Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Printing with chocolate in your kitchen? We're there

Printing food the way you'd print your great unpublished novel? Sure, why not? At least the food will feed you. Via Lauren Wolf at CENblog, we've become aware of the latest in printing...deliciousness. 


Printing icing and cookie dough. No more of those awkward icing-squeezy things:




Printing chocolate? We're there:




Printing with Nutella. Could there be anything more wonderful?




You can even print glowing toys:



Food printing. The delicious chocolatey wave of the future.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Backyard Brains: Affordable neuroscience

Mouse neurons. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Originally published in PLoS Biology.
Nerve cells, called neurons, are special cells. They interact with each other and with other tissues in part by using electrical impulses. The cool thing about these cells is that thanks to their electrical signaling, we can measure when they're sending their messages. A neuroscientist friend of mine once poetically described as "exquisite" the ability to measure the firing of a single neuron in a finch brain. There is something special about being able to observe that usually hidden process of signaling that underlies every move you make, every thought you have, and every sensation you detect.

The very word "neuroscience" sounds expensive. Measuring the signaling of nerves? That sounds pretty fancy. But with some wires and basic neuroscience tools, anyone can give it a try, measuring the nerve signaling, for example, in an insect. Which, do you think, would be the more memorable learning experience, a full-on sensory exposure to the sights and sounds of neuron signaling, or this? 




Now, a company called Backyard Brains is really bringing the neuroscience to the people. You don't have to use their affordable kits in your backyard, but as neuroscientist and writer Mo Costandi highlights today in an interview with Tim Marzullo, co-founder of Backyard Brains, this level of technology can become available to high-school students anywhere. In the interview, Marzullo notes that the goal is to produce kits that lower the fiscal and resource requirements for making neuroscience available to people who aren't graduate students in neuroscience.

As part of their bringing the neuroscience to the people, the Backyard Brains scientists have created the Spiker Box kit, which lets students listen to neurons firing in a de-legged cockroach. These kits are friendly with computers, iPhones, and iPads, so students can use these devices to record and listen to the Zzzzzzztt! of a firing neuron (see video below). Electrophysiology in action, made accessible. 


An even fancier introduction to science awaits. Some proteins are especially made to change their shape in response to a light trigger. Scientists have produced animals--mostly fruit flies--that make these proteins in some neurons, where they don't usually occur. With light-reactive proteins present in the neurons, researchers can actually make the neurons fire by giving them a shot of laser light. In other words, they can make the animals move using light. Wouldn't it be cool if classroom students could see that kind of neuroscience in action?

Backyard Brains is on the case. They're working on a product that will allow students to use blue light emitted from an iPad to trigger light-reactive proteins in nerves that communicate with muscle cells. Because the process involves light and organisms with introduced genes, it's called optogenetics. That sounds even more swanky than neuroscience, but Backyard Brains is working on making it accessible.

Other Backyard Brains products include RoboRoach (you'll have to read that one for yourself), soldering kits, and the roaches themselves

Emily Willingham

Monday, November 28, 2011

Blog of the Week: Bug Girl's Blog

A painting of a collection of 374 moths from New Guinea.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
Women are often stereotyped as having a dislike of dirt, a fear of snakes, an abhorrence of bugs. I happen to like snakes, think dirt is a good thing, and embrace the enormous diversity that is the world of "bugs," or, more specifically, arthropods. The number of species of bugs may well account for the vast majority of all known animals species and easily exceeds 1 million. With 1 million+ species from which to choose, how can anyone "hate bugs"?

So, it is with great delight that we highlight a blog today that's about a woman and her love of bugs. The appropriately named Bug Girl's Blog is a wealth of expert information about bugs, palatably presented. (Warning: some entries, especially the limerick contest entries, not suitable for children. This legitimate form of poetry often carries NSFC labels).

Naughty proboscis-related poetry aside, at Bug Girl's Blog, you'll find all the detail and fascinating information about bugs that only a woman with a PhD in entomology can provide. While Bug Girl is happy to write about bugs and collate bug-related naughty poetry, she will not, she notes, be able to identify your bug for you. Remember that 1 million+ thing? No one can identify each and every one.

