Category: Earth

Spotlight on Geography

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The department of geography at UGA is a leading center of scholarship--both in the classroom and in the field--about earth’s landscapes and human relationships to the environment.  Each semester, the department creates a newsletter compiling the latest research, awards, alumni news and profiles of students and faculty.  

Of note in this edition is an article about Jerry Shannon and his research on food deserts, a term used for geographical areas where health food is inaccessible or prohibitively expensive. Shannon, a temporary assistant professor in the department of geography, authored the article, "What does SNAP benefit usage tell us about food access in low-income neighborhoods?" published in the April print edition of the journal Social Science and Medicine.  This edition of the newsletter also features an article about Sarah Mizra, a 2014 Harry S. Truman Scholarship recipient majoring in geography and Spanish.  The award recognizes students with exceptional leadership potential with a commitment to a career in government or public service.  Also, be sure to read through the great list of departmental news, including many awards, fellowships and grants given to students and faculty in the department.

New research tracks Amazon River microbial activity, effects on global carbon budget

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New research from the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences  departments of microbiology and marine sciences could have a major impact on the study of microbial activity in the Amazon River, as well as the effects on the global carbon budget.. The Amazon River, the largest in the world in terms of discharge water, transfers a plume of nutrients and organisms into the ocean that creates a hotspot of microbial activity.  This affects many global processes, including the storage of atmospheric carbon.

The new study further reveals detail about the microbial activity of the Amazon River Plume as part of a broad project to understand the global carbon budget and its possible impacts on a changing ocean. The study, "Microspatial gene expression patterns in the Amazon River Plume," was published July 14 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"By collecting data from genes and gene transcripts in the water samples, taking billions of sequences of DNA and RNA from organisms at various places in the plume, we were able to construct the most detailed look that's ever been put together of the microbial processes in a drop of seawater," said Mary Ann Moran, Distinguished Research Professor of Marine Sciences at UGA.

UGA researchers from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences departments of marine sciences and microbiology took samples from the plume 300 miles offshore from the Amazon River mouth, then isolated the genes of organisms using the nutrients, nitrogen, phosphorus and carbon being carried into the ocean by the river plume.

Discharge from the plume, more than 200,000 cubic meters of fresh water per second, delivers nitrogen and phosphorus to microscopic phytoplankton that live in the upper sunlit layers of the ocean. Via photosynthesis, phytoplankton capture carbon dioxide that dissolves into the ocean from the atmosphere, a mechanism that captures a larger proportion of CO2 than is consumed by the world's rainforests.

Until now, quantitative data about the microbial activity underlying this mechanism has been elusive.

Data in the paper will used be as part of a larger model of the Amazon and will be available to researchers around the world.

"The scientific community as a whole can draw new conclusions or study different aspects from the data sets," said Brandon Satinsky, a doctoral student in microbiology at UGA and lead author on the study. "It's such a large amount of water and material, and the location of the plume moves over the course of the year, from the Caribbean virtually over to Africa."

"It's first time we've had this kind of data, at this level of detail, and so now we can share with teams of modelers to help them make better predictions about the future of the system," Moran said.

The project is part of two major UGA research initiatives: ROCA, the River Continuum of the Amazon; and ANACONDAS, Amazon iNfluence on the Atlantic: CarbOn export from Nitrogen fixation by DiAtom Symbioses, both of which are led by associate professor of marine sciences Patricia Yager. The initiatives are supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through grant GBMF2293 and the National Science Foundation.

For more on UGA research in the Amazon, see http://amazoncontinuum.org/.

Shepherd to host Weather Geeks

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shepherd-marshallReflecting the need to understand the complexity of weather and climate issues today The Weather Channel is launching a new talk show, "Weather Geeks," featuring our own Marshall Shepherd as host:

“One of the greatest aspects of my involvement with AMS and our community as a whole is the opportunity to hear the best minds in our field discuss the most pressing issues in weather,” said Shepherd. “Our vision is for Weather Geeks to be a weekly forum for those types of discussions, and I am looking forward to inviting scientists from across the weather community to be a part of the show.”

Guests on Weather Geeks will come from all areas of meteorology -- from NOAA and NWS officials to academics and members of the media or private sector. The first episode of Weather Geeks will focus on the merits of storm chasing and ask the tough questions - is it worth it? what is the value? are chasers putting themselves and others at risk? The episode will feature expert host Dr. Marshall Shepherd and his guest, world-renowned storm chaser Dr. Charles Doswell.

“The opportunity to have Dr. Shepherd as a regular contributor and host made this an ideal opportunity to create a national platform for a discussion of weather issues,” said David Clark, president of The Weather Channel TV network. “We recognize that we play a role in a much larger community and we felt an obligation to set aside air time for that community to come together and share ideas and expertise.” 

This a fantastic idea by the TWC as well as a terrific honor and opportunity for Shepherd, not to mention a brilliant use of his expertise. Both as an expert on atmospheric sciences and as an interlocutor on weather-related issues, Shepherd has proven to be an adept, cleared-eyed observer. This is a smart expansion of that promising role and one sorely needed in our national dialogue.

New chemistry study challenges fundamental mechanism

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As one of the fundamental disciplines that help us understand the physical world and how it works, organic chemistry plays an essential role in both our instruction and research missions. So it is significant that researchers continue to test and challenge this crucial area of study at its most basic levels:

A family of millions of known chemical compounds called "aromatics" or "arenes" and their products, including a great number of medicines, plastics and synthetic fibers, are characterized by their regular arrangement of ring atoms instead of alternating single and double bonds. A new study published by researchers in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of chemistry posits a different fundamental mechanism for the way these compounds react to replace atoms.

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Aromatics constitute a diverse and widely used chemical family. Employed to make derivatives, benzene consistently ranks among the top 20 chemicals produced annually.

The key chemical reaction giving these derivatives depends on the underlying ring structure. "Electrophilic aromatic substitution" describes the reaction whereby an atom of an aromatic is replaced by another of an "electron-seeking" reagent. This fundamental organic chemical reaction of aromatics is the focus of the paper.

"The electrophile is supposed to attach itself to the aromatic in a first stage to give an ‘intermediate,' from which another group, present at the same site, is then lost in a second stage," said Paul von Ragué Schleyer, Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry at UGA and one of the study's authors. "Although this putative intermediate has garnered much attention in the literature as a simplification, we find instead that it doesn't exist when the reaction conditions are modeled computationally."

Re-evaluting how this fundamentally discipline itself works only reinforces its reliability and rigor, as well as the theories and products that derive therein. Significantly, when reseachers of the caliber of Schaefer, Schleyer and their internaitonal colleagues publish the results of their investigations, the scientific community takes notice. This is a major contribution to the overall body of knowledge and we are proud of and humbled by their ongoing scholarship on both a fundamnental level and an over-arching plane.

For more on the UGA Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry, visit here.

 

REFOCUS program benefits students, scientists

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Projectfocuslogo2_000.jpgMore great news today for the future of STEM-related careers. Veteran scientists and engineers will share their love of science and math with the next generation through a program known as REFOCUS.  The program will train professionals to work with teachers in Clarke and six surrounding counties to provide regular science and math enrichment activities to students. 

The program is meant to help students in K-12 understand math and science concepts and expose them to new STEM career choices for the future. The program is based on a program that’s been in place at UGA for the past 12 years.  David Knauft, a professor of horticulture in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences, began a program called FOCUS in which UGA students studying STEM subjects were paired with elementary and middle school teachers in Clarke County.

REFOCUS will expand on the Project FOCUS framework, allowing science, technology, engineering and math mentors to be in even more Clarke County classrooms and in classrooms in surrounding counties.

"For quite some time, we have wanted to expand Project FOCUS to include graduate students, postdocs, faculty and retired scientists," said David Knauft, professor of horticulture in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and STEM education advocate. "Thanks to this AAAS funding, we will be able to do so.

"Also, because these individuals have more flexible schedules, we hope to bring REFOCUS to nearby counties, something we haven't been able to do with Project FOCUS."

Another great example of collaboration, between disciplines at UGA and between UGA and area school systems.  Knauft worked with the Clarke County School District; Julie Luft, the Athletic Association Professor of Mathematics and Science Education in the UGA College of Education; and Chuck Kutal, associate dean of the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, to secure a $14,800 grant from American Association for the Advancement of Science to help develop the REFOCUS program.  

