Category Archives: Science & Environment

S.T.E.M. Success Initiative Holds Upcoming Annual S.T.E.M. Bash

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor

 

Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, a.k.a S.T.E.M., programs are intimidating and competitive at many colleges. Here at Wooster, we strive to create an inclusive and collaborative community where students are pushed academically, but also have support and guidance at their sides. This is achieved through the S.T.E.M. Success Initiative (S.S.I.) here on campus, as well as many clubs and extracurricular activities that create a welcoming environment. The S.S.I. is a community of students, faculty, and staff working to promote a “diverse and inclusive S.T.E.M. learning community, integrating students, faculty, and staff to support student success.” For those who are not familiar with this initiative, you might have heard of the S.T.E.M. Zone, a campus resource where any student taking introductory science or math courses can go to seek help on class material or work on their own.

One of the S.S.I.’s annual events, the S.T.E.M. Bash is coming up on Oct. 3 from 1-3p.m. The S.T.E.M. Zone Coordinator, Kara Melrose, shares her excitement and explains what activities will be at this event “The S.T.E.M. Bash is an event where all S.T.E.M. clubs/groups on campus have a chance to get together and celebrate their common interest and love for all things S.T.E.M.-related. Each club has fun activities planned to highlight their area of interest, and students can come enjoy the festivities, eat food, win prizes, and hang out. This is the seventh year of the S.T.E.M. Bash and each year we’ve had different clubs, activities and locations of the event, but every year it has been a blast.” Melrose expects a turnout of about 100-150 students this year. Each student participating in the Bash will receive a punch card and be able to earn a check of completion each time they complete an activity. Students with all the activities checked off will be entered into a raffle for a soft, cozy S.T.E.M. Zone t-shirt.

When asking Kara what her main goal for the event is, she responded, “Ultimately the goal is for students to have fun and feel a sense of community and belonging within the STEM community.” To make this possible, Melrose said that she plans on inviting faculty, S.S.I. board members, and S.T.E.M. staff to join the Bash..

Clubs that will be participating in the S.T.E.M. bash this year include: the S.T.E.M. Success Initiative, Astronomy Club, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Club, Chemistry Club, Geology Club, Greenhouse Club, Environmental Justice Coalition, Student Mathematical Association, Minorities in S.T.E.M., Neuroscience Club, National Student Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Physics Club, Pre-Health Club, Wooster Women in S.T.E.M, and Wooster Women & Gender Minorities in Economics.

One of our newest clubs on campus, Wooster Women and Gender Minorities in Economics, will be hosting a game based around microeconomics and game theory. Here, students will learn about miscoordination and the pure strategy Nash equilibria. The Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Club will be hosting a multitude of activities, including learning how to pipette and create a mosaic, and building DNA from Twizzlers.

Some clubs can give you a more personalized experience and are identity-based, such as Minorities in S.T.E.M., which contributes to the diverse set of groups represented at this more intimate and personalized Scot Spirit Day. S.S.I. Program Intern Emma Davidson ’22 sums it up well, as she hopes, “students can be exposed to all kinds of S.T.E.M. interests while meeting like-minded peers and building a supportive community in S.T.E.M.”

The Biological Reasoning Behind the New Contagious COVID Variant

Kayla Berthoff

S&E Editor

 

By now, everyone has heard of the COVID Delta variant and the issues associated with it, but most people don’t know what exactly makes this variant more serious. The SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) virus is a cluster of single-stranded genetic information (RNA) inside of a membrane covered in spike proteins. These spike proteins are a chain of amino acids folded into a specific conformation that receptors on human body cells can recognize and bind to, with the tendency to increasingly bind when the protein is in an open conformation and specific amino acid residues are exposed. This binding action allows the COVID virus to be taken up into cells. Once the virus’ genetic information is taken up, whether through a vaccine or natural infection, the human cell will use its cellular machinery to copy the RNA and subsequently make more copies of the virus through replication. This also allows the immune system to respond and create antibodies that bind specifically to the spike proteins to prevent virus entry.

While the replication process in the cell is under tight control, mistakes happen, causing mutations that lead to variations in the final product. RNA viruses, such as COVID, are more likely to undergo mutation because they lack enzymes that typically have a “proofreading” ability, so changes in COVID’s genetic information are almost inevitable. Most mutations are harmless, having negative effects on the survivability of the virus, but some may make it more efficient. The Delta variant has a few changes to the amino acid sequence that affect the conformation and prevalence of the spike protein on the viral membrane surface, leading to more spike proteins that are a slightly different shape. Some of these mutations, specifically D614G and T478K, change the conformation of the spike protein so that it is always in the open conformation, making it easier for the COVID spike protein to bind to the receptors on human cells that take it in and simultaneously make it harder for antibodies to recognize and bind to the spike protein and prevent cellular uptake.

