Category: Society

Building on Big Data

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BigData.jpg At the turn of the millennium, the cost to sequence a single human genome exceeded $50 million and the process took several years. Today, researchers can sequence a genome in a single afternoon for just few thousand dollars. Technological advances have ushered in the era of “Big Data,” where biologists collect immense datasets, seeking patterns that may explain important diseases or identify drug and vaccine targets. But what to do with it? Making data easy to find, use, access and organize for researchers has become one of the biggest challenges for science. But scientists, government funding agencies and universities working to keep up just received some great new support:

A genome database team led by University of Pennsylvania and University of Georgia scientists has been awarded a new contract from the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease worth $4.3 million in 2014-2015. Assuming annual renewal, this five-year award is expected to total $23.4 million.

The team has been responsible for developing genome database resources for microbial pathogens, including the parasites responsible for malaria, sleeping sickness, toxoplasmosis and many other important diseases.

The new contract ensures work will continue on the Eukaryotic Pathogen Genomics Database—known as EuPathDB—to provide the global scientific community with free access to a wealth of genomic data related to microbial pathogens important to human health and biosecurity. EuPathDB expedites biomedical research in the lab, field and clinic, enabling the development of innovative diagnostics, therapies and vaccines.

EuPathDB receives over 6 million hits from 13,000 unique visitors in more than 100 countries each month. Dr. Kissinger, principal investigator from UGA, puts it well:

"The costs and time required for genome sequencing have plummeted in the past 10 years thanks to advances in technology," Kissinger said. "Organizing this data, maintaining it in a way that is accessible and easy to use for researchers around the world, 24 hours a day, is our great challenge-and one that presents exciting opportunities for funders and other philanthropic organizations that support pathogen research."

We're excited for the UGA team, their colleagues at UPenn and the UGA Institute of Bioinformatics, which provides most of the systems administration for the entire EuPathDB - a feat in and of itself. Congratulations to these scientists working beyond their fields to strengthen research into all fields - the vast expansion of data capacity, sharing and transfer has probably had the greatest impact on science as a whole since the invention of the microscope. More on Kissinger and her work here.

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Georgia Virtual History Project

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Lawton_GVHP.jpg Kudos to the Georgia Magazine and writer Mary Jessica Hammes on her outstanding feature on history instructor Christopher Lawton and the Georgia Virtual History Project.

Read the article and the rest of the magazine here.

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Retirement in Academia

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no-8-1952_Rothko.jpg As a normal part of my duties in research reporting, I had an enjoyable interview/conversation yesterday afternoon with a junior faculty member. An energetic, very bright and motivated young professor, I could see how his infectious enthusiasm might effect students and as well as departmental colleagues. The tone of that experience brought to mind this Chronicle Review post from last month by friend of the blog (and Hofstra U. art faculty member) Laurie Fendrich:

The 1994 law ending mandatory retirement at age 70 for university professors substantially mitigated the problem of age discrimination within universities. But out of this law a vexing new problem has emerged—a graying—yea, whitening—professoriate. The law, which allows tenured faculty members to teach as long as they want—well past 70, or until they’re carried out of the classroom on a gurney—means professors are increasingly delaying retirement past age 70 or even choosing not to retire at all.

Like so much else in American life, deciding when to retire from academe has evolved into a strictly private and personal matter, without any guiding rules, ethical context, or sense of obligation to do what’s best—for one’s students, department, or institution. Only the vaguest questions—and sometimes not even those—are legally permitted. An administrator’s asking, "When do you think you might retire?" can bring on an EEOC complaint or a lawsuit. Substantive departmental or faculty discussions about retirement simply do not occur.

University professors may be more educated than the average American, but now that there’s no mandatory retirement age, their decisions about when to leave prove that they are as self-interested as any of their countrymen. When professors continue to teach past 70, they behave in exactly the same way as when we decide to drive a car on a national holiday. Who among us stops to connect the dots between our decision to drive and a traffic jam, or that traffic jam and global warming?

There's a balance to be had that keeps fresh blood mixing with venerable experience on campus - an important mix for which there exists no formula about getting it just right. Both are crucial, even as they fluxuate, and knowing when to move on and make room for new faculty is arguably one of the great challenges for career academics - and of course not only them. A great, honest appraisal from Fendrich. Food for thought.

