Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay

Scientific investigation is an iterative process, for which reproducibility is key. Reproducibility, in turn, requires accuracy and precision—particularly in measurement. The unsung superheroes of accuracy and precision in the research lab are the members of your local Metrology Department. According to Promega Senior Metrologist, Keela Sniadach, it’s good when the metrology department remains unsung and behind the scenes because that means everything is working properly.

Holy Pipettes, Scientists! We have a metrology department?! Wait…what’s metrology again?

Callibration technician checks out a multipipettorMetrology (the scientific study of measurement) got its start in France, when it was proposed that an international length standard be based on a natural source. It was from this start that the International System of Units (SI), the modern metric system of measurement, was born.

Metrology even has its own day: May 20, which is the anniversary of day the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) was created by the Meter Convention in Paris in 1875. The job of BIPM is to ensure worldwide standards of measurement.

For life scientists, metrology centers around making sure the equipment used everyday—from pipettes to heating blocks to centrifuges—is calibrated and measuring correctly. Continue reading “Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement: #WorldMetrologyDay”

Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day by Reducing Your Plastic Use

One of the most noticeable phenological events of Spring in the Midwest United States is the arrival of the red winged black birds in March. These birds fly in from the South and take up residence on fence posts, power lines and tall reeds, creating a a weaving of red and yellow and black against a still brown backdrop. Shortly after the blackbirds arrive, the first robins of spring greet us and sandhill cranes fly in along with many other species.


These migratory birds that serve as heralds of spring are celebrated on World Migratory Bird Day (#WMBD #WMBD2019 #BirdDay). This day is celebrated twice a year, on the second Saturday in May and the second Saturday in October.

Continue reading “Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day by Reducing Your Plastic Use”

There’s Something About Trees: Arbor Day 2019

two girls climbing a tree
Climbing The Old Willow Tree is best with a friend

My daughter has a favorite tree, The Old Willow Tree, at Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Madison. I don’t know exactly how much time she has spent in that tree, but I suspect it is significant.

Trees have served as the source of inspiration for scientists’ careers, writers’ metaphors, and musicians’ nostaglia.

One of our science writers at Promega tells this story about an early “botanical” experiment he and his grandmother performed:

“When I was four, my grandma helped me plant a ‘helicopter’ in a butter dish. It slowly graduated to a Cool Whip container, then a family-sized takeout tub from a spaghetti joint. It’s now the largest tree on my parents’ property.” –Jordan Villanueva

When I was in college, the campus quad was lined with ancient Ginkgo trees that filled my morning walks to my fall classes with shimmering gold leaf. I remember those trees with such fondness that the first tree I planted when I moved to Wisconsin was a Ginkgo tree.

There’s something about trees…we wax poetic and become nostalgic; we include them in our literature and art as important symbols and teachers of life lessons. Continue reading “There’s Something About Trees: Arbor Day 2019”

Wetlands, Water Quality and Rapid Assays

toad

The storms of the previous day had moved eastward, leaving in their wake flooded farm fields and saturated roadside wetlands. At dusk, we loaded the Ford Escort wagon and headed south. We bumped along the maze of farm roads intent upon listening for croaks and snores in the night. At one roadside wetland, I heard my first congress of Spadefoot toads. The sound was deafening, invoking everything that a “congress of snoring toads” brings to mind. Around the corner, in a low spot of a corn field, a lone Spadefoot toad called for a mate; he was joined by a rather enthusiastic Copes Gray tree frog and several chorus frogs. The congress down the road provided a rolling bass to these more melodic anurans.

Wetlands exist in many different shapes and sizes and in many different geographies: coastal margins, mountain valleys, beaches and rocky shores, estuarine wetlands where tidal saltwater and freshwater mix, and inland wetlands. Some of them are ephemeral, some of them permanent. Wetlands serve many different functions, from providing habitat and food for plants and animals to offering protection from floods and maintaining water quality. One acre of one-foot deep wetland is estimated to hold 330,000 gallons of water. Coastal wetlands are important for reducing storm erosion by decreasing tidal surge and buffering the wind. In the US alone, this benefit has an estimated value of $23.2 billion dollars each year. Continue reading “Wetlands, Water Quality and Rapid Assays”

Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists

Lab science cartoon
Carl may not scare her…but did she remember the controls?

Warning: This blog contains stories about phantom serial killers, frankenfoods, mysteriously phosphorylated bands and unrequited ligations that may be disturbing to some people. Children or scientists prone to anxiety over irreproducible results should read this with their eyes shut.

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Clouds hung low in the sky, and the late October wind howled between the buildings, rattling the window panes of the basement laboratory. The grackles cawed in desperate warning, their flocks changing the evening color palette from gray to black. I was as unsettled as the weather, watching my blot slosh back and forth. Continue reading “Control Samples: Three Terrifying Tales for Scientists”

Forensic Scientists Improve Sexual Assault Kit Turnaround Time with Y-Screening

The backlog of sexual assault kit samples in crime laboratories across the nation is a topic that hit the spotlight when a group of journalists uncovered the issue in an open records search of crime lab records in 2015. Reasons for the backlog include lack of staff, lack of funding, and simply, lack of time or a decision not to prosecute the case. Processing samples can be a labor-intensive process.

We recently interviewed Lynndsey R. Simon, Forensic Scientist II and Alternate CODIS Administrator from the Columbus Police Forensic Services Center to discuss some recent changes in sample processing in their laboratory that are helping to alleviate some of the backlog. She will be presenting a talk at the upcoming International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI) in September.

The Columbus Police Forensic Services Center is a smaller forensic laboratory and according to Simon, one of the biggest challenges they face is strained resources. The DNA extraction and processing kits that forensic laboratories use are very expensive, and the number of DNA samples that laboratories are getting for DNA analysis are increasing. With limited resources and funding, maximizing efficiency and finding the best solutions for the laboratory becomes critical. Continue reading “Forensic Scientists Improve Sexual Assault Kit Turnaround Time with Y-Screening”

Shaping the Future by Investing in Science

“Today is certainly a great day for Promega R&D, but it is also a great day for science.”

Picture of people gathered
Community members and Promega employees gather for the ground breaking celebration for a new R&D facility.

Gary Tarpley, director of Research and Development at Promega closed his remarks for the ground breaking of the new Promega Research and Development Center in Fitchburg, WI, with those words.

With the ground breaking on this new R&D facility, Promega makes a $190 million, long-term investment in science.

But why invest in science?
Continue reading “Shaping the Future by Investing in Science”

Questions of Genome Privacy and Protection

In April 2018, law enforcement officials announced the arrest of a suspect in the Golden State Killer case (New York Times ). Shortly after the announcement, those same law enforcement officers explained that detectives had used a public forensic genealogy web site to help identify the killer.

What does it mean when a law enforcement agency accesses a public genetic genealogy database to search for a suspect in a crime? Continue reading “Questions of Genome Privacy and Protection”

Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology

Computer-generated model of a virus.

The keynote speaker for this year’s International Symposium on Human Identification (ISHI), Andrew Hessle, describes himself as a catalyst for big projects and ideas (1). In biology, catalysts are enzymes that alter the microenvironment and lower the energy of activation so that a chemical reaction that would proceed anyway happens at a much faster rate—making a reaction actually useful to the biological system in which it occurs.

In practical terms, Andrew Hessel is the person who helps us over our inertia. Instead of waiting for someone else, he sees a problem, gathers an interested group of people with diverse skills and perspectives, creates a microenvironment for these people to interact, and runs with them straight toward the problem. Boom. Reaction started.

One of the problems he has set his mind toward is that of cancer drug development. Continue reading “Catalyzing Solutions with Synthetic Biology”

Orchestrating the Genome: Final Thoughts for #HumanGenomeMonth

Recently I wrote about the completion of the human genome sequencing project and the promise, problems and questions that the project has generated in the last decade and a half. One of the biggest realizations that I had from researching and writing that post is that our human genome makes us more alike than different at the molecular level, yet there is incredible variability in the human species around the globe.

I started to think about other things where the basic building blocks were the same, yet the final products were so very different—and I landed in the middle of a symphony orchestra.

Orchestras, if we look at the instruments that they have at their disposal, are very similar: dare I say 99% identical? For instance the instruments listed in the February 2017 roster for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on Wikipedia (1) are very similar to the lists of instruments listed for the musicians of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on its web site (2). Numbers and groupings might vary, but the instruments are the same.

However no one would argue that the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus are interchangeable. Experiencing one is not the same as experiencing the other, and two separate experiences of either are often completely different.

The orchestral “DNA” is the same: highly trained musicians playing essentially the same set of instruments, and quite often the same piece of music. What makes each experience of these organizations unique is the when, the where and the how of the expression of that DNA. Continue reading “Orchestrating the Genome: Final Thoughts for #HumanGenomeMonth”