Studying soil processes of the critical zone on the Vancouver campus

For Marc Kramer’s fall 2016 class called Soil Processes in the Earth’s Critical Zone, students found an outdoor laboratory just steps from their classroom.

Five students measured various aspects of the “critical zone,” where the bulk of the planet’s life forms reside. The critical zone is an enormously complex area stretching from the treetops, through soil to the groundwater and housing a vast array of interdependent biogeochemical processes. These processes have a huge hand in ecosystem services, such as clean water and air, as well as the fate of carbon, global warming’s fundamental element.

The WSU Vancouver campus sits amid a swatch of field and forest just east of the loop road. Open meadow at its edge, then a mix of deciduous and conifer forest sloping down to a stream, it offered a chance to take measurements related to several processes within the watershed—soil, water, trees and leafy matter, vegetation that falls from the trees. “It provides a nice snapshot,” said Kramer, an assistant professor of environmental chemistry.

“One of the many exciting things about the WSU Vancouver campus is you can literally walk outside the campus and have access to field sites that can be used in teaching,” Kramer said. It is not uncommon for students at other universities to have to drive 20 or even 30 minutes off-campus to reach field sites that can be used in course instruction.

An ideal learning context

The students’ aim was to identify soluble organic carbon and nitrogen response to seasonal, land-use and climate change in the Pacific Northwest. Last fall’s extraordinary rainfall provided the ideal context for analysis.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

WSU Vancouver student researchers Corey Ruder and Sarah Kintner on site.

In the meadow, Sarah Kintner, a first-year master’s student from Green Bay, Wisc., collected water to test for dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen. In the woods, Corey Ruder, a doctoral student from near Sacramento, could measure changes in carbon-dioxide concentrations in and around the ground. Greg Clark, a first-year master’s student from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, measured precipitation with instruments in the open meadow and under the canopy.

Luke Reyes, a doctoral student from New Jersey, patrolled litter traps, screens that caught leafy matter as it fell from the trees. He would dry the contents, weigh them and do carbon and nitrogen analyses to see how the vegetation is contributing inputs to the soil. And Geoff Kahl, a geology master’s student from Portland, sampled stream and groundwater to analyze their chemistry.

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Doctoral student Luke Reyes collects tree litter to gauge carbon and nitrogen impact.

The students then developed indicators of how water arrives and moves through the system, plus measures of soil moisture, carbon, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The next time the course is taught, students will be able to study the movement of metals and other mobile elements such as calcium or silicon, thanks to a recent large research grant from the Murdock foundation.

“The students will have access to new equipment—an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer and an ion chromatograph—that will allow them to measure many additional constituents in water,” Kramer said.

More rain, more intense storms?

Kramer encourages the students to answer the questions they started with but also to look for new questions that might arise from the data they chart. It’s science as a reality-based creative process.

While analysis continues, the students research in the course has already been making an impact. WSU’s Washington State Magazine published a story in its spring issue. In February, the students made a presentation to the WSU Vancouver faculty seminar and displayed a poster at the graduate student symposium. They will be presenting their results at the Ecological Society of America conference in Portland this summer. And they are writing a paper for publication.

By semester’s end, based on reading the scientific literature and analyzing their data, they had an interesting finding—that the carbon and nitrogen and water responses they observed during the heavy warm rains of this October provided a rare opportunity to gain insight into how future climates may impact soil processes. Their observations may well be a sign of things to come.

Predictions that climate change will bring increased rainfall have been around for a long time. “But no one knows what that means for life on the ground,” Reyes said. “We see evidence that the increased rainfall may come from more intense storms rather than more frequent storms. Our study provides a rare opportunity to better understand how water, dissolved carbon, and nitrogen may respond to these type of storms, which may well become the new norm.”

One of Kramer’s goals was to make field and lab-based measurements an integral part of the classroom experience. Not only does it provide practical experience, but it benefits the students in another way too. “Gathering so many pieces of data and working in a team, the students dramatically increase their capacity to do big science,” he said.

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RESEARCH EQUIPMENT FOR THE NEXT GENERATION: John Harkness and Ryan Todd want to make lab equipment practical, affordable and beautiful.

Postdoctoral fellow John Harkness and scientific assistant Ryan Todd were working in Barbara Sorg’s neuroscience lab on the WSU Vancouver campus when they ran into an expensive equipment problem.

They were investigating sleep deprivation in rodents by examining how structures surrounding neurons, called perineuronal nets, change throughout the day and during periods of limited sleep. They believe perineuronal nets are important for regulating neural plasticity and could be important in storing memories—with potential clues for treating various addictions.

They needed “sleep deprivation boxes,” which prevent mice or rats from sleeping for a period of time. The Sorg lab hypothesizes that neurological changes occur from lack of sleep that make the brain more susceptible to drug addiction. After a rat is sleep deprived, the researcher can measure drug-seeking behaviors over time and see how perineuronal nets are involved.

Although these devices are available commercially, they cost upwards of $3,000 apiece. Multiplied over the number of devices (typically 6 to 24) needed for a study, the cost is prohibitive for a small lab’s budget.

“We don’t have that equipment, so Ryan and I started building it,” Harkness said.
INVENTING FROM NECESSITY

Their prototype is “really simple,” Todd added, “but it does what we need, and better than anything else on the market.”

To measure the effects of sleep deprivation in the rewireneuroscience2brain, Sorg wanted the animals to be kept awake but without stressing them. Harkness and Todd’s solution was to use the rat’s home cage, with a little wheel in the middle (called an agitator trolley) that runs back and forth so the rat has to keep out of its way. It’s big enough to hold food and water. “Nothing in the rat’s environment has changed,” Harkness said.

Todd did the mechanical engineering of the device, and Harkness did the coding of the computer that can control up to eight devices simultaneously. The device can be remotely operated from a researcher’s desktop computer, a laptop and even a smartphone.

The device is installed on a platform, next to a small computer that controls the agitator trolley.

“It’s easy to repair, adjust and clean,” Todd said. A researcher could easily add monitoring equipment to see what’s happening in the rat’s brain while the device is running.

EMPOWERING THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE

They worked with WSU’s Office of Commercialization on a preliminary patent. Then, realizing that other researchers could also benefit from using the device, they applied for a Commercialization Gap Fund award from the commercialization office. They received the $50,000 grant, which will fund the continued development and validation of the device and help them bring the product to market.

In addition, Harkness and Todd founded a company, Rewire Neuroscience, to bring the product to market. “Our vision for this company is that it’s built around the future of neuroscience,” Harkness said. “We want to help early career investigators build their own equipment that’s customizable and cheaper than what’s available now.” (For more information, see facebook.com/RewireNeuroscience.)

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Rewire Neuroscience’s first product is already being sought out by young researchers. Called the Journal of Abstracts (jabstracts.org), it allows researchers to upload their science posters—work often done in grad school but seldom recognized beyond—so they can get their work seen before the long process of publication in a traditional journal can take place.

“It’s part of empowering future of science,” Harkness said. “It’s difficult for students to get their names out there before they have a lot of publications. Graduates and undergraduates present lot of posters at conferences. Then the posters die in a box, and the data never sees the light of day again.”

“I see this as bridging that gap between the work a lot of people do in labs that might go unseen, and their next job or grad school,” Todd said. “They can now send a link to someone who can look at all of the posters they’ve been on, and potentially collaborate with.”

Harkness, who earned his doctorate at Oregon Health and Science University, and Todd, who has a master’s degree in whole systems design from Antioch University in Seattle, are a good pair. “We both appreciate the challenge of coming up with these ideas and piecing things together, as opposed to going out and spending a lot of money on something that may or may not meet our needs,” Todd said. “We’d rather design and build something that meets our needs exactly.”

Much of the lab equipment out there was designed two or three decades ago. “John and I hope to reduce the expense of lab equipment in the future by developing products that are simple in design and easy to use,” Todd said. “We also want to modernize lab equipment by using technology typical in everyday devices, such as wireless printers and smartphones.”

And while they love the thrill of invention, they also love the research and discovery it enables. “Science is where our passion is,” Harkness said. “We’re just excited to do it better.”

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Helping engineers improve their writing skills: A collaborative approach

Dave Kim remembers the rainy day in 2014 when he was reading his students’ lab reports and just couldn’t take it anymore. “Their writing was very poor,” said Kim, associate professor and coordinator of mechanical engineering. “I thought they had learned to write in their first-year composition class. I called Wendy Olson, and that was our starting point.”

Olson, associate professor of English, is the director of composition and writing assessment and is in charge of first-year composition classes (English 101). “Faculty from all departments complain about their students’ writing,” she said, “but what was wonderful was that Dave asked, ‘What can we do to move forward?’”

They decided to investigate the writing practices of engineering students as they move from first-year composition courses into introductory engineering laboratory courses. In 2015, their research proposal received a National Science Foundation grant of $249,613 over two years. Kim is the principal investigator, and Olson and Praveen Sekhar, assistant professor of electrical engineering, are co-PIs. Sekhar is extending the curriculum design to electrical engineering students.

