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For students who are considering a career in scientific research or who are interested in doing work to help food, farms, forests, or the environment, a new internship program co-sponsored by Southern and the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station could be an ideal way to become immersed in field- or laboratory-based research projects and engage in hands-on learning.

The Summer Undergraduate Fellows in Plant Health and Protection program offers 10 undergraduate research internships during summer 2017. During the internships, which will be funded by the USDA, students will participate in research projects focused on plant health and protection, including: plant pathology, analytic chemistry, entomology, microbiology, molecular biology, plant physiology, and forest health.  Weekly enrichment activities will include field trips to learn about research careers in the public and private sector, and workshops to develop scientific leadership and communication skills.

i-MvGxgZC-X3Interns will be provided with free housing, a meal plan, and a stipend. The nine-week program beginning on June 5 will culminate with student presentations at Plant Science Day held on August 2 at the CT Agricultural Experimental Station’s outdoor research facility, “Lockwood Farm”. Students interested in conducting scientific research in areas related to agriculture and crop health are encouraged to apply.

The program is open to undergraduate students from any college or university who: are U.S. citizens or permanent residents; are at least 18 years of age; will have completed two to four semesters toward a biology, chemistry, or related science major by June 2017; are in good academic standing; and can commit to live at SCSU and to work full-time from June 5-August 4, 2017 (not including July 4). Underclassmen and novice researchers (students with no prior paid research experience) are strongly encouraged to apply, as are first-generation and minority college students. The deadline for applications is March 10, 2017.

For more details or to apply, visit www.planthealthfellows.com.

Scott Graves, drone

In April 2010, Scott Graves was watching news coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. A geologist and oceanographer who spent his early career making maps from aerial views of the landscape, Graves began wondering: How would scientists document the spread of the spill along the coastline and into surrounding marshes?

Curious, he started poking around the internet. The federal government had basically shut down flights over the area, but Graves learned a small group of researchers was getting aerial shots by dangling cameras from kites and balloons.

Thinking it would be great to bring the technique to Southern, Graves, associate professor in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marines Sciences, decided to learn what he could and worked with his department to acquire a balloon and a kite.

“I just started ‘MacGyvering’ camera systems together,” he recalls, referencing the 1980s TV character known for cobbling together everyday items to get out of tough situations. Then, a few years later, drones became widely available, and Graves thought: “That’s it.”

Today, Graves is a pioneer in the growing movement to use drones for environmental research and conservation — and he’s passionate about sharing that technology with Southern students. Over the last year, he has donated about $10,000 worth of drones, mapping software and other related equipment to forward the effort at Southern.

He has also gifted about $70,000 to establish the Osprey Endowed Scholarship for Environmental and Marine Studies, named for the coastal bird that flies at the same altitude as his drones. The scholarship is earmarked for undergraduate and graduate students who are conducting research with a faculty mentor through the Werth Center for Coastal and Marine Studies or the Center for Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Education, both research centers at Southern. Although it’s not required, the first two recipients have included drone technology as a focal point of their projects.

Peter Broadbridge, who is pursuing a master’s degree in science education at Southern, notes that receiving the scholarship in 2015 changed his perspective on life — and possibly his career path. Broadbridge, who studied the health of marshes along West Haven’s Cove River, worked with Graves to parlay the scholarship into a NASA-funded grant to continue his drone-assisted research. This year’s winner, Christine Woehrle, is using drones to study the health of local vineyards.

Graves’ commitment to students and the environment also is forwarded through his leadership-level involvement with GLOBE — The Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment Program — which is sponsored by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), with support from other government agencies. An international science and education program, GLOBE connects students, teachers, scientists and citizens from around the world, inviting them to conduct hands-on science related to their local environment and put it in a global perspective. GLOBE’s 21st annual meeting and student research experience is being held at Southern from July 30 to Aug. 4.

In Graves’ opinion, drones hold enormous potential as a less expensive, more effective way for environmental scientists to collect data from aerial perspectives. “This is an incredibly powerful tool for getting information on landscapes that might otherwise be inaccessible,” says Graves. “In the past, if you wanted to have aerial photography, you either had to hire a helicopter or an airplane — either of which needed to fly very high. But now, for a couple thousand dollars, you can get a drone that carries a 4K camera, learn how to fly it yourself, and get very low-altitude imagery.”

Graves’ obsession with learning about his surroundings dates back to childhood. Growing up in Malibu, Calif., he spent hours with friends exploring the creek near his family’s home.

“I’d get home from school and my mom would say, ‘See you at sundown,’” he recalls.

