Thursday, August 30, 2012

CI-WATER Symposium to focus on research, collaboration and education

Receiving grants is often difficult and hard-earned, especially in states like Wyoming and Utah. This year however, all the hard work has paid off, as Wyoming and Utah were rewarded a $6 million dollar, three-year collaborative grant. The grant, called Cyberinfrastructure Water (CI-WATER), aims to develop high-performance cyberinfrastructure tools for simulating the effects of climate, land-use and population changes on future water availability in the upper Colorado River basin, and to transfer these tools to interested private and governmental stakeholders. Next week, it will host its first annual symposium in Salt Lake City. The Symposium, scheduled for September 5th and 6th, will get the water conversations flowing, the research projects rolling and outreach opportunities going.
CI-WATER is a shared grant between the University of Wyoming, Brigham Young University, the University of Utah and Utah State University. The Symposium will feature researchers from all universities involved as well as keynote speaker Brad Udall. Mr. Udall is the director of Western Water Assessment, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administratio (NOAA) funded program designed to help create forecasts about the climate.The keynote address will focus on the importance of modeling and model building within the scientific realm and the necessity of building models properly in order to gain insights into physical processes. Mr. Udall’s address will look at the ways models have been used in the recent past and what models are and are not capable of portraying. The address directly applies to CI-WATER because a huge part of the grant involves watershed modeling. The keynote address is scheduled for the afternoon of September 5th and will be followed by two sessions moderated by researchers from the University of Wyoming and Brigham Young University.
Dr. Chris Emdin
Dr. Fred Ogden from the University of Wyoming will moderate the Industry Panel. This panel will provide the science community and other western water stakeholders an industry perspective on the goals of the CI-WATER project. Following the panel, Norm Jones from Brigham Young University will moderate research team discussions. These discussions will highlight what the various research teams are working on and where the research is going.
Day one of the Symposium will end with a tour of the Natural History Museum of Utah and an educational event featuring Dr. Chris Emdin of Columbia University. Dr. Emdin’s talk will focus on teaching science to students and getting younger generations interested in science and the STEM fields.He was recently featured in a Utah public radio broadcast about his work and philosophy on science education.
The second day of the Symposium, September 6th, is primarily a work day for all members involved with the CI-WATER grant. Presentations and discussions regarding research and work on the grant will be shared for the rest of the Symposium.
Over the next three years, scientists from all four universities will collaborate on various aspects of the grant, which will not only find sustainable solutions to water resource problems, but also promote education, research and science. The Symposium will help facilitate all aspects of the grant.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photo from

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Three UW professors receive new NSF grant to study water

Dr. Anne Sylvester
Water. It is a necessity for life and it’s a resource that is threatened in the west. Drought, fires, pine beetle infestations, emptying reservoirs, shrinking streams, and vanishing snow pack pose the question: how can we maintain our water supply and continue with our way of life? Wyoming EPSCoR is gearing up to help answer this question.
In July, the National Science Foundation awarded Wyoming EPSCoR with a $20 million dollar grant. NSF offers EPSCoR jurisdictions two types of grants: Track I and Track II. This year, Wyoming EPSCoR is the proud recipient of both a Track I and a Track II grant.
The grant announced in July is a Track I grant. Track I grants last 5 years and focus on improving infrastructure. The goal of the grant is to benefit the entire state, not just the university. So, while the University of Wyoming will receive new equipment among other resources, the state will receive new infrastructure.
Dr. Scott Miller
Collaboration is a key element in the projects supported by the grant. Scientists and researchers at UW will work across disciplines to better understand the relationship between ground and surface water as well as the interaction between water and other natural systems. The three principal investigators (PI) for the grant are Dr. Anne Sylvester, Dr. Scott Miller and Dr. Steve Holbrook.
The three professors are all from different departments at UW. Dr. Sylvester is a professor in microbiology and the director of Wyoming EPSCoR. Her research is primarily focused on plant development, specifically in maize, in order to understand the grass system. Dr. Miller is a professor in Ecosystem Science and Management. His research revolves around watershed hydrology, including research into links between watershed hydrology and landscape. Dr. Holbrook is a professor in Geology and Geophysics. His research is based in seismology. Together, with their combined knowledge and expertise, the professors will work together on research that will benefit the entire state.
Dr. Steve Holbrook
Additionally, UW and Wyoming EPSCoR will collaborate with community colleges around the state and several private companies. As with all of its projects, this grant provides Wyoming EPSCoR with the means for outreach programs, including workshops for high school teachers and student projects. This grant parallels another NSF grant Wyoming EPSCoR received last year in collaboration with three universities in Utah. This Track II grant, called Cyberinfrastructure Water (CI-WATER), is focused on developing computer models to understand water systems better. Over the course of three years, the four universities will work on improving computer modeling, computational resources to better understand our water systems in the west and how they interact with human activities.
Diminishing water resources are a cause for concern, but between the two NSF grants, Wyoming EPSCoR, the University of Wyoming and its collaborative partners active steps are being taken toward increasing understanding of water systems and finding answers to how we can protect them. For more information about the grant, please read UW's press release.

