Tag Archive for College of the Environment

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.

Cohan: Human Behavior Affects Virus Evolution

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan, the Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology, is a microbial ecologist whose course “Global Change and Infectious Disease” examines how human disturbance of the environment contributes to infectious disease outbreaks. He also researches the origins of diversity among both bacteria and viruses.

In early February, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread, Cohan wrote an article in The Conversation, co-authored with PhD candidate Kathleen Sagarin and Kelly Mei ’20, titled, “A Clue to Stopping Coronavirus: Knowing How Viruses Adapt From Animals to Humans.”

Cohan also was interviewed recently by The Wesleyan Argus about the biology of the coronavirus.

You teach a course on Global Change and Infectious Disease, which looks at how human disturbance of the environment can contribute to infectious disease outbreaks like the one we’re now living through. Can you give us a brief introduction to the course?

I teach this course every year or two, and there are usually over 170 students enrolled. I’m also in the middle of writing a book based on the course content. We talk about five categories of environmental disturbance that humans are creating or have created in the past that bring new diseases to us or exacerbate existing ones. The categories are: demand for food (hunting and agriculture), demand for land (living at high density), demand for travel, demand for energy, and demand for health care (including antibiotics).

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News
1. The Open Mind: “Democratizing the Jury”

Associate Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti is interviewed in connection with her new book, Radical Enfranchisement in the Jury Room and Public Life, in which she offers a “full-throated defense of juries as a democratic institution.” “I am very interested in how ordinary people engage with political institutions, and juries are the place where ordinary people have the most power,” she says. Chakravarti calls for more robust civic education, continuing into adulthood, in order to have a “more effective, modern jury system.”

2. Hartford Courant: “Sen. Murphy, Aiming to Expand Pell Grant Eligibility for Incarcerated Students, Hears from Inmates at York Correctional Institution”

Senator Chris Murphy, who is the co-sponsor of a bill to expand the federal Pell grant program for college students to include inmates, met with 11 inmates who have participated in educational programs at York Correctional Institution through the Wesleyan Center for Prison Education and other college-in-prison programs.“What’s important about the REAL Act is that college affordability should be accessible to all students regardless of where they are,” said CPE program manager Allie Cislo. “It’s one thing rhetorically to commit to reentry,” she said, but resources like educational programs “can make or break it for people.”

3. American Theatre: “Digging for New Roots”

This article on “climate change theatre” features Ocean Filibuster, a play by Assistant Professor of Theater Katie Pearl through her theater company, PearlDamour. Commenting on the play’s premise, in which a new Senate bill proposes sentencing the world’s oceans to death and the ocean stands to speak in its own defense, Pearl said, “We thought, well, what if the ocean finally got fed up with taking all of our crap, and started talking and didn’t stop until we actually shut up and listened?” American Theatre, a leading publication in the theater industry, writes: “Ocean Filibuster recalibrates the human experience by reminding us of the comparatively small scale and depth of our own existence.”

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News

1. Hartford Courant: “Jeanine Basinger, the ‘Professor of Hollywood,’ Is Wesleyan University’s Homegrown Screen Legend”

Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, Emerita Jeanine Basinger, whom this article notes has been dubbed “the professor of Hollywood” and “an iconic figure in American cinema, one of the most beloved and respected film history professors in the history of film studies” by The Hollywood Reporter, is interviewed on the occasion of her 60th year at Wesleyan, and the 50th since she created its film program. She talks about her next book on American film comedy, shares some of her favorite things, and muses on which actress would play her in a movie of her life.

2. Los Angeles Review of Books: “‘We Need More Vigorous Debate’: A Conversation with Michael S. Roth”

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins, managing editor of Modern Intellectual History, interviews President Michael Roth in connection with his latest book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech, and Political Correctness on College Campuses. Roth discusses his career path from intellectual historian to university administrator and professor, and offers his unique perspective on debates surrounding freedom of speech and political correctness.

3. Los Angeles Times: “Kirk Douglas Dead at 103; ‘Spartacus’ Star Helped End Hollywood Blacklist”

Jeanine Basinger, the Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies, Emerita, comments on Kirk Douglas’s legacy following the film icon’s death at 103. Recalling when she first saw him on-screen in the 1940s, she said, “He wasn’t a traditional leading man, really, in looks, and yet he had an unmistakable charisma and power on screen—not just the glamour of the movie star, though he did have that, but real acting chops. So you knew he was going to be a star.” She added, “He was a very modern American antihero type, but he could also play anything, really.”

