Studying skeletal muscle physiology to better understand diseases such as type II diabetes

Harrison in the lab.

Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Harrison Stierwalt a PhD student in Kinesiology, studies the cellular mechanisms of skeletal muscle physiology. Harrison and other members of the Translational Metabolism Research Laboratory, research the cause of skeletal muscle insulin resistance and how exercise acts against insulin resistance. In particular, Harrison currently studies the activity of a protein called Ras-related C3 botulinum toxin substrate 1, or more commonly known as Rac1. Rac1 plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar in response to insulin being released from the pancreas following a meal. Insulin is a hormone that triggers the uptake of sugar from the blood stream into skeletal muscle cells where it can be stored or metabolized into energy. In states of insulin resistance, individuals still produce insulin, but eventually insulin resistance leads to chronically increased blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance puts individuals at predisposition for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. Previous research has demonstrated decreased Rac1 activity in states of insulin resistance but the cause for its decreased activity is unknown.

Harrison working with the oxygraph doing high resolution respirometry (used to measure mitochondrial respiration).

Studying Rac1

The activation of Rac1 causes reorganization of cell components creating “highways” that allow other proteins such as glucose transport 4 or GLUT4 to relocate to the cell membrane and allow sugar from blood to enter skeletal muscle cells for processing. Consequently, Rac1 shows increased activity in response to insulin and exercise promoting the metabolism and storage of sugar in skeletal muscle. Harrison suspects that the dysfunction of Rac1 may play a large role in  insulin resistance, and his lab is looking to better understand the dysfunction of skeletal muscle physiology that may contribute to insulin resistance. To study insulin resistance, Harrison is currently comparing Rac1 activity in skeletal muscle cells and skeletal muscle tissue of lean and obese mice. Learn more about Rac1, GO TO ARTICLE.

Harrison has always been drawn to human health, and is particularly intrigued by how adaptable the human body is. He completed his undergraduate degree and Master’s in Exercise Science at Florida State University. After, he worked as a strength and conditioning coach, testing physical performance. While this work was challenging, Harrison decided to pursue a PhD so that he could ask his own research questions about human health and investigate cellular mechanisms therein.

Harrison encouraging a participant during an exercise test.

With a growing interest in metabolism and physiology, Harrison began looking for Kinesiology PhD programs. He discovered the work of his co-advisors, Sean Newsom and Matt Robinson. For Harrison, Oregon State is a good fit that encapsulates his interested: exercise science, molecular cellular biology, and human health. Harrison is starting the second year of his PhD in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

If you are interested in participating in human health research, visit the Newsom-Robinson lab webpage.

Tune in this Sunday September 24 at 7 PM to learn more about Harrison and his research with insulin resistance and sugar metabolism. Not a local listener? No sweat! Stream the show live!

Mountain biking at Black Rock in Falls City, Oregon.

Harrison at the peak of South Sister, 2017.

Breaking the Arctic ice

 

Thermal AVHRR image with land masked in black. Can see the lead coming off of Barrow Alaska very bright. The arrows are sea ice drift vectors.

Cascade over mossy rocks near Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park, WA.

When you hear about fractures in sea ice, you might visualize the enormous fissures that rupture ice shelves, which release massive icebergs to the sea. This is what happened back in July 2017 when a Delaware-sized iceberg broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. However, there are other types of fractures occurring in sea ice that may be impacted by atmospheric conditions. Our guest this week, CEOAS Masters student Ben Lewis investigates how interactions between the atmosphere and sea ice in the Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska in the Canadian Archipelago) impact the formation of fractures. His research involves mapping atmospheric features, such as wind and pressure, at the point in time when the fractures occurred and provides insight into the effect of the atmosphere on the formation and propagation of fractures. Utilizing satellite imagery compiled by the Geographical Information Network of Alaska from 1993 to 2013, Ben has conducted a qualitative analysis to determine the location and time when these ice fractures occurred and what type of physical characteristics they possess.

Southern Alps from the summit of Avalanche Peak, New Zealand.

While fractures appear small on the satellite image, the smallest fractures that Ben can observe by are actually 250 meters wide. Fractures can span hundreds of kilometers, and the propagate very quickly; Ben cites one example of a fracture near Barrow, Alaska that grew to 500 kilometers within 6 hours!

Fractures are potentially deadly for people and animals hunting in the Arctic. As weather flux in the fragile Arctic ecosystem has become more erratic with climate change, it has been difficult for people to predict when it was safe to hunt on the ice based on patterns observed in prior seasons. Additionally, it has been problematic to track weather in the Arctic because of its harsh conditions and sparse population. A well-catalogued record of weather is not available for all locations. Modeling atmospheric conditions, such as pressure and wind, based on what has been captured by satelliteimagery, will facilitate better prediction of future fracture events.

Sunset over Sandfly Beach, New Zealand.

While pursuing an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Arkansas, Ben was able to study abroad James Cook University in Australia, where he gravitated towards environmental physics, while taking advantage of incredible opportunities for nature photography. He also did a semester abroad in New Zealand, where he studied geophysical fluid dynamics and partial differential equations. Ben came to OSU as a post-baccalaureate student in climate science, and while at OSU, he became acquainted with his future PI, Jennifer Hutchings,  and his interest in Arctic research grew. He cites learning about snowball earth, glaciology, and the cryosphere, as providing the basis for his desire to pursue Arctic climate research. Eventually, Ben would like to pursue a PhD, but in the immediate future, he plans to keep his options open for teaching and research opportunities.

