Professor Emeritus Erwin Mickelberg

It is with great sadness that I send news that Professor Emeritus Erwin Mickelberg, passed away May 2. Professor Mickelberg was an Augsburg alumnus (class of 1954), a member of the Augsburg Faculty and the Department of Biology.

Professor Mickelberg began his teaching career at Augsburg College in 1956 and retired in 1994. He received his bachelor’s degree from Augsburg College and his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.
An avid supporter for a new science building throughout his teaching career at Augsburg, a manuscript of Erwin’s was recently published, and all proceeds will be donated to the College’s campaign for the new Center for Science, Business and Religion.

A funeral is planned for this Friday, May 9, 11:00 a.m. (reviewal at 10:00) at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. An obituary will appear in the Star Tribune on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.

Erwin’s family has requested memorials be made directly to the CSBR campaign, where a fund will be established in his name.

Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.

Biology Student News

Tuesday, April 8 was a big day for Augsburg Biology Students.

David Fowler presented his research “Methods and tools for studying heart development and function in Daphnia magna” at the Minnesota State Capitol as part of Minnesota Private College Scholars Day at the Capitol. He is pictured with faculty mentor Matthew Beckman.

 

In addition, six Biology students had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Bonnie Bassler. Dr. Bassler, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Chair and Squibb Professor of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, was this year’s Sverdrup Visiting Scientist Lecturer.

Biology students rank nationally on standardized exam

As part of the college’s Assessment Day, 28 Biology seniors took the ETS Major Field Test in Biology. Nationwide, 488 colleges and universities use this exam. Among the Augsburg students, four scored in the top 8% in the country. Congratulations to David Fowler, Anna Herauf, Anna Weitz and Ian Wunder on your outstanding performance!

Biology Student Receives Vann Fellowship at The Mayo Clinic

Augsburg Presidential Scholar, Michelle Grafelman, was recently awarded the 2014 Vann Fellowship in Biomedical Ethics at The Mayo Clinic. As a summer fellow, she will work with physician and research mentors within Mayo’s Program in Professionalism and Ethics (Associate Director, Regent Paul Mueller) to examine issues such as end-of-life-care, genetic therapies, and patient consent, among others. The competitive applicant pool included students from five colleges in Minnesota, and the junior biology major and math minor was the sole in-state student selected.

Michelle plans to become a physician in the future and has built a solid academic foundation in her three years at Augsburg, earning a 4.0 GPA, participating in the Honors Program, and serving on the Pre-Med Club leadership team. Chosen last summer to be one of ten Sundquist Scholars to conduct STEM research on campus, Michelle is already an accomplished research assistant. Her work in biology, funded by the generous gift of Dean and Amy Sundquist and supervised by Professor Matt Beckman, has helped her develop important research skills within molecular biology and she is continuing this work through an academic-year research grant from Augsburg’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity. Michelle has taken advantage of the many opportunities a small campus provides, including leading the flute section in the Augsburg Concert Band and writing communion worship prayers for service each Wednesday. Please join us in congratulating Michelle on her fellowship!

Biology professor has paper published

Matt Beckman, an Assistant Professor in Biology, is first author on a paper entitled Stereoselective inhibition of serotonin transporters by antimalarial compounds that was recently published in Neurochemistry International, the journal of cellular and molecular neuroscience.  The work began when Dr. Beckman was a Grass Fellow at the Marine Biological Labs in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1999, and was completed this fall through a collaboration with Dr. Keith Henry and his colleagues at the University of North Dakota.  This paper provides the first detailed description of how antimalarial compounds interact with the serotonin transporter at the molecular level.

 

http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0197018613002659

Four Biology Students Present Research

On Wednesday, September 25, four biology students presented research at two different events.

Michelle Grafelman presented her poster “The Role of the Hedgehog Gene in Daphnia magna Eye Development” at the University of Minnesota’s Developmental Biology Symposium.

At the North Star STEM Kickoff, Raesean Sneed, along with Biology professor Matthew Beckman were presenters on a undergraduate research panel. In addition, Raesean, Rico Barrozo and Promise Okeke presented posters describing their summer research experiences.

