Tagged: Women in STEM Toggle Comment Threads | Keyboard Shortcuts

  • richardmitnick 10:57 am on February 1, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Geologist Melodie French, , , , Women in STEM   

    From Rice University: Women in STEM-“Fed grant backs Rice earthquake research” Geologist Melodie French 

    Rice U bloc

    From Rice University

    January 31, 2020

    Jeff Falk

    Mike Williams

    Geologist Melodie French wins National Science Foundation CAREER Award.

    Rice University geologist Melodie French has earned a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to support her investigation of the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.

    Rice University geologist Melodie French is crushing it in her quest to understand the physics responsible for earthquakes.

    The assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary science has earned a prestigious CAREER Award, a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for $600,000 to support her investigation of the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis.

    CAREER awards support the research and educational development of young scholars likely to become leaders in their fields. The grants, among the most competitive awarded by the NSF, go to fewer than 400 scholars each year across all disciplines.

    For French, the award gives her Rice lab the opportunity to study rocks exhumed from subduction zones at plate boundaries that are often the source of megathrust earthquakes and tsunamis. Her lab squeezes rock samples to characterize the strength of the rocks deep underground where the plates meet.

    “Fundamentally, we hope to learn how the material properties of the rocks themselves control where earthquakes happen, how big one might become, what causes an earthquake to sometimes arrest after only a small amount of slip or what allows some to grow quite large,” French said.

    “A lot of geophysics involves putting out instruments to see signals that propagate to the Earth’s surface,” she said. “But we try to understand the properties of the rocks that allow these different phenomena to happen.”

    That generally involves putting rocks under extreme stress. “We squish rocks at different temperatures and pressures and at different rates while measuring force and strain in as many dimensions as we can,” French said. “That gives us a full picture of how the rocks deform under different conditions.”

    The lab conducts experiments on both exposed surface rocks that were once deep within subduction zones and rock acquired by drilling for core samples.

    Rice University geologist Melodie French and graduate student Ben Belzer work with a rock sample. French has been granted a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study the tectonic roots of earthquakes and tsunamis. Photo by Jeff Fitlow.

    I’m working with (Rice Professor) Juli Morgan on a subduction zone off of New Zealand where they drilled through part of the fault zone and brought rock up from about 500 meters deep,” French said. “But many big earthquakes happen much deeper than we could ever drill. So we need to go into the field to find ancient subduction rocks that have somehow managed to come to the surface.”

    French is not sure if it will ever be possible to accurately predict earthquakes. “But one thing we can do is create better hazard maps to help us understand what regions should be prepared for quakes,” she said.

    French is a native of Maine who earned her bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College, a master’s at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University.

    The award, co-funded by the NSF’s Geophysics, Tectonics and Marine Geology and Geophysics programs, will also provide inquiry-based educational opportunities in scientific instrument design and use to K-12 students as well as undergraduate and graduate-level students.

    Geologist Melodie French sets up an experiment in her Rice University lab. She has won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, a prestigious grant given to young scholars likely to become leaders in their fields. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

    See the full article here .


    Stem Education Coalition

    Rice U campus

    In his 1912 inaugural address, Rice University president Edgar Odell Lovett set forth an ambitious vision for a great research university in Houston, Texas; one dedicated to excellence across the range of human endeavor. With this bold beginning in mind, and with Rice’s centennial approaching, it is time to ask again what we aspire to in a dynamic and shrinking world in which education and the production of knowledge will play an even greater role. What shall our vision be for Rice as we prepare for its second century, and how ought we to advance over the next decade?

    This was the fundamental question posed in the Call to Conversation, a document released to the Rice community in summer 2005. The Call to Conversation asked us to reexamine many aspects of our enterprise, from our fundamental mission and aspirations to the manner in which we define and achieve excellence. It identified the pressures of a constantly changing and increasingly competitive landscape; it asked us to assess honestly Rice’s comparative strengths and weaknesses; and it called on us to define strategic priorities for the future, an effort that will be a focus of the next phase of this process.

  • richardmitnick 11:32 am on January 30, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Demystifying artificial intelligence", Anyone can learn to use AI to make a better world., “She’s a natural leader who knows how to get people excited and organized.”, , Natalie Lao, Women in STEM   

    From MIT News: Women in STEM- “Demystifying artificial intelligence” Natalie Lao 

    MIT News

    From MIT News

    January 29, 2020
    Kim Martineau | MIT Quest for Intelligence

    A PhD student in the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Natalie Lao has co-founded startups aimed at democratizing artificial intelligence and using AI to protect democracy by fighting false and misleading information. Photo: Andrew Tsai

    Doctoral candidate Natalie Lao wants to show that anyone can learn to use AI to make a better world.

    Natalie Lao was set on becoming an electrical engineer, like her parents, until she stumbled on course 6.S192 (Making Mobile Apps), taught by Professor Hal Abelson. Here was a blueprint for turning a smartphone into a tool for finding clean drinking water, or sorting pictures of faces, or doing just about anything. “I thought, I wish people knew building tech could be like this,” she said on a recent afternoon, taking a break from writing her dissertation.

    After shifting her focus as an MIT undergraduate to computer science, Lao joined Abelson’s lab, which was busy spreading its App Inventor platform and do-it-yourself philosophy to high school students around the world. App Inventor set Lao on her path to making it easy for anyone, from farmers to factory workers, to understand AI, and use it to improve their lives. Now in the third and final year of her PhD at MIT, Lao is also the co-founder of an AI startup to fight fake news, and the co-producer of a series of machine learning tutorials. It’s all part of her mission to help people find the creator and free thinker within.

    “She just radiates optimism and enthusiasm,” says Abelson, the Class of 1922 Professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). “She’s a natural leader who knows how to get people excited and organized.”

    Lao was immersed in App Inventor, building modules to teach students to build face recognition models and store data in the cloud. Then, in 2016, the surprise election of Donald Trump to U.S. president forced her to think more critically about technology. She was less upset by Trump the politician as by revelations that social media-fueled propaganda and misinformation had tilted the race in Trump’s favor.

    When a friend, Elan Pavlov, a then-EECS postdoc, approached Lao about an idea he had for building a platform to combat fake news she was ready to dive in. Having grown up in rural, urban, and suburban parts of Tennessee and Ohio, Lao was used to hearing a range of political views. But now, social platforms were filtering those voices, and amplifying polarizing, often inaccurate, content. Pavlov’s idea stood out for its focus on identifying the people (and bots) spreading misinformation and disinformation, rather than the content itself.

    Lao recruited two friends, Andrew Tsai and Keertan Kini, to help build out the platform. They would later name it HINTS, or Human Interaction News Trustworthiness System, after an early page-ranking algorithm called HITS.

