They’re Eating WHAT? Understanding Ecosystems Through Weird Meals

A few days ago, while taking an unplanned distraction break on Facebook, I came across a video of an enormous coconut crab attacking a red-footed booby. The footage was captured by a biologist studying crab behavior in the Chagos Archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean. On this trip he had already confirmed that the monstrous crustaceans snacked on large rats, but he never expected to watch one devour a full bird.
This video sent me on a research journey into other interesting meals discovered by animal researchers. Besides providing sensational headlines about what’s eating what, these studies help us understand everything from nutrient exchange to learned behavior. I’ve compiled a short list of observations and discoveries made in the past few months where researchers have used weird meals to understand complex phenomena. Warning: this might get gruesome! Continue reading

Ancient Images of Dogs Include Restraints?

This dog is wearing a leash.

You, like me, may occasionally find youself in need of a canine control device. While I’m not a fan of the dog tie out, I do walk dogs on leash—as is required by our county and city government here in Madison, WI.

If you have read Temple Grandin’s books about dogs, you might feel a tug at your heartstrings while enduring a tug on the leash. Aren’t dogs meant to run freely? Don’t we love to watch them run? Are leashes humane?

When walking dogs I feel the need to protect them, but also a desire to let them live like dogs, sniffing, marking and other behaviors that are all limited when the dog is leashed.

When a report in Science last week showed evidence that our ancient ancestors were using leashes 8,000-9,000 years ago I was: 1) surprised; and 2) felt vindicated from self-imposed dog owner guilt.

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Some Seriously Funny Science

The other night I was playing volleyball and, during a team huddle, made a joke that the only players working hard were those with two X chromosomes (a playful jab at the male players on my team). The only response I got was a single, delayed smile along with a bunch of blank looks. That joke certainly would have produced a better reaction among my scientific colleagues, even if that simply meant a bunch of immediate groans.

I happen to think science-minded folks like myself have a terrific sense of humor, it’s just tailored to a more niche audience since a lot of the jokes we tell may not be immediately understood by the average person. While I appreciate comedy in all forms, I delight in laughing at and making jokes related to science.

Since I don’t think I am alone, I thought I would share a few events in today’s blog that really highlight the humor that can be found in the scientific community.

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Halloween Costumes: Retro Science Style

Your Promega Connections bloggers were sitting around reminiscing the other day, “Back when I was in the lab…”. Kind of like Thanksgiving Dinner among your elderly relatives, it wasn’t long before we were one-upping each other with horror stories from our days at the bench–stories that included escape artist rats, a leaky sequencing gel apparatus, and the iconic radioactively contaminated post doc.

We decided to turn that conversation, with a lot of help from our favorite science cartoonist Ed Himelblau, into retro Halloween costumes based on our memories of things we used to do in the lab that don’t seem like such a great idea now. Enjoy…and if you have a few retro horror science costume ideas of your own you would like to add, feel free to comment.

First up: Cesium Chloride Preps.

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Coffee and Science–A Cartoon Perspective

Although never actually on the lab bench,  coffee makers have had a prominent place in every laboratory I have worked in. It is because of my laboratory coffee experiences that I am able to drink coffee at any temperature and at any time of the day. The credit for my preference for really strong coffee (with cream, I confess)  goes to two Russian labmates who insisted on making the coffee every morning and went through two bags of beans a week (we had a very wide awake lab).

In all the labs, keeping track of whose turn it was to buy the coffee supplies was just as important as keeping track of whose turn it was to defrost the freezers. I am sorry to say we never thought of a log book because that might have saved me some frantic early morning trips to the store.

Does your lab have coffee rules or traditions? I’d love to hear what they are.

Your Kid Can Become a Citizen Scientist with These 7 Apps

Has your kid ever asked you what you do in the lab all day? (“Hmm…good question, what am I doing all day?”) A simplified answer might sound something like this: I observe, ask a question, collect data, and use those data to answer the question (or at least try!). The scientific method may be difficult to explain to a kindergartner, but you can always start by encouraging them to observe the world around them, ask lots of questions—and even help collect data. In fact, with the help of technology, your child can become a scientist without 7 long years in graduate school or ever setting foot in a lab. A “citizen scientist”, that is. All you need is a smart phone. Here is a list of apps that can make your kid, grandma, neighbor, anyone, become a citizen scientist by helping professional scientists collect data for their research. The apps are all free to download, easy to use and have a real impact on the scientific community.

1. iNaturalist:

Are you sick of not knowing the answer when your child asks “What’s this bug?” on a nature walk? You need the iNaturalist app. Here’s how it works: You observe an interesting plant/insect/animal, take a photo, and the app identifies the name of the species and some basic information about it. There is also the option to share your finding with other users and they can suggest an identification. iNaturalist shares your findings with scientific data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists understand biodiversity. You can even set up scavenger hunt-like activities: iNaturalist birthday party anyone? Continue reading

Genes to Cells to Genomes: Where Will Your Research Questions Take You?

Award presentation

Dr. Walter Blum wins trip to Promega headquarters as part of Promega Switzerland’s 25th Anniversary celebration.

Walter Blum knew how normal cells worked. He had studied and read about the pathways that regulated cell cycles, growth and development; he saw the cell as an amazingly well programmed, intricate machine. What he wanted to understand was: “Why does a cell become crazy? How does it escape immune system surveillance?”

Last week I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Blum, a customer of our Promega Switzerland branch. Dr. Blum won a trip to visit our campus in Madison for a week as part of an anniversary celebration for our Switzerland branch. While here, he got an inside peek at research and manufacturing operations, chatted with our scientists, met with our marketing teams and saw the sights in Madison. We talked about his work and what he learned and is taking back with him from his trip to Madison. Continue reading

“Reverse” Molecular Reactions in DNA through Mind-Body Interventions

While my morning routine typically only involves a large cup of coffee, increasingly more Americans are beginning their days with a set of sun salutations. Sun salutations are a series of poses originating from yoga, one of the most popular types of mind-body intervention in the United States. Along with yoga, other commonly recognized mind-body interventions (MBI) include meditation, mindfulness, Tai chi, and Qigong. Despite the fact that each of these activities differ in the amount of physical effort required, they all view mental and physical health as single cohesive system.

The influence of overall mind-body intervention on health and wellness is an ancient concept that is now revolutionizing Western medicine. In the past, Western medicine has focused primarily on the health of the physical body. Yoga and meditation were viewed as beneficial, but were less likely to be recommended by clinicians as a method for relief. Now, with recent developments in gene expression analysis techniques, we have a better understanding of biological mechanisms and how they interact with psychological variables. A possible shift in clinician’s philosophies can be seen in the steady rise in the complementary health approaches of yoga, Tai chi, and qi gong1.

To completely understand how MBI affects a person’s health, we must first realize the links between stress and the conserved transcriptional response to adversity (CTRA). CTRA refers to the common molecular pattern discovered in individuals facing hardship. Whether it be in the form of diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or the death of a loved one, the characteristics of CTRA stay consistent. CTRA causes an influx in the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These neuromodulators then affect the production of transcription factors. Continue reading

Five Summer Science Projects that are so Fun Your Kids Won’t Realize They are Learning

It is summer here in Wisconsin and the kids are out of school. If you are like me, you are looking for things to keep them busy and (bonus!) maybe teach them something. Below is a list of relatively easy, do-at-home science projects that can be fun for the whole family to try.

Parental supervision is recommended/required for these. And if you don’t want to worry about major clean up (or repainting walls and ceilings) you might want to do these outside whenever possible. I might be speaking from personal experience on this point, so trust me.

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An Unexpected History Lesson

Hillside Trail, Muir Woods National Monument

Hiking the Hillside Trail in Muir Woods National Monument

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me

–Woodie Guthrie

When my daughter was in preschool, she learned the lyrics to Woodie Guthrie’s folk song This Land Is Your Land. After one summer vacation, while she played in the Gulf stream waters off the coast of Florida, she asked, “Can we go see the Redwood Forest now?”

I had never seen the Redwood Forest, and my daughter’s request piqued my curiosity. I thought about my own childhood, when I had accompanied my older sister on a botany class project to collect plants and how curious I was about the plants and where they grew and what their names meant. Suddenly I wanted to see the Redwoods, and the Giant Sequoias.

It took a few years, but we managed to design a vacation trip that satisfied my daughter’s request to see the Redwood Forest and my growing curiosity, and I am so glad we did.  Continue reading