Monthly Archives: July 2016

A Softer Side of Robots

Do me a favor: close your eyes for a few seconds and think of a robot, any robot, real or imaginary.

Done? Good. Now, that robot you thought about, what did it look like? What did it do? What was it made of? The answers to the first two questions will likely be different from person to person: perhaps a utilitarian, cylindrical robot that helps with menial tasks like cleaning and homework, or a humanoid robot, hell-bent on crushing, killing, and/or destroying humans. I’m willing to bet, however, that the majority of the answers to the last question is one word: “metal”.

Most of our images of robots, droids, and automatons (i.e. R2-D2, The Cybermen, or Wall-E), including robots that we encounter in day to day life, are made of metal, but that might change in the future. The future of robotics is not simply to make robots harder, better, faster, or stronger, but also softer. For robots that must interact with humans and other living or delicate things, they must have the capacity to be gentile.

Samantha works on the jumping spider model that mimics a jumping spider by using an air hockey table with a tethered puck with a consistent starting speed

Samantha works on the jumping spider model that mimics a jumping spider by using an air hockey table with a tethered puck with a consistent starting speed

Researchers like Samantha Hemleben are beginning to explore the world of soft robotics, creating robots that are made out of soft materials, acting through changes in air pressure. These robots could be used for tasks where a light touch is needed to avoid bruising such as human contact or fruit picking. Currently, the technology to create soft robots involves making a 3D-printed mold and then casting the silicone robot parts in those molds. If you need a robot that has both soft and firm parts, it must be designed in separate steps, reducing efficiency and effectiveness.

This is where Samantha comes in; she’s trying to optimize this process. When she started her undergrad at Wofford College, she tried out Biology, Pharmacy, and Finance, but didn’t feel challenged by them. Switching to mathematics with a computer science emphasis allowed her creativity to flourish and she was able to secure a Research Experience for Undergraduates here at OSU, modeling a robot that mimics the movements of jumping spiders. This experience heavily influenced her decision to get her Ph. D. at OSU.

Samantha is now a 2nd year Ph. D. student of Drs. Cindy Grimm and Yiğit Mengüç in Robotics (School of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering). Her research is focused on trying to understand the gradient between hard and soft materials. That is, she’s creating mathematical models of this gradient so that the manufacturing process can be optimized, and soft robots will be able to stand on solid ground.

Tune in on Sunday, July 24th at 7PM PDT on 88.7FM or stream live at

Walk Like a Kinesin

To the naked eye, plants don’t move around a whole lot. Take a closer look, inside of a plant cell, and a whole new world is opened. From cytoplasmic streaming to mitosis (cellular division), a cell is a bustling city with a plethora of different molecules and organelles being moved all around so it can grow and survive. And how are these molecules and organelles moving about? How are they getting to their very important destinations to ensure that vital signals or nutrients are delivered on time? The answer is molecular motor proteins. Molecular motors are proteins that all cells have. They have feet, can walk, and carry stuff. These proteins are the workforce of the cell, moving along the cytoskeleton (fibrous protein bundles that give the cell structure), carrying precious cargo from one place to another.

Allison GickingNot all of these microscopic walkers are created equal, however, some can walk farther or faster than others and Allison Gicking wants to know why and how this happens. She is using a particular kind of microscopy called TIRF (Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence) to put a spotlight on individual protein molecules so she can observe the unique ballet of life dancing on minuscule tightropes. Because these proteins are important for cell division, her work on understanding the movements of these proteins could have implications in cancer remedies or even drug delivery.

A 4th year Ph. D. student in the department of Physics, Allison has always had a passion for science. From high school to college, she was constantly looking for ways to blend her love of physics and biology. In a time when fewer than 20% of physics degrees are awarded to women, Allison is using her experience to advocate for women in science by being involved in science communication and co-organizing the Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics here at OSU.

Tune in Sunday, July 17th at 7PM PDT on KBVR, 88.7 FM or stream live at to hear Allison’s journey.

Navigating Cultural Currents: Sharing Water in Central America

Between the Southeastern portion of the country of Costa Rica and Panama to the south runs the Sixaola River. For almost a hundred miles on its meandering path to the Caribbean the river forms the boundary between these two nations. But the Sixaola has many names. It is shared not only by the two countries to its north and south, but also by countless indigenous peoples who rely on its waters for the valuable resources that make their livelihoods possible.

