Science & Technology

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.

McNair Fellows Present Research at Diversity in STEM Conference

SACNAS

Elizaveta “Liz” Atalig ’21 and Ekram Towsif ’21 won 2019 SACNAS conference presentation awards for their respective fields of research.

Two Wesleyan McNair Fellows recently participated in the largest multidisciplinary and multicultural STEM diversity event in the country.

From Oct. 31–Nov. 2, Elizaveta “Liz” Atalig ’21 and Ekram Towsif ’21 joined more than 4,000 peers at the 2019 SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science) conference in Hawaii. For more than 45 years, SACNAS has served as an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicano/Hispanics & Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership within STEM.

Attendees of the three-day conference are immersed in cutting-edge scientific research and professional development sessions, motivational keynote speakers, a career expo, multicultural celebrations, and an inclusive and welcoming community of peers, mentors, and role models.

In addition, both Atalig and Towsif received Outstanding Research Presentation awards in their respective disciplines.

“This is the first time McNair fully funded Fellows to participate in the SACNAS conference, so we’re very proud of Ekram and Liz for maximizing their conference experience and conducting their award-winning poster presentations,” said Ronnie Hendrix, associate director of the Wesleyan McNair Program.

Papers by Barth, Patalano, Others Published in Psychology Journals

Hilary Barth, professor of psychology; Andrea Patalano, professor of psychology; Joanna Paul ’18; and former postdoctoral fellow Chenmu (Julia) Xing are co-authors of a paper titled “Probability range and probability distortion in a gambling task,” published in Acta Psychologica in June 2019.

Barth and Emily Slusser, a former postdoctoral fellow, are the co-authors of a paper titled “Spontaneous partitioning and proportion estimation in children’s numerical judgments,” published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology in September 2019.

Barth; Patalano; Slusser; Alexandra Zax, visiting scholar in psychology; and Katherine Williams, lab coordinator; are the co-authors of a paper titled “What Do Biased Estimates Tell Us about Cognitive Processing? Spatial Judgments as Proportion Estimation,” which was published in the Journal of Cognition and Development in August 2019.

Students, Faculty, Community Observe Rare Complete Transit of Mercury

Visitors use telescopes outside observatory

Individuals gathered outside Van Vleck Observatory to view the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11.

For only the seventh time since Wesleyan’s founding, the planet Mercury passed directly in front of the sun, from the perspective of Earth—and Wesleyan served as a gathering place from which to learn about and observe the event. Faculty and students from Wesleyan’s astronomy department, as well as others from the University and the greater Middletown community, gathered outside the Van Vleck Observatory on Nov. 11 to witness the transit through three telescopes.

The mild weather and partly cloudy conditions—particularly at the beginning and end of the transit (which lasted from 7:35 a.m. to 1:04 p.m.)—made for good viewings through the University’s general-purpose 8-inch telescope, as well as its hydrogen alpha solar telescope, which allows users to observe solar prominences. A second solar telescope, owned by John Sillasen, MALS’07, a local amateur astronomer and member of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, was also available to use as part of the event.

Gilberto Garcia ’20, an astronomy and physics major, was assisting with one of the solar telescopes. “Just seeing Mercury in general is a pretty rare occurrence, so I was pretty excited about it,” Garcia said. Viewed from a telescope, Mercury appeared as a small dot on the sun’s surface.

Thomas: Carbon Impact—Not Volcanism—Key in Driving the Cretaceous Mass Extinction

Thomas

Ellen Thomas

(By Kayleigh Schweiker ’22)

As scientific study regarding the mass extinction of marine life during the Cretaceous era has progressed, theories including extraterrestrial impact and intense volcanism have surfaced. However, a recent study co-authored by Ellen Thomas, Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, suggests that carbon impact—not volcanism—was key in driving the Cretaceous mass extinction.

In a paper titled “Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact,” which was published in the Oct. 21 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Thomas and her colleagues discuss how increases in ocean acidity played a driving force in the mass extinction of marine organisms. This mass extinction, labeled the “Crustaceous-Palogene die-off,” or the K-Pg event, led approximately 75% of plant and animal life on Earth to extinction. Though scientists have suggested that the presence of sulphuric acid proceeding the crash may have caused ocean pH levels to drop, Thomas and her team’s research on this topic reveals a different possibility.

NASA Funds Study of Gilmore’s Venus Mission Concept

Martha Gilmore

Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, believes we have a lot to learn from studying Venus—yet the United States has not sent a mission to the Earth-sized planet since the early 1990s. That’s why Gilmore has proposed a major flagship mission concept study to assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by looking at its rocks and atmosphere.

