IU graduate students share passion for science and conversation with ‘ScIU’

A committed team of graduate students from across the sciences at IU are banding together to provide a glimpse inside the world of Bloomington’s research labs through a new effort that seeks inform, entertain and spark conversations about science.

ScIU: Conversations in Science,” which officially launches Aug. 22, is a new blog that seeks to foster discussion and awareness about science across the university and the community.

ScIU students

Among the writers and editors of ScIU are Lana Ruck, Ed Basom, Nichole Nagoette, Victoria Kohout, Noah Zarr, Daniel Bullock and Benjamin Draper (left to right, back row) and Maria Tiongco, Amrita Bhattacharya, Josey Topolski, Mark Juers, Anna Jessee, Clara Boothby and Fabio Mendes (left to right, front row). Photo by Mike Jackson.

“We’re taking the time to do this because we love the discovery, the questions and the excitement of science – of trying to work and understand, and to build upon the knowledge of those who came before us,” said Briana K. Whitaker, a graduate student in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology and a member of the blog’s editorial team. “With ScIU, we’re hoping to foster conversations between scientists and non-scientists and to start a dialogue about IU science that helps connect different people on and around campus.”

The graduate student editors and writers at ScIU represent a wide swath of science departments at IU Bloomington, all of whom have been collaborating on the project since last spring. Together, they’ve brainstormed topics, discussed the challenges of science writing and worked to raise excitement about the blog among their peers and research mentors.

The project was originally proposed and remains supported by the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Research Office and Office of Science Outreach, whose mission includes the promotion of diversity, awareness and accessibility of science to everyone.

“This project is all about public engagement with the sciences and focusing a two-way dialogue that not only communicates IU’s cutting-edge research to the public but is responsive to the public about what they need from science to make informed decisions in their lives,” said Jo Anne Tracy, director of the Office of Science Outreach and assistant dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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IU physicist presents new evidence about nature of the third mass state in neutrinos

A year and a day after delivering the first results from a multi-million-dollar detector built to shed light on the nature of neutrinos, IU physicist Mark Messier announced the project had produced new evidence about the nature of the “third mass state” of these mysterious subatomic particles.

An illustration of the three neutrino mass states and the three flavors that make them up (electron, muon and tau), as they were previously though to mix. NOvA’s new result shows that the third mass state may not have equal amounts of muon (yellow jellybeans) and tau (blue jellybeans) flavors. Image by Fermilab/Sandbox Studios.

The results were presented at the 2016 International Conference of High-Energy Physics in Chicago.

“Neutrinos are always surprising us,” said Messier, who is co-spokesperson for the NOvA experiment, the project that generated the results. “This result is a fresh look into one of the major unknowns in neutrino physics.”

A $278 million international collaboration of nearly 230 scientists and engineers from 41 institutions across the globe, the NOvA experiment is headquartered at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

Neutrinos have previously been detected in three types, called flavors – muon, tau and electron. They also exist in three mass states, but those states don’t necessarily correspond directly to the three flavors.

The results of the experiment announced Aug. 8 suggest that one of the three neutrino mass states might not include equal parts of muon and tau flavor, as previously thought. Scientists refer to this as “non-maximal mixing,” and NOvA’s result is the first hint that this may be the case for the third mass state.

“In physics, symmetries are often important clues about what’s going on behind the scenes,” Messier said. “In this case we’ve seen a symmetry break, and exactly how and in which direction can tell us more about how neutrinos relate to each other and the other fundamental particles.”

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IU, Bloomington rally around Wally the corpse flower

“Bloomington loves Wally.”

So read a handmade sign tacked to the window of IU’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse on East Third Street, where a giant, odoriferous corpse flower named after a former IU staffer recently grew to a height of 6 feet 3 inches.

Over 5,000 people came to witness the corpse flower at IU Jordan Hall Greenhouse.

Over 5,000 people came to witness the corpse flower at IU Jordan Hall Greenhouse. Photo by IU Communications.

Scientifically named Amorphophallus titanum, or a titan arum, the enormous bloom unfurled the evening of Friday, July 29, revealing a deep crimson interior for about 36 hours, after which the plant’s leaves drew closed and the spadix — a large stem-like structure — sagged like a balloon after a party.

