Science & Technology

Wesleyan Wins “Best in Show” at 2019 DataFest

 Anna Zagoren '20, Frederick Corpuz '20, Joseph Cutler '21, Arianna Sang '20 

Anna Zagoren ’20, Frederick Corpuz ’20, Joseph Cutler ’21, and Arianna Sang ’20 won “Best in Show” during the 2019 DataFest.

A Wesleyan team took the top award—“Best in Show”—during DataFest on April 7.

DataFest is a data analysis competition where students are presented with a large, complex, surprise data set and work over the weekend to explore, analyze, and present their findings to a panel of judges. Teams of 3–5 students work together and compete against other teams. This year, students from Wesleyan University, Yale University, the University of Connecticut, and Bentley University participated.

Under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, the event is organized by Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center

The winning team was made up of Anna Zagoren ’20, Frederick Corpuz ’20, Joseph Cutler ’21, and Arianna Sang ’20.

Winners were honored with a $50 cash prize, a medal, a certificate, and a yearlong membership to the American Statistical Association.

Varekamp Presents Papers at Volcanic Lakes Meeting in New Zealand

Johan (Joop) Varekamp

Joop Varekamp

Johan (Joop) Varekamp, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Earth Science, presented three papers during the Commission on Volcanic Lakes (CVL) program held March 18-20 in Taupo, New Zealand. The papers were coauthored by Wesleyan students, graduate students, recent alumni, and faculty.

The CVL is a scientific, nonprofit organization of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth’s Interior (IAVCEI), connecting researchers that seek to understand how volcanic lakes relate to volcanic activity and their hazards.

Varekamp, who also is the Smith Curator of Mineralogy and Petrology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History and professor of earth and environmental studies, is a former leader of the CVL organization. In addition to delivering a keynote address, Varekamp was named the recipient of the 2019 IAVCEI Kusakabe Award.

Fish Species Named After Professor Barry Chernoff

Bryconops chernoffi

Bryconops chernoffi

A new species of fish discovered in Brazil was recently named in honor of Wesleyan Professor Barry Chernoff.

Barry Chernoff

Scientists encountered the Bryconops chernoffi in Rio Ipixuna—a small tributary of the Rio Maicuru, which feeds into the lower Amazon River in Pará, Brazil. Samples of the fish were collected by researchers on four trips in 2014–15, and in March 2019, Zootaxa released an article describing the new species.

Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, focuses his research on freshwater fishes in North America and the Neotropical region, primarily those in South America in the Amazon.

He’s also professor of earth and environmental sciences; professor of biology; chair, Environmental Studies Program; and director of the College of the Environment.

The Zootaxa announcement explains that Bryconops chernoffi’s specific epithet honors “Barry Chernoff, and is in recognition for his contributions to the taxonomy of Bryconops, as well as for ichthyology as a whole.”

Chernoff has published 89 peer-reviewed scientific works, including six books and edited volumes. He has led international teams on expeditions designed to conserve large watersheds of the world, having made more than 34 expeditions in 13 countries.

The Zootaxa abstract describes Bryconops chernoffi as differing from all its congeners “by the presence of an elongated dark patch of pigmentation immediately after the posterodorsal margin of the opercle, running vertically from the supracleithrum to the distal margin of the cleithrum (vs. absence of a similar blotch), and by a dark dorsal fin with a narrow hyaline band at middle portion of dorsal-fin rays (vs. dorsal fin hyaline or with few scattered chromatophores). It differs further from all its congeners, except B. colanegra, by the presence of a blurred black stripe at the anal fin.”

“It doesn’t really resemble my friend Barry, who in addition to being a fish scientist and environmentalist is also a guitar player and songwriter,” wrote Wesleyan President Michael Roth in a recent blog post. “And now he has fish named in his honor. A true species of Wesleyan.”

Chernoff is the third Wesleyan faculty, in recent years, to have a species named in his or her honor.

In 2010, a dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period (about 110 million years ago) was named Brontomerus mcintoshi for John S. “Jack” McIntosh, Foss Professor of Physics, Emeritus. The fossil, discovered in Utah, is marked by its large, powerful thighs, which may have been used to kick predators and travel over rough terrain. The American-British team of scientists who discovered the remains named the dinosaur for McIntosh, “a lifelong avocational paleontologist.”

Two species of benthic foraminifera are named after Ellen Thomas, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, research professor, earth and environmental sciences; the Smith Curator of Paleontology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History.

Globocassidulina thomasae, discovered in the northeastern Indian Ocean, was named in 1999, and Ossaggittia thomasae, discovered in the eastern Indian Ocean, was named in 2012. They were named in honor of Ellen Thomas, “a well-known specialist on deep-sea benthic foraminifera, who was one of the first micropaleontologists to document the disappearance of Stilostomellidae and Pleurostomellidae in the Pleistocene of the North Atlantic Ocean.”

Case, Hingorani Coauthor Study on Repair of DNA Damaged by Sunlight

Brandon Case

Molecular biology and biochemistry graduate student Brandon Case and Professor Manju Hingorani are coauthors of a study published in Nucleic Acids Research in March 2019.

