Category Archives: Uncategorized

Feather collections and stressed-out owls

Ashlee Mikkelsen holding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen.

For six months out of every year, Ashlee Mikkelsen spends her days hiking for miles off-trail in the Ponderosa pine-filled forests of central Washington, hooting like an owl, and carefully listening for responses. These days, responses can be few and far between. You see, Ashlee isn’t just a wildlife enthusiast; she is a research assistant in a long-term US Forest Service monitoring program focused on the northern spotted owl.

Since being listed as threatened by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1990, populations of northern spotted owls have continued to decline. In some areas, the number of spotted owls has decreased by more than half in only 20 years (see (Dugger et al. (2016)). Northern spotted owls are inhabitants of old-growth forests. Although northern spotted owls historically could be found in almost every forest from northern California to British Columbia, as forests have shrunk in size through timber harvesting and through changing land use, the amount of suitable habitat has drastically decreased. A second major contributor to the decline of the northern spotted owl is arrival during the last century of the barred owl, which are native to northeastern North America. Barred owls competed with spotted owls for territory and resources, and have been observed fighting with spotted owls.  Ashlee’s master’s research at Oregon State aims to quantify the stress experienced by spotted owls.

Northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen.

When birds experience stress, their bodies respond by releasing larger-than-usual quantities of the hormone corticosterone. Similar to cortisol in humans, corticosterone is always present, but having levels that are very high or that are very low is associated with poor health outcomes. It used to be that in order to measure the physical stress response of a bird, researchers had to take a blood sample. The problem with this is that the process of taking a blood sample itself is a source of stress for the bird. Recently, however, a new technique was introduced based on the fact that corticosterone is also present in feathers. Being able to use feathers is a distinct advantage: birds are constantly dropping feathers, so collecting feathers is fairly non-invasive, and importantly, similar to the benefits of measuring cortisol in hair, feather corticosterone measurements show the average level of the hormone over a long period, rather than just the instant that the feather is collected.

Ashlee banding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen

Ashlee banding a juvenile northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen

Working with professor Katie Dugger (who, incidentally, was Ashlee’s supervisor in the owl-monitoring field crew for the two years prior to beginning graduate school), Ashlee is analyzing a collection of feathers that spans over a 30-year time period. Measuring corticosterone levels in feathers is a high-tech process involving organic chemistry and radioactive isotopes. Although there are many complications that need to be accounted for, tracking the levels of corticosterone in these feathers gives Ashlee insight into the impact of stressors such as environmental degradation and competition with barred owls. Because the data spans so many years, she is able to examine the average stress in spotted owls over periods of change in the populations of barred owls. Ashlee’s data shows a strong response in corticosterone in spotted owls when the number of barred owls in the neighborhood goes up. This supports the view that spotted owls’ woes are not just due to habitat loss, but also due to competition with barred owls.

To hear more about Ashlee’s path to OSU, experiences in research, and of course about northern spotted owls, tune in Sunday, February 16th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/, or download our
podcast on iTunes!

 

Exploring immigrant identity through poetry

As a 2nd year MFA student in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film, Tatiana Dolgushina is writing her history through poetry as a way to understand herself and the country she came from that no longer exists. Born in Soviet Russia, Tatiana and her family fled the country after it collapsed in 1991. Tatiana grew up in South America and came to the US when she was 12, settling in Ohio. She remarks, “so much cultural history of Soviet Russia is influencing who I am today.” Central to her work are ideas of identity formation and childhood displacement. Through writing, she is digging deeper into her experience as an immigrant growing up in multiple countries.

To better understand the root of her identity, Tatiana is reading about the history that led to the dissolution of Soviet Russia. Reading about the history has helped her to understand the events that led to her family’s displacement. She grew up with silence surrounding why they had left, explaining, “Soviet culture is based on a fear of talking about historical events.” She reflects on feeling shame associated with being an immigrant, and in “not belonging to the old place or the new place.” A fractured in-between place. “As a kid, when you’re displaced, you lose so much: language, traditions, and culture.” She further explains, “you seek assimilation as a kid, and either forget these things, or push them away.”

