Disabilities don’t stop these experts in science and tech | Science News for Students

Disabilities don’t stop these experts in science and tech

From blowing things up to listening to bugs, there’s a STEM career for everyone
Aug 31, 2017 — 7:00 am EST
Stephen Hawking

Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous scientist with a disability, but he’s far from alone. Meet some of the many other scientists and engineers who have hurdled physical or medical barriers to find rewarding careers in research.  

Paul E. Alers/NASA

This is the second in a two-part Cool Jobs series on the value of diversity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It has been made possible with generous support from Arconic Foundation.

As a combat engineer in the U.S. Marine Corps in 2011, Neil Altomare’s job was to detect unexploded home-made bombs known as IEDs, or improvised explosive devices. Many were hidden throughout Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley, where he was deployed. Once he found an IED, Altomare would destroy it — often by blowing it up. This work helped keep his fellow Marines safe.

But neither his equipment nor visual scans could detect all hidden bombs. And one day, Altomare stepped on an IED. He survived. But the explosion destroyed his right leg below the knee. Shrapnel hit him almost everywhere else. Yet despite the pain and injuries, he was able to direct rescue troops to carry him along a safe path out of the field and to the helicopter that would airlift him to medical care.

Dozens of surgeries followed. More than a year later, Altomare was back home in Albuquerque, N.M. There he learned about the Wounded Warrior career program. And that led to a job in town at Sandia National Laboratories. Today, he’s part of its environmental safety and health team. And he works with explosives. “I had worked with explosives in the military,” he notes, “and I wanted to continue that.” Some of his work helps the military. Other work can protect civilians.

His job falls within a broad field known as STEM. Its short for science, technology, engineering and math. These research disciplines attract all types of women and men. They may be young or old, short or tall, come from any nation and sport skin of any color.

Some, like Altomare, also have to deal with a serious physical or mental challenge. They may have lost limbs or walk on crutches. They may be blind or deaf. Some may even be hobbled by “hidden” disabilities — challenging medical conditions that may not be outwardly visible. Yet any and all may perform important work in their fields.

Most people have heard about the achievements of British mathematician and physicist Stephen Hawking, now 75 years old. At age 21, he developed a debilitating nerve-and-muscle disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Within another six or so years, he was wheelchair-bound. Hawking has long needed help from a voice synthesizer to speak. Yet over the past decades, none of this kept him from making major advances in cosmology — the study of our universe. He is an exceptional scientist.

But he’s not alone. Many more contribute mightily to their research fields. You may not know their names — yet. But that doesn’t diminish what they can and do contribute.

In the United States alone, more than half a million people in STEM fields have some form of disability. But as with most researchers, these scientists, engineers and mathematicians tend to toil away largely outside the public eye. Their disabilities don’t define them. In many cases, their personal challenges may even spur them to tackle problems in a novel way — one that ups the chance they’ll find a solution.

Here we meet a few of them.

Story continues below video.

Scientific research will benefit from participation by people with a diversity of viewpoints, experiences and cultures. See some people who have hurdled a potential barrier — such as an inability to see, hear or move without assistance — to now thrive in STEM.

Listening to space

As a little girl, Wanda Diaz Merced loved to look up at the stars from her home in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. She now is an astronomer at the International Astronomical Union’s Office of Astronomy for Development in Cape Town, South Africa. But Merced can no longer see the stars. She lost her eyesight as a young adult from problems associated with diabetes.

Until she went blind, Diaz Merced used charts and graphs to help her study space phenomena, such as gamma ray bursts. These are very-high-energy explosions in distant galaxies. The charts and graphs she had used were based on numbers. And one day it dawned on her that she didn’t need to see those numbers to delve into the data they held. She could simply express the numbers as sounds.

Merced AstroSense
Astronomer Wanda Diaz Merced develops software to analyze astronomical data with sound. That's proven essential to her, as she is blind.
Office of Astronomy for Development/International Astronomical Union

Working with other researchers in the United States and Scotland, Diaz Merced developed a new way to study space. It’s called sonification (SAHN-ih-fih-KAY-shun). A computer converts data from space into sounds. The data points become tones with different pitches, frequencies and volumes. To the untrained ear, those tones may sound like clicks, chimes, beeps or even music. But to Diaz Merced, they’re data that she can interpret.

Consider a star system where two stars — a white dwarf and a red giant — orbit each other. They regularly eclipse each other, meaning one briefly blocks the other’s light. In a sound clip, the tones start out low and increase to a maximum. Then they return to low tones.

