Thomas R. O'Donnell

Archive for the ‘University research’ Category

Framing: How Dickinson County denizens comprehended and handled the pandemic

In Government, University research on March 31, 2021 at 7:45 am
Antique postcard saying Greetings from Lake Okoboji, Iowa

Lake Okoboji (which is a misnomer; there is no Lake Okoboji, but there are West Lake Okoboji and East Lake Okoboji) postcard, circa 1939. Copyright 2012 by Steven R. Shook. Used with permission.

Emily Mendenhall arrived in Okoboji, her hometown in Iowa’s Great Lakes region, in June 2020 – just as the area became a COVID-19 hotspot. Confirmed cases burst from just eight to 200 in one month. As she later learned, there probably were even more, as many young people skipped testing, accepted their fate and nursed themselves back to health. Cases that tourists contracted in Dickinson County also may have been attributed to their home counties or states.

It was a drastic contrast to the situation Mendenhall, her husband, Adam Koon, and their two elementary school-aged daughters had left.

“I came from D.C., where everything was shut down and everyone was taking it so seriously,” said Mendenhall, a professor of global health in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “And then I came to a place where everyone’s like, ‘whatever.’”

As I described in my previous post, Mendenhall and Koon, an assistant scientist in the International Health Department in the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, joined with others to understand why so few Dickinson County citizens heeded public health advice – sometimes with dire consequences. They interviewed nearly 100 residents of the summer destination, most of whom live there year-round.

We’ll look into their fascinating – but in some respects unsurprising – analysis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sun, sand, suds and COVID: An anthropologist returns to Iowa and probes the virus’s spread

In Government, University research on March 24, 2021 at 7:35 am
Boats tied together in a row with swimmers and floating air mattresses at one of the Iowa Great Lakes.

A common sight on the Iowa Great Lakes: Boats lashed together as their occupants drink, mingle and swim. Credit: Copyright 2021 by Tom Gustafson, VisonAIRy Drone, via Instagram.

Every summer, Emily Mendenhall and her husband, Adam Koon, leave their home in the Washington, D.C. area and return to her childhood haunts in Dickinson County, Iowa, home to the Iowa Great Lakes tourist region. It’s a chance for them and their two daughters to see Mendenhall’s parents and sister, enjoy the lakes and relax.

Summer 2020, however, was drastically different. When the family arrived in June, Dickinson County was in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak, but an anything-goes atmosphere prevailed. Merchants were counting on summer visitors – who boost the local population from 17,000 to around 100,000 – to pay year-round bills. Tourists wanted to ignore coronavirus concerns and enjoy swimming, fishing, boating and partying.

Few government officials seemed interested in acting to slow the disease, which has now killed more than 5,000 Iowans. “I was so surprised that everyone was just kind of like, oh well,” Mendenhall says.

The exceptions were Dickinson County public health officials, who could use little more than public relations to fight the pandemic’s local impact.

Mendenhall and Koon were troubled. So, with the help of family and friends, they used their unique combination of skills to dissect the psychology driving this sometimes-dangerous behavior.

They exposed how Iowans’ social, political, economic and emotional histories and values led them to embrace or disdain public health measures, often to the detriment of public health.

What the couple and their colleagues learned could help public health workers better understand and cope with pandemic-related behavior in other rural, urban or suburban settings.

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Save tenure; save science; save Iowa education

In University research on March 3, 2021 at 7:35 am
Campus of the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, one of the state regents institutions that a tenure ban would devastate. Credit: University of Northern Iowa.

The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, one of the state regents institutions that a tenure ban would devastate. Credit: University of Northern Iowa.

With complete control of the governor’s office and both houses of the General Assembly, the Iowa Republican Party passed some terrible anti-science, anti-intellectual bills last year, in a pandemic-shortened session.

But that doesn’t compare with what they’re attempting this year.

The GOP increased its majority in both houses in the 2020 election, apparently emboldening its caucus. Besides further restricting voting, they’re considering expanding exemptions for vaccinations and forbidding businesses – even hospitals and clinics – from requiring vaccines for employees.

But the worst of a bad bunch might be the attempt to ban tenure, the policy that helps protect academic freedom, at the state universities.

What would it mean for Iowa?

Read the rest of this entry »

Big scope in the deep woods: The fate of ISU’s Mather Telescope

In Uncategorized, University research on November 10, 2020 at 7:20 am

The Mather Telescope in its glory days.

The Mather Telescope in its glory days.

The approximately 45 acres of rolling woodland southwest of Boone that Aaron and Melissa Gillett bought last month are a haven for deer, wild turkeys, foxes and other wildlife.

Plus one white elephant.

After months of bureaucratic and pandemic-related delays, the Gilletts closed on a deal with the Iowa Board of Regents to buy the former Erwin W. Fick Observatory, a venerable facility where hundreds of Iowa State University students got their first taste of large-scale astronomy. The college abandoned it about five years ago. Workers stripped the steel-sided building of most electronics and metal for salvage, disposal or sale as surplus equipment.

But they left behind an enormous reminder of the observatory’s past.

Read the rest of this entry »

50 shades of brown: Here’s a chance to hear about Iowa’s manure quandary – and drink beer

In Government, University research on July 31, 2019 at 7:40 am

A map of swine feeding operations in Iowa, with a big concentration in the state's northwest corner.

A map of swine feeding operations in Iowa, with a big concentration in the state’s northwest corner. From Christopher Jones’ presentation to the Iowa Academy of Science.

When it comes to manure, research engineer Christopher Jones of IIHR – Hydrosciences & Engineering at the University of Iowa has a knack for putting quantities and consequences in stark terms.

In blog posts earlier this year, Jones calculated how much animal waste Iowa’s millions of hogs, cattle, chickens and turkeys produce – an amount equivalent to 134 million humans – and where that puts us in the manure hierarchy of U.S. states.

The data caused a stir, with The Des Moines Register and other media playing up the implications. Now you can hear Jones discuss his findings in person.

March for Science Iowa is bringing Jones to West Des Moines’ Twisted Vine Brewery, 3320 Westown Parkway (just off Interstate Highway 235) on Wednesday, August 7, for a discussion over snacks (free), microbrew beer (on your own) and soft drinks. We’ll gather starting at 6:30 and begin the program at 7.

It’s one of two science-driven events worth your attention in the coming week.

Read the rest of this entry »

Cooler, wetter weather: Thanks, corn and beans … I think

In Government, University research on March 8, 2018 at 7:39 am

Cornfields might not understand it, but they're messing with our weather.

Corn might not get it, but it’s messing up our weather. Credit: ANBerlin A bed in the corn field? via photopin (license).

About now, farmers in Iowa and across the Corn Belt get itchy. As the weather warms, they start tuning plows and planters, preparing to put another crop of corn and soybeans in the ground.

Within months, the rural Midwest will largely be a sea of towering stalks filling out ears and squat bean plants putting on pods.

But this sea of biomass has unforeseen effects on Midwestern climate, a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests – and, I would argue, contributes to global climate change.

When you’re driving past those carpeted fields this summer, you can thank them for countering higher temperatures driven by greenhouse gas emissions, but curse them for more frequent drenching, violent thunderstorms and tornadoes.

It stands to reason that agriculture – which has never been more intense or widespread in human history – is doing something to our weather. But there are bigger questions about its impact. Read the rest of this entry »

Documentary draws lines in GMO debate

In Government, Industry Research, University research on November 5, 2017 at 2:49 pm

The "Food Evolution" movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

The “Food Evolution” movie poster, courtesy of Black Valley Films.

Given Iowa’s reputation as an agricultural state, it would be no surprise to find we’re in the middle of a debate about the use and safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Odds are, the corn and soybeans you see farmers picking as you drive down a highway or country road (or that you’re harvesting yourself if you farm) this fall are GMOs. Most probably were genetically altered to tolerate herbicides, resist insects, or both. In many cases, these tweaks have let farmers grow more grain with less cost, often with lower environmental impact.

These products have been in the field for decades. (And one could argue that virtually every plant we eat has been genetically modified through cross breeding.) We’ve all eaten them with no ill effects. Yet arguments continue over their safety, whether their presence should be disclosed in food labeling and whether they’re tools of money-grubbing corporations.

All these issues come up in “Food Evolution,” a documentary making the rounds and presented last week at the Iowa State University Memorial Union in Ames. It asks important questions: How do we make the most informed decisions about what we eat? And what if, in rejecting GMOs, we get it wrong?

Iowa makes several cameo appearances, with scenes shot in Ames and Des Moines and in the credentials of activists and bystanders on screen.

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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.

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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 »

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