Nothing to See Here

The latest novel from MFA in Creative Writing graduate KEVIN WILSON ‘04 has earned rave reviews for its hilarious, surreal take on childrearing.

In Nothing to See Here (Ecco/HarperCollins), released Oct. 29, narrator Lillian is a go-nowhere millennial who once took the fall for her well-off boarding school roommate after drugs were found in their dorm. Years later, the friend, now married to a fast-rising politician, reaches later with an offer for Lillian to work as a nanny to her 10-year-old twin stepchildren — who, it turns out, literally burst into flames when they’re upset.

Told in deadpan prose, Nothing to See Here has delighted reviewers with its peculiar sensibility and moving story. A giddy notice in The New York Times Book Review called the book “wholly original” and “perfect.”

“You’re laughing so hard you don’t even realize that you’ve suddenly caught fire,” Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in the review. The Washington Post’s write-up, meanwhile, said, “Paradoxically light and melancholy, it hews to the border of fantasy but stays in the land of realism.”

Nothing to See Here was selected by Jenna Bush Hager as the November pick for the Today Show’s book club. Wilson told Today that he has been long been obsessed with the idea of spontaneous combustion — and it would often come to mind when his own children would have tantrums.

“I started thinking about, ‘Oh, well what would it be like if you had to take care of a kid who actually burst into flames,’” he said. “The novel just kind of spiraled out of that.”

The novel is the third from Wilson, who is an associate professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South. Wilson has also published two short story collections. His 2011 debut novel, The Family Fang, became a 2015 film starring Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman and Christopher Walken. A film adaptation of Nothing to See Here is already in the works, according to Deadline.

Humans have two generations of teeth — baby teeth that are replaced by permanent ones — and that’s it. If you need a new tooth, a dentist will give you an implant made from a material that will likely degrade faster than a natural tooth.

But scientists are looking to sharks, which lose and regrow teeth their entire lives, to understand how we might be able to regenerate our own teeth.

New research published in Scientific Reports by GARETH FRASER, a biologist at UF, and colleagues at the University of Sheffield, UK, into human and shark teeth has found similarities in their dental stem cells that shows humans have more potential to regrow teeth than previously believed.

The team found a potential connection between shark and human teeth by examining a specialized layer of thin tissue formed in early development of the vertebrate mouth called the dental lamina.

X-Ray CT Scan of the Porbeagle Shark (Lamna nasus) head, showing the rows of regenerative teeth in the jaws. Credit: Charlie Underwood, Zerina Johanson, and Gareth Fraser; Scanned at the Image and Analysis Centre, Natural History Museum, London.

Once we develop our permanent teeth, the thin tissue of the lamina undergoes normal cell death and fragments, leaving bits and pieces of the lamina. At this stage, they’re known as dental lamina rests (DLR), which were previously thought to have low odds of growing more teeth. Fraser and team research looked at these DLRs and found they contain a number of dental stem cell markers found in vertebrates like sharks that have constant tooth regeneration throughout their lives.

The research also examined tumors that appear in the jaw, called ameloblastoma, to further understand how DLRs undergo change. Ameloblastoma are assumed to come from aberrant lamina rests. The scientists are working to understand how the trigger that causes DLRs to form these tumors could be linked to tooth development and if this could eventually lead to controlled tooth growth in humans.

To view the full study, click here.

The 2019 UF iGEM Team recently won a silver medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, held in Boston from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4.

The iGEM Competition brings together students from around the world to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling everyday issues facing the world. This year’s competition saw more than 300 teams from over 40 countries compete against each other to design, build, test and measure a system of their own design.

For their project, the UF iGEM Team used the Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events (SCRIBE) System to quantify the concentration of heavy metals in tap water in Florida that may go improperly assessed.

“This award gives UF the opportunity to be recognized for research on an international level,” team member and student Nikila Ojili said. “Over 3,500 students from the world attended the conference at Boston, and we learned so much about the kind of work people are doing. It’s an eye-opening experience with respect to the rapid advancement of synthetic biology. I highly advise students to participate!”

The team of students that worked on this project include: Nicole Kantor, Samantha Golden, Anil Patel, Shivani Doshi, Julie Mallinger, Alexandra Gaskins, Nikila Ojili, Jessica Zheng and Zach Zeller. They were mentored by Assistant Professor Dr. Christopher Reisch of the Department of Microbiology and Cell Science.

Congratulations to the team — for more information on UF iGEM and their work, click here.

On Nov. 14, the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles will hold a free advance screening of the documentary “Cojot.” UF professor GAYLE ZACHMANN serves as a Producer and Historical consultant while y alumnus BOAZ DVIR is the Director and Producer.

