Science & Technology

Students Catalog Wesleyan’s Lost Fossil Collections

Research fellows Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20 and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 are discovering and cataloging thousands of fossils at Exley Science Center. The fossils were once housed at the former Wesleyan Museum, a natural history museum that occupied part of the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Sciences from 1871-1957. Once the museum closed, the fossils and other objects were displaced at various locations on campus. “We’d love to make these fossils accessible to Wesleyan students, faculty, classes and the general public,” McKee said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Research fellows Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20 and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 are discovering and cataloging thousands of fossils at Exley Science Center. The fossils were once housed at the former Wesleyan Museum, a natural history museum that occupied part of the Orange Judd Hall of Natural Sciences from 1871-1957. Once the museum closed, the fossils and other objects were displaced at various locations on campus. “We’d love to make these fossils accessible to Wesleyan students, faculty, classes and the general public,” McKee said. (Photos by Olivia Drake)

Scattered throughout campus are remnants of not only Wesleyan’s history, but world history. After the closing of the Wesleyan Museum in 1957, thousands of specimens in many collections were displaced, often haphazardly, to nooks, crannies, tunnels, attics, storage rooms, and random cabinets at Exley Science Center, Judd Hall, and the Butterfield and Foss Hill residence complexes.

A fossilized bee was discovered in the fossil collections.

A fossilized bee was discovered in the fossil collections.

Many of these specimens haven’t been accessed in 60 years.

“Sadly, few people are aware that Wesleyan has these unique resources,” said Ellen Thomas, the University Professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and research professor of earth and environmental sciences. “The collections have not been well curated, and not much used in education and outreach. We are discovering beautiful fossils, but the knowledge that they are at Wesleyan has long been lost.”

This summer, Thomas, along with two student research fellows, began the painstaking process of not only locating and organizing collections, but digitally cataloging their finds.

Sajirat Palakarn ’20 and earth and environmental science graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 work 40 hours a week on the project and have created a “fossil assembly line” in Exley Room 309. The students take turns sorting trays of fossils by class and phylum, and then match the fossils with identifying hand-written cards or books from an archaic card catalog, entering the information, piece by piece, into a spreadsheet. They’re expecting to itemize more than 15,000 fossils this summer.

“Look here,” Thomas says, while opening a wooden cabinet at random in Exley’s specimen storage room. “We’ve got shells, fossils of shells, one after another with no labels. They are all disorganized. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make these accessible to the students?”

Melissa McKee holds a plant fossil from Greenland, collected during the second relief expedition for a Peary Arctic Expedition. The leaves were then thought be by Miocene (~20 millions years old), but now they've been identified as being much older at ~ 60 million years.

Melissa McKee holds a plant fossil from Greenland, collected during the second relief expedition for a Peary Arctic Expedition. The leaves were then thought be by Miocene (~20 millions years old), but now they’ve been identified as being much older at ~ 60 million years.

So far, the students have discovered dozens of fish fossils from the Jurassic Period (99.6 to 145.5 million years ago) and Triassic Period (251 million and 199 million years ago). They’ve encountered fossils of preserved leaves and insects from what is today Utah, Wyoming and Colorado, dating back to the Eocene Period, when the world was much warmer (40-45 million years ago). They’ve also found fossilized plants from coal deposits in Illinois (about 300 million years old), as well as fossil sea lilies (crinoids), which lived in shallow warm seas in what is now Indiana. Many of these fossils were collected by S. Ward Loper, who was curator of the Wesleyan Museum from 1894 to his death in 1910.

They’ve even discovered a plant fossil from Greenland, donated to the Wesleyan Museum in 1895 by A.N. Varse, who was on the second relief expedition attempting to assist Robert Peary on one of his early expeditions to explore Greenland and reach the North Pole.

“It’s really incredible to hold a piece of history like this in our hands,” McKee said. “Not only can fossils tell us what an organism might have looked like and how it lived, but fossils also give us clues about ancient environmental conditions. We can use fossils to understand how the Earth has changed over time.”

