Author: Jahlela Hasle

A Science Junkie’s Guide to Art

Some of the best things in the world exist at intersections between disciplines. My favorites emerge from the union of art and science. It is at the heart of this intersection that artists and scientists come together in order to make explanations of our world all the more rich through art.

Artistic depictions of constellations help us understand positions of stars over time. (CC)

Artistic depictions of constellations bring us closer to understanding our universe by making the night sky more relatable and navigable. (CC)

Take for example constellations. Through my childhood, I was fascinated with the universe. Instead of bedtime stories, I would ask, “Daddy, tell me about space!” He taught me many things about black holes and moons and life cycles of stars, but more than anything I remember the constellations. We lived in a rural canyon with clear night skies. Moonless nights meant more stars than you could ever hope to count — and indeed more stars than my young mind could recognize without help.

Fortunately, help was close. I had a poster of ‘Constellations of the Northern Hemisphere’ tacked to my bedroom ceiling (complete with glow-in-the-dark stars). With the light on, I could see every character’s name and a portrait overlaying the corresponding stars. With the light off, hundreds of small points glowed back at me, and in the dark I would try to remember the patterns and strange names.

Egyptian hieroglyphs from between 1500 and 1609 BCE represented agricultural growing seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

Egyptian hieroglyphs from between 1500 and 1609 BCE represented agricultural growing seasons.
(Wikimedia Commons)

Science illustration itself has a long tradition, reaching back millennia from celestial pictograms to agricultural records of the seasons. If you will be in New York before October, the American Museum of Natural History is running an exhibit with 400 years of scientific illustration. If you won’t be in traveling through the Big Apple anytime soon, the AMNH has published a companion book (with a bonus century!) of rare science illustrations from their collection.

It is easy enough to buy a poster, or visit a museum for your science art fix. For some, however, passive viewing is not enough. Last September while hiking near San Francisco, I met a woman with an integrated DNA-circuit board design etched into her back. Literally etched. “Why scars? Why that design?” I asked. “I wanted something other than an ink tattoo. The design is a combination of my interests in bio and tech.” She works at Kaiser improving healthcare technologies.

Still curious, I asked her about the scarification process. “You have to go to an expert and have it done professionally,” she told me seriously. Her scars were made on the East Coast by peeling back several layers of skin, and then scraping away the underlying flesh. The top layer is folded back into place, and after several weeks of healing, delicate white scars begin to form. “Some of the details are beginning to fade,” she added. Eventually, over many years, the curves of the double helix and circuit nodes will sink back into her skin. It is poetic, in a sense, that the regenerative properties of her body will reclaim the homage made to them.

Tattoos themed in science are becoming increasingly popular. (CC)

Tattoos themed in science are becoming increasingly popular. (CC)

 While scarification is perhaps more rare, the world of science tattoos is alive and well. In 2007, well-known science writer Carl Zimmer began compiling images and stories behind various tattoos science enthusiasts have accumulated over the years. The results were splendid and zany enough to fill an entire book, Science Ink, which boasts the best by discipline.

“Art” is an all-encompassing term that embraces many media. So far I have focused on the illustration sides of science. There are several other artistic science scenes, and one of my favorites is sound. You can make any math geek’s day by sending them this catchy a cappella love song laden with higher-order math puns. On the programming side, computer music and audio tech continue to mature, giving us gems like the Re: Sound Bottle and sine wave water.

Bathsheba Grossman's 3D-printed sculptures tie algorithms with aesthetics to create math-inspired art. (CC)

Bathsheba Grossman’s 3D-printed sculptures tie algorithms with aesthetics to create math-inspired art. (CC)

Another venue for science art is in sculpture. Take for example the recent collaboration between MIT and Disney to create awesome character models using multi-material 3D printing. And have you ever seen a cube walk on its own? Cubli is here to cure you of that ‘not yet’.