She will, however, post and discuss videos of the sounds of summer (i.e., cicadas) complete with the related poetry of the ancient Greeks. You'll learn about those bumps on the undersides of leaves--galls--and what their bug-related purpose is. Bug Girl applies critical thinking and skepticism to claims about bugs--and about what kills them--and tells us which bugs we can eat. Mmm. Ants are spicy. In case you're interested, Bug Girl has also posted bed bug coverage. Ewww. Women interested in science careers, in particular bug-related science careers, will also find a wealth of career-related posts. 

Oh, and National Moth Week? That's coming up next July, so be sure to be ready for that. The point of it is citizen science, in which citizens engage in the process of science. In case you didn't know it, moths are pretty cool, often quite beautiful, and rather necessary as pollinators and food. 

You can follow Bug Girl on Twitter @bug_girl

Sunday, November 27, 2011

There will never be another Curie...and that's a good thing

For your serious Sunday consideration, from Double X Science physics editor, Matthew Francis.


The above courtesy of xkcd, a webcomic of romance,
sarcasm, math, and language.
If you had to name the top scientists of the 20th century, any reasonable list must include Polish-French scientist Marie Sklodowska Curie. She won the Nobel Prize twice, a feat only matched by three others: once in physics (in 1903) for her work in radioactivity, a term she coined; and once in chemistry (in 1911) for her discovery of the two chemical elements radium and polonium. Her first prize was shared with her husband Pierre, himself an excellent physicist. She went on hiking trips with Einstein, who complained that she was too energetic in her walking style, as he preferred to dawdle. She was also the only female participant in the great Solvay Conference of 1927, which included many of the great innovators in modern physics. The element curium (96 on the periodic table) and several research institutes are named for her.

How can you not admire Curie? Let's face it: she kicks all of our butts.

Lise Meitner. Photo in US public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.
It's easy to think of her as one of the Great Woman Scientists, but without a doubt she was a greater scientist than most of us can ever hope to be, male or female. At the same time, anyone thinking they aren't great because they aren't a Madame Curie should stop worrying. One side effect of tokenism — letting one or two representatives from non-majority groups stand in for their entire group — is that it truly sets standards far higher than are reasonable. Curie was an outstanding scientist by any reasonable standard, as was physicist Lise Meitner, who discovered nuclear fission, or the great mathematician Emmy Noether. But here’s the deal: each one of those women stood head and shoulders above the vast majority of their colleagues, male or female. Astronomers like Caroline Herschel, Annie Jump Cannon, and Henrietta Leavitt are justly remembered for achievements that outstripped many of their male colleagues, who often actively opposed their advancement.

The majority of scientists aren’t the Nobel laureates, the ones who get remembered in textbooks. For a male scientist to be remembered in the past, it was often enough to make a minor discovery; for a female scientist to be remembered, she had to be better than all her colleagues in addition to overcoming the sexism endemic in academic life. Personally, as a theoretical physicist, I wish I could be half as noteworthy as Noether. Who wouldn’t aspire to that, male or female?

Emmy Noether. Photo in US public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons.
Yet the situation is better than it seems for us ordinary people. Evolutionary biologist and science writer Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that it's not that there are fewer geniuses: it's just that there are so many of us working in every field that it's harder for one person to rise far above the others. Speaking personally, I know more math than Einstein, a lot more physics than Newton, more astronomy than Galileo or Herschel...and I'm just an average scientist, not in the same league as a Curie. A typical physics training today includes the calculus Newton discovered, the physics Einstein contributed, and a bunch of stuff that has come since they worked.

Science keeps pushing on, and that's a good thing. We are surrounded by women every bit as awesome as Marie Curie – you yourself may be one of those women. You don't have to win two Nobel Prizes or discover new elements to be rad. (See what I did there?) There's a whole other post to be written about how the Nobel Prize singles out just a few people when science is a collaborative venture, but I'll spare you all. Let's not worry about being Marie Curie or presenting her as the best there can be for women in science. With so many more people working and contributing than there were in 1903, there may never be another Curie, but that's not a bad thing.

There can be a hundred Curies.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pregnancy 101: The science behind the wand of destiny


You hold a stick in your hands, one that you've just peed on. It foretells a future of sorts, for you. But the magic behind that stick is really all about a biochemical sandwich and a scientific test named ELISA.

By Jeanne Garbarino, DXS Editor

OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD

Over and over again, that was all I could say.  At the same time, I heard my husband on the other side of the bathroom door, in a very panicked voice asking, “Why are you saying oh my god? WHAY ARE YOU SAYING OH MY GOD?!?!” 

