Showing off – Life of a student researcher, part two

It’s been six weeks since my last “Life of a Student Researcher” entry. Sorry about that! Besides my brief excursion to Santa Rosa Island, I’ve been spending my day typing code into my computer, and then racking my brain to figure out what the resulting graphs might mean. That’s five weeks worth of data processing – just thinking about it makes me a little bit dizzy. But somehow, I did it. (I’m pretty sure it has something to do with the excellent advisors in my lab. And the Stack Overflow website.)

The few results I’ve found are exciting. But most of my “results” don’t feel like results at all. They are simply evidence that I need to approach the problem differently than I have been doing, before I can determine anything at all. Not having complete results is typical of scientific research, but it takes plenty of my patience.

While I’ve been number crunching, I’ve also had to present my work to the other professors and students on campus – twice! First, I gave a powerpoint presentation with my lab group. We stood up in front of the lecture hall and explained our projects and the progress we had made so far. I was nervous but people seemed to understand our presentation, and they even laughed at our jokes. Success.

The second time I had to present a poster of my personal research project. Professors and students mingled around the building, checking out our posters on the walls and asking us questions. It was a lot more fun than a powerpoint! However it can be challenging to summarize your research quickly to someone just walking by. It also took tons of energy to keep up these small-talk conversations with everyone. I described this poster session as a “science party.” Everyone just mingled around, meeting new people and networking, eating food and learning about biology research. I’m such a nerd – this “science party” was more fun than most of the parties I’ve been to since college. Anyway, here’s a picture of how much fun I had at the science party:

I enjoy myself as best I can as I present my poster for the first time.

I enjoy myself as best I can as I present my poster for the first time.

What I learned from these presentations is that research involves a lot of explaining. Can my data be explained by previously determined facts? Can I explain my ideas to others, and convince them that it is correct? Explain explain explain. Sometimes I feel like my title should be “Student Explainer” instead of “Student Researcher.” In the past weeks, I have definitely polished my communication and presentation skills. What useful skills and what a great opportunity.

I have only three weeks left of research remaining for the summer. I will try to post at least one more time about the progress of my work. Until then . . . I’ll be racking my brain some more.

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Data Collection on the Channel Islands

The laboratory I work in has collected some of its data sets from the plants growing on the Channel Islands National Park in California. I got to go with my advisors to Santa Rosa Island and help them collect some of the data for our research. I got to participate in actual biology field work for the first time. I also learned about all the hard work that goes into data collection – now I know how all those numbers in the spreadsheets back at the lab were actually determined!

The trip starts with a three-hour boat ride out to the island. I got a wee bit queasy, but no seasickness, thank goodness. A boat is the easiest way to get there, but it is also possible to fly in a plane because the islands have airstrips. The other passengers on the boats were either researchers like ourselves, National Park Service staff such as park rangers, or tourists.

After we got off the boat, my advisors explained how data is collected for the species we were studying. The plant we study is a rare species of Indian Paintbrush. The plant grows in certain locations on Santa Rosa Island, and to measure how many plants survive from year to year, we set up a grid made of wires and tape in the same location every year and examine the plants inside. For the ecological data, we look at things such as plant size and new seedlings formed, because these can tell us about the trends and overall health of the plant population. This is important because rare species are more likely to become extinct, and hopefully the data can be used to predict and find the causes for failing plant populations. Often, the hope is to rehabilitate the rare plant species – this is called conservation biology.

On this trip we spent six days collecting data from plots all over the island. We also spent one day in a canyon using GPS units to mark the locations of many other rare plant species. We hiked to a part of the canyon that hadn’t been completely mapped yet. Then when we found patches of a rare plant, we would record its location in our handheld GPS units. We spent the entire day hiking and mapping plants, and still the canyon is far from being finished. Since it takes so much time to survey the canyons on the island, another area of research is optimizing the canyon surveys so that fewer people can collect fewer data yet still get accurate estimates of plant densities.

After seven days of hard work, we got to spend some time socializing with other researchers and the park rangers who were on the island with us. Many of them work on the island regularly, spending weeks on the island then going back to the mainland for some kind of “shore leave.” I loved hearing about all their different careers and research interests. They really love working in nature, and I can see why. The island was so beautiful that sometimes I didn’t want to leave.

I learned a lot about how plant data sets are actually collected. I also appreciate field work a lot more now and might even consider it as a career.

Enjoy the photographs! Since I was the photographer, most of them are of the landscape surrounding our plots or of my lab group working on the plots.

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Flowers bloom at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden

The Rancho Santa Botanic Garden in Claremont, CA is one of my favorite ways to enjoy nature. The variety and beauty of all the plants is obvious from the moment you enter the garden. It spans 86 acres, which means that many different kinds of plants can grow there in different miniature habitats. I could spend hours wandering the trails, because each part of the garden is so different from all the others, that it would take days before I could get bored!

The RSA Botanic Garden is special because it only keeps plants that are a) native to California or b) hybrids of plants native to California. Thus, while each section of the garden is different, all of the plants can be found somewhere in the state of California! It’s amazing how much variation can be found just within one state. The garden contains plants from habitats such as forest, grasslands, deserts, and chaparral.

