The Science Comedian and Carl Zimmer

April 12th, 2011

In a recent episode of Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour, the Science Comedian, Brian Malow, interviewed science writer, Carl Zimmer, on the topic of pathogens… and science tattoos.

Check it out:

The Science Comedian and First Contact

April 12th, 2011

Last week The Science Comedian, Brian Malow, guest hosted Dr. Kiki’s Science Hour once again. He spoke with Marc Kaufman about what our first contact with alien life would be like.

Check it out:

I was Ninterviewed!

April 8th, 2011

First, what an honor to be interviewed by THE Ninja.

Second, how fun! I could have hung out and talked for hours. Everyone needs more Ninja in their life.

Check it out:

Thinking About Epigenetics

March 1st, 2011

This morning, I was totally taken by the focus on epigenetics in this month’s issue of The Scientist magazine. It’s a fascinating area of study that looks at mechanisms of inheritance and development that fall outside the usual genetic mechanisms.

For years, researchers investigating inheritance focused solely on DNA and RNA as the blueprints for what makes us who we are. However, over the past 80 years research has amassed suggesting that there is much more to the picture. Namely, expression of genes can be controlled through one process termed imprinting or another called X-chromosome inactivation, and chemical modifications by structures, called histones, that wrap DNA into little bundles, and a process called methylation.

The various modifications to DNA or RNA affect the ways that genes get expressed (like if they get turned on or off, or are expressed more or less), but not the genes themselves. Darwinian natural selection and Mendelian genetics are still major forces acting on the genes themselves (so, don’t go off half cocked crying about Lamarckian ideas overturning over 100 years of evidence for the theory of evolution), but now we have a new tool to add to the toolbox to help us understand the very nuanced processes of adaptation and development.

From an article in The Scientist:

Eric Nestler, a psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explained that behavioral researchers “are moving to a far broader definition of epigenetics which simply refers to any lasting change in gene expression mediated by an alteration in chromosomal structure.” ”

What I find fascinating, is the idea that these modifications can arise during an individuals lifetime. It’s a mechanism that has the potential to explain how experience during someone’s lifetime can 1) effect changes in their behavior and 2) effect changes in the behavior of subsequent generations.

Epigenetics is no longer like genetics, which can look at individuals, but preferentially looks at changes to populations on a generational timescale. Rather, epigenetics diverges from genetics because it can explore changes within and between individuals on multiple timescales: second to second, minute to minute, year to year, or generation to generation.

Again, from The Scientist:

Szyf… speculates that behavioral epigenetics might end up showing that adult learning is simply development, continued. Perhaps, he says, “it’s all development, starting from preconception to death.” ”

If the articles from The Scientist aren’t enough for you, we did a review of epigenetic research on TWIS last year, and interviewed one of the leading epigenetic researchers, Dr. Andrew Feinberg, back in 2007. In both cases, the coverage starts in the second half of the program, so you will need to fast forward a little bit to get to the pertinent info.

Climate Change and Coral Reefs

January 31st, 2011

For the past several years, news of the decline of coral species and coral reef ecosystems has increased dramatically. Ostensibly, we are hearing more about corals as a direct result of the work scientists are doing to help us learn more and more about the tight inter-relationship between the Earth’s climate and the oceans.

Last year, I was involved in a project with The Video Project, Plankton Productions, Curriculum Corporation, The Learning Federation, and Specialty Studios to create a video series for students on the subject of climate change and coral reefs. The project was based on a presentation given by Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a globally recognized marine biologist, at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. I worked as the host of the videos, and as Creative Adviser, working closely with the Instructional Design consultant, Nancy Wolfberg, on the writing, editing, and animations.

The primary goal of the project was to create a series of short videos that science teachers could use as supplements to help familiarize students with the basic science of both coral reefs and climate change. Secondarily, but even more importantly, we wanted our videos to instill an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry that students would take with them from the classroom to the real world. In doing so, we hoped to counteract the very depressing scientific statistics presented across the videos with a feeling of empowerment… we wanted to leave the students with the impression that they are capable and don’t have to wait for adults in order to substantially affect their environments.

