How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb?

As technology continues to improve over the coming years, we are beginning to see increased integration of robotics into our daily lives. Imagine if these robots were capable of receiving general instructions regarding a task, and they were able to learn, work, and communicate as a team to complete that task with no additional guidance. Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Connor Yates a Robotics PhD student in the College of Engineering, studies artificial intelligence and machine learning and wants to make the above hypothetical scenario a reality. Connor and other members of the Autonomous Agents and Distributed Intelligence Laboratory are keenly interested in distributed reinforcement learning, optimization, and control in large complex robotics systems. Applications of this include multi-robot coordination, mobile robot navigation, transportation systems, and intelligent energy management.

Connor Yates.

A long time Beaver and native Oregonian, Connor grew up on the eastern side of the state. His father was a botanist, which naturally translated to a lot of time spent in the woods during his childhood. This, however, did not deter his aspirations of becoming a mechanical engineer building rockets for NASA. Fast forward to his first term of undergraduate here at Oregon State University—while taking his first mechanical engineering course, he realized rocket science wasn’t the academic field he wanted to pursue. After taking numerous different courses, one piqued his interest, computer science. He then went on to flourish in the computer science program eventually meeting his current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kagan Tumer. Connor worked with Dr. Tumer for two of his undergraduate years, and completed his undergraduate honors thesis investigating the improvement to gauge the intent of multiple robots working together in one system.

Connor taking in a view at Glacier National Park 2017.

Currently, Connor is working on improving the ability for machines to learn by implementing a reward system; think of a “good robot” and “bad robot” system. Using computer simulations, a robot can be assigned a general task. Robots usually begin learning a task with many failed attempts, but through the reward system, good behaviors can be enforced and behaviors that do not relate to the assigned task can be discouraged. Over thousands of trials, the robot eventually learns what to do and completes the task. Simple, right? However, this becomes incredibly more complex when a team of robots are assigned to learn a task. Connor focuses on rewarding not just successful completion an assigned task, but also progress toward completing the task. For example, say you have a table that requires six robots to move. When two robots attempt the task and fail, rather than just view it as a failed task, robots are capable of learning that two robots are not enough and recruit more robots until successful completion of the task. This is seen as a step wise progression toward success rather than an all or nothing type situation. It is Connor’s hope that one day in the future a robot team could not only complete a task but also report reasons why a decision was made to complete an assigned task.

In Connor’s free time he enjoys getting involved in the many PAC courses that are offered here at Oregon State University, getting outside, and trying to teach his household robot how to bring him a beer from the fridge.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 PM Sunday evening to hear more about Connor and his research on artificial intelligence, or stream the program live.

When Paths Cross: The Intersection of Art, Science and Humanities on the Discovery Trail

When you think about a high school field trip to the forest, what comes to mind? Hiking boots, binoculars, magnifying glasses, plant and fungi identification, data collection – the science stuff, right? Well, some high school students are getting much more than a science lesson on the Discovery Trail  at the HJ Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Forest in the western Cascades Mountains, where researchers are seeking to provide a more holistic experience by connecting students with the forest though art, imagination, critical thinking and reflection.

Sarah (red hard hat) observing two student groups on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Working with environmental scholar and philosopher Dr. Michael Nelson at Oregon State University (OSU), Sarah Kelly is pursuing a Master of Arts degree as a member of the first cohort of the Environmental Arts and Humanities program. Through this program, Sarah works with many collaborators at the HJ Andrews Forest to enrich the experiences of middle and high school students through environmental education.

Sarah giving presentation on the Discovery Trail for the Long-Term Ecological Research 7 midterm review (August 2017); Photo Credit: Lina DiGregorio

Built in 2011, the Discovery Trail at the HJ Andrews Forest not only provides researchers access to field sites, but also is a venue for educational programming. Since the trail’s inception, researchers have designed curriculum that integrated the arts, humanities and science – the foundation of Sarah’s research.  The objective for the trail curriculum is to invite students to explore their own curiosity and values for forests while learning about place through observation, mindfulness exercises, scientific inquiry, and storytelling. Sarah and other researchers are interested in how this integrated arts/science curriculum stimulates appreciation and empathy for non-humans and ecosystems. This curriculum was first used on the trail in 2016.