    In a demo last fall, Lao and Tsai highlighted a network of Twitter accounts that had shared conspiracy theories tied to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi under the hashtag #khashoggi. When they looked at what else those accounts had shared, they found streams of other false and misleading news. Topping the list was the incorrect claim that then-U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke had funded a caravan of migrants headed for the U.S. border.

    The HINTS team hopes that by flagging the networks that spread fake news, social platforms will move faster to remove fake accounts and contain the propagation of misinformation.

    “Fake news doesn’t have any impact in a vacuum — real people have to read it and share it,” says Lao. “No matter what your political views, we’re concerned about facts and democracy. There’s fake news being pushed on both sides and it’s making the political divide even worse.”

    The HINTS team is now working with its first client, a media analytics firm based in Virginia. As CEO, Lao has called on her experience as a project manager from internships at GE, Google, and Apple, where, most recently, she led the rollout of the iPhone XR display screen. “I’ve never met anyone as good at managing people and tech,” says Tsai, an EECS master’s student who met Lao as a lab assistant for Abelson’s course 6.S198 (Deep Learning Practicum), and is now CTO of HINTS.

    As HINTS was getting off the ground, Lao co-founded a second startup, ML Tidbits, with EECS graduate student Harini Suresh. While learning to build AI models, both women grew frustrated by the tutorials on YouTube. “They were full of formulas, with very few pictures,” she says. “Even if the material isn’t that hard, it looks hard!”

    Convinced they could do better, Lao and Suresh reimagined a menu of intimidating topics like unsupervised learning and model-fitting as a set of inviting side dishes. Sitting cross-legged on a table, as if by a cozy fire, Lao and Suresh put viewers at ease with real-world anecdotes, playful drawings, and an engaging tone. Six more videos, funded by MIT Sandbox and the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab, are planned for release this spring.

    If her audience learns one thing from ML Tidbits, Lao says, she hopes it’s that anyone can learn the basic underpinnings of AI. “I want them to think, ‘Oh, this technology isn’t just something that professional computer scientists or mathematicians can touch. I can learn it too. I can form educated opinions and join discussions about how it should be used and regulated.’ ”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    MIT Seal

    The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

    MIT Campus

  • richardmitnick 12:04 pm on January 22, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Caitlin Clements, , , Women in STEM   

    From University of Pennsylvania: Women in STEM-“A Spectrum of Possibilities” Caitlin Clements 

    U Penn bloc

    From University of Pennsylvania

    January 16, 2020
    Karen Brooks

    A doctoral candidate in psychology, puts autism-related lore to the test.

    Caitlin Clements, a doctoral candidate in psychology

    U Pennsylvania OMNIA-All things Penn Arts and Sciences

    “Is this my fault?”

    It’s the question Caitlin Clements has heard more than any other since she began studying autism a decade ago. Currently completing a year-long clinical internship at SUNY Upstate Medical University, the Ph.D. candidate in psychology counsels families with children who have developmental or psychological disorders.

    “When I see parents going through the early diagnostic process for autism, so often, they ask me why this happened and what they did wrong,” Clements says. “While we know they are not to blame, there is so much we don’t know. I wish I could give them more concrete answers—that’s what motivates me to keep working.”

    Before beginning her undergraduate degree at Yale, Clements had only known one person with autism: a family friend’s son. The child’s behavior had seemed different for years, and she jumped at the opportunity to learn more about it by working in an autism-focused lab. Her commitment to exploring the condition hasn’t wavered since.

    Supervised by faculty advisor Robert Schultz—scientific director of the Center for Autism Research, a collaboration between Penn and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia—Clements has studied the relationship between IQ and autism across patients of varying ages and abilities. Recently, she has examined whether common cognitive tests like the Differential Ability Scales-II (DAS-II) test, which were developed based on neurotypical children, accurately assess the intellectual capacities of autistic children.

    “When using the DAS-II with autistic kids, clinicians sometimes place a greater emphasis on nonverbal scores, thinking that maybe their verbal scores are not as meaningful because they often have lower language levels than expected for their age,” Clements says. “This seems like good intuition, but as clinicians, we have made these judgments without having real data to support them.”

    Clements accessed data from the 2,000 neurotypical children used in the development of the DAS-II as well as from a study applying the test to 1,200 children with autism. In comparing their verbal and nonverbal subtest scores, she discovered that the “rule of thumb” that a child with autism has stronger nonverbal than verbal skills is, in fact, a bit of medical lore.

    “It turns out that both verbal and nonverbal subtests work really well in autistic populations and capture the same things as in the normative sample. A higher nonverbal than verbal score barely predicts autism better than chance,” she says.

    The study revealed another unexpected finding: Performance patterns on the test’s spatial components differed significantly between children with and without autism. Those with the condition excelled at pattern construction—an exercise in which they copied a pattern using colored blocks—but struggled with recall of design, an exercise that involved remembering and reproducing abstract designs.

    “We are in the process of analyzing what these results mean and looking at whether there is a bias, and if that bias is an overprediction or underprediction of these kids’ abilities,” she explains.

    Although autism is her primary focus, Clements also maintains an interest in depression—a condition she studied in 2018 as a Fulbright Scholar at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. Working under psychiatrist Mikael Landén, she aimed to identify genetic causes for severe depression.

    “Like with autism, there are a lot of individual differences in clinical presentation among people with depression. A general label of ‘depression’ doesn’t capture these important differences, just like a general label of ‘autism’ doesn’t, either,” she says. “People with severe symptoms could have very different underlying biology than those with milder symptoms.”

    To ensure a sample of individuals with truly severe depression, Clements, Landén, and their team selected those who had received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), a “last-ditch” treatment used only with patients who had not responded to any other therapies. They then performed a genome-wide association, an approach that involves scanning markers across many complete sets of DNA to pinpoint genetic variations associated with a particular disease—and detected a potential culprit on a region of one particular chromosome.

    “The landscape for the genetics of depression is no longer as bleak as it once was,” she notes. “What’s exciting about this paper’s approach is that a giant international consortium is now trying to do what we’ve done in Sweden all over the world, building up much larger samples of individuals who have received ECT to gain more traction in analyzing a more homogeneous subset. Identifying more severely affected subsets is a good direction for researchers studying autism to go, as well.”

    Clements defended her dissertation, “Phenotypic and genotypic heterogeneity of autism spectrum disorders,” last spring and will graduate when she finishes her internship in August. She is applying for postdoc positions in which she can continue to study the biological basis of autism and plans to pursue a career in academic research.

