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?

Nope.

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.”

A Big Texas Welcome for Penn State Laureate Ken Womack

23 Oct

Texas is a blue and white place, from its famous bluebonnet meadows and its vast azure skies dotted with white clouds, to the blue and white on the Lone Star state’s flag.  But for three days in late October, Texas was extra blue and white, when Research On The Road rolled into town with Penn State laureate for the 2013-14 academic year, Kenneth Womack, associate dean for Academic Affairs and professor of English and integrative arts at Penn State Altoona.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack with books he has authored.

Research On The Road is a Penn State program that brings our faculty members to locations around the country with active Penn State alumni chapters for lively public talks on timely topics.

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The topic this fall couldn’t have been more timely, a celebration of the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of the iconic band. Fortunately for us, Penn State’s laureate happens to be both an internationally recognized Beatles scholar as well as a native son of Texas. (Did you know that Texas is home to some of our largest and most active–and rapidly expanding–alumni chapters?)

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Lake Lewisville, outside of Dallas, the location for our North Texas event.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Craig and Judy Micklow, North Texas chapter leadership.

Each of the three alumni chapters (all equally spirited and each locale turning out in large numbers for the events) would show us what makes them unique. The Penn State alumni in and around Dallas were organized go-getters and had the largest age range of the three chapters. Ask any member for the secret of their chapter’s success and they’ll tell you in two words: The Micklows. Craig and Judy Micklow have been running a tight ship for years as chapter president and treasurer, and do a phenomenal job. Our Research On The Road evening was a heartwarming mix of very young and very young-at-heart Penn Staters! The North Texas alumni also win the award for the most rousing Penn State team spirit, with a “We Are” chant led by Craig that shook the room! After folks mixed, mingled and enjoyed light refreshments, Ken took the stage for his entertaining and informative talk about the Beatles, little-known facts about their rise to fame and musical techniques, and the lasting impact of their legacy.

North Dallas alumni chapter members

North Dallas alumni chapter members

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Alumni and future alumni sample the appetizers.

The youngest Penn Stater in the room.

A Beatles cover band played after the talk and inspired many to get up and shake a tail feather or two. People lingered until the very last note…what a great night!

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The next morning we headed down the road a piece, 250 miles of road, to be exact. Our Houston event couldn’t have happened without help from the fine folks from the Penn State Chapter of Greater Houston, headed up by chapter presidents Jen Lemanski and treasurer Greg Kelley, and the Woodlands Area Chapter president Robina Radar. Thanks to all of them!

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Melissa Beattie Moss (left) with Houston chapter president Jen Lemanski.

Houston is Ken Womack’s hometown and fittingly was our largest event, with about 150 people attending the evening talk. An article about our Research On The Road event in the Houston Chronicle (the largest newspaper in Texas and the sixth largest in the nation) didn’t hurt either.

The indoor/outdoor venue was perfect for our full house.

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In addition to being our largest crowd, the Houston chapter distinguished itself by having perhaps the liveliest Question & Answer session of the three events. The other cities held their own, make no mistake, but Houston attendees included some really hardcore Beatles experts who tested—and fully appreciated—the depth of Ken’s scholarship on the topic.

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It was a “standing room only” crowd, including some folks lined up outside the establishment to hear Ken’s talk.

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Ken’s voice was put to the test; he talked for hours!

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The leadership of PSUCenTex!

Last but by no means least on our Research On The Road trip: Austin! The PSU Central Texas chapter is in the very capable hands of president Sam Thomas, treasurer Steve Burke, and a whole team of active and energetic board members who helped make our Austin evening such a success.

The venue for our final Research On The Road event was Threadgill’s, an Austin institution steeped in music history. Janis Joplin got her start there, among others.  The room was packed with over about 115 Central Texas area Penn State alumni and friends, all in the mood to listen, learn, celebrate Penn State scholarship—oh, and to dance too!

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We were especially honored to have Penn State Altoona Chancellor and Dean Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry in attendance. Many thanks for the tremendous support!

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Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry showing that Penn State lives in Austin!

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Melissa Beattie Moss, left, with Chancellor Bechtel-Wherry, in the Janis Joplin Memorabilia Room at Threadgill’s.

Even after hearing Ken’s talk on the Beatles several times, I still learned new things each time. What an inspired teacher he is!  The Austin crowd was fascinated by his insights into such things as the band’s relationship with George Martin and their experiments with techniques like the “wind up piano” which relies on recording a song’s piano part at half-speed and then doubling it to normal speed to produce a harpsichord-like effect.

Our event in Austin was made even more special by the presence of Ken’s family and friends in the audience.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.

Penn State Laureate Ken Womack, native Texan, with his parents.

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The Womack family enjoyed a front-row seat for Ken’s talk.

A personal highlight for me, throughout the week, was meeting Penn State alumni who rarely participated in their chapter’s events, but were inspired to connect with their alma mater because of Research On The Road! This is the kind of thing that makes the months of advance planning extra meaningful.

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Mr. Wicker graduated from Penn State in 1969 and this was his first-ever event with the alumni chapter. Great to have you with us, sir!

It was sad to say “so long” to our Texan Penn Staters but it feels good to know that so many people were able to meet and learn from laureate Ken Womack and take pride in our University’s broad array of research strengths and deep commitment to teaching—including bringing life-long learning opportunities directly to our alumni chapters! Look for more adventures from Research On The Road this spring, y’all!

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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.

Eternal Life on Earth and in the Universe

3 Oct

I’m pretty sure I’ll never write my autobiography and I’m almost just as sure no one will write my biography unless I’m missing something.  I’ve written thousands of stories in 38 years as a science writer so I’ll remain on the web forever.  Doesn’t bother me.

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Roland Winkler, Leibnitz Institution of Astrophysics, Potsdam

Some people, without autobiographies or biographies, still end up memorialized in books, which is what recently happened to some Penn State faculty members from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Another science writer, Lee Billings, wrote a book, “Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars,” which is about looking for other living, sentient beings in the universe.  This book ended up on my desk because I get sent this type of book from time to time.  I thought wow, I wonder if Jim Kasting, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, was in the book.  Looked in the index and sure enough he was, as was his twin brother, wife and children.

Not only was he in the book, but nearly an entire chapter, “Out of Equilibrium” was about his work, very cool.

But I was actually sent the book because another faculty member, Michael Arthur, professor of geosciences, former department head and co-director of SolitudeCover2the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, was in the book.  That’s what the letter that came with the book said.  His chapter is “The Big Picture.”  I was puzzled.  Arthur is a sedimentary geologist.  He studies how rocks are formed, so I wasn’t quite sure how he fit into this book.  And the chapter talks about black shale, the Marcellus shale gas producing area and other petroleum and natural gas stuff.  In fact, another Penn State faculty member mentioned is Terry Engelder, professor of geoscience, who initially estimated how much gas was in the Marcellus.  I know, because I wrote that story.  But then I read on and realized that Arthur was using the Marcellus shale, the last shale oil/gas deposit to show no terrestrial plant inclusions — it was formed before life moved to land — as an example of the evolution of intelligent life.  And so the story moved from sea to land to animals of all kinds and finally to humans.  Intelligent life one presumes.  Although Lee refers to it as the sixth major extinction event, suggesting that humans in their agrarian onslaught homogenized the planet and wiped out myriad species.  So the history of the Earth leads to the search for intelligent life in the universe.

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Frank Lewecke

Kasting is known for his work on figuring out where, in the orbits around suns, habitable planets can exist.  These planets must be at a distance from their suns so that throughout the time it takes for life to evolve to intelligent beings, water remains liquid — at least most of the time.  So no totally frozen planets and no planets too hot for liquid water.  This becomes complicated because suns change their power through times.  Kasting also does work on the “faint young sun” paradox, which explains that the sun was weaker when young and grew stronger.  This moves the habitable zone further out as a sun ages.

So Kasting and Arthur are memorialized in this book. One, for looking far into the universe and future, and one for looking far into the past and beneath the earth.  Both trying to understand how we got where we are and how some other intelligent being might get there too.

There’s Fame, and then There’s Fame

17 Sep

The goal of most university faculty is to publish their research in a peer reviewed journal. This brings notice among their peers, sometimes fame and sometimes just a nod. Rarely, in the complex science, technology and engineering world of today, does a journal paper elicit much notice outside of the specific academic discipline.

Michael MannEven when I write a news story about a published paper, fame is usually very brief, no more than three to five days and the researcher goes back to the lab and ongoing work. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is usually spot on.

But sometimes, for good or bad, a paper has a more sizeable impact. No one knows this more than Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor of Meteorology and director, Earth System Science Center here at Penn State. Long, long ago, on April 23, 1998, Mann and Raymond S. Bradley, University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, and Malcolm Hughes, Laboratory of Tree Ring Research, University ofArizona, published “Global-scale temperature patterns and climate forcing over the past six centuries” in Nature, the foremost British science journal. I’m sure none of these men thought it was that unusual a paper. But it was.

Out of that paper came more than a decade of discussion, anti-global warming warfare and personal attacks as well as the certainly recognizable “hockey stick graph.”

Hockey_StickThe hijacking of e-mails written by Mann and others in the climate field by still unknown hackers, heated up attacks and brought the general public, advocacy groups on both sides and anti-global warming anti-science groups out in force.

Lofty bodies as diverse as the U.S. House of Representatives, the National Academy of Sciences, the U.S. Senate and Penn State among others investigated Mann, his research and in every case agreed that the research was solid. Not that this served to end the attacks.  Because Mann once worked at a Virginia university, Virginia’s attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, began a witch hunt against climate scientists and specifically against Mann.

The travails of anti-climate science attacks are chronicled in Mann’s book, “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the front lines,” (Columbia University Press, 2012).

So, Michael Mann became famous, gave testimony before Congress, interviews to myriad print publications and appeared on TV. He also had YouTube video animations that made fun of him and was called every name in the book. Through all this, he continued to do research on global warming and climate change, publishing papers in Nature, Nature Geoscience and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for example. In 2013, the University named him a Distinguished Professor.

This month, Bloomberg News announced it’s top 50 most influential people. They divide the 50 into Bankers, Money Managers, Policy Makers, Power Brokers and Thinkers. Bloomberg is a business oriented new organization so it is no surprise these are the categories or that 48 of the 50 are either business people, economists or money managers of some kind. The 49th is a U.S. Attorney suing people for insider trading.

Even in the Thinker category, while many are academics, all but one are economists. Only Michael Mann does not fit this description, but he is one of the ten Thinkers, and cited for responding “to climate change deniers on his RealClimate blog.”

So, there’s fame, and then there is fame. Not all publicity is good publicity, but if one is willing to slog through the stinking marshes, maybe, just maybe you can come out the other side smelling like a rose.

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