Fighting Water Contamination with Iron

Texas A&M researcher combats water contamination with naturally occurring iron

According to the United Nations, water poses one of the greatest sustainability challenges of the 21st Century. In fact, by the year 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will face a severe water shortage. Additionally, the World Health Organization says the presence of pathogens and toxins in water cause more than two million deaths annually, mostly children under the age of five years old. A Texas A&M researcher is looking to naturally occurring iron to solve the world’s water problem.

Virender K. Sharma, Ph.D., M.Tech, M.Sc.

Virender K. Sharma, Ph.D., M.Tech, M.Sc.

“Water scarcity and pollution threaten our ability to grow strong and stable economies, meet basic human needs, and protect healthy ecosystems, while also posing severe human health problems,” said Virender K. Sharma, Ph.D., M.Tech, M.Sc., professor and environmental chemist at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health.

According to Sharma, supercharged iron, or ferrate, may hold the solution to the world’s impending water crisis. Sharma is investigating the use of this environmentally friendly chemical compound as a water-treatment disinfectant to ensure public health protection through availability of water that is clean and suitable for communities.

“It is vitally important that a readily abundant and cost-effective solution be developed,” said Sharma. “Naturally occurring iron can be easily converted to ferrate, which can be used in both air and water purification as a disinfectant to aid in the removal of toxins without leaving behind harmful by-products.”

Ferrate has been found to be particularly useful in the reuse and recycling of water. This emerging water-treatment technology could address the challenge of eliminating potentially carcinogenic disinfectant by-products (DBPs) currently left behind with traditional water treatment chemicals, such as free chlorine, chloramines and ozone.

“When combined with solar energy through sunlight, ferrates provide a green and innovative sustainable treatment strategy to remove a variety of contaminants from the public’s water,” Sharma said.

Currently, Sharma is conducting a National Science Foundation study on the oxidative elimination of cyanotoxins – potent toxic compounds that can be absorbed by water and pose a serious environmental hazard – by ferrates.

Iron could be the solution to purifying the world's drinking water.

Iron could be the solution to purifying the world’s drinking water.

“Microcystins, which are toxic to plants, animals and humans, are the most widespread cyanotoxins globally and ferrate efficiently treats microcystins without producing toxic by-products,” said Sharma.

In another study for the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Sharma explored clean technologies capable of water refining and nutrient/energy recovery. This study found the development of a low cost oxidation and coagulation treatment with no start-up time and quick process for the treatment of pollutants and prevention of adverse environmental impacts.

“Access to clean and sustainable water is essential to ensuring a community remains strong and continues to develop,” Sharma said. “We rely on clean water to survive; however, with changing climate patterns and continuous pollution, it becomes all the more important    to develop cost-effective ways to protect our water sources and safely remove harmful contaminants.”

This article was originally published by the Texas A&M Health Science Center. 


Andrew Robison
Director of Development
Health Science Center
(979) 862-6423

A New Tool for Twitter

Twitter is a highly used and very popular social media platform. However, when switching back and forth between several tabs and windows, it’s very easy to lose track of what you initially set out to explore.

Associate Professor Andruid Kerne with the Interface Ecology Lab in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University, along with his graduate students, Ajit Jain, Nic Lupfer, Yin Qu, and Rhema Linder, have developed TweetBubble, a free Chrome extension, that allows users to expand an @tweeter handle or #hashtags in the same window, without having to switch back and forth across tabs and windows.

“It’s very easy to lose the context of your original thought once you start following different links,” says Kerne. “TweetBubble is designed to make Twitter more effective and easier for users to put together the big picture of who is connecting with whom.”

TweetBubble is a free and open source Chrome extension that helps users explore social media network connections in Twitter. Download TweetBubble from the Chrome Store: http://goo.gl/2wouzT

This article was originally published by the Dwight Look College of Engineering.


Jeremy Quast ’07
Director of Development
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
(979) 845-5113

How to Keep Fishing in the Amazon

Texas A&M scientists study what keeps freshwater fish abundant

On a recent plane trip to Santarem, Brazil, Kirk Winemiller gazed at a vast mosaic of lakes and waterways of the Amazon region. One huge muddy river split into multiple channels, each as wide as the Mississippi river.

The waters house over a thousand species of fish, which Winemiller, a professor in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, studies. The fish are an indispensable food resource and an essential part of the economy in this part of Brazil.

Dr. Leslie Winemiller (left) and Carol Arantes (right) process fish samples during a field survey of the river.

Dr. Leslie Winemiller (left) and Carol Arantes (right) process fish samples during a field survey of the river.

Each winter the rivers and lakes flood and water levels can rise by more than 30 feet, flooding forests and meadows. Researchers have known that fish migrate to flooded areas to feed on fruits, nuts, and seeds, but nobody has yet estimated how access to these resources influences fish production.

Amazon fish populations have decreased in recent decades, and the landscape has changed. Roughly 56 percent of the Amazon forest has been cut between 1970 and 2008.

To quantify the effect of deforestation on fish, Winemiller is working with a team of Texas A&M and Brazilian researchers. Leading the project is Winemiller’s doctoral student Carol Arantes. She is spending the 2013-2014 academic year examining fish specimens and conducting workshops with villagers on sustainable fishing. Once completed, the project will inform the work of government agencies and conservation groups in Brazil.

“The project is looking at the patterns of fish abundance in relation to vegetation in the floodplains, particularly whether or not there are more fish species and more fish biomass in areas where the forest is more intact,” Winemiller says.

“People in the Amazon depend so much on the fisheries,” he adds. “My lab conducts research on rivers in Texas, but we can also take our expertise to other countries to help people confronted with serious natural resource issues.”

Travel and living

Arantes has been renting a houseboat and hiring local fishermen to help catch and catalog fish. She stays at different locations for several days, collects environmental data, surveys fish stocks, processes fish samples, and preserves some samples for later study.

Winemiller and his wife, Leslie, traveled to Brazil during January and February to participate in the final field survey for the project.

Aerial view of the Amazon region near Santarem, Brazil.

Aerial view of the Amazon region near Santarem, Brazil.

“It’s a long day of travel,” Winemiller says. “We first arrived in the Manaus airport, right smack dab in the middle of the Amazon. One is surprised to learn that Manaus is a modern city of nearly 2 million people. From there we flew to Santarem where we headed out on the boat with Carol and her field team.”

They lived on a houseboat with 16 others, including the boat’s crew, local fishermen, student volunteers, and a cook. They slept in hammocks that swayed with the waves on windy, rainy nights.

“The cook was excellent,” Winemiller says. “The fish were delicious, and there were so many different kinds.”

Boating around the river afforded the team a close-up look at scattered villages and farms where people support themselves by fishing and raising livestock.

“There are seasonally flooded pastures that somehow support cows,” Winemiller says. “That was surprising to see along the shore of the Amazon River.”

When the river floods, big barges carry the livestock up and down the river to other pastures or to markets.

Houses in the floodplains are built on tall stilts. Despite the stilts, some houses are flooded with up to a foot of water during the rainy season. One woman said that she found a big lungfish swimming in her living room one year, Winemiller recounted.

Catching fish 

Arantes and Winemiller are comparing fish communities from regions that have been deforested with those where the forest remains intact, and they also will analyze the structure of fish communities during the different periods of the flood cycle.

By some counts, 1500 to 3000 species of fish can be found along the main channel of the Amazon. It would take years to survey all the species even in one location, Winemiller says. Arantes aims to focus her analyses on the fishes that are most common within each location.

“It would be a lot easier in a place like the Brazos River, where we only have maybe 40 fish species that are fairly common,” Winemiller says. “But we don’t need large samples. We try to get a few individuals of each species at each location during four different phases of the annual flood cycle.”

By April, Arantes had completed the last of four planned surveys. Now she needs to identify the remaining samples and bring fish samples back to be analyzed in the lab at Texas A&M.

In the lab, the preserved samples will be analyzed for stable isotopes: Ratios of carbon and nitrogen in fish tissues allow researchers to analyze the structure and dynamics of food webs, for example by determining whether a fish is a top predator or an herbivore.

Promoting conservation

The research Winemiller and Arantes are conducting will help Brazilian natural resource agencies and nongovernmental organizations in promoting conservation. Findings may help them promote the conservation of forests and the sustainable use of other natural resources, including fisheries.

Arantes is also conducting workshops to encourage community-based conservation. The strategies she teaches are aimed at allowing fish to survive long enough to grow and reproduce, which ultimately increases fishery yields. So far, at least two communities have embraced these strategies, and fish stocks are rebounding.

“They have monitored and limited their fishing effort and had a lot more fish and bigger fish,” Winemiller says. “That’s a preliminary finding without formal data analysis, but that’s encouraging. It means you really can manage more effectively. Hopefully this will convince people living on the Amazon floodplains to adopt better management practices.”

“I told you how huge the Amazon system is,” Winemiller says. “You wouldn’t believe that humans with small boats and nets could make an impact, but they really can.”

This story was originally published by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. 

You can support Texas A&M University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.


Steve Blomstedt ’83
Director of Development
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
(979) 847-8655

Buoy System Is Best of Its Kind To Detect Oil Spills

The A&M College of Geosciences has played a huge part in delveloping the Texas Automated Buoy System

When it comes to state spending and success rates, cost savings, and overall bang-for-your-buck bottom lines, it’s hard to beat Texas A&M University’s TABS buoy system that relays vital information all along the Texas gulf coast.

With support from the Texas General Land Office, Texas A&M researchers have developed the only buoy system of its kind in the United States and one of the few of its kind in the world.  The Texas Automated Buoy System (TABS) supplies critical data allowing modelers to accurately predict the movement of oil spills and provides other current data that helps protect the 367-mile Texas coastline.

Workers prepare to deploy a TABS buoy off the Texas coast.

Workers prepare to deploy a TABS buoy off the Texas coast.

Now in its 20th year of operation, the buoy system operated by researchers at the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group (GERG) in the College of Geosciences has proved to be extremely valuable in the fight against oil spill damage.

When two ships collided in the Galveston Bay area several weeks ago, as much as 168,000 gallons of crude oil were soon oozing their way along the Texas coast, threatening pristine wetlands and marshes, the Texas fishing industry and recreational boaters, to name a few.

With the first few hours of an oil spill often being the most critical time, the solar-powered buoys relayed key ocean data such as near-surface currents, wind speeds, water temperature, wave heights and other information that is critical for decision-makers on land who were getting ready to send equipment and men for oil spill cleanup work.  Such data is reported every 30 minutes.

“The buoys have more than paid for themselves many times over,” John Walpert, senior research associate, explains.  “Regarding the oil spill near the Houston Ship Channel recently, we deployed a TABS Responder buoy about 20 miles southwest of Galveston.  The buoy and TABS system did exactly what it was supposed to do – it sent back data, and this is used for decision-making, modeling and projections.

“In the last 12 years alone, they have been used over 50 times for decision-making purposes during spill events and have saved potentially millions of dollars in cleanup costs.  It is the only system in the country supported by a state government with the mandate of helping to protect the coastal environment.

“This system protects the Texas coast better than any other. Any way you look at it, TABS has been a major success story.”

The TABS buoy system provides key data such as wave direction, wind speed and wave height.

The TABS buoy system provides key data such as wave direction, wind speed and wave height.

One study shows that the upper Texas coast averages more than 280 oil spills every year, but most of these involve about 100 gallons or less. Still, any spill can mean trouble for marine life, and that’s when the buoys can become lifesavers.

The buoys range in size from seven feet to more than 20 feet in length, each of them floating on the water’s surface.  Prices range from $60,000 to $200,000 each, depending on several factors, among them the amount of sensors on each.

The TABS project is funded by the Texas General Land Office, the state agency that supports the seven core buoys along the Texas coast, while two other buoys located near the Flower Garden Banks – about 100 miles south of the Texas-Louisiana border – are funded by a consortium of oil companies.

“What makes the TABS system so valuable is that the buoys report the state of the ocean at any given moment,” says Steve DiMarco, professor of oceanography who also helps to run and manage the buoys.

“The state of Texas has been very pro-active by using the TABs buoys and all of the information they provide.  They have passed every test with flying colors.”

