We eat food to keep ourselves happy and healthy. While the foods we eat are degraded in our gut, it’s actually little microbes that do most of the work to break down our food. Many many microbes. It is well known that our diet controls our health. But until recently, we have not appreciated the intermediate step that relies on microbes in our gut, and their influence on our health. What if our gut microbes are just as important for human health as the food we eat? The so-called gut microbiome, the unique community of microbes living in our digestive tract that influences how we break down food, is the quickly evolving research area that our guest is interested in. Michael Sieler is a 3rd year Ph.D. student in the Microbiology Department and is interested in better understanding how environmental factors, like rising temperatures and pathogens to name just a few, influence our gut microbiome and thus our health.
There are hundreds of different microbial species living in human guts. These microbes work together to support human health by helping us digest our food and fight off pathogenic microbes. Because humans eat a multitude of diets, it can be tricky to figure out how human health is influenced by our gut microbes if the things we eat are not consistent. Instead of forcing humans to undergo rigorous eating and environmental trials – that may even be unethical given how much we’d need to control a human life – researchers like Michael use different organisms that are similar to humans to help understand some of the fundamental drivers of health. While you may be thinking of mice trials to see how toxic a substance is, or if we’ve successfully created a non-hallucinogenic version of psilocybin for therapeutic purposes, mice still have plenty of limitations.
Instead of using mice to run experiments, researchers are increasingly using zebrafish because they’re well studied, easy to grow and maintain, fast to reproduce, and 70% of their genes overlap with human genes so we can generally use these little fish as models of larger humans. For example, we’ve interviewed previous guests like Grace Deitzler researching how the gut microbiome can influence anxiety disorders and the connections to autism spectrum disorder. We’ve also interviewed Sarah Alto who researched how different levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide are connected to stress responses. Finally, Delia Shelton is actively researching how cadmium, a toxic heavy metal, is influencing behavioral patterns. You can imagine these studies would be tricky to perform on humans, that’s why all of these researchers use zebrafish as their model organism.
Michael’s work focuses on how environmental factors impact our gut microbiome to influence our health. For example, exposure to antibiotics or pathogens can dramatically affect the microbes living in our guts, but so can our diet. Surprisingly, unlike other model organisms such as mice, zebrafish are not fed a consistent diet across research studies and facilities. Given the importance of the gut microbiome to digest food and support our health, inconsistent use of diets in zebrafish microbiome studies could lead to inconsistency in study results. It’s like trying to compare race times for a five-mile race, except some people get to use cars and bikes and unicycles. Without a standard way to compare people, how comparable are the race results? Michael’s current work seeks to address this conundrum by feeding zebrafish one of three commonly used research diets and comparing their microbiomes. He finds that type of diet has an overwhelming effect on their gut microbiome, and these effects may overwhelm the effects of other environmental factors, like pathogen exposure.
What does this mean for the mountain of research built on zebrafish? We’ll answer that, and so much more with our guest Michael Sieler. We’ll also discuss his non-traditional route to graduate school, his love of travel, a side project using a tamagotchi-style video game to teach students about fish health, and how a year in the Guatemalan countryside helped him rethink his relationship to food and how he could have a greater impact in our world. Tune in live on Sunday at 7pm PT on 88.7FM, or check out the podcast if you missed the interview.
Puffy snout syndrome: though it has a cute-sounding name, this debilitating condition causes masses on the face of Scombridae fish (a group of fish that includes mackerel and tuna.) Fish afflicted with puffy snout syndrome (PSS) develop excessive collagenous tumor-like growths around the eyes, snout, and mouth. This ultimately leads to visual impairment, difficulty feeding, and eventual death. PSS is surprisingly confined to just fish raised in captivity – those in aquaculture farms or aquariums, for example. Unfortunately, when PSS is identified in aquaculture, the only option is to cull the entire tank — no treatments or cures currently exist.
PSS was first identified in the 1950s, in a fish research center in Honolulu, Hawaii. Since then, there have only been 9 publications in the scientific literature documenting the condition and possible causes, although the fish community has come to the conclusion that PSS is likely a transmittable condition with an infectious agent as the cause. But despite this conclusion, there’s been no success so far in identifying such a cause – tests for parasites, bacterial growth, and viruses have come up empty-handed. That was until a 2021 paper, using high-resolution electron microscopy, found evidence of viral particles in facial tissues taken from Pacific mackerel. Suddenly, there was a lead: could PSS be caused by a virus that we just don’t have a test for yet?
