Steel City Science

Pittsburgh skyline

I moved to Pittsburgh almost seven years ago when I first started graduate school. On the one hand, the first thought that pops into my head is “Holy crikeyness, that long ago? I’m old.” But quickly behind that thought is how much I’ve come to love this city. From my beloved hockey team to the view driving out of the Ft. Pitt Tunnels to the phenomenon of pierogies, Pittsburgh has become my second home. Beyond the sentimentality, though, is the science. Pittsburgh, aka, the Steel City, has a unique collection institutions and universities that produce some fantastic research ranging from robotics to wildlife biology, and everything in between.

Since I haven’t posted anything on here in precisely an age, I thought a good way to jump back in the writing boat would be to showcase some of the folks in Pittsburgh who work on really fantastic projects. And I’ll be honest, this post really should have been titled something like “Steel City Bio” since I’m a bit biased to living things, but I have an affinity for alliteration. And maybe I’ll have a sequel in the future! So without further hubbub…

 ~The Researchers~

Dr. Jonathan Pruitt—Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh

We regular Joes and Josephines may shudder when we see single spider, let alone a group of spiders all hanging out together; but the cooperation between these eight-legged, erm, friends is precisely what gets Dr. Pruitt’s inquisitive wheels rolling. A behavioral ecologist in Pitt’s biology department, Dr. Pruitt focuses on intraspecific interactions between social spiders. In other words, he studies spiders that live and work together in giant colonies with giant webs (calming breaths and a happy song.) In addition, it turns out that within these colonies, individual spiders have personalities and “careers” based on their personality. The combination of different personalities within a colony of spiders has a direct impact on the persistence/survival of the entire colony! Now how’s that for spidey-senses?



Dr. Steve Latta—Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary

As the lead scientist at one of only a handful of institutions on the continent to be completely focused on birds, it makes complete sense that Dr. Latta is an ornithologist extraordinaire. His research has ranged from the biology of various species of songbirds and raptors to avian ecology and conservation as a whole. The National Aviary currently is overseeing a variety of projects including migratory bird habitat restoration, urban peregrine falcon monitoring, Louisiana waterthrush, and some citizen science efforts. You can learn more about what Dr. Latta and the Aviary are up to here!

As a few fun facts, Dr. Latta also keeps chickens and sold me a tank for the California kingsnake I kept in graduate school 🙂



Dr. Jose Padial—Herpetology Curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History

A little like Dr. Pruitt’s spiders, Dr. Padial’s herps (reptiles and amphibians) might cause a shudder in some folks, but with a dash of an open mind, anyone can quickly see how cool his work is. Part evolutionary biologist, part conservationist, Dr. Padial’s has been a part of projects that span phylogenetics, speciation, biogeography, taxonomy, and any synthesis of these disciplines. While in Pennsylvania, he works with local species, but he also regularly travels to South America for a focus on frogs of the Amazon.



Dr. Joe Gaspard—Director of Science and Conservation at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

Many folks aren’t aware of how large a role zoos can play in wildlife research, but I can help with that! Dr. Gaspard came on board at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2014, but before that, he had built up quite the publications list in the world of marine biology. Working on topics ranging from manatee vision, hearing and touch to loggerhead sea turtle biology, Dr. Gaspard has a brought a broad background with him to Pittsburgh—especially useful with the addition of the elephant seal Coolio currently in rehabilitation in the aquarium.



Dr. Brady Porter— Associate Professor at Duquesne University

Think I was going to leave this one out? Dr. Porter’s evolutionary biology background traditionally focused on conservation and the population genetics of freshwater fishes, but in recent years, work from his lab has included studies on toads, Louisiana waterthrush, golden eagles, and bald eagles. In addition to his own research, Dr. Porter has completed fish surveys with the Fish and Boat Commission, is on the board of directors for a local chapter of the Audubon Society, regularly organizes or takes part in such citizen science efforts as BioBlitzes and the Christmas Bird Count, and he used to have a grad student that looked like this.



Bonus Round!

