Author Archives: Adrian Gallo

The Sights and Sounds of Purple Martins

The aesthetic beauty and spiritual connectivity the Native Americans have to the Purple Martin is undeniably strong, it’s no wonder the general public have embraced this special bird and encouraged their presence by adding nest boxes in their backyards. However, it’s this strong embrace in urbanized areas that could be stifling the ability for these animals to find and utilize forest habitats that could be spelling trouble for the birds’ future success. Currently the Purple Martin is listed in the state of Oregon as a “Sensitive-Critical Species” and our guest Lorelle Sherman, a 2nd year Masters student in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, is going to help us understand how humans have possibly altered their natural tree-nesting behavior of the Purple Martin population.

Male Purple Martins who are the largest birds in the Swallow group. Photos curtsey of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

These are birds with an eye-popping iridescent blue-purple body, sleek black wings with a forked tail that aid in its magnificent maneuverability allowing them to fly at speeds of 45 mph or faster. The Purple Martins often nest in groups to help protect each other from predators, their colonial personalities help generate southing chitchat between birds, and they’re very happy to live in artificial nest boxes. So much so that on the east coast of the US they live almost exclusively in bird boxes. Therein lies the problem – these birds are common on the east coast because they completely depend on habitat provided to them by humans; some researchers worry they have lost the generational knowledge of going to the forest to find suitable homes. Conversely, along the west coast of the US they generally utilize cavities in snags (standing dead trees) as their nesting site, but adding backyard bird boxes for the Purple Martin are becoming more common.

Purple Martin in a natural tree snag (standing dead tree) habitat.

Purple Martins are aerial insectivores meaning they only eat insects while they are in flight. Here is a classic yummy meal for the bird.

Although humans are supplementing places for these birds to nest, high quality habitat in forested areas are shrinking because our natural ecosystems are in peril. Purple Martins have historically depended on wildfires to clear open areas for better hunting grounds, but with the onset of fire-suppression efforts across the west these birds are more reliant on clearcuts typical of industrial forestlands. Couple these regional patterns with the recent global finding that flying insect populations (Martins’ food source is exclusively from eating insects while in-flight) in the tropics are expected to decline as much as 20%, and from 1989-2016 German nature preserves have documented a 75% decline flying insects biomass. It’s no surprise that aerial insectivores being the most rapidly declining group of birds in North America. If scientists are to better understand avian populations, the habitat qualities and the relative availability of food necessary for their survival must be assessed simultaneously.

Lorelle is banding a Purple Martin near a wetland to be able to track it’s movements in the future

Lorelle will help us untangle the effects of declining insect populations, possibly driven by a warming climate, and overlay those links with how humans on the west coast are putting up more artificial bird boxes making it easier to for birds to disregard forests as potential habitat all together. She is slowly uncovering the hidden elements of these critical birds by studying the food sources in two different habitats, an upland forest and along waterways with artificial bird boxes, and the birds’ willingness to seek out ideal habitat. Lorelle has grown up infatuated by birds her whole life, often running away from home just to sit underneath a tree to observe her flying friends overhead. At the age of eight her parents got her binoculars to cultivate her love of birds that she carried through her undergraduate research experiences in Vermont studying Double-crested Cormorants and Great Horned Owls. After a landing a dream job at a non-profit focusing on environmental education and green infrastructure in Pennsylvania she decided it was a good time to return to school to pursue a graduate degree. She originally moved to Oregon to work at the Bandon National Wildlife Preserve, but is now a Masters Student with Dr. Joan Hagar while continuing her outreach activities volunteering for birding festivals such as the Oregon Shorebird Festival and the Birding & Blue Festivals. In her free time you can find Lorelle running away from the office and searching for mushrooms, wild edibles, or other elusive birds.

Join us Sunday October 21st at 7PM on 88.7FM, or listen live, to learn more about Purple Martins and how these birds are intimately tied to the natural ecosystems around us as well as the urbanized spaces we occupy together.

Lorelle at the age of 8 continuing her passion for the outdoors with with her grandfather; note the binoculars which were one of the many steps to foster her love for birds.