“The first low tones correspond to the time when the white dwarf is eclipsing the red giant,” Merced explains. The highest tones represent when the stars are side by side. That’s when the maximum amount of their energy — light — is detected. The later low tones, she explains, reflect when the red giant is eclipsing the white dwarf.

Sonification lets Merced do advanced physics. But her technology could aid others in her field as well. “You see better when you use sound,” she argues. In astronomy, some events happen in a very short timeframe. Sound might help researchers detect those events. Or it might help to cut through visual “noise” that can make it hard to distinguish details. Sound, she maintains, can help ensure important data won’t be lost in that noise.

The technique has helped Diaz Merced detect shifts in light from variable stars. These are suns whose brightness changes on time scales ranging from seconds to years. Even dim variations in light can sometimes be very important, she notes. Computer processing of satellite data can make tiny changes hard to detect. Sound, she says, can boost your sensitivity to subtle events.

Losing her eyesight was a big stumbling block. But looking back, Diaz Merced now says, “the main barrier was my mind.” Fortunately, she had good mentors — people who coached her and helped her advance.

“Never give up,” she now tells students. “Even if you did not get the grades you expected this year, the only thing that matters is your determination. Please never give up on your dreams!”

Fighting pests

As a boy in New Mexico, Richard Mankin wondered why insects could fly and he couldn't. Indeed, he recalls, "I always kind of wanted to fly." Now as an entomologist in Gainesville, Fla., he studies insects for the federal government. He works for the Agricultural Research Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA.

Mankin still can't fly — at least not without a plane. In fact, a rare muscle disease means he finds even walking hard. To get around, Mankin wears leg braces and uses two crutches. But that doesn't stop him from getting into the field to listen for bugs.

Richard Mankin listens to crop and tree pests. This USDA Agricultural Research Service physicist gets out in the field for much of this work, despite having to use crutches.
Courtesy of Richard Mankin/USDA Agricultural Research Service

He focuses on sounds most of us will never hear. He scouts for hidden infestations of insects, he explains. With electronic equipment, he listens for the chomping sounds that bugs make in wood, soil or stored products.

Mankin's disability played an indirect role in his career path. "I really started off in physics," he says. But opportunities for people with disabilities seemed limited when he was in college. Then he got a chance to work at USDA in an insect research lab. He realized "there were just a lot of physics tools that you could apply to questions of entomology.” Moreover, he notes, “Nobody else was doing it." Before long, he was hooked.

Since turning to entomology — the study of bugs — Mankin has helped to develop equipment that can listen in on insects feeding on a tree. Their chomping sounds make the wood vibrate, somewhat like a violin string. Pressure vibrations from the sound hit a piezoelectric (Pee-AY-tzoh-ee-LEK-trik) crystal in his tool. The crystal develops a voltage when squeezed. And the vibrations in the wood make the crystal alternately squeeze and release. The strength and frequency of voltage changes in the crystal let Mankin and others measure the sound of the munching insects.

Mankin's research has taken him across the United States. He also has done work in other countries. Often he teams up with biologists to listen for insects. Sometimes those other scientists will assist him. "I'm good on operating the equipment,” he notes, but “I'm not good at climbing trees.”

Insights from animals

“If you were to see me in person, I doubt that you would look at me and immediately recognize that I have some kind of physical disease,” notes Naomi Ondrasek. She’s a biologist at the University of California, Davis. There, she studies how the brain and hormones affect animal behavior. When she’s not working, Ondrasek plays with her children, hikes, dances and plays the ukulele. She also enjoys reading, especially American literature from the mid-19th century.

But autoimmune disease often plagues this scientist. The immune system is designed to fight off disease. Sometimes, though, the body mistakes its own tissue for an invader. Then it may begin attacking its own tissues. Some cases are mild. Ondrasek’s can be devastating.

One of her conditions is a type of inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD. Its range of symptoms includes frequent diarrhea. A new bout could hit any day. But Ondrasek notes that with each flare-up, “It’s not just that you have to go to the bathroom a lot.” There’s also intense pain. Sometimes she has energy for nothing but trying to make it through that pain.

Ondrasek pipette
Biologist Naomi Ondrasek at the University of California, Davis, runs a test to see how much of the hormone testosterone is in a blood sample. She has a painful medical condition that can sometimes limit her ability to make it into the office.
Courtesy of Naomi Ondrasek

“It feels like you’ve swallowed a ninja star,” she says. “It feels like you’ve swallowed broken shards of glass.” Ondrasek can’t sleep at night when the pain is that bad. For the moment, though, she says, “I feel great. I feel borderline normal.”