Tatiana explains that poetry is a catalyst for understanding herself and more broadly, for us to understand ourselves as humans. It’s about connecting the dots. Her family doesn’t speak about what transpired. But reading the history, it begins to make sense. “When you’re a kid, you’re focused on survival.” She reflects that she has been trying to compensate for certain things, and is now understanding how and why she is different. She realized, “the older I get, the more I feel it, my immigrant self emerging.” Her experience growing up in multiple countries has contributed to her identity formation, but she admits that she doesn’t have a space to talk about it. “I blend in, but still feel like an outsider. I am not of this culture, and I realize that I really have no home because my home is not a country.”

Tatiana is still trying to figure out what her writing is about, but articulates that writing is a process of not being able to say certain things in the beginning. It’s about writing through the memory and being able to see the things you need to see when you’re ready, peeling away each layer of experience. Approaching the writing process linearly, Tatiana began writing about early memories, then proceeded beyond to older memories, asking, for example, “why did I write about that nightmare I had when I was 4 years old?”

Originally trained as a wildlife biologist, Tatiana decided to change directions after spending time pursuing a Master’s degree. When she initially began the MFA program, she was shocked at the discussion of subjective ideas, which is so different from many areas of scientific discourse. In science, the focus is not so much on identity. But, she explains, “science and art are coming from the same place. It’s about observation, and understanding through observation.”

As a personal goal, Tatiana is working towards publishing a book. It has been something she has wanted to do for many years. “The hope is that a 15 year old immigrant kid in the library will read it and be able to relate to my story.”

Tatiana studies with Dr. Karen Holmberg and will be graduating this Spring. Tune in on Sunday, February 3rd at 7pm on KBVR 88.7 FM to hear more from Tatiana about her thesis work and experience as a graduate student at OSU. You can also stream the show or download our podcast on iTunes!

Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words might unintentionally enforce gendered behavior

Hey guys, do you notice when you or others use gendered language? As with the last sentence, gendered language has become part of our culture’s vocabulary and we may use it without a second thought. There is a growing field of research that studies how language can shape perceptions of ourselves and others.

Jeana presenting “Decolonizing Masculinities” with Nyk Steger and Minerva Zayas at the 2018 Examining Masculinities Conference at OSU

Jeana Moody is a second year Masters student in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies working with Professor Bradley Boovy. Her thesis research focuses on the use and impact of gendered words and phrases in the English language, such as “throw like a girl”, “man up”, and “don’t be a bitch.” What are the implications of saying “man up” to someone who presents as a woman? As a man? Does the gender of the speaker play a role?

To explore this, Jeana designed a study to collect data through in-person interviews and anonymous online surveys, asking participants to describe situations when they have either used such statements or have been the subject of the statements. The questions include: where did this happen? Who was there? Were there any power dynamics? How did it make you feel then, and now?

For any research involving human participants, OSU researchers must submit a proposal to and be approved by Oregon State’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). This rigorous process requires submission of interview questions, the number of participants, how the data will be collected, and how consent will be obtained from the participants. Additionally, since there is always the possibility of triggering a participant’s traumatic memories from survey questions, help resources must be provided to participants. Jeana’s study was just approved last week.

Jeana hiking in the San Gabriel Mountains in Southern California

From the data collected, Jeana hopes to gain insight into feelings of and implications on participants in the study, and present the anecdotal evidence within a cultural context. This research draws from the subjects of feminist sociolinguistics and critical race theory. It addresses the idea that language begets culture, and culture begets language. Her interest in the subject arose from working with non-native English speakers. She observed that they often use American swear words and racist words without understanding the impact of the words they were using. Just because someone doesn’t understand those words doesn’t mean they don’t hold an impact.

Jeana hiking in the Willamette National Forest in Oregon

When Jeana is not conducting research, she is the instructor of record for Men and Masculinities and is a Teaching Assistant for several other classes. She is originally from Pullman, Washington and attended Western Washington University as part of the Fairhaven College (an interdisciplinary liberal arts college). She enjoys hiking and being anywhere outdoors, and she loves to cook and draw. When not in Corvallis, she can likely be found in Prague where she has taught English and worked for a travel agency.

If you are interested in participating in Jeana’s research study online or in-person, please email moodyje@oregonstate.edu to set up an interview or with any questions you may have, or follow the link to her Gendered Language Online Survey.

