College of Arts and Sciences American University Washington, D. C. Winter 2011 www.american.edu/cas
catalyst AMERICAN UNIVERSITY SCIE NCE
editorial Science and the Oil Spill: Why Do We Care?
Andrew Frank, biology, ’11
A catalyst, as defined by scientists, facilitates chemical
The part of the world destroyed by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill is larger than any one person can
reactions by bringing together substances that might not interact in its absence. Similarly, Catalyst is one place
imagine. Have you ever wondered what lives beneath the sand at your favorite beach? Have you
where all the sciences come together to relay exciting
ever wondered what lives in between your beach umbrella and the deep ocean? Most images
scientific developments happening at AU, in the AU
that came out of the news coverage of the oil spill were of thousands of oil-covered pelicans,
community, and beyond.
struggling to breathe under layers of oil. But the true story of the spill lies beyond the oil-covered
Catalyst is a semiannual magazine created to promote
pelican. The biodiversity associated with the Gulf coast is unfathomable, from the tiny sand-grain-
discourse and keep us up to date about how science at
sized invertebrates under your feet at the beach to colorful starfish prowling the deep. We will never know the extent of the biodiversity that was once in this bountiful habitat. But what is the value of understanding the former habitat of the Gulf coast? Do tiny invertebrates
AU affects and inspires us all. Our mission is to: serve students and faculty in the sciences as a means to inspire, inform, and promote discourse; share news and accomplishments of students and faculty; inform students of timely and valuable opportunities; raise the profile of
and thousands of other species of plants and unicellular organisms really impact the daily lives
the sciences at AU; and expose students outside of CAS
of people? Often, as people of practicality, we are coaxed into a comfortable place, distant from
to exciting science classes.
the problems we face as society. Watching pelicans suffer from an oil-covered coat is sad, but
Our success will be measured by how useful and
helping those pelicans probably will not put food on your table, and it might not even affect this
informative you find this publication. So we want
week’s pay. Even more so then, the often-ignored "little guys" of science, the sea cucumber and
to hear from you!
the snail, are lost in the crowd of the cute and fuzzy (and edible) animals. So, was there a tragedy in the Gulf oil spill? Certainly, the economy of the region was temporarily shattered, and men and women lost their livelihoods. But dollars and cents can return to the site
Editors: Shirin Karimi, literature and premedical studies ’11 Andrew Frank, biology and environmental science '11 email@example.com
of a disaster; extinct species cannot. We as a civilization must ask ourselves the value of things that cannot have immediate relevancy to our daily lives. Many sciences cannot directly transform their findings into profit, but we must continue to support them for the intangible wonders that are wrought in the pursuit of knowledge. The Gulf spill was a tragedy because we as a people allowed
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that irreplaceable, intangible wonder to erode. Science cannot be understood only in terms of applications in the here and now. While studying the loss of biodiversity in the Gulf won’t rid the world of disease, it does make positive contributions to a wealth of human knowledge that can ultimately be used for humanity’s (continued on inside back cover)
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on the cover
Inspired by the film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the cover features Daniel Fong, associate professor of biology in AU's College of Arts and Sciences. Photo by Jeff Watts.
SCIENCE ISSUES—Science and the Oil Spill: Why Do We Care? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Inside cover SCIENCE STARS: Student Projects Affecting You! Sewage Pollution in Our Oceans . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2 Have We Finally Found a Cause for Coral Disease? More than a Stipend . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4 Biology Scholarship Gives Senior Chance to Learn Array of Skills Looking More Closely at the Stars . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5 Astronomy Gives Student Unique Path to World of Physics One Biochemistry Lab, Many Experiments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 Students Tackle Wide Variety of Challenges in Pursuit of Research Interests PROFESSOR PROFILES Making Computers Understandable . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 Michael Black’s Simulator Helps Students See How Microprocessors Work Shining Light on a Complex World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 Joshua Lansky Uses Math to Understand Underlying Laws of Nature New Science Resources at the University Library . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 Cool Science Classes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Inside back cover Modern Physics
Sewage Pollution in Our Oceans— Have We Finally Found a Cause for Coral Disease? By Christine Dolendo, public communication and premedical studies, ’12 Photos by Kiho Kim
or decreasing the chances of corals to recover from disease by lowering the corals’ immunity,” she adds. “This is something we supported with a laboratory study.”