Ondrasek doesn’t let her health issues detract from her work. “The big question I ask,” she says, is “Why do animals get into social groups?” Among people, social relationships are incredibly important to well-being. That’s also true, she notes, for some other species.

One of her projects reviewed research on certain chemicals produced by the brain. There are several types of these nonapeptides (NO-nah-PEP-tydes). They are tiny protein-like chains of nine (hence the prefix nona-) amino-acid bits. These chemicals can circulate in blood, controlling processes throughout the body. A well-known example is oxytocin (OX-ee-TOH-sin). It helps control when mammals give birth and produce milk for their young.

When oxytocin and other nonapeptides act in the brain, they can influence social behavior, she explains. For instance, oxytocin can provide a sense of love or trust in another person, such a baby or mate. And because so many species produce virtually the same chemicals, Ondrasek says, “things that we discover in rodents and even birds … help us as we look at these behaviors in humans.” Her June 2016 report reviewing all of this appeared in Ethology.

Ondrasek notes that “Though I have all these health issues, I was able to persist in my career.” She is thankful for supportive academic advisors and coworkers. By law, employers usually must make reasonable efforts to help employees with disabilities. Yet for her employer to understand her particular needs, she notes, “I have to be very willing to share something that’s very intimate and potentially embarrassing.”

Ondrasek has been fortunate to work with very positive, supportive people who don’t focus on her disability. Ideally, she notes, all employers and potential colleagues will one day see such accommodations as no big deal, akin to providing office lighting and  heating to workers on dark winter days.

Protecting a river

Caroline Solomon was on her high school’s swim team. But at times she could not go into the creek near her home. It was simply too polluted. “I decided I wanted to do something about it,” she recalls. So she studied environmental science and public policy at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Later, she went to graduate school. Some of her classes could be challenging, though, since she couldn’t hear her teachers. “I’ve been deaf since I was 15 months old,” Solomon notes.

Solomon river
Deaf biologist Caroline Solomon, wearing a green jacket in the front row, often goes out on the Anacostia River near Washington, D.C., with members of the conservation group Anacostia Riverkeepers.
Courtesy of Caroline Solomon

Today she teaches biology at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She has no trouble communicating with her students. They, too, are primarily deaf or hard of hearing. That’s why all classes at Gallaudet are taught in American Sign Language. Solomon also has an active life outside the classroom. She especially enjoys hiking, biking and other activities with her family.

Her research takes her to the Anacostia River. “It is very close to Gallaudet, and I easily bring my students there,” she says. Water running through local forests and marshes drains into this river. So does water running off of urban streets, golf courses and industrial sites. The river’s watershed “kind of concentrates all the things that happen when humans mess with the natural landscape,” she explains. Not surprisingly, this river has developed a reputation for being quite polluted.

Solomon has been focusing on how pollutants affect tiny organisms that form the base of the river’s food web. “I am now looking at the cyanobacteria population," she says, "to see what types are there.” Also known as blue-green algae, these potentially toxic organisms can bloom — grow out of control — if they’re fed by too many nutrients. And the fertilizers in rainwater running off of lawns, fields and other sites can fuel their runaway growth. When a bloom later dies back, bacteria will feast on the remains. That can use up much of the oxygen in the water.

Solomon wants to see more students who are deaf or have other disabilities make a difference in environmental science and other fields. As she often says, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

‘I get to blow things up’

Neil Altomare chooses to work with explosives, despite his war injury. After all, “I get to blow things up,” he says. “I’m…kind of a little kid. And it’s still fun.”

However, safety must come first. “When you deal with explosives yourself, you know what’s safe and unsafe,” he says. Ultimately, his work helps make life safer for both civilians and people in the armed forces.

Often his group designs and builds areas to test explosives. Everything requires checking and double-checking. And each trial takes careful planning. In college, he studied management information systems. That field uses technology-based tools to collect data, organize them and then use them to make informed decisions. And it helps him now.

Altomare memorial
Former Marine Neil Altomare joined Sandia National Laboratories’ Explosives Engineering Operations team in 2013 after he was seriously wounded in Afghanistan.
Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratory

“I’m in charge of all of the people on site during the tests. I’m in charge of all of the equipment used during the tests.” That includes pricey high-speed cameras and data-recording equipment. “And essentially I’m in charge of the results along with the engineer after the test is done,” he explains.

