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)

Seasonal Natures

Reports earlier this week of the first snowfall in parts of Colorado came bundled for me with a somewhat jolting reminder of something I have thus far left undone. (Yep, I can almost hear my mother, if not my co-workers, laughing.) Funny how Mother Nature has a pesky way of doing that to all mammals, hibernating and otherwise.

In tribute to summer’s last gasp and stockpiling memories to last you all winter, I come bearing humble gifts — additional photographs from Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder and the 2014 edition of G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. Because Carolyn truly outdid herself in the way of great photos, I had decided back in July to reserve all floral-related ones for a special album I would post at a later date in order to showcase the more geoscience-specific ones in the previous blog entry. Seems like I blinked and it became September, but hopefully, the better late than never adage applies.

As Carolyn says, the mountain wildflowers (in this case, seen in places ranging from Silver and Yankee Boy Basins near Ouray to the ghost town of Animas Forks northeast of Silverton) were nothing short of stupendous — “everything from mountain bluebells and columbines to different colors of paintbrush, violets, delphiniums, stonecrop, pink elephants and etc. They painted the landscape in broad swaths of color. It is amazing that such loveliness can spring from such a hostile environment, even from just rubble.”

For those who might not want take a tourist’s (albeit a scientist’s) word for it, resident Colorado author Kathy Lynn Harris confirms Carolyn’s scientific analysis in a recent blog entry of her own. To borrow from Kathy’s fantastically picturesque words, “It’s been an especially good wildflower season. Even as September approaches, there are still carpets of white, yellow and lavender mountain daises and large swaths of bright purple fireweed. The sweet scent of pink and violet clover fills the air on our walks.”

I can almost smell the heaven! But enough of my procrastinating — go enjoy your own vicarious walk already, courtesy of another successful collaboration between Mother Nature and science.

Science: There’s a Magic to It

“It’s magic!”

It’s hard to hear yourself think, much less anything else, in a classroom full of sixth-graders, but that excited shriek caught my attention.

YAP_demo_PhysicsI was taking photographs of a Physics Show demonstration for the Youth Adventure Program (YAP) in the Mitchell Physics Building last month. The kids were in awe over a tiny cube-shaped magnet that was floating in midair around a circular disc. And indeed, it gave the appearance of something on the supernormal side of things.

“It’s not magic – it’s physics,” noted Dr. Tatiana Erukhimova, senior lecturer and champion of the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s premier outreach extravaganza.

Technically, that’s true. We actually were witnessing the principles of superconducting levitation at work. Superconductors expel magnetic fields, so when the disc is cooled to its point of superconductivity (with the help of some liquid nitrogen), the repulsion is so strong that the magnet appears to be suspended in air.

Science may be the fabric of what we know as “magic,” but it takes a lot of creativity Tatiana_YAP(and perhaps some charisma, too) to capture an audience’s imagination using only everyday objects, especially when that audience is hyperactive pre-teens. People like Tatiana, and also Dr. James Pennington who spearheads the Department of Chemistry’s Chemistry Roadshow, are masters of this.

To me, there’s a little bit of magic in that.

Earth to Teachers

As one of the rotating images within its website header teases, what has 72 feet, covers 3,000 miles in 16 days, can earn 3 graduate hours of credit, and is more fun than summer vacation when you were a kid?

The answer is G-Camp, an outreach program for teachers offered through the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the College of Geosciences at Texas A&M University. As the ultimate in immersive summer extravaganzas, the two-week camp sets off for a variety of sites across Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, teaching the principles of geology in the field by allowing participants to explore and experience first-hand the processes and environments of planet Earth from past to present.

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education research scientist Dr. Carolyn Schroeder serves as one of G-Camp’s instructors. Prior to coming to Texas A&M, she taught earth science in Texas public schools for 30 years, earning Texas Earth Science Teacher of the Year honors in 1986. This past year, she returned to the classroom, teaching introductory geology courses at Texas A&M in addition to her duties with CMSE, which include serving as director of the Texas A&M-College Station Regional Collaborative for Science.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto's Point, Colorado.

Our G-Camp tour guide, Carolyn Schroeder, pictured here at Otto’s Point, Colorado.

“Once you have taken a field trip with a geologist, you are hooked for life,” Carolyn says. “That’s what happened to me on my first one with Dr. Mel Schroeder back in 1974, and I continue to love learning about geology and sharing that love with others, both through the classes and workshops that I teach and by informal means as well.”

Consider this your two-part vicarious pictorial education, courtesy of Carolyn and G-Camp 2014! While you’re waiting for Part 2, feel free to stop and smell/see the flowers Carolyn experienced along the way and/or follow the group on Facebook for bonus pictures and information, if not points.

Winning Teams

In a higher education news cycle so often dominated by doom and gloom, it’s nice when messages cross my inbox that clearly illustrate the fact that lifelong learning is a labor of love of both discipline(s) and students of all ages.

Case in point: Each year, our Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office hosts about a dozen events designed to increase awareness of and interest in STEM, another major higher education news buzz word. The biggest event, both in terms of sheer number of participants and bragging rights at stake, is the Texas Science Olympiad. Hosted by Texas A&M University for the past 13 years, this rigorous academic contest is part of a broader national competition designed to test students’ individual and collective knowledge in areas spanning the STEM gamut. While problem-solving skills are required, so is teamwork — on our end as much as that of the participants.

Yes, it takes a village of volunteers from across this campus and community as well as from industry. Dedicated people who devote their professional and personal talents to scheduling, setting up, staffing, judging and, in some cases, subsidizing the competition’s 56 events involving nearly a thousand people between students and their coaches. And yes, said students and coaches, along with their other teachers, administrators and families work tirelessly to prepare, but so do the event volunteers in order to ensure that everything comes off without a hitch and proceeds as required per competition rules and regulations.

In the end, the top teams and individuals in each division advance to the Science Olympiad National Tournament, but I like to think they’re all winners, given that each learns something about the representative subjects and themselves in the process. And boy, do they collectively celebrate — participants and volunteers — when one of our state winners takes it all at Nationals, which is just what Beckendorff Junior High did last weekend!

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

Beckendorff Junior High, 2014 National Science Olympiad Division B Champions. Oh, and it was taken by a nice man/volunteer from Lockheed Martin.

I mentioned an email at the start of this entry, so I’ll leave it to Nancy Magnussen, director of the Educational Outreach and Women’s Programs Office and of the Texas Science Olympiad, to tell the rest of this story behind the story via her update to event volunteers below. Considering that another of the week’s headlines was about leadership being the key difference between success and failure in schools, I’d say the Lone Star State is in pretty good shape with a village the likes of this one.

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Howdy all!

I just returned from the 2014 National Science Olympiad in Orlando, Florida, and I wanted to let you know how proud I am of all of you and your dedication to this program. Your level of commitment and care you displayed in preparing your events definitely was apparent in the rankings of our four Texas teams at the National competition — our students were AMAZING!!

How amazing, you might ask? Well, simply put, they were INCREDIBLE!!!

Our Texas middle school team, Beckendorff Junior High, in a field of 60 teams from across the country, WON!!!!! They are the 2014 National Science Olympiad CHAMPIONS!!! This was no small feat; they beat all the big powerhouse teams that win this competition year after year. The California, Ohio, New York, Michigan teams — all of them!! This is HUGE!!!! Unbelievable! They achieved this by medaling in 11 events, including three 1st place and one 2nd place events!

And the good news doesn’t stop there. The other three Texas teams that went to Nationals also did incredibly well:

— Seven Lakes High School finished 7th, medaling in eight events, including two 1st place and two 2nd place events!
— Clements High School finished 14th, medaling in six events. This is their highest placing (last year they won only one medal).
— Riverwood Middle School finished 21st, medaling in five events for their highest placing in history as well.

I have attached the final rankings from the National Science Olympiad so you can see how the teams placed in the individual events. . . . Again, I want to thank each of you for the part you played in preparing these four teams for National competition. We have come such a long way in Texas with this important science education program in such a short time. I truly mean it when I say that you folks are the BEST!!!

With great pride in our Texas Science Olympiad teams (YOU and the kids!),

Nancy

A Royal Reign in Peril

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CSME) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson made international headlines once again last week with his dire predictions concerning this year’s Monarch butterfly numbers, which are at an all-time low across the Brazos Valley and nationwide.

Ever the idealist, Craig appeals below to the altruistic nature lover in all of us with a personal pitch that harkens back to another resilient Lone Star State crusader, Lady Bird Johnson, whom we have to thank for one of Texas’ proudest, most beautiful and time-honored rites of spring — Texas wildflowers.

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In the fall of 2013, the number of adult Monarchs migrating through College Station that were netted and tagged was one-fifth of the number in 2012, coinciding with the data gathered nationwide showing that numbers were way down. This has been confirmed at the overwintering sites in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, where numbers were at historic lows. The combined areas sheltering Monarchs totalled only 1.65 acres, compared to a high of 45 acres in 1996. We now await the arrival of the first adults of the spring migration north, suspecting that they will be fewer in number. Last year, the first recorded sighting in College Station was on March 19 in the USDA People’s Garden on Holleman Drive that is open to the public.

Monarch Butterflies have reigned supreme amongst insects with a long distance migration that is the marvel of scientists, an increasingly aware population of civilian scientists and the public in general. But their reign is under the severest of threats since records have been kept, with numbers plunging so low that they may have reached a point where recovery may be impossible, in spite of the reproductive resilience of insect species that lay enormous numbers of eggs.

Who or what is to blame? There are a number of culprits. As the adults migrate south, they have to consume large quantities of nectar from wildflowers that are fewer in number because of use of herbicide in large-scale crop farming, especially in the Midwest, the biggest threat. In addition, more land has been brought into cultivation that formerly would have supported wildflowers and other wildlife. Then there is the severe drought and wildfires. Each of these events — individually and in combination — depletes available flowers and their nectar, which the Monarchs drink and then convert into lipids to help the butterflies survive overwintering.

What can be done nationwide? Large-scale farming is not going away, so a practice of leaving some crop acreage free of pesticides (note that this term is inclusive of herbicides and insecticides) needs to be increased. Perhaps interstate wildflower corridors could be established that would extend Lady Bird Johnson’s vision for the verges of Texas nationwide. Likewise, mowing of these same verges should be left until after the wildflowers have bloomed and seeded. This would also help the establishment of milkweed plants that are the sole source of food for Monarch larvae (caterpillars) during the migration north.

What can be done locally? Citizens can plant milkweed and other butterfly attractant plants in their gardens — simple actions viewed by some as futile, but every little bit helps, and it raises awareness. Since last spring, the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden (the Texas A&M campus’ first rooftop garden located at the George P. Mitchell ’40 Physics Building and open to the public) has been planted with more than 400 milkweeds, and four Bryan elementary schools also have established Monarch butterfly gardens. Sadly, the harsh winter means that the milkweeds have yet to start growing, so there may not be enough foliage to feed any Monarch caterpillars that do emerge from eggs.

The situation is dire.

THIS JUST IN: There’s an excellent front-page feature story on the subject by John Rangel in today’s Battalion.

Monarch_DamagedWing

What Moves a Monarch Man

A recent Slate.com article reporting the lowest level on record of Monarch butterflies reaching Mexico this year reminded me of a related story Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science researcher Dr. Craig Wilson had shared in October prior to agreeing to be a contributing author to this blog. (Incidentally, roughly a month before the Jan. 29 Slate article ran, Craig also had been featured in a PBS piece for his expertise on this very scenario he had forecasted last spring.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

(Credit: Shutterstock.)

You see, among oh, so many other things, Craig is a valiant champion of all things nature and educational — subjects he views in constant and quite purposeful tandem. When it comes to butterflies, he is the host and caretaker of his own official Monarch Waystation here in Aggieland, known as the USDA/ARS People’s Garden and created as a outdoor classroom designed to get students interested in science and possible related careers. And last spring, he singlehandedly planted milkweed and other butterfly-friendly varieties in the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Garden. Because it’s the right thing to do, for the children and the butterflies.

After watching that PBS clip as 2013 metamorphosized into 2014, I had emailed Craig to tell him I enjoyed seeing that he has a kindred spirit way down south and that I could totally see him (Craig) breathing life into a Monarch here in Texas. His response?

“Funny you should say that, but I revived a frozen Monarch on a playground in El Reno, Oklahoma several years ago and had it flying around a middle school classroom. The kids made a box for it and provided sugar water, and I transported it with me to Corpus Christi, where I had a conference the next week, and released it in a garden there, sending photos back to the students en route. Helping the migration, one Monarch at a time…”

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view -- as well as personal steps like planting milkweed -- toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

Texas A&M researcher and longtime butterfly enthusiast Craig Wilson recommends taking the long view — as well as personal steps like planting milkweed — toward reversing the alarming decades-long decline in overall Monarch numbers.

But I digress. I had mentioned having a past story — why don’t I just let Craig tell it in his own inspiring, firsthand words!

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On Boss’s Day [October 16], we pay homage to our brave and fearless leader. Below is a short essay I wrote in tribute to another Monarch…

From Queen Elizabeth II to other Monarchs including Tim [Scott, Craig’s boss as one of four CMSE co-directors]:

It must be my destiny, to leave one continent behind where I pledged allegiance to a Queen, only to arrive on another where I am again ruled by a Monarch, only this time it is a butterfly.

Last Sunday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a showing of “Flight of the Butterflies” in the IMAX theatre in Austin, Texas where I was enthralled by both the Monarch’s flight and plight, tracing its history through the eyes of a young boy (Urquhart) lying in the pastures above Toronto, Canada, wondering just where they flew, to the discovery near the end of his life that it was to a few acres’ nestling at 10,000 feet in the Sierras that transverse the state of Michoacan in Mexico. The wearing of 3-D spectacles was new to me, but it enhanced the experience beyond my wildest dreams as I felt myself flying with the adult butterflies, munching alongside their caterpillars and dicing with death in the form of crop sprayers, predators and loss of my habitat. But the most wondrous magic for me was to be able to watch the four-year-old girl in front of me, sitting on her father’s lap and reaching out continuously in the total belief that a Monarch would land on her tiny, precious hand. Oh, that everyone could believe.

monarchs-nestingI have been enthralled by Monarchs for several years now and take part in the Citizen Science Project out of Kansas University, through which you can receive individual tags to stick on the hind wing of a migrating Monarch as it flies the 2,000 miles south from Canada in the fall to help track their movements. This is one of the world’s great migrations and, hazardous at the best of times, it has become more so of late due to a multitude of factors ranging from climate change where the extreme heat can dessicate their eggs on the journey north in the spring; wildfires that destroy wildflowers that provide nectar; loss of habitat both in U.S. and Mexico; and, perhaps most drastically, the loss of milkweed plants that are the only food source for their caterpillars.

Milkweed search and recovery has become a particular obsession of mine. I can spot a milkweed blooming on a highway verge despite going at 70 mph as I traverse the country. That necessitates a sudden but safe stop and, armed with my trusty sharpshooter, I dig below the deeply seated tuber and carry my prize back to the car to be transplanted into the USDA/People’s Garden in College Station outside my office, where I watched a female Monarch carefully depositing individual eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves yesterday. Two weeks ago, I was able to tag a male and a female — the first to arrive in our garden from Canada on their fall migration — the faded coloration of their wings and less-than-pristine condition suggesting that they did indeed have hundreds of miles on their odometers.

Naively, I do believe that, “If you plant it, they will come” — it being milkweeds that are native throughout the land over which this Monarch, I believe, should rule. It would be sad to see her go the way of George III. Perhaps, taking a literal leaf out of Lady Bird Johnson’s playbook, the north-south interstates could be planted with milkweeds and become corridors to aid the migration, but that requires a degree of cooperation and collaboration we are sorely missing currently. Would it not be ironic if a Monarch could unite this nation?

E pluribus unum…

The Magic Behind Scientists-in-the-Making

Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher Dr. Craig Wilson offers another guest entry, this one about caterpillars, the magic they weave beyond the silk of their cocoons, and their impact on both science and lifelong learning.

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Fairy godmothers are not just the sole preserve of Hollywood and Disneyland, for I discovered one in 2003 in Bryan — or more precisely at the USDA/Agricultural Research Service/Southern Plains Area Research Center (ARS/SPARC) in College Station. Theresa Robinson was one of several teachers from surrounding school districts who gave of their free time to attend a USDA/ARS Future Scientists workshop, the inaugural and pilot version of a science teacher professional development activity that has since been expanded nationwide as the USDA/HSINP Future Scientists Program — partly, I am sure, because of the initial success of these first participants with their students and perhaps a healthy dose of magic wiffle dust and the wave of Theresa’s magic wand.

Being a Protestant bigot, I do not use this adjective lightly, but “saintly” Theresa has worked her magic with children and adults alike at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan for more years than she cares to remember. This is ironic because she does care and care she does for the students entrusted to her care, always with a gentle but firm voice and an uncanny understanding of what each child needs. By contrast, I look out and see a sea of faces differentiated by color and aspect, treating all the same as I did on December 5, when I was invited to make a presentation to all 78 fifth graders.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

Craig Wilson, director of the USDA-sponsored Future Scientists Program, works with students at Johnson Elementary School in Bryan, Texas. Through the initiative, Wilson introduces students to a vast array of scientific research projects and principles, not to mention potential careers in science.

They were a captive audience, but I was the one held captive by their naïve enthusiasm and joyous excitement as experiments exploded around them, eliciting questions that are the life blood of science. Sadly, that blood flow is too often cut off or stifled in our schools as being demanding of too much time. But not in Theresa’s class. With a wave of her imaginary wand, a hush descends out of the educational chaos, at which point the inquisitive child is encouraged to articulate the question that may be that rare and magical question, the one for which we do not have an answer and for which all should strive to seek an answer. That is science.

It struck me that I have worked with Theresa for 10 years now and that she has had her students conduct research on the corn earworm caterpillar (Helicoverpa zea), provided free of charge by the scientists at SPARC each of those years. The current audience of students was not even born when we started, but Johnson Elementary seems to be ahead of the curve or already around it by maintaining contact with their alums and inviting them back to a “Breakfast for Seniors” event six years after they walk out the doors of their elementary school for what they thought was the last time. At the most recent breakfast, more than half of those attending are poised to pursue some type of science at college.

earwormTime is relentless, as is the battle to nurture future scientists and to stem the ever-widening gap between the general population and our environment in which a seemingly simple question like, “Where do seeds come from?” results in the answer, “From a seedling.” We have a problem but, one fairy godmother in Bryan is continuing to sow seeds not of doubt but of aspiration that are taking root to grow future scientists who both question and reason. Disney should cast her in a movie where she may cast her spell over a wider audience desperately in need of a magical elixir of observational and questioning skills to benefit the planet.

Salagadoola mechicka boola bibbidi-bobbidi-boo. Put ’em together and what have you got? Bippity-boppity-boo … A Scientist!

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P.S. As an aside, another teacher from that Class of ’03 was from a tiny rural school in Gauze. One of her fifth-grade boys who studied the corn earworm has been employed at SPARC as a biological technician (insects) for two years and is at Blinn College studying entomology with plans to transfer to Texas A&M.

Click here to read a past feature story on the Future Scientists Program.

In a Word

Don’t look now, folks, but science is on the rise, according to Merriam-Webster, which has crowned a new word king for 2013: science.

ScienceRulesRather than settling for the more traditional (not to mention highly subjective) pulse measurement of popular culture method, officials at Merriam-Webster went with metrics a little nearer and dearer to our disciplinary hearts: analytics gleaned from actual online searches at Merriam-Webster.com. The word with the greatest increase in look-ups — a whopping 176 percent, mind you — was science.

We have arrived, but now, the real work toward maximizing this opportunity begins — in true finals week fashion with a pop quiz: What are your ideas on how to get people hooked on science and related lifelong learning? Inquiring minds clearly want to know.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU

I’m one of of the faculty mentors for the Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU program, which I originally talked about here. Two of our five students are working with me on a project this summer. We are a three-woman dream team!

We are studying mathematical models of how organisms coexist and compete while using the same resources in an ecosystem. There are a variety of ways that organisms use resources. For example, plants need nitrate and phosphate to grow, and without sufficient quantities of both of these nutrients, the plant will die. On the other hand, humans can get energy for daily activities from carbohydrates, protein or fats. If we don’t have carbohydrates, we can substitute some protein or fat and get by; for the sake of providing us with energy, we need any one of these, but we don’t need all. Modeling has been used with multiple organisms using one type of nutrient utilization, but not a lot with multiple organisms having multiple ways of utilizing nutrients. That’s what we are working on.

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Mathematical Modeling in Biology REU Group

Thus far, we’ve reproduced some results from existing models with a common type of nutrient utilization; in particular, we’ve shown how one organism can outcompete others for the same resources, and how two organisms can coexist even though they both utilize the same resources. We are working on learning some of the background science of how organisms use resources and the equations and mathematics associated with this. We are performing a literature review to familiarize ourselves with what research has been done in the past and has been published recently. We are learning what types of questions scientists are interested in and have answered in the past, and also figuring out where we can make a novel contribution. And, given that we are a mathematics program, it won’t surprise you to learn that we are developing the equations we need to make the modifications required to the model we have so that we can do something new.

The other three students in our program have interesting problems to work on as well. Two are working on mathematical models for how atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) occurs and how diet and exercise might improve arterial health. One student is working on mathematical models for controlling invasive species; personally, I am hoping he will find a way to mitigate the spread of fireants.