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Rethinking oyster reef restoration and coastal community resilience: The use of biomimicry and outreach to offset the growing risk of invasive species

“I like to think of them as the corals of estuaries,” says Megan Considine as she describes the role that oysters play in coastal systems all over the world. Megan is a first-year Marine Resource Management Masters student who is working on a project to map the distribution of an invasive mud worm (Polydora websteri) that infects native shellfish such as the commercially grown Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas) and wild populations of Olympia oysters (Ostrea lurida).

Oyster transplant project in the Lynnhaven River, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay where Megan worked prior to coming to OSU. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Megan explains that these tiny worms don’t make the oyster meat inedible, as infected populations can still be harvested and sold for canning, but they do become unmarketable on the half shell. This is because the worms crawl between the inner shell surfaces, and the oyster then grows new shell material over it to wall off the invader. The worm then deposits muddy material or debris into the shell pocket and essentially creates a blister. Although these blisters are not known to negatively impact the oysters themselves, they are not exactly aesthetically pleasing to the consumer. This is what is really hurting the multi-million dollar industry and the main reason stakeholders from Alaska, Washington, Oregon and California are all working together to detect and prevent further spread of the worms. 

A Pacific oyster infected by the invasive mudworm, showing blisters that have been opened up to try and extract the worm. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Dr. Steve Rumrill is the Shellfish Program Leader at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and as courtesy faculty of Hatfield Marine Science Center is Megan’s primary advisor. Working with ODFW, Megan visits shellfish farms located in estuaries along the Oregon coast and picks up oysters which are inspected for worms. If found, samples are then sent to a lab in Washington for genetic analysis to confirm infestation. Megan says that farmers may not even know their oysters are infected and she hopes to expand her work beyond just ecological sampling to outreach and mitigating an emergent problem.

“I want to create an education piece in Spanish and English, so that farmers can be aware of when their oysters are infected.”

Megan’s passion for education goes far beyond aquaculture. Getting back to her coral analogy, oysters are not just important to aquaculture here in the Pacific Northwest. Ecologically, they are incredibly valuable wherever they occur both when living, for example, filtering the water column, but also after they die. Their calcium carbonate shells provide the foundational habitat that supports an incredible diversity of estuarine life. 

For a long time in oyster restoration efforts, it’s been understood that substrate is a primary limiting factor in supporting this reef-building capacity of oysters. According to Megan, in the PNW, they were just completely overharvested during the Gold Rush era. In addition to her work on invasive mud worms in oyster farms, Megan is also a part of efforts to restore natural oyster populations in Oregon, specifically at Yaquina Head. And this is an area of research Megan has been passionate about for some time. 

Megan getting ready to snorkel assist with coral restoration in the Florida Keys working with Mote Marine Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

Originally from Virginia Beach, Megan recalls her time as an elementary school student being tasked along with her classmates to monitor the growth of a bag of oysters donated by a local non-profit. Along with studying their entrusted specimens, she says that they would also engage in other activities about estuarine ecology surrounding oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. This hands-on experience would come full circle when after completing her undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina, Megan had the opportunity to intern with the same organization, Oyster Reef Keepers, that sponsored the oyster education program in several schools, leading kids through many of the same activities that sparked her early fascination with estuary ecosystems and marine science.  

Although a more well-known issue on the East coast, Megan explains that oyster habitat degradation is a world-wide problem and she came to Oregon State to expand her knowledge of its effects in other places. She says that oyster restoration hasn’t had as much momentum here in the West because aquaculture has been the focus, but it’s gaining traction. Concern over threats like climate change to coastal ecosystems have supported this trend. Although oysters are  less sensitive to climate change impacts like ocean acidification than corals are known to be, it still may compromise their ability to cope with other direct threats, such as invasive species. 

At Yaquina Head, Megan is working with an artist from the East coast named Evelyn Tickle who makes concrete tiles to be used in oyster reef restoration that are designed to mimic natural oyster beds. These one square foot tiles differ from the cinder block structures that have been used to provide substrate for the oysters to grow on in the past by providing a more complex structure made of compounds like calcium carbonate. Overall, the tiles give oysters a better chance to establish amidst other stressors. 