Putting Together the Pieces
To investigate this hypothesis, this week’s guest Savanah Leidholt (a co-author of the 2021 microscopy study) is using an approach for viral detection known as metatranscriptomics. Leidholt, a fourth year PhD candidate in the Microbiology department, sees this complex approach as a sort of puzzle: “Your sample of RNA has, say, 10 giant jigsaw puzzles in it. But the individual puzzles might not be complete, and the pieces might fit into multiple places, so your job is to reassemble the pieces into the puzzles in a way that gives you a better picture of your story.”
RNA, or ribonucleic acid, is a nucleic acid similar to DNA found in all living organisms, But where DNA is like a blueprint – providing the code that makes you, you; RNA is more like the assembly manual. When a gene is expressed (meaning the corresponding protein is manufactured), the double-stranded DNA is unwound and the information is transcribed into a molecule called messenger RNA. This single-stranded mRNA is now a copy of the gene that can be translated into protein. The process of writing an mRNA copy of the DNA blueprint is called transcription, and these mRNA molecules are the target of this metatranscriptomics approach, with the prefix “meta” meaning all of the RNA in a sample (both the fish RNA and the potential viral RNA, in this case) and the suffix “omics” just referring to the fact that this approach happens on a large scale (ALL of the RNA, not just a single gene, is sequenced here!) When mRNA is sequenced in this manner, the researchers can then conclude that the gene it corresponds to was being expressed in the fish at the time the sample was collected.
So far, Leidholt has identified some specific genes in fish that tend to be much more abundant in fish from captive settings versus those found in the wild. Could these genes be related to why PSS is only seen in fish in captivity? It’s likely – the genes identified are immune markers, and the upregulation of immune markers is well-known to be associated with chronic stress. Think about a college student during finals week – stress is high after a long semester, maybe they’ve been studying until late in the night and not eating or sleeping well, consuming more alcohol than is recommended. And then suddenly, on the day of the test, they’re stuck in bed with the flu or a cold. The same thing can happen to fish (well, maybe not the part where they take a test!,) especially in captivity – Pacific mackerel, tuna, and other scombrid species susceptible to PSS are fairly large, sometimes swimming hundreds of miles in a single day in the ocean. But in captivity, they are often in very small tanks, constantly swimming in constrained circles. They’re not exposed to the same diversity of other fish, plankton, prey, and landscape as they would be in the wild. “Captivity is a great place to be if you’re a pathogen, but not great if you’re a fish”, says Leidholt.
The results of Leidholt’s study are an exciting step forward in the field of PSS research, as one of the biggest challenges currently facing aquaculture farms and aquariums is that there is no way to screen for PSS in healthy fish before symptoms begin to show. Finding these marker genes that appear in fish that could later on develop PSS means that in the future a test could be developed. If vulnerable fish could be identified and removed from the population before they begin to show symptoms and spread the condition, then it would mean fish farmers no longer have to cull the entire tank when PSS is noticed.
The elusive virus
One of the challenges that remains is going beyond the identification of genes in the fish and beginning to identify viruses in the samples. Viruses, which are small entities made up of a DNA or RNA core and a protective protein coating, are thought to be the most abundant biological entities on the planet Earth – and the smallest in terms of size. They usually get a bit of a bad reputation due to their association with diseases in humans and other animals, but there are also viruses that play important positive roles in their ecosystems – bacteriophages, for example, are viruses that infect bacteria. In humans, bacteriophages can attack and invade pathogenic or antibiotic-resistance bacteria like E. coli or S. aureus (for more information on phages and how they are actually studied as a potential therapy for infections, check out this November 2021 interview with Miriam Lipton!) Across the entire planet there are estimated to be between 10^7 to 10^9 distinct viral species – that’s between 10 million and 10 billion different species. And fish are thought to host more viruses than any other vertebrate species. Because of technological advancements, these viral species have only really been identified very recently, and identification still poses a significant challenge.
As a group, viruses are very diverse, so one of the challenges is finding a reliable way to identify them in a given sample. For bacteria, researchers can use a marker gene called the 16S rRNA gene – this gene is found in every single bacterial cell, making it universal, but it also has a region of variability. This region of variability allows for identification of different strains of bacteria. “Nothing like 16S exists for viruses,” Leidholt says. “Intense sequencing methods have to be used to capture them in a given sample.” The metatranscriptomic methods that Leidholt is using should allow her to capture elusive viruses by taking a scorched earth approach – targeting and sequencing any little bit of RNA in the sample at all, and trying to match up that RNA to a virus.
To learn more about Savanah’s research on puffy snout syndrome, her journey to Oregon State, and the amazing outreach she’s doing with high school students in the Microbiology Department, tune in to Inspiration Dissemination on Sunday, November 20th at 7 PM Pacific!