The Evolving Views of Plastic Pollution

Oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface and some studies suggest we still have over 91% of marine species that await discovery. Even as far back as 2010 some NASA scientists admit we knew more about the surface of Mars than we did about the bottom of our own oceans! Despite the fact we may not know everything about our oceans just yet, one thing is certain: plastics are becoming part of ecosystems that have never experienced it and we’re beginning to understand its massive impact. One estimate suggests that even if you had 100 ships towing for 10 hours a day, with 200 meters of netting and perfectly capturing every large and tiny piece of plastic, we could only clean up 2% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch every year. It would take 50 years to clean everything up, assuming we magically stopped using plastics on Earth. As one Nature research article suggests, the problems lies mostly with local municipalities; but that means with targeted local action, individuals can make a real difference and limit how much plastic makes it to our oceans. So you may be thinking “let’s tell all our friends these plastic facts and then everyone will stop using plastic, right?”. Not so fast, unfortunately a host of studies show just informing people about the scope of the problem doesn’t always make them change their behavior to ameliorate the problem in question.

Katy getting a seal kiss from Boots the harbor seal at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

Our guest this evening is Katy Nalven, a 2nd year Masters student in the Marine Resources Management program, who is using a community based social marketing approach to ask people not only IF they know about the problem of plastics in oceans, but she also seeks to understand how people think about this problem and what could be individual hurdles to decreasing plastic usage. Using a survey based approach administered at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Katy plans to examine a few specific communities of interest to identify how the views around plastic usage from Aquarium visitors and local community members may differ and hopefully where they overlap.

This community based social marketing approach has many steps, but it’s proven more effective in changing behaviors for beneficial outcomes rather than just mass media information campaigns by themselves. By identifying a target goal for a community of interest you can tailor educational material that will have the greatest chance of success. For example, if your goal is to decrease plastic usage for coastal communities in Oregon, you may find that a common behavior in the community you can target to have the greatest impact such as bringing your own mug to coffee shops for a discount, or automatically saying “no straw please” whenever going out to eat. Katy is beginning to pin down how these Oregon coast communities view plastic usage with the hope that a future student can begin implementing her recommended marketing strategies to change behaviors for a more positive ocean health outlook.

Hugs from Cleo, the Giant Pacific Octopus, at the Oregon Coast Aquarium

Katy grew up in the landlocked state of Arizona constantly curious about animals, but on a childhood visit to SeaWorld San Diego she became exposed to the wonders of the ocean and was wonderstruck by a close call with a walrus. Near the end of a Biology degree in her undergraduate years, simultaneously competing as an NAIA Soccer player for Lyons College, Katy was looking for career options and with a glimpse of her stuffed walrus she got at the San Diego Zoo, she decided to look at Alaska for jobs. After a few summers being a whale watching guide in Juneau, an animal handling internship in Florida, and then another internship in Hawaii Katy decided she wanted to formally revisit her science roots but with a public policy perspective. Oregon State University’s Marine Resource Management Program was the perfect fit. In fact, once she was able to connect with her advisor, Dr. Kerry Carlin-Morgan who is also the Education Director for the Oregon Coast Aquarium, Katy knew this was the perfect step for her career.

Meeting Jack Johnson at the 6th International Marine Debris Conference. He and his wife are the founders of the Kokua Hawaii Foundation whose mission is to “provide students with experiences that will enhance their appreciation for and understanding of their environment so they will be lifelong stewards of the earth.”

 

 

Be sure to tune in to Katy’s interview Sunday August 19th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or listen live, to learn more about her findings about how we view plastic pollution, and how we can potentially make local changes to help the global ecosystem.

Putting kids in the driver’s seat: How modified ride-on cars let kids with disabilities drive their own development

My mother often tells the story of when I first learned to walk: Instead of sluggishly taking one step at a time, I would quickly take five or six steps as I accelerated into the floor or surrounding walls — Bang! She says I learned to run before I would walk. Based on my old scars I think she’s right. Many families have memories of their children’s first steps.  But how about baby’s first drive?  This Sunday we interview Christina Hospodar, finishing her M.S. in Kinesiology with an option in Adapted Physical Activity, who is working to better understand how providing modified ride-on cars to children with disabilities as a source of mobility can help to close the developmental gaps between children with disabilities and their typically developing peers.