Megan has been so inspired by Evelyn’s work that she has begun working with two other OSU students, Chad Sullivan and Nicolás Gómez-Andújar, to develop other biomimicry concrete structures for future restoration efforts that support the erosion and storm mitigation services that both oysters and corals provide to coastal systems. They are calling themselves the Urban Reef Lab. 

Megan on one of many coastal trips taken since Megan moved to Oregon; exploring the West coast is one of her favorite pastime’s. Photo courtesy of Megan Considine.

“The idea is that instead of using simple and smooth breakwater structures or sea walls, we can incorporate textures and shapes that are designed for specific organisms. So, working with nature rather than against. For instance, if the goal is oyster settlement we would use the appropriate texture such as crevices and pits. The designs can also be used as hard substrate for coral outplants or for oyster restoration efforts, like the Yaquina Bay project.”

To learn more about Megan’s research and outreach goals beyond her graduate work, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or stream online March 15, 2020 at 7 P.M. 

Working with Dungeness crab fishermen to get a ‘sense’ of low-oxygen conditions off the Oregon coast

Linus tidepooling at Yaquina Head, Oregon Coast.

Linus Stoltz is a graduate student in the Marine Resource Management Master’s Program through the College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, co-advised by Dr. Kipp Shearman and Dr. Francis Chan. Only in his second term, Linus is already diving in to a project that means a lot to Oregon coastal communities.

Dungeness crab is the most profitable state-managed fishery in Oregon, generating $66.7 million dollars in commercial sales over the 2018-2019 season alone. However, an increasing threat to this valuable industry that has caused significant harvest reductions in recent years: hypoxia. Hypoxia refers to low-oxygen conditions in the ocean that have been recorded as occurring more frequently off the Oregon Coast and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where Dungeness crab fishing is a major activity. In some parts of the ocean, such as the Gulf Coast, these conditions are triggered by pollution which causes overproduction of algae, followed by excess decomposition. However, here, it’s more complicated. These conditions are generated by offshore wind- driven movement of cold, nutrient-rich but oxygen-poor deep water across the continental shelf, toward the coast.

This process of ‘upwelling’ (see figure below) is a natural occurrence, but scientists speculate that climate change is making these events more frequent and their characteristics severe. As a Marine Biology major in his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Linus admits that oceanography isn’t exactly in his “wheelhouse” but it doesn’t take an oceanographer to understand that atmospheric conditions are strongly tied to ocean circulation patterns. Referring to graphic representations of Northwest wind stress and dissolved oxygen concentrations, he says “they’re pretty well correlated.” Normally, the offshore winds that drive upwelling are counteracted by a shifting of wind patterns that ultimately allow them to mix sufficiently and re-oxygenate. But the reality is that this is happening less and less frequently.

The process of ‘upwelling’ off the West Coast. Source. www.noaa.gov

What does hypoxia mean for Dungeness crabs? Linus describes the events like waves of low-oxygen water moving slowly across the seafloor. As bottom-dwelling organisms that depend on dissolved oxygen to breathe, if conditions are severe enough or persist long enough, they’ll die. More and more instances of crab fishermen pulling up their gear full of dead crabs prompted them to reach out to scientists for help. Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) biologists and researchers at Oregon State University (OSU) have been working together since 2002 to try and find answers. Check out this video by ODFW to see real-time footage of a hypoxic wave as it flows over a Dungeness crab pot in 2017.

While we are beginning to understand the bigger picture of the oceanographic conditions that result in hypoxia, Linus explains that we don’t have any models that predict this ‘wave’ on a finer scale. He describes the ocean as patchy, where conditions just a thousand yards away from where a fisherman may have set his or her pots may be completely different. The ultimate goal of his research is to be able to predict these conditions and inform management decisions such as seasonal and/or spatial closures.

The roughly two-foot long Sexton oxygen sensor seen above will be attached to an individual crab pot that will transmit data via Bluetooth to the Deck Data Hub which will then relay the information to a receiver on the OSU campus.

