(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Ithaca, N.Y. — Today we present our seventh installment of an Ithaca Voice series – this time, highlighting just a handful of the crazy cool things Cornell professors are researching, writing, designing, discovering, or (insert here) at any given time.

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We have no doctrinal preferences and no academic prejudices. Our sole criteria is that the professor’s work be, as the headline suggests, “crazy cool.” And, no, we don’t have a precise definition of “crazy cool.”

(Got a professor we should highlight? Email jstein@ithacavoice.com.)

Without further ado…

1 – Cornell colleagues join fight extinction of hellbender

Native to New York and other eastern states, “hellbender” — a freshwater salamander that can grow to more than two feet long — have almost disappeared entirely from New York watersheds.

A hellbender. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Elizabeth Bunting, wildlife veterinarian at Cornell, and a team of Cornell-affiliated colleagues joined biologists from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in an effort to quell the extinction of the species.

Along with the Buffalo Zoo, researchers have been breeding-and-releasing hellbenders into the wild. To date, they have raised and released hundreds of hellbenders.

Unfortunately, the majority have died — but Bunting and her team have determined that the reason is due to a fungal infection, to which the newly-released hellbenders are especially vulnerable.

Research continues in an effort to save the species, but Bunting’s team recently applied for funding to “study how wild hellbenders’ skin helps them resist the chytrid fungus in their environment,” according to a press release.

2 – Wild carnivores carry virus that endangers dogs, study finds

When a virus entitled “canine parvovirus” emerged in 1978, hundreds of thousands of dogs died in what is described by the Cornell Chronicle as a “global pandemic.”

Although the virus has shown signs of life in small doses since then, Andrew Alison and Colin Parrish Baker Institute for Animal Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine, along with other researchers, have found that the virus is still alive-and-well — just in wild carnivorous animals.

When a 2007 outbreak of canine parvovirus killed several raccoons at a wildlife facility in Virginia, Parrish and Alison began studying wildlife infections.

“When I found the virus with the same genetic signatures in raccoons from Maine to Florida, that was the first indication that these weren’t isolated spillover events, and that the virus was widespread in raccoon populations,” Allison told the Chronicle.

According to the press release, “it is relatively easy for a parvovirus from a wild carnivore to adapt to life in a dog and vice versa,” and transmissions from raccoons to dogs appears to be “particularly easy.”

“It’s pretty clear that some of these viruses are moving between wildlife and dogs,” Parrish added.

3 – More gut bacteria, smaller jean size

A Cornell-led study published in the journal Cell has found that those with higher amounts of “Christensenellaceae minuta,” a gut bacteria, tend to be leaner.

“If you look across the population [of gut bacteria] and explain abundances, there is a host genetic component,” Ruth Ley, associate professor of microbiology and the paper’s senior author, told the Cornell Chronicle.

“Up until now there had been no direct evidence that anything in the human gut is under that kind of [genetic] influence,” she added.

Researchers studied fecal matter from fraternal and identical twins and found that a “person’s genes can shape the types of microbes that reside in the human gut independent of the person’s environment,” the Chronicle explained.

In the experiments, Christensenellaceae minuta was added to germ-free mice that did not have the bacteria. As a result, the mice were leaner.

4 – Detecting racial bias? Proposal wins prize

In response to a recent finding that African-American principal investigators have a 10.4 percent lower funding rate on National Institute of Health proposals, two Cornell Human Ecology professors have submitted a proposal for research to detect racial bias.

That proposal has won a second-place prize from the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Scientific Review.

Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci were awarded a $5,000 cash prize for their “Great Idea,” in which they outlined experiments to detect whether or not an investigator’s race and/or ethnicity influences research evaluations.

“By better understanding why and under what conditions reviewers assign lower scores to grants by African-American PIs, we can target solutions to ensure optimal impact of resources for solving the problem and eliminating inequalities in the grant-review process,” Williams and Ceci wrote, the Cornell Chronicle reported.

5 – Despite concern, New Yorkers don’t think climate change is most important issue

According to a 2014 Empire State Poll, 82 percent of upstate New Yorkers believe that climate change is happening; 86 percent of downstaters think the same.

(Courtesy Cornell Chronicle)

Regardless of the overwhelming acceptance that climate change is reality, less than one percent of the 800 New York State residents polled believe that climate change “is the most important issue facing the state, and less than 20 percent would be willing to take political action,” according to the Cornell Chronicle.

Shorna Allred, associate professor of natural resources, and her multidisciplinary team of Cornell researchers supplied the questions that “explored relationships among belief in climate change, the respondent’s location and personal experience of climate change effects and willingness to take action against future climate change threats,” according to the Chronicle.

“Climate change is a defining issue of this century, and sustained civil society mobilization is needed to create meaningful political change that results in large-scale climate mitigation and adaptation,” said Allred.

The study found that local climate change consequences motivate people to take action more than distant consequences. Downstate New Yorkers are more politically active than their upstate counterparts, the study also found.


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Kyle Friend

A senior at Cornell University, Kyle covers the affordable housing crisis for the Ithaca Voice. Reach him through e-mail: kyleafriend@gmail.com.