Marine biologist and UF Biology alumnus Mike Gil PhD’15 has been named a TED Fellow and is one of 21 international experts who will attend and speak at this year’s TEDGlobal, TED’s annual conference, which will take place in Arusha, Tanzania in August. “I’m truly honored by the distinction,” says Gil.
Gil shares his research stories on his vlog for his nonprofit SciAll.org, through which he endeavors to debunk myths and inspire interest in marine biology among the world community. The vlog includes funny moments such as fish attempting to eat his camera, scenes of adventure such as underwater footage of whales and turtles, and Gil’s direct-to-camera discussions of science careers, the nature of scientific inquiry, and how to become a marine biology. Through these videos, Gil reflects upon his own journey as a scientist while presenting science as a source of wonder and understanding.
“Humans affect ecosystems that we, as a society, have come to rely heavily upon,” he says. “I think this is among the most pressing research topics of our time.” His major research projects have revolved around the effects of human activity, especially pollution, on marine environments. At the University of Florida, his dissertation project examined nutrient pollution in coral reefs caused by nitrogen-loaded industrial and agricultural runoff. Much like when you don’t clean your fish tank, nutrient pollution can lead to algae blooms that choke coral reefs.
Gil’s recent cover story of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences also touched on the algae problem. In the paper, he explains how fish eat socially and, by eating algae, help protect coral reefs. However, overfishing decimates fish populations and makes this social eating — and thus overall eating — less likely and algae takeovers more likely.
In 2012, Gil set sail on the SSV Robert C. Seamans on a research cruise with the Sea Education Association. Their itinerary took Gil through the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, one of several such vortices in the world’s oceans that draws oceanic debris — especially plastics — into clumps that provide refuge for various species. Gil counted organisms living among the debris he pulled aboard and studied barnacle-made structures that constituted microbiomes on the plastic debris. His findings were published in Scientific Reports on Jan. 27, 2016. In a collaborative project with fellow UF Biology graduate Joseph Pfaller PhD’16, to whom Gil provided data about the mating pairs of oceanic crabs (Planes minutus) that he found on the debris, they offered evidence for a new spatial-behavioral model of symbiosis.
Gil says that his primary drive as a biologist is to study ecosystem resilience, i.e. the ability of an ecosystem to adapt to external stressors, especially anthropogenic factors, to help inform conservation efforts for future generations’ well-being. “To make the world aware of these answers will determine the future of our species (including our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on),” he says. “Fortunately, there is a simple, objective process that we can use to answer these questions, and it is called science.”
In addition to being a science educator and communicator, Gil is currently a National Science Foundation (USA) Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of California, Davis.
TED has taken note of his double-edged approach to science and saving the world, stating: “We choose Fellows based on remarkable achievement, their strength of character and on their innovative approach to solving the world’s tough problems.”
“Ever wonder if true adventure still exists in this world?” asks SciAll.org’s tagline. Thanks to Mike Gil, we don’t have to.
On April 21, 2017, more than 200 people gathered for the dedication of Joseph Hernandez Hall, which provides state-of-the-art facilities for general chemistry, organic chemistry, and chemical biology at UF. The two-level atrium was packed with UF Chemistry faculty and students, special guests of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and donors to the building.
David E. Richardson, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences, served as Master of Ceremonies, describing how the long trajectory of one of UF’s oldest departments led to the development of Joseph Hernandez Hall. The building will provide top-notch equipment and hands-on learning for hundreds of UF undergraduates, as well as graduate, postdoc, and faculty researchers.
Dean Richardson introduced Mori Husseini, Vice-Chair of UF’s Board of Trustees, to talk about the remarkable stature and amenities of the building. For example, the building contains enough concrete to build a four-foot wide, 15-mile sidewalk and 165 tons of metal — the weight of 400 adult alligators, if you’re counting in Alberts. Husseini’s lighthearted speech enhanced the excitement of the audience, including Joseph Hernandez’ daughter, Estelle.
Next, the building namesake and UF alumnus, Joe Hernandez ’96, MS’98, MBA’98, took the stage and explained how his curiosity led to his triple-degree career at UF and his post-graduate enterprises.
Self-described as being “attention deficit,” Hernandez has launched five biotech start-ups that are involved with creating therapies for a number of conditions, including osteoarthritis and ovarian cancer.
President Kent Fuchs was all smiles when he took the podium to describe the significance of Joseph Hernandez Hall to UF as a robust research institution. He gave the “buckyball” sculpture hanging at the atrium entrance as a symbol of the intersection between arts and sciences. Designed by UK artist Tony Stallard, the sculpture depicts the carbon-60 molecule fullerene, weighs 650 pounds, and is made of stainless steel, with a Plexiglas centerpiece.
William “Bill” Dolbier, chair of UF’s Department of Chemistry, noted that the first Master’s and PhD recipients at UF, in 1907 and 1934, respectively, were both chemists. Continuing a brief historical overview of UF Chemistry, he explained that in 2013, the Florida Legislature made its first allocation for the building, and the groundbreaking occurred in October 2014. He also thanked, from UF, Frank Javaheri, project manager; John Flowers, chemistry facilities manager; and the faculty members who designed the labs: Phil Brucat, Tammy Davidson, Steve Bruner, and Aaron Aponick.
Susan Webster, the outgoing student body president, shared her story of how she encountered a man peering into Joseph Hernandez Hall. When she asked him what he thought of it, he told her that he had just accepted an offer to join the PhD program in chemistry, in part due to the “wow factor” of the building. She then described her first meeting of Joe Hernandez and joked that all UF students should aspire to be able to donate $10 million to their alma mater by age 43.
Welcome to the second issue of Ytori! We are still receiving comments and questions about our first issue, most frequently about the name of the magazine. Ytori and its variant itori are the Spanish renderings of the Timucua word for alligator. The Timucua inhabited North Florida for centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
During the concept stage, we considered and rejected dozens of possible magazine names. We wanted a unique, memorable name that resonates with our state, university, and, most particularly, our college. Some names were much better than others — one that surfaced briefly, Jacma, a tongue-in-cheek acronym for “just another college magazine,” shows just how far out some suggestions were. Inevitably and appropriately, they all ended up on the cutting-room floor.
A suggestion that we consider a word from the language of the Timucua led us to one of the few scholars in the world who know the language, Professor of Anthropology Aaron Broadwell. With his help, we quickly identified Ytori as an ideal candidate, as it captures our university’s symbol, the history of the state and its native peoples, and the role of the Spanish in Florida. All of these are reflective of our broad mission to teach and study nature, society, and humanity.
In this issue, we learn more about Professor Broadwell, the Timucua, and the alligator in Florida. Even as we are going to press with this issue, we are preparing for the fall issue of the magazine, which will come out around the time the university will be announcing its new fundraising campaign. As part of this effort, we in the college are also gearing up for an exciting five-year campaign to increase resources for our students, our faculty, and the important work they do every day. Stay tuned!
With best regards,
David E. Richardson
Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Oceanic crabs find love in strange places, including in the pocket above a sea turtle’s tail and on floating plastic debris. Joseph Pfaller PhD ’16 and Michael Gil PhD ’15 have led several complementary projects that culminated in an intriguing finding: crabs exhibit different mating behavior when living tucked below the carapace of a loggerhead turtle than in a nest of plastic. Pfaller and Gil’s findings provide support for a new ecological model of symbiosis – when different species live together – that incorporates spatial factors.
Oceanic crabs (Planes minutus) are weak swimmers, yet live far from shore. They must seek shelter for mating, feeding, and long-distance travel.
Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta), which have a worldwide range, provide an appropriate host for the crabs. The crabs do not harm the turtle, but the turtle does not benefit from their presence. This type of symbiotic relationship is called commensalism; however, not all P. minutus are commensalists.
What’s remarkable about the arrangement is that when it occurs, the crabs adopt a particular mating behavior – monogamy. Because the pocket above the turtle’s tail is small, mating pairs of crabs can monopolize this refuge space and, thus, the rest of the turtle’s body. Since this private island home provides ample mating and feeding opportunities, risking life and limb to leave such a posh setup to seek other mates becomes less desirable.
“Humans affect ecosystems that we, as a society, have come to rely heavily upon. I think this is among the most pressing research topics of our time.”
The discovery gives insight into the evolution of biomes, the collection of organisms bound by a common physical place. If that physical place is part of a larger organism, such as a turtle’s body, it’s an “epibiome,” or “biome on top of a biome.” In the epibiome, what different relationships emerge between species? Typically, symbiosis, which most people learned from college biology classes, is a close interaction of two different creatures’ behavior and growth.
An ecological relationship in which one species relies upon the other is called obligate symbiosis. However, Pfaller notes that because the crabs aren’t entirely reliant upon their “roomie,” this relationship could be considered facultative, not obligate. Facultative symbiosis is an intermediate step between living alone and living an obligate lifestyle, and “might lead to the evolution of obligate symbiosis,” he explains.
Pfaller and Gil published a paper in the Sept. 21, 2016 issue of Biology Letters using data on sea turtles from Pfaller’s and others’ previous research to compare the occurrence of male–female crab pairs in loggerheads’ carapace pockets with that of other biomes, in particular, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As the name suggests, it is a massive collection of oceanic debris, comprising mostly plastic items, and is perhaps as vast as 270,000 square miles, swirling in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. “Think inverted whirlpool,” says Gil.
The Garbage Patch also provides refuge for a number of creatures. The paper analyzes data collected for a 2012 project with the Sea Education Association, in which Gil traveled the Pacific aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans from San Diego to Honolulu on a course through the center of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. “To sample plastic debris that crossed our path, we would bring the debris on board,” says Gil. “I would carefully count and remove all organisms, including crabs, from the plastic surface using chisels.”
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch comprises clumps of floating debris, mostly plastics.
“Think inverted whirlpool.”
Although the Garbage Patch is not the cohesive mass of plastic one might imagine, the role of floating plastic debris cannot be understated. Gil’s research, published in Scientific Reports on Jan. 27, 2016, focused on the barnacle colonies that grew on the debris, and his findings from the barnacle study further confirm that some species’ physiology affects the spatial relations, and indirectly, another species’ behavior. “Anatomy is the key,” agrees Pfaller. The barnacles provide structural integrity and refuge areas.
When those areas are of similar size, and therefore defensibility, to the pocket above a turtle’s tail, crabs exhibit the same monogamous behavior as they do on loggerheads. This pattern suggests that crabs may better use their energy to pursue multiple mating partners if they’re in an amorphous biome rather than defending refuge. Defending the small pocket of the turtle – the epibiome – is considerably easier, so the pursuit of multiple partners isn’t worth losing the refuge.
Pfaller and Gil’s work supports the expansion of ecological theory to address “what we don’t know about, which is the ecological characteristics that drive mating strategies,” says Pfaller. “Our findings suggest that symbiosis could drive the evolution of specific mating strategies in animals,” says Gil.
Moreover, both projects highlight the complex effects of human activity on wildlife behavior, says Gil. While humans’ relationship to the environment may take many forms, it’s not always commensalist: “Humans affect ecosystems that we, as a society, have come to rely heavily upon,” he says. “I think this is among the most pressing research topics of our time.” Before his barnacle research, Gil studied a different type of oceanic pollution: runoff. His dissertation examined nutrient pollution in coral reefs. Runoff from farms and septic tanks, as well as combustion emissions, releases excessive nitrogen and phosphorus into aquatic environments. Much like when you don’t clean your fish tank, algae blooms and, in the ocean, saps coral reefs.
Pfaller says the crabs project is an extension of his lifelong interest in sea turtle research. When he was a teenager, he began volunteering with the Caretta Research Project. The Savannah, Ga.-based endeavor, now in its 45th year, is “one of the longest-running sea turtle research projects in the world,” says Pfaller. His 19 years with Caretta as volunteer and eventual intern have culminated in his current role as research director of the project. “I’ve been a biologist since I could walk,” he says. “There’s really no other job path that I ever could imagine.”
Extinction detective Bob Holt tracks down the likely culprit behind ecological crises.
by Rachel Wayne
Ecological modeling. Saving the world. The two go hand-in-hand for theoretical ecologist and evolutionary biologist Bob Holt, who recently joined a team of nine scientists to describe how conservation models must be designed with consideration of climate change. Holt has studied everything from rodents and prairie plants to ticks and anthrax, but his main focus has been on theoretical and conceptual contributions to understanding complex ecological systems. Holt has a background in physics that, he says, supports both strong quantitative training and a powerful example of science providing “unifying principles to tie together disparate phenomena.” Thus, he is primed to examine the interactions of forces and the emergence of order from chaos — the two primary tenets of both ecology and physics. Holt is a sort of extinction detective, looking past first appearances and easy whodunits to understand the Rube Goldberg machine behind an ecological crisis. Here are some examples of mysteries solved by Holt or his colleagues.
The Santa Cruz island fox (Urocyon littoralis) of California’s Channel Islands was near extinction. Whodunit?The bald eagle population had declined due to DDT exposure, allowing their competitors, golden eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), to move in.
The golden eagles began eating abundant feral pigs after settling on the island, and also incidentally preyed upon the endemic fox. The Nature Conservancy exterminated the feral pigs, the golden eagles stopped visiting, and the fox has rebounded. This phenomenon of one prey species indirectly harming another, via their shared predator, is called “apparent competition.”
The young of great tit birds in the Netherlands weren’t faring as well as great tit nestlings in the United Kingdom. Whodunit?The great tit bird (Parus major) of the British Isles will lay eggs earlier in warmer springs, and their primary prey, caterpillars, hatch earlier in warmer springs.
Great tit birds in the Netherlands, however, do not change their egg-laying behavior, so their young won’t have the fresh supply of caterpillars. This is an example of how climate change affects species’ reproduction and, moreover, demonstrates how the populations of the same species are affected by their geographic location.
In parts of the Pacific coastline, mussel populations dropped to zero, hurting the health of intertidal ecosystems. Whodunit?The ochre sea star (Pisaster ochraceus) of the Pacific Ocean.
The ochre sea star is a keystone species: It has a disproportionately large effect on its ecosystem. With rising ocean temperature, the stars eat more and, in some areas, can devastate populations of mussels. That zeroing out also has an economic impact on humans, who eat the mussels.
Developing ecological modeling greatly benefits from a robust understanding of math, which Holt imported from his physics education. “Often in biology, students don’t know much mathematics before starting,” says Holt. “Mathematics is like a language. It’s easier to learn when you’re young.”
Because global warming is more than a simple, steady increase in temperature, and includes anomalies such as droughts, heatwaves, and excessive rainfall, its impact on species or ecosystems as a whole can be quite variable.
As a physics major, Holt regularly took biology courses as electives for fun and met several professors of ecology, including his undergraduate mentor, Robert H. MacArthur, a seminal theorist in the fields of population and island ecology. Holt accompanied him on his last field trip before MacArthur’s death in 1972. In ecology, Holt found an exciting balance between lab work and fieldwork. “I liked that I wouldn’t be stuck in front of a lab or computer. I could be outside,” he says. The lab work he does is primarily “mathematical and computational modeling,” and this methodology can be paired with climate modeling to provide guidance for conservation efforts. A paper published in Science in 2016 emerged from a working group at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research in Leipzig, Germany, that met to discuss modeling for species distribution and range limits that change as the climate does.
In the paper, Holt and his team propose an international consortium of scientists to bring their respective disciplines together to build a more comprehensive portrait of climate change as it affects ecosystems and the flora and fauna within. The consortium wants to collect biological data that would help scientists and policymakers collaborate on effective conservation measures. The data would be flowed into a comprehensive knowledge base about metabolic, reproductive, and behavioral aspects of species that alternate with warmer or cooler climates. Because global warming is more than a simple, steady increase in temperature, and includes anomalies such as droughts, heatwaves, and excessive rainfall, its impact on species or ecosystems as a whole can be quite variable. The team proposes that these mechanisms be integrated into models that can predict the wide-ranging effects of climate change and guide conservation efforts.