But even more important to fisherman now, the project will also provide ‘in situ’ information fisherman can use to make critical decisions while they’re out there. To achieve this, Linus will be equipping fishermen with sensors to be deployed by Dungeness crab fishermen through the season to collect data on dissolved oxygen. The data recorded by the sensors can be seen immediately by fishermen when they retrieve their pots and will also be automatically transferred via Bluetooth to a box on deck which will ultimately transmit to a receiver on the OSU campus. The hope is to capture the variability in oxygen conditions, while minimizing their impact on fishing operations.

Linus tagging red drum in Hancock Creek when he worked for North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries (NCDMF).

Before coming to OSU, Linus spent time as an observer for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries testing by-catch reduction technology in the shrimp trawling industry, an experience he recounts as “character-building to say the least.” In other words, Linus knows how important it is to streamline the process if he wants to get any cooperation from fishermen and collecting data can’t be in the way or slow them down. A stark contrast, however, between the interactions between fisherman and researchers on the East Coast to Oregon is that this relationship is more than just cooperative, it’s a collaboration. Fishermen here trust scientists, but at the same time the researchers recognize that fishermen are out there more and are the ones who see changes first-hand.

For Linus, this project represents one of just about any marine science topic he’s excited to be involved in. To learn more about Linus’s journey from SCUBA diving in a cold lake in Ohio as a ten-year old to working as an underwater technician monitoring artificial reefs off the coast of North Carolina, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or online February 23, 2020 at 7 P.M.

Swimming with Salmon(ids)

Dams, bears, and anglers aren’t the only challenges that salmon face as they undergo their journeys from their mountain river birthplaces to the Pacific Ocean and back again. Timber harvests, dam-induced streamflow changes, and climate change have increased stream temperatures throughout the Pacific Northwest. Native cold-water-loving species like salmon and trout struggle in warm water, while certain parasitic microbes flourish.

The confluence of the Deschutes and Columbia Rivers. Illustration by Daniel Watkins.

Sofiya Yusova, a master’s degree candidate in the Department of Microbiology at Oregon State University, researches the microbe Ceratonova shasta. Her work aims to understand how C. shasta adapts to climate change in river ecosystems in the Pacific Northwest. Her advisor, Dr. Jerri Bartholomew, runs a long-term monitoring project in the Klamath River, and recently began applying the same methods to the Deschutes and Willamette Rivers. Dr. Bartholomew and her lab identified the complex lifecycle of the parasite, recognizing that C. shasta requires an intermediate host (the polychaete worm) in order to infect fish. Understanding the lifecycle is critical for understanding how to intervene when fish populations are struggling, as well as for anticipating the effects of climate change. As stated on Dr. Bartholomew’s website, “Climate change is expected to have profound effects on host-pathogen interactions. We are examining how this might affect myxozoan disease by developing predictions for how the phenology of parasite life cycles will change under future climates, how changing flow dynamics will alter disease, and to identify river habitats that should be protected as refugia.”

Lifecycle of ceratanova shasta. Illustration by Daniel Watkins.

Having a healthy population of salmon is important for many groups, including tribal communities, commercial and recreational anglers. Salmonids (a family of fish including salmon, trout, whitefish, and char) are particularly susceptible to infection when water temperature is warmer than usual, stream flow is low, or the number of C. shasta spores is high. Collaborative monitoring projects on the Klamath River and the Deschutes River have shown that the danger of deadly infections varies along the course of the river. This knowledge has allowed river managers to focus their efforts. For example, if the number of infectious spores is especially high, dam flowthrough rates can be increased to “flush out” the pathogens.

Tune in Sunday, February 2nd at 7pm on 88.7 FM or online to learn more about Sofiya’s research and her personal journey.

Robots! A Story of Engineering and Biology

Meet Nathan Justus, a Robotics Engineer at Oregon State University.

“I never thought I’d end up in graduate school funded by grape lobbyists,” says Nathan Justus, a robotics engineer at OSU, “but here we are!”