Two students examining the dry streambed at stop 3 on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

With the use of iPads to guide activities and collect research data, students engage with the forest at a series of stops. After a silent sensory walk to just be in the forest, students cluster in small groups to participate in the lessons at a designated location. At one stop, students are instructed to gain intimate knowledge of one plant by observing all of its features and completing a blind contour drawing. A clearing at another stop encourages students to find clues and identify reasons for disturbances in the forest and their impacts – positive and negative – on the forest ecosystem. Another stop invites students to consider how we can care for forests by reading Salmon Boy, a Native American legend about a boy that gains an appreciation for non-human life by becoming a salmon.

Two students reading Salmon Boy near Lookout Creek at stop 6 (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Using the iPads to log student experiences on the trail, pre- and post-stop reflections, surveys and interviews, Sarah and her collaborators are able to understand the students’ experiences on the trail and assess any cognitive or affective shifts. Several weeks after the trip, teachers are also interviewed to find if the trail experience has impacted student learning and behavior in the classroom. Many teachers are returning visitors, bringing different classes to the Discovery Trail each year.

Sarah’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest; Multnomah Falls in background (November 2014)

So far, the students have expressed positive feedback about their trip on the Discovery Trail with many citing their relaxed mood, new career interests and inspiration to better care for nature. Sarah is busily analyzing the data collected to support her findings and identify ways to continue to enhance the program.

Sarah cultivated a new interest in human impacts on the environment while working for a green events company – the kind that focuses on sustainability – after completing her BA in Communications at her hometown university, the University of Houston. A few years after graduating, she led campus sustainability initiatives for her alma mater – a job she enjoyed immensely, but she always knew that graduate school was her next big undertaking. A work trip to attend the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference brought Sarah to Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband, Dwan, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.

Sarah working on her research project during a Spring Creek Project retreat at Shotpouch Cabin (January 2017); Photo Credit: Jill Sisson

Eventually, Sarah was able to combine her graduate school dreams with her desire to live in Oregon when she became a student at OSU. Sarah is now nearing the end of her graduate studies and recently participated in a Spring Creek Project Retreat to work on a writing piece, as part of her final project – a creative non-fiction composition about her experience with students on the trail. After leaving Houston, Sarah has learned to embrace and enjoy uncertainty and is keeping all possibilities open for her next big step. There is no doubt she will be working to improve the world around us.

Join us on Sunday, February 11 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to journey with Sarah through her environmental education research and path to graduate school.

 

 

 

How can humans help oysters adapt to stresses from ocean acidification?

The Pacific Northwest supports a 270 million dollar per year shellfish industry. Human-induced climate change has increased global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide then enters ocean water, making it more corrosive. As a consequence, oysters and other shellfish that rely on alkaline seawater conditions to precipitate calcium carbonate and build their shells find it harder to grow. The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, which supplies Netarts Bay with oysters and also sells larvae to farmers across the Northwest, experienced larval die-offs of nearly 75% in 2007.

This catastrophe spawned increased research efforts to prevent future die-offs. Sophie Wensman, a second-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Alyssa Shiel in

OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, is working on an unusual new way of growing oysters in Netarts Bay. She is placing large bags of dead oyster shells in the bay and then growing oysters on top of them. Similar to antacids, dead oyster shells neutralize corrosivity in the water by dissolving into carbonate, which the live oysters can then incorporate into their shells. Think of it as a short-circuited version of the circle of life.

Sophie attaching predator bags to shell plantings in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Spat on shell, or baby oysters that have attached to old dead oyster shells. These are what the oysters looked like at the start of the project in August 2015. Now each of those little brown spots are around 9 cm (~3.5 in). Photo Credit Sophie Wensman.