Zachmann, a professor in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and the Center for Jewish Studies, collaborated with Dvir (’88, MA ’08, MFA ’14), to tell the story of the late Michel Cojot-Goldberg, a Holocaust survivor who sets out to kill the Nazi who imprisoned his father and ends up playing a key role in during the 1976 Entebbe hijacking crisis.

“Although the story of an individual, the life of Cojot-Goldberg spans the second half of the 20th century and speaks to a number of different histories,” Zachmann told UF News earlier this year. “From the resistance of individuals and families, hidden children, the rise of fascism and the plight of French Jews during the occupation, to those of post-war memory, justice and modern terror.”

Developed with the help of private support, the film tells the virtually unknown story of Cojot-Goldberg, who planned to kill the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie. Known as the “Butcher of Lyon,” Barbie personally tortured French prisoners in Lyon and played a direct role in the Holocaust, sending 7,500 Jews to concentration camps.  Barbie also imprisoned Cojot-Goldberg’s father, who was sent to Auschwitz, where he died.

Cojot-Goldberg contacted Barbie in Bolivia posing as a journalist, but once seated with Barbie could not bring himself to pull the trigger. A year later, Cojot-Goldberg then played the improbable role as a translator onboard an Air France flight from Israel to France that was highjacked by terrorists and rerouted to Entebbe, Uganda.

Cojot is an exceptionally fine film concerning the trauma of Jewish identity in France during and after the Holocaust. Spanning major events from Lyon to La Paz to Entebbe, it is well-researched, wonderfully told, and deserves a wide audience.”  NORMAN J. W. GODA, Norman and Irma Braman Professor of Holocaust Studies, and Director, UF Center for Jewish Studies, said.

The screening at the Museum of Tolerance is free and open to the public and will be followed by a discussion with Dvir and Zachmann, along with special guest Olivier Cojot-Goldberg, the son of Michel Cojot-Goldberg.

To learn more about the event and to RSVP, click here.

Using drone technology, a team of UF researchers has uncovered how an ancient Florida village played a pivotal role in pre-Columbian geopolitics.

In research led by anthropology PhD student TERRY BARBOUR, the team discovered that the settlement on Raleigh Island, located on the northern Gulf coast of Florida around 900–1200 AD, operated as a major producer of beads made from seashells. The beads, used in rituals at the time, were highly prized in communities as far from the coast as the lower Midwest.

“In form, scale and purpose, the Raleigh Island settlement has no parallel in the archaeological record of the American Southeast,” said KEN SASSAMAN, Barbour’s advisor and the co-creator of the study. Sassaman is the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of Florida Archaeology in the Department of Anthropology.

The researchers used drones to survey the ancient settlement in a fraction of the time traditional methods would have taken. Working with UF partners at the GatorEye Unmanned Flying Laboratory, the team equipped the drone with Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) scanners that quickly collected architectural details and topographic data with unprecedented resolution.

Raleigh Island rings
A drone equipped with Light Detection and Ranging quickly collected architectural details and topographic data about the Raleigh Island settlement with unprecedented resolution. The images revealed rings made of oyster shells surrounding 37 residences.

The LiDAR shed light on how the settlement — a complex of at least 37 residential spaces surrounded by 4-meter-tall ridges of oyster shells — was organized to make beads in the very place where shells were found. In several of the living spaces, the researchers’ excavations uncovered ample evidence of large-scale bead production.

The Raleigh Island settlement is one of the few coastal communities where such extensive craft production has been found.

“What we have here is a settlement at the source of this raw material at the time when marine shell was starting to become a heavily demanded social item,” Barbour said. “The fact we have strong evidence of bead manufacture at a site with equally impressive architecture to guide us in understanding how production was organized socially makes this place really special, and as of now the only place like it we are aware of.”

The findings have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ­Barbour and Sassaman’s collaborators on the project were Angélica Almeyda Zambrano and Eben North Broadbent, the co-directors of GatorEye and UF’s Spatial Ecology & Conservation Lab; Ben Wilkinson, UF assistant professor of geomatics and LiDAR expert; and Richard Kanaski, an archaeologist and Regional Historic Preservation Officer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For Barbour, collaborating with researchers across the UF campus and beyond emphasized the wider impact of his work.

“It forces you to create a product that is not only useful and relevant to your work personally, but also to those you work with,” he said. “This has, without a doubt, been an experience that will help me as I move into the professional sphere.”

UF astronomy lecturer PAUL SELL is among an international team of researchers who have discovered one of the largest nebulae ever observed around a merging galaxy. Their findings, published in Naturereveal the importance of galactic winds in the space between galaxies.

