Happy Holidays! With a new year around the corner, we’d like to take a pause to celebrate all the amazing science that LSU researchers, both faculty and students, have produced this year. In 2017, our researchers have helped build and execute such big ideas as measuring the gravitational waves emanating from the collision of two massive black holes and building a new tree of life for bony fishes. Our faculty and students conduct research via creative approaches and collaboration with colleagues across the LSU campus, our state, our nation and beyond. Our researchers are also leading the way in making these ideas and discoveries accessible to broad audiences, from TED talks, to science podcasts, to science art on the cover of Nature magazine.
Join us as we look back on the Top 10 LSU Science Stories of 2017! The following stories also represent our most popular blog posts this year. Enjoy and Geaux Science!
#1. Making Waves
This year, the pioneering leaders of LIGO were awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics for the detection of ripples in spacetime, or gravitational waves. Advanced LIGO is a second-generation gravitational-wave detector consisting of the two identical interferometers in Hanford and Livingston, and uses precision laser interferometry to detect gravitational waves. As of December 2017, these instruments have officially detected gravitational waves from a variety of cosmic events, including the merger of black holes and the merger of neutron stars, ushering in a new era of physics and astronomy research.
“It’s such an exciting time for research now at LIGO,” says Gabriela González, a professor of physics and astronomy at LSU and the first spokesperson of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration (LSC). “Before the detection of gravitational waves, it was always a pleasure but also a challenge to work with the instrument to overcome the limitations we thought might be preventing reliable detections. But now we know that with every little bit we improve the sensitivity of the LIGO detectors, we are going to see more and more things, not just black holes, but all kinds of astronomical events. Now, there is even more gratification in working with the instrument.”
Gaby was invited to speak around the globe about gravitational waves and LSU researchers’ involvement in their detection, including on the TED stage and most recently at Stephen Hawking’s 75th birthday! Learn more about gravitational waves and black holes with Gaby here, in one of our most popular blog posts of the year.
#2. Cannibalistic Caterpillars
Cannibalism might not be in the holiday spirit, but it may be just what the doctor ordered… for fall armyworms and other insects, at least! Who needs carrot cake, when you can have caterpillar guts?
Bret Elderd, an associate professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, investigates how various factors affect disease transmission in insects, particularly in Lepidoptera, an order of insects including butterflies and moths. Insects including two species that Elderd studies, the fall armyworm and the gypsy moth, regularly go through boom and bust cycles that can wipe out a crop or completely defoliate a forest. Elderd and his lab group investigate how these boom and bust cycles are affected by disease outbreaks, climate change and other environmental resources and factors such as, you guessed it, cannibalism. Using experiments in the fall armyworm system, Elderd’s group has found that cannibalism decreases the rate of spread of a deadly virus that eats these caterpillars from the inside out.
“What we show in a paper we published in American Naturalist this year is that if these caterpillars become cannibalistic and consume smaller, sick individuals in the population, transmission of this virus through the population is reduced,” Elderd said.
#3. Eclipse Chasers
If you are an avid star gazer or just an American who enjoys looking up at the sky, the Great American Eclipse may have been one of the most memorable events of your year. For LSU geology graduate student Nicki Button, it was the event of a lifetime, and for several LSU undergraduate students including physics senior Brad Landry, it was a chance to put years of scientific ballooning research project preparation into practice.
On August 21, 2017, a solar eclipse passed across the United States, first darkening Oregon and creating a path of totality all the way to South Carolina over the course of a few hours. In a project spearheaded by NASA and led by the Montana Space Grant Consortium, more than 50 high-altitude balloons were set to launch during the solar eclipse 2017, each carrying a video camera to record and livestream the Moon’s shadow as it travels across the Earth’s surface. The eclipse scientific balloon team at LSU, which falls under the Louisiana Space Grant Consortium (LaSPACE), helped led the effort to livestream the movement of the moon’s shadow from coast to coast and successfully launched their balloon from the Southern Illinois University (SIU) football stadium in Carbondale, IL, where the moon completely eclipsed the sun (totality).
Nicki Button chased the eclipse 2017 with LSU’s balloon team from Baton Rouge to Carbondale, IL, and wrote about her experience here.
#4. Tabby's Star
Did you know that LSU assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy Tabetha Boyajian has a star in her name? Tabby’s Star, or more officially KIC 8462852, isn’t just any old star. It’s been called the most mysterious star in the universe.
It was a group of citizen scientists, via Zooniverse’s Planet Hunters, a web-based citizen science project, who first discovered strange light patterns emanating from KIC 8462852. On the Planet Hunters website, anyone can help find undiscovered planets by looking at how the brightness of a star changes over time, where dips in brightness over time can be explained by planets transiting or passing in front of the star as seen from Earth. By monitoring the light curves of KIC 8462852, Planet Hunters volunteers found that the star regularly undergoes a series of odd, sharp dips in brightness. But these dips are so strange, so irregular, that they can’t be explained by a planet transiting the star, or any other behavior that stars are known to have.
That’s where Tabby comes in. She published a paper about KIC 8462852 in 2016, and as a researcher at LSU continues to study this particular star, amongst other stars, in collaboration with various citizen groups, amateur observers and her students at LSU. She is working to figure out what exactly is passing in front of KIC 8462852 and dimming its light from our vantage point on earth.
Only time will tell Tabby what exactly is passing in front of the most mysterious star in the universe. Want to learn more about the star and possibly help solve the mystery? Read more about KIC 8462852 here and follow Tabby’s blog Where’s the Flux (WTF?).
#5. Diving in Search of Corals and their Microbes
Did you know that coral reefs have microbial communities growing on and in them, just like we humans do, for example in the form of gut microbes? How do these microbes help or hurt corals? Alicia Reigel, a marine biologist and graduate student in Mike Hellberg’s lab in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences, is studying just that. This year, Alicia embarked on a 15-day expedition onboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Research Vessel Nancy Foster to explore corals and their microbes within Gray's Reef, a temperate hard-bottom reef off the coast of Georgia. She collected samples for her own research on the microbial communities of corals, as well as helped conduct a broader survey of Gray’s Reef species.
“Getting to go out on an NOAA research cruise is an incredible opportunity as a young scientist,” Alicia said. “On this expedition I was able to collect eight different species of coral – seven species that I was expecting to find and one that we’ve never documented at Gray’s Reef before! We have a fairly good idea of what this new species is, but it’s important to confirm this using both DNA and a morphological assessment. I will be working to identify this newcomer and figure out how and why we saw this particular coral in Gray’s Reef this year.”
Read about Alicia’s 2017 experience surveying Gray’s Reef here.
#6. Hidden Figures
This year was also one of celebration of diverse voices in science at LSU and beyond, a celebration we hope to continue every year at LSU Science. (Look for news of a Girls Night at the LSU Museum of Natural Science in 2018!)
On March 17, 2017, more than 800 of our community members filled the LSU Student Union Theater to watch the film Hidden Figures and to promote women and minorities in STEM. Hidden Figures tells the story of pioneering women of color who worked as human computers at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), which later became NASA, including Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson. As a part of the Hidden Figures Revealed event co-hosted by the LSU College of Engineering, six inspiring women discussed the film following a screening at the LSU Student Union and addressed questions about the state of women in minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
“There are many points in the film that resonated with me,” LSU Science Dean Cynthia Peterson wrote in a recap of the Hidden Figures Revealed event. “Being confronted with the reality of race relations in the 60’s was disturbing. The fact that these three smart, confident and resourceful African American women accomplished so much in spite of these obstacles is powerful. Period. I mentioned during the panel discussion that a scene that sticks with me is the one where Mary Jackson confronted the judge with her appeal to take community college classes at an all-white high school. She asked him, ‘Which of the decisions that you make today will have an impact 100 years from now?’”
#7. Around the World in Search of Birds
To catch the songs of elusive bird species in person and to collect data about their evolutionary history, Vivien Chua and colleagues at the LSU Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS) traversed mountains and rivers this year to get to the remote Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary in Sarawak, Malaysia. Vivien, a native of Malaysia, works with Dr. Fred Sheldon in the LSU Museum of Natural Science and the Department of Biological Sciences to uncover the evolution and diversification of montane birds in Borneo. The big question she is trying to answer is, what patterns and processes are responsible for shaping the modern population structure of birds such as those in Borneo?
“Birds are just really bizarre creatures,” Vivien writes in a popular blog post about her field experience this year. “They are found all over the world and have so much variability when it comes to their behavior, natural history and biology. We can learn so much about the earth's evolutionary history by studying them. Studying birds has allowed me to be a step closer to the natural world and to travel to places I would not otherwise. I have come to appreciate wildlife even more than I did before. Studying birds, you realize that each individual organism has a complex history and biology. They hold so much information; some that we can study with current technology, but other data are waiting to be explored.”
This year alone, LSUMNS researchers have traveled to such remote and exotic locations as Antarctica, the Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo, Mt. Mulu in Malaysian Borneo, Sulawesi in Indonesia, Tanzania, Tahiti and Moorea to collect specimens for museum research. These specimens represent over 300 species of animals including fish, rats and birds, including several species new to science! LSUMNS’ fearless explorers travel the world over to collect tissue samples and morphological data from elusive species, for example in hopes of reconstructing more accurate trees of life for species that we need to know more about in order to protect.
#8. Ireland, Ireland
While LSUMNS researchers collected fish specimens for museum research in Tanzania and birds in Borneo, a group of LSU geologists including six graduate students and six undergraduate students in the LSU Department of Geology and Geophysics embarked on a field trip to Ireland this year led by Peter Clift, Charles T. McCord Endowed Professor of Geology & Geophysics, and Dr. Amy Luther, Assistant Professor of Geology & Geophysics and Director of Geology Field Camp, to learn about the multiphase geological history of the island. The students experienced first-hand many of the unique geological features of Ireland, including the nowth Neolithic Passage Tomb, the Beaghmore Stone Circles and Giant’s Causeway, a geologic feature made up of about 40,000 basalt (igneous rock) columns formed by a volcanic eruption that slowly cooled as a lava lake.
"My favorite part of the trip to Ireland was being able to work with the other students and instructors outside of a classroom setting,” said Mitch Gregory, an LSU geology graduate student. “Working in the field presents a much different group dynamic than working on projects in class or in the lab, and it is always an exciting and rewarding experience. This trip allowed us to experience all that Ireland has to offer, but to also explore the landscape and think about its history in a way that we likely would not have if we were just visiting as tourists."
LSU martian geologist and graduate student Nicki Button wrote first-hand about the Ireland excursion on our blog – check it out! The post was featured in the LSU LSU President F. King Alexander’s Postscript newsletter in November!
#9. From Geochemistry to Hair Care
LSU alum Boyce Clark never thought he’d be making shampoo.
After earning his PhD in biogeochemistry from LSU, Boyce worked in chemical cleanup for more than a decade, but it wasn’t his true passion. He didn’t realize his passion until his daughter Alden needed help with her frizzy hair. After literally cutting knots out of her hair several times, Boyce decided it was time to do something. As a scientist, he knew where to go to get more information. He started researching hair. He went to the East Baton Rouge Parish library and came back with books on the morphology, physiology and biology of hair, and started teaching himself.
“I wanted to understand what was happening on a molecular scale, or what the molecular reason was for a bad hair day,” Boyce said.
Equipped with an understanding of the underlying chemistry of hair, Boyce reached out to several chemical and pharmaceutical companies for samples of compounds he needed, and he started mixing. How difficult can shampoo chemistry be? It turns out, very difficult. “You are essentially taking a bunch of compounds that don’t want to be together, like oil and water, and making them play nice,” Boyce said. But after five months and many failures, including numerous product mixtures that fell apart in big, ugly messes, Boyce had a breakthrough. Formula 17 was a winner.
It didn’t take long for Boyce’s chemistry-based smoothing shampoo and conditioning treatment to go wild. He formed Lubricity Labs and got to work making more product for consumers. This year, Lubricity Labs was awarded the 2017 Company of the Year by LSU’s Innovation Park, and currently has a patent pending for its two-step smoothing treatment. Boyce’s hair products have been featured in such national press as Yahoo! Beauty, Refinery29, Essence.com, HelloGiggles.com, Gurl.com, WAFB, InRegister Magazine, Baton Rouge Business Report, 225 Magazine and LOLA Magazine.
Read more about the chemistry of a bad hair day, or a great one, in one of our most popular blog posts of the year!
#10. Not your Everyday Rats
Last but not least, one of LSU Science’s major claims to fame this year was Gracilimus radix, a 2017 Top 10 Species according to the International Institute for Species Exploration! G. radix is an omnivorous rat from Sulawesi discovered by Jake Esselstyn, curator of mammals at the LSU Museum of Natural Science and assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.
The International Institute for Species Exploration wrote about Gracilimus radix: "In what appears to be an evolutionary reversal, the newly discovered Sulawesi root rat dines on both plant and animal matter, making it unique among its strictly carnivorous relatives. The rat is known to sometimes feed on roots, and the name G. radix is derived from the Latin word for ‘root.’"
Read more about the newly discovered rats of 2017 with Jake Esselstyn, who discovered several species this year on Mount Gandangdewata, a remote and rarely climbed mountain in the Quarles Range of the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. And there might yet be more new rats species to come in the new year!
Bonus #11. Knock, Knock
This year we saw the much-anticipated opening of the Knock Knock Children’s Museum in Baton Rouge. Several LSU students have been involved in creating activity booklets and other activities and exhibits for the museum. In October this year, the GeauxTeach Math and Science Program at LSU and ExxonMobil teamed with the museum to host Family Math and Science Night, which included a museum scavenger hunt, prizes and other fun and educational activities designed to expose students to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) concepts using the power of play.
Read more about the Knock Knock Museum and LSU involvement here.
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