But during the short period from Friday evening to Sunday morning, Wally drew about 5,000 visitors to the greenhouse, including IU President Michael A. McRobbie. At the height of the bloom, the wait to visit the plant climbed over 90 minutes, with a line snaking through the greenhouse and into the main academic building.

“It’s a pretty impressive number when you add in the people who came on Friday afternoon and the people on Sunday to the crazy crowds on Saturday,” said Jean-François Gout, a research associate in the IU Bloomington Department of Biology, who produced a time-lapse video of the bloom (see below). “I myself saw the line extend to the end of the hallway in Jordan Hall.”

After laying dormant for nine years, the plant grew over 6 feet tall in three weeks.

After nine years, IU’s corpse flower (or “titan arum”) grew over six feet tall in three weeks to produce its first bloom. Photo by IU Communications.

The majority of visitors hailed from Bloomington, but some arrived from farther afield. IU gardener John Leichter reported meeting several “flower groupies” who said they had traveled from New York City, where they recently saw another corpse flower bloom. The Herald-Times also reported visitors from Ohio and Oklahoma.

Many others simply peered through greenhouse windows from the sidewalk, or tuned into the live-stream. IU Collaborative Technologies estimates the live-stream player page was loaded 115,585 times during the bloom, with views reported from 96 different countries.

The size of the corpse flower attracted onlookers; so did the odor: a fetid smell produced by a cluster of small flowers — or “unbranched inflorescence” — at the base of the spadix to attract insect pollinators who normally feed on dead animals.

One visitor to the greenhouse described the smell on Twitter as “between a litterbox and the New York City subway.” The Department of Biology’s Facebook page said the scent was detectable outside the greenhouse on Friday night.

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Enormous, rare ‘corpse flower’ about to make pungent debut at IU’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse

If houseplants, like houseguests, start to stink after three days, then an extremely rare plant that hasn’t bloomed in nine years at IU’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse is due to create a stench for the ages.

One of the world’s largest species of flower, the Amorphophallus titanum or titan arum, is expected to put forth its first bloom any day now. Known as the “corpse flower” for its overpoweringly foul odor, the bloom of this plant is an extremely rare sight.

Corpse flower with Adam Fudickar

The corpse plant at IU’s Jordan Greenhouse on July 14. Adam Fudickar, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biology, gives a sense of scale. Photo by Terri Greene, Indiana University.

As of July 19, the plant’s stem had reached a height of 3 feet, with several more feet expected. Interested individuals can follow the flower’s progress in real time via a live webstream, or visit the IU Bloomington Department of Biology’s Facebook page and a special Web page for updates on the expected bloom date.

A native to western Sumatra, the corpse flower takes eight to 20 years to bloom for the first time. After that, the flower appears every three years, and each bloom lasts only 24 to 36 hours. This is the first bloom of IU’s flower, and only five corpse flower blooms have been publicly recorded worldwide in the past year.

“With all of its size and fragrance, the flowering of this plant is not to be missed,” said paleobotanist David Dilcher, professor emeritus in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology and Department of Geology. “Although it’s related to the calla lily, a common sight in gardens across Indiana, the titan arum is tropical, with an enormous flower that is deep red in color and smells like rotten meat. The bloom of this plant is a spectacular sight rarely seen outside of major botanical gardens.”

The flower will be open for public viewing from 7:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at IU’s Jordan Hall Greenhouse, at the corner of Third Street and South Hawthorne Drive in Bloomington, Ind. Parking is available at the Atwater Garage on Faculty Drive, between Third Street and Atwater Avenue.

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High school students get crash course in science with latest addition to Biology Department’s summer research programs

Post by Lauren Bryant, associate director for research development communications, Office of the Vice Provost for Research:

When Mary Ann Tellas was a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington, she had the good fortune to encounter the late Jim Holland, a professor of biology at IU Bloomington known for his tireless recruiting and mentoring of students, particularly students underrepresented on campus.

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RISE participants Sammy Cheng, left, and Cristen Lee, right, carry out an experiment in the lab of Tuli Mukhopadhyay, an associate professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology. Photo by Terri Greene.

“His biology course was packed with students, and I could see why. His teaching inspired students. He got me to really enjoy biology,” says Tellas, who went on to earn a degree in biology and teach high school biology in the Indianapolis area.

“Years later, Dr. Holland sought me out to work with a program he developed to address the racial disparities that exist in STEM,” Tellas adds. “I never knew how he found me, but I was honored to be a part of the initiative.”

Tellas now co-directs the program founded by Holland and has developed two additional related programs with Armin Moczek, professor of biology at IU Bloomington. The three STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs for underrepresented students are offered through the Department of Biology at IU Bloomington.

The first two programs are the Jim Holland Summer Enrichment Program, enabling eighth- to 10th-grade students to spend a week on campus, and the Jim Holland Summer Science Research Program, during which a subset of first-year students from the summer enrichment program return to campus to spend a week conducting research with an IU Bloomington faculty member.

The newest of the programs is the Jim Holland Research Initiative in STEM Education, or RISE, a two-week summer program that just finished its inaugural year this summer at IU Bloomington.

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Indiana University physicists playing key roles in quest for new particles

The building blocks that make up the elements on the periodic table are straightforward. Atoms are composed of protons, neutrons and electrons.

But two of those particles – neutrons and protons – haven’t been considered elementary particles since the 1960s. They’re hadrons, composed of three quarks: subatomic particles that come in six “flavors,” up, down, top, bottom, charm and strange. There are also anti-quarks, which have similar properties but possess equal and opposite charges.

Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider is the largest and most powerful collider in the world used in the search for subatomic particles. Photo courtesy CERN.

Quark combinations include baryons, which contain three quarks, and mesons, which contain a single quark and an anti-quark. More recently four- and five-quark particles have been detected. This ever-growing menagerie of quark types and combinations is sometimes referred to by physicists as the “particle zoo.”

In the June 23 issue of the journal Nature, Matthew Shepherd, associate professor, and Ryan Mitchell, associate scientist, of the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Physics, along with Jozef Dudek of Old Dominion University, attempt to wrangle this unruly group together in a review paper that explores the current state of knowledge about these fundamental particles, as well as what physicists know about forces that guide their existence and formation, described in part by the theory of quantum chromodynamics.

The colleagues were invited to write the piece after Shepherd delivered a talk on exotic mesons at the 12th Conference on the Intersections of Particle and Nuclear Physics in May 2015.

In the paper, he and the other authors observe that physicists’ knowledge of the behavior and structure of hadrons is currently limited, in part, by the lack of any simple relationship between the quarks described by quantum chromodynamics and the properties of hadrons detected experimentally.

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Study finds that plant growth responses to high carbon dioxide depend on symbiotic fungi

Research by an international team of environmental scientists from the United Kingdom, Belgium and United States, including Indiana University, has found that plants that associate with one type of symbiotic fungi grow bigger in response to high levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2, in the atmosphere, but plants that associate with the other major type of symbiotic fungi do not.

Ectomycorrhizal versus Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi

Ectomycorrhizal fungi (shown as mushrooms connected to the roots of the tree) increase the uptake of nitrogen by the plant. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (show as grass roots on the left) do not provide that advantage to their host. Image by Victor O. Leshyk

The study, which appears online today in the journal Science, calls into question whether the “greening of the Earth” that results from carbon dioxide stimulation of plant growth — often called the “CO2 fertilization effect” — will persist as fossil fuel emissions continue to rise globally.

“Pumping extra carbon dioxide into a greenhouse is a common tactic to stimulate plant growth, but nature is much more complex than a greenhouse,” said Richard Phillips, associate professor in the IU College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, who is a co-author on the study. “So, there is great debate about whether pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through fossil fuel combustion stimulates plant growth in nature, where soil nutrient levels are typically much lower than in a greenhouse.”

Fungi that form symbiotic relationships with plants are called mycorrhizal fungi. Over 90 percent of all plant life on Earth associates with mycorrhizal fungi, which provide plants with soil nutrients in exchange for plant carbohydrates.

“While researchers have long known that mycorrhizal fungi play an essential role in the growth and health of plants, their role in helping ecosystems store carbon has never been investigated on such a broad scale — until now,” said second-year PhD student César Terrer of Imperial College London, who is first author on the paper. “Our analysis is the first to demonstrate that only plants that associate with a certain type of fungal partner – one that helps them acquire nitrogen from soil – are likely to grow bigger as carbon dioxide levels rise.”

Other authors are on the study are Colin Prentice of Imperial College London; Sara Vicca of the University of Antwerp, Belgium; and Bruce A. Hungate of the Northern Arizona University.