Though, he really knew why.

The events immediately preceding our synchronous freak out session involved unwrapping a small plastic wand, removing its lilac cap, and subsequently inserting its absorbent tip into my stream of pee. Yes, folks, we are talking about the wand of destiny that is the pregnancy test.
Shortly after that lucky sperm cell unites with the prized product of the ovulatory process, the egg, a woman will immediately begin to experience changes required for growing another human inside of her body. One of the first detectable signs of pregnancy is a surge in a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin or hCG. 
Once the fertilized egg finds a cozy resting place in the wall of the uterus (a process termed implantation), the production of hCG is significantly ramped up. On average, implantation usually takes about 8-10 days for normal, healthy pregnancies[1]. It is around this point on the baby growing timeline that home pregnancy tests can begin to detect the increased presence of hCG.
Chronologically speaking, we have sex, a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell, said fertilized egg implants into uterus, our bodies up the production of hCG, and we pee on a stick to find out if all of these things really happened. But, exactly how do these little wands of destiny work?
The technology harnessed within the pregnancy test involves a biochemical assay called a “Sandwich ELISA” (ELISA = enzyme-linked immunoabsorbant assay, more on the “sandwich” part in a bit).  The general function of an ELISA is to detect (and sometimes quantify) the presence of a substance in a liquid. In the case of a home pregnancy test, the substance is hCG and the liquid part is our urine. 
Once pee is applied to the pregnancy test, it travels along the absorbent fibers, reaching defined areas that are coated with molecules, called “capture” antibodies, specifically designed to capture hCG. To help you visualize antibody science, picture a lacrosse stick, except the mesh pocket can only fit one specific type of ball:

Now, back to the sandwich part. On a home pregnancy test, there are three separate zones containing capture antibodies. Using their sharp wit and radical humor, scientists came up with “sandwich” to describe this sort of ELISA as they felt it was analogous to two slices of bread surrounding some delicious filling. Hilarious, right?

Ok, now that you’ve calmed down from laughing so hard, let us get back to the science. The first “slice of bread” is called the reaction zone, the “sandwich filling” is called the test zone, and the “last slice of bread” is called the control zone (see figure 2). Each of these zones is coated with capture antibodies, but differ from each other in how they work. 
The antibodies on the reaction zone will capture only hCG and will detach from the strip upon exposure to urine. The test zone also contains capture antibodies that can only bind hCG, except they are securely attached to the absorbent strip, plus, there is an added dye. The control zone contains a general antibody (a lacrosse stick that will fit any ball) plus a dye, and serves to let the frantic user know that the test is functional. 

Not pregnant

Pregnant
As urine travels up the absorbent strip, it takes with it the reaction zone antibodies. If the urine is obtained from a pregnant woman, the reaction zone antibodies will be bound to hCG molecules found in the pee. When the pee solution reaches the test zone, there are two possible outcomes. If you are pregnant, the hCG/reaction zone antibody complexes will stick to the test zone antibodies and cause the dye to release (sometimes in a little “+” formation). If you are not pregnant, the reaction zone antibodies will just pass on through without saying hello.
The test culminates at the control zone, which is lined with general capture antibodies. Going back to picturing antibodies as lacrosse sticks, you will see that only the shape and size of the mesh pocket varies; the stick part is always the same. The general capture antibodies on the control zone will recognize and bind to the “stick” part of the reaction zone antibodies, and release a dye while doing so. This is how we know that the test worked correctly. 
Biochemically speaking, the home pregnancy test is nothing but a soggy antibody sandwich that smells of urine. From a family planning standpoint, however, this technology can impact us in ways beyond belief. But, aside from the potential for the “are you pregnant” window to induce one into a hyperventilated state, the process happening within that handheld chemistry lab is actually quite impressive. In a matter of minutes, we can know if it is ok to go out and party with friends, or if it would be a better choice to stay in and begin to nest – all from the comfort of our own bathrooms. Three cheers for science!
For a cool animation showing how a pregnancy test works, go here. Visit WomensHealth.gov for more information about pregnancy tests.  Planned Parenthood offers scientifically accurate information about women's reproductive health. For blogs, check out this list on Babble, and this list on BlogHer.      


[1] Wilcox AJ, Baird DD, Weinberg CR. Time of implantation of the conceptus and loss of pregnancy. N Engl J Med. (1999) Jun 10;340(23):1796-9.


Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Roundup: Land-walking octopus, he's having a baby, defining veggies, & lots for the ladies


Post-Thanksgiving links: All about food...or sorta food
  • You made it through Thanksgiving even though you ran out of vanilla extract? Let science help you out the next time you fall short of that one important ingredient. Scientists have compiled a list of suitable substitutes for cooks everywhere. 
  • Did you wake up this morning with fingers twice their normal size? Find out where the salt was in that Thanksgiving meal. 
  • Is pepper spray a vegetable? Oh, for the days when pizza sauce and ketchup were the only faux veggies. Here's more on pepper spray from this week's Double X Science blog of the week author, Deborah Blum. 

Speaking of pepper spray, science answers your burning questions


  • Plants flirt, play hard to get, embrace. Yes, that said "plants." 
  • He's having a baby! Carin Bondar tells us all about the world of seahorse paternal birth.
  • Chilean desert coughs up fossil whale family, puzzles scientists. Tiny scientist, huge whale fossil at link
  • Oh, those mysterious cows. Why do they come home? More important, why do they (maybe) line up along the Earth's magnetic field, and why do scientists argue about it?
  • Asking, "Are you improbable or inevitable?", Robert Krulwich tells us that the math determines that we are improbable. But we're here, so aren't we...inevitable?
  • Have you read about "the gene" for ADHD or the "drinking gene"? Stop reading that bad writing! There's a difference between a trait that a gene confers and the many, many ways someone can manifest that trait. Read more from David Dobbs over at Neuron Culture in "Enough with the 'slut gene' already: Behaviors ain't traits." 
  • Science: It's not all glamour and heels. Here's a day in the life of a scientist in Australia for those who are wondering what a scientist might do all day.
  • Speaking of how scientists might spend their days, how about spending them watching 400 YouTube videos of dogs chasing their tails? Via DiscoBlog at Discover Science.

Geek o'rama
  • Use this app to follow live cameras trained on the wild places animals live in Sri Lanka, Kenya, the UK, and other places. When you spot an animal, identify it for science. Via GeekDad at Wired, Citizen science from Instant Wild! The featured Webcam as we posted these links had captured a porcupine in action. 
  • Maybe you've never been in a lab in your life and wouldn't know PCR from a VCR. That doesn't matter when you watch this video of stop-motion animation using thousands and thousands of the tiny tubes scientists use when they conduct PCR (polymerase chain reaction). The video is actually a promotional video from vendors of equipment for this kind of lab test.


  • Conditions in Antarctica are almost unimaginable inhospitable for humans, yet scientists visit there yearly to conduct valuable research. Valuable, dangerous research, but the scenery? Stunning. Via BoingBoing. 


Hey, ladies!
  • The brain is encased in a skull for protection, with a nice fluid surrounding it for extra cushioning. But the human brain was never meant to endure years of the Newtonian physical pounding that comes with playing football. Now, researchers are beginning a brain study to test the brains of 100 former National Football League players to see what harm has been done and how to identify it early. Watch the video below. Imagine the brains inside those skulls. Recall that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Yikes.

  • Most parents find letting go difficult, whether it's when their child leaves for a week-long school trip or takes off for college. Add an autism spectrum condition to the mix, and what you get is a heartbreaking but heartfelt connection between mother and son that they both find difficult to stretch. 
  • Have you banked cord blood? Here's why cord blood banking may not have the payoff you expect
  • You've done it. We've done it. You walk from one room to another on a mission and when you get into the other room...you forget why you're there. Now, instead of blaming age, you can blame the door
  • Look around: Do you a see a lot of stuff you just can't bring yourself to throw away? Read this.
  • When it comes to sex--studies of it, studies of how it develops--males get a lot of the attention, and the female sex has even (gasp) been referred to as the "default" sex, as in, if there aren't signals to become male, then females develop by default. That ain't true, and as it turns out, females have a pathway dedicated to developing and maintaining them just as males do. So there, scientists. 
  • Is it hard for women to self promote? This one is about academe, but it applies across many work places.
  • Speaking of workplaces, apparently the women of Generation Y are still facing discrimination there [PDF]. 
  • People (in UK, at least) still think antibiotics work against colds. They don't. 
  • You may have read about this person's efforts to perform a butt injection on a woman using "Fix a Flat." It's probably best to just love your butt for what it is, which isn't Fix a Flat.
  • In smarter news, NASA is rolling out Aspire 2 Inspire, targeting girls interested in science. Know a girl who's interested in science? You can start with the Aspire 2 Inspire video below about women in science:

"Yet more must be done to address the projected shortfall of 280,000 math and science teachers that our nation will face by 2015. We need public and private investments in math and science education and we need a commitment to making a difference on a national scale."
She couldn't be more right. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Turkey, spice, everything nice: What are those Thanksgiving smells made of?

