Inspired by this XKCD Up-Goer Five comic (and aided by this Up-Goer Five text-editor), we present three cases of complicated science made… simpler. Graduate students Jimmy Negus, Ignacio Tripodi, and Kira Cozzolino describe their research only using the 1,000 most common English words.


Jimmy Negus

Simplified Explanation:

We usually find stars in very large groups with many other stars. These large groups often move through space together. However, sometimes these groups change into something special and exciting.

One cool fact about these special groups is that their light is brightest near the center. This happens because stars, and the stuff that makes up stars, get eaten here and then thrown back into space, which makes the light very bright!

These groups are very interesting but are hard to find because there aren’t very many of them. I look for them, but I only find them in one out of every one hundred groups I study… if I’m lucky!

Once I find them, I want to study how fast the stars, and the stuff that makes up stars, move away from the middle of the group as they are thrown into space. I also hope to discover if new stars can form near the middle of these special groups.

Unsimplified Explanation:

At the core of each galaxy, there exists a supermassive black hole, an extremely dense cosmic region with a mass equivalence of up to a billion solar masses. These objects exert a gravitational pull so strong that not even light can escape them. This makes it challenging to detect them directly. However, when material falls onto a black hole, in a process known as accretion, the black hole becomes “active” and begins to emit powerful radiation near its center. This radiation can exit the supermassive black hole in the form of radio jets that travel perpendicular to the black hole’s disk-shaped center. At this stage, we refer to the supermassive black hole as an active galactic nucleus, where “nucleus” denotes the central region of a galaxy. Despite the perception of black holes being opaque regions in space, the light produced by active galactic nuclei can be energetic enough to outshine all of the remaining galaxy light!

I currently work on classifying active galactic nuclei in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, a major multi-spectral imaging and spectroscopic redshift survey compiled using a dedicated 2.5-meter wide-angle optical telescope at Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico.

Once I identify active galactic nuclei, I intend to explore the motion of outflowing material among the sample of confirmed nuclei. This will shed light on how they impact their environments. For example, I hope to understand how powerful active galactic nuclei jets affect nearby star formation.


Ignacio Tripodi

Simplified Explanation:

Your body is made up of many, many tiny parts. When you eat, or breathe or feel anything in the world, these tiny parts have a chance of seeing and touching it too. But we don’t really know how all these little pieces act when they get touched by new things they’ve never seen before. My work centers around studying little pieces that control how your tiny body parts work. I bother these little pieces in different ways and then look at how they change—leading to some very important questions. Can we figure out the steps that led to this change after we bothered the pieces? Are the little pieces pushing or breaking others down? Would it be bad for larger body parts to be bothered in the same way? My idea is to gather everything we know about tiny body parts and pieces. Then, we use a computer to use that information and figure out how these changes happened. This would help us guess how your body changes when you put a new thing in it. We could make these guesses more easily, and without having to use animals.

Unsimplified Explanation:

Your body is composed of millions of different types of  cells, each containing a myriad of specific proteins. Our knowledge of how these proteins respond when cells are exposed to a chemical (through ingestion, inhalation, exposure on your skin, etc.) and why they respond the way they do is incomplete—especially for certain groups of chemicals or novel compounds. It would be very useful to screen for any adverse effects on human cells with the aid of artificial intelligence, to prevent any rounds of animal testing, with their significant humane implications and high costs.

My work revolves around studying certain proteins called transcription factors which control much of how our cells work. I analyze differences in behavior of these transcription factors in different in vitro conditions, performing data analysis on a computing cluster. This leads us to many questions. Can we figure out the mechanisms behind the observed changes? Are these regulatory proteins binding to places of your chromosomes that enhance gene expression in a different manner, or altering the 3D shape of your chromosomes? Do these observations translate to particular systemic reactions at the organ level?

My goal is to connect what we already know from molecular biology and biochemistry, and use the experimental results to generate hypotheses about the biological mechanisms that caused such changes. I envision using this tool to study human exposure to a new drug or chemical without the need for animal assays.

Kira Cozzolino

Simplified Explanation:

Have you ever wondered what you were made of, and how different parts of your body can do different things? Each part of our bodies is made of a different set of building blocks, and I tried to figure out what sets were used where.  I took tiny pieces of skin, brain, or other body parts, and broke down the tiny walls that held them together to let out all these building blocks. Then, I put what was left on a machine that sorted them and broke them into even smaller pieces. The machine’s computer showed me how big the pieces were and what they look like when broken. By doing this, we found out which building blocks were used to make your body parts work, and we saw how they looked when you get sick and your body isn’t working right. We did this because you can’t fix something if you don’t know what it’s made out of or how it’s put together.

Unsimplified Explanation:

Knowing which proteins are active within different tissues and cellular compartments is essential to understanding what drives different biological processes and pathologies. For two years after college, I worked in a department that used state-of-the-art mass spectrometry to study the proteins active in breast cancer cells, how the proteome of the inner ear changed with noise-induced hearing loss, and many other questions. We lysed the cells and used trypsin, a digestive enzyme, to cleave the proteins into peptides. These peptides were then put onto a high pressure liquid chromatography system, which sorted them by hydrophobicity and fed the peptides onto a mass spectrometer. We used the mass spectrometer to scan the peptide mass and charge before breaking the peptides one more time and scanning the fragments. Ultimately, we would search a database for known peptides that matched our mass-to-charge ratio measurements. By identifying proteins that were involved in cancer, or hearing loss, or any other pathology, we could uncover targets for more effective diagnosis and treatment of these issues.


Posted by Science Buffs

A CU Boulder STEM Blog

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