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Spirit is published three times per year by the Texas A&M Foundation, which manages major gifts and endowments for the benefit of academic programs, scholarships and student activities at Texas A&M University.

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Lab Work: Research at Texas A&M

Fostering Human-Elephant Coexistence

Through Ecoexist, an international conservation program she co-founded with elephant biologist Dr. Anna Songhurst and wetlands ecologist Dr. Graham McCulloch, Texas A&M anthropologist Amanda Stronza is working with nine graduate students and local and national community leaders in Botswana to mitigate conflicts between elephants and people.

In the Okavango Delta, elephants outnumber humans, and the two species compete for the same essential resources. More than 18,000 elephants roam through their native plains to get to water, often in places where people are planting fields, herding livestock and walking their children home from school. They follow the same distinct corridors as generations of elephants before them, but the rise of new human settlements and farmlands increasingly creates conflict.

Through rigorous data collection and close collaboration with the citizens and government of Botswana, the Ecoexist team has designed a holistic approach to reducing human-elephant conflict. Part of that approach is economic, explained Stronza. “We call it building an elephant economy, and it includes developing elephant-aware food and craft products, cultural events and community-based tours, which can generate benefits for people who live with elephants,” she said.

Other solutions include tracking elephants to better understand their seasonal movements, pathways and preferred habitats; working with local farmers to develop more resilient cropping strategies; lining fences with noisy cans to alert elephants when they’re encroaching on farmland; and large-scale socioeconomic planning and land use zoning.

  • Improving Human-Pachyderm Relations

    Texas A&M anthropologist Amanda Stronza is working with nine graduate students and local and national community leaders in Botswana to mitigate conflicts between elephants and people.
  • Elephant Corridor

    Elephants roam the same distinct corridors as generations before them, but the rise of new human settlements and farmlands increasingly creates conflict.
  • Okavango Delta

    More than 18,000 elephants roam through their native plains to get to water, often in places where people are planting fields, herding livestock and walking their children home from school.
  • Collaboration

    Through rigorous data collection and close collaboration with the citizens and government of Botswana, the Ecoexist team has designed a holistic approach to reducing human-elephant conflict.

Why Can You Smell Rain?

If rainwater has no distinct scent, how do people swear they can smell it, even before it has arrived? Texas A&M assistant atmospheric sciences professor Tim Logan has an explanation. “The smell comes from the ground becoming moist,” Logan said. “This moistening forms petrichor, an earthy scent made up of organic fragrant compounds.”

The main contributors to petrichor are actinobacteria, tiny microorganisms found in cities and rural areas alike. Actinobacteria activity creates a byproduct called geosmin, a type of alcohol with a noticeable smell even at extremely low levels.

When it hasn’t rained, the decomposition rate of actinobacteria in the soil slows down, only to speed up when the air becomes more humid before a rain event. As raindrops fall and splatter, tiny particles called aerosols are generated, which help to spread the geosmin and other petrichor compounds from the ground into the air. “A heavy rainfall can send the petrichor compounds into the wind, which can carry rapidly across land and alert surrounding areas that rain is on the way,” Logan said.

Speaking in Virtual Terms

Virtual reality and wearable devices may soon be a solution for sweaty palms and nervous stutters as a new way to practice public speaking. Theodora Chaspari, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, is collaborating with Amir Behzadan, associate professor of construction science, to study whether virtual reality scenarios have the potential to reduce public speaking anxiety.

In their yearlong study, student participants will speak to virtual, diverse audiences with varying demographic characteristics, attention levels and venue sizes while a smart wristband device records their physiological signals like heart rate, sweat levels, skin temperature and blood volume pulse.

“When we compare this data with benchmark data from the subject’s speech to a live audience, we can see how much virtual reality presentations help reduce the subject’s fear of public speaking and improve his or her speaking performance,” said Behzadan.

“Later in the study, we will train machine learning models to generate and deliver instant feedback to students talking to a live audience as their physiological data are monitored,” added Chaspari. This will enable them to make real-time improvements to their speaking skills and strategies.

Dr. Rajesh Miranda, Texas A&M College of Medicine

Fighting Infant Opioid Addiction

Approximately every 25 minutes, a baby is born who suffers through neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). However, not every infant subjected to opioids while in the womb develops an addiction—a phenomenon that Rajesh Miranda, a professor at the Texas A&M College of Medicine, wants to understand. Partnering with Ludmila Bakhireva, a professor and epidemiologist at the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy, Miranda will study why some infants are prone to developing NOWS while others do not.

“We hope to identify biomarkers to predict which opioid-exposed infants are likely to undergo NOWS before they exhibit any symptoms,” Miranda said. “In previous research related to fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, we found that tiny epigenetic markers called micro-RNAs circulating in the mother’s blood can help predict which children will have disorders. We then started wondering if the same might be true for the effects of other drugs, like opioids, on the infant.”

Testing the blood from infants’ umbilical cords, the research team will assess for micro-RNAs in hopes of determining which ones can predict the occurrence and severity of NOWS before withdrawal symptoms begin. If successful, the team’s findings could be a step forward in fighting the nation’s current opioid crisis.

  • Pest Prevention

    South Korea’s Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency has reached out to entomologists at Texas A&M University for help in stopping an invading pest: the red imported fire ant. Although the fire ant is familiar to Texans, its invasion of the Korean peninsula is new and South Koreans will rely on experts at Texas A&M to learn how to monitor, survey and manage the pests proactively before they become established.
  • Cultivating Brain Health

    Gardening could maintain brain health and ward off age-related cognitive problems, according to a paper co-authored by Dr. Susan Rodiek, associate professor of architecture. Conducted in Japan with researchers Masahiro Toyoda and Yuko Yokota, the study found that the act of seeding and watering a garden activated elderly subjects’ medial frontal pole, a part of the brain involved in cognitive processing tasks such as the recollection of source information and memory retrieval.
  • Altering Ecosystems

    As black mangroves thrive across the Texas coast, a team of researchers led by Dr. Anna Armitage, associate professor of marine biology at Texas A&M Galveston, will investigate what effect these shrub-like trees may have on the coastal wetland ecosystem. As mangroves displace marsh plants, this could alter the value of wetlands as shelter and as a source of food for many creatures, from shrimp and fish to birds.
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