Throughout infancy and early childhood, movement is key to learning. Mobility at a young age allows children to begin exploring their surroundings, which helps with not only motor development, but also language, social, and cognitive skills. While crawling towards mom or chasing birds in the park may seem like that is all it is, these experiences are embedded with inherent learning opportunities; learning to move in and of itself is a learning opportunity! Once you can direct your own movement, this propels a cascade of cognitive advancements. For example, once babies begin walking and their hands become more available to explore objects, they begin bringing favorite toys or novel finds to parents, and consequentially hear more words as they engage in these social bids. Many developmental advancements arise following the ability to independently move through their environment, of course alongside many smiles and giggles.

Go Baby Go is a community-based outreach program that provides modified ride-on cars to children with disabilities as a source of self-directed mobility. By modifying the activation switch and adding more supportive seating with common materials such as PVC pipe, pool noodles, and foam kickboards, children with disabilities can use the ride-on cars as an accessible powered mobility device.

It is estimated that approximately 500,000 children in the United States have some sort of mobility limitation. Children under 5 report unmet mobility needs almost twice as often as older children, with 61% of families report that gaining access to a mobility aid is “difficult.” While some children may have a more clear limitation in their ability to walk around the house and knock cups off the table, there is also the undercover impact of potentially delayed cognitive, social, and language development. This “exploration gap” happens during formative years, when decreased movement may have far-reaching consequences on overall development. One solution is powered mobility. Parents can buy wheelchairs with a joystick so their children can move independently and at their own will. However, powered pediatric wheelchairs often cost upwards of $17,000, which even with (limited) insurance coverage, often makes these devices completely inaccessible. Further, no commercial device exists for children 2 and under, which denies access at an age which may have the most benefit. Not to mention the social stigma of using an assistive device, with even clinicians often viewing powered mobility as a “last resort.”

A more recent version of the modified ride-on car is called a Sit-to-Stand (STS) car. Here, there is a reverse-activated switch in the seat, so the child must pull to stand and remain standing in order to power the vehicle. This combines functional training with the experience of powered mobility.

That’s where the work of the Social Mobility Lab at Oregon State University comes back into the picture. Under the direction of Dr. Sam Logan, a large part of Christina and her lab group’s work revolves around Go Baby Go Oregon, one of about 75 national and international chapters. Started in 2012 at the University of Delaware by Dr, Cole Galloway, Go Baby Go is a community-based outreach program that provides modified ride-on cars to kids with disabilities as a source of self-directed mobility. With a total cost of around $200, the modified ride-on cars are affordable, portable, and perhaps most importantly, FUN. Ride-on cars can be purchased from standard box stores like Walmart or Toys R Us. Then, these cars are electrically and structurally modified to make them more user-friendly and accessible to any child. Most standard ride-on cars are operated by a foot pedal or very small button switch, so in order to make the vehicle more accessible to children with disabilities, they modify the electrical wiring by adding a large easy-to press activation switch. Now, the car will move via an oversized button on the steering wheel. They also reinforce the structure and support of the vehicle with PVC pipe and pool noodles so there are more soft-touch contact points to keep the child secure. Maybe the child has a vision impairment? They can make the steering wheel a very big and very colorful button. What if the child needs to be able to sit upright? They design a support system integrated into the car so the child can maintain an upright posture. The essence of being a kid is mostly about playing and exploration; this program and these devices are helping to make sure that all kids can be kids and get into just as much trouble as anybody else.

Christina’s work goes beyond the community-outreach sector of Go Baby Go. With Dr. Logan and lab mates, Christina is working to quantify the benefits of the modified ride-on cars and determine how they can be optimally used. Anecdotally, first drives are filled with big grins, happy dancing, and engaged attention. But how do you capture that in research?  Her Masters project aims to understand how use of the modified ride-on cars relate to tangible outcomes like onset of independent driving and independent walking. This intervention is unique in that researchers incorporated elements of physical therapy within the vehicles to sneakily have children practice motor skills. If you want children to practice standing, you have to incentivize that movement. By wiring a negative activation switch in the seat, the child must stand up in the car to move forward. When they sit down, the car stops moving. Therefore, the children practice pulling to stand and maintaining balance, physical therapy exercises that would be very difficult to get children to do without that positive incentive of freedom of movement provided by the car. Christina’s thesis focuses on a year-long progressive modified ride-on car intervention for infants with Down syndrome that utilizes the seated cars as well as this more advanced sit-to-stand version to encourage exploration and motor skill development. We will discuss her findings, which suggest that children who spent more time with the vehicles and were more consistent with usage potentially had better motor outcomes.

