Issuu on Google+

Spring 2015 /// 1






Welcome to a World of Discovery!


he economics of gender diversity, the impact of climate change, the mysteries behind depression and human evolution—these are just a few examples of the broad breath of study going on every day in Columbian College classrooms, labs and field sites. Our scientists, Dean humanists and social scienBen Vinson tists are seeking solutions to the world’s most profound questions and, while doing so, equipping students with the investigative skills to meet tomorrow’s challenges. In this publication, you’ll follow gorilla dens through the jungles of Africa and ancient sea creatures in the ocean’s depths. You’ll join a race to mitigate the melting permafrost in the Arctic and gain new insights on the emotional and mental impact of job loss. Along the way, you’ll meet our amazing faculty and students who are expanding knowledge as they seek solutions. To hear about all we are doing in learning and research, I encourage you to visit our website or join our social media communities. There are many more stories to share. Ben Vinson III Dean, Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Gorilla Graveyard Yields Hints to Human Evolution


the lush green valley of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountain range and nestled in the shadow of twin volcano peaks, lies a graveyard like no other on earth. The carefully-tended field is covered by rocks and grass. Its plots are marked by simple stones and wooden stakes. On summer mornings in the Virunga field, it’s not unusual to find scientists and researchers—including Assistant Professor of Anthropology Shannon McFarlin and her graduate students—with shovels and picks in hand, digging through layers of dirt and unearthing makeshift coffins or loose bones in the ground. The scene isn’t as macabre as it sounds. These graves were never intended to remain undisturbed. This is a gorilla graveyard. At any one time, it’s the resting place for a dozen or more mountain gorillas, the world’s largest primates and one of humankind’s closest genetic relatives. It holds the remains of 400-pound silverbacks and infant apes of less than 10 pounds—victims of everything from respiratory disease to losing battles with bigger

Shannon McFarlin (right) and doctoral student Kate McGrath


Cracking the

Mollusk Mystery F

Photo: William Atkins

What is Killing the Ancient Sea Creatures?

or 500 million years, the nautilus has roamed the deep tropical waters of the IndioPacific Ocean region. With chocolaty-brown zebra stripes adorning its smooth white shell, the unassuming mollusk has seen the dinosaurs come and go. It has survived natural disasters from asteroids to earthquakes, and has adapted to shifts in the earth’s ecosystem and changes in the ocean’s chemistry. So why are these so-called living fossils dying in zoos and aquariums around the world? What could possibly be killing a shell fish so resilient that it outlived the T-Rex?


COLUMBIAN BY THE NUMBERS: • 496 full-time faculty • 8000+ students • 53 majors; 61 minors • 80 graduate programs • 28 research centers/institutes • $16 million in research awards

INSIDE Exposing Imposter Ants...... 2

Gender-Diverse Office.........5

In Brief.................................7

New Grants ........................ 4

Unemployment and Depression............................ 6

Permafrost........................... 8

2 /// GW Arts & Sciences Discovery

Exposing‘Imposter’Ants Stealthy new species invades unsuspecting colonies

Two mirror turtle ants feed on baited bark. Photo: Scott Powell


Powell first discovered the new species of ant while conducting fieldwork in Brazil. From a treetop perch, he observed thousands of hyper-aggressive host ants—Crematogaster ampla— on their search for food when he noticed that one thing “wasn’t quite like the others.”

Yet, in the midst of these defend-to-thedeath ants, a group of impostors—a new species discovered by Assistant Professor of Biology Scott Powell—go undetected. These stealthy, parasitic ants infiltrate the host’s marching lines while in disguise. They steal their food. And they escape.

The host ants, hurrying along their busy branch highway system, dropped chemical pheromone-messages to their fellow workers along the way. The mirror turtle ants, colored black like the host ants, darted from their nests and rapidly merged into the high-speed traffic. Once inside the host’s foraging network, the mirror turtle ants disguised themselves among the enemy workers by “mirroring” their body movements. They raised their backsides in the air, imitating the host ants’ distinctive posture. This mimicking behavior—along with their unprecedented ability to “eavesdrop” on the host’s chemical trail of pheromones—allowed the parasitic ants to successfully locate and exploit the host’s food resources.

undreds of thousands of belligerent black ants envelop the low-lying tree branches in Brazil’s woodland savanna. Intruders who dare cross the workers’ paths face jolts from their venomous stingers.

The undercover insect is called Cephalotes specularis, or the mirror turtle ant. “This is an entirely new form of social parasitism in ants,” Powell revealed in a study recently published in The American Naturalist. “The mimicking, eavesdropping and nesting behavior of the mirror turtle ant has never been seen before.” Scott Powell observes ants from the top of a cerrado tree in the Brazilian savanna.

“I did a true double take,” Powell said. “I saw these ants that looked almost identical to the others, but they were behaving differently, dodging away quickly when they got too close to another ant. They were in amongst them, but trying to keep their distance.” With help from collaborators in Brazil, Powell determined that he had stumbled upon a previously unidentified species among the 118 currently recognized turtle ant types. His studies revealed that mirror turtle ants are embedded within a whopping 89 percent of host territories. Among the new ants’ most unique characteristics is a keen capacity to  “eavesdrop” on the host ants’ pheromone-based foraging trails; in fact, the imposters are more skilled at following the chemical trails than the host ants’ actual workers. Most extraordinary, Powell noted, the relationship between the host and the mirror turtle ant appears to be unlike other parasite-host connections. The two species live in entirely separate nests, an uncommon interaction known as xenobiosis. By contrast, other parasitic ants live inside their host’s nest and become entirely dependent on them. The imposter ant’s semi-independence makes it easier to study than parasites who cohabitate with their hosts. “Beyond the fascinating biology of this new ant, we appear to have a rare window into the early stages of the evolution of social parasitism, before the parasite has lost much of its free-living biology,” Powell said. “This promises to help us better understand the general pressures that tip a species toward a parasitic lifestyle.”

Spring 2015 /// 3


gorillas to poachers’ traps set for antelopes and other forest animals. By excavating and examining their bones, McFarlin, her students and a multi-disciplinary team of Rwandan and U.S. researchers are uncovering clues that could help save these gorillas from extinction, while also contributing to a better understanding of human evolution.

And the research center itself has suffered adversity. Amid the Rwandan civil war, Karisoke was evacuated five times, destroyed three times and rebuilt twice. Still, due to the staff’s conservation efforts, the Virunga gorillas are the only great ape species to increase in number, growing by more than 40 percent since 1989.

“The depth of information associated with these skeletons is extraordinary,” said McFarlin, a researcher in Columbian College’s Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology. “We can read the bones and teeth as a record of the animal’s life. They are essentially a catalog of everything that the gorilla experienced, from birth to death.”

“The importance of this project, not only for studying human evolution but also for protecting the mountain gorilla population, cannot be overstated,” said Kate McGrath, a third-year doctoral student in human paleobiology.

The graves and bones are just one part of a unique project spearheaded by McFarlin and research partners throughout Africa and the U.S. Dubbed the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project, the multi-disciplinary initiative is based in the Karisoke Research Center—the same field site where anthropologist Dian Fossey lived with great apes for 20 years. Long before McFarlin and her students arrived at Karisoke, Rwandan trackers hiked into the Virunga hills to observe the activities of living gorillas. (Some of the oldest apes were once studied by Fossey herself.) The trackers recorded everything from the animals’ diet and social habits to their illnesses, broken bones and the infanticide that is common among gorilla groups. At the same time, veterinarians helped maintain the gorillas’ health with check-ups and treatment.

McFarlin and her students have spent nearly every summer since the project’s inception excavating the animals’ bones in the gorilla graveyard. Each exhumed bone is painstakingly measured and recorded. Most remain at the Karisoke center to build local capacity and promote the region’s research opportunities. Others are on loan to McFarlin’s hard tissue lab in the new Science and Engineering Hall.

Since the onset of the project in 2008, apes have been buried in the center’s graveyard using meticulous interment protocols. Anywhere from six months to a year after the animals’ deaths, McFarlin’s team exhumes the skeletons—providing an unprecedented opportunity to compare the gorilla bones with the apes’ recorded life history. The result: a unique snapshot of the effects of socioecology, stress and environmental factors on the gorillas’ skeletal development.

The research involves everything from examining tooth enamel defects for indications of stress to studying fist-sized gorilla vertebrae for clues to the roots of arthritis. For example, post-doctoral scientist Jordi Galbany is using photogrammetry— a new technique that records physical characteristics using cameras, distance meters and calibrated laser pointers—to collect the first reliable measurements of living mountain gorillas in the wild.

“Think of this as a controlled experiment: We have the bones. We have the records. We match them together and study the link between behavior and biology,” said second-year anthropology graduate student Meredith Killough. “It gives us a unique opportunity to test assumptions that have existed for decades about development and the relationships between behavior and ecology.” McFarlin co-directs the Mountain Gorilla Skeletal Project with Dr. Antoine Mudakikwa, chief veterinarian from the Rwanda Development Board–Tourism and Conservation. The project’s other core partners include the New York University College of Dentistry, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International-Karisoke Research Center and the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the University of Indianapolis also made important contributions to the project, which has yielded the largest collection of mountain gorilla skeletal remains in the world—115 individual animals.

But studying gorillas in their native habitat has shortcomings as well. Mountain gorillas are critically endangered, with only 900 surviving in the wild, mostly in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The apes face threats like habitat loss and diseases transmitted by humans.

Gorilla jaw bones are studied for teeth defects.

Atk in Will iam Pho to:

Virtually all existing scientific data on the physical and anatomical characteristics of gorillas is derived from apes in captivity or poorly documented museum collections. That method has sharp limitations—not the least of which is the fact that there are no mountain gorillas in captivity. And captive ape studies don’t reflect natural conditions, like seasonal variabilities, food supply issues and interactions with social groups.



“We are at the intersection of evolutionary studies, anthropology and conservation,” said McFarlin. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

4 /// GW Arts & Sciences Discovery

MAJOR NEW GRANTS // Andrei Afanasev (physics): $50,000 from the Center for Innovative Technology to develop solar cells to improve the efficiency of converting solar light into electricity // Lynne Bernstein (speech and hearing): $271,602 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to test the brain’s general principles of perceptual learning in speech and non-speech categories // David Braun (anthropology): $228,511 from NSF to investigate the adaptations of the hominin species in Koobi Fora between 1.4 and 2 million years ago // David Costanza (organizational sciences and communication): $69,597 from the Army Research Institute to explore survival analysis as a technique for leadership development and officer and enlisted personnel success // Oleg Kargaltsev (physics): $50,415 from the Smithsonian to support a snap-shot survey of unidentified sources from the Fermi Gamma-Ray Space Telescope // Hua Liang (statistics): $123,983 from NSF to expand statistical and computational tools that divulge the underlying structure, dynamics and functionality of gene regulatory networks // Ira Lurie (chemistry): $292,808 from the Department of Justice and the National Institute of Justice to test the performance of fluid chromatography applied to synthetic cannabinoids and bath salts // Gustavo Hormiga (biology): $487,536 from NSF to study the phylogeny and diversification of orb weaving spiders // Peter Nemes (chemistry): $360,622 from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute of General Medical Sciences to use micro sample single-cell mass spectrometry to examine heterogeneous cell populations // Scott Powell (anthropology): $228,511 from NSF to identify the ecological and evolutionary interactions in turtle ant colonies between a host and its symbiotic gut bacteria as they integrate into one organism // Robert Pyron (biology): $374,299 from NSF to construct a species-level complete model of the phylogenetic, trait, spatial and environmental characteristics of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles // Ronald Workman (physics): $80,996 from NSF to examine individual hadrons such as protons and neutrons to develop theoretical tools and computational services for the discovery of new subatomic particles // Guangying Wu (psychology): $65,000 from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation to better understand— using a mouse-model—why humans with schizophrenia sustain auditory phantasms and disorganized speech

An aquarium-housed nautilus with a partially diseased shell


That is the mystery consuming Associate Professor of Forensic Sciences Mehdi Moini and a team of multi-disciplinary scientists assembled by the Smithsonian. Studying captive mollusks from the National Zoo, he and a detective squad of chemists, pathologists and even museum curators are hot on the killer’s trail. With the nautilus now on “the knife-edge” of extinction, as Moini puts it, cracking the case is crucial for studying everything from evolution to climate change. “This is an animal that has remained virtually unchanged for millions of years. Studying the nautilus is like looking through a window into the planet’s evolution,” Moini said. “It’s a scientific goldmine.” And while they haven’t quite solved the mollusk mystery, Moini and the team have uncovered a significant clue, as outlined recently in the journal Zoo Biology.


In the dark, cool water depth—nautilus can troll the sea floor at 2,000 feet—the animals have unusually long life spans of 15 years or more. But overfishing and the booming trade on their decorative shells has decimated the wild-nautilus population. Aquariums and zoos have become vital species-saving refuges and home to behavioral and developmental studies. But nautilus in captivity tend to die within just two to three years, and researchers aren’t exactly sure why. In search of a solution, researchers used an array of scientific equipment—from isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS) to micro X-ray fluorescence (XRF) to the Forensic Department’s state-of-the-art proteomics instrument, the Thermo Orbitrap. Once the nautilus is removed from its natural environment, a thick, roughhewed black substance develops on its smooth white shell. Examining samples from three nautiluses, Moini’s team compared proteomics from the healthy portion of the shell with that of the diseased portion that developed in captivity. When the scientists ran the samples through both the XRF and the IRMS, they found a severely tilted protein imbalance. The healthy white portions of the shells were routine. But the inky black areas were heavy with hemocyanin, a protein that leads to excess amounts of copper—a substance that can be harmful to shell formation. In addition, the discolored sections had lower levels of “healthy” proteins.

Spring Spring 2015 2015 /// /// 55

Gender-Diverse Offices More Productive,

el B

ent ley

Less Harmonious In


to: Mic ha

an eight-year study, Economics Professor Wally Mullin found that co-ed workplaces can boost profits, but may deflate morale. While gender diversity dramatically improves a company’s bottom line, Mullin and his fellow researchers revealed that people prefer to work with colleagues of the same sex—suggesting that employees value the idea of diversity more than diversity itself.

“When I saw this, my eyes lit up. These levels shouldn’t be present,” Moini said. “Proteins are responsible for building the shell, so when we see that much copper, that’s alarming.”

“Gender diversity in an office improves office performance significantly,” said Mullin, who, along with Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Sara Ellison, collected data from multinational firms with offices ranging in size from just a few employees to nearly 100. Their results, published in The Journal of Economics and Management Strategy, found that recruiting from a diverse pool of applicants not only leads to a more qualified, creative and innovative workforce, but also a more profitable one. “Going from either an all-male or all-female office to an office split equally is associated with a revenue gain of 41 percent,” Mullin said.

The black shell streaks aren’t killing the nautilus, Moini believes. Instead, they act as a “biomarker”—a sign that something in the animal’s physiology has gone awry. “It’s like when a human takes his temperature,” he said. “It’s the nautilus’s way of telling us, ‘I’m not feeling good.’” The team tried to follow the black-substance trail to the nautilus killer. But all the usual suspects had alibis. The samples showed no traces of dangerous pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses. Factors like variations in the captive animal’s diet or tank-water chemistry were also quickly ruled out.

But Mullin found a surprising flip side to the gender-diverse workforce: Both sexes seem to prefer working in homogenous groups. Male and female employees reported higher levels of job satisfaction and described their offices as more cooperative when they worked primarily with colleagues of the same sex.

That left a tantalizing possibility: stress. When a nautilus is removed from the wild and placed in captivity, it experiences environmental stress, from changes in pressure to shifts in temperature to new light patterns and oxygen levels. “Think about the stress they are subjected to: there’s the physical and chemical stress, the capture is stress, their new living environment is stress,” Moini said. These stress factors could trigger a physiology change that reinforces the nautilus shell—hence the black deposits. Those same stress factors may be affecting the animals in a more lethal manner. “I’m sure there is some correspondent internally,” he noted.

The study concluded that employees favored the idea of diversity but were less enthusiastic about working in an actual diverse office. Employees who perceived their workplaces to be more “accepting of diversity” also gave high marks for cooperativeness, even if their offices were actually homogenous.

More research is needed before a killer can be identified. But the clock may be ticking. Only 25 aquariums and zoos have been able to maintain nautilus collections, and only four have successfully bred them. In the wild, overfishing has slashed nautilus numbers by as much as 80 percent in once-rich areas like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Philippines’ Bohol Strait. With virtually no international sanctions limiting the capture and trade of the nautilus, shells can sell for several hundred dollars. The U.S. alone imports 100,000 nautilus shells each year.

s tkin mA illia o: W Pho t

The loss of the nautilus could hinder scientific studies in everything from evolutionary trends to climate change effects on the oceans to human bone formation. “This is an animal with a remarkable capacity for survival,” Moini said. For the sake of science, Moini is fighting to keep it that way.

“There is a distinction between a company that provides an environment accepting of diversity and one that has diversity,” the study noted. “The employees seem more cooperative—and more satisfied overall—in an environment supportive of but lacking in diversity.”

6 /// GW Arts & Sciences Discovery

Unemployment and Depression:

Inside an Unsettling Partnership F

or most Americans, there are few more frightening prospects than losing a job. Even with the economy seemingly on the rebound and unemployment rates dipping to five percent, most of us still dread the thought of a sudden lay-off, a long and fruitless job search and the helplessness of being unable to financially care for our families. No wonder we associate job loss with a bleak checklist of psychological conditions, from lowered self-esteem to anxiety and depression. But there’s a flipside to the image of the despairing job seeker. Some greet a pink slip with a shrug. They look on the bright side: No more overbearing boss, more time with the kids and a chance to find a more creative outlet for their talents.






Why does job loss lead one person to fall into a depressive state, and another to celebrate a new found sense of freedom?

George Howe

Professor of Psychology George W. Howe has asked himself that question in one form or another for 20 years. Through five studies and with nearly 3,000 participants, Howe has investigated the interplay between unemployment stress and the onset of depression. Backed by funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, Howe’s recent studies have isolated personality traits that may explain why some people are more susceptible to unemployment-related depression than others. His research could lead to innovative techniques for coping with job-loss depression and anxiety. “Unemployment is a laboratory for stress,” he said. “Some people come through a job loss just fine; others are completely derailed by it. What if we could identify these people and target intervention programs for their specific needs? Think about the lives we could improve.” While depression related to job loss is significant—a 2014 Gallup poll found that jobless Americans are more than twice as likely to have been treated for depression as those with full-time jobs—its impact is far from universal. “The context of the unemployment,” as Howe put it, weighs heavily on each person’s mental health. Even the most resilient job-seeker can fall into despondency due to what Howe calls “a negative cascade of events.” For example, a profound financial hit, a weak job market, an undesired relocation or the disintegration of relationships can have a tailspin effect.


resulting in measurements that could be days, weeks or even months apart. Most disconcerting, satellite images are taken from as high as 50 kilometers, or about 30 miles away. Miller’s ground-level measurements should provide more precise readings to compliment his NASA partner’s satellite shots. “Our measurements on their own won’t be worth very much,” he explained. “The value will be in validating the satellite measurements, and creating a clear and consistent model.”

Time isn’t on Miller’s side. He and his team must reach the Fairbanks site by June, when the relatively hospitable summer weather allows for optimal measuring conditions. But once the project strategy was finalized, Miller was left with just eight months to design and test his instruments as well as prepare for month-long field research—a process that, he estimated, should have taken as long as 18 months. “The pressure of racing the clock is definitely motivating,” said Michelle Bailey, a second-year chemistry graduate student

working on the project. “This is impactful research that will contribute to the bigger [global warming] picture.” Miller and his students are constructing a device that uses laser sensors to measure gas concentrations. Then, through fiber optic technology, the sensors transfer their data to nearby computers, all while the team monitors the experiment from a mobile location. His latest prototype may not look like much: The laser is mounted atop a store-bought

Spring 2015 /// 7

In Brief But beyond individual circumstances, Howe’s work revealed that there are specific personality dimensions that can predict susceptibility to unemployment-related depression. People who are most affected by job loss share similar traits, including an overall sensitivity to stress, the lack of healthy social or supportive relationships and a view of the world that is largely pessimistic. “Some think positively about themselves and the future; others believe everything bad is their fault and there’s nothing they can do about it,” explained Howe. “Those two mindsets play a role in determining whether you are going to have a negative reaction to job-loss stress.” Howe is now working on translating his personality-factor data into targeted job counseling programs that help the unemployed combat anxiety, helplessness and depression. While most unemployment counseling programs are designed for a broad population, Howe’s goal is to embark on smaller scale studies that focus on high-risk subjects. “We’re not sure if what works for the general population works as effectively for those who have at-risk personality factors,” he said. “That’s the next direction we’re following. We want to pinpoint how we can reach the most vulnerable people.”

telescope tripod and attached to a “spaghetti mess” of optical fibers, wires and electrical components. But Miller is confident that the final product will mark the first step in correlating vital climate data. Even after the team returns to campus in July, Miller anticipates refining his instruments for continued Arctic excursions. “We will make it [to Alaska] in time and we will get a measurement. The issue is: How precise will it be, and how can we continue to make it more and more precise?”


he highly-anticipated Science and Engineering Hall opened its doors in January, signaling the culmination of a decade of planning and four years of construction. The eight-story state-of-theart facility, home to researchers from computer scientists and aerospace engineers to physicists and biologists, promises to strengthen the university’s scientific profile and launch a new era of discovery. Bringing together research and teaching spaces previously spread across a dozen buildings, the SEH will initially house 140 faculty members from 10 departments, including four Columbian College disciplines.


ssistant Professor of Anthropology Carson Murray led a team of researchers into the jungles of Tanzania to observe chimpanzee communities and search for links between simian socialization skills and human parenting practices. The team analyzed decades of data dating back to Jane Goodall’s observations. They found that mothers with sons were more social than those with daughters, enabling the males to better absorb social behaviors like grooming and mating. “Males are more gregarious [than females], they form stronger social bonds and they are more physically aggressive,” explained Murray. Her findings may provide insights into how human gender roles are shaped.


cientists from the interdisciplinary GW Institute for Neuroscience are taking advantage of collaborative approaches to look deep into the roots of brain dysfunctions. Current research is focused on examining the brains of transgenic mice—rodents that carry foreign genes—for clues to autism and schizophrenia pathology. Their findings may allow scientists to target specific therapies for easing the disorders’ effects. Launched in 2010, the institute acts as a bridge for shared research ventures between Columbian College and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.


ric Beeler, an international affairs freshman, was a top winner in the Fourth Annual Jiangsu Cup Speech Contest, a rigorous competition for non-native students. Co-sponsored by Columbian College, the GW Confucius Institute and various international organizations, the contest attracted students from across

the D.C. region. Angela Sako and Maggie Wedeman, both double-majors in Chinese and international affairs, received Silver Awards, while Samuel Klein, an international affairs major minoring in Chinese language and literature, captured a Bronze Award. The winners will tour China this summer and study Chinese at Nanjing University.


he student-run Humanitarian Mapping Society recently helped Red Cross efforts to improve crisis-response in the developing world by digitally mapping remote regions. More than 80 student volunteers applied satellite photography and technology to map locales that lack reliable geographic data, focusing on vulnerable areas like Ebola-plagued Guinea. The digital maps will assist in geospatial preparedness planning and help public health officials identify transportation routes and areas to deliver supplies in medical emergencies.


olicymakers, practitioners, faculty and students gathered at the GW Solar Institute’s sixth annual Solar Symposium to tackle one of the energy world’s most pressing problems: How to bring solar technology to low-income communities, where only five percent of families have access to solar power. Conference attendees debated solutions like technology incentives in housing subsidies and community solar investments. “Low-income families want and deserve to share in the benefits of solar energy,” said Institute Director Amit Ronen, “but there is still a lot of work to do to make solar energy accessible for all Americans.”


isease detective” Lauren Epstein, BS ’03, MD ’07, played a central role in combating the U.S. Ebola crisis. An infectious disease specialist with the Centers for Disease Control, Epstein was dispatched to Dallas, Texas, to investigate the first case of Ebola in the U.S. The biology alumna identified and monitored health care workers who might have been exposed to the deadly virus. Epstein has led numerous investigations of drug-resistant organisms in hospitals, including an E. coli outbreak in Illinois. She continues to monitor Ebola cases as well as other health care-associated infections.

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Phillips Hall, Suite 212 • 801 22nd Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20052 •

SUPPORT THE ARTS & SCIENCES www.columbian.gwu/give

As Permafrost Thaws,

Chemistry Team Races North

This summer, Miller and a pair of graduate students will travel to the Alaskan hot spot on a mission to measure the effects of permafrost thaw—before it’s too late. Their work is part of a multifaceted project funded by a $980,000 grant from NASA’s Terrestrial Hydrology Program. Other

Permafrost is known as a “carbon-sink,” its rich soil storing organic material from decaying plants and animals. There may be as much as 1,000 billion metric tons of carbon in the permafrost ground, more than double the amount currently in the atmosphere. Permafrost can be up to 5,000 feet thick, but it is the top “active” layer, which is just 30 to


“Most people are aware of rising sea levels and temperature changes, but they don’t know about permafrost,” Miller said. “This is the big one. This is the one that really counts.”

Permafrost—perennially frozen ground that remains at or below zero degrees Celsius for two or more years—covers 24 percent of exposed land in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. In the Southern Hemisphere, it reaches into Antarctica and the Patagonian region of Argentina and Chile. The U.S. accounts for 6 percent of the world’s total, almost all of which lies in Alaska.

Atk in

That’s because just below the mossy surface lies a layer of frozen earth known as permafrost. And while some of this icy rock, soil and peat has persisted more than 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age, it is now melting rapidly. The thawing permafrost is releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the air and, climate scientists contend, exacerbating global warming.

Miller’s role is to take ground-level measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations during the summer melting season. Building on his 20 years of experience with sensors and lasers, he is devising a tool that will perform open-path, laser absorption measurements of damaging gas levels. From the Fairbanks field site, Miller hopes to collect ultra-precise measurements that can validate NASA’s satellite readings. It’s the first step in defining a long-term measurement strategy and establishing a protocol for permafrostrelated climate modeling.

illia m

“This is the center of climate change,” said Chemistry Professor J. Houston Miller. “It’s where ever yone in the climate community is turning their attention.”

research partners include the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

o: W

ummer in Fairbanks, Alaska, is far from the frozen landscape many imagine. The sun shines almost around the clock, the trees and grass are green and vacationers worry more about swarms of mosquitoes than blocks of ice. But here, amid thick spruce forests and layers of moss, is a region scientists are calling a climate time bomb—and ground zero for global warming.

Pho t


100 centimeters deep, that most concerns climate watchers. The top layer thaws and refreezes each year; during the melting season, carbon—mostly in the form of carbon dioxide and the particularly damaging methane—is released into the air. But that thaw-and-refreeze cycle is being thrown off-balance. Alaska’s temperatures are rising twice as fast as the rest of North America’s. Fairbanks’ ground temperatures now hover near the thawing point, resulting in more rapid permafrost melt and more greenhouse gases spewed into the atmosphere. Some experts predict irreversible carbon emissions damage will radically alter the planet’s ecosystem by 2100. “We are looking at some frightening scenarios,” Miller said. Most permafrost models rely on satellite projections that, while remarkably detailed, also present limitations. Cloud cover can obscure readings, and data can only be collected when the satellites are overhead—


J. Houston Miller and graduate student Michelle Bailey

GW Arts & Sciences Spring Update 2015