Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Siku the Polar Bear and the Power of Biophilia

Since my last polar bear post, about intraspecies cannibalism, was a little graphic I wanted to share a cute polar bear video that has recently been tearing up the internet. Siku is a polar bear cub who was abandoned by his mother. The cub was born on November 22, 2011 and is currently being cared for at Denmark's Scandinavian Wildlife Park. I just want to rub his belly. I justify putting up a cute polar bear video with the fact that biophilia, Edward O. Wilson's idea that human love of animals is rooted in our biology, explains why the cuteness so easily creates an internet sensation.

Biophilia is an interesting concept that I first learned about when reading Hal Herzog's book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat for Patricia McConnell's human and animal behavior class in Spring 2010. Biophilia can be applied to animals, but goes further into human attachment to all things natural, including whole environments. For more information you can check out Wilson's original 1984 book. Or, just enjoy the polar bear video, which I think will pretty much explain how biophilia works.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Polar Bears Resort To Cannibalism

If a picture is worth a thousand words, for me this one is worth a thousand nightmares:
Photograph by Jenny Ross.
The photograph was captured by Jenny Ross, an environmental photojournalist working in Olgastretet, a part of the Svalbard archipelago, located in the Arctic north of Norway. Ross co-authored a paper with Dr. Ian Sterling a biologist with Environment Canada and a professor at the University of Alberta, about the photographs and observed instances of cannibalism among polar bears. 

For anyone who reads Science Decoded regularly, I don't have to tell you that polar bears are sort of my thing. I've written about them being Irish, mysteriously dying, having osteoarthritis, status as endangered, and their habitat needs. I make no bones about the fact that they are my favorite and I love them. I've loved them since I was a little kid, and have a large collection of polar bear themed...stuff. From earrings to ice cream scoops, I've got it all. My collection doesn't include nightmare inducing, zombie-evoking images of polar bears eating each other. The child in me is horrified by what I now know to be a normal occurrence.

Yes, that's right. While the above photograph might be some of the most jarring evidence to date about intraspecies polar bear predation, the behavior isn't abnormal. In fact, according to Dr. Stirling instances of infanticide (killing baby bears) and predation on older bears, in addition to cannibalism have been known to Inuit hunters in Canada and Greenland and reported in scientific literature. In these instances, the bear doing the killing is always an adult male, which would have the advantage over young bears, old bears, and even adult females.

In the paper with Ross, Stirling reports on three instances of what is most likely intraspecific killing and subsequent cannibalism by adult male polar bears. The instances were all observed on the sea ice in Svalbard in midsummer and early autumn. Each incident was photographed (see above). The victims in each case were killed by more than one bite to the head. This is an instantly lethal way to take down prey, and the way that polar bears would take down seals, their typical food source.

According to Stirling, the instances of cannibalism described in the paper, published in the journal Arctic, are different than the normal instances of intraspecies predation. The bears that did the killing appeared to be in good physical condition, not obviously thin which is typically the case in intraspecies killings. Stirling and Ross concluded that the behavioral and ecological factors present in the instances of killing they describe in their paper show that by late summer, when available ice and the number of seals to hunt are significantly reduced, young polar bears may become a source of prey for adult males to still hunt from the surface of the remaining sea ice. While this type of behavior may be relatively normal, Stirling says that as climate continues to warm and reduce sea ice the frequency of kills like this may increase.

I asked Stirling what we should take away from these photographs, and the instances of polar bear cannibalism, and this is what he said:
"Climate-driven concerns for polar bears are real. The bottom line is that polar bears need ice to hunt from and without that, most bears will not be able to survive. At present, it looks like the last ice will be in the area of the northern Canadian Arctic and in Greenland. Some relatively small, but unknown, number of bears may survive there for some time after they cannot continue in more southerly areas."
So basically, cannibalism is a natural behavior for polar bears. It happens. But due to climate change and the changes that are occurring to sea ice, it is likely that cannibalism is going to get worse. Which leads me to think, do we really want a unique and charismatic species that many people are working to protect to be eating itself? It seems somewhat backwards to invest in conservation and then just watch the bears duke it out amongst themselves. I wish there was a solution I could offer but climate change is its own beast entirely. I will say that intraspecies cannibalism wasn't something I had on my mind when thinking about conservation, but I'll definitely remember it next time.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The Butter Experiment

This semester I took a multimedia journalism class, and decided that it would be great to get my blogging buddies from Mrs. Podolak's first grade class involved in my work. So, I paid a visit to their classroom to document just what goes on during a science experiment, and what makes science in the classroom so important, even for the primary grades.

From Liquid to Solid, First Graders Learn The States of Matter

In the elementary school classroom science lessons showcase the ability to engage students through different types of learning.

The first grade students at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School in Summit, NJ are optimizing their opportunities to learn by participating in a hands-on educational experience. If you ask them though they will tell you they are having a fun, and tasty, time. The students are learning the states of matter by making, and then sampling, butter to exemplify the transition from a liquid to a solid. Science is a core subject for students at all levels, but it holds special significance for students in the primary grades. 

“Starting at the primary level, teachers are immersing their students in the scientific process and encouraging their role as scientists,” says Matt Carlin, Principal, Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School. “As scientists, students develop an understanding of the elements and relationships in the natural world. They engage in observations, form a hypothesis, and test through experimentation to arrive at a conclusion. These experiences are invaluable at the primary level because they establish a foundation of learning that will develop through a child's academic career, and in many cases beyond as they enter the work force.”

According to Carlin, the basis for any curriculum design is to provide students with a learning experience that is both meaningful and engaging. Carlin cites Howard Gardner’s 1983 theory of multiple intelligences, which states that there are various aspects of intelligence, to explain why for some primary students, science lessons are particularly useful. Gardner’s theory includes the naturalistic learner, a student who feels a greater sense of connectedness and understanding with the environment. Carlin says this is an area of strength for some students that can be optimized during scientific experimentation.

“A hands-on approach to science instruction immerses our students in the role of being a scientist and also attends to the different learning styles and preferences that are so highly evident in our classrooms,” says Carlin.

The inherent hands-on nature of science experimentation has known benefits for young students. For well over a decade educators have been tying knowledge of childhood brain development into educational practices to create learning environments that are optimized for each level of schooling. According to Kenneth Frattini, Vice Principal of Milburn Middle School and former elementary curriculum facilitator, the hands-on nature of scientific inquiry and experimentation is precisely what children at the elementary level need to help improve their absorption of information.

“Children have an enormous and natural curiosity regarding the world around them. In educational terms; students who have learning experiences through experimentation and self-discovery appear to retain and apply more information,” says Frattini.

In Susan Podolak’s first grade classroom at Lincoln-Hubbard, it can be surprising just how much complex information primary students can understand. In their liquid to solid experiment the children were able to grasp that on the molecular level there are “air bubbles” that help cream keep its form as a liquid. When these air bubbles are removed, in the case of their experiment by shaking the cream, the liquid will change states and transform into a solid.

This complex idea was still approachable for six-year-old students due to what Principal Carlin describes as the student’s ability to figure things out on their own, within the confines of the right curriculum. Appealing to different types of learner, and reinforcing information through hands-on experiences aren’t the only things science lessons have to offer primary students. According to Carlin, science lessons also have value for primary students because they make learning fun.