While most of the fossil finds are located in locked drawers in the hallways of Exley Science Center, the students also are cataloging fossils in the Joe Webb Peoples Fossil Collection, located on the fourth floor. The museum is named after the late Professor Joe Webb Peoples, who was chair of the Department of Geology from 1935 until his retirement in 1975.

The students not only catalog the artifacts, but they also write about their finds, and the museum, on a blog and on Twitter.

McKee and Palakarn, a College of Social Studies major, are constantly learning on the job. “I don’t have a science background, but here I am learning about unicellular microorganisms, sponges, coral, arthropods, trilobites and sea urchins,” Palakarn said.

“I know by the end of this summer you’re going to change your major to earth and environmental science,” McKee said. “I’m sure of it.”

Sanjirat "Bright" Palakarn '20; Ellen Thomas; and graduate student Melissa McKee '17 hold fish fossils inside the Joe Peoples' Museum in Exley.

Sajirat “Bright” Palakarn ’20; Research Professor Ellen Thomas; and graduate student Melissa McKee ’17 hold fish fossils inside the Joe Webb Peoples’ Fossil Collection in Exley.

While rummaging through drawers in Exley's Specimen Storage room, Ellen Thomas discovered large collections of old coins including miniature intaglios and ancient Chinese coins collected by the Methodist missionaries who started Wesleyan. The coins are documented in an accompanying booklet.

While rummaging through drawers in Exley’s Specimen Storage room, Ellen Thomas discovered large collections of old coins including miniature intaglios and ancient Chinese coins collected by the Methodist missionaries who started Wesleyan. The coins are documented in an accompanying booklet.

Melissa McKee holds polished halves of a Perisphinctes species found in Madagascar.

Melissa McKee holds polished halves of a cephalopod found in Madagascar. This species lived during the late Jurassic Period.

Sanjirat Palakarn '20 displays a fossil of Diplomystus dentatus from the Eocene Period. The fossil was discovered in what is now Wyoming. Diplomystus is an extinct freshwater fish distantly related to herrings and sardines.

Sajirat Palakarn displays a fossil of Diplomystus dentatus from the Eocene Period. The fossil was discovered in what is now Wyoming. Diplomystus is an extinct freshwater fish distantly related to herrings and sardines.

The students transcribe hand-written records into electronic form. Pictured is the record of A.N. Varse's fossil discovery in 1895.

The students transcribe hand-written records into electronic form. Pictured is the record of A.N. Varse’s fossil discovery in 1894. It was donated to Wesleyan in 1895.

The research team also found dozens of coral samples stashed away above these cabinets in Exley Science Center.

The research team also found dozens of coral samples stashed above these cabinets in Exley Science Center. “Some of these are now extinct. We will want to catalog these too, but this will be a project for another time,” Thomas said.

Tavernier Studies Effects of Technology Use, In-Person Interactions on Sleep

Royette Tavernier

Royette Tavernier

Assistant Professor of Psychology Royette Tavernier has published a new paper examining the effects of technology use and face-to-face interactions with friends and family on adolescents’ sleep. Tavernier is the lead author on “Adolescents’ technology and face-to-face time use predict objective sleep outcomes,” now in press in Sleep Health, the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation.

About 70 racially diverse high school students (11 – 18 years old) were recruited from three different high schools in a large city in the Midwest to participate in the study. Their sleep-wake habits were recorded for three consecutive nights using sleep monitoring devices.

Using brief daily surveys, students reported the amount of time they spent engaged in eight different technology-based activities—texting, instant messaging, Facebook, Twitter, talking on the phone, TV, working on the computer and video games—as well as time spent engaged in face-to-face interactions with family and friends.

Students Present Academic Research at Poster Sessions

Hundreds of Wesleyan students had the opportunity to present their academic research at various poster sessions in March and April. Posters often contain text, graphics and images that illustrate the students’ research results on a single board. Poster session attendees can view the posters and interact with the author.

This year, the Psychology Department, College of the Environment, Biology Department, Neuroscience and Behavior Program, Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division, Quantitative Analysis Center and the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences hosted poster sessions.

Photos of the poster sessions are below: (Photos by Olivia Drake, Caroline Kravitz ’19 and Rebecca Goldfarb Terry ’19)

Kylie Moynihan ’17 presented “Testing the Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Model of Franks et al.." Her advisor is Dana Royer, chair and professor of earth and environmental sciences.

