UCI scientists study the effects of an oil spill on Orange County's coastline

Oct 25, 2021

1 min

Joana Tavares and Melissa Brock, a Ph.D student in ecology and evolutionary biology, are spearheading the newly formed Southern California Oil Spill Project at UCI. They are analyzing the composition and health of the phytoplankton and bacterial communities in the ocean and inland waterways, using samples collected before, during, and ultimately after the oil spill situation has played out.

Also, the cleanup of the oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach earlier this month is essentially complete, but responsibility for the spill has yet to be assigned. In the coming months, and possibly years, it will be the legal system that determines liability — and damages.

Michael Robinson-Dorn, a clinical professor of law, co-associate dean for experiential education at the law school and director of UCI’s Environmental Law Clinic, joins the UCI Podcast to discuss how this spill compares to past ones, why simply shutting down offshore drilling is more challenging than it may seem and how society’s values will shape the future of oil drilling in California.

For more information or to contact the researchers, email Brian Bell at bpbell@uci.edu.

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UC Irvine expert on metacognition: Megan Peters

How do our brains take in complex information from the world around us to help us make decisions? And what happens when there’s a mismatch between how well your brain thinks it’s performing this function and how well it’s actually doing? UC Irvine cognitive scientist Megan Peters takes a deep dive into metacognition - our ability to monitor our own cognitive processing. To reach Prof. Peters, contact Heather Ashbach at hashbach@uci.edu or 949-284-1577. “Our brains are fantastically powerful information processing systems. They take in information from the world around us through our eyes, ears, and other senses, and they process or transform that sensory information into rich internal representations — representations that we can then use to make useful decisions, to navigate effectively without running into things, and ultimately, to stay alive. And interestingly, our brains also can tell us when they’re doing a good job with all this processing, through a process called metacognition, or our ability to monitor our own cognitive processing. My name is Megan Peters, and I’m an associate professor in the department of Cognitive Sciences at UC Irvine. I’m also a Fellow in the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Brain, Mind, & Consciousness program and I am president and chair of the board at Neuromatch. My research seeks to understand metacognition — how it works in the brain, and how it works at a computational or algorithm level — and it also seeks to understand what this metacognitive processing might have to do with the conscious experiences we have of our environments, of each other, and of ourselves. So in our research group, we use a combination of behavioral experiments with humans, brain imaging (like MRI scans), and computational approaches like mathematical modeling and machine learning or Artificial Intelligence, to try to unravel these mysteries. I think my favorite overall line of research right now has to do with cases where our brains’ self-monitoring sometimes seems to go wrong. So what I mean is, sometimes your brain “metacognitively” computes how well it thinks you’re doing at this “sensory information processing” task, but this ends up being completely different from how well you’re actually doing. Imagine it this way: you’re driving down a foggy road, at night in the dark. You probably can’t see very well, and you’d hope that your brain would also be able to tell you, “I can’t see super well right now, I should probably slow down.” And most of the time, your brain does this self-monitoring correctly, and you do slow down. But sometimes, under some kinds of conditions or visual information, your brain miscalculates, and it erroneously tells you, “Actually you can see just fine right now!” So this is a sort of “metacognitive illusion”: your brain is telling you “you’re doing great, you can see very clearly!” when in reality, the quality of the information that it’s receiving, and the processing it’s doing, is really poor, really bad — in essence, that means that you can feel totally confident in your abilities to accurately process the world around you, when in fact you’re interpreting the world totally incorrectly. Now normally, in everyday life, this doesn’t happen of course. But we can create conditions in the lab where this happens very robustly, which helps us understand when and how it might happen in the real world, too, and what the consequences might be. So this is fascinating both because it is a powerful tool for studying how your brain constructs that metacognitive feeling of confidence, and also because — in theory — it means that your subjective, conscious feeling of confidence might be doing something really different than just automatically or directly reading out how reliably you brain is processing information. And that could eventually provide a better way to investigate how our so-called phenomenological or conscious experiences can arise from activity patterns in your brain at all.” To reach Prof. Peters, contact Heather Ashbach at hashbach@uci.edu or 949-284-1577.

1 min

UC Irvine NATO expert available to discuss Finland membership

Heidi Hardt, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, is a scholar whose expertise is in transatlantic security, US foreign policy, national security and European security and defense, including NATO, the EU and OSCE. She is the author of the book, NATO's Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations (Oxford UP, 2018). She recently completed a 2021-2022 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars (IAF-TIRS). During the year, she worked for the US State Department (NATO Desk). Professor Hardt can be reached via email at hhardt@uci.edu.

1 min

UCI expert: federal standards of chemicals in country's waterways

The Biden Administration announced today that they are prepared to finally set federal standards on the amount of PFAS chemicals in the country’s waterways. This is long overdue oversight into regulating chemicals, specifically perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which when exposed to can cause debilitating, deadly diseases, and conditions such as cancer, liver damage, fertility and thyroid problems, asthma and more. For an expert source on this breaking news, Scott Bartell, MS, PhD, UC Irvine professor of environmental and occupational health, is available for interviews. For the past 25 years, Bartell has dedicated his research to quantifying human exposures and health effects caused by environmental contaminants such as PFAS – specifically the presence and epidemiology of PFAS in U.S. water sources. He is also the lead researcher on a study surveying Orange County, Calif. residents to find a link between PFAS and adverse health effects. To reach Prof. Bartell, reach out to Brianna Aldrich at brianna.aldrich@uci.edu or 760-809-5193.

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