Holt has had some experience in these matters. Since 1984, he has directed a long-term ecological experiment — which is rare, he says — to measure fragmentation and secondary succession of Kansas farmland. Secondary succession entails new flora and fauna recovering in an area, say after agricultural land is abandoned. Such changes in vegetation can have important implications for conservation. Close to the University of Florida campus, the scrub jay is a notable example. As the only endemic bird of Florida, the scrub jay is sensitive to the increased development, wetter summers, and warmer winters that have led to habitat loss. Scrub jays are ill-adapted to the thicker, predator-heavy woodlands in the North, where they are driven. Conservation efforts include controlled burns to preserve the scrub habitat that give the jays their name.
Holt’s concern for the jay and other endangered species has its roots in his childhood as a self-described boy naturalist. “I’ve been a keen birder since I was 10 years old,” says Holt. While his education in physics encourages the pursuit of universal laws, “biology, particularly ecology and evolution, revels in diversity,” he says. In birdwatching, “you’re not looking for the universal bird, you’re looking at how the cardinal is different from the chickadee is different from the tody is different from the duck is different from the owl. That diversity is part of the joy of engaging with the natural world.”
Racism is real and stress is not just all in your head.
By Rachel Wayne
With genetics-based medicine came the compelling desire to boil every health issue down to one’s DNA, with issues such as hypertension and anxiety falling into an ambiguous field straddling the medical-chart columns for “family history” and “lifestyle.”
“I encountered that medical students here at UF were learning about the supposed genetic basis for racial inequalities in disease. Having been trained as an anthropologist as an undergrad, this seemed crazy to me,” says Lance Gravlee, professor of anthropology. “I had sort of taken for granted that those ideas about race and genes were something of the 19th century, that we had dispensed with that.”
19th-century anthropometric chart portraying supposed differences between races, Wikimedia
“I had sort of taken for granted that those ideas about race and genes were something of the 19th century, that we had dispensed with that.”
People with darker skin tones may indeed be more likely to have issues with anxiety and high blood pressure, but genetic makeup cannot explain all, which is where Gravlee and fellow professor of anthropology Connie Mulligan come in. They study the effects of racial discrimination and genetics on personal health and aim to find a more complete answer, which lies in the complexities of genetics and its health effects in an environment structured by racism.
In anthropology’s origins during the 18th century, naturalists developed methods of anthropometry that were designed to classify humans by their race, usually by the size and proportions of their skulls. Modern and ancient skeletons were analyzed through an ever-shifting model of human evolution that meshed with an imperialist spectrum of “primitive” to “civilized” — methods later debunked. However, the notion that one’s skin and blood could fully explain their life and health persisted. After the inception of the Human Genome Project in the mid-1980s, the tendency to conceptualize race and ethnicity — and related health risks — through genetic analysis became popular. These “predictions” seemed to corroborate many health professionals’ observations that certain health conditions were pervasive among people of color. The anthropometric model had been replaced by the ostensibly more scientific, but ultimately restrictive, genome model. Yet the question remained: Was it all in their genes? Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
Meanwhile, anthropologists aimed to “decolonize” their field and shed the racist and imperialist assumptions of their armchair predecessors, which for some meant firmly embracing anthropology’s role as a social science. “In principle, most researchers understand that we need to pay attention to both the genetic and the socio-environmental, but it’s difficult to do that kind of work,” says Gravlee. Possibly exacerbating the difficulty is Western society’s false dichotomy between the mind and the body, as well as the rift between “social studies” and medicine and their respective data sets. “We can sidestep that because we are operating from an anthropological point of view,” says Gravlee. “We understand biology and culture because we have a common language.”
This special perspective allowed Mulligan and Gravlee to complete their groundbreaking project, one that defied that false dichotomy by blending ethnographic and geneticist methodologies. Their paper, published in PLOS ONE in 2016, explained that being subjected to racism, even secondhand, was a predictor of hypertension. They identified eight variants in five genes linked to blood pressure regulation, then added sociocultural data to test for associations. When they did, they found a new set of associations with genes known to be linked to depression and anxiety. “Including sociocultural variables opened a new window in biology that we couldn’t see until we took seriously the relevance of those variables,” says Gravlee.
This special perspective allowed Mulligan and Gravlee to complete their groundbreaking project, one that defied that false dichotomy by blending ethnographic and geneticist methodologies.
Their findings show that the overemphasis on genetics excluded a valuable line of inquiry. After the Human Genome Project’s completion, genetic determinists expected full answers to all health problems but were left with a concept of “missing heritability,” says Mulligan. If it’s all in the genes, why do some members of a family suffer from heart disease while others don’t? The explanation first requires an understanding of the difference between one’s genes and how those genes are expressed. A genotype is the total set of genes an organism has, while a phenotype is the observed behavior and physical characteristics of that organism. For example, flamingos’ genes do not call for them to be pink; they are pink because they eat mostly carotene-rich shrimp. Gene expression, and therefore phenotype, varies based on several factors, including the environment, which for humans includes the sociocultural realm. “Hypertension is a complex phenotype, like cancer or mental health, yet nobody studies them in that way,” says Mulligan.
Gravlee adds, “Many people who defend race [as a scientific reality] use examples such as a sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, and cystic fibrosis,” which are associated with people of African, Hebrew, and Northern European descent, respectively, “but those are single-gene disorders.” For complex phenotypes, the answer lies in the field of epigenetics.
