Science & Technology

Students, Alumni to Make Presentations at Geological Society of America Meeting

Wesleyan students, graduate students, and recent alumni will present research posters during the annual Geological Society of America meeting Oct. 26–30. The virtual event will allow for a five-minute presentation followed by a five-minute period to answer questions.

poster

Earth and environmental sciences graduate student Yu Kai Tan ’20 and Andy (Dick Yee) Tan ’21 will present their poster, titled “Freshwater Mussels in North America: Museum Collections and Pre-Industrial Biogeography,” at 5:15 p.m. Oct. 29. Their advisors are Ann Burke, professor of biology, and Ellen Thomas, Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, Smith Curator of Paleontology of the Joe Webb Peoples Museum of Natural History, and University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences. Listen to the presentation in advance online here.

Zimmeck Spearheads Launch of Important Online Privacy Tool

Sebastian Zimmeck,

Sebastian Zimmeck

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Sebastian Zimmeck is leading a major initiative to help consumers gain greater control of their personal data online.

On Oct. 7, Zimmeck and his collaborator, Ashkan Soltani of Georgetown Law, as well as a group of partner organizations that includes The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mozilla, and the parent company behind WordPress.com and Tumblr, among others, announced the beta launch of the Global Privacy Control (GPC), a new effort to standardize consumer privacy online.

As Zimmeck explains it, privacy regulations introduced in recent years such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) have given consumers more rights to limit the sale and sharing of their personal data than ever before. The CCPA regulations give California residents a legal right to opt out of the sale of their data, and requires businesses to respect their preferences through a signal from their web browser. Zimmeck applauds this progress, but says it “doesn’t amount to much if it is hard for people to take advantage of their new rights.” That’s because there had been little progress on developing standards that allow users to signal through their web browser that they wish to opt out of having their data sold or shared. An early standardization attempt, Do Not Track (DNT), suffered from a low rate of adoption due to its lack of enforceability. In practice, this means users generally need to manually opt out of each site or app they want to stop tracking their data—something most users don’t go through the trouble to do.

According to a WIRED article on the beta launch, “the CCPA includes a mechanism for solving the one-by-one problem. The regulations interpreting the law specify that businesses must respect a ‘global privacy control’ sent by a browser or device. The idea is that instead of having to change privacy settings every time you visit a new site or use a new app, you could set your preference once, on your phone or in a browser extension, and be done with it.”

The idea for the new global opt-out started with Zimmeck, who last spring began building an extension for the Chrome web browser with his students called OptMeowt. Initially, Zimmeck worked with Wesleyan computer science students Kuba Alicki ’22, David Baraka ‘21, and Rafael Goldstein ’21. As the effort gained momentum, Daniel Knopf ’22 and Abdallah Salia ’22 joined as well.

“My students are doing an excellent job,” Zimmeck says. “I am mostly taking on the role as an engineering manager and the students are really the ones implementing the various technologies. I think it is also nice that the students are exposed to how things are done in industry, and that they can acquire real-world software engineering skills.”

“As of today, users will be able to set a global browser opt-out in browsers including Mozilla, Brave, and DuckDuckGo, as well as the DuckDuckGo privacy extensions for Chrome,” the WIRED article further explains. “The code necessary for businesses to respond to the privacy control is publicly available. Publishers who have signed on, most notably The New York Times and The Washington Post, have agreed to honor the signal.”

“For California residents, the global privacy control, if enforced by the attorney general, would have a very different effect than existing privacy controls such as third-party cookie blockers. Those settings have no power over what a website or app does with the data it collects directly from you. The global control, by contrast, would issue a legally binding order that, if violated, would be punishable by major fines.”

Indeed, briefly after its release, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra tweeted that “[t]his proposed standard is a first step towards a meaningful global privacy control that will make it simple and easy for consumers to exercise their privacy rights online. #DataPrivacy is the future, and I am heartened to see a wave of innovation in this space.” As Zimmeck told WIRED, “The time is right to do this,” adding that the American public cares much more about privacy than during the earlier DNT effort, and now there is finally law on their side. “I think it’s really important to not just theoretically talk about how this could work,” he said, “but also to actually do it.”

Additional coverage of the beta launch can be read on TechCrunch.com, Neowin.net, and Decipher.

 

PhD Candidate Drum Discusses Biology Research during Graduate Speaker Series

Drum

Zachary Drum, a PhD candidate in biology, delivered the first 2020–21 Graduate Speaker Series talk on Oct. 2 through Zoom. Drum’s advisor is Joseph Coolon, assistant professor of biology. The Coolon Lab uses genetic and genomic tools to better understand how insects evolve to form a resistance to pesticides, damaging $10 billion in crops annually.