Written by Maggie Exton.

Testing Arctic climate models: how much detail can we capture?

Many of us have heard that as a consequence of climate change, Arctic sea ice is rapidly decreasing and that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. It’s a complicated system that we don’t understand very well: few people live in the Arctic, and the data from limited study sites may not be representative of the region as a whole. How will Arctic climates change at different timescales in the coming years? What could this mean for coastal Arctic communities that rely on sea ice for preventing erosion or fishing in deep waters? How will navigation and shipping routes change? And in addition, how does a changing Arctic affect climates at lower latitudes?

Visualization of winter sea ice in the Arctic by Cindy Starr, courtesy the NASA Scientific Visualization Studio.

Daniel Watkins is a fourth-year PhD student of Atmospheric Science in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Science (CEOAS). Working with Dr. Jennifer Hutchings, he is analyzing climate model experiments in order to find answers to these questions. An important step in this is to evaluate the quality of climate simulations, which he does by matching up model output with real-life observations of temperature, sea ice, and cloud cover. Climate scientists have many models that predict how these factors will change in the Arctic over the next several decades. No model can take every detail into account, so how accurate can its predictions be? For example, the frigid Arctic temperatures can cause water molecules in low-lying clouds to trap heat in a very different way than they do here in the Pacific Northwest. Is it necessary to take a detail like this into account?

In cold regions like the Arctic where surface ocean temperatures are much warmer than the overlying atmosphere, the ocean transfers a lot of heat into the air. Sea ice insulates the ocean and prevents heat transfer to the atmosphere, so when there is less ice, a cycle of increasing warming can perpetuate. Because water has a higher heat capacity than air, the ocean doesn’t cool off as much as the atmosphere warms. This is particularly bad news for the Arctic, where layers of cold, dense air often sit beneath warmer air in a phenomenon called a temperature inversion. Effectively, this prevents heat from moving on to higher layers of the atmosphere, so it stays low where it could melt more sea ice. This contributes to a phenomenon called Arctic Amplification, where for every degree of warming seen in the global average, the Arctic surface temperature warms by about four degrees. While it may be tempting to build a model containing every cloud in the atmosphere or chunk of ice in the Arctic Ocean, these could make it too computationally difficult to solve. Daniel has to simplify, because his goal is not to provide a weather forecast, but to evaluate how well models match observed measurements of Arctic temperatures.

Daniel by the Skogafoss in Iceland in June 2018. If you’re lucky (and he was), you can see sea ice, turbulent boundary layer cloud layers, and the Greenland ice sheet when you fly between Portland and Iceland.

To accomplish this, Daniel uses model output data, re-analyzed data that fits models to observations, and temperature measurements from weather balloons. These sources contain terabytes of data, so he has written code and contributed to open-source software that subsets and analyzes these datasets in a meaningful way. Daniel then uses the re-analyzed and weather balloon data to test whether the model reproduces various features of the Arctic climate, such as widespread temperature inversions. Working with this vast amount of information requires some mathematical prowess. While studying as an undergraduate at BYU Idaho, Daniel decided to major in math when he heard a professor describe mathematics as “a toolbox to solve science problems with”. An internship at Los Alamos National Laboratory later suggested geophysical modeling as a worthy task to tackle.

When he’s not modeling the future of the Arctic, Daniel spends time with his children, Milo and Owen, and plays in a rock band he formed with his wife, Suzanne, called Mons La Hire. Daniel is also a DJ on KBVR and is excited to become the newest host of Inspiration Dissemination. To hear more, tune in on Sunday, December 2nd at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show, or catch our podcast!

Finding hope in invaded spaces

While Senecio triangularis, native to Western Oregon, was not the intended hostplant of the introduced cinnabar moth, it has been supporting moth populations for decades.

Invaded places are not broken spaces

“It was some of the hardest work I have done,” says this week’s guest, Katarina Lunde recounting her arduous work interning with the Nature Consortium in the Duwamish region of Seattle. Katarina was passionate about her work in conservation ecology, spending countless hours leading groups of volunteers in restoration projects and educating the community about the restoration sites. But it was somewhere in the bone-chilling cold tearing out invasive species like the Himalayan blackberry and English ivy that Katarina had a shift in perception – these spaces were not broken. Katarina realized that informed decisions could tip the scales in the right direction in these vulnerable spaces. There was still hope to be found in the midst of these invasions. The desire to study ecology more deeply led Katarina to pursue a master’s degree in plant ecology with Dr. Peter McEvoy in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at Oregon State University.

