Author Archives: Daniel Watkins

About Daniel Watkins

I'm a graduate student in atmospheric sciences studying Arctic climate. Along with being a host here at Inspiration Dissemination, I'm a Science Communication Fellow at the Oregon Museum for Science and Industry, a member of the OSU Student Chapter of the American Meteorological Society, and guitarist for the band Mons La Hire.

Repair, don’t replace: developing a new treatment for lower back pain

Chances are that you, or someone you know, has had lower back pain get in the way of daily life. For some people it is merely an inconvenience, but for many, it is debilitating. In the United States, over 70% of adults suffer from back pain at some time during their lives. Lower back pain is the second-most common reason for missed work, after the common cold. Lost productivity due to lower back pain is estimated to be over $30 billion dollars annually.

Out of the myriad causes of lower back pain, one of the most common is degeneration of the intervertebral disk. The intervertebral disk is like a shock absorber between bones in the spine. As people age, wear-and-tear on these disks leads to damage: essentially only children have intervertebral disks without any signs of deterioration. By middle age, lower back pain is sometimes bad enough that people resort to invasive surgeries.

Ward presenting his research at the Graduate Research Showcase, 2019.

Ward Shalash, a first-year PhD student studying bioengineering with Dr. Morgan Giers, is working to find a better way to treat deteriorated intervertebral disks. Currently, the primary method for treating severe back pain caused by a deteriorated intervertebral disk is to either replace the disk with an artificial disk, or to remove the disk and fuse the neighboring vertebra. Although these methods are effective in relieving pain, patients often need to have the procedure redone after ten years. In addition, particularly for the method where vertebra are fused, patients experience loss of flexibility. In 2003 a new method, cell replacement therapy, was demonstrated on a rabbit. This treatment involves collecting mesenchymal stem cells from a patient (generally from fat cells), and injecting them into the gel-like material in the center of the intervertebral disk. Ideally, this process allows the disk to be restored in place. While this treatment has been applied with some success to human patients, the procedure is not yet standardized or tested well enough for FDA approval in the US. In particular it isn’t yet clear how to determine the number of cells to inject for best results.

This is where Ward’s research comes in. “The goal is to develop a method so that doctors can know whether cell replacement therapy will work for patients or not,” said Ward. An intervertebral disk consists of three main parts: the nucleous puplosus, a jelly-like substance in the center; the anulus fibrosus, stiff, fibrous walls around the jelly center; and cartilage endplates above and below.

Cross-section of an intervertebral disk. As the disk deteriorates, the gel-like nucleus pulposus leaks into the fibers of the anulus fibrosus.

Cells require a supply of nutrients to survive; as there is no blood flow into the disk, cells inside rely on water seeping through the cartilage endplates. Dissolved in the water are nutrients such as glucose and oxygen which are vital for cell survival.

Ward uses a combination of MRI imaging and mathematical modeling to study the flow of water through the intervertebral disk. From this information, he hopes to find a method doctors can use to determine the number of stem cells to inject. Ward hopes that the ability to algorithmically predict the success of treatment this way would cut down the cost of clinical trials.

Ward’s parents at the commencement ceremony in 2018. As a first-generation college student Ward mentions that his family’s support was important for him to continue his education towards a PhD degree.

Ward first came to Oregon as an exchange student from Israel. After finishing an associate’s degree at Portland Community College, he came to Oregon State to study bioengineering. He has a dream of a world where people don’t have to worry about injuries. One of his concerns is making sure that progress in bioengineering is ethical.  For example, says Ward, “How do you make sure that it’s accessible for all kinds of people?”

Along with his academic pursuits, Ward enjoys the outdoors, playing the oud, and volunteering. To hear more about Ward’s story and his science, tune in this Sunday at 7PM (PST). You can stream the show live online, or listen to the interview live on the air at 88.7 KBVR FM, Corvallis. If you miss the broadcast, you can also listen to the episode on our podcast soon after the broadcast.

In the background is Mt. Broken Top in the Deschutes Basin. Despite common belief that PhD degrees are scary and stressful, Ward believes that there is always time for adventures!


Summary of stem cell treatment for back pain:
Discussion of current strategies for treatment of lower back pain:



Magnet blocks, connect the dots, and the world of modern mathematics

At the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkely, CA with the Klein quartic sculpture. Photo by Charles Camacho

Charles Camacho, a sixth-year PhD student in the Department of Mathematics at Oregon State University, spends a lot of time thinking about shapes. He describes his research as such: “I study the symmetries of abstract mathematical surfaces made from gluing triangles together.”

Charles explaining his thesis research at the Latinx in the Mathematical Sciences conference at UCLA. Photo by Farida Saleh from the Daily Bruin.

Charles works in a branch of mathematics called topology. Topologists think about shapes and surfaces. There’s a joke among mathematicians that a topologist is someone who can’t tell the difference between a coffee cup and a donut, and there’s some truth to that. It’s not that they can’t see a difference, but that they look past the difference to see the core similarity: both are solid objects punctured with a single hole. Topology as a formal area of mathematics is fairly recent (early 20th century). Topology’s roots go much further back, though, through the streets of Königsberg in the 1700s and to the geometry of the ancient Greeks.

