Our Spotlights

Read expert insights from leading UFL faculty and researchers on a wide variety of topics and current events. 

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The University of Florida aims to bring a scientist to every Florida school

By Emma Richards It was the encouraging support of his 10th grade earth science teacher that led Bruce MacFadden to pursue his dream of becoming a scientist. Now an accomplished paleontologist, MacFadden is paying it forward as director of the UF Thompson Earth Systems Institute and its “Scientist in Every Florida School” program. The program connects more than 700 scientists to K-12 classrooms in 42 counties throughout the state, providing students and teachers alike with up-to-date science lessons that both inform and, hopefully, inspire future scientists. Teachers use the program’s online application portal to request a visit by a scientist to teach a specific concept. Teachers are then matched with a scientist with that expertise, who delivers the requested lesson in person or virtually. Participating scientists are vetted to ensure they can communicate clearly with audiences of varying education levels. The program benefits students, teachers and scientists, MacFadden said. Students get to see the amazing things scientists do. Teachers receive timely knowledge and professional development. And scientists get to give back to society and gain confidence in their ability to share research, even with the youngest students. “We want to let young people know that if they want to be a scientist and apply themselves, they can also be a scientist,” MacFadden said. “It’s a synergy between the scientists and the teacher,” he said in an interview on the From Florida podcast. “We do not have prescribed, off-the-shelf lesson plans, but instead we typically talk with the teacher and say, ‘What would you like to do?’” It is the only program that currently works throughout the state to deliver high-quality STEM instruction to teachers and students, particularly in public Title 1 schools. “We want to make sure that there’s a level playing field with the understanding and teaching about STEM in a larger context,” he said. “But for me, it’s more about earth system science so that all teachers and students can benefit from what we know about current research in this field.” Outreach conducted through the Thompson Earth Systems Institute focuses on those systems — the interaction of air, water, land and life, and human impacts. Another important aspect of the “Scientist in Every Florida School” program is showcasing what a 21-st century career in science can look like for people from a variety of different backgrounds and interests. MacFadden said graduate students serve as role models in their visits to schools. “We want to let young people know that if they want to be a scientist and apply themselves, they can also be a scientist,” MacFadden said. The program aims to get a scientist into every public school in Florida at least once. With more than 4,000 public schools in the state, the scientists have a lot of stops to make — though virtual visits have helped them reach distantly located schools. MacFadden said once the team accomplishes that feat, they’ll focus on expanding outreach to other states. “Right now, I’m totally focused on making a difference in Florida’s public education,” he said. To learn more about the Scientist in Every Florida School program, listen to the full episode on From Florida at this link. Listen to other episodes of the From Florida podcast here. To learn more about the Thompson Earth Systems Institute, visit this link.

Bruce MacFadden

July 18, 2022

3 min

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There's a lot more to bats than their spooky reputation

By Emma Richards More than 50,000 students call the University of Florida home, and while that is a lot of Gators, the campus is home to even more bats. Hundreds of thousands of the misunderstood mammals live across from Lake Alice, where they dwell in the world’s largest occupied bat houses. The colony of bats was initially discovered at the UF track and tennis stadiums in 1991. In the spots where fans were cheering, bats were roosting – causing a mess and a notable stench. That same year, the UF Athletics Association built a house to rehome the bats from the stadiums. But the night after they were transported to their new home, all the bats left, and did not return for three years. Now, the houses are primarily occupied by around 400,000 to 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats that remain at UF year-round and do not hibernate or migrate. “They do all these great things for us and then we turn around and we're scared of them,” Mathis said. Verity Mathis, the mammal collections manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History says bats are the only mammals that can fly, and the Brazilian free-tailed species found at UF are tremendous at it. “They’ve actually been documented to go as fast as 100 miles an hour in like short bursts, which is just amazing to think about,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “This one species is just capable of so much.” Along with their fast flight, Brazilian free-tailed bats can go as high as 9,000 to 10,000 feet in the air and venture over 30 miles a night forging for insects like mosquitos, moths, beetles and flies. Despite being associated with blood-sucking vampires in popular culture, only three out of 1,400 bat species drink blood and they aren’t located in North America. Bats do not want to attack humans; in fact, they avoid people using their vision and echolocation skills. Bats can live for many decades and are more closely related to humans than they are to rodents. They also provide critical environmental services such as pest control, fertilization and pollination. Mathis says bats are misunderstood. “They do all these great things for us and then we turn around and we're scared of them,” she said. “We want to be respectful of them and of their lifestyle and we don't want to encroach upon them and bother them.” Mathis says if people do encounter an injured bat, they should not touch it with their bare hands because bats can carry rabies. It is best to put on thick gloves, place the bat into a container and call a local wildlife rehabilitation center. There are 13 bat species in Florida, and two of them are endangered. The Florida Wildlife Commission is actively monitoring those populations. In Alachua County, people and businesses, including Swamp House Brewery and Lubee Bat Conservancy, have bat houses on their properties. Mathis advises those interested in putting a bat house in their yard to do research to ensure that the right kind of house is purchased and that it is placed in the proper location to align with Florida’s specific requirements, which can be found here on the UF/IFAS website. For Mathis, these are all steps toward accepting a widely misunderstood mammal. “I think as long as we continue these conversations about telling people how cool bats are then maybe eventually pop culture will catch up to that,” she said. To hear more about bats, listen to the episode on From Florida at this link. Listen to other episodes in the From Florida podcast here. Watch a recent video featuring Verity Mathis here: https://youtu.be/vbFZfVwGwYE

