90.5 WESA Features and Special Reports

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A doctorate project-turned-start up by two University of Pittsburgh students has grown from its days sharing a space at AlphaLab in East Liberty.

Kasey Catt and Noah Snyder first started InterPhase Materials with the intent of developing nontoxic coatings to be used inside the body for brain or dental implants. But after hitting roadblocks with the FDA, they refocused their efforts on coatings to keep marine life, such as mussels and barnacles, and mold from sticking to boats and buildings. 

In 1680, English nobleman Edward Coke codified his country's common law regarding fetal homicide.

"[T]his is a great misdemeanour, and no murder," Coke wrote of the intentional death of a fetus in utero "by Potion, Battery, or other cause."

South Hills Interfaith Movement / Facebook

Every Monday and Friday Marisa Niwa spends time with her father volunteering at the South Hills Interfaith Movement, or SHIM, food pantry.

“I volunteer and keep things neat and organized," said Niwa's father, Joe Murray. 

Murray said he, his wife and their daughter have a long history of doing volunteer work for people with intellectual disabilities, but when the opportunity at SHIM came up, they thought they would give it a try.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In a small, but growing office in Shadyside, Rhiza Founder and CEO Josh Knauer stood in front of a computer linked to the cloud and crunched big data for a Kia car dealer and a Pittsburgh TV station.

“Behind this very simple display of data are hundreds of billions of records of data that we are sifting through,” Kanuer said of the colorful mix of graphics and numbers on his screen. “And in a matter of seconds … we were able to get to results that had gone through those records and found just the ones that are relevant to this story for this television station and for this very local specific advertiser.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

Students at Avonworth School District’s Primary Center had a chance every week to gather in an empty classroom to create anything from battery-powered cars to catapults. Then, one day, a few students came to kindergarten teacher Maureen Frew with a teeny request. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

The days of an individual doctor hanging out a shingle and offering a general family practice are all but gone. The new norm is that your primary care physician is part of a multi-doctor practice. It’s also more likely than not that those doctors have either already hired a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant, commonly referred to as physician extenders, or they are considering making such a move.

“I find that the PA (physician assistant) generally gives you a lot of time,” said Jeff Phillips of McCandless.  Phillips said until recently he never saw a PA, but now almost exclusively sees a PA when he visits his doctor’s office. “So far so good.”

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

As companies like Uber and Google work to make self-driving cars, a local company is working on another autonomous vehicle: forklifts.

Engineers and designers at Seegrid have spent the last decade perfecting technology that allows automated forklifts to travel through warehouses and move heavy product without a human behind the wheel. The machines roll about like robots, making noises that sound like beeps, bells and sirens as a means of communicating with one another and employees.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 FM WESA

It all started in 1971 when  Jimmy Cvetic grabbed a 13-year-old boy for stealing tape decks out of cars. He didn’t arrest him and less than two years later the boy was dead from a drug overdose.

“That bothered me,” said Cvetic, who is now retired from a 35-year career with the Allegheny County Police. “If I would have said something or did something.” 

Cvetic said the boy has always represented innocence to him. His response was to open a free boxing gym in downtown Pittsburgh.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Lab rats can be taught to do just about any simple task for food or a treat. 

Scientists can also watch what is going on inside a rat’s brain by inserting a few electrodes. So it's not unusual that researchers at the University of Pittsburgh attached wires to the brains of a group of rats while performing menial tasks. The researchers wanted to understand the effect of anxiety, but what they learned was unusual.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Debbie Thackrah said she never expected her initiative, Feeding the Spirit, to be as large as it is today, considering its humble beginnings in 2011.

“My running partner and I ... started running with five dollar bills to slip under their knapsacks so it would be there when they woke up,” she said. Thackrah, on her morning runs, was seeing an ever-growing homeless population in her town of Greensburg, spend the night in open, public spaces.

“It made me really upset,” she said.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Managers at the Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station got some advice this year from a panel of unlikely consultants – high school students.

Blackhawk High School students studied federal regulations for problems like workers' exposure to dangerous gases and the disposal of radioactive waste. Nuclear engineers and scientists from First Energy Corporation challenged the teens to produce energy safely and more efficiently.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Each month, about 20 volunteers help to hand out food to more than 200 individuals and families at the Westinghouse Valley Food Pantry in Turtle Creek. 

Among those volunteers is Rose Smeltzer, who serves as the pantry's coordinator. 

“This is my passion," Smeltzer said. "It is what I was born to do, I guess." 

Smeltzer also recruited her husband, children and grandchildren to help at the food pantry each month. 

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Since 1961, the Pennsylvania State Police have been able to use radar to hand out speeding tickets, but municipal police in the state have been denied the same authority. 

“We trust them with a gun, we trust them with a Taser, we should be able to trust them with a radar gun,” Whitehall Borough Mayor Jim Nowalk said.

Nowalk was among a small, but vocal group that gathered Tuesday in Harrisburg to call on lawmakers to lift the ban. 

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

Anyone attached to their phone knows how frustrating a dead battery can be. But if you need a quick charge, look no further than your shoe.

Pittsburgh-based tech startup Sole Power has created a shoe insert with a battery pack that can charge small electronics such as flashlights, radios and cell phones. Sole Power was founded by Carnegie Mellon University graduate Matthew Stanton, who said it all started with a simple idea for a class project.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

 

There are two county-wide uniformed public safety forces in Allegheny County, the county police department and county sheriff’s deputies. 

While most of their efforts are separate, there are a few spots of overlap.