Improvements in DNA sequencing technology have allowed scientists to dig deeper than ever before into the intricacies of the microbes that inhabit our gut, also called the gut microbiome. Massive amounts of data – on the scale of pentabytes – have been accumulated as labs and institutes across the globe sequence the gut microbiome in an effort to learn more about its inhabitants and how they contribute to human health. But now that we have all of this data (and more accumulating all the time), the challenge becomes making sense of it.
This is a challenge that Christine Tataru, a rising fifth year PhD student in the Department of Microbiology, is tackling head-on. “My research is trying to understand what a ‘healthy’ gut microbiome actually looks like, how it ‘should’ look, and to do so in a way that is integrative,” she explains.
An integrative approach looks at all of the processes and relationships that are occurring between all of the trillions of microorganisms in our gut, and the cells within our body. Previous microbiology dogma focused on the behavior and impact of singular species such as pathogens, but as we learn more about microbiomes, this approach becomes limiting. There are a vast number of relationships that can occur between microbes and human cells. And there are many different lenses through which we can look at this system: taking a census of what microbes are present; tracking the genes that are present rather than just the microbes (this tells us about the functions that might be carried out); and what proteins or metabolites are actually present, whether those are created by the bacteria or the host. Each piece of the puzzle allows us a glimpse of the massively complex system that is the gut microbiome.
“It’s difficult for a human brain to keep track of these relationships and sources of variations, so I use computer algorithms to try to get a picture of what is happening, and what that might mean for health.”
It’s an approach that makes sense for the Stanford-trained computer-scientist-turned-biologist. Christine recalls a deep learning class in college in which a natural language processing algorithm on the whiteboard struck her with inspiration: what if instead of being applied to words, this algorithm could be applied to gut microbiomes? The thought stuck with her and when she came to OSU to pursue her PhD, she already had a clear goal in mind for what she wanted to do.
The natural language processing and interpretation algorithm treats words in a document as discrete entities, and looks for patterns and relationships between words to gain context and “understand” the contents. A computer can’t really understand what words mean linguistically and with the complex nuances that natural language presents, but they are really good at looking for patterns. It can look at what words occur together frequently, what words never occur together, and what words share a ‘social network’ — words that don’t appear together, but appear with the same other words. Christine has developed a way to apply this algorithm to large gut microbiome datasets: using this approach to identify what microbes frequently appear together, which don’t, and which share ‘social networks’. This produces clusters of microbes, or what she refers to as ‘topics’, which can then be interpreted by humans to try to understand how these clusters relate to certain aspects of health. You can read more about this method in her recent PLOS Computational Biology publicationhere.
It’s quite the challenging undertaking: no one has done this type of approach before, and even when the clusters are generated, we still need to be able to interpret what it means – why is it interesting or important that these microbes occur with each other and also correlate with these genes or metabolites? Biologically, what does it actually mean?
The question of biological meaning prompted Christine to pivot to a more traditional ‘wet lab’ biology approach. “Who gave this computer scientist a pipette,” she jokes. But to be perfectly honest, it makes a lot of sense: who better to investigate the hypotheses that can be generated by computers than the scientist who wrote the code?
Taking the ‘integrative approach’ to the next level, she now works on recapitulating the environment of the gut microbiome on a chip in the lab. The organ-on-a-chip system is a fairly new approach to studying biological mechanisms in a way that better mimics the naturally occurring environment. In Christine’s case, she is using a ‘gut on a chip’, which is made of a thin piece of silicone with input and output channels. The silicone is split by a microporous membrane in such a way that two different kinds of cells can be grown, one on the top layer and one on the bottom. What makes this system unique as compared to traditional cell culture is that the channels and membrane allow for constant flow of growth media, which physically simulates the flow of blood over the cells. It can also mimic peristalsis, which is the stretching and relaxing of intestinal cells that helps push food and nutrients through the digestive tract. It’s a sophisticated system, and one that allows her a high degree of control over the environment. She can use this system to mimic Inflammatory Bowel Disease, and then add in specific microbes or combinations of microbes to see how the gut cells respond, using findings from her algorithm results to inform what kinds of additions might have anti-inflammatory effects.
This innovative approach provides Christine another lens through which to view the relationship between the gut microbiome and health. Though she will be finishing her doctorate at the end of the year, the curiosity doesn’t end there – “Broadly, my life goal to some extent has always been to make ways for people to help people.” Whether that’s pipeline and methods development or building the infrastructure to study complex biological relationships, Christine’s innovation-driven approach is sure to lead to huge strides in our understanding of how the tiny living things in our gut influence our health, behavior, and mood.
Tune in at 7 PM this Sunday evening on KBVR 88.7 or stream online to hear more about her research and how she ended up here at OSU!
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.