Zachary Drum, a PhD candidate in biology, delivered the first 2020-21 Graduate Speaker Series talk on Oct. 2 through Zoom. Titled "The Forbidden Fruit: How Drosophila sechellia came to Love Morinda citrifolia," Drum's research explores how a fruit fly species in Africa is able to eat a poisonous fruit that flies in the the rest of the world would find toxic.

Titled “The Forbidden Fruit: How Drosophila sechellia came to Love Morinda citrifolia,” Drum’s research explores how a fruit fly species in Seychelles is able to eat a poisonous fruit (noni) that flies in the rest of the world would find toxic. Ripe noni fruit contains the fatty acid volatiles octanoic acid and hexanoic acid, which are poisonous to other Drosophila species. “The host fruit has these chemicals that they [sechellia] like, and other flies don’t. They’re attracted and resistant to the fatty acid volatiles in the noni fruit,” Drum explained. “So we’re trying to build this puzzle. How does it resist these volatiles?” (Slide show photo by Charlotte Freeland)

drum

Drum explained the two types of Drosophila sensory organs used for smelling, based on past research.

Graduate Speaker Series events are open to the entire Wesleyan community.

Graduate Speaker Series events are open to the entire Wesleyan community.

Broker ’66 Speaks on Infectious Disease, Cancer at Biophysics Retreat, Public Seminar

Tom Broker ’66, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Alabama at Burlington, delivered a public science seminar titled "Infectious Disease Pandemics and Cancer" on Sept. 30. He was joined by Rich Olson, Ishita Mukerji, and Jan Naege, who provided an introduction. 

Tom Broker ’66, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Alabama at Burlington, delivered a public science seminar titled “Infectious Disease Pandemics and Cancer” on Sept. 30. He was joined by Rich Olson, associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Ishita Mukerji, Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; and Jan Naegele, Dean of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics division, Alan M. Dachs Professor of Science.

Broker is an expert on Human papillomaviruses (HPVs), which are sexually-transmitted diseases of viral origin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 million Americans become infected each year, and HPV is estimated to cause nearly 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women. Broker has been involved in the development and validation of topical agents to treat the virus and is the founding President of the Human Papillomavirus Society.

Broker is an expert on human papillomaviruses (HPVs), which are sexually-transmitted diseases of viral origin. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 million Americans become infected each year, and HPV is estimated to cause nearly 35,000 cases of cancer in men and women. Broker has been involved in the development and validation of topical agents to treat the virus and is the founding president of the Human Papillomavirus Society.

tom

“This one was actually a bit of a surprise to me, and if this was data-based on prevalence and macroeconomic status, and I fully expected that the low ‘this is human development index’ would be the place where the worst . . . and it was the worst in the richest countries, at least by what the data shows,” Broker said. “China has a tremendous prevalence, as does India, as a single country, but in the wealthy areas of North America, and Europe and East Asia, papillomaviruses’ prevalence is very high and would benefit immensely from training and treatment, and in the long run, a vaccine could prevent it.”

During the 21st annual Molecular Biophysics Virtual Retreat on Sept. 28, Tom Broker ’66, professor emeritus of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Alabama at Burlington, delivered the keynote address titled "HPV—Host Cell Interactions and Anti-Viral Drug Discovery in 3D-Tissue Systems. "Generally from infection to someone getting a HPV cancer, like cervical cancer, is 20 years, so these viruses are persistent, they’re opportunistic, a little bit of damage every once and a while tips them closer and closer to overexpression, and eventually the failures of the defense responses and the overexpression of the virus drive us down the cancer pathway," he said.

Broker also delivered the 21st annual Molecular Biophysics Virtual Retreat keynote address titled “HPV—Host Cell Interactions and Anti-Viral Drug Discovery in 3D-Tissue Systems” on Sept. 28. “Generally, from infection to someone getting a HPV cancer, like cervical cancer, is 20 years, so these viruses are persistent, they’re opportunistic; a little bit of damage every once and a while tips them closer and closer to over-expression, and eventually the failures of the defense responses and the over-expression of the virus drive us down the cancer pathway,” he said.

bio p retreat

The annual retreat, which is open to all faculty and students, was sponsored by the Molecular Biophysics Program and the Biology, Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and Physics departments. Broker was joined by Olson, Mukerji, and Donald Oliver, Daniel Ayres Professor of Biology, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Several students presented virtual poster sessions during the retreat including Oliver Cho '22, a chemistry and philosophy double major; Jack Kwon '21, a molecular biology and biochemistry and College of Integrative Sciences double major; Carol Dalgarno ’21, a molecular biology and biochemistry and Science in Society double major; and Rujun Yan ’21, a computer science and math double major.

