My first week at the University of Oregon

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My new work home.

Last week was my first week as a Research Assistant Professor in the Biology and the Built Environment Center (BioBE) at the University of Oregon, and my first full week in Eugene.  Combined with the Energy Studies in Buildings Laboratory, our collaborative team of architects and biologists researches how to make buildings more efficient, sustainable, pleasant, and healthy.

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Delta Ponds, along my new bike route to work.

My first day started auspiciously as I charted a new bike route to work, about 4.5 mi of which is along a path snaking next to the Willamette River.  It goes through several parks, and by a few small lakes and swamps which are home to dozens of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles.  I haven’t seen any river otters yet, but I have been keeping a close eye out.

Arriving on campus, most of my first day, and first week, were spent visiting the various places around campus to get myself established as a new employee- obtaining my ID card and email address, filing out paperwork, attending orientation, and finding all the coffee places within walking distance of the building.  ESBL is renovating and expanding its offices across several large, pluripotent rooms to accommodate a growing research team, so I got a brand new standing desk, chair, shelving, and computers (on order), all to my specifications.  The flexibility of working position, screen size, and screen angle provided by my new station are comfortable and great for productivity, and it’s neat to design the new space into offices, meeting tables, and storage which are based on our personalized usage needs and preferences.  And of course, there is plenty of space for all the mementos and science toys I’ve accumulated.

Most importantly, my first week was spent acclimating to my new department and getting up to speed on the ongoing and planned projects.  BioBE and ESBL have dozens on ongoing or planned projects on the built environment, with a combination of building and biology facets.  Over the course of the summer, I’ll be writing several grants and organizing new projects that explore how building use, occupancy, and human habits affect human health and the indoor microbiome, as well as contributing to the BioBE blog,  providing building microbiome posts to Give Me the Short Version, and getting some older projects out for publication.  On top of that, I’m looking forward to exploring the Pacific coast and the Northwestern landscape, and availing myself of the Willamette Valley wine industry.

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Photo Credit: Alen Mahic

2017 Congress on Gastrointestinal Function

I just got back from my very first Congress on Gastrointestinal Function, poster tube.jpga small meeting for  researchers with a specific focus on the gastrointestinal tract, which is held every two years in Chicago, Illinois.  The special session this year was on “Early Acquisition and Development of the Gut Microbiota: A Comparative Analysis”.  The rest of the sessions opened up the broader topics of gut ecosystem surveillance and modulation, as well as new techniques and products with which to study the effect of microorganisms on hosts and vice versa.  The research had a strong livestock animal focus, as well as a human health focus, but we also heard about a few studies using wild animals.

As I’ve previously discussed, conferences are a great way to interact with other scientists.  Not only can you learn from similar work, but you can often gain insights into new ways to solve research problems inherent to your system by looking at what people in different fields are trying, something that you might otherwise miss just by combing relevant literature online.  A meeting or workshop is also a great place to meet other similarly focused scientists to set up collaborators that span academia, government, non-profit, and industry sectors.

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It was great to catch up with Dr. Ben Wenner, now at Purdue Agribusiness, and meet Yairy Roman-Garcia, grad student at the Ohio State University.

This year, I was excited for one of my abstracts to be accepted as a poster presentation, and honored to have the other upgraded from poster to talk!  Stay tuned for details about both of those projects in the coming weeks, and be sure to check this meeting out in April, 2019.

Field bindweed study sampling

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive plant related to morning glories.  Their winding vines grow into a tangled mass which can strangle other plants, and a single plant can produce hundreds of seeds.  The plants can also store nutrients in the roots which allow them to regrow from fragments, thus it can be very difficult to get rid of field bindweed.  It will return even after chemical or physical control (tilling or livestock grazing), but it does not tolerate shade very well.  Thus, a more competitive crop, such as a taller wheat which will shade out nearby shorter plants, reduce the viability of bindweed.

First seen in the US in 1739, Field bindweed is native to the Mediterranean. By 1891, it had made its way west and was identified in Missoula, Montana.  As of 2016, it has been reported from all but two counties in Montana, where it has been deemed “noxious” by the state department (meaning that it has been designated as harmful to agriculture (or public health, wildlife, property).  In the field, this can be visually striking, as pictured below.  In the foreground, MSU graduate student Tessa Scott (lead researcher on this project) is standing in a patch of wheat infested with bindweed. Just seven feet away in the background, undergraduate Lazarro Vinola is standing in non-infested wheat, with soil core samplers used for height reference.
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In agricultural fields, bindweed infestations severely inhibit crop growth and health.

 

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Last week, Tessa, Lazarro, and I went to several farms in and around Big Sandy and Lewistown, Montana in order to sample fields battling field bindweed. To do so, we harvested wheat, field bindweed, and other weed biomass by cutting all above-ground plant material inside a harvesting frame.  These will be dried and weighed, to measure infestation load and the effect on wheat production.

The sampling locations are consistent with previous years to track how different farm management practices influence infestations.  This means using GPS coordinates to hike out to spots in the middle of large fields.

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It also means getting very dirty driving and walking through dusty fields!

Happy birthday to my chief contributor!

“I was married to Margaret Joan Howe in 1940. Although not a scientist herself she has contributed more to my work than anyone else by providing a peaceful and happy home.” – Dr. Frederick Sanger – From Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1980, Editor Wilhelm Odelberg, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1981

 

 

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Lee holding “Laura Jr.” during his daily weighing. Laura Jr. loved to cuddle.

Happy birthday and thank you to my partner and best supporting contributor, Lee.  Dr. Sanger was absolutely correct when he attributed his success at work to the support his wife gave him at home.  I don’t mean that our partners should run the entire household because we are too important (I’m all for egalitarian chore wheels).  What I mean is that it takes a special (and patient) type of person to emotionally support us and our work.  As researchers and/or academics, we lead busy work lives, have variable schedules, have sudden deadlines that crop up and glue us to our laptops, we can’t always take vacation during the school year and if we do take a vacation it always seems to coincide with a scientific conference we are presenting at.  We can be cranky without regular coffee infusions, and sometimes we come home smelling of whatever it is we were working on. And, sometimes we can never find enough undergraduate students to help us and ask you to help us clean sheep pens with no compensation.

 

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Lee helping catch sheep in a pasture under the hot July sun. Generally, all my sheep liked him and would walk right up to him.

 

Our jobs can also require us to move often, or to hard-to-reach locations.  Roughly a year ago, I accepted a job (my current post-doc position) in Bozeman, MT, a place I had never been to 2,600 miles from where I was living in Vermont.  I asked Lee to drop everything and relocate with me- something that every partner of a graduate student, post-doc, or tenure-track professor has been asked at least once.  Relocating with a researcher is no small proposition- it usually comes with a variable-length timeline; you might have to move again in a year or three or you might get stuck there and have to put down roots.  I am delighted to say that Lee came with me, we drove all 2,600 miles across country to Montana, and we have been having a wonderful time under the Big Sky since!  Happy birthday Lee, and to everyone else: go home and thank your partner, parents, coworkers, friends, pets, house plants, or whatever else for giving you the emotional support you need to be your best scientist.

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