In a new research paper, KATY SERAFIN, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography, projects how coastal flooding will impact commutes in the San Francisco Bay Area over the next 20 years.

The research, published in Science Advances on August 5 and conducted with a team based at Stanford University, reveals that, due to the nature of road networks in the region, commuters living outside the areas of flooding may experience some of the largest commute delays. Serafin conducted this research while a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.

Katy Serafin
Assistant Professor Katy Serafin

Typically, estimates on the impact flooding might have on an area are assessed by who or what is exposed to the flooding. The team’s research takes another approach by quantifying how coastal flooding impacts commute delays outside of where the flooding occurs, and suggests that measuring road network density may be more important for understanding community resilience to these flood-related delays.

“What we see in the San Francisco Bay area is that some of the largest flood-induced commute delays occur far beyond the flood zone,” Serafin said. “By only looking at coastal flood exposure and/or property damage due to flooding, we could be missing a large part of the picture about how sea level rise, which will increase the frequency of coastal flooding events, will impact communities near coastal locations.”

Serafin is continuing these lines of study here at UF and is currently evaluating how the duration of nuisance flooding events — low-level flooding events which have the potential to disrupt daily routines and put added strain on infrastructure systems — have been changing here in Florida and across the United States using tide gauge data.

While these events may cause only minor or no property damage at all, with the prevalence of this kind of flooding increasing due to sea level rise,  the severity of the disruption and impact it may inflict on a community may grow, Serafin said.

As she did with the paper in Science Advances, Serafin is working on characterizing the physical nature of these events and then understanding their impacts beyond property damage.

To learn more about Serafin’s research, click here

Professor Amy Williams from the Department of Geological Sciences was interviewed by NASA Astrobiology for its “Countdown to Mars” video series.

Throughout this month the series has been counting down the days until the launch of the Mars 2020 rover, Perseverance, by highlighting why researchers involved with the project are excited about this important mission back to the red planet.

The rover is scheduled to launch on July 30 and is expected to land on Mars on February 18, 2021. Once on the planet, the rover will seek for signs of ancient life along with collecting rock and soil samples for possible return to Earth.

To view more videos in the series, click here. 

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Department of Astronomy graduate student QUADRY CHANCE was recently named one of this year’s Pre-Doctoral Fellows at the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA). Chance is the first UF astronomy graduate student to receive this honor.

The CCA’s predoctoral program enables graduate student researchers from institutions around the world to collaborate with CCA scientists for five months on-site at the Flatiron Institute in New York City. During his time at the center, Chance will be investigating how stellar binarity affects the formation and structure of exoplanet systems.

Astronomy graduate student Quadry Chance

“Broadly speaking, it’s trying to see how orbiting two stars instead of one affects the formation and structure of exoplanet systems using advanced statistical tools,” Chance said.

The CCA is funded by the Simons Foundation, and its mission is to create new computational frameworks to enable scientists to analyze large astronomical datasets and investigate forefront problems in astrophysics.

Chance recently completed his first year of graduate school at UF. He received his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Arizona in 2018 and attended the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program for one year before joining the Astronomy department, where he works with professor Sarah Ballard.

Along with his research, Chance also notes one additional perk of being named a Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the CCA.

“I’m told the Flatiron Institute has amazing catered lunches,” he said, “so I’m really looking forward to that.”

by Scott Rogers

Could the answer to dealing with the global energy crisis be found in sunlight?

In a new paper published in Energy & Environmental Science, Department of Chemistry Associate Professor WEI DAVID WEI and a team of researchers make the case that using sunlight to promote chemical reactions could be a unique way to address the global energy crisis.

As the world continues to search for and implement alternative “clean” energy sources that can be used to replace the burning of fossil fuels and lessen the impact of global warming, Wei looked to nature — how photosynthesis is used by plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar — to guide his research.

Wei David Wei
Professor Wei David Wei runs the Wei Research Group in the Department of Chemistry.

“Our research demonstrates how to efficiently utilize sunlight to prompt water oxidation—the key step in carbon dioxide reduction and nitrogen fixation,” Wei said. Water oxidation is the process through which water is converted into oxygen and protons, an essential step for sparking artificial photosynthesis.

Carbon dioxide reduction helps convert the gas — which is the main cause of global warming — into useful fuels, while nitrogen fixation converts nitrogen molecules into fertilizers for use in agriculture.

In the paper, the authors note that the study successfully developed a molecular approach to “stabilize photo-generated hot holes on Au/TiO2 heterostructures for driving water oxidation under visible-light illumination,” — which essentially illuminates a new avenue through which researchers can facilitate photochemical processes like that of photosynthesis found in plants.

The research team began this project about three years ago and includes graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and collaborators from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Moving forward, the team will continue their research into carbon dioxide reduction and nitrogen fixation to provide new avenues for lessening the energy crisis and global warming.

Research was supported by the National Science Foundation, a UF Graduate School Fellowship, a Department of Energy Science Graduate Student Award, an Ann R. Stasch Summer Fellowship, a Vala Research Award, and the College of Liberal Art and Sciences (CLAS) Dissertation Fellowship funded by the Charles Vincent and Heidi Cole McLaughlin Endowment.

Click Here to View the Abstract


by Andrew Doerfler

In the culmination of years of design, development and planning, a UF Astronomy team’s state-of-the-art camera will soon begin snapping super-resolution images of Earth with unparalleled precision from the International Space Station.

The camera, called iSIM-170 (integrated Standard Imager for Microsatellites), departed on its maiden voyage as part of the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) HTV-9 mission on Friday, May 22, after a successful launch from Tanegashima Space Center. The shuttle docked at the International Space Station three days later, and the camera is set to be positioned on June 10.

Led by UF Professor of Astronomy RAFAEL GUZMÁN, the iSIM project is a collaboration among researchers and engineers at UF and Satlantis, the company with offices in the United States and Spain for which Guzmán serves as co-founder and chief technology officer. UF Vice President of Research David Norton has also helped to shepherd the project into a reality.

While watching the rocket lift off with iSIM aboard, Guzmán said he was filled with “overwhelming emotion” as he reflected on nine years of work.

“I went back to the original moments, when I first presented the idea to Vice President Norton. He believed in us,” Guzmán said. “I thought back to the first designs on whiteboards, and the first tests that failed miserably at the Kennedy Space Center.”

For its power and resolution, the iSIM camera is exceptionally small — just about 33 pounds. Despite that, it can detect objects as small as 32 inches in size over an area of more than 4,500 square miles. It does so while traveling over 17,000 mile per hour nearly 250 miles above the Earth’s surface.

Every half hour, Guzmán said, the iSIM camera on-board the future constellations of microsatellites will have captured a new snapshot of specific targets around the entire planet.

“This ‘real-time’ approach is the holy grail of information from space,” Guzmán said.

The camera was originally designed to look out into space, capturing images of dark halos in galaxies around the Milky Way — that is, until a visit to Florida from Cristina Garmendia, then Spain’s Minister of Science and Innovation and now chairwoman of Satlantis.

Garmendia asked Guzmán whether he’d ever considered turning the camera back towards Earth. Accustomed to studying far-off phenomena across the universe, Guzmán said he was at first “flabbergasted” by the question — but quickly understood the potential scientific and commercial applications.

Those applications will include monitoring land and coasts for environmental changes, security for inspecting borders, and infrastructure for oil and gas, said BO ZHAO, a senior optical engineer in the Department of Astronomy who designed the iSIM camera and is the inventor of the patent.

“This project has demonstrated collaboration between nations, agencies and universities, with a diverse group of cultures, languages and people,” Zhao said. “I am glad to be part of this global project that brings people together for science.”

Guzmán praised UF and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for its support of technology transfer, innovation and collaboration. He also highlighted the Department of Astronomy’s top-tier instrumentation program and stable workforce of senior engineers.

