Science & Technology

Graduate Student Hossain Speaks on Reverse Fault Geometry

On Feb. 8, John Hossain, a MA candidate from the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department, presented a talk on “The Role of Reverse Fault Geometry on Slip Rate Estimates” during the Graduate Speaker Series.

Estimates of fault slip rates are an integral part of assessing seismic hazard because they affect estimates of earthquake renewal and moment release rates. For some faults, however, slip rate estimates vary among geodetic studies or between geodetic and geologic investigations. In his talk, Hossain explained why by using a series of numerical models.

Graduate Speaker Series events are open to the entire Wesleyan community. (Photos by Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)

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Thomas Honored by Micropalaeontology Society

Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas holds two enlarged samples of microfossils in her lab at Wesleyan. Thomas was recently awarded a medal for her research efforts.

For her outstanding efforts in pioneering studies in micropalaeontology and natural history, The Micropalaeontological Society (TMS) awarded Wesleyan’s Ellen Thomas with the 2016 Brady Medal.

The Brady Medal is TMS’s most prestigious honor and is awarded to scientists who have had a major influence on micropalaeontology by means of a substantial body of research.

Thomas was honored for “communicating to an extremely broad audience fascinating, impactful and often thought-provoking research” and “academic encouragement of students and peers over the years with [her] generosity of time in a very busy and successful career,” noted TMS President F. John Gregory.

Thomas, research professor of earth and environmental sciences and the University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences, investigates the impact of changes in environment and climate on living organisms on various time scales, with the common focal point of benthic foraminifera (eukaryotic unicellular organisms). She studies their assemblages, as well as trace element and isotope composition of their shells. Foraminifera live in salt or at least brackish water, so she concentrates her research on the oceans, from the deep sea up into tidal salt marshes.

The Brady Medal is cast in bronze from original sculptures commissioned by The Micropalaeontological Society in 2007.

The Brady Medal is cast in bronze.

The Micropalaeontological Society exists “to advance the education of the public in the study of Micropalaeontology” and is operated “exclusively for scientific and educational purposes and not for profit”. It was initiated as The British Micropalaeontological Group in 1970.

The Brady Medal is named in honor of George Stewardson Brady (1832-1921) and Henry Bowman Brady (1835-1891) in recognition of their outstanding pioneering studies in micropalaeontology.

Read more about Ellen Thomas in these past News @ Wesleyan articles.

Thomas’s Research on Marine Biota during a Period of Rapid Global Warming Published

Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas

Ellen Thomas, research professor of earth and environmental sciences, is the co-author of “Pteropoda (Mollusca, Gastropoda, Thecosomata) from the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum of the United States Atlantic Coastal Plain,” published in Palaeontologia Electronica, Article 19 (3) in October 2016.

The Paleocene Epoch lasted 65 to 54.8 million years ago and the Eocene Epoch lasted from 56 to 33.9 million years ago, and was a period of rapid global warming.

The response of many organisms to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) has been documented, but marine mollusks are not known from any deposits of that age. For the first time, Thomas and her co-authors describe a PETM assemblage of pteropods (planktic mollusks), consisting of six species representing three genera (Altaspiratella, Heliconoides and Limacina). Four species could be identified to species level, and one of these, Limacina novacaesarea sp. nov., is described as new. Only the genus Heliconoides was previously known from pre-Eocene sediments, with a single Campanian specimen and one latest Paleocene species.

Research by Redfield, Zachary ’17 Using Hubble, Voyager Probes Widely Reported

Astronomy student Julia Zachary '17 presented research at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society's 229th annual meeting on Jan. 6. (Photo by © CorporateEventImages/Todd Buchanan 2017)

Astronomy student Julia Zachary ’17 presented research at a press conference at the American Astronomical Society’s 229th annual meeting on Jan. 6. (Photo by © CorporateEventImages/Todd Buchanan)

Wesleyan Associate Professor of Astronomy Seth Redfield and astronomy student Julia Zachary ’17 recently reported at the 229th meeting of the American Astronomical Society on their research using data from the Hubble Space Telescope combined with two Voyager spacecraft probes, both very long-lived and successful NASA missions. The findings were shared in dozens of news outlets from the U.S. to India to Afghanistan.

According to Nature.com, “The work is a rare marriage of two of the most famous space missions — and an unprecedented glimpse at the realm between the stars.”

“If the Voyager spacecraft and the Google Street View car are going around your neighborhood taking pictures on the street, then Hubble is providing the overview, the road map for the Voyagers on their trip through interstellar space,” Zachary said at a press conference held Jan. 6.

Astronomers have used instruments such as Hubble to obtain indirect measurements of the material in interstellar space. But the Voyager probes are giving them a direct taste of this mysterious environment, sending back data on the electron density of their surroundings. “As an astronomer, I’m not used to having measurements from the place I’m observing,” Redfield said.