Interactions among genetic and environmental factors produce epigenetic effects on phenotypes. “Epi-,” a prefix meaning “on top of,” refers to variations in genetic expression that are linked to environmental changes or time. While a person’s “DNA,” as commonly called, or more precisely their genotype, does not change throughout their life, how their cells read those genes does. DNA methylation affects gene expression as a normal epigenetic effect; decreases in DNA methylation have been linked to stress, by inhibiting expression of genes that code for protein receptors for cortisol. Thus, stress in one’s environment can change their cells’ behavior and have a direct effect on health.
Mulligan’s background in genetics primed her to move into the anthropology of violence and health disparities. “I was tired of looking through the microscope at yeast,” she says. “I love being able to talk to my study organism.” She has progressively immersed herself in the genetics of health since beginning her career in the hard sciences, finally finding intellectual satisfaction at UF.
“Coming into the anthropology department struck me as the biggest sandbox I could play in.” Helping her was Gravlee, who had seen his and others’ colleagues operate under the assumptions that people of color, including those of African or Hebrew descent, were predisposed to certain diseases, and set out to test those assumptions. Gravlee hypothesized that the epidemiology of health disparities had genetic factors; Mulligan hypothesized that the genetics of health included the sociocultural realm. “I like anthropology because I can take the broadest possible perspective on health and what to me is a more accurate — more true — answer in what is driving health and disease,” says Mulligan. Beginning with a meta-analysis of Gravlee’s research in Puerto Rico on the relationship between blood pressure variation and perceived skin color, they turned the theoretical into findings. There were indeed interactions between genetic and socio-environmental factors, particularly with regard to racial disparities.
They directed their attention toward Tallahassee, where Gravlee had been collecting stories of racial discrimination and using social network analysis to study health disparities since 2007. He and Mulligan “envisioned building on those stories to try to develop better measures of the kinds of racism-related stressors that people encountered and see the extent to which we could account for variation in blood pressure,” he says. They chose to continue Gravlee’s study of hypertension because it has long been considered a disease toward which people of African descent are predisposed. Most people understand that stress can cause heart problems, but Mulligan and Gravlee have delved into a type of stress that can be much harder, both socially and politically, to unpack: the stress of racial discrimination. Even asking people to talk about it isn’t cut and dried. “Reports of perceived stress are not good predictors of health outcomes,” says Gravlee.
Gravlee describes his approach as “community-based participatory research.” The project is guided by a steering committee composed of people interested in health equity, the contemporary crux of Tallahassee’s long-running civil rights movement. This situation called for rewriting the Institutional Review Board protocols, which typically require a pre-approved set of questions written by the researcher. However, with their approach, “we were liaisons between community members and the research institution,” says Gravlee. “They are partners, not just participants.” The 100-question survey emerged from conversations with these partners, who guided the researchers in what to ask. This unusual arrangement threw the IRB for a temporary loop, but certainly supports the decolonization of anthropology and demonstrates the potential of oral history and participant-generated research questions to alleviate social inequity.
“Including sociocultural variables opened a new window in biology that we couldn’t see until we took seriously the relevance of those variables.”
Their findings don’t leave much opportunity for researchers in any discipline to hide behind genetic determinism or enforce the divide between biology and culture. “We often equate biology and genes and then regard the environment as something else, something extraneous. People want it to be nature versus nurture,” remarks Gravlee. “Our results suggest that we need a little more nuance.”
Professor of Psychology and Executive Director of Project Implicit Kate Ratliff says many people do not recognize their own bias.
by Rachel Wayne
Everyone’s a little bit racist, sang puppets in the 2003 Off-Broadway musical Avenue Q. Offensive humor aside, the long-running Project Implicit at Harvard suggests the lyric is truer than we might like to admit. “In the U.S., people know that stereotyping is morally wrong, but may not recognize their own bias,” says Kate Ratliff, a UF psychology professor who has worked on the project since she was a PhD student at the University of Virginia. In an impressive line of succession, her advisor, Brian Nosek, his advisor in turn, Tony Greenwald, and his “grand-advisor” Mahzarin Banaji founded Project Implicit in 1998. Ratliff now serves as the executive director of the project.
The project uses a series of exercises called Implicit Association Tests (IATs), which work by having participants correctly label photos in a progression of alternating images and text. The test measures even miniscule delays in response when participants see a word that they may not immediately associate with the image presented to them, for example, “science” with a photo of a woman. There are currently 14 IATs available on the Project Implicit website, through which the team has access to a global participant pool, and all marginalized populations, including ethnic minorities and persons of disability, are represented in the tests. Participants can test their bias on almost every element of the sociodemographic spectrum, and the IAT then gives them feedback, at which point people who consider themselves educated and enlightened might find unexpected results. “The more people are surprised, the more it violates what they think about themselves — and the more defensive they get,” says Ratliff.
Yet that surprise is a core part of Project Implicit’s mission. Implicit bias is, after all, hidden, and the revelation of bias is the first step toward unlearning it. The next step is to investigate how society perpetuates and enforces those biases. Before coming to UF, Ratliff worked at Tilberg University in the Netherlands. She observed that Dutch people were forthright about their prejudices, even in an apparently egalitarian society boasting comprehensive laws prohibiting discrimination and protecting individual freedom. Perhaps that’s why, suggests Ratliff, the Dutch don’t need to pretend theirs is a post-racial society.
