Faculty FindingsOnline Ecology • Poetry on the Pier • A Promising Scientist • Tracking Avian Malaria
In World of balance, a computer game created by SF State students, it’s important to stock your virtual world with more aardvarks than african-clawed otters. or is it the other way around?
There are no right answers in the multiplayer, open-ended game, where players add plant and animal species to build their own serengeti-like virtual worlds. But there are some clear winners: scientists who use the gamers’ creations to learn more about the complexity of real-life ecosystems.
World of Balance follows a hot trend at the intersection of science and software called “gamification,” says associate Professor Ilmi Yoon. Designers build games that draw players into solving complex problems, like figuring out the complicated folds of an HIV protein or classifying galaxies spied by the Hubble telescope. some of the species data used in the SF State game come from the Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computations Ecology Lab, and researchers there hope the game will generate a unique data set to observe species interactions over time.
Yoon’s Computer Science students created World of Balance from scratch in a semester-long project, drawing from popular online games such as Farmville and Starcraft that require both cooperation and competition. Working in teams much like those at a game design company, the students gained practical experience in everything from database design to marketing. But learning how to collaborate, Yoon says, may have been their most important and challenging task.
“New technical tools appear every year, and students jump into using those new tools very quickly,” she explains. “But companies expect software engineers and computer scientists to solve challenges through communications and be able to communicate their ideas fluently.”
Yoon has received a national science Foundation grant to develop her game design class, and will soon publish a paper about the students’ successful game launch. For now, World of Balance is ready for new players at smurf.sfsu.edu/~debugger/wb
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For professor of creative writing Toni Mirosevich, the Pacifica Pier is an almost magical place. “When you step off land onto this walkway above the sea, you feel transported,” she says. “You leave the world behind you in some way.”
Last year the longtime Pacifica resident had a revelation when she noticed signs hanging along the pier reminding fisherman to cast “two lines per person.” Couldn’t the same instructions apply to poetry?
She began taking graduate students from her “Lyric Documentary” class — which focuses on using verse to document daily experiences — on pier walks, asking them to generate a couplet at each sign. By the end of a walk, each student had a poem. Mirosevich imagined the community at large partaking in the same poetic exercise, and the Pacifica Pier Project was born.
In April the Fishing for Words: Pacifica Pier Poetry Walk drew more than 200 fishing people, poets, surfers, students and many others from the community, young and old. together they walked the pier, wrote couplets and heard poetry from SF State students. “it was a wonderful collision of unlikely groups having a poetic conversation,” Mirosevich says.
Two weeks later the Pier Pressure Celebration, held at the Pedro Point Firehouse, brought the community together again to hear poetry from contest winners. Mirosevich read from the book-length manuscript she has been working on about the pier, portions of which have just been published in Bellevue Literary Review and Hayden’s Ferry Review.
Mirosevich hopes her project will raise awareness of the coastal landmark as a place where disparate communities intersect and inspiration can be found.
“This isn’t a sanitized, cleaned-up Disney ride of a pier, but a place where one can get close to more authentic wonders like the sea and those who are drawn to it,” she says. “I don’t think there’s any place like it in the Bay Area.”
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For her innovative research and commitment to community service, Associate Professor of Mathematics Mariel Vazquez (front row, fifth from the right) has received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers. it is the nation’s highest honor for researchers in the early stages of their careers.
Vazquez is a pioneer in an emerging field called DNA topology, which applies pure math to the biological mysteries of DNA. she is committed to mentoring students who are underrepresented in the sciences.
White House Science and Technology Advisor John Holdren conferred the awards to 96 researchers at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in July. Later, Vazquez and the other awardees met with President Barack obama at the White house. “Discoveries in science and technology not only strengthen our economy, they inspire us as a people,” President Obama said. “the impressive accomplishments of today’s awardees so early in their careers promise even greater advances in the years ahead.”
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A team of researchers earlier this year was the first to discover bird-to-bird malaria transmission in parts of Alaska. their study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, shows that the avian illness normally found in warmer climes is moving northward. “right now, there’s no avian malaria above latitude 64 degrees, but in the future, with global warming, that will certainly change,” says Associate Professor of Biology Ravinder Sehgal (below, in mosquito net with a Savannah sparrow), a co-author of the study funded in part by the National Geographic society. the northerly spread is alarming, he adds, because species in the North American Arctic have never been exposed to the disease and may be highly susceptible to it.
“Penguins in zoos die when they get malaria, because far southern birds have not been exposed to malaria and thus have not developed any resistance to it,” he says. “There are birds in the north such as snowy owls or gyrfalcons that could experience the same thing.”
Still unsure how the disease is being spread in Alaska, he and his colleagues, including lead author Claire Loiseau, a former postdoctoral fellow in Sehgal’s laboratory, are collecting additional data to determine which mosquito species are transmitting the Plasmodium parasites that cause the often fatal avian illness. the data may also indicate if and how malaria in humans will spread northward in the face of climate change.
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