Who's Out At Night?

Podcast interviews explore late night research projects at UNT in the Molecular Biology Lab of the Life Sciences Complex, Voertman Hall in the College of Music, and The Geo Information Science Lab in the Environmental, Science, and Technology Building. Interviews feature students Vamsi Nalam, Eric Katzenberger, Jason Lopes, and Al Louisy and professors Steve Harlos and Eugene Osadchy.  Listen to the podcast. Download the transcript.

The Molecular Biology Lab in the Life Sciences Complex

Julie West: I’m Julie West with the Office of Research at UNT. It’s 10:00 o’clock at night, and I want to know who’s up late doing work on campus. With me is photojournalist student, Anam Bakali. We enter the new Life Sciences building first. The halls are empty, and the lights are dim, but we decide to explore, floor by floor, in the hopes of meeting someone. (I didn’t think the building would be this empty. Let’s try this hall). A brightly lit laboratory beckons on the fourth floor. This is the molecular biology lab, and the requisite tools of science surround us. Machines spin, shake and pump solutions in colorful containers. Tubes thread from one vial to the next, and we see a lone person working at the end of the room. Meet Vamsi Nalam; he’s a PhD. Student.

Vamsi NalamVamsi Nalam, biological sciences—photo courtesy of Anam Bakali

Julie West: Who are you studying with?

Vamsi Nalam: Dr. Jyoti Shah.

Julie West: Dr. Jyoti Shah. And tell us what Dr. Shah’s expertise is. 

Vamsi Nalam: Dr. Shah’s expertise is in the area of plant defenses against various pathogens, mainly against bacteria. But in this lab we also study defenses against aphids, which are sap sucking insects, and fungi.

Julie West: And what are you working on right now with this solution, this particular solution?

Vamsi Nalam: I’ve identified a gene in Arabidopsis, which is a model plant that we use to study all these different pathogens … the plant responds to all these different pathogens. We identified a couple of genes in this plant which, when knocked out from the plant, they enhance resistance against aphids and fungi. So I cloned this gene from Arabidopsis and introduced it into bacteria so that I can express this protein to check for its activity. Right now I’m running an SDS-Page gel electrophoresis (sodium dodecyl sulfate polyacrylamide) to separate out the protein so that I can see if the bacteria is actually producing this protein or not.

Julie West: I see a lot of activity on a screen. What do those images represent?

Vamsi Nalam: This is an image capture system in which we pass UV light through an Agarose gel, so that we can capture the DNA that is in the Agarose gel. The Agarose gel is basically a gel that is from seafood – it’s made from Agarose, which is derived from seafood. We use Agarose because it forms nano channels once it solidifies, depending on the percentage of Agarose that you use. Once we load DNA into these Agarose gels, the DNA gets separated based on its size. So in this particular image over here, the first half of the image is plasmids, which I will introduce into bacteria. But the first thing I need to do and check is to see if this plant actually contains the gene that I want to express. Normally in a plant this gene would not be expressed until it’s sensed that a pathogen is there … now we are making plants that constantly express this so the plant is just more sensitive to the pathogens that are there.

The Molecular Biology Lab—photo courtesy Anam Bakali

Julie West: What would be a really successful evening for you? As you’re working here, it’s late at night. There’s no one else on the floor with you. What would be something to happen that would make your night?

Vamsi Nalam: Basically the things that I plan during the morning. Sometimes these experiments run into the night, like I’m doing right now. And if it doesn’t work, then at the end of the night, that would make me really sad; but the experiments that I plan for that day— if all of them work — fine.

Julie West: So how are your chemistry grades?

Vamsi Nalam: Oh, chemistry, not all that good. The last chemistry I did was in high school.

Julie West: OK. But you’re using chemistry concepts everyday.

Vamsi Nalam: Yeah. We’re use chemistry and biochemistry concepts everyday. And once you start your PhD if you need to know something you go by yourself and learn it because you need to know it to do what you’re doing.

Julie West: Thank you. Good luck with your night work.

Vamsi Nalam: No problem, it was fun talking to you guys.

Julie West: OK, thank you.

Learn more about the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Program at UNT.

