Blazing the Trails of Science

UC Santa Cruz’s top scientific breakthroughs of 2013

By Aric Sleeper Being second in the world for university research influence is a big reputation to live up to. But UC Santa Cruz—which was given the impressive status by the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in 2012-2013—was up to the challenge, pumping out loads of noteworthy research and findings throughout 2013.

In the eyes of Scott Brandt, vice chancellor for research at UCSC, the “excellent year for research at UC Santa Cruz” was exemplified when President Barack Obama awarded a Slug faculty member with a nationally significant science honor back in February.

“In addition to the many notable achievements of our scientists and engineers in areas such as cancer genomics and earthquake science,” Brandt says, “UCSC’s research excellence was on national display when President Obama awarded the National Medal of Science to Professor Sandra Faber for her pioneering work in astronomy.”

From the Wissard Project, in which researchers were the first to obtain samples from an Antarctic sub-glacial lake, to the Pan-Cancer Initiative, whose findings show potential for new cancer treatments, Santa Cruz’s city on a hill proved its scientific vigor with a vast array of intriguing efforts.

As the fertile year comes to a close, we take a look at five of the school’s most compelling scientific achievements.

Drilling to New Depths
Pushing the limits of modern technology in order to further the knowledge of earthquake dynamics, scientists at UCSC teamed up with Japanese seismologists aboard the vessel Chikyu to attain data off the coast of Japan.

“It was a very technically complex operation,” says Emily Brodsky, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UCSC. “Nobody had ever drilled at these water depths before.”

In 2008, Brodsky and other researchers organized an international workshop in Tokyo that explored the possibilities of drilling into a fault after a recent earthquake event in order to measure the fault’s temperature, friction, and composition.

When the devastating magnitude 9.0 Tohoku quake and subsequent tsunami took place off the coast of Japan in March 2011, Brodsky and other scientists realized they had to act quickly to drill and attain measurements. Approximately one year later in 2012, Brodsky and other scientists organized an expedition known as the Japan Trench Fast Drilling Project (JFAST) to bore into the Tohoku-Oki fault.

The JFAST crew drilled 7 kilometers underwater and an additional kilometer into the ocean floor—something that had never been done—to reach the Tohoku-Oki fault. After boring into the seafloor, the JFAST team inserted 55 temperature sensors into the fault. Nine months later, the Japanese team retrieved the measuring devices, along with core samples, using a remote-controlled vehicle.

Recently, on Dec. 5, Brodsky and other scientists published their findings in the magazine Science. What they discovered was that the friction on the fault was exceptionally lower than they had anticipated, which has led to a paradigm shift in the way that earthquakes and faults are understood.

“Rather than thinking of faults as these really strong things, we are starting to think about them as these very weak things, at least during an earthquake,” says Brodsky. “That means that any effort to build a fundamental model of how earthquakes happen and how big they’re going to get really needs to be adjusted.”

All Hail the Higgs Boson
In October, UCSC physicists hailed theorists Peter Higgs and Francois Englert when the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the pair with the Nobel Prize for physics for their work in establishing the theory of the Higgs field, which explains how particles gain their mass.

“We were thrilled,” says professor of physics Howard Haber. “I think that Higgs and Englert certainly deserve the prize, especially now that we have the Higgs Boson in hand.”

The Higgs Boson is an elementary particle whose discovery was announced—after decades of existing as a theory—in 2012, confirming the existence of the Higgs field.  Over his career, Haber has contributed to the theory and phenomenology surrounding the Higgs Boson, and is known for the book he coauthored on the subject in 1990 titled “The Higgs Hunter’s Guide.”

Haber was not the only UCSC professor to contribute to the understanding of the Higgs field. Other scientists from the Santa Cruz Institute of Particle Physics contributed to the experiments performed at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland in 2012 with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which confirmed the existence of the Higgs Boson.

The experimentation undergone at the LHC involved thousands of scientists from across the globe. Physicists from UCSC such as Abe Seidan, Alex Grillo, Jason Nielsen, Hartmut Sadrozinski, Bruce Schumm, and others participated in the ATLAS group at the LHC, and also developed silicon trackers that mapped the scattering particles from the collisions, and software that helps to identify the particles.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN was a benchmark in the understanding of particle physics, but there is still more work to be done. The LHC is currently being upgraded to increase the power of the machine, in order for more precise measurements to be possible. Theorists, such as Haber, anticipate the next step in experimentation.

