(Soil, Water and Environmental Sciences-Microbial Ecology Laboratory)

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(un)Hidden Figures: Conversations to Inspire Cultural Change


Shetterly (center) discusses her book. (Photo credit: Chris Booker, Asst. Dir. Media Relations, OSU )

This Tuesday Kelsey and I, along with our friends from the Wilkins Lab, attended a panel discussion with Margot Lee Shetterly, author of the bestselling book and Oscar-nominated film, Hidden Figures. This panel was presented as a collaboration by the College of Engineering, Ohio State ADVANCE, and the Honda-OSU Partnership.

The event opened with an inspiring speech by computer science and engineering senior Damonique Thomas, who credited much of her success to OSU and the people and experiences she has had here – “I can apologetically be myself: a smart, African American woman engineer.” President Michael Drake took the podium to speak on the history, importance, and infleunce of diversity at OSU, and introduced Margot Lee Shetterly.

“Hidden Figures,” Shetterly said, “is more than just women’s history or African-American history – it is American history.” She shared her experience growing up Hampton Virginia, where she notes “the face of science was brown like mine.” Instead of having the typical image of a scientist being a white man, Shetterly knew scientists as her father (a NASA scientist), relatives (engineers and technologists), family friends (aeronautical engineers and sonic boom experts), and neighbors (mathematicians and physicists). A recurring theme of her novel, Shetterly emphasized, was looking beyond – looking beyond preconceived notions of what someone can or cannot be, looking beyond the limits of what you think you are capable of, and looking beyond barriers that seem immovable.

Shetterly was joined by four panelists: Associate Professor Wendy Smooth, Todd Corley (Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at OhioHealth), Rudy Buccheit (Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Administration in the College of Engineering), and Mary Juhas (Associate Vice President of the Office of Research). Some discussion points from their conversation follow.

  • Advice to those who are “already at the table”: “Be aware that your presence at that table is a privilege, and then use that privilege to bring others to the table,” said Rudy Buchheit. “As men, notice how you interact with men versus how you interact with women. That’s the beginning of reshaping your implicit biases.”
  • “Hidden Figures” perspective: This American story is told from the perspective of African-American women to expose history. “All of us contribute to history, but the story is then told from the perspective of the top.” Shetterly said she wanted to see her personal experience reflected in this history, while also allowing others to claim it as a great American story.
  • Connections: Mary Yuhas advised the audience to “never underestimate the power of the network!” She noted that women are often isolated in their workplace, so it is important to get together and open a discussion.
  • Promoting diversity in the workplace: “You need to hold people accountable for their behavior – how they act, how to do the right thing,” said Todd Corley. It’s important to provide resources, support, and encouragement while removing inhibiting policies and barriers.
  • When we make efforts to support underrepresented groups, “We can’t just open the door,” said Smooth. “We must also change the way we function and change the physical space. It’s one thing to say it’s okay that you’re here. It’s another thing to say we are prepared to have you thrive.”
  • On mentorship: “All people and all projects must find champions. You don’t know where those mentors will come from. It’s amazing to see people like you succeeding and to find people who you think aren’t like you, but they actually are,” said Shetterly.  “The packages our mentors come in are not always the packages that we expect,” said Smooth.

I really enjoyed Shetterly’s reflection on what is means to “look beyond” and find what may be hidden.

“This is an American story. It is a story of excellence and it expands the idea of what people are capable of,” said Shetterly. “Put yourself in a position that perhaps you didn’t think was possible before. You can become more than perhaps what you think. Be inspired by what these women did.”


Ohio State is using powerful and meaningful collaboration to build a research community that will close the gap for women and minorities in STEMM. While much has been achieved, there is still a lot to do. Join the conversation with these resources below:


Event Recap and Women in STEM Features

Discussion Guide




Kelsey and Nicole getting their books signed by author Margot Shetterly (seated)


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The Dangers of Predatory Conferences and Publishers

On this snowy Friday morning, I open my email and notice a message titled “Medical Microbiology 2017 | CME Medical Conferences.” Great! I think, this sounds like a conference we should be aware of. Before adding it to our SWES-MEL wiki conferences list, I conduct a bit of research on the event.

