All In a Day’s Work

To know Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson is to love him — if not for his genuine passion and absolute gift for scientific knowledge, inquiry and outreach, then for his entertaining stories in pursuit of the aforementioned. Here’s one that he shared last week with several people in the Texas A&M Science Dean’s Office, most of whom know a thing or two about spending time in close quarters with both Craig and his cockroaches. Let’s just say it’s better to be hissing than missing!

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The university media specialist (by his own admission a non-scientist) was spending half a day with us to learn and write about the Future Scientists Program. He had been taking all manner of photos, including many of the teachers using the digital microscopes in the classroom that had been set aside for our use. He then accepted an invitation to join us outside studying in the wildflower meadow, where I had the teachers collect a variety of flowers with the goal to examine different types of pollen.

No sooner had he joined us than he left us, taking off running back to the road like a scalded cat screaming, “Snake!” At that point, bodies bolted in all directions, while I headed to the area where the snake might have tried to make its own escape. I was able to secure a four-foot rat snake (Elaphe obsolete lindheimeri) with one foot and grasped it behind the head. If possible, it seemed more agitated than the erstwhile cameraman.

This seemed like a teachable moment, so I carried my prize back to the classroom for further study and looked for a suitable container. In a side room, I found the old terrarium inhabited by 40 Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches (Gramphadorhina portentosa). Still holding the snake firmly in one hand, I managed to remove the lid … but where to put the cockroaches? Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a waste bin with a liner, so I dumped the cockroaches in there for later use and placed the snake in the terrarium. At that point, the by-now-somewhat-calmer-and-mollified photographer steeled himself and took photos of his incarcerated nemesis.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Wilson notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

Madagascar Giant Hissing Cockroaches, properly secured and suitable for transport to an educational environment near you! Craig notes that the white one pictured here is not an albino; rather, she has just emerged from her exoskeleton and therefore is soft and white. From here, she will hide, swell up and darken in color. He says they do this whenever they have grown too large for their current exoskeleton.

An hour later, I was ready for the teachers to study the cockroaches, so I went to retrieve them. I was startled to see an empty waste bin! A quick inquiry revealed that a janitor had been seen in the building. Quickly putting two and two together, three of us (not four!) rushed out and around to the back of the building and began dumpster diving. The fifth bag retrieved and opened indeed was holding the missing cockroaches. One should avoid anthropomorphism if at all possible, but the insects appeared none the worse for their experience, if not perhaps chagrinned that they had not made good on their escape to cockroach nirvana at the landfill. I cannot say the same for my co-dumpster divers or for our fearful media specialist.

Each year, I am invited by Texas Farm Bureau to present at this, the Agriculture in the Classroom (AITC) Summer Agricultural Institute, held at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. Each year, something notable happens, usually on the good side of bad. For example, I always take the teachers to walk over and study the turf grass experiments nearby. While there, I also collect lily flowers (Lilium) for them to study, as there is a large bed set aside to grow them that rivals Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors, such is the proliferation of shapes and colors of the large blooms.

However, this year was different. This year, the research scientist unexpectedly showed up and showed concern at this uninvited presence. Naturally, I marched straight up to him and asked him to explain his research. He was somewhat taken aback, given that he is not a people person. When he kindly invited them to help themselves to lily flowers, I had to admit that I had already helped myself on their behalves. My transgressions are always in the name of science.

For many, this would be a very different day’s work, but for me, it was all in a day’s work.

Wilson routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

Craig routinely brings his cockroaches and other insects to K-12 classrooms and educational outreach events (in this case, Expanding Your Horizons) held at Texas A&M and other universities to allow kids of all ages to get up close and personal with their environment.

Around the [Big] Bend

TexasFromSpace

More pictorial perspective from the Texas A&M Viz Lab’s Glen Vigus, who was recently on location in another of Texas’ finest stretches — Big Bend National Park. I don’t know about ya’ll, but I want to vacation with him — so breathtakingly gorgeous, there’s no need for captions. Well, save for Picture No. 37 (…wait for it…)

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“After a successful day of surveying the property on the Terlingua Ranch (we were ahead of schedule), we spent nine hours the following day exploring Big Bend National Park … and we only scratched the surface,” Glen writes. “It’s hard to believe this place exists in Texas. I plan to return in the future to hike the trails and reach the top of Emory Peak.”

Beautiful, Beautiful Texas

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and between you and me, there are miles and miles of it in the state of Texas.

I remember well in my college years the 525-mile drive from Aggieland back to my hometown of Nazareth in the Texas Panhandle. It wasn’t for the faint of heart nor bladder, and keep in mind that was back in the days before smart phones and portable DVD players. Thank goodness growing up there acclimated me to long stretches of nothingness and having to drive many a mile to get to the nearest grocery store, shopping mall or, heck, even another town with actual people.

Possibly as a result, I’m well versed in both self-entertainment and resiliency, not to mention fiercely proud of and loyal to the area, probably to a fault. Where most people only see barren, flat and boring, I see wide open spaces, endless horizons, room for a view and to breathe, and acres upon acres of rugged, untamed, abundant beauty precisely as nature intended.

Palo Duro Canyon, exhibit A in Texas Panhandle natural beauty, as captured here complete with a rainbow by Open Skies Photography’s Richard Douglass. It is the second-longest canyon in the United States behind the Grand Canyon and one of several located in the so-called “land of the inverted mountains,” labeled as such because the area is relatively flat until you reach the long and steep canyons, highlighted by Palo Duro and Caprock Canyons to the south. (Credit: Richard Douglass.)

I really didn’t grasp until college that the area we affectionately referred to as West Texas growing up wasn’t truly West Texas, despite the fact that it was home to the institution formerly known as West Texas State University (present-day West Texas A&M University) and that our New Mexico state champion 16-and-under Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team was the Wes-Tex Sandies. To this day, West Texas is the one area of the state that I haven’t explored, and a such, it remains at the top on my short list.

Until that day, however, I have a dream and the luxury of vicarious living through pictures, from those regularly posted on McDonald Observatory’s Facebook page to the following beauts captured by fellow Aggie Glen Vigus.

I first met Glen during a past professional life in the Texas A&M College of Architecture — mine in communications and his in the now-world-famous Viz Lab, which he’s been a member of since 1998. Like so many others in the Texas A&M Department of Visualization, Glen is incredibly talented and perpetually perched on the cutting edge, from his print and digital photography to his educational efforts and insight that I would describe as a delightful mix of “how-to meets follow-me!” Although I don’t get to see him in-person much anymore, I’m routinely privy to his artistry and creativity through Facebook. So are you, thanks to his generosity of spirit in agreeing to share his Terlingua Ranch album and the related backstory for the Texas A&M Science blog.

Not unlike a Jerry Jeff Walker song, I told Glen that I think it offers the perfect blend of geography, geology and earth science with sides of astronomy and atmospheric sciences thrown in for the good educational measure that’s so important during the summer months.

I’ll let Glen take it from here — both the words and the wordless. On that latter front, like any good storyteller, I think he saved the best for last.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“Years ago, my dad purchased land on the Terlingua Ranch. I never knew why he was so excited about this place until I saw it. Early one morning (4 a.m.), I accompanied my dad, brother-in-law and nephew on a 10-hour drive to Terlingua. The main purpose of our journey was to survey and mark my dad’s property. It is a different world in this part of Texas. It’s isolation and natural beauty are something to behold. I’m looking forward to the next visit … I just wish it wasn’t so far away.”

Check out Day 2 of Glen’s waltz across West Texas: Big Bend National Park.

When Research Gets Wild

Scientists often go to great lengths for their research, but sometimes it gets downright risky.

Grace Smarsh ’14 is a Ph.D. candidate who has been working in the lab of Dr. Michael Smotherman, Texas A&M University biologist and a leading expert on bat behavior. Grace spent a total of 17 months during a three-year period in Tanzania studying the songs of its native heart-nosed bat to probe how their vocal ranges adapt to different social interactions. While on her quest to observe the winged creatures, Grace had to learn to coexist with the land-dwellers of the African bush, from the tiniest of insects to some pretty large cats.

Here’s Grace, discussing some of her encounters and how she coped with her rank in the animal kingdom.

Mountain Majesty

So many among our faculty are such excellent storytellers. If not for their pesky day jobs, they could make a fine living as writers. I like to think this blog helps fulfill a dual purpose, enabling them to dabble in trivial pursuits if not possible second careers while bringing what I consider to be valuable behind-the-scenes perspective on any number of interesting subjects.

When it comes to astronomy, particularly anything happening in Chile, I’ve learned from pleasant experience to go straight to Nick Suntzeff. Nine times out of 10, he was either involved and/or present and, true to 3-sigma-level result verification form, he always has a good story.

The following is one that recaps his professional and personal history with Cerro Pachón, previously seen on this blog in his photographs taken on location in Chile. He originally posted said story on his Facebook page on Monday (April 13) and has agreed to let me cross-promote it here for the benefit of a broader audience.

Such a rich culture treasure! The mountain and its backstory’s not half bad, either.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“Back in the late 1980s and early ’90s, Cerro Pachón was the mountain I studied for future observatories as part of my job as staff astronomer at CTIO [Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile]. We had to haul the equipment up by mule and establish a small observatory to measure the site quality — seeing, laminar layers, wind speeds, temperature measurements. It now hosts the Gemini 8-meter telescope, the SOAR 4-meter telescope, and starting tomorrow [April 14] with the inauguration ceremonies, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which will be a revolutionary 6-meter telescope that will digitize the sky every three nights.

Artist's rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).

Artist’s rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope. (Credit: National Science Foundation).


“The mountain is spectacular, as you can see in the video. We could camp on top of the mountain easily because for some reason, there is a year-round spring that runs about 100 feet below the summit.


“The spring is there, I was told by the geologists who did the boring, because of the tremendous hydrostatic pressure from the Andes and the South American trench. They were very surprised, though, that the spring was year-round. Someone was going to do a careful chemical analysis of the water to see where it was coming from, but I don’t know if they ever did this.

“John Irwin did the detailed site surveys in the 1960s and early ’70s, and he helped me understand the mountains there. You can still see the cement pad he put on Pachón between Gemini and LSST, partially buried in rock. It is just on the other side of the road from the spring. … He hated Pachón because he did the survey there during a cold part of the year, and the wind is horrendous on Pachón (which also makes the seeing better than on Tololo). He couldn’t wait to finish the work on Pachón and go someplace more hospitable.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.

Pachón in the distance, taken from the dormitories at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). Pachón is the flat top mountain at the right, sort of at the end of the road in front. Gemini is in the middle of that mountain, with SOAR to the left and LSST on the right edge of that ridge.


“The broader site is called Cerro Peñon, which means ‘rocky peak’ in Spanish. Pachón means something like ‘skirt,’ according to an Aymará woman from the north of Chile. It also means ‘hairy’ or ‘lazy’ in Chilean slang. I was told that many peaks are called Pachón because the rockfall from the cliffs forms a base and the cliffs, made of columnar andesite, look like the pleated skirts worn by the women of the high Andes.

“Being on a mountain, alone at the telescope, is a magical experience. The sky is like nowhere else. So many stars! If you hold your hand close to the ground, you can see a shadow — the sky is so bright with stars. And maybe that night, you will find something in the sky no one has ever seen or understood before.”

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

Cerro Tololo mountain, as viewed from the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) site.

#WordlessWednesday

“I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this Universe, we are in this Universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, because they’re small and the Universe is big, but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Time-lapse video master Randy Halverson does it again, owning the night sky (or at least the documentation of it) in his latest production, Trails End. Unprecedentedly glorious.

Universe Today’s Nancy Atkinson sums up several high points in her related April 8 post. And you can click here for more on the story from Halverson himself.

Me, I’d say one word that also happens to start and end with a “w” covers it once again: Wow.

Driven by Nature

Cross-country road trips present the perfect opportunity to let your mind wander. The possibilities (much like the road) are endless, particularly if you’re a scientist.

Meet Dwight Bohlmeyer ’84, who earned both a B.S. in marine biology at Texas A&M University at Galveston in 1984 and an M.S. in genetics from Texas A&M University in 1989. A former department head for the Division of Natural Science (2009-2014) and a longtime biology instructor (1997-2014) at Blinn College’s Bryan campus, he recently joined the Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering, where he manages the Salter Farm Educational Research Program.

Dwight and I met this past fall by way of Monarch butterflies and related marketing opportunities. He’s a glutton for all things STEM education, and in addition to having a keen eye for photography, he has the science background to make it beneficial beyond the beauty. If you follow us on Facebook, chances are you’ve probably seen some of his work.

In fact, it was via Facebook that I first learned about his latest project, a daily nature photography challenge to capture five species a day throughout 2015 for a total of 1,825 species by December 31. He dreamed it up as a rather unique New Year’s resolution while filling mental space during his return trip to College Station from Missouri, where he was visiting family for the holidays.

Even though I know these things are all about stretching one’s limits (which I like to think I accomplish by default as a full-time working mother of three), I think Dwight’s really outdone himself here and that the results will be well worth following. And we can all do just that at FIVEx365, the WordPress blog he’s set up to help document his results and keep him accountable like the disciplined scientist he is. He even has rules, which he outlines in the first entry.

And to think, all this time, I’ve been jamming out to mixed CDs and XM Radio during my extended travels. Get the picture?

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A cold and rainy start to 2015, beautifully illustrated by Dwight Bohlmeyer using a canna lily as both his artistic and scientific medium. See more of his work at FIVEx365. (Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer)

A Fine Mess

Well, folks, the news is in: I’m not messy; I’m just different, er creative. And I have the science to prove it.

A recent study published in Psychological Science and promoted, among other places, in the New York Times confirms that I’m simply a product of my environment, which apparently is comprised primarily of “safely ignorable stuff.”

You can read more about the analysis here via News.Mic, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll go ahead and submit what I like to call Exhibit A below. Feel free to share yours in the comments if you’re so inclined and/or feel it would be either therapeutic or cathartic in any way. Creatives don’t judge!

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk's perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn't say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it's my husband's.

Yep, this is where the magic happens. Probably fitting that half the lights running the desk’s perimeter are non-functional (notice I didn’t say burnt out!) At least the one at my branch office is cleaner. Never mind it’s my husband’s.

Admittedly, my mother would understand if not be proud, especially when I confess that I’m likely the messiest (scratch that — most creative!) among my College of Science Dean’s Office brethren. But when it comes to faculty, I’m certainly in good company.

And let’s not even talk about what lies beneath. Or my electronic inbox.

For that matter, why stop at desks? I mean, science is all about extrapolation, as Elite Daily does here. I bet there’s hope for my entire house (flat surfaces being just the tip of the creative iceberg) and my kids!

Snatch the Pebble, Get the Shot?

I’ve said it before, but it’s definitely worth repeating: Science is all around us. In the best instances, it’s accompanied by statistics.

More than a decade of working for one of my favorite statisticians, Joe Newton — who’s known as the Data Dean around here for good reason — has taught me a lot, from Einstein_Educationvaluable critical thinking skills to appreciation of the bigger picture, especially in situations where it hasn’t necessarily been disclosed. From both him and experience (sometimes painful), I’ve learned the importance of caution; of maintaining both a cooler head and the healthy dose of skepticism necessary to withhold judgment as I attempt to gather and evaluate as much information and/or evidence as possible. More often than not, this process begins and so often ends with a single piece of information: methodology. The more statistically relevant, the better.

Apparently, neither Dean Newton nor experience has taught me tact.

This past week, yet another of my friends came down with the flu. I dutifully monitored her prognosis from a non-contagious distance (i.e., Facebook) and noticed that things were looking up by week’s end. Given that ours is a relationship largely based on witty banter, I decided to celebrate her recovery by sharing a flu-related post to her page — a fictitious admission from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thankfully, she’s fluent in the sarcasm I thought was apparent, given the sensationalized headline and the “news” source — which I now know is approaching a stunning 1.5 million likes on Facebook, indicative to me of a whole other type of pandemic — but several of her friends didn’t get the shot (pun intended). One went so far as to post this fact-laden retort from Respectful Insolence. (Oh, the irony, considering how often I’m the one who gets this educational honor by virtue of my day job).

Properly armed with the full CDC transcript, I’ll let you be the judge as to the accuracy of both the headline and the content of that Natural News piece. However, on the subject of jobs, I think ScienceBlogs.com author Orac really does a nice one in his blog entry of explaining the context behind the flu vaccine and what an absolute (albeit science-based) crapshoot it truly is each year for the World Health Organization. Forget the College Football Playoffs, this one is a statistical nightmare. Well, maybe more like a Bayesian’s dream, if you get my drift (again, pun intended). Paging Bani Mallick or Val Johnson?!?

I'm usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

I’m usually a sucker for a great infographic. Tricky when one is also a marketer, though. (Credit: CDC/gsk)

Incidentally, my dad religiously got his flu shot every fall, and while I don’t recall him ever getting the flu, I can’t say that exactly inspired me to follow his example. Despite the fact that I know the science is solid, the only year I actually did get the shot was the year I happened to be pregnant in the fall (read guilted into it). Guess what? My husband and I both got the flu that year, with a bonus: H1N1. He got antibiotics; I got saline/homeopathic remedies. And the call from the elementary school once we got home, informing us that our first-grader had managed to get a piece of playground pea gravel stuck in his ear.

There is value in not judging a book by its cover, regardless how eye-catching or appealing, and prudence in looking before you leap, no matter how compelling the pitch or bandwagon. And in knowing your audience, even when among friends. Probably the capacity of your ear canal, too.

But in the final analysis where I’m concerned, all the hand-washing, ounces of prevention and apples a day won’t keep the sarcasm away. It’s hardwired. Jury’s still out regarding my own progeny, save for their mastery of dubious playground magic tricks.

(Credit: Huffington Post)

(Credit: Huffington Post)

Garbage In, Creativity Out

Video

For a decade, if not longer, I’ve been a subscriber to my cousin Floyd Hoelting’s Quote of the Day email service. Each weekday, his daily dose of inspiration hits my inbox around 7:30 a.m. and typically is one of the last things I read prior to leaving for work.

Some days, I read and delete, but others, I simply stop and marvel. Today is one of the latter. And believe me, the correlation between this landfill and my overstuffed inbox isn’t lost on me, either.

Thank you, Floyd, and thank you, kids of Cateura and Landfill Harmonic! Here’s to finding the diamond in the rough within your own heaps and days.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

“The beauty of music can touch the hearts and ingenuity of the mind.” ~ Suzette Lagacé

Landfill Harmonic- The world sends us garbage… We send back music. from Landfill Harmonic on Vimeo.