Adapted Physical Activity graduate students (from left to right: Michele Catena, Samantha Ross, and Christina Hospodar) presenting research from the Social Mobility Lab at the 2017 Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) Conference in Austin, Texas.

As I write this on a sunny afternoon sitting on a bench overlooking the MU quad, there are seniors taking graduation photos and families meandering through the courtyard. One family walks by the pair of 120-feet tall incense cedar trees. The little sister walks off the pavement and onto the grass, tracing the perimeter of the wide droopy branches. She stops. Looks up and down in awe, wonder, and amazement. Maybe she’ll be a forester someday, perhaps a botanist, or maybe an ornithologist with all the noisy bird conversations happening way up high in the canopy. But in a snap, her parents turn around and wave her to return. She sprints back towards the group. Because of her ability to freely explore her environment, life has left her with a new seed of curiosity. This embodies the spirit of Go Baby Go, where self-directed mobility is a fundamental human right.

Be sure to listen to the interview on Sunday May 13th at 7PM on KBVR 88.7 Corvallis or you can listen live online. Christina is nice enough to do the interview the day before her defense so if you’re interested you can see her research talk on Monday May 14 at 2 PM in  Hallie Ford Center room 115. In the fall Christina will be moving onto a PhD program at NYU in the Cognition and Perception program within the Psychology Department. There, she will study infant motor development under the direction of Dr. Karen Adolph.

If you want to find out more about the Go Baby Go program, you can look at Oregon State’s Chapter page, the greater Oregon Facebook page, and the national website to look for contacts or access to local sites around the US.

Genes & Body Metabolism: How our Muscles Control Outcomes

The basic human body plan is fairly similar (most have eyes, arms, and legs) but how efficiently our bodies’ function is unique and depend heavily on our genes. Although our brains use a lot of the simple energy compounds (like glucose), our skeletal muscles use 70% of our body’s total energy production such as fats, sugars, and amino acids. All of this energy demand from our skeletal muscles means our body’s metabolism is highly regulated by our muscles. If you want a higher metabolism then you should work out more to gain muscle; this process of muscle formation or repair is a complicated sequence of events requiring hundreds of genes all working together at the right time to promote muscle development. However, if one or many genes do not function properly this sequence of events have inefficiencies that diminish our muscle production capability; for some this means more time at the gym but for others it could lead to diseases like diabetes.

Vera working with her mouse models to better understand how a body’s metabolism is controlled by their genes

Our guest this evening is Vera Lattier (Chih-Ning Chang) who is a PhD candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Biology Program focusing on one gene in particular that orchestrates the muscle formation process at various stages of life development. This PITX2 gene is implicated in regulating the activity of other genes as well as formation of the eyes, heart, limbs, and abdominal muscles during embryonic stages. During later stages of life the amount of skeletal muscle you have dictates your bodies metabolism, and if you are unable to build muscles you tend to have a lower metabolism that encourages excess food to be stored as fat. This is the first step towards obesity and is also a precursor to developing diabetes that affects nearly 26 million people in the United States. Although eating right and exercising can have a substantial impact to your health, if your genes are not functioning correctly poor health may ensue at no fault of the patients.

Vera’s research uses mice as models to better understand this complex interaction between our genes and our body’s metabolism. As part of a decade’s long research through Dr. Chrissa Kioussi’s research lab at Oregon State University they examined the role of this PITX2 gene in three main stages of muscle formation. By mutating the gene to affect it’s expression (effectively ‘turning off’ the gene) during early embryonic formation the mice bodies were unable to effectively create the physical structures for basic bodily functions and they were not viable embryos. When mutating the gene near the time of birth the mice were fully functional at the early stage of life and seemed normal. However, when they grew older they quickly became obese, in fact three times as heavy as the average mice, that lead to fatty liver disease, enlargement of the heart, obesity, and of course diabetes. Vera’s work continues to try and elucidate the mechanisms behind the connection of our genes and our body’s metabolism through structural muscle formation that could help us to identify these limitations earlier and help save lives.

Vera giving presentations to scientific conferences to help people understand the importance of muscle in body metabolism.

