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Inside Ut Prosim: How stories share science and build community

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 09:08

The auditorium was packed. Several people stood in the back, while others sat in the main aisle leading into the conference center at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech.

More than 150 students, faculty and members of the university community had come to hear Dr. Tyrone Hayes, a developmental biologist from the University of California at Berkeley.

Hayes was invited by the Biological Sciences Diversity Committee, and co-sponsored by the College of Science Diversity Committee, the Women and Minority Artists and Scholars Lecture Series, the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, the Virginia Tech Life Sciences Seminars and the College of Natural Resources and Environment, as part of the university’s weeklong celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A major goal of Hayes’ visit – and the week – was to honor King’s legacy by framing ideas and movements so that we can create a more diverse university community, rich in history, understanding and dialogue across personal, cultural, and educational divides.

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically,” said College of Science Dean Sally Morton, quoting King, as she introduced Hayes.

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.”

Her words invoked King’s writing, “The Purpose of Education,” published in the Morehouse College student paper, The Maroon Tiger, in 1947. In the article, King encourages a view of education that enables discerning “the true from the false,” and acquiring “worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.” King’s notion of education, then, was to inspire logical and moral thinking, one based on “not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

And achieving this education, Dean Morton reminded us, requires a diversity of ideas and backgrounds.

This was the sixth science-based seminar in celebration of King’s legacy. The Biological Sciences Diversity Committee in the College of Science initially hatched the idea for the series.

“The idea was to integrate scientific research with diversity activities because people tend to divorce these kinds of activities from other things they do in their academic life,” said Anne McNabb, professor emerita and current co-chair of the committee, along with Florian Schubot, an associate professor of biological sciences. She and former department head, Professor Bob Jones, initiated the committee several years ago.

“A lot of what we have done is about communication, inclusiveness and community – all in line with the Principles of Community at Virginia Tech,” McNabb said.

The audience was immediately engaged as Hayes began his talk, “From Silent Spring to Silent Night: A Tale of Toads and Men,” which also kicked off this semester’s Virginia Tech Life Science Seminars.

“As a kid I loved frogs,” he said excitedly, showing pictures of where he grew up and where he played.

I couldn’t help but be excited, too.

He then told the story of how his journey began: starting at a young age, he was always curious about frogs and salamanders. He loved frogs so much, he said, that as a kid he spent time in the woods and the swamp. He even shared how his parents, especially his grandmother, encouraged his curiosity.

As I watched his story unfold, and how it transitioned from the personal to the scientific (and back again), it became clear that he had a knack for storytelling, and for engaging faculty, students and all people alike – even those who may not have known much (like me) about biology, hormones, and the reproductive physiology of amphibians.

Listening to him, we became immersed in his story, and by default, immersed in the world of amphibians and how the environment affects them and those who live near them.

I sat down with Hayes later that afternoon. I asked him about how he engages audiences and students so that we could learn from him as we continue moving towards effective inclusion and communication in research.

Here’s some of what he shared with me on communicating science and opening himself up to and for students (and others):

Tyrone Hayes: To me it’s important to be able to communicate not just science, but academia beyond the campus. I think too often a campus is like this gated little place that’s not accessible to the people around it; it’s sort of ivory tower-ish. It’s this feeling that you’re in this little inaccessible community.

When I talk with people, I try to have a common language and not slip into the academic jargon. I try to explain the importance of research, not necessarily as it relates to biomedical research, but to explain, even with a joke that people can understand, that somehow what we’re researching is based somewhat in inherent curiosity.

CH: One thing you did today that was really engaging was to tell a story, including your initial interest in frogs, and I noticed you used personal anecdotes during your talk. How did you learn to communicate in such an effective way?

TH: I attribute this to my grandmother. She was a great storyteller. My father was also a great storyteller. He could tell a story about going to the bathroom.

I’m also a very visual person, so I spend a lot of time working on slides, like choosing pictures that include people. At lot of young people in the sciences, for example, aren’t used to graphs and things, so I spend a lot of time thinking, if I make a big motion with my hands and say, ‘Look how BIG that is!’ Or, ‘look how small that is,’ then I find an effective way to use imagery and motion that can help with the story.

