Machines take me by surprise with great frequency. – Alan Turing
This week we have a PhD student from the College of Engineering and advised by Dr. Maude David in Microbiology, Nima Azbijari, to discuss how he uses machine learning to better understand biology. Before we dig in to the research, let’s dig into what exactly machine learning is, and how it differs from artificial intelligence (AI). Both AI and machine learning learn patterns from data they are fed, but the difference is that AI is typically developed to be interacted with and make decisions in real time. If you’ve ever lost a game of chess to a computer, that was AI playing against you. But don’t worry, even the world’s champion at an even more complex game, Go, was beaten by AI. AI utilizes machine learning, but not all machine learning is AI. Kind of like how a square is a rectangle, but not all rectangles are squares. The goal of machine learning is to use data to improve at tasks using data it is fed.
So how exactly does a machine, one of the least biological things on this planet, help us understand biology?
Ten years ago it was big news that a computer was able to recognize images of cats, but now photo recognition is quite common. Similarly, Nima uses machine learning with large sets of genomic (genes/DNA), proteomic (proteins), and even gut microbiomic data (symbiotic microbes in the digestive track) to then see if the computer can predict varying patient outcomes. By using computational power, larger data sets and the relationships between the varying kinds of data can be analyzed more quickly. This is great for both understanding the biological world in which we live, and also for the potential future of patient care.
How exactly do you teach an old machine a new trick?
First, it’s important to note that he’s using a machine, not magic, and it can be massively time consuming (even for a computer) to do any kind of analysis on every element of a massive set. Potentially millions of computations, or even more. So to isolate only the data that matters, Nima uses graph neural networks to extrapolate the important pieces. Imagine if you had a data set about your home, and you counted both the number of windows and the number of blinds and found that they were the same. Then you might conclude that you only need to count windows, and that counting blinds doesn’t tell you anything new. The same idea works with reducing data into only the components that add meaning.
The phrase ‘neural network’ can invoke imagery of a massive computer-brain made of wires, but what does this neural network look like, exactly? The 1999 movie The Matrix borrowed its name from a mathematical object which contains columns and rows of data, much like the iconic green columns of data from the movie posters. These matrices are useful for storing and computing data sets since they can be arranged much like an excel sheet, with columns for each patient and rows for each type of recorded data. He (or the computer?) can then work with that matrix to develop this neural network graph. Then, the neural network determines which data is relevant and can also illustrate connections between the different pieces of data. Much like how you might be connected to friends, coworkers, and family on a social network, except in this case, each profile is a compound or molecule and the connections can be any kind of relationship, such as a common reaction between the pair. However, unlike a social network, no one cares how many degrees from Kevin Bacon they are. The goal here isn’t to connect one molecule to another but to instead identify unknown relationships. Perhaps that makes it more like 23 and Me than Facebook.
Nima is using machine learning to discover previously unknown relationships between various kinds of human biological data such as genes and the gut microbiome. Now, that’s a machine you don’t need to rage against.
Excited to learn more about machine learning? Us too. Be sure to listen live on Sunday November 13th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it. And if you want to stay up to date on Nima’s research, you can follow them on Twitter.
The overlap between environmental science and social justice are rare, but it has been around since at least the early 1990’s and is becoming more well-known today. The framework of Environmental Justice was popularized by Robert Bullard when his wife, a lawyer, asked him to help her with a case where he was mapping all the landfills in the state of Texas and cross reference the demographics of the people who lived there. Landfills are not the most pleasant places to live next to, especially if you never had the opportunity to choose otherwise. Bullard found that even though Houston has a 75% white population, every single city-owned landfill was built in predominantly black neighborhoods. The environmental hazards of landfills, their emissions and contaminated effluent, were systematically placed in communities that had been – and continue to be – disenfranchised citizens who lacked political power. Black people were forced to endure a disproportionate burden of the environmental hazards, and procedural justice was lacking in the decision making process that created these realities. Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation to Houston, or Texas, because this pattern continues today.
Environmental justice is an umbrella term that we cannot fully unpack in a blogpost or a single podcast, but it is fundamentally about the injustices of environmental hazards being forced upon disadvantaged communities who had little to no role in creating those hazards. This is not a United States-specific issue although we do focus on state-side issues in this episode. In fact, some of the most egregious examples occur in smaller and lesser known countries (see our episode with Michael Johnson, where his motivation for pursuing marine sciences in graduate school is because the islands of micronesia where he grew up are literally being submerged by the rising seas of global warming). The issues we discuss are multifaceted and can seem impossible to fix. But before we can fix the issues we need to really understand the socio-political-economic ecosystem that has placed us exactly where we are today.
To begin to discuss all of this, we have Chris Hughbanks who is a graduate student at Oregon State and one of the Vice Presidents of the local Linn-Benton NAACP branch and a member of their Environmental and Climate Justice committee (Disclaimer: Adrian is also a branch member and part of the committee). We begin the discussion with a flood in Chris’ hometown of Detroit. Chris describes how they never really had floods because when precipitation occurs it’s usually either not that much rain or cold enough for it to snow instead. Because it hardly rains that much, very few people have flood insurance. But that pesky climate change is making temperatures warmer and precipitation events more intense than ever before causing flooding to occur in 2014, 2016, 2019, and 2020. As you might guess, the effects of this natural disaster were not equally shared by all citizens of Detroit. We discuss the overlap between housing discrimination and flood areas, how the recovery effort left so many out to [not] dry.
We end the episode with ways to get involved at the local level. First, consider learning more about the Linn-Benton NAACP branch, and the initiatives they focus on to empower local communities. Vote, vote, vote, and vote. Make sure you’re registered, and everyone else you know is registered to vote. And recognize these problems are generations in the making, and it will take just as long to fully rectify them. Finally, I am reminded of an episode interviewing millennial writers about what it means to be born when global warming was a niche research topic, but to come of age when climate change has become a global catastrophe. They rightfully point out that there are a myriad of possibilities for human salvation and sacrifice for every tenth of a degree between 1.5 and 3.0°C of warming that is predicted by the most recent 6th edition of the IPCC report. As grim as our future seems, what an awesome task for our generations to embark upon to try and “create a polity and economy that actually treats everybody with dignity, I cannot think of a more meaningful way to spend a human life.”
If you missed the show, you can listen to this episode on the podcast feed!
Additional Reading & Podcast Notes
The Detroit Flood – We mentioned the NPR article reporting that 40% of people living in Detroit experienced flooding, how black neighborhoods were at higher risk to flooding, and that renters (who are disproportionately black) were nearly twice as likely to experience flooding compared to those who owned their homes. We also mentioned a map of Detroit, showing which areas are more at risk of flooding. Another local article described how abnormal that summer in Detroit and the surrounding areas were compared to other years.
We listed a number of Environmental Justice links that include:
Dumping in Dixie, the 1990 book written by Robert Bullard which is considered essential reading for many law school courses on environmental justice.
We listed the organizing principles of the modern environmental justice movement, first codified in 1991 at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit
A story near Los Angeles where mixed-use city zoning laws allowed industrial businesses to operate near residential areas, causing soil lead pollution that was unknown until Yvette Cabrera wrote her own grant to study the issue. Read her story in Grist: Ghost of Polluter’s Past that describes the immense efforts she and researchers had to go through to map soil lead contamination, and how the community has used that information to generate positive change for the community.
Environmental [in]justice afflicts the global south as well, where a majority of forest loss since the 1960’s has occurred in the tropical regions of the world.
Adrian mentioned a number of podcasts for further listening:
Two past Inspiration Dissemination episodes with Holly Horan on maternal infant stress in Puerto Rico and her experience conducting research after Hurricane Maria, and Michael Johnson who one of his motivation to go to graduate school was because where he grew up – Micronesia – has been feeling the rising seas of climate change long before other countries.
A deep investigative journalism podcast calledFloodlines about the events leading up to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and what happened after (or, what should have happened).
We returned to the fact that housing is central to so many injustices for generations. The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America by Richard Rothstein is a historical analysis of the laws and policies that shaped today’s housing patterns. One example Rothstein often cites is the construction of freeways purposefully routed through black communities; recently one developer accidentally said the quiet part out loud in explaining where a gas pipeline was routed because they choose “the path of least resistance“. We also mentioned that in 2019 and in 2020, Corvallis has ~37% of its residents being rent burdened (meaning households spend more than 50% of their income on rent), which is the worst city in the state over both years. You can also read about a California Delta assessment that focuses on agricultural shifts in the region due to land erosion and flooding, but they mention how current flood risk is tied to historical redlining.
Our climate in the next thirty years will not look the same as today, and that’s exactly why our energy systems will also soon look completely different. Energy systems are the big umbrella of how and where we create electricity, how we transport that electricity, and how we use electricity. We’re discussing the past and the future of our energy environment with Emily Richardson, a Masters of Engineering student in the Energy Systems Program.
When our energy infrastructure was originally built, energy generation, transport, and usage was a one-way street. Utility companies made or acquired the electricity, built poles and wires to transport that electricity to then be used in homes and businesses. Although that infrastructure was only made to last 50 years, many are pushing 100 years of operation.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” some might say, but we’re not living in the same energy reality when the infrastructure was originally built. For in-depth visuals of our energy generation and usage, we recommend viewing Lawrence Livermore National Labs. Now we have a different energy portfolio (e.g. wind and solar) but there’s also a two-way street of electricity movement that is required. Rooftop solar helps power individual homes, but when zero to little energy is being used in-house and it’s sunny outside, that excess energy generation on your rooftop moves back upstream and can fulfill energy needs in other places. A two-way street is quickly being paved. It’s worth remembering that energy is on demand, meaning we only make exactly as much energy as what’s being used. If there is excess generation in a highly distributed way (i.e. home solar panels) it adds another level of complexity to our energy systems because there is no “overflow” valve for electricity.
Imagine if your toilet, that slowly moves water in one direction, was suddenly expected to move water in the other direction and back and forth as quick as the speed of light? Yikes indeed. City-wide plumbing infrastructure was bult to accommodate the most extreme events like the Super Bowl flush (when everyone in the city/state/country runs to the bathroom at halftime). While it’s an extreme circumstance, the infrastructure was built to prepare for it, and it works! But our energy systems were hardly made for this kind of reverse movement of energy, especially on a large scale as more people install rooftop solar.
