FSU Research: A look back at a memorable 2015

Florida State University had a banner year for research in 2015. Our faculty members were engaged in research and creative activity at the highest levels and produced some memorable work. Here are some highlights of the past year.

A new species of dinosaur
FSU Professor Gregory Erickson and University of Alaska-Fairbanks Associate Professor of Geology Patrick Druckenmiller discovered a new species of dinosaur that they named Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis. The name means ancient grazer of the Colville River in the Iñupiaq language. This 30-foot-long, duck-billed dinosaur was the northernmost dinosaur known to have ever lived and likely experienced snow.

“The finding of dinosaurs this far north challenges everything we thought about a dinosaur’s physiology,” Erickson said. “It creates this natural question. How did they survive up there?”

Artist James Havens’ rendering of a new species of dinosaur named Ugrunaaluk kuukpikensis.

Oil from BP spill sitting at the bottom of the Gulf
Where did the missing oil go from the 2010 BP oil spill? Professor Jeff Chanton discovered that a lot of it is sitting at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Chanton and his colleagues determined that 6 million to 10 million gallons are buried in the sediment on the Gulf floor, about 62 miles southeast of the Mississippi Delta.

“This is going to affect the Gulf for years to come,” Chanton said. “Fish will likely ingest contaminants because worms ingest the sediment, and fish eat the worms. It’s a conduit for contamination into the food web.”

Scientist examines rare element of periodic table
Professor Thomas Albrecht-Schmitt is making big waves with his work on a little-known element called californium. There was little knowledge about what this radioactive element could do until Albrecht-Schmitt started running a series of experiments on it a few years ago. This past year, he discovered that it actually connected one part of the periodic table to the next. It has properties included in the three elements before it on the table — americium, curium and berkelium — and also the three elements after it — einsteinium, fermium and mendelevium. It gives the element unique capabilities that make it ripe for further research.

“This really changes how we think about the periodic table,” Albrecht-Schmitt said. “It’s important because we understand very little about these heavy elements.”

Climate change playing a role in strength, frequency of hurricanes
Rising global temperatures may be affecting the frequency and strength of tropical storms and hurricanes. In a paper for Nature Climate Change, Professor Jim Elsner projected that storm speeds have increased on average by 3 miles per hour and that there were 6.1 fewer storms than there would have been if land and sea temperatures remained constant.

“We’re seeing fewer hurricanes, but the ones we do see are more intense,” Elsner said. “When one comes, all hell can break loose.”

Household chores can be great stress relievers
It may seem surprising, but washing the dishes can be a big stress reliever. Doctoral student Adam Hanley wrote in the journal Mindfulness that mindfully washing dishes could provide you with a contemplative state and decrease stress.  After conducting a study with 51 students, the researchers found that mindful dishwashers — those who focused on the smell of the soap, the warmth of the water, the feel of the dishes — reported a decrease in nervousness by 27 percent and an increase in mental inspiration by 25 percent.

“I’ve had an interest in mindfulness for many years, both as a contemplative practitioner and a researcher,” Hanley said. “I was particularly interested in how the mundane activities in life could be used to promote a mindful state and, thus, increase overall sense of well-being.”

Weight discrimination linked to risk of mortality
Being overweight can have many negative health effects, but not many people have looked at the psychological stress of it. Angelina R. Sutin and Antonio Terracciano discovered that people subjected to discrimination because of their weight may face a higher risk of dying.

“Some people think, ‘Oh, well, you’re just hurting somebody’s feelings when you say something bad about their weight, but it will motivate them to lose weight, which will save their life,” Sutin said.

But, Sutin points out that contrary to such beliefs, in addition to the psychological effects, weightism increases the risk of weight gain and premature mortality.

“Our research has shown that very clearly this type of approach does not work and there are really serious consequences to it,” she said.

As glaciers melt, the amount of carbon exported in glacier outflow will increase 50 percent over the next 35 years.

Melting glaciers have big carbon impact
When glaciers begin to thaw, what happens to all of the carbon that’s been trapped inside them for thousands of years? That’s what Assistant Professor of Oceanography Robert Spencer is trying to determine. Spencer and Eran Hood, a scientist from University of Alaska Southeast, provided the first global estimate of how much carbon will be released as glaciers thaw. Specifically, as glaciers melt, the amount of carbon exported in glacier outflow will increase 50 percent over the next 35 years. That’s about the amount of organic carbon in half of the Mississippi River being added each year to the ocean.

“This is the first attempt to figure out how much organic carbon is in glaciers and how much will be released when they melt,” Spencer said. “It could change the whole food web. We do not know how different ecological systems will react to a new influx of carbon.”

Eating blueberries can equal big health rewards
If you’re debating whether to add a cup of blueberries to your morning breakfast, we highly recommend it. FSU nutrition researchers found that one cup of blueberries per day could be the key to reducing blood pressure and arterial stiffness, both of which are associated with cardiovascular disease.

Former post-doctoral researcher Sarah A. Johnson wrote in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that study participants who consumed 22 grams of blueberry powder per day — the equivalent of 1 cup of blueberries — saw a 5.1 percent decrease in systolic blood pressure, which is the top number in the blood pressure reading that measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. They also saw a 6.3 percent reduction in diastolic blood pressure, or the bottom number measuring the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats. Additionally, participants in the blueberry-treated group had an average reduction of 97 cm/second (6.5 percent) in arterial stiffness.

“Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States,” Johnson said. “Once women go through menopause, this puts them at an even greater risk for it. Our findings suggest that the addition of a single food, blueberries, to the diet may mitigate the negative cardiovascular effects that often occur as a result of menopause.”

Cell phone alerts may be driving you to distraction
Whether you are alerted to an incoming phone call or text by a trendy ringtone, an alarm bell or a quiet vibration, just receiving a notification on your cell phone can cause enough of a distraction to impair your ability to focus on a given task, according to FSU researchers. In fact, the distraction caused by a simple notification — whether it is a sound or a vibration — is comparable to the effects seen when users actively use their cell phones to make calls or send text messages, the researchers found.

“Even a slight distraction can have severe, potentially life-threatening effects if that distraction occurs at the wrong time,” said doctoral student Cary Stothart. “When driving, it’s impossible to know when ‘the wrong time’ will occur. Our results suggest that it is safest for people to mute or turn off their phones and put them out of sight while driving.”

Researchers make big strides with new materials
Light emitting diodes, solar cells and an artificial material mimicking photosynthesis are just a few of the projects coming out of a cluster of researchers dedicated to developing new materials that can be used in our everyday lives. Over the last few years, FSU has hired 11 tenure-track faculty members as part of the Energy and Materials Strategic Initiative with a major goal of producing high-tech materials for the next generation of sustainable energy technology. The hires are producing extraordinary results with a series of discoveries that will serve as the building blocks for future work in this field.