Liberal Arts and Sciences investigators at UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute are here to rid the world of dangerous microbes, wielding state-of-the-art technology with their scientific toolkits of electronic tracking, computer analysis, and petri dishes!
Professors Gregory Glass and Jason K. Blackburn use telemetry, remote image sensing, and geographic information services data to predict outbreaks of non-viral pathogens.
Protozoan. Common throughout tropical and subtropical regions worldwide. Around 200 million cases annually. Mortality rate varies widely depending on location, comorbidity, and demographic.
Glass uses spatial and climate data to study environmental changes that affect the populations of animals, ticks, and mosquitoes in Florida and around the world. He also collects data on blood testing, insecticides, and other intervention measures to examine their effectiveness.
Bacterium. Common throughout Central and South America and southern Europe. 2,000 cases annually. Threat of weaponization. Mortality rate for intestinal infections is 25 to 75 percent; for respiratory, 50 to 80 percent.
Blackburn directs the Spatial Epidemiology & Ecology Research Lab (SEER Lab) and studies how Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax outbreaks among wildlife, livestock, and humans by modeling the pathogen’s ecological niche and transmission mechanisms. To do so, SEER Lab combines GPS technology to track animals, such as elk and bison, and laboratory work to study environmental conditions that promote B. anthracis spore persistence. Blackburn works with UF ecologists Jose Miguel Ponciano and Robert Holt in an NIH-funded project to study environmental reservoirs and anthrax transmission.
Professor Derek Cummings and research assistant Kyra Grantz use statistical analysis of sociodemographic data to monitor and predict the spread of disease.
Flavivirus. Endemic to Puerto Rico, common throughout Latin America and Southeast Asia. 50 – 528 million cases annually. Mortality rate is 1 percent.
Cummings has worked on risk models of the new dengue vaccine, called CYD-TDV and trademarked Dengvaxia. People experiencing their second natural dengue infection have a higher risk of severe symptoms than those with their first infection. After two infections, however, the risk of severity decreases. Because the vaccine imitates a natural infection, it works best in areas where people have already been exposed to the virus. Given the dangers associated with vaccinating someone who has never been exposed to dengue virus, Cummings recommends a point-of-care screening tool that could identify those who have been infected in the past.
RNA virus. Worldwide, occurs in annual outbreaks, with rare pandemics. 3 to 5 million cases annually. Mortality rate is 1.5 percent.
In 1918, an unusually deadly flu swept the world, claiming 50 to 100 million lives in a pandemic often called the Spanish flu. Grantz studies how sociodemographic markers and urban infrastructure affected the spread of the flu in Chicago in that terrifying year. Analyzing 100-year-old data collected by the U.S. Census and the Chicago Department of Health, she’s found that mortality rates increased with illiteracy and unemployment and decreased with homeownership. She developed a technique to model the spread of infectious disease and found that increased likelihood of mortality can be determined on a meter-by-meter basis. This finding suggests that neighborhood-level outbreaks are a vulnerable point in epidemic control.
Alinda Saintval ’19 is a zoology and visual arts studies major, who has parlayed her passion and talent for art into an enterprise painting personalized backpacks.
How did the backpack business begin?
Completely by accident. I was new to campus, didn’t know anybody, and wanted a way to express myself. I will paint anything. I painted an empty iced-tea can for fun and looked at my backpack and thought, why not? My cousin’s girlfriend saw my backpack and asked if I would make her one too. Another friend convinced me to post my work on social media. I never thought it would go anywhere, then suddenly I had 10,000 likes, 1,000 shares, and requests from other people for bags of their own.
Do you stick to one theme, or will you paint a customer’s request?
Most of my art has an African American theme to it because that’s what I’m interested in, but I will paint whatever inspires me at the moment. I do commissions of all kinds, as long as I know exactly what the customer has in mind.
Why do your backpacks resonate with your customers?
People are drawn to backpacks because they’re a portable means of expression. You’re not going to carry a framed painting around, but you can take your backpack anywhere and make a statement. I’ve been told that my work is inspiring, or helpful. It makes people feel better and gives them a push to do something of their own. Thanks to this feedback, I named my line “duende,” which means, “the ability to deeply move a person through art.”
I’m reluctant to call this a business. It’s more of a paid hobby. My intention after graduation is to enter the zoology program at Santa Fe college, which has a teaching zoo. I will get hands-on work with animals.
What will you take forward?
If there’s one piece of advice I would give another student, or could go back in time and tell myself, it’s to take the chance. Yes, something you try might not work out. But then again, it might. I’ve learned that that’s the beauty of it all. – Terri Peterson
Joseph Hernandez Hall, the university’s new chemistry/chemical biology building, is a testament to science, technology, and tenacity.
By Gigi MarinoPhotography by Betsy Hansen Brzezinski
The first time former UF president Bernie Machen visited the chemistry labs on campus, he was appalled. He himself had been a chemistry major at Vanderbilt in the 1960s and didn’t see much of a difference between those mid-20th-century spaces he used as an undergraduate and those he was viewing in the 21st century in Leigh Hall. “Chemistry has a huge presence on this campus,” he says. “We have a big, diverse graduate program that is punching all the right buttons. Chemistry is one of our star departments, and they were suffering from poor resources to deliver their mission.”
Machen made it his mission to upgrade the facilities. In 2009, architectural plans for a new building were drawn, and underground utilities infrastructure had been laid. “The problem was,” says Machen, “we were in this darned recession. Construction was shutting down everywhere.” Indeed, construction on the chemistry building halted in 2010.