Verity Mathis

June 14, 2022

3 min

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Studying glaciers . . . from Florida

By Emma Richards On the surface, the University of Florida seems an unlikely place to find cutting-edge research on ice sheets. But Emma “Mickey” MacKie says this is the perfect place for her work — thanks in large part to HiPerGator, one of the fastest supercomputers in higher education. MacKie, an assistant professor of geological sciences and glaciologist, joined UF in August 2021 and said her decision hinged largely on access to HiPerGator and the university’s focus on machine learning and artificial intelligence technologies. MacKie uses machine learning methods to study subsurface conditions of glaciers in polar regions and access to a powerful supercomputer is crucial given the large data sets her research generates. “I'm very happy to be in a place with lots of people who are working on different types of problems and are interested in developing these different tools,” MacKie said. “There are a number of members of my department in geology who are studying glacial geology through different lenses. And so, there's all of this complementary geological and machine learning knowledge at UF that I'm very excited to bring together.” MacKie has set up the Gator Glaciology Lab, where she and a team of seven undergraduate students from the fields of geology, computer science, physics, math and data science are using AI to analyze what lies beneath glaciers and how they are moving and melting. “Our work is part of a bigger effort in the glaciology community to start working on quantifying our uncertainty in future sea-level rise projections so that we can give policy makers this information.” It’s a very difficult challenge, MacKie said, because of limited access to polar regions and the miles-thick ice covering the ground. Then there is the scale of ice sheets; Antarctica, for example, is the size of U.S. and Mexico combined. Measurements of the topography below such glaciers are gathered using radars mounted on airplanes to “see” through ice. Her team then uses HiPerGator to simulate realistic looking topography in places where there are gaps or blank spots in the measurements. They generate hundreds of maps to represent different possible ice sheet conditions, which could be used to determine numerous possible sea level rise scenarios. “Our work is part of a bigger effort in the glaciology community to start working on quantifying our uncertainty in future sea-level rise projections so that we can give policy makers this information,” she said. Earlier this spring, MacKie swapped out her flip-flops for snow boots to study subsurface glacial conditions in Svalbard, which is next to northeastern Greenland. Visiting Svalbard will help her test and develop data collection and analysis techniques that could be applied to Antarctica or Greenland, which both contain large ice sheets that could have serious environmental impacts if they experience significant melting. In Svalbard, MacKie and Norwegian researchers from the University of Bergen and the University Centre in Svalbard took seismic and radar measurements of glaciers that will be used to make estimates about conditions beneath the ice. Among glaciers of concern is the Thwaites “Doomsday Glacier,” which is losing the most ice of any glacier in Antarctica. There are signs showing Thwaites’ ice shelf could start to break in the next few years. MacKie said it will likely be a few hundred years before the glacier could undergo significant collapse and jeopardize the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, leading to several meters of sea level rise. The effects of Thwaites and other ice sheet melts in Antarctica and Greenland will become apparent in decades to come, with the potential for a meter of sea level rise by the end of the century, which MacKie and other researchers hope to predict more accurately. “The state of Florida has the most to lose when sea level rises,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “And so, I think we have a lot of skin in the game and it’s really important to be studying this question here in Florida.” To hear more about MacKie’s work, listen to From Florida at this link.

Emma "Mickey" MacKie

May 24, 2022

3 min

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Meet the astrobiologist and her students who are searching for life on Mars

By Emma Richards, University of Florida From a young age, Amy Williams wondered if life existed beyond Earth amidst the dark abyss of space, stars and planets — a curiosity that years later landed her a career researching and exploring Mars. Williams, an assistant professor of geology and an astrobiologist at the University of Florida, works as a participating scientist on the Perseverance and Curiosity Rover Science Teams and previously served as a postdoctoral research associate at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As an astrobiologist and geobiologist, she uses techniques from geology, microbiology and chemistry to search for life beyond Earth. “Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth.” “Even as a little kid watching meteor showers with my family, I wondered if there was someone out there in the stars looking back at Earth,” she said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. “It’s been a passion of mine my whole career and now it’s the most amazing opportunity to serve on both of the active Mars rover missions.” Williams’ journey to Mars began as a graduate student when a research professor gave her the opportunity to work on the NASA Curiosity mission. From there, Williams built her way up and is now a participating scientist working on day-to-day rover operations. Williams also is opening doors for graduate students at UF to work on Mars research, helping upcoming generation of scientists follow her path. She is specifically interested in involving women and underrepresented groups in her work. Based on her research, Williams said life on Mars, if found, will likely look less like Marvin the Martian and more like microbial life similar to bacteria on Earth. Curiosity landed on Mars in 2012 and Perseverance landed in 2021. The rovers are searching for potential life on Mars by going to habitable environments and searching for evidence of water and essential elements that could supported such life forms. Curiosity has spent nearly its entire mission exploring a large five-kilometer-tall mountain in Gale Crater known as Mount Sharp. The scientists can see Mars’ history and climate based on changes in the chemistry and sediments of the mountain. As for Perseverance, the rover is exploring Jezero Crater, with emphasis on its delta, a geologic deposit that is formed when water from a river flows into a lake. Perseverance will help collect rock and sediment samples from Mars that will be the first brought back to Earth. NASA is also working on a program to eventually send humans to Mars, which will likely take many decades; the first stage in the project will be returning humans to the Moon. “But in the meanwhile, these robots, these rovers that we send to the red planet, they are our proxy,” Williams said. “And looking through the robot rover’s eyes, the images that are returned to us, I recognize this is the closest I will ever be to standing on Mars and looking up at these beautiful geological units, looking up at an alien world that’s so familiar because the tenets of geology apply on Mars, the same as they do on Earth.” To hear more about the Amy Williams' Mars research, listen to the episode on From Florida at this link. Listen to other episodes in the "From Florida" series at this link. To learn more about her work, watch this video featuring Professor Williams: 

Amy J. Williams

May 23, 2022

3 min

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Does medical marijuana work? Florida consortium seeks answers

