Tag Archive for faculty research

Autry Discusses the Use of Skin-Bleaching Agents During Luncheon Talk for Staff

robyn autry

Robyn Autry, associate professor of sociology, spoke on “Bleach, and Other Performance Enhancing Drugs” as part of Wesleyan’s staff luncheon series Nov. 17.

While it’s considered acceptable, or even expected, for women to cover fine lines and wrinkles with makeup, creams, injectables, or undergo cosmetic procedures like facelifts as they age, the idea of altering skin tone—especially for Black and brown people who are the most likely to face colorism—is a newer, and oddly popular, skincare craze.

“For [some] Black people it’s not about whether our skin is dewy, glowing, or glassy, or whether we’re trying to conceal acne scars or minimize the appearance of wrinkles and fine lines. It’s about whether we’re trying to appear closer to white,” said Robyn Autry, associate professor of sociology.

Autry, a critical sociologist, is an expert on topics related to racial identity, Blackness, and memory studies. On Nov. 17, she delivered a talk titled “Bleach, and Other Performance Enhancing Drugs” as part of Wesleyan’s staff luncheon series.

The face-whitening trend is booming in America, especially among Black celebrities. Autry showed “before and after” images of professional baseball player Sammy Sosa; model Blac Chyna; and musical artists Beyonce, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj—all of whom have been accused of transforming their dark skin to light brown or even white. Their bright faces are frequently framed by silky blonde hair.

Sammy Sosa

Sammy Sosa, then and now.

Dominican Republic native Sammy Sosa, in particular, “has always stood out to me not for his athletic ability but for his open embrace of skin bleaching and other modifications to his hair texture and eye color,” Autry said. “A couple of years after he retired in 2009 some commented on his lighter complexion, but it would be several more years before he reappeared at the 10-year anniversary of his retirement looking undeniably bleached out. Sosa admitted to using bleaching creams; he used them every night to soften his skin, and they happened to also lighten it.”

Blac Chyna

Blac Chyna models for Whitenicious’ Diamond Illuminating and Lightening facial cream.

Similarly defiant, entertainer Blac Chyna received public slack after endorsing a new product line called Whitenicious in Nigeria.

“Many of her fans and other observers felt betrayed and insulted by the blatant disavowal of dark skin as a problem to be treated or corrected. Others saw it as a money grab noting that it’ll cost you $250 to get a 3.5-ounce jar of the signature lightening cream,” Autry said.

Sammy Sosa and Blac Chyna, along with a handful of other celebrities like rapper Azealia Banks who compared whitening her skin to wearing a weave, stand out “because they neither deny nor apologize for desiring lightened complexions. And Black people are not expected to admit to skin bleaching let alone desire it,” Autry said.

Blackness, Autry says, carries with it a demand for the truth, a claim to authenticity that is wrapped up in notions of being and looking natural. She wonders if a natural skin movement will follow in the footsteps of the recent natural hair movement. “Will I one day proudly declare ‘Oh, I wear my skin natural.’ What would that mean? No concealer? No more cat eyes?”

Several of Autry’s comments brought chuckles to the 50 staff members in attendance. And she also led a Q&A following the talk. Others continued to discuss the idea of skin-bleaching after the event.

“Professor Autry was engaging and funny, and it seemed clear that she was eager to share her insights. It was such a compelling new set of ideas and I left curious to know more,” said Anne Marcotty, senior designer in University Communications. “I was interested to learn that there is a social shame (judgment) associated with skin bleaching similar to steroid use in athletes, which suggests that there’s a belief that making one’s skin lighter is akin to cheating. It made me wonder about the nature of cultural meaning, and how deeply ingrained certain beliefs/prejudices are, for instance, the way white people getting a tan has changed meaning as labor and leisure practices have changed over time.”