Recent Media Hits

NewsWesleyan in the News

  1. Connecticut Public Radio: “The Struggle for Sleep: Why More School Districts Are Considering Later Starts”

Speaking as both a scholar and a mother, Associate Professor of Psychology Anna Shusterman comments in this story on the movement to push schools in the state to start later. “People ask me, as a developmental psychologist, ‘Oh, we have this mental health crisis in the state, what are we going to do, what should we be funding, what kind of resources do we need to build in?’ And I just think it’s so silly when we have such a straightforward solution that has such large, measurable impacts.”

2. The Washington Post: “For the Super Bowl, Bloomberg and Trump Are Each Spending $10 Million on Ads”

Associate Professor of Government Erika Franklin Fowler and her colleagues on the Wesleyan Media Project write about what makes political advertising in the 2020 election cycle look so different (hint: two self-funded billionaires are blowing up existing records) and the unusual decision by candidates Michael Bloomberg and President Donald Trump to spend $10 million each to reach nearly 100 million American viewers at the same time. Fowler was also recently interviewed on Marketplace about political advertising.

3. Transitions Online: “Russian Government Reshuffle: Plus ça Change”

Peter Rutland, the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought, Professor of Government, analyzes the recent mass resignation of the Russian government following a surprise announcement from Russian President Vladamir Putin that he was rewriting the constitution. There is much unclear about the changes, including why Putin chose to make them at this time, and what the impact will be on Russia’s government. What is clear, Rutland writes, is that “Russia’s political system is broken” due to Putin’s constant tinkering with the country’s political institutions “to create the appearance of change while retaining power in his own hands.”

4. The Middletown Press: “Wesleyan Student Heading to Hollywood Among Writers of the Future Winners”

Wesleyan in the News

NewsIn this recurring feature in The Wesleyan Connection, we highlight some of the latest news stories about Wesleyan and our alumni.

Wesleyan in the News

  1. CNN: “What the ‘Woke Student’ and the ‘Welfare Queen’ Have in Common”

“Every age seems to need a bogeyman, some negative image against which good people measure themselves,” writes President Michael Roth ’78 in this op-ed. Roth compares today’s bogeyman, the “woke” college student, with those of past eras—the “welfare queen” and “dirty hippie”—and seeks to build understanding and dispel negative misperceptions of activist college students. “The images of the welfare queen and of the woke student are convenient because they provide excuses to not engage with difference, placing certain types of people beyond the pale,” he writes. “These scapegoats are meant to inspire solidarity in a group by providing an object for its hostility (or derision), and educators and civic leaders should not play along.”

2. Los Angeles Times: “Opinion: Our Food Is Tainted with E. Coli, Yet the FDA Is Rolling Back Safety Rules”

As yet another food-borne E. coli outbreak sickens Americans, Fred Cohan, the Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment and professor of biology, and Isaac Klimasmith ’20, argue in this op-ed that more can and should be done to prevent dangerous contaminations of our food supply. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rolled back rules that “would have required monitoring and treating irrigation water for E. coli,” a major cause of these outbreaks. “We should not be surprised that a regulation-averse administration would disregard the science of food safety, but it is concerning that consumers have become complacent about yearly outbreaks of E. coli contamination and largely silent about the rollback of food safety regulations,” they write.

3. The Washington Post: “What Happens When College Students Discuss Lab Work in Spanish, Philosophy in Chinese or Opera in Italian?”

Stephen Angle, director of the Fries Center for Global Studies, professor of philosophy, and the Mansfield Professor of East Asian Studies, is interviewed about Wesleyan’s efforts to promote language study, including the new Cultures and Languages Across the Curriculum (CLAC) initiative, through which students can study a range of disciplines in other languages. For example, Angle teaches a Mandarin-language section of Classical Chinese Philosophy, a course historically taught in English. Read more about CLAC and Wesleyan’s language instruction here.

Annual Liberal Arts + Forum Highlight of Recent Trip to Asia

At the second annual Liberal Arts + forum in Beijing on Oct. 19, from left, Richard Adelstein, the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics, and Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, spoke on a panel moderated by Julia Zhu '91 about Wesleyan's unique interdisciplinary approach to teaching economics and environmental studies.

At the second annual Liberal Arts + Forum in Beijing on Oct. 19, Richard Adelstein, the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics, left, and Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies, center, spoke on a panel moderated by Julia Zhu ’91, right, about Wesleyan’s unique interdisciplinary approach to teaching economics and environmental studies.

In October, President Michael Roth and other Wesleyan faculty and staff traveled to Asia to meet with alumni, parents, prospective families, and others. The trip included visits to Seoul, Beijing, and Taipei.

A highlight of the trip was Wesleyan’s second annual Liberal Arts + Sustainable Economic Development Forum, which took place in Beijing on Oct. 19. Last year, Wesleyan held the inaugural Liberal Arts + Forum in Shanghai, which highlighted film education and US-China collaborations. (Read the story here.)

Over 100 people attended this year’s forum, including prospective students and families, current parents, counselors, and alumni. The day started with an “admission 101” workshop by Associate Dean of Admission James Huerta that provided invaluable insights for prospective families preparing for the college admission process.

Attendees regrouped in the afternoon for Roth’s opening remarks, which highlighted the importance of interdisciplinary learning and how a liberal arts education equips students with a lifetime of important skills. This was followed by a panel discussion moderated by Julia Zhu ’91, entrepreneur and CEO of Phoenix TV Culture and Live Entertainment Company; Richard Adelstein, the Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economic; and Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies. The speakers discussed Wesleyan’s unique interdisciplinary approach to teaching economics and environmental studies. Later, Tian Ai ’06 and Yinghai Xie ’97, alumni working in the financial services industry, shared their insights into the value of a liberal arts education in personal growth and careers in the second panel, moderated by Ted Plafker ’86, P’17, ’18.

Forum attendee and volunteer Tianhua Shao P’21 commented, “It’s such a privilege to serve as a parent volunteer. Although the forum took a day, I had the valuable opportunity to talk with President Roth, professors, and alumni, and enhance my understanding of liberal arts education and Wesleyan. As a transfer, my daughter is taking full advantage of Wesleyan’s open curriculum and thrives at Wesleyan each and every day!”

Poulos Studies Endangered Grass on Texas-Mexico Border

Pictured third from right, Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, gathers with the “Fescue Rescue” team at Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Mexico. There, the scientists are studying Guadalupe fescue, an endangered grass species.

field sites in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahila Mexico

Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies, works at a field site in the Sierra del Carmens, Coahuila Mexico. In September 2017, the U.S. government determined that Festuca ligulata needed protected species status and designated it a critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The rare Guadalupe fescue once thrived in abundance atop mountains spanning the Texas-Mexico border, however, the desert-growing perennial grass is now so endangered, it only flourishes in two locations on Earth.

The rapid population decline is leaving scientists puzzled.

“Developing an effective recovery plan is essential for protecting Guadalupe fescue, however, the lack of basic information about this species’ ecology is a serious barrier to that goal,” explained Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies. “Urgent action is needed to stabilize the two extant populations.”

This summer, under Poulos’s leadership, Wesleyan received a National Park Service Grant to study Festuca ligulata through the Southwest Borderlands Resource Protection Program. She joined a bi-national team of scientists known as “Fescue Rescue” to research the two isolated fescue populations in Texas’s Big Bend National Park and the Maderas del Carmen Protected Area in Coahuila, Mexico.

Said Poulos, a plant ecologist who has worked at desert borderland sites for more than a decade, “The Guadalupe fescue has become so endangered that this has become a significant national and international conservation concern.”

Backed by the NPS grant, the Fescue Rescue team will conduct onsite visits from October to mid-November 2019 during Guadalupe fescue seed maturation. Seeds will be collected during this time and transported to labs at Sul Ross State University in Texas and Universidad Autónoma Antonio Narro in Mexico. At these locations, scientists will germinate the seeds and grow their own fescue refugial populations for multiple research purposes.

“Together, they’ll provide a springboard for future plant population genetics, enrichment planting, and adaptive management research on both sides of the border,” Poulos said. “Such information is vital for elaborating site-specific management plans for the species on both U.S. and Mexican soils.”

They’ll study environmental variables, inventory seed production, identify key factors that promote reproductive viability, and ultimately establish refugial populations on both sides of the border.

Although virtually nothing is known about the environmental influences on the growth and reproduction of Guadalupe fescue, Poulos believes the fescue’s population decline is a result of multiple factors.

“Environmental factors that have likely negatively influenced the fescue populations include a recent shift to a hotter and drier climate, the genetic and demographic consequences of small population sizes and isolation, trampling by humans and pack animals, trail runoff, competition from invasive species, and fungal infection of seeds,” she said.