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Department of Philosophy newsletter

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Peabody.jpg Lots of great news about faculty, staff and students in the most recent Philosophy newsletter. Includes stories on

Lavender, Myers, and Newman awarded scholarships

Winfield publishes seventeenth book, attends Hegel Congress

Department to host Metaphysical Society of America 2015 Annual Meeting

And more

Read all of "fall 2014 philosophy news"

Eco-initiatives and individual motivation

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A new UGA study in the American Review of Public Administration, from faculty in the School of Public and International Affairs, presents findings on individual behaviors by public employees that is all well and good:

Authored by Justin M. Stritch, a former doctoral student in public administration and policy, and Christensen, who also is the school's Ph.D. director in the department of public administration and policy, the research found that public servants were likely to engage in eco initiatives.

"Eco initiatives are discretionary, pro-environmental behaviors that an employee can participate in during the day," said Stritch, who is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University. "Eco initiatives involve things like recycling or energy conservation. Reusing water bottles and turning off your computer screen are examples."

Eco initiatives include sustainable micro-level behaviors, small tasks that are done voluntarily by the employee. When an employee chooses to do things like save paper or turn off lights at work, they are participating in eco initiatives. Eco initiatives are done because employees choose to do them, not because they're enforced.

But how does this behavior, if at all, translate into policy initiatives? Individual eco-mindedness is terrific but also no substitute for broader policy measures to incentivize changes in habits and behaviors on a societal level. Even if I were to walk to campus everyday, it would not begin to offset the fuel consumption and emissions from the thousands of vehicles that pass me on the street. I might feel better personally, in any number of ways, but the overall issues of traffic congestion, pollution and carbon emissions would remain. Translating this individual eco-initiative into public policy is the real question. Maybe we can start by rewarding positive individual behaviors; but we also have to find some ways to leverage them into new policy initiatives.

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Understanding how plants adapt to water stress

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SiphonTubes.jpg If there's one thing we take for granted more than the infinite availability of water, it would be the technical ability of our best scientists should that availability ever come into question.

Well, the infinite availability of water is very much in quesiton and what is the reaction of scientists? Looking to Mother nature for clues to survival in water-limited environments:

[With] a $1.5 million collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Georgia, the University of California at Riverside, the University of Texas and the University of Buffalo are looking to Mother Nature for clues about how plants survive in water-limited environments and what people can do to engineer crops that require less of this precious commodity.

"Agaves, yuccas and their relatives, together with orchids living in the canopies of tropical dry forests, are known for their ability to thrive in water-limited environments," said Jim Leebens-Mack, associate professor of plant biology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. "If we can understand how these plants adapt to water stress at the molecular level, we can learn how to increase water efficiency in economically important plants like biofuel and food crops."

During normal photosynthesis, most plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through pore-like structures on leaves known as stomata. The CO2 combines with water and sunlight to produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow as well as oxygen.

This approach is both humbling and inspired. When scientists realize their limits, recognize and reconcile that fact that humans can refine our sustainability efforts with help from nature - rather than fighting against it - we can empower conservation efforts that truly make a difference - because they will exist in harmony with our environment. I realize that the use of words like 'harmony' can sound/read as too touchy-feely for some. But living in concert with our surroundings and resources will be the key to the best stewardship practices - and hence our own health and happiness.

Congratulations to Leebens-Mack and his colleagues around the country. Let's learn from nature and live better - in every sense.

Image: Surface irrigation system using siphon tubes. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Former Franklin Dean Stokes to become Missouri Provost

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GS_ProvostForum_.jpg Congratulations to former Franklin dean Garnett Stokes, who will become provost and vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Missouri beginning Feb. 1:

Stokes said she is excited to help MU excel as a flagship land-grant university and improve its standing among other Association of American Universities institutions. She said she was impressed by MU's broad mix of strong programs, including engineering, medicine, agriculture, veterinary medicine and journalism.

"I think that I really like where Missouri is going," Stokes said Thursday. "I know about some very specific strengths, and it looks like a place that I could make a difference."

Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin said in the release that Stokes has "the ability, the vision and the drive to help us move the University of Missouri to the next level. She has a reputation for supporting students and building on existing research strengths."

Stokes leaves Florida State after serving as provost and interim president there. Great hire for Missouri. We're very proud of Dr. Stokes and wish her the very best in her new role at UM.

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Anthropocene lecture: repairing the world

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moral_imperative.jpg The final event in this fall's very successful Anthropocene Lecture Series takes place tonight at 7 p.m in the Chapel. No scientific investigation can be complete without the inclusion of a moral perspective and tonight's lecture looks at the ways theology and science can work together:

The physical sciences tell us the what and the how regarding the condition of the earth, but the why question -- why should we engage in helping to repair our world -- is a matter seriously addressed by people of faith.  There are also many people of no faith equally concerned and willing simply because it is the right thing to do.  We trust science every day because it is based on facts and it improves the quality of our lives.  Good theology and good science make a powerful team in dealing with the condition of our home, the foremost issue of our future.

