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I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

6 Nov

I am so glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the folks at the University of Florida did a great job at hosting the National Association of Science Writers annual conference, which started last week. The University of Florida, which I toured, is doing some impressive research and I enjoyed touring the Florida Innovation Hub.

And the people of Florida are incredibly nice.

But, man, do they have critter problems.

Professor of Wildlife, Frank Mazzotti,

Professor of Wildlife Frank Mazzotti and friend.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was attending “lunch with a scientist.” I picked to have a sandwich with Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who specializes in alligators, crocodiles and, more recently, Burmese pythons. Why more recently? Well, Burmese pythons are one of the many invasive species that are threatening southern Florida, particularly the Everglades. But there are other invaders, according to Mazzotti, like puff adders and Nile Monitor Lizards.

So, now, Florida is starting to sound a little like Jurassic Park to me. I was shocked that T-Rex hadn’t made a comeback in the Sunshine State.

The researcher said that one of the problems was that these invasive species can threaten native species. For instance, Mazzotti explained a little too matter-of-factly, pythons may kill alligators.

Let me repeat that. The pythons may kill alligators. Now, all of the sudden, I’m not in Jurassic Park, I am in the middle of a Japanese monster movie.

There have also been instances when these invasive snakes have crawled into houses through laundry chutes and up toilets. Luckily, I finished my roast beef sandwich, or I would have most certainly lost my appetite.

People in Florida should feel fortunate that they have researchers like Mazzotti, however. He, among other researchers and animal control officials, are coming up with creative solutions to the problems of invasive species. Since most of these creatures are being brought in as pets and and then released by their owners, the state has introduced a pet amnesty program. You bring in your snake, or lizard, or killer flying vampire turtle, whatever, and the program finds a new home for it. They’re also hiring expert snake-catchers to find and capture some of the species causing the most harm.

Mazzotti, perhaps after years of watching slithering creatures trying to escape, noticed my discomfort at the conversation. Full-body shivers will get you noticed, after all. Once he found out where I was from — the surprisingly monster-free state of Pennsylvania — he asked if I knew what animal was responsible for the most deaths in the United States. I didn’t know, but I naturally assumed it was crawling under the floorboards of some Florida home.

But, I guessed: bears? sharks? texting Kardashians?


The deadliest creature statistically is the white-tailed deer.

I got the last word in though. I replied, “That may be so, but I’ve never heard of a deer crawl up a toilet.”


Cool Images, Big Potential: Startup Uses Lasers to Create 3D Imagery

16 Oct

A laser that creates a three-dimensional picture of a bee’s head may sound like an experiment being conducted in Dr. Evil’s super-secret volcano base, but this technology is blossoming right here at Penn State — and it has real-world applications for research in agriculture and horticulture.

The head of a yellow jacket

The head of a yellow jacket

At a recent talk at the Millennium Science Complex, Benjamin Hall, an undergraduate student in energy engineering working part-time in the laser lab of the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State, discussed the technique — and showed images and videos that rival most Hollywood special effects. By placing an object, such as a plant root, on a moveable platform that passes under a laser, researchers can vaporize the sample section by section. The technique creates a series of surface images, which Hall then processes with a software program to create three-dimensional interior and exterior — and unbelievably cool — images of the sample.

Besides the cool effect, Hall said the imagery has real value. Researchers will be able to use the enhanced, high-contrast images to examine slight differences in samples. The process works faster, and is less labor intensive and possibly less expensive than current solutions on the market.

The root system of a Maize plant.

The root system of a Maize plant.

In a release sent out by Penn State’s Materials Research Institute, Hall said:

“This is a tomography technique, and there are others out there.  But x-ray tomography basically works by mapping the density of a substance, which is great unless the specimen has different materials of similar density. That can make it hard to differentiate structures, so it can be difficult to quantify measurements. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) we’re not even competing with. Those machines are so big and complex, and so expensive to operate compared to our system.”

Penn State has applied for a patent on the process. Meanwhile, Hall and his business partner Brian Reinhardt, a former Penn State graduate student, have created a startup, Lasers for Innovative Solutions (L4IS), to help companies, particularly agribusinesses, with high throughput phenotyping of their new products.

This is also a great example of a total team effort in preparing Penn State technology for market.

From the release:

“Included on the patent are Hall and his Penn State advisers, Jonathan Lynch and Ted Reutzel. Hall is currently working with Lynch on a paper describing their method. Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Central and Northern Pennsylvania provided funding and business assistance to start the company, and the Ben Franklin TechCelerator @ State College provided valuable entrepreneurial training.”

Check out this technology in action with some of the videos at the L4IS Youtube site.

Can You Spare a Paradigm?

22 Aug
Is there something fishy about paradigms?

Is there something fishy about paradigms?

I realized early that, as a research writer, I shouldn’t get too attached to my favorite paradigms, or my cherished biases.

Paradigms — those commonly accepted truths — are tested all the time in my line of work. Researchers are too remorseless in their probing and prodding for the truth to allow sacred cows to roam free in the wide-open pastures of commonly accepted knowledge.

During the past  weeks, I saw Penn State researchers corral in a few paradigms, some that I accepted as obvious truths.

In one study, Darrell Steffensmeier, professor of sociology and criminology, and his colleagues examined a theory that as more women took leadership roles in businesses, more would also get involved in disreputable sides of corporate life, such as fraud and corruption.  Many sociologists accepted this idea as a fact for almost a century. However, the recent study that Steffensmeier worked on didn’t find that. It showed that while women have assumed more positions in the corporate power structure, few were taking part in corporate crime.

Another Penn State researcher, who has recently graduated and moved on from the University, looked at the bystander effect, a well-recognized paradigm in sociology. The best example of the bystander effect — and I vividly remember reading about this — is the case of a murder of a woman that happened within earshot of an apartment building. According to accounts, dozens of people who lived near the crime site heard the young woman’s screams as she was attacked, but no one did anything to stop it. Michael Parks, who studied when people intervened in bar fights, said the bystander effect may be overstated. He found that third parties try to break up bar fights before they get out of hand. In fact, they tend to intervene quickly when they believe the fight could get too dangerous.

Maybe fish intelligence — or the lack thereof — isn’t really a paradigm, but I never considered that researchers could increase fish IQ, or even want to, for that matter. I mean, why does a fish need to be smart — they just swim and nibble on food all day? Not so. Victoria Braithwaite, professor of fisheries and biology, found that by adding a few obstacles and plants to create more of a three-dimensional environment, fish — in this case, salmon — became much smarter. The researchers even found out that the mental workouts actually changed the brains of these fish to change, something referred to as neuroplasticity. The enhanced tanks became sort of an aquatic version of Luminosity, the online brain training company.

Critics may wonder why we would spend money finding ways to make fish smarter. But, this could potentially save a lot of money — possibly millions of dollars — for commercial fish hatcheries who have to raise lots of fish because most of them are not smart enough to survive in natural conditions once they leave the safe confines of their tanks, where food is plentiful and predators are absent. With relatively minimal investment, hatcheries could raise fewer fish because more will survive in the wild.

Braithwaite’s research also gave me another hopeful thought. I used to think that my brain development was pretty much set by the time I was an adult — and depending on who you talk to, I may have yet to reach this stage. However, if a fish can turn challenges and obstacles into intellectual free weights for bigger mental muscles, could there still be help for me?

And, by the way, my request to add a giant castle and pirate ship to my office was rejected. Sadly, some paradigms are much harder to confront.

A Science Communications Challenge

26 Jul
Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Winner of the ten-hundred and one word challenge.

Here’s your challenge: create a poster about highly technical research. So far, so good. You can use images, photos, or cartoons, but — here comes the kicker — you can only use 1,000 of the most common English words.

Speaking as a guy who has to write about science and research and is typically up to my elbows in research papers, I do not accept this challenge! But, luckily, there are Penn Staters who are much more creative and courageous than I am.

A Penn State group from the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation not only took this challenge, they won it. They beat out 45 other Energy Frontier Research Centers. The contest was inspired by a cartoon in the popular XKCD cartoon that uses the most common English words to describe the blueprints of NASA’s Saturn V rocket, or an Up Goer 5. It’s pretty funny. Check it out.

If you have a second, you can read some of there other winners at the challenge website, too.

Daniel Cosgrove, who leads the Center for Lignocellulose Structure and Formation, said that the contest emphasizes the importance of science and research communications and was a good exercise for the group. The center is investigating the use of plant material as a possible source of sustainable energy and communicating their goals to the general audience is necessary.

Science is a knowledge system. It’s how we find out things. But knowledge that isn’t disseminated — or should I just say, “spread” — isn’t really knowledge at all, it’s only data. Information may not be free, as anyone who has paid a cable television bill knows, but it definitely wants to be shared.

Using common language to explain complex subjects is difficult, but the payoff is tremendous. The more we learn, the bigger our knowledge net becomes and the farther we can cast it for even greater discoveries.

I’m glad other people at Penn State are committed to sharing the wealth of knowledge that this University produces.

I know you are all dying to know. About 78 percent of the words I used in this post are from the list of  1,000 most common English words. I used this web calculator to figure it out. Hey, C+! That appears to be slightly better than the normal deviation. I mean, it’s a little better than average.

When People Go Viral Over Plant Viruses

8 Jul

We tend to think of viruses as nasty germs that we try desperately to get rid of, whether they’re in our bodies, or in our gardens.

Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulip sold during tulip mania. TTulip breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)

Semper Augustus, one of the most expensive tulips sold during tulip mania. Tulip-breaking virus causes the red and white streaks. (Wikimedia Commons)

However, only a small percentage of the many viruses are pathogens, said Marilyn Roossinck, professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, and biology. Roossinck recently gave a talk about plant viruses at the Millennium Café, a weekly coffee break and science chat at Penn State’s Millennium Science Complex.

In fact, most viruses can work with a plant, as well as fungi, to improve plant health. They can boost heat and drought tolerance of certain plants, for example. Viruses can give plants beauty makeovers, too, that — by the way — can lead to economic bubbles. It was this type of viral artistry that helped create Tulip Mania in Holland during the 1630s.

The mania began when, as money from trade began to pour into the Netherlands, wealthy people started to build large estates and landscape those properties with exotic plants and flowers. Tulips, especially ones with interesting color patterns, became hot commodities and prices skyrocketed. At one point, tulip bulbs with extraordinary color schemes cost 10 times as much as a worker’s annual salary. The price of some tulips doubled in a few months.

Ingenuity fueled the mania. The Dutch became experts at creating colorful tulips by combining the virus-infected bulb with a solid colored bulb — grafting. They also became geniuses at marketing the bulbs, giving them brand names like “Admiral” or “General.”

The traders had no idea that a virus — often called a tulip-breaking virus — was causing the strange coloring. This wasn’t known for another 250 years, according to Roossinck. In some cases, the virus was spontaneously cured. This led to even more speculation on bulbs — leading to even wilder price gyrations.

Prices inevitably increased to a point where there were more sellers than buyers — and the market cratered. The effect of this bursting tulip bubble is still debated. Some say the tulip market’s collapse led to a general economic malaise throughout Holland, while more recent research suggests that the effect of the bubble was isolated to a fairly small group of wealth traders and collectors.

This might be a case where the virus wasn’t pathogenic, but human behavior, though, is another story.

You can find out more about Roossinck’s research here.

Here are a few stories about her research:

Wild plants are infected with many viruses and still thrive

Microbes team up to boost plants’ stress tolerance

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