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DIRECTOR’S MESSAGE Science … It’s child’s play. We are all born scientists. Studies have shown that young children play in the same way that scientists work. They form hypotheses, test them, analyze their findings, and learn Martin Kociolek, Ph.D. from their actions and the actions of others. I suppose then we can conclude that those of us who have chosen science as a career have never really grown up. Some of us just keep digging in the dirt, which is where Todd Cook’s research interests lie; playing in the water with Sea Grant; solving puzzles, which is a big part of Ted Williams’ job, or taking things apart to find out what is happening inside —what Deborah Aruguete’s work is all about. We just keep doing what we have been wired to do since birth. As “grown up” scientists, we often have to take on other roles. For some of us, these responsibilities include educating others about science. This can mean educating our own undergraduate students in the classroom or through engaged scholarship, like research or service learning. It can also mean bringing science to the community through educational outreach or bringing together local teachers to share the best ways to educate the scientists of the future. As you read this issue of Science News, I encourage you not only to read about what we do, but also to consider why we do it. It is the combination of action and intention that truly epitomizes who we are in the School of Science.

In Brief PENN STATE AWARDED SEA GRANT COLLEGE STATUS The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Sea Grant College Program has awarded Sea Grant College status to Penn State, which conducts coastal research through a program based at Penn State Behrend. This designation makes Penn State one of only two universities in the country with land, space, sea, and sun grant status. The college established Pennsylvania Sea Grant, a collaboration of the University, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and NOAA, in 1998. Since that time, the program has administered more than $17 million in funding, including nearly $3.4 million for applied research projects highlighted by studies of fish tumors, fish habitats, and harmful algal blooms. Pennsylvania Sea Grant’s study of sediment contamination and deformities in bullhead catfish was a key factor in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 2013 decision to delist Presque Isle Bay as an environmental “area of concern.” By awarding college status to the program, NOAA elevates the work of Pennsylvania Sea Grant, linking the program’s staff to a national network of more than 3,000 coastal and Great Lakes researchers. Other college-status sites include the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and the University of Southern California. “This validates our commitment to enhancing Pennsylvania’s coastal areas,” said Dr. Bob Light, director of Pennsylvania Sea Grant and senior associate dean for research and outreach at Behrend. “Our professional staff has collaborated with numerous agencies, organizations, and individuals to sustain and add value to the Commonwealth’s three diverse coastal-related regions of the Lake Erie, Delaware River, and Susquehanna River watersheds.”

PUBLIC SHOWS AT YAHN PLANETARIUM Did you know that the Yahn Planetarium, housed in the School of Science at Penn State Behrend, offers public shows year-round? Cost is just $5 for adults and $3 for children 12 and under. All shows are followed by a discussion of the current night sky. Current public offerings include: • Thursdays and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. —”From Earth to the Universe” (recommended for ages 10 and up). • Saturdays at 2:30 p.m.—“The Secret of the Cardboard Rocket” (recommended for ages 6 and up). Programs for the general public change seasonally; visit or contact the planetarium for more info.


FACULTY NEWS New Faculty The school welcomed five new faculty members: Dr. Todd Eckroat ’09, assistant professor of chemistry; Lindsay Amsberry, lecturer in biology; Dr. M. James Ross, lecturer in chemistry; Linda Frederick, lecturer in mathematics; and Meredith Fontecchio, lecturer in physics.

Awards Dr. Jason Bennett, associate professor of chemistry, was awarded the Penn State Behrend Council of Fellows Faculty Research Award.

Promotions Margo Kertis has been promoted to senior lecturer in nursing.

MIDDLE-SCHOOL STUDENTS BUILD STEM SKILLS Nearly seventy students from Warren County middle schools filtered water, experimented with dry ice, learned basic programming, and studied “the mathematics of tarantulas” while participating in the college’s 21st Century Kids program this spring. The STEM-focused workshops, taught by Behrend faculty members, were designed to introduce students to the college environment and the opportunities a college degree can provide.

Grants Dr. Jay Amicangelo, associate professor of chemistry, was awarded $70,000 from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund for his grant titled “Spectroscopic and Theoretical Characterization of Radical Lone Pair-Pi Complexes.” Dr. Blair Tuttle, associate professor of physics, was awarded $188,000 from the National Science Foundation for his grant “Multiscale Theory of Nano-Porous Electronic Materials: Case Study of Structural Leakage Relationships in Silicon Carbide Alloys.” Dr. Courtney Nagle, assistant professor of mathematics education, and Jodie Styers, lecturer in mathematics education, were awarded $50,000 from the National Science Foundation for their grant titled “Collaborations Between Academic Levels to Promote Successful Student Transitions from Secondary to Post-Secondary Mathematics.“


MATH TEACHERS ADD ANOTHER DAY OF SCHOOL This summer, seventy-five junior and senior high school math teachers from the tri-state area returned to the classroom for Penn State Behrend’s Best Practices in Teaching and Learning Mathematics conference. This was the third year for the event organized by Dr. Courtney Nagle, assistant professor of mathematics education, and Jodie Styers, lecturer in mathematics education. Teachers were able to pick from a variety of workshops to attend such as “Please, Not Another Worksheet,” “Teaching Kids to Learn From Their Mistakes,” and “The ZEN of Mathematics.”

Dr. G. William “Bill” Baxter, associate professor of physics and a member of the School of Science faculty for more than twenty years, passed away in late September after a long illness. As many former students who took his classes in introducBill Baxter, Ph.D. tory physics, electronics, optics, or research methods can attest, Baxter loved science, and he reveled in encouraging students to explore the diverse world of physics. “Teaching for me,” he said, “is a way to share the wonders of physics with others.” He will be missed.

Exploring Ancient Sea Life in Arctic Canada Professor participates in international research expedition funded in part by the National Geographic Society


ne hundred million years ago, during the late half of the Cretaceous period, when global temperatures were considerably warmer and the Arctic was largely ice-free, plate tectonic activity formed a large inland sea known as the Western Interior Seaway. This vast body of water, extending from the present-day Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, divided North America into two landmasses. Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas all were underwater and teeming with aquatic life, as were the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories. Today, of course, there is no interior sea. In the last century, scientists have extensively studied the former seaway’s southern areas, which are known to be fossil hotbeds, but its northern counterparts in the Northwest Territories of Canada are so inaccessible that they’ve been largely untouched. This summer, Dr. Todd Cook, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Behrend, was part of an international team of explorers to prospect for fossils in one such site, located about 150 miles northeast of Inuvik, Canada. “Very little is known about the northern region of the seaway given its remote location,” Cook said. “In the 1960s, a research team recovered a number of fossils from this area, but no one had returned since.” The expedition, primarily funded by the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration and by the Polar Continental Shelf Program, was so remote that the members of the team and all of their supplies had to be helicoptered into their campsite. They lived in complete isolation from modern amenities for three weeks as they searched for fossils in the exposed rock, estimated to be about eighty million years old, along the east bank, or Windy Bend, of the Anderson River. Cook and his fellow explorers—Dr. Matthew J. Vavrek from the Royal Ontario Museum, Dr. Takuya Konishi from the 4

Researchers, from left, Dr. Matthew J. Vavrek, Dr. Takuya Konishi, Dr. Todd Cook, and James Campbell.

University of Cincinnati, and James Campbell, a doctoral student from the University of Calgary—set up camp on a plateau near the river in late July. “We didn’t know what we’d find or if we’d even find anything,” Cook said. On the very first morning, the team trekked down to one of the rocky valleys along the river and found multiple fossils. “When we found that many that fast, we knew it was going to be a very successful trip,” Cook said. The team worked for three weeks, often for ten to twelve hours a day. When fragile fossils were discovered, they painstakingly extracted the specimens from the rock and “jacketed” them with gypsum to transport them safely. “We found a lot of fossils from bony fish, including some significantly large fish, as well as ancient marine reptiles and birds,” he said. “It was pretty amazing collecting the remains from eight-million-year-old marine life. We were happy anytime we found bone.” And they had plenty to be happy about. Cook said they loaded 400 to 500 pounds of rock onto the helicopter for their return flight in August. The team’s findings were shipped to the University of Alberta where professional preparers will extract and clean the fossils. Once prepared, many of the fish specimens will then be sent to Cook at Penn State Behrend for study. Cook said the significance of the team’s research is threefold: It sheds light on late Cretaceous vertebrate diversity in a poorly-known region of the Western Interior Seaway; it helps reconstruct the regional paleoecology and paleoenvironment; and it may offer a glimpse of the future response of vertebrate animals to a warming planet. “We may be able to use this assemblage of marine vertebrates as an analog to predict the response of modern marine life to changes in climate and the melting Arctic ice,” he said, perhaps to counter the old adage that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

On the very first morning, the team trekked down to one of the rocky valleys along the river and found fossils from multiple ancient fish. “When we found that many that fast, we knew it was going to be a very successful trip,” said Dr. Todd Cook, assistant professor of biology at Penn State Behrend.

On dining in the wild: “We ate pretty well. On the last night, we had penne and smoked salmon.”

On roughing it: “After three weeks, you really crave a shower.” On losing fifteen pounds: “Traversing those valleys day after day was quite a workout.” On wildlife encounters: “We saw caribou, but thankfully never came across any grizzly bears.”

On a scale of one to ten: “The trip was definitely a ten.”

On returning to the site: “We were blown away by the amount of fish material we found. Of course, we’d love to go back and get more.”

On publishing their findings: “We have lots of writing to do.” Dr. Todd Cook 5

The Science of Crime Fighting Not every crime fighter carries a badge and a firearm. Behind the front lines, professionals in hospitals and laboratories aid police with a different kind of powerful weapon—a science degree. FORENSIC NURSING When you think of the most important roles in the criminal justice system, you probably think of police officers, lawyers, and judges. But there is another vital and often-overlooked link—nurses. They are frequently among the first people to see and interact with victims of violent crime or abuse. “When victims need medical attention, they are brought to nurses first,” said Amy LeSuer, lecturer in nursing at Penn State Behrend. “We help them before law enforcement officials can.” To that end, part of the care that nurses are expected to provide today includes careful evaluation, recording, assessment, and preservation of forensic evidence. “It’s important for nurses to be educated on how to deal with evidence, communicate with victims, be aware of the resources available to assist victims, and document their work in a way that will hold up in a court of law,” LeSuer said.

At Penn State Behrend, students can elect to add forensic nursing skills to their professional tool belt in LeSuer’s NUR 409 Introduction to Forensic Nursing class. A variety of topics are covered in class, from recognizing the signs of abuse to evidence collection to courtroom preparation. Coursework also touches on bite-mark analysis, human trafficking, forensic entomology (the study of insects and other arthropod biology in criminal matters), DNA analysis, and psychological injury. Guest speakers, such as Lt. Mike Dougan of the nearby Millcreek Township Police Department, teach nursing students about evidence collection and storage, crime scene investigation, chain of command protocol, and the role of nurses in the process. “Forensic work is common sense,” Dougan told nursing students. “Think before you act, move, or speak. Cut around bullet holes when removing clothes, bag their hands if you suspect the wound is self-inflicted, include a scale when you photograph wounds and bruises.” While emergency room and mental health nurses may see the largest volume of victims, LeSuer said all nurses will likely deal with forensic matters at some time, which is why Penn State offers a certificate in forensic nursing. “No matter what sub-specialty the nurse works in, they have a responsibility to screen patients for abuse and safe home situations, ”she said. “I think the forensic nursing class shows students how important they are in the legal system.” 6

Amy LeSuer, lecturer in nursing, helps a student create an impression for a lesson on shoe print analysis.

Lt. Mike Dougan of the Millcreek Township Police Department demonstrates fingerprint collection in a forensic nursing class.

“I’ve always admired police officers and I like being able to use my science degree to help them.”

Ted Williams ’84, forensic scientist supervisor at the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Lab in Erie.

IN THE LAB Ted Williams ’84 spends his days surrounded by drugs. No, he’s not a pharmacist and he didn’t “break bad.” Just the opposite, actually. Williams is a forensic scientist supervisor overseeing the Drug Identification Section at the Pennsylvania State Police Crime Lab in Erie. Contrary to what you see on CSI and Criminal Minds, Williams said crime lab scientists are not typically out in the field, nor do they have high-tech wall-projected computer display systems, and they certainly don’t have cases that are wrapped up in sixty minutes. “There are grains of truth in those shows, but in real life, nothing is done in an hour,” Williams said. “We have a threeto four-month backlog right now.” It’s easy to see why. Williams and four other scientists in the crime lab process evidence from thirteen Pennsylvania counties and 300 police departments. He estimates they evaluate about 2,500 cases a year. Williams, who earned a degree in Applied Science with a focus in Chemistry at Penn State Behrend, is a civilian employee of the Pennsylvania State Police under the Bureau of Forensic Services. Unlike his television counterparts, Williams doesn’t generally know much about the case involving the evidence he is

evaluating. That’s how it should be. “When you get down to the science, you need to be objective,” he said. “It’s our job to find out what the substance is and report our findings to the investigating officer.” When he started at the lab in the late ‘80s, Williams said he spent a lot of time in court explaining his process and findings. That has dwindled as the courts have become more efficient and laboratory processes more standardized and accepted. “We rarely go to court more than two or three times a year now,” he said. “That’s fine with me. We belong in the lab analyzing evidence.” Analyzing drugs is not as straight forward as you might think. Clandestine drug chemists are constantly introducing new drugs that may not be on the books yet. Williams’ team evaluates the chemical makeup of the substance and reports that back to law enforcement. “Once they become aware of the new drug and determine the potential danger of it, law enforcement officers can begin the process of making it a controlled substance,” he said. Williams, who was an industrial chemist before joining the crime lab, said he truly enjoys being able to use his science degree to help police officers. 7

Sharing Science Everyone wins when education goes beyond campus

Girl Scout Brownies participate in an outreach program at the School of Science.


hen a college or university talks about outreach, it means educating beyond its campus and current students. At Penn State Behrend, that includes everything from public lectures to STEM programming for scout troops to workshops for teachers to participating in Science Day at the local children’s museum. For college student volunteers, it’s a valuable out-of-class learning experience. “Students get so much out of teaching others,” said Tracy Halmi, senior lecturer in chemistry at Penn State Behrend. “When our students are able to take what they know and reiterate it and teach it in laymen’s terms to others, it really helps to cement what they are learning here. We know they really ‘get it’ when they can explain it to a ten-year-old.”

“Outreach is a win-win however you look at it,” said Dr. Martin Kociolek, director of the School of Science. “Our students benefit from sharing their expertise and enthusiasm for science, the outreach participants benefit 8

from the knowledge shared and introduction to potential careers in science, and the college benefits from the visibility outreach brings,” Kociolek said. Recognizing the value of outreach, Kociolek recently appointed Halmi the outreach coordinator for the School of Science. “Having a point person will help make programs more accessible and cohesive,” Halmi said. In most cases, faculty members provide the educational framework for outreach efforts, then encourage their students to volunteer to lead an activity or otherwise assist with the program. Many do. Drew Cobert, a senior Biology major, recently took part in “What Matters? Science,” an outreach event in which he helped teach more than 100 Wattsburg Elementary School fifth-graders about different states of matter. He said the experience was both rewarding and educational. “Some of the students asked questions about fundamental concepts that we sometimes overlook, which, in turn, solidifies a stronger foundation of scientific understanding in all of us,” said Cobert, who volunteers in several outreach efforts through the School of Science. Continued on page 11

Map to the Trees Student uses GIS to help LEAF Arboretum


he New York Stock Exchange was created beneath a tree: On May 17, 1792, a small group of merchants gathered beneath a leafy buttonwood in front of 68 Wall St. to set rules for how their securities would be traded. The result, known as the “Buttonwood Agreement,” set commissions at one-quarter of a percent.

persimmon, a corkscrew willow, a Mount Fuji flowering cherry— to the corresponding memorial plaques. With guidance from Michael Naber, lecturer in geosciences, and code developed by two other Penn State Behrend students, Abel Lopez and Alexander Yochim, he created a web-based map with interactive data points for each tree, bench, and memorial stone in the park.

The tree stood for seventy more years before falling in a storm. It was called a buttonwood — that type of wood was a common source for butcher’s blocks and for coat buttons— but it was actually an American planetree, also known as a sycamore.

“I had to systematically walk to and document every single tree,” said Curtis, a senior. “That took a lot of time. It’s a big park, and it feels a lot bigger when you’re doing that kind of work.”

A sister tree stands in the LEAF Arboretum, in Erie’s Frontier Park. That version, a Bloodgood London variety, is one of more than 255 unique species in the arboretum, many of which were donated as memorials to family members. Michael Curtis knows it well. Curtis, a Penn State Behrend Science major, used GPS location tools to map the arboretum, matching individual trees—a

The LEAF website links to the map (, which has clickable pushpins for each tree and plaque. The data also can be accessed from a smartphone or tablet, giving arboretum visitors a real-time resource while they are exploring the park. “I really like that people are using it,” Curtis said. “Especially the kids. It’s another way for them to connect to and engage better with the environment they’re in.”


Turning Waste Into Wealth Dr. Deborah Aruguete had a high-level position managing a research grant program at the National Science Foundation, which supports fundamental research and education in science and engineering, when a life crisis changed her career path. “When you experience something like that, you think about what you’ve done with your life and what you still want to do with it,” she said. The environmental geochemist thought about the most rewarding achievements in her life. At the top of her list was the success of the students she had mentored throughout her scientific career. Aruguete was also eager to get back into the research lab and delve into the nitty-gritty details of science. “At NSF, I was seeing exciting research proposals come across my desk all the time,” she said. “I wanted to return to being the person coming up with those ideas. “ Enter academia, the perfect marriage of teaching and research for Aruguete, who is now an assistant professor of environmental science at Penn State Behrend. Don’t let the title fool you: She’s no radical conservationist. “When people hear ‘environmental scientist,’ they tend to politicize it and dismiss us as tree-huggers and activists, but it’s a pragmatic science,” she said. “We are trying to learn the facts about what’s happening in the environment without a political agenda. We understand that humans have needs and expansion will happen. Solid data on environmental processes can better inform how we manage those needs.”

Focus on the little things To that end, Aruguete has been thinking small—very small—and studying the effects nanoparticles released by automobile catalytic converters (ACCs) have on the environment. “ACCs convert raw exhaust from an engine into much less harmful gases,” Aruguete explained. “They can do this because they contain the metals platinum, palladium, and rhodium. ACC materials are very brittle, so when you drive around, tiny little pieces of these ACCs are flying out onto the sides of the road and into the air.” Though the metals being released are nanoparticles (for size reference, a human hair is approximately 80,000100,000 nanometers wide), there is an abundance of them in the environment. A 2015 estimate indicated that up to six tons of platinum is emitted worldwide each year. Most importantly, Aruguete said, is that nanoparticles can behave very differently from bigger pieces of the material, so while platinum, palladium, and rhodium in their larger


form are noble metals that are not reactive under standard environmental conditions, that cannot be assumed in nanoparticle form.

Exploring the unknown “When materials get really tiny, they can act in seriously unpredictable ways,” she said. “We have no idea what they will do. By that I mean, what chemical reactions might they have when they get into the soil or air or Lake Erie?” The problem is that if these nanoparticles dissolve, they could release a different, biologically-active form of themselves. Some of these forms are actually used as powerful chemotherapy drugs. “ACC material being spewed out of our cars daily could potentially release chemotherapy drugs into nature,” she said. While chemotherapy drugs are great for those fighting cancer, scientists don’t know what effect they may have on bugs, plants, bacteria, fish, and other organisms. Aruguete is hoping to find answers. In her lab, she grinds up catalytic converters and subjects the particles to environmentally-relevant water conditions to see how they react.

