Libraries of possibilities: Algorithmic identification of possible fossil chronologies

Cedric Hagen, a doctoral candidate in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, spends a lot of time thinking about fossils. He’s not a paleontologist, though: don’t expect to find him digging up a Tyrannosaurus Rex. For one thing, dinosaurs lived much too recently–a measly 66 million years ago, in the case of the T. rex. Cedric’s work takes him much, much further back in time to the beginning of the Cambrian era, which began over 500 million years ago.

PhD candidate Cedric Hagen (photo by Hannah O’Leary)

While the Cambrian era is not the beginning of life on earth (for that, you’d need to go back a staggering 3.5 billion years) the Cambrian era is important because that is the time when many of the major forms of life appeared. This includes, for example, spongelike animals, burrowing worms, creatures with carbonate shells, reef-forming animals, and arthropods like the remarkably successful trilobites. The apparent rapid increase in the diversity of life at this time is termed the Cambrian explosion.

Trilobite. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, accessed 5/17/2020. Ellipsocephalus Hoffi detail (Cambrian Trilobite) (Fig. 31) (b), from “The ancient life-history of the earth” (Page 85)

As you may imagine, there are numerous challenges to studying life from so long ago. One of the major challenges is that there simply aren’t very many samples in existence. Part of the problem is that although the rocks at the ocean floor are old from a human standpoint, since oceanic crust is continually formed at mid-ocean ridges and destroyed at deep-sea trenches, there’s a hard limit on the age of fossils you can find at the sea floor. Oceanic crust is at most about 200 million years old throughout most of the world’s oceans. While there are a few places in the Mediterranean that date back around 340 million years, even that is a couple hundred million years too young. Only at isolated locations on the continents are there places where Cambrian carbonate rock formations exist. “You can think of these as reefs, really old reefs,” Hagen said.

Carbonate rocks outcropping in the southern Nopah Range, Death Valley, CA (photo by Cedric Hagen)

Before the advent of carbon isotope and radiometric dating, geologists had to base their ordering of the fossil record on relative positioning in layers of rock and fossil co-occurrence. Sedimentary rock forms as layers of material (strata) pile up over time. So, the more strata above a fossil, the further back in time the fossil formed. If you find multiple fossils in one area, this is a reliable way to place the fossils in chronological order—that is, of course, if those layers haven’t been jumbled up by earthquakes, landslides, or tectonic folding in the meantime. An additional help is that the events that lead to fossilization, such as a mudslide, frequently result in many organisms being fossilized together. If the same species is found at two sites, it is likely that the two sites represent the same era. This lets scientists pin approximate dates on the co-occurring fossils.

Photo of folded limestone layers in Provo Canyon, Utah. Photo by Kerk Philips (Wikimedia Commons, public domain. Accessed 5/17/2020)

Radiometric dating allows precise measurement of age based on the decay of radioactive material. As radioactive material decays, atoms of one element are transformed into another. For example, uranium decays (through a convoluted process) into lead. Measuring the relative abundance of each element allows one to calculate the age of the sample. Since these rocks are made in part from the remnants of carbon-shelled organisms, they also record the amount of particular isotopes of carbon that were present at the time that the organism died. Since the relative abundance of carbon isotopes varies slowly through time, the pattern of carbon isotope concentrations in a sample of carbonate rock is like a record of the rock’s position in time.

“We’ve pulled together these records that have different chunks of time, and we’re trying to correlate them to a single high resolution record that we know the time of so we can know the order of the fossils, ” Hagen says. “What we’ve started to find is that the uncertainty in these measurements is quite large, larger than previously anticipated—there’s a lot of different places and times where things could have evolved.”

Prior to this research, scientists lined up carbon isotope chronologies visually. Hagen has been working on numerical algorithm that allows a computer to identify possible matches between rock samples from different parts of the world. “We’re cataloging libraries of possibilities,” says Hagen. “Are there twenty [possible arrangements]? Are there two? What could we do as geologists to go into the field and pick one or two of those and narrow down this uncertainty?”

To hear more about Cedric’s research, tune in on Sunday,May 15th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM. You can live stream the show, or, if you miss it, you can download this episode and most of our earlier shows as podcasts on iTunes.

Grad Inspire 2020

Below is the transcript from our Grad Inspire event in which six current graduate students from Oregon State University took the stage to share the questions and motivations framing their research in an 8 to 10-minute engaging format.

Grad Inspire (née GRADx) combines scholarship communication with personal narrative, giving us a glimpse of not only “how” these students perform their work, but also the motivations and commitment behind it. This event introduces the phenomenal breadth of research, teaching, and discovery undertaken by graduate students at Oregon State.

To listen to the Podcast version of this event, visit our iTunes page.

GRAD INSPIRE 2020

Heather Forsythe:

Hello and welcome graduate students and supporters of graduate students to the 3rd annual GRAD Inspire: Ideas in Action (formally known as GRADx). We are so excited to be here with you all tonight. My name is Heather Forsythe and I am a PhD Candidate in Biochemistry and Biophysics, and I am also a senior host of KBVR’s radio show, blog, and podcast, Inspiration Dissemination. I will be your host for the evening.

Before we get started, Grad Inspire would like to acknowledge that Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR is located within the traditional homelands of the Mary’s River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, living descendants of these people are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians.

Grad Inspire is sponsored by the Graduate School and Inspiration Dissemination, or ID. ID, is hosted by OSU grad students, about OSU grad students. ID provides a platform to talk about the struggles and triumphs of research and individuals’ unique backgrounds, while sharing the exceptional research happening across disciplines at OSU with the larger community it resides in.

Thank you to the graduate school for helping us organize the details of this event, and huge thank you to Block15 Brewing Company for their generous donation. Speaking of Block15! I was actually at another public research talk at Block15 when I talked to Nick Bira, a Robotics PhD student here at OSU, and Grace Deitzler, a PhD student in Microbiology, about making a giant lightbulb for this event. And they totally delivered! Thanks so much Nick and Grace for designing and building this giant light bulb, a symbol of inspiration!

We’ve all been working on this event since October, when we first selected the 6 speakers you will hear from tonight. Over the past 5 months, these stories have been in development, with each of our ID hosts helping guide these incredible graduate students to craft truly inspiring presentations. Thank you to all of our presenters and ID hosts for putting in the time to make this event happen. It is such a joy and privilege to work with and get to know such talented and creative researchers and communicators.

The students featured on stage tonight are from across different academic Colleges and disciplines here at Oregon State University. They have come to OSU from all over the country and have traveled all around the world in pursuit of their work and academic and personal growth. They have overcome seeming insurmountable mental and physical challenges to make it to this stage tonight, and every single one of them is a student, researcher, mentor, friend, and member of our community. I hope their stories inspire you.

We are starting off the evening with Ashley Ellenson

Ashley is a PhD candidate in civil engineering. Her advisor is Dr. Greg Wilson. And her Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Daniel Watkins and Laurie Lutes. Please welcome Ashley Ellenson.

Ashley Ellenson:

Surfing is a really freeing feeling. Here I’m in Baja California with an open wave face ahead of me and being pushed along by the power of the ocean.

These are probably the moments of surfing that you’ve seen most often, the fun and beautiful parts. What you’ve probably seen less of is all of the moments of frustration and hard work that goes into these moments of triumph. It’s like watching a PhD defense and not realizing all the years worth of tedious work that have gone into the small details. Much Like my own PhD, I’m a PhD candidate and I’ve had my own fair share of challenges, challenges like these.

In surfing, anytime you try something new, you risk the chance of falling. And to add insult to injury, you might get violently held under the water by the wave. We call this getting rag dolled or laundry machined. Today, I want to tell you about these moments during my PhD, how I’ve grown from them, and how surfing has helped me all along the way.

I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I was a beach lifeguard during the summers. That’s when I learned how to surf. During college at Columbia in New York City, I would take my surfboard on the subway train and travel the hour and a half from upper from the upper west side down to Rockaway Beach in order to get in the water. After I graduated, I moved to Hawaii so I could keep surfing. You could imagine my excitement when I realized there was a coastal engineering degree, a way I could formalize an experiential education. So I applied and got into the program here at OSU and I got offered a funded position, so I took it. When I moved to Oregon, I started surfing here and I had to get used to how different of an ocean it is. If Hawaii is firm, but warm and playful:

Oregon is a cold and moody lover, that only sometimes shows you a soft side:

In Hawaii, the fun waves are predictable and the paddle out is easy. In Oregon, the fun waves seem elusive, and the paddle out can seem impossible with infinite currents. There are a lot of reasons for this and I’m going to explain two today. The first has to do with how waves are generated and travel across the open ocean. We call this deep, deep water waves and wave dispersion. And it’s the type of information that seafaring vessels would care about. The second part has to do with what happens when those waves reach get closer to the coast and transform and break. Those are shallow water waves. And that’s this is the type of information that coastal communities would care about to predict erosion. So imagine a storm over the sea with the wind howling over crashing wave crests. Energy is being transferred from the winds into the water and generating waves. The waves then travel away from the storm. You can think of wave travel like a marathon, where the start of the marathon is the storm and the waves are the runners. At the beginning of the race, all of the runners fast and slow are mixed together. As the race begins, the slower runners move to the back and the elite faster runners group towards the front in what we call wave groups. Because Hawaii is is not in the direct path of the storms, it gets to see the waves towards the end of the race, when they’re already organized from fast to slow. But Oregon gets constantly hit by waves. So it’ll see the waves anywhere from the beginning to the end of the race, so the waves can be really disorganized. A perfect surf day is when the surfers get to greet the waves at the end of the race after they’ve been organized. And the challenge in Oregon is figuring out when those days will be.

So after the waves have traveled all the way across the Pacific, they start reaching shallower water as they get closer to land, and they start to feel the bottom. Eventually, it begins to get so shallow that the waves break. You can think of the bottom as actually pushing the water and the waves up. And the way the bottom is shaped will determine how the wave is pushed up. If the bottom is shaped like a step, then the wave will rise suddenly and break quickly. And if the bottom is shaped like a ramp, like a wheelchair access ramp, then the wave will rise gradually and it’ll break slowly. So in Hawaii, the bottom is made out of reef. So that means the way the waves rises and breaks is really predictable. And for a surfer who’s reading the wave to drop in, makes it easy to know when and where to drop in. But in Oregon, the bottom is made out of sand and it’s constantly changing. So that makes it really unpredictable to know when and where the wave is gonna break and really tricky as a surfer to read the waves.

Figuring out when and where a wave is gonna break is a surfers ultimate mission, because then you can maximize the number of good surf days you can get. I wanted to maximize those good surf days for surfers in Oregon because we typically live in the valley and have to gamble as to whether or not it’s good enough to make it out to the coast. During my master’s I worked on part one of what I explained, wave generation and travel. I thought I could do a better job predicting waves than the surf forecasting tools that are already out there. So I worked with the business incubator downtown to develop a surf app. I called it rip rap the surf app. Being a woman in the business incubator was a challenge in its own self and it’s a story for another day. So I started getting some success with the surf forecasting tool, and I even had interviews with NPR and Surfer magazine.

I was just finishing my master’s degree, publishing my first paper, and then there was an opportunity to get a PhD and part two of what I explained, researching sandbar evolution. I decided to stay and get a PhD. The first step to getting your PhD is qualifying for it by taking your qualifying exams. I remember the day of my qualifying exams. I’d actually scheduled I’d actually planned a party to celebrate that I had passed, but that party turned into a pity party when I had to tell everybody that I had failed. I felt horrible and really ashamed. I was gonna get a chance to try again, but I’d have to wait a full year. I’d also broken my ankle earlier that year, and I realized that I couldn’t start a business and be a PhD student at the same time. So I had to let the surf forecasting app go. You could say I’d fallen off of the wave of success of my master’s degree, and I was just beginning to get rag dolled on by the PhD.