Here is a little taste of our introductory video:

I’m proud to say that I think we achieved our goals. The DVD that is currently available through The Video Project is a valuable teaching tool:

“The DVD includes:

Four 8-minute video modules hosted by Dr. Kiki Sanford.
The modules feature Dr. Sanford and excerpts from a presentation by Prof. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg:

  • Introduction to Climate Change and Coral Reefs
  • Coral Bleaching
  • Ocean Acidification
  • The Future of Coral Reefs.

The full 28-minute presentation by Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg.
Details his scientific findings about the impact of climate change on coral reefs, with charts, graphs and other visuals.

A Detailed Teacher’s Guide.
Featuring an innovative group discussion format (Climate Café), templates for team-based
investigations and presentations, a glossary, Science magazine reprints, and a comprehensive
list of other resources and links (on the DVD-ROM section).

Visual Resources for Student Presentations.
Video clips, animations and other resources (on the DVD-ROM section).

All video segments are illustrated with footage from renowned underwater filmmaker David Hannan.”

I think the Teacher’s Guide is brilliant. It takes engagement with the material to a whole new level in and outside of the classroom. Additionally, source materials and all of the animations are available for the students to use in their own research and presentations, giving them the opportunity to put their own spin on what they learn.

So, if you are a science teacher (or home school your kids!), or know someone who might be interested in this teaching resource to supplement their teaching of climate change and coral reefs, please pass this information along!

If you are a teacher or student in Australia or New Zealand, where I believe these videos are available through the Curriculum Corporation, please let me know what you think of the video project. I’d love your feedback.

Also, Specialty Studios and The Video Project will have a booth at the 2011 National Conference of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) in San Francisco. I hope to be able to make an appearance at the event, and be able to talk with teachers in person about our labor of love. However, it’s rather close to the due date of my first child, so I will be sure to keep people apprised of developments.

I hope people enjoy and get much use out of our creation. It took the devotion and hard work of many talented individuals to see it to completion.

Another Nano Check-up!

January 21st, 2011

How are things going? Well, great!

Nano is growing steadily, and according to all markers my pregnancy is progressing without any issues (I won’t say without any hiccups because Nano has those all the time). I’m in the middle of trying to do my usual job of creating science programming while at the same time trying to plan for my maternity leave. The juggling is fun. Really.

I’m also trying to figure out things like what kinds of diapers to buy and where to put the baby’s things, while I try to ignore the fact that I am going to have to go through with labor whether or not I like it. Seriously, I am in denial that this is actually going to happen. Can’t I just have this little guy spring fully formed from my forehead? No? Fine.

We still haven’t decided on a name. There are several contenders, but every time I say them for a while I end up really disliking them. Not good for a name I might potentially be saying several hundred thousand times (at least) over the course of years.

IF you are interested in the progression of things, check out the following videos, which were harvested from TWiT’s Justin.tv feed by gldisater:

Week 33:

Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

Week 34:

Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

Week 35:

Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

5 more weeks to go people…

The Knowledge Deficit

December 30th, 2010

Is America running up a deficit in the knowledge department? According to two recent articles to pass my eyes, yes, we are.

What is the knowledge deficit?
Politicians of the day understand that science, facts, and reason are not the way into the voters hearts. So do the news channels, cable and otherwise. People are using opinion in place of knowledge, and opinion will always rule the day because it is easier to align with a person’s belief system than are facts. According to Benjamin J. Barber in his recent piece in The Nation called “America’s Knowledge Deficit”, it’s not that Americans can’t learn… “it is not what American’s don’t know that is so pernicious to our democracy… it is that they don’t know what knowing actually is.”

Why is the knowledge deficit a problem?
Larry Kramer says, “It’s a bad thing for democracy. We are creating a less-informed but more opinionated public.”

Benjamin also supports this idea:

“… democracy is government by citizens, and citizenship is defined by education, deliberation, judgment and the capacity to find common ground. This is the difference between democracy as mob rule and democracy as deliberative civic engagement. Mob rule asks only for the expression of prejudice and subjective opinion. Democracy demands deliberative judgment.”

In his article, Benjamin also quotes Chris Hedges,

“A populous deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society.”

What’s causing the deficit?
Kramer has suggested that time pressures have pushed people toward the necessity of using the biases of opinion-media to form opinions rather than spend the time to properly educate themselves. It could be a fault of the media. We could also blame the internet… The System. I think we also need to look at people themselves. Is it partially laziness? Is it a feeling of disenfranchisement? There probably is no single answer, but rather a very complex interplay of forces.

Regardless, I’m in complete agreement that there is a problem here. But, the solutions is one that currently escapes me.

Has NASA Found Extra-Terrestrial Life?

November 30th, 2010

The answer is most likely no. Yet, the internet is a-buzz with contemplation about the subject of this coming Thursday’s press conference.

Kottke.org has a great breakdown of the team making the announcement, which does give us some clues. In fact, looking at the website of Felisa Wolfe-Simon, the hints are right on the surface:

“As a NASA fellow, she now has the support and time to continue in hot pursuit of all things arsenic-based in collaboration with the ASU NAI team and the U.S. Geological Survey. Her current data are so exciting she can’t discuss them, even here! A few more experiments and she should have all the data she needs to demonstrate her hypothesis may well be verified…stay tuned. But really, in the end, its not just about arsenic. It is about looking at what is and thinking about what might be and, importantly, how to find it. When the dust settles, we will then see how we can and shouldFollow the Elements” to lead us to what we might think of as new and novel “biology”- seemingly alien and yet potentially all around us! Iron, arsenic, copper, bismuth… its a whole periodic table out there. And yes, you too may be “off your trolley ” enough to jump in! But high risk, high gain….and the future of science! These data will speak louder than any speculation… again, stay tuned…”

What we probably have to look forward to is an announcement about data from her Mono Lake research that combined with the research of others on the panel will suggest possibilities for arsenic-based life here on earth and on other planets in the solar system. Felisa has been working on the idea of a “shadow biosphere” for a few years now, and just might have the evidence to support it finally.

So, no, not the finding of life, but evidence that we should be looking at things a different way in order to close in on it. That’s my guess.

Update: Oh, and The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, has a great post telling you all to chill out about it already… maybe in a few more words than I’ve used here to paraphrase him.

More Nano!

November 15th, 2010

We are officially into the third trimester!!! The home stretch…

Week 22:
Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

Week 23:
Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

Week 24:
Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

Week 25:
Watch live video from gldisater on Justin.tv

The Cost of Energy

November 8th, 2010

An article in the NYT this morning brings up the difficulty of going green in the energy sector: cost.

According to the article, alternative energy providers are running into financial trouble as a result of the recession. Mainly, the recession has reduced demand for energy, thus reducing the cost of conventional energy sources such as coal and natural gas. It’s a simple supply-demand relationship.

Unfortunately, for the alternative energies, they are still too young to be cost-effective in this kind of market. So, energy utilities around the country are opting out of contracts for wind and solar power in favor of the coal and gas supplies that will be easier on their customer’s wallets.

This is creating massive financial uncertainty for the alternative providers, and is making the entire industry weaker as fewer investors stay in the space.

Honestly, I’m not surprised to hear this news. It is simple economics. People need to watch their wallets, and these are hard times.

However, I am tired of the false reality that we currently live in. The price you as a customer pay for energy is not reflective of the damage being done to our planet. You aren’t currently paying the price for the destruction of ecosystems in Virginia from mountaintop removal practices. You aren’t currently paying the price for the damage done to the Gulf of Mexico. You aren’t currently paying the price for the health effects that will come from our conventional coal and gas extraction and processing techniques.

You aren’t paying it now, but you will pay it later. If we don’t support the development of alternatives to the conventional “cheap” energy we currently enjoy, it’s going to bite us in the ass down the road.

The piper always comes home for payment.

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