Abstracts of Posters SCS2021

Christopher Spiese (Ohio Northern Univ.) “The Phosphorus Problem in the pre-biotic world.”  Abstract: The so-called “phosphorus problem” in prebiotic life has traditionally been framed in terms of phosphate solubility.  Phosphates (PO43-) are generally insoluble and therefore cannot supply adequate nutrients for protocellular metabolism.  Phosphite (HPO32-) is thought to solve this problem, but introduces a new obstacle, what might be termed the “phosphorus permeability problem”.  Phosphate and phosphite are both charged at circumneutral pH and cannot cross a lipid membrane.  No evolutionary pressure exists to drive formation of transporters prior to the existence of a membrane, and so the first protocells likely lacked transporters.  We suggest that volatile forms of phosphorus -- phosphine (PH3) and diphosphane (P2H4) – may play a key role in prebiotic phosphorus metabolism.  We show that volatile phosphorus species are produced during the aqueous reaction of Fe3P, an analog to meteoritic schreibersite ((Fe,Ni)3P).  Using quantitative structure-activity relationship (QSAR) and membrane permeation models, we show that PH3 and P2H4 can efficiently diffuse passively across cell membranes without the need for transporters.  We further constrain the solubility and membrane permeation of phosphite and its calcium and magnesium salts.  These results indicate that volatile phosphorus species may be key components of the global P cycle on early Earth and in the origin of life.

Daniel E.Vanden Berk (St. Vincent College) “A deep wide-field search for ETI radio beacons among solar-type stars.”  Abstract: Nearly 100,000 solar-type (F, G, and K class) stars have been searched for possible broad-band radio beacons originating from technological civilizations.  The search was conducted by cross-matching the very  deep and wide-field Very Large Array radio survey with optical sources in the very faint Sloan Digital Sky Survey “Stripe 82” region. Among the ~17,000 radio sources, only 8 have optical counterparts with colors consistent with solar-type stars.  Of those, only two are verified solar-type stars, four are extragalactic quasars and galaxies, and two have no verification spectra.  The maximum of four solar-type stars matched to the 100,000 radio sources is fully consistent with expectations from chance alignments.  Spectra of the two verified stars show no obvious anomalies.  The extremely low fraction of natural radio-emitting stars, and the ease of finding candidates, demonstrates the efficiency radio beacons as an interstellar means of signaling the existence of technological civilizations.

Kevin Greenman (MIT)  “Artificial Intelligence applications in the design of novel dye molecules with targeted optical properties.”  Abstract:  Dye molecules are applicable in many areas including biological imaging, LED displays, and solar cells, and their optical properties are an integral focus of design for these applications. Numerous methods have been developed over the last few decades to aid in this design process, including property prediction from physics-based theories and statistical models. Artificial intelligence methods have recently been applied to increase automation and reduce the effect of human biases in molecular design. In this work, we use machine learning models to predict the optical properties of molecular dyes with quantified uncertainty. Additionally, we begin to explore the development of an active learning framework to intelligently gather new data in areas of high uncertainty, as well as generative modeling algorithms to propose new molecules that are optimized to have particular absorption and emission peak wavelengths. This work will help to shift what was once a long, costly, trial-and-error design process with extensive human involvement to a faster, cheaper, and automated approach for creating new molecular dyes.

Reinhard Vehring (Univ. of Alberta) “You Shall Not Make for Yourself Humanoid AI.” Abstract: This presentation addresses the growing attempt to make humanoid AI robots more and more human-like, which seems inexorably linked to a final goal of making such robotic AI indistinguishable from humans. Our contention is twofold: first, using a traditional category from Catholic moral theology, that the ‘object of the act’ of trying to make robotic AI ‘in our image’ almost certainly does not meet the criteria for the act to be good. That is to say, it is likely intrinsically wrong to engage in a project where one might try to re-engineer human intelligence and embodiment via technological means. Second, moving away from the intrinsic worth of the act, that the likely consequences of successfully achieving a very human-like robotic AI will be unfortunate, if not disastrous. In this presentation, we focus on the latter part of this twofold claim, and chart what we think would be some of the negative consequences of successfully achieving a human-like AI robot, especially in terms of erosion of human rights, the formation of inappropriate emotional attachments, and the greater weight that will be attributed to computer-generated information than to human knowledge.

Tom Polnaszek (Belmont Abbey College) “Minds beyond the human: animal decision-making and information use.” Abstract: All animals face many challenges on a daily basis: to find food and water, avoid predators, find shelter and other necessities. Each of these tasks requires decisions on some level. What cognitive abilities are required to solve these tasks? Are innate behaviors and simple learning rules sufficient, or is something else required? We know different animals use information to make decisions with varying levels of so-called ‘cognitive complexity’. This ranges from simpler stimulus-response mechanisms to the more complex – perhaps bordering on introspection and theory of mind. Examining the cognitive abilities of terrestrial life could  tell us what we might expect of extra-terrestrial life, or help us build machines with abilities to make complex decisions based on simple heuristics or rules-of-thumb. Yet studying the decisions of animals is often difficult, since we must make inferences about the processes involved based on observable, quantitative behavior (there is no direct window into animals’ minds). This presentation discusses several diverse examples of non-human animal decision-making and information use from my own research. Examples include the cues woodchucks use to choose a home, whether and in what circumstances blue jays are dishonest and gullible, and the floral visitation decisions and innovative behavior of bumble bees. In addition to presenting these specific research projects, another goal of this poster presentation is to provide an opportunity to meet for a more general discussion of what we know (or do not yet know) about animal cognition and the mental lives of animals.

Chris Lee (SCS, New Mexico Regional Chapter)  “Quarks, the Cosmos, and the Dignity of Man” Abstract: Modern cosmology has revealed how vast the universe is in space and time, leaving us humans seemingly as an insignificant, momentary speck within it. Elementary particle physics, meanwhile, seems to be converging towards an elegant, conceptually simple description of the fundamental constituents of matter and their interactions, which can suggest either the imprint of an intelligent Creator or the ultimate reduction of all phenomena to purely natural explanations. This poster is a (Catholic!) theoretical physicist’s reflections on how these discoveries relate to the dignity of Man and his relation to the Creator.

Chris Payne (Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville)  “Uniting science course material to career development and vocation to promote engaged learning.”  Abstract: Many students remain minimally engaged when STEM coursework is perceived as unrelated to their interests, degree, or career trajectories. This is complicated by intimidation and time-constraints associated with new learning modalities, large amounts of information, and high-stakes grade requirements for acceptance into professional or postgraduate programs. These complications can result in students seeking superficial and quick ways to simply study material instead of prioritizing understanding material and personal (and even spiritual) growth.  To deepen student learning requires that students develop a personal appreciation or perceived utility of course material. An instructor can explicitly provide time and initiative to help students contemplate how course material has personal value to them. These efforts can also guide students to unite this value to their faith in order to serve as a strong unifying theme for their entire undergraduate career. I designed an assignment that provides students the opportunity to develop personal appreciation of STEM course material, connect it to their career trajectory, and ground both of these within a unifying framework of Christian vocation. The assignment requires students reflect on why they’re taking my course and how it will play a role in their careers or lives. They then read a paper discussing the differences between jobs, careers, and vocations and are asked to frame the previous reflection around their faith and calling. Next, students must interview a professional in their field of interest to ask that individual how my class’s subject matter and that individual’s faith have played a role in their careers and lives. Students write a final reflection paper explaining modified perceptions of my class’s role in their lives. Student response has been overwhelmingly positive, and student papers demonstrate substantial transformation. The vocational framework has inspired further engagement about course material and how material relates to students’ faith.

Paul Wiget (Samford Univ.) “Eclipsing Expertise: Comparing Pseudoscience and Theological Dissent..” Abstract: Those who actively publish in well-regarded scientific journals recognize that scientific truth must be continuously discerned within the academy and public research venues. Similarly, theological Truth is discerned within the community of faithful priests, bishops, and theologians dating back to before Peter the Apostle. It is within communities of studious knowers that truth, being scientific or theological, unfolds. Both data and Scripture must be studied and scrutinized. After years and years of scrutiny truth unfolds within those communities. Individual truth, however, can only find acceptance with regards to its place in the body of knowledge of those studying and developing those truths over time. Occasionally, individuals, for reasons of corruption, disenfranchisement, or fundamental error, come to different conclusions than the communities where such truths are vetted. When those alternative interpretations of reality are allowed to endure, or if the individual who came to those conclusions abandons their community and starts their own, many deleterious outcomes have been observed. Using examples from the history of science and the history of the Church, we will show one chemist’s view comparing the similarities and subsequent fracturing of society by scientific and theological individualism.

Mark R. Scafonas (St. Joseph’s Univ.) “Application of a budget of isentropic wave activity to moist baroclinic life cycles.”  Abstract:  An idealized baroclinic model is used to study wave-mean flow feedback processes in the atmosphere and provides a simplified picture of mid-latitude weather patterns in the presence of an equator-to-pole temperature gradient. The budget of wave activity, using the isentropic potential vorticity (PV), for the development and life cycle of dry eddies is well studied and indicates that the primary conversion term from the zonal momentum to the wave activity is the eddy PV flux. The role of moisture in the development of these eddies is less understood and the diabatic sources of wave activity for these waves are examined, using a novel budget of wave activity applied to a non-hydrostatic, moist, atmospheric model. These results are compared to analogous dry simulations and indicate that diabatic sources of wave activity are of similar magnitude to the dynamical terms and occur predominantly on the equatorward side of the wave. The location of this wave activity source preferentially strengthens the development of the longer-lived cyclonic wave breaking topology and inhibits the development of anticyclonic wave breaking events. Subsequently, these results also indicate that, consistent with existing understanding of baroclinic life cycle feedback onto the mean jet configuration, the mean jet shifts equatorward following the cyclonic life cycle. These results provide insight into the diabatic contributions to the development of baroclinic eddies and provide a foundation to study this problem under the conditions of anthropogenic climate change.

Mark Spellmon (Univ. of Virginia School of Medicine) “O-antigen export by ABC transporters in Gram-negative bacteria.”  Abstract: Lipopolysaccharides (LPS) are abundant glycolipids found in the outer membrane of gram-negative bacteria. The O-antigen portion of LPS is a serotype-dependent polysaccharide chain with variable saccharide composition and linkage. The heterogeneity of O-antigens among gram-negative negative microbes are utilized to shield and evade against host immunity. O-antigen biosynthesis begins on an undecaprenyl phosphate anchor in the inner leaflet of the inner membrane. Several glycosyltransferases and glycolipid transporters coordinate the construction and translocation of the O antigen from the inner to the outer leaflet where it is finally ligated to core-lipid A to complete LPS. The ABC-transporter dependent pathway is one route used to shuttle undecaprenyl pyrophosphate-linked O-antigens across the inner membrane. The O-antigen ABC transporter, WzmWzt, hydrolyzes cytosolic ATP to funnel the O-antigen in a processive approach, a unique strategy not observed in other related ABC transporters. In this study, we evaluate the structure of the protein components needed to shuttle the O-antigen from the CBM-dependent ABC transporter transport pathway.

Marek Szczepanczyk (Univ. of Florida) “Detecting gravitational waves from the next Galactic core-collapse supernova.”  Abstract: Core-collapse supernovae (CCSNe) are one of the most spectacular phenomena known in the Universe and the next explosion of a massive star in the Milky Way will be one of the most interesting astronomical events in the incoming decades. Many open questions about these phenomena are waiting to be answered, including the unknown explosion mechanism. The detection of gravitational waves (GWs) will allow to probe directly the CCSN engine and shed some light on these questions. In my poster, I will give an overview of the predicted GW signatures based on a wide range of CCSN models. I will show the search results from the LIGO and Virgo observing runs and current upper limits. I will present the feasibility of detecting and reconstructing GWs from the next Galactic CCSN if it happens during the upcoming observing runs of the advanced GW detectors. Finally, I will discuss the accuracy and the challenges of reconstructing the overall waveforms and the GW signals emitted by specific emission processes.

James Vranish (Franciscan Univ.) “Origin of Life:  Merging the Unknown and the Miraculous.”  Abstract: The events that lead to the formation of the first organisms on earth are perplexing to many biochemists.  There are immense gaps in our knowledge that seem to defy plausible explanation.  As Catholic scientists, we seek natural explanations for the universe but simultaneously acknowledge the necessity for the miraculous and supernatural.  The temptation exists to claim that the origin of life must have been miraculous since we don’t understand it, which can lead to a so-called “God of the gaps” mentality.  This can harm scientific inquiry and lead to a faith that can be shaken with new discoveries.  At the same time, Christians acknowledge the possibility of divine intervention.  This poster explores different approaches to understanding this problem from a theological and scientific perspective and how to approach this problem in a classroom.