Besides investigating how these oysters will grow, Sophie plans on using her background in chemistry to develop a technique to examine how ocean chemistry  is recorded in the oysters shells, layer by layer. Like all of us, oysters are not perfect. Besides calcium carbonate, they incorporate some impurities into their shells, like certain forms of uranium carbonates. Based on what we know about forams, sea-dwelling zooplankton that also mineralize calcium carbonate shells, Sophie expects the amount of uranium the oysters mineralize will increase under more corrosive conditions, where less carbonate is available. To accomplish this, she will use a technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry, where she will shoot lasers onto samples of oyster shells. The shell bits will vaporize, and the machine will record the amounts of uranium and calcium present. Looking at this uranium-to-calcium ratio and how it relates to the measured seawater chemistry in Netarts Bay could be helpful for other oyster growers to see whether their animals are also experiencing stress from ocean acidification.

Adult oyster shell that has been cut in half to expose the hinge of the shell (left). This hinge is what we are using to trace water chemistry in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Sophie’s mother, who home-schooled her until the age of twelve, instilled in her a curiosity about science and the natural world from a young age. At the age of eight, Sophie became the youngest Marine Docent through the University of New Hampshire’s Sea Grant program. She also worked as a rocky shore naturalist and camp counselor at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH, teaching people of all ages about the rocky shore ecosystem. Sophie attended the University of Michigan studying secondary science education, but interning with Dow Corning and stumbling across an interview with a chemical oceanographer on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program provided her another career idea. This led her to an NSF-sponsored Research Experience as an Undergrad (REU) program at the University of Washington, a 36-day research cruise between Hawaii and Alaska, and a job as a technician in Joel Blum’s lab at the University of Michigan studying mercury isotope geochemistry. Sophie intends to continue her passions of education and chemical oceanography by pursuing an academic position at a research university.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 pm Sunday evening to hear more about Sophie and her research on oyster health and chemistry, or stream the program live right here.

You can download her iTunes Podcast Episode!

Are Touch Tanks Touching Lives?

Imagine, you just spent the day at the aquarium. Perhaps you were on a date, enjoying the day with your friends, on a solo exploration, or taking your children on a special trip. Throughout your experience you encountered many live animal exhibits and even got up close with some creatures in touch tanks: sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and stingrays. Now take a moment and reflect. What will you remember about today? What conversations or thoughts did you have?

Close up view of the Touch Tank and Visitor Interaction at Hatfield Marine Science Center – Visitor Center Photo Credit: Pat Kight

Working on an interdisciplinary project through the Oregon State University (OSU)  Environmental Sciences program with College of Education advisor Dr. Lynn Dierking, PhD candidate Susan Rowe seeks to illuminate the impacts of free-choice learning – or the learning that occurs in informal settings, such as museums, zoos and aquariums. A conservation mission has driven these institutions to shift in recent years from a menagerie of captive animals on display to these animals acting as ambassadors for their ecosystems. But is this message clear? Through her studies, Susan is examining visitors’ conservation narratives at live animal exhibits in order to better understand what counts as conservation talk for families, what research methods better help us understand that, and how education experiences can better advance the conservation mission of these institutions.

Susan Rowe with the Octopus at Hatfield Science Center Visitor Center

After filming and observing 10 families’ interactions with the Touch Tank at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center in Newport, OR, Susan invited the families to construct concept maps – a visual thinking routine to represent their thoughts and ideas –and conducted interviews to understand the families’ perceptions of the experience.  Susan also conducted a focus group with professionals involved in the field of conservation at different levels, and they too built conservation concept maps. With insights about the meaning of conservation for families and professionals, Susan constructed a rubric as a research tool to identify where, when and how conservation dialogue happens at live animal exhibit.  She is using the rubric to evaluate further interactions from additional 50 families who visited the exhibit and were recorded through the Visitor Center CyberLab  project, a system of surveillance cameras established to collect visitor data through advanced technology that uses facial recognition, eye tracking and other research tools to understand visitor use of exhibits, their movement and conversations.