I also think being able to tell a story with little pieces of your own life makes it more real to people, rather than, let me tell you about this chemical, which doesn’t mean much to most people, and about this frog that you’ve never seen before, and about this chemical equation that may not mean anything to you. If you put yourself as the scientist in the story, then it makes it a more real thing – that thing is really happening.

I do the same thing in my lecture courses. I don’t use PowerPoint, just chalk. And, for example, when I talk about osmoregulation (salt and water balance) and why you dehydrate certain things, I use the example of taking my daughter camping in the desert. The lecture is even called, ‘Why my daughter doesn’t pee in the desert.’ As I tell the story, I go through all the hormones that change, and why if you’re small, with a high surface area to volume ratio, you lose more water, so the hormones change to prevent you from losing more water, and so forth. And it becomes a more interesting story about me going on a trip with my daughter, rather than just drawing a picture of the kidneys and showing you how they work to regain water and salt.

To some extent, you have to gain confidence in your abilities, especially as a minority. There can be self-induced pressure, and sometimes there’s pressure from the outside to wear the right kind of suit and have the right kind of slides, and so I realized that I could be myself and make this information more interesting so then people would listen to more of what I had to say than fit into a mold that I wasn’t going to fit in anyway. So, I could wear a tweed jacket and cut my hair, but I think you have to get to a level of comfort where you can express yourself and do something that’s a little different than how most people do it.

CH: Did you feel like you needed to distinguish yourself?

TH: I felt like I could speak more and present more in my own style. And I think doing so actually gets the information across even better because then it’s my story. It’s not just me presenting data slide after slide with a monotone voice. Sometimes I’m excited about things, sometimes there’s a joke, and sometimes I’m sad about things – I show it as I talk.

Most of the time, I rarely see someone presenting science when they’ve actually put themselves in it. People tend to remove themselves from it and present data that are separate from them. But they’re not. I don’t think they are for anybody, but we have this culture in science that that’s how you do it. It’s like a rule.

CH: Have you spent much time talking and working with folks outside the university?

TH: I present at a lot of places that don’t necessarily count for tenure. For example, I did the keynote at the Presbyterians for the Earth conference, I’ve given talks at a food preparation conference, at the Steel Workers Union, and in several local high schools. These are things that don’t necessarily count on your resume for tenure, so some people would say they are non-traditional venues. But I think it’s probably more important to speak at these kinds of events, like Kids Tech at Virginia Tech. [Hayes has visited Virginia Tech on several occasions for this conference.]

CH: When you visit with younger age groups, what do you do with the kids?

TH: Depends on the age, but my goal is to present the same data or story to everybody, so if I’m speaking to a breast cancer group, or a herpetology group, or an ethics group, then the focus is a little bit different. What I’ve found with little kids is that you can’t talk to them for a whole hour; they’re not going to sit there that long. So, I might use the same slideshow, but I’ll show them a picture, and ask, ‘Who can tell me what this is?’ And they’ll all guess. Then every five slides or so I’ll have them discuss what they think happened. So, there’s a lot more participation during the talk. It’s interesting because when you’re at the college level and ask a question, no one wants to say anything. But when you’re in a fifth grade class, everybody wants to talk.

So that’s one thing too – what happens to everybody that they no longer want to raise their hand? Are they picked on enough that they’re worried about being wrong? It’s just like every little kid could be an artist or like science, but somehow it gets chiseled away from them. It’s like dancing; any little kid will dance, and then they get to a point where they won’t try it.

CH: I’ve gotten the impression that you’re quite a mentor with graduate and undergraduate students…

TH: Yes, I’ve always had a pretty close group. But I’m also very gregarious, and though I have a separate office, I don’t use it. I have a desk in the student office so I see my students everyday. We all share a space, and we all work together. We have lab meetings once a week, and 2-3 formal social functions once a year. I had a very important mentor when I was an undergraduate, so it’s very important for me to try to do this with students.

CH: Can you tell me about a time when you’ve worked with a student who’s had a hard time? Were you able to bring them in and learn from that? And, how could we learn to work with our students more effectively, too?

TH: That’s a hard question. There are varying levels of appropriateness to maintain a professional relationship and that can be tricky, but in many cases, it’s developing a rapport with the student that makes them comfortable by saying, look, these things are going on and figuring out where you can help.

