Author Archives: Kristen Finch

Aquatic Invertebrates: Why You Should Give a Dam

Rivers are ecosystems that attract and maintain a diversity of organisms. Fish, birds, mammals, plants, and invertebrates live in and around rivers. Have you considered what services these groups of organisms provide to the river ecosystem? For example, river invertebrates provide numerous ecosystem services:

Dragonfly larvae caught in in the waters of a small stream flowing into the Grand Canyon.

  • Insects and mussels improve water quality by fixing nutrients, such as those from agricultural runoff.
  • River invertebrates are food resources for fish, bats, birds, and other terrestrial organisms.
  • Grazing insects can control and/or stimulate algal growth.
  • Mussels can help to stabilize the bed of the river.

High school students are the best helpers for sampling aquatic insects!

And the list continues. These invertebrates have adapted to the native conditions of their river ecosystem, and major disturbances, such as a change in the flow of a river from a dam, can change the community of organisms downstream. If dams decrease the diversity of invertebrates downstream, then they may also decrease the diversity of ecosystem services offered by the invertebrate community.

Our guest this week, Erin Abernethy PhD candidate from the department of Integrative Biology, is investigating the community structure (or the number of species and the number of individuals of each species) of freshwater aquatic invertebrates downstream of dams. Specifically, Erin wants to know if invertebrate communities near dams of the Colorado River are different than those downstream, and which factors of dams of the Southwest US affect invertebrate communities.

Getting to field sites in the Grand Canyon is easiest by raft! It’s a pretty float, too!

Erin’s dissertation also has a component of population genetics, which examines the connectivity of populations of mayflies,populations of caddisflies, and populations of water striders. The outcomes of Erin’s research could inform policy around dam operation and the maintenance of aquatic invertebrate communities near dams.

“One must dress for sampling success in the Grand Canyon!” said this week’s guest, Erin Abernethy, who is pictured here.

Growing up, Erin participated in many outdoor activities with her parents, who are biologists. She became interested in how dams effect ecology, specifically fresh water mussels, doing undergraduate research at Appalachian State University. After undergrad, Erin completed a Master’s in Ecology from University of Georgia. She was investigating the foraging behavior of animals in Hawaii. This involved depositing animal carcasses and monitoring foraging visitors. Check out Erin’s blog for photos of these animals foraging at night! Erin decided to keep going in academia after being awarded a Graduate Research Fellowship, which landed her a position in David Lytle’s lab here at Oregon State. After she completes her PhD, Erin is interested in working for an agency or a nonprofit as an expert in freshwater ecology and the maintenance of biodiversity in freshwater ecosystems.


Tune in at 7 pm this Sunday February, 25 to hear more about Erin’s research and journey to 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.

GROWing Healthy Kids and Communities

Physical activity has many benefits for health and wellness. Physical activity can help us control our weight, reduce our risk of diseases including many cancers and type 2 diabetes, help to strengthen our bones and muscles, and improve our mental health. Yet despite the benefits, many don’t get the recommended amount of physical activity. Our guest this week, Evan Hilberg from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences and the Department of Kinesiology, is investigating factors that influence physical activity of children in rural communities. Research focused on physical activity in children disproportionally centers around children in urban communities. Children in rural communities may have different limitations to physical activity. For example, rural children are more likely to take the bus to school instead of walking and commutes may take up to two hours each way. This leaves little time for physical activity outside of school hours. With his advisors, John Schuna and Kathy Gunter, Evan is analyzing data collected as part of the Generating Rural Options for Weight- Healthy Kids and Communities (GROW HKC) to better understand when children are active during the school day and factors that might limit their physical activity.

Recess and Wellness

Evan taking blood samples for cholesterol and glucose testing at a Community Wellness Fair.