    “I like to see patients because it keeps me in touch with clinical issues,” she says, “but gaining knowledge about why a child has autism is cathartic for families, and my priority is to do research that helps answer these questions.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    U Penn campus

    Academic life at Penn is unparalleled, with 100 countries and every U.S. state represented in one of the Ivy League’s most diverse student bodies. Consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the country, Penn enrolls 10,000 undergraduate students and welcomes an additional 10,000 students to our world-renowned graduate and professional schools.

    Penn’s award-winning educators and scholars encourage students to pursue inquiry and discovery, follow their passions, and address the world’s most challenging problems through an interdisciplinary approach.

  • richardmitnick 11:42 am on January 22, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: “I like the biology-as-computer analogy so much.”, Create artificial systems from parts already found in nature, Jesse Tordoff, , Organoids- artificially grown organs, President of Yale University’s Women in Computer Science Club, She has relished her new role as a mentor in her program and lab., , Tordoff had trouble adjusting to grad school and she was plagued with imposter syndrome [defined in post] in her early years., Women in STEM   

    From MIT News: Women in STEM “Hacking life inside and outside the laboratory” Jesse Tordoff 

    MIT News

    From MIT News

    January 21, 2020
    Bridget E. Begg | Office of Graduate Education

    Jesse Tordoff. Image: Gretchen Ertl

    Managing her own synthetic biology project helped graduate student Jesse Tordoff overcome imposter syndrome and hit her stride.

    Jesse Tordoff makes cells form unusual patterns. “I have the coolest research project ever, which has the big, broad goal of controlling the shapes that cells grow into.” Her signature shape? Polka dots.

    “The idea is that [the process is] synthetic, outside of the natural developmental pathways,” she explains. “My project mostly involves giving the cells genetic circuits to express cell-to-cell adhesion molecules differently.”

    A fifth-year graduate student in the Computational and Systems Biology program, Tordoff is passionate about synthetic biology, which aims to create artificial systems from parts already found in nature — in her case, harnessing nature’s ability to form shapes as complex and intricate as the human body.

    The field has implications for developing organoids, artificially grown organs, and even things as fantastic as living materials, where engineered structures may one day be able to grow and heal themselves.

    Cells as computers

    Tordoff’s interest in science was fostered at an early age by her parents, who are both scientists at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. She recalls her father teaching her QBasic, a programming language, and her mother buying her a used light microscope that Tordoff used to observe microorganisms in pond water in her free time. She also grew to love entomology. “It’s official, I’m a nerd,” she laughs.

    In college, Tordoff turned to computer science, where she became enamored with the creative process of coding and solving problems. She was also president of Yale University’s Women in Computer Science Club, an experience that encouraged her to reflect on the gender disparities in technical fields and to appreciate her parents’ support in cultivating her early interests in math and science.

    She assumed she would seek a career in programming, but eventually Tordoff returned to bugs — this time cataloguing species in a part-time data entry job in college. Around the same time, she was introduced to the field of synthetic biology, and she realized that it perfectly merged her interests in computer science and the natural world.

    “I like the biology-as-computer analogy so much,” she says. “A computer runs on binary code, and you can control pretty much every part of it. You can make programs that are human-readable and human-interpretable. Cells are obviously way more complicated; they’re not built from the ground up the way computers are built from the ground up — not yet! But they do work on logic the same way computers do, just with much more complexity and very different mechanisms underneath.”

    Becoming the expert

    The wealth of synthetic biology labs attracted Tordoff to MIT for graduate school, and she is thrilled to be here. “People get jaded about it, but we’re at the best research institute in the entire world! It sounds pretentious when you say it like that, but then somehow it’s more pretentious to say it’s not a big deal. It’s a huge deal!” she says.

    Despite an unwavering enthusiasm for research, Tordoff had trouble adjusting to grad school, and she was plagued with imposter syndrome [One doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.] in her early years. Over her graduate career, these anxieties have subsided, but she often reflects on how she overcame them.

    “A big part of getting over my imposter syndrome was having my own research project, which I think is the best thing about grad school,” she says. “I remember in my first year, all of my cohort cared so much about machine learning, and I did not feel called to the machine learning path. At the time, I thought ‘I’m so dumb, I can’t understand that it’s interesting.’ And now I realize that it’s actually just not my scene! It’s not as cool to me.”

    The turning point came when she began working in the lab of Ron Weiss, a professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science. After six months she got her own project, and she alone was responsible for designing and executing her experiments. “That made me feel like I was the expert — and it was true. And it made me realize that there is something that I’m good at. Realistically, there are a million ways to be good at something, and being honest about not understanding something is way more important than being the smartest person in the room,” Tordoff says.

    It’s a lesson that she tries to pass on to first-year students, technicians, and laboratory rotation students, and she has relished her new role as a mentor in her program and lab. “Partially, I see in their eyes that … they may be dealing with some of the anxiety issues that I was, too. I survived it, and I survived it because everyone was nice to me and supported me, so I feel like it’s sort of a pay-it-forward thing,” she says.

    A life outside the lab

    These days, Tordoff has hit her stride. Living in Inman Square, she enjoys walking or biking to lab, getting takeout from Punjabi Dhaba, and watching Netflix with her boyfriend, Sam. In fact, she finds time for many activities outside of lab and is surprised at the work-life balance she’s managed to achieve. “I thought that you didn’t have any free time in grad school. But I have so much free time to do stuff that I like,” she says. “This weekend, I chilled and watched ‘Great British Bakeoff’ for hours. That was the biggest surprise for me in grad school. When I work late it’s because I want to, not because I have to.”

    Tordoff is also a passionate crafter. Making resin jewelry is one of her favorite pastimes — a hobby that reflects her lifelong love of nature. She sometimes wears her creations, which can contain pressed flowers and leaves and sometimes acorns covered in glitter.

    Tordoff is grateful for her supportive family, friends, and labmates for helping her to find her niche in graduate school as well as always reminding her that she is more than her work. Adopting this mindset has allowed her to thrive both inside and outside of the laboratory. Their support has also given her a passion for mentorship; she encourages other young, struggling graduate students to be patient, realize that they are smart, and most importantly, learn to fail.

    “You just have to keep doing it! That’s the hardest lesson, for sure.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    MIT Seal

    The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

    MIT Campus

  • richardmitnick 1:07 pm on January 14, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A pursuit that stretches from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes with all manner of ground-based observatories in between., , , , , , , , , , The astronomer missed her Nobel Prize [in my view a crime of old white men], , Women in STEM   

    From The New York Times: Women in STEM-“Vera Rubin Gets a Telescope of Her Own” 

    From The New York Times

    Jan. 11, 2020
    Dennis Overbye

    The astronomer missed her Nobel Prize [in my view a crime of old white men]. But she now has a whole new observatory to her name.