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Common principles

One challenge they discovered is that while students in English 101 may be encouraged to develop persuasive opinions, express themselves and use description, those rhetorical strategies are not appropriate in engineering lab reports. Engineers rely on data, experimental results and logical analysis. “You cannot show your own feelings,” Kim said. “Emotional appeals may be valuable in humanities, but they cannot be effective when the writer is trying to convince engineers as the readers.”

The researchers agreed, however, that there are commonalities in writing for any discipline: purpose, persuading an audience and structure.

“We found students were only doing persuasion and opinion in English 101 and only facts in engineering,” Olson said. “We said no, that’s not what we want you to do. Think about the need for evidence and facts in English 101, and the need for some persuasion in engineering. Even with lab reports, you’re addressing the whole context. They hadn’t been thinking about the audience before.”

In designing the curriculum for the project, Olson discovered two things: “I recognized the difference between how often you use secondary sources in some disciplines [such as English] but primary data in others [such as engineering]. Another big one was the role of visuals, such as graphs and tables. So I’ve been asking students to think more strategically about visuals and how to use them even in English 101. One of the big changes in English 101 [for the project] is that we moved up the research paper earlier in the semester, and then we follow with a genre project, which might be an academic poster, proposal or scientific poster. They take the research and create a genre that might be for a very different discipline and audience.”

Starting with their own students as they developed their approach, Kim, Olson and Sekhar transformed their classes to emphasize teaching for transfer across their disciplines, from English to engineering. Then they brought on additional colleagues from WSU and Clark College. “Nine professors are now using this new approach in their classes,” Kim said. “We assume it impacts more than 200 students at both schools.”

With the revised curriculum, Kim said, “Engineering students can make use of what they learn in English 101, but in an engineering context. They can see the continuation of writing from English 101 to lab report writing instructions.”

“It reaffirms for students what we talk about in English 101,” Olson said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all in writing. Your job as a writer is to be skilled in adapting to context and expectations.”

Sharing results

In their first-year report to the NSF, the researchers wrote: “Data collected in writing artifacts, student surveys, and a focus group show that curricular revisions to teaching lab reports reinforced students’ learning of rhetorical concepts from first-year composition courses, helped students to better understand the expectations of the lab report as a discipline-specific genre, and developed student’s understanding of the rhetorical features of writing in the discipline of engineering.” As they identify best practices for teaching writing skills that will transfer across the university, they will share them in the hope that other teachers of freshman composition may see the value in their approach.

The researchers have begun to disseminate their ideas through professional development workshops and in their respective professional organizations. They are planning a web page to open the approach to anyone.

 

Olson and Kim received a second grant, $10,000 from the Conference on College Composition and Communication, to study the writing knowledge of early-career engineers. Engineers spend from 20 to 40 percent of their workday writing, and Kim said the industry is calling for better writing from college graduates.

“There was a huge gap in what students were learning and what they would find in the market,” Sekhar said. “The project bridges the gap a little bit in student writing that will benefit them in the long run.”

“In a 21st-century engineering environment, it’s very common to have a collaborator in a different state or nation,” Kim said. “When I was working in industry, the manufacturing plant was in Hong Kong—no way could you have a simple phone call because of the time differences. You’d have to write an email. So I think students should understand how to write before they graduate in order to succeed at their jobs.”

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Looking at drug use from an evolutionary perspective

Ed Hagen, Associate Professor of Anthropology

For 15 years, Ed Hagen has been challenging the conventional theory that drug addiction is the consequence of a “hijacked” reward mechanism in the brain—the idea that people become addicts because taking drugs accidentally triggers brain circuits that make them feel good.img_5238

Studying hunter-gatherer and developing societies, Hagen, associate professor of anthropology at Washington State University Vancouver, and his frequent collaborator, Roger Sullivan, an anthropologist at California State University, Sacramento, believe that there are evolutionary reasons for drug use and addiction. Drug plants such as tobacco and marijuana contain natural neurotoxins, he said, and they might serve an evolutionary purpose in protecting people from certain infectious diseases and parasites.

“One of our main hypotheses is that we might have a taste for drugs as a form of self-medication against pathogens—it isn’t conscious, but maybe we sample some toxic plants and find that some seem to have medicinal effects, so we consume them when we get the chance,” Hagen said.

Hagen, Sullivan and others have published widely on evolutionary psychology, which is an approach that sees continuity in the evolution of behavior and cognition in both animals and humans. Evolutionary psychology raises the possibility that some forms of drug use could be an adaptation.

Hagen and Sullivan began studying drugs from a mental health perspective. Knowing that people with schizophrenia and depression tend to use more drugs, he said, “we thought we should start from the perspective that the origins of these drugs were as plant-defensive chemicals and are pretty potent neurotoxins, and see where that got us. Fifteen to 20 years later, I think it has gotten us somewhere.”

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While the reward theory has a solid empirical basis, he said, “we still don’t have any really good treatments for drug addiction. The mainstream model has not yielded the result we had hoped for. It’s time to consider other theoretical approaches.”

In an article published in 2013 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, Hagen and collaborators write: “We accordingly challenge the popular idea that the rewarding and reinforcing properties of drugs ‘hijack’ the brain, and propose instead that the brain evolved to carefully regulate neurotoxin consumption to minimize fitness costs and maximize fitness benefits.

“Why would anyone want to consume a toxic substance?” Hagen asked. “There is increasing evidence that non-human animals seek out toxic plants when they have an infection. Pretty much the same parasites and pathogens that attack plants attack us. If a plant has evolved something effective against its parasites, it’s probably effective against our parasites.”

Drug toxicity appears to explain many patterns of drug use. For example, children avoid drugs, and pregnant women use them much less than men, perhaps because of potential harm to the fetus.

“These plants might be particularly toxic to kids because their brains and organs are still developing,” Hagen said. “There are good reasons for kids to be cautious of toxic plants. They taste bitter, don’t look like they would taste good, don’t smell good, so they give off all kinds of cues that should tell kids that’s something I don’t want to eat. The same is true for pregnant women.”

Of course, culture and social learning also play a role—children and pregnant women are often warned away from harmful substances.

Growing evidence

Drug use is just one line of research for Hagen, who also studies depression, suicide, child development and evolutionary models of leadership, as well as evolutionary approaches to ontogeny, cognition and behavior.

He started drug research casually, Hagen said, “but the more we worked on it, the more we felt it was an important contribution to the literature on substance use. So when I got here, I decided to devote a lot of time to actually running studies to see if this perspective was fruitful. That was one reason I came here.”

The research team

The research team

Hagen has conducted studies among the Aka hunter-gatherers of the Congo Basin with WSU Vancouver anthropology professor Barry Hewlett. The Aka are heavy users of tobacco and marijuana.
“The Aka were a perfect population,” he said. “They use lots of plant drugs and are heavily infected with intestinal worms and other parasites. Maybe that’s not a coincidence. We were very interested in measuring that. We started one of the only systematic investigations of drug use in traditional hunter-gatherer populations,” testing saliva, urine, and feces for evidence of parasites and correlating the results with smoking.

“It looks like heaviest smokers have fewer worms,” Hagen said. “If you treat people for worms, it looks like they smoke less.”

Aka camp

Aka camp

While evolutionary studies may hold clues to the drug use puzzle, Hagen says reward studies also are important, and he sees a long road ahead. “I’d say our results on parasites are enough for us to keep working, but not strong enough to compel other folks to change their minds—yet,” he said.

Anthropologists and global public health researchers share many interests, and one potential area of promise lies in global smoking prevention. Women in the developing world rarely smoke, and therefore represent a potential huge new market for tobacco companies, but if those women currently avoid tobacco use to protect their fetuses, a good time to reach them with an anti-smoking message might be the age when they are considering marriage and children. “If we can tie the tobacco decision to other decisions that are more immediate in their lives and maintain a cultural tradition”—that is, heeding the advice of mothers and grandmothers, he said, it might help prevent a huge increase in tobacco-related illnesses and also empower women to take more control over their lives.

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Economic stress and well-being

Tahira Probst, Professor of Psychology

Is your ability to cope with financial and employment stress affected by the community you live in? That question is on the minds of policymakers with limited dollars to spend on social services. The answer could help them determine how best to support struggling individuals.24252426542_44575d064e_z

The question was also on the mind of Washington State University Vancouver psychology professor Tahira Probst. It seems logical that people with acce
ss to more services would fare better. But Probst wondered whether, instead, people might compare their situations with their neighbors’ in a “keeping up with the Joneses” fashion. If so, those struggling economically but living in communities with fewer resources, where others also are more likely to be struggling, might actually feel better than those in similar straits living in a supposedly “healthier” community.

With a grant of $50,000 from the County Health Rankings and Roadmaps program, Probst and her collaborators have examined nationwide data compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation along with interviews conducted by Gallup Polling.

The results are intriguing. They suggest that while a more prosperous, healthier community can help mitigate certain types of stress related to income (such as inability to pay bills on time), employment-related stress is a different matter. If your neighbors are happily employed while you have lost your job or are worried about layoffs, you may have more trouble coping.

“Community well-being definitely matters, but in surprising ways,” Probst said. “It can help people to cope better with private sources of stress such as financial struggles, while resulting in worse outcomes for those facing more public stressors such as unemployment.”

The study highlights the need for further research on economic stress factors to incorporate more of the social and economic context. The findings also raise questions about potential interventions for individuals, work groups and organizations, as well as social policy.

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Managing reservoirs for the health of the environment

John Harrison, School of the Environment

Reservoirs dot the Pacific Northwest, providing water for irrigation, fish conservation, hydropower and recreation. Yet these freshwater bodies also contribute to climate change by releasing methane—a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide—into the air.

Harrison3The use of fertilizers, fossil fuels and other practices common to industrial civilizations increases the discharge of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous into lakes, streams and coastal areas, causing algae growth, depleting oxygen and posing a hazard to human health. By slowing the flow of water through watersheds, thereby providing favorable conditions for algal growth and sediment trapping, reservoirs can greatly alter the flow of nutrients from uplands to the sea.

The same characteristics that make reservoirs good at trapping and removing nutrients also make them potent sources of methane. Yet we have only a limited understanding of the relationship between reservoirs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Water scientist John Harrison at WSU Vancouver is out to change that. While synthesizing global data on excess nutrients in freshwater systems, his team notiHarrison2ced the importance of reservoirs. On average, reservoirs trap and remove nutrients from water much faster than natural lakes do. Collectively, they also produce a lot of methane, about as much as other important sources such as biomass burning, landfills and rice cultivation globally

With nearly $1 million in recent grants from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Harrison is studying reservoirs throughout the Pacific Northwest, seeking ways to enhance water quality while minimizing their release of Harrison1methane. “The results we’ve seen so far suggest that better managing nutrients within a watershed could reduce methane releases,” Harrison said.

Altering the timing of drawdowns—when dam operators lower the level of the reservoir by releasing water—may be especially important.

Ultimately Harrison hopes to bring lessons learned in the Pacific Northwest to reservoir managing agencies throughout the country.

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Can water cycling help predict ecological changes?

Variations in Ecohydrological Function With Climate and Urbanization

Kevan Moffett, Assistant Professor, School of the Environment

Understanding, predicting and managing the responses of ecosystems, water resources and people to climate change and urbanization are among the greatest challenges of this century. With her New Faculty Seed Grant, Kevan Moffett is addressing this challenge.

KevanMoffettMoffett came to WSU Vancouver with 10 years of prior research experience in coastal wetlands, preceded by three years of consulting on urban drinking-water supply management. In general, her ecohydrology research group applies core knowledge in the hydrologic sciences, linked with an understanding of water cycling through plants and ecosystems, to better understand the biophysical functioning, spatial arrangement and temporal development of complex systems—including cities, wetlands, agricultural fields and forested hillslopes.

Drawing on all of this experience, the research funded by her seed grant will begin to quantify how ecosystem water cycling varies among natural, agricultural and urban settings across the Pacific Northwest (from the wet coast, across the Cascades, to drier eastern Oregon and Washington) and thereby will help to make ecohydrological predictions given future climate change and urbanization.

Here specific research questions are:

  • How does partitioning of precipitation into plant uptake, soil evaporation, runoff, human use and soil/ground storage vary in space and time in an urban setting and across the climate gradient?
  • At the local scale, how does variation in urban forest density and type affect this water balance partitioning and also the temperatures of surface runoff to salmon habitat streams?
  • In comparison, how is the water balance partitioned in nearby natural forests, impacted to different degrees by past wildfires?

In a recent special projects course on ecohydrology, Moffett and her students made a preliminary assessment of spatial and temporal water balance variations, including urban, agricultural and natural land covers, within five urban areas in the Pacific Northwest. Two graduate students conducted more in-depth research on urban forests (street trees, etc.) and natural forests in Washington. The seed grant provides one semester of support for each of the graduate students to assist with the research.Kevan2

The research will provide preliminary data and demonstrate the experience and expertise needed to apply for large external grants on related topics. Moffett intends to submit two follow-up proposals to state or federal agencies, one each focused on the urban forest and natural forest systems. In addition, the study will help establish Moffett’s research group as a hub for ecohydrology studies in the Pacific Northwest.

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