Guest post: can you help us identify this pipefish? Three HS students go to OSM ’16 looking for answers

Today we have a student post by guest  Kaelen Novak: Can you help us identify this pipefish? Three high school students go to Ocean Sciences 2016 looking for answers

 

The 2016 Ocean Science Meeting (OSM) of the American Geophysical Union took place in New Orleans, Louisiana, on February 21-25. This international event is the biannual meeting ground for Marine Biologists, Oceanographers, Environmental Scientists, Biochemists, Geologists, Archaeologists, Avian Specialists, and many other experts who come together to discuss the state of the world’s oceans and even some phenomenon on other planetary bodies. In addition to keynotes and panels, over three thousand posters spanned a display floor, as far as the eye can see from a skywalk.

And in the middle of all this were two friends and I from Saint Stanislaus, in Bay St. Louis, MS, the lone high school students in the crowd, having the experience of a lifetime.

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The Saint Stanislaus High School student team at OSM 16: Michael Sandoz, left; Kaelen Novak, center; Beau Girard, right.

We were there to present our own research as a poster at a Tuesday evening OSM ‘16 Youth Symposium, where we hoped to get some help with some unresolved questions in our study of a species of pipefish.

titan
Polar clouds, made of methane, on Titan (left) compared with polar clouds on Earth (right), which are made of water or water ice.

But before Tuesday night, we got to go to any of the other OSM sessions. I started with a panel discussing underwater hypoxic tidepools in West Coast kelp forests. Following a quick break for lunch, I then attended a fascinating lecture about hypoxia and the methane seas of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. The highlight of this talk for me was hearing of the strange qualities of the methane seas on Titan, which showed that oceanography changes drastically on different planets and showed a way that astronomers and marine scientists can continue to collaborate.

Then it was time to present our own research.

Set up in the Great Hall lobby, the Youth Symposium was composed of fourteen students ranging from kindergarten to high school seniors presenting on a variety of topics, including: sea turtle night time orientation, jellyfish tracking, water quality data logging and other research projects.

Snip20160306_13 copyOur poster, available in its entirety at the bottom of this post, represented work that Beau Gerard, Michael Sandoz and I had done over six months to positively identify a species of pipefish caught in front of our school in Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi during a regular day of fieldwork. Since then, we’ve made observations and done research to determine its taxonomic name, to no avail. It was my science teacher at Saint Stanislaus High School, Mrs. Boudreaux, who suggested that we create an OSM ‘16 poster to get more scientific ideas on what procedures we could employ and people/places we might go to for help.

Even though the Youth Symposium posters were quite out of the way of the main poster hall, a large number of scientists from different fields ended up visiting our poster, including the Director of Education of the National Science Foundation (NSF), Liz Rom, and George Divoky, an expert on arctic birds. We received plenty of feedback and a few suggestions for determining the precise identification of our unknown pipefish. As a result, we are now seeking help from the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, who, it turns out, just opened a pipefish exhibit. We also got the names of other taxonomic services, such as EcoAnalysts Inc. (ecoanalysts.com), we could consult to see which species it may be, or if it could be a crossbreed, or even a new species.

Got any ideas?

If anyone reading this wants to help by making a suggestion of where to go for further information, or if might be able to tell us which type of pipefish we’ve found, please leave a comment after this post. Here, in the center, is an image of the pipefish we have, with the two other known species we’ve been comparing it to. 

dusky pipefish
Dustry pipefish – Sygnathus Floridae
Chain pipefish - Synathus Louisanae
Chain pipefish – Syngnathus Louisanae

 

The "mystery pipefish"
“Lofwyr” – Our mystery pipefish

A bonus day at OSM ‘16

After completing our Tuesday evening poster, my friends and I returned on Thursday, when the day’s theme was the global environment and various factors harming it. Plenary talks I heard covered research on the possible effects of undersea mining, the dangers of Pseudo nitzschia on the West Coast and elsewhere, and the effects of microplastics and their biodegradability in the ocean – compared to on land.

