Plankton: The smallest of organisms require the largest of boats

Did you know that jellyfish are plankton? That’s right, they’re not just abstruse microscopic organisms (although many of them are). For example, did you know that the size difference between plankton members is on an order of magnitude similar to the size of a human compared to the size of Earth? These are just a few of the fun plankton facts our upcoming guest has in store for us.

Elena Conser is a third year PhD student in the Plankton Ecology Lab. She really, really, loves plankton – marine organisms that are unable to swim against the current and are thus, at the whim and mercy of their environment (of which Elena attributes a sort of philosophical solace in). More specifically, she looks at zooplankton, animals that live in the plankton. These organisms form the basis of marine food webs, and Elena’s research aims to better understand planktonic communities and their food webs. She does this off the coast of Oregon, in an oceanographic region called the ‘Northern Californian Current’. This area is extremely productive for plankton growth and supports several economically important fisheries. It is also characterized by upwelling and periods of low oxygen, prompting Elena to investigate the structure of zooplankton communities here and how they may shift in response to environmental change.

To study plankton, Elena employs cutting-edge technology off large research vessels. She uses an imaging system known as ‘ISIIS’ (In-Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System) to view plankton in their natural environment, something that has not previously been possible in her field. The data collected with this system is processed using deep learning and computer vision to capture and identify plankton. Through this, Elena is also able to attain information on what plankton are where, how big they are, and how many there are. Elena couples her imagery data from ISIIS with biological samples of ichthyoplankton (larval fish), collected at different depths using nets. Using the ear bones (known as ‘otoliths’) from these physical samples, she can age larval fish much like how trees can be dated through their rings. She does this on English sole, a common flatfish occurring in the Northern California Current, to better understand the development from larval to juvenile stage.

Elena always knew of the importance of the ocean, which led her to studying marine science, biology, and applied math at the University of Miami in Florida. Here she worked with a larval fish scientist and became curious about the importance of plankton communities. This curiosity led her back to her roots in Oregon to pursue plankton research with developing technology. Her research is indeed at the intersection of oceanography, ecology, and computer science. She is excited to continue tackling questions that have never been able to be answered until now. To hear more on the importance of plankton and the interesting questions Elena is asking, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM this Sunday, February 25th, or shortly thereafter where you get your podcasts!

Overturning myths about poverty through storytelling

“The individual who grows up in this culture has a strong feeling of fatalism, helplessness, dependence and inferiority” says Oscar Lewis, expounding upon his theory of the “Culture of Poverty” in a 1966 essay. According to Lewis, people who grow up in poverty take on a particular mindset of hopelessness that pervades every aspect of their lives. Elliot Laurence (he/they), our next guest, largely sees the “Culture of Poverty” as a myth and seeks to tell stories that express a broader view of being poor in America. Elliot is a first year Master of Fine Arts student in creative writing and fiction, who draws on his own experience of growing up in poverty and continued financial precarity as a source of inspiration for writing.

Elliot says he is most inspired by people who “make it work”, such as single parents managing to make rent from paycheck to paycheck and overworked social services providers. Harmful stereotypes of poor people often suggest that they are lazy and content to live off government assistance. But as Elliot points out, the tangle of paperwork and compliance that the American welfare state imposes on the poor is anything but a cushy lifestyle. So too are the ways that poor families must make ends meet.   One of Elliot’s short stories centers around a young child from a poor family who collects aluminum cans and bottles to exchange at the recycling center for meager sums of money. They want to depict everyday moments like this to push back against the common representation of poverty as something to gawk at, as exemplified in media like “The Florida Project” and “Shameless”. As he sees it, poverty fiction could be any genre, including sci-fi or fantasy, with background themes of material insecurity setting the scene.

Elliot’s personal story is interwoven deeply in his approach to writing. Born to a single mother in St. Louis, Missouri as the second of five children, he grew up playing an older sibling role. Elliot joined the Air Force at the age of 17, following the well-worn pipeline from poor neighborhoods to the military. Elliot is transgender, and years of trans activism in the hostile environment of Missouri later attracted him to the more accepting Pacific Northwest. He continues to be a guardian for his teenage sister, all while balancing the MFA curriculum, a teaching assistant position, and jobs as a daycare worker and Doordasher.

To hear excerpts from his writing and about how his identity as a mixed-race, transgender veteran has informed his fiction, tune in this Sunday, February 11th at 7PM on KBVR 88.7 FM or shortly thereafter wherever you get your podcasts!