Imagine you reach down into a bag of grapes only to notice a black widow spider crawling through the grape stems. These small spiders have an unusually potent venom containing a neurotoxin that is harmful to large vertebrates (aka humans!). Although there haven’t been any deaths from black widows transmitted through grape production to date, you can imagine why the 800 people that find black widows in their grapes every year get quite the scare. Not surprisingly, the grape industry is looking for a sustainable way to solve this problem. After all, the use of pesticides and fumigants is harmful for humans and the environment, and black widow spiders are actually beneficial to the grape-growing ecosystem. Nathan is part of a team that is using robotics as a creative tool to tackle this issue, and by taking this interdisciplinary approach, the development of a promising solution is underway. 

Generally, Nathan studies the robotics of biological motion. It turns out that when a black widow spider enters the web of another, the two spiders pluck at the web to communicate and ultimately determine who gets to stay and who has to leave. Nathan’s lab is partnered with arachnologists and researchers at the USDA who found that when you record the spiders plucking and play it back to them, sometimes the spiders would leave the webs. Part of what Nathan worked on for his Master’s project was a new method to measure the frequency of the web vibrations in order to fine tune and develop a method for implementing this spider evacuation plan. 

The status quo method of measuring such vibrations has been to use a fancy laser, which catches shifts in wavelength in order to deduce the frequency of vibration. Although this method works great for flat surfaces, it is understandably a challenge to use a laser on a moving spider or web. Enter video vibrometry: the new method that Nathan has been working towards developing. Simply put, this method involves pointing a video camera at a target, in this case, the black widow web, and then a little bit of “math magic” will yield the vibration frequency. This piece of technology works towards the greater goal of the project; to allow spiders to live comfortably in their homes as grapes grow, but leave when the time comes to harvest. Happy farmers, (relatively) happy spiders.

Luckily, Nathan is not leaving OSU as a researcher any time soon. He will be beginning his PhD in Robotics with Dr. Joe Davidson working to solve an entirely different puzzle. The overarching project goal is the development of autonomous robots that can navigate and interact with the underwater environment. This has many practical applications; just to name one, there is the extensive feat of keeping up with the frequent maintenance needed for our global telecommunications infrastructure, which, of course, is underwater. Maybe we want robots that will be able to work on ship hull examinations and repair, or perhaps we are envisioning a fleet of scientific robots that can explore shipwrecks or the ocean floor. Currently we have robots for the underwater environment, however, most are either human operated and thus attached to a tether, or must be within 10 meters of controls. Creating a robot that can break free of these limitations and navigate through the noise of currents and frictions, all while receiving feedback from the environment, is incredibly complex. Nathan’s PhD work will move the state of research on underwater robotics closer to autonomy.

Nathan was on the winning team for the NASA RASCAL Robotics Ops Competition. His team received $10,000 of funding to build a rover. Their rover was inspired by the Russian style Marsicon and was roughly 1m by 1m upon completion.

Nathan didn’t always know that he would end up working on underwater robots. He grew up dreaming of being an aerospace engineer, and went to the University of Oklahoma for just that. In his undergrad, he joined a team that got funded 10,000 to join a national competition to build a rover for NASA, and even won. After graduating, he joined NASA and worked in mission controls for the International Space Station. Nathan was part of the communications teams that worked in real time, 24-hours a day to keep the communication channels at NASA up and running. Legend has it that he has even gone rock climbing with astronauts. 

Mission Controls at NASA

Impressed? Me too. Intrigued? Tune into the live interview with Nathan this Sunday, December 8that 7:00pm on 88.7 KBVR Corvallis or stream it live! 

Putting years and years of established theory to the test

A lot of the concepts that scientists use to justify why things are the way they are, are devised solely based on theory. Some theoretical concepts have been established for so long that they are simply accepted without being scrutinized very often. The umbrella species concept is one such example as it is a theoretical approach to doing conservation and although in theory it is thought to be an effective strategy for conserving ecosystems, it is actually very rarely empirically tested. Enter Alan Harrington, who is going to test its validity empirically.

