Showalter’s research focuses on coupled oscillators, in order to better understand periodic processes in living systems.
“Oscillators are everywhere, especially in living systemsyour heartbeat, your firing neurons, your circadian rhythms, etc.,” Showalter said.
“We study how they synchronize.”
Showalter received a Humboldt Foundation Research Award (Forschungspreis) in 1999, and an extension award in 2007.
Research on coupled chemical oscillators in Showalter’s group resulted in one of the first experimental examples of the chimera state, named after the fire breathing, lion-goat-snake chimera of Greek mythology.
The chimera is a counterintuitive state in which a group of oscillators is made up of coexisting groups of synchronized and unsynchronized oscillators. It is thought to be important in understanding unihemispheric sleep seen in some animals, where one half of the brain sleeps while the other half is awake.
These animals literally sleep with one eye open.
“The chimera is a new dynamical state. It had not been seen before. It was discovered by theoretical physicists in Japan about 10 years ago. There are many animalsdolphins, seals, and so forth that have what’s called unihemispheric sleep. These often are animals of prey. Half of the brain is in slow-wave sleep, and the other half is awake and alert,” Showalter said.
“Dolphins can stay alert doing this unihemispheric sleep for 15 days. Migratory birds can rest while flying hundreds of miles, because half their brain is asleep, while the other half is doing the work.”
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.
As an award recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Showalter will conduct research in Germany at the Technical University of Berlin.
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.