Perks of the Job

What does summer vacation look like for a scientist? For some, summer break is much-needed time to catch up on research projects and writing, but for many of us, summer centers around one thing: field work. Quite often, much of the data that scientists rely upon can only be collected in natural settings outside the lab, so we must take part in extended field projects all over the globe. For a few geologists and paleoanthropologists at IU, this means traveling thousands of miles to Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania and spending several weeks camping out at one of the most famous locations for evidence of human evolution.

Panoramic view of the edge of the large gorge, with desert plants all around.
Panoramic view of a small section of Olduvai Gorge, which is over 30 miles long.


An Event Like No Other–Science Fest 2016

A child, 10-12 years of age, is surrounded by the inner components of a computer, while a volunteer stands by watching.
A young student gets his hands on the inner workings of a computer, while a volunteer stands by.

You’d have to wonder what could bring close to 600 students, faculty, staff, and parent volunteers to the IU campus on a Saturday morning. They could instead be home mowing the lawn, enjoying a nice stack of pancakes at the Runcible Spoon, or sleeping in…..but no. This team of people is  on a mission to guide young children and their families to a better understanding of the natural world using inquiry and hands-on discovery. For this reason, they wake up early and head to IU on a Saturday morning. (more…)

Protein Machines: the Molecules of Your Body in Motion

Proteins move.  Most people are likely familiar with proteins in the context of their own nutrition – you get protein from meat, unless you’re a vegetarian, in which case you might get protein from soy or milk.  But proteins are not just a part of your diet.  The extremely broad category of molecules contained under the word “proteins” varies wildly in terms of size, shape, and composition, and their activity in your cells determines your health and survival.  

Proteins – large molecules that are the workhorses of living cells – facilitate many important functions through their interactions with other proteins, DNA, and small molecules, such as drugs.  It has been fifty years since the first protein structure was determined, and the insight gained from studying these structures should not be understated.  A major theme of biochemistry is the “structure-function paradigm” which says that a protein’s structure will dictate its function.  Textbooks are graced with colorful images of protein structures, making it easy to think of protein molecules as trapped in a single configuration.  But in a living cell, proteins are quite mobile and dynamic molecular machines.

A well-known animated video from a collaboration between XVIVO, a studio which specializes in scientific animations, and Harvard University (watch it here) illustrates the dynamic nature of proteins in a cell.   (more…)

Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials – Viruses aren’t all that bad

Viruses are often associated with disease, but they can also be useful. Viruses infect many organisms other than humans, including plants and bacteria. Aside from being infectious, the actual structure of a virus can be harnessed as a material. For example, a virus cage can be used to deliver drugs to our cells or to protect catalytic cargo. This is possible because of the amazing structural properties that viruses exhibit.

The two basic components of a standard virus are 1) the genetic information that codes for the creation of more viruses (either DNA or RNA) and 2) the protective protein cage that surrounds that genetic information. For materials scientists, it is this protective cage that is a source of bio-inspiration. The cage is composed of various proteins that self-assemble into three-dimensional shapes (usually sphere-like) around the DNA or RNA in the same way carefully designed magnetic puzzle pieces ‘click’ into place when shaken (pictured right).

Three flasks with pieces of a magnetic puzzle. The puzzle is shown diassembled in the first flask, being shaken in the second flask, and assembled into two spheres in the third flask.
Magnetic components can be designed to selectively self-assemble in the same way some viruses self-assemble. Photo credit-Self Assembly Lab (


Chemistry Nobel: Rise of the (Tiny) Machines

Banner graphic announcing Sauvage, Stoddart, and Feringa as the winners of the 2016 Chemistry Nobel Prize

The turn of the 20th century saw an industrial revolution that saw the rise of machines to handle tasks previously beyond our grasp. Mechanization and automation in our civilization have created a higher quality of life than our physical bodies could ever achieve. Scientists are continually pushing the upper limits of engineering to create gigantic machines–from the International Space Station, orbiting the planet with a size greater than a football field, to massive oil rigs that drill the depths of our oceans. Recently, however, the Chemistry Nobel Committee recognized a group of scientists for their pioneering work to extend the lower bounds of machines. (more…)

The Brain Science of Cognitive Control

A doctor inserts a patient into a large cylindrical MRI scanner.
An MRI scanner. The large cylinder is a giant magnet which produces a powerful magnetic field in the center of the machine, which can be used to detect changes in the brain.