Beyond the two-way street, there’s also rush hour to worry about. The UK is known for their tea; at a specific time after a popular TV show ends about one-million teakettles get turned on simultaneously. Without planning and foresight this would lead to an electricity shortage and people losing power. But the UK government imports 200-600 megawatts of energy, sometimes coming from a hydroelectric dam and/or nuclear energy, to accommodate their hot tea requirements. It’s surprisingly complicated to move this much power all at once, but with strategic planning there are solutions!
Everything in the energy world is physically connected. Even if the poles and wires and outlets are hidden behind walls there’s an immense amount of planning and design that you will never see because if infrastructure is working well, you can accidently forget its existence. When it fails, it can fail catastrophically. The 2020 Holiday Farm Fire in Oregon was initiated by downed powerlines, and the 2018 Paradise Fire in California was also initiated by malfunctioning powerlines. There are a multitude of reasons why those fires were especially damaging (location of ignition, exceptionally dry fuels, extreme wind events, drought and insect stressed trees, too many trees per acre, etc.), and why wildfires will get worse in the future (rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns).
But our collective future requires energy, a lot of it, to be efficiently distributed and stored that requires a radical shift in our hardware, software, and maybe even our philosophy of energy usage. You don’t want to miss the discussion with Emily who will give us the deep dive on how we arrived at our energy reality and what our energy future will need to look like. This conversation is happening at 7pm on KBVR 88.7 FM, but you can also listen via the podcast feed.
Additional Notes On air we mentioned a few resources that can provide more deep dives! The first is the Energy Gang Podcast that focuses on energy, clean technology, and the environment. The Big Switch Podcast is a five-part series on how the power grid works and how upcoming changes to the gird can help society. The Volts Podcast is an interview based show untangling our messy climate future and hopeful energy transitions. Emily mentioned a presentation titled Imagining a Zero Emissions Energy System.
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?
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.
Basic biology and computer science is probably not an intuitive pairing to think of, when we think of pairs of scientific disciplines. Not as intuitive as say biology and chemistry (often referred to as biochem). However, for Joseph Valencia, a third year PhD student at OSU, the bridge between these two disciplines is a view of life at the molecular scale as a computational process in which cells store, transmit, and interpret the information necessary for survival.
Think back to your 9th or 10th grade biology class content and you will (probably? maybe?) vaguely remember learning about DNA, RNA, proteins, and ribosomes, and much more. In case your memory is a little foggy, here is a short (and very simplified) recap of the basic biology. DNA is the information storage component of cells. RNA, which is the focus of Joseph’s research, is the messenger that carries information from DNA to control the synthesis of proteins. This process is called translation and ribosomes are required to carry out this process. Ribosomes are complex molecular machines and many of them can also be found in each of our cells. Their job is to interpret the RNA. The way this works is that they attach themselves to the RNA, they take the transcript of information that the RNA contains, interpret it and produce a protein. The proteins fold into a specific 3D shape and the shape determines the protein’s function. What do proteins do? Basically control everything in our bodies! Proteins make enzymes which control everything from muscle repair to eye twitching. The amazing thing about this process is that it is not specific to humans, but is a fundamental part of basic biology that occurs in basically every living thing!
So now that you are refreshed on your high school biology, let us tie all of these ‘basics’ to what Joseph does for his research. Joseph’s research focuses on RNA, which can be broken down into two main groups: messenger RNA (mRNA) and non-coding RNA. mRNA is what ends up turning into a protein following the translation by a ribosome, whereas with long non-coding RNA, the ribosome decides not to turn it into a protein. While we are able to distinguish between the two types of RNA, we do not fully understand how a ribosome decides to turn one RNA (aka mRNA) into a protein, and not another (aka long non-coding RNA). That’s where Joseph and computer science come in – Joseph is building a machine learning model to try and better understand this ribosomal decision-making process.
Machine learning, a field within artificial intelligence, can be defined as any approach that creates an algorithm or model by using data rather than programmer specified rules. Lots of data. Modern machine learning models tend to keep learning and improving when more data is fed to them. While there are many different types of machine-learning approaches, Joseph is interested in one called natural language processing . You are probably pretty familiar with an example of natural language processing at work – Google Translate! The model that Joseph is building is in fact not too dissimilar from Google Translate, or at least the idea behind it; except that instead of taking English and translating it into Spanish, Joseph’s model is taking RNA and translating (or not translating) it into a protein. In Joseph’s own words, “We’re going through this whole rigamarole [aka his PhD] to understand how the ins [RNA & ribosomes] create the outs [proteins].”.
But it is not as easy as it sounds. There are a lot of complexities to the work because the thing that makes machine learning so powerful is that the exact complexities that gives these models the power that they have, also makes it hard to interpret why the model is doing what it is doing. Even a highly performing machine learning model may not capture the exact biological rules that govern translation, but successfully interpreting its learned patterns can help in formulating testable hypotheses about this fundamental life process.
To hear more about how Joseph is building this model, how it is going, and what brought him to OSU, listen to the podcast episode! Also, you can check out Joseph’s personal website to learn more about him & his work!
Our guest this week, Dr. Ari Foley, is a recent (July 2021) OSU graduate from the School of Nuclear Science and Engineering. For her PhD research, she developed a rapid imaging method for post-detonation nuclear forensics. While methods to do this work already exist, a lot of them are time- and material-intensive. Therefore, the goal of Ari’s work was to develop a method that could inform optimized destructive analysis of samples after a detonation event of a nuclear weapon, with a particular focus on reducing the amount of imaging time required. Not only was Ari able to accomplish this task but the system she developed is able to take an image of the spatial distribution of radiation omitted from an object in the same exposure as taking a traditional photograph of the object being analyzed (see Image below). How in the world did Ari do this? Read below for a short synopsis or even better listen to the episode here!
A core component of Ari’s system was an electron-magnifying charged couple device, also known as an EMCCD. The CCD part of that is essentially a normal camera but the EM part magnifies the signal collected from whatever the camera is pointed at. Ari rigged an inorganic scintillation crystal to the EMCCD, which sits in a 3D-printed holder just in front of the camera. The purpose of the crystal is that once it is held in close proximity to radioactive fallout material from a detonation, the radiation interacts with the crystal, which leads to the emission of light. This light is proportional to the amount of energy that is imparted within the crystal. The EM part of the EMCCD kicks in as the image is taken as it allows for a high intensity image to be made that magnifies the light emitted from the crystal interacting with the radiation. This process needs to occur in light tight box, however it is mobile, meaning that it can easily be taken into the field and directly be used at a nuclear detonation site to measure the intensity of radiation of fallout material.
Ari spent the last three years of her PhD time in Idaho at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL), which is one of the leading nuclear research labs in the USA and has close ties with OSU. In fact, Ari was one of two students in the inaugural class of INL Graduate Fellows, which enabled her to conduct this work while working full-time at the lab. However, Ari’s career may have gone down a very different path because she had always wanted to be an Arts student or pursue a career in human rights. However, during a summer school experience during her high school years, Ari attended a class on Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations. During this class, the students took a trip to the United Nations General Assembly Building in New York, which hosts a statue from Hiroshima, Nagasaki. The statue is of a woman holding a lamb, which from the front, looks completely normal. However, when you walk around to the back of the statue, the statue is completed charred and scarred – a consequence of the atomic bomb. The same class presented case studies of radiation contamination on tribal reservations in the USA. Seeing and learning these things really riled Ari up at the time because while she had been interested by radiation in chemistry class, she was suddenly confronted by the fact that radiation contamination were actual ongoing world issues.
Listen to the podcast episode here to learn more about the nitty-gritty of how Ari developed her nuclear forensic system, how she prevented from getting radiation in the lab, and her road to OSU!
This week we have a PhD candidate from the materials science program, Jaskaran Saini, joining us to discuss his work on the development of novel metallic glasses. But first, what exactly is a metallic glass, you may ask? Metallic glasses are metals or alloys with an amorphous structure. They lack crystal lattices and crystal defects commonly found in standard crystalline metals. To form a metallic glass requires extremely high cooling rates. Well, how high? – a thousand to a million Kelvin per second! That high.
The idea here is that the speed of cooling impacts the atomic structure – and this idea is not new or limited to just metals! For example, the rocks granite, basalt, pumice, and obsidian all have a similar composition, but different cooling times. This even gives Obsidian an amorphous structure, which means we could probably just start referring to it as rocky glass. But the uses of metallic glass extend far beyond those of rocks.
Why should we care about metallic glass?
Metallic glasses are fundamentally cool, but in case that isn’t enough to peak your attention, they also have super powers that’d make Magneto drool. They have 2-3x the strength of steel, are incredibly elastic, have very high corrosion and wear resistance and have a mirror-like surface finish. So how can we apply these super metals to science? Well, NASA is already on it and is beginning to use metallic glasses as gear material for motors. While the Curiosity rover expends 30% of its energy and 3 hours heating and lubricating its steel gears to operate, Curiosity Jr. won’t have to worry about that with metallic glass gears. NASA isn’t the only one hopping onto the metallic glass train. Apple is trying to use these scratch proof materials in iPhones, the US Army is using high density hafnium-based metallic glasses for armor penetrating military applications, and some professional tennis and golf players have even used these materials in their rackets and golf clubs. But it took a long time to get these metallic glasses to the point where they’re now being used in rovers and tennis rackets.
Metallic glass: a history
Metallic glasses first appeared in the 1960’s when Jaskaran’s academic great grandfather (that is, his advisor’s advisor’s advisor), Pol Duwez, made them at Caltech. In order to achieve this special amorphous structure, a droplet of a gold-silicon alloy was cooled at a rate of over a million Kelvin per second with the end result being an approximately quarter sized foil of metallic glass, thinner than the thickness of a strand of hair. Fast forward to the ‘80’s, and researchers began producing larger metallic glasses. By the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s, the thickness of the biggest metallic glass produced had already exceeded 1000x the original foil thickness. However, with great size comes greater difficulty! If the metallic glass is too thick, it can’t cool fast enough to achieve an amorphous structure! Creating larger pieces of metallic glass has proven itself to be extremely challenging – and therefore is a great goal to pursue for graduate students and PI’s interested in taking on this challenge.