“So that raises the question, does Allegheny County need two police departments?” said Allegheny County Government Reform Commission member Jim Nowalk,

A report by the commission, released Tuesday, includes a call for the formation of a taskforce to review the possibility of a merger.

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Deanna Blincow has been working with the Orphan Care Ministry since its conception in 2007, and serving as its director since 2012.

Within this time frame, she has witnessed at least 25 families she knows personally go through the intense process of adopting a child, and has counseled countless others.

“My husband and I adopted two children out of an orphanage in Russia, so we did an international adoption about 17 years ago. That’s really what started it for us,” Blincow said.

Mark Nootbar / 90.5 WESA

When the Allegheny County Home Rule Charter Commission was formed in 1997, the members decided it was time to move away from having three full-time commissioners running the county, and instead it was time to have a single full-time executive and a 15-member county council. 

“I think right now, we have a citizens council and I don’t want to make it a career thing, like a state legislature or Pittsburgh City Council,” said Allegheny County Council Member Charles Martoni who was also a member of the first council in 2000. “I think it works pretty well the way it is.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

For 13 years, Allegheny County has had a five-member accountability, conduct and ethics commission, and in that time it has never launched an investigation of its own. Not because its members have been remise in their duties, but because the commission does not have that power. 

That would change if the Allegheny County Government Review Commission had anything to say about it.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A Pittsburgh-based company is finding new ways to use eye-tracking technology to help children with disabilities learn language skills at a younger age by playing digital games. Now the video gaming industry is taking notice.

Tobii Dynavox has been making devices to help nonverbal patients communicate with the help of computer-assisted voice technology. Many of their customers are stroke survivors and adults with degenerative diseases like ALS, in which sufferers lose muscle control. But the company is now looking to expand their devices to young children, and even toddlers.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

In 2012, Lynda Carr lost her son Charles to a heroin addiction. Three years later, her stepson was killed in a drug-related car accident.

“Most people probably would not recover from that, but in spite of her loss, Lynda has chosen to give back,” said one person, whom Lynda sponsors as part of Nar-Anon, which relies on the anonymity of its members.  “She gives back by helping people like me every day.”

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A new artificial lung could buy patients and doctors more time during life-threatening and cardiac-related emergencies.

Pittsburgh-based Cardiac Assist just received FDA approval for the respiratory device. Before that, the company created an artificial heart several years ago that’s been used more than 4,000 times worldwide. The artificial lung will hit the market within the next two months.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

A giving circle is growing in the South Hills and at its center is Jennifer McDowell.

“I’ve volunteered for a million different things over the years, but this is the thing that really sparked my imagination and made me want to do something different,” said McDowell of Mt. Lebanon.

Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local high schoolers recently took on a smelly task: finding innovative ways to eliminate some of life’s most offensive odors.

Dozens of classmates from Avonworth and South Fayette high schools presented their ideas and prototypes to executives at Calgon Carbon Corporation. The Moon Township-based company creates purification systems for a range of products, from drinking water to pharmaceuticals.   

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Every day, Pine-Richland High School Nurse Susan Leonberg sees 30 to 40 students come through her office door. 

She said the number of students is average, but the number of flu cases she's seen isn't. So far, no confirmed flu cases have been reported.

“Many times, we do not get notified of confirmed cases," Leonberg said. "But as far as clinically, I don’t think we have seen it. We’ve had sick children, but not flu sick. You know, the normal kind of stuff.”

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

If you walk through the doors of the North Hills Community Outreach office in Allison Park, it's very possible that it will be Joyce Rabinovitz who greets you with a smile. According to the charity, Rabinovitz has logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours with NHCO, since 2007.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

If your primary care physician says you need a test or procedure, and he suggests a location to get it done, what do you do?

“There is data that shows that patients do what their doctor says,” said Mark Roberts, chair of the department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. “When your doctor tells you, ‘I want you to see a cardiologist and I want you to see this cardiologist,’ that’s who you go see.”

Weekend Edit-A-Thon Puts Women In Wikipedia

Mar 8, 2016
Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

A group of local women are taking on Wikipedia.

“The gender gap on Wikipedia really just boils down to most of the people who write on Wikipedia are men,” said Kelly Doyle, a librarian at West Virginia University and scholar on gender equality. "We're trying to ... get more women to write on Wikipedia and, as a result, have more articles and content about women."

Doyle drove to Pittsburgh on Saturday to join more than 100 participants in a day-long Wikipedia “edit-a-thon.”

Rebekah Zook / 90.5 WESA

Joe Divack attributes volunteer John Erickson’s “all-star” status to his attitude.

“It’s his sense of humor," Divack said. "And he really likes doing it. He might not always admit it."

Joe and John have teamed up together for Allegheny Cleanways’ Dump Busters program for four years, with no signs of stopping any time soon.

4Moms

Pittsburgh-based 4Moms, which works to create innovative parent-friendly products for children, unveiled a new product to streamline the clunky process of installing a car seat.

For sale later this year, the self-installing car seat joins a battery of other user friendly products that harness technology to sterilize, self-fold and mimic a parent's touch.   

Mara McFaddon, director of product management, said it’ll be the safest one yet on the market.

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

  Last May, Governor Tom Wolf held a news conference in front of the Camp Hill state prison in Cumberland County.

He was joined by Corrections Secretary John Wetzel and a handful of district attorneys, all pushing for a $120 million funding increase — not for prisons — but for preschool.

“These are the first steps to what I have as a four-year goal to fully fund early childhood education,” Wolf said.

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