Sometimes student issues are financial. Fortunately, I have an endowment and funds that can help buy students math and science textbooks.

Some of it’s just being understanding when students need flexibility. I’ve had students that were single parents, that have had multiple family issues back home, students with parental issues, and others that have lived in their cars. When I think about what some of my students have had to do just to get to Berkeley, let alone get through Berkeley, and then move on to the next step, it humbles me.

Sometimes you do think that students are making things up, like surely not that many bad things have happened to this student. But sure enough, those things did happen.

CH: It seems like it’s really important to you to interact with students so that you learn their stories and their backgrounds. Can you tell me how that helps you as a mentor?

TH: I’m still learning, too, and everybody’s different, but learning what barriers there might be to getting an education is key. One is books. I remember when I needed a neurobiology textbook, and it was something like $300.00. At the time my parents were paying $200.00 in rent, and I remember thinking, how can I ask my parents for a month and a half of rent for one book? I think it was the only upper division class that I didn’t get an A in. So, being able to now purchase books makes it less of an issue for other students.

Ultimately, understanding what these barriers are is important, and then helping them be able to excel and succeed. I think also being in an environment where you’re rewarded and expected to express your individuality rather than the more general environment at a university where you just want to blend in and not stick out. In my space, I think people are encouraged to express their individuality and express their culture.

CH: Do you find that students come to you and share their background, or do you find that you’re learning those things as you develop relationships with them?

TH: It depends. Some students are really private. There are some students that I really don’t know much about at all. Others really like to talk and express themselves. And that may be the difficult thing too, which is to build an environment where students feel comfortable doing either one. You have to make sure everybody is comfortable with things. You know, every relationship is not going to be the same. It’s important to understand that.

CH: It sounds like you’re good at judging the scenario or the person.

TH: I’m still learning. I think it becomes dangerous when you think that you’re good at something. When you’re good at something then you stop trying.

CH: My experience in the humanities, for the most part, seems more overtly focused on empathy than some areas of science. Has this been your experience?

TH: Yes, I think the sciences can be more like that. Even if you think about writing, you have to unlearn how to write more creatively because it doesn’t matter if it’s choppy, and you shouldn’t use flowery phrases. You know, it’s short: you did this, you did that, these were the results. This is also sort of indicative of how the field is in general, how being a scientist is.

CH: Do you think it’s the culture of what you do as a scientist, as part of the material aspect of lab work?

TH: I would say it’s different from, say, poetry or dramatic writing where you’re trying to express how you feel about something. Whereas as a scientist, how you feel about something, or your hunches or your beliefs, don’t really matter. It’s pulling all that stuff away, which maybe why it’s more unusual to present the scientist as, here’s my story and I’m a part of it. Not just, here are the graphs, so make up your own mind about it. Even a discussion in a scientific paper is about what the data suggests. It’s not what I think, it’s not what I feel.

CH: There does seem to be evidence that emotion is divorced from science, but you seem to put the personal (and emotional) back into science. Do you have any advice for students and faculty to practice a sense of empathy, or for those who get entrenched in this system of working hard to get ahead?

TH: I think some of it again depends on your personality and how comfortable you feel reaching out. I know other faculty who have really good relationships with their labs, so it’s not all that unique. But, I think sometimes we take risks with students who have a lot of things going on, and it takes a little more time to understand what’s going on and work with them.

You know, you might have a student who might not have all A’s, but they’re enthusiastic and excited. And they ask, ‘why does this happen?’ when something goes wrong, so you help them fix it.

CH: In thinking of other students, have there been times you’ve been in their shoes?

TH: I was lucky enough that I found a mentor early on and I also met my wife around that time, and she was very supportive. So I certainly had that feeling of do I belong, was I a mistake? You know, the imposter syndrome. But based on many of the students I’ve interacted with, nothing like what some of them have had to deal with just to get to college, let alone to finish and move on.

Many of my heroes are students who I’ve met.

CH: Do you find that any of these student experiences are based on race specifically, i.e., in terms of disparities of who has historically had access to college?

TH: The joke in my lab is that I’ve never had a minority because I’ve never had enough of anybody to be a majority. But I think a lot of it has to do with feeling like you’re the only one, and looking for your group. And, the more of a minority you are, then the more difficult it is to find somebody like you with some kind of connection you can identify with.