So, how worried should we be? The increased number of spike proteins on the Delta variant allows for a more rapid uptake of the virus in the cell and a shorter incubation time, meaning that individuals will become infected sooner and may be able to spread infections more rapidly, increasing the viral load. This is why the Delta variant appears to be more deadly despite not being any more lethal. However, the COVID vaccine is still effective in mounting antibodies against the Delta variant, and booster shots with more specificity to variants are more prevalent as the pandemic advances are in the works. In the meantime, masking and social distancing are still the most effective methods in preventing the spread of all COVID variants.

Commercial Flights to Space Cause Concern with Multiple Communities

Melita Wiles

S&E Editor

 

Commercial flights are continuing through COVID-19 to vacation destinations, loved ones’ homes, and to space. This summer, Jeff Bezos travelled 66 miles into space with his hand-picked group of three others: his brother, Mark Bezos, 18-year-old student Oliver Daeman, and 82-year-old Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk. This flight contained both the oldest and youngest people to ever travel into space, Funk and Daeman, respectively. 

Ms. Wally Funk, who held the well-deserved fourth spot on the trip, was part of the group of women called the Mercury 13 in the 1960s. They underwent the same screening tests as male astronauts, but never got to fly under the U.S. National Space Program. 

No staff were required to be on the capsule when flying into space, so Bezos and the other three passengers were completely on their own in an automated capsule. The flight took all of 10 minutes and 10 seconds. There are two more flights planned before the year’s end, and tickets being auctioned off are approaching $100 million each. 

After the flight, the participants had nothing but positive comments about their adventure into the great unknown. Bezos said, “we’re going to build a road to space so our kids and their kids can build a future.” Critics question Bezos’s funding of space tourism, when he could be giving Amazon employees pay raises or donating more money to help fight climate change. This raises an ethical question: how much responsibility do the ultra-rich have when it comes to fighting current world issues like climate change, world hunger, or homelessness? Bezos claims that he does have an environmental plan for using outer space. His plan is to move all pollution from heavy industry into space to keep the Earth “the beautiful gem of a planet that it is.” He has visions of people living and working in free-floating colonies that can hold 1 trillion in space. Although there is no concrete plan to fix anything on Earth, like the already existing problems of pollution, climate change, and other long standing issues, this is how he imagines we should move forward. 

Elon Musk, owner of SpaceX, plans to send clients into space by the end of this month. This will cost tens of millions of dollars for a seat into orbit about 360 miles from Earth for at least three days.

From Cells to Birds to Galaxies: Faculty Research Explored in Multiple Fields

Melita Wiles

Science and Environment Editor

 

James West, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

What areas of research are you involved in?

I mostly study how cells and organisms protect themselves against the stress caused by molecules, like hydrogen peroxide and environmental conditions, like excessive heat.  These stresses can damage proteins in cells, and the work that my lab does has helped elucidate how cells ward off damage in the first place and how they correct protein damage when it occurs.   

How long have you been working on these specific projects?

I have been working in this area since I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, although after a few years at Wooster, I switched to studying these problems with a Baker’s yeast model system.  The Baker’s yeast model has many advantages – it’s easily manipulated from a genetic standpoint, cheap, and fast-growing, plus there are many tools readily available in the field to aid in making new discoveries. 

Do you work with students on these projects, whether it be I.S. or summer research?

Yes – I have been fortunate to work with about 75 undergraduates on research projects related to my long-term interests – either through the sophomore research program or in Senior I.S. – over the past thirteen years. Many of these students are co-authors on papers with me. 

Have you ever traveled anywhere exciting for your research?

My work is mostly at a lab bench rather than at exotic field sites. That being said, I’ve been able to spend parts of my research leaves in Houston, Texas; Jupiter, Florida; and Winston-Salem, NC and attend conferences at sites all over the U.S., in the Tuscany region of Italy; in Barcelona, Spain; and in Newcastle, England. The international meetings have given an opportunity to travel around each of those countries for a few weeks each. 

What other research interests do you have that you have not pursued yet?

The stress defense mechanisms that my group studies are found in multiple compartments within cells, but we have mainly focused on those systems located in the cytosol. We are just beginning to interrogate how similar systems function in different cellular compartments, like mitochondria and the endoplasmic reticulum.  

Sharon Lynn, Professor of Biology, Neuroscience

What areas of research are you involved in?