Traditional Thanksgiving food. Just looking may evoke smell memories. Via Wikimedia Commons.
Spices, turkey, stuffing, those casseroles you never make at any other time of the year. What is it about the smells at Thanksgiving that are so evocative that if you encounter them any other time of the year, your mind flies back again to memories of family, friends, and a turkey or Tofurkey?

Well, as Brainpicker's Maria Popova highlights
"Smell is the only human sense that brings floating molecules from our environment into direct contact with our neurons.”
Smells are particulate--transporting their odors with them are molecules with mass that physically attach to molecules in us that recognize them. There's a definite ewww factor to that, but like all smells, the best and most pleasant memory-evoking odors--chocolate chip cookies, warm spice, fire in the grate--have no gatekeeper. The particles that bear them connect directly with proteins on your neurons that fire a message to your brain that says, "Coookies!" But that message has intricate links with other parts of your brain and may also zoom you backward in time to memories that otherwise would never emerge from those corners where they lie obscure, until...that smell revives them. 

I know that smelling firewood smoke and spice takes me into a general holiday mood. But the smell of cornbread baking in an iron skillet wakens reminiscences that are almost as old as I am. They are recollections I'd never review if it weren't for that direct line to my brain that those odor-carrying molecules have. 

Our sense of what we smell can be quite complex. There's a concept in science known as emergent properties. These are the unpredictable outcomes of a combination of components. A neuron (nerve cell) is just a neuron, but packs of them together in various permutations result in the emergent and complex properties that each of us comprises. Sodium is a pretty nasty metal and chlorine is a really nasty gas, but put one of each together to make sodium chloride, and you've got table salt--a necessity of life and a necessity of any decently flavored Thanksgiving dish. The properties that emerged from these two elements combined were unpredictable but delicious.

Smells are the same way, with unexpected properties emerging from their combined onslaught and our chemical reception of them. Bombarding us with their chemical possibilities, processed through hundreds of our neuronal proteins designed to recognize and receive their messages...it's an invisible world that tells us more than we realize about everything around us...and wakens our memories of Thanksgivings long past.

What smells evoke unexpected memory for you? As you ponder, we here at Double X Science wish you a very happy, contented Thanksgiving, with delicious smells that construct pleasant new memories in the corners of your minds.

Emily Willingham

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Science is For Everyone, Including (Gasp!) Moms

Looking through magazines aimed specifically at women (including most parenting magazines), you might be forgiven for thinking that women have no interest in science or technology. I’m not the demographic these publications are aimed at, of course: I’m not even a parent, much less a woman. Of course there are plenty of magazines consumed by women and men alike, though I can also think of some that are far too guy-focused.

That’s not what this is about: for a busy woman who doesn't have time to read much, women’s magazines and woman-oriented blogs (like Double X Science) may be a primary outlet. Women working outside the home still spend a lot more time doing housework than men in similar situations, so obviously there are societal pressures that limit leisure time for reading for many women. However, in my view, that’s an even stronger argument for expanding the content of women’s and parenting magazines. 

Moms aren’t one-dimensional creatures, focused entirely on domestic matters: They are full human beings with wide-ranging interests. (That I’m even saying this is absurd. Come on, society.)

My friend and colleague Elana (with whom I’m collaborating on a research project) is an applied mathematician currently working in mathematical biology. (Here’s an explanation of one aspect of our project.) She is also mother to a young boy, and she writes: “I may actually read the parenting magazines if they had something about advice for science activities and teaching science to kids.”


I imagine she’s not along in that sentiment; even people who read the parenting magazines primarily for advice on potty training may also wish for sciency goodness as well. I care deeply about public science education: Science is for everyone. When I was planetarium director, obviously a lot of parents brought their kids in for shows, and I made a point of trying to reach both the kids and grown-ups in the crowd. After all, kids are going to ask questions of their mom or dad, and Mom deserves the dignity of knowing and providing those answers herself.

