Posts filed under ‘Faculty research’
Peter Hudson, Willaman professor of biology and director of Penn State’s Huck Institute for the Life Sciences, opened his appearance at the Alumni Association’s “Huddle with the Faculty” event Saturday morning by looking out at the audience and saying, “I was told not to frighten you.”
Everyone laughed; we were, after all, aware of the lecture’s title: “Expecting the Unexpected: Threats from Emerging Diseases.” Then some guy in back of me said, “Bring it on.”
And Hudson did. He was charming and engaging and occasionally funny as he explained three key facets of infectious disease research: Where do the diseases come from? Who is responsible? What are the threats? It’s not exactly his fault that I washed my hands about 17 times between the lecture and the Temple game or that I considered, briefly, covering my mouth and nose with a mask at the stadium. (more…)
From its beginnings as the Farmers’ High School of Pennsylvania, Penn State traces its literal and figurative roots back to agricultural education. But as we’re reminded every year at this time, the University spends a lot more time on agriculture’s future than on its past.
The annual Ag Progress Days kick off Tuesday at the Russell E. Larson Agricultural Research Center near University Park. The three-day event offers plenty for actual farmers, from demonstrations of the newest farming technology to sessions on farm safety and the increasing popularity of cover cropping.There are also family-friendly tours and activities for those looking for a mid-week diversion before school starts in the next couple of weeks.
One thing Ag Progress attendees won’t see is a cow with a hole in its side. With that “progress” in mind, though, this story seemed too interesting to pass up: University researchers are trying to minimize the amount of pollution emitted by cows by altering their diets. Jokes about the bodily functions of cattle aside, this is serious stuff: Nitrogen in cows’ waste can disrupt the water table, and methane in their belches is a greenhouse gas. Researchers have found that adding oregano might help minimize a cow’s methane emissions, and among the ways they study the animals is by surgically cutting a hole in their side — to literally reach into their digestive tracts and pull out partially digested feed. Crazy — and, apparently, good science.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
Almost eight months after launching its inquiry, Penn State has cleared Michael Mann of any ethical or academic misconduct in his climate research. You can read the University’s release on the findings here, including a link to the full report from the panel of scholars who carried out the inquiry. You can also read how some of country’s biggest papers covered the story here, here, and here. Among the facts noted is that the Penn State panel interviewed researchers who have been critical of Mann’s work; as the New York Times’ “Dot Earth” blog sums up, “months of sifting … files by an army of passionate critics have revealed little more than signs he is a prickly, competitive, defensive scientist — hardly a rare species.”
In February, Mann was cleared of most allegations in a case that has become an international symbol of the contentious debate over global climate change.
Ryan Jones, senior editor
The other day I had a chance to meet Sophie de Schaepdrijver and Ronnie Hsia, the two Penn State history/religious studies faculty members who are hosting the Alumni Association’s trip to France and Germany next month. I’m going along on that trip to keep a blog, take photos, and maybe bring back a story for the magazine. And with the husband-and-wife team of Sophie and Ronnie helming the trip, I think we’re going to have a terrific experience.
We start with a few days in Paris, and although a lot of activities are already planned for us in the city through the Alumni Association and the travel company (Collette Vacations), Sophie and Ronnie have some ideas as well.
Ronnie is planning to take interested participants on a strolling tour of medieval Paris, while Sophie has offered to take a group to the city’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery. Given that I’m a fan of old cemeteries and of taking photos of funerary art, I actually had Père Lachaise on my wish list already, so I’m excited at the thought of going there with someone who knows a lot about it.
In a letter introducing herself to the Penn State travelers, Sophie wrote: “…you are welcome to accompany me to Père Lachaise cemetery on the outskirts of Paris—a vast park-like, hilly place, most atmospheric, where many celebrities are buried (Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison) and which was the site of fierce violence during the Commune uprising of 1871.”
