Tag Archive for Science

Students, Faculty, Community Observe Rare Complete Transit of Mercury

Visitors use telescopes outside observatory

Individuals gathered outside Van Vleck Observatory to view the transit of Mercury on Nov. 11.

For only the seventh time since Wesleyan’s founding, the planet Mercury passed directly in front of the sun, from the perspective of Earth—and Wesleyan served as a gathering place from which to learn about and observe the event. Faculty and students from Wesleyan’s astronomy department, as well as others from the University and the greater Middletown community, gathered outside the Van Vleck Observatory on Nov. 11 to witness the transit through three telescopes.

The mild weather and partly cloudy conditions—particularly at the beginning and end of the transit (which lasted from 7:35 a.m. to 1:04 p.m.)—made for good viewings through the University’s general-purpose 8-inch telescope, as well as its hydrogen alpha solar telescope, which allows users to observe solar prominences. A second solar telescope, owned by John Sillasen, MALS’07, a local amateur astronomer and member of the Astronomical Society of Greater Hartford, was also available to use as part of the event.

Gilberto Garcia ’20, an astronomy and physics major, was assisting with one of the solar telescopes. “Just seeing Mercury in general is a pretty rare occurrence, so I was pretty excited about it,” Garcia said. Viewed from a telescope, Mercury appeared as a small dot on the sun’s surface.

Wesleyan Faculty, Students Teach Local Girls about Science

astronomy graduate student Jessica Klusmeyer assisted the Wesleyan faculty with the lessons and experiments.

Astronomy graduate student Jessica Klusmeyer works with Girls in Science camp participants Aug. 7 at Macdonough Elementary School. Klusmeyer taught the girls how to use microscopes to examine different traits in the eyes of three groups of flies. The program is celebrating its fifth year this summer.

Four girls squint one eye and with the other eye gaze intently into a microscope. One says she sees caterpillars or string or pink spaghetti. Another says she sees small frogs.

“You’re actually looking at tissue that’s been smashed,” says Ruth Johnson, associate professor of biology. “Do you see those dark spots? Those are chromosomes.”

Johnson, a developmental biologist who studies how tissues and organs are shaped during development, is one of five Wesleyan faculty who taught workshops during the fifth annual Girls in Science Summer Camp, Aug. 6–10. The camp is open to all girls in grades 4, 5, and 6. The campers and instructors spent three days at Macdonough Elementary School and two days on Wesleyan’s campus learning about scientific theory, bacteria, planetary science, solar cars, nanoparticles, chromosomes, bubbles, and DNA. They also toured multiple labs and worked with college student mentors and learned about science careers.

Plasma Bubble, Stem Cell Images Win Scientific Imaging Contest

This summer, Wesleyan hosted the second annual Wesleyan Scientific Imaging Contest, which recognizes student-submitted images from experiments or simulations done with a Wesleyan faculty member that are scientifically intriguing as well as aesthetically pleasing. This year, 33 images were submitted from six departments.

The entries were judged based on the quality of the image and the explanation of the underlying science.  The images were judged by a panel of four faculty members: Steven Devoto, professor of biology, professor of neuroscience and behavior; Ruth Johnson, assistant professor of biology, assistant professor of integrative sciences; Brian Northrop, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of integrative sciences; and Candice Etson, assistant professor of physics.

The first-place winner received a $200 prize; the second-place winner received $100; and the third-place winner received $50. Prizes were funded by the Office of Academic Affairs.

The three winning images are shown below, along with scientific descriptions, written by the students.

Yonathan Gomez '18 won first place with his image, "Jumping" Drop. The drop is an expanding partially-ionized plasma created underwater by a pulsed Nd:YAG laser, which pushes upwards on the surface of the water. As the plasma bubble expands, it disrupts the surface from below, which launches a water drop upward. The water drop shown has a diameter of approximately 2mm. The image was taken at 1/2,000 frames per second.

Yonathan Gomez ’18 won first place with his image, “Jumping” Drop. The drop is an expanding partially-ionized plasma created underwater by a pulsed Nd:YAG laser, which pushes upwards on the surface of the water. As the plasma bubble expands, it disrupts the surface from below, which launches a water drop upward. The water drop shown has a diameter of approximately 2mm. The image was taken at 1/2,000 of a second.

Faculty Teach Local Girls about Science


The Green Street Teaching and Learning Center hosted a Girls in Science Camp Aug. 3-7. Wesleyan faculty members Ruth Johnson, assistant professor of biology (pictured third from left); Erika Taylor, assistant professor of chemistry, assistant professor of environmental studies (pictured at far right); Chris Othon, assistant professor of physics (pictured at left), along with three undergraduate students, worked with the campers on various experiments. Sara MacSorley, director of the GSTLC (second from left), coordinated the activities.

Johnson led the campers on a bug hunt through Wesleyan’s West College Courtyard garden. There, the girls observed insects while considering insect diets and insect life-cycles. The girls also learned about the life-cycle of the fruit fly and set up an experiment to test the effects of feeding flies a high-sugar diet (this negatively affects the fly life-cycle, and is akin to inducing Type II Diabetes). Johnson also taught the campers about genetic variations (mutations) that affected wing and bristle development.

“Learning about these phenotypes served as an intro to genetics, genes and proteins,” Johnson said.

Johnson also taught the girls about microscopy. After a short presentation on how a variety of biological objects appear when viewed with high magnification, the girls viewed and captured images of the fly pupal eye with a fluorescent microscope. The girls also viewed a variety of mutant adult fly eyes with dissecting microscopes and, to build their skills in observation, built 3D models of these with modeling clay.


Students in Natural Sciences and Mathematics Present Research


On April 17, 30 senior and BA/MA students in the Natural Sciences and Mathematics Division presented their research to the Wesleyan community. Nearly 100 people attended the annual Celebration of Science Theses poster session, which was held in the Exley Science Center lobby.

The event was co-organized by Manju Hingorani, professor of molecular biology and biochemistry; Barbara Juhasz, associate professor of psychology, associate professor of neuroscience and behavior, director of the service learning center; and Seth Redfield, assistant professor of astronomy. (Photos by Dat Vu ’15.)

Dara Lorn '15 discussed his research, "Progress to Biofunctionalized Rotaxanes."

Dara Lorn ’15 discussed his research, “Progress to Biofunctionalized Rotaxanes.”

A Research Tech on Her Surprising Path to the Lab

Sandy Becker, a research technician in the lab of Professor of Biology Laura Grabel, writes in Science about her surprising path to becoming a developmental biologist. After earning an undergraduate degree in history, working as a public school teacher, and raising a child, Becker was looking to take her career in a new direction. Through her daughter, she became friends with a biology professor at Wesleyan, who was impressed with the rhubarb pies she often brought to their potluck dinners.

“He concluded, I guess, that I knew how to follow a recipe and probably had enough brains to follow one written in metric units, because he offered me a job as a technician in his lab,” Becker writes. Though she had no background in biology, she learned on the job how to conduct experiments. “It was indeed a lot like baking pies: If you carefully followed the recipe—the protocol—your experiment would likely work, although the data might not tell you what you were hoping to hear.”

Becker went on to take 17 biology classes at Wesleyan and earn three Wesleyan graduate degrees.

Read the entire article here.

Grabel is also the Lauren B. Dachs Professor of Science in Society.

Gomes ’06 Published in June Geology Journal

Maya Gomes '06 working on her research.

Maya Gomes ’06 working on her research.”

Maya Gomes ’06 and her co-author Matthew Hurtgen published their paper, “Sulfur isotope systematics in a permanently euxinic, low-sulfate lake: Evaluating the importance of the reservoir effect in modern and ancient oceans,” in the June issue of the journal, Geology. In the paper, the authors present data that shows how geologists can use sulfur isotope compositions of marine sediments to discover variations in oceanic sulfate levels through Earth history.

Gomes explained that the paper is very important to researchers who study the climate of the past because “marine sulfate levels play a role in regulating oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the ocean-atmosphere system, which has implications for habitability and climate.”

Maya Gomes

Maya Gomes

“I fell in love with geology and research when I was an earth and environmental science major at Wes,” she said.

Gomes wants to share her work with the Wesleyan community because she hopes that it will show that the strong foundation she received in science while attending Wesleyan University has allowed her to “pursue high quality research as a PhD student.