On April 21, Wesleyan’s Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division hosted a Celebration of Science Theses, a poster session featuring the work of Honors and MA students in the NSM fields. During the event, Kylie Moynihan ’17 presented her thesis research titled “Testing the Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Model of Franks et al..”

Psychology graduate student Lucy De Souza examined “Honor and Masculinity Among Latinos and European-Americans.” De Souza’s faculty advisor is Patricia Rodriguez Mosquera, associate professor of psychology.

On April 27, the Psychology Department hosted a poster session in Beckham Hall. Psychology graduate student Lucy De Souza presented her poster on “Honor and Masculinity Among Latinos and European-Americans.”

Wesleyan Celebrates Completion of Science Theses with Poster Session

Wesleyan’s Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division recently hosted a Celebration of Science Theses, a poster session featuring the work of Honors and MA students in the NSM fields. Organized by Manju Hingorani, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Barbara Juhasz, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior; and Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, the event took place in Exley Science Center on April 21, where students from a wide range of disciplines proudly presented their work, marking the culmination of their thesis.

Wesleyan’s Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division recently hosted a Celebration of Science Theses, a poster session featuring the work of Honors and MA students in the NSM fields. Organized by Manju Hingorani, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Barbara Juhasz, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience and behavior; and Seth Redfield, associate professor of astronomy, the event took place in Exley Science Center on April 21, where students from a wide range of disciplines proudly presented their work, marking the culmination of their thesis.

Center for the Americas Hosts its 2017 Americas Forum on “Food Justice and Sustainability”

 Photo: Jade Beall.

Alok Appadurai ’00 (Photo by Jade Beall)

On April 28, the Center for the Americas will host its 2017 Americas Forum on “Food Justice and Sustainability” at the Ring Family Performing Arts Hall at 2:30 p.m. The keynote address will be given by Alok Appadurai ’00. Appadurai is the the founder of Fed by Threads, a sustainable, sweatshop-free, multi-brand, American-made organic vegan clothing store that has fed over half a million meals to Americans in need. He also recently founded GoodElephant.org, a global network that aims to promote social and environmental reform by nurturing compassion and empathy.

His time at Wesleyan helped to inform his current projects. As a student, he majored in American studies fashioning his own concentration that incorporated colonialism, workers’ rights, utopian communities, the environment and gender/class issues.

After the keynote, three scholars on a panel will present talks on food Justice and agricultural sustainability.  Elizabeth Hoover, the Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, will give the talk, “From ‘Garden Warriors’ to ‘Good Seeds’; Defining and Enacting Food Sovereignty Through American Indian Community Gardening Projects.” Following her, Brian Donahue, associate professor of American environmental studies at Brandeis University, will present his “Woodlands, Farmlands, and Communities: Visions for New England’s Future.”

Wesleyan’s Courtney Fullilove, associate professor of history, will conclude the panel with “Seed Saving in Economies of Scale: Some Questions about Sovereignty and International Governance.”

Faculty, Students, Alumnus Co-Author Paper in Biochemistry Journal

Wesleyan co-authors published a paper titled “The Stories Tryptophans Tell: Exploring Protein Dynamics of Heptosyltransferase I from Escherichia coli” in the January 2017 issue of Biochemistry.

The co-authors include chemistry graduate student Joy Cote; alumni Zarek Siegel ’16 and Daniel Czyzyk, PhD ’15; and faculty Erika Taylor, associate professor of chemistry; Ishita Mukerji, the Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry.

Their paper investigates the intrinsic properties of Tryptophan amino acids found within the protein, Heptosyltransferase I, to understand the ways this protein moves during catalysis. Understanding the movement of this protein is an important step in developing its inhibitors.

When this protein is inactive, either because it was genetically altered or inhibited, hydrophobic antibiotics become more effective, so inhibitors could be useful in reactivating antibiotics that are current not effective against these bacteria.

