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Thursday, November 15, 2012

A couple of the "Falcon Tube" rockets used
during the chemistry experiments
On the November 3rd, 2012, CSU Channel Islands had its fourth Science Carnival for the local kids in grades K-8 and their families. As it has since 2009, the science carnival displays science to the attendees as a fun and applicable subject to study during their potential undergraduate studies. The goal of the science carnival is to help local students find a passion and interest in the sciences, no matter which discipline it may be.

Dr. Phil Hampton founded the science carnival in 2009 with hopes of creating a community outreach program for the young students attending school within Ventura County. In addition to igniting a passion for science, Dr. Hampton hoped to create an event that would provide a hands-on experience for children and their families that was fun, free of price, and full of excitement. Dr. Hampton has succeeded tremendously.

This year, there were a large amount of exciting and interesting experiments to witness. From looking at animal bones to slime, and frozen ice cream to different colored flames, the science carnival was able to create a diverse learning environment for students of all ages.
Aurora Ginzburg lighting her hands
on fire with propane bubbles

One of the experiments involved lighting a student’s hands on fire. The experiment involved propane, water, bubbles, and fire. A container filled with propane had a hose in it that caused the propane to form bubbles at the top of the liquid. The student then put her hands in a bucket of water and then scooped up the bubbles. Channel Islands (CI) student Aurora Ginzburg took a lighter and set the bubbles aflame, causing a beautiful ball of fire to light up within her hands. The propane burns faster and at a lower temperature than water does, which explains why coating your hands with water makes sure that your hands don’t burn along with the propane bubbles you are holding.

The magnesium metal creating a bright
spectacle within the dry ice blocks
A second experiment involved burning magnesium metal in dry ice. A couple pieces of magnesium metal were put between two pieces of dry ice. The magnesium was lit with a torch and the children’s eyes began to widen. The bright spectacle caused by this combustion results in magnesium oxide and carbon powder. The oxidation and combustion reaction caused by the burning magnesium reacts with the oxygen in the dry ice to result with carbon powder left within the two slabs of dry ice.

CSU Channel Islands’ chemistry professor, Dr. Brittnee Veldman, put one of the more dramatic experiments on. She spent a majority of the carnival lying on a bed of nails for all the visitors to see. She started by throwing an apple at the bed of nails to show how the differences in weight displacement on the bed affects the objects differently. When an object is subjected to the bed with only a small amount of the surface area being exposed to the nails, an unfortunate effect is observed: a pierced apple. On the other hand, when a person lies down on the bed with his or her weight completely dispersed, as Dr. Veldman did, the individual is unharmed. The person can actually have a cinder block broken on his or her chest while lying on the bed of nails.
A cinder block being broken on Dr. Veldman's chest
as she lies on the bed of nails. 

The three mentioned experiments were not the only events shown during the science carnival. There is nowhere but up for these experiments to go with each science carnival that passes. I can only encourage you to attend next year’s event, for there is only so much that I can describe in written text. You can only see it to believe it.

Once again science, you rule!
Kayte Bataille 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ladies and Gentleman, the winners have been announced!

Robert J. Lefkowitz (left) and Brian K. Kobilka (right)
At 2:30AM this morning in California, the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry were called and informed of their accomplishments. Robert J. Lefkowitz, 69, and Brian K. Kobilka, 57, have discovered the molecular workings and structures of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs are a family of proteins that have been discovered to be the transmitters of critical biological messages for functions such as vision, smell, taste, and neurotransmission.

The two men set out on their scientific journey in an attempt to understand the biological processes that occur during a body’s production of stress hormones, such as adrenaline. Science already uncovered what happens to a person when the hormones are produced; a receptor is bound by the hormone and then a person experiences focused vision, quickened breathing, diverting blood from the less important body systems etc. The groundbreaking aspect of Lefkowitz and Kobilka’s findings is that the nature of the receptors for these hormones are now known.

Lefkowitz first traced the signaling of these receptors in the 1970s with radioactive blocking agents attached to hormones. By marking the hormones, Lefkowitz was able to follow where they attached in the body and observe the activities of the receptors they attached to. With much effort, Dr. Lefkowitz was able to identify the receptor proteins and prove they were specific molecules.

In the 1980s, Lefkowitz’s group at Duke University, which Kobilka was a part of, found the gene that actually produced one of the protein receptors. The group saw that the shape of the protein had many long spirals that wove through the cell membrane exactly seven times.

3D image of rhodopsin.
Realizing that the receptor he discovered had the same characteristic seven helicies as another receptor that had been found in the retina, in this case the light receptor rhodopsin, Lefkowitz and his team set out to find several other similar receptors that were found to be in a family of receptors, called the G protein-coupled receptors. Today, about a thousand of these GPCRs are known. They reside on the surface of cells and react to a host of hormones and neurotransmitters. Dr. Kobilka moved to Stanford and progressed to determine the three-dimensional structure of the GPCRs, which involved the utilization of x-ray crystallography.
“We hope by knowing the three-dimensional structure we might be able to develop more selective drugs and more effective drugs,” Dr. Kobilka said. The ultimate goal with all this new information is to refine drug design. Many drug molecules attach to cells, not only at the intended target, but also to other receptors.  This may help eliminate those unwanted side effects that one experiences when taking certain drugs.

Monday, October 1, 2012

As some of you may have heard, there are some curious things happening on Mars. To be specific, there is a robot named Curiosity cruising around the red planet as we speak, and he is packing some heat, literally.

Picture of Curiosity while he was waiting
to be sent on his mission to Mars.

On our friend Curiosity, who is the size of a car and runs on nuclear power, there is a device that turns rocks into dust for his analysis on Mars. The rock-vaporizing laser, named ChemCam, has a range of 25 feet and can identify elements in the rock gas. Scientists are hoping that ChemCam finds rock vapors that have traces of carbon in order to further research efforts.

Another tool Curiosity has on his belt isn’t something you can buy at the Home Depot, because a team that consists of scientists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, University of Paris, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, and Honeybee Robotics created this microwave-sized instrument. SAM (Sample Analysis at Mars) has 74 cups to use for studying ground-up rocks that will be heated to 1800 degrees, and then examined by three different instruments (Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer, Gas Chromatograph, and Tunable Laser Spectrometer) in order to identify the compounds on Mars, and hopefully find organic materials.

Now, you may be thinking, “Kayte, NASA already sent up two Viking landers in 1976 to examine the surface of Mars for organics.” What SAM does, that the Viking landers didn’t do in the 70’s, is heat up the examined rocks to temperatures hotter than the Vikings could. This intense heat destroys perchlorates, which are believed to destroy organics during the increase of its environment’s temperature, before they get a chance to eat up the vital organics Curiosity is looking for. SAM also has nine cups that utilize a chemical solvent that gives way for SAM to examine rocks at lower temperatures.

A cartoon view of where the three different
instruments are located within SAM.
Such altered methods of examining rock compositions will hopefully assist scientists in answering three main questions while Curiosity is checking out Mars. These questions can be found on the SAM Instrumentation description on the NASA website, as well as a description of the systems and instruments contained within SAM’s capabilities.

The possibility of life on Mars is a concept that NASA is still trying to validate. With NASA’s hopes and dreams up on the red planet set within a robot named Curiosity, we can only hope that his friends ChemCam and SAM can help him bring us answers that feed our interests in the possibility of a futuristic world on Mars.

Bring ‘em home Curiosity. Bring ‘em home.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Balloons are one of the most popular uses for helium.
If you walk into Vons right now, head towards the florist’s station, and ask for a balloon you would be sincerely turned down. It’s a sad time when you are unable to buy a “Get Well Soon” balloon for your friend in the hospital and have to resort to a teddy bear or a mundane card. Even though helium is the second most abundant element in the universe, it is slowly floating away with all of those balloons we like to buy. 

Helium gas is concentrated underground in places with large amounts of uranium ore. The uranium slowly emits alpha particles, which can capture electrons and become helium gas. Underground air can contain concentrations of helium that make up approximately 7% of its composition. The Helium is removed from the natural gasses by the process of cryogenic distillation and then sent away for distribution by the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve. The majority of these "helium fields" used to supply the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve are located in the Texan Panhandle. 

While all this may seem “fine and dandy”, we are finding ourselves in a bit of a shortage of this element we know to shrink our voice boxes and be the culprit behind our balloons flying away. 

In 1996, congress passed a mandate to privatize the U.S. Federal Helium Reserve program in hopes to move the United States out of the helium business by 2015. Basically, the government wanted the reserves to be empty in 2015. It was thought that alternate sources and productions of the element would have been found by that time, but it looks to be a little less possible now than it was projected to be sixteen years ago. 

With these reserves becoming less and less full, we are finding several areas that might begin to suffer with this oncoming depletion of helium. Health care, small-scale research projects, party balloon sales will soon feel the wrath of this shortage, if they haven’t already. 

MRI machine
"Helium is absolutely essential to MRI production," says Tom Rauch, global sourcing manager for GE Healthcare, one of the largest manufacturers of MRI systems.. Liquid Helium is used to cool MRI magnets because of the low boiling points (approximately -452 degrees F or -296 degrees C). "Helium is currently the only element on Earth that can effectively keep the magnet this cold and consequently allow for the high field strength, stable and uniform magnetic fields that make modern MRI systems possible," he says. 

Even in Ontario, Canada, researchers are facing obstacles related to this shortage. Rising prices give smaller research facilities a more difficult time purchasing Helium with the prices rising at the rate they are. “It’s made it difficult to do the research because it’s extremely expensive,” said Grace Parraga, a professor and researcher at the Robarts Research Institute at the University of Western Ontario. Even at a discounted price for scientific research, she said her laboratory pays $795 per liter. That’s up from $300 not so long ago. Prof. Parraga said they’ve been unable to perform a clinical trial because of the high costs. 

But there is a silver lining in all of this chaos! In response to the troubling shortages of Helium, a bipartisan senate bill has been introduced called Senate Bill 2374 The Helium Stewardship Act to reauthorize the Federal Helium Reserve in Texas to continue selling helium beyond 2015. The purpose of this bill is to continue the sale of Helium past the previous cut off date set by the 1996 mandate. Hopefully, these sales will repay the treasury back for the costs to set up the reserve in the first place as well as assist with the national debt. Although these sales will not help with the eventual depletion of Helium on Earth, they will cushion the blow to the places where this viable resource is needed in our everyday lives. 

Yet hope still exists in three new Helium sites opening up in the next twelve months. Wyoming, Algeria, and Qatar will be housing these sites, adding around a 25% increase to the world supply, and contributing to the elimination of the current shortage. 

So, the next time you want to bring a balloon somewhere in order to brighten someone’s day or make a friend feel better, just choose the teddy bear or the card for the sake of MRI’s everywhere. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The da Vinci Surgical System

Leonardo da Vinci, known for his revolutionary advances in art, music, and science, is now known for his ability to peel a grape.

The da Vinci Si Surgical system is the future and present of surgeries here in Ventura County. Earlier this year, St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard was awarded a $1,750,000 grant, the largest gift in the history of the hospital, which was used to purchase the da Vinci system. “I am overwhelmed by this generous gift to St. John’s,” said Laurie Eberst, president and CEO for St. John’s Hospitals in an interview posted on the St. John’s Hospital website. “It demonstrates that our legacy is strong and that local philanthropic leaders recognize and support the innovative surgical procedures being performed at St. John’s by our highly skilled physicians.”

The da Vinci Si Surgical System is one of the most technologically advanced surgical platforms available today. It is used as an extension to the surgeon during procedures, for those such as lung cancer, prostate cancer, thoracic surgery, gynecological procedures, urology, and general surgeries. “The application of this technology in the treatment of lung cancer [at St. John’s] is a relatively new and tremendously advantageous approach,” said Dr. Bruce Toporoff, a cardiothoracic surgeon at St. John’s, per the St. John’s Hospital website. “The potential to perform minimally invasive surgery to treat and cure lung cancer is phenomenal and will enhance St. John’s active lung cancer program.” Toporoff added, “we are already innovative in our cardiac surgery program and the use of robotics affords us new opportunities in the future.” The surgeon is in control of the da Vinci system during the entire surgery and is able to project precision that is impossible to replicate with just one’s hands. The system allows the procedure to involve the smallest incisions possible, as well as giving the surgeon 3-D views of the patient.

The da Vinci Si Surgical System benefits both the hospital and the patients through shorter hospital stays, reduced blood loss, fewer blood transfusions, minimized side effects, faster recuperation, reduced postoperative pain, and smaller incisions that lessen the likelihood of infection. Incisions made by the surgeon using the da Vinci System are so small and precise they can peel a grape! A video for this grape peeling can be seen on the St. John’s Hospital website.

