When Fungus is Puzzling: A Glimpse into Natural Products Research

Ninety years ago, a fungal natural product was discovered that rocked the world of medicine: penicillin. Penicillin is still used today, but in the past ninety years, drug and chemical resistance have become a hot topic of concern not only in medicine, but also in agriculture. We are in desperate need of new chemical motifs for use in a wide range of biological applications. One way to find these new compounds is through natural products chemistry. Over 50% of drugs approved in the last ~30 years have been impacted by natural products research, being directly sourced from natural products or inspired by them.

Picture a flask full of microbe juice containing a complex mixture of hundreds or thousands of chemical compounds. Most of these chemicals are not useful to humans – in fact, useful compounds are exceedingly rare. Discovering new natural products, identifying their function, and isolating them from a complex mixture of other chemicals is like solving a puzzle. Donovon Adpressa, a 5th year PhD candidate in Chemistry working in the Sandra Loesgen lab, fortunately loves to solve puzzles.

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR): an instrument used to elucidate the structure of compounds.

Donovon’s thesis research involves isolating novel compounds from fungi. Novel compounds are identified using a combination of separation and analytical chemistry techniques. Experimentally, fungi can be manipulated into producing compounds they wouldn’t normally produce by altering what they’re fed. Fungi exposed to different treatments are split into groups and compared, to assess what kind of differences are occurring. By knocking out certain genes and analyzing their expression, it’s possible to determine how the compound was made. Once a new structure has been identified and isolated, Donovon moves on to another puzzle: does the structure have bioactivity, and in what setting would it be useful?

Donovon’s interest in chemistry sparked in community college. While planning to study Anthropology, he took a required chemistry course. Not only did he ace it, but he loved the material. The class featured a one-week lecture on organic chemistry and he thought, ‘I’m going to be an organic chemist.’ However, there were no research opportunities at the community college level, and he knew he would need research experience to continue in chemistry.

At Eastern Washington University, Donovon delved into undergraduate research, and got to work on a few different projects combining elements of medicinal and materials chemistry. While still an undergrad, Donovon had the opportunity to present his research at OSU, which provided an opportunity to meet faculty and see Corvallis. It all felt right and fell into place here at OSU.

As a lover of nature and hiking in the pacific northwest, Donovon has always had a soft spot for mycology. It was serendipitous that he ended up in a natural products lab doing exactly what interested him. Donovon’s next step is to work in the pharmaceutical industry, where he will get to solve puzzles for a living!

Tune in at 7pm on Sunday, March 18th to hear more about Donovon’s research and journey through graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live.

This includes you!

A graph illustrating why it is important to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process where they will do the most good. If it is kept for a later stage as it generally has been, the products will end up more expensive and less effectively inclusive.

Jessica Armstrong is a PhD candidate in her last year in the Design Core of the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering working to give product designers more information about customer needs so that they can create a more inclusive product design. Generally, products are conceived out of a need, and their design is based on the eventual user(s). The term inclusive design, similar to universal design, aims to design products for people with a varying range of abilities from the start. Making it possible to incorporate inclusive considerations early in the design process, when they will most benefit the design, and at the lowest cost, is a major part of the work. Jessica’s research goal is to build a framework that designers can follow to allow them to easily design as inclusive products as possible.

A picture of Jessica in the motion restriction suit.

To do this, Jessica, advised by Dr. Rob Stone, uses a motion restriction suit (tested during her M.S. degree at OSU) to test users’ experiences using kitchen gadgets. The suit restricts motion of the upper body by stiffening movements of the fingers, wrists, elbows, abdomen, and shoulder. They are investigating what they have termed “surrogate experiences”, or allowing a research subject (surrogate) to simulate the actual target users and their needs. Jessica is able to record a user’s experience with the kitchen gadget and identify any difficulties in products user interactions, the products actions and design, and the suit’s restriction.

 

 

 

Jessica Armstrong, at her first Design Engineering Technical Conference.

Jessica grew up in Boise, Idaho wanting to become an astronaut. Very much interested in physics and engineering, she moved to Corvallis for her Bachelor’s degree in Engineering Physics. She took a break from studying while her husband worked on his Entomology MS degree at Washington State University. During that time, she worked as a telephone interviewer for WSU’s Social and Economic Sciences Research Center where she interviewed people over the phone for the various studies they were conducting. She then moved back to OSU to pursue her MS and then PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and specifically focusing on design. She acquired a minor in IE Human Systems Engineering, as she finds the human aspect of engineering fascinating. While not working on research, Jessica sings alto and tenor in OSU’s University Choral and is the Treasurer for the OSU Physicists for Inclusion in Science group.

Her interest in space has not dissipated and she aims to work for a private space company after completing her degree. She hopes her doctoral research will eventually be used to encourage inclusivity in space travel and everyday life.

Tune in at 7 pm this Sunday March, 11 to hear more about Jessica’s research and journey to graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live online!

 

 

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.

Aquatic Invertebrates: Why You Should Give a Dam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tune in at 7 pm this Sunday February, 25 to hear more about Erin’s research and journey to graduate school. Not a local listener? Stream the show live.

How many robots does it take to screw in a light bulb?

As technology continues to improve over the coming years, we are beginning to see increased integration of robotics into our daily lives. Imagine if these robots were capable of receiving general instructions regarding a task, and they were able to learn, work, and communicate as a team to complete that task with no additional guidance. Our guest this week on Inspiration Dissemination, Connor Yates a Robotics PhD student in the College of Engineering, studies artificial intelligence and machine learning and wants to make the above hypothetical scenario a reality. Connor and other members of the Autonomous Agents and Distributed Intelligence Laboratory are keenly interested in distributed reinforcement learning, optimization, and control in large complex robotics systems. Applications of this include multi-robot coordination, mobile robot navigation, transportation systems, and intelligent energy management.

Connor Yates.

A long time Beaver and native Oregonian, Connor grew up on the eastern side of the state. His father was a botanist, which naturally translated to a lot of time spent in the woods during his childhood. This, however, did not deter his aspirations of becoming a mechanical engineer building rockets for NASA. Fast forward to his first term of undergraduate here at Oregon State University—while taking his first mechanical engineering course, he realized rocket science wasn’t the academic field he wanted to pursue. After taking numerous different courses, one piqued his interest, computer science. He then went on to flourish in the computer science program eventually meeting his current Ph.D. advisor, Dr. Kagan Tumer. Connor worked with Dr. Tumer for two of his undergraduate years, and completed his undergraduate honors thesis investigating the improvement to gauge the intent of multiple robots working together in one system.

Connor taking in a view at Glacier National Park 2017.

Currently, Connor is working on improving the ability for machines to learn by implementing a reward system; think of a “good robot” and “bad robot” system. Using computer simulations, a robot can be assigned a general task. Robots usually begin learning a task with many failed attempts, but through the reward system, good behaviors can be enforced and behaviors that do not relate to the assigned task can be discouraged. Over thousands of trials, the robot eventually learns what to do and completes the task. Simple, right? However, this becomes incredibly more complex when a team of robots are assigned to learn a task. Connor focuses on rewarding not just successful completion an assigned task, but also progress toward completing the task. For example, say you have a table that requires six robots to move. When two robots attempt the task and fail, rather than just view it as a failed task, robots are capable of learning that two robots are not enough and recruit more robots until successful completion of the task. This is seen as a step wise progression toward success rather than an all or nothing type situation. It is Connor’s hope that one day in the future a robot team could not only complete a task but also report reasons why a decision was made to complete an assigned task.

In Connor’s free time he enjoys getting involved in the many PAC courses that are offered here at Oregon State University, getting outside, and trying to teach his household robot how to bring him a beer from the fridge.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 PM Sunday evening to hear more about Connor and his research on artificial intelligence, or stream the program live.