The astronomers discovered the massive, glowing bubble of gas surrounding a galaxy they have named “Makani,” the Hawaiian word for wind. The nebula formed as galactic winds carried large amounts of metal-enriched gas into the expansive “reservoir” between galaxies, known as the circumgalactic medium.

The team, led by David Rupke of Rhodes College, observed galactic winds in a glowing halo of oxygen that reaches extreme distances — more than 20 times Makani’s stellar radius.

This huge outflow, the researchers believe, has been driven by bursts from a compact group of aging and dying stars. Merging galaxies, formed by two once-separate galaxies coming together,  produce a large number of stars in a short time within a small space. The heaviest among them quickly die, rapidly pushing gases out of the galaxy.

UF Astronomy Lecturer Paul Sell
UF Astronomy Lecturer Paul Sell

The findings help explain how metals can be displaced into the far reaches of space.

“What is also remarkable is that the aging and dying stars appear to be powerful enough on their own to do all of the work without the need for a supermassive black hole’s help,” Sell said. “However, we expect one to be buried down in the center of the merging galaxies, maybe quite literally under a lot of dust and gas.”

Sell, who worked as a researcher at the Foundation for Research & Technology at the University of Crete before coming to UF, contributed imaging from the Hubble Space Telescope and super massive black hole analysis. His collaborators also collected data from the W.M. Keck Observatory’s new Keck Cosmic Web Imager instrument and the Atacama Large Millimeter Array.

The research team has been studying a large set of similar galaxies and will be gathering further observations using some of the world’s most sensitive telescopes.

The study was supported by the National Science Foundation, NASA, Rhodes College and the Royal Society.

The giant galactic wind surrounding Makani. The colors and contour lines show the amount of light emitted by the ionized gas from different parts of the oxygen nebula. The black in the center shows the full extent of the galaxy. The axes show distance from the center of the galaxy in kiloparsecs. Figure by Gene Leung (UC San Diego)

You can read more about the researchers’ findings here.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Duncan Purves has received a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study the ethics of using artificial intelligence to assist police officers in anticipating crime before it happens.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy Duncan Purves

Researchers from UF and California Polytechnic State University have partnered to conduct the study, with UF receiving $269,610 of the grant’s total $509,946.

Artificial intelligence can be used to predict criminal activity in advance based on past crime statistics of a particular area. By taking this historical data into account, the AI postulates the time and location of possible crimes.

The morality of “predictive policing” is subject to considerable debate, however. Those in favor of the practice believe it to be an asset to a police department, providing a safer and faster alternative to traditional police work. Critics maintain that the technology will violate the rights of those within communities targeted by the algorithm and contribute to racial bias among police officers.

Purves’ research team plans to determine an acceptable way to act on this data, taking into account the potential harm to citizens that can come from algorithm-driven police activity. Additionally, the group will consider the ethical dilemmas involved in predictive policing in general, developing equitable solutions to problems arising from the establishment and implementation of this technology.

“As algorithmic crime-fighting tools become widespread in police departments, it is crucial that ethical questions of fairness, equity, and discrimination are addressed now,” Purves said.​ “This three-year award gives me and my colleagues valuable time and resources to address overlooked ethical implications of predictive policing technologies. Among other products, we will develop a report of empirically and ethically informed best practices for use by police departments.”

The researchers hope for the study to benefit both citizens and police departments, providing insight into the most ethical way to conduct predictive policing. The findings of the study, they expect, will also apply to other uses of artificial intelligence already in areas such as in court systems and medical fields.

To learn more about this grant, click here.

University of Florida chemistry professor Adrian Roitberg will work as part of a multi-university team on a new project that has received nearly $1 million to advance molecular sciences though machine learning.

The team was awarded $994,433 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build an open network where molecular scientists from different institutions can contribute their data and access tools to make the most of their research.

By bringing together experimental data and molecular models through machine learning, the platform will allow users to predict how molecules interact in complex systems. The goal is to create a central, collaborative hub that will improve and accelerate the process of creating new products ranging from medicines to smart materials.

Led by principal investigator D. Tyler McQuade, a chemical and life science engineering professor at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), the project is among the first to be funded by the NSF initiative Convergence Accelerator, which aims to solve problems by bringing people together across disciplines.

In addition to Roitberg and McQuade, the team includes James K. Ferri, professor in the VCU Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, and Carol A. Parish, professor of chemistry at the University of Richmond. The companies Two Six Labs of Arlington, Virginia, and Fathom Information Design of Boston will also collaborate on the project.

The researchers plan to present their prototype in March 2020 in hopes of obtaining $5 million more in funding.

You can learn more about the project here:

New study maps risk areas for citrus greening

Orange juice is a breakfast staple, but the future availability of citrus products is threatened by the global spread of citrus greening disease, which prevents commercially viable fruit from forming.