The message begins with a red flag: “Dear Dr. Nicole Raab,” I don’t have a doctorate. I read on. The author graciously invites me to speak at the “10th Annual Medical Microbiology Summit & Expo” on June 21-22, 2017 at London, UK. The email is flattering and explains that I’ve been selected, “based on my expertise. . . in the related field,” to serve as an “Honorable Organizing Committee Member” for the conference, and even offers reduced registration and complimentary media promotion for my organization. That’s very nice and all, but I am a just over one-year post-graduation (I wouldn’t call that “expertise”) and have never heard of this conference. Dubious, I google the conference and find a relatively official-looking webpage that showcases real researchers as previous speakers, conference topics, etc. A few more minutes confirm my suspicious – this conference is one of the many hoaxes, predatory schemes, and “spamferences” that prey on unwary researchers. I refer back to the email. It is signed, I kid you not, “Charles Xavier,” more commonly known as Professor X from Marvel’s X-Men. Ridiculous.


Professor X Art by Aaron Lopresti.

This is the ludicrous world of predatory conferences that make money through registration, accommodation, program materials, and meal fees. Da Silva, Sorooshian and Al-Khatib (2017) elucidate how to assess conferences to determine if they are predatory in “Cost-benefit assessment of congresses, meetings or symposia, and selection criteria to determine if they are predatory

Predatory publishers are also big players in the world of fake science. Jeffrey Beall, former librarian at the University of Colorado, began a running list of potential/probable predatory publishers in 2010. The list grew to include thousands of open-access journals that Beall determined may exploit researchers, but the site was wiped clean on January 15, 2017. Nature news reports on the shutdown here. Beall’s list can still be accessed via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, with the last snapshot on January 12, 2017.

In “Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing,” Nature journal senior reporter Declan Butler offers a checklist to identify reputable publishers:

How to perform due diligence before submitting to a journal or publisher.

  • Check that the publisher provides full, verifiable contact information, including address, on the journal site. Be cautious of those that provide only web contact forms.
  • Check that a journal’s editorial board lists recognized experts with full affiliations. Contact some of them and ask about their experience with the journal or publisher.
  • Check that the journal prominently displays its policy for author fees.
  • Be wary of e-mail invitations to submit to journals or to become editorial board members.
  • Read some of the journal’s published articles and assess their quality. Contact past authors to ask about their experience.
  • Check that a journal’s peer-review process is clearly described and try to confirm that a claimed impact factor is correct.
  • Find out whether the journal is a member of an industry association that vets its members, such as the Directory of Open Access Journals (www.doaj.org) or the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association (oaspa.org).
  • Use common sense, as you would when shopping online: if something looks fishy, proceed with caution.”

Have you ever been invited to attend a hoax conference or submit a paper to a predatory publisher?

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Diversity leads to better science

In “Gender diversity leads to better science,” Nielsen et al. (2017) highlight why gender diversity matters for science and how managers can maximize diversity.

The article notes that “gender diversity may . . . spark new discoveries by broadening the viewpoints, questions, and areas addressed by researchers.” What can managers do to create an environment in which both gender diversity and innovation thrive? Nielsen et al. (2017) cite the following: encourage high levels of cross-job communication, non-hierarchical structures, free culture and gender expression, and inclusive decision making. However, “[r]ecruiting women is not enough.” It will take thoughtful policy and leadership to “harness the power of gender diversity for collective innovations and discoveries.”

In January, Scientific American republished an article from a 2014 special report on how diversity powers science and innovation. “How Diversity Makes Us Smarter,” written by Professor Katherine Philliips of Columbia Business School, is another excellent article which highlights how diversity influences our creativity, diligence, and work ethic.

Nielsen MW, Andersen JP, Schneider JW, Does gender composition influence medical research groups’ orientation towards gender and sex-based analysis? National Science Foundation-funded workshop “Is there a gender-diversity dividend in science?” February 26, 2016, Stanford, CA.

Phillips KW. How diversity makes us smarter. Scientific American. October 1, 2014.

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Reducing water bottle waste

On Februaryimg_2515 14th, the 9th floor of Riffe received a very special Valentine’s Day gift – a water bottle filling station! This energy-efficient station has a spot to fill up your water bottle and also has a traditional water fountain spout. In our efforts to be a green and sustainable lab, we wanted to reduce water bottle waste and encourage healthy hydration habits for lab members. In two days, we have already filled over 70 bottles worth of water from this station. It’s fun to see the “Helped eliminate waste from #### disposable plastic bottles” number increase every time you refill your water bottle. This wouldn’t have been possible without the incredible coordination by laboratory supervisor Jeff Jahnes. Thanks, Jeff, for helping our lab be green and stay hydrated!


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AGU Fall 2016

Graduate student Gary Trubl presented a poster and postdoctoral researcher Joanne Emerson gave a talk at the 2016 AGU Fall meeting (December 12-16, San Francisco).

