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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.

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.

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.

The Breathing Seafloor

In the cold, dark depths of the seafloor across the world, microbes living in sediments and on rocks are quietly breaking down organic material and sucking dissolved oxygen out of the seawater. The continental shelf off of Oregon’s coasts, home to a fishing industry that brings in over a hundred million dollars of revenue per year, is no exception. Does oxygen consumption, and therefore carbon cycling, vary by location, or across seasons? Setting a baseline to investigate these patterns of oxygen drawdown is crucial to understanding habitats and distributions of fish stocks, but will also establish what “normal” oxygen consumption looks like off our shores. Measurements like these are also used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to estimate global patterns of carbon burial. If any forces were to shift these patterns in the future, we’d at least have a baseline to allow us to diagnose any “abnormal” conditions.

Peter Chace is a third-year PhD student of Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (CEOAS). Peter’s research focuses on developing a technique of measuring fluxes of oxygen across the seafloor called Eddy covariance. This technique takes high-resolution time measurements of three-dimensional velocities of water moving in turbulent whorls, or random circular patterns, within the boundary layer of a fluid like air or water. Eddy covariance has been employed to measure fluxes across air layers on land for decades, but has only recently been applied in marine systems. A point-source oxygen measurement within this turbulent layer is measured with a microelectrode and combined with the velocity data to develop a flux. Why go through all this trouble? Other ways to measure oxygen fluxes, like putting chambers over an area of seafloor and waiting to measure an oxygen drawdown, require a lot of work and give little temporal resolution.

Workers on the RV Oceanus, Oregon State’s largest research vessel, deploy a benthic (seafloor) oxygen sensor.

Peter can calibrate his microelectrodes to measure other chemicals and obtain their fluxes across the seabed, but he is mainly focused on oxygen. To measure fluxes off the Oregon coast, Pete and his advisor, Dr. Clare Reimers, will head to sea on the RV Oceanus several times this fall and winter to deploy their sensor on the seafloor for days at a time. The desk-sized seafloor lander and the microelectrode attached to it are fragile, and the rough seas offshore Oregon in fall and winter will make it a challenging endeavor. We hope they pack enough seasickness medication and barf bags!

You get right up close and personal with the ocean when you send down these instruments… and this is on a clear day with calm seas!

Since growing up as a child in New Jersey, Peter has always wanted to learn about the ocean. While studying chemistry and marine biology at Monmouth University (in New Jersey) as an undergraduate, he completed a summer REU (Research Experience as an Undergraduate) with his current advisor, Clare Reimers, here at Oregon State University. He also interned for NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association), analyzing the chemistry of hydrothermal vent fluids with Dr. David Butterfield. Pete revisited a hydrothermal system on a cruise to the East Pacific Rise off of Central America where he got a remarkable opportunity to dive in Alvin, the submersible that discovered the wreckage of the Titanic.

Here’s Pete in the submersible Alvin just before the dive, checking his microelectrodes.

To hear more about Peter’s research on sensor development and his seafaring expeditions, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination on Sunday, October 15th at 7pm on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis. Or stream it online here!

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.

 

Project CHOMPIN: Parrotfish, nutrients, and the coral microbiome

CHOMPIN comic.

Ecology is the study of the relationships among organisms and the relationships of organisms to their physical surroundings. The interactions of organisms can be described as a complex web with many junctions or relationships, and a single ecologist may focus on one or many relationships in a community or ecosystem. Our guest this week, Rebecca (Becca) Maher PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, is interested in the effect of environmental stressors on the coral microbiome. Let’s break this down by interaction:

  • Beneficial algae, bacteria, and viruses interact with coral by living in coral tissue and forming the coral microbiome
  • Corals interact with other organisms in the coral reef ecosystem, such as parrot fish
  • Corals are affected by their surrounding environment: water temperature, water nutrients, and pollution

Becca at the Newport aquarium for Scientific Diver Training through Oregon State University.

You may be familiar with coral bleaching and coral reef decline from our past episodes. Corals form a mutualistic relationship (both organisms benefit) with algae, where algae take shelter within coral tissue and provide the coral with food from photosynthesis. It is well known that high temperatures lead to coral bleaching, or a shift in the coral microbiome resulting from the loss of beneficial algae that live within the coral. Coral bleaching is often fatal.