“What we’re hoping for is that the Large Hadron Collider will discover something, and if they do discover something, then I assume it will probably not be anything we expected,” says Haber. “Then it becomes a great game to try to take that new phenomenon and connect with it the theory that we know.”

Wild Genomics
While studying the genetic sequence of polar bears and brown bears on Alaska’s Admiralty, Baranof, and Chicagof islands, also known as the ABC islands, UCSC professors Beth Shapiro and Richard E. Green were led in a direction neither of them had prepared for.

“We were not at all attempting to answer the question that we wound up answering,” says Green, assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering. “What we had set out to do was to find what genes in polar bears are unique to polar bears and make them adapted to the arctic.”

After studying the genome sequences of seven polar bears, a brown bear from the ABC Islands, a brown bear from the mainland of Alaska, and a black bear, the UCSC scientists discovered that the polar bears did not contain any genes from the brown bears, but the brown bear from the ABC Islands did contain the genes of a polar bear. 

“We found something that no one had imagined before,” says Green.

In order to understand the data they had stumbled upon, the team of UCSC scientists ran simulations of various demographic scenarios. The most likely explanation, they determined, is that the ABC islands were once inhabited by polar bears, and a group of male brown bears migrated to the islands, hybridized with the native polar bears, and eventually transformed the entire population into brown bears. 

Shapiro, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, Green, and others involved in the research published their findings in PLOS Genetics in March 2013. As for what impact this new information will have, Green believes that only time will tell.

“It’s a dangerous thing to try to predict what the implications of any particular piece of research are,” says Green. “One of the things that it does tell us is this hybridization that we see between brown bears and polar bears occasionally in the wild has been an ongoing and very common thing in the past.”

Moving to the Beat
Until recently, it was thought that only humans and birds adept to vocal mimicry could move in time with a beat. That notion was flipped on its head when researchers at UCSC began to experiment with a rescued California sea lion named Ronan.

“In the beginning it was just a fun side project,” says Peter Cook, a former graduate student in psychology at UCSC and current post-doctoral fellow in the Center of Neuropolicy at Emory University. In July 2011, Cook began experimenting with Ronan in his free time with research technician Andrew Rouse.

Intrigued by previous studies conducted with parrots bobbing their heads to music, Cook and Rouse thought that this ability to keep the beat might be found in other animals. Cook already worked with rescued sea lions, and thought that one of them in particular, Ronan, would be an ideal candidate to test their hypothesis.

“She’s a really sharp sea lion,” says Cook. “If any non-vocally flexible animal could learn to move on time to a complex rhythm it was going to be Ronan. She’s just really on the ball.”

Cook and Rouse developed a way to teach Ronan, first to bob her head on command with a hand signal, and then to wiggle up and down to a metronome. In December 2011, after months of training, Ronan was able to recognize the rhythm in any song and bob her head in time.

Cook believes that Ronan is only exceptional in her eagerness to learn new tasks, and that the ability to keep time to music can be found in other species, which he hopes will be proven in future research.

Cook published his findings in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in April.

Mating Sun and Sewage
In collaboration with other scientists, UCSC associate professor of chemistry Yat Li has created a unique device that may provide the next generation with a renewable and sustainable energy source. At the crux of

this development is the ability to harness the power of the sun and the bacteria present in wastewater

The solar-microbial device created by Li and other researchers utilizes two types of energy cells, a microbial fuel cell (MFC), which creates energy by digesting bacteria, and a photoelectrochemical fuel cell (PEC), which produces power with sunlight. These two act in a complementary way to simultaneously clean up wastewater and create hydrogen gas.

Although the two cells are capable of generating power on their own, they both require an additional amount of voltage, known as an external bias, to create chemical energy. This extra voltage becomes costly and problematic on larger scales, but the solar-microbial device developed by Li and other scientists overcomes this problem.

“Our idea was that we could combine these two devices together, and we could use sunlight as the source of power for the microbial fuel cell,” says Li. “Then we would not need to add additional voltage. That was the basic idea of this research.”

Li and his researchers are still working on the device on a laboratory level, and are attempting to increase the efficiency of the bacteria used in the MFC before increasing its scale. Since the expertise of Li’s team lies primarily in the interface between the MFC and the electrode that draws its power, they collaborated with microbiologists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to develop new strains of bacteria that will increase the efficiency of the MFC component.

Li’s team will gradually increase the scale of the device in the coming years as they manage to make the hybrid mechanism more cost effective. Li hopes that it will be available for large-scale applications in the next decade. 

To Top