By Kali S. McCrackin
Photos courtesy of the University of Wyoming

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

SRAP 2012 wraps up with success

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life
The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the last of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working. 

SRAP 2012 students dressed up for the etiquette dinner.
The fall semester is right around the corner for the University of Wyoming and the adventures of summer are coming to an end. The Student Research ApprenticeshipProgram (SRAP) ended weeks ago now and the students have returned to their hometowns, some to finish high school and others to begin college life. As the students gear up for another school year, they bring with them the invaluable experiences they gained over the summer. These experiences would not have been possible had it not been for their extraordinary mentors.
“This program would not thrive without the support and dedication of the mentors,” SRAP Coordinator Lisa Abeyta said. “These mentors are sharing their wealth of knowledge with high school students.”
SRAP mentors shared their knowledge with their SRAP student, but also contributed to the students’ senses of independence, achievement and success. Mentors were not only responsible for designing projects for their students, but also for teaching them the basics of writing scientific papers, showing them the techniques of their labs and introducing them to the details of their research. Their role as mentors required them to look at their research in a different way and to find a way to blend together their expansive realm of scientific research with the world of their SRAP students. Coming into university science labs with little or no background could end negatively for all parties involved, but through the care and dedication of the mentors, the SRAP students learned they could succeed in their endeavors. This is a lesson that will carry the students through the rest of their high school years and on into college.
“SRAP is a great program to introduce high school student into college life,” Lisa said. “This program not only allows students to gain experience in the lab, but also to gain a sense of independence.”
This year’s SRAP has come to a successful end on both the part of the students and the part of the mentors. While every student and mentor played an instrumental role in making this year a success, not everyone was featured in this blog series due to conflicting schedules. Their involvement in the program however brought wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the program. Wyoming EPSCoR looks forward to next year’s SRAP and to the great projects the mentors have to design. Thank you to our wonderful mentors!

