Category Archives: Enivronmental Sciences

Exploring the disconnect between humans and the ocean

Unseen associations

We are all connected to the ocean, and organisms living in the ocean are an integral – if often unseen – part of our lives. You might be more connected to the ocean than you think. For example, fertilizer used to grow vegetables is often made from fish, and ingredients derived from fish are often added to processed foods. And amazingly, the ocean produces more than half of the oxygen on the planet, while also being responsible for storing 50 times more carbon dioxide than is found in the atmosphere.

The impact of human activity can be observed in a variety of ways. Run-off from agriculture empties into fragile marine ecosystems, and plastic accumulates in the ocean and cycles back into our food supply, for example. Consequences of human activity disturb a precarious balance that is not fully understood. Within the American mind, there is a fractured connection to the ocean, and it is this disconnect that Samm Newton is studying. As a 3rd year Master’s student in the Environmental Arts and Humanities program in the College of Liberal Arts, she is exploring multiple questions as part of her thesis. What has been the role of science and technology in how we have known the ocean? What has been the relationship between that knowledge and how we have valued and made decisions about marine systems? And, how can scholars approach the study of these relationships in new ways?

Scientific inquiry is a tangled knot: the direction of research is often decided based on narrow criteria

Scientific funding agencies have often determined the direction of research based on the priorities of a moment in time. Some priorities arose from crises, while others might have been derived from a perceived risk to lives in human or animal communities. Other priorities were influenced by what types of technology and datasets were available. Within that structure, it has been difficult for science to be innovative if it doesn’t address a problem that has been classified as relevant by funding authorities. Samm explains further, “we have taken the environment, deconstructed its components, and focused only on certain aspects that we deemed interesting at a given moment, while the rest of the pieces slid into the background.”

Samm studies the ocean using methods traditionally associated with the humanities. She describes her method as an interdisciplinary approach to unpack how we have generated knowledge about the ocean through science. Her approach includes extracting information from scientific history and papers, archives, oral histories, as well as popular literature from sources like National Geographic and the Washington Post.

Different ways to think about our connection with the ocean

How can we encourage people to recognize their connection to the ocean, and direct their attention to how their lives are impacted by ocean issues? Samm indicates how advancements in technology and media have created new ways for people to access scientific knowledge about the ocean. With outlets such as Nautilus live, people can learn about ocean ecosystems by watching videos of organisms living in the sea. They can also interact with scientists in real time (check out this one about a large number of octopus brooding near Monterey Bay, CA. Science videos on the internet have become an engaging and popular way to share knowledge of the ocean and science with a broad audience.

“The ocean is very special to me.”

Samm grew up in the “shadow of the petrochemical industry” in Freeport, Texas, where the sea is brown, and air and water pollution are an everyday reality. Observing these anthropogenic forces impacting her coast and community, and how disconnected people seem to be from the ocean, led her to question the relationship between humans and marine environments. She found that science and technology have played a dominant role in how we have known the ocean—and possibly how we have valued it. Samm also found that methods from the humanities, particularly marine environmental history, as well as science and technology studies, provide a meaningful framework to examine that relationship further.

During her undergrad, Samm studied psychology and behavioral neuroendocrinology, with a focus toward consciousness and philosophy of the mind. She spent 10 years working outside of academia before pursuing a Master’s degree at OSU. Samm credits the Environmental Arts and Humanities program at OSU with providing a flexible framework for people from different backgrounds – including art and science – to decide how they want to study a topic of interest.

After finishing her Master’s degree, Samm plans to pursue a PhD in an interdisciplinary field studying environmental issues. As a graduate student at OSU, Samm has enjoyed working in a “scholarly space, and getting the opportunity to do research.” Beyond grad school, Samm’s goal is to be involved in work that transforms the world, and to contribute to projects that strengthen interdisciplinary associations between diverse, yet interconnected, academic fields.

