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CBS News - January 2009

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From the dean

Reality check: The worst of times and the best of times

When I listened to Barack Obama’s inaugural speech earlier this week, I was struck by the encouragement his words offered for the University and the College of Biological Sciences:

“The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.”

There were more encouraging words from Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House, on public radio last week. When asked about the priorities in the federal economic stimulus package, Pelosi responded “There are four words—science, science, science and science.”

The new era we are entering is fraught with paradoxes. Our country is in the throes of economic uncertainty and we have remarkable new leadership at the helm. The University is facing serious challenges created by the economic downturn and demand for CBS educational programs is skyrocketing. We are modeling reductions to the CBS budget and the House Ways and Means Committee is considering massive increases to the budgets of NIH, NSF and DOE.

The pessimists among us will see the worst of times and the optimists the best. I urge you to take a reality check and seize opportunities for growth while recognizing opportunities to pull back. By doing so, we can maintain our momentum along the trajectory of excellence we have enjoyed for the past decade and keep our vision within sight.

As reductions and new opportunities become clear in the coming months, we need to advance our individual and collective goals creatively. How can we continue to improve our education and research efforts while responding to the new administration’s challenge to restore this country’s leadership in science, health care and education?

I will share details about CBS reductions as soon as they are available. And I encourage you to contribute your suggestions for CBS cost savings through the CBS Budget Idea Generator. In the meantime, you can find more information about the University’s economic challenges and opportunities at the following websites.

  1. The economy and the U
  2. Federal relations update

I truly welcome your ideas. Together, we can continue to thrive—in good times and in bad.

Bob Elde, Dean
College of Biological Sciences

College news

New GCD department head announced

Professor Michael O’Connor, Ordway Chair of Developmental Biology in Genetics, Cell Biology and Development, succeeded Professor Brian Van Ness as head of the Department of Genetics, Cell Biology and Development January 1.

O’Connor started at the University of Minnesota in 1997. He has contributed to more than 80 peer-reviewed publications in the fields of developmental biology and molecular genetics over the years. A Howard Hughes Medical Institute Senior Investigator, he researches the molecular genetics of development, focusing on growth-factor signaling and gene regulation.

Van Ness, who was the founding head of the department, served in that role nine years. He returns full time to teaching and research.

CBS makes inroads online

Last month, CBS sent a survey to alumni regarding their use of social media such as Facebook, YouTube and iTunes. The results indicated a strong interest among alumni of all ages in social networking sites and video. A similar survey will be sent to current students in late January. The surveys are part of an effort to shape the college’s larger social media strategy, with an eye to building and maintaining relationships.

So far, CBS has launched an Itasca “fan page” on Facebook, which has already attracted more than 100 alumni, faculty, students and friends of the field station. A fan page for Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve will debut later this month.

The college also launched a CBS channel on YouTube featuring videos about research initiatives and student life. In addition to videos produced by the college, the CBS channel on YouTube will feature video created by faculty and students in the “Favorites” section. To submit content, email a link to the video to Stephanie Xenos, assistant director, communications.

Research and the river

Professor Michael Sadowsky (BTI) recently spoke on camera about the Minnesota Mississippi Metagenome Project (M3P). Sadowsky described the scope of the project, the value of better understanding the biodiversity of microbes in the river, and the role of Itasca Biological Station and Laboratories in facilitating the research.


Grooming your way to the top

Among most mammals, the biggest and fiercest male claims the role of alpha male and gets his choice of females. But a new study by anthropology undergraduate, Mark Foster, working with Anne Pusey (EEB) and current and former EEB graduate students shows that smaller males can actually groom their way to the top. The finding was gleaned from 10 years of behavioral data on three alpha male chimpanzees in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Frodo, weighing in at 51.2 kilograms, achieved his status through bullying and aggression. Wilkie, who weighed only 37 kilograms, obsessively groomed male and female chimpanzees to attain his leadership role. And Freud, who weighed 44.8 kilograms used a combination of the two strategies. The findings are reported online by the American Journal of Primatology and will be published in the February issue. It was also cited in Nature News. While other primatologists have proposed that grooming plays a role in chimpanzee social interaction, this study is the first to show that dominance style depends on body size.

Study looks at evolutionary response to climate change

Assistant Professor Jeannine Cavender-Bares (EEB) is leading an international research study investigating the evolutionary potential of trees to respond to climate change. The research team, which includes investigators from Cornell and the University of Minnesota-Duluth, was recently awarded a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation. The project examines short-term physiological changes as well as the potential for long-term evolutionary changes in response to experimental manipulations of precipitation in populations of a Central American tropical oak species.