Learning to tip the scales

In the 1920s, tansy ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) was first observed in the Portland, Oregon. This introduced, noxious weed, was causing severe liver failure and even death for grazing cattle and deer. The major economic implications on livestock prompted the Oregon Department of Agriculture to intervene. By the 1960s, the cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) was released as one of three insect biological control agents. The role of the cinnabar moth was to reduce tansy ragwort populations by depositing their eggs on the underside of the leaf and allowing newly hatched caterpillars to feed on and eventually kill the plant. However, there was an unintended consequence. When these very hungry caterpillars were released in the mountainous Cascade region, they found that a closely-related native plant species, arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis), was also quite appetizing.

Cinnabar caterpillars strip late-season Senecio triangularis stems of foliage. Luckily, most plants will have set seed and stored energy before the caterpillars reach peak feeding stages.

Despite this outcome, the release of the cinnabar moth has been largely viewed as a success, even though this biocontrol agent likely would not have been released under current standards. This system does then provide an ideal model system to identify long-term risks and benefits of biocontrol use. When it comes to biological invasions, the cost of inaction is often too high, so what are the risks and benefits?

Katarina Lunde installs experimental plots at a field site with the help of fellow lab members. She measured Senecio triangularis seedling recruitment under seed addition/reduction scenarios to assess potential impacts of seed loss due to cinnabar moth herbivory.

By studying seed loss and plant recruitment – do more seeds equal more plants? – on Marys Peak in Oregon’s coastal range, Katarina has been able to assess the risk that cinnabar moths pose on native plant survival. The answers are nuanced, of course, as this deals with a dynamic natural system, but Katarina’s work is allowing for better questions to be asked that will in turn better inform decision making regarding biological controls.

Finding the perfect fit

Katarina studied plants and plant systematics at Oberlin College where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in biology and creative writing. With student loans to pay off and a desire to find a career that fit her unique abilities and interests, Katarina spent six years working in fine dining and exploring future career paths in Seattle, WA, volunteering with various non-profits. Through her restoration program internship with the Nature Consortium, she was finally able to hone-in on the field of plant ecology. Katarina is currently nearing the end of her master’s program and seeks to apply her newly learned skills in an urban conservation and restoration setting, where she can continue to ask questions and interact with her work in a tangible way.

Katarina’s research has been supported by a NIFA grant and several awards from agencies that focus on native plant restoration and conservation, including: the Hardman Foundation Award, the Native Plant Society of Oregon, and the Portland Garden Club.

Join us on Sunday, November 18 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to learn more about the nuance of biological controls and Katarina’s journey to graduate school.

Mobility is critical to social and cognitive development in children

Learning to crawl and walk affords children opportunities to explore their world. As such, early childhood mobility is intertwined with other formative childhood milestones, such as motor skill development and learning to negotiate social encounters. Disabled children who may have difficulty reaching mobility milestones, are thus at risk for missing out on opportunities for play and exploration that are critical to cognitive, social, and motor skill development. Samantha Ross, a PhD student in the Kinesiology, Adapted Physical Activity program within the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University, asks the question: how can we support the movement experiences of children with mobility disabilities to ensure they have equitable access to play, exploration and social encounters?

The experience of movement Ride-on cars are modified, child-sized, battery powered vehicles designed to support children with disabilities during play. The ride-on car is equipped with a large button to initiate movement, as well as structural modifications to enhance body support. As part of her research, Samantha observes children with and without disabilities participating in an inclusive play group. She monitors changes in the behavior of individual children, and video analysis helps her to track their distance traveled while using a ride-on car. Factors including whether the child initiated their own movement, if movement included interaction with a peer, or was motivated by a toy, all contribute to a child’s experience of mobility. The ride-on car facilitates the initiation of new relationships among children, noticeably reducing the barrier between children with and without disabilities and promoting equitable play experiences.