    The astronomer Vera Rubin at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., in 1965.Credit: via Carnegie Institution of Science

    Vera Rubin measuring spectra, worked on Dark Matter (Emilio Segre Visual Archives AIP SPL)

    Vera Rubin, with Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (DTM) image tube spectrograph attached to the Kitt Peak 84-inch telescope, 1970.

    Vera Rubin, a young astronomer at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was on the run in the 1970s when she overturned the universe.

    Seeking refuge from the controversies and ego-bashing of cosmology, she decided to immerse herself in the pearly swirlings of spiral galaxies, only to find that there was more to them than she and almost everybody else had thought.

    For millenniums, humans had presumed that when we gaze out at the universe, what we see is a fair representation of reality. Dr. Rubin, with her colleague Kent Ford, discovered that was not true. The universe — all those galaxies and the vast spaces between — was awash with dark matter, an invisible something with sufficient gravity to mold the large scale structures of the universe.

    Fritz Zwicky discovered Dark Matter when observing the movement of the Coma Cluster., Vera Rubin a Woman in STEM denied the Nobel, did most of the work on Dark Matter.

    Coma cluster via NASA/ESA Hubble, the original example of Dark Matter discovered during observations by Fritz Zwicky and confirmed by Vera Rubin

    Esteemed astronomers dismissed her findings at first. But half a century later, the still futile quest to identify this “dark matter” is a burning question for both particle physics and astronomy. It’s a pursuit that stretches from underground particle colliders to orbiting telescopes, with all manner of ground-based observatories in between.

    Last week the National Science Foundation announced that the newest observatory joining this cause will be named the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. The name replaces the mouthful by which the project was previously known: the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, or L.S.S.T.

    The Vera C. Rubin Observatory, formerly the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, under construction in Cerro Pachon, Chile. Credit: LSST Project/NSF/AURA

    The Rubin Observatory joins a handful of smaller astronomical facilities that have been named for women. The Maria Mitchell Observatories in Nantucket, Mass., is named after the first American woman to discover a comet. The Swope telescope, at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, is named after Henrietta Swope, who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the early 20th century. She used a relationship between the luminosities and periodicities of variable stars to measure distances to galaxies.

    And finally there is the new Annie Maunder Astrographic Telescope at the venerable Royal Greenwich Observatory, just outside London. It is named after Annie Maunder, who with her husband Walter made pioneering observations of the sun and solar cycle of sunspots in the late 1800s.

    Heros of science, all of them.

    In a field known for grandiloquent statements and frightening intellectual ambitions, Dr. Rubin was known for simple statements about how stupid we are. In an interview in 2000 posted on the American Museum of Natural History website, Dr. Rubin said:

    “In a spiral galaxy, the ratio of dark-to-light matter is about a factor of 10. That’s probably a good number for the ratio of our ignorance to knowledge. We’re out of kindergarten, but only in about third grade.”

    Once upon a time cosmologists thought there might be enough dark matter in the universe for its gravity to stop the expansion of the cosmos and pull everything back together in a Big Crunch. Then astronomers discovered an even more exotic feature of the universe, now called dark energy, which is pushing the galaxies apart and speeding up the cosmic expansion.

    Dark Energy Survey

    Dark Energy Camera [DECam], built at FNAL

    NOAO/CTIO Victor M Blanco 4m Telescope which houses the DECam at Cerro Tololo, Chile, housing DECam at an altitude of 7200 feet

    Timeline of the Inflationary Universe WMAP

    The Dark Energy Survey (DES) is an international, collaborative effort to map hundreds of millions of galaxies, detect thousands of supernovae, and find patterns of cosmic structure that will reveal the nature of the mysterious dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of our Universe. DES began searching the Southern skies on August 31, 2013.

    According to Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, gravity should lead to a slowing of the cosmic expansion. Yet, in 1998, two teams of astronomers studying distant supernovae made the remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. To explain cosmic acceleration, cosmologists are faced with two possibilities: either 70% of the universe exists in an exotic form, now called dark energy, that exhibits a gravitational force opposite to the attractive gravity of ordinary matter, or General Relativity must be replaced by a new theory of gravity on cosmic scales.

    DES is designed to probe the origin of the accelerating universe and help uncover the nature of dark energy by measuring the 14-billion-year history of cosmic expansion with high precision. More than 400 scientists from over 25 institutions in the United States, Spain, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Switzerland, and Australia are working on the project. The collaboration built and is using an extremely sensitive 570-Megapixel digital camera, DECam, mounted on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, high in the Chilean Andes, to carry out the project.

    Over six years (2013-2019), the DES collaboration used 758 nights of observation to carry out a deep, wide-area survey to record information from 300 million galaxies that are billions of light-years from Earth. The survey imaged 5000 square degrees of the southern sky in five optical filters to obtain detailed information about each galaxy. A fraction of the survey time is used to observe smaller patches of sky roughly once a week to discover and study thousands of supernovae and other astrophysical transients.

    These discoveries have transformed cosmology still further, into a kind of Marvel Comics super-struggle between invisible, titanic forces. One, dark matter, pulls everything together toward its final doom; the other, dark energy, pushes everything apart toward the ultimate dispersal, some times termed the Big Rip. The rest of us, the terrified populace looking up at this cosmic war, are bystanders, made of atoms, which are definitely a minority population of the universe. Which force will ultimately prevail? Which side should we root for?

    Until recently the money was on dark energy and eventual dissolution of the cosmos. But lately cracks have appeared in the data, suggesting that additional forces may be at work beneath the surface of our present knowledge.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

  • richardmitnick 8:43 am on January 12, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Astronomers find wandering black holes in dwarf galaxies", , Astrophysicist Amy Reines, , , , , , Women in STEM   

    From Montana State University via Earth Sky: Women in STEM-“Astronomers find wandering black holes in dwarf galaxies” Astrophysicist Amy Reines 





    January 10, 2020

    Eleanor Imster

    They found massive black holes in 13 dwarf galaxies, which are now among the smallest galaxies known to host such massive black holes. In roughly half the galaxies, the black hole isn’t at the galactic center, but instead is “wandering.”

    Artist’s concept of a dwarf galaxy, its shape distorted, most likely by a past interaction with another galaxy, and a massive black hole in its outskirts (bright spot, far right). Image via Sophia Dagnello/ NRAO/ AUI/ NSF.


    It’s an amazing aspect of our knowledge of the modern universe that – everywhere we look – large galaxies have supermassive black holes at their centers. Now a team of astronomers has spotted 13 massive black holes in dwarf galaxies, located less than a billion light-years from Earth. All 13 galaxies are more than 100 times less massive than our own Milky Way. That makes them among the smallest galaxies known to host massive black holes. The astronomers announced the discovery at the American Astronomical Society’s recent meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii (January 4-8, 2020).

    The astronomers estimate that the black holes in these smaller galaxies average about 400,000 times the mass of our sun. That’s in contrast to the supermassive black hole at our galaxy’s center, which is about 4 million times the sun’s mass.

    Astrophysicist Amy Reines. Image via Montana State University.

    Amy Reines of Montana State University led the new study, which was published January 3 in the peer-reviewed The Astrophysical Journal. She said in a statement:

    ” The new … observations revealed that 13 of these galaxies have strong evidence for a massive black hole that is actively consuming surrounding material.

    We were very surprised to find that, in roughly half of those 13 galaxies, the black hole is not at the center of the galaxy, unlike the case in larger galaxies.”

    Visible-light images of dwarf galaxies now shown to have massive black holes. Center illustration is an artist’s concept of the rotating disk of material falling into such a black hole, and the jets of material propelled outward. Image via Sophia Dagnello/ NRAO/ AUI/ NSF/ DECaLS survey/ CTIO.


    The astronomers used the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array (VLA) – on the Plains of San Agustin in central New Mexico – to make the discovery.

    NRAO/Karl V Jansky Expanded Very Large Array, on the Plains of San Agustin fifty miles west of Socorro, NM, USA, at an elevation of 6970 ft (2124 m)

    They said their finding suggests that these dwarf galaxies likely merged with other galaxies earlier in their history. The theory is consistent with computer simulations predicting that roughly half of the massive black holes in dwarf galaxies will be found wandering in the outskirts of their galaxies. Reines said:

    “This work has taught us that we must broaden our searches for massive black holes in dwarf galaxies beyond their centers to get a more complete understanding of the population and learn what mechanisms helped form the first massive black holes in the early universe.

    We hope that studying them and their galaxies will give us insights into how similar black holes in the early universe formed and then grew, through galactic mergers over billions of years, producing the supermassive black holes we see in larger galaxies today, with masses of many millions or billions of times that of the sun.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    Deborah Byrd created the EarthSky radio series in 1991 and founded EarthSky.org in 1994. Today, she serves as Editor-in-Chief of this website. She has won a galaxy of awards from the broadcasting and science communities, including having an asteroid named 3505 Byrd in her honor. A science communicator and educator since 1976, Byrd believes in science as a force for good in the world and a vital tool for the 21st century. “Being an EarthSky editor is like hosting a big global party for cool nature-lovers,” she says.

    MSU provided

    Montana State University (MSU) is a public land-grant research university in Bozeman, Montana. It is the state’s largest university.[5] MSU offers baccalaureate degrees in 51 fields, master’s degrees in 41 fields, and doctoral degrees in 18 fields through its nine colleges. The university regularly reports annual research expenditures in excess of $100 million, including a record $138.8 million in 2019.

    More than 16,700 students attend MSU,[6] and the university faculty numbers, including department heads, are 602 full-time and 460 part-time.[7] The university’s main campus in Bozeman is home to KUSM television, KGLT radio, and the Museum of the Rockies. MSU provides outreach services to citizens and communities statewide through its agricultural experiment station and 60 county and reservation extension offices.

  • richardmitnick 2:19 pm on January 11, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Dr Sandra Faber, , Women in STEM   

    From UC Santa Cruz: Women in STEM-“Astronomer Sandra Faber awarded Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold Medal” 

    UC Santa Cruz

    From UC Santa Cruz

    January 10, 2020
    Tim Stephens

    Sandra Faber (photo by Steve Kurtz)

    The Royal Astronomical Society has awarded its Gold Medal in Astronomy to Sandra Faber, professor emerita of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz.

    The award recognizes Faber “for her outstanding research on the formation, structure and evolution of galaxies, and for her contributions to the optical design of the Keck Telescopes and other novel astronomical instruments.”

    The Gold Medal is the Royal Astronomical Society’s highest award, often given in recognition of a lifetime’s work. Previous recipients include Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Steven Hawking, Vera Rubin, and Donald Osterbrock, a UCSC astronomer who received the award in 1997.

    Faber is one of the leaders world-wide in the study of galaxies, with an enduring legacy of contributions across a wide range of topics in galaxy structure, galaxy evolution, and cosmology.

    In 1976 she discovered, with Robert Jackson, a relation (known as the Faber-Jackson relation) between the central velocity dispersion of stars in elliptical galaxies and the mass of the galaxy. In 1979 she wrote an influential review article with John S. Gallagher that is widely regarded as a turning point in the debate about the importance of dark matter in the universe.

    Faber was an early pioneer (together with George Blumenthal and Joel Primack at UCSC and Martin Rees at Cambridge) in developing a model of galaxy formation based on cold dark matter, which now underpins our current understanding of galaxy and cluster formation.

    Lambda-Cold Dark Matter, Accelerated Expansion of the Universe, Big Bang-Inflation (timeline of the universe) Date 2010 Credit: Alex Mittelmann Cold creation

    She has played important roles in a remarkable number of collaborative programs that have led to further breakthroughs, including the discovery of a mass concentration responsible for large-scale flows in the nearby universe (the ‘Great Attractor’).

    Great Attractor galaxies

    Laniakea supercluster. From Nature The Laniakea supercluster of galaxies R. Brent Tully, Hélène Courtois, Yehuda Hoffman & Daniel Pomarède at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7516/full/nature13674.html. Milky Way is the red dot.

    With Douglas Richstone, she led the team that used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to identify a correlation between black hole mass and the velocity dispersion of stars in the host galaxy bulge.

    Faber contributed to the optical design of the Keck Telescopes and led the construction of the multi-object DEIMOS spectrograph for the Keck. She and Jon Holtzman played a major role in diagnosing Hubble’s optical flaw and executing the subsequent repair. With Henry Ferguson, she led the CANDELS deep imaging survey of distant galaxies with HST, the largest project in the history of the mission.


    NASA COSTAR instalation

    Keck/DEIMOS on Keck 2

    Keck 2 telescope Maunakea Hawaii USA, 4,207 m (13,802 ft)

    Faber joined the faculty at UC Santa Cruz in 1972 and in 1995 was made University Professor, the highest honor for faculty in the UC system. She received the National Medal of Science in 2013, the Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2017, and the American Philosophical Society’s Magellanic Premium Medal in 2019, among many other awards and honors in recognition of her accomplishments.