Several students presented virtual poster sessions during the retreat, including Oliver Cho ’22, a chemistry and philosophy double major; Jack Kwon ’21, a molecular biology and biochemistry and College of Integrative Sciences double major; Carol Dalgarno ’21, a molecular biology and biochemistry and Science in Society double major; and Rujun Yan ’21, a computer science and math double major.

Oliver Cho

Oliver Cho presented “Modifying a Mini Protein with Two Conformational States to Instead Adopt Only One Conformation.” (Click to enlarge)

GCN Sensitive Protein Translation in Yeast

Jack Kwon presented “GCN Sensitive Protein Translation in Yeast.” (Click to enlarge)

Carol Dalgarno

Carol Dalgarno presented “Molecular Dynamics Studies of the Ribosome CAR Surface.” (Click to enlarge)

Rujun Yan

Rujun Yan presented “A Promising Machine Learning Tool for the Permeability of Alpha Helical Peptide.” (Click to enlarge)

Discovery by Chernoff and Students Challenges a Tenet of Evolutionary Biology

Barry Chernoff and students in University of Michigan lab

Barry Chernoff and students in his Tropical Ecology course conducted research at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, where they discovered two new species of fish that challenged an expectation from evolutionary theory.

As organisms evolve over time, changes in size—both miniaturization and gigantism—are a major theme. In fish, which are the specialty of Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, Professor of Biology and of Earth & Environmental Sciences, miniaturization happens in many lineages, though it’s not very common. Evolutionary biology has long held that this miniaturization is often accompanied by developmental simplification or paedomorphisis (becoming sexually mature while appearing juvenile-like).

chernoffLast March, just before the pandemic began, Chernoff and students in his Tropical Ecology course (ENVS/Bio/E&ES 306) took a trip to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., which is home to one of the largest scientific collections of natural history objects, or specimens, and allows visitors to work with their collections. There, they discovered two new species of fish from the tropics—one from Honduras and one from Colombia. In these new species, the data demonstrated the opposite of expectations from evolutionary theory: that miniaturization occurred with developmental acceleration. That is, the miniatures achieve adult morphology in a shorter period of time by accelerating the transformation from juvenile morphologies to adult morphologies.

Gilmore Featured in Venus Documentary

Martha-Gilmore

Marty Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of earth and environmental sciences, is featured in a suite of films exploring the past and possible future of the planet Venus, often called Earth’s “sister” or “twin” planet.

Martha Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of earth and environmental sciences, is prominently featured in a recently released suite of five documentary films about the history, science, exploration, and possible settlement of the planet Venus.

In the films, Gilmore, who is co-coordinator of planetary science at Wesleyan, along with other experts in a range of fields, help to illuminate and elucidate the fascinating history and possible future of the second planet from the sun, commonly known as Earth’s “sister planet.” The suite of films was produced by filmmaker and space exploration advocate Dave Brody P ’24. The main feature, “Venus: Death of a Planet,” the special feature, “Cloud Cities of Venus,” and the three short films of the “Exploring Venus Series,” can be viewed online through early September, and on the MagellanTV (broadly available through various streaming platforms).

In February, two spacecraft mission concepts co-developed by Gilmore to study Venus received second-round backing from NASA’s Discovery Program. Both concepts, which were awarded $3 million each, would assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by examining its landscape, rocks, and atmosphere.

Students Accelerate Their Research Skills through New Summer Bootcamp

poster

This summer, McNair Fellow Mohammed Ullah ’22, participated in a virtual McNair Bootcamp where he created a hypothetical study titled “One Drug for All RNA Viruses.” “My idea was to make a single drug for all RNA-based viruses, and based on my findings and all the online research I did on the drugs, techniques, etc., I was able to come up with a proposal based on my idea and expand it into something that can happen for several years,” Ullah said. “With the resources and knowledge from a biochemist and virologist, this idea/proposal is something that can happen in real life if people took an interest in it.”

This summer, 12 Wesleyan students who identify as first-generation/low-income learned more about research methods and proposal-writing through the first McNair Bootcamp.

