Exploradio Origins

Exploradio Origins Sparks ideas and conversation with its unique and engaging 90 second nutshell approach. Each episode highlights the work of one of the more than 200 fellows at the Institute for the Science of Origins at Case Western Reserve University. Their research examines the origins of life, the universe, and the strands that connect all of science. Host Kellen McGee delivers a distillation of discoveries that touch on the mysteries of dark matter, language, gender, and evolution. 

Exploradio Origins is a collaboration between WKSU and the Institute for the Science of Origins.  Tune-in Thursday afternoons during WKSU’s All Things Considered.

a photo of LED lights at Amsterdam Rainbow Station

You may know semiconductors from computers: they’re a material somewhere between an electrical conductor and an electrical insulator that can be used as an extremely fast switch. However, semiconductors are also what we have to thank for the revolution in energy-efficient LED lighting technology.

“One of them is gallium nitride. The reason it's a good light bulb is, if you can excite an electron, say, with applying a voltage, then when it de-excites, it emits a photon. And these are the photons that make it a good light bulb.”

a photo of medical researchers

"There are technologies that we can use now like next generation sequencing where it allows us to take a really teeny tiny piece of DNA or RNA and generate thousands if not millions of measurements. And then we sort of look at each other like, now what do we do?"

Jill Barnholtz-Sloan is a biostatistician and professor in Case Western Reserve University’s School of Medicine. She’s using statistics and math to help researchers untangle risk factors and survival factors for different types of brain tumors.

a photo of a black hole

“It's known that the universe is expanding; of course it's been known since the 1920s. The surprise we were hit with in the 1990s is that the expansion is accelerating, and so it's a big mystery, what causes that to happen,” Harsh Mathur said.

Mathur is a professor of Physics at Case Western Reserve University, and he’s exploring the mathematics that could explain how the universe accelerates as it expands.

a photo of a man fishing

The fishermen of Iceland became concerned around a decade ago. The capelin, a small fish that’s a staple catch, and a crucial link in the ocean ecosystem, stopped migrating like they used to. To whom did they turn? A team of mathematicians.

“So what I think about is particles but each particle gets to make decisions. And it makes decisions based on what the particles around it are doing," Dr. Alethea Barbaro said. Barbaro is a mathematician at Case Western Reserve University. 

a photo of the Andromeda galaxy

Some of you may have heard of SETI: the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The idea is that if there's an advanced alien civilization, they’d try to contact us using radio. So we should look for radio signals from space that look like messages.

a photo of a prosthetic hand with touch receptors

A research group at Case Western Reserve University, led by professor of biomedical engineering Dustin Tyler, works with neural implants in people who’ve lost limbs to restore not only motion with prosthetics, but also the sense of touch.   

Zoophycos fossil in rock. Trace fossils are any indirect evidence of ancient life. They refer to features in rocks that do not represent parts of the body of a once-living organism.


"If we find life on another planet, it's likely going to be microbial," said Ashley Manning-Berg, assistant professor in geology at The University of Tennessee in Chattanooga. 

"So a lot of the focus for evidence for life is not just to learn about the ecosystems on early Earth,  it's a way of telling us that if life evolved and then died on Mars, what do we look for?

Manning-Berg is studying how billion-year-old fossils of microorganisms were preserved on Earth, so we can know what to look for on other planets.  

an image of a brain

Epilepsy is a condition that we usually think of as being in the brain. Doctors typically identify it by measuring brain activity. However, new evidence has emerged showing that the brain may not be the only place we can see epilepsy.

Roberto Galan is an adjunct associate professor of electrical engineering at Case Western Reserve University. 

“When I investigated the electrocardiograms - the electrical activity of the heart - in patients with epilepsy, and in control patients, I found significant differences in the rhythm that the heart displays," Galan said. 

Pierre Auger Observatory at night
Steven Saffi / University of Adelaide, Australia

In the early 20th century, physicists discovered cosmic rays- energetic particles zooming through deep space. 

Many of these come from the sun, and can cause the northern lights. However, a few, very mysteriously, come from somewhere else with enormous energy.

photo of Ugandan Man holding infected snails

The schistosome worm causes schistosomiasis, which just might be the biggest parasitic disease you’ve never heard of.

“You get it walking in water that's infected with infectious snails,” said Emmitt Jolly,  associate professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University.

“There are almost 240 million people infected with schistosomes, and about 300,000 people are dying.”

Jolly is unravelling the genetics of the schistosome to find ways to attack it with drugs. Step one is to figure out which genes do what.   

Joe Hannibal, curator of Invertebrate Paleontology. Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Earth, Environmental & Planetary Sciences, Case Western Reserve University

“Cultural geology in my eye is the interface of geology and human culture,” Joe Hannibal said.

Joe Hannibal is curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. He’s a fossil expert, but he’s also used his fossil and rock identification skills to track the movements of cultural materials.

A tangle of wires await the next subject in the Cleveland Clinic sleep lab. Around 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and nearly 80 percent of those cases are undiagnosed.