Graduate student Jamey Redding is a passionate example of childhood dreams coming true. Having dreamt of being a marine biologist since the age of 9, Redding is fulfilling her childhood aspirations today by conducting research in the place she loves most—the ocean. Redding recently traveled to Guam to study the rapid buildup of sewage pollution on its precious coral reefs, hoping to save the biodiversity of the ocean she became fascinated by as a child. Why should anyone care about corals? “If you look in terms of diversity, coral reefs are the tropical rain forests of the ocean,” Redding says. “They are huge nursery grounds for marine life and provide habitats for many animals. They are also a huge protection for our coastlines. If there are no reefs there’s
nothing to slow down hurricanes and storms from coming.” And let’s not forget; they’re very beautiful. Recently these benefits coral reefs provide have been threatened around the world. One reason is the influx of coral diseases within the last 40 to 50 years. Interestingly, many of the pathogens that cause these diseases are often unknown: They could be from African dust or they could originate from fecal matter. Redding explains that diseases could be passing from coral to coral in Guam and could be made worse by pollution. “Dr. [Kiho] Kim and I, and the rest of the team, are working on the idea that high sewage impact may negatively affect coral. The sewage could be either increasing disease prevalence
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To confirm the team’s hypothesis, Redding used stable isotope analysis, a chemical technique that has been used to trace the origins of nitrogen pollution. The study hinges on the importance of certain types of the same atoms, called isotopes, in an environment. For example, the earth has about a 99 percent abundance of Nitrogen-14 (14N). But there is a heavier isotope of nitrogen called 15N that is much less abundant but accumulates from one trophic level to the next (i.e., the level a group of organisms occupies on the food chain). According to Redding, because humans are at a high trophic level and we consume a wide range of nutrients, we have a high level of 15N in our waste material that is subsequently released to the environment. With this logic, Redding conducted her own project determining whether there are high 15N isotope levels in corals and other reef organisms; the higher the 15N /14N signature, the more likely that the nitrogen material is from sewage material. To do this, Redding’s colleagues in Guam conducted a transect sampling of three areas on a reef in six different sites to look at coral disease over
the period of a year. From those same reefs, samples of coral and algae were collected. Redding took those samples, ground each of them with a mortar and pestle, burnt them in hydrochloric acid, dried them, and took all 500 samples to a mass spectrophotometer to determine their isotope values. It was found that samples from most of the sewage outfall areas showed lower isotope values (i.e., sewage impact) than expected. “This could be because the currents take the sewage away,” says Redding. But Redding was also surprised to see a spike in isotope
values in a bay in front of “Hotel Row,” suggesting that sewage outfall may not be the only source of nitrogen pollution. “So overall, it’s a little complicated. We don't have all of the results in order to make a statement about disease and sewage just yet,” says Redding. “What I would hope to achieve is to paint a picture of what is really happening underneath those waters.” Redding’s research was set up by Professor Kiho Kim of American University’s College of Arts and Sciences through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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(NOAA), a federal agency focused on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere. Her future endeavors? Redding is flirting with the idea of getting her PhD. For now, she is about to intern at the State Department’s Office of Ocean and Polar Affairs. “I want to see how government is in terms of their policy for marine life,” says Redding. “If I see that I really like working in the government then I might look into working for NOAA or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.” It will be a long and exciting journey ahead, but for Jamey Redding, “it’s all for the corals.”
Biology Scholarship Gives Senior More than Stipend Photo by Rachel Lynne Smith
By Rachel Lynne Smith, film and media arts ’12
When Mobola Oyefule won the Gloria Likins Undergraduate Scholarship for Women in Biology in 2009, she earned more than just a research stipend to study the genetics of Gammarus minus in David Carlini’s lab. “By working in the lab, I learned about methods and how to test a hypothesis,” Oyefule said. “The award gave me the opportunity to learn skills that I can translate to any field in the future.” The Likins award aims to help women in biology acquire research experience and encourages them to consider careers in research. Oyefule plans to attend medical school after graduation and said that working in Carlini’s lab gave her the opportunity to learn skills she never could have obtained in class alone.
want to know what’s affecting the expression of these proteins,” Oyefule said. The senior biology major hoped that this research would help scientists learn more about molecular evolution and eventually find analogous pathways in human genetics.