My research is in the overlapping fields of behavioral endocrinology and environmental endocrinology.  This means that I am interested in understanding the interplay of hormones and behavior, and also in understanding the ecological relevance of hormone-behavior relationships. So, my research focuses on both how and why hormone-environment interactions work the way they do. For most of my career, I have conducted my work in both free-living and captive songbirds, though I have also focused some of my work on mammals, including humans.  

How long have you been working on these specific projects?

I have been working on this population of bluebirds since 2006. All of my work on this population has fit into the broad area of environmental endocrinology, and the kinds of research questions I’ve asked over the years have all been related to some extent. But my specific focus on the interactions of maternal care, early life experience, and development of the stress response began in 2012. Each year, my students, collaborators and I add a new angle to help us to better understand these interactions.

Do you work with students on these projects, whether it be I.S. or summer research?

Lots of Wooster students have been involved in this research. The fieldwork is always conducted in the late spring and through the summer, because that is when the birds breed. So I’ve worked with a lot of summer research students, including quite a few who have gone on to do their I.S.s with the bluebirds.  

Have you ever traveled anywhere exciting for your research?

I have definitely been to some remarkable places to pursue my songbird research over the years. For example, my work has allowed me to spend time in beautiful field sites in Washington, Montana, California, Alaska, and Ecuador. The bluebird work keeps me busy in Ohio, and I am lucky to have a local population to work with. But, because the research questions I ask aren’t specific to only bluebirds, I have had many opportunities to travel and work with lots of different songbird species.

What other research interests do you have that you have not pursued yet?

I find that I’m always thinking of new questions that relate to hormones and behavior—hormones are fascinating, and it’s hard for me to turn off that fascination sometimes. I’ve been lucky to have the support to pursue quite a lot of the questions I’ve found interesting over the years—including recent projects focused on humans and other mammals. At the end of this academic year, I will start a research leave where I’ll be collaborating with a colleague in Alaska to study the thyroid hormone system in the bluebirds using feathers for analysis.   

Laura Degroot, Professor of Physics

What areas of research are you involved in?

My research is in astrophysics and focuses on galaxy formation and evolution. Specifically, I study galaxy morphology, the structural properties of observed galaxies, and aim to understand how galaxy structure changes with cosmic time. Some of my current research projects include understanding how the disks and halos of galaxies form as a galaxy evolves, as well as the connection between morphology and other galaxy properties throughout time.

How long have you been working on these specific projects?

I have been studying galaxy morphology since I was a graduate student at UC Riverside. My work on galaxy halos has been ongoing for the last 6 years, working in collaboration with the haloes and environments of nearby galaxies (HERON) Project. The study of galaxy disk formation is a more recent project that I began with my collaborator at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) about two years ago, building off some of our previous work.

Do you work with students on these projects, whether it be I.S. or summer research?

Of course! I love getting students involved in my research. I have worked and continue to work with students for SOREP, junior and senior IS, as well as summer research on these projects.

Have you ever traveled anywhere exciting for your research?

  Many astronomical observations are made with ground-based telescopes. As a graduate student, I was given the opportunity to travel to the big island of Hawaii to observe using the Keck telescope. Also when I was a graduate student, I received a travel grant to go to India for about 7 weeks to work with my collaborator and learn as much as I could about galaxy morphology research. My main travel now includes going to Baltimore to STScI to work with a collaborator, and perhaps some day traveling for conferences again. I last attended the American Astronomical Society (AAS) annual meeting in January 2020, which took place in Honolulu.

What other research interests do you have that you have not pursued yet?

I am very interested in physics education research. A few years ago, Dr. Susan Lehman and I restructured the introductory calculus physics labs based on physics education research from the Cornell Physics Education Research Lab led by Dr. Natasha Holmes. The focus on active learning is so incredible to me, and I would love to eventually get more involved in this type of work.

S.T.E.M. Students Discuss Their Summer Research and Internship Experiences

Kayla Bertholf

Science and Environment Editor

 

Sobika Thapa ‘23, Computer Science

What was your summer experience/internship called?

I interned as an user interface design (UI/UX) intern for a software company in Nepal.

Give a summary of your experience.

During my internship, I participated in user research and interaction studies, translated user stories and business requirements into effective designs, designed sitemaps, wireframes, prototypes and UI and worked with visual designers to evolve the brand identity style guide.

What are two valuable skills you have learned?

Talking about my hard skills, I got more proficient in designing software tools like Figma, Adobe XD and Adobe Illustrator. It also gave me some insights about the experience a user feels when interacting with a new technology. In terms of my soft skills, this internship helped me develop my formal interaction skills and work on groups.