If you love flowers, I recommend the Cultivar garden section, where researchers have crossed plant breeds in order to produce variations of plants that can withstand the desert drought in Claremont. There are many gorgeous flowering trees there, as well as some flowering bushes, and also a nice garden fountain.

If you wish to see majestic trees, it’s worth a further trek to the back of the garden, where trees from all habitats in California can be found. There are over six sections in the back of the garden, including joshua trees, palm trees, pine trees, and my personal favorite: Boojum trees.

Also, the RSA Botanic Garden just added some new trails to the back section of the garden, making it even easier to get close to nature. The garden is the perfect adventure for a summer day!

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A List of Recyclable and non-recyclable things

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The perpetual problem of deciding between the black and the blue! What things should be recycled and why?

Today when I finished cooking dinner, I found myself with a lot of empty containers. As I went to throw them away, I realized that some of them might be recyclable. But which ones? While some of the containers had the standard recycling symbol imprinted on them, others do not. To satisfy my curiosity (and to recycle as much as I can, which is good for the environment) I looked up some recycling dos and don’ts, compiled here for your convenience!

  • Paper Plates: DON’T. According to MIT, paper plates and other paper products that hold food contain too much oil residue to be recycled. Also, there can be higher risks for contamination if the plate is not dry (see here). However, other types of paper products that are not soiled by food waste are fair game.
  • Juice Cartons: DO. Apparently the paper product that the cartons are made of is valuable and useful for other future products. So your juice carton has a high probability of be reincarnated into something else (source here). And it’s not even required that you rinse them.
  • Plastic Bags: DO. While more types of plastic are becoming universally recyclable, it’s a good idea to check for the imprinted recycling symbol. However, not all plastic things are recyclable. For example, most recycling plants will not be able to recycle plastic children’s toys. And if plastic can be reused in your home, then it would better to reuse than to recycle, as it prevents the plastic from ever entering the natural environment.
  • Wax Paper or other waxed, paper products: DON’T. Surprisingly to me, the wax coating on paper can make it un-recyclable, says the recycling center for New York . I just assumed that all paper products were created equally, but this isn’t true. This problem persists even with wax coatings on plates or cups.

I hope this short list will help you remember what can and cannot be recycled! I know the next time that I cook I will be more attentive to what I put in the blue bin.

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Never-Before-Seen images of chemical bonding!

Phys.org reports that scientists have produced photographs showing the formation of chemical bonds between carbon atoms! Read more about the fantastic images produced here: http://phys.org/news/2013-05-first-ever-high-resolution-images-molecule-reforms.html 

The images are produced by an atomic force microscope, or nc-AFM microscopy. The article quotes: “The nc-AFM microscopy provided striking visual confirmation of the mechanisms that underlie these synthetic organic nanoscale electronic devices from the bottom up.” (Phys.org)

The technology for producing different kinds of photographs and higher resolution imagery have been improving and changing since the invention of the camera. While ancient civilizations had been using pinhole cameras centuries ago, the first permanent photographic images were not invented until the 1800s. We’ve come a long way since then, as we can now visualize actual chemical reactions at the microscopic level.

The AFM technology is as complicated as it sounds! More information about the microscope technology used can be found on this website document: Nanoscience.com and a visual presentation / animation that is pretty cool can be found here: UI Urbana-Champaign.

Thanks for reading this news tidbit!

Harvey Mudd Chemistry Lab turned me into a mad scientist

Harvey Mudd Chemistry Lab turned me into a mad scientist

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First Day of Work – Life of a student researcher, part one

Today was my first day of work as a student researcher at the Claremont Colleges Keck Science Center. The lab I work in is made up several workstations and computers, and really feels more like an office than a laboratory. Four other students and I will be spending most of our time here for the next eight weeks, 9am – 5pm, Monday through Friday. This is my first full-time job and my first time doing biology research. Our data is collected from plants on the Channel Islands off of Santa Barbara, and our job is to analyze and model the data to make sense of plant species and populations on the islands.

The start of our research project means lots of reading! We have to acquaint ourselves with the work of previous students and even other researchers far away who study the same population models. Scientific research seems to start with lots of paper research, but that’s how we build off of those who came before us.

Also, every research student is required to understand the ethics of scientific research. I did a short online module about the ethics of research, citations, intellectual property, and workplace standards. The module presented tricky ethical dilemmas such as “Whose name should be the primary name on a published paper?” or “What should be done if there are conflicts of interest, favoritism, or discrimination in the laboratory?” or “What are the responsibilities of a researcher when they discover that their work could have dangerous consequences?” These are tricky questions with tricky answers, and even though I anticipate that my lab will be a safe place to work, I’m glad that all of us students start our work with these important questions in mind.

I’m looking forward to using new computer programs to sort through all the Channel Islands data! I’m also looking forward to the week-long excursion to the Chanel Islands that comes with this research job. It’s important to me to see how the data is collected, not simply analyzing someone else’s data in the lab. It will be lots of hot sun and steep hiking, but all the hard work will be worthwhile if I get to work side by side with my experienced biologist advisors.

Thanks for reading about my first day of work! I intend to document some of my daily activities so that you can get the behind-the-scenes details about how research is really conducted. I think sometimes people forget that science doesn’t come as a built-in feature of life. People just like me and you are responsible for making discoveries and finding meaning in the data, and that’s what makes research such an interesting process.

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Visit the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco!

The California Academy of Sciences is a breathtaking adventure of a museum. Living creatures like fish, alligators, and penguins catch the attention of every visitor. Traditional exhibits and film exhibits are everywhere. Collections of books and specimens fill entire rooms and surround you with knowledge. You can even “travel” to the Amazon Rainforest. Here is my visit to the Academy, what it taught me about science, and what to plan for your own visit!

Cownose rays swim around in circles together on the first floor of the museum.

Cownose rays swim around in circles together on the first floor of the museum.

Wildlife

The Academy is very much alive! Some of the exhibits are actually like zoo exhibits, with real living creatures to observe and admire. Ocean exhibits housed corals, starfish, small sharks, and the sting rays shown at right.

Another swampland exhibit is home to Claude the albino alligator, whose white scales are a rare sight in the wild. Albino means that the alligator has a genetic defect that prevents them from producing the skin pigment melanin when they are born. As a result, the skin and scales are white instead of pigmented. If Claude did not live at the Academy, and instead lived in the wild, his white scales would make him stand out against the swampy surroundings. Losing his camouflage, he probably would not be a successful hunter. Luckily he lives at the Academy for us to learn from and admire.

At another live exhibit, penguins enjoy their fishy lunch in front of dozens of spectators. The penguin handler feeds the penguins while wading waist-deep in their swimming pool. From behind the glass, she wears a headset and answers the visitors’ questions with a microphone. Why are there two types of fish for food, and does it matter which one the penguins eat? (Penguins can choose either fish to eat, but they have preferences when it comes to food, just like humans.) Do penguins mate for life? (They do, and they are also monogamous.) Are these wild penguins? (No, they are bred in captivity.) Meanwhile the adorable penguins splash around, having fun and showing off.

Ecosystems & Biodiversity

The most magical exhibit is the miniature rainforest. It is a climate-controlled “room” three stories high and filled with rainforest plants and animals. Upon entering we felt a wave of heat and humidity. Trees towered above us, and butterflies flitted about our heads. A pool of freshwater river fish swam below. I took as many pictures as I could, trying to capture every part of the rainforest. It was like being teleported into the middle of the Amazon.

A spiral walkway allowed us to climb higher into the different layers of the rainforest. Each rainforest has four layers: forest floor, understory, canopy, and emergent layer (treetops). On the lower walkway, we could see the forest floor and understory layers. This is where fish, birds, and even some spiders made their home. It can be very dark in these layers, because the trees block most of the sunlight. As we walked to the top of the rainforest, we saw the canopy and the treetops. Frogs and snakes usually live in these layers. The blue morhpo butterflies flew around in all the layers, much to my delight!

Earthquakes

I visited the Academy’s planetarium, where they showed a self-produced documentary about earthquakes. I imagine this exhibit hit home for a lot of local visitors. In 1906, San Francisco suffered one of the most devastating earthquakes in history, and it took a long time for the city to recover from the destruction. The documentary explained (with excellent graphics!) how earthquakes are caused. On the coast of California, the cause is the San Andreas Fault, where two pieces of the Earth’s crust rub up against each other and release energy in the form of earthquakes.

The entire roof of the museum acts as a home for plants and shrubs. This helps to regulate the temperature of the building and the surroundings as well.

The entire roof of the museum acts as a home for plants and shrubs. This helps to regulate the temperature of the building and the surroundings as well.

Living Roofs

I thought I’d share this pretty picture of the Academy’s Living Roof. By growing plants on the roof of this building, the heat from all the people and machines inside is allowed to escape upward. Traditional building roofs don’t allow heat to escape very well, so a living roof reduces the need for air conditioning inside, saving lots of electricity. The plants also take in the water when it rains, so less water turns to runoff in the streets. The portholes let in natural light for the museum exhibits, which is especially important for the rainforest room. And plants are better for the environment, producing oxygen that we need to breathe and cleaning the city air. Living roofs are not a new invention, but it’s exciting to see them in use in modern architecture.

Planning Your Visit – Tips and Advice

  • Check out the Academy’s website before you visit, and take notes on your favorite exhibits. There might also be special events that catch your eye.
  • If you plan to visit on a weekend, expect it to be very, very busy with tourists and families! I wish I had visited during the week, because I would have had more time to stay with each exhibit and not have to rush around.
  • Secret discovery #1: the Naturalist Center on the third floor is a great place to relax away from the hustle and bustle of the museum. All the walls are lined with books for kids and adults to read about nature, science, and history. You can play with fossil specimens that are lying around as well. It’s like a playroom for nerds!
  • Secret discovery #2: Lemon Drop the albino snake lives in a glass tank in the gift shop; go visit him!
  • And of course, all the exhibits I wrote about here come highly recommended.
  • Go enjoy science!

Photographs taken by Madison and Hayley Hansen, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 01/11/2013.

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