Fordham Notes: July 2010

Thursday, July 29, 2010

FordhamScience: Science in a Jar

When asked where he gets his ideas, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison famously answers “Schenectady.” In a published interview he elaborates, “…there is no answer to this query. At least neither Plato nor Socrates nor Shakespeare could make the codification.”

Gordon Plague, an evolutionary biologist at the Louis Calder Center, studies the evolution of bacteria in insects, among other things. Ideas are his stock in trade and he, like Ellison, can rarely point to their genesis. Except for the weevils.

An assistant professor of biological sciences, Plague raises maize weevils (Sitophilus zeamais) and rice weevils (Sitophilus oryzae) in the lab at Calder to study their symbiotic bacteria. “They’re easy to raise,” Plague says. “You can just grow them in jars with some corn or rice in an incubator in the lab.” (The incubator is used to control humidity and optimize growth, according to Plague.)

Weevils, in case you’re wondering, are insects that primarily feed on plant material. Maize weevils and rice weevils spend their larval and pupal stages within a kernel of stored grain, living off the endosperm—the starchy portion from which the seed draws nutrition (analogous to the “white” of a chicken’s egg). The weevils need the bacteria to break down the starches into nutrients the weevils can use, and the bacteria can only live inside the weevils’ specialized host cells, called bacteriomes.

Periodically, Plague and his students need to remove some weevil larvae (the sub-adult stage of the insect) from a jar to harvest bacteria from them. When they did so, Plague says, they noticed that the adult rice weevils seem to climb the walls of the jar much more vigorously than adult maize weevils after the larvae had been removed.

“A lot of times you can’t pinpoint exactly what sparked a particular question or line of research,” Plague says. “I do a lot of my best thinking when I’m walking my dog, and I can let my mind wander. But in this case, we saw that the rice weevils were climbing like crazy after the jar had been disturbed, much more so than the maize weevils. We wondered why that was.”

Enter Gaelle Voltaire, an undergraduate student in biological sciences who needed a research project. (Before we get on with the science portion of our program, let us give thanks for an article that includes the surnames “Plague” and “Voltaire.”) Plague turned Voltaire loose on the climbing weevils. Job one was to confirm that they were seeing what they thought they were seeing: that the rice weevils were indeed more vigorous climbers. Or in the language of their paper, “Our objective was to quantify this climbing behavior in both species under a variety of environmental conditions to assess whether our anecdotal observations were correct.”

Read the paper by Plague, Voltaire and lab members Bridget E. Walsh and Kevin M. Dougherty: “Rice Weevils and Maize Weevils (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) Respond Differently to Disturbance of Stored Grain,” published in the Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Vol. 103, No. 4, 2010.

It turns out that careful observation confirmed what Plague and his students had noticed in the Calder lab: the two species exhibited markedly different climbing behaviors after the jars were disturbed, with the rice weevils climbing significantly more than maize weevils under a variety of environmental conditions..

We know what you’re thinking: “Some bugs in a jar on a countertop in Westchester climbed more than some other bugs in other jars? Really? This is why I majored in English!

But measuring the climbing rates of two species of insects isn’t an end unto itself. As a biologist, Plague sees this behavior shedding light on the deep evolutionary history not just of weevils, but of human beings. (There are also the practical considerations that his findings may have for pest control.)

It turns out a lot of insects that live and feed on stored grain exhibit this climbing behavior (“negative geotaxis” in the jargon) when the store is disturbed, and probably evolved many times in different species. Because both the rice and maize weevils exhibit the behavior, it is likely that it existed in their last common ancestor, 20 million years ago (at least 15 million years before the split between the chimpanzee and human lines). So weevils very likely infested the stored seeds and nuts of rodents and birds before humans started growing and storing surplus grain.

What would be adaptive (in other words, what would confer an advantage in leaving behind offspring) about this climbing behavior?

“These weevils have a 30-day lifecycle from egg to adult,” Plague says. “When the caches of rodents and birds were disturbed, it was probably a signal that the owner was coming home. That poses a risk that the weevil might be eaten, or at least that the cache was going away. The weevils would have to get away so they could lay eggs in another cache.”

In the simplest terms, weevils that climbed away from disturbed grain, whether in an animal cache or a silo, were more likely to leave behind offspring. Over time the offspring of the climbing weevils outnumbered less vigorous climbers until the climbing behavior was the norm. And the fact that weevils which don’t escape disturbed stores leave behind fewer offspring continues to exert selection pressure for the climbing behavior.

“The difference in climbing behavior between the rice weevils and the corn weevils may be because corn weevils are better flyers than rice weevils,” Plague says. “The rice weevils may climb more vigorously because they need more time to get away.”

“Complex behaviors are primarily maintained because they provide a survival or reproductive benefit to the animal,” Plague says. “Therefore, taking an evolutionary approach to studying animal behavior can shed insight into an animal’s biology, both past and present. This project not only did that, but the results also potentially have implications for controlling these worldwide stored grain pests. And also significantly, it was a pretty simple experiment that gave students experience with the complete scientific process, from the generation of a question to the publication of the paper.”

Bronx Nonprofit Names Fordham Student 'Volunteer of the Year'

Ryan Elizabeth Vale, a rising senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill, has been named 2010 Volunteer of the Year by the board of directors of City Squash, a Bronx-based, not-for-profit after school enrichment program.

“She exemplified the perfect volunteer,” said Shandar Edwards, an office administrator who worked closely with Vale at City Squash, an organization that serves children from economically disadvantaged households in the South Bronx.

“[Ryan Elizabeth] was very dedicated,” Edwards said. “She helped us with tutoring in the academic office or anything else we may have needed in the administrative office. No matter what, we could always depend on her.”

Vale, a Winston-Salem, N.C., native, worked three days a week at City Squash as a function of her community service program with the Honors-Curran Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham.

"Volunteering with CitySquash has been the capstone of my Fordham experience,” Vale said. “Not only did CitySquash allow me to engage Bronx youth through my commitment to education, but its mission also coincides with the most basic reason I chose to attend a Jesuit university—an established commitment to caring for the whole person. These shared values, in addition to its exceptional group of children and wonderfully supportive staff, made tutoring with CitySquash an experience more rewarding than I could have ever expected."

Vale was unable to accept the award in person at an annual board of directors meeting in mid-July because she is in North Carolina interning at the Moravian MESDA Museum for the summer.

She said the experience of working at City Squash was one she will never forget.

“I have been deeply enriched by this opportunity, and I hope in return I have given the Bronx half the hope and joy ‘CitySquashers’ have given me,” Vale said.

Founded in 2002, City Squash helps young people from economically disadvantaged households in the Bronx fulfill their academic, athletic and personal potential. The intensive, year-round commitment includes squash, tutoring, mentoring, community service, travel, culture, high school placement, employment training and college prep. CitySquash begins working with students in third grade and serves them through college graduation.

—Gina Vergel

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

CBA Student Driving Hard Toward Success

Companies, brands, places…. A degree in marketing can lead to a plethora of career options. But Chase Mattioli, a rising junior at Fordham’s College of Business Administration (CBA), has an even better product to promote: himself.

In addition to taking classes at the Rose Hill campus, Mattioli, the grandson of Lake Pond, Pa.-based Pocono Raceway founders Joseph and Rose Mattioli, is pursuing a career in racing with NASCAR. He’s currently in the midst of the 20-race Automobile Racing Club of America Series—which is to NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series what AA baseball is to the major league baseball—with Jack Roush’s Roush Racing team.

Although stock car racing in the Poconos might seem like a world away from the urban setting of the Bronx, Mattioli said the connection between his classes and the track are closer than one might think.

“The thing about racing is that it’s not as much of a meritocracy as other sports like football or baseball. You need to be just as marketable as you have to be talented in order to be successful,” he said.

“You look at guys like Dale Earnhardt Jr. He hasn’t won every race in the series but he’s still the highest paid driver because he can market the most products and sell the most cans of soda. That’s something that’s very important to racing, because as much as I don’t like to lean on this, the car has so much to do with it. If you have a car that’s underfunded and a team that doesn’t have the money to buy tires and get the good engineers, it’s going to show on the racetrack. So having a good marketing background helps my performance on the racetrack.”

Mattioli is acutely aware of the importance of well-maintained equipment. At a recent race at his grandparents’ track, a single bolt came loose, causing his car to lose the entire drive shaft.

“One of the most common things you’ll here from anyone in the business is “That’s racing,’” he said. “Any little thing, like, you know, a plastic fork could be on the track, and I could split a tire. For me, it was one bolt that came out and cost us our run.”

Thankfully, Mattioli said this was an aberration in an otherwise successful season of racing, which for him began in February in Daytona. It’s a season that he’s been practicing for at Rose Hill, on a $2,000 racing simulator that he hooks up to the television in his dorm room. That might seem like a lot of money for a video game, but it pails in comparison to the $10,000 he said it would take to book a live practice on a track.

“With the computer technology, they can really get a trace a track perfectly as far as how it feels, every bump, nook and cranny,” he said. “If you have a tar strip where the track is cracked, they’ll put it in there, and you can feel it. Every inch is there.”

After all, Mattioli said, every little inch matters when you’re approaching speeds of 200 mph.

“You can’t just look right in front of your car and assume you can make the right turn. You have to have visuals, muscle memory, and other things like that, so that when you’re on two wide of a turn going 190, you know where you’re at and where you’re going to be. For a race in Michigan, for example, I have 18 eye points all around the track, and I gain them from the video game. They put every sign, every light and every mark on the wall.”

