Fun at the Wisconsin Science Festival

“Is this a real human brain?” I asked. The answer was yes. The liver, lungs, spleen and stomach that were on display were also real—all from donated human bodies. My 3-year-old daughter put on a latex glove and eagerly touched each of the organs, while my 6-year-old son stood back at a distance, wide-eyed. We were at the Discovery Expo on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, a free kid-friendly science event featuring dozens of interactive exploration stations. Continue reading

Glycobiology Research and Training Opportunities are Plentiful

glycans on cell surface

Artist’s rendering of asymmetrically-branched carbohydrates on cell surface proteins.

Glycobiology is the study of glycans, the carbohydrate molecules that cover the surface of most human cells. Glycans attach to cell surface proteins and lipids, in a process called glycosylation. These cell surface structures are responsible for processes as varied at protein folding, cell signaling and cell-cell recognition, including sperm-egg recognition and immune cell interactions. Glycans play important roles in the red blood cell antigens that distinguish blood types O, A and B.

Opportunities in Glycomics Research
As more is learned about the role of glycans in cell communication, they are becoming important disease research targets, particularly the role of glycans in cancer and inflammatory diseases (2).

Some of the open questions surrounding glycans and glycosylation include glycan structural diversity. While some carbohydrates exist as straight or symmetrically branched chains, those populating the human glycome are asymmetrically branched, making them difficult to create and study in the laboratory (3). Continue reading

Living in the Anthropocene: A Photojournalist’s Perspective

Dennis Dimick has focused his journalism career on the collision between human aspiration and the planet. The son of fisheries biologists, Dimick grew up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and he holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In his 35 years at National Geographic, he served for over a decade as the magazine’s environment editor, and guided major projects on climate change, energy, freshwater, population, and food security. Dimick is co-founder of Eyes on Earth, a project meant to inspire a new generation of environmental photographers.

As a young man, Dimick witnessed firsthand the price of progress when his family’s farm was cut in half by the construction of an interstate beltway. This invasion of their farm, in addition to the clear-cut logging of nearby forests where Dimick had spent his youth, combined to sensitize him to the profound impacts of human progress on the Earth. Early photography experience and his personal connection to the effects of human progress led to a life and career spent combining these two dimensions.

Clearcut Forest in Oregon's Cascase Mountains in April, 2016

Clear-cut timber harvest in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains south of Eugene in 2016, one of a series of images for an ongoing project documenting the Anthropocene landscape across North America as seen from passenger airplanes. Photo: Dennis Dimick

In anticipation of his participation in the 2018 Wisconsin Science Festival, I asked Mr. Dimick some questions about photojournalism, and what it’s like documenting the human impact on the environment. Some of his answers have been slightly edited for clarity.

What does it take to be a good environmental photographer? Continue reading

Meeting the Needs of Scientists at All Levels

One of the best things about the BTC Institute is that we have programs for all levels of learners. It is as rewarding to introduce the concept of how bioluminescence is used by different organisms in the natural world to middle-school students as it is to have top-level scientists use reporter genes to track their knock-in genome edits.

We spend a lot of time working over our curricula to determine whether the content meets the learner where they are to allow our students to achieve their goals. We develop activities that let students who comes to us —via field trips, high school courses, non-scientist sessions and graduate level programs—to test ideas and evaluate strategies for problem solving as they learn techniques and concepts central to biotechnology. Continue reading

Modeling Scientific Inquiry

Within science education, teaching Scientific Inquiry to students has gained both traction and prominence.  Teachers are increasingly being called to teach students not only science content, but how to take the concepts of the scientific method and put them into action; to think and to act like scientists. As Karin Borgh pointed out in last month’s blog, teachers invariably run up against the limitations of time and resources as they strive to get their students to enact science.  When a teacher brings students to the BTC Institute, they gain access to some of those resources and, on a field trip-basis, a little bit more of that luxury of time.  Continue reading

Smile Science

I have a vivid memory of one Saturday night riding in the car with my parents on our way back from my 4K choir concert. My frequently hungry self was buckled into my car seat next to my two siblings and we watched in excitement as the golden arches came into view.“MOM?! CAN WE GO TO MCDONALDS?!?” I yelled as we quickly sped passed the entrance.“Not today sweetie, I already bought some chicken for dinner,” my smile quickly turned to a frown. My Dad turned around, “Aww c’mon honey, give us a smile!” I faked an even deeper frown causing my Dad to laugh. I laughed, then he laughed, and soon I was wearing a grin ear-to-ear.