When we think about it, we usually remember to breathe when we’re awake. But who’s at the controls when we’re sleeping?

“We’re still continuing to understand the coupling between the neural control in the brain stem and the controlled system, which is the nasal pharynx and oral pharynx and the position of the tongue," said  Kingman Strohl, professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Case Western Reserve University.

A photo of autophagosomes

To live and function, we know cells have to eat and reproduce. But, they also have to take out the trash. What seems like a simple chore to us is actually a matter of life or death for the cell, and drug designers are finding this useful in the fight against disease.

“If you have, let's say, something toxic to the cell, the cell tries to eliminate that toxin by encapsulating it and getting rid of it,” said Dr. Jürgen Bosch.

Colorectal cancer cells

Mathematics and biology sound like pretty distant relatives, but for Wanda Strychalski, an assistant professor of mathematics at Case Western Reserve University, they’re a perfect match.

“I really see mathematical biology - or mathematics, as another tool or assay for lab scientists to use to try and understand really complicated data," Strychalski said.

Nets lay drapped over a bed to protect against mosquitos.

Humans have had to live with malaria for a long time. So long, in fact, that we even see changes in our genome that protect us from the disease.

"Sickle cell anemia probably emerged in human populations approximately ten to twelve thousand years ago. And this occurred coincidental with the change in lifestyle and agricultural settlements. So there was enough population densities of people that mix with population densities of mosquitos," Jim Kazura said.

a photo image of the brain

It seems our brains are never truly quiet. We dream when we are asleep, and in sensory deprivation experiments, participants start hallucinating within 15 minutes. Where does this spontaneous activity in our brains come from?

"My contention is, based on experiments and computational models, that spontaneous activity is triggered by what is called 'noise,'" said Roberto Galan. 

A photograph of liquid helium.

When we cool things down, classically, we can think of the atoms moving around inside the material getting slower and slower until they stop moving. That should make really cold things really boring, right? 

“Supercool liquid helium crawls out of containers," Nandini Trivedi said. "And certain supercool metals lose all their resistance. So as substances get cold they start behaving in really unusual ways.” 

A photo of a replica of Lucy's skeleton.

“People always want to know where they came from, right? They get excited by new discoveries of dinosaurs, but they become curious by the discovery of early human fossils.” 


Each time our cells grow and divide, they have to perfectly copy out almost a billion elements of genetic code. Of course, perfect almost never happens. So as soon as there was a genetic code, life had to evolve a way to fix DNA mismatches. But sometimes people inherit mutations in those DNA mismatch repair genes, and then you have really challenging cancers. But, at the bottom of this, there lies some hope in our own immune systems.  

In order to function, the cells in our bodies need to coordinate and pass information, say, if we need a burst of energy to flee a threat. But, without eyes, ears, or even radios, how do they signal this information reliably?

A photo of rings from a neutron star's flare.

Scientists have spent centuries studying how matter works. They’ve boiled it, they’ve frozen it, and they’ve even thrown it into particle colliders and smashed it up. They’ve learned a lot about what matter does in these conditions, but--that’s just what we can do on Earth.

“A neutron star is basically the densest object aside from a black hole. When they collide, the matter itself is deformed in such a way that we can probe densities inaccessible to laboratories on Earth,” Leslie Wade said.

A photo of the disease in the liver.

When Dr. Robert Brown started teaching physics at Case Western Reserve University, he had no idea he’d be using his expertise in magnetic fields to hunt malaria. The earlier malaria is diagnosed, the more likely you are to survive, but most lab techniques can’t be used in rural villages.

“We wanted to diagnose malaria with something fast, portable, and cheap and accurate, which sounds challenging, but in fact we were able to really do it,” Brown said.


What if I described a plant that has nutrient-rich beans, protein-rich roots, produces high quality oil, and, grows in desert regions where rural communities desperately need a drought-resistant crop? Sound too good to be true? Maybe not. I’ve just described the wild Marama bean, native to Africa.

“It has never been grown as an organized crop, it’s just collected out of the bush. The idea is can we find ways of developing a set of lines that give you decent yield which we can give to farmers,” Christopher Cullis, professor of biology at Case Western Reserve University, said.

A photo of a bottle of Depo-testosterone.
Wikimedia Commons

How do embryos know how to become male or female? Prof. Mike Weiss, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Indiana University, is studying how one protein, known as the sex-determining protein Y, or “SRY,” can program gender.

“SRY is like the light switch. The bulb is this downstream developmental pathway that leads to the formation of the organs,” Weiss said.

A visualization of Einstien's theory of gravitational waves.
NASA / Wikimedia Commons

In 1916, Einstein made a bold prediction- that gravity actually travels in waves. These “gravitational waves” would be ripples in the fabric of space a bit like ripples on a pond, and would slightly stretch and squash the distances between things as they passed.  

“Einstein himself who came up with the theory didn’t think that this would ever really be detected,” Kenyon College professor Leslie Wade said.