Mad Science

Eight Super-Cool Adventures in Science at the UA

The UA College of Science is doing some amazing stuff these days: space missions, drug research, insect examinations and a lot more. Here are eight examples of stuff happening on the UA campus—and beyond!

A space oddity: Was there life on Mars?

When it comes to awesome opportunities for scientists at UA, not everything is reserved to the graduate students and professors. Undergraduate Gordon Downs is part of a team of researchers from around the world working on the NASA Curiosity rover mission to determine if Mars ever was habitable, or ever exhibited an environment that could have been capable of supporting life. The UA team is developing new ways to analyze data from the Curiosity rover. The data offers clues to determine the chemistry and mineralogy of Mars samples. The makeup of Martian rocks help scientists determine the geological history of the planet, such as whether or not water was present. A new analytical method created by the UA team will assist with identifying the materials on Mars, thus bringing the mission a step closer to answering the question of whether or not Mars was once habitable to microbial life.

Hoopla about a Horse Spa

Equine aromatherapy, huh? I support it. One UA student's undergraduate thesis was recently turned into a peer-reviewed, published research paper in the Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. Isabelle Chea's goal was to study the effects of two scents, lavender and chamomile, on the heart rate of horses. Previous studies had already looked at the effect of lavender aromatherapy on the heart rate of stressed horses, but Chea wanted to see what effect aromatherapy would have on the heart rate variability in calm horses. In the study, horses were administered lavender essential oils via a diffuser held near the horse's nose. A monitor tracked heart rate and heart rate variability for 21 minutes: seven minutes before the introduction of the diffuser, seven minutes with the diffuser, and seven minutes after the diffuser was removed. The heart rate didn't change, but the "parasympathetic component of heart rate variability" did, which contains the relaxation part of the autonomic nervous system. Researchers could even see relaxed changes in the horses' behavior, including a lowered neck, licking and chewing while the lavender was being administered.

Ketamine for Parkinson's Patients

Like chemotherapy, the current mainstream treatment for Parkinson's disease has clear positives and clear negatives. The main treatment, levodopa, can treat the stiffness and slowness of movement associated with Parkinson's, but after a few months its side effects result in uncontrollable movements in the legs and arms. But two doctors from the UA Department of Neurology may have stumbled upon a wonderful use for a notorious party drug. While originally using ketamine to treat the pain associated with Parkinson's, Dr. Scott Sherman and Dr. Torsten Falk found that ketamine can also reduce the tremors set on as a side effect from levodopa. When abused at high doses, ketamine can cause hallucination and dissociation, but at regulated medical levels, it can treat pain and depression. So no, the patients are not going to be slipping into a "k-hole" anytime soon. But with any luck, they may just be slipping into a more comfortable life.

A Hive Mind is a Live Mind

As it turns out, monarchs have it better in the insect realm as well. The average worker bee lives for a matter of weeks, whereas a queen bee can live for years. These vastly different lifespans appear to be connected to different microbes living in the bees' guts. A team of UA researchers, including three graduate students, are studying these different microbes in an attempt to discover clues about how genetics, lifestyle, gut bacteria and diet can influence aging in humans. The researchers discovered "queen and worker bees embark on different microbial trajectories: as workers age, their gut microbiomes shift away from the initial dominance of beneficial, probiotic microbes, and their intestines are taken over more and more by bacteria associated with poor health and shorter life expectancy. Queens on the other hand, somehow manage to support a more refined, efficient microbiome, retaining 'signatures of youth.'" The study suggested that "royal jelly, which enhances the growth of queen-specific gut microbes, sets the queen on a trajectory toward a much longer life by shifting her gut microbiome away from that of the common worker bee. Workers, on the other hand, rely mostly on pollen as their staple food."

Suburban Rain Dance

We all grew up learning about the water cycle: condensation, precipitation and evaporation. And with this simplification in mind, it might actually make sense that simply watering your lawn could cause it to rain, after all, that evaporated water has to go somewhere, right? Well one UA doctoral student, Josh Welty, set out to find if there was any truth to that theory. He examined the relationship between morning soil moisture and afternoon rainfall accumulations over the Southern Great Plains from 2002 to 2011. Welty found that found "soil moisture can affect afternoon rain accumulations over the Southern Great Plains during the warm season and the impact differs based on atmospheric conditions." Their findings also suggest that land surface changes in response to human activity could be significant. Essentially, one person watering their lawn or crops won't make it rain, but a whole city doing so might get some extra clouds in the sky.

Touch the Sun

The basis of just about everything in human civilization: agriculture, art, sleep cycles, religion, even humanity itself, comes from the sun. Now for the first time, humans will get to touch the sun—well, at least partially. NASA's Parker Solar Probe recently launched from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and in 2024, the probe will orbit between Mercury and the sun at a speed of 430,000 miles per hour—the fastest speed ever attained by a human-made object. And, you guessed it, UA scientists are involved! Thanks to the help of researchers at UA's Lunar and Planetary Lab, NASA's Parker Probe will examine the phenomenon of "solar wind" while in close orbit of the sun. Solar wind is a current of protons and electrons shot into space by our sun. While in orbit, gathering valuable data on these thermonuclear tendrils from the sun, the Parker Probe will have to endure temperatures close to 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

Another Green World

A few miles outside of Tucson, the Biosphere 2 stands as a scientific and biological oasis in the unforgiving desert. It's an enclosed dome with a jungle inside, working as a massive terrarium with several kinds of landscapes from across the planet. But what's the point of such a massive eco-bubble, other than looking really cool? It also serves as a Landscape Evolution Observatory, where researchers can perform various experiments to examine how the water, soil, plant, and microbes respond to diverse scenarios of climate. Essentially, it's a little world that we can alter the climate of, to get a better understanding of our own climate. And if you're wondering what Biosphere 1 is, just look around you!

Asteroid Hunt

OSIRIS-REx: It's a cool sounding word, but what does it mean? It's an acronym for: "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer." So basically, it means UA scientists are working with NASA to snatch up a piece of an asteroid, take it back to Earth, and closely study it. From this valuable space sample, scientists hope to learn about life in the universe, the origin of our oceans, and how to avoid possible asteroid collisions in the future. The OSIRIS-REx probe launched from Cape Canaveral in September 2016, will arrive at the asteroid in December 2018, and is planned to finish collecting the asteroid sample in mid-2020. If all goes well, our cosmic voyager will return to Earth in late 2023, and UA scientists will be examining the cosmos like never before! Why such a long timespan? Because the asteroid in question, Bennu, is a few million miles away from us, orbiting the sun at an average speed of 63,000 mph!