Author Archives: Grace Deitzler

From A(lgorithms) to Z(O-1 proteins): A Computer Scientist’s Journey into the Lab

By Grace Deitzler

Improvements in DNA sequencing technology have allowed scientists to dig deeper than ever before into the intricacies of the microbes that inhabit our gut, also called the gut microbiome. Massive amounts of data – on the scale of pentabytes – have been accumulated as labs and institutes across the globe sequence the gut microbiome in an effort to learn more about its inhabitants and how they contribute to human health. But now that we have all of this data (and more accumulating all the time), the challenge becomes making sense of it.

This is a challenge that Christine Tataru, a rising fifth year PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, is tackling head-on. “My research is trying to understand what a ‘healthy’ gut microbiome actually looks like, how it ‘should’ look, and to do so in a way that is integrative,” she explains. 

A woman with long hair in a red and white striped shirt sits at a computer.
Christine Tataru, fifth year PhD student in Maude David’s lab.

An integrative approach looks at all of the processes and relationships that are occurring between all of the trillions of microorganisms in our gut, and the cells within our body. Previous microbiology dogma focused on the behavior and impact of singular species such as pathogens, but as we learn more about microbiomes, this approach becomes limiting. There are a vast number of relationships that can occur between microbes and human cells. And there are many different lenses through which we can look at this system: taking a census of what microbes are present; tracking the genes that are present rather than just the microbes (this tells us about the functions that might be carried out); and what proteins or metabolites are actually present, whether those are created by the bacteria or the host. Each piece of the puzzle allows us a glimpse of the massively complex system that is the gut microbiome.

“It’s difficult for a human brain to keep track of these relationships and sources of variations, so I use computer algorithms to try to get a picture of what is happening, and what that might mean for health.” 

It’s an approach that makes sense for the Stanford-trained computer-scientist-turned-biologist. Christine recalls a deep learning class in college in which a natural language processing algorithm on the whiteboard struck her with inspiration: what if instead of being applied to words, this algorithm could be applied to gut microbiomes? The thought stuck with her and when she came to OSU to pursue her PhD, she already had a clear goal in mind for what she wanted to do.

The natural language processing and interpretation algorithm treats words in a document as discrete entities, and looks for patterns and relationships between words to gain context and “understand” the contents. A computer can’t really understand what words mean linguistically and with the complex nuances that natural language presents, but they are really good at looking for patterns. It can look at what words occur together frequently, what words never occur together, and what words share a ‘social network’ — words that don’t appear together, but appear with the same other words. Christine has developed a way to apply this algorithm to large gut microbiome datasets: using this approach to identify what microbes frequently appear together, which don’t, and which share ‘social networks’. This produces clusters of microbes, or what she refers to as ‘topics’, which can then be interpreted by humans to try to understand how these clusters relate to certain aspects of health. You can read more about this method in her recent PLOS Computational Biology publication here.

It’s quite the challenging undertaking: no one has done this type of approach before, and even when the clusters are generated, we still need to be able to interpret what it means – why is it interesting or important that these microbes occur with each other and also correlate with these genes or metabolites? Biologically, what does it actually mean?

The question of biological meaning prompted Christine to pivot to a more traditional ‘wet lab’ biology approach. “Who gave this computer scientist a pipette,” she jokes. But to be perfectly honest, it makes a lot of sense: who better to investigate the hypotheses that can be generated by computers than the scientist who wrote the code?

Taking the ‘integrative approach’ to the next level, she now works on recapitulating the environment of the gut microbiome on a chip in the lab. The organ-on-a-chip system is a fairly new approach to studying biological mechanisms in a way that better mimics the naturally occurring environment. In Christine’s case, she is using a ‘gut on a chip’, which is made of a thin piece of silicone with input and output channels. The silicone is split by a microporous membrane in such a way that two different kinds of cells can be grown, one on the top layer and one on the bottom. What makes this system unique as compared to traditional cell culture is that the channels and membrane allow for constant flow of growth media, which physically simulates the flow of blood over the cells. It can also mimic peristalsis, which is the stretching and relaxing of intestinal cells that helps push food and nutrients through the digestive tract. It’s a sophisticated system, and one that allows her a high degree of control over the environment. She can use this system to mimic Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and then add in specific microbes or combinations of microbes to see how the gut cells respond, using findings from her algorithm results to inform what kinds of additions might have anti-inflammatory effects.

Christine in a biosafety hood, preparing gut-chips for experiments.

This innovative approach provides Christine another lens through which to view the relationship between the gut microbiome and health. Though she will be finishing her doctorate at the end of the year, the curiosity doesn’t end there – “Broadly, my life goal to some extent has always been to make ways for people to help people.” Whether that’s pipeline and methods development or building the infrastructure to study complex biological relationships, Christine’s innovation-driven approach is sure to lead to huge strides in our understanding of how the tiny living things in our gut influence our health, behavior, and mood.

Tune in at 7 PM this Sunday evening on KBVR 88.7 or stream online to hear more about her research and how she ended up here at OSU!

Spaghetti & Networks: Oodles of Nodes

Picture a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. There are pristine noodles, drenched in rich tomato sauce, topped with savory meatballs. Now imagine you’re only allowed to eat just one noodle, and one meatball. You’re tasked with finding the very best, the most interesting bite out of this bowl of spaghetti. It might sound absurd, but replace spaghetti with ‘edges’ and meatballs with ‘nodes’ and you’ve got a network.

An image of a network from Nolan’s recent publication. The lines are ‘edges’ and the dots are ‘nodes’.

Computational biologists like our guest this week use networks to uncover meaningful relationships, or the tastiest spaghetti noodle and meatball, between biological entities.
Joining us this week is Nolan Newman, a PhD candidate in the College of Pharmacy under PI Andriy Morgun. Nolan’s research lies at the intersection of math, statistics, computer science, and biology. He’s looking at how networks, such as covariation networks, can be used to look for relationships and correlations between genes, microbes, and other factors from massive datasets which compare thousands or even of biological entities. With datasets this large and complex, it can be difficult to pare down just the important or interesting relationships – like trying to scoop a single bowl of spaghetti from a giant tray at a buffet, and then further narrowing it down to pick just one interesting noodle.

Nolan Newman, PhD candidate


Nolan is further interested in how different statistical thresholds and variables contribute to how the networks ‘look’ when they are changed. If only noodles covered in sauce are considered ‘interesting’, then all of the sauce-less noodles are out of the running. But what if noodles are only considered ‘sauce-covered’ if they are 95% or more covered? Could you be missing out on perfectly delicious, interesting noodles by applying this constraint?


If you’re left scratching your head and a little hungry, fear not. We’ll chat about all things computational biology, networks, making meaning out of chaos, and why hearing loss prompted Nolan to begin a career in science, all on this week’s episode of Inspiration Dissemination. Catch the episode live at 7 PST at 88.7 FM or https://kbvrfm.orangemedianetwork.com/, or catch the podcast after the episode on any podcast platform.

AI that benefits humans and humanity

When you think about artificial intelligence or robots in the everyday household, your first thought might be that it sounds like science fiction – like something out of the 1999 cult classic film “Smart House”. But it’s likely you have some of this technology in your home already – if you own a Google Home, Amazon Alexa, Roomba, smart watch, or even just a smartphone, you’re already plugged into this network of AI in the home. The use of this technology can pose great benefits to its users, spanning from simply asking Google to set an alarm to wake you up the next day, to wearable smart devices that can collect health data such as heart rate. AI is also currently being used to improve assistive technology, or technology that is used to improve the lives of disabled or elderly individuals. However, the rapid explosion in development and popularity of this tech also brings risks to consumers: there isn’t great legislation yet about the privacy of, say, healthcare data collected by such devices. Further, as we discussed with another guest a few weeks ago, there is the issue of coding ethics into AI – how can we as humans program robots in such a way that they learn to operate in an ethical manner? Who defines what that is? And on the human side – how do we ensure that human users of such technology can actually trust them, especially if they will be used in a way that could benefit the user’s health and wellness?

Anna Nickelson, a fourth-year PhD student in Kagan Tumer’s lab in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems (CoRIS) Institute in the Department of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, joins us this week to discuss her research, which touches on several of these aspects regarding the use of technology as part of healthcare. Also a former Brookings Institute intern, Anna incorporates not just coding of robots but far-reaching policy and legislation goals into her work. Her research is driven by a very high level goal: how do we create AI that benefits humans and humanity?

Anna Nickelson, fourth year PhD student in the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute.

AI for social good

When we think about how to create technology that is beneficial, Anna says that there are four major considerations in play. First is the creation of the technology itself – the hardware, the software; how technology is coded, how it’s built. The second is technologists and the technology industry – how do we think about and create technologies beyond the capitalist mindset of what will make the most money? Third is considering the general public’s role: what is the best way to educate people about things like privacy, the limitations and benefits of AI, and how to protect themselves from harm? Finally, she says we must also consider policy and legislation surrounding beneficial tech at all levels, from local ordinances to international guidelines. 

Anna’s current research with Dr. Tumer is funded by the NSF AI Institute for Collaborative Assistance and Responsive Interaction for Networked Groups (AI-CARING), an institute through the National Science Foundation that focuses on “personalized, longitudinal, collaborative AI, enabling the development of AI systems that learn personalized models of user behavior…and integrate that knowledge to support people and AIs working together”, as per their website. The institute is a collaboration between five universities, including Oregon State University and OHSU. What this looks like for Anna is lots of code writing and simulations studying how AI systems make trade-offs between different objectives.For this she looks at machine learning for decision making, and how multiple robots or AIs can work together towards a specific task without necessarily having to communicate with each other directly. For this she looks at machine learning for decision making in robots, and how multiple robots or AIs can work together towards a specific task without necessarily having to communicate with each other directly. Each robot or AI may have different considerations that factor into how they accomplish their objective, so part of her goal is to develop a framework for the different individuals to make decisions as part of a group.

With an undergraduate degree in math, a background in project management in the tech industry, engineering and coding skills, and experience working with a think tank in DC on tech-related policy, Anna is uniquely situated to address the major questions about development technology for social good in a way that mitigates risk. She came to graduate school at Oregon State with this interdisciplinary goal in mind. Her personal life goal is to get experience in each sector so she can bring in a wide range of perspectives and ideas. “There are quite a few people working on tech policy right now, but very few people have the breadth of perspective on it from the low level to the high level,” she says. 

If you are interested in hearing more about Anna’s life goals and the intersection of artificial intelligence, healthcare, and policy, join us live at 7 PM on Sunday, May 7th on https://kbvrfm.orangemedianetwork.com/, or after the show wherever you find your podcasts. 

In the face of national anti-trans legislation, local game developer and OSU graduate raises over $400k for trans advocacy groups

Content warning: this article includes mentions of transphobia and suicide.

Rue Dickey found himself feeling helpless and frustrated upon reading the news about the onslaught of anti-transgender legislation sweeping the country this year. In the four months of 2022 alone, nearly 240 anti-LGBTQ bills have been filed in states across the United States. This skyrocketing number is up from around 41 such bills in 2018, and around half of these bills targeting transgender folks specifically. In February 2022, Texas governor Greg Abbott called for teachers and members of the public to report parents of transgender children to authorities, equating providing support and medical care for trans youth to child abuse –  a move that made national headlines.  It’s imperative that we understand the consequences of this wave of horrific and discriminatory legislation: a survey by the Trevor Project found that 42% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide within the past year alone, and over half of transgender and nonbinary youth have considered suicide.

Rue (they/he) graduated from Oregon State University in 2019, and they are currently the Marketing Coordinator for the Corvallis Community Center. They also develop and create content for TTRPGs, or Tabletop Role Playing Games. TTRPGs are role playing games in which players describe their characters’ actions and adhere to a set of rules and characterizations based on the world setting, and characters work together to achieve a goal or go on an adventure. They often involve improvisation and their choices shape the world around them. Think Dungeons & Dragons – many TTRPGs involve the use of dice rolling to determine the outcomes of certain actions and events.

Rue Dickey, 2019 OSU graduate and Marketing Director for the Corvallis Community Center.

Gaming as a way to crowdfund for a cause

Wanting to do something to help children and transgender people living in Texas, Rue decided to turn his passion for TTRPGs into a fundraiser. The online indie game hosting platform itch.io has been used in the past to create fundraisers for charities by bundling together and selling games. A few of Rue’s friends who run a BIPOC tabletop server have had experience with creating profit-sharing bundles using the platform in the past, so after he consulted them and walked through the steps, he set up a bund?ndraiser, Rue wanted to ensure that the money was going directly to transgender people. “At the time, a lot of the larger media outlets were encouraging people to donate to Equality Texas, which works to get pro-queer legislature through in Texas, but they don’t necessarily help trans folks on an individual level.”  

After tweeting about the fundraiser and soliciting ideas for charities, he landed on two organizations in Texas that are trans-led and focused on transgender individuals: TENT (Transgender Education Network of Texas, a trans-led group that works to combat misinformation on the community level through the corporate level, offering workshops as well as emergency relief funds for trans folks in need) and OLTT (Organización Latina Trans in Texas, a Latina trans woman-led organization focusing on transgender immigrants in Texas, assisting with the legal processes of immigration, name changes, and paperwork.) Both charities serve transgender folks directly in Texas, and you can donate to the organizations by following the links we have included in the article. Both charities were thrilled to learn about the donation – for OLTT, it’s the largest single donation they have ever received, and they will be able to use it to perform needed renovations and expansions at their shelter facilities.

Since the fundraiser ended, Rue has been interviewed by several national news outlets, including NBC, Gizmodo, and The Mary Sue, as well as gaming-centric websites like Polygon, Dicebreaker, and GamesHub. Although they have received some harassment and nasty DMs, Rue says that the support from the community has vastly overshadowed the naysayers. Similarly, he spoke of the overwhelming rush of support from trans folks, queer folks, and allies to the movement in the face of structural legislation that seeks to harm trans people. 

“It restores a bit of my faith in humanity to see that on a structural level, they are trying to get rid of us, but on a community level, there is support – there will always be a place to go and people looking out for you.”

Tune in at 5 PM on Sunday, April 24 for this special episode of Inspiration Dissemination. Stream the show live or listen to this episode wherever you get your podcasts! You can keep up with Rue and their games on twitter and itch.io.

This article was written by Grace Deitzler.

Microbial and biochemical community dynamics in low-oxygen Oregon waters

Much like Oregon’s forests experience wildfire seasons, the waters off the Oregon coast experience what are called “hypoxia seasons”. During these periods, which occur in the summer, northern winds bring nutrient-rich water to the Eastern Current Boundary off the Oregon Coast. While that might sound like a good thing, the upwells bring a bloom of microscopic organisms such as phytoplankton that consume these nutrients and then die off. As they die off, they sink and are then decomposed by marine microorganisms. This process of decomposition removes oxygen from the water, creating what’s called an oxygen minimum zone, or OMZs. These OMZs can span thousands of square miles. While mobile organisms such as fish can escape these areas and relocate, place-bound creatures such as crabs and bottom-dwelling fish can perish in these low oxygen zones. While these hypoxia seasons can occur due to natural phenomena, stratification of the water column due to other factors such as climate change can increase the frequency or severity of these seasons.

2021 was one of the worst years on record for hypoxic waters off the Western coast of the United States. A major contributing factor was the extremely early start to the upwelling triggered by strong winds. Measurements of dissolved oxygen and ocean acidity were high enough to be consistent with conditions that can lead to dead zones, and this is exactly what happened. Massive die-offs of crabs are concerning as the harvesting of Dungeness crab is one of the most lucrative fishing industries in the state. Other species and organisms move into shallower waters, disturbing the delicate balance of the coastal ecosystems. From the smallest microbe to the largest whale, almost every part of the coast can be affected by hypoxia season. 

Our guest this week is Sarah Wolf, a fourth year PhD candidate in the Department of Microbiology here at Oregon State. Sarah, who is co-advised by Dr. Steve Giovannoni and Dr. Francis Chan, studies how microbes operate in these OMZs. Her work centers around microbial physiology and enzyme kinetics, and how these things change over time and in varying oxygen concentrations. To do this, she spent her second year developing a mesocosm, which is a closed environment that allows for the study of a natural environment, which replicates conditions found in low oxygen environments. 

