scientist

Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

As a child, Yoel Stuart played with snakes. Now as a postdoctoral researcher at UT, he plays with anole lizards as a scientist.

A recent study he worked on has received a lot of attention after his group published the paper in Science.

The study looked at one species of lizards, green anoles, living on islands off the coast of Florida and what happened after a different species of lizards, brown anoles, invaded. When forced to compete, evolutionary pressures forced the green anoles to develop larger and stickier toe pads for climbing trees.

Though evolution is often considered a slow process that takes hundreds of thousands of years, careful measurements allowed Stuart and his team to detect this change after only 15 years, or 20 generations of lizards, which is impressive when one considers just how subtle of a change this is. Green anoles are small animals — no more than 8 inches long, most of which is tail — and their toe pads only increased in size by about 4 percent to 6 percent over this time.

It’s not just later-generation lizards growing larger toes, though. Stuart and his team concluded that this was the result of evolutionary adaptation.

“I think the reason we can say that so confidently is that we ruled out all the other possibilities,” Stuart said.

For instance, another possible explanation could be that the toe pad size and stickiness weren’t coded into the lizards’ genes but were the result of the environment. The feet of a tribe of barefoot-running humans will look very different than those of street-walking Austinites, and it has nothing to do with genetics.  

Stuart and his co-authors took green anole eggs from several different islands and raised them in identical conditions. The anole hatchlings from the invaded islands grew larger and stickier toes than those that weren’t, strongly suggesting this was a genetic change. 

The team also performed genetic analysis of different species of green anoles from separate islands to make sure that larger-toed green anoles hadn’t migrated to the islands during the 15-year study and created the illusion of adaptation.

The different islands all had lizard populations about equally distinct from each other genetically, suggesting that the larger-toed lizards on the different islands evolved independently.

A further analysis showed that the island populations themselves were all about equally diverse, which wouldn’t happen if larger-toed lizards migrated to certain areas and added their genes to the pool.

The anoles from the invaded islands do tend to climb higher than those from the non-invaded ones, and there are other studies that show that these traits do correspond to better climbers in many other lizard species, but one can never be too sure. A hypothesis is only as strong as the tests it’s subjected to, and, if Stuart and his colleagues are correct, then further tests will only increase their confidence.

Of course, follow-up studies are also a good excuse to spend more time with the green anoles.

“They’re just neat creatures,” Stuart said. “They’re fun to observe and catch and hang out with.”

Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology, authored a study that found unconventional gas and oil production uses about the same amount of water as conventional production. Scanlon’s results will aid future economic and policy studies about the environmental impacts of unconventional energy production methods like fracking.

Photo Credit: Xintong Guo | Daily Texan Staff

A study led by a UT researcher found that the amount of water used for unconventional gas and oil production, such as hydraulic fracturing, is about the same as is used for conventional production. 

The study, published on Sept. 18 online in the “Environmental Science & Technology Journal,” was led by Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist in the Jackson School of Geosciences.

“We’re using more water for hydraulic fracturing because we’re producing more oil using hydraulic fracturing,” Scanlon said. “It is not because hydraulic fracturing is more water-intensive per unit of oil production.” 

Scanlon said she decided to conduct the study to answer existing questions about the vulnerability of unconventional gas and oil production because of water shortages and the use of hydraulic fracturing.

“There is a concern about using water, especially in times of drought,” said Kristine Uhlman, research engineering/scientist associate. “With this research, people can understand that the method for generating energy is not necessarily what’s causing more water use.”

According to Uhlman, hydraulic fracturing, fracking, is a process in which liquids are injected into fractures of rocks to extract natural gas and oil. Conventional oil and gas accumulates in reservoirs and is extracted through the use of conventional, vertical wells. Unconventional oil and gas is trapped in dense rock, typically shale, and cannot be extracted except through the use of unconventional, horizontal wells. Uhlman said the unconventional oil production method has been useful to reach unconventional oil. 

“Unconventional oil and gas production is helping the United Sates be energy independent,” Uhlman said. “We have enough energy to sustain ourselves because of this new unconventional development of unconventional oil and gas.”

Scanlon said the results of this study could be used in future economic and policy studies about environmental impacts of unconventional energy production. She said the research was based on a well-by-well analysis of water use in hydraulic fracturing and used a number of different databases. 

She looked at thousands of wells used for conventional and unconventional oil and gas production and came up with ranges of how much water is used to construct them. They found the same amount of water is used for both methods.

“The difference is not how much water is used, but when it is used,” Uhlman said.

Uhlman said that this study could provide people with a better understanding of the relationship between water and energy.

Research scientist associate Robert Reedy and research scientist Jean-Philippe Nicot, both with the Jackson School of Geosciences, also contributed to the study.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

President Barack Obama awarded chemistry professor Allen Bard with the Enrico Fermi Award, a $50,000 prize he will share with Andrew Sessler, director emeritus of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. The award, which honors distinguished research in energy science and technology over the course of a scientist’s career, is given through the U.S. Department of Energy and was announced Monday.

Chemistry professor Jonathan Sessler, whose father won the award alongside Bard, said Bard has made an impression on him since his early days at UT.

“I have admired Al Bard since I first arrived at UT in 1984. He was already famous back then,” Sessler said. “He remains one of my true heroes: a scientist’s scientist.”

Electrochemistry is the combined study of various kinds of energy, chemicals and electrical systems. Bard said electrochemistry is necessary for creating many complex chemicals that are a vital component of many modern devices.

“[Electrochemistry is] used widely to obtain a lot of chemicals that you can’t make because they don’t occur naturally in nature, like chlorine and aluminum,” Bard said. “All the batteries we have today are made through electrochemical systems.”