The paper, titled “The ATPase mechanism of UvrA2 reveals the distinct roles of proximal and distal ATPase sites in nucleotide excision repair,” reports new findings on how the UvrA2 protein uses its ATPase activity to probe DNA for damage lesions, such as those caused by UV radiation, and initiate nucleotide excision repair (NER). This DNA repair process corrects tens of thousands of lesions introduced daily into the human genome by UV rays and chemical agents.

Naegele Lab Releases New Study on Temporal Lobe Epilepsy

Jyoti Gupta, who earned her PhD in biology in 2018, is pictured presenting her dissertation defense at Wesleyan. Gupta is the lead author on a recently published study that investigates abnormal neuron growth in mice that have temporal lobe epilepsy.

Adult neurogenesis, a process whereby new neurons are added to the brain, is thought to be confined in mammals to just a few regions, including the hippocampus, a structure important for learning. Whether this process occurs in the adult human brain is controversial, but in most other mammals that have been studied, adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus appears to be essential for forming memories.

Producing new neurons in the adult hippocampus is regulated by the environment, mood, exercise, diet, and disease. In some forms of epilepsy, the production of new cells in the hippocampus, called granule cells, becomes highly abnormal and the altered neurogenesis is thought to increase over-excitation and exacerbate seizures.

Rasmussen in The Conversation: Using Computers to Crack Open Centuries-Old Mathematical Puzzles

Christopher Rasmussen

Christopher Rasmussen

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In a new article, Associate Professor of Mathematics Christopher Rasmussen writes about his recent collaboration with other number theorists to create a computer package to solve a problem called the “S-unit equation.”

Using computers to crack open centuries-old mathematical puzzles

In mathematics, no researcher works in true isolation. Even those who work alone use the theorems and methods of their colleagues and predecessors to develop new ideas.

But when a known technique is too difficult to use in practice, mathematicians may neglect important—and otherwise solvable—problems.

Recently, I joined several mathematicians on a project to make one such technique easier to use. We produced a computer package to solve a problem called the “S-unit equation,” with the hope that number theorists of all stripes can more easily attack a wide variety of unsolved problems in mathematics.

Grabel Wins Women of Innovation® Award

Laura Grabel, pictured at far right, is one of 11 women in the state of Connecticut to receive a Women of Innovation® Award.

Laura Grabel, the retired Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, received an award at the 15th Annual Connecticut Technology Council Women of Innovation® Awards presentation on March 27.

The Women of Innovation® program recognizes women innovators, role models, and leaders in science and technology professions, as well as outstanding young women at the high school and collegiate level pursuing technology studies. Of 50 finalists, 11 were recognized as winners in their respective categories; Grabel took the top spot in the Academic Innovation & Leadership (Postsecondary) category.

Grabel, who also is a retired professor of biology, is an accomplished scientist engaged in understanding how the fertilized egg can become a complex organism. This spring, she is teaching Reproduction in the 21st Century.

Students, Faculty, Alumni Present Research at 50th Annual Planetary Science Conference

Jeremy Brossier presented a talk titled "Radiophysical Behaviors of Venus’ Plateaus and Volcanic Rises: Updated Assessment." He also presented a poster titled "Complex Radar Emissivity Variations at Some Large Venusian Volcanoes."

At left, earth and environmental sciences postdoctoral research associate Jeremy Brossier presented a poster titled “Complex Radar Emissivity Variations at Some Large Venusian Volcanoes” during the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas.

Several Wesleyan students, faculty, and alumni attended the 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) March 18-22 in The Woodlands, Texas. Members of the Wesleyan Planetary Sciences Group presented their research on a range of planetary bodies.

This annual conference brings together international specialists in petrology, geochemistry, geophysics, geology, and astronomy to present the latest results of research in planetary science.

Earth and environmental studies major Emmy Hughes ’20 presented a poster titled “Observations of Transverse Aeolian Ridges in Digital Terrain Models” during a session on “Planetary Aeolian Processes.”

Earth and environmental science graduate student Reid Perkins MA ’19 presented a talk titled “A Reassessment of Venus’ Tessera Crater Population and Implications for Tessera Deformation” and a poster titled “Volumes and Potential Origins of Crater Dark Floor Deposits on Venus.”

O’Connell’s Article Published by the Geological Society of America

The article is accompanied by graphic, featured on the cover, of the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) ships (left to right): the Chikyu, a riser-equipped platform coring in the western Pacific; the JOIDES Resolution, which recovers cores throughout the ocean; and a Mission Specific Platform (MSP) drilling vessel. Dotted lines—representative depth.

O’Connell’s article is accompanied by a graphic featuring the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) ships (left to right): the Chikyu, a riser-equipped platform coring in the western Pacific; the JOIDES Resolution, which recovers cores throughout the ocean; and a Mission Specific Platform (MSP) drilling vessel. The dotted lines show representative depth.

Suzanne O’Connell, professor of earth and environmental sciences, is the author of a cover article titled “Holes in the Bottom of the Sea: History, Revolutions, and Future Opportunities,” published by the Geological Society of America (GSA) Today in January 2019.