When Paths Cross: The Intersection of Art, Science and Humanities on the Discovery Trail

When you think about a high school field trip to the forest, what comes to mind? Hiking boots, binoculars, magnifying glasses, plant and fungi identification, data collection – the science stuff, right? Well, some high school students are getting much more than a science lesson on the Discovery Trail  at the HJ Andrews Long-Term Ecological Research Forest in the western Cascades Mountains, where researchers are seeking to provide a more holistic experience by connecting students with the forest though art, imagination, critical thinking and reflection.

Sarah (red hard hat) observing two student groups on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Working with environmental scholar and philosopher Dr. Michael Nelson at Oregon State University (OSU), Sarah Kelly is pursuing a Master of Arts degree as a member of the first cohort of the Environmental Arts and Humanities program. Through this program, Sarah works with many collaborators at the HJ Andrews Forest to enrich the experiences of middle and high school students through environmental education.

Sarah giving presentation on the Discovery Trail for the Long-Term Ecological Research 7 midterm review (August 2017); Photo Credit: Lina DiGregorio

Built in 2011, the Discovery Trail at the HJ Andrews Forest not only provides researchers access to field sites, but also is a venue for educational programming. Since the trail’s inception, researchers have designed curriculum that integrated the arts, humanities and science – the foundation of Sarah’s research.  The objective for the trail curriculum is to invite students to explore their own curiosity and values for forests while learning about place through observation, mindfulness exercises, scientific inquiry, and storytelling. Sarah and other researchers are interested in how this integrated arts/science curriculum stimulates appreciation and empathy for non-humans and ecosystems. This curriculum was first used on the trail in 2016.

Two students examining the dry streambed at stop 3 on the Discovery Trail (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

With the use of iPads to guide activities and collect research data, students engage with the forest at a series of stops. After a silent sensory walk to just be in the forest, students cluster in small groups to participate in the lessons at a designated location. At one stop, students are instructed to gain intimate knowledge of one plant by observing all of its features and completing a blind contour drawing. A clearing at another stop encourages students to find clues and identify reasons for disturbances in the forest and their impacts – positive and negative – on the forest ecosystem. Another stop invites students to consider how we can care for forests by reading Salmon Boy, a Native American legend about a boy that gains an appreciation for non-human life by becoming a salmon.

Two students reading Salmon Boy near Lookout Creek at stop 6 (October 2017); Photo Credit: Mark Schulze

Using the iPads to log student experiences on the trail, pre- and post-stop reflections, surveys and interviews, Sarah and her collaborators are able to understand the students’ experiences on the trail and assess any cognitive or affective shifts. Several weeks after the trip, teachers are also interviewed to find if the trail experience has impacted student learning and behavior in the classroom. Many teachers are returning visitors, bringing different classes to the Discovery Trail each year.

Sarah’s first trip to the Pacific Northwest; Multnomah Falls in background (November 2014)

So far, the students have expressed positive feedback about their trip on the Discovery Trail with many citing their relaxed mood, new career interests and inspiration to better care for nature. Sarah is busily analyzing the data collected to support her findings and identify ways to continue to enhance the program.

Sarah cultivated a new interest in human impacts on the environment while working for a green events company – the kind that focuses on sustainability – after completing her BA in Communications at her hometown university, the University of Houston. A few years after graduating, she led campus sustainability initiatives for her alma mater – a job she enjoyed immensely, but she always knew that graduate school was her next big undertaking. A work trip to attend the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference brought Sarah to Portland, Oregon, where she and her husband, Dwan, fell in love with the Pacific Northwest.

Sarah working on her research project during a Spring Creek Project retreat at Shotpouch Cabin (January 2017); Photo Credit: Jill Sisson

Eventually, Sarah was able to combine her graduate school dreams with her desire to live in Oregon when she became a student at OSU. Sarah is now nearing the end of her graduate studies and recently participated in a Spring Creek Project Retreat to work on a writing piece, as part of her final project – a creative non-fiction composition about her experience with students on the trail. After leaving Houston, Sarah has learned to embrace and enjoy uncertainty and is keeping all possibilities open for her next big step. There is no doubt she will be working to improve the world around us.

Join us on Sunday, February 11 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to journey with Sarah through her environmental education research and path to graduate school.