Held in conjunction with Wesleyan’s Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program and the Wesleyan Mathematics and Science Scholars (WesMaSS) Program, the bootcamp provided a solution for summer research students who were unable to transition their in person research projects into remote research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You certainly don’t want students doing organic chemistry in their kitchens back home,” said bootcamp co-founder Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry. “Many types of research aren’t able to be translated to ‘virtual research’ in response to campus closing down, so we wanted to make sure these students didn’t have a ‘lost summer’ with respect to their growth as researchers.”

Taylor and Ronnie Hendrix, associate director of the McNair Program, focused their new program on teaching students how to conduct independent research. Students learned to brainstorm, build hypotheses, work collaboratively with peers, write a research proposal based on the criterion of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program application, peer-review a research proposal, edit and improve a research proposal, and ultimately craft and present a research poster.

Hot off the Press: Ellen Thomas Co-Authors 3 New Papers

Ellen Thomas, Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences, is the co-author of:

Miocene evolution of North Atlantic Sea Surface Temperature,” published in Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology, 35, in April 2020.

Extensive morphological variability in asexually produced planktic foraminifera,” published in Science Advances, 6, in July 2020.

Origin of a global carbonate layer deposited in the aftermath of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary impact,” published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 548, in October 2020.

3 Students Win Scientific Imaging Contest

Images depicting star collisions, atom movement in yeast ribosomes, and herbaceous plant root scans were the winning entries of the 2020 Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest.

The Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest, held annually in August, recognizes student-submitted images—from experiments or simulations done with a Wesleyan faculty member—that are scientifically intriguing, as well as aesthetically pleasing. The contest is organized by the College of Integrative Sciences as part of the summer research program.

The winners included Osama Elgabori ’22, Carol Dalgarno ’21, and Jolie Villegas ’21. Elgabori’s advisor is Brian Stewart, professor of physics; Dalgarno’s advisor is Michael Weir, professor of biology; and Villegas’ advisor is Sonia Sultan, professor of biology.

Students Present Research Projects during Virtual Summer Poster Session

boone

Tyler Boone ’21 shared his poster titled “Probing the Effects of YTA7 on Genetic Silencing in S. cerevisiae” during the virtual Summer 2020 Research Poster Session.

On June 30, Wesleyan hosted a virtual Summer 2020 Research Poster Session to celebrate the accomplishments of more than 150 student researchers.

To emulate the excitement and camaraderie of the live poster session, students hosted their own individual presentations on Zoom and answered questions live.

Examples of student research projects are below:

tyler boone

Tyler Boone ’21

Tyler Boone ’21 shared his poster titled “Probing the Effects of YTA7 on Genetic Silencing in S. cerevisiae.” Boone is double majoring in molecular biology and biochemistry and biology with a minor in chemistry. In order to better understand how the structure of chromatin, a complex of DNA and protein found in eukaryotic cells, affects gene silencing specifically, Boone studied the gene YTA7 in a species of yeast known as Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Boone’s advisor is Scott Holmes, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Sydney Lodge '21

Sydney Lodge ’21

Sydney Lodge ’21, who is double majoring in psychology and African American studies with a concentration in cultural psychology, presented “An Analysis of the Impact of History and Sociological Factors on the Future of Affordable Housing.” Her project offers various perspectives on the past, present, and future of affordable housing in Texas and California and explores the attitudes of women of color who advocate for affordable housing and whose work centers around anti-gentrification and anti-displacement efforts. Her advisor was H. Shellae Versey, a former assistant professor of psychology.

Wickham ’21 Speaks on the Black Student Experience in STEM

posterAs the Black Lives Matter movement continues to shine a light on the Black experience in America, one Wesleyan student is doing his part to foster better understanding for students of color in STEM fields.

On July 2, Fitzroy “Pablo” Wickham ’21 participated in a panel discussion on “Black Lives Matter and Neuroscience: Why This Moment Matters.” The event, hosted by the Society for Neuroscience and moderated by Trinity College President Joanne Berger-Sweeney, provided a forum to discuss hurdles faced by Black students and faculty in STEM and ways to enhance recruitment, mentoring, and retention in STEM fields.

Wickham, a neuroscience and theater double major, is the Class of 2021 president and a College of Integrative Sciences summer research student. A native of Jamaica, Wickham prefaced his comments by acknowledging that as a West Indian Black his experience does not necessarily reflect the full breadth of experiences had by African American students in science. But for his part, Wickham hopes that in sharing his perspective as a neuroscience undergraduate, he can help move the conversation forward in terms of “how we can make the field more inclusive and equitable” and in particular to voice some of the challenges Black students encounter when navigating STEM.