“In all likelihood, these are the experiences that students will retain, transfer, and use in future learning situations,” says Carlin. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Goodbye Western Black Rhino: A Conservation Failure

Over the summer I posted about the recovery of the Arabian Oryx and how refreshing it was to see a conservation success story. Since then I started studying conservation biology, in particular the extinction of species in one of my classes this semester. While it was great to be able to talk about conservation in positive terms with the oryx, we are once again confronted with the loss of a species to extinction. A subspecies of Black Rhinoceros, the Western Black Rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) was declared extinct in early November, having last been seen in the wild in 2006.

A Black Rhino in Africa's Ngorongo Crater.
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Flikr:farmgirl
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the Black Rhino (overall) was first listed as endangered in 1986, it has remained on the list transitioning to critically endangered in 1996. Various rhinoceros species are threatened by poaching because their horns are extremely valuable for ornamental reasons, in addition to its use in traditional Chinese medicine. Demand for rhino horn, compounded by the rarity of the animal and upheaval in its native range has caused the cost to increase on the black market. 

The latest update to the IUCN's Red List shows that 25% of mammals are at risk of extinction. Though the Western Black Rhino is already lost, there are other species of rhino that are also facing extinction including the Northern White Rhino (which may already be extinct in the wild,) and the Javan Rhino. In a statement chair of the IUCN species survival commission, Simon Stuart said:
"In the case of the western black rhino and the northern white rhino the situation could have had very different results if the suggested conservation measures had been implemented. These measures must be strengthened now, specifically managing habitats in order to improve performance and prevent other rhinos from facing extinction." 
In my extinction of species class we've been talking a lot about what motivates people to undertake conservation efforts. I would have thought that a species as charismatic as the rhino would have garnered a lot of public support either through funds or volunteers to implement the necessary conservation measures. Losing large mammals like rhinos should in my mind be a wake up call for everyone that we need to take conservation seriously or we will lose these species. However, I see a problem in the fact that what we lost with the Western Black Rhino was a subspecies of Black Rhino. I feel like people can look at that fact and think, well we've got other rhinos so its not such a big deal.

I've been thinking about conservation a lot in the last few months, but unfortunately I think I still have more questions than answers. One of the biggest issues that I've been struggling with is responsibility. Who should be responsible for species conservation? Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seem to be the most effective, but there are so many factors that have to be reconciled including making sure that people in the countries where the species we want to protect live aren't detrimentally impacted by conservation efforts.

The successful recovery of the Arabian Oryx and the loss of the Western Black Rhino can both serve as a reminder that Earth's biodiversity isn't stagnant. Human activities have a direct impact for better or for worse, and no matter what type of management is undertaken or policy put into place everything we do will have some kind of outcome.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Making Bone With An Ink Jet Printer. Well...Bone-ish.

Reading the headline, "Engineers Pioneer Use of 3D Printer To Create New Bones" from the BBC I can't help but imagine your standard ink jet spitting out layers of human bone until you come up with a whole femur. In case you aren't familiar with 3D cell printing, let me be the one to tell you that isn't the case. I think the BBC's headline leaves out a crucial piece of information: what the printer in question creates is a scaffold of bone-like material.

The research in the article was conducted at Washington State University, and I find their PR headline "3D Printer Used To Make Bone-like Material" more specific. I think 3D printing, tinkering with a printer so that it can make different kinds of biomaterials, is interesting in its own right. I'm okay with the fact that the material being made is only bone-ish and not really bone. Although and argument could be made for the BBC's headline... which I'll explain later.

Printing the bone scaffold via WSU
Here is the research rundown: led by Susmita Bose, professor of mechanical and materials engineering, WSU researchers used a 3D printer to to create a scaffold of calcium phosphate, silicon and zinc. When paired with actual bone, this scaffold provides a structure for new bone to grow on, to specifically manufacture the desired bone. The scaffold dissolves with no reported adverse effects, according to the researchers' in vitro tests in rats and rabbits.

Described in the journal Dental Materials, (according to the PR*) the printer works by having the inkjet spray a plastic binder over a layer of the calcium phosphate, silicon and zinc powder in very thin layers (about 20 microns, comparable to the width of a human hair). A computer directs the printer to create the scaffold in the desired shape and size. The researchers found that after a week in a medium containing immature human bone cells, the scaffold was able to support new bone cell growth. According to the researchers, the material is likely most suitable for low load bearing (so, not a femur) and could be available for human use in a few years time.

So back to the BBC's headline about the 3D printer creating new bone. Ultimately, that is what happens. New bone is grown around the scaffold, so the end product is real human bone. However, the printer is not itself printing bone. In my humble opinion, that doesn't make this research any less cool. While the BBC's headline wasn't itself inaccurate, I think it leaves a lot of wiggle room for assumptions (or at least imaginations like mine getting carried away with themselves) and accuracy is the end all and be all of science stories, isn't it? Something like "3D Printer Creates Scaffold For New Bone Growth" isn't as pretty as either headline used, but I think it would get to the heart of what this story is a little bit better.

For more information about the technology check out this video from WSU's press page:

*I am typically loathe to post about a paper that I haven't at least looked at the abstract, but I cannot find this paper online anywhere. If someone has a link, that would be awesome. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

My First Video Shoot

I am working on my last project for my integrated media and storytelling class, which is going to be an iMovie, with some added pictures and audio. Today I went and shot the video and pictures, and I just wanted to share a few of the things I learned along the way. I'll be posting the finished project once I get it all edited (I promised my subjects I'd put it up here) so stay tuned, but in the meantime:

  • It is harder than you'd think to make sure you aren't cutting off a subject's head in your shot
  • I drink too much coffee to hold a camera steady
  • Sometimes the B Roll contains the real gems
  • People are comfortable in a group, but get them alone and they can freeze up
  • Fluorescent lighting is no one's friend
  • A rolling desk chair can be a fun, and useful prop
  • I still hate how my voice sounds when it is being recorded
  • The smaller the camera, the less people realize you are shooting them
  • Sometimes getting the shot means getting down on the floor, or up on a table
  • I'm really tall, I'm really nice, I give good hugs, and I'm like totally old enough to have a husband by now. (My subjects might have been more interested in me than the science, but the interviews were great!)
Now here's a little hint about what shooting my last project entailed, and what my topic will be:

I love my blogging buddies!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Captive Breeding and Mummification?

As I've mentioned before I am taking a class this semester about the extinction of species. One of the topics we recently covered (and I recently got a crash course in for the midterm) is captive breeding. Captive breeding is a conservation strategy in which animals are captured and held in a protected area, where they are then bred to another specific animal of their species to optimize the production and survival of their offspring. I just assumed that this was a more recent (meaning within the last century) trend in conservation efforts, but then I saw this BBC article about the effects of sacrifice and mummification on Egyptian species, and realized how wrong I was.

Mummified monkey in Cairo. Source:
Wikimedia Commons.
The ancient Egyptians would often mummify animals to be included in a person's tomb as a sacrifice to follow the dead into the afterlife to provide company and serve as an offering to the gods. However, according to the article by Jane O'Brien, the Egyptians had favorite species that they chose to mummify. They sacrificed these animals so much that they put these species in danger of extinction. Thus, to keep up with demand captive breeding was needed to keep the number of available animals high.

Experts, like Selima Ikram a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo who was quoted in the BBC article, believe that at least one bird species (the Sacred Ibis) was so popular for mummification that it was driven close to extinction. Other animals that were popular for mummification were dogs, cats, hawks, falcons, and baboons, although Ikram was quoted saying:
"Its easier to say which animals the Egyptians didn't mummify. There are no mummified pigs as far as we know, no mummified hippos, and I think thats about it - because almost every other creature at some time or another has been mummified." 
According to the article, when the animals most sought after for mummification started to become rare in the wild, breeding programs were launched by temples (the animals were often seen as sacred or representations of the gods) and the nearby villages. Evidence of these programs shows them in place as early as 3,000BC with the height of captive breeding at 650BC-200AD.

I liked this article because it provided a little bit of context about why animals would have been slaughtered for sacrifice in such great numbers. If you just look at the fact that so many animals were killed, it seems like the Egyptians were being selfish, putting human desires (not even needs) above all these animals. However, you have to look at their religion, and how they viewed the animals. Ikram says that the Egyptians would have viewed sacrificing the animals as a great honor for the animals, because they were so revered. The focus was on life, and continuing the animals' existence in the afterlife, not on death or killing them. I think this bit of context is a really important part of the story and I'm glad it was included in the BBC article. Captive breeding by the Ancient Egyptians... who knew?
Just want to note that the BBC piece was a plug for the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History's new exhibit of mummified animals. Haven't seen it and can't endorse it, but it looks like it might be pretty cool to check out if you are in the DC area. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Zoos and the Protection of Rare Animals

This semester as an elective I am taking another course in the zoology department (the first being Patricia McConnell's Human and Animal Relationships last semester). In Zack Peery's Extinction of Species we have been discussing the role that institutions like zoos play in helping to preserve and ensure the survival of rare species. Often we think of zoos in terms of their enjoyment factor for humans or conversely the lack of enjoyment (we think) that animals have being caged. I've visited the zoo here in Madison and had a nice time being there with my family, but I was definitely thinking about the care and condition of the animals. Now, I thought all of the animals in the zoo I visited looked healthy and happy, but it did get me thinking overall about how important zoos are for the care and conservation of animals, particularly those that are rare or in need of special healthcare.

Zoos play an important role in conservation efforts, because the good ones provide animals with a safe place to live that is protected from outside threats (predators, pollution, loss of habitat, etc.), in addition to access to veterinarians. I was reminded of this fact when I saw the story of Manukura, a rare white kiwi being covered by the BBC. Not that we really needed further proof that a good cute animal story is going to make it into the news, but I wanted to mention the kiwi story because I think it is a good example of the public rallying behind a very charismatic animal, and a zoos effort to save and protect it.

Manukura. Source: Zooborns
A kiwi is a flightless bird that lives only in New Zealand, and is similar in size to a chicken. There are five species of kiwi, which are all endangered. Kiwis are typically brown or tan in color, but as a result of a naturally occurring genetic mutation Manukura was born white (note that this isn't the same as being an albino). Manukura was living in Pukaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Center when rangers noticed that the six-month-old bird wasn't eating. Veterinarians at New Zealand's Wellington Zoo were called in to examine the bird and found that two large stones were obstructing its intestines.

Manukura was able to pass one of the stones naturally, but the other had to be taken out by a urology specialist from Wellington Hospital who broke the stone up with a laser and then removed the pieces with an endoscope. According to the Wildlife Center, the procedure was comparable to the removal of kidney or gall stones in a human. The bird is doing well following her procedure, much to the joy of her Facebook followers who were able to follow her progress throughout the ordeal.

I think that this story is a great case study for a lot of the topics that we've been discussing in my zoology class. It shows a viable option (the creation of wildlife refuges) for the conservation of a species, how a the public can rally behind a species that is particularly like able and important (the kiwi is a national symbol of New Zealand), how zoos can provide access to resources necessary to save an animal, and how communication with the public (particularly through social media) is an important part of conservation and animal protection efforts.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Covering The Wisconsin Science Festival

In my integrated media and storytelling class this semester our first project was to cover an event using pictures and audio, and combine it into a slideshow. I chose the first Wisconsin Science Festival at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

I had some upload problems trying to convert from a SoundSlides project into something uploadable but I finally got there. I edited the pictures in Photoshop and iPhoto, and edited the audio using Audacity. I lost a lot of photo quality in the conversion, but please watch and let me know what you think. This was my first foray into multi-media so any feedback would be much appreciated.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: Sugar Maple Trees

This post is part of a recurring segment here on Science Decoded where I blog for the first graders at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School about the various units in their science program.

Sugar Maple leaves. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Hello First Graders!

I hear you are studying trees in your science class, and I wanted to share with you some of the special aspects of a certain type of tree: The Sugar Maple.

The Sugar Maple (scientific name: Acer saccharum) is a deciduous tree. Deciduous means that its leaves change color and fall off during the Fall. A Sugar Maple tree can grow as tall as 82-115 feet, but it takes a long time to get that big. After ten years (thats older than all of you!) a Sugar Maple tree will usually only be about 16 feet tall. The leaves on a Sugar Maple tree are usually around 7-8 inches long, and have five lobes. Take a look at the picture of the leaves, do they look familiar? Do any of you have Sugar Maple trees in your backyard? What about at the school?

Sugar Maple Range. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The Sugar Maple is a tree that can be found in hardwood forests throughout northeastern North America, which includes Canada and the United States. Take a look at this map, the green part is where Sugar Maple trees grow. Do you see New Jersey? How about Wisconsin? Sugar Maple trees grow in New Jersey where you are, and Wisconsin where I am.

Sugar Maples are very important because they are able to grow really well in shady areas and also provide habitat (places to live) for animals in the forest. This species of tree isn't rare or endangered, but it is a special part of these forest ecosystems. An ecosystem is a biological (natural) area made of all the living and non-living parts of the environment, this means all the plants (like Sugar Maples!) animals, water, sunlight, and even soil. All of these things need to be healthy to make the environment strong. In addition to being important for the forest ecosystem, Sugar Maples also have a special ability. These trees can also be useful for people to make products like Maple Syrup.
Sap collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Sugar Maple trees have a sugary sap inside them that people can harvest in the Spring by making a hole in the trunk and collecting the sap that runs out. When the sap is heated, some of the water evaporates, leaving behind syrup. Here is an example of what collecting the sap looks like, it is being drained into those buckets attached to the trees.

Now I have a surprise for you! We have a special Farmer's Market here in Wisconsin, that is one of the biggest Farmer's Markets in the country. Have any of you ever gone to the Farmer's Market where you live? It is a place where local farmer's bring their fruits, vegetables, and other products to sell. Here in Wisconsin you can buy some of the products people make from Sugar Maple trees at the Farmer's Market.

I filled up a little package for you with information about the Wisconsin Farmer's Market, some Sugar Maple products, and even a little surprise from the University of Wisconsin's mascot Bucky Badger. I hope you like it!
Let me know if you have any questions about Sugar Maple trees!

Friday, October 7, 2011

BioTechnology Patents: Kyoto Claims iPSCs

Can you patent a gene? What about a cell? When it comes to the components of life, and more importantly the ideas, processes, and procedures developed to manipulate these components, what belongs to who? This is a question that is certainly going to be fought out from the patent office to the courts as more and more biomedical discoveries are made.

iPS cell cluster. Source: NINDS.NIH.gov
One discovery that has recently (meaning August) been in the news for patent applications is Shinya Yamanaka's 2006 discovery of the combination of genes that can be used to reprogram adult cells to a pluripotent (capable of becoming any kind of cell) state. With these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) lies the hope of a suitable answer to the debate over the need for pluripotency, but the social and religious controversy over using human embryonic stem cells (which are naturally pluripotent).

While working at Kyoto University in Japan, Yamanaka found that the genes Oct3/4, SOX2, c-Myc, and Klf4 are key to pluripotency. This discovery led to the creation of the first iPSCs. Now, five years and millions of dollars in research later, Kyoto University has obtained patent rights for iPSC technology in six nations and two regions, including the United States. This development leads me back to the question I started with, can you patent a gene? What about the ideas or technology based on those genes? Apparently, you can because Kyoto University has. But, I'm still quite curious about how this will play out functionally.

The discovery of iPSCs was huge news. It prompted researchers around the world to start working with iPSCs, many of whom have subsequently made their own discoveries, published their own research in peer reviewed journals (just type pluripotent into PubMed you'll see what I mean), and expanded greatly on the existing body of knowledge about pluripotency. This includes the discovery of numerous variations of gene combinations that play a role in pluripotency. So if Kyoto University owns the original idea, do they own everyone elses' work too? According to university spokeswoman Akemi Nakamura, they do. Nakamura says the patent broadly covers variations of the technology developed since 2006 in laboratories around the world.

In a press release the University stated:
"The US patent covers combinations of nuclear reprogramming family factors comprising an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and Myc family gene; or an Oct family gene, a Klf family gene, and a cytokine. This means that if companies use a combination of the nuclear reprogramming genes and generate iPSCs, regardless of the kinds of vectors, they need to get the patent license."
So if Kyoto University owns the right to the genes, and the subsequent developments based on the genes what does that mean for iPSC researchers? Right now the university says it will not restrict research using iPSCs for non-profit purposes, so that would mean research whose end goal isn't the marketing of a specific product based on iPSC technology will be able to continue unhindered. Companies that want to work with iPSCs for profit may have to pay a licensing fee. Although, it is important to note that not all iPSC research is based on these genes - there are other combinations of genes that can induce pluripotency, and thus lines of inquiry in this field that don't belong to Kyoto University.

How important all of this will be, and when it will be important is a bit murky. iPSCs have their own problems (namely, teratomas) and haven't yet been developed for widespread, let alone commercial, use. Though, with all of the resources being poured into iPSC development, I think it is only a matter of time until the cells become more useable. This is a story to watch, it is hard to say exactly how it will work out but it is sure to be an issue that continues to come up.

As for me, I'm not really sure where I fall on this issue. I can see the need to protect intellectual achievements and make sure that the wrong people don't profit, but at the same time I wish it wasn't necessary and open inquiries could be pursued without people having to worry about others cashing in on their ideas. If only it could be that way.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: Devices & Desires

I thought it was amusing that the first condoms in history were made from the casings of animal intestines. Yet, when I tried to share this information I was met with the typical head shaking, and entreaties to find different reading material characteristic of me sharing new found knowledge with friends. In my post about Mary Roach's Stiff, I mentioned how my friends don't find the interesting tidbits I gleaned about cadavers to be proper cocktail conversation. Well, the same goes for all the interesting tidbits I gathered from reading Andrea Tone's Devices & Desires.

I am taking a history of science course this semester on the history of women and health in America. As a grad student in an undergrad class, I have to complete extra work to make the requirements. One of the extra assignments was to read and discuss Devices & Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America with the other grad student and the professor. I am a fish out of water in this class, having no background whatsoever in women's issues (aside from, you know being a woman myself), and while I was aware of the timeline for the development of contraceptives there was a lot about them I didn't know. Thus my excited, and apparently gross, interest in what I learned from the book.

Devices & Desires can be broken roughly into three sections: condoms, the pill, and intrauterine devices (IUDs). The section about condoms was by far the most interesting and engaging. My professor (Karen Walloch) suggested that perhaps this was the section that Tone researched for her thesis, and while that is just speculation it does seem to be the part of the book that the writer was most invested in. Fun fact: when scientists first developed a way for rubber to be shaped and thus used as condoms, companies that today we associate with tires (Firestone, BF Goodrich, Goodyear) all dabbled in condoms.

My favorite chapters in the book dealt with the military's stance on condoms during WWI, and how they eventually had to cave and endorse them because the health care cost of venereal diseases was through the roof. The book had a few different advertisements and propaganda posters for servicemen urging them to stay away from women that I found highly amusing. Apparently just say no, and taking the moral high ground are no match for a dame in a dress.

After the condom chapters the book tackles the birth control pill. While I found the information interesting, I felt like it fell a little flat. For such a controversial topic, that had such a drastic impact on women's lives I think Tone could have infused the writing with more personality. It just wasn't as colorful as the condom chapters. As a science writer, I did really appreciate the description of the research process that went into making synthetic hormones and how these were tested. The initial testing on the pill was done in Puerto Rico, because the researchers/financiers thought there wouldn't be as much controversy and public push back. They were very wrong. But, if you aren't interested in the scientific process, I feel like these chapters might drag on for you as a reader.

From the pill, the book moves on to the IUD. Tone focuses on a particular IUD, the Dalkon Shield. I was really shocked by this part of the book. Shocked, and really kind of outraged that I hadn't heard about this health scandal. In the 1970's the Dalkon Shield was the cause of more than 200,000 lawsuits due to a high percentage of severe injury among its users. The design of this IUD made it a ticking time bomb that women were sticking into their bodies. Infections (and subsequent Pelvic Inflammatory Disease) caused by the materials used in the device caused severe damage to women's reproductive systems (even sterility), the device could also perforate the uterine wall, and women who did get pregnant while wearing the device often had children born with severe birth defects.

Lawsuits against the A.H. Robbins Corporation (who marketed the Dalkon Shield) won millions of dollars in damages for women and families that had been affected. The real tragedy in the Dalkon Shield scandal is that the company was well aware of the device's problems. Internal documents and studies proved that the company knew the device was dangerous, and marketed it anyway. As a result of the scandal, in 1976 the Medical Device Amendments to the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act mandated the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the first to time test and approve of medical devices.

It is important to note that the major flaw in the Dalkon Shield: a porous, multifilament string that was basically a highway for bacteria straight up into the uterus, isn't a part of IUDs currently on the market. I know several people who use IUDs and am relieved to know that the devices have been improved since they first debuted on the contraceptive scene. However, the Dalkon Shield story really made me stop and think about the human cost of not only contraceptive devices, but all new medical breakthroughs.

As much as I learned from and was moved by reading the chapters about IUDs in Tone's book, these chapters left me wanting more. I felt like the book ended very abruptly, and that there was still a lot that could have been said about the topic. My professor pointed out that when you are writing a book like this, you have to choose a place to stop, otherwise you could just go on and on. I understand that, but I think the book could have ended more smoothly.

Overall, I thought Devices & Desires was a great read and I learned a lot from it that I hadn't been aware of otherwise. The book was a little disjointed in parts, and you have to be invested in seeing it through (and apparently not squeamish) but if you come from an uninformed background like mine, I can almost guarantee you'll learn something new.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Dinosaur Stopped Dead In Its Tracks, Literally.

We know a tremendous amount about dinosaurs from studying their fossilized remains, but the amount that we don't know or haven't seen in the fossil record far surpasses our knowledge. I'm a sure sucker for a good dinosaur fossil story, and pitched several while interning at Geekosystem over the summer. I'm still working through my list of links that didn't make the cut this summer, and wanted to share this dinosaur discovery (that I read about in this New Scientist article).

Image credit: Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki
To say that something stopped dead in its tracks is a common phrase, but it is really an uncommon occurrence. That is what makes the discovery by Polish paleontologists of a Protoceratops fossilized alongside impressions of its final footprints so impressive. This dinosaur was literally stopped dead in its tracks. The fossils were found in Mongolia, and belong to a dinosaur that lived approximately 80 million years ago. Due to the fact that finding fossilized remains of land animals and their tracks is so rare, the discovery is particularly exciting. 

It is rare to find a fossilized land vertebrate alongside its footprints, because generally the conditions needed to preserve tracks and bone are different. It is easier to observe invertebrate marine creatures fossilized with their tracks because a single layer of sediment is more likely to be able to preserve both. Adding to the difficulty is the challenge of matching tracks with a specific creature. The pads or soft tissue that covers a foot isn't going to be preserved on the skeleton, which will make it harder to match tracks with a species.

Identifying footprints by the creature that created them is so complex, it has its own scientific field of study. As a subspeciality of geology, ichnologists study footprints and can typically narrow a footprint down to a specific type of animal, and sometimes the species. The Protoceratops fossil was discovered by a joint Polish-Mongolian team from the Gobi Desert in 1965. Yes, 1965. It took 45 years for the fossil slab to be analyzed, but when it finally was, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki of the University of Warsaw was shocked at what he found. 

Niedzwiedzki and colleagues discovered an impression near the dinosaur's pelvis. The shape and size correspond with what would be expected from the Protoceratops' four-toed foot. This is the first time that scientists have observed fossilized Protoceratops tracks from this region and time period, in addition to being the rare tracks of a land animal preserved next to that animal. If you are interested in learning more about this find, the researchers published their study in the journal Cretaceous Research.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Science For Six-Year-Olds: The States Of Matter

This is a special post for my science blogging buddies in Mrs. Podolak's (my Mom's) class at Lincoln-Hubbard Elementary School. This year I will periodically be blogging about the topics the first graders study for their science units. All of these special posts will be distinguished by the title "Science For Six-Year-Olds." Even if you've already passed the first grade, I hope you'll still enjoy these posts as we go back to basics to learn about science.
Hello First Graders! I am so excited to be your blogging buddy this year. My name is Erin, and I'm a science journalist. A science journalist is someone who writes about different science discoveries, and tries to talk about science in ways that everyone can understand. I go to school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Have any of you ever been to Wisconsin? Mrs. Podolak can show you where Wisconsin is on the map. I grew up in New Jersey just like you, but now I'm pretty far away. I moved here to learn more about being a science journalist.

I heard from Mrs. Podolak that you are studying the states of matter. Matter is anything that occupies space and has mass. Matter comes in different forms, which you should already be familiar with. There are solids, liquids, and gases. A solid is firm or hard and has a fixed shape. A liquid flows and moves, and can change shape based on the container it is in. A gas is something that expands to fill any space available.

I think the following song could help you understand the difference between solids, liquids, and gases. It is by a band called They Might Be Giants:

Can you come up with some examples of things that are solids, liquids, or gases? Let me know if you have any questions, you can leave them in the comments and I'll write back. I hope you are loving first grade so far and I'm looking forward to talking to you throughout the year!

Friday, September 9, 2011

A Pollution Solution, Brought To You By Lehigh University

The Lehigh Mountain Hawk in 2008
photo credit: Erin Podolak
If you've ever checked the About section of this blog, you'll know that my alma mater is Lehigh University. I loved my time at Lehigh (it's where I first learned about science writing) and thinking about the university evokes a lot of positive memories. But, as much as I love Lehigh, I have to admit it isn't exactly a premier research institution (despite what they might tell you in the pamphlets). Not that research doesn't go on at Lehigh, but it's no University of Wisconsin-Madison as far as a reputation for cutting edge research is concerned.

Imagine my surprise as I was perusing Scientific American a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon Lehigh while reading an article (reprinted from ClimateWire) about a newly developed material that has the ability to pull carbon dioxide and methane pollution from other gases. The material was developed by Kai Landskron, Paritosh Mohanty and Lillian D. Kull of Lehigh's department of chemistry, and could potentially be used to help capture greenhouse gases.

Creating carbon-sucking materials has been a goal for scientists for years as a way to combat the effects of climate change caused by an excess of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, existing systems tend to be expensive, use a tremendous amount of energy, or don't work well at high temperatures. The new material developed at Lehigh avoids these problems.

The new substance was created using chemicals called diaminobenzidine and hexachlorocyclotriphosphazene. These chemicals are cheaper than others used for carbon absorption, and can operate at heat as high as 400 degrees Celsius. In addition to avoiding the problems that have plagued early carbon capture systems the researchers also had to create something that could take carbon dioxide and methane out of a gas stream, but then release it at a later time for permanent storage underground once compressed.

Coal power plant Somerset NY
Credit: Matthew D. Wilson/Wikimedia Commons.
When they developed their "sponge" the researchers found that the material drew more carbon dioxide and methane from the air than other gases, like nitrogen. This makes the material idea for capturing harmful greenhouse gases out of mixed emissions. The researchers have suggested that the material could be placed inside a tower located adjacent to a coal burning power plant, the flue gas generated from the burning coal could then be transported via pipeline through the material to capture greenhouse gases from the emissions.

According to the researchers, the material has a 90% success rate capturing CO2 from a gas stream. However, some problems with the mass production of this material include the fact that real power plants would emit a more complex mixture of gases than was tested by the Lehigh research team, the material may be too dense for manufacture on a large enough scale, and production would create chemical byproducts that may become difficult to control.

The researchers are confident however, in the product they have created. Landskron told ClimateWire:
"There is no fundamental difference in doing this in the lab versus doing it at an industrial scale." This material hasn't been tested on a commercial scale and it remains unknown if it could actually be implemented practically, so we'll have to wait and see if the material can stand up to the high expectations its creators have set up for it.

Even though the chemicals used in the material are cheaper than others used for carbon capture, the cost of producing and implementing the technology is still a barrier to its use. The researchers hoped to test the material on an existing coal plant in the US earlier this year, but the effort stalled due to a lack of funds, even with a 50% investment by the Department of Energy.

On campus with friends before my graduation from
Lehigh in 2009.
So, while the research is promising and it demonstrates an interesting idea with a lot of potential for carbon capture it needs support and further research to make it something that could actually be used commercially. If you'd like to know more, the research was published in July in Nature Communications.

I was excited to see Lehigh in the news for scientific research. Research wasn't a big part of my life at Lehigh, in fact I rarely encountered it, but Lehigh is where my passion for science evolved into a career. It is where, with the support of the journalism department and the wonderful professors who gave me my first real introduction to writing, I realized that I could have a career dedicated to science without being a scientist, and that has shaped the course of my life. I'm proud of my school, and even prouder to know that Lehigh researchers are working to find solutions to our greenhouse gas problems. Now lets get some funding to make that research a reality!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Halfway To My Master's

I successfully made it back to Madison in time for the first day of classes on Friday. After the usual grocery shopping, school supply gathering, schedule printing, and bus pass acquiring that goes along with getting oriented for the school year I kicked things off with my zoology class, the Extinction of Species.

UW Madison Campus, Bascom Hall
via news.wisc.edu
This is my second zoology class. If you read this blog regularly you know that I loved/struggled with my zoology class last semester about the psychology and biology of human and animal behavior. I really want to do my out of department electives in the sciences but I don't have most of the pre-requisites for biology and environmental science classes. I'm not interested in taking classes that don't count toward my degree, so that has made it difficult to find the right electives. Looking elsewhere, I found the zoology department and the classes offered seem to be really interesting. Even though it is sure to be a challenge I'm excited about the Extinction of Species course.

This semester I'm also taking a multimedia journalism course and a history of science course about women and medicine. I think all of these classes will push me out of my comfort zone and challenge me to learn new things. They are all correlated with and applicable to my interest in science writing, but I've never taken any classes on these specific topics before. Which really is why I'm here, right? I'm looking forward to getting underway with the semester and getting back into a school frame of mind. I like the freedom that goes along with being an academic versus being part of the working world, but I still like the routine of having certain work due every week. I also love not only having time to read, but having to read as a requirement. I managed to get lost in Memorial Library yesterday, but eventually (with the help of a map) found my way around.
Madison Farmer's Market
via biochem.wisc.edu

When I moved to Madison in August 2010 the idea of living here for two years seemed so daunting, and here I am halfway through. This morning I went to the Madison Farmer's Market (which if you don't know is pretty amazing) and just enjoyed being part of the city. I was by myself, but still enjoyed walking around the capitol square looking at all the vendors. I ended up buying some wildflowers and apple cider before heading home. It is really nice to feel more comfortable living here, I feel like I spent all of last year figuring this place out. It just has such a different vibe from the East Coast. It can be hard to describe what makes it different, because it just has to do with the way the community feels.

I'm excited to finish my Master's and move back to the East Coast, but I want to make sure that I make the most of the remainder of my time in Madison. This community has so much to offer in terms of activities and I want to do a better job taking advantage of them. I know that the chances of me living here after I finish my program are basically non-existent so I need to get the most out of Madison while I still can.

Things on my Madison to do list for the Fall include:

  • Attend a Badger football game
  • Attend the Farmer's Market on a regular basis
  • Take advantage of free/low cost concerts
  • Take part in at least one of the many activities centered around Madison's lakes (canoeing maybe?)
  • Try Babcock Dairy icecream

I have to come up with a Winter/Spring to do list. I know for sure I want to make it out to Chicago, but if anyone has any suggestions for things I should do in Madison (and the midwest) during my last year let me know, I'm sure there are things I'm not thinking of right now. I'm especially interested in class recommendations for next semester, I'm not sure what I should take but I'm definitely open to trying new things.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Intern Introspection

The summer is rapidly coming to a close, and I'm already prepping to go back to Madison for the start of classes. Hurricane Irene has put a damper on my flight plans so I'm stuck in New Jersey for two extra days but it isn't going to be much of a summer addition considering we might very well blow, or float, away. Before the summer is officially packed away, I wanted to do some reflecting on my summer internship experience writing for Geekosystem.

One of the best and worst things about writing for Geekosystem was that I worked as a real writer. I knew ahead of time that the internship was unpaid, but still when you are doing the work of a regular employee it gets a little frustrating to just watch your bank account drain despite how hard you work. Doing all the work and not getting paid was a pretty big bummer. For the summer it ended up costing me $819 for train tickets on NJ Transit, plus about $20 a week in Metrocards. I kept my job freelancing as a medical copywriter, so I worked nights doing that to keep up with the cost of New York City. I also had a lot of help from my parents, I was living at home and eating their food and getting other financial help which is really what made the internship possible.

Still, the experience also had value because I was working as a real writer. Working as a writer was rewarding and frustrating. I struggled a lot with pitching posts and getting them accepted. Geekosystem does science, tech, video games, and internet culture. Science is only a fraction of the content, so it makes it really difficult to get a science post accepted. It has to be a science post that is going to get a lot of traffic, and it can be hard to tell what is going to be big. I was surprised a lot by posts that didn't get the traffic I thought they would (both too much and too little). There was a lot of reward from seeing a post get picked up by GoogleNews so when I did come up with a post that made it big (I had a few) it was a great feeling.

I can't say my writing is all that much better for having done the internship, but I'd like to think I didn't start off that bad. I think the internship helped me polish my style with things like comma usage, punctuation, and occasionally sentence structure. More than writing I think I learned some important lessons in working with an editor and the business side of being a writer. Internships in general have a lot of value if you go after the experience you really need. I wish I had been more adamant about learning the tech beat and doing more multimedia. You need to know what you are getting yourself into with an internship and really weigh the costs and benefits before deciding if it is right for you.

I'm happy to have had the experience of working for Geekosystem because it helped me narrow my focus as far as what I'd like to do professionally. I don't think I want to be a blogger for profit, but I still love having a blog and being able to give my point of view in a space that is my own. I'm even more excited now to head back to Madison to finish up my degree so I can get out there and find a job.

If you don't follow this blog regularly and you'd like to know more about my work with Geekosystem check out my science posts from Geek Roundups I, II, and III, and here are the posts from my last few days:

Researchers Create The First Living Nanowire From Bacteria
Researchers Announce Successful Clinical Trial Of Gene Therapy Treatment For Leukemia
Pregnant Fossil Is First Evidence That Plesiosaurs Gave Birth To Live Young
This Is What The Perseid Meteor Shower Sounds Like
Study: Benedict Arnold Bacteria Betray Their Brethren, Go On Killing Spree
Electronic Sensors Stick Like Temporary Tattoos, Present Endless Possibilities
Primitive Eel Species Described As "Living Fossil" Discovered
NASA Debunks Comet Elenin Rumors, No Armageddon Here
The Moon May Be Millions Of Years Younger Than Previously Thought
For The Love Of Bud, Marijuana Genome Sequenced

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Just A Little Casual, Conversational Cadaver Talk

I have a long list of "to read" books that I had hoped to get through this summer. I've read far fewer of them than I had hoped, but Mary Roach's books were on my list and I recently read her first one, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. She says that she got a lot of weird looks while she was working on the book when she told people she was researching cadavers. Since I read on the train, I received a few similarly questioning looks when people would glimpse the cover with its picture of toe-tagged cadaver feet.

The book is absolutely fascinating, and I probably shared far too many of the facts and interesting bits that I learned with my friends and family. Nothing says light beer drinking conversation like discussing how when someone is in a plane crash, they usually die from the organ damage. This is because the organs are moving faster than the body so when the body smacks into the surface of water and stops, the organs keep going and get damaged when they hit the inside wall of the body. I know my friends really appreciated that tidbit, and by appreciate I mean I was met with "can we stop talking about dead bodies now?" I know that I have good taste in books when my friends automatically cringe when I start a sentence with "So I was reading a book about..."

But anyway, for a book about cadavers Stiff is charmingly funny. It is written as if the reader is right there alongside the author as she does things like visit a face dissection, explore a body farm, test different ways to get rid of remains, and travel to China in search of a crematorium involved in a human dumpling scandal. Yes, human dumplings. Roach certainly found the most juicy tidbits in the business of dead bodies, but they make for an incredibly interesting book. What happens to cadavers is one of those things that no one wants to talk about, so almost everything in the book came as a new piece of information for me. I appreciated her candid, straightforward approach and the way it mixed with her own commentary and tangents. 

Roach is completely comfortable with her own feelings of how awkward and strange some of the things that happen to dead bodies are, and the fact that she is an out of place witness to them. Her inner dialogue about these things is entertaining and approachable and that is what makes being told a story about dead bodies so palatable. 

One of the best things about Roach's book is that there is a sense of balance between awkward/funny and total reverence for the dead and what science (and really all of society) have to gain from bodies donated to research. The dead are treated with respect, and I find that to be an equally important part of the book. It does make a plug for donating your body to science, which might bother some, but I didn't find it inappropriate. Roach makes it clear what she would want done with her own remains, and also makes a very good case for why people should donate their bodies to science (in spite of some of the experiments that seem undignified). I think suggesting that body donation might be a good way to go is coming from a good place.

Overall, if you can stomach television shows like Bones or CSI, you can stomach Stiff. The subject matter is gross, but the writing is divine and definitely worth your time. I can almost promise that you will learn some things you never knew about, and really might want to know considering we all eventually end up as cadavers.

(Thank you to Marianne over at PrimateProse for recommending Mary Roach!)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Geek Roundup: The Best Science Posts From My Internship (Part III)

My internship with Geekosystem is coming to its end, but its time for another link roundup of my favorite science posts. I've been writing a lot of folk art posts lately (somehow that is the beat I've gotten myself on) but there have been some really interesting science developments in the past few weeks, especially with regard to goings on in space. Also, for your viewing pleasure here is a video from one of my posts that a commenter called "pure win." I think so, because on a scale of one to adorable, this is off the charts, and it doesn't even have any puppies in it.

MIT Researchers Announce Broad Spectrum Treatment For Viral Infections - This research has the potential to make a profound impact on the treatment of viral infections (from colds to hemorrhagic fever) if it is able to be transfered from human cells in the lab, to real humans. It uses the way that viruses replicate by taking over a cell against it, to destroy cells infected with the virus.

Microbots Use Magnetic Forces To Swim And Do Some Heavy Lifting - The post was based on two videos of what really look like just a collection of particles swimming around and moving small objects. The particle bunches are actually microbots, that have some pretty impressive capabilities.

NASA Proves Building Blocks Of DNA Come From Space - I got myself in some trouble with a commenter on this one for the word "prove" in the title. It was a choice to use the word prove in a science post. I used it in the headline in a way that I think is fair, but I got told it sounded like a tabloid, what do you think?

More Dwarf Planets Found In Kuiper Belt, Pluto In Good Company But Still Not A Planet - When Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet a lot of people started to question what makes something a planet in the first place. These newly discovered dwarf planets meet a few of the criteria, but like Pluto, fall short of planethood.

Study: Stem Cells Used To Make Sperm, Then Used To Make Mouse Babies For The First Time - Adding to the amazing list of what scientists have done with stem cells, for the first time they have created sperm cells that resulted in successful offspring that had the ability to reproduce. This could have big impacts for infertility treatments.

Small Shark Can Glow And Become Invisible, Is Not A Mutant - I love doing strange animal posts, this one highlighted a shark that can "cloak" itself and appear invisible based on the way it looks when you view it from below.

Researchers Discover Gene That Causes People To Have No Fingerprints -There are only a few people in the world who don't have fingerprints. It is a rare condition, and now researchers understand the genetic mutation that causes this disorder.

Scientists Suggest Earth May Once Have Had Two Moons - An interesting theory about how the moon formed suggests that Earth once had two moons, and that one crashed into the other to make our current moon. Its just a theory but there is some compelling evidence in its favor.

NASA To Launch LEGO Figurines Into Space - I totally loved this idea, basically NASA teamed up with LEGO to make three figurines: Juno, Jupiter, and Galileo to celebrate the launch of the Juno Space Probe on its trip to study the planet Jupiter. The figurines are really detailed (and really expensive) but its like every nerd's dream to have LEGOS in space, right?

Ancient Skulls Sheds Light On How Dogs Became Man's Best Friend - I didn't understand the commenter on this post. I only got one and it was about how scientists make sweeping assumptions. Making a hypothesis or suggesting a theory about something based on evidence isn't the same thing as making assumptions. The research may not be definitive but its not like the researchers were just making stuff up either.

Researchers Find Elusive Oxygen Molecules In Space - We've always been taught that there is no oxygen in space, which is why astronauts need those fancy helmets. But, researchers have found oxygen molecules in space. Now its not the same as having an atmosphere like ours with oxygen you can breathe, but its still pretty cool that the molecules were there at all.

Survey Method Shows That A Throw Of The Dice Makes People More Honest - I got a great email from the researcher on this study saying that I'd done a good job capturing it, it totally made my day. This was a really interesting study that showed if people have some kind of an out or a fail safe they are more likely to tell the truth, and it can be useful for gathering data about things people would rather not talk about, like illegal poaching.

Gene For Proteus Syndrome, Cause Of The "Elephant Man," Found - Proteus Syndrome is a poorly understood disorder that causes tissues to swell so that people appear completely disfigured. For the first time researchers have identified the rare genetic mutation that leads to this disorder.

New Treatment For Hereditary Blindness Is First Drug To Restore Vision - I loved the commenters on this post, it was probably the one post all summer that made me really happy when I read the comments. Both comments I got were from people who either have or know someone with the disease, thanking me for the post. That was really awesome.

Researchers Create Glowing Dog That Can Be Turned On And Off - Researchers genetically altered a dog so that it would glow in the dark. I didn't really understand the point, since it was an incredibly expensive process it isn't going to catch on for any kind of commercial purpose and its unlikely to have much of a role in research.

Federal Funding For Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research Ruled Legal - In what is seemingly the final nail in the coffin for this legal challenge to federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, lawyers have exploited a hole in the law to allow funding to continue. A good thing for researchers, not so good for people with a religious opposition to this type of research.

First Earth Trojan Asteroid Discovered - A trojan is a certain type of asteroid, and for the first time it was found that there is one around Earth, and yes, it is named after the trojans from the Trojan War. A little bit of history in space.

Mountain Lion Makes Longest Journey Ever Recorded By A Land Mammal - Got myself in trouble with commenters for this title too. Someone had to point out that humans are land mammals as well. Well, indeed they are, but I think it is quite obvious that humans are exempted from setting a longest journey record against any other animals. I thought that went without saying. I guess not, because someone felt the need to say it.

Study: Interrupted Sleep Harms Memory Development  - This one is pretty self explanatory from the title. But basically researchers determined that people who have their sleep interrupted have a harder time forming memories, it shows a connection between these two brain functions that could be interesting for further study.

Next Mars Rover Will Climb Sediment Mountain - The space shuttle program might be over, but NASA still has plenty of other active projects that could help us learn more about space. One of these projects is the Mars Rover, which is still out there searching for life on the red planet. The next Mars Rover will explore a sediment mountain that has promising environments for evidence of life.

Atlantis Returns To Earth, Space Shuttle Program Now Over - This post marked the landing of the Space Shuttle Atlantis at the completion of its restocking mission to the International Space Station. This final mission was the last trip of the Space Shuttle program, because NASA wants to focus on other things in the future.

New Wave Shape Observed For The First Time - This was a weird (but interesting) little study about the conditions under which waves form, and the different shapes that they take. I was surprised that there was a wave shape that researchers hadn't yet observed, but it just goes to show you how many secrets the Earth still has to yield.

Potential Water Discovered On Mars, Still Not A Sign Of Alien Life - NASA researchers have announced that there is liquid water on the surface, or right below the surface of Mars. The water is most likely a brine (salty) and it is unknown how/if this water could impact the search for evidence of life on Mars.

Neil deGrasse Tyson Will Host Sequel To Carl Sagan's Cosmos Produced By Seth MacFarlane - The reboot of Sagan's famous TV series will be run on Fox in primetime. The opinion about this seems to be mostly positive, with everyone just hoping that the project does justice to the original series. The choice of MacFarlane makes some people nervous but here's to hoping it works out well.

Bonus Non-Science Post: 
Woman Buys Non-Visible Art For $10,000 - So this isn't a science post, but it needs a little commentary. The source that I used for my post had the woman in question's name spelled wrong, it was off by one letter. Now, I'm all for accuracy, if I make a spelling mistake please do tell me so I can fix it. But, I still found it pretty amusing that Ms. Davison felt the need not only to comment on the post about wanting her name fixed, but also followed me (then proceeded to unfollow) on twitter so that she and a friend could tweet at me about the error. I have no idea why someone would try so hard to make sure their name was spelled right in a post that openly mocks them and the absolutely ridiculous way they wasted ten grand, but it was pretty important to her. So, I made the change and now I and the commenters on the post can mock her openly with the correct spelling.
When I first started this internship I said that I was afraid of the commenters and they made me feel really bad about myself. They still do, if I'm in a bad mood/frame of mind when I start reading comments that rip on every aspect or even just the smallest aspects of a post it makes me sad. I'm still learning which comments to take to heart and which to just write off. I wish I had time to go into all of the detail some of these topics deserve but most of these write ups are under 500 words and some of the context is going to get lost.

It is not an excuse for mistakes, but some of the nitpickers need to keep in mind that Geekosystem is a blog, not a peer reviewed journal. I am not a peer reviewer, I don't have a science degree and I can't always call bullshit on a study I don't know a lot about or don't have access to the paper through the pay wall system. Sometimes I can call bullshit right off the bat, and when I can, I do. It is just frustrating sometimes to feel like I don't really get high traffic posts that are well received. We'll see what this last week at Geekosystem has in store.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Robot That Walks On Water

I don't talk about religion on Science Decoded (with one exception) the way that I don't talk about politics (with one exception). So all Jesus walking on water references will be excluded from this post. Sorry if that disappoints. But, I am going to talk about a robot that walks on water, and that alone is pretty cool.

Credit: The American Chemical Society.
Researchers from the State Key Laboratory of Robotics and System, and the Harbin Institute of Technology in China, writing in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, have developed a microbot that is able to walk across water's surface. The robot was designed to mimic the capabilities of water-striding insects like mosquitoes that can support themselves on water's delicate surface.

The Chinese microbot is approximately six inches long and has 10 wire legs and 2 moveable oar-like legs. It is propelled by two small motors that help it to maneuver like a water striding insect. What makes the robot so much more impressive than what the insects do is that at 3.88 grams it weighs about as much as 390 water strider bugs. Despite its weight it is still able to walk, stand and turn on water's surface without sinking.

So what is the trick to walking on water? My favorite: Math. (Sarcasm intended). While I still might be a bit intimidated by math, I definitely appreciate the amazing ways that nature is really just math and vice versa. The microbot's legs are able to support it the way a water strider's legs can support it based on the radius and contact angle of the legs with the water's surface.

But the real question here is: aside from the fact that a robot that walks on water is just cool, why does it matter? According to the researchers this type of technology could be useful for developing tools for monitoring water pollution or water quality surveillance. Personally, I'm envisioning little robot spies stealthily sneaking across bodies of water, but that is something the researchers didn't speculate on.

It amazes me everyday the kind of advances we've made in robotics, as we automate the world around us I can't help but borrow the tagline from my friend Cassi's blog: We Live In The Future.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Induced Hibernation In Ground Squirrels

As I sort through the news each day looking for things to cover in my posts on Geekosystem I come across a lot of science stories that are interesting to me, but that don't really fit within the confines of what we do on the site. I've been saving some of these stories to blog about here whenever I get a chance.

One of these tidbits was a study about ground squirrels and how researchers have figured out a way to induce hibernation. Researchers from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks interested in studying the biological processes that cause animals to hibernate have found a way to make them go into this state. The research was conducted on arctic ground squirrels.

Source Wikipedia Commons
Now you might be asking yourself, what is a ground squirrel and is it any different than a regular old squirrel that you see in your backyard? Squirrels are part of a family of small rodents called Sciuridae, this includes your tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chimpmunks, marmots (woodchucks), flying squirrels, and prairie dogs. A ground squirrel (not surprisingly) tends to live on the ground rather than in trees.

The University of Alaska researchers wanted to study a condition called torpor in ground squirrels. When an animal hibernates its heart rate and blood flow become reduced. In a human this would cause brain damage, but that doesn't happen in animals that hibernate. Animals that hibernate survive being in this state by reducing their metabolism - this is called torpor. When an animal is in torpor its oxygen consumption can fall to as low as one percent of its resting metabolic rate and its core body temperature can drop to near freezing. In hibernating animals a molecule called adenosine plays a role in entering this state by slowing down nerve cell activity.

The researchers discovered that if they administer a caffeine-like substance that stimulates the areas of the brain that are receptive to adenosine they could control the ground squirrels' hibernation. The researchers woke six ground squirrels in the middle of their hibernation season using this substance, and were able to then induce a torpor state by taking away the substance in all of the ground squirrels.

The researchers also tried this with six ground squirrels that were woken early in their hibernation season and were only able to induce torpor in two. During the summer season when ground squirrels are not hibernating, the researchers weren't able to induce them into a torpor state. The research was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

So why does the ability to wake up sleeping squirrels matter in the slightest? Well, understanding how animals survive the reduced blood flow, heart rate, and body temperatures that come along with being in hibernation could help scientists develop new ways to treat patients who have had a stroke or another traumatic incident where blood flow to the brain is reduced. That kind of an application is a long way off, but this research is still a significant step forward in understanding the biological mechanisms that underly hibernation.