 

The Grape Depression: Powdery Mildew in Willamette Valley Vineyards

Brent at the Foliar Pathology Lab research vineyard where the small plot field trials in his project were conducted.

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes, and when growing grapes for wine both quantity and quality matter. One challenge facing farmers in the Willamette Valley is a plant pathogen: grape powdery mildew. This pathogen can live in a field year-round and emerges to infect grape leaves, flowers and fruits annually. Grape plants infected with powdery mildew suffer low berry yields and mildew may affect the taste of wine. In the Willamette Valley, where vineyards abundant, grape powdery mildew is a big problem. Brent Warneke, a Master’s student in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is studying the effect of fungicide application timing on the reduction in severity of powdery mildew on grapes, and he is our guest on Inspiration Dissemination this week.

Moldy Grapes

A grape bunch severely infected with powdery mildew. Note the berry cracking, powdery appearance, and poor color accumulation.

Brent works at the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Lab with Walt Mahaffee, and his research tests the effect of fungicide application timing on grape powdery mildew control. Timing fungicide applications is especially crucial during the one to three-week window of grapevine flowering. Optimal fungicide application timing can slow the mildew epidemic allowing grape berries to mature and become less susceptible to powdery mildew. Across the Willamette Valley, fungicide application to grapes is a well-known prevention solution for powdery mildew, but less is known about the best fungicide to use and when to spray plants during berry development. The findings of his research are now being validated at a larger scale in commercial vineyards. In the lab, Brent is also studying the mobility of fungicide “through the grapevine,” from tissue to tissue through the air and xylem, and Brent is helping with a project to identify strains of mildew resistant to commonly used fungicides.

 

The Grape State of Colorado 

Brent with a harvest of varnish conk (Ganoderma oregonense), Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum).

Brent hails from Colorado where he spent his early years outside gardening, snowboarding, and hiking. During undergrad at Colorado State University (CSU), Brent majored in Horticulture and held research positions at the Center for Agricultural Resources Research and the Bioenergy Lab. Among his many projects during undergrad, Brent completed a senior thesis project, under the direction of Dr. Courtney Jahn, developing a LAMP-PCR to diagnose Canada thistle rust on infected plants that were not displaying symptoms.

Wine Not?

While at CSU, Brent also began studying viticulture. He liked the challenge and complexity of growing grapes for wine. Brent chose to pursue graduate school at Oregon State because his current program blends plant pathology with viticulture. He’s happy with his decision because Oregon is similar to Colorado for outdoor recreation, not to mention its world class Pinot Noir!

Hear more from Brent this Sunday September, 10 at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis, 88.7FM! Not a local listener? Not sweat! Stream the show live.

Brent on top of South Sister (10,363 ft). Middle and north sister can be seen in the immediate background. In the far background the small peak to the left without snow is Mount Washington , then Mount Jefferson behind north sister and Mount Hood in the background to the right of North Sister.

To code or not to code: the way forward for machine learning

In a rapidly changing word of technology and engineering advancements, we’re reminded of Charles Darwin’s words it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most adaptable. For humans this means learning from our errors, one painful mistake at a time, and fixing our approach so we do not stumble again. We’re limited by our personal experiences so we can only adapt once we approach a problem; but by then it may be too late. Imagine having the collective wisdom and understanding of everyone’s experiences so that you know how to solve problems you’ve never seen before. This is the beauty of machine learning.

 

Behrooz hanging out in front of the Magnolia’s in the MU

If you haven’t heard of machine learning, then it’s just a matter of time. These techniques are already involved in highly complex board games, advertising optimization, and especially self-driving cars. It’s difficult to say how impactful machine learning will be to our everyday lives because the applications of this field are still being discovered. One of the primary foundations of machine learning is researching how computers interpret visual information so computers can make on-the-fly adjustments to stop for a pedestrian or speed up to merge on the freeway.

Behrooz Mahasseni recently finished his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science where his research focused on how computers interpret video recordings. As part of his research, he worked on a project to analyze football videos to identify specific patterns like huddles, punts, and special teams plays. This is specifically useful for football recruiters who don’t have time to watch 3.5-hour football games when they’re looking for a good wide-receiver for their team. Behrooz’s work helps the computer understand when passing plays occurred so the football recruiter can watch the ‘highlights’ reel for five minutes and get all the information they need to make a hiring decision. This seems rather easy, but Behrooz worked on this for high school football games where the video is not in high definition, from an oblique angle instead of a birds-eye-view, and probably has a very excited parent-videographers jumping up and down for major plays. Obviously teaching a computer to understand videos is easier said than
done, but Behrooz was able to get all this accomplished with a high degree of accuracy that helped him land a job with Apple. He’s described this job as research and development using the skills he learned in graduate school (that’s about all he can say) but it took him many years of school to finally realize he had the skills to act
as the spearhead of technological innovation.

Behrooz’s family including his wife Mitra and Behrad celebrating the Persian New Year March 2016

There is so much more to discuss with Behrooz, especially about where the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence is moving. We will also discuss his first experience with a robotic competition in Tehran, his decision to move to the United States, and his never-ending drive for finding and solving new problems. Be sure to listen in Sunday September 3rd at 7PM on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis!