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The Graduates is the talk show where we interview UC Berkeley graduates students about their work here on campus. Hosted by graduate students Ashley Smiley, Andrew Saintsing, and others, The Graduates airs every other Tu
Latest Episode6/8/2021

Adam Uliana

Saintsing:Hi, you're tinted to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates. The interview talks share with respect to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. Welcome to the show Adam.Uliana:Thanks. Thanks for having me.Saintsing:So great to have you here. I'm really looking forward to talking to you. You're the first person from the college of chemistry that I've had on the show. So we'll get to talk some chemistry, um,New Speaker:Pretty exciting. Yeah. You are in the news actually, because you just got a paper out about a new technique for desalination, right?Uliana:Yeah, yeah. That's right.New Speaker:Yeah. Why don't we just get started by like talking a little bit about this new publication you have outUliana:Before I get into the details, I'll just say that this was a collaboration and all of the coauthors that are listed should be acknowledged. So Ngoc Bui, who is now a professor at University of Oklahoma, actually, and same with Jovan Kamcev who's on University of Michigan. Now he's professor Mercedes Taylor who's a university of Maryland professor now, and then a group at LBL Jeffrey Urban's Group. And then my PI Jeff Vaughn. So actually I'm the only one here right now. The other ones have gone out into academia, which is a unique experience. But yeah, the work is on desalination and capturing selectively, uh, specific ions in water works or salutes. So this is both to do both at the same time.Saintsing:Like what, what ions, what salutes. Are we talking about?Uliana:So what we looked at are neutral and catatonic salutes, and these are really contaminants. So water-borne contaminantsSaintsing:Neutral, no charge and cat ionic are positive. Okay. Right.Uliana:Yeah. And so we looked at some problematic contaminants that are in water. We looked at four more, uh, more or less as a proof of concept. So one of the biggest ones that we looked at is mercury, which I'm sure most people know is quite toxic. You don't want to be playing around with that. Yeah, actually it was a little scary for me to work with at first. Uh, yeah, luckily it paid offSaintsing:What'd you have to do with it.Uliana:So I never had to work with liquid mercury, which is like in a thermometer or they don't allow them anymore, but these are, these are, uh, salivated, mercury ions. So it's mercury in a, like a water solution. And so everything that's in the paper I had to handle, you know, with like gloves, obviously, uh, it's still toxic even in low concentrations, nothing too bad, but definitely enough to be a bit spooky.Saintsing:Was that like the first time you had worked with something like, you know, that you knew was really toxic and your, uh, research career,Uliana:I'd say before I came here, I worked with some things that were a little toxic, but I think now that I'm mostly in a chemistry group yeah. Definitely have worked with a bunch of toxic chemicals, mercury being one of them. I think it's been a unique experience in that regard.Saintsing:Yeah. Okay. So you, or working on this technique to get, uh, mostly to get our neutral saw Utes and cat ions out of water and you're specifically focused on mercury, how does it work?Uliana:Yeah, so it combines a couple of different types of technology all in one without needing additional units. So usually in like a water purification plant, you'll have a lot of contaminants in water. So for example, you'll have high salinity levels, but also these water sources often contain these trace contaminants. And these are things that are very toxic. So something like mercury or other ions that we looked at were copper and also iron. So even at their lower concentrations, they are toxic. Usually in water purification plants, you have to separate one of those types of contaminants at a time. And we created a way to do it all in one step. And that's, what's pretty new. Yeah. The technology is based off of something called electro dialysis. So electro dialysis is actually in industry right now. Like it's, it is used and this is a desalination, uh, approach all start as a comparison with the reverse osmosis, because I think more of us are at least aware of that or like a LifeStraw if you've ever dealt with that or any type of filter.Uliana:So like in reverse osmosis, you do have a membrane. What that is is like a really thin film. So I'm talking on the order of like smaller than 100 microns or like smaller than 0.1 millimeters. And so you'll have this film that's really dense there aren't pores in them actually. And you basically apply a huge pressure to basically force water molecules through this film. Only the water molecules can pass through the film, but all of the other charged species. So like those contaminants are salts, they don't pass through. And basically then you get pure water on the other side of the membrane. Cause only the waterSaintsing:Can pass. Sorry. And why is it called reverse osmosis?Uliana:Oh yeah. Cause, um, it's so there's something called osmosis or like osmotic pressure. So like if you have, um, if you've ever seen like a dialysis unit or, or like a membrane in our bodies, so sometimes they'll have like this, the semipermeable barrier, uh, this is something we might've learned in like, I don't know, high school biology basically if there's a concentration gradient along them. So basically if there's like a solid you some type of component in the water, that's higher in concentration on inside, it'll pass through naturally through that filter and go on the other side, similar to like, if you're ever dissolving, say sugar in water, the sugar will disperse out rather than be concentrated in one specific section in reverse osmosis, you're doing the exact opposite, uh, in your like basically concentrating the feed even more with salts by removing water from it.Uliana:So it's the reverse of naturalized Moses. So then for this electro dialysis approach, which is another desalination approach, it's kind of the opposite idea. This time you don't push water through you push ions through the membrane. So this time you apply an electric field and that causes only, I only charged molecules in water. So like assault, which is dissociated. Uh, so assault will, uh, have ions, which only the charge species will basically be effected by the electrodes. Something like water is neutral, it gets just H2O. There's no charge on it. So that won't move at all, but the ions will move toward the electrodes and basically be moved away from the water, which is left behind. That's what you end up drinking after Electra dialysis.Saintsing:Okay, cool. So you basically just are just like calling anything with a charge out of what you said. You're also getting out neutral items.Uliana:Yeah. So how does, yeah. Yeah. So it's funny how you were asking about osmosis because the removal of the neutral species is actually based on that exact principle. Basically you can't apply an electric field just like you were saying. Uh, but there is a concentration gradient still. So like if you have, so what we're doing is similar to something called forward osmosis. I don't know if people know about that, but it's this one technique where you can have, you can basically purify water, like in, in a campaign environment by having like a sugary solution on one side and you basically pull water from like a river and then have this like little film where only the water will pass through that's based off of osmosis, which is how we're removing neutral species. So what it is is a concentration gradient in your feed water. So like safety water, you basically expose that to a membrane which then the neutral species in the feed will migrate across or sorry. Well, um, travel across the membrane from a concentration gradient, just like how I said that things will want to move from a high to a low concentration. Just like if you're dissolving sugar right here now, rather than having a bucket of sugar water, you have a film in the middle where only where basically the neutral species transports across of that film.Saintsing:So you've got like this filter, I guess, that you've set up, that's applying both the electrical charge and it's got this film. And so you're just like having both of these happening simultaneously, but they're separate processes essentially.Uliana:And really what is the new advances that the membranes we're using actually have selectivity for only the toxic contaminant. So actually in, in like any of the different processes that I just mentioned, like reverse osmosis, electrodialysis osmosis, anything right now in say industry, they don't have selectivity activity toward say only your toxic ions or toxic contaminants. So what we did was we spread out these selective particles throughout the membrane. So we basically have this film, that's like a hundred microns inside of that film are all of these little beads that are on the order of like 200 nanometers. So that's like, uh, over a thousand times smaller than a millimeter. So we have all of these little beads that are very selective for those specific toxic contaminants. So now where I mentioned that all of the ions are, are pulled apart of the water in electro dialysis, usually in regular electric dialysis, all of the ions will pass through the membrane and basically leave behind pure water.Uliana:But then like the so-called brine stream, that's basically the soup of all the items that were rejected or removed from water just has the toxic contaminant. If you don't have any ion to ion selectivity, all of that huge volume is it say that there's mercury in the water and you reject it into the brine, all of that water or the Bryon stream is still considered mercury containing waste. And then you still have this like huge amount that like, what do you do with it? But we have is that when all of the ions travel across the membrane, the toxic ones are selectively stuck. They basically stick to the membrane because of those beads, they stick to the beads inside of the membrane, and then you no longer have those toxic contaminants on the other side of the membrane. And then you can dissolve it and have like a low, a low volume, a waste stream that will be easier to work with.Saintsing:Yeah. And so the having the soup people don't really have a good plan for disposal of the, of the toxic, right?Uliana:Right. Not really in general, like anywhere that has desalinated water, we'll do this quote unquote like filtering process where all ions are removed. And, um, usually what's done is that the, that in the case of like reverse osmosis is literally just sent back to the ocean and you'll like slowly concentrate the ocean. As an example, with all of the salts in a place that has say somewhere like Flint, Michigan, if that was handled responsibly, then what they would have done there is have a ton of different say adsorption columns, where they remove the toxin in addition to say, doing desalination. And if they do, it requires like a ton of new steps, like an individual column for each. And then obviously that's a lot more expensive, a lot larger footprint.Saintsing:And so, and then you were talking a bit about, um, desorbing things from, um, filters and that's kind of what would happen at the end of the, uh, filtering process that you've laid out with this electric dialysis,Uliana:Right.Saintsing:Are the materials that we get, uh, from the filtering process, are they, so once we've got them and now we have this toxic waste, is it D are they like just toxic waste? Like, can we, would we be able to use them repurpose them for anything?Uliana:Yeah, that's, that's a great point. So actually the idea is that because you're isolating only one say molecule, like one type of molecule, like, like mercury, if you're only isolating mercury from all the other, the soup that we were talking about, then potentially once you desorb it you only desorb, you basically have a solution of only mercury in say water, and then you could just isolate, that's all isolated. And then you can reuse the mercury. I mean, for something like mercury, I don't know if you would reuse it, but there are other compounds that are in water, even like seawater has actually a lot of gold, a lot of uranium things that can be reused. And that is also the idea of this process.Saintsing:Yeah, for sure. Is that, um, is that something that people are like actually looking into as a way to actually get a bunch of gold a bunch of years?Uliana:Yeah, actually it's been. Uh, I don't really like using this word because I think a lot of people use it for fake purposes, but it's really honestly like a holy grail of a lot of these like resource recovery or like extraction people, uh, because actually uranium, I think there's like 1000 times more uranium actually in seawater than there is in any geological reserve. And obviously we need uranium to power say like power plants and we only rely on gr like a geological reserves. So tapping into that would be really useful. Same with gold obviously.Saintsing:Yeah, definitely. Okay. So this is this cool new technique. Uh, what does it look like? What are you, what is the thing that you made? Is it like, you know, what does it look like?Uliana:Yeah, that's a good question. So the film itself that I mentioned that has the beads inside of them, it's, uh, it's really looks kind of like a saran wrap. That's a little colored or just like a plastic sheet. And actually it feels like that too. So yeah, it's really thin, like a, like I said, 0.1 millimeters around there. So really small, you can hardly even see the thickness and it's, it's like a sheet, so it's expanded out, um, kind of like a piece of paper, the actual electric ion capture electro dialysis unit. That's what we call it is basically these glass cells. So it's like two different compartments, uh, that look almost like a, like a little cup that's attached together where the membrane is between two cups that are kind of attached together.Saintsing:So this is the, what you were working on in the lab. It was relatively small.Uliana:Yeah. This one was definitely smaller. So I developed a few or actually in the college of chemistry, we have a glassblower, someone who makes custom glass and both of us made it together, really him mostly, but I helped him with it. Yeah. And we made these that are like, uh, 45 milliliters on, on each side. Like each of those cups that I mentioned is like 45 milliliters. So pretty small.Saintsing:But, uh, I guess the theory, uh, so you've like worked on showing this theory, this works. Um, but you know, moving forward, if you were to put in, do you, so you could really make something a lot bigger that would actually, uh, you know, help supply a district municipality, whatever with water?Uliana:Absolutely. And actually the idea was that all of our design was really trying to carefully design the membrane films, such that like the ion selectively that I mentioned goes into the film itself, not the whole process. So actually these films could be implemented directly into exist in electric dialysis units. And really the big development that's needed is just a scale of the membranes. Not, not like anything else too much.Saintsing:Is like it being scaled up, you know, something that will happen?Uliana:Yeah. Honestly, I think that it could happen without all that much difficulty. The beads that I mentioned that are really selective, those ones are really, really good materials, but that also means that they're really not easy or inexpensive to make. So if there were ways to scale up that, then there definitely would be ways to scale up the membrane. And you can also replace these beads with lower performance ones, such as ones that actually you could buy off of like Alibaba or probably even like Amazon. So theoretically they could probably be scaled up pretty quickly. I've just never done it. And no one in our group has. Yeah.Saintsing:Is that something you think about with the research that you do, um, being able to make things that you can scale?Uliana:Yeah, definitely. I think that that would definitely be a strong desire moving forward, especially to, you know, actually help people with this. Hopefully.Saintsing:So we've mostly been talking about this, um, paper, is that, uh, most of what your doctoral research has been about? Yeah.Uliana:So it's been a huge chunk. The paper itself was honestly a ton of work, which I'm glad to put behind me, um, to an extent. So I'm a fourth year PhD student and, uh, that was it wasn't, it definitely wasn't all of my PhD work, but it was definitely a big trunk. I've also developed different types of beads that I mentioned without putting them in membranes and also different types of membrane applications that are related to this whole technology. But this is yeah, definitely the major part of my PhD work. Yeah.Saintsing:The beads. Um, so you're saying they're selective for particular, uh, particles or molecules. What do you do to make a beat that's selected for something?Uliana:Yeah. Yeah. It requires a lot of synthetic chemistry. What these beads look like is actually that we really tune the pore site. So these are poorest. They have little poor pockets and that's actually where the, the ions like mercury where that actually travels to and ends up getting captured. So it's kind of like a net lake material, but on the really small scale. So actually one of these pores, like one of these pockets where the ion binding happens is only like one nanometer in diameter. So it's really small. So it's not that much bigger actually than an atom itself. Maybe like less than an order of magnitude. And so what we do is we create this like net like backbone, which is basically just a polymer that we synthesize and onto that we basically append on these binding groups. So they're like these little claws that are really selective. So based off of the chemicals that make up the call, they're very selective toward one type of species. So like there are certain ones that are really selective for only mercury and not anything else. Then there are also some that are selected for only like boron, but nothing else. And so it's really about that. And that actually allows us to tune the selectivities based off of the quality you put on.Saintsing:Is it like a lot of upfront like theoretical work? Like this is what it would have to look like and then synthesizing it as kind of like, then it's just like the process and making sure. Or is it like a lot of like making it and like finding out it doesn't work and then going back and forth? Yeah. Like what's the, is it all the front end? The backend, where's the, like all the work.Uliana:Yeah. It's a little bit of a combination of both. Really, really, it's more like a say that usually how I approach this research is I have a certain target in mind. So like something like gold or something like mercury. And then I look up on the literature, like what other people smarter than me have published, you know, stuff that show that it's really selective for this. And then I see what's possible what could possibly fit in one of these nets and also actually chemically be appended onto it. And then that part of actually trying it and testing its properties to see if it is selective, definitely some trial and error with it. And a lot of times just being in the head against the wall. Yeah.Saintsing:When I mentioned, uh, that some initial questions that I had to you in an email, um, you told me that you were a chemical engineer instead of a chemist and I was really interested, um, why, uh, felt the need to make that clarification. I guess it's like, it's clear from what you've been telling me about your research, that it really does sound like you're doing engineering stuff. Right. Like applying chemical knowledge to make something, but yeah. Why is that? Why was that important to,Uliana:Yeah, that's a good point. Uh, it's kind of funny within the like college of chemistry world, which actually only consists of the department of chemical engineering and the department of chemistry and like any chemical engineer and chemist. There's a huge distinction that everyone always make sure to point out because it really does base. It really does dictate how we think about things, but it's funny. It honestly doesn't matter at all. And actually when I go home to visit and no one that I like, none of my friends at home or my family at home has any idea what a chemist or a chemical engineer does. I'm like, they usually, I mean, like my brother said that I was an electrical engineer recently and like, see, it doesn't matter. The distinction doesn't matter at all. Right. But yeah, definitely the way that you think about things and the background is a bit different actually in chemical engineering versus chemistry.Saintsing:So like what are, what are those differences?Uliana:Yeah, I would say that in general, obviously it depends on the person. In general, actually chemical engineering though, like classes that you take and everything you learn, it's actually way more math and physics than chemistry. Uh, and actually a lot of people don't realize that. Um, and the way that chemical engineers think is usually much more applied, kind of like what you just said about the paper, it's really like, how can we apply this chemistry into something? Whereas a lot of chemists they'll think really on the fundamental level and they'll wonder like, why does that work? Uh, and let's figure out why a little bit more in depth.Saintsing:Right. I got you. So it's kind of like how people might think about physics versus engineering, but specifically in the context of chemistry. Right. Why did you gravitate towards chemical engineering over chemistry or is that like kind of like it happened or was there a specific choice?Uliana:Yeah, that's a great question. Uh, really where my real interests lie or kind of right in the middle. I always like to say that chemistry is more interesting to me. Like I, I'm just really fascinated by how chemistry works and all of that, but I'm much more motivated on the application side. So like if, if all of my time, if I need to spend all my time on something and really what motivates me is how can I actually help people with what I'm doing? And I think that in my opinion, chemical engineering fits that bill a little better. I see. Or at least more directly I should say.Saintsing:Right, right. If you were a chemist, maybe you would be doing something that would really inform some of the things that as a chemical engineer, you're like putting out there.Uliana:Right. And like both are equally as important to the world, but yeah, when you get to see the effects more or more quickly, and more, obviouslySaintsing:You say you like how chemistry works, like, what does that mean to you? Like, what is this, how chemistry works? What is chemistry?Uliana:It's a great question. To me. Chemistry is really about how the world works on a scale that smaller than we can see. That's what really fascinates me things that you can't see that aren't tangible to the eye and why they actually work. It's really interesting to me. So like for example, why is the sky blue is something that I thought of all the time as a kid and stuff like that. Like why, why do colors exist? Why is any of this? Like why just all of that type of stuff, stuff that you can't see that isn't really obvious that to me is more of the chemistry. So like on the molecular level, so to speak what actually dictates all of these properties for me, that's what really is interesting.Saintsing:So that's like, yeah, that's a really all encompassing thing. Yeah. Do you run into people? I don't know chemistry, I guess when we think about it and like high school, right. It's like solutions of things. Is that kind of what you encounter when you tell people you do chemistry, it's like much more narrow than you understand chemistry to be.Uliana:Yeah. Usually if I ever tell like someone not at Berkeley, what chemistry is say, like I go and talk to my family. Usually the questions that come up are either like, oh, do you work with anything that could kill you? Or have you blown anything up or started a fire? And honestly, yeah, almost, but, um, honestly a lot of it is a lot of solutions. It's not like as much mad scientist does. I think the media, or at least cartoons like to depict, uh, where you, you know, you just mix a bunch of random stuff together and hope for the best, but there is definitely a lot of that mixing and pretty color looking solutions that definitely is in the day to day.Saintsing:So you kind of talked about, uh, you know, you might be interested in, um, seeing where some of the things you've been working on in your PhD might go eventually. Um, other than that, like what, uh, what do you seem to envision for yourself, um, after grad school? Uh, do you see yourself staying in academic research or, um, maybe doing industrial research or something like that? ThisUliana:Is something that I have really been thinking about actually. So going into grad school, I thought I was dead set on doing academia after grad school. And I would say that's still where I'm leaning toward. Um, but there are definitely other things that are really peaking my interest. For example, like doing a startup actually based off of the paper that we were just talking about and related materials, uh, that definitely is not something that I've, you know, put behind me. Like maybe, maybe I'll pursue that. I'm actually trying to figure that out this summer.Saintsing:Cool. So that's like something that's really on the table, like a startup built around this, uh, technology.Uliana:Yeah, I think so. I think there's a lot of things that really interests me about it and yeah, kind of, like I said, I'm really motivated by trying to get stuff out that can actually help people. And, um, yeah. Being able to do that with something like this, I think would be really a great thing to try.Saintsing:Yeah. Is it, um, fairly common that, um, people moving through the chemistry or maybe more specifically a chemical engineering, um, graduate program kind of, you know, is there like a strong startup culture coming out of it?Uliana:I would say not uncommon, but it's not necessarily common in each co maybe, maybe like fewer than 5% of students will end up doing a startup based off of their university research. Maybe even closer to one or two, but it's never that surprising when people do, because there definitely are a number of people that have done it even in our lab itself. There've been a couple,Saintsing:Well, unfortunately it looks like we are running out of time on the interview. Do you have anything you'd like to leave us with?Uliana:Yeah. I think a lot of the motivation for this work is there's really two things. One is that for water, we really rely heavily on a surface freshwater. So this is something like lakes and stuff like that. Actually I think like 65% of USA's water consumption is from these freshwater sources, but with climate change and stuff like that, and boom in populations, actually these resources are dwindling a lot. And even, even now only less than 0.01% of all of the water in the world is surface freshwater, even though we rely on it so much. So I think we'll be expecting to see much more about desalination and say seawater to kind of fuel us moving forward. And I would say another thing just of motivation is just with trying to selectively remove specific contaminants from water in an efficient way. That's really motivated by just like a lot of the injustices that are linked to some of these places that have high contamination sources and where people just don't have an option to, you know, but to drink those contaminants such as like a Flint, Michigan, or even other places around the world, for example, in Bangladesh, there's like 45,000 people or so that die each year from the arsenic that's in their groundwater, which is what they use for drinking water.Uliana:And that's a huge problem and getting more people that can try to figure out how to fix these problems would be really greatSaintsing:Today I've been speaking with Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. We were interested in talking about his work on new desalination techniques. Thanks so much for being on the show, Adam.Uliana:Thanks for having me.Saintsing:Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of the graduates.
6/8/2021