Artificial, Intelligent–Safe?

Jose Aguilar is not here to help robots take over the world. In fact, the first year PhD student studying artificial intelligence says he’s actually working on the opposite–to ensure that AI systems are safe, and raise alarm when they’re not. 

Aguilar’s research focuses on the theoretical and applied aspects of safe AI. In the theoretical realm, he tries to ensure probabilistically that a model is going to be safe. When that algorithm or model is used in a situation–like autonomous vehicles, for example–his work moves over to the application side. 

And we really need safe AI! Listen to Selene and Jenna’s conversation with Jose to learn more about safe artificial intelligence and how Jose’s background of growing up in Mexico and moving to Oklahoma brought him to OSU. 

Sim like a Fish

Our next guest is Lauren Diaz, a fourth year PhD student in the Department of Fisheries , Wildlife and Conservation Sciences. Lauren is advised by Prof. Jim Peterson and focuses on the population dynamics of freshwater organisms.

Lauren studies rainbow trout, a widespread salmonid with important ties to recreational fishing and a complex life trajectory. The salmonid family of fish includes large species like Chinook salmon that are ecologically important food sources for both marine and terrestrial species including humans. Trout eggs hatch in freshwater but some juveniles undergo significant physiological changes and spend a large portion of their lifespan in the ocean before returning to the rivers to spawn. This ‘anadromous’ form of rainbow trout is called steelhead.

Lauren uses the Stanislaus River in California’s Central valley as a model system for understanding the impact of dams on the life histories of trout. The prominence of agriculture in the Central Valley has left its watersheds full of dams, irrigation systems and other human diversions. Monitoring fish populations throughout this complex network can be challenging due to a lack of standardization in monitoring systems. In response to this uncertainty, Lauren turns to computer simulations to shed light on the population dynamics of rainbow trout. Specifically, her simulations model the decision-making of individual fish in response to environmental stimuli. Lauren tweaks assumptions of the model such as the typical responses of trout to water depth, prey density, other fish, and tree coverage. In this way, population-level patterns emerge from a set of interpretable individual-level rules. Of particular interest to Lauren is the rate at which fish remain in the stream rather than becoming steelhead. Some preliminary evidence suggests that reduced seasonal fluctuations of water levels due to climate change could be suppressing the relative share of steelhead. 

Lauren grew up in Miami, Florida, a place where encounters with tropical wildlife are part of everyday life. She was fascinated by reptiles and amphibians and became known as the “animal person” within her family and eventually studied herpetology during her undergraduate career at the University of Florida and a master’s degree at Clemson. An interest in hellbender salamanders, which live alongside rainbow trout in cool freshwater streams, led her to pursue the PhD at Oregon State. To hear more about her journey and research, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM on Sunday, January 28th or shortly thereafter wherever you get your podcasts!

Exploding Cheeses and Microbes at Work

For those of us who consume dairy products, we often don’t give much thought to the trials and tribulations that had to be faced to get that product on the grocery shelves. It’s probably a fair assumption to say that most of us have never considered that cheese could explode, but that is the center of Madeleine Enriquez’s graduate research. 

Madeleine (Maddie) is a master’s student in the laboratory of Joy Waite-Cusic, and she investigates dairy microbiology and spoilage, particularly mitigating “gas defects” in cheese. In semi-hard to hard cheeses certain microorganisms can cause build-up of gasses called “gas defects” which can eventually lead to blow-outs of the cheese in its packaging, or significant structural defects within the cheese (think Swiss cheese holes where they’re not supposed to be). Maddie works on practical and easy ways to mitigate these gas defects for small dairy farmers. Some of the variables include aging temperature, bioprotective cultures, or combinations of both. 

Maddie’s interest in this particular area of food science originally stemmed from her grandfather, who was a dairy farmer. She went to the University of Connecticut for her bachelor’s degree in animal science. While there she participated in undergraduate research on dairy farms, particularly focusing on dairy microbiology later in her degree. This eventually led to her coming to Oregon State to further her education in dairy food science. 


If you want to hear more about exploding cheese, making gouda on a weekly basis, and strapping wheels of cheese in for a CT scan, tune in for this episode of ID airing live on Jan 21, 2024.

Writing for Discovery

Natalie Van Gelder wants to teach writing, but not necessarily to people who want to write. 

The first-year MFA student in creative nonfiction recognizes writing as a tool for discovery–particularly as an exploration of self-discovery, and especially when it comes to better understanding neurodivergence.