Becca is interested in other aspects of the coral microbiome, such as differences in the symbiotic bacterial communities brought about by nutrient enrichment from agricultural run-off and overfishing. Do corals in nutrient rich water have a different microbiome than corals in nutrient poor water? Do corals in highly fished areas have a different microbiome than corals in fish-rich areas? In overfished areas, predatory fish (e.g. parrotfish) may bite coral (hence Project CHOMPIN), and so how does the coral microbiome respond after wounding by parrotfish?

Becca diving at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Northwest Gulf of Mexico for her undergraduate thesis at Rice University.

These questions are relevant for our knowledge of environmental factors that threaten coral reef ecosystems. Corals are in decline globally and with them are the high diversity of marine species that gain shelter and substrate from the coral reef. The information gained from Becca’s research may be informative for policy makers concerned with agricultural practices near marine areas and fishing regulations.  Rebecca is traveling to Morrea, French Polynesia this August to set up her field and laboratory experiments at the Gump Biological Research Station.

This upcoming trip is highly anticipated for Becca, who has been pursuing research in marine ecosystems since her time at Rice University. After working with her undergraduate mentor Adrienne Correa at Rice, Becca’s general focus on Ecology shifted to a focus on Marine Ecology. For Becca, her project at Oregon State in the Vega Thurber Lab is a harmonious mix of field work, high-level experimental design, bioinformatics, and statistics—a nice capstone for a Marine Ecologist with aspirations for future research.

Hear more about Becca’s work with corals the Sunday at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM. Not a local listener? Stream our broadcast live.

Seeing live animal exhibits can be a powerful experience, but do they change our behaviors?

Imagine you’re at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park cheetah run. You hear the sounds of awe and wonder as the cheetah demonstrates its amazing speed. The zookeeper tells you more about the cheetah and its ecosystem – an ecosystem that is being negatively impacted by humans. You walk away with tangible ways that you can do your part to reduce your impact – recycling, using less plastic. But when you exit the zoo gates and enter back into the hustle and bustle of life, do you actually make those changes?

Nicolette and Ebony, the raven, at Moorpark College in 2007.

Working under the advisership of Dr. Shawn Rowe in OSU’s College of Education, Nicolette Canzoneri is passionately pursing a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences with research centered around the idea of free-choice learning – or, the education that happens outside of a formal school environment. The menagerie of animals that zoos and aquariums have historically been known for has transitioned in recent years to conservation efforts. Instead of a spectacle, the animals – often rescued and unable to be re-entered into their natural environment – act as ambassadors for their ecosystems. This summer, Nicolette will be conducting a three-part project to get to the heart of human behavior changes based on interactions with live animal exhibits at zoos and aquariums.

First, Nicolette will be interviewing education directors and animal care supervisors to understand how the education programs are designed to target pro-environmental behavior. She will then observe the programs to determine the degree to which they align with the intended educational and behavioral goals. Despite the nuances of evaluation, Nicolette then plans to discover the if, how and why of evaluations being used to determine effectiveness of these educational programs. Ultimately, she hopes that her research can help to fill the knowledge gaps between theories and principles in applied behavioral studies and their implementation in free-choice learning.

Nicolette with her Animal Behavior students at Moorpark College in 2015.

Nicolette brings a wealth of experience in animal training and applied behavioral psychology to her research. As a teenager Nicolette knew that she wanted to work with animals, but it wasn’t until she found herself watching the Animal Planet reality TV show Moorpark 24/7 that she realized animal training was part of her calling. Nicolette went on to pursue her dream by obtaining her Exotic Animal Training & Management degree at the prestigious Moorpark College near Los Angeles, CA. Through the twists and turns of her career, Nicolette has since obtained a bachelor’s degree in Applied Behavioral Analysis at California State University, Sacramento and volunteered, interned, and worked in some interesting places along the way including as a dog trainer in Austria, an animal trainer at the Playboy Mansion, and most recently training dolphins for reconnaissance for the United States Navy.

Nicolette with her two dogs in San Diego, 2016.

Join us on Sunday, June 17 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to dive deeper into Nicolette’s free-choice learning research and journey to graduate school.