Biodiversity: the Blog

It’s a girl!

A big piece of my stand-up comedy set about my research last month was about how good I am at killing tardigrades, or water bears as they are commonly known, despite their reputation for being indestructible. (They’ve survived five mass extinctions on the planet, but they can’t survive me!)

I have been trying to grow Antarctic tardigrades and their more awesome but less cute metazoan cousins, bdelloid rotifers, in petri dishes in the lab. These microscopic animals are abundant in the glacial ecosystems I use as natural test tubes to understand how ecosystems organize. They are large enough to spot with a dissecting microscope – much lower power than would be required to see individual bacteria – so I hoped they would be useful for more controlled experiments.

However, I was not initially great at keeping the little critters alive, and moreover, having them reproduce to be a population.

Since I am not an expert at tardigrade identification, I thought the best way to isolate different populations of water bears would be to create cultures from individual lineages: meaning I put a single tardigrade on a petri dish and waited for it to lay eggs.

I was fairly certain that any animal whose life plan involved getting dried up and blown into some ice, then waking up when that ice melted into an isolated puddle of water would not have to rely on finding a mate. The chances just seemed too low. The most common tardigrades in Antarctica reproduce by parthenogenesis, laying unfertilized eggs. But after a while without babies, I was starting to wonder if they needed to mate or something.

And then last week, two students working on this project found that a petri dish previously containing a single tardigrade now held three additional tiny tardigrades! Our camera situation is not so great with the petri dishes, so I held my cell phone up to the eye piece to try to snap a picture:

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That whitish cigar shaped thing with dark colors in its middle is a tardigrade. The green blobs around it are algae. The dark stuff inside the tardigrade I believe to be algae it ate!

Here is a better image of Antarctic tardigrades I took also using my cell phone, but a microscope in Antarctica:

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So I guess the tardigrade really is a “girl” – at least it laid eggs?

Stand-up science

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Thanks to Eli Weber for getting a shot of me on stage!

Ever wonder why a tardigrade is commonly called a “water bear?” Yeah, me too! I think the name is stupid – they don’t look like bears at all.

That was the start of my stand-up comedy set about my research last night, performed as the closing act to a sold-out crowd of 120 paying customers at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Although my postdoctoral research is really focused on determining how random ecosystem formation is, using mud puddles on glaciers as natural test tubes, for a ten minute set of jokes I focused on the two most common animals in these mud puddles. I tried to explain why tardigrades have a reputation as being basically real-life Avengers, and why their fellow metazoans, the rotifers, which get no attention from the internet, are the real real-life superheroes of surviving space and running our home planet.

For the past several weeks, I have driven to Denver one night a week for a two-hour workshop on scripting my science interests into essentially a TED talk with jokes. It’s a workshop provided free to STEM professionals. After three weeks of two-hour meetings, they throw you on stage in front of a paying crowd! (With a cash bar, at least.) I like to think of it as a comedy “recital,” like I used to have for piano or dance lessons.

The nine of us who completed the workshop performed our sets, with a professional mentalist as an MC.

I had a great time, remembered mostly what I wanted to teach the audience, and even got a few laughs!

Ever since I found out a friend, Alex Falcone, taught stand-up comedy workshops in Portland, and that part of what he asks his students to bring to a set is to have a point, I have wanted to share the ridiculousness of my day job through jokes. Finding this workshop so close to Boulder was a dream come true.

If you work in a field of science or technology and want to tell some funny stories from your career or just teach a group of interested people one interesting little factoid about your expertise, check out whether Science Riot offers a workshop near you. If you’re not in Denver you won’t get to work with the incredible Jessie Hanson, but I’m sure they have other great people!

Shakti and the Sommers Sisters’ School Science Safari

A few days ago, a new paper was published on a subglacial hydrology model of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The name of the model is SHAKTI, which stands for Subglacial Hydrology And Kinetic, Transient Interactions. The lead author is my sister, Aleah, who developed this model as part of her PhD dissertation work. She is also a serious yogi and yoga instructor (who runs retreats in mountain huts and secluded Mexican beaches if you want to join her!).

She was tickled that her coauthors went along with the acronym, which is, in her words, “a Sanskrit term for the energy that gives form to everything in the universe, the divine feminine principle.”

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Aleah presenting her dissertation work publicly at her defense.

I was privileged to hear more about her research earlier this spring, not only at her public presentation as part of her dissertation defense, but during a series of joint presentations we did on our “polar opposite” (Arctic vs. Antarctic) research.

The presentations took place at schools in Ouray, Ridgeway, and Cortez, in southern Colorado. They were organized by the Pinhead Institute, who graciously hosted us in Telluride. It was a great few days of sister road trip adventure, sharing photos and stories and scientific results of our adventures with K-12 students (mostly high school, but a 3rd grade class or two!). We dubbed the adventure the Sommers’ Sisters’ School Science Safari as we toured between often several schools and towns in a day. Here are some images of that journey:

Hopefully Aleah’s research and the addition of the SHAKTI model will help predict future melt rates of Greenland’s ice sheet and coastal glaciers, and provide better forecasts for the speed of sea level rise. Check out this latest paper yourself – and see if you can understand any of it! If not, Aleah does a great job of explaining it in plain language in person, so ask her over a glass of kombucha, or see if she is up for presenting to your class or club.

 

Microscopes to telescopes: Back to UA Science Sky School

Last week I had the pleasure of returning to a mountain top where a not-so-little piece of my heart remains. It has been more than two years since I taught at UA Science: Sky School, a program I had piloted as a UA/NASA Space Grant Fellow starting in 2012-2014. I was amazed that despite the way the team and the current instructors have grown and improved the programs, it felt so much like going home. I loved sharing photos from my new research in Antarctica and helping students transform their cell phones into microscopes while they waited for their turn at the telescope.

This was the sixth annual trip for Flowing Wells High School, the first school to attend Sky School’s flagship four-day outdoor research experience, in which students stay in dorms at the observatory and are advised on team research projects by graduate students. The students from this Title I school are supported on their Sky School trip by a Superintendant who raises the money to fund their trip from his Rotary Club, and by teachers who organize and chaperone the four-day trip.

IMG_20180426_091420375And these students really deserve the support. The research on geology, hydrology, and biology in the national forest that they presented at the symposium the closing night of the program was impressive. They hiked for miles over thousands of feet of elevation change and learned new math and engineering skills to collect their data and design their equipment.

As the Arizona teachers wait at the capitol for a vote on a budget deal today, I hope the Governor and the Arizona Legislature understand just how much these teachers give up to support their students, but moreover, how much these students deserve more funding for infrastructure, supplies, and other pieces that make education work. I hope they find a way to raise and sustain the funding to make education not just less embarrassingly underfunded in Arizona, but a priority – not only when a walkout forces their hand, but on their own in the future.

Outdoor science: rock climbing edition

Part of my PhD was funded by the UA/NASA Space Grant to pilot and kickstart what became the UA Science Sky School. Our overnight programs, based at an observatory at the summit of Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains, allow K-12 classes to more deeply explore the world around them using the scientific method. Although I graduated and left Tucson two years ago, I continue to celebrate Sky School’s successes and community. This week, I am back in Tucson for a visit, and looking forward to spending some time at Sky School.

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At the March For Science Denver a week ago with another inaugural SkySchool instructor, Kirsten Neff. I’m wearing a superhero cape proclaiming my science superhero to be Sara Plummer Lemmon, the botanist and adventurer for whom Mt. Lemmon is named, in honor of her ascent over 100 years ago.

Mt. Lemmon is a beloved place for more than the observatory, though: there are over 2,000 rock climbing routes established on crags along the 30 mile Catalina Sky Highway that leads to the summit observatory. Since I developed into a regular climber in Tucson, Mt. Lemmon is my rock climbing home.

I have idly daydreamed about combining a Sky School type program with a climbing expedition for years now: outdoor science and engineering of technical skills and the natural world. You could study the mechanical physics of balancing yourself on a small hold or equalizing your anchor points for safety, as well as the geology of the rock quality and how the heck tiny plants are growing in cracks in the rock hundreds of feet off the ground.

So imagine my excitement to see a program launching to do just that up in Colorado! 9 high school girls will have the opportunity to spend 12 days with scientists and climbing guides in the first Girls On Rock expedition. I have been watching announcements of Inspiring Girls growing and expanding as an organization, and am stoked to see this newest program come together.

They want to offer this program free of charge to girls flying in from anywhere in the country!

So if you’re a teenage girl – get ready to apply.

If you know a teenage girl – encourage her to apply.

And if you want to see this program succeed and grow – donate to make this first run possible. I just did.

 

The Carolina Coast

Although it’s snowing over spring break in Boulder as I write this, a few weeks ago I had my sense of “spring” on the beaches of North Carolina’s barrier islands on the Intracoastal Waterway. My parents moved to Wilmington, NC, a few years ago. Although I miss visiting my childhood home in Salt Lake when I go see them, it’s great to see my extended family in that area, and to kayak through the spartina out to the islands, watching birds dive and dolphin pods cruise by.

I joke about my parents providing fully outfitted and nature-guided kayak tours for me, because they do. When we see the ibis perched along docks, my mom tells me their beaks and legs have already started to redden in anticipation of the mating season.

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My dad even pulled out a microscope they had bought so we could look for microscopic life amongst the spartina muck, where the fiddler crabs scuttle.

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The comment period on offshore drilling right there ended during my visit. We all submitted comments, along with half a million other people, raising our concerns about the potential impacts of seismic testing on dolphins and the nearly inevitable small leaks on the entire food chain, as well as on the microscopic life at the base of the food chain that supports the local seafood industry. (We kayaked to a dockside restaurant where I had fried oysters – local ones – for the first time. They were great!)

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Submitting one citizen comment to a federal agency feels a little like a drop in, well, the ocean. But half a million drops starts to add up to a measurable volume. More drops, and more momentum of those drops might make a difference, if not in preventing drilling then at least in ensuring drillers stick to best practices to have the least impact possible.

My mom always carries a bag over to the islands in her boat to pick up trash during her walk along the beach. Drip, drip, drop.

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