Chemistry lecturer Sara Sutcliffe, who was a student of Bard’s in the ’90s, said Bard has always been a memorable and thoughtful instructor.

“I took his class called ‘Electronics for Scientists’ and it was a wonderful experience I will never forget,” Sutcliffe said. “He was patient and would take the time to really help you.”

Sutcliffe said she recalls a particular lesson in which Bard wanted to emphasize the importance of caution. According to Sutcliffe, Bard brought a television into class one day, adjusted the television’s wires and then touched one of them with a screwdriver, producing sparks, smoke and a powerful smell.

“He got the reaction out of the class he wanted,” Sutcliffe said.

Chemistry graduate student Michelle Robinson said Bard’s award speaks to the quality of researchers at the University.

“As a graduate student in the department of chemistry, having a recipient of the Enrico Fermi award is very exciting,” Robinson said. “It enhances the reputation of the department.”

Projects in Antarctica by UT researchers in the Institute for Geophysics could be affected by a summary of plans released by the National Science Foundation to improve research and facilities in the United States Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation released the report, “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness,” last week as a response to ten recommendations made by the U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel was put in place to conduct an independent review of policy and advise the agency on how to improve its logistical capabilities.

UT Research scientist associate, Joseph MacGregor, said he understands why the foundation has chosen to take this approach given the challenging budget situation.

“Program managers and proposal review panels already consider the logistics burdens of proposal projects, although the latter group does so perhaps more indirectly than the former,” Macgregor said. “Reviewing the scientific merit of proposals is already a lot of work, so I’m concerned that requiring a more formal review of logistics costs will shift added burden to scientists if it is not implemented effectively.”

The report indicated the foundation has already begun implementing many of the cost-saving ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Panel. 

According to UT research scientist associate, Britney Schmidt, most of the logistical costs are for maintaining sites, which is necessary, and not due the impact of any one grant.

“Of course there are probably ways to cut back, but I think we’re in a climate of cutting for cutting’s sake, and at some point, you start cutting out the ability to do great science,” Schmidt said.

Representatives of the foundation are considering ways to reduce the size of its ice-equipped aircraft fleet, which has become costly. Schmidt said this year there were already too few flights scheduled for the C17 aircraft impacting everyone on site.

“This impacted everyone because science equipment was late, which can extend or prevent program operation,” Schmidt said. “By saving a few flights' cost, you might actually lose more money by having to have more people around the site for longer, or by having to have a second season for some programs that can’t finish their objectives. Or worse, not having the ability for programs to finish their objectives, which has all kinds of costs you might not be able to put on a line item.”

Forcing principal investigators and review panels to consider the cost effectiveness of their institution’s proposed work is concerning to senior research scientist Don Blankenship.

“There is no way an individual [principal investigators] can accommodate the full spectrum of these imperatives within a particular proposal and if we tried to address those issues there would be significant push back by our reviewers as well as the administrators overseeing the proposal process,” Blankenship said. “The bottom line here is that we will continue to propose work that is justifiably efficient within the NSF operational system as we understand it.”

News Briefly

JERUSALEM — When Israeli scientist Dan Shechtman claimed to have stumbled upon a new crystalline chemical structure, colleagues mocked him, insulted him and exiled him from his research group. After years in the scientific wilderness, though, he was proved right. And now he’s received the ultimate vindication: the Nobel Prize. The lesson? “A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist,” Schechtman says.

Dr. Bruce Beutler, co-recipient of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, has taken an appointment as the new and founding director of UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Center for the Genetics of Host Defense.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

DALLAS — Dr. Bruce Beutler is sharing this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine but on Tuesday he was singled out and praised at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas where he began his major research.

Beutler shares this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine with French scientist Jules Hoffman, 70 and Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, 68.

Beutler started his scientific career at UT Southwestern and served on the faculty from 1986 to 2000. He is the fifth Nobel laureate on the faculty at UT Southwestern.

After postgraduate training at UT Southwestern, he completed a two-year fellowship at Rockefeller University.

It was there that he first met Canadian-born Ralph Steinman, who was to have shared the prize along with Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann.

“I admired him a great deal from the start,” Beautler said of Steinman. “He was a great scientist.”

Steinman, a pioneer in understanding how the cells of the body fight disease, died of pancreatic cancer Friday.

“I was really very sad,” Beutler said. “I think it’s a tragedy that he came within three days of knowing that he had won the Nobel Prize.”

According to the citation award for the 2011 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, “Bruce Beutler and Jules Hoffmann discovered receptor proteins that can recognize such microorganisms and activate innate immunity, the first step in the body’s immune response. Ralph Steinman discovered the dendritic cells of the immune system and their unique capacity to activate and regulate adaptive immunity, the later stage of the immune response during which microorganisms are cleared from the body.Their work has opened up new avenues for the development of prevention and therapy against infections, cancer, and inflammatory diseases.”

Beutler was named the new and founding director of the Center for the Genetics of Host Defense at UT Southwestern on Sept. 1.

“I feel so grateful to all of you and I’m so happy to be back here at UT Southwestern,” he told a standing-room-only crowd in a campus auditorium.

Beutler, who holds dual appointments at UT Southwestern and as a professor of genetics and immunology at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., is currently splitting his time between both institutions but said he plans to be in Dallas full-time in November.

Dr. Gregory Fitz, executive vice president for academic affairs, provost and dean of UT Southwestern Medical School, said the idea for the center was born 18 months ago when a group of faculty leaders approached him about the need for the school to commit itself to further explore immunology given its importance in so many aspects of medicine, especially infection, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

Printed on Wednesday, October 5, 2011 as: Medicine Nobel given for immunology