The next two folks aren’t directly in Pittsburgh, but they are close by. Both affiliated with West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV, they’re just a quick drive away from the ‘Burgh, and their respective projects have an impact well outside Western Pennsylvania. So I think you all should learn about them.

Dr. Tricia Miller—Research Biologist

Part of a team with my former academic co-advisor (Dr. Todd Katzner of the USGS), Dr. Miller specializes in movement ecology of birds of prey—golden eagles in particular. Her work has revealed the migratory routes for golden eagles in the eastern half of North America, and she has done a great deal of research on home ranges, habitat use, and flight biology of goldens. In addition, she has been a driving force behind research that aims to minimize the potentially negative effects of wind power on birds of prey while still maximizing wind use. Dr. Miller uses cutting-edge cellular telemetry technology for her work, and I would wager she has come in contact with more golden eagles than anyone else in the world. I should also mention that’s a part of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, and they are pretty much anyone who is worth knowing 😉



Dr. Jonathan Hall—Assistant Professor

If you’ve ever wondered how our day-to-day lives can impact the wildlife around us, talk to Dr. Hall. Though his research focuses on the effects of subsistence culture, I’m sure he is more conscientious than most of us when comes to an awareness of the human-wildlife interface. An ecologist by training, Dr. Hall’s work has covered the effects of weather patterns on vultures, the effects of cultural conservation practices on biodiversity, and broadscale ecological community interactions in rural India. And even more importantly, as a former Buckeye, he knows that The is part of the name at The Ohio State University.


That’s all for now, folks! Peace, love and science 🙂

Pittsburgh skyline

The information on this website, crap or CRAAP?


Don’t you sometimes wish you just had Belle’s library?

The interwebz is an interesting place. You can find lists of the top 31 things only “Friends” fans will appreciate or lists of studies trying (mainly failing) to find a link between vaccines and autism. You can find glorious videos of David Bowie singing in sassy high heel boots in the Labyrinth or videos of little-known comedians in the 80’s. And then there’s this baby panda trying to make a break for it.

Aside from the fun and wonky, the internet is also a great place for basic information. Whether you’re trying to remember what poison ivy looks like or attempting to stave off a baking disaster (save the pie!!), a quick Google search is generally all you need. A more thoughtful search can also guide you through some complicated tasks, like tracking down a politician’s voting records or pulling up the details on a car or neighborhood before a major purchase. But…what about when you’re trying to wade through fact and opinion? What if you’re trying to find information on a subject that is hotly debated or poorly understood? What if you just want to be assured that the information you’re receiving from out there in cyber space is legitimate and trustworthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the CRAAP test.

C.R.A.A.P. is a helpful mnemonic for remembering a few key characteristics for judging the trustworthiness of a source. Originally designed by folks at California State University, Chico, the CRAAP test asks readers to look for a source’s currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose. In the academic circuit, it’s largely taught to help students learn to identify scholarly sources and avoid, shall we say, less-than-legitimate websites. Outside the classroom, though, it’s still a handy map to carry on your quest for knowledge.

So what are the criteria we should be keeping in mind as we look for articles online or in print?

C– Currency. How recently was this article written? The publication date of a source can make all the difference in the world when we are talking about the accuracy of information. If the article or paper is more general background type information, you can get away with it being a bit older, but newer is always better. When I was an undergrad, we tended to avoid papers more than four years old when we were first getting in the habit of looking at source dates, but this really depends on the field and how quickly new information comes out. I’d say try to stick with information generated within the last couple of years, and you’re probably good to go.

R– Relevance. How relevant is a source’s information to the question you’re trying to answer? What was the intended audience of the source? As much as I prefer academic journals, I think if any of us were trying to look up information on heart disease, we would probably have an easier time with sources not intended for cardiologists. That being said, picking sources that are too simplified or tertiary might not even be helpful. If you find yourself needing to look up definitions every now and then as you look through a source, that’s fine; but if the article just reads like the Black Speech of Mordor, I’d go for something a bit less technical.