 

Michelle, Raesean and Rico all worked with Dr. Beckman this past summer. Promise was a summer research intern at John’s Hopkins University.

A New Year Begins

The 2013-14 academic year is now in full swing. Once again, enrollment in Biology courses is strong. More than 300 students are enrolled in biology courses this term, including a record 122 students in BIO 151 (Introductory Biology).

Among the start of the year highlights is City Service Day. Last Tuesday, three Biology faculty and nearly 100 first year Biology students participated in this Augsburg tradition. Students weeded a neighborhood Peace Garden, cleaned up trash at Powderhorn Park and assembled hygiene kits at the Health Commons. Augsburg’s commitment to service and to the city remains strong!

Dr. Potts’ final notes from Uganda

I’m now sitting in the Entebbe airport, waiting for my flight out of the country, back to the US. For my last post, I thought I would say something about the conservation status of chimpanzees in general, and that of chimpanzees at Ngogo in particular. This is an issue I think about often, as I’ve watched the precipitous decline of chimpanzee populations throughout equatorial Africa over the last decade or so that I’ve been studying this species, while at the same time witnessing the fairly dramatic increase in community size and density of my study community at Ngogo. Like virtually all the great apes, chimpanzees are considered endangered – certain populations, or “subspecies”, are considered critically endangered and will likely disappear within my lifetime. The fate of wild chimpanzees will be dictated in the near future by the effects of several interrelated factors: habitat loss (both legal and illegal), bushmeat hunting/poaching, and episodic disease outbreaks. Logging and mining operations have decimated chimpanzee habitats (the species is unlucky to inhabit areas rich in both precious hardwoods and rare minerals), especially since the discovery of oil in several African countries with large chimpanzee populations. While some of my work in the past has shown that low-intensity selective logging can be compatible with chimpanzee conservation, large-scale clear-cutting for commercial timber or mineral extraction certainly cannot. In many African countries in which timber operations have opened up access to forests inhabited by chimpanzees (and other primates), illegal bushmeat hunting, usually through the use of wire snares in which chimpanzees become entangled, has increased dramatically. There is a misperception among many in the western world, however, that the bushmeat “issue” is one that stems primarily from the need for local villagers in areas occupied by chimpanzees and other primates to obtain a steady source of protein. If this were the case, the problem could, in theory, be easily solved by providing alternative sources of protein to these populations. The truth, it turns out, is that the non-sustainable poaching of chimpanzees for bushmeat is largely driven by large commercial markets operating out of large, metropolitan areas, including some in the “developed world” (even the US). A large supply of bushmeat was recently confiscated, for example, at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, and not long before that at London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports. The consumption of bushmeat is associated with cultural status in many African cultures, and wherever the diaspora of sub-Saharan African elite culture spreads, whether it be Nairobi or New York, there is likely to be an underground market for bushmeat in those areas. And, as long as that market exists, populations of chimpanzees and other unfortunately easily-caught primates will continue to decline. Finally, the disease issue. This is one that has only relatively recently emerged, largely because many of the diseases that currently decimate chimpanzee populations, primary among them the Ebola virus, only recently began to afflict chimpanzees (and humans, for that matter, who are as susceptible, if not more so, to Ebola as chimps). For as terrifying and dangerous a disease as Ebola is (with upwards of 95% mortality in some cases, it is among the most virulent of all known diseases afflicting primates), we know surprisingly little about it. For example, we think that its primary host is one of a number of species of fruit bat that live in the same forests as chimpanzees (and, in some cases, gorillas), and that apes become infected by using the feeding tree as a bat carrying the virus, but there is not really all that much evidence to strongly support this. What we do know is: 1) the virus is easily transmitted between humans and chimpanzees, primarily through contact with bodily fluids, and 2) once a chimpanzee in a particular population is infected, it spreads extremely rapidly and, as I just mentioned, has a very high mortality rate. Recent Ebola outbreaks have virtually destroyed otherwise thriving chimpanzee populations, for example the previously very large population in the Tai Forest in Côte d’Ivoire in far Western Africa. Ebola is almost single handedly responsible for giving western lowland gorillas the unenviable “Critically Endangered” designation on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species. But it is not just the scary, horrifyingly grim pathogens like Ebola that threaten the long-term viability of chimpanzee populations. Seemingly far less insidious diseases, such as simple upper respiratory tract infections, which may have little to no external manifestations in humans, can wreak havoc on a chimpanzee population in which individuals lack immune responses to such infections. In Gombe National Park, for example, where Jane Goodall’s famous study of chimpanzees was first initiated in the early 1960s and continues today, retrospective analysis of major mortality events in the chimpanzee population there showed that there was a very high probability that the deaths were caused by respiratory illnesses spread from humans to chimps. As researchers, we come into fairly close contact with our study animals, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that they can easily become infected by a simple cold virus that we may be carrying, and that such a virus can be much more dangerous to their health than to ours.