The research team examined 83 experimental studies of plant responses to CO2 levels equivalent to those expected by the year 2050, assuming an increase of about 2 percent each year globally.

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IU postdoctoral researcher named a Pew Latin American Fellow in the Biomedical Sciences

A postdoctoral researcher in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry is one of only 10 scientists named to the 2016 class of Pew Latin American Fellows in the Biomedical Sciences, a program of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Daiana Capdevila

A native of Argentina, Daiana A. Capdevila will receive support from the program to spend two years in the lab of Lilly Chemistry Alumni Professor David Giedroc, whose group conducts basic research into the fight against drug-resistant bacterial infection.

“My work at IU involves performing experiments with bacteria to explore the biological aspects of protein regulation,” Capdevila said. “This includes studying how sensor proteins from bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae and Staphylococcus aureus cause molecular changes that allow them to bind to DNA and control the creation of proteins, evading the immune response.”

The research puts her in the middle of the “arms race” between the immune system and bacteria. The sensor proteins studied in Capdevila’s work are used by bacteria to trigger the activation of genes that allow these microbes to counteract the immune system’s efforts to either withhold or poison them with metal ions, a strategy evolved by the immune system to defeat bacterial infection.

Insights from the work could contribute to the development of a novel class of antibiotics able to fight bacteria such as multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The primary bacterial strain in deadly hospital-acquired infections, MRSA was estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to have infected over 72,000 people in the United States in 2014 alone.

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IU Bloomington researcher working to reveal genetic clues behind long-term survival in ovarian cancer

Although not as common as some forms of cancer in the U.S., ovarian cancer ranks among the top causes of cancer death in women. It’s notoriously difficult to detect early, and most women who receive an advanced stage diagnosis do not survive more than five years.

Kenneth P. Nephew

Kenneth P. Nephew

But a small percentage of patients live far longer. To find out why, IU Bloomington researcher Kenneth P. Nephew is a part of the Ovarian Cancer Consortium for Long-Term Survival, which recently received “Phase II” funding from the Department of Defense Ovarian Cancer Research Program.

As a co-investigator in the consortium, Nephew is working to help more women join the ranks of these long-term survivors. He will investigate and describe the epigenome of tumors from ovarian cancer survivors who have survived 10 or more years following a diagnosis of advanced stage ovarian cancer.

“We’re working to reveal the secrets of these tumors to find out what makes these women genetically unique,” said Nephew, a professor of cellular and integrative physiology and obstetrics and gynecology in the Medical Sciences Program at the IU School of Medicine-Bloomington. “We want to identify these genetic differences, and build upon this knowledge to work toward improving the long-term survival and quality of life for all women impacted by this disease.”

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IU sophomore on ‘front end’ of sustainability research on bird migration, climate

“If there’s ever a fire, we’re supposed to grab that book first.”

That’s how one researcher describes the only copy of a binder containing nearly 50 years of painstakingly collected data on the migratory patterns of dark-eyed juncos in southern Indiana.

The person currently contributing new information to this priceless document is Lia Bobay, a sophomore environmental science major in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs who is collecting and analyzing data on the birds as a 2020 Sustainability Scholar.

Undergraduates in IU’s 2020 Sustainability Scholars Program participate in two semesters of sustainability research with access to world-class faculty on the IU Bloomington campus. Bobay’s research mentors are Ellen Ketterson, IU Distinguished Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, and Adam Fudickar, a postdoctoral researcher in Ketterson’s lab.

A renowned expert on birds, Ketterson started her research on dark-eyed juncos in the early 1960s in collaboration with the late Val Nolan Jr., IU professor of law and biology, and Ketterson’s husband. The junco data log sits on a shelf outside her office in Jordan Hall on the IU Bloomington campus.

Lia Bobay and Adam Fudickar

Lia Bobay and Adam Fudickar hold birds captured at the IU Research and Teaching Preserve. Birds are released after tagging. Photo by Eric Rudd

The logs contain hundreds of pages of measurements — times, temperatures, climate conditions, bird weight and sex — with each line representing a single junco captured and released in the field. Collecting data on a single bird can take hours.

Since the fall, Bobay has been working with Fudickar to determine whether climate change has altered the male-to-female ratio of dark-eyed juncos in southern Indiana. The birds, which breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada and Alaska, migrate to Indiana during the cold-weather months of November to April. Historically, males outnumber females in Indiana and females outnumber males in southern states.

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