A– Authority. This. THIS. This is a big one, especially for web sources. Who is the author and why should I trust them?

  • If your internet source doesn’t even give you an author, that’s Red Flag #1. If you don’t know who wrote the article, how are you going to trust it? And if an author is listed, what credentials do they have to be giving you their information? Are they doctors? Astronauts? Writers? Pastors? Philosophers? Lawyers? You want to find an author who is well-educated in whatever field you’re researching. You wouldn’t ask a mechanic to do your highlights, or a pediatrician to bake your wedding cake, so it makes sense that you wouldn’t look to a celebrity for medical information (though I do know a lawyer who is an excellent cook, and you should definitely check out her blog). Now granted, if you’re visiting websites like Autism Speaks or the American Cancer Society, you probably won’t be able to find authors on their background information pages. In that case, though, if you’re looking at a large, well-established organization, they’re probably reliable for basic information. Their information wouldn’t be suitable for a college-level paper, but it can give you quick facts.
  • Is there any contact information for the author or publisher?
  • Who is the publisher behind the author? Is it a biased source? For example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is most likely not the most unbiased place to start researching the pros and cons of coal-driven energy, and as much as I’ve loved their safety instructors, the National Rifle Association’s website isn’t going to be helpful if you’re looking up crime or accident stats.

A– Accuracy. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s tough when you’re exploring a new subject: how accurate is the source’s information? One of the quickest things to look for is the quality of the writing (dang, I just ruled myself out). Are there obvious typos, breaks in flow or logic (crap, crap, crap), grammar issues–things like that? They aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but they are (hypothetically) more common in sources that have not been peer-reviewed.

What’s peer-review, you say? In a nutshell, peer-review is the evaluation of an article before it is published. The key is that the potential article is not just reviewed by an editor, but by “peers.” This means that if, for example, I did a study and wrote a paper on eagle genetics (who does that?), the journal I submit my paper to would send out my paper to a handful of reviewers. These reviewers would be other researchers who have strong backgrounds in genetics or birds of prey or both. They would pick apart all of my analyses, my rationale, and my conclusions to determine if I answered my scientific questions in the best possible way. If I have a break in logic or don’t properly explain my methods, they’ll catch it before it ever even goes to publication. They could also suggest that I perform more analyses before my paper is published (please no.) Essentially, peer-review helps keep the standard high.

If you’re trying to find information on a given topic, does the source have to be peer-reviewed? Well, probably not. If you’re a student writing a paper, that’s a different story, but in general, I would say it’s probably easier to look at the sources that your source is citing. Do they tend to be .gov or .edu sites? Do they tend to be biased organizations? Are any of their sources primary literature (something peer-reviewed)? Does the source primarily cite its own previous work rather than also including other sources? The types of a sources an article or webpage cites can be a huge indicator of accuracy. And if there are no works cited, beam me up, Scotty. We don’t want that planet.

P– Purpose. The last part of the CRAAP test asks what is the purpose of this article? Is the source trying to sell something? Is the article meant to inform? Is it to persuade? Does the author make clear when they are giving opinion rather than fact? If the article is meant to persuade, do they give solid references to back their opinions? This last item, like accuracy, can sometimes be a bit difficult to ascertain, but honestly, just being aware that there are different purposes for different kinds of writing really makes a big difference.

So there you have it folks, the CRAAP test. Sometimes I wish it had a better name, and sometimes I giggle to myself that I have a perfectly legitimate excuse to say “crap” in front of a classroom of college students (because I’m an adult). I hope it helps you out in your daily web cruising, and if you’re still in school, you can use this guide to amaze your profs with a beautiful reference list!

Peace, love, and science!

Mission: 2015

Well, friends, family, and cyber community, it’s 2015! That means a combination of things, not the least of which is that I will be signing the date incorrectly on all paperwork for the next month. Rolling into a new year means that, as per Western tradition, some folks will be trying to stick with New Year’s resolutions or break bad habits while other folks will hardly notice that anything has changed other than the calendar on the fridge. (But gold star if that calendar includes hockey players or firefighters with puppies.)