Alan is a 2nd year Master’s student in the Department of Animal and Rangeland Sciences working with Dr. Jonathan Dinkins. Alan’s research and fieldwork focuses on three species of sagebrush- steppe habitat (SBSH) obligate songbirds: the Brewer’s sparrow, sagebrush sparrow, and sage thrasher. Being a SBSH obligate means that these three birds require sagebrush to fulfill a stage of their life-history needs, namely during their breeding season. However, by studying these three species, Alan is aiming to tackle a broad conservation shortcut as he is trying to figure out whether the umbrella species conservation approach has worked in the SBSH where conservation is guided by the biology of the greater sage-grouse (GSG), which has been termed an umbrella species for sagebrush habitat for many years.

An umbrella species, a close cousin to keystone or an indicator species, is a plant or animal used to represent other species or aspects of the environment to achieve conservation objectives. The GSG is such a species for the SBSH. However, the SBSH is an expansive habitat found across 11 western US states and two Canadian province that covers several millions acres of land. Hence, the question of whether one species alone can be used to manage this large habitat is a valid one. Furthermore, SBSH has been declining dramatically over the last decades. In fact, it is one of the fastest declining habitats in North America. This decrease in available sagebrush habitat has led to the decline in GSG populations since European settlement and the GSG requires SBSH to fulfill its life-history needs. Thus, populations of other birds that require the SBSH have been declining too, like sagebrush-obligate songbirds.

Alan using binoculars to survey for songbirds to determine their abundances.

The state of Oregon, like many other western US states, are concerned about protecting SBSH and GSG because they are both quickly declining and songbirds are extremely sensitive to changes in the environment responding quickly to them. Within the last 10 years, the GSG was petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act by several expert groups due to the severity of the decline. Both times, the petitions were designated warranted however were precluded from listing. This issue of declining SBSH and declining GSG populations is made more complicated by the fact that most SBSH also doubles as rangeland for grazing cattle or SBSH is often used for agriculture. Thus, the petitioning for trying to get the GSG listed as endangered caused stakeholders in Oregon to get involved in this situation since the listing of the GSG as endangered could result in very radical management changes for the SBSH, limiting agricultural and land use of this habitat.

Map of Alan’s study area.

As you can see, the topic is not a simple, straightforward one, however Alan is already two years into getting the data to answer some of his questions. Alan’s fieldwork takes place in eastern Oregon in a study area that is 1.4 million acres big. Naturally, he doesn’t survey every single foot of that massive area. Instead he and his lab mates (three of them work together during the field season to collect data for all of their projects) have 147 random point locations, which are located within five Priority Areas of Conservation (PAC), designated by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife as core conservation areas based on high densities of breeding GSG. The field season is from May to July and Alan often puts in 80-hour work weeks to get the job done. For his data collection, Alan does random nest transect surveys at each of the 147 locations for the three sagebrush obligate songbird species, as well as collecting abundance data on any songbird he sees at each random point location. These two methods are also done for GSG UTM locations so that Alan can compare data between them and the songbirds. On top of this, Alan received a grant from the Oregon Wildlife Foundation to purchase iButton temperature loggers to deploy into songbird nests. Along with trail cameras, these will help Alan identify events indicative of nest success or nest failure.

Alan will start his first round of analyses this winter and he’s looking forward to digging into the data that he and his lab mates have worked hard to collect. Ultimately, Alan hopes that his research will make a difference, not just for the sagebrush steppe habitat, his three songbird species, or the greater sage-grouse, but also within other ecosystems. The umbrella species concept is used in all aspects of ecology and so hopefully his findings will be applicable beyond his field of study. 

To hear more about Alan’s research and also about his journey to OSU and more on his personal background, tune in on Sunday, November 24 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live

If you can’t wait until then, follow Alan’s lab on Twitter!

Also, check out this recent publication that Alan played a big role in devising and writing while he was at the University of Montana in the Avian Science Center. The project tested auditory survey methodologies and how methodology can help reduce survey issues like misidentification and double counting of bird calls/signals. 