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    UCSC is the home base for the Lick Observatory.

    Most photos by Laurie Hatch

    UCSC Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)


    UC Observatories Lick Autmated Planet Finder, fully robotic 2.4-meter optical telescope at Lick Observatory, situated on the summit of Mount Hamilton, east of San Jose, California, USA

    The UCO Lick C. Donald Shane telescope is a 120-inch (3.0-meter) reflecting telescope located at the Lick Observatory, Mt Hamilton, in San Jose, California, Altitude 1,283 m (4,209 ft)

    UC Santa Cruz campus
    The University of California, Santa Cruz opened in 1965 and grew, one college at a time, to its current (2008-09) enrollment of more than 16,000 students. Undergraduates pursue more than 60 majors supervised by divisional deans of humanities, physical & biological sciences, social sciences, and arts. Graduate students work toward graduate certificates, master’s degrees, or doctoral degrees in more than 30 academic fields under the supervision of the divisional and graduate deans. The dean of the Jack Baskin School of Engineering oversees the campus’s undergraduate and graduate engineering programs.

    UCO UCSC Lick Observatory’s Great Lick 91-centimeter (36-inch) telescope housed in the South (large) Dome of main building

  • richardmitnick 10:06 am on January 10, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Julia Ortony, , , Self-assembling nanostructures, Women in STEM   

    From MIT News: Women in STEM- “Julia Ortony: Concocting nanomaterials for energy and environmental applications” 

    MIT News

    From MIT News

    January 9, 2020
    Leda Zimmerman | MIT Energy Initiative

    Julia Ortony is the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

    Assistant Professor Julia Ortony (right) and graduate student William Lindemann discuss his experiments on self-assembling nanofibers. Work at the Ortony lab focuses on molecular design and synthesis to create new soft nanomaterials for tackling problems related to energy and the environment. Photo: Lillie Paquette/School of Engineering

    The MIT assistant professor is entranced by the beauty she finds pursuing chemistry.

    A molecular engineer, Julia Ortony performs a contemporary version of alchemy.

    “I take powder made up of disorganized, tiny molecules, and after mixing it up with water, the material in the solution zips itself up into threads 5 nanometers thick — about 100 times smaller than the wavelength of visible light,” says Ortony, the Finmeccanica Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Every time we make one of these nanofibers, I am amazed to see it.”

    But for Ortony, the fascination doesn’t simply concern the way these novel structures self-assemble, a product of the interaction between a powder’s molecular geometry and water. She is plumbing the potential of these nanomaterials for use in renewable energy and environmental remediation technologies, including promising new approaches to water purification and the photocatalytic production of fuel.

    Tuning molecular properties

    Ortony’s current research agenda emerged from a decade of work into the behavior of a class of carbon-based molecular materials that can range from liquid to solid.

    During doctoral work at the University of California at Santa Barbara, she used magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy to make spatially precise measurements of atomic movement within molecules, and of the interactions between molecules. At Northwestern University, where she was a postdoc, Ortony focused this tool on self-assembling nanomaterials that were biologically based, in research aimed at potential biomedical applications such as cell scaffolding and regenerative medicine.

    “With MR spectroscopy, I investigated how atoms move and jiggle within an assembled nanostructure,” she says. Her research revealed that the surface of the nanofiber acted like a viscous liquid, but as one probed further inward, it behaved like a solid. Through molecular design, it became possible to tune the speed at which molecules that make up a nanofiber move.

    A door had opened for Ortony. “We can now use state-of-matter as a knob to tune nanofiber properties,” she says. “For the first time, we can design self-assembling nanostructures, using slow or fast internal molecular dynamics to determine their key behaviors.”

    Slowing down the dance

    When she arrived at MIT in 2015, Ortony was determined to tame and train molecules for nonbiological applications of self-assembling “soft” materials.

    “Self-assembling molecules tend to be very dynamic, where they dance around each other, jiggling all the time and coming and going from their assembly,” she explains. “But we noticed that when molecules stick strongly to each other, their dynamics get slow, and their behavior is quite tunable.” The challenge, though, was to synthesize nanostructures in nonbiological molecules that could achieve these strong interactions.

    “My hypothesis coming to MIT was that if we could tune the dynamics of small molecules in water and really slow them down, we should be able to make self-assembled nanofibers that behave like a solid and are viable outside of water,” says Ortony.

    Her efforts to understand and control such materials are now starting to pay off.

    “We’ve developed unique, molecular nanostructures that self-assemble, are stable in both water and air, and — since they’re so tiny — have extremely high surface areas,” she says. Since the nanostructure surface is where chemical interactions with other substances take place, Ortony has leapt to exploit this feature of her creations — focusing in particular on their potential in environmental and energy applications.

    Clean water and fuel from sunlight

    One key venture, supported by Ortony’s Professor Amar G. Bose Fellowship, involves water purification. The problem of toxin-laden drinking water affects tens of millions of people in underdeveloped nations. Ortony’s research group is developing nanofibers that can grab deadly metals such as arsenic out of such water. The chemical groups she attaches to nanofibers are strong, stable in air, and in recent tests “remove all arsenic down to low, nearly undetectable levels,” says Ortony.

    She believes an inexpensive textile made from nanofibers would be a welcome alternative to the large, expensive filtration systems currently deployed in places like Bangladesh, where arsenic-tainted water poses dire threats to large populations.

    “Moving forward, we would like to chelate arsenic, lead, or any environmental contaminant from water using a solid textile fabric made from these fibers,” she says.

    In another research thrust, Ortony says, “My dream is to make chemical fuels from solar energy.” Her lab is designing nanostructures with molecules that act as antennas for sunlight. These structures, exposed to and energized by light, interact with a catalyst in water to reduce carbon dioxide to different gases that could be captured for use as fuel.

    In recent studies, the Ortony lab found that it is possible to design these catalytic nanostructure systems to be stable in water under ultraviolet irradiation for long periods of time. “We tuned our nanomaterial so that it did not break down, which is essential for a photocatalytic system,” says Ortony.

    Students dive in

    While Ortony’s technologies are still in the earliest stages, her approach to problems of energy and the environment are already drawing student enthusiasts.

    Dae-Yoon Kim, a postdoc in the Ortony lab, won the 2018 Glenn H. Brown Prize from the International Liquid Crystal Society for his work on synthesized photo-responsive materials and started a tenure track position at the Korea Institute of Science and Technology this fall. Ortony also mentors Ty Christoff-Tempesta, a DMSE doctoral candidate, who was recently awarded a Martin Fellowship for Sustainability. Christoff-Tempesta hopes to design nanoscale fibers that assemble and disassemble in water to create environmentally sustainable materials. And Cynthia Lo ’18 won a best-senior-thesis award for work with Ortony on nanostructures that interact with light and self-assemble in water, work that will soon be published. She is “my superstar MIT Energy Initiative UROP [undergraduate researcher],” says Ortony.