I will admit, I’ve never been much of one for New Year’s resolutions. I’m a Jedi Master when it comes to making excuses, but I would say that my inability to commit to a resolution largely boils down to laziness and a lack of accountability. Who wants to add more work (even if it’s worthwhile?) to their day, and if you’re not held accountable, who is going to notice? I think if I have a support system taking the plunge with me, maybe I will be more faithful to my endeavors.

Thus, I give you:

My 2015 Challenge to All of Us Together
Learn more about the natural world around us and start taking some stewardship steps!

Ok now, wait, wait, wait, before you tune out my save-the-environment shtick, let me give you a really big number: $124-145 trillion. Yes, you read that correctly, trillion. That’s the estimated value of ecosystem services in our global economy. So, on the one hand, our planet is amazing. From mighty volcanoes, to beautiful birds, to the vast and mysterious oceans, to this underappreciated lot, there is quite literally no end to the possibility of discovery and awe with every step outdoors. On the other hand, we quite literally need our natural world. In spite of such beauty and power to be thankful for, we often forget how much we actually rely on our natural resources and easily we can damage them. We may not notice all weather patterns or the water cycle (or the oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon cycles), but we certainly notice when something is wrong. Our planet’s basic processes play a role in everything from our food development to our recreational activities, yet we often take these processes for granted because we don’t necessarily dwell on pollinators in action or notice the consequences of impervious surfaces to stormwater runoff.

Thus, we must remember the words of that great philosopher, Uncle Ben from Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility. We humans, we’re a reasonably intelligent bunch. Sure, we did produce Justin Bieber and these folks, but as a species, we have accomplished quite a great deal. We have power. And what’s more important, we can each make small choices that collectively have a tremendous impact.

So, what can we change for 2015? I know that most of you are aware of probably the majority of the items on this list below, but here are just a few of the things I personally want to be more focused on for this new year. If these are totally foreign, maybe the best idea would be to pick two new things and try to be faithful about those. At least in my experience, I know that if my starting goal is too big, I overwhelm myself and either give up or slowly stop caring (aye, my brain.) So, list, list, listy:

Recycling—This is a no-brainer. If you’re not already recycling, you have zilch excuses. I know that not all neighborhoods have recycling pickup, but most communities have drop-off locations that can be easily looked up on township websites. One of the more popular excuses I’ve heard not to recycle is that it isn’t cost-efficient because not enough of us in the US recycle. Um, know the easy fix to that? More of us should recycle! The contents of landfills seriously just don’t go away magically…they sit for years, and decades, and probably a very, very long time.

Reusable Shopping Bags—I’m super guilty of this one. I own a good number of reusable shopping bags. Half of them are in my car, half of them are merrily skipping about my apartment like pixies in Neverland. Yet somehow, whenever I go grocery shopping, I get up to the check-out line and realize that I don’t have a single bag with me. Fail. So, if you guys are in this with me, I’d super appreciate the camaraderie of other folks trying to remember their shopping bags too.

Change your Facewash—This was a new one for me in 2014. I had never really given much thought to what kind of exfoliants were scrubbing away those old, keratinized epithelial cells on the surface of my skin until I came across an article like this one. Many health and beauty products contain polyethylene microbeads—tiny bits of plastic to scrub away at that dead skin; but plastic doesn’t particularly decompose, it isn’t filtered out of our waste water, and it causes havoc in natural water ways. If you want to make this switch, look for polyethylene on the ingredients list. I switched to a facewash that uses powdered walnut shell instead, and it works great! (And I will clarify…I’m definitely not someone who always wants to be the first to use “natural” products just because they’re natural. Not because natural means bad, but because it doesn’t necessarily mean good or better. I might have do a post on this in the future sometime.)

