Archive for the ‘College News’ Category

NSF Awards UMaine Grads $225,000 to Create Eco-Friendly Thermal Insulation Foam Board

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

An Orono-based company founded by two University of Maine graduates has been awarded $224,996 from the National Science Foundation to create a prototype for the first completely eco-friendly thermal insulation foam board.

Nadir Yildirim, a graduate of UMaine’s innovation engineering program and current Ph.D. student in the Wood Science and Technology Program in the School of Forest Resources, and Alexander Chasse, a 2013 civil engineering graduate from UMaine who works at the university conducting nanomaterial research, created Revolution Research, Inc. to develop recyclable and reusable products using cellulose nanofibrils (CNFs) for several industries.

“I believe RRI will open a new page in the insulation industry,” says Yildirim, the project’s principal investigator.

The pair started RRI in 2014 to develop and commercialize replacements of petroleum-based thermal insulation products. RRI’s current focus is the creation and commercialization of thermal and acoustical insulation foam boards for use in the construction industry.

One of the largest uses of energy is heating and cooling buildings, according to the researchers, which drives construction companies to search for products that improve insulation performance.

Foam board insulation products currently on the market are produced from petroleum-based chemicals. RRI aims to use CNFs and green polymers to produce an eco-friendly thermal insulation board with a lower carbon footprint as well as the necessary mechanical and thermal properties to meet market needs. The researchers also hope to offer the board at a comparable price to current insulation products.

CNFs have the ability to reinforce weak materials, permitting new composite products. The raw material, cellulose, is abundant and obtainable from renewable sources including plants and sea animals. Green polymers that will be used in the project also are a readily available renewable resource, but are weak and brittle without CNF reinforcement.

“RRI’s novel foam boards will not only be better for the environment than current petroleum-based products, but will also provide improved energy efficiency,” Yildirim says. “With a better thermal insulation you can save the environment; you can save lots of money.”

The Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) Phase I project also will allow the team to rent space and buy equipment for a laboratory. Currently RRI doesn’t have any employees, but within the next five years, Yildirim hopes the company will have its own Maine-based production facility with about 30 employees.

Successful completion of the project will provide the opportunity for Phase II, which would allow RRI to apply for a grant up to $750,000.

Since the company began, RRI has received a $5,000 award from the Maine Technology Institute, as well as $5,000 for winning first place at the 2015 UMaine Business Challenge, the state’s largest student entrepreneurship competition.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Study Shows Bluefin Tuna Going Hungry Due to Size of Prey, not Abundance

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
Maine coastBluefin tuna are going hungry in a sea full of fish because their foraging habits are most efficient with larger — not necessarily more abundant — prey, according to a study led by a University of Maine marine scientist.

Walter Golet, assistant research professor in the School of Marine Sciences and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, led a research team that involved marine scientists from five institutions, including Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Simon Fraser University.

How can bluefin tuna go hungry in a sea full of fish?

In a paper in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series titled “The paradox of the pelagics: why bluefin tuna can go hungry in a sea of plenty,” the seven authors outlined how the overall condition (fat content) of Atlantic bluefin tuna Thunnus thynnus in the Gulf of Maine declined despite an abundance of Clupea harengus, Atlantic herring — their preferred prey.

The Gulf of Maine is an important foraging ground for bluefin tuna, which spend up to six months there consuming high-energy prey such as the herring and in doing so accumulate as much as 200 pounds in fat. Energy acquired in the Gulf of Maine is vital to support bluefin tuna migration and reproduction.

The population of Atlantic herring has increased over the past two decades suggesting that foraging conditions should have been favorable for bluefin tuna. A decline in bluefin tuna condition despite abundant prey resources was puzzling, so the researchers tested hypotheses related to the energetic payoff of eating herring of different sizes, comparing this across different regions of the northwest Atlantic. Researchers had expected to find that due to the high abundance of herring in the Gulf of Maine, foraging would have been favorable for the bluefin tuna, thereby increasing their lipid stores and overall body condition. Their results suggest bluefin tuna are more sensitive to the size of their prey rather than prey abundance (i.e., for bluefin, bigger prey is better than smaller prey).

Researchers identified a correlation between bluefin tuna body condition, the relative abundance of large Atlantic herring and the energetic payoff resulting from consuming different sizes of herring. The correlation is consistent with the optimal foraging theory, a model used to predict how an animal behaves when it’s searching for food.

These correlations could explain why the condition of bluefin tuna suffers even when prey is abundant. According to the researchers, this may also explain a shift in distribution of bluefin tuna to offshore banks and locations further north on the northwest Atlantic shelf where herring (and their corresponding energetic payoff) are larger.

Management strategies for small pelagic fish, including sardines, herrings and anchovies, have the potential to alter food web dynamics and energy flow through changes in the size and abundance of these species. Changes in these fish stocks impact marine mammals and other large warm-bodied fish (like bluefin tuna) whose physiology is geared toward high energetic returns while foraging.

The researchers utilized the extensive data collected from the Maine Department of Marine Resources, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.372

What’s Buzzin’

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
Bee on flowerA group of University of Maine researchers is working to enhance native and honey bee populations by increasing beneficial pollinator flowers across Maine’s landscape. This is not a new idea — what is new is their choice of research location. Some might describe one of their sites as trashy, but the researchers think it’s just what they need.

The researchers — Alison Dibble, Lois Stack, Megan Leech, and Frank Drummond — are planting pollinator demonstration gardens at the inactive Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden and at G.W. Allen’s Blueberry farm located in Orland. Both plots will be used to educate farmers and community members about strategies that they can adopt to help keep bee communities thriving in the state.

“This project is important because one of the many hypothesized stressors that have been implicated in bee decline, including honey bees and native bees, is not having enough floral resources, which provides the pollen and nectar essential for bees,” says Drummond, professor of insect ecology.

Funded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the two-year project’s objective is to identify plantings — annuals, herbaceous perennials and woody shrubs — that are most beneficial to bees across Maine’s terrain, which is dominated by forest ecosystems that are not particularly conducive to bee life.

By enhancing habitats to fit the needs of pollinators, the researchers are giving back to the tiny buzzing insects that provide our agricultural systems with the crucial service of pollination.

As bees forage for food, they pollinate flowering plants by depositing pollen on the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the plant’s female reproductive organ. The pollen will then germinate and fertilize the flower to produce fruits and seeds.

Conservation biologists in Maine, as well as worldwide, have raised concerns about declines in bee abundance and species diversity. Due to conversion of landscape for residential and commercial uses, natural bee habitats are being eliminated, which could have serious implications to various agricultural crops in Maine, such as blueberries.

According to David Yarbrough, professor of horticulture and a wild blueberry specialist for University of Maine Cooperative Extension, last year’s harvest of wild blueberry crops in Maine brought in a $250 million monetary return.  In 2014, Maine produced and harvested more than 104 million pounds of blueberries made possible, in part, by the free services bees provide.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, bees provide pollination to 80 percent of all flowering plants and 75 percent of fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S. About 25,000 species of bees are known throughout the world and Maine is home to more than 270 species of native bees.

During the demonstrations, researchers and educators will discuss plants that are best utilized by bees and will stress the need to avoid flowers and shrubs treated with systemic insecticides because they can be detrimental to bees, says Drummond.

“It’s not just about planting flowers: it’s about planting flowers that are safe for the bees,” he says. Both sites will help researchers, farmers and educators better understand how these plots should be managed in order to be successful both agriculturally and ecologically. The first demonstration date has not been set, but the researchers are aiming to hold one in mid-August.

Pine Tree landfill, the first site for the demonstration, is managed by Casella Waste Services, which owns more than 400 landfills in the Northeast. If all goes well, the company hopes to host more pollinator gardens on their landfills, transforming unused land into flower-filled paradises for bees.

“I think the landfill is a great location for this project because it’s a piece of land that is not currently being used. Right now they use the methane that comes from the landfill to produce energy. So if we can use the same land for something else that is a good cause, it’s a win-win,” says Leech, a graduate student working with Drummond.

Leech’s master’s thesis is focused on flower nutrition, specifically whether bees visit flowers with higher nutritional value more frequently. She’s also looking at other floral characteristics that would impact flower nutrition such as nectar and pollen. The idea for her thesis sprouted while working on Dibble’s bee module project, when she observed bees showing a preference for some flowers over others, and wondered if it was related to nutrition.

The bee module — a five-year project started in 2012 — is aimed at determining which plants elicit the most bee visitations in order to create a baseline of what plants should be selected for the pollinator demonstration sites. In order to collect the data, Dibble setup 36 plots within 100-foot-by-100-foot areas on three Maine blueberry fields and at the University of Maine Rogers farm. By placing plots side-by-side, researchers were able to collect observations of bee visitations on a variety of different planting selections, which will help to better inform their recommendations to farmers.

The data they collect, which will focus on the success of flowering plant germination and bee visitation preferences, will be looked at over the next two years to determine if the increase in floral resources was beneficial to the bee populations.

Promoting the health of bee populations is relatively inexpensive in terms of the alternative, which is trying to pollinate plants without bees. If farmers planted pollinator plots next to their agricultural crops, they could decrease rental costs for honeybees, which are usually imported by farmers during the planting season, says Drummond.

Drummond hopes the project will encourage nonfarmers to invest in pollinator plantings for municipalities, private homes and state agencies, so — on a landscape level — bee numbers can increase.

“In the past, we’ve mostly been focusing on the farmers. But what makes this project more unique is that we are trying to provide outreach for the nonfarmers who can also have an impact on improving bee communities on the landscape,” says Drummond.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

‘Rainforests of the Sea’

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015

SteneckUniversity of Maine marine scientist Bob Steneck encouraged Dominican Republic officials and stakeholders to preserve and improve coral reefs — what he calls the tropical rainforests of the sea — in a keynote address on World Oceans Day, in Santo Domingo.

“They contain 25 percent of all species on Earth. However, they are also among the world’s most endangered ecosystems and, as such, the biodiversity, breakwater function, food resources and ecotourism value they provide for people are all at risk,” says Steneck.

“They are threatened worldwide but this is especially obvious in the Dominican Republic, where competing activities, such as coastal development and fishing pressure, have taken their toll.”

Steneck encouraged the Dominican Republic government and nongovernment organizations to work together to preserve reefs that are healthy and continue efforts to improve those that are degraded. His recommendations included banning the harvesting of parrotfish and investing in enforcement.

Although coral reefs suffer from global climate change and ocean acidification, Steneck says there are remarkable bright spots.

While quantifying corals, seaweed and sponges in transects in March, Steneck says he and fellow researchers found a wide range of reef conditions, from the bright spots — some of the best coral in all of the Caribbean — to some of the most degraded.

Repeatedly, it appeared the presence of healthy fish populations, especially parrotfish, corresponded with the healthiest coral reefs, says Steneck, a professor of oceanography, marine biology and marine policy based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Maine.

“The Dominican Republic is a remarkably diverse country,” says Steneck. “However, its greatest diversity may lie underwater and out of sight of most people.”

The vibrant reefs, he says, were within sight of the border with Haiti, while reefs adjacent to Punta Cana, the heavily populated easternmost tip of the Dominican Republic, were the most degraded.

About 400 people attended Steneck’s keynote at the conference, which was sponsored by Propagas Foundation. Creative lighting and decorations made the conference room appear to be underwater, he says.

Several media outlets, including El Dia, covered Steneck’s speech (eldia.com.do/experto-revela-deterioro-de-arrecifes). Steneck also was a guest on two radio shows before returning to Maine.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Learning From Insects

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015
Edith PatchWhen Cassie Gibbs came to the University of Maine in 1971, a photograph hanging in an office in Deering Hall captivated her. She was studying it one day when Geddes Simpson, head of the Entomology Department, informed her that the woman was Edith Marion Patch, UMaine’s first female entomologist.

From that day forward, Gibbs — UMaine’s second female entomologist — made it her mission to learn all she could about Patch. Simpson fueled Gibbs’ fascination by regularly leaving on her desk letters, laboratory notebooks and children’s books authored by Patch. The collection grew steadily during Gibbs’ years as a noted aquatic entomologist, filling boxes and folders that she tucked away in her office.

It wasn’t until Gibbs retired in 1995 that she set out to document the life of Patch — a distinguished, nationally recognized aphid taxonomist, naturalist and educator — who became the first female president of the Entomological Society of America in 1930, during a time when women were a rare sight in the scientific community.

Twenty years later, Gibbs has published the biography, “Without Benefits from Insects: The Story of Edith M. Patch of the University of Maine,” a publication of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.

Its publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the University of Maine.

“Edith Patch is recognized as the first truly successful professional woman entomologist in the United States,” said Gibbs. “She was among the early scientists to write and speak of the threats to the environment from the widespread applications of chemical insecticides and to bring this to the public’s attention.”

Nearly 60 years after her death in 1954, Patch’s legacy is thriving, kept alive by her world-renowned scientific writing, a nonprofit organization named in her honor and a group of individuals dedicated to passing on Patch’s lessons to generations to come.

An extensive collection of archival records on Edith Patch, including some of the first memorabilia given to Gibbs, can be found in Fogler Library’s Special Collections at UMaine. The Patch homestead, once bursting with colorful gardens and buzzing insects, still sits on College Avenue on the Orono/Old Town line.

Patch’s faculty office was in Holmes Hall. A residence hall now on campus is named in her honor.

Bug enthusiasts may still see her extensive, internationally recognized insect collection, The Patch Collection, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

But the most recognizable essence of Patch can be found in her writing.

Patch had an incredible gift — the ability to communicate scientific ideas to all ages. She believed that nature was a child’s greatest mentor and that appreciation of the natural world did not belong solely to the scientist. She charmed nature lovers young and old with her enthusiasm for some of the world’s tiniest creatures, publishing many internationally recognized children’s publications, scientific papers and books throughout her lifetime.

“One of Patch’s greatest strengths was her understanding of the power of story. As a scientist, she herself was drawn to investigate nature’s ever-unfolding story,” said Mary Bird, member of the organization Friends of Edith Patch, dedicated to celebrating and continuing the legacy of Patch.  “As a teacher, she realized that it is through story that each of us can find our own ways to connect with the living world around us and to make meaning of what we find there. She skillfully engaged her audiences, youth and adult, lay and scientific, in exploring and learning from nature’s stories.”

Patch’s career as an entomologist emerged in July 1903 when Charles Woods, the director of the then Maine Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES), invited Patch to Orono. At the time, Patch was in her second year teaching high school English in Minnesota after being unable to secure a position in the field of entomology. Woods offered her an unpaid position teaching English and entomology, with the potential to establish a department of entomology the following year.

Patch packed her bags and moved to Maine.

Woods faced ridicule for his decision to invite Patch to UMaine, but his response was telling: “So far as the people on my staff are concerned, I am not at all concerned whether they are attired in trousers or skirts, just as long as they do the work.”

A year after her arrival at UMaine, Patch received a formal appointment as assistant professor of entomology.

Though being one of the only female scientists in a male-dominated profession often presented difficulties, Patch persevered with grace and patience. She had practice. Growing up, she was on a baseball team with boys and girls. She had attended a coeducational university — University of Minnesota — to earn a bachelor’s degree in English. She grew up walking side-by-side with males, so why would a professional position be any different?

Patch was expected to adhere to certain societal etiquettes, only some of which she followed. But her polite, often wordless deviation from the norms of her time helped pave the way for the success of women in science.

When Patch was discouraged from attending an after-dinner address during a meeting of the Entomological Society of America because the men would be smoking (women were not allowed to be in the presence of a man while he smoked during this time), she figured out where the meeting was, walked in and quietly took a seat. The smoke-filled room fell silent as the men looked side-to-side, eyebrows raised. Within seconds, every cigar and pipe in the room had been put out.

She was present at all subsequent meetings.

Jennifer Lund, a UMaine entomology graduate student, says she is grateful for the legacy Patch left behind. Lund received one of the 2015 Edith Patch Award, which honors outstanding undergraduate and graduate women for distinguished work in the fields of science, agriculture, engineering and environmental education.

“I am so very honored to win an award that is named after such a phenomenal female entomologist and scientist,” said Lund.  “I often think about how my research here has been influenced by all the entomologists that have come before me but especially Edith Patch who paved the way for female entomologists at the University of Maine so early in the university’s history.”

Patch specialized in aphids — small sap-sucking insects commonly known as plant lice. Their complex life cycles, multiple host plants and ability to transmit pathogens made the group particularly difficult to study.

Her fascination for aphids began when she was an undergraduate student in Minnesota, under the direction of Oscar Oestlund. Researchers from Belgium to Brazil began seeking her counsel on how to manage aphid populations that had been infesting their agricultural crops. Before long, she had become the world’s aphid specialist. Today, her publication, The Food-Plant Catalogue of Aphids of the World, is still referenced as the most comprehensive record of aphids and their host plants.

Before completing her master’s degree in entomology at the University of Maine in June 1910, Patch had already published seven papers on aphids and related species, five of which appeared in national journals. The seventh became her dissertation for her Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 1911. Patch’s research at Cornell focused on the evolutionary origins of the wing veins of aphids and their close relatives the psyllids, aleuronids, and coccids.

During her time at Cornell, Patch collaborated with John Henry Comstock, a distinguished researcher and author of her beloved first insect book, the Manual for the Study of Insects. She purchased the manual during her final year of high school after winning a $25 prize for an essay she wrote dedicated to the monarch butterfly.

Patch became lifelong friends with Comstock and his wife Anna Botsford Comstock, an illustrator and author of natural history books for young people.

After establishing her career as an entomologist, Patch purchased her home, which she named Braeside. The name — derived from the Scottish word brae — translates to bank, referring to its location on the edge of the Stillwater River. Built in the 1840s, the house was sited on a 50-acre plot of land surrounded by exquisite wild gardens bustling with insect life. Here, she spent much of her free time observing and writing about the natural world.

Her home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. For the past 15 years, the Friends of Edith Patch organization has raised nearly $200,000 for the rehabilitation of Braeside. Once restored, the facility will house the Edith Patch Environmental Observatory, which will feature a museum, educational resource center, and facilities for environmental research, education and policy. The property surrounding the historic home will mirror the gardens depicted in many of Patch’s writing for children.

Patch published her first children’s book — Dame Bug and Her Babies — in 1913. The book, a collection of 18 stories about insect mothers and their offspring, sold for 75 cents, plus postage. This marked the beginning of her lifelong mission to write biologically accurate stories that invoked curiosity in young readers. Many publications followed, including Little Gateways to Science, which told the story of 12 birds and the inauspicious effects human activity can have on the natural world.

“With academic specializations in both English and entomology, she thoroughly understood that the work carried out in lab and field would be meaningless if it could not be connected in real and meaningful ways to those whom it was designed to serve,” said Bird. “She used her skills as both a scientist and a writer to create pathways into understanding and appreciation of science and the world it seeks to explore and explain.”

Dedicated to educating the next generation of scientists, Patch’s expertise often took her away from Orono. She traveled all over the country giving talks about her work, and, in 1927 took a six-month research trip to the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, England to study the migratory aphid, Myzus pseudosolani, which had become a concern in New England.

Patch was not only a distinguished scientist and world-renowned author, but also one of the first environmentalists of her time. In a compelling speech given in 1936 for the Maine Agricultural News Radio Program titled “Aphids, Aphids, Everywhere,” Patch explained the dangers of excessive use of insecticides. Using the life cycle of the aphid as an example, she pointed out that there are many natural factors controlling aphid population and that it is not necessary to rely on insecticides to keep the insect populations in balance.

This speech was given 26 years before the dangers of insecticides were echoed in Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, which is given considerable credit for igniting the environmental movement in the 1960s.

“Even as a girl of 7 in Minnesota, she (Patch) was a lover of all natural things, and she remained a naturalist until the day she died. The naturalist tradition is a long one. It always has included a love of — and appreciation for — the beauty of nature,” said James Slater, who delivered the Entomological Society of America’s 1996 founders’ memorial and lecture honoring Patch.

Patch’s environmental concerns resonated again during her address at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She pleaded to the audience — filled with scientists like herself — to look closer at the adverse effects chemical insecticides can have on non-targeted insect populations and their surrounding ecosystems. Her statement — “the welfare of humankind depends on the protection of insects” — sounded the alarm and made newspaper headlines nationwide. This speech was later published as a bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society in 1938, titled “Without Benefit of Insects,” and became one of her most-noted publications.

After a long successful career, Patch retired in July 1937 after 34 years at UMaine. She was named entomologist emeritus and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree at UMaine’s 66th annual commencement. She was flooded with correspondence from researchers and friends thanking her for her many contributions to science. At the time of her retirement, she had published 15 children’s books and 78 scientific articles.

Though she no longer held a formal position at the university, Patch remained active in the scientific community. In a speech addressed to the Garden Club Federation in 1939 titled, “Our insect friends,” she continued to stress the importance of insects as pollinators and the benefits they have to our agricultural system.

“We have a lot we can learn from Patch. She wanted children to be loving towards the natural world, not destroying it or invading it in any way,” said Nancy MacKnight, member of the Friends of Edith Patch organization.  “She taught us that if you want to do something, you have to persevere. Patch tried to get a job in entomology, and she couldn’t. Maine was the only place that offered her anything connected to entomology, and it was unpaid for a year. It took a lot of courage to enter a man’s field at that time. We owe a lot to Edith Patch.”

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721