Gary recounts his experience:

“AGU is my favorite meeting because it brings together over 20,000 scientists across several disciplines like chemistry, geology, planetary science, microbiology, hydrology, and climate science – to name a few. It is one of the largest conferences held every year at The Moscone center in San Francisco, CA. There are two talk and poster sessions a day: Monday-Friday, morning 8am-12:30pm and afternoon 1:30-6pm. At any given time there are over 200 posters up and 40 talks being given…It can be a little brutal and it is easy to get overwhelmed. This was my fourth time attending this conference, so you would think I am a pro, but there are still talks or posters that I wanted to see but missed.

The best advice I would give to first time attendees is to plan out your schedule ahead of time and mark which posters and talks are highest priority. The reason for this is with so many people in attendance, you bump into old friends or people you would like to meet. And one of the most important aspects of a large conference is networking. If you take advantage of this conference, you can use it to post jobs, get a job, meet people you would never otherwise meet, form collaborations, and, best of all, present your work to someone in another field and get a new perspective. Another thing to note is to not be afraid to ask questions and take breaks. In academia you would be amazed at the great friendships you can make by meeting someone for coffee or a beer to discuss your work or theirs. I met some great people and ended up taking the Caltrain to Mountain View and got a private tour of the NASA Ames campus!”

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Why arctic permafrost thaw is NOT a methane “time bomb”

Flux chambers used to measure carbon dioxide and methane emissions from Arctic soils.

Flux chambers used to measure carbon dioxide and methane emissions from Arctic soils.

A number of times in recent months I have found myself explaining my research to somebody when they suddenly interject with the comment “Oh, so you’re studying the arctic methane time bomb.” The first time this happened I was confused and not quite sure how to respond, because while I do study processes that could result in methane release from thawing arctic permafrost soils, I wouldn’t call it a time bomb so much as a slow feedback. As I talked to more people, I slowly realized that this comment actually stemmed from a rather profound misconception. There are two possible sources of methane (CH4) release from the arctic that could be triggered by climate change: methane hydrate release, and permafrost carbon thaw. These two potential methane sources stem from very different pools of carbon and are controlled by very different environmental processes. As a result, they have very different sets of risks associated with them. I study permafrost thaw, but most people who have heard anything about the arctic and methane release seem to have heard about methane hydrates. Let me do my best to explain the difference:

Methane hydrates are concentrated solid deposits of frozen methane which are formed under high pressures and low temperatures. Most (<98.75%) methane hydrates are found in deep ocean sediments, but 1% are estimated to exist at depths greater than 300m below arctic permafrost soils. An additional very small amount (likely >0.25%) exist on arctic continental shelves. Rough estimates suggest that there may be approximately 1800 Pg C stored in methane hydrates globally (Ruppel, 2011). While this total quantity of methane is very large (representing more than the total carbon stored in permafrost soils), most of it is well insulated from the warming effects of climate change by a combination of layers of ocean sediment and deep water above it. The paleo-record gives no indication that such deep methane hydrates have been catastrophically released by previous extreme arctic warming (Colose, 2013). The slightly more than one percent of methane hydrates which exist on land or on continental shelves may be at risk of release due to the extreme warming (7-8ºC) projected for the Arctic (IPCC 2013). However, the process of methane release due to warming will be slow and unlikely to release the entire store of methane instantaneously (Ruppel, 2011). Because methane in the atmosphere only has a 10 year lifespan before it is oxidized, such a small and slow release of methane is unlikely to dramatically increase atmospheric methane concentrations (Ruppel, 2011). Furthermore, the methane released from such deep stores has the potential to be consumed my microbial processes and may never reach the surface, further decreasing its impact (Ruppel, 2011). Thus, the risk of catastrophic methane release from hydrates is very low.

A permafrost soil core containing lots of frozen organic material.

A permafrost soil core containing lots of frozen organic material.

In contrast, methane from permafrost organic matter is not stored as methane itself but as organic molecules in frozen soils either on ocean shelves or on land in permafrost. It is estimated that permafrost soils globally hold approximately 1700 Pg C which is more than twice the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere (Schuur et al 2008). When permafrost soils thaw, the carbon stored in them is exposed to conditions which promote much faster microbial decomposition (Schuur et al 2008). However, the ultimate fate of this carbon depends heavily on environmental conditions. In dry soils, aerobic decomposition proceeds relatively quickly and produces carbon dioxide (CO2) gas. However if permafrost thaw results in wetland formation, anaerobic decomposition proceeds more slowly and produces a mixture of CO2 and CH4 gases. Permafrost thaw may also result in nutrient release and environmental changes that drive a shift in dominant plant communities to species which store more carbon (Schuur et al 2008). Therefore, the net carbon balance of thawing permafrost systems will depend on the amount of carbon uptake due to plant growth as well as the degree and rate of carbon release due to decomposition. Likewise, the rate of CH4 release from these ecosystems will depend on the area of land which is converted to wetlands as a result of permafrost thaw and the length of time which they remain wetlands. If we consider that globally, wetlands are the single largest source of atmospheric methane (177-284 Tg CH4/yr), and that it has been established that permafrost thaw will result in the creation wetlands in many arctic areas (Schuur et al 2008), arctic warming is very likely to increase CH4 emissions to the atmosphere. These emissions will not occur as a sudden release but as a steady long-term increase. In those areas which do not become wetlands, there is a high risk of greatly increased CO2 emissions from thawed permafrost soils.

Lab members Gary and RJ sampling a wetland that was created by permafrost thaw.

Lab members Gary and RJ sampling a wetland that was created by permafrost thaw.

So what is the arctic “time bomb,” and why do people confuse it with the possibility of carbon release from arctic permafrost thaw? Last year Whiteman et al (2013) published an article in Nature Commentary describing a “time bomb” consisting of severe global economic impacts from a potential 50 Pg release of methane hydrates either suddenly or over the course of 50 years. The article created a lot of controversy (see articles by Colose, Samenow, and Ahmed) primarily because the authors gave no indication of the likelihood of such an event. While there is not perfect agreement, most scientists consider the likelihood of a sudden catastrophic release of methane hydrates to be very low (Colose 2013). But the prediction of such an extreme event and the ensuing controversy caught the eye of the media. The result is that most people who have heard anything about CH4 release from the arctic have heard about methane hydrates, not the possibility of CH4 release due to the decomposition of organic material in thawing permafrost.

Overall, Arctic warming does have the potential to be a significant positive feedback to global warming, but it is unlikely to come in the form of a sudden, catastrophic release of methane hydrates. The strength and type of the positive feedback will depend primarily on the precise factors controlling the decomposition of carbon compounds released from permafrost soils as they thaw. Decomposition of this material will likely occur very slowly, be incomplete, and produce a mixture of CO2 and CH4 gases. What the precise impacts will be is still very much unknown. That is why groups such as ours are studying the different factors that control the fate of carbon that is released from permafrost.

Moira Hough


Ahmed, Nafeez (2013): http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/jul/24/arctic-ice-free-methane-economy-catastrophe

Ciais, P., C. Sabine, G. Bala, L. Bopp, V. Brovkin, J. Canadell, A. Chhabra, R. DeFries, J. Galloway, M. Heimann, C. Jones, C. Le Quéré, R.B. Myneni, S. Piao and P. Thornton, 2013: Carbon and Other Biogeochemical Cycles. In: Cli-mate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/
Colose, Chris (2013): http://www.skepticalscience.com/news.php?p=2&t=66&&n=2130

Ruppel, C. D. “Methane hydrates and contemporary climate change.” Nature Education Knowledge 3.10 (2011): 29. http://pm22100.net/docs/pdf/enercoop/energie/gaz/130316_Methane_Hydrates_and_Contemporary_Climate_Change.pdf

Samenow, Jason (2013): http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2013/07/25/methane-mischief-misleading-commentary-published-in-nature/

Schuur, Edward AG, et al. “Vulnerability of permafrost carbon to climate change: Implications for the global carbon cycle.” BioScience 58.8 (2008): 701-714. http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/58/8/701.short

Whiteman, Gail, Chris Hope, and Peter Wadhams. “Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change.” Nature 499.7459 (2013): 401-403. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v499/n7459/full/499401a.html

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A poem about our sub-Arctic research


Methanogens are very small–

understanding them ain’t so banal.

Their customary dwelling place

is deep within the anaerobic space.

Typically occurring in reduced anoxic environments,

they’re also found in subglacial sediments.

The greenhouse gases they can release

keeps us scientists at unease.

And so many sanguine people hope

to study them in full scope,

in order to build scientific models

that can prevent global debacles.

At the Rich lab we collect peat,

to understand all the heat

contributing to the thaw gradient

at which the permafrost is ambient.

Widely distributed are these methanogens,

they’re also found in Spitsbergen.

High up in the Arctic,

or way down in the Antarctic,

Methanogens are of high importance–

they play a role in the Earth’s disturbance.

There are many reasons to study permafrost,

one of them being the economic costs.

So let’s quantify soil-atmosphere gas exchange

to further assess this climate change!