Use Native Plants in Your Home Gardening–As native plants become more popular, they’re becoming somewhat more common at nurseries and you can most definitely find them if you want to! Using native plants means your greens and blooms are growing up in their best possible environment, which means less work for you, and you will be a magnet for pollinators (plus, you’re not adding the issues with invasive species.) You can also specifically try a pollinator garden. I’m no green thumb, but I know plenty of gardening enthusiasts who can make magic happen with just a watering bucket and a bit of weeding.

Buy Local–When you’re focusing on local businesses, you’re supporting a healthy economy and cutting back on the need for your products to be shipped hundreds or thousands of miles. Besides farm markets and small grocers, you can also look into farm shares (might be easier for bigger families, but I’ve wanted to try it!)

Try to Switch to Some Organic Foods–I know it’s more expensive, but I’m definitely a stickler for organic dairy and I try to buy organic produce whenever I can. Now, to be clear, organic foods are not good because they are “more nutritious.” Not at all. Rather, most organic foods have been produced using sustainable agricultural practices–at least in theory. To be USDA organic, they have to meet certain standards, many of which really do promote a decrease in pesticide and herbicide use. Of course, not all organic products are created equally (or are equally earth-friendly), but I figure it’s better to try!

Take Advantage of Learning Opportunities Around Your Town—I live in Pittsburgh, and we have some really great resources for learning about science and nature. We have the Carnegie Science Center, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the National Aviary, and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, in addition to educational efforts like the Citizen Science Lab, local chapters of the Audubon Society, and a number of other organizations. Take the opportunity to learn with these places! Many museums are now even regularly hosting events like 21+ Nights (like this or this), where you can check out all of the exhibits without having to awkwardly tell the six-year-old that it’s actually your turn to complete an electrical circuit and make the bell ring. Visit, have fun, and learn! And hey…if you have a few hours a month, volunteer. You won’t regret the experience 🙂

Make Learning a Habit—In our internet age, we quite literally have the world at our fingertips. We have access to educational resources unlike any generation has before us. Make learning something new about our world a daily habit! Heck, just sit down and Google anything that sounds interesting—why are scarlet macaws red? Where does drinking water come from? Why is the sky blue? What is the aurora borealis? What are the ocean trash patches? You can even get super fancy and hop over to Google Scholar where you are more likely to run into peer-reviewed sources.

**However, it’s a worth a note to please, please, please watch your internet sources. If a website looks or sounds like it was generated in somebody’s mama’s basement, it probably was. The best websites for information tend to end in .gov or .edu, or if you recognize them as a trusted source. Even .org sites can be sketchy (my favorite, honk when you get it), though certainly not always. And I’ll be real with you, this caution includes my own blog! I’m only a couple months out of grad school. I wrote half of this article on my living room couch, and half in my lab. I’m not a master, so don’t take my word for it. Check my resources. But I will say this: if the website tells you not to vaccinate your kids, run, hide, avert your eyes. It’s lying or ridiculous.**

So, are you ready for a 2015 challenge? Definitely post if you have other ideas, this list is by no means exhaustive. I just wanted to create a springboard for change, for positive action. If we each try just a little bit, we’re collectively doing a lot!

Peace, love, and science!

Talking to Strangers

I’m an oddball, so I do odd things. Just keep that in mind as you read through this post!

I mentioned in my last post that there is often a bit of a disconnect between the scientific community and those who don’t necessarily spend a lot of time in the lab. This makes complete sense, of course. With different careers come different training and different levels of exposure to concepts and terminology. I wouldn’t know the first thing about running a business, designing dresses, performing a root canal, selling software, or fixing computers (good golly, I could not fix a computer to save my favorite burrito.) The problem, though, is that our everyday worlds are impacted by science—from medical situations to energy choices to what food we eat. That means communication gaps may not be the best thing ever.

I was curious about the idea of a disconnect in communication, though. Where does the break-down start? Where does confusion first come in to play? So I started at the very beginning, something basic: what is science? Is everyone on the same page there? Most scientists would probably be ok with my broadly defining science as “using the scientific method to understand the processes, interactions, constants, and dynamics of the world and universe around us.” In that sense, an understanding of the scientific method is fairly important as well. Thus, my goal for today was just to determine how folks outside of the scientific community define science and the scientific method.

