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).