Autry noted that America’s desire for liquid bleach skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Clorox ranked No. 1 in the 2020 Axios Harris Poll that ranks corporate reputations. Of course, the bleaching agents used to whiten skin are different from the ones used to whiten laundry and disinfect counters and floors. Whitening face creams contain hydroquinone—a topical skin-bleaching agent, which was banned from over-the-counter beauty products in the U.S. in 2020. Nevertheless, Vogue estimates that by 2027, the skin whitening industry is projected to be worth more than $27 billion dollars.

“What’s more important to me is that the word ‘bleach’ and ‘bleaching’ is used to talk about skin lightening,” Autry said. “Many people view bleach as the ‘gold standard’ for household cleaning of all sorts, and not just during pandemics. Bleach has corrosive properties and has also been linked to a number of health concerns from skin irritation to respiratory illness.”

Skin “bleachers,” then, are in a way “enhancing their performances by scrubbing themselves clean,” she said. “Or that’s the idea anyway.”

audience

Fifty staff members attended Autry’s talk.

Student Researchers Discover Potential “Plastic-Eating” Bacteria on Campus

Chloe De Palo '22

Chloe De Palo ’22 explains how potential plastic-degrading bacteria were collected from a soil sample at Long Lane Farm.

A team of researchers at Wesleyan has discovered new strains of bacteria—located on the University’s campus—that may have the ability to break down microplastics and aid in the world’s ongoing plastic waste crisis.

Microplastics, which measure less than .20 of an inch, enter the ecosystem— and our bodies— largely through the abrasion of larger plastic pieces dumped into the environment. According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology, the average person consumes at least 50,000 particles of microplastic a year and inhales a similar quantity.

“Plastic is typically classified as a non-biodegradable substance. However, some bacteria have proven themselves to be capable of metabolizing plastics,” said Chloe De Palo ’22. “Ultimately, through our research and experiments, we hope to find an effective method of removing plastic pollutants from the environment.”

Fatai Olabemiwo

Fatai Olabemiwo

De Palo ’22, along with Rachel Hsu ’23; Claudia Kunney ’24; and biology PhD candidate Fatai Olabemiwo are members of the Cohan Laboratory in Microbiology, led by Fred Cohan, Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology. The team has spent almost two years working on a project titled “Isolating Potential Plastic Degraders from a Winogradsky Column.” They presented their most recent findings at Wesleyan’s Summer Research Poster Session.

On March 7, 2020 the research team gathered soil samples from Wesleyan’s Long Lane Farm. They placed samples of the agricultural soil, along with plastic strips, inside a modified Winogradsky column, a microbiological tool for culturing broad microbial diversity. The device—invented by Russian scientist Sergei Winogradsky in the 1880s—is still commonly used today to culture bacteria from natural soil and sediments.

project

Pictured is a Winogradsky column on day 1 (March 7, 2020) and day 496 (June 28, 2021)

“We modified this wonderful device to yield a range of plastic degrades by placing plastic strips at four different zones inside the column,” Olabemiwo explained. “Then we added a medium called Bushnell-Haas Broth, which contains all the requirements for the growth of the microbes except for carbon, to the modified device.”

Now that the columns are sealed, it’s time to wait—for 16 months.

“During this time, we expected the bacteria to ‘tickle’ the strips and eventually adhere to the strips,” Olabemiwo said.

The experiment worked surprisingly well. After 496 days in the soil-broth mixture, Cohan Lab members removed the plastic strips aseptically. Not only did they weigh less, proving that bacteria were effectively decomposing the plastic, but the strips also hosted a diverse community of bacteria from which the lab members isolated 146 strains.

While the majority of the bacteria cultures could be identified through the National Center for Biotechnological Information (NCBI) taxonomy browser, the researchers learned that 24 were discovered species but not characterized and classified, and 28 were novel, undiscovered species.

“We’ll actually be naming them, genomically sequencing them, and adding them to the NCBI taxonomy browser, ” Cohan said.

Now that each bacterium is isolated, the Cohan Lab is working this fall to confirm their potential plastic-degrading abilities by feeding them minute plastic discs in a petri dish. If confirmed, the “plastic-eaters” could help biotechnological companies create a product that could remove microplastics from the environment.