Adam Uliana

Saintsing:Hi, you're tinted to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates. The interview talks share with respect to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I'm joined by Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. Welcome to the show Adam.Uliana:Thanks. Thanks for having me.Saintsing:So great to have you here. I'm really looking forward to talking to you. You're the first person from the college of chemistry that I've had on the show. So we'll get to talk some chemistry, um,New Speaker:Pretty exciting. Yeah. You are in the news actually, because you just got a paper out about a new technique for desalination, right?Uliana:Yeah, yeah. That's right.New Speaker:Yeah. Why don't we just get started by like talking a little bit about this new publication you have outUliana:Before I get into the details, I'll just say that this was a collaboration and all of the coauthors that are listed should be acknowledged. So Ngoc Bui, who is now a professor at University of Oklahoma, actually, and same with Jovan Kamcev who's on University of Michigan. Now he's professor Mercedes Taylor who's a university of Maryland professor now, and then a group at LBL Jeffrey Urban's Group. And then my PI Jeff Vaughn. So actually I'm the only one here right now. The other ones have gone out into academia, which is a unique experience. But yeah, the work is on desalination and capturing selectively, uh, specific ions in water works or salutes. So this is both to do both at the same time.Saintsing:Like what, what ions, what salutes. Are we talking about?Uliana:So what we looked at are neutral and catatonic salutes, and these are really contaminants. So water-borne contaminantsSaintsing:Neutral, no charge and cat ionic are positive. Okay. Right.Uliana:Yeah. And so we looked at some problematic contaminants that are in water. We looked at four more, uh, more or less as a proof of concept. So one of the biggest ones that we looked at is mercury, which I'm sure most people know is quite toxic. You don't want to be playing around with that. Yeah, actually it was a little scary for me to work with at first. Uh, yeah, luckily it paid offSaintsing:What'd you have to do with it.Uliana:So I never had to work with liquid mercury, which is like in a thermometer or they don't allow them anymore, but these are, these are, uh, salivated, mercury ions. So it's mercury in a, like a water solution. And so everything that's in the paper I had to handle, you know, with like gloves, obviously, uh, it's still toxic even in low concentrations, nothing too bad, but definitely enough to be a bit spooky.Saintsing:Was that like the first time you had worked with something like, you know, that you knew was really toxic and your, uh, research career,Uliana:I'd say before I came here, I worked with some things that were a little toxic, but I think now that I'm mostly in a chemistry group yeah. Definitely have worked with a bunch of toxic chemicals, mercury being one of them. I think it's been a unique experience in that regard.Saintsing:Yeah. Okay. So you, or working on this technique to get, uh, mostly to get our neutral saw Utes and cat ions out of water and you're specifically focused on mercury, how does it work?Uliana:Yeah, so it combines a couple of different types of technology all in one without needing additional units. So usually in like a water purification plant, you'll have a lot of contaminants in water. So for example, you'll have high salinity levels, but also these water sources often contain these trace contaminants. And these are things that are very toxic. So something like mercury or other ions that we looked at were copper and also iron. So even at their lower concentrations, they are toxic. Usually in water purification plants, you have to separate one of those types of contaminants at a time. And we created a way to do it all in one step. And that's, what's pretty new. Yeah. The technology is based off of something called electro dialysis. So electro dialysis is actually in industry right now. Like it's, it is used and this is a desalination, uh, approach all start as a comparison with the reverse osmosis, because I think more of us are at least aware of that or like a LifeStraw if you've ever dealt with that or any type of filter.Uliana:So like in reverse osmosis, you do have a membrane. What that is is like a really thin film. So I'm talking on the order of like smaller than 100 microns or like smaller than 0.1 millimeters. And so you'll have this film that's really dense there aren't pores in them actually. And you basically apply a huge pressure to basically force water molecules through this film. Only the water molecules can pass through the film, but all of the other charged species. So like those contaminants are salts, they don't pass through. And basically then you get pure water on the other side of the membrane. Cause only the waterSaintsing:Can pass. Sorry. And why is it called reverse osmosis?Uliana:Oh yeah. Cause, um, it's so there's something called osmosis or like osmotic pressure. So like if you have, um, if you've ever seen like a dialysis unit or, or like a membrane in our bodies, so sometimes they'll have like this, the semipermeable barrier, uh, this is something we might've learned in like, I don't know, high school biology basically if there's a concentration gradient along them. So basically if there's like a solid you some type of component in the water, that's higher in concentration on inside, it'll pass through naturally through that filter and go on the other side, similar to like, if you're ever dissolving, say sugar in water, the sugar will disperse out rather than be concentrated in one specific section in reverse osmosis, you're doing the exact opposite, uh, in your like basically concentrating the feed even more with salts by removing water from it.Uliana:So it's the reverse of naturalized Moses. So then for this electro dialysis approach, which is another desalination approach, it's kind of the opposite idea. This time you don't push water through you push ions through the membrane. So this time you apply an electric field and that causes only, I only charged molecules in water. So like assault, which is dissociated. Uh, so assault will, uh, have ions, which only the charge species will basically be effected by the electrodes. Something like water is neutral, it gets just H2O. There's no charge on it. So that won't move at all, but the ions will move toward the electrodes and basically be moved away from the water, which is left behind. That's what you end up drinking after Electra dialysis.Saintsing:Okay, cool. So you basically just are just like calling anything with a charge out of what you said. You're also getting out neutral items.Uliana:Yeah. So how does, yeah. Yeah. So it's funny how you were asking about osmosis because the removal of the neutral species is actually based on that exact principle. Basically you can't apply an electric field just like you were saying. Uh, but there is a concentration gradient still. So like if you have, so what we're doing is similar to something called forward osmosis. I don't know if people know about that, but it's this one technique where you can have, you can basically purify water, like in, in a campaign environment by having like a sugary solution on one side and you basically pull water from like a river and then have this like little film where only the water will pass through that's based off of osmosis, which is how we're removing neutral species. So what it is is a concentration gradient in your feed water. So like safety water, you basically expose that to a membrane which then the neutral species in the feed will migrate across or sorry. Well, um, travel across the membrane from a concentration gradient, just like how I said that things will want to move from a high to a low concentration. Just like if you're dissolving sugar right here now, rather than having a bucket of sugar water, you have a film in the middle where only where basically the neutral species transports across of that film.Saintsing:So you've got like this filter, I guess, that you've set up, that's applying both the electrical charge and it's got this film. And so you're just like having both of these happening simultaneously, but they're separate processes essentially.Uliana:And really what is the new advances that the membranes we're using actually have selectivity for only the toxic contaminant. So actually in, in like any of the different processes that I just mentioned, like reverse osmosis, electrodialysis osmosis, anything right now in say industry, they don't have selectivity activity toward say only your toxic ions or toxic contaminants. So what we did was we spread out these selective particles throughout the membrane. So we basically have this film, that's like a hundred microns inside of that film are all of these little beads that are on the order of like 200 nanometers. So that's like, uh, over a thousand times smaller than a millimeter. So we have all of these little beads that are very selective for those specific toxic contaminants. So now where I mentioned that all of the ions are, are pulled apart of the water in electro dialysis, usually in regular electric dialysis, all of the ions will pass through the membrane and basically leave behind pure water.Uliana:But then like the so-called brine stream, that's basically the soup of all the items that were rejected or removed from water just has the toxic contaminant. If you don't have any ion to ion selectivity, all of that huge volume is it say that there's mercury in the water and you reject it into the brine, all of that water or the Bryon stream is still considered mercury containing waste. And then you still have this like huge amount that like, what do you do with it? But we have is that when all of the ions travel across the membrane, the toxic ones are selectively stuck. They basically stick to the membrane because of those beads, they stick to the beads inside of the membrane, and then you no longer have those toxic contaminants on the other side of the membrane. And then you can dissolve it and have like a low, a low volume, a waste stream that will be easier to work with.Saintsing:Yeah. And so the having the soup people don't really have a good plan for disposal of the, of the toxic, right?Uliana:Right. Not really in general, like anywhere that has desalinated water, we'll do this quote unquote like filtering process where all ions are removed. And, um, usually what's done is that the, that in the case of like reverse osmosis is literally just sent back to the ocean and you'll like slowly concentrate the ocean. As an example, with all of the salts in a place that has say somewhere like Flint, Michigan, if that was handled responsibly, then what they would have done there is have a ton of different say adsorption columns, where they remove the toxin in addition to say, doing desalination. And if they do, it requires like a ton of new steps, like an individual column for each. And then obviously that's a lot more expensive, a lot larger footprint.Saintsing:And so, and then you were talking a bit about, um, desorbing things from, um, filters and that's kind of what would happen at the end of the, uh, filtering process that you've laid out with this electric dialysis,Uliana:Right.Saintsing:Are the materials that we get, uh, from the filtering process, are they, so once we've got them and now we have this toxic waste, is it D are they like just toxic waste? Like, can we, would we be able to use them repurpose them for anything?Uliana:Yeah, that's, that's a great point. So actually the idea is that because you're isolating only one say molecule, like one type of molecule, like, like mercury, if you're only isolating mercury from all the other, the soup that we were talking about, then potentially once you desorb it you only desorb, you basically have a solution of only mercury in say water, and then you could just isolate, that's all isolated. And then you can reuse the mercury. I mean, for something like mercury, I don't know if you would reuse it, but there are other compounds that are in water, even like seawater has actually a lot of gold, a lot of uranium things that can be reused. And that is also the idea of this process.Saintsing:Yeah, for sure. Is that, um, is that something that people are like actually looking into as a way to actually get a bunch of gold a bunch of years?Uliana:Yeah, actually it's been. Uh, I don't really like using this word because I think a lot of people use it for fake purposes, but it's really honestly like a holy grail of a lot of these like resource recovery or like extraction people, uh, because actually uranium, I think there's like 1000 times more uranium actually in seawater than there is in any geological reserve. And obviously we need uranium to power say like power plants and we only rely on gr like a geological reserves. So tapping into that would be really useful. Same with gold obviously.Saintsing:Yeah, definitely. Okay. So this is this cool new technique. Uh, what does it look like? What are you, what is the thing that you made? Is it like, you know, what does it look like?Uliana:Yeah, that's a good question. So the film itself that I mentioned that has the beads inside of them, it's, uh, it's really looks kind of like a saran wrap. That's a little colored or just like a plastic sheet. And actually it feels like that too. So yeah, it's really thin, like a, like I said, 0.1 millimeters around there. So really small, you can hardly even see the thickness and it's, it's like a sheet, so it's expanded out, um, kind of like a piece of paper, the actual electric ion capture electro dialysis unit. That's what we call it is basically these glass cells. So it's like two different compartments, uh, that look almost like a, like a little cup that's attached together where the membrane is between two cups that are kind of attached together.Saintsing:So this is the, what you were working on in the lab. It was relatively small.Uliana:Yeah. This one was definitely smaller. So I developed a few or actually in the college of chemistry, we have a glassblower, someone who makes custom glass and both of us made it together, really him mostly, but I helped him with it. Yeah. And we made these that are like, uh, 45 milliliters on, on each side. Like each of those cups that I mentioned is like 45 milliliters. So pretty small.Saintsing:But, uh, I guess the theory, uh, so you've like worked on showing this theory, this works. Um, but you know, moving forward, if you were to put in, do you, so you could really make something a lot bigger that would actually, uh, you know, help supply a district municipality, whatever with water?Uliana:Absolutely. And actually the idea was that all of our design was really trying to carefully design the membrane films, such that like the ion selectively that I mentioned goes into the film itself, not the whole process. So actually these films could be implemented directly into exist in electric dialysis units. And really the big development that's needed is just a scale of the membranes. Not, not like anything else too much.Saintsing:Is like it being scaled up, you know, something that will happen?Uliana:Yeah. Honestly, I think that it could happen without all that much difficulty. The beads that I mentioned that are really selective, those ones are really, really good materials, but that also means that they're really not easy or inexpensive to make. So if there were ways to scale up that, then there definitely would be ways to scale up the membrane. And you can also replace these beads with lower performance ones, such as ones that actually you could buy off of like Alibaba or probably even like Amazon. So theoretically they could probably be scaled up pretty quickly. I've just never done it. And no one in our group has. Yeah.Saintsing:Is that something you think about with the research that you do, um, being able to make things that you can scale?Uliana:Yeah, definitely. I think that that would definitely be a strong desire moving forward, especially to, you know, actually help people with this. Hopefully.Saintsing:So we've mostly been talking about this, um, paper, is that, uh, most of what your doctoral research has been about? Yeah.Uliana:So it's been a huge chunk. The paper itself was honestly a ton of work, which I'm glad to put behind me, um, to an extent. So I'm a fourth year PhD student and, uh, that was it wasn't, it definitely wasn't all of my PhD work, but it was definitely a big trunk. I've also developed different types of beads that I mentioned without putting them in membranes and also different types of membrane applications that are related to this whole technology. But this is yeah, definitely the major part of my PhD work. Yeah.Saintsing:The beads. Um, so you're saying they're selective for particular, uh, particles or molecules. What do you do to make a beat that's selected for something?Uliana:Yeah. Yeah. It requires a lot of synthetic chemistry. What these beads look like is actually that we really tune the pore site. So these are poorest. They have little poor pockets and that's actually where the, the ions like mercury where that actually travels to and ends up getting captured. So it's kind of like a net lake material, but on the really small scale. So actually one of these pores, like one of these pockets where the ion binding happens is only like one nanometer in diameter. So it's really small. So it's not that much bigger actually than an atom itself. Maybe like less than an order of magnitude. And so what we do is we create this like net like backbone, which is basically just a polymer that we synthesize and onto that we basically append on these binding groups. So they're like these little claws that are really selective. So based off of the chemicals that make up the call, they're very selective toward one type of species. So like there are certain ones that are really selective for only mercury and not anything else. Then there are also some that are selected for only like boron, but nothing else. And so it's really about that. And that actually allows us to tune the selectivities based off of the quality you put on.Saintsing:Is it like a lot of upfront like theoretical work? Like this is what it would have to look like and then synthesizing it as kind of like, then it's just like the process and making sure. Or is it like a lot of like making it and like finding out it doesn't work and then going back and forth? Yeah. Like what's the, is it all the front end? The backend, where's the, like all the work.Uliana:Yeah. It's a little bit of a combination of both. Really, really, it's more like a say that usually how I approach this research is I have a certain target in mind. So like something like gold or something like mercury. And then I look up on the literature, like what other people smarter than me have published, you know, stuff that show that it's really selective for this. And then I see what's possible what could possibly fit in one of these nets and also actually chemically be appended onto it. And then that part of actually trying it and testing its properties to see if it is selective, definitely some trial and error with it. And a lot of times just being in the head against the wall. Yeah.Saintsing:When I mentioned, uh, that some initial questions that I had to you in an email, um, you told me that you were a chemical engineer instead of a chemist and I was really interested, um, why, uh, felt the need to make that clarification. I guess it's like, it's clear from what you've been telling me about your research, that it really does sound like you're doing engineering stuff. Right. Like applying chemical knowledge to make something, but yeah. Why is that? Why was that important to,Uliana:Yeah, that's a good point. Uh, it's kind of funny within the like college of chemistry world, which actually only consists of the department of chemical engineering and the department of chemistry and like any chemical engineer and chemist. There's a huge distinction that everyone always make sure to point out because it really does base. It really does dictate how we think about things, but it's funny. It honestly doesn't matter at all. And actually when I go home to visit and no one that I like, none of my friends at home or my family at home has any idea what a chemist or a chemical engineer does. I'm like, they usually, I mean, like my brother said that I was an electrical engineer recently and like, see, it doesn't matter. The distinction doesn't matter at all. Right. But yeah, definitely the way that you think about things and the background is a bit different actually in chemical engineering versus chemistry.Saintsing:So like what are, what are those differences?Uliana:Yeah, I would say that in general, obviously it depends on the person. In general, actually chemical engineering though, like classes that you take and everything you learn, it's actually way more math and physics than chemistry. Uh, and actually a lot of people don't realize that. Um, and the way that chemical engineers think is usually much more applied, kind of like what you just said about the paper, it's really like, how can we apply this chemistry into something? Whereas a lot of chemists they'll think really on the fundamental level and they'll wonder like, why does that work? Uh, and let's figure out why a little bit more in depth.Saintsing:Right. I got you. So it's kind of like how people might think about physics versus engineering, but specifically in the context of chemistry. Right. Why did you gravitate towards chemical engineering over chemistry or is that like kind of like it happened or was there a specific choice?Uliana:Yeah, that's a great question. Uh, really where my real interests lie or kind of right in the middle. I always like to say that chemistry is more interesting to me. Like I, I'm just really fascinated by how chemistry works and all of that, but I'm much more motivated on the application side. So like if, if all of my time, if I need to spend all my time on something and really what motivates me is how can I actually help people with what I'm doing? And I think that in my opinion, chemical engineering fits that bill a little better. I see. Or at least more directly I should say.Saintsing:Right, right. If you were a chemist, maybe you would be doing something that would really inform some of the things that as a chemical engineer, you're like putting out there.Uliana:Right. And like both are equally as important to the world, but yeah, when you get to see the effects more or more quickly, and more, obviouslySaintsing:You say you like how chemistry works, like, what does that mean to you? Like, what is this, how chemistry works? What is chemistry?Uliana:It's a great question. To me. Chemistry is really about how the world works on a scale that smaller than we can see. That's what really fascinates me things that you can't see that aren't tangible to the eye and why they actually work. It's really interesting to me. So like for example, why is the sky blue is something that I thought of all the time as a kid and stuff like that. Like why, why do colors exist? Why is any of this? Like why just all of that type of stuff, stuff that you can't see that isn't really obvious that to me is more of the chemistry. So like on the molecular level, so to speak what actually dictates all of these properties for me, that's what really is interesting.Saintsing:So that's like, yeah, that's a really all encompassing thing. Yeah. Do you run into people? I don't know chemistry, I guess when we think about it and like high school, right. It's like solutions of things. Is that kind of what you encounter when you tell people you do chemistry, it's like much more narrow than you understand chemistry to be.Uliana:Yeah. Usually if I ever tell like someone not at Berkeley, what chemistry is say, like I go and talk to my family. Usually the questions that come up are either like, oh, do you work with anything that could kill you? Or have you blown anything up or started a fire? And honestly, yeah, almost, but, um, honestly a lot of it is a lot of solutions. It's not like as much mad scientist does. I think the media, or at least cartoons like to depict, uh, where you, you know, you just mix a bunch of random stuff together and hope for the best, but there is definitely a lot of that mixing and pretty color looking solutions that definitely is in the day to day.Saintsing:So you kind of talked about, uh, you know, you might be interested in, um, seeing where some of the things you've been working on in your PhD might go eventually. Um, other than that, like what, uh, what do you seem to envision for yourself, um, after grad school? Uh, do you see yourself staying in academic research or, um, maybe doing industrial research or something like that? ThisUliana:Is something that I have really been thinking about actually. So going into grad school, I thought I was dead set on doing academia after grad school. And I would say that's still where I'm leaning toward. Um, but there are definitely other things that are really peaking my interest. For example, like doing a startup actually based off of the paper that we were just talking about and related materials, uh, that definitely is not something that I've, you know, put behind me. Like maybe, maybe I'll pursue that. I'm actually trying to figure that out this summer.Saintsing:Cool. So that's like something that's really on the table, like a startup built around this, uh, technology.Uliana:Yeah, I think so. I think there's a lot of things that really interests me about it and yeah, kind of, like I said, I'm really motivated by trying to get stuff out that can actually help people. And, um, yeah. Being able to do that with something like this, I think would be really a great thing to try.Saintsing:Yeah. Is it, um, fairly common that, um, people moving through the chemistry or maybe more specifically a chemical engineering, um, graduate program kind of, you know, is there like a strong startup culture coming out of it?Uliana:I would say not uncommon, but it's not necessarily common in each co maybe, maybe like fewer than 5% of students will end up doing a startup based off of their university research. Maybe even closer to one or two, but it's never that surprising when people do, because there definitely are a number of people that have done it even in our lab itself. There've been a couple,Saintsing:Well, unfortunately it looks like we are running out of time on the interview. Do you have anything you'd like to leave us with?Uliana:Yeah. I think a lot of the motivation for this work is there's really two things. One is that for water, we really rely heavily on a surface freshwater. So this is something like lakes and stuff like that. Actually I think like 65% of USA's water consumption is from these freshwater sources, but with climate change and stuff like that, and boom in populations, actually these resources are dwindling a lot. And even, even now only less than 0.01% of all of the water in the world is surface freshwater, even though we rely on it so much. So I think we'll be expecting to see much more about desalination and say seawater to kind of fuel us moving forward. And I would say another thing just of motivation is just with trying to selectively remove specific contaminants from water in an efficient way. That's really motivated by just like a lot of the injustices that are linked to some of these places that have high contamination sources and where people just don't have an option to, you know, but to drink those contaminants such as like a Flint, Michigan, or even other places around the world, for example, in Bangladesh, there's like 45,000 people or so that die each year from the arsenic that's in their groundwater, which is what they use for drinking water.Uliana:And that's a huge problem and getting more people that can try to figure out how to fix these problems would be really greatSaintsing:Today I've been speaking with Adam Uliana from the department of chemical engineering. We were interested in talking about his work on new desalination techniques. Thanks so much for being on the show, Adam.Uliana:Thanks for having me.Saintsing:Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of the graduates.
5/11/2021

Kelsey Crutchfield-Peters

Saintsing:You're tuned to the 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates, the interview talk show, or we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world today, I'm joined by Kelsey Crutchfield-Peter's from the department of integrative biology. Welcome to the show, Kelsey.Crutchfield:Hi Andrew. Thank you for having me.Saintsing:It's so great to have you here. How has life been for you in these, uh, pandemic times?Crutchfield:Well, I think now that it's been going on for about a year, I have something of routine, but I've been finding ways to kind of spend my time at home. New hobbies, gotten into woodworking, more gardening, but I've also been able to get into the lab and get up to my field site, um, over the last year as well. So I've been fortunate in that regard. What are you doing woodworking wise? So we actually, my partner and I decided that we wanted to start making some of our own furniture and other objects in our homes. So we kind of went on to like Craigslist and next door and found all these secondhand tools and we've since made a coffee table and I made a little excited table. Um, I made a cutting board, we built a cabinet. That's like a, I don't know, it's like maybe seven foot tall cabinet, like two, three feet wide.Crutchfield:And yeah, just kind of like fun stuff like that. I learned a lot actually working when we've taken a little break, um, since the weather's changed and we're starting a garden in our backyard now, cause it's like very limited space, but yeah, it's been really fun. And what are you gardening? Um, so yeah, we have a little food garden that we in the last, like two or three years, we've kind of done different iterations, like kale salad, tomatoes, but then also we have front yard that I'm hoping to kind of revamp a little bit and put some native California plants out front plant, some poppies, which have been making me really happy lately, California poppiesSaintsing:Gardening doesn't feel too close to field work for you?Crutchfield:Well, absolutely I, yeah, so I studied plants, soil interactions and yeah, I think in my free time I also enjoy being in that environment. The digging in particular, I find helpful. I really know how to use a pickax to turn the soil, but yeah, sometimes I'm not in the mood after being in the field for awhile.Saintsing:Yeah. I was thinking about my first question to you just being, did you become a scientist just to be paid to professionally dig?Crutchfield:I've made many jokes along those lines and I've actually when looking back and like, how did I get into soil? Because I was a biology major as an undergrad and I'm still a biologist. I think of myself as a biogeochemist, which is someone who combines biology and geology knowledge, chemistry, knowledge to ask questions about large scale cycles, like the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, um, and how those impact and ecosystems and ecosystem function. And I was always really interested in how plants play a role in biogeochemical cycles and how they're impacted by those cycles. And so I think that when I was an undergrad, I didn't really imagine myself diving into soil, but because soil is such a huge part and this is central reservoir for plant nutrients and water and plays this really fundamental role in ecosystem function. That's kind of where I found myself. So now I dig holes professionally. I call myself a professional dirt bag for, cause I bagged her a lot and yeah, it's been really an awesome experience. So no regrets.Saintsing:Yeah, it sounds great. What are you trying to find in the dirt?Crutchfield:I study how forests that have deep roots. So they root not only into soil, but into underlying whether it bedrock, acquire nutrients and how that's related to water as well. And specifically I'm interested in studying the nitrogen cycle, um, in these ecosystemsSaintsing:And what is the nitrogen cycle?Crutchfield:Yeah. So nitrogen is an essential element to plants and just most organisms need nitrogen, all organisms need nitrogen to make proteins and nucleic acids. And so nitrogen is an essential nutrient and often the most limiting nutrient to plant growth, especially in terrestrial ecosystems. And so by understanding nitrogen cycling, we can also understand limits on plant growth and forest function and both how the plants are responding, but how their microbial communities are interacting with them to provide nutrients and how the soil microbiota and the flora are driving cycles that are sustaining life in these systems.Saintsing:Yeah. So, nitrogen is usually the limiting nutrient, but isn't it like most of the air? Which is a really great question. So nitrogen in the atmosphere, which is the majority of our atmosphere, right, is N two gas. And those two nitrogen atoms are bonded by a triple bond. And that triple bond is a super high energy bond. It's really hard to break. And so though we have an abundance of it in the atmosphere. There are only specific microbes in atmospheric processes that can actually break that nitrogen and then turn it into biologically available for, and those are typically as ions, which are nitrate and ammonium that we typically look at in systems. There are some like microbes and some plants can use small organic nitrogen molecules, but you're right. That's a really interesting question of like, we have all this nitrogen around, but you really need some specific processes that are really specialized to make it available to plants and microbesSaintsing:And those processes, those are mostly being done carried out by microbes. So you're saying.Crutchfield:Yeah. And then sometimes there's some fixation that can happen. This term is called biological fixation where microbes break the triple bond between the two nitrogen atoms and then turn it into the available forms as ammonium or nitrate. And sometimes then of course they'll take it and put it in their own tissues and the form has protein.Saintsing:So we have a bunch of nitrogen in the air and it's got to end, there are microbes in the soil that just kind of grab it and pull it out and turn it into accessible forms. And you're kind of interested in once it's in this accessible form in these microbes and in the dirt, like how is it moving between organisms and the dirt?Crutchfield:I usually say soil, which is an interesting distinction, right? People are like, don't call it dirt, call it soil and soil is this really awesome, incredible heterogeneous mixture, right of organic matter minerals, water gases, and saw Utes. And my research is at the Yule river critical zone observatory. So I come at it from this perspective of a critical zone scientist who, somebody who studies, how the soil and the plants, all those solids, including the nitrogen that's in the air and in the soil interact to drive these cycles that are supporting life on our planet, in the critical zone, which is from the vegetation canopy all the way down to the base of weathered bedrock. So my dissertation is kind of not only looking at soil and how the typical interaction that we understand of plants and soil being like major pathway through which plants derive their water and their nutrients, but going beyond soil beneath the soil, into the weather bedrock where you have these systems are fractures and this rock, um, is both partially Waterfield, partially airfield, just like the soil.Crutchfield:And it's a really important reservoir, especially in dry systems like we have here and coastal California, that seasonally experienced drought where you have large periods of no rain in the summertime. And these roots rely on these deep sources to sustain transpiration of water and then to also support other functions of their roots. So I'm kind of feeling that gap in knowledge where it's like, we've understood traditionally that plants derive most of their water and nutrients from soil. But now recent research has shown that the reservoir of weather bedrock is really important, not for water and driving carbon, but I'm adding the component of like, okay, we know that it's important for carbon and water, but now trying to understand it, then how is it important for nitrogen cycle?Saintsing:All right, is there actually nitrogen being cycled down there?Crutchfield:I use this unique system called the beta stone monitoring system where I sample water, um, from different depths going down to about 16 meters and right at about a meter and a half, we get into weathered bedrock. So the sampling system is sampling the profile of weathered bedrock for water and gasses. And so this is really important. So I can collect that water and do the chemistry on that water and look at available nitrogen. And what I've found so far is that in terms of the total nitrogen, which is comprised of both organic nitrogen and then ammonium to nitrate, we have concentrations that are on the same order of magnitude as some temperate forest soils. So the way I think about this is that it's an ecologically significant amount of nitrogen in the weathered bedrock in plant accessible in microbes accessible forms. And that was a really cool finding because at first you're like, oh, rock, it's not like a nutrient rich.Crutchfield:It's not, I think a lot of people think about rocks as being biologically inert. And the really cool thing about biogeochemistry is that we were looking at these interactions and we understand that both the physical or the abiotic and the biotic are intrinsically linked through these cycles and at our site, it's actually interesting because the rock, the bedrock at our site has relatively high nitrogen content. And that comes from the fact that way back in the day, there was nitrogen deposited in near shore marine environments and the organic nitrogen from the algae, from the micro, the organisms that were living in these near shore environments that nitrogen got trapped in the rock when it was sediment. And then it got, metamorphose pushed up onto land. And now as that rock is being weathered over time, that nitrogen can be released from that rock and become available in ecosystems. And so this is cool, is that, there's this cool question that I have is not only how much nitrogen is down there, but where's it coming from? Is it coming from weathered bedrock or is it being fixed? Like we discussed earlier from the atmosphere, um, by microbes in the soil and then being leached, which is the process where water carries, salutes downward from soil horizons into the weathered bedrock.Saintsing:So in either case it's, uh, an organism that was ultimately like a living organism was responsible for the fixation, but you're interested in like how old, how long ago kind of that nitrogen was fixed.Crutchfield:I'm not necessarily asking when the nitrogen was fixed per se, but one of the really cool tools that I use to address these kinds of questions is stable isotope analysis. And so stable isotope analysis is basically a method where different processes. So if you're biologically fixed this spring, your nitrogen signal is probably is going to be different than the nitrogen that was biologically fixed thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years ago and then put into rock and then since transformed both physically and chemically over time. So stable isotope analysis takes advantage of the natural isotopes that occur in different materials. So like you might think about isotopes of carbon or isotopes of nitrogen. And if you recall, isotopes are chemically identical atoms in the sense of like they're both carbon and they behave like carbon electrochemically when they interact. But you might have in the case of carbon of carbon 12 and carbon 13, right?Crutchfield:Carbon 12 is abundant isotope of carbon versus carbon 13 is the rare isotope of carbon. And in nature they have specific ratios in which they occur and depending on different processes, um, like if you have an enzyme that's processing that carbon, like when plants are doing photosynthesis, they discriminate differently against the two. So the lighter isotope will often be integrated more rapidly because it's easier to break that bond in like a CO2 molecule, for example, um, by rabickow the enzyme that's doing the majority of carbon fixation in plants, um, and then fixing it in the form of glucose into the plant. So over time you can say like, oh, based off of the isotopic ratio that I see in this material is primarily plant derived or based off of the isotopic ratio. I see in this material, it's primarily from weathering of rock and rock derived carbon, for example, um, the same can be true for nitrogen, but the cool thing about the cycle that I find is that it's extremely, extremely complex and kind of the isotopic effects of processes are really large. And so what happens is this kind of this complex mess. Sometimes if you try to apply these methods, but it requires kind of like a nuance and a lot of like creativity for trying to, um, use new methods to investigate, like where's the nitrogen coming from? What processes driving it cycling? Is it being taken up and utilized by plants and microbes?Saintsing:So you're, uh, taking samples, uh, at various steps and you're trying to get at, are you, are you looking at different isotopes at the different depths? Are you trying to see if there's that like how you're trying to see where the nitrogen is coming from in these different locations? Totally.Crutchfield:Totally yeah. So my first chapter is kind of describing what I talked about earlier, where we were looking at, like I was looking at how much nitrogens there is it ecologically significant what forms are dominant? And then the next part is now saying like, where's it coming from? And so from that first piece of my work, I found that organic nitrogen was the dominant form of nitrogen and that ammonium nitrate are there and they're being cycled as well, but they're an order of magnitude less, all of which are on the same order of magnitude as many forest soils. So they're all ecologically significant concentrations. But the interesting thing about the site is that it's underlaying by this metta sedimentary rock that I described earlier, which is, um, this C4 sediments and that rock holding nitrogen in it often has it in the form of ammonium cat ions.Crutchfield:And so when it's released, you would expect it to be ammonium, um, in the form of ammonium. Now it can also be stored as organic nitrogen. And so I'm an hour asking this question, can I use stable isotopes to look at the isotopic signature of nitrogen and rock versus the isotopic signature of soils. Um, and then also look at the isotopic signatures of nitrogen. That's dissolved in the water through the whole profile of the subsurface from soil into the weather bedrock, and then also looking at groundwater and say, can you use these tools to try and differentiate where the nitrogen is coming from? And potentially even looking at the extent of contribution of the two, probably not one or the other, right? Like it's probably a combination because this is again, these, when you have water present, it's going to be driving all of these chemical reactions, both in the soil and in the rock.Crutchfield:I have not done the analysis yet on the water, but I'm just submitting those in the next month or so I'm really looking forward to seeing the data come back because so far the way I've looked at it, you can tell the difference between the soil and the rock, but it's subtle. And so whether or not the actually plays out in what I see in my water samples, which is what is the nitrogen that is available to the plants and the microbes and the dissolved phase. Um, that will be kind of the key to saying like which one, which pool is more important for the ecosystem.Saintsing:Would you say when you're like, thinking about this research, when you get the results back, does it look kind of like you have a corkboard and you have a bunch of like pictures and you got like a whole conspiracy thing going on with all the threads it's pointing to different. Is it like, is it that level of like trying to piece together things like, is that kind of how complicated it feels?Crutchfield:Yeah. So actually it's kind of cool. You say that. So something that we often use in biogeochemistry are mixing models. You can use mixing models as ways to estimate the fraction of different pools that are arriving in your mixture, right? So say you have like a red bucket of paint and a blue bucket of paint, right? Depending on the fraction of each you'll have like purple or you'll have like magenta or you'll have like indigo, you know, you might have different shades and the relative amounts of mixtures will give you a similar thing for isotopes where let's say you have a really distinct isotopic signature here versus here, and you have a line drawn between those two points. You can be anywhere along that line. Now let's say you add a third mixture and you have a, like, now you have somewhat of like three points and you're in this like triangular space.Crutchfield:Right. And, um, so you can kind of imagine how, like, once you have upwards of two sources in your mixture, it becomes really complicated to estimate which ones. And when you're looking at something like nitrogen cycling, I have like my whole nitrogen cycle. Right. Which is like making the atmosphere being fixed is a form of ammonium nitrate. And those processes are separate. So there are different boxes. And then you have organic nitrogen, which is another box, and then it can get leached into ground water. And those are different boxes. And then it can be D gassed into the atmosphere. Again is nitrous oxide. And like, so there are all these boxes and lines. That's funny that you say that, cause I'm definitely kind of like staring at it sometimes. And I'm like, where is the nitrogen coming from? Where is it going?Saintsing:Yeah. Big aha moments.Crutchfield:You know, it's like always those like moments where you don't expect, you're like on a run or something and like, oh wait, what about this? You know? Or like, you have a weird dream. And you're like, thinking of that, actually work.Saintsing:Wait, do you like dream about the nitrogen cycle at this point?Crutchfield:I definitely have similar dreams. I've had dreams about being in the field digging. Um, maybe I have it from the more like upsetting times where you're like digging in a hole in the dark and it's like below freezing, which has happened before. And your field assistant dedicated field assistants. I have to say the best field assistance, this student of mine. So Mithra was out there with me a few years ago. Now we were doing some pits for an experiment and it was like blow, freezing. It was dark. We were wet. We had just excavated like two or three meters squared of soil and rock by hand andSaintsing:Two or three meters square. Okay. Dang. Yeah.Crutchfield:That's cubic.Saintsing:Yeah. Well that's a lot of digging. Yeah. Wait, how are you doing the digging?Crutchfield:So I, I often will use like a pickax. Um, sometimes I core soils, so I'll have like a metal, um, cylindrical sleeve, basically that camera the ground and can pull the core out, um, and then separate it based off of depth. But sometimes my questions like last summer, I was doing an experiment that is another component of my dissertation, which is saying like, okay, now we know that nitrogen is present. And whether bedrock is probably being cycled, I'm starting to look at where it's coming from, but is it actually being used by the plants and microbes? The instinctual answer is like, yes, of course, if it's present and roots are present and they're functioning, they're going to take up, what's available to them. Right. But my question in this experiment, I did where I dug these deep pits. And this time I had the help of a tractor that had like a backhoe on it and it could dig for me.Crutchfield:I went out and I sampled, find roots, both in the weathered bedrock and in the soil. And I compared their ability to take up the different forms of nitrogen. And I also sub sampled then them. And I'm going to do RNA analysis and some DNA analysis to look at which microbes and microrisal fungi are present in the soil versus the weather bedrock. Are there the same or are they different? And then are there differences in their ability to take up different forms of estrogen and like how at what rate? So are the, is the nutrient physiology of these roots different basically based off of growing and weathered bedrock or soil?Saintsing:Well, I want to go back to the story you had about digging in the dark and the below freezing, but I'm also interested in what we were just what you were just saying, but I'm going to go back first. When you said you were digging in the dark and in the, uh, below freezing, was, were those necessary conditions or did that just happen to be like, were you looking for something that specifically depended on a certain time or did you just happen to be digging in the dark?Crutchfield:Yeah, it just happened to be a long day which can happen. When you're, we kind of committed, we were doing a tracer experiment, a mock tracer experiment, where basically we dripped dye into the subsurface and excavated it to see where it went. So this was in preparation for another experiment that I didn't actually end up doing. So it's also kind of hilarious that I spent all this time doing this and then didn't actually end up doing anything. So it was part of a larger collaboration eventually, which was great. So anyways, we were out there and we we'd done this, we dripped this dye down into the rock and then we're like, okay, now we want to see where does it go? Does it go really far over the time that we dripped it? And then we'll plan to be able to access whatever we were to introduce to the soil. The die was just to visualize where it went. So we had to like excavate it. And by the time we finished, we were like finished adding the dye. It was like two or three o'clock and this was like January. So the sun was going down at like, I don't know, five or six, right. So we started excavating. And then by the time we got down and actually found that out, it was dark freezing cold. And we had like, we're like we have to finish. It was quite an experience.Crutchfield:I've also climbed trees in the dark before for similar reasons. So sometimes when I'm trying to sample foliage, one of the other cool tools, my labs, my lab, the Dawson lab uses is tree climbing, where we like put anchors into the tops of trees. In my case, this was Douglas fir trees. Some of which are over 30 meters tall where we put the anchor and you're climbing up into these trees. And then we were sampling foliage in the canopy for carbon and nitrogen analysis. And, you know, I spent all day doing this, but I was in the tree and the sun was setting and it was beautiful for a little bit. But then eventually you're in the dark on a rope in the tree with your headlamp, with like clipping sheers. And you're like, where did my shoes go? I hope they're nowhere near my rope. Um, of course it was fine and safe, but there are times in the field. I think you realize you're like, oh, I'm pushing myself a little bit too far.Saintsing:Yeah. You need somebody an impartial observer there to be like, Nope, you gotta go. Yeah. So then I'm interested, you were talking about the trees and how you really comparing how different, uh, or a roots, like from the same tree, right. Where they were in terms of depth might be able to take up nutrients in different ways. So this, uh, a single plant is modulating its cells, depending on like feedback from the depth of the soil it's in, is what you're saying.Crutchfield:Absolutely. That, um, plant cells like any cells of an organism, right. Are kind of engaging with these environments and have a certain amount of plasticity in their ability to respond. Right. And we can test those questions about which genes perhaps are being turned on, um, versus those that are not, which ones are being expressed more in these different environments. And though I'm still kind of waiting to hear back on this data. I haven't had the process right now going through the extractions before I send them the data. Um, the question or the hypothesis is that because soil versus rock is so different, both in terms of its density, um, in terms of the organic matter content of soil being higher than you would see in rock, um, the chemical environments being different, the water storage capacity and kind of like that environment. And also just the physical environment.Crutchfield:If you can imagine, like if you're growing through soil roots can kind of expand in this three-dimensional space and fill up this space in a way that kind of like maximizes their access to the nutrients and the water in that surface, in that reservoir. If you're growing in rock, you're in a fracture, which is like a planar existence, right? You have this like split between the rocks, you grow into this little crack and what's really cool and what I've become obsessed with on hiking trips and backpacking trips. And like anywhere I go is even driving down roads. When you have like a road cut into the rock, cause you can see roots just shooting through fractures. And it's really cool because they become super compressed. And so their physiology or their morphology is changing as well. So they can become really flattened out, which changes the surface area. That's interacting with the environment. And because of all these characteristics that are different too, it's also potentially selecting for different microbes that are going to associate with those roots. So my hypotheses are that because these two environments are very different, perhaps they're having different gene expression and different micro microrisal and microbial symbionts that are growing with them, um, that changes their ability to take up nutrients. And also probably is altering other physiology as well.Saintsing:I was just thinking about, you know, like trees around a house or in a city. And they, you know, I, I don't know about their bedrock interactions, but then they're encountering like surface level interactions right. Or where they're meeting asphalt and concrete and stuff. And so do you, I don't know. Do you think that is like you would see it would be more similar to where it's in bedrock or less or more similar to soil or like yeah. W what do you think? Do you have any thoughts onCrutchfield:That? Yeah, so I think it's really, it's an interesting question because people have studied soils and urban environments in agricultural environments and natural forest ecosystems, et cetera. And then when you're thinking about the role of rock and like plants interacting with rock, you can definitely, you know, you see that root split sidewalks, you know, you can see that that happens with rock as well. Um, I've seen rocks where like SAP sandstone outcrops, for example, in the Santa Cruz mountains that are, there was this really amazing old Madrone that grown into this was growing out of this fracture and the kind of exposed bedrock. And there was this kind of crack that looked like it had formed because of the pressure that the tree put on the rock and in the critical zone science research that I do tons of really cool collaborators that are studying atmosphere, chemistry and how it relates to this critical zone region.Crutchfield:I told you about, of the earth surface, soil, chemistry, rock geomorphology and like geophysics. And there's one person who studied how plants are breaking rock and creating soil. And so my imagining always is that, you know, plants are extremely adaptable, right? You can see the Daisy growing out of the crack in the sidewalk. You know, I'm a climber like rock climber as well. And I'll be climbing sometimes on these big what, like you're on these big walls, like in Yosemite, for example. And there are these like little Oaks growing out of just a fracture where they have effectively no soil available to them. And so certainly I think you can go out into the world and imagine what, what is the subsurface environment that this roots, the roots of this planner interacting with? Um, is it concrete? Is it asphalt? Is it growing underneath and out the other side to get to the light, a little patch of soil over there? Like it's really cool. Cause even in the forest that I'm in, you can see roots that are growing tens of meters away from the tree. Some of these really big old growth Douglas fir can have these really long roots exposed at the surface or along the road cut that are really far away from the tree. So I think kind of responding to what your question was is that plant root systems are really adaptable and that's probably one of the things that's really interesting. That's one of the things that I find most interesting.Saintsing:You mentioned, um, at the beginning, how, you know, those nitrogen could be coming from these rocks that contain organisms or the remains of organisms that died a long time ago. Does that kind of specific to coastal regions like that availability of nitrogenCrutchfield:Sedimentary rock is really that, so that's the type of property we're talking about in the Marine systems. And so it's cool because I'm entering our cover is 73% of the Earth's current lands are sorts. So it's estimated so about 70% of the land surface can be estimated to be sedentary rock. And whether it's coming from these near shore marine environments or river freshwater river systems, or like old, um, like one of the questions I'm curious about is like the old, um, inland seas, right? Like on continents, like where you have, you know, you're going to have algae and you're going to have, um, zooplankton and these organisms living in getting trapped potentially larger or larger organisms as well. And there's some really cool research done on this by Ben Fulton's group, uh, looking at rock drive nitrogen in their paper in 2018, Benjamin Holton's group found that rock nitrogen across the whole globe is a really important reservoir nitrogen and has actually alters our understanding of the nitrogen cycle globally.Crutchfield:So for my research, and I think for anyone out there, you can go around and think about like, oh, the rock that I'm walking on is likely, or the rock that I live on is likely to be the sedentary. Rocket could have high nitrogen content and certainly California in the coastal belt, um, where I do my research and the Franciscan complex, there's a lot of this mediset of interior rock. Um, and it's an important, and their group has shown that it's been an important resource for coniferous forest in California. So it's pretty cool. Actually the realization you're like, wow, rock is a really important resource for nutrients to environments.Saintsing:Well, it's like we're unfortunately running out of time in the interview. Is there anything like you'd like to leave us with? ICrutchfield:Think when people are out in the world, if I were to ask somebody, um, or anyone to imagine something new, um, like with my students, for example, or when I give talks to classes, is that when you walk out into the world, the tree that you're walking past has assimilated matter and just appeared, right? Like this concept that I think we just like take for granted, um, sometimes is that, you know, it's come out of all of the matter that it's managed to acquire from the air and the soil and to become a new being. And that's kind of the cool thing. And as a biogeochemist, I'm just really fascinated and kind of perpetually in awe of the fact that all living organisms are just matter. That's being constantly recycled between both living and non-living things on our planet.Saintsing:Yeah, for sure. Today, we've been talking to Kelsey Crutchfield Peters from the department of integrated biology about her research on the nitrogen cycling near the weathered bedrock. Thanks so much for being on the show. Kelsey.Crutchfield:Thank you so much. Andrew is great to talk to you.Saintsing:Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of the graduate.
3/30/2021