In 2012, Machen announced he planned to retire the following year. UF had hired a firm that was conducting a national search when Governor Rick Scott phoned Machen late one night asking what it would take for him to stay on as UF’s president. “I didn’t think he was serious,” says Machen. “When I knew that he was, the first thing I asked for was faculty funding. We had cut faculty and staff, and no one was getting raises. I had one chip left for negotiation. I asked for the chemistry building to get back on track. UF had committed substantial funding to the project but needed the state to provide the rest, and the agreement was set.”
The official groundbreaking ceremony for the new building took place October 10, 2014, just two months before Machen retired. “The groundbreaking was very important for me. Yes, it’s just a building, but it’s more than that. It shows that we care about the arts and sciences, which have taken a lot of guff,” he says. “Chemistry is a symbol for what a 21st-century land-grant university should be. Even on our own campus, people don’t realize what a good chemistry department we have. This is a celebration, not just of a building but of a department, not just for what we’ve done, but for what we’re going to do.”
The striking new building, Joseph Hernandez Hall, sits on at the old facilities offered. the corner of Buckman Drive and University Avenue as if it always should have been there. Dave Richardson, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and former chair of the chemistry department, has called it “magnificent” and “marvelous.” He says, “We are going to have an amazing space for our students to learn, for our researchers to broach new frontiers in chemical research.”
“Chemical biology is a new field that requires very specialized research spaces — clean rooms, autoclaves, cold rooms, rooms for dealing with radioactive materials. we’ve had professors waiting for facilities like this for 10 years.” — Bill Dolbier
Covering 111,552 square feet, the building consists of six levels, with four being used for teaching and research, and has the capacity to support 650 people at any one time (the entire fifth floor is storage and mechanical space). The ground floor holds undergraduate general chemistry labs that can house 250 students at one time, and it is these labs that will have the greatest use. Because general chemistry and organic chemistry are required courses for a large number of majors across the university, 8,000 undergraduates a year, including more than half of the freshman class, will use the new facilities. Currently, Leigh Hall’s general chemistry labs are bursting at the seams with labs scheduled five days a week, from morning until night, and this has been the case for the last decade.
Bill Dolbier, professor and chair of the chemistry department, says the new labs “will give students a tremendously favorable impression of the campus. Right now, we don’t show them the undergraduate general chemistry and organic chemistry labs and just hope they don’t notice them. The new labs are going to blow them away.”
Dolbier credits the building committee, particularly then-chair Dan Talham; professor Phil Brucat; John Flowers, chemistry director of operations; Dwight Bailey, manager of departmental IT; and Tammy Davidson, undergraduate coordinator and director of organic chemistry laboratories, with ensuring that the labs have the latest IT, instrumentation, equipment, and storage space, providing flexibility, maneuverability, and environment optimal for both learning and collaborating. There are 700 cubbies outfitted with beakers, test tubes, and pipettes specifically for undergraduate use. The building contains 134 fume hoods and 128 mini-fume hoods, appropriately called “hoodies.” These glass enclosures ventilate noxious and volatile chemicals, dust, and particulate matter. There also are nearly three dozen snorkel fume hoods that allow for benchtop ventilation. The paucity of fume hoods in Leigh Hall (66) was a major reason labs were overbooked.
According to the senior project manager Frank Javaheri, the ground-floor labs contain a sophisticated AV system “capable of starting, stopping, broadcasting, and switching live, experimental video with instrument data streams to a single or to many displays, allowing instructors to enhance the collaborative learning environment by sharing teaching moments in real time with the class or specific groups of students.” This system uses 60 percent less energy than conventional lab computers.
Javaheri, who’s been working on this building since it was first discussed, is a numbers man. He will tell you that 6,777 yards of concrete have been poured into the new construction. “That’s enough to build a four-foot sidewalk from the building to Micanopy and back,” he says. (Micanopy is roughly 13 miles from campus.) Structural and non-structural metals? 165.25 tons. Number of bricks? 380,000. Vinyl tiles? 42,480 (deemed “green,” of course). Javaheri is particularly proud of the fact that LED lighting has been used throughout the building, and he anticipates LEED Gold (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) for building certification conferred by the US Green Building Council. A total of 643 people have put in nearly 41 years’ worth of work (357,867 hours, to be exact) to make the dedication happen on April 21, 2017.
While there are many stakeholders in the new building, the one thing that is absolutely true is that this new space is student-centered. There are few administrative offices, and even the chemistry chair will not have an office there. Undergraduate organic chemistry will have its home on the second floor with room for 120 students at a time. Dolbier points out that the new facilities allow for new curricula, which are being developed by the new undergraduate director of general chemistry, Melanie Viege. Together, she and Davidson will implement the new curriculum for the general chemistry and organic chemistry laboratories.
With four buildings devoted to chemistry – in addition to the new building, Leigh Hall, and Sisler Hall, there is the Chemistry Laboratory Building – Dolbier says the department is committed to fostering creativity and innovation across all of its programs. Says Dolbier, “We intend to create an undergraduate program that others will want to emulate. We will be national leaders.”
UF Chemistry’s graduate programs also will get quite a boost with the new building. The third and fourth floors are dedicated to graduate research. The third floor is specifically designed for research in the area of chemical biology, and the fourth floor contains labs for research in synthetic organic chemistry, along with separate conference rooms. Dolbier notes that recent UF hiring initiatives have specifically contributed to two areas in chemistry: smart polymer nanomedicine and chemical innovations in cancer research.