Susan Rowe holding a stuffed “brain cell” at the March for Science In Newport, Oregon, Earth Day 2017

So what are these families talking about? Spoiler alert: it’s not conservation, at least not directly. And when families are asked to discuss conservation and what it means to them, the central theme seems to be their values. Different from common methods of studying the impact of free-choice learning, which focus on knowledge gained, Susan is identifying that a more holistic approach may be necessary for researchers to understand what challenge or provoke conservation talk at live animal exhibits. Susan hopes that her research will help determine better ways to engage audiences to think explicitly about conservation, i.e. values-based approaches to research and practice as opposed to values-changing. Susan suggests that if we can better understand how conservation talk is shaped in these experiences, we can advance our research methodologies and education curriculum design in ways that give families what they are looking for and, perhaps advance the argument that animal exhibits are indeed valuable conservation education platforms.

Susan Rowe and her family doing what they love… enjoying a beautiful day at the beach!

Growing up in Recife, Brazil, with the Atlantic Ocean as her playground, Susan spent her childhood dipping her feet into tide pools and exploring the wonders of the ocean – a curiosity and passion that has never faded. As an undergraduate at the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, Susan completed a dual-degree in Biology and Education with a license to teach. An undergraduate exchange program at Iowa State University (ISU) brought Susan to the United States for the first time. After spending some time as a middle school science teacher in Brazil, Susan returned to ISU to pursue a Master’s degree in Animal Ecology. Upon her move to Oregon, Susan worked as a marine educator at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, a volunteer at Oregon Coast Aquarium, teaching instructor for the Afternoon Adventures program at Muddy Creek Charter School, a field researcher for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has occupied a variety of job positions at OSU as well, including working at Hatfield Science Center as a research assistant and exhibit designer.

Susan Rowe and Benny Beaver

After spending years working as a frontline educator, Susan realized her desire to do more work behind the scenes as a museum, zoo, or aquarium education director in order to keep her feet in both research and teaching opportunities, which led her back to graduate school. At OSU, Susan has had the freedom to design her interdisciplinary PhD program of study, which melds sociology, philosophy, and anthropology with environmental education and ethics, providing a rich foundation for her research. Through her PhD program, Susan has realized her desire to continue to do free-choice learning research and ultimately seeks an academic position where she can continue finding the best ways to make an impact on the environment through free-choice learning venues.

Join us on Sunday, January 28 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to dive deeper into Susan’s free-choice learning research and journey to graduate school.

You can also download Susan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Small Differences Have Big Consequences to Keep the Oceans Happy

Swimming away from the rocky shores out to sea Grace Klinges, a 2nd year PhD student in the Vega-Thurber Lab, is surrounded by short green sea grasses swaying in the waves, multi-colored brown sand and occasional dull grayish-brown corals dot the floor as she continues her research dive. However, the most interesting thing about this little island reef off the coast of Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea, is the forest of bubbles that envelopes Grace as she swims. Bubbles curiously squeak out everywhere along seafloor between sand grains and even eating their way through the corals themselves. It reminds one of how thick the fog can be in the Oregon hills, and like a passing cloud, the bubbles begin to dissipate the further away you swim from the shore, revealing an increasingly complex web of life wholly dependent on the corals that look more like color-shifting chameleons than their dull-colored cousins closer to the shore.

Grace took ~2,000 photos for each of 6 transects moving away from the carbon dioxide seeps. She is rendering these photos using a program called PhotoScan, which identifies areas of overlap between each photo to align them, and then generates a 3D model by calculating the depth of field of each image.

These bubbles emanating from the seafloor is part of a naturally occurring CO2 seep found in rare parts of the world. While seemingly harmless as they dance up the water column, they are changing ocean chemistry by decreasing pH or making the water more acidic. The balance of life in our oceans is so delicate – the entire reef ecosystem is changing in such a way that provides a grim time machine into the future of Earth’s oceans if humans continue emitting greenhouse gasses at our current rate.

Corals are the foundation of these ocean ecosystems that fish and indigenous island communities rely on for survival. In order for corals to survive they depend on a partnership with symbiotic algae; through photosynthesis, the algae provide amino acids and sugars to the corals, and in return, the coral provides a sheltered environment for the algae and the precursor molecules of photosynthesis. Algae lend corals their magnificent colors, but algae are less like colorful chameleons and more like generous Goldilocks that need specific water temperatures and a narrow range of acidity to survive. Recall those bubbles of CO2 rising from the seafloor? As the bubbles of CO2 move upward they react with water and make it slightly more acidic, too acidic in fact for the algae to survive. In an unfortunate cascade of effects, a small 0.5 pH unit change out of a 14 unit scale of pH, algae cannot help corals survive, fish lose their essential coral habitat and move elsewhere leaving these indigenous island inhabitants blaming bubbles for empty nets. On the grander scale, it’s humans to blame for our continuous emissions rapidly increasing global ocean temperatures and lowering ocean pH. The only real question is when we’ll realize the same thing the local fishermen see now, how can we limit the damage to come?

 

The lovely Tara Vessel anchored in Gizo, Solomon Islands.

Grace Klinges is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Microbiology Department who is using these natural CO2 seeps as a proxy for what oceans could look like in the future, and she’s on the hunt for solutions. Her research area is highly publicized and is part of an international collaboration called Tara Expeditions as a representative of the Rebecca Vega Thurber Lab here at Oregon State, known for diving across the world seeking to better understand marine microbial ecology in this rapidly changing climate. Grace’s project is studying the areas directly affected by these water-acidifying CO2 seeps and the surrounding reefs that return to normal ocean pH levels and water temperatures. By focusing her observations in this localized area, about a 60-meter distance moving away from shore, Grace is able to see a gradient of reef health that directly correlates with changing water chemistry. Through a variety of techniques (GoPro camera footage, temperature sensors, pH, and samples from coral and their native microbial communities) Grace hopes to produce a 3D model of the physical reef structures at this site to relate changing chemistry with changes in community complexity.

Tara scientists spend much of the sailing time between sites labeling tubes for sampling. Each coral sample taken will be split into multiple pieces, labeled with a unique barcode, and sent to various labs across the world, who will study everything from coral taxonomy and algal symbiont diversity to coral telomere length and reproduction rates. Photo © Tara Expeditions Foundation

One of the main ideas is that as you move further away from the CO2 seeps the number of coral species, or coral diversity, increases which often is expressed in a huge variety of physical structures and colors. As the coral diversity increases so should the diversity of their microbiomes. Using genetic and molecular biology techniques, Grace and the Vega Thurber lab will seek to better understand which corals are the most robust at lower pH levels. However, this story gets even more complicated, because it’s not just the coral and algae that depend on each other, but ocean viruses, bacterial players, and a whole host of other microorganisms that interact to keep this ecological niche functioning. This network of complicated interactions between a variety of organisms in reef systems requires balance for the system to function. Affectionately named the “coral holobiont“, similar to a human’s microbiome, we are still far from understanding the relative importance of each player which is why Grace and her labmates have written a series of bioanalytic computer scripts to efficiently analyze the massive amounts of genetic information that is becoming more available in the field.

Grace was overjoyed after taking a break from sampling to swim with some dolphins who were very curious about the boat. Photo © Tara Expeditions Foundation

With the combination of Grace’s field work taking direct observations of our changing oceans, and her computer programming that will help researchers around the world classify organisms of unknown ecosystem function, our knowledge of the oceans will get a little less murky. Be sure to listen to the interview Sunday January 14th at 7PM. You can learn more about the Vega Thurber lab here.

You can also download Grace’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

It’s a Bird Eat Bird World

Female sage-grouse in eastern Oregon, 2017. Photo credit: Hannah White

Over the last half century, populations of Greater Sage-grouse – a relative of pheasants and chickens – have declined throughout their range. Habitat loss and degradation from wildfires is regarded as a primary threat to the future of sage-grouse in Oregon. This threat is exacerbated by the spread of invasive annual grasses (read: fuel for fires). In addition, raven populations, a predator of sage-grouse nests, are exploding. But how does all of this relate? PhD student Terrah Owens of Dr. Jonathan Dinkins lab in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences at Oregon State University and her colleagues are trying to find out.