The next wave to hit me was the wave of my fruitlessness of my research. The very first step in my new research project was to simulate sandbars moving. Well, I tried for a full year to get the right results. I tried so many different environmental scenarios and I didn’t, I didn’t get what we were looking for. With each failed attempt, I, the confidence in myself and in my research ability eroded. The next wave to hit me after that was the wave of my health challenges. I developed an infection in my gut and it made it really difficult to eat any food. What I thought was basic food made me feel sick and fatigued. I developed insomnia and I also developed food anxiety. I was really obsessed with anything that I was eating, and I was scared of getting sick. So in surfing when getting held under by a wave, the first thing that you want to do that you can’t do is panic. Panicking is the first step to drowning. Because when you panic, you burn all of the oxygen in your lungs, you lose all control of the situation, and so instead, what you have to do is stay calm, stay calm and focus on the water around you, and listen to when it’s safe enough for you to try to make it back up to the surface. And then you can reassess the situation and paddle back out. So I wanted to panic. I felt like I was in some sort of purgatory with quals. I was frustrated by my research and was confused and scared that my body wasn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to. But I couldn’t panic. So I listened to the challenges around me and I had to adapt.

First thing I had to do was take care of my health. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the Graduate Student Union in the amazing health care we get as graduate students because that allowed me to see all kinds of specialists and ultimately heal. I was put on a diet that restricted me from eating gluten, dairy, alcohol or caffeine. And I also had to quit socializing as often because social activities often revolve around consuming one of those things. I had to learn how to rest and take time for myself and to let my body heal.

Then I had to pass quals. I spent a long time practicing basic calculus skills like derivatives. And I also spent long hours in the library with my friend dissecting the material. I pass quals and now I feel like I have a much better understanding of the physical concepts in my fields. And I’m much better at problem solving.

Finally, I had to turn my research around. My advisor and I came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be able to get the results you’re looking for because the model simply wasn’t capable of it. So we had to find a new approach. Remember the beach is a really chaotic system. And I thought that using statistical correlations to predict sandbar evolution, as opposed to using explicit physical, physical relationships, would be better because of all of the uncertainty of the physical dynamics within the system. I’m now using machine learning to predict sandbar behavior from data and I just published my first paper on machine learning and wave forecasting.

So I have a friend who likes to start every session with a wipeout. He says it helps him shake off any fears or nervousness or doubt. He likes to see that it that he can get tumbled around, come back up and it’s not that bad. That allows him to go after waves that are bigger and better and ultimately offer more reward. So falling doesn’t mean you’re failing, it just means you’re on your way to your next wave. On your way to another part of your journey. Riprap the surf app is still in the back of my mind. It might just be the next wave I take off on after my PhD. And I might fall off of it again. But that’s okay, because the lessons of perseverance, creative strategy, and patience that I’m learning along the way are making me better at trying, and I know one day I will catch a wave of success. Like this one. Here, I’m in Newport, and I am feeling the buttery water beneath my board, watching the water texture change with the wind, and bobbing weightlessly between the steely blue interface of sky and sea.

All through the time of being challenged, I kept surfing. Surfing and all the friends that go along with it reminded me to be happy and how to play. It reminded me that the world is so much bigger than just graduate than just the bubble of grad school, even when I was being tormented by the turbulence of life. So find what gives you joy and hang on to it. That can be your light in the dark in a way to find a home within yourself when otherwise you feel lost at sea. Thank you.

Heather Forsythe: Let’s wave goodbye to Ashley, and say hello to Winston Kennedy! Winston is a PhD student in Kinesiology and Master of Public Health student. His advisor is Dr. Samuel Logan and his Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Adrian Gallo and Lisa Hildebrand.

Winston Kennedy:

Hello. Hello. They messed up on my theme music but that’s okay.

So before I start, I just want to say just raise your hand, make some noise stand whatever you want to do. I just want to acknowledge everyone who pursued education befor because they were inspired or motivated. So make some noise, raise your hand. Okay. Okay, that’s, that seems like majority of the people in here. So, I want you guys to acknowledge that, like myself, and the other five people presenting today, we all have stories. And at times we can get blinded by our own stories. And we neglect other stories. So as you take in our stories tonight, take some time to take in your peer stories at some point in time. So with that, I’ll dive into my story.

So, before coming to Oregon State University, I was a practicing physical therapist. I got my doctorate in physical therapy in 2015, from Florida International University. So when people ask me why come back to school for a PhD? Well, people often ask me why go back to school for a PhD. And I don’t know, I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. But I’m one of the major motivations came from when I was working in a physical therapy clinic in Miami, Florida.

I had a patient, we’ll call her “Jenny.” She was about 50, 60 years old, and when I seen her she was recovering from a stroke. Prior to come seeing me in the clinic she was coming from she already been admitted to the hospital. She’d been to inpatient rehab. That’s a sub acute setting. So she was familiar with the rehab process. When she came to me we were working on trying to walk, functional mobility, that means transfers sitting getting in and out of bed. But beyond that, we were working on her transition. Her transition to a new life. And what that entailed is having a lot of conversations, talking about how she was feeling, what she was going through. And one of the major things we were talking about was her transitioning from being a single independent woman to now relying on assistance, assistance she hadn’t needed for a long, long time. And with those conversations and with working through rehab, we built a bond, we built a connection. You know, even when she wasn’t in the best of moods, I understood why. And that understanding helped her to keep working even when she didn’t feel like it.

So everything was going great until, you know, I went on vacation. You know, people need vacation. And so she had to work with a couple other therapists. When I came back, I noticed something had changed. So I again, like I usually do, I talked to her, said what was going on. She told me when I was gone, she worked with other therapists who said, she wasn’t doing enough at home. She wasn’t trying to get better. She needs to work harder. So that whole rapport we were building kind of left. I lost it. And so what what that led me to was, was talking to her more and understanding that two kind of things, two things happened. Her idea of what she could do outside of rehab, and the feasibility of her doing things, physical activity, outside of rehab, were limited. And she now realized that from those interactions with those new providers, also what I realized these health care professionals, these other therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, people who are supposed to be in charge of our health, or wellness or well-being left her, left her in the dust, instead of up lifting her, they kind of pushed her down.

And that got that got me thinking. She’s experiencing this, are other people in her situation experiencing this? These are people with functional mobility issues or people you would call it as being disabled. And that is what kind of shifted me to where I’m at now. With her I started to think, okay, if she’s experiencing this or other people with disabilities experiencing this, especially people who are newly transitioning into this identity of being disabled? Are other health care professionals realizing that there are barriers to accessing physical physical activity outside of working with them. How big is this problem?

So in about the, the spring of 2016 I started looking into it. And at first, my first thought was okay, I can open up a facility that is geared towards providing opportunities for people with disabilities to be active, not only to do you know, medical rehabilitation, but just to come and move, you know, because physical activity is a social experience. But then I got to thinking if this is a problem here in Miami, Florida, what about, you know, Northern Florida, what about Southeast, Northeast, all of the United States? So I knew it was a bigger problem than I could grasp. And I needed to examine that more. So that led me to looking into you know, higher education, and that’s what led me to OSU.

And while I’m here, that’s my biggest charge: accessibility for people with disabilities in regards to physical activity. And one of my first major projects that I undertook with my advisor Sam Logan was looking at attitudes of physical therapists and occupational therapists. People much like myself. And what we were trying to see if their perspectives on disability related to their attitudes toward, towards disability. By perspectives, I mean, models of disability. Just show of hands, noise, whatever you want to do, how many of you are familiar with the models of disability? Okay, not all at once. All right.

So within health and wellness, there are two models of disability that are pertinent. There’s a medical model that says disability resides within the individual and it’s something that needs to be cured or fixed. And then there’s a social model that says disability is an experience created by society because of exclusive practices like the built environment, social attitudes, and policy. So in, in this one my first studies what we are trying to see if those two perspectives, predicted attitudes, because, in my line research the theory is attitudes may lead to intentions which can predict behaviors. So if these models tell us about attitudes, those attitudes can tell us about the behaviors. And in my case, of health care professionals, and how they work with people with disabilities in physical activity context. I know that’s a mouthful, but I can talk more about it after.

So in that study, what we found was as these healthcare professionals, PTs and OTs, as they gain more experience, they shifted more to medical model of disability. So disability is within the individual, and their attitudes became less favorable. So think about that. So if you’re a healthcare professional, and you’re working with someone with a disability, and you think what I’m trying to fix is in this individual, for some people, for some mobility issues, there might not be much change. So if you feel like you cannot helped change that individual how much effort will you put into helping the individual? Yeah, I felt that. I felt that. Right. So I think my overarching goal is to kind of be able to assess healthcare professionals perspectives, and working with people with disabilities to kind of get an idea of how they work with this population to promote better interactions between the two. And if you’re all like me, who have been to various healthcare professionals, being a person with a disability, without disability, we all have some interesting experiences, am I right? So that is like I said that that was one of the major reasons that led me to coming back to school but I’ve always had an affinity for education. I’ve always had an affinity for people with disabilities. And it’s when I think back about it, it’s it’s hard it was hard to put my finger on it.

It could have been because of I’m a physical therapist. I’ve worked with that population a lot. It could have been my year I spent on crutches. I was fortunate enough to get a football scholarship at Hampton University. My senior year had a knee injury, left me on crutches for a year. And through that experience, that’s when I first when I think back I realized, man, it was tough. The university I went to was small, and people with disabilities weren’t considered. I had to crutch up and down stairs. I fell several times. I had to go up and down stairs to get in my dorm. Fell in the shower several times. And it was just it wasn’t a great experience. But that wasn’t it. It was something more and it’s something I don’t really talk about much because before coming to OSU, it was hard for me to conceptualize.

The biggest thing is I was raised by someone with a disability. My mother, she worked a lot, always working, from the time I was young. Oh, with the red here, that’s my mom.

.

A hard working, hard working woman. That’s all she did. So when I was a kid, it was me and my two sisters. She had a cousin. To me, that’s my second mom. She she’s from Trinidad and Tobago, like the rest of my family. I just came back from there, it was a great experience. These pictures are from there. So my cousin’s from Trinidad and Tobago, and when she was young, she had a series of health issues. She had issues in school, issues with bullying. So, in a developing country in the 60s, there wasn’t any, they didn’t have any solutions. So she stopped going to school. So when she was in her 20’s she came to live with my mom. And then I was born. And when my mom was working, that’s who I was with.

It wasn’t until I was about seven or eight, I noticed that my second mom, she was different from all the older adults. I didn’t think it was better or worse, just different. And I think that’s what made me realize that people with disabilities like all people are just different And want to be included and not be seen as afterthought. So I think that’s what gave me my lens of trying to be an ally for people with disabilities. Because, like people disabilities, you know, being a black man in America, I know what it’s like to be an afterthought. And I know what it’s like to be excluded. And I know what it takes to overcome those barriers. Oh, you can clap now for that. That was good.

So that was, that, I feel like that’s what led me to work with that population, but there’s even more to my story that got me into higher education. Like I said, My mom was always working, but she was always there by phone, ready to “How’s your grades?” “They okay.” “Just okay? Go get them better.” And to her education was everything. Go to school, you’re sick, you got to go to school. You don’t feel like going to school. Go to school, you’re getting bullied, you better beat him up and then make sure you get A’s. So I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. While I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, around the age of 11 I was robbed, held up by a by knife, and my mom says, that is what prompted us to move to Florida. She was worried about me. It wasn’t the best environment. Even when I go back there, most of my family still lives in Boston, I see, I see a community that’s looking for help that’s not getting it.

