Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘University research’ Category

Run, run reindeer: Climate change, other factors sap herd

In University research on December 21, 2016 at 2:27 pm
Reindeer on the run in Norway.

Reindeer on the run in Norway. Photo credit: zetson Running via photopin (license).

It was inevitable, given the timing, that Andrey Petrov’s latest research would get some unusual treatment.

At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last week, Petrov presented a report showing that one of the world’s largest reindeer herds is contracting. After reaching a peak population of around a million in 2000, the pack has fallen to around 600,000 in the Taimyr Peninsula, its home territory and one Russia’s northernmost parts.

With Christmas just days away, some websites relayed the news with a tongue-in-cheek approach.

At Gizmodo, the headline was “400,000 Reindeer Vanish in Ongoing War on Christmas.”

LiveScience introduced its piece with “Santa’s Reindeer Feel the Heat as Numbers Shrink Worldwide.” The lead goes on with “Santa Claus better stock up on reindeer, because he may have trouble scrounging up replacements in the not-too-distant future, new research suggests,” before continuing with a serious and thorough report.

The BBC, meanwhile, played it straight.

I’ll admit: the Christmas time peg is one reason I’m also jumping on this study. But there are serious reasons and ramifications for the worldwide reindeer decline. Read the rest of this entry »

Too many tubes: Iowa medical study finds most blood specimens wasted

In University research on November 14, 2016 at 7:45 am
With one full tube already in hand, a healthcare worker draws a second blood specimen. It may never get lab testing.

With one full tube already in hand, a healthcare worker draws a second blood specimen. It may never get lab testing. Credit: Lori Greig via photopin (license).

We’ve all experienced it: Waiting in the doctor’s office, hospital room or ER, perhaps in a flimsy, colorfully printed gown with your backside hanging out, for the friendly phlebotomist or nurse to come in with a rubber strap, a needle and a rack of tubes, each perhaps the size of your little finger.

The usual procedure, deftly performed in an efficient ballet: wrap the band around a bicep, have the patient flex until the vein bulges, swab the area and put in the needle.

If you’re lucky, the phlebotomist will stop at filling one tube. But often they suck out a second, a third, or more, until you’re sure you’ll be drained dry. Each tube has its own colored cap, designating the laboratory test for which it’s destined.

Unpleasant, but necessary, right? It’s all about finding out what’s wrong and how to fix it. Those extra tubes could provide the vital clues to a cure.

But what if they don’t? A study out last week from University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) had surprising findings about the fate of those blood-filled tubes. Read the rest of this entry »

Does planting GMOs increase pesticide use? It depends…

In University research on November 2, 2016 at 7:35 am
A common Iowa sight: a rig spreading herbicide on glyphosate-tolerant soybeans.

A common Iowa sight: a rig spreading herbicide on glyphosate-tolerant soybeans. Photo credit: clisenberg John Deere 4730 via photopin (license).

A year or so ago I was listening to a candidate (who will remain unnamed) for a federal office (that will remain unnamed). This candidate sounded reasonable and I agreed with most of what I heard – except for a call to label products made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

I challenged this assertion. There is no evidence, despite extensive testing, that consuming GMOs poses a health hazard. Labeling would feed unfounded fears.

Another person turned to me and said that may be so, but planting GMO crops that resist specific weed-killers and insects encouraged farmers to overuse pesticides, putting the environment at risk.

It only occurred to me later to ask: How would labeling fix that?

And in any case, recent research out of Iowa, Kansas, and Michigan state universities and the University of Virginia suggests the GMO-pesticide connection may be more complicated than we think. In some cases, planting genetically engineered (GE) crops may lead to more pesticide use, but in other cases it leads to less. And when a pesticide’s environmental impact is taken into consideration, the picture gets even cloudier.

Read the rest of this entry »

ISU prof’s microfluidics machine promises nearly instant wine

In Industry Research, University research on August 29, 2016 at 11:55 am
A former military tunnel in Taiwan, now converted to a cave to age rice wine in clay jars.

The opposite of instant wine: a former military tunnel in Taiwan, now used to age rice wine in clay jars. It’s not really related to microfluidics and Switzerland, but it’s cool. Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Cave #88 via photopin (license).

For centuries, winemaking has been a messy, time-consuming operation, taking weeks just to ferment and sometimes years to mellow grape juice into something you’d actually drink.

Now an Iowa State University professor is raising the hopes of oenophiles around the world by short-circuiting the process, producing wine in just minutes.

There are, of course, a few catches. And just as importantly, the technology, revealed earlier this summer, is more a feat of engineering than oenology.

Read the rest of this entry »

Moniz: Mother Nature could persuade climate change deniers; will it be in time?

In Government, University research on May 9, 2016 at 12:10 pm
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz talks to reporters in Ames, Iowa, on May 6, 2016.

For a while now, I’ve puzzled over something: Why does a segment of the population – and an even larger portion of Congress – disavow the evidence for anthropogenic (human-caused) global climate change?

Weather records show temperatures are increasing, with each year seeming to set a new record. Oceans are rising. Violent storms, droughts, wildfires and other weather-driven phenomena are happening more often and with greater force. Scientists who study the climate overwhelmingly agree we’re changing the atmosphere for the worse.

So why do so many people deny the evidence? And, more importantly, how do we change people’s minds and get them to take action before it’s too late?

I don’t have many answers and my small forum can’t do much to correct the situation, but last week I talked to someone who does have answers – and the power to do something about it.

When U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz came to Iowa, I got a moment to ask him about this. While his answer was reasonable, it was a bit disappointing. Read the rest of this entry »

Those wild and crazy snails are back, with lessons about sex

In University research on April 27, 2016 at 11:50 am
 In a study involving multiple generations of a freshwater snail in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Iowa found that polyploidy doesn't appear to be an asset—nor is it a drawback—for females bearing offspring without the help of a male. Instead, it's the snails' sexuality that creates the advantage: Asexual females, the study found, grew twice as fast during the late juvenile phase and reached reproductive maturity 30 percent faster than female snails that mated with males. Photo by Justin Torner.

In their cups: University of Iowa researchers grew multiple generations of tiny freshwater snails in the lab to study whether having multiple genomes provides advantages. Photo by Justin Torner from the U of I news website.

The snails are back. Or more precisely, researchers using snails as a model to understand the biological benefits of sexual reproduction are back with results.

I wrote about the research about two years ago, when conservative news outlets began ridiculing an $876,000 National Science Foundation grant to study “snail sex.” Two University of Iowa researchers, Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon, were among those receiving the grant.

Although multiple conservative outlets had reported and commented on the grant, none had asked the researchers to explain its significance. I was the first writer to contact them for any more than a cursory question. To me it was an example of a gap in science reporting in Iowa and conservative bias against government spending.

The bottom line: The tiny New Zealand snails are good models to study the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction, the true purpose of the study. The snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, have two genetic lines, one that reproduces sexually and another asexually, allowing the scientists to compare their genes for signs of advantages or disadvantages to sex.

Now results are coming out of this and related snail research, and the results are surprising. Sex and its biology, it turns out, aren’t as simple as scientists thought. Read the rest of this entry »

Ames Lab gets small with new microscopes

In Uncategorized, University research on January 5, 2016 at 7:02 am
Ames Lab's Matt Kramer with the Tecnai transmission electron microscope at the new Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF). The Tecnai TEM was moved to the SIF from Wilhelm Hall, one of the buildings the lab occupies on the Iowa State University campus.

Ames Lab’s Matt Kramer with the Tecnai transmission electron microscope at the new Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF). The microscope was moved to the SIF from Wilhelm Hall on the Iowa State University campus.

In 2015 Ames Laboratory scientists who investigate materials’ fundamental properties received their Christmas presents early.

In November and December technicians unpacked and installed around $6 million worth of high-tech microscopes, some capable of identifying individual atoms and how they’re arranged in materials. The three new devices joined one already owned by the lab, a Department of Energy (DOE) facility Iowa State University manages on its campus.