One area of interest for Evan and the GROW HKC project are the variables that may predict changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) over a three-year period. Through this longitudinal study that involves over 1000 rural Oregon elementary school children, Evan will identify correlates of BMI change such as physical activity levels, age, sex, teacher, and school. Additionally, Evan is analyzing data that will hopefully provide more insight into specifically what times during the school day children are active. By obtaining a classroom schedule from teachers and measuring activity with accelerometers and pedometers, Evan can infer if children are physically active during recess, P.E., classroom activity breaks, or other times during the school day. Finally, Evan’s data will examine the reliability of different objective measures of physical activity, such as pedometers and accelerometers. The ability to compare outputs from different devices is limited by changes in device hardware and software, as well as the ways in which data is processed within those devices. The examination of these devices may inform procedure for future physical activity research for children and adults to help comparability across different devices and different studies.

A School of Thought

A clear understanding of the factors effecting physical activity in rural school children will aid in structuring the school day to maximize each child’s opportunity to be physically active. Data generated through GROW HKC my reveal patterns that younger children are more active during unstructured play during recess, whereas older children prefer sports-focused activity in P.E.. This type of research could inform recommendations for state-mandated physical activity at schools such that school day structure and physical activity opportunities are tailored to the diverse needs of kids in rural communities.

Full Circle

Evan grew up as an active kid and selected a college where he could play baseball. He landed at Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon where his interest in Exercise Science grew through volunteering in community health outreach and research with his advisor, Janet Peterson. Evan learned that his education went beyond the classroom through his interactions with the community. Evan decided to pursue graduate school and earned a Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from Eastern Washington University. During his Master’s, Evan gained more experience with community and public health research as an AmeriCorps employee with Let’s Move, Cheney”, a local coalition inspired by Michelle Obama’s national campaign. Thereafter, Evan volunteered with the GROW HKC project, and applied to graduate school at Oregon State. Since beginning his doctoral studies with a concentration in physical activity and public health, Evan has completed a Master’s in Public Health in Biostatistics and maintains a full-time job as a Medical Policy Research Analyst with Cambia Health Solutions.

Tune in to 88.7 FM KBVR Corvallis this Sunday November, 12 at 7 pm to hear more about Evan’s research and background in Exercise Science. Click here to stream the show live.

You can download Evan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Evan at the California-Oregon border on a self-supported bike trip to San Francisco down the coast.

Clean Meat, Clean Conscience

Some may say, “there is nothing like a juicy hamburger,” and here is the USA we are fortunate to have access to affordable meat. While the cost of your next hamburger may not weigh too heavily on your pocket, the quantity resources required to produce one pound of beef may surprise you. One pound of meat is fed by nearly 7 pounds of grain, 53 gallons of water, 70 square acres of land, and 1,000 BTU of energy(The Meat Revolution- Mark Post). Additionally, animal agriculture produces 5 times the amount of greenhouse gasses than other food sources (Smithsonian Mag). Finally, 56 billion land animals are killed every year solely for food. The impacts on marine animals are high as well but difficult to estimate. More information about the impacts of animal agriculture. But what can be done? Is there a better way to grow meat that uses less resources and reduces animal suffering?

From the petri dish to the plate

Bjørn on the Oregon State University campus

Yes, our guest this week, Bjørn Kristensen from the School of History, Philosophy, and Religion, studies the ethics behind cultured meat or clean meat. Similar scientific advances in muscle tissue culture that have led to lab grown human organs are now being harnessed to grow animal muscle for human consumption. Clean meat is made from cells that can be obtained with no harm to the animal donor. One company, Hampton Creek Foods, has cultured chicken muscle with cells from a chicken feather. Hampton Creek Foods and Finless Foods are focused on producing clean meat with zero animal suffering. Clean meat is literally clean because it is grow under 100% sterile conditions. This means no natural parasites or other infections, and no need for antibiotics nor artificial growth hormones. While Bjorn maintains that the best option for the both purposes of sustainability and reduction in animal suffering is eliminating animal products from one’s diet, within the next year or two, companies such as Hampton Creek and Finless Foods will be introducing clean meat which is structurally identical to meat coming from mainstream animal agriculture. This means that even those who choose not to stop eating meat will have options that do not require an animal to be killed for their food.

The best part: by some estimates a few animal cells can be used to grow 10,000 kg of meat (The Meat Revolution- Mark Post). Practically speaking, clean meat could reduce the number of cows in animal agriculture from half a billion to thirty thousand. This reduction animal agriculture would free up land and resources for other food sources such as vegetable crops, lessen the amount of greenhouse gasses being emitted by animal agriculture, and it would lower animal suffering.

