Fulbright award primes alum for polar bears, aquatic studies

November 2, 2010

For ASU alumna Michelle McCrackin, her Fulbright-funded field work started with a flight to a research station at Ny Ålesund in Norway’s arctic archipelago of Svalbard (Spitsbergen). There, under a midnight sun, she learned to fire a rifle, to set up an arctic camp and to collect water samples that would add fuel to her doctoral degree.

McCrackin applied for her Fulbright as a doctoral student in the laboratory of James Elser, Regents’ and Parents Association Professor in the School of Life Sciences in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She was interested in the microbiological processes in lakes that receive nitrogen (N) pollution in rainfall, including the phenomena of “denitrification,” a process in which bacteria use nitrate for respiration in same way that we use oxygen, converting that nitrate-N to N2 gas and returning it to the atmosphere. These denitrifiers are a kind of microscoping “clean-up crew” for nitrogen pollutants. Download Full Image

Norway is attractive, but not just for its glaciers, fjords and mountains. It also harbors a large number of pristine lakes, some which, nevertheless, receive pollution spawned in distant industrial regions of Europe. While McCrackin had studied lakes in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Norway offered a mother lode of lakes.

A 40-minute flight to her field site from Longyearbyen, Norway, placed her with a unique community of scientists from Norway, China, South Korea, India, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, Austria, and France, to name a few. With a team of five researchers, she collected water samples from two lakes on nearby islands. As these sites fell well outside the immediate vicinity of the research station, she was required to complete rifle training to protect against polar bears.

“The instructor was surprised to learn that I had never fired a weapon before,” McCrackin said. “He felt sure that all Americans owned guns.”

Armed, dangerous and now able to hit “the broad side of a barn,” a typical day for McCrackin meant donning a bright orange survival suit and boarding a small open motor boat. Once on an island, team members then hiked to two lakes, each carrying 10-25 kilos of gear, including an inflatable boat. Near Lake Hajeren, McCrackin’s group came across rusty barrels and other debris left by the Germans during World War II, rubbish now protected as cultural heritage in Svalbard. Visits to the second lake, Blokkvatnet, involved overnight camping and midnight sampling.

“It was a strange experience to be collecting samples at 11 p.m. and setting up camp at 4 a.m.,” McCrackin said. “Fortunately we were able to work without any polar bear encounters!”

Hard to believe that such an artic journey had its beginnings rooted at the Grand Canyon National Park.

It was there that McCrackin, at the time a finance manager for a large technology company in Chandler, Ariz., had a chance encounter with a wildlife biologist who was observing condors. As the ranger explained how she was using radio telemetry equipment to monitor captive-born birds that had been released into the wild, McCrackin said that she was struck by her enthusiasm and how passionately she spoke about her role in managing the reintroduced condors.

Long after she was home and back to work in finance, McCrackin couldn’t get that wildlife biologist out of her mind. “I envied how much she enjoyed her work,” McCrackin said.

As a result, she left business behind to pursue science. She took undergraduate biology courses at ASU and she learned about elemental cycles like those of nitrogen and phosphorus. This interest deepened during her undergraduate research studies with Nancy Grimm, a professor in the School of Life Sciences and researcher in the Global Institute of Sustainability. Grimm was studying the effects of atmospheric nitrogen pollution on soils around Phoenix.

Ultimately, her research experiences led McCrackin to pursue her doctoral degree in the lab of Elser, himself a Fulbright Scholar to Norway in 2003.

Of her Norwegian Fulbright experience, McCrackin said that she was particularly drawn to the Fulbright program because it was founded on the principle of promoting peace and mutual understanding through educational exchanges and offered her an opportunity to work with Norwegian researchers who are at the forefront of research into the effects of acid rain and nitrogen pollution.

The Fulbright study also contributed in significant material ways to the development of her career. In addition to the sampling of 28 lakes near Egersund, Lillehammer, and Ringebu, she also worked with researchers at the Universitetet i Oslo (UiO) and Universitetet for Miljø-og Biovitenskap (Norwegian University of Life Sciences). Because of specialized equipment and training there, McCrackin was able to add an additional chapter to her dissertation, which she defended on Oct. 19, an opportunity that would not have been available in the United States. One publication has come out about her work, published in the journal Ecology, with two more in review. Without her Fulbright experience, McCrackin might have also missed out on an unrealized interest; one revealed through interactions with researchers whose studies with lakes offered large datasets, and jump-started an interest in "big picture" issues and working with models.

"Michelle was a great Fulbright ambassador. She's not only an outstanding scholar and scientist, she has a great, positive and open attitude towards others, really curious and eager to learn more about other countries, and making friends for ASU and for our country,” Elser said. “She really loved Norway and Norway was good to her!"

McCrackin starts a postdoctoral fellowship on Nov. 1 with the National Research Council Research Associateship program with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); a position that will allow her to combine her field expertise from ASU and Norway with modeling to understand sources, sinks, and transformations of nitrogen in the landscape as part of the EPA’s Ecosystem Services Research Program.

Margaret Coulombe

Director, Executive Communications, Office of the University Provost


Creepy crawlers take contest to another dimension

November 2, 2010

‘Ugly Bug’ contenders boast on ‘Bugbook’ page 

“You’ve just entered another dimension – a dimension of insects, a micro dimension, where milkweed bugs, assassin bugs, crickets and fruit flies crawl, walk or fly side by side to show off features that are the envy of the insect world and quite possibly beyond.” This isn’t the opening narration of the late 1950s television series “The Twilight Zone,” but the introduction of a video announcing the 2010">http://askabiologist.asu.edu/activities/ubc">2010 Ugly Bug Contest.  Download Full Image

Last year’s Ugly Bug Contest attracted insect enthusiasts from around the world. Some 8,025 insectophiles cast their vote for their favorite ugly bug. This year, voters will have until Dec. 15 to show their support for the bug they deem the most fascinating, unique, or downright detestable. Until then, each bug’s fate hangs in a virtual balance. 

