Fall 2016Frank Duran

Scientists Beyond Borders

Fall 2016Frank Duran
Scientists Beyond Borders

By Lisa Y. Garibay

One packs only the barest essentials for the dangerous jungles of the Congo, but a few books go alongside the medical kit, because you have to have something to pass the time when you’re being treated for malaria. In Nepal, one is careful to pack a fully equipped tent camp, because it may not be safe to sleep in buildings when you’re chasing earthquakes. In China, one walks vast fields of crops being dosed with toxic levels of pollution, because that is our atmosphere’s future. In the icy Arctic, one bundles up as best they can while gathering irrefutable proof that the Earth is warming. 

These are the stories of researchers from The University of Texas at El Paso, whose work has impact well beyond the Paso del Norte region. The work is interwoven with advancements in education, politics, agriculture, economics and much more around the globe. It not only benefits the researchers’ peers and students; more urgently, it may help save life on Earth. 

“When you have a critical mass of researchers working on similar or related problems, the ability to make large leaps forward in understanding is heightened,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Science. “Whether the problem is Arctic biology, fuel cell efficiency, or drug development and screening, our researchers contribute significantly to their fields and incorporate their knowledge into the classroom, where the next generation of scientists may be prepared and inspired.”

In the Arctic

UTEP graduate student Ryan Cody, doctoral student Sergio Vargas and graduate student Stephen Escarzaga set up equipment for research scans in Alaska's North Slop Borough. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / florenciamazza.com 

UTEP graduate student Ryan Cody, doctoral student Sergio Vargas and graduate student Stephen Escarzaga set up equipment for research scans in Alaska's North Slop Borough. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / florenciamazza.com 

When UTEP scientists are in the Arctic Circle testing how their newly patented camera and software system detects changes in sea ice, sea state and coastal erosion, they’re contributing to what we know about how humanity is altering the Earth. 

UTEP has one of the largest groups of biologists working in the Arctic of any university outside of Alaska. But undergraduate and graduate students play a big role, too. 

“They are the ones that do 90 percent of everything that goes out the door,” said Craig Tweedie, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. "Education and outreach is what ties everything together; it gives us that anchor for our research activities. Tweedie’s team studies how humans changing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane – the infamous greenhouse gasses – has been enough to cause a dramatic loss in sea ice – an area double the size of Texas.  

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Craig Tweedie, Ph.D., readies the scientific instrumentation on his inflatable vessel in preparation for near-shore water chemistry and ocean bottom characterization. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / forenciamazza.com

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Craig Tweedie, Ph.D., readies the scientific instrumentation on his inflatable vessel in preparation for near-shore water chemistry and ocean bottom characterization. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / forenciamazza.com

“Society as we know it developed in the stable climate period that we’ve had over the last 10,000 years,” Tweedie explained. By the time his students are at the peak of their careers, they may be managing an environment that humans have never seen on Earth. 

With a project they named “Back to the Future,” the team went to decades-old research sites including the Eastern Russian Arctic, Wrangel Island and Northern Alaska. Using the same techniques that were used to establish the sites originally, the team looked at how things have changed.  

At Baffin Island near the Barnes Ice Cap, one of the remotest places UTEP researchers have ever been, Tweedie’s team compared photographs taken in 1963 with those shot 50 years later on the same calendar day.  

Tweedie gives the director and other high-ranking officials of the National Science Foundation a tour of major research sites and initiatives in Barrow, Alaska. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / forenciamazza.com

Tweedie gives the director and other high-ranking officials of the National Science Foundation a tour of major research sites and initiatives in Barrow, Alaska. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay / forenciamazza.com

“What you can see is this glacier has retreated up the valley, the top of the ice cap has dropped in altitude, and all of these snow banks have completely disappeared,” he said. 

This retreating ice causes rising sea levels and storm surges throughout oceans because there is no ice to calm the waters. Tweedie predicts a global refugee crisis exponentially worse than the current plight of Syrians if, for example, a region like the Bangladesh delta floods. Global warming is not yet causing the disappearance of entire countries, but Tweedie fears it could if things don’t turn around quickly.

“I would say it’s the biggest challenge facing mankind,” Tweedie said.  

But to the veteran researcher – who has spent days in the University’s only boat during wind chills of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to conduct this critical work – UTEP represents exactly what humanity needs to do to beat this thing. 

“It’s not just about numbers and demographics here [at UTEP], it’s the way of thinking that goes with that and responsiveness to adversity, responsiveness to an acceptance of cultural and social differences,” he explained. “All those things that we have here on the border are a microcosm of many of the challenges and future solutions we need to come up with as a global community.”

In China

Enormous tanks of carbon dioxide distribute carbon dioxide gas to rice and wheat crops as part of a global warming research project by China’s Nanjing University and UTEP Chair of the Department of Chemistry Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Nanjing University

Enormous tanks of carbon dioxide distribute carbon dioxide gas to rice and wheat crops as part of a global warming research project by China’s Nanjing University and UTEP Chair of the Department of Chemistry Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D. Photo courtesy of Nanjing University

Far from the remote Arctic Circle, another UTEP researcher is tackling climate change implications in the most populous nation on Earth. 

Increasingly a global economic force to be reckoned with, China is also investing money and brainpower into important research that can stem the tide of climate damage. UTEP Department of Chemistry Chair Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D., partnered with Nanjing University to study the effects of nanoparticles – microscopic molecules with a wide range of applications – on global warming and agriculture. 

He explained that in just a few decades, crop fertilizers will most likely be made of nanoparticles, which work better than what is used now since the tiny structures can get to the cells of the plants to deliver nutrients.  

Gardea-Torresdey’s study asks whether crops grown with nanoparticles will be damaged by higher CO2 levels in the air.

Currently, air quality in many spots on Earth is harmful. One example is Mexico City, which declared a pollution emergency in spring 2016 in response to dangerously high levels of CO2 and ozone, a major component of smog. 

But it could get worse.  

“Years from now, CO2 levels are going to increase,” Gardea-Torresdey said. “It’s going to be bad.”

Sprinkled throughout huge fields of growing wheat and rice in Nanjing, approximately 200 miles from Shanghai, are enormous tanks of dry ice (the compressed form of CO2) dousing the plants for Gardea-Torresdey’s study. It’s unprecedented in that this type of testing is mostly conducted in labs with seedlings under controlled conditions. Gardea-Torresdey's project monitors plants out in the field for the duration of their entire life cycle.

The team is also watching how these molecules introduced into crops affect fish in aquatic systems because, as Gardea-Torresdey said, “All nanoparticles are going to end up in the water” due to runoff from fertilizing and other uses. UTEP students have had many opportunities to work with this study on campus through the exchange of samples and analysis. Chinese students have traveled to UTEP, and a Nanjing scientist recently completed a yearlong sabbatical at UTEP conducting research for the project. 

Given the sometimes tense relations between China and the U.S., such a partnership may seem unlikely. But not according to Kirken. 

“Scientific research is often able to move forward even when socioeconomic and political situations are strained or in flux,” he said. “Investigators are like independent contractors; their studies are aimed at solving important problems that go beyond any one administration or conflict and frequently provide global benefits,” he said. 

For Gardea-Torresdey, those benefits to mankind are what it’s all about.  

“I’m a scientist of the world – I don’t care about international or political borders,”he said. “This [work] is for the whole world.”

In the Himalayas

Navin Thapa, left, UTEP Department of Geological Sciences Research Associate Galen Kaip, and Nepalese driver Bijaya Khadka work with seismic sensors as local villagers watch. Photo courtesy of Marianne Karplus

Navin Thapa, left, UTEP Department of Geological Sciences Research Associate Galen Kaip, and Nepalese driver Bijaya Khadka work with seismic sensors as local villagers watch. Photo courtesy of Marianne Karplus

Some disasters – like the expected effects of climate change – can be predicted and averted. Others strike and cause devastation without notice. Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Marianne Karplus, Ph.D., went to work in the mountains of Nepal to find out why and how earthquakes occur there. 

Within weeks of the largest earthquake in Nepal in 80 years – a magnitude-7.8 temblor that devastated the country in April 2015 – the National Science Foundation awarded a team of scientists led by Karplus with support from UTEP faculty and students a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the earthquake’s aftershocks. Their goal was to gain a better understanding of these movements beneath the Earth’s surface.

The team included Professor of Geological Sciences Aaron Velasco, Ph.D.; doctoral students Ezer Patlan and Mohan Pant, who is from Nepal; geological sciences Research Associate Galen Kaip; and UTEP alumnus Agustin Barajas. They joined researchers from the Department of Mines in Nepal, Stanford University, Oregon State University and the University of California, Riverside, for a yearlong project to place, maintain and retrieve 46 seismometers around the region with the most aftershocks. 

“A large part of our goal is getting a better understanding of the structure, where the faults are, where the earthquakes are happening, understanding how this whole system is working and how the buildup of stress from the convergence of India moving toward Asia is being relieved through time,” Karplus explained.

Quickly putting together a field team was a challenge. Requirements went beyond just a passport – participants also had to have field experience in a remote location along with physical resilience (each team would be required to hike, dig and carry equipment). 

Her project has resulted in a dataset that is perhaps the best-instrumented recording of aftershocks from a megathrust earthquake – one that occurs when one continental plate goes beneath another or an oceanic plate. The research also helps humans build structures to diminish earthquake damage and improve disaster response when these events occur. 

Strong collaboration from Nepalese colleagues guided the U.S. team on everything from site suggestions to assistance in getting equipment through customs. As the team traveled to villages scattered throughout the countryside, Nepalese government employees and master’s students translated to locals what was going on and why they were being asked to host a strange little machine buried in their yard, much to the fascination of the many village children who’d gather to watch. 

“The villagers were very receptive; they all understand earthquakes,” Karplus recalled. “Some of them were telling us they had lost their house and they were now staying in a tent.”

UTEP’s combination of strong expertise in geophysics, geology and work in the Himalayas gave NSF program officers the confidence to make such an expedition possible. 

“The networks we had from previous work in the Himalayas and Tibet, showing how we were positively collaborating with people in that region, were a plus,” Karplus said. “With this dataset, we will make new discoveries about Himalayan earthquakes and expand our understanding of the forces that shape the Himalayas.”

In the Congo

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Eli Greenbaum (center) is seen with a Npenda village chief (on Greenbaum’s right), villagers and expedition team members near Lake Tumba, Equator Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy of Eli Greenbaum

Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Eli Greenbaum (center) is seen with a Npenda village chief (on Greenbaum’s right), villagers and expedition team members near Lake Tumba, Equator Province, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo courtesy of Eli Greenbaum

The Democratic Republic of Congo is notorious for civil war, rampant corruption and treacherous terrain. But almost a decade of work there has given Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D., a powerful perspective on why humans should learn to live in harmony with their environment. 

Doctoral student Daniel Hughes came to UTEP for his Ph.D. specifically to join his professor in these jungles. He and Greenbaum not only discovered new species, they also trailblazed ways of preserving specimens for greater scientific study.

But why go through all that trouble in the first place? 

For Greenbaum, the answer is a compelling trifecta. First off, nothing could be more fundamental than one’s own health. 

“There could be a drug that could help you with some kind of ailment at a later point in your life,” Greenbaum said. “There could be a cure for cancer in there.”

The herpetologist explained that there are potentially an infinite number of biomedical applications for the molecules in the skin of frogs and the complex venoms in snakes. One Asian species of viper has anticoagulant properties in its venom; components of it are being used to treat people who have issues with their blood. 

Second, there’s the quickly changing climate, which can be vastly improved if the Congo is preserved. 

“Tropical rain forests in particular take an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere and are actually slowing [the climate change] process down a lot,”Greenbaum explained. “If we can conserve as many areas of these rain forests as possible, it helps us with the effects of global climate change.”

He and other collaborators brought a single threatened frog, found in a rainforest that was not protected, to the attention of the international community in 2012. As a result, the government stepped in and declared the area a forest reserve. 

Finally, maintaining biodiversity is a life-or-death issue, according to Greenbaum.

“If we lost all the plants and animals that are in the wild tomorrow, we would disappear with them,” he said. Imagine you’re going to get on a plane and fly to Dallas, but as you board you see the mechanics taking rivets out of the wings. You say, “Hey, what are you doing?” One of the mechanics says, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a few.”

“It’s the same thing with species on our planet that are going extinct,” Greenbaum explained. “At some point you’re going to take out one rivet too many, the wing’s going to fall off and you’re going to crash.”

Despite having been hit with malaria seven times, along with giardia, dengue fever and typhoid fever, Greenbaum will keep going back to the Congo for one main goal: “To discover and describe as much biodiversity as possible while it’s still there,” he said. “Even under the best of circumstances, I fear that in the coming decades we’re going to lose a lot.”

Kirken believes that the high-caliber work coming out of UTEP’s College of Science is making a difference because of the people driving it. 

“Being a successful researcher is much more than a job –it’s a way of life,” he said. “Our scientists have tremendous passion for and dedication to their work, and spend countless hours seeking funding, developing experiments and disseminating research findings. Our researchers, whether in training or leading the research effort, choose this career because of a deep love for science and a belief that differences can be made. If we can improve people’s lives while doing what we love, what could be better?”

Online Extra: Translating Statistics for Spanish Speakers

 By Lisa Y. Garibay

 While the Spanish language is taken for granted as one fundamental aspect of life on the U.S.-Mexico border, its impact reaches far beyond this region. The language is used around the globe and is projected to be even more influential in the future.

As a university on the U.S.-Mexico border that serves many Spanish-speaking students, The University of Texas at El Paso possesses the expertise to lead other institutions and teachers worldwide when it comes to educating students whose first language is Spanish.

Professor Larry Lesser, Ph.D., and Associate Professor Amy Wagler, Ph.D., in the Department of Mathematical Sciences are innovating new instructional methods to optimize the way that Spanish speakers and other English Language Learners (ELLs) grasp the important subject of statistics.

After Chinese, Spanish is the most common non-English language in the world. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 71 percent of English language learner (ELL) students speak Spanish at home, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2013 American Community Survey and the U.S. Department of Education. The U.S. now has more Spanish speakers than Spain and the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that this country will be the largest Spanish-speaking nation on Earth by 2050.

And while Lesser and Wagler’s research is focused on Spanish speaking ELLs, the teaching practices they’ve identified are useful no matter the language background of the students.

“We have people at conferences approach us all the time saying, ‘I have a classroom and there are four different language groups. Which of your research findings would be applicable?’” Wagler said. “So it’s certainly a global issue in that sense.”

Beginnings

The research got started when Lesser spoke with Matthew Winsor, Ph.D., a former UTEP colleague now at Illinois State University, about Winsor’s experience with English language learners while living and teaching in Argentina, and later teaching southern California high school students who also were learning the English language. At the time, Winsor asked about the availability of textbooks for this type of instruction but was told there weren’t any, and “Can’t you just translate the book?”

Simultaneously, Lesser had become aware of the issue as an educator in El Paso, where English language learners were prevalent among the student population.

“We joined forces,” Lesser recalled. “We were able to do the first major study on English language learners in statistics.”

When Winsor moved on in 2009, Wagler came on board, just after she began teaching at UTEP. A student in the Department of Mathematical Sciences was conducting a survey to better understand issues of communication and language within statistics instruction for her thesis, for which Wagler served on the committee. That led to Wagler’s involvement in a subsequent publication and partnership with Lesser to dive more deeply into the issue. It was a topic about which she had become acutely aware when she began teaching junior high math and college courses at Oklahoma State University, where many of the engineers she taught were from countries where the dominant language was not English.

“They could integrate a function no problem; it was the language involved in understanding the context, in understanding the application,” Wagler explained.

A dozen graduate students have also been involved in the professors’ research at various times, yielding five theses and many independent studies, along with opportunities for undergraduate students to become involved via University programs such as the Campus Office of Undergraduate Initiatives (COURI) and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).

Lesser and Wagler’s research isn’t beneficial only to academics; it also furthers the preparation of students for careers within the field by extending the opportunity to learn statistics to more students, regardless of their native language or the country in which they live.

Translating the English of Statistics

One of the benefits of talking to statisticians about their work is that they come armed with data – hard facts, not opinions – to back up everything they say.

According to an article in American Educator, by 2018, one in four K-12 students in the United States is projected to be an English language learner, and for about 80 percent of them, their first language will be Spanish.

One quality that sets statistics apart as a discipline is its use of narrative context, which gives language even more weight.

“Almost every semester, when I teach an introductory level statistics class, I’ll have a student coming to me after one or two weeks going, ‘I had no idea we’d be doing this much reading and writing! I just thought I’d be crunching numbers the whole semester,’” Wagler said. “They’re shocked at how large of a role language plays in a class like statistics.”

In fact, Lesser teaches a statistics literacy class in which there is only one formula seen throughout the first six chapters.

There is further confusion when it comes to how statistics fits into mathematics and vice versa. While statistics uses math, it is its own field, and the two realms often use the same word differently.

Take the word “range” for example. In an algebra class, it may mean the output values of a function. But in statistics, “range” is the difference between the largest and smallest value of a dataset, which has nothing to do with the other meaning. Furthermore, both of those have nothing to do with more everyday meanings, such as a mountain range, the range in your kitchen or your vocal range.

Sometimes the confusion is not just with an individual word but instead a phrase like “in the long run.” While an ELL may know what each of those simple words means, they may be way off when it comes to knowing what they mean all together in that order.

Lesser recounted listening to a teacher from Oman who told how all of his college instruction in statistics is done in English. Even though Arabic is the official language of the country, his statistics classes use English or American textbooks, in which many of the examples in statistical problems come from a different cultural background.

Another example is a student from Jordan who approached Lesser while taking a statistics test to say that she would be able to complete a problem if she knew what a key English term was in Arabic.