 

All of these factors are working in consort have led to a major decline in wild chimpanzee numbers over the last decade. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the chimpanzees at my study site, Ngogo, have not only avoided such decline but have positively thrived over this same period. When I first started studying chimpanzees at Ngogo in 2002, there were about 140 chimps there (already more than twice the size of the next largest community anyone knew of). Today there are almost 200, nearly 4 times the size of the next largest known community. This is astounding, considering what is happening to chimpanzees elsewhere. I look at the chimpanzee community at Ngogo with a sense of guarded optimism, however, for its “success” comes with some caveats. The forest at Ngogo has been relatively unaffected by resource extraction in the past, but massive reserves of oil were recently discovered in western Uganda and there is no reason to believe these reserves are not going to be exploited to their fullest extent, and any forest that must be cleared in the process will be considered collateral damage. Chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been directly targeted for bushmeat, largely because of a taboo that exists in the cultures of the local Batoro and Bakiga tribes that surround Kibale National Park against eating primates, but there is evidence that Congolese refugees fleeing civil war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have moved into the area east of the Rwenzori Mountains, just outside Kibale, and have started poaching chimpanzees (no such taboo against eating primates exists in these cultures). The chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been affected by any major disease outbreaks in historical times, but Ebola outbreaks have hit several human populations not far outside of Kibale, and there is no reason to think that the virus cannot spread into the park (particularly if people poach and eat chimpanzees).

 

Given all that, I don’t want to end this blog on a pessimistic note. Despite all these caveats, Ngogo is still the best place on Earth to see and study chimpanzees. There is no other place in the world where you can hike into the forest and see upwards of a hundred chimpanzees in the same area. It is an experience I can’t adequately describe, except to say that I feel privileged to have the opportunity to witness such a scene. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m always happy to share photos and stories with anyone who’s interested, so once I’m back on campus feel free to track me down. I’ll be the one with the beard that looks like a chimp’s.

More from Uganda (courtesy of Dr. Kevin Potts)

I have two short posts this time, one that might be somewhat informative and one that is completely inconsequential and should only be read by those with a desperate need to procrastinate.

 

Let’s start with the dumb post: I’m beginning to look and to smell like a chimp. I always seem to become aware of this around this time in a field season, when I have just a few more days in the forest before having to re-enter civilization. First, looking like a chimp – this is not much of a stretch for me. My beard always has a somewhat simian-esque quality about it, and now it’s been growing for far too long, as has my hair (I never shave or cut my hair when I’m in the field), so I’m truly entering Dr. Zaius/Planet of the Apes territory. Those of you lucky enough to see me within my first few days back in Minneapolis will get to see this spectacle in all its glory. People occasionally stop me on the streets of Kampala or Fort Portal after I’ve been in the forest for a long stretch of time and say, “Hello, Jesus” (one guy several years back seriously thought I WAS Jesus). As for the chimp smell: chimpanzees have a very distinctive musk – you can smell when they’re in the area – and it’s so pervasive that it remains on the vegetation that they come into contact with. So, if you’re following behind a big group of chimps, passing through the same thick vegetation that they’ve just passed through, well, you’re going to get a bit of chimp aroma on you. Because washing machines are rather difficult to come by in the forest, we re-use our field clothes for a good week or so before washing them, which gives the stench plenty of time to settle on our skin. And, man does that odor like to stick around! We do have “showers” here in camp, which consist of a little shack in which you can bring a pail of water to dump on yourself and, well, you get the idea. It really just sort of moves the dirt around rather than actually gets you clean. So, the chimp-ish smell tends to stay around until I can get access to a good, hot shower (one nice perk of having to go back through Kampala before leaving to go back to the US). Even then the smell seems to linger for a while. I always feel bad for the person sitting next to me on the flight from Entebbe to Amsterdam, and Amsterdam to the US. Those poor folks didn’t know that they were going to be getting occasional whiffs of Eau de troglodytes for 9 hours in a stuffy cabin with poor air circulation. That’s what you get for flying economy class!

