science

Drury professor revels in discoveries, connections to Pluto mission

You can call it a planet, a dwarf planet, or even a ball of ice. But to Dr. Greg Ojakangas, there’s no doubt about what to call Pluto: “Amazingly beautiful.”

Ojakangas, an associate professor of physics at Drury, was one of millions around the world fascinated by the prospect of seeing Pluto up close as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft recently flew by the icy outpost at a distance of just 7,800 miles.

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

Color-corrected image of Pluto from New Horizons. (NASA)

“This is a part of the universe no human has ever seen before,” he says. “It’s not often that you’re able to see, for first time, something no human eyes have ever seen.”

Ojakangas has a deep professional interest in New Horizons. His doctoral work examined the large moons of Jupiter, and the remarkable manner in which such worlds can have orbits that are synchronized with each other, providing power for volcanic eruptions and other fascinating dynamical phenomena.  In a similar manner, it was recently discovered that three of Pluto’s 5 moons are also synchronized.  “The staggering beauty of these phenomena is beyond words,”  Ojakangas says.  New Horizons is yielding incredible new information about Pluto’s five moons.

Greg Ojakangas

Greg Ojakangas

But Ojakangas also has a personal connection. The former finalist in NASA’s astronaut selection program knows many of the researchers working on the New Horizons team. He’s thrilled to see the work of colleagues pay off after the probe launched from Earth more than nine years ago. The results have been spectacular, he says.

“As is usually the case when we see a new planetary body, it’s surpassing our expectations in terms of discoveries,” he says.

Glaciers of nitrogen, mountains as high as those in the Sierra Nevada, a mysterious source of geologic heat and even a faint comet-like tail were some of the revelations beamed back to NASA from the spacecraft. For scientists like Ojakangas, the discoveries are not unlike going down the proverbial rabbit hole from “Alice in Wonderland.”

“The laws of physics are the same but the substances are all different, and it’s surprising everybody,” he says. “We love that kind of thing because we learn from it.”

And the lessons aren’t confined to the edge of the solar system.

“To understand our Earth better, we should do everything we can to understand other planets,” he says. “They’re ready-made laboratories for testing our understanding of how the materials of the universe behave.”

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury director of media relations. A version of this story originally appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.

Paleontology and pop culture combine as Drury alumnus speaks in Springfield

SPRINGFIELD, Mo., April 24, 2015 — Paleontologist Jack Conrad of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) will present a lecture titled “Dinosaurs in Cinema: Facts and Fallacies” at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 28. The discussion will take place in Springfield at the Missouri Institute of Natural Science, at 2327 W. Farm Road 190. The event is free and open to the public.

Conrad will address topics as basic as what a dinosaur is and as complex as endothermy (metabolic regulation of temperature). Included in the discussion will be dinosaur sizes, feathered dinosaurs, and how we know what we know about the lives of dinosaurs.

Conrad was born and raised in Hurley, Missouri, and graduated with a degree in biology from Drury University in 1999. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He has traveled the world in a quest for fossil specimens and has been on expeditions in climates varying from the Sahara Desert to the Arctic Circle. He has searched for fossil mammals in the Andes of Bolivia and for ancient crocodile fossils in Kenya, and has, with his colleagues, named seven new fossil reptile species with research pending on five others. He currently works in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH and in the Department of Anatomy at New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

The Missouri Institute of Natural Science is the non-profit organization that manages Riverbluff Cave in Greene County. Riverbluff Cave was discovered accidentally on September 11, 2001, while blasting for a new road. The cave was announced to the public in April of 2002. Inside are fossils and other findings which have been dated at approximately Pleistocene in age, the time period that spanned from 1.8 million to 11,000 years ago.

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Vision-altering goggles help students learn about sensory deprivation

Students taking Advanced Human Physiology at Drury recently took their learning experience outside the classroom: to the go-kart track at Incredible Pizza.

This wasn’t just a day of cutting corners and having fun—although the class did both—it was a hands-on exercise that helped students better understand the effects of alcohol on the body.

