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.