UC Santa Barbara
UCSB Psychologist Earns Troland Research Award

UCSB psychology professor Miguel P. Eckstein was awarded the $50,000 Troland Research Award for his research in experimental psychology last Tuesday.

Eckstein was one of only two recipients to receive the award. The psychology professor also works with UCSB’s Vision and Image Understanding Laboratory and is credited for his studies in perception and cognition. Eckstein has also focused his research on improving medical imaging systems such as ultrasounds and x-rays, in order to increase the accuracy of medical diagnoses.

The National Academy of Sciences will present the award to the professor in Washington D.C. on April 27.

UC Santa Barbara
Assistant Professor Wins Harold J. Plous Award

UCSB has bestowed one of its highest faculty honors this year to chemistry and biochemistry assistant professor Thuc-Quyen Nguyen.

The Harold J. Plous Award is presented annually to the assistant professor with the most outstanding achievement in research, teaching and service to the university. Nguyen will lecture on her research at the annual Plous Memorial Lecture this spring.

Nguyen’s research focuses on light harvesting materials, which imitate photosynthesis by taking energy from light. She has also researched organic semiconducting polymers that are usable in applications such as light-emitting diodes and solar cells, which efficiently absorb sunlight. These diodes are usable as household light sources.

According to a press release, Nguyen has recently published work concerning photovoltaic devices – tools capable of producing voltage when exposed to light. Through her research, Nguyen has proposed a model, which absorbs a broader range of the solar spectrum. In addition, Nguyen is developing a class that will teach scientists how to make the public more interested in such research. She has also coordinated a Science and Technology Day for the past two years, where about 800 students from Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties come to UCSB to partake in workshops and demonstrations.

UC Santa Barbara
Scientists Find Amount of Methane in Earth’s Air

Although methane gas bubbles are released in large quantities by Santa Barbara ocean floors, two UCSB researchers and a team of scientists have discovered that only one percent of these gases enter into the atmosphere.

The study conducted at Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve by earth science associate professor David Valentine and UCSB postdoctoral fellow Susan Mau provides reassuring evidence, considering dissolved methane warms the earth 23 times more than carbon dioxide.

The research team centered its study of methane bubbles at Coal Oil Point, because it is one of the world’s largest seep regions. In a press release, Valentine said about two million cubic feet per day of methane escapes from the area as well as 100 barrels of oil.

The group tracked a methane plume and discovered it covered more than 70 square miles, causing Valentine to theorize that methane is combined with oxygen by microorganisms, such as bacterium, in the sea.

The scientists then sampled the area’s water on a monthly basis and found the amount of methane was related to changes in the currents on the surfaces. In addition, more wind meant more methane was released into the atmosphere. Yet, on average, only one percent of the methane was discharged into the air, which means most of the methane is likely to end up below the ocean’s surface, away from the seep area and near bacteria that breaks it up.

Valentine and Mau’s results will appear in the Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 34.

UC Santa Barbara
Researcher Proposes New Theory on Origin of Life

Contrary to previous hypotheses, life did not originate in the ocean from a soup of organic chemicals, nor did it stem from a pizza model based on molecules that formed on the exteriors of minerals from the earth’s crust.

According to National Science Foundation program director and UCSB biophysicist Helen Hansma, cells were most likely formed in small spaces between layers of mineral known as mica in ancient oceans.

In a press release, Hansma said the spaces between the mica layers provided the perfect conditions to create the first biomolecules – molecules which compose all forms of life and consist mainly of carbon and hydrogen. Scientists have speculated that the first biomolecules were either simple proteins or ribonucleic acids, which decode genes and direct biological functions. Hansma said both proteins and RNA may have formed among the mica sheets.

She also stated that early wave movements and temperature changes throughout the day would have brought about the necessary chemical bond breakings and formations to develop the first cellular components, such as proteins, lipids, carbohydrates and other biomolecules that are essential to create and sustain life.

Hansma said she began researching her hypothesis last spring when she discovered organic material on the mica she collected from a mine in Connecticut. She presented her theory at the 47th annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology early last December.