There is so much more to discuss with Vera on tonight’s show. You’ll hear about her first experience with a microscope at a young age and how she dreamed of one day becoming an evil scientist (luckily her parents changed her mind). Be sure to tune in for what is sure to be an enlightening discussion on Sunday April 8th at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or by listening live.

 

Workplace Woes for Women in Engineering

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

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

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

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

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

Andrea snuggling up with her beloved dog, Spaghetti.

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

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

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

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

Small Differences Have Big Consequences to Keep the Oceans Happy

Swimming away from the rocky shores out to sea Grace Klinges, a 2nd year PhD student in the Vega-Thurber Lab, is surrounded by short green sea grasses swaying in the waves, multi-colored brown sand and occasional dull grayish-brown corals dot the floor as she continues her research dive. However, the most interesting thing about this little island reef off the coast of Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea, is the forest of bubbles that envelopes Grace as she swims. Bubbles curiously squeak out everywhere along seafloor between sand grains and even eating their way through the corals themselves. It reminds one of how thick the fog can be in the Oregon hills, and like a passing cloud, the bubbles begin to dissipate the further away you swim from the shore, revealing an increasingly complex web of life wholly dependent on the corals that look more like color-shifting chameleons than their dull-colored cousins closer to the shore.

Grace took ~2,000 photos for each of 6 transects moving away from the carbon dioxide seeps. She is rendering these photos using a program called PhotoScan, which identifies areas of overlap between each photo to align them, and then generates a 3D model by calculating the depth of field of each image.

These bubbles emanating from the seafloor is part of a naturally occurring CO2 seep found in rare parts of the world. While seemingly harmless as they dance up the water column, they are changing ocean chemistry by decreasing pH or making the water more acidic. The balance of life in our oceans is so delicate – the entire reef ecosystem is changing in such a way that provides a grim time machine into the future of Earth’s oceans if humans continue emitting greenhouse gasses at our current rate.

Corals are the foundation of these ocean ecosystems that fish and indigenous island communities rely on for survival. In order for corals to survive they depend on a partnership with symbiotic algae; through photosynthesis, the algae provide amino acids and sugars to the corals, and in return, the coral provides a sheltered environment for the algae and the precursor molecules of photosynthesis. Algae lend corals their magnificent colors, but algae are less like colorful chameleons and more like generous Goldilocks that need specific water temperatures and a narrow range of acidity to survive. Recall those bubbles of CO2 rising from the seafloor? As the bubbles of CO2 move upward they react with water and make it slightly more acidic, too acidic in fact for the algae to survive. In an unfortunate cascade of effects, a small 0.5 pH unit change out of a 14 unit scale of pH, algae cannot help corals survive, fish lose their essential coral habitat and move elsewhere leaving these indigenous island inhabitants blaming bubbles for empty nets. On the grander scale, it’s humans to blame for our continuous emissions rapidly increasing global ocean temperatures and lowering ocean pH. The only real question is when we’ll realize the same thing the local fishermen see now, how can we limit the damage to come?

 

The lovely Tara Vessel anchored in Gizo, Solomon Islands.

Grace Klinges is a 2nd year Ph.D. student in the Microbiology Department who is using these natural CO2 seeps as a proxy for what oceans could look like in the future, and she’s on the hunt for solutions. Her research area is highly publicized and is part of an international collaboration called Tara Expeditions as a representative of the Rebecca Vega Thurber Lab here at Oregon State, known for diving across the world seeking to better understand marine microbial ecology in this rapidly changing climate. Grace’s project is studying the areas directly affected by these water-acidifying CO2 seeps and the surrounding reefs that return to normal ocean pH levels and water temperatures. By focusing her observations in this localized area, about a 60-meter distance moving away from shore, Grace is able to see a gradient of reef health that directly correlates with changing water chemistry. Through a variety of techniques (GoPro camera footage, temperature sensors, pH, and samples from coral and their native microbial communities) Grace hopes to produce a 3D model of the physical reef structures at this site to relate changing chemistry with changes in community complexity.

