Science & Technology

Contemporary Physics Class Takes Virtual Tour of World’s Largest Particle Accelerator

Foss Professor of Physics Tom Morgan (right) and his contemporary physics class enjoy a morning “virtual visit” to the CERN laboratory in Geneva, via Skype, with images of the Hadron Collider projected on a screen in Exley along with real-time conversations with physicists working there.

On Dec. 11, Foss Professor of Physics Tom Morgan invited his class, Introduction to Contemporary Physics, to join him in Exley Science Center for a virtual visit to the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, located in Geneva. With Senior Instructional Media Specialist Heric Flores-Rueda projecting images on a classroom screen through video conferencing, Morgan’s students enjoyed a real-time view of the CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) laboratory and an on-screen peek inside the collider. Physicist Steven Goldfarb—a member of the team that discovered the Higgs Boson Particle—led the tour, explaining the experiments underway, as well as offering a question/answer period.

This course, a sophomore-level gateway to the physics major, is new to the department in this format, said Morgan, and slated to become part of the curriculum, due to its popularity. This semester five seniors, six juniors, six sophomores, and what Morgan calls “one lucky first-year student”—admitted after an interview—make up the class.

E&ES Faculty, Alumni Author Article on New Method for Saharan Dust Collection in the Caribbean

Earth and Environmental Sciences faculty and senior seminar students have identified a potentially fast and inexpensive method for collecting and measuring Saharan dust in the Caribbean.

E&ES faculty members Dana Royer, Tim Ku, Suzanne O’Connell, and Phil Resor, and students Kylen Moynihan ’17, Carolyn Ariori ’09, Gavin Bodkin ’09, Gabriela Doria MA’09, Katherine Enright ’15, Rémy Hatfield-Gardner ’17, Emma Kravet ’09, C. Miller Nuttle ’09, and Lisa Shepard ’17 have coauthored an article published in the January 2018 issue of Atmospheric Environment. The paper, titled “Tank Bromeliads capture Saharan dust in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico,” summarizes student research performed in three senior seminar capstone projects conducted over an eight-year period starting in January 2009.

Saharan Africa produces approximately 800 billion kilograms of dust each year, a significant portion of which is carried via wind across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean. These dust particles provide critical components for Caribbean ecosystems, including viable fungi and bacteria, but current methods for measuring the dust can be either expensive or limited in the amount and purity of samples collected.

Royer and his team sought to test whether Saharan dust could be detected within the bromeliad tanks of the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, and “to test how well tank bromeliads serve as a natural vessel for distinguishing the regional sources of atmospheric deposition.”

The team theorized that the overlapping structure of the bromeliad’s leaves, which is used to capture rainwater and nutrient-rich debris, could provide a feasible way to measure and trace Saharan dust in the Caribbean. Over the course of three field campaigns, the team sampled the bromeliad tanks, soil, and bedrock at three different sites in the El Yunque dwarf forest. Their findings confirmed that the contents of the tested tanks could be analyzed to identify the source of atmospheric dust inputs, thus providing a potentially simpler and lower-cost alternative to existing methods of collection and measurement.

Yohe Examines Impact of the Newly Released Climate Science Report

Gary Yohe

Gary Yohe, the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, writes in The Conversation about the recently published Climate Science Special Report. While he, like many others, had feared that the Trump White House would reject the report, instead, he writes, “last week’s release was like trick-or-treating on Halloween and coming to a house with a bowl of candy at the door but no one home.”

Language Experts Discuss Teaching, Researching, Assessing with Technology

On Oct. 19-20, Wesleyan hosted the New England Regional Association For Language Learning Technology (NERALLT) 2017 Conference. The event was held at the Fries Center for Global Studies in Fisk Hall and at Russell House.

On Oct. 19, in a “lighting round” format, speakers from Wesleyan, Yale University, Salve Regina University, Colby College, Boston University, Columbia University and the University of Connecticut discussed topics on language teaching, researching and assessing with technology. Talks focused on group-based learning tools, going beyond the classroom with technology, teaching language and multimodal literacies, simple tools for teaching language with technology and more.

