Saturday, November 5, 2011

What's Not For Dinner

A visit From the Ocean Doctor is better than a visit to your medical doctor.  First there is no undressing and donning a questionable paper outfit designed, presumably, on the set of Star Trek.  This week, Dr. David Guggenheim aka “The Ocean Doctor” came to visit us at Miami U to tell us about the state of the world’s ocean, its coral reefs, and the other animal life there.  Although the presentations were interesting and visually stunning, the report was not good.  For instance, less than 5% of the coral reefs are expected to remain by 2030 at our current rate of pollution, destruction, and oceanic warming.  Coral supports an estimated 25% of the ocean’s diversity and they are some of the oldest living species on the planet at 4000 years. 
Of all the risks to corals and to oceans, the one that disturbs me the most, and which also seems the easiest fix, is the high environmental cost of fishing.  Watching some of the footage of oceanic habitat destroyed by trawling and the inevitable consequence of by-catch in the fishing industry, I wondered if it was ethical to eat fish at all in this world with 7 billion hungry humans.  On principle, it seems conceivable that we should be able to eat fish raised or caught in a sustainable way.  And aquaculture could potentially alleviate some of the environmental and ethical concerns.  (Whole Foods apparently has good labeling on their fish.)   However, unless you go out and catch your own fish for dinner from a stream or lake, you do not have good assurance that this fish was collected in a way that takes into account sustainability and humane practices.  (Of course, fishing with rod and reel also drives stocking fish into rivers and lakes, which is environmentally problematic in its own way. Dinner has become rather complicated.)  Until we have better practices that do not result in significant by-catch and environmental degradation, the most environmentally responsible decision may be to stick with your greens and beans and let the oceanic habitats recover.  The Ocean Doctor did not discourage eating fish, but like a visit with my regular doctor, I left my meeting with him with the feeling that I needed to reevaluate some of my choices.  

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Giant Puff Balls

Giant Puffballs are on the loose in Ohio right now.  I was walking through the woods and thought someone had dropped a load full of cantaloupe.  I love cantaloupe, so I investigated and found instead this giant, edible mushroom.  You do not seem to be ooo-ing or aaaawww-ing.  Let me see if I can get you a closer look.

Now then--aren't you impressed?!  They were bigger than my head, which is apparently quite large if the "large" hats (that do not fit) that I've been crocheting are any indicator.  Giant puffballs are edible before the spores form, so you can cook them up for dinner.  Puffball pizza might be just the thing.  

Just wanted to share the excitement from the Ohio woods.  

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Somewhere, Hardy-Weinberg (or Great Songs for Science)

I was listening to a few songs by They Might Be Giants about science, which are not bad.  We used to listen to They Might Be Giants while driving to math meets in high school, so it’s good to see that they joined the nerd club formally and are writing songs for the youth about science.  My favorite song that I’ve found is My Brother the Ape, which encourages us to think about all of life as a relation, which the data suggest is accurate.  (However, I’m not sure my actual brother with whom I share 50% of my genome would be thrilled to hear me singing this song, since he’s kind of hairy.) It’s a good song, but you know, not as detailed as you might hope for your introductory biology class. 

I recently wrote some lyrics for my intro class when we discussed the Hardy-Weinberg Principle, one of the central ideas in population genetics that helps us understand if a population is experiencing microevolutionary processes.  It allows you to predict the frequency of alleles and genotypes in a population when it meets a set of assumption, assumptions that fit very nicely to music of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a song that today’s students and their aged professors still seem to have in common.  (Through a series of trial and error, I have learned that they do not know This Land is Your Land or Blowin’ in the Wind, which you may also find shocking and horrifying.)  I have been singing Somewhere, Hardy-Weinberg, and maybe you should too.  (But don’t sing anything in parentheses below!)  It won’t offend your brother (the ape, or otherwise). 

Somewhere Hardy-Weinberg
(Somewhere Over the Rainbow)

Somewhere there’s a population, of infinite size
(Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high)
With random maters and no mutation, selection, or migration.
(There’s a land that I heard of once in a lullaby.)

Somewhere the probability that two alleles will meet
(Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue.)
Will be a product of their free-ee-ee-quencies.
(And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.)

The likelihood of Big-A Big-A (AA) is going to be p times p,
(Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far)
Or p-squared!
(behind me!)

And little-a with little-a (aa) will be the frequency of q times q
(Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops that’s where)
Or q-squared!
(you’ll find me.)

Somewhere there’s a population of infinite size. 
(Somewhere over the rainbow bluebirds fly.)
Alleles meet in random order
(Birds fly over the rainbow)
In Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium.
(Why then oh why can’t I?)

And don’t forget the heterozygotes (Aa), they’re out there too
(If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow)
it’s p times q times two! 
(why then oh why can’t I?)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Flowering Bugs

As much as we like to control nature with our planning and our plows, we still seem to recreate it in our own backyards.  And I am no different, as I have been turning my yard back to a bit of weeds.  I have let an area of Queen Anne’s Lace go to it, which I may regret next year since one spontaneous plant in 2010 seemed to seed an area with a diameter of ten feet or so for 2011; I have a weakness for that plant, so soon it may fill the yard.  I have also planted some sensible natives, like butterfly weed, which is a member of the milkweed family with a shocking orange flower that would inspire a grandmother’s bonnet.  Robert Frost has a poem, “The Tuft of Flowers,” about finding one of these plants after a field had been mowed down by following the flight of a butterfly— Frost imagines the mower leaving this “leaping tongue of bloom the scythe had spared” from “sheer morning gladness at the brim.” Sounds like the stuff of poetry, doesn’t it?   I was expecting the plant to attract butterflies (since the scythe is seldom wielded at my house), which it did.  But tonight I found the plant has also attracted bugs an orange as vibrant as the flower once was.  Imagine Frosts gladness had he found the butterfly weed covered in cool bugs!

