Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memorial Day 2013

Memorial Day marks the unofficial start of summer in the temperate zone of the Northern hemisphere, and for Dwight and I who, like many of our peers, grew up with World War II veterans as grandparents, Memorial Day has always been a schizoid holiday.  The somber decorating of graves and remembering of the dead doesn't mix easily with barbecues and parades.  Dwight has more reason to feel ambivalent about the day, as his grandfather died of a cold that developed into pneumonia after visiting graves one cold wet Memorial Day.  We were lucky to grow up knowing only an all-volunteer military force in the US, which was not the case for our parents or grandparents.  We also grew up in a time of relative peace, with the only active conflict that either of us knew of being Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield, and those really didn't impact us to a great degree.  From a historical standpoint, we were very lucky.

And then came September 11, 2001.  What followed has been over a decade of the War on Terror since the Authorization of Military Force.  My son has grown up his entire life in a state of war, exactly the opposite of Dwight and my experience.  Strangely, I don’t know that those differences have made much of an impact on his life to this point.  While I’m glad that he still has a sense of security and Dwight and I have tried to foster that, I’m not sure what it says about our nation that we can accept a state of perpetually heightened security as a normal thing with no consequences.   There is no real news coverage, and it’s been quite some time since much discussion about this state of affairs has occurred.  Even the protests within our country of the use of military force are barely a blip on the news radar lately. 

What happened to the world where we honored the fallen in part by not jumping into protracted  wars?  Or maybe I’m being nostalgic and it never existed, I don’t know.  Either way, it seems to me that a better way to those who have died in service to our country would be to do our best to prevent similar deaths in the future.  I realize this is a crazy idea, but it was one that I was glad to hear somewhat spoken to by the president on Thursday.  His words weren't perfect, but they were far better than what I've come to expect from him over his first term.  Of course, this is from the woman who takes pride in her family history of pacifism.  All I know is that freedom isn't free, and I say thanks every day to those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom, I just wish our politicians should show some appreciation and stop creating more war-dead. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Catching Up (Or Trying To)

 So, yeah, I ran just a little behind last week, and didn't get a chance to do my SciFund Challenge homework, and as penance, I'm posting it publicly here.  This might be more punishment for you than for me, and for that I apologize.  But here goes...

Title:  Choose Not the Path of Apathy

Intended Audience: General public, especially those with an interest in the outdoors for recreation of other activities.

I’m sure you’re asking why on Earth one would study the interactions of amphibians and plants, and I don’t blame you one bit.  To most reasonable people, the connection is tenuous at best.  The two groups don’t compete with one another for most resources, neither preys on the other all that often, and they don’t have any parasitic interactions, either.  There’s no intelligent purpose behind looking into the connections of the two groups, any more than there’s any cause to looking at how cell phones impact refrigerators. Unless of course, you're interested in this little frog.

Until you scratch the surface, that is.  And then you start to see the ways this odd couple of the wetland world belongs together perfectly.  Like plants forming the physical structures of the habitat through which amphibians must navigate.  Or amphibians’ appetite for insects that otherwise consume far more plant tissue and spread pathogens among plants.  And there’s the nitrogenous wastes from amphibians that fertilize plants.  Finally the protection that plants give to amphibians from mammalian, avian, and reptilian predators.  The connection totally makes sense now, right? 

That’s the thing about science, the sense is all there, sometimes you simply need someone to explain it to you, or you need to have a few experiments under your belt before you see it first.  In the US we tend to talk about people who “get” science and math, and people who don’t, as if understanding science is some inherent trait in only select people.  Thankfully, that’s not the case, anyone can understand science, and in fact, all children start out as scientists.  Exploring the world and testing to see cause and effect- that’s science.  Observing what goes on in front of you intently, trying to hear patterns in the sounds others make- that’s science.  Trying one step, having it not work out, trying a different step, and repeating this process until you finally get your feet to work and support your weight- that’s science.  It’s all very rudimentary, but it’s science nonetheless. 

Let’s go back to those amphibians and plants that I study, and think about why on Earth they might be important to you.  Whether you engage in science on a daily basis or not, you matter in the scientific process, because some of dollars help to fund research through taxes, through company Research and Development budgets, and through donations to charitable organizations like the American Cancer Society.  You also matter because much of today’s science- the “applied” portion of it- has as its purpose improving your life in some way, shape, or form, and you matter because the people you elect as your representatives help (or hinder) shape science funding and education policy decisions, for better or worse. 

We’ve established why amphibians and plants matter to each other, but why would these things matter to you?  For one thing, both can be used as ways to measure the quality of a habitat, through the Amphibian Index of Biotic Integrity and Floristic Quality Assessment Index, respectively.  Whether or not you live in a wetland like where these organisms are found (and I truly hope you don’t, for many reasons), those habitats benefit you, through water filtration and flood buffering, as habitat for organisms you might enjoy slightly more than amphibians like migratory birds and waterfowl, as recreational places to visit and enjoy the outdoors, and through increased property values because of access to those high quality recreational areas. 

I could go on and on about why to care about the environment, but I’m running short on time this week so I, cutting out at this point.  Let me know your thoughts in the comments. Is the environment important to you?  Why or why not? 

Monday, May 13, 2013

Teachers Be Learning, Yo!

May is my "off month" from teaching, so I'm taking the time to expand my own education with the SciFund Challenge class and a KSU Learning Institute "A Mirror to the Mind: Metacognitive Practices to Help Students Learn How They Learn."    All sorts of fun stuff on science outreach, thinking about thinking, and communication.  Yes, the idea of reaching out to people I don't know, communicating effectively, and collaboration- some very touchy feely type crap- is very much outside my comfort zone, but I'm enjoying what I've learned so far, and pushing myself beyond my limits.

Last week's lesson in SciFund Challenge was about the message box, a way of organizing and delivering a targeted message about your research.  The message box has five components, and always leaves a path to work your way back to the main points of your topic.  There's a full discussion of this concept in Chapter 8 of "Escape From The Ivory Tower" by Nancy Baron, and some discussion on Compass Online, and the book site

The center of the message box, or The Issue, focuses your whole talk, and is where you define the issue.  Around that focal point are the four major points of the message box- So What?  The Problem?  The Benefit?  and Solutions?- which all relate back to the issue at hand.  "So What?" describes why your audience should car about the issue.  "The Problem?" looks at the specific part of the broader that you are addressing, your piece of the puzzle, if you will.  "Solutions?" talks about possible solutions to the problem.  "Benefits?" addresses how the solutions you propose might benefit society. 

For my research, my message box might look something like this:

The Issue-  Amphibian populations are showing declines globally, and the causes remain elusive.
So What?-  Frogs and salamanders are voracious predators of insects that cause problems for humans, like mosquitoes, and they are a large source of food for other species that we enjoy, like birds, fish, and small mammals.
The Problem?-  Invasive plants are changing habitats, and homogenizing ecosystems, both of which could lead to a loss of diversity and may play a part in amphibian declines.
Solutions?-  Possible solutions include better prioritizing of conservation resources, control and elimination of invasive species, and monitoring of amphibian populations.
Benefits?-  When we conserve amphibians, we gain great little insect-eating machines, which lessens our need for pesticides and slows the spread of some diseases, and maintains the integrity of various habitats by ensuring continued diversity. 

It needs some work, I'll admit, but making myself think about how to say things, and how to express the importance of research is good practice, right?

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Summer "Break"

Having finished my teaching duties for the spring semester, I am ON BREAK!  Of course, I go back to teaching the week of Memorial Day.  Fabulous, right?  So what do I do to enjoy all this free time while I'm in between classes?  Take a class, obviously.  Specifically, I'm taking the SciFund Challenge class over the next few weeks to learn more about science outreach and communication.  Not exactly biochemistry, but rigorous in its own way. 

Today was the first synchronous portion of the class, hosted on Google Hangouts, and it was definitely interesting.  Talk of expectations, goals, purpose of the class, introductions and so on filled the time, although there were some really good points from Jai Ranganathan about funding models and the scientific process, and how those things are changing.  This discussion comes on the heels of an announcement earlier this week that Congress wants to remove the peer review process for awarding NSF grants- one of the largest sources of research funding for basic science- and instead substitute Congress' own judgment.  Talk about politicizing science! 

As we see funding sources for research drying up, and universities hiring more non-tenure track faculty instead of tenure lines, and more courses moving online through MOOCs and other options, higher ed is definitely changing.  As institutes of higher ed have classically been the place where the bulk of basic research is done, this is troubling.  No longer can educators rely on relative job security, and no longer can researchers rely on grant money.  That's both scary as all get out, and as just as exciting.  If scientists are going to continue to receive funding for their research, they have to communicate with the public about why their research deserves funding. 

Education doesn't take place just inside the four walls of the academy (or any four walls); education happens everywhere.  Science doesn't just happen inside the four walls of a lab; science happens everywhere.  We need to recognize these facts, and help to foster education and science in more diverse formats than we have previously.  I'm not saying that this will be an easy switch for those of us who like our cloistered little corners of the world, but it's an important switch, and maybe one that will lead to more public understanding of science, and ultimately a better educated populace. 

I think we can all agree that that last point would be a good thing.

30/30- Accomplishment

I finished, I did it, I'm done!
I set out a goal
And managed the whole,
One epic battle has been won.

Another small notch in my belt
I'll keep on winning,
Victories pinning
I always handle what I'm dealt.

I keep going for one more day
Build on past success
I never take less
Than giving each chance all I may.