Saturday, July 28, 2012

Vacation Adventure: The La Brea Tar Pits

During my nearly three week blogging hiatus (caused mostly by the fact that I moved and started a new job) I also took my first trip to California. It was recommended to me on twitter that I check out the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which when I looked it up led me to the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. The Page Museum houses one of the world's largest collections of late Pleistocene fossils and is the only constantly active urban Ice Age excavation site in the world. Mammoths? Yes, please. So my family (also intrigued, though not as much as I was) agreed to make a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits during our trip, and boy was it a tar pit. But it was also so much more. 

Yup, that would be tar. Credit: Erin Podolak
The La Brea Tar Pits are located in Los Angeles. The area of Hancock Park (where the lake pit pictured above and the museum are located) has crude oil underneath it. The oil seeps up along fault lines and when it reaches the surface it forms pools and becomes asphalt. The tar has been seeping up for tens of thousands of years, and at times would be deep and thick enough to trap animals. Water, dust, or leaves would obscure the tar, and when animals would wander into the pit they would become trapped. The struggle to get out of the tar would attract predators, which could also get trapped in the tar and eventually die. The remains of these animals would then be enveloped in the tar, which does a remarkable job at preserving the bones.

While the tar pits were known about as early as the 1780's it wasn't until 1875 when William Denton, a professor at Wellesley College, visited the Hancock family's property at Rancho La Brea and identified a piece of bone as a tooth from a saber-toothed cat that the remains from the tar pits were identified as belonging to a species that wasn't just a typical modern animal. Despite this it wasn't until 1901 when geologist William W. Orcutt, who was checking out prospects for oil production on the land, noticed a piece of armored hide from an extinct ground sloth in the asphalt that the real process of uncovering the La Brea area's hidden fossils began.

A display of 400 dire wolf skulls at the Page museum
Credit: Erin Podolak
Excavations of the area have been ongoing since the initial 1913-1915 project began. The 23 acre Hancock estate was officially turned over by the family to Los Angeles County for scientific exploration. The density and richness of the La Brea area is really remarkable. Several examples of prehistoric species have been uncovered at the La Brea Tar Pits including mammoths, mastadons, dire wolves, short-faced bears, ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. I think it can be easy to forget that until only 11,000 years ago North America had some tremendous large mammals that were all driven extinct. My favorites are definitely the short-faced bear and the ground sloth. By comparison, dinosaurs last roamed the Earth 65 million years ago. The last ice age dates to 0.3 million years ago. The Pleistocene, when many of the La Brea animals would have lived dates from 40,000 to 11,000 years ago. Several of the bones have been dated using Carbon-14 radiometric dating, which showed some of the oldest remains to be 46, 800 years old. 

Despite all of the fossils that have been recovered from the area, the tar pits still continue to give up more. According to the Page Museum's website since 1906 more than one million bones have been recovered representing over 231 species of vertebrates in addition to 159 species of plants and 234 invertebrates. An estimate of the size of the Page Museum's collection is at about three million items. Three million. Excavations are still going on today at the La Brea Tar Pits with Project 23, a series of 23 crates of samples from the pits that were uncovered when the neighboring Los Angeles County Museum of Art excavated the area to build an underground parking lot.

You just can't visit the La Brea Tar Pits without riding the
ground sloth. Or at least, that is how I felt.  
What I loved about the La Brea Tar Pits was the ability to ignite a sense of imagination. I thought it was great to try to visualize what the area would have looked like some 40,000 years ago. Trying to imagine an animal like a mastodon just wandering by you as you watch tar bubbling up to the surface of the lake pit definitely peaked my sense of wonder at the world. If you find yourself in the Los Angeles area, I definitely recommend the La Brea Tar Pits as a must see for kids and adults. The museum is fun and informative and the grounds that you can walk around and peer into the pits are definitely interesting to see. Really, who wouldn't want the chance to ride a ground sloth?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

New Job: The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

After an incredibly crazy month of traveling, interviewing, and moving I have officially started my new full time job at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I announced on Twitter a few weeks ago that I accepted a position with DFCI as a science writer for donor relations, but I realized I never really gave my blog readers any background on what I'll be doing. After all my whining and pontificating about growing up and joining the work force, it wouldn't be right to not explain what my new job is all about.

DFCI's new Yawkey Center via HelloBoston
As a science writer for donor relations my role is to research, gather information, and interview PI's about research projects (mostly pre-clinical and clinical) on specific beats that I've been assigned. The beats are all specific subdivisions regarding research at DFCI, it could be a specific group of cancers like women's cancers,  a particular research group or institute or a particular program or approach to looking for treatments. DFCI is one of the oldest and most accomplished cancer research institutes in the United States with a serious commitment to both research and patient care. 

Once I'm up to speed about what has been going on with a particular beat I write up a narrative report about all of the cool things they have accomplished in the last year. That report is given to donors to showcase the work that DFCI researchers are able to accomplish with the funding that the donors give to the institute. I'm just starting to get into my first project, but I'm really excited. I'm going to get to interview amazing researchers, and get to learn more about really interesting approaches to finding treatments for cancer and related diseases. DFCI is using the most cutting edge technology and processes available to come up with new incredible ways to take down cancer cells, and I get to spend my days finding out all about it. 

So, that is my new job in a nutshell. It required a move from New Jersey to Boston which has been an incredible, though tiring experience. For those who are interested DFCI has a fascinating (at least I think it is fascinating) history making breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer. DFCI was founded in 1947, as the Children's Cancer Research Foundation, by Dr. Sidney Farber who was looking for a way to treat childhood leukemia. In the late 40's leukemia was an automatic death sentence. Farber was the first in the world to achieve temporary remission of acute lymphotrophic leukemia (the most common form) using drugs (and later combinations of drugs) as treatment. 

The foundation expanded to include adults in 1969 and was renamed the Sidney Farber Cancer Center in 1979 in honor of its founder. The name was changed again in 1983 to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute to reflect the long term support of the Charles A. Dana Foundation. I'm going to guess everyone is familiar with the term chemotherapy, yes? Chemotherapy was developed at DFCI. There have been many other breakthroughs achieved at DFCI over the years, I suggest taking a look at the milestones to get a better idea. 

Another interesting bit of DFCI is the formation of the Jimmy Fund and the organization's relationship with the Boston Red Sox. DFCI was really one of the first cancer research organizations to successfully use public fundraising and awareness campaigns. A radio program in 1948 featuring "Jimmy" a childhood leukemia patient being visited by members of the Boston Braves baseball team prompted a huge influx of donations and the construction of the Jimmy Fund building on what is now DFCI's main campus in Boston's Longwood Medical Area. In 1953 the Boston Red Sox named the Jimmy Fund their official charity after the Braves left the city, which is a relationship that continues nearly 60 years later. 

That is just some really basic information about my new job and DFCI in general. I really suggest taking a look at the DFCI website and the Jimmy Fund website if you are interested in learning more about the institute. I'm proud and honored to be working for such a great organization, and I can't wait to see what comes next. Also watch this video, and feel the awesome

Note: By NO means am I an authority on cancer research or treatments of any kind. I am NOT a medical doctor, and am not qualified to answer any medical questions you may have. If you would like to talk to someone at DFCI, you can call the institute at 866-408-3324.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Book Review: The Perfect Storm

I have been told by many teachers and writers more experienced than I, that one of the best ways to create good writing is to read good writing. This is a lesson I find easy to embrace considering I love to read. One of the first classes I took at UW-Madison was Deborah Blum's literary nonfiction course, in which I spent the semester enveloped in the work of some great narrative nonfiction writers. One of those writers was Sebastian Junger, whose 2010 book War I've written about previously and recommend.

When I discover a writer that I enjoy I try to go back and read their other work. I've done this with Dave Eggers reading Zeitoun, What Is The What, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I decided to give another of Junger's pieces a shot and added The Perfect Storm to my Summer reading list. The Perfect Storm was published in 1997, and is the book that made Junger famous. It pieces together the last days of the swordfishing boat the Andrea Gail, which disappeared during a 1991 storm off the coast of Nova Scotia with all six crew members on board. I don't believe in spoilers more than two decades after a story breaks, so I'll go ahead and tell you that apart from some fuel tanks and some debris the boat has never been found, and its crew drowned.

When The Perfect Storm was released Junger was called the next Hemingway. I certainly am not enough of an authority on Hemingway to weigh in about whether that is an apt comparison but I can say that Junger is masterful in the way he tells the story of the Andrea Gail. Communications on the boat were suspended in its final hours, so there is no definitive record of what happened. The last communication from the boat was on the evening of October 28, 1991. After that, what happened to the boat and her crew is open to interpretation. But interpret, Junger does. Based on research on the storm and weather patterns, about the Andrea Gail and how she was built, about swordfishing and what an experienced Captain like the Andrea Gail's Billy Tyne would do when faced with the weather conditions Junger pieces together a likely scenario for what the Andrea Gail and her crew went through in that storm.

As a work of nonfiction that tells a story where no one knows for sure what happened, I think The Perfect Storm really works. Junger is honest with the readers that the only way to try to understand what happened to the ship is to understand everything else about the circumstances surrounding her disappearance. He achieves this with an amount of elegance and grace that does justice to the tragedy that unfolded while still presenting hard facts along with probable outcomes as evidence. I found the recreation of what it is like to be on a sinking ship, knowing you are going to drown to be particularly poignant.
"They're in absolute darkness, under a landslide of tools and gear, the water rising up the companionway and the roar of the waves probably very muted through the hull. If the water takes long enough, they might attempt to escape on a lungful of air- down the companionway, along the hall, through the aft door and out from under the boat - but they don't make it. It's too far, they die trying. Or the water comes up so hard and fast that they can't even think. They're up to their waists and then their chests and then their chins and then there's no air at all. Just what's in their lungs, a minute's worth or so." 
I think that what makes Junger's recreation so plausible and acceptable is that he presents options, while still writing with definitive language. I think the book is honest, and raw and that is what makes it work. You can also tell that Junger really did his homework and talked to so many people and read so much about what it is like to be on a boat that he is able to explain the different scenarios. The fact that the scenarios all end up with the same outcome also adds an element of strength to Junger's recreations. He states it so plainly that it gave me chills, "Tyne, Pierre, Sullivan, Moran, Murphy, and Shatford are dead."

I recommend The Perfect Storm to anyone. The technical aspects of boat design and mechanics coupled with weather patterns and the physics of how together they affect a boat at sea are so well interspersed with narrative that the story holds your attention the entire way through. I thought the book was easy to get into and handle, while still being able to draw you back over and over if you need to put it down or are reading while traveling. I felt like I learned the basics about fishing, boats, weather, rescue protocol, the physics of the ocean, and the social side of fishing life. There is so much information it opens up a different world for readers, which I think makes it really worth your time.

It is also worth noting that The Perfect Storm was made into a film in 2000 starring George Clooney as Billy Tyne and Mark Wahlburg as Bobby Shatford. I haven't seen it, and thus have no recommendation to give but from the trailer it looks like some cinematic liberties were taken with the story while still making an interesting film. I'll be putting it on my ever-growing list of things to see when I have more time.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

How Endangered Is Endangered Enough?

Do you care that a rare type of freshwater mussel has been nearly wiped out? Unless you are like me in the throes of Summer and I am still looking-for-a-job-limbo, I doubt you have the time to give more than a moment of attention to the freshwater pearl mussels in Cumbria in the United Kingdom...if that. In my daily perusing of the BBC I saw this article, Rare mussels 'almost' wiped out and I couldn't help but think A) how in danger is in danger enough to warrant media coverage and B) does covering close calls for endangered species result in 'boy who cried wolf' response from the public?

In summary, the article is about a massive die-off of freshwater peal mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) which are a type of mollusk. The BBC reported that 80,000 of the mussels were lost in a single event out of a total estimated population of 12 million in England and Scotland. It was speculated that the event was caused by a loss of outflow from a lake that caused water temperature to go up and oxygen levels to go down. According to the BBC's article the loss is significant because it happened in an individual incident and because the freshwater pearl mussel is listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as one what the BBC called the most endangered species. 

I was struck by the term "most endangered" because endangered is in itself a classification. I've written about IUCN red list classifications before, but I went back to their website to check how they define the status of a species. The IUCN has nine classifications for a species, they are: 
via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Extinct
  2. Extinct in the Wild
  3. Critically Endangered
  4. Endangered
  5. Vulnerable
  6. Near Threatened
  7. Least Concern
  8. Data Deficient
  9. Not Evaluated
I can't help but wonder, how much nuance is too much nuance? I think it is very important to provide context and evidence when doing something like evaluating the state of a species. As science writers, we need to be specific because it helps avoid confusion or misrepresentation. I think the classifications are good because they help people determine how a species is doing and what should be of most concern. However, is it possible that by covering the shift of a species from level to level, or a mostly-bad-but-there-are-still-some-that-are-doing-okay-so-all-is-not-lost-event we are causing the public to care less? How many people read the BBC's article and thought, "oh no, not the freshwater pearl mussel!"

But is lack of love for the freshwater pearl mussel really a reflection of uninteresting media coverage or just the lack of sexiness of the mollusk? Would the giant panda cause a bigger stir, just because it is a giant panda? Probably. Though theoretically all species are important, and seeing one in peril is always worrisome. While you can definitely argue that species like this and the problems they face don't get nearly enough media attention and thus the coverage that it does get is a solid positive, I can't help but wonder if people start to get jaded when they see stories like this. Personally, I thought the article in the BBC was interesting. I learned about a species that I wasn't familiar with and problems that it and other species face. I think it was worth the time and worth the coverage, I just don't think that opinion is going to land me in the majority. 

So then is this a damned if you do and damned if you don't situation? Perhaps it is. I think the argument could be made on both sides. Covering an event that is important to a specific species, even when it does not cause it to become endangered or extinct can muddy the waters so to speak and make readers exasperated with stories that don't seem pertinent in the grand scheme of things. Covering an event that is important to a specific species can also provide the public with information that is necessary to helping that species survive and can help them learn something interesting in the process. I think any story about species conservation walks a fine line between being appealing and entertaining while still being relevant and interesting. 

What do you think, is the freshwater pearl mollusk worth covering? Would you cover it in print or only online? Does having an online platform make you more likely to cover it because it costs you less to do so? Do you think you can make the public jaded with stories that are interesting to science lovers but perhaps not to the general non-science minded public? Would that affect your choice to cover the species? Lots of questions and things to think about. If you've got some thoughts on the matter I'd love to hear them so leave them in the comments!