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Wonder Women of Science


UM female scientists share some insight on women in science, science in Hollywood and how Wonder Woman is an icon of strength and smarts.

By Jessica M. Castillo
UM News

Wonder-Women2

From right are oceanographer Lisa Beal, cultural neuroscientist Elizabeth Losin, moderator Cara Santa Maria. and biomedical researcher Kilan Ashad-Bishop.

MIAMI (June 23, 2017)—With a primary weapon being her lasso of truth, Wonder Woman carries plenty of parallels to what scientists do—search for evidence and truth to help understand the world around them.

How many thousands of future scientists were inspired by Hollywood films Jurassic Park, Star Wars, Twister or Contact? The latest blockbuster superhero movie is no less inspirational.

On June 21, the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science kicked off the first installment of the lecture series LIVE@Frost Science by featuring some of Miami’s very own wonder women of science from the University of Miami—oceanographer Lisa Beal, biomedical researcher Kilan Ashad-Bishop and cultural neuroscientist Elizabeth Losin.

The event, called Hollywood Science & the Wonder Women of Miami, featured a discussion on how the strong female persona in the superhero movie is continuing to be a role model for girls and young women.

“Female scientists are themselves like superheroes,” said moderator Cara Santa Maria, a science communicator and host of the podcast Talk Nerdy and co-host of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Though there’s been some progress for women in science, she added, these superheroes still have to knock down barriers and shed layers of discrimination in subtle or blatant ways.

“I’ve been going to sea for 20 years and I’ve been on ships where I’ve been the only woman. It hasn’t been easy,” said Beal, associate dean of research and professor of ocean sciences at UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. “Considering Wonder Woman’s armor, I was thinking, you have to have some of that armor to get on a ship as a woman, and be in charge.”

Beal, who’s been the chief scientist on research vessels a half dozen times or more, focuses her research on ocean currents and the ocean’s role in climate, specifically climate change.

“It’s really one big ocean and I’m looking at how the different parts of the ocean are connected through currents,” said Beal. “The ocean is not homogenous at all. It’s kind of like a layer cake, and doesn’t look the same either horizontally or vertically.”

The ocean, Beal explained, has taken up 90 percent of the excess energy that society has dumped into the climate system through carbon dioxide emissions. “It’s effectively acting like a buffer for us right now. The climate would be changing even faster if it wasn’t for the ocean.”

 Lisa Beal, right, has led several research expeditions to the Indian Ocean's Agulhas current.

Lisa Beal, right, has led several research expeditions to the Indian Ocean’s Agulhas current.

Beal studies currents like the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic and the Agulhas in the Indian Ocean off the coast of South Africa, the latter holding a special place in her heart in part because it produces some of the fiercest waters in the world. These expeditions are not for the weak-willed and, historically, have included mostly men.

But over the years, more and more women oceanographers are setting out to sea. Beal and her team helped put together a short film, Women in Oceanography, to celebrate the unprecedented number of women who joined an expedition to study the Agulhas in 2013.

In studying heterogeneous parts of the ocean, Beal is working to help answer when, where, and how the energy absorbed by the ocean will be put back into the atmosphere and how this would affect the climate in those regions.

Understanding heterogeneity and diversity is important not just for oceans and climate change resilience, but for societal resilience as well.

Ashad-Bishop, a Ph.D. candidate in biological and biomedical sciences at UM’s Miller School of Medicine, and Losin, director of the Social and Cultural Neuroscience Lab and assistant professor of psychology at the College of Arts and Sciences, both study how disparities and social demographics relate to health.

When Ashad-Bishop, who is African-American, was looking to specialize her research during her graduate program, she learned that young women and African-American women are disproportionately affected by breast cancer.

“Even though white women are more likely to develop breast cancer, black women are more likely to die from it. Obviously, that hit home,” said Ashad-Bishop. “That disparity, and trying to figure out a way to help with the problem, interested me.”

In her cancer research, which is overseen by her mentor, Karoline Briegel, associate professor and researcher at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, Ashad-Bishop works to try to “flip a switch so that mice can express a protein that can be treated and ultimately cured—turning the breast cancer from a more aggressive type to a less aggressive and more treatable type,” she said. “The idea of making a problem into something more solvable and treatable is very attractive and what really excites me about my work.”

Though she “belongs to a double minority, and a rarity, in most of the rooms that she frequents,” Ashad-Bishop said she’s never felt isolated and has had strong female mentors and role models, including her mother and graduate advisor.

Elizabeth Losin in Lab

In her lab, Elizabeth Losin, left, poses as a patient receiving pain induction from graduate student Steven Anderson.

Similar to disparities in breast cancer, Losin said, there are disparities in the pain experience. For example, she said, women tend to report more pain than men, and members of certain minority groups tend to report more pain than members of the majority. Losin works to understand the psychological and brain processes that are underlining our everyday social and cultural interactions, which are affected by experiences throughout our lifetimes.

Under the broad umbrella of cultural neuroscience, Losin is currently trying to determine “how social and cultural factors adjust the volume on people’s pain experiences,” she said, “because part of what we think is contributing to those disparities are social and cultural processes that range from experiences people have had throughout their lives, like discrimination, to experiences that they’re having acutely in the doctor’s office.”

As a neuroscientist, Losin uses various tools, ranging from asking a person about their pain experience and physiological tests, to simulating a doctor’s visit and using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to “really peak under the hood and look at what the brain and body can tell us about differences in pain experiences.”

Studying disparities is certainly important for understanding struggles that women in science still grapple with.

“We don’t see many women leaders or women scientists and so we assume that women are not very good at that,” said Beal. “But learning where some prejudices come from, that it’s cultural and not personal, that is a very powerful thing.”

The more these disparities are acknowledged, the women said, the more we’re empowered to overturn them.

“I haven’t seen many people that look like me in my field, but there’s beauty in the struggle,” said Ashad-Bishop. “Seeing women command the room, or people of color command the room, has felt really good. It makes me feel like I can get there.”

Having female role models is also very important.

“My graduate school mentor had a daughter and I was able to see how she navigated that and I found that really inspirational,” said Losin. “The issue of having kids is there. In academia, it’s hard to make that work. The system is really not designed for there to be a good time to have kids and not have it derail your career.”

Beal said it’s important to come together, to be strong and compassionate about the obstacles that all women face.

“Learning to have each other’s back as women,” said Beal.

After all, it’s what Wonder Woman would do.

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Science as Diplomacy


The Rosenstiel School’s final lecture of the 2017 Sea Secrets series focused on using science diplomacy to bring marine science together in the U.S. and Cuba and was held at the new Frost Science Museum.

By Jessica M. Castillo
UM News

The final Sea Secrets lecture of the 2017 series was held in the cutting-edge planetarium of the recently open Frost Science Museum.

The final Sea Secrets lecture of the 2017 series was held in the cutting-edge planetarium of the recently open Frost Science Museum.

MIAMI (May 19, 2017)—At a time when science seems under attack and truth is contested, researchers in Miami are using the discipline to bridge the 90-mile and decades-long gap with scientists in Cuba.

The recent re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. is opening new avenues for scientific investigation and environmental conservation.

“It’s funny—usually the environment is the last thing we agree on but in this case, it’s what brought the two countries together,” said Fernando Bretos, curator of ecology and director of MUVE (Museum Volunteers for the Environment) at the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science and the first speaker of the final Sea Secrets lecture for 2017.

The lecture, titled “Coral Reefs and Science Diplomacy: Bridging the Gap with Cuba,” was held Thursday in the planetarium of the state-of-the-art museum in downtown Miami and was the first scientific talk hosted at the museum.

“We are eager to work together on what we anticipate will be a long collaboration between the university and the museum,” said Rosenstiel School Dean Roni Avissar, who opened the lecture, presented by the Rosenstiel School and the Ocean Research and Education Foundation.

Bretos highlighted the Trinational Initiative for Marine Science and Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico and Western Caribbean, started in 2007, as a meeting platform for Cuban and U.S. scientists, and expanded to include Mexican scientists, he said, to help to buffer any tension between the U.S. and Cuba and allowed the work to flow much more smoothly.

Bretos, who has a personal connection to Cuba—his parents came to the United States under Operation Peter Pan—has been collaborating with Cuban marine scientists for 18 years. His research focuses mainly on sea turtles in Guanahacabibes National Park and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, located on the western tip of the island.

The park, and other coastal areas of the island, have some of the most pristine waters and wild marine ecosystems.

“Cuba is somewhat of a mecca for turtles,” said Bretos, an alumnus of the Rosenstiel School. “It has a huge amount of beach, feeding habitat and large expanses of sea grass.”

There are progressive coastal development and preservation policies in place in Cuba, said Bretos, and coastal areas are managed pretty well, but it’s an issue of scale, which may become problematic with increasing tourism to the island.

Increasing tourism to Cuba, and global anthropogenic changes to the environment are harmful to coral reef ecosystems as well as sea turtles and other marine mammals.

“Coral reefs are dying around the world in great numbers, for many reasons, but perhaps the most important reason is climate change and warming sea surface temperatures,” started Andrew Baker, an associate professor of marine biology and ecology at the Rosenstiel School and the second lecturer.

He started off with the bad news, he said, to provide some background on the good news—using molecular genomics and collaboration with Cuban scientists to help save the world’s reefs—and to communicate why Cuba’s coral reefs are so interesting and how they can play a role in replenishing dying or dead corals.

The warming sea surface temperatures stress corals, causing the critical partnership of algal symbionts—zooxanthellae, which live on the corals and give them their beautiful colors—to break down in a process called coral bleaching. During coral bleaching, the corals expel these algae, lose their coloration and turn white, and often die.

Corals can recover from bleaching, explained Baker, but if they don’t, they die.

“As a coral biologist and conservation scientist, the goal is, if we can’t prevent corals from bleaching, we can at least give them routes to recover so that they don’t go down this one-way path and point of no return,” said Baker, head of Rosenstiel’s Coral Reef Futures Lab.

One solution Baker is working on to help save the world’s coral reef ecosystems? A method that uses the same science behind popular DNA genome sequencing services like 23andme and Ancestry.com.

“Using these molecular genomic methods, we can assess the connectivity of corals around all these different regions (in the Caribbean), in an attempt to try and figure out how these coral reefs are connected to one another,” he said.

Analyzing satellite imagery, Cuba is very interesting from an environmental conservation perspective, explained Baker. Heat maps of water around the region show that there are very distinct thermal temperatures throughout the area.

“There are areas in Cuba that are both exceptionally cool and exceptionally warm; the difference is about 2 degrees Celsius, or about 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit,” said Baker. “That’s the global temperature increase we’re expecting to see within the next century. Essentially, corals in one area could outlast by a century the corals in another area.”

Corals along the southern coast of Cuba are particularly heat-tolerant. Baker and his fellow researchers are using heat maps to help them consider moving the more heat-tolerant corals to new places, as a way of helping restore reefs in one area, in the hope that corals will be more heat-tolerant overall and better able to replenish and recolonize reefs.

Baker pointed out that coral bleaching is going to become more frequent and more severe in the coming years. The amount of coral that we’re losing means that we may lose coral reefs as we know them, he said, as these systems that generate lots of biodiversity.

“Biological diversity is the stuff of life that ultimately provides robustness to ecosystems,” said Baker. “Biologists will tell you this all the time, that diversity provides resilience.”

Baker’s research focuses on interventions that try to increase biological diversity in populations.

“There’s a very good argument to be made about the assisted immigration of Cuban corals to the U.S. to boost diversity and ultimately resilience,” said Baker. “And there’s some parallels here in human life as well.”

He recognized that some of his talk focused on the bad news of how climate change is affecting our coral reefs, including how the reefs are the first ecosystem that we’re likely to lose as a result of global warming. But we can’t lose hope, he added.

“We have to balance the cost of doing nothing with the fear of doing something,” said Baker. “Science has an important role to play in determining what that something should be.”

The annual Sea Secrets Lecture Series will begin again in January 2018.

 

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Study Offers New Information on Crash of Malaysia Airliner

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Study Offers New Information on Crash of Malaysia Airliner


Researchers use data from ocean drifters to aid analysis

FltMH370StudyMIAMI—A group of oceanographers offers a new analysis of the potential crash site of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 in the southern Indian Ocean. The researchers, who included scientists from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, used data from buoys that monitor ocean conditions.

In their analysis, team members considered the trajectories of drifting buoys, called drifters, from NOAA’s Global Drifter Database and of an ocean numerical model. The researchers included only data from drifters that were unanchored, or undrogued, to better simulate the buoyancy conditions of airplane debris. The team then produced a simulation model of drifter motion using known oceanographic conditions near the potential crash site.

The analysis showed that it would take six months to one year for the drifters to reach western Australia and one-and-a half to two years to reach eastern Africa. Interestingly, two drifters traveled from the search region to the area of Reunion Island during the period between the crash of flight MH370 and when the missing airplane’s flaperon was found.

These results are consistent with the time and location of the aircraft debris that was found off Reunion Island, almost 17 months after the plane disappeared, and with the recently confirmed finding in Mozambique almost two years later.

The trajectories of the undrogued drifters and synthetic drifters revealed several areas of high probability in the southern Indian Ocean where debris from the missing flight could have passed, including vast areas of the south Indian Ocean, some of them in the relative neighborhood of the search area.

This study “highlights the importance of sustained observations to monitor ocean conditions that may serve a suite of applications and studies,” the authors said.

The methods developed by the researchers for the study could also help scientists track oil spills and other types of marine debris and pollutants in the ocean.

The study, titled “Analysis of flight MH370 potential debris trajectories using ocean observations and numerical model results,” was recently published online in the Journal of Operational Oceanography. The coauthors include: M. Josefina Olascoaga from the Rosenstiel School; Joaquin A. Trinanes and Gustavo J. Goni from NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory in Miami; Nikolai A. Maximenko and Jan Hafner from the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology; and David A. Griffin from CSIRO in Australia.

 

 

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Against the Tide: A Fish Adapts Quickly to Lethal Levels of Pollution


What’s their secret and can humans learn from them?

The Atlantic killifish’s natural habitats include pristine salt-marsh estuaries and polluted salt marshes high in PCB, PAH, or metals.

The Atlantic killifish’s natural habitats include pristine salt-marsh estuaries and those high in PCB, PAH, or metals.

MIAMI, Fla. (December 12, 2016)—Evolution is working hard to rescue some urban fish from a lethal, human-altered environment, according to a new study researchers from the University of California, Davis and the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science published December 9 in the journal Science.

While environmental change is outpacing the rate of evolution for many other species, Atlantic killifish living in four polluted East Coast estuaries turn out to be remarkably resilient. These fish have adapted to levels of highly toxic industrial pollutants that would normally kill them.

The killifish is up to 8,000 times more resistant to this level of pollution than other fish, the study found. While the fish is not commercially valuable, it is an important food for other species and an environmental indicator.

What makes Atlantic killifish so special is their extremely high levels of genetic variation, higher than any other vertebrate—humans included—measured so far. The more genetic diversity, the faster evolution can act. That’s one reason insects and weeds can quickly adapt and evolve to resist pesticides, and why pathogens can evolve quickly to resist drugs created to destroy them. Not all species are so lucky, however.

The whole genome sequencing of the Atlantic killifish revealed innovative insights into how animals quickly evolve and may adapt to climate change because of its biology and ecology. Two co-authors from the Rosenstiel School, Douglas Crawford and Marjorie Oleksiak, initiated genomic research in the Atlantic killifish by isolating more than 69,000 genes sequences and discovered large genetic variation. “Killifish have large populations that make natural selection more effective and live in a diversity of environments which enhances the genetic diversity,” Crawford said. “This genetic diversity is the basis for evolutionary adaptation that was revealed by taking the ambitious goal to sequencing the whole genome of 394 individuals.”

“Some people will see this as a positive and think, ‘Hey, species can evolve in response to what we’re doing to the environment!’” said lead author Andrew Whitehead, associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Environmental Toxicology and lead author of the study. “Unfortunately, most species we care about preserving probably can’t adapt to these rapid changes because they don’t have the high levels of genetic variation that allow them to evolve quickly.”

The scientists sequenced complete genomes of nearly 400 Atlantic killifish from polluted and non-polluted sites at New Bedford Harbor in Massachusetts; Newark Bay, New Jersey; Connecticut’s Bridgeport area; and Virginia’s Elizabeth River. The sites have been polluted since the 1950s and 1960s by a complex mixture of industrial pollutants including dioxin, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and other chemicals.

The team’s genetic analysis suggests that the Atlantic killifish’s genetic diversity make them unusually well positioned to adapt to survive in radically altered habitats. At the genetic level, the tolerant populations evolved in highly similar ways. This suggests that these fish already carried the genetic variation that allowed them to adapt before the sites were polluted, and that there may be only a few evolutionary solutions to pollution.

The study lays the groundwork for future research that could explore which genes confer tolerance of specific chemicals. Such work could help better explain how genetic differences among humans and other species may contribute to differences in sensitivity to environmental chemicals.

“If we know the kinds of genes that can confer sensitivity in another vertebrate animal like us, perhaps we can understand how different humans, with their own mutations in these important genes, might react to these chemicals,” Whitehead said.

“This study shows that different populations of Atlantic killifish exposed to toxic pollution evolve tolerance to that pollution through changes in one molecular pathway,” said George Gilchrist, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the study along with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. “This pathway may play a similar role in many animals exposed to pollutants, with slightly different adaptations in response to different toxins.”

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Study Models Tsunami Risk for Florida and Cuba

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Study Models Tsunami Risk for Florida and Cuba


Research suggests that large submarine landslides off Great Bahama Bank in the past were large enough to generate tsunamis

Special to UM News

tsunami2

This graphic shows the morphology of the modeled submarine landslide (top) and the margin collapse (bottom) imaged by multibeam bathymetry data. The water displaced by the landslide causes the tsunami waves that impact Florida and Cuba.

MIAMI (December 13, 2016)—While the Caribbean is not thought to be at risk for tsunamis, a new study by researchers at the  Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science indicates that large submarine landslides on the slopes of the Great Bahama Bank have generated tsunamis in the past and potentially could again in the future.

“Our study calls attention to the possibility that submarine landslides can trigger tsunami waves,” said Rosenstiel School Ph.D. student Jara Schnyder, the lead author of the study. “The short distance from the slope failures to the coastlines of Florida and Cuba makes potential tsunamis low-probability but high-impact events that could be dangerous.”

The team identified margin collapses and submarine landslides along the slopes of the western Great Bahama Bank—the largest of the carbonate platforms that make up the Bahamas archipelago—using multibeam bathymetry and seismic reflection data. These landslides are several kilometers long and their landslide mass can slide up to 20 kilometers (12 miles) into the basin.

An incipient failure scar of nearly 100 kilometers (70 miles) in length was identified as a potential future landslide, which could be triggered by one of the earthquakes that occasionally occur off the coast of Cuba.

Using the mathematical models commonly used to evaluate tsunami potential in the U.S., the researchers then simulated the tsunami waves for multiple scenarios of submarine landslides originating off the Great Bahama Bank. They found that submarine landslides and margin collapses in the region could generate dangerous ocean currents and possibly hazardous tsunami waves several meters high along the east coast of Florida and northern Cuba.

“Residents in these areas should be aware that tsunamis do not necessarily have to be created by large earthquakes, but can also be generated by submarine landslides that can be triggered by smaller earthquakes,” said UM Rosenstiel School Professor of Marine Geosciences Gregor Eberli, senior author of the study and director of the Comparative Sedimentology Laboratory (CSL).

The study, titled “Tsunamis caused by submarine slope failures along western Great Bahama Bank,” was published in the November 4 issue of the journal Scientific Reports. In addition to Schnyder and Eberli, the co-authors of the paper are James T. Kirby, Fengyan Shi, and Babak Tehranirad of the University of Delaware, Thierry Mulder and Emmanuelle Ducassou of the Université de Bordeaux in France, and Dierk Hebbeln and Paul Wintersteller of the University of Bremen in Germany.

Funding was provided by the industrial associates of the CSL-Center for Carbonate Research at the University of Miami.

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