Screen Media in the Time of COVID-19: Should You Be Reading this Blog?

Screen Media. Cell phones. Social media accounts. If you are a parent, you have probably discussed rules of engagement with your children about these things. All of our modern social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged with them by showing us the latest post, the next video or the people now online. Work emails give us notifications when something arrives in our Inbox. Business software platforms like Microsoft Teams send us notifications whenever someone comments in a conversation we have ever been part of. There are many siren signals pulling us toward our screens.

Enter COVID-19, the flu-like illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that has already claimed the lives of 210,000 people in the United States, and leaving countless others permanently affected by other long-term health consequences. Spread by aerosol, COVID-19 is most dangerous in places where lots of people congregate in a small area, particularly if they are talking to each other. Consequently, office buildings are empty as many of us work or go to school remotely.

Before COVID-19, if I had a day full of meetings at work, I was running from conference room to conference room, two miles, uphill, in the snow between buildings. Now, a day full of meetings means sitting in front of a computer monitor, trying to figure out how I will get any kind of break between calls. The average number of steps recorded by my pedometer has decreased markedly since March when our remote work started.

Technology has been an incredible blessing during this pandemic—allowing us to continue to work and stay connected with friends and family. Technology is the only way that some people can connect with loved ones in long-term care facilities. It allows students to continue learning through remote classrooms and chats.

But what has been the effect of the increased time spent on screens during this pandemic?

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Applying Molecular and Cellular Technologies to Create Plant-Based and Cultivated Meat Alternatives

This blog was contributed by guest blogger, Lindsay Walker, Marketing Specialist with the Promega North America branch office.

The Good Food Institute predicts that plant-based protein innovation will enable meat alternatives to surpass the functionality of animal products, acknowledging that “given biological limitations, animals are about as cheap, delicious, efficient, and healthy as they’re going to get, but plant-based proteins are just getting started and have nearly endless room for optimization”.

Vegan plant based burger with fries served on wooden tray
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Uncovering the Origins of the Commensal House Mouse

Figure of house mouse. Copyright George Shuklin.
📷: George Shuklin

When I encounter my cat fixated on specific locations in my kitchen, her behavior shows me that she has heard some mice in those areas. In fact, mice have been attributed as a reason that cats became companions to humans. Mice start gathering and reproducing so cats followed the food source and hunted the rodents, thus endearing themselves to humans, who were storing food for their own use. However, new evidence described in Scientific Reports has shown that mice have been associated with humans even before grain storage was widespread. In fact, by making our dwellings comfortable, we also created an inviting place for mice to live.

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Celebrating the 100th Cartoon with a Few Words from the Promega Cartoonist

Heading into 2020, we realized that our Cartoon Lab was reaching a milestone: the 100th cartoon! We asked the “official” Promega Cartoonist Ed Himelblau to list his Top Five Cartoons and what inspired them. See what he has chosen in his own words:

This was the first of my cartoons that Promega published and it’s still one of my favorites. The file on my computer is dated February, 1999. I have been an undergraduate in a lab. I’ve mentored undergraduates in lab. Today I have lots of undergraduates working in my plant genetics lab at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. For the record, I enjoy having undergraduates in the lab and I never make them dress like robots. In this cartoon, I particularly like the centrifuge and stir plate on the right. I’ve always tried to put something in each cartoon (a tube rack, an enzyme shipping box, a desiccator) that make molecular biologists say, “I know that!”

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Giant Rodent, Lowered Cancer Rates: What Genetic Analysis Reveals about the Capybara and Cancer

Do you find the thought of a giant rodent off-putting? Do your thoughts go to huge rats running amuck in dark allies, threatening unsuspecting passers by?

I personally hold rodents in low esteem. Rats, mice…who needs them? With the exception of cavies. I spent countless hours as a child playing with guinea pigs. We had as many as 16 of these little rodents at one time (the males are very capable of chewing or climbing out of cardboard boxes to reach a female in the next box). The baby guinea pigs were very cute and the adults had quite pronounced personalities, and a lot of attitude.

It was this history with guinea pigs that made me interested in learning more about the largest rodent in the world, the South American capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris). These family-oriented herbivores are found in savannas and forested areas, living in groups of as many as 100 members. They are excellent swimmers and can remain underwater for as long as 5 minutes. In fact, capybara mate only in the water. (Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the South American alligator, the caiman, is one of the capybara’s greatest predators.)

Photos of an adult male capybara.
A male capybara, with a scent gland (called a morillo) on his head. Photo by: Charles J Sharp – Own work, from Sharp Photography, sharpphotography, CC BY-SA 4.0.

With their squared-off nose and lack of tail, capybaras actually resemble guinea pigs. However, these oversized cavies weigh as much as 40 pounds. and can reach 24” at the shoulder, the size of an average standard poodle. Guinea pigs, on the other hand, weigh in at 2–3 pounds, and are 3–4” tall.

Their proportions make capybaras 60 times more massive than their closest relatives, rock cavies (Kerodon sp.) and 2,000 times more massive than the common mouse (Mus musculus). This tremendous size difference is why Herrera-Álvarez et al. took a closer look at the capybara, studying its propensity to develop cancer and other tradeoffs that would seem to coincide with its exceptional size.

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Halloween Costumes: Retro Science Style

“Back when I was in the lab…”: it seems like every former scientist has a story. Kind of like Thanksgiving Dinner among your elderly relatives, scientists are quick to one-up 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 turned to our favorite science cartoonist, Ed Himelblau, to ask for some retro Halloween costumes based on stories of things that used to be common 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, please share them.

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Pop Quiz: What Scientific Job is Right for You?

Word Quiz on yellow backgroundI used to love taking magazine quizzes to learn more about myself. I thought it would be fun to create a quiz to help you find out what scientific career path may be the best fit for you. Be open-minded while taking the quiz and remember that this is just for fun!

1. My greatest strength is:

a)      My artistry
b)      My perseverance
c)      My attention to detail
d)      My problem solving skills
e)      My personality- I get along with everyone

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It Takes a Village: Automating Plasmid Purification for iGEM

Today’s blog is guest-written by Wihan Adi, a Master’s student majoring in physics at Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen and team member of iGEM Marburg. Although his background is in nuclear and particle physics, his research interests shifted toward affordable biosensors for point-of-care cancer detection, which is how he ended up doing microbiology for iGEM.


Back in March when the iGEM season had just started, Maurice, a fellow iGEM Marburg team member, told me that he was exchanging emails with Margaretha Schwartz from Promega. Given my background as a physics student, Promega was not a household name for me at the time. “So, are you interested in automating a plasmid purification protocol?” asked Maurice. He told me that Promega was willing to supply the Wizard® MagneSil® Plasmid Purification System for this purpose; that was another name that added to my confusion.

This year, iGEM Marburg is aiming to establish a fast phototrophic organism as a synthetic biology chassis. For this goal we chose Synechococcus elongatus UTEX 2973, with a reported doubling time of 90 minutes. More specifically, we are creating an easy to use toolbox to empower rapid design testing, including genome engineering tools, self-replicating plasmid systems, natural competence and a Golden Gate-based part library. Our team chose to work on phototrophic organisms because we envision accelerating research in this particular field. (Note: Last year, Marburg’s iGEM project won the Grand Prize!)

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Creating Sonic Sculptures with Artist-in-Residence, Joe Willie Smith

Joe Willie Smith’s instrumental art installation is a collaborative experience of sound and color.

Joe Willie Smith has always been a creator. As a young child growing up in Milwaukee, his mother encouraged him to make art and find beauty in the everyday. Following years of work in printing and graphic design (including posters for Gil-Scott Heron and Chaka Khan), Smith began channeling his inspiration and creativity into building playable “sonic sculptures” out of found objects. “They’re not all considered instruments…sometimes I just make soundscapes out of them,” Smith says.

As the artist-in-residence for the Promega Fall Art Showcase, Smith set out to create a sonic sculpture from collected items from the Promega campus. He planned to perform on the instrument at the opening of the Art Show, but his creative process led to something much more—a collaborative experience in sound and color.

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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). Continue reading “Empowering Communities with the Light of the Sun”