Author Archives: Grace Deitzler

Diving into the Unknown: Exploring the Role of Viruses in Coral Reef Health

When you think of a coral reef, what do you picture? Perhaps you imagine colorful branching structures jutting out of rock and the sea floor, with flourishing communities of fish swimming about. Or if you’ve been paying attention to news about global warming for the past decade or two, maybe you picture desolate expanses of bleached corals, their bone-like structures eerily reminiscent of a mass graveyard.

What you might not picture is a zoomed-in view of the coral ecosystem: the multitude of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and algae that occupy the intricate crevices of every coral. While corals are indeed animals in their own right, they belong to a complex symbiotic relationship with these microorganisms: the algae, which are more specifically dinoflagellates, provide energy to the coral through the process of photosynthesis. Bacteria occupying the mucus layers cycle nutrients and play a role in defense against pathogen invasion through the production of antimicrobial peptides.

One lesser-known member of this community, or the coral ‘holobiont’ as it is called, are the viruses. It’s probable that, like other members of the holobiont, they contribute to the health of the coral in some way, but this role is as of yet unclear. Our guest this week is Emily Schmeltzer, a fifth year PhD student in the Vega Thurber lab in the Department of Microbiology, and these elusive viruses are exactly what she is trying to uncover.

Emily Schmeltzer, PhD candidate in Rebecca Vega-Thurber’s lab, takes a sample of a coral

“We don’t know a ton about viruses on coral reefs,” says Schmeltzer. “ We know that some probably cause disease or mortality through infections, but we don’t really know exactly what a lot of them are doing, because marine viral ecology is such a relatively new field,” she explains.

It’s not surprising: viruses, while the most abundant and diverse entity on earth, are incredibly tiny and difficult to detect in environments where other organisms also thrive. Part of the challenge is that they have no universally conserved genes: that is, no easy way to tell the genes from viruses apart from the genes of other organisms. When studying bacteria, a gene called the 16S rRNA gene can be used as a sort of ‘name tag’ – every bacteria has this gene, whereas other organisms do not. There’s no such thing for viruses, making them difficult to study if you don’t already know what you’re looking for.

Schmeltzer is studying the viruses that live on corals and their response to climate change. To do this, her PhD research has involved a massive spatiotemporal study (spatio = across different locations, temporal = across multiple time points) looking at nearly 400 individual coral colonies of three different species over 3 years. All of these colonies are off the coast of the Moorea, a small island in French Polynesia in the South Pacific. The ultimate goal of the project is to contribute to the ongoing data collection for the Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research project, and to characterize virus community diversity and potential function  in the health of these corals.

Studying coral reefs is a big leap for Schmeltzer, who hails from the land-locked deserts of New Mexico. She was always interested in biology, which she attributes to her dad bringing home dead scorpions to look at together when she was a child. Arthropods ultimately ended up becoming her first research subjects: as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, she worked in an insect and spider taxonomy lab, before pivoting to working on West Nile virus.

So how did this insect-loving desert-dweller end up studying viruses that live on corals in the ocean? To learn more about Schmeltzer’s career trajectory, her love of corals, and the challenges of viral research, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination this Sunday, April 2nd at 7 PM. Listen live at 88.7 FM or on the live stream, or catch the episode after the show wherever you get your podcasts! 

Local Game Developer and OSU Alumni Leads Second Annual TTRPG Fundraiser to Support Trans Advocacy Groups in Florida

Rue Dickey (they/he) is a returning guest to ID this week. You may remember Rue from last year as the organizer who helped raise over $400,000 for two trans rights organizations in Texas via Tabletop Role Playing Games (TTRPGs). Well, they’re back at it this year and we’re here to tell you all about it!

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. This combined with a climate of increasing anti-trans legislation across the US, led Rue to take action. Rue is an Oregon State University alumnus and a freelance game developer, designing games for Hitpoint Press, Cobalt Press, and publishing independent work on game hosting platforms such as 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 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 bundraiser. By the time of our interview with Rue in April, 2022 they had raised over $400,000 for 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.) In addition to this they had 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

Rue is a 2019 graduate of OSU’s Communications and Microbiology programs.

