Biochemical Soul Musings on Nature, Science, Evolution, Biology, and Education


Judging the Orange County Science Fair

Tell me - what's cooler than talking about science?

How about hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids?

And what's cooler than that?

Hanging out with a bunch of elementary school kids talking about their own science at an elementary science fair!

See the beaver dam and lodge on her blue pond?

See the beaver dam and lodge on her blue pond?

Yes, on January 30th I was privileged to be one of six judges at the first annual Orange County Science Fair, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. I find it a little dismaying that the fair didn't exist before this year, considering that orange county has a generally highly regarded public school system and contains the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. However, the event turned out to be a great success thanks to the planning of Dr. Paul Medina, Science Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Training Initiative in Biomedical and Biological Sciences (TIBBS) at UNC, Tara Owens of Pathways Elementary, and Bruce Middleton, Math/Science Coordinator of Orange County Schools.

Beaver teeth!

Beaver teeth!

The first project I judged was not an actual experiment, but a report put together by an insanely adorable and equally shy little girl on the family of beavers that have made a home in her backyard pond. It took a little coaxing to get it out of her, but it turned out that she had done quite a bit of background research on beavers, telling me all about how they build dams and lodges, the purposes of each, their general habits, etc. In fact, she taught me something I didn't know about beavers! I initially asked her how beavers can chew so many trees without their teeth wearing down (knowing as I do that all rodents have continuously growing teeth ((rodent tooth trivia - if laboratory mice aren't given appropriate food to chew on, their teeth can occlude their mouths leading to starvation)) ), to which she replied (paraphrased) "they have a hard coating on their teeth that protects them - that's why their teeth are orange."

I never knew why beavers had orange teeth!

Do seeds germinate best in very wet, wet, moist, or dry conditions? (result: moist)

Do seeds germinate best in very wet, wet, moist, or dry conditions? (result: moist)

Of course, the fair had your obligatory volcanoes (two of them) and a balloon blown up on a soda bottle with baking soda and vinegar (remember the fun of baking soda and vinegar?). However, in a sign of the times, though I'm not sure what this sign means, neither the volcanoes or the balloon involved a live demonstration with baking soda or vinegar. Apparently, the kids didn't want to make a mess at school and their parents didn't want to make a mess at home in preparation. C'mon! Messy science is FUN!

In another display of the fact that I am getting old, two separate projects dealt with the effects of playing video games on the body (blood pressure and pulse). Not that I didn't play tons of video games in my childhood - but there were certainly no science projects dealing with the effects of 8-bit Mario Brother's on the body. The results: different games had different effects on different people. I was particularly interested in the study dealing with the effects of playing "Guitar Hero" - I'm a "Rockband" and "Guitar Hero" fanatic!

What is the optimum amount of baking powder for my cake?

What is the optimum amount of baking powder for my cake?

Several different studies asked how various conditions affect plant germination or growth. One of the more entertaining studies asked the question "Do plants grow better when fed water or Dr. Pepper?" The results were as expected.

Another study I found particularly entertaining (and well designed) asked the question, "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Patterns of Birds?" The student had a fake owl and a fake cat, which were used to test the hypothesis at a bird feeder. She controlled the experiment and measured bird numbers. As you might expect, the birds were initially deterred by the decoys, but became acclimated within a couple of days. However, the data I found most telling were the final large pictures she had on her poster, which showed the fake owl and cat perched in a tree, staring at a bird feeder full of birds. It was quite hilarious! (Note: I did not actually judge this project due to number assignments).

The winner took the prize by testing various salt concentrations on plant growth under well-controlled conditions. The fair was judged by originality, creativity, and how "scientific" each project was set up. That being said, the main goal was not to judge these kids but to simply encourage their own excitement and inspire them to continue with scientific thinking.

Suchin Gururangan: Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway

Suchin Gururangan: Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway

After the elementary judging, two local high school students from East Chapel Hill High gave more serious presentations on work they have done in the Launch into Education about Pharmacology (LEAP) program at Duke. Aaron Krolik presented "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease" (using zebrafish), while Suchin Gururangan presented, "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway." Yeah - that's right - high schoolers!

Tornado in a bottle!

Tornado in a bottle!

Of them I have to say WOW!! These kids were not just bright - they were brilliant. The posters they presented were far better than many graduate student poster presentations I've seen. Judging between the two was nigh impossible, though Aaron ended up winning and will proceed to a regional competition. Both of them had extensive knowledge of all the surrounding literature (seriously, how many of us could read and understand all the literature around a particular scientific study at age 16/17?).  These kids are definitely going places if they stick with it!

