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UA Researcher Discovers New Species of Tortoise

Fri, 02/12/2016 - 9:23am
UA geneticist Taylor Edwards used CyVerse's data-sharing capabilities to coordinate with his research partners and decipher the data that led to the discovery of the new species.

Shakespeare's Juliet once famously pondered "what's in a name," and the answer would be $100,000 in the case of the recently discovered Goode's Thornscrub Tortoise (or Gopherus evgoodei in the Latin), a species native to the area of southern Sonora, western Chihuahua and northern Sinaloa, Mexico. A description of the species was published in the journal ZooKeys.

The species' name was auctioned to a coalition of four donors, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, Global Wildlife Foundation, Rainforest Trust and the Turtle Conservancy. All of the funds will go toward conserving the species' habitat in the tropical deciduous forests of Mexico.

Taylor Edwards, a University of Arizona geneticist and conservationist with the Arizona Research Laboratories University of Arizona Genetics Core, used CyVerse's data-sharing capabilities to coordinate with his research partners and decipher the data that led to the discovery of the new species.

But rather than christen his discovery by traditional means, Edwards put the name up for auction — at the Turtle Conservancy's third annual Turtle Ball, an annual New York City event designed to raise awareness of the plight of turtles, and to further fund the nonprofit's mission to protect the most endangered turtles and tortoises and their habitats worldwide.

"I wanted to do this not just as an academic exercise, but also to make a difference in helping to preserve this new species," Edwards said. "In an academic setting, when you're just churning out scientific papers, activism seems distant sometimes. I wanted to bridge that distance as a conservation geneticist. And I figure if we are introducing a new species to the world and we already know that it and its habitat are imperiled, why not start it out with a trust fund?"

Let the Tortoise Take the Floor

The Turtle Ball was conceived by Eric Goode, restaurateur, hotelier, and founder and president of the Turtle Conservancy — and namesake of Goode's Thornscrub Tortoise. Since 2013, the annual event has brought artists, cultural influencers, and celebrities out of their shells to raise awareness of the threats to turtles and tortoises worldwide.

The Turtle Conservancy is a registered nonprofit dedicated to the protection of the world's slow-swimming — or stepping, in the case of tortoises ­— reptiles. The conservancy has active projects in China, Madagascar, Guyana, India, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa and the United States.

The 2015 Turtle Ball was hosted by actors Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber and attended by mountaineer and adventurer Rick Ridgeway, well-known conservationist Russell Mittermeier of Conservation International and Bobby Kennedy, who was awarded a special honor for his achievements as a defender of the environment. The ball also featured the unique opportunity to bid on the right to name the newly described tortoise species.

"These are challenging times for research and conservation, in terms of finding financial resources," Edwards said. "This was an outside-of-the-box way of keeping momentum in science and conservation. And with only a little over 50 living species of tortoises currently known to science, this was a unique opportunity for the bidders to be a part of taxonomic history."

A Tale of Two Tortoises

In the hot, humid climate of Sinaloa, Mexico, there is a place where the landscape shifts dramatically. Dense, nestled and inevitably thorny Thornscrub of the north gives way to tropical, deep-green deciduous trees of the more southerly region.

The tortoise species change with the vegetation. To the north dwell the Sonoran Desert Tortoises, a species which, if you live in southern Arizona, you may find trekking amiably along many desert pathways. But south of the Thornscrub/tropics intersection, the tortoises are different.

"They can be strikingly yellow or orange, and their carapace, or shell, is flatter and squarer than what is seen in typical Sonoran individuals. The scales on their forelimbs frequently protrude and can be very spiky," Edwards said, describing the species he recently discovered. "To hold one is to know you are holding something special."

Many research questions remain for Goode's Thornscrub Tortoise, Edwards said, such as what they eat, how social they are, what their reproductive cycle is like or how far south their home range extends. "Our southernmost sample was collected south of the Rio Fuerte in Sinaloa," he said.

By "sample," Edwards is referring to blood draws collected from tortoises found during field trips to the heat-blasted Sinaloan tortoise boundary while conducting his research as a UA doctoral candidate. The blood of the tortoises yielded enormous quantities of genetic information, which Edwards later parsed apart in his lab at the UA's BIO5 Institute.

"My role as an evolutionary biologist is to tease apart the evolutionary history of this animal, investigate its origins and help to define its evolutionary potential," he explained. To fulfill that role, Edwards began mining the genetic data, looking for patterns that would indicate whether, and how, the yellow and orange Sinaloan tortoises are related to the more mottled Sonoran species.

Edwards used data management services provided by the UA-led CyVerse, the National Science Foundation's premier data computation and management platform for scientific research. CyVerse enables researchers globally to securely store, analyze, and visualize large datasets and results, and to share them with colleagues anywhere on the planet.

"CyVerse was critical in being able to delineate these species," Edwards said. "We've been able to collaborate on this project and share large amounts of data between UA researchers, Kenro Kusumi and Mark Tollis of Arizona State University, and others. This collaboration would be extremely challenging if not for CyVerse."

