A plethora of posts (and a steminist profile)

Study: Pollutants may delay human pregnancies
A new study by Germaine Buck Louis and colleagues at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences took a novel approach to exploring how environmental pollutants may impact the time it takes for couples to conceive. Continue reading….

Study: Facial expressions of intense joy and anguish are indistinguishable
Studies looking at how people perceive emotions often rely on stimuli that look like floating faces. What has largely been missing in these studies is the role of the body in emotional processing. A fascinating new study published in Science used a clever experimental paradigm to tease apart how we use visual input from bodies more than faces to determine whether someone is having a very good or very bad day. Continue reading…

Project ARISE brings scientists and mobile labs into biology classrooms
Project ARISE (Advancing Rhode Island Science Education) connects high school biology teachers with Brown University scientists to enrich science education for Rhode Island high school students. Continue reading….

Play a game and help scientists map the connectome with EyeWire
Some people do jigsaw puzzles during their holiday breaks. This year you can help solve a different kind of puzzle by mapping a single neuron’s path through a mouse’s retina—right from the comfort of your couch. Continue reading…

Scratching at the neuroscience of itch
It may seem obvious that there must be at least one type of neuron that responds to things that make us itchy like a wool sweater or an allergic reaction to a new lotion. Until recently, however, scientists were unsure whether there were neurons that specifically process itchy stimuli or whether these neurons also process a related but very different sensation: pain. Continue reading…

My STEMINIST profile
The STEMINIST blog recently posted a profile about me.  To read more about how I got interested in science and my advice to other women in science, see the profile here.


URI professor Brice Loose uses special lab to study how ice impacts ocean-air gas exchange: RIPR story

Credit: Collection of Dr. Pablo Clemente-Colon, Chief Scientist National Ice Cente

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of interviewing University of Rhode Island Professor Brice Loose for a Rhode Island Public Radio story about his research. Loose studies how ice influences “air-ice-ocean gas exchange,” to use his words. (Read the story and/or hear my NPR voice here).  Loose and his collaborators are using a special lab for their research: the US Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Lab (CRREL) in New Hampshire. In this lab, they grew ice on top of a giant pool and used a wind tunnel to recreate the seasons of the Arctic (in a sped up time frame). To model the seasons, the scientists had to break up the ice. This involved standing on the ice and using chainsaws to break it apart (see a great picture of this at the RIPR link). Loose said this part of the experiment was pretty fun, although several people have lost items in the pool in the course of their work. In fact, I talked to Loose on the CRREL lab phone for my interview as he had lost his cellphone in the pool.

Loose’s work is still in progress but could have important implications for understanding basic atmospheric science. It may also provide predictions for how the melting of the ice caps due to climate change will impact greenhouse gas accumulation.

Loose is also considering adding phytoplankton to his model system because they are known to influence air-ocean gas exchange (although keeping them alive in the lab’s conditions may be challenging).

New study from Rhode Island shows phytoplankton can flee from predators

Red tide (photo: PJS Franks)

A recent study performed by Elizabeth Harvey and Susanne Menden-Deuer at the University of Rhode Island provides evidence that microscopic aquatic plants called phytoplankton can both sense and move away from predators. In a lab-based experiment, the researchers put a specific type of phytoplankton (Heterosigma akashiwo, toxic algae that can cause red tide) in a tank. When they added members of a predator zooplankton species, the algae successfully moved away from their invaders.  In another experiment, the phytoplankton moved away from water that previously contained predators, suggesting that there is a chemical cue that the algae use to sense their predators’ presence. Before this study, researchers knew that phytoplankton could move in response to light and to find nutrients, but this is the first report of algae sensing and escaping from predators.

These findings are especially important for toxic algae species like the one used in this study because they explain one reason for how large algae blooms begin. Some phytoplankton, like H. akashiwo, can survive in less salty water than many of their predators.  This means H. akashiwo can swim to such waters to escape predators. Once they find themselves in safety, they are free to reproduce in massive quantities. Toxic algae blooms like red tide can decimate fish and other species. In 2006, a bloom of H. akashiwo wiped out $2 million dollars worth of farmed salmon in Puget Sound.

Another reason to study the movement of microscopic plants: phytoplankton make up the backbone of the ocean’s many food chains. A striking example of the importance of phytoplankton is this riveting story about algae which produced a potent neurotoxin that worked its way up an entire food chain and poisoned several humpback whales.

Phytoplankton also play a key role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converting it to the oxygen we all love (and breathe). Thus learning more about what motivates these organisms to move across the ocean informs our knowledge of other ocean forces.

P.S. Another cool thing I learned while researching this post: NASA monitors red tides from space.

Lizards, a shark, and a cartoon

Interesting things from around the web that I’d like to share with you this Sunday evening.

High school students publish original research about lizard nests


Florida Brown Anole (image credit: Alberta P)

This post by Adam Reedy on the SciAm Guest Blog talks about high school students who completed an original research project in class (it took them four months) and published the results in the journal, Behavioral Ecology. The students found that female brown anoles increase the survival rate of their offspring by choosing good nesting sites (particularly in regards to moisture). Mr. Reedy was able to get his students involved in such research with support by an NSF grant and through a collaboration with an evolutionary ecology lab. Not only were his students excited to be doing the project, but they also scored at or above peers in other classrooms in the school on tests.

My favorite quote from the piece: “My students took a very specific question with an unknown answer and made a small, but real contribution to what is known about life on our planet.”

Local news: Dead 13-food shark discovered near Little Compton, RI (aka a beach where I like to swim!)


Photo credit: Courtney Sacco (AP)

A fisherman discovered the shark‘s corpse near Westport, Massachusetts near the border with Rhode Island and half a mile from public swimming beaches in Little Compton. Great white shark sightings aren’t that rare further east in Cape Cod. In fact, a great white bit a man swimming in the Cape in July. But sightings in this area of Massachusetts are unusual. A necropsy was performed, and there were no signs of trauma and no other immediately identified cause of death. Officials are planning on leaving the body on the shore as it is difficult to move (and they probably learned blowing up big marine animals doesn’t work so well from the case of the exploding Oregon whale).

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal : Someday you will die; now is your chance to learn something new!


I love this cartoon by SMBC. SMBC is a very funny web comic that often references science/scientists (check out the archives if you haven’t before). This piece was quite touching (I won’t spoil the whole thing here), and I think there’s a shout out to citizen science in one of the panels. Anyone can learn about and practice science if they’re interested–especially in the internet age. In fact, here are 27 places you can learn about science for free online!