For more information about ride-on cars and to watch videos of the cars in action, visit the GoBabyGo website: https://health.oregonstate.edu/gobabygo

The impact of impaired mobility is nuanced Nearly thirty years of research has indicated that young children can benefit from powered mobility devices. However, the field is dominated by the medical perspective of reducing disability. In recent years, a major push from disability groups has emphasized the importance of community and social interactions in enhancing the well-being of children with disabilities. Mobility cannot be distilled down to simply moving from point A to point B, rather the self-perceived experience of movement and how movement facilitates encounters with people and objects is integral to children’s feelings of well-being. It is important for children to feel valued for their contribution. Samantha’s goal is to facilitate a social environment that enhances the well-being and development of children with disabilities, thereby promoting equitable access to a healthy and active childhood.

Following graduate school, Samantha would like to continue her involvement in research at one of the University Centers of Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, representing a partnership between state, federal, academic, and disability communities. Samantha explains, “We need to hear from people with disabilities – we need everyone at the table for the system to work.” These centers provide the interface between policy and research, where priorities are weighed and decisions are made. Often headquartered at medical schools, the centers raise awareness and help train future healthcare professionals. Samantha would love to be involved in this discussion.

Join us on Sunday, August 5th at 7pm on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to hear more about Samantha’s research. We will discuss other aspects of her research, as well, including her investigation of national surveillance reports, which provide insight about whether children’s service needs are being met, and how to identify children who could benefit from mobility assistive devices.

Ocean sediment cores provide a glimpse into deep time

Theresa on a recent cruise on the Oceanus.
Photo credit: Natasha Christman.

First year CEOAS PhD student Theresa Fritz-Endres investigates how the productivity of the ocean in the equatorial Pacific has changed in the last 20,000 years since the time of the last glacial maximum. This was the last time large ice sheets blanketed much of North America, northern Europe, and Asia. She investigates this change by examining the elemental composition of foraminifera (or ‘forams’ for short) shells obtained from sediment cores extracted from the ocean floor. Forams are single-celled protists with shells, and they serve as a proxy for ocean productivity, or organic matter, because they incorporate the elements that are present in the ocean water into their shells. Foram shell composition provides information about what the composition of the ocean was like at the point in time when the foram was alive. This is an important area of study for learning about the climate of the past, but also for understanding how the changing climate of today might transform ocean productivity. Because live forams can be found in ocean water today, it is possible to assess how the chemistry of seawater is currently being incorporated into their shells. This provides a useful comparison for how ocean chemistry has changed over time. Theresa is trying to answer the question, “was ocean productivity different than it is now?”

Examples of forams. For more pictures and information, visit the blog of Theresa’s PI, Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher: http://jenniferfehrenbacher.weebly.com/blog

Why study foram shells?

Foram shells are particularly useful for scientists because they preserve well and are found ubiquitously in ocean sediment, offering a consistent glimpse into the dynamic state of ocean chemistry. While living, forams float in or near the surface of the sea, and after they die, they sink to the bottom of the sea floor. The accumulating foram shells serve as an archive of how ocean conditions have changed, like how tree rings reflect the environmental conditions of the past.

Obtaining and analyzing sediment cores

Obtaining these records requires drilling cores (up to 1000 m!) into deep sea sediments, work that is carried out by an international consortium of scientists aboard large ocean research vessels. These cores span a time frame of 800 million years, which is the oldest continuous record of ocean chemistry. Each slice of the core represents a snapshot of time, with each centimeter spanning 1,000 years of sediment accumulation. Theresa is using cores that reach a depth of a few meters below the surface of the ocean floor. These cores were drilled in the 1980s by a now-retired OSU ship and are housed at OSU.

Theresa on a recent cruise on the Oceanus, deploying a net to collect live forams. Photo credit: Natasha Christman.

The process of core analysis involves sampling a slice of the core, then washing the sediment (kind of like a pour over coffee) and looking at the remainder of larger-sized sediment under a powerful microscope to select foram species. The selected shells undergo elemental analysis using mass spectrometry. Vastly diverse shell shapes and patterns result in different elements and chemistries being incorporated into the shells. Coupled to the mass spectrometer is a laser that ablates through the foram shell, providing a more detailed view of the layers within the shell. This provides a snapshot of ocean conditions for the 4 weeks-or-so that the foram was alive. It also indicates how the foram responded to light changes from day to night.