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Lisa Abeyta

Soil moisture and plants' circadian rhythm

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life
The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the tenth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Armando Guerra works on a gas exchange in a greenhouse.
Drought is not uncommon in the west. States like Wyoming have faced drought conditions for over a decade, leaving the environment dry, vulnerable and often dead looking. Without a doubt, drought impacts plant life, but to what extent can plants adapt their physiology to survive in the dry conditions? This summer SRAP student Armando Guerra is working to help answer this question alongside Dr. Brent Ewers and his graduate student Tim. More specifically, Armando and Tim are looking at how soil moisture impacts a plant’s circadian rhythm.
“Plants have a circadian rhythm just like every other organism,” Dr. Ewers explains.
This project aims to find out if adjustments in the circadian rhythm of plants have something to do with drought response. In order to do this, Armando and Tim are growing plants in their natural environments and controlling the moisture levels of the soil. To determine the correlation between soil moisture and the circadian rhythm, Armando is helping take a variety of measurements, including measurements of leaves.
“One of the measurements Armando is really interested in is called aquaporins,” Dr. Ewers says. “These are proteins in the membranes of cells that allow for the transportation of water.”
By measuring how much these proteins contribute to the total movement of water in the plant, the team aims to understand if the relationship between the circadian rhythm and soil moisture is affected by aquaporins. Armando’s interest in aquaporins is just one of the things that have impressed both Dr. Ewers and Tim about his work.
“Tim has been very pleased. He can tell Armando, ‘you need to do these tests and then I’m going to come back and check,’ and Armando just does it; he digs right into it,” Dr. Ewers says. “He is willing to take initiative and that’s often missing (in students new to the lab).”
Dr. Ewers found out about SRAP from a colleague working on a joint project. He has been a mentor now for several years and enjoys the perspective and enthusiasm that SRAP students bring to the lab.
“They’re just unbounded in their creativity and how they think the world works. That’s just really fun to engage with,” Dr. Ewers says. “It’s very interesting to interact with a high school student and to see what the world looks like through their eyes.”
While Dr. Ewers steps into the world seen by his SRAP student, Armando, also steps into another world- the world of a scientist. He experiences the timely process of scientific work, he participates in the exchange of information, and he contributes to the project in a professional manner. Whether he is digging into the molecular work of measurements, or literally digging into the ground, Armando is both learning and teaching.
“He has some nice practical skills that I didn’t expect at all,” Dr. Ewers explains. “These high school students don’t just come in as sponges to absorb from us: we’re learning from them as well.”
While Armando is adept with using the tools, he is learning new skills through the process of building green houses, putting in moisture probes, plating plants, caring for them and harvesting leaves for measurements. Over the course of his SRAP internship, he will experience everything from plant growth to molecular biology- a full spectrum of biological research.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Brent Ewers

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Microfluidic devices, West Nile Virus and revolutionizing traditional practices

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life
The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the ninth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Javier Pena (front) and graduate student Naoki Yanagusawa work in Dr. Dutta's lab.
Microfluidic devices are used for a variety of purposes in the scientific and medical fields. Some are used to test blood in cancer patients, some are used in labs to filter fluids and some are used for separating particles in chemicals. This summer, Javier Pena working on building a microfluidic device with a very specific purpose: it needs to test blood for West Nile Viral antibodies, be built simply and inexpensively, and produce more accurate results. To do this, Javier is using glass plates, a cell phone camera, and three bioreagents.
 Javier is working in Dr. Debashis Dutta’s lab with graduate student Naoki Yanagisawa. Together they are working on designing a small glass plates with spots that change color when West Nile Viral antibodies are present in a blood sample. A cell phone camera is used to detect changes in color after chemicals are added to the blood. The goal is to make sampling for the antibodies more efficient.
Currently, in order to test for antibodies a blood camp must be set up. This means bringing in medical professionals, asking donors to come to you, and drawing samples of blood that exceed the amount necessary to perform the test. Blood camps are an expensive and timely process, but with microfluidic devices like the one Javier is working on, the process can be simplified. The glass plates cost less than 15 cents, Dr. Dutta says, they require only a drop of blood and they can be sent to the donor. This streamlines the process and makes acquiring samples easier. In his presentation, Javier will propose that these devices can replace traditional instruments and revolutionize the process.
Javier’s presentation will be the final step in his internship. For Dr. Dutta, the presentation and the experience Javier has in his lab are instrumental parts in helping students decide what they want to study in college.  “SRAP is an introduction to what professional science is about,” Dr. Dutta says. “This is an opportunity where students get to work with real scientists who are passionate about their research, they get do real lab work, and they get to make a choice about if this is really what they are interested in or not.”
Dr. Dutta aims to ensure that his SRAP students get a true scientific experience in his lab. To do so, he works to design a project that will both challenge and stimulate the student. This is both the most challenging part and his favorite part of doing SRAP.
“The challenging part for me is to come up with a project that the student can contribute to without a significant background in science or engineering,” Dr. Dutta says. “I really enjoy this part.”
While Javier may not have had a significant scientific background upon beginning his work in Dr. Dutta’s lab, he is definitely leaving with a one. His contribution to the microfluidic device project and his proposal that these devices could replace current instruments are irreplaceable experiences for a young scientist.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Dutta