Specifically, Terrah’s research is focused on the impact of wildfire burn areas – the burn footprint and edge – on sage-grouse predation pressure and how this influences habitat selection,

Terrah Owens with a radio-collared female sage-grouse in Nevada, 2015.

survival, and reproductive success. To do this work Terrah is characterizing six sites in Baker and Malheur counties, Oregon, based on their burn history, abundance of avian predators, shrub and flowering plant cover, as well as invasive annual grasses. To monitor sage-grouse populations, Terrah captures and radio-marks female sage-grouse to identify where the birds are nesting and if they are producing offspring. Additionally, Terrah conducts point counts to determine the density and abundance of avian predators (ravens, hawks, and eagles) in the area. Burn areas generally provide less protective cover for prey, making it an ideal hunting location for predators. Ultimately, Terrah hopes her work will help determine the best ways to allocate restoration funds through proactive, rather than reactive measures.

An encounter with a Bengal tiger at a petting zoo as a young girl inspired Terrah’s lifelong interest in wildlife conservation. As an undergraduate, Terrah studied Zoology at Humboldt State University in Arcata, CA. She then interned at Bonneville

Banding a juvenile California spotted owl, 2016.

Dam on the Columbia River for the California sea lion and salmon project. After this she went on to work for the U.S. Forest Service in northern California as a wildlife crew leader working with spotted owls, northern goshawk, fisher, and marten, among other species. She eventually moved on to work with sage-grouse in Nevada with the U.S Geological Survey.

After graduate school, Terrah would like to head a wildlife service research unit and apply her wealth of knowledge and government experience to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers.

Join us on Sunday, December 10, at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to learn more about Terrah’s research, how she captures sage-grouse, and her journey to graduate school.

You can also download Terrah’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Exploring a protein’s turf with TIRF

Investigating Otoferlin

Otoferlin is a protein required for hearing. Mutations in its gene sequence have been linked to hereditary deafness, affecting 360 million people globally, including 32 million children. Recently graduated PhD candidate Nicole Hams has spent the last few years working to characterize the activity of Otoferlin using TIRF microscopy. There are approximately 20,000 protein-coding genes in humans, and many of these proteins are integral to processes occurring in cells at all times. Proteins are encoded by genes, which are comprised of DNA; when mutations in the gene sequence occur, diseases can arise. Mutations in DNA that give rise to disease are the focus of critical biomedical research. “If DNA is the frame of the car, proteins are the engine,” explains Nicole. Studying proteins can provide insight into how diseases begin and progress, with the strategic design of therapies to treat disease founded on our understanding of protein structure and function.

Studying proteins

Proteins are difficult to study because they’re so small: at an average size of ~2 nanometers (0.000000002 meters!), specific tools are required for visualization. Enter TIRF. Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence is a form of microscopy enabling scientists like Nicole to observe proteins tagged with a fluorescent marker. One reason TIRF is so useful is that it permits visualization of samples at the single molecule level. Fluorescently-tagged proteins light up as bright dots against a dark background, indicating that you have your protein.

Another reason why proteins are hard to study is that in many cases, parts of the protein are not soluble in water (especially if part of the protein is embedded in the fatty cell membrane). Trying to purify protein out of a membrane is extremely challenging. Often, it’s more feasible for scientists to study smaller, soluble fragments of the larger protein. Targeted studies using truncated, soluble portions of protein offer valuable information about protein function, but they don’t tell the whole story. “Working with a portion of the protein gives great insight into binding or interaction partners, but some information about the function of the whole protein is lost when you study fragments.” By studying the whole protein, Nicole explains, “we can offer insight into mechanisms that lead to deafness as a result of mutations.”

Challenges and rewards of research

Nicole cites being the first person in her lab to pursue single molecule studies as a meaningful achievement in her graduate career. She became immersed in tinkering with the new TIRF instrument, learning from the ground up how to develop new experiments. Working with cells containing Otoferlin, in a process known as tissue culture, required Nicole to be in lab at unusual hours, often for long periods of time, to make sure that the cells wouldn’t die. “The cells do not wait on you,” she explains, adding, “even if they’re ready at 3am.” Sometimes Nicole worked nights in order to get time on the TIRF. “If you love it, it’s not a sacrifice.”

Why grad school?

As an undergraduate student studying Agricultural Biochemistry at the University of Missouri, Nicole worked in a soybean lab investigating nitrogen fixation, and knew she wanted to pursue research further. She had worked in a lab work since high school, but didn’t realize it was a path she could pursue, instead convinced that she wanted to go to medical school. Nicole’s mom encouraged her to pursue research, because she knew that it was something she enjoyed, and her undergraduate advisor (who completed his post-doc at OSU) suggested that she apply to OSU. She feels lucky to have found an advisor like Colin Johnson, and stresses the importance of finding a mentor who is personally vested in their graduate student’s success.

Besides lab work…

In addition to research, Nicole has been actively involved in outreach to the community, serving as Educational Chair of the local NAACP Chapter. Following completion of her PhD, Nicole intends to continue giving back to the community, by establishing a scholarship program for underrepresented students. Nicole remembers a time when she was told and believed that she wasn’t good enough, and while she was able to overcome this discouraging dialogue, she has observed that many students do not find the necessary support to pursue higher education. Her goal is to reach students who don’t realize they have potential, and provide them with resources for success.

Tune in on December 3rd  at 7pm to 88.7 KBVR Corvallis or stream the show live right here to hear more about Nicole’s journey through graduate school!

Thanks for reading!

You can download Nicole’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Earlier in the show we discussed current events, specifically how the tax bill moving through the House and Senate impact students. Please see our references and sources for more information.

Ocean basins are like trumpets– no, really.

We’re all familiar with waves when we go to the coast and see them wash onto the beach. But since ocean waters are usually stratified by density, with warmer fresher waters on top of colder, saltier ones, waves can occur between water layers of different densities at depths up to hundreds of meters. These are called internal waves. They often have frequencies that are synched with the tides and can be pretty big–up to 200 meters in amplitude! Because of their immense size, these waves help transfer heat and nutrients from deep waters, meaning they have an impact on ocean current circulation and the growth of phytoplankton.

The line of foam on the surface of the ocean indicates the presence of an internal wave.

We still don’t understand a lot about how these waves work. Jenny Thomas is a PhD student working with Jim Lerczak in Physical Oceanography in CEOAS (OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences). Jenny studies the behavior of internal waves whose frequencies correspond with the tides (called internal tides) in ocean basins. This requires a bit of mathematical theory about how waves work, and some modeling of the dimensions of the basin and how it could affect the height of tides onshore.

Picture a bathtub with water in it. Say you push it back and forth at a certain rate until all the water sloshes up on one side while the water is low on the other side. In physics terms, you have pushed the water in the bathtub at one of its resonant frequencies to make all of it behave as a single wave. This is called being in a normal mode of motion. Jenny’s work on the normal modes of ocean basins suggests that the length-to-width ratio and the bathymetry of an ocean basin influence the structure of internal tides along the coast. Basically, if the tidal forcing and the shape of the basin coincide just right, they can excite a normal mode. The internal wave can then act like water in a bathtub sloshing up the side, pushing up on the lower-density water above it.

It turns out that water isn’t the only thing that can have normal modes. The air column in a wind instrument is another example. Jenny grew up a child of two musicians and earned a degree in trumpet performance from the University of Iowa, and she occasionally uses her trumpet to demonstrate the concept of normal modes. She can change pitches by buzzing her lips at different resonant frequencies of the trumpet–the pitch is not just controlled by the valves.

Jenny uses her trumpet to explain normal modes.

Near the end of her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa, Jenny discovered that she had a condition called fibrous dysplasia that could potentially cause her mouth to become paralyzed. Deciding a career as a musician would be too risky, and realizing her aptitude for math and physics, she went back to school and earned a second undergraduate degree in physical oceanography at Old Dominion University. After a summer internship at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution conducting fieldwork for the US Geological Survey, she decided to pursue a graduate degree at OSU to further examine the behavior of internal waves.

Tune in to 88.7 KBVR Corvallis to hear more about Jenny’s research and background (with a trumpet demo!) or stream the show live right here.

You can also download Jenny’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Jenny helps prepare an instrument that will be lowered into the water to determine the density of ocean layers.

Jenny isn’t fishing. The instrument she is deploying is called a CTD for Conductivity, Temperature, and Depth–the three things it measures when in the water.

GROWing Healthy Kids and Communities

Physical activity has many benefits for health and wellness. Physical activity can help us control our weight, reduce our risk of diseases including many cancers and type 2 diabetes, help to strengthen our bones and muscles, and improve our mental health. Yet despite the benefits, many don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity. Our guest this week, Evan Hilberg from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the Department of Kinesiology, is investigating factors that influence physical activity of children in rural communities. Research focused on physical activity in children disproportionally centers around children in urban communities. Children in rural communities may have different limitations to physical activity. For example, rural children are more likely to take the bus to school instead of walking and commutes may take up to two hours each way. This leaves little time for physical activity outside of school hours. With his advisors, John Schuna and Kathy Gunter, Evan is analyzing data collected as part of the Generating Rural Options for Weight- Healthy Kids and Communities (GROW HKC) to better understand when children are active during the school day and factors that might limit their physical activity.

Recess and Wellness

Evan taking blood samples for cholesterol and glucose testing at a Community Wellness Fair.

One area of interest for Evan and the GROW HKC project are the variables that may predict changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) over a three-year period. Through this longitudinal study that involves over 1000 rural Oregon elementary school children, Evan will identify correlates of BMI change such as physical activity levels, age, sex, teacher, and school. Additionally, Evan is analyzing data that will hopefully provide more insight into specifically what times during the school day children are active. By obtaining a classroom schedule from teachers and measuring activity with accelerometers and pedometers, Evan can infer if children are physically active during recess, P.E., classroom activity breaks, or other times during the school day. Finally, Evan’s data will examine the reliability of different objective measures of physical activity, such as pedometers and accelerometers. The ability to compare outputs from different devices is limited by changes in device hardware and software, as well as the ways in which data is processed within those devices. The examination of these devices may inform procedure for future physical activity research for children and adults to help comparability across different devices and different studies.

A School of Thought

A clear understanding of the factors effecting physical activity in rural school children will aid in structuring the school day to maximize each child’s opportunity to be physically active. Data generated through GROW HKC my reveal patterns that younger children are more active during unstructured play during recess, whereas older children prefer sports-focused activity in P.E.. This type of research could inform recommendations for state-mandated physical activity at schools such that school day structure and physical activity opportunities are tailored to the diverse needs of kids in rural communities.

Full Circle

Evan grew up as an active kid and selected a college where he could play baseball. He landed at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon where his interest in Exercise Science grew through volunteering in community health outreach and research with his advisor, Janet Peterson. Evan learned that his education went beyond the classroom through his interactions with the community. Evan decided to pursue graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from Eastern Washington University. During his Master’s, Evan gained more experience with community and public health research as an AmeriCorps employee with Let’s Move, Cheney”, a local coalition inspired by Michelle Obama’s national campaign. Thereafter, Evan volunteered with the GROW HKC project, and applied to graduate school at Oregon State. Since beginning his doctoral studies with a concentration in physical activity and public health, Evan has completed a Master’s in Public Health in Biostatistics and maintains a full-time job as a Medical Policy Research Analyst with Cambia Health Solutions.

Tune in to 88.7 FM KBVR Corvallis this Sunday November, 12 at 7 pm to hear more about Evan’s research and background in Exercise Science. Click here to stream the show live.

You can download Evan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Evan at the California-Oregon border on a self-supported bike trip to San Francisco down the coast.