“The experiments you do in biology class are not enough,” Oyefule said. “I don’t feel like I really understood what it meant to be a researcher before I started working in this lab.”
In the spring, Oyefule will present her research at AU’s College of Arts and Sciences’ research conference, for which she will prepare a paper, poster, and speech.
In the lab, Oyefule studied the expression of visual proteins, also known as opsin proteins, within the eyes of two different populations of the shrimp-like amphipod Gammarus minus. This species, commonly found in the springs, streams, and caves of Appalachia, provided a good model for the study of intraspecific variation because different populations of this same species can live in considerably dissimilar habitats and develop slight differences in their gene structure.
This is Oyefule’s first research job. She works in the lab with both Carlini and AU junior biology major Laura Lee. Carlini explained that he had a sort of “symbiotic relationship” with his students in which they all benefit from each other. “[Oyefule] is gathering data for me, and we’re eventually going to publish this. In return, I’ve trained her not only to collect data but also to analyze it and think about what she’s collected,” Carlini said. Oyefule said she received a solid training in research methods from Carlini, who taught her not only the procedures but also why they are important.
Oyefule compared the proteins of a cave population to those of a surface population. She explained that while almost genetically identical, the surface population expressed more visual proteins than the cave population. A surface population, with access to enough light to use its sense of vision to find food, will genetically express the visual proteins. In contrast a cave population with exposure to little or no light will over time evolve to reduce the expression of metabolically costly but useless visual proteins. “We’re sequencing proteins and DNA, hoping to find exactly what is causing the differences in eyesight between the two populations. We
After graduating from American University this spring, Oyefule plans to study medicine with an emphasis on global development and public health. Originally from Nigeria, she hopes to someday return and practice medicine in her home country. Her ultimate goal is “to become the best physician [she] can possibly be.” In 2010, Oyefule also won AU's Hassa S. Shanker Premedical Achievement Award. This $2,000 prize is awarded each year to an outstanding undergraduate premedical student at American University. According to Oyefule, she chose to attend American University (continued on page 12)
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Looking More Closely at the Stars Photos by Shirin Karimi
By Shirin Karimi, literature and premedical studies, ’11
Professor U.J. Sofia and Betsy White
For many people, the stars serve as a source of pure visual beauty or perhaps a foundation for questions of our existence. For senior Betsy White, the stars provide answers to some of the questions posed by astronomers while illuminating her unique path to the world of physics. After White arrived at AU with the intention to study political science, she supplemented her government courses with Physics for the Modern World and Astronomy to fulfill her General Education requirements. She became increasingly drawn to the sciences after discussing her classes in office hours
and came to a decision. “I thought I would try physics out and changed all of my classes on the very last day of the add/drop period,” White recalls. Even though she thought she would eventually switch back to the social sciences, she fell in love with the subject and enjoyed her transition with the support of the Physics Department. White explains her fascination with her new major when she describes her Changing Views of the Universe class with the chair of the department, Professor U. J. Sofia: “I really enjoyed learning about quantum mechanics, relativity, black holes . . . the craziest stuff you come across in physics was what we grappled with that semester.” With her curiosity about physics initiated by three fateful classes, White quickly transitioned from a newcomer to the major to a researcher in a new area of study in the course of her junior year. After expressing her interest in research, White was hired this past summer as a research assistant on Professor Sofia's grant from the Hubble Space Telescope to study interstellar dust. One may ask why astronomers would put emphasis on dust grains when they are such a minuscule part of the greater scheme of interstellar space. Because the light emitted by the stars in the universe constitutes the only information astronomers receive about the stars, the interstellar dust interferes with the light and can either create false positives or skew the representation of the data received
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from the stars’ light. White explains the interference by comparing the dust’s effect to a sunset: “A sunset isn’t actually red but as it sets, the light from the sun travels through more of the atmosphere along with the atmosphere’s dust and pollution. The shorter wavelengths of light are absorbed by the dust and pollution so we only observe red light (the longer wavelengths).” With Sofia as her research mentor, White began analyzing sulfur, an element that has never been looked at before in the interstellar dust’s composition. After downloading data from 50 sight lines (the line of direction from the observer to the star) from the Hubble Space Telescope Archive, White spent the summer learning the Interactive Data Language (IDL) computer language. She utilized IDL to build a computer program to model stellar spectra. Since the data reduction aspect of the project was time consuming, White decided that she would like to continue her research as an independent study throughout the school year. By looking at the stellar spectra that she modeled with her computer program, White was able to determine how much sulfur was present in the dust clouds from each sight line. She distinguished the amount by looking specifically at “dips” in the absorption lines of the spectra. At certain wavelengths, light emanating from the
of resources.” She adds that “the program helps bridge different sciences together since people can become so invested in their own specialty that they don’t realize the exciting developments in the other fields.” Besides assisting the mission to further open the scientific academy to women, White reaches out to her own classmates who may be changing directions on their academic course of study. She served as a teaching assistant for Physics in the Modern World her sophomore year and now works in the General Education Faculty Assistance Program to help students studying astronomy. She will continue as a teaching assistant in astronomy next semester as well, passing her knowledge and passion to other burgeoning physicists, in addition to speaking at AU’s preview days to prospective freshmen about the Physics Department and “the possibilities of finding your life path in the place where you least expect it.”
stars is absorbed, resulting in “dips” in the spectra so that an observer sees black lines interspersed among the spectrum of colors instead of seeing a continuous spectrum of all the colors. White’s computer model analyzes the absorption lines and will determine the amount of sulfur in the dust. White expects that her data reduction from this past semester will lead to conclusions on the effect of interstellar dust next semester. She plans to determine how significant sulfur is in the dust’s composition by comparing her sulfur data set to the
established hydrogen data set in dust. Since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, White will be able to provide some foundation for sulfur’s role in interstellar dust for other researchers to utilize. White’s newfound passion in physics does not stop at the physics laboratory. She serves as cochair of American University’s Women in Science program, which was founded this year. White explains that “Women in Science is a platform for women to share knowledge and experiences. We want to recruit more women into the sciences and build a network
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The next step for White involves continuing her research with Sofia and taking more classes to supplement her physics education. While her future is open at the moment, White hopes to eventually become a physics professor, acknowledging her love for both the research and teaching aspects of collegiate education. She smiles when she recalls stargazing trips with her father and a telescope, becoming intrigued by the visual appeal behind those faraway objects, and deciding to take those first physics classes to further her interest. “If you had told me three years ago that I would eventually go to grad school for astrophysics,” White admits, “I would have laughed.”
One Biochemistry Lab, Many Experiments By Vijaya Singh, international studies, ’11 Tucked away in a little corner on the south side of AU’s campus is a vibrant biochemistry lab bubbling with activity. Under the guidance of Professor Kathryn Muratore, there are currently three pairs of students working on cutting-edge enzyme mutation projects.
undergraduate work in biochemistry at AU, said he had “dabbled in programming” before and thought he should combine programming and biochemistry. Christie decided to try biochemistry research after taking a biochemistry class. Because she had no programming background, Christie said she had to teach herself how to code for computers, which she did by practicing and writing basic programs.
Muratore graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BS in chemistry. While at Carnegie Mellon she did a summer internship at what was then DuPont Pharmaceuticals. It was there she developed an interest in enzymology. She went on to attain a PhD in molecular and cell biology from the University of California–Berkeley and do postdoctorate research at Johns Hopkins University. Muratore came to American University because she thought it was a “perfect fit,” a way to teach and do research.
Sheftel and Christie’s program currently analyzes sequences of amino acids in proteins in the C language. The C language is a general and older computer programming language. Sheftel and Christie are working on rewriting the program in Perl, which is designed for multitasking and real-time programming and has better memory allocation, as well
as in Python. Because of this difference in language design, it would be difficult to simply “translate” the C language into Perl and Python. Christie looks at what the program does in the C language and then writes in the other languages for a similar action. Sheftel and Christie hope to finish their work by this spring to write and publish a paper on their work. Sheftel will be continuing his academic career at AU, but Christie, who will graduate in the spring, will defer graduate school in pursuit of a career in environmental energy policy and lobbying. The Challenges of Purification The computer program produces potential covariation in protein amino acid sequences,
The research currently conducted in the biochemistry lab is an extension of Muratore’s previous work. She has written a computer program that identifies potential covariation in protein amino acid sequences and plans to test the effects these covariations may have on enzyme function through the use of mutagenesis and enzymatic assays.
Sam Sheftel, a first-year master’s student in chemistry, and Shannon Christie, a senior majoring in environmental science, were the first two students to start working with Professor Muratore. Sheftel, who did his
Photos by Vijaya Singh
The Languages of Programming
Daniel Catt and Tim Borbet
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but what the program produces needs to be experimented on to figure out whether it has real-world application. Daniel Catt, a senior premed student, and Tim Borbet, a senior biochemistry major, are currently in the first stages of the experimental process. Conceptually, the active site of an enzyme has a certain amino acid sequence that determines what the enzyme can act onâ€”an aspect of the enzyme called its specificity. Catt and Borbet are trying to determine exactly how specific the enzyme is. After this is determined, they can then move on to attempting to mutate the enzyme to change its specificity and try to make the enzyme act on more than one substrate. Currently, both are performing protein purifications, meaning they are working with the actual enzyme and have not started mutations. Catt and Borbet say that they enjoy their work but it does come with some challenges. The work is very tedious because they have to perform the same tasks multiple times to prove consistency. However, getting the conditions right for the purification, mainly in regards to the pH levels, has proven to be the biggest challenge so far. Their goal is to get three consistent trials so they can publish their work. Professor Muratore, however, has stated that Catt and Borbet have stumbled on to an interesting piece of work that they can perhaps put in a separate, smaller paper. The smaller paper would be about coupled reactions specifically in regards to hydroxyisocaproate dehydrogenase.
Tamra Fisher and Jennifer Gaston
Women in Science Tamra Fisher, a junior biochemistry major, and Jennifer Gaston, a senior psychology major and chemistry minor, are further along in their research. They have moved past the purification stage and have started mutations on the enzyme malate dehydrogenase. Malate dehydrogenase is the enzyme that acts on malate, the compound that gives green apples their sour taste. Fisher and Gastonâ€™s procedures involved the same steps that Catt and Borbet are currently taking, and having already confirmed the enzymeâ€™s substrate, they are currently focused on modifying its
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actions to accommodate lactate, a derivative of malate. Aside from their research, Fisher and Gaston are in the newly founded Women in Science organization at AU. Shannon Christie is actually one of the students who helped to start the organization with Fisher and Gaston now under her wing. Christie said one of the main reasons she wanted to start the organization is because she felt that, at AU, the sciences are a little overlooked. Fisher and Gaston said they joined the organization because it would connect them with professionals in their field.
Computer Simulator Helps Students Understand Microprocessors By Monica Fabos, psychology, ’13
Photo by Monica Fabos
Michael Black, who teaches computer science in American University’s College of Arts and Sciences, is creating a complex software simulation of a modern computer that aims to outperform any simulator currently on the market. With a little over a year left on his two-year grant from the National Science Foundation, Black has made impressive progress toward that goal. The simulator is built for computer science students—undergraduate and graduate—who want an in-depth knowledge of the workings behind microprocessors and other essential parts of computers. “It is basically a computer program that runs other computer programs,” says Black. As of now, he has been able to program Windows 3.1 and wants to eventually have Windows Vista and Windows 7 as available options. Students can look at the activity behind each component of these programs and understand how they run. He
allows students to manipulate the programs, create their own activities within the programs, and watch what’s working where and when in slow motion. This program is mainly for computer design researchers and computer science students. A model of modern processors that no researcher now has, it creates an up-todate guideline to designing a computer and understanding what changes can be made to modern processors. The best part about this simulator, however, is that it also offers feedback when users try out new actions within the programs, giving students the information they need to realize the effects of their modifications. Black’s current graduate class is evaluating the program while using it as a tool in the class. So far, many students have enjoyed the benefits they have gained from Black’s simulator, which is helping them to excel in his class. His colleagues and PhD advisor from the University of Maryland are also consultants on this project, and they will aid in ensuring the accuracy of the models. Even though academics are the target audience for this simulator, Black wants it to become a useful tool for anyone. At some point, he wants it to be commonly used by those interested in building or understanding their own computers.
Black is writing an accompanying manual to the program to allow college computer science professors to use the program as a teaching aid. He would also like to create an easyto-follow booklet for the simulator. Once the project is finished, Black hopes someone else will pick it up and expand it into something greater. “A good project takes on a life of its own, and this could be one of those,” says Black. Black got an early start in his field. As a 10-year-old growing up in Indiana, he began learning computer assembly language. Even then, he was interested in computer architecture and engineering. He later attended the University of Maryland–College Park, where he also received his MS and PhD in electrical engineering. Along with Black’s enthusiasm for computer science, he has a strong passion for teaching others what he loves most. He teaches courses ranging from introductory to graduate levels. His research interests are computer architecture and parallel computing, and he has published in various international computer science and computer architecture education journals and seminars. At AU, Black is the faculty advisor for ACM, the student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery, and also chair of the DC ACM Academic Advisory Board. (continued on page 12)
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Photo by Andrew Frank
memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Lansky could relate to Feynman’s love of the natural world. “He was quite a character; he really attracted me to the whole world of physics.” At Brown, which he attended as an undergraduate, Lansky points to his ungraceful performance in the university physics lab. “I had a kind of notorious reputation for wrecking and destroying the lab when it came to doing experiments,” he says. “I guess I liked the cleaner aspects of physics, the mathematical aspects, the derivations, and the rigorous proving of formulas.”
Shining Light on a Complex World: Joshua Lansky’s Mathematical Research By Andrew Frank, biology, ’11 Joshua Lansky is passionate about higher mathematics. Now a year into his recently awarded National Science Foundation grant, Lansky, along with American University mathematics professors Jeffery Adler and Jeffery Hakim, works to bring abstract fields of research together to gain a better understanding of the underlying laws of mathematics. Working together and sharing knowledge with experts in the field, Lansky is
expanding his own research and mathematical research done at American. Lansky began his career as a mathematician in physics. “In high school I started to really marvel at how much was known about the physical world, and how much of a role mathematics played in that knowledge,” he says. As a young man in college, Lansky drew inspiration from Richard Feynman’s quirky
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During his time as an undergraduate, Lansky began work on what eventually led to his current research as an AU faculty member. “I was drawn into an area, representation theory, that has a lot of applications to physics, and right now I work in a part of representation theory that is more removed from physical applications.” At Brown, Lansky found himself surrounded with professors who excelled in algebra, number theory, and representation theory, and found interest in those subjects, drawn to studying complex symmetries and patterns. When Lansky entered Harvard for his PhD, he decided to do research under Benedict Gross, known for his work in the field of number theory. “I took this graduate number theory course with Benedict Gross, and it was the greatest course I had ever taken. The ideas just blew me away, and I knew that I wanted to do something involving number theory.” During his tenure at graduate school, Lansky worked to carry out unique computations in the fields of number theory and representation theory. “Something like Wolfram Mathematica
just wasn’t efficient enough to do the millions of computations needed . . . We were dealing with different number systems and had to get the computers to deal with that.” Looking at one of the most famous contemporary mathematical proofs, Fermat’s Last Theorem, can help explain Lansky’s research in representation theory since graduate school. Proposed in 1637, the theorem is related to the Pythagorean theorem taught in geometry classes throughout the world: a² + b² = c². Fermat’s Last Theorem simply states that if a, b, and c are raised to a power greater than two, the equation becomes incorrect, and no possible set of positive whole numbers can satisfy the equation. This theorem took 358 years to prove, serving as the impetus for the development of entire mathematical fields, including certain aspects of modern number theory. Lansky’s work itself is highly related to the fields of number theory used to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem. Such a problem provides a glimpse into the complexity of mathematical proofs needed to make simple claims about numbers. There are other, related fields Lansky also uses to explain his research, like the concept of simple harmonics. “The simplest example is sound waves; even the most complicated sound waves are just super-positions of various simple tones called pure tones, or harmonics. The combinations of the pure tones are what make sounds distinctive . . . Given a complicated mathematical signal, you can decompose it to pure tones, or you can take pure tones and assemble a signal.” In essence, Lansky and fellow researchers at American are able to compose and
decompose complex functions, using the same mathematical principles that govern sound waves. Particularly, Lansky uses simple arrays of numbers, called matrices, to accomplish this task. Numbers arranged in columns and rows can elucidate the complex relationships seen in the systems he studies. Indeed, working with these matrices is what moved Lansky early in his research at Harvard to develop new, more efficient computer programs to efficiently carry out large amounts of calculations. “A three-by-three array of real numbers, if it has the right properties, can be viewed as a rotation of three-dimensional space. If you look at the set of all these matrices, you get a set of symmetries called the orthogonal group. That’s the group that can describe the hydrogen atom.” In essence, using matrices as a starting point, one can describe the motions of a fundamental part of nature. Currently, Lansky has finished the first year’s work on a collective National Science Foundation grant for his work on representation theory at American University and other universities across the United States. With Jeffery Adler and Jeffery Hakim, two fellow AU mathematicians, the group secured the largest amount of funding in the grant, allowing the researchers to spend time working on representation theory, allowing them the ability to buy the necessary hardware and software required to perform their computations, and providing money to allow other universities’ faculty members to visit American University to facilitate research. So far, the team has invited a mathematician from India to help consult, and its members
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put together a conference at the University of Michigan. Specifically, the NSF grant (called a focused research group grant) allows research on the Langland conjectures, made 40 years ago, which have guided representation theory research since. These conjectures have allowed strides in research that have linked together concepts in number theory, like Fermat’s Last Theorem, to concepts similar to simple harmonics. “The research isn’t anywhere close to being done, but every avenue people seem to investigate seems to bear out what Langland thought was true,” says Lansky. Getting the grant itself wasn’t easy either. “The grant was extremely competitive, and the amount of people who get these types of grants is very small.” So far, Lansky has had two papers accepted at peerreviewed journals based on the research done under the grant. Lansky has a passion beyond his own research and he readily defends mathematics and his role as a teacher in the face of people who might doubt their usefulness. “Just increasing our knowledge of mathematics is doing something for mankind, and is worthwhile . . . All of mathematics is essentially real-world mathematics . . . you might not be able to see concepts in the real world, but they really do exist,” says Lansky. “It requires a little bit of forward thinking. Not everything we’re doing is going to be readily applicable, but a proportion may be extremely important in the future. I think we want a university that is forward thinking in this regard.”
Computer Simulator (continued from page 10) In September 2009, he taught undergraduate students of Sankalchand Patel College of Engineering (SPCE) in India and conducted research with students and faculty for five months as a part of the Fulbright Fellowship Program, which aims at increasing a greater academic connection between the United States and other countries. Currently, Black devotes his limited free time to the computer simulator. Considering the extensive work involved in writing a program, his work through the summer and currently during the school year has shown remarkable development.
Biology Scholarship (continued from page 4) because of the academically solid premedical program, small class sizes, and close teacherstudent interactions. Outside of the Biology Department, she is involved in the university’s Alternative Breaks program, through which she will lead a social-justice themed trip to study HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., this spring.
NEW SCIENCE RESOURCES AT THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY An update on science teaching and research resources from Bender Library By Rachel Borchardt, science librarian NEW RESEARCH DATABASES
SELECTED NEW BOOKS
ScienceDirect Freedom Collection— addition of more than 1,800 new journals, largely in the sciences
For more new titles, check out the New Titles RSS feeds in the science subject guides: http://subjectguides.library.american.edu.
GREENR (Global Reference on the Environment, Energy, and Natural Resources)—a collection of resources related to environmental sciences and policy PsychiatryOnline’s DSM-IV-TR—An online copy of the most current version of the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Safari TechBooks—Thousands of technical e-books, including up-todate programming manuals Films On Demand—6,500 online, streaming videos that cover many science topics NEW ELECTRONIC JOURNAL SUBSCRIPTIONS Journal of Neuroscience Cognitive Neuroscience
AU FACULTY BOOK Principles of Environmental Chemistry, 2nd edition, by James E. Girard. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2010. QD33.2 .G57 2010 OTHER BOOKS Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design, by Allene Phy-Olsen. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2010. QH367.3 .P485 2010 Environmental Social Science: HumanEnvironment Interactions and Sustainability, by Emilio F. Moran. Malden, MA: WileyBlackwell, 2010. GF75 .M668 2010 Biology is Technology: The Promise, Peril, and New Business of Engineering Life, by Robert H. Carlson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. TP248.2 .C37 2010
The Gloria Likins Undergraduate Scholarship for Women in Biology was endowed by American University graduate Gloria Likins. Likins graduated from AU in 1960 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and then worked as an associate for the National Institutes of Health, according to AnewAU’s Web site. Likins passed away in 2005 after having named AU the primary beneficiary of her estate, permanently endowing the scholarship.