Smiling… it’s not something we think much about, we just do it. Yet behind it’s façade of simplicity, there lies a science that affects our emotional and physical health, and the way with which we approach life Continue reading

Conflict, CRISPR and the Scientific Method

Scientific inquiry is a process that is revered as much as it is misunderstood. As I listed to a TED talk about the subject, I was reminded that for the general public the foundation of science is the scientific method—the linear process of making an observation, asking a question, forming an hypothesis, making a prediction and testing the hypothesis.

While this process is integral to doing science, what gives scientific findings credibility and value is consensus from the scientific community. Building consensus is the time-consuming process that includes peer review, publication and replication of results. It is also the part of scientific inquiry that so often leads the public to misunderstand and mistrust scientific findings.

Continue reading

Collaboration Brings Researchers to a New Level of Discovery

2018 Steenbock Symposium program graphic. Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison Biochemistry Media Lab

I recently attended the 40th Steenbock Symposium at University of Wisconsin-Madison. This year’s theme was “Epiphanies in and beyond the RNA World”. Twenty-seven researchers from RNA and related fields convened at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery to share “eureka” moments in their careers. It was so inspiring to hear from founding members of the RNA community, including Joan Steitz, Christine Guthrie, John Abelson, and Harry Noller. I noticed a recurring theme throughout the talks: many of these epiphanies resulted from informal meetings (quite often at a bar or social event) between colleagues in different groups, sometimes from different universities. They discussed tough problems and brainstormed about how to solve them, pondered about what their peculiar results could mean biologically, or dreamed, “wouldn’t it be cool if we could  <insert awesome idea here>?” and then came up with a way to do it. It sounded like a wonderful time to be a scientist! Sitting together freely sharing ideas, motivated by curiosity and the joy of doing science.

As I thought back to my research career to look for instances of such encounters, I was happy to find a few. “Philosophy” Meetings during grad school and Tea Time during my postdoc—informal social events to bring people together from different labs and departments with drinks and snacks. RNA Cluster Meetings during grad school and RNA MaxiGroup during my postdoc—events where people interested in a certain research area (in this case RNA) would gather for dinner and to hear an informal research talk. These organized events were intended to provide a forum for conversations between scientists to spark new ideas. Sometimes, I would talk to someone in a totally different field and learn something new. But I really didn’t have an epiphany about my own research. I often found myself (and others) scurrying away after the event to get back to lab work. Was I missing out on the best part of the meeting: the after-discussion?

My reflection on the Steenbock Symposium talks led me to ask a somewhat troubling question:

In today’s competitive research environment, have we missed out on crucial discoveries and technological advances because they weren’t given the right environment in which to develop? Continue reading

#scientistswhoselfie: building a community of trust in the digital age

Danette Daniels, Senior Research Scientist

Earlier this year, an opinion piece published in Science criticized scientists who use Instagram as a tool for science outreach.1 The author argued that “time spent on Instagram is time away from research” and specifically called out female scientists for snapping selfies instead of proposing policy changes to battle the systemic issues of marginalization in STEM fields.

The piece received a significant amount of backlash from social media-savvy scientists. The community commonly referred to as “Science Twitter” is active in using the social media platform as a novel way to humanize science and engage with science-curious followers. Likewise, Instagram provides snapshots into the diverse lives of scientists who feel free to offer their own personal perspectives rather than acting as a representative of their institutions. These growing communities also challenge the stereotypical image of scientists as white men wearing lab coats. Furthermore, the digital presence of scientists and science communicators continues to be fueled by trending hashtags like #actuallivingscientist, #stillascientist, and #scientistswhoselfie.

Continue reading

“Aha! Moments” in Science Education

Significant resources are required to deliver high-quality science experiences for students and their teachers. In addition to generous amounts of staff time, for both preparation and program delivery, often there are costly lab supplies. Access to a well-equipped laboratory designed to facilitate educational experiences is also important.

Of course, hands-on experiences are related to learning: for example, becoming scientifically literate, meeting science standards, preparing for AP tests. That said, many of us involved in science outreach activities will tell you that perhaps the most significant justification for these investments is that you never know when one of the students will experience that ‘Aha!’ moment which proves to be life-changing for them.

Over the years, we have heard many testimonials from students, teachers, school-to-career coordinators and other school district personnel, mentors and parents that speak to this experience. There just seems to be something about getting into the lab and engaging directly in “doing science” that stays with some participants as they head back to school, continue with their studies and on to their careers. Continue reading