When determining how the river is to be managed as a valuable resource politics inevitable come into play. This is called “hydro diplomacy“. Waste and chemical pollutants that one group dispose of in the river flow downstream to contaminate the lands of other groups. Complicating the situation is the fact that some of the peoples sharing the river reject the conventions of typical  society: the value of the river is not the same for all peoples along its length.

Dacotah in one of her favorite places: the water.

Dacotah in one of her favorite places: the water.

This is what Dacotah-Victoria Splichalova aims to better understand. As a masters student in Water Resources Policy and Management at Oregon State, Dacotah meets with and interviews many of these peoples to bring their unique cultural values concerning the river into the ongoing governmental discussion of water usage and regulation.

Dacotah’s work differs from other resource management studies in that it is not just about the relationships between people with different points of view, but about the special relationship human beings have with water itself. As a basic resource that all humans need to survive, people have an almost spiritual relationship with water. For Dacotah water is a powerful force for overcoming differences, and a symbol for peace.

You can find more information about her work at

Learn the past. Speak the present. Guide the future.

Lake Victoria, sitting just below the equator in eastern Africa, shared between the countries of Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania is the second largest freshwater lake in the world. To put that into

Early 20th century map of Lake Victoria

Colonial territories surrounding Lake Victoria in the early 20th Century

perspective, at 68,800 square kilometers, Lake Victoria is larger than the country of Switzerland (41,285 sq. km.). Beyond its immense size and grandeur, it is also one of the most important sites on earth for our current understanding of evolution because of one rapidly-diversifying group of fishes: the cichlids, which include both tilapia, an important food source, and aquarium fish such as angelfish.


The cichlids in Lake Victoria are especially interesting because that body of water dried out and refilled less than 15,000 years ago. This may seem like a long time, but on a geologic and evolutionary timescale, that’s less than the blink of an eye. Consider that before 1980, itwas estimated that there were over 500 species of cichlids in Lake Victoria. To contrast that with our own timeframe, the speciation time from our last common ancestor with chimps was on the order of millions of years ago. The fish in this lake are evolving at record speeds.

Traditionally haplochromines were harvested and dried as a food source for indigenous peoples Most of these practices were outlawed in 1908 Most subsistence fishing on Lake Victoria today is illegal

Traditionally haplochromines were harvested and dried as a food source for indigenous peoples Most of these practices were outlawed in 1908 Most subsistence fishing on Lake Victoria today is illegal

Today, the populations of cichlids in Lake Victoria have plummeted and many species are either endangered or extinct. The extinction was due to environmental pressures and invasive species such as the nile perch, a large predator game fish with an appetite for a group of small cichlid fish known as Haplochromis. Like many invasive species, the introduction of the nile perch was no accident. It was introduced to stem the overfishing of tilapia in the 1920s. This worked, but at the price of hundreds of species of Haplochromis. Now that the biodiversity in the lake is reduced, there are efforts to protect these species that are informed by scientific inquiry, but who gets a say in how management decisions are made? How did the focus of inquisition change over the past hundred years?


Cat. Man. Do.

Matt his cat work on writing Matt’s thesis

Our guest, Matt McConnell, is trying to answer these questions and trying to understand how communication between scientists and non-scientists affect how science is done. As a Masters Student in the History of Science department or Oregon State University, he is digging through the archives, trying to understand the changing scientific values surrounding Lake Victoria in the 20th century. Is the lake important as a resource or as a haven for species? Why should we care? Our current notion of science is that it is objective, but as we look into its history, science is value-driven, which is culturally laden; the question is, who’s culture is asking the questions and who’s culture is affected? In our current time, we are hearing about resource management and those are informed by scientific inquiry. Science is the answer, but it affects farmers and fishermen and their opinions are often denigrated in favor of science. Science is considered an objective measure, but it is really a cultural decision. Practitioners of science not only need to communicate their values, but they need to listen.

Matt and the 2016 History of Science cohort enjoy a day in the sun in Seattle at an Environmental Humanities Conference

Matt and the 2016 History of Science cohort enjoy a day in the sun in Seattle at an Environmental Humanities Conference

Tune in Sunday, July 3rd at 7PM PDT on 88.7FM or live stream to hear Matt talk about his journey with the history of science and science communication.