Finding the Tipping Point

Sustainable Fishing – A Case Study of Cooperation

We are really good at catching fishing. While the number of fish being commercially caught is ranges from 4-55%, the fact-of-the-matter is that overfishing is an issue in need of attention. The answer isn’t simply that less fishing needs to occur, it is much more nuanced than that – Is there a way to have more fish and seafood, provide jobs for those in the fishing industry, and make the oceans healthier? Sustainable fishing practices seek to manage this issue, but how are those practices informed? Responsible resource management is just one example of how not cooperating (overfishing) will deplete our resources. What do we know about cooperation? Can we quantify the tipping point?

Cheaters Never Prosper, Or Do They?

This week’s guest, Bryan Lynn, a second-year PhD student co-advised by Dr. Patrick De Leenheer in the Department of Integrative Biology and Martin Schuster in Microbiology studies the evolution of cooperation. To do this, Bryan scales his work way down to microorganism level. Evolutionary theory has been largely based on the Darwinian premise of the survival of the fittest, but Bryan’s research is challenging this – not cooperating makes you more fit as an individual, but is that best for the group as a whole? 

Bryan’s queer and trans identities inspires him to engage in both LGBT+ outreach and taking selfies with signs that have the word “gay” in them.

Using the bacteria Psuedomonas aeruginosa as a model organism, Bryan is able to manipulate the behavior of the bacteria and study what happens in a chemostat system – a device which allows the bacteria to grow continuously with a constant input of a food source and output of the mixed solution – making it an excellent metaphor for life.  When there are finite resources available, questions can be asked about how the bacteria cooperate with each other in different scenarios. For example, Bryan mutates some of the bacteria to be so-called “cheaters,” as they do not make an enzyme and thus do not expend energy but reap all the benefits as the non-cheater bacteria. Using mathematical models, Bryan is able to simulate different conditions and put a number to the tipping point where the community is no longer able to persist in a steady state. 

The Path to Math

Bryan spent many years as a Le Cordon Bleu-trained pastry chef before deciding he wanted to change careers and find something with better pay and benefits. Bryan returned to community college in Minnesota and started taking math courses, as they were a relevant start to any STEM field should he decide to switch majors, but he never did. Bryan eventually transitioned to the University of Massachusetts in Boston where he earned his bachelor’s degree in math.

As an undergraduate Bryan took courses in evolutionary game theory, which allowed him to find a way to bridge math theory to a real-world application. During his time in Boston, Bryan also had the opportunity to intern at the MIT Bates Radiation Facility to study proton lasers used for cancer treatments, as well as complete an Oracle Fellowship where he began a research project investigating the evolution of cooperation through ostracism. This research opened up Bryan to world of math biology, which ultimately led him to pursue a PhD at Oregon State. After graduate school Bryan hopes to continue research in academia and provide representation for the LGBT+ in STEM fields. 

Join us on Sunday, November 17 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to learn more about Bryan’s math biology research, non-traditional journey to graduate school, and LGBT+ activism. 

To learn more about Bryan’s research, check out his publication:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025556419303785?

Tsunami Surfing and the Giant Snot

Sam Harry’s research is filled with bizarre scientific instruments and massive contraptions in an effort to bring large natural events into the laboratory setting. 

Sam Harry, second year PhD candidate in Civil Engineering

“There’s only a couple like it in the world, so it’s pretty unique”. Unique may be an understatement when describing what may be the largest centrifuge in North America. A centrifuge is a machine with a rapidly rotating container that can spin at unfathomable speeds and in doing so applies centrifugal force (sort of like gravitational force) to whatever is inside. This massive scientific instrument– with a diameter of roughly 18 feet– was centerpiece to Sam’s Master’s work studying how tsunamis affect boulder transport, and the project drew him in to continue studying the impact of tsunamis on rivers for his PhD. 

But before we jump ahead, let’s talk about what a giant centrifuge has to do with tsunamis. Scientists studying tsunamis are faced with the challenge of scale; laboratory simulations of tsunamis in traditional water-wave-tank facilities are often difficult and inaccurate because of the sheer size and power of real tsunamis. By conducting experiments within the centrifuge, Sam and his research group were able to control body force within the centrifuge environment and thus reduce the mismatch in fluid flow conditions between the simulated experiment and real-life tsunamis. 