Check out Samm’s exhibit at Autzen House on the OSU campus:The Need to Know Comes in Waves: Paintings by Samm Newton

On view from Sept. 20th – Dec. 15th, 10 AM – 4 PM at Autzen House (811 SW Jefferson)

Reception Oct. 18th, 4 – 6 PM; mini artist talks at 4:30 and 5:30

Samm will also be the Featured Artist at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, OR in January 2019. Check out this page for more details!

Stream ecosystems and a changing climate

Examining the effect of climate change on stream ecosystems

Oak Creek near McDonald Dunn research lab. The salamander and trout in the experiments were collected along this stretch of creek.

As a first year Master’s student in the lab of Ivan Arismendi, Francisco Pickens studies how the changing, warming climate impacts animals inhabiting stream ecosystems. A major component of stream ecosystem health is rainfall. In examining and predicting the effects of climate change on rainfall, it is important to consider not only the amount of rainfall, but also the timing of rainfall. Although a stream may receive a consistent amount of rain, the duration of the rainy season is projected to shrink, leading to higher flows earlier in the year and a shift in the timing of the lowest water depth. Currently, low flow and peak summer temperature are separated by time. With the shortening and early arrival of the rainy season, it is more likely that low flow and peak summer temperature will coincide.

A curious trout in one of the experimental tanks.

Francisco is trying to determine how the convergence of these two events will impact the animals inhabiting streams. This is an important question because the animals found in streams are ectothermic, meaning that they rely on their surrounding environment to regulate their body temperature. Synchronization of the peak summer temperature with the lowest level of water flow could raise the temperature of the water, profoundly impacting the physiology of the animals living in these streams.

 

 

How to study animals in stream ecosystems?

Salamander in its terrestrial stage.

Using a simulated stream environment in a controlled lab setting, Francisco studies how temperature and low water depth impact the physiology and behavior of two abundant stream species – cutthroat trout and the pacific giant salamander. Francisco controls the water temperature and depth, with depth serving as a proxy for stream water level.

Blood glucose level serves as the experimental readout for assessing physiological stress because elevated blood glucose is an indicator of stress. Francisco also studies the animals’ behavior in response to changing conditions. Increased speed, distance traveled, and aggressiveness are all indicators of stress. Francisco analyzes their behavior by tracking their movement through video. Manual frame-by-frame video analysis is time consuming for a single researcher, but lends itself well to automation by computer. Francisco is in the process of implementing a computer vision-based tool to track the animals’ movement automatically.

The crew that assisted in helping collect the animals: From left to right: Chris Flora (undergraduate), Lauren Zatkos (Master’s student), Ivan Arismendi (PI).

Why OSU?

Originally from a small town in Washington state, Francisco grew up in a logging community near the woods. He knew he wanted to pursue a career involving wild animals and fishing, with the opportunity to work outside. Francisco came to OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife for his undergraduate studies. As an undergrad, Francisco had the opportunity to explore research through the NSF REU program while working on a project related to algae in the lab of Brooke Penaluna. After he finishes his Master’s degree at OSU, Francisco would like to continue working as a data scientist in a federal or state agency.

Tune in on Sunday, June 24th at 7pm PST on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM, or listen live at kbvr.com/listen.  Also, check us out on Apple Podcasts!

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!

Heliconia: plants with personality

Orange-hatted Dusty Gannon’ (my hummingbird name) visiting Heliconia tortuosa

In the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology, first year graduate student Dusty Gannon is studying how Heliconia tortuosa, a tropical plant with long, tubular flowers and vividly-colored bracts (modified leaves that house the flowers), maintains its unique relationship with pollinating hummingbirds. Although hummingbirds universally love nectar, they have diverged into a few distinct functional groups that are characterized by behavior: traplining hummingbirds repeatedly and circuitously visit flowers, often traveling long distances, while territorial hummingbirds are aggressively possessive of flowers in a home range. It turns out that Heliconia tortuosa is picky about which of these groups contributes to its pollination, and preferentially accepts pollen from traplining hummingbirds, specifically those featuring a long, curved bill. Presumably, their bill shape facilitates maximal nectar extraction which is used as a cue by the plant to become receptive to pollen.  Many hummingbirds visit the Heliconia tortuosa flower, but few induce pollination because of the straight shape of their bill. The shape and size of the Heliconia tortuosa flower in relation to the shape and size of the beak of the pollinator hummingbird constitutes the emergence of a complex plant behavior.

Heliconia wagneriana

Heliconia wagneriana

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dusty’s research is focused on trying to understand how Heliconia tortuosa evolved the capacity to recognize and preferentially invest in pollination by certain pollinator hummingbirds. His work consists of testing for ‘pollinator recognition’ of pollinators across a select subset of species across the Heliconia genus, comprised of 200-250 species, and subsequently using molecular techniques to infer the presence or absence of pollinator recognition across
 the family. Among these several hundred different species of Heliconia, the flowers are morphologically distinct and vary in size from short to long,  straight to curved (even up to a 90-degree angle!). Dusty’s objective is to determine if pollinator recognition is a common trait among morphologically distinct Heliconia species, and uncover the evolutionary significance of this cryptic specialization. While conducting fieldwork at Las Cruces Biological Station in Costa Rica, which featured a garden full of Heliconia, Dusty collected over 1,000 styles (the female reproductive organ in flowering plants) to assay pollen-tube growth rates across various treatments by epi-fluorescence microscopy back at OSU.

Tropical montane forest

Unraveling the tangled evolutionary biology of plants and pollinators is critical for understanding how the loss of certain pollinators might impact plant pollination. If a flower is visited by a variety of different pollinators, the loss of one pollinator might not seem like a big deal. However, if only a small number of the total number of pollinators visiting the flower are capable of inducing pollination, the loss of a true pollinator might be devastating for a plant’s ability to reproduce.

A sample of the morphological diversity in Heliconia flowers

As an undergrad at Colorado State University, Dusty studied Ecosystem Science, which consisted of learning about how nutrients and energy flow through an ecosystem. Dusty cites his high school AP Biology teacher as having a major influence on his desire to study science in college. During the first week of his freshman year, Dusty applied to work in a lab doing DNA barcoding; over the span of 4 years, he conducted over 10,000 PCR reactions! Following completion of his undergrad, Dusty planned to climb mountains in South America for a year, but unexpected circumstances expedited his enrollment in graduate school at OSU to pursue research related to pollinator recognition. Following completion of graduate school, Dusty would like to continue in academia as a professor, and possibly open a bread shop featuring a wood-fired oven, equipped with statistical models to ensure a perfect loaf of bread.

Join us on Sunday May 21st at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or stream live to hear more about Dusty’s pollinator recognition research and journey through graduate school.

Mosquito soup in the Brazilian rainforest

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Fieldwork in the Brazilian Amazonia meant continuously trying to outsmart their savviest opponents…ants!

Deforestation in Brazil due to cultivation of monoculture crops, such as soybean, has profoundly impacted wildlife populations. In the lab of Taal Levi in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, wildlife biologist Aimee Massey has adopted a quantitative approach to studying this impact. During her first and second year of graduate school, Aimee traveled to Brazil for fieldwork and data collection, collaborating with researchers from Brazil and the UK. During this trip, she collected 70,000 biting flies, including mosquitoes and sandflies, by engineering 200 fly traps constructed from 2-liter soda bottles, netting, and rotting beef. Aimee installed biting traps throughout 40 individual forest patches, which are regions delineated by their physical characteristics, ranging approximately in size from the OSU campus to the state of Rhode Island.

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Who knew fieldwork could be such a balancing act?!…especially when trying to avoid poisonous insects and thorns. Let’s hope the next branch Aimee reaches for is not of the slithering snake kind!

Subsequent DNA analysis on biting flies provides a relatively unbiased source of wildlife tracking, since mosquitoes serve as a repository of DNA for the wildlife they have feasted upon. DNA analysis also provides information regarding diseases that may be present in a particular patch, based on the bacterial and viral profile. For example, sandflies are carriers of protozoa such as leishmania, which cause the disease leishmaniasis. To analyze DNA, Aimee uses bioinformatics and metabarcoding, which is a technique for assessing biodiversity from an environmental sample containing DNA. Different species of animals possess characteristic DNA sequences that can be compared to a known sequence in an online database. By elucidating the source of the DNA, it is possible to determine the type of wildlife that predominates in a specific patch, and whether that animal may be found preferentially in patches featuring deforestation or pristine, primary rain forest.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Learning about human/wildlife interactions while drinking tea with camel’s milk in Laikipia, Kenya.

Aimee completed her undergraduate studies at University of Maine, where she quickly discovered she wanted to study biology and chemistry in greater depth. She planned to attend med school, and was even accepted to a school in her junior year; however, an introductory fieldwork course in Panama spent exploring, doing fieldwork, and trekking made a deep impression on her, so she decided to apply to graduate school instead. Aimee completed a Masters degree in environmental studies at the University of Michigan, during which time she spent 4 months at the Mpala Research Centre in the middle of the Kenyan plateau, just north of the Masai Mara. Following completion of her Masters degree, Aimee spent a year as a research assistant at the University of New Hampshire working with small mammals. Before beginning her PhD studies at OSU, Aimee spent two months in Haines, Alaska doing fieldwork with her future PI, Taal Levi. After she finishes her PhD, Aimee plans to focus on conservation work in New England where she is originally from.

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Having fun after fieldwork; Aimee’s eulachon fish catch of the day in Haines, Alaska. One is better than none!

Tune in on October 23rd, 2016 at 7PM on the radio at 88.7FM KBVR, or stream live, to hear more about Aimee’s adventures in Brazil, and why her graduate work is shaping our understanding of how deforestation impacts biodiversity.

 

Heavy Digging

minealgae

Mine Algae!!!

When I think of mining, the first thing that comes to mind is the classic gold rush miners from the mid-1800s. Someone that looks a lot like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. I don’t mean to imply that this is, or isn’t, what a miner looks like. However, this does say something about the general lack of thought about mining practices. The EPA certainly isn’t as ignorant about mines as I am; in fact, as of 2014, they had designated over 1,300 sites around the country as superfund sites requiring extensive cleanup efforts. Tullia Upton is also thinking about mines much more deeply than the average person, and she is uncovering some alarming information.

During a road trip through southern Oregon, Tullia was bummed when she was told it was unsafe to swim in a local river, so she decided to dive a bit deeper, figuratively of course. She learned that this area has become dangerously polluted due to waste products of the Formosa mine.

formosamine

The Formosa mine near Riddle, OR

Mining practices involve extensive digging and extracting of heavy metals which are normally buried in a reducing environment deep down within the earth’s sediment. The process of digging up these heavy metals leaves behind a staggering amount of unused material, known as tailings. Mining also exposes the metals to oxygen and allows them to leach into soils and the watershed. Due to runoff from the tailings and other waste at the Formosa mine, there is now an estimated 18 mile dead zone where no organism can live. The full extent of the damage being done to the local watershed has not been thoroughly mapped though.

tulliainlab

Tullia analyzing samples in the lab

As she learned more about the dangerous metals coming from the mine, Tullia immediately got involved as a volunteer and secured research funding to study the pollution occurring at the Formosa mine. Tullia hopes to map the full extent of runoff from the Formosa mine and provide a better picture of the mess for the EPA, and other scientists, working on the cleanup process. When she finishes her Ph.D. here in Environmental Sciences, Tullia hopes to move on to a post-doc and eventually run her own research lab.

Tune in this Sunday, October 9th at 7pm PST to hear more about mine pollution and Tullia’s unique journey to grad school at OSU.