Taking it Slowly

It’s summer now, and as air conditioners hum and fans turn while the electric meter spins, energy is a hot topic. This is especially true in my home state of Ohio, which recently made renewable energy history by rolling back support for renewable energy standards (making history is not always a good thing). Ohio is not only home to a large burst in hydraulic fracturing, but also a spate of renewable energy technologies and companies, so it should be no surprise to see these two competing interests butting heads in the state.

Meanwhile, Ohio also is home to an increasing number of invasive species, probably the most prominent right now is the Asian carp as Ohio and other states fight to keep this voracious fish out of the Great Lakes. Besides Asian carp, Ohio’s important invasive species include zebra mussels, a number of honeysuckles, garlic mustard, and emerald ash borer, just to name a few. The long list of introduced organisms have led to major changes in Ohio’s landscape, and in the larger world, invasive species are thought to be one of the major drivers in biodiversity loss.

So what exactly do these two introductory topics have to do with each other? Well, it turns out that they could have quite a lot. One of the renewable energies that receives its fair share of research and funding is biomass energy, or using organic matter to power electrical generation. This could be through methane digestion, or burning of charcoal, or cellulosic ethanol, among other routes. You might think of this as using “pre-fossil” fuel, as fossil fuels are organic matter that has gone through a few millions of years of processing before being used for energy. One of the important benefits from biomass is that we keep carbon dioxide in circulation, instead of adding old carbon into today’s atmosphere and shifting the carbon balance.

Here’s the rub- the qualities that make for efficient biomass crops are some of the same traits that make plants invasive. Fast growth, low nutrient requirement, ease of cultivation, high fertility, few predators or competitors, and formation of monotypic areas are all good things from a biomass perspective, but they also happen to be characteristics that make many invasive plants so difficult to eradicate. In fact, Miscanthus x giganteus (hybrid of M. sinensis and M. saccharifloris) is a popular biomass crop, while its close relative M. sinensis is currently of concern as an up-and-coming invasive species in Ohio and other states. These two challenges to conservation- fossil fuel consumption and introduced species- come to loggerheads in the matter of biomass fuel.

And this is one of the points of difficulty for many people outside of science when they look at science and its functioning. We have a couple of choices when faced with a complex problem, we can either go forward with a solution as quickly as possible, or wait for more data. If we rush in, we have the chance to stop the problem from becoming too large, and we are all familiar with the benefits of early intervention in many aspects of our lives, from health concerns, to children’s developmental delays. By moving quickly, we also risk making the wrong choice based on incomplete data. On the other hand, if we wait for more data we lessen the risk of a hasty decision leading to a wrong answer, but the delay can mean that the problem becomes larger and more difficult to address than it would have been otherwise.

Obviously, these are concerns in life outside of science as well, but considering the importance of science to our daily life, the risks and benefits of these choices become weighty issues for large numbers of people. Make the wrong choice, and many people are potentially impacted by the lack of a new drug treatment or by having a new food additive on the market before it is ready. The importance of having information in a timely manner highlights the importance of funding for research. If funding levels are constantly in question, and cuts being threatened, or if the funding process is slowed down, then the time until we have the information we need (like the invasive potential of Miscanthus cultivars) is longer and there is additional pressure to come to a decision quickly.

Just as importantly, making the wrong decision wastes social trust as well, as incorrect choices today are often seen as an indictment of science; look at all of the confusion when recommendations on eating eggs changed for one example. Even with Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson’s reinvigoration of “Cosmos,” science needs all the social trust it can get.


Diversity in Biology

Now, I’m sure that seeing an article on this site about diversity and biology seems intuitive, and maybe even a little over-done at this point.  You might be thinking “Diversity again?” as you read this, but bear with me.  This time around, I’m not discussing the usual issue of biodiversity that we so commonly see on science-minded sites like Fireside Science; I’m talking about diversity within the community of biology researchers.  Biology, like other sciences, has a history and historiography that is pretty well dominated by white men, for a number of reasons.  At the same time, there has been for a few years now discussion about how to improve the representation of minority groups (or “subalterns” as I’ll be calling non-majority individuals from here on out) in STEM fields (1,2).  I teach biology classes, but I’ll admit to often being put off by my own courses at times.  As a not-a-white-male, I don’t often see myself represented in the stories that I teach my students and that my teachers taught me.  Charles Darwin, Thomas Malthus, Aldo Leopold, Watson and Crick- all critical thinkers that helped to shape the lessons I learned and characters whom I learned about in my undergraduate and graduate studies.

