Monthly Archives: March 2018

When Fungus is Puzzling: A Glimpse into Natural Products Research

Ninety years ago, a fungal natural product was discovered that rocked the world of medicine: penicillin. Penicillin is still used today, but in the past ninety years, drug and chemical resistance have become a hot topic of concern not only in medicine, but also in agriculture. We are in desperate need of new chemical motifs for use in a wide range of biological applications. One way to find these new compounds is through natural products chemistry. Over 50% of drugs approved in the last ~30 years have been impacted by natural products research, being directly sourced from natural products or inspired by them.

Picture a flask full of microbe juice containing a complex mixture of hundreds or thousands of chemical compounds. Most of these chemicals are not useful to humans – in fact, useful compounds are exceedingly rare. Discovering new natural products, identifying their function, and isolating them from a complex mixture of other chemicals is like solving a puzzle. Donovon Adpressa, a 5th year PhD candidate in Chemistry working in the Sandra Loesgen lab, fortunately loves to solve puzzles.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR): an instrument used to elucidate the structure of compounds.

Donovon’s thesis research involves isolating novel compounds from fungi. Novel compounds are identified using a combination of separation and analytical chemistry techniques. Experimentally, fungi can be manipulated into producing compounds they wouldn’t normally produce by altering what they’re fed. Fungi exposed to different treatments are split into groups and compared, to assess what kind of differences are occurring. By knocking out certain genes and analyzing their expression, it’s possible to determine how the compound was made. Once a new structure has been identified and isolated, Donovon moves on to another puzzle: does the structure have bioactivity, and in what setting would it be useful?

Donovon’s interest in chemistry sparked in community college. While planning to study Anthropology, he took a required chemistry course. Not only did he ace it, but he loved the material. The class featured a one-week lecture on organic chemistry and he thought, ‘I’m going to be an organic chemist.’ However, there were no research opportunities at the community college level, and he knew he would need research experience to continue in chemistry.

At Eastern Washington University, Donovon delved into undergraduate research, and got to work on a few different projects combining elements of medicinal and materials chemistry. While still an undergrad, Donovon had the opportunity to present his research at OSU, which provided an opportunity to meet faculty and see Corvallis. It all felt right and fell into place here at OSU.

As a lover of nature and hiking in the pacific northwest, Donovon has always had a soft spot for mycology. It was serendipitous that he ended up in a natural products lab doing exactly what interested him. Donovon’s next step is to work in the pharmaceutical industry, where he will get to solve puzzles for a living!

Tune in at 7pm on Sunday, March 18th to hear more about Donovon’s research and journey through graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live.

This includes you!

A graph illustrating why it is important to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process where they will do the most good. If it is kept for a later stage as it generally has been, the products will end up more expensive and less effectively inclusive.

Jessica Armstrong is a PhD candidate in her last year in the Design Core of the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering working to give product designers more information about customer needs so that they can create a more inclusive product design. Generally, products are conceived out of a need, and their design is based on the eventual user(s). The term inclusive design, similar to universal design, aims to design products for people with a varying range of abilities from the start. Making it possible to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process, when they will most benefit the design, and at the lowest cost, is a major part of the work. Jessica’s research goal is to build a framework that designers can follow to allow them to easily design as inclusive products as possible.

A picture of Jessica in the motion restriction suit.

To do this, Jessica, advised by Dr. Rob Stone, uses a motion restriction suit (tested during her M.S. degree at OSU) to test users’ experiences using kitchen gadgets. The suit restricts motion of the upper body by stiffening movements of the fingers, wrists, elbows, abdomen, and shoulder. They are investigating what they have termed “surrogate experiences”, or allowing a research subject (surrogate) to simulate the actual target users and their needs. Jessica is able to record a user’s experience with the kitchen gadget and identify any difficulties in products user interactions, the products actions and design, and the suit’s restriction.




Jessica Armstrong, at her first Design Engineering Technical Conference.

Jessica grew up in Boise, Idaho wanting to become an astronaut. Very much interested in physics and engineering, she moved to Corvallis for her Bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics. She took a break from studying while her husband worked on his Entomology MS degree at Washington State University. During that time, she worked as a telephone interviewer for WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center where she interviewed people over the phone for the various studies they were conducting. She then moved back to OSU to pursue her MS and then PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and specifically focusing on design. She acquired a minor in IE Human Systems Engineering, as she finds the human aspect of engineering fascinating. While not working on research, Jessica sings alto and tenor in OSU’s University Choral and is the Treasurer for the OSU Physicists for Inclusion in Science group.

