Down-Home Research

One of the things I enjoy most about video production is that it gets me out of the office. Don’t get me wrong, working in the luxury of air conditioning can be really nice in the summer, but anyone can go a little stir-crazy if they spend every single day at a desk. But every now and then, my job takes me places, and during production of our most recent Labors of Lab segment, it took me back home.

Laura Schwab, a senior biology major at Texas A&M who studies aquatic insects, is the star of our latest installment. As I was beginning the storyboarding process for her episode, Laura’s faculty advisor, Dr. David Baumgardner, invited me to film her and a few other students as they trapped insects at the Navasota River. Well, it just so happens I’m originally from Navasota, so this would be a homecoming of sorts for me. Sign me up!

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Now, let’s be clear: The Navasota River isn’t what you would call a “pretty” river. It’s muddy, and there’s usually no shortage of algae. But it is buzzing with wildlife, especially the aquatic insects the students were so hoping to capture. And even though I grew up in that area, I’d never actually been near, or in, the Navasota River. This was a shoot I was truly looking forward to, even on a Saturday.

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Laura turned out to be an excellent choice for a Labors of Lab spot, and it was quickly apparent that she was Dr. Baumgardner’s right-hand person. Upon our arrival, they immediately divided up the students and waded into the river, where they embarked on separate excursions. While Dr. Baumgardner led two of the students off to catch insects in the river’s current, Laura and two other students went searching for snag, the random sticks and natural debris that protrude from calm parts of the river that often serve as nesting grounds for many water bugs.

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It was here that Laura’s natural leadership shined. She carefully chose which area of the river they would scour for snag, all while explaining to her team the reasons for her selection and demonstrating the proper way to collect a specimen. Whenever they found a particularly mossy stick that looked like it might be serve as a decent home for insects, they carefully doused the end of it in an alcohol solution and secured it in a Ziploc bag.

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It was fascinating to watch. In the videos I produce, I often only film people talking about their research and, usually, I’ll stage scenes of people pretending to work on their research so it appears as if they’re actually doing something fascinating in the final video. Never have I actually had the chance to film genuine research in progress — until now. The scenes I filmed at the river that day were some of my best, in my opinion. Undergraduate students doing real research, having real fun. You can’t fake that.
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Plus, there’s no place like home.

Oh, and speaking of that spot, watch Laura in action and hear her thoughts on doing field work for Dr. Baumgardner’s lab in our latest Labors of Lab episode below:

The Graceful Monarch

What a difference a year makes. Consider the following essay, sent to me one year ago to the day by Texas A&M Center for Mathematics and Science Education (CMSE) researcher and Monarch butterfly enthusiast Dr. Craig Wilson:

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“We are under attack!”

This is not Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the morning of December 7, 1941, but rather College Station, Texas, on the morning of October 15, 2014. The incoming waves are not Japanese warplanes but Monarch butterflies. The colors are not those of the Rising Sun — red and white — but the unmistakable orange, black and white markings that set the Monarch apart as our most recognizable and beloved butterfly and the Texas state insect.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

Looking east, they appear as if by magic out of the risen sun. ‘Poof’ — one appears. ‘Poof’ — another — and ‘poof’ — another! As you scan the horizon one moment, the sky is empty until, seemingly out of nowhere in the next magical moment, ‘poof’ — the next wave announces its arrival. It is more of a ripple than a wave, as they appear in ones or twos. But the tide is building, and one has hopes for a butterfly tsunami.

Am I being too optimistic? The sad stories of the precipitous decline in the number of Monarchs has seen pessimism take hold, and it is hard to shake. Yet here, borne upon morning’s first rays, is a glimmer of hope. The sun shimmers off the diaphanous wings, their colors enhanced by the combination of sunlight passing through them and the reflective, refractive capacity of wing scales that serve to protect them like the roof shingles they resemble.

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

(Credit: Dwight Bohlmeyer, Texas A&M Institute for Quantum Science and Engineering.)

They float up and over the USDA People’s Garden as if drawn by some Svengali. However, one should not associate the Monarchs with evil. The indigenous peoples of the Monarchs’ homeland in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, have, since time immemorial, considered the returning butterflies to be the souls of their deceased relatives returning to Earth. The butterflies’ arrival coincides with the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). They are honored with feasts, celebrations and elaborate ofrendas (offerings). It is a time of celebration, and it feels like that today at the USDA office, where even many of those working diligently inside are drawn outside to be a part of this spectacle.

Scientists know that the Monarchs are following a time-honored path. But what are the triggers for one of the world’s greatest and longest insect migrations? To help contribute to that research, I net six Monarchs and donate them to a research lab on the Texas A&M campus, where they will be used to improve the genetic diversity of the live lab colony of Monarchs. I have fellow observers tag and release several more as part of a citizen scientist project to learn more of the migration routes and timetable.

A nest of Monarchs.

A nest of Monarchs.

I lose count of the number flying by. I am up to 150, but there were many more that I missed. I only saw a total of 12 last spring when the grandparents of these butterflies had passed through Texas en route to their breeding grounds in the Midwest and Canada, where conditions this year appear to have favored good reproduction rates despite loss of habitat and reduced acreage of milkweed plants that nourish their caterpillar progeny.

Anecdotal reports of these increases had reached me and then, in a rare coincidence, a giant swarm of migrating Monarchs resembling a giant butterfly showed up on radar for a short time on the afternoon of Friday, September 19, 2014. The suspicion was that these were hundreds of Monarchs flying at between 5,000 and 6,000 feet, heading south over Southern Illinois and Central Missouri, the radar signals suggesting that the ‘targets’ were flapping, flat and biological. It is entirely plausible that the Monarchs we see today were part of that swarm.

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

(Credit: U.S. National Weather Service.)

I watch as some of my transient friends settle on a false willow to rest, feed and recharge with nectar alongside a myriad of honey bees. All seems right with the world. The Monarchs have uplifted our souls.

I feel liberated and not under attack in the least.

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When I emailed Craig yesterday in present time in the hope that another inundation was underway across Aggieland, he informed me that sadly wasn’t the case. “The Monarchs have been pushed west by easterlies, so more are in Colorado than usual,” he said. “The southerly winds have prevented them moving south. But this Northern cold front should help push them south now. I saw three yesterday at my Holleman Drive garden.”

All is not locally lost, however. Craig reports that students from Texas A&M biologist Dr. Christine Merlin’s research group helped plant milkweed at three Bryan elementary schools — Johnson (3rd grade), Henderson (5th grade) and Mary Branch (5th grade) — in their school gardens as part of a National Science Foundation grant she has for which he contributes the outreach component. In addition, Craig says he has 80 Mary Branch 5th graders coming to study in his USDA People’s Garden on October 27 — a day on which he has high hopes for catching and tagging at least one Monarch.

Much like Monarchs, I hear hope floats. Sure is pretty in slow motion, as seen in this video produced by fellow land-grant institution University of Minnesota:

Building Astronomy in Texas

This weekend, the Texas A&M Astronomy Group will host the statewide Building Astronomy in Texas (BAT) workshop within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy on the Texas A&M University campus. At present, the tentative RSVP list includes more than 80 astronomers, students and research staff representing 18 different Texas universities.

Arguably a sweet spotlight by any standard, for us and the state, but I contend it’s merely an extrapolation of what the Texas A&M astronomers do best: learn about and from each other and then use that new knowledge to grow as people, as a program and as a profession.

One doesn’t have to look far to find a relevant case in point if not precursor: August 28. Apparently, it’s an annual tradition for the ASTRO group to host an all-day symposium the Friday before the fall semester starts. It’s organized and chaired by postdoctoral students, and each member of the group — from tenured professors to undergraduates — has the opportunity to give a 10-minute talk on his or her current research. This year, they ended the day with a new tradition: a group-wide dinner at Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall’s house. Check out this recap video for additional information on the symposium and further insight via first-person interviews:

When I was explaining to my husband about what they had planned for that day, from the postdoc-chaired symposium and group-wide presenting opportunity to the family-style dinner (not at a restaurant, mind you, but at the deputy director’s house), I said it reminded me of exactly how Bob Johnson –- er, make that Dr. Robert E. Johnson, AIA — treated me during one of my past professional lives in the Texas A&M College of Architecture. Bob himself interviewed and later hired me as a staff member in the CRS Center, established in 1990 by legendary Houston architecture firm CRS (Caudill Rowlett Scott) as one of the then-seven research centers and institutes within Texas A&M Architecture. I knew nothing of Bob nor the field, yet from Day 1, he gave me full access to every facet of his operation, from the financials to the server records to the CRS firm archives. I saw exactly what he saw, because he saw us as equals. What an empowering view! Yes, it’s a calculated management risk, but wow, the rewards that can be realized for all parties when that trust is there, real and reciprocated.

The Texas A&M ASTRO group is there, and it’s as powerfully compelling and exciting to me as learning about the historic rise of another Texas juggernaut on the architectural scene was, then and now. One resulted in two chapters in a book, and the sky’s the limit for the other. Take it from someone who didn’t know a lick about architecture or astronomy.

Child’s Play

Yesterday, I caught my co-worker Chris Jarvis — who also happens to be my office suitemate — playing on the job. With a magnetic alphabet set, at that.

Today, he’s at it again, only this time it’s a set of magnetic balls, complete with a magnetized wand.

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Drawing on a theme yet? I am, and I can tell you firsthand that curiosity is attractive. Because I had a few minutes today, I used the first few seconds of one of them to decide that if you can’t beat ’em, then join ’em. Yep, I grabbed the wand and tried it out. So did the next co-worker who had walked in to discuss a project. (And he said these things were low power…)

Interestingly enough, both sets of common children’s toys just happen to be part of the set for Chris’ latest video project -– an in-progress Labors of Lab installment showcasing a Texas A&M Chemistry student whose research involves molecular nanomagnets. Even though I’ve always known Chris to be the type who will go to great lengths to get the job done, I’m amazed. And pleasantly amused. And not just because he’s childless, yet visiting toy stores.

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When Chris initially joined Texas A&M Science in 2008, I knew he would be a solid writer, based on his background, samples and genuine love for words. During what I like to refer to as his sabbatical year at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, he got the opportunity to broaden his skill set, adding website creation/maintenance and videography, among other professional nuances. Last year, we got the opportunity to re-hire him, and I can now vouch for the fact that the second time around truly is sweeter. But why take my word for it when you can read his within our news archive and also view roughly a year’s worth of his videos on our YouTube channel?

I know full well what goes into a written story, but I have a newfound appreciation for all that Chris does as a videographer. I’ve worked with some of the best during my career, but I’ve never known one who is a one-stop shop, from storyboarding and script writing, to location scouting and actual shooting, to editing and production, to draft version(s) and ultimately finished product. However, I do know that I have the luxury of resting easy in the knowledge that any project I assign to Chris or that he takes on himself is in good hands, largely without me lifting a finger nor checking up on a single detail beyond our initial conversation.

Although most of this magic happens less than 20 yards away from me, I never fully got the picture until last month, when Chris produced what I think is his best work yet: an overview piece for this year’s National Science Foundation-funded Summer Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Program. Six different programs across the college; one university-wide supplement; at least one coordinator per program; countless student participants; multiple locations, shoots and interviews during the course of the 10-week program; and hundreds of clips, all funneled into a single cohesive, comprehensive, well-told story. It’s definitely an art (an undervalued one, in my opinion), and I am in awe. Feel free to appreciate with me below and also check out a few bonus clips featured with the news summary:

As his co-worker and trenchmate, I love that Chris loves what he does and that he continues to come up with new and appealing ways to tell a visual story. As his friend, I love that Chris is on my team and that he continues to find joy in his work, which is so much more than a job to him, just as it is to me.

Most of us are familiar with some version of the old adage, “Work to live, not live to work.” Based on what I’ve seen, Chris is well on his way to having this one down to a science.

By all means, play on, and always remember to share — toys and talents.

When Math Comes to Life

It’s summertime, and in the Department of Mathematics, that can only mean one thing: SEE-Math. SEE-Math, which is short for the Summer Educational Enrichment in Math Program, is Texas A&M’s annual two-week day camp for gifted students entering the 6th, 7th or 8th grades to explore their potential in mathematics-related fields and led by professor of mathematics Philip B. Yasskin.

Much of the program’s charm lies in its entertaining and engaging activities that demonstrate the many ways math exists naturally in the world around us. Last week, senior lecturer Mila Mogilevsky had the students try their hand at origami, the Japanese technique of folding paper into elaborate figures. While the students certainly enjoyed the art lesson, they also enjoyed learning about the geometry that makes the beautiful paper creations spring to life.

Here’s a quick video of origami in action:

Also, check out last summer’s video to learn more about what exactly SEE-Math is all about:

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!

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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

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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…)

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“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.

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“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.

Marking Time

Ever wonder what mathematicians do on vacation? In Texas A&M professor Wolfgang Bangerth’s case, he kicked off summer 2015 by hiking through history related to another of his disciplinary specialties: geophysics.

A widely respected expert in computational mathematics and mathematical modeling, Bangerth is the author of the software program ASPECT (Advanced Solver for Problems in Earth’s Convection). His code is helping geodynamics researchers around the world visualize the Earth’s interior and related processes, thanks to funding assistance from a major facility in California at the epicenter of geodynamics research.

Earlier today, Bangerth found himself at the site of one of the worst geological disasters in U.S. history, Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Roughly one month after the 35th anniversary of the historic eruption, Bangerth toured the area, posting these incredible photographs on Facebook and agreeing to share them via the Texas A&M Science blog.

“What a treat,” Bangerth writes, “A seven-hour hike through the devastation area and then halfway up Mount St. Helens. (Additional treat: Total number of people encountered in the first six hours: 1. In fact that equals the total number of mammals encountered during this time.)”


In addition to the photos and captions, Bangerth — ever the educator — offered to expound on the science as follows:

“So here’s the story: Mount St. Helens is one of the chain of Cascade volcanos along the U.S. West Coast that exist because the Pacific (or, more exactly, the Juan De Fuca plate) subducts beneath the North American plate. They take with them millions of years of sediments, entrapped water, etc., and this leads to melting of material when they get to certain depths, and this melt then comes up a couple of 100 miles inland of the subduction zone.

“In 1980, magma rising up bulged out the side of the volcano. After an earthquake, this whole bulge collapsed in a gigantic landslide. Liberated of the pressure of the overlying rock, two enormous explosions then ripped apart most of the mountain within seconds of the landslide. There is a fantastic video of this created from a sequence of 10 or 15 pictures and also another series here.

“What you see in my pictures are the remains of the volcano (1,300 feet shorter than it was before, with its enormous gash on one side) and the valley below the landslide and miles downstream from there — in some places up to 700 feet of debris, ash and the results of several later pyroclastic flows. The deep incisions are streams that have eroded this loose material.

“The landscape is largely barren since it had, of course, not a single living organism left after the 1980 event, and is only slowly re-growing. Along the streams there are man-high trees these days, but elsewhere you only find bare gravel and sand — some covered by hardy mosses and lichens — and in many places lots of miniature bluebonnets and some Indian paintbrushes. There are ants and a few insects, but generally few vertebrates. I did see a small number of birds, including a pair of hummingbirds. By and large, it’s a huge contrast from the densely forested areas around the mountain (and how it looked before the event, as seen in older pictures).”

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.