By Emma Richards A consortium of nine universities in Florida, led by faculty at the University of Florida, is in the early stages of investigating the effectiveness of marijuana as a medical treatment. Almut Winterstein, a professor at the University of Florida who also serves as the director of the Consortium for Medical Marijuana Outcomes Research, says there is promising data on pain therapy and epilepsy but much still to learn about cannabis as a medical treatment. The Consortium for Medical Marijuana Outcomes Research is assessing the drug’s risks and benefits for different medical conditions and its safety and side effects when used alone or in conjunction with other prescription medications. “What I can tell you is that right now there is promising and fairly solid data that supports the use of medical marijuana as an adjuvant for pain therapy,” said Almut Winterstein, a professor in the College of Pharmacy at UF who also serves as the director of the consortium. “And there’s also evidence that supports the use for certain types of epilepsy.” As for other conditions, the impacts of medical marijuana are still unknown. The Florida State Legislature created the consortium in 2019, four years after enacting legislation that permits use of marijuana for certain clinical conditions. Currently, 37 states have a medical marijuana program, though the programs vary as far as how and to whom cannabis can be prescribed. But, Winterstein said, little is known about marijuana’s clinical safety and effectiveness. “I think that the Legislature was really forward looking in creating something that supplements the research that is currently not sufficient,” she said in an episode of the From Florida Podcast. The consortium will also gauge who is using and able to access medical marijuana and determine the benefits and drawbacks of different dosages. To do so, the group is working on three primary branches of research. The first area is a competitive grants program that funds researchers across all participating universities. The second branch is M3, or Medical Marijuana and Me, a new study that will track patients from their first use of medical marijuana for a year to assess their experiences. “That will give us ideas about what type of dosage, form and product do patients eventually end up on,” Winterstein said. “That is a very empirical approach because we have no head-to-head comparison of what works better or worse, but we can capture patients’ experiences, what they think works, what doesn't, what kind of side effects they might experience and so on.” Finally, what Winterstein calls the consortium’s “biggest baby and most important baby” is the Medical Marijuana Outcomes Research Repository, known as MEMORY. The repository will allow researchers to use de-identified dispensing data from the Department of Health to monitor health outcomes of the large population of 700,000 registered medical marijuana patients. These data will give researchers insight on cannabis safety and effects, whether positive or negative, linking to healthcare utilization, such as hospitalization or emergency department visits. The consortium is hosting the second annual Cannabis Clinical Outcomes Research Conference May, 19-20 in Orlando, where researchers will discuss the latest research on medical marijuana. “We are really trying to get people interested in this topic,” Winterstein said. “And in particular making sure that they have access to objective information that really allows them to make the right decision with respect to the use of medical marijuana.” To hear more about the consortium’s medical marijuana research, listen to the episode on From Florida at this link. Listen to other episodes in the From Florida podcast here. Read a recent article quoting Professor Winterstein here:

Almut Winterstein

May 05, 2022

3 min

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What it will take to overcome supply chain disruptions

The supply chain disruptions sparked by the pandemic highlight the need for behavioral shifts by both consumers and companies. Asoo Vakharia, McClatchy Professor and director of the Supply Chain Center at UF’s Warrington College of Business, says supply chain disruptions are — and will continue to be — a way of life. But the degree of the turmoil experienced recently demonstrates the need for some change. “Demand dropped so quickly and at such a high volume that it created a problem for us,” Vakharia said in an episode of the From Florida podcast. Approximately 20% of imports to the United States come from Asia with the biggest share off-loaded in Los Angeles, followed by Long Beach, California. Those ports, along with other large centers, can accommodate the Ultra Large Vessels often used for trans-Pacific shipping. But they’ve been severely impacted by inflow/outflow imbalances caused by a range of factors including truck driver shortages and poor infrastructure. In response, companies such as Amazon, have purchased smaller vessels that can access a larger number of smaller ports, including those that may require passage through the Panama Canal. The move will enable the commerce giant to side-step some of the bottlenecks slowing down larger ports, but it will also add to expense. This is where Professor Vakharia says companies, and consumers, will need to make choices. He cautions companies to play the long game. “Consumers have long memories and they will reward people who have a little bit of recognition of our conditions,” he said. And he says buyers should always be on the lookout for deals. “There is lots of opportunity out there,” Vakharia said. “Maybe you won’t get the brand you want, but you will get a good brand. Let’s moderate our wants a little bit. Let’s think logically.” Professor Vakharia also sees opportunity for Florida ports, with the caveat that the complexity of the issue will require significant planning — and investment. “We need to have an infrastructure, which is rail or trucks, which are going to visit these ports and take the goods away from them because otherwise we’re going to do the same thing as Long Beach.” The added expense of smaller ships will also need to be managed. To hear more about the supply chain issues currently at play, and possible solutions for the future, listen to the episode on From Florida at this link. Read the recent article that Professor Vakharia has been quoted in:  Listen to other episodes in the "From Florida" series from the link below.

Asoo Vakharia

January 12, 2022

2 min

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Opinion: Artists, influencers key to successful public health messages re: COVID

Can the artists and culture-bearers among us help move people who are unvaccinated to action? That’s the hope of a new initiative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to build vaccine confidence across the country. Read more from Jill Sonke in her op-ed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Jill Sonke

December 10, 2021

1 min

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