Princeton Review Recognizes Caltech's Commitment to Sustainability

The Princeton Review has named Caltech to its "2013 Green Honor Roll." Caltech is among 21 schools that received the highest possible score—99—in an analysis that looked at 806 institutions and rated them on environmentally related practices, policies, and academic offerings. These "Green Rating" scores will be published on each school's profile in the new 2013 Princeton Review guidebooks.

Citing Caltech as "a giant in sustainability," a write-up on the review's website noted the pioneering use of self-managed green revolving funds, energy-efficiency projects, and contributions to cleaner air as highlights of the Institute's devotion to the green movement. The commendation also called attention to the campus's environmentally friendly buildings—such as the Annenberg Center and the Schlinger Laboratory—and the sustainability-focused classes and research opportunities available through the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis, the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, and the Resnick Sustainability Institute.

"This honor is exciting because it's not only a recognition of everyone's hard work across the campus, but also—and perhaps most importantly—it's encouragement to keep striving, each in our own individual ways, to be more effective stewards of Caltech," says John Onderdonk, director of sustainability programs at Caltech.

The Princeton Review's Green Rating measures a school's performance as an environmentally aware and responsible institution using criteria and questions developed in conjunction with ecoAmerica, a research- and partnership-based environmental nonprofit organization. The ratings consider, among other things, whether students have a healthy and sustainable campus quality of life; how well students are prepared for employment and citizenship in a world now defined by environmental challenges; and a school's environmental policies. More information can be found in the Princeton Review's press release

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Caltech Recognized for Commitment to Sustainability
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Caltech Wins Toilet Challenge

Caltech's solar-powered toilet has won the Reinventing the Toilet Challenge issued by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Caltech engineer Michael Hoffmann and his colleagues were awarded $100,000 for their design, which they demonstrated at the Reinvent the Toilet Fair, a two-day event held August 14–15 in Seattle.

Last summer, Hoffmann, the James Irvine Professor of Environmental Science at Caltech, and his team were awarded a $400,000 grant to create a toilet that can safely dispose of human waste for just five cents per user per day. The lavatory can't use a septic system or an outside water source, or produce pollutants.

The challenge is part of a $40 million program initiated by the Gates Foundation to tackle the problems of water, sanitation, and hygiene throughout the developing world. According to the World Health Organization, 2.5 billion people around the globe are without access to sanitary toilets, which results in the spread of deadly diseases. Every year, 1.5 million people—mostly those under the age of five—die from diarrhea.

Hoffmann's proposal—which won one of the eight grants given—was to build a toilet that uses the sun to power an electrochemical reactor. The reactor breaks down water and human waste into fertilizer and hydrogen, which can be stored in hydrogen fuel cells as energy. The treated water can then be reused to flush the toilet or for irrigation.

The team built a prototype inside the solar dome on the roof of Caltech's Linde + Robinson Laboratory, and after a year of designing and testing, they—along with the other grantees—showed off their creation. The Gates Foundation brought in 50 gallons of fake feces made from soybeans and rice for the demonstrations.

The $60,000 second-place prize went to Loughborough University in the United Kingdom—whose toilet produces biological charcoal, minerals, and clean water—and the $40,000 third-place award went to the University of Toronto's design, which sanitizes feces and urine and recovers resources and clean water. Eawag (Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology) and EOOS won $40,000 as a special recognition for their toilet interface design.

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Marcus Woo
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Anchors Aweigh

At Caltech, hydrophilic researchers in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences take to the salty seas to gather data, explore the deep, and get a firsthand view of the beasts at the bottom. The briny treasures they collect along the way are helping them learn more about past, present, and future environmental conditions and hazards. Read about their ocean adventures in a feature-length story in the Summer 2012 issue of E&S magazine.

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Katie Neith
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Ocean-based Researchers Take to the Sea
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Caltech Researchers Use Stalagmites to Study Past Climate Change

PASADENA, Calif.—There is an old trick for remembering the difference between stalactites and stalagmites in a cave: Stalactites hold tight to the ceiling while stalagmites might one day grow to reach the ceiling. Now, it seems, stalagmites might also fill a hole in our understanding of Earth's climate system and how that system is likely to respond to the rapid increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide since preindustrial times.

Many existing historical climate records are biased to the high latitudes— coming from polar ice cores and North Atlantic deep ocean sediments. Yet a main driver of climate variability today is El Niño, which is a completely tropical phenomenon. All of this begs the question: How do we study such tropical climate influences? The answer: stalagmites.

"Stalagmites are the ice cores of the tropics," says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He and geochemist Kim Cobb of the Georgia Institute of Technology led a team that collected samples from stalagmites in caves in northern Borneo and measured their levels of oxygen isotopes to reconstruct a history of the tropical West Pacific's climate over four glacial cycles during the late Pleistocene era (from 570,000 to 210,000 years ago).

The results appear in the May 3 issue of Science Express. The lead author of the paper, Nele Meckler, completed most of the work as a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and is now at the Geological Institute of ETH Zürich.

Throughout Earth's history, global climate has shifted between periods of glacial cooling that led to ice ages, and interglacial periods of relative warmth, such as the present. Past studies from high latitudes have indicated that about 430,000 years ago—at a point known as the Mid-Brunhes Event (MBE)—peak temperatures and levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in interglacial cycles were suddenly bumped up by about a third. But no one has known whether this was also the case closer to the equator.

 

By studying the records from tropical stalagmites, Adkins and his team found no evidence of such a bump. Instead, precipitation levels remained the same across the glacial cycles, indicating that the tropics did not experience a major shift in peak interglacial conditions following the MBE. "The stalagmite records have glacial cycles in them, but the warm times—the interglacials—don't change in the same way as they do at high latitudes," Adkins says. "We don't know what that tells us yet, but this is the first time the difference has been recorded."

At the same time, some changes did appear in the climate records from both the high latitudes and the tropics. The researchers found that extreme drying in the tropics coincided with abrupt climate changes in the North Atlantic, at the tail end of glacial periods. It is thought that these rapid climate changes, known as Heinrich events, are triggered by large ice sheets suddenly plunging into the ocean.

"In the tropics, we see these events as very sharp periods of drying in the stalagmite record," Adkins says. "We think that these droughts indicate that the tropics experienced a more El Niño–like climate at those times, causing them to dry out." During El Niño events, warm waters from the tropics, near Borneo, shift toward the center of the Pacific Ocean, often delivering heavier rainfall than usual to the western United States while leaving Indonesia and its neighbors extremely dry and prone to forest fires. 

The fact that the tropics responded to Heinrich events, but not to the shift that affected the high latitudes following the MBE, suggests that the climate system has two modes of responding to significant changes. "It makes you wonder if maybe the climate system cares about what sort of hammer you hit it with," Adkins says. "If you nudge the system consistently over long timescales, the tropics seem to be able to continue independently of the high latitudes. But if you suddenly whack the climate system with a big hammer, the impact spreads out and shows up in the tropics."

This work raises questions about the future in light of recent increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide: Is this increase more like a constant push? Or is it a whack with a big hammer? A case could be made for either one of these scenarios, says Adkins, but he adds that it would be easiest to argue that the forcing is more like a sudden whack, since the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased at such an unprecedented rate.

In addition to Adkins, Cobb, and Meckler, other coauthors on the paper, "Interglacial hydroclimate in the tropical West Pacific through the late Pleistocene," are Matthew Clarkson of the University of Edinburgh and Harald Sodemann of ETH Zürich. Cobb is also a former postdoctoral scholar in Adkins's group and has been collaborating on this project since her time at Caltech. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Swiss National Science Foundation, the German Research Foundation, and by an Edinburgh University Principal's Career Development PhD Scholarship.

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Kimm Fesenmaier
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Caltech Celebrates Earth Week

To help educate the community on living greener, Caltech's Office of Sustainability is sponsoring a series of events starting Tuesday in honor of Earth Week.

Four lunchtime lectures offer participants the opportunity to learn where Caltech's water comes from, how power is generated on campus, what happens to the waste generated on campus, and how to buy locally and sustainably grown produce. These informational sessions will be held Tuesday through Friday at noon in Winnett Lounge, and lunch will be provided to the first 25 guests in attendance at each event.

Anyone with a green thumb can pick up free vegetable seeds and compost from Chandler Café's composting program and find out how to get involved in sustainability organizations on campus at the student club fair on Wednesday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on San Pasqual Walk. Then on Thursday, there is a screening of Living Downstream, a documentary about cancer and its connection to our environment, at 5 p.m. in Hameetman Auditorium.

The week wraps up with an e-waste roundup on Friday from 8 a.m. to noon at the Recycling Center, where you can properly dispose of your old computers, cell phones, batteries, DVDs, fax machines, stereos, monitors, scanners, and printers.

All events are open to the public. For more information on the full spectrum of Caltech's sustainability efforts, visit http://sustainability.caltech.edu/.

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Andrew Allan
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Linde + Robinson Lab Recognized by Los Angeles Conservancy

One of Caltech's oldest buildings, the Linde + Robinson Laboratory for Global Environmental Science, is the recipient of a 2012 Los Angeles Conservancy Preservation Award. The building, an astronomy lab built in 1932 that has undergone extensive renovations over the past two years, is the nation's first lab constructed in an existing historic building to earn LEED Platinum rating.

The Los Angeles Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that works to recognize, preserve, and revitalize the historic architectural and cultural resources of Los Angeles County. According to the organization's website, award recipients "range widely, from sensitive restoration, rehabilitation, and adaptive reuse projects, to groundbreaking advocacy and education efforts by individuals and groups."

The awards are selected by an independent jury of leading experts in architecture, historic preservation, and community development. Linde + Robinson was noted for "an exceptionally creative and sensitive approach" that "transformed a historic astrophysics laboratory into a highly advanced and sustainable scientific facility—the first-ever LEED Platinum renovation of a historic lab building," according to a press release issued by the conservancy. The "massive project," notes the conservancy on its website, "not only preserved the building 's unique historic features, it found brilliant new uses for them—particularly the solar telescope, built as the centerpiece of the original building but functionally obsolete. Now it tracks the sun and uses the light it captures for both illumination and exploration."

The transformation of Linde + Robinson into a state-of-the-art model of sustainability began in early 2010. It now stands as one of the nation's most energy-efficient laboratories—fitting for a building that houses the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, a group of researchers dedicated to developing solutions to the world's complex environmental problems.

In selecting Linde + Robinson for an award, the jury highlighted the "exceptional combination of preservation, technology, and sustainability; Caltech's stewardship of its historic resources; the high quality of the work; and just how incredibly cool it is," notes Cindy Olnick, the director of communications for the conservancy.

The Preservation Awards will be presented at a luncheon on Thursday, May 10, at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.

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Katie Neith
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Caltech Oceanographer Tests New Technology at the Bottom of the Earth

The field of study of Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech, presents not only theoretical challenges but logistical ones as well. That's because he is interested in the circulation and ecology of the Southern Ocean—a cold, remote region near Antarctica—and the role it plays in global climate.  

In particular, he studies a marine area at the eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, part of the Weddell Sea. The hostile environment of the Weddell Sea makes long-term research difficult, so he's part of a team that is seeking to monitor the region with autonomous underwater vehicles called gliders. Last month, Thompson set off on a research cruise to deploy three of these new gliders, as well as some surface drifters that follow the currents and can be tracked with global positioning system (GPS) receivers.

"The currents and fronts in this region are important because they determine the transport and dispersal of krill—an important part of the ocean food chain—and also interact and modify the outflow of dense Antarctic Bottom Water, which eventually sinks to become the densest water in the ocean," says Thompson. "This part of the Weddell Sea is the injection point for krill and these dense water masses into the greater Southern Ocean, " 

The team, which included researchers from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences, the British Antarctic Survey, and from the University of East Anglia in the U.K., collected hydrographic data from the ship—such as the temperature, salinity, and density of the water—when they weren't busy with the gliders.

"We captured the signature of dense Antarctic Bottom Water at the shelf break cascading off the continental shelf," says Thompson, who says the group spent a lot of time keeping the gliders out of the way of iceberg C-19, formed in 2002 on the opposite side of Antarctica. "It originally had a surface area of 5500 square km, but is now about 800 square km. We have some great measurements right in the lee of the berg and see evidence of it significantly disrupting the currents in the region."

The team also successfully tested an echo sounder that they attached to the gliders to measure krill biomass. The echo sounder uses sonar to detect krill swarms in the water column.

"A major purpose of the cruise was to demonstrate the capability of ocean gliders to play a key role in future polar ocean observing systems," he says. And so far, the instruments have shown favorable results. The gliders were deployed on January 23; since then, they've been collecting samples and reporting data back to Thompson via satellite when they come to the surface every few hours. At press time, the Caltech glider had just completed its 200th dive. It, along with the other two gliders, will be recovered at the end of the experiment in mid-March.

In addition to research success, the crew, which returned to land in early February, had the chance to experience some marine wildlife in their natural habitat. The boat was visited by a number of friendly humpbacks and, while taking measurements from the sea, researchers found a pod of feeding orcas.

For more pictures and details from the trip, visit Thompson's website. The "journals" section gives personal accounts and images from the voyage.

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Katie Neith
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Research Symposium and Dedication Ceremony for the Linde + Robinson Laboratory

The Linde + Robinson Laboratory for Global Environmental Science was officially dedicated with a research symposium and ceremony on January 24.

The research symposium featured talks by John H. Seinfeld, Louis E. Nohl Professor and professor of chemical engineering, and Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science, both of whom have laboratories in the new Linde + Robinson Laboratory. They spoke about the role of aerosols in climate and atmospheric chemistry, and the exploration of the deep ocean for corals and clues to past climate change.

Speakers at the dedication ceremony included Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau, GPS division chair Ken Farley, Caltech and Rocky Mountain Institute trustee Sue Woolsey, and trustee and donor Ronald Linde. 

Both events helped mark the historic transformation of one of Caltech's oldest buildings into a prototype laboratory for the future. Linde + Robinson is one of the nation's most energy-efficient science buildings, complete with state-of-the-art laboratories for oceanography, atmospheric science, and environmental chemistry and technology.

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Allison Benter
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Evidence of Ancient Lake in California's Eel River Emerges

Caltech-led team documents ecological changes that may explain the two different populations of once-related steelhead trout found today in the river

PASADENA, Calif.—A catastrophic landslide 22,500 years ago dammed the upper reaches of northern California's Eel River, forming a 30-mile-long lake—which has since disappeared—and leaving a living legacy found today in the genes of the region's steelhead trout, according to scientists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the University of Oregon.

Using remote-sensing technology known as airborne Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) and hand-held global positioning system (GPS) units, a three-member research team found evidence for a late Pleistocene, landslide-dammed lake–located about 60 miles southeast of Eureka, California—along the Eel River.

The river today is 200 miles long and carved into the ground from high in the California Coast Ranges to its mouth on the Pacific Ocean in Humboldt County.

The evidence for the ancient landslide—which, scientists say, blocked the river with a 400-foot wall of loose rock and debris—is detailed this week in a paper appearing online ahead of print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study provides a rare glimpse into the geological and ecological history of this rapidly evolving mountainous region.

According to Benjamin H. Mackey, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech, the findings help to explain emerging evidence from other studies that show a dramatic decrease in the amount of sediment deposited from the river in the ocean just off shore at about the same time period.

Mackey and his colleagues were drawn to the Eel River, which is among the most-studied erosion systems in the world, to study large, slow-moving landslides. "While analyzing the elevation of terraces along the river, we discovered they clustered at a common elevation rather than decreasing in elevation downstream, paralleling the river profile, as would be expected for river terraces," he says. "This was the first sign of something unusual, and it clued us in to the possibility of an ancient lake."

By combining the findings from their field investigations with analysis of the topographic data provided by the LiDAR mapping, the team was able to identify a large landslide scar on the flank of a nearby peak, and detect subtle shorelines upstream of the landslide. The researchers suggest that a landslide in this area would have been capable of damming the river and creating a lake. An outcrop of finely laminated lake sediments discovered in a tributary stream provided compelling physical evidence for the lake’s existence.

An image constructed from high-resolution topography acquired via LiDAR remote sensing shows an oblique view of the reconstructed lake surface (transparent blue). The modern bed of the Eel River is the broad flat area across the center-left of the image. The inset shows sediment found upstream of the dam and indicate deposition in still water, typical of a lake environment. Charcoal within these sediments was radiocarbon dated to estimate the time of lake emplacement at 22,500 years ago.
Credit: California Institute of Technology

"Perhaps of most interest, the presence of this landslide dam also provides an explanation for the results of previous research on the genetics of steelhead trout in the Eel River," says Mackey, referring to a 1999 study by the U.S. Forest Service. In that study, researchers found a striking relationship between two types of ocean-going steelhead in the river—a genetic similarity not seen among summer-run and winter-run steelhead in other nearby rivers.

An interbreeding of the two fish, in a process known as genetic introgression, may have occurred among the fish brought together while the river was dammed, Mackey says. "The dam likely would have been impassable to the fish migrating upstream, meaning both ecotypes would have been forced to spawn and inadvertently interbreed downstream of the dam," he explains. "This period of gene flow between the two types of steelhead can explain the genetic similarity observed today."

Once the dam burst, the fish would have reoccupied their preferred spawning grounds and resumed different genetic trajectories, he adds.

"The damming of the river was a dramatic, punctuated affair that greatly altered the landscape," says coauthor Joshua J. Roering, an associate professor of geological sciences at the University of Oregon. "Although current physical evidence for the landslide dam and paleolake is subtle, its effects are recorded in the Pacific Ocean and persist in the genetic makeup of today's Eel River steelhead. It’s rare for scientists to be able to connect the dots between such diverse and widely felt phenomena."

The lake formed by the landslide, researchers theorize, covered about 12 square miles. After the dam was breached, the flow of water would have generated one of North America's largest landslide-dam outburst floods. Landslide activity and erosion have erased much of the evidence for the now-gone lake. Without the acquisition of LiDAR mapping, the lake's existence may have never been discovered, researchers say.

“This was a remarkable discovery, since large lakes in steep, rapidly uplifting mountain terrain are rare," says Michael P. Lamb, assistant professor of geology at Caltech and coauthor of the study. "Moreover, high erosion rates tend to erase evidence that past lakes ever existed. Ben was able to piece together subtle pieces of geologic evidence from landslides to shorelines to show that this lake existed, and that its presence is still felt thousands of years after its demise in local fish populations and in the marine sedimentary record."

The National Center for Airborne Laser Mapping provided the LiDAR data used in the project. Funding for the study, "Landslide-dammed paleolake perturbs marine sedimentation and drives genetic change in anadromous fish," was provided by the National Science Foundation and the Keck Institute for Space Studies at Caltech. 

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Katie Neith
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Caltech Joins Billion Dollar Green Challenge

In a collaborative effort with 32 other leading U.S. institutions, Caltech has helped launch the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, an initiative to invest a cumulative total of one billion dollars to fund energy-efficiency upgrades on campuses across the country.

Caltech was the first institution to make the commitment to use self-managed green revolving funds for sustainability improvements as part of the challenge. These profitable investments help create green jobs in campus communities while lowering operating costs on college and university campuses.

"We're transforming energy efficiency upgrades from perceived expenses to high-return investment opportunities," said Mark Orlowski, executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which is coordinating the challenge along with 13 partner organizations, in a statement. "Caltech should be commended for rising to the challenge and investing in energy efficiency improvements on campus."

The Billion Dollar Green Challenge launched publicly on October 11. Guided by a 34-member expert advisory council, the challenge offers technical assistance, best-practices sharing, access to an advanced web-based tool for managing green revolving funds, peer institutions' project-specific data, and invitations to specialized webinars and conferences.

Caltech currently has an $8 million revolving fund for sustainability efforts, which is getting a return of about 30 percent while improving building performance, says John Onderdonk, manager of sustainability programs. Initiatives supported thus far by the fund include mechanical-equipment upgrades in eight buildings and lighting upgrades in over 50 percent of the campus structures.

"We are proud to be a Founding Circle member of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge," says Onderdonk. "For the past three years we have proven that a revolving loan fund is an effective vehicle for investing in our campus to save energy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve the Institute's bottom line.  The challenge gives us the opportunity to share that success with others and ensure our program remains state-of-the-art."

Caltech's growing commitment to sustainability has not gone unnoticed. Recently, the Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology and the Schlinger Laboratory for Chemistry and Chemical Engineering were selected to be honored at the inaugural Sustainable Innovation Awards during the Green Gala on November 3, 2011. The Green Gala is a United States Green Building Council, Los Angeles chapter, event that highlights sustainable building in Southern California.

In addition, the Institute won the award for Model Community Achievement from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). Presented jointly to the City of Pasadena, Pasadena City College, and Caltech, the accolade recognizes contributions to cleaner air and is part of the AQMD's 23rd annual Clean Air Awards.

"From an organization that plants trees to a manufacturer that builds all-electric cars, this year's honorees demonstrate their creativity and commitment in showing us there are many ways we can improve our air quality," said AQMD governing board chairman William A. Burke, in a statement. "Their actions speak to the difference that one person or organization can make in cleaning the air."

Caltech was recognized for its implementation of a wide range of complex energy-efficiency projects that resulted in an annual energy savings of 8.3 million kilowatt-hours, equivalent to $1.3 million in utility cost savings in 2009–2010. These projects reduced Caltech's greenhouse emissions by more than 6,000 metric tons.

In addition, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education recently announced that Caltech is home to the second largest rooftop solar installation among universities in the United States.

"These awards recognize the significant investment that everyone at Caltech has made to improve the Institute," says Onderdonk. "Whether formally as a member of the sustainability council, the committee on greenhouse gas reduction, or a division green team; or informally by taking individual action in your daily lives, the entire campus community has helped raise the bar."

For more information on environmental efforts around campus, visit the Sustainability at Caltech website

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Katie Neith
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