Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘University of Iowa’

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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 »

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 »

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.

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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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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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Roundup: Mars meteors, robotic gardeners, a tight squeeze for molecules, and atom bomb history

In University research on November 13, 2014 at 6:13 am
MARSIS spectrographs showing ionosphere fluctuation due to contact with cometary debris.

Spectrographic MARSIS data from radar soundings of the Martian ionosphere midway between the equator and north pole at three different times. The horizontal axis is the MARSIS radio wave pulse frequency. The vertical axis is the estimated altitude above the planet’s surface. Increasing intensity is indicated by color-coding from blue to red, as shown by the scale. The normal ionospheric reflection can be seen extending up to about 2.8 megahertz on all three spectrograms, corresponding to an electron density of about 100,000 electrons per cubic centimeter. The top spectrogram shows conditions about eight minutes before the comet’s closest approach. The middle spectrogram shows conditions about seven hours later, when a temporary layer of enhanced electron density had formed within the ionosphere. It extends to very high frequencies, from about 2.8 to 3.8 megahertz, and corresponds to an electron density of about 200,000 electrons per cubic centimeter. This layer is at an altitude below the normal peak in the ionosphere. By comparison with the ground reflection, which can be seen at frequencies above 4 megahertz, the layer of enhanced ionization is estimated to be at an altitude of 50 to 60 miles. Credit: ASI/NASA/ESA/JPL/Univ. of Rome/Univ. of Iowa

Here’s a little bit of everything (almost) going on in Iowa science, from the interplanetary to the tiny and from the latest in robotics to the history of Iowa’s role in the atom bomb.

University of Iowa researchers last week released results from a probe that tracked the impact of a comet flyby on Mars’ atmosphere. The impact was something like a massive meteor shower.

On Earth, Iowa State University plant scientists plan to staff a high-tech growing facility with a robot. (Don’t worry, postdocs and grad students; I’m sure they’ll need some human help, too.)

Ames Laboratory researchers, meanwhile, have taken a mathematical look at the uncomfortable situation that occurs when tiny particles meet in a nanoparticle’s narrow pores. It’s a bit like people trying to squeeze past each other in a tight hallway.

And finally, for hardcore historians, there’s a look back at the war-era events behind the lab’s founding. Read the rest of this entry »

Rats on the brain: U of I researchers chase a stress-memory connection

In University research on July 2, 2014 at 6:30 am
A brain diagram from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia,1890-1907.

A brain diagram from the Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary, published in Russia, 1890-1907. Credit: Double–M via photopin cc

When I talked with Jason Radley, he was nearly back home in Iowa City after a weekend trip to Minnesota with his wife and two children, ages seven and 10.

Fortunately, the kids were riding in another car with grandma and grandpa, so Radley was feeling pretty good. The grandparents are “probably the ones who are stressed,” he said.

Given their ages, “we probably put them in undue risk, if you extrapolate my work” to humans, joked Radley, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Iowa.

That work, done in rats, suggests stress may cut into cognitive ability – specifically memory – as people age.

The research, published last month in The Journal of Neuroscience, found that older rats showing signs of stress – that is, elevated levels of a stress-related hormone – not only performed more poorly on memory tests; they also had structural changes in a key brain region responsible for short-term memory.

The report follows other research with similar conclusions, making chronic stress a likely addition to the cast of health villains that contribute to declining brain function late in life.

But don’t tell your significant other you’re spending your days playing video games and drinking beer, all in the name of reducing your stress to preserve your memory. There are caveats to the study, which included a fascinating experiment involving a T-shaped maze.

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Talkin’ science talks and Cyclone Survivor

In STEM on June 12, 2014 at 8:11 am
Gray wolves looking cute.

Canis lupus: the gray wolf, once roamed Iowa. Credit: Steve Jurvetson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters via Compfight cc

A quick post to spread the word about two lecture series now in progress for folks living in Central Iowa. If you have a Friday night or Saturday afternoon free, they’re great destinations for engaging talks on wildlife, astronomy, biology and more. They’re at no charge and in beautiful settings.

I’ll also note the accomplishments of a Williamsburg FIRST LEGO League team in this year’s Global Innovation Award competition.

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Selected shorts: crappy typing pays off, bone regrowth, and babies grasp food and words

In University research on December 5, 2013 at 12:08 pm
Some illegible scribbles from Tom O'Donnell's reporter's notebook.

A typical selection from my reporter’s notebook. Can you make out any of it?

Anyone who’s seen my handwriting would have a hard time mistaking it for someone else’s. The loops and slashes that fill my reporter’s notebooks are unmistakably mine, even if they’re indecipherable to most people. (Fortunately, I can read them… mostly.)

My typing, of course, is easily legible – even though my typing is pretty terrible. I’m able to erase the typos, blank spaces, merged words and other errors.

Now it turns out that my crappy typing is just as recognizable as my crappy handwriting. In fact, we each have a characteristic typing pattern, and some Iowa State University computer researchers are capitalizing on that to strengthen information security.

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Roundup: Van Allen belts give electrons a jolt, a super scanner and a flood study dries up

In Uncategorized, University research on August 26, 2013 at 5:00 am
Van Allen belts with graph of electron acceleration

Recent observations by NASA’s twin Van Allen Probes show that a local kick of energy accelerates particles in the radiation belts surrounding Earth. The readings help explain how these particles reach energies of 99 percent the speed of light. Image Credit: G. Reeves/M. Henderson

I was in knee pants when I first heard about the Van Allen radiation belts, the donut-shaped rings of charged particles circling the Earth. In the movie (and later television series), “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” the belts catch fire, threatening the planet with global warming at hyperspeed – an impossible apocalypse.

The belts were new and little explored then, and one of my siblings told me they were named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, a University of Iowa physicist and a born and bred Iowan. In typical chip-on-the-shoulder Iowa fashion (“Hey, we’re more than corn! We have scientists!”), I’ve been proud of that discovery and its name ever since.

Van Allen’s research brought prestige and fame to U of I’s physics department and attracted some top scientists. And almost 60 years after the belts’ discovery, the university’s research still yields new insights.

The latest, published last month, shows the belts act as a potent particle accelerator, pushing electrons to nearly light speed.

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Roundup: Obsessive mice, strange quasicrystals and the “peckscreen” (with video)

In Uncategorized, University research on June 16, 2013 at 2:19 pm
High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory's powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source.

High-energy X-ray diffraction patterns from a
single grain of iodine-gadolinium-cadmium taken at Argonne National Laboratory’s powerful X-ray device, the Advanced Photon Source, with the beam parallel to the grain’s five-fold axis. Scientists can tell something about a material’s structure by the way it diffracts X-rays, with more powerful sources providing greater detail.

For this post, here’s a roundup of a few interesting Iowa science items over the last couple weeks, including obsessive-compulsive and obese mice, a new family of quasicrystals and pigeons pecking touchscreens. (In this case, shouldn’t they be called “peckscreens”?)

If you’re not in the fields associated with these projects, you may not have heard of them. As with a lot of other Iowa science, they didn’t get a lot of attention here at home.

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NASA flood study splashes down in Iowa

In Uncategorized, University research on June 11, 2013 at 1:17 am
NPOL radar south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds.

NASA’s NPOL radar in late May, located south of Waterloo, Iowa, under a large anvil cloud with mammatus clouds. Copyright Brenda Dolan, Colorado State University.

If you want to study rainfall and floods to help improve satellite predictions of both, you couldn’t choose a better place this year than Iowa.

But Witold Krajewski and the researchers at the University of Iowa’s Iowa Flood Center didn’t know that last year, when they planned the project with NASA’S Goddard Space Flight Center.

Krajewski, the flood center’s director, was persuading NASA to base its study in Iowa because the state has no mountains and sea coasts, which sometimes make it difficult for radar to distinguish rainfall from other things. “We do have floods,” Krajewski says he told the NASA collaborators. “I wasn’t wishing for a flood, but I was saying this when we were in a drought.”

NASA took a chance, despite 2012’s dry weather, and it’s paid off with a rush of data that’s expected to improve computer forecast models’ ability to predict flooding. The study’s observational phase wraps up this week, after employing some powerful radar and a small army of rain gauges and soil moisture sensors.

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