Students in Dr. Phil Stepp’s class headed to the track and drove karts while wearing various sets of goggles that blurred or shifted their vision, simulating blood alcohol levels ranging from .06 to .25 BAC. One pair of goggles had tinted lenses that also mimicked driving at night while impaired.

Go kart web

The activity was a follow-up for a lab and coursework relating to sensory deprivation. After driving, students completed an analysis of their experience and connected it back to what they had learned.

Jessica Tay, a junior chemistry and psychology major, was surprised at how poorly she performed and actually had a major spin out during one of the races.

“You didn’t see things coming up, in front of you, or behind you. I had no peripheral vision either,” said Tay. “It was very disorienting—and that was with only with one of my senses impaired!”

This was an eye-opening activity for many students. It helped them better understand how different concepts and body processes fit together, but it also made students seriously think about their choices during a night out.

Goggles web

Stepp, an assistant professor of biology, says Drury’s small class sizes help make lessons and activities such as this possible. It also allows him the opportunity to get to talk to students individually, answer questions, and create a more engaging atmosphere for learning.

“I don’t like classes where I just lecture and give a test,” says Stepp. “I like asking questions and leading discussions that really get student thinking, and helping them find ways to dig and figure things out themselves.”

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Story by Kaleigh Jurgensmeyer, English and writing major at Drury

Grant will send professor back to his native Kenya to teach

Academic life brought Dr. Albert Korir from Kenya to the United States. Now, academics are taking him back home.

Korir, an associate professor of chemistry at Drury, is one of 60 scholars in the United States and Canada from a variety of fields to be selected for the latest round of Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowships. The program facilitates engagement between U.S. and Canadian scholars born in Africa with their African counterparts.

Albert Korir

Albert Korir

Korir will teach at Moi University this summer. His project will involve co-developing a curriculum that uses innovative technological strategies for teaching chemistry using the “flipped-class” model. While there, he’ll have the opportunity to teach using a set of web-based tools he and a group of colleagues have been developing for several years called the Analytical Sciences Digital Library (ASDL).

“We’ve developed web-based material that is peer-reviewed and freely available to both instructors and students,” he says.

There’s no shortage of online tools for learning, Korir says, but few are peer-reviewed in this way.

Korir became involved with ASDL after coming to a typical crossroads for chemistry graduates: research industry or academia? A faculty mentor during his graduate school years at the University of Kansas saw Korir’s potential as a teacher and encouraged him to remain in academia while at the same time conducting research.

A handful of students have worked directly with Korir on research projects every year since he joined the Drury faculty in 2008, giving him a chance to pass on the mentorship and guidance that helped him find his own career footing.

Korir will bring this personalized style of teaching with him to Kenya. The “flipped” classroom model sees students take in the lectures at home via the web and come to class for discussions and apply their knowledge and collaborate with others on projects.

“My colleagues in Africa tell me the students have become very receptive to this style of learning – they’re getting to interact with the professors more closely now,” Korir says.

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.

Students study future of genetics by examining their own past

DNA tells a story – a story about one’s past and, potentially, about one’s future.

A group of Drury science students learned more about their own genetic past this semester, and in the process learned important lessons about the future of medicine.

Twenty-four students in Dr. Roger Young’s advanced molecular genetics class took samples of their own spit before the class began and sent it to a company called 23andMe, which provides ancestry-related genetic reports for a fee. These reports, called genotypes, can help people generally understand their ancestry and also identify certain traits and health risks.

Just a few years ago, this testing was highly expensive, Young says. Today it can be done “for less than 100 bucks, which is incredible,” he says. That cost trajectory means genetic profiles will soon be an essential – and common – part of the medical industry.

“It seemed like a natural step forward to take this kind of modern business model and apply it to an academic setting,” Young says.

The students learned they each carry some Neanderthal DNA. They learned they might be pre-disposed to certain health conditions or be carriers for diseases that could manifest themselves in their children, if their partners are also carriers. The results largely remained private amongst the students, but it forced them to think about what they’ll do with the information.

“There’s the raw interpretation of the data, then there’s the philosophy and ethical implications of what you do with that information,” Young says.

In Drury’s typical liberal arts fashion, connections were drawn to other disciplines. Philosophy professor Dr. Chris Panza and a genetic counselor from CoxHealth spoke to the class about philosophical and ethical impacts. And the students even entered – and won – a photo contest with 23andMe. Titled “Human Karyotype,” the photo was of 23 of the students lying on the ground representing both the number and the shape of the 23 human chromosomes.

“Human Karyotype," by Drury student Ashleigh Spalding. The photo depicts Spalding's 23 classmates posing as human chromosomes.

“Human Karyotype,” by Drury student Ashleigh Spalding.

The students used a $300 prize from the contest to hold an event on campus and spoke to about 100 people about the process of genetic testing, condensing their 15-week journey into about a 15-minute presentation.

“A fair number of these students are going into the medical field on some level, and because genetics will be ubiquitous in a decade or less, these students will be prepared to understand this, and teach other people about it,” Young says. “When they sit for their MCATs or medical school interviews, they’ll be able to talk on a knowledgeable level about the future of medicine.”

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. 

Undergrads focus on science research during summer

It’s relatively rare for undergraduates majoring in the sciences to have the opportunity to do meaningful research. It’s rarer still for them to be able to get paid to do it.

A new program this year at Drury is allowing five undergraduates to do just that. It’s called the Research Experience in the Natural Sciences, or RENS. The program provides a stipend for students conducting self-directed research under the guidance of science faculty.

Summer is the perfect time for students to be able to focus intensely on in-depth research because they don’t have to devote time to classes, says Dr. Beth Harville, Assistant Professor of Biology at Drury. The stipend allows students to consider skipping a summer job in favor of conducting research that will help them in their future careers – especially those seeking to enter medical schools or Ph.D. programs.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Deborah Peana, senior chemistry and physics major, is using computer software to model and research protein interactions this summer. A stipend has helped her focus solely on this work.

Two of the students conducting RENS projects this summer are Breanna Tuhlei and Deborah Peana. Both are using high-powered computers to simulate the interactions between certain types of molecules and model the potential outcomes. Their research, conducted under the guidance of assistant professor of physics Dr. Christos Deligkaris, combines concepts from biology, chemistry and physics.

“It’s teaching me a lot about how to discipline myself; how to solve problems by myself independently,” says Tuhlei, who is studying how a molecule commonly found in fruits and vegetables could be used to prevent DNA damage caused by a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke. “And the stipend is definitely great because it’s helping with tuition expenses.”

Locating, reading and extrapolating relevant information from journal articles is one aspect that separates these projects from class work. There are no textbook assignments here.

“It forces me to take information I’ve learned in my classes, use it on my own and actually apply it, which is really rewarding – and fun,” says Peana, who is studying glycosaminoglycan-protein interactions. “It requires a lot of mental discipline to stay focused and work out problems on your own, but I think it’s definitely worth it.”

Both students feel that conducting this research as undergraduates will go a long way toward helping prepare them for graduate programs and medical schools, not to mention make them better candidates for acceptance to their programs of choice. Tuhlei is a sophomore double majoring in biology and chemistry, who hopes to be accepted into an MD-PhD program in order to become a neurosurgeon and conduct medical research. Peana is a senior double majoring in chemistry and physics, and is currently applying to MD-PhD programs.

But neither of these students has to wait until the next phase of the education to make a difference. The RENS stipend and always-accessible faculty at Drury have helped Peana truly dive into her research, which in turn has made her feel as though she’s already contributing to her field before ever leaving campus.

“I’m just starting out, but this kind of research makes me feel like a scientist and I feel like we really are practicing good research techniques,” she says.

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Story by Mike Brothers, Drury’s director of media relations. A version of this story first appeared in the Springfield News-Leader.