Did this experience help you narrow down your career choices?

Working as a UI/UX designer has been on my list of career choices post-graduation, and I am glad I got the opportunity to get this experience. About narrowing down my career choices, I still have one more summer before I graduate. I would like to explore some other career options in my field, so I can make sure I choose the job that satisfies me the most.

How did this experience compare to your liberal arts education experience?

Even in Wooster’s education, we need to be creative and have critical thinking skills. It was the same for my internship as well. A lot of the things that I have learned in Wooster came in handy, especially indirectly. We had to think broadly about designs because not everyone would like the same interface. The writing skills that I had obtained from Wooster helped me write good case study papers and communicate fluently. Since most of our clients were from the U.S., the liberal arts education experience correlated with my internship.

Do you have any advice to students wanting to pursue this area of research?

I would say, anyone who is creative and has a love for designs should go for it because I, personally, loved all the tasks that were given to me. The work is not too hectic but it sure is quite time consuming when you first get into it. It would be better if you have some knowledge about the software like Figma and Sketch which are widely used for this job. Nonetheless, in a week or two, you will get the hang of the software so there is not a lot to worry about.

Mazvita Chikomo ‘22, Environmental Geoscience

What was your summer experience/internship called?

I had an APEX Fellowship with The Ohio State University and served as a peer mentor for Applied Methods Research Experience (AMRE),  on the Stormwater Community Project.

 Give a summary of your experience.

Through the APEX Fellowship, I served as a land-use environmental consultant for OSU’s Earth Sciences Department, based in Columbus, OH, collecting, analyzing lake data, and educating the public about aesthetic water management. I conducted independent research in a 10-week applied research program with supervisor Dr. Audrey Sawyer. We analyzed groundwater flow of Mirror Lake using ArcGIS to create and analyze digital elevation models. The research was synthesized to create a poster to be presented at the Geological Society of America (G.S.A.) annual meeting. I will also use this experience to design a groundwater modeling tutorial for future College of Wooster Earth Science students.

 What are two valuable skills you have learned?

This experience helped me to learn the necessary groundwater modeling techniques required to complete my Senior I.S. This experience also helped to confirm and solidify my interest in a career path in hydrogeology.

 Did this experience help you narrow down your career choices?

Yes, this experience definitely helped me to narrow down my interest! It helped me to realize that I definitely want to go to graduate school and helped me to see what a healthy environment for graduate school looks like with an advisor who wants what’s best for you.

How did this experience compare to your liberal arts education experience?

This experience reflected my love of arts and sciences fostered by my liberal arts education. We used scientific methods and visual aids to create models that effectively communicate the science of groundwater modeling while using my creativity to create visually appealing figures that can speak to the environmental versus societal impacts of water management. The depth of analysis required at this level combines the faceted lens one obtains in a liberal arts education.

Do you have any advice to students wanting to pursue this area of research?

This advice applies to anyone pursuing any career: once you find your interests/passion, reach out to people in your network (faculty, staff, friends, peers, etc.). You never know how that conversation will go and who can connect you to your next internship or research project. All it takes is a simple conversation, hard work, determination, and perseverance to ignite your desired career path.

Annie Cohen ‘22, Psychology

What was your summer experience/internship called?

I was an ethnographic research intern for the Partnering Anthropology with Science and Technology (PAST) Foundation in Columbus, Ohio.

Give a summary of your experience.

Over the course of the summer, I shifted between three main activities in my internship. At the beginning, I was assisting the research team as they finalized a report for the Ohio Board of Education and RemotEDx. I watched recordings and sat in on focus groups and pulled out integral points. My second assignment was doing field work. I sat in on around 40 STEM summer program sessions and wrote over 20 observational reports. Finally, I conducted data analysis on the surveys that were completed by campers. I was able to pull out what the campers liked and did not like, as well as what worked for their learning styles. I also briefly looked at the role of gender and how it affected confidence and work ethic.

What are two valuable skills you have learned?

I learned a lot from this experience. One thing that I learned was how to analyze open-ended data. I also became more confident in my research capabilities.

Did this experience help you narrow down your career choices?

I’m still not sure what I would like to do as a career, but the experience has solidified my interest in research as a career.

How did this experience compare to your liberal arts education experience?

I took Educational Psychology my sophomore year and it was really interesting to get to see the theories we discussed in our class play out in real life. Other than that, my experience was completely unlike anything else in my education so far.

Do you have any advice to students wanting to pursue this area of research?

Although conducting research in a Non-Government Organization is a “thankless” job, it is so worth it to know that you are making a difference for others!

Shankar Bhat ‘22, Biology & Political Science 

What was your summer experience/internship called?

National Science Foundation (N.S.F.) Research Experience for Undergraduates (R.E.U.) at South Dakota State University (S.D.S.U.): Genomes and Phenomes.

Give a summary of your experience.

Over the course of ten weeks, I was part of a cohort doing research in plant genetics and bioinformatics. I was working under Dr. Anne Fennell at S.D.S.U. who specializes in grape genetics and is researching perennial crop adaptability to climate change. I studied the genes that are differentially expressed when a grape plant is developing its bud and going dormant. This was a focus of the study because this unique trait – bud dormancy – is critical to the development of grapevines in the spring and has significant implications for grape adaptability through increasingly unpredictable winters. Additionally, with others in my cohort, I partook in workshops that taught us how to use various bioinformatics software and began the construction of a transcriptome of the flower, Viola pedatifida.

What are two valuable skills you have learned?

I learned how to process differential gene expression from raw data from DNA and RNA extraction. Additionally, I learned how a large research team collaborates across institutions and shares knowledge for the development of the field.

 Do you think this experience has helped you narrow down your career choices?

This experience helped me understand in part what a research career looks like … and that it isn’t a good fit for me. I really enjoyed being able to focus on a singular project, however, I definitely prefer to be working on more than one thing at a time so that I never get bored of my work.

How did this experience compare to your liberal arts education experience?

This was an interesting summer in that it was a very focused crash course into genetics and bioinformatics which is very different from my experience as a double major with a S.T.E.M. and a social science. I really enjoy being able to use different parts of my brain throughout the day and felt that the well-rounded education we get at Wooster helped me adapt to unexpected challenges.

Do you have any advice to students wanting to pursue this area of research?         

I absolutely recommend that S.T.E.M. students interested in research apply to a wide variety of R.E.U. programs. I am more microbiology focused yet I still learned a ton and was able to substantially contribute to my mentor’s research (and her grad student’s research!). This experience not only taught me about genetics and bioinformatics, but it also taught me about the research process which was invaluable. Further, despite seemingly unrelated, I am still able to transfer some of what I learned to my I.S. which is super exciting. All in all, an invaluable experience.

 

The science and ongoing research of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Jonathan Logan

Science & Environment Editor

 

On Tuesday, April 14, Dean of Students Myrna Hernández informed the campus community that the scheduled vaccine clinic happening on campus was cancelled due to a recommendation made by the FDA and the CDC. The recommendation asked all federal and state clinics offering the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) vaccine to halt any further distribution. This announcement left many students in limbo, as they were expecting to get vaccinated that week. However, it also left many others especially those who had already gotten the J&J vaccine wondering if their personal health was at risk.

The New York Times reported that over seven million Americans had already received the J&J vaccine before distribution slowed to a halt last Tuesday. Seven of those who were administered the vaccine  have suffered from blood clots, primarily in the brain. However, it is yet to be scientifically proven that these vaccines are the actual cause of the clotting. Europe recently suspended distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine for similar reasons. The AstraZeneca vaccine has yet to be authorized for public use in the United States.

For those who have already gotten the J&J vaccine, there are steps that can be taken to ensure your safety and to stay informed. The New York Times also reported that the risk of clotting, if it is indeed caused by the vaccine, is extremely low (nearly one in a million). If the opportunity arises, experts recommend getting the shot regardless of perceived threat, since the probability of being infected by COVID-19 is still much higher than the probability of developing a blood clot. The unverified clotting phenomenon seems to primarily affect women between ages 18 to 48, but other age groups are still at risk. The CDC advises people who have had the J&J shot in the past three weeks to contact a doctor if they experience one or more of the following: severe headaches, abdominal pain, leg pain or difficulty breathing.

The science and mechanisms that explain and lead to the clotting are still being investigated by researchers. However, researchers in Europe, studying the AstraZeneca vaccine, have stated with confidence that the clotting could be caused by the immune system reacting too strongly to the vaccine. The body begins to produce blood platelets at levels that lead to clotting (platelets cause clotting in anyone, not just those who have received the vaccine). In technical jargon, the disorder is called vaccine-induced immune thrombotic thrombocytopenia. COVID-19 itself is known to cause serious clotting as well. Scientists say that the root cause of the disorder is likely some incredibly rare biological trait that would take years to uncover.

No clotting cases have been reported for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It is important to listen to your body before and after receiving the vaccine. These clotting cases are extremely rare, and if given the opportunity, experts still recommend getting vaccinated.