Lesser and Wagler’s approach when teaching is to make an explicit connection to what their students already know in everyday language and with everyday experience, then build on that to get the more formal academic concepts in place before bringing the mathematical notation in at the end. That helps ease students into statistics in a way that’s not so scary.

One resource that the UTEP educators make sure to bring to the attention of students like these is the International Statistics Institute’s multilingual glossary of 29-plus different languages. If a student needs to know the translation of a particular term in their language, it can be done online for free. A piece of Lesser and Wagler’s latest research involves using an applet that can toggle back and forth between English and Spanish or many other languages.

How Statistics Matters to Everyone, Everywhere

A solid background in statistics opens up a world of opportunities for students seeking a promising career path.

Probably most young students in the United States were taught about Florence Nightingale, the “lady with the lamp,” whose treatment of soldiers on the battlefield contributed to a revolution in healthcare that established modern nursing and hospital standards. But what many don’t know is that she was a brilliant statistician who used that training to measure data and effect social change.

As Nightingale stated in the 19th century, “[Statistics is] the most important science in the whole world: for upon it depends the practical application of every other and of every art, the one science essential to all political and social administration, all education, all organization based on experience.”

Another pioneer in the field, John Tukey, said, “The best thing about being a statistician is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard,” which speaks to just how applicable an education in this arena can be.

“That is, at the core, one of the reasons I became a statistician,” Wagler said. “I love math but I really didn’t want to be in a silo the rest of my career feeling like I couldn’t talk about what I do with anybody else. If you enjoy learning about other fields and like math, become a statistician.”

Statistics is a career that has a secure future and solid pay that can also incorporate an interest a student has outside of mathematics, like political science, business, environmental science or even journalism.

CareerCast.com has ranked statistician at number two in its 2016 Jobs Rated Report with high marks for work environment, low stress and high hiring potential. The No. 1 job, data scientist, is also highly dependent on statistical training, and could earn a salary of more than $100,000 per year.

One of Wagler’s undergraduate students expressed a desire to go into global development after graduation, a tough area to break into. She has realized that an education in statistics and mathematics can be her way in via offering a set of skills that are really needed in that field.

Wagler further described statistics as an extremely important but often unseen profession. Statisticians are working in almost every facet of modern life. Pandora and Spotify use statistical data analysis to predict the next song you might want to hear. FiveThirtyEight is run by a statistician who – with eerie accuracy – predicts everything from presidential election results to major league baseball season outcomes. Studying math – and, in this case, statistics – opens doors to an array of fields.

For students interested in public policy, taking statistics along with requisite government courses can make them into sought-after quantitative experts. An interest in healthcare bolstered by statistics can mean a career in biostatistics. A student who loves language can become a computational linguistics expert, thanks to training in statistics.

Providing the large number of Spanish-speaking ELLs at UTEP and throughout the world with an education in statistics can lead to successful careers. Furthermore, these educational efforts are addressing the underrepresentation of Hispanics within the profession. And it’s very empowering to know how to apply statistics to identify inequities that can lead to positive change and equality.

Lesser added that his recent research with Wagler is demonstrating how students are better helped when their particular skillset is appreciated rather than categorizing them as being deficient.

“We’re now seeing that we can say, ‘Knowing Spanish is an asset, it’s a resource, and can actually help those students along with everyone else because the way Spanish phrases certain concepts is much more intuitive,’” Lesser said. “Making that connection explicit and valuing that in the classroom is a game-changer.”

 

Give to the UTEP Biodiversity Collection

“We have one of the largest collections of plants, animals and fossils in this entire area of the country. It’s a unique resource not only for the professors and researchers but for the students; students have done entire graduate degrees – master’s and Ph.D.s –focused on these collections and very few people are aware of that.” 
- Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D.

Comprising a natural history collection on one floor and a herbarium on another, the Biodiversity Collections are one of the greatest assets of the Department of Biological Sciences at UTEP. Contributions to its upkeep are welcome, and thanks to the estate of Maxie Templeton, donors can make an even larger impact in 2016 when all gifts will be matched up to $100,000.

Contributions will support the Biodiversity Collections in the following ways: 

  • Research support, including expeditions to collect specimens in areas of the world where biodiversity inventories are essential for conservation efforts and establishment of new national parks
  • The organizing and digitizing of collections to facilitate research for students, professors, and visiting scholars. 
  • The updating of collections databases to the web based platform Arctos, allowing UTEP to participate in “big data” analyses with other major collections across the country and the world.