All in all, I found the fair highly enjoyable! It sounds cliched but it was truly great to witness their eyes lighting up at the opportunity to explain what they've learned. That feeling is why I love science so much - which makes it all the more satisfying to see little ones beginning on the same intellectual journey.

The winners:
Elementary: all students are from Pathways

  • 1st: Daniel Mulligan - 5th grader - "Effect of Salt on Plant Germination and Growth"
  • 2nd: Mia Frenduto - 5th grader - "When are Birds More Active Feeders?"
  • 3rd: Caroline Wilson - 5th grader - "Can Predator Decoys Change the Feeding Habits of Birds?"
  • 4th: Meghan O'Shaughnessy and Ellie Wimberly - 5th graders - "Burn Baby Burn"
  • 5th: Jace Jordan Cornell - 5th grader - "How Smoke and Carbon Dioxide Affect Plants"
  • 6th: Brooke Smith - 5th grader - "Growth of Sunflower Seeds in Different Liquids"

High School: both from East Chapel Hill High

  • 1st: Aaron Krolik - "Assessing the neuroprotective attributes of nicotine and or caffeine against Parkinson's disease"
  • 2nd: Suchin Gururangan - "Inflammation and Cancer Inhibiting Tumor Progression Through the Cyclo-Oxygenase 2 Pathway"

If any of you are interested in science outreach, I highly recommend you contact your local elementary and find out whether they have similar programs! And if you live in North Carolina, contact Dr. Paul Medina and get involved next year.

Prizes for the winners were donated bythe  NC Museum of Life and Science, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, and Kidzu Children’s Museum. Food and drinks for the judges were donated by Panera Bread and Starbucks Coffee (and it was tasty!).

Judges Lonna Mollison, Kara Keedy, Daniel Brown (Me), Paul Medina, James Fuller, Lisa Mangiamele, and Brante Sampey

Judges Lonna Mollison, Kara Keedy, Daniel Brown (Me), Paul Medina, James Fuller, Lisa Mangiamele, and Brante Sampey


ScienceOnline09 – Warm, Fuzzy Feelings

Well, it’s official: Science Online ’09 is sadly over.

I don’t even know where to begin in summarizing this truly wonderful, enlightening, and inspiring experience. For those of you who are unaware of Science Online ’09 (at Sigma Xi in Research Triangle Park, NC), it is an annual conference (an “unconference”) devoted to the world of science blogging, writing, education, outreach, and general science enthusiasm.

Many rundowns of the conference’s events, including live-blogging of the conference, have already been written. And of course, Bora over at A Blog Around the Clock is collecting a compendium of conference related posts. Here, I thought I would just give some reflections of a few things that I personally got out of the conference.



First and foremost, let me just say what an amazing job Anton Zuiker, Bora Zivkovic, David Kroll, and all the other organizers have done in making this conference feel like a reunion of friends and family. I had never met any of the other participants in person, though I had chatted with several of them online. However, from day one it felt almost as if I were coming home. I know that sounds a bit hyperbolic, but one thing I’ve found in living the lab rat’s life in rural North Carolina is that it can be quite hard to find people simultaneously interested in basic science research AND in the passionate outreach and education performed by science bloggers (though I now know that you’re out there). Yet at Science Online ’09, what I saw was a community of people like me: people that love science in all it’s forms and fields, people who spend their free time outside of their day jobs talking and thinking about the most fascinating aspects of reality as seen through the empirical lens, people who LOVE their internets, their gadgets, their widgets, their feeds and aggregators, and most of all their ART (and not just the “fine” kind like that of Glendon Mellow of The Flying Trilobite).

Needless to say, it was one of the most reinvigorating and motivating conferences I’ve been to. Hopefully this newfound motivation will be apparent in the coming weeks here on this blog.

I love dinos

I love dinos

On day 1, I was privileged enough (largely due to the fact that I am local and was willing to be chauffeur) to experience a behind the scenes tour of the entire NC Museum of Natural Sciences, led by the intelligent and humorous Exhibit Director, Roy Campbell. Having lived in the Triangle area for eight years, I’ve visited the museum many times. It’s easily one of my favorite places in North Carolina. Never, however, had I been allowed to see the basements and backrooms, including the paleontology lab and collections. Ever since I was about 6 years old, I have been a fossil collector and paleontology enthusiast, which made the paleo lab all the more exciting for me. Two guys were inside meticulously scraping red rock away from various fossils. The picture below shows a rock 2-3 feet long encasing a creature that my brain had never before even imagined might exist: a bipedal crocodile. That’s right – as if modern crocs weren’t cool enough – there used to be little crocs walking around on two legs. I’m not even sure how to picture it – the best I can do is imagine a therapod (like a velociraptor) with a croc head. The craziest thing was that this guy had spent a year to isolate the bones in the image, and he guessed that it would take another year to finish. Talk about devotion and patience!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

bipedal crocodile - that just sounds wrong!

As for the conference itself, what I took most from all of the discussions was simple inspiration to devote more time to maintaining this blog (and to reinvigorating the Carnival of Evolution). It was just so amazing to feel like a part of a true community trying to make a difference by educating and exciting the world.

As someone trying hard to break into becoming a full-time lecturer/professor at the college level, I found myself constantly hearing the discussions through the ears of a teacher. There are so many ways now to use the internet and blogging as a tool inside and outside the classroom. Of course, there was no more readily apparent example of this than the discussion moderated/hosted by the show-stoppers of the conference: MissBaker’s class, a group of “Extreme Biology” high school students. These kids were not just smart biology students. They were brilliant! And I will most certainly be studying MissBaker’s use of blogs to facilitate learning.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Some of MissBaker's students in the paleo lab of the museum.

Much of what I personally gained from the conference came from discussions during lunch / dinner / drinking at the bar. I was fortunate enough to have dinner with Kevin Zelnio (Deep Sea News), Andrew Thaler (Southern Fried Scientist), Karen James (Data Not Shown and The Beagle Project), Miriam Goldstein (The Oyster's Garter), Mark Powell (Blogfish, Carnival of the Blue), Jason Robertshaw (Cephalopodcast) and Mike (10,000 Birds, I and the Bird). Mike mentioned a story of a recent project he and others had undertaken to fund a man in Africa to document a specific bird. After they successfully raised money for a laptop and other equipment, the man was apparently made tribal elder of his village (note I am pulling this from memory – I plan to get full details soon). So why do I find this story so interesting and useful? I recently taught “Topics in General Biology” for freshman non-majors. In this class we spend some time talking about various conservation efforts and the fact that many of the problems with conservation involve issues with providing poor local people in areas of high biodiversity with incentives to preserve their own wildlife and habitats. In areas such as Africa and South America, there is often no incentive to preserving habitat when this land can be used (for a short while) for agriculture and the like. Thus, an immediate goal for conservationists should be to find positive reinforcements and incentives for local peoples to conserve their own natural habitats.

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler

Kevin Zelnio and Andrew Thaler in between singing sea shanties

Thanks to Mike, I now have an excellent real-world story involving a) people like you and me contributing small sums of money using b) the internet and science blogging to provide at least one man with an increased ability to c) document and spread awareness of his local wildlife and, perhaps through his new found elevated position in his community, d) spread the word about the potential positive outcomes of protecting the tribe’s environment.

Like I said, I am not personally familiar with the details of this story but I plan to put this together into a usable case study (hopefully including images if possible), since Mike has promised to provide the info. I know that there are similar projects occurring, but this one seems particularly poignant and relevant to the specific ways in which I taught my class.

As an aside, I am always looking out for interesting little biological trivia that might benefit particular subjects in the classroom. An always entertaining discussion regards that of sexual selection, which of course is filled with a myriad wacky examples throughout the animal kingdom. Thanks to Miriam, Andrew, and beer, I now have a new example that was heretofore unknown to me: a shrimp flatworm in which the females use dueling penises to get the mate. Again, this info is pulled from my then Newcastle-laden memory, so I might have the details wrong, but I fully expect Miriam to provide me with the full scoop (or anyone else who wishes to enlighten me below). There is nothing that piques the interest of non-major biology students like an entertaining story involving animal sex and strange genitalia.

In essence, it’s the new and hopefully long-lasting relationships and connections garnered from the conference for which I’m most grateful. I find it difficult to find people who share so many of my passions (that’s what I get for living in the woods), and I can’t express enough how reinforcing to my energy it’s been to hang out with so many like-minded individuals.

Thank you all (and feel free to leave a “hi” below – I’m terrible with names).

For more images from the conference: mine are HERE and others' are HERE.


Science Blogging Conference in Research Triangle Park, NC!

January 16th-18th

January 16th-18th

I had no idea such a thing existed, but thanks to Bora at A Blog Around the Clock, I am now registered for what seems like a truly enlightening and fascinating conference on science blogging.

It's called ScienceOnline09 and will be held Jan. 16-18, 2009 at the Sigma Xi Center in Research Triangle Park, NC.

To quote the ScienceOnline09 website:

This is a conference to explore new ways in communicating scientific exploration.

Our conference addresses a variety of issues and perspectives on science communication, including science literacy, the popularization of science, science in classrooms and in homes, debunking pseudoscience, using blogs as tools for presenting scientific research, writing about science, and health and medicine.

So if you live in North Carolina (or don't mind traveling), and write or blog about science, or if you are simply interested in science outreach, register for the conference online.

There are currently 37 49 people registered (you can find out who's registered here).

I hope to meet some interesting fellow bloggers soon!


Current Headline News Useful for Freshman College Science Courses

As I've mentioned before, I am currently teaching an intro level biology course for freshman non-majors. At the moment we're still talking about the nature of science, specifically focusing on junk science and common misconceptions and misrepresentations of science in the media and in public opinion.

One of the things I'm using is a clip of an old John Stossell report called "Junk Science: What you know that may not be so". Two examples are presented in this clip. In the first, it presents the old "breast plants caused my connective tissue disease" explosion that occurred in the last decade. Basically, a bunch of people got sick after getting breast implants and they attributed it to the implants themselves. In reality, after many many studies, we learned that the incidence of disease in people with breast plants is identical to those without them.

In a second clip, a similar thing happened with dioxin exposure. Essentially, we now know that these exposures had no effects on humans.

Both of these examples present clear cases of the phenomenon of fallacious logic referred to as "post hoc ergo propter hoc", which means "after this, therefore because of it". People got sick after the events (implants or dioxin) and attributed the incidents as the cause, mistaking a (coincidental) correlation with causation.

Both clips also show quite well how media, lawyers, fear, ignorance, and politics all have their own hands in the promotion of junk science.

In an excellent piece of news from this Friday's reports on, written by Benjamin Radford, yet another study, this one considered large and definitive, has shown that there is no link between childhood MMR vaccines and autism. Most of the science community has known this for years, but as with many other examples, fear trumps sound logic and many still cling to this fear.


Many parents came to believe that vaccines caused their children's autism because the symptoms of autism appeared after the child received a vaccination. On a psychological level, that assumption and connection makes sense; but on a logical level, it is a clear and common fallacy with a fancy Latin name: post hoc ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of it").

Because the human mind seeks connections, people often misattribute causes, thinking that, "B happened after A did, so A must have caused B." The child was fine until he was vaccinated, and soon he showed signs of autism. It makes sense--except that it's not necessarily true. It's like saying "roosters crow before the sun rises, so the roosters must have made the sun rise."

The article presents the mistake of using individual correlations to attribute vaccinations to autism in an easily understandable way, and would make an excellent VERY short reading for any intro level science course. I like to send a steady stream of easily digestible current biological news bits to my students, especially for non-science majors. It's so much easier to keep their attention and to make them see why they should care when you can weave currently reported debates into the lesson. So if any of you are teaching such a course, I highly recommend this article for both its relevance to our lives and to understanding how misuse of "evidence" can lead to unnecessary fears and "pseudoscience".


Camp Inquiry on NPR

There is hope for skepticism, reason, and science in America yet! Today on NPR I heard an awesome story about a camp called “Camp Inquiry” (read the story here). It’s a summer camp for kids ages 7 to 16, in which instead of learning about the bible as in bible camps, they learn how to use skepticism, empiricism, and logical reasoning to guide their own knowledge of the world and their development.

And it’s about time. These kids get to have fun and do all the cool things I can remember in cub scout camp, art camp (Arts Encounter), and biology camp (called Wet-n-Wild – what a dork was I?). They also have deep philosophical discussions, look at the stars and planets, study fossils, and most importantly, bond with other children who have inherited or developed a skeptical mind.

I think this is a fabulous idea. I only wish that there were such summer camps for adults.

On that note, why the hell can’t we have a culture in which adults go to summer camp as a normal part of adult life? Summer vacations hardly compare with the experiences of camp - meeting new people at a place far away from home, learning new things, gaining new experiences.

Maybe we should institute a new cultural tradition. Every summer, we get one week off to go to adult summer camp. Hey, there could be a whole multi-billion dollar industry surrounding it.

I know, I know – what about money, jobs, kids, time, blah. Of course it would never be practical, but hey – can’t a kid masquerading as an adult dream?