Kevin Roberts

Saintsing:Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM. KALX Berkeley, I'm Andrew Saintsing. And this is the graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Kevin Roberts from the department of integrative biology, open to the show Kevin.Roberts:Thanks for having me.Saintsing:It's great to have you here, we were kind of like almost lab mates, honestly, even at that point. Yeah. We know each other's stuff pretty well. So I know that you're a, a, you're a book guy, right?Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. I would say, oh, you know, it sounds a little weird, but yeah, I guess it's fair to call myself a bug guy.Saintsing:Why is it sound weird?Roberts:I guess you sort of are a picture comes to mind where it's kind of like Spiderman, but slightly, maybe six legs instead and less webs. ButSaintsing:Yeah. I want to be like a weird bug guy. You're like a cool book guy.Roberts:That'd be like most bug guys would be pretty cool though. Cause yeah, bugs are cool.Saintsing:So you've always like insects.Roberts:Um, no, no. So I actually used to, uh, really like or dislike them and, well, no, I was neutral towards insects. I really disliked spiders and I still am lukewarm about spiders. Um, but I kinda got into them in college or like, I guess undergrad, we had to take an organismal biology class and it was in the peak recession times. So they like cut a lot of classes and they weren't, it wasn't a lot available. And my like advisor, counselor person, um, was the professor of the entomology class. And he was like, why don't you just take this? We could make it count for that. Um, and I had never considered it. I think I kind of wanted to work on like amphibians or something and I thought they were interesting and I took it and it, yeah, they're just crazy. They're just like little aliens. They breathe through holes in their body, like the side of their body and just do everything like turn into completely different forms.Roberts:Liquified their bodies fly. It says, yeah, it's all there. Cool.Saintsing:What did you study about bugs?Roberts:One of the other things I guess I should say that I find most interesting about insects really is how wide a range of environment they can tolerate. So like a lot of what I work on involves cold and one really cool thing that a lot of insects can do is tolerate, freezing and not die, which is, it's not like a unique to insect phenomenon, but there's like only a handful of vertebrates that can do that. And it just, yeah, it just seems so crazy to me. Cause like I grew up in California where like, you know, uh, 50 Fahrenheit seems cold and there's these beetles that are tolerating like zero.Saintsing:Just kind of like go into deep freeze and then just come back when it's they go like offline and then come back online when it warms back up. Yup.Roberts:Yeah. So I guess there's a few different approaches to kind of call that insects deal with. Well, like a big aspect of my research is mostly focused around seasonality. So there's these like seasonally prepared states that they can be in hibernation would be an example for mammals insects it's typically called dialogues or it could be quiescent. So basically they go into dormancy. So there's this long period of preparations. They can tolerate cold, but they're already inactive when they have the cold, like experienced the cold temperatures. So active insects can also, when they're exposed to cold, a lot of times they lose the ability to coordinate or I would like to still, I guess, maintain muscle function and they just kind of fall on their backs or like fall over and they just sit there and until they come back and its called "chill coma" and say are essentially in a coma from being cold.Saintsing:So there's a difference sometimes insects, all of a sudden, like if this were happening in a lab, they wouldn't really prep for being cold, but in the wild they kind of know seasonal cues. And so they kind of prepare for the cold. And is there a difference in that end experience for insects?Roberts:Yeah. Well, yeah. Yeah. So, I mean, I guess they can get a bit more complicated. So partially also what I work on is seasonal. Oh yeah. So I work on a winter, like how, what insects do in winter. And there is still acute cold exposures that can occur in winter. And I do partially work on that. Um, so there's still see seasonal preparedness and then cold that happens in that time that they deal with. And yeah, I guess the mechanisms are a little bit different just in terms of time that they have to maintain or a lot of what happens when they're in this chill coma, not seasonally induced cold is they lose like that. They're unable to maintain ion balances. So their nerves basically just don't function. So they can't like coordinate a lot of stuff and they just can't move, I'm really sure how you deal with that.Roberts:There's like subtle adjustments you can do to like fix your cellular membranes and stuff to prevent leakiness of the ions. But typically with the seasonal shifts that insects do, at least the ones that I work on, I'll speak specifically about the one I work on.Saintsing:What is that?Roberts:It is a Sierra Willow beetle. So it's just this little automobile that eats Willow in the Sierra Nevada as well. It is distributed across semester in the United States and yeah, it's, it's a high elevation in the Sierras and it just looks like a little lady bug, but reverse colors. Um, so this is black with red pattern a little bit. It's really cute for, for a bug, you know? And they, they don't really do anything particularly interesting in terms of what people normally think of. It's not like, um, pine beetles that are this large like pest, I guess they're just really interesting because they live in these really variable environment and the CRS because California is fairly drought, drought prone. So there's a lot of variation in snow that happens, which impacts like temperature and stuff like that too.Saintsing:And then, sorry, you were about a, what, uh, I'm gonna say in the context of your Willow beetles.Roberts:Yeah. So what these Beatles end up doing is they just put a bunch of like, oh they, so they specifically use glycerol, but basically they just pump a bunch of stuff into this open fluid that's floating around them to increase just how much stuff is in there. Cause that disrupts ice crystals from forming, or it controls the rate at which it does, but it disrupts it typically. And yeah, so they, they do that. I think there's a lot of equivalents of like frogs have a similar strategy. They can freeze, but they use sugar, they just put glucose all over themselves to prevent it. And some insects do that as well. But yeah, they pretty much just like decrease the water to stuff's ratio in their blood.Saintsing:So they just don't. So the ice doesn't kind of like, you know, like a situation at a soda can in the freezer, like the ice would kind of just pop their selves.Roberts:Yeah, yeah, exactly. Especially as on that scale, the ice crystals are like a lot more stabby kind of grow like little pyramids. Yeah. And so that's actually an interesting problem that I did mention earlier that some insects can freeze, um, and survive. But as to the ones that, that want to freeze and survive, don't want to suppress what temperature they cool or like what temperature they freeze that. So, um, if you get it too low by adding a bunch of these like Saul Utes and they're like glucose or glycerol, once the crystal formation starts, it like goes fast. So it like expands really rapidly. So typically what they try to do is initiate. And when I say they try and it's not like they're making the conscious decision, but they have this strategy of trying to initiate, freezing at higher temperatures so that they can control the rate of growth. So it doesn't like damage as much. Yeah. And that's, that's uh, my, the Beatles I work on do.Saintsing:Cool. So they're uh, the water in their cells is freezing above zero is what you're saying above zero degrees Celsius?Roberts:I think it's, it's typically the water outside of the cells person that it's freezing. I think it's, it's very problematic, problematic if it's inside the cell and it so usually like, I guess seawater has a lower freezing temperature than fresh water because there's a salt in there and stuff. Right. It's, it's a similar, I guess, phenomenon to what, what I was talking about inside the beetle. So just like most living organisms are going to have a freezing point below, I guess zero Celsius would be the freezing point of just water in a room. And the temperature you go below that is called your super cooling point. It's like the ability to cool below zero. And there's some insects that can, you know, uh, delay freezing until minus 20 Celsius. And then like beetles, I work on that, do control the ice freezing or dies crystal growth rate, uh, and survive, freezing do it about minus five degrees. And then they can tolerate down to minus 15 before they die. Yeah. So they're kind of like doing it. I say warmer temperatures, but it's still cold, relatively warm.Saintsing:And so these insects at some point, what, what kind of what's their life like? Are they like how much time did they actually spend as like active living things? I mean, you know, they're always living when they're alive, they're always living things, but you know, sort of life.Roberts:Yeah. So they live for one year, they have one full life cycle and then typically at least the Sierra populations that I work on spend about eight to nine months dormant. So two-thirds to three-quarters of their life, just, yeah. Dormant. There are a couple of populations of these beetles that live on the Mendocino and Sonoma coast. And I think they get a little bit more time because it's just less seasonal there. Well nicer or all year, but yeah, Sierras are pretty cold until they're not, you know, like usually June to like August or something, they're, they're pretty yeah. Trying to fit in, I guess, reproducing and growing and then preparing for winter. Yeah. It's pretty crazy. There's actually one, uh, there's a species of, oh, I'm probably gonna mess this up in some sort of caterpillar, like moth that lives in the Arctic. And I think the specific example I was reading about was in Greenland and it, it takes like seven years for it to become an adult. So it like molts and then spins winter and then comes like comes around again and then maybe molts again. Yeah. So it takes seven years to actually finally get there.Saintsing:And it's like for that caterpillar, I guess it would be like, it would have a time period of like a month or something. Just be a larva. It's a, I dunno know, is there fine grass to eat there?Roberts:Yeah. I mean there's like little shrubby things that they can eat. Yeah. Yeah. So they're probably living well, I guess if it is like a month of growing season, it's, uh, 11 and 12, so it kind of lives in dormant, you know? And then I, I mean most of the terrestrial habitat, well I guess most of the gestural habitat in the, world's not most a big portion of it is in the Northern hemisphere, a pretty high latitude too. I mean like Canada, Russia, these huge landmasses and they get really cold. So a lot of insects just have to deal with this. Um,Saintsing:It's just the reality for a lot of living things that you got to spend a lot of your life, not actually living it.Roberts:Yeah. Or I guess the other strategy of like being able to tolerate winter and what the insects I work on too, a lot of birds just kind of avoid winter and leave. And I guess there's a lot of insects that migrate as well. Right? Like this is just something we're kind of getting an idea of how much they do, but like monarchs are pretty classic example. Right. So you just have to either avoid it or tolerate it or not survive it.Saintsing:So you're, you're generally studying how these insects tolerate the winter. And so is there a kind of like a specific thing that you're studying in that? Like, is there a main question that you're interested in around how these insects are toleranting winter?Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. So I guess most of my dissertation work is really looking at the role that snow plays in how insects survive winter or what stresses they experience over winter, which I kind of alluded to a little bit, there's a lot of variability in snow, in the Sierras and these Beatles, that experience. But, um, yeah, so snow is a really good insulator that can buffer, I guess, everything, but let us know from the really cold air temperatures. So usually temperatures below snow don't really go below freezing much. Yeah, at least soil surface, if there's enough snow. So a lot of insects, a lot of organisms use this space to kind of survive winter, but there's increasing prevalence of drought and decreased winter snow cover in California, at least, or in the Sierras. So they're going to kind of be winters in the future may start to shift a little bit, less snowy and more cold. So as kind of climate or the world in general has increasing mean temperatures. There's actually an increasing cold that insects that rely on snow, but don't have it, but we're going to be experiencing. And there there's really cool paper, I think in 2003, that called it colder soils in a warmer world. Peter Grossman. That is, yeah. I think it's a really interesting like paradoxical thing, climate change. So yeah, I'm interested in like what that looks like across the mountain.Saintsing:So like, um, how it varies as you get higher up the mountain.Roberts:If you just think of a typical mountain or even like a cartoon caricature of a mountain, right. There's always snow at the peak. And then it goes away a little bit as you go down and temperature also changes across the elevation where highest elevations are cold. So kind of this like changing environment where there's increasing snow in colder temperatures as you go up. So the role that snow is going to play in kind of blocking the cold is going to depend on where you are on the mountain. So I'm trying to kind of tease apart what, what that means.Saintsing:So you've been going to the Sierras and kind of like checking out what's going on with these beetles.Roberts:Yeah. Yeah. So I work in the Eastern Sierra is right around Bishop between Bishop and Mammoth and there's populations of these beetles that have been monitored for a long time by, um, a couple of our collaborators, Nathan Rink and Elizabeth Doll Hoff. Yeah. So I have, I actually started working on this system around these beetles when I was in my undergrad since now, quite a while. And I actually started after I took that entomolgoy class that I mentioned earlier, like an yeah. Yeah. I mean, I, so yeah, I grew up in Fresno, which is like, you can see some mountains from it. Most days, you know, we would go up there sometimes like up to Yosemite when people come visit and stuff, but I'd never like gone back back in or gone in to the Eastern Sierra since I started working out there and it was, yeah, it was like experiencing it for the first time when I started doing that. So, uh, in a way it kind of was life changing. And then I guess the science part kind of was life changing as well. Yeah.Saintsing:Have you, uh, have you yourself, like experientially noticed changes in how much snow there's been out there over the time you've been going up to the Sierras?Roberts:Yeah, absolutely. Well, I guess the most obvious one, one or the most obvious change, I guess was 2012 to like 2000, maybe it's 2011 to 2014. There's like the biggest drought in California history. Um, that occurred in the time that I worked up there. So there's like this, this period of long minimal snow cover that occurred. And, um, I think one of the things that is most striking that it's noticed by going to these populations for a decade now is how many of them have just gone locally extinct. And like, there's, I remember my first year out working there, there's a site that we do a lot of like surveys where you just walk around counting needles for, for some time. And it was the first one that I ever, I think I counted like 310 minutes. And then, uh, this is 2009 was the first summer I worked out there and then 2020, there are no beetles at that site anymore. Like almost that entire mountain drainage is completely yeah. It's almost beetle free, which is, yeah. It's crazy to see change over. I mean, that's, that's a while, but like not really. So it has changed quite a bit since I started.Saintsing:Yeah. That's uh, you think, uh, that's step, or do you think that's a, um, kind of a product of like maybe short term variation to see so few beetles? Or do you think that's really like, I don't know, like, are they're not going to be those beetles there anymore?Roberts:Um, I think that this has happened before, maybe not to the same extent where, so they're, they're completely gone in that drainage except for one site, which I think they've constricted about the same amount before, um, in the late eighties, I believe, but, and they, they did come back. So I think as possible, but that's kind of relying on, I guess, something like a normal few normal years for them to be able to recover. And it doesn't seem, I mean, that's one of the biggest changes that have really been happening in the Sierra is, is that it just, it's extreme more often you see just extreme drought or extremely snowy ears. Yeah. So I think they could come back, but it's going to take a good few years of good weather, I guess. Yeah. Hopefully they come back.Saintsing:Okay. Well, so that's kind of a, a bummer, but, um, soRoberts:I'm going with that, but that's kind of why we try to study this stuff too. Right. If it's going to happen, you want to at least try to understand why it's happening so that you maybe, somebody can do something about it in the future or someplace else and yeah. Cause yeah, I mean, understanding what is happening is, is key and trying to help or mitigate it, I guess.Saintsing:So. Right. So then what are you doing to study it, to try to help or to help mitigate, um, what what's like actually doing, uh, experimental work to figure out more about this? Like, yeah. SoRoberts:It's a pretty wide range of stuff. Like part of like part of what I do is collect beetles and then get them to enjoy dormancy and then simulate winter by, or like overwintering for them by burying them. And I, I try to do this or I do this in 2.2 areas, one that keeps snow off of it. Um, so they can like, there's a group of beetles experiencing a no snow winter. And then it is a separate group that is just out in the open. So it gets ambient snowfall. So, um, yeah, part of it is burying beetles alive and then coming back and checking on them. And then I try to do some aspect of like, like you can't do everything in the field. It's just not, it's difficult to get out there, especially when there is no. Um, so I do a lot of like mimicking conditions and lab incubators and like do some that's where I do like cold tolerance acids, which is, um, basically take a beetle, put it in a tube and then put it into a bath of ethylene glycol, some liquid that doesn't freeze until really low temperatures.Roberts:And it will just cool them down. You can kind of like precisely control what temperature they're experiencing. So yeah, that also doesn't yeah. The list of stuff I'm saying no burying beetles freezing beetles.Saintsing:It just sounds, it sounds weird to us because when you say three, a person frees the person that's, you know, it sounds like really bad for the person, but these, yeah. These are, this is part of their lives, right? Yeah,Roberts:Yeah, yeah. So they can, well, they can tolerate most of it. Like, I, I don't, it's not like seeking to, um, expose them to anything they wouldn't do their natural environment, but, um, I'm just trying to understand what events in the natural environment, how that impacts your survival. Yeah. So I, yeah, and not baring humans out there, but, um, and then I, I guess one of the other things that, that I think you and I have a lot of overlap in our interests then is, um, like energetic costs. And I'm really interested in energetic cost of winter. And what changing temperatures will mean because energy use rates in insects is determined, like temperature dependent. So changing temperature means you change, uh, energy use and, and overwintering organisms, can't just get up and just need, they're kind of operating off of like a limited amount of energy. So, um, and a lot of how I study this is by measuring respiration rates of beetles or, and this sounds, I think way cooler than it actually is in process, but like, I think you quantify CO2 production and beetles by using lasers. So sometimes I say like, I measure beetle breathes using lasers, which make this sound like a really cool, um, when really I just kind of inject some gas into a box and yeah. Um,Saintsing:Honestly injecting gas into a box sounds complicated too.Roberts:Okay. It can't be, it take, it took me awhile to figure out exactly how to do it. Right. But, um, yeah. Yeah. And that's, that's a big, big thing of what I've done is spent so long, just measuring respiration rates, which I think you can relate to that as well.Saintsing:Yeah. It's uh, you got, you got animals doing their thing and you got the machine doing, its the thing, you got you doing your thing and you know, occasionally, sometimes everything lines up and you get a good reading.Roberts:Yep. And at least with overwintering organisms, they don't have their own behaviors really. You know, they're kind of just like dormant. So it's, it's easier to work on them than it could be otherwise. Yeah. Which is helpful for a lot of stuff. And also it decreases the animal care you have to do because you kind of want to not disturb them when they're wintering. So yeah. So I guess this is like really like the main, main things of what I've done quantified I guess how much storage limit or in beetles as well, a big one that I've done to cause it, yeah,Saintsing:Because that's kind of what they use. They get, they store a bunch of fat when they're eating in the summer and then they use that during the winter. Yeah.Roberts:Yeah. And I think like you can get a pretty good idea of how much energy is currently being used by using respiration rates, but it really isn't, it's like acute what they're feeling at the moment or what the temperature is that they're in, where I'm looking at weather stores gives you kind of this summary of everything that I've experienced. So yeah, a lot of the work I've done kind of compares and tries to predict how much energy would be used based off of temperature and respiration rates. And then compare that to what we actually see with these lipid measurements.Saintsing:How's how, how have things gone? Have you, uh, found any like really cool results or uh, like w where are you at?Roberts:Yeah. Uh, so I guess the goal of trying to kind of predict what the energetic cost of winter is, goes back to this question of what snow does across elevation, like how it regulates that and regulates yeah. Stress, which in this case it's energy, stress or cold stress. And, um, yeah, so I I've, I've used weather or I guess micro climate data across elevation or Beatles over winter and kind of looked at energy use across elevation. And w what we see is that increasing well, as you go up in elevation and the energetic cost of winter is lower, which is weird because it's longer as well. But I think what a big thing of what people typically haven't thought about when they're thinking about snow cover is that it buffers not only from cold, but from warm as well. And these like spring warm temperatures, temperatures are also depleting energy source, um, before the deals are emerging. So at low elevation, we're having more of that, um, exposure to warmer temperatures. So that's kind of one of like sorta interesting findings.Saintsing:Yeah. And like, uh, oh, sorry. But just about that, you're kind of saying like, the Beatles might be going along well. And like, I got plenty, I got plenty of storage and then all of a sudden the warm weather, um, starts making them just go into overdrive then reserves plummet.Roberts:Yeah, exactly. Yeah. They're, I'm making, I'm so close to the finish line and then potentially that's where all of the cost is. So, um, I mean, just not make it, and I think that this is going to be particularly interesting. Oh. So if there's earlier snow melts and exposure to these warm temperatures, there's still like a spring has a lot of fluctuating, hot and cold too. So they're also been exposed to cold temperatures and warm temperatures. Um, so they get kind of the worst of both worlds with that too. And that is another thing with snow that is happening, I guess this is more like broad pattern, but snow melt is starting earlier and then onset of snowfall and starting later due. So this season just kind of shrinking. Yeah. So, yeah, that's an interesting finding for that reason. And then I, I didn't mention anything about the difference between when snow is, I mean in a snow year versus a dry year, but, um, in snow years, the energetic cost is just overall higher across the elevation.Roberts:So it's kind of what we had predicted. Um, but at high elevations, they seem to be this site where they it's just so similar. There's just always a little bit of snow. And I think this kind of says that, like this may be a good site that is resistant to decreasing still too. So they may be able to move up in elevation if conditions become difficult, otherwise, which is a pattern then we're seeing otherwise inactive seasons, um, a bit more so like ranges of butterflies and see them move up, um, you know, elevation and plants move up in elevation response to increasing warm temperatures, but there may be this benefit in winter as well.Saintsing:So you're going to see more and more things just kind of restricted to the top of the mountain.Roberts:Yep. And at some point you've run out a mountain and you can keep going up too. So there's kind of a limit this why mountains are interesting besides getting to go hike around mountains, um, as a job basically. But yeah, they're, they're interesting because there is so much change over such a short scale, and then they eventually just kind of stopped.Saintsing:Does uh, has doing fieldwork changed how you experience? I dunno, the outdoors when you're not doing field work. Yeah. Yeah.Roberts:Well, I, it's hard to tell, I guess, what is yield work and what it is like biology or being a scientist for me, I guess, um, because the kind of started at the same time basically. And, um, so yeah, like my initial answer was going to be, you know, going someplace, I like will always look on plants or bugs and like, I don't know, just kind of notice the environment, environmental conditions, just weird stuff like that, that I probably wouldn't have if I didn't do field work. And then also didn't study biology as well. So, um, yeah, I mean, I guess it kind of changes the way you see the world in general. Right. But I also don't know what changed from then, but also a lot of stuff has changed since I was pre science. So, um, who knows what's responsible for what?Saintsing:Well, this has been a lot of fun, but I think, uh, we are running out of time on the interview, but yeah. Do you have anything that you want to leave the audience with before we go?Roberts:We're faced with this existential crisis in terms of climate change. Right. And there's a lot of negative emotions, I think that are associated with that. And I, I think it's a, it's easy to get kind of get really far into that. And I guess what I'm trying to get at is is that, Hey, you don't have to be a PhD student to, to notice a bug in the environment or yeah. It's just, um, it all fits together in such a cool way. It's I think it's really important to kind of get out and go experience those environments and things are changing, but they still are how they are now.Saintsing:Yeah. Today I've been speaking to Kevin Roberts from the department of integrative biology. We've talked about his work on beetles and the Sierras and how they survive the winter. Thanks so much for being on the show, Kevin.Roberts:Yeah. Thanks for having me here. It's been great.Saintsing:Tune in, in two weeks for the next episode of the graduate.
3/10/2021