Amidst the challenges of a global pandemic, the Inspiration Dissemination podcast will strive to be an avenue of human connection and inspiration during a more isolated time. This week, we sit down with Joaquin Rodriquez for the first podcast of a special series covering the COVID-10 outbreak and its impact on the research and lives of our OSU community.
Joaquin is an undergraduate (soon to be graduate) researcher in the Barbar lab at OSU studying how viruses hijack their hosts. Joaquin’s research allows him to view the coronavirus from a biological perspective that yields him clarity and patience.
Although his studies and research are conducted at Oregon State University, Joaquin calls Lima, Peru home. During an unprecedented time where students are leaving campus to be home with their families, travel restrictions render Joaquin unable to leave Corvallis. Despite the challenges Joaquin faces, he emanates a sense of calm and understanding of the coronavirus and shares with us his experience.
Joaquin explains how misinformation is easy to spread and clear answers are hard to discern during times of fear and uncertainty. Even for those that may have the scientific literacy to understand what a virus is, there can be a great difficulty in comprehending just how a virus works within our bodies. In simplified terms, a virus can be thought of as a piece of genetic material (usually RNA) encapsulated by a protein. Debate on whether or not a virus can even be considered a living thing stems from the fact that viruses themselves do not code for the biological machinery needed for replication, but rather use their host as a means to thrive and reproduce. Upon entering the body, the coronavirus binds to respiratory cells at sites called receptors. Receptors are like doors that only viruses have the keys to, and once binded, they are able to enter the cell and replicate before finally causing the respiratory cell to die. This particular coronavirus eventually causes the disease COVID-19.
The death of respiratory cells as the virus multiplies is inarguably harmful to the body, however, the symptoms we experience from COVID-19 are actually an expression of our immune system response rather than the virus itself. This in part explains why some of those infected by the virus appear to be minimally impacted, while others may develop flu-like symptoms or pneumonia. In fact, the range and lack of predictability of symptoms contribute to the high rate of transmission and success of the virus.
There are many evolutionary trade-offs involved in the overall success of a virus. Aggressive replication within a host may cause the virus to be too deadly and thus lower transmissibility between hosts; the virus is unlikely to become widespread. For this reason, the deadly virus causing Ebola is not likely to become a global pandemic, whereas the new coronavirus is impacting countries around the world.
Viral success and transmissibility also relies on mutation rate. At first glance it may seem intuitive that a high rate of mutation would be evolutionarily advantageous. Afterall, a small mutation in the genome of the coronavirus lended its ability to jump hosts from bat to human. However, not all mutations are advantageous. Mutations are random, and the potential of a mutation to be detrimental to the virus’s ability to infect and replicate is high. A high mutation rate is a risk to the success of a virus, but a low mutation rate would yield a stagnation allowing for hosts to more easily adapt immunity.
Joaquin explains that the coronavirus is successful because it has a relatively low mutation rate compared to other RNA viruses, as well as a high transmissibility owing to a relatively low rate of host death, varying host symptoms, and the utilization of airborne avenues of transmission. He tells us that through a global research effort we are continuously learning about the biology of the coronavirus and using this knowledge to explore treatment options and vaccines.
While many research labs around the world, including Joaquin’s lab at OSU, are shifting their efforts to contribute to the study of the coronavirus, many researcher’s work has been put on hold. Joaquin now finds himself with extra time to connect with family in Lima or take trips to the coast where he finds comfort surfing. He urges us to stay informed, mindful, and calm, and to find that thing that brings up happiness as we all experience an unusual time united in our isolation.
If you are interested in hearing the full interview with Joaquin, want to keep up with new episodes and our special Covid-19 series, or want to check out past interviews, you can find us on iTunes under Inspiration Dissemination.
Somewhere, in a local government meeting, an idea is
proposed, a policy brief is written, some voting occurs, paperwork is pushed
around, money is allocated, and a new highway is built.
In the same region, some bighorn sheep are off trekking in search of their favorite grasses to eat. They come upon a road they can’t cross that wasn’t there before. The sheep stay put and eat the same old grass they were already eating.
When policymakers decided to build this road, it’s
unclear whether they considered the consequences of this type of habitat
fragmentation on the tiny ecosystems of bacteria that live inside of each
bighorn sheep. More importantly, whether they knew their decision might lead to
unforeseen consequences for bighorn population health.
We take for granted how intertwined policy and science really are.
Claire Couch is a 5th year PhD candidate in the department of
Integrative Biology, studying wildlife disease ecology, but she’s also the
president of a new Science & Policy Club at Oregon State University.