The REFOCUS project will start recruiting its first class of STEM mentors this summer and debut the program in Clarke County classrooms this fall.

To get involved in Project REFOCUS, contact Knauft atdknauft@uga.edu.  For more information on Project FOCUS, see www.focus.uga.edu.

New grant promotes physics, engineering

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Great news from the Franklin College department of physics today.  A National Science Foundation grant will help promote and recruit students with an interest in either physics or engineering.  Through a program known as Developing Excellence in Engineering and Physics (DEEP), the grant will provide 20 scholarships to academically talented students with demonstrated financial need so they may pursue degrees in physics or a variety of engineering tracks.  This is exciting news for UGA.  Promoting these fields will help meet workforce needs in the future and this program aims to pave the way for other similar programs at other institutions. 

"We need more students and professionals in these fields both here in Georgia and throughout the country," said Steven Lewis, principal investigator for the grant and associate professor of physics in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences. "There are tremendous workforce needs, and we need to prepare our students to fill those positions."

A key goal of the DEEP Scholars program is to recruit and retain students from groups traditionally underrepresented in physics and engineering, including women, African-Americans, Hispanics and first-generation college students.

Each incoming student will be assigned a faculty mentor from either the department of physics and astronomy or the College of Engineering who will guide pupils through the program of study, help solve any problems they encounter along the way and facilitate meetings with professionals who currently work in academia or industry.

"We want our students to network and interact with working scientists and engineers as much as possible," Lewis said. "Simply talking with different working professionals will let students see the variety of career options they can pursue and what skills they need to be successful in those positions."

DEEP students will participate in and plan several seminars throughout the academic year and an annual symposium, giving them the opportunity to present real scientific research and engineering design to an audience of their peers and mentors.

This is great news for the future.  Congratulations to those who have worked together to make this grant possible--William Dennis, professor of physics; Timothy Foutz, professor of engineering; Charles Kutal, associate dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, director of the Office of STEM education and professor of chemistry; and Judy Milton, assistant dean in UGA's Graduate School. Kudos for receiving this important grant award.  Read more about the program here.

Welcoming a New Class: Orientation is Under Way

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It’s a beautiful summer morning here at the University of Georgia.  Some students are on their way to summer classes, but some of the newest class of Bulldawgs is on campus for orientation.  Sessions are held all summer long, and this Monday marks the second group of students welcomed onto campus in the UGA tradition. The orientation experience provides a foundational memory, as students plan for the future, make friends and take in the beauty of the UGA campus. 

A team of outstanding orientation leaders mentors these new students as they embark on their academic paths.  Franklin College is well represented in this leadership group, as you can see here, with orientation leaders pursuing degrees in communication studies, English, sociology and psychology.  They advise on campus traditions, choosing a major, and getting to know the town of Athens. We commend these student leaders for imparting their wisdom and inspiring the incoming class.  

Congratulations and welcome to the incoming class of UGA students! Have fun at orientation!

Research Magazine Highlights Franklin Contributions

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UGAresearchmag.jpgAs a research institution, the University of Georgia is host to a bevy of researchers from all areas of academics--the arts, humanities and sciences.  Franklin College, a collection of 30 departments and an additional 30 institutes and centers, is the proud home of many of those research projects.  Each semester, the University’s research achievements and narratives are told via the campus publication Research Magazine.  The Spring/Summer 2014 issue has just been released and it’s  full of research from departments in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

This issue serves to highlight just what a vast impact the arts and sciences has on the University at large.  Research on dementia and the origin of the thymus gland, books on Chilean politics and modern architecture and so much more are highlighted in the most recently released edition.  Don’t miss the feature on a unique project combining the art of dance, physics and animation or the opinion piece from UGA history professor James Cobb. There’s even an interview with Franklin College Associate Dean Noel Fallows on the sport of jousting.  

Each issue serves to highlight the importance of academic research on campus, but without the contributions of Franklin College researchers, the pool of research would be much smaller. Kudos to all who contribute to the large pool of research, but especially to the Franklin College researchers highlighted in this issue.  Congratulations are also in order to the magazine’s editorial team.  Campus research writers, graphic designers and host of others contribute to this magazine to make it happen each semester and the results are always worthwhile.  Take a look at the issue here.

Photo: The most recent cover of Research Magazine.  Courtesy of UGA Research Magazine.

UGA geneticist honored by journal Cell

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Schmitz_portrait.jpgA UGA geneticist received quite the honor this week. The journal Cell named Robert Schmitz, as researcher in the Franklin College’s department of genetics, as one of the most accomplished young scientists under the age of 40. 

Those honored were selected for their contributions to shaping current and future trends in biology from a pool of international nominees to commemorate Cell’s 40th anniversary.

Schmitz’s research focuses on plant epigenetics, specifically the phenomenon known as DNA methylation and how this process affects the expression of plants used in both agriculture and basic research.  DNA methylation signals cells to turn specific genes off.  For example, a plant may inherit genes from its parents that make it more drought-tolerant, but because segments of DNA have undergone methylation, the potentially advantageous genes are switched off. 

Research on the topic could play a big role in the future of agriculture.  UGA, he says, is a plant epigenetics researcher’s dream playground.

"In any given plant, reversing methylation randomly throughout the genome may have a positive or negative effect, or it may have no observable effect at all," Schmitz said. "But we know that some of the diversity in plants that we see in nature is controlled by DNA methylation, and we want to figure out how we can alter the methylation status of these genes to develop agriculturally beneficial traits."

Many different plant genomes have recently been fully sequenced, allowing researchers to see every single segment of a plant's genetic code. Schmitz and his colleagues can leverage these new genetic roadmaps to speed their own research into DNA methylation.

"I was really excited to come here because of the major plant genomes that come out of UGA," he said. "I can't think of any school that has assembled and published more plant genomes, and these will be extremely helpful in my own research."

Schmitz is already working closely with fellow UGA researchers on 35 plant species, including peanuts, soybeans and corn.

"It's like a playground for us," he said. "We know what we're good at and we know what other researchers at this campus are good at, so we combine those strengths to create stronger, more         innovative research."

Congratulations on being recognized by an esteemed journal in the field. Kudos to Schmitz and UGA’s plant epigenetics researchers for their hard work and collaboration in an important field of study.  Keep up the great work.  

New genetics research: direct conversion of biomass

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Transporting_Miscanthus_BalesMore potentially transformative new research from the department of genetics, this time in the realm of transportation fuels. For sometime now, biofuels have held great promise - and have been the focus of great controversy. But the economics of the conversion process of grasses to fuels may have finally seen its last barrier fall:

Pre-treatment of the biomass feedstock—non-food crops such as switchgrass and miscanthus—is the step of breaking down plant cell walls before fermentation into ethanol. This pre-treatment step has long been the economic bottleneck hindering fuel production from lignocellulosic biomass feedstocks.

Janet Westpheling, a professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of genetics, and her team of researchers—all members of U.S. Department of Energy-funded BioEnergy Science Center in which UGA is a key partner—succeeded in genetically engineering the organism C. bescii to deconstruct un-pretreated plant biomass.

"Given a choice between teaching an organism how to deconstruct biomass or teaching it how to make ethanol, the more difficult part is deconstructing biomass," said Westpheling, who spent two and a half years developing genetic methods for manipulating the C. bescii bacterium to make the current work possible.

The UGA research group engineered a synthetic pathway into the organism, introducing genes from other anaerobic bacterium that produce ethanol, and constructed a pathway in the organism to produce ethanol directly.

"Now, without any pretreatment, we can simply take switchgrass, grind it up, add a low-cost, minimal salts medium and get ethanol out the other end," Westpheling said. "This is the first step toward an industrial process that is economically feasible."

Emphasis mine. With no pre-treatment and the ability of microbe to transform the feedstock into ethanol (and other, higher-energy-yield fuels), this process is ready for industrial scale up. Westpheling explained how biofuels are already the standard in Brazil. Is the U.S. on the verge of a transformative fuel moment?

Image: Bales of miscanthus being transported in the U.K., courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Miscanthus and switchgrass are the best biofuel feedstock because of the high tons-per-acre yield.