Science art is also creeping into the digital world. Where once artists relied on paper and pigments, we now have digital cameras and high-resolution touch screens to aid discovery. For example, my favorite author, Simon Winchester, recently collaborated with skull collector Alan Dudley and photographer Nick Mann to produce an iPad app named Skulls. The application harnesses recent developments in 3D visualization and user interactivity, as well as traditional text and narration, to explore new bounds of science education through art.

The Amoeba Network, by Maki Naro, is an example of comic art as an explanatory platform for science (shared with permission from sci-ence.org).

The Amoeba Network, by Maki Naro, is an example of comic art as an explanatory platform for science.
(Shared with permission from sci-ence.org.)

Scientific webcomics are on the rise, as well. There are, of course, the wonderful standards like XKCD, PhD Comics, and The Oatmeal. Fortunately, many of these comics are actually comical. One of my personal favorite artist/authors is Maki Naro. He recently moved from his popular blog, Sci-ənce, to the Popular Science blog, Boxplot, where he continues to operate “at the intersection of art and science in an attempt to act as a mediator between the two.”

It seems this mediation drives many scientists who later turn their creative efforts to the arts. Scientific American illustrator, Jen Christiansen, just wrote about the pull between the disciplines, and how she instead decided to merge art and science. The same seems to be true of trained neuroscientist Greg Dunn, who opted to replace his pipette with the paintbrush, and has carved a corner in many hearts with his shimmery, beautiful, Ramon y Cajal-reminiscent paintings of brain.

The intricate patterns in kolams, traditional Indian chalk drawings, are helping scientists better understand protein folding. (CC)

The intricate patterns in kolams, traditional Indian chalk drawings, are helping scientists better understand protein folding. (CC)

Those who practice science art bridge worlds that are cerebral and theoretical with those that are aesthetic and tactile. We rely on artists to imagine distant worlds for us, or to reanimate scenes that have long since faded back into the soil. Art can help us understand the scientific beauty of a flower (with a little help from that fine man, Mr. Feynman), or even help improve our science.

I have an astronomy artist to thank for one of the great joys in my childhood. Because of that constellation poster, I now recognize Cetus the Whale, the galaxy in Andromeda’s armpit, and how to spell Cassiopeia. I consider this a triumph for science art in educating a young girl who was curious about the cosmos.

Jahlela is a recent graduate of the  cognitive neuroscience program at the  University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

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The Infinite Classroom: An Ode to Student-Led Classes in Science

Science education in schools has a flaw: Large lectures are by definition impersonal, and they often leave out the larger context of the material. You can ask a calculus student “Why, exactly, did you just learn that double integral?” to see what I mean. Students go to lecture, memorize the material, regurgitate during the test, and then promptly forget it. Lather, rinse, repeat.

This seems like a regrettable state of affairs. Retention of information is highest when the relevance of what we are learning is transparent and accessible. My experience with student-led classes is not comprehensive, but I am convinced the model is perfect for cultivating true understanding.

Paul Broca

Paul Broca, the French neuroanatomist who first discovered first functional specialization in the brain. The region he identified, now called Broca’s Area, is critical for speech production. (Wikimedia Commons)

A Class on How to Read Science

 As a budding Cognitive Science major, I heard of a class with a peculiar name straight out of an abnormal psychology textbook: BROCA. The ‘Berkeley Review of Cognitive science Articles’ is one of many student-led classes offered at UC Berkeley, and while I never took the class, I had the honor of teaching it this fall.

Three years ago, BROCA’s founders identified a hole in the undergrad CogSci curriculum. For students interested in pursuing research experience and careers, there were no dedicated research methods or statistics classes. As such, students were entering research positions without the skills they needed.

The solution was simple: Start a class with weekly guest speakers who discuss an exciting research paper in cognitive science.  BROCA was born into this model, and by taking the class, students are exposed to not just the written reports of science, but also the personal stories of the scientists creating the reports.

