Scientist Beyond Borders

Last Updated on October 03, 2016 at 12:00 AM

Originally published October 03, 2016

By By Lisa Y. Garibay

UTEP Communications

One packs only the barest essentials for the dangerous jungles of the Congo, but a few books go alongside the medical kit, because you have to have something to pass the time when you’re being treated for malaria. In Nepal, one is careful to pack a fully equipped tent camp, because it may not be safe to sleep in buildings when you’re chasing earthquakes. In China, one walks vast fields of crops being dosed with toxic levels of pollution, because that is our atmosphere’s future. In the icy Arctic, one bundles up as best they can while gathering irrefutable proof that the Earth is warming.

UTEP graduate student Ryan Cody, doctoral student Sergio Vargas and graduate student Stephen Escarzaga set up equipment for research scans in Alaska's North Slop Borough. Photo by Florencia Mazza Ramsay /

These are the stories of researchers from The University of Texas at El Paso, whose work has impact well beyond the Paso del Norte region. The work is interwoven with advancements in education, politics, agriculture, economics and much more around the globe. It not only benefits the researchers’ peers and students; more urgently, it may help save life on Earth.

“When you have a critical mass of researchers working on similar or related problems, the ability to make large leaps forward in understanding is heightened,” said Robert Kirken, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Science. “Whether the problem is Arctic biology, fuel cell efficiency, or drug development and screening, our researchers contribute significantly to their fields and incorporate their knowledge into the classroom, where the next generation of scientists may be prepared and inspired.”

In the Arctic

When UTEP scientists are in the Arctic Circle testing how their newly patented camera and software system detects changes in sea ice, sea state and coastal erosion, they’re contributing to what we know about how humanity is altering the Earth.

UTEP has one of the largest groups of biologists working in the Arctic of any university outside of Alaska. But undergraduate and graduate students play a big role, too.

“They are the ones that do 90 percent of everything that goes out the door,” said Craig Tweedie, Ph.D., associate professor of biological sciences. "Education and outreach is what ties everything together; it gives us that anchor for our research activities. Tweedie’s team studies how humans changing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane – the infamous greenhouse gasses – has been enough to cause a dramatic loss in sea ice – an area double the size of Texas.

“Society as we know it developed in the stable climate period that we’ve had over the last 10,000 years,” Tweedie explained. By the time his students are at the peak of their careers, they may be managing an environment that humans have never seen on Earth.

With a project they named “Back to the Future,” the team went to decades-old research sites including the Eastern Russian Arctic, Wrangel Island and Northern Alaska. Using the same techniques that were used to establish the sites originally, the team looked at how things have changed.

At Baffin Island near the Barnes Ice Cap, one of the remotest places UTEP researchers have ever been, Tweedie’s team compared photographs taken in 1963 with those shot 50 years later on the same calendar day.

“What you can see is this glacier has retreated up the valley, the top of the ice cap has dropped in altitude, and all of these snow banks have completely disappeared,” he said.

This retreating ice causes rising sea levels and storm surges throughout oceans because there is no ice to calm the waters. Tweedie predicts a global refugee crisis exponentially worse than the current plight of Syrians if, for example, a region like the Bangladesh delta floods. Global warming is not yet causing the disappearance of entire countries, but Tweedie fears it could if things don’t turn around quickly.

“I would say it’s the biggest challenge facing mankind,” Tweedie said.

But to the veteran researcher – who has spent days in the University’s only boat during wind chills of minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit to conduct this critical work – UTEP represents exactly what humanity needs to do to beat this thing.

“It’s not just about numbers and demographics here [at UTEP], it’s the way of thinking that goes with that and responsiveness to adversity, responsiveness to an acceptance of cultural and social differences,” he explained. “All those things that we have here on the border are a microcosm of many of the challenges and future solutions we need to come up with as a global community.”

In China

Far from the remote Arctic Circle, another UTEP researcher is tackling climate change implications in the most populous nation on Earth.

Increasingly a global economic force to be reckoned with, China is also investing money and brainpower into important research that can stem the tide of climate damage. UTEP Department of Chemistry Chair Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, Ph.D., partnered with Nanjing University to study the effects of nanoparticles – microscopic molecules with a wide range of applications – on global warming and agriculture.

He explained that in just a few decades, crop fertilizers will most likely be made of nanoparticles, which work better than what is used now since the tiny structures can get to the cells of the plants to deliver nutrients.

Gardea-Torresdey’s study asks whether crops grown with nanoparticles will be damaged by higher CO2 levels in the air.

Currently, air quality in many spots on Earth is harmful. One example is Mexico City, which declared a pollution emergency in spring 2016 in response to dangerously high levels of CO2 and ozone, a major component of smog.

But it could get worse.

“Years from now, CO2 levels are going to increase,” Gardea-Torresdey said. “It’s going to be bad.”

Sprinkled throughout huge fields of growing wheat and rice in Nanjing, approximately 200 miles from Shanghai, are enormous tanks of dry ice (the compressed form of CO2) dousing the plants for Gardea-Torresdey’s study. It’s unprecedented in that this type of testing is mostly conducted in labs with seedlings under controlled conditions. Gardea-Torresdey's project monitors plants out in the field for the duration of their entire life cycle.

The team is also watching how these molecules introduced into crops affect fish in aquatic systems because, as Gardea-Torresdey said, “All nanoparticles are going to end up in the water” due to runoff from fertilizing and other uses. UTEP students have had many opportunities to work with this study on campus through the exchange of samples and analysis. Chinese students have traveled to UTEP, and a Nanjing scientist recently completed a yearlong sabbatical at UTEP conducting research for the project.

Given the sometimes tense relations between China and the U.S., such a partnership may seem unlikely. But not according to Kirken.