In October, NASA agreed to fund the planetary mission concept on Venus submitted by Gilmore, a planetary geologist, and colleagues at several other institutions, who come from varied disciplines. Gilmore, who is the principal investigator, said NASA received 54 proposals and selected 10 to feed into the next Planetary Decadal Survey. Theirs was the only proposal on Venus to receive funding.

In 2020, the National Academy of Science will convene a panel of scientists and engineers to determine the scientific priorities for Planetary Science over the period 2023–2032. This Planetary Decadal Survey is conducted every 10 years and is tasked with recommending a portfolio of missions to NASA. The mission concepts that were funded will be developed for consideration by the Decadal Survey. In the coming months, Gilmore will be meeting and communicating regularly with her science team and conducting mission design runs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Final reports are due to the Decadal Survey in June 2020, and will describe mission architecture, cost, and how the mission will address the scientific priorities of the Decadal Survey and NASA.

Gilmore’s expertise is on the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars, and Earth, and her PhD focused on Venus during the United States’ Magellan mission. She explained that all three planets are rocky, and there is evidence that they all had oceans early in solar system history. Scientists believe that Mars’s ocean dried up first—within about one billion years—and that Venus’s ocean may have lasted for two or three billion years.

“Thus, for most of solar system history, there were two Earth-sized planets with oceans,” said Gilmore. “Was Venus habitable like the Earth and if so, what changed?”

Paper on Bacteria Adhesion Named “Editor’s Pick” by Journal of Biological Chemistry

Rich Olson

Rich Olson

Katherine Kaus PhD '18

Katherine Kaus

A paper written by Associate Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Rich Olson and his former students was designated as an “Editor’s Pick” by the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Only 2% of the approximately 6,600 papers published each year in the journal receive this designation.

Titled “The 1.9 Å crystal structure of the extracellular matrix protein Bap1 from Vibrio cholerae provides insights into bacterial biofilm adhesion,” the paper, published on Oct. 4, explores how bacteria “glues” itself to surfaces in the environment. The co-authors include Alison Biester ’19, Ethan Chupp ’18, Jianyi Lu ’17, Charlie Visudharomn ’17 and Katherine Kaus PhD ’18. Kaus, who is first author on the paper, is featured in a special profile on the JBC website.

Bacteria commonly form structures called biofilms, which are communities of living cells encapsulated by a three-dimensional matrix of secreted proteins, nucleic acids, and carbohydrates. Biofilms are a defense mechanism against environmental challenges and play a role in many pathogenic diseases.

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. The Nation: “Edward Snowden Deserves to Be Tried by a Jury of His Peers, Just Like Everyone Else”

In this op-ed, Associate Professor of Government Sonali Chakravarti argues against the Justice Department’s decision to deny Edward Snowden’s request for a jury trial. She contends that in Snowden’s case, in which he is accused of leaking classified information from the National Security Administration in 2013, a jury trial “is not only a viable alternative to a hearing before a judge; rather, given the nature of the charges—where the defendant has supposedly acted to protect the people from the very state that would charge him with a crime—jury deliberation is the proper forum for discussion of appropriate punishment and is the bulwark against the potential misconduct of the state.”

2. Transitions Online: “Stuck in the Middle”

Peter Rutland, the Colin and Nancy Campbell Professor in Global Issues and Democratic Thought, professor of government, and Dmytro Babachanakh ’20 explore the history of U.S. involvement in Ukraine, and call upon U.S. leaders of both parties to stop “treating lesser powers as political instruments.”

3. Tulsa World: “Save the Little Grouse on the Prairie”

Alex Harold ’20 is the author of this op-ed that calls for the lesser prairie chicken to be placed on the endangered species list to get the protections it desperately needs, as over 90 percent of its habitat has been degraded or destroyed. While many haven’t heard of this bird, Harold explains that it is an “indicator species” that “reflect(s) the health of the entire prairie ecosystem.” Harold wrote the op-ed as an assignment in E&ES 399, Calderwood Seminar in Environmental Science Journalism, taught by Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell, this semester. The Calderwood Seminars are offered in a variety of disciplines to teach students how to effectively communicate academic knowledge to the public. Read more here.

Genomics Analysis Students Collaborate on Second Published Article

This fall, Assistant Professor of Biology Joe Coolon is teaching Principles of Biology (MB&B181) and Cell and Development Journal Club (BIOL505).

Assistant Professor of Biology Joe Coolon and 26 Wesleyan students are coauthors of a recent paper published in G3.

The second publication by students in Genomics Analysis (BIOL 310) has been accepted by the well-known journal G3: Genes, Genomes, Genetics. This adds 26 Wesleyan students to the ranks of more than 40 students who have become published authors through the course’s research on Drosophila sechellia, a type of fruit fly evolved to eat a plant that is toxic to most insects.