This year Rue is continuing the fundraiser, but focusing on Florida which has garnered national attention for anti-trans legislation such as the Parental Rights in Education Act, which restricts schools from including LGBTQ+ topics in curricula. The proposed expanded provisions to the act would ban teachers from addressing students by pronouns that differ from those they were assigned at birth, and staff would also be unable to share their own preferred pronouns if they deviate from those assigned at birth. Additionally, the Florida Board of Medicine enacted a rule that bars minors from starting puberty blockers or hormone therapy, essentially banning transition for those under the age of 18.

The organizations benefiting from the bundraiser this year are Zebra Youth Coalition (a network serving youth ages 13-24, that run shelters for youth that need safety and resources) and Transinclusive Group (a trans women of color-led coalition aimed at offering peer support, access to resources like HRT, and educating care providers in how to better take care of trans youth.) The current bundle launched on March 13th and has 505 game supplements and zines, the base price of which is $5 but the top donation is $1000. The fundraising goal for this year’s bundle is $250k, but in the couple of weeks since launching there’s already been $208k raised.

The bundle is live through April 6th, so there is still time to help reach their fundraising goal! To learn more about the fundraiser, tune into Rue’s episode this upcoming Sunday, March 26th at 7 PM! Be sure to listen live on KBVR 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it.

Grouper groupie: studying climate change and the Nassau grouper

During winter months, a few days after the full moon, thousands of fish make their way to the warm tropical waters off the west coast of Little Cayman, Cayman Island. Nassau Grouper are typically territorial and don’t interact often, but once per year, they gather in the same spot where they all spawn to carry on the tradition of releasing gametes, in the hopes that some of them will develop to adulthood and carry on the population.

Our guest this week is Janelle Layton, a Masters (and soon to be PhD) student in Dr. Scott Heppel’s lab in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Sciences. Janelle’s research focuses on this grouper, which is listed as near threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Overfishing has been the largest threat to Nassau Grouper populations, but another threat looms: warming waters due to climate change. This threat is what Janelle is interested in studying – how does the warming water temperature affect the growth and development of grouper larvae?

Janelle with a curious sea turtle

Each winter Janelle travels to this aggregation site in the Cayman Islands, where these large groups of grouper (grouper groups?) aggregate for a few days to reproduce. During this time, she collects thousands of fertilized Nassau Grouper eggs to take back to the lab and study. These eggs will develop in varying water temperatures for 6 days, where each day a subset of samples are preserved for future analysis.

Spawning groupers

So far, Janelle is finding that the larvae raised in higher temperatures tend to demonstrate not only an increase in mortality, but an increase in variability in mortality. What does this mean? Basically, eggs from some females are able to survive and develop under these stressful conditions better than eggs from other females – so is there a genetic component to being able to survive these temperature increases?

The answer may lie in proteins

Aside from development and mortality, Janelle is investigating this theory by measuring the expression of heat shock proteins in the fertilized eggs and larvae. Heat shock proteins are expressed in response to environmental stressors such as increased temperatures, and can be measured through RNA sequencing. The expression of these proteins might hold the key to understanding why some grouper are more likely to survive than others. Janelle’s work is a collaborative effort between Oregon State University, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, Reef Environmental Education Foundation and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment.

To learn more about Nassau Grouper, heat shock proteins, and what it’s like being a Black woman in marine science, tune into Janelle’s episode this upcoming Sunday, March 12th at 7 PM! Be sure to listen live on KBVR 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it. You can also catch Janelle on TikTok or at her website.

The Puzzle of Puffy Snout

Puffy snout syndrome: though it has a cute-sounding name, this debilitating condition causes masses on the face of Scombridae fish (a group of fish that includes mackerel and tuna.) Fish afflicted with puffy snout syndrome (PSS) develop excessive collagenous tumor-like growths around the eyes, snout, and mouth. This ultimately leads to visual impairment, difficulty feeding, and eventual death. PSS is surprisingly confined to just fish raised in captivity – those in aquaculture farms or aquariums, for example. Unfortunately, when PSS is identified in aquaculture, the only option is to cull the entire tank — no treatments or cures currently exist.

