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”

My Favorite Things about Madison in the Summer

Cave of the Mounds National Landmark in Wisconsin
Cave of the Mounds National Landmark in Wisconsin

So, summer is here. Wisconsin in the summer (minus the mosquitos) is the best. So much to do! I find that if I don’t make a list of the places I want to go or the things I want to do, it all of a sudden it’s September and summer is gone. As someone that has lived in Madison for a majority of my life, these are the things that I love to do in the summer.

  1. Get to the Farmer’s Market! We have an unbelievable market here. Seriously. I lived in Colorado for a couple of years, and you wouldn’t believe the amount of people that would comment on our market when I told them where I was from.
  2. Boat on Lake Mendota. And get out the water skis. While you’re out there, ride on over to Nau-Ti-Gal or Mariners and have some dinner.
  3. Go to Summerfest. (It’s in Milwaukee, but worth the short drive.) Multiple times if you can. You definitely don’t have to go to the main stage for a concert; it’s just as fun to go in and listen to the side stages.
  4. Run or walk Crazy Legs. Either way, it’s a blast. I know – this is in the Spring, but whenever it’s here, I know summer is right around the corner! You can take the kids with strollers/wagons on the walk if you want, and it’s a fun way to get the family involved.
  5. Concerts on the Square. Picnic with some delicious food, wine and a little classical music? Yes, please.
  6. Cave of the Mounds. It’s pretty fun for kids and adults, and it’s nice and cool when it’s super hot out, and it’s 50 degrees in there.
  7. Go to the zoo! It’s free, and pretty cool.
  8. Sit out on the Memorial Union terrace. Relax and listen to music on the weekend. Or bring the family and get some Babcock ice cream and feed the ducks.
  9. Go out to the local weekend fairs and festivals. You can keep yourself busy every weekend.
  10. Brewer game!  (Again Milwaukee, but again worth the short drive.) Miller Park is fun as an adult, or you can bring the kiddos as well.

So, that’s my list. What’s your favorite thing to do in Madison in the summer? Or, if you are a former Madison resident, what is your favorite summer memory?

If you hail from parts distant, what is your favorite thing to do where you live? We are always looking for vacation and travel ideas.

The Stuff of Life: A genetics course in a comic book

Copyright by Mark Schultz, Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon from “The Stuff of Life” (2009)

A few years back, when my wife and I were moonlighting as amateur comic artists, we would set up our table at local comic conventions. At one of these, we found ourselves sitting not too far from a charming comic artist by the name of Zander Cannon. His black-and-white artwork was gorgeous to behold. But what really drew us to him was a modest hardbound book on his table, entitled The Stuff of Life: A graphic guide to genetics and DNA that he co-illustrated with Kevin Cannon and whose script was written by Mark Schultz. It turns out that illustrating educational comics is one of Zander’s true passions. Of course, we bought our own copy. Continue reading “The Stuff of Life: A genetics course in a comic book”


Frustrated scientistThis week @dr_leigh started a highly popular Twitter hashtag #overlyhonestmethods that has brought hundreds of scientists across the globe out of the proverbial Twitter woodwork. Some of us here at Promega Connections have been reliving our bench science careers and following the hashtag with great interest. Someone will call out a new post to the hashtag, and we will chuckle and start telling stories of our research careers. It’s amazing the things I am learning about my colleagues. Scientists are careful and detail-oriented folks, but the practice of science on a daily basis can be frustrating, especially when you come in the next day to find that none of your colonies grew or that you forgot to add the Taq to your PCR. This hashtag has been a delightful, fun way for scientists around the world to connect, express their common frustruations and laugh a little before returning to the serious work at hand. Continue reading “#Overlyhonestmethods”

How to Make Plastic Out of Milk

As the daughter of a (former) dairy farmer, I love milk and all its derived dairy products (e.g., cheese and butter). However, it wasn’t until my colleague Michele highlighted a kid science app that I realized milk is a great science medium as well. In fact, I recently discovered mixing vinegar with milk will create moldable plastic. Not only is this milk-derived product fun for kids and adults, but it also offers a history lesson: the resulting substance was used before petroleum-based plastic was available. Watch the video to learn about a fun kitchen experiment and potential handmade gift opportunity all in one package.


Spring Fever Friday Fun: Bubbles

On March 2, 2012 we were dealing with 8 inches of snow around here. Today the Chorus Frogs are calling, the red-winged black birds are staking out their territory, and the finches and robins are fighting over last year’s nests. People are biking to work; kids have shed their snow pants and boots. The high today for Southern Wisconsin? A balmy 77°F. Perfect for playing with bubbles. Spring has sprung. Actually, it feels a little like summer, and all of us here at Promega Connections are suffering from spring fever. So to celebrate here’s a video about bubblology, with a bubble recipe and instructions for making an awesome bubble rod. Have fun!


Paying it Forward: A Promega Employee’s Experience with the Dane County Humane Society

cats_cats_catsPromega employees earn their living researching, marketing, manufacturing, writing, teaching, shipping, and designing. What do they do when they are off the clock? For the next few months, I will post interviews with my coworkers describing how they give back to their communities in their spare time. This month, Nadine Nassif describes her work with the Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) and their groundbreaking ringworm treatment. The photo on the left shows Nadine keeping some cats company during a DCHS event.

How long have you worked here at Promega and what do you do?

I joined Promega in November 1997, so just over 13 years. I’m a research scientist in the Genetic Analysis group.
(Author’s note: Nadine develops kits that are used by researchers for purifying DNA and studying gene expression.)

What do you do at DCHS?

Most of the work I do with Dane County Humane Society involves the cat population.  Specifically:

  • Cleaning cages and feeding the cats.
  • Socializing cats; in particular, the ones that are shy or scared or over-stimulated, the ones that need the extra attention in order to acclimate to the busy shelter environment and find a home.
  • Shooting and editing YouTube videos for the shelter; some of the videos spotlight various cats and dogs that are available for adoption, while some highlight various programs that the shelter is trying to promote.
  • Fostering cats in my home, often kittens that are too small to be available for adoption; I raise them until they’re about 9 weeks old, at which point they can be neutered and are sent back to the shelter to find new homes.

Continue reading “Paying it Forward: A Promega Employee’s Experience with the Dane County Humane Society”

Introducing the new

Saturday, April 2nd, 2011. Today there is palpable excitement in the air.  It’s 6:20am and other than the web team, the Promega campus is quietly slumbering.  It’s a sunny, crisp spring day; a day for blossoms and new beginnings.

Fuel for the day.

My friends and colleagues are slowly rolling into work, bringing enough food to feed a small army.   The table in the middle of our floor is filled with donuts, egg casseroles, potato dishes, fruit salad, coffee cake, and 6 lbs of bacon.  This is not a day to diet.

Today, we are rolling out the brand new  It is the end of an 18-month project and the beginning of a new digital platform for our company.  This project, for me personally, has been an epic journey.   There are many metaphors that have passed through my head to describe the process:  having a baby, finishing graduate school (although at times high school was a more appropriate analogy), planning a wedding and getting married….whatever the comparison, it is a major milestone. Continue reading “Introducing the new”

Toying with Science

This video is an entertaining and instructional look at early developments in microbiology (NOTE: it’s 8 minutes long, so plan accordingly):

This isn’t the first brickfilm I’ve seen, but it’s definitely one of the most detailed I’ve come across.

The archive of videos at is a pretty exhaustive resource for this type of entertainment, but if that’s not your cup of tea, I’d recommend checking out the films of Al Jarnow (readers of a certain age will definitely recognize his work). Also instructive, but in a sly way.