The recent paper, “Genomics Analysis of L-DOPA Exposure in Drosophila sechellia,” is coauthored by all 20 students in Assistant Professor of Biology Joseph Coolon’s class, and six students in his lab.

“I created my Genomics Analysis course as a way to provide more students with a course-based research experience where students participate in scientific discovery and the generation of new knowledge, and don’t just consume knowledge generated by others,” said Coolon. “This means each year the students taking the course learn material generated and published by the previous iterations of the course.”

O’Connell in The Conversation: How Deep is the Ocean?

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell has written a new article for The Conversation’s “Curious Kids” series answering the question “How deep is the ocean?” The article is based on her research studying the sea floor.

Curious Kids: How deep is the ocean?

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. NOAA

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. (NOAA)

Explorers started making navigation charts showing how wide the ocean was more than 500 years ago. But it’s much harder to calculate how deep it is.

If you wanted to measure the depth of a pool or lake, you could tie a weight to a string, lower it to the bottom, then pull it up and measure the wet part of the string. In the ocean you would need a rope thousands of feet long.

In 1872 the HMS Challenger, a British Navy ship, set sail to learn about the ocean, including its depth. It carried 181 miles (291 kilometers) of rope.

During their four-year voyage, the Challenger crew collected samples of rocks, mud and animals from many different areas of the ocean. They also found one of the deepest zones, in the western Pacific, the Mariana Trench, which stretches for 1,580 miles (2,540 kilometers).

Molecular Biophysics Program Hosts 20th Annual Retreat

MBB

Three Wesleyan faculty, one guest, and one alumnus delivered talks during the 20th Annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat on Sept. 26. The speakers included David Beveridge, Joshua Boger University Professor of the Sciences and Mathematics, Emeritus; Lila Gierasch, Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry; Michael LeVine ’11 of D.E. Shaw Research; and Laverne Melón, assistant professor of biology.

On Sept. 26, the Molecular Biophysics Program hosted its 20th Annual Molecular Biophysics Retreat at Wadsworth Mansion in Middletown. Several Wesleyan faculty, students, and guests attended the all-day event, which included five talks, two poster sessions, and a reception.

Lila Gierasch, Distinguished Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Chemistry at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, delivered the keynote address, titled “Hsp70s: Allosteric Machines that Perform a Multitude of Cellular Functions.” Gierasch, a leader in the field of protein folding, is a newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences. Her work focuses particularly on folding in the cell and understanding the action of folding helper proteins, known as chaperones. Her career-long contributions were recently recognized by the American Peptide Society with a lifetime achievement honor, the Merrifield Award. She is also a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry, an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is currently editor-in-chief of the premier biochemical publication, the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Sultan to Lead $2M Evolutionary-Developmental Biology Project

Sonia Sultan

In the Wesleyan Research Greenhouse, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan studies how Polygonum plants develop and function differently in response to contrasting environmental conditions. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

With support from a $2 million John Templeton Foundation National Sciences grant, Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan will spearhead a multi-institution evolutionary biology research project over the next three years.

The project, titled “Agency in Living Systems: How Organisms Actively Generate Adaptation, Resilience and Innovation at Multiple Levels of Organization,” developed from Sultan’s research on how individual organisms respond to their environments. Sultan and her Wesleyan research group study this question through experiments with the common plant Polygonum.

Sultan's data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s data on Polygonum plant have broader implications for understanding evolution.

Sultan’s previous findings have shown that genetically identical Polygonum plants can develop very differently depending on their growth conditions, allowing adaptive adjustments by individual plants without any genetic change. Because these adjustments are made actively by plants, rather than pre-scripted by their DNA sequence, this insight poses challenges to prevailing conceptual models for development and evolutionary adaptation.

“Scientists are particularly keen to understand these types of induced changes because they may help populations to very rapidly adapt to novel environmental stresses caused by human activities,” Sultan said.

The Templeton Foundation grant supports a consortium to investigate more broadly this property of biological agency—the ways in which active, real-time responses by living organisms influence the organisms’ own features. Sultan and her international team of co-investigators will focus on the active response mechanisms produced by evolution that grant organisms a degree of agency in shaping their own development, behavior, and subsequent evolution.

“New findings over the past decade about gene expression, development, the nature of inheritance, and the basis of adaptation, have led developmental and evolutionary biologists to re-examine some fundamental and long-standing ideas,” Sultan said. “The concept of agency may provide a unifying framework at a time when many scientists are seeking to update and expand those ideas. This project gives us the opportunity to help move the field forward and hopefully contribute to a more nuanced understanding of organisms.”