Her interest in space has not dissipated and she aims to work for a private space company after completing her degree. She hopes her doctoral research will eventually be used to encourage inclusivity in space travel and everyday life.

Tune in at 7 pm this Sunday March, 11 to hear more about Jessica’s research and journey to graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live online!



Workplace Woes for Women in Engineering

The human race has given rise to incredible engineering accomplishments. Some examples include an Egyptian pyramid with 2.3 million perfectly placed limestone blocks, the Great Wall of China that traverses difficult terrain and can be seen from space, or the more recent example of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, sending a sports car floating through space with re-usable rockets landing back on Earth to use for a future mission. It’s no surprise that the engineering field attracts the best and brightest among us because they are innovators, problem solvers, and basically all white males. Wait – What?

Four minutes into SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch, the manufacturing division was shown which has errily similar demographics to the NASA space race era. via @B0yle on Feb 6th 2018

During the celebration of the Falcon Heavy launch the SpaceX guys were shown jumping for joy at the technological milestones. The same way you cringe from an oncoming car with high beams is the same way many felt about the gender imbalance that was present in the 1970’s during the NASA days and continues to persists in one of the most innovative companies the world has ever seen. For example, the 2016 film Hidden Figures began to break that mold, detailing the story of female African-American mathematicians and engineers living in the south in the 1950’s who helped propel NASA to the moon, yet few knew or acknowledged their enormous role. Since their story remained in the shadows how could a young student believe ‘I too could be a female engineer’ if they believe it’s never been done before? One’s life expectations are shaped by what they see around them, and without role models that ‘look like me’ in positions of power, how can we expect for anything to change?

Gender gap in bachelor’s degrees awarded by field of study, 1969-2009. Figure 1. Courtesy of Legewie, J., and T. DePrete. 2014. The High School Environment and the Gender Gap in the Science and Engineering. Sociology of Education. 87(4):259-280.

Our guest this evening is Andrea Haverkamp, a 2nd year PhD student in the College of Engineering, who is asking what it means to think of yourself as an engineer, and examining how the engineering culture has perpetuated the lack of diversity we see today. Of the currently active engineering professionals approximately 90% are men, university engineering programs are nearly 80% male dominated. Herein lies the paradox; girls get better grades than their male counterparts from kindergarten through high school, girls have a similar level of STEM interest as their male counterparts early in their schooling career and within the last decade women outnumber men among college graduates. Unfortunately, women significantly lag behind men in college STEM degrees and only 1 out of 6 engineering degrees are received by women.

Andrea snuggling up with her beloved dog, Spaghetti.

Andrea’s research seeks to answer what happens in the engineering workplace that continues to be unwelcoming to women; but gender cannot be taken in isolation because there is a confluence of race, socioeconomic class, and potential disabilities that color our thought process that we cannot avoid. Her work also focuses on LGBT students and a broader, more expansive, theory of gender than has been used in prior engineering research. Furthermore she is using novel approach that breaks traditional boundaries in the social sciences field that she hopes to encourage her interviewees to become an active participant and empower them to become co-authors on future research papers. This method, Community Collaborative Research, was made popular by a researcher who lived in a prison to better relate to those people in his work. How can you expect to have female engineers rise through the ranks, if there are hardly any female engineers to look up to; can you see yourself become a superhero if you’re from an underrepresented minority? A recent pop-culture example is the release of the Marvel’s Black Panther; the first film with an all black cast, predominately black writers, and directors that celebrates black culture. Here is how one fan reacted from just seeing the poster [displaying the all black cast] “This is what white people get to feel all the time? Since the beginning of cinema, you get to feel empowered like this and represented? If this is what you get to feel like all the time I would love this country too!”

There is no silver bullet that will be an overnight fix for the gender imbalance in the workplace or the salary disparity between men and women in the same job. But there are some positive examples; such as some companies are taking concrete actions to get women into leadership roles, or how the Indian Space Agency (with a recent boom in women engineers) sent a rocket to Mars that was less expensive than the making of “The Martian! Through Andrea’s research we can at least begin to systematically answer the questions of how to develop a more inclusive culture for aspiring women engineers and workplaces alike. As Jorja Smith sings in the Black Panther soundtrack, “I know that we have asked for change. Don’t be scared to put the fears to shame…”

You can listen to the show at 7PM Sunday March 4th on 88.7FM or stream the show live online!

If you want to hear more from Andrea, she also hosts her own KBVR radio show called LaborWave every other Friday at 2PM. If you want to read more about Andrea’s field, she’s on the Editorial Board for the International Journal of Engineering, Social Justice, and Peace.