After a little googling, it looks like these orange busybodies are large milkweed bugs that breed and feed on the plant and tufted seeds.  Many milkweeds have chemicals that protect them from herbivory, but this bug like the catepillars of queen and monarch butterflies that also feed upon it, can utilize the chemicals for their own protection.  Their bright coloration is like wearing a bright orange vest to advertise your presence—predators see them and leave them alone because they are toxic.  Such a nice surprise to find when I thought the flowering was complete.  My little girl agreed.  It’s a new adventure every day, even if you don’t wander out of the yard.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Evolution and the Heavens

This week in introductory biology we started our material on “Evolution” and I always think about “the controversy” surrounding evolution in our society.   I’ve polled the students in  class for the last eight years (~N=150 X 8 years) and around 30% fall into the categories of 1) having a problem with evolution, 2) sort of having of problem with it, or 3) aren’t really sure how they feel about it.  Although our class is a foundational course taken by students of many disciplines, it is mostly science majors (mostly pre-meds).   The students seem to have the biggest issue being related to other apes or being considered apes at all. Such comments from them always make me think of my father with a smile since he liked to introduce himself as Emmette Ba Boone (you know, as in baboons, which are monkeys and not apes).  Sharing a common ancestor with any life form was never a stretch for me, but that may be one of the advantages of being a Ba Boone. 

When I think about “the controversy,” I mostly wonder why there is a controversy.  Jesus was such a reasonable guy.  Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. Or, Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone…  Or hundreds of other perfectly reasonable statements.  If Jesus was around today in the flesh, I think he would worry about God’s creation and what humans are doing to it, and the general problems of human failure.  It’s hard to imagine that man of the bible waging a war over the evolution of life and a literal interpretation of the story in Genesis.   He gives no impression that he’d be someone who has a problem with using the available data to understand natural phenomenon.  And why should he?  Scratch the surface and the world really is awesome in the traditional and contemporary sense.  Evolution and religion are not mutually exclusive for many people. 

What I wish we all could concede is that because we share common ancestors with the rest of life, we should be extremely (even evangelically) motivated to care for our fellow creatures on this planet.   That is a more productive conversation to have:  what we can do to protect the creation.  “Believing” in a literal translation of Genesis or “believing” the diverse and abundant data that serves as the foundation for the theory of evolution really do not matter in terms of Christian salvation—that salvation is found through other beliefs.   A life spent examining natural explanations for natural phenomenon requires its own kind of faith, but interpreting and reinterpreting the data available should always be based on logic and reason.  Heaven would expect no less.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Looking Up

Another semester begins here at Miami University and there is the usual excitement and anticipation associated with the beginning of fall semester.  The temperature even dropped ten degrees yesterday as if to concede that the summer is coming to a close.  A generous concession at this point. 

I am recently back from a two week vacation and sufficiently recharged to feel a little of that new-school-year excitement as I prepare for another semester of introductory biology with lots of freshman and others. Today was our first day of class and I shared a poem with the students called “Invitation” by Mary Oliver, one of the great living nature poets. It begins: Oh do you have time/ to linger/for just a little while/out of your busy//and very important day/for the goldfinches/that have gathered/in a field of thistles…

When she puts it that way you realize, yes I do.  One of the things I love about Mary Oliver’s poetry is that she witnesses the goings on of the natural world and reminds you that you have the time to linger, to stare, and to listen. Ah, such hobbies. On my drive home, I watched a young student walking down the street with rather large head phones on her head. Fashion-wise, I didn’t really like the look; nature-wise, I worried she might miss the calls of the cicadas and wondered if she even saw the birds flying all around her. Sure, I like my folk my music and I understand that it’s nice to have a good beat to walk to. But, nature is now and it’s a shame to miss any more of it than necessary.  Walking home or to class seems like the perfect time to witness our urban ecology.

With that thought, I came home, laid on our deck, and looked up. Near the top of one of the thinner branches, there was a robin’s nest secured in the maple.  It has probably been there all summer, right above our heads apparently, and it was news to me.  It made me want to Tweet like a bird in her nest.  Hope you find something new and exciting in your backyard too.  

Thursday, May 19, 2011


My babies are growing up.  Despite the cold April and May with lots of rain, which I thought might slow them down, my northern leopard frog tadpoles haven't seemed to notice.  I collected these tadpoles toward the end of March and the tadpoles were added to my ponds shortly after hatching.  They've been in the ponds about 6 weeks now and they are about 1000-1500X larger than they started out.   That would turn your average 8 pound baby into an 8,000-12,000 pound menace--mightier than King Kong and harder to ignore.  From birth to adulthood, we human animals only increase our mass 15-20X.  The human transformation, I am learning with my own ray of sunshine, is amazing and dramatic, but frogs have much, much more to be amazed by.   A final thought:  Tadpoles should be the poster child for vegetarians.   