Which, of course, made me go to Wikipedia to read up on the Commune uprising. And that’s what’s so appealing—I can already tell that Ronnie and Sophie are going to add a very cool dimension to the trip. They’ve suggested books for the travelers to read in advance, for example. They will be doing informal lectures on our bus rides. And they both seem to know a good bit about the sometimes-controversial Oberammergau Passion Play, which we’ll see on the last day of the trip. (The residents of the German village of Oberammergau have been putting on the Passion Play every 10 years since the 1600s.)
Ronnie, in his letter to the Penn State travelers, wrote: “I have taught courses in the religious history of Europe in the period of the Renaissance and Reformation. In addition to my interest in the Protestant Reformation and Catholic reform in the 16th and 17th centuries, I have written on the relationship between Jews and Christians; therefore, I am particularly excited to be attending with you the Oberammergau Passion Play, which I have read so much about, but have never seen.”
We leave in three weeks, and I’m looking forward to sending you updates and photos from what should be an amazing trip.
Tina Hay, editor
One of the challenges in covering research a university as big and diverse as Penn State is that, well, it’s just too big and diverse.
In my previous job (1983-96), I was in charge of communications for the College of Health and Human Development, and I felt like I had at least half a chance to get my arms around things. I knew just about all of the faculty and saw them in the halls regularly. I could tell you that that Barbara Rolls was studying olestra before it became commercially available, that John Beard (now deceased) had just gotten a new grant to look at iron deficiency, or that Warner Schaie and Sherry Willis had a very cool project called the Seattle Longitudinal Study but that the results weren’t quite ready to be reported yet.
Now, of course, I’m editor of the university alumni magazine, and our “beat” is bigger. Waaaaaaaay bigger. It’s hard to know how to learn about all of the research going on—we can’t attend each and every seminar, and I no longer have the luxury of spending an afternoon reading recently funded grant proposals or just-published scholarly papers. I have this persistent sense that we’re not doing such a hot job in the magazine of covering faculty research.
So when I do get to hear a faculty member talk about his or her research, it’s a treat, but it’s also a source of frustration, because it reminds me of how much we’re probably missing.
I heard about a bunch of research last weekend as part of the kickoff for Penn State’s new capital campaign, and maybe some of it will end up the magazine eventually. I learned, for example, that the pioneering work done by William Pierce on a heart-assist pump is still ongoing, though Pierce is retired—a guy in bioengineering named Keefe Manning is leading that effort. It’s a good example of where engineering (in this case fluid dynamics) meets medicine, and more and more I’m getting the sense that that intersection of engineering and health sciences is a real strength at Penn State.
I also heard an interesting presentation by Steve Schiff, director of the Penn State Center for Neural Engineering, who has done a lot of public-health research in Africa. He got our attention when he said, “More than one million babies worldwide will die in their first four weeks—of preventable infections.” In Uganda, he has done a lot of scientific detective work—including collecting many specimens of animal dung—to figure out what bacteria are causing hydrocephalus (water on the brain) in infants. The villages’ huts, which are insulated with cow dung, are a very likely culprit: “To be honest,” Schiff said, “I’m surprised any infant survives in this environment.”
Schiff strikes me as the kind of guy who would be good to work with on a magazine story. He’s quotable, good at explaining things in lay terms, and funny. His bio, handed out at the presentation, included this memorable line: “He plays viola in a rather out-of-tune manner.”
In that same session I also heard a Hershey prof named Wafik El-Deiry talk about his cancer research. El-Deiry is chief of hematology/oncology; Penn State just recently lured him away from the University of Pennsylvania. He’s an American Cancer Society Research Professor, which is a pretty rare honor—there are only 40 of them at any given time—and he too is very good at talking about his work in everyday terms. (Any medical researcher who has a Twitter feed is OK in my book.)
El-Deiry’s talk reminded me that there is a ton of research going on at Hershey that we need to learn about. Senior editor Lori Shontz got to see some of it on a recent field trip there, and we really need to do more to familiarize ourselves with what the faculty there are doing—especially the cancer research, which is an increasingly major strength at Penn State.
Tina Hay, editor
One of the great parts of the Campaign Kick-Off Celebration over the weekend was the educational sessions, which are designed to give attendees a sense of what kind of research and programs are happening on campus. I went to several over the weekend and learned a lot, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was the first one: Understanding Climate Change.
It wasn’t the science that grabbed me. It was that even though climate change has become a contentious issue, with Penn State professor Michael Mann at the heart of the recent Climategate episode, it wasn’t glossed over. William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, addressed a room full of guests that included Penn State President Graham Spanier and at least a handful of self-identified climate change skeptics.
“I am not a political person,” Easterling said. “I try not to stray into what the press is saying about climate change at any given time. I imagine the vast majority of research scientists are of the same ilk.”
That didn’t stop Easterling from giving a 45-minute lecture on climate change, explaining both the non-contested facts (there are some, he said, including that the greenhouse effect is real and that several lines of evidence show that the planet’s average temperature has been rising) and the areas where controversy has arisen (whether it’s man’s fault, and whether the temperature change is out of the ordinary).
Among the tidbits I picked up: Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Easterling has a lilac bush that he is monitoring, looking to determine whether flowers are blooming earlier; much of today’s science depends on high-end computer simulations that are used to test hypotheses, a process that has become an accepted part of the scientific method only in the past 15 years or so; and the BBC’s website has, in Easterling’s opinion, excellent explainers on climate and weather.
More important, I think, Easterling took questions from the audience, and he engaged directly with those climate change skeptics.
I’m not going to pretend I understand enough science to be able to follow all of the details of the arguments. (And I’m not alone; Andrew Revkin, who is widely respected for his coverage of the environment for the New York Times, said he has to wait for the peer-reviewed journals to weigh in—on this On The Media podcast.) But I do respect that the skeptics asked questions, and that Easterling answered.
Regrettably, time ran out as the discussion was really getting started. Easterling wrapped up by saying, “It wasn’t my intent to try to change your mind.” And he offered to continue the conversation via e-mail, too.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
A physician at Penn State’s Hershey Medical Center has developed an iPhone app to help you find the nearest heart defibrillator. Now that’s an iPhone app you probably hope you’ll never need—but you’ll be glad you have if you ever do.
The free app is the work of James Leaming, a staff physician and faculty member in emergency medicine at Hershey. You can find it here.
Amy Guyer, associate editor
Senior editor Ryan Jones noted last week the death of Philip Klass, who taught at Penn State for more than two decades and who also wrote science fiction under the name William Tenn. On Sunday, the New York Times carried a story about Klass. You can read it here.
Tina Hay, editor
Mia Bloom, a faculty member in international studies and women’s studies, has a book coming out later this year called Bombshell: Women and Terror, and the research she conducted on female suicide bombers has her popping up in news stories.
This week, her research was referenced in a UPI special report called “Suicide Sisterhood: Al-Qaida’s Female Bombers.” And in late January, her book got a mention in this essay by Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey, which explored the role of women in jihad. Dickey quotes from a draft of Bloom’s book: “There is an army of female organizers, proselytizers, teachers, translators and fund-raisers, who either enlist with their husbands or succeed those who are jailed or killed.”
Click here to learn a little more about Bloom and her colleagues at Penn State’s International Center for the Study of Terrorism.
Lori Shontz, senior editor
We’ve gotten a number of letters to the editor lately from people who have, let’s just say, very strong feelings on the subject of global climate change—and especially on the “climategate” brouhaha involving Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann. Some of the discourse has been a bit less than civil: One reader called Mann “this low life on our faculty”; another said, “I am embarrassed that Mr. Mann is a part of Penn State. I would be disappointed if the University wasn’t doing all they can to send him to a different climate.”
So I was very interested to see a profile of Mann in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Writer Faye Flam came up to University Park this past week to interview Mann and has produced a fairly level-headed profile, one that examines the controversy in a calmer, more nuanced way. It’s worth reading.
Tina Hay, editor