Empowering Communities with the Light of the Sun

Today’s blog brought to you by Julia Nepper, a Promega science writer guest blogging for the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center Institute (BTC Institute)!

“We all benefit from STEM role models. When students from underrepresented populations meet and learn about STEM professionals of color, they can see themselves as the scientists and engineers of the future. Fun, engaging science programming for children is also essential to light the spark for the next generation. A Celebration of Life, the partnership between the BTC Institute and the African American Ethnic Academy, two community nonprofits, has combined these 2 objectives for over twenty years.” according to Barbara Bielec, K-12 Program Director.

This year, the theme of the program is Sunsational!, with a number of activities related to the sun, solar energy, and STEM careers. As part of the program, students heard talks from several STEM professionals of color about their work. Mehrdad Arjmand, co-founder of solar energy company NovoMoto, was one of those speakers.

Dr. Arjmand was born and raised in Iran. His path to becoming a mechanical engineer began as a child, with him “destroying a lot of equipment” in his house. After completing his undergraduate education, he came to the States to pursue a PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he met Aaron Olson, a student who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These two discovered a shared passion for starting a business and helping their communities, which led directly to the founding of NovoMoto. The name derives from Portuguese for “new” (novo) and Lingala—a language spoken in Congo—for “fire” (moto).

The company’s office is located in Kinshasa, the capitol city of Congo. About 90% of people in Congo live without electricity, relying on small shops with diesel generators to be able to charge phones, etc. These generators are noisy, expensive, and dirty. While some companies do offer solar power, they require customers to pay up front for the systems, which can cost $200–800. Many households cannot afford these costs, so Mehrdad and Aaron have set up their company to offer a “pay-as-you-go” service that costs as little as a couple dollars a week to be able to have lighting, charge phones, and even watch TV.

Mehrdad Arjmand and Aaron Olson with a NovoMoto customer.

How do solar panels work, anyway? You probably know that silicon is one of the main ingredients in most commercial solar panels. There are two layers of silicon sandwiched together in a solar panel, N type and P type. The N side has an overabundance of electrons, while the P side has “holes” where electrons can pop in. When photons hit the panel, their energy knocks electrons from the N side to the P side, and this energy is harnessed to do things like power a lightbulb. One student asked why this process is not 100% efficient—one major reason is that sometimes the electrons will not have sufficient energy to escape the N side. However, since the only moving parts are electrons, solar panels are very long-lasting.

The different types of silicon are created using a process called doping, where small amounts of a different chemical are added to the silicon to create the over- or underabundance of electrons. Silicon is a group 4 element, so doping with something like indium (group 5) can create N type silicon, while doping with phosphorous (group 3) can create P type. This TedEd talk further explains the workings of solar panels.

At the time of this writing, NovoMoto has about 15 employees, including technicians and a marketing team, and around 200 customers. They started serving their first customer in June 2017. This is a very exciting opportunity for students especially; the photo below shows a school in a village in Congo. Mehrdad told us that in order to get enough light, they actually had to remove part of the roof! Now, school is like this one can study rain or shine.

A classroom in Congo.

The Sunsational! students had a lot of great questions for Mehrdad since one of the program projects has been creating a solar energy business. Students imagined and designed a solar product, named their businesses, and created logos and taglines. Many of the students were inspired by NovoMoto; creating useful, inexpensive solar products for use throughout the world.

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”

Cardboard Couture: From Conception to Runway Debut

The five-member team at the Read(y) To Wear event.

What do fashion, paperboard product packaging and literacy have in common? Answer: The Read(y) to Wear submission from a team of Promega employees for an event put on by the Madison Reading Project. With a challenge that stated teams need to make a garment mostly of paper, the resulting creations would be displayed on a runway as part of a charitable evening for an organization dedicated to bringing books to children.

Volunteering to be part of what became a five-person team to create a wearable garment from paper was the easy part. Our first few meetings we were experimenting with ideas and techniques using paper we could access on campus: Print catalogs, discarded books and our prototype product kit boxes. It was the kit boxes with the David Goodsell imagery that inspired our ideas to create a suit of armor. The paperboard boxes protect the products we ship to customers like a suit of armor protects warriors in battle. Continue reading “Cardboard Couture: From Conception to Runway Debut”

Colorectal Cancer Awareness Making March About More Than Basketball

In the United States, March means college basketball. “March Madness” brings us the excitement and entertainment of the NCAA college basketball championship tournament. But for a dedicated group of advocates, researchers, patients and families, it means something else entirely. March is colorectal cancer awareness month.

 

According to the American Cancer Society, colorectal cancer will be the third most frequently diagnosed and the second most deadly cancer in the United States in 2019 (1). Most of those who develop colorectal cancer do not have a family history or genetic connection to the disease. However, in some families, cancer occurs more often than expected. A family history of colorectal cancer can suggest a genetic factor. Continue reading “Colorectal Cancer Awareness Making March About More Than Basketball”

A Healthier Kind of Blues

We are in the midst of a very intense time of the year, with holidays and seasonal celebrations like Thanksgiving (recently past), Hanukkah this week and Christmas a mere two-plus weeks away.

Wrap that up with a New Year’s celebration and “Wham”—more friends, family and food/alcohol than one normally enjoys in a three-month period.

Yet it can also be the season of SAD—seasonal affective disorder, when the amount of daylight decreases daily, and for those of us in the northern latitudes, cold weather intensifies. We’re eating more, getting less sunshine and quite probably less exercise. Hibernation is great for bears, not so good for humans.

It’s the wintertime blues. For myself and many, once the solstice passes and day length starts to increase, mood improves. But noticeable day-length increases don’t really occur here until mid-February. That’s a long time to feel blue. Continue reading “A Healthier Kind of Blues”

Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is well-known for his fun science demonstrations and a fervent dedication to public science communication. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery started in 1970 as an end-of-semester treat for Dr. Shakhashiri’s freshman chemistry class; by 1973, the Christmas lecture had become so popular that Wisconsin Public Television offered to broadcast it during Christmas week, and this collaboration has continued uninterrupted ever since.

That’s 49 years of Christmas lectures, commemorated by making indium, the 49th element, the Sesame Street-esque “sponsor” of the show. It helps that indium burns bright violet, the name of Dr. Shakhashiri’s granddaughter and hence his favorite color. The color purple made a firm foundation for many aspects of the show: The chrysanthemums frozen in liquid nitrogen were purple, as was the balloon I inflated during my spiel on air movement. Most of the set was various shades of purple, too.

Bassam Shakhashiri and J. Nepper on the set of Once Upon a Christmas Cheery
The set was whimsical and very purple. Photo by Eric Baillies.

Continue reading “Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective”

Finding Its Place: The Biohealth Industry in Wisconsin

On October 9, the 2018 Wisconsin Biohealth Summit was held in Madison, WI, hosted by BioForward, an organization that supports the growth of the biohealth industry in the state. This day-long event covered topics such as how diversifying your team can build better leadership, discovering new markets for existing products, and biomanufacturing. One of the panels on the schedule was “Examining the Economic Impact of Wisconsin’s Biohealth Industry,” and Penny Patterson, our Vice President of Communications, was one of the panel participants. We spoke after the summit to learn what came out of the panel discussion and the topics of interest raised by the biohealth industry attendees.

As we talked, Penny explained many topics were discussed, but ultimately focused around how to attract talented individuals to the biohealth industry in Wisconsin. This concern stemmed in part from the lower profile of the biohealth industry in Wisconsin compared to the more prominent and well-known East and West coasts. Of note, education and quality of life are important tools for recruiting candidates to join the biohealth industry. Continue reading “Finding Its Place: The Biohealth Industry in Wisconsin”

Hey, iGEMers! We’re talking to you!

The 2018 iGEM Giant Jamboree is upon us! This Wednesday, October 24th, thousands of you will flood into Boston, weighed down by posters and presentation materials, but energized by the excitement of a non-stop science-packed conference. Promega will also be attending, with a booth full of helpful giveaways and staff standing by to answer all your questions about science, Promega or future careers. As you make your final plans for the Jamboree, here are a few helpful tips for making the most of this incredible opportunity.

Continue reading “Hey, iGEMers! We’re talking to you!”

Celebrating the Many Faces of Science during Science-A-Thon

rae_dayofscience
“#dayofscience shows what it really means to be a modern woman scientist and helps break the stereotypes associated with our careers.” / Photo by Rae Ingold

If you follow Promega on social media, you may have noticed that several scientists and science communicators (including myself) were sharing posts for Science-A-Thon this week. The event was organized by the Earth Science Women’s Network (ESWN), whose mission is to create opportunities for mentorship, community, and collaboration for women in science.

The goal of Science-A-Thon was to “increase visibility of scientists and the important work they do to the public.“ The week-long celebration of science also served as a campaign to raise money for ESWN and to support Science Forward, “a STEM-wide initiative that empowers scientists, promotes scientists as role models, and builds on-ramps for students to engage in STEM.” Scientists and science communicators were invited to share their #dayofscience on Twitter, Instagram, and/or Facebook to give followers a better idea of what a scientist actually does from day to day—from morning coffee to meetings to micropipettes. Science-A-Thon followed a science outreach trend similar to the #scientistswhoselfie movement by humanizing science and showcasing the fact that scientists are people, too, with diverse backgrounds and interests.  Continue reading “Celebrating the Many Faces of Science during Science-A-Thon”