Tonight's speaker is the Reverend Bill Coates, Jr., pastor at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

Congratulations and great job on the series to Dr. Mark Farmer, professor and chair of our biological sciences division in the Franklin College. Fantastic way to present these issues to our campus and community.

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Amazing student Omar Martinez-Uribe

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omar_martinezUribe.jpg Meet Amazing UGA student Omar Martinez-Uribe:

a senior biology major from Fayetteville, GA, Uribe has been volunteering in the community, working with student organizations, conducting undergraduate research and representing his college throughout his UGA career. The next step for this avid Bulldog fan is medical school.

...

University highlights, achievements and awards:

After my first semester at UGA I entered the Honors Program through collegiate entry. I began volunteering for the Thomas Lay after-school program my freshman year and tried to make connections with many of the children from Clarke County.

The summer after my freshman year I worked at the UGA-Griffin campus with Patrick McCullough in the crop and soil sciences department. He was a great mentor. I really enjoyed getting to see a different type of scientific work and his experience made my time worthwhile. I even got to translate a few publications into Spanish.

During my sophomore year at UGA I was inducted into Alpha Epsilon Delta, the premedical honor society. I also began working with MEDLIFE. This is an amazing organization that aims to provide medicine, education and development to low-income families. I think it is important for minority students to serve in this type of organization because it is a way to serve as a representative. I enjoyed being a family head with this organization which entailed working with a wonderful group of students dedicated to their community and showing compassion to others.

In addition, I began working with the Student Academic Honesty Council my sophomore year. I believe that a degree from UGA is incredibly valuable, and I work to make sure students know the rules and regulations about academic honesty.

Before my junior year, I began working in the Infectious Disease Department with Julie Moore. I have been moving around on several different projects regarding the mechanisms behind placental malaria. I plan on writing a senior thesis next semester and hopefully can include all of my different projects in this paper!

I have been incredibly fortunate to become a part of the Franklin College ambassadors. We have an amazing coordinator, Roslyn Raley, and such cool student representatives. I have enjoyed many meetings with Dean Dorsey, and I have worked to make sure Franklin’s donors see what an amazing impact they make on all of UGA’s undergraduates. I’ve even had the opportunity to meet President Morehead and a few of Georgia’s lawmakers!

One of the latest things I am incredibly proud of is my participation in the Summer Educational Enrichment Program through Georgia Regents University. I was very fortunate to have been selected to spend seven weeks shadowing and learning from faculty and staff of GRU. I was able to see so many different types of surgeries and procedures, and I really enjoyed my experience. I have made lifelong friends, and I hope to see them as my colleagues in the future.

Fantastic. Read the whole profile.

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Kudos, December 2014

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Uma-Canopy-group.jpg Each month, we are humbled by the achievements of our faculty, staff and students. We list a few of the most recent here not to be boastful (though we are quite proud of your accomplishments) but as a simple acknowledgement: grouping together so many accolades from one college, over a short period of time, reminds us of the talent, productivity and professional engagement of colleagues all around us.

That being said, the month just past brought an exemplary set of outstanding achievements that is so extraordinary, I didn't want them to get lost in the fact that we regulalry spotlight such awards and accolades. We do, and there is nothing ordinary about any of them. But there's no way to soft-pedal it - this is greatness in action:

A group of scientists led by Samantha Joye received $18.8 million in new funding to continue its studies of natural oil seeps and to track the impacts of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem

Three UGA faculty members (all from the Franklin College) have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an honor bestowed upon them by their peers for "scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. The three are dean Alan Dorsey, Samantha Joye and David Garfinkel

A delegation of seven undergraduate students representing UGA at the 18th Annual Southeast Model African Union simulation at Clayton State University won the best delegation award - faculty advisors Karim Traore and Akinloye Ojo

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching selected John A. Knox as the Georgia Professor of the Year for 2014. Knox was the first state winner of the award from UGA since 2004 and the first atmospheric scientist from any state to be selected since 1989.

The Georgia Debate Union won an intercollegiate debate tournament featuring 32 teams from East Coast colleges

Doctoral student Uma Nagendra (pictured above) flipped and twisted her way to the top prize in the seventh annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest for her video explaining biology research through an aerial dance performance

And to preview the upcoming fall Commencement exercises on Dec. 19 at Stegman Coliseum, UGA Alumnus, associate director of programs for the NASA Ames Research Center and great friend of the Franklin College Roger Hunter will deliver the undergraduate commencement address. The graduate commencement will feature UGA Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Gregory H. Robinson.

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