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UMaine Today Magazine


Climate Change

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Focusing on climate change

The William M. Keck Foundation will provide a $1.6 million grant to fund continued groundbreaking scientific research in the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute. The funds will support a project, "Major Advances in the Field of Climate Change Reconstruction Using Ice Cores," which will revolutionize climate science. The project will build on UMaine's ongoing research aimed at developing a global array of ice cores for use in studying historical climate change, in better understanding the Earth's environment and in creating sound hypotheses related to the planet's climate future. Professor Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute, is the project leader.

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The Foundation's grantmaking is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering. The Foundation also maintains a program to support undergraduate science and humanities education and a Southern California Grant Program that provides support in the areas of healthcare, civic and community services, education and the arts, with a special emphasis on children and youth.

"The William M. Keck Foundation has a 54-year history of supporting the kinds of high-quality scientific inquiries that revolutionize the ways in which we view the world around us," says UMaine President Robert Kennedy. "We are honored to be associated with the Foundation and we are most appreciative of the faith the foundation's staff and leadership have shown in the ability of Prof. Mayewski and his colleagues to advance scientific knowledge in this critical field of study."

Kennedy also noted that faculty researchers from several UMaine academic areas, including Laboratory for Surface Science Technology (LASST) director Prof. Robert Lad, will play important roles in the project.

UMaine scientists have been involved in ice core research for decades. Their work, funded by the National Science Foundation, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, involves the extraction of ice from polar regions around the world. By examining the chemical composition at intervals along the ice core, scientists can reconstruct climate history over centuries and they can monitor current climate conditions in critical regions. In this work, UMaine scientists have leadership roles in collaborative projects involving researchers from around the U.S. and countries throughout Europe, South America and Asia.

"This research is both critical and time-sensitive," Mayewski says. "In some regions, these invaluable records are literally melting away. Because of this generous grant from the Keck Foundation, we will be able to accelerate this research and move toward realizing our vision of establishing the complete and robust record necessary to gain a thorough understanding of the Earth's climate history. Ice cores are the only means by which we can study climate history on a meaningful scale, looking at thousands of years of verifiable records. They are essential to understanding the past and applying its lessons to the examination of issues related to the contemporary environment and society's future."

Because of 30-plus years of ice core research, Mayewski notes, scientists have a dramatically improved understanding of climate systems and the impact of human behavior on our environment.

The Keck Foundation funding will allow the UMaine scientists to expand their research capabilities in two specific ways:through the purchase and adaptation of a laser ablation inductively coupled plasma spectrometer (LA-ICP-MS), technology that allows for "rapid, continuous, high resolution sampling of ice core chemistry," increasing the scientists' capabilities with regard to chemical sampling and core assessment;through the development of new ice core measuring capability by developing prototype chemical sensors to be embedded in an ice core drill, along with a "disposable" GPS system that will allow for on-site sampling in hazardous environments and for monitoring changes in glaciers.

Scientists in UMaine's LASST laboratory will lead the development of the sensor technology. Some 13 UMaine academic personnel, representing CCI, LASST and several academic departments, will participate in the project.

Unlocking disease-fighting secrets

In biomedical research, the zebrafish is used as a model organism because it has many biological traits that mimic those of humans. However, a greater understanding of the differences in their immunity systems could one day lead to therapies to better fight human disease.

With a five-year, $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, University of Maine microbiologist Carol Kim will conduct a comparative immunology study to shed light on the distinctions that evolved in the innate immunity systems of zebrafish and mammals, such as mice and humans.

Her prediction is that identifying those unique disease-fighting molecular processes in the zebrafish will provide researchers with clues to finding similar defense mechanisms as yet unidentified in humans.

Unidentified components may be masked or maintain minor roles in the complex structure of mammals' innate immunity. But if their contributions to the body's immunity system were boosted, the result could be a complementary approach to fighting infectious disease.

The research could open the possibilities for new vaccines.

"Unlocking the secrets of the innate immune response is so promising, companies are now trying to use Toll-like receptor (TLR) signal pathways (proteins found on the surface of certain cells) and receptors as adjuvants for vaccines, all in an effort to achieve a more robust immune response," says Kim, the new director of UMaine's Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

While adaptive immunity remains essential to the existences of many species, researchers now know that the stronger the innate immune response, the more vigorous the adapted immune response.

Experts on topic: UMaine Cooperative Extension

With many Maine residents struggling to meet their needs for heating, transportation and food due to rising fuel prices, University of Maine Cooperative Extension has established a Web Site to distribute research-based information on saving money through energy conservation and alternative energy sources.

For homeowners, the site has heating source comparisons, and information on how to conserve energy through insulation and appliance use. For the traveler, there is information on efficient vehicles and public transportation, as well as cost calculators for hybrid vehicle options. The site also includes energy-saving tips for small businesses and farms, current research in Maine on producing energy on the farm with biodiesel and links to information on tax incentives and energy audits.

The case of the stolen emeralds

In July, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the return to the Colombian government of more than 60 Precolumbian artifacts that were seized in Florida in 2005. The recovered artifacts that had been smuggled into the United States included more than a dozen emerald pieces that were studied by University of Maine physicists March 18 after they were brought to campus by ICE officers to determine the gems' trace elements.