Along with these interesting topics, other posters were open to our perusal. My favorite by far was one titled “Where Wild Microbes Grow” by Kevin Kurtz (available for free download here: http://joidesresolution.org/node/2998). He has created a set of interactive pdf-based children’s books based around the various levels of the marine ecosystem. This creative approach to spreading scientific knowledge to the younger generations through interactive media will encourage children and adults alike to learn about our marine environments and foster a love for them, paving the way for the marine scientists and environmentalists of the future, much like the live-streams that the Nautilus crew conduct during their expeditions do.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at OSM ‘16, both presenting and exploring other research presented at the convention, along with meeting new people from all over the world who were equally as enthusiastic about their personal research. My colleagues and I hope to attend the next Ocean Sciences Meeting in 2018, this time as sophomore college students, when we hope to present more of our findings to the world.

Snip20160306_14 copy 

From the archives: Why I don’t believe in science…and students shouldn’t either

As I have been preparing for my last post on SciEd, I’ve reflected on why I became a science educator to begin with.  And I realize it’s because I strongly believe that knowledge is an important tool to improve our lives and it should be shared with others.  This is strange however, because even though I have this belief, I don’t believe in science. So why am I so passionate about something I don’t believe in?

Science and Belief

Science is how we describe the natural world, and if you search the web for “what is science,” three words tend to come up more often than others: observation, experiment, and evidence. Observations and experiments may not be perfect, even at the limits of our technologies, and interpretations may be flawed, but it’s the evidence that supports, or doesn’t, an argument that is the most important.  And we choose to either accept it, or not.

I wanted to get an on-the-spot response from a scientist, so I asked one of my colleagues at work, Dr. Briana Pobiner, a paleoanthropologist, “You believe in evolution, right?”  I was surprised by how quickly she answered “I don’t believe in evolution – I accept the evidence for evolution.” The believing isn’t what makes evolution true or not, it’s that there is evidence that supports it.

Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and truth does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen
Many people will distinguish a belief from knowledge, in that knowledge requires evidence, and belief does not. Illustration: Jonathon Rosen

There are plenty of other scientists out there that don’t like the use of the word “believe.”  Kevin Padian, of the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an open-access article about science and evolution, entitled “Correcting some common misrepresentations of evolution in textbooks and the media.” He states:

“Saying that scientists ‘believe’ their results suggests, falsely, that their acceptance is not based on evidence, but is based somehow on faith.”

The closeness of belief to faith, belief in something without proof, seems to be a reason a number of scientists disapprove of the word.  It does tend to introduce religion, which describes the supernatural, something that science cannot accomplish.

Padian continues:

“…it is about the quality of the evidence: scientists accept their results as the best explanation of the problem that we have at present, but we recognize that our findings are subject to reevaluation as new evidence comes to light.”

This same sentiment of evolving understandings can be heard in Holly Dunsworth’s audio essay “I Am Evolution” on NPR’s This I Believe (ironically, I might add).

I reached out to Holly and she told me that there were a number of “science-minded” individuals who did not agree with her essay.  They “think that ‘to believe’ is different than ‘to know’ because ‘knowledge’ to many is based on facts and ‘belief’ is not, so the verbs knowing and believing are therefore different.”  Where I agree with this perspective, Holly disagrees.  But she goes on to say that just having the belief or knowledge is fine, no matter what word is used.  (New: Please read Holly’s response to this posting here.)

 

Teaching process of science, not belief in science

Science, as we know, is not just some body of facts.  It is a detailed process of observation, experiment, interpretation, review, and even a little bit of luck and chance.  And unlike a linear list of instructions, it is an ongoing, iterative process that can jump to any other step in the process, as illustrated at Berkley’s “Understanding Science” webpage.  This is how science should be, and usually is, taught.

Unfortunately, it is impossible for every teacher in every school out there to reproduce every experiment for their students to have a first hand account of the evidence.  This means that in almost all classrooms there is a degree of memorizing facts to understand particular concepts.  So to an extent you might say that the teachers and students need to have some faith in the publisher that those facts are real, and the other scientists who reviewed the research we also legitimate.

Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett
Not every student can repeat every experiment ever done, but new advances are built upon this previous knowledge. Photo by Cameron Bennett

But we do manage to continue advancing despite of this.  Leaps and bounds in technologies and scientific research are made by building upon previously vetted and accepted research.  Every generation keeps learning newer technologies and up to date research earlier in their education.  Sometimes these new leaps and bounds may produce new evidence that causes us to reevaluate our previous findings.  But this is still a part of science, an ongoing and dynamic process that continues to bring new questions and answers.

So, no, I do not believe in science.  Maybe you could say I believe science.  But for sure, I accept the evidence produced through science and that its findings may some day change.

But what about you — do you believe in science?

Book Review: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Commander Chris Hadfield captured the world’s imagination last year, when, from 13 March to 13 May 2013, he was the first Canadian Commander of the International Space Station. While aboard the ISS, Commander Hadfield did a series of “experiments,” both for scientists, but, perhaps most importantly, for youth. This included genuinely interesting questions like “How do you cry in space? (video above)” and “How do you cut your nails?” and the always important “How do you go to the bathroom?” His amicable nature and genuinely infectious enthusiasm brought science to the masses, and helped inspire thousands of youth.

Recently, Chris Hadfield released his book – “An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth.” My sister waited in line for 3 hours at our local Costco to get me a signed copy for my birthday, and I finally got around to reading it for this review. The book follows the life of Chris Hadfield as he becomes the commander of Expedition 35, detailing his attitude and the path he took to become the first Canadian Commander of the ISS. The book is split into three broad sections leading up to Expedition 35 titled “Pre-Launch,” “Liftoff” and “Coming Down to Earth,” with several chapters within each section.

The book was fascinating to me – Hadfield is a hybrid pilot-engineer-scientist-lab rat. His expertise is in engineering and as a test pilot, but throughout the book he references how his work is interdisciplinary, and he has to have a broad understanding of several domains in order to be effective. In addition to his role as an astronaut and Commander, he is also a fully fledged lab rat, and people on the ground will ask him questions about how he’s feeling, take samples while he’s in space and after he returns, as well as measure how quickly he recovers to life back on Earth in order to further our understanding about how life in space impacts the human body. Since, at some point, we hope to explore the stars, any data we can get on how astronauts respond to life in space is valuable.

One of my favourite parts of the book was how it didn’t just focus on the mundane, it relished them. He spends pages describing the drills he went through, and how important have a strong grasp of the fundamentals was for his success. I found this refreshing – too often in science we glorify the achievements but ignore all the hard work that got them there. A breakthrough in the lab might take months or even years of work before things go right, and having some acknowledge that, not only do things not work (often), them not working is not the end of the world. This was a refreshing take on the scientific method, and really highlighted the value in “the grind” of slowly perfecting your skills.

Click the book cover for purchasing options!
Click the book cover for purchasing options!

He also has a certain brand of “folksy wisdom” that is inspiring in it’s own way. It’s not inspirational in the nauseating sense that these things are often written in, but more practical. He states the importance of reading the team dynamic before getting involved for example, or how important it is to really understand the nuts and bolts of what you’re doing, but at no point does that feel patronizing or “hey, look at me, I’m an astronaut!” For many budding scientists, the idea of trudging through another page of equations, or washing beakers, or just doing the mundane, less exciting parts of science makes you apathetic and bored. Hadfield takes this moments and stresses just how important it is to learn from them, as well as ensure that you know exactly why they are important. I highly recommend the book to anyone interested in STEM careers, and especially those early in their careers.

To purchase, check out Chris Hadfield’s official website.


Featured image: Commander Hadfield performed at the 2013 Canada Day celebrations in Ottawa, ON | Picture courtesy David Johnson, click for more info

Say Hello to the Nation’s T-rex

“Anyone here doesn’t like T-rex?”

No hands were raised, but the packed auditorium welcomed Jack Horner with laughter and enthusiasm. The paleontologist climbed into the Smithsonian stage, and with flailing arms declared: “I’m going to talk about a very special T-rex”.

DSC03528
A replica of a T-rex skull with human size comparison.

The special Tyrannosaurus traveled via Fedex truck.

It was packed inside wood crates.

This famous dinosaur has a stage name: Wankel T-rex. An arm fossil bone was first uncovered by Kathy Wankel (pronounced WON-kal) in 1988, and later rescued by Horner’s team of paleontologists and graduate students.

DSC03506
Jack Horner. Photo by the author.

The Wankel T-rex was the largest and most complete specimen found at the time (and still stands as one of the most complete ever found, right after Sue). Last week, the dinosaur made it’s trip to Washington DC, to reside at the Natural History museum. It was received by director Kirk Johnson and the press with great fanfare. Photographers fought to get a close-up shot of the locked crates. One box, of a size that could house a widescreen TV, was labeled “WOW”. It contained a piece of the T-rex mandible, cheekbones, and banana-sized teeth.

A few days later, the community got a chance to to get involved. I joined in as the crowd filled the Smithsonian auditorium to hear from Horner, Johnson, and curator Matt Carrano. We were even introduced to Ms. Wankel, who recounted her discovery tale.

“Wait a minute, I found something out here”, said Ms. Wankel’s husband Tom. “I think I found something bigger out here”, said Ms. Wankel referring to an old and porous dinosaur arm bone.

DSC03499
Kirk Johnson. Photo by the author.

“I wonder if it’s real.”

I’d risk saying that’s the most frequent question museum visitors ask. They have to hear from the museum staff, that yes – those bones belonged to a tyrant dinosaur over 60 million years ago.

Visitors to the Smithsonian will get an affirmative answer to that question, and hopefully marvel at that titanic creature. Hopefully that celebrity T-rex will attract many new people to the science museum.

After all, there’s not a person who dislikes T-rex.

Judging science fairs: 10/10 Privilege, 0/10 Ability

Every year, I make a point of rounding up students in my department and encouraging them to volunteer one evening judging our local science fair. This year, the fair was held at the start of April, and featured over 200 judges and hundreds of projects from young scientists in grades 5 through to 12, with the winners going on to the National Championships.

President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov
President Obama welcomes some young scientists to the White House | Photo via USDAGov

Perhaps the most rewarding part of volunteering your time, and the reason why I encourage colleagues to participate is when you see just how excited the youth are for their projects. It doesn’t matter what the project is, most of the students are thrilled to be there. Add to that how A Real Life Scientist (TM) wants to talk to them about their project? It’s a highlight for many of the students. As a graduate student, the desire to do science for science’s sake is something that gets drilled out of you quickly as you follow the Williams Sonoma/Jamie Oliver Chemistry 101 Cookbook, where you add 50 g Chemical A to 50 of Chemical B and record what colour the mixture turns. Being around  excitement based purely on the pursuit of science is refreshing.

However, the aspect of judging science fairs that I struggle most with is how to deal with the wide range of projects. How do you judge two projects on the same criteria where one used university resources (labs, mass spectrometers, centrifuges etc) and the other looked at how high balls bounce when you drop them. It becomes incredibly difficult as a judge to remain objective when one project is closer in scope to an undergraduate research project and the other is more your typical kitchen cabinet/garage equipment project. Even within two students who do the same project, there is variability depending on whether or not they have someone who can help them at home, or access to facilities through their school or parents social network.

As the title suggests, this is an issue of privilege. Having people at home who can help, either directly by providing guidance and helping do the project, or indirectly by providing access to resources, gives these kids a huge leg up over their peers. As Erin pointed out in her piece last year:

A 2009 study of the Canada-Wide Science Fair found that found that fair participants were elite not just in their understanding of science, but in their finances and social network. The study looked at participants and winners from the 2002-2008 Fairs, and found that the students were more likely to come from advantaged middle to upper class families and had access to equipment in universities or laboratories through their social connections (emphasis mine).

So the youth who are getting to these fairs are definitely qualified to be there – they know the project, and they understand the scientific method. They’re explaining advanced concepts clearly and understand the material. The problem becomes how does one objectively deal with this? You can’t punish the student because they used the resources available to them, especially if they show mastery of the concepts. But can you really evaluate them on the same stage and using the same criteria as their peers without access to those resources, especially when part of the criteria includes the scientific merit of the project?

The fair, to their credit, took a very proactive approach to this concern, which was especially prudent given the makeup of this area where some kids have opportunities and others simply don’t. Their advice was to judge the projects independently, and judge the kids on the strength of their presentation and understanding. But again, there’s an element of privilege behind this. The kids who have parents and mentors who can coach them and prepare them for how to answer questions, or even just give them an opportunity/push them to practice their talk, will obviously do better.

The science fair acts as a microcosm for our entire academic system, from undergrad into graduate and professional school and into later careers. The students who can afford to volunteer in labs over the summer during undergrad are more likely to make it into highly competitive graduate programs as they have “relevant experience,” while their peers who have to work minimum wage positions to pay tuition or student loans are going to be left behind. The system is structured to reward privilege – when was the last time an undergrad or graduate scholarship considered “work history” as opposed to “relevant work experience?” Most ask for a resume or curriculum vitae, where one could theoretically include that experience, but if the ranking criteria look for “relevant” work experience, which working at Starbucks doesn’t include, how do those students compete for the same scholarships? This is despite how working any job does help you develop various transferable skills including time management and conflict resolution. And that doesn’t even begin to consider the negative stigma many professors hold for this type of employment.

The question thus is: Are we okay with this? Are we okay with a system where, based purely on luck, some kids are given opportunities, while others aren’t? And if not, how do we start tackling it?

 

 

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Disclaimer: I’ve focused on economic privilege here, but privilege comes in many different forms. I’m not going to wade into the other forms, but for some excellent reads, take a read of this, this and this.

Do lemurs like to move it-move it? (video)

Lemurs had their 15 minutes of fame, back when DreamWork’s Madagascar came out in 2005. This year it’s time for IMAX Island of Lemurs: Madagascar to shine a spotlight on this primates.

We discussed before how nature documentaries influence the public’s understanding of science, and mostly increase the general public’s science literacy. Which is why I was curious to test the effect of the Madagascar movie: what did it teach the general public? Did it result in the public’s new understanding of lemurs? During my visit to the Duke Lemur Center, I had the perfect opportunity to find out. During  the 40 minute car ride, I asked acting driver and education specialist Chris Smith. And here’s what he told me:

This is the second installment of our participation on Lemur Week. For Part I, click here.

Sci-Ed joins Lemur Week (video)

Their ghostly eyes are lovely windows to their souls.

Lemurs are primates – they have long tails, tree-climbing hands, and incredible curiosity. At least that’s what I encountered on my visit to the Duke Lemur Center (sponsored by Owen Software). Education specialist Chris Smith led me on an amazing tour. See below:

The Duke Lemur Center offers tours, similar to the one above. Their goal is to raise funds for research (Smith estimated that 10% of the center’s funds come from tours). Most of all, the center aims to educate the public and raise awareness about lemur conservation. And it seems to pay off: in 2013, they received 18,000 visitors (5,000 more than a previous record-breaking year). In addition to tours, the educational department is expanding to bring in even younger visitors, so conservation education can start earlier. The Duke Lemur Center now has a “primates for pre-schoolers program” for kids ages 3-5, and a “leaping lemurs summer science camp” for 6th and 8th graders from all over the country. For the grown-ups, there’s an “evening with the experts” with such curious topics as “are you smarter than a lemur?”.

Come back Wednesday for another video on Duke Lemur Center, when we’ll explore some of Chris Smith’s strategies when talking lemur science to the public.