Five Outreach Tools Every Scientist Should Have in Their Back Pocket

by Maria

It’s no secret: I feel very strongly that scientists should be regularly involved in outreach. From a community standpoint, I would love to see scientists be recognizable individuals that local school children can reference. From a funding perspective, when scientists receive either private or federal funding, outreach should be a significant way to give back to those who have supported your work. On top of it all, science communication shouldn’t be limited to academic journals and conferences—exciting findings should be shared, and preferably by the scientists themselves! Continue reading

The Day I Met Jane Goodall

By Maria

As the long line of people slowly moved towards our destination, I could feel my hands start to tremble with nervous excitement. I clutched my worn book more tightly. In my head, I rehearsed a speech that included my admiration and my aspirations—I want to be just like you someday. I want to make a difference for conservation like you someday. I was only fifteen; plenty of time for dreaming of the future.  Continue reading

The Magic of Spring and the Desolation of Smaug

By Maria and Rob

Early spring is a wonderfully unique time of year to go for a walk in the woods. The landscape is still mostly draped in browns and grays, but here and then, little blushes of green glow from thickets and undergrowth while fat little buds tentatively wait to burst from the ends of tree branches. Last weekend, we went on such a walk at a nearby park, just to see the magic in progress, and we were not disappointed!

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It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green.

It may be a brown hillside now, but soon it will be a bright, vibrant green. There were already plenty of birds flittering through the thickets. I can just imagine that they are all looking for the perfect place to build their nests–a little home hidden from the threat of predaators and surrounded by resources like food and water. Oh to think of baby birds!

Oh snap, wild garlic! Tastes…like onion. Members of the Allium family, which includes both wild and cultivated onions, garlics, leeks, scallions, and ramps. (Note, there are some non-edible/poisonous look-alikes out there. A good rule of thumb is that if it doesn’t smell like an onion, it’s not an onion.)

We also saw deer tracks! Can’t escape those in Western Pa 😊

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We saw female scat nearby (less clumpy than male scat), so I would guess this was from a female as well. Where do you think she was going?

We saw plenty of lichen! Like Hagrid’s interestin’ creatures, lichens are an underappreciated weirdness of the wild world, in our humble opinion. Lichens are actually algae or bacteria and fungi living in a mutually beneficial relationship (a symbiotic relationship.) So a “single” lichen is almost like a little community.

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Quirky beauty.

Of course, the world may look drab, but under the surface, life is still stirring. Here we see the green of life just under the bark of a vine (don’t worry, this was an invasive vine – I wouldn’t purposely go around destroying a park). Did you know that many woody plants can perform photosynthesis in the first layer under the bark?

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But the dragon…

As our title notes, though, the spring does indeed bring magic, but human activity often leaves behind problems in a habitat. Smaug the Dragon of Tolkien fame was known for his greed and destruction – we don’t want to resemble that, now do we?

Dragon 1: Invasive Plants

This entire hillside is covered in an invasive vine called mile-a-minute (Persicaria perfoliata). As the name implies, the vine grows very quickly—possibly as much as six inches in a single day. It can take over habitats by growing over existing trees and shrubs and blocking out the sunlight from them. Originally from Asia, mile-a-minute was introduced to the US sometime around 1930, and in our environment, it lacks the natural checks and balances that would keep it from over-growing like this.

This particular park actually hosted Allegheny GoatScape this past summer in an effort to start getting the invasive plants under control. Allegheny GoatScape is a non-profit that uses goats to help manage landscapes that are difficult for humans to access (e.g., steep hillsides or rocky terrain) or contain an overgrowth of plants that are concerning for humans to manage (e.g. poison ivy.) A crew of goats is brought in, along with their guard donkey, and they are fenced in a large area to start eating away at the problematic plants! In the time they were here, the goats certainly made a dent, but they will have to come back to continue working on the problem.

Dragon 2: Litter

We saw plenty of litter left behind, which was disappointing. Can we all just take responsibility for our trash?

Well, ok, so this one was kind of interesting—someone lost a Tupperware container, but when we flipped it over, it must have been a mini greenhouse under there!

Dragon 3: When Should the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Come Back?

The silent concern on that walk in the woods was the impact of climate change. Scientists first began publishing on the notable changes in nature’s sense of timing (phenology) back in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Phenology is the study of the timing of bird migrations, flowering times, pollinator emergence–all of those little things we take for granted. When humans are mindful and respectful of the natural world and its processes, it can continue to function as God created it to. When we act as though our actions have no consequence, though, we can disrupt things.

But in the end…

Nature brings out a sense of peace like few other things can. Designed by the Greatest of Artists, there is so much beauty, and yet so much power and wonder in every glimpse of a forest, a mountain, an ocean wave. Spending time away from the built environment is refreshing to the soul and just all-around good for well-being!

On the flipside, though, in the book of Genesis we humans were charged with the stewardship of this home. It’s not ours; it’s a loan. Do we want to act like dragons, or be responsible stewards and ensure that future generations have a chance to see the beauty and magic of an early spring walk? We vote beauty and magic! Every time.

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Yes, Maria does have sparkles next to her eyes. She had been dressed up like a princess for a toddler birthday party earlier in the day 🙂

P.S. we actually really like dragons…no offense to all the dragons out there.

 

Take a Peek into a Black Bear Den

By Rob

If you can’t handle the cuteness of little bear cubs – look out! The Pennsylvania Game Commission has a live-stream camera on a female black bear (called a sow) denning for the winter. This sow picked a spot under a house deck in Monroe County, PA as it’s cozy den to hibernate for the winter. We’ve been able to watch her and her new cub napping, nursing, and the mom just trying to keep the little one out of trouble. Continue reading

Volunteering for the Birds!

By Rob and Maria

We’ve been volunteering twice a month at the National Aviary since October. In our busy, modern world, sometimes even those alternating weekends feel tough to schedule, but once we’re there, it’s such a joy. It just does not get old to talk with kids and families to spark excitement for conservation and wildlife. Plus, there is just something about the sheer beauty and mysteriousness of nature that can coax a smile from even someone having the worst day. We get to watch some of those smiles appear. Continue reading

Yuletide Citizen Science

By Rob and Maria

We woke up to pouring rain outside. It was still dark. The sun wouldn’t rise for another 90 minutes or so, but we probably wouldn’t notice right away through the heavy clouds anyway. Ah well, the rain might dampen the ground, but not our spirits! Today was our Christmas Bird Count, and science stops for no rain! We just pulled on layers of leggings, wool socks, thermal shirts, and flannel, topped with rain jackets and rain pants. It was time to count some birds! Continue reading

A Science Career Outside of Academia

By Maria

In the past year, I’ve attended at least three different fairly large meetings where the topic of post-PhD job prospects was a central topic. I’ve spoken to multiple highly accomplished post-docs frustrated with how many jobs they have applied for, and I’ve seen some very nervous grad students when mention of the future comes up. It’s a serious issue! Only 7-14% of PhD-holders in STEM will go on to a tenure-track professor position within three years of graduation, and only 9% of PhDs in the life sciences will end up in a professor position at all. In a worrisome way, this makes sense given that the number of PhD-holders aged 35 and under has increased roughly 60% since 1993, yet tenure-track positions have remained nearly stagnant in that same time frame. Continue reading

Why Science Outreach?

By Maria

This past summer, I taught a conservation-themed day camp for 9-13 year olds. For each day of the camp, I invited a different biologist to visit the class and tell the students about their research and career paths. They weren’t long visits—perhaps 20 minutes of presentation and half an hour of conversation with the kids. Nothing that can’t be added on occasion to even the busiest researcher’s schedule.

Still, the experience very distinctly left a mark on the kids. The scientists’ research topics later appeared unprompted in the children’s art work and their free time conversations. One girl even approached me with her observation of common experiences the researchers had all shared from when they were her age (“All of them in their presentations talked about playing in creeks as a kid, like me!”). Meeting a scientist each day of the camp had been impactful for them. They weren’t just reading about a faceless researcher online or watching a TV news clip about a latest study. Local scientists had made time to talk to them. That mattered. Continue reading