Earlier this year, Professor of Physics C.T. Hess was contacted by the State Department after a federal official found reference to a research paper published in 1998 in the journal Archaeology. In the paper, Hess and two coauthors - then Hudson Museum director Stephen Whittington and gemologist James Vose of Lincoln - detailed the use of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to determine the trace elements in another Precolumbian artifact known as "the emerald man," a carved figurine that is part of the Palmer Collection in the Hudson Museum.

After a day of testing in his lab this spring, Hess and his students - Joshua Wright, Douglas Cahl and Anna Schliep - determined that the trace elements in the confiscated emeralds revealed that they were mined from one source. X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy helps researchers determine the chemical components in samples, providing clues to geological origins.
The research results on the now repatriated emeralds - 14 stones with drilled holes for what was probably a necklace, and a tiny carved frog figurine - were reported in a senior thesis in April by Joshua Wright.

Women in politics

A new initiative at the University of Maine aims to give women a bigger slice of the political pie. Beginning next year, up to 40 college-age women from Maine will have the opportunity to participate in MaineNEW Leadership, a weeklong intensive residential training program targeting the next generation of leaders.

The program began in 1991 at the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. UMaine is the latest partner in NEW Leadership's 17-member national network.

"The idea behind the program is for college women to understand the importance of serving in office and of civic engagement, particularly in your community and your state," says Mary Cathcart, a former Maine legislator who now is a senior policy associate at UMaine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center.

Insight Lite: Berry good for you

Cranberries are an autumn staple, whether baked into a quick bread or served as a sauce at the holiday table. But Vivian Wu, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Maine, knows there's more to cranberries than their sweet-tart flavor. Here are her top five cranberry facts from her research:

  • Cranberries contains antioxidant compounds that reduce free-radical, or oxidative, damage.

  • New research led by Wu shows cranberries may offer a strong line of defense against food poisoning with their unique ability to reduce
    the growth of salmonella and other types of harmful bacteria in food.

  • Cranberries are known for their unique "anti-adhesion" activity, which protects the body from certain harmful bacteria that cause
    urinary tract infections, stomach ulcers and gum disease.

  • Wu's research group also found that food testers accepted the flavor of a hamburger that includes up to 5 percent cranberry extract.

  • One day, incorporating cranberries into food preparation may be a natural way to minimize food contamination.

Ice age pests

Chironomids, or midge flies, begin their lives as larvae in lake sediment. As they grow, they shed their skin four times, then pupate.

When they emerge as a swarm of adults, they mate, lay eggs and die.
The extent of their adult lives occurs within a few days, but the lessons they can teach us about climate change endure, according to University of Maine researcher Ann Dieffenbacher-Krall.

Dieffenbacher-Krall has spent the last several years extracting and classifying chironomid head capsules - the only part of the insect that preserves - from cores of lake sediment in New Zealand.

"We're using them as a thermometer, basically," Dieffenbacher-Krall says, to help determine what was going on in the Southern Hemisphere at the end of the last ice age.

Different types of chironomids exist in different ecological conditions, but the dominant variable is a lake's mean summer temperature.

Comparing chironomid research data with pollen-based studies of temperature change, Dieffenbacher-Krall and her Climate Change Institute colleagues George Denton and Marcus Vandergoes have painted a more complete picture of climate change in the late glacial period.

The findings from their research, which were recently published in Quaternary Science Reviews, indicate stronger seasonality, which could have broader implications for understanding the differences between proxy records for abrupt climate change.

Ageism in the workplace

A two-year study of older employees in Maine is focusing on how they perceive and handle harassment in the workplace.

With a $125,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, University of Maine sociologist Amy Blackstone is surveying as many as 800 Maine workers age 62 and older. Blackstone says she hopes to find out how stature at work affects harassment experiences, and how stature at work, home and in the community may affect responses to those experiences.

By bringing together several areas of sociological inquiry, including age, power, victimization and mobilization, the study is expected to inform policymaking and employment laws by raising awareness about situations that may create opportunities for employee harassment or discrimination.

The study's findings will be used to develop a larger comparative investigation of workplace harassment over worker life cycles.

Documentiing culture

At the University of Maine, the Hudson Museum's Maine Native American collection includes more than 500 examples of culture - from birch bark canoes and root clubs to beadwork and baskets of brown ash splints and sweetgrass dating from the 1850s. Also in the collection are traditional tools used by Maine Indian basketmakers to transform the natural materials into functional works of art.

Now a documentary series by the Hudson Museum and the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, filmed and produced by students at ASAP, UMaine's new media and Internet technology production lab, illustrates just how those tools are used in the artistic tradition by contemporary artists as a means of sustaining cultural heritage. Eleven Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Maliseet and Micmac artists from Bethel to Limestone, as well as tribal elders, were interviewed.

The two-year project to document Maine Indian material culture, made possible by a $96,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, culminated this fall. It features nine segments on basketmaking, from the gathering and processing of the raw materials - brown ash and sweetgrass - to the creation of the artforms. Also featured are two birch bark artists, three carvers and a beadworker.

Once the Hudson Museum reopens next fall in the newly renovated Collins Center for the Arts, patrons will use media stations with touch screens to see these segments in the new Maine Indian Gallery. The documentaries also will be available to schools over the Internet to support LD291, a 2001 state law requiring the teaching of Maine Native American history and culture in schools.


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