While it is popularly believed that inhibiting a protein requires a compound to compete with the substrate, their paper argues that instead one can design a inhibitor to disrupt protein dynamics, preventing activity. The co-authors compare the function of this “protein dynamics disruptor” to a wedge holding open a door–once inserted, the inhibitor prevents the protein from performing its function.

Their research on Tryptophan residues also found that distant regions of the protein communicate whether or not they are binding their substrate to other regions.

“It would be like if your right hand knew that your left hand was holding a pencil just by the changes in the position of your left hand. We are currently pursuing computational studies to look for these motions via molecular dynamics experiments,” Taylor said.

Naegele Named a 2017 ‘Women of Innovation’ by the Connecticut Technology Council

Jan Naegele accepts her Women of Innovation® award.

Jan Naegele accepts her “Women of Innovation” award.

The Connecticut Technology Council recently selected Professor Janice Naegele as a 2017 “Women of Innovation.”

Naegele, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior, was honored during the “Women of Innovation” awards dinner, held March 29 in Plantsville, Conn. The award recognizes women accomplished in science, technology, engineering, math and those who are involved in their community.

Naegele is a developmental neuroscientist whose research seeks to identify novel treatments for epilepsy and brain damage. She has published extensively on applications of stem cell transplantation for neural repair, including articles on embryonic stem cell therapy for treating epilepsy and the synaptic mechanisms underlying seizure suppression by fetal inhibitory neuron transplants. In the Naegele Laboratory, a team of graduate students, working with undergraduates and technicians, investigates the therapeutic effects of stem cell transplantation through experimental approaches including behavior, electrophysiology, immunohistochemistry, viral-mediated gene overexpression and optogenetics.

The Connecticut Technology Council received more than 200 nominations for the Women of Innovation® awards. Nagele was one of three women named a finalist in the Academic Innovation and Leadership-College category.

Wesleyan’s Antonio Farias, vice president for equity and inclusion; Joyce Jacobsen, provost and vice president for academic affairs; Ishita Mukerji, the Fisk Professor of Natural Science, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; and Joe Knee, dean of the Natural Sciences and Mathematics division, professor of chemistry, nominated Naegele for the award.

From left, Antonio Farias, Ishita Mukerji, Jan Naegele, Joyce Jacobsen and Joe Knee attended the Connecticut Technology Council Women of Innovation® awards dinner on March 29.

From left, Antonio Farias, Ishita Mukerji, Jan Naegele, Joyce Jacobsen and Joe Knee attended the Connecticut Technology Council’s “Women of Innovation” awards dinner on March 29.

“I’m very grateful to my Wesleyan colleagues who nominated me for this award,” Naegele said. “The award was unexpected and a wonderful honor.”

Naegle, who came to Wesleyan in 1991, has served as chair of the Biology Department, director of the Center for Faculty Career Development, and as vice chair of the faculty. Her work is funded by the Connecticut Regenerative Medicine Research fund, the National Institutes of Health, and CURE Epilepsy. Recent honors and awards include the Louise Hansen Marshall Mentoring Award from the Society for Neuroscience; election to the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering; and completing a one-year fellowship in the ELATE at Drexel women’s executive leadership program.

Read more News @ Wesleyan articles about Professor Naegele.

 

Wesleyan Team Honored for “Best Innovation” at 2017 DataFest

Students from six colleges and universities participated in DataFest March 29-April 2 at Wesleyan.

Students from six colleges and universities participated in DataFest March 29-April 2 at Wesleyan.

The Wesleyan team Data Baes took one of the top prizes for “Best Innovation” during DataFest, held March 31 to April 2 at Exley Science Center. Seventy-five students from six institutions participated in the annual analysis competition.

During DataFest, students are presented with a large, complex data set and work over the weekend to explore, analyze and present their findings. Teams of three to five students work together and compete against other teams from Wesleyan, Connecticut College, Yale University, Lafayette College, University of Connecticut and Trinity College.

Under the auspices of the American Statistical Association, the event is organized by the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC).

At the end of DataFest, each team had five minutes to present their findings to the judges. The judging panel included data scientists, research analysts and a biostatistician

Royer Finds Climate Could Soon Hit a State Unseen in 50 Million Years

Dana Royer

Dana Royer

New climate research by Dana Royer, professor and chair of earth and environmental sciences, finds that current carbon dioxide levels are unprecedented in human history and, if they continue on this trajectory “the atmosphere could reach a state unseen in 50 million years” by mid-century, according to an article in Salon.

The carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere today are ones that likely haven’t been reached in 3 million years. But if human activities keep committing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at current rates, scientists will have to look a lot deeper into the past for a similar period. The closest analog to the mid-century atmosphere we’re creating would be a period roughly 50 million years ago known as the Eocene, a period when the world was completely different than the present due to extreme heat and oceans that covered a wide swath of currently dry land.

“The early Eocene was much warmer than today: global mean surface temperature was at least 10°C (18°F) warmer than today,” Dana Royer, a paleoclimate researcher at Wesleyan University who co-authored the new research, said. “There was little-to-no permanent ice. Palms and crocodiles inhabited the Canadian Arctic.”

Royer’s paper was published April 4 in Nature Communications and widely covered in the mainstream press. The implications, writes Salon, “are some of the starkest reminders yet that humanity faces a major choice to curtail carbon pollution or risk pushing the climate outside the bounds that have allowed civilization to thrive.”

According to an article in U.S. News & World Report:

 CO2 levels in the atmosphere have varied over millions of years. But fossil fuel use in the last 150 years has boosted levels from 280 parts per million (ppm) before industrialization to nearly 405 ppm in 2016, according to the researchers.

If people don’t halt rising CO2 levels and burn all available fossil fuels, CO2 levels could reach 2,000 ppm by the year 2250, the researchers said. CO2 and other gases act like a blanket, preventing heat from escaping into space. That’s known as the greenhouse effect, the researchers explained.

But the researchers note that CO2 levels are not the only factor in climate change; changes in the amount of incoming light also have an affect, and nuclear reactions in stars like the sun have made them brighter over time. Royer says this interplay is important:

“Up to now it’s been a puzzle as to why, despite the sun’s output having increased slowly over time, scant evidence exists for any similar long-term warming of the climate. Our finding of little change in the net climate forcing offers an explanation for why Earth’s climate has remained relatively stable, and within the bounds suitable for life all this time.”

Royer also is professor of environmental studies, professor of integrative sciences. See more coverage in Science Daily and International Business Times.

Observational Cosmologist Delivers Sturm Lecture

On April 3, Daniel Eisenstein, a observational cosmologist and a professor at Harvard University, spoke on "Mapping the Universe with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey" during the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture. In memory of Kenneth E. Sturm from the Class of 1940, this annual event is open the entire Wesleyan community and features a presentation from an astronomer that is outstanding in his/her field and is able to communicate the excitement of science to a lay audience.

On April 3, Daniel Eisenstein, a observational cosmologist and a professor at Harvard University, spoke on “Mapping the Universe with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey” during the annual Sturm Memorial Lecture. In memory of Kenneth E. Sturm from the Class of 1940, this annual event is open the entire Wesleyan community and features a presentation from an astronomer that is outstanding in his/her field and is able to communicate the excitement of science to a lay audience.

Juhasz, Brewer ‘13 Co-Author Article in Psycholinguistic Research Journal

Associate Professor Barbara Juhasz is interested in how words are processed during reading

Associate Professor Barbara Juhasz is interested in how words are processed during reading.

Wesleyan Associate Professor of Psychology Barbara Juhasz and alumna Jennifer Brewer ’13 recently coauthored an article titled “An Investigation into the Processing of Lexicalized English Blend Words: Evidence from Lexical Decisions and Eye Movements During Reading” in the Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

Their work examines the process of blending, through which a new word or concept develops from the synthesis of two source words. Some examples of common blended words include “smog,” “brunch” and “infomercial.” Though previous research on blending has inspected the structure of blends, Juhasz and Brewer examined how common-blended words are recognized compared to other kinds of words.

Pairing blend words with non-blend control words of similar familiarity, length and frequency, the study asked participants to complete tasks involving lexical decisions and sentence reading. The results found that participants processed blend words differently from non-blend words according to task demands. In the lexical decision task participants recognized blend words more slowly but received shorter fixation durations when read within sentences.