When tsunamis occur they cause significant damage to coastal infrastructure and the surrounding natural environment. Tsunamis hit the coast with a force that can move large boulders– so large, in fact, that they aren’t moved any other way. Researchers can actually date back to when a boulder moved by analysing the surrounding sediments, and thus, can back calculate how long ago that particular tsunami hit. However, studying the movement of massive boulders, like tsunamis, is not easily carried out in the lab. So, Sam used a wave maker within, of course, the massive centrifuge to study the movement of boulders when they are hit with some big waves. 

Sam’s work space. The Green dye added to the water within the glass tank is what gives this tank it’s name: The Giant Snot

As Sam was completing his Master’s an opportunity opened up for him to continue the work that he loves through a PhD program in civil engineering with OSU’s wave lab. Now Sam conducts his research using the “glass tank”, which, as the name alludes to, is a glass tank roughly the size of a commercial kitty pool that is used to contain the water and artificial waves the lab generates for their research. There are actually three glass tanks of varying sizes. The largest tank, which is larger than a football field, is used for more “practical applications”. Sam gives us the example of a recent study in which researchers built artificial sand dunes inside of the tank, let vegetation establish, and then hit the dunes with waves to study how tsunamis impact that environment. (Legend has it that the largest tank was actually surfed in by one of the researchers!)

Sam’s smaller glass tank, though, is really meant for making precision measurements to better study waves. He uses lasers to measure flow velocity and depth of water to build mathematically difficult, complex models. Essentially, his models are intended to be the benchmarks for numerical simulations. Sam, now into his second year of his PhD, will be using these models in his research to study the interaction between tsunamis and rivers, with the goal of understanding the movement and impact of tsunamis as they propagate upstream.

To learn more about tsunamis, boulders, rivers, and all of the interesting methods Sam’s lab uses to study waves, tune into KBVR 88.7 FM on Sunday, November 3rd at 7pm or live stream the show at http://www.orangemedianetwork.com/kbvr_fm/. If you can’t join us live, download the episode from the “Inspiration Dissemination” podcast on iTunes!

If a fault moves at the bottom of the ocean, can anyone hear it?

A few hundred miles off the coast of Oregon, and under several miles of sea water, lies the Blanco Transform Fault. It is between the Juan de Fuca and the Gorda tectonic ridges. Ocean transform faults such as this one connect seafloor ridges and are where volcanic activity creates new oceanic crust. This fault is more seismically active than many faults on land, generating over 1,600 earthquakes in a single year (between 2012 and 2013). Did you feel anything then?

Location and tectonic setting of the Blanco Transform Fault.

Vaclav Kuna, a doctoral candidate in seismology in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences working with Dr. John Nabelek, is studying this fault—how it slips and how it moves, and whether its motion is seismic (involving an earthquake) or aseismic (slow movement without an earthquake). A collection of movements is called a seismic swarm. The hypothesis is that prior to large, seismic motions, there are small, aseismic motions. Through his research, Vaclav hopes to decipher what occurs in a swarm, and discover if there is a pattern in the fault’s motions.

The model Vaclav is working to develop of the mode of slip of the Blanco Transform Fault. We believe that slow (non-seismic) creep occurs at depth in the fault beneath the Moho and loads the shallower part of the fault. The slip at depth most likely triggers the big earthquakes, that are preceded by foreshocks associated with creep.

This is different than predicting earthquakes. As a seismologist, Vaclav is trying to understand and report on the behavior of a fault, not predict when a certain magnitude earthquake will occur. However, other researchers can use findings like Vaclav’s to create prediction models which are necessary for earthquake damage mitigation and increasing public safety during and after earthquake events.

To look for patterns in the fault’s motions, Vaclav analyzes a year’s worth of data from seismometers and pressure gauges that were deployed from a ship to the fault at the ocean floor several years ago. The seismometers measure the velocity of a fault’s movement in three directions (two horizontal and one vertical), and the pressure gauges act as microphones capturing sound waves. The data can be decomposed into a series of many waves (like sine or cosine waves). Vaclav can track these waves in the sensors deployed along this fault and determine the variability of motion in both time and space. After the sensors are finished collecting the data, a remote control turns on an electrical circuit, that triggers a corrosion reaction and severs a wire holding a large weight that is keeping the sensors at the ocean floor—which seems like something taken right out of a spy movie.