“The University has been fully supportive of our research and development,” added SIDNEY SCHOFIELD, the instrument program coordinator in the Department of Astronomy who served as the system engineer for the camera mission. “It provides high quality researchers and students to contribute to the project’s success.”

Looking ahead, the team is preparing a second smaller camera (iSIM-90) to be launched to the International Space Station in November 2021 on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral.

Learn more about iSIM here.

Kevin Tang, UF assistant professor of computational language science

More than 7,000 languages have evolved across the globe as different cultures have migrated, interacted with each other and isolated themselves. New research, though, suggests another factor has played a major role in the way these languages changed: genetics.

A study led by Kevin Tang, UF assistant professor of computational language science and the director of the Speech, Lexicon and Modeling (SLaM) Lab in the Department of Linguistics, highlights how gene variations can, over time, guide the course of an entire language.

While linguists have long studied how languages evolve, until recently genetics have been largely left out of the picture. But in the era of big data, advances in genome sequencing, as well as the creation of massive typological databases, have allowed new insights into the relationship between our speech and our genetic code.

“We’re now looking at the actual hardware that allow us to be human,” Tang said. “This adds a missing piece of the puzzle. Big data is enabling us to detect these subtle signals.”

Tang and collaborators from Yale University and Brock University looked at a specific gene associated with how people process sounds. While a variation in this gene — known as an allele — may have a subtle effect on a single person’s speech, over time the allele’s prevalence in a group of people can have a long-term impact on how the whole culture communicates, causing them to favor certain sounds over others.

The researchers found that high prevalence of RU1-1 alleles in a culture was associated with its language having more “stop consonants,” sounds that involve the complete stop of airflow. Meanwhile, those cultures in which these alleles were less common had more “nasal consonants,” or sounds made while airflow continues through the nose. Their findings suggest that these patterns are driven by stop consonants’ vulnerability to the loss of precision in the timing of neuron spikes compared to more robust nasal consonants.

Looking ahead, the researchers plan to examine more genetic variations that may have had an impact on language.

Read the full study in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

by Scott Rogers

You may be aware that the domesticated dog descended from the gray wolf and the housecat from the African wildcat, but what about the origins of a common childhood pet — the guinea pig?

A new paper published in Scientific Reports sheds light on how guinea pigs came to be found around the world and offers tantalizing clues for how they came to be domesticated.

Featuring contributions from UF researchers SUSAN DEFRANCE from the Department of Anthropology and MICHELLE LEFEBVRE from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the paper argues that the spread of guinea pigs can likely be traced back to what is today Peru. From there, the animals were moved to the islands of the Caribbean, and later Europe and the Southeastern United States through the exotic animal trade.

Along with lead author Edana Lord of Stockholm University, Lisa Matisoo-Smith from the University of Otago, María Fernanda Martínez-Polanco from the Universitat Rovira i Virgili Miguel Eduardo Delgado from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and several other scholars, the researchers used ancient DNA to build upon past studies that suggested guinea pigs in the Caribbean originated from Columbia, testing samples of guinea pig remains excavated from several sites in the Caribbean, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Europe and North America.

After completing analysis, the team determined that the Central Andean region of modern Peru was actually the origin for Caribbean, European and North American guinea pigs. Their analysis also found that guinea pig domestication likely took place in both Peru and Colombia independently; although research thus far indicates that the Colombian guinea pigs were not transported to new regions.

This study also highlights the transition of guinea pigs from being used as a wild food source at least 10,000 years ago, to beloved pets found all around the world.

“The genetic information along with the archaeological contexts also shows us how the guinea pig had very different roles through time,” deFrance said. “As food and offerings in the Central Andes, food and an exchange goods in the Caribbean — and then the guinea pig is brought to Europe and North America where it becomes a pet.”

Why the guinea pig was viewed as a pet in some cultures and a food source in others can likely be attributed to long-established cultural notions of what is acceptable as food.

“In my opinion, as far as we know, rodents (such as rats, for example) were not acceptable food items among Europeans or colonial groups in the southeastern U.S.,” LeFebvre explained. “Sources of meat were well established (deer, fish, cows, fowl, etc.), while domestic guinea pigs showed up as a curiosity — a docile, furry, ‘cute’ rodent with pretty coats of different color.”

The paper also notes that in modern times the guinea pig was reintroduced to the Caribbean (Puerto Rico specifically) from Europe, adding another interesting chapter to this well-traveled rodent’s journey.

“This is a story about one of the most functionally diverse and far reaching domestic animals in human history,” LeFebvre said.

Click here to read the study

by Andrew Doerfler

GAINESVILLE — While the world awaits a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19, a UF professor’s mathematical model has shown that the coronavirus can be controlled by non-pharmaceutical measures such as social distancing and the use of facemasks in public — but only if widely complied with and implemented for an appropriate period of time.

Assistant Professor of Mathematical Biology CALISTUS NGONGHALA is the lead author of a new study published in the journal Mathematical Biosciences that studied the efficacy of non-pharmaceutical interventions in curtailing the virus.

The researchers found that widespread use of highly effective surgical facemasks in the public could wipe out the virus, while the use of less-effective cloth masks alone could significantly reduce, but not eliminate, the impact of the pandemic. The simulations showed even better results when extensive mask-wearing was paired with strict social distancing.

“Combining interventions is more effective in controlling and mitigating the burden of the pandemic than implementing them separately,” Ngonghala said.

How long social distancing must be maintained depends on how early on it was implemented in a particular location and what portion of the population wears masks in public. The study was unambiguous on one matter, however: Ending social distancing too early could be catastrophic.

“This study shows that early termination of the strict social-distancing measures could trigger a devastating second wave of the pandemic with burden similar to those projected before the onset of the strict social-distancing measures were implemented,” the article reads.

“Keeping social distancing in place through June 2020 would greatly reduce the chance of a resurgence.”

The simulations show that relaxing or terminating social distancing measures without widespread mask use at the end of April 2020 would trigger this second wave, while keeping social distancing in place through June 2020 would greatly reduce the chance of a resurgence.

To completely eliminate the disease through social distancing alone, the measures would have to be in place through early March 2021 on a nationwide level and up to late September 2021 for New York State.

The study explains that the decision to relax or terminate social-distancing measures should be made by states or counties based on the prevalence COVID-19 infections and deaths, the number of tests available and the existence of local hot spots.

“The goal is to provide a tool to assist public officials, so they can see how fast they can flatten the pandemic curve and keep the number of cases and hospitalizations down, to avoid overwhelming the healthcare system and capacity,” Ngonghala said.

The study was recently featured in a roundup of research highlights released by the Washington State Department of Health, which has been faced with addressing one of the worst outbreaks in the United States.

His collaborators on the study were researchers from Arizona State University, the University of New South Wales in Australia and Harvard Medical School. Ngonghala said the team is now working on an extended second model that would measure the impact of states reopening.

In addition to social distancing and using face masks in public, the authors also examined the impact of other interventions like contact tracing, quarantine of suspected disease cases and isolation of confirmed cases.

Read the full study here.

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UF biologist corrects misconceptions about a fascinating creature

Since “Crocs: Ancient Predators in a Modern World” debuted in 2016, thousands of visitors to the traveling museum exhibit have listened to KENT VLIET — a crocodilian expert, the exhibit’s scientific adviser and laboratory coordinator in the Department of Biology — explain what makes these reptiles such fascinating and enduring creatures.

Alongside live specimens and interactive features, Vliet leads an immersive learning experience, teaching attendees about the order Crocodylia, which includes the American alligator species found here in Florida. He details why crocodilians swallow rocks, how they navigate, and how unique snout shapes allow different species to crack snail shells or glide through water.