When practicality meets ethics

Bjørn with a resident of Green Acres Farm Sanctuary in Silverton, Oregon where he volunteers.

Animal agriculture is an ethical issue. The intersection occurs when humans act as mediator and place the needs of one species over the needs of another. Bjorn studies this ethical conundrum. In the case of animal agriculture,we have placed our desire for meat over the needs of the individual animals within the current food system. For these animals, their entire life is planned for their death, process, and consumption, and this planned “life” comes with emotional consequences for the animals. Check out this video about chickens, considered one of the most abused animals. Clean meat could alleviate the need for so much animal suffering to feed humans and other non-human animals.

Not convinced?

Bjørn with his dog, Thor.

Consider this: humans are not the only animals on the planet that consume meat from animal agriculture. While humans can actually survive and thrive on a plant-based diet, other carnivorous animals must consume flesh to survive. Pets, zoo animals, and wildlife in rehabilitation also require animal proteins, and the animals that are harvested to produce pet food are at the bottom of the food chain. Removing small fish or small rodents from natural ecosystems means that animals in the wild have to get energy from other sources. For some wild animals, such as marine mammals, this is simply not possible. Few have considered that clean meat could become an alternative protein source for pets and other wildlife that have been removed from their natural habitat. Bjørn explored the ethics of “captive predation” or feeding captive animals with other animal protein sources in a recent paper that he presented at the International Conference on Cultured Meat in Maastricht, the Netherlands.

Because it’s who you are

Receiving the award for outstanding philosophical essay from his undergrad professor, Antony Aumann.

Bjørn’s “when I grow up” career choice was a veterinarian, and although not a vet now, his concern for animals has not dwindled. During college, Bjørn started out as a Human Services major at Finlandia University, but switched his focus after taking some philosophy and religious studies classes. Eventually, he transferred to Northern Michigan University and found a connection between concern for animals and philosophical study, particularly in animal ethics.  Bjørn began to consider graduate school after his professor in existentialism, Anthony Aumann, encouraged him to apply. Bjørn applied toOregon State University, and began to develope his thesis concerning inter-species justice with Robert Figueroa his major advisor.

Hear more about clean meat and Bjørn’s work and journey to graduate school this Sunday October, 8 at 7pm on 88.7FM KBVR Corvallis. Listen live online anywhere!

Continue the conversation with Bjørn and learn more about clean meat ethics and research:

 on twitter

You can also download Bjorn’s iTunes Podcast Episode!


Studying skeletal muscle physiology to better understand diseases such as type II diabetes

Harrison in the lab.

Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Harrison Stierwalt a PhD student in Kinesiology, studies the cellular mechanisms of skeletal muscle physiology. Harrison and other members of the Translational Metabolism Research Laboratory, research the cause of skeletal muscle insulin resistance and how exercise acts against insulin resistance. In particular, Harrison currently studies the activity of a protein called Ras-related C3 botulinum toxin substrate 1, or more commonly known as Rac1. Rac1 plays an important role in the regulation of blood sugar in response to insulin being released from the pancreas following a meal. Insulin is a hormone that triggers the uptake of sugar from the blood stream into skeletal muscle cells where it can be stored or metabolized into energy. In states of insulin resistance, individuals still produce insulin, but eventually insulin resistance leads to chronically increased blood sugar levels. Insulin resistance puts individuals at predisposition for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type II diabetes. Previous research has demonstrated decreased Rac1 activity in states of insulin resistance but the cause for its decreased activity is unknown.

Harrison working with the oxygraph doing high resolution respirometry (used to measure mitochondrial respiration).

Studying Rac1

The activation of Rac1 causes reorganization of cell components creating “highways” that allow other proteins such as glucose transport 4 or GLUT4 to relocate to the cell membrane and allow sugar from blood to enter skeletal muscle cells for processing. Consequently, Rac1 shows increased activity in response to insulin and exercise promoting the metabolism and storage of sugar in skeletal muscle. Harrison suspects that the dysfunction of Rac1 may play a large role in  insulin resistance, and his lab is looking to better understand the dysfunction of skeletal muscle physiology that may contribute to insulin resistance. To study insulin resistance, Harrison is currently comparing Rac1 activity in skeletal muscle cells and skeletal muscle tissue of lean and obese mice. Learn more about Rac1, GO TO ARTICLE.

Harrison has always been drawn to human health, and is particularly intrigued by how adaptable the human body is. He completed his undergraduate degree and Master’s in Exercise Science at Florida State University. After, he worked as a strength and conditioning coach, testing physical performance. While this work was challenging, Harrison decided to pursue a PhD so that he could ask his own research questions about human health and investigate cellular mechanisms therein.

Harrison encouraging a participant during an exercise test.

With a growing interest in metabolism and physiology, Harrison began looking for Kinesiology PhD programs. He discovered the work of his co-advisors, Sean Newsom and Matt Robinson. For Harrison, Oregon State is a good fit that encapsulates his interested: exercise science, molecular cellular biology, and human health. Harrison is starting the second year of his PhD in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

If you are interested in participating in human health research, visit the Newsom-Robinson lab webpage.

Tune in this Sunday September 24 at 7 PM to learn more about Harrison and his research with insulin resistance and sugar metabolism. Not a local listener? No sweat! Stream the show live!

You can also download Harrison’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Mountain biking at Black Rock in Falls City, Oregon.

Harrison at the peak of South Sister, 2017.

The Grape Depression: Powdery Mildew in Willamette Valley Vineyards

Brent at the Foliar Pathology Lab research vineyard where the small plot field trials in his project were conducted.

Viticulture is the science, production, and study of grapes, and when growing grapes for wine both quantity and quality matter. One challenge facing farmers in the Willamette Valley is a plant pathogen: grape powdery mildew. This pathogen can live in a field year-round and emerges to infect grape leaves, flowers and fruits annually. Grape plants infected with powdery mildew suffer low berry yields and mildew may affect the taste of wine. In the Willamette Valley, where vineyards abundant, grape powdery mildew is a big problem. Brent Warneke, a Master’s student in the department of Botany and Plant Pathology, is studying the effect of fungicide application timing on the reduction in severity of powdery mildew on grapes, and he is our guest on Inspiration Dissemination this week.

Moldy Grapes

A grape bunch severely infected with powdery mildew. Note the berry cracking, powdery appearance, and poor color accumulation.

Brent works at the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Lab with Walt Mahaffee, and his research tests the effect of fungicide application timing on grape powdery mildew control. Timing fungicide applications is especially crucial during the one to three-week window of grapevine flowering. Optimal fungicide application timing can slow the mildew epidemic allowing grape berries to mature and become less susceptible to powdery mildew. Across the Willamette Valley, fungicide application to grapes is a well-known prevention solution for powdery mildew, but less is known about the best fungicide to use and when to spray plants during berry development. The findings of his research are now being validated at a larger scale in commercial vineyards. In the lab, Brent is also studying the mobility of fungicide “through the grapevine,” from tissue to tissue through the air and xylem, and Brent is helping with a project to identify strains of mildew resistant to commonly used fungicides.


The Grape State of Colorado 

Brent with a harvest of varnish conk (Ganoderma oregonense), Lobster mushroom (Hypomyces lactifluorum).

Brent hails from Colorado where he spent his early years outside gardening, snowboarding, and hiking. During undergrad at Colorado State University (CSU), Brent majored in Horticulture and held research positions at the Center for Agricultural Resources Research and the Bioenergy Lab. Among his many projects during undergrad, Brent completed a senior thesis project, under the direction of Dr. Courtney Jahn, developing a LAMP-PCR to diagnose Canada thistle rust on infected plants that were not displaying symptoms.

Wine Not?

While at CSU, Brent also began studying viticulture. He liked the challenge and complexity of growing grapes for wine. Brent chose to pursue graduate school at Oregon State because his current program blends plant pathology with viticulture. He’s happy with his decision because Oregon is similar to Colorado for outdoor recreation, not to mention its world class Pinot Noir!