Sarah Wolf, a fourth year PhD Candidate in the department of Microbiology, in her lab

Her experiments involve hauling hundreds of liters of ocean water from the Oregon coast back to her lab in Nash Hall, where she filters and portions it into different jugs hooked up to a controlled gas delivery system which allows her to precisely control the concentration of oxygen in the mesocosm. Over a period of four months Sarah samples the water in these jugs to look at the microbial composition, carbon levels, oxygen respiration rates, cell counts, and other measures of the biological and chemical dynamics occurring in low oxygen. Organic matter can get transformed by different microorganisms that “eat” different pieces through the use of enzymes, but many enzymes which can break down large, complex molecules require oxygen, and in low oxygen conditions, this can be a problem for the breakdown and accumulation of organic matter. This is the kind of phenomenon that Sarah is studying in these mesocosms, which her lab affectionately refers to as the “Data Machine”. 

Sarah’s journey into science has been a little nontraditional. A first generation college student, she started out her education as a political science major at Montana State before moving to the University of the Virgin Islands for a semester abroad. At the time she wasn’t really sure how to get into research or science as a career. During this semester her interest in microbiology was sparked during an environmental science course which led to her first research experience, studying water quality in St. Thomas. This experience resulted in an award-winning poster at a conference, and prompted Sarah to change her major to Microbiology and transfer to California State University Los Angeles. Her second research experience was very different – an internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory studying cleanroom microbiology, which resulted in a publication identifying two novel species of Bacillus isolated from the Kennedy Space Center. Ultimately Sarah’s journey brought her here to Oregon State, which she was drawn to because of its strong marine microbiology research program.

Sarah works on the “Data Machine”

But Sarah’s passion for science doesn’t stop at the lab: during the Covid-19 pandemic, she began creating and teaching lessons for children stuck at home. During this time she taught over 60 kids remotely, with lessons about microbes ranging from marine microbiology to astrobiology and even how to create your own sourdough starter at home. Eventually she compiled these lessons onto her website where parents and teachers alike can download them for use in classrooms and at home. She also began reviewing children’s science books on her Instagram page (@scientist.sarahwolf), and inviting experts in different fields to participate in livestreams about books relating to their topics. A practicing Catholic, she also shares thoughts and resources about religion and science, especially topics surrounding climate science. With around 12k followers, Sarah’s outreach on Instagram has certainly found its audience, and will only continue to grow. 

If you’re curious about microbes in low oxygen conditions, what it’s like to be a science educator and social media influencer, or want to hear more about Sarah’s journey in her own words, tune in at 7 PM on March 13th to catch the live episode at 7 PM PST on 88.7 FM Corvallis, online at https://kbvrfm.orangemedianetwork.com – or you can catch this episode after the show airs wherever you get your podcasts! 

Trusting Your Gut: Lessons in molecular neuroscience and mental health

The bacteria in your gut can talk to your brain.

No, really.

It might sound like science fiction, but you’ve probably heard the phrase ‘gut-brain axis’ used in recent years to describe this phenomenon. What we call the “gut” actually refers to the small and large intestines, where a collection of microorganisms known as the gut microbiome reside. In addition to the microbes that inhabit it, your gut contains around 500 million neurons, which connect to your brain through bidirectional nerves – the biggest of which is the vagus nerve. Bacteria might be able to interact with specialized sensory cells within the gut lining and trigger neuronal firing from the gut to the brain.

Our guest this week is Caroline Hernández, a PhD student in the Maude David Lab in the Department of Microbiology, and she is studying exactly this phenomenon. While the idea that the gut and the brain are connected is not exactly new (ever heard the phrase “a gut feeling” or felt “butterflies” in your gut when you’re nervous?), there still isn’t much known about how exactly this works on a molecular level. This is what Caroline’s work aims to untangle, using an in vitro  (which means outside of a living organism – in this case, cells in a petri dish) approach: if you could grow both the sensory gut cells and neurons in the same petri dish, and then expose them to gut bacteria, what could you observe about their interactions? 