I’ve also seen it like: I had a white grad student, who first had to adjust a little bit because he didn’t know which jokes were appropriate. Then, one time we were having a potluck, and he said he couldn’t bring anything. And I said, ‘what do you mean you can’t bring anything?’ And he said, ‘I’m not ethnic so I can’t bring anything.’ You know, the Chinese student was bringing Chinese food, the Vietnamese student was bringing Vietnamese food. So I said to him, ‘Diversity doesn’t mean everybody but white people. If you were in your hometown, what would you bring?’ And so he brought a dish that I guarantee no one had had before.

That was an amazing experience. Always one of my jokes is that white people don’t know how to be minorities, because you’re rarely in a situation where you’re the only white person. This was probably the first time ever that this student had been in a situation like this.

CH: At the end of your talk today, you started to touch on some environmental justice issues. Could you tell me more about that?

TH: I first learned the term environmental justice with Keith Ellison in Minnesota when he was campaigning against the chemical atrazine. It was the first time I started to think about these kinds of things, and they’re things that my students whose families work in agriculture have experienced. They’re now things that I’ve experienced. You know, my father put down carpet and I remember he would come home everyday with his hair white and make a joke about how old he got a work. But it was because he was sanding asbestos.

But certain agricultural communities are separated by language and economics. Living in these communities, you get into the mindset where if everyone else has it, then you don’t realize there’s a problem. Like if everyone you know has diabetes, then you might not realize it’s something that’s disproportionately affecting your community because of environmental things that are happening in your community.

My wife, for example, works with a Native American community with a high incidence of diabetes. It’s a community in Northern California, where all kinds of organic produce is grown, but it all gets shipped out, so people there don’t have access to it. There tends to be nothing but processed food, and I think the nearest real grocery is almost 40 miles away from where they live.

If you live in that community, though, you don’t see the problem because everyone has diabetes. My focus is on the reproductive affects from pesticide chemicals, and statistics show that the chemicals we know to be associated with adverse health outcomes are more likely agricultural communities, in which 90 percent of the communities tend to be Hispanic. I’m not even talking about superfund sites that tend to be near low-income neighborhoods and so forth.

Right now, my lab is doing work in South Carolina where I grew up, in the place that turned me on to frogs and biology, which is now the Congaree National Park. So you think great, we at least now have a place that’s not going to be cemented over. But it turns out that the park is contaminated with atrazine. It’s also contaminated with ethinyl estradiol from birth control pills because the surrounding community has leaky septic tanks since it is a low-income, and therefore a predominantly African American, community with weak sewage infrastructure.

These are the kinds of things I think more about now, including what happened to the other black kids I went to school with growing up in South Carolina, who were from these low-income communities. The outcomes for different groups of kids, depending on educational tracks and so forth, was very different. Overall, it was like the black kids weren’t even in the same school. It was even segregated at lunch.


CH: What does it mean to you to be here with us as part of the MLK legacy?

TH: I often get invitations that are for MLK Day or around Earth Day. Both of these mean something because there’s an added meaning to me to get to talk about my interest in frogs and environmental justice.

I’m not sure if a lot of people in science are talking about these issues. And it’s important almost equally to be invited to the Earth Day events, because for me as a minority appreciating nature and to now be researching it, it’s almost like a way to give back. And these things that I talk about here are things that I talk about no matter where I’m invited. But it’s almost more special because I’ll get invited to talk about things that I think are important intertwined with the science.

This interview has been edited and condensed for readability.


Where cheetahs and hornbills collide

Tue, 01/24/2017 - 11:04

When David is doing his fieldwork in Namibia, which is typically from December- April, he stays at a center run by the Cheetah Conservation Fund, an organization dedicated to helping save the cheetah in the wild.

At the time of our visit, more than 30 cheetahs were staying at the center. Some are resident cheetahs that were orphaned as cubs, brought in and bottle-fed by staff members, and now live out their days at the center as vital parts of CCF’s outreach program.

Other cheetahs are there for a short time to be treated for an injury such as a rotten tooth or broken leg and will be released back into the wild. These are the cheetahs that very few people are allowed to see or interact with, in order to minimize their habituation to humans.

Most days, David eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner at The Hot Spot— a building in the middle of the center that has an indoor kitchen and outdoor seating. Workers heap up their plates with oatmeal, lasagna, chicken, salad, or spaghetti—whatever is on the menu that day—and sit side-by-side on picnic tables.

The people who work at the center come from all over the world—the United States, Europe, Asia, and of course, Africa. They are in different types of work programs, including full time staff members, working guests, volunteers, and interns. They are veterinarians, biologists, geneticists, gardeners, teachers and students.

While the cheetahs are certainly the most talked-about residents at the center, there is another resident who attracts attention from time to time. Nestled in a tree just a few yards from The Hot Spot is a hornbill family, cozied up in one of Mark’s nest boxes. The female and nestlings have clogged up the hole to the box, leaving just enough space for the male to fit worms through.

The male is a constant presence at The Hot Spot, peering at the workers from his branch, making occasional visits to tables to nip at any dropped scraps. The center is teaming with other birds too—wide-eyed barn owls, red-backed shrikes, kiwi-green bee-eaters, and lilac-breasted rollers.

One evening, David points out a pair of pearl spotted owlets bravely hopping around one of the cheetah pens. It’s enough to make any birder feel at home.


Written by Lindsay Key; Photos by Jelena Djakovic


Build the nest box and they will come

Sun, 01/15/2017 - 12:12

David Millican has a nickname around the community he lives in when he is in Namibia: Bird Man. He’s unique in that he is one of only a handful of people in the community studying birds; most are there to work with the cheetahs at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).

We arrived to CCF about a day ahead of David, who was held up in the capital city of Windhoek having repairs made to his vehicle.

“Oh you’re here to hang out with Bird Man,” said one CCF volunteer with a chuckle. “Although,” he added, “we’ve decided that maybe we should start calling him Bird Boy. Because Mark is the original Bird Man.”

Dr. Mark Stanback is a biology professor at Davidson College and a long-time mentor to David. He was one of the main reasons David got into birding: his enthusiasm and passion is contagious.

Mark began conducting research in Namibia in the 1990s. Two years ago, after an extended time away from Africa, he returned to launch a new set of experiments with the help of CCF and invited David to help.

Two years ago, he and David set up nest boxes around Otjiwarongo and Windhoek in hopes of attracting as many cavity nesting birds as possible so that he could study multiple aspects of their lives including mating, nest site competition and feeding habits.

But when Mark came back to monitor the boxes, he did not find birds but a disturbing new resident: honeybees, also known as African killer bees! The bees were highly aggressive in taking over the bird holes and also messy tenants— they left tree holes chock full of wax in their wake and birds can’t nest in the used cavities.

“I was not happy– it was ruining my nest-site competition experiment,” explained Mark. “But eventually I decided to study them instead of fighting them.  And it got me thinking about honeyguides.”

Honeyguides are the only kind of bird that eats beeswax for a living.

“My hypothesis is that the honeyguide can act as a keystone species, having a greater impact on the community than their numbers would indicate,” said Mark. “I’ve never seen one here, but I know that when I arrived a year ago, 25 boxes that had had bees in 2015 had been picked clean of wax.  So I want to know how quickly they can find wax and how quickly they can eat it.”

Mark generously invited us to go out with him to inspect next boxes. We drive down a dirt road, and get out every kilometer to check the boxes, which he has expertly tied to trees. We soon find that the African bees can’t be bought—there are no hives in the boxes.

Instead, we find a much more pleasing site: hornbills. 

If you’re more familiar with Disney movies than exotic bird species like I am, it will help to picture Zazu from the Lion King to get a good idea of what a hornbill looks like. The birds are shockingly prehistoric-looking and beautiful, with black and white plumage and long curved beaks that are perfect for digging in the dirt and crushing lizards and millipedes.

In the first box we check, we find a mother and two half-grown nestlings. Mark predicts that they will fledge soon. The mom spends more than two months in the box, with most of that time spent incubating the eggs.  When the biggest nestling is about two thirds grown, the mother breaks out, and the nestling then seals up the hole until it’s ready to leave. When the oldest leaves, the next chick will seal up the hole until it’s ready to leave, and so on.

About an hour later, we find another hornbill family (a mom, two babies, and un-hatched egg) in another box. The mother seems to glower at us as we observe and record our findings. But she does not move.

In another box, we find only remnants of a hornbill nest: grass, poop, and crushed millipedes. Another project Mark is working on involves trying to determine what purpose millipedes may serve in the hornbill home.

“People have known for a long time that hornbills smash millipedes and incorporate them into their nests and nest plugs,” said Mark.  “And people have known for a long time that millipedes release cyanide.  So people have kind of assumed that the hornbills are using the millipedes to cut down on pests in their nests.  But no one has tested it.”

To test this, Mark will find multiple hornbill nests, and wait until the eggs start to hatch. Then he will replace all of the nests with new nest material, with half receiving smashed millipedes as well. After the nestlings fledge, he will monitor the parasite load in the control and experimental nests to determine any positive correlation between millipedes and number of parasites.

Mark will also collect data on egg size and egg production rate in one particular species: the Monteiro hornbill.

“I have a lot of projects going on right now,” says Mark with a chuckle. In addition to his own projects, he is on David’s thesis committee, serving as an adjunct professor at Virginia Tech.

Together, the two “Bird Men” have their work cut out for them over the next few months.

Written by Lindsay Key; Photos by Jelena Djakovic.


‘I hope we find a cavity!’ and other things we never imagined we’d say or do

Sat, 01/14/2017 - 03:27

The sky is bright blue and a cool breeze blows across the savannah as we load into the field rover for a morning’s fieldwork session. Last night’s electric rain shower brought a renewed sense of prosperity to the land, and the air is thrumming with joy and thumb-sized African beetles. Like tiny helicopters, they attempt to land on our shoulders and heads, attracted to the bright colored ties we wear in our hair.

They’re harmless enough, but our guide warns that the insect’s nickname, ‘blister beetle’ is well earned for the welt it can deliver.

“Just duck, it’s cool—it’s like Jedi training,” says David Millican, our guide and researcher extraordinaire.

We’ve followed him to what could be considered the middle of nowhere—just outside of Otjiwarongo, Namibia. But the truth is, despite the low human population it’s quite definitely a somewhere: a beautiful rocky and sandy landscape brimming with biodiversity. Some of the world’s most rare and unique animals—cheetahs, giraffes, jackals, aardwolves, leopards, hornbills, and much, much more— call this harsh climate home.

Today, we’re accompanying David on a trip to check for cavities—and not the painful trip-to-the-dentist kind. We’re looking for bird homes: holes and rips in tree trunks and branches that are used by bird species within the local cavity guild. While the guild consists of bird, mammals, and reptile species, we’re most interested in the feathered ones.


As a bird biologist, David has a nagging question: which types of tree cavities are the birds using? By recording the species of birds that reside in different types of cavities, we can also determine who may be in competition. Finding the answer to these questions will help him answer larger ones about the structure and dynamics of the guild community.

David has established 20 sites across four adjacent farms that he believes could harbor a significant amount of tree cavities. During this season’s fieldwork he will repeatedly visit the sites, which are 16 hectares, to monitor cavities he’s discovered and search for new ones.

Acacia trees—which are abundant in these parts—are a favorite nesting spot. Some of the cavities we will visit were created by lightning, broken limbs, and insects or fungal decay. But others—known as excavated cavities—are pecked and created by the birds themselves. The birds that create the holes are known as primary excavators and the birds that live in the holes another bird created are known as secondary nesters, according to David.

“Some cavities can take a while to excavate, especially in live trees,” says David.

David’s tools today are a ladder, a peeping camera, a handheld GPS system, and a notebook for recording our findings.

He uses the GPS to navigate through his seventh site— a scrubby grassland of fallen brush and thorny plants, littered with a few antelope skulls.

Using the ladder to climb up to the first cavity resting high in the tree, David sticks the long cord of the peeping camera into the hole and is able to see on his monitor what awaits inside. This time, it’s nothing.

However, a few cavities later, we see signs of a former nest: feathers and grass. David’s hopes are lifted.

On the way to the next cavity, a cacophony of peeps arises from a tree ahead.

“Those are alarm calls,” says David, pointing in that direction. “That means there is likely a predator is nearby—could be a black mamba, boomslang, or mongoose. It’s best for us to go around that area.”

Working our way around the commotion, we come to a beautiful old camel thorn tree with a long slivered cavity in the trunk, about eye level . David inspects the hole with delight. Part of it is caked over with a thick mud: the telltale signs of a hornbill nest.

When female hornbills are ready to nest, they will enter a cavity and caulk themselves in, closing up the hole with mud, millipede shells, grass, and other vegetation. This is to prevent predators from entering and disturbing the nest when both babies and mom are vulnerable: moms lose their wing and tail feathers when incubating eggs and cannot fly.

Carefully and quietly, David sticks his cord into the small opening that remains and watches his monitor. Three timid faces stare back at him. Nestlings! And not very old at all, judging by their pink, featherless alien bodies.

David points the cord upwards into the hole and sees a fluff of feathers that he determines to be the mother, a yellow-billed hornbill. Often the mother will move to an area with more space above the cavity floor, allowing her to climb above the cavity entrance if a predator tries to break in.

David quickly retracts the cord. We will leave this nest alone for now, tiptoeing away quietly to avoid upsetting the sweet family.

Written by Lindsay Key/Photos by Jelena Djakovic.

Namibia: where the wild things are

Thu, 01/12/2017 - 14:41

Fly into Windhoek, Namibia from Johannesburg, South Africa late at night, and you’ll wonder if the plane has taken a wrong turn. There are no lights below save a few flickers that might be figments of your imagination.

Where is the big, bustling capital city of Windhoek? Will the plane literally land in the middle of the dark desert and fly away?

Luckily, after arrival, you’ll find that Windhoek is in fact a real city—it’s just thirty minutes away from its airport. But the sense of desolation—of vast emptiness—that you first experienced flying in will stay with you.

Namibia is an Arkansas-sized country that is home to approximately 3 million people, most of which live in the capital city or along the Atlantic coast, where fishing is a major industry. But the rest of the country, in the expanses of ancient desert and savannah in between, belongs to the animals.

Many of the creatures that live here have adapted to the arid, dry climate and landscape. From May to November, also known as the ‘dry season,’ rainfall is extremely limited. The animals rely on the ‘wet season,’ from December to April, for nourishment. But the past few wet seasons have not brought the rain that is needed, and the country’s drought is expected to intensify with the effects of climate change.

Will the animals here be able to adapt and survive? How can we help them? These are questions that we’ve come to explore with Virginia Tech graduate student David Millican, a Ph.D. student in the department of biological sciences at Virginia Tech, and a rising star in the field of bird conservation.

He is a fellow in the university’s Interfaces of Global Change program, and a crucial member of the new Global Change Center housed in the Fralin Life Science Institute. David’s Virginia Tech advisor is Dr. Jeff Walters, a renowned bird biologist who specializes in studying cavity-dwelling bird species.

As part of the Walters lab, David is researching cavity-dwelling species that live here in Namibia. Follow along as we head out into the field with him.

Path-oh-no! Developing plant species armored against pathogen attacks

Thu, 12/22/2016 - 15:53

By Casey Lowe, a Virginia Tech senior majoring in Humanities, Science, and the Environment in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences

Kasia Dinkeloo, a fourth-year Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech, holds her test subject transgenic Arabidopsis thaliana in Latham Hall.

Between 1845 and 1849, the Irish Potato Famine destroyed crops and ultimately killed more than 2 million people in Ireland. The culprit? A highly destructive oomycete pathogen called Phytophthora infestans. Oomycete pathogens are a class of eukaryotic microbes that are similar to fungi and are well known for their destructive history.

Relatives of the oomycete pathogen that destroyed Ireland’s main food source in the 19th century are being studied at Virginia Tech today. Unlocking their genetic secrets could provide powerful benefits to agriculture worldwide. Plant disease causes a 15-20% yearly reduction in global crop productivity, and in today’s growing world food stability is volatile. By 2050 the world’s population is projected to have risen by 30% indicating the rising importance of food production efficiency and stability. That’s where plant pathologists come in.

Kasia Dinkeloo of Delaware, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the department of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is working with John McDowell and Guillaume Pilot, both professors in the department, as well as four fellow graduate students, to analyze the manner in which oomycete plant pathogens invade plant hosts and extract nutrients.

Kasia found her interest in plants as a high school student. Her original plan was to attend art school, but after reading many books on plants for an art project she found a new passion to become a scientist, a route she also believed would be much more beneficial for her life. While completing her undergrad at the University of Delaware, Kasia took a class on plant pathology and immediately knew it was the direction she wanted to take.

She and her team, directed by McDowell and Pilot, operate in two different labs in Latham Hall investigating the mechanisms by which oomycetes alter the host plants metabolism to fit their nutrient requirements. Some oomycetes are challenging to study because they are biotrophic, meaning the organism must remain in the living host to complete its life cycle, and therefore cannot be cultured or grown away from the plant in order to be studied.

Kasia works hard in the lab analyzing water droplets containing spores of Hyaloperonospora arabidopsidis for pathogen testing.

Much like humans, plants have complex and efficient immune systems consisting of a network of thousands of proteins working together. However, plant pathogens can still successfully invade and extract resources from the host plant by overcoming the plants immune responses. The mechanism by which oomycetes suppress plant immune responses is well studied and increasingly understood, but little research or knowledge exists that explains how pathogens trick the plant into giving away its nutrients. For Kasia, this unknown is the most exciting part of her graduate research, but also the most challenging.

For the past three years, Kasia has been developing a method which will eventually allow the team to isolate the specific cells that contain the oomycetes feeding structures from the bulk plant tissue. Once Kasia’s molecular technology is complete, the team will have access to RNA data that should contain genetic evidence of how oomycetes are capable of their takeovers. This information will bring the team much closer to their end goal: to create genetically modified versions of these plants that will resist nutrient extraction by the pathogen.

The test subject is a plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana, a commonly used model organism for pathology studies. The oomycete Hyaloperonospora arabidopsidis is a natural pathogen to Arabidopsis thaliana, making it a perfect candidate for the studies. By understanding how oomycetes successfully hijack nutrients from Arabidopsis, Kasia will be able to isolate the enabling traits and then create modified plants that suppress or are unaffected by the pathogen interference. This will help create plants that won’t give up their nutrient sources, cutting the supply line to the pathogen.

Kasia is well aware of the economic value of her research beyond its scientific implementations. “The value of our science is a dollar value,” said Kasia. “If we can create healthier plants with a higher yield, it will decrease food prices, something the consumer will see in the grocery store and directly benefit from.”

Using pesticides for the chemical control of pathogens has been successful in some ways, but they have caused irreversible environmental damage as well as generated new pathogens resistant to pesticides. By creating modified plants with a genetic defense against oomycetes, the need for pesticides could be eliminated altogether.

According to Kasia, genetically modified plants will be essential for feeding our growing population. She believes creating more food on less land will only be accomplished by working on the plants themselves, not just the environments in which they are grown and produced.

“I’m going to feed the world, that’s the dream! Food is security,” she said.

Arapidopsis thaliana, a commonly used model organism for plant pathology studies

Q&A: Meet Kasia

Hometown: Wilmington, Delaware

Major/Year: Fourth-year Ph.D. student

Fralin Advisors: John McDowell and Guillaume Pilot

Other Degrees: Bachelor of Science from the University of Delaware

Why do you want to be a scientist?

I really enjoy plant science because it’s a really beautiful way to see the world. I like knowing that the work I do is not only very fulfilling to me as a person, but can be used to help feed our population.

What created your interest in plant pathology?

I knew that plant science/plant pathology was for me after a freshman year course at U.D. called “People and plants: feast or famine.” I loved learning about how plant pathogens and plant growth shaped so much of history, and how understanding plant disease is a key part of food security for the future. After that class, I guess I was hooked.

Career goals after graduate school?

As far as ultimate career goals after the Ph.D., it’s hard to give a clear answer since I am so undecided. But whether I am in academia or industry, I would really love to keep exploring different aspects of plant-pathogen interactions and stay as close to a research lab setting as possible.

Favorite hobby outside of school?

I have a dog; he’s the best ever. I really like having a dog because it reminds me to go home and not spend all day in the lab. I love hiking and outdoor activities as well as powerlifting.

Favorite thing about Blacksburg?

People here are so nice! I thought I was nice when I moved here, but I was just nice for Delaware. There is such a good sense of community here.