Research at Penn State: The Science of End-of-Year Top 10 Lists
In science, uncertainty reigns. Even the most common assumptions are challenged. The predictable is rarely predictable. The obvious is often a veil for the complex.
There is one exception. The end-of-year countdown and best-of lists are entirely certain and completely predictable.
Why should I buck this well-established trend?
Here are the top 10 research stories at Penn State in 2012. It wasn't an easy list to come up with. Not because there weren't enough research stories at Penn State this year. In fact, there were too many. There are hundreds of research discoveries each year and dozens of stories about these revelations.
To be fair, I trimmed the list using statistics from our own Research & Discovery email newsletter, which you can subscribe to here, and hits on a website called EurekaAlert that allows science journalists to view stories.
Also, since Penn State puts out so much research in so many fields, I tried to pick a few stories from different categories, such as health and medicine, astronomy, agriculture, etc.
Here's my top 10 research list for 2012:
10. Natural Fungus May Bite Bedbugs Right Back
"And don't let the bedbugs bite" is no longer a harmless adage. In reality today, these bloodthirsty bugs infest thousands of homes. According to a team of Penn State entomologists, biopesticides -- naturally occurring microorganisms -- might provide an answer to this pest problem. According to researchers, the effects of Beauveria bassiana -- a natural fungus that causes disease in insects -- on bedbug control have been performed, and the results are encouraging.
9. Does Personality Play a Role in the Preference for Spicy Foods?
When it comes to food choice, Nadia Byrnes is something of a natural. “My friends always joke that when they need a new place to eat they don’t Google it, they just ask me,” says the Penn State doctoral student. “My bucket list is restaurants.”
Not exactly a surprise, then, that Byrnes eventually landed in the laboratory of John Hayes, assistant professor of food science. Hayes, who also directs the University’s Sensory Evaluation Center, is interested in why people eat the foods they do. He approaches this complicated question from the relatively fresh angle of sensory science.
8. Americans Fall Short of Federal Exercise Recommendations
Americans spend, on average, only about two hours each week participating in sports and fitness activities, according to researchers at Penn State and the University of Maryland who examined U.S. government data from the American Time Use Study.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults aged 18 to 64 get about four hours of physical activity each week by exercising moderately for 2.5 hours per week and engaging in a vigorous activity, such as running and muscle strengthening, for an hour and fifteen minutes per week.
7. Researchers Study Formation of Early Cellular Life
Researchers at Penn State University have developed a chemical model that mimics a possible step in the formation of cellular life on Earth 4 billion years ago. Using large "macromolecules" called polymers, the scientists created primitive cell-like structures that they infused with RNA -- the genetic coding material that is thought to precede the appearance of DNA on Earth -- and demonstrated how the molecules would react chemically under conditions that might have been present on the early Earth.
6. Wormholes from Centuries-old Art Prints Reveal History
By examining art printed from woodblocks spanning five centuries, Blair Hedges, a professor of biology at Penn State University, has identified the species responsible for making the ever-present wormholes in European printed art since the Renaissance.
The hole-makers, two species of wood-boring beetles, are widely distributed today, but the "wormhole record," as Hedges calls it, reveals a different pattern in the past, where the two species met along a zone across central Europe like a battle line of two armies.
5. Antarctic Ice Sheet Quakes Shed Light on Ice Movement and Earthquakes
Analysis of small, repeating earthquakes in an Antarctic ice sheet may not only lead to an understanding of glacial movement, but may also shed light on stick slip earthquakes like those on the San Andreas fault or in Haiti, according to Penn State geoscientists.
4. Wolf Mange Part of Nature's Cycle
Mange and viral diseases have a substantial, recurring impact on the health and size of reintroduced wolf packs living in Yellowstone National Park, according to ecologists.
Following the restoration of gray wolves to Yellowstone in 1996, researchers collected blood from the animals to monitor parasite-induced disease and death. They also tracked the wolves in each pack to follow their survival and allow additional data-gathering.
3. Technology only a tool in search for solutions to poverty
Technology can serve as a tool to bridge the digital divide, but it is unlikely to be a complete solution in helping people find jobs and escape poverty, according to a Penn State researcher.
Michelle Rodino-Colocino, assistant professor of communications and women's studies, examined a plan in Walnut Hills, a diverse low-income community in Cincinnati, Ohio, to provide a wireless Internet connection -- WiFi -- service and computer training to poor, mainly female residents.
2. Green Tea May Help Lower Blood Sugar Spikes
An ingredient in green tea that helps reduce blood sugar spikes in mice may lead to new diet strategies for people, according to Penn State food scientists. Mice fed an antioxidant found in green tea -- epigallocatechin-3-gallate, or EGCG -- and corn starch had a significant reduction in increase in their blood sugar -- blood glucose -- levels compared to mice that were not fed the compound.
1. Mayan Culture Collapse Linked to Climate Change
The role of climate change in the development and demise of classic Maya civilization, ranging from AD 300 to 1000, has been controversial for decades because of a lack of well-dated climate and archaeological evidence. But an international team of archaeologists and earth science researchers has compiled a precisely dated, high-resolution climate record of 2,000 years that shows how Maya political systems developed and disintegrated in response to climate change.
You can read more about this research center at the Penn State Research Matters blog.