Caroline Hernández in her lab at Oregon State, using a stereo microscope to identify anatomical structures in a mouse before dissecting out a nerve bundle

The answer to this question could tell us a lot about how the gut-brain axis works on a molecular level, and could help researchers understand the mechanisms by which the gut microbiome can possibly modulate behavior, mood, learning, and cognition. This could have important implications down the line for how we conceptualize and potentially treat mood and behavioral disorders. Some mouse studies have already shown that mice treated with the probiotic Lactobacillus rhamnosus display reduced anxiety-like and depressive behaviors, for example – but exactly how this works isn’t really clear.

The challenges of in vitro research

Before these mechanisms can really be untangled, there are several challenges that Caroline is working on solving. The biggest one is just getting the cells to grow at all: Caroline and her team must first carefully extract specific gut sensory tissue and a specific ganglion (which is a blob of neurons) from mice, a delicate process that requires the use of specialized tools and equipment. Once they’ve verified that they have the correct anatomy, the tissues are moved into media, a liquid that contains specialized nutrients to help provide the cells with the growth factors they need to stay alive. Because this is very cutting-edge research, Caroline’s team is among the first in the world to attempt this technique – meaning there is a lot of trial and error and not a great amount of resources out there to help. There have been a number of hurdles along the way, but Caroline is no stranger to meeting challenges head-on and overcoming them with incredible resilience.

From art interactions to microbial interactions

Her journey into science started in a somewhat unexpected way: Caroline began her undergraduate career as a studio art major in community college. Her art was focused on interactivity and she was especially interested in how the person perceiving the art could interact with and explore it. Eventually she decided that while she was quite skilled at it, art was not the career path she wanted to pursue, so she switched into science, where she began her Bachelors of Science in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign. 

During her undergraduate degree, a mental health crisis prompted Caroline to file for a medical withdrawal from her program. The break was much needed and allowed her to focus on taking care of herself and her health before returning to the rigorous and intense program three years later. Caroline is now a strong supporter of mental health resource awareness – in this episode of Inspiration Dissemination she will describe some of the challenges and barriers she faced when returning to finish her degree, and some of the pushback she faced when deciding to pursue a PhD. 

“Not everyone was supportive,” she says. “I didn’t receive great encouragement from some of my advisors.”

Where she did find support and community was in her undergraduate research lab. Her work in this lab on the effects of diet and the microbiome on human health gave her the confidence to pursue graduate school, demonstrating that she was more than capable of engaging in independent research. In particular Caroline recalls her mentor Leila Shinn, a PhD student at the time in that lab, who had a profound impact on her decision to apply to graduate programs.

Tune in on Feb 27th to hear the rest of Caroline’s story and what brought her to Oregon State in particular. You can listen live at 7 PM PST on 88.7 FM Corvallis, online at https://kbvrfm.orangemedianetwork.com, or you can catch the episode after the show airs wherever you get your podcasts. 

If you are an undergraduate student or graduate student at Oregon State University and are experiencing mental health struggles, you’re not alone and there are resources to help. CAPS offers crisis counseling services as well as individual therapy and support and skill-building groups. 

Nuclear: the history, present, and future of the solution to the energy crisis

In August of 2015, the Animas River in Colorado turned yellow almost overnight. Approximately three million gallons of toxic waste water were released into the watershed following the breaching of a tailings dam at the Gold King Mine. The acidic drainage led to heavy metal contamination in the river reaching hundreds of times the safe limits allowed for domestic water, having devastating effects on aquatic life as well as the ecosystems and communities surrounding the Silverton and Durango area. 

This environmental disaster was counted by our guest this week, Nuclear Science and Engineering PhD student Dusty Mangus, as a close-to-home critical moment in inspiring what would become his pursuit of an education and career in engineering. “I became interested in the ways that engineering could be used to develop solutions to remediate such disasters,” he recalls.

Following his BS of Engineering from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, Dusty moved to the Pacific Northwest to pursue his PhD in Nuclear Engineering here at Oregon State, where he works with Dr. Samuel Briggs. His research here focuses on an application of engineering to solve one of the biggest problems of our age: energy – and more specifically, the use of nuclear energy. Dusty’s primary focus is on using liquid sodium as an alternative coolant for nuclear reactors, and the longevity of various materials used to construct vessels for such reactors. But before we can get into what that means, we should define a few things: what is nuclear energy? Why is nuclear energy a promising alternative to fossil fuels? And why does it have such an undeserved bad rap?

