Scientists must communicate. I mean that practically (our jobs hinge upon teaching, delivering conference talks and published papers), but I also mean that an imploring sense. The public is concerningly misinformed about many scientific issues. Solutions to problems like global climate change will require legislation, and therefore, too, an informed public. That’s why, to me at least, there’s tremendous value in a blog such as this. It is an opportunity to create a place for discourse and learning. And so, on that note, allow me to share my most recent foray into science communication…
Recently, I began working with the Groks Science Show, developing audio pieces to be broadcast on WKPH 88.5 FM Chicago (the pieces are also available online). The whole process is new to me—interviewing, editing, and producing—but I’m trying. My first show aired a few weeks ago. It covered the research of Ben Winger, graduate student of evolutionary biology here at the University of Chicago. He studies how new species form, and his work takes him to the cloud forests of Peru. I’ve posted a link to the episode below. For the readers who dare to be listeners, forgive me; the audio quality is hardly exquisite. Any and all feedback is warmly welcomed.
Discovering Bird Species — Groks Science Show 2013-11-20.
Ever been bitten by a goose? It hurts. One of our colleagues, Aaron Olsen, is researching just how hard geese bite and how it is even possible for animals to execute the complicated motions they do – like eating and walking.
Seemingly simple tasks such as eating or walking require the complex integration of neural signals, bones, muscles and joints to create movement. How these structural components function and interact with each other are central questions in biomechanics. Birds have evolved a number of different strategies for using their beaks to get food, with beaks specialized for catching fish, for grazing on grasses, for prying food items from inside shells or for catching small, evasive prey such as insects. The bones, muscles and joints that produce these movements are also structurally diverse. By finding the structural differences between birds that move their beaks in different ways, we can better understand how musculoskeletal structure relates to movement.
Video from the IGERT poster hall.
Oh man – required reading on antibiotic resistance over at Medium:
I had always heard Joe had been injured at work: not burned, but bruised and cut when a heavy brass hose nozzle fell on him. The article revealed what happened next. Through one of the scrapes, an infection set in. After a few days, he developed an ache in one shoulder; two days later, a fever. His wife and the neighborhood doctor struggled for two weeks to take care of him, then flagged down a taxi and drove him fifteen miles to the hospital in my grandparents’ town. He was there one more week, shaking with chills and muttering through hallucinations, and then sinking into a coma as his organs failed. Desperate to save his life, the men from his firehouse lined up to give blood. Nothing worked. He was thirty when he died, in March 1938.
The date is important. Five years after my great-uncle’s death, penicillin changed medicine forever. Infections that had been death sentences—from battlefield wounds, industrial accidents, childbirth—suddenly could be cured in a few days. So when I first read the story of his death, it lit up for me what life must have been like before antibiotics started saving us.
Lately, though, I read it differently. In Joe’s story, I see what life might become if we did not have antibiotics any more.
Apparently 80% of antibiotics sold in the U.S. by weight are used in agriculture, primarily to protect animals from infection from the conditions in which they are raised. Read the whole article Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future at Medium.
Got this in my emails this weekend from Fair Economy Illinois and Chicagoland Against Fracking:
On Friday, November 15th, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) released their first draft of the rules that will regulate hydraulic fracturing here in Illinois (found here).
IDNR is holding its first public hearing on these rules tomorrow:
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
6:30pm-8:30pm (Doors open at 5:30pm)
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)
726 S. Halsted Street, Student Center East, Room 302
Chicago, IL 60607
Info from the Illinois Dept. of Natural Resources about Illinois fracking policy and public hearings can be found here.
If you can’t make the meeting but have something to say,fill out the online comment form about the proposed Hydraulic Fracking Regulatory Act at the Illinois DNR’s site here.
Today we have a review of the first Science Game Jam held at the Field Museum this summer by organizer Robert Lockhart. Rob is a Game Designer and Developer. So this time we get the game developer’s side of it – and Wednesday some of the participating scientists will weigh in on the experience!
The last weekend in July, the Field Museum of Natural History and more specifically the Biodiversity Synthesis Center (with a little help from me) hosted a 48-hour game jam with a unique theme. Each team of game developers was paired with an actual researcher in a sub-field of biology to make a game about biology. We called it the Science Game Jam at the Field Museum, and it was an amazing experience.
Long before any part of the event was planned, I mentioned that something of the kind might happen on the IGDA Chicago page, and to the Indie City Games group (the two biggest forces in Chicago’s game scene). The amount of enthusiasm I received was overwhelming. It was as if all the game devs in Chicago shouted YOU MUST DO THIS.
The director of BioSynC, Audrey Aronowsky, and I planned it out and put up an Eventbrite page. Despite being nearly a month before the event, the tickets sold out within the first three days, and later dropouts were replaced quickly. Even so, I was skeptical about the attendance of people who sign up for a free event, but when all was said and done 90% of those who signed up actually came.
On the day we started, everyone arrived and immediately chowed down on Indian food. This alone should tell you how atypical this game jam was. Audrey insisted that the event be catered and comfortable.
- Developer Stephen Meyer struggles to ignore a half-eaten cookie.
When everyone was settled, 8 scientists took the stage in turns: Courtney Stepien, Aaron Olsen, Tim Sosa, Jonathan Mitchell, Tom Stewart, Joanna Mandecki, Max Winston and Dave Clarke . These are early-career scientists; still passionate about their field and open to new ways to bring their science to the public. Each had 5 minutes to describe his or her research. The organisms studied ranged from Algae to Army Ants to Pirahna, but there were underlying questions that many of the researchers shared. Why did this trait evolve the way they did? How do these species interact with one another? The game developers had a lot of questions, too. Some were whimsical, others showed a deep interest in the scientist’s work.
Science fiction movies are often criticized by scientists for stretching the truth. From Jurassic Park to this year’s Gravity, movie makers usually fudge a little bit (or a lot) of science to make a better story, much to the chagrin of science communicators like Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
But what about the movies and shows that are getting it right? When so much of the public is only exposed to science through media and entertainment, why not take the opportunity to show it how it really works?
A new show for preschoolers called “Octonauts” has gotten the seal (hehe!) of approval from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for its accuracy and educational content about the ocean. The show, based on a children’s book series by the same name, follows eight adorable animals in bubble-head suits as they explore the ocean with the motto, “Explore! Rescue! Protect!”. Viewers are introduced to habitats such as the Marianas Trench and the Amazon River, leanr about oceanographic processes like undersea storms and currents, and “protect” sea creatures such as the narwhal, blobfish, oarfish, eels, vampire squids, snot sea cucumber, remipedes, and snapping shrimp. At first it seemed to me that they were a bit biased toward fishes, but I was soon proven wrong by the abundance of awesome invertebrates that I certainly didn’t know about when I was young.
Shellington Otter converses with some remipedes. Remipedes are a thought to be a basal group within crustacean arthropods, known only from fossils until the late 1970s. Today, 17 living species are known from ocean basins around the world.
Peso the penguin interacts with a blobfish. Blobfish live in very deep water and have soft flesh, which deforms due to the lack of pressure when brought to the surface. They were named “The World’s Ugliest Animal” in an online vote in 2013.
I just want to say thanks for the votes for our NSF Innovation in Grad Education Proposal! We didn’t come out on top for the People’s Choice award, but the Judges determined winning entries eariler in the summer, and we DID place 3rd by the Judges! There are some pretty cool ideas proposed among the winners. As a reminder, the goal of this contest was to submit ideas for science graduate education that 1) prepare science graduate students to address modern day environmental, engineering and technological challenges and 2) prepare students to navigate a career landscape that is very different than what past generations of scientists have faced. Our proposal dealt with adding external graduate assistantships (internships) with non-profits, government and private-industry to the graduate curriculum – getting course credit (and compensation like a TAship) for expanding our professional skills.
First place went to engineering PhD student Kevin Disotell, who proposed a web portal that supports graduates of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programs through each step of the graduate education process:
From the National Science Foundation’s contest website.
The National Science Foundation recently held a contest asking students across the US to create proposals that would, if implemented, transform graduate education. Our team submitted an entry which we believe is an efficient and practical way to open up new opportunities for graduate students while simultaneously catalyzing collaboration between academic and nonacademic entities. Ultimately, our proposal seeks to bridge the divide between the academy and the many other sectors of the economy which rely upon scientific knowledge. The full proposal can be viewed here, and a short summary of our principal aims and implementation plan follows below.
But we need your help to win. Part of the NSF’s contest is a community choice prize in which anyone with an email address can vote. We want you to vote for us–not just so that we win, but also to attract to NSF’s attention to this important issue. If you have a minute and an email address, click on this link, register, and submit a vote for the External Graduate Assistant Program (here). Thanks!
We contend that there is a fundamental inefficiency in the training of STEM students. Although STEM students acquire substantial analytical and quantitative reasoning skills during their time as graduate students, little time is spent learning how to apply those skills beyond the academy.
We foresee a need for STEM students to disseminate their knowledge and competency outside of the ivory tower of academia. To this end, we propose a system of External Graduate Assistantships (EGAs)—which would fill in for more traditional Teaching Assistantships—to provide an opportunity for STEM students to venture outside of their universities and make novel connections with non-academic organizations.
I recently got back from Argentina, and in a few months I’ll be headed out to Wyoming and Utah. And I’m not alone.
Every year, paleontologists all across the world load into vans and trucks and head out into the middle of nowhere. Most of us are huntin’ for dinosaurs.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of ground to cover. Fortunately, paleontologists know (roughly) where to look. Fossils tend to be found in rocks of very specific types, and different dinosaurs are known from different periods of Earth’s history. So if you want to discover a new dinosaur of a certain type (say, a new, giant meat-eating carcharodontosaur), you go to 100 million year old rocks from low-lying rivers and lakes. Once you’re there, you start lookin’!
Three paleontologists about to hike around Patagonia.
As you shuffle around the wastes, you keep your head down and walk around the bottom (base) of the rock formation you predict has the fossils in it. The idea is that if you start finding tiny scraps of bone at the base, since fossils can only roll downhill, there must be a dinosaur in the rocks above you!
The dark rocks with gray tops and black, spongy undersides are bone sitting as-found in Utah.
So you climb up the hill, looking for bone the whole way. Once you stop finding bone on the surface, it means you’ve probably passed where the fossil is weathering out from. At this point, you want to make sure there IS bone in the ground, and not just an exploded bone on the surface. This means you start gently scraping off the dirt, and digging down with hand-tools to see if you can find any bone sticking out of the rock wall.
In How Economics Shapes Science (1), a thorough and highly engaging book, economist Paula Stephan does an admirable job using the intellectual tools of economics to analyze the professional practice of science. The book covers a wide range of topics, including the economic incentives for a career as a researcher, the labor market for scientists, how research is funded, and the effects of research investments on innovation and economic growth.
As a graduate student myself, I was particularly intrigued by the aspects of the book that relate to graduate education. Various factors incentivize the pursuit of a PhD, and Stephan rightly points out that many (if not most) of us seek an advanced degree in science because of intellectual curiosity; we have a desire to know more about some aspect of nature and we get a certain thrill out of the problem-solving aspects of doing research. She also rightly points out that the decision to attend graduate school is sensitive to more typical economic indicators. For example, during the economic crisis of 2008, as the labor market was in precipitous decline, doctoral degree-granting institutions saw a spike in applicants. One can infer that college graduates saw fewer opportunities for immediate employment and many sought the “shelter” of continuing education, especially science PhD programs, which often have fully subsidized tuition plus a stipend.
One of the problems with our graduate education system, as Stephan describes at great length, is a lack of transparency regarding the various economic costs of pursuing a PhD. Continue reading