A new study by an international research team — including UF medical geographer SADIE RYAN — identifies global regions most at risk of, and most resilient to, citrus greening.

“Translating these models into maps helps communicate our findings to citrus stakeholders, and creates a baseline for thinking about potential climate change impacts,” Ryan said. She holds joint positions with UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute and the Department of Geography.

The disease has devastated Florida’s citrus industry and led to a nearly 75 percent decline in boxed orange production in 2018 — the lowest production level since World War II, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Jobs in the state’s citrus industry have declined by 59 percent in the past decade, allowing Brazil to emerge as the top global producer of orange juice and costing Florida an estimated $2 billion in economic impact.

Citrus greening is caused by a bacterium transmitted by the Asian citrus psyllid insect. Both the pathogen and insect have spread in recent years, devastating regions famous for high citrus production.

Affected fruits end up smaller than normal, with a blotchy green appearance, malformed lobes and low-quality juice. As citrus greening menaces growers worldwide, the citrus industry’s future may depend on identifying locations most resilient to production collapse.

A new paper* published in the Journal of Applied Ecology that Ryan co-authored with a research team investigates the temperature-driven comfort zone for citrus greening transmission.

Led by Rachel Taylor of the United Kingdom’s Animal and Plant Health Agency, the research team modeled how citrus greening transmission depends on temperature, and then mapped how this translates into areas where the disease could become established.

The model found that the successful infection of host plants can occur between 60.8˚F and 91.4˚F (16˚C to 33˚C), with peak transmission at around 77˚F (25˚C). The authors then mapped global suitability to show which months have temperature conditions that would place citrus groves at risk for infection.

Global maps produced by Sadie Ryan’s lab illustrate the number of months throughout the year the citrus greening bacterium is more likely to be transmitted.

This work provides critical information for citrus production and crop management moving forward. In areas known for high citrus production, preventing the establishment of the disease through increased surveillance and management may help prevent the devastating effects that citrus greening has had on other growers.

This is an excerpt from a story originally published by the Emerging Pathogens Institute. To read the full story, click here.

Click here to see more stories from the Summer 2019 Newsletter. 

With a mathematical time machine, UF geologist reconstructs what happened in the Earth’s interior 55 million years ago

Geologist ALESSANDRO FORTE is not shy about the ambitious nature of his recent research.

“In some sense, what we’re doing is almost an act of hubris,” he said. “We’re taking the laws of physics and reversing them.”

By that, Forte means that he and his collaborators are tracing the movement of heat backwards to see what the Earth’s interior looked like tens of millions of years ago. Using thermodynamic equations and present-day seismological data, the researchers create high-resolution, three-dimensional maps of ancient conditions deep below the Earth’s surface. Forte compared the result to a CAT scan, with geological features in place of bodily organs.

In a new study* led by Petar Glišović of Université du Québec à Montréal, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Forte reconstructed the phenomena occurring under the North Atlantic Ocean 55 million years ago that may have led to a period of rapid global warming.

During this period, known as the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), global temperatures are estimated to have increased by at least 5˚C, an escalation believed to be associated with a rise in greenhouse gases.

At the time, little permanent ice could exist on the Earth’s surface, and sea levels rose.

“The Earth went through essentially what I call a ‘fever,’” Forte said.

This era, though much hotter than today, interests many climate scientists as a possible warning of the conditions that could appear if humans continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Yet questions have remained about what caused the release of gases during the PETM — questions Forte and his team hope their new study will help resolve.

Many geologists suspect that as the North Atlantic Ocean widened 55 million years ago, volcanic activity pumped lava into hydrocarbon-rich rock, causing a rapid release of carbon dioxide and methane: “A greenhouse gas ‘burp,’” Forte called it.

With their maps, Forte and his team believe they have reconstructed sources of this volcanic activity: Two deeply-seated upwellings of hot rock underneath the earth’s surface. These “plumes,” the reconstructions show, reached all the way down to the boundary of the Earth’s mantle and core.

Reconstruction of the Earth's Interior
A reconstruction of the 3-D structure of the Earth’s mantle below the North Atlantic 55 million years ago. (From Fig. 1 in Petar Glišović and Alessandro M. Forte’s paper.)

One of the plumes, then under Greenland and today under Iceland, has long been suspected to have played a role in the volcanic activity. But the importance of the second, found under the Azores — an archipelago about 850 miles west of Portugal — is a new discovery.

With the success of this work, Forte is eager to see what other parts of the Earth’s interior looked like 70 million years ago.

“We’ve taken on these difficult problems and produced these compelling images,” he said. “Now let’s start looking at what’s going on elsewhere.”

Click here to see more stories from the Summer 2019 Newsletter.