Going Nuclear

Nuclear energy comes from breaking apart the nuclei of atoms. The nucleus is the core of the atom and holds an enormous amount of energy. Breaking apart atoms, also called fission, can be used to generate electricity. Nuclear reactors are machines that have been designed to control the process of nuclear fission and use the heat generated by this reaction to power generators, which create electricity. Nuclear reactors typically use the element uranium as the fuel source to produce fission, though other elements such as thorium could also be used. The heat created by fission then warms the coolant surrounding the reaction, typically water, which then produces steam. The United States alone has more than 100 nuclear reactors which produce around 20% of the nation’s electricity; however, the majority of the electricity produced in the US is from fossil fuels. This extremely potent energy source almost fully powers some nations including France and Lithuania. 

One of the benefits of nuclear energy is that unlike fossil fuels, nuclear reactors do not produce carbon emissions that contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In addition, unlike other alternative energy sources, nuclear plants can support the grid 24/7: extreme weather or lack of sunshine does not shut them down. They also take up less of a footprint than, say, wind farms.  

However, despite their benefits and usefulness, nuclear energy has a bit of a sordid history which has led to a persistent, albeit fading in recent years, negative reputation. While atomic radiation and nuclear fission were researched and developed starting in the late 1800s, many of the advancements in the technology were made between 1939-1945, where development was focused on the atomic bomb. First generation nuclear reactors were developed in the 1950s and 60s, and several of these reactors ran for close to 50 years before decommission. It was in 1986 the infamous Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred: a flawed reactor design led to a steam explosion and fires which released radioactive material into the environment, killing several workers in the days and weeks following the accident as a result of acute radiation exposure. This incident would have a decades-long impact on the perception of the safety of nuclear reactors, despite the significant effect of the accident on reactor safety design. 

Nuclear Reactor Safety

Despite the perception formed by the events of Chernobyl and other nuclear reactor meltdowns such as the 2011 disaster in Fukushima, Japan, nuclear energy is actually one of the safest energy sources available to mankind, according to a 2012 Forbes article which ranked the mortality rate per kilowatt hour of energy from different sources. Perhaps unsurprisingly, coal tops the list, with a global average of 100,000 deaths per trillion kilowatt hour. Nuclear energy is at the bottom of the list with only about 0.1 deaths per trillion kilowatt hour, making it even safer by this metric than natural gas (4,000 deaths), hydro (1400 deaths), and wind (150 deaths). Modern nuclear reactors are built with passive redundant safety systems that help to avoid the disasters of their predecessors.

Dusty’s research helps to address one of the issues surrounding nuclear reactor safety: coolant material. Typical reactors use water as a coolant: water absorbs the heat from the reaction and it then turns to steam. Once water turns to steam at 100 degrees Celsius, the heat transfer is much less efficient – the workaround to this is putting the water under high pressure, which raises the boiling point. However, this comes with an increased safety risk and a manufacturing challenge: water under high pressure requires large, thick metal vessels to contain it.

Sodium, infamous for its role in the inorganic compound known as salt, is actually a metal. In its liquid phase, it is much like mercury: metallic and viscous. Liquid sodium can be used as a low-pressure, safer coolant that transfers heat efficiently and can keep a reactor core cool without requiring external power. The boiling point of liquid sodium is around 900 degrees Celsius, whereas a nuclear reactor operates in the range of around 300-500 degrees Celsius – meaning that reactors can operate within a much safer range of temperatures at atmospheric pressure as compared to reactors that use conventional water cooling systems.

Dusty’s research is helping to push the field of nuclear reactor efficiency and safety into the future. Nuclear energy promises a safer, greener solution to the energy crisis, providing a potent alternative to current fuel sources that generate greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy utilized efficiently could even the capability to power the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, leading to a cleaner, greener future. 

Did we hook you on nuclear energy yet? Tune in to the show or catch the podcast to learn more about the history, present and future of this potent and promising energy source!  Be sure to listen live on Sunday January 30th at 7PM on 88.7FM or download the podcast if you missed it.