Dr. Perline Shows Students the Light at NSM Lecture

On September 19, Dr. Ron Perline, a professor of calculus and differential geometry at Drexel University, presented his topic, “Non-Euclidean Flashlights: A Tale of Two Blackboards”, for the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium.

Dr. Perline, who was the PH.D advisor of St. Mary’s professor of mathematics, Emek Köse, formatted his lecture to appeal to non-mathematics majors as well as aspiring mathematicians. Department Chair & Associate Professor of Mathematics, Dr. Susan Goldstine said that since “Dr. Perline gives excellent talks for a general audience…we agreed that he was a great candidate for the NS&M Colloquium series.” Dr. Perline insisted that one of the goals of his lecture was “to give a math speech that had no equations.” By the end of the lecture, Perline was glad to have met this goal.  “This was the first time he gave a substantive mathematics talk with absolutely no equations in it, and he was quite pleased that he pulled it off.” added Dr. Goldstine.

Dr. Perline began his speech by explaining how he became interested in researching the parabola reflections of flashlights. He stated that his students had confronted him with a problem which made him ponder using calculus and geometry for the focus of parabola reflection. Dr. Perline carefully described how the path of light is reflected at “different speeds and distances” and how “you can predict the paths.” He further explained how his research correlated with building a flashlight. Using images of geometric shapes and graphs of light paths, Perline said “this is what you would do if you lived in a strange world and wanted to build a flashlight.”

Dr. Perline defined each mathematical term he used in order for the audience to follow him.  The definitions were helpful in analyzing not only how light works in flashlights but also how cameras and mirrors can be attached to robots and used in reflecting light. In detailing such an advanced process and applying his mathematics to other fields, Dr. Perline still managed to avoid using technical terms and equations. “What’s important is the geometry that we had to guide us.” said Perline.

Students in attendance were enthusiastic about the lecture and what Perline had taught them. First Year student Alyson Thompson said “it was really cool. It was interesting to me because I want to be a math major.” Others expressed similar sentiments with two rounds of applause for the speaker. Dr. Perline was equally interested in the SMC community. “He specifically  mentioned how impressed he was with St. Mary’s College of Maryland and all of the people he met here, students and faculty alike.” Said Dr. Goldstine.

Perline was pleased to find how eager students were to apply his lecture to other areas. “This shows that there’s so much to be invented.” declared Thompson. Goldstine stated, “Our goal with the NS&M Colloquia in math is always to have students see interesting math that they wouldn’t see in their classes…he also showed the audience ways in which he and his colleagues use math to build things in the real world.”

Dr. Petersson Discusses Protein Folding at NS&M

Dr. E. James Petersson, an organic and biological chemist from the University of Pennsylvania has been doing research on protein folding to discover how it moves and what shapes it takes in relation to diseases like Parkinson’s. As he explained at the first Natural Science and Math Colloquium of the semester, which took place on Wednesday, Sep. 12 at 4:40 pm in Schaefer Hall 106, “the shape of the proteins governs function” and when proteins misfold you get negative results.

Through PowerPoint slides, Dr. Petersson explained why the shape and motion of proteins is important, about getting structural information when probes attach to proteins, and that he uses fluorescence techniques in his research.

In CGI movies, motion probes are used to capture the precise movements of the actors. Dr. Petersson is using this exact technique but with extremely small probes that will track what shapes the protein folds into and the distance between proteins. Fluorescence was used to help determine the distance between proteins in the folding process. In order to continue experimenting, Dr. Petersson wanted to apply his research to larger proteins, so his lab began to create their own amino acids to make larger proteins; otherwise, they would have to buy them. By applying his research to diseases like Prion disease (mad cow) and Parkinson’s, perhaps people can understand how proteins misfold and what causes it.

Most of the students who attended the lecture were likely chemistry or biology students, but Dr. Petersson spoke candidly so those who hadn’t taken biology or chemistry classes could understand the general idea. His lecture was received in a respectful manner and given undivided attention.

Zombie Apocalypse According to a Chemist, Psychologist, Science Major

Hollywood has tried to make our worst nightmares imaginable for years, but on Wednesday, Jan. 25, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Leah Eller, Assistant Professor of Psychology Scott Mirabile, and senior Chemistry and Biology double major Steven Rees all joined forces to tell the scenarios of a real life zombie apocalypse.

In the first Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium (NS&M) of the semester, in which not an open seat was to be found, the three departments combined to discuss three main components of a zombie apocalypse and what it would mean for humans: biological plausibility, the chemistry of basic survival needs, and the psychological aspects of survival.

Rees opened the lecture discussing what exactly a zombie virus might biologically look like. Though Rees claimed that we actually have no idea what a zombie virus would look like, through looking back in history, scientists have come closer to finding possibilities.

Italian physician Girolamo Fracastaro first recorded a condition with zombie-like symptoms in 1594, which was rabies. Rees explained the two different types of the rabies virus: furious and paralytic. Furious rabies symptoms include fever, irritability, violence, and salivation while paralytic rabies symptoms include depression, confusion, hallucinations, and disorientation.

But though such symptoms like biting others people and foaming at the mouth, which all lead mostly to death, were recorded, the disease usually is only recorded in Africa, Asia, and South America. Also, human-to-human transmission is highly unlikely.

However, other viruses known to humans, like Ebola viruses could have an epidemic ability to significantly affect the human population. The Ebola virus can cause viral hemorrhagic fever and other serious symptoms. But Rees concluded the virus is not easily transmissible among humans and is mostly in low sanitation areas.

“But what if we were to combine the Ebola virus and furious rabies?” asked Rees. Taking the zombie-like symptoms of furious rabies and the often-fatal Ebola virus, the world could see a rapid third-world spread. However, Rees concluded that even this deadly combination might not exactly be a plausible model for a zombie endemic.

So is there any virus out there that we have to be worried about? The answer to that question, Rees explained, is scarier than one would think. Simple proteins in the brain, with which we are all born, could be the cause. Now these natural proteins aren’t themselves the problem. Prions, or misfolded proteins, can infect our healthy proteins and lead to a serious brain disease called encephalopathy, which has never been survived by a human. The deadly phenomenon can be transmitted sporadically or through inheritance or acquisition. Fortunately, there is no history of an epidemic outbreak and it can take up to six to 18 months to kill its host.

So now that a zombie virus, or something close to it, is biologically possible, what would it take for humans to survive? Eller took the stage next to describe the chemistry of survival.

She started off with the basics: food, shelter, water, and sex. But Eller explained that the main concerns would be food and water once you’ve found shelter either fenced in in a rural setting or high above ground in an urban setting. Our main sources of drinkable water would be from an above ground water source, wells, buckets, rain barrels, and fog collectors. To survive, we would only need about two to four liters of water per day.

But once we have the water, Eller explained, we have to worry about its cleanliness. Fecal matter, inorganic and organic chemicals, and biological agents that can cause disease are all possibilities, and duplicating today’s modern filtration system under such conditions may not be possible. Eller suggests camping strategies like boiling the water and iodine, as well as sand and gravel filtration and carbon filters, though even those strategies aren’t 100 percent effective.

“So now we’re not thirsty anymore, but we’re still hungry,” Eller said. In such strict living conditions, whether it is a rooftop or a fenced in rural setting, Eller explained the basic foods that can be grown and eaten to ensure survival: peanuts, soybeans, and potatoes, all of which have the necessary amino acids needed by our bodies.

So after we find shelter, food, and water, we may consider ourselves lucky to have survived. However, Mirabile has little faith in human survival even after these basic needs have been met.

“I don’t have much hope for you all to make it,” he openly said. After research was done on the extreme conditions humans would face, and looking at anecdotal evidence, Mirabile explained the main consequences of being trapped in a relatively small space with little food and water, and the same people: depression, hostility, insomnia, fatigue, and anxiety.

Also, personality traits make a difference in psychological survival. Mirabile noted the three main categories of personalities that would gauge the chances of survival. The first, “the right stuff” is the category most ideal for survival, when a person is warm, sensitive, work-oriented, and independent. The second and third categories, “the wrong stuff” and “no stuff” both categorize people with low chances of survival. Traits include competitiveness, arrogance, hostility, and verbal aggressiveness. However, none of these traits will necessarily translate over into isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) conditions. Also, based on research, even if one is able to psychologically survive with “the right stuff,” those would only last for about a 90-day time frame.

So what’s the best possible survival scenario? Mirabile says a survivalist, who is prepared and has a predetermined group to live with, is the most prone to survival.

The jam-packed colloquium, with 152 students in attendance, was well received by the audience. First-years Hannah Hafey and Jessica Farrell both enjoyed Rees’s portion of the presentation most. “Steve’s was most interesting because it’s crazy to think that they could come up with a disease that could cause a zombie apocalypse,” said Hafey. “ It’s actually very frightening!”

Transparent Zebrafish Used as Digestion Models

Steve Farber, faculty member at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia and the creator of BioEYES, came to St. Mary’s on Nov. 2 as part of the Natural Science and Mathematics (NS&M) Colloquium Series.

One of Farber’s focuses was his outreach program BioEYES, which brings zebrafish into elementary school classrooms for children to experiment with. The weeklong program helps students learn about science but also encourages learning about sex, gender stereotypes, and race through interactions with the mating fish. BioEYES grew out of an activity during a university Bring Your Child to Work Day and has become an international program that has reached 50,000 students.

In the program, the students are able to mate two zebrafish and watch the resulting eggs grow and develop. Thirty hours after the eggs are laid by the female, the students are able to see the hearts of the developing fish beating. Full development happens in two-and-a-half days. The way that the zebrafish develops allows the observer to see right through the fish at each stage of development.

The research Farber does in his lab uses zebrafish because of their rapid development, the fact that they are so hardy, and the fact that they can produce 1,000 offspring weekly. Several years ago, when Farber was applying for grants involving animal research, the main question he wanted to answer was how his research was relevant to humans. Today, however, this question has all but disappeared with the understanding that a large percentage of the DNA in animals is the same as in humans. In zebrafish, 93 percent of the mitochondrial DNA is the same as in humans.

Before scientists sequenced entire genomes, it was generally believed that the smarter, more complex organisms would have more genes. While zebrafish do have three times less DNA than humans do, they have 25 chromosomes as compared to our 23. These differences show the progress of evolution both species have undergone in the 350 million years since a common ancestor. Farber likened genes to the periodic table. The difference between a frog, a duck, and a human is not what they are made out of but how they are built. One can switch out genes between them and they still might function. This is considered unethical to do with humans, but can be done with other animals.

But why study the digestion, specifically fat metabolism? According to Farber, the average American is 23 pounds overweight. “We as a society are really getting sick, and I keep waiting to see how sick we need to get before we change the game.” This creates an enormous economic burden on the society, an effect that isn’t reflected in the prices of the foods we put into our bodies.

“The poor health in our country is directly related to the nutritionally poor food we eat. Given this sad fact, it is imperative to firmly understand the physiological mechanism of lipid catabolism, absorption, and transportation within the human body,” says senior Luke Trout.

Farber takes advantage of the fact that the zebrafish are mostly transparent to look at their intestines. He puts the fish in a mixture of water and egg yolk, and then places the tank on a rocker so that the fish are forced to gulp the fatty water. Fluorescent markers added to the egg yokes begin to glow once broken down into fatty acids. The fact that Farber can watch this process of absorption happening is a big advantage over other methods of observation which can take days, by which point the cells being observed are no longer as viable. “What really impressed me about this particular research project is that it combined a lot of different disciplines, using fluorescently tagged fatty acids to track the [fish] metabolism in real time invivo,” said senior Kathy Michels.

What has been observed is that fatty acids go into lipid droplets, and cholesterol into endosomes. Farber says that this is interesting, but what is more exciting is the observation that if cholesterol is only in water, it is not absorbed by the intestines. But, if it is combined with the egg, it is. Farber hypothesized that this is because when the fats are broken down into fatty acids that the cells attempt to absorb, the cells also take in the cholesterol.

Debate on Climate Change, Environmental Effects

As part of the Natural Science and Mathematics (NS&M) Colloquium series this semester, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Professor at Penn State University in the Department of Meteorology and Geoscience, Michael E. Mann came to St. Mary’s to discuss the reality and politics of climate change in Schaefer Hall on Oct. 26.

Mann began his talk by reviewing the evidence there is for the fact that humans have had and will have a significant affect on the earth’s climate. The earth warmed one degree Celsius over past century, and both sea levels and temperatures have risen while snow coverage around the world has lessened. According to Mann, the earth warms and cools naturally, however, based on solely natural models the earth should have cooled slightly in the last 100 years instead of warmed.

Critics might argue that all of these results are based on models and that it is impossible to accurately model something as complex as climate. Mann countered this argument by pointing to models such as Hansen’s Three Predicted Global Warming Scenarios, which have predicted very accurately the amount of global warming we have experienced in the last 50 years.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of thousands of scientists working under the United Nations, has concluded that global climate change is “very likely” due to greenhouse gases. Mann pointed out that, “scientists don’t use the term ‘very likely’ lightly” and what it means is that they are about 90 percent sure of their results. Almost identical conclusions have come out of the scientific academies in almost all of the industrialized nations in the world.

At this point in time, it is possible to see the effects of climate change on the weather. On any given day in the United States there are record high temperatures and record low temperatures; a few decades ago the ratio of record hot to record cold days was one to one. Today it is two to one, in favor of the hot days. Any particular hot day is not evidence of climate change but the trend is significant. Rainfall also can demonstrate this trend: warmer sea temperatures lead to evaporation and more rainfall. “I liked the stats that he used to prove it was actually happening,” said senior Colleen Brummitt.

Since it is possible to already see such profound effects, it is reasonable to ask why no action has been taken. This is because the subject is highly politically charged. The first example Mann used to show this political masking was a memo written in 2002 by Frank Luntz, owner of the political consulting firm Luntz Global, which coached politicians in how to argue against climate change. Mann’s next example was of an event called “Climategate,” when private emails of scientists researching climate change were stolen and released to the public. Oddly enough, the following political attention was not focused on the theft but on the supposed fraud that the scientists discussed in the emails. Sarah Palin, former Governor of Alaska, wrote an opinion article in The Washington Post declaring that the scientists were deliberately hiding a decline in global temperature. This was not true, according to Mann. What the scientists had been discussing was how to shift people’s attention away from tree ring data that was wrong after 1960 so that it did not confuse people.

Mann found himself in the center of the climate change debate because of his work on the “hockey stick graph,” which has become an icon for climate change. Because of this work he was targeted by political opponents of climate change such as Texas Representative Joe Barton (R), who subpoenaed all of his research and data.

Barton’s subpoena was attacked by almost every news source in the United States and nearly every scientific journal. Mann stressed at this point that there were politicians on both sides of the aisle that have defended climate change and scientists. Mann praised former New York Representative Sherwood Boehlert (R) specifically as a national hero for calling out his fellow republicans for driving the Republican Party towards becoming a party of anti-science.

Barton was not the last to subpoena Mann. When Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli subpoenaed him, The Washington Post published no less than five editorials and two cartoons bashing Cuccinelli for the dangerous precedent he was setting under which any scientist could be stopped from doing their work if the Attorney General did not like their subject or findings.

The political debate and battle for acceptance of the reality of climate change is ongoing. This is a shame, according to Mann, because the scientific community accepted the reality of climate change two decades ago. The debate now should be how to fix the problem. If we stay on this track, says Mann, “[the] coral reefs will be gone within 40 to 50 years” and crops in the tropics will suffer significantly. If we want to avoid this, we have to bring our CO2 emissions to a peak within the next decade and below the levels of those in the 1990s by the mid-2000s. This cannot be accomplished by individuals reducing their carbon footprint; we need to put a cost on emissions.

“I don’t want a world where my daughter can only show her children polar bears in zoos and that is what we are heading towards,” Mann says. So, there is still hope; we can still do it, but it has to happen soon.

Huber Shares Research on Song Evolution in Darwin's Finches

As part of the Natural Science and Mathematics (NS&M) Colloquium series this semester, Sarah Huber, Biology Professor from Randolph-Macon College, came to visit St. Mary’s to discuss her research on song evolution in her lecture “Song Evolution in Darwin’s Finches” in Schaefer Hall on Oct. 5.

Huber opened the lecture by discussing Charles Darwin’s original research on the finches living on the Galapagos Islands. Initially, Darwin failed to realize that all the birds he was observing belonged to the same species because they had such different outside appearances. They all ate different foods, ranging from having a diet of seeds, to insects or fruit. Over time, a finch’s diet evolutionarily influences the development of its beak size and shape. For example, a finch that is forced by its environment to have a diet of mostly insects will be likely to have a fine and pointy bill.

Previous research shows that the environment in general has a role on the evolution of finches. “We know less about the roll of song [in evolution],” said Huber. “We know that songs differ greatly between birds but it’s unclear what’s driving that difference.”

Most of Huber’s research on the evolution of song in finches is done on the population level, as opposed to doing a comparative analysis. When doing research at the population level, a single species is studied in only one discrete location.

While measuring beak morphology (size and shape of beaks), Huber and her colleagues began to realize that there was a bimodal distribution among the finches. This means that there were finches with large beaks and finches with small beaks, without many existing in the intermediate area between the two extremes.

This got the researchers very excited. They began to wonder, “If you have two different beak sizes, is it possible that selection on beak sizes could potentially be driving song?” said Huber. The songs of the two birds were so distinct that they could be distinguished easily. Huber said, “As we were walking around we could tell the difference between a large beak bird and a small beak bird just by listening.”

Huber explained that finches with a larger beak (a large morphology), would sing songs with a lower pitch and slower notes, whereas a bird with small morphology would sing songs with faster notes and a higher pitch.

Huber also explained how beak size influences the range of movement that a bird has while singing. By closing the beak, the vocal tract is shortened and thus slightly lower notes can be produced. On the other hand, if a bird opens their beak, then they can produce higher frequencies of sound. A bird with a narrow frequency of notes (a small range) does not have to open or close their beak very much. A bird with a smaller beak has smaller muscles that can be moved more rapidly, allowing the bird to sing sweeping frequencies very easily when compared to a larger morphology bird.

Huber further mentioned ecological speciation: when a divergent trait leads to reproductive isolation. This means that if a single trait changes in a population of birds, birds with one form of the trait will only mate with birds of their same trait, and not those with the other trait (who will, in turn, only mate with birds of that trait).

A correlation was found between female beak size and male beak size in mates. Small morphology females were found to mate with only small morphology males. This also causes a lower survival rate of birds with an intermediate beak size, leading to the appearance of the bimodal distribution of beak sizes that Huber found in her research.

A study relevant to the evolution of song is phylogenetics, which shows the pattern of discrete changes in related species over evolutionary time. The closer phylogenetically related two birds are, the more similar their song will be. However, as phylogenetic distance increases, song dissimilarity also increases.

As a disclaimer, Huber also mentioned that stochasticity, random happenstance, could also play a role in the evolution of song. It is possible that specific features of song that change over time may have arbitrary causes.

In reaction to the lecture, sophomore Kevin Tennyson said, “Bird-song evolution is not a subject that I am familiar with, but I thought she presented it well and made me interested in finding out more about it.”

“I thought Sarah did a great job. Charles Darwin would be proud. Her research was really interesting, and she presented it in a way that everyone in the audience could understand, even if they weren’t a biology major,” said senior Julie Frank. Frank went on to say, “In molecular evolution we’ve read about many phylogenetic studies, but I had never seen studies of song evolution before. If we studied the evolution of awesome bird song researchers, Sarah Huber would be an autapomorphy because she is one of a kind.”

The next NS&M Colloquium of the semester will be given by Katherine Socha of Math for America, entitled “Maggie & Milly & Molly & May: Mathematical Stories inspired by the Beach and E.E.Cummings.” This lecture is scheduled to take place on Wednesday, Oct. 19 at 4:40 p.m. in Schaefer 106.

Explaining Quantum Physics to Your Dog (Or an English Major)

As part of the Natural Science and Mathematics (NS&M) Colloquium series this semester, Union College professor Chad Orzel discussed his new book How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and how to relate the basics of quantum mechanics to everyday examples in his presentation What Every Dog Should Know About Quantum Physics, given in Schaefer Hall last Wednesday.

Orzel was introduced by Assistant Professor of Physics Josh Grossman, who had gone to Williams College with Orzel. Orzel had also been a teaching assistant in one of Assistant Professor of Mathematics Alex Meadow’s classes at Williams.

Orzel began with an introduction of the history of quantum physics. Max Planck, known as the father of quantum physics, was the first to propose a theory of quantum mechanics with his own law, which precisely described the energy radiated by a black body (black object), per unit time, area, solid angle, and frequency. What is unique about the theory is that the graph generated by the law predicts answers with absolute precision, a property of many quantum physics models.

“Its results are tested to unbelievable precision,” said Orzel.

Also in the world of quantum physics was Niels Bohr’s model of the atom as a solar system-styled structure with a positive center of protons and neutrons with circulating orbits of negatively-charged electrons.  Einstein, with his work on quantum photoelectric effect theory, came up with one of the first theories of quantum mechanics.

At this point, Orzel explained the point of his most recent book.  In the book, Orzel’s dog Emmy asks questions (humorously imitated by Orzel for the audience) related to her own personal interests, such as chasing rabbits and getting treats, and tries to defend her reasoning with quantum physics. Orzel, through his correction of Emmy’s understanding of quantum physics, explains concepts that the readers can more easily follow, teaching them the basics of the expansive world of quantum theory.

One of the chapters, discussing Erwin Schrödinger’s thought experiment of quantum entanglement (more commonly known as Schrödinger’s Cat), Emmy tries to describe how one treat, behind Orzel’s back in one of his hands, really must exist in both hands, since the outside observer does not know for certain if the treat is one hand or another. Orzel corrected her by saying that this is more of a probability issue, since he knows which hand holds the treat and there is a 50 percent chance that it is in the left hand and 50 percent chance that it is in the right.

But, he then explains that in Schrödinger’s model, a thought experiment basically trying to determine if a cat is alive or dead if in a closed box, the observer has no ability to determine if the cat is alive without opening the box. The Copenhagen Interpretation holds that the cat is neither alive nor dead, but in some superpositional state (or quantum entanglement) of being alive and dead at the same time. Once an observer makes a measurement of the system (or opens the box), the superpositional state crashes down into one of two definite states (one with the cat being alive, and the other with the cat being dead).

In the end, Orzel has two treats, one in each hand, and gives them both to Emmy for being such a good dog.

Orzel used this presentation style to explain the behavior of particles as waves, with increasing mass having smaller wavelengths (so that while everything essentially behaves like a wave, a large mass like a dog or human has such a small wavelength that it is impossible to measure its wavelike properties). He also explained some popular quantum physics experiments, including the double slit experiment, and the electron experiment to explain wavelike patterns of light and electrons, and even atomic fusion in the Sun, where hydrogen atoms fuse into helium atoms.

However, the wide applicability of quantum theory has led to some corrupt uses in today’s world, as a means of making money or appearing to have magical abilities. Ideas of quantum healing and quantum attraction are what Emmy would call “evil squirrels,” ways to misinterpret quantum theories to manipulate the uninformed public.

“Some people are confused or manipulate [the theories],” said Orzel, “but they’re all wrong; in reality, it’s math, it’s systematic.”

Orzel concluded with a discussion of the Many Worlds approach, an alternative explanation of quantum entanglement, where multiple universes exist and are created to explain different definite states. For the Schrödinger model, the cat would be dead in one universe and alive in another, which allows all cases to exist in multiple universes at once.

“I thought it was riveting; it was dogtastic,” said sophomore Galen Hench, who attended the lecture. “Seriously though, I thought it was really interesting, and I learned a lot.”

“It was an interesting take on a complicated subject,” said junior Sam Berry. “It was broken down to simple ideas we can relate to, with a bit of humor tossed in.”

The final NS&M lecture, The Post-BP Spill Assessment by William and Mary College professor Robert Diaz, will be on April 20 in Schaefer 106, at 4:40 p.m.



As part of the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium, American University mathematics professor Dan Kalman, father of St. Mary’s graduate Chris Kalman ’05, presented Province of Polynomia – Uncommon Excursions for the Seasoned Visitor on Feb. 28.

On March 9, Susquehanna University professor and St. Mary’s graduate Jonathan Niles brought the audience back to the United States with a discussion of trout-stream ecology in his lecture Riparian Forest and Stream Interactions: The Importance of Terrestrial Invertebrates to Brook Trout in Appalachian Streams.

Introduced by mathematics professor Alex Meadows, Kalman began his presentation with a discussion of roots and polynomials, intended for a mixed audience of students, faculty, and community members with varied understandings of Kalman’s field.

Creating a mathematical world known as “Polynomia” as a means of organizing his lecture, Kalman explained how polynomials have roots, or powers of one that satisfy the polynomial if they replace the variable “x”, usually when the polynomial is set to equal zero.

He showed the audience how to use such knowledge by solving any polynomial p(x), where p(x) was a polynomial with any degree of non-negative integer coefficients, simply by knowing what the polynomial would equal if “x” was replaced by one and what it would be if that solution also replaced “x”.

For those not math-savvy in the audience, Kalman showed that if an equation p(x) was modified so that “x” was replaced by “1/x”, the numbers in front of those variables would all switch in sequence once the equation was set up as a fraction, with the denominator being the highest-powered “x” variable.

“It’s not as applicable as a talk about trout,” said Kalman, foreshadowing the following week’s lecture with Niles, but nonetheless seemed to be an effective application of the concept.

Continuing with a discussion of curly roots to solve cubic polynomials, Newtonian identities, synthetic division to divide equations, binary powering as a means of representing functions, and Lill’s Method as an older, graphical method of solving a polynomial’s roots, Kalman concluded with an important point for all math and non-math venturers of Polynomia.

“There are many more Polynomia destinations,” he said. “I hope you come again soon.”

The following week, Niles continued the series with his discussion of a very different area of research: how the plant and animal life on the banks of streams have a major influence on the ecology of aquatic organisms. Introduced by biology professor Bob Paul as a former student of Paul’s Limnology class, Niles began with a discussion of what is a riparian forest.

“Most people think that ‘riparian’ refers to the long stretch [of land] on the side of the stream … but this is not the case,” said Niles, “It does run parallel, but also is dependent on the land up the slopes.  It is bidirectional.”

After previous research showed that the energy in streams on the west coast of the United States was not sufficient to support the large fish population, and that riparian organisms landing in the stream for fish consumption were taking up the energy requirements, Niles tested this idea with brook trout populations in Appalachian streams.

He prepared eight streams, four with 50 percent of the canopy around the streams cut and four with 90 percent of the canopy cut, with a uncut regions to serve as a control, to observe the change in diets of the brook trout over an almost one-month period. He did so by observing internal stomach contents via gastric lavage (flooding of the body with water to induce regurgitation).

Niles determined there was a higher amount of terrestrial biomass in trout from the uncut regions compared to the 90 percent cut regions, indicating the importance of riparian life on trout diets.

“Niles showed an interesting relationship between terrestrial invertebrates and the ecosystem,” said biology and biochemistry major Luke Trout, junior, “but there seemed to be a lot of variables that would make me question the validity of the experiment.”

The next NS&M lecture will be on March 23 by SUNY-Potsdam mathematics professor Joel Foisy.


NIH Programs Officer Spreads Word about Influenza Vaccines

To conclude the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Colloquium (NS&M) series for the Fall 2010 semester, Frederick Cassels, ‘80, Programs Officer of the Respiratory Diseases Branch (RDB) of the National Institute of Health (NIH), presented on the development of vaccines for influenza virus and the 2009 outbreak in his presentation Influenza Vaccines and the 2009 H1N1 Experience on Wednesday.

Beginning the final lecture of the series in the Schaefer Hall lecture room at 4:30 p.m., Cassels began his presentation with a background of his time at St. Mary’s, including his transition from studying Maryland Blue Crabs to studying viruses and vaccines.

After graduating from the College in 1980, Cassels took on a biotechnology job for over two years before returning to academics, earning his Ph. D by studying Maryland Blue Crab biochemistry before re-entering the biotechnology field.

“I come back to the College every few years for alumni reunions,” said Cassels. “The last time I presented in front of a St. Mary’s professor, I was a senior, and [Professor of Biology] Bob Paul took us to upstate New York…and I presented there. Most professors would ask a softball question, to get your confidence up…not Bob Paul…and I’m grateful for it now, but not at the time.”

After earning his graduate degree, Cassels took a stronger interest in biochemistry and immunology, moving into molecular-focused virology labs at NIH before settling in his current position as Program Officer of RDB. RDB is a part of the Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, MD, and that division is, in turn, part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) of NIH.

After an introduction of his work at NIH and funding allocations of the NIAID, Cassels discussed the stages of vaccine testing and licensure, a process that can cost up to $100 million and take anywhere from 10 to 20 years to finalize.

He reviewed the four major stages: discovery, indicating the first lab tests and procedures done to indicate a potential vaccine; target ID validation, further identification and processing to determine possible application to animal models; preclinical development involving possibilities of long-term purification but focusing on further testing; and clinical development, during which human tests are performed to verify the vaccine’s effects on the body and, most notably, its triggered immune response.

Cassels next discussed the mass production of the yearly FluBlok® vaccine, produced by the Protein Sciences Corporation. Insect cells are grown in a 500-L bioreactor, and infected with the virus of interest.

Two to three days after infection, when the cells should be expressing the proteins encoded by the viral genome, the cells are purified to obtain ingredients for the vaccine. The process usually results in 90% of pure product, and two-story, 6,000-L bioreactors produce millions of vaccines in a small number of runs.

“Influenza is an upper, and sometimes lower, respiratory infection in humans,” said Cassels, beginning his discussion of the flu virus. “[It causes] quite a few deaths globally, almost 500,000 per year…with an ever-present threat of pandemic in the U.S.”

The virus itself, composed of eight genes, produces proteins related to its basic survival needs: entry into the cell by binding to cell surface receptors (essentially, how one needs a house key to enter a house), replication (copying itself), and viral assembly (building the protein case, or capsid, surrounding the eight viral genes), and cellular release.

The target of the vaccine is hemagglutinin (denoted HA), a type of surface protein on the virus that allows the viral particle to bind to receptors on the cell surface for entry. The vaccine induces the body’s immune response to produce antibodies, small protein units that bind to these receptors and prevent the virus from entering a cell.

While the concept seems simplistic, it is complicated by the mutation rate of the virus, which has led evolutionarily to fifteen forms of HA and mutations of each form from year-to-year, mutations that make previous antibodies (and, therefore, vaccines) ineffective against novel virus strains.

To make vaccine selection more difficult each year, combinations of viruses can also occur within hosts to create a completely new strain, a process called genetic shift. “If an animal is infected with two viruses, those genes can mix,” said Cassels. “And when they do, they can form new molecules.”

Cassels continued with a discussion of flu pandemics in the world’s history, including the Spanish Flu of 1918, the Asian Flu of 1957, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, and the 1977 Russian Flu.

To combat yearly infections of the influenza virus, two types of vaccines are currently on the market: the trivalent inactivated vaccine (TIV) and the live attenuated vaccine (LIAV).