The equipment is installed at the lab’s Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), a fortress against interference recently finished northwest of the ISU campus. In my last post, I described the many steps the building’s designers took to keep vibrations and electromagnetic noise from disturbing the powerful microscopes inside.

In this post I’ll tell you more about the devices themselves. With their power, scientists can better understand materials and develop new ones that save energy and improve the performance of devices we use every day. Read the rest of this entry »

What’s shaking? At this building, not a thing

In Uncategorized, University research on December 22, 2015 at 7:00 am
A SIF schematic with notations designating the location of each instrument. From Ames Laboratory's Inquiry magazine.

A SIF schematic with notations designating the location of each instrument. From Ames Laboratory’s Inquiry magazine.

It’s not a much to look at from the outside. The long, low building just northwest of the Iowa State University campus could be classrooms or offices, maybe for a small manufacturer or a medical practice.

The offices and public spaces are airy and furnished in a style echoing IKEA. There’s no hint that the structure is unique in Iowa and rare in the United States.
But take a tour, as I did last week, and you learn that this, the first new scientific structure Ames Laboratory has built since 1961, is a near-fortress against even the tiniest outside interference.

The Sensitive Instrument Facility (SIF), still awaiting its first occupants, can’t be disturbed. Really. And that’s what makes it a great place for researchers to make some minuscule discoveries. Read the rest of this entry »

This biotech discovery could help malnourished millions; plus a rare earth landmark and a distant dirty river

In University research on December 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm
Arabadopsis thaliana.

Arabadopsis thaliana. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

For many people, running low on protein is an easily corrected annoyance. For instance, new vegetarians who fail to replace the protein meat once provided can feel sluggish, weak and brain-fogged.

For those with the means, a cure is quick: a dose of some kind of protein, whether animal or vegetable.

Unfortunately, millions of children and adults in poorer countries don’t have the means. For them, prolonged protein deficiency can mean retardation, organ damage and death.

Two Iowa State University professors have a possible solution, thanks to an unusual gene found in a common plant. The question is whether the very countries that could most benefit from the high-protein grain the gene produces will permit it.

Elsewhere in this month’s roundup: Honoring a rare earths pioneer, and the University of Northern Iowa plans to study one of the world’s most polluted rivers – in one of the world’s most beautiful regions. Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Pitchman or teacher, Borg mussels and tell-all textbooks (with videos)

In STEM, University research on October 19, 2015 at 12:15 pm
The cover to John Cisna's book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.com.

The cover to John Cisna’s book about his diet experiment and leap to fame, via Amazon.

So much science, so little time.

The last few weeks have seen Iowans and Iowa universities garnering attention for so many controversial, strange and cool science-related ventures it’s hard to keep up. For example:

  • An Iowa high school science teacher’s experiment with a McDonald’s-only diet made him famous. Now health advocates say his presentations to students around the country are thinly veiled commercials for the fast-food chain.
  • University of Iowa engineers are coming out of their shells to flex their electronic mussels. (Ba-dump ching!)
  • And teachers are using digital textbooks to spy on their students’ performance – with an eye on improving it, an Iowa State University professor says.

Read the rest of this entry »

A huge Iowa impact’s role in a big, scary fossil discovery

In University research on September 14, 2015 at 9:17 pm
A conception of Pentecopterus, drawn by Yale University's Patrick Lynch.

A conception of Pentecopterus, drawn by Yale University’s Patrick Lynch.

Decorah, generally known for its Norwegian-American museum, Luther College and spectacular Iowa River scenery, became famous for another reason in the last couple of weeks.

The Winneshiek County seat community has lent its name to an ancient resident: an intimidating, potentially man-sized sea creature armed with terrifying tentacle-like appendages.

Scientists at Yale University and the Iowa Geological Survey (IGS), based at the University of Iowa Oakdale campus, published the research in a recent issue of BMC Evolutionary Biology. The creature is so strange and menacing – and the artist’s rendition so eye-catching – that websites and newspapers around the world picked up the story.

Lost in the hoopla, however, is the deeper (literally) discovery behind the now-famous fossil.

Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Ebola shots, big computer plans and a sunny outcome for ISU

In Industry Research, University research on August 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm
A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an  Ebola virus virion, created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

A colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of an Ebola virus virion, created by U.S. Centers for Disease Control microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith. Credit: CDC global Flickr stream.

Iowans and Iowa institutions have played roles in nationally and internationally significant science and technology developments in the last week, but sometimes you have to know the background to understand their involvement.

For instance, there was big news on Friday when the British medical journal The Lancet published results from an Ebola vaccine trial. The medicine appears highly effective – 100 percent, statistically – against the deadly disease. An Iowa company had a hand in it.

Just the day before, President Barack Obama signed an executive order putting the United States on course to build the most powerful computer ever. What few have noticed is the work a top University of Iowa official put in to helped set the stage for the program.

Meanwhile, Iowa State University students in Texas were celebrating after winning a race of sun-powered cars. And they not only won – they dominated, taking home the trophy for the first time since the team began racing 25 years ago.

Read the rest of this entry »

Going dark: ISU abandoning the Fick Observatory

In University research on July 8, 2015 at 2:41 pm
The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU's Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

The deteriorating sign marking the entrance to ISU’s Fick Observatory southwest of Boone.

For nearly 40 years, Iowa State University students and researchers made nightly drives west to a humble steel building in a wooded clearing southwest of Boone.

When skies were clear, they would roll back the roof and fire up a 24-inch reflector telescope and other, smaller instruments to focus on distant stars and galaxies.

But a visit to the Erwin W. Fick Observatory today finds no students or professors and little more than weeds. ISU has closed it and moved most of the telescopes and equipment to campus.

For the first time in decades, Iowa State has no major astronomical facility – and it’s unlikely to ever have one again.

Read the rest of this entry »

ISU AIDS research fraud: the denouement

In University research on July 2, 2015 at 8:38 am
Graphic of the HIV virus structure

In this schematic of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the glycoproteins gp41 and gp120 are the base and tip, respectively, of the “spikes” protruding from the virus membrane.

Another quick post to note the final outcome of a case I wrote about frequently last year: Iowa State University researcher Dong-Pyou Han’s admission that he faked AIDS research lab results.

The Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys offers a wrapup of Han’s sentencing: nearly five years in prison and repayment of $7.2 million in fraudulently gained federal grants. The experts Leys consulted noted the penalty’s unusual stiffness and its ramifications. U.S. District Judge James Gritzner essentially put researchers on notice that academic misconduct has consequences. It remains to be seen whether the sentence actually inhibits other scientists from cheating, and we may never know if it does.

As I’ve written before, the scandal came to light not through a police or federal agency investigation, but through the self-checks built into research: Suspicions first were raised when other scientists failed to duplicate the ISU team’s results. That’s how the system is supposed to work. Maybe it doesn’t always succeed and some bad science and fraud slips through, but that’s true everywhere: How many crimes go undetected and unpunished every day – even crimes on this scale, with millions of dollars at stake?

Read the rest of this entry »

Roundup: Smartphone phobia, Alzheimer’s proteins and fracking water

In University research on May 24, 2015 at 8:20 am
Blackberry telling its owner "You cannot quit."

Photo Credit: me_chris via Compfight cc

For your Memorial Day weekend reading, here’s a review of some lesser-seen science news from Iowa universities over the last few weeks, including “addictive” cellphones, a hint at how to avoid Alzheimer’s disease and mineral water that could give you an unhealthy glow.

If you’re reading this on a mobile phone, you might want to pay special attention to the first item. Iowa State University researchers say their quiz can help determine whether you have an unhealthy attachment to your pocket brain. It could be an addiction. Or not.

Another ISU researcher’s study, meanwhile, has implications for the brain between your ears – the real one with hands-free access (unless, like me, you hold your head while thinking). The bottom line from his Alzheimer’s disease research may give you another reason to stop using your exercise bike as a clothesline.

And finally, a University of Iowa report suggests brackish underground water produced as a consequence of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for gas and oil may be more dangerous than previously thought.

Read the rest of this entry »

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