SpaceDaily.com reports: “A preliminary analysis of the Hubble observations reveals a rich, complex interstellar ecology, containing multiple clouds of hydrogen laced with other elements. Hubble data, combined with the Voyagers, have also provided new insights into how our sun travels through interstellar space.”

“This is a great opportunity to compare data from in situ measurements of the space environment by the Voyager spacecraft and telescopic measurements by Hubble,” said study leader Seth Redfield of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

“The Voyagers are sampling tiny regions as they plow through space at roughly 38,000 miles per hour. But we have no idea if these small areas are typical or rare. The Hubble observations give us a broader view because the telescope is looking along a longer and wider path. So Hubble gives context to what each Voyager is passing through.”

Read more at Astronomy.comThe Indian ExpressEarthSky.org and International Business Times. See photos of Zachary at the press conference on the American Astronomical Society’s website. A press release can be found on HubbleSite.

Redfield also is associate professor of integrative sciences.

Sultan Discusses Evolutionary Biology at the Royal Society in London

Sonia Sultan at the Royal Society, by Tom Parker for Quanta Magazine.

Sonia Sultan at the Royal Society. (Photo by Tom Parker for Quanta Magazine)

Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of  environmental studies, was invited to speak at a major meeting of London’s Royal Society in November.

The theme of the meeting was “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology.” Sultan was joined by biologists, anthropologists, doctors, computer scientists and other visionaries to discuss the future of evolutionary biology.

Sultan discussed her research on the Polygonum plant, known by its common name “smartweed.” Her research shows that if genetically identical smartweed plants are raised under different conditions, the end result is plants that may look like they belong to different species.

Sultan is a plant evolutionary ecologist. She is a major contributor to the empirical and conceptual literatures on individual plasticity and its relation to ecological breadth and adaptive evolution. In 2015, she published many of these ideas in the book Organism and Environment: Ecological Development, Niche Construction and Adaptation (Oxford University Press).

In addition, Sultan is now affiliated with an international consortium of evolutionary biologists who are testing some of new ideas as part of a multi-million dollar grant project titled “The Extended Evolutionary Synthesis“, primarily funded by the John Templeton Foundation.

Bodznick Co-Authors Book on Cerebellar Sense of Self

bodznickIn human beings, the cerebellum occupies only 10 percent of the brain volume, yet has approximately 69 billion neurons; that is 80 percent of the nerve cells in the brain.

In the book Evolution of the Cerebellar Sense of Self, published by Oxford University Press in January, co-authors David Bodznick and John Montgomery use an evolutionary perspective to explain cerebellar research to a wide audience. Bodznick is professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan, and Montgomery is professor of biology and marine science at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The cerebellum first arose in jawed vertebrates such as sharks, and early vertebrates also have an additional cerebellum-like structure in the hindbrain. Shark cerebellum-like structures function as so-called adaptive filters to discriminate ‘self’ from ‘other’ in sensory inputs.

According to Bodznick, “it is likely that the true cerebellum evolved from these cerebellum-like precursors, and that their adaptive filter functionality was adopted for motor control; paving the way for the athleticism and movement finesse that we see in all swimming, running, climbing and flying vertebrates,” he said.

This book will be of interest to neuroscientists, neurologists and psychologists, in addition to computer scientists, and engineers concerned with machine/human interactions and robotics.

Four Students Awarded NASA Connecticut Space Grants

Grant recipient Rami Hamati '19, left, at a workshop sponsored last summer by the CT Space Grant on helicopters and other small aircraft.

Grant recipient Rami Hamati ’19, left, is pictured at a workshop sponsored last summer by the Connecticut Space Grant on helicopters and other small aircraft.

Four Wesleyan undergraduate students have received grants from NASA’s Connecticut Space Grant Consortium.

Astronomy major Hannah Fritze ’18 was awarded $5,000 for an Undergraduate Research Fellowship Grant titled, “Searching for Intermediate Mass Black Holes in Ultraluminous X-ray Binaries.” This grant will support her research this coming semester on black holes with Roy Kilgard, support astronomer and research associate professor of astronomy.

Avi Stein ’17, who is majoring in astronomy, was awarded $1,000 for a Student Travel Grant. He will be presenting his research on Venus—conducted with Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences—at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in March.

Rami Hamati ’19 and David Machado ’18 each received a $5,000 undergraduate scholarship. According to Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, associate professor of integrative sciences, these scholarships are awarded to students who show promise as a major in a STEM field related to NASA’s mission.

Read about past recipients of Connecticut Space Grants here and here.

Sultan Speaks at Conference on New Trends in Evolutionary Biology

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, was a guest speaker at the “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical, and Social Science Perspectives,” conference hosted by The Royal Society, London held Nov. 7-9.