If you are considering starting a similar class for your school, don’t be afraid to reach out. Our speakers have included professors, PhD candidates, research assistants, and even former researchers who have gone on to work in industry.

Importantly, the students are not simply listening to yet another lecture. During the week leading up to each class, students read the assigned paper, prepare responses, and formulate questions. Before the speaker arrives, the facilitators help begin the discussion by covering the basics, then open the floor for debate and inquiry. As needed, we also  design crash courses in many of the topics — how to compare brain imaging techniques or the differences between various animal models.

Another benefit of small classes is versatility. I interviewed several facilitators in other science-themed classes, and though they all shared that theme, the range of topics is impressive. Here is a sampling:

BSJ

The Berkeley Scientific Journal, an undergraduate publication for original research and interviews. (Image by Hadrien Picq)

A Class on How to Write Science

We all consume science writing at some point in our lives — in newspapers, radio programs, documentaries, textbooks, magazines. The writers have to come from somewhere, and the Berkeley Scientific Journal (founded in 1996) is an undergraduate publication that gives students not only a start, but also gives them university credit.

BSJ offers a platform where students can interact with discoveries in a field in a way that is distinct from reading a textbook or lecture notes. For those without experience in research labs, becoming part of an interview team is the perfect introduction to laboratory sciences. I became involved this semester as an author, editor, and photographer. Incidentally, the BSJ’s editor-in-chief, Prashant Bhat, is also a PLoS student blogger.

A Class on how to Integrate Science

The trend for student-taught classes is not exclusive to Berkeley. Just down the coast in Santa Cruz, the Brain Mind & Consciousness class is the first undergrad-taught science class in years. The class and epynomous BMC Society were c0-founded by Andrew Kornfeld, a student of psychology and neuroscience. For 3.5 hours every week, he and several co-facilitators taught students everything from nuclear physics to brain chemistry to drug policy to how patterns in nature are preserved across many scales of observation.

BMC

The Brain Mind & Consciousness Society teaches UC Santa Cruz’s only science-based class taught by undergraduates.
(Image by Andrew Kornfeld)

The most important feature of the class is contextualization of each level of detail. If the students learned the chemical structure of caffeine, it was going to be in the context of how its structure relates to adenosine, and how caffeine’s blocking of adenosine receptors will affect one’s conscious experience.

Another advantage of small classes is flexibility. Last spring, as the Supreme Court reviewed a case on gene patenting, the class was debating the ethics of genetic ownership while overlooking Monterey Bay.

Teaching a class of course comes with its challenges. Kornfeld spoke of his trepidation about speaking for a solid hour and a half. After the first class, he quickly realized discussion-based class was far more important than one that was lecture-based. Another worry for any instructor is information accuracy. Questions will come up in your class that you won’t know how to answer. This is an opportunity to put the question to your class to discuss.

A Class that is not a Class, but Ought to Be

“My school doesn’t offer student-led class opportunities.” There are alternatives to an official academic space that can do the trick. For example, a few years ago a small group of students at Portland State University began a weekly event called ‘Tea with TED’. The premise: bring students together in order to “develop more complex insights about a world that transcends disciplines.”

TWT

Tea with TED examines the crossroads of art + science, education + technology, culture + industry, language + empathy, literature + psychology, and more. (Image by Stephen F.)

During the first 20-30 minutes, students watch a TED talk or two together, and use the remaining time to discuss the talk. The beauty of TED is its fundamental design for wide audiences. For example, if you know nothing about mycelia, start your Tea with TED by watching Paul Stamets’ talk, ‘6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World’. The ensuing discussion could range from using mushrooms as alternate fuel sources to ecosystem creation to terraforming other planets. Ideas not easily conveyed with words bleed onto  butcher paper-covered tables — all of this over tea, of course.

TWT’s founder, Stephen F., describes the result as “a colorful, healthful, and intellectual atmosphere that feels like a book club hacked by RSAnimate.” While not technically a class, the Thursday meetings frequently drew 20-30 people. It sounds like the perfect complement to single-subject classes, which can feel detached from life beyond the classroom.