There was a class, I took a health psychology class when I first came to Oregon State University, and then I read a review paper that said people’s environments, physical and social, is directly associated with their health. So in my head, I was like, what? Where I live, I’m pretty sure that’s detrimental to my health. And that, that review came out in the 80’s so I’m like, alright, so why wasn’t there anyone in my community trying to help us. And when I go back home and I see my nieces in the same community, I’m like, still it’s the same thing. So I think for me, what I try to do is the work I do, like being on this stage, I need to be able to disseminate and get it out there. So get people galvanized so we can do something. And a lot of that stems from a lot of what my mom instilled in me. And even from young moving to Florida, at the age of 16, they all had to leave because of financial reasons. My two moms, my two sisters, they left and it was just me.

And what I did to make friends build connections was play sports, basketball, football, and football worked for me I got the full scholarship to Hampton University. My first goal was to go to the NFL and make millions of dollars but I deferred that nah, but I had a knee injury. So but even prior to that higher education was in my future. While at Hampton University, I was fortunate to be a McNair Scholar. How many of you guys are familiar with the McNair Scholars program? Yeah, it was a transformative experience. I got to go to Hampton University, a HBCU, historically black college university. They provide a lot of underrepresented, non traditional students opportunities to receive education, but there’s not a lot of resources.

So through the McNair Scholars Program, I was able to go to Virginia Tech and do research at a medical neuro psych Institute with two Harvard trained neruopsychologists. And it was a it was an awesome experience. I was doing things that I didn’t think people like me could do. And yeah, from there, I learned how to tie a tie. I learned I got free GRE prep. I learned how to eat fancy with a knife and fork. It was it was amazing. And then from there, I even thought of switching to clinical psychology, but I had worked so hard to put everything together for physical therapy I stayed, I stayed in that route.

And from there I went on to PT school, and then pushed through. I got a scholarship to go to PT school, got licensed and started working. And that got me to that got me to where I am now. It’s in I’m very fortunate and humbled to be here in front of all of you. So that was kind of my story of what got me here. So where I’m hoping to go is, is to continue doing things like this, continue doing my research, continue trying to disseminate my research and continue to create visibility for people like myself, because there are still people like me in my community who don’t think research is for them, higher education is for them, because we don’t still today we don’t see people like us doing it. So I think I try my best to take charge and let people know you can do this. You can have dreads, you can wear sweats and a T-shirt and still do quality work. Yeah.

So I’m gonna leave you with two things in closing. One goal for me is that my nieces, nephews, I, that’s my first time seeing my nephews, five of them. My sister just had a son. I’m hoping that all of them don’t have to go through what I go through that they know that they can allow me for support. Even though I’m thousands 1000 miles away, I tell them all the time, if you need some call uncle Winston, I’ll make it happen. And, also, my last message is to all of you that your experiences, your motivations, your inspirations, they guide you on this path to wherever you’re going. Sometimes that path may change, but it’s okay because you just created a new experience, a new inspiration to guide you on that new path. So embrace it, because there’s no telling where it will take you. Thank you.

Heather Forsythe: Our next speaker is Meredith Jacobson. Meredith is a master’s student in forest ecosystems and sociology. Her advisors are Dr. Reem Hajjar and Dr. Emily Jane-Davis. Her Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Heather Forsythe, which is myself, and Chelsea Behymer. Please welcome Meredith.

Meredith Jacobson:

I could say that one place where things all began was with this John Muir quote, “The clearest way into the center of the universe is through a forest wilderness.”

That is to say my entry into forestry and environmentalism was through a white man’s eyes as it is for many. Muir’s words captured my 18-year old heart with a sense of wonder for the jagged mountains of the West having spent my childhood in Maryland. My personal ethics of nature and conservation quickly rooted into whiteness and colonialism, the ground on which forestry is taught in western academia.

Muir’s environmentalism says that people must be removed from the wilderness for its protection; that people and nature are separate. But it didn’t take me long to learn from fire ecologist that this preservationist environmentalism has wreaked havoc on our ecosystems. The wide open meadows and expansive views of granite cliffs that Muire quote “discovered” and vowed to protect have since darkened with a dense forest canopy now that controlled fires that by humans have ceased. I soon also learned that the Miwok people were forcibly removed from their homelands to create Yosemite National Park.

But while I was learning this legacy of dispossession, I was also learning to love and create home in place in the golden California hills. When I first began thinking about graduate school, I had just finished two years working for the California Department of Forestry planning timber harvests and restoration projects on the ancestral lands of the coast Ohlone people. It was the fall of 2016 and water protectors were gathering in Standing Rock to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And while I didn’t make it to the frontlines, that movement inspired me to consider that as a white woman who lives, works and plays on stolen lands. I’m accountable to my role in this ongoing legacy of colonization.  

So I could say that two forces have brought me on to my current research path, this love for land and the sense of accountability.

Disheartened by our public land systems inability to keep up with the increasing pace of wildfire and climate change, I have found hope in a concept called anchor forests. This concept originated with the Intertribal Timber Council, an umbrella organization of tribal foresters across the continent. Anchor forests seek to empower tribes to convene surrounding landowners to collectively actively manage large regions of forest lands together. This vision which was developed in the forests of the West acknowledges that property lines are arbitrary in the face of a large fire. It suggests that long term partnerships are needed in order to sustain a steady supply of timber to keep sawmills afloat in rural communities. And it proposes that tribes with their permanence and experience on the landscape might be our best hope at anchoring a ship sailing stormy seas.

In 2016, the Intertribal Timber Council released a pilot study looking at the feasibility of implementing anchor forests in several regions in the state of Washington. One example involved the Yakima nation who have a relatively large land base compared to some other tribes, a strong forestry program and importantly one of the last remaining sawmills in the area. But the Yakima are affected by the actions of their neighbors, the state of Washington, the US Forest Service, private landowners, all of whom occupied portions of the Yakima’s ancestral lands. It’s hard to keep a sawmill running when there’s not a stable supply of timber coming from those neighbors lands. And it’s hard to maintain a resilient forest within the bounds of a reservation when a fire or beetle outbreak could easily spread across the property line. Implementing an anchor forest would mean all of those neighbors coming together and making long term commitments to sustainably and actively managing the entire forest across the entire landscape.

As a social scientist, I’m interested in what anchor forests mean as governance and as story. While this vision is this vision is relatively new, and while it has been implemented or it has sparked conversation, it has not been implemented fully on the ground. And so my research asks simple questions. Why did this idea emerge? And what would it take to implement it on the scale that it was imagined? These complex or these simple questions have complex answers. These days public land agencies often have their hands tied fearful of lawsuits and objections.

We settlers know two ways of living with land: over-exploitation and John Muir’s environmentalism.

It’s almost unfathomable for many to imagine sustainable active management or responsible timber harvest. With anchor forests the Intertribal Tim, the Intertribal Timber Council is seeking to expand the scale on which we’re managing lands across larger landscapes and longer timelines. And with anchor forests the Intertribal Timber Council is telling a series of stories about how tribes may be able to help us accomplish all this, that they are knowledgeable, capable, experienced and powerful stewards of their lands. Similar stories are showing up in the media where wildfire is waking communities up to the need for new paradigms.

I came to OSU to study collaboration as a form of forest governance. The idea is to allow every voice to be heard. But in starting this research, I have learned that many non-native people don’t see or know how to see tribes as sovereign autonomous nations and instead treat them as another stakeholder in the process.

In a research interview, a tribal representative shared with me that sometimes ATV riders, as a recreation group, and the tribe can be listed in the same breath as equal stakeholders of a national forest. I’ll say that again. Thank you. I’ll say that again, if you didn’t hear in the back.

ATV riders and the tribe can be seen as holding equal voice over the tribes ancestral homelands.

So it turns out that maybe equity in governance doesn’t mean every voice is equal when the terrain of decision making has already been tilted by colonialism, a terrain on which we cannot see native nations or see native people as full and complex individuals. So it’s my responsibility as a researcher to make sure I’m co-creating the story with my partners, that it aligns with their perspectives and interests and furthers their work. Equally important is to make sure that I’m not oversimplifying. White researchers like me have been doing that for a long time.

A group of people in a forest

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The anchor forest story uses broad strokes suggesting a framework of governance and partnership. But when we take this framework onto the ground, everything is contextual. Every tribe has its own values and culture and a distinct history of colonization affecting the current extent of sovereignty over their ancestral lands. Non-native people tend to overlook all of that. We simplify the story to fit neatly and conveniently into our frame of the world. These simplified stories bleed into cultural stereotypes with real and harmful consequences.

I hope to dig deeper in my future research. I wonder if this era of massive wildfires, this era that is busting the myth of John Muir environmentalism could be our wake up call not only to heed the knowledge of indigenous people but to give back land and rights. As a non-native person, I can’t just take traditional ecological knowledge out of context and expect it to guide the way. This knowledge requires giving autonomy over the land to its original inhabitants to continue upon millennia of cultural practice. As a non-native person, I returned to the sense of accountability that brought me here, and I feel compelled to use my voice to take these conversations further in my circles. Often though, I checked myself on my intentions; the reasons why I’m doing this work.

Tuck and Yang published a paper called “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” that profoundly changed the way I see the world. And I think it could change you too. When white settlers speak of decolonizing something, usually to refer to some vaguely social justice oriented action we’re diluting the meaning of this word. We’re doing just enough to feel good about ourselves to justify our continued presence on the land, but the land remains colonized. Speak, write, research these tensions all I want, I’m still a settler and so is Oregon State University. Decolonizing, decolonizing must mean tangibly unsettling the land. Entering the forest must mean confronting all this.

So I asked myself every day, what am I doing here on Kalapuya land in graduate school in a university. I’m asking myself right now, why am I on this stage? These are not my stories to tell. Academia is an oppressive space for so many where individuals have to constantly promote themselves, get published, conduct research in a certain way under Western schools of knowledge. Even an event like this perpetuates individualism. Although my research partners hold the knowledge, I’m the one that gets to be here on stage.

Entering this work means figuring out which are the times when I should be using my voice to bring these issues into the light and which are the times when I should be stepping away from the mic, taking up less space in conversations that are not for me to dominate or maybe not for me to even enter.

So I’ll end by sharing a quote from an indigenous botanist, scholar and writer who I have turned to to help reframe my relationship to place, to the forest. Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer will be speaking on campus next month or this month, March 16, and I encourage you to go see her. In her book “Braiding Sweet Grass”, she writes, “If we are looking for models of self-sustaining communities we need look no further than to an old growth forest or the old growth cultures they raised in symbiosis with them.” Thank you.

Heather Forsythe: I would like to now welcome Shauna Otto to the stage. Shauna is a PhD candidate in biochemistry and biophysics. Her advisor is Dr. Colin Johnson. Her inspiration dissemination mentors were Adrian Gallo and Kayla Delventhal.

Shauna Otto:

Life is precarious. Even just sitting here tonight your body is working hard to keep you away from equilibrium, correct too far in either direction and the results could be catastrophic. Your body’s efforts to maintain this delicate balance is called homeostasis. As an example, each time you move your muscle cells strain and pull against each other, tearing tiny holes in themselves.

And if you didn’t have the repair mechanism in place, you wouldn’t survive. Like most homeostatic processes. This mechanism is handled by proteins, the tiny workhorse molecules of ourselves. My dissertation work focuses on how one of these proteins, dysferlin senses damage to muscle tissue. If you’re born with a deficit in dysferlin, your muscle cells can’t respond to mechanical stress and you develop muscular dystrophy. Now, how can it protein basically an inanimate glom of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen since anything?

Well, it turns out that there’s a huge difference in the calcium concentrations inside and outside of your cell, and it’s held back by the cell membrane.

If this membrane is compromised, the calcium comes flooding in and it’s this sharp increase the dysferlin responds to.

So dysferlin binds the calcium, and then something about it changes. But what? Dysferlin is huge. So our strategy was to break it up into chunks. And starting with this bit here in the beginning. We already had a snapshot of what the protein looked like, but we were more interested in the motions of the protein. So a snapshot just wasn’t enough.

Luckily here at Oregon State, we have a lovely little instrument called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer that allows us to look at the motions of proteins in exquisite detail. Nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, first requires a big magnet, a really, really big magnet that you stick your proteins inside of. The nuclei of the atoms in your protein are electrostatic little creatures, so they respond to this magnetic field giving you an energy difference between two states depending on which way the nuclei are spinning.

Turns out that this difference is about the same energy as a radio wave, which means we can use radio waves to excite these nuclei. So we play a jaunty little tune consisting of radio frequency pulses and delays called a pulse sequence, the nuclei sense and bump into each other during this tune,

and at the end of the pulse sequence, we stop and listen closely to what the nuclei have to say.

Proteins are made up of amino acid building blocks. And each one in dysferlin shows up as a discrete spot on the spectra. Once I know which is which I can poke the protein, say by changing the calcium concentration, and then watch how each spot behaves. And that’s exactly what we did. We slowly took away calcium, and watched what each spot did. We mapped this information onto three dimensional structure we already knew. And we were able to make some inferences. For example, we know that the top of this molecule remains fairly flexible, even under surprisingly high calcium concentrations. And as we take calcium away, the top half of kind of falls apart.

So now we know that the very first bit of dysferlin in the presence of calcium goes from being really really wiggly, to just a little bit wiggly. It seems silly and a bit underwhelming, but that’s the reality of research, and it’s okay, maybe the small bet I filled in will help somebody in the future figure out how to supplement for the loss of this protien in patients living with muscular dystrophy. Just teeny tiny steps in a long journey towards a better understanding of a bigger picture.

Now, tonight isn’t just about cool science. It’s also about the steps we’ve taken on our personal journeys. Each of us has somebody who’s set us on our path, somebody who’s really made an impression. And for me, that was my undergraduate chemistry professor.

It was mid-semester, and we were grabbing a bite to eat the local pub and he asked if I wanted to volunteer in his lab. I was super flattered, and I jumped at the opportunity. I got to work with proteins for the first time. I got to learn a bit of spectroscopy, dabble with lasers. Everything seemed to be going super well. But under the surface, I was tearing myself apart in response to run of the mill stressors. I had had melancholic stretches before, but this was an entirely different beast. I didn’t have insurance, but I knew I needed to see a psychiatrist. The one I found left me with a stack of stock worksheets on self esteem about a month’s worth of Prozac and a $200 bill that I really couldn’t afford.

I tried therapy at a low cost clinic, but it didn’t really stick and I continue to spiral. I started self harming. I quit my job. I sold my car for $500 to pay rent and then was eventually kicked out of my apartment.

But I still had keys to lab.

So I packed my stuff up, shoved it into storage, filled a duffel bag full of clothes and some toiletries and moved right in.

Logistically it was a bit tricky. I pretended to have work to do late into the night. I pretended to just be getting in early when professors would see me headed off to shower in the gym in the mornings. I made more than my fair share of Top Ramen on the hot plate and I resorted to filtching food out of the common fridge when I finally overdrew my checking account.

The scariest part though was when the cleaning crew would come by Thursday evenings about three o’clock in the morning. Our lab had a laser table upfront with a floor to ceiling black curtain enclosure to keep lasers in and all. And so every Thursday night, I would wake up about two o’clock, pack up my sleeping bag, draw those curtains around me and hide under the table, making myself as small and as quiet as possible. Heart just beating in my throat. I was terrified that somebody would find me and the jig would be up and I’d have no place to go.

It didn’t take long for my professor to find out. I posted to MySpace about swapping housework for a place to stay and he put the pieces together. He offered me a camping mat to make my stay more comfortable. Things got weird several months into this arrangement and he started making jokes at lab meeting about how all the work I could get done since I’d be in lab anyways. I called him out privately and he apologized. But our relationship continued to sour and I left research all together for several years once I found a more permanent place to stay.

From there, I bounced around couches, apartments, friendships, I barely scraped through my course work. I failed human sexuality twice because I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to get to class. For some reason, physical chemistry really clicked for me and that professor took notice and did a bit of probing into my history.

I opened up to him about my struggles and my situation and he helped get me through the final few terms of my undergraduate. He got me back into research. Got me into the master’s program as a way to rehab my GPA. And as a way to get myself some access to health insurance.

I was hopeful for the first time in years that I’d be able to dig myself out of the mess I had made. I saw a psychiatrist for the second time. We went over my history and came out with a tentative diagnosis. It turns out I have a serious deficit in my response to stress in the form of bipolar disorder.

With a diagnosis in hand and a treatment plan in place, I was really determined to rock my first term, but I bit off way more than I could chew. I couldn’t stay momentum and I crashed right before finals. My advisor tried to help me triage the damage by petitioning for medical incompletes, but to no avail. I had wrecked my chances before I’d even gotten out the gate. I was able to stay in the program but my advisor told me in no uncertain terms that this couldn’t happen again.

I went on to have two good years before I worked up the courage to apply to PhD programs. The internet is rife with advice about most things and grad apps are no exception. They have one thing to say about mentioning mental health issues in your personal statement. Don’t, just don’t do it. So I was scared of freaking out admissions committees by disclosing my condition. So no explanation for my all over the place transcripts made it into my application package. So unsurprisingly, I only got one interview. I’m really happy that Oregon State thought I was worth the trouble.

I spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bipolar is chronic, and I haven’t mastered the art of catching an episode before it overwhelms me. The final term of my master’s, the other shoe dropped hard. It was happening again and I couldn’t reach out like I had before. So I ghosted. I didn’t finish my thesis. It was easier to start over fresh where nobody would know my history, and so I fled to Corvallis.

I knew I needed a solid network of helpers if I was going to stand any chance of success here. So my first week of classes, I crept off to CAPS and made myself an appointment and got a referral to a therapist within walking distance. I found out that we have psychiatrists right here on campus instead of an hour bus ride away. It took a bit but I was referred to Disability Access Services.

It’s taken me even longer, but I I’ve tried to make a point to be more open about my mental health. And I struggled to trust that I can lean on people around me. I’ve been here for four and a half years and had my fair share of stressors during my tenure, including course work, teaching, prelims. I started a family. And I’ve stumbled again many, many times. But each time I’ve fallen down, I have consistently been met with a helping hand. And it’s made it so much easier to bounce back each time because of that. It’s easier to maintain homeostasis, and I can put my energy into my science and into my family instead of just barely surviving.

I have a lot of anger and regret surrounding my story and my journey. I wonder how much time and effort and potential I wasted because I didn’t have access to the systems of support I needed right away. I wonder where I would be if my first advisor had offered me something more than a camping mat. I don’t know if Oregon State is more prepared than my previous institution or if it’s just been an incredible decade of progress in this regard, or if I’m just better at asking for what I need.

But I do know that we have 30,000 students on this campus and a single psychiatrist.

I know that graduate students up and down California are striking for cost of living increases.

I know that our graduate student union is pushing hard against resistance for enhanced grievance procedures.

I know that graduate student mental health is in crisis,

and I know that I am damn lucky to have found a supportive mentor in Dr. Johnson.

I have seen so so many of my graduate student workers struggle in response to unenthusiastic or outright hostile supervisors, wasting their time and potential. We know that science benefits from the inclusion of people with diverse backgrounds, identities and viewpoints. But if we actually want that fabulously wonderfully diverse pool, then we have to just stop paying lip service and we have to take steps to meet students where they are.

We have to actively break down barriers to their success. We need to invest resources in making sure they can thrive. And we have to reward faculty who step up and stick out their necks to advocate for their students. Wrong one that blew the moment, because just like the body needs a host of proteins to maintain homeostasis in times of stress, students need a solid support network in order to thrive because life is…life is crazy. And yeah. Thank you.

Heather Forsythe:

Next up is Sam Burns. Sam is a master’s student in applied anthropology. His advisor is Dr. Lauren Davis. Sam’s Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Laurie Lutes and Daniel Watkins. Please welcome Sam.

Samuel Burns:

I want to invite you all to come with me to my field site. It’s a tiny mountainous desert island in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

The islands name is it’s it’s modern name given to it by Spanish colonizing explorers is Isla de Cedros, the island of cedars, but its real name given to it in time immemorial by its indigenous inhabitants is Huamalgua “The Island of Fogs” or “The Island of the Spirits of the Ancestors”. The island is beautiful, but conditions in the field can sometimes be harsh. It’s cold and windy in the morning. It’s hot and windy in the afternoon. It’s dusty all the time, except when the fog is heavy enough in the morning to turn that top layer of dust into wet, muddy slop.

Every morning, we breakfast in town and then we drive out in our rented F-150 pickup trucks down unmainturned, unmaintained dirt tracks to our dig site. Today, I get into the six foot by three foot hole that I’ve been digging. I get right there when we arrive. And for the next eight hours, I crouch on the balls of my feet, carefully scraping away paper thin` layers of sediment and precisely recording the location of any artifacts I encounter. This particular hole happens to be on top of an ancient trash pit. And the discarded shells of clams and mussels, which were and still are a major source of food for the inhabitants of the island are more, they take up more volume in this hole than the dirt does.

So shells can tell us a lot of things. They can give us a lot of knowledge they can tell us about where what people were eating, what kinds of offshore environments people were using. We can even analyze the ratios of different isotopes in the shells to infer what the climate was that those shells that the shellfish lived in. But all of that knowledge has to be extracted in the lab where the shells can be cleaned, identified, counted, weighed, and finally assembled into pretty distribution charts and maps. This means that the excavation process is very boring. After a while, my knees start to hurt. My mind starts to wander. I start to wonder what we’re gonna have for dinner tonight. I remember that today is my day to have a hot shower.

As we get towards the end of the day, I hear my colleagues in the surrounding room, in the surrounding holes, some of whom are in this room, I hear them getting ready for the end of the day, finishing up their paperwork, packing up their tools. I start to hurry because I don’t want to keep everybody from dinner. I’ve been hungry since we got here. So I start to hurry. I started scraping through the sediment a little faster. But years of practice, keep my eyes focus sharply on that edge of my trowel. Even though my mind’s wandering, I see a shell. I’ve already bagged up, I don’t even know how many bags of shells today. But there’s something about the edge of the shell that catches my eye. It has that telltale regularity that just screams of human creation.

Instantly my mind snaps back into focus. The hustle and bustle of the end of the workday fade away and my world shrinks down to the edge of my trowel. I very carefully continue uncovering this piece of shell, and after a few minutes, it becomes clear what I found. It’s a mussel shell fishhook. A fishhook that’s big enough to pull a 100-pound sea bass from the depths of the ocean.

As I pick this up and hold it in my hands kneeling there in the dirt, my mind fills with questions. Who made this? What was their name? What was their life like? Was this fishhook a success? Did it give them dinner? Or was it a dud? But most importantly, I’m filled with a feeling of connection to this person who lived in this place, some 11,000 years before me. This feeling of kneeling in the dirt and feeling a connection to past humans is why I’m an archaeologist in the first place.

It’s a feeling that I first experienced as a child out behind my family’s 19th century farmhouse in rural Michigan digging through the trash pit that the builders of the house had left. I spent hours there as a kid digging up broken pieces of ceramic and glass, reassembling them into plates and saucers and medicine bottles and imagining the lives of the people who had lived at this place. A century before my parents were even born. To go back to Cedros, some 11,000 years ago, as the last ice age was ending, ice sheets and glaciers were retreating, people arrived on this island, probably by boats.

My research team is starting to put together the pieces of their life, but what we can say is that it looks like their culture was deeply focused on the sea. We see shellfish and fish bones, but we don’t really see very many hunting implements. We don’t very many terrestrial animals. But what I mostly think about when I’m thinking about the first people to come to Huamalgua is the incredible obstacles they faced, and the types of knowledge that were necessary to overcome those obstacles. In an environment like Huamalgua 11,000 years ago, all the things that we take for granted food, water, shelter, even fire require the accumulated knowledge of generations.