    Ortony hopes to share her sense of wonder about materials science not just with students in her group, but also with those in her classes. “When I was an undergraduate, I was blown away at the sheer ability to make a molecule and confirm its structure,” she says. With her new lab-based course for grad students — 3.65 (Soft Matter Characterization) — Ortony says she can teach about “all the interests that drive my research.”

    While she is passionate about using her discoveries to solve critical problems, she remains entranced by the beauty she finds pursuing chemistry. Fascinated by science starting in childhood, Ortony says she sought out every available class in chemistry, “learning everything from beginning to end, and discovering that I loved organic and physical chemistry, and molecules in general.”

    Today, she says, she finds joy working with her “creative, resourceful, and motivated” students. She celebrates with them “when experiments confirm hypotheses, and it’s a breakthrough and it’s thrilling,” and reassures them “when they come with a problem, and I can let them know it will be thrilling soon.”

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    MIT Seal

    The mission of MIT is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology, and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the twenty-first century. We seek to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.

    MIT Campus

  • richardmitnick 10:30 am on January 9, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Electrons and positrons in an optimised stellarator", , At KIT Wendelstein a hydrogen plasma is used to investigate how energy can be generated by nuclear fusion reactions., Confine a matter-antimatter plasma in a magnetic cage of a small optimised stellarator., Eve Stenson, , KIT Wendelstein 7-AS built in built in Greifswald Germany, , New idea: APEX-D electron-positron plasma trap., , The APEX collaboration, The research group “Electrons and Positrons in an Optimised Stellarator”, Women in STEM   

    From Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics: Women in STEM-“Electrons and positrons in an optimised stellarator” Eve Stenson 

    MPIPP bloc

    From Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics

    January 09, 2020

    Dr. Eve Stenson.Photo: IPP, Axel Griesch

    Helmholtz Young Investigators Group headed by Eve Stenson takes up work.

    Dr. Eve Stenson is one of ten young researchers selected by the Helmholtz Association in 2018 to establish their own research group. This was preceded by a multi-stage competition procedure with external peer review.

    From December 2019, Eve Stenson, born in Cleveland, Ohio/USA in 1981, is working with her IPP junior research group “Electrons and Positrons in an Optimised Stellarator” to create a plasma of electrons and their antiparticles, the positrons. The aim of this new branch of the APEX collaboration is to confine a matter-antimatter plasma in a magnetic cage of a small optimised stellarator. It is much simpler but still related to the large stellarator devices of fusion researchers such as Wendelstein 7-X in Greifswald.

    KIT Wendelstein 7-AS built in built in Greifswald, Germany

    There, a hydrogen plasma is used to investigate how energy can be generated by nuclear fusion reactions.

    Magnetically confined matter-antimatter plasmas have been investigated theoretically and computationally for several decades. However, such a plasma has never been produced in the laboratory before. According to theory, it should show special properties, such as being very stably trapped in certain magnetic field configurations, including optimised stellarators. The aim of the new junior research group will be to produce such plasmas and to investigate them experimentally – thus bringing together two frontiers of plasma physics research, i.e. stellarator optimisation and pair plasma experimentation.

    Design of the APEX-D electron-positron plasma trap. A circular superconducting magnet coil (red) is producing the dipole field inside a vacuum vessel. This coil is levitated by a ring-shaped conductor (pink) which is installed above the vessel. It attracts the coil feedback-controlled. Graphic: IPP

    The exotic matter-antimatter plasmas differ from the “normal” plasmas of fusion researchers in one important respect: while the positively and negatively charged particles in an electron-positron plasma have exactly the same mass, the positively charged hydrogen ions in fusion plasmas are much heavier than the negatively charged electrons. This leads to a very different behaviour. The investigation of exotic matter-antimatter plasmas is therefore expected to provide fundamental insights into the physics of plasmas in general and opportunities to test computational simulations of plasma behaviour. It should even be possible to gain new insights about optimisation that can be used for the planning of new stellarators for fusion research. Since it is assumed that matter-antimatter plasmas occur in the vicinity of neutron stars and black holes, it is also astrophysically interesting to investigate these strange plasmas.

    Including last year’s – fifteenth – selection round, the Helmholtz Association has so far made 230 junior research groups possible. The costs – 300,000 euros per year for each group over a period of six years – are shared between the institute where the IPP is based and the Helmholtz Association, to which the IPP is affiliated as an associated institute.

    See the full article here .

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    MPIPP campus

    The Max Planck Institute of Plasma Physics (Max-Planck-Institut für Plasmaphysik, IPP)is a physics institute for the investigation of plasma physics, with the aim of working towards fusion power. The institute also works on surface physics, also with focus on problems of fusion power.

    The IPP is an institute of the Max Planck Society, part of the European Atomic Energy Community, and an associated member of the Helmholtz Association.

    The IPP has two sites: Garching near Munich (founded 1960) and Greifswald (founded 1994), both in Germany.

    It owns several large devices, namely

    the experimental tokamak ASDEX Upgrade (in operation since 1991)
    the experimental stellarator Wendelstein 7-AS (in operation until 2002)
    the experimental stellarator Wendelstein 7-X (awaiting licensing)
    a tandem accelerator

    It also cooperates with the ITER and JET projects.

  • richardmitnick 9:30 am on January 9, 2020 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Coral reef resilience", , , , , Katie Barott, , , Women in STEM   

    From Penn Today: Women in STEM-“Coral reef resilience” Katie Barott 

    From Penn Today

    January 8, 2020
    Katherine Unger Baillie
    Eric Sucar, Photographer

    With coral reefs under threat from climate change, marine biologist Katie Barott of the School of Arts and Sciences is examining the strategies that may enable corals to bounce back from warming temperatures and acidifying oceans.

    Marine biologist Katie Barott investigates the strategies certain corals may use to tolerate the warmer temperatures and acidic waters that climate change is bringing to the world’s oceans.

    Mass coral-bleaching events, which occur when high ocean temperatures cause coral to expel the algae that dwell inside them, are a relatively recent phenomenon. The first widespread bleaching event occurred in 1983, the year before Penn marine biologist Katie Barott was born.

    The next one happened about 15 years later. And the intervals between them continue to shrink. In 2014, one bleaching event in Hawaii was so extreme that it carried over to affect corals into a second summer.

    “They’re increasing in frequency, getting closer and closer,” says Barott, an assistant professor in the School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. “And the ocean temperature is getting warmer and warmer, so the severity is increasing, too.”