In addition, naturally occurring wildfires, which play an important role in rejuvenating ecosystems, are rare due to livestock grazing in the early 1900s and subsequent direct fire suppression continuing to the present. The remaining plants in the two disjunct populations are likely highly inbred and lack genetic diversity. This can threaten the capacity of populations to resist pathogens and parasites, adapt to changing environmental conditions, and colonize new habitats.

Poulos hopes to deliver her final reports to the National Park Service by summer 2020.

College of the Environment Supports 32 Student Researchers this Summer

This summer the College of the Environment is funding 32 research opportunities here on campus, from coast to coast, and worldwide, from Connecticut and California to Costa Rica and Ghana.

That’s more than $135K for undergrad research, regardless of major or class year.

Students are studying forest fragmentation in Connecticut; volcanic lake ecosystems in Oregon; Lingzhi mushroom’s influence on Chinese medicine; effects of mercury pollution on Eastern Blacknose Dace snakes; solar cell materials; and much more. 

Researchers Explore the Effects of Dam Removal on Bottom-Dwelling Aquatic Animals

COE

Kate Miller PhD ’13

Although dam removal is an increasingly common stream restoration tool, it may also represent a major disturbance to rivers that can have varied impacts on environmental conditions and aquatic biota.

In a paper titled “Dam Removal Effects on Benthic Macroinvertebrate Dynamics: A New England Stream Case Study, five researchers from Wesleyan examined the effects of dam removal on the structure, function, and composition of benthic macroinvertebrate (BMI) communities in a temperate New England stream. The benthic—or “bottom-dwelling”—macroinvertebrates are small aquatic animals that are commonly used to study biological conditions of water bodies.

The paper is published in the May 21 edition of Sustainability, an international, cross-disciplinary, scholarly, peer-reviewed and open-access journal of environmental, cultural, economic, and social sustainability of human beings.

Ross Heinemann '09, MA '13

Ross Heinemann ’09, MA ’13

The paper’s coauthors include Helen Poulos, adjunct assistant professor of environmental studies; Barry Chernoff, the Robert Schumann Professor of Environmental Studies; Kate Miller PhD ’13; Ross Heinemann ’09, MA ’13; Michelle Kraczkowski PhD ’13; and Adam Whelchel from the Nature Conservancy in New Haven, Conn.

The results of their study indicated that the dam removal stimulated major shifts in BMI community structure and composition above and below the dam.

“Our research shows that the effects of dam removal on the river were not predictable. During the fours years of the study after dam removal, the river did not return to its original state in the areas where the dam was removed,” Chernoff explained.

Hatch Authors New Book on “The Secret Drugging of Captive America”

Associate Professor Anthony Hatch (Photo by Robert Adam Mayer).

Associate Professor Anthony Hatch (Photo by Robert Adam Mayer).

Associate Professor of Science in Society Anthony Ryan Hatch is the author of a new book, Silent Cells: The Secret Drugging of Captive America, published on April 30 by University of Minnesota Press.

The book is a critical investigation into the use of psychotropic drugs to pacify and control inmates and other captives in the vast U.S. prison, military, and welfare systems.

According to the publisher:

“For at least four decades, U.S. prisons and jails have aggressively turned to psychotropic drugs—antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedatives, and tranquilizers—to silence inmates, whether or not they have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. In Silent Cells, Anthony Ryan Hatch demonstrates that the pervasive use of psychotropic drugs has not only defined and enabled mass incarceration but has also become central to other forms of captivity, including foster homes, military and immigrant detention centers, and nursing homes.

Yohe in The Conversation: The Economic Cost of Devastating Hurricanes and Other Extreme Weather Events Is Even Worse Than We Thought

Gary Yohe

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, Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies Gary Yohe writes about the economic costs of climate change, which he argues will hit our economy much sooner than many people realize.

The economic cost of devastating hurricanes and other extreme weather events is even worse than we thought

June marks the official start of hurricane season. If recent history is any guide, it will prove to be another destructive year thanks to the worsening impact of climate change.

But beyond more intense hurricanes and explosive wildfires, the warming climate has been blamed for causing a sharp uptick in all types of extreme weather events across the country, such as severe flooding across the U.S. this spring and extensive drought in the Southwest in recent years.

Late last year, the media blared that these and other consequences of climate change could cut U.S. GDP by 10% by the end of the century – “more than double the losses of the Great Depression,” as The New York Times intoned. That figure was drawn from a single figure in the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment. (Disclosure: I reviewed that report and was the vice chair on the third one, released in 2014.)