Friday, May 13, 2011

Jumping To It, With Frogs and Elementary School Kids

These kids had a lot of jump in them.

This week at Miami U, 1st through 5th graders from our school district are visiting science labs to learn about some of the science going on here.  There are 177 sessions in five days with the kids and different science labs that volunteer across the campus.  We figured we had a big (excitement) advantage over some labs, because we work with frogs and salamanders.  I mean really, it doesn’t get more jump-up-and-scream exciting than that.  My lab had a number of great ideas for working with the young scientists.  I had a few ideas myself, and after they convinced me the kids did not want to make graphs of anything or get their very own pocket protectors, we were off to a good start.  So, this week we’ve been jumping frogs and students to do a comparison of who jumped farther in terms of body length. 
A class of tie-dyed third graders watch 
the glorious American Toad show his stuff.

After introducing the kids to the frogs, we worked in groups to measure the frogs from nose to rump with a piece of string.  Everyone had a chance to hold, feel, and admire the frogs; it was so cool that the kids were so open-minded and open-handed about holding the frogs.  Not a bit squeamish.  After suitable admiration, we put the wet frogs on some brown paper and waited sometimes patiently for the frog to jump, then recorded the number of body lengths each frog travelled.  We used toads, bullfrogs, and cricket frogs…and, of course, kids.  The kids recorded their data and found that the toads jumped 2-4 times their body length, as did the bullfrogs.  The cricket frogs, these small gorgeous champions, jumped 7-12 times their body length and caused an inordinate amount of screaming among the young people.  At one point, I almost screamed too, but then I remembered I was a calm, logical scientist and I didn’t want to break the stereotype any more than necessary. 
A student jumps like a frog, while the others wait for the data.

The children jumped between 1-2 times their own body lengths.  They were athletic, yes.  They were full of energy, true.  They were inspirational, definitely.  But relatively speaking, they did not beat most of the frogs.  If they could jump as far as a cricket frog, they could leap about 30 feet in a single, casual hop, rather than 4-5 feet most of them were jumping.  This must be why one kid left the room saying “Amphibians are toadily awesome.”  
Second graders with a spotted salamander.  They don't jump, but they're still cool.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Television Drama about Scientists Needed

                Last Friday I was sitting in the doctor’s office getting my knee examined by your average trained medical professional.  I hurt my knee practicing a jumping activity that my lab is going to try out on some elementary school kids (as well as some frogs).  I wanted a professional opinion on whether or not I had popped something that was going to torture me through the weekend or if I was just reaching the end of my standing jump days on hard surfaces.  According to the doctor, my knee and I were mechanically fine.  It was the “slightly old and feeble” diagnosis, which I accepted from this guy who has a medical degree, who has been recommended by other patients, and who seemed to know what he was doing as he felt around my swollen, sore knee.  I didn’t consider not believing him, but hey, he’s a doctor not a climate scientist.
                My visit had me thinking about the (often) blind faith people put in doctors.  And it makes me wonder why scientists do not get even the faith of the mustard seed from some sectors of the public.  In order to obtain a position of a research scientist or faculty member, a person has completed an undergraduate degree (4 years), a graduate degree (+5 years), a post doctoral position (+2 or 3 years), and competed on a tight market for a job.  That’s easily more than a decade of training (and my estimates were on the average to low side).  A person earns her/his medical degree and complete his/her residency in about the same amount of time as a scientist; still, scientists do not seem to have the street cred that a doctor has.  Is it because there aren’t enough television shows about ecologists or climate scientists?  Or maybe people do not understand what a scientist does in any kind of detail that allows them to have a sense of trust in a scientist’s professional opinion.  Maybe.  We all go to the doctor, but hardly any of us go to the scientist.  No doubt, we scientists could work on reaching out to make some human contact with our fellow earthlings.
                There are several reasons why we can have some faith in scientific consensus, however.  First, scientists rely on evidence and are often forced to change their hunches or expectations in light of data that contradict them—most scientists even love this.  Understanding any phenomenon requires a number of studies by a range of researchers.  One experiment is not going to prove anything—even a thousand won’t.  But, if you have a thousand experiments, you will likely have enough data to support a conclusion (and to generate all sorts of other questions).  It’s sort of like putting an idea on trial.  The scientific community individually and together serves as the jury and judge weighing all of the evidence and based on the evidence presented at the trial, they come to a decision.  Of course, new evidence can surface that changes the outcome of the trial, which is more likely to happen if there wasn’t a lot of conclusive evidence at the trial to begin with.  The more data you have at a trial, the more likely the jury is going to be able to come to a fair and just conclusion. 
Scientists are a skeptical bunch, and in this respect we should have a lot in common with a skeptical public.  If by some chance an individual scientist fails to be skeptical about his or her own work, then other scientists they meet in their departments, at meetings, and in the peer-review processes as they publish research will be there…being skeptical, holding the scientists feet to the fire.  However, skepticism without perspective is a hindrance rather than a benefit to our understanding and decision-making process.  I wish we could put some of the scientific ideas bouncing around in public on trial—like climate change and evolution, topics that have turned into a “he said/she said” argument (in the words of Ira Glass) rather than a discussion that logically weighs scientific evidence to make scientific conclusions.  Maybe that would be a reality show worth watching.  But still, I vote for a good (non-medical) scientist television drama.  It could go a long way to helping the public understand science and how decisions are made, as well as make us look a little more glamorous (the one thing that may be missing from the average scientist's top-five characteristics). 