Advised by Anna Jolles in the College of Veterinary Medicine, Claire
studies the bacteria that live in the guts of large animals like African
buffalo, rocky mountain elk, and bighorn sheep. She’s interested in how the gut
microbiome can contribute to disease resistance, but separate from her PhD
research, she’s interested in how policy can be informed by science, and how
science can be impacted by policy.
Claire says she’s always been interested in ecosystem health and fascinated by ecosystem dynamics between big scale (a region the sheep lives in) and small scale (the bacteria living in the gut) ecosystems. Through her research, she’s been exposed to diverse conservation issues for different wildlife species. For example, management and policy shapes where wildlife can reside, and where they are determines the factors that shape the gut microbiome. It became apparent to Claire that most scientists are not typically trained to understand and partake in policy, including herself, even though is it’s critical to all of our research pursuits.
Claire started looking for ways to learn more and to become more engaged in science policy, but wasn’t finding exactly what she was looking for. OSU has some science-policy courses and clubs, but they are typically very specific to one type of science. So although she didn’t feel qualified to take the lead on this, she created what she was looking for: a science policy space that is more inclusive and general, with an emphasis on career development and general policy literacy.
In the first year since this group started, they’ve already packed in several activities including: meetings with OSU faculty who are closely tied to policy, a seminar about how to communicate about controversial topics, a panel talk about how scientists can communicate with the press, a talk from a government agency research organization scientist, and a meeting with House Rep. Peter DeFazio. Finally, the group has an open-source data panel coming up.
Claire wants to help scientists make their work relevant, but she hasn’t
been doing it all alone. There are currently a few other club officers, and as
Claire writes her dissertation, she’s looking to pass on club leadership. In
the future, she hopes to see the club become more engaged with the non-OSU
community members around us, host bigger events in collaboration with other groups
on campus, and start up a mentoring program in which club members would be
mentored by policy professionals.
To hear more about this policy club and Claire’s
research and future plans, tune in to KBVR 88.7 FM or stream online March
1, 2020 at 7 P.M.
Your eye lenses host one of the highest concentrated proteins in your entire body. The protein under investigation is called crystallin and the investigator is called Heather Forsythe.
Heather is a 4th year PhD candidate working with Dr. Elisar Barbar in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. The Barbar lab conducts work in structural biology and biophysics. Specifically, they are trying to understand molecular processes that dictate protein networks involving disordered proteins and disordered protein regions. To do this work, the lab uses a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). NMR is essentially the same technology as an MRI, the big difference being the scale at which these two technologies measure. MRIs are for big things (like a human body) whereas NMR instruments are for tiny things (like the bonds between amino acids which are the building blocks of proteins). Heather employed OSU’s NMR facility (which has an 800 megahertz magnet and is on the higher end of the NMR magnetic field strength range) to investigate what the eye lens protein crystallin has to do with cataracts.
Your eye completely forms before birth, and the lens of the eye that helps us see is made of a protein called crystallin. This protein is essential to the structure and function of the eye, but it cannot be regenerated by the body so whatever you have at birth is all you will ever have. However, in the eye lens of someone affected by cataracts, the crystallin proteins become unfolded and then aggregate together. They stack on top of each other in a way that they are not supposed to. A person with cataracts will suffer from blurry vision, almost like you’re looking through a frosty or fogged-up window. While the surgery to fix cataracts (which basically takes out the old lens and puts in a new, artificial one) is pretty straight-forward and not very invasive, it isn’t easily accessible or affordable to a lot of people all over the world. Cataracts is attributed to causing ~50% of blindness worldwide, likely due to the fact that not everyone is able to take advantage of the simple surgery to fix it. Therefore, understanding the molecular, atomic basis of how cataracts happens could result in more accessible treatments (say a type of eye drop) for it worldwide.
This is where Heather comes in. There are different types of crystallin proteins and Heather zeroed in on one of them – gamma-S. Gamma-S is one of the most highly conserved proteins (meaning it hasn’t changed much over a long time) among all mammals, which tells us that it’s super important for it to remain just the way it is. Gamma-S makes up the eye lens by stacking on top of itself, making a brick wall of sorts ensuring that the eye lens retains its structure. However, research prior to Heather’s found that with increased age there is an increase in a modification called deamidation, which occurs in the unstructured loops of the gamma-S protein. Deamidation is a pretty minor change and is common in proteins all over the body, however in the eye lens if too much of it happens it no longer is a minor issue since it starts to disrupt the structure and protein-protein interactions of the eye lens. Heather’s collaborators at Oregon Health Sciences University found that there are two sites on the gamma-S protein (sites 14 and 76) where these deamidation events increase the most in cataracts-stricken eyes. It’s been known for a while that this deamidation is associated with cataracts however we never knew why it is associated with cataract formation because the changes caused by this modification were seemingly minor. This is how the Barbar Lab, and Heather specifically, became connected to this work since they specialize in studying unstructured proteins and protein regions, such as the loops present in gamma-S.