Even this simple fishhook which is right here, even this simple fishhook, it looks just like a piece of shell that’s been shaped, but it is embodied embedded with so much knowledge. Not only knowledge of how to harvest mussel shells and shape them, but knowledge of how to make stone drills to start the process, stone abraiders to grind them down, stone hammers to chip out the rough shape. And then it requires knowledge of how to make string from agave fiber. You need a very strong string to catch a 100-pound fish. But that requires knowledge of how to make scraping tools and spindle rolls and all sorts of technology we haven’t even started to discover yet. And then you got to start talking about boats and houses and food storage and food preparation. We haven’t even gotten there yet.

But all of this knowledge is embedded in this tiny, simple fishhook. And what’s really striking is that all that technological knowledge is just the beginning. This fish hook represents a much, much deeper piece of knowledge, the knowledge that half a mile offshore, a couple hundred feet below the surface of the water in an environment that no human being can directly experience and survive there are edible fish the size of a human that you can pull up with a properly prepared shellfish hook.

So to understand my own journey through knowledge, we have to go back to my childhood again. So I was born outside Detroit, Michigan.

My parents were members of a very conservative, fundamentalist religious organization whose primary tenets of faith were a rejection of worldly knowledge and an isolation from worldly influences. When I was eight years old, my parents followed the doctrine of the Church and moved my family to a small farm in rural Michigan. They didn’t send my siblings and I to school, but we didn’t really homeschool, because all knowledge was suspect.

We, we didn’t believe in all the usual suspects, evolution vaccines, but it went much further than that. If it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t believe it. That meant electrons, neutrons, even bacteria. All knowledge came through the church, and was never to be questioned or examined. Even as a young kid, I was never happy with that. I was filled with a deep curiosity about the world around me. A curiosity that was fed by my adventures digging through the trash pit behind our house.

Despite the rules, I found one escape from the intellectual claustrophobia: our local public library.

The church taught that parents are supposed to preview anything their children read, but with nine children and a farm, my parents quickly gave up trying to police the massive stacks of books that I would check out. So I read everything I could about history and archaeology and geology. Much of what I was reading was directly challenging what I was being taught at home and in the church. And so from a very young age, I had to begin grappling with issues of evidence, authority and how to weigh diametrically opposed world views to come to my own conclusions.

By the time I was 17, I had decided that I was going to pursue this wherever it took me. But without a high school diploma, it was very difficult for me to find universities that would give me a chance. But I did find one. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem had an international program, and they would accept students without diplomas.

So without my parents knowledge or consent, I applied and to my great surprise I got in. So I sold my cow and my guitar, and a month before my 18th birthday, I got on an airplane for the first time in my life and flew to Jerusalem.

That year changed everything. For the first time in my life, I met people from different backgrounds with different philosophies and different life experiences. I met anarchists and atheists, Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, scientists, historians, and yes, archaeologists. My roommates that year later said that they’d count how many times a day I would say, “I can’t believe I’m here.” I spent the entire year walking around in a kind of daze.

It wasn’t all fun. I was poor the entire year. I often struggled to afford food. I got very good at finding free food events on campus. That’s a skill that serves me well as a graduate employee. And then there’s the geopolitical situation. The day after I arrived, terrorist bombs the cafeteria of Hebrew University killing my advisor and nine other people.

Later that year, Mike’s Place, a bar that I hung out at frequently with bombed. A bus that I rode almost every day down to the market was bombed. I also felt alone all the time despite being surrounded by people for the first time in my life. My parents had taken my choice to leave home as a personal attack and began cutting me out of their lives. At the end of that year, I didn’t really know what to do next. I didn’t really have money to continue an education. I didn’t have the knowledge as a first generation college student of how to navigate academia. And most importantly, I didn’t have that all important high school diploma.

So over the next decade and a half, I kept going, day after day, as we all do, and eventually I earned a GED and a community college certificate and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge.

But this whole time I wanted to be an archaeologist, and that was still off, out of reach for me because I couldn’t afford a field school. But eventually, in 2014, a friend of mine who’s on a very understaffed position, very understaffed project that was in kind of an emergency, got me a job on a salvage excavation in Michigan. I went there, worked for a couple weeks, and did well enough to get asked back to the next job, and the next, and then next. And before I knew it, I was an archaeologist doing regulatory archaeology at sites all around the country.

Here’s a few of them, not all of them. As I started doing this work, I started asking questions. I started to become really fascinated by the question of how and when humans first arrived on this continent. So that’s when I sent an email to Dr. Lauren Davis. who encouraged me to apply to the program that I’m in. And that’s where we here, where we are now. So how has this journey through knowledge shaped what I do?

Well, it turns out that knowledge is central to everything that I do to all of my roles. As a philosopher, I asked questions about what knowledge is, if it’s even possible, how its acquired, how it’s built. As an archaeologist, I study the knowledge past humans held but I also generate new knowledge here in the present about our past, our shared past.

As an anthropologist, I study how our field operates and how histories of exclusion and and racism and colonialism have resulted in a skewed knowledge, a kind of purified and sanitized knowledge that does not do justice to the true richness of the human experience.

As an educator and teacher, I, of course, share knowledge with my students, but I also teach them and share skills, how to how to assess knowledge, how to explore it on your own, how to generate new knowledge on your own.

And finally, as an activist, I fight the unnecessary barriers that we have set in front of the pursuit of knowledge. Whether that means fighting cultures of harassment and abuse within academia, or fighting for better funding and more just priorities in our public education systems.

So in short, my entire career is about knowledge. And it’s what I like to think of it as knowledge justice. What I mean by that is a world in which knowledge, its pursuit, its generation, its value, is available to all and it’s put towards building a more just and equitable future.

So that was where my speech was gonna end. But I’d like to take just one more minute of your time.

So I almost withdrew from this event tonight. And I’d like to talk for a second about why. But first, I want to recognize the Inspiration Dissemination folks, they understood that they were asking us to share some deeply personal stories, and they took the time to get to know us and to build a relationship of trust before they did that. I think the Graduate School could learn a lot from that example.

My first interaction with the Graduate School on the content of my speech was a request to censor the line about fighting cultures of harassment and abuse within academia and to wrap it in layers of distancing and conditional language. I understand that the intent of that ask was to protect the reputation of the institution, but its impact was very different. One thing I didn’t really talk about is my history of surviving child abuse, and the PTSD that that has given me. And the impact of that ask was felt by me very differently. And I would like to ask the Graduate School to deeply consider what it means to ask a survivor of abuse to censor the word abuse from their story, so that you can use it for marketing.

But so instead of withdrawing, we decided to expand this stage a little bit. This is a very privileged stage. And only certain kinds of stories get told on this stage. But as you leave here tonight, some of my friends and allies have some stories available in the lobby as you leave. Stories that provide more context to higher education stories that tell a little bit more about what actually goes on beyond these true and important stories that you’re hearing on the stage. So I’d like to ask you all to take the time to engage with those stories as you leave. And I’d also like to request that my story not be shared without this end portion. Thank you.

Heather Forsythe:

Our final speaker for this evening is Barbara Spiecker. She’s a PhD candidate in Integrative Biology and is advised by Dr. Bruce Menge. ASL to English interpretation is provided by Deb Kropf and Halene Anderson. Her inspiration dissemination mentors were Heather Forsythe and Lillian Padgitt-Cobb. Please welcome Barbara to the stage.

For readers at home who could not attend the event in person or livestream the event, or the livestream feed was inaccessible to you, the beginning of Barbara’s presentation was originally silent, with captions on the screen, as Barbara’s native language is American Sign Language.

Barbara Spieker:

*In ASL*: For many years I’ve been a scuba-diver, diving in many places around the Americas. Underwater, I have seen many mysterious and intriguing animals and seaweeds. I vividly remember snorkeling in the Bahamas during college, the coral teeming with life, pink anemones squirming, ethereal jellyfish pulsating, purple sea-fans swaying, and majestic 6-foot groupers gliding. Years later, I returned to the Bahamas and to my disappointment, the reef was gone. All that was left was grey sand, dead white corals, and empty water. The area was full of short brown seaweed overgrowing everything. In just a few short years, everything had changed. No one had to tell me it was the result of human action, I knew.

*Interpreter speaking*:

So now that you’ve had a little taste of receiving information through visual means the way I do reading captioning and watching signing, we do have interpreters here to provide the ASL to English translation for those who don’t know American Sign Language.

So I’ll have the interpreters turn on the audio for you now.

So returning to that stark contrast of my experience in the Bahamas. That was what ignited my passion to pursue my studies in marine science further, it’s when I went to graduate school. But you should first know that I grew up in a city that has one of the largest populations of deaf people in the United States, about 50,000 of us.

I grew up in a place where I was truly normal.

Many people even many people who are not deaf in the city I grew up in are able to use basic ASL. I’m deaf. My family is deaf. I went to a school for the deaf growing up and was surrounded by people who sign. I always had full access to information in ASL school in Boston, that I had my first experience of being in an auditory world where my deafness was suddenly glaringly apparent.

In academia, I often missed small yet relevant conversations among my peers and professors. I couldn’t often participate in seminars or access videos that weren’t captioned. Of course, we had interpreters. But the interpreters were never the experts in my field that would be required to facilitate highly technical discussions of marine science, or represent me well to my colleagues, or be able to meaningfully interpret the content of my courses.

Then during my PhD journey, I found myself often venting to a deaf colleague and dear friend, Dr. Alicia Wooten who was also a PhD candidate at that time, and she was sharing many experiences similar to mine. In 2016, we decided to attend the deaf academic conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

There, hundreds of Deaf researchers and educators from all over the world gathered to share not only our research, but also our experience as deaf academics in a hearing dominated space.

There were so many different sign languages going on at the conference because of course, each country has their own distinct sign language. But in spite of that language barrier, we still found ways to communicate and connect.

One night as the conference was drawing to a close, Alicia and I looked at each other and immediately knew exactly what the other was thinking. We wanted to create a space similar to the conference here in the US where Deaf academics in all the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math, could find each other, network, and collaborate.

We wanted to create a space where STEM resources in American Sign Language could be found, news events, resources, and we wanted to bring about ultimately the creation of high quality stem topics and content in American Sign Language by deaf people.

Basically, we wanted to foster curiosity and spark wonder in our community and beyond. That’s when atomic hands was born.

We knew from our personal experience, sitting in front of our computers staring countless research articles in the face, in this sea of words and sentences, we sensed that something was amiss.

Somehow we had lost ourselves in STEM.

We had lost our voice. Our physical presence was missing.

We believe that STEM topics are best conveyed through people through our native language ASL.

Using video also allows us to discuss stem topics in a way that provides a face behind the research. People can see that we’re not just scientists, we’re ordinary citizens just like everyone else. We just love STEM and we care about our living planet.

Additionally, ASL as a highly visual spatial language, uses multiple parts of a signers body at the same time to convey messages. So mouth movements, eyebrow movements, body shifts, tone, the use of space to represent three dimensional concepts and many other features. When expressed well, people can not only see the concepts readily in their head, but also then incorporate and embody the ideas as they discuss them and make them their own. Using the visual spatial benefits of ASL, we put an emphasis on playing with the language creatively when crafting our messages, this creative language play allows STEM topics to come to life in a clear and visually appealing way.

We began to create stem videos on a wide range of topics. We’ve invited our viewers to participate in weekly challenges to lead more environmentally friendly lifestyles. We’ve made videos showing different STEM terms and concepts in an engaging way.

We regularly still share just STEM related fun facts or highlight famous deaf STEMists of the past, Thomas Edison for example.

We also do live interviews with current deaf chemists of the present.