“Chemical biology is a new field that requires very specialized research spaces — clean rooms, autoclaves, cold rooms, rooms for dealing with radioactive materials,” says Dolbier. “We’ve had professors waiting for facilities like this for 10 years.”
Zhongwu Guo, who was recently hired as the Steven M. and Rebecca J. Scott Professor, does research in a relatively new field called glycoimmunology, which in its very simplest terms aims to create disease markers and cancer drugs from carbohydrates. Says Dolbier, “Everyone we hire within the cancer initiative will do research that is highly collaborative and translational. The new building has a tremendous impact on our ability to hire top people.”
Indeed, Guo was attracted to the opportunities the research spaces offer and was one of the first people to move in. He says, “The new building, which offers combined state-of- the-art spaces for chemical and biological studies, should be a perfect fit for and will significantly benefit the interdisciplinary research program of my lab.”
Aaron Aponick, associate professor of chemistry, has been at UF since 2006, and has been involved with the discussion of the new building since the very beginning. Aponick is a synthetic organic chemist, and his research group will occupy labs on the fourth floor. He, like other researchers in the building, will reap the rewards of having modern, pristine research space; however, the benefits exceed sheer functionality, he says.
“There’s a lot to be said for students from different research groups interacting and intermingling,” says Aponick. “At the graduate level, having a cadre of people exchanging ideas is invaluable. You’re no longer compartmentalized. At this point in your education, the more you see and think about, the better your education. You broaden your knowledge base.”
Ashley Erb ’17 is an undergraduate research and teaching assistant in Aponick’s group who has been admitted into UF’s graduate program. She says she loves the history of the older buildings – Leigh Hall was built in 1926 and Sisler Hall in 1966 – but is excited about the opportunities that the new building will provide for both teaching and research. “The new equipment in the teaching labs is way more advanced,” she says. “Although, one of the greatest impacts is going to be on undergraduates who’ve had a hard time getting into a research lab. You don’t know how to do research until you actually get into the lab and do it. Clearly, this opens new avenues for UF Chemistry.”
Graduate coordinator Ben Smith PhD’77 remembers Leigh Hall in its original state, before it was renovated in 1992. “There was no air conditioning, no temperature control, power issues, which was problematic for large lasers. I did not realize it at the time, but they were not state-of-the-art labs.” By contrast, Smith will now be recruiting graduate students to work in labs he says “are the best in the country. The building committee did a great job of looking at what modern chemistry labs need and put it there.” He also notes that 20 years ago, having infrared spectrometers and NMRs (nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers) in teaching labs “was unheard of.” Smith believes the new facility is going to be a great recruitment tool. “That we have four large buildings dedicated to chemical sciences, all next to each other, makes a fabulous impression,” he says. “Hernandez Hall is just stunning. It’s beautifully designed, very well built, and will last a long time.”
Javaheri, the numbers man, says that the final cost of the building is $66.6 million. The university contributed $24 million, and the state provided the remainder. A number of generous donors also contributed to the building. “One of the huge gifts that has momentum-building benefits comes from Joseph Hernandez, who gave a $10 million endowment,” says Dolbier, “which will build and enhance our programs, both graduate and undergraduate, in the department.”
Joseph Hernandez Hall is named in honor of him, and the endowment that will benefit this generation and beyond.
“In terms of the impact of the endowment on the Department of Chemistry, these are rare and exceptional opportunities that only a few programs get to have, where their future can be improved and enhanced through a gift that can keep giving to the students, to the research, and to the scholarly enterprise of the department,” says Dean Richardson. “When the world demands a new kind of technology, a new chemistry, a new approach to solving problems, UF Chemistry will be ready to invest and move forward. This is what the income from the endowment can bring.”
As a student, Joe Hernandez ’96, MS’98, MBA’98 knew early on that he wanted to be a medical scientist. His passion and curiosity were recognized, encouraged, and nurtured at UF. For the last 20 years, Hernandez has worked in the pharmaceutical and biotech world, creating a number of startups. Says Richardson, “Joe has a probing, questioning mind. He believes you always have to educate yourself.”
“I’ve been inspired to give to UF. There’s an absolute link between chemistry and its importance to my work,” says Hernandez. “The flexibility to jump from chemistry to neuroanatomy in attaining knowledge was very attractive to me. I don’t like rigidity. My endeavors were well suited for the liberal arts and sciences.”
Dean Richardson has been at the helm of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences since 2015, but has been a faculty member in the Department of Chemistry since 1983. Dolbier, who has witnessed the department’s fine years and lean years much longer, says, “Hernandez Hall is the culmination of the efforts of all of the chemistry chairs from the 1980s. It’s been a dream to find funding for such a building – an asset that cannot be overemphasized. It will enable us to move forward by building our faculty, attracting top grad students, and allowing our programs remaining in the other three buildings to expand research and move chemistry faculty from the Quantum Theory Project into the chemistry complex.”
Finally, a big, beautiful place where chemistry and chemical biology can dance in the moonlight, making molecules that might one day stop cancer and other deadly diseases in their tracks.
Townes R. Leigh, the namesake of Leigh Hall and the man who brought pharmacy to UF way back in the roaring ’20s, would be pleased to know what’s in store for the new era at UF. Finally, a big, beautiful place where chemistry and chemical biology can dance in the moonlight, making molecules that might one day stop cancer and other deadly diseases in their tracks.