TIV vaccination involves an intramuscular injection of heat-killed virus particles that induce an immune response in the host to help to fight later live strains.

LIAV vaccinations use a nasal spray to administer live, but weakened, forms of the flu virus that the immune system can, fight to gain a stronger resistance than is provided by TIV. However, this can be more dangerous.

Three viral strains are usually chosen for the vaccine each year: two influenza type A strains, and one influenza type B. Viruses are selected for the vaccine between January and May, are FDA tested and licensed in June and July, packaged in August, released in September, and offered to patients in October and November of the flu season.

The World Health Organization, Food and Drug Administration, Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and NIH, all playing a role in vaccine development each year, were forced to accelerate this process during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak in March.

Cassels concluded his talk with a discussion of the 2009 Influenza strain, its tests that led to the one-dose, 15-microgram vaccine, and the weakened seed strains of that year’s vaccine, which is what lead to the vaccine’s reduced prevention and associated outbreak.

While this talk marked the last of the NS&M Colloquium lectures this semester, the series will resume in Spring 2011.

“I felt that the presentation contained a lot of good information. It was simple to understand, and covered a wide range of information,” said Elliot Russell, a student who attended the lecture. “Some of the information in regards to the budget seemed slightly unneeded, but on the whole, I found the talk informative and am glad I attended it.”

MIT Researcher Explains Science Through Fashion

Dr. Rehmi Post’s presentation at the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium on Wednesday, titled Clothes that Generate Power: the Sp4rkl3 Shirt, focused on the creative uses of static electricity to generate power for simple, sewn circuitry, and its potentially shocking impact on the science-fashion industry.

Post, currently working in the media lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began following his interest in wearable technology in 1997, when he earned his Master’s Degree in Science for his work on the technology, called “e-broidery” at the time, at MIT.

What began as an investigation into washable electronics equipment quickly developed into the search for effective metallic textiles.

“I didn’t want to look like that much of a dork,” said Post, as he referred to a former colleague known for wearing sophisticated computer units involving backpacks and high-tech helmets.

After advancing the ideas of soldering simple circuits onto copper underwire and the metallic ribbons of the Indian sari, Post further explored the e-textiles field with the hopes of daring the impossible: removing the batteries.

With the need for better circuitry came the design of denim sewing, where a semiconducting fabric of 85% polyester and 15% steel fiber was strung into two-plied yarn for sewing onto the same material used to make jeans.

These fibers were run from the conductive steel wire to mini circuit boards that, in turn, were in contact with a midi synthesizer, allowing for sounds to be generated based on where pressure was applied to the circuit board.

After finishing a post-doctoral thesis on an inertial sensor at MIT, Post again returned to electronic textiles, bringing with him the idea of electrostatics as a means of powering simple circuits without an alternative power source.

“I had this crazy idea that you could get rid of static electricity,” said Post.

Post and his colleagues at MIT eventually released “Sp4rkl3,” a skirt whose fabric panels build enough charge to activate circlets of 32-bulb LED lights at the waist.

Its circuitry is based on the idea of “triboelectricity”, that two surfaces of opposite “charge” (tendency to build up positive or negative charge upon contact and separation) can act as a circuit-like capacitor to generate electrical power.

While static-based (creating only about 650 millijoules of power), it is enough to operate simple circuits, like small lights and capacitors.

On Sp4rkl3, Post said “we also want to start to see how we can manufacture this.” Unfortunately, this seems to be the difficult part of the industry.

The fabrics are designed with traditional methods, mostly sewing with sewing machines rather than through industrialized processes.

Also, given the electrical nature of the clothing, improper assembly could potentially shock the user, even if only with a small voltage.

Post concluded his presentation, given to the large audience of students, faculty, and community members in the Schaefer Lecture Hall, with a discussion of current projects, and his lab’s plans to optimize power and circuitry elements (including diode separations) to create more efficient electronic textiles.

“I thought the lecture was quite interesting,” said Elliot Russell, a senior who attended the lecture. “I thought the method through which Dr. Post was harvesting the static electric energy was very intriguing.”

“I think his work is pretty neat,” said Charles Adler, chair of the Physics Department and head of the NS&M colloquium Series. “It’s not just that he is looking into a really interesting idea, but that he is also trying to make solutions which work with off-the-shelf technology which everyone has access to.”

The next lecture of the NS&M Colloquium Series will be on Sept. 22, titled Mathematics Makes More Kidney Transplants Possible, and will be given by Sommer Gentry from the U.S. Naval Academy.