All of our videos are captioned in English to provide accessibility for people whether or not they know ASL.

Ever since we started atomic hands, I cannot count how many times people of all ages–I just watch them light up–sharing that same excitement that I had in my childhood finally accessing and being able to comprehend STEM topics in our native language ASL.

Through our work, I actually saw a 75 year old man walk past a pop bottle that was discarded on the side of the road. And then when he thought of our video, he turned back around and picked it up to go and recycle it.

Or the 12 year old girl who couldn’t wait to tell us, “Thank you for making me realize that science is so much fun.”

And so many of our viewers who said that they wish that they just had access to our content when they were young, because they would have chosen STEM fields, or at least not reacted with fear and disgust at seeing a STEM topic.

Communication is not trivial. It is a powerful catalyst turning thought into progress. It allows us to discuss grow and change together as a society. Communicating so that all may understand, be it American Sign Language or any other language, academically or conversationally allows people to keep pace with changes to our society and the environment.

So parallel to my work with atomic hands, I’ve been studying rocky intertidal kelps. These are the seaweeds that you’ll find in the rocky area where the land and the sea come together. This is an area that is particularly responsive to changes in the environment as well as to human actions.

And one particular oceanographic pattern called El Nino. That’s a cycle that happens every three to seven years, and it will cause surface warmers or surface waters in the ocean to become warmer than usual.

However, our planet is now warming up, which could cause El Nino events to become more frequent and or more intense. And because the phenomenon of El Nino is known to be very destructive to kelp communities, my research looks specifically at how the effects of El Nino on intertidal kelp communities changes across time, and also whether or not there might be some environmental factors such as temperature, or nutrients in the water, or wave action that might amplify or mitigate these destructive effects.

This is a concern because kelps provide a massive life support system for us more than most of us know. Kelps in the ocean absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for example.

They also provide food as well as habitat for our favorite sea creatures.

So in an effort to answer my research questions, I went out on the rocks every spring and summer for the last six years collecting data on the kelp populations. And I invited anyone who would come to join me. Family. Friends.

This is my mom.

She’s a math teacher. She actually came out to join me in 2014 for the first time. Now you have to understand exactly what my research entails. She had to get up at like three in the morning drive anywhere from an hour and a half to four hours to get to our field sites. suit up in these bulky rubber field clothes and boots. stumble along through the dark falling over slippery rocks for the hundredth time. Finally, to just get to the field site, only to step on an anemone and be squirted in the face, be soaked by the frigid Pacific Ocean, and then spend the next four or five hours doing the back breaking labor of bending over measuring these slimy brown kelps. You would think she’d have been done after day two, or at least after year two. But to my surprise, my mom loved the experience. She loved seeing what I was up to. She loved contributing to science and being a part of a larger effort to protect our planet.

And most importantly, she loved learning about the ocean. She loved learning about all the intricate details of the rocky intertidal system that I was working in. Every year she couldn’t wait to go back to her family and friends at home and tell them all the different things that she had learned. My mom came to help me with my field research every single year without fail.

The urgency of our responsibility to the environment is on a scale that is unfathomable to most of us.

We are grappling now with how our actions today will be shaping our home 100 years from now. We are in the midst of a seemingly massive problem. And it isn’t people’s ability or even their desire to be involved that’s missing. It’s the connection.

Humans are social beings. We seek to connect, to belong.

Make the time to connect with people. Connect with people within our own circles and beyond. Connect through listening, empathizing, involving and educating each other. Start a conversation. Together, we will naturally come to understand that we are each other’s purpose.

We will come to understand, and appreciate, and cherish our environment for exactly what it is: a home for each of us and all of us.

Thanks.

Heather Forsythe: Thank you all, and have an inspiring rest of your week!

Transcribed by https://otter.ai and proof-read by the Inspiration Dissemination team

After processing the event, here are some final thoughts from the Inspiration Dissemination team: As this event was centered around diversity, accessibilty and honesty, we tried to be inclusive but we want to own up to the fact that we still missed the mark. On days of events like this, individuals’ seemingly harmless decisions about feedback, lighting, and audiovisuals can have huge impacts on the experiences of those involved. That being said, we’re sorry for the things that did not meet reasonable standards for inclusion and pledge to learn from our mistakes for future events.

Special Series Covid-19: Finding Clarity and Calm During a Global Pandemic

Amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, the Inspiration Dissemination podcast will strive to be an avenue of human connection and inspiration during a more isolated time. This week, we sit down with Joaquin Rodriquez for the first podcast of a special series covering the COVID-10 outbreak and its impact on the research and lives of our OSU community.

Joaquin Rodriguez; Undergraduate student and researcher in the Barbar lab at Oregon State University.

Joaquin is an undergraduate (soon to be graduate) researcher in the Barbar lab at OSU studying how viruses hijack their hosts. Joaquin’s research allows him to view the coronavirus from a biological perspective that yields him clarity and patience.

Although his studies and research are conducted at Oregon State University, Joaquin calls Lima, Peru home. During an unprecedented time where students are leaving campus to be home with their families, travel restrictions render Joaquin unable to leave Corvallis. Despite the challenges Joaquin faces, he emanates a sense of calm and understanding of the coronavirus and shares with us his experience.

Joaquin explains how misinformation is easy to spread and clear answers are hard to discern during times of fear and uncertainty. Even for those that may have the scientific literacy to understand what a virus is, there can be a great difficulty in comprehending just how a virus works within our bodies. In simplified terms, a virus can be thought of as a piece of genetic material (usually RNA) encapsulated by a protein. Debate on whether or not a virus can even be considered a living thing stems from the fact that viruses themselves do not code for the biological machinery needed for replication, but rather use their host as a means to thrive and reproduce. Upon entering the body, the coronavirus binds to respiratory cells at sites called receptors. Receptors are like doors that only viruses have the keys to, and once binded, they are able to enter the cell and replicate before finally causing the respiratory cell to die. This particular coronavirus eventually causes the disease COVID-19.

Simplified Viral Structure– By domdomegg [CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

The death of respiratory cells as the virus multiplies is inarguably harmful to the body, however, the symptoms we experience from COVID-19 are actually an expression of our immune system response rather than the virus itself. This in part explains why some of those infected by the virus appear to be minimally impacted, while others may develop flu-like symptoms or pneumonia. In fact, the range and lack of predictability of symptoms contribute to the high rate of transmission and success of the virus.

There are many evolutionary trade-offs involved in the overall success of a virus. Aggressive replication within a host may cause the virus to be too deadly and thus lower transmissibility between hosts; the virus is unlikely to become widespread.  For this reason, the deadly virus causing Ebola is not likely to become a global pandemic, whereas the new coronavirus is impacting countries around the world. 

Viral success and transmissibility also relies on mutation rate. At first glance it may seem intuitive that a high rate of mutation would be evolutionarily advantageous. Afterall, a small mutation in the genome of the coronavirus lended its ability to jump hosts from bat to human. However, not all mutations are advantageous. Mutations are random, and the potential of a mutation to be detrimental to the virus’s ability to infect and replicate is high. A high mutation rate is a risk to the success of a virus, but a low mutation rate would yield a stagnation allowing for hosts to more easily adapt immunity. 

Joaquin explains that the coronavirus is successful because it has a relatively low mutation rate compared to other RNA viruses, as well as a high transmissibility owing to a relatively low rate of host death, varying host symptoms, and the utilization of airborne avenues of transmission. He tells us that through a global research effort we are continuously learning about the biology of the coronavirus and using this knowledge to explore treatment options and vaccines. 

While many research labs around the world, including Joaquin’s lab at OSU, are shifting their efforts to contribute to the study of the coronavirus, many researcher’s work has been put on hold. Joaquin now finds himself with extra time to connect with family in Lima or take trips to the coast where he finds comfort surfing. He urges us to stay informed, mindful, and calm, and to find that thing that brings up happiness as we all experience an unusual time united in our isolation.

If you are interested in hearing the full interview with Joaquin, want to keep up with new episodes and our special Covid-19 series, or want to check out past interviews, you can find us on iTunes under Inspiration Dissemination.

Rethinking oyster reef restoration and coastal community resilience: The use of biomimicry and outreach to offset the growing risk of invasive species

“I like to think of them as the corals of estuaries,” says Megan Considine as she describes the role that oysters play in coastal systems all over the world. Megan is a first-year Marine Resource Management Masters student who is working on a project to map the distribution of an invasive mud worm (Polydora websteri) that infects native shellfish such as the commercially grown Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and wild populations of Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida).

Oyster transplant project in the Lynnhaven River, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay where Megan worked prior to coming to OSU. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Megan explains that these tiny worms don’t make the oyster meat inedible, as infected populations can still be harvested and sold for canning, but they do become unmarketable on the half shell. This is because the worms crawl between the inner shell surfaces, and the oyster then grows new shell material over it to wall off the invader. The worm then deposits muddy material or debris into the shell pocket and essentially creates a blister. Although these blisters are not known to negatively impact the oysters themselves, they are not exactly aesthetically pleasing to the consumer. This is what is really hurting the multi-million dollar industry and the main reason stakeholders from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California are all working together to detect and prevent further spread of the worms. 

A Pacific oyster infected by the invasive mudworm, showing blisters that have been opened up to try and extract the worm. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Dr. Steve Rumrill is the Shellfish Program Leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and as courtesy faculty of Hatfield Marine Science Center is Megan’s primary advisor. Working with ODFW, Megan visits shellfish farms located in estuaries along the Oregon coast and picks up oysters which are inspected for worms. If found, samples are then sent to a lab in Washington for genetic analysis to confirm infestation. Megan says that farmers may not even know their oysters are infected and she hopes to expand her work beyond just ecological sampling to outreach and mitigating an emergent problem.

“I want to create an education piece in Spanish and English, so that farmers can be aware of when their oysters are infected.”

Megan’s passion for education goes far beyond aquaculture. Getting back to her coral analogy, oysters are not just important to aquaculture here in the Pacific Northwest. Ecologically, they are incredibly valuable wherever they occur both when living, for example, filtering the water column, but also after they die. Their calcium carbonate shells provide the foundational habitat that supports an incredible diversity of estuarine life. 

For a long time in oyster restoration efforts, it’s been understood that substrate is a primary limiting factor in supporting this reef-building capacity of oysters. According to Megan, in the PNW, they were just completely overharvested during the Gold Rush era. In addition to her work on invasive mud worms in oyster farms, Megan is also a part of efforts to restore natural oyster populations in Oregon, specifically at Yaquina Head. And this is an area of research Megan has been passionate about for some time. 

Megan getting ready to snorkel assist with coral restoration in the Florida Keys working with Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Megan recalls her time as an elementary school student being tasked along with her classmates to monitor the growth of a bag of oysters donated by a local non-profit. Along with studying their entrusted specimens, she says that they would also engage in other activities about estuarine ecology surrounding oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. This hands-on experience would come full circle when after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina, Megan had the opportunity to intern with the same organization, Oyster Reef Keepers, that sponsored the oyster education program in several schools, leading kids through many of the same activities that sparked her early fascination with estuary ecosystems and marine science.  

Although a more well-known issue on the East coast, Megan explains that oyster habitat degradation is a world-wide problem and she came to Oregon State to expand her knowledge of its effects in other places. She says that oyster restoration hasn’t had as much momentum here in the West because aquaculture has been the focus, but it’s gaining traction. Concern over threats like climate change to coastal ecosystems have supported this trend. Although oysters are  less sensitive to climate change impacts like ocean acidification than corals are known to be, it still may compromise their ability to cope with other direct threats, such as invasive species. 

At Yaquina Head, Megan is working with an artist from the East coast named Evelyn Tickle who makes concrete tiles to be used in oyster reef restoration that are designed to mimic natural oyster beds. These one square foot tiles differ from the cinder block structures that have been used to provide substrate for the oysters to grow on in the past by providing a more complex structure made of compounds like calcium carbonate. Overall, the tiles give oysters a better chance to establish amidst other stressors. 