Theresa is early in her PhD program, and in the next few years plans to do field work on the Oregon coast and on Catalina island off the coast of California. She also plans to undertake culturing experiments to further study the composition of the tiny foram specimens.

Why grad school at OSU?

Theresa completed her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Ontario, followed by completion of a Master’s degree at San Francisco State University. She was interested in pursuing paleo and climate studies after transformative classes in her undergrad. In between her undergraduate and Master’s studies she spent a year working at Mt. Evans in Colorado as part of the National Park Service and Student Conservation Association.

Theresa had already met her advisor, Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher, while completing her Master’s degree at SF State. Theresa knew she was interested in attending OSU for grad school for several reasons: to work with her advisor, and to have access to the core repository, research ships, and technical equipment available at OSU.

To hear more about Theresa’s research and her experience as a PhD student at OSU, tune in on Sunday, June 10th at 7pm on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM, or listen live at kbvr.com/listen.  Also, check us out on Apple Podcasts!

How high’s the water, flood model? Five feet high and risin’

Climate change and the resulting effects on communities and their infrastructure are notoriously difficult to model, yet the importance is not difficult to grasp. Infrastructure is designed to last for a certain amount of time, called its design life. The design life of a bridge is about 50 years; a building can be designed for 70 years. For coastal communities that have infrastructure designed to survive severe coastal flooding at the time of construction, what happens if the sea rises during its design life? That severe flooding can become more severe, and the bridge or building might fail.

Most designers and engineers don’t consider the effects of climate change in their designs because they are hard to model and involve much uncertainty.

Kai at Wolf Rock in Oregon.

In comes Kai Parker, a 5th year PhD student in the Coastal Engineering program. Kai is including climate change and a host of other factors into his flood models: Waves, Tides, Storms, Atmospheric Forcing, Streamflow, and many others. He specifically models estuaries (including Coos and Tillamook Bay, Oregon and Grays Harbor, Washington), which extend inland and can have complex geometries. Not only is Kai working to incorporate those natural factors into his flood model, he has also worked with communities to incorporate their response to coastal hazards and the factors that are most important to them into his model.

Modeling climate change requires an immense amount of computing power. Kai uses super computers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to run a flood model and determine the fate of an estuary and its surroundings. But this is for one possible new climate, with one result (this is referred to as a deterministic model). Presenting these results can be misleading, especially if the uncertainty is not properly communicated.

Kai with his hydrodynamic model grid for Coos Bay, Oregon.

In an effort to model more responsibly, Kai has expanded into using what is called a probabilistic flood model, which results in a distribution of probabilities that an event of a certain severity will occur. Instead of just one new climate, Kai would model 10,000 climates and determine which event is most likely to occur. This technique is frequently used by earthquake engineers and often done using Monte Carlo simulations. Unfortunately, flooding models take time and it takes more than supercomputing to make probabilistic flooding a reality.

To increase efficiency, Kai has developed an “emulator”, which uses techniques similar to machine learning to “train” a faster flooding model that can make Monte Carlo simulation a possibility. Kai uses the emulator to solve flood models much like we use our brains to play catch: we are not using equations of physics, factoring in wind speed or the temperature of the air, to calculate where the ball will land. Instead we draw on a bank of experiences to predict where the ball will land, hopefully in our hands.

Kai doing field work at Bodega Bay in California.

Kai grew up in Gerlach, Nevada: Population 206. He moved to San Luis Obispo to study civil engineering at Cal Poly SLO and while studying, he worked as an intern at the Bodega Bay Marine Lab and has been working with the coast ever since. When Kai is not working on his research, he is brewing, climbing rocks, surfing waves, or cooking the meanest soup you’ve ever tasted. Next year, he will move to Chile with a Fulbright grant to apply his emulator techniques to a new hazard: tsunamis.

To hear more about Kai’s research, be sure to tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM this Sunday May, 27 at 7 pm, stream the live interview at kbvr.com/listen, or find it in podcast form next week on Apple Podcasts.

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.