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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Knights of the Round Table

The College of Arts and Sciences Dean of Science Faculty Christine Armett-Kibel gave an introduction to the first colloquium devoted to a collaborative learning experience for members of different departments. As part of an ongoing attempt by the UMass system to integrate scientists from different fields in order to promote sharing of ideas and to integrate approaches towards answering scientific questions, these colloquiums should take place at least once a semester.

This first colloquium featured Drs. Adan Colon-Carmona of Biology, Michelle “Shelly” Foster of Chemistry, and Curtis Olsen of ECOS. All of the speakers presented their research and the relation of that various research to environmental issues. Each member was held to a strict 20-minute talk time. Even Dr. Olsen, who joked about having seniority and hence more time to speak, was forced to the stay within the time limit with an “equal opportunity” comment from Dean Kibel.

Dr. Adan Colon-Carmona’s research focused on studying the response systems of the plant Arabidopsis to environmental cues. One project’s long term goals include genetically engineering plants that have bacterial genes that biodegrade pollutants. There are more than 500 polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) that can be released from consumer based oil consumption. Materials used to heat homes (wood, coal, or oil), mobiles (cars, trucks, etc.), industrial power plants, oil spills, and cigarette smoke all contribute to the presence of PAHs in the environment.

The presence of PAHs affects the entire ecosystem: Plants can intake them and in turn they are eaten by animals including humans. To date, the EPA has characterized 16 PAHs as hazardous to human health. When the cell tries to break down PAHs (molecules with more than 1 benzene ring), reactive toxic oxygen species are produced which can lead to cell death. Adan has demonstrated that PAH phenanthrene induces cell death in Arabidopsis.

Dr. Michelle Foster’s talked was about atmospheric chemistry. In particular, she is interested in the troposphere, which consists of the area between ground level and 10km up, of which PAHs are constituents. She noted the environmental relevance and importance of understanding how water molecules dissolve particles in the troposphere.

Heat causes water to evaporate and rise, as it rises in elevation it cools down and condenses around small particles, forming clouds. These particles can either come down in rainfall or re-evaporate into new cloud formations. Contaminants in the ocean can become part of this cloud cycle or be deposited far inland in rainfall, demonstrating the breadth of interconnectivity of the environment. Dr. Curtis Olsen pointed out that dimethylsulfides (DMS) from ocean plankton were unaccounted for in original global warming estimates. DMS can integrate into cloud structure and reflect solar radiation away, making original estimates much greater than current estimates.

Dr. Foster mentioned multiple times that she researches surface chemistry in order to study the troposphere. In particular she has demonstrated that water molecules are more attracted to each other than to Magnesium Oxide. Also, water molecules are more attracted to Sodium Chloride than they are to each other. This provides a window into the complexities involved in the particle/water cycle of the troposphere.

The colloquium concluded with Dr. Curtis Olsen’s talk on radio nucleotides in sediments near Pearl Harbor and Ground Zero. He discussed work he had done in 1985 at sites near Pearl Harbor with the Oakridge National Laboratory under a contract with the Navy to study health effects to Navy personnel. His research involved studying the radio nucleotides of a sediment core from the ground. They found a spike of lead and copper 100 cm deep suggesting that these were deposited after 1935, alluding to the involvement of the bombing on December 7, 1941.

Currently his lab is involved, in partial collaboration with John Kada of the Department of Energy (of which Dr. Olsen is a former employee), with studying the geological impacts of the collapse of the World Trade Center. Calcium and sulfur were found in the ash fibers at Ground Zero, reminiscent of gypsum in wallboard. Sure enough, at sediment samples from nearby Pier 32, calcium rich rod-like structures are found 1 – 2 cm deep. Copper and zinc deposits were also found 1 – 2 cm deep, components of pipes within a building.

Curiously, they found Iodine-131 at the surface of sediments. Iodine-131 is produced from the fission of Uranium, as well learned from the Chernobyl accident; yet could also be waste from treatments at nearby hospitals. Dr. Curtis’s lab is currently looking into potential sources of the Iodine.