Megan has been so inspired by Evelyn’s work that she has begun working with two other OSU students, Chad Sullivan and Nicolás Gómez-Andújar, to develop other biomimicry concrete structures for future restoration efforts that support the erosion and storm mitigation services that both oysters and corals provide to coastal systems. They are calling themselves the Urban Reef Lab

Megan on one of many coastal trips taken since Megan moved to Oregon; exploring the West coast is one of her favorite pastime’s. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

“The idea is that instead of using simple and smooth breakwater structures or sea walls, we can incorporate textures and shapes that are designed for specific organisms. So, working with nature rather than against. For instance, if the goal is oyster settlement we would use the appropriate texture such as crevices and pits. The designs can also be used as hard substrate for coral outplants or for oyster restoration efforts, like the Yaquina Bay project.”

To learn more about Megan’s research and outreach goals beyond her graduate work, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or stream online April 19, 2020 at 7 P.M. 

A blade of seagrass is a powerful thing

Even though seagrasses occupy less than 0.2% of the world’s oceans, they account for more than 10% of all carbon trapped in the sea. In a world and time where we are producing more carbon than we should be and can manage, making sure that seagrasses are healthy and abundant is extremely pertinent. Winni Wang is one such seagrass scientist working to understand the biology of seagrasses and what threatens them.

Winni is a 5th year PhD candidate in the Department of Microbiology working with Dr. Ryan Mueller. Winni specializes in studying the microbiome of different plants, which for her PhD happens to be seagrasses. The microbiome is the community of microorganisms in a particular environment, and therefore it is found on all living things. By studying the microbiome on different seagrasses, Winni hopes to determine how anthropogenic (human-induced) stressors affect seagrass plants as a whole through changes in the microbiome.

If you’re like me and you love marine megafauna, then when thinking about seagrass beds you most likely are picturing a big manatee slowly grazing on seagrass in tropical, warm waters. Well, then you might be surprised to know that seagrasses don’t only occur in warm, tropical waters. In fact, there are over 60 species of seagrass worldwide and they occur in all kinds of habitats and climates. As a matter of fact, there is a species of seagrass right off of our coast here in Oregon, in Yaquina Bay, which is one of Winni’s study sites for her thesis research.

Eelgrass at Yaquina Bay.
Winni with the experimental tanks at HMSC.

Her work in Yaquina Bay relates to understanding how seagrasses are affected by eutrophication. Eutrophication occurs when an excessive amount of nutrients enters an aquatic environment, often due to land run-off, which in extreme cases can lead to severe oxygen depletion in those habitats resulting in death of plant and animal life. Winni hypothesized that with increased nutrients in a seagrass habitat, the microbiome of the seagrass would change in a way that would have an effect on the overall plant. In order to test this hypothesis, Winni had to carry out controlled lab experiments but not without collecting her test species first. She collected over 200 seagrass individuals as well as buckets of mud from Yaquina Bay, which she took back to Hatfield Marine Science Center where she set up tanks for her experiment. The tanks housed seagrasses and the collected mud. Half of the tanks included added fertilizer to test the effects of nutrient addition, and the other half were left as controls. Over the course of the experiment, Winni tracked plant growth metrics and nitrogen concentrations of the tanks, as well as collecting root and leaf samples to look at the microbiomes on both of those parts of the seagrass. 

The mud buckets.

Winni found that the fertilizer affected the roots in such a way that it changed the microbiome community found there. This change resulted in enrichment for microbes that could cycle sulfur, which could potentially have quite detrimental effects on seagrasses. This is because seagrasses grow in anoxic, or oxygen-low, environments where sulfur is found in its reduced form, hydrogen sulfide. Usually, in environments without excessive nutrient input, seagrasses are able to deal with sulfide, which is typically toxic to plants and animals. However, with increased nutrients, the seagrasses may become overwhelmed by the amount of sulfur in the water as it gets converted into hydrogen sulfide. At certain thresholds, the sulfide ends up becoming toxic to seagrasses. Thus, Winni’s research shows that excessive fertilization to seagrass environments, potentially from land run-off, could have detrimental impacts on seagrasses.

Another chapter of her PhD takes Winni half way across the world to the Mediterranean. Well, it is not so much that it takes Winni to the Mediterranean, it is more that the Mediterranean comes to her! Through her advisor, Winni was able to obtain seagrass samples from the Mediterranean. What makes these samples unique is that they were taken from a site near a naturally occurring underwater volcano. You may be wondering how this is relevant to Winni’s research since she is trying to figure out how human-induced stressors impact seagrasses. Well, the underwater volcano spews carbon dioxide into the water, which makes the water more acidic. This phenomenon is essentially a natural experiment because it mimics the effects of human-induced ocean acidification, which is becoming a problem around the world’s oceans. The results are still underway but they will help fill some of the knowledge gaps concerning the effects of ocean acidification on organisms.

This blog started by emphasizing how important seagrasses are in sequestering carbon, however it is not the only thing that makes these small, unassuming plants so vital to our lives and the lives of many other organisms. Coastal waters with seagrass beds have been found to contain relatively less human pathogens than areas without seagrasses. This is because seagrasses filter the water and are able to remove a lot of pathogens. Furthermore, they are important in preventing coastal erosion and often make coastlines more resilient to storms. Not only are they also important habitats to some beloved marine megafauna (manatees, sharks, turtles) but they are also important for many smaller, but equally ecologically and economically important, species. For example, in Oregon, seagrass beds may actually be helping mitigate ocean acidification which is having a negative impact on oysters as it affects the strength of their shells. 

Winni’s life, both at Oregon State and before her arrival here, has not been all about seagrass science though. To hear more about her background and some of the struggles and lessons that she has had during her tenure here, tune in on Sunday, March 8 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live. To follow Winni and her research, be sure to follow her on Twitter @ramenmicrobiome. Something that we weren’t able to cover on the blog but covered on the show, is that Winni is one of the founders of the Women of Color Caucus (WoCC) at OSU. Read about the origin story of WoCC here, follow their Instagram and Twitter pages and join their listserv here.

Finding a place in policy: where do the scientists fit in?

Somewhere, in a local government meeting, an idea is proposed, a policy brief is written, some voting occurs, paperwork is pushed around, money is allocated, and a new highway is built.

In the same region, some bighorn sheep are off trekking in search of their favorite grasses to eat. They come upon a road they can’t cross that wasn’t there before. The sheep stay put and eat the same old grass they were already eating.

Bighorn sheep iImage from Defenders of Wildlife.

When policymakers decided to build this road, it’s unclear whether they considered the consequences of this type of habitat fragmentation on the tiny ecosystems of bacteria that live inside of each bighorn sheep. More importantly, whether they knew their decision might lead to unforeseen consequences for bighorn population health.

We take for granted how intertwined policy and science really are.

Claire Couch is a 5th year PhD candidate in the department of Integrative Biology, studying wildlife disease ecology, but she’s also the president of a new Science & Policy Club at Oregon State University.

Advised by Anna Jolles in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Claire studies the bacteria that live in the guts of large animals like African buffalo, rocky mountain elk, and bighorn sheep. She’s interested in how the gut microbiome can contribute to disease resistance, but separate from her PhD research, she’s interested in how policy can be informed by science, and how science can be impacted by policy.

Claire says she’s always been interested in ecosystem health and fascinated by ecosystem dynamics between big scale (a region the sheep lives in) and small scale (the bacteria living in the gut) ecosystems. Through her research, she’s been exposed to diverse conservation issues for different wildlife species. For example, management and policy shapes where wildlife can reside, and where they are determines the factors that shape the gut microbiome. It became apparent to Claire that most scientists are not typically trained to understand and partake in policy, including herself, even though is it’s critical to all of our research pursuits.

(Left to right) Jane Lubchenco, Karen McLeod and Steve Lundeberg at OSU science policy panel discussion.

Claire started looking for ways to learn more and to become more engaged in science policy, but wasn’t finding exactly what she was looking for. OSU has some science-policy courses and clubs, but they are typically very specific to one type of science. So although she didn’t feel qualified to take the lead on this, she created what she was looking for: a science policy space that is more inclusive and general, with an emphasis on career development and general policy literacy.

In the first year since this group started, they’ve already packed in several activities including:  meetings with OSU faculty who are closely tied to policy, a seminar about how to communicate about controversial topics, a panel talk about how scientists can communicate with the press, a talk from a government agency research organization scientist, and a meeting with House Rep. Peter DeFazio. Finally, the group has an open-source data panel coming up.

House Rep Peter Defazio speaking with OSU Science Policy club. Image from gazettetimes

Claire wants to help scientists make their work relevant, but she hasn’t been doing it all alone. There are currently a few other club officers, and as Claire writes her dissertation, she’s looking to pass on club leadership. In the future, she hopes to see the club become more engaged with the non-OSU community members around us, host bigger events in collaboration with other groups on campus, and start up a mentoring program in which club members would be mentored by policy professionals.

To hear more about this policy club and Claire’s research and future plans, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or stream online March 1, 2020 at 7 P.M.

Working with Dungeness crab fishermen to get a ‘sense’ of low-oxygen conditions off the Oregon coast

Linus tidepooling at Yaquina Head, Oregon Coast.

Linus Stoltz is a graduate student in the Marine Resource Management Master’s Program through the College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, co-advised by Dr. Kipp Shearman and Dr. Francis Chan. Only in his second term, Linus is already diving in to a project that means a lot to Oregon coastal communities.

Dungeness crab is the most profitable state-managed fishery in Oregon, generating $66.7 million dollars in commercial sales over the 2018-2019 season alone. However, an increasing threat to this valuable industry that has caused significant harvest reductions in recent years: hypoxia. Hypoxia refers to low-oxygen conditions in the ocean that have been recorded as occurring more frequently off the Oregon Coast and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where Dungeness crab fishing is a major activity. In some parts of the ocean, such as the Gulf Coast, these conditions are triggered by pollution which causes overproduction of algae, followed by excess decomposition. However, here, it’s more complicated. These conditions are generated by offshore wind- driven movement of cold, nutrient-rich but oxygen-poor deep water across the continental shelf, toward the coast.

This process of ‘upwelling’ (see figure below) is a natural occurrence, but scientists speculate that climate change is making these events more frequent and their characteristics severe. As a Marine Biology major in his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Linus admits that oceanography isn’t exactly in his “wheelhouse” but it doesn’t take an oceanographer to understand that atmospheric conditions are strongly tied to ocean circulation patterns. Referring to graphic representations of Northwest wind stress and dissolved oxygen concentrations, he says “they’re pretty well correlated.” Normally, the offshore winds that drive upwelling are counteracted by a shifting of wind patterns that ultimately allow them to mix sufficiently and re-oxygenate. But the reality is that this is happening less and less frequently.

The process of ‘upwelling’ off the West Coast. Source. www.noaa.gov

What does hypoxia mean for Dungeness crabs? Linus describes the events like waves of low-oxygen water moving slowly across the seafloor. As bottom-dwelling organisms that depend on dissolved oxygen to breathe, if conditions are severe enough or persist long enough, they’ll die. More and more instances of crab fishermen pulling up their gear full of dead crabs prompted them to reach out to scientists for help. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) biologists and researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) have been working together since 2002 to try and find answers. Check out this video by ODFW to see real-time footage of a hypoxic wave as it flows over a Dungeness crab pot in 2017.

While we are beginning to understand the bigger picture of the oceanographic conditions that result in hypoxia, Linus explains that we don’t have any models that predict this ‘wave’ on a finer scale. He describes the ocean as patchy, where conditions just a thousand yards away from where a fisherman may have set his or her pots may be completely different. The ultimate goal of his research is to be able to predict these conditions and inform management decisions such as seasonal and/or spatial closures.