Currently, the largest pieces of metallic glasses are around 80 mm thick, however, they use and are based on precious metals such as palladium, silver, gold, platinum and beryllium. This makes them not very practical for multiple reasons. First, is the more obvious cost standpoint. Second, given the detrimental impact of mining rare-earth metals, efforts to minimize dependence on rare-earth metals can have a great positive impact on the environment.
World records you probably didn’t know existed until now
As part of Prof. Donghua Xu’s lab, Jaskaran is working on developing large-sized metallic glasses from cheaper metals, such as copper, nickel, aluminum, zirconium and hafnium. It’s worth noting that although Jaskaran’s metallic glasses typically consist of at least three metal elements, his research is mainly focused on producing metallic glasses that are based on copper and hafnium (these two metals are in majority). Not only has Jaskaran been wildly successful in creating glassy alloys from these elements, but he has also set TWO WORLD RECORDS. The previous world record for a copper-based metallic glass was 25 mm, which he usurped with the creation of a 28.5 mm metallic glass. As for hafnium, the previous world record was 10 mm which Jaskaran almost doubled with a casting diameter of 18 mm. And mind you, these alloys do not contain any rare-earth or precious metals so they are cost-effective, have incredible properties and are completely benign to the environment!
Excited for more metallic glass content? Us too. Be sure to listen live on Sunday February 6th at 7PM on 88.7FM, or download the podcast if you missed it. Want to stay up to date with the world of metallic glass? Follow Jaskaran on Twitter, Instagram or Google Scholar. We also learned that he produces his own music, and listened to Sephora. You can find him on SoundCloud under his artist name, JSKRN.
This post was written by Bryan Lynn and edited by Adrian Gallo and Jaskaran Saini.
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, WiseDoc.net 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!
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!
Below is the transcript from our Grad Inspire event in which six current graduate students from Oregon State University took the stage to share the questions and motivations framing their research in an 8 to 10-minute engaging format.
Grad Inspire (née GRADx) combines scholarship communication with personal narrative, giving us a glimpse of not only “how” these students perform their work, but also the motivations and commitment behind it. This event introduces the phenomenal breadth of research, teaching, and discovery undertaken by graduate students at Oregon State.
To listen to the Podcast version of this event, visit our iTunes page.
GRAD INSPIRE 2020
Hello and welcome graduate students and supporters of graduate students to the 3rd annual GRAD Inspire: Ideas in Action (formally known as GRADx). We are so excited to be here with you all tonight. My name is Heather Forsythe and I am a PhD Candidate in Biochemistry and Biophysics, and I am also a senior host of KBVR’s radio show, blog, and podcast, Inspiration Dissemination. I will be your host for the evening.
Before we get started, Grad Inspire would like to acknowledgethat Oregon State University in Corvallis, OR is located within the traditional homelands of the Mary’s River or Ampinefu Band of Kalapuya. Following the Willamette Valley Treaty of 1855, Kalapuya people were forcibly removed to reservations in Western Oregon. Today, living descendants of these people are a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians.
Grad Inspire is sponsored by the Graduate School and Inspiration Dissemination, or ID. ID, is hosted by OSU grad students, about OSU grad students. ID provides a platform to talk about the struggles and triumphs of research and individuals’ unique backgrounds, while sharing the exceptional research happening across disciplines at OSU with the larger community it resides in.
Thank you to the graduate school for helping us organize the details of this event, and huge thank you to Block15 Brewing Company for their generous donation. Speaking of Block15! I was actually at another public research talk at Block15 when I talked to Nick Bira, a Robotics PhD student here at OSU, and Grace Deitzler, a PhD student in Microbiology, about making a giant lightbulb for this event. And they totally delivered! Thanks so much Nick and Grace for designing and building this giant light bulb, a symbol of inspiration!
We’ve all been working on this event since October, when we first selected the 6 speakers you will hear from tonight. Over the past 5 months, these stories have been in development, with each of our ID hosts helping guide these incredible graduate students to craft truly inspiring presentations. Thank you to all of our presenters and ID hosts for putting in the time to make this event happen. It is such a joy and privilege to work with and get to know such talented and creative researchers and communicators.
The students featured on stage tonight are from across different academic Colleges and disciplines here at Oregon State University. They have come to OSU from all over the country and have traveled all around the world in pursuit of their work and academic and personal growth. They have overcome seeming insurmountable mental and physical challenges to make it to this stage tonight, and every single one of them is a student, researcher, mentor, friend, and member of our community. I hope their stories inspire you.
We are starting off the evening with Ashley Ellenson
Ashley is a PhD candidate in civil engineering. Her advisor is Dr. Greg Wilson. And her Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Daniel Watkins and Laurie Lutes. Please welcome Ashley Ellenson.
Surfing is a really freeing feeling. Here I’m in Baja California with an open wave face ahead of me and being pushed along by the power of the ocean.
These are probably the moments of surfing that you’ve seen most often, the fun and beautiful parts. What you’ve probably seen less of is all of the moments of frustration and hard work that goes into these moments of triumph. It’s like watching a PhD defense and not realizing all the years worth of tedious work that have gone into the small details. Much Like my own PhD, I’m a PhD candidate and I’ve had my own fair share of challenges, challenges like these.
In surfing, anytime you try something new, you risk the chance of falling. And to add insult to injury, you might get violently held under the water by the wave. We call this getting rag dolled or laundry machined. Today, I want to tell you about these moments during my PhD, how I’ve grown from them, and how surfing has helped me all along the way.
I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and I was a beach lifeguard during the summers. That’s when I learned how to surf. During college at Columbia in New York City, I would take my surfboard on the subway train and travel the hour and a half from upper from the upper west side down to Rockaway Beach in order to get in the water. After I graduated, I moved to Hawaii so I could keep surfing. You could imagine my excitement when I realized there was a coastal engineering degree, a way I could formalize an experiential education. So I applied and got into the program here at OSU and I got offered a funded position, so I took it. When I moved to Oregon, I started surfing here and I had to get used to how different of an ocean it is. If Hawaii is firm, but warm and playful:
Oregon is a cold and moody lover, that only sometimes shows you a soft side:
In Hawaii, the fun waves are predictable and the paddle out is easy. In Oregon, the fun waves seem elusive, and the paddle out can seem impossible with infinite currents. There are a lot of reasons for this and I’m going to explain two today. The first has to do with how waves are generated and travel across the open ocean. We call this deep, deep water waves and wave dispersion. And it’s the type of information that seafaring vessels would care about. The second part has to do with what happens when those waves reach get closer to the coast and transform and break. Those are shallow water waves. And that’s this is the type of information that coastal communities would care about to predict erosion. So imagine a storm over the sea with the wind howling over crashing wave crests. Energy is being transferred from the winds into the water and generating waves. The waves then travel away from the storm. You can think of wave travel like a marathon, where the start of the marathon is the storm and the waves are the runners. At the beginning of the race, all of the runners fast and slow are mixed together. As the race begins, the slower runners move to the back and the elite faster runners group towards the front in what we call wave groups. Because Hawaii is is not in the direct path of the storms, it gets to see the waves towards the end of the race, when they’re already organized from fast to slow. But Oregon gets constantly hit by waves. So it’ll see the waves anywhere from the beginning to the end of the race, so the waves can be really disorganized. A perfect surf day is when the surfers get to greet the waves at the end of the race after they’ve been organized. And the challenge in Oregon is figuring out when those days will be.
So after the waves have traveled all the way across the Pacific, they start reaching shallower water as they get closer to land, and they start to feel the bottom. Eventually, it begins to get so shallow that the waves break. You can think of the bottom as actually pushing the water and the waves up. And the way the bottom is shaped will determine how the wave is pushed up. If the bottom is shaped like a step, then the wave will rise suddenly and break quickly. And if the bottom is shaped like a ramp, like a wheelchair access ramp, then the wave will rise gradually and it’ll break slowly. So in Hawaii, the bottom is made out of reef. So that means the way the waves rises and breaks is really predictable. And for a surfer who’s reading the wave to drop in, makes it easy to know when and where to drop in. But in Oregon, the bottom is made out of sand and it’s constantly changing. So that makes it really unpredictable to know when and where the wave is gonna break and really tricky as a surfer to read the waves.
Figuring out when and where a wave is gonna break is a surfers ultimate mission, because then you can maximize the number of good surf days you can get. I wanted to maximize those good surf days for surfers in Oregon because we typically live in the valley and have to gamble as to whether or not it’s good enough to make it out to the coast. During my master’s I worked on part one of what I explained, wave generation and travel. I thought I could do a better job predicting waves than the surf forecasting tools that are already out there. So I worked with the business incubator downtown to develop a surf app. I called it rip rap the surf app. Being a woman in the business incubator was a challenge in its own self and it’s a story for another day. So I started getting some success with the surf forecasting tool, and I even had interviews with NPR and Surfer magazine.
I was just finishing my master’s degree, publishing my first paper, and then there was an opportunity to get a PhD and part two of what I explained, researching sandbar evolution. I decided to stay and get a PhD. The first step to getting your PhD is qualifying for it by taking your qualifying exams. I remember the day of my qualifying exams. I’d actually scheduled I’d actually planned a party to celebrate that I had passed, but that party turned into a pity party when I had to tell everybody that I had failed. I felt horrible and really ashamed. I was gonna get a chance to try again, but I’d have to wait a full year. I’d also broken my ankle earlier that year, and I realized that I couldn’t start a business and be a PhD student at the same time. So I had to let the surf forecasting app go. You could say I’d fallen off of the wave of success of my master’s degree, and I was just beginning to get rag dolled on by the PhD.