Altomare’s injury means he now needs to rely on a prosthetic lower leg. But because he wears jeans a lot, it isn’t obvious. And that’s fine with him, because being an amputee is not what he or his job is about, he explains.                                                          

The proud dad of a toddler, Altomare thinks a lot about the next generation. He hopes all young people pursue their dreams, regardless of any physical or other limitation.

“Don’t call it a disability,” he says. “Don’t let anyone tell you that just because of something that’s ‘wrong’ with you, it should limit your education or limit your experience in life. We’re the only ones that can put limitations on ourselves.”

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

academic     Relating to school, classes or things taught by teachers in formal institutes of learning (such as a college).

acoustic     Having to do with sound or hearing.

Agricultural Research Service     A division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, created by an act of Congress in 1938. It called for the creation of four research laboratories to study new uses and farm production methods for foods and other crops. As of 2017, it employed 2,000 scientists and graduate students at some 90 research centers (some of them overseas) and had an annual budget in excess of $1 billion.

agriculture     The growth of plants, animals or fungi for human needs, including food, fuel, chemicals and medicine.

algae     Single-celled organisms, once considered plants (they aren’t). As aquatic organisms, they grow in water. Like green plants, they depend on sunlight to make their food.

American Sign Language     A way of communicating using hand shapes and body movements.

astronomy     The area of science that deals with celestial objects, space and the physical universe. People who work in this field are called astronomers.

astrophysics     An area of astronomy that deals with understanding the physical nature of stars and other objects in space. People who work in this field are known as astrophysicists.

autoimmunity    (adj. autoimmune) A process whereby the immune system turns against its host. This inappropriate reaction can cause disease instead of curing it. Autoimmune diseases can be quite severe and hard for doctors to treat. They include rheumatoid arthritis (affecting joints, such as knees), multiple sclerosis (targeting nerves and muscles), Crohn’s disease (affecting the gut), psoriasis and lupus (affecting skin) and the type of diabetes that typically develops in young children. In all of these cases, the immune system generates out-of-control inflammation.

bacterium     (pl. bacteria) A single-celled organism. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside of plants and animals.

behavior     The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.

biology     The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.

bloom     (in microbiology) The rapid and largely uncontrolled growth of a species, such as algae in waterways enriched with nutrients.

bug     The slang term for an insect. Sometimes it’s even used to refer to a germ.

chemical     A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (bond) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made when two hydrogen atoms bond to one oxygen atom. Its chemical formula is H2O. Chemical also can be an adjective to describe properties of materials that are the result of various reactions between different compounds.

colleague     Someone who works with another; a co-worker or team member.

crystal     (adj. crystalline) A solid consisting of a symmetrical, ordered, three-dimensional arrangement of atoms or molecules. It’s the organized structure taken by most minerals. Apatite, for example, forms six-sided crystals. The mineral crystals that make up rock are usually too small to be seen with the unaided eye.

current     A fluid — such as of water or air — that moves in a recognizable direction. (in electricity) The flow of electricity or the amount of electricity moving through some point over a particular period of time.

cyanobacteria     A type of bacteria that can convert carbon dioxide into other molecules, including oxygen.

deter     An event, action or material that keeps something from happening. For instance, a visible pothole in the road will deter a driver from steering his car over it.

diabetes     A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

eclipse     This occurs when two celestial bodies line up in space so that one totally or partially obscures the other. In a solar eclipse, the sun, moon and Earth line up in that order. The moon casts its shadow on the Earth. From Earth, it looks like the moon is blocking out the sun. In a lunar eclipse, the three bodies line up in a different order — sun, Earth, moon — and the Earth casts its shadow on the moon, turning the moon a deep red.

engineer     A person who uses science to solve problems. As a verb, to engineer means to design a device, material or process that will solve some problem or unmet need.

entomology     The scientific study of insects. One who does this is an entomologist.

environmental science     The study of ecosystems to help identify environmental problems and possible solutions. Environmental science can bring together many fields including physics, chemistry, biology and oceanography to understand how ecosystems function and how humans can coexist with them in harmony. People who work in this field are known as environmental scientists.

ethology     The science of behavior in animals, including humans, from a biological point of view.

factor     Something that plays a role in a particular condition or event; a contributor.

federal     Of or related to a country’s national government (not to any state or local government within that nation). For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are both agencies of the U.S. federal government.

fertilizer     Nitrogen, phosphorus and other plant nutrients added to soil, water or foliage to boost crop growth or to replenish nutrients that were lost earlier as they were used by plant roots or leaves.