Rachel Hsu '23, Kunney, Chloe De Palo '22

Rachel Hsu ’23, Chloe De Palo ’22, and Claudia Kunney ’24 are the undergraduate researchers working on the project.

bacteria

Rachel Hsu, a biology and psychology double major, holds samples of the isolated bacteria in a petri dish.

Faculty Collaborate on New, Patent-Pending, Hypersensitive Accelerometer

Tsampikos Kottos, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, professor of physics; Rodion Kononchuk, postdoctoral physics research associate; and Joseph Knee, Beach Professor of Chemistry

Tsampikos Kottos, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, professor of physics; Rodion Kononchuk, postdoctoral physics research associate; and Joseph Knee, Beach Professor of Chemistry, are developing a hypersensitive sensor at Wesleyan.

When launching spacecrafts and missiles, small navigational mistakes could lead to catastrophic results. A satellite could spin completely out of orbit, a missile could mistakenly strike a civilian territory, or a spaceship could end up at another planet altogether.

Three Wesleyan researchers are collaborating on the development of a novel sensor that would benefit navigation and several other applications.

The new, hypersensitive acceleration sensor is based on a principle borrowed from nuclear physics and has been developed at Wesleyan. It provides enhanced sensitivity and precision compared to conventional sensors.

“Our underlying concept can be applied in a variety of sensing applications ranging from avionics and earthquake monitoring to bio-sensing,” said study co-author Rodion Kononchuk, postdoctoral physics research associate in Wesleyan’s Wave Transport in Complex Systems Laboratory. “We believe that our results will attract a broad interest from research and engineering communities across a wide range of disciplines, which could result in a realization of next-generation sensors.”

In a June 2021 Science Advances article titled “Enhanced Avionic Sensing Based on Wigner’s Cusp Anomalies,” Kononchuk, along with Tsampikos Kottos, Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science and Society, professor of physics; Joseph Knee, Beach Professor of Chemistry; and Joshua Feinberg, professor of physics at the University of Haifa in Israel, shared their study’s results.

The Wesleyan team has demonstrated a whopping 60-fold improved performance in acceleration measurements compared to conventional accelerometers (i.e. sensing devices that measure variations in the acceleration). Wesleyan has already supported a provisional patent application for this study.

Kottos, who spearheads the Physics Department’s Wave Transport in Complex Systems Laboratory, says a “good sensor” is characterized by two elements: its high sensitivity to small “perturbations” and its dynamical range. The latter is the ratio of the maximum to the minimum perturbation that a sensor can detect. And the larger the dynamic range, the better it is.

“Think of a spacecraft or missile. When it takes off, it develops high accelerations, but in the voyage, it needs to detect small accelerations in order to correct its trajectory,” Kottos said. “We believe that our sensor has the ability to measure such a large range of accelerations. Moreover, it is simple to implement and does not suffer from excessive noise that can degrade the quality of the measurements—as opposed to some recent proposals of hypersensitive sensing.”

Although the project is heavily physics-based, Kottos and Kononchuk knew they needed a chemist to help turn their theories into a reality. As it turned out, Knee—who is an expert on optical sensing—had laboratory experience that was applicable to the current project.

“It was wonderful to be brought into such an exciting project,” Knee said. “My research area is in laser spectroscopy which requires significant expertise and experimental capabilities in optical physics. Fortunately, my lab had some key capabilities which helped us put together an experimental prototype that ultimately was used to validate the theoretical constructs.”

“Joe’s experimental expertise in the chemistry framework was crucial for building the experimental platform,” Kottos said. “Our initial discussions helped us to better understand what can or cannot be done and allowed us to successfully design the experiment with a limited budget.”

Kottos began research for the new hypersensitive avionic sensor design in 2018 after receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense. The guiding principles were to maximize the sensitivity of the sensor without compromising its dynamical range [i.e. the ratio between the largest and smallest perturbation that a sensor can measure] while making it as cheap and simple to make, as possible.