Kailey Ferger

Serrano: Hello, you've tuned in to 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Karen Serrano and this is, The Graduates, an interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work on campus and beyond. I'm joined by Kailey Ferger today from the Center of Computational Biology. Welcome to the show, Kailey!Ferger: Thanks. Thanks for having me.Serrano: Yeah, we are so happy to have you! So Kailey, tell us a little bit about the research you conduct on campus.Ferger: Yeah, so I'm a graduate student at the Center for Computational Biology, like Karen just said. So my work is entirely computational. I don't do any wet lab research. And so what that means for a PhD is essentially like designing pipelines or designing software or doing data analysis with various different programming languages. So at the end of my PhD, I hope to eventually either create some software or design a pipeline that other computational biologists can implement for their own data. And so I guess I'll tell you a little bit about what I specifically do. So I work with human genetics. I look at human genomes from populations across the world. Specifically, I am looking at two kind of different spheres of human populations, the first being modern-day Europeans and Asian populations and the second being South Asian populations and like Native American populations. So for the part where I'm analyzing like Eurasian populations like modern-day, I'm specifically investigating the effects of admixture in those populations. So what that means is essentially many many thousands of years ago humans lived on Earth with other ancient hominids, including neanderthals and denisovan hominids as well as potentially other hominids. Of course, they're extinct now, but there has been a lot of evidence in the past decade probably that humans actually kind of mixed with the Neanderthal population and I guess, like, had children with neanderthals and denisovan populations. And so even today there are still signatures in our own genomes of these archaic hominids, like their genomes in our own genomes. So a large portion of my project focuses on identifying these segments along all of the genomes and kind of characterizing how that like the archaic, you know, genome content that kind of remains in our own genomes has kind of affected the way we evolved and affected how we moved and affected the way that selection acts in our genomes. So I'm characterizing the distribution of archaic genomic segments in the genome and also looking at how natural selection has selected some of the variants that were kind of mixed into our own genomes. So I'm specifically developing a computational method right now that will let us do just that! So essentially, if we're able to identify where these archaic segments are in our genomes, hopefully, once we identify where they are we can also start to look at how natural selection is acting on these segments. So I hope to identify various like genes that are actually Neanderthal origin or denisovan origin and see kind of like when and how these genes have been selected throughout history and in what populations. So kind of what advantages they confer in the population and kind of just further characterizing archaic genomics.Serrano: Great. Wow, that's super cool and interesting and also something I know nothing about. I have a few questions. First of all, how.. how do you obtain this ancient DNA? Do you have samples that you maybe collect from museums or how?? Yeah, how do you basically get these genomes, right?Ferger: So it's cool because we're actually able to leverage modern human data. So basically we're just using.. so there's various models that exist today that are able to infer these tiny little bits of archaic segments in modern human genomes. So most Asian and European human populations still have kind of these signatures across their whole genome of these archaic genomes that at one time were highly prevalent at the time of the admixture event that occurred. So we can kind of leverage all of these different human genetic databases around the world, like for example the Thousand Genomes Project which aims to capture, I think, human genomes from Asia Europe, America, South Asia, and maybe Oceania and then I'm also using a really cool database that actually just came out so a bunch of new sequences from East Asia, North East Asia, Southeast Asia and in areas like that. And so that part I'm actually really excited about because many of these populations have not been studied extensively at all. Because I think sampling in these areas has been really scarce and like a lot of funding has been allocated towards kind of European and Asian populations and a lot of the major universities are located there and a lot of interest has been there especially in things like genomic medicine and things like that. So a lot of other populations like in South Asia, especially have not even been closely looked at so I'm looking at kind of populations from India populations in Southeast Asia and some like Oceanian populations too. So that's kind of going to be like the novel aspect of my analysis and those areas!Serrano: That's really cool. So I'm not a computational biologist. I don't know many things about you know, the programs that you're using. How do you recognize these stretches of ancient DNA in our genomes? Is it like, are you mapping it back to a known ancient DNA sequence or how does that work?Ferger: That's a really great question. So there are several ways to do this and one of them is doing just that! Where essentially you're taking a reference genome from one of the hominid species that we've been able to actually sequence to high coverage just because scientists have been working a really long time at it and have really been careful at preserving the remains that we found and so you could match the segments in a genome back to that reference. But I'm actually using a method that is reference-free and so it involves essentially using what's called a Hidden Markov Model, which is essentially just a kind of machine learning algorithm and it basically just uses, like, it leverages private variation that's found in the genome. So if you can imagine a human genome and an archaic hominid genome, it's going to have a lot more genetic differences across the whole genome compared to like a human population or human individual from a European population compared to like an American individual or something or like a Native American individual. You're just going to have a lot more fixed differences between an archaic genome. And so essentially that algorithm is leveraging a lot of those fixed differences in the population. What I mean by fixed differences, so we all have kind of like that four letter code that defines our whole genome and humans are actually extremely consistent. There really isn't as much variation among populations as you might think but compared to an archaic genome, there's a lot more differences. And so yeah this this algorithm essentially just leverages a lot of those differences and then it basically just uses the idea that if you input a human genome into the algorithm, it basically just scans along the genome and uses kind of a reference human population and then calculates the probability that a certain segment is human or archaic based on how different it is from like a human reference genome or another human individual or something.Serrano: I think I'm following. So basically this algorithm can compare how different two genomes are to each other and if it's more different than two human genomes are to each other, it will assume that it's actually hominid.Ferger: Yes, exactly!Serrano: Okay.Ferger: So yeah, the thing about that is it can't really identify what hominid it is. And that's kind of where my project comes in a little bit more but it can identify that it's probably not human given other genomes that you feed in and the reference genome and things like that.Serrano: So I might ask a silly question because I probably read too much sci-fi. But I've heard that like certain people with more neanderthal DNA have certain personality traits. Is there any like validity to that at all?Ferger:Yeah. I mean, I won't cast anything out of the realm of possibility just because we're discovering more and more about archaic genetics and the truth is that we don't really know. I would say it's probably unlikely. Just because there is only around 2 percent of our genome that is Neanderthal and of course two percent total of our genome is coding. And so the chance that a coding part of our genome will be Neanderthal or Denisovan or some other archaic type is very miniscule. But yeah, we're still doing research and a lot is still unknown. Like we have discovered various genes that are selected that are confirmed to be Neanderthal-derived or Denivosan and we're able to characterize, kind of, the selective event and why it was selected and what advantage it confers in the population and things like that. But yeah, I guess I guess that remains to be seen! Such a funny question.Serrano: Yeah. I don't know. I keep seeing articles, like, I don't know, if you have more Neanderthal DNA, you're like more aggressive or something. I'm sure they're false, but I didn't know if there's actual science behind that.Ferger: Yeah, I think another point to bring up to is that whatever amount of variation that people across the world have in terms of the amount of archaic ancestry is also very small. So it's within the range of a single percentage. So I'd say the populations with the most archaic DNA is like the Oceanian population. So like New Zealand Australia and the Pacific Islands and then across Europe Asia even America, we all have around two percent. Maybe, maybe a little over.Serrano: So we're all pretty similar, right?Ferger: Okay, we're pretty similar on that front. So there isn't going to be an individual you meet that has drastically more archaic DNA and maybe have noticeable effects.Serrano: What kind of genes, or I don't know if you've gotten to this part of the project, but what kind of genes have been conserved from ancient hominids?Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. So, um surprisingly, there's a lot of like immune system functions that have been selected.Serrano: Oh! That's interesting.Ferger: Yeah. Um, so that's, that's one category. Perhaps even more surprisingly, like fertility genes are not selected at all. And that's like actually a surprising result. So there's like a complete desert in the whole all of the sex chromosomes basically of archaic ancestry. And so I think that's kind of interesting. We don't really know what that means. Yeah, but definitely some immune functions have been selected. There's a really cool example actually in the Tibetan population. So there's individuals living on the Tibetan Plateau, which means they live at very high altitude. But genetically they're very similar to Chinese populations in the surrounding area, with one large exception, which is they actually have a gene that was conferred by Denisovans actually in their genomes and this gene allows them to be adapted to high altitudes. So if you ever, if you've ever been kind of at a really high altitude area for a long time, you probably know that you'll start to get altitude sickness or high altitude sickness. So I think your breathing shortens, like your blood doesn't flow as well. And it's just not good for you. You become very ill. But individuals who live in Tibet and at this very high altitude actually have an adaptation where they don't experience hypoxia, which is what you experience when you are really high up for a long time and they basically, luckily, have a mutation on this gene that was conferred from Denisovans where it modifies, I believe, some structure in their red blood cells. So they aren't susceptible to kind of hypoxic conditions. So I think that's a really cool example of a really unique signal that was conserved.Serrano: Yeah, and that was probably, I'm just kind of guessing here, that was probably so conserved in that population because it's so isolated from other populations, right? So they're living up in these mountains and that's kind of like separating them from other poptulations!Ferger: Yeah, yeah exactly. So they don't have a ton of admixture with other populations. And so we were able to characterize this signal really well and that's why it's so well conserved in this population.Serrano: Wow. That's pretty interesting.Ferger: Yeah.Serrano: So besides this project that you're working on, are there any like smaller projects that you're interested in as well?Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. So the main portion of the project I describe was essentially developing this method that scans the genome for selection on like these segments that were conferred to these individuals through gene flow. So once I develop that method and it is tested and works really well in the conditions of like archaic introgression, we're hoping to apply it to various different populations that are relatively understudied and so populations like Native American populations across North and South America as well as a lot of populations in South Asia. Like populations in India and Malaysia and kind of places like that. And so for a lot of these populations, kind of the reason they have been pretty understudied, other than the fact that there hasn't been a ton of kind of like funding for sampling in this area, is because they also are genetically really complicated. Because European and kind of a lot of Asians are relatively homogeneous from a genetic perspective meaning just that their genomes are all pretty similar in their kind of own groups. But in the cases of like South Asian populations and smaller populations, they have kind of signatures of recent like population mixture events. So when populations kind of come together and merge and start to like mix with each other and start to have children and create this admixed population, it makes your genome actually really difficult to study. This is because you basically have this, kind of, if you can imagine, this mosaic of different ancestry blocks across your whole genome and this is because every generation when you reproduce you kind of get this recombination event in your chromosomes. This is really getting in the weeds, but you kind of get these recombination events every generation in your chromosomes, which just kind of breaks up all of these ancestral blocks in your genome and so you end up with kind of this huge mosaic of ancestry. So kind of it models a lot of signals and it makes it really hard to study selection in these populations and to kind of delve in and analyze these populations to the same level as you can with a more homogeneous European population or something is difficult. So kind of the main goal of the method that I'm trying to develop is to try to overcome a lot of the challenges that come with populations being of smaller size or populations that have recently mixed with other populations and just kind of different populations that have more complicated genomes essentially to study. Basically, I don't have to get into the details. But that's the part of the project. I'm really excited about is the fact that once we kind of have this method that's really robust to a lot of these different conditions that make genomes really complicated. We can kind of apply this method across the world and discover some really cool things about populations that have really just never been studied before. This is really relevant to like genomic medicine or gene-association studies and things like that. So a lot of disease associations and medicine based on genomics are based on like European populations, some Asian, but mostly European populations. When you apply a lot of these methods and things that were designed for these populations, they're actually pretty in-applicable to other populations that aren't European and in some cases, they might even be dangerous to implement in populations of non-european origin. So the overarching hope of my project is to kind of open the door to an easier investigation of some of these other worldwide populations that typically haven't really been studied from like a medical perspective either.Serrano: Wow, that's really cool and something that I rarely think about. That's also like an area that isn't really often considered in these studies, the applicability of it across different populations, especially in medicine because I know that there's a lot of diseases that vary depending on your background. And so I think it's really important to have information about the genomes of different populations as well as Eurasian.Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. No, I totally agree. And I honestly think it's pretty surprising that we haven't gotten to that point yet. But you know, we've been doing precision medicine for a very long time and we've kind of been designing various treatments based off of genomic information for a very long time, but it's still you know, the vast majority is just using European-like variance and kind of genotyping data and things like that. But these can vary so widely like you said and so it's really important to kind of have accurate information about the kind of the individual you're treating especially their genetic background in their genetic history.Serrano: Yeah, so that's great. So what made you want to study this in the first place?Ferger: Yeah. So when I was an undergrad, I knew that I kind of fell into the field of computational biology. I kind of went to a seminar about the field and about the major that was offered at my undergrad, the computational biology major, and I kind of just like quickly realized that that was the path for me. It kind of had biology which I loved but it also had this aspect of like like problem solving on the scale of a few hours or days since that you can run an experiment computationally really quickly and kind of problem solve and come up with a new pipeline or solution and it's kind of very fast-paced like that. So I knew kind of that was the field I wanted to pursue and then I took a few courses. One was called Molecular Evolution and it kind of got me into the field of population genetics because it was essentially all of kind of like the underlying math for how we can infer different things about populations using their genomes. So kind of inferring different parameters about populations and kind of different statistics you can use to infer how populations have moved and you know what their size was and how similar two populations are to another one another and it kind of like really just captured my imagination how you can just use a couple of simple mathematical ideas and kind of infer all of these really cool things about populations just using you know information you can gather from a genome, or just from little base pairs or bases, I guess DNA bases. Um, but yeah so that kind of triggered my interest in population genetics. And then I took another course with the same professor about specifically human population genetics and about our history with archaic hominids. And so I kind of really just thought that was a super cool area of research. I didn't know a ton about archaic hominids and it just I think the idea of trying to paint our history back from you know, our our dawn of civilization and the kind of like where we came from and how we've moved throughout time and kind of being able to use genetics to paint this picture of who we are and where we came from and kind of why we are the way we are today. I was looking at various different grad programs and I found my advisor really early on even before I decided to move or even to apply to Berkeley because she specializes in kind of this idea of like human evolutionary genetics. And so I did yeah, I think I reached out to her and I applied to Berkeley and interviewed with her and I was kind of pretty immediately sold on working kind of on problems that she was doing with human evolution and kind of ancient human genetics.Serrano: Yeah, I was about to say it sounds like you had a really clear idea of what you wanted to study and you found someone who studied that exact thing. That's a really really lucky situation!Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. It was kind of.I came to grad school a little open to other avenues just in case that kind of research wasn't all it was cracked up to be. I hadn't really had experience in research doing that particular thing yet. So I shopped around but I ended up just picking that avenue because I really loved it once I tried it.Serrano: That's awesome.Ferger: Yeah.Serrano: Were you involved in any other kind of research as an undergraduate before Berkeley?Ferger: Yeah, it's funny. I actually I did three years of research on snails.Serrano: Oh that's so cute!Ferger: Yeah. Yeah so our lab was like a Marine Lab and we did snail genetics.Serrano: So wow, very different from humans.Ferger: But yeah, so I was the computational biologist of the lab. I was essentially the only one running like computational analyses, but I joined that lab for that very purpose because I wanted some experience doing computational stuff in a research setting and so I basically was running a lot of genetic analyses on the DNA of snails and specifically looking at gene expression during different stages of snail development and we don't have to get to into this.Serrano: No, but I'm kind of interested! What are the stages of snail development?Ferger: Yeah. There's.. I think I should know this better, but I think there's like five or six different distinct developmental stages of the snail. We were looking at really specific stages and so I was looking at kind of the patterns of gene expression throughout their development. So it's actually interesting because like mollusk organisms, like a lot of snail organisms and spiral organisms, have a really set and distinct pattern of how they develop with respect to what genes are expressed during that development. And so we were looking in our organism to kind of look to see how the expression patterns compared to like this very well-known kind of theory of development for others by spiralians and we found very contradictory evidence of kind of the expression patterns of our little snail. So that was kind of a cool project because I got to take the lead on some of the computational analyses and it was kind of cool because we found some contradictory evidence to a theory that we I guess other evolutionary biologist kind of thought was... what's the word for...Serrano: Standard?Ferger: Yeah, very standard scenarios.Serrano: Yeah. That's the thing I love about research. You can apply the same method to study like human populations or a very specific kind of snail.Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty much just a genomic analysis so a lot of the tools work the same way. So yeah, it's definitely really cool.Serrano: What about your plans for the future? What do you want to do after you graduate?Ferger: Yeah. So our program, my program specifically, is actually pretty new. I think we only have... I think we have under 10 graduates so far and most of them have actually gone on into like Biotech Industry, which is I think where I also will end up. I've never really envisioned like leading a lab myself and I kind of really like the flexibility of an industry position and, kind of, in terms of geography and what I might be doing and kind of like as as well as like the stability that comes with just, you know, working at a company and getting paid the same amount instead of having to always apply for grants and kind of having that that uncertainty aspect where you would if you were a professor. But I haven't really narrowed it down as far as kind of what type of biotech. I think maybe I will end up doing some sort of like genetics-based biotech company. So think like 23andMe or Ancestry. Actually, several of the graduates of the program have gon onto both of those companies and they're working kind of in the R&D Realms of those companies. But I haven't given it a ton of thought other than I know I'm pretty industry oriented already.Serrano: Nice. Well, so you have a lot of time.Ferger: Yeah. I think, I think eventually I'll probably intern somewhere to kind of solidify what type of research I want to end up doing and then kind of decide from there, but it's pretty open-ended as far as kind of what I want right now.Serrano: Nice. I'm glad that you brought up those kind of companies like 23andMe because I had a question earlier that I forgot to ask. So whenever you sign up, you know to get your genome sequenced by those companies... could that information then be used with the project that you're developing?Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. I mean technically yes.Serrano: Um, I'm sure there's a bunch of privacy laws...Ferger: Yes. Yes, and also I believe that 23andMe and ancestry doesn't sequence the entire genome. They just genotype because sequencing is really expensive. And so I think they just narrowed down to kind of like gene-rich areas of the genome and just do like a genotyping array kind of thing. So, I mean a lot of the principles still apply where you can kind of compare genotype arrays between individuals and kind of compared to a reference which is essentially what they do. So they have you know, a standard they compare your genome to like all of the quote "European" genomes that they have in their database and like all of their other clients. So they're able to kind of infer all of these different things about like what your variants say about your ancestry in a certain area of your chromosome or whatever. So, I think yeah a lot of the a lot of the principles carryover, of course, there's a ton of privacy things going on with that but I think once you're in 23andMe, yeah, a lot of that stuff is definitely possible even with just you know, genotype arrays.Serrano: Yeah. This might bea little bit of a tangent but I know there's a new kind of sequencing company that can basically take your genome and then build a picture of what it predicts you to look like.Ferger: Oh, yeah. I think I actually have heard of that!Serrano: Yeah, they used it to identify the Golden State Killer! I guess one of his family members had submitted their DNA and like they were like able to compare it to old samples or something.Ferger: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know a ton about typically the cases where you can project kind of different phenotypes from genomes. I will say I think some of that is still like... I think accurate predictions for some physical attributes is still kind of a long ways away just because we're learning more and more about just how much your environment affects how you look and your different phenotypes and kind of your susceptibility to different diseases and all like a whole host of different phenotypic things. It could be possible. But I think right now maybe we're still a bit a bit a ways away from that.Serrano: Right, from getting like a perfect snapshot of what you look like!Serrano: Our time is actually coming to a close. Kailey, it has been so great to have you on here! Is there anything that you would like to leave the audience with?Ferger: I think I'll just say if you ever get the chance to, you know, do one of these private ancestry tests you should absolutely do it. I did one for myself and it's actually really interesting and you might find some things you didn't know about your own past. So I'd really, I'd really recommend it and it's kind of a really cool way to just learn about your heritage and kind of use the genetics that maybe someday I'll contribute to!Serrano: Yeah, I'll definitely have to try out one of those myself because I haven't done one yet! All right. Well, thanks so much Kailey!Ferger: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me!
2/16/2021

Jane Henderson

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Jane Henderson from the Department of Geography. Welcome to the show, Jane.Jane Henderson: Him thanks for having me, Andrew.Saintsing: So great to have you here. I'm really excited to have you here because I've never had anybody from the Department of Geography, and I really want to know more about geography. Do you just like know all the state capitals and like you can put them all on a map?Henderson: It's… I think you could appreciate this as a graduate student that we often explain what we do as kind of completely different from what we actually do when people ask us. So, sometimes I will say like, “Yeah, I just studied capitals.” Kind of ironically, I would say many geographers don't actually have a good sense of what most people think of as geography, like capitals, where to place countries on a map, and things like that. Which is kind of the funny part of our discipline. But it is… that is part of it and part of how you would teach that to younger students (especially like the K through 12 level). But it's also a lot broader than being able to sort of memorize and or locate places and countries on a map.Saintsing: Right. That's kind of like the foundation, right? I guess like being able to localize things in space. It's kind of like you need to have that in order to get to actually what you're really interested in in research in terms of geography?Henderson: In geography, I would say a core tenant especially when we study it at the university level and the PhD level is to always question and pay attention to power and political relationships that create space. To not take space and spatial locations for granted. But actually, to question the power and the development of space over time or throughout time. So, geography is not just memorizing and taking a state capital as is.Saintsing: In general, you know, we use maps because they're helpful, right? And so, like a lot of us are just assuming we just look at a map, and we're like, “This is the way the world looks.” But you're kind of interested in how that map came to be our representation of the way the world works and potentially like what are the reasons it could be different or the problems with the way it is represented on the map?Henderson: Correct. That's I think a big piece of geography and a good entry point into questioning how space is developed. Because it's often developed unevenly which is another concept that we look a lot at in geography. Why is it that we have separations between urban space and rural space? And why is it that the economies of urban spaces are different than rural spaces? How did those things develop? And how did investment in one also lead to disinvestment in the other? And what is the relationship between that across space? So, to your point, like say you were to pull out your Google Maps app on your phone and ask for directions to a certain location. There are some locations that Google doesn't offer you directions to, for example, because those locations may be for one reason or another invisible (in the sense that either people in power have made it so you can't locate them as a site of resistance, or people who have less power, marginalized peoples whose geography knowledge is also often overlooked, may also be invisiblized by some of these things). But we tend to take Google Maps as fact or as like a hard truth that this is how a city or a landscape or the planet essentially is laid out. And in geography we're just always questioning that, questioning these things like land, like space, like cities even, that seem to just be as opposed to processes that are made or spaces that are made.Saintsing: Okay, so there are locations, right? Like absent of human ideas about these locations. They're just like physical… The world is physically there, but then you're saying humans situate themselves and say what each place is. And so, when you say you can't get to that place on Google Maps, you're saying that maybe Google Maps tells you a place in this location that doesn't match another person's understanding of that location?Henderson: Essentially, yeah. So, the second part that you're saying, yes. You're correct that like people, places are imbued with meaning that we provide. And meaning is contested. It is given. It's like giving value to something, and just like any social relation or social process, that meaning, and that value given to a place necessarily has all of the other things that come with social relation: like difference, power inequality. I'll end there for that section. I want to address the first part because that does get into some of like the deep like, “Is there space?” Like that it just is without people giving it meaning. That's some of the like philosophy of geography, and there are… I could give listeners a recommendation to check out Henri Lefebvre if they… That's spelled H-E-N-R-I L-E-F-E-B-V-R-E if folks are interested in that. Because there is lively debate in geography. Just as we might think about time in different ways (like you can think about it linearly, circularly, and in all sorts of different ways), you can also think about space differently. It's not, what we call it in geography, like an empty vessel or an empty container upon which things just happen. But the very process of time passing is that things happen to create space as well. So, there… But there's different camps. Like some people disagree about how that happens. Like if there's something like absolute space or not.Saintsing: So, which camp do you fall into, would you say?Henderson: Okay, so I tend to agree with Lefebvre, which is the person I just referenced. In this textwhich takes like somewhat of a… It questions this very idea that I've also been trying to explain so far which is that we take space for granted as sort of the container or the cup that everything else happens in. So, racism just happens in space, but space is neutral. Historical events happen through time, but the place where they're happening is just – it just is. It's just neutral. And what Lefebvre does is say, “No, no, no. We're taking this for granted. We're not actually looking at how space and time are connected and how they're made together. How space is actually produced.” Yeah, I tend to agree with that because it makes a lot of sense when we're thinking about other geographic or like geopolitical forms that we take for granted. Something like the US-Mexico border for example. We just take for granted and assume that there is this line drawn in the sand, basically, that will delineate where one country's power ends and where another one’s begins. Another one, another country's power begins. But when you really look at it, there's all sorts of contestations along borders. There's power that extends beyond a border line, for example. There are a lot of different life forms, for example, certain types of migratory birds or monarch butterflies, things like that that wouldn't… that don't understand space in the same way that we as humans would understand it. Such that a border like the US-Mexico border doesn't really mean a lot unless there's a giant fence that prevents them from flying over to migrate, for example. So, I had set up this to say that that was like an example of that: space isn't just neutral. It's also contested the same way that time is, the same way that things we may know about science is contested, the same way that other kinds of politics are constantly being debated and kind of battled out in a political arena. We just tend to assume that space is the arena that everything happens on, but we don't tend to ask questions like: Who built this arena? Why do we use an arena at all? Where did the materials come from to create the arena that we're now battling out our political ideas on? And so, in geography we ask questions about that.Saintsing: I guess in science, you know, like we're limited by our questions and our understanding. And I guess we're striving towards something, though, that is universal maybe, you know. At least we try to like move towards that truth that isn't necessarily hinging on what questions we're asking, but like the actual fundamental principles. Like in physics, we're trying to find like the laws that hold the universe together. And I guess in geography, are you… Yeah, I guess you're basically, though, studying how humans occupy space, which can never… which doesn't… wouldn't ever really get you to a fundamental place, right? Because like you're not ultimately just trying to get to like, “This is where a mountain range is.” Like that's… that would be something that you could… that everyone could say like, “Yes, this mountain range occurs here.” But like it's what that mountain range means to the people around it and that live in it and that travel through it.Henderson: Yeah, I think this can get us into like a distinction that we have in geography between physical geography and human geography which… There is a lot more overlap and our department at Berkeley has graduate students and faculty in both camps. (Not every geography program is like that.) But the easiest way to define that division is that physical geography is a physical science, hard science. And then human geography is a social science more akin to anthropology and/or some humanities even. So, the way that you described it is that people in physical geography may, yes, look at mountain ranges or river patterns, watershed flows from that mountain range, and tell us sort of data about perhaps the sediment in the water or how to use these different watersheds in order to fight wildfires or things like that. And also there's a lot of like climate change science that happens in geography. And then what I do is on the human geography side. So, it is more of a social science. Which is to ask about, yes, like not only our human relationship or like people's relationship to this mountain range and (like in your example), but also to think… to read against and with the very scientists who are coming up with universal truths about this mountain range. Because what I think is really important in our field is basically acknowledging that even the things that we find to be universal truths are still using a particular framework of viewing the world. One that's couched in like the scientific method, for example, as like a way of knowing. But there are many other ways of knowing, and knowledge isn't like a capital K knowledge, and there's only one. But there might be knowledges or things like that that would help us understand the world around us. What I think human geography and where the social science side of geography can offer is just the reminders that even in science we take a lot of things for granted as being quote unquote “natural.” Human geography is… destabilizes that a little bit or a lot a bit, I guess. So, yeah. But I'm definitely on the human geography side. So, I would say I'm more akin… my methods, my research is like… is couched mostly within African American studies or Black studies, history, anthropology. The methods I use aren't quantitative methods typically.Saintsing: This has been very interesting stuff.Henderson: Oh, great. Okay.Saintsing: All of like the philosophy of geography and all of that. But it would be… We are moving through the time we have for the interview, so it would be really cool to know a little bit more about like actually what you are studying, you know, using these research approaches that you've discussed. So, like what kind of is your… the area of your research for your dissertation?Henderson: Yeah, my research site is in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, which is where I grew up. And I've kind of taken a winding route to get back here. Mostly or sort of broadly, my research is on Black experiences in Minnesota. And that stems from my own experience as a Black Minnesotan and my family's experiences as Black Minnesotans. But also, the kind of surprise around Blackness in Minnesota, which is to say that people don't expect there to be Black people in Minnesota or in a place in the Midwest or so far north or things like that. Why is it that some places are more intimately tied with the Black experience than others? And so, that to me is a really geographic question because it's asking us about the process of how place gets made and how people come to understand that place. So, Minnesota is a state that is understood to be a white place and pretty much exclusively a white place. Blackness is often not only invisibilized, but as Black people we have to constantly mediate our knowledge of this place against the sort of common perceptions (or a word that we use is imaginary) of Minnesota as a kind of nice liberal white state. So, I would say that's the basis of my work. And then, in order to get at some of these questions, I'm trying to put forth an intervention, which is in the field of Black geographies, which is where I'm kind of situated. My work is to think about geographies, Black geographies beyond the plantation. And what other geographic locations and sites, but also like words like other than the plantation we can use to understand Black experience of space. So, for me in Minnesota, this looks like: if I were to bring up to just general Minnesotans that there is racism in Minnesota, they might answer me by saying, “No, there isn't. Minnesota was one of the first states to give Black people – Black men the right to vote prior to any amendments in the federal constitution. And we didn't have slavery because we didn't have plantations in the North. So, therefore we don't have racism in Minnesota.” It's kind of like how the saying goes. And so, the plantation itself as like a place, like a geography just does not fit anywhere in Minnesotan's minds. It's like, “That is an elsewhere. That happens in the South. That doesn't happen here.” And it makes it really hard then to have a discussion about like anti-Black racism and or racism in general in Minnesota because the core geography, like the core site that we often use to explain racism, is the plantation. But what does that… what does that do if you don't… if people have no reference point to the plantation at all? There has to be other ways to explain the experience of Black people in a place. What my research does is try to think about other geographic forms. So, my research looks at the frontier because that does have a lot of purchase here in Minnesota as like how… like how to play… how do Black people understand themselves as like frontiers people? As opposed to like people tied to the plantation. And I'm hoping (because I'm not that far in my research yet) will be another way of just getting to this kind of Black way of knowing place and knowing our environment. Which is… tends to be different than sort of geographic knowledge that is taken as natural.Saintsing: So, you brought up like talking about the Black experience in relation to a plantation. Are you using it kind of like as a historical basis of rooting the black experience? Like where the Black experience originates? Is that kind of the idea with using that term?Henderson: The plantation?Saintsing: Yeah, yeah. The term the plantation. Specifically in the context of your… of like what you were discussing with your research.Henderson: The plantation is both like a historical site. Like you could go on a plantation tour in parts of the US South or things like that. But it's also a description of like a geography, meaning a place that can travel. And it travels because the way it organizes space might be similar. The kinds of logics that are developed or the kind of knowledge that's developed may be similar. And that's how it would travel.Saintsing; So, it's this kind of way in which people are interacting with each other. And like that's kind of like what's traveling. But then, that's interesting that… when you were talking about how white Minnesotans can say like, “Oh, there aren't plantations here.” So, I guess, yeah. Like the idea in geography that you can… that spaces replicate and like that something that occurs physically in one space can then like metastasize and like affect people in other places is a good… it's like a good way to describe something. But then, on the other side people who are looking to avoid grappling with this complex and harsh reality can then turn that around and say, “Okay, you're talking about this space, but it's somewhere else. And so, I can like physically locate this issue that I don't want to deal with in a completely other place. And then, I can say it doesn't happen. I don't have any part in it because I don't belong to that space.” So, that's very interesting.Henderson: And that is another key key site that geographers look at. Are the connections and the flow of resources (money, actual materials) through these spaces that people don't think of as being connected at all. And this happens every day. Like all the time we think about that something that is happening to us, a way that we are experiencing space in a city like in Berkeley has nothing to do with what people in Oklahoma City or in rural Oklahoma are experiencing. That there is no connection. But what we often times can uncover is that there are real connections between these places that don't only have to do with people moving from one place to another necessarily but all sorts of other ties and kinds of interconnectedness between spaces. So, you're right in seeing this as kind of a… it's both a helpful way of thinking about the Black experience as like plantation travels, but then it also… there's this kind of catch-22, which is people can skirt responsibility because that geography doesn't resonate with their lived experience or even their history. Like not even their lived experience but the history of the place that they live in. The kind of important thing for me to do is to try to understand what geographies do resonate with people here, and like how Black people both in history and in the present navigate that understanding of space. We have a lot of research on how Black people have resisted the plantation, how Black people have resisted and lived through the violence of the historical plantation and also the ways that the plantation has traveled. We don't have as much research on other geographies and how black people live through, in, and through those places as well. So, that's really what my work is trying to do.Saintsing: So, you're trying to root the Black experience in Minnesota without using this terminology of the plantation. You talked about frontier. You're trying to say like how we can root our understanding of the Black experience in Minnesota in this idea of frontier? And with the ultimate goal to then like have this framework that people can, I guess… Is the idea to better communicate to the Black experience outside of the Black community to the wider community? Or to kind of have a framework to talk within the Black community? Or both?Henderson: Yeah, I would say, perhaps prematurely, the hope would be for both. But another key part of my research that I have not yet talked to you about is that the main point of my intervention is to try and think about Black and Indigenous geographies together. And oftentimes discussions of the plantation and slavery alongside things like Indigenous genocide and dispossession of land, they don't always come together neatly in terms of a conversation both in academia and in sort of activist spaces. But what I have noticed so far in Minneapolis is that there is a lot of attention on Indigenous dispossession, Indigenous geographies, and Indigenous knowledge here that I have not always experienced in other places that, I mean, that I've lived and that I've researched. And so, my hope is that with thinking about other places that Black people live that might not have the plantation kind of hanging over us that we might come to better understandings and relationships with Indigenous peoples, as Black people with Indigenous peoples. So, in Minnesota that would be like the Dakota, Ojibwe peoples. And that just gives us a totally new way of understanding space. A new way of understanding geography and a new set of values around who matters in these places that I think, if we can get outside of some of the plantation and the really terrible violence of the plantation, we can think about how to be together differently. So, it is both for like white Minnesotans to be able to like understand their… like how they're implicated in racism. Because I'm not using the plantation. I'm using something that has… that resonates to white Minnesotans. But it's also more than that. It's more than like humanizing Black people for white people. My project is also trying to think more broadly about Black claims to land, how we interact with land, and how we do that with respect to the original inhabitants of this land. Indigenous Dakota people.Saintsing: This has been really interesting, but we're running out of time on the interview. Usually at the end of the interview we give our guests a chance to address the audience on any matter that they'd like to bring up or re-emphasize. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Henderson: Yes. Hello, audience, all the listeners. It's been really great to talk with you, Andrew, about my work, and I would definitely encourage any listeners who are interested in geography to not only check out our department website at UC Berkeley, but also to think about your own neighborhoods, the places that you tend to go to. And even now during COVID to take a really close look at the spaces that you're in and try and think about like how they came to be that way. And look at those things with a critical eye. Like, “Why does the street that you lived on have this certain name? Or why is the school, the elementary school down the block, named after a certain person?” And I'd also encourage everybody to look up the (whichever place you might be), to look up whose Indigenous homelands you're on and how you might be able to ensure that Indigenous sovereignty is an active practice in your own work. And when you talk about like where you're from, there's a lot of resources on that. So, you could also email me for those if you have trouble.Saintsing: Thanks so much, Jane. Yeah, so if you're interested in getting in touch with Jane… And remember: we're speaking to Jane Henderson from the Department of Geography, and you can find her email on that website. Again, thank you so much for being on the show.Henderson: Yeah, thanks for having me. This was awesome.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
2/2/2021

Mohamad Jarada

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology. Welcome to the show, Mohamad.Mohamad Jarada: Hey, hey. How are you? How's it going? Thanks for having me.Saintsing: It's great. I'm so glad you're here. How are you doing?Jarada: I'm doing well. Beautiful day in Berkeley today.Saintsing: Yeah, weirdly unseasonably warm when we're interviewing this in January – doing this interview in January.Jarada: Yeah.Saintsing: So, I'm so glad to have you on here. I don't think I've had anyone from the Department of Anthropology, yet. And so, I'm really interested to hear more about your research. I'm also really interested to hear about your research because I saw that you do a lot of it in North Carolina, which is where I'm from. Could you just kind of introduce us a little bit to what you're doing? What your research is?Jarada: Yeah, sure. So, my research essentially takes civil rights as its focal point, but it does so by expanding our understanding historically and in the contemporary about how civil rights is practiced within local communities and how civil rights gets shaped within legal, political, and social discourses throughout post-Reconstruction United States of America. So, what I try to do in my research is look at certain communities certain, racialized communities, in particular communities who are criminalized, to see how they have used and construed the concept of civil rights and how that has been developed historically since again the late 19th century up until the present. And I do this in particular by trying to look at certain security documents because what I'm trying to do with the civil rights focal point is expand our understanding of civil rights beyond questions of voting political participation, etc., etc. And to think about how communities could protect themselves and defend themselves against things like hate violence and austere surveillance from the government or something of that sort.Saintsing: Wow, so your research is very relevant right now, right? It's… you're getting a lot of news stories that could probably be something you could look at for your research?Jarada: Absolutely, yeah. I mean right now civil rights is certainly a hot topic to discuss. I think it's sometimes, it's over-determined and misplaced about where it could be talked about or addressed publicly.Saintsing: What do you mean by over-determined?Jarada: I think that sometimes when we talk about racial struggles in the United States or communities who are criminalized by law enforcement agencies, oftentimes civil rights gets tokenized as the only resource or only form of recourse that these communities can seek. I think that it's important for me in my dissertation and in my research is to kind of delimit that space of what civil rights can do for these communities and the limits of what it can do for these communities as well.Saintsing: Sorry, but can you just say what you mean specifically by civil rights then?Jarada: Yeah, so the way I understand civil rights and the way I construe it as a, both as a historical concept and as a legal concept in my dissertation is something that is particularly referring to certain legal entitlements that are, that is offered by the state or by the federal government or by, depending on the time or era you're speaking about, by state government. And so, when I say civil rights I say the particular legal entitlement that a citizen, or a non-citizen for that matter, is given by the state generally and historically speaking. And this is where it gets kind of confusing or complex. It's differentiated especially by the Supreme Court by two different kinds of rights. So, there’s civil, there’s social, and there's political rights. And so, often times the Supreme Court, at least in the post-Reconstruction era, they differentiated these three different kinds of rights in order to address how they should matriculate formerly enslaved people into the national citizenry. So, the goal of civil rights is to ensure those legal entities and legal entitlements that are essential to being a citizen or living in the United States.Saintsing: Okay, and so you're saying that maybe the other rights that you talked about are not as emphasized and could be more important to the discussions that we're having in racial justice and social justice issues?Jarada: Precisely. So I mean these are discussions that are happening within political activists, social activist communities, where civil rights is often not really a significant part. Or it is a significant part, but the problem with civil rights is the legal regiment in order to get some kind of redress or get some kind of cure for a political, social, or legal injury. So, for example, if a civil rights of mine is transgressed, in order for me to get that remedied I would have to go through a large and extensive legal process that is a headache. And so, there are these other kinds of rights, particularly social, political. There are things like economic rights, too, that people are considering on the local level as well, to think about different ways or different forms of recourse that these communities could find in times of need or in times of vulnerability.Saintsing: Okay, and so civil rights we're saying we have to go through legal channels to address injustices or to make sure that people have these civil rights. But these other rights, political, economic, social rights, these are things that are addressed outside of court systems?Jarada: Well, no, they're… So, they are outside of court systems in the sense that they could be used or addressed or spoken about outside of legal processes and court systems, precisely. But they're highly defined by and created and constructed out of the Supreme Court essentially because… or legal debates that were happening, or presidential debates. So, part of my research is looking at this really funny early debate between this guy named Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. So, before Abraham Lincoln was the President of the United States, he was running for the Senator in Illinois. And he ran up against this kind of robust racist Stephen Douglas who truly believed in the institution of slavery. And so, it's in these debates (these are really famous debates) where the idea of social, political equality and rights somehow gets differentiated from legal, civil equality, rights, and entitlements. And it's so… they're constructed within these legal these legal arguments, these political debates, the court system. But they are… they have a more expansive capacity, or they're more expansive in the sense that communities can use them or address them or speak about them in a way that isn't limited by the courts per se. Okay, it is confusing. It definitely is. But it's both confusing, ambivalent, and unstable, and for all those reasons it makes political and social rights all the more contested and gives them potential to be used for these social justice or political justice initiatives.Saintsing: Okay, so you research specific case studies around this. So, could you kind of walk us through like a specific example that could help illustrate you know the intersections of these rights and how communities use different rights to address different issues/Jarada: Sure, so the community that I work in particularly is in North Carolina, and I've done research across the South. I've tried to do stuff in Virginia and Tennessee, but I chose North Carolina just because it was a pragmatic decision that I made. And it's kind of high… it's been highlighted within public channels especially within the communities I work with (which are particularly Muslim communities) because there was a kind of a brutal murder of these three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina by this guy named Craig Hicks. And so, after this kind of tragic situation where these three Muslims, you know, Yusor, Deah, and Razan (that's what their names were) were murdered, the question about how to protect the community and what resources to use in this community to protect them was, you know, kind of got, kind of exploded. It's like, “how can these Muslim Americans protect themselves both from the fact that they're being surveilled by the government and at the same time being, you know, hurt, murdered, assaulted, vandalism on their on their religious basis, etc. And so, what I do with this community, or what I examine in particular this community is the kind of language they use, and the kind of resources they use. And essentially to get to the nitty-gritty and to reduce it to one element it goes back all the way to the question about civil rights and how they're differentiated from things like political and social rights. And so, for example, this community wants to protect themselves from, let's say, the possibility of their space being vandalized. So, what do they do? Some communities find recourse in law enforcement. So, some communities, say in Raleigh, North Carolina, are engaging with federal and state law enforcement, particularly the FBI and local police departments in order to protect themselves. And the language that they're using is civil rights, but on the side of things they're talking about how they could actually protect themselves socially and politically (precisely because the state or the federal government hasn't done their job) in order to protect themselves. Or those civil entitlements that they're given isn't sufficient to take care of themselves. So, how do they wield this concept of political, social rights is what I try to look at and what my conclusion essentially (or one of my conclusions is) that political and social rights get used to secure these communities. And it gives them impetus or motivation to take seriously their security. Like quite literally. So, they buy CCTV cameras. They go through the process of getting a license, a permit to carry a handgun. They are highly aware of their spatial awareness, and they take part in social initiatives to mend relationships between themselves and other communities. Or they take on political initiatives to make sure that people are voting for whoever they desire to vote for. In a place like North Carolina, which is a is a heavy purple state you know. North Carolina, when Trump won for the first time, he won by 0.5 percent. And so, it's these initiatives that they're focusing on. These social initiatives and these political initiatives that focus on their security, right? The focus on the security, not only of the physical livelihood, but the security of the religious practice that is outside of this boundary or this limited space of what we know as civil rights.Saintsing: Okay, right. So, you're going through the materials that these groups, like Muslim American groups in North Carolina are putting out, both in like legal documents and just in materials that (maybe like pamphlets they're handing out or like materials they're using to communicate with other groups or within their own group) and you're just kind of seeing the language they use and seeing the strategies they use?Jarada: Precisely, yeah. I mean, you're a great listener. I mean that is exactly what they're doing there. That's exactly what I'm doing as a researcher to kind of hone in on those like little sensibilities, those strategies, those relationships that they create that can't be reduced to simple civil rights or civic participation. There's something far deeper, and there's a deeper motivation, and there's a bigger stake at hand when we think about political and social justice in the United States for racialized and criminalized communities like Muslim Americans. The majority of Muslim Americans I worked with were either brown or are Black Muslims. And so, this was a heavy topic at hand that constantly got discussed in a lot of the meetings and interviews I had with my interlocutors.Saintsing: So, I saw also that you kind of look at things from a historical perspective. So, what were… was there like a big change (you mentioned the specific event in Chapel Hill) was there like actually really a big change in the way the Muslim community in North Carolina started interacting with other groups and started looking at themselves? Like what were, what were kind of… how did they view themselves before the incident? And what were really the changes we saw afterwards?Jarada: Great question. So, I mean… should… can I address the historical part?Saintsing: Yeah, definitely.Jarada: So, historically… I try to historically (again I said I look at Supreme Court cases and see how civil rights gets construed, but) I'm also attentive to the fact that, you know, North Carolina is a Southern state. And so, as a Southern state, we know that racism and racialization functions in pervasively… it's a huge part of a state like North Carolina. The first thing I remember when I got to North Carolina, and I first went when I was in… 2017. In the summer of 2017, I went to Durham. I got to Durham. I went on the bus, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone on the bus was a Black person and everyone near the bus station, which is near downtown Durham right next to Duke was white. And so, from the outset you could tell that there's these… there are these forms of racism or racialization or segregation that was just inherent to this part of the country. And so, the historical part both looks at, you know, Supreme Court cases (reading those cases trying to figure out how civil rights and social rights and political rights were construed). But the other part is being attentive to these kinds of ghostly specters that still reside and still have vestiges in a place like the American South. And so, I try to attend to that part as well in my research. But in terms of what had happened after the community had dealt with this big blow, this tragedy of these Muslims being murdered, there was a drastic change. I mean that event was a national event, not only for the Muslims in North Carolina. At that time, I was in Boston. I was doing my master’s degree at Boston in Harvard. And students across the campus were worried. They were scared. They felt a sense of anxiety about whether or not they were being protected. And this is in Boston. And so, in North Carolina, where this had happened, (and all of my interlocutors the majority of which always point to this event as a threshold) security became the essential issue in this community about how to protect themselves. And the way they did it was they created relationships with law enforcement, and they try to amend relationships with their particularly Christian neighbors and Jewish neighbors as well. And so, you see like a wave a wave of like civic, political, and social activism that's happening from the generation that grew up after 2015 when this event happened. And so, there were a lot of drastic changes after that event.Saintsing: And this was nationally. Like Muslim Americans in general. This is a huge event, and it's shaped across the country not just North Carolina.Jarada: Absolutely, and I can only speak about the effects that have happened in places that I've lived (so North Carolina, Boston, and California now) where I've seen communities take this question about security far more seriously than ever before. And that event was only one of a series of events that happened, like the Dylan Roof shootings in South Carolina at a Methodist church also was impetus. The Christchurch shootings in Australia were also an event that happened. And so, that event in particular focusing on Muslims in the United States pretty much changed a lot of the things in a lot of the ways that Muslims and mosques and the wider community thought about themselves and how they arranged their communal makeup and their spatial makeup. Yeah.Saintsing: Right, yeah, you brought up a bunch of different attacks on different denominations, different faiths and then there was also the Tree of Life massacre. Yeah. Is this, you know, thinking historically, is this an exceptional moment that all of these attacks are happening in these places of worship or on people specifically for their faith?Jarada: Yeah, I mean it's really hard to tell just because I mean historically, you know, speaking of Black churches, Black churches have been arsoned or been used as a as a tool by the KKK in particular or other white supremacy and hate groups to be to be arsoned or vandalized to foster fear and anxiety within Black communities for a very long time. Albeit these things aren't reported or documented because when you burn something it's, you know, it just disappears, or we don't have those or at least I don't have the resources to know historically about how these things have happened within the United States. But I can say that in the past two decades… I could say this. I could say that the events that have occurred within religious spaces like murders, stabbings, shootings have had a kind of singular response that has been significant. It's a significant change in religious communities in the United States, I think, where these communities are now fully taking security into their own hands. They're soliciting not only the help of law enforcement, but (I mean we could call them mercenaries) like private security firms who take care of religious communities. There are now, I know of two security firms that are particularly focused on religious communities. And they have a kind of like Christian Biblical motivation, you know. And so, I know that in the past two decades those events related to religious spaces have taken on this question of security far more seriously. So, it's interesting, you know, as a Muslim myself, when I'm in a mosque and you see a man with a handgun, that's something new. That isn't something that I was always privy to or aware of or I had to care for growing up as a young Muslim in California. So, yeah.Saintsing: It's so interesting to think about. You know, obviously this danger in public spaces in general is problematic and scary. But I guess in particular thinking about religious sites, you know churches, mosques, synagogues, temples… the fact that people have to worry about this and have to think about security when these spaces are supposed to be these welcoming spaces in general, you know. This is like a place where theoretically everyone could just come in and you know be welcome to worship. So, do you have any… has your research shown you anything about the way that, you know, these new security… thoughts about security and movement towards increasingly secure spaces has altered that aspect of places of worship?Jarada: Wonderful question. I mean you're asking a really great question, Andrew. I really appreciate this. Yeah, so this is an essential question that I'm trying to ask in my research about how is it possible that these traditions, right? These are religious traditions, like Islam, Christianity, Judaism, that's really kind of honing in on the question of neighborliness or being a neighbor with someone or helping someone out or being hospitable to people and attending to the poor, you know. And creating these virtues within a community, right? Things like charity, things like service. How do they do that given this fact that now mosques are (they quite literally… this one mosque in particular the Islamic Association of Raleigh has built a, you know… fortified their entire space with a wall, with a gate). And so, it's interesting to ask you know how the hell is someone going to know whether or not to come into space or feel welcomed into space if there's a wall blocking them from this and if they're not already part of the community. And so, the conclusion I've come to or from the interviews I've had and the people I've spoken to, it's really interesting. They believe that (and I would agree with them that) the construction of these walls, which creates a space or creates a division between oneself and one’s community and another community outside, is actually the condition for hospitality. It's the condition for a healthy relationship to one’s social world outside of themselves or welcoming someone inside the mosque, right? So, when you build a wall, one interlocutor would tell me, you're doing something to invite people in to ask questions and to be provoked in a particular way such that they ask “why is this Muslim community building a wall? And for what reason?” Or in the scenario where there was, there was cases where people would come outside the mosque wearing things like a pig, a hat with bacon and saying kryptonite for muslims or stuff like that, where they would stand outside of these mosques, and imams would come and invite them in. And so it's in this like really interesting scenario where you would think that building a wall and you would think that carrying guns and you would think that all these protective strategies that these communities are building and implementing are ways of pushing people away. But for them it's actually an invitation to both ask questions and to be welcomed inside the mosque. So long as they're safe, right? So, long they're also prepared in the situation in which someone wants to do something out of the ordinary. And I think that is where we get to the question of political and social justice or political and social rights. Where these communities take it seriously that the state or the federal and state government won't protect them. In these everyday situations, you won't have… 911 won't come immediately. And so, building these walls and holding guns, etc., etc. are both strategies to invite people in – strategies for hospitality – and strategies to protect themselves and their religious tradition. And so that they can have some kind of psychic relief when they're praying.Saintsing: Okay, yeah. So I'm really interested… I think your research is super interesting, and like the content of your research is really interesting, but I'd love to know more about like what it actually looks like when you go out and do research as an anthropologist. So, are you… so, you talk a lot about interviews? So, you're going actually into communities and interviewing people. But then you're also like looking at documents. Like how do you choose what to look at? How do you identify people for interviews? Just tell us a little bit about that process.Jarada: Yeah, I should say first and foremost, you know, I got really lucky. I mean the community I worked with in North Carolina were probably the most lovely people I've met in my life. I mean these people are caring, loving, welcoming, concerning, you know. Highly political and socially aware people that really care about both the community that are, that they live in (the non-Muslim community) and the communities they're a part of. And so, for me, I was, my job was really easy. I mean I woke up in the morning excited to do the research that I was doing. As an anthropologist, the first step for me is to gain some kind of trust between myself and this community, right? And that was kind of… I have to admit it was easy just because my name is Mohamad. I'm Muslim myself. I speak Arabic. And you know I pray. And so, I was first intending to kind of put myself within this community as a Muslim, right? And as a researcher. They knew from the outset that I was a researcher. I first… what I first did was just attend a bunch of meetings. I mean I would attend things from like random-ass dinners to you know events about civil rights to concerts to gatherings, social gatherings. I mean fires, what are they, bonfires. I mean I went to everything for like the first four months. I mean I was exhausted. But it was a lot of fun. And then people got to know me, and I got to know them. And so, as I started going to the more important events, events surrounding questions about political rights or social rights or activism or people running, Muslims running for mayor or Muslims running for political office. When I went to these events, that's when the question started happening. And because they knew me as a familiar face, and they were so kind, they were so open to giving me, giving me interviews. And so when I would do these interviews, they were just… they were just a lot of fun, man. You know you get excited about these things and these people are as excited as you, and the people I would talk to range from people who worked in tech to people who devoted their entire life to the religious communities like imams and other religious leaders. Or people who own subways. Or people who were financial advisors or people who wanted to be lawyers, et cetera, et cetera. And so, you get a diverse group of people all who are concentrated on this one task: security. And when you ask them and you provoke them, boy are they willing to talk. The job of an anthropologist is, or the job that I took as an anthropologist for the way I see, is to kind of get to know these little social minutia that surround these really important issues, right? Like you hear about these things on the news every day. You hear about these things on your podcast. You hear about these things everywhere, but nobody really knows what goes into those little interactions or those little happenings in the everyday in order to protect a community. In order to garner your social, political, and civil rights. And that was my goal, and I enjoyed it very much.Saintsing: Well, unfortunately, it looks like we're running out of time. It's been so great talking to you, Mohamad. Just a reminder: today I've been speaking with Mohamad Jarada from the Department of Anthropology about civil rights and other form of rights among different groups in America with a focus on Muslim Americans in the American South. Thank you so much for being on the show, Mohamad.Jarada: Andrew, it's been honestly my pleasure. And I really thank you for giving me the time and space to speak about my research. And truly your questions were really great. And I appreciate that.Saintsing: Thanks for saying that. Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.
1/19/2021

