Sunday, December 14, 2008

Picture this - photography and biology

Biology is everywhere - you just have to look

An effective biology course can give students a new way to look at the world around them. Photography is a very useful tool in pushing them to literally see their surroundings through a different perspective. Digital cameras, disposable point-and-shoots, and camera phones make it easy for students to take and transmit images. Sending them out to ponder and photograph animals and plants adds a do-it-yourself but still directed field trip experience to an online course.

There are several different approaches that work well. One is to give the students a topic and send them out to find images that illuminate it. You might give them broad themes like photosynthesis or competition or plant succession. Or have them choose an environmental challenge like attracting mates or coping with drought and then document the strategies used by a few different species to solve the problem. Each photo or set of photos should be accompanied by a write up that explains the biology involved. Chose the assignments carefully, so that students have to really look at their surroundings and think through what they’ve learned in the course. Otherwise it just becomes a digital version of the dreaded 6th grade leaf collection.

On the other hand, a photographic show and tell can be a good way to get students talking to one another, and about biologic topics. Have a class upload photos of their pets to start a group discussion on artificial versus natural selection or the adaptive value of cuteness. Get them to post pictures of their lunch as a starting point to describe energy flow through ecosystems or debate the production and labeling of genetically modified organisms. Ask them to photograph their favorite outdoor spaces as a springboard to evaluating the value of wilderness and open space, or their sense of place in the natural world.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Census of Marine Life

The Census of Marine Life is one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken – to discover and count every species of marine creature on Earth. Starting today and continuing for the rest of the week, Census scientists are releasing updates on their progress as part of the World Conference on Marine Biodiversity, which begins in Valencia, Spain, on Tuesday. As always with these periodic reports, the results include some of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

I’m not alone in being delighted – news reports about underwater singles bars for great white sharks, sea star cities, and octopus expressways are popping up all over the internet.

The Census provides almost as many teaching opportunities as it does species. There are gorgeous photos and videos on the various websites of the institutions involved in the project, and detailed explanations of the findings and implications of the work. Any curriculum that includes basic biologic topics like the importance of diversity, the impacts of overfishing and ocean pollution, and the ongoing effects of climate change will benefit from the data gathered by the Census.

Along with all of that, there is a sense of wonder and excitement that runs through every expedition log and scientific report – there is still so much to see and to discover and to understand. That is as much a gift as the results of the research. I doubt I’d be a biologist if it wasn’t for the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Sitting in my Wisconsin living room, I felt connected to the distant sea and sensed the tug of kinship with its inhabitants. I wonder if the Census of Marine Life could provide the same spark of interest and recognition and that same fierce urge to protect the oceans to a new generation?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some of my best friends are fruit flies

Fruit flies went mainstream this week, when a vice-presidential candidate scorned their study as taking research dollars away from work that helps people. That was a foolish claim, almost instantly debunked – fruit flies have improved the human condition enormously in the last century.

So fruit flies are indisputably cool. But this wasn’t the first time politicians have called out supposedly goofy research conducted by obviously egg-headed scientists as a grievous waste of taxpayers’s money, and it assuredly won’t be the last. I think we need to do a better job teaching students to look beyond the obvious. Most biology classes describe how science is done (observation, hypothesis, testing) and they trumpet a handful of scientific breakthroughs (say the discovery of penicillin, or the description of the DNA double helix). But do we talk enough about the long and winding road from the one to the other?

I think it would be useful to have students research research. Get them to poke at work that seems frivolous and see if they can imagine what bigger things it might lead to, or if it’s really as dumb as it sounds. And have them track award-winning research back to its humble beginnings, and wonder if it would have seemed as worthwhile then as it does now. I can suggest two good places to start, far apart in prestige but perhaps not so distant in teaching value.

The Nobel Prizes are awarded for outstanding achievement, to people who “have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” The scientific awards are generally given only after the passage of time has shown the importance and rigor of the original research. The 2008 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to scientists who discovered the viruses that cause cervical cancer and AIDS. The Nobel website has all there is to know about the awards – descriptions of winning research and interviews with the laureates, videos, educational games, news articles, and links.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Ig Noble Prizes, which “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative -- and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology.” This year’s winners include researchers who determined that the fleas on dogs jump higher than the fleas on cats, and an award split between scientists who proved that Coca-Cola is an effective spermicide and others who showed that it is not. The Ig Nobel Awards fall under the umbrella of the Annals of Improbable Research. Their website too contains descriptions of the winning research, videos, games, and other commentary.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Soup's on -- Miller-Urey experiment

I caught up with an old friend today, my good buddy primordial soup. Primordial soup is a nickname for Earth’s ancient, abiotic oceans, meant to suggest the watery mix of chemicals and sediments in which life somehow began. The phrase became famous back in the 1950s, when biologists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey threw some chemicals in a beaker, zapped them with electric charges, and – it’s alive! Well, actually, it's amino acids – not quite life, but life’s building blocks. The simple but startling Miller-Urey experiments became famous, and soon found a place in every geology and biology textbook as a compelling hypothesis for the origin of life.

I encountered primordial soup decades later in college, and it was love at first hearing. The words put a vivid picture in my mind that still lingers all these years later. The aching loneliness of the empty sky and the silent sea, then a sharp crack of lightning, and in the darkness and the deep, something stirs.

The ingredients and the power of primordial soup have changed over time. Miller used a mixture heavy in methane and ammonia, but some later researchers suggested that the early atmosphere was much richer in carbon dioxide and nitrogen, gases too inert to be jump-started by a little lightning. For a time primordial soup was pushed to the back burner.

But now comes word of a new, improved recipe. Chemist Jeffery Bada recently found some old vials tucked away in a cardboard box, sealed results from one of Miller and Urey’s experimental variations. The scientists had added a jet of steam to the experiment to simulate volcanic activity. When Bada analyzed the 55-year old residue in the vials, he found all of the amino acids produced in earlier experiments, plus 10 more. This work suggests that the composition of the atmosphere as a whole may have been less important than the conditions around volcanoes. Geysers and hot springs on the flanks of active volcanoes receive frequent injections of steam and reactive gases. A lucky lightning strike into a primeval Old Faithful may have been the first link in the chain of life.

The story of primordial soup isn’t just about the origin of life, it’s a story about science. A story about how science never stops, but keeps looking and asking questions, and rummaging around in the dusty cupboards of the world. I’m thrilled to have my primordial soup back, and I wonder if some student out there right now will read those words and feel a stir on the back of her neck just like I did.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Red List

Last week the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its annual Red List, a scientific census of the conservation status of plant and animal species. The list is not comprehensive – it covers only 45,000 species, out of the roughly 2 million known and 5 or 10 or 15 million estimated to exist. But it’s a useful snapshot of how the diversity and abundance of life as we know it is changing over time. And it provides yet another terrible, teachable lesson on the harsh realities of biology.

The status of the Fishing Cat of southeast Asia has been changed from Vulnerable to Endangered, because of widespread losses of its preferred wetlands habitat.

The Red List is a natural for online research into conservation issues. Students can use the IUCN website to look into the methodology, evaluate the threat categories, and contemplate the implications of situations such as ‘extinct in the wild’ and ‘data deficient.’ They can compare the yearly reports, browse the photo galleries and case studies of mainly the very cutest endangered animals, and compare trends and patterns in terrestrial and marine life. The list is also an obvious jumping off point for further study of conservation, habitat degradation, and the fate of particular species or ecosystems.

Education these days also demands something beyond facts and figures and objective assessments. No lesson is complete without open-ended, free-range discussion questions. They practically write themselves when it comes to the conservation of endangered species and extinction – there are so many ethical, political, and social aspects involved, so much blame to lay, so many hard decisions to debate. These are subjects that students have opinions on, opinions they’ll share without having to be poked at with a sharp stick.

I don’t know about you, but for the most part I’ve found that students think extinction is bad. But cynicism and indifference do pop up too, and I’ve been surprised that they’re a lot more prevalent in students right out of high school than they are in older returning adults. Does early, repeated exposure to Barney make extinction seem less troubling?

Photo by Bob Bennett,

Saturday, September 27, 2008

If it bleeds, it leads?

I was browsing around the science magazine websites this weekend, admiring this year’s winners of the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge. The contest has a lofty purpose, laid out on its homepage at the National Science Foundation

Some of science’s most powerful statements are not made in words. From the diagrams of DaVinci to Rosalind Franklin’s x-rays, visualization of research has a long and literally illustrious history. To illustrate is to enlighten.

How many people would have heard of fractal geometry or the double helix or solar flares if they had been described solely in words? In a world where science literacy is dismayingly rare, illustrations provide the most immediate and influential connection between scientists and other citizens, and the best hope for nurturing popular interest. Indeed, they are now a necessity for public understanding of research developments.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and Science created the International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge to celebrate that grand tradition—and to encourage its continued growth. The spirit of the competition is for communicating science, engineering and technology for education and journalistic purposes.
Well now, that’s pretty cool. And so are the images. You can see thumbnails at NSF, and nice big slideshows at National Geographic and msnbc.

I couldn’t help noticing how many of the stories announcing the winners led not with this 1st place photo of diatoms, called ‘The Glass Forest’…
Photo by Mario De Stefano, The Second University of Naples

...but with this honorable mention image of the a squid's fanged suckers, ‘Squid Suckers: The Little Monsters That Feed the Beast.’
Photo by Jessica D. Schiffman and Caroline L. Schauer, Drexel University
What is it about the scary side of science that is so much more appealing? Now that I think about it, I realize I’ve always loaded my earth and biological science courses with earthquakes and volcanoes, plagues and pestilence and things that go bump in the night. It’s an easy hook, but I wonder if it’s the best one. Is repeated reference to the violent and the flashy parts of biological processes simply a way to engage students so they pay some attention to the duller stuff? Or does making biology seem more like the latest video game than part of ordinary life distance them from understanding their real place in the natural world? By emphasizing nature red in tooth and claw, are we teaching science or presenting edutainment?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Classroom Discussion Topic: FDA Guidelines for Genetically Engineered Animals

Tastes just like chicken?

If you eat, take drugs, or have a pet, the FDA has a little something special just for you.

This week the agency released a draft of the guidelines it intends to follow when genetically engineered animals are up for approval for commercial use. Although these procedures have already been in use for quite a while, this release spells out the process for the first time, and also includes a one month period for public comment.

As spelled out by the FDA, GE animals fall into 6 categories:

· Biopharm animals are those that have undergone genetic engineering to produce particular substances, such as human insulin, for pharmaceutical use.

· Research animals may be engineered to make them more susceptible to particular diseases, such as cancer, in order to gain a better basic understanding of the disease for the development of new therapies or in order to evaluate new medical therapies.

· Xenotransplant animals are being engineered so they can be used as sources for cells, tissues or organs that can be used for transplantation into humans.

· Companion animals that are modified to enrich or enhance their interaction with humans (i.e., hypoallergenic pets).

· Disease resistant animals may be used either for food use or biopharm applications. These animals have received modifications that make them resistant to common diseases, such as mastitis (a very painful infection of the udder) in dairy cows, or particularly deadly diseases, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

· Food use animals have been engineered to provide healthier meat, such as pigs that contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids at levels comparable to those in fish.

The toughness of the approval process varies by category. For pets, not so much. For food, the rules are fairly stringent.

The information provided along with the draft regulation is surprisingly readable and informative for government work. It defines genetic engineering, discusses the areas of concern surrounding the safety and effectiveness of GE animals, and provides a clear step by step overview of the approval process. It’s also up front about several features of the guidelines that are obvious topics for classroom debate and passionate letters to the editor: many of the steps are suggestions, not regulations; the agency can waive the rules whenever it sees fit; and the big one – GE foods will not have to be labeled. The FDA is also glad to admit that its guidelines do not take into account the wider ethical questions of genetic engineering.

It's very easy to use genetic engineering in the classroom for the shock and awe of it all - when you play on people's fears, at least they stay awake. It's a little harder to have a balanced, thoughtful discussion of this complicated topic, but the FDA guidelines, which weave together the science, economics, and legalities of GE in one nice, topical package, are a good jumping off point.