Walpert says the buoys are updated annually, with many receiving more sensors and advanced technology to improve their data reporting.

“The buoy system has already saved Texas taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Walpert adds, “and they serve as a model for other states that are developing similar buoys to detect pollution and oil spills.”

This article was originally published by the TAMU Times.

You can support Texas A&M University’s College of Geosciences with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.

Jack Falks

Director of Development
College of Geosciences
(979) 862-4944

Former Student Bill Youngkin Selected As Campus Muster Speaker

Class of '69 former student will give remarks at 2014 muster

Bill Youngkin, a 1969 Texas A&M University graduate whose decades of service to his alma mater included a term as president of The Association of Former Students, will be the speaker at Texas A&M’s campus Muster scheduled for Monday (April 21). The annual ceremony, always held on April 21, honors the memory of Texas A&M former students who died during the previous year.

Bill Youngkin '69

Bill Youngkin ’69

Campus Muster, which is student-led, traditionally packs the 12,500-seat Reed Arena and is the largest of the more than 300 Muster ceremonies held throughout Texas and elsewhere in the nation, as well as numerous locations abroad.

During his time at Texas A&M, Youngkin served as Head Yell Leader, a Ross Volunteer in the Corps of Cadets, a Class Officer and was recognized as a Distinguished Student. After graduation, he went on to serve in the U.S. Army from 1970-1972 in the 18th Airborne Corps and was stationed in Vietnam from 1971-1972. After his return, he then graduated from Baylor Law School in 1975.

Youngkin was the president of the Brazos County Bar Association from 1985-1986 and now serves as the principal of Youngkin & Associates, a law firm in Bryan.

He has remained active in support of Texas A&M throughout his career, serving as president of The Association of Former Students in 1991 and president of the Former Yell Leaders Association in 2000. He and his wife, Marilyn, were named Texas A&M Parents of the Year for 2000-2001. Youngkin also is a former member of the Board of Trustees of the 12th Man Foundation. He is currently a member of the President’s Blue Ribbon Panel of the Corps of Cadets and was inducted into the Corps of Cadets Hall of Honor for 2014.

At each Muster ceremony around the world, the speaker will be followed by the “Roll Call For The Absent” which is a reading of the names of those from that area who have died in the past year, along with those of other classmates or friends, as requested. As each name is called, a family member or friend will answer “Here,” and a candle will be lit.

Following the candle-lighting ceremony in Reed Arena, the Ross Volunteer Company, which serves as the honor guard for the governor of Texas, will march in to fire a rifle volley followed by a special arrangement of “Taps.”

This article was originally published by the TAMU Times.

You can support Texas A&M University’s Muster with an online donation or a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.


Cindy Munson ’99
Director of Development
Department of Student Affairs
(979) 458-1689


Economics of using mesquite for electricity dependent on outside factors

Texas A&M research evaluates the pros and cons of harnessing mesquite for electricity

VERNON – Using mesquite biomass for electricity generation may become economically feasible if ecological and agricultural factors are considered, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife Research paper being published in the BioEnergy Research journal.


Mesquite biomass could be feasible for electricity generation if things like grass production were factored in.

“Economic Feasibility of Mesquite Biomass for Electricity Production: Projections of the Long-term Sustainability of Two Harvest Options” will appear in the April issue of the journal.

The paper was written by AgriLife Research personnel Dr. Jaesung Cho, postdoctoral associate; Dr. Seong Park, economist; Dr. Jim Ansley, rangeland ecologist; and Dr. Mustafa Mirik, associate research scientist, all in Vernon.

Their study estimated the long-term economic feasibility of mesquite biomass in electricity production under five different harvest scenarios, Park said. They examined variations in rates of standing biomass accumulation and tree density re-establishment after harvest using an above-ground-only or whole-plant harvest option.

Other work by Ansley has shown the heating value of mesquite is nearly equal to low grade coal.

The ecological and agricultural benefits of harvesting mesquite for bioenergy make it a potentially viable alternative to coal, Park said. More traditional income from these lands, such as livestock grazing and hunting, would be enhanced, and mesquite control costs would be reduced.

Current control methods of mesquite include herbicide sprays, mechanical treatments and prescribed fire, Ansley said. Herbicides and mechanical treatments can be costly for landowners. And prescribed fire, the least expensive option, has limited use due to the smoke distribution and higher risk of damage to non-target areas, especially during drought.

Increased grass production would lead directly to increased agricultural income through grazing by cattle, and leaving patches or strips of unharvested mesquite among harvested areas would increase wildlife habitat, he said. Mesquite reduction also could lower soil erosion due to the increased grass cover and increase off-site water yields into rivers and streams.

However, the researchers found some drawbacks to using mesquite as a bioenergy feedstock for electricity production. Re-growth and harvesting costs vary greatly, depending on the harvesting methods, rainfall and soil type. This can disrupt the supply of mesquite biomass for a power plant.

A previous study showed the re-establishment of mesquite biomass from emerging seedlings following whole-plant harvest would take considerably longer than regrowth from a plant with above-ground only harvest, Park said. The whole-plant harvest technique is considered to be less expensive compared to the above-ground harvest due to the difference in harvesting procedures.

However, the much greater re-establishment rate that occurs with the above-ground harvest options makes this more economically viable than the whole-plant harvest option, he said.

Mesquite also has a low applicability in existing power plants due to the high lignin content and its fibrous structure, Ansley said. Due to this structural limitation, mesquite biomass cannot be burned completely in the conventional firebox of existing power plants because coal mills cannot effectively produce a powder from the woody biomass.

The study determined pre-treatment techniques, such as torrefaction, which is a roasting of the wood to dry it down, and pelletization, may be required to increase the grindability, combustibility, uniformity, density, handling ability and energy efficiency of mesquite biomass during the electricity generation process, he said. This generates additional production costs.

Park said they concluded that, given the regrowth characteristic of mesquite and structural limitation of the biomass, a cost-effective processing method must be determined before recommending mesquite as a potential bioenergy feedstock.

Overall, he said, the study determined the above-ground harvest method, with 17 years of rotation length before re-harvest of the brushy regrowth, generated the largest economic returns to a power plant. It was more economically viable than a whole-plant harvest plan because of the much faster re-establishment rate before the next harvest. Frequency in the whole-plant harvest option could be as long as 40-50 years.

In addition, the above-ground harvest option was more viable because tree density would never decline – essentially all trees would re-establish shoots immediately after harvest – whereas, in the whole-plant option, the tree density level would have to be re-established from new seedlings, Ansley said.

“Regarding the economically optimum 17-year rotation for re-harvest in the above-ground scenario, this might be too long for ranchers interested in livestock grazing,” he said. “Typically, grass used for grazing will flourish for seven to eight years after mesquite is harvested, but at about 10 years, mesquite regrowth begins to out-compete grasses for water and light.”

So from a livestock production standpoint – and a selling point for ranchers to commit their pastures to periodic mesquite harvest in the above-ground scenario – harvesting every 10-12 years would be more attractive, he said.

Therefore, a biomass operation based on the above-ground harvest scenario may have to settle for a less-than-optimum harvest cycle to meet the needs of other income streams on a particular property, but would still be better in the long run economically than the whole-plant harvest option, Ansley said.

This article was originally published by Texas A&M AgriLife.

You can support Texas A&M University’s AgriLife and College of Agriculture & Life Sciences with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.


Steve Blomstedt ’83

Director of Development
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
(979) 847-8655

The Science of Luck

If You Get Lucky, You’re Off The Hook, Says Texas A&M Study

When researchers at Texas A&M University tested people’s beliefs about luck, what they found was that Spock was right – humans are “highly illogical.” Psychology Professor Heather Lench and her team found that a person who acts immorally or recklessly but is “lucky” by escaping dire consequences, is judged less harshly than an “unlucky” person, even when both have committed the same act.

Does luck affect how harshly society judges a person?

Does luck affect how harshly society judges a person?

The study, “Beliefs in Moral Luck: When and Why Blame Hinges on Luck,” is co-authored by Lench, along with Rachel Smallman and Kathleen Darbor, also of Texas A&M, and Darren Domsky of Texas A&M at Galveston, and will be published in an upcoming edition of the British Journal of Psychology.

“Moral luck” is a term used in philosophy that describes situations in which a person is subjected to moral judgments by others despite the fact that the assessment is based on factors beyond his or her control, i.e. “luck.”

Lench, who specializes in emotion and cognition − how emotions influence our thinking – explains that test subjects were given a hypothetical situation in which  two men stand on a highway overpass and each blindly tosses a brick down onto the traffic below. One brick is red and the other is green. One brick hits the pavement harming no one, but the other smashes through a car roof, killing someone. The two committed the same immoral act, yet one was lucky that no one was killed.

The two men are arrested and test subjects were asked if the two men are equally blameworthy, deserving of the same punishment. In other words, do we need to know the color of the brick to be able to punish them or do they deserve the same punishment regardless of one being luckier than the other?

“We found that when people were faced with this scenario, more of them placed the blame on the man that killed someone,” Lench explains. “Both threw a brick, so logically they should both be held accountable, but the lucky guy gets away with it.”

Heather Lench

Dr. Heather Lench

She adds the test subjects were also asked whether they believed, in general, that people should be punished based on their actions – what they intended to do – or whether or not their actions happened to hurt someone. “In general, people reported that the luck of the outcome shouldn’t matter and that offenders should be judged based on intent,” she says. “However, when faced with the consequences, emotions come into play and they judge based on the outcome rather than the intent.”

Lench likens the brick scenario to drunk driving. “When two people drive drunk, but one hits and kills a child, he is punished more severely than the man who didn’t hurt anyone, although they committed the same offense of drunk driving − it’s just that one got lucky.

“Generally we have a hard time incorporating our abstract beliefs about the way we think the world should work into how it actually works,” she notes. “In the abstract, we don’t value luck, but in our actual judgments of others, we do.”

This article was originally published by the TAMU Times.

You can support Texas A&M University’s Department of Psychology and College of Liberal Arts with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.


Larry Walker
Director of Development
College of Liberal Arts
(979) 845-4393

Tired? How caffeine is making you sleep less

A&M professor researches the effects of caffeine on your sleep.

More than 80 percent of Americans start their day with caffeine, and while it can be a healthy way to get going in the mornings, it can also hurt your sleeping patterns.

“Sometimes the effects of caffeine can persist for over six hours,” says David Earnest, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. He performs research on how dietary composition affects circadian rhythms and sleep cycles.

While caffeine can be helpful to jumpstart your day, it can also cause you to go to sleep later and get less sleep each night.

Drinking too much caffeine could be making you go to sleep later and get less sleep each night.

Drinking too much caffeine could be making you go to sleep later and get less sleep each night.

Earnest suggests these tips to consider when consuming caffeinated food and drinks:

1. Avoid caffeine before bedtime

Your sleep pressure—or your body’s signal that you’re getting tired—increases the longer you’ve been awake. For many people, the afternoon slump is a common occurrence that calls for caffeine. But take a look at the clock before reaching for the coffee pot.

Even if you have caffeine six hours before bedtime, it can decrease sleep duration by an hour or more each night. Which means that during the next day, you’ll feel more tired, drink more caffeine, and start the vicious cycle all over again.

2. Look out for hidden caffeine sources

While the name may suggest differently, decaf coffee has almost a quarter of the caffeine as a normal cup of coffee. Other sources—like chocolate or coffee-flavored desserts—can also cause you to have a slight jolt that can affect your sleep patterns if taken too soon before going to sleep.

3. Know how much is too much

“In a reasonable dose, caffeine can help maintain alertness and allow for an improved performance,” says Earnest. “But if the dose gets too high, it can actually make your performance worse.”

If you find yourself having the “shakes,” and your fine-motor skills are suffering, stop drinking caffeine immediately and switch to water. It is possible to have too much caffeine in your system, and drinking water can help flush out the high dose of caffeine that’s hurting your performance.

4. Get up and move

“Many people believe that the dip in activity they experience in the afternoon is because they just ate lunch,” notes Earnest, “but that’s not actually true. This small decrease in activity is completely natural and is made worse if you haven’t had a full night of sleep.”

Instead of trying to power through your slump, go for a walk or do something to get away from your desk for a little while. You can also temporarily move your work area or grab some sunlight and fresh air for a few minutes to stay productive for the rest of the workday.

This article was originally published by the Texas A&M Health Science Center.

You can support Texas A&M University’s Health Science Center College of Medicine with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation.


Andrew Robison
Director of Development
Health Science Center
(979) 862-6423


Monarch Butterflies Facing Grim Outlook

Population of butterfly species dwindling.

A Monarch resting in the central Texas area.

A Monarch resting in the central Texas area.

Monarch butterflies may be named for their large size and majestic beauty, but once again their numbers are anything but king-sized. In fact, 2014 may go down as one of the worst years ever for the colorful insects, says a Texas A&M Monarch watcher who is proposing a national effort to help feed Monarchs.

Craig Wilson, a senior research associate in the Center for Mathematics and Science Education and a longtime butterfly enthusiast, says reports coming from Mexico where the Monarchs have their overwintering grounds show their numbers are significantly down yet again — so much so that this year might be one of the lowest yet for the butterfly.

It’s been a disturbing trend that has been going for most of the past decade, he points out. This year, Monarchs face a triple whammy: a lingering drought, unusually cold winter temperatures and lack of milkweed, their primary food source.

Citing figures from the Mexican government and the World Wildlife Fund, Wilson says, “In 1996, the Monarch breeding grounds in Mexico covered about 45 acres, and so far this year, it looks like only about 1.65 acres. That means fewer Monarchs will likely reach Texas to lay eggs, perhaps the lowest numbers ever of returning butterflies.”

Wilson says the colder-than-usual winter, which set record lows in many parts of Texas and even Mexico, has had a chilling effect on Monarchs.

“Unfortunately, the harsh and lingering cold conditions mean that the milkweed plants that Monarch caterpillars must have to live have yet to start growing, and these are the only plants on which they can lay eggs to provide food for their caterpillars,” he adds.

Wilson maintains one of the nation’s more than 5,000 certified Monarch Waystations within his United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-sponsored People’s Garden located across the street from College Station’s Wolf Pen Creek Park. He says that last fall, the number of Monarchs that were netted and tagged in the College Station area was one-fifth the number tagged in 2012.

The dry conditions during the past decade and changing farming practices are hampering the growth of milkweed, the only type of plant the Monarch caterpillars will digest as the multiple generational migration heads north.

Texas also has had dozens of wildfires in the past few years that have hampered milkweed growth, and even though there are more than 30 types of milkweed in the state, the numbers are not there to sustain the Monarchs as they start their 2,000-mile migration trip to Canada. Increased use of pesticides is also adversely affecting milkweed production in a huge way, he notes.

Craig Wilson takes a break while installing a Monarch waystation in Kerrville.

Craig Wilson takes a break while installing a Monarch waystation in Kerrville.

“The severe drought in Texas and much of the Southwest continues to wreak havoc with the number of Monarchs,” Wilson explains, adding that the wintering sites in the Mexican state of Michoacan are at near-historic lows.

“The conditions have been dry both here and in Mexico in recent years. It takes four generations of the insects to make it all of the way up to Canada, and because of lack of milkweed along the way, a lot of them just don’t make it.

“But if people want to help, they can pick up some milkweed plants right now at local farmer’s cooperative stores,” he says, “and this would be a small but helpful step to aid in their migration journey and to raise awareness of the plight.”

Wilson says there has to be a national effort to save Monarchs, or their declining numbers will reach the critical stage.

“We need a national priority of planting milkweed to assure that this magical migration of Monarchs will continue for future generations,” he says.

“If we could get several states to collaborate, we might be able to promote a program where the north-south interstates were planted with milkweed, such as Lady Bird Johnson’s program to plant native seeds along Texas highways 35-40 years ago. This would provide a ‘feeding’ corridor right up to Canada for the Monarchs.”

Wilson is currently adding a variety of milkweed plants to the existing Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden on the Texas A&M campus. He recommends the following sites for Monarch followers: Journey NorthTexas Monarch Watch and Monarch Watch.

This story was originally published in the Texas A&M College of Science.

You can support Texas A&M University’s College of Science with a gift of an endowment to the Texas A&M Foundation. Request your A&M Support Kit to learn how your gift can make a difference.


Michael Morelius ’98
Director of Development
College of Science
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Texas A&M-designed ‘Earthquake Game’ Sharpens Minds For Disaster Recovery

New earthquake game is designed to prepare players for natural disaster planning.

As the news anchors who dived under their desks during this week’s earthquake in California can tell you, when the ground starts shaking, it’s no fun at all. But thanks to a new board game designed by researchers at Texas A&M University, a bit of fun can be had by students as they figure out the best ways for communities to recover after a quake.

The new game is intended to help researchers and students prepare for natural disaster planning.

The new game is intended to help researchers and students prepare for natural disaster planning.

Abigail Perkins, science education doctoral student, along with help from her advisor Carol Stuessy, designed the board game as part of Perkins’ research and development dissertation on educational gaming. Stuessy is an associate professor of science education, Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture in the College of Education & Human Development.

The game invites players to develop an urban environment that reduces loss of property and lives following an earthquake. Perkins, who served as a graduate research assistant and coordinator for Earthquake Engineering Education Project (EEEP) workshops, incorporated information into the game about urban infrastructure, city council decision-making, and stewardship of urban areas and resources, and integrated a variety of STEM-related careers.

“The game is designed to enhance a player’s creative and critical thinking, planning and all sorts of higher-order thinking skills,” says Perkins. As part of the research, she had teachers play the game during an EEEP workshop, then interviewed them and used the data to improve the game.

Anchored on earthquake engineering, the game can be used by teachers to show students how to apply engineering in real-life scenarios and to provide opportunities to practice 21stcentury workplace skills.

Doctoral student Abigail Perkins explaining the board game she designed as part of her involvement with Texas A&M’s Earthquake Engineering Education Project (EEEP).

Doctoral Student Abigail Perkins explains the game she designed as part of her involvement with Texas A&M's Earthquake Engineering Education Project.

Doctoral Student Abigail Perkins explains the game she designed as part of her involvement with Texas A&M’s Earthquake Engineering Education Project.

During the game, players work in one of four game groups, drawing cards to serve as members of a city council. Each group works together while competing against the other city council group. Players choose what to build in their city and how to manage resources. There are collaborative and competitive aspects, says Perkins, and the learning experience is different for every player and team, based on what they want to get out of the experience. At the end of the game, the group with the most ‘people points’ wins.

The game also incorporates plenty of career references. For example, the best earthquake resilient structures may cost more, so a player will need people to develop codes and inspectors to ensure the codes are being followed.

“We get this idea that engineers work alone, but they are socially involved with all kinds of other people − architects, building framers, landscape architects. All this comes together in the game to provide real-life scenarios,” says Stuessy.

During development, Perkins started with eight focus groups that included engineers, science educators and ‘gamers,’ and recorded them all. “They provided great strategic feedback, especially the gamers. We then built and tested the game with teachers,” noted Perkins. She then created a prototype game for high school students to play.

Lisa Rachal and Gary Fry, researchers in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering, were involved in the engineering component of EEEP. Last summer, they produced a high-quality, ready-to-use version of the game that was presented at a conference in the fall.

But how would one implement this type of game play into the classroom? Texas is home to 70 T-STEM academies and seven blended early college high school T-STEM academies serving more than 40,000 students across the state. Stuessy thinks these would be ideal for implementing the game. “This game could also be modified for use in a variety of environments and disciplines, for volunteer groups or even soil science students,” she says.

During an evaluation where two groups of high school students played the game, Perkins says they seemed to be having fun, “We brought in pizza for dinner. It came a little early, so I asked if they wanted to stop and pause and finish the game later,” she says. “They didn’t even hear me. In fact, two of the students who had just finished a tennis tournament waited to eat until they finished the game first!”

This story was originally published by the TAMUTimes.

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Andy Acker
Senior Director of Development
Dwight Look College of Engineering
(979) 845-5113