Natalie’s writing contributes to the work of medical humanities and narrative medicine, both emerging fields that explore the humanities as tools for increasing empathy in medicine. Narrative medicine likewise recognizes the all-too-common disconnect between practitioners and their clients, and aims to incorporate storytelling into the practitioner-patient relationship. That might look like practitioners spending more time with patients, or asking them to write about family histories before asking about symptoms, knowing that through a thorough understanding of a patients’ background, more helpful information about their current conditions may emerge. 

After graduating from California State University Bakersfield in 2008 with a degree in literature, Natalie worked in technical publications at NASA. She’s always loved science (and says if she wasn’t a writer she would be an entomologist) but it wasn’t until her MA program in creative writing at California State University Northridge that Natalie realized writing could be a tool of discovery and could help her better understand her own diagnoses. 

Her graduate thesis “Desert Anxieties” was a hybrid work that explored her own neurodivergence. The paper was written in IEEE, a format commonly used for scientific publications. By using this style typically reserved for detached scientific observation, Natalie put herself as the work’s case study, interrogating the distanced treatment she typically received from doctors and psychiatrists. 

Now, Natalie’s work continues to explore trauma studies and disability, especially neurodivergence as it presents as ADHD and autism. As a neurodivergent writer, Natalie is well aware of the power of writing as a way of interacting and making sense of the world. It’s a powerful tool that she wants to teach to people who may not be familiar with the practice. 

“WIth Open Arms” (a photograph from Natalie’s MA thesis)

Currently, Natalie teaches WR 121, an introductory composition course that is typically populated by mostly STEM majors–and she loves it. While still only in the first term of her two-year program, Natalie hopes to work in the medical field after graduating, teaching writing to mental health practitioners and therapists, giving them resources to pass on to their clients about the power of writing as a tool for self-discovery. 

Tune in Sunday 12/03 to hear Natalie talk about all this and more on KBVR 88.7, or catch the episode later on our podcast. 

My new neighbor might be a ghost (shrimp)

Our next guest is Matt Vaughan, a third year PhD student in Integrative Biology working with Prof. Sarah Henkel in the Benthic Ecology Lab. Matt originally hails from Melbourne, Australia and recently joined the ID team as a host. A major theme of his research interest is biological “disturbance and change”, meaning the impact of stressors on organisms and ecosystems.

Matt’s PhD research centers around invertebrate life found on the ocean floor, known to researchers as the “Benthic zone”. He focuses especially on ghost shrimp, a type of crustacean that builds burrows on the ocean floor. In the Pacific Northwest, ghost shrimp have historically inhabited estuaries, the areas where rivers flow into the sea. Within the last decade however, a significant population of ghost shrimp has arisen much farther than expected for the species, more than seven miles off the coast of Oregon and southern Washington. This mysterious colonization could have been spurred by environmental disruptions such as climate change, and the shrimp also represent a significant change in the local ecology of the ocean floor. Firstly, ghost shrimp burrows alter the habitat for preexisting invertebrate species, reducing stability on the seafloor. The large and intricate burrows are often in high densities, and the sand they kick up through their bioturbation can affect the survival and behavior of invertebrates like bivalves. Ghost shrimp burrows also oxygenate the sediment and host vibrant microbial communities, together altering the biogeochemistry of the ocean floor.

Matt (orange hat), surveying the latest floor sample

Matt studies these ecological dynamics by surveying the ocean floor during boat trips out of Newport. His team samples the bed using box cores to collect, identify and count the invertebrates. Matt then uses computational and statistical analysis to characterize the population structure of these areas, particularly seeking to tease out the differences in species distribution between areas with and without ghost shrimp burrows. Ghost shrimp are also relatively large compared to other invertebrates in the area, so their arrival provides a significant potential food source for larger marine life like sturgeon and even gray whales. In the rest of his PhD, Matt hopes to model this trophic impact in the long term.

Spooky

To hear more about Matt’s research and how his travels to the Great Barrier Reef and Southeast Asia helped him discover his love for science, tune into KBVR 88.7 tonight at 7pm or listen soon after wherever you get your podcasts.

The Memoir of El

This week on ID we interview El Rose, a talented first year MFA student of non-fiction in the School of Writing, Literature and Film. El draws on their background growing up in rural Arkansas to write about topics of class, immigration, intergenerational trauma, identity, and the intersection of it all. 