Voertman Hall in the College of Music

Eugene Oscadchy and Steve HarlosLeft to Right: Steve Harlos, professor of piano, and Eugene Oscadchy, professor of cello—photo courtesy of Anam Bakali

Julie West: After the interview with Vamsi, Anam and I head to the College of Music building. Unlike the Life Sciences building at this hour, the halls here resonate with voices and music. We follow the trail, and come upon a small crowd gathered in the lobby outside the newly renovated Voertman concert hall. An LCD monitor shows that a concert is in progress. We can’t go inside, but we paused to watch the performers on stage and to view the program and materials on display.

We walked around the corner, and as luck would have it, came upon two professors from the program and the College of Music who performed on some of the earlier pieces and are now done for the night. I’m in the Green room talking with them now. Professors Eugene Oscadchy and Steve Harlos.

Julie West: Hello.

Steve Harlos and Eugene Osadchy: Hi.

Julie West: So, tell us a little bit about the concert you just performed in. Maybe I’ll start with you, Steve.

Steve Harlos: OK. This is an NEA sponsored event. The theme of the evening was 300 years of American chamber music. We started out with some early pieces from the revolutionary period from the year (let’s see… the first one is from the year) 1781 by Rayner Taylor … and another piece by Gualdo de von Derrell. Then we jump to the… 20th century, 1948 for a quintet by Irving Fine, for woodwinds.

Julie West: And what is your instrument?

Steve Harlos: I’m piano. Then we did a piece from 1999, which was the most recent work on the program with a student group from the NOVA ensemble. Elizabeth McNutt is our director and did the rehearsals for that. And after the intermission we played this quartet by Daniel Gregory Mason, which was written in 1911 but actually belongs to the 19th century, stylistically, because he was very conservative and rejected modernism at the time that he wrote this; he thought that music should stay in its previous form and not experiment with atonality or color — effects for effects sake. He was a classical in the mold of Brahms; I guess you’d say.

Julie West: Did you two perform together on any of these pieces?

Eugene Osadchy: Yes. We performed a piano quartet, the Mason piano quartet, which Dr. Harlos found, and I never heard about the composer. The music was completely untouched, like the moon before the Americans stepped on it … we never could hear it because there was no recording. So it was the very, very first time we looked at the music, and it was very challenging because you had no concept when you’d look at the score. And it crystallized after a few rehearsals when we figured out what was going on, and hopefully it was presentable today.

Julie West: Who was the conductor… presumably the conductor went through the…

Steve Harlos: There’s no conductor. This is a chamber ensemble. Piano quartet is not really four pianos, but it’s a piano plus three string instruments … violin, viola and cello. That’s the instrumentation. We’re all conductors working together in chamber music; it’s equal — equal collaborators; so there’s the collaborative aspect in chamber music.

Voertman Hall, College of Music

Julie West: Since there was no notation — well how exciting, first of all, that you really are looking at virginal music and getting to interpret it yourself — did you have a series of rehearsals where you debated different passages?

Steve Harlos: Yes, we went back and forth on different ideas and tempo.

Eugene Osadchy: And when you practice your part by yourself, of course you have no idea how it fits to the parts, and also probably it took a couple of rehearsals just to understand what was going on before everyone discussed things, and then once you get familiar with the music with the ideas of the composer you guess and try to contribute things. So it works. Eventually it worked very well.

Julie West: And so you might take a break from the piece and think on it and then have a fresh perspective of how to perform it again a year or two down the line.

Eugene Osadchy: Usually that happens. Even with old pieces, pieces which you perform — if you come back in two years with different people, even if you know how it goes, it always sounds different; because you’re different, and people are different.

Julie West: And tell me your instrument. It’s cello?

Eugene Osadchy: It’s cello, yes.

Julie West: Were you performing with other faculty, with students, tell me about some of your fellow performers on stage.

Eugene Osadchy: We had another two string professors – Dr. Dubois and Master Borok, former concertmaster of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra — he was playing violin.

Julie West: Nice. Well thank you, and I think I’ll let Anam take a few shots of both of you as you’re seated by the piano. And I’ll just step over here for a moment.

Eugene Osadchy: I’ll grab the cello.

Julie West: You really are a cellist; you’re not just making it up.

Eugene Osadchy: Exactly.

The Geo Information Science Lab in the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building

Eric KatzenbergerEric Katzenberger, economic research—photo courtesy of Anam Bakali

Julie West: Anam and I have now wandered into the Geo Information Science Lab (in the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building) where we see three students working, diligently I might add, at their research, and let’s find out who these characters are. Who are you? What is your name?

Eric Katzenberger: My name is Eric Katzenberger.

Julie West: And what is your major?

Eric Katzenberger: I’m majoring in economic research.

Julie West: And what about you?

Al Louisy: I am Al Louisy, and I am doing energy engineering.

Julie West: And what about you? Did you want to be included?

Jaron Lopes: My name is Jaron Lopes. My major is Geography and I’m trying to get certified in GIS.

Julie West: Nice. So does that mean that you all are undergrads, master students?

Jaron Lopes: Undergad.

Al Louisy: Master’s.

Eric Katzenberger: Yeah, I’m a master’s student.

Julie West: Let me stick with the masters for a moment … the masters (laughter).

Julie West to Eric Katzenberger: So tell me … the screen is very complex and full of data. Describe the nature of your research tonight. What are we looking at?

Eric Katzenberger: We’re looking at demographic information for every street named after Dr. Martin Luther King. I’m interested in the racial makeup and median and aggregate income of individuals who live on streets named after Martin Luther King.

Julie West: What are you finding so far?

Eric Katzenberger: I’m finding so far that streets named after Martin Luther King are primarily made up of minority residents who are below the poverty line.

Julie West: And what about cities vs. rural areas? Are you finding that that data is similar across all population centers?

Eric Katzenberger: Yes, well the majority of the streets named after Dr. MLK are in urban areas, there are very few that are in rural areas.

Julie West: OK. So what are you gleaning about this?

Eric Katzenberger: What am I gleaning about this… What I’m trying to prove… my point, my purpose of doing this research is to show that city councils and small local governments, instead of dedicating funds to help enrich these poor minority communities, rather name a street after an icon that they can relate to and then send actual good dollars to different places.

Julie West: That’s a very bleak portrait you present. Are you corroborating some of your preliminary findings by perhaps doing interviews with any councilmen? Are you speaking with some of the urban planners and people who are actually making those kinds of decisions?

Eric Katzenberger: I don’t really think I could get honest information from these city council members because what I’m finding is, well, kind of sad …but I’m corroborating this by looking at local news stories for all of these cities; looking at when proposals were made that would have benefited minority communities and seeing how that ties into when a street was named after MLK… So to appease these minorities, they are naming these streets after MLK, according to what I’m planning on proving, directly after or before rejecting a major proposal that would have benefited a minority community.

Julie West: I know that some of these labs are involved in satellite imaging. Will that be a component to actually visually illustrate some of the neighborhoods and streets? 

Eric Katzenberger: As a side project I’ve toyed with the idea of using some satellite imagery to try to determine city streets’ lighting and the age of the properties… those types of characteristics. But I would definitely have to take some more geographically based classes to be able to do that kind of research, but I’m definitely committed to learning how to utilize the resources necessary to do that sort of research.

Julie West: Thank you. OK, so that was Eric.

Learn more about Eric Katzenberger.

Julie West to Al Louisy: Now tell me your name again.

Al Louisy, Mechanical and Energy Engineering—photo courtesy of Anam Bakali

Al Louisy: Al, Al Louisy.

Julie West: Are you studying for a test? These are a lot of papers in front of you.

Al Louisy: Those are all papers from other researchers that I’m using to help in my research area.

Julie West: What is your research area?

Al Louisy: Engineering. Energy. What I’m trying to do is to work with graphene, which is a relatively new material that was discovered. And what I’m trying to do is to use that to generate electricity into a circuit that could power and fit itself…

Julie West: So cheap sources of energy for…

Al Louisy: Actually, what it is, is that the product, the end product, is going to generate the electricity and fit itself. So whatever it’s applied to — an appliance or electronic device — would not use an external source of power.

Julie West: What is it about graphene that allows that?

Al Louisy: Graphene, just like silicon, serves as a semiconductor, and therefore it allows electricity to go through, and you can harvest electrons if you can get them to that state, that excited energy state. What I’m trying to do is excite the electrons to a higher orbital so that we could get photons released, which are pockets of light. And the light energy would be able to knock off electrons from the atoms and using the p-n junction to channel those electrons into one direction to create a flow of current.

Julie West: Who are some of your primary professors for this project?

Al Louisy: Right now, I’m independent. Some of the professors are Dr. Choi, who is also working in nanotechnology at Discovery Park. I have not met Dr. Perez, but I know he’s working in this area as well, and I hope to talk with him a little bit.

Julie West: What time is it? You all are here pretty late at night.

Al Louisy: Yeah, for the past week, we’ve been living here ‘til 3-4 a.m. Each time it’s something different. Either we hit a brick wall, but then last night I was able to overcome something; and then today I ran into some more problems. So it’s like each time you find a solution to something, you end up finding a different problem.

Julie West: It must be interesting since you’re both in very different areas of research to swap notes every now and then.

Al Louisy: Not really as much as he annoys me.

Julie West: Uh oh.

Al Louisy: Just kidding

Eric Katzenberger: We’re best friends, Al.

Julie West: Best friends. You heard it. Ok, I’m looking at your notes… they’re very interesting… flow bath; visible light; what thermodynamic temperature is needed… What kind of breakthrough would be really neat for you tonight? What would be a cool achievement?

Al Louisy: A cool achievement for me tonight would be for me would be to find a way to get the required energy needed to excite my atoms.

Julie West: How do you know that that’s happening when you see it?

Al Louisy: Heat applied to electrons or atoms is going to cause them to vibrate or move around more rapidly because they’ve gained energy. Light, which is what I’m trying to get — the emission of light.

Julie West: Where do you see yourself 4 years from now? Do you think you’ll go on to get your doctoral degree?

Al Louisy: Four years from now! Um...

Julie West: I know, one step at a time, right?

Al Louisy: Yes. Especially now, I’m finding it’s all baby steps. But I do have an undergraduate degree in pre-medicine and for a while my objective was to go to med school, and along the way I developed an interest in engineering. But I don’t know if I may go back to medicine.

Julie West: Well thank you, so tell me your full name again?

Al Louisy: Al Louisy.

Julie West: Al Louisy. Well very interesting. Thank you.

Julie West to Jaron Lopes: And here we’ll conclude with you. Tell me your name.

Jaron Lopes: My name is Jaron Lopes.

Julie West: And what is your major?

Jaron Lopes: My major is Geography and I am working on my certification in GIS. That’s Geographic Information Systems.

Julie West: OK. And you’re here late at night. It’s a little after 11 p.m. What brings you to the lab at this hour?

Jaron Lopes, Geography—photo courtesy of Anam Bakali

Jaron Lopes: What I’m doing is … I’m trying to connect the recent drillings of the Barnett Shale area, which is pretty much in north central TX, with the recent earthquakes that have going on in Irving and Cleburne, TX. And right now I’m collecting some of the data sources.

Julie West: What exactly are you looking for?

Jaron Lopes: They believe — and it’s still ongoing research… it’s still early research — but they believe it has something to do with the induced salt water deposits that go inside the earth, and they believe that’s causing the earthquakes; whenever they drill, they recycle the water somehow inside the ground, and I’m guessing that has something to do with the ground moving.

Julie West: There’s been an increase in earthquakes, hasn’t there?

Jaron Lopes: Yes, especially in Cleburne.

Julie West: Are you privy to seismic data that helps you with your own research?

Jaron Lopes: Yes. I collected some data from the city of Cleburne. I went down to city hall and spoke with the IT department, and they gave me some data sources about the approximate location of where these earthquakes had occurred. So I got that data source.

Julie West: Are you intrigued to look to other areas around the country where drilling might be causing earthquake activity?

Jaron Lopes: Yes. Actually, I know there’s some drilling activity that might be connected with earthquakes in the state of Colorado. And there are also rumors of reports of the same thing happening in northern Pennsylvania. But my main focus is to stay in this area because my research is limited. Yes I am looking to other places, but my focus is the DFW area.

Julie West: It seems like this would have real application for legislation that would ultimately impact new drilling around our state.

Jaron Lopes: Yeah, I’m guessing it can, but I’m still at the beginning stages of my research, that’s why I don’t have all the answers at this time.

Julie West: I should let you get back to work. Thank you so much for your time.

Jaron Lopes: Alrightee. Thank you.

Julie West: Now you know some of the people doing research on the campus of UNT late at night. What’s your nightly research?


by Julie West, publications specialist, Office of Research and Economic Development—Spring 2011

Hurley Administration Building, Univerisity of North Texas