Tsunamis, cocaine and a laboring cow


Letter S imagetudents yearn for inspired, engaged teachers. Teachers crave interested, attentive students. Balancing that equation takes more than desks arranged in circles with an invitation for everyone to share. It takes relevance— not easy in a world that sometimes redefines “relevant” as quickly as the next app’s arrival.

Faculty at UAF innovate to get it done. The College of Natural Science and Mathematics’ dean, geology professor Paul Layer, used to explain rock strata with — what else? — layer cakes.

Eponymous free cake is good, but the innovation universe is expanding. “Just look at what they’re doing,” Layer said of his faculty.

It's smokin title


Prepare to be wowed

said David Newman, physics professor. Plumes of mist filled the air as a square object hovered several inches above a circular track of magnets. With a push of his finger, the object zoomed in loops, like a smoking UFO on an intergalactic speedway. The object is a special material that becomes a superconductor when cooled in liquid nitrogen to minus 321 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally, the superconductor would deflect magnetic forces, Newman said, but it has slight “cracks in its armor” that allow some magnetic forces through and around it, locking it in space. “This is the most incredible physics demo I’ve ever seen,” he said.



Live relic dinosaurs roam Sarah Fowell’s classes. The associate professor of geology uses chickens, direct descendants of dinosaurs, to help students learn how prehistoric tracks became fossils. With lettuce, the students lure the birds across clay, sand and other substrates. Students examine the foot impressions and discuss what they reveal. “I like students to simulate situations in the past and gain a hands–on understanding of how scientists learn about life long ago,” Fowell said.

Seeing tsunamis in Alaska title

Seeing a tsunami usually requires being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there is a right place and a right time to see it in Alaska, said Alexei Rybkin, mathematics professor. Each summer, Rybkin brings undergraduate students to Cook Inlet. They watch the tidal bore, a wave up to 7 feet high that sometimes stretches across an arm of the inlet. Rybkin predicts the onshore run–up of such waves through equations that students convert to algorithms, step–by–step procedures that can be applied to different places.

“We study how a tsunami wave enters shallow water, how far it propagates and what exactly a given tsunami wave is going to flood,” he said.


Rich Collins doesn’t teach weather and climate in a windowless classroom. Actually, he doesn’t even use a classroom. The professor of atmospheric sciences has his online students go outside and look at the sky. Students use a tool kit to measure the local weather. They share weekly, online weather reports through slide shows with their own voice–overs. The best weather systems involve students across the state, Collins said.

“If a weather system brings rain to the Aleutians, snow to the southern slopes of the Alaska Range and then a chinook to Fairbanks, we’ve hit a home run for the semester. Everybody gets to be part of that story,” he said.


Moose image
Fighting, mounting and rolling around in urine. It must be rutting season for Denali National Park’s moose. Kris Hundertmark ’02 takes his students to watch the fun each fall.

“I want to discuss the rutting behavior of moose, and they’re so visible in the park,” said the associate professor of wildlife biology.

Last fall, Hundertmark pointed to a bull moose rolling in a pit. He explained that the animal was spreading urine on its fur. The organic cologne may trigger ovulation in cow moose. Who knew?

Have cow title

Cow image

Associate Professor Lisa Lunn, a veterinarian, calls it “the birth of innovative teaching.” The Veterinary Medicine Department recently received a cow that will give birth — a lot — so aspiring veterinarians can practice delivering calves. She said not to worry. The cow has the size and look of a Holstein, but it’s a simulator. “This will help students gain confidence through repeatability, which you wouldn’t get if you use live animals,” Lunn said. Plus, she added, it won’t kick you.

Cocaine lab title


According to recent research, 90 percent of U.S. currency bills carry traces of cocaine. Sarah Hayes, assistant professor of chemistry, has students in her class test whether their dollar bills are among them.

Students put their bills in a solution to extract traces of cocaine (if there are any) and other substances. They place the solution in a gas chromatography–mass spectrometry instrument, which has a coiled 75–foot column. The substances “run” through the column until like ones group together, Hayes said. When they cross the finish line, a detector identifies them, including the cocaine.

Such techniques are used in criminal forensics and explosive detection, but they’re also a blast for students.

“I think science is fun and creative, and I wish students learned this earlier on,” said Hayes. How early? “Like babies.”

Living color title

Math and biology students teamed up in a class last spring to do some coloring, and it was definitely outside the usual lines.

The teams tinkered with the genome of the bacterium E. coli, inserting genes and regulatory elements to express the colors red, blue or yellow. Using data generated from the experiments, students created mathematical models to help them understand and uncover factors affecting gene expression.

Kristin O’Brien, associate professor of biology, and Elizabeth Allman, math professor, taught the Synthetic Biology class.

Allman said she enjoyed the class’ trial and error. “You don’t start knowing all the answers,” she said. “If you did, it wouldn’t be so much fun.” black-a

Meghan Murphy is public information officer for the College of Natural Science and Mathematics. Before coming to Alaska, she led tours for a nuclear missile facility turned national historic site, worked with nonreleasable raptors and helped elementary schoolchildren muck through the Everglades. In Alaska, she worked for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge before jumping across town to UAF.

Web extra: See video of some of these classes in action.