Sixteen pictures: Prioritizing characteristics in new acquaintances

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the eighth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Monique Baca works in Dr. Bartsch psychology lab in July.
When people first meet someone else, the first characteristics they notice are usually gender and skin color, according to most psychology research. What other characteristics do people notice immediately? Behavior? Actions? Intentions?
This question is the premise of Dr. Karen Bartsch and SRAP student Monique Baca’s research this summer. They are trying to determine if a person’s actions are more or less important than these other characteristics. Specifically, they are researching whether someone doing something helpful or harmful is more prioritized than gender or skin color.
To do this, Dr. Bartsch, in collaboration with her graduate student, Tess Young, has designed two studies for people 3 years and older. The first study involves sorting sixteen pictures into categories. Participants are asked to put the pictures into two piles and then asked why they sorted them that way. Each picture shows a child, either male or female, light skinned or dark skinned, doing something helpful or harmful while doing another activity (such as playing with a dog).  Participants can either sort the pictures according to gender, skin color or action, and Dr. Bartsch says that this categorization will help her and Monique understand which characteristic is the priority.
In the second study, participants are shown a picture of a boy and a picture of a girl. One has light skin and the other has dark skin, and one is doing something helpful while the other is doing something harmful. Participants are then shown a third picture. The participant is then asked to match this third picture depending on gender, skin color or action. The researchers are interested in which characteristic the participants match and believe that this will indicate which of the three characteristics is the most important.  
These studies require a lot of hands-on time, which Dr. Bartsch says is ideal for SRAP. “It’s a nice project for this purpose because we can involve Monique in a number of different things that are part of the study.”
Monique is helping not only with data collected from previous studies, but is also reading past research, collecting materials for these studies and helping interview adult participants. Her research will focus on data from the adult group, but she will have the opportunity to observe the interviews with the child participants.
In all of her work, Monique brings her interest, enthusiasm and dedication. Her attitude and motivation are Dr. Bartsch’s favorite part of working with SRAP. “I just find it very encouraging to work with a high school student who is already so interested in research in my area,” Dr. Bartsch says.
This is the first year Dr. Bartsch has had a SRAP student and she wishes more high school students could have this opportunity. “It’s a really unique experience for a high school student to come in and absolutely be involved in so many aspects of professional research in psychology,” she says.
Monique is one of the lucky high school students who have the opportunity to experience research at the professional level, but it was not simply luck that brought her to the program. It was her attitude and determination as a student.
“Of the students I’ve met, I’m impressed with their seriousness as scholars,” Dr. Bartsch says. “I find that very encouraging.”

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Bartsch

Fuel Cell Research- Making the electric car more affordable and durable

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the seventh of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Brigette Salinas tests a membrane in Dr. Li's lab.
President Obama set a plan to reduce imported oil to one-third by 2025. In his plan, he pushed for increased focus and research on biofuels and other alternatives to gasoline. Right now the costs of alternatives, such as those used in electric cars, are greater than gasoline. However, research like Brigette Salinas’s summer project may make electric cars more affordable and durable.
The fuel cell assembly of an electric car, which replaces the combustion engine in a traditional car, is the most expensive part. This is in part due to its short lifespan and lack of durability, says Dr. DongmeiKatie Li, Brigette’s mentor.
Currently, fuel cells are made by sandwiching a membrane between two pieces of carbon paper. The fuel cell is then heat pressed which weakens the membrane and causes its short lifespan. Brigette is working on assembling the membrane sandwich in a way that does not require heat or pressure, but rather utilizes a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine is incredibly versatile and can stick to any surface, says Dr. Li.
In the assembly Brigette is working on, each side of the membrane, or one side of each piece of carbon paper is coated with dopamine. The membrane is then put in a vacuum oven which requires no heat or pressure. After it is set, the membrane is then tested. After the first tests, Brigette and Dr. Li’s students, Phillip Cross and Shibely Saha, have found that this technique is very promising.
“We’re hoping to be able to replace the current device fabrication technique using this new surface chemistry technique so we can increase durability,” Dr. Li says.
This is the first year that Dr. Li has participated in SRAP. She was drawn to the program because of her own background. “I’m a first generation college graduate in my family and I wanted to help students from a similar background,” she says.
Her favorite part of SRAP is interacting with the students, especially students like Brigette who bring new strength to the lab. Brigette and her classmates are the face of the future, in terms of energy and sustainability, and it is programs like this that open up possibilities for the future.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo by Kali S. McCrackin

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Evolutionary Ecology: Snail tails

Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life
The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the sixth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Courtney Gettel works in the Laramie River.
In the fall, the Zoology Department will add numerous students to its undergraduate class, but one student in particular will shine above the rest. Courtney Gettel is a newly graduated high school student, and she’ll be coming to UW with more than a high school diploma. She’ll be coming with a full research paper to her name and real life experience in the shoes of an evolutionary ecologist.
This summer, Courtney is working in Dr. Amy Krist’s lab studying snails with graduate student Brenda Hansen. The snails in question are an invasive mud snail from New Zealand. They are found in rivers all over the western states, but no one is quite sure how they got there. While this is perplexing, Courtney, Brenda and Dr. Krist are more interested in what makes them invasive and how they survive in Wyoming rivers.
Past research indicates that the snails excel because they can withstand being crowded, unlike the native snail spices. Additionally, they don’t produce tons of offspring. Rather, the individuals grow a lot, which means that they are adept at finding and utilizing phosphorous, which all organisms need to grow. Phosphorous is found on rocks in algae. The algae are high quality food sources when they contain a lot of phosphorous and low quality when they do not.
This is where Courtney’s research comes in. She is trying to find out how much variability there is in food quality in a single rock and within varying measurements in a river.
“If the snail really can choose (between high and low quality food), how relevant is that to the snail?” Dr. Krist asks.
This is what Courtney is trying to determine. If there is a high variability in food quality within a rock and within a given space in a river, then the ability to choose is very relevant.
“This variation in phosphorous content at such a small scale means that different quality food is available to snails without moving far,” Dr. Krist explains. “If snails can detect differences in food quality, they can increase their growth rates by choosing high quality food". 
To determine variability in phosphorous content, Courtney and Brenda are studying rocks in the Snake River and Laramie River in Wyoming. They scrub rocks and run tests on the algae to find out the percentage of phosphorous in the rock. Courtney is totally into it.
“She has a great attitude,” Dr. Krist says. “She is really motivated and on it.”
This is the first time Dr. Krist has done SRAP. She heard about the program from a colleague and immediately wanted to join, having been a mentor in the past to undergraduate and other high school students.
“It’s super interesting and super fun working with these students because of the outreach component, but also because you get to interact with this person,” Dr. Krist says. “You get to tell them about your work, get them involved, and get them excited about going outside and what’s going on in nature.”
Brenda was just as thrilled about SRAP as Dr. Krist. “She is really interested in outreach,” Dr. Krist says. “She really likes the idea of working with the public.”
While Courtney may have started out as a member from the community outside evolutionary ecology, she is on her way to being a future colleague of Brenda and Dr. Krist. Her research paper is off to a great start and she is making great strides into the life of a scientist.
“She’s amazing,” Dr. Krist says. 

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Krist