Deployment of ocean bottom seimometers (yellow packets) at the Blanco Transform Fault. Every packet includes a 3-component seismometer and a differential pressure gauge (which acts as a microphone).

So why would a researcher monitor a fault that is miles underwater when there are faults on land? Ocean transform faults are less complex than faults on land, making them desirable to study in order to answer fundamental questions about fault behavior. In addition, they are extremely seismically active and generate earthquakes more frequently than faults on land. However, ocean transform faults are evidently more difficult to observe, and because the process of planning for and conducting fieldwork is time-intensive, most of the data Vaclav uses were gathered before he was enrolled at OSU. In turn, Vaclav helps deploy sensors and gather data for future students to analyze at a number of different faults around the world.

Vaclav at a station deployment at the Kazbegi mountain, Georgia (Caucasus mountain range).

Vaclav did his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geophysics in Prague, Czech Republic. He was motivated to study Geophysics because there is a lot that is unknown about how the Earth’s tectonic plates move, and many people living near these faults. In his spare time, Vaclav likes swimming, running, skiing and kayaking. After completing his PhD, Vaclav wants to find a job working towards hazard-related mitigation to help people who are vulnerable to the damages caused by earthquake hazards.

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!

 

References:
Summary of stem cell treatment for back pain: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3347696/
Discussion of current strategies for treatment of lower back pain: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5651638/

 

 

Being the Multilingual, Racialized “Other” in an English Dominated Linguistic Landscape

Jason at the whiteboard

Consider the language and messages you process each day. As you navigate your daily routine, what language do you hear and see most frequently? For folks living in the Corvallis, Oregon, the answer is probably English. In the last month, how many times, when, and where have you been exposed to spoken words or even signs in another language? For those of us on the Oregon State University campus, you could easily overhear or may participate in a conversation in Spanish, Chinese, or Arabic in the Memorial Union or Valley Library. How does the “linguistic landscape” (written or spoken words you encounter in life) affect you? What do you feel and how do you react to hearing a language you don’t understand? Have you been told that you don’t speak English well enough?

Shenanigans in Portland with Pat

Jason Sarkozi-Forfinski, a PhD student in Anthropology, wants to gain insight into the linguistic landscape students at Oregon State University are exposed to and their actions and feelings about about it, especially for students from non-English speaking countries. Jason’s research involves interviewing students and community members about their experiences in the US such as:

  • How do Thai-speaking folks fair when practicing English with a non-American accent?
  • How does a (white) American- English speaker from Roseburg regard different accents?
  • How do Mandarin speakers from Malaysia react to others speaking English with different accents?
  • How does an Arabic speaker from the Gulf region perceive their own accent?
  • How comfortable do Japanese speakers feel speaking a language other than English in the US?
  • How is all of this connected to the institutionalized tool of racism?

Jason has found that folks have preferences or biases about their linguistic landscape. Oregon State recruits both students from around the world and a large multilingual community of more local students. His respondents have reported being discouraged from speaking in a non-English language or facing negative social and professional consequences for speaking other languages or English with a non-(white)American accent. Could a preference for English with a (white) American accent perpetuate division? Or even bigoted practices?

Jason’s current research developed from years of conversations with friends and colleagues about being multilingual in the US. He began exploring language in his undergraduate education where he majored in Spanish and also studied Portuguese. He also studied English in Miami,

Grilled cheese on a school bus in Portland with Veronica (left) and husband, Nick.

Florida, and worked to understand how non-English languages influences local English. Before coming to OSU for his PhD, Jason has worked as a Spanish and English instructor in the US, Spain, Japan, and China.

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

Clarification [See Podcast at 25:45]: Asking someone to change their accent, according to Lippi-Green a linguistic who wrote “Speaking with an Accent,” is like asking someone to change their height. It’s doable (with lots of surgery) but would require a lot of intervention. The point here is that it’s not realistic to ask someone to work on their accent. It’s also rather demeaning.