 

 

 

How can humans help oysters adapt to stresses from ocean acidification?

The Pacific Northwest supports a 270 million dollar per year shellfish industry. Human-induced climate change has increased global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. More carbon dioxide then enters ocean water, making it more corrosive. As a consequence, oysters and other shellfish that rely on alkaline seawater conditions to precipitate calcium carbonate and build their shells find it harder to grow. The Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Tillamook, which supplies Netarts Bay with oysters and also sells larvae to farmers across the Northwest, experienced larval die-offs of nearly 75% in 2007.

This catastrophe spawned increased research efforts to prevent future die-offs. Sophie Wensman, a second-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Alyssa Shiel in

OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, is working on an unusual new way of growing oysters in Netarts Bay. She is placing large bags of dead oyster shells in the bay and then growing oysters on top of them. Similar to antacids, dead oyster shells neutralize corrosivity in the water by dissolving into carbonate, which the live oysters can then incorporate into their shells. Think of it as a short-circuited version of the circle of life.

Sophie attaching predator bags to shell plantings in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Spat on shell, or baby oysters that have attached to old dead oyster shells. These are what the oysters looked like at the start of the project in August 2015. Now each of those little brown spots are around 9 cm (~3.5 in). Photo Credit Sophie Wensman.

Besides investigating how these oysters will grow, Sophie plans on using her background in chemistry to develop a technique to examine how ocean chemistry  is recorded in the oysters shells, layer by layer. Like all of us, oysters are not perfect. Besides calcium carbonate, they incorporate some impurities into their shells, like certain forms of uranium carbonates. Based on what we know about forams, sea-dwelling zooplankton that also mineralize calcium carbonate shells, Sophie expects the amount of uranium the oysters mineralize will increase under more corrosive conditions, where less carbonate is available. To accomplish this, she will use a technique called laser ablation mass spectrometry, where she will shoot lasers onto samples of oyster shells. The shell bits will vaporize, and the machine will record the amounts of uranium and calcium present. Looking at this uranium-to-calcium ratio and how it relates to the measured seawater chemistry in Netarts Bay could be helpful for other oyster growers to see whether their animals are also experiencing stress from ocean acidification.

Adult oyster shell that has been cut in half to expose the hinge of the shell (left). This hinge is what we are using to trace water chemistry in Netarts Bay. Photo credit Tiffany Woods, Oregon Sea Grant.

Sophie’s mother, who home-schooled her until the age of twelve, instilled in her a curiosity about science and the natural world from a young age. At the age of eight, Sophie became the youngest Marine Docent through the University of New Hampshire’s Sea Grant program. She also worked as a rocky shore naturalist and camp counselor at the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, NH, teaching people of all ages about the rocky shore ecosystem. Sophie attended the University of Michigan studying secondary science education, but interning with Dow Corning and stumbling across an interview with a chemical oceanographer on the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week program provided her another career idea. This led her to an NSF-sponsored Research Experience as an Undergrad (REU) program at the University of Washington, a 36-day research cruise between Hawaii and Alaska, and a job as a technician in Joel Blum’s lab at the University of Michigan studying mercury isotope geochemistry. Sophie intends to continue her passions of education and chemical oceanography by pursuing an academic position at a research university.

Tune in to 88.7 FM at 7:00 pm Sunday evening to hear more about Sophie and her research on oyster health and chemistry, or stream the program live right here.

You can download her iTunes Podcast Episode!

Are Touch Tanks Touching Lives?

Imagine, you just spent the day at the aquarium. Perhaps you were on a date, enjoying the day with your friends, on a solo exploration, or taking your children on a special trip. Throughout your experience you encountered many live animal exhibits and even got up close with some creatures in touch tanks: sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea stars, and stingrays. Now take a moment and reflect. What will you remember about today? What conversations or thoughts did you have?