Left: a mackerel with puffy snout syndrome. Collagenous growths cover the snout and eye. Right: a healthy mackerel. Photos Emily Miller

PSS was first identified in the 1950s, in a fish research center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Since then, there have only been 9 publications in the scientific literature documenting the condition and possible causes, although the fish community has come to the conclusion that PSS is likely a transmittable condition with an infectious agent as the cause. But despite this conclusion, there’s been no success so far in identifying such a cause – tests for parasites, bacterial growth, and viruses have come up empty-handed. That was until a 2021 paper, using high-resolution electron microscopy, found evidence of viral particles in facial tissues taken from Pacific mackerel. Suddenly, there was a lead: could PSS be caused by a virus that we just don’t have a test for yet?

Electron microscopy images showing viral-like particles (red arrows) in facial tissue from Pacific mackerel (Miller et al 2022).

Putting Together the Pieces

To investigate this hypothesis, this week’s guest Savanah Leidholt (a co-author of the 2021 microscopy study) is using an approach for viral detection known as metatranscriptomics. Leidholt, a fourth year PhD candidate in the Microbiology department, sees this complex approach as a sort of puzzle: “Your sample of RNA has, say, 10 giant jigsaw puzzles in it. But the individual puzzles might not be complete, and the pieces might fit into multiple places, so your job is to reassemble the pieces into the puzzles in a way that gives you a better picture of your story.”

Savanah Leidholt, PhD candidate in Rebecca Vega-Thurber’s lab, is looking for evidence of viruses in the tissues of fish with puffy snout syndrome.

RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid similar to DNA found in all living organisms, But where DNA is like a blueprint – providing the code that makes you, you; RNA is more like the assembly manual. When a gene is expressed (meaning the corresponding protein is manufactured), the double-stranded DNA is unwound and the information is transcribed into a molecule called messenger RNA. This single-stranded mRNA is now a copy of the gene that can be translated into protein. The process of writing an mRNA copy of the DNA blueprint is called transcription, and these mRNA molecules are the target of this metatranscriptomics approach, with the prefix “meta” meaning all of the RNA in a sample (both the fish RNA and the potential viral RNA, in this case) and the suffix “omics” just referring to the fact that this approach happens on a large scale (ALL of the RNA, not just a single gene, is sequenced here!) When mRNA is sequenced in this manner, the researchers can then conclude that the gene it corresponds to was being expressed in the fish at the time the sample was collected.

The process of transcription: making messenger RNA from DNA. Image from Nature Education.

So far, Leidholt has identified some specific genes in fish that tend to be much more abundant in fish from captive settings versus those found in the wild. Could these genes be related to why PSS is only seen in fish in captivity? It’s likely – the genes identified are immune markers, and the upregulation of immune markers is well-known to be associated with chronic stress. Think about a college student during finals week – stress is high after a long semester, maybe they’ve been studying until late in the night and not eating or sleeping well, consuming more alcohol than is recommended. And then suddenly, on the day of the test, they’re stuck in bed with the flu or a cold. The same thing can happen to fish (well, maybe not the part where they take a test!,) especially in captivity – Pacific mackerel, tuna, and other scombrid species susceptible to PSS are fairly large, sometimes swimming hundreds of miles in a single day in the ocean. But in captivity, they are often in very small tanks, constantly swimming in constrained circles. They’re not exposed to the same diversity of other fish, plankton, prey, and landscape as they would be in the wild. “Captivity is a great place to be if you’re a pathogen, but not great if you’re a fish”, says Leidholt.

