Category Archives: News

Unicorns versus Narwhals | I’m on Public Radio!

OK, so this isn’t a new interview, but I thought I would post it retrospectively. In #scicomm class this week we talked about being interviewed. Aaron’s interview is HERE and Sheril has tons of interviews online. We noticed a lot of variation in interviewer skill and how “excited” each of us sounded. Here are a couple things I did that the class agreed worked OK:

  • I tried really really hard to not do the up-voice thing at the end of sentences
  • I said “this is really cool” and “the most exciting thing” as many times as I could
  • I tried to explain jargon on the fly

I did this interview over the phone and I wish I had had a better set up–sound quality makes a huge difference in how good thing sound.

My interview about the mythical “Oxygen-tolerant Nitrogenase” aired on “Stateside” Michigan Radio March 7, 2016 with the following blurb:

  • You could argue that research scientists today chase unicorns: If they are able to prove the existence of some myth, they could make the world a better place. Maren Friesen has done exactly that


I admit it, I like unicorns. (Who doesn’t like unicorns?) But I like narwhals better, because they’re real. I own a stuffed narwhal named Nar-walter. I recently received a narwhal tea-infuser. And a pair of socks with a narwhal crossing horns with a unicorn. But the main message that barely got across in the interview is that we DID NOT find the unicorn. Or rather, we found it and it was a narwhal that doesn’t fix nitrogen in the presence of oxygen.

Narwhal beats Unicorn! Go Science!

It would be really great if there were enzymes that could fix nitrogen without being so sensitive to oxygen, but so far it looks like we need to keep exploring within the classical Mo, V, and Fe enzymes that are known.

Science Role Models

Last semester, I was struck by a remark Jim Tiedje made during PubClub about a well-regarded scientist he knew who worked in a not-so-great lab but who had identified a top scientist in his field and emulated him/her.  By adopting the character traits of an admired scientist, the implication goes,  we can ourselves become better scientists. This reminded me of Rob Pennock’s Scientific Virtues project, which through surveys has identified the traits that scientists admire in our culture.

To kick off the new year, I asked everyone in my lab to submit a brief writeup of one of their science role models and reflect on how his/her traits enabled their scientific achievements. Many selected a former advisor, while others chose someone established in their field or someone famous they admired. Recurrent virtues included: Skepticism, Rigor, Loyalty, Hard work, Communication Ability, Caring, Curiosity, and Risk-taking. Many highlighted the importance of training students and postdocs and creating opportunities in science for those with diverse backgrounds.

The Friesen Lab’s Scientific Role Models: Catharina Coenen; Rosie RedfieldMary SeelyScott Peck; Jack Webster; Joan Strassmann; Lisa Donovan; Thomas Kuhn; David Arora; Alfred Wegener; Kathleen Rubins

To try to emulate our role models (and because Aaron Garoutte, Sheril Kirshenbaum and I are running a “Communicating Science” seminar this spring!) one of my 2017 resolutions is to write a post on this website every week–and my lab is going to hold me to it!

New Friesen lab paper out in the ISME Journal

Jeff and Maren’s new perspectives paper about exoenzyme production by free-living diazotrophs is available online in the ISME Journal! The paper is open access and can be viewed at the link below:

This paper lays out the conceptual basis for a lot of the experiments we’re conducting in association with our EAGER grant (info on that here).

Paper on Streptomyces thermoautotrophicus out in Scientific Reports!

Jeff here – Dr. Friesen and I are authors on a multi-institutional paper about Streptomyces thermoautotrophicus, the organism that spawned the Oxygen-tolerant Nitrogenase project, which came out today in Scientific Reports:

This paper results from the combined efforts of labs in Michigan, California, Argentina, Germany, and the UK.  This collaboration began when everyone involved realized they were simultaneously working on the same topic and decided to collaborate rather than compete – science can be an amazing venue for bringing people together!

We’ve met some amazing people through this project and traveled to some truly bizarre places (see our post on Microbe Hunting in Centralia PA).  Furthermore, the backstory on S. thermo makes this paper a great read!  A couple different press-releases came out in conjunction with this paper as well:

Three Cities in Three Weekends: The Travels of an Undergraduate

First time for many things during my trip: first Dean’s Research Scholars event, first time on the Amtrak, first time in Chicago and first time learning about historical architecture. The Amtrak from East Lansing to Chicago took about 4 hours and during the ride, I talked to a MSU geography graduate student about coding in R. Also on the trip with me was Elizabeth, the DRS coordinator and Sarah, a senior zoology major. We met with Beck Jo once we arrived in Chicago. From the moment I walked out of Union Station and onto the street of downtown Chicago, I was amazed at how busy the city was. We finally went to our room in the newly renovated Chicago Athletic Association. It was absolutely beautiful and old timey.

The purpose for my Chicago visit was an event at Ross and Terri Rubino’s house in Park Ridge, IL (about 30 minutes north of the city). They were very gracious hosts and the event had good food and even better company. Approximately 20 guests attended and Sarah and I both gave informal speeches about our stories, MSU experiences, and research. My interaction with the alumni was priceless; they were interested, inquisitive, encouraging and praising. It was great to connect and talk to alumni who are still so invested in the university’s success.  I am continuously amazed by the support of alumni worldwide. I am happy and proud to attend Michigan State University and grateful for research opportunities that have allowed me to discover more about myself.

The next morning, the city was even more packed than the day before and we went on a historic architecture walking tour through the city. We learned how Chicago evolved into a trading hub and unique skyscraper mecca. We also walked through Millennium Park and saw the bean.

Selfie with the "bean" sculpture.

Selfie with the “bean” sculpture.

(Visit for my DRS profile!)

The following weekend, I attended the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium (GCURS) at Rice University in Houston, Texas.  I got in late on Friday night and the symposium was all day Saturday. I was the very first presentation during the first session. I gave a 12 minute talk on my latest experiment which aimed to further investigate if invasive M. polymorpha relies less on co-evolved rhizobia. For the rest of the day, I met many undergraduates from Texas and listened to a variety of talks from ecology to engineering. One particular presentation employed all of the best genetic techniques and thanks to my advanced microbiology lab and microbial genetics classes, I understood every word!

We toured the Bio Research Center (BRC) and got to see a majority of the campus during our walk to dinner. It was not hard to get used to the warm weather and sunshine. To my surprise, Houston was laid back compared to Chicago. All of the buildings at Rice have red roofs and there are a lot of red brick buildings—they even have a piece of the Berlin Wall. Although I was in Houston a short time, it was still an awesome experience. A big thank you to Rice University, Dr. Susan Cates and the GCURS for having me!

At Rice's BRC.

At Rice’s BRC.

Last but certainly not least, I presented a 10 minute PowerPoint to the American Society of Microbiology (ASM) MI branch meeting at University of Michigan. My talk was on the same experiment I presented in Houston but with a lot more focus on pathogenicity because pathogenicity was the meeting’s focus. The presentation went well and I got to hear talks from three graduate students, and three PIs from various universities. I received very insightful feedback and questions, which was exciting because I felt like an expert in my field. I became a member of ASM and made quite a few connections. A really interesting talk was given by Dr. Melody Neely about using zebra fish to investigate pathogens and how they sometimes invade the immune system—surprisingly, zebra fish have very similar immune systems to humans. Fish also take up a lot less space in the lab and require less maintenance than rabbits and mice. Toward the end of the meeting, I received the Best Oral Presentation Award from ASM MI! I really enjoyed the meeting and am grateful that I could present to such a diverse group.

Giving my presentation! (Thanks for the photo, Dr. DiRita)

Giving my presentation! (Thanks for the photo, Dr. DiRita)

Dean’s Research Scholars Program

I, Katie Wozniak, have been selected to serve as a Dean’s Research Scholar for the College of Natural Science here at MSU for the 2015-2016 school year. The Dean’s scholars are a group of undergraduate students who do research in math and science and are able to effectively communicate their research to a broad range of alumni. Scholars travel to speaking engagements and attend special events where they interact one-on-one with alumni of Michigan State University.

Each of the scholars have a biography and Q&A posted online. They also maintain a blog about their experiences speaking to alumni. Since I am new to the program, the College of Natural Science’s photographer, Harley Seeley, came to take pictures of me in our lab’s greenhouse!  Harley brought his lighting,  computer, and a top of the line camera along with him. After exploring different poses that took into account the lighting, he began shooting. Harley was able to capture ~60 unique images.

The photos will be reviewed and sent to me for my critiques soon. I will be sure to post a link to my Dean’s Research Scholar webpage as soon as it is available!

Harley J. Seeley sets up photography equipment in one of the Friesen Lab's greenhouses.

Harley J. Seeley sets up photography equipment in one of the Friesen Lab’s greenhouses.

For more information about MSU’s Dean’s Research Scholars, please visit:

Medicago Ecological Genomics of Salinity Adaptation Paper

Maren’s paper on the genomics of salinity adaptation in Tunisian Medicago truncatula populations just came out in BMC Genomics. Read the full paper here. This was a major collaborative effort between labs in Tunisia and the US, as reflected in the long list of coauthors. This research was funded by the NSF Plant Genome program through a project that Maren initiated and spearheaded as a grad student & then helped lead during her postdoc.