field     An area of study, as in: Her field of research was biology. Also a term to describe a real-world environment in which some research is conducted, such as at sea, in a forest, on a mountaintop or on a city street. It is the opposite of an artificial setting, such as a research laboratory.

food web     (also known as a food chain) The network of relationships among organisms sharing an ecosystem. Member organisms depend on others within this network as a source of food.

force     Some outside influence that can change the motion of a body, hold bodies close to one another, or produce motion or stress in a stationary body.

frequency     The number of times a specified periodic phenomenon occurs within a specified time interval. (In physics) The number of wavelengths that occurs over a particular interval of time.

graduate school     A university program that offers advanced degrees, such as a Master’s or PhD degree. It’s called graduate school because it is started only after someone has already graduated from college (usually with a four-year degree).

hormone     (in zoology and medicine) A chemical produced in a gland and then carried in the bloodstream to another part of the body. Hormones control many important body activities, such as growth. Hormones act by triggering or regulating chemical reactions in the body.

immune     Able to ward off a particular infection. Alternatively, this term can be used to mean an organism shows no impacts from exposure to a particular poison or process.

immune system     The collection of cells and their responses that help the body fight off infections and deal with foreign substances that may provoke allergies.

infest    To create a parasitic community, such as when wasps infest the porch of an abandoned house. Such a community of pests is known as an infestation.

inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)   A term for several potentially severe conditions that regularly (chronically) inflame the digestive tract. The two most common types of this disease are ulcerative colitis (which inflames the large intestine, or colon) and Crohn’s disease (which inflames the entire digestive tract). Both conditions stem from the immune system's abnormal response to the affected tissues. That means they are autoimmune diseases. Symptoms can include diarrhea, blood in the stool, abdominal pain and extreme fatigue.

insect     A type of arthropod that as an adult will have six segmented legs and three body parts: a head, thorax and abdomen. There are hundreds of thousands of insects, which include bees, beetles, flies and moths.

insight     The ability to gain an accurate and deep understanding of a situation just by thinking about it, instead of working out a solution through experimentation.

major     (in education) A subject that a student chooses as his or her area of focus in college, such as: chemistry, English literature, German, journalism, pre-medicine, electrical engineering or elementary education.

mammal     A warm-blooded animal distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for feeding their young, and (typically) the bearing of live young.

marine     Having to do with the ocean world or environment.

mentor     An individual who lends his or her experience to advise someone starting out in a field. In science, teachers or researchers often mentor students or younger scientists by helping them to refine their research questions. Mentors also can offer feedback on how young investigators prepare to conduct research or interpret their data.

nerve     A long, delicate fiber that transmits signals across the body of an animal. An animal’s backbone contains many nerves, some of which control the movement of its legs or fins, and some of which convey sensations such as hot, cold or pain.

nonapeptide    A short protein-like chain of nine (hence the prefix nona) amino-acid bits. Acting as hormones, these chemicals can circulate in blood, controlling processes throughout the body. A well-known example is oxytocin. It helps control when mammals give birth and produce milk for their young. But these chemicals also can work in the brain where they can influence emotions and social behaviors.

nutrient     A vitamin, mineral, fat, carbohydrate or protein that a plant, animal or other organism requires as part of its food in order to survive.

oxytocin     A hormone released by the body during hugging, kissing or touching. Oxytocin plays an important role in feelings of closeness to other people and even affection between a mother and child.

phenomena     Events or developments that are surprising or unusual.

physical     (adj.) A term for things that exist in the real world, as opposed to in memories or the imagination. It can also refer to properties of materials that are due to their size and non-chemical interactions (such as when one block slams with force into another).

physics     The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.

physiology     The branch of biology that deals with the everyday functions of living organisms and how their parts function. Scientists who work in this field are known as physiologists.

phytoplankton     Sometimes referred to as microalgae, these are microscopic plants and plant-like organisms that live in the ocean. Most float and reside in regions where sunlight filters down. Much like land-based plants, these organisms contain chlorophyll. They also require sunlight to live and grow. Phytoplankton serve as a base of the oceanic food web.

piezoelectric    An adjective describing the ability of certain materials (such as crystals) to develop an electric voltage as they are deformed, or squeezed.

pollutant     A substance that taints something — such as the air, water, our bodies or products. Some pollutants are chemicals, such as pesticides. Others may be radiation, including excess heat or light. Even weeds and other invasive species can be considered a type of biological pollution.

population     (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.

prosthetic     Adjective that refers to a prosthesis, an artificial device that replaces a missing body part. Such a prosthetic limb, for example, would replace parts of an arm or leg. These replacement parts usually substitute for tissues missing due to injury, disease or birth defects.

red giant     A star having a large diameter and relatively cool surface. It is a stage in a normal star’s life that occurs after it has stopped burning hydrogen. A red giant has a core in which helium is fusing into carbon.

rodent     A mammal of the order Rodentia, a group that includes mice, rats, squirrels, guinea pigs, hamsters and porcupines.