The adaptation of the Twilight Zone theme for this year’s video is well-suited for a contest whose contenders, all somewhat alien to a human viewer, resemble creatures one might see on the show. The house cricket, for example, with its passion for decayed insects while dining, resembles a flesh-eating zombie; while the assassin bug, whose beak-like mouthparts inject toxic saliva into its prey, becomes multiply monstrous in multifaceted eyes of insect victims. 

Other creatures determined to be crowned the ugliest bug of 2010 include the earwig, flour beetle, fruit and house flies, male ant, milkweed bug, jewel wasp and yellow dragonfly. The video is at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/video/ubc2010

The">http://askabiologist.asu.edu/video/ubc2010">http://askabiologist.asu.edu... annual contest, now in its third year at Arizona State University, was created by Marilee Sellers of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz. For 10 years, it was a local fixture – part of the Flagstaff Festival of Science and the Mount Campus Science Day. In 2008, Sellers teamed up with ASU’s Charles Kazilek to bring the competition to the Web. 

The contest is housed online in connection with ASU’s popular children’s science education website “Ask">http://askabiologist.asu.edu/">Ask A Biologist” created by Kazilek, director of technology innovation and outreach in ASU’s School">http://sols.asu.edu/">School of Life Sciences, in the College">http://clas.asu.edu/">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. 

Sporting the moniker “Dr. Biology,” Kazilek says the contest not only provides a chance for individuals to become engaged in viewing insects, but is also a great opportunity for learning to occur. 

Visitors to “Ask A Biologist” have access to downloadable wallpapers, a poster and coloring pages. The site also houses modules designed to improve students’ basic reasoning skills and a variety of experiments and “how-to” projects. Additionally, viewers find stories about scientists and their career paths. The entire website activities offer students of all ages insight into the capacious field of biology, says Kazilek. 

The creators of the Ugly Bug Contest added something new to the contest this year: the True Bug Story. The story teaches visitors that the word “bug” has a very specific usage within entomology, says Kazilek. The tale also explains that while all bugs are insects, not all insects are bugs. “True bugs” belong to a very specific subset of insects and the contest allows viewers to see some of them up close, explains Kazilek. 

Each of the contest’s 10 competitors has a personal photo and biography on the website, complete with details such as its size, weight and Latin, genus and species names. The biographies also include interesting facts about the insects, which range from the enlightening to the somewhat frightening.

The images of the insects are taken using a scanning electron microscope, which allows viewers to explore a magnified view of the competitive world of bugs – a world that would otherwise be unattainable with the human eye. Viewers are provided with colorful mug shots of the bugs, as well as the original black-and-white images of the bugs as actually seen through the microscope. The two contrasting images provide viewers a kind of before and after view that few can see outside of a laboratory. 

Bugbook, another new feature of the contest, gives viewers a look at bugs as they’ve never been seen before. Modeled after the homepage of the social networking site Facebook, Bugbook is filled with the bug’s own status updates and comments to each other. The comments reveal each bug’s personal thoughts about the contest, while giving viewers some unique insights into the life of a bug. “What’s on your mind” comments include some of the bug’s thoughts on the current results of the contest. 

With more than 400 votes, the jewel wasp was leading in the polls. Also known as Nasonia vitripennis, this winged stinger is one of the spookiest critters in the contest. The jewel wasp lays its eggs inside a living host. As the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the host from the inside out. 

Will the jewel wasp win the title of Ugly Bug Champion 2010? Only the public can decide. To seal this bug’s fate, a vote can be cast at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/activities/ubc">http://askabiologist.asu.edu/activities/ubc">http://askabiologist.asu.ed.... There, a new, real-time tabulation feature will show how each vote is counted toward making “some lucky bug’s dream come true,” says Kazilek. 

Last year’s champion, the snake fly, might be considered by some far less fearsome in the insect world in comparison to the jewel wasp. Kazilek admits that his favorite bug this year, the yellow dragonfly, resembles a character one might see in the Disney movie “Monsters Inc.”

When asked what draws people to the competition, which has already received almost 1,800 votes, Kazilek said: “Most people don’t have a scanning electron microscope. The contest presents an opportunity to see these insects up close in a way that you typically are unable to.” 

The Ugly Bug Contest offers an intimate look at some of the insects who inhabit our world and who are often overlooked, he says. While one main objective of the contest is to allow visitors to become engaged in science, Kazilek notes that another goal is “capturing the imagination.” 

The contest is sponsored by Northern">http://www4.nau.edu/electron/">Northern Arizona University Imaging and Histology Core Facility, Dow">http://www.dowagro.com/">Dow AgroSciences, and ASU">http://species.asu.edu/">ASU’s International Institute for Species Exploration, School">http://sols.asu.edu/">School of Life Sciences and W">http://sols.asu.edu/labs/bioimaging_facility/keck_lab/index.php">W. M. Keck Bioimaging Laboratory. 

Written by Jessica Stone (Jessica.Renee.Stone">mailto:Jessica.Renee.Stone@asu.edu">Jessica.Renee.Stone@asu.edu). 

Carol Hughes, carol.hughes">mailto:carol.hughes@asu.edu">carol.hughes@asu.edu
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences