Monthly Archives: November 2021

Mini-Molecules and Mighty Ideas

This week we have on the show Dr. Bo Wu – he recently graduated from Oregon State University with a Ph.D. from the Electrical Engineering department where he developed new sensors to monitor three different neurotransmitters that are correlated with our stress, mood, and happiness. Even though so much of our bodily functions rely on these neurotransmitters (cortisol, serotonin, dopamine), there are no current commercial or rapid techniques to monitor these tiny molecules. Since the majority of innovations in University settings never gets beyond the walls of the Ivory Tower, Bo wanted to design sensors with functionality and scalability in mind. Those basic principles are why Bo was attracted to joining the lab of Dr. Larry Cheng; instead of innovations sitting on university shelves their innovations must be designed to bring to market. Using nano-fabrications technology, Bo developed sensors that are about the size of a thumbnail to provide rapid and accurate measures of different neurotransmitters to be used outside the hospital setting. The promise of having these mini-molecules be measured as a point of care diagnostic (i.e. measured by the patient) is an exciting advancement in the medical field.

This innovation is not the only one coming from Bo; with the help of a colleague, they designed a product for researchers to easily reformat academic research papers for submission to other journals. If you didn’t know, submitting manuscripts to different journals takes an immense amount of time because of the formatting changes required. But these are tedious and can take a week or longer that can be used for crucial research experiments. While this service was originally designed for Engineering publications, the COVID-19 pandemic showed them there was a greater and more immediate need. With so many people losing their jobs, they re-designed the software to help people create and re-imagine their resumes for job applications. Their website, is now geared toward helping job seekers build stronger resumes, but Bo and his team expects to return to the original idea of re-formatting papers for academic publications but will expand to those beyond just Engineering journals. Thanks to Oregon State’s Advantage Accelerator Program, Bo and his co-founder were able to refine their product and acquire seed money to get the website off the ground, which now employs a small international team to maintain and improve its services. If you have questions for Bo about starting your own business, being an international student, or the Advantage Accelerator program, you can contact him by email wubo[at]oregonstate[dot]edu.

Did you miss the show on Sunday, you can listen to Bo’s episode on Apple Podcasts!

Two ways of killing bacteria

You’re probably pretty familiar with a thing called antibiotics. You’ve most likely been prescribed them for a number of bacterial infections you may have had over the course of your life. Antibiotics are typically broad-spectrum, which can be good if the exact ailment a person is suffering from is uncertain. However, it can also be bad given that broad-spectrum antibiotics don’t just kill the bad bacteria, but they kill the good ones too. On top of this, antibiotic resistance is a pervasive issue. Alternatively, bacteriophages, which are viruses that attack bacteria, can be used to treat bacterial infections too. Bacteriophages are extremely effective at killing off a specific bacteria that you want to target. For example, there is a bacteriophage that specifically kills cholera, and nothing else. However, you have most likely never been treated with a bacteriophage for a bacterial infection. Why? Well, to understand that we’ve got to go back to the Cold War era (and even a little further). Enter Miriam Lipton, a PhD candidate in the College of Liberal Arts, whose research focuses on exactly this question.

There is speculation that the Cold War is the reason that there are these two ways to treat bacterial infections (antibiotics and bacteriophages), and Miriam is interested in this speculation as well as understanding how U.S. and Soviet scientists dealt with bacterial infections in real time during the Cold War period. To do this, Miriam is examining scientific papers and pharmaceutical trade journals from that time (1947-1991) to understand how scientists on either side thought about bacterial infections, their treatments, and antibiotic resistance. This quest has taken (or will take) Miriam to a number of different research institutions, including the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, Caltech in California, and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy in Wisconsin. Reading scientific publications can be difficult enough as it is, however Miriam faces an added challenge of having to read many of the Soviet publications in Russian. Luckily, Miriam’s background lends itself quite well for this difficult task as one of her triple major’s during her Bachelor’s degree was Russian and she has a Master’s in Russian Studies from the University of Oregon, all of which have led to a good proficiency of the Russian language.

Miriam’s program at OSU is called History of Science and is quite rare. In fact, it is one of only four such programs in the country and Miriam is one of only four in her cohort at OSU. She is simultaneously a historian and a scientist on a mission to better understand past perceptions and thoughts of scientists about bacterial infections, to hopefully inform the present and future. Especially given the rise of antibiotic resistance across the globe.

Listen to the podcast episode of the show here to dive deep into the history of bacterial infection science!

Healthcare, but in paper-form

Hospitals can provide a wide variety of lab tests to better understand our ailments. But have you ever wondered what happens to the sample after it’s in your doctor’s test-tube but before you get results? The answer is usually complicated and slow lab work; requiring lots of individual little steps to isolate and measure some specific molecule in your body. (Think of PCR-based COVID-19 tests). But not all tests require lab work.

You’re probably familiar with some paper-based diagnostic tools like checking the chlorine or pH level of your swimming pool. These are “dipsticks” of special papers and suitable for large volume samples. But what if you only have a couple drops to spare? For example, a diabetic is usually monitoring their blood’s glucose molecules with only a few drops of blood on special paper, then adding that paper to a measuring device. But you still need that small electronic device to know your blood glucose levels! This device requirement makes testing and diagnosis less accessible to people around the world. What if you could make a paper-based diagnostic tool, that works with tiny volumes, but doesn’t need any other equipment, or fancy software, or a trip to the hospital to get your answer? This is exactly why researchers are excited about paper-based microfluidic devices.