On Oct. 20, guests from the University of Massachusetts- Amherst, MIT, Columbia University and Southern Connecticut State University led longer discussions. Topics included evaluating teacher tech literacies using an argument-based approach, the pros and cons to online discussion forums, language learning in a shared virtual space, connecting classrooms and communities with technology, and developing “Minecraft Memory Palaces” to teach French grammar and composition.

The conference concluded with a tour of Wesleyan’s language learning facilities.

Photos of the conference are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Antonio González, director of the Fries Center for Global Studies and Professor of Spanish, welcomed the conference participants to Wesleyan. 

Antonio González, director of the Fries Center for Global Studies and Professor of Spanish, welcomed the conference participants to Wesleyan.

Louise Neary, adjunct associate professor of Spanish and Ana Perez-Girones, adjunct professor of Spanish, shared how students at Wesleyan are building Spanish language portfolios using a Mahara language pack. Perez-Girones also led a discussion on Wespañol, an intermediate-level online program for independent learners.

Louise Neary, adjunct associate professor of Spanish and Ana Perez-Girones, adjunct professor of Spanish, shared how students at Wesleyan are building Spanish language portfolios using a Mahara language pack. Perez-Girones also led a discussion on Wespañol, an intermediate-level online program for independent learners.

Kilgard Explains Why Scientists Are So Excited About Observing Merging Neutron Stars

The Van Vleck Observatory on Foss Hill.

Writing in The Conversation, Roy Kilgard, research associate professor of astronomy, explains the significance of an exciting new discovery in astronomy. For the first time, astrophysicists have observed merging neutron stars using LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) and the Virgo interferometer.

Kilgard writes:

This news may confirm a longstanding theory: that some gamma-ray bursts (GRBs for short), which are among the most energetic, luminous events in the universe, are the result of merging neutron stars. And it is in the crucible of these mergers that most heavy elements may be forged. Researchers can’t produce anything like the temperatures or pressures of neutron stars in a laboratory, so observation of these exotic objects provides a way to test what happens to matter at such extremes.

Astronomers are excited because for the first time they have gravitational waves and light signals stemming from the same event. These truly independent measurements are separate avenues that together add to the physical understanding of the neutron star merger.

Starr Elected Fellow of the American Physical Society

Francis Starr

Francis Starr

Francis Starr, professor of physics, was elected as a Fellow of the American Physical Society in October. This honor is bestowed upon only 0.5 percent of physicists nation wide.

The criterion for election is “exceptional contributions to the physics enterprise including outstanding physics research, important applications of physics, leadership in or service to physics, or significant contributions to physics education.

Starr received the APS fellowship for his simulation studies elucidating fundamental aspects of glass formation in bulk and ultra-thin film polymer materials. At Wesleyan, the Starr group focuses on soft matter physics and biophysics. Starr and his graduate and undergraduate students combine computational and theoretical methods to explore lipid membranes, glass formation, DNA nanotechnology, polymers and supercooled water.

Starr also is professor and director of the College of Integrative Sciences (CIS) and professor of molecular biology and biochemistry. The CIS is dedicated to providing students with translational and interdisciplinary science education through original research. The CIS summer research program hosts around 180 students annually.

Starr is the seventh Wesleyan faculty to receive the honor since 1921. He was nominated by the Division of Polymer Physics.

Dierker Authors Article on ‘Passion-Driven’ Approach to Teaching Statistics, Data Analysis

Lisa Dierker

Lisa Dierker

Lisa Dierker, the Walter Crowell University Professor of Social Sciences, professor of psychology, is the author of a new article, “Falling in Love with Statistics: Shaping Students’ Relationships With Data.” It was published in October in Scientia, a site that seeks to open a dialogue between science and society.

Dierker writes about the novel approach, called Passion-Driven Statistics, that she and her team at Wesleyan developed to teach statistics and data analysis to students from diverse backgrounds. According to the article, it is a “multidisciplinary, project-based approach that is both supportive and engaging for students at all levels of statistical mastery and those coming from diverse educational backgrounds.”

Loui Co-Authors Article on Human Creativity and the Brain

Psyche Loui

Psyche Loui

Psyche Loui, assistant professor of psychology, assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, assistant professor of integrative sciences, co-authored a new article published in the December 2017 issue of Brain and Cognition.