These deamidation changes are mimicked in the lab by creating two different mutants of the gamma-S protein’s DNA. Heather then compared the two mutants with the normal DNA by putting them through a series of experiments using the trusty NMR. The NMR is basically a large magnet that can make use of the magnetic fields around an atom’s nucleus to determine protein structure and motions. When Heather puts a protein sample into the NMR, the spins of the atomic nuclei will either align with or against the magnetic field of the NMR’s magnet. The NMR spits out spectra, which look like a square with lots of polka dots. This is essentially the fingerprint of the protein, unique to each one and extremely replicable. Heather can analyze this protein fingerprint since the different polka dots represent different amino acids in the gamma-s protein. Heather can compare spectra of the two mutants to the spectra of the normal protein to see whether any of the dots have moved, which would signal a change in the position of the amino acids.
After running experiments which measure protein motions at various timescales, from days to picoseconds, Heather discovered significant changes in protein dynamics when either site 14 or 76 was deamidated, however at different timescales. What this discovery means is that if both of these mutations are associated with cataracts and they are changing the same regions of the gamma-S protein, then these regions are likely central to changes resulting in cataracts. Therefore, research could be directed to target these regions to perhaps come up with solution to prevent and/or solve cataracts in a non-surgical way. The results of Heather’s study were recently published in Biochemistry.
Heather is from Arkansas where she completed her high school and undergraduate education. Living in a single-parent, non-academic home at this time, it took Heather a long time to figure out how to navigate the scientific and college-application scene, as well as even coming to the realization that science was something she was good at and could pursue. Despite receiving scholarships for college, she still had to work multiple jobs while in high school and college to have enough money for car-payments and gas to get to extra-curricular activities and volunteer jobs in the science field; things critical for graduate school applications. As a result, Heather is a strong advocate for inclusivity, striving to make things like science and college in general more accessible to low-income and diverse students. Heather’s decision to leave Arkansas and come to the PNW was inspired by advice she received from her undergraduate advisor who told her “not to go anywhere where you wouldn’t want to live. You will learn to love research, whatever it ends up being, but if you live in an environment that you don’t find fulfilling, then you are going to suffocate.”. Following this advice has lead Heather to where she is now – the senior in her lab where she has become a mentor to undergraduates, makes Twitter-famous Tik Tok videos (see below), goes on adventures with her dog Piper, and publishes cutting edge structural biology research.
To learn more you can check out the Barbar Lab website and Twitter page.
Trillions of bacterial cells are living within
us and they’re controlling your brain activity.
Grace Deitzler is a 2nd year PhD student in
microbiology working in Dr. Maude David’s lab on the gut-microbiome and its
relation to autism spectrum disorder.
The gut-microbiome is the total population of bacteria
living within our digestive tract. These bacteria are critical for digestive
health, but also for our immune system and mental health. For example, we harbor
bacteria capable of digesting plant fibres we otherwise could not digest. And
if you’ve been told that probiotics are good for you, that’s because probiotics
can change the gut microbiome in a positive way, allowing for increased bacterial
diversity associate with improved health. These bacteria communicate with each
other through chemical signaling but also communicate with us. Tryptophan, for
example, is an amino acid produced through bacteria metabolism and is a precursor
for serotonin, a brain-signaling chemical which causes feelings of happiness.
When the gut communicates with the brain, we call this, the “gut-brain axis”. Grace’s work narrows in on the gut-brain axis and more specifically, how one bacterial species in particular impacts autism spectrum disorder. To further complicate things, the gut-microbiome helps to regulate estrogen levels, and we also know that autism is a disorder found primarily in biological males. Which leads Grace to one of her biggest questions: are the bacteria involved in endocrine system regulation in women, also that responsible for this variation we see. Grace uses a mouse model to elucidate underlying mechanisms at play.
Step one is to feed the mice bacteria that have been
found in elevated amounts in people with autism spectrum disorder than in
neurotypical peers. These bacteria will colonize in the gut, and mice will go
through several behavioral tests to determine if they are exhibiting more behaviors
associated with autism. Grace performs three types of tests with the mice: one to
test inclination to form repetitive behaviors, one to test anxiety, and one to
test social behaviors. One test is a marble-burying test, in which a mouse more
inclined to form repetitive behaviors will bury more marbles.
After behavioral testing is complete, the mice are
sacrificed and different regions of the
gut are taken to look for presence of bacterium. Tissues taken from the mice
are used to look for transcriptional markers. The transcriptome is collected for
both the mouse and the bacteria present, or the sum total of all genes that are
read and converted to RNA. RNA are able to be isolated and sequenced using distinctive
markers such as a “poly-A tail”. After this data is collected, Grace can
finally move to the computational side of her work which involves combining biological
and biochemical data with her behavioral studies.
In addition to her work on
autism spectrum disorder, Grace also has a side project working in a honey bee
lab, looking at the gut microbiome of honey bees in response to probiotics on the
market for beekeepers. But Grace is one very busy bee herself because in addition
to her lab work, she’s also involved with an art-science club called “seminarium”.
The club is filled with scientists interested in art and artists interested in
science. Grace is a painter primarily but is also working on ink illustration. The
focus of this group is that art and science are complimentary, not at odds. The
group has produced some collaborative projects, including a performance for a lab
studying a parasite that effects salmon. The group put together a collage of
interpretations of the parasites and had a performance in which one member played
piano while someone else drew the parasite live.
Grace moved to Oregon from
St. Louis Missouri. She completed her undergraduate degree in biological sciences
with minors in chemistry and psychology at a small engineering college, Missouri University of Science and Technology,
where she was a radio DJ! Grace first became involved in research during a
summer internship in a microbiology lab at Washington University. There she studied
the vaginal microbiome and how it effects pregnancy outcomes. Grace went back to
this lab for the next couple summers and produced 4 publications! Ultimately,
Grace graduated college early after they offered her a full time research position
where she worked for a year and a half as a research tech. Through this
experience, Grace came to realize that medical school was not her path,
canceled her scheduled MCAT and signed up for GRE. Grace looked for schools in
the PNW because she knew she wanted to live there, got an interview at OSU, loved
it, and here we are!
Join us at
7 pm on Sunday, August 11th, 2019, to hear more about Grace’s research and her journey
to OSU. Stream the
show live on KBVR Corvallis
88.7FM or check out the episode as a podcast after a few weeks.
Our guest this week, Shauna Otto from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, is a member of the lab of Dr. Colin Johnson. The focus of the Johnson lab is a group of proteins called ferlins. The ferlin family of proteins have many different functions, and many are involved in the fusion of vesicles to cell membranes in a process called, “exocytosis.” Another example is the protein otoferlin which fuses vesicles carrying neurotransmitters to the cell membrane of neurons in the inner ear that play a crucial role in hearing. See more about otoferlin from past guests from the Johnson lab, Murugesh Padmanarayana and Nicole Hams.
Shauna loading a sample for Cobalt-60 irradiation at the Notre Dame Radiation Laboratory.
Shauna studies dysferlin, another ferlin protein, which helps mend membrane tears in muscle cells. Mutations in the dysferlin gene lead to Muscular Dystrophy II. Through her work, Shauna has characterized portions or “domains” of the large dysferlin protein via Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). NMR is a process by which the magnetic field around the nuclei of atoms in a protein domain are excited, and by recording the magnitude of that disruption, Shauna can learn the structure of the domain. Her focus domain putatively binds other proteins that join dysferlin in a protein complex that initiates muscle cell membrane repair. However, the mechanism by which dysferlin bind repair proteins is unclear. Through her explorations with dysferlin, Shauna has found that an increase in Calcium leads to the stabilization of the dysferlin domains that might initiate repair. Right now, it is unclear if this stabilization initiates muscle cell repair, but if it does the next question is how and when such stabilization occurs.
Shauna and husband (Kris Hill) backpacking in Yosemite
Shauna’s academic journey was wrought with hardship, and we are grateful to her for being willing to share her story with us on air. Shauna started undergraduate with an interest in marine biology, but found that college is cost prohibitive. After a two year break, she went back to University of California Long Beach to major in Chemical Engineering, but finally landed on biochemistry. She had a knack for chemistry and loved solving complex puzzles in cellular biology through the lens of protein interactions and biochemical pathways. She began undergraduate research, but her work took a turn as she struggled with homelessness. Homelessness is a growing problem for college students, and has prompted bills targeting the problem of home insecurity for students in California and Washington. However, for Shauna, homelessness was not discussed among fellow students and officials when she attended school. Rather, instead of resources to alleviate her financial hardship, she was met with policy allowances such as permission to sleep in her research lab.
Shauna and her daughter in a bookshop.
Since beginning her PhD at OSU, Shauna has found support here on campus from mentors and her department who have listened and replied with support in the form of University Resources and Services to help her succeed academically, financially, and in personal wellness. Given her past, Shauna now knows the questions to ask about support when seeking the next job, and she is a resource for undergraduates and graduate students who are going through similar life experience.
Hear more about Shauna’s research and personal story this Sunday June 2, 2019 at 7 pm on KBVR Corvallis 88.7FM. Stream the show live or catch the episode as a podcast in the coming weeks.
There’s a good chance you might have touched cadmium today. A heavy metal semi-conductor used in industrial manufacturing, cadmium is found in batteries and in some types of solar panels. Fertilizers and soil also contain cadmium because it is present in small levels in the Earth’s crust. The amount of cadmium in the environment is increasing because of improper disposal of cell phone batteries, contaminating groundwater and soil. This is a problem that impacts people all over the world, particularly in developing countries.
Plants take up cadmium from the soil, which is how exposure through food can occur. Leafy greens like spinach and lettuce can contain high levels of cadmium. From the soil, cadmium can leach into groundwater, contaminating the water supply. Cadmium is also found in a variety of other foods, including chocolate, grains and shellfish, as well as drinking water.
Cadmium has a long half-life, reaching decades, which means that any cadmium you are exposed to will persist in your body for a long time. Once in the body, cadmium ends up in the eyes or can displace minerals with similar chemical properties, such as zinc, copper, iron, and calcium. Displacement can cause grave effects related to the metabolism of those minerals. Cadmium accumulation in the eyes is linked to age-related macular degeneration, and for people in the military and children, elevated cadmium is linked to psychosocial and neurological disorders.
Delia Shelton, a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, uses zebrafish to investigate how cadmium exposure in an individual affects the behavior of the group. Exposing a few individuals to cadmium changes how the group interacts and modifies their response to novel stimuli and environmental landmarks, such as plants. For example, poor vision in a leader might lead a group closer to predators, resulting in the group being more vulnerable to predation.
As part of her post-doctoral research, Delia is asking questions about animal behavior in groups: how does a zebrafish become a leader, how do sick zebrafish influence group behavior, and what are the traits of individuals occupying different social roles? These specific questions are born from larger inquiries about what factors lead to individual animals wielding inordinately large influence on a group’s social dynamic. Can we engineer groups that are resilient to anthropogenic influences on the environment and climate change?
Zebrafish are commonly used in biomedical research because they share greater than 75% similarity with the human genome. Because zebrafish are closely related to humans, we can learn about human biology by studying biological processes in zebrafish. Zebrafish act as a monitoring system for studying the effects of compounds and pollution on development. It is possible to manipulate their vision, olfactory system, level of gene expression, size, and aggression level to study the effects of pollutants, drugs, or diseases. As an added benefit, zebrafish are small and adapt easily to lab conditions. Interestingly, zebrafish are transparent, so they are great for imaging. Zebrafish have the phenomenal ability to regenerate their fins, heart and brain. What has Delia found? Zebrafish exposed to cadmium are bolder and tend to be attracted more to novel stimuli, and they have heightened aggression.
What led Delia to study cadmium toxicity in zebrafish?
As a child, Delia was fascinated by animals and wanted to understand why they do the things they do. As an undergrad, she enjoyed research and pursued internships at Merck pharmaceutical, a zoo consortium, and Indiana University where she worked with Siamese fighting fish. She became intrigued by social behavior, social roles, and leadership. Delia studied the effects of cadmium in grad school at Indiana University, and decided to delve into this area of research further.
Delia began her post-doctoral work after she finished her PhD in 2016. She was awarded an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship to complete a tri-institute collaboration: Oregon State University, Leibniz Institute for Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, Germany, and University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario. She selected the advisors she wanted to work with by visiting labs and interviewing past students. She wanted to find advisors she would work well with and who would help her to accomplish her goals. Delia also outlined specific goals heading into her post-doc about what she wanted to accomplish: publish papers, identify collaborators, expand her funding portfolio, learn about research institutes, and figure out if she wanted to stay in academia.
Research commercialization and future endeavors
During her time at OSU, Delia developed a novel assay to screen multiple aspects of vision, and saw an opportunity to explore commercialization of the assay. She was awarded a grant through the NSF Innovation Corps and has worked closely with OSU Accelerator to pursue commercialization of her assay. Delia is now wrapping up her post-doc, and in the fall, she will begin a tenure track faculty position at University of Tennessee in the Department of Psychology, where she will be directing her lab, Environmental Psychology Innovation Center (E.P.I.C) and teaching! She is actively recruiting graduate students, postdocs, and other ethnusiatic individuals to join her at EPIC.
Please join us tonight as we speak with Delia about her research and navigation of the transition from PhD student to post-doc and onwards to faculty. We will be talking to her about her experience applying for the NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship, how she selected the labs she wanted to join as a post-doc, and her experience working and traveling in India to collect zebrafish samples.
Tune in to KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM or stream the show live on Sunday, April 7th at 7 PM. You can also listen to the episode on our podcast.