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Graduate student chosen from 200+ to present research in Italy

Mara Riley
Mara Riley

By Miesha Swensen, College of Arts and Sciences communication intern

Graduate student Mara Riley was selected for a rare honor this fall, thanks to her unique research comparing the effects of breastfeeding and infant formula on infant health.

“Out of more than 200 abstracts, she was the only student selected to present her data in an oral presentation rather than a poster,” said Shelley McGuire, Washington State University nutrition professor/lactation physiologist and Riley’s advisor. “This is something Mara should be very proud of.”

McGuire is the principal investigator on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant that funded Riley’s research.

Riley gave her presentation at the biennial International Society for Research in Human Milk and Lactation (ISRHML) conference in Trieste, Italy, in September.

“To be able to showcase data from my research to that group of professionals really made me feel like the research had come to life,” she said.

Riley’s research focuses on infant health and gastrointestinal microbiota by looking at the two feeding modes, breastfed and formula-fed, and changes in infant health over time. She collected saliva, milk, and feces from 23 woman-and-infant pairs in the Pullman/Moscow area and analyzed the bacteria present in each of the samples.

Riley was awarded the Young Investigator Travel Award from ISRHML, which made it possible for her to attend the conference. The award recognizes junior investigators who have shown outstanding scientific research in the study of milk and lactation. She also received funding from the Carl H. Elling Endowment in the WSU School of Biological Sciences to support her research and travel expenses.

Riley and McGuire collaborate with University of Idaho lactation physiologist Mark McGuire and his lab.

WSU researcher to model drought resistance

By Joanna Steward, College of Arts and Sciences

From the tomatoes in your garden to the grain yield of an acre of wheat, the availability of water significantly influences a plant’s productivity. Even within the same plot, individual plants can sometimes handle drought conditions better than others—and Washington State University plant biologist Asaph Cousins wants to know why.

Cousins is part of a nationwide team hoping to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving plant productivity, particularly in bioenergy grasses. » More …

Dioxin causes disease, reproductive problems across generations

Michael Skinner
Michael Skinner

By Eric Sorensen, WSU science writer

Since the 1960s, when the defoliant Agent Orange was widely used in Vietnam, military, industry, and environmental groups have debated the toxicity of one of its ingredients, the chemical dioxin, and how it should be regulated.

But even if all the dioxin were eliminated from the planet, Washington State University researchers say its legacy would live on in the way it turns genes on and off in the descendants of people exposed over the past half century.

Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, biologist Michael Skinner and members of his lab say dioxin administered to pregnant rats resulted in a variety of reproductive problems and disease in subsequent generations. The first generation of rats had prostate disease, polycystic ovarian disease, and fewer ovarian follicles, the structures that contain eggs. To the surprise of Skinner and his colleagues, the third generation had even more dramatic incidences of ovarian disease and, in males, kidney disease.  Continue story →

Fish carcass tossing helps track food chain nutrients

Black bear
Grizzly bears and black bears feed on naturally spawning salmon and distribute nutrients into the forest. Photo by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

By Bob Hoffmann, College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences

A slender, dark-haired woman in her forties shoulders a backpack loaded with dead fish as she hikes a long, rocky trail to a mountain stream in southern Idaho. Arriving on the bank, she drops the pack and starts winging fish carcasses into the water.

This is science. And this is Laura Felicetti, a research scientist in the lab of Charles Robbins, professor in the School of the Environment and School of Biological Sciences at Washington State University. Felicetti is a member of a team that’s trying to quantify the success of nutrient replacement in an area where dams have stopped salmon and steelhead from migrating.

Nutrient-poor soil

Soils in Idaho’s Boise-Payette-Weiser sub-basin are nutrient poor, according to Katy Kavanagh, a University of Idaho forest ecology professor and a collaborator on the project. One reason is that natural processes in this ecosystem poorly incorporate atmospheric nitrogen into the soil in a form that is usable to plants. Also, the region’s dry summers and cold winters are not favorable to decomposition, so dead trees are slow to decay and make their nutrients available to other plants.  Continue story →