    Yet as dramatic as the phenomenon sounds—and appears—coral bleaching does not always equate with coral death. Algae can return to corals once ocean temperatures cool, and scientists have observed formerly white corals regain their color in subsequent seasons.

    In a multifaceted research project funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Barott and members of her lab are studying the mechanisms by which corals withstand the effects of climate change, which include not only the warmer temperatures that trigger bleaching but also acidification of ocean waters, a slower-moving creep with subtle yet significant consequences.

    Bleached finger corals reside directly next to other corals that have withstood a bleaching event in Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii. Barrot’s research attempts to untangle some of the factors that cause some corals to be particularly hardy or resilient. (Image: Katie Barott)

    Barott’s work, based in Kaneohe Bay on Oahu, Hawaii, focuses on two of the bay’s dominant coral species: rice coral (Montipora capitata) and finger coral (Porites compressa). Barott began working there during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, conducting studies on which the new work is based.

    Climate threats

    Corals are invertebrate animals that live in large colonies, together forming intricate skeletons of varied shapes. To obtain food, they rely heavily on a symbiotic relationship with algae, which establish themselves within the corals’ tissue and produce food and energy for the coral through photosynthesis. A change in temperature or pH can upset this partnership, triggering the algae’s expulsion.

    “That leaves the coral essentially starving,” Barott says.

    Since her postdoctoral days, Barott has been working with colleagues in Hawaii to monitor coral patches. After the 2014-15 bleaching event, researchers were surprised and heartened to find certain patches of corals didn’t succumb to the bleaching, even those located directly adjacent to stark white corals. And many of those that did bleach bounced back within a month or so of the onset of cooling autumn temperatures.

    At the time Barott was writing her NSF grant application, she planned to compare the differences between bleached and unbleached corals. Yet just as the grant kicked off in July, another bleaching event was unfolding in Hawaii.

    “That gave us this unexpected opportunity to go back to those same colonies to see if the ones that bleached last time were the same ones that bleached again this past fall,” she says. “And more or less we saw the same patterns: The ones that bleached last time bleached again this time and vice versa. That gives us compelling evidence that there’s something specific about these resilient individuals that is make them resist bleaching, even in very warm temperatures.”

    Mechanisms of resilience

    While high temperatures triggers bleaching, acidity plays a key role in coral vitality as well. Lower seawater pH impedes corals’ ability to build their calcium carbonite skeletons, resulting in weaker, more fragile structures.
    Barott collects finger corals to take back for further analysis. Her research projects include investigations of the algae that lives symbiotically with the coral, and the bacteria that compose the corals’ microbiome. (Image: Courtesy of Katie Barott)

    In earlier work, Barott had discovered that corals possess a pH “sensor” that can respond to changes in their environment. And, indeed, sea water acidity can vary widely in the course of a day, a season, or a year, swinging as much as 0.75 pH units in a day. Perhaps, Barott hypothesizes, coral have molecular “tools” that they use to withstand these daily fluctuations that they could also employ to contend with the gradual ocean acidification that is occurring as the concentration of CO2 in sea water rises.

    Barott collects finger corals to take back for further analysis. Her research projects include investigations of the algae that lives symbiotically with the coral, and the bacteria that compose the corals’ microbiome. (Image: Courtesy of Katie Barott)

    “Maybe there are some reefs that are going to be more resistant to ocean acidification because they’re used to seeing these really large daily swings and are sort of primed to deal with that challenge,” she says.

    She’s also curious about how bleaching impacts corals’ ability to tolerate pH changes more generally. Using molecular tools, she and her students are investigating the epigenetic changes that affect how genes are “read” and translated into functional proteins in the organisms. Such changes could occur much more rapidly than coral, a long-lived species, could evolve to deal with a changing environment.

    In a variety of projects, the scientists are examining differences between species of coral, between species of the algal symbionts, and between populations located in different places in the Kaneohe lagoon.

    Early results suggest differences between the rice and finger coral in their strategies for managing bleaching.

    “One really resists the bleaching, but if it does succumb then it fares a lot worse than the one that bleaches more readily,” says Barott. “That one seems to be more susceptible to losing its symbionts, but if it does it recovers fast and has lower overall mortality.”

    Planning for the future

    Barott’s group is collaborating with others in Hawaii to see if hardier corals could be propagated to rebuild damaged reef communities.

    “We’re at the proof-of-principle stage,” she says, “where we’re trying to figure out if some of these differences are heritable.”

    Tank experiments in Barott’s lab in Philadelphia complement field work done in Oahu, Hawaii.

    While some of that work is being completed in Hawaii, carefully tended tanks in the basement of the Leidy Laboratories of Biology allow Barott and her students to complete experiments in Philadelphia on corals. Using both corals shipped from the field and sea anemones, a useful stand-in for corals due to their ease of care and rapid reproduction, the lab has been tracking the impacts of temperature and pH stress on energy systems, genetics, and even the microbiome of corals, the bacteria with which the corals and algae cohabitate.

    “The surface of coral is analogous to the lining of your lungs or intestines,” Barott says. “It’s covered in cilia, it’s got a mucus layer over the top of it, and there are tons and tons of bacteria that live in that mucus layer. We think those bacteria are playing a role in the health of the coral, but we don’t know if it’s playing a role in their temperature sensitivity, so that’s something we’ll be looking at.”

    With this “whole organism” approach, Barott’s aims to inject some optimism and scientific rigor into what is a largely dire outlook for corals worldwide. Encouragingly, she notes, this year’s bleaching event in Hawaii was much less severe than predicted, and corals that had bleached in 2014 were less strongly affected by this year’s event.

    “These reefs are facing a lot of impacts, not just from climate but also from local development, sedimentation, nutrient pollution,” she says. “Our hope is to predict how corals will respond to these challenges and maybe one day use our findings to assist them in rebuilding resilient reefs.”

    See the full article here .


    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.

    Stem Education Coalition

    U Penn campus

    Academic life at Penn is unparalleled, with 100 countries and every U.S. state represented in one of the Ivy League’s most diverse student bodies. Consistently ranked among the top 10 universities in the country, Penn enrolls 10,000 undergraduate students and welcomes an additional 10,000 students to our world-renowned graduate and professional schools.

    Penn’s award-winning educators and scholars encourage students to pursue inquiry and discovery, follow their passions, and address the world’s most challenging problems through an interdisciplinary approach.

Compose new post
Next post/Next comment
Previous post/Previous comment
Show/Hide comments
Go to top
Go to login
Show/Hide help
shift + esc
%d bloggers like this: