Helping Others through Science and Service

Science has been an important part of my life for a long time. One of my motivations for being a scientist was to help people. As scientists, there are many ways that we make a difference. For example, doing research that reveals information about basic biological processes can provide insight into how a disease might wreak havoc, and in turn facilitate drug design and effective disease treatments. I can say from experience that it’s especially rewarding to go beyond the impact of science to assist someone in the community face to face.

A St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry host helps a client to shop for food.

Just over 5 years ago, I started volunteering at the St. Vincent de Paul Madison Food Pantry, the largest in Dane County, Wisconsin, which serves an average of about 400 families per week1. The pantry uses a customer-choice model in which clients are allotted points to shop for food, allowing them to make selections that preserve their dignity and ethnic diversity. The food pantry has a small staff, so volunteers are vital to keep things running. I serve as a “host” to clients and assist them to shop around the pantry for the items that they need. It has been such a positive experience for me. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not changing the world, but I’m helping someone to get essential items to make ends meet for their family. Tough times can happen to anyone, and it takes a great deal of courage to ask for help. My goal is to make the experience for clients as positive as possible by being cheerful, courteous and respectful during their time at the pantry. If my help can make a person forget even for a moment that they have fallen on hard times, then I call that a win!

A desire to make a difference in the community through volunteerism is one of the characteristics that I really like about working at Promega. At a recent company meeting, employees were asked to share how they serve the community. Activities ranged from assisting those with disabilities to participate in athletic activities to taking care of shelter animals to starting a non-profit for children in need. There were many more! Employees helped those in their local communities and even those across the globe from where they live. It was so inspiring to hear about my colleagues’ experiences of serving others.

Promega has a mechanism for employees to apply for time off to volunteer through the Promega in Action program. Continue reading

Postcards from the Northern Roman Empire

Some of the thin wood tablets found at Vindolanda in Northumberland, England. Image Copyright The Vindolanda Trust.

Correspondence whether via postcard or letter has been a method of human communication likely since people became literate. Old letters and postcards have been uncovered in attics, basements and garages, offering depth and richness to historical events or adding context to how humans lived in the past. But what about finding correspondence from more than a few hundred years ago?

Interestingly, archeologists were excavating in a Roman fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall and discovered well-preserved thin slices of wood with ink writing dating to the 1st century. While these 25 postcard-sized correspondence, found in a line about 3–4 meters long, are just the latest uncovered at the Vindolanda fort, the documents add to the history of Romans in Britain.

Many of the newly discovered wooden wafer postcards seemed to contain complete messages and could be read without the need for infrared photography. This treasure “hoard” of ancient Roman writing tablets offer insights such as a man named Masclus asking for leave. His previously discovered correspondence also from the Roman fort at Vindolanda included asking his commanding officer to supply more beer to his outpost.

The announcement of these 25 new Roman messages by the sponsors of the fort excavation are only preliminary overview of the find. In fact, archeologists are working on conserving and deciphering messages on the wooden tablets and plan on using infrared photography to reveal if there is any more writing on these postcards from the past.

Read more in the Vindolanda Trust Press Release.

Searching for Secrets in Single Cells

There has been a lot of effort recently to perform whole genome sequencing, for humans and other species. The results yield new frontiers of data analysis that offer a lot of promise for groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

One objective of human genome sequencing has been to identify sources of disease and new therapeutic targets. This movement has opened the door to create personalized medicine for cancer, whereby the genetic makeup of an individual’s tumors can be used to determine the most effective drug intervention to administer.

Interest in studying the characteristics unique to individual cells seems obvious when considering the function of healthy cells versus tumor cells, or brain cells compared to heart cells. What has surprised scientists is the realization that two cells in the same tissue can be more different from each other, genetically, than from a cell in another organ.

For example, a small number of brain cells with a specific mutation can lead to some forms of epilepsy while healthy people may also carry cells with these mutations, but too few to cause disease. The lineage of a cell, where it came from and what events shaped its development, ultimately determines what diseases can exist.

Continue reading

Findings May Reveal Earliest Evidence of Selective Dog Breeding

Image showing DeLong chain of islands.

Zhokhov Island is part of the DeLong chain of islands off the north coast of Siberia. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A report in the June 2, 2017 edition of Science magazine digs into findings from an ancient archaeological site on the very remote and very, very cold Zhokhov Island, to show that the locals, hardy human hunters, not only lived and worked with dogs, but also quite probably selectively bred the dogs for certain traits.

Archaeologist Vladmir Pitulko with the Russian Academy of Sciences has been excavating on Zhokhov Island since 1989, where he has found dog bones as well as remnants of wooden sleds. With archaezoologist Aleksey Kasparov, also of the RAS, they’ve compared two of the most complete dog skulls found to those of contemporary Siberian Huskies and wolves.

Pitulko and Kasparov wanted to first determine if the skulls were those of dogs or wolves. They first employed two key skull ratios: snout height to skull length and cranium height to skull length. Using these ratios, they were able to reliably distinguish between skulls of a modern wolf and husky. Continue reading

All Aglow in the Ocean Deep

 

Fascinating bioluminescent creature floating on dark waters of the ocean. Polychaete tomopteris.

Today’s blog comes to you from the Promega North America Branch Office.

In nature, the ability to “glow” is actually quite common. Bioluminescence, the chemical reaction involving the molecule luciferin, is a useful adaptation for many lifeforms. Fireflies, mushrooms and creatures of the ocean deep use their internal lightshows to cope with a variety of situations. Used for hunting, communicating, ridding cells of oxygen, and simply surviving in the darkness of the ocean depths, bioluminescence is one of nature’s more flashy, and advantageous traits.

In new research published in April in the journal Scientific Reports, MBARI researchers Séverine Martini and Steve Haddock found that three-quarters of all sea animals make their own light.  The study reviewed 17 years of video from Monterey Bay, Calif in oceans that descended to 2.5 miles, to determine the commonality of bioluminescence in the deep waters.

Martini and Haddock’s observations concluded that 76 percent off all observed animals produced some light, including 97 to 99.7 cnidarians (jellyfish), half of fish, and most polychaetes (worms), cephalopods (squid), and crustaceans (shrimp).

Most of us are familiar with the fabled anglerfish, the menacing deep-sea creature known for attracting ignorant prey with a glowing lure attached to their head. As you descend below 200 meters, where light no longer penetrates, you will be surprised at the unexpected color display of the oceans’ sea life. Bioluminescence is not simply an exotic phenomenon, but an important ecological trait that the oceans’ sea creatures have wholeheartedly adopted to cope with complete darkness. Continue reading

Surfing the Light Waves: Shrimp, Coral, Turtles and Other Fluorescent Organisms

A branching torch coral, Euphyllia glabrescens.

Have you ever walked on a beach and noticed that the waves seem to glow as they roll onto shore? Perhaps you have seen fish or jellyfish that glow in the dark, or maybe you’ve chased fireflies in your backyard or on a camping trip. These are all forms of luminescence (the production of light without adding heat), but the manner that these organisms produce their light can be quite different. Continue reading

So NASA Found Some New Exoplanets…Now What?

34412848-March-8-Planets-600x600-WEBYou have probably heard a lot of excitement over NASA’s recent announcement about the discovery of seven earth-size planets found orbiting around the star TRAPPIST-1, which is part of the constellation Aquarius.

These exoplanets are notable because they exist within the habitable zone of the star (nicknamed Goldilocks planets because this area is not too hot and not too cold) and are probably rocky with the potential to contain water on their surface.

A lot of the enthusiasm revolves around the hope that one of these planets might harbor extraterrestrial life or could be suitable for human inhabitants. Of course, many further observations must be made to determine if these scenarios are plausible, not to mention the huge advances in technology that would need to occur so we could actually verify the planetary conditions or send humans 40 light-years away. Continue reading

Calling All Science PUNdits

As the point of contact for our social media efforts at Promega, I spend a lot of time scanning science-related Twitter, Facebook, Instagram media accounts. There are some science channel managers who do a great job of bringing delight to their followers. Those managers use their platforms to educate—I follow them because they constantly amaze me with new things. I find information that is useful, fun and makes me think “wow, that is interesting.” On my favorite accounts, that new learning comes along with a wry sense of humor, and some of my favorite social media channels are ones that not only teach me new things but do it with a little fun on the side—often in the form of bad science puns.

Promega has the privilege of sponsoring the Cool Science Image contest run by the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Just recently @UWMadScience tweeted about the deadline for the contest, tagging @promega in the tweet. Their tweet included a visual science pun which was not lost on their fellow campus account managers:


That pun started a chain reaction among the other UW accounts that follow @UWMadScience: Continue reading

Travelogue Galapagos Part II: An Incredible Experience in Paradise

In 2014, Promega created a special incentive to reward field science consultants who help the scientific community take advantage of our on-site stocking program. The winners had to meet ambitious criteria to receive 2 round-trip tickets to anywhere in the world, a week of paid vacation and spending money. Our four winners will share photos and stories about their journeys on the Promega Connections Blog.

Today’s travelogue is Part II of the adventures of Amy Parman, a regional sales manager, who used her award to travel to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands.

Day 7: Urbina Bay, Isabela Island & Punta Mangle, Fernandina Island – Today was another early morning wake up, this time to the soothing strains of Journey. We had a quick breakfast and jumped in the dinghy for an exploratory ride. We passed a tree full of so many pelicans covering the branches that they looked as though they could be fruit, ripe for the picking. Our dinghy slowly passed many more sea turtles, golden cownose rays, small eagle rays, marine iguanas and Sally Lightfoot crabs (stunningly red against the black lava).

We also came across several sea lions sleeping away the morning in a comfy mangrove branch bed. More striated herons were perched in the mangroves hunting fish below and three playful sea lion pups swam right up to our feet dangling over the dinghy as if to say, “jump out and play with us.” Bayron said they are likely around ten months old and their mother has left them in the protected bay while she goes out to fish.

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Sea lion pup in Urbina Bay, Isabela Island.

After the ride, we had a chance to snorkel for a couple of hours and did, in fact, swim right along with a very fast and playful sea lion. The sea lions were pretty big, and seemed even more so when we were in the water with them. It was quite the experience to have him dart all around us while we swam. Marine iguanas were also swimming with us and clinging to the lava eating seaweed off the rocks about eight feet deep. There were loads of fish all around and by now we’ve had a few shark sightings among the group. Interestingly, the shark species around the Galapagos, while numerous, do not regard humans as a food source. It has become a tour goal to find as many as we can and, while a challenge, we do catch glimpses of the hammerheads and reef sharks that are never too far away. Continue reading

Promega Employees Find Their Muse in Company Band

Becky Guy (keyboard), Randy  Dimond (left), Eric Vincent (Trombone) play for the Promega Employee Recognition Meeting as part of Lead Generation.

Becky Guy (keyboard), Randy Dimond (left), Eric Vincent (Trombone) play for the Promega Employee Recognition Meeting as part of Lead Generation.

Musicians wait onstage as the sound tech adjusts the cables around them. He signals “OK” and runs back through the seats of the empty auditorium to the mixing board. The musicians all dressed in black, instruments in hand, prepare to play. Four sharp whacks from the drummer’s sticks and music fills the space. Horns, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, and harmonica back singers as they belt out the upbeat earworm Drive It Like You Stole It. They sound great and make it look pretty effortless too, which is why it’s hard to believe these “rock stars” are also scientists, marketers, IT specialists, lawyers, you name it, who make up the Promega employee band, Lead Generation. (Thank marketing for the name.)

“Lead Generation is just one of the many opportunities at Promega that make it truly unique,” says Kris Zimmerman, a research scientist who sings and plays trumpet with the band. “Any kind of expression of creativity can help you to have different perspectives and be a better problem solver. Fostering an environment where collaboration and creativity are rewarded really helps to create a sense of belonging, and creates a vibe of excitement that you don’t find just anywhere. Plus how cool is it to tell people that you play in a band? At work?”

Continue reading