The size of the data files for Edwards' Mexican tortoise project could not be transferred or shared online via other Internet platforms, he noted.

"The volume of data for this project was significant," he said.

As was the price of the tortoise's name. Yet perhaps the chance to go on living in the place where you belong is something on which no one can put a price.

"Mexico is faced with a privileged situation with its as-yet untouched natural habitats," Edwards said. "We can make efforts to protect tortoises before they arrive at the edge of extinction. Unfortunately, many species do not receive this kind of valuable research attention until after their populations have declined."

Category(s): Science and TechnologyShelley LittinFebruary 15, 2016CyVerse

This Year's Grammy Awards Have a UA Connection

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 10:34am
Extra Info: 

Grammy winners in the categories for which True Concord was nominated will not be announced during the live CBS event, which will air at 6 p.m. Mountain time on Monday. The winners for those categories will be announced at the Premiere Ceremony, which will take place at Microsoft Theater from 12:30-3:30 p.m. Pacific time. It will be streamed live here.

Visit True Concord's website for information about the group's upcoming performances.

Gina McCann of the Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences sings in a classical music group, True Concord Voices & Orchestra, which received two nominations.

Like many little girls, Gina McCann dreamed when she was young of becoming a famous pop singer. Her goal, which may have seemed far-fetched at the time, was to one day win a Grammy.

Fast forward to today and McCann, coordinator of administration and development for the John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, is part of a classical music group, True Concord Voices & Orchestra, which was nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best Choral Performance and Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Grammy winners will be announced Monday.

McCann's earliest exposure to music was listening to The Beatles and Top 40 radio, and she has been singing in choirs since she was in the fourth grade. In high school, she did musical theater, and after graduating with a degree in music from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, she began singing pop music in clubs around Chicago. She later moved to southern California and started singing choral music with companies such as the Pacific Symphony, Opera Pacific and the San Diego Opera.

"Other than high school choral music and a few years of voice lessons, I was not familiar with classical music, which made my days as a music major extremely challenging," McCann says.

She moved to Arizona, and after spending time as a stay-at-home mom and then a real estate agent, she decided she wanted a regular full-time job and applied for a position at the UA. She started in the Norton School in 2010.

In addition to singing with True Concord, she also is a staff musician for St. Philip's in the Hills Episcopal Church in Tucson on the weekends.

"As a vocalist, I try to sing every day, and often just while in my car," McCann says. "Having a full-time day job while singing professionally can be a real challenge in regards to scheduling, as well as maintaining physical and mental stamina. About five to six times a year, I end up working a 73-hour week between the three jobs."

McCann auditioned for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra chorus in 2009, and that's when she met the director of the Tucson-based True Concord, Eric Holtan, who suggested that she try out for the group.

Her favorite music to sing is classical and contemporary small-ensemble music, which McCann says is the perfect fit for True Concord.

The group has a roster of 57 singers, but concerts are performed by 16-32 vocalists, depending on repertoire, and often are accompanied by an orchestra. The singers perform classical standards as well as original compositions.

Although McCann was invited to the Grammys, she wasn't able to get a ticket.   

"As a new member of the Recording Academy, I was downright giddy when receiving the glossy Grammy Awards invitation in the mail a few days before the nominations were announced in December," she says.

The event sold out in minutes, but she still hopes to get in. 

"I was already scheduled to be in Orange County that weekend anyway, so now I'll toss a fancy gown and my checkbook in the car in case any of my ticket-holding colleagues suddenly find themselves dateless and holding an extra ticket," she says.

McCann says she plans to stand in front of the Staples Center before the event to see if she can find one.

Category(s): Campus NewsAmy WilliamsFebruary 10, 2016University Relations – Communications

UA Law School Opens Admissions to GRE Test Takers

Wed, 02/10/2016 - 9:20am
Story Contacts: 

Tracy Mueller

UA James E. Rogers College of Law


A December study showed performance on the GRE General Test to be a valid and reliable predictor of law school student success.

The University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law will now accept either GRE General Test or Law School Admission Test, or LSAT, scores from all applicants.

A study conducted in December by Educational Testing Service, or ETS, demonstrated that, for students in Arizona Law’s J.D. program, performance on the GRE General Test is a valid and reliable predictor of students’ first-term law school grades, and so meets the American Bar Association’s Legal Education Standard for use in admissions to law school programs.

Arizona Law is the first law school to validate the GRE test for all applicants. The college submitted formal notification of the policy change to the American Bar Association Section on Legal Education on Tuesday.

"We believe the goals of excellence and diversity in legal education and in the profession will be better achieved if the LSAT is not the only standardized test used by law schools," said Marc Miller, dean of the James E. Rogers College of Law. "By using the GRE test, which is accepted by thousands of graduate and professional degree programs, from biochemistry to public policy to philosophy, we are able to consider qualified applicants from more diverse backgrounds."