Ever wonder how your brain knows exactly what to do to achieve the goal of acquiring a cup of coffee, even if you’ve just stumbled out of bed? You need to take a number of steps in the correct order, including putting in the filter, adding the water, adding the coffee and turning on the machine. From our conscious perspective, this process appears rather ordinary, maybe even dull. However, the great mystery of brain science is that all of your behavior can be understood as an incredibly complex dance of electro-chemical patterns flowing through a hundred billion neurons (specialized cells which send messages to each other as well as your muscles). We have very little idea how it all works, but a diverse range of research labs at IU are doing their best to figure it out. (more…)

Can we reduce the impact of landslides caused by earthquakes?

Have you ever experienced an earthquake? This probably isn’t something you think about often, especially if you live in southern Indiana, where earthquakes large enough to be felt (or cause any damage) are quite rare. Talk to anyone living in Japan, Chile, or even California, and the odds are that they have experienced one or more earthquakes while living there; these areas of the world are tectonically active, and earthquakes are a somewhat normal occurrence.

A small number of these earthquakes have a devastating impact on the surrounding area and nearby communities. For example, the magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Kumamoto, Japan that occurred on April 15, 2016 resulted in over 70 deaths, and the total cost to rebuild due to damage will be about $24 billion. A large portion of the damage was caused by landslides that were triggered by shaking from the earthquake. An example of this devastation can be seen in the image above, where a landslide completely destroyed the Great Aso Bridge in Minamiaso, Japan.    (more…)

Star clusters: Star families come in all ages, shapes and sizes

Have you ever taken time to gaze at the stars on a clear night, either with a casual eye or a telescope?  If so, you might have seen the famous star cluster, the Pleiades, without even knowing it! Known as the Seven Sisters from Greek mythology, it is a bright and compact group of stars.  The Pleiades cluster actually contains about one thousand stars of which the seven brightest ones outshine all the others.  This post will introduce you to star clusters like the Pleiades, the subject of a significant part of the IU Department of Astronomy’s research.

The Pleiades star cluster, containing several distinctly bright stars
Caption: The Pleiades (Messier 45) is an open cluster that contains about one thousand stars, with young stars that can shine very brightly. The cluster is 400 light-years away. Credit: from the Digitized Sky Survey (NASA/ESA/AURA/Caltech) Also, follow @iuastro and come observe star clusters and other cool astronomical objects with us Wednesday nights at Kirkwood Observatory!

“The Seven Sisters.” The name conveniently suggests that star clusters can be considered “families” of stars, as stars are known to be born from shared molecular clouds.  These families have to fight against the gravitational pull of the much larger galaxy (and its glamorous city life) to keep its members within its own gravitational hug, but often many family members escape and become part of the general galactic population.  Smaller star families with weaker gravitational bonds are often disbanded completely, while larger ones—though they still lose a number of children—are able to survive and orbit the galaxy together.  These are the star clusters that we enjoy gazing at, and also the ones that we study as astronomers.


Is there sugar in my vaccine?

A syringe is inserted into a vial of vaccine.
Vaccine Image-NIH, “Syringe and Vaccine” June 5, 2014 via Flickr. Creative Commons license.

Zika. Ebola. SARS. Each of these different diseases have been extensively covered by the media and have sparked widespread concern about disease prevention globally. This concern over disease prevention has hit even closer to home with the mumps outbreak at IU this past spring. With this recent outbreak, there has been a push to minimize the spread of mumps–and other deadly diseases, such as meningitis–on  campus. One major campuswide effort has been to vaccinate students and faculty. (more…)

Safety in Diversity?

Disease epidemics can be devastating. How can the spread of infectious disease be controlled? It is believed that more genetically diverse host populations have lower prevalence of infectious diseases. This pattern is particularly strong in agricultural systems where diverse mixtures of crops are less susceptible to epidemics than single species (the “monoculture effect”). But how does host genetic diversity affect disease spread? IU professor Curtis M. Lively uses theoretical modelling as an approach to investigate this question in the March 2016 issue of The American Naturalist.

The figure contains two tables with genotypes plotted in the top row and side column.
Two loci, Haploid infection matrices for the Matching Alleles family of models. (a) Matching Alleles Model (b) Inverse Matching Alleles Model. I = Infection, — = No Infection

Infection-genetics models: This study examines two theoretical models of infection genetics, namely the matching alleles model (MAM) and the inverse matching alleles model (IMAM), to ask whether the effect of increasing genetic variation on disease spread can be affected by which model underlies the genetic process of infection. Infection genetics models are broad, theoretical frameworks used to describe the interactions between specific host genotypes and parasite genotypes. Genotype is the genetic make-up of an individual. Alleles are the alternative versions of the same gene. For example, an individual with genotype AB is defined by the presence of allele A at one gene and B at another gene while genotype ab is defined by the presence of different alleles at the same genes, a and b. (more…)