Giovana Figueroa

Andrew Saintsing: You're tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I'm Andrew Saintsing, and this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today I'm joined by Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology. Welcome to the show, Giovanna.Giovanna Figueroa: Hey there.Saintsing: How's it going?Figueroa: It's going. I'm happy to be here.Saintsing: We're happy to have you. We're really interested in hearing about your research. So, you do field work in the Amazon rainforest, right?Figueroa: Yeah, that's true. I do field work in Peru, and my home base when I'm there is Iquitos.Saintsing: That's really cool. What do you? What are you looking at?Figueroa: So, I'm focusing my research on a genus of palm trees Oenocarpus, and specifically I'm focusing on Oenocarpus bataua, which is a really abundant palm tree in the Amazon. So, it's the seventh most abundant tree in the Amazon basin, and it spans like northern South America. So, I'm really interested in I guess like kind of people-plant interactions and also tropical ecology in general. So, I want to understand floristic abundance and diversity patterns and also how humans might have influenced these patterns. So, something interesting about this palm tree is that its fruit is really nutritious, and it's used to make like this beverage. It's called chapo de Ungurahui, and it's just like macerated pulp with some water. And sometimes folks will add some sugar also.Saintsing: Cool, okay. So, you're studying this palm tree that grows throughout the Amazon rainforest, and you're mostly focused on how people interact with it?Figueroa: That's like… that's a component of it. So, I want to look at the like finer scale, like variation of this palm tree. So, when I do my field work, I'm collecting a lot of fruit specimens and leaf specimens to do some molecular work to understand like the population-level structuring.Saintsing: And what do you mean by population-level structuring?Figueroa: Oh, so I want to see if there's any… like how much, I guess, structuring… like genetic structuring there is between populations. So, I visit different communities along different river, rivers in the Amazon, and I'm just, I want to like compare the genetic structuring to see if there's like any sort of like distinct genetic differences between these different populations along different rivers. But I'm also recording morphological variation in the fruits, so this… it can be related to like the size, the weight, but specifically the pulp color, So, I found fruits that are like a really deep purple. Some that are white, and then some that are like some like intermediate pinkish version of that. And then, there are some where the pulp looks like it's like essentially rotted, but when I talk to people, they're like, “this is the best one for oil content.” So, you wouldn't expect that because it looks really dry, but apparently, it's really rich in oil content. So, that's a lot of variation I'm looking at.Saintsing: Okay, cool. Okay, so this is one species of palm tree, but you're looking to see if there just happens to be differences genetically and morphologically across this range. I guess it's kind of like how a lot of agricultural plants, like you see big differences in the way their fruits and different parts of their vegetative structures look. Like that's kind of like what you're looking at in this palm tree?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say that's correct. And I'm also looking across the genus also. Just so I have like a baseline to do evolutionary like comparisons I suppose. So, I'm not just looking at this one specific species. I'm looking at other related species which also produce fruit that's like similar in nutritional content some are also used to make beverages similar to the chapo de Ungurahui, but they're not as popular. And so, I'm like curious to see if there's like significant differences in the nutrition of these like lesser used foods. Or if maybe they're just not as popular because they're not as abundant.Saintsing: So, you you're saying that people just don't see them as much, so they don't go to them basically.Figueroa: Yeah, essentially. I don't know if that's why they're not as used because they're not as encountered or if they're actually just not as great of a food source. And I'm curious to like kind of explore that realm of my research, to like kind of also understand if people have influenced the geographic distribution of Oenocarpus bataua, this really, really abundant tree. Whether it's being used as much because it's been so abundant, it's so abundant, or if somehow through migration and past human management, this species has benefited from that and become more abundant.Saintsing: Right. Okay, so that's interesting. So, I guess when you first started talking about it, it kind of seemed like this was, we were talking about just kind of a wild plant, but is it kind of undergoing cultivation? Like people are…Figueroa: There's no, there's no evidence of like it being actively domesticated. Some folks consider it like incipient domestication, where it's just kind of like a byproduct of human presence. So, what I've noticed is that when people go collect, harvest this fruit, they just go into the surrounding forest to harvest it. But they don't actively plant it. However, like you know as you're walking through the forest and eating the fruits you can drop the seeds, and it will grow, and then when I see folks who are working their chacras, their plots of lands where they have their own like crop rotations for food, if there is one of these palm trees growing on that plot of land, they won't chop it down. They'll just like let it be because it takes a while for these to start producing fruits. So, it's more beneficial to just like leave it there but it's actually pretty difficult for, it's difficult for them to just start growing in like full sun areas. And so, a lot of these like agricultural plots are not shaded. They're full sun.Saintsing: So, these plants kind of have to be growing before people have moved in to like actually farm is what you're saying? I see. That's interesting. Yeah, in the Amazon is farming generally how we think of it in the US, or you know like people go in and clear a forest and then plant crops? Or do people kind of try to integrate into the existing ecosystem to grow? Because I assume a lot of the useful crops that would come out of the Amazon kind of work well in the natural ecosystem.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like a big spectrum of agricultural systems in the Amazon. And so, where like the places I visit specifically, what I notice is that folks have like an area of land that they just cut, they work. And that's their area of land. And they will just rotate through crops seasonally, but it's not like a huge chunk of land. And it's not monoculture like what we see here. So, it's kind of like mixed in. A few different crops. There might be some yucca, or like there will be plantains or something. And it's just kind of like all integrated. And then when that plot of land has kind of become like nutrient-deficient, they'll just like burn it. Let it rest for a bit, and it'll like regenerate into a second forest over time, and they'll move to like a second plot. But then they can go like switch off between these like new and like the secondary growth so that they're letting regeneration happen.Saintsing: Okay, so how much of your research would you say is actually interacting with local people in the Amazon, who are farmers or who just happen to live there and can guide you around and things like that?Figueroa: Quite a bit I'd say. So, I go to a lot of different communities, and every time I go I have to like present my like research ideas to either like the community members or the whole community. Each place has like their own protocols of like what is standard, and so I always have to like make sure that I have the permission from locals to actually carry on my work. And I always hire like a local guy to take me to the palm trees or like areas where they know that these palm trees grow. I learn a lot just like in my interactions. Like for example when I was telling you about the Oenocarpus variety, the one that looks like it's like rotted but is actually really high in oil content. Like I wouldn't have known that otherwise. And folks are just like, “oh, yeah this is good for this.” You know? So, just like in my like conversations I learned a lot.Saintsing: Yeah, definitely. Is that, is that trick (this kind of rotted-looking fruit) something that was specific to a like local area? Or was that kind of like commonly known throughout the places you're looking?Figueroa: I think it's… I think a few folks like when I like start talking to more people like here and there in different communities, they're like, “oh, yeah, those.” I think it is kind of known, but it… this variety isn't like really good for making like beverages the chapo de Ungurahui. So, people usually just let this one like stay on the tree. Or, they know this tree does not give good fruit, so like we're not going to collect them. So, like some people are just like, “Yeah, that's not good for like what we're looking for.” The beverage is like one of the main uses of these fruits. The oil is like secondary. But in some places I'm guessing like the oil is really popular. But once I start talking to other people, they're like, “yeah, yeah, those are really like fatty and oily. Not great for beverage, but good for like oil.”Saintsing: Okay, so what is this beverage exactly? Like what are people drinking it for? Or is it just kind of like a good drink?Figueroa: It's just a good drink. Yeah, but it's, I find it kind of rich. And a lot of people like don't drink… like they'll drink a lot of it, but they're like cautious to not drink too much of it like too close to like bedtime because it's like heavy. So, it's just like this fruit. You let the fruits soak in warm water to kind of soften them up a bit, and then you macerate everything, and you have this like mixture of pulp and seeds. And so, what folks do is they'll like remove the seeds and then pass this pulp with some water through like a sieve. And then, you have this like really like thick mixture of like water and pulp, and you can thin it out by adding more water. You can add some sugar to it to make it a little sweet, but on its own, it's pretty, it's like creamy. And I'd say it's like nutty tasting. And it's really good. It's just, like I say, it's heavy because it's really like fatty and protein rich. So, it's like a really great source of nutrition. It's actually a complete protein. It's like, it's important for the local, like just like subsistence level economy. But what's being seen now is that it's, we're starting to see these fruits like move out of the local communities into cities. And folks are like making ice creams or just like other yummy beverages or candies out of these fruits.Saintsing: So, it's being kind of commercialized you would say?Figueroa: Yeah, yeah. I think it's like being integrated into like a larger economy. So, that's something else that's kind of interesting. Because there's like a higher demand for the fruits now, a lot of folks have turned to like felling trees to collect fruits instead of climbing palm trees which is like the traditional and like I guess more sustainable, less destructive way of harvesting. I don't really know what the implications of that are. That's something that I want to explore. But I think that's going to come later in my research. Just kind of understanding like what exactly is over harvesting of a dominant tree… like what is the role of a dominant tree in the Amazon? Does something else take over? Like fill in its place? Or is this actually not that destructive? (Which I don't believe is the answer, but I'm not sure right now.) When I do my research, I partnered with this local fruit pulp company, processing company, and it's based in Iquitos. And they've developed this specialized climbing system. It's like a harness with two loops. And two loops for your feet. And it allows you to essentially just like walk up the palm trunk. And you can, it's really easy, and it's safe, and you can just like get up to the trunk in (if you're really good) like five minutes. It takes me a little longer. And then you just cut a mature raceme of fruits instead of having to like cut the whole tree down. And you lose a lot of potential with future fruits, you know,Saintsing: Because the tree is going to put out the fruit like every year?Figueroa: It's kind of continuously putting out fruit, and there's not like a real understood pattern of like when it's like fruiting period is. And there's a lot of like variation between populations also. Like every place I have visited, except for one community, I have always found ripe fruits. And I visited at like different times of the year because that's just how I can visit. So, yeah, they're kind of continuously producing fruits. And like most individuals, it's like there will be like one raceme with really ripe fruits, there will be a green raceme that will probably be ready like next year, and then there's like a little bud that will be a raceme in a year also or something like that. It's like an abundant source of really nutritious food. It's always producing.Saintsing: Yeah. So, okay. So, you go into, you fly into Peru, right? And then you have to just get yourself around to different communities that are kind of in remote areas in the rainforest? How? What is that like?Figueroa: Yeah, that's tough. So, I'm really lucky that my advisor Paul Fine, he has been working in Iquitos for like over 20 years. So, he has a really great network of collaborators and folks that he's, yeah, just worked with over the years. So, I'm able to meet with those people when I get to Iquitos. And they kind of help me out. So, like I will like… before I start my river travel, I like sit down and like ask for their advice on like where they recommend would be a good place to go. Like just telling them like, “this is what I'm looking for. I'm looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bataua. I'm also looking for a place that has Oenocarpus bacara. Like, where are some areas where you have seen this? And like what are some like good base communities that you think I can like go to and find folks to help take me to these places?” So, yeah, that's like my first step when I arrive to Peru. And then once that is done, oftentimes I'll try to establish contact before I go to these communities. But sometimes that's really difficult because, like some places, there's like one cell phone for the whole community. And like there might not be great cell phone reception, or like whoever has a hold of the cell phone, like maybe he's on a fishing trip and can't answer. So, sometimes it's difficult. So, I'll either keep trying to contact folks, or like send word of mouth through the rivers. Just be like, “oh, yeah.” Like, I'll meet someone like at one place, and then I'll like find out that this person is going to keep traveling, and I'll be like, “oh, if you stop in this community, will you just like kind of give folks a heads up that I am interested in working and will like probably be showing up in a week.”Saintsing: That's really interesting. When you say “river travel,” you mean you're on a boat?Figueroa: Yeah, let's see. What I usually do is, when I leave Iquitos, I will either have like, try to coordinate with someone from the fruit pulp company to take me to like a large, larger like central community in the river. And then from there I'll organize, like I'll like hire someone with a smaller boat to start taking me further out. Or sometimes I'll take like a public transportation or like a public boat. There are like so many different varieties. Like I can take a fast one. It'll get me there like relatively faster. I can take a slow one if I like feel like I have time, and it's like an overnight river trip. And I just hang a hammock and can like sleep. And it's more comfortable because we're not like crammed together. And then I just show up somewhere and like ask around and find someone who can/is willing to take me to my next site.Saintsing: And people are pretty friendly about it? They're… you don't really… you kind of always have somebody that'll help you when you get to these places?Figueroa: Yeah, I usually do. So, at least for like my… like wherever that first place is, I know, I like… I go with like a name or like someone in mind that I'm looking for specifically, or like people from Razac already know folks there. And they'll go with me and like will like ask. And if that person can't, they'll be like, “oh, but like you know my neighbor probably can.” So, then we'll go ask the neighbor, and as long as like I’m paying for the gas and like also like paying for the services, like people are happy to help me get to my places.Saintsing: So, you have to I guess tell people a plan, right? Before you start these trips. But how often would you say that plan is actually what happens on the ground?Figueroa: Yeah, I'd say like, maybe like 80 percent of the time that's what happens. Sometimes I have to switch the community site or like whatever. Like I thought there was going to be trees like immediately outside this forest. And like no. We have to actually go like 30 minutes up the river or something. So… But I mean it's not like a huge change in plans. Well, except for this past year.Saintsing: Right, yeah, that's what I was going to say.Figueroa: It's like probably like most unexpected of my trips.Saintsing: Yeah, so obviously this past year the issue was COVID-19. So, like what happened while you were on location? What was going on?Figueroa: I had planned for a two-week trip down the Nanay River, which is pretty like easy. I've traveled on the Nanay many times. So, I didn't think it was going to be a huge deal. But I was going further than I ever had. So, I made it about like (it was a 16-hour boat ride to this community called Tucaurco), and I was able to get all my collections done and everything. And then just by chance one night someone had turned on their TV and heard that there is like a lockdown in place for COVID-19. So, all like travel, like ground and fluvial (like river) travel was like suspended. And they told me that, and I was like, “oh, interesting. Okay.” And like in my head, I was just like, “I don't know how you like shut down river travel. Like that doesn't make sense.” Especially, a lot of folks like fish on the rivers. Like that… like this is how people get their food. Like I don't know how like you stop this. But luckily I had this GPS that the Field Safety Office let me borrow. And I was able to contact Paul, my advisor. And I just sent him a message. And I was like, “hey, I am hearing this stuff. I don't know what this means. Can you like do some research and let me know?” Because I couldn't get a hold of Julie, who's this other grad student from Princeton that I usually do a lot of, we try to coordinate our field work to overlap. Everything was just like still like really uncertain. So, I was like, “okay. I think maybe I should like make my way back to Iquitos.” And I got really lucky, and I found a team of medical workers that was in… they were doing malaria tests, and they were going to head back down the river towards Iquitos. And so I asked them if it would be possible for myself and Chapi, my field assistant, to like get a ride with them. And they were like, “yeah, of course.” So, they like took us pretty far down the river. Up to like right before the first, where the first river checkpoint would be. So, my plan was the following day was to like go to the river checkpoint and like talk to the national police who were there and just kind of like explain my situation and try to see if like I could get back to Iquitos. But before I could do that the national police showed up to this town Yamanote, where I was, and were like (and just kind of like went door to door) and just said, “this community is on a full lockdown. You can't leave.” I was there for almost two or like to the end of the lockdown because it was only supposed to be until the end of the month or something. But while this was all happening, I was like finally able to contact Julie, and she was like, “the US is like trying to like plan a like repatriation flight. You have to get to Iquitos.” And I was just like, “I don't know how I'm going to get to Iquitos. I have to pass two checkpoints. Like the military police showed up at the door and said I can't leave. Like, yeah, we’d get arrested.”Saintsing: What happened?Figueroa: I like went to the first checkpoint. They weren't going to let me go unless I had like proof that my name was like on a roster or like, yeah, a manifest sheet. A flight manifest. And I was like trying to like get in contact, like send WhatsApp messages to the embassy, so they can send me a PDF. But like it just wasn't working out. And then Chapi was able to talk to the police officer. And then I'm not sure what happened, but they let me go. So, we made it through like the first checkpoint to a little town that was like maybe two hours from that checkpoint. And from there Chapi had been able to contact someone that he had worked with before who he knew had a boat and would be willing to take us to Iquitos. And this man was like, “yeah, yeah. I'll take y'all to Iquitos, but I'm not going to be able to take you until tomorrow.” And I thought that was fine. But then I got a call from Julie saying like, “the flight's leaving tomorrow at 10 AM. You have to be here.” And I was like, “okay. I don't know if that's going to happen.” So, like I talked to the boat driver, and I was like asking him if it would be possible to leave like immediately. And he's like, “no, we can't because of the curfew and the checkpoint. Like, we have to leave tomorrow, or we have to leave at night.” And there is a curfew that started at I think at 8. And it was like from eight to like five in the morning. And so, like at seven, the man comes up to my like (our like little campsite), and he was like, “we should just leave now.” And I was like… I was really scared because I was like, “well, the curfew's about to start, and I am not Peruvian. And if I like… I don't want any of us to get caught. But like I… like from what I’ve heard from my friends in Iquitos is that like the consequences for being like breaking this curfew (especially if you're not a citizen) are like much more severe. But I, at the same time, I was like, “this is my one chance to like catch this flight. I don't know when there's going to be another repatriation flight straight out of Iquitos that's like a direct flight.” And so, we just went, and I don't know like how… like I'm not sure what happened. I fell asleep, and then like at six, five thirty, six in the morning, we’re in Iquitos. I was like, “okay?” And then it was just like a rush to get to my… the place I had been staying (a little like office apartment place), shower, and just pack up my essentials and get to the airport. And it was just… yeah, I was running on a lot of adrenaline and didn't really process how bizarre just like the whole journey back had been.Saintsing: Down the road, not on this particular project, but you are excited to be able to do more work like you have, you had done more freely before COVID in the future?Figueroa: Definitely, I really like field work. I think I like the fact that it keeps me on my feet a lot. I don't know. I don't… I don't think I do very well with like a lot of strict structures. So, like because things come up while I'm in the field, and I have to kind of like adapt, I like that. And I like being outside, too. I find it really rewarding just like interacting with plants and people and like just being immersed in it.Saintsing: Before you started your dissertation (actually going out and doing the field work) were you kind of more on the side that you were going to do like the evolutionary relationship, the genetic, you know, makeup of these communities of plants and the morphology and all of that? And then like communicating with the people kind of drew you also to the plant-human interactions? Or was that always like part of it all together before you started?Figueroa: That was always part of it. I've always been really drawn to like people-plant interactions. And just kind of looking at like, explicitly looking at like human and human participation in our environment as an ecological force. I think, up until recently, oftentimes the academic literature, just the way we like perceive ourselves has been really kind of to remove humans from the environment. So, I was really like, “I really wanted to explore these interactions in a non-domesticated species” for that reason. Because I think like domestication is like one extreme of a spectrum. And then we have like wild plants. But like what is this like in between space? And like how have humans been a part of this you know like spectrum? I suppose. So, that's always been one of my interests, and it was just trying to find a manageable species that like I felt like comfortable like studying during my PhD that fit those criteria that I was looking for.Saintsing: Right, yeah. And like how accurate is it to say anything is really wild, right? Like absent of human interaction.Figueroa: Yeah, I think there's like this like false notion of the Amazon and like a lot of forest as being pristine when like that's not really true. It's like humans have been here for a really long time and have been interacting with these forests.Saintsing: Yeah, it's like in California, you know, with fire management. We're figuring out how important it was to have people…Figueroa: …actively managing the forests.Saintsing: Yeah, exactly. Well, unfortunately it looks like we're running out of time on the interview. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with before we go?Figueroa: I think the aspect of my research that I like find most rewarding and that like I'd like to stress is just like how much there is to learn from like non-traditional, like non-academic settings. Like I learned so much just like on the like on the ground in the field just through my like interactions. And a lot of that has like really like helped how I like, how I shape my research. So, you know I think there's like knowledge to be learned like everywhere. And not just in textbooks, so yeah.Saintsing: Definitely. Thanks so much for that. Today, I've been speaking with Giovanna Figueroa from the Department of Integrative Biology, and we've learned a lot about her really cool work in the field in the Amazon rainforest in Peru. It's been so much fun talking to you, Giovanna.Figueroa: It’s been great talking to you, too.Saintsing: Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.