“Scientific research is often able to move forward even when socioeconomic and political situations are strained or in flux,” he said. “Investigators are like independent contractors; their studies are aimed at solving important problems that go beyond any one administration or conflict and frequently provide global benefits,” he said.

For Gardea-Torresdey, those benefits to mankind are what it’s all about.

“I’m a scientist of the world – I don’t care about international or political borders,”he said. “This [work] is for the whole world.”

In the Himalayas

Some disasters – like the expected effects of climate change – can be predicted and averted. Others strike and cause devastation without notice. Assistant Professor of Geological Sciences Marianne Karplus, Ph.D., went to work in the mountains of Nepal to find out why and how earthquakes occur there.

Within weeks of the largest earthquake in Nepal in 80 years – a magnitude-7.8 temblor that devastated the country in April 2015 – the National Science Foundation awarded a team of scientists led by Karplus with support from UTEP faculty and students a Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the earthquake’s aftershocks. Their goal was to gain a better understanding of these movements beneath the Earth’s surface.

The team included Professor of Geological Sciences Aaron Velasco, Ph.D.; doctoral students Ezer Patlan and Mohan Pant, who is from Nepal; geological sciences Research Associate Galen Kaip; and UTEP alumnus Agustin Barajas. They joined researchers from the Department of Mines in Nepal, Stanford University, Oregon State University and the University of California, Riverside, for a yearlong project to place, maintain and retrieve 46 seismometers around the region with the most aftershocks.

“A large part of our goal is getting a better understanding of the structure, where the faults are, where the earthquakes are happening, understanding how this whole system is working and how the buildup of stress from the convergence of India moving toward Asia is being relieved through time,” Karplus explained.

Quickly putting together a field team was a challenge. Requirements went beyond just a passport – participants also had to have field experience in a remote location along with physical resilience (each team would be required to hike, dig and carry equipment).

Her project has resulted in a dataset that is perhaps the best-instrumented recording of aftershocks from a megathrust earthquake – one that occurs when one continental plate goes beneath another or an oceanic plate. The research also helps humans build structures to diminish earthquake damage and improve disaster response when these events occur.

Strong collaboration from Nepalese colleagues guided the U.S. team on everything from site suggestions to assistance in getting equipment through customs. As the team traveled to villages scattered throughout the countryside, Nepalese government employees and master’s students translated to locals what was going on and why they were being asked to host a strange little machine buried in their yard, much to the fascination of the many village children who’d gather to watch.

“The villagers were very receptive; they all understand earthquakes,” Karplus recalled. “Some of them were telling us they had lost their house and they were now staying in a tent.”

UTEP’s combination of strong expertise in geophysics, geology and work in the Himalayas gave NSF program officers the confidence to make such an expedition possible.

“The networks we had from previous work in the Himalayas and Tibet, showing how we were positively collaborating with people in that region, were a plus,” Karplus said. “With this dataset, we will make new discoveries about Himalayan earthquakes and expand our understanding of the forces that shape the Himalayas.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo is notorious for civil war, rampant corruption and treacherous terrain. But almost a decade of work there has given Eli Greenbaum, Ph.D., a powerful perspective on why humans should learn to live in harmony with their environment.

Doctoral student Daniel Hughes came to UTEP for his Ph.D. specifically to join his professor in these jungles. He and Greenbaum not only discovered new species, they also trailblazed ways of preserving specimens for greater scientific study.

But why go through all that trouble in the first place?

For Greenbaum, the answer is a compelling trifecta. First off, nothing could be more fundamental than one’s own health.

“There could be a drug that could help you with some kind of ailment at a later point in your life,” Greenbaum said. “There could be a cure for cancer in there.”

The herpetologist explained that there are potentially an infinite number of biomedical applications for the molecules in the skin of frogs and the complex venoms in snakes. One Asian species of viper has anticoagulant properties in its venom; components of it are being used to treat people who have issues with their blood.

Second, there’s the quickly changing climate, which can be vastly improved if the Congo is preserved.

“Tropical rain forests in particular take an enormous amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere and are actually slowing [the climate change] process down a lot,”Greenbaum explained. “If we can conserve as many areas of these rain forests as possible, it helps us with the effects of global climate change.”

He and other collaborators brought a single threatened frog, found in a rainforest that was not protected, to the attention of the international community in 2012. As a result, the government stepped in and declared the area a forest reserve.

Finally, maintaining biodiversity is a life-or-death issue, according to Greenbaum.

“If we lost all the plants and animals that are in the wild tomorrow, we would disappear with them,” he said. Imagine you’re going to get on a plane and fly to Dallas, but as you board you see the mechanics taking rivets out of the wings. You say, “Hey, what are you doing?” One of the mechanics says, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a few.”

“It’s the same thing with species on our planet that are going extinct,” Greenbaum explained. “At some point you’re going to take out one rivet too many, the wing’s going to fall off and you’re going to crash.”

Despite having been hit with malaria seven times, along with giardia, dengue fever and typhoid fever, Greenbaum will keep going back to the Congo for one main goal: “To discover and describe as much biodiversity as possible while it’s still there,” he said. “Even under the best of circumstances, I fear that in the coming decades we’re going to lose a lot.”

Kirken believes that the high-caliber work coming out of UTEP’s College of Science is making a difference because of the people driving it.

“Being a successful researcher is much more than a job –it’s a way of life,” he said. “Our scientists have tremendous passion for and dedication to their work, and spend countless hours seeking funding, developing experiments and disseminating research findings. Our researchers, whether in training or leading the research effort, choose this career because of a deep love for science and a belief that differences can be made. If we can improve people’s lives while doing what we love, what could be better?”