to watch. If their head moves too much, he stops the movie and urges them to be still. Over three sessions of five minutes, the kids generally get good enough to try the real machine. It costs almost $400 an hour to run, so efficiency is key.

With the unveiling of its new Brain Imaging Center (BIC) Oct. 29, 2009, the Department of Psychological Sciences has equipped its faculty with a tool to help land research grants, conduct leading-edge neuroimaging studies, recruit and retain faculty, and collaborate with investigators across campus and at other universities. It takes cool pictures, too.

The centerpiece of the $3.8 million renovation at the Melvin H. Marx Building is a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine — a 3-Tesla Siemens Trio Scanner. The machine uses a magnetic field and radio waves to measure blood flow and chemical processes in the brain. The result is high-quality images researchers use to pinpoint brain areas that activate and deactivate in various diseases and situations.

The MRI is useful for studying diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, says Nelson Cowan, professor of psychological sciences and director of the center. John Kerns, associate professor of psychological sciences, uses MRI to study how schizophrenic patients control their behavior. Christ uses the technology to better understand cognitive process in children with autism.

Some leading psychology researchers think making high-tech brain maps is a crucial next step in their field, Cowan says. Until now, investigators at MU used an MRI at University Hospital at odd hours, and they often had to put their work on hold when the MRI was pressed into service for medical emergencies. He says that having access to the BIC could allow a tenfold increase in the amount of neuroimaging research at MU.

At the dedication ceremony, Michael O’Brien, dean of Arts and Science, mentioned the loss a few years ago of two young psychology researchers to the University of Illinois. “It would not have mattered what we offered [to keep them here] because we could not compete in terms of what we had in brain-imaging equipment,” he said. He says that BIC eventually will rival facilities found anywhere in the world. “We simply have no choice if we want to play on a national stage.”

Chancellor Brady Deaton also was on hand at the opening. “This center is a step toward the new frontier of science and understanding that we are known as a university to be creating,” he said. “Mizzou was born on the frontier in 1839, and we are challenged now to step up to a new level of research and understanding for science, scholarship and the problems we address in our society.”