Sandia National Laboratories     A series of research facilities run by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. It was created in 1945 as the so-called “Z Division” of nearby Los Alamos Laboratory to design, build and test nuclear weapons. Over time, its mission expanded to the study of a broad range of science and technology issues, mostly related to energy production (including wind and solar to nuclear power). Most of Sandia's roughly 10,000 employees work in Albuquerque, N.M, or at a second major facility in Livermore, Calif.

social     (adj.) Relating to gatherings of people; a term for animals (or people) that prefer to exist in groups. (noun) A gathering of people, for instance those who belong to a club or other organization, for the purpose of enjoying each other’s company.

species     A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.

star     The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

STEM     An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

subtle    Some feature that may be important, but can be hard to see or describe. For instance, the first cellular changes that signal the start of a cancer may be visible but subtle — small and hard to distinguish from nearby healthy tissues.

tissue     Made of cells, any of the distinct types of materials that make up animals, plants or fungi. Cells within a tissue work as a unit to perform a particular function in living organisms. Different organs of the human body, for instance, often are made from many different types of tissues.

toxic     Poisonous or able to harm or kill cells, tissues or whole organisms. The measure of risk posed by such a poison is its toxicity.

urban     Of or related to cities, especially densely populated ones or regions where lots of traffic and industrial activity occurs. The development or buildup of urban areas is a phenomenon known as urbanization.

variable star     A star whose brightness oscillates between bright and dim.

vibrate     To rhythmically shake or to move continuously and rapidly back and forth.

voltage     A force associated with an electric current that is measured in units known as volts. Power companies use high-voltage to move electric power over long distances.

watershed       A high point in the landscape that marks the dividing line for which lake or ocean or river any flowing water will head toward. For instance, a mountain chain may mark where water on one side drains via rivers into one ocean, and water falling on the other side will drain into a different ocean (via rivers).

white dwarf     A small, very dense star that is typically the size of a planet. It is what is left when a star with a mass about the same as our sun’s has exhausted its nuclear fuel of hydrogen, and collapsed.

zoology     The study of animals and their habitats. Scientists who undertake this work are known as zoologists.


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Journal: N. Ondrasek et al. Urban health and ecology: The promise of an avian biomonitoring tool. Current Zoology. Vol. 63, April 2017, p. 205. doi: 10.1093/cz/zox011.

Meeting:​​ ​“Ramón Margalef Award for Excellence in Education.” American Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography. February 26 – March  3, 2017. 

Journal: M. Guo et al. “A new EEMD-based scheme for detection of insect damaged wheat kernels using impact acoustics.” Acta Acustica United with Acustica. Vol. 102, November/December 2016, p. 1108. doi: 10.3813/AAA.919022.

Journal: N. Ondrasek. Emerging frontiers in social neuroendocrinology and the study of nonapeptides. Ethology. Vol. 122, June 2016, p. 443. doi: 10.1111/eth.12493.

Journal: N. Njoroge et al. “Frequency and time pattern differences in acoustic signals produced by Prostephanus truncatus (Horn) (Coleoptera: Bostrichidae) and Sitophilus zeamais (Motschulsky) (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) in stored maize.” Journal of Stored Products Research. Vol. 69, October 2016, p. 31. doi: 10.1016/j.jspr.2016.06.005.

Journal: R. Mankin et al. “Vibrational duetting mimics to trap and disrupt mating of the devastating Asian citrus psyllid insect pest).” Proceedings of Meetings on Acoustics. Vol. 25, March 2016. doi: 10.1121/2.0000185.

Journal: N. Ondrasek et al. Environmental modulation of same-sex affiliative behavior in female meadow voles (Microtus pennsylvanicus). Physiology & Behavior. Vol. 140, March 1, 2015, p. 118. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.12.021.

Report: C. Solomon et al. “Workshop for Emerging Deaf and Hard of Hearing Scientists.” Gallaudet University, May 17–18, 2012.