Former blogger David Combosch completed his PhD defense today! His talk was titled “Evolutionary genetics of Pocillopora corals” and described his research on corals in the Tropical Eastern Pacific ocean.
Congratulations, Dr. Combosch!
When I’m asked to explain what I do,* my standard 10-second response goes something like this:
“I’m a PhD student at Northeastern University’s Marine Science Center in Nahant, MA. I study marine ecology. My research focuses on one type of snail, the dogwhelk, which lives on rocky shores along the coast of Massachusetts and Maine. I study how factors like temperature can affect how much the snails eat and grow at different locations in the northern and southern Gulf of Maine, which involves doing a lot of fieldwork.”
After I finish that brief explanation, one of the most common follow-up questions I get is: “Where do the snails go in the winter?” I’m not really sure why that one question is so overwhelmingly popular, but in honor of the impending wintry weather, here is the answer:
Dogwhelks (Nucella lapillus) don’t really go anywhere in the winter. They don’t migrate. They don’t die. They basically just stay on the rocks and hunker down for the winter.
Which is actually pretty amazing – New England rocky shores are an extremely challenging habitat, and winter is no exception. Water temperature usually stays around 40° F but the air temperature during low tide can get much, much lower. And dogwhelks are ectothermic (“cold-blooded”), so their body temperature is the same as their environment! Winter storms are also common, which can generate massive waves. Dogwhelks aggregate in protected areas of the rock, such as crevices and overhangs, to avoid being dislodged (Feare 1971, Crothers 1985).
Waves in Nahant during a storm last winter — now imagine you are a 1 inch snail hanging onto a rock. (video by Missirius)
Even though the snails are still around during the winter, I only do experiments with them in the summer. Because it’s so cold in the winter, the snails don’t move around very much, or eat, or grow. Non-moving, non-eating, non-growing snails aren’t very interesting to study, so I squeeze all my experiments in when it’s warm. New England may technically have four seasons, but my year only has two: field season (May-Oct) and desk season (Nov-April).
*This typically happens in one of two situations: at parties where polite conversation is expected and at field sites when I’m schlepping around power tools and other gear.
For this Friday evening post, I share with you a little data visualization tool to occupy your weekend.
Today, NOAA released a beta version of NOAA View. An online tool to select, map, visualize, and then download data from NOAA’s vast array of data sets. So head on over to the visualizer and watch as sea surface temperatures and sea surface height change over last the 20 years in just a few seconds!
We’ve all enjoyed animal inspired ice cream flavors like Moose Tracks and Chunky Monkey. I even remember having some Lobster ice cream at a quaint little dairy bar in Maine, but what about jellyfish ice cream?
Well, thanks to crazily creative ice cream mad scientist Charlie Harry Francis, you can now enjoy an ice cream inspired by everyone’s favorite tentacle-bearing planktonic invertebrate, the jellyfish.
You maybe be wondering, what goes into making jellyfish ice cream? Are jellyfish one of the ingredients? Will the nematocysts (defensive barbs on the tentacles of all Cnidarians) sting my tongue? Or, in some miracle of gastronomy, do the milk and eggs neutralize the stingers?
Luckily, for the sake of our tongues, and the jellies, no animals were harmed in the making of this peculiar new ice cream flavor. In fact, this is more of a jellyfish-inspired ice cream, than an actual jellyfish ice cream.
In his quest to make new and different ice cream flavors, Francis came across the research of a scientist in China who has managed to synthesize the protein present in some jellyfish that makes them bioluminescent. In collaboration with the scientist, Francis used the bioluminescent protein to create his jellyfish ice cream, which, did I forget to mention: glows in the dark.
The ice cream starts off looking like any average scoop, until you dig in. It is the interaction of the synthetic protein and the tongue of the ice cream-licker that activates the protein, making the ice cream glow.
I think this glow in the dark ice cream is particularly cool, because it illustrates how broad the field of biomimetics (using living things as models for man-make materials) can be. This field has lead to important advancements in terms of how we design our boats, planes, robots, etc. But it always important to look at the lighter side of things, and harness the power of science for fun/delicious inventions too!
Can’t wait to try some glow-in-the-dark, jellyfish ice cream? Well, as you can imagine, this labor intensive treat comes at a high price. Better start saving now, or put this dessert on your holiday wish list, because 1 scoop costs $225! So while I’d love to lick a glowing scoop, I’ll probably sticky to Moose Tracks for my animal-inspired ice cream cravings….
If you haven’t already seen the Grandma Got STEM blog, you should go check it out.
The blog was started in February by Rachel Levy, an associate professor of mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, who was tired of hearing people say “how would you explain that to your grandmother?” In Dr. Levy’s words,
“I would like to counter the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas. As a start, I’m planning public awareness / art projects using gradmothers’ pictures+names+connections to STEM. This blog is where I’ll collect the info.”
How awesome is that?
Plenty of amazing women have been featured on the blog so far, but I’m still waiting to see a marine scientist. So if you have a marine science STEM grandma, if you know a marine science STEM grandma, or you are a marine science STEM grandma, you should submit a picture and story here.
The closest I come to having a STEM grandma of my own is a grandmother who was a nurse. Nursing isn’t generally considered a STEM field; however, she did encourage my curiosity in the natural world and, it would seem, snails in particular…
Lubbock, TX (1988) My grandmother, Esther McClure, impressing my brother and me with a snail from her backyard. Perhaps this explains why I’m researching snails 25 years later?
Last April I had the honor of attending a Biological and Ecological Sciences Coalition Congressional Visits Day in our nation’s capitol. The event was organized by the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the goal was to inform members of Congress and their staff about the importance of federal support for biological research. I was grouped with other Massachusetts-based scientists during this endeavor and throughout the day we visited eight Senate/House offices in order to stump for our cause. If you want to read about the full experience, please visit the Early Career Ecologists blog, where BU graduate student Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie eloquently details the events of the day.
Over the summer, participants of the BESC national event were invited to take part in local visits within their home districts. As a result, a tour of the MSC was scheduled with Massachusetts State Senator, Thomas McGee. On the morning of October 7th, Dr. Geoff Trussell (Director of the MSC) led the meeting while Tim Leshan (Northeastern’s VP for Government Relations) and I accompanied him, answering the Senator’s questions regarding Northeastern’s unique approach to community outreach and environmental research.
Overall, the visit was a great success. We were able to open up a dialogue with an influential and supportive member of our community. I know I speak for all of us at the MSC when I say that we are extremely grateful to lawmakers, like Senator McGee, who are willing to commit their time and share in our efforts to stand up for the environment, education, and research as we face the challenges of 21st century coastal living.
Ten days after our tour, on October 17th, Senator McGee was elected Chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party by a unanimous vote.
I know the title of this post is super cheesy, and to be honest, coming to the Open House on Saturday will probably make you more of a geek than you already might be, because of all the amazing science you will learn about!
This Saturday, Oct. 5th, from 10am-3pm is the one day all year that the MSC is open to the public and all the researchers, students and staff come together to share their work with visitors.
This year’s Open House will be the 5th MSC Open House in which I have had the privilege of participating, and to be honest, I have never been more excited! This year, our goal was to make the Open House bigger and better than ever, so the research labs were challenged to come up with new, fun and interactive activities to explain their research to visitors.
As a sneak preview to some of these awesome activities, visitors will get to take a stab at building a coral reef out of marine debris, predicting the impacts of overfishing on a marine food web, placing marine animals in their preferred habitat, completing a science field-work obstacle course, pulling a seine net to catch fish at Canoe Beach, chatting live with researchers in Antarctica and much more!
This event is perfect for the whole family: while parents get the chance to learn about current research on processes impacting their local coastlines, kids get to touch a blue lobster, and make a fun marine craft to take home! (Adults are allowed to touch the blue lobster too, but are often much more hesitant than the kids)
So if you are looking for something fun, educational and FREE to do this Saturday, head over to Nahant for the annual Open House and bring your friends/family! See you at Saturday at East Point!