Close up view of the Touch Tank and Visitor Interaction at Hatfield Marine Science Center – Visitor Center Photo Credit: Pat Kight

Working on an interdisciplinary project through the Oregon State University (OSU)  Environmental Sciences program with College of Education advisor Dr. Lynn Dierking, PhD candidate Susan Rowe seeks to illuminate the impacts of free-choice learning – or the learning that occurs in informal settings, such as museums, zoos and aquariums. A conservation mission has driven these institutions to shift in recent years from a menagerie of captive animals on display to these animals acting as ambassadors for their ecosystems. But is this message clear? Through her studies, Susan is examining visitors’ conservation narratives at live animal exhibits in order to better understand what counts as conservation talk for families, what research methods better help us understand that, and how education experiences can better advance the conservation mission of these institutions.

Susan Rowe with the Octopus at Hatfield Science Center Visitor Center

After filming and observing 10 families’ interactions with the Touch Tank at the Hatfield Marine Science Center Visitor Center in Newport, OR, Susan invited the families to construct concept maps – a visual thinking routine to represent their thoughts and ideas –and conducted interviews to understand the families’ perceptions of the experience.  Susan also conducted a focus group with professionals involved in the field of conservation at different levels, and they too built conservation concept maps. With insights about the meaning of conservation for families and professionals, Susan constructed a rubric as a research tool to identify where, when and how conservation dialogue happens at live animal exhibit.  She is using the rubric to evaluate further interactions from additional 50 families who visited the exhibit and were recorded through the Visitor Center CyberLab  project, a system of surveillance cameras established to collect visitor data through advanced technology that uses facial recognition, eye tracking and other research tools to understand visitor use of exhibits, their movement and conversations.

Susan Rowe holding a stuffed “brain cell” at the March for Science In Newport, Oregon, Earth Day 2017

So what are these families talking about? Spoiler alert: it’s not conservation, at least not directly. And when families are asked to discuss conservation and what it means to them, the central theme seems to be their values. Different from common methods of studying the impact of free-choice learning, which focus on knowledge gained, Susan is identifying that a more holistic approach may be necessary for researchers to understand what challenge or provoke conservation talk at live animal exhibits. Susan hopes that her research will help determine better ways to engage audiences to think explicitly about conservation, i.e. values-based approaches to research and practice as opposed to values-changing. Susan suggests that if we can better understand how conservation talk is shaped in these experiences, we can advance our research methodologies and education curriculum design in ways that give families what they are looking for and, perhaps advance the argument that animal exhibits are indeed valuable conservation education platforms.

Susan Rowe and her family doing what they love… enjoying a beautiful day at the beach!

Growing up in Recife, Brazil, with the Atlantic Ocean as her playground, Susan spent her childhood dipping her feet into tide pools and exploring the wonders of the ocean – a curiosity and passion that has never faded. As an undergraduate at the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco, Susan completed a dual-degree in Biology and Education with a license to teach. An undergraduate exchange program at Iowa State University (ISU) brought Susan to the United States for the first time. After spending some time as a middle school science teacher in Brazil, Susan returned to ISU to pursue a Master’s degree in Animal Ecology. Upon her move to Oregon, Susan worked as a marine educator at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, a volunteer at Oregon Coast Aquarium, teaching instructor for the Afternoon Adventures program at Muddy Creek Charter School, a field researcher for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and has occupied a variety of job positions at OSU as well, including working at Hatfield Science Center as a research assistant and exhibit designer.

Susan Rowe and Benny Beaver

After spending years working as a frontline educator, Susan realized her desire to do more work behind the scenes as a museum, zoo, or aquarium education director in order to keep her feet in both research and teaching opportunities, which led her back to graduate school. At OSU, Susan has had the freedom to design her interdisciplinary PhD program of study, which melds sociology, philosophy, and anthropology with environmental education and ethics, providing a rich foundation for her research. Through her PhD program, Susan has realized her desire to continue to do free-choice learning research and ultimately seeks an academic position where she can continue finding the best ways to make an impact on the environment through free-choice learning venues.

Join us on Sunday, January 28 at 7 PM on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream live to dive deeper into Susan’s free-choice learning research and journey to graduate school.

You can also download Susan’s iTunes Podcast Episode!

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!