Also In This Issue

Lab Work: Research Developments

Birds of a New Feather

A Texas A&M University team discovered three never-before-documented bird species in an area of Africa said to be lacking in avian biodiversity.

“The discovery of these new species is a good example of the amount of hidden diversity living in Afrotropical forests,” said Gary Voelker, professor and curator of birds in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences at Texas A&M. “Our evidence runs directly counter to the belief of earlier researchers that Afrotropical forests are static places where little evolutionary diversification has occurred.”

The three new species are forest robins in the genus Stiphrornis hailing from West Africa and the Congo Basin. They look similar, but have clear genetic differences.

“Each of the three species represent a distinct lineage based on our genetic analysis,” Voelker said. “They are further distinguished from other birds in the genus by differences in wing and tail length and plumage coloration. One species has a distinctive song as well.”

Voelker named one species the Rudder’s Forest Robin after Gen. Earl Rudder ’32.

The Ends of the Earth

Texas A&M University at Galveston student Katie Westmoreland ’16 enjoyed the trip of a lifetime at the bottom of the world: Antarctica. The Dayton, Texas, native spent six weeks on the continent this spring with 22 other researchers as part of an internship with the National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research Program.

A double major in marine fisheries and marine biology, she studied topics including climate change, ocean currents and marine diets alongside some of the world’s top scientific minds.

“The primary investigators of this program have studied Antarctic ecosystem changes for 25 years,” Westmoreland said. “Climate change occurs more rapidly at the poles than in other parts of the world, so studying temperature fluctuations and annual declines in sea ice is critical to understanding Antarctic ecology.”

Particularly, Westmoreland’s research focused on zooplankton such as krill and salps.

“These organisms are two important parts of the marine food web easily influenced by temperature and sea ice coverage,” Westmoreland said. “Krill especially is a key food source for whales, penguins and seals, so understanding their distribution and abundance helps us learn about other parts of the marine food web in Antarctica.”

Since ecological processes do not happen rapidly, long-term data sets help researchers understand how parts of the food web interact over time and whether climate change plays a role.

Get a Whiff of This

Christine Tisone, professor of health education in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Texas A&M University, discovered an unconventional way to alleviate the progression of memory loss in dementia patients: spice painting.

Tisone started a service learning project three years ago at a local assisted living facility in College Station as part of a human disease class she teaches. While students initially could volunteer to take part in the activity, an outpouring of positive feedback inspired Tisone to make participation a mandatory part of the course.

Students spend a few hours two or three times per week painting and visiting with dementia patients. They make paints by mixing water with various spices to create different colors and smells, which have the potential to elicit memories for patients and provide talking points for students.

“Many patients, even those with severe dementia, can recall memories based on what they smell,” said Tisone. “If not, the activity still spurs conversation, and the most important part of memory care is interaction with other people.”

While Tisone concedes that spice painting is no end-all cure for dementia, there is anecdotal evidence of decreased anxiety in patients who have participated since the program's inception. Numerous research studies also show a strong association with memory and the sense of smell.

Mapping Emotions

With the help of volunteers and the Texas Target Communities outreach unit in the College of Architecture, Austin artist Jennifer Chenoweth will debut a public art project called the “XYZ Atlas”. This color-coded, data-based map will geographically plot where individuals experienced emotional highs and lows in Bryan-College Station.

The project is created using geographic information system software and data from anonymous surveys completed by area residents. Questionnaires asked participants to note where within the community they experienced specific emotions such as joy, fear, sadness, anticipation, anger and surprise.

To increase survey participation by minority populations, Texas Target Communities enlisted graduate urban planning students to collect data for the project at events hosted by African American and Hispanic groups.

The data gathered is used as a teaching tool in an undergraduate urban economic development class led by Cecilia Giusti, associate professor of planning.

“This project will not only deliver beautiful art and valuable data, but is also grounded in participatory planning practices that gather input from diverse population groups within a community,” said Giusti. “Students learn that this kind of data can add an additional dimension, along with income, race and gender, in a spatial analysis of a city’s economy.”



    And the Oscar goes to…Texas A&M visualization students! More than 15 graduates and one current student helped propel Disney Animation Studios’ “Zootopia” and Pixar Animation Studios’ “Piper” to movie fame. The films won Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short Film, respectively, at this year’s Academy Awards.

    Researchers and students in the Department of Mechanical Engineering have made it easier for those with visual impairments to read by developing a portable 3-D printer that can manufacture highly durable and waterproof braille labels. These can be affixed to a large variety of consumer products with details like the product’s name, expiration date and usage.

    Of the millions of patients admitted to U.S. hospitals each year, nearly 250,000 will contract Clostridium difficile, an intestinal bacterium that causes life-threatening diarrhea and severe colon inflammation. Using mice, Texas A&M biologist Joseph Sorg is researching how the bacterium colonizes to understand factors that affect human susceptibility and to lay the groundwork for preventing future infections.