Nature Genetics Cochrane Library Annals of Mathematics Ecology Letters Perception
The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow. New York: Bantam Books, 2010. The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, by Heidi Cullen. New York: Harper, 2010. QC903 .C85 2010
To make suggestions for additional purchases or subscriptions, or to submit questions/comments, please contact Rachel Borchardt, science librarian, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-885-3657.
Catalyst Winter 2011 12
Science Issues (continued from inside front cover)
betterment. Science in general is about discerning truth that’s not obvious at first glance. Whether it’s the physical properties of the universe, or the biological properties of a damaged ecosystem, science explores deep questions that sometimes go beyond what a person might call relevant. But it is not for naught. Science has brought about
cool science classes Modern Physics: An interview with Matt Columbus By James Page, premedical studies, '12 As I approach I see a man sitting at his computer desk utterly absorbed in what he is reading. He is a tall and sharp fellow. His glasses lie on the bridge of his nose while his keen eyes shuffle from side to side absorbing everything it can from the Wikipedia article about Schrödinger’s Cat.
comprehension—it is an active force in
When I approach he smiles and asks me, “Want to hear a joke?”
making the world a better place. Indeed,
“Sure,” I say, “I could always use a laugh.”
like our magazine’s namesake, science
“Dr. Heisenberg is driving down the highway when all of a sudden he sees some flashing red and blue lights in his rearview mirror. It’s the 5-0, so he pulls over. The police officer walks up and says, ‘Dr. Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?’ Heisenberg replies, ‘I have no idea, but I do know exactly where I am.’”
betterment of human society beyond our
is a catalyst for innovation and the betterment of humanity—while it may not directly lead to these things, it allows us to reach them faster. In this issue, we cover a range of topics, from complex mathematics to sewage pollution on the coral reefs of Guam. Some research profiled is readily applicable to the needs of humanity, while some research profiled is abstract and complex in nature. However, like our magazine’s namesake, this research is a catalyst for a better future for humanity.
From here I proceed to ask Matt Columbus, history, ‘12, what he has to say about his Modern Physics class, which he is he taking this semester. Question: So, as a history major, why are you taking Modern Physics? A: I’m an applied physics minor. I decided to take on a physics minor after reading The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. The book and Sagan further emblazoned my passion for science and knowledge in general. I find the history of scientific development, which is partially covered in Modern Physics and Changing Views of the Universe, to be incredibly fascinating. Question: How does Modern Physics apply to your education? Do you see yourself pursuing a career or further education in physics?
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A: Modern Physics is a class that teaches a lot of the most basic concepts of quantum and relativistic physics. Conceptually I find physics incredibly interesting and this class is perfect for me because it downplays the math while teaching conceptual physics. I’m not interested in pursuing science as a career, but I love learning
more about science, physics, and the universe in general. My dream job is to be a high school history teacher. However, I don’t think one should ever stop their education just because they graduated. Life is a continual learning experience and what better to learn about than how the world around us functions and works. Learning, reading, and studying physics will always be a hobby of mine. Realistically I don’t think I would be able to be the first man on Mars, but I sure as hell would want to read and learn all about it! Modern Physics is the perfect class for my interests. It provides a generalized curriculum about various subject matter ranging from quantum mechanics to space-time dilations. Question: What is your favorite thing about Modern Physics class? A: The old greats such as Einstein and Schrödinger used to perform thought experiments to come to their groundbreaking conclusions that helped to reshape what we knew about physics. In class Professor [Jessica] Uscinski asked the class to perform the same thought experiments and she helped us reason our way through them. I thought this was an incredible and unique way to learn. In very few classes do you get to discuss what it would be like to fly around space on a rocket ship. Question: Many people find physics to very daunting and challenging. Would you recommend Modern Physics to another non-science major? A: I would certainly recommend Modern Physics to anyone whether you are a science major or not. It definitely isn’t an easy class, but you get so much out of it. I think that Modern Physics is a great class and in fact I have the perfect analogy to describe how I feel about it. Carl Sagan once said about space travel that “the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we waded a little way out and the waters seem inviting.” Modern Physics was my first real step into a hard science class and so far I love it.
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