February 22, 2012

AAAS Notebook: Faculty views range across natural world, human health, more

News and Information

Last weeks American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Vancouver, BC, included 11 speakers from the University of Washington on topics including marine protected areas, the myth of black progress, womens reproductive health and how undergraduates learn best.

The meeting Feb. 16-20 featured thousands of other top scientists, engineers, educators and policymakers from 50 nations, according to AAAS. Hundreds of science journalists attended. Family Science Days offered hands-on activities and the chance to meet scientists, including a UW group from the Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis and the Materials and Devices for Information Technology Research centers. Elephant toothpaste, anyone?

Below are briefs on various UW talks.

Fishermen must feel that some benefits accrue to them when marine reserves are created.

Fishermen must feel that some benefits accrue to them when marine reserves are created.

Creating inclusive and successful marine protected area networks
Patrick Christie, marine and environmental affairs

Marine protected areas are among the most frequently used tools in marine conservation, according to Patrick Christie, UW associate professor of marine and environmental affairs and co-organizer of the session “The costs of conservation: Impacts on coastal livelihoods, health and equity.”

It turns out that marine protected areas can benefit and cost communities in unexpected ways. For example, although protected areas are promoted as ways to increase the number of fish both in and outside a reserve, the evidence for this is limited and individuals who feel they are being unfairly affected will resist. The resulting poaching runs up enforcement costs and affects biodiversity.

“Fishermen arent necessarily opposed to setting up reserves, but they must feel that some benefits accrue to them,” Christie said, using examples from the U.S. and Philippines. “They want to participate in the design and implementation. Then its fishermen who watch other fishermen and say, ‘Hey, we agreed not to fish here anymore.”

Incorporating broader sociological perspectives into marine conservation efforts is especially important in the context of coral reef ecosystems, which sustain the livelihoods of millions of people in developing countries.

Invisible men: Mass incarceration and the myth of black progress
Becky Pettit, sociology

Young black men without a high school diploma are more likely to be in prison or jail than to have a job, and nearly 70 percent of young black men will be imprisoned at some point in their lives.

But national surveys and the social facts they produce are based on information that excludes inmates and former inmates. A UW sociologist argues that this selective sampling gives the impression that racial inequalities have improved since the Civil Rights era and masks enduring African American disadvantage in America.

“Because these populations differ in systematic ways from those living in households, data gathered through household-based surveys offer a biased glimpse into the American experience and obscure accounts of racial inequality,” said Becky Pettit, a UW professor of sociology.  Her book on this topic is due out in June.

Unemployment and high school drop-out rates, for example, would likely be higher if prison populations were included in surveys. Educational attainment and income are other social markers that falsely show a narrowing black-white gap. Voter turnout, too, is affected.

Climate variations and ecosystem regime shifts in the North Pacific
Nate Mantua, aquatic and fishery sciences

“It may surprise people to hear that the North Pacific has as many salmon in it now as at any time in at least the past century. Part of this increase in salmon is due to improved management practices and increases in hatchery production, but another big part of the increase in salmon is likely the 1977 shift in North Pacific climate,” said Nate Mantua, associate professor of aquatic and fishery sciences.

Nate Mantua at AAAS.

Nate Mantua at AAAS.

That shift, related to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, caused different parts of the North Pacific to warm or cool just a degree or two. The seemingly small difference in temperature is related to dramatic changes in such things as where salmon flourish: Mantua and UWs Steven Hare found that Alaska salmon populations boomed after 1977 while the then-plentiful salmon runs returning to U.S. west coast rivers dwindled.

The fishing industry and managers need to remember that there is likely to be a climate shift back to pre-1977 conditions at some point, when both the amount of fish and the composition of the catch are likely to change. For example, todays permitting causes fishermen to specialize – “Here, youre permitted to be a salmon fisherman, and here youre permitted to fish halibut” is how Mantua described it. How well will that system work if the abundance of salmon and halibut dwindles in response to climate changes that can last decades?

“One of the big mysteries surrounding climate impacts on marine ecosystems revolves around the ways that a noisy climate can trigger abrupt and persistent changes,” Mantua said.

What cognitive research tells us about engaging todays undergraduate students
Mary Pat Wenderoth, biology

When faculty take the same hypothesis-experimentation framework used in labs and in the field and apply it to teaching, traditional lecturing is a loser.

Mary Pat Wenderoth, UW principal lecturer in biology, presented the latest research on how undergraduates learn during a session where the audience didnt just sit but, instead, had to gather around tables, talk among themselves, vote on answers when Wenderoth posed questions – all tenants of active learning.

“We want students to be active, mentally,” Wenderoth has said. “We want them to be using the information and applying it all the time. They also need to be social, exchanging ideas, helping each other. Being passive and isolated is a recipe for trouble.”

Research and testing shows the average retention rate following lecturing is 5 percent. So in a 10-week quarter of 30 hours of classes, students retain 5 percent, or 1.5 hours of whats presented. Using a discussion approach raises retention to 50 percent, or 15 hours out of a 30-hour course. Classes that involve practice and students teaching each other produce even better rates, up to 65 percent retention.

“Its all about ‘ask, dont tell” she said.

Kuril Islands are just northeast of Japan.

The Little Ice Age and the Kuril ainu: A study in complex human ecodynamics
Ben Fitzhugh, anthropology

An archaeological study of how early inhabitants of an archipelago in the northern Pacific managed to eke out a living could reveal how modern day humans might adapt to extreme environments, such as those brought on by climate change.

About 4,000 years ago maritime hunter-gatherers took up residence on the isolated and treacherous Kuril Islands, just northeast of Japan. Few permanently live on the islands now.

Ben Fitzhugh, a UW associate professor of anthropology, has found that social networks with neighboring islanders and trade connections likely helped those living on the Kuril Islands survive an otherwise bleak environment with limited food sources and regular storms, volcanic eruptions and tsunamis.

But between 1200 and 1400 AD, human settlements on the islands mysteriously declined. Fitzhugh said that this population drop was probably because of trade pressures from Japan and an increase in environmental hazards brought on by the “Little Ice Age.”

He compared the conditions with what todays vulnerable communities might face with climate change. “What worries me is how decisions by powerful states in response to the perceived implications of climate change and similar crises could easily and unknowingly reap havoc on peripheral communities around the world,” Fitzhugh said.

Mentoring, mathematica, and moths: Undergraduates in research in biomechanics
Thomas Daniel, biology

Increasingly, the study of biology deals with tools that develop huge amounts of data, as well as very complex systems, and the costs of storing, analyzing and dispensing data have declined sharply, said Thomas Daniel, a UW professor of biology.

Those developments, Daniel said, have allowed biologists to examine problems they would not even have considered just a decade ago.

He spoke at a session that discussed how new collaborations among students and researchers at all career stages from laboratories around the world are needed to achieve the research results that will be needed in the future. He emphasized the potential of including undergraduates in all research laboratories, which would help students build a lifelong passion for biology.

Models for such biological research use innovation, mentoring and communication tools to understand how the scientific process works. Daniel spoke of mentoring environments within labs such as his own and the use of team research projects as part of core undergraduate classes. He focused on special challenges students face in interdisciplinary research, and how pairing students from different disciplines in research projects in biology classes and laboratories improves student skills.

Using school climate data to understand engineering retention and promote change
Elizabeth Litzler, workforce development

The Project to Assess Climate in Engineering  – or PACE – seeks to identify what affects persistence rates among engineering undergraduates, and to help participating schools improve the climate in their engineering colleges. PACE collects data at 22 U.S. engineering undergraduate programs, including more than 10,500 responses to student questionnaires.

Elizabeth Litzler, research director at the UWs Center for Workforce Development, described PACE and shared new findings from the study. During the project, each participating school got a summary of its students responses to the survey, with recommendations to improve its students experiences. More than half have since implemented at least three of the suggested interventions.

The team followed up with the schools to study whether the recommended interventions had any effect. Results showed student experiences and perceptions to be more powerful predictors for continuing in a program than individual characteristics, such as gender or GPA.

“This new analysis confirms that interventions which target student experiences and perceptions can help override the risk of attrition, especially for students in their first year,” Litzler said.

Litzler and UW faculty member Suzanne Brainard also organized the overarching symposium, “Connecting Education and Research on Retention in Engineering.”

Impact of results on gynecological practice and women’s choices
Susan Reed, obstetrics  and gynecology

Watch UW Today in coming days for an article on Susan Reeds presentation about how evidence from the Womens Health Initiative hormone therapy trials and related studies have changed health care for older women.

Researchers are looking for ways to carry large, biological molecules into cells.

Researchers are looking for ways to carry large, biological molecules into cells.

siRNA delivery through advances in polymer carriers and notechnology
Patrick Stayton, bioengineering

The 11 years since the completion of the human genome project have seen advances in science and medicine. Many direct applications of genetic sequencing to medicine, however, still face hurdles.

One such area is gene therapy using small interfering RNAs (siRNAs) and microRNAs. These bits of genetic material direct how DNA is expressed and show promise as therapies for cancers, inflammatory diseases and other conditions. While RNA strands are easily synthesized in the lab, the challenge lies in delivering these large molecules to cells.

Patrick Stayton, a UW professor of bioengineering and director of the UWs Center for Intracellular Delivery of Biologics, described different approaches for delivering siRNAs. Staytons research explores the use of “smart” polymers, made from new, bio-hybrid materials, to solve such complex drug delivery problems.

“Recent advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology have created a timely opportunity to develop truly transformative bioengineered delivery systems,” Stayton said. “This convergence will open up the intracellular disease target space to biologic therapeutics.”

Challenges in assessing impacts of extreme temperatures under global warming
David Battisti, atmospheric sciences

Climate warming caused by greenhouse gases is very likely to increase summer temperature variability around the world by the end of this century, new UW research shows. The findings have major implications for food production. See news release, “Models underestimate future temperature variability; food security at risk.”