Königsberg bridge problem
There’s a famous puzzle that originated in  Königsberg, Prussia in the 1700s (Königsberg is now Kaliningrad, Russia). The puzzle didn’t originate among mathematicians—but my understanding is that it’s mainly mathematicians that think about the puzzle now. Back then, there were seven bridges crossing the river Preger.

The Bridges of Königsberg (illustration by Leonard Euler, 1736).

The puzzle is this: Is it possible to cross each one of the seven bridges exactly once? (Go on, try it!) In his description of the problem and its solution, Euler said “it neither required the determination of quantities, nor did calculation with quantities help towards its solution.” He was interested in solving this superficially trivial problem because he couldn’t see a way for algebra, counting, or geometry to solve it. This goes against most people’s conception of mathematics—can it really be a math problem if you don’t fill a chalkboard with calculations?

The fact that no one yet had found a way to cross all the bridges without a repeat did not prove that it could not be done. To do that, and thus solve the problem for good, Euler had the insight to try and reduce the problem to its core. Reframing the Königsberg Bridges problem (elements of image from Wikimedia Commons, composited graphic by Daniel Watkins)
Knowing the layout of the city and all of its streets is irrelevant, so we can simplify to a map of just bridges. But even knowing that there is a river and land doesn’t really matter. All we really need is to know is represented in the network on the right (what mathematicians today call a graph). Euler’s solution was this: “If there are more than two regions with an odd number of bridges leading into them, then it can safely be stated that there is no such crossing.” It didn’t matter where the bridges were, it just mattered how many of the possible paths led to each landmass.

With collaborators at a summer research workshop on graph theory. Photo copyright American Mathematical Society

Being a mathematician, Euler wasn’t satisfied just stating a solution to the Königsberg problem. He went further, and generalized: he came up with rules and a solution that would work for any city with any number of bridges. All you have to do is look at the crossings, and note whether there’s an odd number of ways to get there, or an even number of ways. Euler’s method was developed by later mathematicians into graph theory, a branch of mathematics focusing on sets of points and the paths connecting them. Graph theory has a reputation for having many problems that are simple to state, but incredibly difficult to solve conclusively. In this sense, graph theory has a lot in common with geometric toy blocks.

Platonic solids
Charles has a set of magnetic toys in familiar shapes: triangles, squares, pentagons. These shapes are known as regular polygons, which just means that they are shapes composed of straight lines, each of which has the same length. Playing with these, one can hardly help but to arrange them into three-dimensional shapes. Playing with the triangles, you can quickly form a triangular pyramid: a tetrahedron. With six squares, a cube. With eight triangles, an octahedron. And with twelve pentagons, a dodecahedron. Surprisingly, there are only five shapes that can be made this way! Why is this the case? And must this always be the case?

The Platonic Solids: Tetrahedron, Cube, Octahedron, Dodecahedron, Icosahedron. Image copyright Daniel Watkins.

You might notice some other interesting things about these shapes. If you turn a cube while holding the middle of a side, you will see that it looks the same after each turn. It has rotational symmetry. Each of these shapes has multiple axis of symmetry. They can be rotated holding them in different ways and still show symmetry.

As a mathematician, Charles thinks about ways to generalize these ideas. We know that the five Platonic shapes are the only solids that can be formed from regular polygons, but what shapes could be formed if you used slightly different definitions? What if, for example, you used arcs of a circle to form the lines? What can we say about different kinds of surfaces? These shapes are defined on flat planes, like a piece of paper, but we know of lots of other surfaces, like the world we live on, that aren’t perfectly flat.  What kind of symmetry do polygons in these geometries show? Specifically, I wanted to know all the ways that such surfaces can be rotated a given number of times. I generalized previous research on counting symmetries and discovered a formula describing the number of these rotational symmetries,” Charles said.

A topological representation of a four-holed surface with a twelve-fold rotational symmetry (blue arrows indicate which edges are to be glued to make the surface. Graphic copyright Charles Camacho

Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM on Sunday March, 10 at 7 PM to hear more about Charles’s research, his inspirations, and his path to research in mathematics. Stream the show live or catch this episode as a podcast.

Feather collections and stressed-out owls

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

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

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

Northern spotted owl. Photo courtesy Ashlee Mikkelsen.

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

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

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

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

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


Applying medical anthropology: a history of stress in Puerto Rico and its impacts on birth outcomes

Over the course of the last six years, Holly Horan, a doctoral candidate in the Applied Anthropology program at Oregon State University, has developed and carried out a course of research culminating in the largest-ever study measuring perceived and biological maternal stress during and after pregnancy in Puerto Rico. By combining in-depth interviews with Puerto Rican mothers with quantitative analysis of perceived stress and the stress hormone cortisol during each stage of pregnancy, Holly has gained insights into both the perceived and the physiological components of maternal stress that have potential to impact birth outcomes (in particular, timing of birth).

Holly describes herself as an applied medical anthropologist. She strives to take a holistic approach to health, considering not only the physiology of an individual, but external factors as well: the political situation, economics, the culture, and the historical context of the research site. She is passionate about “community-led research.” In community-led research, the community where the research is being conducted takes a role in the development, execution, analysis, and evaluation of the research.

Holly has found a way to combine her personal and professional interests in maternal and infant health with her desire to engage in research with Puerto Rican communities. Holly’s mother is Puerto Rican, and she had long wanted to engage in research that could benefit the island. While completing a master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Montana, Holly did preliminary research on the early onset of puberty among Puerto Rican girls. Here at OSU, Holly has been able to use both qualitative and quantitative methods to research maternal and infant health within a community-led framework.

At the beginning of her dissertation research, Holly learned that the cesarean birth rate in Puerto Rico was close to 50% — far higher than the rate in the continental U.S., which hovers around 30%. Both rates are much higher than the rate recommended by the World Health Organization, which indicates that the cesarean birth rate should be no higher than 15%. She also learned that the island struggled with high incidence of preterm birth and low birth weight, both of which are important population-level health indicators. Holly’s advisor, Dr. Melissa Cheyney, is a home-birth midwife and an associate professor within the Applied Anthropology program in the School of Language, Culture, and Society. Dr. Cheyney helped connect Holly to Puerto Rican midwives, who, in turn, connected them to other medical providers in Puerto Rico.

In the summer of 2014, Holly conducted a pilot study, spending six weeks in Puerto Rico interviewing maternal and infant health-care professionals. These interviews allowed her to develop goals for her dissertation research that aligned with the needs of the community. Participant narratives frequently displayed concerns associated with unexplainable high rates of preterm birth.

Holly’s National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded dissertation research examined the relationship between perceived maternal stress, biological maternal stress, and prematurity. After the 2014 pilot study, she moved to Puerto Rico for 16 months, where she used semi-structured interviews and perceived stress questionnaires to develop an understanding of this relationship. In addition to this qualitative component, she also measured the stress hormone cortisol from maternal hair samples. Cortisol is one of the most well-understood biological stress indicators. Up until recently, the primary available way to measure cortisol levels was through blood or saliva samples, which provided only an indication of short-term stress. As it turns out, however, cortisol is also incorporated into hair. Hair cortisol provides a measure of long-term stress — the type of stress that is speculated to impact maternal and infant health outcomes, including preterm birth.

In the summer of 2016, Holly initiated her dissertation research with an extensive series of in-depth interviews with pregnant and recently-postpartum women. At this time, the ZIKA virus was declared a public health emergency, and there was a variety of public health messaging concerning delayed reproduction and the risk of microcephaly. Through these interviews, Holly learned that the U.S. Government’s public health messaging led to an internal conflict for many pregnant Puerto Rican women. Families felt stress and fear about the prospect of infants developing microcephaly. However, the warnings and official recommendations to delay reproduction provided uncomfortable reminders of the island’s colonial past, which includes targeted experimental clinical trials of oral contraceptives and sterilization offered primarily to low-income women. This led many interviewees to be skeptical about the threat of the Zika virus, but did not deter them from being concerned for their fetus’ well-being.

These participants identified sources of stress that varied widely, ranging from socioeconomic concerns, political changes, and gender-based inequalities. For example, in May 2016, Puerto Rico’s government defaulted on over 70 billion dollars of debt. Under the regulations passed by La Junta, the appointed fiscal board, many employees were fired and then rehired for lower pay. Also affected was the secondary public-school system: nearly 150 schools were closed. While these events are structural, the interviews revealed that within the Puerto Rican people, the impact of the events was personal, and the magnitude of impacts depended on individuals social support networks and life circumstances.

After comparing maternal cortisol levels with the perceived maternal stress from the structured surveys, which were collected in each trimester across pregnancy, Holly found a counter-intuitive result: some of the mothers who had most problems with their pregnancies (such as premature birth) had unusually low levels of cortisol. One current theory is the concepts of allostasis or allostatic load and “weathering,” a term which has been in the media in recently describing the cumulative effects of chronic stress on health (discussed in an NPR interview here in the context of race-based discrimination). Normally, the body responds to stress by heightening the amount of hormones such as cortisol. After the stressor is removed, hormone levels shift back to a low-stress state. However, if stress is prolonged over months or years–such as when living under a system of oppression–the body starts to experience “wear-and-tear,” causing the body’s stress response system to become ineffective. This ultimately impacts health outcomes, such as premature birth.

There have been road bumps along the way. In late summer 2017, Holly was nearly three quarters completed with data collection and the project was moving along smoothly. However, Mother Nature had different plans: In September 2017, Puerto Rico was hit first by Hurricane Irma and then by Category 4 Hurricane Maria two weeks later. The hurricanes destroyed the power grid and most of the island’s infrastructure. Holly was evacuated by OSU a week after the storm. Although she was worried about the well-being of her participants, and the impact this storm would have on the research project, NSF and her other funders graciously supported her to return and complete the study, which she did in February and March of 2018. As a separate side-project, Holly plans to return to Puerto Rico this summer to share study results with the community and with community partners.

To hear more about Holly’s research, tune in Sunday, December 9th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show at, or download our
podcast on iTunes!