The study compared the GRE and LSAT scores of current Arizona Law students and recent graduates with their law school grades. The results show that the GRE test, which assesses verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing, is as good a predictor for law school success for Arizona Law students as the LSAT.

"The skills assessed by the GRE General Test fit closely with the skills and educational objectives of law schools," said David Payne, ETS vice president and chief operating officer of Global Education. "Furthermore, the GRE test could open more pathways to law schools, increasing diversity in all its forms, and making it easier for students to pursue joint degrees."

Arizona Law also invited the Wake Forest University School of Law and the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law to conduct GRE studies with ETS, and their results are expected later this year. ETS previously conducted similar analyses for business schools, many of which now accept either GRE or GMAT scores, including every school in the top 20 of the U.S. News & World Report rankings.

"The study that led the College of Law to realize that the GRE was a valid and reliable predictor of Arizona Law student performance is one in a line of innovations in legal education from Arizona the past few years, and speaks to the University of Arizona’s commitment to improving access to graduate education and to supporting diversity of thought and perspectives," said Andrew Comrie, the UA's provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, who previously served as dean of the Graduate College. "Now students from a wider spectrum of backgrounds, including those interested in any of the College of Law’s dual degree options, can pursue a legal education relying on a standardized test that is readily available and widely used by other graduate and professional programs."

In making admissions decisions, Arizona Law will continue to follow its policy of evaluating an applicant’s standardized test score, undergraduate GPA, record from other graduate studies, public service, life experience, demonstrated leadership, personal statement, recommendations and other factors.

Category(s): Business and LawFebruary 10, 2016UA James E. Rogers College of Law

UA Students Create Website for Female Empowerment

Tue, 02/09/2016 - 5:09pm
Raissa Forlemu and Idara Ekpoh say their own struggles in life provide a good reason to encourage others through their new site,

It started as any other day — having a conversation with friends, talking about things that they wish could be. Talking about some of the struggles that come with just being who they are. That's when the idea came to University of Arizona student Raissa Forlemu.

She immediately texted her friend Idara Ekpoh and asked if she wanted to join in creating a website solely for the purpose of helping other females on their journey to womanhood. That's when the collaboration started, and thus came

Based on conversations that they had with each other and with other women, they felt it was time to create a space where women could talk about some of their struggles and show who they are.

"I feel like we're constantly trying to prove ourselves, prove ourselves, and prove our worth. It's very necessary for us to support each other because it's so difficult for a lot of us out here," said Ekpoh, an undergraduate in physiology at the UA.

The site, which launched in November, was created as a platform for women to talk about their journey and to be in community with other women. Forlemu and Ekpoh talk about what it's like to be women of color, as well.

However, they want the site to be much more. They want it to be a place where anyone can feel accepted and not alone.

"I grew up in a primarily white neighborhood," said Forlemu, a public health graduate student at the UA. "My family was the only black family around, and because I looked different, I was bullied a lot. And because of that, my self-confidence wasn't always the highest, and that caused me to shut down."

Ekpoh's experience was similar. Both grew up in Arizona after coming from Nigeria and Cameroon. When Ekpoh saw that her skin color was different from that of children around her, she asked her mother what she could do to make her skin lighter or to change her hair to fit in.

Through the website, both knew they could find their voice.

"I'm a really shy person," Forlemu said, "but now we have this platform so that now, not only us but our friends and other people, if they wanted to, they have a platform that they could share their thoughts."

The site began with blog posts every week but soon expanded to featuring women of inspiration with a "Woman Crush Wednesday" (#WCW) page.

First lady Michelle Obama is that kind of person for Ekpoh.

"I just love how much she inspires young women to do what they need to do for themselves," she said. "She inspires me to use my education and find my own success and, while doing that, be a positive influence for others."

The women also have begun posting videos to serve an audience that doesn’t have time to read, with topics ranging from love and relationships to race and gender. They have been trying to expand their reach and inclusiveness on the site.

"We have a lot of support from our friends and we've been featuring our friends, but there's more than that," Ekpoh said. "We want a lot more outside perspectives … male (perspectives), too."

Their goal with the site is to be inclusive of all, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or background. They want visitors to take away one thing from the site.

"Make sure you embrace your individuality while celebrating others," they said. "Continue to grow as who you are, but at the same time make sure those who are around you are also growing and embracing who they are."

Ekpoh wants to hold events to advertise the page and encourage participation.

"It's been such a great experience in these past few months that I can't imagine not doing it," she said. "I'm just hoping that as we continue to do it, we continue to get feedback from other people and other women will want to be part of it … almost like its own movement."

They plan to keep the site going, regardless of where they end up after they leave the UA.

"It's baby steps," Ekpoh said. "We're going to keep growing."

As part of Black History Month, UANews is highlighting the work of African-Americans at the University who are blazing new trails. Next week: Rick Kittles, director of the Center for Population Genetics.

Category(s): Teaching and StudentsAmy WilliamsFebruary 9, 2016University Relations – Communications