Hear more from Brent this Sunday September, 10 at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis, 88.7FM! Not a local listener? Not sweat! Stream the show live.

Brent on top of South Sister (10,363 ft). Middle and north sister can be seen in the immediate background. In the far background the small peak to the left without snow is Mount Washington , then Mount Jefferson behind north sister and Mount Hood in the background to the right of North Sister.

Unearthing the Unseen: Identifying drivers of fungal diversity in Panamanian rainforests

When our roommates or family members get sick, we try to keep our distance and avoid catching their illness. Plants get ‘sick’ too, and in the natural world, this may actually explain the coexistence and diversity of plant species that we see.


Species coexistence relies on competition between individuals of the same species being larger than competition between individuals of different species. Competition between individuals of the same species must be large enough to keep any species from taking over and outcompeting all other species in the community. However, more recent work has highlighted the role of natural pathogens. Stable coexistence of many species may be favored if individuals of one species cannot live in close proximity to each other due to disease.

Plant Pathogens and Biodiversity

View looking south from the canopy tower at the Gamboa Rainforest Resort over the confluence of the Panama Canal and the Chagres River near Gamboa, Panama.

For example, picture a crowded forest with many adult trees of the same species releasing wind-dispersed seeds (like the helicoptering seeds of a maple). Very few, if any, of the seeds that fall near to the adult trees will germinate and reach maturity. As you walk away from the clump of adult trees, you will begin to find more germinated seeds that reach maturity (Augspurger 1983). These seeds are farther from tough competitors of the same species (adult trees) and are away from the plant pathogens that may be living in the adult root system. In our hypothetical forest, the plant pathogens that feed on young maples are keeping maple from dominating the forest, allowing other species that aren’t affected by the pathogen to thrive; in this way, plant pathogens play a role in the maintenance of biodiversity.

Drivers of Biodiversity

Our guest this week, Tyler Schappe, studies interactions among plants and fungi in the Neotropical forests of Panama. Tyler is broadly interested in what drives the maintenance and diversity of fungal communities, and how this, in turn, can affect tree communities. Tyler spent the summer of 2015 collecting 75 soil cores from three forest plots in Panama. Using DNA sequencing with universal genetic markers, he was then able to identify the fungi within the soil cores to species and functional group (decomposers, pathogens, plant mutualists, etc.). So far, Tyler has found that tree communities and soil nutrients affect the composition and diversity of fungal guilds differently. As expected, guilds that form mutualistic relationships with trees are more strongly correlated with plant communities. Interestingly, soil properties influence the species composition of all fungal guilds, including plant pathogens, pointing to the mediating role of soils as an abiotic filter. Overall, Tyler’s results, along with other research, show that soil fungal communities are an integral component of the plant-soil relationship since they are driven by, and can affect, both. Together, plants, soil, and fungi form a tightly connected three-way relationship, and wanting to understand one of them means having to study all three together.

Tyler’s work with fungal communities in Panama sheds light on belowground interactions and their implications for plant ecology. His research is one piece of evidence that may help us to understand why there are so many plant species, how they coexist, and why some species are common and some are rare. Are plant pathogens significant contributors to species richness and biodiversity? If so, what modulates plant pathogens, and how can that indirectly affect tree communities? To find out more about Tyler’s work check out these two sources from the Journal of Ecology and Science.

Spend sugar to make sugar

Stand of bur oak trees in a remnant oak savanna at Pheasant Branch Conservancy near Middleton, WI in early winter.

At a young age, Tyler began to realize how connected the world was and how plants and animals function in an ecosystem. The functioning of organisms and of ecosystems came into focus for him while in college at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He took a course in plant ecology from Dr. Tom Givnish who described plants in terms of economic trade-offs. For example, energy invested by plants in vertical growth cannot be invested in defense or reproduction; different allocations of resources can be more or less advantageous in different environments. Tyler decided to pursue graduate school at Oregon State while completing a fellowship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where he met his current advisor, Andy Jones.

Tyler is defending his Master’s thesis August, 29 2017!  We are glad he can make time to talk with us on Inspiration Dissemination this Sunday August, 13 at 7 pm. Not a local listener? Stream the show live!

