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”

Meet the Mighty Masked Masters of Measurement

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 the day that 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”

What Packaging Dog Food Can Teach You About Science Writing and Other Tales

Cartoon drawing of two workers drinking coffee

Believe it or not, the most unglamorous jobs teach us all a thing or two about life. I asked Promega staff members to discuss the most impactful lessons they learned at their first jobs. Check it out.

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Useful or Useless: Weird Things Packed in Our Evolutionary Suitcase

Genetics are a curious thing. Don’t get me wrong, on paper and in theory, the study and science behind our inheritance completely checks out. However, in practice, it can still be a bit disconcerting to look in the mirror one day and recognize your father’s nose and eyebrows in your own face, or to realize you gesticulate in the same animated fashion as your mother, and sometimes hear her laugh come bubbling out of your own mouth.

More curious still are the structures and behaviors that have been carried throughout evolution to the modern era of humanity, though we are considerably distinguishable from our more primitive ancestors.

And perhaps most curious of all, are the structures we continue to pack along with us, as that have little to no known useful function in the contemporary human body. These features are better known as vestigial structures, and are classically defined as features and behaviors that no longer serve the function and purpose they were designed to perform (in comparison to other creatures with the same parts).

Currently, as I recover from the aftermath of a painful encounter with one of my own vestigial organs, I find myself considering if my late appendix ever did anything much for me, or if it’s only purpose was to lie in wait as a metaphorical ticking time-bomb. Prior to my surprise appendectomy, I hadn’t spared much thought for my appendix, and decided I wanted to honor it’s memory by learning more about it, in addition to several of our other human evolutionary leftovers. Man, I wish I would’ve asked the doctors to hang on to that bad boy for me!

The Evolutionary Junk in Our Trunk

Appendix

The appendix is perhaps the most widely known vestigial organ in the human body of today. If you’ve never seen one, the appendix is a small, pouch-like tube of tissue that juts off the large intestine where the small and large intestines connect. By comparison, in herbivorous vertebrates the appendix is much larger, and functions primarily to aid in the breakdown of cellulose in consumed plants. Today, the appendix is considered a small leftover from one of our plant-eating ancestors. As our diets have changed over time, the role our appendix plays in digestion has declined, leaving plenty of room for speculation regarding what purpose it serves now. Continue reading “Useful or Useless: Weird Things Packed in Our Evolutionary Suitcase”