The roughly two-foot long Sexton oxygen sensor seen above will be attached to an individual crab pot that will transmit data via Bluetooth to the Deck Data Hub which will then relay the information to a receiver on the OSU campus.

But even more important to fisherman now, the project will also provide ‘in situ’ information fisherman can use to make critical decisions while they’re out there. To achieve this, Linus will be equipping fishermen with sensors to be deployed by Dungeness crab fishermen through the season to collect data on dissolved oxygen. The data recorded by the sensors can be seen immediately by fishermen when they retrieve their pots and will also be automatically transferred via Bluetooth to a box on deck which will ultimately transmit to a receiver on the OSU campus. The hope is to capture the variability in oxygen conditions, while minimizing their impact on fishing operations.

Linus tagging red drum in Hancock Creek when he worked for North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF).

Before coming to OSU, Linus spent time as an observer for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries testing by-catch reduction technology in the shrimp trawling industry, an experience he recounts as “character-building to say the least.” In other words, Linus knows how important it is to streamline the process if he wants to get any cooperation from fishermen and collecting data can’t be in the way or slow them down. A stark contrast, however, between the interactions between fisherman and researchers on the East Coast to Oregon is that this relationship is more than just cooperative, it’s a collaboration. Fishermen here trust scientists, but at the same time the researchers recognize that fishermen are out there more and are the ones who see changes first-hand.

For Linus, this project represents one of just about any marine science topic he’s excited to be involved in. To learn more about Linus’s journey from SCUBA diving in a cold lake in Ohio as a ten-year old to working as an underwater technician monitoring artificial reefs off the coast of North Carolina, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or online February 23, 2020 at 7 P.M.

Not all robots are hard and made of metal…

Picture a robot. Seriously, close your eyes for 30 seconds and picture a robot in your head. Ok, most of you probably didn’t do it but if you had, my guess is that you would have pictured something very boxy, perhaps with pincher hands, quite awkward in its movements and perhaps with a weird robotic voice pre-Siri era. Or maybe something R2-D2 like. That’s definitely what comes to mind for me. Well, robots don’t all look like that. In fact, some robots aren’t hard and made of metal at all. Some are soft and pliable, and they’re the kind that Nick Bira studies.

Was a career in robotics always on the horizon for Nick? Perhaps…judging by this photo of him with his home-made robot, “Mr. Klanky”.

Nick is a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Robotics working with Dr. Joseph Davidson. When asked to summarize his research into just a few words, Nick answered that he works on magnetism and soft robotics. What is soft robotics and why would we want a soft robot you may ask (I know I certainly did)? Well, soft robotics is exactly what the phrase implies – they’re robots that are soft, absolutely no hard parts (or very few) to them. Why would we want a soft robot? Well, imagine if you have a small space that you need a robot to fit through, like a small hole. A soft robot can mold into the shape that you need it to. Alternatively, soft robots are becoming more and more needed and used in medical robotics. After all, you don’t want some hard, klanky thing poking around inside of you and possibly causing damage. You’d much rather have something that’s soft, gentle, compliant and non-damaging. Another example is in instances of human-robot interactions and increasing the safety of such interactions. A big, metallic, hard robot on an assembly line could easily spin and injure a human. But a robot with arms designed like tentacles that are floppy and soft, will perhaps push you over and bruise you, but not lead to serious damage.

The utility of soft robotics is manifold. So why aren’t they used more or why haven’t you heard much of them before? Well, the challenge is how to keep the utility of a hard robot while making it soft and, by proxy, safe. In part, this is down to how the robot and its movements are controlled. Most soft robots to date are controlled by or pneumatics or hydraulics (using air or liquid pressure). The downside of these is that the soft robot has to be accompanied by bulky hard components, such as a pumps, electrical sources, batteries, or air tanks. So even though you may have this super soft, compliant robot, it comes with large apparatuses that are not soft. Kind of counter-intuitive. 

This is where the other half of Nick’s research phrase comes in – magnetism. Magnetism has very limited usage as a tool in soft robotics and Nick thinks it should be applied more. If you’re having a hard time picturing how a magnet could be used in soft robotics, then visualize this example Nick gave us. It could be used in a pincher – instead of using air pressure in inflate the pincers to open and close, you could have the fingers of the pincer be made out of stretch magnetic material that closes when exposed to a magnetic field. It seems pretty simple right? And yet, it doesn’t yet exist in soft robotics. This is why Nick is exploring this possibility because he believes ideas like this could be useful building blocks, and once we have them, we can build more complicated things. 

Now, you may be thinking, hang on, magnets are hard, I thought this was all about soft robotics? Good thought – here’s how Nick is planning to work around that. Nick is embedding iron particles, which are magnetically soft, into silicone rubber, which is a soft elastic material, to make a material that is soft and hyper elastic and when brought close to an ordinary magnet, will stick to it. However, this is only step 1. Nick is interested in creating magnetic fields within the robot rather than it only working if there is a big, hard magnet nearby. One core goal of soft robotics is to have them function on their own without needing some hard object nearby to ‘support’ it. He is still in the development and testing stages of this material, but Nick does have an application in mind. He wants to make a magneto-rheological fluid (MRF) valve that can be used in soft robots. Rather than have this valve open and shut with air pressure (which would require air tanks to accompany the robot), Nick wants the valve to open and close through a magnetic field generated by the elastic, soft magnetic material. This way everything would be compact, stretchy, and wouldn’t require any additional bulky parts.

To hear more about Nick’s research and also about his journey to OSU and more on his personal background, tune in on Sunday, February 16 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live. Also, be sure to check out his Instagram (@nick_makes_stuff and @nick_bakes_stuff) and Twitter (@BiraNick) accounts. 

Fitness for Life: Sport psychology and the motivations behind healthy lifestyles

Portrait of Alex Szarabajko

For graduate teaching assistant Alex Szarabajko, being part of the team teaching the 3,000-plus students who take Lifetime Fitness for Health (HHS 231) every term is not just a job. “It’s the last time students are able to learn about physical activity, nutrition and mental health before adulthood, ” says Alex. The course, which tied for first place in a “Best of 2020” vote, lays a foundation for healthy habits by addressing physical activity, nutrition, and mental health. Alex started work on her doctorate in Kinesiology at Oregon State University in 2018 after completing master’s degrees in General Psychology and in Exercise and Sport Science at Eastern Kentucky University. As a researcher in the field of sport psychology, Alex works to understand the reasons that people pursue their fitness goals and engage in healthy behavior. 

Alex sprinting at a track meet.

Alex first came to the United States to work as an au pair in Bethesda, Maryland. Her host family were very enthusiastic about college sports. In particular, Alex wanted to know: “Why are they so popular?” In her native Germany, university sports are not taken seriously. Instead, serious athletes are members of athletic clubs. If athletes are paid at all, it is typically only a small amount. With the exception of footballers, most elite German athletes need supplemental income, often from a career in a more traditional domain. (Link 2)  Alex was excited by the idea of college athletes having national attention and earning scholarships through sport. Perhaps this was a way that she, too, could continue to compete, at least for a few more years. After returning to Germany and resuming track and field practice at her local club, Alex began applying for college in the United States. She was recruited by Eastern Kentucky University on a track and field scholarship. 

Starting out, Alex thought she had her career path figured out. As a freshman at EKU she was required to go to a majors expo, which she reluctantly attended. At the expo Alex found a booth advertising the field of sport psychology, an experience she describes as an “immediate lightbulb.” She promptly changed her major to psychology to prepare for graduate work in sport psychology.

Following the completion of her bachelor’s degree, Alex stayed at EKU in order to do graduate work under the tutelage of Dr. Jonathan Gore. Psychologists use the term intrinsic motivation to describe actions inspired by internal rewards. For example, a person playing a sport just for fun is intrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation describes actions influenced by others. An employee performing a task that they personally don’t care about is extrinsically motivated. Working with Dr. Gore, Alex examined a third type of motivation, relational motivation, among athletes. Relational motivation is defined by the needs of a group. Initially, Alex expected to find that athletes in team sports like football and basketball were more relationally motivated than athletes in individual sports. To their surprise, she found little difference between sports. Instead, she found differences between the levels of relational motivation among female athletes and male athletes. She found that female athletes’ performance was significantly linked to relationships between athletes and coaches.

In 2018, Alex left Kentucky and came to Oregon. She arrived at the start of the academic year, never having been to Oregon before. It didn’t take long for her to feel at home. “I just fell in love with Oregon when I got here,” says Alex. “I was able to go to the coast, go to the waterfalls.” Being near to Eugene (Track Town, USA) is also a bonus: that’s where the 2020 Olympic trials for track and field are being held. Being raised by Polish parents in Germany, Alex speaks both languages fluently and holds citizenship in both countries. She’s volunteered as an official translator for the Polish national team in the past, and hopes to volunteer again for either the German or Polish team.

As a graduate student in Kinesiology with a Psychosocial emphasis, Alex is focusing now on health and fitness in adults, rather than only among adults who consider themselves athletes. About 10 years ago, her advisor, Dr. Bradley Cardinal, carried out a study examining required health classes in colleges and found that since 1930 the number of schools requiring a course in fitness and healthy living has dropped from 80% to 39%. Alex is interested in finding out whether this trend has continued since that study was carried out. Oregon State’s version of the class, Lifetime Fitness for Health, has adapted with time to address student needs. In particular, student responses to end-of-class surveys resulted in the addition of a mental health component the class, which initially only focused on physical activity and nutrition. Alex hopes to uncover more about how required health classes across multiple universities have adapted to changing needs of students, and whether the number of schools requiring such classes has continued to drop.

Tune in Sunday, February 2nd at 7pm on 88.7 FM or online to learn more about Alex’s research and her personal journey!

Swimming with Salmon(ids)

Dams, bears, and anglers aren’t the only challenges that salmon face as they undergo their journeys from their mountain river birthplaces to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Timber harvests, dam-induced streamflow changes, and climate change have increased stream temperatures throughout the Pacific Northwest. Native cold-water-loving species like salmon and trout struggle in warm water, while certain parasitic microbes flourish.

The confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. Illustration by Daniel Watkins.

Sofiya Yusova, a master’s degree candidate in the Department of Microbiology at Oregon State University, researches the microbe Ceratonova shasta. Her work aims to understand how C. shasta adapts to climate change in river ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Her advisor, Dr. Jerri Bartholomew, runs a long-term monitoring project in the Klamath River, and recently began applying the same methods to the Deschutes and Willamette Rivers. Dr. Bartholomew and her lab identified the complex lifecycle of the parasite, recognizing that C. shasta requires an intermediate host (the polychaete worm) in order to infect fish. Understanding the lifecycle is critical for understanding how to intervene when fish populations are struggling, as well as for anticipating the effects of climate change. As stated on Dr. Bartholomew’s website, “Climate change is expected to have profound effects on host-pathogen interactions. We are examining how this might affect myxozoan disease by developing predictions for how the phenology of parasite life cycles will change under future climates, how changing flow dynamics will alter disease, and to identify river habitats that should be protected as refugia.”

Lifecycle of ceratanova shasta. Illustration by Daniel Watkins.

Having a healthy population of salmon is important for many groups, including tribal communities, commercial and recreational anglers. Salmonids (a family of fish including salmon, trout, whitefish, and char) are particularly susceptible to infection when water temperature is warmer than usual, stream flow is low, or the number of C. shasta spores is high. Collaborative monitoring projects on the Klamath River and the Deschutes River have shown that the danger of deadly infections varies along the course of the river. This knowledge has allowed river managers to focus their efforts. For example, if the number of infectious spores is especially high, dam flowthrough rates can be increased to “flush out” the pathogens.

Tune in Sunday, February 2nd at 7pm on 88.7 FM or online to learn more about Sofiya’s research and her personal journey.