Urban versus rural nature

14 Sep

Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist: this week’s New York magazine waxes poetic about ecology in  The Concrete Jungle. Not what I was expecting when the city has been teeming with fashionistas and urban wildlife on the pop edge of culture. But, there it is in the first photo: Staten Island turkeys!

In our heat island, enveloped by concrete and lush parks engineered to look natural, the nuance here goes beyond rabid coyotes and bears in the suburbs.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

But it’s a challenging metaphor for the City and our global community. As urban dwellers, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

Over Labor Day weekend, I got to spend time on a friend’s farm in western Colorado– a wonderful experience that left me more than a wee-bit jealous of wide-open rural spaces. I love my city, too, and I’m glad to appreciate it as nature, too.

UPDATE Sept 30th: This post got a nice shout-out in New York magazine’s comments.

Close encounters of the bird kind

25 Aug

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island

a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Count-em, three, quirky animal stories

19 Aug

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Quirky animal stories are big fun, but three in a month is a new record for me.

The most recent one, hot off the presses in C&EN’s Environmental SCENE, looks at how arctic seabirds provide a convenient way to track persistent pollutants in marine environments.The researchers measure the chemicals in stomach oils, a concentrate of fish oils from their food that collect in an upper part of their stomach. Chicks are exposed to higher levels of pollutants when they’re fed stomach oils than from whole fish or crustaceans. Fun factoid: the smelly mess is super-easy to collect because the birds also spew it on intruders. Yes, that includes your friendly neighborhood field scientist.

At the end of July, I went to the 47th Annual Animal Behavior Society meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what came out of that trip for ScienceNOW:

First, a look at unusual beluga whale behavior: except for during mating season, male whales at a Canadian aquarium prefer to hump other males rather than females. Is this hanky-panky an assertion of dominance? A form of play? In the wild, male whales tend to live in groups on their own for most of the year and under the Arctic ice.

Finally, a new chapter in the story of duck penises: Male ducks have unusual, spiraling penises that grow for mating season. Now, researchers have shown in two different species that social competition shapes either how long a duck’s penis will grow or how long it will stay elongated. It’s as if the ducks walked into a quacking singles bar and their sexual prowess changed based on the other guys in the room.

The Origin of this Science Writer

6 Aug

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.

Saturday Science Video: When Things Get Small

29 May

This Beakman’s World for nanotech video, When Things Get Small,  came out a few years ago, but it’s still a great, entertaining introduction to the world of nanotechnology.

I reviewed the video and interviewed Ivan Schuller, one of its creators and a physics professor at UCSD, at a showing in NYC back in 2006. My story for Popular Science was also picked up by CNN.com.

It is a time investment, but if you’re looking for a way to spend 30 minutes this holiday weekend, it’s worth your time.

An Amazing Race

28 May

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Part of the drama in any race is figuring out which team to cheer for. Looking back on the quest to reach the South Pole nearly a century ago, it’s a seesaw between two teams with different goals. On one side is the single-minded consummate planner, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who learned about travel and survival from the Inuit and built a village in the ice– sauna included. Then there’s the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, a man who valued science as well as the bragging rights of being first.

In the new American Museum of Natural History exhibit, Race to the End of the Earth , which opens on Saturday (I got  an early peek at a press preview this week), the visitor gets a chance to follow the journey of those first teams to reach the South Pole. I knew the winner already, but I didn’t know the compelling story of the journey– An Original Amazing Race, without the reality TV trappings. A twisting comparative timeline forms the spine of the exhibit, and it becomes increasingly clear as you traverse it how sound planning and single-mindedness ultimately triumphed. But the exhibit also highlights the achievements of Scott, the man also interested in understanding the science and natural history of this alien continent. The research stations in Antarctica feel like the legacy of the man who came in second.

Scott comes off as the sentimental favorite, particularly when you read his final notes– when he knew he would not survive– to his friends, his colleagues, and his wife and baby son. (Besides getting there first, Amundsen and all his men survived.) But you also wonder at some of his planning choices: bringing ponies to haul sleds in Antarctica? having his men drag sleds laden with food and supplies over hundreds of miles? Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but those choices feel like part folly, part hubris.

The exhibit does the story justice. It’s hard to imagine such bitter cold and nearly intolerable conditions, but at the same time. But I’m thinking of the magic of being among “the first” to see emperor penguins, to traverse this mysterious place and begin to understand its compelling and dangerous secrets.

Scientist hobbies and grand gestures

25 May

Scientific research can seem all-consuming, and sometimes it is. But I think one critical component of creativity is to have an outside hobby that allows you to get your head out of the game for a little while. So, when I saw this article in the latest issue of the HHMI Bulletin, I felt the need to share Harvard Medical School’s Amy Wagers high-flying hobby. I love that she was willing to share her trapeze-loving side of herself. Being a stem cell researcher takes guts, so it’s not all that surprising to me that she likes the adrenaline rush.

Wagers had always loved heights, but her spontaneous foray into trapeze made her curious to try other sky-high stunts. When she and another junior faculty member at Harvard collaborated on their first paper and got positive comments from Nature, Wagers came up with a plan: “If this very first paper for both of us gets in,” she told her collaborator, “we’re going skydiving.” The paper was accepted, and Wagers booked a sky dive in Newport, Rhode Island. Though her collaborator conveniently forgot the date of the booking, Wagers went ahead and jumped. “Then I decided whenever my lab had an important paper published, I would go skydiving.”

Most research laboratories have some way to celebrate major milestones– maybe a champagne toast. I have no personal desire to jump out of a plane, but I really love her approach. Major accomplishments deserve recognition, and skydiving is a grand gesture. If I were her collaborator, I’d probably be tempted to chicken out. But if I did, I also think I’d regret it.

Blogathon Haiku day

24 May

As part of the WordCount Blogathon, today we’re all embarking on haiku posts. I really should let my inner science poet out a little more often. Today, I decided to riff on the my writing process of taking my research– the papers I’ve read, the experts I’ve talked with– and synthesizing that mix into a science article. It’s a dance: you have to process what you’ve learned, decide what to leave in, what to take out, and wrap the whole thing in an attractive flowing package. Doubt lingers every time I begin this journey, but I’m still swimming on the other side.

My haiku:

drowning in detail

pulling the puzzle apart

story now complete

Sunday snapshot: whale’s tail

16 May

Two years ago, we took an amazing whale-watching cruise off Cape Cod-- so many humpback whales were feeding around us we didn't know which way to look.

Saturday Videos: The Beard-ome

15 May

When you spend more than 40 hours a week in a laboratory, strange creative synergy can crop up. When I was a graduate student, we had a few of those moments. The most notable was our takeoff on “The Night Before Christmas” in late 1999, as we riffed on the coming nonpocalypse of Y2K. Unfortunately, I don’t think I still have that poem– it was one of our better moments.

But it’s nowhere close to what the folks at Hypocalypse Industries have cooked up. The people in this lab clearly have some fun. I’m betting they work pretty hard, too. The Beard-ome brings Office/Parks & Recreation satire to the molecular biology laboratory.

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