Tara scientists spend much of the sailing time between sites labeling tubes for sampling. Each coral sample taken will be split into multiple pieces, labeled with a unique barcode, and sent to various labs across the world, who will study everything from coral taxonomy and algal symbiont diversity to coral telomere length and reproduction rates. Photo © Tara Expeditions Foundation

One of the main ideas is that as you move further away from the CO2 seeps the number of coral species, or coral diversity, increases which often is expressed in a huge variety of physical structures and colors. As the coral diversity increases so should the diversity of their microbiomes. Using genetic and molecular biology techniques, Grace and the Vega Thurber lab will seek to better understand which corals are the most robust at lower pH levels. However, this story gets even more complicated, because it’s not just the coral and algae that depend on each other, but ocean viruses, bacterial players, and a whole host of other microorganisms that interact to keep this ecological niche functioning. This network of complicated interactions between a variety of organisms in reef systems requires balance for the system to function. Affectionately named the “coral holobiont“, similar to a human’s microbiome, we are still far from understanding the relative importance of each player which is why Grace and her labmates have written a series of bioanalytic computer scripts to efficiently analyze the massive amounts of genetic information that is becoming more available in the field.

Grace was overjoyed after taking a break from sampling to swim with some dolphins who were very curious about the boat. Photo © Tara Expeditions Foundation

With the combination of Grace’s field work taking direct observations of our changing oceans, and her computer programming that will help researchers around the world classify organisms of unknown ecosystem function, our knowledge of the oceans will get a little less murky. Be sure to listen to the interview Sunday January 14th at 7PM. You can learn more about the Vega Thurber lab here.

You can also download Grace’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

Safe nuclear power and its future in our energy portfolio

Humanity’s appetite for energy is insatiable. The US Energy Information Administration projects almost a 30% increase in world energy demand by 2040. The fastest expansion of energy production is projected for renewables, whereas coal demand is expected to flat line. By 2040, the world will also practically double electricity production from nuclear fission, and for good reason: nuclear power is a reliable source of carbon free energy. In the United States, for instance, about 60% of carbon free electricity is generated by nuclear power.

Dylan Addison recently earned a Master’s degree from OSU’s Materials Science program.

However, significant barriers exist to making nuclear energy a stable and lasting piece of the puzzle. The way things are going, most new nuclear power in the coming decades will be installed in China, which has recognized the societal costs of air polluting fossil fuels, and is taking massive corrective action. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is hesitating when it comes to the nuclear option.

Our guest this week hopes to change that, by helping to qualify the world’s first small modular nuclear reactor design. Dylan Addison recently received his Master’s Degree in Materials Science from OSU. His focus was high temperature crack propagation in a nickel superalloy that is slated for use in a Generation IV reactor. Dylan transitioned to work with NuScale Power here in Corvallis, where he’ll continue to study the safety of materials exposed to high temperatures and pressures.

There are many reasons why you should keep track of NuScale Power in the coming years. In addition to being a local company, they stand to solve two key issues facing the nuclear energy industry: (1) NuScale stands to alter the economics of nuclear energy by radically reducing the upfront capital investment and time associated with plant construction, and (2) the passive safety features built into NuScale’s design will quell the fears of even the most skeptical among us.

The NuScale Power Module takes advantage of natural convection to circulate water through the nuclear core, eliminating a host of safety concerns.

Dylan’s Master’s thesis work was in performing high temperature crack growth experiments. Shown here is a sample at 800 °C!

Like many of us, Dylan’s meandering path through higher education took him longer than expected, and through several fields. While studying rhetoric at Willamette University, he started selling health-products over the phone from his dorm room. After dropping out of Willamette, he put in two years as a line cook at a thai food restaurant to see what life would look like in the service sector (his conclusion? It wasn’t for him). Then he decided to return to school and study engineering at OSU. While at OSU, he maintained the web presence of a marketing firm that continued to employ him after graduating with a Bachelor’s of Mechanical engineering in 2014. However, he wasn’t satisfied with the impact he was making by selling stuff on the internet, and entered graduate school in 2015 with a firm resolve to apply his technical knowledge to problems that have real weight. Working under Dr. Jamie Kruzic, Dylan was introduced to the field of fracture mechanics, which qualified him to apply for a job with NuScale upon graduation. Now, a few months into an engineering job, he gets to share his story on this week’s episode of Inspiration Dissemination!

Be sure to tune in Sunday October 1st at 7PM on 88.7FM or live to hear more about how Dylan’s schooling at Oregon State has positioned him to help bring reliable carbon free energy to all the world’s people.