 

OK, now on to the post with at least some substance to it. This one goes out to all you plant aficionados out there (I know there are some of you). I figured, since my primary objective this field season, and one of the primary objectives of my research for the next year or so, is to collect samples of plants fed on by chimps, to analyze their chemical properties and characterize their nutritional quality, I ought to say something about some of the plants in the forest here in Kibale. I mentioned in an earlier post that we are currently experiencing something of a bumper crop of Uvariopsis congensis fruit in this part of the forest. Uvariopsis is a small tree, but it grows in extremely dense groves, with a dozen trees within just a few meters of one another, and chimps can easily move from one to another without having to come to the ground to travel. It is among the most abundant of all trees at the Ngogo site – rivaled only by one or two other species that, interestingly, chimps mostly ignore as food sources. During this particular fruiting event, essentially every Uvariopsis tree in the forest is fruiting (at least all of the trees that I’ve seen), and unlike most fruiting seasons, this one is lasting a LONG time. It’s been going strong for about a month and a half now, and is showing no signs of abating. So, this is a somewhat unusual event, something akin to what plant ecologists working in Dipterocarpaceae forests in Borneo or in oak forests in the eastern US would consider a “mast” fruiting event – virtually all individuals in an area producing fruit (and seed) at the same time. There have been some interesting occurrences that, I strongly believe, are linked to this “masting” event. For example, my old friends the bush pigs seem to be everywhere in the forest these days (not exactly the safest time to be wandering through the forest if you’re a researcher). On a few occasions, I’ve returned to camp in the evening having not obtained a particular plant sample I was hoping to get that day, and David (the only other researcher in camp now) would say something to the effect of, “oh, well tomorrow you should try going out to F/6.5, there’s a big Ficus natalensis out there with lots of fallen fruits”. So, first thing the next day I’d head out to F/6.5 to find the F. natalensis, only to find either a) bush pigs scarfing up all of the fruits on the forest floor, or b) absolutely no fruit on the ground put plenty of pig dung. This has happened a few times and, despite being quite frustrating (it’s not pleasant hiking an hour or more to a particular tree without finding anything there), it’s kind of interesting. Plant ecologists working in Indonesian Borneo, where trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family produce seed during “masting” events once every several years, have proposed that this seed production strategy is an evolutionary response to the threat of seed predation. In particular, in that region, during a dipterocarp masting event, bearded pigs (the primary “predators” of dipterocarp seeds) move into the area in droves. However, the dipterocarp community produces such an overwhelming abundance of seeds that fall to the forest floor, that even with this huge influx of bearded pig vacuum cleaners sucking up all the seeds they can possibly eat, there are still plenty of seeds left intact after the pigs become satiated. Could something similar be going on in the case of Uvariopsis at Ngogo? Produce a huge amount of fruit, much of which will fall to the forest floor, which in turn will draw migratory fruit-eaters (like bush pigs) into the area to feed, and “hope” that they become satiated before all seeds have been gobbled up? Of course, many of the seeds will pass through the gut of the pigs completely intact, and therefore be dispersed. One other intriguing piece of evidence here is that, for the first time that I can remember, there is so much Uvariopsis fruit sitting on the forest floor that much of it is decaying and molding (so obviously not being eaten by any vertebrates). I’ve been working in this forest for over 10 years, and there are still interesting events like this that continue to surprise me.

 

So, there you have it: one post that might have taught you something, and one that was surely a waste of your time. I guess the two even each other out.