Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘Iowa State University’

What’s ahead for the March for Science Iowa; what sparked dissent at the event

In STEM on April 27, 2017 at 11:50 am
The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant: Thou shalt: Question, Research, Hypothesize, Test, Analyze, Conclude. Thou Shalt NOT: Jump to Conclusions on "Alternative Facts," Illogical arguments, Ideology instead of Reason.

The science commandments, from a March for Science Iowa participant. He had his wife and child with him, too.

I wasn’t sure what would happen last Saturday. More than 1,300 people were committed via Facebook and more than 900 people followed the @MarchForScienceIA Twitter handle, and we got some press on WHO-TV and in the Des Moines Register. Nonetheless, I couldn’t guess how many actually would show up for the March for Science Iowa at the Capitol.

I contributed (in money and time) to the march and was there to help (my job, with my wife and son, was to man the barricades at each end of Finkbine Drive on the Capitol’s west side). If a thousand people gave up a beautiful Saturday afternoon to support science, I would be thrilled.

As the march started, I stationed myself at the corner of Finkbine and Grand Avenue and used a handheld clicker to count the passing participants. At times it looked like the troop of colorfully dressed, T-shirt-bedecked and sign-bearing activists would peter out, but a new horde would appear. I clicked furiously to keep up.

When the last had gone by, the readout was 2,025. I know I missed dozens more and organizers put the crowd at 2,500, give or take a couple hundred.

It was a great event – an enthusiastic and orderly crowd and a gorgeous day. Participants heard energizing speeches (at least one with some controversy sprinkled in) and educational talks. Organizers already are considering how to capitalize on the momentum.

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March for Science: Iowans organizing rally for research

In STEM on January 30, 2017 at 7:08 am
A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

A March for Science Iowa comic by designer Miles Greb (@goldrushcomic) via the March for Science Iowa Facebook page. I think the model looks like a dark-haired Scarlett Johanssen.

Jordan Shaw was a lab technician working in food safety a few years ago when one of his supervisors, a researcher working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, published a study comparing eggs from organic and free-range chickens to standard eggs.

Time published her results: there was little difference in terms of safety or quality between the different eggs.

When the magazine posted the story on line, Shaw was stunned. “The comments on that were just unreal, like ‘you can’t trust the USDA because they’re the idiots who made the food pyramid,’” said Shaw, now a food safety consultant living in West Des Moines.

That made Shaw consider how to help the general public better understand science. “What we’re seeing now, really badly, is that science is elite, it’s liberal, all this stuff, and the problem is our populace just doesn’t understand, honest and truly, what is peer-reviewed science.”

His alarm increased when he read reports that the Donald Trump administration was suspending research grants and communications from key government science offices, especially those associated with the environment.

So Shaw – and others across the state – are taking action. They’re planning an Iowa version of a national march in Washington, D.C., to support science and research.

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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.

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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 »

Ernest Moniz is coming to Iowa next month. Here’s why you should care.

In Government on April 25, 2016 at 7:10 am
Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz greeting friends on his first day on the job, May 2013. Credit: U.S. Department of Energy.

I’m not a fan of Bill Nye. I certainly endorse his science advocacy and education efforts, but he’s of my sons’ generation, not mine, and his lack of deep academic credentials leaves him open to the kind of challenge Sarah Palin recently made. (I’m not saying Bill Nye isn’t a scientist, as Palin did. I’m saying there are other science spokespeople with stronger resumes and greater accomplishments.) So I didn’t make a big deal out of Nye lecturing at Drake University April 14.

But I am excited about the pending visit of a real science superstar: U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. He’s coming to Ames on Friday, May 6 to speak at the dedication of the Ames Laboratory’s Sensitive Instrument Facility. (I wrote about the SIF and the high-tech tools it houses earlier this year.) He’ll stay overnight and deliver the undergraduate commencement address at 1:30 p.m. in Hilton Coliseum on Saturday, May 7.

It’s exciting because, as I’ll explain, Moniz is probably the most consequential energy secretary in history – a big influence on world peace and climate stability. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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ISU star discoveries, from babies to seniors

In University research on February 2, 2015 at 7:25 am
Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for  the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

The “yellowballs” in the middle of this image from the Spitzer Space Telescope caught the attention of a volunteer classifying objects for the Milky Way Project. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, from the ISU release.

Astrophysics is in the news at Iowa State University, with two publications out in the last week.

One addresses a puzzle posed by a nonscientist who was examining infrared-light images of Milky Way objects: What are those yellow balls? The answer has to do with stars’ early lives.

The second goes to the other end of the galactic timeline. With help from the planet-hunting Kepler satellite, researchers identified one of the Milky Way’s oldest stars and a collection of rocky planets orbiting it.

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