You can also download Dylan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

To code or not to code: the way forward for machine learning

In a rapidly changing word of technology and engineering advancements, we’re reminded of Charles Darwin’s words it’s not the strongest that survive, but the most adaptable. For humans this means learning from our errors, one painful mistake at a time, and fixing our approach so we do not stumble again. We’re limited by our personal experiences so we can only adapt once we approach a problem; but by then it may be too late. Imagine having the collective wisdom and understanding of everyone’s experiences so that you know how to solve problems you’ve never seen before. This is the beauty of machine learning.

 

Behrooz hanging out in front of the Magnolia’s in the MU

If you haven’t heard of machine learning, then it’s just a matter of time. These techniques are already involved in highly complex board games, advertising optimization, and especially self-driving cars. It’s difficult to say how impactful machine learning will be to our everyday lives because the applications of this field are still being discovered. One of the primary foundations of machine learning is researching how computers interpret visual information so computers can make on-the-fly adjustments to stop for a pedestrian or speed up to merge on the freeway.

Behrooz Mahasseni recently finished his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science where his research focused on how computers interpret video recordings. As part of his research, he worked on a project to analyze football videos to identify specific patterns like huddles, punts, and special teams plays. This is specifically useful for football recruiters who don’t have time to watch 3.5-hour football games when they’re looking for a good wide-receiver for their team. Behrooz’s work helps the computer understand when passing plays occurred so the football recruiter can watch the ‘highlights’ reel for five minutes and get all the information they need to make a hiring decision. This seems rather easy, but Behrooz worked on this for high school football games where the video is not in high definition, from an oblique angle instead of a birds-eye-view, and probably has a very excited parent-videographers jumping up and down for major plays. Obviously teaching a computer to understand videos is easier said than done, but Behrooz was able to get all this accomplished with a high degree of accuracy that helped him land a job with Apple. He’s described this job as research and development using the skills he learned in graduate school (that’s about all he can say) but it took him many years of school to finally realize he had the skills to act as the spearhead of technological innovation.

Behrooz’s family including his wife Mitra and Behrad celebrating the Persian New Year March 2016

There is so much more to discuss with Behrooz, especially about where the field of machine learning and artificial intelligence is moving. We will also discuss his first experience with a robotic competition in Tehran, his decision to move to the United States, and his never-ending drive for finding and solving new problems. Be sure to listen in Sunday September 3rd at 7PM on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis!

Do you trust others, as much as they trust you?

My mother told me never to judge a book by its cover, but our brains do this tens if not hundreds of times a day. Research has shown that seeing a face for just 1/10 second allows enough time for someone to make judgments of a person’s attractiveness, competence, aggressiveness, and trustworthiness. While it is impressive our brains can come to a decision about a face so quickly, how accurate are those assessments? For better or worse, a person’s facial characteristics can predict court decisions, as well as outcomes of elections. Many studies focus on how the interpreter makes these decisions, but what happens to the people who are instantly considered untrustworthy when all you see is a face? Whether we care to acknowledge it, these first-impressions inevitably lead to different life-outcomes, especially if you are judged as having an untrustworthy face.

What kind of facial features can be considered trustworthy or untrustworthy? Here are some examples on a spectrum.

Our guest this evening is Zoe Alley, a 1st year PhD student in the newly formed Psychological Sciences program within the College of Liberal Arts, and she will be tackling these tough questions of how we perceive and understand trust. She is specifically exploring how the first impression of someone’s face can be a predictor, or possibly a driver, of their future life-outcomes. The Golden Rule says to treat others the way you want to be treated; but what happens when everyone around you is unpleasant or treats you with suspicion? You’re more likely to reciprocate those feelings, developing fewer formative relationships early in life, eventually snowballing into awkward social behaviors intensifying later in life so that finding a job or keeping friends are hopeless endeavors. Was this sequence of events caused by the person’s actions toward others, or was it the constant distrust from others that caused these behaviors leading to a negative outcome?

This is a classic chicken or the egg dilemma that we will explore, but first we have to understand how we got here. The Oregon Youth Study began in 1982 with evaluations of participants starting at age 10, and continuing with annual assessments until all 183 males from predominantly lower income neighborhoods reached 35 years old. This study generated a prodigious amount of data that scientists continue to use. One finding was the participants’ real-life behavior explained relatively small but measurable amount of how trustworthy those outside the study perceived them to be once other factors  were controlled (i.e. smiling). This shows a disconnect from how we judge someone, compared to how that person actually behaves. This again begs the question: what happens to those unfortunate souls who are constantly judged negatively and is there anything we can do mitigate this unfortunate pattern?