Monday, April 25, 2011

Message in a Box

                When people ask me what I do, I reply, “I work with frogs,” which is true, but it leaves out salamanders, other components of the amphibian food web, undergraduates, graduate students, and other research scientists, not to mention exciting research questions that can cause the mind to sizzle.  And in response, I usually get some bizarre question from them about an amphibian on their land that sounds like a tale out of a Dr. Seuss book, but with less rhyming.  This week in my seminar on communicating science with the public, we are all trying to boil down our field of research to a simple “message box.”  The message box is the research statement equivalent of packing up your house to move: Ideally, you label the box with something like “Kitchen—pots, pans, potholders, wooden spoons,” which gives you a good idea of what’s in the box (and where it should go) without providing extraneous details like “Kitchen—frying pan, 2 qt sauce pan, 3 qt sauce pan, 4 qt pot, 6 qt soup pan, potholders made by Mrs. Hamilton, 15 wooden spoons, ladle, 3 whisks, and salad tongs."  Even worse would be a message with so little information that you may know that 20 boxes belong in the "Kitchen," but you'd be hard-pressed to locate your can opener in a digestive emergency.  ( own work description suffers from the can-opener in a box in the kitchen problem.)  My research objective is to understand how human alteration of habitat in various ways impacts amphibian communities, all of which has implications for global amphibian population declines.  There are lots of interesting details, but I’m boiling in my 6 quart soup pan today, and here’s what is left:

                For now, that is my message, and I’m sticking to it.  

Monday, April 18, 2011

Taxing Jobs

          I just finished reading a book for a publisher about a scientist’s personal account involved in the struggle for funding for research of an emerging issue at a state agency amid administration conflict, which has me thinking of the potential power and weakness of government research.  I worked for the US Geological Survey for a little over three years after finishing my graduate degree.  I worked with very good scientists who were doing important and valuable research, and it gave me some critical experiences that helped define my career objectives and goals.  Ultimately, it also sent me applying for academics jobs, and not only because there were no forms to fill out that were screened by “personnel” in an office far, far away from the actual position.
One of the strengths, perhaps the greatest, of government research at places like the USGS is that they have a built in network of scientists that they can draw upon when an emerging issue arises.  Many government agencies have research scientists and a number of technicians available for conducting research.  Although they are often stretched to fulfill their research mission, they have a full time staff (along with term and temporary staff) which often allows some time to run additional studies with other collaborators or to evaluate some issue “emerging” in their area.  My lab has recently started a collaboration with a USGS research scientist (one I had not previously worked with)—he sent us some tadpoles of a species he was interested in, we were able to do a research study in my lab, and then he was able to find people at two separate USGS labs to run chemical analyses on our water and a test for a pathogen we were using.  I know people working on this particular issue, but without funding, we would be hard pressed to find other people to run these critical analyses.  It is cool that the framework within an agency allows for this type of interagency collaboration, which meets their research goals and also answers an interesting research questions.  Universities often have relatively reasonable labor (i.e., undergraduates) that gain from the research experience without costing the agency much or any money, making government-university collaborations beneficial for both. 
Government also has the power to fund large, long-term projects that influence everyone—for instance, computer technology.  Thank you, NASA.  Because science has a great value to society, it makes sense for tax dollars to support research because it’s something that helps all of us, but it can take many years (and tax dollars) to reach the goal—a sort of cultural delayed gratification.  When I was at the USGS, they were also able to fund an Amphibian Research and Monitoring Initiative across the nation, which has monitored amphibian populations and habitats, and funded research on issues that could be contributing to population declines.  The number of people that was involved is this initiative is likely not rivaled by any other group of people working in this research area. 
However, one of the weaknesses of working in government research is that the scientists are often at the mercy of political and public whims.  It’s one of the main reasons I decided to not try to find a job in USGS during the early Bush administrations.  There was some pressure at the agency where I worked to limit interpretation of one’s data—not that they were trying to suppress the results or outcomes, but I did feel like they were trying to limit the conclusions I made so that I couldn’t really make any conclusions at all.  Could have made things easier, since the discussion is the hardest part of the paper to write:  Discussion—see results.  However, I didn’t take their advice to heart and said exactly what I wanted to say.  The idea that an agency would even attempt to limit the researcher in this way made me extremely uncomfortable.  What are people with families (or just themselves) to support going to do if that sort of pressure was strong?   The discussion part of a paper is for putting your data in perspective and for pointing toward what the data overall suggest.  If the scientist who did the study can’t do that, who can?  The peer-review process, where other scientists read and evaluate your work, prevent scientists from extrapolating way beyond their data or making outlandish conclusions.  Politics should not influence science, but because of the way government research is funded (through the government), there is always that danger.  And if nothing else, science can be weakened by government through lack of financial support, which has rendered whole agencies powerless to enforce the laws that are on the books.
There were a lot of things I liked about working for the government—the scientists were good, the hours were sane, the pay potential was good, and the mission was clear (research)—but the other challenges would have made the job frustrating to me for the long haul—besides the fact that getting a permanent position required the patience of Job (I had one friend who was temporary at USGS for nine years and then they let her go, which has sent her on a trajectory she never imagined [hello, industry]).  Academic jobs, though, where research is a major focus also require federal or state funding for research which is also vulnerable to whims of politicians and the public, but there’s a lot you can do in ecology on a dime when necessary and you can be just about as outlandish as you wish (at least after tenure, but often before as well).  The author of the book I just reviewed retired from her state job pretty ticked off and after reading 305 pages I can understand why.  She believed in the agency’s mission and that seemed to blind her to the fact that the agency was failing to understand environment issues or support research within their mission.  I wonder if that experience is more common in government than academics, or if it all depends on leadership and vision of the people administrating away.  So far, I am happy to be in academics, even if my own mother doesn’t seem to think I’m working unless I’m teaching class.   

