Archive for the ‘College News’ Category

A New Frontier

Friday, February 27th, 2015
Aleutian islandsUniversity of Maine marine scientist Bob Steneck is part of an international team that has unlocked an underwater time capsule in the North Pacific that has been monitoring the climate for centuries.The time capsule is the long-living, slow-growing alga Clathromorphum nereostratum that creates massive reefs in shallow coastal regions of Alaska’s Aleutian archipelago. These solid calcium carbonate structures have fine growth rings — similar to tree growth rings — which Steneck says contain historical environmental information.

The team used a cutting-edge microisotopic imaging technique to reconstruct 120 years of seasonal changes in ocean acidification (pH) in the region. The technique uses lasers to measure isotope ratios of the element boron at the scale of tenths of millimeters.

The technique, Steneck says, provides researchers with a detailed historical timeline, including rate of ocean acidification both seasonally and over hundreds of years. The scientists learned that since the late 19th century, the ocean has been acidifying at a rate that corresponds with rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

“The next frontier is to determine millennial records so we get a better sense of what was normal for ocean acidification in cold water coastal zones,” Steneck says.

The alga grows approximately 1 millimeter every three years, so plants collected last year that are nearly half-meter thick could easily be more than 1,000 years old, he says.

“These and similar types of coralline algae are living in all oceans,” says lead researcher Jan Fietzke of the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel in Germany. “Thanks to laser ablation techniques, in the future we can use other samples to look much further back into the past…”

In fact, UMaine postdoctoral associate Doug Rasher is currently in Scotland analyzing specimens that he and Steneck collected last year in Alaska.

The team’s seasonal analyses also indicated strong variations of pH in each year.

The researchers, who also hail from the United Kingdom and Canada, say the annual variation is likely due to large kelp forests in the region that consume large amounts of carbon dioxide in the spring and summer as they grow.  The kelp forests then completely die back each winter.

“In a sense, these ecosystems are breathing by inhaling CO2 each summer and releasing it every winter,” says Steneck, who is based at the University of Maine Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

Each year, more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, some of which is absorbed by the ocean as carbonic acid. This, in turn, decreases the pH and increases acidity of the ocean, say the researchers.

Steneck says 90 percent of marine resource value in Maine involves shellfish, including lobsters, scallops, oysters and clams. Lobsters and other organisms depend on high pH to create limestone shells and it takes metabolic energy to make limestone.

When the ocean is more acidic, the metabolic cost necessary to make shells increases, he says. Some energy that would normally be allocated to organisms’ immune systems could be compromised, possibly increasing their susceptibility to disease.

Lobsters afflicted with shell disease increased fivefold between 2010 and 2012 in Maine; in southern New England during that time, scientists and lobstermen indicated that one in four lobsters caught was diseased.

Steneck says being able to determine if acidification in a specific coastal area might be affected by extreme rainfall events or sewage treatment, for example, could help create more localized ocean management policy.

To retrieve specimens for the research, Steneck dove in 34-degree water off the Aleutian Islands and used a jackhammer to cut off chunks of the Clathromorphum nereostratum. The chunks were loaded into cargo nets, airlifted to the surface, towed to the boat and lifted aboard with a crane. Onboard, Steneck cut the chunks into pieces for research.

A paper about the findings will be published Feb. 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.377

Follow a Researcher

Friday, February 27th, 2015
Follow a researcherConnecting K–12 students in Maine and around the world with researchers in the field is the goal of a new program offered by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension with support from UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI) and the Maine 4-H Foundation.

Follow a Researcher aims to give students a glimpse into a scientist’s world by providing live expedition updates and facilitating communication between the youth and scientist.

“Science isn’t just white lab coats and pouring things into beakers,” says Charles Rodda, a doctoral student at CCI and the program’s first researcher. In his case, science means putting on crampons, scaling glaciers and drilling ice cores in Peru and Tajikistan to conduct research focused on abrupt climate change.

In March, Rodda and fellow CCI graduate student Kit Hamley will travel to Peru to collect snow and ice from glaciers high in the Andes. During the summer, he will travel to Tajikistan to join an international team that will retrieve and research samples from the world’s largest nonpolar glacier.

While in the field, Rodda will interact with participating classrooms and students by sharing prerecorded weekly videos and live tweeting in response to questions.

“We’re interested to see what they’re interested in,” Rodda says. “We of course are focused on the science, but we’re hiking in some of the most beautiful regions on Earth.”

To interact with students, Rodda will use the inReach Explorer, a global satellite communicator created by Maine-based company DeLorme. The tool allows him to text or tweet directly to students from the glacier. It also will track his movements and generate an online map so students can follow his trek in nearly real time. To document his journey, Rodda also will take several cameras, including a GoPro; a solar panel and battery pack to charge electronics; an iPad; satellite receiver; and memory cards.

In advance of the weekly question-and-answer sessions, prerecorded videos of Rodda explaining aspects of the expedition and research will be released. The videos were created to spark discussion among students and are aligned with Next Generation Science Standards.

Rodda, who has participated in several outreach events around the state as a UMaine Extension 4-H STEM Ambassador, says having a science-literate society is important and getting students interested at an early age is essential.

“I think that’s the time — middle and early high school — when students seem to decide if they’re going to be interested in science or not. There’s great research happening here at the University of Maine and we want to make sure students know about it,” he says.

Several schools from around Maine, as well as schools in Iowa, Ohio, Rhode Island and Connecticut have already signed on to take part in the program, which is funded by the Maine 4-H Foundation. Rodda and Hamley plan to visit participating Maine classrooms after they return from Peru in April.

In Peru, Rodda and Hamley will look at signals that have been captured in the ice during El Nino events, or warming in the waters of the equatorial Pacific. They hope to see what El Ninos look like in climate records to determine if those events may be a trigger that shifts the climate system in Central and South America from one phase to another. Rodda completed preliminary research in Peru in 2013.

This summer in Tajikistan, Rodda will work with researchers from around the world to drill a long core that will be split among teams from the University of Idaho, Japan, France, Germany and Austria who will study a variety of the core’s characteristics. Rodda will focus on the ice’s chemistry makeup while others will focus on topics including physical measurements or biological signals, he says.

In advance of Rodda’s Peru trip, youth in grades six through eight took part in a UMaine 4-H Science Saturday workshop where they were challenged with determining how to keep ice core samples frozen and intact for research. Students were given ice and materials and were tasked with designing a container that would keep ice frozen under a heat lamp for a specific amount of time.

In reality, Rodda says bringing ice cores home from Peru is more like “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” It involves horseback riding, long car rides, even longer airplane rides, and a lot of dry and blue ice, which he describes as heavy-duty freezer packs.

“It’s a great way to get students on campus to sort of demystify the university and show them some of the cool stuff we do at the university and in the sciences,” Rodda says of 4-H Science Saturdays, which are offered by UMaine Extension.

“Follow a Researcher is part of a big effort to connect youth in Maine with current university students. It may be the first time a youth has contact with someone who is going to college, or their first connection to a university,” says Laura Wilson, a 4-H science professional with UMaine Extension. “STEM Ambassadors are working in areas all over the state, from an after-school program in Washburn to programs offered in urban areas of Lewiston and Portland.”

Organizers would like to continue Follow a Researcher after the pilot year, as well as expand it to other disciplines throughout the university.

“By connecting youth to campus, we may be inspiring them to explore higher education, and perhaps come to UMaine in the future,” Wilson says.

Teachers interested in following Rodda on his expeditions may call Jessica Brainerd at 800.287.0274 (in Maine), 581.3877; or email More about Follow a Researcher is online.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Capps Part of Mexican Stream Ecology Collaboration to Study Urban Rivers

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Krista Capps, a research assistant professor in the University of Maine Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Conservation Biology, is leading a project that aims to provide the foundation for greater understanding of urban rivers in developing countries.

The project, “Mexican Urban Stream Ecology Collaboration (MUSE),” received a $60,690 grant from the National Science Foundation for initial data gathering in Mexico.

Much of what scientists know about the influence of urbanization on stream ecology comes from studying rivers and streams in countries such as the United States and Australia, according to the researchers. However, urban rivers in developing economies may be used by humans for sources of untreated drinking water, direct conduits for sewage and freshwater fisheries.

Understanding how biological communities and processes are affected by increasing urbanization is essential to correctly manage urban watersheds in developing regions, the researchers say.

MUSE will bring together stream ecologists and fish biologists from the United States and Mexico to begin to understand the links among urbanization, stream ecology, and freshwater fisheries in southern Mexico.

The researchers say they hope the project initiates a new collaboration that will generate knowledge and resources for scientists and natural resource managers.

Exchanging Expertise

Thursday, January 29th, 2015
Marine Sciences exchange studentsKathleen Marciano’s interest was piqued last spring when professor Fei Chai announced in class that summer marine science internships were available in China.

Marciano and friend and classmate Timothy (TJ) Goodrow decided to apply. In May, they learned they had been accepted and in mid-June, the University of Maine students boarded a plane destined for at Xiamen University on the coast of Fujian Province.

“…[I]t was a pretty hectic process; it happened so fast, it didn’t seem real,” says Marciano, who in December completed her degree in marine science with a concentration in aquaculture.

The 22-year-old from Scituate, Massachusetts, says she’s always loved the ocean. “Once I got to UMaine I became interested in aquaculture because I believe it to be one of the few ways to sustain a seafood industry while reducing fishing stress on the oceans,” Marciano says.

The internship in China, she says, was a valuable educational, cultural and life experience.

The educational component included working in an environmental toxicology lab 50 hours a week for two months. She studied chronic effects of butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane (used in skin sun protection products to absorb ultraviolet radiation) on the development of the marine copepod Tigriopus japonicus.

Goodrow called his internship a once-in-a-lifetime experience to view the world from a vastly different perspective.

“Traveling across the world is not for everyone,” says Goodrow, 22, of Ayer, Massachusetts. “It takes a strong-willed person to complete the challenge, but in more ways than one, it changed me into a better person and I would recommend anyone to do the same.”

And Goodrow plans to take more challenges; after he graduates in May with a degree in marine science and minor in aquaculture, he plans to travel the world.

Students’ pursuit of excellence at Xiamen University made quite an impression on Marciano. Founded in 1921, the university’s motto is “Pursue Excellence, Strive for Perfection.”

“Before I went to China I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after I graduated from UMaine,” she says. “When I … saw how hard the students worked — most of our friends were grad students — I knew I wanted to do the same. I also learned a lot of valuable things from my research that have helped me in classes and in writing my capstone paper. I did environmental toxicology for my capstone.”

Marciano also appreciated the opportunities to see sights, explore and learn about China’s history and culture.

In Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province, she toured museums and ancient dynasty sites. She also rode on a train for 24 hours to reach Wuyi Shan — a wild, protected mountainous area that includes rare wildlife species. She says it’s the most beautiful place she’s ever visited in her life.

“…All the mountains and crazy wildlife made me really appreciate where I was and how lucky I was to get such a unique experience,” she says.

Due to her unfamiliarity with the Chinese language and due to the intense heat and humidity, Marciano says she occasionally felt lonely, weary, and dependent. But she says the new friends she made in Xiamen were the nicest, most genuine, and helpful people she’s ever met.

“I also loved attempting to learn Chinese, emphasis on attempting,” she says. “My friends loved teaching me words and phrases, and no matter how badly I butchered them I still felt like I was learning.”

Communicating also was sometimes a challenge for Goodrow. But he says many people in China spoke some English, and he used actions to convey his intentions. Like Marciano, he says the extreme heat and humidity, as well as the rich food, took some getting used to.

Goodrow says the internship — which included lab work and traveling to aquaculture farms — significantly enhanced his knowledge of marine science. The rural communities along the coast cluster around aquaculture farms and organisms raised there, he says.

“The communities are like families — selfless groups of people with the same goal of bettering themselves by working hard,” Goodrow says. “I was so impressed by the tenacity of the aquaculture farmers and their ingenious methods of culturing species of abalone (snail), shrimp and sea urchins.”

Chai, director of the School of Marine Sciences at UMaine, says the exchange program provides students with opportunities to enhance their learning experience and gain a more comprehensive perspective, which will help them in their careers, and will benefit marine science.

“We need to foster global thinking to meet the challenges and issues of the 21st century,” says Chai, who earned his undergraduate and master of science degrees at Shandong College of Oceanology (now Ocean University of China), on the coast of China about 690 miles north of Xiamen University.

“We’re all interconnected and we need to understand each other’s cultures and concerns. And we need to try to find common solutions to address global issues.”

During the fall 2014 semester, 25 students, including 17 from Brazil and eight from China, attended UMaine through the marine science exchange program. Of the eight students from China, four took classes at the flagship university in Orono and four studied at UMaine’s seaside Darling Marine Center in Walpole.

Xiamen University students Yuwei (Talifin) Wang, 20, and Xiaoling (Zoe) Zhou, 19, studied on the Orono campus and Ocean University of China students Shuling (Shirley) Chen, 20, and Yumeng (Julie) Pang, 19, studied at DMC.

These four exchange students say they started learning English at 5 or 6 years of age.

Wang is from Beijing, an ancient city with a population of 22 million people and Zhou is from Chengdu City; the natural home of giant pandas has a population of about 14 million.

At Xiamen University, which has 38,000 full-time students on its three campuses, Wang says his schedule is “study, study, study.” The standard protocol, he says, is for professors to lecture the 140 or so students in class, and for students to sit and take notes.

Wang liked the interaction between instructors and students at UMaine, which has an enrollment of about 11,300. “Here in Maine, we talk with people with different ideas and use knowledge to solve problems in class,” he says.

Zhou appreciated the participatory approach, as well. “The way of thinking in China is to receive knowledge from the teacher,” Zhou says. “Here, it is more active. We ask questions and have to figure things out ourselves.”

Chen, of Changsha, Hunan Province, and Pang, of Linyi, Shandong Province, were impressed with the hands-on learning they participated in at DMC.

“I think I totally engaged in the courses and experience…,” says Pang, who liked the scent of the ocean.

“We have been lots of places for social research or field trips and I also conducted an independent study with the help of several professors; we really had a good time on that. If you really want to get to learn the marine science and you have a strong interest in marine science, you can experience it [at] Darling Marine Center.

Chen was thrilled to be immersed in the ocean environment and said that multiple field trips and cruises provided the opportunity to “connect theory with reality.”

“I feel … much closer to real marine science than before and I really like marine biology,” Chen says.

Pang liked participating in community events, including oyster and pumpkin festivals, and Chen enjoyed spending the Christmas holiday — “one of the best and sweetest time periods here” — with research associate professor Rhian Waller.

The DMC food was delicious and the people were friendly, says Pang who, like Chen, said the Maine winter temperatures were a shock.

The exchange students returned to China in late December. Chai says five students from Xiamen University have been accepted to study marine science at UMaine in fall 2015.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Smith’s Research Hot Topic for ScienceInsider

Thursday, January 29th, 2015
active learning with Michelle SmithTop 10 lists are compiled annually — last year there were lists for best books, Seinfeld characters, movies and restaurants. In 2014, an article about a University of Maine professor’s research made a best-read list.

Michelle Smith, assistant professor in the School of Biology and Ecology, co-authored a paper about teaching approaches.

Aleszu Bajak penned “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds,” for ScienceInsider about the research that Smith and others conducted with lead author Scott Freeman of the University of Washington, Seattle. The piece was ScienceInsider’s third most popular of the year, just behind pieces on plagiarism and Ebola.

The researchers re-analyzed 225 studies that compared grades of students enrolled in undergraduate science, engineering and mathematics courses taught in a typical lecture format with the grades of students in STEM courses that utilized active learning methods.

Freeman, Smith and others found students in classes that incorporated active learning techniques were 1.5 times more likely to pass than those in traditional lecture format classes. In addition, they found students in active learning sections earned grades nearly one-half a standard deviation higher, or, for example, a B rather than a B-, than students listening to a lecturer.

The well-read study, “Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics,” was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

In Bajak’s ScienceInsider article about the study, Harvard University physicist Eric Mazur was quoted saying the research is important and that “it’s almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data.”

He continued, “It’s good to see such a cohesive picture emerge from their meta-analysis — an abundance of proof that lecturing is outmoded, outdated, and inefficient.”

Also in December, Smith and Farahad Dastoor, lecturer of biological sciences, were highlighted in a National Science Foundation story titled “Rules of engagement: Transforming the teaching of college-level science.”

Thanks to Smith and Dastoor, 800 UMaine students in three introductory biology sections utilize clickers (response devices) and engage in small group conversations rather than sitting and listening to information dispensed by a “sage on a stage.” Smith “is helping to re-envision science education on her campus as well as across the country,” says the article.

In 2013, Smith became principal investigator on four projects and co-principal investigator on another that were granted $6.8 million in total funding from the National Science Foundation; UMaine’s portion was $1,012,269. The projects are aimed at improving nationwide science instruction and assessments. The studies are collaborative with other universities and involve UMaine administrators, faculty, postdoctoral and graduate students, undergraduates and area K–12 teachers.

Contact: Beth Staples 207.581.3777