The results of Leidholt’s study are an exciting step forward in the field of PSS research, as one of the biggest challenges currently facing aquaculture farms and aquariums is that there is no way to screen for PSS in healthy fish before symptoms begin to show. Finding these marker genes that appear in fish that could later on develop PSS means that in the future a test could be developed. If vulnerable fish could be identified and removed from the population before they begin to show symptoms and spread the condition, then it would mean fish farmers no longer have to cull the entire tank when PSS is noticed.

The elusive virus

One of the challenges that remains is going beyond the identification of genes in the fish and beginning to identify viruses in the samples. Viruses, which are small entities made up of a DNA or RNA core and a protective protein coating, are thought to be the most abundant biological entities on the planet Earth – and the smallest in terms of size. They usually get a bit of a bad reputation due to their association with diseases in humans and other animals, but there are also viruses that play important positive roles in their ecosystems – bacteriophages, for example, are viruses that infect bacteria. In humans, bacteriophages can attack and invade pathogenic or antibiotic-resistance bacteria like E. coli or S. aureus (for more information on phages and how they are actually studied as a potential therapy for infections, check out this November 2021 interview with Miriam Lipton!) Across the entire planet there are estimated to be between 10^7 to 10^9 distinct viral species – that’s between 10 million and 10 billion different species. And fish are thought to host more viruses than any other vertebrate species. Because of technological advancements, these viral species have only really been identified very recently, and identification still poses a significant challenge.

As a group, viruses are very diverse, so one of the challenges is finding a reliable way to identify them in a given sample. For bacteria, researchers can use a marker gene called the 16S rRNA gene – this gene is found in every single bacterial cell, making it universal, but it also has a region of variability. This region of variability allows for identification of different strains of bacteria. “Nothing like 16S exists for viruses,” Leidholt says. “Intense sequencing methods have to be used to capture them in a given sample.” The metatranscriptomic methods that Leidholt is using should allow her to capture elusive viruses by taking a scorched earth approach – targeting and sequencing any little bit of RNA in the sample at all, and trying to match up that RNA to a virus. 

To learn more about Savanah’s research on puffy snout syndrome, her journey to Oregon State, and the amazing outreach she’s doing with high school students in the Microbiology Department, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination on Sunday, November 20th at 7 PM Pacific!

Schmitty Thompson wears glasses and a sweater, and smiles at the camera while standing in front of a vast field.

What ice sheets can teach us about ancient ocean shorelines

Around 80,000 years ago, the Earth was in the middle of the late Pleistocene era, and much of Canada and the northern part of the United States was blanketed in ice. The massive Laurentide Ice Sheet covered millions of square miles, and in some places, up to 2 miles thick. Over vast timescales this ice sheet advanced its way across the continent slowly, gouging out what we now know as the Great Lakes, carving the valleys, depositing glacial tills, and transforming the surface geology of much of the southern part of Canada and northern US. Further west, the Cordilleran ice sheet stretched across what is now Alaska, British Columbia, and the northern parts of the Western US, compressing the ground under its massive weight. As these ice sheets depressed the land beneath them, the Earth’s crust bulged outwards, and as the planet warmed and the ice sheets began to melt, the pressure was released, returning the crust underneath to its previous shape. As this happened, ocean water flowed away, resulting in lower sea levels locally, but higher levels across the other side of the planet.

The effects of massive bodies of ice forming, moving, and melting are far from negligible in their impact on the overall geology of the region, the sea level throughout history, and the patterns of a changing climate. Though there are only two ice sheets on the planet today, deducing the ancient patterns and dynamics of ice sheets can help researchers fill the geological record and even make predictions about what the planet might look like in the future. Our guest on Inspiration Dissemination this week is PhD candidate and researcher Schmitty Thompson, of the Department of Geology in CEOAS. Thompson is ultimately trying to answer questions about ice distribution, sea levels, and other unknown parameters that the geologic record is missing during two different ice age warming periods. Their research is very interdisciplinary – Thompson has degrees in both math and geology, and also uses a lot of data science, computer science, and physics in their work. They are using computer modeling to figure out just what the shorelines looked like during this time period around 80,000 years ago. 