The next wave to hit me was the wave of my fruitlessness of my research. The very first step in my new research project was to simulate sandbars moving. Well, I tried for a full year to get the right results. I tried so many different environmental scenarios and I didn’t, I didn’t get what we were looking for. With each failed attempt, I, the confidence in myself and in my research ability eroded. The next wave to hit me after that was the wave of my health challenges. I developed an infection in my gut and it made it really difficult to eat any food. What I thought was basic food made me feel sick and fatigued. I developed insomnia and I also developed food anxiety. I was really obsessed with anything that I was eating, and I was scared of getting sick. So in surfing when getting held under by a wave, the first thing that you want to do that you can’t do is panic. Panicking is the first step to drowning. Because when you panic, you burn all of the oxygen in your lungs, you lose all control of the situation, and so instead, what you have to do is stay calm, stay calm and focus on the water around you, and listen to when it’s safe enough for you to try to make it back up to the surface. And then you can reassess the situation and paddle back out. So I wanted to panic. I felt like I was in some sort of purgatory with quals. I was frustrated by my research and was confused and scared that my body wasn’t functioning the way it’s supposed to. But I couldn’t panic. So I listened to the challenges around me and I had to adapt.
First thing I had to do was take care of my health. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the Graduate Student Union in the amazing health care we get as graduate students because that allowed me to see all kinds of specialists and ultimately heal. I was put on a diet that restricted me from eating gluten, dairy, alcohol or caffeine. And I also had to quit socializing as often because social activities often revolve around consuming one of those things. I had to learn how to rest and take time for myself and to let my body heal.
Then I had to pass quals. I spent a long time practicing basic calculus skills like derivatives. And I also spent long hours in the library with my friend dissecting the material. I pass quals and now I feel like I have a much better understanding of the physical concepts in my fields. And I’m much better at problem solving.
Finally, I had to turn my research around. My advisor and I came to terms with the fact that we wouldn’t be able to get the results you’re looking for because the model simply wasn’t capable of it. So we had to find a new approach. Remember the beach is a really chaotic system. And I thought that using statistical correlations to predict sandbar evolution, as opposed to using explicit physical, physical relationships, would be better because of all of the uncertainty of the physical dynamics within the system. I’m now using machine learning to predict sandbar behavior from data and I just published my first paper on machine learning and wave forecasting.
So I have a friend who likes to start every session with a wipeout. He says it helps him shake off any fears or nervousness or doubt. He likes to see that it that he can get tumbled around, come back up and it’s not that bad. That allows him to go after waves that are bigger and better and ultimately offer more reward. So falling doesn’t mean you’re failing, it just means you’re on your way to your next wave. On your way to another part of your journey. Riprap the surf app is still in the back of my mind. It might just be the next wave I take off on after my PhD. And I might fall off of it again. But that’s okay, because the lessons of perseverance, creative strategy, and patience that I’m learning along the way are making me better at trying, and I know one day I will catch a wave of success. Like this one. Here, I’m in Newport, and I am feeling the buttery water beneath my board, watching the water texture change with the wind, and bobbing weightlessly between the steely blue interface of sky and sea.
All through the time of being challenged, I kept surfing. Surfing and all the friends that go along with it reminded me to be happy and how to play. It reminded me that the world is so much bigger than just graduate than just the bubble of grad school, even when I was being tormented by the turbulence of life. So find what gives you joy and hang on to it. That can be your light in the dark in a way to find a home within yourself when otherwise you feel lost at sea. Thank you.
Heather Forsythe: Let’s wave goodbye to Ashley, and say hello to Winston Kennedy! Winston is a PhD student in Kinesiology and Master of Public Health student. His advisor is Dr. Samuel Logan and his Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Adrian Gallo and Lisa Hildebrand.
Hello. Hello. They messed up on my theme music but that’s okay.
So before I start, I just want to say just raise your hand, make some noise stand whatever you want to do. I just want to acknowledge everyone who pursued education befor because they were inspired or motivated. So make some noise, raise your hand. Okay. Okay, that’s, that seems like majority of the people in here. So, I want you guys to acknowledge that, like myself, and the other five people presenting today, we all have stories. And at times we can get blinded by our own stories. And we neglect other stories. So as you take in our stories tonight, take some time to take in your peer stories at some point in time. So with that, I’ll dive into my story.
So, before coming to Oregon State University, I was a practicing physical therapist. I got my doctorate in physical therapy in 2015, from Florida International University. So when people ask me why come back to school for a PhD? Well, people often ask me why go back to school for a PhD. And I don’t know, I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. But I’m one of the major motivations came from when I was working in a physical therapy clinic in Miami, Florida.
I had a patient, we’ll call her “Jenny.” She was about 50, 60 years old, and when I seen her she was recovering from a stroke. Prior to come seeing me in the clinic she was coming from she already been admitted to the hospital. She’d been to inpatient rehab. That’s a sub acute setting. So she was familiar with the rehab process. When she came to me we were working on trying to walk, functional mobility, that means transfers sitting getting in and out of bed. But beyond that, we were working on her transition. Her transition to a new life. And what that entailed is having a lot of conversations, talking about how she was feeling, what she was going through. And one of the major things we were talking about was her transitioning from being a single independent woman to now relying on assistance, assistance she hadn’t needed for a long, long time. And with those conversations and with working through rehab, we built a bond, we built a connection. You know, even when she wasn’t in the best of moods, I understood why. And that understanding helped her to keep working even when she didn’t feel like it.
So everything was going great until, you know, I went on vacation. You know, people need vacation. And so she had to work with a couple other therapists. When I came back, I noticed something had changed. So I again, like I usually do, I talked to her, said what was going on. She told me when I was gone, she worked with other therapists who said, she wasn’t doing enough at home. She wasn’t trying to get better. She needs to work harder. So that whole rapport we were building kind of left. I lost it. And so what what that led me to was, was talking to her more and understanding that two kind of things, two things happened. Her idea of what she could do outside of rehab, and the feasibility of her doing things, physical activity, outside of rehab, were limited. And she now realized that from those interactions with those new providers, also what I realized these health care professionals, these other therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists, people who are supposed to be in charge of our health, or wellness or well-being left her, left her in the dust, instead of up lifting her, they kind of pushed her down.
And that got that got me thinking. She’s experiencing this, are other people in her situation experiencing this? These are people with functional mobility issues or people you would call it as being disabled. And that is what kind of shifted me to where I’m at now. With her I started to think, okay, if she’s experiencing this or other people with disabilities experiencing this, especially people who are newly transitioning into this identity of being disabled? Are other health care professionals realizing that there are barriers to accessing physical physical activity outside of working with them. How big is this problem?
So in about the, the spring of 2016 I started looking into it. And at first, my first thought was okay, I can open up a facility that is geared towards providing opportunities for people with disabilities to be active, not only to do you know, medical rehabilitation, but just to come and move, you know, because physical activity is a social experience. But then I got to thinking if this is a problem here in Miami, Florida, what about, you know, Northern Florida, what about Southeast, Northeast, all of the United States? So I knew it was a bigger problem than I could grasp. And I needed to examine that more. So that led me to looking into you know, higher education, and that’s what led me to OSU.
And while I’m here, that’s my biggest charge: accessibility for people with disabilities in regards to physical activity. And one of my first major projects that I undertook with my advisor Sam Logan was looking at attitudes of physical therapists and occupational therapists. People much like myself. And what we were trying to see if their perspectives on disability related to their attitudes toward, towards disability. By perspectives, I mean, models of disability. Just show of hands, noise, whatever you want to do, how many of you are familiar with the models of disability? Okay, not all at once. All right.
So within health and wellness, there are two models of disability that are pertinent. There’s a medical model that says disability resides within the individual and it’s something that needs to be cured or fixed. And then there’s a social model that says disability is an experience created by society because of exclusive practices like the built environment, social attitudes, and policy. So in, in this one my first studies what we are trying to see if those two perspectives, predicted attitudes, because, in my line research the theory is attitudes may lead to intentions which can predict behaviors. So if these models tell us about attitudes, those attitudes can tell us about the behaviors. And in my case, of health care professionals, and how they work with people with disabilities in physical activity context. I know that’s a mouthful, but I can talk more about it after.
So in that study, what we found was as these healthcare professionals, PTs and OTs, as they gain more experience, they shifted more to medical model of disability. So disability is within the individual, and their attitudes became less favorable. So think about that. So if you’re a healthcare professional, and you’re working with someone with a disability, and you think what I’m trying to fix is in this individual, for some people, for some mobility issues, there might not be much change. So if you feel like you cannot helped change that individual how much effort will you put into helping the individual? Yeah, I felt that. I felt that. Right. So I think my overarching goal is to kind of be able to assess healthcare professionals perspectives, and working with people with disabilities to kind of get an idea of how they work with this population to promote better interactions between the two. And if you’re all like me, who have been to various healthcare professionals, being a person with a disability, without disability, we all have some interesting experiences, am I right? So that is like I said that that was one of the major reasons that led me to coming back to school but I’ve always had an affinity for education. I’ve always had an affinity for people with disabilities. And it’s when I think back about it, it’s it’s hard it was hard to put my finger on it.
It could have been because of I’m a physical therapist. I’ve worked with that population a lot. It could have been my year I spent on crutches. I was fortunate enough to get a football scholarship at Hampton University. My senior year had a knee injury, left me on crutches for a year. And through that experience, that’s when I first when I think back I realized, man, it was tough. The university I went to was small, and people with disabilities weren’t considered. I had to crutch up and down stairs. I fell several times. I had to go up and down stairs to get in my dorm. Fell in the shower several times. And it was just it wasn’t a great experience. But that wasn’t it. It was something more and it’s something I don’t really talk about much because before coming to OSU, it was hard for me to conceptualize.
The biggest thing is I was raised by someone with a disability. My mother, she worked a lot, always working, from the time I was young. Oh, with the red here, that’s my mom.
A hard working, hard working woman. That’s all she did. So when I was a kid, it was me and my two sisters. She had a cousin. To me, that’s my second mom. She she’s from Trinidad and Tobago, like the rest of my family. I just came back from there, it was a great experience. These pictures are from there. So my cousin’s from Trinidad and Tobago, and when she was young, she had a series of health issues. She had issues in school, issues with bullying. So, in a developing country in the 60s, there wasn’t any, they didn’t have any solutions. So she stopped going to school. So when she was in her 20’s she came to live with my mom. And then I was born. And when my mom was working, that’s who I was with.
It wasn’t until I was about seven or eight, I noticed that my second mom, she was different from all the older adults. I didn’t think it was better or worse, just different. And I think that’s what made me realize that people with disabilities like all people are just different And want to be included and not be seen as afterthought. So I think that’s what gave me my lens of trying to be an ally for people with disabilities. Because, like people disabilities, you know, being a black man in America, I know what it’s like to be an afterthought. And I know what it’s like to be excluded. And I know what it takes to overcome those barriers. Oh, you can clap now for that. That was good.