Their work falls primarily within the realm of memoir. ‘Memoir’ is derived from the French word ‘mémoire’, which means ‘reminiscence’ or ‘memory’. Memoir falls into the category of non-fiction but is ultimately a subjective narrative in which the author remembers experiences, emotions, and events from a certain event or period in their life. Memoirs focus on conveying their perception of these memories in a way that is emotionally truthful but isn’t necessarily factual. 

El began their journey in writing at the University of Memphis, although they’ve been writing in one manner or another for most of their life. They spent eight years between finishing undergrad and coming to OSU, working through the ranks in the food industry and eventually becoming an owner of a cafe in the Portland area. Through a series of perfectly timed events, and their own desire to make more space to take their writing seriously, El came to OSU to set out on the grad school journey. 

To hear more about how writing a memoir works, as well as El’s journey from Arkansas to Oregon, tune in this Sunday, November 12th live on 88.7 FM or on the live stream. Missed the show? You can listen to the recorded episode on your preferred podcast platform!

The who eats whom of the Pacific

Trophic ecology studies how energy flows through food webs; basically who is eating whom in an ecosystem. Understanding the structure of feeding relationships among species in a system helps us to understand why populations may fluctuate in terms of abundance or distribution at different times. These dynamics are particularly important to consider in the face of a changing climate as conditions like increasing temperatures make resources less predictable. Our guest this week is Luke Bobay, who is trying to do exactly this for anchovy in the Pacific Ocean off the US West Coast.

Luke, a 3rd year PhD student in Integrative Biology, is researching the potential influences of climate change on anchovy abundance by studying its ecological effects on their early life stages. Anchovy are forage fish, which means they are eaten (aka foraged upon) by a lot of larger animals such as birds, marine mammals, other predatory fish, and humans. They are also short-lived and therefore we expect their population dynamics to respond pretty quickly to things that are happening in the environment.

For his research, Luke is looking at the larval stage of anchovy. He uses samples and plankton imagery data collected on weeks-long research cruises that Plankton Ecology Lab has conducted during the past six years, as well as samples collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) since 1996. The samples that Luke uses are collected using large nets with a very fine mesh that enables the collection of tiny plankton. The imagery data are collected using a sampling technology unique to Luke’s lab called the In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS). ISIIS uses a high-resolution camera to take images of the water column at a very high spatial and temporal scale, allowing the lab to basically take one long continuous image of what’s happening in the top 100 m of the ocean. These images are then run through an AI image classification model that automatically identifies and measures each individual plankter that is recorded. Both the net and the ISIIS also record data about the environment, such as temperature, salinity, and depth. By examining relationships between environmental conditions, the abundance of other plankton, and the abundance and other characteristics of anchovy larvae, Luke explores the factors that may contribute to variability in anchovy abundance.

In Situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS)

To hear more about the day in the life of an anchovy, as well as Luke’s journey from OSU to another OSU, tune in this Sunday, November 5th live on 88.7 FM or on the live stream . Missed the show? You can listen to the recorded episode on your preferred podcast platform!

Northern anchovy (credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium)

Taking Inspiration from Life: Short stories on why we believe what we believe

This week we are chatting with new ID host Selene Ross on her path to earning an MFA in fiction in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film. Inspired by her upbringing and life in northern California, Selene’s interest lies in looking deeper at why we believe what we believe, exploring power, women, and trust through short stories. What makes a short story different than a novel? In short stories, nothing has to change except everything to change, leading to a “surprising but inevitable” ending.

Selene began her journey at UC Santa Barbara studying Environmental Science and Sociology, focusing on the native plants of Central California. Straight from undergrad, she moved to Berlin, Germany on an au pair visa and became part of a vibrant community of writers and poets. After moving back to the U.S., Selene looked to radio as a way to do creative work and worked with various production companies prior to starting here at Oregon State. In wanting to stay connected with the audio world she is starting her own show on KBVR, Mystic Yarn, and joining us here at Inspiration Dissemination.

What does getting an MFA in creative writing look like? This program encompasses two main areas, writing workshops and more interdisciplinary “craft” classes. The workshop is where students submit original work and gather critiques from peers, while the “craft” classes are more generative, and a place to draw inspiration from other areas of creative expression, like poetry or non-fiction. The final hurdle is the thesis defense, which can take many forms depending on the area of focus. In Selene’s case, this will look like a collection of fiction short stories.

Tune in this week to hear all about her writing process, how she incorporates “spooky” into her writing, and listen to an excerpt from her work.