Schmitty Thompson, fourth year PhD candidate with Jessica Creveling in the Geology Department.

“I use models because the geologic record is pretty incomplete – the further back you go, the less complete it is. So by matching my models to the existing data, we can then infer more information about what the shoreline was like,” they explain. To do this accurately, Thompson feeds the model what the ice sheets looked like over the course of around 250,000 years. They also need to incorporate other inputs to the model to get an accurate picture – variables such as the composition of the interior of the Earth, the physics of Earth’s interior, and even the ice sheets’ own gravitational pull (ice sheets are so massive they exert a gravitational pull on the water around them!)

Using math to learn about ice

The first equation to describe global changes in sea level was published in 1976, with refining throughout the 90s and early 2000s. Thompson’s model builds on these equations in two versions: one which can run in about 10 minutes on their laptop, and another which can take multiple weeks and must run on a supercomputer. The quicker version uses spherical harmonics as the basis function for the pseudospectral formulation, which is basically a complex function that does math and incorporates coefficient representations of the earth’s radius, meridional wave numbers, variation across north/south and east/west, and a few other variables. The short of it is that it can perform these calculations across a 250k time span relatively quickly, but it makes assumptions about the homogeneity of the earth’s crust and mantle viscosity. Think of it like a gumball: a giant, magma-filled gumball with a smooth outer surface and even layers. So while this method is fast, the assumptions that it makes means the output data is limited in its usefulness. When Thompson needs a more accurate picture, they turn to collaborators who are able to run the models on a supercomputer, and then they work with the model’s outputs.

While the model is useful for filling in gaps in the historical record, Thompson also points out that it has uses in predicting what the future will look like in the context of a changing climate. After testing out these models and seeing how sensitive they are, they could be used by researchers looking at much smaller time scales and more sensitive constraints for current and future predictions. “There are still lots of open questions – if we warm the planet by a few degrees, are we going to collapse a big part of Antarctica or a small part? How much ice will melt?”

To learn more about ice sheets, sea levels, and using computer models to figure out how the shoreline looked thousands of years ago, tune in to Schmitty Thompson’s episode on Inspiration Dissemination this upcoming Sunday evening at 7 PM PST. Catch the show live by streaming on, or check out the show later wherever you get your podcasts!

Thompson was also recently featured on Alie Ward’s popular podcast Ologies. You can catch up with all things geology by checking out their episode here.

Warming waters, waning nutrition

Here at Inspiration Dissemination, we are fascinated by the moments of inspiration that lead people to pursue graduate studies. For our next guest, an experience like this came during a boat trip accompanying the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a research expedition. Becky Smoak, an M.S. student in OSU’s Marine Resource Management program, remembers feeling in awe of the vibrant array of marine life that she saw, including whales, sunfish, and sharks. Growing up on a farm in eastern Washington, Becky had always wanted to be a veterinarian. During her undergraduate studies at Washington State University, she came to feel that the culture of pre-veterinary students was too cutthroat. In search of something more collaborative, she came to Oregon State in summer 2019 for a Research Experience for Undergrads (REU) and was impressed by the support and inclusivity of her research mentors. A couple years later, Becky is now on the cusp of graduation after her time spent studying marine life.

Becky’s graduate work is the continuation of a long-running collaboration between Oregon State and NOAA out of the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Beginning in 1996 under the direction of Bill Peterson, a team of researchers has monitored oceanic conditions along a route called the Newport Hydrographic, which extends in a straight line eastward from the Oregon Coast and intersects the northern part of the vast Californian Current. The team takes samples of ocean water at fixed points along the route and analyzes the concentrations of plankton and other organisms or compounds of interest. 

Becky Smoak, teaching on the OSU research vessel The Elakha.

The specific biochemicals that Becky studies are Omega-3 fatty acids. In a set of experiments from the 1930s, rats fed with a diet poor in Omega-3 fatty acids eventually died, demonstrating that these compounds are essential to life and are not produced by mammals. Two types of Omega-3 fatty acids, called EPA and DHA, can only be synthesized by phytoplankton, microscopic photosynthetic organisms that live in the ocean. The ability of phytoplankton to produce fatty acids is intimately linked with oceanic temperature. Studies have shown that increases in sea surface temperature and decreases in nutrient availability can decrease the quality of fatty acids in phytoplankton, thus decreasing food availability and quality in the marine environment. Fatty acid levels have downstream effects on the ecosystem, for example on copepods, a type of zooplankton that feeds on phytoplankton. Becky’s team affectionately refers to the copepod colony of the chilly northern Pacific as the “cheeseburger” copepods, in contrast to the “celery” copepods of the southern Pacific colony. The present-day effect of temperature also points to a key ecological challenge, as warming oceans due to climate change could disrupt the supply of this vital nutrient.

In her thesis work, Becky seeks to untangle the contributions of phytoplankton community structure to oceanic Omega-3 fatty acid levels. She uses a set of statistical methodologies called nonmetric multidimensional scaling to uncover correlations in the datasets. A particularly interesting instrument used to collect her data is a flow cytometry robot dubbed ‘Lucy’. Lucy uses advanced imaging to count individual plankton and characterize their sizes. This yields an improvement in accuracy over older monitoring techniques that assumed a fixed size for all plankton. Becky’s goal for finishing her thesis is to create a statistical procedure for predicting fatty acid availability given information on phytoplankton population structure.

To hear more about Becky’s journey to OSU, her experiences as a first-generation college student, and the fascinating role of Omega-3s in marine ecosystems, be sure to tune in this Sunday October 9th at 7pm on KBVR.

This article was written by Joseph Valencia.

Violence and Masculinity in Film

After a long summer hiatus, Inspiration Dissemination is back on the airwaves and your podcast platforms this week! Kicking off our Fall quarter lineup is Andrew Herrera, MA candidate with Jon Lewis in the School of Writing, Literature, and Film here at Oregon State University.

Herrera’s research might sound like a dream come true to some: “I study movies, honestly.”

For Herrera it really is a dream come true – he grew up with a lifelong love of film, inspired by watching movies with his mother as a child, the same movies that she had also grown up with. But it was after seeing Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 hit film Black Swan that he knew that studying film was going to be a career for him. The psychological horror production stars Natalie Portman as a dancer in a production of Swan Lake and follows her descent into madness as she struggles with a rival dancer. Herrera recalls that after seeing the film in theaters he sat in the car for several hours, just thinking about what he’d seen. This was around the time he learned that he could actually study film as an academic pursuit, and ended up writing about Black Swan for a literature class, comparing and contrasting it with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Andrew Herrera, MA candidate in SWLF.

He eventually finished his Bachelor’s degree in English Literature here at Oregon State University, and decided to stay and pursue a Master’s in Film Studies. His dissertation is focusing on the themes of three films by acclaimed Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn: Drive, Only God Forgives, and Bronson. Herrera is looking at the three films through the lens of masculinity, gender performativity and violence – all three center around male characters engaged in violent trajectories. Herrera in part argues that the three films present masculinity as a kind of performance or even a very literal costume, in the case of Drive (Ryan Gosling’s character is known for his iconic white jacket which sports a scorpion design, which he is only seen wearing when committing acts of violence.) The removal of weakness and femininity through violence and fighting leads to the rebirth of masculinity in Bronson, and in Only God Forgives features an almost Oedipal-like protagonist (also played by Ryan Gosling) who eventually cuts open the womb of his dead mother in a representation of asserting control over his own masculinity. Herrera is also interested in the intersection of masculinity and queerness in media, and how these themes show up explicitly or implicitly in these three and other films.

To hear more about these movies, the way masculinity is portrayed in film and its cultural impacts, and Herrera’s research, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination this Sunday evening at 7 PM at KBVR 88.7 FM or listen live online at If you missed the live episode don’t forget to check out the podcast, now available wherever you get your podcasts.

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, 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, or after the show wherever you find your podcasts.