But until the exhibit arrived at the Florida Museum of Natural History at UF last year, one notable croc fanatic hadn’t seen it: Vliet himself. His appearance is as a “digital curator” in prerecorded video segments, and Vliet failed to catch the exhibit’s stints at such vaunted venues as the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences even held an alumni event at the exhibit in D.C. that Vliet wasn’t able to attend.) The exhibit finished up its stay at the Florida Museum in early January 2020, with future runs yet to be announced.

Kent Vliet
Kent Vliet serves as a “digital curator” in the exhibit Crocs: Anicent Predators in a Modern World. (Photo courtesy of Peeling Productions)

That’s not to say Vliet terribly minded missing it. He was reluctant to appear in the exhibit in the first place, fearing that visitors would become annoyed by the sound of his voice. But he acquiesced because he’s passionate about spreading an appreciation for animals that are too often misunderstood.

“My hope is that people will be impressed by and respect these remarkable animals and their phenomenal capabilities,” Vliet said. 

Instead of highlighting the ruthless attackers commonly seen in news coverage, Vliet notes their shy personalities, sophisticated vocal systems and attentive parenting. “What I’m trying to do is create a new mental image of crocs — perhaps of a mother croc picking up and carrying its baby to water.”

As a well-known crocodilian expert, Vliet is a frequent phone call for reporters writing stories about these reptiles. He uses this platform to push back against sensational headlines and pervasive narratives. A recent NBC News Story, for example, asked him to weigh in on a Tennessee police department’s assertion that flushing drugs down the toilet could lead to “meth-gators” wreaking havoc on the community — Vliet was skeptical.

He hasn’t only corrected misconceptions held by laypeople — he’s also had to school his collaborators. The exhibit’s centerpiece is a scale sculpture of Gomek, the largest crocodile ever exhibited in North America at over 17 feet long and 2,000 pounds. But when the artist sent photos of the massive statue for review, Vliet noticed that the jaw articulation was completely wrong — the artist would have to redo it.

“I’m sure that guy must hate my guts,” Vliet said.

Criminology Professor Jodi Lane

When an inmate on death row wrote to a local newspaper in search of a pen pal, then-high schooler JODI LANE took notice. Even at that young age, Lane was curious about how society dealt with criminal offenders — and who better to ask than someone living it? She responded to his letter, peppering him with questions about life in prison.

Lane’s curiosity never subsided: she has studied topics including the corrections system and fear of crime since 1999 as a professor in UF’s Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law. Repeatedly recognized as one of the most prolific scholars in her field, Lane still believes in directly engaging correctional populations to learn about the system they inhabit.

Few institutions, though, make a point of formally teaching criminology students how to access correctional facilities — or how to interact with those inside. To help the next generation of students navigate the world behind bars firsthand, Lane co-authored Encountering Correctional Populations: A Practical Guide for Researchers (University of California Press) in 2018.

The book covers the persistence required to gain entry, tips for building a rapport and maintaining relationships with inmates and staff, the ethics of prison research and other essentials for collecting data in correctional facilities.

“We rarely teach people how to do the work,” Lane said. “Those of us who do this forget how we learned to do it.”

Lane’s PhD adviser, the late acclaimed criminologist Joan Petersilia, praised the book as a “treasure trove of essential information.”

“It is time to break open the ‘black box’ of corrections research, and this book is the first practical guide on how to do this,” wrote Petersilia, who passed away in October 2019.

Aspiring criminologists would do well to heed Lane’s guidance: This past November, Lane was honored as the 2019 Distinguished Scholar by the American Society of Criminology’s Division on Corrections and Sentencing.

Her dedication to imparting her wisdom to the next generation of criminologists isn’t new. In 2013, Lane was recognized with the Outstanding Mentor Award from the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences. In the midst of a three-year UF Research Foundation Professorship, she also continues her own investigations, recently publishing new insights into how gender and race play a role in juvenile delinquency and fear of crime.

For Lane, hands-on correctional research is not only valuable for providing the data that will eventually turn into public policy — it also gives a voice to those in the system.

“Often people inside don’t feel heard,” Lane said. “When someone is willing to sit down with them, they like feeling that someone is listening.”