Pregnancy tests are one of the best examples (See Figure 2.4) of how researchers have automated a complex laboratory test onto a single device someone can purchase from any local pharmacy, at a relatively low cost, to get an answer within minutes, inside their own home. These tests actually measure a specific hormone, but it’s presented as a color indicator. Inside the device is porous media, to help move the sample, and a few different reagents in a specific order that generate the chemical reactions so you can see your test result as an easy to interpret color. No extra fancy machines, no hospital visit, rapid results, and relatively affordable disposable devices make pregnancy tests a success story. But this was commercialized in 1988, and urine samples are generally thought to be larger volume samples. There are still many more potential uses of paper-based diagnostic tools, using small-volume blood samples, yet to be developed.

This evening we have Lael Wentland, a PhD candidate in the College of Engineering, who is discussing her ongoing research on developing paper-based microfluidic tests for rare diseases. A central pillar of her work is to make healthcare more sustainable and accessible for a greater number of people, but especially those in more remote settings. The World Health Organization has an ASSURED criteria for the development of more paper based diagnostics to help guide researchers. The ASSURED criteria principles require the device be: Affordable, Sensitive, Specific, User friendly, Rapid and Robust, Equipment free and Deliverable to end users.

Using this framework, Lael has already developed one tool to monitor a metabolic disorder, and continues to work on another rare biomolecule. She started her research at OSU on phenylketonuria, a metabolic disorder where your body cannot breakdown a key amino acid (phenylalanine) found in foods. If you get too little of this amino acid, your body can’t make all the proteins it needs for growth, repair, or maintenance. Too much of this amino acid can cause seizures and developmental delays. Keeping close tabs on this phenylalanine is needed for people with this disorder because you can alter your diet to suit your body and remain healthy. But the current tests to monitor this amino acid is not as readily available as one may need. This is why Lael worked to make a paper-based microfluidic device that would adhere to the ASSURED criteria to make this more accessible for anyone. Lael was way past the proof-of-concept stage of her device, and was already recruiting subjects to test their blood using her new device when COVID-19 become prominent in March 2020. That’s one reason she pivoted to monitoring another rare disorder using similar principles.

We’ll get into that, and so much more, Sunday 7pm on 88.7FM KBVR.

Did you miss the show Sunday night? You can listen to Lael’s episode on Apple Podcasts!

Hearing is believing: characterizing ocean soundscapes and assessing noise impacts on whales

“I always loved science class and science questions, and I went to science camps – but as a kid I didn’t really put it together that being a scientist was a career or something other than sitting at a microscope in a lab coat,” Our guest this week, Dr. Samara Haver, has come a long way from not realizing the myriad of careers in science when she was a child. She now works as a marine acoustician, researching underwater soundscapes and ocean noise to understand the repercussions for marine ecosystems and animals, such as humpback and blue whales. 

Noise Reference Station deployment in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary (Near Santa Barbara/LA, CA). Source: S. Haver.

Samara is a recent graduate from Oregon State University (OSU) having completed both her Masters and PhD in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences (FWCS). She is continuing at OSU as a postdoctoral scholar in FWCS, where she is advised by Dr. Scott Heppell and works within the OSU/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Institute for Marine Ecosystem and Resources Studies. Her dissertation research focused on underwater recordings from 12 diverse and widespread marine habitats in U.S. waters. Data from each site was recorded by stationary hydrophone (underwater microphones), a calibrated array collectively named the NOAA/National Park Service Ocean Noise Reference Station Network (NRS). The NRS is an ongoing multi-agency collaborative effort to record underwater sound throughout the U.S. to understand about the differences and similarities of soundscapes in U.S. waters, and provide information to managers about protected species. The 12 locations are deployed along west and east coasts of the U.S., as well as in the northern and southern hemispheres, and includes locations within U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries and U.S. National Parks. One of the primary objectives of this highly collaborative and nation-wide comparison was to quantify comparable baselines of ocean noise in U.S. waters. When the NRS was first established, there weren’t any other U.S. research groups collecting passive acoustic data in these widespread locations using identical time-aligned recorders. Thus, the NRS provided new and comparable information to NOAA and the NPS about the levels and sources that contributed to underwater sound.  

Prepping a Noise Reference Station, with concrete anchor, acoustic release, hydrophone, and float for deployment near Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, near Washington state. Source: S. Haver.

Hence, Samara’s PhD research revolved around analyzing the recordings from the 12 NRSs to explore several questions regarding differences in U.S. soundscapes, including baleen whale presence which she was able to identify by their unique vocalizations. Many marine animals, including baleen whales, evolved to rely on sound as their primary sensory modality to survive in the dark environment of the ocean. Unlike humans, who rely heavily on sight, whales must find food, communicate, navigate, and avoid predators using sound. However, the ocean has become a noisy place, primarily because of increased anthropogenic (human-caused) activity, such as shipping, marine construction, and seismic surveys, to name a few. To best understand how noise is affecting the life history of baleen whales and their habitats, we need to understand how loud the ocean is, how much noisier it’s getting, and what is generating the noise.

Looking through the “big eye” binocular to search for marine mammals in the North Atlantic. Source: S. Haver.

Samara has become an expert in characterizing and understanding ocean soundscapes, uncovering a lot about the differences and similarities in U.S. soundscapes. To hear about what exactly she learned during her PhD and what management implications her results have on protected species and habitats, tune in on Sunday, November 7th at 7 PM on KBVR 88.7 FM, live stream the show, or download Samara’s episode on Apple Podcasts!

Don’t want to wait until then? You can check out Samara’s publications on her GoogleScholar or follow her on Twitter!