So that was, that, I feel like that’s what led me to work with that population, but there’s even more to my story that got me into higher education. Like I said, My mom was always working, but she was always there by phone, ready to “How’s your grades?” “They okay.” “Just okay? Go get them better.” And to her education was everything. Go to school, you’re sick, you got to go to school. You don’t feel like going to school. Go to school, you’re getting bullied, you better beat him up and then make sure you get A’s. So I grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. While I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, around the age of 11 I was robbed, held up by a by knife, and my mom says, that is what prompted us to move to Florida. She was worried about me. It wasn’t the best environment. Even when I go back there, most of my family still lives in Boston, I see, I see a community that’s looking for help that’s not getting it.
There was a class, I took a health psychology class when I first came to Oregon State University, and then I read a review paper that said people’s environments, physical and social, is directly associated with their health. So in my head, I was like, what? Where I live, I’m pretty sure that’s detrimental to my health. And that, that review came out in the 80’s so I’m like, alright, so why wasn’t there anyone in my community trying to help us. And when I go back home and I see my nieces in the same community, I’m like, still it’s the same thing. So I think for me, what I try to do is the work I do, like being on this stage, I need to be able to disseminate and get it out there. So get people galvanized so we can do something. And a lot of that stems from a lot of what my mom instilled in me. And even from young moving to Florida, at the age of 16, they all had to leave because of financial reasons. My two moms, my two sisters, they left and it was just me.
And what I did to make friends build connections was play sports, basketball, football, and football worked for me I got the full scholarship to Hampton University. My first goal was to go to the NFL and make millions of dollars but I deferred that nah, but I had a knee injury. So but even prior to that higher education was in my future. While at Hampton University, I was fortunate to be a McNair Scholar. How many of you guys are familiar with the McNair Scholars program? Yeah, it was a transformative experience. I got to go to Hampton University, a HBCU, historically black college university. They provide a lot of underrepresented, non traditional students opportunities to receive education, but there’s not a lot of resources.
So through the McNair Scholars Program, I was able to go to Virginia Tech and do research at a medical neuro psych Institute with two Harvard trained neruopsychologists. And it was a it was an awesome experience. I was doing things that I didn’t think people like me could do. And yeah, from there, I learned how to tie a tie. I learned I got free GRE prep. I learned how to eat fancy with a knife and fork. It was it was amazing. And then from there, I even thought of switching to clinical psychology, but I had worked so hard to put everything together for physical therapy I stayed, I stayed in that route.
And from there I went on to PT school, and then pushed through. I got a scholarship to go to PT school, got licensed and started working. And that got me to that got me to where I am now. It’s in I’m very fortunate and humbled to be here in front of all of you. So that was kind of my story of what got me here. So where I’m hoping to go is, is to continue doing things like this, continue doing my research, continue trying to disseminate my research and continue to create visibility for people like myself, because there are still people like me in my community who don’t think research is for them, higher education is for them, because we don’t still today we don’t see people like us doing it. So I think I try my best to take charge and let people know you can do this. You can have dreads, you can wear sweats and a T-shirt and still do quality work. Yeah.
So I’m gonna leave you with two things in closing. One goal for me is that my nieces, nephews, I, that’s my first time seeing my nephews, five of them. My sister just had a son. I’m hoping that all of them don’t have to go through what I go through that they know that they can allow me for support. Even though I’m thousands 1000 miles away, I tell them all the time, if you need some call uncle Winston, I’ll make it happen. And, also, my last message is to all of you that your experiences, your motivations, your inspirations, they guide you on this path to wherever you’re going. Sometimes that path may change, but it’s okay because you just created a new experience, a new inspiration to guide you on that new path. So embrace it, because there’s no telling where it will take you. Thank you.
Heather Forsythe: Our next speaker is Meredith Jacobson. Meredith is a master’s student in forest ecosystems and sociology. Her advisors are Dr. Reem Hajjar and Dr. Emily Jane-Davis. Her Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Heather Forsythe, which is myself, and Chelsea Behymer. Please welcome Meredith.
I could say that one place where things all began was with this John Muir quote, “The clearest way into the center of the universe is through a forest wilderness.”
That is to say my entry into forestry and environmentalism was through a white man’s eyes as it is for many. Muir’s words captured my 18-year old heart with a sense of wonder for the jagged mountains of the West having spent my childhood in Maryland. My personal ethics of nature and conservation quickly rooted into whiteness and colonialism, the ground on which forestry is taught in western academia.
Muir’s environmentalism says that people must be removed from the wilderness for its protection; that people and nature are separate. But it didn’t take me long to learn from fire ecologist that this preservationist environmentalism has wreaked havoc on our ecosystems. The wide open meadows and expansive views of granite cliffs that Muire quote “discovered” and vowed to protect have since darkened with a dense forest canopy now that controlled fires that by humans have ceased. I soon also learned that the Miwok people were forcibly removed from their homelands to create Yosemite National Park.
But while I was learning this legacy of dispossession, I was also learning to love and create home in place in the golden California hills. When I first began thinking about graduate school, I had just finished two years working for the California Department of Forestry planning timber harvests and restoration projects on the ancestral lands of the coast Ohlone people. It was the fall of 2016 and water protectors were gathering in Standing Rock to protest the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. And while I didn’t make it to the frontlines, that movement inspired me to consider that as a white woman who lives, works and plays on stolen lands. I’m accountable to my role in this ongoing legacy of colonization.
So I could say that two forces have brought me on to my current research path, this love for land and the sense of accountability.
Disheartened by our public land systems inability to keep up with the increasing pace of wildfire and climate change, I have found hope in a concept called anchor forests. This concept originated with the Intertribal Timber Council, an umbrella organization of tribal foresters across the continent. Anchor forests seek to empower tribes to convene surrounding landowners to collectively actively manage large regions of forest lands together. This vision which was developed in the forests of the West acknowledges that property lines are arbitrary in the face of a large fire. It suggests that long term partnerships are needed in order to sustain a steady supply of timber to keep sawmills afloat in rural communities. And it proposes that tribes with their permanence and experience on the landscape might be our best hope at anchoring a ship sailing stormy seas.
In 2016, the Intertribal Timber Council released a pilot study looking at the feasibility of implementing anchor forests in several regions in the state of Washington. One example involved the Yakima nation who have a relatively large land base compared to some other tribes, a strong forestry program and importantly one of the last remaining sawmills in the area. But the Yakima are affected by the actions of their neighbors, the state of Washington, the US Forest Service, private landowners, all of whom occupied portions of the Yakima’s ancestral lands. It’s hard to keep a sawmill running when there’s not a stable supply of timber coming from those neighbors lands. And it’s hard to maintain a resilient forest within the bounds of a reservation when a fire or beetle outbreak could easily spread across the property line. Implementing an anchor forest would mean all of those neighbors coming together and making long term commitments to sustainably and actively managing the entire forest across the entire landscape.
As a social scientist, I’m interested in what anchor forests mean as governance and as story. While this vision is this vision is relatively new, and while it has been implemented or it has sparked conversation, it has not been implemented fully on the ground. And so my research asks simple questions. Why did this idea emerge? And what would it take to implement it on the scale that it was imagined? These complex or these simple questions have complex answers. These days public land agencies often have their hands tied fearful of lawsuits and objections.
We settlers know two ways of living with land: over-exploitation and John Muir’s environmentalism.
It’s almost unfathomable for many to imagine sustainable active management or responsible timber harvest. With anchor forests the Intertribal Tim, the Intertribal Timber Council is seeking to expand the scale on which we’re managing lands across larger landscapes and longer timelines. And with anchor forests the Intertribal Timber Council is telling a series of stories about how tribes may be able to help us accomplish all this, that they are knowledgeable, capable, experienced and powerful stewards of their lands. Similar stories are showing up in the media where wildfire is waking communities up to the need for new paradigms.
I came to OSU to study collaboration as a form of forest governance. The idea is to allow every voice to be heard. But in starting this research, I have learned that many non-native people don’t see or know how to see tribes as sovereign autonomous nations and instead treat them as another stakeholder in the process.
In a research interview, a tribal representative shared with me that sometimes ATV riders, as a recreation group, and the tribe can be listed in the same breath as equal stakeholders of a national forest. I’ll say that again. Thank you. I’ll say that again, if you didn’t hear in the back.
ATV riders and the tribe can be seen as holding equal voice over the tribes ancestral homelands.
So it turns out that maybe equity in governance doesn’t mean every voice is equal when the terrain of decision making has already been tilted by colonialism, a terrain on which we cannot see native nations or see native people as full and complex individuals. So it’s my responsibility as a researcher to make sure I’m co-creating the story with my partners, that it aligns with their perspectives and interests and furthers their work. Equally important is to make sure that I’m not oversimplifying. White researchers like me have been doing that for a long time.
The anchor forest story uses broad strokes suggesting a framework of governance and partnership. But when we take this framework onto the ground, everything is contextual. Every tribe has its own values and culture and a distinct history of colonization affecting the current extent of sovereignty over their ancestral lands. Non-native people tend to overlook all of that. We simplify the story to fit neatly and conveniently into our frame of the world. These simplified stories bleed into cultural stereotypes with real and harmful consequences.
I hope to dig deeper in my future research. I wonder if this era of massive wildfires, this era that is busting the myth of John Muir environmentalism could be our wake up call not only to heed the knowledge of indigenous people but to give back land and rights. As a non-native person, I can’t just take traditional ecological knowledge out of context and expect it to guide the way. This knowledge requires giving autonomy over the land to its original inhabitants to continue upon millennia of cultural practice. As a non-native person, I returned to the sense of accountability that brought me here, and I feel compelled to use my voice to take these conversations further in my circles. Often though, I checked myself on my intentions; the reasons why I’m doing this work.
Tuck and Yang published a paper called “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” that profoundly changed the way I see the world. And I think it could change you too. When white settlers speak of decolonizing something, usually to refer to some vaguely social justice oriented action we’re diluting the meaning of this word. We’re doing just enough to feel good about ourselves to justify our continued presence on the land, but the land remains colonized. Speak, write, research these tensions all I want, I’m still a settler and so is Oregon State University. Decolonizing, decolonizing must mean tangibly unsettling the land. Entering the forest must mean confronting all this.
