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Looking back on a year of scientific achievements

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NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben | The Daily Wildcat

Artist’s concept of the Parker Solar Probe spacecraft approaching the sun. Launched in 2018, Parker Solar Probe will provide new data on solar activity and make critical contributions to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. 

The University of Arizona is well known for its scientific research and discoveries. Take a look back at some of the best science highlights from the past year.

Space research

RELATED: NASA's hottest mission will discover more about sun's surface

NASA released the first robotic spacecraft, the Parker Solar Probe, which will study the solar wind and outer layer of the sun. The spacecraft will encounter heat and radiation like no spacecraft has experienced before. 

The goal of this mission is to collect new data about the sun’s active energy and allow researchers to understand more about space-weather events that may affect Earth in the future.

Two UA professors, Kristopher Klein and Joe Giacalone, who specialize in solar and heliospheric research, are workings as theoreticians for the spacecraft. 

“While people have been studying the sun for centuries, the technology was never available – until now – to actually come close to the sun’s surface for research,” the original Daily Wildcat article said. 

Professor Giacolone discussed how that region of space has never been measured locally. He explained how the mission is to learn more about the sun’s outermost layer and understanding space weather. 

Professor Klein echoed the goal, saying how they are trying to understand fundamental physical processes about the sun. 

Studying solar wind is one of the key steps to learning more about the sun’s effect on space. According to the article, “it will help researchers prepare for potential future events of harm on Earth from massive amounts of energy and radiation.” 

Overall, their goal is to understand basic questions about how energy flows from the sun to the rest of the solar system through solar wind. Once they develop a better understanding of that, they will be able to construct better models for space weather.

Animal science

RELATED: Researchers study differences between northern and southern species

A group of researchers from the U.S. and Mexico, including biologist Benjamin Wilder from the University of Arizona, received a $2.6 million grant to continue their work studying the evolution of animals on the Baja Peninsula. 

The group of researchers are called the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers, or N-gen, and they began their studies in August 2019. 

There are researchers from many different disciplines working on studying the Sonoran Desert. Specifically, they are studying the cause of genetic distinction between northern and southern species on the Baja Peninsula.

Wilder explained in the original Daily Wildcat article that they are looking at the cryptic vicariance. According to the article, cryptic vicariance in the context of the Baja Peninsula is when "an animal from the northern portion of the peninsula will be genetically different from its southern counterpart despite looking the same on the surface.”

Wilder discussed how species are in the process of either diversifying or coming together. 

They know that the genetic divergence occurred because the species in different areas did not reproduce with each other over a period of time. Their research is to figure out what caused this to happen.

There are three hypotheses the researchers have developed to explain the genetic divergence between northern and southern populations. 

One of the hypotheses is that there was once a canal that separated the species, which prevented them from reproducing with one another. They found evidence of a geological barrier that could possibly provide evidence to support this hypothesis.

Another hypothesis is that in a 100,000-year cycle of glacial periods shifting the habitats of species forced those species to take refuge in mountainous areas. Since these mountainous areas were clustered in the north and south, northern and southern species would not have been able to reproduce with one another during these periods. 

The last hypothesis is that differing rainy seasons caused the separate species to mate at different times of the year. They know that currently there are different rainy seasons, which may have meant there were different times when water was available, throwing off some behavioral processes, including when animals mate.

However, in the original article, the researchers said there are likely more than one of these three processes at work and that this genetic difference is likely instead a consequence of multiple processes.

This project is unique in that it is connecting two fields that don’t often work together. The geological and biological researchers will continue to work on the five-year project together.

Agricultural science

RELATED: High precipitation years won't save trees from affects of climate change, study finds

A new study showed that the increase in rainfall in the western U.S. caused a decline in tree growth.

This study is led by researchers at the University of Arizona. The reasoning behind the research was to find effects of the rise in variability for the sake of American forests. 

According to the original Daily Wildcat article, “To conduct the study, researchers used tree ring widths from over 1,300 sites throughout the U.S. to observe the linear and nonlinear forms of the correlation among precipitation and growth.” They observed the tree growth response specifically to exceedingly dry and wet years.

The growth of numerous trees reacts more intensely to dry years in comparison to wet years. The decrease in tree growth during droughts are not entirely offset by increases in wet years.

Therefore, rising in precipitation variability may result in long-lasting growth declines.

They estimate that a two-fold rise in the probability of years with extremely little growth and no difference in probability of high growth. 

They are looking into other aspects of climate change in order to manage the forests, including warmer temperatures, increased carbon dioxide concentrations, reduced snowpack and changes in the life cycles of forest pests. 

Although they are unsure of how these changes will affect forests, the team of researchers will continue to do experiments to learn more about the aspects of climate change. 

William Smith, assistant professor at UA, discussed how the team started by working with the long-term climate observations. With their current research they found that precipitation variability could drastically alter tree growth through the Southwest. 

Smith advised more research be conducted to prevent harmful effects of climate change.

Science symposium/fair

RELATED: UBRP Conference showcases undergraduates' biology research

This year there were over 100 University of Arizona undergraduate researchers who presented their work at the Undergraduate Biology Research Program Conference. 

The conference served as a public showcase of the work these students completed during their time in the program. 

UBRP is an educational program that teaches students science by involving them in biologically related research. The program is available to all students interested in biology.

According to the original article, “Students are hired as paid research assistants to work throughout the summer.”

At the conference, UBRP students presented their work through posters they designed. The students explained their posters to anyone interested in their research.

They attended presentations, such as one about disparities in healthcare. The presentation was by UA alumnus Dr. Oscar Serrano, the conference's keynote speaker, who is an abdominal transplant and hepatobiliary surgeon at Hartford Hospital. 

Serrano had participated in UBRP when he attended the UA. After graduating, he had taken the experience he learned through the program and continued to conduct research. 

During the conference the UBRP students presented their research in one of two poster sessions. Although all research was based off of biology, they had a wide range of topics.

The conference partnered with other programs to put on different presentations. There were many displays from “Science in Color” to the “Symbiosis” presentation.

The conference ended with an awards ceremony, where Cesar Medina won the Outstanding UBRP Graduate Student Mentor of the Year award and Dr. Jennifer Bea won the Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award.


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