“My thesis adviser at Wesleyan was [Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences] Marty Gilmore,” Gomes notes. “She served as an excellent mentor to me while at Wes and beyond.  However, I was also advised by and heavily influenced by many other members of the department, including Professors Johan Varekamp, Jim Greenwood, and Suzanne O’Connell.”

The paper is online here.

Roach ’81 Explores Alimentary Canal in Latest Book

Mary Roach

Mary Roach ’81 (Photo by Chris Hardy)

Best-selling author Mary Roach 81 has just published her latest gift to readers, Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal (W. W. Norton), in which she takes a memorable tour inside and outside of the body. Her fascinating book on the process of eating brings readers upclose with the bodily equipment that turns food into the nutrients and sustenance that keeps us ticking.

On her quest for knowledge of the digestive tract, Roach meets with professors and technicians, murderers, mad scientists, Eskimos, exorcists, rabbis and other unique characters. She is fearless in asking taboo and embarrassing questions with relish and humor. Questions such as: Why doesn’t the stomach digest itself? How much can you eat before your stomach bursts? Can constipation kill you?

Book by Mary Roach ’81

In her rave review in The New York Times, Janet Maslin writes: “Never has Ms. Roach’s affinity for the comedic and bizarre been put to better use. … Gulp is a big leap forward for Ms. Roach because it doesn’t require her to do any padding or stunt work. Simply thinking about the body and interviewing the most oddball experts she can find are enough to rivet interest. And the circumstances she describes are sometimes hilarious, sometimes repellent, never dull. She’s at her cheeriest in describing rectal smuggling of items into prison, which is a more creative enterprise than you might imagine.”

Mary Roach talks to The New York Times Dining Journal

Roach interview with NPR

Roach is a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Zane ’84 Co-Writes Book About Physics Law Governing Design, Evolution

J. Peder Zane '84

Peder Zane ’84 has co-written a new book Design in Nature (Doubleday) with Professor Adrian Bejan of Duke University, which describes Bejan’s groundbreaking discovery, the constructal law, a principle of physics that governs all design and evolution in nature.

The constructal law holds that all shape and structure emerges to facilitate flow. Rain drops, for example, coalesce and move together, generating rivulets, streams, and the mighty river basins of the world because this design allows them to move more easily. The question to ask is: Why does design arise at all? Why can’t the water just seep through the ground? The answer is that it flows better with design. This is the same reason we find a similar tree-like structure in the lightning bolts that flash across the sky and in the tree-like structure of our circulatory and nervous systems.

Before the constructal law, scientists knew that these similar tree-like structures arose in nature, but they did not know why. The constructal law identifies the fundamental tendency of nature to generate design to facilitate flow. It tells us the why of what we see before our eyes. The constructal law is a unifying principle because it governs inorganic phenomenon (river basins, lightning bolts) as well as the organic (biological creatures) and the man-made world of technology and ideas (we are governed by the law because we, too, are part of nature).

Design in Nature by Adiran Bejan and J. Peder Zane '84

In addition, the constructal law predicts that these designs should evolve with a particular direction in time—they configure and reconfigure themselves to enhance flow. That is, they get better. Thus, evolution is not a biological phenomenon (just applying to animals) but a law of physics (it applies to everything). Thus, the constructal law provides a new understanding for what it means to be alive. Anything that flows evolves, morphing to persist in time. When the flow stops, it is dead. This is as true for old river beds as it is for human beings.

Bejan’s discovery also provides, for the first time, a physics basis for the idea of purpose and progress in nature. The purpose is to flow more and more easily. The progress is measurable, the evolution of designs that move more mass per unit of useful energy consumed.

Zane says, “I met Adrian in 2007 after receiving a press release from Duke saying that one of its professors had discovered a law of the universe. I thought, ‘that doesn’t happen every day’ and visited him. My profile ran in the News & Observer of Raleigh. About six months later, I asked Adrian—who has published 25 scholarly books and 458 peer-reviewed papers—if he was interested in writing a book for a general audience. He was, and for the next two years we met every week to write this book.”

Zane is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communications at St. Augustine’s College.