As we move through our years in college, with hope we have collected enough experience in our major to return the pedagogic favor and begin teaching our own classes. Teaching BROCA was the highlight of my week, and I look forward to seeing the next generation of classes in science.

Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

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Zombie Nouns and Alzheimer Flowers: Challenges in Reading Academic Science

In 16 years of school, I have cried only once over academics. Say what you will about low blood sugar, flu recovery, or skipping a pre-requisite course, I blame the flowers.

I was a sophomore in college, and I had fallen in love with cognitive science. My first class in cognitive neuroscience was fascinating, and my adoration for brains grew daily. Even the textbook was unusually enjoyable. I went to each class and listened to all the podcasts. Twice.

The professor, Rich Ivry, had an unusual approach for handling discussion outside of lecture. Every Friday, a graduate student led a handful of students in reading and critiquing primary research articles relevant to the week’s material. I was new to  cognitive science (having just abandoned a business administration track), and reading these articles was undeniably challenging.

Subjects in the study were asked to differentiate minty and floral scents. Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer's Disease. (Dilys Ong, CC)

Loss of smell may be an early indicator of Alzheimer’s Disease.
(Dilys Ong, CC)

Which gets us back to academic heartbreak. Remember the flowers? At semester’s end, we had a final assignment: review two articles addressing a current topic in cognitive neuroscience. It seemed straightforward. I picked a relatively recent theory that olfactory degeneration often indicates early Alzheimer’s disease. Loss of smell could improve early diagnosis of AD? Fascinating. I set to work reading about fMRI scans, autopsies, and the crucial experiments in which subjects either detected odors, or distinguished minty scents from those that were — you guessed it — floral.

From the two articles I had picked, I rapidly discovered not all journal articles are created equally. One was straightforward, intuitive, helpful. The other was as unintelligible as a math page on Wikipedia. I read it thoroughly half a dozen times, made diagrams, charts, summaries. I tried every trick, but there was no conquering this overly-folded, overly-inked monster of bleached wood pulp.

The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Jabberwocky of journal articles. (Wikimedia Commons)

I was confused by obscure terminology, disheartened by 22 non-bibliography pages, and as I read for the dozenth time about Lewy bodies and lavender oil, I began to cry.

My review could have ended there. Slap my doctor’s note on a page of thoughts more convoluted than the neurofibrillary tangles I was supposed to understand, and hope for the best. But that day I was lucky. Salvation came as the gentle, patient ear of one of my best friends (and the glucose-laden Jamba Juice that came with him). He listened as I tearfully explained the experimental design into a compassionate chalkboard. In this way, I did finish the review. Explanation, I humbly reminded myself, remains the best reinforcement of knowledge.

I had encountered a problem common to novice scientists. Peer-reviewed journal articles include enough detail for experimental repeatability, but often at the expense of readability. I had barely learned that “lesion” was a generic term for brain damage, be it from stroke, tumor, or trauma — not just a cut. My interest was strong, but I was unprepared to properly evaluate methods and dig through statistical jargon.

Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)

Authors of science literature often use ‘nominalizations’ or ‘zombie noun’ versions of more dynamic verbs. (Eustace Dauger, CC)

If you are struggling with academic science literature, don’t worry. You are not alone, and it is not your fault. The language used in these articles adheres first to standards of science,  and second to those of communication. The literature is full of technical terminology, passive phrasing, and worst of all, zombie nouns.

Why is the writing so bad? Simple. We scientists aren’t trained to write. We spend years learning math, physics, chemistry, and biology in classes that rarely require essays.  I can speak from experience about my campus. As an institution, the University of California emphasizes theory and research, a balance to more vocational schools. The UC Berkeley approach emphasizes curiosity and innovation (perhaps why we produce so many entrepreneurs), but the price is minimal training in how to apply that knowledge.