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Channeling Martha Stewart

                Martha Stewart, domestic and business goddess, has long been one of my heroes.  The woman is a genius in her ability to use every day items in unexpected ways.  Who else can turn a lollipop into a flower or a trellis into a garden organizer?  Well, maybe someone else could, but Martha does.  One of the realities of science is that you are often channeling your inner Martha Stewart to solve problems in the lab or field.  All good scientists have to be part construction worker, part baker, and part crafter.  All lab scientists know the necessity of following a recipe to run gels or make a nice petri dish full of agar.  Some of my earliest field experiences involved building 6 foot walls for a terrestrial enclosure out of aluminum flashing.  The terrestrial enclosures, which were being built for salamanders, involved making “Z-channels” to combine to pieces of flashing and rivets to secure the Z-channel and walls together—and all of this fabrication was done in mid-state SC in the middle of the summer back when I was apparently a real trooper.  That was about the time I learned about Martha Stewart (who I naively suggested was all about “crafts for elitists”).  Little did I know then that she had the makings of a real scientist.
                Well, you can see where this is going.  I had a Martha Stewart moment this week after reading some reviews on a recently rejected manuscript criticizing the way we collected samples of algae that grow on things (periphyton), which is a food source of many tadpoles.  We typically collect the periphyton from the sides of the ponds, something these reviewers found impossible to believe.  Reviewers’ minds are often limited by their own limitations, sadly; this makes their criticism irritating, because our method works, but I was trying to think of another way to do the sampling to avoid future criticisms by limited minds.  I googled periphyton sampler and, ah good, there were a couple available.  Here’s one:
 A profession periphyton sampler.  Fancy, no?

How much would you expect one of these babies to cost??  They look simple enough, but they cost around $80-120 dollars for each one!!  I need 36, so that wasn’t going to work.  I started brain storming things that float that would hold slides and I was googling away.  Then I remembered something I had it the lab.

A field biologists staple. 

                Yes, pool noodles.  We’ve used these in experiments to float enclosures in the field and there are a few sitting in my lab taking up space.  Once I found myself an Exacto knife from the tool box and bought some slides from Danny in the store room down the hall, I was well on my way. 

Simple and elegant.

                For the price of some slides (and some pool noodles if they’re not laying around your lab or garage), you can have some lovely periphyton samplers.  I was as proud as Martha Stewart must have been when she realized simple glass jars were much prettier for dish soap, so I posted a picture of them on my facebook page.  Of course, I was looking for some praise.  My grad advisor saw them and left this message:  Sun may not get to the slides.  To which I replied:  Don’t rain on my parade.  Well, he could have a point, but I’m already trying them out.  Fortunately, the sun and the samplers both move and will give the relative differences between our experimental treatments so we’ll give it a try.  The only thing that could go wrong are the slides all sliding out (or the wind turbine by my ponds  falling on my ponds and crushing my experiment).  In the 
meantime, I’m counting this as one of my own collection of Good Things from the lab.  (I wonder if this will get me on a special edition of her show:  Science Crafts?)

The sampler at work.  Time will tell if I am a genius...or not. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

Where Poetry and Science Can Intersect

As part of a seminar this week, we are discussing “science on the radio” as a means of communicating with the public.  We listened to three pieces—one on ice, the estrogenic compounds leached out of plastics, and stem cells—as examples of how scientists interact with the public through the radio.  Even though many people claim to not read poetry often, I think the vivid images that are brought to life by poetry are used in the every day.
Well, exactly.

The program on ice served as a good contrast in ways of conveying scientific information. The scientist who was most successful communicating to the public from all these programs was Dr. Eugene Stanley, a physicist from Boston University.  He used a series of analogies to convey scientific ideas—he was very poetic and enthusiastic.  He describes the chemical structure of water as a pyramid of positive and negative charges, with oxygen at the center “where the mummy might lie,” rather than the boomerang shape we often learn in school.  He describes the bonds of water, hydrogen bonds, like a jungle gym when the bonds get stronger (when the temperature goes down), but if you sawed the jungle gym up, it would take up less space and become more dense, as water is more dense as a liquid.  That’s great!  In contrast, the author of the book Ice:  The Nature, the History, and the Uses of an Astonishing Substance, Mariana Gosnell, is the person you would most expect to be bursting forth with metaphors and analogies; but, she had no magic in her language.  While Stanley had been invited back on the show from a previous visit, I doubt the author will be invited back.
Part of the unexpected discrepancy in ability to convey science to the public might be related to how authors and scientists interact with the public.  Authors might be in their element alone with their page; they do not necessarily spend a lot of time interacting with the public and being a good writer does not make you a strong public speaker.  Even though we might expect scientists to be, on average, comfortable doing isolated tasks like experiments in the lab or field, or writing papers and grants, many of these activities involve a lot of people and explaining the science behind the tasks in understandable terms.  Scientists also spend a decent amount of time teaching (often) and giving talks at scientific meetings as part of our work; as a result we learn to communicate our science to these audiences.  The act of teaching in a lot of ways sets the stage for scientists to effectively communicate with the public, because we must explain often complex functions or ideas to students who for the most part are not familiar with them—not so different than talking to the public.
I teach introductory biology with two other scientists, one of whom dresses up like “Euglena Man” during the topic of the evolution of protists via endosymbiosis.  Euglena Man is the human personification of a protist with very few apparent super powers, but with a flagella which is, in a word, ominous.  The professor dresses up like a Euglena (Man) to highlight the number of membranes in his Euglenid plasmids, which differ between protists and non-protists as a result of algal cells swallowing bacterial cells that began to be associated with these cells (the endosymbiotic hypothesis), leaving in many cases an extra membrane or two.  He uses a bit of drama to drive home the point, memorably.  Now if only he could only acquire some super powers, he may be able to go public or at least make his debut in a comic book. 
If he's going to go on a science tour, I think he'll need a leisure suit 
worthy of a super hero.

In contrast, a radio program on embryonic cells required the producers of the show to apparently coach the scientist on talking with the public.  He used an analogy which he said one of the producers came up with—that “pluripotent” cells (like skin cells reprogramed to have the potential to become any kind of cell) were not a blank canvas the way embryonic cells were (meaning they could become any type of cell), but they were more like a painted canvas that had been painted over where some bits still come through.  Now that is a really great analogy, but likely one the producers came up with because the scientists had a tendency to use acronyms like IPS (induced pluripotent stem cells) rather than using the King’s (and Queen’s) colorful English. 
Communicating with the public will require us scientists to sit down and think outside of the box about other ways of looking at our study system.  I’m thinking about my research with insecticides in aquatic wetlands.  When you add insecticides in an environment to eliminate a target pest, it sometimes affects other components of the ecosystem and can change the function of food webs.  So, insecticide exposure is like taking an antibiotic—it has a targeted problem, like a sinus or skin infection, but it also affects other parts of the body and can leave you with a bit of diarrhea.  Is that poetic enough?  Well…I can work on it.  

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Back in the Saddle

                It’s been a couple of years since I have set up my own experiment that wasn’t in conjunction with a graduate student or undergraduate; there are some sore muscles in my legs and back (my experimental muscles) that seem quite happy to have been put to use.  Last spring I was great with child, and the spring before that I was concentrating on getting some papers out.  I’m in the field this year because a couple of experiments haven’t gone as planned over the last two summers and it’s a critical experiment for part of a grant—this summer it’s going to work or I will jump out of my office window, assuming I can even get the window up so that I can fling myself six feet to the ground.  Actually, I think it will go fine, and I’m excited to be out there with my tanks again.
                I’ve been working with a pesticide called carbaryl over the last 16 years.  There’s a lot of research looking at how different chemicals result in mortality and what levels may be environmentally safe, which is good and valuable research.  One of my goals, however, has been to understand the ecological ramifications of pesticide exposure; to do this, we have used rather few pesticides, but asked a diversity of ecological questions…well, at least 16 years worth.  There’s nothing particularly special about this chemical, although it’s considered relatively benign and wasn’t even registered as a toxic substance when I started using it.  Carbaryl is a neurotoxin that is found in Sevin dust or liquid Sevin, which many people use in the garden, and it’s also found in many other products including some flea powders for pets.  This chemical has lower toxicity to mammals than to many aquatic species, like the frogs and salamanders that I study.  However, one of the surprising things my collaborators and I have found is that sometimes pesticide exposure can have what looks like positive effects on tadpoles.  The most likely explanation for apparent positive effects on tadpoles is due to a reduction in algal grazers, like water fleas (Daphnia spp.) that are very sensitive to insecticides, which can result in algal blooms.  When the algae that tadpoles eat increases, then they can reach larger sizes or transform sooner.  For instance, in some studies we did with Green Frog tadpoles, which frequently take over a year to transform into frogs, we found that pesticide exposure lead to early metamorphosis under some conditions.  So, theoretically, that doesn’t seem so bad for the frogs in this case.  Unless…it’s setting them up for failure in some other way. 
                We have been doing some studies over the last couple of years to understand if this precocious metamorphosis is solely the results of changes in food resources, or if timing of exposure may influence the developmental pathway in some way.  One of our recent lab study suggested that carbaryl exposure for just three days can lead to changes in thyroid responsive genes in the brain, suggesting that exposure at key times during development could have long term impacts on amphibians.  We are attempting to look at this in the field in experimental mesocosm ponds, which you can see above. 
The last two summers we have tried field experiments with green frogs, but we weren’t getting a large enough number of juvenile metamorphs to look at changes in thyroid receptors in the brain, so this year we’re using a different species, northern leopard frogs, which hatch from eggs in the early spring and live as tadpoles for a couple of months before transforming into juvenile frogs.  I collected some egg masses of northern leopard frogs in Somerville, OH just last week (see below), and I could hear the male’s chuckling call in the background during the day.  One of the neighbors said they could even go outside at night without the deafening frog calls.

Although we expect tadpoles to turn into frogs, it’s a major developmental change—it would hardly be more impressive if you started your life out as fish and crawled out onto land as a cute little human baby.  Tadpoles go from swimming, herbivorous animals with tails and no limbs to four-legged, hopping, tailless carnivores that spend the majority of life on land (for most species).  This massive reorganization and development is controlled by thyroid hormones which start out very low early in development and increase through metamorphic transformation and then drop back down—a similar trajectory to our own thyroid hormones during gestation and birth, suggesting that amphibian metamorphosis can tell us something about the human animal as well.  But, if a chemical affects thyroid hormones, the time of exposure could be critical and in some cases you might expect to see early metamorphosis (or maybe birth in a human).
So, if a chemical causes earlier metamorphosis, could it result in some tradeoff like increased mortality or reproductive problems?  Well, that is we hope to find out, so stay tuned.  Experiments can be well planned and well-executed, but there’s always the elements of surprise. (See that wind turbine in the picture above?  I hope it doesn't surprise us.) I am definitely hoping for good surprises this year.    

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Brief Book Review from the Red-Brick Science Building

          There are a lot of reasons to advocate for scientists conveying the relevance and importance of their work to the public.  As part of a graduate seminar this semester, we have been considering how to communicate with the public in the written form, predominately, although obviously that is just one of the many venues.  And it’s hard to argue that scientists communicating with the public seems like anything but a great idea. While on the one hand, I already have more to do than I can realistically keep up with; I also have another hand which encourages me to say that it seems like it could be fun and valuable to have some sort of regular dialogue with the public.  Part of my exploration of how to do this effectively and efficiently lead me to this book Escape from the Ivory Tower:  A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron.
            Let me first say that I think the book has a lot of useful information.  And then, a small protest:  A lot of our science matters whether or not it is circulating the media and some of us do not want to escape the ivory tower.  Actually, I’d like to get in a literal ivory tower if at all possible (I’m in a red brick building lacking towers of any sort).  However, it is refreshing to step out of the figurative ivory tower to see how our research can potentially have a bigger impact on the lives of everyone, and this is not something scientists are typically trained (or, until recently, encouraged) to do.                                                                   
            This book gives some insight into what journalists (and the public) are looking for in a story, what sort of scientist they like to deal with, and what the journalist’s pressures are.  They want a cool or surprising story from an interesting scientist who can convey information succinctly and clearly (ideally with a flourish), and quickly.  No problem!  There are also interesting ideas for ways that scientists can contact journalists and the media (as well as reasons for doing so) and other outlets like blogging and op-eds to get science to the public.  I was especially interested in these more direct ways to communicate with the public, since they seem like they are something within our control and they could have fast turnaround time, if narrower scope (likely). 
            One of the big take home messages centered around “The Message Box,” which is supposed to help the scientist (or anybody) really focus in on the take home points to reduce the likelihood that we begin channeling Charlie Brown’s teacher.  You use each section so that you have a couple of sentences in each block (not paragraphs, science nerds!).  I liked this—it’s something you can work on before an interview or before you start writing anything to outline the major points.   

            Besides the message box, I picked up a few other tips, like communicating at the right time.  When a certain topic hits the news, it makes journalists and the public more receptive to research or discussion related to that topic.  So, be willing to be flexible and opportunistic.  Another surprising idea was not to wait for journalists to contact you—feel free to contact them.  If you’ve honed your message and have your major points, you may develop a collaboration that pays and gets your research out there.  And be prepared to answer what the title of the article or story should be. 
            One venue I had not really considered was the “op-ed.”  All scientists could start here with their local papers and see what happens.  Here’s an example of an op-ed from 2007 by a physicist regarding the opening of the Creation “Museum” in Kentucky.  An op-ed around the time of the opening of this, um, place, was the perfect opportunity to share some science.  Things happen every day where we have the chance to jump in and share our voice, science, and opinion.  So, let’s pay attention.
            This book is a rich resource and would be handy to have in your own ivory tower for when you’re planning to meet with policy makers, journalists, or a general audience.  It also gives you reasons to work on your analogies and jokes, because making science assessable and fun is the first step to getting people engaged.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Oh the Things You Can Think After Reading a Good Book

                In an age where children are watching TV on their iPhones in utero and most toys seem geared at overstimulation and excess (for instance “the exersaucer”:, a major challenge will be raising a generation that values nature.  One of the great hooks to pull kids into the natural world is a good book—parents almost universally value the importance of getting kids to read for their intellectual and emotional development.  This week for our “writing for the public” seminar, five children’s books were selected relating to nature and each had some good points that might get a kid interested in looking up from the screen.
                My favorite book by far was Chicken Aren’t the Only Ones By Far by Ruth Heller (, a book with rhyme and reason.  She covers a range of taxonomic groups that lay eggs and even manages a rhyme with oviparous.  Woo hoo!  The pictures are fun and the language is memorable.  Although there’s no particular story to follow, I think the creative, metered language makes up for that.  This is one I’m adding to my list for the kids of my science friends and will look forward to reading Ruth Heller’s other books.
                We also read Old Shell, New Shell: A Coral Reef Tale by Helen Ward ( and Pumpkin Jack by Will Hubbell (  The strength of these two books is that they tell a story that you can follow.  In Old Shell, New Shell, you follow a hermit crab looking for a new shell who meets different animal life during the journey.  In Pumpkin Jack, you follow the life, death, and resurrection of a Halloween pumpkin that is sent to the garden to compost after it begins to rot—ah, the circle of life.  Both had an interesting narrative and taught you something about a scientific concept (if you wanted to put it in a way to make it sound dull). 
                Round the Garden by Omri Glaser, Byron Glaser, and Sandra Higashi ( ) takes you from a tear drop to a pond to all of nature and then back to reaping the harvest from a garden.  This book follows water in all its various forms and shows how life is connected by this simple (yet elegant) molecule.   This will be one I put on the list for my household.  I also liked the simple graphics in this book, which would attract the really young reader/listener. 
                The book that I thought missed the mark was The Sea, the Storm, and the Mangrove Tangle by Lynne Cherry (, even though it probably had the most science.  There was no drama or story line and seemed a little too didactic to ever be a book that a kid would want to read over and over again.  The illustrations look really lovely and it’s nicely done, but I do not like to feel like a book I’m reading for pleasure is supposed to be this educational!  This seems like the type of book we scientists would be more likely to write; to which I say, go read some Dr. Seuss.   However, maybe this type of book will appeal to the children who grow up to be lovers of non-fiction.
                The makings of a good book (that one reads voluntarily), I suspect, will be the same whether for children or adults.  First, it should be a pleasure to read and should entertain.  For a children’s book, I think that means fun use of language and/or an interesting story, as well as engaging illustrations.  A children’s science book will not be overtly didactic, rather the science should seem simply an integral part of the plot.  (Did you ever read Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer?  I love her book Poisonwood Bible, but Prodigal Summer seemed to have a goal to make us all become environmentalists, which even though I believe in “the cause” I found excruciatingly irritating in the reading—she was overtly didactic!)  Think of The Lorax, a book with a simple message and story line that is a pleasure to read and that has lasted on our bookshelves for 40 years; we learned a lot about the way large industries can benefit from local resources and when left unchecked will leave an area desolate.  Depressing yes, but it rhymed and had some magic.  I’m not sure the children’s book we read for seminar would be a child’s favorite, but they might be a good read that gets the kid thinking about the outside world and gives her/him the language to discover more of it.  I hope so.    

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Nature of Golf

Most of us live in areas that look like this when viewed from the window of a plane:

It’s astounding to see the changes that humans have exerted on the planet, altering and using almost every habitat within our reach.  In Butler County OH, where I live, the historic landscape where the birds flew and the frogs called looked more like this:

So, it would seem that turning a nice forest into this would be a complete environmental travesty:

          But the research I have done on golf courses leads me to have hope that we humans can use land in ways that minimize the impact on natural systems.  In 2004, I started a study in golf courses in Missouri to examine if amphibians could live in golf course ponds—areas that have a high level of physical and chemical management.  I predicted that few amphibians would survive these environments because of excess contamination from frequent mowing and spraying.  However, I was surprised to find that not only did they survive well in golf course ponds, but there was greater survival for some amphibian species reared in golf course ponds than in reference ponds.  We were rather stunned, but water sampling also suggested that aquatic predators were less abundant in golf course ponds (an indicator of lower water quality), which allowed amphibians to survive in greater numbers because of reduced predation.  We have done related studies in Ohio and found that amphibians survived in golf course ponds here as well, suggesting that amphibians may survive larval development in the aquatic environment successfully.  (Work examining if they can survive in the terrestrial environment is still inconclusive.) 
          What these results suggest to me is that green spaces used for humans for recreation have a high potential for incorporating some of the natural flora and fauna if managers take a few things into to consideration, which could create a win-win situation for both wildlife and humans.   And when you consider that golf courses may be some of the very limited green spaces in urban areas, there is the potential for these areas to harbor some of the local native species with some care.  Audubon International ( is an organization that works with golf courses to help managers design golf courses that are as environmentally friendly as possible.  There are hundreds of golf courses that meet the criteria and they can be found at this link:  For Ohio golfers, there is only one course in Cleveland that meets the standards, unfortunately. 
          A lot of the “must do’s” for amphibians are fairly simple if the golf course managers are aware of them.  In fact, if managers did three simple things to their ponds, they could benefit local amphibian species greatly.  For instance, leaving ponds free of fish is probably the most important factor.  Fish are often added to ponds to reduce algal blooms, but anuran larvae will have the same effect.  Research we and others have done show that even herbivorous fish can eliminate amphibians from wetlands; only a couple of species persist successfully with fish (namely, bullfrogs), and these are not the species that are most at risk to extinction.  Secondly, allowing some vegetation to remain around parts of the ponds can provide terrestrial amphibians with area to hide from predators and live in their terrestrial life stage.  This may mean leaving out of play areas unmown—a savings for managers and a benefit to some of the native species.  Thirdly, most amphibians complete larval development in the late winter through summer months, so it is most beneficial for the ponds to hold water during this time.  Water levels are frequently lowered for irrigation on courses and for pond cleaning, and doing this during the fall or winter can allow amphibians to persist. 
          Because habitat destruction and alteration are going to be an inevitable consequence of growing human populations, minimizing the impact of these changes on wildlife when possible would be a step in the right direction.  Although habitat preservation and conservation are certainly a major goal for maintaining biodiversity for the long haul, this will not be possible in all habitats, which is where smart management will come in.  Things may get worse before they get better, but there are signs that we are going to get smarter about the way we alter habitat.  (Europe is already a lot smarter since their resources are scarcer.)  Golf course managers, in my experience, are people who love nature and the outdoors (as well as golf!), and they seemed interested in learning about the results of our research.  Most people are willing to make simple changes; they just need to know what strategies work.