 You might ask whether woman-oriented magazines and blog networks are the right venue, but I say “why not?” Most of us don’t subscribe to or buy that many magazines; I bet that magazines could increase their subscriptions (and possibly even advertising revenue) if they expanded content, and they probably wouldn’t lose anybody. In fact, Elana reminds me that women’s magazines used to have science sections and puzzles, which have mostly vanished over the years.

I can’t imagine anyone saying “I’m not interested in science, so I’ll stop subscribing to a magazine because they run one article per issue about astronomy.” Really the only argument against expanding to include stuff like this is a belief that women are dumb one-dimensional creatures, who care for nothing but home-making. (Emily Willingham on Twitter used the phrase “monolith of maternity”, which is a truly excellent description of that stereotype.) Try that one, editors. See how far insulting the intelligence of your readers gets you.

The fracturing of media into niche markets has its good and bad points, but if you think “Mommy” with no interests outside the home is a legitimate market, you relegate a huge section of the world to irrelevance. Not every mom is a scientist, and not every kid with curiosity about the natural world (which is every kid!) will become a scientist. However, to have an educated population, you need to reach everyone, and talk about things that aren’t just how to remove stains, important as that knowledge is to parents and pet owners.

Mothers are role models to their children. Mothers are also human beings with their own needs and thirst for knowledge. The sooner we as a society acknowledge all of that, the better off all of us will be. 

Matthew Francis
(Many thanks to Elana Fertig, Dawn Everard, and Emily Willingham for helping me shape this post, whether they knew they were helping or not.) 
Twitter @DrMRFrancis This post originally apppeared at Galileo's Pendulum

Planning a science fair project? First, understand their purpose

 Yeoman 1st Class Nicole Oliver, assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), asks a student to explain her science project during a science fair at Campostella Elementary School. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Joey Morgon/Released)
Science fairs. Home of propped up tri-form posterboard and awkwardly placed cutout letters, all announcing scientific breakthroughs that have--let's face it--been announced before. Of course, the real point of many a science fair isn't that a student uncovers something unknown to science but that students uncover things unknown to themselves. As science fair participants advance in age, the expectation of general novelty increases, but regardless of the age, the whole point of a science fair project is--the science.

My son once participated in a science fair. He was six. We ran into the issue of parental involvement in that while we focused on having our son do all of his own work, other parents clearly had not held to that standard. Our son--who has autism--turned in a great poster, all his own, comparing plant and animal cells. He worked incredibly hard on every aspect of it, from finding representative pictures to typing up labels. For references, he told the truth: He had turned to Google and to his mother--me, a scientist--for information. His commentary from the judges focused mostly on how he simply hadn't cited his references very well. Meanwhile, another student whose parents had obviously done his work for him won the ribbon.

While that experience was frustrating in the moment, the long-term outcome of it has been positive: Four years later, my son still remembers the differences between plant and animal cells and remains personally invested in the subject, in large part because in doing that work for the science fair, he made it his own

And that's the fundamental thing about events like this: Each student must make the science her own. As hard as it is to keep from getting deeply involved, for the main point of a science fair--learning science--to hit home, the work needs to be the student's. The playing field may not be level because other parents may not adhere to this tenet, but in the long run, I think the science fair participant who does her own work will reap more intrinsic and lasting benefit.

With that said, the first step in any project will likely be to turn to online sources for ideas. Here are a few links that will get you started.

  • Three strategies for an original science fair project: Summarized, the strategies are to find directions, find something to measure, and identify an observation. But there is more detail, and as Scientific American guest blogger Maille Lyons notes, the very first-first step is to learn and understand the general method that scientists use for any investigation or exploration. You can follow Maille Lyons on Twitter @ScienceFairInfo and also go to her science-fair-focused Website, where you'll find some excellent advice about do's and don'ts of science fairs.
  • The Library of Congress maintains a page of links to resources about science fairs and science fair projects. 
  • Science Buddies maintains a database of science fair projects by topic and grade level. This organization also offers message boards where students can get answers to questions from actual scientists and resources specifically for parents and teachers.
  • USC maintains a listing of science fairs globally, nationally, and regionally and includes a list of virtual science fairs.

Happy sciencing. And remember...the goal is to for her to take that science and make it her own.

Emily Willingham

Monday, November 21, 2011

Blog of the Week: Speakeasy Science from Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum, who blogs at Speakeasy Science, part of the PLoS Blog network, writes about things chemical and toxicological in ways that travel past the brain and straight to the heart. She is author of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, which features her characteristic graceful chemical descriptions and deep sympathy for the human condition. Her blog is like her book, blending scientific accuracy and storytelling in a way that is hers alone. 

Whether she is tackling the timely--as in her recent post on what pepper spray really does to you--or the heartbreaking and historical--as she does in her post about the deadly early history of leaded gas--her writing pulls you in and keeps you there, aghast and agog, until the final punctuation mark. 

The expertise and gravitational pull of her narrative make clear why Blum has won a Pulitzer. She also is a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin (lucky, lucky students) and has written several other books. You can read more about her on her Website

It's one of the benefits of the Internet that you also can read her work, as it unfolds, at Speakeasy Science. Any one of her posts will pull you in, but in addition to the above-linked entries, we also suggest--just as a start--her take on Dr. Oz's "arsenic in apple juice" statements and the devastating "Poison in the Night," about carbon monoxide poisoning. For a little lighter fare--and a great cookie recipe just in time for the holidays--check out , "So, 268 chocolate chip cookies later...".

Or, you could just start here, at the beginning. Imbibe each and every post as though it were a master class in narrative construction somehow confounded in ways most beautiful with the essentials of chemistry. It's a poisonous world out there, and we're glad we've got Deborah Blum to tell us about it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Roundup: Jane Austen's arsenic poisoning, breastfeeding and bones, dog bites that trigger pregnancy, and a cranky crab

Jane Austen. Engraving via Wikimedia Commons, in the U.S. public domain.

Curious about how climate has changed over the long term--the very, very long term? This video from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration puts it all into perspective:



  • Jane Austen poisoned by arsenicA mystery author claims that all signs point to arsenic poisoning as the cause of Jane Austen's death. The rationales that treatments with arsenic may have been fatal are plausible, but how about the idea that it was...murder?
  • Peanut butter recalled for Salmonella concerns, but no illnesses reported.
  • In other recall news, Kotex tampons also have been recalled for bacterial contamination. Please read.
  • You may have heard that when women spend a lot of time together, their cycles synchronize. You may have heard wrong, and Kate Clancy tells us why.
  • Birth control: Not just about sex. According to a report, many, many women use birth control for reasons having nothing to do with...birth control.
  • This just in: Girls can be engineers, too.
  • Chilling trauma patients to save them. Trauma surgeons may be turning to deep chilling their patients to stop their bleeding to death before livesaving surgery can be completed. 
If you found the climate change video depressing, how about some astronauts falling down on the moon? Watching smart courageous people fall over is always entertaining, right?

  • Bones and breastfeeding fads. Would you consider giving your baby pap, "a mixture of flour or bread crumbs cooked in milk or water, or a bread broth called panada, or milk flavoured with spices, sugar, or eggs? These bones tell the story of breastfeeding practices before our time.
  • Ever wondered why smells--like baking cookies or a pinewood fire in the grate--are so evocative and memory stirring? Here's why.
  • Perhaps you've heard about fecal transplants--they are exactly what they sound like--and thought, "Ewwww." The thing is, they seem to work, but as Maryn McKenna writes, they are not easy to come by.
  • Rick Perry's debate brain freeze: Parents, you know this happens to you, too, just not on national television. In a presidential debate.
  • In the downer category, orangutans in Indonesia killed by the hundreds every year.
  • Remember when ketchup became a vegetable in the Reagan years? Now Congress wants to add pizza sauce to that category. Someone should tell Congress that there are no do-overs on a healthy childhood.
  • For your "Weirdest News of the Day" reading: People in this village genuinely believe that a dog bite can trigger pregnancy--in men or women--with puppies. It is mass hysteria.
  • Have you been reading confusing and conflicting information about the HPV vaccineHere's a piece that clears all of that up. 

And finally, we give you this crab because it made us laugh. And laugh. Feel free to suggest captions.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Is there glamour in science? There are certainly no scientists in Glamour

Hedy Lamarr: actress, pinup "girl," and, oh, yeah,  inventor.
Is there glamour in science?

The answer to that question depends on what you mean by "glamour." Do we get to dress up in clicky heels and walk red carpets? Well, we can do the heels, sure, but red carpets aren't a frequent feature in the life of most scientists, unless you count that horrible red patterned stuff conference hotels seem to like so much.

Do we travel the world? Sure--see "conference" in previous paragraph. Our conferences can take us to places we never might have gone were it not for our abiding interest in stars or fruit flies or the finer points of protein signaling. If you're the kind of scientist who does field work with hyenas or needs samples from Antarctica, then your travel can be even more exotic. Do we, like actresses or singers or Kim Kardashian, get to spend our days doing what we love, bringing IT to the world? Hell, yes, we do.

Heels (optional), travel to far-flung locations, passion for what we do, bringing IT. Yep...there's some glamour in science. And you know what? I'd hazard that while we're doing it, we're feeling "beyond empowered."

The reason I ask is that Glamour magazine just release its "Women of the Year" awards. Before I talk about recipients--or non-recipients--I would like to review the magazine's mission statement:
Glamour is a magazine that translates style and trends for the real lives of women. Our award-winning editorial covers the most pressing interests of our 12.4 million readers: from beauty, fashion and health to politics, Hollywood and relationships. We’re often optimistic, always inclusive, beyond empowering and can always separate the Dos from the Don’ts. Our readers live for fashion, live for beauty and most of all, live for Glamour.
You'll see that they seek to cover the "most pressing interests" of their readers, that they are "always inclusive" and "beyond empowering," and that their readers live for, among other things, beauty and Glamour. I am going to pretend that wedged in there, tacit but present, between "health" and "politics" is "science." Why? Because nothing but science can bring you solid information about your health. Because politics have a powerful influence over how that science can be used for your health. And because if you live for beauty, science can bring you beauty that takes your breath away, like this:

A stellar nursery in our intergalactic neighborhood.

And this:
Scanning electron microsope image of the lower surface of a leaf from a black walnut tree.

Scientists are the explorers, the discovers, and the investigators...and sometimes, their work becomes art.

Given that science can be so glamorous, so beautiful, so empowering, you might think that the editors of Glamour, which offers its readers all three, might have included a scientist in its "Women of the Year" awards.

They did not. 

That is not to diminish the fabulous, empowered women they did include. Gloria Steinem? Check. Gabrielle Giffords? Oh, yes. The beautiful, gutsy, empowered Esraa Abdel Fattah? Yes, and thank you. Arianna Huffington's there...although I find what her HuffPo Website countenances for health--including women's health--sometimes less than empowering. There's an artist, there's a fashion designer, there's...um...Laura Bush and her daughters and...J. Lo. Lea Michelle, a grown woman and another Woman of the Year, is depicted chirpily exclaiming that "I would be happy to be a high school student forever."

It's a mixed bag. But in that bag, search as you will, you will find no scientists. Women who live glamorous lives, traveling, engaging, empowered and empowering. Women like Mireya Mayor, who despite her walking the walk in Pink Boots and a Machete, despite identifying a new species of lemur (video), despite her high-profile as an explorer and on television, does not fit the bill for Glamour.


One reason you find no scientists is that Glamour doesn't seem to have a "Woman of the Year" category that includes science. They've selected some women who truly are inspirations, some that make you think, "Whuh?" (Kim Kardashian as "Entrepreneur of the Year" for UK Glamour comes to mind), and even some girls. Kardashians not withstanding, when Amy Poehler makes a list like this, you've got to give the editors some credit. 

So, I ask. Can the editors at Glamour give women in science some credit, too? Women like Elodie Ghedin, 2011 Macarthur Fellow and virologist whose work directly addresses critical public health issues? Or Ada Yonath, who was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for working on that tiniest of cellular structures, the ribosome? Or Elizabeth Blackburn or Carol W. Greider, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for their work in unlocking some of the secrets to aging? Or Susan Niebur, former NASA astrophysicist and four-time breast cancer survivor who has worked tirelessly while fighting inflammatory breast cancer to promote breast cancer research, awareness of inflammatory breast cancer (the cancer that kills without a lump), science outreach, and women in science?

Glamour editors...women need science and girls and women need inspiration from scientists. Your list of "Women of the Year" includes women who are enormously inspirational and who have done immeasurable good for women. For 2012, please consider that women scientists fit that definition, too, and can also bring the glamour of passion and empowerment to your readers. Those 12.4 million women will thank you.

By Emily Willingham