ScienceWatch spotlights fungi paper

A paper co-authored by Professor David McLaughlin (PBIO) has been cited in ScienceWatch’s “New Hot Papers” section. The study presents a comprehensive classification of the fungi kingdom. The classification takes into account recent molecular phylogenetic analyses, and includes input from a broad group of fungal taxonomic experts. Lead author David Hibbett of Clark University points to the importance of fungi in human affairs—as pathogens, decayers and beneficial symbionts—and increasing understanding of the evolutionary history of fungi as primary reasons for the attention the paper has received. The paper is part of the NSF-funded “Assembling the Fungal Tree of Life” project.

Mysterious bacteria from Soudan mine piques interest

Assistant Professor Jeff Gralnick (BTI/Microbiology) is among several University of Minnesota scientists researching bacteria found at the lowest levels of the abandoned Soudan mine in northern Minnesota. Extremely salty oxygen-less water is seeping out of the bedrock and producing dynamic, colorful iron-oxide structures after contact with air. “This ancient water is teeming with bacteria, and we suspect bacteria may be playing a role in the formation of these iron structures,” says Gralnick, who sees potential to develop commercial applications based on further research.


Top challenges in teaching with technology in 2009

Higher education technology advocacy group Educause reports the results of an extensive survey of the top technology-related teaching and learning challenges of 2009. Among the challenges cited were creating effective learning environments, improving digital literacy and advancing the use of technology in an era of budget cuts.


Assistant Professor Jennifer Powers (EEB) has been named a 2009-11 Minnesota McKnight Land-Grant Professor. Designed to enhance the careers of the University’s most promising junior faculty, the award includes a $32,500 research grant in each of the two years plus a paid research leave. Powers’ research looks at the relationships among ecological processes, the patterns they generate, and the effects of environmental changes caused by human activity across spatial and temporal scales.

Naoki Yamanaka (GCD), a post-doc in Professor Michael O’Connor’s laboratory, has received the Inoue Research Award for Young Scientists from the Inoue Foundation for Science. The Japanese Minister of Education will award Yamanaka a medal and a $5,000 cash prize at a ceremony in Tokyo February 3. The award goes to 30 of Japan’s most promising young scientists with the most outstanding thesis in their fields.

The Graduate School has agreed to fund a proposal requesting matching funds for an automated freeze substitution device for the Imaging Center. Carolyn Silflow, Pete Lefebvre (both PBIO), David Greenstein and Mary Porter (both GCD) penned the proposal with support from Mark Sanders (Imaging Center) and Huber Warner, CBS associate dean for research. The device facilitates highly reproducible preparation of samples for electron microscopy while minimizing researchers’ exposure to toxic chemicals.

CBS senior Alexandra Ellingson (GCD) was named “Student Leader of the Semester” for fall 2008 for the Biology Colloquium Program. The award is given each term to a student who has shown excellent leadership skills.

Biochemistry major Daniel Martig talks about his South Korean study-abroad experience in a recent edition of the Learning Abroad Center’s “All Abroad” e-newsletter.


Science in the Obama Administration

Pai-Yei Whung, chief scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will speak about priorities and decision-making at the agency under the Obama administration.

DETAILS: 105 Cargill | St. Paul campus | January 29 | 11 a.m.

What’s Next in Law, Health & the Life Sciences? Debating Openness, Access & Accountability

Nationally recognized speakers will address emerging issues in genomics, neuroscience, health care, environmental research and science oversight at the annual conference of the Consortium on Law and Values in Health, Environment & the Life Sciences.

DETAILS: Cowles Auditorium | East Bank campus | March 6 | 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Bollum Symposium: Biochemistry of Biofuels

The Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics has announced the lineup for this year’s Bollum Symposium. Speakers will include Jay Keasling (University of California, Berkeley), CEO of DOE Joint BioEnergy Institute; Tim Donohue (University of Wisconsin, Madison), head of DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Center; James Liao (University of California, Los Angeles), developer of the GEVO biofuel technology platform; and Steve Ragsdale (University of Michigan Medical School).

DETAILS: Coffman Union | East Bank campus | May 6 | 1–5 p.m.


A message from Juli Pelletier (Dean’s Office), who has organized the Toys for Tots drive for the past four years: “On behalf of the CBS Deans office, I would like to personally thank everyone for their Toys for Tots donations. This year was the most successful collection to date. Our toy box was more than overflowing. Thanks again for your thoughtfulness and generosity.”