Ways and Means: Attitudes Toward Methods of Restoring American Chestnut Trees

“The Christmas Song” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” by Bob Wells and Mel Tormé is an iconic song in American culture, but most Americans will never experience a chestnut roast (at least not with American chestnuts).

A mighty blight

The American chestnut was a widespread North American native tree that covered nearly 200,000 miles of Appalachian forest. In 1904, the American chestnut trees in the Bronx Zoo were dying from a then unknown disease, Chestnut Blight. In the next forty years, Chestnut Blight spread across the estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees. Now American Chestnut trees are seen only as giant stumps, juveniles never reaching maturity, and rarely, adult fruit-bearing trees.

Since the decline of the American chestnut, Appalachian forests have changed. Chestnuts have been replaced by oaks, and it is likely that many organisms that relied on the chestnut trees for food or shelter have had to adapt to new conditions or have been displaced. The loss of the chestnut also led to the loss of financial income for many Appalachian people. In addition to chestnuts as a food source, the American chestnut provided decay resistant timber and tannins for tanning hide. The American chestnut and its decline is remembered through oral and written history. Members of older generations from Appalachia tell stories of enormous trees and later forests of white wooden chestnut skeletons.

Restoring the chestnut

Josh skiing in the mountains of Big Sky, Montana.

The restoration of the chestnut is an active project that faces many challenges. First, few Americans have seen an American chestnut tree, and few are familiar with their decline via Chestnut Blight. Since the restoration of the American chestnut would require policy changes and action across 200,000 miles, spanning multiple state governments, it is necessary to assess the extent the public might disfavor or favor this restoration. Our guest this week,Josh Petit from Forest Ecosystems and Society, is seeking to understand the attitudes of Americans toward the chestnut restoration. In particular, Josh is surveying a sample of the US population to compare attitudes toward a controversial method of chestnut restoration,  the use of genetic engineering.

Ways and Means

You may be familiar with genetic engineering to modify the genome of an organism to achieve a specific goal. Many of the crops we eat have in some way been modified to aid harvest, growth, and/or resistance to pests and disease. The methods for restoring the American chestnut are:

  • Selective breeding with related, blight-resistant Asian chestnuts
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with Asian or other related chestnut genes (cisgenics)
  • Modifying the genome of American chestnuts with foreign genes or genes from wheat (transgenics)

Josh conducting research during a study abroad program in tropical North Queensland, Australia.

It is important to assess the attitudes of the public to transgenics because the introduction of  genes from wheat has been the most successful method at enhancing resistance toward chestnut blight. Recently, negative media has led to the misunderstanding that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have adverse effects on consumers (humans) and ecosystems. However, these claims are not based in sound science and have been refuted. Although GMOs are being supported as alternatives to crop and forest species extinction, ultimately chestnut restoration relies on majority vote in favor or against a specific strategy. Thus, assessing attitudes toward restoration methods is tantamount to restoration efforts.

The Guy for the Job

A native of Ohio, Josh Petit attended Xavier University and majored in Political Science. He credits a Semester at Sea for broadening his world view and exposing him to different cultures. He learned that culture is important in all aspects of daily life. In retrospect, perhaps it is no surprise that he is currently studying an iconic tree and how culture has driven attitudes toward its restoration.

Josh participating in a Fijian traditional village celebration and homestay–taking turns playing guitar.

Josh became interested in ecology, biology, and the interface of the two with humans while working for Q4 International Marketing an ecotourism company in Panama. This lead him to pursue a Master’s in Natural Resources with a marine ecology focus from Virginia Tech. However, his most recent work withOregon Parks and Recreation Department lead him to pursue a PhD at Oregon State University. With the State Parks, Josh conducted surveys in Oregon Parks and sought to connect behavior, impacts, and social science to ecology and recreation. Now at Oregon State University, Josh is working with Mark Needham andGlenn Howe to understand the drivers of attitudes toward using biotechnologies for restoring American chestnut trees.

Hear more about Josh’s research and his journey to now this week on Inspiration Dissemination. Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM on Sunday July, 30 at 7 pm, or live stream the show.

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.