When your education is knowledge-based, rather than skill-based, things like science writing fall through the cracks. When I emailed the English department this summer asking if they had any science writing classes, they replied, “The English major focuses on British, American, and Anglophone literature. We do not offer courses on technical writing.” The closest matches I could find were the introductory journalism class and a UC Berkeley Extension course (neither of which were offered this semester).

If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you receive is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (Creative Commons)

If you are a student in science, chances are the only literature training you received is how to reconstruct these guys’ arguments. (CC)

This puts us in a pickle: The scientists can’t talk and the talkers can’t science. Or can they? Learning science directly from the literature is just one option. Alternate education tools are on the rise, and among them are popular online videos. Some of the successful sites include TED Ed, VSauce and It’s Okay to be Smart.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are also gaining popularity. Last week, I enrolled in a class offered by Stanford University on Writing in the Sciences. The curriculum covers how to be clear, concise, and organized when communicating scientific ideas. Finally! There are over 28,000 students enrolled, so we know there is demand to improve science literature.

Of course, not all journal publications are so problematic. PLoS does a nice job of formatting articles for accessibility, and encourages authors to submit their articles for professional editing before publication (scientists, meet writers). Other review sites, like Science2.0, offer community spaces for scientists and the public to openly discuss the latest discoveries. Hopefully these trends in more accessible science reporting and education will continue, improving the link between science and the scientifically curious.

For those of you still muscling through that first stage of overwhelmed confusion, it does get better. After two years of classes and working in a research lab, I now teach a class at Berkeley on how to read primary literature in cognitive science, and have since made peace with my Alzheimer flowers.

 

Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her  @jahlela or on tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

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Cutthroat Trout and Carnivorous Plants: Exploring Sagehen Creek Field Station

It is peculiar to stand eight feet underground in a forest, watching as three trout swim by in lazy loops. This is the view from inside the Fish House at Sagehen Creek Field Station northwest of Lake Tahoe. Sagehen (“Sage-hen”) is a UC Berkeley satellite research center, and I recently joined a group of science writers for a weekend to learn about Sagehen’s latest projects. This is a small story of water, wildfires, and wildland management — for better or worse.

Carnivorous plants called sundews live in the Sagehen fen (an alkaline bog). Mucus drops ensnare prey before enzymes digest it. (Jahlela Hasle)

Our stay began with a talk by our host, Sagehen station master, Jeff Brown. A former ski patrolman, Jeff navigates Sagehen Forest wearing sturdy flip flops and a wide smile reminiscent of Dick Van Dyke. He reported ongoing Sagehen projects that include everything from a 5-week Davis Bug Boot Camp for grad students (page 11), to LIDAR calculations of Sagehen’s topography and tree densities, to Sagehen’s new fire management techniques using SPLATs, to the 50-year, $2 million Harrison project for the Nevada Museum of Art, to describing the fen (an alkaline bog) not far from the Fish House that is home to carnivorous plants called sundews.

The Fish House itself was built by grad students a few years back to observe the creek. Subterranean stream spying is a great way to spend part of a Saturday afternoon, but I usually study the brain and behavior. The closest I’ve been to fish in academia was learning that sharks detect fish mostly by electrical pulses, not scent (sharks will go for an electrode over a bloody-scented fish dummy any day). However, I believe a properly balanced scientist ought to be a geek of all trades, so while I stood eye-to-eye with a Lahontan cutthroat trout, I recalled what Jeff had taught us about the fish.

Sagehen Creek and the Fish House (Jahlela Hasle)

Lahontan cutthroats are versatile creatures. The fish can withstand spikes in temperature and drops in acidity when more dominant species, like brook, brown, and rainbow trout, cannot. Resilient it may be, but the Lahontan cutthroat is a threatened species. Just over the hill from Sagehen lies Independence Lake, the trout’s only remaining native habitat. Curiously, we can link a recent population spike to Steve Jobs. The late Apple tycoon was due to buy Independence Lake in 2002, but after the deal collapsed, the Nature Conservancy snatched the land, clearing the way for population recovery. With periodic removal of brook trout, the number of Lahontan cutthroat spawners has jumped from 30 to 225.