Here is Zoe Alley who is a 1st year PhD student in the Psychological Sciences program at OSU

Zoe grew up as a native Oregonian and while her childhood passion started with art and expression, it has always focused on how she can help her community. Even though the Oregon Youth Study was focused in the Willamette Valley, understanding these social constructs can help children and adults everywhere. Through this research Zoe hopes to understand how this phenomenon of ‘facial trustworthiness’ works, especially in adolescents, so that we can identify mechanisms to break this vicious cycle and give everyone an equal chance at success. Be sure to tune in for what is sure to be a candid discussion on Sunday June 4th at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or by listening live.

 

Bone marrow transplants save lives, but can it keep our bones strong?

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. This phrase is often helpful when fighting adversity, but it does not hold true for patients suffering from diseases such as leukemia, tuberculosis, and certain forms of anemia. Current medical science allows us to save lives, but their quality of life is curtailed because bones are typically weaker and prone to breaking as a result of cancer treatments. Patients may have endured countless surgeries, drug rehabilitation, and physical therapy only to have their level of physical activity severely limited because of the complications posed from fragile bones.

Goldner’s trichrome staining, in which mineralized bone matrix, erythrocytes, and cytoplasm were stained green, orange, and red, respectively. Credit: Burr, David B., and Matthew R. Allen, eds. Basic and applied bone biology. Academic Press, 2013.

At the center of this problem is bone marrow, and working to find a solution is Richard Deyhle, a Masters student studying Radiation Health Physics, believes we may have found a way to treat these cancers while also increasing our bone strength to previous levels of functionality. This work is in the proof-of-concept phase so it’s still early in the framework of medical application to the public but there is little doubt this can provide miraculous benefits to cancer patients providing them a higher quality of life.

Richard working on generating a 3D visualization of Micro-Computed Tomography data.

 

First it’s important to understand that even though bone marrow only accounts for ~4% of our body mass, it’s also the production source of red blood cells (carrying oxygen throughout our body), blood platelets (helping to clot blood to prevent blood loss), and white blood cells (major players in our immune system keeping us healthy). Cancer treatments focus on treating and restoring the healthy function of bone marrow so we can live. Kind of important stuff! But the health of the bone marrow does not always correspond to strong bones. This is where Richard, working under Urszula Iwaniec & Russell Turner in the Skeletal Biology Lab at OSU, brings their expertise to find new ways to treat malfunctioning bone marrow.

Micro-Computed Tomography image of the radius bone from a rat from Space Shuttle Mission, STS-41.

Bone marrow is made of many subcomponents, and standard medical practice is to replace a patient’s bone marrow (containing all subcomponents) with bone marrow from a compatible donor. Depending on the extent of transplant, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000,000 cells that are replaced representing the mosaic of cells that make up bone marrow. Richard is using a more targeted approach of purifying bone marrow and isolating a subcomponent, called Hematopoietic stem cells, so a transplant will only need a few thousand of these special cells to perform the same function as the much larger transplant. Using mice models his lab has found similar results as other researchers showing the use of pure Hematopoietic stem cells, instead of bulk bone marrow material, has similar effects on bone marrow functionality. Through the use of Green Fluorescent Protein (as a bookmark in the newly injected cells allowing researchers to trace where cells move through the body), the Skeletal Biology Lab hopes to better understand the mechanism of bone strength resilience to a healthy functioning bone marrow. Like any good scientific study, much more work needs to be done to examine these results and verify effect sizes, but the road ahead looks promising.

Richard’s childhood home was nestled away from large cities that allowed him to stare at the sky and see the Milky Way in all its beauty. Even at a young age he wondered about space, wondered how far humans can go, and wondered how he can help keep future explorers safe as we explore distant worlds. These youthful curiosities of space eventually lead to his research passion of understanding how radiation affects the human body. If all his plans work out he hopes to transition into a PhD program where he can focus more closely on making sure our fragile human bodies can explore worlds beyond ours.

If you’re interested in new medical advancements that can be used to treat cancer or astronauts, you cannot miss this episode! Be sure to tune in Sunday May 7th at 7PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM or by listening live.