That’s not a bad thing- to discuss the history of our discipline along with the content- but I have to wonder what message it sends to students when they don’t see themselves reflected in the history of their field?  I happen to be married to a historian, and as luck would have it, my historian studies subaltern history, and the civil rights movement in the US, so he has plenty to say on the importance of teaching representative history.  Which got me thinking, how can I improve my courses to reflect more of my students’ perspectives and experiences in their educational experience?  I know of some people who have worked in biology who fit what I’m looking for, but I’m still learning a lot as I go.  Good examples that I have so far include Rachel Carson, Wangari Maathai, Rosalind Franklin, Tyrone Hayes, Temple Grandin, and Alan Turing.  Rachel Carson was the marine biologist who wrote “Silent Spring,” one of the books that opened the public’s eyes on the concerns around DDT usage and the environment (3).  Wangari Maathai was the biologist and environmental activist who founded the African Green Belt Movement, and was recognized with a Noble Peace Prize for her efforts in Africa (4).  Rosalind Franklin was the X-ray crystallographer who recorded the first images of DNA (5).  Temple Grandin has made great contributions to animal behavior and treatment of livestock animals (6).  Tyrone Hayes’s work on atrazine was some of the first studies to question the safety of this widely used chemical (7).  Alan Turing, while not a biologist himself, was a preeminent code breaker, mathematician, and early computer scientist, made advancements in computers, which have contributed greatly to biology through modeling, statistics, and other related disciplines made possible with today’s computing power.

So why would we be interested in having diverse representation in biology, or any field?  Simple- that diversity of individuals brings a diversity of perspectives, more discussion, and more possible solutions to problems than would otherwise be heard by a monoculture typically does.  There has been an argument made previously that humans are the ultimate resource (9), owing to our brains, thinking ability, and compassion.  I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say “ultimate,” but the idea that humans are an important resource is fairly common across many disciplines, from biology to business.

Now, in the spirit of the crowd-funding that is currently going on with SciFund’s partners at Experiment, I’m going to try a bit of crowd-sourcing on this classroom make-over project, and ask for your help.  So, scientific community, readers, researchers, educators, and everyone else out there- who’s your favorite minority/subaltern biologist, and what’s their story?  They don’t have to be famous or dead, maybe your dissertation adviser has made huge advancements in their specialty- tell the world about them.  And help me build a more inclusive and representative class all at the same time.  Thanks in advance, and I’ll update here as I get some good resources.  If you’re an educator who would like to learn more along with me, then a list of reading material that was recommended to me by a history of science colleague of my husband’s follows (with a debt of gratitude and a hat-tip to Assistant Professor Matthew Crawford, History Department, Kent State University):

Bergland, R. L. (2008). Maria Mitchell and the sexing of science: An astronomer among the American romantics. Beacon Press.
Conner, C. (2009). A People’s History of Science: Miners, Midwives, and Low Mechanicks. Nation books.
Des Jardins, J. (2010). The Madame Curie complex: The hidden history of women in science. Feminist Press at CUNY.
Schiebinger, L. L. (1993). Nature’s body: Gender in the making of modern science. Rutgers University Press.
Schiebinger, L. (1991). The mind has no sex?: Women in the origins of modern science. Harvard University Press.
P.S. You can contribute to more traditional diversity-oriented biology research here and help undergraduates experience the thrill of science, and see themselves as a part of the scientific process.

1. Hurtado, S., Newman, C. B., Tran, M. C., & Chang, M. J. (2010). Improving the rate of success for underrepresented racial minorities in STEM fields: Insights from a national project. New Directions for Institutional Research, 2010(148), 5-15.

2. Tsui, L. (2007). Effective strategies to increase diversity in STEM fields: A review of the research literature. The Journal of Negro Education, 555-581.

3. Carson, R. (1951). The sea around us. Oxford University Press.

4. Maathai, W. (2004). The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. Lantern Books.

5. Franklin, R. E. (1950). The interpretation of diffuse X-ray diagrams of carbon. Acta Crystallographica, 3(2), 107-121.

6. Grandin, T. (1997). Assessment of stress during handling and transport. Journal of Animal science, 75(1), 249-257.

7. Hayes, T. B., Collins, A., Lee, M., Mendoza, M., Noriega, N., Stuart, A. A., & Vonk, A. (2002). Hermaphroditic, demasculinized frogs after exposure to the herbicide atrazine at low ecologically relevant doses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 99(8), 5476-5480.

8. Turing, A. M. (1948). Rounding-off errors in matrix processes. The Quarterly Journal of Mechanics and Applied Mathematics, 1(1), 287-308.

9. Simon, J. L. (1998). The ultimate resource 2. Princeton University Press.

Living a Double Life


Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd, or chytrid) is a fungal pathogen that causes chytridomycosis in some susceptible amphibians.  Not all amphibians are plagued by this infection, but those that are tend to show drastic population declines when exposed to chytrid.  This leaves a collection of individuals that can serve as carriers or vectors of disease, spreading it from one pond to another.  One of the interesting characteristics with chytrid is its specificity to tissues that is attacks.  Chytrid fungus only attacks keratinized tissues, thos with a certain chemical- keratin- that gives skin its waterproofing.

Since amphibians use cutaneous breathing, or getting oxygen through their skin, it should come as no surprise that amphibians’ skin is less keratinized than human skin and other organisms.  In fact, the areas of skin that are keratinized vary throughout an amphibian’s life, with tadpoles having little to no keratin outside of the mouthparts in most species.  Where we have teeth for chewing, tadpoles have rough fingernail-like ridges to scrape off their food.  Chytrid attacks on tadpoles often are not directly fatal but can lead to lower tadpole condition, smaller size, and longer time to metamorphosis.  In adults, chytrid infects far more of the skin, as there’s more keratin for chytrid to feed off of.  This leads to a more extensive infection, and more often than in tadpoles leads to death, and the skin can even slough off as the keratin is broken down so much.

For amphibians, their dual life cycle using both aquatic and terrestrial habitats can help to divide resources and lessen intra-specific competition, but it also exposes them to predators, pathogens, and pollutants in both habitats as well.  It also means that as researchers, we need to consider two functionally different groups- aquatic larvae that eat phytoplankton and detritus, and terrestrial adults who are carnivores.  Two sets of predators, two sets of prey, two sets of environmental conditions, and two sets of competitors.  We might talk about “amphibians,” but that’s not a homogeneous group by any means.

In ecology in general, organisms might be lumped into groups in different ways, either based on relationships or functional groups usually.  Our ability to construct those groups accurately plays a big role in our ability to best study the world around us.  Sometimes, we can put organisms in more than one group based on the type of study that’s being conducted and the questions that we’re asking.  With living things, there’s rarely simplicity, and making sense of that complexity helps us to find the answers as best we can.  For amphibians, that might mean treating a species as two different groups instead of one.

Science- Not So Scary Stuff

Because of a convergence of 1) Halloween, 2) my dissertation defense, and 3) my students’ exams, my mind of late has been very keyed into exactly how scary science can be for some people, including myself when I was younger.  I teach biology for both majors and non-majors, and a consistent theme in my non-majors class especially is a certain fear or trepidation around studying sciences, and it’s something to which I can relate.  There was a time when I had that same fear very much on my mind, and at the time, my chosen way to deal with the issue was to study education.  Lucky for me, I had an honors biology professor, and later friend, who encouraged me to take the leap and change majors.

I understand the concern around science for many people- it has some big equations, lots of abstract theories, and let’s face it, plenty of cultural baggage.  Literature has a great time with science and scientists, from Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and all the “mad-scientists” in between.  Like most fears, wariness of science has some grain of truth to it, seen in Dr. Mengela, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Baby Alfred, and more.  Snakes and spiders suffer a similar situation, where a few bad actors cast everyone as less than friendly.

More than anything science is a process, a tool for learning more about our world.  All tools can be used for either good or bad depending on a number of factors.  Processes including the scientific method are interesting; they require infrastructure, they have institutional memory, and they have inertia.  Think of playing sports or gardening- you need to have equipment, the necessary skills are passed from one person to another either face to face or through other media, and once you get out for a while it’s hard to get back in.  All the same things could be said for scientific research.

When push comes to shove, those processes- science, sports, gardening- add many valuable things to our daily lives.  Sports offer entertainment, economic development, and physical fitness; gardening provides beauty and nourishment; science solves problems of disease, engineering, and technology.  None of the other processes are feared or cause undue anxiety, so why should science?  If you’re reading this, then I’m probably preaching to the choir, but just in case, try to embrace science like a horror flick on Halloween.  At least the scientific method might cure cancer someday.

To everyone who’s conquered their fear and discovered the joy of doing science- Happy Halloween and I hope you’re having a fun time of it.

From Canaries to Jigsaws: Complexity in the life of a bio-indicator

If you’re familiar with history around mining and coal extraction, you’re familiar with the idea of the canary in the mine shaft.  In case you aren’t, canaries were used in 19th century America- up until fairly recently- as an indicator of declining air quality in mine shafts, as canaries were more susceptible to carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases than humans were.  It wasn’t a perfect system, and the canaries were probably not too thrilled with the situation, but they saved more than a few lives in an era before modern technology had figured out gas sensors.  This concept of a sentinel or indicator species is still in use today, especially in ecology, where multiple indices have been developed to quickly assess habitat quality and changes in an ecosystem with the help of indicator species.  Today’s indicator species are not situated carefully in areas where we think there might be a risk, but based on the assemblage of organisms in the wild, with the net effect being a large scale early warning system that we simply have to look at from time to time.

One of the groups that work quite well as indicators is the amphibians.  They, like canaries, are more easily affected by environmental contaminants than many other organisms.  Amphibians aren’t good at detecting carbon monoxide, but water pH, heavy metals, salts, water temperature, and other pollutants all have an impact on how amphibians grow, develop, and survive.  In many cases, amphibians have two distinct life phases- the juveniles live in the water while the adults live on land- which means that they can monitor both of those habitats fairly easily.  With the diversity of amphibians, there is also a diversity of possibly damaging situations for our friendly little salamanders and frogs.  Because of this, we look at the entire amphibian community and not just one species.  Some amphibians are like bullfrogs and very tolerant of changes to the environment; while others are like chorus frogs and far less tolerant, giving us not only an alarm bell like the canary did, but a gauge of how bad the problem is.  For example, an environment that is losing one or two species is probably not as bad yet as one that has only bullfrogs left.

Coming into this whole mess are invasive plants, or plants that come from a different part of the world, but do really well in their new home, well enough to start pushing out the native plant neighbors.  Plants are interesting in the environment because they form the structure of many habitats by providing a variety of different shelters and vertical spaces.  Think of a forest, a meadow, and an open field with some shrubs; three very different physical spaces, thanks to the plants that grow there.  The effect is similar to the structures that we build on the landscape- they can provide spread out low density homes, clusters of residences, or large sky-scrapers.

Unlike our structures, plants provide not just physical structure, but act as other living organisms do in a community.  They take up and use resources, while releasing other chemicals, and try to avoid being eaten or getting sick through the use of other chemicals.  They impact our environment, and they impact the environment that our neighborhood sentinels experience, sometimes in negative ways.  We have a growing body of literature that links invasive plants with detrimental outcomes for amphibians.  It’s still early in the study of these interactions, but there seems to be problems for amphibians that correlate with invasive plants.  Obviously, the important factor determining whether or not an invasive plant is problematic for amphibians or other living things may well be particular traits that a plant has, and not so much the origin of the plant, but there’s still a lot that we’re learning right now about these complex interactions.

There’s the rub for today’s canaries in coal mines- the level of complexity.  They aren’t monitoring for a single chemical or handful of them, but a wide array of possible toxins, and from a variety of sources.  They also aren’t just responding to plants in their environment, but other organisms (invertebrates, microbes, etc.) who are also responding to the newly introduced specie.  The more we learn about the world around us, the more we can put together the pieces in the puzzle.  And there are quite a few pieces to ecological puzzles, as complex as these interactions can be.

For further information on invasive plant and native amphibian interactions, check out the following papers:

Brown CJ, Blossey B, Maerz JC, Joule SJ. 2006. Invasive plant and experimental venue affect tadpole performance. Biological Invasions 8(2):327–338.

Cohen JS, Mearz JC, Blossey B. 2012.  Traits, not origin, explain impacts of plants on larval amphibians. Ecological Applications 22(1):218-228.

Kappes H, Lay R, Topp W. 2007. Changes in Different Trophic Levels of Litter-dwelling Macro fauna Associated with Giant Knotweed Invasion. Ecosystems 10(5):734-744.

Maerz JC. 2005. Can secondary compounds of an invasive plant affect larval amphibians? Functional Ecology 19(6):970-975.

Martin LJ, Blossey B. 2013.  Intraspecific variation overrides origin effects in impacts of litter-derived secondary compounds on larval amphibians. Oecologia 173(2):449-59.

McEvoy NL, Durtsche RD. 2003. The effect of invasive plant species on the biodiversity of herpetofauna at the Cincinnati Nature Center. Norse Science 1:51–55.

McEvoy NL, Durtsche RD. Effect of the invasive shrub Lonicera maackii (Caprifoliaceae; Amur honeysuckle) on autumn herpetofauna biodiversity. J Kentucky Acad Sci 2004;65:27-32.

Watling J, I. 2011. Extracts of the invasive shrub Lonicera mackii increase mortality and alter behavior of amphibian larvae. Oecologia 165(1):153-159.