Tiny precious metals = profit Aruguete’s research also could one day be used to develop a technology to recover precious metals. “These are commercially valuable precious metals that are being released,” she said. “If someone can find a way to extract these metals from the soot or roadside dust, it could be very profitable.” Aruguete is particularly interested in extracting precious metals from sewage sludge, the somewhat-solid remains that are left after treating wastewater. There is growing interest in mining sewage for precious metals. “Right now, Erie incinerates its sewage sludge, then puts it into a landfill,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be great if that could be a source of profit instead?”

And therein lies the potential in environmental science: connecting basic research to pragmatic solutions.

“At NSF, I was seeing exciting research proposals come across my desk all the time,” she said. “I wanted to return to being the person coming up with those ideas. “

Dr. Deborah Aruguete is studying the effect nanoparticles released by automobile catalytic converters have on the environment.

Sharing Science: continued from page 8

Junior Chemistry major Thalia Soto Torres has volunteered for several outreach programs, but said her favorite is an annual one-day event at Erie’s Millcreek Mall where she and other science majors present a dozen experiments to the public in celebration of National Chemistry Week. “It’s so much fun to see the kids smile and have fun while they are learning about science,” she said. “I’m very passionate about sharing my knowledge with others, and I love teaching younger people what chemistry and the other sciences are about.” Outreach is a form of engaged scholarship, which is a Penn State initiative to provide and encourage out-of-class academic experiences that complement students’ coursework. “As scientists, we have an obligation to educate the public

about science,” Kociolek said, “and, as a land-grant University, we also have outreach as part of our mission. In having our students participate, we are training the next generation of scientific stewards.” Halmi widens the scope further: “When students are engaged outside of class, they learn how to mentor and be role models for others. Also, it’s nice for them to give back and think beyond themselves. Service is important in all aspects of life.” Cobert, who plans to be a neurologist, considers it time well spent. “It’s incredibly fulfilling to have an opportunity to ignite a child’s imagination and curiosity and maybe inspire a new generation of scientists,” he said.


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“The Life Cycle of the Monarch Butterfly” by artist Downia Glass Location: Erie Hall

SAVING FOR A NON-RAINY DAY Greener Behrend, Penn State Behrend’s environmental service club, recently acquired three new rain barrels that will surely help make Behrend’s landscape greener. These aren’t just plain plastic barrels, though; they are part of a public art project—Don’t Give Up the Drip—conceived and orchestrated by Erie-area environmental agencies. The colorful painted fifty-five gallon rain barrels are located at the Health and Wellness building, Turnbull Hall, and Erie Hall. Behrend’s barrels are three of fifty-two plastic barrels transformed by artists and installed at publicly accessible locations throughout the Erie area. “Our goal was to showcase our local art talent while educating the community about the benefits of harvesting rainwater and water conservation and health,” said Kristen Currier, environmental educator at the Erie County Conservation District, one of the organizations behind the art project. The rainwater will be used to quench the thirst of Behrend’s vast flora. “Erie receives above-average rainfall annually. Still, throughout the summer we experience shortages and the rain barrels are extremely useful then,” said Ann Quinn, director of Greener Behrend. “The water stored will be used to water nearby plants on our campus in a simple, sustainable way.” Science News is published annually and provided free to alumni and friends of the Penn State Behrend School of Science by the Office of Strategic Communications, William V. Gonda,, senior director. Editor: Heather Cass, Designer: Martha Ansley Campbell, This publication is available in alternative media on request. Penn State is an equal opportunity, affirmative action employer, and is committed to providing employment opportunities to all qualified applicants without regard to race, color, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, disability or protected veteran status. U.Ed. EBO 17-157

“The Green Man” by artist Luke Gehring Location: Health and Wellness Center


Science News - 2016  

News from Penn State Behrend's School of Science.

Science News - 2016  

News from Penn State Behrend's School of Science.