The Lahontan Cutthroat trout story is a positive example of human ecological intervention. Unfortunately, not all stories are as successful. One needs only look at the Rim Fire sweeping the Californian Sierra near Yosemite to see how forest management can at times be clumsy. The same region burned in 1987, and Jeff told us that in the aftermath, Boy Scouts earned $0.25 for every pine tree they planted in the devastated area. One ought never underestimate boyish enthusiasm for such things. The result was an unnaturally dense and uniform forest, which is now, as LA Times author, Bettina Boxal, put it, “perfect wildfire fuel.”

Sagehen Station Master, Jeff Brown, educates us about a lodgepole pine in Sagehen Forest. (Jahlela Hasle)

Nowadays, aggressive fire suppression leads to forests well overdue to burn. Post-European burns shifted to 25-year intervals with heats so intense, they will kill  organisms five feet underground. A fire like that can easily burn out of control, like the Rim Fire, now California’s 5th largest on record.

Granted, most of us can agree that uncontrolled, 50-foot flame wildfires are terrifying. I grew up in the foothills of the Sierras, just outside Chico, CA, where fire is a perennial threat. Nevertheless, a forest needs flame. Over time, pine needles and other material collects on the forest floor, forming “duff”. Normally, fires clear duff and creates natural pockets for rainwater and snowmelt to collect, recharging the groundwater supply. But disrupt this natural cycle, and the pine needles will form a resin-thick layer below the soil’s surface that is impermeable to water. Instead of draining through the soil to refill natural reserves, snowmelt and rain hits this resin layer, and skips off it like saran wrap. The result is massive flooding during winter and depleted water reserves.

Trout in Sagehen Creek, as seen from inside the Fish House. (Jahlela Hasle)

How much flooding? On an average summer day, Sagehen Creek flows at 1.3 cubic feet per second (cfs). That’s about 9 gallons, or just under a third of a standard bathtub. While I concentrated on photographing trout in the Fish House (the watery yellow light makes everything look like it’s made of green olives), the creek could have filled about 22 bathtubs in a minute. Jeff then painted a picture of winter a few years ago. Heavy rains melted snow prematurely, saturating the soil. With the duff preventing proper drainage, Sagehen Creek swelled to an unrecognizable torrent, rushing by at 1,200 cfs. When Jeff cited that number to our group, eyebrows lifted, and I spotted a few dangling mandibles. This rain-on-snow event could have filled 22,440 bathtubs in a minute.

Fen where carnivorous sundew plants live. Young trees encroach at the edges as water levels drop. This fen will eventually become a meadow. (Jahlela Hasle)

Floods aside, a bigger concern is inconsistent water supply. “Snow is the drip irrigation system of California,” Jeff said at the close of his talk. Satellite images show Sagehen’s snowpack shrinking every year. Less snow means earlier dry seasons, warmer streams, and  dehydrated landscapes. At Sagehen, the difference between winter snow that will accumulate, and rain that the creeks will whisk away, is a chillingly slight 1.5 degrees Celsius. The station tapwater seeped into Sagehen soil 40 years ago. Jeff playfully describes it as “Sagehen private estate artesian water,” but one has to wonder if the supply will be so robust 40 years from now.

The work at Sagehen helps us understand the broader consequences of human involvement within an ecosystem. I have new admiration for the complexities involved, and I expect improvements in wildland management will stem from this research. Hopefully next time I visit Sagehen, I’ll spot one of the infamous flying squirrels!

Jahlela is a senior undergraduate student studying cognitive neuroscience and music at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an avid photographer, sings constantly, and loves all things science. Follow her on twitter @jahlela or tumblr

jahlela AT berkeley.edu

 

 

 

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