During his senior year in high school, he took an earth science class and decided he wanted to become a geologist. After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of California-Santa Cruz, he took a job with the U.S. Geological Survey, where he was charged with producing a map of coastal erosion in the Arctic.

In 1986, Graves’ quest to earn a doctorate in oceanography led him to the University of Rhode Island. But funding for research was sparse, and Graves ultimately graduated with a master’s degree when his major professor retired abruptly before he could finish the program.

“I was devastated because I’d spent five years in a Ph.D. program and passed all the preliminaries and qualifications,” Graves says. “Here’s your dream. You’re pursing it and the door slams right in your face. So what do you do? You have to change directions.”

He took a break from academia to work as a snowboard instructor before landing a job with a nonprofit organization, where he co-designed an environmental education curriculum for middle schoolers. While presenting at a conference at the University of Idaho, he was recruited into a doctoral program, and earned his doctorate in science education in 1999.

It was there that he got his big break — authoring a successful $7.5 million federal grant to train teachers from New Jersey to Oregon in how to use GIS (geographic information system) technology to document 200 years of change along the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail — a career highlight that would consume his time for the next five years.

In 2005, wanting to move to an urban area near the coast, he came to Southern and never looked back. “I fell in love with the programs and the people in this department,” he says.

While he has made smaller donations to his various alma maters, he reserves the bulk of his philanthropy for Southern. Graves also was among a group of benefactors — that included the Werth Family Foundation and others — who recently bought the Southwest Ledge Lighthouse in New Haven for student research.

Reflecting on the ups and downs of his own career, Graves says his philanthropy is a “pay it forward scenario,” noting he’s “had some breaks along the way.”

“I know what it’s like to have your dreams shut down — and I know what it’s like to suddenly see a new horizon and go for it,” he says.

iGem 2016, Boston

A team of Southern science students recently earned a bronze medal at a prestigious international synthetic biology competition for its work to find a faster method to detect tuberculosis.

The nine students – hailing from a variety of disciplines within the sciences – participated in late October at the International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition in Boston. The event included nearly 300 teams of students – mostly undergraduates, but some graduate and high school students. It marked the first time Southern competed in the program, and SCSU was among only three teams from Connecticut to do so this year. Both Yale University and the University of Connecticut also earned bronze medals.

“This was a terrific opportunity for our students to showcase their talents and abilities, and the team is extremely proud to have earned a bronze medal,” said Nicholas Edgington, team advisor and SCSU associate professor of biology.

The teams competed against one another in various categories, as well as sought to attain a medal (gold, silver or bronze) in their own right by meeting a variety of criteria. Unlike the Olympics, every team can earn a medal. But not all do.

The team sought to develop a screening test for tuberculosis that is both accurate and speedy. The more accurate tests today require a wait that can take several weeks before learning the results.

“TB is one of the leading killers of human beings worldwide with a third of the world’s population infected by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis,” said Bryan Pasqualucci, student leader of the leader said. “Like so many diseases, early detection is important in treating TB. Unfortunately, some tests for TB require a wait of several weeks before learning the results, so we want to see if we can find a way to shorten the time needed for some of these tests.”

The SCSU team sought to use gases called Volatile Organic Compounds that a person infected with TB emits. One particular gas, 1-Methylnapthalene, has been shown to be a positive marker for TB.

While the project is incomplete, the information attained has been sent to the iGEM headquarters repository for future teams to advance. In addition, Thomas Hoang, a member of the team, has applied for an SCSU Undergraduate Research Grant to complete the project.

Most infected by the TB bacteria develop a latent state of the disease for many years, if not forever. But even those individuals face a 10-percent lifetime risk of developing an active form of the disease.

In addition to Pasqualucci and Hoang, members of the team are: Karalyn Farr, Patrick Flynn, Rye Howard-Stone, Christopher Wojtas, Hafssa Chbihi, Julio Badillo and Zachary Matto.

Male college students tended to predict higher scores on their impending chemistry tests than their female classmates, even though their actual performance on those tests was nearly identical, according to a study co-authored by a faculty member at Southern.

The results of the research by Jeffrey Webb, assistant professor of chemistry at SCSU, and Andrew Karatjas, associate science professor at Johnson and Wales University, were published in in a recent article in the Journal of College Science Teaching. Karatjas is a former faculty member at SCSU.

“This difference in perception could play a role in the gender gap that we see in the higher levels of the sciences,” Webb said. “There is parity in ability, but their perceptions were significantly different.”

Among students who tallied scores of higher than 90 percent, as well as those with scores of less than 50 percent, gender played little or no role in perception. “A” students tended to underestimate how they would fare with little difference based on gender. Similarly, male and female students who failed with scores of less than 50 percent overestimated their eventual score by about the same margin.

But among the mid-level students – those scoring between 50 and 90 — a statistically significant difference was found. A perception gender gap of 2.3 percent existed among “B” students, a 3.6-percent gap existed among “C” students and a 4.2-percent gap existed among “D” students. Those who scored between 50 and 59 percent had a 4.1-percent gap.

In general, “A” students underestimated their abilities; “B” students slightly underestimated their skills; while “C” “D” and “F” students overestimated their abilities, but males overestimated at a more pronounced level.

A total of 2,547 surveys were collected in the 100-level courses at SCSU during a 16-month period that included the spring 2013, summer 2013, fall 2013 and spring 2014 semesters. The surveys asked students what grade they believed they would get on that particular test, and the process was repeated before each test.

Webb, a resident of Branford, said that far fewer women than men nationally are enrolled in doctoral science programs.

“There is a slight difference at the master’s degree level, but a major difference at the Ph.D. level,” he said. “Based on this study, that gender gap might be associated with how women tend to perceive their science ability. If you don’t think you are good at something, you are less likely to pursue it at the higher level. That might well be what is happening.”

Few would like to return to the days of the Cold War — an era during the 1950s and 60s when the United States and the Soviet Union competed for military supremacy in a nuclear chess match. But the sense of urgency generated by the geopolitical struggle was the impetus — certainly one of the driving forces — behind America’s push to become the first nation to successfully land a man on the moon.

To accomplish that goal, the United States needed to ensure that its science and technology education was second to none. The Soviet launching of Sputnik in 1957 — the first manmade satellite to orbit the Earth — jolted the United States into action. Science education became a priority in this nation. And dividends were paid with a successful manned space flight in 1969 — nearly a decade after President John F. Kennedy outlined that goal. It left little doubt about the technological superiority of the United States.

blogphotoscienceliteracyBut nearly four and a half decades later, the state of science education in the United States has become much more ambiguous. For example, tests measuring scientific aptitude and knowledge show that American children are not at the top of the list. Not even in the top 5. And many educators have decried a lack of interest in science at the middle and high school levels.

So, what has gone wrong? Like most such complex questions, the answer does not lie in a single cause. But a de-emphasis on science education — and especially science literacy — has played a role in that decline, according to Susan Cusato, chairwoman of the Science Education and Environmental Studies Department at Southern. During the last few decades, education has placed more emphasis on literacy and mathematics — reading, writing and ‘rithmetic – but Cusato contends that it has come at the expense of science education.

“It is generally not until middle school that actual science teachers begin teaching science,” Cusato says. “What happens is that there is a continual catch-up process in the classroom.”

Cusato also feels that science education has done a disservice in focusing too heavily on training scientists, rather than promoting scientific literacy. She says students should have achieved basic literacy skills in all the major disciplines before college, including science.

“No matter what career path or profession our students choose, knowledge and wonder of science is critical,” she says. “By avoiding science you miss out on experiencing incredible things on a different level that can bring you great joy and insight.” She points to driving a car, riding a plane, or going to a concert, as examples of everyday tasks people often take for granted without understanding how science makes those things happen.

She says that scientific literacy is needed, not merely to fulfill an academic requirement, but to gain a better appreciation and understanding for what is happening around us. This would include climate change, pandemics and the search for sustainable energy sources.

So, what can we do to improve our scientific literacy? Cusato recommends several steps we can take that are relatively simple and don’t require a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics.

  • Visit museums, parks and nature centers. Pick out some activities you enjoy, or would like to try, such as maple syrup weekends, bird watching, fishing or nature walks. Science is part of all of them.
  • When reading the paper or listening to the news, try to pay attention to science stories. They may be more interesting than you think initially.
  • Read science magazines and other publications. They don’t have to be dissertations on string theory or Einstein’s theory of relativity. But many science-based magazines are available at local bookstores, and are written for the general public with photos and diagrams that help illustrate the subject matter.
  • Mention a timely scientific topic at a family gathering or when you are with friends. It may actually inspire others to learn more about a subject.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask science-related questions of your teacher, doctor, or anyone involved in the sciences. Many people enjoy talking about their chosen fields of expertise with others.

Speaking of science education, Southern will hold a groundbreaking ceremony Friday on a new academic and science laboratory building. To read more, check out: http://www.southernct.edu/about/construction/new-science-building.html