The international event, in an effort to encourage cross-disciplinary discussion, brought together researchers from the humanities, sciences and social sciences to examine the many “developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields, which have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution.”

As part of the conference, Sultan spoke about “Developmental Plasticity: Re-conceiving the Genotype,” a topic which examines the possibility of “re-conceiving the genotype as an environmental response repertoire rather than a fixed developmental program.”

Sultan’s work also was featured in an article published in The Atlantic on Nov. 28, which highlighted the move to expand upon the theory of evolution.

Using the smartweed plant and its living, environmental conditions as an example, Sultan explained how allowing the plant to grow in low sunlight versus allowing the plant to grow in bright sunlight produces plants “that may look like they belong to different species, even though they’re are genetically identical.” In low sunlight the leaves take on a very broad shape, where as in bright sunlight they are narrower. “This flexibility or plasticity in adapting to the amount of sunlight can itself help drive evolution, by allowing the plant to spread to a range of habitats,” she says.

More on Sultan’s work, as well as, the work of other presenters can be found here.

Sanislow’s Research on Psychiatric Diagnosis Published in 2 Journals

Charles Sanislow

Charles Sanislow

Charles Sanislow, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, is the author of two papers in leading journals for psychiatry and psychology on his work with the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). The RDoC is a framework to drive translational research to improve psychiatric diagnosis and develop new and better treatments.

In the October issue of World Psychiatry, Sanislow reports on ongoing RDoC work, including the consideration of adding the domain “Motor Systems” to the RDoC. Early this month, Sanislow participated in a workshop at NIMH to review the evidence for research constructs having to do with disruptions of movement related to psychopathology.

In the November issue of the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Sanislow argues for the need to research connections between internal mechanisms and core dimensions of human suffering and dysfunction. In Sanislow’s lab at Wesleyan, students learn methods to study alterations in cognitive and neural processes, and ways to clarify how such alterations relate to clinical symptoms. Sanislow began work on the RDoC when it started in 2009, and he continues to serve as member of the NIMH Internal Working Group for the project.

Redfield Speaks to Wesleyan Staff about Discovering Exoplanets

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On Oct. 31, Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, spoke on “Blue Skies on Distant Worlds” during a special luncheon for staff in Daniel Family Commons. Redfield, whose research interests focus on exoplanets and their atmospheres, explained how astronomers can detect and measure planets outside of our solar system. In the same way Earth orbits around the sun, an exoplanet will circle around a star. For some planetary systems, from Earth, astronomers can view the the exoplanet passing directly in front of its host star once per orbit.

Taylor Co-Authors Study on Knotted Protein Configurations

Erika Taylor

Erika Taylor

Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry, is a co-author of a paper titled, “Methyl transfer by substrate signaling from a knotted protein fold,” published in the August 2016 issue of the Nature Structural & Molecular Biology newsletter.

The paper describes the protein TrmD, an enzyme that catalyzes tRNA modification, but unlike most proteins, TrmD has an “interesting knotted configuration, which is not common,” Taylor said.

The paper demonstrates that even in proteins with knotted configurations, the internal protein movements and dynamics are important for binding, signaling and catalysis.

“This is exciting because one might expect knotted proteins to be more static in their structure due to the knot, where the amino acids wrap in on themselves, but the evidence suggests that protein dynamics are just as important in these types (knotted configurations) of proteins,” she said.

 

NSF Supports Singer’s Research on Habitat Fragmentation in Connecticut

Mike Singer.

Mike Singer.

Mike Singer, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation this month to support a study on habitat fragmentation. Fragmentation occurs when contiguous habitats become separated into smaller, isolated areas often caused by human activities (new roads, housing developments) or natural processes (flooding, drought).

Singer and his colleagues will study the effect of anthropogenic forest fragmentation on the food web of plants, herbivores, and carnivores (tri-trophic interactions) in Connecticut. The project will focus on relationships among deer, trees, caterpillars, and songbirds.

The grant, which will be awarded over three years, is shared with Robert Bagchi, David Wagner, and Christopher Elphick in the University of Connecticut’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Wesleyan’s part of the award totals $258,933 and UConn’s part totals approximately $573,000.

As part of the grant, Singer will recruit a new PhD student to work on the study.

The research team will test several possible reasons for the loss of caterpillars, which are important food for songbirds, in highly fragmented forests. For example, some of their preliminary evidence suggests that forest fragmentation creates better habitat for deer, which browse out some of the best food plant species for caterpillars.

The PhD student will be tasked with testing the hypothesis that caterpillars grow more poorly on the plants in highly fragmented versus large forest tracts.

At Wesleyan, Singer teaches courses on conservation biology, ecology, plant-animal interactions and evolutionary biology.