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Updated: May 10, 2020

Animal Science PhD student ALYSSA LOGAN

MSU students may not be on campus these days, but they still had a chance to exchange questions and answer last Thursday with young scientists doing some of the most exciting research featured on “The Sci Files.” Via Zoom link, MSU SciComm President Chelsie Boodoo and V.P. of Finance Daniel Puentes gave the scientists (who are also students at MSU) a chance to talk about research that ranged from underwater robotics to desert microorganisms to using computers to aid in the search for patterns in data. Alyssa Logan, a PhD student in Animal Science, studies the ways training and exercise can make horses stronger and healthier, just as they do in humans. Think, for example, of the training a championship race horse undergoes, all the work to develop high performance and accustom a young horse to the demands of being in a race. Like young people, the bones of young animals are very responsive to exercise, Alyssa says, and lack of exercise too. Bone, which holds 90% of the horse body’s calcium, is expensive for the horse body to maintain. If an animal or a person doesn’t using their body and exercise, Alyssa says, it’s as if their body is saying, I don't need all of this extra energy and calcium and bone. Exercise is the answer. Alyssa and her colleagues found that by sprinting young horses and young animals, they could increase bone strength and the size of bone, making it easier for them to exercise even more. As little as a single 71-meter sprint at least one day a week increases a horse’s bone strength 25%. Drawing listeners into her plans, Alyssa asked them to calculate a 71-meter sprint once a week over six weeks. 426 meters, listener Zachary calculated. Just about the length of a high school running track, Alyssa noted, but enough to add 25% to a horse’s bone strength. Horses have about 209 bones, she told another questioner, more than humans. They start training at 18 months and enter their first race six months to a year after that.

PhD student Pratap Bhanu Solanki works on wireless optical communication for underwater robots. When two or more underwater robots work together, they need to communicate with each other. Technologies that work on the surface or in the air, such as cellphones or Wi-Fi, don’t function well under water. “Your iPhone or Samsung might be waterproof, but as soon as you take it, say around one foot underwater it won't work,” Pratap says. Acoustic communication (sonar) has been the standard for underwater communication for generations, but it consumes too much power and has limited communication capacity. Working through the Smart Microsystems Laboratory, Pratap is helping develop LED-based blue light communication, which could one day be a promising alternative that might even be able to transmit data such as photos or videos from one underwater robot to another just by flashing the light on and off at extremely high speeds. This can range from a million to even a billion times a second, enough to encode complicated data.

Listeners seemed intrigued by underwater communication but even more intrigued by the swimming robots themselves. How long does it take to build one? a listener asked. It depends. The first models Pranap’s team developed took seven to ten years to evolve. Development is now down to three months. Is the technology waterproof? another listener wanted to know. Of course light doesn’t need to be waterproof, Pranap reminded listeners. But the robot itself does. Waterproofing turns out to be a multi stage process that involves putting the robot underwater for 24 hours, then testing it for leaks. If there’s a leak, it’s sealed, then the robot is retested. This iterative process continues until the robot is fully waterproof, then it’s finally okay to place the electronics inside. After that, Pranap said, “It’s good to go.”

Robert Logan works with wildlife in southern Africa, but not the kind you can see. He’s a microbial ecologist and PhD candidate at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station, which means his favorite animals can’t be seen at all without a super-powerful microscope. When you think about Africa’s Namib desert (if you think about it at all) you probably think of cactus or large animals like the oryx, Robert says. In reality, the desert’s microorganism population is so much larger, it isn’t even a contest. Total population of microbes on the planet? Five thousand billion, billion, billion, according to Robert. The Namib desert is a fascinating place to observe microorganisms because it’s one of the driest places in the world. “There's not a lot of rain,” Robert says. “But oftentimes there's lots of organisms that can survive off the fog. Imagine a really, really hot day, you're outside running around and exercising and you just want to come in and get a drink. Well, the plants, the animals, they can't come inside and get a drink, but they can actually drink water directly out of the air. A lot of plants and animals do this, but I wanted to know, are there any of these little microbes that actually live in the fog and are they able to use water?”

To test the how well desert microorganisms can live with no source of water but fog, Robert and his colleagues put a Petri dish full of “food the microbes really like” out in the desert fog. “On the first day we didn't see anything. In the second day, you can see a few tiny little spots in each of these. Some bacteria landed on the plate, started to grow, and then more and then more. By the time a week goes by, we can see a lot. And so we see more growing in the fog and the rain than we do outside in regular clear air.” It’s often the case that listeners are just as interested in the scientific adventure as they are in the science itself. Do desert animals get hot? one listener asked. Sometimes desert temperatures go up to 120 degrees, Robert said, but animals like rabbits can actually use their big rabbit ears to help cool off. Can desert animals live in the snow? asked nine-year old Kate. “Yes,” said Robert. “We actually did a really cool project here in Michigan. We took some of these same little Petri dishes and we put them outside when it was snowing. Little snowflakes would fall on them.” There are fewer microorganisms in the cold, he notes, which is why we keep food refrigerated. “Microbes really like it when it's hot and wet. When it's cold, they don't grow as well. But absolutely, there's a lot in the snow.”

Kayla Conner, a microbiologist, studies bacteria that affect the placenta, a temporary organ that grows in a mother’s uterus during pregnancy. “It’s almost a caregiver to the baby while the mother is pregnant,” Kayla says. “It's very important because it gives nutrients and substances that protect the baby during pregnancy, while also helping to get rid of waste that the baby produces so that it can be happy and healthy and growing.” The right bacteria can be good for us when they help our digestion, for example. But bacteria in the placenta can make a baby sick and prevent the placenta from doing its job. Kayla studies how to prevent this from happening.

Do babies get sick a lot? one listener wanted to know. Yes, according to Kayla. In fact one reason the placenta is so important is it produces antibodies that help prevent babies from going sick. Another listener wanted to know if in infection in the placenta can cause the mother or baby to die. Yes, she said, if an infection gets out of control. “That's why it's very important for us to be able to detect these infections and understand how to prevent them and how to treat them.”

Jon Kaletka, like Kayla, is a microbiologist and molecular geneticist who studies how cells communicate with each other when they’re sick. Because cells perform so many functions in a healthy body, it’s important for them to be able to exchange information about what they’re doing to keep the body running as smoothly as possible.

“One way they're able to do that,” Jon says, “is by things called vesicles, shaped little particles that these cells kind of throw it out into the world. These vesicles can actually carry messages to each other. And they can be taken up by other cells, to read and understand that message. I like to think of them as similar to mail. They can be carried through our own bloodstream and talk to cells that are very far away in the body.” Jon’s particular interest is the way vesicles recruit immune cells, when bacteria attack the body, to keep the bacteria from spreading. What happens if the message doesn’t get through? asked one listener. “Unfortunately,” Jon explains, “if the message doesn't get through, then the immune system is not able to activate. That's why these cells create even hundreds or thousands at times, hopefully at least some of the message are able to get where they're supposed to be.”

Kathryn Wierenga studies things in the environment that can cause inflammation in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “Inflammation often occurs after some sort of damage happens,” Kate tells listeners. Damage that breaks your skin like a splinter, for example. “When something like that happens,” says Kate, “All sorts of potentially dangerous junk like bacteria and viruses can get into your body. Our body's response to these foreign invaders is to produce an inflammatory response. The area where the damage happened can become swollen and painful. You've probably experienced all these things if you ever skinned your knee and got a splinter. When this happens, the body sends a whole bunch of immune cells in there to find and destroy those bad microbes. This is a normal, healthy response."

Sometimes, however, inflammation can stick around and start to damage our tissues. In Professor James Pestka’s lab, Kate studies things that cause chronic inflammation like silica dust that workers might breathe in on a construction site as well as things in the diet that can help stop inflammation such as the Omega-3 fatty acids that are found in fish oil. Do you actually help people? one listener asked? “We don't work directly with human patients,” Kate explains. “But a lot of the things that we're studying and learning about in our lab can be used to help people.” People who work in jobs that expose them to silica dust, for example. Or people who could benefit from taking Omega-3 fatty acids.

Another listener wanted to know why silica dust shows up in construction. “Silica dust gets produced whenever we're cutting through like rocks,” Kate says. “In your kitchen, you might have a countertop made of granite. If someone's working in a construction job and they have to cut through something like that, it produces silicon dust. They can be exposed to it.” On the other hand, “When you're going around breathing in your house, that's probably not going to cause any problems because it's not this more dangerous kind of dust and you're not being exposed to a lot of it.”

If you looked at some of Nick Young’s research you might mistake him for a sociologist. Surprise! Nick is actually a PhD candidate in Physics and Astronomy but he focuses on using data to learn how physicists are educated. What does a data scientist do? Typically, it’s someone who looks for patterns. “We have here a series of shapes that keeps repeating,” Nick explains. “We do square, circle, triangle, and repeat that a few times, but it can also be something a lot more complicated. We could be trying to find along the bunch of kind of random letters. Data sciences is like a word search without all the words. We don't necessarily know what types of patterns are in the data we're looking at. We're trying to figure out what's actually here.”

Nick applies his data searches to education, looking at things like the courses students take, the grades they earn or what they think of assignments. In particular he wants to use data to make the process of getting into graduate school fairer. What happens, a listener asked, if you don’t find a pattern in the data? “Then you have to kind of think about, well, what's the reason for that?” Nick says. “Is it because there isn't a pattern there? Or is it a way that you're trying to find the pattern? For example, maybe we only looked to left and right for words when all the words are up and down. That means you'd have to try a different approach.” Is data science hard? another listener asked. “it definitely can be, depending on what type of data you have. The first project, when I started at Michigan State, was probably two or three months of just figuring out how to actually work with the data we had. You have to have your data in a way that computers read. Talk to the computer in its language which isn't the same as human language.”

Michael Pajkos studies stars that explode into the vastness of space—but fortunately nowhere near where we live. The scientific term for that is “supernova.” Listener Zack wanted to know how long an average supernova lasts. “The quick answer is there isn't a basic or simple supernova, so some of them change,” Mike explained. “There are very quick changes that happen over the course of a few seconds, but the remnants can glow for thousands of years.”

“Has a robot ever flown in a star?” asked Ryan, another listener. “I don't know if we've ever actually sent one into it,” Mike answered. However there are some recent probes. “One is called the Parker solar probe. That's given us some really pretty pictures of the sun,” orbiting very close to the Sun, taking and getting information about the sun’s corona—the outermost part of its atmosphere.

The Sci-Files can be heard weekly on Impact 89, the student radio station at MSU.

Image credits: Wikimedia commons; the authors

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