Technological advances like these are bettering our medical practices every day. We have a machine that eliminates the possibility of a surgeon's hand shaking hindering the success of a procedure and it’s only a few miles away from Cal State Channel Islands. The future looks bright for students aspiring for positions in the medical field because machines like this are opening more and more doors.

Once again science, you rule. 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Untreated soil (left)
Soil treated with biochar (right)
Though carbon sequestration, the act of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, is hardly a new concept when it comes to the fight against climate change, researchers all over the globe are eager to think up new wacky ways to do it. Biochar, a newly developed charcoal-like soil additive based on an ancient technology, has researchers and environmentalists thrilled about its potential to reduce our carbon footprint. In a 2010 study that was published in Nature titled Sustainable Biochar to Mitigate Global Climate Change, it was calculated that if industrial scale biochar production was practiced globally it could offset carbon dioxide emissions by 12%.

The biochar soil enhancement technique comes from the remarkably fertile soils of ancient Amazonia. The man-made dark earth soils, otherwise known as terra preta soils, have been found to contain charcoal, fish bones, ceramics and other bits of debris. The extraordinary thing about terra preta soils is that though naturally they are particularly barren and fruitless in nature, they have remained fertile for thousands of years.

Biochar is made from any organic waste product. Normally organic waste would be consumed by an animal or decomposed, eventually making its way back into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide or methane. Instead, thermal degradation breaks down the waste in a pyrolysis process, heating in the absence of oxygen. Combustible gas is then produced which provides more than enough energy to sustain the reaction for the rest of the production process leaving behind a charcoal-like residue. Since the carbon is stabilized in this process it can be stored in the ground for thousands of years without escape.

Reduction of greenhouse gasses isn’t the only benefit to this technology. Since biochar has a weak electric charge it attracts plant nutrients in the form of positive ions in the soil. Preliminary research suggests that the use of biochar can boost plant yields as well as reduce ground water contamination from fertilizers.

Looks like biochar may be the next new thing in progressive agriculture as well one more weapon in the arsenal for scientists in the battle against climate change. Thanks for the tip ancient Amazonians!

Friday, March 16, 2012

F. Sherwood Roland, May 2008
F. Sherwood Rowland, Nobel laureate most famous for his groundbreaking atmospheric chemistry work in the mid-nineties on the formation and destruction of the earth's ozone layer, died at his Corona del Mar home earlier this week on March 10th at the age of 84 from complications with Parkinsons Disease.

Rowland and his two colleagues Paul J. Crutzen and Mario J. Molina won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for their extensive work on the potential destruction of earths stratospheric ozone layer by anthropogenic sources, specifically chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which were commonly found in refrigerants and other man-made materials. Rowland and Molina's paper titled Stratospheric Sink for Chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine Atom-Catalyzed Destruction of Ozone that was published in Nature in 1974, was instrumental in the banning of CFCs by the Montreal Protocol in 1996.

F. Sherwood Rowland will surely be missed and revered in the scientific community for his significant contributions.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Impact of ocean acidification on a key Arctic pelagic mollusc
As carbon dioxide (CO2) levels rise and global warming continues to rear it’s ugly head, disaster may be in store for some of our oceans key players. According to a study titled The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification published in Science this month, due to ocean acidification, the decline in pH caused by the rise of CO2 mainly due to anthropogenic sources, we may be headed into dangerous territory in comparison with historical carbon cycles.

Earth’s oceans gobble up approximately one quarter of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Carbonic acid is then formed, lowering the pH of seawater. Due to the drop in pH the concentration of the carbonate ion, which would normally be supersaturated in surface waters, is reduced. For calcifying organisms, organisms made of calcium carbonate, a decrease in carbonate ion concentrations could spell catastrophe. In the incidence that acidification directly affects calcifying organisms such as corals, molluscs and other creatures that produce their shells and plates from calcium carbonate, it could eventually upset the entire marine food chain.

In the study researchers looked to earth’s geological record for clues to what biotic responses might be based on record disruptions in carbon cycling and climate change, which were potentially caused by ocean acidification. In the past it has been challenging for researchers to determine future impacts of ocean acidification due to the limited sample period and the fact no existing oceanic crust or sediment is available for examination over 180 million years old.

Admittedly the study isn’t perfect. Researchers state in the paper “no past event perfectly parallels future projections in terms of disrupting the balance of ocean carbonate chemistry;” however, in the timespan of our geological record there are several events providing evidence regarding biotic responses in the incidence of carbon cycle disruption. It was concluded in the study that acidification levels seem to be headed for a maximum that we haven’t seen in the last 300 million years, which they call “unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”

Thursday, February 16, 2012

CI students from left to right
Lorenzo DeSantiago, Camille Peredo, Devon Dally,
Eric Needleman (from the CSU), Jason Torres, Susan Ly, Claudina Cammack
Photo compliments of the CI Chemistry Department
While some of us may have been feasting on leftover Christmas cookies or savoring our last days of sleeping in before the dawn of a new semester, several CI students including Susan Ly and Lorenzo DeSantiago were busy presenting their research at the CSU Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology (CSUPERB) symposium in Santa Clara over winter break. “It’s cool because you get immersed into everything… all the big companies are there,” said DeSantiago. “You have Google, Yahoo and biotechnology companies are everywhere.”

Ly and DeSantiago are part of a research team led by Dr. Blake Gillespie, associate professor of chemistry at CI. The team is dedicated to studying CusF, a protein found in E. coli, in hopes to better understand what governs protein stability. “We want to understand the basis of ligand-dependent stability,” said Ly. “We are not trying to cure a disease but many diseases arise from protein misfolding.” The team hopes to create a global model for protein stabilization that can be related to other proteins as well as CusF.
CI student Lorenzo DeSantiago 
Photo compliments of the CI Chemistry Department

In addition to allowing undergraduates the opportunity to present their own research, CSUPERB is an excellent place for students to make new connections in their field. “You get to network across different CSUs,” said DeSantiago.

Ly explained that her favorite part of the conference was viewing the other student’s research poster presentations. “It is really interesting to find out about what other students are doing,” said Ly. “Also, it is good practice to try to explain your own research in a way that a person outside your field can understand.”

Both Ly and DeSantiago expressed thanks for the opportunities that have been available to them at CI. “I am incredibly grateful for this research opportunity,” said Ly. “I know if I was at another school I would not be able to do the research I am doing now.” Interested parties will have a chance to check out Ly and DeSantiago’s project among other current research happenings at the 2012 Southern California Undergraduate Research Conference in Chemistry and Biochemistry (SCURCCB) that will take place in April on our very own CI campus.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Albert Einstein
In the past decade, suspicions have arisen in the scientific community concerning the uniformity of the constant, alpha, that reflects the strength of electromagnetism in regards to how hydrogen gas absorbs ultraviolet light in space. Alpha seemed to differ throughout the universe based on observations made in the last decade with the Keck Telescope in Hawaii and again in 2010 with the Very Large Telescope in Chile. If confirmed, this idea would challenge Einstein’s equivalence principal, that states that the laws of physics are the same in all parts of the universe, and may lead to wacky new ideas like the existence of other universes and additional dimensions. Some scientists thought this idea was a bit too bizarre to deserve much merit.

Recently, in a study done by teams at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune, India and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Socorro, New Mexico titled Constraining Fundamental Constant Evolution with HI and OH Lines, that was thought to finally settle the debate, researchers detected the hydroxyl molecule’s emission and absorption of radio waves in a gas cloud 6.7 light years away. The hope was that the radio instruments used, which are capable of taking measurements at 50 to 100 times greater accuracy than in previous experiments to detect hydrogen absorption, would provide evidence of a more conclusive nature regarding these claims.

Unfortunately, researchers came up empty handed. It was the expectation that the emission and absorption lines observed from the hydroxyl molecule would be mirror images of each other. This was not the case in this experiment, which led researchers to believe there was something spoiling their measurements. One possibility is that a second hydroxyl gas cloud lying on the same plane was responsible for the screwy results.

Since gas clouds that carry a hydroxyl signal are hard to come by, possibilities for settling the dispute in the near future are looking grim; however, every gas cloud has a silver lining. Though it may take years, this new promising method may prove useful as new clouds are discovered and examined.