If everything goes according to plan, in two years Mattioli will join 2008 Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman as the only other full-time driver in the Sprint Cup Series with a bachelor’s degree. This makes him an oddity in the racing community, but having graduated from Scranton Preparatory School, Mattioli said he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a Jesuit university like Fordham. Being in New York puts him closer to potential sponsors even as the sports’ relatively low profile in the tri-state area relieves any pressure he might experience elsewhere.

“The cool thing about New York City was that I was able to come here and not be a race car driver. I could just be a college kid. The sport is popular in the city, but it’s not the Yankees; it’s not football,” he said. “It’s a nice little place where racecar drivers can hide. If I were to go to high school in North Carolina or somewhere down South, it would be kind of overwhelming.”

Aside from his two roommates, Mattioli has not shared his occupation with many people. His story, he insists, is just one of many interesting ones that students at Rose Hill have to share.

“My story is pretty interesting, but I think they all have very interesting backgrounds and lives,” he said. “My friend Ryan is one of these crazy guys; he just spent the summer hiking up Mount Sinai and traveling the Jordan and Israel. There’s a whole bunch of cool people who I got to meet just by coming to Fordham.”

Mattioli’s unofficial role as an ambassador for racing also helps his family’s track, which is a 90-minute drive away. That’s where he grew up around a culture of racing, and he’s confidant that New Yorkers who have not been exposed to it as children will learn to appreciate it.

“We just had our race in June, and I had about 20 people who’d never been to a race before come,” he said. “To see their eyes light up when the cars go by, when they actually hear the real sound, they feel the air and the ground, vibrating from the engines pulsating, it’s just such an experience. I love to bring anyone I can.”

—Patrick Verel

Friday, July 23, 2010

FordhamScience: What We Talk About When We Talk About Ticks

Eight. That’s the magic number. This weekend the Tick Index for Westchester County and the surrounding area is 8—so if you’re out in the woods, or even your yard, you have a moderately high risk of being bitten by a tick. To be specific, a blacklegged tick, also called the deer tick (and in some parts of the country, the bear tick). And if you’re bitten, and don’t remove the tick very quickly, you stand a pretty good chance of contracting Lyme Disease.

The blacklegged tick, Ixodes scapularis, has a complicated two-year life cycle that revolves around feeding on the blood of animals. It’s the whole bloodsucking thing that makes the tick a vector, or carrier, of diseases like Lyme (and babesiosis and anaplasmosis, among others). Ticks are born without the bacterium that causes Lyme Disease, Borrelia burgdorferi. When they feed on animals and birds that are “reservoir competent,” meaning they can carry and transmit the Lyme bacterium, the ticks acquire it. If you provide the tick’s next meal, it can return the favor by infecting you with the disease. (White footed mice, chipmunks and robins are reservoir competent; gray squirrels, deer and opossums are not.)

So what does the Tick Index number mean? Several times a week, Thomas J. Daniels, Ph.D., Fordham associate research scientist and co-director of the Calder Center’s Vector Ecology Laboratory, takes drag samples at Calder. He and colleague Rich Falco, Ph.D., a medical entomologist with the New York State Department of Health, use a one-meter square piece of while corduroy attached to a wooden bar to go hunting ticks.

“We drag the fabric over a known distance—usually ten or twenty meters—then turn it over and start counting ticks,” Daniels says. “The ticks are host seeking: they don’t care if it’s me or a square of fabric. We know the size of the drag and the distance, so it’s easy to come up with a mean number of ticks per square meter.”

What the scientists are especially looking for are ticks in the nymphal stage, between 25 and 30 percent of which carry the Lyme bacterium. Nymphs are active and abundant from late spring through summer and into the fall. Because of their great numbers, and because they are so small and often escape detection, nymphs cause 90 percent of Lyme Disease infections. Altogether, Daniels and Falco perform drag counts from late March through early December, weather permitting. Adult ticks, active in the late fall, carry the Lyme bacterium at an even higher rate than nymphs, but because there are so many fewer adults, and because they are easier to spot and pick off before they transmit the disease to humans, they cause many fewer cases.

The scale of the tick index measures the relative risk of being bitten in a particular season. “This season isn’t as bad as last one was,” Daniels says, “so you might not have as much risk with an index of eight this year as you would have with an index of five least season. It’s not an absolute measure of risk.”

Daniels said the infection rate of Lyme Disease in the northeast is fairly steady from year to year, but vastly underreported, which is why he doesn’t rely on epidemiological data on Lyme Disease cases to assess risk.

“I would risk my life on my tick data, because I know how to count ticks,” he says. “The epidemiological data are terrible. Lyme disease is often hard to recognize, and as it’s become more common, physicians are less interested in it, and don’t report it reliably to health agencies.”

Daniels estimates that the 25,000 reported cases of Lyme Disease in the United States each year represents only 10 percent of the real number, “and I’m being generous,” he says.

Daniels and Falco have been collecting tick data since 1987. The first incarnation of the Tick Index debuted about 10 years ago, when Falco was working with the American Lyme Disease Foundation. The project languished when funding for the foundation was short. In 2008, the Index was revived and began publishing each season on the Fordham website:

Daniels received his doctorate from the University of Colorado in 1987, for research on the behavioral ecology of feral dogs on the Navajo reservation. He studied how well dogs that were raised initially as pets adapted to living in a semi-wild state on the reservation’s garbage dumps. Not well, it turned out. By 1985 he had already completed that research and was studying ticks and Lyme Disease, which was just coming to prominence as a medical issue in the United States. He has been at the Calder Center since 1994, and has seen the emergence not only of Lyme disease, but also of West Nile virus, a mosquito-borne disease, in the region.

West Nile is a case study of how a disease agent, introduced into the right animal community under the right conditions, can quickly become part of the everyday landscape.

"In 1999, when West Nile first arrived, we had 60 cases in just one state: New York," Daniels says. "In 2000 it had spread to two neighboring states, New Jersey and Connecticut, and by 2005, the virus was reported in 43 states. Vector-borne diseases are dynamic and they will continue to pose a significant health challenge in the future."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vote for Ram Bands

Two Fordham bands, Penrose and A Million Years featured in The Deli Magazine's band of the month polls in Philadelphia and New York City. In Penrose are brothers Tom Murphy, FCRH '10, Pat Murphy FCRH '11, and Dan Murphy FCRH '13. In A Million Years is Andrew Samaha, FCRH '10, and three friends. Both bands played Rodrigue's Coffee House this past year, and Penrose was the student band voted to play Spring Weekend with MGMT.

Both are winning, but they need your support. The poll ends July 31, so vote now at the city links above. No, really, right now. Go.

Read The Ram's Q&A with Penrose.

Penrose Website

A Million Years Website

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Double Alum Honored for Work with Student Press

Adam Goldstein (FCLC '99, LAW '02), attorney advocate at the Student Law Center, is being spotlighted as one of "10 individuals who have mattered most to college media over the past academic year," by College Media Matters.

"If you are a college administrator who likes to grind kids under your boot, Adam Goldstein is your worst nightmare," says Frank LoMonte. "He is a ferocious and relentless advocate, and if you try to argue with him, he will quickly expose you for a fool. Adam will admit that he’s a bit of a scary-looking guy– it doesn’t help that he dresses head-to-toe in black every day– but you have nothing to fear from him unless you’re intentionally hurting kids."

Goldstein is a former editor-in-chief of The Observer, and worked as a freelance producer and editor for for three years.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fordham Alumni Theatre Company Presents Summer Production

The Fordham Alumni Theatre Company will present, What May Fall, beginning Wednesday, July 21, at the University’s Lincoln Center campus.

Written by Peter Gil-Sheridan (FCLC ’98) and directed by Morgan Gould (FCLC ’08), What May Fall is loosely and lyrically based on actual events.

According to a description of the show, “When a window washer falls to his death from the tallest building in Minneapolis, it forces nine strangers to face the slippery and terrifying reality of living in a world made of ice. What May Fall explores what keeps us grounded when everything can change in an instant.”

Tickets are $18 and $15 with a valid student ID. They can be purchased here.

The two-week production will run nightly at 8 p.m. from Wednesday, July 21 through Saturday, July 24. It then runs at 7 p.m. on Monday, July 26, and nightly at 8 p.m. from Tuesday, July 27 through Saturday, July 31. Performances take place in the Pope Auditorium on the Lincoln Center campus.

Founded in 2008 by the Fordham Theatre Program, the alumni company brings together graduates from all disciplines—including actors, playwrights, directors, set and costume designers—to create an annual summer production.

The company focuses on the development of new work and offers alumni actors, directors, writers, designers, technicians, stage managers and administrative professionals an opportunity to practice and hone their respective crafts in an encouraging environment.

-Gina Vergel

Monday, July 19, 2010

Professor Nabs Princeton Theological Seminary’s Book Prize

Congratulations to Michael E. Lee, Ph.D., Fordham’s assistant professor of theology, who has received the 2010 annual book prize from Princeton Theological Seminary’s Hispanic Theological Initiative.

Lee received the honor on Saturday, July 17 for his book, Bearing the Weight of Salvation: The Soteriology of Ignacio Ellacuria (Crossroad, 2009). The book analyzes the philosophical, Christological, and ecclesiological dimensions of the Jesuit martyr’s theology and puts them into dialogue with the post-modern discourse of the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ school of thought.

Born in Miami, FL of Puerto Rican parents, Lee’s special area of scholarship is the Roman Catholic Spanish-speaking world and liberation theology. He has studied with Gustavo GutiĆ©rrez, O.P. and Virgilio Elizondo. Lee's practical ministry experience includes living in Andre House, a Catholic Worker house of hospitality in Arizona that subsisted on donations alone and fed more than 1000 meals nightly to the homeless.

The awardees described Lee’s book as “a scholarly work that is almost archival in its depth of research, yet clearly written . . . a wonderful introduction in English to the Jesuit priest’s philosophical and theological itinerary.”

Following acceptance of the award Lee presented a lecture, “Head To Ground: Ignacio Ellacuria’s Theology and Praxis” at the Seminary’s main campus.


Essay Sends New Graduate to India

A Fordham alumna will be working at a medical camp in India this summer thanks to an essay competition sponsored by New York Life.

Rucha Desai, FCLC ’10, is one of eight winners of “Bharat Yatra VIII – a Journey to India,” an essay competition sponsored by the New York Life Insurance Company. Desai was one of thousands of entrants from across the country, ages ranging from 18 to 24, who were asked to submit a 500-word essay on the topic, “What role can I play to eradicate hunger in India.”

In her essay, Desai proposed an initiative to sustain local art and occupations, starting small in her hometown of Ahmedabad, India, and then expanding across the country.

“The project would be simple: purchase mass quantities of handicrafts from local marketplaces and then sell these goods to the international market. However, unlike products exported abroad and made in India solely for the purpose of cheap operational costs, all profits from this venture would sponsor long-term hunger relief for the same villagers,” Desai said. “Since I would start at the grassroots level, I would begin my undertaking in Law Garden, in Ahmedabad, a marketplace that houses all types of home goods, clothing and accessories. I would make purchases every two months, consuming mass amounts of every type of good sold, in order to gain a variety of sellable commodities. The local population would thus receive immediate hunger relief from purchases.”

Desai’s plan doesn’t end there. After acquiring a substantial and varied collection of handicrafts, she would resell these goods to countries all over the world through an online market, like eBay.
“I would be able to reinsert this money into the local economy, by investing in a well or free lunch program,” she said. “As this program gains ground, it would be possible to expand it to integrate villages and towns all across India.”

Desai said her Fordham education came in handy when writing the essay.

“’World Poverty’ class, with Dr. [Associate Professor of Economics] Janis Barry, was a major source of inspiration, as well as my ‘International Economics’ course with Dr. [Assistant Professor Economics] Clive Daniel,” she said. “Each course helped to enlighten the nuances of local economies, as well as informing me further about international trade and its vast implications.”

The New York Life Insurance Company cosponsored the contest with Tathaastu magazine, in an effort to serve the Asian-Indian community in the United States. Finalists will visit Rajasthan, India, and gain hands-on experience in working closely with the local community by working at a medical camp.

“I feel blessed to have experiences from another country, culture and flavor of the world,” said Desai, who often traveled to India as a little girl. “I have been lucky enough to start traveling at such a young age, and I am even luckier that I have family and friends all over the world who make me feel welcome all the way across the ocean.”

Desai, who earned her Bachelor’s degree in International Studies in just three year from Fordham, is currently serving as Constituent Liaison for Social Service at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) New York City office.

-Gina Vergel

Thursday, July 15, 2010

FordhamScience: From Three, to Two, to One, Fordham Shrinks its Footprint

Building a housing structure on 113 acres of pristine forest, meadow and wetland – especially one located partially within the New York City watershed – is no typical construction project.

Fordham’s Office of Facilities Management learned just how much is involved when implementing plans for Fordham’s new graduate student housing at the Calder Center.

The project was conceived back in 2005 as a set of three, four-bed log cabins somewhere on the grounds. One issue developed over the amount of land that had to be cleared in order to accommodate three separate structures and surrounding landscaping.

Since Calder is a 113-acre nature preserve used to train biologists in environmental science and conservation, it made sense to keep the structure’s ecological “footprint” as small as possible: new plans were drawn up to make two six-bed cabins instead.

While working with the Town of North Castle on a necessary site approval plan, the structures were classified as ‘dormitories’ rather than ‘residential’ property. The Town would require both buildings to have sprinkler systems installed (since there is no fire hydrant near the properties) which would have necessitated more costly underground piping between buildings.

To save money and further reduce the building’s ecological footprint, plans were redrawn for one two-story 12-bed house. Those new plans saved close to 39,000 square feet of forest, and some 15 trees from destruction. They also cut back on the amount of asphalt and granular pavement to be installed.

The issue of storm water management also arose. The cabin was being built partially within the New York City watershed and somewhat close to Calder Lake; therefore the project needed to be done in accordance with the regulations of both the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP) and the New York State Department of Enviornmental Conservation (NYSDEC).

Since several upstate counties, including Putnam, Duchess, Delaware, Ulster and Westchester, contain sources that bring fresh water to the City’s nine million residents, the NYCDEP’s watershed rules are very strict. Any potential ground and surface water pollution from development in watershed areas must be mitigated accordingly.

“Mitigating the disturbance” of land requires that whatever is installed will result in no net increase to the rate of runoff from the site after development (i.e., if forest is being replaced by a lawn or building, a storm water basin has to be installed to ensure that groundwater drains at the same rate as it did before the trees were removed.)

The trick was finding the ideal spot to locate the storm water management system—typically in a soil density that can best help filter pollutants—and to and incorporate the right practices within that system to meet each agency’s standards.

“You could almost say we put in the house to support the stormwater basins,” said John Wehr, Ph.D., director of the Center. “But we have always said from the beginning that we want to be good stewards of our land.”


Thursday, July 8, 2010

FordhamScience: Exit Mastodon

Sometimes the smallest of clues can pierce the largest of mysteries. One of the big (in every sense of the word) questions in paleontology is “where did the North American megafauna—mastodons, mammoths, giant sloths, giant beavers!—go?” The answer might come from a fossil spore too small to be seen with the naked eye.

The key to discovering why the giant herbivores died out may be when their numbers began to dwindle: about 14,800 years ago, according to a team of researchers that includes Fordham’s Guy Robinson. Their 2009 paper, “Pleistocene megafaunal collapse preceded novel plant communities and enhanced fire regimes,” is based upon the concentrations of fossil spores found in lake sediments in the Midwest and northeast.

Robinson, a lecturer in the Department of Natural Sciences at Lincoln Center, tracks Sporormiella, a fungus that produces spores which must pass through the gut of a large herbivore to germinate. The spores are between 9 and 12 microns in diameter (about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair), and are found in the dung of large herbivorous vertebrates like mastodons and giant beavers (did we mention the giant beavers?). Over time the dung would be washed by rain into lakes, where the spores, along with pollen and charcoal, collected in layers of sediment.

Lots of spores means lots of dung; lots of dung means lots of animals. Tracking the amount of spores, pollen and charcoal at different sediment depths allows the changes in numbers of large herbivores to be matched exactly to sediment records of vegetation and fire, which can in turn be compared with other archaeological and environmental records.

Beginning 14,800 years ago, the plant communities of North America started to change dramatically, going by pollen counts from the lake sediments. Robinson, who also oversees the Pollen Index at Fordham, saw a rise in novel or “no-analog” plant communities which had high percentages of temperate broadleaved trees such as ash, hornbeam, ironwood and elm coexisting with northern species such as spruce and larch—trees not found growing together previously, or today.

As the incidence of Sporormiella (and hence large herbivores) declined over a 1,000-year period, the incidence of pollen grains from novel plant communities increased, as did the incidence of charcoal, indicating fires.

What do all of these clues point to? Butchered mammoth bones found in southeastern Wisconsin can be dated to between 14,800 and 14,100 years ago, indicating the presence of humans in the region at the beginning of the decline of large herbivores. One pretty good hypothesis is that over the period between 14,800 and 13,300 years ago, human hunters reduced the population of mammoths, mastodons and other large herbivores. As the herbivores declined, the trees on which they fed, broadleafs like elm and oak, increased, as did the amount of standing and dead wood and leaf litter available to fuel wildfires (and possibly fires set by humans for hunting and land-clearing purposes).

The archeological and fossil records seem to indicate that the population of large herbivores goes extinct altogether between 13,300 and 12,900, which corresponds exactly with the arrival of the Clovis people, big-game specialists named for their stone points first excavated in Clovis, N.M.

Robinson stresses that this interpretation of the record is somewhat controversial: other contenders for the decline and eventual extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna include climate change, an extraterrestrial impact, and disease or some combination of the three, as well as human predation.

But the decline of the large herbivores (as measured by Sporormiella concentrations) precedes the increase of no-analog plant communities. If climate change reduced the number of herbivores, it didn’t do so by changing the habitat. Likewise, the hypothesis that a meteor or comet slammed into North America approximately 13,000 years ago and killed the megafauna isn’t consistent with a gradual decline of the large herbivores, nor the timing of its beginning.

This summer, the Ecological Society of America (ESA) will present the William Skinner Cooper Award to Robinson, along with colleagues Jacquelyn Gill, John Williams, Stephen T. Jackson and Katherine Lininger for their paper, which ESA says “contributes to the fundamental understanding of ecological history in eastern North America.” The award will be given at ESA’s annual meeting in August, in Pittsburgh, Pa.

Meanwhile, Robinson and his colleagues are extending their research by sampling lake sediments in more locations. “The samples our paper was based upon were all from lowland sites,” Robinson says. “We’re now moving into higher elevations in the Shawangunk Mountains, and we’re starting to see indications that the decline in Sporormiella is what you’d expect if it was being caused by human predation: there is a lag in the decline in higher elevations because humans move into the richer lowlands first.”

More evidence to support the hunting hypothesis is also coming to light in sediments from the late Holocene, 200 to 300 years ago, Robinson says. The samples seem to indicate a rebound of large herbivores on a significant scale following Europeans’ first contact with Native Americans. Researchers hypothesize that first-contact epidemics essentially depopulated the continent, drastically reducing hunting pressure on wildlife.

Robinson believes that the data strongly supports human hunting as a prime cause of large herbivore declines and extinctions, but that it may take a while for scientific opinion to come around.

“Like the fact that Africa and the Americas were once joined, many things that seem self evident now were highly controversial when they were first proposed,” he says. “That pre-historical, pre-agricultural people could have such a profound effect on their environment may be hard for people to accept for reasons that have nothing to do with the data.”

Fordham Pair Embark on New Journey of Service Through Kiwanis

A couple of longtime Fordham University employees will be traveling the world to help combat maternal/neonatal tetanus.

Thomas E. DeJulio (FCRH ’73, LAW ’77), general counsel at Fordham University, was elected to the position of vice president of Kiwanis International, a global service organization with over 500,000 volunteers in over 70 nations. His wife, Rosemary DeJulio, Ph.D., (GSAS’90, GSE ’00) assistant to the president of Fordham, and 1990-1991 president of University’s Kiwanis chapter, presently serves on the Kiwanis International education committee and will become first lady of Kiwanis International in 2012. The couple will work with Kiwanis chapters around the world in partnership with UNICEF to roll out an education and fundraising campaign to eliminate maternal/neonatal tetanus (MNT) in 40 countries around the world.

“We’re excited and looking forward to experiencing this new journey of service and the opportunity to expand our service beyond our work here at Fordham,” Thomas DeJulio said. “We hope to inspire others to become global and local leaders, particularly students, so that they will become more involved, not only to save the lives of mothers and their newborns in 40 nations, but also to address the significant needs found in their local communities.”

MNT is a disease that kills an estimated 60,000 newborns and 30,000 mothers each year. The disease is easily prevented by a series of three vaccinations, costing roughly $1.80, to women of childbearing age.

“The Eliminate Project: Kiwanis eliminating maternal/neonatal tetanus” will raise $110 million over the next five years to fill the funding gap required to provide an estimated 387 million doses of the vaccine to the most vulnerable women and children in the world: those in remote and difficult to reach areas; conflict zones; and with little access to healthcare.

Over the next several years, DeJulio will be working with Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, on the endeavor to eliminate MNT. Kiwanis International and UNICEF partnered successfully in the past to virtually eliminate iodine deficiency disorders afflicting children in third world nations by introducing iodized salt into the diets of their population. In that fundraising campaign which began in 1995, Kiwanis clubs around the world raised $100 million over ten years to prevent the leading cause of mental retardation and goiter.

“We’re taking on the new challenge to remedy something that is also preventable. It’s a great way to phase into a new career and use what we have learned at Fordham, a place that transforms lives and has a culture of service,” DeJulio said.

The DeJulios plan to continue their work schedules at Fordham through December 2011 and invite Fordham students to become global ambassadors to educate the general public about maternal and neonatal tetanus through the service leadership programs sponsored by Kiwanis International.

Thomas DeJulio will assume the position of president of Kiwanis International in 2012.

“In 2012, Rosemary and I will begin our transition from a combined 70 years of service to Fordham to a new and challenging leadership position in Kiwanis International. Following Ignatian principles and all that we have learned at Fordham, the ‘magis’ and ‘the greater glory of God’ will guide us wherever we travel and speak throughout the world,” he said.

DeJulio learned of Kiwanis while at Mount Vernon high school, where he joined the “Key Club,” a service chapter of Kiwanis for high school students. He then co-founded the chapter of Circle K, the Kiwanis club for college students, at Fordham in 1970.

When asked for a memorable “Kiwanis moment,” DeJulio recalled the time members brought Christmas toys to the children of employees who perished while working at Windows of the World, a restaurant located atop floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

“It was very touching,” he said.

DeJulio was elected to the post of vice president at the 95th Annual Kiwanis International convention in Las Vegas, edging out Randy DeLay of Houston, Texas, the brother of Tom DeLay, former Majority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.

-Gina Vergel

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Thomas De Luca Made Honorary Professor by Chinese University

Sun Yat-sen University, one of China’s premier schools, awarded Dr. Thomas De Luca the position of honorary professor of government, 2010-2012. The honor was bestowed upon De Luca during the annual short-term study abroad course De Luca leads for Fordham students each year, “China and the U.S. in the Era of Globalization.” The award was presented by Chengda Mei, director of the School of Government’s executive board.

At the May 25 award ceremony, Mei said of De Luca: “Given his academic achievements and enormous contributions to the School of Government, we are very pleased to appoint him as an honorary professor of government.”

This is the second time De Luca has been so honored by a major Chinese university. In 2008, he was appointed honorary professor of political science, 2008-2010, by China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) in Beijing, one of China’s most renowned law schools and academic centers for the study of political science.

De Luca has been actively engaged with Chinese universities since he first served as a senior Fulbright Lecturer at CUPL from 1999 to 2000. Since then, he has lectured and researched, and organized a conference on democracy, in China. With Fulbright and Fordham support, he also directs an academic exchange program through which Fordham professors have lectured in Beijing, and CUPL professors have reciprocated in New York.

In 2007, in collaboration with professors Thierry Meynard and Hector Lindo-Fuentes, then associate dean of Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, De Luca initiated the current study abroad course. In that course, students travel to Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, study in classes with Chinese students as Sun Yat-sen University, visit historic sites, travel to rural villages, tour factories, and meet with journalists and U.S. consular officials, among other activities.

“I look forward to leading Fordham students to China for the fifth time next year, and to continuing to collaborate with the two Chinese universities that have honored me,” said De Luca.

Friday, July 2, 2010

FordhamScience: Undergraduate Research and Bird Mojo

Several Fordham students presented their research at the 64th Annual Eastern Colleges Science Conference (ECSC), at Pace University this spring, in which more than 400 students participated.

Among the seven award winners at the conference, two were Fordham students: Fordham College at Rose Hill senior Stacey Barnaby, a chemistry major from Monroe, Conn.; and Esi Kajno, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and natural sciences major at Fordham College at Lincoln Center.

Stacey Barnaby has been conducting research in the Chemistry Department in the laboratory of Ipsita Banerjee, Ph.D., for the past year. Barnaby’s project mainly focuses on the development of nanostructures for potential applications in anti-aging and cancer.

Specifically, Barnaby has been studying the growth of kinetin-based nanostructures and the growth of selenium nanoparticles as biocompatible materials for drug delivery for prevention of oxidative cellular damage. She has been examining the potential of these materials as radical scavengers and investigating their efficiency as supports for enzymes such as glutathione peroxidase, which plays a vital role in prevention of oxidative damage. These materials have been found to survive in live cell cultures of normal rat kidney cells, which is promising and she hopes that she will be soon be moving on to conduct in vivo studies. She has already presented at conferences such as the New York American Chemical Society undergraduate research symposium, the Columbia University undergraduate research symposium, the Fordham undergraduate research symposium, and ECSC, which involved undergraduate participants from colleges and universities all over the East Coast.

At ECSC, Barnaby was recently honored with an excellence for poster presentation award, in the division for molecular biology and biochemistry. She loves doing research and presenting and sharing her work with fellow researchers at conferences. She gives campus tours as a member of the Rose Hill Society, welcomes freshman as a part of the New Student Orientation team, and tutors students in the HEOP program. She hopes to apply to graduate school to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry/bionanotechnology. “I love research because the possibilities are endless,” she said. “I truly feel that through research, I can help make a difference in the world.”

Esi Kajno worked with Dr. James Wishart at Brookhaven National Laboratory as part of the Summer Undergraduate Internship program.

Due to global energy challenges, the conversion of cellulosic biomass (plant material) into ethanol has recently attracted considerable interest as an alternative means for the production of affordable and renewable biofuels. The complication is that plant-derived cellulosic material requires pre-treatment in order to remove the lignin that is naturally bound to cellulose and makes it resistant to hydrolysis into fermentable sugars.

Current pre-treatment processes are costly and challenging since they require harsh conditions (high pressures and temperatures, use of strong acids and/or toxic and flammable substances). Recently, alternative methods to improve on cellulose conversion to biofuels have focused on the use of a new category of solvents known as Ionic Liquids (ILs). These are salts that remain liquids at low temperatures. Unlike organic solvents, ILs are non volatile and therefore very attractive as a green chemistry alternative. In addition their unique set of physical and chemical characteristics offers a new medium for reaction kinetics.

Kajno’s work focused on the synthesis, purification and characterization of ILs and their use in studying the dissolution of cellulose from corn cob and wood, which is key to its conversion into ethanol.

Science Friday Bonus: J. Alan Clark, the Avian Barry White
Today the Daily News reports on Alan Clark’s work with a flock of highly endangered Waldrapp ibis at the Bronx Zoo. The flockhad produced no chicks for seven years. Clark, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Fordham, created a soundtrack of mating calls, recorded in Austria, that restored the birds’ mojo, and the flock has since hatched six offspring from three sets of parents.

Read the complete story, which includes photos and recordings of the mating calls: “Soundtrack of mating calls helps put flock of endangered Waldrapp ibis at Bronx Zoo in the mood.”