Scientific ocean drilling (SOD) contributions include geophysical surveys, core samples, borehole well logs, and sub-seafloor observatories. After more than half a century, involving thousands of scientists from around the world, SOD has been instrumental in developing three geoscience revolutions: (1) plate tectonics, (2) paleoceanography, and (3) the deep marine biosphere.

In this paper, O’Connell explains that without SOD, it is unlikely that our current understanding of Earth processes could have developed. SOD has also been a leader in international collaborations and the open sharing of samples, data, and information. Almost 2.5 million samples have been taken from over 360 km of core located in three repositories. Today about half the members of scientific teams, including co-chief scientists, are women. This program is needed in the future for geoscientists to continue exploring our planet to understand how it functions and to create predictive models, she explains.

At Wesleyan, Professor O’Connell teaches geosciences with a strong emphasis on hands-on research with undergraduates. Her current research focuses on Antarctic climate change using sediment cores from the Weddell Sea, Ocean Drilling Program (ODP) Leg 113. She has authored or coauthored more than 60 refereed publications. Read more about O’Connell’s recent Weddell Sea core research in this College of the Environment blog post.

She is a member of the American Geophysical Union, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Association for Women Geoscientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists and a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. She is also on the governing council of the Geological Society of America and a recipient of the Association for Women Geoscientists Outstanding Educator Award, Wesleyan’s Edgar Beckham Helping Hand Award, and the McConaughy Writing Award.

Tavernier, Students Coauthor Paper on Psychological Trauma of Natural Disasters

Natural disasters are becoming more common all over the world. While the focus is often on restoring physical damage, these disasters also impact residents of the affected region psychologically in ways that are less well understood.

In a paper published in the journal Traumatology on Feb. 7, Assistant Professor of Psychology Royette Tavernier, along with five student coauthors, examined the psychological impact of tropical storm Erika, which hit the Caribbean island of Dominica in August 2015. The data analyzed was based on a sample of 174 college-aged individuals who completed survey-based assessments of several psychosocial variables six months after the storm.

Results showed that more negative exposure to the storm (e.g., displacement, lack of access to food and water) was associated with poor quality sleep, which, in turn, was associated with poorer psychological adjustment (higher rumination, less effective emotion regulation strategies and less perceived psychological growth from the experience of the storm). Furthermore, those who were more negatively affected by the storm had higher religious coping (praying, meditating). Interestingly, higher religious coping was linked with both positive (higher perceived psychological growth from the experience of the storm) and negative (higher rumination and PTSD symptoms) aspects of psychological adjustment.

According to Tavernier, these findings highlight the important roles that both sleep and religious coping play in explaining psychological adjustment in the aftermath of natural disasters.

“Terrible Beast” Takes Residence in Exley Science Center

Exley Science Center is now home to its second prehistoric specimen—a massive land animal known as a Deinotherium giganteum. This elephant-lookalike would have weighed up to 20,000 pounds and would use their massive tusks for stripping bark from tree trunks for eating and for dominating fellow males during mating season.

Exley Science Center is home to its second prehistoric specimen—a massive land animal known as a Deinotherium giganteum—or “terrible beast.” The skull cast is displayed in the hallway between Exley Science Center and the passway to Shanklin Laboratory and is part of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History. The exhibit was installed on Feb. 26.

In 2017, the Deinotherium skull was discovered in two wooden boxes by faculty and students exploring Exley Science Center’s seventh-floor penthouse. The skull was once a centerpiece to Wesleyan’s Natural History Museum, located on the top floor of Judd Hall (pictured at left). After the museum closed in 1957, the Deinotherium and thousands of other specimens and objects were relocated and displaced around campus. The skull was first housed in the tunnels beneath the Foss Hill residence hall and relocated to Exley in 1970. (Historic photo courtesy of Wesleyan’s Special Collections and Archives)

Gilmore Speaks on Venus’s Terrain at American Museum of Natural History

Sporting their Earth and Environmental Sciences–labeled jackets, John Hossain MA ’18 and Avi Stein ’17 posed for a photo with Professor Marty Gilmore during her recent talk at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Martha “Marty” Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of earth and environmental sciences, presented a talk at the American Museum of Natural History on Feb. 4 titled “Venus: One Fate of a Habitable Planet.” Gilmore’s presentation was part of the museum’s Frontiers Lecture Series, which highlights the latest advances in our knowledge of the universe by presenting the work of scientists at the cutting edge of astrophysics.

Gilmore, a planetary geologist, uses surface mapping and orbital spectroscopy to study Venus’s terrain. During her talk, she spoke about the planet’s oldest rocks and what they can tell us about the history of water on one of Earth’s closest neighbors.

“Venus is likely to have had an ocean longer than Mars which forces us to consider it as another potentially habitable planet in our solar system,” Gilmore said. “Because it is Earth-sized, it uniquely informs us about the origin and fate of our planet and Earth-sized planets in other solar systems.”

Gilmore supports her investigations by studying minerals formed and/or weathered under conditions on Venus.

Wesleyan alumni Avi Stein ’17 and John Hossain MA ’18 attended the standing-room-only talk.

Gilmore is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. At Wesleyan, she’s also the director, graduate studies, and co-coordinator, planetary science.