So I asked myself every day, what am I doing here on Kalapuya land in graduate school in a university. I’m asking myself right now, why am I on this stage? These are not my stories to tell. Academia is an oppressive space for so many where individuals have to constantly promote themselves, get published, conduct research in a certain way under Western schools of knowledge. Even an event like this perpetuates individualism. Although my research partners hold the knowledge, I’m the one that gets to be here on stage.
Entering this work means figuring out which are the times when I should be using my voice to bring these issues into the light and which are the times when I should be stepping away from the mic, taking up less space in conversations that are not for me to dominate or maybe not for me to even enter.
So I’ll end by sharing a quote from an indigenous botanist, scholar and writer who I have turned to to help reframe my relationship to place, to the forest. Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer will be speaking on campus next month or this month, March 16, and I encourage you to go see her. In her book “Braiding Sweet Grass”, she writes, “If we are looking for models of self-sustaining communities we need look no further than to an old growth forest or the old growth cultures they raised in symbiosis with them.” Thank you.
Heather Forsythe: I would like to now welcome Shauna Otto to the stage. Shauna is a PhD candidate in biochemistry and biophysics. Her advisor is Dr. Colin Johnson. Her inspiration dissemination mentors were Adrian Gallo and Kayla Delventhal.
Life is precarious. Even just sitting here tonight your body is working hard to keep you away from equilibrium, correct too far in either direction and the results could be catastrophic. Your body’s efforts to maintain this delicate balance is called homeostasis. As an example, each time you move your muscle cells strain and pull against each other, tearing tiny holes in themselves.
And if you didn’t have the repair mechanism in place, you wouldn’t survive. Like most homeostatic processes. This mechanism is handled by proteins, the tiny workhorse molecules of ourselves. My dissertation work focuses on how one of these proteins, dysferlin senses damage to muscle tissue. If you’re born with a deficit in dysferlin, your muscle cells can’t respond to mechanical stress and you develop muscular dystrophy. Now, how can it protein basically an inanimate glom of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen since anything?
Well, it turns out that there’s a huge difference in the calcium concentrations inside and outside of your cell, and it’s held back by the cell membrane.
If this membrane is compromised, the calcium comes flooding in and it’s this sharp increase the dysferlin responds to.
So dysferlin binds the calcium, and then something about it changes. But what? Dysferlin is huge. So our strategy was to break it up into chunks. And starting with this bit here in the beginning. We already had a snapshot of what the protein looked like, but we were more interested in the motions of the protein. So a snapshot just wasn’t enough.
Luckily here at Oregon State, we have a lovely little instrument called a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer that allows us to look at the motions of proteins in exquisite detail. Nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, first requires a big magnet, a really, really big magnet that you stick your proteins inside of. The nuclei of the atoms in your protein are electrostatic little creatures, so they respond to this magnetic field giving you an energy difference between two states depending on which way the nuclei are spinning.
Turns out that this difference is about the same energy as a radio wave, which means we can use radio waves to excite these nuclei. So we play a jaunty little tune consisting of radio frequency pulses and delays called a pulse sequence, the nuclei sense and bump into each other during this tune,
and at the end of the pulse sequence, we stop and listen closely to what the nuclei have to say.
Proteins are made up of amino acid building blocks. And each one in dysferlin shows up as a discrete spot on the spectra. Once I know which is which I can poke the protein, say by changing the calcium concentration, and then watch how each spot behaves. And that’s exactly what we did. We slowly took away calcium, and watched what each spot did. We mapped this information onto three dimensional structure we already knew. And we were able to make some inferences. For example, we know that the top of this molecule remains fairly flexible, even under surprisingly high calcium concentrations. And as we take calcium away, the top half of kind of falls apart.
So now we know that the very first bit of dysferlin in the presence of calcium goes from being really really wiggly, to just a little bit wiggly. It seems silly and a bit underwhelming, but that’s the reality of research, and it’s okay, maybe the small bet I filled in will help somebody in the future figure out how to supplement for the loss of this protien in patients living with muscular dystrophy. Just teeny tiny steps in a long journey towards a better understanding of a bigger picture.
Now, tonight isn’t just about cool science. It’s also about the steps we’ve taken on our personal journeys. Each of us has somebody who’s set us on our path, somebody who’s really made an impression. And for me, that was my undergraduate chemistry professor.
It was mid-semester, and we were grabbing a bite to eat the local pub and he asked if I wanted to volunteer in his lab. I was super flattered, and I jumped at the opportunity. I got to work with proteins for the first time. I got to learn a bit of spectroscopy, dabble with lasers. Everything seemed to be going super well. But under the surface, I was tearing myself apart in response to run of the mill stressors. I had had melancholic stretches before, but this was an entirely different beast. I didn’t have insurance, but I knew I needed to see a psychiatrist. The one I found left me with a stack of stock worksheets on self esteem about a month’s worth of Prozac and a $200 bill that I really couldn’t afford.
I tried therapy at a low cost clinic, but it didn’t really stick and I continue to spiral. I started self harming. I quit my job. I sold my car for $500 to pay rent and then was eventually kicked out of my apartment.
But I still had keys to lab.
So I packed my stuff up, shoved it into storage, filled a duffel bag full of clothes and some toiletries and moved right in.
Logistically it was a bit tricky. I pretended to have work to do late into the night. I pretended to just be getting in early when professors would see me headed off to shower in the gym in the mornings. I made more than my fair share of Top Ramen on the hot plate and I resorted to filtching food out of the common fridge when I finally overdrew my checking account.
The scariest part though was when the cleaning crew would come by Thursday evenings about three o’clock in the morning. Our lab had a laser table upfront with a floor to ceiling black curtain enclosure to keep lasers in and all. And so every Thursday night, I would wake up about two o’clock, pack up my sleeping bag, draw those curtains around me and hide under the table, making myself as small and as quiet as possible. Heart just beating in my throat. I was terrified that somebody would find me and the jig would be up and I’d have no place to go.
It didn’t take long for my professor to find out. I posted to MySpace about swapping housework for a place to stay and he put the pieces together. He offered me a camping mat to make my stay more comfortable. Things got weird several months into this arrangement and he started making jokes at lab meeting about how all the work I could get done since I’d be in lab anyways. I called him out privately and he apologized. But our relationship continued to sour and I left research all together for several years once I found a more permanent place to stay.
From there, I bounced around couches, apartments, friendships, I barely scraped through my course work. I failed human sexuality twice because I couldn’t drag myself out of bed to get to class. For some reason, physical chemistry really clicked for me and that professor took notice and did a bit of probing into my history.
I opened up to him about my struggles and my situation and he helped get me through the final few terms of my undergraduate. He got me back into research. Got me into the master’s program as a way to rehab my GPA. And as a way to get myself some access to health insurance.
I was hopeful for the first time in years that I’d be able to dig myself out of the mess I had made. I saw a psychiatrist for the second time. We went over my history and came out with a tentative diagnosis. It turns out I have a serious deficit in my response to stress in the form of bipolar disorder.
With a diagnosis in hand and a treatment plan in place, I was really determined to rock my first term, but I bit off way more than I could chew. I couldn’t stay momentum and I crashed right before finals. My advisor tried to help me triage the damage by petitioning for medical incompletes, but to no avail. I had wrecked my chances before I’d even gotten out the gate. I was able to stay in the program but my advisor told me in no uncertain terms that this couldn’t happen again.
I went on to have two good years before I worked up the courage to apply to PhD programs. The internet is rife with advice about most things and grad apps are no exception. They have one thing to say about mentioning mental health issues in your personal statement. Don’t, just don’t do it. So I was scared of freaking out admissions committees by disclosing my condition. So no explanation for my all over the place transcripts made it into my application package. So unsurprisingly, I only got one interview. I’m really happy that Oregon State thought I was worth the trouble.
I spend a lot of time waiting for the other shoe to drop. Bipolar is chronic, and I haven’t mastered the art of catching an episode before it overwhelms me. The final term of my master’s, the other shoe dropped hard. It was happening again and I couldn’t reach out like I had before. So I ghosted. I didn’t finish my thesis. It was easier to start over fresh where nobody would know my history, and so I fled to Corvallis.
I knew I needed a solid network of helpers if I was going to stand any chance of success here. So my first week of classes, I crept off to CAPS and made myself an appointment and got a referral to a therapist within walking distance. I found out that we have psychiatrists right here on campus instead of an hour bus ride away. It took a bit but I was referred to Disability Access Services.
It’s taken me even longer, but I I’ve tried to make a point to be more open about my mental health. And I struggled to trust that I can lean on people around me. I’ve been here for four and a half years and had my fair share of stressors during my tenure, including course work, teaching, prelims. I started a family. And I’ve stumbled again many, many times. But each time I’ve fallen down, I have consistently been met with a helping hand. And it’s made it so much easier to bounce back each time because of that. It’s easier to maintain homeostasis, and I can put my energy into my science and into my family instead of just barely surviving.
I have a lot of anger and regret surrounding my story and my journey. I wonder how much time and effort and potential I wasted because I didn’t have access to the systems of support I needed right away. I wonder where I would be if my first advisor had offered me something more than a camping mat. I don’t know if Oregon State is more prepared than my previous institution or if it’s just been an incredible decade of progress in this regard, or if I’m just better at asking for what I need.
But I do know that we have 30,000 students on this campus and a single psychiatrist.
I know that graduate students up and down California are striking for cost of living increases.
I know that our graduate student union is pushing hard against resistance for enhanced grievance procedures.
I know that graduate student mental health is in crisis,
and I know that I am damn lucky to have found a supportive mentor in Dr. Johnson.
I have seen so so many of my graduate student workers struggle in response to unenthusiastic or outright hostile supervisors, wasting their time and potential. We know that science benefits from the inclusion of people with diverse backgrounds, identities and viewpoints. But if we actually want that fabulously wonderfully diverse pool, then we have to just stop paying lip service and we have to take steps to meet students where they are.
We have to actively break down barriers to their success. We need to invest resources in making sure they can thrive. And we have to reward faculty who step up and stick out their necks to advocate for their students. Wrong one that blew the moment, because just like the body needs a host of proteins to maintain homeostasis in times of stress, students need a solid support network in order to thrive because life is…life is crazy. And yeah. Thank you.
Next up is Sam Burns. Sam is a master’s student in applied anthropology. His advisor is Dr. Lauren Davis. Sam’s Inspiration Dissemination mentors were Laurie Lutes and Daniel Watkins. Please welcome Sam.
I want to invite you all to come with me to my field site. It’s a tiny mountainous desert island in the Pacific Ocean just off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.
The islands name is it’s it’s modern name given to it by Spanish colonizing explorers is Isla de Cedros, the island of cedars, but its real name given to it in time immemorial by its indigenous inhabitants is Huamalgua “The Island of Fogs” or “The Island of the Spirits of the Ancestors”. The island is beautiful, but conditions in the field can sometimes be harsh. It’s cold and windy in the morning. It’s hot and windy in the afternoon. It’s dusty all the time, except when the fog is heavy enough in the morning to turn that top layer of dust into wet, muddy slop.
Every morning, we breakfast in town and then we drive out in our rented F-150 pickup trucks down unmainturned, unmaintained dirt tracks to our dig site. Today, I get into the six foot by three foot hole that I’ve been digging. I get right there when we arrive. And for the next eight hours, I crouch on the balls of my feet, carefully scraping away paper thin` layers of sediment and precisely recording the location of any artifacts I encounter. This particular hole happens to be on top of an ancient trash pit. And the discarded shells of clams and mussels, which were and still are a major source of food for the inhabitants of the island are more, they take up more volume in this hole than the dirt does.
So shells can tell us a lot of things. They can give us a lot of knowledge they can tell us about where what people were eating, what kinds of offshore environments people were using. We can even analyze the ratios of different isotopes in the shells to infer what the climate was that those shells that the shellfish lived in. But all of that knowledge has to be extracted in the lab where the shells can be cleaned, identified, counted, weighed, and finally assembled into pretty distribution charts and maps. This means that the excavation process is very boring. After a while, my knees start to hurt. My mind starts to wander. I start to wonder what we’re gonna have for dinner tonight. I remember that today is my day to have a hot shower.
As we get towards the end of the day, I hear my colleagues in the surrounding room, in the surrounding holes, some of whom are in this room, I hear them getting ready for the end of the day, finishing up their paperwork, packing up their tools. I start to hurry because I don’t want to keep everybody from dinner. I’ve been hungry since we got here. So I start to hurry. I started scraping through the sediment a little faster. But years of practice, keep my eyes focus sharply on that edge of my trowel. Even though my mind’s wandering, I see a shell. I’ve already bagged up, I don’t even know how many bags of shells today. But there’s something about the edge of the shell that catches my eye. It has that telltale regularity that just screams of human creation.
Instantly my mind snaps back into focus. The hustle and bustle of the end of the workday fade away and my world shrinks down to the edge of my trowel. I very carefully continue uncovering this piece of shell, and after a few minutes, it becomes clear what I found. It’s a mussel shell fishhook. A fishhook that’s big enough to pull a 100-pound sea bass from the depths of the ocean.
As I pick this up and hold it in my hands kneeling there in the dirt, my mind fills with questions. Who made this? What was their name? What was their life like? Was this fishhook a success? Did it give them dinner? Or was it a dud? But most importantly, I’m filled with a feeling of connection to this person who lived in this place, some 11,000 years before me. This feeling of kneeling in the dirt and feeling a connection to past humans is why I’m an archaeologist in the first place.
It’s a feeling that I first experienced as a child out behind my family’s 19th century farmhouse in rural Michigan digging through the trash pit that the builders of the house had left. I spent hours there as a kid digging up broken pieces of ceramic and glass, reassembling them into plates and saucers and medicine bottles and imagining the lives of the people who had lived at this place. A century before my parents were even born. To go back to Cedros, some 11,000 years ago, as the last ice age was ending, ice sheets and glaciers were retreating, people arrived on this island, probably by boats.
My research team is starting to put together the pieces of their life, but what we can say is that it looks like their culture was deeply focused on the sea. We see shellfish and fish bones, but we don’t really see very many hunting implements. We don’t very many terrestrial animals. But what I mostly think about when I’m thinking about the first people to come to Huamalgua is the incredible obstacles they faced, and the types of knowledge that were necessary to overcome those obstacles. In an environment like Huamalgua 11,000 years ago, all the things that we take for granted food, water, shelter, even fire require the accumulated knowledge of generations.
Even this simple fishhook which is right here, even this simple fishhook, it looks just like a piece of shell that’s been shaped, but it is embodied embedded with so much knowledge. Not only knowledge of how to harvest mussel shells and shape them, but knowledge of how to make stone drills to start the process, stone abraiders to grind them down, stone hammers to chip out the rough shape. And then it requires knowledge of how to make string from agave fiber. You need a very strong string to catch a 100-pound fish. But that requires knowledge of how to make scraping tools and spindle rolls and all sorts of technology we haven’t even started to discover yet. And then you got to start talking about boats and houses and food storage and food preparation. We haven’t even gotten there yet.
But all of this knowledge is embedded in this tiny, simple fishhook. And what’s really striking is that all that technological knowledge is just the beginning. This fish hook represents a much, much deeper piece of knowledge, the knowledge that half a mile offshore, a couple hundred feet below the surface of the water in an environment that no human being can directly experience and survive there are edible fish the size of a human that you can pull up with a properly prepared shellfish hook.
So to understand my own journey through knowledge, we have to go back to my childhood again. So I was born outside Detroit, Michigan.
My parents were members of a very conservative, fundamentalist religious organization whose primary tenets of faith were a rejection of worldly knowledge and an isolation from worldly influences. When I was eight years old, my parents followed the doctrine of the Church and moved my family to a small farm in rural Michigan. They didn’t send my siblings and I to school, but we didn’t really homeschool, because all knowledge was suspect.
We, we didn’t believe in all the usual suspects, evolution vaccines, but it went much further than that. If it wasn’t in the Bible, we didn’t believe it. That meant electrons, neutrons, even bacteria. All knowledge came through the church, and was never to be questioned or examined. Even as a young kid, I was never happy with that. I was filled with a deep curiosity about the world around me. A curiosity that was fed by my adventures digging through the trash pit behind our house.
Despite the rules, I found one escape from the intellectual claustrophobia: our local public library.
The church taught that parents are supposed to preview anything their children read, but with nine children and a farm, my parents quickly gave up trying to police the massive stacks of books that I would check out. So I read everything I could about history and archaeology and geology. Much of what I was reading was directly challenging what I was being taught at home and in the church. And so from a very young age, I had to begin grappling with issues of evidence, authority and how to weigh diametrically opposed world views to come to my own conclusions.
By the time I was 17, I had decided that I was going to pursue this wherever it took me. But without a high school diploma, it was very difficult for me to find universities that would give me a chance. But I did find one. The Hebrew University in Jerusalem had an international program, and they would accept students without diplomas.
So without my parents knowledge or consent, I applied and to my great surprise I got in. So I sold my cow and my guitar, and a month before my 18th birthday, I got on an airplane for the first time in my life and flew to Jerusalem.
That year changed everything. For the first time in my life, I met people from different backgrounds with different philosophies and different life experiences. I met anarchists and atheists, Orthodox Jews, conservative Muslims, scientists, historians, and yes, archaeologists. My roommates that year later said that they’d count how many times a day I would say, “I can’t believe I’m here.” I spent the entire year walking around in a kind of daze.
It wasn’t all fun. I was poor the entire year. I often struggled to afford food. I got very good at finding free food events on campus. That’s a skill that serves me well as a graduate employee. And then there’s the geopolitical situation. The day after I arrived, terrorist bombs the cafeteria of Hebrew University killing my advisor and nine other people.
Later that year, Mike’s Place, a bar that I hung out at frequently with bombed. A bus that I rode almost every day down to the market was bombed. I also felt alone all the time despite being surrounded by people for the first time in my life. My parents had taken my choice to leave home as a personal attack and began cutting me out of their lives. At the end of that year, I didn’t really know what to do next. I didn’t really have money to continue an education. I didn’t have the knowledge as a first generation college student of how to navigate academia. And most importantly, I didn’t have that all important high school diploma.
So over the next decade and a half, I kept going, day after day, as we all do, and eventually I earned a GED and a community college certificate and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, and a master’s degree from the University of Cambridge.
But this whole time I wanted to be an archaeologist, and that was still off, out of reach for me because I couldn’t afford a field school. But eventually, in 2014, a friend of mine who’s on a very understaffed position, very understaffed project that was in kind of an emergency, got me a job on a salvage excavation in Michigan. I went there, worked for a couple weeks, and did well enough to get asked back to the next job, and the next, and then next. And before I knew it, I was an archaeologist doing regulatory archaeology at sites all around the country.
Here’s a few of them, not all of them. As I started doing this work, I started asking questions. I started to become really fascinated by the question of how and when humans first arrived on this continent. So that’s when I sent an email to Dr. Lauren Davis. who encouraged me to apply to the program that I’m in. And that’s where we here, where we are now. So how has this journey through knowledge shaped what I do?
Well, it turns out that knowledge is central to everything that I do to all of my roles. As a philosopher, I asked questions about what knowledge is, if it’s even possible, how its acquired, how it’s built. As an archaeologist, I study the knowledge past humans held but I also generate new knowledge here in the present about our past, our shared past.
As an anthropologist, I study how our field operates and how histories of exclusion and and racism and colonialism have resulted in a skewed knowledge, a kind of purified and sanitized knowledge that does not do justice to the true richness of the human experience.
As an educator and teacher, I, of course, share knowledge with my students, but I also teach them and share skills, how to how to assess knowledge, how to explore it on your own, how to generate new knowledge on your own.
And finally, as an activist, I fight the unnecessary barriers that we have set in front of the pursuit of knowledge. Whether that means fighting cultures of harassment and abuse within academia, or fighting for better funding and more just priorities in our public education systems.
So in short, my entire career is about knowledge. And it’s what I like to think of it as knowledge justice. What I mean by that is a world in which knowledge, its pursuit, its generation, its value, is available to all and it’s put towards building a more just and equitable future.
So that was where my speech was gonna end. But I’d like to take just one more minute of your time.
So I almost withdrew from this event tonight. And I’d like to talk for a second about why. But first, I want to recognize the Inspiration Dissemination folks, they understood that they were asking us to share some deeply personal stories, and they took the time to get to know us and to build a relationship of trust before they did that. I think the Graduate School could learn a lot from that example.
My first interaction with the Graduate School on the content of my speech was a request to censor the line about fighting cultures of harassment and abuse within academia and to wrap it in layers of distancing and conditional language. I understand that the intent of that ask was to protect the reputation of the institution, but its impact was very different. One thing I didn’t really talk about is my history of surviving child abuse, and the PTSD that that has given me. And the impact of that ask was felt by me very differently. And I would like to ask the Graduate School to deeply consider what it means to ask a survivor of abuse to censor the word abuse from their story, so that you can use it for marketing.
But so instead of withdrawing, we decided to expand this stage a little bit. This is a very privileged stage. And only certain kinds of stories get told on this stage. But as you leave here tonight, some of my friends and allies have some stories available in the lobby as you leave. Stories that provide more context to higher education stories that tell a little bit more about what actually goes on beyond these true and important stories that you’re hearing on the stage. So I’d like to ask you all to take the time to engage with those stories as you leave. And I’d also like to request that my story not be shared without this end portion. Thank you.
Our final speaker for this evening is Barbara Spiecker. She’s a PhD candidate in Integrative Biology and is advised by Dr. Bruce Menge. ASL to English interpretation is provided by Deb Kropf and Halene Anderson. Her inspiration dissemination mentors were Heather Forsythe and Lillian Padgitt-Cobb. Please welcome Barbara to the stage.
For readers at home who could not attend the event in person or livestream the event, or the livestream feed was inaccessible to you, the beginning of Barbara’s presentation was originally silent, with captions on the screen, as Barbara’s native language is American Sign Language.
*In ASL*: For many years I’ve been a scuba-diver, diving in many places around the Americas. Underwater, I have seen many mysterious and intriguing animals and seaweeds. I vividly remember snorkeling in the Bahamas during college, the coral teeming with life, pink anemones squirming, ethereal jellyfish pulsating, purple sea-fans swaying, and majestic 6-foot groupers gliding. Years later, I returned to the Bahamas and to my disappointment, the reef was gone. All that was left was grey sand, dead white corals, and empty water. The area was full of short brown seaweed overgrowing everything. In just a few short years, everything had changed. No one had to tell me it was the result of human action, I knew.
So now that you’ve had a little taste of receiving information through visual means the way I do reading captioning and watching signing, we do have interpreters here to provide the ASL to English translation for those who don’t know American Sign Language.
So I’ll have the interpreters turn on the audio for you now.
So returning to that stark contrast of my experience in the Bahamas. That was what ignited my passion to pursue my studies in marine science further, it’s when I went to graduate school. But you should first know that I grew up in a city that has one of the largest populations of deaf people in the United States, about 50,000 of us.
I grew up in a place where I was truly normal.
Many people even many people who are not deaf in the city I grew up in are able to use basic ASL. I’m deaf. My family is deaf. I went to a school for the deaf growing up and was surrounded by people who sign. I always had full access to information in ASL school in Boston, that I had my first experience of being in an auditory world where my deafness was suddenly glaringly apparent.
In academia, I often missed small yet relevant conversations among my peers and professors. I couldn’t often participate in seminars or access videos that weren’t captioned. Of course, we had interpreters. But the interpreters were never the experts in my field that would be required to facilitate highly technical discussions of marine science, or represent me well to my colleagues, or be able to meaningfully interpret the content of my courses.
Then during my PhD journey, I found myself often venting to a deaf colleague and dear friend, Dr. Alicia Wooten who was also a PhD candidate at that time, and she was sharing many experiences similar to mine. In 2016, we decided to attend the deaf academic conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.
There, hundreds of Deaf researchers and educators from all over the world gathered to share not only our research, but also our experience as deaf academics in a hearing dominated space.
There were so many different sign languages going on at the conference because of course, each country has their own distinct sign language. But in spite of that language barrier, we still found ways to communicate and connect.
One night as the conference was drawing to a close, Alicia and I looked at each other and immediately knew exactly what the other was thinking. We wanted to create a space similar to the conference here in the US where Deaf academics in all the STEM fields, science, technology, engineering and math, could find each other, network, and collaborate.
We wanted to create a space where STEM resources in American Sign Language could be found, news events, resources, and we wanted to bring about ultimately the creation of high quality stem topics and content in American Sign Language by deaf people.
Basically, we wanted to foster curiosity and spark wonder in our community and beyond. That’s when atomic hands was born.
We knew from our personal experience, sitting in front of our computers staring countless research articles in the face, in this sea of words and sentences, we sensed that something was amiss.
Somehow we had lost ourselves in STEM.
We had lost our voice. Our physical presence was missing.
We believe that STEM topics are best conveyed through people through our native language ASL.
Using video also allows us to discuss stem topics in a way that provides a face behind the research. People can see that we’re not just scientists, we’re ordinary citizens just like everyone else. We just love STEM and we care about our living planet.
Additionally, ASL as a highly visual spatial language, uses multiple parts of a signers body at the same time to convey messages. So mouth movements, eyebrow movements, body shifts, tone, the use of space to represent three dimensional concepts and many other features. When expressed well, people can not only see the concepts readily in their head, but also then incorporate and embody the ideas as they discuss them and make them their own. Using the visual spatial benefits of ASL, we put an emphasis on playing with the language creatively when crafting our messages, this creative language play allows STEM topics to come to life in a clear and visually appealing way.
We began to create stem videos on a wide range of topics. We’ve invited our viewers to participate in weekly challenges to lead more environmentally friendly lifestyles. We’ve made videos showing different STEM terms and concepts in an engaging way.
We regularly still share just STEM related fun facts or highlight famous deaf STEMists of the past, Thomas Edison for example.
We also do live interviews with current deaf chemists of the present.
All of our videos are captioned in English to provide accessibility for people whether or not they know ASL.
Ever since we started atomic hands, I cannot count how many times people of all ages–I just watch them light up–sharing that same excitement that I had in my childhood finally accessing and being able to comprehend STEM topics in our native language ASL.
Through our work, I actually saw a 75 year old man walk past a pop bottle that was discarded on the side of the road. And then when he thought of our video, he turned back around and picked it up to go and recycle it.
Or the 12 year old girl who couldn’t wait to tell us, “Thank you for making me realize that science is so much fun.”
And so many of our viewers who said that they wish that they just had access to our content when they were young, because they would have chosen STEM fields, or at least not reacted with fear and disgust at seeing a STEM topic.
Communication is not trivial. It is a powerful catalyst turning thought into progress. It allows us to discuss grow and change together as a society. Communicating so that all may understand, be it American Sign Language or any other language, academically or conversationally allows people to keep pace with changes to our society and the environment.
So parallel to my work with atomic hands, I’ve been studying rocky intertidal kelps. These are the seaweeds that you’ll find in the rocky area where the land and the sea come together. This is an area that is particularly responsive to changes in the environment as well as to human actions.
And one particular oceanographic pattern called El Nino. That’s a cycle that happens every three to seven years, and it will cause surface warmers or surface waters in the ocean to become warmer than usual.
However, our planet is now warming up, which could cause El Nino events to become more frequent and or more intense. And because the phenomenon of El Nino is known to be very destructive to kelp communities, my research looks specifically at how the effects of El Nino on intertidal kelp communities changes across time, and also whether or not there might be some environmental factors such as temperature, or nutrients in the water, or wave action that might amplify or mitigate these destructive effects.
This is a concern because kelps provide a massive life support system for us more than most of us know. Kelps in the ocean absorb carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, for example.
They also provide food as well as habitat for our favorite sea creatures.
So in an effort to answer my research questions, I went out on the rocks every spring and summer for the last six years collecting data on the kelp populations. And I invited anyone who would come to join me. Family. Friends.
This is my mom.
She’s a math teacher. She actually came out to join me in 2014 for the first time. Now you have to understand exactly what my research entails. She had to get up at like three in the morning drive anywhere from an hour and a half to four hours to get to our field sites. suit up in these bulky rubber field clothes and boots. stumble along through the dark falling over slippery rocks for the hundredth time. Finally, to just get to the field site, only to step on an anemone and be squirted in the face, be soaked by the frigid Pacific Ocean, and then spend the next four or five hours doing the back breaking labor of bending over measuring these slimy brown kelps. You would think she’d have been done after day two, or at least after year two. But to my surprise, my mom loved the experience. She loved seeing what I was up to. She loved contributing to science and being a part of a larger effort to protect our planet.
And most importantly, she loved learning about the ocean. She loved learning about all the intricate details of the rocky intertidal system that I was working in. Every year she couldn’t wait to go back to her family and friends at home and tell them all the different things that she had learned. My mom came to help me with my field research every single year without fail.
The urgency of our responsibility to the environment is on a scale that is unfathomable to most of us.
We are grappling now with how our actions today will be shaping our home 100 years from now. We are in the midst of a seemingly massive problem. And it isn’t people’s ability or even their desire to be involved that’s missing. It’s the connection.
Humans are social beings. We seek to connect, to belong.
Make the time to connect with people. Connect with people within our own circles and beyond. Connect through listening, empathizing, involving and educating each other. Start a conversation. Together, we will naturally come to understand that we are each other’s purpose.
We will come to understand, and appreciate, and cherish our environment for exactly what it is: a home for each of us and all of us.
Heather Forsythe: Thank you all, and have an inspiring rest of your week!
Transcribed by https://otter.ai and proof-read by the Inspiration Dissemination team
After processing the event, here are some final thoughts from the Inspiration Dissemination team: As this event was centered around diversity, accessibilty and honesty, we tried to be inclusive but we want to own up to the fact that we still missed the mark. On days of events like this, individuals’ seemingly harmless decisions about feedback, lighting, and audiovisuals can have huge impacts on the experiences of those involved. That being said, we’re sorry for the things that did not meet reasonable standards for inclusion and pledge to learn from our mistakes for future events.