The current sensor design is approximately 4 inches long, but the size could be reduced depending on the application. Smartphone sensors, for example, measure about 1/4 of an inch, but they are far less sensitive than the design created at Wesleyan. Wesleyan undergraduate Jimmy Clifford ’23 is currently working on simulations to come up with a miniaturized design of this concept.

“Once we have it, either we will have to partner with a fabricator or we will have to off-shore the design and test it at Wesleyan,” Kottos said. “We hope to take this concept to production and hopefully to the marketplace!”

Read more:
The Why Axis: Cutting-Edge Science at Wesleyan (Wesleyan University Magazine)

Kottos Awarded Simons Collaborative Grant to Advance Wave Transport Research

Kottos Awarded $2.8M DARPA Grant for High-Level Photonic Research

Kottos Awarded Engineering Grant from the National Science Foundation

Restored Peacock Displayed in Wesleyan’s Science Library

peacock

The entrance to the Science Library in Exley Science Center houses a taxidermied peacock that has been restored by faculty and students in the biology department. The peacock, originally rediscovered in 2018 and put on exhibit in spring 2019, is part of a bird collection that was first displayed at the museum in Judd Hall and now belongs to the Wesleyan Museum of Natural History.

The restoration team, which includes Professor of Biology Ann Campbell Burke, Yu Kai Tan BA/MA ’21, Andy Tan ’21, and Fletcher Levy ’23, recently updated the display to include new signage and fresh peacock feathers from biology professors Stephen Devoto and Joyce Ann Powzyk’s farm.

“It was found in storage alongside a whole bunch of minerals in Room 316 of Exley,” Yu Kai Tan said. “It was sitting way up high on this shelf, and probably since 1970, no one has looked at it or touched it. It was covered in dust and muck.”

When the team first found the peacock, it was in such poor condition that they needed to call for outside help.

Kurtz Speaks on Improving Thinking Skills in Schizophrenia

Kurtz

On Nov. 18 as part of the Wesleyan Faculty Lunch Talk series, Matthew Kurtz, professor of psychology, spoke about “Thinking Skills in Schizophrenia: Can They Be Improved, and If So, How?” Kurtz said people with schizophrenia have cognitive deficits in attention and memory, which seem to predict the degree to which they are able to participate in community activities, make friends, attend a work skills or social skills program, or have stronger performance-based functions such as making phone calls, organizing, or making a doctor’s appointment. “This suggests that if we were to elevate cognition, we might be able to elevate function.”

Angle Guest-Edits Special Issue of Contemporary Chinese Thought

Stephen Angle

Stephen Angle

Stephen Angle, Mansfield Freeman Professor of East Asian Studies, professor of philosophy, has had a number of recent publications.

Angle is the editor of “The Adolescence of Mainland New Confucianism,” special issue 49:2 of Contemporary Chinese Thought (2018). The issue is devoted to recent mainland Chinese Confucian philosophizing, and particularly to arguments about what “Mainland New Confucianism” signifies, which were prompted by noted Taiwanese scholar Li Minghui’s 2015 remarks about Mainland New Confucianism.

Angle also wrote an introduction to the issue, which explores how Mainland New Confucianism has entered a somewhat more diverse and mature stage than previously. The introduction also reflects on the place of Confucianism within contemporary East Asia.

Earlier this year, Angle authored the article “Does Confuscian Public Reason Depend on Confucian Civil Religion?”, which was published in the Journal of Social Philosophy. The article focuses on a dimension of the increasingly pluralist field of political philosophy, in which Western and non‐Western theories and experiences are reevaluated in light of one another.

In addition to these publications, Angle is a contributor to and co-administrator of Neo-Confucianism, a companion website for Angle’s book, co-authored with Justin Tiwald, Neo-Confucianism: A Philosophical Introduction (2017); and Warp, Weft, and Way, a group blog focused on on Chinese and comparative philosophy.

Besides his research and teaching responsibilities, Angle also serves as the director of the Fries Center for Global Studies. He is a principal investigator on the “Wesleyan South Asia Initiative,” a grant awarded by the US Department of Education’s Undergraduate International Studies and Foreign Language program (2018–2020).

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.

Scholars Discuss Digital Methods in Research and Teaching

Faculty and students from Wesleyan, Binghamton University, Marlboro College, the University of Illinois and Exeter University participated in a two-day workshop titled "From Theory to Practice: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching" Sept. 7-8 in Allbritton Hall.

Faculty and students from Wesleyan, Binghamton University, Marlboro College, the University of Illinois and Exeter University participated in a two-day workshop titled “From Theory to Practice: Digital Methods in Research and Teaching” Sept. 7-8 at the Allbritton Center.

A new collaborative research hub, supported by Wesleyan’s Quantitative Analysis Center, provides faculty and students with the tools to prepare, analyze and disseminate information on movement, travel and communication in easily-accessible formats.

The Traveler’s Lab, developed by faculty members Gary Shaw, Jesse Torgerson and Adam Franklin-Lyons at Marlboro College, connects the faculty with each others’ projects, but also with students who are interested in an interdisciplinary approach to historical research.

Robinson Lab Researches the Effects of Junk Food Diets

Michael Robinson, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior at Wesleyan University. (Photo by Olivia Drake/Wesleyan University)

Michael Robinson

Mike Robinson, assistant professor of psychology, is a co-author of a paper titled “The impact of junk-food diet during development on ‘wanting’ and ‘liking’.” The paper was recently published in The Behavioral Brain Research Journal. His co-authors include Wesleyan alumni Ellen Nacha Lesser ’15, Aime Arroyo-Ramirez ‘16, and Sarah Jingyi Mi ’16.

The research looked at the developmental impacts of a chronic junk-food diet throughout development and how it blunts pleasure and affects motivation. The study found that chronic exposure to a junk-food diet resulted in large individual differences in weight gain (gainers and non-gainers) despite resulting in stunted growth as compared to chow-fed controls. Behaviorally, junk food exposure attenuated conditioned approach (autoshaping) in females, particularly in non-gainers. In contrast, junk-food exposed rats that gained the most weight were willing to work harder for access to a food cue (conditioned reinforcement), and were more attracted to a junk-food context (conditioned place preference) than non-gainers.

Read the full article here.

Support Wesleyan Researchers in Crowdfunding Pilot

Four Wesleyan academic departments, from psychology to dance to chemistry to biology, are competing for grant funds through a new crowdfunding site specifically designed for research project fundraising.

experimentExperiment.com’s Challenge Grant for Liberal Arts Colleges asked scientists to define a scientific research question for the crowd with a prize for the project with the most backers. The pilot launched on Feb. 24 and concludes March 25.During this 31-day period, the goal is to reach $4,000 in funding. If so, the team is granted the money. If not, they receive nothing and no one’s pledges are charged. By backing a project, participants will receive updates, results and data from project creators.

Wesleyan research include how the brain prevents risky-decision making/addiction; the effects of using artificial sweeteners; controlling seizures with light; and the effectiveness of somatic mind-body practices on victims of the war.

On Wednesday, March 16 at 11:59 p.m., Experiment will award the project with the most backers $2,000 directly through their project page.

Wesleyan’s projects include:

Varekamp Leads Invited Talk at Geophysical Union Meeting

varekamp

Johan “Joop” Varekamp

Johan “Joop” Varekamp, the Howard T. Stearns Professor in Earth Science, led an invited talk at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, Dec. 2015.

The earth and space science community participated in discussions of emerging trends and the latest research. The session, which was co-authored by former Wesleyan E&ES graduate student Lauren Camfield, focused on the 2012 eruption of the Copahue volcano in Argentina.

Due to the success of the invited talk on Volcanic Hydrothermal Systems, Varekamp will be a co-editor for a special issue of a journal based on that session. As part of his role as chair-elect of the Committee on Geology and Public Policy of the Geological Society of America (GSA), he will be interviewing five candidates in Washington D.C. for the position of congressional fellow.