The paper is titled, “Jazz Musicians Reveal Role of Expectancy in Human Creativity.” Loui and her colleagues found that within one second of hearing an unexpected chord, there is a world of differences in brain responses between classical and jazz musicians.

BIOL310 Students Collaborate on Scientific Journal Article

Twenty-three students and one faculty member are co-authors of a forthcoming manuscript in G3.

Twenty-three students and one faculty member are co-authors of a forthcoming manuscript in the journal G3.

More than 20 Wesleyan students — including three former first-years — are co-authors of a research manuscript accepted for publication in a prestigious biology research journal. The paper focuses on a species of fruit fly that has evolved, and has the ability to ingest a toxic plant.

The paper, which is forthcoming in G3: Genes | Genomes | Genetics, is the result of a study completed by BIOL310 Genomics Analysis students. Course instructor and co-author Joseph Coolon, assistant professor of biology, created BIOL310 to provide students a course-based research experience focused on measuring gene expression.

“Because the students in the course and in my lab collaborated on all the analysis, interpretation, and wrote the paper, all 23 students are co-authors of the published manuscript,” Coolon said. “G3 is a well-known and highly reputable journal for publishing in my field and I am honored to have been able to publish there, especially given the number of undergraduates that are now published authors in such a great journal.”

Speakers, Poster Sessions at Annual Molecular Biophysics Program Retreat

Wesleyan’s Molecular Biophysics Program hosted its 18th annual retreat Sept. 28 at Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown. Wesleyan affiliated speakers included:

Professor Francis Starr, spoke about DNA junction dynamics and thermodynamics during the 18th annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat.

Professor Francis Starr spoke about DNA junction dynamics and thermodynamics during the 18th annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat.

  • Colin Smith, assistant professor of chemistry, on “An Atomistic View of Protein Dynamics and Allostery;”
  • Meng-Ju Renee Sher, assistant professor of physics, on “Tracking Electron Motions Using Terahertz Spectroscopy;”
  • Kelly Knee, PhD ’07, principle scientist for Pfizer’s Rare Disease Research Unit, on “Protein Folding Chaperones: Molecular Machines for Tricky Problems;”
  • and Francis Starr, professor of physics, director of the College of Integrative Sciences, on “DNA Four-Way Junction Dynamics and Thermodynamics: Lessons from Combining Simulations and Experiments.”

Arthur Palmer, the Robert Wood Johnson, Jr. Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center, delivered the keynote address on “Conformational dynamics in molecular recognition and catalysis: Lessons from ribonuclease H, AlkB, and GCN4.”

The day-long retreat also included two poster sessions, where undergraduates, graduate students and faculty shared their research with their peers and colleagues. The event concluded with a reception.

The Molecular Biophysics Training Program, Chemistry Department, and Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department sponsored the event.

Photos of the retreat are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Robinson Writes About the Real Reason Some People Become Addicted to Drugs

Mike Robinson

Mike Robinson

Writing in The ConversationAssistant Professor of Psychology Mike Robinson looks to the brain to explain the real reason that some people become addicted to drugs.

Robinson, who also is assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior, assistant professor of integrative sciences, begins by debunking two popular explanations for drug addiction: that compulsive drug use is simply a “bad habit,” and that overcoming the unpleasant withdrawal symptoms is too hard for some addicts.

While pleasure, habits and withdrawal can play a role in drug use, Robinson says, the true reason for addiction can be explained by the psychological differences between “wanting” and “liking.”

Volcanoes Caused Ecological Disruption Says Thomas in Nature Article

Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas, University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and research professor of earth and environmental sciences, is a co-author of a paper titled “Very Large Release of Mostly Volcanic Carbon During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum,” published in the weekly science journal Nature on Aug. 31.

The study focused on Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, a surface warming event associated with ecological disruption that occurred about 56 million years ago, releasing a large amount of carbon. The researchers combined boron and carbon isotope data in an Earth system model and found that the source of carbon was much larger than previously thought.

Most of the carbon, Thomas and her colleagues discovered, was probably released by volcanism during the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean when Greenland separated from Europe.

The paper also was cited in another Nature article, on PhysOrg and on Science Daily.