I spent roughly two hours on Friday afternoon walking around downtown my mid-sized city and asking people on the street what they thought of when they heard the word “science” or the phrase “scientific method.” (Yup, I’m weird. But, hey, I like talking to people.) I explained to my recruits that I was writing a blog post on how science is viewed from outside the scientific community, and most folks seemed interested in the topic.

I will admit my sampling was not completely random. I selected participants who appeared generally friendly (as opposed to angry, cranky, scary, or mean), were not wearing ear buds, and did not appear to be in a hurry. Most of them were on smoke breaks outside of corporate high-rises, and I tried to pick out participants whose ages were approximately twenty-five years or older to make sure I wasn’t creeping out any kids. In the end, I had a sample size of sixteen individuals (ahem, n=16).

What is Science?
I had quite a variety of answers to the question “What is science, or what do you think of when you hear the word ‘science’?” They ranged from philosophical to silly, and they were sometimes a solo statement, or a group effort (when I caught the smoke-breakers). Their responses were:

“I hear ‘science’ and I think experiments and research.”

“Well, there’s all types of science. I guess I don’t know what I think of specifically.”

“Science is the universe, it’s everything. From the smallest thing to the largest thing. Science is what we are.”

“Science is a mysterious thing to me. I’d rather not know.”

“I think mermaids. Mermaids and tornadoes.”
“Don’t listen to him, he does not!”
“Yes I do! It’s Friday afternoon, my brain is mush, and I think science is mermaids and tornadoes.”

“It’s research, tangible things, and experiments.”

“I hear science and I think smart people. I think of smart people looking at the universe—looking at the sun, the stars, the moon, everything!”

“I don’t know. I guess I hear ‘science’ and I think beakers and test tubes. And chemicals. And maybe Frankenstein if you mean movies.”

“Science seems like difficult things. But I like microbiology.”

“Arriving at conclusions mathematically.”

“Science is research and discovering things.”

What is the Scientific Method?
There was less variety when I asked folks to describe the scientific method. Almost uniformly, people had not heard the phrase, though they often had some idea of what I meant. Their responses were:

“The scientific method? I don’t know, you research, dig, compare, mathematically answer questions.”

“I don’t know.”

“No clue.”

“What’s that what?”

“Is this a Scientology question?”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method…I don’t know the exact definition, but I know you have to devote a lot of time and energy to it.” (author’s note: darn right!)

“The scientific method…I don’t know.”

{Laughter accompanied by shrugs all around}

“I have no idea.”

“No idea.”

“The scientific method is when you follow all those steps, you know, starting with a hypothesis.” (outlier, her sister is working on her PhD in biology)

There is at least some element of truth to all of the answers I received (well, minus the mermaids, but I’ll be super excited if you ever find one). A lot of folks mentioned research, experiments, testing things, and “mathematically” determining an answer. Also, most folks touched on the idea that science deals with the natural or physical world.

For me, the biggest surprises were the answers about the scientific method. The concept has been a part of my daily life for the past decade. I’m certainly not a master of it, but I’m very familiar with it. For anyone reading who might still be a bit murky on the subject, the scientific method can be quickly summarized by this flow chart I found floating around ze interwebz.

sci method

What this flow chart is showing is a process—a way of systematically trying to reach an answer by testing ideas, refining hypotheses, trying experiments, ruling out when ideas don’t work, supporting ideas with evidence, and sometimes (it hurts!!) starting all over. This is essentially what science is all about. Seems very simple, but it’s a tremendous tool. The concept is used by folks who work with proteins, DNA, yeast, bacteria, plants, animals, chemicals, forces, quarks, nanoparticles, and all manner of crazy stuff.

I guess the take-home message I’m trying to convey is that science is a process. It’s a quest for knowledge. And if science is a quest, the scientific method is the treasure map. If we want to help bridge the communication gap between the scientific community and all of the other communities we work alongside, we need to help folks read the map!